Lucid Revenge, Dreamwaker Saga #2 (Paperback)
Lucid Revenge, Dreamwaker Saga #2 (Paperback)
Controlling a rogue dreamwaker holds an addictive power. But those adrift in a mind-altering limbo can still unleash payback... with a little help from their friends.
Cash can’t ignore Wynter’s last words before her mind trapped her between dreams and reality. He would do anything for Wynter but finding her means finding her dreamwaker boyfriend. Cash must balance jealousy and loyalty or risk fracturing a lifelong friendship, one where friends could become lovers.
Jezebel continues her reign of terror, with Wynter’s dreamwaker boyfriend enslaved at her side. After realizing his error, the dreamwaker makes amends with Cash and Wynter’s friends, and forms a plan to reunite with Wynter.
In retaliation, Jezebel targets Wynter’s family with an act of extreme revenge that devastates the neighborhood.
While the town sheriff builds his case against Jezebel, Cash picks up the pieces left by Jezebel's fury and sets into motion the plan to find Wynter and reunite her with her dreamwaker. But no plan is perfect, especially when Jezebel doesn’t get what she wants.
Friends and enemies. Betrayal and revenge. Love triangles... and squares. Take a trip into the past, where the line between dreams and reality blurs, friends become lovers, and the consequences can be deadly. Raise your fists because these villains deserve a punch in the face.
Book Data (for book nerds like you and me)
Book Data (for book nerds like you and me)
Publisher: Frankenscript Press
Audience: Trade/General (Adult)
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Look Inside Lucid Revenge (Dreamwaker Saga #2)
Note: The Dreamwaker Saga is meant to be read in order. If you have not read book one, this sample will be a spoiler.
Keep On Loving You
July 27, 1986.
Cash’s body slouched uncomfortably against orange vinyl cushions cracked at the seams and worn smooth by past visitors. The chair, and Wynter’s hospital room, had become his home away from home since she had arrived at Halston Medical Center two days ago.
His arm lay stretched across the armrest, his right hand on her left. The need to hold her hand or touch her skin was always there, even though the nurses said it wouldn’t make any difference.
“Wynter has suffered a mild traumatic brain injury,” Cash had heard the doctor tell Nolan and Madeline during the wee hours of Saturday morning, only hours after Wynter fell from the 19th Street Bridge. They had many questions for the doctor and Cash had tried to eavesdrop without appearing obvious about it. From what he was able to piece together, parts of Wynter’s brain had shut down in order to heal. She was breathing on her own, which was a good sign, and she showed brain activity, specifically the occasional sleep-wake cycle, which was good but highly unusual. Cash wondered if Ransom was in her head with her, taking care of her.
He better be.
Cash would have rather slept at home, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave Wynter’s side, even after Nolan and Madeline had insisted he come home with them. He made a pact to inform them if there was any immediate news.
He had worked out a deal with the nurses in the coma ward. Cash could stay as long as he kept out of the way when Wynter needed to be tended to. That meant he could be with her most of the day, except for when nurses needed to bathe her or deal with her catheter. The hospital even supplied him with a wrist band clearing him for twenty-four hour access.
During times when the nurses kicked him out, the best option was to hang out or sleep in the chapel one floor down. Cash disliked being separated from Wynter, but the chapel was better than lying on his bed worrying back at the trailer. The chapel was quiet, even with other people there, and the bench seats were comfortable up to a point. The thin seat cushions made prolonged sitting or sleeping difficult at best.
No matter where he slept, Cash’s dreams were always variations of the accident, the arrival of the ambulance and the return trip, played out over and over in vivid detail. Sometimes he saw the events through his own eyes and other times his point of view was removed, like from a concealed security camera. Sometimes the ambulance never made it back to the hospital at all, instead crashing against the overpass supports in a fiery explosion. Those times he woke in a cold sweat, not entirely sure if he had cried out in his sleep.
It hadn’t taken Cash long to grow used to the beeps and whirrs of Wynter’s monitoring equipment. Soon it became a comfort. But he longed for the day when she would no longer need them.
Quinn pushed through the door to Wynter’s hospital room. She deflated a little when she saw Wynter was still unconscious. “Hello... Cash?” she whispered.
Jake popped his head over her shoulder. “Are they awake?” He hobbled in behind her on crutches, his left leg in a cast up to his mid-thigh.
Cash snored in the orange chair, his fingertips resting next to Wynter’s forearm. Quinn sidled up next to the chair and ran a finger down his left arm.
“Cash,” she whispered in his ear. “Dinner time.”
Cash stirred, then sat bolt upright as if he had just been poked with a cattle prod. “What? Is she awake?” He looked at Wynter in her bed, at the gentle beep of the vital signs monitor.
“Hey, dude. You hungry?” Jake eyed him expectantly.
Cash sat up, winced, and shook his head. He ran his hand through his hair and hung his head.
“You got to eat.” Quinn crouched low enough to look up at him. “Wynter will be right here when you get back.”
A single tear fell and soaked into Cash’s jeans. “What if something happens while I’m gone?”
“She’s in, like, good hands,” Quinn said, then leaned in close to whisper, “You got to keep your strength up if you’re going to protect her.”
Cash’s eyes cleared a little and Quinn detected a hint of a smile. “Okay.” He made his way to the door and held it open for Quinn and Jake, pausing to take one last look at Wynter before he stepped out of the room.
Quinn and Cash walked to the twinned elevators at the end of the corridor. Jake followed behind, wrestling with his crutches with every step.
“I hate these things.” Jake stepped into the left elevator. “But they do make great weapons.” He glanced over his shoulder at Quinn and Cash. “Don’t make me angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
Cash smirked at him. “Thanks for the update, Dr. David Banner.”
Quinn rolled her eyes. “The Incredible Dork.”
“I love you guys,” Jake said as the elevator doors closed.
A minute later the three of them entered the large first-floor cafeteria. Even at seven in the evening on a Sunday, most of the tables were claimed.
Jake held up his crutches. “I’ll get a table if someone could bring me a burger and fries. I’ll pay you back.”
“No problem.” Cash felt for his wallet in his pocket and followed Quinn to the rows of hot and cold food trays. “You must have Blue Belle back by now.”
Quinn nodded. “I picked her up on Saturday. Finn did a great job. And get this...” Quinn leaned closer and whispered. “Jake helped with the cost. He said I could pay him back after Jezebel pays her fine. Sweet of him, huh?”
“He likes you, Quinn.”
Quinn dipped her head to hide her blush, then guided a lock of hair behind one ear. “Yeah, he’s cool.”
“And Jezebel’s going to pay alright,” Cash said. “But maybe not her fine.” He looked at the trays of food. “Burgers and fries, huh? Not at a buffet.”
Each of them grabbed plates and approached the row of hot dishes.
Quinn and Cash found Jake sitting at the table furthest from the food. “Sorry. Slim pickings.”
“Same here.” Cash set two almost identical plates on the table, one in front of Jake. The plates held healthy slices of lasagna with Caesar salad and garlic toast on the side. “Best I could do.”
Jake shrugged. “It’s okay. Thanks.” He grabbed a knife and fork and dug in.
Quinn placed her plate on the table, then disappeared back toward the food trays.
“Nice move, helping Quinn get her car back.”
Jake smiled and spoke through a mouthful of salad. “I may not have a job, but I’m not broke.”
Cash picked up a fork and pushed his lasagna around.
“Yes and no,” Cash said, “if that makes any sense.”
Jake nodded. “Well, try and eat something, because if you don’t, I will. Then I’ll get fat and you don’t want that on your conscience, too.” His words were out before he realized it and he winced. “Sorry. That came out wrong.”
“What came out wrong?” Quinn set down three filled coffee cups with one hand and deposited a handful of sugar packets and miniature creamer tubs with the other.
“Nothing,” Cash said. “Jake’s just putting his foot in his mouth instead of his lasagna.”
“Sorry I missed it.” Quinn sat and smothered her scalloped potatoes and breaded chicken fingers with ketchup.
“Hey.” Jake eyed her plate, puzzled. “I thought you didn’t like ketchup.”
“I don’t like it on french fries.”
“But you’re eating potatoes. Those are potatoes, right? French fries are potatoes, too.”
“You’re a genius.” Quinn took a bite of scalloped potatoes. “Your point?”
Jake glanced at Cash for backup.
“Hey, don’t look at me.” Cash squeezed a creamer tub into his coffee, added two packets of sugar, and gave the concoction a half-hearted stir. He took a sip and grimaced. Cash reclined in his chair and sighed. His eyes drifted to the clock on the wall, then to the window below it.
Quinn swallowed and set her fork down. “You alright, Cash?”
“Not really.” Cash rubbed his temple. “I can’t stop blaming myself.”
Quinn exchanged a concerned look with Jake. “It’s not your fault.”
“I should have protected her.”
Quinn reached out and touched Cash’s hand. “This is no one’s fault except Jezebel’s.”
“Don’t forget Roxy,” Jake said.
Cash’s right hand went instinctively to his left shoulder, palpating the wad of bandages secured there with medical tape. “Oh, I’ve got thirteen reasons not to forget her.”
Jake grinned at Quinn, then turned to Cash and nodded at his shoulder. “Let’s see.”
“It’ll spoil your appetite,” Cash said.
Jake tilted his head at him. “You’re looking at two people who have watched Dawn of the Dead multiple times... while eating.”
“Alright.” Cash rolled the cuff of his T-shirt up over his shoulder, then slowly tugged one corner of the medical tape away from his skin. He peeled the bandage back and exposed an angry horizontal gash three inches long, sutured with thirteen neatly tied black stitches. Dried blood dotted the back of the bandage.
“Gnarly.” Jake sat up to get a closer look. “That’s going to leave a wicked scar.”
“Is it deep?” Quinn asked.
“Deep enough.” Cash smoothed the bandage back over the grisly line of stitches and rolled his cuff back down. He balled his left hand into a fist to remind himself that his muscles still worked as they should. Cash pushed lasagna onto his fork with his garlic toast and took a bite. His appetite had woken up.
“We got to figure out a new plan,” Quinn said.
Cash nodded. “It’s like one step forward, two steps back.”
“Any ideas?” Jake finished up his plate and looked longingly back at the buffet trays.
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Cash followed Jake’s sightline. “We’re going to need more food though. Want a refill?”
“Fuck yeah,” Jake said, licking his lips.
Cash turned to Quinn. “Want me to bring back anything?”
“One of every dessert they have, please and thank you.” Quinn said. “Good to have you back, Cash. Even if it’s, like, a little bit at a time.”
Cash managed a small smile and headed back to the buffet. Quinn watched him roam the line-up, collecting seconds.
“I feel so sorry for him.”
“I know,” Jake said. “I mean it was like she almost died in his arms. I hope she doesn’t wake up with brain damage.”
“Jesus, Jake.” Quinn crossed her arms and looked away. “You sure know how to kill the mood.”
“Sorry.” Jake’s cheeks flushed red. “I didn’t mean...”
Cash returned balancing three plates loaded with food. Despite the shadow Jake had cast over the table, the three of them ate until they felt as if they’d burst.
Cash led the charge back to Wynter’s room, with hope for a plan and some positive news.
Nolan and Madeline stood beside Wynter’s bed, holding each other’s hand. Wynter’s chest rose and fell in a slow, regular cadence. The monitoring equipment hummed and chirped on the opposite side of the bed, and although its sound was unobtrusive, the screen with its relentless bouncing ECG strip and other fluctuating metrics kept bringing them back to reality: though lucky to be alive, their daughter was still in grave danger.
Madeline smoothed Wynter’s fiery hair away from her face, her hand coming to rest on Wynter’s shoulder. “My baby.” A tear crested one of her lids and she caught it with a quick swipe of her wrist.
Nolan kissed Wynter’s head, careful not to disturb the nasogastric tube snaking out of her nose, then removed a necklace from around his neck. The symbol for hope, an eight-pointed star contained within a circle, hung from the bottom of a knotted loop of black twine. He kissed the medallion, then hung it off the corner of the bed.
“Can she hear us, hon?”
Nolan offered a small but confident nod. “She can. She knows we’re here.”
Madeline wrapped her arms around Nolan and hugged him tight, her tears finding their resting place on the shoulder of his shirt.
Cash pushed through the door to the room. He stopped short when he saw Madeline and Nolan. Quinn and Jake bumped into him unaware.
“Sorry,” he said. “We can come back later.”
“No, it’s okay.” Nolan waved them over. “She needs us all here.”
Quinn had not expected to see Wynter’s parents and tried to maintain a strong front, but once her eyes met Madeline’s, her emotional wall crumbled.
“Quinn, darlin’. Come here.” Madeline opened her arms and wrapped them around her.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. LaCroix.” Quinn stifled her sobs as best she could.
Madeline patted Quinn’s back and rocked her gently. “Shh. She’ll be awake before you know it.”
Cash stood next to Nolan. “Any change?”
“Doctor says she’s stable, maybe on the edge of waking, so that’s good. But she’s got a lot of healing to do inside.” Nolan tapped his temple, then glanced at the cast on Jake’s leg. “How long do you have to wear that?”
“For the rest of the summer at least,” Jake said. “Sucks, I know.”
Nolan regarded the three teens. “What I don’t understand is why... Jezebel is it? Why did she do this?”
Quinn pulled away from Madeline, wiped her face on her shirt, and exchanged looks with Cash and Jake, and shook her head subtly. Her face twisted into an angry scowl. “She’s a psycho bitch. That’s why.”
“She’s hiding out somewhere,” Cash said. “Anson would’ve told us if she’d been caught.”
Jake hobbled to the chair beside Wynter’s bed and eased himself into it. “We’d have heard about it on the news.”
“I hope she and Roxy die in a shoot out.” Quinn spat her words out. “Just like Bonnie and Clyde.”
“Enough,” Madeline said. “It’s hard enough being here. I don’t want no death and dying talk, no matter who it’s directed at.” Her eyes scanned the room. “Whoever’s responsible will pay eventually.”
A nurse popped her head into the room. “Visiting hours end in five minutes.”
Quinn grabbed one of Jake’s crutches and held it upright. “We should get going. On your feet, soldier.” She glanced back at Cash. “You should come with us. Spend a night in your own bed for a change.”
“That’s a good idea,” Nolan said. “We should all do that.”
“What do you say, Cash?” Jake pulled himself up onto his crutches. “Come with us if you want to sleep,” he said in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.
“Nice one.” Quinn and Jake bumped fists.
“Okay,” Cash said. “I have to say, that chair was forged in hell.”
“I bet.” Quinn pulled open the door.
“Before you go...” Madeline curved her arm around Nolan’s waist. “Thank you. Wynter’s lucky to have such good friends.”
“Well, we’re lucky too,” Cash said. “But I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I’m sure you will.” Nolan smiled but there was pain and worry behind his eyes. “We appreciate your vigilance.”
Cash nodded his head at him and followed Quinn and Jake out into the corridor.
“They’re great kids.” Nolan watched the door close. “Shall we head out too?”
“Let’s wait until visiting hours are officially over.” Madeline looked up at him, her eyes misty. “Okay?”
Nolan leaned down and kissed her. “Okay.”
They resumed their spots beside Wynter’s bed. Nolan kissed his fingertips, then touched the hope medallion he had hung on the bed earlier. Madeline raised Wynter’s left hand in hers and ran her fingers lightly across the back of her hand, across the webspace between her thumb and index finger, and spiraling on her palm.
At eight o’clock the nurse entered the room and ushered them out. In the commotion of leaving the room, no one noticed Wynter’s eyes open, then close a second later.
One of the two elevators that served the fourth floor dinged and opened to an empty car. Quinn, Jake, and Cash shuffled inside. Their eyes focused on Wynter’s room down the corridor. Between the three of them, only Cash shifted uneasily on his feet.
“Sorry, guys. I can’t do this.” He stepped forward to leave the elevator, but Quinn grabbed his arm and pulled him back.
“Wait.” Quinn’s eyes held an intensity that Cash had a hard time meeting. “We know you need Wynter, but we need you too. And you need us.”
“Come hang out with us, dude.” Jake raised a brow and the corner of his mouth curled in an optimistic grin.
Cash pursed his lips, struggling with the decision. Finally, he sighed. “Okay. Maybe you’re right.”
And like it was a confirmation of his decision, the elevator doors closed and the three friends descended to the first floor.
The adjacent elevator dinged and its doors slid open. Monty stepped out wearing his usual T-shirt, mirrored sunglasses, and leather jacket ensemble. He peered down the corridor and removed his sunglasses, hooking them into the collar of his shirt.
A nurse passed by and he averted his eyes, pretending to be interested in the various generic art prints hung between the doors to the rooms. Monty continued down the corridor and covertly peered through the windows to the rooms, most of which had their blinds drawn for privacy.
