MAX! MAX! MAD MAX!

Thanksgiving, Six Weeks Ago

Max

A deep, ominous chill settles into my bones as I walk down Decatur Avenue in the armpit of Brooklyn on this frigid night. I flip up the collar of my coat to form a barrier against the heavy wind that nearly blew my car off the Verrazano Bridge a little while ago. Sidestepping puddles of half-melted ice from the last snowstorm, I peer around at the darkness consuming the dilapidated buildings, trying to make out any shapes that are lurking in alleyways, ready to pummel, but there are none.

I guess criminals celebrate Thanksgiving, too.

Nico would kick my ass if he knew I was here. Alone, no less. 

It’s been a rough few months for him, dealing with his dad’s recovery from the hit that the Cappodamo family put on him and then taking over as boss. It hasn’t been easy, and he’s been damn stressed. But yet here I am, ready to pile on that stress and fuck shit up without his permission.

My phone vibrates against my leg. I glance left and right before pulling it out to read the text from Sloane.

Where are you? We just finished dinner, and I made your favorite for dessert. Is everything okay?

I tug down the rim of my worn Yankees baseball cap and shake off the useless guilt that’s been hovering over me ever since I made a sudden turn in the opposite direction…away from Sloane’s house and toward the New Jersey Turnpike. 

I should be with Sloane right now, sitting in the dining room at her dad’s house, eating her tiramisu…the best damn tiramisu on the planet and the one she always makes any time I come over. I’m so fucking deep in the friend zone that the only thing I can get out of her is dessert. Or Raisinets when I show up at her apartment with the bullshit excuse that I want to play Fortnite. Video games. That’s the only way in, so I’ve been reduced to fucking Player Two. 

Things between us fell apart the last time because my priorities were fucked up. Funny how shit comes full circle. I’ve been dicking around for the past couple of months, trying to figure out how to tell her that I want to give this thing between us another shot, but something always stopped me from saying the words.

That was gonna change tonight. I was gonna lay it out there for her, to see if there’s a future for us, to see if I can get the second chance I’ve been waiting for. And here I am in Brooklyn with my priorities all fucked up again. Maybe it’s a sign that she’s better off without me and my jacked priorities.

But that phone call…how the hell could I have ignored it? I know being here violates all sorts of rules, but I still came.

You always repay your debts.

Besides, I’d never let those bastards win their sick, sordid game either.

When they violated our territory and went after our business, they fucked themselves.

I’m just here to finish the job. It’s what I do. It’s what I’m good at.

Except this time, I don’t have backup. 

This is something I have to do by myself. I put Layla in this position, and now I need to get her the fuck out of it.

I mentally flip through attack strategies, squinting at the numbers on the buildings along the desolate road. There could be anywhere from one to five guys inside, based on what she whispered into the phone.

They’re baiting me. I know they’re not gonna do what they threatened to do. But Layla wasn’t taking that risk, and now I’m here to save the fucking day.

I stop short, my ears straining to hear what sounds like very determined footsteps approaching me from behind. My throat tightens, and I stuff my hands deep into my pockets, gripping the handle of my trusty switchblade.

I pick up the pace, knowing I’ll have milliseconds to pull out the blade, swivel around, and lance the fucker. The footsteps get louder and heavier, splashing through puddles. 

The dipshit isn’t even trying to be stealth anymore. 

I glance left and right, and still, the street is empty.

Save for two people.

At least.

The bar is up ahead on my left. If this prick is one of theirs, I don’t want to take him out here in the open, so I dodge left and dart between two buildings, crouched low so I can spring at the bastard when he comes for me.

My moves take him by surprise, and he sprints toward me, hood pulled over his face. I can only make out a profile, but I’ll slash first and ask questions later.

As always.

I grip the blade in my hand and release its gleaming metal tip. Ready to slice.

“Max!” A male voice whisper-shouts my name. “What the fuck?”

I furrow my brow. “Gabe?”

Gabe pulls off his hood. “Yeah, man. What the hell is wrong with you? I could have been a cop, for fuck’s sake!” He points at my blade. “You were just gonna fillet me without even finding out who it was?”

I retract the blade and stick it back into my pocket, letting out a deep sigh. “This is a shithole neighborhood, if you haven’t noticed. And if the cops came down here more often, it probably wouldn’t be as bad as it is. So, yeah, if someone is following me in this place, I’m slicing first, worrying about it never.” I lower my voice. “What the fuck are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be at your mother’s house right now, sleeping on the couch after stuffing your face with enough food to feed a third-world country?”

“Screw you.” Gabe grinned. “I already did all that. And now I’m all fueled up and ready to bust some fucking skulls. Where are they?”

