The thing about living in a small town is everyone knows everyone. That's what makes it a safe place to live. People assume they know everything about you. That's what makes it a safe place to hide. Your neighbours know what they see and hear. And fabricate. Your colleagues know what you want them to know. Your friends believe what you tell them. What none of them know is the truth. Who they don’t know is the real you hidden behind the facade - the you you’ve buried so deep you no longer remember yourself.
It was the phone call that slammed their fairytale life back into reality. Cheryl nearly jumped out of her skin when the voice on the other end asked, "Would you be interested in investing in coloured diamonds?" That one out of the blue question brought back a flood of images and memories that had been buried with the life they had shed all those years ago. Cheryl debated whether to tell Jim about the early morning wake up call. It was the need to ensure their son’s safety that led her to tell him and bring back into their lives the nightmare they thought they had escaped. The diamonds that were safely stored in their garage attic for their son’s future had been all but forgotten till that call. Jim climbed the ladder in the garage and checked in the attic. They were still there.
“Maybe it’s just a coincidence,” he tried to convince her.
It all started about 11 years ago - in a previous life. Before the name change, before the move to a small town in Northern Ontario. Svjetlana was studying communications at McMaster in hopes of pursuing a career in journalism. Her parents had passed away in a car accident the previous year, and it was their dream that she complete her degree and establish a successful career in the media. Janez and Marija, her parents, had been born in Croatia. Svjetlana grew up in Hamilton as their only child.
Apart from having no parents and living in her house on her own, Svjetlana lived the life of a typical student. She studied as necessary, maybe more so than others as she didn’t want to disappoint her dead parents. She enjoyed spending time on campus and at the library. She held a part-time job at Tim Horton’s, even though her parents’ life insurance policy left her well-provided for. Svjetlana went out to the local bars with her few close friends she had grown up with, and some new acquaintances from her classes. She shopped, read, spent a lot of time online and in front of the TV. There was no boyfriend. Her parents had a circle of Croatian friends as well as Canadian friends from work who came to call on her during the few weeks around the funeral, but then she lost touch with them. Any relatives she had still lived in Croatia.
Her simple life changed one night when she entered a bar in a seedy part of the city. Her classmates, Lisa and Kerry, thought it would be fun to try someplace a bit more exotic for a night out. Svjetlana protested at first when she saw that it was a Serbian owned bar. Her parents had always told her there was bad blood between Croatian and Serbian people. Svjetlana didn’t understand why, but it never really was an issue for her before that day. When her friends coaxed her in, they found a booth right next to the bar. It was dimly lit and noisy. TV screens with the ball game, billiards tables with games in progress, music from speakers, and groups of people sitting and chatting filled the room.
“What can I get you?” asked the bartender.
“Rum and coke all around,” spoke Lisa, the boldest of the three. As they sipped their drinks, Svjetlana scanned the room. She was usually rather reserved and was not in the habit of picking up guys at bars. Tonight, though, she was intrigued by the young man with dark wavy hair a couple of tables away. He sat with four others, chugging their beer between raucous laughter and comments. They all looked a bit tough, even scary, to Svjetlana’s innocent eyes. There was something different about the one who had caught her eye, though, and she couldn’t help but keep looking his way.
“Cute bartender,” said Lisa, eyes fixed in a different direction.
“Yeah, he is,” replied Kerry, “but take a look at what Svjetlana’s eyeing up.”
“What? Oh, no I’m just…” started Svjetlana with a jolt, then she knocked over her drink. The wavy haired guy looked over at her with a rakish grin and they locked eyes. “Oh shoot,” she thought, “He knows I’ve been staring at him.”
The cute bartender came to their table with a cloth and helped to wipe up the mess. “Hi, I’m James,” he said to them, paying particular attention to Svjetlana. Svjetlana blushed and thanked him for cleaning up her mess.
Some time after James returned to the bar to serve his customers, the wavy haired guy from the other table sauntered over to Svjetlana and said, “Looks like you need a drink.” He placed a new rum and coke in front of her and slid into the booth next to her. “Hey, how’s it going?” he said to Kerry and Lisa. Up close, he was even more good-looking and mesmerizing. His longish black wavy hair and dark skin tone were complemented with brown eyes that seemed to see right through her. It was his knowing smile that really got to her. He introduced himself as Darko and said, “I haven’t seen you around here before.”
Svjetlana explained that, yes, this was their first time at this bar. She introduced herself and her friends.
“Well, I hope to see you here again,” he said looking directly at Svjetlana. “Meet me here tomorrow night? About 8?”