The nurse entered a room at the end of the corridor and as the door slowly swung shut, voices floated out. Monty quickened his pace and managed to catch a glimpse of Wynter’s red hair splayed out against her pillow.
“There you are,” he said to himself.
Monty tried to look into Wynter’s room. The blinds were angled down, allowing a somewhat restricted view into the room from the corridor, but his attempt was thwarted before it began when he heard voices approach the door. Monty stepped hurriedly across the corridor to a small alcove with three chairs. He sat and hung his head, feigning grief.
The door swung open. Nolan and Madeline stepped out, followed by the nurse. They exchanged thank-yous and walked arm-in-arm toward the elevators. Nolan pressed the down call button. The numbers above the left elevator incremented toward the fourth floor.
Monty stood and ran his hands through his oily hair. He walked quickly toward the end of the corridor, slowing when he was within earshot.
“Do you think that was part of it?” Madeline watched the numbers increase above the elevator. Something was happening on the second floor to delay the elevator’s arrival. “Remember, your grandmother jumped.”
“Wynter was pushed.” Nolan’s jaw tensed with the words. “There’s a difference.”
“But that boy was with her, according to the minimal details Anson told us,” Madeline said. “I’d bet it was the same boy we found in her room.” She crossed her arms. “They’re hiding things from us, I just know it.”
“Who? Quinn and the guys?”
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. Nolan and Madeline stepped inside, turning around to see Monty standing just beyond the doors. He had his hands in his pockets and his shoulders bunched up against his neck. He hung his head down and looked at the floor.
“Probably. Did you keep secrets from your parents?” Nolan selected the first floor and within a few seconds the door began to slide closed.
Monty’s pager went off. He pressed a button on a small black box on his belt, ending the rapid succession of beeps. He shuffled forward. “Wait.”
Madeline stuck her hand out and stopped the doors from closing.
Monty entered the elevator and positioned himself in the far corner. “Thanks.” His voice was low and strained.
“Floor?” Nolan asked.
“What?” Monty tossed his greasy hair to one side. “Oh. First.”
The elevator doors closed, and the car began its descent.
Madeline turned her back to Monty and lowered her voice. “Maybe if we tell them about the power, they’d let us in.” Her voice hadn’t been as low as she thought. Monty had heard every word.
Nolan shook his head almost imperceptibly and motioned at Monty. Madeline took the hint and stood by Nolan’s side.
“I hope whoever you’re here for gets better soon,” Nolan said.
Monty nodded but kept his head down. “Thanks. You too.”
The three of them stood in silence for the rest of the trip down. The doors opened on the first floor and Nolan and Madeline stepped forward. Monty followed them out.
“What was that about?” Madeline whispered.
“I didn’t want that guy to overhear...”
Monty veered off toward the stairwell, now out of earshot. He watched Nolan and Madeline walk toward the front entrance, immersed in a heated discussion. “I’m one hell of an actor.” A smug smile stretched across his lips.
He pulled open the door to the stairwell and bounded up the steps two at a time. Monty emerged back at the fourth floor, and he quickly walked back to Wynter’s room. He opened the door and peeked in.
Monty’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your secret, Red? What’s your power?” Whatever it was, he knew the power was connected to Jezebel too, somehow. And like it or not, it either started or ended with Ransom. But how could he find someone who had vaporized into thin air?
Quinn hung back with Jake and followed Cash out the front lobby of the hospital. He was already pacing outside by the time Jake hobbled up to the sliding glass doors.
“What are we going to do about him?”
The pleasant aroma of the buffet still hung in the air despite the cafeteria having closed for the evening.
Quinn shrugged. “What’s there to do? He’s hurting pretty bad.” She placed her hand on Jake’s shoulder and stopped him before he stepped out of the main foyer. “He loves Wynter, but she chose someone else. And now she could die. How would you feel?”
Jake’s eyes widened under the brim of his Nintendo baseball hat. “He loves her? How do you know that? He didn’t say anything to me.”
“It’s obvious.” Quinn managed a weak laugh. “To any girl, it’s obvious.”
Jake watched Cash pace for a moment. “I guess I’d feel pretty terrible.” He settled his eyes back on Quinn. “So, it’s obvious?”
“Is what obvious?”
“You said ‘to any girl, it’s obvious,’ ” Jake said. “I wanted to see if your powers are truly great.”
“What are you—” Color rose high on Quinn’s cheeks as she felt the weight of his gaze. She punched Jake lightly on the shoulder and tried to hide her smile behind her hair. “Come on, gimp.” She walked toward Cash and the covered entrance.
Jake followed as quickly as he could. “Who you calling a gimp?”
Quinn threw her arms around Cash and gave him a quick hug. “Let’s get you home.” She spun around, walking backward and facing Jake. “You too, Hopalong Cassidy.”
“What?” Jake crunched his brows together in confusion. “Who’s Hopalong Cassidy?”
“Ha!” Quinn looked at him surprised. “And you call yourself a movie expert.” She spotted Blue Belle and ran toward the little VW Beetle. “You’re going to have to look it up.”
Jake caught up to Cash. “Do you know who she’s talking about?”
Quinn hopped into the driver’s seat and unlocked the passenger door for Cash and Jake.
Cash pushed the passenger seat forward and out of the way. “Want to take the back? You could stretch out.”
Jake nodded. “Sounds good. Thanks.” He crouched and crawled into the back, careful not to bang his cast.
Cash buckled himself into the passenger seat. Quinn started the engine and backed out. She navigated out of the lot and within minutes she had merged with traffic headed west on I94, racing the setting sun.
Cash rested his head on the window and remained silent.
Quinn watched as the hospital and the surrounding buildings in Halston shrunk in her rear view mirror as they moved further west. As the distance between them and Wynter grew larger, the more uneasy Quinn felt, until an unexpected wave of grief took hold of her.
She pulled into the Red River Rest Stop and parked at the first available spot.
Jake craned his neck at his surroundings. “Hey, why are we stopping?”
Quinn gripped the steering wheel and burst into tears.
Jake leaned forward from the back seat. “It’s going to be okay, Quinn.”
Cash faced her, placed his hand on her right arm, and nodded. “He’s right.”
Quinn shook her head, swiping at her tears with a trembling hand. “What if it’s not? It feels like we’re abandoning her.”
“We’re not,” Cash said.
“Give me a second?” Quinn sniffed, grabbed a tissue from her purse, and blew. She opened her door, climbed out, and began to fret again.
Cash glanced back at Jake. “Go to her.”
Jake surveyed the back seat. “Give me a hand.” With Cash’s help, Jake positioned his cast between the front seats, allowing him to sit up. “Quinn?”
She looked back at him. Jake held up his arms, but his eyes said everything that needed to be said. She pushed the driver’s seat forward and climbed in the back with him. He placed his left arm around her shoulder and Quinn buried her face in his chest, muffling her sobs.
“You too, dude,” Jake said. “Group hug.”
Cash didn’t argue. He reached across the car and closed the driver’s side door. He popped the passenger door open, took the space next to Jake, and pulled the passenger door shut behind him.
Quinn’s sobbing faded, leaving three friends sharing their grief together. Any awkwardness had been replaced by emotional exhaustion and soon all three were asleep. Perhaps solace would come in their dreams.
Jezebel had found it entirely too easy to evade Anson and leave the scene at the 19th Street Bridge two nights ago. He was never going to shoot her. Anson would always be more concerned with Wynter and preserving human life. Her falling off the bridge was the best thing to happen to Jezebel that night.
Roxy had appeared more unsettled. “Where are we going to go now? Everyone is going to be looking for us.”
Jezebel turned onto a side street in the north side of town. “Should I let you out at your place?”
“Are you crazy? That’s the first place the cops will look.” Roxy bit at her nails. “My parents are going to freak.”
“The cops aren’t going to do shit,” Jezebel said. “Think about it. It’s just like last time. As long as I have Ransom, no one will press charges.”
“I don’t know about that, Jazz. Last time we only bumped their car.” Roxy stared at her across the center console. “Anson was talking felony hit and run.”
“He’s full of shit. As long as no one talks, we’re free and clear. And no one’s going to talk if I have Ransom.” Jezebel traced a snaking fracture along the windshield with her eyes. “Too bad that asshole cracked the glass.”
Roxy sat back in her seat and pursed her lips. She reached for the radio and turned it on. Gino Vannelli was singing “Black Cars” on KROK.
“You sure know how to pick them.” Jezebel turned right onto Main Street. “Know where I’m going?”
“You’re not going home.”
Roxy thought for a moment, then turned to give Jezebel a small smile and a nod. Even though Jezebel had not planned her getaway, she always knew exactly where to go. Roxy liked that about her.
Jezebel rolled the Barracuda behind the storage shed at the back of Ollie’s MovieTyme and killed the engine. “Give me a hand covering it up.”
The two of them unfolded a blue tarp from the trunk and secured it over the black muscle car.
“That’ll do until things cool down.” Jezebel strolled up to the shed. Only she had keys to the new padlocks on the door. Both girls stepped inside, and Jezebel locked the door from the inside with the padlocks she had used on the outside, but she didn’t fully engage the lock loops to ensure an easy escape if needed.
There was only one grimy window that cast a dim glow around the interior during the day. In one corner of the shed lay a worn and stained mattress. Many teenagers before them had used the mattress, but ever since Jezebel had changed the locks, the run down space had been hers to use for whatever she wanted.
On the opposite side of the shed a metal shelving unit stood shrouded with cobwebs. Tools and supplies for drive-in maintenance, long since forgotten, remained stacked floor to ceiling. Curiously, power to the shed had never been cut.
Jezebel yanked a rusty ball chain hanging from the ceiling and the bare forty watt bulb next to it turned on. “Cover the window.” She sprawled on the mattress until it sagged completely under her weight. “What’s left to eat?”
Roxy positioned a piece of cardboard over the window and opened a cooler that sat next to the back wall. “Not much. A bunch of bags of potato chips and a six-pack of Coke.”
“Toss me some.”
Roxy handed Jezebel the snacks and took some for herself. “We’re going to have to spread this out, don’t you think? If we’re going to hide out?”
“Relax,” Jezebel said between mouthfuls of chips. “We’ll make a food run later if we need to.” She turned to Roxy. “Want to have some fun?”
“What kind of fun?”
“The Ransom kind.”
The last thing Roxy wanted to do was fool around with Ransom. But shooting down Jezebel’s suggestion would only make things worse.
“Okay,” she said.
The mattress was large enough for both girls to stretch out without touching each other. Jezebel finished her snacks and closed her eyes. Roxy considered staying awake and waiting, but sleep won her over. As it turned out, Ransom had other plans.
It was Sunday night, almost forty-eight hours since Jezebel and Roxy had set up camp in the maintenance shed behind Ollie’s MovieTyme drive-in. They had run out of food once and had to make a late Saturday night run to Halston for groceries. Instead of the convenience store at Zoey’s Fast Fill, they chose a nearby Seven-Eleven.
Jezebel’s Friday night plan to bring Ransom out from her dreams had failed. As a result, she had been on the warpath ever since.
“I don’t know what the fuck’s going on.” Jezebel paced back and forth in the small space of the shed. “He’s in my dreams but he doesn’t come out when I want him to.”
“It’s like he has free will.” Roxy considered her words carefully. “Don’t get mad, but look at it from his side. Wynter created him. They’ll always be connected. And she might die because of what you did.”
Jezebel grabbed Roxy’s T-shirt and pushed her against the wall. “What we did.”
“Yeah, sure. What we did.” Roxy locked gazes with Jezebel and pushed back. “Whatever. If I was Ransom, I’d be pissed at you.”
Jezebel released her and went back to her pacing. “So, what do you suggest, brainiac?”
“Ransom’s in your dreams, so that means that Wynter is still alive,” Roxy said. “Let him know that. Be nice for a change. Maybe even apologize.”
Roxy prepared herself for a litany of profanity, but instead Jezebel laid down on the mattress and closed her eyes. “Don’t wait up,” Jezebel said.
But this time Roxy did wait up. Two hours later Ransom drifted out of Jezebel’s dreams in a chilled wave of ozone. He wore his familiar white T-shirt, black hoodie, and jeans.
Jezebel rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
“Does it hurt?” Roxy asked. “Like, when you become real?”
“Only if I land wrong.” Ransom glanced at Jezebel. “Or when someone stabs me, like, with a crowbar.”
Jezebel propped herself on her elbows. “I do it out of love.”
“Bullshit.” Ransom scanned the small space. “Where are we?”
“Oll—” Roxy began before Jezebel cut her off.
“You don’t need to know.” Jezebel faced him. “And next time you better come out when I want you to.”
Ransom’s blue eyes shifted to a steely grey. “Or else... what?”
“I’ll kill Wynter. For real,” Jezebel said with a snarl on her lips.
“What were you just saying about love?” Ransom laughed. “You don’t know anything.”
Roxy leaned against the wall, settling in to watch the festivities.
Ransom crouched to Jezebel’s level. “What if I just kill you first. That’d be a permanent solution and I’d be out of your control for good.”
Jezebel stood and shook her head. “You’re under my control. If I die, you die with me... romantic, isn’t it? Plus, you’d never see Wynter again.”
Ransom shook his head and laughed softly. “That’s not the way it works and you know it.”
Jezebel’s eyes shifted between Ransom and Roxy. “If I die, you die too—”
“I’d just go back into Wynter’s head,” Ransom said.
“And... Monty kills Wynter.” Jezebel focused her eyes on Roxy’s. “Isn’t that right, Rox?”
“Uh...” Roxy stammered, instantly at a loss for words.
“Me and Monty, we have an agreement,” Jezebel said. “We’d kill for each other.”
Ransom crossed his arms against his chest and gave Jezebel the once-over, in an attempt to determine if she was lying. It was an impossible task.
“Enough with the killing talk.” Roxy’s eyes were wide with panic and she looked out of breath. “It’s boring. Change the subject!”
Jezebel stepped around Ransom, then hooked her finger behind the button on his jeans. “I can’t stay mad at you.” She popped the button out and unzipped his fly. “But before we get to the fun stuff... I need you to do something for me.”
Ransom pushed Jezebel’s hand away. “What?”
“I have a plan that’s better than selling drugs for Monty. But I need a gun.”
Ransom zipped up and buttoned his jeans. “Why?”
“I want to blow this town. Hit the road. With you.” Jezebel laid a hand on Ransom’s chest. “But I need money.”
Roxy saw where Jezebel’s idea was going. “Bad idea, Jazz.”
Jezebel turned and pointed at her, anger alight in her eyes. “Shut up. You’re in too deep to disagree.”
“Look, I’ll give you money,” Roxy said. “My parents would never know.”
“I’m not talking a few hundred dollars,” Jezebel said. “I can’t live on that.”
“You’re talking robbery.” Roxy shook her head. “Of what? Stores? Banks? We’d go to prison.”
“Only if we get caught, and even if we do, we’re juveniles. We wouldn’t go to prison.”
“We’re juveniles for what? Like, one more year?” Roxy paced the floor of the small shed. “Such a bad idea.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“So, why do you need me?” Ransom shifted his gaze between the two girls.
“You get the gun. You rob the banks.” Jezebel stepped nose to nose with Ransom. “Because you don’t die. You’re our alibi.”
Ransom scowled at her and scoffed. “More like a scapegoat. What if I refuse?”
Jezebel ran her finger down Ransom’s jawline. “Wynter has an accident.”
“You’re such a bitch.”
“And you love it.” Jezebel unzipped Ransom’s jeans again and slipped her hand inside.
“I want a cut,” Ransom said. “An even split. Between all three of us.”
“Of course.” Jezebel kissed Ransom’s neck.
“We’re really going to do this?” Roxy stopped her pacing.
“Yes.” Jezebel turned and glared at Roxy, straight through her. “Unless you want to have an accident, too.”
Color drained from Roxy’s face as she realized that she had no choice but to follow Jezebel. It was true. She was in too deep. “Where are you going to get a gun?”
“Fun first,” Jezebel said.
Ransom held out his hand. “Come on, Rox. Two’s company, but three’s a party.”
Jezebel narrowed her eyes on Roxy.
Ransom turned Jezebel’s face to his. “Play nice. We’re in this together, remember?” Jezebel resumed kissing his neck, her hand resuming its search inside his jeans.
Roxy stepped behind Ransom and wrapped her arms around his chest. She was surprised by how she had missed his smell, his body. But even the sex that came later couldn’t distract her from Jezebel’s new plan. Had she thought it through this time? Because like it or not, the two of them were intrinsically linked.
