CROSSING DANGER by Colleen Helme

I stood inside the small women’s locker room dressed in white drawstring pants that ended several inches above my ankles, and a robe-like top that crisscrossed to close in front. Luckily, I wore a black tank top underneath, since there wasn’t anything besides a white belt to hold it together.

I tied the belt in a knot and let out a breath, hoping I’d done it right. The white training uniform was a bit stiff, and worse, felt like a poufy marshmallow around me. I let out a disgusted huff, knowing that I looked like the womanly version of the Pillsbury dough-boy.

Billie Jo waited just outside the door, but it was hard to step out there dressed like this. Did I really need to do this? Especially since I’d know what everyone was thinking about me? Reading minds often came in handy, but not in situations like this.

Of course, the fact that a serial killer had recently taken me hostage and nearly killed me certainly helped. It was time to learn some self-defense, so nothing like that could ever happen to me again.

So what if I looked silly, and that with my ‘superpower’ of reading minds I’d know what everyone thought of me. I could take it. Besides, I had to start somewhere, right?

I took a calming breath and opened the door.

Billie smiled encouragingly before glancing down at the way I’d tied my belt. Her brows drew sharply together, and she was thinking it looked like a disaster. No way did she want me out on the mat looking like that. “Here…let me help you with that. Tie it this way…” She demonstrated how to do it, then pulled it tight. “Okay. Now you’re good to go.”

“Um…thanks,” I said.

She didn’t miss the embarrassed flush creeping up my neck and was thinking I should just suck it up and be grateful she was there to keep me from looking like a dork. With an indulgent smile that contradicted her thoughts, she turned and led the way to the mat.

Swallowing my pride, I followed behind, noting that her black skirt-like pants with the waist-high belt looked ten times better than my outfit. Compared to her, I looked like I was still in my underwear and had forgotten to put my pants on.

A vision of getting out there and everyone laughing at me crossed my mind but, given how Billie made sure my belt was right, I didn’t think she’d let me embarrass her like that. Still, once we got to the mat, I let out a relieved breath to find I wasn’t the only one wearing white training pants.

Billie did a quick bow before stepping onto the mat, so I bowed as well. I followed her to stand in a line before the teacher, or Sensei, as everyone called him. He wore the same black pants as Billie but, on him, they seemed more dignified and masterful. He was also a big, tall and brawny kind of guy. With his long, gray-black hair pulled back into a ponytail, he intimidated the crap out of me.

He caught my gaze and nodded a cool greeting while I tried to hide my jittering nerves. After he introduced me to the rest of the class, we began with a few stretches and warm-ups. Then he taught us that the most important part of Aikido was learning how to fall safely and then roll around to get back up.

Besides Billie, there was only one other woman in the class. Her name was Melissa, and she was a second-degree black belt like Billie. With the two of them paying special attention to me, I began to relax and actually started to enjoy myself. Even the rolling-around part didn’t seem so bad. They showed me some basic techniques, and my confidence grew.

Near the end of class, Sensei asked if I had any questions, so I blurted out the one thing I’d been thinking about all night. “Yeah. I was just wondering…if someone was to get me in a choke hold with his elbow around my neck and start dragging me backwards, would I be able to get away?”

His gaze caught mine, and his eyes narrowed. He was thinking that, from the fear in my eyes and the tone of my voice, it probably wasn’t a rhetorical question. No. I had the look of someone who’d been there, and a spike of anger rushed over him. He’d seen it more times than he liked, and it always made him furious.

“Yes you can. I’ll show you how.” He turned his gaze to Melissa and asked her to help him demonstrate the technique. Since she was about my size, and he was huge, I was interested to see how she could possibly take him on and come out on top.

He stood behind her and clamped his elbow around her neck beneath her chin. “The first thing you do is tuck your chin down so they can’t choke you.” She did this, and Sensei proceeded to explain how she needed to pull down on his elbow and step back, then grab his wrist and forcefully push outward with his elbow still bent. “At this point, you will break his arm.”

Whoa! That sounded pretty awesome, and I couldn’t help smiling with wicked delight. He demonstrated the technique a few more times, adding different variations to the attack, and then asked me to practice with him. Him! The biggest guy in the class!

I nervously licked my lips and, as he put his arm around my neck, that feeling of helplessness washed over me. But he patiently talked me through the moves and, after breaking his hold a few times, confidence replaced my fear. I even forced him to the mat once. Who would have thought? By the end of class, I was pumped. This was the right place for me, and I could hardly wait to come back and learn more.

As I changed my clothes, I envisioned how fun it would be to take Ramos down. Since I had an appointment with Uncle Joey the next day, I could even try it then. With that happy thought, the fact that I had to see Uncle Joey didn’t seem so bad.

He was the crime boss who knew my secret that I could read minds, and Ramos was his hit man and bodyguard. We’d shared a few life-and-death situations together over the last several months, and now we had a complicated relationship… complicated because, as much as I didn’t like the whole mob-boss thing, I still liked Uncle Joey.

Ramos also held a special place in my heart, especially after what happened a few weeks ago. My breath hitched just thinking about how he’d saved me from being burned alive. In fact, he’d risked his own life to save mine, nearly dying in the process. How could I ever turn my back on either of them?

In my head, I knew it was wrong to work for a mob-boss and his hit man but, so far, that didn’t stop me from going to his office every time he called. At this point, helping him out was like second nature to me, and I didn’t even question it. Only… now it looked like I was part of his organization, and if he went down, I’d probably go down with him.

It kind of made my chest hurt, but thoughts of jail time for being in his employment still didn’t stop me. Nope. Not even a little. Somehow, Uncle Joey had gained my loyalty and trust. It was somewhat disconcerting to realize that, no matter how wrong it was, I still couldn’t bring myself to stop helping him. Whoa, was I ever in too deep, or what?

The door opened a crack, and Billie peeked in. “Hey Shelby, are you dressed?”

“Um…yeah,” I said, grateful for the interruption. “Just putting on my shoes. Why?”

“I just got done with the weirdest phone call from Addie Matern. Remember her? She’s the Attorney General’s secretary?”

“Of course,” I said.

“I’ve been trying to reach her for the last several days, and she just texted me that she was leaving town. For good. I called and convinced her to meet with me before she left. I don’t know what in the blazes has gotten into her, but with your premonitions, you might be able to figure it out. Is there any way you can come?”

“Um…well…”

“Please? If she takes off now, we might never have what we need to take down Grayson Sharp.”

“Okay…sure.”