R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author Urban Fantasy Fantasy Dystopian
S hared   life   and   death   experiences   build   bonds.   No   doubt   part   of   why the   four   partners   have   grown   into   a   surprisingly   cohesive   team.   An autistic   genius,   a   go-with-the-flow   slacker,   and   two   brothers   with   an unspoken   history   are   fresh   off   an   East   Coast   tour   sticking   it   to   one drug   lord.   The   vacuum   they   created   in   the   southeast   drug   corridor   is sucking   the   partners   into   an   ever-deepening   hole.   They   can’t   count how   many   are   trying   to   kill   them.   The   distraction   of   romance   may   be the   coup   de   grace .   They   survived   by   their   toenails   the   first   time around. Not looking good the second.
Chapter 1 ~ I    was   never   supposed   to   be   face-to-face   with   miscreants.   That   was   the   idea.   That’s   how my   relationship   with   the   Muellers   was   proposed.   But   that   lasted   about   as   long   as   a   sweet tea after mowing the lawn on a summer day in Tampa. I   could   have   said   no.   I’m   pretty   sure   Michael’s   familiar   with   the   concept.   But   only one   of   the   partners   ever   overrule   Michael.   And   Augie   was   particularly   gung   ho   with   me staking out the sidewalk today. I wonder why. Did he even suggest it? I   can’t   remember.   I   have   to   admit   I   pretty   much   zone   out   when   the   three   of   them start strategizing how to nab one of Goldman’s fleet-footed bond skips. With    what    we    earned    pulling    in    Scarface    and    his    slugs    last    month    you’d    think Michael   would   be   ready   to   sever   the   Goldman   connection.   But   after   ten   years,   maybe Michael’s in a rut. That’s funny. Michael   Mueller   in   a   rut.   One   of   the   Dynamic   Duo,   in   a   rut.   The   man   is   a   cross between   Fabio   and   the   Hulk.   With   his   swagger   and   tattoos,   looks   more   like   a   Greek   god, incapable   of   anything   less   than   perfection.   I   hate   him.   No   man   should   be   so   good looking.   Especially   an   old   man.   And   his   supposed-brother   Roger   is   no   step   down,   less the long hair and tats. I   still   haven’t   broached   the   “brother”   subject   with   either   of   them.   No   way   they’re brothers.   Michael’s   in   his   late   fifties.   Six   years   in   the   Marines,   three   in   the   police   force, three   executing   this   insanity…okay   so   Roger’s   older   than   he   looks.   Has   to   have   passed thirty. But they can’t be brothers. So why the whole, brother game? Dang,   my   mind   wanders   during   a   stake   out.   I   need   to   start   paying   attention   during our   planning   sessions.   Maybe   I   wouldn’t   get   stuck   hanging   out   on   Seventh   Avenue   in the July heat. I’ll bet Roger found some shade in the back parking lot. I   turned   to   identify   the   approaching   clack ,   clack .   A   youngish   female,   late-twenties maybe,   hard   to   tell   with   her   broad   sunglasses,   measured   her   distance   to   the   storefronts with   her   extended,   white   cane   as   she   strode   down   the   sidewalk.   Reddish   hair   flowed over   both   shoulders,   which   under   her   sleeveless   smock   looked   as   though   they’d   seen plenty   of   reps   on   a   lat   bench.   Her   black,   Spandex   shorts   like   they   wear   playing   volleyball made   her   legs   look   a   mile   long,   ending   in   hikers,   had   to   be   Merrells.   That’s   all   Roger wears outside the gym. “What are you staring at?” she shouted. I   jumped,   and   a   little   extra   heat   soaked   my   face,   above   what   the   three   o’clock   heat provided. “Excuse me?” blurted across my vocal cords. “Just because you think I’m blind it’s okay to gawk like an idiot?” “I, I—” “You   jerk!”   She   was   only   six   feet   away   now   and   not   veering.   She   raised   that   cane. The red stripe toward the tip flicked through the air. Ah,   crap.   She   was   swinging   it   at   me?   I   cringed   with   the   downward   motion   of   her hand,   but   a   clatter   preceded   the   disintegration   of   her   weapon.   I   followed   the   six   red   and white   segments   flutter   in   front   of   my   eyes   before   they   snapped   back   in   place,   into   a single,   rigid   line.   She   laughed   as   she   stubbed   it   into   the   sidewalk.   The   laugh   was   more   a bark.   Nothing   like   Chica’s   yip.   Chica   is   our   new   companion.   The   sweetest   Pit   Bull   in   the world. Anyway, the red-haired chick’s laugh exploded out of her mouth. “I   wish   I   could   read   your   expression,”   she   said.   “I’ll   bet   you   look   as   big   the   fool   as you act.” I opened my mouth, but there were no thoughts to build words with. “You were too,” she snapped. “Were what?” “Gawking.   Admit   it.   You   were   gawking.   Didn’t   your   momma   ever   tell   you   it’s   rude   to stare?” “I, I—” “Slow witted, are you? I guess you have an excuse then.” “I’m not—” “Don’t deny it.” I    looked    up    to    gaze    into    her    sunglasses,    below    the    bill    of    her    black    cap.    I    still slouched   from   cringing   from   her   attack.   I   stood   up   straight   and   found   I   still   pretty   much met   her   eye-to-eye.   At   six-two,   I   don’t   look   eye-to-eye   with   many   women.   Sweat   dripped off   her   nose.   I   realized   her   thin   cotton   smock   was   plastered   to   her   flesh,   which   darkened the   material   in   tantalizing   places.   She’d   been   doing   some   serious,   power   walking   in   this heat. “Mostly,”   she   muttered,   twisting   a   belt   at   her   waist.   A   sport   bottle   came   into   view   off her   hip.   A   very   curvy   hip.   The   Lycra   clung   to   her   muscled   glutes,   dipped   between   her ilium and pelvis. I’m staring again. “Mostly what?” I asked. “Mostly   blind,   but   I   can   make   out   shapes   in   bright   light.”   She   uncapped   her   bottle and   took   a   swig.   The   suction   sound   of   an   empty   bottle   preceded   her   curse.   “You   can make up your slight by buying me a Gatorade.” “What slight?” “Being a rude shit.” Potty mouth. My Mom would give her a ration of grief. “The   deli—”   She   shrugged   her   thumb   at   the   shop   one   door   down.   “I’ll   wait   here   for you.” “I, I—” “You stutter all your life?” she asked. “I don’t—” A   blaring   car   horn   interrupted   me.   I   turned.   Augie   barreled   across   the   street   from where   he’d   been   lounging   at   the   outside   café,   without   looking   before   he   crossed   the street.   The   car   with   New   Jersey   plates   gave   Augie   a   second   and   third,   irritated   blast. Augie   didn’t   even   look   toward   the   driver   much   less   wave   an   apology.   He   held   his   laptop across his chest with both hands. “Augie! Look before—” He    managed    a    bored    wave    my    way,    before    re-clamping    his    mitt    around    his computer.   He   jumped   over   the   curb   with   an   uncharacteristic   sense   of   energy.   His   eyes weren’t   executing   their   Cylon   programming,   meaning   they   focused   high,   without   the nervous left to right twitch. They were pasted onto my recent antagonist. “You are,” Augie gushed, “You’re Denise Abana.” He was lately on a kick testing out contractions again. He hates that we notice. “That a statement or a question?” the female of his attention asked. “Observation. A word you use too much,” Augie said. Augie knew this woman? “Use too much?” I asked. “I’m Augustus Nellis.” The    woman’s    expression    turned    from    irritation    to    strong    ire.    “Oh,    God!”    She shouted. “You live in my city. You son of a bitch. I hate you.” “That’s mean,” Augie and I said together. She   turned   more   my   way.   “I’ve   almost   quit   blogging   because   of   this   A-hole.   He   a friend of yours? Another reason not to like you, and I was about to accept your apology.” “I have nothing to apologize for.” “You consider undressing me with your eyes couth behavior?” “I’m   excited   to   get   to   meet   you.”   