Cash sat second from the back in his Mathematics 10 classroom. Quinn and Jake flanked him, both looking like extras from Back to the Future. Wynter sat in front of him. She wore a white off the shoulder T-shirt and her red hair flowed over her brown shoulders and down her back. Even her hair held beauty and he found it hard to concentrate. Other students he didn’t recognize filled the rest of the desks, which seemed a little strange.
Everyone had a test in front of them with a pencil and eraser next to it. Math was not one of Cash’s favorite subjects, but he wasn’t terrible at it. He knew it would come in handy when he started his own business. Or maybe he’d go into business with Jake and capitalize on his high-tech ideas.
“You have two hours to complete your exam.” The words floated from a speaker near the door, voiced by a teacher that he didn’t recognize. “Please begin.”
Everyone flipped open the first page of their exams in a flurry of paper. Cash read the first question and it stopped him cold.
“Calculate the probability of Wynter dying from her injuries,” the question read. “Show your work.”
Cash looked around the room. Everyone had their heads down, their pencils madly scribbling across the page, including Quinn, Jake, and Wynter.
Cash looked at the next question: “How many days will Wynter remain in a coma?” And the next, a multiple choice question: “Who is responsible for Wynter’s death?” All four choices were “Cash Hawkins.”
“What the hell?” Cash flipped the page to reveal the same questions repeated. The entire exam was like this. He turned to the last page and in bold capital letters it read: “CASH IS A KILLER.”
“Jake,” Cash whispered. “Can I see the first page of your exam?”
Jake made no sign that he had heard him and continued writing.
Cash turned the opposite direction to Quinn. “Are you seeing this? These questions are bullshit.”
Quinn’s lack of reaction mirrored Jake’s. Cash leaned across the aisle and looked at her test. Scrawled across her paper in neat, even cursive were the words “Cash is a killer” repeated over and over again.
Cash tapped on Wynter’s shoulder. “Wynter? How can you be answering these?”
Wynter did not react, not even a flinch.
“Wynter?” Cash sat forward in his desk. “I don’t care what this says. I’m not a killer. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Wynter spun around in her seat to face him, her hair flying. But it wasn’t Wynter who looked back at him. It was Jezebel, with her brunette hair crimped in spiky clumps and her skin no longer brown but white, her lips pulled back in a scowl to expose teeth that looked a lot like fangs.
She took hold of the sides of his desk and pushed it toward the back wall. Everyone in the room dropped their pencils and twisted in their seats to watch.
“Stay away from her or I’ll kill you,” Jezebel spat. She revealed a switchblade in one hand, the blade glinting under the rows of fluorescent lights.
An arm reached around and wedged itself against Cash’s neck. Roxy’s breathy whisper came a moment later. “She means it too, Trashy Cash.” She snapped her gum in his ear.
“I’ll always fight for Wynter.”
The other students, including Quinn and Jake, began to chant, low and quiet at first. “Kill-er. Kill-er. Killed her. KILLED HER.” Gradually the volume increased until the entire room vibrated with hatred, all directed at Cash.
“No!” Cash slid out of Roxy’s grasp and under his desk. He crawled under the rows of desks and headed for the door.
“Then I’ll kill you!” Jezebel screeched.
The chant morphed to “Kill him. Kill him.” Quinn, Jake, and the rest of the students formed a wall behind Jezebel and Roxy as they descended on Cash.
He reached the door, but the door had vanished, leaving a blank wall in its place. Cash flipped onto his backside, his legs scrambling to get away, but he had nowhere to escape to.
In a blink of his eye, Roxy appeared behind him, her hot breath at his ear. She wrenched his hands tightly behind his back.
“Cash. You don’t deserve to live.” Jezebel waved the knife blade in front of his face like an admonishing finger.
Quinn leaned in close, almost nose to nose with Cash. “Wake up...”
Jake jammed his head forward close to Quinn’s and completed her words. “Time to die.”
They smiled at each other as Jezebel pushed them aside and placed the blade tip in the center of his chest.
“Good idea.” She pushed the knife into Cash’s heart.
Excruciating pain shot through Cash’s body as blood blossomed from the center of his chest. He screamed and squeezed his eyes shut. Silence descended on the classroom. His lungs burned with panicked breaths, as he choked against air that felt heavy with moisture, like he was out in a dense fog.
Cash cracked his eyes open. Quinn and Jake sat opposite from him in the back seat of the Beetle, their eyes wide with surprise. He jerked his head down to look at his chest, his hand searching for a stab wound.
But there was no wound and no blood.
“Dude. Uh... you okay?” Jake positioned himself in front of Quinn like a shield.
Cash’s eyes darted around the interior of the car and slowly he convinced himself that it had just been a dream. He swallowed hard. A Coke would have hit the spot right then.
“I had the worst dream of my entire life.” Cash sighed, shuddering as he did.
“What happened?” Quinn asked, still perched behind Jake.
“I’ll tell you guys later... maybe.”
Jake ran a finger down the back window, causing a rivulet of condensation to make a fast track to the bottom. “Jesus, it’s like we’ve had an orgy in here.”
“Don’t get your hopes up, Casanova,” Quinn said in a husky whisper next to Jake’s ear.
“Cash, is Quinn smiling? Tell me she’s smiling.”
Cash looked at him, said nothing, and flashed his eyebrows.
Jake sat up. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Shit! What time is it?” Quinn grabbed Jake’s wrist to look for a watch.
“You know Wynter is the only one who wears a watch,” Jake said.
Quinn wriggled out from beside Jake and opened the driver’s side door. She stretched and leaned on the side of the car.
Cash jumped out of the passenger side. “Sun rises at six.” He looked east and formed a fist. He extended his arm toward the horizon and counted two fist widths until he reached the sun. “It’s probably close to eight.”
“Shit, I’m going to be late.” Quinn used her shirt tail to clear the driver’s side window of condensation. “Jake? Be a darling and wipe the back window? And you’re also going to have to move your leg. Your cast is cramping my style.”
Jake peeled off his T-shirt and wiped the back window. He handed it to Quinn. “Wipe the windshield, but I’m going to need it back.”
Quinn’s eyes traveled across Jake’s chest. For a teenager who sat around playing video games, his body looked surprisingly toned. “We’ll see about that...”
“My clothes. Give them to me. Now.” Jake spoke in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger accent. “You don’t want me to catch my death.”
A flashback of his recent dream ripped through Cash’s mind. He shivered but Jake and Quinn were too wrapped up in each other to notice. He helped Jake move his leg to the back seat.
“Here you go, Adonis.” Quinn tossed back his T-shirt.
“Moist and dirty,” Jake said with a devious grin. “Just like I like it.”
Quinn rolled her eyes and started the engine. She backed out of the parking stall and merged with interstate traffic heading west.
Cash switched on the radio. Van Halen’s “Panama” rocked through the VW’s speakers.
“Perfect,” Quinn said. “Turn it up.”
Cash did, and even though the music worked wonders to lighten the mood, he still found himself reliving his nightmare and his feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Right then and there, he vowed to himself that he would protect Wynter until the day he died.
Quinn rolled into the last remaining parking stall at Finn’s, pulled the emergency brake, and shifted to neutral. She looked at Cash and grinned. “You want to guess what time it is now?”
Cash pretended to think for a moment. “Hmm. Close to nine?”
“Brill! What other secrets do you have up your sleeve?”
“I’ll never tell.” Cash popped his seat belt off and turned in his seat. “How you doing back there, Jake?”
“My leg is aching, and not in a good way. No offense, Quinn, but I can’t wait to get out of this car.”
“None taken,” Quinn said. “But you might have to suck up to Blue Belle later. She’s sensitive.”
Cash stepped out of the car and pushed back the passenger seat to let Jake move up front. “So back to the hospital after work? Meet you here?”
“Yup.” Quinn extended a thumbs up.
Jake wobbled to his feet and tapped Cash’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, dude. Wynter’s going to be alright. I can feel it.”
Cash pulled him into a quick hug and patted his back. “Thanks, man.” He walked toward the front of the store where Finn stood waiting.
Jake slid the seat back and ambled into the front, watching Cash. “You think he’ll be okay?”
From the VW, Quinn and Jake watched Finn give Cash’s shoulder a squeeze and a firm pat.
“Totally,” Quinn said. “That’s a side of Finn you don’t normally see, huh?” Without warning, she leaned over Jake’s lap and waved at Finn. Her straight black hair tickled his nose on the way by and he detected a light scent of soap. Jake fought against his urge to sneeze. The last thing he wanted to do was spray spit into her hair.
“Thanks for fixing my Belle!”
Finn stooped and cocked his head to one side as if he couldn’t hear, then waved her off and laughed. “Any time, doll,” Finn called back. Then he followed Cash into the store.
“Huh. He called me ‘doll.’ ” Quinn moved back across the center console and gazed into Jake’s eyes. “What do you think, Jake. Am I a doll?”
Jake gulped and swallowed hard. “Yup. In the best way possible.” He straightened his baseball hat on his head and snuck a peek at the swell of her breasts under her T-shirt.
“Good.” Quinn planted a kiss on his lips and smiled at him. “I’ll have you home in five minutes. I just might end up being on time for work.”
True to her word, the Beetle pulled up in front of Jake’s house a short time after. He didn’t care if it had been five minutes. He would have gladly stayed in the car for another hour if he could.
“What are you going to do today?”
“Besides get off this leg, I don’t know,” said Jake. “I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that fucking Barracuda.”
“Okay. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital tonight?”
“I think I better stay off my leg,” Jake said. “It’s pretty angry. Thanks for the lift home, Quinn.”
“Any time.” Quinn found his eyes with hers. “And I do mean any time, Mr. Nintendo.” She smiled and pulled the brim of his baseball cap down. “Call me later.”
Jake slid his crutches out from the back footwell and hobbled up the front walk to his house.
Quinn waved at him and tapped the horn as she made a U-turn in the middle of Mortimer Avenue and headed back to Main Street. After a short detour at home to change into her work uniform, Quinn arrived at Stedford Plaza.
“Note to self. Get a clock for the car,” she said to the empty Beetle. The silence spoke back to her all at once as Quinn realized that Blue Belle had never needed a clock because Wynter was always close by with her wristwatch. She looked at the empty passenger seat and burst into heavy sobs. She allowed herself to cry until the tears dried up.
She flipped the visor down and framed it on her face. Quinn pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed her eyes, her eyelids red and puffy. She was doubly glad she hadn’t had time to put mascara on when she changed for work. Fortifying herself with a cleansing breath, she stepped out of Blue Belle and forged a path toward the plaza.
Quinn pulled open the doors to the main concourse and saw that all the stores still had their security gates drawn. She wouldn’t be late after all. Still, she hustled through the emptiness toward the food court.
As she passed Shooters, a voice called out from the darkness behind the store’s security gate.
Startled, Quinn stopped and looked back at the store. “Hello?”
The security gate rippled as Daytona wedged her body through the gap on one side. She waved Quinn over.
“Hey.” Daytona scrutinized her closely. “How’s it going?”
Quinn avoided her gaze as best she could for fear of crying again. It wasn’t a reaction she wanted to share with Daytona. “You know how it is when your best friend’s in a coma.” She paused and Daytona chose to let the silence ride. “It’s rough.”
“I’m sorry,” Daytona said. “Any idea when she’ll wake up?”
Quinn had never liked Daytona and she took the question in the worst possible way. “Why? So she can come back to work so you won’t have to?”
Daytona took a step back like she had been slapped. “No, I was just curious... concerned. Just in case Vinnie asks.”
Quinn fanned her face and blinked away any tears threatening to fall. “Sorry. The doctors don’t really know for sure. But she’s not on a breathing machine, so that’s good.”
Daytona nodded, then in an unexpected rush, she stepped forward and hugged Quinn. “I’m sure she’ll wake up soon. Nothing can keep Wynter down.”
Initially Quinn wanted to push her away, but the hug felt good, even coming from Daytona. It was exactly what she needed. And she heard sincerity in Daytona’s words.
“Thanks.” She pulled away and glanced back toward the food court. “Look, I got to get to work, so...”
“Sure,” Daytona said. “But there was something else I wanted to tell you.”
Quinn gave her a sideways look. “What?”
“You know who Monty is?”
“Who doesn’t,” Quinn said with disgust.
“Well, he was sniffing around here yesterday, asking about Wynter.”
Daytona had captured Quinn’s attention. “What did he want?”
“Said he had some questions about photography that only she could answer,” Daytona said. “Seemed shady to me. Thought you’d want to know.”
“Thanks. And sorry for freaking out on you.”
Quinn squinted into the shadows behind the Shooters security gate. “Where’s Hunter?”
“Probably still asleep.”
Quinn took slow backward steps toward the food court. “You could do better, Daytona.”
“In this town? Yeah, right.” Daytona laughed. “At least the sex is good.”
“There is that.” Quinn turned and quickened her pace. “Later.”
An image of Jake with his baseball cap and coy grin popped into Quinn’s head, surprising her. Even without knowing if Jake was good in bed, she was certain that Daytona was wrong. Newhaven had its fair share of good guys, and Jake was one of them. Knowing him gave her comfort as she began a day that would be filled with anxiety.
Quinn’s thoughts soon returned to Wynter. Would she be out of her coma by the time she and Cash returned to the hospital? In ten long hours she’d find out but it felt like a lifetime away.
Cash had felt scattered all day, his concentration in short supply. Finn had noticed and so had many Gas N Go customers. It was becoming a problem.
Cash could not wait to get back to the hospital. But as the minutes passed, no matter how hard he tried, his brain cycled back to worry. Had Wynter taken a turn for the worse? Would Nolan or Madeline tell him if she had?
Making his anxiety worse, Finn had checked up on him constantly, which was the complete opposite of what Cash was used to.
Near the end of his shift, Finn took Cash aside. “Son, can’t imagine what’s going through your head today, but—”
“It’s nothing, Mr. O’Connor,” Cash began. “I—”
“Bullshit.” Finn placed his hands on Cash’s shoulders and locked his wise gaze on him. “Shut up and listen. Take some time off, for your friend...” The old man tried to recall the name.
“I knew it was a season. Bloody hippie names.” Finn placed his arm around Cash’s shoulder. “You can’t be here if your head’s over there.” He waved his free hand in a random direction. “Understand?”
“It’s no problem,” Cash said.
“It isn’t ’til it is.” Finn gripped Cash’s shoulder firmly. “Your job’ll be here when you’re ready.”
“Thanks, Mr. O’Connor.” Cash managed a small smile. “I think I’m going to be okay though.”
Finn shook his head and grumbled. “I hope you’re right. But I’m watching you.” He pointed at Cash as he shuffled back toward the garage.
Cash detected a subtle grin from the old man. “Got it.”
As if on cue, Quinn rolled Blue Belle into the nearest parking stall.
Finn glanced back at Cash and at the VW through the grimy store window. “Well, if it ain’t China doll.” He waved his hand at him. “Scram. You’re useless today.”
Cash locked the register and made his way outside. “Thanks for picking me up, Quinn.”
“Sure.” Quinn still wore her FreshWhip uniform but there was a pile of clothes strewn in the back seat. “Hop in. We got to make up for lost time.”
Cash barely had time to buckle his seat belt before Quinn threw Blue Belle into reverse and backed out of her parking space. She shifted to first, cranked the steering wheel hard left, and Cash was sure he heard tires squealing as Quinn drove toward Main Street and the overpass beyond.
“Holy shit, you weren’t kidding.” Cash had gripped the door handle without realizing it. “Ever thought of racing professionally?”
“No, but I’ll add it to my list of things to do before I die.”
Cash watched Newhaven shrink in the side mirror as the little car merged onto I94 East. “Please make sure that’s not today,” he said to himself.
Quinn blew her bangs out of her eyes. “I’ve been going mental all day. Couldn’t wait to get out of there. How about you?”
“Yeah, I’ve been worrying all day, too.” Cash watched the VW’s speedometer edge past seventy miles per hour and felt his anxiety rise. “Think you could slow down a bit? Don’t want to get pulled over.”
“Oh shit. Sorry,” Quinn said. “I didn’t even notice. I’m just thinking ‘get to the hospital as fast as possible.’ ” She reduced her speed. “How about some music?”
Quinn flipped on the radio. Ultravox was singing about memories, the advancing storm, and a life gone by. They glanced at each other for a second, then said in unison, “Nope.” She switched the radio off.
Quinn and Cash completed the rest of the journey to Halston Medical Center listening to the mechanical drone of Blue Belle’s engine. But both of them were thinking about what they’d find at the end of the road.
As Blue Belle sped past the seemingly endless grasslands and random shrubs, Quinn’s speed crept back up to sixty, then sixty-five miles per hour. Cash had taken on the job to remind her of her lead foot. Quinn could have been a jerk about it, but to Cash’s surprise she took his reminders in stride.
