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FICTION — Payback

The life of Detective Jodi Cinto was in chaos. She’d been in the process of divorcing Tony when he rendered the process moot by driving her brand new car into a tree while traveling sixty miles per hour. His blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit.

His mother, Carlotta – aka the mother-in-law from hell – naturally blamed Jodi. In Carlotta’s mind, her darling had been driven to drink by Jodi’s promiscuous ways. That made it impossible for him to hold a steady job or stay sober while wed to such a slut. Carlotta had recently started proceedings to have Jodi declared an unfit mother and to obtain custody of her three grandchildren.

Jodi, who had not cheated in the ten years of her marriage, thought it ironic that even though she’d received several commendations for her work as a detective, she’d been unable to detect the fact that Tony had been cheating on her for almost the entire length of their marriage. Talk about missing the obvious.

To complicate matters further, a vicious mob enforcer named Bobo Centevich, whom Jodi had apprehended, removed his ankle monitor and jumped bail. Centevich vowed revenge on Jodi and her family, a threat to be taken seriously, because she had killed his brother in a recent shootout. After his escape, Jodi sent her children to live with her sister, Gina, in a rural area of western Wisconsin. Centevich, 6’5”, 300 pounds, wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, and Jodi hoped he wouldn’t be on the loose for long.

Carlotta maintained that moving the children was an attempt to prevent the courts from awarding custody to their grandmother. Although Jodi thought Carlotta had little chance of ultimate success, the cost in time, energy, and by no means least, money, was a burden she didn’t need at this moment.

Understandably, Jodi had a lot on her mind as she descended the steps of the New York City criminal courthouse, hunched down against the late January cold. With her was Prosecutor Richard Henshaw, who was in an exuberant mood. Thanks in no small part to Jodi’s investigation and testimony, he had just successfully put away a murderer. Jodi was not really listening as Henshaw recounted his closing argument. She was brought back to the present when she heard Henshaw say, “So that’s why I decided to go the whole trial without any pants on.”

Startled out of her reverie, she said, “I’m sorry, Rich. Did you say something?”

“I thought that might get your attention,” Henshaw replied, grinning. “My record of having attractive women listen to what I’m saying remains unbroken. I was thinking that we should go for a celebratory drink. We’ve just taken one more douche bag off the streets.”

“I really can’t, Rich. I promised Mendez I’d meet him to go over our cases. I’ve been tied up in court for the last three days.”

“C’mon Jodi,” Henshaw smiled, pleading his case. “Loosen up a little. You can’t work all –” He was interrupted by Jodi’s cell.

“It’s Carlotta. What’s the Evil One want now?” She nodded at him, “Listen, Rich, let me take her call. Then maybe I’ll go for that drink.”

“I knew you couldn’t resist,” Henshaw smiled.

“Hello, Carlotta,” Jodi said with a sigh, but making an effort to be polite. “What can I do for you?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Carlotta said in a gloating tone. “I was just going to let it happen. But then I decided I wanted you to know you’re going to lose your children.”

“Are you forgetting the evidence I showed you?” Jodi asked, rolling her eyes. She was referring to the day she had come home early and heard sounds of sex coming from the bedroom. She had to choose how to enter the room–with either her gun or her cell phone drawn. Deciding on the latter, she caught enough for clear evidence of infidelity.

“Tony is in heaven with God and the angels now,” Carlotta replied. “Your dirty little movie can’t hurt him. You probably used tricks to make it anyhow. When I get custody of the children, I’m going to see to it that you get no access at all. That’s what the detective said would happen when I spoke to him. Someone with your sordid history doesn’t deserve to raise children. And now you’ve abandoned them to your hippy sister, who’s probably feeding them drugs as we speak. That’ll make it even easier for me to get them.”

“Detective? What detective?”

“Hah!” Carlotta said, exultantly. “I knew this would get to you. You could fool me temporarily, but you won’t fool the authorities. A policeman came to me and said they couldn’t find the children and were worried about their welfare, so I told them where you were stashing them. He said they’d be brought back and given to me!”

“I can’t believe even you could be this stupid, Carlotta!” Jodi said angrily, as she raced to hail a cab, forgetting all about Henshaw. “You just told the mob, the very people who’re trying to kill me and the kids, exactly where your grandchildren are!”

