Carrots: A Shelby Nichols Adventure (10 page)

I switched my concentration to number five, hoping to get this over with quickly. This man was smooth and self-assured. He radiated confidence and leadership, and his thoughts were completely centered on the business. In fact, he was so intense, his concentration never faltered, and it almost seemed like he was acting out a role. I listened intently, but he never let down his guard. He was good.

The meeting was winding down and I knew I had to try number four one more time. I didn’t think Uncle Joey would be satisfied with a basketball game, and I wasn’t about to tell him the other part. This time, he was actually paying attention, and I sighed with relief. Uncle Joey was giving him an assignment and as he agreed, he was mentally wishing “The Knife” would treat him more like an equal. Remembering the humiliation “The Knife” had heaped on him last week when he messed up flooded him with hot anger. He hated Joey with a passion hot enough to kill. I jerked away, amazed that none of this anger showed on his face. Were they all acting out parts?

The meeting soon broke up and I stayed in my seat, grateful they were leaving. Filtering through so many random thoughts had worn me out, and I had a monster headache. As soon as they were all out of the room, I lowered my head onto the table, closing my eyes and reveling in the silence.

I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take. I also didn’t think I’d found out anything useful. How was I supposed to tell Uncle Joey that most of them wanted to kill him? Of course thinking about it, and doing it were two different things. How would he take it? I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the bearer of that kind of news. It put me in a quandary. What should I tell him, and what should I keep secret?

Before I could decide, Uncle Joey returned, and unbidden, I found myself having some of the same nasty thoughts about him that came from the others. I slapped my hands over my mouth and coughed to cover the insane laughter that bubbled up. Then spoiled it by nearly choking.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “Ramos, bring Shelby some water.”

“I’m fine,” I said, clearing my throat and slamming my mental shields tight. Ramos handed me a glass of water, and I quickly drank it down. “Thanks.”

“Well?” Uncle Joey asked. “Did you find out anything? Does anyone hate me?”

His question took me by surprise, and I could hardly hold back my sarcastic response. It took all of my control not to roll my eyes. “Um…” I cleared my throat, striving to stay in control and not laugh in Uncle Joey’s face. “Do you have any Tylenol or aspirin? I have a really bad headache.”

“I think there’s some in the medicine cabinet in my bathroom.”

“Oh great. I’ll be right back.” I jumped up and nearly collided with Ramos who was standing beside the door. “Which way is the bathroom?”

He looked behind me at Uncle Joey. “There’s one in Mr. Manetto’s office.”

“Thanks.” I made a beeline for the office, and when I found the bathroom, I locked the door behind me. I hurried to the sink and soaked a washcloth in cold water, then held it to my forehead. The cold shock had the desired effect of bringing my sarcasm under control, and I finally let out my breath. Whew! This was harder than I thought.

At least I hadn’t ruined my chances of staying alive by laughing in Uncle Joey’s face. Now I had to decide what I was going to tell him. They all hated him, but I hadn’t heard any plots against him. That was the truth without all the graphic detail. That should be fine, right?

I found the aspirin and filled up my glass with water to wash them down. After taking a calming breath, I hurried back to face Uncle Joey. Ramos studied me, his expression grave. I let down my shields and found that he didn’t think I was going to last much longer. What did he mean by that?

Anxious, I switched my attention to Uncle Joey. He wasn’t sure what to make of my behavior, but I hadn’t fooled him one bit. He knew I’d been holding back laughter and it rankled. No one ever laughed at him and lived to tell about it.

He excused Ramos with a nod and gave me a piercing look. “Shall we continue?”

“Yes.” This was going to be tricky. “Um…I think you probably already know the answer to your question. Right? I mean…a man in your position has to realize that when you have a lot of power, others can be resentful. And when you coerce people into doing things against their will, they’re not going to like it either. Or you for that matter. So when you asked if anyone hated you, I thought you were being sarcastic. You know?”