When Svjetlana hesitated, Lisa spoke for her, “Sure. She’ll be here.”
“Okay, see you then,” Darko said with that smile of his, and he returned back to his friends.
And that was the beginning of the end. Svjetlana met with Darko at 8 pm the next night and almost every night for the next several weeks. They met at the same bar each night. Most nights James was there serving drinks and keeping an eye on them. One time he whispered to Svjetlana, “You need to stay away from that one. He’s bad news.” Svjetlana figured James was jealous, the way he kept looking at her when he didn’t think she noticed. But he seemed like a nice guy, just not as exciting as Darko. Darko told her about his Serbian background and she shared her own Croatian heritage. Although she knew her parents wouldn’t approve of her relationship with Darko, Svjetlana justified it to herself. “Any animosity between our people was a long time ago. Ancient history. Things are different now. ”
Darko talked about his dad, but didn’t introduce him to Svjetlana. “My dad owns this bar, as well as a few other businesses in town. He’s into real estate, too, a developer. Mom left when I was little. Dad’s pretty busy with work, so he doesn’t show up here very often. I keep an eye on things here,” he told her.
“So what exactly do you do?” asked Svjetlana. Although he was only a year older than her, she knew that he didn’t attend school.
“Oh, I help out my dad. With the books and other stuff. Whatever needs doing, just boring stuff. I’m sure you don’t want to hear about it. He wants me to continue in the family business. There wasn’t really any need for me to go to university. I’ve been working with dad since I was a kid.”
They talked mainly about Svjetlana and school, her life before she lost her parents, and the usual stuff kids their age discussed. Svjetlana started meeting him behind the bar so they could spend time alone. They would sit and talk for hours on the back step, and when the nights got colder, they hung out in his car. Eventually, Svjetlana invited Darko to her place. She was totally in love with him. Everything was great. Except when she asked about seeing his place and getting to know his family, he stalled. When she asked about their future, he changed the subject. When she persisted, he said, “Maybe we should cool things a bit for now.” Svjetlana was devastated. He was her first real boyfriend and she had thought he was the one.
That was when she turned to James, as a friend. “What did you mean when you said he was bad news?” she asked James the day after her breakup with Darko. “You hear people talk when you work behind the bar,” he said. “You don’t want to mess with Darko and that gang of his. His dad’s with the Serbian mafia and he’s grooming Darko to take over his operations someday.”
“What? That’s ridiculous!”
“What do you know about his family?” continued James. “What has he told you?”
“Nothing. I mean, nothing that ludicrous. His dad owns quite a few businesses, I think,” Svjetlana answered.
As Svjetlana grew to know James better over the next couple of weeks, she tried to put Darko out of her mind. James was a terrific guy, reliable and considerate. She turned to him for comfort and she actually thought there might be a future for the two of them as a couple, but she couldn’t seem to forget Darko.
When the pregnancy test confirmed her suspicions, she was scared and confused. She tried to contact Darko, but he didn’t respond to her attempts. She looked up Darko’s address with the intention of talking to him about the possibility of getting back together. She had no intention of telling him about the pregnancy just yet. The afternoon she drove up the circular driveway to his grand two storey home, she thought it was rather ostentatious, even for a business man such as his dad. Darko saw her drive up and met her at the door.
“What are you doing here?” he said as he ran his hand through his thick head of hair. “It’s not a good time. My dad’s here.”
“Well, what is a good time, then?” Svjetlana cried out. “I’ve been leaving you messages and sending texts. You don’t seem to want to see me anymore at all!”
“Calm down. You’re hysterical.”
Svjetlana pushed her way past him into the entrance hallway. “I’m hysterical, am I? I’ll show you hysterical.” She knew her hormones were getting the best of her, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself.
“I’m not going to let you push me aside like some toy you’ve gotten tired of. I love you! I want us to be together, to be a family. When were you planning to introduce me to your dad? After our child is born?”
“What are you talking about?” Darko asked, stunned.
“I’m pregnant!” she yelled, “I’m pregnant! What are you going to do about it?”
“What? How do I know it’s mine?” he asked.
“Of course it’s yours! You’re going to be a dad,” Svjetlana insisted.
At this point, a door near the entry hall opened, and Darko’s father emerged. He was a tall, dark, handsome, solemn-looking man in his early fifties. “Darko!” he barked, “In the kitchen, now!” Darko followed him to the back of the house, into the kitchen, leaving her behind in the hall. Svjetlana could hear the loud voices from where she stood, a mixture of English and Serbian. She caught snippets of the conversation. “...shame our family name…”, “...gold digger...”, “bastard child” were a few of the phrases she heard from his dad. When she heard Darko’s response, she felt her blood run cold. “...get rid of her…”, “deal with her”, and “...gone…” were words she hadn’t expected to hear him say.
