“The kid’s got guts, I’ll give him that much. Didn’t think twice about giving himself up for her.” Taggert stared at the door that Zander had just closed behind him.
“You know, Alexis…right from the start, she saw something in him and she held to that notion like fury. Everyone else thought she’d lost her rational mind. Everyone else was wrong.” Sonny smiled. “Alexis loves it when everyone else in wrong.”
“Yeah, well, who doesn’t.” Taggert paced the floor, checking his watch.
Sonny didn’t seem to hear, escaping deep in his own thoughts.
“She gets this expression on her face, like she’s trying real hard NOT to look smug, and she ends up looking like…like she’s got this really good secret.” He laughed softly to himself.
Taggert looked down at Sonny with a curious eye. “You know, there aren’t many people who’d have such keen observations of their attorney’s face. You got a really good secret of your own there, Sonny?”
“What?” Sonny's attention was back. He looked up to see a knowing grin on Taggert’s face. “What the hell are you talking about Taggert?”
Taggert shook his head and resumed his pacing. “Man, oh man.” He mumbled under his breath. “As if she doesn’t have enough trouble already.”
Sonny rose abruptly from the couch. “Something on your mind, “partner”? If you’ve got something to say to me, by all means…”
A ringing came from Taggert’s pocket. The two men locked eyes as Taggert reached for his phone.
Sonny held his breath through the excruciating silence, as Taggert’s face betrayed nothing. Finally, Taggert motioned to Sonny to get a pen and paper.
“Thomas Malloy, 613 Laurel Avenue, apartment 3c. Got it. Where was that? What time?” Taggert smiled broadly. “Beautiful. What about Sorel, any sign of him? What about Miss Davis?” The smile began to wane. Sonny thwacked him on the arm with raised eyebrows, silently demanding information.
“Hey!” Taggert jerked his arm back, turning away from Sonny. “No, Jimmy, not you. Hold on a minute. I gotta check with my…partner.”
He held the phone to his chest and turned back to Sonny.
“Sorel hasn’t been seen, neither has Alexis, BUT we’ve got an I.D. and address on the incredible hulk.”
Sonny tapped his forehead. “I got the name and address right here.”
“He was at the 4th Street Deli at about six this morning, then headed west on foot. You want my guy on Malloy’s apartment and your guys on 4th Street, or vice-versa? Your call.”
“Apartment. My guys are already out there, out there they should stay.”
“Jimmy, you sit on Malloy’s address. If he shows up, you call me, and keep your eye on him. If he leaves, stay with him and call me when he lights somewhere – ANYWHERE. Don’t worry, you’ll be taken care of - WELL taken care of. We get our prize, you’ll get yours.” Taggert looked to Sonny.
“This woman is worth whatever it takes.”
As Taggert slid the phone back in his pocket, Sonny reached for the door.
“Johnny. Could you come in here a minute?”
Johnny was at the door in a flash, his brief look to Taggert decidedly more civil than it had been that morning. If Sonny trusted him, so be it.
“What, Boss? What’s happened?” The poor guy was thrashed on too much caffeine and zero sleep.
“Taggert’s got a name and address on Sorel’s new guard, the big guy - one Thomas Malloy. Taggert's man on Malloy's home, I want our men covering 4th Street from the deli to six blocks west. One man per bock, one block at a time – I don’t want any attention called. Everyone knows what this guy looks like, right?”
“Yeah, they do. I’ll repeat myself to make sure.”
“Anyone sees him, they call me right then and there, and they stay on him.”
“But they stay back, and stay careful. Sorel would take anyone out in a heartbeat, at this stage of the game. The same should be assumed for any of his associates.”
Johnny nodded. He looked to Sonny, waiting for more. Sonny stepped back, turning away.
“Thanks Johnny. And when you’ve made the calls, go let Zander know what’s going on. I promised.”
“Sure.” Johnny looked at Taggert, hesitating before taking a step toward Sonny.
“Sonny?” Sonny turned back. Johnny’s eyes shifted to the floor. “If…if what Sorel sent wasn’t just a bluff…” He raised his eyes slowly. Sonny dreaded hearing the rest of the question, closing his eyes to it. The sight of Sonny’s face halted Johnny, and he turned quickly on his heels.
“I’ll go make the calls.”
The door slammed shut. Taggert sighed heavily, leaning against the back of the couch.
“If women only knew the power they truly held over men. There’d be no living with them.”
Sonny stared into space. He finished Johnny’s question for him. “If what Sorel sent wasn’t just a bluff, how badly hurt will she be?”
“Don’t go there Sonny,” Taggert warned, shaking his head.