Traffic on the rail-straight interstate was sparse at six o’clock in the evening. Quinn could have locked the steering wheel in one direction and had a snooze.
The monotony of the landscape had lulled Cash to nod off a couple of times, and if he could fall asleep, he wondered if the same could happen to Quinn. He doubled his efforts to make sure she stayed awake.
“We should’ve eaten before we left.” Quinn groaned. “Are you hungry?” Before Cash could respond, she answered her own question. “I’m starved. We could hit the cafeteria at the hospital.”
Food was the last thing on Cash’s mind. His stomach twisted in worried knots. “I’m not really hungry.”
“Maybe you’ll change your mind by the time we get there.”
Quinn’s relentless speeding had an upside: they managed to shave almost fifteen minutes off their travel time. At half past six, they found themselves trolling the hospital parking lot for a space. Several minutes later their efforts were rewarded, although the parking space was as far away from the entrance as it could get. Quinn backed into the space and turned off the engine. The smell of warm rubber and oil drifted through the car as the engine ticked and cooled.
Quinn threw off her seatbelt, pushed the driver’s seat forward, and crawled into the back. “Got to change. Eyes forward, no peeking.”
Cash directed his gaze across the parking lot and wondered how many of the cars in the lot belonged to family and friends of patients. Now he was one of them. His eyes counted up to the fourth floor and scanned the windows for something or someone familiar.
The sound of rustling clothing and the occasional labored breath from the back seat pulled Cash back to reality. He glanced at the side mirror and saw the soles of Quinn’s Vans propped against the glass behind him. “You alright back there?”
“Remind me to never buy jeans one size too small again.”
“Uh, okay.” Cash heard a finalizing zzzzip from the back seat. “Why would you do that anyway? Sounds like torture.”
“If you have to ask...” Quinn bent herself like a pretzel to get out of the car. “Let’s go. Don’t forget to lock the door.” She grabbed her purse and locked and closed her door. By the time Cash had done the same, she was already weaving her way between parked cars, making a line toward the front entrance.
The significance of Quinn’s tight jeans made itself clear as Cash ran to catch up. The denim hugged her hips and legs and accentuated her confident stride. Cash smiled to himself.
Quinn eyed him curiously. “What is it, hot shot?”
Cash shook his head. “Oh, nothing.”
“You feel like eating now?”
“Not really.” Cash placed his hand on his abdomen. “Stomach’s not behaving.”
“I got to get something, or I might end up ripping someone’s head off.”
“This is the place to do it.” Cash placed his hands on his neck and pretended to choke himself. They both laughed.
“I’ll meet you up there.”
“You remember where the room is?”
Quinn gave him a sideways look of disbelief. “Of course. Just because I buy jeans that are too small doesn’t make me dumb.”
“Just makes you uncomfortable.”
Quinn swatted his shoulder. “Go. I’ll see you in a bit.” She disappeared into the cafeteria.
Cash followed the main entrance to the elevators. The doors opened and a group of people filed out, some stifling their sobs. He stepped into the elevator and chose the fourth floor. As the doors closed he watched the people in the foyer hugging and consoling each other, and in his mind he wished them well.
Cash rode the elevator up alone. When the doors opened to the familiar corridor of the fourth floor, he froze. He could see the door to Wynter’s room and the nurses’ station nearby, but fear of what he would find held him back.
Would Wynter still be asleep? What if her condition had worsened? What if she wasn’t there at all? What if... The questions raged in Cash’s head and before he realized it, the doors to the elevator slid closed. Everything felt final and Cash panicked.
He pounded on the doors, then on the open button but the elevator began its descent. Cash hit the button for the third floor. The elevator stopped with a jerk and the doors opened as if by divine intervention.
He stepped out. The entrance to the chapel was only a few steps away. He contemplated going in to catch his breath but his need to see Wynter won out, despite his worries about what he would find. Cash heard the elevator doors close behind him as he made his way to the stairwell.
His footsteps echoed in the small space as he ascended back to the fourth floor. Taking the stairs had gotten his muscles moving and his blood flowing, and had an unexpectedly calming effect. He decided to take the stairs more often.
Cash took a deep breath and pulled open the door to the coma ward.
One step at a time.
Cash proceeded down the corridor until he stood outside Wynter’s room. He waved at a nurse he didn’t recognize seated at the nurses’ station and she waved back and gave him a thumbs up. She apparently remembered him.
He pushed the door open and stepped inside. The same machines, tubes, and wires surrounded Wynter, like she was caught in a web. Her eyes were closed, just as they had been when he left almost a day ago. It appeared that he had worried for nothing.
Cash sat in the familiar orange vinyl chair from hell and placed his hand on hers. To his surprise, her hand was warm. He reclined as comfortably as possible and closed his eyes. Perhaps if he was lucky, he’d be able to sleep.
Cool air drifted over Cash’s face. It was a welcome change after the ride from Newhaven. Even traveling at sixty-five miles per hour, the wind whistling through Blue Belle’s vent window hadn’t done much to cool the interior of the car.
Quinn had forbidden him from rolling down the window. “Too much drag,” she had said.
His anxiety levels had begun to dissipate once he had seen Wynter and realized she was okay—
Now he was back, his hand on hers. Cash’s world felt right again, his purpose restored. It was as if he was tuned into her life force and nothing bad could possibly happen while he was there by her side.
The breeze kept pulling at him. It no longer felt like the air conditioning he recognized at the hospital. The air took on an organic quality as well as an odor, something different, yet familiar. The antiseptic overtones dropped away and left behind... blueberries?
Cash furrowed his brow and inhaled the cool air flowing over his face. Definitely blueberries, but what—
“Wynter?” He opened his eyes. Directly above, instead of a bank of fluorescent lights and an air circulation vent, lay a vast expanse of blue sky. Long stems of vibrant green grass shot up around his head like cage bars, swaying rhythmically in the breeze. A little too rhythmically.
Cash propped himself up on his elbows. “Wynter?” Instead of a response, the essence of blueberries encircled his head from behind. He rolled over and kneeled, raising himself out of the long grass.
Wynter sat cross-legged, grinning at him, holding a partially eaten blueberry Hostess Fruit Pie. Grass sprouted up around her and through the folds of her white sundress. “I was wondering when you’d clue in. I’ve been blowing over your face for, like, hours.”
“That was you?”
Wynter nodded and took a bite of pie.
“But you’re in the hospital.” Cash crawled forward until he was able to sit across from Wynter, knee to knee. “You’re in a coma. It’s pretty serious.”
“Relax, Cash,” Wynter said. “This is your dream. I’m just visiting.”
“My dream...” Cash craned his neck and cast his eyes around wildly. “Where are we?”
“Take a guess.”
Cash stood and turned himself around slowly. Eight lines of smooth river rock radiated from where he stood, intersecting with an outer circle thirty feet away. It was just like the medicine wheel at—
“Bingo.” Wynter smiled.
God, he had missed her smile.
Beyond the wheel of stone, a river wound its way around the grassy field but never quite encompassed it.
“Where is everything?” Cash waved his hands about. “The trees, the paths... Where’s Newhaven?”
“I guess all that stuff didn’t make the cut.”
Cash sat back down and faced her. “Why am I dreaming about you now? I mean, I’ve never dreamed about you before.”
“What?” Wynter pouted. “I’m devastated.”
“No, of course I’ve dreamed of you.” Cash felt his neck burn with embarrassment. “I meant it’s never been like this.”
“I had to talk to you,” Wynter said. “And for a while I couldn’t. I think my body had to heal a bit first.”
Cash reached forward and took her hands in his.
“You need to stop her, Cash.” Wynter’s eyes glistened as she focused on him. “You need to stop Jezebel.”
“How? I couldn’t even keep her away from you.”
“You have the power,” Wynter said. “To summon.”
Cash shook his head. “I don’t. I’ve tried. I can’t do it.”
“You can.” Wynter shook his hands emphatically. “You just need practice.”
“What about...” Cash let his eyes drift away.
“Stop Jezebel and Ransom will fall in line.”
Cash tried to conceal his hurt, freshly exposed again, but Wynter saw it straight away.
“It’s all going to work out, Cash,” Wynter said. “I promise.”
Above their heads the sky darkened to a deep indigo sprinkled with stars. A full moon lit up Wynter’s hair from behind like a fiery halo.
Cash found her eyes. “How do I know this is real? This could be just one big bullshit dream.”
“That’s possible, I guess.” Wynter returned his gaze. “Have I ever lied to you?”
Cash shook his head.
“Isn’t that enough?”
“No, it’s not,” Cash said. “You need to tell me something I don’t already know.”
Wynter fell silent. She nibbled at her lower lip as her eyes worked at a memory. Then a hesitant smile spread across her face. “At the cabin, Quinn had sex with Ransom—”
“I know that, Wynter.” Cash grabbed a clump of grass in frustration. “You told me already.”
“As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted, Quinn had sex with Ransom... twice.”
Cash’s jaw dropped.
“Yeah. Want to know something else?”
Cash nodded, his throat suddenly dry as sand.
“Quinn doesn’t know that I know.”
“Then how...” Cash trailed off as he tried to process this new information.
Wynter looked at him expectantly and crossed her arms.
Cash raised his brows. “Ransom?”
She nodded then rocked forward on her haunches. “This coma is doing weird shit to my brain. It’s like a bunch of Ransom’s memories are my memories now. Remembering that one really sucked. Now you need to go. Quinn is waiting for you to spill it.” She planted a light kiss on his forehead and covered his eyes with her hands. “You can summon now.”
Her whisper drifted with the breeze. Cash took in the scent of her skin, as fresh as the grass that surrounded them, and smiled.
“Hey, Cash?” Quinn’s voice echoed like she was speaking through a tunnel. “What’s going on?”
Cash opened his eyes to find himself back in the orange chair, his hand still resting on Wynter’s, but their fingers intertwined. He looked around the room and stretched, his shoulder joints popping.
Quinn sat opposite him in a chair she had dragged in from the corridor, her stare so intense he could practically feel it.
Cash blinked at her. “What?”
“Spill it,” she said.
Back In Black
Cash squeezed past Quinn at the foot of Wynter’s bed and paced the small room. The dream had already begun to fade, a fact that frustrated him, but certain details remained.
Quinn followed his movement with her eyes. “She’s my friend too, Cash. I’ll wait all night if I have to.”
Cash turned on her. “What?”
“You know how that song goes,” Quinn said. “Sleeping under a spotlight. The Romantics, I think.”
Cash returned to the orange chair, sat, and placed his head in his hands.
“I’m on your side. Two heads are better than one.”
Cash looked up and revealed eyes wet with tears of anger and frustration, unable to fall. “Have you dreamed of her? Since she fell?”
Quinn shook her head and whispered, “No.”
“Her last words to me, back at the bridge, were ‘Find me.’ ” Cash looked at Wynter, the slow rise and fall of her chest and the blips on the vital signs monitor the only indications that she was alive. “I found her, but in my dreams. She says I’m a summoner.” Cash squinted through his tears. “What does that even mean?”
“It means that you can bring someone out of your dreams. Create a dreamwaker.”
“Just people?” Cash wiped his eyes before the tears had a chance to breach. “What about other stuff, like money, or animals?”
“The thing is, the person you bring out has to want to come out,” Quinn said. “Last I checked money can’t tell you what it wants. As for animals, I really don’t know.” She shrugged. “But remember, as real as it was, it was still a dream.”
“No, Wynter was real.” Cash locked his gaze with Quinn’s. “As real as Ransom. She gave me proof.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I know about you and Ransom,” Cash said. “Wynter told me a while ago. But...”
Quinn tilted her head at him, alarm showing in her eyes. “But... what?”
“You did it twice with Ransom.”
The color drained from Quinn’s face.
“I’m guessing from your reaction that you never told Wynter that.”
Quinn sighed and hung her head. “No. I was hoping to take that secret to my grave.”
“Sorry to burst that bubble.” Cash sat forward. “But she was real, Quinn. How else would I know that?”
She nodded. “Ransom always said that his memories were separate from the person he’s connected to.” Quinn’s eyes cleared, as if she had just reached an epiphany. “Maybe that’s only when he’s in the waking world…”
“I don’t know. She did say the coma is messing with her mind. It’s all pretty confusing,” Cash said. “Still, she knew your secret.”
“Did Wynter say anything else?”
“It wouldn’t have been Wynter if she hadn’t.” Cash smiled. “Take a guess.”
“Reunite her with Ransom?” Quinn shifted in her seat uncomfortably. “Sorry. She’s stuck on that troublemaker pretty bad.”
“I know, and in a way, you’re right. The answer always involves him.”
Quinn followed the dots. “Jezebel.”
“Yup. We have to stop her.”
“Feels like déjà vu.”
Cash nodded. “With one big difference. We have to do it without Wynter.”
The two of them turned to look at Wynter, unconscious in her hospital bed, half expecting her to give them a sign, but they were met with silence.
A nurse entered the room. “I’m afraid visiting hours are over for today.”
“But I’ve got clearance.” Cash protested and held up his wrist band.
“I know you do, Cash, and we certainly admire your loyalty and dedication.” The nurse picked up Wynter’s chart and made some notes. “But you need some time away. Keep things balanced.” She returned the chart to the end of the bed and placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’s not like Wynter’s holding you for ransom.”
This time Cash’s face turned ashen. He looked at Quinn and motioned at the door. “Let’s go.”
The two of them bolted down the corridor, unsure of their next steps, but certain that they had to leave to find them.
Quinn and Cash spent the ride home from the hospital immersed in their own thoughts. Despite the need to reunite Wynter with Ransom and stop Jezebel, their talk at the hospital had opened old wounds. Her betrayal of Wynter rose to the forefront of her mind. Her guilt had never left her entirely. Her tryst with Ransom had been so hot, it had permanently burned a spot in her memories, for better or worse. But she couldn’t let it happen again. She had made a promise.
After dropping Cash at his trailer, Quinn found herself at home, standing in the kitchen, her brain in a conflicted fog with no memory of making the short drive home. Her stomach grumbled and broke her out of her trance.
She fixed herself a small plate of nachos with hot salsa and real grated cheddar, not that melted Velveeta crap they used at the Starlite, and carried it up to her room. She had her snack half-eaten by the time she plopped herself on her bed.
Quinn cocked her ear to one side and listened for her parents. The silence of the house returned no surprises. Her parents had always been deep sleepers, a fact that would have come in handy if she had any kind of a love life.
She finished her nachos, brushed her teeth, and peeled off her clothes, replacing them with fresh panties and a T-shirt with “Here comes trouble” written across the front.
Dreams aren’t real. Everyone has fantasies.
Quinn’s spicy snack had made her eyelids heavy. There was something about a quiet house that amplified her thoughts and recent memories. She found them hard to ignore.
How can I break a promise if what I’m doing isn’t real?
She lay back on top of the bedspread and was asleep within minutes of her head hitting the pillow. Her exhausted mind made room for the dreams and her memories did the rest.
Quinn stood on the deck of her cabin and looked out across Lake Gilberg, its surface a near perfect mirror reflection of the boxelder maples on the distant shore. The sun warmed her bare legs and back. Her dreaming mind had left some details unaltered. Her clothes were the same as the ones she had fallen asleep in.
She peered down at the front of her T-shirt and read the upside-down words out loud. “Here comes trouble? Ha. Not likely.”
“I might disagree.”
Quinn felt a shiver move up her spine and raise the hairs on the back of her neck. She would know that voice anywhere, and loved and hated it at the same time. She turned and saw Ransom standing a short distance away in his signature black hoodie and jeans. His feet were bare, and Quinn found herself imagining what he was wearing underneath.
“Ransom!” Quinn cast her eyes side to side without even thinking about it, her guilty conscience making itself known even in her dreams. Nothing but nature surrounded them. “What are you doing here?”
Ransom shrugged. “I don’t know. This is your dream. You tell me.”
Quinn felt her undeniable attraction to him, yet she resisted. “You can’t be here.”
“You know why.” Quinn checked her surroundings again and lowered her voice. “We can’t... you know... have sex.”
Ransom took a step forward and shrugged at her. “We’re just talking.”
“I promised Wynter I wouldn’t—”
“Wouldn’t what? Dream about someone? Or fantasize about them?” Ransom narrowed his eyes and studied her. “What you did before to Wynter was real, and really bad. But in your dreams, anything goes.”
Quinn’s mind fought against her promise to Wynter. What Ransom said made sense, but it felt wrong. “Not anything... right?”
Ransom narrowed his eyes seductively and gave her a quirky, lopsided smile.
