CHAPTER 1 PREVIEW

Magnificent weather, sunshine, cloudless, light cooling breeze, the kind of New York City summer day you hoped would last forever.

Sitting on a slatted bench, Bobby Cole wondered how many people were in the small black-iron fenced park all told. Most had been near the entrance and concessions stands when his captors brought him there a half-hour or so ago, but they’d walked him back behind the carousel. It was quieter there. They’d passed joyful kids riding colorful horses and chariots as others played happily nearby, minders keeping a watchful eye. Adults, too, enjoyed the day reading, snacking, conversing, feeding pigeons, some just gathering sun.

Twenty feet or so to Bobby’s left, one of Uri Petrov’s two henchman, Vasily, watched the carousel spin, seemingly lost in the moment, pointing a finger and laughing as if his child were on board. Bobby knew that certainly wasn’t true.

Shifting his eyes to the right, Bobby saw Stashu, Uri’s other stooge, stretched casually back two benches away, licking an ice cream cone, foot tapping to the carousel’s lively music, acting like a parent himself, performing exceptionally well.

The thought of Stashu having real offspring was disturbing. Why populate the planet with more moronic thugs?

Though Bobby knew what Uri Petrov was doing, sitting right next to him, he glanced quickly anyway. Sure enough, Petrov’s composure hadn’t changed a bit: eyes closed, head resting back, right hand on his thigh idly, keeping time with the music, the very picture of a middle-aged grandfather lolling away a beautiful afternoon in the park.

Angling slightly toward him, Bobby asked, “Uri, are you sure there’s no way we can work this out? I didn’t mean you any harm.”

Petrov replied over his shoulder, eyes remaining closed, “We’ve been over this too many times today, my young friend. The answer is still the same. Why not relax, watch the children, hear the music? I brought you here because I thought you would enjoy it.” He abruptly turned his head straight ahead, shutting off further conversation.

Bobby sat back, despondent, feeling his heart throb; precious time was passing quickly.

Watching the merry-go-round turn, reflecting on why he was there, he’d certainly never contemplated this…not in his wildest dreams. It wasn’t that long ago he’d been just a bartender in Harry’s Place, planning to do that for a long time to come, and why not? For the past ten years Harry’d treated him like a son, the money was good, and what was more, he thought the job interesting. Maybe not the tedium of pouring drinks or serving food, though that really wasn’t too bad, but it was the customers that made it tick. Not all, of course, but more than enough.

All kinds of folks came into the bar for all kinds of reasons. Socializing, winding down the workday, entertaining a client or two, some simply drinking heartache away. He’d learned long ago most folks had woes, but few had a clue toward solutions. Anyway, that’s how it seemed to him, their stories coming out as they sipped, whether he wanted to hear them or not. Maybe I’ve just got that kind of face, he thought, since his solid six-three linebacker’s build rarely fazed them. They’d talk, he’d listen, and sometimes he’d commiserate. But that’s about as far as he’d go.

Then one day a young woman sat down at the bar. Bobby truly felt sorry for her, not quite knowing why. He guessed she was 25 or so, seemingly quite bright, and though he was used to meeting beautiful women --they came into the bar all the time-- this one was more attractive than most, even with tears in her eyes. He’d asked her name.

She sputtered “Rachel.”

“I’m Bobby. Want to tell me what’s the matter?”

Dabbing at tears, she explained her boyfriend Jack just tossed her out of an apartment they shared right down the street from the bar, letting her take only what she wore, her car keys and a hundred dollars in cash.

Upset by her situation, wanting to offer some help, Bobby said, “Just a second, I’ll be right back.”

Approaching Harry at the other end of the bar, Bobby asked, “Okay if I go out for a while? Things are pretty quiet here.”

“No problem,” Harry replied. “I’m gonna be here ’til closing time anyway.”

Returning to Rachel, Bobby suggested, “Why don’t we go see if Jack’s calmed down by now?”

She sobbed, “Okay. I guess.”

At Rachel’s apartment, Bobby knocked on the door. A few moments later, Jack warily cracked it open, barely wide enough to allow Bobby to see inside. Bobby knew from just a glimpse that the guy was totally plastered.

Offering his hand, Bobby grinned. “Hey, Jack. How ya doing?” His hundred-watt smile hadn’t even dented the ice when Jack threw a wild right-hand punch.

No brilliant retort springing to mind, Bobby snapped back a jab, the lightning left cross he popped to Jack’s jaw hammering hard, right on the money.

With Jack laid out cold in the hallway, Rachel packed up the rest of her things. Bobby helped tote them down to the sidewalk, asking if she’d somewhere to stay. She answered, “Yes. But not around here, I think it’s time to just go back home.”

“Home” turned out to be her mother’s house in Jacksonville, Florida.

Bobby called Harry from a payphone, asking, “Everything all right there? Okay if I don’t come back tonight?”

Harry laughed. “Sure. Have a good time. I been tellin ya you work too hard for years.”

On the way to her car, a Saab coupe parked two blocks away, Rachel said she felt much better now, well enough to drive. She did, except for a short stretch of desolate Interstate when Bobby took the wheel while she dozed.

Welcoming them next evening, Rachel’s mother said, “I always hoped she’d come back here”, handing Bobby five hundred in cash for his trouble. That paid for a plane ride home, leaving a few bucks over. The next day he was back tending bar.

On his park bench in the sun, Bobby now realized he’d been unaware that he’d changed his life forever by lending Rachel a hand.