Augie’s   eyes   were   back   to   Cylonning.   If   I   didn’t know better, I’d say his eyes were going from one of Denise’s breasts to another. Maybe they were. “Didn’t   you   get   the   hint   when   I   stopped   approving   your   comments?”   She   didn’t sound very happy. “As   a   writer   I’d   expect   you   to   be   more   open   to   honest   critique.”   Augie’s   tone   sounded a little bit like a corrected four-year-old. “Writer?” I asked. “In private!” I flinched from her shriek. “Give me your frickin’ criticism in private!” The three of us stood in an uncomfortable silence for four seconds. “He’s heading east. He’s heading east! He’s heading east!” Augie   didn’t   need   to   shout   the   third   warning.   The   second   heading   east   connected with   my   synapses,   even   if   my   body   hadn’t   yet   reacted.   I   turned   and   caught   our   skip heading   away   from   the   cigar   shop,   a   front   for   a   modest   pot   distributor,   which   we   were staking out. How did I miss him entering? “Crud,”   I   muttered,   frozen   for   lack   of   a   decision.   Michael   is   going   to   be   pissed   I didn’t warn him and Roger to get in position. The   man   never   met   a   grudge   he   couldn’t   grasp   for   eternity.   I   didn’t   look   forward   to his   anger.   I   had   to   do   something.   I   sprang   into   a   sprint,   even   though   I   had   no   idea   what the   hell   I   was   going   to   do.   In   my   ear   bud,   Augie   was   informing   them   after   the   fact, adding that I was being stupid. Good ole, Augie. He has a way of summarizing a situation succinctly. Our   skip   looked   over   his   shoulder,   evidently   in   response   to   my   footfalls,   or   my feverish   self-muttering.   Maybe   he   sensed   my   panic.   He   didn’t   run.   That   was   great.   Or was   it?   He   turned   to   face   me,   his   expression   turning   a   little   murderous.   I   think   I   lost   a little   energy   in   my   stride.   No.   I   lost   a   lot   of   vim   in   my   pursuit.   Made   sense.   No   reason   to run after him if he wasn’t running away. When   I   was   within   conversation   distance,   he   drew   back   a   fist   that   rushed   to   meet   my face    with    amazing    speed.    I    had    to    have    hurt    his    hand    good,    because    I    felt    myself stumbling   backward,   though   I   couldn’t   see   a   thing   since   day   turned   to   pitch   night.   The earth   tilted   and   my   shoulder   and   head   connected   with   firm   surfaces   probably   forged   in Detroit   by   the   tinny   sound   in   my   head,   before   it   clearly   executed   a   final   landing   into hard, hot concrete. Chapter 2 ~ A ugie loomed over me, his expression twinged with disrespect. “You going to live?” This   was   a   nasty   habit,   waking   up   on   the   ground.   Even   considering   a   few   years   of Pee   Wee   football   once   upon   a   time,   I   had   never   lost   consciousness   before   meeting Michael   and   Roger   Mueller.   I   couldn’t   count   the   times   since.   Too   many.   Would   I   have another concussion? All I needed. “That looks like it hurts,” Augie said. A   grating   chuckle   made   me   turn   my   head,   which   shafted   a   pain   diagonally   through my skull. What was her name? I couldn’t remember. The writer. “He split his face open?” she asked. “His lip looks like a balloon.” “Cool,” she muttered. The   blood   coating   my   fingertips   didn’t   imply   anything   cool.   It   took   me   a   few   seconds to   realize   the   blood   came   from   my   nose.   I   pinched   the   nostrils   closed   and   tried   to   sit   up. Old,   historic   Ybor   City   wobbled   around   me.   I   think   I   may   have   muttered   a   word   my Mom would have threatened me with a bar of Ivory for. The   worst—I   could   feel   my   heartbeat   in   my   upper   lip,   which   was   three-times   normal size.   It   felt   like   I   wore   Halloween   lips.   Fresh   pain   radiated   from   the   back   of   my   head, jaw,   and   teeth   in   general.   I   flicked   my   tongue   around   to   ensure   I   had   all   twenty-eight   or however many teeth I’m supposed to have. I didn’t feel any gaps. “What   happened?”   I   didn’t   have   to   ask.   It   flooded   back   to   me   like   a   nightmare. “Stink. Did they get him?” My   tongue   flicked   at   my   fat   lip.   That   sucker   packed   a   wallop.   I   hope   Roger   dislocated the jerk’s shoulders when he slipped the wire ties on his wrists. “Two blocks down,” Augie mumbled. “No thanks to you.” I pressed my hand against the hot concrete to stand. “Your friend distracted me.” “Whiner.” “He’s not my friend,” the female said. I   kept   my   eyes   on   her   as   I   stood,   not   because   I   worried   she   might   club   me   with   that cane   for   real   this   time.   I   was   just   revisiting   her   physique.   She   had   great   genes.   I   had caught her washboard abs under her smock before I stood. “What’s your name again?” I asked. “My friends call me Denny.” “You have any of those?” Augie    snorted.    He    didn’t    respond    to    humor    as    a    rule.    All    emotion    except    for impatience is pretty much beyond his capacity. So I gave him a double-take. He mumbled a “What?” “You   two   are   a   riot,”   Denny   said.   “I   think   I’ve   got   two   new   characters   for   my   next novel. Too bad the names Dumb and Dumber have been over-exposed.” I    could    have    eventually    collected    a    wise    comeback    but    I    focused    on    my    new afflictions, particularly my lip. Dang it was huge. “I need some ice.” “Won’t   help   much,”   Augie   said.   “You’ve   got   a   hematoma.   It   will   reabsorb,   but   may take a few weeks.” My shriek hurt my head. “Weeks! I’m going to wear this cucumber for weeks?” “Maybe   a   doctor   could   drain   it,”   Augie   said   without   a   lot   of   sympathy,   one   of   the emotions he’s particularly not so good with. As in, not at all. His   prognosis   didn’t   help.   Since   quitting   my   job   to   join   the   Muellers,   I   don’t   have any   insurance.   I   need   to   look   into   that.   I   could   foresee   Michael   in   the   near-future shouting, “You cheap bastard.” “You two don’t sound like cops,” Denny said. “What’s up with all the chasing?” “We   are   fugitive   recover   agents,”   Augie   answered.   He’d   momentarily   dropped   the contractions, evidently. Denny   laughed.   Too   hard   and   too   long.   My   face   burned.   I   needed   to   get   out   of   the sun. I turned for my Mustang. Oddly, Augie didn’t fall in step. “Bounty   hunters?”   Denny’s   voice   followed   after   me.   “Really?   No   lie?   I’ve   written about them but—” “Toni was a little too-perfect for my tastes,” Augie said. I   stopped   two   storefronts   down   the   block   to   watch   the   conversation   between   the   she- devil   and   Augie.   They   sounded   as   though   they   re-lived   some   old   anger   issues.   I   didn’t want to get in the middle of that. So   besides   getting   into   his   own   blogging,   Augie   had   found   a   favorite   novelist   to harass   in   comments?   I   might   have   normally   found   that   funny,   but   the   blood   backing   up in   my   sinuses   and   a   balloon   for   a   lip   kept   me   from   appreciating   any   humor   in   the situation. I turned and resumed my trek. I   got   into   the   Mustang   and   snatched   the   last   two   tissues   from   the   mini-box   in   the center   console.   I   didn’t   wipe   away   much   new   blood,   but   I   shredded   the   thin   tissues cleaning   up   my   hand.   Augie   would   have   one   of   those   wipes   in   his   pocket.   He   never   went anywhere without a supply. Nothing   but   static   answered   me   back   when   I   tried   to   reach   Michael   and   Roger.   They must   be   out   of   range,   so   I   turned   off   the   radio   and   pulled   it   off   my   hip,   unthreaded   the cord out from under my shirt. The   air   conditioner   was   just   getting   nice   and   cool   when   Augie   turned   the   corner   for the   back   parking   lot.   