The bread delivery is late. Of all days for it to be late, it’s the day we have one of the largest catering lunch orders we’ve had in months. I stare down the alley, willing the truck to turn off the side street and into the narrow alleyway toward our little sandwich shop.
My parents opened this deli when I was still in diapers. They grew it from a tiny hole in the wall to one of the neighborhood favorites. But that was before all the chains opened up. We still do all right, but if this catering order gets messed up, I’m certain our review stats are going to drop. And a small business like mine can’t afford those reviews to sink.
“They’ll be here, Charlie. Relax.” Joey pats my shoulder. He’s worked here for the last five years since my mom became too ill to work. “They’re only an hour late.”
An hour late. The shop is already open, and the catering order is due in half an hour. If we don’t get this bread, the order will be late.
“Where’s your brother?” Joey wipes his hands on the white apron he has tied around his middle. He slices all the meat for the shop with the fancy meat slicer I bought last year when the old one finally died. My dad never replaced anything in the shop until it gave its last breath. I’ve been slowly replacing things since he passed away eighteen months ago.
“I have no idea where Oliver is,” I answer, trying to keep the annoyance from touching my tone. Oliver’s inattention to this place was easier to shoulder when my father was healthy enough to help run it. I’ve had to hire an extra employee to help cover the shifts he used to at least pretend he was going to cover. Now, sometimes weeks pass before I hear from him.
“I thought he said he would be here today.” Joey rubs the back of his neck and gestures for me to come back inside. “It’s drizzling, come inside, Charlie. They’ll be here.”
I wipe away the minuscule droplets from my forehead and step up into the back room of the deli.
“Oliver stops in when he wants to,” I say. He’s not the most dependable person, my brother. But he is my brother. Sometimes I wish I could forget the long lectures about the importance of family my father gave during our childhood. Oliver seems to have tuned them out just fine. But I can’t. He’s my brother, and my parents wouldn’t want me to turn my back on him.
“I’m going to call the bakery again.” I head to the back office. This situation reiterates the need for our own ovens so we can make our own bread. I almost have enough stashed aside to make the purchase without adding too much debt to the deli, but until then I’m going to have to get that delivery here.
“Charlie, I know. I know, it’s almost there. I swear it.” Kedzie, the girl who runs the Homestyle Bakery seven blocks down answers my call before the first ring can finish.
“Swear it.” Kenzie has never let me down, and I have no reason to believe she will today.
“I swear. Jonny is like a block away.” She sounds as panicked as I feel. Missing a delivery, even to a smaller shop like us, is bad for business. We small businesses need to stick together if we are ever going to have a chance to compete with the big stores.
“Any chance on a discount for this one?” A smile tugs at my lips. Kedzie and I have known each other for years. Both of us are daughters who stepped into the big shoes of our fathers.
“Ten percent,” she offers, which covers the tax and delivery fee.
“I’ll take it and add three dozen pretzel rolls to the next order. I’m going to introduce it and see if it takes.” I twirl the phone cord in my fingers. I haven’t gotten around to changing out the phones in the shop. They’re originals from when Mom and Dad opened this place twenty-three years ago.
“You got it.” Just as she speaks the horn from her cousin’s truck blasts in the alley. The order has arrived, and my ass is saved.
“It’s here. Gotta run!” I hang up and hurry out to the back to help bring in the order.
“Sorry, Charlie.” Jonny jumps down from the truck and runs to the back, throwing open the rolling door.
“Just get it inside. I have to start a big order right away.” I grab a tray of buns and hurry them into the kitchen.
“See. I told you they’d get here in time,” Joey grins as I hurry past him to put the bread away.
“Thanks, Jonny!” I shut the back door and dive into the order. I’ll get the catering order done back here while Joey watches over the staff up front.
“Hey, Charlie!” Oliver pushes through the kitchen door with a wide grin. He hasn’t shaved in days, and from the muss of his hair and dark rings under his eyes, I’d say he hasn’t slept much either.
“Oliver,” Joey greets him as he heads to the front. “See, Charlie, I told you he was coming in today. Good to see you, man.”
I shoot my brother what I hope is a death glare. “We have a big order to get done. Wash your hands and you can help me.” I gesture to the list of sandwiches needing to be made. All the toppings are ready, we just need to get going.
