R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author Urban Fantasy Fantasy Dystopian
J on   Reagan’s   got   a   bulging   artery   in   his   brain.   He   should   stay calm,   not   chase   bail   skips.   Avoid   bar   fights   and   shootouts, not   get   snarled   in   love   triangles.   The   cops   have   hauled   him downtown   more   times   than   he   can   remember—concussions aren’t   great   for   memory,   and   he’s   had   a   lot   of   them.   He   visits his   shrink   twice   a   week   to   cope,   while   his   crew   seem   to   go   out of   their   way   to   create   more   drama.   He’s   got   to   make   a   change or die.
Chapter 1 ~ “I know you don’t like me,” Rees mumbled over her coffee cup. Why did I ever agree to this meeting? “It isn’t that I don’t like you.” “My brother said y’all had trust issues.” Getting shot at, splattered by another guy’s gray matter, can create insecurities. “Granted—”   She   paused   a   hard-count.   Yep.   Difficult   to   justify   some   things.   “You didn’t meet us first off when we were at our best.” Yet   Roger   fell   in   love   with   her.   How   can   a   man   love   a   woman   who   held   a   gun   at   his spine,   threatened   to   kill   him?   Timing   is   good,   visiting   Shrink-lady   immediately   after this. Maybe I needed to deflect. “Understand you accepted the offer on your house.” Rees nodded. “All happening so fast.” So   there   wasn’t   much   to   drag   her   back   to   Atlanta.   That   was   too   bad.   Tampa   looked like   her   new   home.   Whether   that   was   good   for   the   fraternity   or   not.   Weird,   Roger   not slopping   a   bowl   of   cereal   with   me   every   morning,   these   days.   Off   breakfasting   with   our possibly sociopathic crime trender. “Amelia good?” she asked. I nodded. Neither of us have been shot in over a month. “Augie has been lobbying Roger relentlessly.” What?   That   sounded   like   it   just   blurted   out.   She   changes   topics   really   fast.   And   I’m not   the   best   at   keeping   up   with   a   linear   conversation.   I’m   pretty   certain   there   was   a   level of   mixed   frustration   and   irritation   in—I   guess   it   was   a   complaint.   Augie   had   never   said   a word   to   me,   about   anything   specific   with   Roger.   But   then   he’s   been   pretty   busy   with   his security business. And shacking up with Denny. “Don’t look so surprised.” Rees’ soprano tilted alto. What? “Roger talks about your dumb look. You do have it down.” What? “You have the twelve-year-old innocent look down pat too.” That wasn’t fair. I’m innocent by nature. She   cleared   her   throat,   looked   down   at   her   coffee   cup.   “Nothing   personal.   But   I think Roger will live longer if he goes back on the force.” Not   necessarily.   If   people   shoot   at   us,   they’ll   hit   me   every   time.   I   attract   bullets. Besides,   it’s   about   being   happy   with   what   you’re   doing,   not   just   being   safe.   A   long   life   is probably   overrated.   He   loves   the   adrenaline   rush   he   gets   from   going   Juan   y   Juan   with   a skip.   Loves   not   having   to   say   yes   sir   to   anyone.   He   certainly   doesn’t   use   that   expression with me. Besides. He looks great in the Mueller Brothers black polo and tactical vest. “Bounty hunters don’t belong in the twenty-first century.” Her voice rasped. She’d   practiced   that   sentence.   Did   she   think   she’d   get   an   argument   from   me?   But the   pastime   has   paid   well.   No   other   way   I’d   be   living   in   the   fraternity   house,   driving   a fifty-thousand-dollar Rubicon. “But y’all are more vigilantes.” That   wasn’t   fair.   Well.   That’s   what   truly   earned   the   big   bucks.   If   I’m   going   to   get shot, I should at least be paid well for the privilege. “I’m not going to get used to you not talking.” Meh. Most people eventually do. Rees pointed to the wall. “You like that black paint?” Funny.   Why   do   people   love   to   argue   so   much?   I   guess   with   the   lights   out   at   night, the mauve would look pretty black. So no point arguing with her. It’s all relative. She sighed hard enough to pull a groin. “You’d make a great Army private.” I   nodded.   I   always   loved   Beetle   Bailey.   Maybe   Rees   will   get   around   to   why   we’re meeting   at   the   diner,   now,   and   not   at   the   fraternity   house.   There’s   witnesses   here,   so   she doesn’t   plan   to   kill   me.   Clearly   she   didn’t   want   anyone   from   the   crew   hearing   whatever devious scheme she had to share with me. Should I ask for a coffee refill? I tapped the lip of my cup. “The chief has given me a budget for a part-time assistant,” she gushed. Hum. So? “Contract only. Won’t be a civil service position.” Did   she   want   a   recommendation?   Surely   Roger   could   help   her   better   with   that.   He hangs   with   lots   of   guys   who’ve   left   the   force,   for   whatever   reason,   like   avoiding   scum and miscreants. “It    would    be    cool    working    with    Roger,”    Rees    said    softly.    “But    that    would    be    a conflict   of   interest,   you   know.   The   chief   asks   how   Roger’s   doing.   Every   Monday   and Thursday morning briefing.” Maybe   I   could   ask   around   at   school.   Always   plenty   of   vets   going   back   to   school   with tons of security experience. “Roger said you’re so anal, you’d be perfect.” What? “Yeah,” she said. “He thinks more of you than I do. But I trust his judgment.” She’s   great   with   compliments,   and   trusts   the   guy   who   sleeps   with   the   chick   who jammed   a   gun   in   his   back.   Another   guy   might   have   laughed.   I   just   tipped   my   cup   at   our server.   The   conversation   had   finally   gotten   interesting.   But   school,   picking   up   skips   for Goldman,   and   a   part-time   for   the   cops   might   creep   into   my   time   with   Amelia.   I   love   my quiet time with Chica, too. “My   job   is   about   identifying   the   factors   that   generate   crime,   and   keeping   it   from ever happening.” She   should   be   talking   with   Augie.   He’s   the   one   who   knows   things   he   shouldn’t.   I wonder where he hides his crystal ball. “Roger   gets   a   big   kick   out   of   saying   the   chief   should   have   hired   Augie.”   Rees’   eyes narrowed. Maybe she didn’t like that tease. “He doesn’t give me a lot of support.” Roger   is   more   about   trash   talking.   On   the   basketball   court   you   can’t   shut   the   jerk up.   Getting   serious   about   anything   might   trap   him   in   reality.   Settling   down   with   one female has disturbed the nature of things enough for him already. She   stopped   talking   while   our   server   refreshed   our   coffee.   Rees   studied   me   as   I added   my   three   tiny   cream   cups.   I   waited   for   the   tease.   Roger   and   Michael   love   to   razz me about softening my coffee like a girl. “That doesn’t make you a wuss,” Rees said. What? “Roger thinks it’s funny you take his teasing so hard.” That’s   why   he   never   lets   up.   Her   eyes   followed   my   hand   as   I   stirred   my   coffee.   Her face turned harsh. What’s with that? “How   many   men   have   you   killed?”   Rees   asked.   Felt   like   a   lightning   strike   to   the center of my forehead. Ouch.   Was   this   about   her   brother,   the   hitman?   So   I   looked   down   on   the   dude.   He’s a   murderer   with   no   morals.   I’ve   killed   a   lot   more   discriminately.   Only   bad   people. Mostly those trying to kill me. It’s usually been a kill-or-die thing with me. Her   breath   caught   kind   of   funny.   “Roger   showed   me   the   video   of   you   taking   on those   four   thugs   who   came   after   Denny.”   