The   she-devil   tap-tapped   beside   him.   I   rolled   my   eyes,   which   didn’t help   the   growing   headache.   Just   wonderful.   I   had   to   get   away   from   the   Muellers   and their lifestyle. Why    was    it    they    were    the    ones    who    were    supposed    to    be    the    muscle    in    our partnership, yet I ended up with the stitches and concussions? But   I   have   a   mortgage   now,   responsibilities,   and   have   already   signed   up   for   classes at   the   community   college.   Was   there   any   backing   out?   I’m   already   tired   of   waking   up   on the ground. Augie   opened   the   passenger   door   and   in   a   surreal   turn   of   events,   crawled   into   what Ford   calls   a   backseat.   Anyone   who   drives   a   Mustang   knows   it’s   not   really   a   backseat. More    like    an    oversized    glove    box.    And    he    was    giving    up    his     seat?    Without    any discussion? Denny   the   writer   folded   into   the   front-passenger   seat.   I   might   have   glared   at   her,   but she   didn’t   take   exception.   She   was   busy   finding   the   AC   vents   and   getting   them   turned   to her satisfaction. “Where   are   you   going?”   came   out   of   my   voice   box.   No   thought   process   went   before the   words.   A   habit   of   mine.   One   I   should   try   to   amend.   It   tended   to   get   me   in   more trouble than I deserve. “I’m   done   writing   for   the   afternoon.   I’ll   honor   you   lucky   slobs   with   my   effervescent presence. Besides, you still owe me a Gatorade. Have any at home?” I   looked   over   my   shoulder   at   Augie   but   he   ignored   me,   for   the   most   part,   though   he rocked   a   bit,   his   uncomfortable   rock.   Had   he   invited   the   she-devil,   or   had   she   tagged along   and   he   hoped   I’d   find   a   way   to   dump   her?   I   decided   the   former   and   settled   into my seatbelt and shifted the car into gear. “Seat belt! Seat belt!” Augie shouted at Denny. “Fine, fine,” she mumbled, connecting her own. Licking   my   engorged   upper   lip,   I   threaded   through   the   empty   tanker   traffic   flowing south   on   21 st    Street   for   Port   Tampa,   and   merged   into   the   full   tanker   traffic   heading north   on   22 nd .   It   occurred   to   me   how   weird   it   was   for   a   woman   to   be   getting   into   a   car with two strangers. Men. Presumably heading for their home. There   was   something   wrong   with   this   picture.   Augie   and   I   clearly   didn’t   appear threatening.   For   a   blind   chick,   she   was   very   trusting.   Or   did   her   history   on-line   with Augie   exclude   danger   in   her   mind?   Or   had   she   accepted   the   danger   in   order   to   get   an inside look at professional bounty hunters? I laughed out loud. “What’s funny?” Denny asked. I   shot   her   a   glance.   The   cold   air   on   her   sweaty   smock   had   made   her   nipples   rise provocatively.   The   she-devil   was   enticing,   for   raw   evil.   I   considered   keeping   all   my thoughts   to   myself,   but   as   usual,   besides   hematomas   and   concussions,   I   also   suffer   from diarrhea of the mouth. “If   you   expect   to   get   a   glimpse   at   the   typical   bounty   hunter,   you   are   seriously   off course.” “Why do you say that?” she asked. That    kind    of    stumped    me.    Wasn’t    that    obvious?    But    then,    she    was    missing    an element important to observation. “You mean because you’re a dork and your buddy is a social moron?” She   practiced   her   horse   laugh   again   and   the   shiver   I   attribute   to   Augie’s   spooky, Vulcan mind-messing, crimped me from shoulder to toes. I   tapped   the   top   of   the   steering   wheel   with   the   palm   of   my   hand,   a   habit   I   had   picked up   from   Michael.   I   needed   a   snappy   comeback   for   Denny’s   visceral   insult.   But   nothing came to me. “No stinging retort bleeding into your brain cells?” she asked. Not just a she-devil, but a witch spelled with a B. My   mom   raised   me   not   to   use   that   term.   But   I   wanted   to.   Why   is   this   woman   tagging along if she thinks we’re idiots? “You   must   be   really   bored.”   I   grimaced.   I   know   those   words   came   from   Augie.   I   tried to   shoot   him   a   glare   in   the   rearview   mirror   but   he   was   slumped   into   the   back   glove   box out of view. “Pretty   much,”   Denny   mumbled.   “Where   do   you   live?”   she   asked   as   I   accelerated   up the I-4 onramp. “Something you don’t know?” “Oh. Finally thought of a retort. And it ripped me to my core. Oh my heart flutters.” “Smart ass,” I hissed. “Pretty    much.    So    the    two    vehicles    that    sped    down    Seventh    Avenue    were    your partners, the real bounty hunters? I sighed. “Yeah. Pretty much.” “So they keep you around for comic relief?” I   tried   to   catch   Augie   in   the   rearview   mirror   again.   Nothing   doing.   Couldn’t   he   jump in   some   time?   Denny   the   she-devil   was   with   us   because   of   him.   His   blog-buddy.   I considered   explaining   we   were   the   brains   of   the   outfit   but   didn’t   want   to   hear   her   harsh laugh again. Maybe it was time to change the subject. “So what kind of novels do you write?” “I’m crushed. My name doesn’t mean anything to you?” “I   don’t   read   that   much,”   I   said   softly.   At   least   since   the   Muellers.   I   used   to   have   a book in my hand all the time. “Big   surprise,   a   male   adult   who   doesn’t   read.   America   will   become   impotent   because of our lazy-minded men.” Augie   read   enough   for   a   hundred   adult   males.   Should   I   brag   on   that   one?   She probably   wouldn’t   believe   me.   But   then,   she’d   know   he   read   her   books.   I   worked   on   a dig of my own. “So you don’t write anything the typical male would read?” “I use multi-syllabic words, so no, very few of my fans are men.” I   waited   for   Augie   to   speak   up,   to   brag   he   read   her   books,   but   silence   continued   to emit from the rear glove box. Nothing   but   the   hum   of   the   highway   and   AC   broke   the   silence   for   five   minutes.   I   was clearing   the   traffic   of   the   I-275   I-4   mash   before   that   changed,   with   Denny   fingering   the dash   to   turn   on   the   radio.   It   was   tuned   to   AM   talk   radio.   Michael   had   obviously   been   the last    rider    interested    in    the    radio.    I    expected    Denny    to    balk    about    the    redneck, Republican ranting, but she surprised me. “Oh. Didn’t expect you to follow sane political avenues.” Oh boy. Michael is going to love this chick. Chapter 3 ~ L eaving   Denny   on   the   back   deck   by   herself,   I    sat   at   the   dining   table   to   ice   my   lip.   Augie stood   at   the   far   counter,   our   recent   addition,   Chica   the   Pit   Bull   pup,   curled   around   his feet.   Augie   looked   with   concern   out   the   window   facing   the   backyard.   He   wasn’t   keen   on the   whole   idea   of   swimming,   and   less   interested   in   looking   over   any   kind   of   body   of water,   but   he   kept   Denny   in   sight.   Suddenly   he   whirled   around,   horror   etching   his   face. I leaped from the table as the sound of a splash whispered through the French doors. “Did she fall in!” “Worse,” Augie screamed. Chica whined. I   couldn’t   imagine   what   could   be   worse,   but   I   flew   through   the   door   leaving   my   ice bag   on   the   kitchen   counter,   imagining   the   task   of   explaining   to   EMTs   why   a   dead   blind woman   floated   in   our   pool.   