I sat at the foot of the bed, petrified. My eyes followed him as he paced the floor. His hand gripped his pistol so firmly that his knuckles had gone white. It was the second time in the last year that I’d had a loaded gun shoved in my face.
The first time it happened was still the subject matter of recurring nightmares.
“Do you think because of who I am that you’re safe?” He cackled a sinister laugh. “That there’s some code? An oath I’ve taken that’ll prevent me from hurting you? Is that what you’re thinking?”
It had crossed my mind. I had no idea how to respond. His tight jaw and fiery eyes warned me that reasoning with him wasn’t a remote possibility.
I wanted Baker to walk in. To see what was happening. There would be hell to pay, I was sure of it. My eyes drifted to the century-old grandfather clock situated beside the dresser.
He wouldn’t be home for an hour. My heart fell into the pit of my stomach. It was an hour I was sure the pistol-wielding maniac wasn’t willing to give.
I scanned through the memories of every cop show I’d binge watched on Netflix. I hated admitting it, but I was a hostage. I needed to downplay the situation. To reassure him that hurting me wasn’t in his best interest. Then, negotiations could begin.
Swallowing my fear would be step one. I could talk in circles – and easily buy an hour’s time – if I could get past my dry tongue and the knot in my throat that was choking me from speaking.
“Hurting me is not the answer. I’ll comply.” As the words came out, my stomach convulsed. The bitter taste of the inevitable rose in my throat. I pressed my tongue to the roof of my mouth and swallowed heavily. “I can assure you that you won’t have to–”
He paused and wagged the barrel of the pistol at me. “To protect me and my brothers, I’ll do whatever’s necessary. I can’t risk forfeiting the time we’ve put into this operation.”
“I have no…I’ve got…I don’t know what you want,” I stammered.
“You’re going to talk,” he said through his teeth. “Believe me, you’ll talk, or you’ll wish you had.”
“Just tell me what you want to know.” My voice faltered. “I’ll…I’ll do my best.”
He glared at me. With each swing of the clock’s pendulum, his eyes thinned a little more. “Tell me what you know about the operation. Every word you’ve overheard. What you know, and what you think you know. Everything.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. “I don’t know anything,” I whispered. “I swear. He doesn’t tell me–”
He stepped so close I could taste his breath. Then, he raised the pistol and pointed it at my head. “Why are you in here snooping around?”
I closed my eyes. Obviously, he had no idea how intimate Baker and I had become. I wasn’t snooping around. I’d become a fixture in Baker’s life. Our relationship had evolved from casual sex to one of exclusivity and imminent love.
I debated with what to tell him. Divulging too much information about my relationship might put Baker at risk. Saying too little wouldn’t justify my presence in his home. I was in a situation where I couldn’t win.
I decided to lie.
I would ad lib my way through it. It was the only way I could protect Baker from the unknown.
“Answer me,” he growled. “Or I’ll put an extra hole in your head.”
I opened my eyes. “I come by on Sundays and cook breakfast. I was just going to get cleaned up and leave when you walked–”
His eyebrows raised. “Sundays, huh?”
I swallowed heavily. “Yeah. I cook–”
He slipped the tip of his finger against the trigger. “Bullshit. You’re here every fucking day. I’ve been watching you. You sneak in and sneak out like you’re hiding something.”
The door behind me opened.
My head swiveled toward the sound.
Upon seeing us, he stopped in his tracks. His eyes darted around the room and then locked on us. “What in the absolute fuck is going on?”
I kept my eyes fixed on Baker. I wondered how he was going to save me. Surely, he’d give me a signal.
I felt the barrel of the gun press against the back of my head. “I’ll kill this bitch. I fucking swear.” He yanked to my feet. “Don’t take another step, Baker.”
“Her?” Baker asked. His hands raised to the sides of his head. “I don’t give a fuck, kill her.
She doesn’t mean anything to me.”
She doesn’t mean anything to me?
With each of those six spoken words, a dagger was thrust into my heart. How could he say such a thing?
My assailant pulled me close. My back slammed against his chest. Now facing Baker, I searched his face for answers. His eyes were fixed on the man who towered over me, but offered nothing to ease the pain of what he’d said.
“I’m not fucking around, Baker. I’ll put one in the back of this bitch’s head.”
Slowly, Baker lowered his hands.
The pistol pressed hard against the base of my skull. “Keep your hands where I can see them, Baker.”