“Sorry, little sister, can’t stay too long.” He pops a sliced bell pepper into his mouth. “I need to talk to you, though.” He glances at the back office.
I sigh. “I can’t, Oliver, this order is already on the verge of being late.” I wave my hands over the table where I should already have a dozen subs wrapped and ready to go.
“It’ll just take a second.” He grabs my arm. “It’s important,” he says through tight teeth.
“Go. I’ll get these started.” Joey waves both hands at me. “It’s dead up there, they’ll be okay for a bit.”
“Fine.” I push the paper toward him. “Just mark off the ones you get done.”
He nods and picks up the first bun.
Once I’m in the back office, Oliver shuts the door. Already, my stomach hurts just looking at him. His face contorts in guilt.
“No,” I sigh, already knowing what’s coming. “You didn’t.”
“It’s not that bad.” Guilt lingers in his eyes.
“How much?” I want to scream. I want to pull his hair out. I want to put my fist through his nose, maybe split his lip open. But doing any of those things won’t work. I’ll just feel bad for doing it and have to take him to the hospital to get him cleaned up. And I don’t have the energy for it today.
“C’mon, Charlie. Don’t look at me like that. It’s not what you think. I didn’t go to a bookie.” He wipes his hand over his face, and I notice the exhaustion there. “I didn’t gamble, I swear. I needed some cash to invest in this business that had a ton of promise. I knew you didn’t have the money, so I borrowed it.”
A loan shark. The stomach pains twist into nausea.
“How much, Oliver?” I ask with my eyes closed. Now more than ever I can’t let that order cost us any lost business.
“Two hundred.” He pinches his lips together.
“Just two hundred?” The amount sounds wrong. Why would he be so worried over a lousy two hundred?
“Grand, Charlie. Two hundred grand.” His Adam’s apple bobs in his throat after he gives me the full amount.
I’m going to vomit. The donut and coffee I had for breakfast this morning is going to reappear all over my desk any second.
“Two hundred thousand dollars?” I want to yell it, but the shock takes most of the sound from my voice. “Where the hell am I going to get two hundred thousand dollars?”
“I know.” He grimaces. “I just… maybe just a little cash? Just to give them to get them off my back?”
“Them?” I clench my teeth as a thought strikes me. “Who’s them, Oliver?” I close my eyes, trying to ward off the name he’s about to give me. Because I know it’s coming. I can sense it in my bones, but once he says it I won’t be able to unhear it.
I sink into my office chair, an old wooden chair with wheels my father’s had in this office for two decades.
“You borrowed money from the Russian mob?” I can’t look at him. If I look at him, and I see the remorse in his eyes, I’ll feel sorry for him. And I’m too angry to feel sorry for him.
“It was a good business investment, Charlie. I swear it,” he hurries to justify. He can always excuse his behavior.
I put my hand up in the air to stop his excuses. I’ve heard all of them before, and I don’t have time for a rerun of a bad show.
“How much will keep them happy?” Already, I’m doing math in my head.
“I think I can get more time with ten thousand.” The number rolls off his tongue as though he’s asking for a couple of bucks for a cup of coffee.
“Five percent? You think five percent will appease them?” My brother, always the delusional optimist.
“It’ll buy me some time.” He runs his hands through his shaggy brown hair.
“For how long?” Loan sharks aren’t really known for their patience, and the Romanovs aren’t known for being reasonable.
“I don’t know,” he whines. “They’ll be here tomorrow to collect. Do you think you can help?”
“Here?” I move back to my feet. “You have them coming here? To our deli?”
“I thought it would be safer. A public place.” He shrugs.
As though public spaces ever stopped the Romanovs from doing what they wanted to do. Having an audience to a crime when you have big players in the NYPD in your pocket isn’t exactly a hindrance.
“I’ll get the money.” A bowling ball of emotion weighs me down.
Relief washes over him like a tidal wave. “Thank you.” He grabs my shoulders and squeezes. “I knew I could count on you. I’ll be here at one tomorrow. They’ll be here around two. And you know.” He eyes the door. “Let’s not tell anyone about this. If the staff acts weird when they get here, it might make for a bad vibe.”
