Friday morning — 8:24 A.M.
Sandy stood inside the doorway to admiring her salon. One wall was painted a burnt orange color similar to a Colorado sunrises. There were four stations set up along the exposed brick side of the studio. A changing room and a bathroom created the barrier between the open space and three sinks in the back. Under the counter in the back, Jacob had set up a front loading washer and dryer. There were even two small offices upstairs and a basement room that ran the length of the small storefront. The space was well laid out, clean and beautiful.
Jill had used money from a foundation Celia set up. The foundation’s mission is to help women get started in business. Jill took the reins around the first of the year and Sandy was their first recipient. The foundation also loaned her money at a low interest rate. With the loan, she received a bevy of financial advisors, mostly Lipson Construction employees. Tres Sierra was going to help her set up her finances on QuickBooks. Sam gave her a template for her business plan and would review it when she was ready.
Jacob offered to sell her the storefront but, in her first decision as a business owner, she said she’d rather rent. For now. When the business was successful, she would look at buying the space. Plus it looked like the Feds were going to hang onto the money from her father’s house. She didn’t want more debt than absolutely had to have. Jacob set up a reasonable rent which she could easily afford.
Because her life was in danger, Jacob had called the business ‘By appointment only.’ He tinted the front window so no one could see in during the day. There was a combination lock on the door. Only legitimate clients could get in. Last night, Jill had painted ‘By appointment only’ in script letters on the window. Sandy now owned the most exclusive salon in Denver. No walk-ins. No online appointments. Her clients were either regulars or came by named referral.
Luckily, her expenses were low enough that she could afford to be the only hairdresser at the salon. Someday, she’d invite some of her hairdresser friends to join her. But for now, while there was a threat to her life, she could afford to work by herself.
And work she did. She had as many clients as she did during the busy Holiday season. Everyone who’d heard about Aden or read the story on the front page of the Denver Post, figured out what happened to her. The phone rang off the hook. Of course, she had to stop at five now. No late nights when you have kids.
Luckily, Nash and Noelle were used to a working parent. They didn’t expect her total attention. Of course, they were up all night finishing Noelle’s semester project. This morning, the little girl had beamed over her project. Sandy got the kids fed and ready then sent Noelle off to school with Jill. Sore, but willing, Nash went with Sam to work.
Sandy was dropped off by MJ and Honey on their way to the trial. She would spend the day styling MJ’s team finishing with Alex, Raz and maybe Max, if he could make it. For the first time, most of the team were bringing heir wives and children today. She was excited to meet the families.
Humming, Sandy flicked on the music and waited for her first client, Troy. Today was going to be a good day.
Friday afternoon — 4:35 P.M. Prague, Czech Republic
Valerie’s eyes scanned Mike’s face. She was off early from the set with orders not to return until tomorrow afternoon. She thought he’d be delighted. Bud he’d barely looked at her since she got home. His entire attention was focused on the angry painting in front of him.
Mike’s head jerked up to look at her. Transitioning from painting to Valerie, he sighed out his anger.
“I’ve had a rough day,” he managed.
Valerie slipped her hands around face. She kissed him and moved to hold him. He caught her hands. Stepping back from her, he kissed her hands and turned away from her.
“Wow, you’re really angry.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with you.”
“If it has something to do with you, then it has something to do with me,” Valerie said. “Talk to me, Mike. Tell me what’s going on. Maybe I can help.”
Mike set his brush down. He wiped his hands on a nearby towel. Stretching his neck, he took a drink of water then nodded to her.
“I do love the way you smell after work,” he said. “Sweaty and sexy. How are you feeling?”
“Great,” she said. “Did you notice that I’m getting a pooch?”
“You look radiant,” he said.
While her eyes scanned his face, his paint stained fingers touched her hair, forehead, and chin before pulling her to him.
“What happened Mike?”
“Yesterday, Mom told me that Otis is actually her father, my grandfather.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Valerie asked.
“I’d rather be preoccupied with you than deal with more family crap.”
“Ok.” Valerie stepped back from him. “Why are you angry today?”
“I asked him about it this morning and we got into an argument,” Mike said. “His ‘friends’ are actually his bodyguards. He’s lied to me about everything and I…”
“Can’t trust him,” she said.
“Don’t want to have anything to do with him,” Mike said. “Guess who the new producer on your film is? The one who stepped in at the last minute when they got rid of other guy?”