She doesn’t mean anything to me. The words echoed in my mind. Then, it dawned on me. That was his sign. He had a plan, I simply didn’t know what it was. Whatever it was, it was going to have to be precise. One wrong move, and I would be nothing but a memory.
I closed my eyes.
Please. Guide me through this. Help me understand what it is that I need to…
The explosive sound of the gun firing caused my heart to stop.
The feeling of warm blood running down my neck followed.
Then, everything went black.
Six months ago.
I stroked my beard with the web of my hand and waited for Cash to respond. His eyes were fixed on the floor. After a long pause, he looked up.
“We don’t kill women, children, or the elderly,” he said under his breath.
What he did was unacceptable. As the president of Devil’s Disciples MC, I had many responsibilities. Keeping my men out of prison was one of them. Being a babysitter wasn’t. I demanded that everyone follow the rules outlined in the club’s bylaws. If they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – there was no place for them in the MC.
Leniency wasn’t a strength I possessed.
I studied him. An intimidating man to outsiders, he was lean and muscular with jet-black hair that obscured his eyes when he didn’t take the time to clear it away from his face.
His jaw was sparsely covered in a light scruff, and his olive-colored skin was spotted with tattoos. His dark eyes were triangular, making it easy to mistake him for a Pacific Islander, but he swore he was Irish.
If he was, it would explain the temper.
“You understand the importance of that rule, don’t you?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Suppose so.”
I pushed my chair away from my desk and stood. “You suppose so?”
“I guess so.”
“You’re guessing?” I walked around the corner of my desk. “You know how I hate guessing.”
“What the fuck, Baker? It was an accident.”
“You expect me to believe you fired that weapon on accident?” I narrowed my gaze. “You left a bullet buried in the cabinet beside that bank teller’s shoulder.”
“I don’t care if you believe it or not,” he snapped back. “That’s what happened. It was an accident.”
“If you’re prone to discharging your weapon on accident, maybe this club isn’t the best place for you. I can’t put the rest of the men at risk, Cash.”
He looked me over as if sizing me up. “What are you saying?”
“I just said it. I can’t put the men at risk. You know the rules. Only point where you intend to shoot, and only shoot who you intend to kill. No women, no children, and no old people. It’s a pretty simple set of rules. You’re lucky you didn’t kill her. If you had, we’d all be facing murder charges.”
“It was a fucking accident,” he insisted. “It won’t happen again.”
Our club was a close-knit group of men who were friends long before we chose to prove our alliance to one another by donning leather jackets and getting matching tattoos. My friendship with Cash began in kindergarten. He made the mistake of challenging me on the playground. An ass whipping ensued.
As much a kindergartner could administer, anyway.
We’d been friends ever since. Friendship didn’t afford him a pass for putting the club at risk, though. We had a strict set of rules we followed, one of which was indexing our weapons when we were on the job.
Indexing – or carrying the weapon with the index finger out of the trigger guard – was a crucial step in preventing gun related accidents from happening.
I gestured at his right hand. “If you were indexing your weapon, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Accident, motherfucker. It was a fucking ac-ci-den-t. I’m done talking about it.” He folded his arms over his chest. “She was a mouthy bitch, anyway.”
“She was doing her job.”
“She was mouthy.”
“She was trying to protect the bank’s interest.”
“Fuck her,” he hissed. “It’s insured by the feds.”
“Sounds like she got under your skin.”
“I was sick of listening to her.”
“It wasn’t an accident, was it?”
“If I wanted to shoot her, I would have shot her. Right in her shit-talking mouth.”
“It wasn’t an accident, was it?” I asked mockingly.
He chuckled a dry laugh, and then cut it short. “Yes, it was.”
I turned toward the window. Three stories down, the street was lined with parked cars, most of which disappeared at five o’clock when the work day ended. I scanned the block while Ben Harper’s Burn One Down played. When the song was over, I turned to face him.
He’d done little to convince me it was an accident. I suspected his temper got in the way of him doing his job.
“Your cut will be reflective of that accident,” I said in a dry tone. “Mistake. Poor judgement. Temper tantrum. Whatever you want to call it.”
He scooped the hair away from his eyes and shot me a glare. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“How much you going to cut me?”
“Enough that we don’t have this conversation again. No matter how much someone gets under your skin.”
“Fuck that bitch,” he said through his teeth. “She was trying to give me the bait money.”
I gave him a sideways look. “If the tables were turned, tell me what you’d have done.”
“If I was her?”