I   prepared   to   dive   in   but   nothing   seemed   extraordinarily   out of    place,    outside    the    fact    that    a    naked    woman    executed    a    breast    stroke    across    the breadth of the pool. Somehow   I   managed   to   draw   my   eyes   away   from   the   willowy   image   of   her   bare backside   and   shoulders   that   glistened   bronze   except   for   tell-tale   strokes   of   white   where the straps of a swimming suit normally resided. She must love the outdoors. “I   might   should’ve   warned   you   the   privacy   fence   probably   doesn’t   close   the   pool   off from the neighbors’ upstairs bedrooms.” She   reached   the   far   side   of   the   pool,   turned,   and   started   back   my   way.   I   sucked   in   a breath.   Yes,   the   glimpse   of   her   breasts   wasn’t   unpleasant,   but   the   color   of   her   eyes grabbed   me   by   the   throat   and   gave   me   a   shake.   They   were   an   unnatural   turquoise,   right off the cover of a fantasy novel, or a woman’s magazine. “You have beautiful eyes.” I    couldn’t    believe    those    words    came    out    of    my    mouth.    The    shiver    that    usually preceded   the   thoughts   Augie   thrust   into   my   cranium   wracked   my   shoulders.   So.   The words weren’t mine, but I didn’t disagree with the emotions. “I’ve    heard    that    so    many    times    I    couldn’t    tell    you.”    Her    face    dipped    below    the surface.   When   she   came   up,   she   spit   out   pool   water.   “This   water   is   freezing.   Feels   great.” Her   face   went   under   again,   but   she’d   reached   the   end   of   the   pool.   Her   tanned   hands folded   over   the   ledge.   Her   head   rose,   tilted   back   exposing   the   most   beautiful   throat imaginable.   The   water   and   sun   turned   the   red   hues   of   her   long   hair   burgundy,   a   shade as unnatural as her eyes. “The   water   in   the   gulf   is   already   in   the   mid-eighties.   Like   a   frickin’   sauna.   Hate   that. I should move north. Or at least to the East Coast of Florida.” “Augie would miss you.” I stamped my foot and whirled around. Augie’s   face   quickly   disappeared   from   the   window.   If   he   didn’t   stop   putting   words   in my mouth, I might give his laptop a feel of the pool temperature. “No!” echoed through the French doors. Chica whined. “Was that Augie?” Denny asked. I   turned   around.   Denny’s   arms   were   crossed   before   her   face,   her   legs   straight   out kicking,   giving   me   an   even   better   look   at   her   backside.   My   face   twinged-volcanic   and   I forced my eyes on hers. “Takes   me   four   bus   rides   to   get   to   Clearwater   Beach,”   she   continued.   “You   ever   go   to the be—oh. I guess you probably don’t need to, with the pool and all.” My   mind   spun   over   the   last   three   weeks,   since   we   got   back   from   our   trip   north.   Had I   been   in   the   pool   yet?   Nope.   Not   once.   At   least   Roger   took   a   dip   every   day   when   he returned from the gym. “We just moved into this place,” I said. She   stopped   kicking,   and   her   miles   of   leg   settled,   out   of   view.   She   rested   her   chin   on the    back    of    her    hand,    eyes    closed.    It    gave    the    she-devil    an    angelic    look,    proving appearances can be deceiving. “Who’s we?” “Me, Augie, and one of our partners, Roger.” “Augie your brother?” A spot in my chest warmed, and I smiled. “Not by blood.” The   French   doors   opened,   and   I   turned.   Augie’s   arm   extended   out   of   the   house,   only his   arm,   holding   the   ice   bag.   That’s   more   of   him   to   stray   near   the   pool   since   we   first walked   through   the   house   a   month   ago.   I’ve   seen   him   sit   in   Michael’s   truck   and   watch bullets   shattering   the   windshield   without   flinching,   but   he   hated   the   pool.   Yet   he   walked out on the pier every Thursday to feed the ducks. Augie is an enigma. I   strode   to   retrieve   the   ice   and   returned,   sitting   on   the   deck   step   ten   feet   from Denny. “We’re close to the bay here?” she asked. “I smell ocean.” “About three-hundred yards. Off Bayshore.” Denny   sighed.   “When   I   worked   downtown,   a   lifetime   ago,   I   ran   Bayshore   every afternoon.” She   kept   her   eyes   closed.   Her   mouth   puckered   in   that   silent   curse,   though.   This woman   hadn’t   accepted   her   loss.   I   wanted   to   ask   about   her   blindness,   but   there   was   a benign   peace   vibrating   from   her   for   the   moment,   so   I   remained   quiet.   Turning   my thoughts   inward,   the   cold   of   the   ice   felt   blistering.   I   switched   hands   and   tried   to   focus   on the   Mockingbirds   calling   to   each   other   from   the   trees,   the   hum   of   the   Crosstown   the only other sound. The   mugginess   of   the   afternoon,   even   with   the   ice   at   my   face,   began   to   wear   on   me before she spoke again. “I   know   I   can   be   a   bitch.   Has   nothing   to   do   with   my   blindness.   My   dad   once   said   I turned   bitch   on   my   fifteenth   birthday   and   never   looked   back.   Doesn’t   help,   that   my   new lifestyle   can   be   stifling.   It’s   a   lot   harder   to   cast   out   the   demons   now.   Even   going   to   the gym isn’t what it once was. And forget about kicking the hell out of a punching bag.” A   new   anger   crossed   her   face.   Her   eyes   opened,   staring.   The   shiver,   which   preceded Augie’s   intrusion,   crossed   my   shoulders,   and   I   sensed   a   bit   of   the   conflicting   emotions Augie picked up. I grimaced. I   often   repeat   to   myself   that   I   don’t   believe   in   all   the   paranormal   mumbo   jumbo   I used   to   explain   the   communication   I   receive   from   Augie,   but   I   don’t   have   any   other explanation for the thoughts that sink into my head as subtle as a sledgehammer. “Why’d you come here with us?” I asked. “If that isn’t too dumb a question.” “You mean, your rudeness aside?” I smiled. “Yeah, besides that. A little crazy to get in the car with two crazy men.” “Augie   drove   me   up   a   frickin’   tree   when   he   first   started   commenting   on   my   blog. When   I   settled   down   and   considered   his   comments   with   what   little   objectivity   I   could muster, I realized he was a frickin’ genius. His observations were always spot on.” “That can be really annoying.” She   finally   smiled.   “I   considered   asking   him—”   She   opened   her   eyes   wide   and   cocked her head. “He can’t hear us can he?” I   wrenched   around   to   see   if   Augie   might   be   at   the   window   or   French   door.   He wasn’t,   so   I   shook   my   head,   before   realizing   that   wasn’t   going   to   do   it.   “He’s   probably tapping away in the dining room.” “Tapping?” “He lives on his laptop.” “Probably giving some other writer advice.” “He sends a lot of emails to our senators, too.” A   shadow   of   a   grin   repeated   on   her   lips.   “So   don’t   tell   him   I   almost   wet   myself   when I   realized   I   was   talking   to   my   nemesis.   Who   I’ve   been   learning   tons   from   the   last   few weeks.” “Learning?” I prompted. “This   writing   thing—was   never   intended   to   be   a   career.   No   preparation   for   it.   Never took   a   writing   class   in   my   life.   I   always   read   a   lot,   but   my   previous   occupation   prepared me a bit.” “Which was?” She   remained   silent   long   enough   for   my   stomach   to   ratchet   tight.   I   managed   a   little gasp of air when she finally continued. “I   was   preparing   to   get   my   masters   in   chemistry   when   I   learned   my   difficulty   reading wasn’t just—” I believe her chest expanded. Her eyes turned a bit red. “I went to law school instead. Have no idea how I decided on that one.” Her   expression   turned   again,   lips   clamping   tight,   and   I   knew   she   wasn’t   going   to continue.   I   didn’t   blame   her.   Her   story   probably   required   several   glasses   of   wine   after   a good   dinner,   and   a   sounding   board   she   had   known   longer   than   thirty   minutes.   A   bit   of panic struck me. How did I ease her away from this emotional thread? I’m   not   big   on   conflict,   and   certainly   hated   the   idea   of   a   moody   female   ruining   the karma   around   here,   borrowing   one   of   Roger’s   favorite   clichés.   