I   looked   up   from   my   coffee.   Her   eyes   had welled. This turned in an odd direction. And what was up with all the emotion? “You come across so laid back. But you have ice in your veins.” Why’d she think that? I’m a cuddle bun. Just ask Chica. Something   drew   her   attention   toward   the   front   of   the   café.   A   moment   later   her   eyes rounded   and   her   mouth   opened.   If   it   was   Roger,   I   wouldn’t   have   looked.   It   would   have been   a   made-you-look   moment.   I   shifted   in   my   seat   to   catch   the   kid   facing   the   cashier, fist bunched at the waist of his jeans, tee pulled up. Fear ripped across the cashier’s face. It never ends. I   was   walking   toward   him,   Rees   hissing   at   my   back,   without   a   single   synapse   in   my skull   firing.   I   really   should   put   my   brain   in   gear   before   I   go   doing   stuff.   I   might   not   get shot   so   often.   Fifteen   feet   away   from   the   guy   he   finally   noticed   me.   He   only   half   glanced my way, as though the cashier was his grannie, offering arcade money if he’d behave. By   the   time   I’d   taken   two   more   steps   his   face   ripped   angry.   What   I’d   call   pretend attitude.   His   fist   jerked.   The   black   iron   of   a   gun   threatened   to   come   out   of   his   pants.   His lips   tightened   as   he   struggled   to   free   the   automatic.   The   punk   carried   an   eight-hundred- dollar gun to rip off a diner for fifty bucks. At   ten   feet,   the   automatic   tangled   in   his   baggie   tee.   Five   feet,   he   whirled   to   level   it   at my   face.   I   dipped   and   lunged,   pretty   sure   he   pulled   the   trigger,   but   he   never   released   the safety.   I   slapped   him   in   the   face   with   my   open   hand   hard   enough   to   flip   his   entire personality back to Daylight Savings. The   gun   flipped   loose,   into   the   air,   which   I   caught   in   my   left   hand.   The   kid,   maybe twenty,   knees   buckling,   hit   the   hard   tile.   Head   bounced.   I   stood   over   him   as   his   eyes   did that flippity thing I’ve experienced more times than I can count. When   his   thoughts   returned   to   this   reality,   I   didn’t   have   to   be   Augie   to   read   on   his face that he rushed in a panic to figure out how to get away from me. “Don’t,”   I   hissed   in   the   tone   I’ve   learned   from   the   Muellers.   I   didn’t   bother   pointing his gun at him. If I wanted a gun, I’d draw my Glock. The   café   was   quiet   enough   to   hear   the   nearby   coffee   machine   steam,   so   it   was   easy to   make   out   Rees’   flats   padding   on   the   tile   toward   me.   I   unhooked   my   keys   off   my   belt loop and pressed them toward her. “What?” she stammered. “Favor? Get my cuffs off my tactical belt, in my Jeep?” There   were   maybe   fifteen   people   total   in   the   café,   including   employees.   The   cheers and   applause   they   raised   all   at   once   made   it   sound   like   ten   times   as   many   folk,   and made me lurch. I turned hot. My freckles probably exploded. I hate that. Chapter 2 ~ “I t   was   looking   like   you   weren’t   going   to   make   it,”   Shrink-lady   said   as   she   messed   with her black skirt and crossed her sexy legs. How   does   she   keep   her   legs   looking   so   shiny   like   that?   I   swear   she   had   to   have worked   her   way   through   medical   school   dancing   a   pole   on   the   strip.   I   should   ask   her   if she did, one day. I   explained   my   Rees-café   thing.   She   raised   one   eyebrow   like   Amelia   does.   Was   that new?   I’m   pretty   sure   it   was.   According   to   Rees   and   Roger,   I’m   pathetically   anal,   so   I would have noticed it before, right? She   quipped   that   she   was   glad   I   didn’t   get   shot,   then   asked   if   I   was   sleeping.   Do   all shrinks   obsess   about   sleep?   I   lied   that   I   was   sleeping   like   a   dead   stick.   She   gave   me   that one raised brow again. It was definitely new. I considered asking about it. Oh, why not. “What’s with the lopsided brow lift?” Her face froze for a second, then she laughed. What?   And   I   remembered   Amelia   mentioned   she   had   to   do   her   monthly   visit.   Some dumb   Fibbie   rule   since   she’d   almost   died   from   a   gunshot   not   long   ago.   The   feds   have weird   processes.   So   did   Shrink-lady   talk   with   Amelia   earlier   and   take   on   her   tic?   That would be funny. Funny, seeing us both on the same day. Funnier, Shrink-lady taking on Amelia’s brow arch. Maybe   not   so   funny,   dude   and   main-squeeze   seeing   the   same   shrink.   That   should be   a   conflict   of   interest   or   something.   Amelia   and   I   should   recognize   the   potentially dangerous   conflict.   I   mean,   how   could   we   trash   each   other?   As   though   I’d   trash   my sweetie.   But   I’m   sure   Amelia   has   issues   out   the   wazoo   with   me.   I   stress   her   out   a   lot. How could Shrink-lady be objective? She   asked   me   how   the   relationship   with   Michael   and   Roger   were.   Yeah.   We’ve   hit   a couple   speed   bumps   in   our   highway   to   hell,   lately.   I   mumbled   something   about   it   being sort   of   how   you’d   expect,   grumpy   old   fart   sleeping   with   my   mother   thinking   he   knows what’s   best   for   me   all   the   time,   and   an   almost   step-brother   partner   who   knows   he   knows what’s best for me. She   asked   about   Norm   and   Augie,   the   other   fraternity   house   residents,   without mentioning   Amelia—so   Amelia   had   been   into   the   office   earlier,   since   she   didn’t   have   to ask about her. “So tell me about your nightmares,” she said. “Any change in how they—” “Pretty   much   the   same   stuff.   Glass   flies   around,   turns   red   with   blood.   Though   I can’t   see   it,   the   brains   are   flying   around   inside   of   the   trucks   too.   Just   something   I   know. And it starts over. Like an MP3 set to repeat.” “Dreams still don’t start earlier, or trail into different resolutions.” What   different   resolution   could   they   trail   into?   I   killed   guys,   and   drove   away.   Never looked   back.   I   murdered   them.   Didn’t   give   them   a   chance   to   shoot   at   me   that   time. Maybe that’s why I’m a little slow to draw on people now. Maybe I should suggest that. “Maybe we should try—” As   soon   as   she   voiced   the   word,   maybe,   I   was   shaking   my   head.   “Don’t   need   no pills.” She exhaled harder than necessary. “So you’ve been in class several weeks now. How’s your concentration?” Oh, great. Now she’s giving me something new to worry about. “When   we   don’t   sleep   well,”   she   rushed   to   say,   “it   makes   it   harder   to   concentrate. And   it’s   been   over   a   decade   since   you’ve   been   in   school.   Plus,   you   started   a   couple   weeks late. Catching up must have been hard.” How   did   Augie   ever   finagle   my   late   registration?   The   man   gets   things   done   God would struggle with. No offense, up there. She   prompted   me   with   her   rule.   A   rule   Amelia   told   her   to   use.   Yeah.   Have   to vocalize   my   conversations   with   her.   I   don’t   know   why.   Everyone   else   always   knows   what I’m thinking. Not that I often have any thoughts going around up there. “Jon,” she drawled. “Concentration   like   a   bear   trap,”   I   said.   I   lie   to   this   woman   so   much.   My   mind wanders like a helium party balloon with a hearty leak. “Do you feel like you’re getting anything from these sessions, anymore?” she asked. That   was   abrupt.   