Her heart melted in an instant. Ignoring her earlier misgivings, Quinn bridged the gap between them and wrapped her arms around Ransom’s chest. She closed her eyes and breathed in his essence. He smelled as intoxicating as she remembered. “God, I’ve missed you.”
“Excuse me?” Ransom’s voice had changed. It sounded deeper. And there was something else...
Quinn cracked open one eye and spotted a gold star pinned to the left side of Ransom’s hoodie, except the hoodie was tan instead of black and she could see a breast pocket with a pen poking out the top. She felt two strong hands take her by the shoulders and move her backward a step.
“Yes, Quinn.” Anson crossed his arms against his chest. “I’m all for hugs, but that seemed a little too... close for comfort, dressed the way you are and all.”
Quinn realized that the hem of her T-shirt ended mid-thigh, barely long enough to conceal her panties. She tugged on the hem self-consciously before Ransom’s voice echoed in her head.
In your dreams, anything goes.
Quinn grasped the hem of her T-shirt and pulled it down past her knees. Then her devious nature took over. She stopped and raised the hem up. The T-shirt shrunk in length, became a crop top, and exposed her smooth midriff and her panties below.
“Here comes trouble,” she said grinning before she launched herself at Anson.
“Whoa, Quinn.” Anson stepped backward, his hands up, palms forward. “Whoa.”
Quinn ignored him. “This is my dream. I can do what I want.” She hooked her fingers into his shirt and pulled it open, sending buttons flying and bouncing across the deck. She ran her hands across his chest. “I just want to fuck you. I’m sure Mercy won’t mind. And I won’t tell anybody.”
She kissed his chest, but instead of skin, Quinn felt fabric brush against her lips.
“What the hell, Queenie.”
Quinn backed away and looked up to see Zain staring at her, a mixture of surprise and confusion on his face. Even though the dream was hers to control, it became clear that her subconscious had been fighting her every step of the way.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, shouldn’t you be with someone your own age?” Zain had rollerskates on and alternated his legs, rolling back and forth.
Quinn stepped toward him and slipped one of her hands into her panties. “Don’t you want me?”
“I’m at least ten years older than you,” Zain said. He rolled backward but his eyes remained focused on her concealed hand moving under the fabric of her panties.
“I like older guys.”
“I’m sure you do.”
They continued their dance of avoidance, Quinn’s one foot forward and Zain’s one foot back. “Don’t you like young girls?”
Zain shook his head slowly. “Uh, not this young.”
“Your eyes say something different.”
And this is my dream.
Quinn pushed Zain backward. His rollerskates hit the side of a king-sized mattress and they both fell. She straddled his waist and pulled Zain’s T-shirt up over his head. But instead of Zain’s face popping out of the neck hole, it was Jake smiling back at her, and his leg cast was gone.
Suddenly modest, Quinn pulled at her T-shirt and lowered the hem back to her knees. It shouldn’t have mattered. She was horny and physically Jake was a guy just like any other. But it felt different with him there and the realization hit her all at once. She wanted it to be different with Jake.
“Hi.” Jake waved at her, wearing a goofy smile. “Does trouble come here often?”
“Most definitely.” Quinn smiled, leaned down, and kissed him. “Want to see my room?”
Jake nodded. “Sure.”
Quinn inched back up onto her knees and asked Jake to do the same. “Ready?”
Jake smiled at her, taking all of her in with his deep, brown eyes.
“Hold on to me.” She kissed him again. “For luck.”
Quinn laughed and nodded. Then, reducing her voice to a whisper, she said, “Here goes nothing.”
Both of them rocked backward and fell through the mattress, into vast darkness. Quinn could sense the world spinning around them but there were no visual cues she could use to ground herself. Just before dizziness could sink its teeth into her, they landed abruptly, square in the middle of her room.
“It worked. We’re here,” Quinn said, half amazed. She had actually made a dreamwaker version of Jake. She still straddled his waist and could feel a certain hardness down below his belt line. “Are you feeling dizzy?”
“Maybe a little bit,” Jake said, “but in a good way.”
“Me too.” Quinn leaned down and left a trail of kisses up his chest, along his neck and ending at his lips. “I think we left off right about here.”
“I think you’re...” Jake let her cut him off with a kiss.
Quinn forgot all about her thoughts of Ransom and the rest of her secret crushes. Jake was it. She had been wrong about him for so long. A dreamwaker version of Jake had certain advantages, but she could hardly wait for the real thing.
Jezebel pulled into an alley close to a Pepperia take-out joint in Sanwood, an hour west of Newhaven. The smell of Mexican spices and Italian herbs floated from the open door of the fast food joint.
Roxy twisted in the passenger seat so she could see Jezebel and Ransom. “Jazz, you still haven’t told us why we’re here.” She looked back at the storefront. “It’s a long way to come just for pizza.”
Jezebel side-eyed Roxy and thrust her hand across the center console as if she was going to throw a punch. Roxy flinched as Jezebel’s knuckles sailed past, barely missing her jaw. She popped open the glove box and pulled out a plastic bag that contained a ball of oily fabric.
Roxy cast an uneasy glance at Ransom in the back seat. Jezebel set the bag on the center console, rolled down the bag’s edges, and pulled away the shroud. In the center, gleaming in cold blue steel, sat a semi-automatic 9mm pistol.
“Holy shit.” Roxy’s eyes bugged out.
“Beauty, isn’t it?” Jezebel grinned. “Monty better not fuck with me.”
“How many bullets does it hold?” Roxy reached out to touch the gun metal and Jezebel slapped her hand.
“I don’t know,” Jezebel said. “More than Monty’s pathetic excuse for a gun.”
“Where’d you get it?”
Jezebel basked in Roxy’s excitement. “My mom’s bedside table holds one less secret.”
“Whoa,” Roxy said. “That’s badass—”
“So, you got a gun.” Ransom slouched in the back seat. “What you going to do, rob the place?”
“No.” Jezebel picked up the pistol and pointed it at him. “You are.”
Jezebel expected Ransom to protest, but he just sat there and stared through her with dead, uninterested eyes. “That’s it? That’s your plan?” He laughed.
“Got a better idea?”
Ransom shrugged. “Anything’s better than committing a felony.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Jezebel scowled at him. “What do you know?”
“You got that right.” Jezebel sized Ransom up, as if she was having doubts. “Now shut your mouth and listen.”
Like most of Jezebel’s plans, it was light on details. She removed the fabric and tossed him the empty plastic bag. “You rob the place, the register, and the safe under the counter, then run back down here.” She pointed the muzzle of the gun in the direction Ransom should run.
Ransom rolled the plastic bag into a ball. “Don’t wave that thing around.”
“What do you care?” Jezebel snapped. “You’re immortal. Now listen up. You run past us and dump the cash in the car on the way by. We’ll pick you up when the coast is clear. Or you can off yourself, but it’d be a shame to lose this gun.”
Jezebel admired the gun’s clean lines, then pulled the magazine out, confirmed it held bullets, and slammed it back into the grip. She pulled the slide back, loading the chamber and cocking the hammer.
“Ready to rock and roll.” Jezebel held the gun out to Ransom but pulled it back when he reached for it. “Don’t even think about shooting us. Remember, if we die, so does Wynter.”
Ransom scowled at her, took the gun, and placed it in his pocket. He faced Roxy. “Let me out.”
Roxy swung open the passenger door and pushed the seatback out of the way. Her concerned eyes met his. “Try not to shoot anyone.”
“Yeah,” Ransom said, unimpressed. He pulled his hoodie up and strolled out of the alley and into the Pepperia.
Roxy hopped back into the Barracuda, chewing her gum madly. “This is a bad idea, Jazz. I can feel it.”
Jezebel ignored her. “I’ve been watching this place for a while. They make night deposits after they close so they should be flush with cash.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Jezebel gave the idling Barracuda some gas, waking up the engine in an instant. “Our lives are going to change for the better, Rox. You watch.”
A shot rang out of the small fast food joint.
Roxy turned to Jezebel in a panic. “Oh, shit.”
Jezebel gripped the steering wheel, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “Shut up and keep your panties on.”
Two more rapid shots echoed out of the small space, followed by another, before Ransom rounded the building, running straight for the Barracuda. But his approach was more a limp than a run.
His hoodie hung over his left shoulder in shreds, with bits of bloodied flesh and bone exposed through its jagged hole. In his other hand he gripped the pistol.
“Oh my God! Ransom!” Roxy spat her gum out the window. “Jazz, he’s been shot.”
“Yup. Could’ve been us.”
As Ransom approached the car, Roxy could see the left side of his jeans, soaked red with blood. “Shit, this is bad, this is bad.”
“Shut up!” Jezebel eased off the brake and began to roll forward slowly. Ransom handed the gun to Roxy through the passenger window, its hammer cocked for the next chambered round.
“Take it!” he yelled but Roxy recoiled from the gun like it was poison. “Fuck.” Ransom dropped the pistol into the footwell, then pulled the plastic bag out of his hoodie pocket and did the same. “Happy?”
“What’re you waiting for?” Jezebel yelled. “Go!”
Ransom took a quick glance behind him before limping back towards the dark recesses of the alley. The Pepperia clerk rounded the building, a pump-action shotgun in one hand.
Jezebel slammed the Barracuda into park and pulled herself out of the driver’s side window. She pointed in the direction Ransom had gone. “Hey! He went that way!”
“Thanks!” the clerk called out as he raced past. “That fucker’s gonna pay.”
“Hope you get him.” Jezebel slid back into her seat, shifted to drive, and rolled out from the alley. She found a parking space and killed the Barracuda’s engine.
“What are you doing?” Roxy stared, her mouth agape.
“Counting the cash, what else?” Jezebel flipped on the overhead light.
“Now? We got to go find Ransom.”
Jezebel grabbed the pistol, popped the magazine out, and pulled the slide back, unchambering the live bullet. She dropped it all onto the greasy fabric swatch, then grabbed the plastic bag.
“We got to find him.”
“We’ll go when the coast’s clear.” Jezebel pulled a wad of bills out of the bag, her eyes gleaming, and began to riffle through it. “And the coast isn’t clear.”
Roxy shook her head, slid down in her seat, and crossed her arms. “You really think turning on the light in here is a good idea?”
Jezebel stopped flipping through the bills in her hand. Her jaw stiffened as her eyes met Roxy’s. She reached up with a slow, deliberate hand and turned off the overhead light.
“You know what, Rox? You got a point.” She turned the ignition and the Barracuda woke with a growl. She backed out of the parking spot and exited the lot.
“What are you doing?”
“Going home to count my money.”
“Your money? I thought it was an even split, between the three of us?”
Jezebel laughed. “Like you did anything except bitch and moan. And Ransom, he’s not even real.”
“He’s real enough to do your dirty work.”
Jezebel shrugged as she merged from the on-ramp to the interstate headed east. “Better him than me.”
“What if he rats us out?” Roxy saw a flicker of doubt—or worry?—flash over Jezebel’s eyes, then it was gone.
“He wouldn’t do that,” Jezebel said, the cool night air whipping her hair against the headrest. “He loves Whiner too much.”
Roxy narrowed her eyes. “But what if he does? The police are going to be after us.”
Jezebel opened her mouth to answer, then closed it again. Ransom confessing wasn’t part of the plan. She had banked on Ransom putting Wynter first. She glanced at the bag of money sitting on the center console and hoped it had been the right move.
Shadows shrouded the alley behind the Pepperia and surrounding businesses. Despite having no idea where he was going, Ransom was sure of two things: his current body had been mortally wounded and the clerk from Pepperia would catch up to him sooner rather than later.
The wildcard? How he would react.
Moments ago, back at the Pepperia, Ransom had pointed the pistol at the clerk behind the counter and demanded money. He had been in control and knew exactly what to do. The exhilaration of robbing someone energized him, even though he knew it was wrong. The clerk had obeyed and filled the bag with money.
But as Ransom backed out of the joint, he stumbled into a chair and lost his aim. The clerk took that moment of uncertainty to grab a shotgun from under the counter, aim, and fire.
The shot ripped into Ransom’s left shoulder, rendering it useless. He raised the pistol in his right hand, aimed, and found that he couldn’t pull the trigger. A vision of Wynter toppling backward over the 19th Street Bridge guard rail flooded his mind and he realized he couldn’t take a life as easy as Jezebel could. That kind of experience he could do without. Instead, he aimed just above the clerk’s head and fired.
The hanging menu above the clerk’s head exploded in a shower of splinters. The clerk flinched as he pumped the forearm of the shotgun and fired another round, this time grazing Ransom’s left hip.
Ransom fired one more wild shot into the ceiling before he snaked around the door frame and ran into the alley.
The Barracuda’s headlights bored into him like the eyes of a predator lying in waiting. His injuries slowed his progress, but he had run as fast as he could to make the drop.
Once Jezebel had the money, she was gone. Ransom hadn’t expected her to stick around, and he knew before the Barracuda was out of sight that he had been abandoned. But he still had to deal with the clerk from the Pepperia as the gaining footsteps of his pursuer grew louder.
His options were limited. He could hide and bleed out, but that might take hours and the alley would be crawling with police a lot sooner than that. There would be an interrogation and that would make his situation, and indirectly Wynter’s, more complicated.
He could continue to run, but he found he had neither the strength nor the will to continue. The alley made that choice for him as he turned a blind corner to find a chain link fence separating him from freedom. There was no way he could climb over it with one functioning arm.
Ransom was left with one choice: face the Pepperia clerk. He stood, his back against the chain link fence, and waited for the clerk to round the corner.
In the few seconds he had left, Ransom’s thoughts tied themselves in knots. He wanted to do everything in his power to protect Wynter, but the only way to do that involved staying loyal to Jezebel and her insane plan.
The Pepperia clerk rounded the corner. Panting heavily he leveled the shotgun at Ransom. “Where’s the money, asshole?”
Ransom raised his hands, palms forward, and nodded back the way they had come. “I tossed it somewhere back there.”
“Show me.” The clerk eyed him warily in the darkness of the alley. “No sudden moves either.”
“I don’t have the gun anymore either.”
“Shut up and move.” The clerk waved the barrel of the gun at him, the end staring back at Ransom like a black, unblinking eye.
Ransom changed his course, shuffling toward the clerk instead of around him. Firing a shotgun from a distance was one thing, but point blank range was quite another. He didn’t think the clerk had it in him.
“What are you doing?” The clerk stood his ground. “If you get any closer, I’ll blow you in two.”
“You’ll never find your money if you do that.”
“Bullshit. You tossed it somewhere close and you’re going to show me where.” The clerk positioned himself behind Ransom and poked him in the back with the barrel. “Now move.”
Ransom led the way back into the alley. He could see the light of the Pepperia and a small crowd of people forming at the door. Sirens rose up in the night. Police were on their way.
Ransom couldn’t be arrested. He wouldn’t let them. The only way to keep Wynter safe was to die, and each push forward by the clerk with the barrel of the shotgun reconfirmed Ransom’s decision. He spun on his good right leg, grabbed the barrel of the shotgun, and jammed it under his chin, clamping it in place.
“Sorry.” Ransom hooked his right thumb into the shotgun’s trigger hole and pushed down.
The blast was deafening. Ransom’s head disappeared in a spray of bloody flesh and bone. The clerk stumbled and fell backward, glancing his head on a garbage bin.
Ransom’s body drifted into a swirling blue cloud before it hit the ground and left the clerk with a story that no one would believe.
Jake had no idea what time it was when he finished saving Pauline from Donkey Kong. Except that it was late. The game room downstairs was the one place in the house, other than his room, where he had a say about the decor.
“No clocks,” Jake had told his parents. “They stress me out when I play.”
Without the time pressure, he could focus on the importance of game play. If he was going to start his own video game company after graduating, he needed to know his games inside and out.
He had often compared game play to schoolwork. Cash understood Jake’s reasoning, but his parents never bought into the idea. They thought it was a big waste of time. They’d change their tune when he became a millionaire.
The midnight munchies had set in. He tossed his controller aside, grabbed his crutches, and walked to the door leading up to the first floor.
“Fucking stairs,” he grumbled. Everyone thought having a cast was exciting. Oh, the attention he’d get, filling it with signatures and doodles. No one considered living with one, especially a full leg cast like his. The itches that he couldn’t scratch, the funky body odor from his unwashed leg, the fractured, uncomfortable sleep... and stairs, his current nemesis.
One step at a time, fourteen steps in all, brought him to the first floor. He ambled to the kitchen, grabbed a box of Honeycombs from the pantry, and clamped it under his arm. He was about to reach for a bowl when he heard a soft knock coming from the foyer.
Jake stopped and focused on the silence of the house, thinking that his hearing had played tricks on him. But a few seconds later, there it was again.
Knock knock knock.