The   dang   shiver   crossed my shoulders and my lips started flapping. “So    since    you    didn’t    know    how    to    ask    for    Augie’s    help    in    an    on-going    basis,    it occurred to you to just apply yourself to his hip and see what happens.” She   snorted.   “I’ve   sold   maybe   four-hundred   books   on   Amazon.   The   few   reviews   I’ve gotten   make   me   wonder   why   I   even   go   on.   I   guess   it’s   better   than   putting   a   bullet   in   my brain.” I   jolted,   and   the   ice   bag   flew   out   of   my   hand.   I   choked   for   a   moment   on   my   own saliva. “You going to live?” “I, I—” “You’re back to stuttering.” “I don’t stutter.” “But you sure get rattled easily.” A half-smile dimpled her right cheek. My   phone   alarm   went   off,   making   me   jerk   again.   I   closed   my   eyes   with   a   brand   new worry as I dug into my cargo shorts to shut the alarm up. “That you?” she asked. “A    reminder,”    I    mumbled,    pulling    up    the    webpage    for    flight    statuses.    I    almost choked   again.   Logan’s   flight   was   running   early.   Who   ever   heard   of   flights   originating   out of La Guardia running early? What    would    Logan    think,    showing    up    here    and    finding    a    naked    woman    in    my swimming   pool?   Not   that   she   would   be   in   the   pool   necessarily   in   an   hour   but—   I   was panicking. Take a slow breath. Take a slow breath. “Did I just hear your heart explode?” Denny asked. “I have to shower, run to the airport.” “You   shower,   then    go   for   a   run?   Interesting   routine.   You   have   a   nice   route   between here and the airport?” “A friend is flying in from New York.” “Friend?” “We worked together bringing this big drug dealer out of hiding.” Her brow rose. “Not that Moreno guy? I read about that.” I   sucked   in   a   breath.   We   had   really   worked   hard   to   keep   our   names   out   of   the papers. Michael would be pissed to learn I just blabbed. “I’ll   get   you   a   towel,”   I   said   standing.   “Maybe   find   a   tee   and   some   gym   shorts   you   can put on, so you don’t have to put on your sweaty stuff.” “Such a gentleman.” She reached out. “Give me a hand.” “I don’t think so.” I hurried to collect the ice bag and ran for the house. Chapter 4 ~ L ogan   stepped   off   the   curb   to   my   right,   in   front   of   the   long   line   of   taxis   just   inside   the curve   leading   to   the   arrivals   pickup   area.   No   waiting   for   her   with   the   other   Jetblue commuters.    Blond    hair    in    her    pony,    she    wore    her    standard    sweatshirt,    FBI    boldly imprinted on the front. Her service weapon jutted off her hip. Isn’t she on vacation? Wearing her gun? I   veered   to   pull   up   out   of   the   way   of   the   cars   behind   me.   I   pressed   the   unlock   as   her hand   reached   for   the   door.   She   had   it   open   before   I   came   to   a   complete   stop.   There   is nothing   dainty   about   her.   My   mind   jolted   with   a   thought   about   Denny.   Would   she   be gone when we got back? Oh, I hope so. “Hey,   Logan.   Welcome   to   Tampa,”   I   gushed   as   she   swung   a   heavy   gym   bag   over   the seat, into the back glove box. She lithely settled into the passenger seat, eyeing me oddly. “What?” “You want me to call you Reagan?” Stink. She was already busting me. “Uh, everyone calls me Jon.” “Well, my friends call me Amelia.” She wafted her hand to engage me to drive. The   old   transmission   clunked   loudly   as   I   forced   it   into   first   gear.   She   preferred   a light   touch.   I   said   a   silent   apology   and   petted   her   dash   for   forgiveness   as   I   merged   into the    heavy    traffic.    My    face    warmed.    Who    else    treated    their    vehicle    to    caresses    and apologies? “I love classic cars,” Logan, Amelia, said. “Less classic, than old,” I said. “How was your flight?” “What’s with the lip?” “You should see the other guy.” Not a good comeback, but the best I could do. Amelia   shook   her   head.   “Good   thing   you   aren’t   the   muscle   in   your   crew.   How   are   the ribs?” Just    asking    about    them    made    them    ache    again.    Bullets    through    one    body,    into Kevlar still hurts. At night I still jerk awake reliving the bullets hitting me. “Still orange and yellow,” I said. “Crapola. After three weeks? You go to the doctor?” I gotta get insurance. Some things about self-employment sucks. “I guess you didn’t go for the lip either.” Again, she shook her head. “Just happened a few hours ago.” “You ice it?” “Why didn’t I think of that?” On   the   surface,   we   chatted   easily   for   the   next   fifteen   minutes,   but   my   stomach   was   a mess   of   concrete   spaghetti   and   my   voice   seemed   to   hiss   as   though   a   noose   tightened around   my   throat.   Did   she   notice   I   might   be   a   tad   nervous?   Just   because   my   leg   jerked and   my   hands   shook?   Why   and   the   heck   is   Amelia   here?   To   visit   me?   Roger?   Taking advantage of a free room to visit Florida? I   exited   I-275   and   Amelia—Amelia   sounded   so   wrong.   I’d   called   her   Logan   too   many times   in   the   short   time   I’d   known   her.   Logan   turned   her   attention   to   the   businesses   we passed,    which    transitioned    to    upscale    homes    as    we    crossed    Kennedy    Boulevard.    I appreciated the break in the small talk. Would   Denny   still   be   at   the   house?   The   Muellers   might   not   be   back   yet,   to   give   her   a ride. Would she call a cab? “I hope me calling and bullying for an invitation wasn’t, uh—” “Augie   was   excited   to   learn   you   were   coming.   The   Muellers   have   made   plans   to, uh—” “I don’t need to be entertained,” she blurted. That could have been a knife in the chest. It definitely tightened the noose. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to shout.” I   relaxed   a   tad.   She   was   nervous,   too.   That   was   a   boatload   of   relief.   I   didn’t   think   she could   be   uncomfortable.   She   always   came   across   like   a   tank,   all   iron,   big   guns,   and attitude,   though   right   now   her   hands   remained   quiet   in   her   lap.   The   next   five   minutes we held our tongues. Michael’s   truck   sat   at   the   curb.   I   pulled   around   the   corner   and   pressed   open   the garage   door.   Roger’s   Jeep   sat   in   its   place.   Would   the   presence   of   the   Muellers   make   this easier,   or   harder?   Would   Michael   continue   his   hostility   from   weeks   ago?   If   she’s   here   to visit   Roger,   I’m   going   to   slice   open   my   wrists,   or   at   least   find   a   hole   to   hide   in   for   the next ten years. “Nice place,” Logan whispered, barely over the hum of the AC. Our   McMansion,   as   Roger   calls   it,   carries   a   bizarre   story   with   it.   Had   any   of   us shared   it   with   her?   Should   I   explain?   Didn’t   want   to   come   across   as   some   guy   born   into money,    or    otherwise    rich.    Reality    far    from    that.    It    helped    that    Roger    shared    the expenses.    His    rent    paid    most    of    the    insurance.    Not    that    I’m    a    pauper.    The    recent avalanche   of   rewards   had   padded   all   of   our   savings   accounts,   but   I   didn’t   intend   to   dip into   those   funds   unless   I   had   to.   Born   a   pessimist   and   raised   by   a   cynic,   I   couldn’t believe our work would be as fruitful going forward as it had been. Logan   grabbed   her   own   bag   and   was   out   of   the   car   before   I   had   the   keys   out   of   the ignition.    I    followed    her    around    the    front    of    the    house,    where    she    met    Augie,    who uncharacteristically   extended   his   arms   for   a   hug.   He   didn’t   really   hug   her,   but   it   was   still contact he usually would have balked over. “Glad you came,” he said. “Couldn’t pass up your invitation.” They   turned   and   continued   on   to   the   house   without   a   glance   back   at   me.   