Advanced Reader Copy Edition: November 23, 2020
Copyright ©2021 G. Younger
Author: Greg Younger
Developmental Editors: XofDallas and Bud Ugly
Line / Copy Editors: Bud Ugly, TheMikeBomb, Zom, and Old Rotorhead
Last One Through: Bud Ugly
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All characters depicted in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
Table of Contents:
Notes from the Author
His dad had always said that nothing good ever happened after one in the morning. So, when the doorbell rang at four, it had to be bad. Alex ‘Junior’ Wagner was awakened on the first ring. His eyes flickered open, but for a moment, he stayed completely still in his bed, listening to try to figure out what was going on.
He heard his dad’s bedroom door open and then the creak of the top step of the stairs as he went to check out what was going on. This time there was pounding on the door, and a muffled man’s voice telling his dad to ‘open up.’
Junior rolled out of bed and walked over to the window, his bare feet chilled by the wood floor. The street light spilled onto his bare chest and shoulders, and he caught his reflection in the mirror over his dresser. Junior was fourteen, tall for his age, but still too skinny in his estimation. The ladies in the neighborhood said he had his dad’s build when he was his age. He kept his hair cut short because he played basketball, and that made it easier to take care of. It was dark blond, and his eyes looking back at him in the mirror were brown and serious.
Junior peeked out the window and made sure to stay half-hidden in the shadows. Three cars were double-parked out front, and he could see six men standing facing the front door. His dad turned on the security light, and he recognized who they were. They were all members of his dad’s crew.
What had him confused was that he saw Michael ‘Mickey’ Mazzini, the capo for the South Philly Crew that was affiliated with the crime family that ran Philadelphia. Mickey was rarely seen on the street, let alone at this time in the morning.
Junior recognized three of the four others. The first was Big Lou, who was the crew’s muscle. He was a massive street brawler who seemed to have a permanent scowl on his face. That scowl caused most grown men to wet themselves if he even so much as gazed at them. Junior had always made it a habit to take a wide berth whenever Big Lou was around.
The other two he knew well. Salvatore ‘Sonny’ Grande was his dad’s boss, and with him was Anthony ‘Tones,’ Sonny’s son. Sonny and Junior’s dad had been running together since they were teenagers. Tones and Junior had been best friends as long as he could remember, even though Tones was two years older.
“Stretch, open up,” Mickey called out.
Stretch was his dad’s nickname. Unlike many nicknames like ‘Tiny’ or ‘Fats’ that were given because they were huge or skinny, ‘Stretch’ was because his dad really was tall.
There was a rattle as his dad slid the security chain off the front door, followed by the deadbolts being opened. Junior watched everyone come into their home. He slipped over to the heating vent in the floor so he could overhear what was going on.
“Viktor Mikhailov was killed tonight,” Mickey said.
Junior’s blood ran cold. Viktor was the youngest son of Nikolai Mikhailov, the head of the Russian mob. Viktor was young and brash and had been working to make a name for himself. He’d come to Mickey to buy a job that he and his dad had planned, a jewelry store heist.
Junior’s father planned all the jobs his crew did. His father had been teaching Junior how to plan heists for as long as he could remember. The jewelry store job had been mostly Junior’s work because almost no one expected that a fourteen-year-old boy would be casing a place to rob. Of course, his dad always double-checked his plans.
His dad had decided that the job didn’t offer enough reward for the risk. When that happened, if the job was sound, Stretch would bump it up to Sonny. Sonny would then sell it. In this case, Viktor had bought it.
Junior about jumped out of his skin when he heard the top step of the stairs creak. He quickly grabbed his jeans and a sweatshirt and put them on as there was a light knock at his door before it opened. Alex felt relieved when he saw it was only Tones.
“What’s going on?” Alex asked.
Before he could answer, there was the sound of cars pulling up front, and he could hear Russian being spoken. Junior rushed to the window to see several SUVs had boxed in the front of the house. Two men were running down the side of the house to cover the back as the rest spread out to cover the front. This was bad.