“Good guess,” Mike said. “He said he did it to bring us to Prague. He said he wanted to meet me, get to know me again, he even said he taught me to play chess when I was a toddler. He and I played together every day when we lived in Russia.”
“It sounds very sweet. Why are you angry?”
“I don’t like being lied to. I don’t like that you got this job because of some mobster. I don’t like…”
Valerie smiled at him. She took his hand and led him to the couch.
“I feel trapped,” Mike said.
“Family history I can’t understand, don’t understand. I’d never ever be friends with a mobster,” Mike said. “But I love the man. Have from the moment I met him. I don’t know if I remember him or what. He’s funny, smart… We have the most interesting conversations about people, philosophy, life… I enjoy talking to him. And he kills people.”
“So does your father.”
“That’s a whole other story,” Mike said. “He told me I was behaving like a child, a spoiled American child. I grew up with food, shelter and safety. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but I never wanted for basic necessities. I had no idea what I would do if I had to make the choice for myself and my family. If my family was starving, no heat in the bitter winter, no education, no opportunity, would I join the bratva? Or would I sit in judgment like I am now? It’s easy to judge when your belly is full. That’s what he said. Easy to judge when your belly is full.”
“My belly’s fully of babies.” Valerie’s attempt to defuse Mike’s self loathing fell flat.
“I feel dirty and stupid,” Mike said. “You’re a talented actress. And you’re doing a great job. The director says you’re fabulous in this role. He’s thinks you might become the next action babe. And you should be the next action babe. I just hate the idea that you got this job because of him.”
“I don’t care how I got this job,” Valerie laughed.
“No. It’s one of life’s opportunities. I’m going to do my very best and hope that it builds my career. I’m grateful for take the opportunity. Plus, what’s the difference? Hollywood is like it’s own bratva. Russian mob, Hollywood mob. They aren’t that different.”
“Oh,” Mike said.
“What’s this really about? It’s not about me or the film or even…”
“I don’t want to love a monster,” Mike said. “When I got home, I looked him up on the Internet. There are a bunch of websites about the things he’s done – arms sales, drugs, money laundering. I guess he’s not into prostitution or people trafficking… slavery, that’s one of the Russian mobs specialties. But if that was true how did he know about Jill and Katy?”
“You’re not him, Mike,” Valerie said. “By luck or good fortune, you don’t have to make the choices he’s made. You can love him and not be him.”
Mike dropped his head against her shoulder. She could barely understand his words.
“I want to be a good person.”
She tilted his head up so he was looking into her eyes.
“You are a good person,” she said.
“How can I be when I come from such… filth?”
“Maybe it’s not filth. Maybe it’s just different,” she said. “And I understand what you’re saying. I felt like that for a long time. How can I love when my father betrayed my mother? How could I be an actress when my family digs holes for a living?”
He shook his head.
“Let’s invite him over for dinner,” Valerie said. “Whatever he is or isn’t in life, he is your grandfather. You’re an amazing human being. Your grandfather must be as well.”
“He told me that he helped Alex find me in Afghanistan. Turns out the Afghani’s get their weapons from the Russian mob. He found out I was missing from one of those people you hired. He worked his contacts until he found Alex looking for me. Together, that’s what he said, together they convinced the Afghani’s to give us up,” Mike said. “I owe him my life.”
“Then we do need to have him over,” Valerie said.
“He owns this place,” Mike said.
“Ok.” Valerie shook her head. “I really hate him more now because he saved your life and let us stay in this beautiful apartment while I work. And that chess thing, boy that really pisses me off.”
“Valerie, he’s a mobster.”
“And you’re a painter,” she said. “Make the call. I’ll make my world famous Green Chili Stew…”
“We have Green Chilies?”
“Delphie mailed me a box of supplies. They’re canned chilies but we’re desperate,” Valerie said. “I was going to surprise you.”
Valerie kissed him. She was almost to the kitchen when he said:
“You don’t think I’m bad because he’s so… evil?”
She skipped across the apartment to him. Holding him in her arms, she said:
“You’re the best person I’ve ever met. I think people make choices. I’m glad we haven’t had to make the choices he made. We should thank your mother for that.”
She stepped back and took his hand.