I nod in the direction of the dilapidated building. Layla didn’t have an exact address, but she sent pictures. I did the rest with the help of one of my younger guys, Sammy, who also happens to be a tech genius. Fucking kid. He could do so much more with his life than be a hacker for the mafia, but then again, nobody ever asks if you’re gonna join the party. 

It’s just expected that you show up.

And never leave. 

“I’m gonna kill Sammy,” I grumble, adjusting the gun in the waistband of my pants.

“If he didn’t call me, it’d be your funeral. I don’t know why you needed to storm this shit show by yourself.”

Gabe doesn’t get it. But it’s not like I can make him understand. I know what people say about me. I know what they think.

This time, I wanted to tell a different story, one where I’m the one who takes care of things, not just the one who carries out a fucking order.

I’m nobody’s goddamned errand boy, but that’s what they all see.

Because that’s the picture Nico paints. 

My best friend. And my boss. 

He claims he wants to help me rise through the ranks, to get me involved in the business end so people don’t just see me as a thug and start taking me seriously. But being his fucking peon isn’t gonna erase that image.

I may not be Mr. CEO, but I do know how these jerkoffs operate. Nico can barely hold a fucking gun, much less fire one. If I told him about this, he’d have gathered all the guys together, had a fucking brutally long meeting about the pros and cons of how and when we should attack, blah, blah, fucking blah. This isn’t the time to play around with our dicks. And now is the time for me to make my move and prove myself to those assholes who talk shit behind my back, betting on how long it’ll take before one of our enemies finally pops me.

Sorry, to disappoint you, dickheads. It ain’t happening.

Not tonight, anyway.

But still, a nagging voice needles me. 

Grandpa Vito wouldn’t be happy about this. 

I grit my teeth as Gabe cocks his gun. Vito was the head of the Salesi family and Nico’s grandfather. The big guy. The one who oversaw everything. He’d always been my champion, even after the divorce. That’s what we call the falling out between my dad and Nico’s. A lot of shit went down back then, but Vito always supported me, even when nobody else did. 

Now he’s gone. It’s been almost a year since he died of a heart attack, and sometimes I feel like nobody has my back anymore. I’m a liability. They don’t want to take the risk on me since I’m such a loose cannon. 

At least, that’s what I hear. 

The mental taunting continues.

Is that why Grandpa Vito got Nico to give you a job? Or was it because he didn’t trust you either and needed to get you a babysitter?

Shut the fuck up, voice!

I clench and unclench my fists, the memory of Layla’s whimpering making my chest tighten. “Are you ready yet, for Christ’s sake?”

Gabe tucks the gun back into his jeans and nods. “Yeah. Let’s do this.”

I put a hand on his chest before he takes another step closer to the door. “Wait. You didn’t need to come here tonight. But I want you to know I appreciate it. And I’ll make sure her father knows you showed up, too. Now keep your eyes open. I don’t need any more blood on my hands, got it?”

Gabe lets out a snort. “Fuck off, bitch. Worry about yourself.”

I roll my eyes and shove him aside, inching closer to the dingy metal door. With a throbbing pulse, I pull open the door; the stench of stale cigarette smoke tinged with scotch assaults my nostrils. I nod toward Gabe, and he covers the other side of the door. I creep inside. A few lights hang over beaten-up pool tables, marijuana smoke swirling through the air. A jukebox sits silent in a far corner. 

The silence is deafening.

And fucking excruciating, if I’m being honest.

A piercing scream shatters the eerie stillness, and I dart in the direction of the desperate pleas. 

It’s Layla. 

I pull out my gun and point to Gabe, directing him to cover me as I run toward a back room. I have no fucking clue what waits for me beyond that door, but my friend is in trouble. Serious fucking trouble. 

Her father, Antonio deVincenzo, was the only other person in the family who’d believed that I had more to offer the family than smashed up skulls. He was the only one who gave me a real shot at my own business, until that asshole Rocco Lucchese fucked us both, leaving me with nothing but this dead-end job under Nico’s watchful eye. 

I never forgot what Antonio did for me. 

And I owe him plenty, even in death. Lung cancer drained the life out of him last spring, but I’m still paying back the debt. 

Feels like I’ve been paying it back for a long time. 

But this is the last installment. I can’t keep putting my ass on the line. I need to think about my future, meaning I’d like to havea future. 

Gabe does a quick check and waves me toward the door a minute later. “All clear,” he mouths. 

I don’t like this one bit. 

This place looks like a fucking bloodbath waiting to happen. Something is wrong…very wrong. Why isn’t this place crawling with thugs? Where the fuck is everyone?