Definitely not a trick. Jake set the box of cereal on the island in the middle of the kitchen and approached the front door. He peered through the spyhole and saw Quinn standing outside, her arms wrapped around her body. She looked cold, wearing only a T-shirt and denim shorts.
Jake unlocked the dead bolt and pulled open the door. “Quinn? Is everything okay?”
Quinn’s face brightened when she saw him. “Now it is.”
“What?” Jake shot a glance up at his parents’ bedroom door on the second floor. “It’s super late, Quinn. I mean, I don’t know what time it is but—”
“Shh.” Quinn pushed her way through the door, planted her lips on his, and kissed him deeply. She pulled away just enough to speak, her hot breath floating past his face. “I want you, Jake.”
Jake rocked back on his crutches, his eyes wide with a combination of surprise and panic. “You want—”
Before he could finish, Quinn had directed him backward toward the staircase that led to the second floor. He struggled with his crutches and hopped on his good leg to keep his balance.
He perched himself on the third step and realized that Quinn had already taken off her shirt and shorts, leaving her in her bra and panties. How she had done this was a question his brain couldn’t process.
The sight of Quinn practically naked in the foyer reduced Jake’s voice to a low whisper. “Holy shit. What are you doing?”
“I’m doing what I want. And you want it, too.” Quinn pushed him back and straddled him. His one-legged jeans, cut to accommodate his cast, lay in a heap at the bottom of the stairs and Jake had no memory of how they had gotten there. Somehow, she had removed them too, bypassing the reinforced plaster holding the bones of his left leg together. The only thing that made sense were his boxer shorts, which were now standing at full attention. Panic, worry, and pure lust collided in his mind as he glanced back up at his parents’ bedroom door.
“Lover boy, I’m over here.” Quinn placed her hand along Jake’s jaw, guided his face toward hers, and kissed him again.
Jake felt her tongue probing his mouth. She tasted like strawberries. He wanted to kiss her back with the same intensity but the image of his parents awake in their room above stopped him. “You can’t do this... here. We can’t do this here.”
“Yes, we can.” Quinn glanced down at his boxers. “Looks like you’re ready to go.” She lowered her hips against his and moved against his underwear. “Feels like it, too.”
“I want to. God, Quinn, I want to... But we can’t. Not now.”
“Yes. We can. Watch me.” Quinn gave him a wicked grin and began to remove her bra.
“Come on, Quinn. I’m serious.” Jake swallowed hard. “We’re going to get caught. I’m...”
The sight of Quinn’s black hair brushing her bare shoulders, her perfect breasts, and the rest of her smooth naked skin sent Jake over the edge. He squeezed his eyes shut as his body tensed and released.
Jake woke with a jolt. The leather sofa in the games room had worked its comfortable magic on him again. “DONKEY KONG’s” blocky blue letters stared back at him from the television, casting a dim glow around the room. He was fully clothed, but he sensed a warm stickiness lining the inside of his boxer shorts.
“Goddammit.” Jake slumped back onto the leather sofa and sighed. “I’m a virgin even in my fucking dreams.” He shut the TV and the NES off, collected his crutches, and began his journey back up to his room.
He paused at the kitchen and grabbed the box of Honeycombs. At least that part of his dream was real.
Once back in his room, he changed into fresh boxers and a T-shirt and stretched out on his bed, munching Honeycombs by the handful. His bedside clock read just after four in the morning. Still fresh in his mind, he replayed his dream of Quinn, but revised it to make sure his parents were gone on a business trip. Yes, that was much better, and he couldn’t help but wonder how close his imagination was to the real thing.
When Cash arrived at the Gas N Go, Finn had already opened up. He was sitting behind the register with a newspaper spread over the counter, his grubby coffee mug in one hand.
“I thought I said scram?” Finn spoke without looking up from the paper.
“That was yesterday,” Cash said.
Finn looked over the tops of his reading glasses, an accessory he rarely wore in public. “You sure you can keep your head out of the clouds? Matters of the heart can get mighty sticky.”
“I think I’ll be okay.”
Finn nodded. “Alright. I got a brake job waiting in the back.” He folded the newspaper up and tucked it under his arm. After an ample gulp of coffee, he leaned forward on the counter and supported his bulky frame with his forearms. “Arrested that girl yet? What’s her name?”
Cash looked at him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Bah, look it up.” Finn took another gulp of his coffee and shuffled to the back door to the garage. “Why haven’t they arrested her? She pushed your girl, right? Ran down some kids?”
“She’s definitely guilty,” Cash said. “But they can’t find her. That’s what Anson said. Plus, we’re not pressing charges.”
“What the hell?” Finn paused in the doorway and cast him a dubious glance. “That doesn’t make a lick o’ sense, son.”
“We have our reasons... ones I’d rather not get into if you don’t mind.”
“Huh. I bet I could find her.” Finn pointed to the baseball bat. “Then I’d introduce her skull to Ciara.” He waddled into the garage a bit further and disappeared.
“Or maybe I’d take Killian out for a spin.” Finn’s disembodied voice preceded him as he stepped back into the doorway holding a double-barreled shotgun.
“Holy shit.” Cash’s eyes bugged out. He had never seen Finn’s secret weapon before.
“It can drop a grizzly at thirty yards.” He kissed the barrel and disappeared once again to put the shotgun back.
“I think we’ll let Anson deal with Jezebel when it’s time.” As if Cash had the power to summon in real life, Jezebel rolled her Barracuda into the gas bay closest to the store and shut the engine off. “No fucking way.” He turned to yell back at the doorway to the garage. “Finn, call Anson.”
Jezebel laid into the horn.
Finn waddled back into the store. “What’s with all the goddamn racket?”
Cash motioned at the Barracuda parked outside. “Call Anson. I’ll stall her.” He pushed through the door and approached the passenger side of the car. “What do you want?”
“Hey, hot stuff.” Jezebel let her eyes wander over Cash’s body. “Wanna fill me up?” She held out a wad of bills. “There’s more where that came from.”
“You’re going away for a long time,” Cash said through clenched teeth.
“Really?” Jezebel leaned across the center console. “I guess I better get arrested first, huh? We all know that isn’t going to happen.”
Finn emerged from the garage, walking with less shuffle and more intent.
“Anson’s already on his way,” Cash said.
“Move it, son.” Finn didn’t wait and pushed Cash sideways. He raised Killian and pointed both barrels through the passenger window at Jezebel. “Get the fuck out of here you good for nothin’ hussy.”
“Hussy?” Jezebel laughed. “That’s a new one.”
“Put the gun down, Mr. O’Connor.” Cash tried to grab the shotgun, but Finn kept it out of his reach.
“Your business ain’t welcome here.” Finn rapped the side of the Barracuda with the shotgun barrel. “Come back and I’ll blow you to bits. Your precious car, too.”
Jezebel’s eyes went dark. “You better watch your back, old man.” She started the engine and gave it some gas. “Later, Cash.”
The Barracuda peeled out of the gas bay, spewing smoke and loose gravel across the small parking lot.
Cash watched the black car fly down the street. “Anson should be here any minute. He’ll catch her.”
“Didn’t call Anson, son.” Finn pointed the shotgun at the ground. “It was a job for Killian.”
“Mr. O’Connor, you could’ve shot her.”
Finn waved his hand at him. “Nah, this thing ain’t loaded, remember? See?” He broke the shotgun open and revealed two live shells, ready to go. He shook them out. “Well, shit. No matter. No one would’ve missed her.”
“That’s not the point.” Cash locked his eyes with Finn’s. “You would’ve gone to jail.”
The old man was back to shuffling as he headed toward the garage. “It would’ve been worth it.”
Cash shook his head, sighed, and walked back into the store. As much as he would have liked to see Jezebel gone for good, there was a right way and wrong way to do it.
Around noon Jake’s voice rose up from the doorway of the store. Cash was crouched out of view restocking the chip aisle.
“Jake?” Cash twisted to look around the shelf.
“Hey, dude.” Jake smiled down at him, resting on his crutches. “Working hard or hardly working?”
Cash resumed emptying the box of Hostess potato chips onto the shelf. “I always work hard.”
“I know, I know. Just busting your balls.” Jake leaned on one crutch to glance into the garage. “Finn around?”
“Probably in the back. Why?”
“When do you take your lunch break?” Jake asked. “We could go to the Plaza. I’m buying.”
Cash broke down the empty cardboard box and noted the time. “My lunch break’s flexible but walking to the plaza would burn it all up.”
“Okay.” Jake scanned the shelves as he hobbled through the two short aisles. “Pick your poison and we’ll eat outside. I’m still buying.”
“Sure,” Cash said. “But you don’t have to pay.”
“I don’t mind. You get the next one.”
After Cash cleared his break with Finn, the two of them headed out to the curb with a good selection of junk: Cokes, Dakota Style Original Kettle Chips, Tostitos, and Fudgsicles. The ice cream was Jake’s idea. Even under the shade of the elm tree out front, they had to eat the ice cream first or risk it turning to chocolate soup.
“Always start with dessert. A rule to live by.” Jake tore the wrapper off his Fudgsicle and had finished it before Cash was even halfway. He cracked his can of Coke and ripped into the Tostitos, cramming a handful into his mouth.
Cash watched Jake’s feeding frenzy with amusement. “Don’t forget to breathe. That’s a good rule to live by, too.”
“Touché.” Jake gulped his Coke and swished it around in his mouth.
“Another rule: Don’t do that. Especially on a date.” In response to Jake’s perplexed look, Cash continued. “You know, like you’re rinsing your mouth.”
“Can’t help it. The chips get stuck in my teeth.”
“Well, it’s kind of gross.” Cash glanced at him. “Quinn won’t like it.”
“Noted.” Jake extracted a single Tostito chip from the bag as if he was making a point. “You have any more wicked nightmares?”
Cash closed his eyes and pictured Wynter free of all the medical apparatus that seemed to hold her down like a spider’s web. He shook his head and grabbed some chips. “No nightmares, thank God.”
“I’ve been having these super hot dreams of Quinn.” Jake turned to Cash, his face drawn and serious. “You think I have a chance with her?”
“Sure, why not?” Cash said. “You’re a good guy. You know what you want in life and, like, how to get there. That’s more than I can say about myself.”
“I’ve said it before. We need to start a business together. I’ll be Wozniak and you be Jobs.” Jake’s eyes radiated confidence. “Except we do it with video games.”
Cash nodded, his lips curving to a subtle lop-sided smile as he pictured some form of success in his head. “But I reserve the right to not be an asshole.”
“Thumbs up to that.”
The two sat without speaking for a moment, punctuated only by the munching and slurping of junk food consumption.
Cash felt thankful for moments like this, to have a friend like Jake that he could just exist with, without the desperate need to fill the silence all the time.
“You want to come over for dinner? Play some Nintendo?”
Again, Cash thought of Wynter, alone in her bed back at the hospital, her consciousness locked up somewhere in her head. He wanted to see her desperately, but time with Jake was important too. As Finn had so wisely warned him the day before, his head couldn’t be here if his thoughts were somewhere else. He decided to check in with Madeline and Nolan instead. Maybe a little break from the hospital would help him figure out what he had to do to bring Wynter back.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll come by after my shift. Say around four?”
“Shit, dude, that only gives me, like, three hours to get ready. Think that’ll be enough time?” Jake tried to keep a straight face but couldn’t do it.
“Just avoid Jezebel and I think you’ll be okay.” Cash collected the Fudgsicle sticks, wrappers, and the soda cans and placed them in the empty Tostitos bag.
“She’s probably hiding like the cowardly bitch she is.” Jake pulled himself up using his crutches like it was second nature, toning his shoulders and arms in the process.
“Actually, she showed her face this morning. Wanted to buy gas.” Cash picked up the unopened bag of kettle chips. “Finn refused her service and pointed a loaded shotgun at her.”
“Shit, no way.” Jake’s jaw dropped in awe. “Wish I’d seen that. I like Finn. He’s badass.”
“Yeah, until he ends up painting the parking lot with bits of Jezebel’s face.”
Jake’s eyes lit up. “Ooo. I think I’m going to have to go watch Dawn of the Dead again.”
Cash chuckled to himself and held up the kettle chips. “I’ll bring these with me later, unless—”
“Nah, you better take them,” Jake said, trying hard to look suave. “I don’t need anything that could minimize the chick magnet potential of crutches.”
“Maybe you should go by the plaza on your way home. Work that mojo on Quinn.”
Jake pointed at Cash as he flashed a toothy smile. “That’s a great idea. Later, dude.” He made his way down the sidewalk and waved as he turned down a side street and out of sight.
Cash threw the trash into a garbage can outside the entrance to the store and returned to the counter. He set the kettle chips down, grabbed the phone by the register, and dialed Wynter’s trailer.
There was no answer.
But it was just past one o’clock. It made sense that Madeline and Nolan weren’t home yet, but not hearing a voice on the other end of the line pressed Cash’s worry buttons again.
Jake approached the usual entrance to Stedford Plaza. Moving around on crutches was the pits, but his arms were getting a good workout, and his biceps seemed larger. That’s what he kept telling himself. As he pulled open the door, he paused and realized that he’d have to walk past Shooters. Answering Hunter and Daytona’s questions about Wynter was the last thing he wanted to do. He was here for one thing only: to talk to Quinn.
He stepped back, walked past the exterior of Minit Prints, and used the doors that entered directly into the food court. The intermingling smells of donuts, pizza and pretzels flooded his nostrils and sent his stomach churning. He could have eaten from all three fast food places and still had room for more.
Jake’s eyes settled on the FreshWhip stand in the middle of the food court. Quinn served a lineup of thirsty customers while her boss Deb prepared blender containers and frozen fruit to minimize serving delays. There was always a lineup at FreshWhip. For the longest time, Jake had decided that the long lines were only due to the delicious fruity concoction they served. But that was only partly true now. He saw things differently; saw Quinn differently. Maybe Quinn was part of the draw, and he felt a weird twang of jealousy towards the line of customers.
Jake shuffled to the back of the line and waited. Every so often he stole a look at Quinn working behind the counter, always happy to greet customers with a smile. She hadn’t realized he was in line yet, and he was fine with that. Surprising her would be nice.
As he waited, his mind drifted, his explicit dreams of the two of them together bubbling to the forefront. It wasn’t the best place to replay such personal thoughts, but Jake couldn’t help himself. When he felt tingling below his belt, he switched to other thoughts, like how to stop Jezebel. But like a stove burner on high, it took a while to cool down. Next in line, he faced a new task: hiding his imminent erection.
Quinn blinked her long eyelashes in surprise when she realized that Jake was her next customer. She turned her back to him, rubbed her suddenly sweaty hands on her pants, then faced him again, leaning into the counter and raising her shoulders to accentuate her FreshWhip T-shirt in all the right places.
“Hey Jake,” Quinn smiled and found his eyes easily. “Um, like, long time no see.”
“Uh, yeah.” Jake placed his crutches in front of him and twisted forward on his good foot. His cheeks burned but he felt somewhat relieved to see a hint of pink in Quinn’s face too. He saw his salvation in the counter’s overhang. It would conceal the bulge in his pants nicely. He snugged his body close and forced himself to think of FreshWhip drinks, hoping no one looked too closely under the counter.
“Something wrong with your crutches?”
“What? Oh... No.” Jake’s mind fought against the devil he had unleashed in his pants. “I’m, uh, just giving my arms a break.”
Quinn shifted her eyes temporarily to the customers who had lined up behind Jake, then returned her gaze to him. “What’s not to like?”
Jake choked on his own saliva. “Uh, what?”
Deb gave Jake a curious glance.
“What would you like?” Quinn scrunched her brows at him and leaned forward, lowering her voice. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Jake shook his head, silently cursing himself. He looked up at the menu board. What had looked like an organized list of FreshWhip drinks a moment ago now looked like Greek to him.
“Tastes like strawberries... Strawberry! Large.” Jake’s words came out in an inadvertent blurt.
“Um, one large Strawberry Twizt coming up.” Quinn exchanged a glance with Deb and stepped away from the counter to prepare Jake’s drink.
“Sorry,” Jake said. “Didn’t get much sleep last night.”
Quinn added strawberries, ice, fruit juice, and FreshWhip’s secret powder to a blender and turned it on. The mixture swirled like a tornado for a few seconds before she removed the container, but she hadn’t waited long enough to let the blender come to a full stop. Strawberry Twizt spilled out the top and painted her T-shirt.
“What’s gotten into you?” Deb’s question was rhetorical. Anyone could see there was some kind of spark between the two teens.
Quinn shared a quick glance with her boss and mouthed, “I’m sorry.” She shook her head, her face red with embarrassment, and handed Jake a napkin. “Did I get any on you?”
“No,” Jake said. “At least there wasn’t a gremlin in there.”