Alone in the entry, Svjetlana noted the sets of keys on the entry table. She cautiously walked further into the hallway and peered into the now open den. She stood frozen and gasped at what she saw. Then she pulled herself together and swiftly entered the room. Moments later, she ran out the door, started up her car, and headed back into the arms of the one man she knew would do anything for her.
About 20 minutes later, Svjetlana sat in front of the bar waiting for James to get off work. She was surprised to see Darko enter with a pained expression on his face. He put his arms around her and said, “I’m sorry. We need to talk,” he said to her. “Meet me out back.”
Before he could get any further, Darko’s father came storming in. “How dare you come running after her! I told you you’re never to see her again. What did I tell you? Sta sam ti rekao? Everything I do, I do for you. And how do you repay me? You bring this shame into our family.”
“I need to take responsibility for my child,” Darko told his dad. “She means nothing to me, but the child…”
“The child? The child’s bloodline is tainted. Get rid of it,” his father said, his voice loud enough for the whole bar to hear.
“But what if it’s my son? Don’t you want him to continue our legacy? If he’s a Markovic…”
“This girl is filth,” yelled his dad.
“Never mind the girl,” retorted Darko. “I’ll deal with her.”
Svjetlana got up and started to leave, but Darko grabbed her a bit roughly by the arm and whispered in her ear, “Meet me tonight, out back.”
As Svjetlana exited the bar, James followed behind. The fight between father and son escalated as Svjetlana and James headed out the door and into her car. She started to drive to her destination with a purpose and in a fury, tears streaming down her face.
The next morning, a body was found behind the Serbian bar.
I knew it the moment I saw his photo on Facebook. There was that unmistakable resemblance, especially around the eyes. I had spent the last decade of my life with one all-consuming goal - revenge. My days were spent obsessing, plotting, planning everything down to the last detail. There's nothing sweet about revenge. To me, it was merely a basic necessity of life, like food or water. Although I was driven by the need for vengeance, I was kept on course by my sense of family pride. Family is everything. I would find him if I spent the rest of my life looking. I would bring him back into the fold where he belonged, where he had been denied access. It was his birthright.
You can find anyone these days if you dig deep enough, and I had plenty of reasons to keep digging till the day I died. People just can’t resist posting photos of their kids and grandkids. When I googled the surname Babic, I eventually lucked out and found the photo his grandmother had foolishly shared with friends online. From there, I tracked him down. Once I found where he lived, I rented a place not too far outside of the town limits. Then I made the phone call, planting seeds of fear. I stalked, I watched, I waited for my opportunity. Blending in, yet remaining invisible wasn't that difficult. That’s the thing about small towns - people don’t expect anything bad to happen. They lower their guard. Once you establish your presence there, you become one of them. Having altered my appearance sufficiently and creating a new name, I went door to door with my bible and spouted my religious propaganda, steering clear of my target’s residence. I made a few other trips into town to purchase a few groceries, gas, stamps at the post office, some household items at the hardware. People got used to seeing me around town, and didn’t think anything of it. They just figured I belonged there.
Gaining access to his home was easy. People are creatures of habit. Simple observation tells you everything you need to know. I drove by their house and called their home number just often enough to learn their work and school schedule, their routines, their habits. I checked their social media posts daily. Granted, I needed to be careful in my stalking. I drove a nondescript SUV with tinted windows. I wore a variety of disguises and work uniforms, from yellow vests to black coveralls, name badge prominently displayed. If any nosy neighbours happened to notice me around the house, they assumed I was there legitimately and didn’t look too closely. People are so trusting up here, really, it’s not that much of a challenge. No alarms, no video cameras, not even automatic spotlights. The key under the welcome mat was just too welcoming. I made a copy so I could slip in the back door whenever I wanted. Usually I did so during the day when no one was around, but one night I entered the house and found him sleeping in his bed, his thick wavy black hair against the white pillow. Watching him, seeing him so vulnerable, I was tempted to take him right then and there.
