Yesterday, Riddick had his annual vet checkup, and what I thought would be a quick trip for a rabies vaccine has turned into me waiting for test results. I had the best of intentions of blogging today, but I'm tired and stressed, and just not feeling it. So instead, please enjoy another look-see at Keeping Bad Company. Directly follows last week's chapter 3 post. Once again, posting raw text, so please excuse typos. And check out Made for Breaking and God Love Her to get all caught up with the Russell clan.
Coffee, shock jock radio, slow traffic, burgundy sunrises: the start to all of her mornings. Layla was the first one onto the King Customs lot each day. She unlocked the doors – pedestrian and roll top – booted up the computer, lined up the boards, looked over the schedules she’d made the night before. Mick had a play pen wedged in the corner behind the desk and she played mommy between handling customers and mechanics. It was chaos, but it was her life. She’d chosen it.
This morning, Joyce had insisted on keeping Mick home with her. “That garage isn’t any place for a baby,” she’d said. Then she’d tried to convince Layla to take a personal day so they could shop and catch up. Layla had refused. She didn’t trust the garage to function without her careful supervision. And she couldn’t stand the guilt of being around her mother and feeling uncomfortable there. If she was at work, she wouldn’t have to think about that. She wouldn’t have to ponder all the ways in which her old life and her new life glanced off one another in incongruous surges of tension. If her past and her present weren’t part of the same tapestry, what did that say about her? How many of her own personal threads had unraveled and been re-stitched in new patterns?
She missed Mick.
She wished she and Sly had a habit of carpooling.
Pale daylight was skating across the lot of King Customs when she turned into it. This was always the most peaceful time of the day – now, and after night fell. After dark, though, was an exhausted sort of peace. This was a breath-held, energized quiet.
This morning was going to be an exception. Two cars were parked in front of the office: an old Volvo wagon the color of Georgia red clay, and a dark blue Crown Vic. The Crown Vic – and she hated she could recognize a specific unmarked cop car – was in her usual spot, so she parked beside it, and climbed out with her purse and travel coffee mug held up like shield and sword. Detective Sheppard sat on the hood of his car, working on the last nub of a cigarette. She was surprised to see him smoke; he’d never smelled like he did. On the bench beneath the office window, Father Morris sat in faded jeans and a sweatshirt, an out of fashion windbreaker zipped over it, his hands in the pockets.
“Sorry,” Layla said as she closed her car door with a hip. “I’m not awake enough to come up with a suitable joke.” She gestured between the two of them, the odd picture they made.
Sheppard leapt to his feet in a way that brought to mind a guilty little boy. He looked so serious, she wanted to laugh. She didn’t, but bit down on her tongue as he tossed his cigarette butt to the sidewalk.
“I just thought of it. A priest, a cop, and a mob wife walk into a bar…”
Sheppard didn’t grin. “Morning.”
Layla quirked her brows and stepped around him. If he wanted to be melodramatic, she could play along. “Morning.” Glancing toward Father Morris, she said, “Good morning, Father. To what do I owe the pleasure?” When Sheppard frowned, she said, in an undertone, “What? He has much better manners than you.” She unlocked the door and stepped in, flicking on the lights, letting them follow if they would.
“Good morning, dear,” Father Morris said. He entered first, and took great care settling his small frame into a chair as she went around the desk, shed her jacket, and pressed the power button on the computer. “You look very nice this morning.”
She hadn’t had time to finish drying her hair and it was frizzing something awful. A giant hole had opened up in the armpit of her thousand-year-old Gap sweater and she was hoping she could keep her elbows at her sides all day to hide it. The toes of her favorite ankle boots were scuffed beyond the reach of shoe polish. But she smiled at the aging father and said, “Thank you.”
Sheppard perched a hip on the far edge of her hulking metal desk and reached to toy with her paperclip holder. He picked up the plastic cube and rolled it between his palms. “When’s Sly getting in?” he asked without making eye contact.
“He was in the shower when I left.” Though why he showered before getting covered in grease every day, she’d never know. “And since he won’t want to stick around and have breakfast with my mother, he’ll be here soon.”
“We’re not going there. Why do you need him?”
He shot her a fast, narrow-eyed glance. “How much did he tell you?”
She didn’t respond right away. It wasn’t his business how honest she and her husband were with each other. “Are you hiring him?” she asked instead.
He reached inside his suit coat and withdrew a sealed white envelope.