Alex felt a searing pain in his back. Tones had stabbed him under the cover of the sound of what Alex suspected had been his dad tossing a flash-bang grenade to cover his escape. If his dad had resorted to that extreme measure on his own crew, he knew Tones had been sent up to kill him. Alex reached for the first thing he could get his hands on, one of his basketball trophies, and spun. He hit Tones on the side of the head and watched as his ex-best friend staggered back and fell on his ass.
“They made me do it,” Tones said as he held up his hands and dropped the knife.
Junior debated what to do next when gunfire erupted, letting him know it was now time to run and worry about Tones later.
His dad had taught him that you planned the escape before anything else. He’d done the same for the house. Going down the stairs or sneaking out the window onto the porch roof was out of the question. Instead, he went to his closet and tossed his clothes out of the way. In the back wall, there was a small door that slid to the side. It had been an old laundry chute, but he and his dad had converted it as an escape route. Inside, there was now a fireman’s pole that led to the basement.
He about killed himself because his right hand was bloody from where he’d reached back to see how badly he was hurt. The blood was slick and almost caused him to simply fall down the hole.
By now, there was a steady exchange of gunfire as the South Philly Crew faced off with the Russians. He’d been taught to always get out if something happened. His dad wanted to focus on what he was doing and didn’t want to worry about his son’s safety.
Like some families drilled for fires so that young children would know how to get out of the house to safety, Alex’s dad had prepared for this eventuality. In all the scenarios, it had always been the police raiding their home. Alex never thought he would need to run from the people he knew, people he had always trusted. A crew was supposed to be closer than family.
Because of all the preparation, Alex knew his father trusted him to get away. With that thought in mind, he raced to the back of the basement. There was a metal shelving unit where plastic tubs were stored. He quickly began to move them so he could lighten the load. When he had most of them off, he pushed the shelving unit to the side so he could get to the back wall. Behind it was a door that opened into a tunnel that led to the detached garage that had access to the alley that ran behind the house.
Junior had to walk bent over as he used his hands to feel the walls of the tunnel while he moved as quickly as he could. When he made it to the end, he felt dizzy from the loss of blood. Junior took several deep breaths to try to clear his head before he climbed the ladder. When he got to the top, he unlocked the door and cautiously pushed it open. He was thankful for the preplanning that meant the hinges were well oiled and wouldn’t creak, and that there was nothing in front of the door to stumble over.
As he crept out, he could still hear sporadic shots being fired. In the distance, he could hear sirens. He hoped that would signal the end to the fighting, but he didn’t know how determined the Russians were. Junior decided that he had better stick to the plan and leave.
He slipped out the side door of the garage and spotted a Russian covering the backyard. Junior was in luck because the man’s focus was on the house. He quietly made his way to the alley. Once he was a couple of houses down, he ran for it.
He made it two blocks before his body began to fail him due to the loss of blood. His dad had always told him that if he was in trouble to go to the convenience store. They were open 24/7 and family-owned. Junior staggered out of the alley, made his way around to the back door, and rang the bell.
As he waited for the door to open, he felt exhausted, so he leaned against the wall to rest.
Junior recognized the smells first. Disinfectant, laundry detergent, and the unmistakable aroma of urine. All that led him to believe that he was in a hospital. His suspicions were confirmed when he moved his arm and felt the metal side rails of the bed. He had adhesive tape around an intravenous needle in his left hand with tubing snaking out of it.
As he became more conscious, he heard the hospital intercom paging a doctor. He could hear nurses and visitors speaking and moving around in the hallway. There was a dull ache in his head with a more serious one radiating from his lower back where Tones had stabbed him. He forced that pain aside and concentrated on his surroundings while his mind went automatically to escape routes. In his current condition, there weren’t many.
The door opened, and a nurse walked in.
“Good, you’re awake. How are you feeling?” she asked as she efficiently took his vitals.
“I’ve been better.”
“How am I doing?” he asked once she’d finished poking and prodding and had changed his bandage.
“You’ll have to wait for the doctor.”