Weren’t   we   just   talking   about   me.   Now   it’s   all   about   her?   She   must have   figured   out   just   about   everything   I   tell   her   about   how   I’m   thinking   or   feeling,   is   a lie. “Or do you have something else on your mind?” she asked. That   would   be   a   good   excuse.   I   told   her   about   my   conversation   with   Rees,   working with her, though we got a little interrupted. “Investigation without chasing people with guns?” she asked. I   swished   my   mouth   around   in   thought.   “Can’t   say.   The   guy   with   the   gun   cut   our conversation short.” We   chatted   a   bit   more   about   the   fraternity.   She   played   One   Hundred   Questions   a lot.   Probed   about   my—I’ll   call   it   my   sense   of   wellbeing.   Not   much   to   say.   We   oddly ended   the   session   on   time.   I   didn’t   do   my   blah,   blah   for   two   hours.   Maybe   I’ve   gotten   to a point I’m not getting much out of our sessions. So   before   I   walked   out   I   suggested   she   scratch   my   next   appointments,   and   I’d   call when—I   didn’t   finish   my   statement.   She   nodded   knowingly.   Maybe   since   she   didn’t argue   with   me,   she’d   figured   she’d   fixed   me.   Fixed   all   she   could   fix.   Or   decided   I   wasn’t fixable.   At   the   back   door,   she   extended   her   hand   to   me.   All   our   previous   meetings,   she’d acted   weird   about   shaking   my   hand,   so   I   had   stopped   shoving   my   mitt   out   at   her   at   the end. So. This was a good bye? That actually made me a little sad. I recognized that as I tromped down the stairs. Chapter 3 ~ “W ere you at least wearing a vest?” Amelia asked. I   hit   my   beer.   A   guzzle   sounded   more   fun   than   irritating   my   sweetie   with   the   truth, but   answered   her   anyway,   without   speaking.   I   can’t   believe   Augie   texted   her   about   that little   thing.   How’d   he   even   find   out?   Did   I   really   send   that   across   my   synapses?   He knows everything. Before it happens. “You can leave some things up to the police,” Amelia hissed. But   there   was   a   warrant   on   him,   so   that   was   okay.   Made   two   hundred   bucks.   And the   diner   tore   up   our   check.   My   hand   burned   for   thirty   minutes.   I   slapped   him   really hard.    Boy    his    face    welled    up.    But    much    better    than    getting    shot    dead,    which    I considered.   He   looked   funny,   hands   cuffed   to   the   roll   bar.   He   complained   he   had   no feeling in his hands when I got him to County. Let him sue me. “That’s all right.” Stalker slapped me on the shoulder. Why   doesn’t   her   real   name   ever   come   to   me   when   I   look   at   her?   She   started   out   as the   stalker   chick.   I   guess   it’s   stuck.   With   all   of   us.   Funny   she   even   acts   as   though   she likes it. “I   hear,”   Stalker   continued,   “the   unies   that   showed   up   were   a   little   ticked   you   didn’t leave them with a collar.” I   gave   the   woman   a   peek.   She   wore   a   grin.   So   at   least   I   wasn’t   in   trouble   with   her. Bad   enough   having   a   Fibbie   girlfriend   mad   at   me.   Having   Norm’s   cop-main-squeeze ticked is just pushing things. To   change   the   topic,   I   asked   if   Mom   and   Michael   were   joining   us   for   dinner.   Norm explained   it   was   just   us   four   tonight.   A   space   about   my   solar   plexus   opened   up.   Just really   weird,   the   fraternity   house   being   so   empty.   Roger   was   spending   all   of   his   evenings at   Rees’   little   apartment.   Augie   likes   the   peace   and   quiet   over   at   Denny’s.   The   old   folk like   their   peace   and   quiet   at   Mom’s.   Getting   hard   to   call   this   the   fraternity   house   any longer. Weird,   missing   the   chaos.   I   had   lived   a   dull,   uneventful   life   for   a   dozen   years. Originally   hated   the   business   of   all   the   people   around   all   the   time.   This   change   though, is harder than that change. At least Michael and Roger show up for coffee every morning. “You staying over?” Norm asked Stalker. She   twisted   her   lips.   Yeah.   All   night   sex   is   hard   when   she   went   on   patrol   at   six   AM. Amazing old man Norm could keep up with the young vixen. Weird thought. She’s a few years older than me. Chapter 4 ~ “Y ou   think   Roger   is   working   you   out   of   Goldman   work   so   he   has   an   excuse   to   go   back   to being a cop?” Amelia asked as we made it to our private place. I    didn’t    answer    right    away.    I    stood    in    front    of    the    French    doors,    hand    on    the shutters   to   close   them.   My   eyes   were   locked   on   facets   of   light   floating   across   the   surface of   the   pool.   Weird   there   was   enough   breeze   to   make   the   water   dance.   My   heart   leaped, and   I   searched   the   pool.   No   Denny.   She’s   the   only   one   who   ever   gets   in   the   pool.   Man,   I miss having Augie around. “Earth to Major Tong,” Amelia sang. Uh. “That’s as good a conspiracy theory as any,” I said. “You have others?” she asked. I   closed   the   shutters   with   a   double   clomp.   “Maybe   Goldman   wants   to   get   me   out   of his   business.   Mom   may   have   decided   a   sewing   shop   would   be   healthier   for   me.   Maybe Rees’   job   is   even   more   dangerous,   and   you   talked   her   into   getting   me   involved   to   get   rid of me. That way you don’t have to marry me after all.” “Dang. My secret’s out.” I   turned   to   give   her   a   grimace.   She   was   already   naked   as   a   J   bird,   the   quiet   hussy. Stood   straight   as   a   gun   barrel,   feet   spread   shoulder   width,   fists   on   her   hips,   a   smile   on her   face.   The   light   streaming   in   the   other   windows   turned   her   flesh   a   blueish   gold.   Dang. The little guy immediately turned excited. “Or maybe you just want to kill me with sex,” I mumbled. “What a way to go, huh?” she asked. “You want to get out of your clothes, or what?” I   kicked   out   of   my   hikers   and   dropped   my   shorts.   By   then   she   was   pulling   my   polo off.   More   like,   ripping   it   off.   She   caught   my   nose   hard   enough   to   draw   tears,   but   my mind was somewhere else to bother mentioning it to her. She   backed   me   up   to   the   bed   and   we   fell   over   together.   Being   a   virgin   twenty-nine years was totally worth it to save up heaven credits to earn this woman. Getting    energy    back    after    her    medical    ordeal    has    indeed    changed    our    life.    The woman   either   likes   me,   or   I’m   just   good   in   the   sack.   Her   teeth   were   bruising   my   lips before I adjusted to this new intensity. Whoa. Not that I wanted to slow her down. She was not gentle with anything else either. She definitely likes me. The   only   complaint,   we   exploded   A-bomb-like,   a   triple   burst—I   didn’t   resent   the odd   number   in   the   least,   before   she   fell   next   to   me   panting   like   Chica   after   an   hour playing   fetch—except   Amelia’s   tongue   didn’t   hang   out.   If   Norm   and   Stalker   couldn’t hear her breathing, they heard the explosions. Maybe we didn’t hold back. “Dang, Reagan,” she wheezed. It wasn’t me, I don’t think. She just drew me along with her. “You know how to show a girl a good time.” Who knew. Or she loves to lie to me. “You’re such a stud,” she whispered. Liar.   A   horrible   thought   struck.   