“If you were her. What would you have done?”
His eyes searched the floor for a moment. “I’d have given the thief the bait money.” He tilted his head to the side and raised both eyebrows. “But I wouldn’t have made it so obvious.”
I spit a laugh on the floor between us.
His eyes thinned. “What?”
“You’d follow the conditions of employment at the bank, but you won’t follow them with the club?”
“She was an irritating bitch.”
“It wasn’t an accident, was it?”
“Yeah.” He grinned a sly grin. “It was.”
It wasn’t an accident, and I knew it. “Whatever you want to call it, it’s going to cost you roughly fifty-three thousand bucks. After the club’s paid, that’s seventy-five percent of your take.”
“God damn it, Baker,” he seethed.
“It’s not negotiable. I’ll announce it to the club on Wednesday.”
“Fine. But that bitch better hope I never see her on the street.”
The job was in Indio. The odds of him ever seeing her again were nil at best. “She’s a hundred and fifty miles from here, so we won’t have to worry about that, will we?”
“It’s a good thing.” He tapped the tip of his index finger against his forehead. “Because the next one’ll be between her eyes.”
“I’m afraid there’s been a mistake.” He shook his head so lightly it seemed unintentional.
“I hate to say it, but I believe you were called in by accident.”
My heart sank. “Accident?”
“You have no property management experience? Is that correct?”
“Yes, Sir. I mean, no, Sir,” I stammered. “I have no experience, but I believe I’m more than qualified. In fact, I’m convinced I’ll better serve you in this position than anyone else you’ll interview. I’m sure of it. Quite sure.”
I was three minutes into the most important job interview of my life. A job I had no experience at. The Notice to Vacate I’d recently been forced to comply with was all the motivation I needed to convince the old man on the other side of the desk to hire me.
He held my resumé at arm’s length. His brow wrinkled. “I don’t know why she prints these things like this. It’s too small to read.”
He picked up a pair of wire-framed glasses and stretched the curved earpieces over the back of each of his ears. For just shy of eternity, he studied my sparse work history through the thick lenses. When he finished, he placed the resumé on the side of his desk and set his glasses on top of it.
“You are Andy Winslow, aren’t you?” he asked.
“I’ve got to be honest, Andy. When I told Nadine to call you in for an interview, I thought you were a man.”
“I’m one hundred percent woman. All 134 pounds of me,” I said playfully.
His face remained expressionless.
“Does being a woman prevent me from being considered?”
“I suppose not. It’s just that I can’t see how a business management degree – and a few years of experience as a bartender while you were in college – can prepare you to manage two pieces of property that are filled with demanding tenants.” He waved a dismissive hand at my resumé. “Is this the extent of your job experience?”
My qualifications were bleak at best. For fear of tarnishing my otherwise spotless background, I hadn’t bothered listing the job I’d been fired from recently. Excluding it, my life’s experiences – in respect to work – were listed.
“Yes, Sir. But that sheet of paper isn’t reflective of my abilities at all.” I stood and removed a hair tie from my purse. “Give me your best demanding tenant impersonation.”
His eyes thinned. “Pardon me?”
“You’re an angry tenant. I’m the property manager. Go.”
He looked at me as if I was crazy. “I don’t think this is–”
“I’m serious.” I twisted my hair into place. “You don’t think I’m qualified, and I think I am. Try me.”
He crossed his arms, and then looked me over. “My air conditioner quit, and I need to get someone to look at it right away,” he said, his tone coarse and challenging. “I’ve got family coming in from Michigan, and I can’t wait all damned weekend.”
I gave him a stern look, and dropped my voice a few octaves. “It’s Friday, Mister Greene. You and I both know that getting someone to come look at the air conditioner on Friday at six o’clock is going to be impossible. Rest assured I’ll get it resolved as soon as I can. Have you noticed the fan making any funny noises, or have you seen any signs of backed up condensation?”
“I haven’t noticed, no.”
I cocked my hip and looked him up and down. “You haven’t noticed, or you haven’t paid attention? You do realize it’s your responsibility, not ours, to clean the condensation pan, don’t you?”
One side of his mouth curled into a half-assed grin. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. “I thought you had no experience at this?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t.”
“How do you know what a condensation pan is?”
“My father owns a heating and air business.”
He stood and cleared his throat. “I’ve been seeing bugs every time I come home at night. I need you to get this place sprayed–”
“Pest control is a preventative measure, not a reactionary one. It’s performed quarterly. We treated the building in June. I’m sure whatever you’ve seen is on the verge of death. If not, we’ll make sure they are in September, when we treat it next. Anything else?”