“Oh, come on. Will I live?”
“You were lucky. The knife didn’t hit your lungs, kidneys, or large intestine. If you don’t develop an infection, you should be fine.”
“Could you get me a pain killer with a tequila chaser?” Junior asked.
“You’re going to be a handful, aren’t you?”
“Is my dad here?”
Her face became pinched.
“An FBI agent is waiting to talk to you. If anyone knows where you dad is, it would be her,” she said and then left before he could find out more.
A minute later, a young black woman came in whose body language screamed, ‘cop.’
“Alex, I’m Special Agent Carter with the FBI. I’d like to ask you about the events surrounding what happened two nights ago.”
That told him that he’d lost a day.
“Can I talk to my dad?” Junior asked.
“We haven’t been able to locate your father.”
Either his father had made it out of the house, or he was now dead. All he could do was hope for the best.
Then he noticed something. There was no noise coming from the hall. He looked at Special Agent Carter.
“We have a problem.”
She tilted her head to the side in confusion, then got concerned when he pulled his IV out of his hand and tried to get out of bed. She put her hand on his chest to hold him down. He was amazed that he was so weak.
“There’s no noise. That means that someone’s coming for me,” Junior explained.
Special Agent Carter listened for a moment and then went to check the door. While she did that, Junior had gotten out of bed and stripped it. He tied the sheets together to make a makeshift rope. She turned around to see what he was up to.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.
“Open the window and push the bed to it.”
“You can’t be serious. I’ll just call for backup, and we’ll be fine. Besides, you’re in no shape to climb down three floors. That sheet isn’t long enough anyway,” she reasoned.
“First, we’ll be dead in the next ten minutes if we stay here. Second, there’s no backup coming. Finally, I’m throwing them off the scent. If they think I climbed out the window, they’ll have to send someone to check. Now help me,” Junior pleaded.
She opened the window, and he tied the sheet to the bed. Then she pushed out the screen and let it fall to the ground. Junior tossed the sheet rope out the window and inspected his handiwork. It would have to do.
“Let’s get out of here,” Special Agent Carter suggested.
Junior wasn’t happy to be barefoot and wearing only a hospital gown, but he decided not to complain. They’d just made it to the nurses’ station when they heard the doors at each end of the floor open. The two of them ducked behind the counter, and Special Agent Carter pulled him under the desk to hide. He was glad she hadn’t decided to play the hero and pull her gun on whoever was coming.
They could hear a quiet conversation in Russian as the two teams converged on his room. Once the voices had passed, Junior peeked out. Special Agent Carter grabbed for him, but he avoided her grasp. On the wall next to the elevator was a fire evacuation map. It showed a third exit behind the nurses’ station. He pointed, and she understood.
They made their way into a short hall that had a locked door at one end and a stairwell at the other. They heard the Russians kick his door open and then swear when they discovered his sheet escape plan. Special Agent Carter didn’t hesitate to open the stairwell door, which set off an alarm.
They didn’t hesitate as they ran into the stairwell. The two of them had to either go up or down. Junior was ready to suggest they go up because he bet that nurses and doctors used it to go to the roof to smoke or hide for a while. That choice was taken from him when Special Agent Carter ran down the stairs. He decided she wasn’t completely useless when she tried the second-floor door and found it open.
“You find a good hiding place while I make them think we’re making a run for the parking lot,” she said as she pushed him through the door.
Junior just nodded his understanding of her plan. When he closed the door, he saw that someone had tampered with the lock. He assumed it was so they could get back onto the floor. Junior quickly fixed it and made sure the door was secure. He was none too soon because he heard his pursuers crash open the third-floor door and come down the stairs. They tried the second-floor door, and when it didn’t open, they rushed down to the first floor.
Junior knew it wouldn’t be long until they began to search all the floors. He prioritized what he should do, and at the top of the list were shoes and clothes. They were looking for a teenage boy in a hospital gown. If he wanted to slip by them, he had to at least try to look different.
