Chapter Thirty-Seven

BOOK II

37

Jennifer Parker stood naked, staring out of the large picture window that overlooked the Bay of Tangier. It was a beautiful, crisp autumn day and the bay was filled with skimming white sails and deep-throated power boats. Half a dozen large yachts bobbed at anchor in the harbor. Jennifer felt his presence and turned.

"Like the view?"

"Love it."

He looked at her naked body. "So do I." His hands were on her breasts, caressing them. "Let's go back to bed."

His touch made Jennifer shiver. He demanded things that no man had ever dared ask of her, and he did things to her that had never been done to her before.

"Yes, Michael."

They walked back into the bedroom and there, for one fleeting moment, Jennifer thought of Adam Warner, and then she forgot everything except what was happening to her.

Jennifer had never known anyone like Michael Moretti. He was insatiable. His body was athletic, lean and hard, and it became a part of Jennifer's body, catching her up in its own frenzy, carrying her along on a rising wave of pounding excitement that went on and on until she wanted to scream with a wild joy. When they had finished making love and Jennifer lay there, spent, Michael began once more, and Jennifer was caught up with him again and again in an ecstasy that became almost too much to bear.

Now he lay on top of her, staring into her flushed, happy face. "You love it, don't you, baby?"

"Yes."

There was a shame in it, a shame at how much she needed him, needed his lovemaking.

Jennifer remembered the first time.

It was the morning Michael Moretti had brought Joshua safely back home. Jennifer had known that Frank Jackson was dead and that Michael Moretti had killed him. The man standing in front of her had saved her son for her, had killed for her. It filled Jennifer with some deep, primordial feeling.

"How can I thank you?" Jennifer had asked.

And Michael Moretti had walked over to her, taken her in his arms and kissed her. Out of some old loyalty to Adam, Jennifer had pretended to herself that it would end with that kiss; but instead, it became a beginning. She knew what Michael Moretti was, and yet all that counted as nothing against what he had done. She stopped thinking and let her emotions take over.

They went upstairs to her bedroom, and Jennifer told herself that she was repaying Michael for what he had done for her, and then they were in bed and it was an experience beyond anything that Jennifer had ever dreamed.

Adam Warner had made love to her, but Michael Moretti possessed her. He filled every inch of her body with exquisite sensations. It was as though he were making love in bright, flashing colors, and the colors kept changing from one moment to the next, like some wonderful kaleidoscope. One moment he made love gently and sensitively, and the next moment he was cruel and pounding and demanding, and the changes made Jennifer frantic. He withdrew from her, teasing her, making her want more, and when she was on the verge of fulfillment he pulled away.

When she could stand it no longer, she begged, "Please take me! Take me!"

And his hard organ began to pound into her again until she screamed with pleasure. She was no longer a woman paying back a debt. She was a slave to something she had never known before. Michael stayed with her for four hours, and when he left, Jennifer knew that her life had changed.

She lay in her bed thinking about what had happened, trying to understand it. How could she be so much in love with Adam and still have been so overwhelmed by Michael Moretti? Thomas Aquinas had said that when you got to the heart of evil, there was nothing there. Jennifer wondered if it was also true of love. She was aware that part of what she had done was out of a deep loneliness. She had lived too long with a phantom, a man she could neither see nor have, yet she knew she would always love Adam. Or was it just a memory of that love?

Jennifer was not sure what she felt about Michael. Gratitude, yes. But that was a small part of it. It was more. Much more. She knew who and what Michael Moretti was. He had killed for her, but he had killed for others, too. He had murdered men for money, for power, for vengeance. How could she feel as she did about a man like that? How could she have let him make love to her and have been so excited by him? She was filled with a sense of shame and she thought, What kind of person am I?

She had no answer.

The afternoon newspapers reported the story of a fire in a Queens motel. The remains of an unidentified man were found in the ruins. Arson was suspected.

After Joshua's return, Jennifer had tried to make everything as normal for him as possible, fearful of the trauma the preceding night might have inflicted upon him. When Joshua woke up, Jennifer prepared a meal and brought it to him in bed. It was a ridiculous meal, consisting of all the junk foods he loved: a hot dog and a peanut butter sandwich and Fritos and Hostess Twinkies and root beer.

"You should have seen him, Mom," Joshua said between bites. "He was crazy!" He held up his bandaged hand. "Do you think he really thought I was Jesus Christ?"

Jennifer repressed a shudder. "I - I don't know, darling."

"Why do people want to kill other people?"