“You know Sorel, he’s a head-case! He’s got no reason to hurt Alexis like that. He just wants to mess with your mind, scare the crap out of you and make you cry “uncle”. And he’s succeeded on all three counts, as far as HE knows. Counts one and two may be killing you inside, but Sorel’s BELIEF of count three is what’s going to bring her home. And she’ll be okay. You have to believe that and stay clear or our back-up plan with Zander, if it comes down to that, could get someone killed.”
“NOBODY is going to get killed, except for Sorel.” Sonny looked Taggert squarely in the face. “And that will be the easiest murder conviction you’ll ever make, Detective. Not even Alexis, in all her legal glory, will be able to show reasonable doubt.”
Taggert threw his hands up in the air, then covered his ears. “I didn’t hear that!”
“You think I’m joking?” Sonny looked at his watch. “Damnit! How much of his sweet time is Sorel going to take before calling me back?”
“The longer he takes, the better.” Taggert pointed out the obvious.
“I KNOW that Taggert! I want to talk to Alexis! I want to know if…if that’s what he’s been doing to her.” He dropped down on the couch.
“Why? What purpose will it serve for you to know at this point? It’ll just make you crazy.” Taggert’s voice of reason was for naught.
“I’m going over it and over it in my mind, you know - the way she sounded the last time I heard her voice.”
“Yeah. He said she was sleeping…that he had to wake her up.”
“It was late, Sonny.”
“She didn’t sound right.”
“It was late!”
“She didn’t sound right! Yes, it was late, yes, she was groggy, but she didn’t sound RIGHT.” Sonny sighed, burying his head in his hands.
“I knew…I felt something was wrong. Deep down, I felt it. It just never crossed my mind that he would…”
“Good God Corinthos! You’d better find yourself a new line of work, because you have CLEARLY lost the stomach for this!”
Taggert pulled out his phone and dropped it onto the couch next to Sonny. “Call him, ask for her. You don’t have to demand anything else but to talk to her. He’d be expecting it anyway.”
Sonny looked down at the phone. Taggert was partly right: he no longer had the stomach for watching people he cared about getting hurt. But he had plenty of stomach for paying it back. He checked his watch again. Almost two o’clock. He picked up the phone. A knock on the door stopped him.
The door opened and Ned appeared, unshaven, wearing the same clothes from the night before. His shoulders were hunched tightly, his lower lids bearing dark circles. As he stood against the edge of the open door, his worn eyes looked right through Sonny.
“Johnny’s…he’s not here.” His voice was flat, detached.
Sonny rose, his full attention on the haunted figure before him. He motioned with a nod of his head.
“Come in Ashton. Shut the door.”
Ned did as he was told, quietly and without focus. Sonny watched him intently. Taggert gave Sonny a sideways look, sensing something between the two men that would remain unspoken.
Sonny finally spoke. “I’m glad you’re here. I was going to call you.”
“Really? When? I thought we had reached an understanding, you and I.”
Ned’s delivery was almost robotic. “Not a word from you since what, one o‘clock in the morning? I thought I was clear about not being shut out of this. I thought I was clear on what I would do to you if…”
“Ned – you were clear. I was clear as well. You don’t need half-information, you need solid facts and truth. And that’s all I will give to you.” Sonny nodded toward the coffee pot. “You look like you could use some. Help yourself.”
Taggert cleared his throat, unsure if Ned even realized he was there.
“No word from you either Taggert.” Ned turned to him. “I went to the station. They said you had taken a personal day. I’d hoped that meant you were here, instead of at the movies.”
“Nobody at the station knows about Alexis. Too many people have been turning up in Sorel’s pocket and I’m not taking any chances by trusting the wrong person. I’m on my own with this, until we locate Alexis and are ready to move on Sorel.”
Ned took a deep breath, giving it a slow release. “Thank you.”
He looked at Sonny. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going away. You’ve got to have something new by now and you’re going to tell me what it is.”
Sonny moved toward him. “Ned.”
“And damnit, stop calling me ‘Ned’! It makes me think that something really, really bad is going to come out of your mouth, so if you don’t mind, just stick to ‘Ashton’, as usual. Given the circumstances, it’s much more appropriate, don’t you think?”
Sonny cocked his head. “Maybe you should sit down for a while…ASHTON.”
“I’ll stand!” Ned's tone was deep and curt.
Sonny understood the source of this resurfaced antagonism. Ashton was still nursing his wounds from the truth he’d heard in those late hours last night, when both of them were raw. He SHOULD be wounded. That he failed to see into the depths of his woman, as another man had so easily done – it was either a wake-up call or the end of Ashton’s once beautiful duet. Taking pity, Sonny gave him what he needed.
“Alexis will be released today.”
Ned’s eyes widened. “You made the deal? To give him Zander for Alexis?”
Sonny looked to Taggert, willing him to defer to the line of inexplicable communication that he’d borne silent witness to so far. Taggert knew what to do.
