Authors: Carmen Faye
Somehow that pushed him over the edge. The dejected look transformed into anger. “And your life is that much better, is it?” he asked, his voice rising.
“Don’t you dare tell me what my life should be like. I’m happy, and I know what I’m doing.” I was aware that I sounded just like he had before, but it wasn’t the same thing. “I want my money, and I want you out of my house. You can take your date and shove it.”
He clamped his mouth shut as if that was the worst insult and then turned and left. I waited until I heard the front door slam before I let out the breath I’d been holding.
I got up and walked toward the front door, looking out the small window next to it to make sure he was really gone. I didn’t want to face him again. When the coast looked clear, I opened the door and walked onto the porch.
It was a beautiful California morning, the smell of the ocean in the air, green plants everywhere and the sun giving it the same kind of look it had on postcards. But I didn’t feel like it was beautiful. I felt horrible, and I had no reason to feel like that.
I walked back into the house and closed the door behind me, locking it and bolting it for good measure—even though I hadn’t in years. I walked back to bed, crawled under the covers, and like a child, I hid from the world.
I’d been in prison, I could fight. I’d done my time, and I’d worked my way to the top of the food chain, making sure that I survived. And I’d taken care of Emmet, too.
I knew what a cracked cheekbone felt like. I knew what it felt like to have two black eyes and broken knuckles. I knew what it felt like to have a hurting stomach and throbbing kidneys and a limp that didn’t go away for weeks.
And still, nothing hurt as much as a kick in the gut delivered by a woman. That was the kind of pain I didn’t like having to deal with, and after Alex had dished out her punches, I was smarting in a bad way.
She was the sexiest creature I knew because she had wit and personality behind those curves. And still, I saw her as the biggest bitch in the world now. The. Biggest. Bitch.
To think I’d wanted her to come with me? With that attitude? I shouldn’t have told her shit about my life. If I’d known she was going to piss on my parade, I would never have opened up to her.
Big mistake to open up, to a dame anyway, but she’d seemed different.
I walked back to the motel. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have the money for a cab, but I had rage enough to fuel the journey and I needed to get my head straight. I was all hung up on that woman, and I needed to make sure that everything was clear now so that when they came for me I was gone.
I was in half a mind not to give her what she was due. Who was she to demand money from me when I made most of it in ways that she wasn’t even a part of?
I pulled out my phone. Speaking of my unsavory ways, I needed to contact Rat if I was going to split. Maybe there was time for one more deal.
The thought of money brought me right back to Alex, not a full circle of thought but a U-turn instead. I could still feel her body on mine, parts of my own body still covered in her, parts of it still wanting more.
But she wouldn’t want me now. The look on her face had been the same as the others when she’d found out about Emmett and the fact that I was still running. Cockroach. That was what her face had spelled out.
I kicked a stone, and it skipped across the pavement and into a clump of shrubs a little ways down the road where a gray cat shot out. I must have scared the shit out of him. Good. Something knew how I felt. Damn Alex and her beauty and my obsession with her and the thought that she was worth sticking around for. Damn that woman.
I made my way back to the motel and unlocked the door, crouching out of habit in case someone had a gun trained chest-height on the other side. Running for my life all the time was a shit pastime. Maybe one day this would all be over.
After I closed the door, I got a message from Rat with a time and a place. We weren’t meeting in the alley behind the casino anymore, not after Jerrill had gotten his hands on me. Rat was the scared type, paying homage to his nickname.
It took me five minutes to do a once over in the shower. I was aware that the last of her was running down the drain, but I scolded myself for being a useless asshole and ignored my emotions. Another five to get dressed, and I was out the door again and headed to the strip mall along the beachfront. The beach was littered with tourists, soaking up the sun in various shades of brown and red, and the umbrellas pitched at various angles in the sand everywhere were cheerful.
Exactly the opposite of what I felt.
When I stepped out of the sun and into the mall, I felt a bit better, away from all the happiness and color. Rat waited for me on a wooden bench that stood in the middle of the walkway with a pot of lively looking fake plants in it.