Napping because they ate too much fucking turkey?

Doubtful…

I inch closer to the door, shooting out a hand and shoving it open to find Layla squirming under some beefy dipshit who didn’t have the foresight to lock the front door. He has one hand under her skirt and one hand slapped over her mouth. He turns around, his eyes red and bloodshot, face dripping with sweat. He drags himself to his feet, a shit-eating grin on his pock-marked face. His belt is undone, jeans hanging around his ass. Layla scrambles into a corner. Her face is streaked with black eye makeup, her teeth chattering so violently, she can’t even speak. Her eyes are filled with terror, her body shaking uncontrollably.

I swallow hard, breathing deep to control my heartbeat. My hand is steady, trained on the bastard who’d just dry humped his last victim. He should be thanking his lucky stars that his dick is still inside of his pants. 

Otherwise, I’d have shot off the head in his pants before blowing off the one on his shoulders.

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Blood and bits of brain and bone splatter all over the wall before his body crashes to the floor with a loud thump. A shriek that can shatter glass follows, and I sideswipe Layla’s attacker, holding out a hand to pull her up.

But she continues to cower in the corner.

“Layla, babe. It’s okay. You’re safe now. Let me help you up.”

Still, she just shakes her head, stuttering something I can’t make out, shivering and huddling closer to the wall.

“Layla,” I say again, louder this time. “I need you to come with me. Is there anyone else—?”

Crack!

A single gunshot explodes from behind me.

“Gabe!” I shout, jumping to my feet and twisting around…

Two seconds too late.

A thick hand grasps my neck, dragging me to my feet. Layla’s weeping turns into full-fledge screeches as my back is slammed against the wall, the fucking bloody, brainy wall of horrors.

Mikey Bonnaro. Sonofabitch. He’d been one of Frank Cappodamo’s soldiers, but his ‘career’ came to a screeching halt last New Year’s Eve when Frank had kidnapped my sister Shaye. That was a fucking brutal night. It didn’t end well for any of Cappodamo’s men, including Frank himself. Before that bloodbath, Mikey had been positioned as a captain, and Frank was about to give him the drug distribution business for all of his territories. But shit went sideways for Cappodamo’s whole crew once we stormed the deserted warehouse where they’d taken Shaye. Some of Frank’s crew, including Mikey, were able to get away. But Mikey’s brother Gianni wasn’t so lucky. I slashed his tires and dropped about fifty grams of heroin into the passenger seat of his car before we busted out of the parking lot. He’s been behind bars since that night, and it looks like Mikey is still pissed off that his promotion never went through. 

“Shut up, bitch!” Mikey shouts at Layla before he turns back to me with an evil grimace. “Happy fucking Thanksgiving, Oriani. It’s not very polite to crash someone’s party. Didn’t that cunt mother of yours teach you any manners?”

“Is this your plan, Mikey? You think kidnapping her is gonna win you points with those dipshits you work with?” I wheeze, trying to pry his fingers away from my throat. “You think it’ll give you power over them? You think they’ll follow you now because you got one of ours?”

“Loyalty doesn’t come cheap. They know what I can get them.” He shrugs. “It’s all about what you can deliver, right, Maximo? What have you delivered? Oh, right. Nothing. That’s why you’re Nico’s bitch now. He needs to keep tabs on the weak link, right?” He lets go, and my body crashes to the floor like a lead pipe. 

Speaking of lead pipes, I’d love to have one in my hand right about now.

My hand flies to my neck, and I choke, trying to swallow as much air as my lungs can handle.

Mikey crouches down next to me and ruffles my hair. “Did you think I was gonna kill you, Max? Were you scared?”

My eyes dart behind him to where Gabe lies in a pool of blood right outside the back room. 

More blood on my hands. 

So much blood.

There doesn’t ever seem to be a shortage of it, that’s for shit sure. Gabe was a good guy. He showed up, and because of me, now he’s fucking dead.

On Thanks-fucking-giving.

Mikey follows my gaze and shrugs. “Collateral damage. You know how it is. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I only wanted to give you a message.” He waves over at Gabe, barely acknowledging his limp and lifeless body sprawled on the floor. “That’s your fault for being too big of a pussy to show up alone.” He taps my temple with the barrel of his gun. “You’re getting soft doing all this businessy shit, aren’t you? You’d have come in here shooting the place up back in the day. You would never have dropped your gun before popping off a round or two.” He points his piece to where mine hit the floor minutes earlier and then points it to Layla. “But maybe this will make you remember…keep you focused. For next time. Because lucky for you, there will be one.”

Crack!

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