Chapter 1

~

The dude’s breath wafted between us like an overly-ripe fish. He oozed redneck, which I thought the South had a monopoly on. Maybe six two. Two hundred pounds. A bit flabby. Maybe played in the secondary in high school and still thinks he has the moves. That was ten years ago. Tonight his eyelids proved he’d tossed back too many beers too fast since leaving the warehouse floor.

I didn’t even want to be here. The way Logan acted, she didn’t either. But it was her suggestion. She felt indebted to play tour guide. To entertain me. I should explain I’m easily amused. But as it was, my visit in Syracuse thus far hadn’t been great, considering our combined pains. I was trying to keep a smile on my face.

Not that the band sucked. I just don’t do the night scene. Cigarette smoke burns my sinuses. And I’m as boring as my mom. My music tastes are actually mellower than hers. She often wears an old Metallica tee on the weekends working in her yard. Must be a hundred years old. The tee, not my mom.

“Ignore him,” Logan shouted at me over the music.

I didn’t think there was much chance of that.

“You drinkin’ sodas?” the guy slurred.

Should I tell him I’m on antibiotics?

“And her too?” He hocked a guffaw.

Logan’s on antibiotics too. At least I didn’t have a bag hanging from my neck collecting gut puss. I shuddered just forming that thought.

“You allergic to alcohol, or Bible thumpers?” the jerk shouted.

I guess he believed you have to drink and get stupid in a roadhouse. Logan probably shouldn’t have even ordered the soda. She’s still on gelatin and saltines.

“Say, babe,” he directed Logan’s way.

Even in the muted light the spray of his spittle glinted as it fluttered across our tiny table.

“Dump this wuss. I’ll let you drink adult beverages. Warm you up a little tonight if you’re lucky.”

I’ve known Logan since April. Long enough to read her body language. She was ready to kill this guy. Luckily her service weapon is still in evidence in Tampa. I held her hand tightly under the table. Three weeks ago a .45 slug caught her in the waist of her jeans, twice, coming and going. It wasn’t pretty.

So I was going to have to shut this guy up myself.

“Don’t,” Logan hissed at my ear.

“Go away, okay?” I said to the drunk.

Maybe that wasn’t the most assertive I could have been.

I returned from my jaunt to Neverland on the floor, spread eagle.

The guy freaking sucker punched me.

That I immediately figured out, because I have experience in the matter. I scrabbled to get up from the floor before I realized the only face peering down at me was Logan’s. The other pant legs were just guys waiting to set our table back in place and mop up the spilled soda. “Where’d he go?” I mouthed at Logan.

I read, “Bouncer,” on her lips.

Couldn’t he have shown up ten seconds sooner? I shook my head and the common spike struck. How many concussions have I suffered since April? I couldn’t even remember anymore.

Logan didn’t try to help me off the floor. Best she didn’t rip something important open. I managed on my own and one of the crew handed me a damp cloth, which I used to clean up my hands and the back of my head. Wasn’t much I could do with my sticky-wet shirt or jeans.

I tried to ignore the leers and laughter from the tables around us as we headed for the exit. I slid my tongue over my lip. Yep. Another fat one.

We stepped out into the night air, me muttering internally we should have stayed home. But even Logan was getting tired of the sideways glances her mom was giving her. We should have just rented a room while I was here.

No. Logan had to make a statement, remind them she was an adult.

Neither of us even tried to explain our sleeping arrangement was purely platonic. Though if Logan didn’t have that tube hanging out her side I think it would have been different. Maybe. I don’t know. Her dad would guffaw if I told him I’m still a virgin.

Be thirty in November. I’m not chaste. Just a wallflower.

Pretty sure Mr. Logan figured his daughter was neither.

Why was Logan so set on me staying in her room? Her parents lived in a five bedroom McMansion. Plenty of empty bedrooms. If only she’d been up to returning to her apartment in Brooklyn. But she barely makes it up the stairs to her room here still.

Dang this trip had been a nightmare. Never should have come. Logan wasn’t up to showing me Syracuse anyway.

I tried to take a deep breath. The sinuses still burned from the smoke.

“You okay?” Logan asked.

I worked my jaw around. Was already stiffening up.

“How do you attract so much pain?” Logan asked.

If I only knew.

She stopped me under a sidelight and checked me out. I followed her finger troll around in a circle. I kept my eyes from crossing, pretty much, and didn’t fall over. She wiped at my nose. The girl isn’t squeamish.

“Got a tissue in the car for that bloody nose.”

Er. I thought it was just runny, with my allergies.

And I don’t think he even caught me in the nose. I think my brain bleeds out my nose. Only thing that’s kept my head from exploding.

“I’ll drive,” she said.

I wasn’t going to debate that. Her dad’s fancy new Lexus made me nervous anyway. Way nicer than the Taurus my mom has driven for twenty years. I should buy her a new car.

She’d probably take it back to the dealer. Won’t take a dollar from me. That idiot father of mine left her in a deep hole.

She should have done the bankruptcy thing like all her friends said. Most of them are no longer in her life. She’s a stubborn one.

The engine turned on with lights as we approached the Lexus. I may have jerked. Still not used to these fandangle new cars. Inside, Logan grabbed a tissue from the center console and shoved it at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“For what?” she said. “I’m the one who dragged you here.”

Yeah, she did. But I was sorry I embarrassed her. I do that way too often. What does she see in me?