But I had waited patiently all these years, and I had no intention of making a mistake for the sake of sentimentality. I had waited patiently in prison for years for allegedly killing my son. Now, I have no issues with a taking a life when necessary. A clean kill, no need for suffering. Business is business. But my son? My own son! I’m not a monster, for God’s sake. But they convicted me on the evidence they found, though I proclaimed my innocence throughout the entire ordeal. He had been shot by a Glock 17, which turned out to be my gun, the same model as Darko’s. Darko’s Glock somehow had disappeared that night. That wasn’t the only thing that went missing that night. During the altercation in the bar, I had received a phone call. There was urgent business I needed to attend to down on the docks. As I left the bar, I told Darko we would continue our conversation that evening. When I returned home that night just after 8 pm, I remembered that in my anger at that girl, the fancy coloured diamonds I had been admiring in my den that afternoon had been forgotten on my desk. When I opened the door to the den, the desk was empty. Of course I couldn't report the diamonds missing. So I went to the open safe to grab my gun (stupid, stupid - how did I let my anger make me forget everything else?) and found my Glock 17 was gone. I got into my car and headed to the bar, hoping to find the girl. I looked around the bar and saw neither Darko nor the girl. Then I headed out the back door. That was where the police found me, on the ground over my dead son’s body, his blood on my hands, my Glock on the ground beside us.
They didn't believe me when I said I had just discovered his body. Numerous witnesses from the bar told police about the argument between Darko and myself. The police didn’t need much of an excuse to arrest me, as they had been after me for years. There were fingerprints on the gun - mine and Darko’s. I was judged and sentenced quickly. The prosecutor contended that our argument got out of control and I pulled out my gun. In my rage, I shot him. The verdict was guilty of manslaughter. I told the police my gun had been stolen, but of course, I couldn’t tell them about the stolen diamonds. And no one wanted to hear about that girl, the one that destroyed him.
When the opportune moment came, I didn’t worry about being seen. Having planted a video camera in their home weeks ago, I was privy to their conversations. That afternoon, I went to his home, climbed the ladder to the attic, and drove off with the diamonds. Then I donned a mechanic’s overall, went to the garage where her car was parked after it had been serviced, and made sure she wouldn’t get home ever again. The boy himself had been at an evening baseball game with a friend and his friend’s mother. I sat close enough to observe, but far enough away so as not to be conspicuous. When he headed alone to the concession booth and bought a drink, I simply walked up beside him and said, “Hi Brent. I’m Mike, a friend of your dad’s from work. He was in an accident on his way home from work, and your mom asked if I would come and take you to the hospital.” The irony of that didn’t escape me as I said those words. Then I showed him a photo of James that I had stolen from his home, as evidence of my connection to his family. He came willingly, never thinking to ask questions. “But I better tell Luke’s mom,” he said with some hesitation. “No worries. I’ve already told her. We better hurry along to see your mom and dad.” Like I said, people are so trusting in a small town.
As he drove away to a new home in a new city with his newly adopted boy, he thought about how he would groom the boy to be a Markovic. He would explain everything. He would tell him the truth. He would hope that was enough to keep him under his wing. After all, he was a Markovic. It was in his blood. It was his birthright. “Moj sinko, my son, my boy.” Family is everything, he thought. He would do whatever it took to take care of his boy. As he had always done. As he would always do.
There was a code he had always adhered to in business and in his personal life - an eye for an eye. A life for a life, diamonds for diamonds, and a grandson for a son.
The black Jeep Cherokee sailed south down Highway 400 at 110 clicks. It had been only two days since Jim’s funeral. She had been so stupid, she thought, letting her guard down. For one evening, for one moment, she had entrusted her son to the care of her neighbour after school. That one moment of trust and the hand of fate had cost her both of the men she loved, her husband and her son. That day at lunch, she had dropped by Jim’s office and asked him to pick up her black Rav4 after work at the garage where she left it for a service and oil change. She had decided she didn’t have time to sit and wait for it to be done, so she walked the short distance to his office and switched keys with him and took his Jeep. She had to head out to cover a news story just out of town and would meet him at home later that evening. On his way home in her car, he lost control and hit a tree. Cheryl knew she couldn’t tell the police her suspicions, given her history.
Now, careful not to attract attention, she concentrated on her driving. Staying cool and calm was critical to the success of her mission. She had made mistakes before by acting too rashly. That last night in Hamilton played out clearly in her mind as she made her way back there.
Svjetlana wasn’t thinking clearly that afternoon at Darko’s house when she stood in the hallway and heard him utter those words - “get rid of her”. All she knew was that she was afraid, for herself and her child. She saw the gun sitting in the open safe and took it. Then again, in the bar, she had heard Darko say, “means nothing to me...deal with her.” After she left the bar with James, she told him everything as she headed to Darko’s place. “I’m scared. I need to get away from here,” she added. Then she told him she was going to use the spare house keys she had stolen, go back for the diamonds and run away. “I’m going to need a lot of money to start a life somewhere else and raise my child on my own,” she reasoned.