“I loved that movie.” Quinn relaxed a bit and poured Jake’s drink into a large cup. “But the Santa story? Like, oh my God.” She snapped on a lid and added a straw. “That’s one-seventy-five.”
Jake pulled out his wallet and opened it. To his horror, he saw that he had no money. He had spent it all on snacks for Cash and himself at Finn’s earlier.
“Shit. Uh, Quinn?” Jake deflated and felt his face flush red with embarrassment, hotter than before. “Can you spot me two dollars? I’ll go to the bank right away.”
Quinn cast a quick glance at Deb.
“This better not become a habit,” Deb said with a look of disapproval.
“No, ma’am. It totally won’t.” Jake shook his head emphatically. “I’ll pay you back ASAP.”
“Chill, Jake. I got it,” Quinn said. “But you’re going to owe me. Big time.”
She winked at him, but even her wink couldn’t cool the fire on Jake’s cheeks. “Thanks, Quinn.” He looked around the food court and spotted an empty chair nearby. Jake sighed. “Can I ask one last favor?”
“Of course,” Quinn said with a smile that seemed to glow, the splash of Strawberry Twizt across her T-Shirt long forgotten.
“Would you bring my drink to that table over there?” Jake pointed at the vacant table.
“Yeah, sure.” Quinn turned to Deb. “Be back in a flash.”
Quinn beat Jake to the table and stood waiting for him, holding his drink.
“God, I feel so useless.”
“Sit and enjoy your Twizt, Mr. Nintendo. That’s an order.” Quinn tugged the brim of his baseball hat, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, and bounded back to the FreshWhip counter.
Jake took a sip of Quinn’s sweet concoction. The cool fruit flavor relaxed him as he watched Quinn work. He stretched his Strawberry Twizt for as long as possible without coming off like a stalker. The tempest in his trousers had fizzled out and he realized an important lesson. Nothing kills a mood faster than an empty wallet. But Jake was determined to redeem himself somehow.
Ollie’s MovieTyme sat practically a stone’s throw from Monty’s house, sitting opposite Sheffield Avenue, deep in southie territory. He passed the defunct drive-in every time he headed home. The area was a well-known hang-out for local kids to party. Having sold thousands of dollars’ worth of drugs behind the screen over the past couple of years, today he noticed a new detail that piqued his curiosity.
Monty pulled up behind the storage shed at the drive-in, next to a blue tarp that was a little too small to completely hide the vehicle underneath. Polished chrome rims and black body paint peeked out from under the leading edge. The size and shape matched that of a Barracuda. He was sure of it.
He turned the engine off and glanced at the newspaper on the passenger seat, the headline screaming back at him in black, bold letters. He grabbed the paper and hopped out of the Fiat. Monty strode to the door of the shed to find the lock loops on the exterior were vacant. He pushed on the door but it didn’t budge. It was locked from the inside.
He rapped the door with his knuckles. “Come on Jezebel, let me in.”
Monty could hear shuffling and hushed whispering from behind the door, but no words in response. He formed a fist and switched to pounding the door.
“Don’t make me bust in.”
The silence behind the door enraged Monty even more. He leaned back and loaded his legs in preparation to ram the door when a better idea came to him.
He unfolded the newspaper. The headline read: “Brazen Robbery Nets Thieves Thousands.” Monty pressed the story up to the small window of the shed.
“You made the front page of the Sanwood Record. It’d be a shame if someone were to send an anonymous tip to Anson.”
As Monty continued holding the newspaper, he placed his ear on the shed’s exterior wall. He could hear frenzied voices, sometimes rising in volume beyond a whisper. His lips stretched into a sly grin knowing that he had gotten under Jezebel’s skin.
“Suit yourself.” Monty removed the newspaper, adjusted his sunglasses, and strolled back toward the Fiat, gravel crunching under his shoes. He whistled back. “Anson is goin’ to owe me big-time.”
He barely had time to get back to his car when he heard the locks rattling on the inside of the shed. Then came the tell-tale squeak of the door’s hinges.
Jezebel stood in the doorway with Roxy and Ransom behind her. “What do you want?”
Monty spun on his heels and walked back toward the shed. His eyes zeroed in on the pistol jammed in the front waistband of Jezebel’s jeans. “I see you’re packin’. What is that, a 9mm?”
“Cut the chit-chat, Monty.” Jezebel hooked her thumbs into her front belt loops, close to the pistol. “Get to the fucking point.”
Monty raised his T-shirt to reveal his .38 snubnose. “Just in case you’re thinkin’ of usin’ yours.” He ran a finger down the hand grip. “It might be smaller and hold less bullets, but it can still blow your head off.”
He handed the newspaper to Jezebel. “You’re famous.” Monty passed her and focused on Ransom. “Or should I say Ransom’s famous.”
Roxy stepped in front of Ransom. “How’d you know it was us?”
Monty motioned at the paper in Jezebel’s hands. “Says the thief was male. Also says he disappeared into thin air. I only know one person who can do that.”
“That wasn’t the plan,” Ransom said.
Jezebel turned on him. “Shut up!”
“If you had just come back for me, none of this would be happening.”
Jezebel pulled out the pistol parked at her waist and pressed the barrel against Ransom’s head. “Shut up or I’ll shut you up.”
Ransom shook his head and stepped back into the shadows of the shed.
“You’re workin’ for me now, whether you like it or not,” Monty said, a wide smirk on his face. “Either you sell for me, or you cut me in, or both. Fifty percent to start.”
“No fucking way,” Jezebel hissed at him.
“Sixty percent,” Monty countered.
“Hey,” Roxy said. “You can’t do that.”
He looked at Roxy. “What can’t I do? Seventy.”
Jezebel pointed her pistol at Monty’s head. He had anticipated her move and pulled his snubnose out, aiming it back at her head. They stood in a standoff.
Jezebel gritted her teeth. “Ten percent.”
“True, ten percent of your head would be left.” Monty stood his ground. “I’ll be nice and go back to my original offer. Fifty percent.”
The pistol shook in Jezebel’s hand. “Twenty.”
“My gun’s got a hair trigger. If you shoot me, it’ll probably go off, takin’ you with me.”
“Thirty.” Jezebel spoke through clenched jaws. “That’s my final offer.”
“It just might be your final offer.” Monty slipped off his glasses and hung them on his T-shirt collar. He locked gazes with Jezebel. “Fifty.”
“Jazz, just give him what he wants,” Roxy said, urgency rising in her voice. “Fifty percent is still pretty good.”
“Listen to Roxy.” Monty grinned. “It appears she’s the smart one.”
“Come on, Jazz,” Roxy whispered into her ear.
Jezebel sighed and lowered her gun. “Okay. Fifty. But we’re not selling your fucking drugs.”
Monty tucked the snubnose back into his pants. “That’s not up to you. But for now, I’ll settle for my half.” He held out his hand and beckoned.
Roxy found the bag of money and handed it to Jezebel. She placed half the cash into Monty’s hand and dropped the bag by her feet.
“Are you sure that’s half?”
Jezebel scowled at him. “Want to count it? You just threatened to kill me. Why would I lie?”
“ ’Cause you’re a greedy bitch?”
“Then count it.”
Monty contemplated the time it would take to count the money and decided to let it go. “I trust you, Jazz. Been a pleasure doin’ business with you.” He walked back to his car and climbed in. “Until next time, I’ll be watchin’.”
Monty started the Fiat’s engine and drove away.
Ransom scoffed as he leaned against one of the shelves in the shed. “Nice negotiating skills.”
Jezebel pulled out her pistol, aimed at Ransom’s head, and fired. The gun recoiled and struck Jezebel’s right cheek, leaving a bloody gouge.
At the same time, the back of Ransom’s head burst backward, coating the shelves with a sticky red sheen. The light in his eyes flashed blue, then faded out and all evidence of Ransom drifted away, leaving Jezebel and Roxy alone in the shed.
“Jesus Christ, Jazz. Why the hell did you do that?”
Jezebel returned the gun to her waistband. “I needed to kill something.”
Roxy stared at her, shaken and scared. “Holy shit. Please don’t do that again.”
“It’s so convenient though.” Jezebel closed the door to the shed, locked it, and sat cross-legged on the mattress. “It’s not like I’m killing anything real.”
“Sure feels real.” Roxy waited for her pulse to normalize. “Hey, did you really give Monty half?”
Jezebel grinned at her. “What do you think?”
Roxy returned a sly smile of her own. “You are a greedy bitch.”
“You know it.” Jezebel dumped the bag of money onto the mattress.
“We’re not going to play nice, are we?”
Jezebel laughed and began flipping through the bills.
The rest of Cash’s shift passed without incident. On occasion he found himself thinking about his upcoming hang session with Jake, rather than worrying about Wynter. He convinced himself that was a good thing.
Cash found Finn in the garage mid-way through his brake job. The car was up on the hoist and the old man had his tools laid out on the work bench, neat and organized, with pieces of the current brake set next to them.
“I’m heading out, Mr. O’Connor.”
Finn looked back at him. “Good. Going to go see Summer, I take it?”
Cash shook his head. “No, just hanging out with Jake.”
Finn offered a gruff nod in response.
“Her name’s Wynter, by the way.”
“Shit. I’m never going to get that right.” Finn grabbed a wire brush and began to scrub rust off the rotor mount. “Lock the front and turn on the doorbell before you leave, aye?”
Cash nodded and headed back to the front of the store.
“Son, you going to be in tomorrow?”
Cash glanced back at Finn. “I was planning on it.”
“Well, if those plans change, let me know as soon as you can, you hear?”
“Sure thing, Mr. O’Connor.” Cash enabled the doorbell and locked the front of the store with his key. He headed toward the Main Street Overpass and the trailer park beyond. Bridges would never be the same since Wynter’s accident.
Twenty minutes later, Cash stepped into his trailer. The small air conditioner pumped a weak eddy of cool air into the cramped space, but it was enough to take the edge off the heat. Ernie was already up and in the shower getting ready for work.
“Dad?” Cash knocked on the door to the tiny bathroom, then eased it open a crack. “I’m going to Jake’s place.”
“Okay, son.” Ernie pulled the shower curtain back and poked his head out. “How’s Wynter doing?”
“No news. I’m going to change and head out.”
Ernie nodded and disappeared behind the curtain. “Say hi to Jake for me.”
“Yup. Have a good shift.” Cash closed the bathroom door and silently cursed his father for asking about Wynter, even though Ernie was only showing concern. Cash had been successful distracting himself from worry, but now he was back at square one.
He threw on a clean shirt and jeans and was on his way to Jake’s house by three-thirty. He had just passed Stedford Plaza when he heard Quinn’s voice calling out to him from behind.
“Hey, handsome,” Quinn called. “Wait up.”
Quinn had never called him that before and Cash wasn’t sure if he liked it, considering Jake’s interest in her. He stopped and waited for Quinn to catch up before continuing along the sidewalk. He turned and studied her. “Handsome?”
“Just stating a fact.” Quinn wore her familiar black and pink FreshWhip uniform. The front had splotches of fruit juice on it. “It’s not like I’m trying to jump you or anything.” She batted her eyelashes.
“You’re a hopeless flirt, you know that?”
Quinn shrugged. “Better than being just hopeless. You going to Jake’s?”
“Yeah. Going to play some Nintendo.” Cash met her eyes, rich, dark, and slightly exotic. He understood Jake’s attraction. “Want to come? I’m sure Jake would love to see you.”
“I already saw him today. He dropped by the plaza.” Quinn studied him. “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
Cash shook his head. “All I know is he likes you, Quinn.” He thought he detected her cheeks blushing a light pink.
“I’m well aware,” Quinn said. “But I’m going to pass tonight. I’m bagged. Had quite the day.”
Cash motioned at her shirt. “Blender explode on you?”
“You could say that,” Quinn said. “I was obsessing about... Wynter.”
“I know how you feel.”
Quinn reached Hobbs Avenue and began to break off. “Hey, we’ve both been thinking about it, but have you come up with anything? You know, like, how to bring Wynter back?”
“Nothing worth mentioning,” Cash said.
“Well, I have an idea, but I need to work through it.” Quinn took small steps backward. “Call me later... handsome.”
“Okay... China doll.”
Quinn froze and widened her eyes. “China doll?”
Cash couldn’t tell if Quinn was surprised or angry. His cheeks felt as if they had burst into flames. “Sorry. I meant that in the best way possible.”
Quinn tilted her head, narrowed her eyes, and looked a question at him. “I’ll take it as a compliment.” She studied him a moment longer, which did nothing to cool Cash’s face. “Call me later with your idea.”
“Okay. Sorry.” Cash hurried along Main Street. He could see Mortimer Avenue up ahead. “That’s the last time I use one of Finn’s nicknames,” he muttered to himself.
As the fire in his cheeks faded, Cash wondered what Quinn’s idea was. He’d find out soon enough, and hopefully he wouldn’t embarrass himself again in the process.
After dinner, Cash and Jake had descended to the games room to continue the Donkey Kong tournament they had begun before dinner. Cash had led the way, followed by Jake as he butt-scooted down the stairs. He had said it was more efficient than navigating the stairs on crutches. It certainly had been less nerve-wracking to watch.
After it was clear Jake was the Donkey Kong champion, they switched to Super Mario Brothers. As much as Cash tried, he couldn’t focus on the game. His head swirled with thoughts on everything except the game.
Jake set his controller down next to his crutches. “What’s gotten into you, dude?”
“I’m worried... about Wynter.” Cash faced Jake. “I talked with her.”
“You talked? Wynter’s awake?”
“No, I dreamed I talked with her,” Cash said. “But she told me things only Quinn knew.”
Cash was almost certain that Jake had no idea about Quinn and Ransom having sex, let alone twice. And Cash wasn’t going to be the one to tell him. That was Quinn’s job.
“Quinn made me promise to tell no one,” Cash lied.
“But you’re my best friend.”
“A promise is a promise. I’d do the same for you.” Cash leaned forward. “But what she said isn’t important. The fact that I can talk to Wynter for real, even though she’s in a coma... that’s important. And...” Cash dropped his head.
Jake waited for an answer from Cash, but none came. “And?”
“I have to bring her back.” Cash met Jake’s gaze with one of seriousness mixed with despair. “It’s all up to me.”
“Tell me about it.”
“But we’d help you, me and Quinn,” Jake said. “Whatever we can do.”
Cash slouched back on the leather sofa. “But it’s me who has to sleep and dream and all that. The best person to teach me to pull things out of my dreams is Wynter, and she’s in a coma.”
“Ah!” Jake held up a finger. “But you can talk to her, right? So can’t you get her to teach you while you sleep?”
“I don’t know.” Cash shook his head in disbelief. “Shit, listen to us. If anyone heard us talking right now, they’d think we were stoned or something.”
“I think being able to pull shit from my dreams would be a cool power to have. Just think of the possibilities.” Jake’s eyes glazed over.
“You can’t just pull anything out from your dreams,” Cash said. “There’s rules.”
Jake shook his head and lifted his cast up onto the sofa. “Screw the rules. The first thing I’d pull out would be a suitcase of money. You know, to start my... our video game business.”
“Pretty sure you can’t just ignore the rules, Jake.”
“Why not? It’s a dream. Anything goes, right?”
“Sure,” Cash said. “But that doesn’t apply in real life. I’m pretty sure anything you pull out from a dream has to be connected to you in reality somehow.”
“What are you saying?”
Cash paused to think of a metaphor that Jake could relate to. “It’s like in The Terminator. Nothing dead will go.”
“Then I’ll dream up a suitcase made from living tissue. Long live the new flesh.”
Cash did a double take at Jake. “Wait, isn’t that a line from Videodrome?”
“Good catch, dude.” Jake laughed. “There’s hope for you yet.”
“Well, your suitcase made of living flesh would probably not work. It’s not real.”
“Real? These are dreams we’re talking about,” Jake said. “I could pull out Brooke Shields and become an instant chick magnet like you.”
“Me? A chick magnet?” Cash laughed.
“Seriously, dude. All the girls I know like you. Even Jezebel and Roxy.”
“Now you’re dreaming.” Cash shook his head, but as he did, he recalled his earlier exchange with Quinn and her flirting. Maybe Jake had a point but there was no way he was going to concede.
“You could pull Wynter out of your dream,” Jake said. “That shouldn’t break any of your rules.”
The idea was so simple, yet it hit Cash like a ton of bricks. He worked through the rules in his head. Wynter existed in reality, and more importantly, his reality. Plus, Wynter had kissed him, connecting her to him. That had to have some power.
“That’s not a bad idea,” Cash said.
“You’re right, it’s a great idea.” Jake settled into a self-satisfied smile.
“You’re a genius, Jake!”
Jake held his hands in the air. “Finally, he sees the light.”