“Don’t do it,” she snapped.

“What?” I asked.

“You know what.”

The irritation in her voice scrubbed my gray matter with a rag clicking with static electricity. She believes I have a poor self-image. I think I just have a better understanding of my worth than she does.

“Not your fault the idiot sucker punched you,” she said.

Roger never would have been caught off guard like that. But no one would dare consider challenging Roger. He’s like a five-foot-eight Atlas. Exudes testosterone and virility. Even if Michael, his dad, believes he’s a virgin. No way Roger’s a virgin.

“Don’t go comparing yourself to a Mueller.” There was more plea than command in her tone.

She can read my mind almost as well as Augie.

I missed Augie. Of course he texted me every thirty minutes. I couldn’t pronounce the entrée he reported Norm prepared for dinner.

Mrs. Logan prepared stroganoff. It was good. Not as much pepper or something as Mom dumps in hers. Mom likes food that prickles the sensations.

Logan pulled out of the lot and had us on a parkway in two minutes, when she started in a comfortable monologue. She’s accepted I’m totally incompetent at conversation. So glad she thinks of things to talk about. Tonight it was about how three of the ladies, term used loosely, that sat near us, dressed. The efficiency of the bouncer. The music the band played. The warm night.

I just nodded. Though seventy-nine degrees isn’t warm to a Floridian. A Floridian can stand on the surface of the sun in their flip-flops and mumble, “Meh.”

You’re in New York, Jon. Way north of I-20 and Southern civilization.

On the bright side, I was missing a few days of Florida’s August inferno. Missed little Chica, too. Cute little pup.

I’m an idiot.

Thinking of what I miss instead of enjoying being here with Logan.

“I’m enjoying being here with you,” I blurted, talking over her.

“Yeah. I bet,” she said. “I don’t have the energy to do anything.”

“Not much to do in Syracuse anyway,” I teased.

“Yeah, well you’re from that great tourist state, huh.”

“Loved driving around in those hills today on the south side.” I could throw her a bone.

“Only a real flatlander could have enjoyed that.” She had teased me for an hour.

In Tampa you only glimpse the horizon if you’re on a freeway overpass or the beach.

“At least,” Logan said softly, “until tonight you’d kept from getting beat up or shot.”

Three days. About a record since meeting the Muellers. No wonder I had a bleeding ulcer and a staph infection. Still say the latter was from the long-nose plyers Michael used to pull the shotgun pellets out of my arm and leg.

“I’d meant to ask,” she said. “Any fallout with the Tampa police about you leaving the city while they investigate our thing?”

Our thing. That’s what she was calling it now? She could have died. Together we killed seven men. The one guy bled out two miles away from the three .22 slugs she put in his chest. Our thing. We messed up their little abduction plan. Almost got her killed.

“Augie still says Goldman’s attorney says screw ’em.”

“Is it just me,” she said, “or does that lawyer come across a little slimy to you?”

More than a little. “You know more about the law than I do.”

I heard her growl. Going to grump about my inferiority complex again. But she has the master’s degree. Three degrees. Who needs that many parchments on the wall?

I’m the slacker clerk.

Chapter 2

~

Mrs. Logan met us in the hall before we executed our escape up the stairs.

“You two are home early,” she accused. “Is that blood on your shirt, Jon?”

“The band was atrocious,” Logan-Amelia said louder than she needed to. “We’re just going to crash.”

“We had some sherbet a little while ago,” Mrs. Logan bragged. “Could I serve you a scoop?”

My stomach screeched a heck yeah.

“No thanks, Mom,” My Logan answered. “Not on my approved dietary list.”

If we lived in Syracuse, I guess I’d have to drop the Logan and stick with Amelia. But she started out as Logan. And I fell in love with her as Logan. Funny it annoyed me at first when Denny called me Reagan.

“Even with the nap,” Amelia continued, “this evening jaunt tired me out. So good night.”

“Sleep well,” floated at our backs.

I followed Amelia up the stairs obediently despite my stomach crying out for sugar. My ears burned as I realized my eyes remained on the seat of Amelia’s pants. Mrs. Logan probably thinks I’m a letch, but I was just lamenting how much weight Amelia has lost through all this.

Her jeans are really loose.

I flopped on top of Amelia’s bed. She headed into her bathroom, only swinging the door closed partway. I know that is a message of intended intimacy. One I’m not sure I need. I think she wants to impress me with how comfortable she is with me, so maybe I’ll stop asking, “What do you see in me?”

But really. What does she see in me?

She’s knock-me-down-dead gorgeous. Sexy. Smart. Educated. A professional. Years as a Syracuse cop. Four years now in the FBI. She impressed people to get a New York City gig. Michael said that spoke volumes. And he doesn’t even like her. At least doesn’t act like he does. They got off on the wrong foot back when.

My phone jingled, Augie’s tone, and Amelia laughed. I love her casual laugh. It strangles my throat a little and makes the flutterbys in my stomach flop about.

“It’s a little late for him,” she said.

A grin tightened my face. I pulled my phone out, which Augie bought me recently and thrust upon me with a threat. He said I needed a phone manufactured this century. I read his text and my face flushed hot.

“He say good night?” Amelia asked.