“Come help me make this stew. We need to get some pork. Did you say you found a butcher? We probably need…”
He lifted her off the ground in a hug. Valerie squealed and laughed. When he set her down, she kissed his wet face. She held him while he called his grandfather to invite him to dinner. Together, they went into the kitchen to check for supplies. Together, they went shopping for what they needed. Together, they made dinner. And when the time came, they opened the door to his grandfather, together.
Friday afternoon — 4:30 P.M. By appointment only
“So I’m sitting on the witness stand…” Raz said.
“I’m done back here,” Sandy said. “Would you like a shave?”
Laughing, Alex was standing next to the chair. Arthur “Raz” Rasmussen was giving a hilarious rendition of his testimony in the step-sister’s trial. Nash was cleaning the bathroom while Teddy was washing the towels in the back. Alex had cranked the music to her favorite Alternative Metal. They were all listening, and laughing, to Raz’s rendition of the trial.
“Yes please,” Raz said. “You know I love your shaves. They’re one of the reasons I live in Denver.”
Sandy blushed as the handsome man’s gray eyes danced across her face.
“Where was I?” he said.
“Moronic defense attorney,” Alex said.
“I’ve been on the witness stand countless times as a cop. I’ve never seen a more moronic defense attorney.” Raz closed his mouth so Sandy could shave his top lip. “I mean, he tried to get me to say that the tape was actually an acted rendition. A fake. How stupid can you be? We went through the tape one frame at a time where I showed how it couldn’t have been staged. Poor Honey had to watch the whole thing.”
“Honey is so tough,” Alex said. “Who would have thought such a tiny person could endure so very much? She’s amazing.”
“Then they’re morons. I don’t think anyone is that stupid,” Raz said. “He was a complete asshole to me. The judge was furious. But he kept trying to trip me up.”
“He didn’t know you were a cop,” Alex said.
“Probably thought I was just some paper pusher…”
Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam! The sound of gunfire echoed through the salon. Nash and Teddy ran out from the back. Sandy screamed and dropped to her knees.
“GET DOWN!” Alex yelled.
Raz jumped to his feet to stand beside her. They both drew their handguns and pointed them at the outline of the man staring at the tinted window.
“Bullet proof glass,” Alex said. “We set it up for Jacob. He can’t shoot through it.”
They watched the man walk to the door and shoot out the lock.
“Lost that bet,” Raz said.
“Sandy, take the kids to the back,” Alex yelled. “Do it. NOW!”
Sandy grabbed Nash and Teddy’s hand and ran to the back of the shop. Alex and Raz ran to the door.
“We have to wait until he crosses the threshold,” Raz said. “We won’t have a straight link to the shooting otherwise.”
“Nice to have a cop around,” Alex said.
The shooter opened the door. He stepped right in front of Alex’s raised handgun. Turning in place, the shooter ran out the door. Alex and Raz ran after him. They skid to a stop at the corner of Colfax and Marion where they both had a clear shot.
“Knee? Stops movement, non-lethal.” Raz raised his handgun to shoot.
“Shoulder. More memorable,” Alex raised hers.
Bam. The sound of a handgun came from behind them. The shooter fell screaming to the ground. Alex and Raz turned to see Max.
“Achilles Tendon,” he said. “Stops him fast and never heals right. Why are we shooting this guy?”
“He shot at Sandy,” Alex said.
While the Denver Police cruisers squealed toward their location, Alex and Max swapped their identical Glock 9 mm handguns. Alex and Raz ran to the shooter. Max went back to the salon where he found Sandy and the kids shivering with fear in the back.
“I told them about that lock,” Max said. “We were waiting for the other one to come in. Jake’s going to be furious.”
“I’m not safe here,” Sandy whispered.
“Of course you are!” Max laughed. “Especially now. You won’t believe the international fracas created by Alex being involved in this shooting. I bet that contract will be canceled by the tomorrow morning.”
“The cops will be here with their drama. Are you hungry boys?”
Eye’s wide with fear, Nash and Teddy shook their heads. Max laughed. He pulled them up off the tile. He helped them to a comfortable love seat in Sandy’s waiting area.
“We may as well get comfortable,” Max said. “It’s going to be a while. I’ll order food. Does Chinese work? Where’s Noelle?”
“She’s at the Castle with Jill and Katy,” Sandy said.
“I’ll call Jill,” Max said. “Don’t worry. You’re with friends.”
“It’s good to have friends.”
Denver Cereal continues next week…
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