Layla felt her brows go up. She nodded. “He told me about your family. And about Chad Quinn.”
Sheppard flicked a glance toward the priest.
“Father Morris isn’t going to pass any of this along to anyone,” she assured.
“I don’t run in any of the right circles for that,” Father Morris joked in his calm little way.
Sheppard made a face. “I won’t say it out loud,” he said, resistance lacing his words. “I can’t say that I’m hiring them.”
Layla held out her hand. “That works. You’re not getting a receipt anyway. There’s no balance sheets for vigilante justice.” The envelope landed in her palm; it was heavier than she’d expected.
Sheppard stood. “Have him call me?”
“I don’t regret what happened with Quinn…but nothing can happen to my family, Layla. I can’t be the reason they’re in danger.”
He’d never, she figured, felt this sort of remorse. He’d always played by the rules. Once you crossed the line, skeletons went up in your closet like a whole new wardrobe, and there was no taking them out.
“I understand,” she said gently.
His face was heavy with stress lines as he nodded to her and the priest and saw himself out.
“I encouraged him to come and see me,” Father Morris said as the Crown Vic fired up in the parking lot. “I think counseling would help ease his conscience.”
Layla twitched a smile. “How’d he take that advice?”
“There was an expletive involved.”
“He’s kind of a wired guy,” she lamented.
The father nodded. “So many are these days.”
The sun’s red dawn was softening to a rich gold through the windows. A mockingbird with a beak full of pine straw hopped through the lot and then took wing. It was setting up to be a beautiful day. It felt like a lifetime ago since Layla had nothing more to worry about than how blue the sky would turn out to be. She said a silent eulogy to her former naïve self, then said, “Is anything the matter, Father Morris?”
He took his time answering, fitting the pads of his fingers against those of the opposite hand, taking several careful deep breaths. “There’s something I want to talk to Ray about. A possible – well, he calls them charity cases. I have a feeling he won’t want to see me come to him with another small problem. Not when things are so…” He gestured to the walls around them.
Layla smiled, and could feel that it didn’t touch her eyes. “Father, you’re probably the only one in the world who thinks our souls are worth saving. Uncle Ray will listen to your problem.”
“I thought it might be better received if you told him about it.”
Her brows lifted in surprise. Since when was she the gatekeeper to all things nefarious? But she nodded.
“I have a family of parishioners,” he began, “with four children. A nice family; they’ve been a part of my church since Ken and Martha were first married. All of the children had their christenings with me. I know them well.” He took another deep breath and looked very old, his hair more white than gray, his hands veined and brown and wrinkled. “Their youngest daughter is…troubled. She left home about six months ago and Martha came to see me last night, in tears, very convinced that the girl has become involved in some sort of drug-selling ring.”
“Hate to say it, but that’s not uncommon.” Especially, she thought, if this girl was from a strict, religious family.
“No,” he agreed. “But I promised her parents that I would try to find her. Even if she won’t come home, they want to know that she’s safe. That she’s still alive. They want the chance to talk to her.”
“And you think the guys could find her,” she guessed.
“I think they have a very good chance. The gang Martha mentioned – every crime organization in the area has some kind of dealings with the Black Dogs.”
Half of whom Ray employed. One of which was her own poor misguided brother. A note of fear shivered up her spine. She was only willing to be involved with the club up to a point. Everything about this scenario frightened her, for so many reasons.
She reached for a pen and a Post-It. “What’s her name? I’ll at least pass the info along to Ray.”
Technically, Johnny lived with Rico these days. Ray had unofficially kicked him out the night he’d announced he’d prospected with the Dogs. “When you’re wearing that” – he’d flicked the front of his new cut with a fingertip – “you’re not the nephew who lives under my roof.” He’d slept at King Customs that night, with a dinner of Seven-Eleven beef jerky, his dreaded cut shoved beneath his head as a pillow. Layla had found him the next morning; he’d seen the tears that filled her eyes before she turned her head away. She’d offered, on more than one occasion, the guest room at her new place. But he hadn’t been able to bring himself to take her up on it, and so he slept on Rico’s futon, amid old Cheetos bags and week-old laundry, on the nights he didn’t crash at the clubhouse after a hard day of being everyone’s go-fer.
There weren’t blinds on the living room windows, and first light, slatted with the pattern of the fire escape one story up, pressed at the heavy seams of his eyelids. No hangover had ever been worse than the complete exhaustion that dragged at him. He sat up, blinked back sleep, and waited for the room to stop spinning.