Not exactly. Now he’s telling me about his sex with Denny? Could he be rubbing it in? The special guy is getting it, but I’m not. Ah. Denny had to have gotten hold of his phone. That made a heck of a lot more sense. How does a blind chick text? But when she was at her apartment, she was always texting Augie. Probably an app on her computer. Oh, yeah. These fandangle phones have speech-thingie.

My sex with Denny tonight was astronomical.

Denny lives to pull my chain.

The slutty cougar.

“Tell him I said good night.”

Dang Logan, Amelia, has a beautiful voice. The stomach fluttered some more. She strode out of the bathroom in a nightie so short it didn’t cover her collection bag. But that image wasn’t enough to close off my mind from the other. Or suppress the erection that filled my jeans.

“You’re gaping,” she whispered, grinning. She turned out the bathroom light and even in the glint of her nightstand nightlight, the angelic glow evaporating, she appeared more beautiful than anything I deserved.

I told her, “It’s just that you’re so homely.”

“Oh,” she mewed. “That old seduction line.”

Yep. I’m really smooth. I hurried to take my turn in the bathroom. It was really hard not to shut the door all the way. That would have been insulting, right? Since she doesn’t?

I sat to pee.

Nighttime tasks done, donning the black, silk jammies Michael bought me, bottoms only, forced on me for this trip, I padded back into Amelia’s room, pulled back the blanket and sheet, and crawled into bed next to her. An action that really feels weird to me still. Sleeping next to Amelia as though we’re longtime lovers.

We’ve never even made out. Pecks and such, sure. But none of that romantic stuff in the hot movies. She was shot the first night we ever had alone. Like a date.

She rolled toward me and the little guy extended to reach her. Down boy. Down. Until Logan was in one piece, there was going to be none of that.

Her hand reached my forearm and slowly traced toward my shoulder. She repositioned her stuff so she could snuggle closer, her face a couple inches from mine.

Had she decided I’d calmed down enough I might not scream like a girl if she slid into second base?

I wrapped my arm around her. The nightie plunged in the back and I hadn’t prepared myself for so much luscious, soft, deliriously smooth flesh.

My God! I tingled from my toes up. I think my nose turned numb.

I managed what maybe could be considered a caress of that angelic flesh.

The other nights we’d talked softly until one of us drifted off, diplomatically turned toward opposite walls after that to sleep.

Her fingertips trailed up my throat, to the back of my neck. From there she tangled with my almost shoulder-length hair.

Michael threatens to buy some sheep sheers.

“Are you okay?” Amelia whispered.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. It even sounded a little panicked to me.

She giggled. Bless her heart.

Her lips touched mine. My heart had to be dancing a polka inside my ribs. If I reacted this way to a kiss, coitus was going to give me a stroke.

She parted her lips over mine.

I tried to reciprocate, but didn’t keep the groan from becoming audible.

“Cheek?” she asked.

I’d been creamed with a two-by-four a month ago. Fractured my face. But tonight it was the jaw. The jerk probably broke it.

My luck.

“We’re quite the pair, aren’t we?” Amelia asked.

She’s perfection. I’m a lost cause.

“Don’t,” she pleaded.

Dang, she knows every thought that flutters in the vacuum between my ears.

“You know,” I whispered, “I was hooked on you before I even knew your first name.”

“You’re so easy.” Her lips nibbled at my top lip. Her nails dragged across the back of my scalp giving me a new shudder. She asked me if I was cold.

No.

I think I was sweating. I stroked her back with my fingertips and she moaned softly. I was in heaven. Then her caress stopped. Her breathing deepened.

She was asleep.

Chapter 3

~

Saturday morning. The house remained quiet. By the golden light penetrating Amelia’s blinds, maybe seven-ish. Michael had gotten me used to rising early, even though laying there with Amelia, listening to her soft breathing, appealed. But caffeine beckoned.

I crawled out of bed like a sneak. Amelia still groaned. Not sure what that was about, but I grabbed my jeans and a polo and headed for the bathroom. I closed the door, deciding my attempt to be quiet could cover for my girly modesty.

Stumbling down the stairs in my bare feet—I’m not really a morning person, even if Michael has me conditioned, I stamped to a halt finding Mr. Logan at the breakfast table reading his tablet. Button down, long sleeve shirt, dress slacks. But no tie. He’d worn a tie pretty much since I arrived.

Dressier than I ever saw Turlough Reagan, but no tie on Saturdays for Mr. Logan?

Dad wore knee-length Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, maybe a shirt, maybe not, Monday through Sunday. At least until noon.

“Morning,” I stuttered. “You’re working today?”

“Come in, come in,” he strummed rather friendly-like, which was a first. “Help yourself to the coffee.” He motioned his cup toward the appropriate counter supporting the carafe of peace, tranquility, and bountiful life. “No. I leave the weekend research and brief writing to the junior partners now.”

He always speaks an anglicized Greek to me, which I don’t ask him to explain. I hurried to pour my coffee and stood in front of the fancy machine to take my first hit. Scalding or not, I needed the promise of caffeine more to face Mr. Logan than I ever did to face Michael.

“Will you join me?” Mr. Logan asked.

Oh, Lord, do I have to? “Of course, sir.”

“Our first quiet moment alone,” he said softly.

Oh, that did not sound promising. And me with no Kevlar. Some internal organs like gall bladders and such slithered upward for my throat and my knees turned rubbery. I managed into the chair to his right, keeping my eyes anywhere but on him.