“Look, man. I’d love to stay, but I think I should go.”
“Sure.” Jake nodded. “You want to test out this idea of mine. Right?”
“Yeah. I think I do.” Cash wanted to do something else, too: tell Quinn about Jake’s realization. Maybe combined with her idea, whatever it was, they’d have a real chance to bring Wynter back.
“I’ll let you know how things go.” Cash stood, but Jake remained on the sofa.
“I’m staying down here for a bit.” He motioned at the doorway. “I can’t face those stairs just yet.”
“Nah, but I expect a full report on my desk in the morning.”
Cash laughed. “You got it, chief. Later.” He bounded up the stairs, two at a time, pulled on his shoes, and raced down the front steps. Jake’s idea might change everything and selfishly Cash hoped it would work. And he had to tell Quinn.
Despite his earlier embarrassment, Cash found himself veering off Main Street and onto Hobbs Avenue. He had briefly considered going back to the trailer to call Quinn, but he couldn’t wait that long.
He knew he had the right house when he spotted Blue Belle parked in the driveway. His long strides took him up to the front door of the house. He rang the doorbell before he had a chance to catch his breath.
After a moment Quinn pulled open the door. Not expecting company, she was dressed in sweatpants and a loose T-shirt. “Cash?” She poked her head out of the door and scanned up and down the street. “Are you okay? What are you doing here?”
“You said to call you later,” Cash said between gasping breaths. “It’s later. We need to talk. It’s about Wynter.”
“Uh, okay. Want to come in?”
“I’d rather stay outside.”
The gears in Quinn’s head started to turn. “Wait down by Blue Belle. Give me five minutes.”
Cash ran down the front walk to where Blue Belle was parked and placed his hands on his knees. With slow even breaths, he felt his heart rate drop back to normal.
True to her word, Quinn burst out of the front door, now wearing tight jeans and a form-fitting white T-shirt with the Rolling Stones’ lips and tongue logo across the front.
“Get in,” she said.
Fifteen minutes later, Quinn and Cash slid into a booth at Lucy’s Burger Stop. Quinn flagged Rhonda down and ordered a cheeseburger with fries and a Coke.
“I’m starved. Sure you don’t want anything?”
Cash shook his head. “I ate at Jake’s. Well, maybe a water, please.”
Rhonda looked at Cash dubiously. “One... water.” She made a point to scribble it down on her order pad. “If you change your mind, just holler.” She headed back to the kitchen with their order.
Quinn leaned forward, resting her elbows on the booth’s table. “What’s going on?”
Cash set his gaze upon Quinn. “I know you’ve... been with Ransom. Did you pull him out of your dreams?”
Quinn clasped her hands. “I did.”
“So, if you could do it, so could I.”
“Sure.” Quinn furrowed her brow. “What’s this really about?”
Rhonda returned with their drinks. “Your meal will be up in a few minutes.”
Quinn thanked her.
Cash waited for Rhonda to walk out of earshot. “Tonight, Jake came up with this wild idea. I think it’s genius and wanted your take on it.”
“Spill. I’m, like, dying here.”
Cash took a breath and continued. “Do you think I could pull Wynter out of my dreams?”
Quinn laughed. “You remember when I said I had an idea earlier. That was my idea too, in a nutshell.”
“Huh.” Cash sat back in the booth. “You and Jake... great minds think alike.”
Quinn reached across the table and touched Cash’s hand lightly. “You’re sweet.”
Cash pulled his hand back, either by reflex or by choice. He didn’t know which, but Quinn noticed.
“Sorry,” Quinn said. “Didn’t mean to make things weird. Just being my regular friendly self.”
Cash nodded. “So do you think it would work?”
“Maybe. It’d be awesome if it did.” Quinn thought for a moment before breaking into a wide smile. “Can you imagine Jezebel’s face when she sees Wynter walking around like nothing happened.”
“Yeah, and she’d be a dreamwaker so that bitch couldn’t hurt her.” Cash narrowed his eyes. “So how do I do it?”
Rhonda appeared and set Quinn’s meal in front of her. “Your burger and fries...” She glanced at Cash with mild amusement. “And still a water?”
Cash nodded. “Yes, thanks.”
“Okay then. Enjoy.” Rhonda hustled back to the kitchen.
“How do I—”
Quinn held up a finger, stopping Cash. “One second.” She raised the burger to her mouth and took a large bite. She closed her eyes and sighed as she chewed and finally swallowed. “God, I love Lucy’s burgers.” She nibbled on a french fry, then pushed the plate toward Cash slightly. “Help yourself, by the way.”
“Thanks.” Cash picked up one french fry and crunched it.
Quinn sipped her Coke. “Back to your question, how do you pull someone from their dreams. The answer: you don’t.”
“What?” Cash sat back in the booth, confused.
“The person you want to pull out decides if it happens or not.” Quinn took another bite of her burger.
Cash stole another french fry. “Even when it’s your dream? And everything in it is made up?”
Quinn nodded as she chewed.
“Weird,” Cash said as he munched. “So, the real question is how do I dream of Wynter? I can never seem to dream about the things I actually want to dream about.”
“I think I know how to find out.”
Cash eyed her plate of food. “Well, hurry up and finish.”
On any other occasion, Quinn would have taken her time and savored every bite. But Wynter’s life was on the line, and she wanted answers just as badly as Cash did. She finished her meal and paid.
Soon they found themselves zooming back toward Newhaven on I94, Quinn focused on the only source of answers she could think of.
Darkness had settled over Newhaven. The town was more subdued than usual on a Tuesday night in the middle of summer, perhaps due to the unseasonably hot weather.
Gino Vannelli may have sung about black cars in the shade, but Jezebel preferred to take her Barracuda out for a prowl at night. Black on black, she cruised down Main Street, the engine rumbling a low growl. Roxy sat shotgun with Ransom perched on the back seat, leaning toward the center console.
Roxy cast a wary glance at Jezebel. “You sure about this?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions.” Jezebel glanced at her. “You know how much we made from the Pepperia?”
“You mean what I stole for you?” Ransom said.
“Whatever.” Jezebel glowered at him through the rear view mirror. “You’re the brawn. I’m the brains. Multiply Pepperia by ten times, easy.” Jezebel took the Main Street Overpass, the interstate traffic buzzing east and west beneath them. “I’ve been waiting to stick it to Zain where it counts.”
Jezebel turned the Barracuda down Jones Avenue next to Sven Dwarfs Trail’r Park and rolled toward the Starlite SuperSkate sign twinkling in the distance.
“Listen up,” Jezebel said. “Ransom, you grab Zain and hold him.” She held up her switchblade and engaged the blade. “Use this. Cut his throat if you have to.” She retracted the blade with a click and tossed it back at Ransom. He fumbled but eventually caught the weapon and shoved it into his pocket.
Ransom’s eyes met Roxy’s, both concerned about another one of Jezebel’s half-baked plans.
“Me and Roxy will rob the place.”
Ransom shook his head. “This is a stupid plan. He knows who we are. How are you going to stop him from calling the police after?”
Jezebel focused on the road ahead with malice. “I know where he lives.”
“That’s it?” Ransom shook his head. “Jesus. I’m not cutting anyone’s throat.”
“If you don’t, you know what happens,” Jezebel said. “Say bye bye to your precious Wynter.”
Jezebel pulled over to the curb just past the entrance to the Starlite and cut the Barracuda’s engine. The parking lot was empty except for one beat up 1979 Toyota Corolla.
“You’d think he’d drive a BMW or something,” Roxy said. “Maybe this place doesn’t make as much as you think.”
“Shut up.” Jezebel looked back at the Starlite in her side mirror. “We’ll wait for him up there, just around from the entrance, and jump him.” She raised her semi-automatic pistol, popped out the magazine to check the bullets, then slapped it back into the hand grip. “Let’s go.”
Roxy rolled her eyes at Jezebel’s show of bravado, stepped out of the car, and pushed the seat forward to let Ransom out.
“Thanks,” Ransom said. “Man, she’s full of herself.”
“You’re just noticing now?” Roxy and Ransom shared a short, subdued laugh.
“What’s the hold up?” Jezebel spoke through clenched teeth. “Come on.”
The three of them ran up to the side of the Starlite, Jezebel leading the charge. She eased her head around the corner and saw no movement inside.
“Can you see him?” Roxy pushed against Jezebel and tried to look around her.
Instead of a reply, Jezebel raised her middle finger at her.
Jezebel watched the doors and the inside of the rink beyond for motion. Lights in the arena went out, then she saw him. Zain locked the doors to the arcade and flipped a few additional switches, plunging most of the Starlite into darkness.
“Get ready.” Jezebel reached to her waist and grabbed the handle of her semi-automatic pistol. She craved the feeling of its cool, steel handle in her palm.
Zain stepped out of the doors, one hand holding a pair of pink rollerskates by their laces and a small leather pouch. He began to dig out his keys from his pocket when Jezebel stepped away from the corner of the wall.
“Freeze, motherfucker.” Jezebel aimed the pistol at him.
Zain turned slowly and heaved an aggravated sigh when he recognized Jezebel. “Aw, shit.” He jammed his keys back into his pocket.
“Ransom. You’re up,” Jezebel said, holding her pistol steady.
Ransom rounded the corner and approached Zain. “Drop everything.” He locked the switchblade, neon light from the Starlite’s sign glinting off the blade.
Zain knew better than to aggravate Jezebel, especially when she had backup. He dropped the rollerskates and the pouch to the pavement. “Look, I don’t want any trouble.”
“You won’t get any if you do exactly as I say.” A grin as evil as they come slid across Jezebel’s lips.
Ransom stepped behind Zain and held the switchblade against his neck. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said in a low whisper. “Just do what she says.”
Jezebel kicked at the rollerskates. “Pink? You a flamer?”
“They’re for my sister.”
“Shut up.” Jezebel nodded at Roxy. “Grab the money.”
Roxy grabbed the leather pouch by Zain’s feet and unzipped it. Her eyes bugged out at the bundles of bills within. “Holy shit.”
“Come on, Jezebel,” Zain said, making sure not to move. “That’s my livelihood.”
Jezebel held her aim steady and peeked into the pouch in Roxy’s hands. “Where’s the rest?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Bullshit.” Jezebel stepped up to Zain and placed the barrel of the gun against his forehead. “I know you have a safe in there and you’re going to empty it for us. Now move.”
Zain protested but felt his skin rub against the knife blade Ransom held to his neck. “There’s nothing in it.”
“Don’t fight her,” Ransom whispered in his ear. “You’ll regret it.”
Roxy pulled open one of the doors to the rink and all four entered. A steady electronic beep broadcast throughout the rink and foyer. A few seconds later a phone began to ring from behind the admission window.
“What the hell is that?” Roxy glanced at Ransom and Jezebel panicked.
“Security is calling,” Zain said. “If I don’t answer by the eighth ring, they send the cops.”
“Move your ass, then.” Jezebel forced Ransom and Zain behind the rental counter and next to the admission window.
“Answer it!” Roxy cried. “That’s the fifth ring.”
Zain reached for the phone but before he picked up Jezebel leaned in close. “No bullshit. I know where you... and your kid sister live. Try anything and she dies.”
Zain nearly dropped the handset in his sweat-slicked hand, then brought the speaker to his ear. “Yeah, sorry guys, forgot my deposit.” He paused to listen. “Video games... yeah. I won’t be long.” He handed the handset to Roxy and she placed it back in the cradle.
“Turn off that fucking beeping,” Jezebel hissed.
Ransom allowed Zain to turn toward the security keypad on the wall next to the admission window. He keyed in the alarm disable code and the rink fell silent again.
“Finally.” Jezebel pointed through a door to the back office and waved her gun toward it. “Now, the safe. And be quick about it.” She met Ransom’s eyes. “Keep that blade against his neck. I wouldn’t mind seeing the asshole bleed.” Jezebel glanced back at Roxy and scowled. “Make yourself useful and find something to tie him up with.”
Not wanting to disappoint, Roxy scrambled back to the foyer.
Zain balked against Ransom’s arm. The switchblade scraped at the skin on his neck and left bloodied marks.
“Let’s go.” Jezebel locked gazes with Zain. “We both know where it is, now open it.”
“I’m telling you, there’s nothing in it,” Zain said. “Nothing you’d want, anyway.”
Jezebel placed the barrel of the pistol under Zain’s chin. “I got a bullet that says you’re lying.”
Zain’s shoulders slumped. There was no way he could beat a bullet to the head. “Get your goon to back off the knife for a second. I’m not going to do anything stupid.”
“You better not.” Jezebel flicked her eyes from Zain to Ransom and nodded. Ransom withdrew the knife and retracted the blade. The hilt remained in his hand.
Zain crouched to the floor and reached under the desk to the safe’s permanent location. He spun the combination wheel around and back several times, then pushed the handle down and pulled. The door swung open.
“Empty it on the desk.” Jezebel’s eyes gleamed with excitement.
Zain removed a stack of insurance papers and set them on the desk. On top of that he placed a checkbook and a small stack of one, five, ten, and twenty dollar bills. He looked back at Jezebel with a look that said, “I told you so.”
“What the hell is that?” Jezebel riffled through the bills, her glee melting to disgust.
“Float for the registers,” Zain said. “I told you there wasn’t much. Might as well take it too.”
Jezebel jammed the money into her pocket. “Bring him out.” She headed out of the office and ran into Roxy headed in, the leather pouch tucked under her arm.
Roxy held up two long laces. “From his rollerskates. Genius, huh?”
“You actually did what you were asked. That’s not genius.”
“No, I meant—”
“How are you at knots?”
“You better be good for your sake.” Jezebel led the group back to the foyer. Ransom had placed the knife back at Zain’s throat, but it was clear that Zain was in full cooperation.
Jezebel waved the gun toward the seating area in front of the fast food section. Like any other fast food restaurant, the tables and chairs were bolted to the floor. “Tie him under one of the tables. And give me the money.”
Roxy handed the pouch to Jezebel and crouched under a nearby table. “Put his back to the support and I’ll tie his hands.”
Ransom guided Zain to the floor. He glanced at Zain, then shot a concerned look at Roxy. “She’s fucking crazy.”
Roxy avoided Ransom’s gaze. “Shut up.” She pulled Zain’s arms back around the central table support and secured them with the laces. She pulled the knot tight and Zain winced. “Sorry,” she said in a low whisper. “Better than getting a bullet in the head.”
Ransom and Roxy stepped away from the table and Jezebel kneeled, leveling her eyes with Zain’s.
“You say anything about this to anyone, especially Anson, and your sister dies.” She tapped Zain’s forehead with the barrel of the pistol. “Understand?”
Zain nodded. “Yes.” There was nothing he could do except comply.
“Pleasure doing business with you.” Jezebel smiled smugly. “Until next time, have a good night.” She stood and ran toward the main doors.
Roxy tugged at Ransom’s arm. “Come on.” Ransom stood but he kept his eyes on Zain as long as he could.
The three of them ran out of the Starlite and around the corner to the waiting Barracuda. Monty stood in front of the driver’s side door, his sunglasses hooked into his T-shirt collar as usual and wearing a smile a mile wide.
“This just might be better than sellin’ drugs, eh Jazz?” He held his snubnose in his right hand.
“Fuck you, Monty,” Jezebel said. “This is my operation.”
“And if you want it to stay that way, pay up.” Monty beckoned with his left hand. “Fifty fifty.”
Jezebel holstered her pistol in the waistline of her jeans and unzipped the leather pouch. She flipped through the bills and was about to pull out a wad of cash when Monty grabbed the pouch and looked inside.
“You did well tonight.” Monty eyed the bundled bills and took his version of half. “I’m gettin’ used to these paydays. Who’s next?”
“Like I’d tell you.” Jezebel snatched the pouch back.
“You should, if you know what’s good for you.” Monty let his gaze travel down Jezebel’s body. “It’d be so much better if we worked together.”
“Never going to happen.”
“Never say never.” Monty walked back to his Fiat.
Jezebel’s hand went to the handle of her pistol, but Roxy stopped her.
“Don’t,” she said. “We’ll get him some other way.”
Jezebel glared at her and pushed her aside, pulling open her door. She dropped the leather pouch in the footwell, sat, and slammed the door.
The Fiat’s tires squealed as Monty drove past, waving at them mockingly. The Barracuda’s engine rumbled to life like it was going to give chase and eat the little sports car for breakfast.
“Hurry, or she’ll leave us behind.” Roxy ran to the passenger door and threw it open. Ransom leaped inside and Roxy followed him in.
Jezebel made a U-turn and motored back to her hideout behind Ollie’s MovieTyme, her brain buzzing. Monty had become as big a problem as Wynter and he had to be dealt with.
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