“I made the deal. And Zander agreed, willingly.” Sonny saw Ned’s body release, though he said nothing.
“But Sorel understands that we won’t let go of Zander until Alexis is physically handed over to me, and ONLY me.”
Ned swallowed as his arms crossed, hugging his chest. His body ached with the promise of holding her close once more, with the need for his empty arms to be filled with her softness. Once he touched her again, he was never going to let her go. He tried to speak, but his words caught in his tightened throat.
Sonny bowed his head, unable to look Ned in the eye any longer. Solid facts he could give; the whole truth was not for him to know. It would only cause him harm.
“When?” Ned found his voice.
“I’m waiting for Sorel to call with the time and place. I expect after dark.”
“Did you speak to her, since last night?”
“Yeah. She’s okay.”
Ned’s eyes grew soft, as did his voice, as he laid his heart wide open.
“Is she really? She didn’t sound hurt…or scared?”
Sonny’s jaw tensed against his will. Ned’s eyes were too focused on Sonny’s to see it.
“Scared? Alexis? Nah.” Sonny smiled, dimples large. “The only thing that scares Alexis is a packed church…isn’t that right Ashton?” He shucked Ned on the arm.
“Damn, Corinthos, that was COLD!” Taggert broke his silence, expertly rolling with the break in tension Sonny had created.
“Taggert! I almost forgot you were here!” Sonny feigned shock.
Ned smiled, shaking his head. “Yeah, yeah.”
He glanced at Sonny, as a bittersweet confession was given breath. “I don’t need a packed church. I need to listen to the woman I love. I need to hear what she tells me with more than just her words. And God, I just need her.”
Sonny cleared his throat against the twinge of…what? What was it he felt as he listened to Ashton’s words. He wanted him to stop. Suddenly, the memory of the taste of the heroin on his tongue resurfaced, fresh and bitter. The twinge of something undefined turned to one of guilt. Ashton couldn’t know. The man would break.
Ned looked to Taggert as one gnawing question invaded his relief. “I take it there’ll be precautions in place to try and get Zander back from Sorel, once Alexis is released?”
Taggert nodded. “When the exchange is set, I’ll have back-up posted throughout the area. Sorel’s been told about Zander’s ankle monitor, but Zander will also be fitted with a small tracking device through which we’ll be able to see and follow his every step. Sorel will move Zander from the exchange site to somewhere else fairly close, where he’ll be focused on quickly removing and disposing of the ankle monitor before he can more him to a more distant location to…dispatch him. This will give us the time and opportunity to move in. Plus the element of surprise. Since Sonny told him up front about the monitor, a good faith gesture, Sorel won’t suspect a second devise. He’ll never see us coming.”
Ned nodded. “So, you’re pretty sure you can save both of them?”
“I have no intention of letting either Alexis OR Zander get hurt. But Alexis’s safe return is the absolute priority. Zander insisted on it.”
Ned opened his mouth to speak, then stopped. He opened it again. “I’m going to go see him, for a minute. Actually…I think I’m going to stay there until she comes home.”
Sonny held up his hand, halting Ned as he turned. He picked up the phone and dialed.
“Johnny, Ned Ashton is coming over there to see Zander, and he’s going to stay at Alexis's place until this is over. Make sure you take care of anything he needs. Hold on a minute.”
Sonny held the phone to his chest. “The minute I have her, you’ll know. You have my word.”
Ned nodded. “Tell her I’ll be waiting for her. And…no, I’ll tell her the rest myself.” He smiled to himself as he walked out the door.
“Johnny? We told him about the plan with Zander, that’s IT. You tell Zander, not a WORD about the drugs! I mean it, if he slips, it’s HIS ass.”
Sonny dropped the phone on the desk. He ran his hands across his face over and over again, trying to rub away the image of Ashton’s face. Taggert chuckled to himself.
“What is so blessed funny Taggert?”
“You are a damn fool.”
Sonny had no idea where this latest insult was coming from. “Excuse me?”
“There’s no way in HELL that man is backing off.”
“Backing off from what?” Taggert looked at Sonny in disbelief.
“Territories, Corinthos! Territories are the name of the game in your little world, right? Well Ashton’s got his clearly marked, and yet you’ve got your eyes all over it. Have you learned NOTHING from this turf war with Sorel, you want to start one up in your own back yard…literally?”
Sonny felt his face flush. But still he smiled, shaking his head at Taggert. “You should mind your own business Taggert. You don’t even know what you’re talking about.”
Sonny turned away from Taggert and picked up the phone. “This is Corinthos. Tell Sorel I want to talk to Miss Davis, as soon as it's convenient.”
He dropped the phone back on the desk. Taggert was still watching him. Sonny narrowed his eyes, as Taggert repeated.
“A damn fool.”