“Sorry I can’t offer you the paper.” He hefted his tablet. “Read it on-line. My wife has never been keen on keeping up. So being the only consumer in the residence, took the plunge. A bit to get used to at first, but all in all—” He didn’t finish his statement. Set the tablet into the little stand in front of him and took a hit of his coffee.

The tick, tick blasted in my head.

He exhaled.

Tick. Tick.

“Amelia doesn’t really talk to me,” he said.

I struggled to swallow.

“Her mother,” Mr. Logan continued, “treats every tidbit of conversation with her like a state secret. But I know she cohabitated with a man for a time in DC. I never knew his name. She certainly never brought him to Syracuse.”

I might throw up.

“I was good enough as a provider. But not much of a father. I was always about the client, the practice. Left Amelia and Blake to their mother to raise. Can’t say I caught a soccer game once.”

Blood rushed to my head. It would probably gush out my nose again any moment.

Mr. Logan took in a deep breath. “You aren’t a conversationalist, are you?”

I met his eyes but kept my mouth shut.

“Amelia has been relationship-averse her entire life. Probably because she couldn’t imagine living her mother’s life.”

From hardly saying a word to me, now he was dumping all of his family dirt over my head?

“Always been independent. Very surprised she came home to recover. That’s more a reflection of how badly she hurt, I suppose.”

Good. Safer territory.

“So probably wouldn’t have met you if it wasn’t for that.” He glanced toward the far hall for the third time.

Eager to get whatever was on his mind out before Amelia joined us?

“I did gleam from tidbits from her mother she was considering a transfer to Tampa.”

So Denny said. But Amelia and I hadn’t discussed it yet. She probably didn’t want to scare me to death.

“I imagine that’s because you live in Tampa.”

I met his eyes again. My nose hadn’t begun to bleed yet, thankfully.

“Seems your presence calms the child,” he said. “Never one much to sit for five minutes straight.”

Child. She’d be ticked. I couldn’t breathe. When would this torture end?

“She clearly sees you in a way she’s never considered another man, and I know for a fact she’s dated a state senator and an admiral.”

No freakin’ way. And she settles for me?

“So you’re special.”

Hardly. A spaz. Klutz. Simpleton. Slacker.

“To her.”

I pretty much suspected she has horrible judgment.

“I see you make her happy,” he said.

Really?

“That makes me happy.”

Did I have any limbs? I think my arms and legs were numb.

“I’m stiff,” he said. “No one has to tell me. But just wished to tell you that you—”

He cut his words off curtly, eyes jolting to his right. I followed his line of sight. My history of late implied a thug probably stood there with a gun on me. But it was worse.

Mrs. Logan strode toward us.

I was going to be double teamed. Oh, Lord. Why did I get out of bed? Mrs. Logan’s expression turned, maybe frightened. What?

“Jon. Are you well?” She reached out, back of her hand nearing my face.

Why was she going to hit me? I didn’t do anything.

But she simply set her knuckles against my cheek. “You’re white as a sheet.”

I was?

“Cheeks are cold,” she said. “Are you—”

“Believe I scared him to death,” Mr. Logan said.

She jerked a look at her husband, face turning, er, adversarial.

“Just welcoming him to the family,” he rushed to say.

Her expression washed, um, unbelieving.

Welcome to the family?

I couldn’t breathe again. Soon pass out, surely.

“If you and Amelia don’t mind,” he said, “I’m going to kidnap Jon for the morning. Have breakfast. Show him around a bit.”

Mrs. Logan said, “I’ll go get Amelia to save you,” and turned around and headed for the stairs.

Mr. Logan chuckled.

Wasn’t funny. My lungs were twisting into one of those over-salted, bagel-tasting things.

We sat and sipped our coffee.

Three minutes later Mrs. Logan returned, a bit of surprise washing her face. “She said you can take care of yourself,” she murmured to me.

Mr. Logan chuckled again. Amelia really places more trust in me than she should.

Mr. Logan suggested I get some shoes on. I exhaled, maybe a little like a mouse after the arm of the trap has snapped across his chest. I took a slurp of my coffee and stood. Head wobbled a bit.

Oh, Lord. At least I avoided this for three days.

Chapter 4

~

He drove one freeway then another. If I hadn’t read Syracuse was smack dab in the middle of the state I would have worried we might be in Pennsylvania, or Idaho, any time. We weren’t headed for a favorite diner close to home, that’s for sure.

He didn’t do more than throw a bit of idle chit chat at me. I appreciated that. Spending a bit of time with Mr. Logan wouldn’t be so bad, right?

Ah, jeez, I don’t know why my dad had to come to mind. I didn’t need him in my head.

I decided Mr. Logan was taking me downtown, near his office maybe, but never saw a high-rise before he finally exited, and turned left and right for another twenty miles, or three or four. I was pretty dizzy.

We ended up at a Starbucks, of all places. Maybe that wasn’t all that wild. Mr. Logan didn’t seem like the hole-in-the-wall type of guy. He’s probably never owned a pair of loafers in his life. I wasn’t going to meet his friends Bubba and Cooter sitting under mounted animal heads and have to put up with drunken-hunting stories. I hate the thought of hunting. Unless it’s done with a camera.