“You’re late,” he said. It would have been intimidating if he said it to me with a threat in his voice, but that wasn’t the case, and I just shrugged.
“I’m leaving town,” I said after a moment and patted my pockets for my box of smokes. No smoking inside. I was twitchy as hell and craving some nicotine in my system, but we weren’t taking this one outside.
I shrugged. There was no way I was going to let someone like him into my business. Tried it once and look how that had turned out.
“Don’t you want to make it tomorrow?” he asked. “I’m selling double to Jerrill tonight, and rumor has it he’s headed out of town just after so the warehouse will be empty for a lot longer than usual.”
I nodded and watched the people walking by. Teenagers in short shorts and knee-high socks, thinking they were on fire even though they were underdeveloped and still searching for themselves. Old men that were stuck in an era from fifty years ago, still tucking in their checkered, collared shirts. Moms with strollers and gurgling babies.
Rat watched them, too.
“Okay,” I said. “Why not?”
Because there really was no reason for me not to do it, even though I owed Alex nothing now. Still, it was more money for me, and I knew that I could trust Rat. He wasn’t a friend, exactly, but he was a sight more to me than anyone else was in this damn town.
Rat nodded, and a ghost of a smile flickered across his face. He was the first to get up and leave. I waited for half an hour, ogling more people, before I left, too.
I spent time in casinos, doing what I did best, until two in the morning. I wanted to make sure Jerrill was good and gone before I headed over to his warehouse and stole his shit. Even if he was going out of town, there was no reason to be stupid, and if I learned anything at all over the past couple of years of my life, it was that anything can happen.
The night was humid, as if someone had forgotten to close the hot tap in the bathroom, and it was hard to breathe. I wore short sleeves—even though without my black leather jacket I was less camouflaged—because I couldn’t afford my hands to be sweaty enough for me to slip.
I had an entrance to the warehouse now, but it never killed to play it safe.
The parking lot was empty save for two, old, black cars in the corner. I frowned as I walked past. Was it only me or had there just been one before? I wasn’t sure. I looked around, stopped and listened, sniffing the air as if I could pick up a scent, and then finally kept going.
Better to get in and out than wait around for something to go wrong.
I got in through the same window I’d been in and out of the past couple of times and lifted the trap door easily. I found the light that hung from the ceiling and clicked it on, taking the dark brown box that was Rat’s signature. I glanced around the storage space. There was so much dope that it made me dizzy just looking at it. I had no doubt that Jerrill resold somehow, although I was unsure whether he used a small-time dealer like Rat for something like that.
Rat wasn’t the nervous street supplier I pinned him for.
It sure made me have the courage to approach him. I reached out and took a bag off the shelf, too. It was a white bag made of some thick, silky material, another dealer’s signature. I hesitated a moment before returning it and taking another of Rat’s boxes. It was safer that way. I knew that Rat could resell. I had no idea what would happen if he dealt someone else’s product.
I clicked off the lights and climbed back up the stairs, walking right into John the Henchman. He looked startled and caught off guard. My heart leaped into overdrive so my body could keep up, and I used the element of surprise in my favor.
I jumped past John and made for the window as fast as I could.
The cry he let out when I sailed over the windowsill told me his brain had caught up with his eyes. A bullet bit into the concrete next to my head a second later, and then I was through. My feet crunched on the asphalt as I ran. I made it around the building. The black car I’d seen in the corner was now parked in front of the warehouse’s loading dock. Jerrill must have noticed some of his product had gone missing and he’d sent ol’ Johnny boy to investigate.
I climbed through a hole in the fence instead of taking my usual route out. I didn’t want to be seen. Not now that John may have seen my face.
My shirt snared, as it ripped me back and off balance. I cursed myself for getting into a cliché situation and yanked to pull free.
Strong hands gripped my arms and lifted me up. My shirt let go, as if it had given up, and then John was holding me up with his hands clamped around my upper arms, just enough so that my feet touched but didn’t hold my weight.