"Well - " and Jennifer's thoughts suddenly went back to Michael Moretti. Did she have the right to judge him? She did not know the terrible forces that had shaped his life, that had turned him into what he had become. She had to learn more about him, to get to know and understand him.

Joshua was saying, "Do I have to go to school tomorrow?"

Jennifer put her arms around him. "No, darling. We're both going to stay home and play hooky all week. We - "

The telephone rang.

It was Michael. "How's Joshua?"

"He's wonderful - thank you."

"And how are you feeling?"

Jennifer felt her throat thickening with embarrassment. "I'm - I - I feel fine."

He chuckled. "Good. I'll see you for lunch tomorrow. Donato's on Mulberry Street. Twelve-thirty."

"All right, Michael. Twelve-thirty."

Jennifer spoke those words and there was no turning back.

The captain at Donato's knew Michael, and the best table in the restaurant had been reserved for him. People kept stopping by to say hello, and Jennifer was again amazed at the way everyone kowtowed to him. It was strange how much Michael Moretti reminded her of Adam Warner, for each, in his own way, was a man of power.

Jennifer started to question Michael about his background, wanting to learn how and why he had gotten trapped into the life he led.

He interrupted her. "You think I'm in this because of my family or because someone put pressure on me?"

"Well - yes, Michael. Of course."

He laughed. "I worked my butt off to get where I am. I love it. I love the money. I love the power. I'm a king, baby, and I love being king."

Jennifer looked at him, trying to understand. "But you can't enjoy - "

"Listen!" His silence had suddenly turned into words and sentences and confidences, pouring out as though they had been stored inside him for years, waiting for someone to come along to share them with. "My old man was a Coca-Cola bottle."

"A Coca-Cola bottle?"

"Right. There are billions of them in the world and you can't tell one from another. He was a shoemaker. He worked his fingers to the bone, trying to put food on the table. We had nothing. Being poor is only romantic in books. In real life, it's smelly rooms with rats and cockroaches and bad food that you can never get enough of. When I was a young punk, I did anything I could to make a buck. I ran errands for the big shots, I brought them coffee and cigars, I found them girls - anything to stay alive. Well, one summer I went down to Mexico City. I had no money, nothing. My ass was hanging out. One night a girl I met invited me to a large dinner party at a fancy restaurant. For dessert they served a special Mexican cake with a little clay doll baked inside it. Someone at the table explained that the custom was that whoever got the clay doll had to pay for the dinner. I got the clay doll." He paused. "I swallowed it."

Jennifer put her hand over his. "Michael, other people have grown up poor and - "

"Don't confuse me with other people." His tone was hard and uncompromising. "I'm me. I know who I am, baby. I wonder if you know who you are."

"I think I do."

"Why did you go to bed with me?"

Jennifer hesitated. "Well, I - I was grateful and - "

"Bullshit! You wanted me."

"Michael, I - "

"I don't have to buy my women. Not with money and not with gratitude."

Jennifer admitted to herself that he was right. She had wanted him, just as he had wanted her. And yet, Jennifer thought, this man deliberately tried to destroy me once. How can I forget that?

Michael leaned forward and took Jennifer's hand, palm up. Slowly, he caressed each finger, each mound, never taking his eyes from her.

"Don't play games with me. Not ever, Jennifer."

She felt powerless. Whatever there was between them transcended the past.

It was when they were having dessert that Michael said, "By the way, I have a case for you."

It was as though he had slapped her in the face.

Jennifer stared at him. "What kind of case?"

"One of my boys, Vasco Gambutti, has been arrested for killing a cop. I want you to defend him."

Jennifer sat there filled with hurt and anger that he was still trying to use her.

She said evenly, "I'm sorry, Michael. I told you before. I can't get involved with - with your...friends."

He gave her a lazy grin. "Did you ever hear the story about the little lion cub in Africa? He leaves his mother for the first time to go down to the river to get a drink, and a gorilla knocks him down. While he's picking himself up, a big leopard shoves him out of the way. A herd of elephants comes along and almost tramples him to death. The little cub returns home all shaken up and he says, 'You know something, Ma - it's a jungle out there!'"

There was a long silence between them. It was a jungle out there, Jennifer thought, but she had always stood at the edge of it, outside it, free to flee whenever she wanted to. She had made the rules and her clients had had to live by them. But now, Michael Moretti had changed all that. This was his jungle. Jennifer was afraid of it, afraid to get caught up in it. Yet, when she thought about what Michael had done for her, she decided it was a small thing he was asking.

She would do Michael this one favor.

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