The barista didn’t act like Mr. Logan was a regular, who ordered a tall coffee and a bran muffin. Since we had been on the road about a week, I ordered a Chocolate Chunk muffin, Cranberry Orange scone, Classic Coffee cake, and a tall Cinnamon Dolce. Never been to a fancy coffee shop. Thought I’d experiment. An hour later when the fellow handed me the drink with its tower of whipped cream, I looked around a little worried. But there were no biker dudes around to make fun of me.

Should I have pulled out my plastic?

My face burned a little over that conundrum, but considering what the tab came out to be, I was okay with Mr. Logan covering breakfast. I could have had a steak dinner back home for what our little tray cost.

Michael calls me cheap for a reason. Mom calls me pleasantly frugal.

We sat and I think Mr. Logan got a kick out of watching me eat. I even kept my left hand in my lap for the most part, and used my napkin like Mom taught me.

All the carbohydrates flowed south smoothly, but as I slurped on the dregs of the Frappa-something, my stomach twisted. Mr. Logan hadn’t said much, though I figured he had something on his mind. Why else did he kidnap me? The stomach churned as he led me to his Lexus.

Two minutes later we were driving onto the campus of Syracuse University. The whole family’s alma mater. Whole family, as in extended, way extended, as in great-great-aunts and uncles. He pointed out buildings.

Cool architecture.

Why here?

“I’ve hinted to Amelia,” he said, “coming back and getting her law degree would be a great idea.”

There it was.

“Understand you’re going to start college this fall,” he said. “Couldn’t go wrong here.”

I did not want to touch this topic. Not with a ten-foot tether line. I’m pretty sure Augie wouldn’t move up here. And I couldn’t leave him behind with Michael and Roger. They would get him killed. More likely, he’d get them killed without me there to throw a hissy every hour.

“You might consider supporting the idea. With Amelia.” He said.

I know when to keep my mouth shut.

He slogged to a stop at a cross street and took a long look at me.

What?

“You really don’t talk much, do you?”

Nope. The only way I stay out of trouble.

“I’d cover your moving expenses, school costs,” he continued without driving on. “It would mean a lot to have Amelia back home.”

Away from gun-toting thugs.

I should be glad he wasn’t buying me off, to leave and never call her again. But that might be his fallback plan. I’m dangerous. Amelia was in my company when she got shot. Not on the job. On vacation, visiting me.

Amelia living with her parents again? I couldn’t see it. My lungs might have bled a bit just thinking about that arrangement. I was surprised she made it the past couple of weeks.

I mean, as parents go, the Logans are swell and all. But there’s a reason I lived in a dump of a garage apartment the last seven years. And I love Mom to death. Except for the soap-mouth-thing she’s cool. I just need space.

Now I live in a fraternity house. A quarter-swear-jar could collect millions every month with the Muellers and Denny around.

“If there’s a pride element,” Mr. Logan said slowly, “about the tuition and everything. You could pay me back whenever you wanted, could.”

Should I tell him I have a million and a quarter in the bank after our crazy spring campaign?

A short horn blast made him jerk his eyes toward his rearview and he hurried to hang a right. He didn’t resume his monologue for a minute. He finally returned to his campus tour guide bit. After a couple more minutes he paused and sighed deeply.

“Lad. Do I need to grant you immunity to get a word out of you?”

I considered that. I wasn’t worried about getting in trouble with him or Amelia. He probably ought to worry about Amelia learning about this little pressure job though. She can go a little berserk, being pressed into anything.

“Lord, son.”

He was getting a little irritated, maybe.

“Amelia gets a little annoyed with me too,” I finally offered.

“Go figure,” he said.

“You get a lot of snow here, huh?” I said.

“A bit.” The king of understatement.

“We had a flurry in Tampa once in the seventies,” I said. “I think.” Before my time.

“So you’re not crazy about moving up North,” he said.

“And you know your daughter isn’t one for sitting behind a desk.”

He froze a little behind the steering wheel. Didn’t blink. Didn’t breathe I don’t think for a full four minutes. I thought after two minutes a man would fall over unconscious.

Finally, he took a deep breath and exhaled. “You know my girl pretty well, don’t you?”

“I listen a lot,” I offered.

He laughed.

Before he spoke again we were back on a freeway, hopefully headed for the Logan residence.

“Promise me you won’t get her killed.”

I wish. Didn’t do such a great job protecting her the first time around. But we were really out numbered.

“Your silence isn’t comforting,” he said.

I gave him the only answer I had. “We both carry a gun for a living.”

“Hum,” he murmured.

Augie’s tone echoed from my pocket. First harassment all day. The text read, “you should come home.”

I waited.

“have tickets waiting for you at the gate”

The biggest pressure in my life is keeping up with Augie. I stared at the phone waiting for the shoe to drop. My mom loves that expression.

“first class for amelia”

“Amelia?” I blurted.

“Amelia what?” Mr. Logan asked.

I waited.

“business class for you because youre cheap”

I sighed.

“What?” Mr. Logan hissed.

“amelia is packing”

Chapter 5

~

Yeah, yeah, I could appreciate their irritation. Even to me it made no sense. Augie beckons and the serfs scurry forth. Or something like that. Amelia probably could stand another month of tender care. But I think Augie had learned his lesson and would keep Amelia out of any scrapes.

Besides. Norm is a great cook. That would be good, once Amelia was off the gelatin and saltines. And there was nothing I could say to keep Amelia in Syracuse. She was getting cabin fever, even if she didn’t have the energy to blow out a candle.