His eyebrows raised. “Let me guess. Your knowledge of pest control comes from an uncle who’s an exterminator?”
“No. I lived in an apartment. Every time I called them about roaches, that’s what they would tell me.”
He let out a sigh and then lowered himself into his chair. “I’m not convinced hiring you is the answer–”
“That’s funny. I’m convinced if you don’t, you’ll regret it.”
His brows knitted together. “I’ll regret it?”
“I’m sixty-seven years old, and I can count my life’s regret with one finger.”
“That’ll all change if you hire someone else,” I assured him. “You’ll reach a point of regret.”
He leaned back in his chair and looked down his nose at me. “Is that a fact?”
“If you could see beyond my feminine exterior, you’d realize how valuable and man-like I am. I cuss like a sailor. I can easily out-drink a Russian peasant. I’m loyal, but not to a point of fault. For me, honesty is second nature. I’ll argue until I’m exhausted if I think I’m right. If I’m proven wrong, I’ll admit it promptly. I earn the respect of those around me by knowing when to listen and when to speak–”
“Why are you speaking?” he asked. “Right now?”
“Because you’re not one hundred percent convinced you want to let me leave.”
“What makes you think that?”
I gestured toward his desk. “You’ve got three piles of resumés on your desk. I’m guessing one is the people you’ve interviewed. One is applicants. The other is the pool of interviewees you’ll be picking from. You’ve got no less than ten resumés in each pile. Yet, you’re still talking to me. Furthermore, my resumé isn’t in a pile. It’s at the edge of your desk. Apparently, you haven’t decided what to do with me yet.”
A low chuckle escaped him. “What’s your favorite cuss word?”
“Cocksucker,” I responded dryly.
He choked on his laugh. “Type of whiskey?”
“Single malt scotch. Macallan. Neat.”
He sighed lightly. It was apparent he was entertained. Nonetheless, he pushed the dagger in a little deeper. “You lack experience, Miss Winslow.”
“You called me in for an interview despite that lack of experience. Because you thought I was a man. Right now, I think the idea of hiring a woman for the position intrigues you. You’re hoping to come up with something to convince you it’s a bad idea, but so far, you haven’t.”
“I’m impressed by your ability to ad lib and fascinated by your intellect, Andy. I’m simply afraid your lack of experience is enough–”
“I Googled you before I came. Your properties are on J Street and Westside Drive. What do they rent for? Three grand a month? Four?”
His face washed with pride. He lifted his chin slightly. “The building on J Street is primarily office space. The average rent is around ten grand. Between three and five for the living spaces on Westside, depending on square footage. Why?”
“They’re not filled with roaches, and the air conditioner isn’t on the way out. Your properties are immaculate, I saw the pictures on your website. There’ll be problems, sure, but not of the variety we’ve discussed. You need a dynamic leader with strong business, marketing and management sense. That’s what your ad said. I graduated Magna Cum Laude from USC. There’ll be a senior property manager above me. I’d act as the buffer between him and the contractors, suppliers, and tenants. No one will manage your money better than me, Mister Greene. Nobody.”
“I like you,” he said with a smile. “It’s hard not to. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll touch base on something you said earlier. That one regret I spoke of? I’ll tell you what it is. After spending the majority of my adult life single, I married a woman who was considerably younger than me. She spent money as if it grew on trees. Damned near drove me into bankruptcy before I realized what was happening. Right or wrong, I simply don’t trust women with my money. I have my doubts you’ll be frugal.”
Acting indifferent to his remark, I walked past his desk and gazed down at the street. The bicycle I’d resorted to use as transportation – because I could no longer afford insurance for my car – was chained to the corner lamp post. At the curb in front of it, someone’s spotless red Ferrari caught my attention.
I glanced over my shoulder. “Come here for a minute.”
“I want you to see something.”
I gestured to the lamp post at the corner of the street. “See that bicycle chained to that post?”
He peered over my shoulder. “The one with the basket on it?”
“That’s the one.”
“What about it?”
“That’s my transportation. My only transportation.” I pulled a Think Thin protein bar from my purse. “And, this is lunch. Frugality is my middle name.”
The look of uncertainty that he’d been wearing diminished. It hadn’t vanished, but it was close. He was considering me, I was sure of it. All I needed to do was push him over the edge of the indecisive cliff he was standing on.