I lock my knees and curl my toes into my shoes. A bad vibe? What sort of vibe is he feeling right now?
“I won’t say anything. But I swear, Oliver, I don’t have anything else to give you. You have to find that money or make a deal with them to pay back what you owe. But don’t bring them back here ever again.” I stick my finger in his chest.
“Of course. You’re right. Absolutely,” he nods as he backs his way to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And he’s gone.
“Hey.” Joey pops his head into the office. “Just wanted to let you know that catering order called. They screwed up the time or something, they don’t need the order until two now.”
A stroke of luck.
“Thanks, Joey.” I sink back into the chair, feeling a little bit more relaxed.
“Yeah. I’m good,” I nod. “How’s the order coming?”
He grins. “About halfway in. I can finish if you need to hang in here.”
“Just give me a minute and I’ll be out to help.” I force a smile. Joey goes back to the front, and I’m left logging onto my laptop to check the lobby hours of my bank. I doubt the Romanovs are going to want a personal check when they come tomorrow.
I’ll need to run to cash a check after the lunch rush.
So much for the new ovens.
Chatter stops when I walk into the back room of Whiskey Run. Five of my men sit around a table, empty glasses in front of them and bottle half empty in the middle of the table, cards strewn about.
Boris is the first to get up. “Nikolai.” Boris’ cousin owns the bar, so he lets him use the back room for poker games whenever he wants.
“Bit early, isn’t it?” I ask, eyeing the dark rings under a few of their eyes.
“More late, I’d say,” Yogi laughs and gets up from his chair. “Didn’t realize the time.”
I glance at the other men. They grumble as they get up, collecting their winnings and downing the last of their drinks.
I make a show of checking my watch. “It’s fucking eleven o’clock. Have you assholes been playing all night?” It would account for the stale stench of cigars and alcohol being so heavy back here.
“Oleg’s girl is pregnant. They found out it’s going to be a boy. So, we celebrated,” Boris explains. He grabs a bottle of water from the fridge and starts to gulp it down.
Oleg grins; he’s missing another tooth since the last time I saw him.
“Congratulations,” I say with a nod.
It takes only another minute before they gather up their shit and head out, leaving Boris, Yogi, and me alone.
I pull a chair from the table and sit down, stretching my back out against the wood backing. It’s been a long week, not that I have an actual work schedule. I don’t have weekends off.
“So. What’s the concern?” I fold my arms over my chest. I’ve known Yogi and Boris for years. They worked alongside me when I was learning exactly what my father does for a living. Having them be the head of my own crew wasn’t a hard call to make. I trust them as much as I trust my two older brothers and father.
Boris sighs and hooks his hands on his hips. “I hope I’m wrong, Nikolai. I really fucking do.” He shakes his head and heads to where his jacket is hanging on the hook near the door. He digs out a small baggie and brings it to me, dropping it on the table.
“What’s this?” I pick it up and take a closer look. Pills. Purple tablets with a bear stamped on one side. “Why are you showing me our own product?” Ecstasy is a top seller, easy to move and always in demand.
“Found that yesterday while dealing with a defaulted loan.” Yogi pops open a pill bottle and shakes out a few aspirin. It’s going to be a long day for these fucks after spending the night drinking and playing poker.
“So?” I drop the baggie back on the table.
“So, he didn’t get it from one of our guys. Or at least that’s what he said,” Boris explains. “He wanted to save his left hand, so he offered information in exchange. He told us he bought those pills off a Polish guy on the subway.”
“Polish?” I lean forward again, taking another look at the stamp. “How did he know the guy was Polish and not Russian? The accents are easy to confuse by someone who doesn’t know better.”
“Because the guy had a Polish flag tatted on his fucking neck.” Yogi points to the left side of his neck.
We aren’t an equal opportunity employer; our cooks, our runners, our distributers, and our dealers all have Russian blood running through their veins. Almost all of them have strong ties to our families, or our allies.
“How’d this Polish guy get our product?”
“He didn’t know. He recognized the stamp once he got the shit home. He wasn’t going to go back and ask.” Yogi throws back the aspirin and chases it down with what’s left in his glass.
I wipe my hand across my mouth. “Someone’s selling on their own then.”