So   maybe she   came   to   visit   Augie,   and   not   me   or    Roger.   Augie’s   a   good   looking   man.   Bright.   Any woman    would    think    of    him    as    a    hunk.    So    he’s    socially    awkward    and    has    a    few peculiarities.   I   could   see   how   a   woman   could   overlook   those.   Don’t   all   of   us   have   a   few quirks? But at least I would have offered to carry her gym bag. Augie   ushered   her   through   the   front   door   but   before   I   crossed   the   porch,   he   closed the   door.   I   stamped   to   a   stop,   piqued   just   a   tad,   but   that   was   just   Augie.   He   meant nothing   by   it.   After   setting   his   eyes   on   Logan,   he   probably   forgot   I   existed.   Or   anyone else, for that matter. Crossing   the   threshold   my   breath   caught   in   my   throat.   Denny   stood   under   the   arch between   the   dining   and   living   room,   highlighted   by   the   failing   light   filling   the   western windows.   Her   hair   had   exploded   into   curls   after   her   dip.   The   tee   I   had   set   out   for   her was   tied   into   a   knot   to   form   the   sexiest   midriff   I’ve   ever   seen   in   my   life.   Roger   must   have supplied   her   with   a   pair   of   shorts   much   more   flattering   than   the   baggy   cotton   ones   I selected.   They   billowed   around   her   mile-long,   tanned   legs.   Her   feet   were   bare.   A   bright- red   garnished   her   toes.   How   could   a   blind   person   paint   their   nails?   Must   go   to   one   of those women’s places. “Who are you?” Logan’s voice echoed in our sparsely appointed living room. Denny   announced   her   name   a   little   like   a   challenge.   She   extended   her   hand   to   shake, but   didn’t   step   forward.   She   didn’t   have   on   her   big   glasses,   or   hold   her   cane.   The   way she    glared    forward,    there    was    no    way    Logan    could    recognize    she    was    more-or-less sightless. Neither   woman   budged   further   for   a   killer   five-count.   Roger   peaked   around   Denny and waved. “Hey, Logan. Welcome to Tampa.” That   must   have   been   the   cue   for   Logan   to   move.   She   extended   her   arm   a   bit   and dropped her gym bag, marched forward like a storm trooper to shake Denny’s hand. I   made   my   way   toward   them   with   a   little   vigor,   as   though   I   might   need   to   stop   a   bar fight.   Logan   grasped   Denny’s   hand   without   doing   much   shaking.   Denny   slowly   placed her   hand   on   Logan’s   arm,   just   below   the   point   of   her   shoulder,   causing   Logan   to   jerk uncomfortably.   I   could   make   out   Denny’s   fingers   kneading   the   arm.   Testing   her   youth? Strength? The competition. Roger’s   voice   broke   the   tense   moment.   “I   set   your   sweet   tea   on   the   dining   table.   Two o’clock. To Augie’s left.” Denny   took   a   slow   step   back   as   the   women   disentangled.   Roger   stepped   up   to   Logan and they exchanged a hearty hug. I hadn’t gotten a hug. Michael didn’t stand. He only gave Logan a nod, and a, “Hey.” “Michael. How are you?” “I was great.” “You mean, until I got here?” “Something like that.” He smirked. Roger   flashed   Michael   an   I’m   going   to   kill   you   expression.   Michael   bothered   to   give him   a   shrug.   If   I   wasn’t   such   a   puss   I   would   ask   him   why   he   and   Logan   got   off   on   the wrong   foot.   But   he   wouldn’t   tell   me.   Missing   their   meeting   was   another   reason   to   resent spending that fifteen hours in jail. I   focused   on   how   smoothly   Denny   got   seated   and   found   her   tumbler   of   iced   tea.   Still nothing   much   to   give   away   she   was   blind.   But   then,   maybe   Logan   has   better   observation skills   than   me.   That   wouldn’t   be   hard.   I’m   a   not-so-bright   klutz,   and   she’s   a   well-trained, federal agent, after all. Augie,    carrying    Chica,    wordlessly    crossed    behind    everyone    and    settled    into    his customary   seat   against   the   bay   window.   He   wiggled   his   mouse   to   wake   up   his   laptop   and promptly   tapped   away,   the   Pit   puppy   invisible   in   his   lap.   Augie   must   have   been   finished with   conversation   for   a   while.   Probably   put   off   by   the   tension   he   sensed.   He   doesn’t   deal well with conflict. Unless he engineers it. Which he does often enough. “Coffee?” Roger nodded at Logan. “Sure. Take a steak with it. I’m starved.” Michael   suggested   his   favorite   chophouse.   Not   a   place   I   was   willing   to   visit.   I   refuse to   turn   over   a   mortgage   payment   for   a   meal.   I   didn’t   have   to   confess   to   that,   because   he quickly suggested another three eating establishments. “I guess that’s my invitation to leave,” Denny said. “Not exactly dressed to go out.” “But you look great,” Roger said with a big grin. Augie   about   gave   himself   whiplash   with   the   angry   glare   he   shot   Roger.   Michael smiled,   but   quickly   worked   to   hide   it.   Logan   selected   the   chair   next   to   Denny,   turned   it around   and   straddled   it,   arms   draped   over   the   back.   I   took   the   chair   next   to   her   as   Roger delivered the cup of steaming Joe. “We can stop by your place so you can change,” Michael said softly. I   studied   the   man’s   face.   The   last   thing   I   expected   him   to   be   to   Denny,   was   sociable. He’s   a   flirt,   but   he   respected   values   more   akin   to   my   mother’s.   I   didn’t   expect   him   to openly embrace a strange woman interjecting herself as she had. Maybe   he   liked—   A   little   pain   pressed   into   my   chest.   Could   he   be   enjoying   the prospect of annoying Logan? Prickly bastard. “How ’bout takeout,” Denny suggested. Logan   groaned.   “In   my   line   of   work   I   eat   on   the   run   enough   without   doing   it   on vacation.” And   for   the   next   ten   minutes   we   four   men   had   to   deal   with   Denny’s   inquiry,   kindly opened up by Logan’s comment, which freed Logan to initiate her own inquisition. The   tone   continued   to   ratchet   up.   My   mom   would   have   called   it   a   sociable   cat   fight. Not   how   I   expected,   or   hoped,   Logan’s   visit   to   start.   Not   sure   what   I   expected.   But   never could   have   dreamed   of   two   females   extending   their   claws   as   though   each   owned   turf   the other positioned for. Just a little embarrassing. Before   I   realized   it   happened,   Logan   prepared   to   take   Denny   home.   I   was   unsure   if   it was   so   she   could   change,   or   just   a   way   Logan   could   get   Denny   the   hell   out   of   here—at least   until   she   understood   why   the   woman   was   here.   Roger,   a   baffled   expression   on   his face, handed over the keys to his Jeep. A   moment   of   clarity   struck   when   Roger   picked   up   and   extended   Denny’s   cane,   which lay   on   the   bar   between   the   kitchen   and   dining   room,   placed   it   in   Denny’s   hand.   The   jolt of   surprise   vibrated   all   over   our   New   York   friend.   But   she   changed   gears   quickly,   and escorted   Denny   out   of   the   room.   I   didn’t   remember   standing.   I   rocked,   unsure   what   to do, as the front door slammed shut. Roger broke the new quiet. “Damn. I hope she doesn’t shoot her.” Augie’s   head   jerked,   but   he   shook   his   head   dismissively   a   moment   later.   “We   might as well eat. They won’t be back.” Michael asked for Roger and me. “Why do you say that?” Of   course   Augie   ignored   the   question.   “Jon.   Will   you   make   me   your   world   famous nachos?” That   was   a   good   idea.   Jacked   Doritos   slathered   with   refried   beans,   smothered   in jalapenos   and   cheese,   soothed   by   a   bottle   of   beer,   sounded   good.   Better   than   a   hundred- dollar steak from Bern’s. So why shouldn’t we expect Logan and Denny to return? Should I worry? Augie   wasn’t.   