She   works   with   that   good-looking   Pretty-boy   all day. Does being around him rev her up for me? Ouch. She slapped the heck out of my arm. “What?” I screeched. “I didn’t like what you were thinking.” How can she know what I’m thinking? “I know you, Jon Reagan.” Ho boy. Full name. “I can’t keep my brain from, you know.” “He’s my partner. You’re my lover.” She sighed. More an oomph. An angry grunt. Okay.   Time   for   smart   thoughts.   I   stewed.   Nothing   smart   came   to   me.   Rarely   does.   I should buy a new brain. Find a cheap mechanic to make the switch. A full minute later I tried the ready standard. “I love you.” “Then   why   haven’t   you   mentioned   the   marriage-thing   lately?   You   don’t   need   my insurance lately and all of a sudden you don’t want the law tethering us together?” I   smiled,   as   quietly   as   I   could.   Unfortunately,   the   room   wasn’t   dark   enough   to   hide it.   She   clubbed   me   in   the   chest,   which   is   never   a   good   place   for   me.   Cracked   ribs   hurt long after they heal. “I can’t wait to be lugged into perpetuity with you,” I said. “Silver   tongued   devil,”   she   mewed.   So   maybe   she   had   been   teasing   the   whole   time.   I need   to   find   her   tell,   so   I   know   how   deep   in   doo   I   am.   She   would   make   a   much   better poker player than me. “So this weekend,” she said. “Can we get a blood test by then, you think?” “No longer required. Just an ID and social.” “You been looking it up?” I asked. “One of us has to be aware of things.” True. Chapter 5 ~ R oger   strolled   into   the   house   as   Amelia   left   for   work.   I   accused   him   of   being   early.   He said   Rees   had   a   staff   meeting   first   thing.   Michael   mumbled   about   being   happy   Augie never called Mom into an early morning meeting. My jaw sunk. “Mom is still working with Augie?” I asked. Michael   glared   at   me   over   his   coffee   cup,   with   an   uh-oh   look   on   his   face.   “You,   uh, didn’t know she was, uh—” Sure   don’t   finish.   So   Augie   didn’t   need   my   help   any   longer   because   he   has   someone with   some   brains   to   do   his   bidding.   That’s   okay.   How   could   I   blame   him?   Mom   is   handy. Gets   things   done.   She   can   make   a   mouse   give   up   his   cheese   with   just   a   glance.   Or   break its    neck.    She’s    known    for    breaking    necks.    I    have    to    shoot    people    to    get    them    to cooperate.    But    three    bullets    center    mass    tends    to    make    them    more    dead    than cooperative. “That.” Michael pointed at my face. “I think that’s why he didn’t want to tell you.” “That? That what?” “You’d be all hurt like a little girl?” “Me?   Hurt?   Who   says   I’m   hurt?   He   employs   Mom   in   Nellis   and   Associates.   He doesn’t need to associate with me.” “Because you’re a drama queen,” Roger said pouring himself a coffee. “Isn’t he, huh?” Michael said. They’re   both   jerks.   Share   genes.   No   surprise   they’d   both   be   mentally   deficient   the same way. “Besides,   you   spend   your   time   at   diners   hunting   armed   robbers.”   Roger   crossed   to take his regular seat. “You heard about that, huh?” I asked. “Duh. Rees was there.” Yeah.   Duh.   Michael   huffed   up   all   miffed   there   was   something   he   wasn’t   in   on.   Roger explained   it   better   than   I   could.   Made   it   sound   a   lot   more   exciting.   I   wouldn’t   have   used half   as   many   words.   I’m   not   good   with   adjectives.   Roger   has   a   way   with   them.   Especially those best left out of children’s books. “Why was Rees there?” Michael asked when Roger finally ended his blah, blah. Roger   grinned,   used   that   overly   snarky   one   that   implies   I’m   soon   to   hurt   something awful. “She intended to lure our boy into a gig with Barney Fife.” “I hate that expression,” Michael growled. Roger hid his smirk well. “I know. That’s why I use it.” I   stopped   listening   for   a   bit   while   the   banter   heated   up   and   they   were   both   using   the language   that   draws   Mom   into   mentioning   Ivory   soap.   I   moseyed   over   to   the   brewer   and refreshed   my   coffee.   Finally,   Michael   got   back   to   the   gig-thing,   sliding   his   cup   toward me. I hotted his coffee up. “Until   Rees   has   her   state   cert,   she   can’t   go   into   the   field,   not   that   I’m   good   with   her doing   that   anyway.”   Chica   jumped   into   Roger’s   lap   and   attacked   his   throat   with   her   ten- foot-long tongue. “I thought she attended the academy in Atlanta?” Michael said. “Only the classroom stuff.” “What’s that got to do with our boy?” Michael asked. I should complain. I don’t like to be referred to as their boy. Roger   sighed,   shook   his   head   slowly.   Michael   pressed   him   with   a   hard   what.   We both waited. I needed to hear this part too. “Maybe   I   told   her   how   well   we   worked,   Augie   playing   the   brainiac   to   our   brawn. Figured she needed someone validating her analysis.” “And   that   would   be   Jon?”   It   ticked   me   off   just   a   little   Michael   said   that   with   a   lot   of doubt hanging on his words. “And you think this is good for Jon?” “Can’t be any more dangerous than what he’s been doing,” Roger said. That   was   probably   true.   I   took   the   moment   to   mention   that   Goldman   hadn’t   been calling   us   with   many   skips   lately.   Michael   looked   back   and   forth   at   us   a   moment,   either thinking, or deciding. He took a long, loud sip of his coffee before he finally spoke. “I   figure   Goldman   is   either   drawing   back   from   the   business   or   finding   more   reliable deviants to bond out.” Something   didn’t   sound   right   with   that.   But   I   wasn’t   sure.   “What.   He   has   agents writing   bonds   in   five   counties.   He   isn’t   going   to   be   drawing   back.   If   for   no   other   reason, to pay his overhead.” While   Michael   groused   about   me   being   so   smart   all   of   a   sudden   and   understanding overhead,   Roger   ripped   his   attention   from   Chica,   fully   onto   me,   as   though   I   had   turned into   Midas   all   of   a   sudden,   or   an   alien   rooted   on   the   side   of   my   face.   Maybe   I   made   sense or something, for the first time in our association. “What?” I asked. But Michael continued. “Or there may be something else, but it isn’t for me to say.” An Augie-like shiver crossed over my shoulders and I sensed myself gushing, “Oh.” “Oh, what?” Roger asked. I   studied   Michael’s   face.   Could   I   be   right?   A   smile   crept   to   my   lips   even   as   my   inner conflict   waged.   Should   I   be   jealous?   Resentful.   Happy   for   the   man.   Happy   to   get   out   of the   skip   hunting   business   without   a   lot   of   grief?   I   was   starting   to   get   used   to   the   idea that all our fun together was coming to an end. But did I want it to? Roger hissed another what at me, then at Michael. “Goldman wants Roger to take over his business?” I asked Michael. “I didn’t say a thing,” Michael shouted. “Where’d you get that idea?” Like   I   was   going   to   admit   Augie   put   it   in   my   head.   I   don’t   believe   in   that   telepathy business   in   the   first   place,   and   even   if   I   don’t   know   how   Augie   learns   everything   he learns, I don’t believe he is some weird wizard. “Goldman Bonds must be worth six million,” I said. “Where’d you get that number?” Michael asked. Not   out   of   my   butt.   It   came   with   the   other,   from   Augie.   Even   if   I   don’t   believe   in that   stuff.   Instead   of   answering   him,   I   asked   how   Roger   was   going   to   come   up   with   that kind of money to buy Goldman out. “The bank. Investors maybe,” Michael mumbled. “Wait   a   minute,”   Roger   wailed.   “Who   says   I   would   even   want   Goldman   Bonds?   He says   all   he   does   is   smooze   with   politicians   and   argue   with   attorneys.   Who   would   think   I would want anything to do with that?” “It should stay in the family though, huh?” I asked Michael. Even   if   the   whole   family   connection   broke   when   Michael’s   mom   divorced   Goldman. We   shared   nods.   I   asked   Roger   when   his   birthday   was.   He   got   a   little   animated,   the   way he   does.   I   struggle   imagining   him   as   a   onetime   Marine   officer.   I’d   think   they’d   have   to remain calm under stress and all that. But   clearly   Roger   thought   taking   over   for   Goldman   was   a   bad   idea.   I   couldn’t   see   it either,   Mr.   Adrenalin   Rush   sitting   behind   a   desk.   But   I   wasn’t   going   to   say   that.   Instead I   suggested   it   would   be   a   great   career   move   for   him,   just   to   bust   his   chops.   He   yanks   my chain plenty. Roger   suggested   he’d   shoot   me.   I   told   him   he   shoots   like   a   girl.   That   about   propelled him   out   of   his   chair.   I   reminded   I   had   dirt   on   him   he   might   not   want   Rees   to   hear.   That ripped him more alert than he usually gets when I’m talking. I   only   half   noticed   Michael   was   talking   on   his   phone.   He   hissed   a,   “Shut   up.”   Then he   went   back   to   nodding   and   mumbling   okays.   He   finished   with,   “No   idea.   I’ll   call   you back.” “What?” Roger and I asked together. “So are you guys chasing skips anymore?” Michael asked. “With him?” Roger pointed at me with an are-you-nuts expression on his face. I hung a thumb at Roger. “No, he’s gone all girly. Wants out of the business.” “It’s called Mueller Brothers for a reason,” Roger hissed. The man is way too tense. “As in, Roger Mueller.” I   got   him   the   first   time.   I   shot   him   a   really?   face.   Then   asked   who   the   brothers   were, which   has   gotten   to   tick   him   off.   I   have   no   idea   how   they   became   Mueller   Brothers   when Roger   quit   the   force   and   started   working   with   Michael.   I   guess   Mueller   and   Son   didn’t sound tough enough. Ah. “Mueller and Son didn’t sound tough?” I asked. They   both   told   me   to   shut   up.   I’d   never   get   the   dirt   on   that   whole   thing.   They probably   didn’t   have   a   good   excuse,   other   than   Michael   didn’t   want   anyone   to   think   he was   old   enough   to   have   a   son   in   his   thirties.   Shoot.   I   thought   Michael   was   in   his   forties when   I   met   him.   His   ponytail   back   in   those   days   really   took   the   decades   off   of   him.   All that ink, too. We    bantered    for    a    few    more    minutes    before    Michael    finally    asked    if    we    were interested   in   the   skip.   We   both   shrugged.   With   us,   that   means   sure.   Which   at   that   point my   phone   pinged   with   Augie’s   tone.   I   pulled   up   the   message.   It   had   three   addresses. Options,   where   we’d   find   our   skip.   I   struggled   not   to   laugh   and   handed   my   phone   to Roger. “Goldman must have called Augie first,” Roger mumbled. I don’t think so. Augie just knows stuff he shouldn’t. Chapter 6 ~ W e   loaded   our   shotguns   with   birdshot.   Our   skip   wasn’t   what   you’d   call   a   violent   type. Bad   checks,   auto   theft,   forgetting   to   pay   for   the   three   layers   of   pants   under   his   baggie jeans,   were   his   style   of   crime.   But   even   a   klepto   will   think   twice   about   resisting   arrest when   you’re   carrying   a   shotgun.   And   since   it   makes   no   sense   to   carry   a   gun   that   would only work as a club, might as well load it with something. I   would   have   preferred   taking   the   Jeep.   I   love   driving   that   baby.   I’m   in   love.   But   the racks   in   Roger’s   truck   are   convenient   for   long   guns.   And   if   anyone   does   choose   to   shoot at   us,   I’m   not   too   proud   to   admit   I’d   rather   they   bang   up   Roger’s   pickup   than   my Rubicon. So I’m an evil person. Was   that   why   Roger   kept   throwing   glances   my   way   when   we   saddled   up   and   got   on the   road   for   Thonotosassa?   He’s   a   yacker.   If   he   had   something   to   say,   he’d   go   blah,   blah, blah all day long, so I wasn’t going to prompt him. We   were   on   I-4   by   the   time   he   finally   flipped   off   his   head   banging   music—you’d think   he’d   leave   that   stuff   behind   him   when   he   left   the   weight   room.   It   only   serves   one purpose.   Pump   up   the   adrenalin.   I   mean,   really.   Are   there   even   any   words   behind   the screaming?   If   I   wasn’t   so   laid   back,   I   would   have   put   a   nine   millimeter   slug   in   his   stereo a long time ago. “So you and Rees get along okay yesterday?” Meh. I didn’t shoot her. She didn’t shoot me. I get along with anyone. Even Roger. “You didn’t finish the conversation, about the city gig, huh?” That   was   a   statement   of   acknowledged   fact.   Not   a   question.   But   I   nodded   at   the   lake to   my   right,   actually   floodwater   retention.   But   it   had   the   reeds   and   water   fowl   of   a   real lake. Roger   pounded   on   his   steering   wheel   a   bit   like   his   dad   does   when   he’s   irritated. Maybe   he   hoped   I’d   work   at   some   conversation.   So   I   said,   “She   appears   to   like   working for the chief.” “She says she’d gotten into a rut in Atlanta.” Nothing wrong with ruts. They kept me moving in one direction. He   sighed,   then   mentioned   she’d   gotten   all   her   paperwork   into   USF.   I   gave   him   a glance. “To work on her doctorate.” I’m   pretty   certain   I’ve   never   met   anyone   with   a   fancy,   advanced   degree.   I   nodded. He   mumbled   about   Rees   and   me   working   on   degrees   at   the   same   time.   Yep.   Attending community   college   compares   to   working   toward   a   PhD.   Sociopaths   aren’t   necessarily dumb.   Rees   proves   that.   I’m   a   late   bloomer.   I’ll   turn   thirty   this   month.   I’m   bound   to bloom someday. “So,”   he   drawled.   “She   expects   me   to   come   home   and   tell   her   if   you’re   interested   in the job.” “Home?” I mumbled. “Well. I spend a lot of time at her apartment. But I still consider your place home.” My   place.   I   nodded.   Not   the   same,   looking   across   the   dining   table   at   his   empty   seat every   night.   Or   Denny   or   Augie’s   empty   chair.   Maybe   I   could   suggest   to   Norm   he   could sit at the table with us now, with all the empty chairs. “So back to the topic,” Roger rasped. Irritated?   How’d   I   tick   him   off   this   time?   And   what   topic?   I   forget.   I   shot   him   a glance. “The investigator position,” Roger half-shouted. Oh. “Well. She didn’t get to finish, you know.” “You know she has a chip on her shoulder.” Uh. Had we changed topics again? “She won’t come across as though she cares if you’re interested.” Chip   on   her   shoulder?   No.   She   has   a   ton   of   misogynist   garbage   hanging   over   her. Amazing   she   can   even   breathe.   She   should   hire   a   woman   for   her   gopher   gig.   Could   any man work for her? Her Native American name would be Man Eater. Roger   started   blah,   blahing   about   the   position.   Stuff   I   hadn’t   heard   yet,   which   was good. He sounded like he wanted the gig. Didn’t sound like a gopher-thing. I   said,   “If   you   want   the   job,   you   could   probably   talk   the   chief   into   looking   the   other way, nepotism wise.” “I   ran   my   own   unit.   