“My boss will be so happy to see you again,” he said with a smile that told me there was nothing good in store for me. I looked at John, keeping eye contact while I tried to calculate a plan. I needed a way out, and fast, or I was going to die at the hands of someone other than the club.
Dead was dead, but I liked to think that being able to at least guess how you were going to die was better than not knowing at all.
The two wooden boxes in my hands were suddenly heavy and I had to get rid of them. I flung them forward with all my force. The one box his John in the nose, and he let go of me so quickly I fell to the ground. The other had opened somehow, and John was shrouded in a dopey mist like some kind of apparition.
I didn’t wait for the divine intervention to tell me twice. I ran.
I didn’t stop running until I was about a block away from the motel, and the only reason I ended up walking was because my lungs were screaming at me and I couldn’t feel my legs anymore.
It was time I left. Not only was the Stone Cold Club after me, but now John knew who’d stolen the product. If John knew, Jerrill would know soon enough.
I ran into the motel room on wobbly legs and starting packing. Maybe one day I would have time to do it neatly, but it was always haphazard. I threw in clothes without folding them and checked my moneybag twice.
Just before I left the motel, I paused and stared at the black bag in my hand. Dammit.
I dropped both bags and unzipped the moneybag. Using a smaller bag, I counted out money for Alex—her cut and then some—and signed out at reception.
I drove to her house and walked around to the bedroom where she’d left a window open before. I hoped she’d done it now, too.
When I saw the open window, I pushed the bag with money through, heard it fall with a rush, and then removed myself from her garden. I got in my car and drove east, heading for the state line before Jerrill could catch up with me. Before the Stone Cold Club could track me down. Before I thought too hard about the fact that I was leaving Alex behind and this was going to be permanent.
The scenery changed as I drove. I felt hidden in the night, with the darkness all around me and stars to pave my way through a world that was still asleep. No matter what had gone wrong in my life, it wouldn’t catch up with me yet. That was what the night did for me; it was an escape. A place where the day was done and tomorrow didn’t come yet, and for a short while, I could be who I wanted to be, pretend that the people I loved were all still around me, and not think about the fact that my life could end at any moment.
I’d spent so many nights in casinos, gambling and drinking, or in dingy motels, hiding in case anyone tracked me down. Yet, here under the open sky, with no one around me and no reminders of what I was doing, I felt like myself the most.
It was ironic, a bad ass like me having the capacity to be a dreamer. But there it was. Something I was only willing to admit in the light of the moon.
The scenery changed as I drove. The city started falling away to residential areas and then rural areas before dropping into hills and valleys completely. The sky didn’t change, though, the strip of stars in the Milky Way a constant.
The night was warm but not humid, the kind of air a man could breathe. But my chest was clamped and my heart was constricted, and somehow I felt like the air I breathed in and out again was worthless to me.
The worst was that I didn’t know why I felt that way. I was supposed to feel empowered and free. This was, after all, another victory. Getting away with my life and money to boot was a win. This time it just didn’t feel like one.
The sun rose in the east, right in front of me. It started with a fiery sky before the red orb of the sun made its appearance. The silver streaks of the night made space for splashes of orange and gold, and I watched the world transform around me until it was almost impossible to believe that it was the same place.
This was what life had felt like the short while I’d spent it with Alex. She’d made me feel like she was able to transform my life and put some color back into it. I’d been an idiot for falling for her even in the slightest, but she was like a sunrise. Beautiful and inevitable.
And impossible to capture and keep to myself.
That last thought made my heart sink and the feelings of elation dip into the darkness it had only been laced with until now. I was leaving her far behind. Her number was on my phone, but I doubted she would answer the call from me even if I did dial her.
Which I was never going to do. She was better off without me, and I was better off without her. Asking her to run with me had been a moment of weakness, and in retrospect, it was better that she’d said no.
It was better, even if I didn’t like it. If I convinced myself often enough that leaving her was the right thing, my heart would eventually line up.