“That’s my guess. Unless this Polish prick just happened to have some of our stuff and was trying to get rid of it.” Boris plays devil’s advocate.
“Can this guy get us in touch with the dealer?”
Boris shakes his head. “It wasn’t a planned purchase. He ran into him on the subway platform and doesn’t know how to get a hold of him.”
“Okay.” I stand up. “Then have this asshole take you to where he bought it and see if the Polish guy is there again. If we’re lucky, like you said, he may have just had some from his own stash he was wanting to get rid of. If that’s the case, teach him a lesson in unauthorized resales.”
“And if not?”
“We need to have a longer conversation with him.” If that’s the case, we’ll have a bigger problem on our hands than some asshole reselling our product behind our back. “What do you two have going this afternoon?”
“Have a collection at two then we’ll track down our guy and head to the subway,” Boris says, though he looks less than thrilled. “So long as the collection goes easy. I sort of doubt it though; this guy’s a real dumbass. Thinks he can smooth talk anyone. If he doesn’t have the cash, he’ll give us a real song and dance.”
“Really?” I grin. “I could use some entertainment. I’ll join you.” It’s been too long since I went on a collection run.
Boris raises his eyebrows. “You want to go on a collection run?”
“I won’t get in your way, just going for the fun,” I assure them. I’d trust them with my life, and I don’t want them seeing me tagging along as a sign I don’t. “Why don’t you two go get cleaned up, have a cup of coffee, then swing by and pick me up. I have a meeting with my father, but we’ll be done by the time you come over.”
“Sure thing,” Boris grins.
“Good.” My phone’s ringing so I answer the call as I head out to my car parked in front. It’s going to be another long ass day; having a little fun with them will do me some good.
Ten minutes to two o’clock.
My stomach twists harder into a knot as the second hand ticks by on the clock hanging over the deli counter. I check my phone for messages from Oliver; nothing. I call him for the tenth time in the last hour since he hasn’t shown up. Goes straight to voicemail.
“Charlie, why are you so tense?” Joey walks behind me, bringing a box of chips to restock.
“No reason.” I fiddle with the stuff by the register, acting like I’m straightening up but I’m staring at the front door.
They’ll be here soon.
“Charlie, I have a catering order that wants to know if we can split the bill across three credit cards?” Silvia has her hand over the receiver of the phone with her head popped out from the kitchen.
“Uh.” I wipe my hands on my jeans; my nerves are frazzled, and my brain is bouncing too hard against my skull to think straight.
“I can just run three different amounts, that would work, right?” she asks when I keep staring at her.
“What? Oh, yeah. That will work. Payment up front, though, Silvia.”
She nods. “You got it, boss.”
Joey finishes stocking the chips and carries the empty box past me.
I take the box from him. “I’ll take this out.” I need some fresh air. I have five minutes before the Romanovs’ debt collectors come looking to break my brother’s legs.
“You okay, Charlie? You look pale.” His soft blue eyes fill with concern. I don’t want him to worry.
“Yeah. I’m fine. Just want a minute outside.”
“All right. I’ll handle these customers,” he says and I whip around to see three men, all with midnight black hair, dressed in black slacks and freshly pressed button-down shirts walking toward our door.
Time’s up apparently.
“No. That’s okay. I’ll get it. Why don’t you show Silvia how to run the meat slicer again?”
“Why, don’t you like how I do it? You want to replace me with her?” Joey asks, his face blank of emotion.
I do not have time for a full conversation about who has what job duties around here.
“It’s good for her to know, Joey. In case she ends up being here when neither of us are and she has to do it on her own.”
The bells hanging over the door ring, slamming the brakes on my heart.
“I’m just pulling your leg, Charlie. I think maybe it’s time you took a vacation. You’re getting too tense.” He wags a finger at me then disappears into the back.
The three men sit at the table in the far corner of the deli, closest to the door. I check my phone once more, internally scream, then shove it into my back pocket. The lunch rush, if you can call what we had a rush, is over. These men are the only customers we have. And none of them seem interested in the menu. They speak low to each other, like they don’t want to be bothered.
And I don’t want to bother them.
But Oliver isn’t here. And I know him well enough to know he’s not coming. He’s put the garbage at my doorstep and now I have to take it out.