Mrs. Logan was eerily quiet as we stomped for the Lexus. I had expected a little lava flow from her. Mr. Logan had begun about five arguments and Amelia cut them off with one look. I needed to learn that trick for Mom. But she has me trained really well. That index finger is menacing. Me hushing Mom wasn’t going to happen.

Amelia is a lot more independent than me.

And assertive.

And intelligent.

And good looking.

The first ten minutes in the car was tense. But Mrs. Logan started with the chit chat which she funneled toward how nice the last three weeks having Amelia at home had been. I caught the glint in Amelia’s eyes.

She might have hated being thirteen-year-old Amelia again, but she had emotions about leaving. I leaned toward her and whispered.

“You sure you wouldn’t rather stay here for a while longer?”

She didn’t answer me. Which was an answer I guess. She leaned my way and set her head against my shoulder, eyes closed. Ah.

The hassle at the airport was as big as I expected, as well as the transfer in Atlanta. Karma has something against me. Just ask Roger. It was after nine PM when we lurched onto the tram for the terminal in Tampa, and I noted Amelia’s face was blanched. Poor baby. But she hadn’t complained once.

I wish I was as tough as her.

I texted Augie that we were headed for arrivals. He replied with a “k.”

But it was Norm, in Roger’s Jeep, picking us up. Had Norm sold his Nissan? And where was Roger? I asked Norm as soon as we climbed in.

“I’m not good enough for you?”

“No,” I said.

“Peru, doing some hiking.”

“What?” Amelia and I both screeched.

I know I was wondering why Roger, the muscle element of our partnership, was out of the country if Augie was in a rush for us to be back in Tampa. I met Amelia’s glare. I think she had the same thought, but with a few colorful metaphors thrown in.

It dawned on me as the headlights from the cars behind us flooded the inside of the Jeep, that Norm’s head was a glowing orb. But Amelia beat me to the punch.

“You shaved your head!”

Norm is mid-forty-ish. CPA dweeb, round, steel-frame glasses. Five feet five inches tall, maybe. Sure his forehead curved back almost to the back of his neck, but with no hair at all and his tubby dimensions, once we were in the light, I expected he’d look like a younger Mr. Magoo. Strange I didn’t notice under the glaring lights of the arrivals tunnel.

“Never have to go to the barber again,” he proclaimed proudly.

“Augie’s idea?” Amelia asked.

“Denny’s,” he said.

Well, she does have flair. I’d been gone four days and Roger’s sequestered and Norm’s a cue ball.

“I’m power walking every morning with Denny,” Norm said.

Really?

Denny is our autistic leader’s mostly-blind love squeeze. You could also call her a cougar deluxe. Fifteen years Augie’s senior. Even if Augie maybe looks a tad older than her. That’s because she’s a well-preserved knockout. Aqua colored eyes out of a superhero comic strip. Retired attorney, due to her eye issues, recently a mystery and police procedural author. Did I mention Denny is a knock out, in every meaning of the expression? A longtime athlete who hasn’t let blindness slow her down much. Even at forty-five.

“Already lost a couple pounds.” Norm patted his belly. “Pants are a tad loose.”

I hadn’t been gone that long.

“Good for you,” Amelia told him.

I said, “I’m surprised you didn’t bring Chica with you.”

Chica’s the group’s sweet Pit Bull. Pibble. Still a pup. All white except for one brown blotch on her hip. Never turns down a car ride. Actually, I was just hoping she’d be in the car. I missed her.

“I think she was crashed upstairs with Denny and Augie.”

That figured. Just out of curiosity I asked what Michael was up to.

Michael likes to think he’s our band’s leader. He was a Green Beret vet of twenty thousand wars, one-time police captain, fugitive recovery agent the last decade. Looks a little like a Greek god with more muscles than any man deserves. Hair he mostly wears in a pony halfway down his back, tattoos out the wazoo.

“I think he’s out with your mom,” Norm said.

One of my kidneys went three rounds with my left lung, I think. Crud. I was hoping their friendship would quickly run its course. I mean, I love my mom. I think she’s attractive, but come on, way frumpy, and she’s in her late fifties. Well of course so is Michael. But he flirts with twenty year olds and gets away with it. Why was he still calling on my mom?

I should shoot him.

“You can’t shoot him,” Amelia said.

Norm laughed like a burro, the jerk.

“We have any new partners or housemates?” I asked.

After all, I’d been away four days. More like five with the flight out to Syracuse.

“No,” Norm said. “But Augie’s put together an awesome business plan.”

Amelia and I both said, “Business plan?”

“Mueller Brothers need a business plan?” Amelia asked.

Good question, though I’m unclear what a business plan is, exactly. Our band of misfits originated as a two-man show. But the Muellers weren’t even brothers, but a father and son with a lot of bad water under the bridge, lately trying to span the river with a clean slate.

Didn’t help when Roger learned several weeks ago Michael had been sleeping with his mother, with them divorced two decades. Didn’t go over well with me either, considering Michael had recently been on a couple dates with my mother.

We do weave a web of relationships in our little crew.

“Consulting partnership,” Norm said, as though that should explain something. But maybe it did mean something to Amelia.

“Nellis and Associates is what Augie wants to call us,” Norm continued.

Now that actually made sense. Since Augie mumbles and we scatter to do whatever insane thing he suggests as though we’re chickens wearing SCUBA gear toting rocket propelled grenade launchers.

