A collective shout rang across the dark interior of the sports bar, followed by groans and jeers of disappointment. College students and faculty overflowed booths and tables, eager for a break from the summer heat, their voices a steady hum over the flat-screen TVs. Grease and onions scented the air. Karly rolled her eyes at the clock above the bar mirror and sighed. The hands appeared to be moving backward. Two hours and fifteen minutes remained until her shift ended; it might as well be an eternity.
Like most Thursday nights, they were short-staffed. Josh tended bar while she and two other girls covered the floor. Between drink orders, she bussed tables. A trickle of sweat ran between her breasts, soaking the white cotton of her tank top. The air conditioning couldn’t quite keep up with the heat or the volume of people.
When her glance went to the corner booth, she sucked in a startled breath at the familiar face staring back at her. Randy Mackenzie lounged in the shadows beneath the pendant light. His piercing, deep-set eyes followed her across the room with focused intensity. Self-conscious, she wiped sweaty palms on her apron before clearing away barbecue-smudged dishes and empty beer mugs from an adjacent booth. When she glanced his way again, the booth was empty.
Before she could dissect the reason for her feeling of disappointment, the cell phone in her apron pocket vibrated with an incoming text. She turned her back to the bar and read the message. Fear and concern made her breath come short. With one hand pressed to her chest, she hit redial and held her breath while the call connected.
“Hi.” Emma answered on the first ring, her high-pitched, pre-teen voice a breathy whisper.
“Hey, girl. What’s up? Are you okay?”
“It’s bad. Really bad tonight.” Emma’s voice hitched with a muffled sob, and Karly’s heart plummeted.
“Where are you? Are you safe?”
“I’m in the closet. Mom’s crying in the bathroom. I think she’s hurt, but I’m afraid to go see.”
The terror in Emma’s voice brought back a flood of disjointed memories. The scent of gin and cigarettes when her father came home late from work. The muffled thuds of booted feet pummeling her brother Mitch when he forgot to take out the trash. Hiding in the closet with toddler Emma clutched in her embrace until her father passed out. Anger, frustration, and helplessness clogged her throat until she could barely breathe. Unless she did something, Emma would face those same memories.
“He didn’t touch you, did he?”
I swear to God, if he lays a hand on her…
Her heart rate tripled as she waited for the answer.
“No. I’m fine. I hid as soon as he came home drunk.”
“It’s alright, june bug,” Karly crooned, cupping the phone as a patron passed by on the way to the restroom. “Mom can take care of herself.”
She’s been doing this long enough
. “Stay where you are. He won’t find you there. You have to keep yourself safe. Do you understand?”
Emma didn’t answer, but Karly heard a catch in the girl’s throat. She slammed her hand against the wall, causing the black-framed pictures of historic buildings to rattle against the wallpaper.
“Listen to me, Emma. Get your MP3 player and ear buds. Put in some good music and turn it up loud enough to drown everything out. Understand?”
“Y-yes,” Emma stammered. Karly had a vision of the red-haired girl sitting in the darkness, surrounded by coats and boxes, clutching a tattered teddy bear to her chest, heart-shaped face pinched and pale with fear. “I’ll be okay.”
Brave little girl.
Tears stung her eyes. “Yes, you will. And why is that?”
“Because I’m strong,” Emma whispered. “Because I’m a survivor. Because no one can break me.”
“That’s right. You’re so wonderful, Emma, and you don’t deserve this. None of this is your fault. I love you so much. Don’t forget that.”
“I love you, too,” Emma said, sounding stronger.
She made Emma promise to text back later, hung up the phone, and dialed Mitch. The phone rang a half-dozen times before he answered, sounding disheveled and irritated.
“What the hell? Do you know what time it is?”
“He’s at it again,” she snapped. “Emma just called me. She’s in the closet while that bastard knocks Mom around.”
His heavy sigh crackled over the phone. “So what do you want me to do about it?”