“If you hire me right now, I’ll make you an offer,” I said. “But it’s only good if you take it before I walk out of here. Your ad said the position paid eighty-five thousand a year. I’ll take it for seventy thousand for the first year. At the beginning of year two, either fire me, or bring my wages in line with what they would have been if you paid me the eighty-five.”
“That’s an interesting offer.”
I turned toward the door. It was a huge risk, but I began walking, nonetheless. “You’ve got about ten seconds to decide on whether a twelve hundred and fifty dollar a month savings is attractive to you or not.”
Without looking back, I took one predictable step after the other. Six feet from stepping into the hallway, he stopped me.
“You’re hired,” he announced.
I spun around. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”
He tilted his head toward the window. “Is that really your bicycle?”
“No,” I said with a wink. “I’m driving the red Ferrari.”
The owner of a coin-operated carwash has a license to launder money. The income is one hundred percent cash, and can easily be manipulated one way or the other. Filtering a few hundred thousand dollars of ill-gotten gains a year through one was an easy task that couldn’t be traced.
I owned three of them, but I was far from a businessman.
I was the president of a motorcycle club, an outlaw, and a thief.
A professional thief.
Nonetheless, I needed an office to make my business appear legitimate. So, I leased a three-story building within walking distance of the San Diego Bay. The upper floor was my office. The second floor served as my place of residence. Below that was the Devils Disciples clubhouse. Beneath the clubhouse was an underground parking garage.
We used the parking garage to store our motorcycle collection and a few exotic cars. The clubhouse was primarily for drinking beer, relaxing, and an occasional party. The office was reserved as my escape from society, and for planning robberies.
On paper, the men in the MC were employees of the company. They received paychecks, paid their taxes, and were seen from time to time performing maintenance on the car washes they managed.
Logistically speaking – at least for me – having the operation in one facility was problematic. There was no escaping the men in the club, regardless of what time of day it was. As a result, I lived and breathed the MC.
Wearing a guilty smile, Cash sauntered into my office with one hand hidden behind his back. Half the distance to my desk, he paused and arched an eyebrow.
I shot from my seat, pulled my knife from my pocket, and flicked the blade open with my thumb. “If you’ve got another snake behind your back, I’ll cut you. Again. I guarantee you it’ll be worse than the last time.”
“Settle down. And put up the blade, motherfucker.” His grin widened. “You’re gonna love it.”
“I’m not kidding, Cash.” I took a few steps back. “I’ll cut you and carve that snake into chunks.”
“It’s not a snake. It’s an idea.”
I nodded toward his missing hand. “You’ve got an idea in your back pocket?”
“Not exactly. Well, kind of.”
“Let’s see it.”
He took a few steps in my direction. “You’re going to like it.”
“So far I’m not impressed.”
He produced his hand. A business card was wedged between his fingers. He tossed it on the desk. I picked it up, read the face of it, and then flipped it over. A rudimentary hand-drawn diamond and a shitty sketch of a gold coin adorned the back. Apparently, the graphic designer was a six-year-old child.
“Pat’s Gold and Diamond Exchange.” I sat down and gestured toward the empty chair on the other side of my desk. “Let me guess. You bought a wedding ring, and you’re going to marry that stripper from Oceanside. What’s her name? The one with the extra nipple? Crystal?”
He gave me a cross look, and then sat. “It’s a mole.”
I tossed the card across the desk. “A nipple-shaped mole that sits right beside her mole-shaped nipple.”
“Fuck you, Baker. She can’t help it.”
“You doing it in June, or is that too cliché?”
His face formed a defiant scowl. “That place is getting a new alarm system.”
“The strip club? What’s the name of it?” I tapped my index finger against my pursed lips a few times, and then met his gaze. “The Main Attraction?”
“No, god damn it. Pat’s Gold and Diamond Exchange. It’s a shit-hole in Rainbow. A really busy shit-hole. And, he’s getting a new alarm.”
“That little town between Escondido and Temecula?”
Following Cash’s logic was like comprehending Nuclear Physics. It wasn’t impossible, but it required far more work than I was willing to devote. So far, I’d completely lost interest in his story. My head began to throb. I rubbed my temples with my fingertips and closed my eyes.
“You getting a migraine again?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I whispered.
“I think I know what causes them.”
I opened my eyes. “You.”
“Fuck you, dude.” He nodded my direction, and then raked his fingers through his hair.