“I see,” he said, stony faced, his mind curiously blank.

He wasn’t responding in the way I hoped, so I tried a different tactic. “So, let me show you the diagram and what I found out. Number one is the sweaty bald guy. He doesn’t like these meetings. He’d rather meet with you alone. Oh, and he’ll be retiring within the next year or so. He’ll probably turn his share of the business over to his nephew. Out of all of them, I think he’s the one you have to worry about the least.”

“Why is that?”

“Because he’s getting too old to actually kill you, and he wants to spend more time with his family.”

Uncle Joey scrubbed his face with his hands. “So everyone else wants to kill me?”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say that, but I would have to say that they don’t like you very much. Whether it’s enough to kill you, I don’t know.” While he was digesting this I decided to hurry the process along. “Take number two. He’s got a good head for business and he’s a quick thinker. I’d say he’s doing a good job for you.”

Uncle Joey perked up at this. “Yes. He gets his job done and he does it right.”

“There you go.” I was trying to be as positive as I could. “I don’t know what you’re holding over his head, but he’s not very happy about it. Maybe you could cut him some slack about that. I bet he’d be more loyal to you if you did.” Uncle Joey didn’t respond, so I continued. “But that’s just a suggestion. You can do whatever you want.”

I nervously chewed on my bottom lip. “Let’s see, number three here is kind of young. Is he a relative or something? Wait. Don’t answer that. He really wants to make a good impression on you, and he is committed to making the business succeed. He’s another good worker and more committed than you may know.”

“He definitely has ambition,” Uncle Joey agreed.

“Yes, and that’s why you’ll have to watch him. He might get it in his head to take over before you’re ready. It might help if you decided who is going to take over the business and take that person under your wing. Then maybe the others wouldn’t be so focused on you.” He smiled, and the first stirrings of hope swelled in my heart. Maybe I would survive after all.

“I know what you mean, but I don’t want my choice to cause any problems. It’s not exactly someone they’re expecting.”

An image of Kate came to his mind and I quickly squelched my response. I had to act as though I didn’t know he was considering her. “I understand. It was just a thought.” I tightened my shields. There were some things I just didn’t need to know, but it was probably a little too late for that. “Let’s move on to number four…”

“Wait a minute. You know who I’m considering as my successor now, don’t you?”

Damn! “Oh, no. I have my shields up real tight. You don’t have to worry about me listening to your mind. I think the less I know the better.”

“What do you mean about shields?”

“I’ve found that I can block people’s thoughts. It’s something I had to learn right away, or I would have gone nuts. You just don’t know what it’s like to be in public and hear things. All kinds of things. It can be mind-boggling. Plus it always gives me a bad headache. Kind of like today. Keeping my mind open and trying to focus on your people really took a lot out of me. So after the meeting, I put my shields up. I need to let my brain relax for a bit.”

He just looked at me in disbelief, then shook his head, thinking he wasn’t sure he believed me, but decided to let it go for now. “Go on.”

“Where were we? Oh, yes, number four. He’s the one I had to go back to because all he could think of…” Oops, what was I saying? “…was the basketball game.” I knew my face had turned red again, but I tried to ignore it.

“He’s quite the Romeo, isn’t he?” Uncle Joey smiled at my discomfort. “So, did he have anything else on his mind that I should know about?”

I was really glad he clarified that statement. “Yes. I think he wants to do a good job for you. He seems willing enough. He’d like to be treated more as an equal, but he’s mad about something that happened last week. I don’t know what you did to humiliate him, but he’s pretty upset about it.”

“I expected that,” Uncle Joey said. “But he’ll get over it.”

Maybe, or he would just try to get even, and that would work in my favor, right? I wasn’t about to tell Uncle Joey that. I quickly moved on. “Number five is a mystery. He was so focused on your meeting that I couldn’t get anything from him. He never let down his guard. Not even once. He seems very capable.”

“Yes, he is.” Uncle Joey frowned.