I asked, “Who is ‘us’?”

Norm said that was a silly question. I closed my eyes.

“Augie’s been on a tear,” Norm said, “about Mueller Brothers not making sense, because they aren’t even brothers. Was news to me.”

“And what is Nellis and Associates’ product?” Amelia asked.

I didn’t understand the question. From my backseat view I think I sensed Norm struggle to swallow.

“What?” Amelia pressed.

He remained quiet. In a couple minutes we’d be home and we could ask the gift horse in the mouth. Did I use that expression right? Probably not.

“I’m going to pull my gun,” Amelia mumbled.

Ha. She wasn’t carrying.

“He says we’ll bury the bodies,” he said, “but I’m pretty sure that’s a euphemism. And dig up the jewels.”

I know what a euphemism is, though Augie usually speaks more in black and white. It’s an Aspie thing. His expansion in communication skills is definitely Denny’s influence. The hussy. Was I going to have to start doing a bunch of digging for jewels? Better than getting beat up and shot.

“Better be a euphemism,” Amelia hissed. “I don’t want to have to arrest you people. So why was Augie in such a hurry to get us home?”

“Augie?” Norm gushed. “I just thought. I didn’t. I assumed. You weren’t done in Syracuse?”

For a bright guy Norm doesn’t think on his feet very well. Even when he’s sitting down. He really only does well when he’s in the kitchen, creating. Though he proved himself effective with a pump shotgun under fire last month.

I got one of those killer shudders I get when Augie is telepathically programming my brain, or whatever he does. Not that I believe in telepathy.

Amelia tried to turn in her seat to face me in the back but that isn’t something that’s easy to do with her gaping holes still. “Did you just shudder?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, Lord,” she mumbled.

So she’s figured it out. Maybe Denny told her she gets them from Augie too.

Of course Denny told me she doesn’t believe in telepathy either.

But heck if we can otherwise explain it.

Chapter 6

~

We should have named Chica, Rocket Dog, the way she plows down the stairs when someone enters the house. Her soprano bark tickles the heck out of me. I knelt quickly to give her love before she stripped the flesh off my hips jumping up on me.

Chica gave Amelia a pass for the moment, luckily, since Amelia still isn’t great with leaning over.

Now that we weren’t in the Logan residence, maybe I could start thinking of Amelia as Logan again. I like the name. Another switch might make me dizzy though.

Amelia walked to the nearby settee to greet Chica.

A hey at the top of the stairs drew my attention. Denny. She wore one of her skimpy nighties with nothing over it. Dang the woman has no modesty. Probably was like that before she was blind. “Welcome home, y’all.”

“Hey, Denny,” Amelia and I echoed.

“You guys are settled for the evening, huh?” Amelia called up the stairs.

“Yep,” Denny answered. A grin turned up one side of her face.

I knew what the smile meant. She had her hunky man in the sack and wasn’t through with him. The woman possesses a powerful sex drive. Jeez. One morning Norm thought he needed to explain that to me. Some things I get all by myself.

“Then don’t feel obligated to join us,” Amelia said. “We’ll see you in the morning. I’m exhausted anyway.”

“Night then.” Denny turned and nearly skipped for Augie’s room.

Norm offered to fix us something. I opened my mouth for a heck yeah. But Amelia claimed she ate on the flight. Yeah. She was in first class. We peons got a packet of crackers.

But I followed her for the master suite and Chica danced up the stairs to rejoin Augie and Denny.

“Night then,” Norm said and tromped up the stairs behind her. We called back a thanks for picking us up.

Jeez. A grilled cheese would have been nice.

“Nellis and Associates,” Amelia hissed as she closed our door behind us. “Really?”

I sensed irritation. But kept my mouth shut. That I can usually do without getting shot. I carried her bag to her side of the bed and set it down. Tossed mine toward the bathroom.

“Really? You’re good with that?”

Yep. Irritation.

“What?” I asked, sitting on the bed and kicking off my old runners.

Maybe a new business venture would reduce my concussions in the future. Getting shot is a drag, too.

“Denny’s missing the conscience gene.” Amelia kept with the hissing. “And Augie’s unable to judge risk. That pair is going to get you all killed.”

How could Nellis and Associates be any more dangerous than Mueller Brothers Fugitive Recovery? But I kept my mouth shut. And I figured it was unnecessary to explain I didn’t pick up on all the ramifications and nuances of a new business model. Whatever a business model is.

Amelia’s face softened. “You’re too laid back for your own good.”

No point stressing out if I have no clue what’s going on. “You’ll set me straight, huh?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked.

Uh oh. Why’d I open my mouth?

She planted her fists on her hips for a ten-count, before they slumped to her sides. Her face was sheet-white again.

“Before you pass out,” I said, “why don’t you brush your teeth and come to bed.”

She gave me her you’re-so-frustrating look, before digging a nightie and her toiletries thingy out of her twenty-foot-long bag, and headed for the bathroom. I stripped, pulled back the bedspread for us, and flopped onto the cool sheets. Ah. Felt great.

The constant spike through my forehead tightened for a moment, but as I managed to relax my shoulders, it lessened. I was drifting to sleep when Amelia returned.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly.

For what? I imagine my expression explained my confusion.

“I know I go off,” she said. “You’re very understanding.”

Not really. I figure it’s just safer to keep my mouth shut. It’s sad in a way that she hasn’t really figured out how simple I truly am.