The apartment, as usual, looked like the Tasmanian Devil had blown through. Burger wrappers, Big Gulp cups, uncountable issues of Car and Driver. There was a clean-clothes/dirty-clothes organization system no one had ever been able to figure out; stacks of t-shirts and jeans and breakaway track pants turned walking into the kitchenette into an Olympic event. And that was without mentioning the horror of the bathroom.
Why didn’t he live with his sister again?
Upstairs, Mr. Montrose turned on talk radio, and the scratchy voices reverberated through the floor. The sound made Johnny’s teeth itch, and he flipped back the fleece throw he’d slept beneath. Time to face facts: it was another day.
He was still in jeans, socks, and an undershirt. He finger-combed his hair on the way to the bathroom. Blocking all sensory receptors, he brushed his teeth and splashed cold water on his face. Wash your hair, his aunt Cheryl’s voice sounded in his head. Later, he told her ghost. First, he wanted to –
In his back pocket, his phone chimed with a text alert.
It was from Jaeger: Get ur ass here ASAP. Jaeger wasn’t an asshole on purpose, it was just one of his more charming traits.
Before he could put his phone away, another text came in, this one from Layla. Will you be in this morning? She always wrote in complete sentences. Eddie’s bringing donuts. :)
Guilt writhed in his belly like an unhappy snake. Assholes he could deal with; sweet, cajoling sisters, not so much. She tried, valiantly, to make up for the years they’d spent apart. But it was hard to relive the past they didn’t have when there was a baby that looked just like Sly involved. He had these dim, long ago memories of Layla’s little-girl face hovering over his, sun painting a halo around her dark head, and he couldn’t rectify that child with the woman Sly had bedded and wedded. It was just wrong. No matter how hard Sly tried to play big brother, it was never going to feel natural.
He was saved having to respond by Rico.
“Dude, you in there?” he called through the door.
Who else would be in there? “Yeah,” Johnny called back. “You need in?”
“Nah. Meet me in the kitchen.”
He stared at his reflection in the toothpaste-flecked mirror. He looked like shit. “Shit,” he repeated to himself. He slipped his phone into his back pocket…and his fingers touched a scrap of paper. He pulled it out; it was the receipt from The Pink Elephant, from the night before. He’d paid cash for his last round, but with his first, the bartender had brought him a receipt. He hadn’t noticed before, but there was a phone number scrolled across the bottom, alongside a smiley face the message: Call me sometime. I’ve got a weak spot for cute bikers. He folded it up and put it in his wallet for safekeeping, not sure if he planned on calling her, or if he liked the idea of her having weak spots.
Rico waited for him on a barstool at the kitchenette’s peninsula. His hair – slicked back during the day – stuck up in wacky bedhead spikes, a black that gleamed silver in the early light. He was still in the t-shirt and boxers he slept in, and was nursing what Johnny knew was an espresso from a mug that read “You wouldn’t like me when I’m sleepy.” His slender brown fingers trembled around a cigarette, and his exhaled plumes of smoke stuttered with nerves. This was serious, then.
“What’s up?” Johnny asked as he slid onto the stool beside him and stared at the dingy window above the sink. A thick cloud of white tumbled across the view: Mr. Montrose had opened his bathroom window to apply hairspray again.
Rico took a breath. “You got in really late last night.”
Dread gathered in his throat. “You were still up.”
“Yeah, but…” Rico had rehearsed this, but he’d been unable to come up with counterpoints. It was typical; it was one of the things Johnny had always liked about his best friend. “You” – sharp drag on the smoke – “This is my place, you know? And you should – you should show some courtesy.”
A knife between the shoulder blades wouldn’t have hurt worse. “What?”
“You can’t just – just – come in all late, you know? And, like, disturb my work.”
“You hack into websites!”
“But I get paid for it!” He turned a big, brown-eyed glance to Johnny that brimmed with regret. He had one of those easy to read, expressive faces – like a puppy, Lisa always said – and he couldn’t conceal how much he hated what he was saying. But he said it anyway, and Johnny wondered whether it was Ray, or – in a brother back-stabbing move – Sly who had told Rico to scorn him for his, as they called them, “poor life choices.”
“Rico,” he said, helplessly.
“I don’t think.” Rico sucked in a huge breath. “That this is gonna work out. You living here.”
And just like that, the Dogs were taking his closest friend away.
His phone rang. It was Jaeger. Of course.