Carlotta started to respond, but Jodi ended the call. She knew the police would be unlikely to be searching for her children unless there was a court order, and such an order wouldn’t be issued without the courts notifying her first. As she watched one cab after another pass by, she speed dialed her sister’s cell. Crap, she thought as the call was immediately shunted to voice mail. Next she tried Gina’s landline, hearing the automated message, “All circuits are busy. Please try again later.”

Perplexed, she called her partner. “Mendez, I can’t meet with you now. That goddamned bitch told Centevich’s people exactly where my kids are. I can’t get through to Gina. Not even on a landline. I’m trying to get a cab to LaGuardia. I’ll pick up a flight to the Twin Cities. In the meantime, see if you can reach Gina. Here’s her number.”

“Have you been watching the weather reports?” Mendez asked, interrupting her as she started to recite the number.

“I don’t have time for weather reports. What does that have to do with anything?”

“A major snow storm, fifteen to twenty inches with high winds, just went through the Minneapolis area and the western part of Wisconsin. It knocked out power lines and phone lines. That’s why you can’t get through. Are you still at the courthouse?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“I’ll pick you up and take you to Newark. The storm is supposed to pass north of here, so we should be able to get a flight out. The Twin Cities should be clear by the time we get there. I’ll make the reservations. I’ll bring a gun case and we’ll be able to check through our guns. You don’t want to go against Centevich unarmed. We’ll rent the biggest SUV available. That’ll get us to your sister’s place.”

“Us?  What’s this us?”

“I’m going with you.”

“Going with me?  Why?”

“I’ve been your partner for the last four years. I’ve got your back. I’m not letting you go against that psycho alone.”


Gina woke up suddenly. The fireplace had died down to embers. With the power out, it was cold, but near the fire it was still comfortable. She looked over and saw that her niece and two nephews were sound asleep. The storm had been a great adventure for them, and they had worn themselves out playing in the snow. Shivering in spite of the fireplace, she got up and threw a couple more logs on the fire before it could go out completely.

As the logs caught, she looked over at the battery-operated alarm clock. 5:18 AM. Usually a sound sleeper, she wondered what had awakened her. It wasn’t the storm. The howling of the wind had died down, and the pitch black morning was eerily still. Then came the sound of crunching glass from the kitchen.

Picking up her hunting rifle and a flashlight, she headed toward the rear of the house. As she reached the kitchen, she could see glass on the floor and the rear door partially open. Fear gripping her, she started back to gather the children. But before she could take more than a step, a hand plucked the rifle from her grasp. She gave a low shriek.

“Thanks for this gun, little lady,” a deep, gruff voice said. “I couldn’t bring one on the plane. This’ll be a big help. I see you got a bigger magazine then the standard one. Couldn’t be better.”

She looked up and saw a huge man standing over her, baring his teeth in a humorless grin. She stared at him, “Who the hell are you?”

The man slapped her across the face, sending her crashing into the wall. She fell, stunned, seeing double. After a few seconds her vision cleared; she blinked, watching blood drip onto her pants. Reaching upward, she felt wetness streaming down her face.

“Ask your sister, you dumb bitch!” the man thundered, before he kicked her in the ribs.

Boots crunched against bone, she gasped, hearing a snap. Sharp pain, as she took a inhaled.

“Your goddamn sister killed my brother. She’s been making my life hell. I got the freaking cops hot on my ass. Shoe’s on the other foot now — gonna see how she likes being hunted.”

“Aunt Gina, who’s that man?” a child’s voice said. “Why’re you on the floor?  You’re all bloody – the back door’s –”

“Marty, get out of here!” Gina screamed at her nephew. She struggled to get up, but fell back, gasping in pain. I have a cracked rib for sure, she thought.

“Getting better and better,” Centevich said, as he reached down and scooped up the little boy before he could get away. The boy started to struggle and cry.

“Please leave him alone,” Gina begged. “He’s only five. Why would you want to hurt a child? He just lost his father.”

“Shut the hell up,” Centevich roared. He stepped closer and loomed over her. “I want that bitch, Cinto, to find out what it feels like when one of your own is gone forever.”

Then came the sound of an approaching vehicle. Centevich looked up and grinned, “Looks like I’m finally starting to get the breaks.”