But   then,   he   strolled   into   Moreno’s   operation   demonstrating   much less stress than he shows when he visits his parents. Chapter 5 ~ C hica’s   high-pitched   growl   indicated   she   challenged   Augie’s   hand   to   a   battle   to   the death,   but   Augie   continued   to   keyboard   with   one   hand   twice   as   fast   as   I   can   with   two. The   puppy   had   just   woken,   so   one   of   us   better   take   her   outside   before   she   jumped   down from Augie’s lap or there would be piddle on the parquet. “You’d think she’d call,” I mumbled. “Who?” Michael’s eyes gleamed. The   man   liked   nothing   more   than   to   tease   me.   I’ll   be   in   my   crate-of-perpetuity   and he’ll   be   telling   my   pallbearers   to   open   the   top   to   ensure   I   hadn’t   ducked   out   the   back   to avoid the attention. “I’m going to bed.” Roger grunted as he stood from the dining table. Michael   stood,   too,   placed   his   mug   on   the   bar.   “We   have   anything   on   the   schedule, Augie?” Augie kept one-handing his keyboard without looking up. “Then I’m sleeping in,” Michael said, following Roger. That would mean he wouldn’t show up for coffee until 7:30 AM. I   collected   Chica   and   headed   for   the   front   of   the   house.   At   the   top   of   the   stairs,   Roger had   already   turned   for   his   room,   but   Michael   stood   at   the   front   door.   My   gut   tightened. The   man   had   never   been   anything   but   easy   on   me   since   that   first   skip   Augie   and   I   served them   on   a   platter,   but   facing   his   pointed   discussions   always   make   me   cringe.   I   have   no idea why. “You okay?” he asked as he opened the door. “Why wouldn’t I be?” He   didn’t   answer   until   we’d   crossed   the   porch,   made   it   to   the   walk   below,   and   I’d   set Chica   down   in   the   grass.   The   puppy   waddled   for   the   impatiens.   They   were   quickly   being ground into pulp. The Pit’s white hide glowed in the dark as though plugged in. “Because you stress over everything like a girl.” “I don’t stress.” “Overthink everything.” I sighed. “No I don’t.” Yes I do. “So what am I supposed to be dwelling on now?” Michael snorted. “You have the next week planned out in fifteen minute intervals.” “Do not.” “Just let it happen,” he said. “Let what happen?” He   reached   the   sidewalk   and   stopped,   turned   around   slowly,   drawing   his   truck   fob out of his tight jean pockets. “I rushed my romance with my wife.” I   waited   a   twenty-count,   but   he   didn’t   continue.   That   meant   I   had   to   say   something. I   had   no   clue   what   the   subject   even   was.   I   tracked   Chica   through   the   impatiens   and Mondo grass. She’d already peed five times. “A little early to be talking romance, don’t you think?” I asked. “You’re the one who blew an aorta when you heard Logan was coming.” Was   now   a   good   time   to   ask   what   got   him   and   Logan   off   on   the   wrong   foot?   Or maybe   I   should   argue   his   aorta   comment.   No.   I’d   just   sound   as   though   I   whined   “like   a girl.” He accuses me of whining enough already. “Roger isn’t looking for love,” he said finally, freeing me. My cheeks prickled something awful. “I hate Roger.” He   snorted.   “The   man   is   too   perfect   for   his   own   good.   He   asks   out   a   new   chick   every Friday night, never the same one twice. I think he’s still a virgin.” It   was   my   turn   to   snort,   though   my   mind   remained   hooked   on   the   “too   perfect” remark.   I   quickly   wiped   my   lip,   just   in   case.   Michael’s   proud   of   Roger.   Now   a   good   time to ask about the whole “brother” thing? Just ask. I’m too much of a coward. I   let   my   mind   flow   to   Michael’s   last   comment.   I   couldn’t   imagine   Roger   being   a virgin. Besides, he’s almost ten years older than me. “Nothing wrong with being a virgin!” “Settle    down.    Meant    no    disrespect.”    His    teeth    glowed    a    little    like    Chica’s    hide. “Imagine three of you under the same roof.” “Who says Augie’s a virgin?” His   hearty   laugh   got   me   giggling.   Took   a   ten-count   to   get   it   to   stop.   Chica   neared   the ivy that lined the perimeter of the lawn. I tisked  at her, and she turned around. “Logan isn’t his type anyway,” Michael continued. “What is Roger’s type?” “Smart. Talented. Good looking.” If   I   could   have   found   a   rock   I   would   have   thrown   it   at   him.   Not   a   lot   of   rocks   in Florida, though. Better luck finding a conch shell. “Let’s    see,”    I    said.    “Master’s    degree,    athletic,    strong-willed,    outgoing,    career woman—” “I   know   you   have   it   bad   for   her,   though   I   don’t   understand   why.   Roger   would   never poach.” “It isn’t poaching if she pursues him.” “Did I mention you overthink?” “Why don’t you go home you old man. Need your sleep.” His   teeth   flashed   again.   “That   I   do.   Getting   old   sucks.   Ice   the   lip   again   before   you   go to bed.” “Yes, Mother.” His   truck   tweeted   open   as   a   shadow   of   movement   to   the   rear   of   the   Ford   caught   my attention.   A   second   later   a   pair   of   flashes   brightened   the   truck’s   cab   like   a   strobe   light. The   air   exploded   from   my   lungs   as   every   muscle   contracted,   interfering   with   my   ability to   intelligently   react.   Perhaps   a   three-count   passed   before   the   brain   recognized   the   clack of an automatic’s stuck slide, that someone had just shot my friend. I   sprinted   for   the   front   of   the   truck.   Before   my   feet   hit   asphalt   I   felt   the   slam   of   a   car door   and   the   steady   acceleration   of   a   sedan   to   my   left.   I   stared   into   the   night   trying   to read   the   license   plate   of   the   fleeing   car   but   it   seemed   as   though   I   peered   through   a   heavy downpour.   I   wiped   my   eyes   quickly.   Tears.   Damn   tears.   All   I   caught   was   the   first   letter. Q. On generic, Florida plates. I   dropped   to   my   knees   next   to   Michael.   He   had   to   be   bad   off   or   he   would   have returned   fire.   Then   I   remembered   his   rig   hung   next   to   Roger’s,   from   the   pegs   left   of   the front   door.   For   two   weeks   after   coming   back   from   South   Carolina,   the   two   Muellers hadn’t taken off their vests or guns. They relaxed too soon. Chapter 6 ~ I   searched for his throat to see if he had a pulse, even after he spoke, calmly. “Next time you hear a gun, you either better be hitting the ground or returning fire.” “You get hit?” I probably screamed. I think I did. It sounded loud to me. Porch lights turned on up and down the street. “No. I’m smart enough to duck when I hear a safety being thumbed.” “It jammed. Didn’t it?” The four words came out in my nervous stutter. I hate that. “You   think?   If   it   hadn’t,   I   might   not   be   around   to   tell   you   never   run   toward   the shooting. Run the opposite direction.” “That the direction you give Roger?” He sat up. “Roger’s a former Marine officer and cop. He can take care of himself.” “Haven’t I proven—” “Oh, just shut up and give me a hand.” I’m    six-two,    almost    two-hundred    pounds,    but    he    felt    like    a    liner’s    anchor    as    I torqued   him   off   the   street.   His   hand   was   sticky.   Blood.   He   had   leaped   for   cover   with vigor. Gotten some good road rash. He was studying the side of his truck. “More, damned body work.” Michael   and   his   trucks.   Less   lucky   than   me.   He   hissed   a   declaration   that   would   have turned my mom green. Roger   trotted   down   the   walk   in   nothing   but   his   boxers,   but   he   held   an   automatic   in his hand. Augie followed, until he sprinted to the right. Had to be going after Chica. “You two—” “Fine!” Michael shouted. So   they   found   us.   Only   a   single   shooter?   Not   very   aggressive.   As   aggressive   as   I’d expect. The   neighbor   across   the   street   jogged   toward   us,   what   looked   like   a   shotgun   gripped in   two   hands.   His   robe   fluttered   open,   his   house   shoes   threatened   to   flee.   I   don’t   know his   name.   We’ve   never   introduced   ourselves,   but   we’ve   exchanged   waves   and,   “How   ya doing,” a dozen times. “You gentlemen all right?” “Yes, sir,” Michael wheezed. “You call the police already?” “Did.” Another   neighbor   neared   carrying   one   of   those   big-cell   flashlights   and   a   baseball   bat. We    definitely    don’t    live    in    a    hear-nothing,    see-nothing    neighborhood.    Not    like    my neighborhood of a few weeks ago. So much has changed, in so little time. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Suspense