“It’s probably because you don’t jack off.”
“Stroking my meat isn’t the answer.”
He shrugged one shoulder. “Might be.”
“You think if I start pulling my pud, my headaches will disappear?”
“They might. There’s a reason everyone does it.”
“Everyone doesn’t do it. Do you see Tibetan Monks walking around rubbing their temples?”
His eyes narrowed, but he didn’t respond. It seemed I’d completely lost him.
“Masturbation is forbidden,” I explained. “But they don’t walk around rubbing their temples, do they?”
His face went blank. “Huh?”
I shook my head and swallowed my desire to laugh. “Never mind.”
“You should try it for a few weeks and see if they stop.”
“You should try leaving yours alone, and see if you gain a few ounces of common sense.”
“What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”
“When you walked in, you looked like you were hiding Coca Cola’s mysterious original recipe behind your back. Then, you tossed me a business card that some second grader designed. After an exhausting question and answer session, I’ve learned that some shitty little jewelry shop in Fuckwater, California is getting a new alarm system. You’ve wasted fifteen minutes of my morning, and I’ve learned nothing. Why can’t you just say what it is you want to say?”
He shrugged one shoulder. “It’s more fun this way?”
“For you, maybe. Any chance you can hit the highlights of what it is that I’m supposed to get excited about?”
“Pat’s place takes in about fifty grand a week in gold, and another ten or twenty in diamonds,” he said excitedly. “He’s got a steady stream of customers from SD, Vegas, and LA, because he doesn’t ask questions and he doesn’t do receipts unless you ask.”
I looked at him in disbelief. “How in the hell do you know what his income is?”
“Dumb fucker said so.”
“Okay. Let’s say Pat has a banner day. We hit him before he makes his drop. Then, after we pay for expenses and fuel, we’ll split forty-five grand six ways. That’s seventy-five hundred each if we’re lucky.” I gazed at the ceiling, stroked my beard a few times, and then met his gaze. “Sorry, I’m not interested. We can make that much hitting a fucking taco truck in Salinas.”
“He doesn’t make drops.”
A drop was when a business took their cash to another location and made a deposit. Typically, it was done every day – and never at the same time – which made knowing when they were going to be flush with cash difficult. For someone to have tremendous income and make infrequent drops meant that they’d have an inordinate amount of money on hand.
Money that could be ours.
“Everyone makes drops,” I argued. “What do you mean he doesn’t make drops?”
“He doesn’t make drops.”
My interest was piqued. I straightened my posture. “Ever?”
“One-eyed Pete went in there two weeks ago after that guy in Reno paid him back on that loan.”
“For the slot machines he reconditioned?”
“Yep. The owner of that underground casino paid him with a gold bar. So, he goes into Pat’s and Pat agrees to buy it–”
“A hundred-gram bar, or a four hundred troy ounce bar?”
“How the fuck would I know? All I know is that Pat paid him four hundred fifty grand for it.” he arched an eyebrow. “In cash.”
He’d garnered my interest. All of it. “You’re telling me he keeps that kind of cash on hand?”
“I’m telling you what I know.” He extended his index finger. “He’s getting a new alarm.”
He raised his middle finger. “And, he paid One-eyed Pete damned near half a million in cash.”
“Any word on why he’s getting a new alarm?”
“Told Pete he’s getting some state of the art shit. Sounds like he’s getting’ nervous. The dumb fuck just offered that up while he was in there.”
“When’s he getting it?”
“Not sure. I told you what I know.”
If Cash was right, the take from the job could easily be in the millions. The thought of it filled me with nervous energy. I needed to calm down, devise a way to disable the alarm, and develop a plan to rid Pat’s Gold and Diamond Exchange of its wealth.
“Reno and Goose are downstairs pulling the motor out of Goose’s Shovel,” I said. “Tito’s supposed to be here in an hour or two. When he gets here, bring him up here. We’ll see what we can figure out with the alarm.”
“So, you’re interested?”
“Fuck yes, I’m interested.”
The ear to ear grin returned. “Headache’s gone, huh?”
Miraculously, it was. I nodded. “It is.”
“I’ll holler at ya when Tito makes it in.” He stood and turned toward the door. “You should really try whacking off, though. Do it while you’re staring out that window of yours.”
“I’m doing just fine, thanks.”
He glanced over his shoulder. “I whack off twice a day. Can’t remember the last time I had a headache.”
“I doubt there’s a correlation.”
He shrugged and walked through the doorway. “Never know.”