I take a deep breath, wipe my hands on my jeans once more, then grab the envelope I’ve stashed under the register drawer. In my head, I practice my speech. With any luck, they’ll take the envelope, thank me for my time, and walk out of the deli. Hell, I’ll even offer them a few subs. On the house.
They’re speaking low when I get to the table, but I can tell they’re definitely speaking Russian. No need to keep their voices so soft when talking in a foreign language. But I’m not going to point that out to them. No. I’m going to hand the money over, offer them any sub they want, and then wave goodbye.
I don’t let the fact that this is the Romanov family I’m dealing with sidetrack my positive vibes. I mean, sure, they’ve built a reputation in this neighborhood that would put anyone on high alert when they’re around. But I’m a woman. Surely, they don’t kill women.
My stomach drops when the man in the corner, the one with melted chocolate brown eyes, raises his gaze to mine. The other men notice he’s looking at me. They stop talking, turning their attention up to me as well. But I’m locked in his gaze. His hair is mussed up, like he’s been running his hands through it recently. He has a short beard, but it doesn’t take away from his features like the thick beards of his partners. It makes him look relaxed. But he’s not. He’s dangerous.
“Hi. Uh.” I clear my throat and roll my shoulders back. “I think you’re here to meet Oliver, is that right?”
The man closest to where I stand leans back in his chair. “You his secretary?” He laughs.
“No.” I squeeze the envelope I’m holding with both hands. Ten thousand dollars isn’t as heavy as I thought it would be, but I’m not taking any chances at dropping it.
“Is he here?” the other man asks. The one in the corner, though, he just leans back in his chair and watches me with open curiosity. Like a train wreck is about to happen and he wants to see if I’ll get out of the way in time.
“No.” I clear my throat again. Why does it keep closing like that? “But I think I have what you need.”
“Oh, that’s a real possibility,” the first guy says and his gaze glides over me like I’m a piece of pork loin in the butcher’s display case.
“I mean, I have this for you.” I put out the envelope, aiming it at the man in the corner. He hasn’t said a word, but I get the sense he’s in charge.
He looks at the man to my left and gives a nod. The guy takes the envelope. Opening it, he thumbs through the bills, a frown settling on his face. He shakes his head.
“It’s not all here.”
“How much is there?” the gawker asks.
“Ten grand.” He drops the envelope on the table and slides it at me. “Wrong amount.”
“Right. I understand that, but this is just a down payment. You’ll get the rest, just not today. I mean, it’s a payment. Loans have payments, and that’s what this is.” I push the envelope back at him.
“Oh. A payment. Hear that, Yogi, she’s making a payment.”
Yogi, the man across from him takes the envelope and looks through it himself. “I’ll have to check the loan document, but I’m pretty fucking sure the amount was a flat rate. Two hundred grand plus interest. This envelope is two hundred forty thousand dollars short.” Yogi drops the envelope back on the table. It’s like a toy for them. Everything I had saved up is in that envelope and they’re tossing it back and forth like it’s a beanbag.
“Boris, Yogi. You’re being rude.” The man in the corner finally speaks. “How do you know Oliver?”
“I’m his sister.” I raise my chin with my answer. I’m not sure if I’ve given him ammunition against me, or if I’ve made things better with my admission.
“Why is he not here?” He looks toward the swinging door that leads to the back. “Or is he hiding?”
“He’s… I’m not sure why he’s not here.” I have no defense of my brother, but I can’t let him get eaten by these sharks. “Maybe he got caught up at work.”
Yogi laughs. “If he worked, he wouldn’t have come to us in the first place.” His thick accent makes his comment seem darker somehow.
“Anyway, I’m sure he has a good reason. But I’m here. And I have the money he was going to give you. He needs more time, but I swear to you, he’ll pay it all back. Every penny.” I’m not sure how the hell that’s going to happen, but that’s a tomorrow worry.
“Yogi, Boris.” The man in the corner rattles off orders in Russian and they both get up from the table. I take a step back to get out of their way when they walk past me, toward the sandwich counter. I watch them, afraid they’re going to go into the kitchen where Joey is.
“What are they doing?” I ask.