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
SEEker2 Chapter 1 ~ I    was   never   supposed   to   be   face-to-face with    miscreants.    That    was    the    idea. That’s    how    my    relationship    with    the Muellers   was   proposed.   But   that   lasted about    as    long    as    a    sweet    tea    after mowing   the   lawn   on   a   summer   day   in Tampa. I   could   have   said   no.   I’m   pretty   sure Michael’s    familiar    with    the    concept. But     only     one     of     the     partners     ever overrule      Michael.      And      Augie      was particularly    gung    ho    with    me    staking out the sidewalk today. I wonder why. Did he even suggest it? I   can’t   remember.   I   have   to   admit   I pretty   much   zone   out   when   the   three   of them   start   strategizing   how   to   nab   one of Goldman’s fleet-footed bond skips. With    what    we    earned    pulling    in Scarface   and   his   slugs   last   month   you’d think   Michael   would   be   ready   to   sever the   Goldman   connection.   But   after   ten years, maybe Michael’s in a rut. That’s funny. Michael   Mueller   in   a   rut.   One   of   the Dynamic   Duo,   in   a   rut.   The   man   is   a cross    between    Fabio    and    the    Hulk. With    his    swagger    and    tattoos,    looks more    like    a    Greek    god,    incapable    of anything    less    than    perfection.    I    hate him.     No     man     should     be     so     good looking.   Especially   an   old   man.   And   his supposed-brother     Roger     is     no     step down, less the long hair and tats. I       still       haven’t       broached       the “brother”   subject   with   either   of   them. No   way   they’re   brothers.   Michael’s   in his   late   fifties.   Six   years   in   the   Marines, three      in      the      police      force,      three executing       this       insanity…okay       so Roger’s    older    than    he    looks.    Has    to have    passed    thirty.    But    they    can’t    be brothers. So why the whole, brother game? Dang,    my    mind    wanders    during    a stake     out.     I     need     to     start     paying attention   during   our   planning   sessions. Maybe   I   wouldn’t   get   stuck   hanging   out on   Seventh   Avenue   in   the   July   heat.   I’ll bet    Roger    found    some    shade    in    the back parking lot. I   turned   to   identify   the   approaching clack ,   clack .   A   youngish   female,   late- twenties   maybe,   hard   to   tell   with   her broad       sunglasses,       measured       her distance    to    the    storefronts    with    her extended,    white    cane    as    she    strode down      the      sidewalk.      Reddish      hair flowed     over     both     shoulders,     which under   her   sleeveless   smock   looked   as though   they’d   seen   plenty   of   reps   on   a lat    bench.    Her    black,    Spandex    shorts like   they   wear   playing   volleyball   made her    legs    look    a    mile    long,    ending    in hikers,    had    to    be    Merrells.    That’s    all Roger wears outside the gym. “What     are     you     staring     at?”     she shouted. I    jumped,    and    a    little    extra    heat soaked   my   face,   above   what   the   three o’clock heat provided. “Excuse     me?”     blurted     across     my vocal cords. “Just    because    you    think    I’m    blind it’s okay to gawk like an idiot?” “I, I—” “You    jerk!”    She    was    only    six    feet away   now   and   not   veering.   She   raised that   cane.   The   red   stripe   toward   the   tip flicked through the air. Ah,   crap.   She   was   swinging   it   at   me? I   cringed   with   the   downward   motion   of her    hand,    but    a    clatter    preceded    the disintegration      of      her      weapon.      I followed      the      six      red      and      white segments    flutter    in    front    of    my    eyes before   they   snapped   back   in   place,   into a   single,   rigid   line.   She   laughed   as   she stubbed   it   into   the   sidewalk.   The   laugh was   more   a   bark.   Nothing   like   Chica’s yip.   Chica   is   our   new   companion.   The sweetest   Pit   Bull   in   the   world.   Anyway, the   red-haired   chick’s   laugh   exploded out of her mouth. “I       wish       I       could       read       your expression,”   she   said.   “I’ll   bet   you   look as big the fool as you act.” I   opened   my   mouth,   but   there   were no thoughts to build words with. “You were too,” she snapped. “Were what?” “Gawking.      Admit      it.      You      were gawking.   Didn’t   your   momma   ever   tell you it’s rude to stare?” “I, I—” “Slow   witted,   are   you?   I   guess   you have an excuse then.” “I’m not—” “Don’t deny it.” I     looked     up     to     gaze     into     her sunglasses,   below   the   bill   of   her   black cap.   I   still   slouched   from   cringing   from her    attack.    I    stood    up    straight    and found   I   still   pretty   much   met   her   eye- to-eye.   At   six-two,   I   don’t   look   eye-to- eye   with   many   women.   Sweat   dripped off   her   nose.   I   realized   her   thin   cotton smock     was     plastered     to     her     flesh, which      darkened      the      material      in tantalizing    places.    She’d    been    doing some    serious,    power    walking    in    this heat. “Mostly,”    she    muttered,    twisting    a belt   at   her   waist.   A   sport   bottle   came into   view   off   her   hip.   A   very   curvy   hip. The   Lycra   clung   to   her   muscled   glutes, dipped between her ilium and pelvis. I’m staring again. “Mostly what?” I asked. “Mostly   blind,   but   I   can   make   out shapes   in   bright   light.”   She   uncapped her   bottle   and   took   a   swig.   The   suction sound   of   an   empty   bottle   preceded   her curse.   “You   can   make   up   your   slight   by buying me a Gatorade.” “What slight?” “Being a rude shit.” Potty   mouth.   My   Mom   would   give her a ration of grief. “The      deli—”      She      shrugged      her thumb   at   the   shop   one   door   down.   “I’ll wait here for you.” “I, I—” “You     stutter     all     your     life?”     she asked. “I don’t—” A   blaring   car   horn   interrupted   me.   I turned.   Augie   barreled   across   the   street from   where   he’d   been   lounging   at   the outside   café,   without   looking   before   he crossed    the    street.    The    car    with    New Jersey   plates   gave   Augie   a   second   and third,   irritated   blast.   Augie   didn’t   even look   toward   the   driver   much   less   wave an   apology.   He   held   his   laptop   across his chest with both hands. “Augie! Look before—” He   managed   a   bored   wave   my   way, before   re-clamping   his   mitt   around   his computer.    He    jumped    over    the    curb with      an      uncharacteristic      sense      of energy.     His     eyes     weren’t     executing their     Cylon     programming,     meaning they   focused   high,   without   the   nervous left to right twitch. They    were    pasted    onto    my    recent antagonist. “You    are,”    Augie    gushed,    “You’re Denise Abana.” He   was   lately   on   a   kick   testing   out contractions    again.    He    hates    that    we notice. “That    a    statement    or    a    question?” the female of his attention asked. “Observation.    A    word    you    use    too much,” Augie said. Augie   knew   this   woman?   “Use   too much?” I asked. “I’m Augustus Nellis.”</