“Well, that’s everything then. I probably need to get going.” I stood and gathered my things. “You’re not going to kill me now are you? I mean, you wanted me to tell you the truth, didn’t you?”

Uncle Joey came to his feet, a smile on his face. “Of course I want the truth, and I appreciate your work today. It gave me a good idea of what you can do, and where we can go next.”

“Right.” I didn’t like the sound of that.

“The more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ll probably need you to come to some meetings with one person at a time. I could get lots more information that way. Why don’t you plan on coming back tomorrow? Say ten o’clock? It’ll just be for an hour or so.”

“Tomorrow?” I blurted. The next comment died on my lips. Uncle Joey was smiling that certain way of his when he knew he had me over a barrel. “All right.”

“Don’t be upset. You’re doing great.”

And he wondered if anyone hated him? “I’ll be here at ten.”

“Good. How’s the car? Do you need anything else?”

“No, I’m fine.”

“Excellent, see you tomorrow.” He escorted me to the door, and I hurried out of the suite.

When the elevator doors closed, I leaned against the wall, totally drained. What an experience. How was I ever going to be able to do this? And now I had to come back tomorrow. Ugh! I had to find something on Uncle Joey soon. I didn’t think I could handle much more of him.

The parking garage was filled with black cars and the only way I found mine was to hit the unlock button. As I walked toward the car, I noticed a man talking to someone in a dark corner. I glanced up and recognized number five, but I couldn’t see who he was talking to. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, and I knew he had spotted me. I pretended I hadn’t seen him and hurried to my car. Uncle Joey would probably want me to eavesdrop, but I hated the idea of being an informer when he wasn’t watching. I also didn’t care to be alone in a parking garage with any of these people.

I opened the car door, and was about to get in when I heard my name called. It was him. Double damn! What was I going to do? I was really beginning to hate parking garages.

“Hello!” he called politely. Walking quickly to my car, he wondered if I had seen who he was talking to.

“Oh…hi,” I said casually. “I wasn’t sure who you were for a minute.”

“Ah, yes it is dark in here. They should put more lights around.” He paused, then decided to turn on the charm and smiled. “Well, I just wanted to say it’s nice to have you as part of the team, and I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.” He was really wondering if I was related to Manetto since that was usually how it worked. Unless Manetto had something on me, if that was the case he really felt sorry for me.

“Um…thanks, except I’m not exactly glad to be here,” I answered, taking a chance.

“Oh, I wondered. Listen, I know it may seem presumptuous of me, but if you have any concerns that you can’t take to the boss, maybe I can help you. In the meantime, try not to worry; things aren’t always what they seem.” He smiled, then turned and disappeared into the maze of parked cars.

What did he mean by that? If he wasn’t what he seemed, what was he? Was he an undercover cop? Would that help me or just make everything a whole lot worse? Maybe he was planning to kill Uncle Joey. Now that was something I didn’t want to know, because if he was, I wasn’t about to stop him, and that probably made me a bad person.

I hurried home, anxious to get out of my wig and glasses before the kids got home from school. I had just enough time to shower, which was a good thing, given how much I’d been sweating at the meeting. I stowed my wig and glasses in a box in the back of my closet, and tried to forget about Uncle Joey.

After Chris got home, that wasn’t easy. “Did you say the insurance agreed to pay for the rental?” he asked. “I was looking at the car in the garage, and it doesn’t look like a rental to me.”

“Of course it’s a rental,” I said. “Rental companies don’t want their cars to look like rentals anymore. You know that. Nondescript, black cars are what all the rental companies seem to have these days. Speaking of which, I called our insurance about my car. It was totaled, but the insurance company said they’d send us a check today. It’s a good thing we had comprehensive on it. Anyway, I thought maybe we could go looking for new cars tonight.”

My request had the intended effect on Chris. He hated looking for cars, and forgot all about my rental. “Tonight? I’m not sure I have time.”

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