Still holding onto Marty, he ran to the front of the house where the other two children were. Gina, bent over in pain, forced herself to stumble after him.


The air was frigid as Jodi, in a Lincoln Navigator, approached her sister’s home. She reached over and gave Mendez’ shoulder a shake. Even though he had offered to drive, she told him she was too wired. He had climbed into the passenger seat, and shortly after they left the airport, dozed off. She wondered how he was able to sleep.

She hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours. The trip had taken far longer than she would’ve liked. It had stopped snowing, but the roads hadn’t been plowed and the going was slow.

“We there?” Mendez asked, rubbing his eyes.

“Just about. Less than a mile away. It’ll be light soon. Hope we beat Centevich. Think he might have a partner?”

“Unlikely. He’s always been the lone wolf type. His mob bosses’d help him out in New York, but they’re not going to send any of their guys to the wilds of Wisconsin. No profit in it. And Centevich is going to have the same problems with the weather we did. He doesn’t know precisely where your sister lives. We’ll gather everybody and get out of here. Then once the phones are up, we can call New York and have them issue an APB. He doesn’t know the area. The Wisconsin state cops’ll get him soon enough.”

“Hope you’re right,” she said, turning into her sister’s driveway.

Suddenly the sound of gunshot rang out. Two starbursts appeared on the windshield, and Mendez groaned. Jodi looked over and saw that he was bleeding from the right part of his chest. The last turn had put the passenger side of the car toward the house.

“Mendez!” she screamed.

“Fuckin’ collar bone,” he gasped, as he knelt down, keeping his head below the windows of the car. “Get the hell out of here while it’s still dark. Go! Go!”

Jodi took a quick look at the house. She could see an open window that she knew was in the front room of her sister’s house. A rifle was sticking out of it. The car shook as another shot hit it. A chill went through her that had nothing to do with the weather. She realized that with Mendez incapacitated she was completely on her own.

She drove the car away from the house, and parked it beneath a scrubby evergreen. As she eased out of the vehicle, she met Mendez’s eyes. He forced a smiled, “Go get ‘em, Jodi.”

Scurrying toward the tree line, she kept the Navigator between her and the house. She knew that when she got close to the trees she would be visible against the white of the snow even in the dark. About fifteen feet away – several shots rang out. A bullet tore through her jacket, striking her Kevlar vest, but knocking her off her feet.

That fall might’ve saved my life, she thought as another round passed just over her head. Jodi managed to slither in amongst the trees without getting hit in spite of several more shots. Her heart was racing. It took several seconds for her to catch her breath.

“I got one of your kids with me!” Centevich called. “You got fifteen minutes to show yourself before he gets it. Then fifteen minutes more and your sister will be next. Then the other two.”

“The cops know where you are, Bobo,” Jodi shouted. She kept out of sight as she made her way through the trees toward the side of the house that lay buried beneath evergreens. “If you get arrested for murder, you’ll never see the light of day again.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Centevich yelled back. “Because of you I would’ve spent twenty-five years in the slammer anyway. You gotta die for my brother. Only thing is, do your kids die with you?”

“Be reasonable, Bobo,” Jodi hollered, as she reached a tree that sloped toward the house and nodded at the overhanging branches brushing the roof. She continued, “Killing a child like this would be considered murder and kidnapping–a federal crime. Wisconsin doesn’t have the death penalty, but the federal government does. You want a needle in your arm?”

“Gotta catch me first. Ten minutes left. Then it’s one down.”

Jodi started to climb. Easing her weight onto the overhanging branch, she paused and pulled her jacket hood up over her head, put on her sunglasses, and pulled her sweater up over her mouth and nose. Hoping the branch would hold her weight and that she wouldn’t slip and fall, she lay on her stomach and bear-hugged the limb, inching her way toward a second floor window. As her weight pulled the branch down, she gripped it with both hands and swung her body so that she hit the window feet first. As soon as her boots touched glass, she released the branch and went crashing through the double pane into Gina’s guest room, banged into the side of a bed, and landed heavily on the floor, her right leg twisted beneath her. Broken glass lay everywhere. Swiping at her forehead, she glanced down at the blood smeared across her hand.