With two hands on the mattress for support she leaned over and gave me a kiss on the mouth. We haven’t ever gotten around to a lot of that. Which, yeah, is a little weird since we sleep together. Maybe that situation just continued forward from her sleeping in her jeans on the bed with me that first night, in North Carolina when we were hunting Ronaldo Moreno. And then, when we ran out of bedrooms here.

Her harness thing was missing. “You’re not wearing the, uh,” I mumbled.

“I withdrew the tube,” she said. “The bag has been empty. Just a little bandage now.”

Oh boy. Her doc would probably be a little ticked with her. “You sure—”

She crawled over me and between the sheets. I enjoyed the view.

“Go. Your turn,” she whispered.

I headed for the bathroom. She was asleep of course when I returned. That was okay. I turned off the light and crawled into bed as gently as I could. She groaned as I settled, and her hand reached out for my shoulder.

I have no clue how I impressed this incredible woman, but I was definitely the luckiest guy in Florida. I lay back and tried to relax. Maybe the soft touch of Amelia’s fingertips interfered. Or her irritation with the whole Nellis and Associates-thing jerked at some of my loose synapses.

Then the odd situation of Denny and Augie, and Norm, and Roger living upstairs jangled old chains as though I lived in the pages of A Christmas Carol.

Our house comfortably holds our gang. It sounds weirder than it is. Of course Denny still has her home on Harbour Island, and Augie often sleeps over there. So it isn’t completely the fraternity house it sounds.

I have all these brothers in my life now. One an Aspie who was pretty much uncommunicative five months ago, sleeping with one of the sexiest females this side of I-40. Another dating my mother. I should shoot him. I have no idea how Norm became a roomie. He just moved in.

Then the all too common memory hit. Michael, Roger, and me blasting away with shotguns, into those six SUVs full of Ronaldo Moreno’s enforcers. The spray of auto glass, blood, and gray matter splatter replayed through my brain over and over. My stomach twisted.

Crud.

I was hungry. And no way was I going to sleep. I didn’t want to put words to that day in Miami. But I’d killed men. All three of us had. Our deed was on the national news for a week. It was called a drug war. The journalists had no clue. It was kill or be killed. We rattled a dangerous, powerful man.

Then my dad came to mind. I really didn’t need to be thinking about him.

I unwound from Amelia and the sheets and headed for the kitchen, stood in front of the fridge looking for anything I could nuke, and the soft pad of feet descending the stairs reached me.

“I thought you’d need something to eat,” Norm said.

He wore a baggie white tee and boxers. Bare feet. Had to admit he looked dandy with his chrome dome. Odd, me just in my boxers, no shirt. Maybe not odd for a fraternity house.

“You know these cannibals around here never leave leftovers,” he whispered.

I shut the fridge door and sighed.

“Amelia looked tired,” he said.

I nodded. He was pulling the panini press out of the cabinet. Um. I pulled the fridge door open and grabbed up the bread, Velveeta, and oleo, and lined them up for Norm. While the press heated, he grabbed a beer and gave me a head tilt. Milk went better with grilled cheese, but why not.

He handed me the first bottle and grabbed another. Our piffs echoed loudly.

“It tough with the in-laws in New York?” he asked.

In-laws? I hadn’t started thinking of the Logans that way. As indirect as Amelia and my relationship has been—we’d likely never settle into what others might consider normal. Especially with our house situation. Good thing the place had plenty of bed and bathrooms.

“Actually was pretty nice,” I said. “Though Amelia felt under the magnifying glass. But it had less to do with her and me, you know.”

He nodded and slugged back a gulp of Corona. Wiped his mouth. “I’m dying. I have to ask. So what’s with, you know.”

“She never brought it up,” I whispered.

“And you didn’t ask?” His brow arched higher than they seemed they should be able. Gave him an odd look with the new doo, or lack of.

No way was I going to press Amelia. And didn’t want her to feel as though every word she uttered to Denny was going to be in my ear a minute later.

“Don’t you think, just maybe.” Norm paused. “She told Denny knowing she’d blab, expecting you to give her a nod, kind of, if it was something you were open to?”

A neon light blinded me for a moment and electricity shot up my arms. I almost dropped my Corona. Wouldn’t have been a big loss. I really don’t care for the aftertaste. It’s too much like real beer. Prefer Mich Ultra.

Norm was next to me grabbing the bottle out of my hand. “You okay, buddy?”

I blinked away the flashing remnants of the super nova. “Whoa.”

“Didn’t mean to shock you,” he said. “Women can be roundabout sneaky, no question about it.”

I had no idea what he meant. “What?”

“You have to admit you don’t give her a lot of feedback.”

“Huh?”

“Dang, you’re dense,” he said.

A friend is a true friend when they realize your failings but still put up with you.

 

Copyright 2016 R. Mac Wheeler  - Do not duplicate

Slacker Jon Reagan often challenges his life expectancy since he and his best pal, an autistic genius, partnered with a couple of bounty hunters. In their private war against drug dealers, Jon snagged a sexy FBI agent girlfriend, but he promptly got her shot. He’s been beaten to a pulp and tested his Kevlar far more than is wise, enough his partners often mumble, “Bullets love you.” When he thinks karma may cut him a break, more of the same piles on when family skeletons and a new load of disasters slap him upside the head. He faces a life decision. Odds don’t favor him living to make it.