Anxious about Pat’s Gold and Jewelry, I went to the window and peered down at the street. As I gazed blankly at the morning traffic, Ray Lamontagne’s Jolene played softly over the sound system. Like Ray Lamontagne, I needed something to hold onto, I just wasn’t sure what it was.
I’d solved countless problems staring out at the San Diego skyline, but by no means all of them. The window was my place of refuge, and the men knew it. When I was there, I was off-limits.
As the song ended, my eyes came into focus. At that same instant, a woman on a bicycle rolled to a stop at the bike rack by the corner. After locking her bike to the rack, she removed her sneakers, put them in her purse, and slipped on a pair of dress shoes.
From my vantage point, she looked cute, but I had yet to see her entire face.
She removed something from her purse, gathered her hair in her hands, and then looked right at me as she pinned it into place. She was drop-dead gorgeous. Gorgeous, and familiar as fuck.
Frozen, I stared back at her in sheer disbelief. My stomach twisted into a knot. It had been six months since I’d last seen her, but I never forgot the faces of our club’s victims.
I took a quick step away from the window, blinked my eyes a few times, and then leaned forward.
The sidewalk was empty.
I hoped that my migraines were causing me to hallucinate. I stumbled to my desk, sat down, and pressed the tips of my fingers against my temples.
The odds of it being her were astronomical.
If it was her, I had more problems than I was ready to admit. The first of which was making sure Cash didn’t see her before I figured out a way to get rid of her.
Moving from my apartment in Indio to my cousin’s home in San Diego was embarrassing at first. I now viewed it as a godsend.
To many in Southern California, riding a bicycle was a way of life. Throughout my job search in Indio, it was belittling. Each block I pedaled through, it seemed people turned and stared. Their glares and gestures stood as a constant reminder that I’d been fired, couldn’t find a replacement job, and was one of the city’s population that assembled
California’s five percent unemployment rate.
Thrust into the melting pot of San Diego’s Prius and Tesla driving millions, I became invisible. I was simply another eco-friendly traveler.
I locked my bike to the rack, and debated what to do with my hair. While clipping it into a managerial messy bun, I tilted my head back for one last look at San Diego’s clear blue sky before I entered the building.
Sweet fucking Jesus.
Sex on a stick was peering out of the third story window directly above me. My eyes didn’t linger for long, but it only took an instant to realize he was tattooed, wore an awesome beard, and was handsome as hell. Paralyzed by the thought of the sexual journey he and I could take together, I stared back at him with an open mouth.
He rubbed his tattooed fingers against his temples and turned away.
As fate would have it, his building adjoined my new place of employ in a long line of three-story businesses that extended the length of the block. Each had a different address, but they were all part of the same complex.
I filed his likeness in my dildo dossier and wondered if gawking at him would become a permanent part of my morning routine. If not, I’d at least pleasure myself to a mental image of him until my recollection faded to nothing.
Or until one of my cousin’s screaming kids banged on the bathroom door.
I ducked through the doorway and hustled up the two flights of stairs. A steel door with a Manager’s Office sign on it let me know I’d reached my destination. I pushed against it, but it didn’t budge.
I thrust my hip into it. It swung open with a bang!
“Jesus!” A nondescript man spun around and looked at me with bulging eyes. “You scared the fuck clean out of me.”
He wore clothes that had suited garden-variety men for decades, had ho-hum brown hair, an average build, wasn’t short, and was by no means tall. I scanned his face for a distinguishable feature and found not one thing that separated him from the masses of middle-aged men I’d met in my life.
He studied me while I tried to decide how and where to categorize him. He was in his late fifties and was wearing faded jeans. A powder blue button-down shirt that fit much tighter in the stomach than it did in the shoulders topped off his ensemble.
I looked at his feet.
I’d encountered Mister Average.
He stood in front of an awesome display of office furniture that was situated along a brick wall. I pushed the door closed and smiled. “Hi. I’m Andy. Andy Winslow.”
“Just about shit myself when you slung that door open.” He extended his hand. “Mort Hicks.”
I gave him a firm handshake. “Nice to meet you.”
“Likewise.” He turned away and walked toward the large desk that was behind him. “I’m the senior property manager. He told me you’d be here this morning. Said you were a scotch drinker.”
“His name’s Pale,” he murmured.
I scrunched my nose. “His name is Pale Greene?”
He faced me and laughed. “Kale. With a K. Kale Greene. Always liked saying it. Beats the shit out of Mort.”