“You’re a cop, Mitch. Arrest him. Do something. Anything.” Frustration tensed every muscle in her body until she thought her bones would crumble. How could he be so callous? Times like these made her wonder if the same blood ran in their veins. They looked similar with their fair skin, pale gray eyes, and red-gold hair, but their personalities couldn’t have been more different.
“We’ve been over this a dozen times. I can arrest him, but then Emma’s going to go into the system. And we both know what that’s like, don’t we? Do you really want to put her through that?”
A deep ache constricted her chest as past and present collided. Sleepless nights in a stranger’s house. Tossed around from family to family like some kind of unwanted nuisance. The infinite torture of never knowing where or how long you’d be in any one place. If the next foster home would be better or worse than the first.
“Then you take her,” Karly snapped, rubbing the ache between her brows with two fingers.
“Me? Are you fucking nuts? I’ve already got two kids, child support, two mortgages, and a baby on the way. How the hell can I take her?”
“You’ve got another kid on the way? I didn’t even know you were seeing someone. When were you going to tell me?”
“I’m telling you now. I’ve been seeing Pilar, and she’s knocked up.” He groaned. She heard the rustle of bedclothes and a questioning female voice in the background. “Do you really want to talk about this right now?”
She leaned against the wall, pressed her back into the cool plaster, and shut her eyes against the light. If only she could shut out her problems as easily.
“I can’t stand by and do nothing,” she whispered.
“Look. We lived through it. She will too,” Mitch said. “If you’re so damned concerned, you take her.”
“You know I’ve tried. No judge is going to give custody to a twenty-three-year-old waitress.” She turned to face the wall and pressed her forehead against the cool surface. With a forefinger, she scratched at the peeling wallpaper above the chair railing.
“Well, then. There you go,” Mitch replied, clearly finished with the conversation. “Look. I’ve got to get off here. I have a five AM start tomorrow.”
The buzzing dial tone hit her like a slap in the face. In typical Mitch fashion, he’d dismissed anything unpleasant or inconvenient as unworthy of his time. She slid her phone into the pocket of her apron and hastily brushed the tears from her cheeks. Mitch could be a heartless bastard when he wanted, but he was right about one thing. They’d spent their fair share of time in foster homes and youth centers; she didn’t want sweet Emma to endure anything remotely similar. All she could do was be supportive of Emma until an opportunity came to change the situation.
“Those drinks aren’t going to serve themselves, Eriksson,” Scotty, the bar owner, bellowed to her from the kitchen. Clouds of steam bubbled from the stainless steel pots on the stove behind him and surrounded his corpulent figure. Sweat dripped from his shiny forehead. “Get your ass out there.”
With a heavy sigh, she adjusted her ponytail and smoothed the hair from her face. To keep from going crazy, she compartmentalized her problems, putting family and money issues behind her for later. All she had to do was get through the next couple of hours, get out on the floor, and make some money. Once at home in her dingy little apartment, she would devise a plan to help Emma.
Swinging doors swished shut behind Randy as he slipped into the kitchen of The Scotsman. Scotty stood in front of the deep fryer, cigar dangling between his lips, a fry basket full of chicken wings in his left hand. He rubbed his right hand over his round belly, leaving a smudge of barbecue sauce on the white apron. Randy cleared his throat. Scotty swore and dropped the fry basket into the fryer. The grease hissed and popped before splattering onto his bare arms. He jerked away with a scowl until he recognized Randy’s face, and all the color drained from his ruddy complexion.
“Jesus, Mackenzie, you scared the shit out of me.” Scotty drew in a deep, shaking breath and moved to put the prep table between them.
The scents of chicken and spices mingled with cigar smoke in the heavy air of the kitchen. Circles of sweat stained the underarms of Scotty’s T-shirt. He cast a nervous glance from Randy to the back door as if judging the distance. An inch-long ash quivered at the tip of his cigar. Randy stared at it, fascinated, waiting for it to drop into the fryer.