Standing up, Jodi gasped as she put weight on her right foot. I must have sprained my ankle, she thought. This always looks so easy when they do it in the movies.


Downstairs, Marty started to cry even harder. Centevich slapped him across the face and growled, “Shut up you little bastard, before I break your head.” The boy quieted down, but the distinct odor of urine and feces came from his body.

Gina and the other children huddled together in a corner, staring wide-eyed.

“Five more minutes, Cinto,” Centevich yelled. “Be a blessing to put this little runt outta his misery. He’s shit his pants. But – your choice.”

Then came the sound of a crash and broken glass from the second floor.

“What the fuck?” Centevich muttered, heading for the stairs. Holding the rifle in his right hand and pinning the child in front of his body, he started up. A shot rang out, grazing his right arm and causing him to drop the rifle. It clattered down to floor.

A shuffling noise came from downstairs, Gina’s voice calling out, “Got it, Jodi.”

Centevich quickly pulled out a switchblade and held the knife to the boy’s throat as he backed down the steps.

Jodi appeared above him, holding a 9 mm, cold metal gleaming in the morning light.

“Mommy! Mommy!” the boy screamed.

Centevich backed into the living room where Gina and the other two children were. Jodi followed him, limping, but holding the gun steady. “Let the kid go, Bobo,” she said. “It’s your only chance to keep breathing.”

“You want the little shit to live, put your gun on the floor and slide it over to me. Otherwise, I slit his throat.” Backing up across the unfamiliar floor, he bumped into a worn footstool, and paused. He tightened his grip on the child, and pressed the knife tighter to soft flesh. “I mean it — put the gun down now!”

“You’ve been watching too much television, Bobo,” Jodi said scornfully. “You get your hands on my weapon, we’re all history.”

“No, no, I swear. You’re the only one I want, and I’ll save you for later. Slide the gun over to me and I’m gone.”

“You don’t have a lot of time,” Jodi said in a surprisingly calm voice. “I’m not giving you the gun – what’d you think? I’m stupid or something – I know you can’t leave witnesses. My partner’s calling backup as we speak. Once they get here you’re done for.”

“You’re trying to bullshit me. There’s no cell signal here.”

“The skies are clear — the car has a satellite phone. A state police barracks is nearby. Tick tock, Bobo.”

She could see Centevich’s stupid face trying to figure it out. Guns vs. knife – the odds were definitely not in his favor.

“Okay, okay, I’ll leave, but I’ll take the kid with me,” Centevich wheedled, as he started edging toward the door. “I’ll let him go as I get out.”

“You’re not going anywhere with that kid — put him down now, I let you walk. You try to take him with you, I’ll shoot. You can’t hide that big ass of yours behind a little kid – you’re giving me a nice, big target and I’m a pretty good shot.” She paused and smiled. “Your brother might say I’m a very good shot.”

“You shoot and I’ll slit his throat!”

“You won’t have much time before you’re dead. Might not be fatal for Marty. You leave with him, it will be. Easy choice.”

“I swear I’ll let him go!”

“You’re a crook,” Jodi pointed out. “You can’t be trusted. I’m a cop. My word is good. Let him go and you walk out now. Otherwise you’re a dead man.”

Centevich stood, thinking. Then suddenly he threw Marty toward Jodi and grabbed for the door handle. Jodi caught her son with her left arm, stumbled back, overcompensated, and went to one knee as she put weight on her bad leg.

Centevich saw that her gun was no longer pointing toward him. Hesitating, he thought about going for the gun, but changed his mind as he saw the gun swinging back in his direction. He turned again and began to open the door. That brief pause was his undoing. Jodi regained her balance, and, ignoring the pain in her ankle, fired three shots into his body.

Eyes wide, his bulk twisted and spun, and Jodi smiled as Centevich dropped to the floor.

“Not that I’m complaining or anything,” ashen-faced, Gina looked up at her. “I’m glad the son of a bitch is dead. But I thought you said you’d let him go.”

“I lied,” Jodi said.


Steve Tillman is an emeritus professor of Mathematics at Wilkes University, where he taught for forty-two years. Wilkes is a small, private college located in Northeastern Pennsylvania.  As an avid reader of mysteries and science fiction, his short stories appear in Mysterical-E and have been accepted for publication by Vinculinc, Inc.



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