James said, “No, no you’re not. They’ll track you down before you can get out of the city. And you’re not alone. Here’s what we’re going to do. Turn the car around and let me off at the bar so I can pick up my car. Then go home and pack what you really can’t do without and leave the rest behind. I’m going to do the same. Be quick, and call me when you’re ready. I’ll come pick you up and we’ll leave together. I doubt they’ll follow us. They’ll just be glad to be rid of us.”
But Svjetlana couldn’t quite bring herself to leave Darko. After she quickly packed a couple of suitcases with essentials and bags filled with family photos and mementos, she went to the ATM and took out what cash she had. Then she headed back to the bar to meet Darko out behind the bar at 8 o’clock. She locked her car and parked it a couple of blocks away, put on her gloves, then walked the rest of the way.
He was waiting for her. He took her in his arms and said, “We need to hurry before my dad gets back and figures out what I’m doing.”
“What are you doing?” Svjetlana asked, hopeful.
“We’re going to run away together. Then once the baby is born, we’ll come back. I know my dad and how much family means to him. He won’t be able to say no to the baby once he sees him.”
“What about your dad’s job? I know he’s into some bad stuff, Darko. I don’t want our child exposed to that.”
“You don’t need to worry about the business. Just let us do our job and stay out of it. We’ll keep you and the baby safe.”
“I can’t live like that,” Svjetlana told him. “Leave your dad and let’s start a new life, just the three of us.”
“No, I’m all he’s got. My mom left because she couldn’t deal with it. I won’t leave him. He needs me.”
“I don’t know. I just don’t know. He scares me.”
“Trust me, he’ll come around. In the meantime, we need to leave now.” He led her to his car and opened the door.
“Wait! I’ve got my stuff in my car. Can you help me get it?” asked Svjetlana. “It’s just a piece down the road.”
Darko hesitated, then he slung his backpack into his car and said, “Yeah, okay.” As he did so, his backpack came open just enough for Svjetlana to glimpse the contents.
“Is that…” she started.
“I took them from my dad. So we’d have plenty to get by on until we move back in with him. He’ll be furious, but he’ll forgive me eventually,” he explained as Svjetlana rummaged through the packback, fingering the diamonds. Then Svjetlana saw the gun. Nestled in the backpack, with the diamonds, was a Glock 17. She recognized it as it was the same as the type she had tucked away in her purse since running out of his house earlier that day.
“What’s that for?” she asked him.
“Protection,” he explained.
He looked her in the eyes and at that moment she knew. She would never really be safe. Even if she trusted Darko, she couldn’t trust his father. Even if she and his father came to tolerate each other, she wouldn’t be safe with the lifestyle they led. Nor would their child. She reached into her purse and took out the gun, and pointed it at Darko.
“What are you doing? Where’d you get that gun?” he asked, in shock.
“It’s for protection,” she answered.
As they locked eyes, he put his hands on the barrel and said, “Careful with that. You might shoot me by accident.”
“No, no I won’t shoot you by accident,” she promised as she pulled the trigger.
She saw the disbelief in his eyes as he crumpled down to the ground. The bullet had pierced his heart. Thankfully, he died quickly. She didn’t want to see him suffer too long. After all, she loved him. Then she threw down the gun she had fired, picked up Darko’s backpack and walked back to her car. She called James and told him she was ready to leave.
Svjetlana had learned her lessons the hard way, and she feared repeating the same mistakes over again. She would be careful. She wouldn’t let emotion rule her actions. She would do what needed to be done quickly and then get on with her life. In retrospect, it was very clear to her that there are lines that really shouldn't be crossed. You don't play games with the Serbian mafia. You don't steal from thieves. You don't shoot down a man in cold blood. You don't let others take the blame for your sins. You don’t let your emotions (neither love, nor fear) get the better of you.
But above all, thought Cheryl, you do not get between a mother and her son. When you mess with a desperate, overprotective mother, you'd better watch your back. She would get Brent back no matter what she had to do. She knew the diamonds would be gone, too, but she didn't care about them anymore. All she wanted was her son, safe back home with her. As she eased up on the gas a bit, Cheryl's hand slid over to her North Face backpack on the passenger seat and felt the outline of the Glock 17 within. She would track him down, starting where it all began, and then see where that took her. Yes, Cheryl thought to herself, she would protect her son at any cost. My son, my son, she thought. She would do whatever was necessary, whatever needed to be done, to keep him safe from a life of crime and violence. As she had done all those years ago. As she would always do.