Why   would   I   want   to—”   He   stomped   his   foot   in   his   mouth   hard. “I mean. Not that the gig’s beneath me—” “But appropriate for a grunt like me, huh?” “You   know   that   isn’t   where   I’m   coming   from.”   His   irritation   was   mostly   erased   by some   other   emotion   I   wouldn’t   try   to   name.   “I   read   the   HR   write   up.   It’s   geared   to someone with years of experience, ripped right out of the detective’s qualifications.” I   laughed.   He   glared   at   me.   New   irritation.   Did   he   think   I   seriously   put   myself   up there   with   him?   Think   I   would   ever   compare   myself   to   him?   He   was   a   Marine   captain. West   Point   graduate.   SWAT   team   commander,   which   he   gave   up   to   work   with   his   dad. Jeez. He must really be ticked Michael is hanging it up. In   the   past   ten   minutes   I   hadn’t   noticed   he’d   exited   the   interstate   and   the   flowing farmland   around   Thonotosassa   wrapped   around   us.   And   he   said   I   was   anally   observant? Shows maybe he’s no genius. “I think your brain is spinning, but you aren’t talking,” Roger rasped. I sighed. “There’s a valid reason your dad called me a slacker.” A   gaggle   of   Marine-styled   vocabulary   tumbled   out   between   his   jaws.   “I   get   so   sick   of your   low   self-esteem.   I   saw   the   tape   of   you   taking   out   those   four   thugs   at   Denny’s   place. You’ve blown me away with your, uh—” Yeah. My stupidity leaves me speechless sometimes too. The   GPS-thingie   warned   Roger   to   hang   a   right,   and   immediately   announced   we’d reached   our   destination,   on   the   right.   Thankfully,   this   conversation   was   over   for   the moment, as we both studied the layout of the property. The   clapboard   farmhouse   might   have   been   attractive   and   homey   around   1910.   The paint,   rarely   touched   up,   had   seen   a   lot   of   sunny   and   rainy   days   since   then,   and   I   bet   the wood   A-frame   had   fed   way   too   many   termites.   Rusty   farm   implements   with   weeds growing up between them lounged lackadaisically about. On   the   positive   side,   the   near-acre   of   weeds   was   mostly   slashed   to   a   six-inch   height in   a   circle   around   the   ancient   house,   carefully   avoiding   the   dozen   or   so   trash   trees. Fifteen   yards   away,   an   orange   grove   paved   derelict   rows   north   and   south,   with   trees   that should have been torched after the 2012 canker. An   old   Chevy   sat   on   blocks.   A   pickup   leaned   into   the   shade   of   one   of   those   trash trees.   A   sporty-red   little   Toyota   sat   under   a   carport,   more   a   lean-to   I   wouldn’t   trust   over my Rubicon. Though   first   on   Augie’s   list,   this   hadn’t   been   our   skip’s   home   address.   I   hit   my   mic. “Audio check.” Roger acknowledged me. “Nothing to hide behind. See us coming a mile away,” Roger mumbled. He   passed   the   house   and   continued   on   until   trees   on   the   side   of   the   road   more   or less   hid   the   truck   from   the   house,   where   he   pulled   off   the   road.   Before   he   turned   off   the engine,   thus   the   AC—first   week   of   November,   would   summer   ever   fade,   he   raised   his fist. “Winner takes the back door.” I   suggested   the   winner   should   get   to   drive   the   truck   up   to   the   front   door.   He   told   me to   shut   the   blankity   blank   up.   On   three   he   left   his   fist   clasped,   crushing   my   scissors.   I didn’t mind losing this one. Especially because it kept him away from the front door. Last   time   Roger   had   the   front   door,   an   idiot   with   a   shotgun   tried   to   split   him   in   half. Thankfully the gun wasn’t loaded with double ought. Or I’d be here alone today. “Oh well,” he mumbled. “At least I’m dressed for the weeds.” Yep. I’m the partner who hates jeans. I’ll be buried in cargo shorts. Roger   slid   a   shotgun   out   of   the   rack,   exited   the   truck,   and   vaulted   the   nearby   barbed wire   fence   like   he   was   some   kind   of   gazelle.   The   showoff.   He’s   lithe   for   a   short   guy.   I   got out   and   took   the   wheel,   happy   not   to   be   climbing   through   an   unmaintained   field   in   the eighty-degree   November   muggy.   I   asked   the   Ford’s   computer-thingy   for   light   jazz,   and was on my fifth song before Roger let me know he was set. Sigh.   I   was   on.   I   put   the   truck   in   gear,   made   a   U-ee,   pulled   through   the   weeds,   near the lonely pickup on the left, grabbed my shotgun, and hurried to the front door. Oh   lord.   What   had   I   gotten   into   this   time?   Before   setting   a   foot   on   the   ancient boards   of   the   stoop,   pained   howls   of   someone   being   beaten   reached   me   through   the   old- fashioned crank-out windows famous in Florida, pre-air-conditioning. I hit my mic. “You hear that?” I   was   already   trying   the   doorknob,   not   waiting   for   Roger.   He   didn’t   hear   anything.   I told   him   I   was   going   in.   He   followed   with   questions   I’d   expect   from   a   stinking   lawyer, but someone was getting tortured or something. Inside,   ten   feet   from   the   threshold,   a   doorway   lead   to   the   right.   I   barreled   through, shotgun   at   the   ready,   not   really   forming   an   expectation   in   my   head   what   to   expect. Though I had an image of a 1960s horror genre actor in my head. Never could have expected what I found. A   bedroom.   A   woman   lay   across   from   me   on   a   bed,   knees   wrenched   back   to   her ears,   screaming.   A   naked   guy   knelt   in   front   of   her.   That’s   all   the   description   of   the   scene I wanted to think about. Standing   there   like   an   idiot,   I   watched   the   two   completing   their   business.   Had   to   be the   longest   orgasm   on   record.   Roger’s   rushed   footsteps   drummed   on   the   old   hardwood floors. Even that didn’t interrupt them. The two were of single-minded determination. Roger leaned against me and snickered. Our    screamer    finished    with    a    tremulous    adulation    of    God,    while    our    skip    kept going, working on an encore. “Should we interrupt them?” Roger whispered. I   glared,   hoping   his   mumbled   words   would   draw   their   attention,   but,   oh   no.   Her volume,   his   ears   partly   muffled   by,   well,   I   didn’t   want   to   finish   that   thought—   They   kept at it. My   face   suddenly   flashed   neon   hot.   What   the   heck   were   we   doing,   standing   here like   idiots,   watching   this?   I   stepped   back,   pushing   Roger   with   me.   The   floorboards creaked, but the two weren’t going to hear us over the woman’s next rising storm. Roger   trudged   through   the   house.   I   backed   my   way   out   the   front   door,   which   I closed quietly. I didn’t have to be so careful. Lady friend was hitting another crescendo. I    stood    at    the    door    shaking    my    head.    She    already    geared    up    for    a    whole    new explosion. I pounded on the door hard. Panicked   steps   drummed,   heading   Roger’s   way.   I   pivoted   and   sprinted   for   the   side of   the   house.   I   didn’t   have   to   hurry.   Roger   had   taken   care   of   our   skip   by   the   time   I   got   to the back stoop. The   man   wrenched   around   in   pain.   The   weeds   and   thorns   must   have   been   bad, digging   into   his   sensitive   flesh.   He   must   have   managed   to   grab   his   pants   before   his   mad dash. A pair of jeans lay in the dirt to his right. “Don’t   kill   me,   don’t   kill   me,”   he   pled   as   he   writhed.   “This   was   the   first   time,   I swear.” “I don’t care,” Roger mumbled, clicking his bracelets over the man’s second wrist. “She    said    you    wouldn’t    be    back    until    tomorrow.”    The    dude    was    weeping    now. “Please don’t kill me. Don’t kill me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” “Why would we kill you?” Roger asked through his smirk. Our   skip   stilled,   twisted   to   look   up   at   us.   His   eyes   flicked,   but   they   didn’t   hint   an   IQ of thirteen. “Ain’t you Tony?” “They ain’t Tony,” a voice to my right mumbled. I   jerked.   I   hadn’t   noticed   the   earthy   female   at   the   back   screen   door.   I’m   glad   I   didn’t put   bird   shot   into   her   chest.   Naked   chest.   She   didn’t   have   a   drip   of   clothing   on,   didn’t   try to   cover   up   nothing   either.   For   all   the   emotion   she   bellowed   earlier,   she   appeared   rather impassive now. I had to ask. “Who’s Tony?” “My husband,” the chick said. “Who are you?” our skip asked. “The   guys   serving   the   warrant   for   your   arrest.”   Roger   got   that   out   without   cracking up. Chapter 7 ~ Y ep,   I   recognized   the   number.   Nine   at   night,   I   really   didn’t   want   to   chat   with   psycho chick, even if she is Roger’s main squeeze. I answered with a hey. “Can you make a class at eight AM in the morning?” Rees asked. “Uh.   I   don’t   have   class   until   six   PM.”   English.   American   history   after   that.   I   figured night classes would always be handy with Goldman’s now-and-then gigs. “I    know    my    position    isn’t    a    done    deal,”    she    said.    “But    you’ll    have    to    complete fourteen hours of perishable skills training before I could swear you in as an officer.” “Uh.” Perishable skills? “I’ve signed you up for Tactical Firearms at the main HCC campus. Eight till noon. “What?” Afternoon   I   had   four   hours   of   Arrest   and   Control.   Thursday   I   had   Driver   Training and    Awareness,    near    the    port.    Then    that    afternoon,    back    on    campus,    Tactical    and Interpersonal Communication. My thoughts backed up somewhere, maybe in my sinuses. She asked if I was still on the line. I mumbled a yeah. “There’s   a   bunch   more   training,   after,   but   since   you   have   your   class   G,   surety   agent and   private   detective   licenses,   you   would   just   have   to   show   progress   on   the   other   over time.” “Bunch more?” I mumbled. “Have   to   eventually   complete   POST   training,”   she   said,   “but   you’d   have   two   years   to complete it all.” “Uh.” “I   have   a   project   already   in   the   approval   process   for   next   week,   so   it   would   be   nice   if I could get you in the field by then.” What in the heck was she talking about? She sighed. “I thought Roger told you?” He told me some stuff. “Even   if   bureaucracy   messes   things   up,   you   aren’t   out   anything.   I’ve   got   funding   for your classes. And I can use you as a temporary contractor until.” Until   what?   Was   Michael   on   board   with   Roger   shanghaiing   me   into   working   for Rees?   Michael   pretty   much   wanted   me   out   of   the   bond   business   before   I   got   myself killed. Go to school, he said. Another thought struck, and I asked what post training. “Peace Officer Standards and Training.” Uh. That sounded a lot like the police academy. “What    every    cop    has    to    go    through,”    she    continued.    “Taught    through    the community college here.” Amelia   must   have   grown   concerned   about   whatever   my   face   was   doing.   She   closed her   book,   sat   up,   swiveled   toward   me   on   the   bed,   and   gave   me   a   chin   thrust.   I   explained it   was   Rees.   Amelia’s   face   turned   concerned.   It   had   taken   a   while,   but   I’d   gotten   her thinking   maybe   Rees   wasn’t   one   hundred   percent   normal,   and   maybe   not   the   best   for Roger to be involved with. In   the   meantime,   Rees   rattled   off   the   logistics   for   the   class   I   guess   I   was   committed to.   She   asked   if   I   was   good.   I   nodded.   She   was   already   telling   me   about   the   next   three classes, even though I realized I hadn’t vocalized anything in a few minutes. She hung up without me saying anything else. I   think   I   lay   there   numb.   Didn’t   even   pull   the   machine   away   from   the   side   of   my head. “What?” Amelia asked. Uh. “What?” “You   know   I   said   I’d   meet   you   to   pick   up   the   marriage   license   tomorrow?”   She probably wouldn’t forget that. Amelia nodded. I   explained   I   wouldn’t   be   able   to.   She   raised   her   one   brow   like   she   does.   I   explained I   had   a   class   until   noon.   I   had   some   reading   to   do   before   my   two   classes   that   night,   too.   I should   have   done   it   over   the   weekend.   I   tend   to   procrastinate.   Instead   of   reading   about vampire romance, I should have been doing it right now. Amelia said, “Thought you had all night classes?” I nodded. The one brow rose again. I explained Rees’ call. Amelia   opened   her   eyes   wide.   “I   thought   you   said   you   wouldn’t   work   with   that loon?” I’d   said   that?   I   don’t   think   so.   She   must   have   been   reading   my   mind   and   got   it wrong.   She   usually   nails   what   I’m   thinking.   I   told   her   I   didn’t   think   the   position   was even approved yet. “But   she   has   budget   for   your   classes?   When   did   you   accept   the   offer?   Jeez.   Seems like that’s something you would have talked to me about.” Yeah, maybe. If it had happened. Roger’s riff played on my phone, which I still just held off my cheek. “Huh?” “So you accepted?” he asked. I shook my head. Amelia leaned near and said, “He didn’t.” “Then, uh.” “Yeah, huh?” Amelia said for me. “Did you accept for him?” I   handed   the   phone   to   her.   I   didn’t   need   to   be   in   the   loop.   Amelia   was   doing   fine without   me.   My   mind   was   jingling   with   the   name   of   tomorrow’s   class.   Tactical   Firearms. I’d   gotten   to   like   guns.   Enjoyed   the   afternoon   of   sniper   training   a   few   weeks   ago.   Maybe I   forgot   about   the   bruises   on   my   elbows,   my   sore   shoulder,   ringing   ears.   Who   would have ever guessed I’d be good with guns? Amelia   was   doing   a   lot   of   nodding.   My   mind   turned   to   the   way   her   nightie   had scrunched   up   to   her   waist,   with   her   sitting   there   Indian   fashion.   Amelia   is   really   sexy. When   would   she   hang   up?   I   was   getting   that   hankerin’   again.   I   rolled   toward   her   and worked   my   left   hand   up   her   back,   traced   my   right   across   her   calf,   heading   for   her   thigh. She   slapped   my   hand.   I   gave   her   a   pouty   face.   She   didn’t   object   to   my   caresses   going   up her back. “Won’t   look   very   good   for   her,”   Amelia   said,   “if   he   decides   to   just   work   on   his degree.” She   set   the   speaker   function   on   quickly   enough   for   me   to   learn   Roger   believed   there was no way I’d turn Rees down. Yeah. He thought the gig was sweet. I asked if I could still grab skips on the side. He mumbled noncommittally for a moment. “I’ll check that out.” He    must    have    hung    up.    Because    my    phone    jingled    with    Augie’s    tone.    Amelia answered   and   told   him   he   was   on   speaker.   I   was   okay   with   not   having   a   choice   in   the matter. “You’re not having sex or anything, are you?” he asked. “It was interrupted,” Amelia said. I wish. Well, not that it was interrupted. More that it was in progress. “I hate that,” Augie mumbled. Yeah. Sure. Like Denny would let him answer the phone, during. “Not that Denny would let me answer the phone,” Augie said. “With   your   attention   span,”   Amelia   wheezed,   “you   wouldn’t   notice   it   ringing.”   