“Mort’s an awesome name.” I tilted my head to the side and peered beyond him. Contemporary office furniture fashioned out of weathered wood and stainless steel lined the far wall.
“Who uhhm.” I wagged my finger toward the desk. “Who works here?”
“Property manager you, or property manager me?”
“That’d be you.” He stepped aside. “Do you like it?”
He waved his hand toward the wall. “The new furniture. Kale had that shit delivered this weekend. Said he didn’t want you using that stuff that was in here. Good call, far as I’m concerned. Never know what that last dip-shit wiped on it or snorted off it. He was a real winner.”
“The last property manager?”
He sat against the front edge of the desk. “Went by Preston, but his name was Todd. Cops came in and got him three weeks ago, Wednesday. Feds. That’s why that door’s so hard to open. They busted the old one off the wall, frame and all. New one fits like a saddle on a pig. That’ll be your first project. Get someone to fix that.”
“Wow’s right. I come in this place maybe once a week, and I’ll be dipped in chocolate and rolled in roasted nuts if I wasn’t standing right here when that screaming bunch of bastards came bustin’ in here. Blew one of those flash-bang things right there where you’re standing. Made me blind and deaf at the same damned time. Peed a little, too, but it was unintentional. Next thing I know, there’s thirty screaming fuckers in here with machineguns.”
The thought of standing in the exact spot where the flash-bang grenade went off was pretty awesome – the machineguns and screaming feds only made it better. I wondered what Preston-Todd had hidden in the old desk, and wished they hadn’t hauled it off yet.
“Holy crap,” I said. “Kale didn’t tell me that.”
He stood up straight and stretched. “Suppose not.”
“So, I work in here, and you don’t? I’m here alone?”
He looked me up and down. “Don’t seem like the type that needs your hand held.”
“I’m not. I was just–”
“I’m in here once a week. On Wednesdays, unless you need me for something. Kale owns about ten times this much property, and I’m the senior manager of it all. Shit. I go from Chino Hills to Chula Vista, and everywhere in between. I’m the guy you call if you can’t figure out who to call. Doubt you’ll need much, though. We’re at ninety-nine percent occupied now. Only place left to lease is the one Todd was in. 3A.”
“It’s in this building?”
He pointed at the ceiling. “Right above us. Had the door fixed on it, too. Busted it at the exact same time they busted this one. Guess that’s how they do it. Keep a fella from getting’ past ‘em, I suppose.”
Police tactics fascinated me. I shrugged into my shoulder. “I imagine so.”
“Andy your real name?” he asked.
“It is. Is Mort yours?”
“Everybody asks. Sure is. Weird, huh?”
“I like it,” I said.
He scoffed. “Makes one of us.”
He still looked just shy of average, but I was quickly coming to like him. His personality did what his features never would. It made me smile. I decided to categorize him with the father from A Christmas Story, and Clint Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalski, from Gran Torino. He was funny without trying to be, and I really liked him so far.
We spent the next two hours talking about my duties, what to expect, and how to resolve any issue that might come about.
When we were finished talking, he gave me an old-school Rolodex that he’d listed all the important phone numbers in, and then brushed his hands against his faded jeans. “I’ll see you on Wednesday,” he said. “Call me if you need anything.”
I was pleased that he seemed to trust me, and that he didn’t make me feel stupid for being a woman. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“I’m sure you will, too.” He yanked on the door twice before it opened. “See you Wednesday.”
When I was sure he was gone, I took a seat in my new office chair. In no time, a chairgasm set in, and my eyes fell closed. I got up and looked it over. It was an awesome looking piece of furniture as far as chairs were concerned, but it didn’t appear to be as magical in appearance as it was in performance.
I lowered myself into the cloud-like mesh, and swept my hand over the thick wood of my new desk. Irregular, yet smooth, the surface was cool to the touch. I glanced around the office. One wall was painted white, two were vintage brick, and one was nothing but windows. I wondered if decorating was allowed, and got lost in the possibilities.
After deciding that black and white prints would look best, I walked to the glass wall and peered over the stone ledge. Across the street, a few people were walking in each direction. I watched them until they escaped my view, and wondered if they were fixtures in the neighborhood.
A dull thud against the door caused me to turn away from the window. Then, it flew open and hit the brick wall with a whack!
Just like Mort, I about shit myself.
Not because of the door. Because of who stood there staring at me.
It was sex.
On. A. Stick.