Junior began his treasure hunt, but that plan went out the window when he heard the second-floor door being kicked open. He hurried as best he could to the end of the hall and ran into the last room across from the stairwell. He knew they would be waiting for him to try to flee; that going a traditional route would be suicide.
Junior went to the window with the idea that from the second floor, he might not die if he had to jump. He was debating what to do when he heard two of the Russians talking.
“The blood trail goes this way.”
Junior reached behind him to check his knife wound and found that he’d popped some stitches and was leaking blood. He was so screwed. His only choice now was to go out the window and hope to … well, he didn’t know for what.
Junior pushed out the screen and eased himself out the window. He found that there was a fingerhold on the decorative ledge that wrapped the building. At the corner, there was a metal pipe for when it rained. As Junior began to make his way, inch-by-inch to freedom, he knew he was lucky he hadn’t picked another room because he could tell he wouldn’t last much longer.
Junior gave a sigh of relief as he reached the pipe and used it like he had his fireman’s pole to reach the ground. As soon as his feet touched, he heard the door crash open, which had him scrambling around the corner so they couldn’t see him.
He came to a screeching halt when he found Natasha Mikhailov, Viktor’s cousin, smiling at him. Natasha was in his class at school, and he had a huge crush on her. The only reason he’d never chatted her up was that he knew that Viktor, or one of her other cousins, would object strenuously if he did.
She walked past him and looked up. The men upstairs asked her something in Russian.
“If I see his skinny ass, I’ll let you know,” she called back to cover for him.
He was relieved for a moment until it registered what she’d said. He had no doubt she’d actually seen it.
“All clear,” she whispered to him.
“Thanks,” he got out just in time to see a black SUV speed up and stop.
He figured this was it until the window went down, and it was Special Agent Carter. Junior ran towards the car. When he was almost there, he heard Natasha screaming that she saw him. He’d just made it to the car when shots rang out. Junior dove in as Special Agent Carter raced them to safety.
“What, exactly, was that all about?” Special Agent Carter asked.
He wished he had all the answers to that question.
Alex pressed the snooze button. In exactly nine minutes, it would go off again. That was just enough time to begin to fall back asleep and not enough to contemplate the meaning of life, though that was something he needed to get around to.
It had been thirteen weeks since that fateful night. They’d made it exactly six blocks before the Russians had found them. He remembered glancing over when they came to an intersection and then seeing the shiny silver grill and the large black SUV attached to it. He’d screamed out a warning to Special Agent Carter.
Funny what you did to try to save yourself. Alex had always imagined that if he were in an elevator, and it suddenly plunged ten stories, he would be saved if he jumped at the last moment. He attributed that to watching too many cartoons when he was younger. In this case, he leaned away from the door and braced for impact. The reality was that there was nothing that could be done to stop the inevitable.
The initial force of the crash pushed him toward Special Agent Carter. He would never forget the sound as the metal was torn asunder and glass exploded everywhere. In the blink of an eye, his body was whipped back toward where he’d been seated to start with by his seatbelt. Now the door was pushed in, and he slammed into it, coming to a devastating stop.
Then there was complete silence.
He must have blacked out for only a moment because he then heard sirens. As he strained to open his eyes, the first sight was of Special Agent Carter slumped against the steering wheel. There was so much blood. His head throbbed worse than anything he’d ever experienced. Then Alex looked out through the demolished windshield and almost barfed. The driver of the SUV that hit them was lying on the hood of their car with half his head gone.
A moment later, the police arrived, followed by an ambulance.
That began a whole odyssey of events that saw him moved from place to place to keep him safe. The police and FBI finally decided that he really didn’t know anything, so they stopped pestering him. That didn’t mean he was safe from the Russians because they’d put a fifty-thousand-dollar hit on him.
While that would surely get him killed if he ventured anywhere near his old neighborhood, the good news was that his father had a quarter-million-dollar one on his head. That meant they hadn’t gotten him yet.
The one constant in his life had been Special Agent Carter. After nearly losing Alex at the hospital and then almost getting them both killed in the car accident, she’d made it her mission to protect him. Part of that would be a new identity. He was no longer Junior but Alex. Yes, it was his real name, but he’d refused the others they’d tried to foist on him.