She didn’t hold back her snort. “I’d   notice,”   Augie   said,   with   no   hint   of   a   pout.   “It’s   good   you’re   going   to   work   with Rees.” Dang.   He   always   knows   what   I’m   going   to   do   before   I   do.   Not   that   it   was   settled.   Or was it? Amelia’s laugh clipped off quickly. “She sure is assuming a lot.” “It’s for the best,” Augie said. Amelia   and   I   exchanged   confused   expressions.   At   least   I   felt   confused.   She   looked it. “Takes so long for Jon to get off the pot, the rest of us have to drag him along.” I reminded him I was listening. “Besides,”   he   continued.   “You   having   an   investigator’s   badge   will   come   in   handy   in my security business.” “That’s   abuse   of   authority,”   Amelia   said   with   a   tad   of   irritation.   “Not   to   mention illegal.” “We do lots of illegal stuff,” Augie said. “That wouldn’t even measure.” “I have to remind you I’m a federal officer?” Amelia asked. Augie sputtered a raspberry, in his unique fashion, with extra-loose lips. “I will one day arrest you, Augustus Nellis.” Oh. Double names. Always a bad sign. “Goldman won’t have any skips for a while anyway,” Augie said. There is no way he could know that. “Just don’t shoot your instructor tomorrow,” he continued. Just like there was no way he could know I’d be in a firing range the next day. Augie    must    have    hung    up.    Amelia    set    the    phone    down    between    us.    I    wasn’t comfortable with the way she was studying me. I gave her a what. “Be nice if you’d share with me up front, your plans.” I   whined   about   all   of   this   being   as   big   a   surprise   to   me   as   it   was   for   her.   She   leaned   a bit toward the non-believing side, maybe. “Really,”   I   said.   “Hadn’t   talked   to   Rees   since   we   were   interrupted   at   the   diner   the other day.” “Yeah, sure,” she said. What   did   that   mean?   I   was   getting   the   feeling   we   weren’t   going   to   fool   around again. She pulled my hand out from under her nightie. Yep. Didn’t look good. Maybe   I   pouted.   I   glared   at   the   phone   sitting   between   us.   Anyone   else   want   to   call and ruin the moment just a little more? © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Suspense
SEEker 5 Chapter 1 ~ “I     know     you     don’t     like     me,”     Rees mumbled over her coffee cup. Why     did     I     ever     agree     to     this meeting? “It isn’t that I don’t like you.” “My    brother    said    y’all    had    trust issues.” Getting      shot      at,      splattered      by another    guy’s    gray    matter,    can    create insecurities. “Granted—”     She     paused     a     hard- count.    Yep.    Difficult    to    justify    some things.    “You    didn’t    meet    us    first    off when we were at our best.” Yet   Roger   fell   in   love   with   her.   How can   a   man   love   a   woman   who   held   a gun   at   his   spine,   threatened   to   kill   him? Timing    is    good,    visiting    Shrink-lady immediately after this. Maybe       I       needed       to       deflect. “Understand   you   accepted   the   offer   on your house.” Rees     nodded.     “All     happening     so fast.” So    there    wasn’t    much    to    drag    her back    to    Atlanta.    That    was    too    bad. Tampa     looked     like     her     new     home. Whether      that      was      good      for      the fraternity    or    not.    Weird,    Roger    not slopping   a   bowl   of   cereal   with   me   every morning,    these    days.    Off    breakfasting with     our     possibly     sociopathic     crime trender. “Amelia good?” she asked. I   nodded.   Neither   of   us   have   been shot in over a month. “Augie     has     been     lobbying     Roger relentlessly.” What?    That    sounded    like    it    just blurted   out.   She   changes   topics   really fast.   And   I’m   not   the   best   at   keeping   up with    a    linear    conversation.    I’m    pretty certain     there     was     a     level     of     mixed frustration   and   irritation   in—I   guess   it was   a   complaint.   Augie   had   never   said   a word    to    me,    about    anything    specific with   Roger.   But   then   he’s   been   pretty busy    with    his    security    business.    And shacking up with Denny. “Don’t     look     so     surprised.”     Rees’ soprano tilted alto. What? “Roger   talks   about   your   dumb   look. You do have it down.” What? “You      have      the      twelve-year-old innocent look down pat too.” That    wasn’t    fair.    I’m    innocent    by nature. She   cleared   her   throat,   looked   down at    her    coffee    cup.    “Nothing    personal. But   I   think   Roger   will   live   longer   if   he goes back on the force.” Not   necessarily.   If   people   shoot   at us,   they’ll   hit   me   every   time.   I   attract bullets.   Besides,   it’s   about   being   happy with   what   you’re   doing,   not   just   being safe.   A   long   life   is   probably   overrated. He    loves    the    adrenaline    rush    he    gets from    going    Juan    y    Juan    with    a    skip. Loves    not    having    to    say    yes    sir    to anyone.    He    certainly    doesn’t    use    that expression with me. Besides.     He     looks     great     in     the Mueller      Brothers      black      polo      and tactical vest. “Bounty   hunters   don’t   belong   in   the twenty-first century.” Her voice rasped. She’d    practiced    that    sentence.    Did she   think   she’d   get   an   argument   from me?   But   the   pastime   has   paid   well.   No other   way   I’d   be   living   in   the   fraternity house,    driving    a    fifty-thousand-dollar Rubicon. “But y’all are more vigilantes.” That   wasn’t   fair.   Well.   That’s   what truly   earned   the   big   bucks.   If   I’m   going to    get    shot,    I    should    at    least    be    paid well for the privilege. “I’m    not    going    to    get    used    to    you not talking.” Meh. Most people eventually do. Rees   pointed   to   the   wall.   “You   like that black paint?” Funny.   Why   do   people   love   to   argue so   much?   I   guess   with   the   lights   out   at night,    the    mauve    would    look    pretty black.   So   no   point   arguing   with   her.   It’s all relative. She    sighed    hard    enough    to    pull    a groin.     “You’d     make     a     great     Army private.” I    nodded.    I    always    loved    Beetle Bailey.   Maybe   Rees   will   get   around   to why   we’re   meeting   at   the   diner,   now, and   not   at   the   fraternity   house.   There’s witnesses   here,   so   she   doesn’t   plan   to kill   me.   Clearly   she   didn’t   want   anyone from      the      crew      hearing      whatever devious   scheme   she   had   to   share   with me. Should    I    ask    for    a    coffee    refill?    I tapped the lip of my cup. “The    chief    has    given    me    a    budget for a part-time assistant,” she gushed. Hum. So? “Contract    only.    Won’t    be    a    civil service position.” Did    she    want    a    recommendation? Surely   Roger   could   help   her   better   with that.   He   hangs   with   lots   of   guys   who’ve left   the   force,   for   whatever   reason,   like avoiding scum and miscreants. “It     would     be     cool     working     with Roger,”     Rees     said     softly.     “But     that would    be    a    conflict    of    interest,    you know.     The     chief     asks     how     Roger’s doing.    Every    Monday    and    Thursday morning briefing.” Maybe   I   could   ask   around   at   school. Always    plenty    of    vets