“Nothing to worry about.” He stands up from the table. He’s taller than he seemed when they walked in. Now that I’m this close to him, I can feel his size. I barely come up to his chin, and his shoulders look ready to hit the football field.
“You’ll take the payment then?” I pick up the discarded envelope and try to hand it to him.
“No.” He shakes his head and moves toward me. Instinctively, I step back, but he follows me, taking up all the space between us until there’s none. “It’s your money, not his.”
“You can’t know that,” I point out. He’s completely accurate, but he doesn’t know it for a fact.
“When someone borrows the amount of money he did, we make assurances we don’t lose our cash.” He looks around the deli with half a frown.
“What does that mean?” I ask, looking over my shoulder at Yogi and Boris. They’re leaning against the counter with their arms crossed; just waiting on orders, I’m sure.
“If your brother doesn’t have the cash, we help him along. The insurance on a place like this would cover his debt to my family.”
My mouth dries. He’s not just a Romanov thug. He’s a fucking Romanov.
After that realization passes, I understand his meaning.
They’ll destroy the deli to get the insurance payment.
“No. You can’t.” I stand straighter, my voice raises. “You will not touch this place.” My parents worked too damn hard for this place for it to be destroyed by them.
“Do you have the money for me? The full amount.” His eyes pin me in place.
“There has to be another way.” My fingers crunch the envelope. Why can’t they just be reasonable and take the ten grand?
His gaze roams over my face, then down my body. A warmth runs through my veins beneath his scrutiny. Unlike when the other guy looked at me.
“We could kill him.” The left side of his mouth, his full lips, kicks up. “Life insurance money is as good as any other money.”
“No!” I almost shout. “Don’t. Please. Don’t do that.” I sound pathetic, but I’m not exactly packing anything that will protect me against these guys.
“What would you do to keep your brother safe? To keep this little shop running?” He takes another step toward me and then another, until my ass hits the edge of the deli counter, and I can’t retreat any further.
“What do you want?” I swallow down the lump of fear clawing its way up my throat. These men could tear me apart. If I scream, Joey will run in, and they’ll hurt him. Kill him even.
Mr. Romanov lifts his hand to my chin, pinching it between two hard fingers. He pulls it up until he has his dark gaze locked with mine.
“What can you offer?” he asks, his nose brushing lightly against mine. He smells like musky aftershave and stale cigar smoke. The tiny sensation of his skin against mine, although brief, is enough to remind me it’s been too long since I’ve had a man’s touch.
“Hmmm?” His voice rolls over me. “What can you give me?”
“Me?” The word falls out of my mouth before going through the proper filters in my head. One, why would a man of his power, his strength want a plain girl like me? Two, I’m not exactly worth two hundred and fifty grand. That’s not a knock at myself; I’m being realistic. I eat too much ice cream, I don’t get enough sleep, and it’s been a really long minute since I’ve been to a gym. Men like him, they don’t give second glances to girls like me, much less pay that kind of money.
“Done.” He lets go of my chin and gives his men a curt nod. “What time does the deli close?” He takes a step back from me; the cool air of the air conditioning brushes across my face.
“What?” I nearly choke on the question, because what the hell did he just say?
“Time. What time does this place close?” he asks again as his men file out of the deli.
“Seven. I mean, we close at six, but we’re usually done cleaning up by seven,” I explain.
“A car will be here to pick you up. Don’t keep it waiting.” He takes the envelope I’m still clutching to my chest and lays it on the counter behind me. “Put that back in the bank.”
“Mr. Romanov, take the money. Please.”
He slams his hand over the envelope when I try to reach for it.
“Put it back in the bank, today,” he orders me. I blink, unsure of what to say. ‘Thank you’ seems wrong because I have no idea what I’m actually doing anymore. What did I trade for my brother’s life?
“All right,” I agree with a nod.
“Good.” He turns for the door but stops when he opens it. “And my name is Nikolai.”
“Okay.” That’s it. That’s all I can come up with. Too many things are flying through my head to say much else.
He shakes his head a little, then steps out into the summer sun, letting the door shut behind him. His goons are waiting for him on the sidewalk, and once they have their leader, they walk away.
Air finally rushes into my lungs.
My brother has survived.
But for how long?