My thoughts moved from Alex to the close call I’d had at the warehouse. I’d had a tiny taste of what John could do with his fists, and I was sure it was just a glimpse of hidden talents. I had no intention of falling into those hands again.
Looking at the turn of events, it was clear I’d just been lucky. A moment later and he would have had me trapped, and then it would have been better for me if the Stone Cold Club had found me first.
It was a relief leaving Jerrill and his lackey behind. He could go back to his club where he ruled with his delusions of authority, and I would be out of that scene forever.
And Alex could go back to playing her tables the way she used to and not worry about the scene that I made every time I was around. There were too many times where I’d been caught because of my stupidity or arrogance or both.
I stopped at a gas station after about six hours and stretched my legs. The morning was still fresh, but the sun was in the sky now and the spectacular sunrise forgotten. I leaned against the hood of my car and lit up a cigarette. The warmth wafted against my face in an otherwise cool breeze, and the tendrils of smoke curled around me face.
The idea of Jerrill swirled in the back of my mind, gnawing on me. He was an idiot, and I was leaving him behind, but he stayed with me and it annoyed me.
Everything about him annoyed me. The way that he ran the club as if he owned it—although for all I knew about his relations with the Crucifix Six, he might
own Harlan Gold. And the way he beat people up when he felt like it and never got his hands dirty.
And then, playing the tables as if he wasn’t just going to get that money back. And selling drugs. And knowing everyone and their weaknesses, the way that he called me out on Alex when I was in the back office with him.
I dropped the cigarette butt on the floor and stubbed it out with my toe. I considered going into the shop to buy something that resembled breakfast, but I wasn’t hungry yet, so I got in my car instead.
Alex was back there, and Jerrill knew who she was. The idea hit me square in the face, as if I’d been punched with one of John’s big hands again.
He knew who she was. He knew that I knew her. And he knew now that I’d been out there stealing his dope. He was going to go after her, wasn’t he? Shit, I’d gotten her into so much trouble.
I should have brought her with me so that I could keep her safe. I should have argued with her until she saw the light. But why would a woman like her—smart, funny, pretty—with a life outside of the standard societal bracket, a house of her own, and no reason to run want to follow a scam artist like me?
She could never love me, and I didn’t blame her.
But that didn’t change the fact that I’d left her in some sort of danger. I’d given her the money I owed her, but I’d left her with a whole lot of trouble that she didn’t deserve.
I shook my head. It didn’t matter. She was just another woman I’d slept with, and I shouldn’t care. I turned the key in the ignition and my car growled to life as if it had been sleeping in the morning sun.
I put the car into gear and pulled forward toward the exit that led back to the interstate. I didn’t care about her. I didn’t care about Jerrill and what he was going to do. What would he want with her anyway?
There were a lot of things I could think of. Money. Sex.
The latter made me angry, and I clenched my fists around the steering wheel so hard my knuckles went white. If he even thought about touching her, I was going to…
What? What was I going to do? What could I do? I was busy fleeing the state again, running away from my own damn past that kept catching up with me. What was I going to do for a woman who had thrown me out of her house and to a man who had thrown me out of his casino?
I swore under my breath and put on my right-side blinker. I turned after a white car came past and drove with the sun behind me, retracing my steps.
I never turned around. Turning around meant looking back, and looking back could kill you. Ask someone who knows. But this time, it was all my fault. I’d approached her and dragged her into this. I’d become something of an associate. I’d stolen from the wrong people and played with fire. I’d done it all, and I couldn’t let her take the fall.
What kind of man would that make me?
Emmett’s face flashed in front of me. I’d left him behind. I’d trusted it would work out, and it hadn’t. I’d lost him because I’d been a stupid son of a bitch who had thought I’d had more time.
Not again. I wasn’t going to lose her just because I was an idiot, and I needed to get my shit straight before I involved someone as perfect as she was. I never turned around, but it was time that I went back.
I had to go back and fix what I’d broken. I already couldn’t forgive myself for Emmett. I couldn’t add Alex to that list.