“Dude, that shit cannot be sanitary,” he said with a shake of his head, wrinkling his nose. “How the hell do you pass inspection?” He lifted a French fry to his nose, shuddered, and dropped it back on the plate.
“The cook walked out an hour ago,” Scotty said. “Food won’t cook itself. And I’ve got a full house out there tonight.” The hooded eyes glanced warily toward the door again.
With a long sigh, Randy leaned against the counter behind him and scrutinized Scotty. In his experience, there were only two kinds of men. Those who stood their ground and those who ran. Scotty, despite his beer belly and double chin, was definitely a runner. Given half a chance, he’d be a mile down the road as soon as Randy blinked an eye. To dispel any notions of escape, Randy shook his head in mute warning.
“So what’s up?” Scotty asked, wiping the perspiration from his shining crown with a dishtowel.
“You know what’s up,” Randy said, voice even and direct. He placed a hand on the counter, inches from the knife block, and tapped a finger on the granite. Scotty’s gaze flicked from the knife block to Randy’s face and back to the door.
Intimidation and subterfuge, no matter how effective, were a highly unpleasant necessity of the job. Some mornings he could barely look his reflection in the eye. It was the reason he hadn’t shaved in three days. The bristly hairs itched something fierce. His fingernails rasped through the stubble along his jaw, soothing the itch.
Scotty stared at him, frozen in place with the cigar ash growing longer by the second. “You said I had until the end of the night,” he said in a voice thick with distress. “It’s still early. You said…”
Randy shook his head and leveled his gaze on Scotty, taking in the puffy face, broken blood vessels around the knobby nose, and the bloodshot eyes. “Dude, you’ve really let yourself go. Have you thought about going to the gym? You should stop by Raoul’s sometime. I’d be happy to help you set up a workout program. Maybe do a little sparring?”
“I’ve got a bad back,” Scotty stammered, “and bad knees.”
Randy shrugged. “Just a suggestion. Think about it.”
“I don’t have your money.” The confession burst from Scotty’s lips like a gunshot, comical in its desperation. “But I can get it if you give me another chance.”
Randy shook his head and tried to hide a smile. This was going to be so easy. The long, slender boning knife slid from the wooden block with an ominous hiss. He ran a fingertip along the blade. Of course, he had no intention of using it, but Scotty didn’t know that. Sometimes having the reputation of a badass paid big dividends.
“So what are were going to do about this?” Randy asked, balancing the flat side of the blade on the tip of his finger. “I can’t keep carrying you, Scotty. It’s bad for business, and I have a reputation to uphold. If word gets out that I let you slide on your bets…”
“I know,” Scotty said. Sweat poured in rivulets over the round cheeks. One drop clung to the end of his bulbous nose, quivering in indecision.
“Looks like you’re doing pretty good out there.” Randy jerked his head in the direction of the bar. “What will you bring in tonight? A couple grand? More?”
“I don’t know. Maybe,” Scotty stammered. “I’ve got overhead and staff to pay. And rent is due this week. You know how expensive it is to run a bar.”
By the time Scotty finished his last remark, Randy was halfway around the prep table, close enough to place a hand on the man’s meaty shoulder. He squeezed the tender place where neck and shoulder meet with enough pressure to make Scotty wince.
“Tell you what,” Randy said. “I like you, man. Maybe we can come to some sort of arrangement that’ll make us both happy.”
By the time Karly returned to the floor, resolve firmly in place, Randy had resumed residence in the corner booth. The weight of his stare kept pulling Karly’s gaze in his direction. She bit her lower lip and studied the long, lean figure. The bold black lines of a tribal tattoo snaked up his left arm. A dark green T-shirt stretched across an impressive set of pecs and broad shoulders. The stubborn set of his square jaw and five o’clock shadow defined him as a bad boy, but the sensitive set of his mouth gave him intriguing depth.