He was to learn his new last name this morning. He’d been told that he was going to be placed in a more permanent living arrangement, hence the need for a name change.
His alarm went off again. He knew that there was no chance of falling back to sleep; it was time to get up.
Alex was allowed out of the basement where he’d been tucked away for the past week. He was brought into a dining room that looked to be right out of a 60s sitcom and found a silvery-haired man waiting for him. The man’s suit hung on his frame with such ease, it was clear he wore one every day. His manicured fingers tapped on the handle of a leather briefcase, and when he spotted Alex, his face went blank.
“Have a seat, we need to talk,” he said, jumping right into it.
Alex did as he was told and waited. When Alex didn’t say anything, silver hair began to talk again.
“It is my understanding that you don’t want to move back to Philadelphia.”
“I was never asked, but it probably wouldn’t be in my best interest.”
The man opened his briefcase and pulled out a file.
“Since you’re not a material witness, we will no longer offer you further protection assistance. Because you’re a minor, we can’t just open the door and wish you luck, either. We were unable to find any relatives, and your father is … uh … missing. Normally, we would find a good foster care situation.”
“Normally?” Alex asked.
“Special Agent Carter has found a placement that is off the grid. She’s worried that if we put you in the system, some bad actors will eventually find you. She is so concerned that she will be the only one at the bureau who will know where you land.”
At this point, if it meant getting out of the basement, Alex was ready to go just about anywhere. Silver hair pushed the folder over to Alex.
“Inside, you will find a new identity, complete with a birth certificate, medical records that have been slightly altered, and school transcripts. It’s everything you’ll need to register for classes in the fall.”
Alex opened the folder and saw that he was now Alex Turner from Seattle, Washington.
With that, silver hair got up and left. Special Agent Carter came in and gave him a sheepish smile. Alex had begun to like Carter, as he was now calling her since she would never tell him her first name.
“You ready to get out of here?” Carter asked.
“You have no idea,” Alex said.
Alex discovered he was in King of Prussia, which wasn’t that far from Philadelphia.
“My dad has a storage unit in Wilmington. Can we stop there before we go to wherever you’re taking me?” Alex asked.
His home had been a crime scene for almost two months. Then someone had broken in and burned it to the ground, so he didn’t have anything anymore. The storage unit was his dad’s idea. It should have what he called a ‘go bag.’ When his father had told him about it, he’d never expected he might need it.
“Why didn’t you tell us about this? What’s in it?”
“I honestly don’t know. But if my dad’s alive, that’s where he would contact me.”
“I’ll get a team to meet us there,” Carter said, suddenly getting professional on him.
“How about this: you go with me and see what’s there. If you think we need to involve your buddies, have at it. Personally, I would just like to get out of town.”
“It’s not going to be loaded with stolen goods, cases of guns, or drugs, is it?” she asked with a smile that told him she was joking.
“Maybe a kilo of the good stuff, but that’s for personal use,” he said with a straight face.
She was no fun anymore. When they first got to know each other, he could shock her. She didn’t even blink.
“This is probably a bad idea …”
Inside the five-by-ten storage room was a duffle bag with a note attached to it. While Alex read the letter, Carter rifled through his bag.
I have to make this quick. Don’t worry, I’m fine, but I have to go away for a while. Don’t go back to Philly for any reason until I come for you, and I will.
For some reason, his eyes got blurry. He just handed the note to Carter. She quickly read it and then grabbed his bag.
“Let’s go,” Carter announced.
A day later, they were still on the road. The previous night, he’d at least gotten a chance to see what was in the bag his dad had left him. It had all kinds of surveillance gadgets, a phone with a baggy full of sim cards, and cash. What he didn’t see was the software his dad used for surveillance and planning. Otherwise, Alex had everything he needed to plan jobs if he ever decided to do that.
Carter had quizzed him about it, and he’d explained that it was stuff he would need to assure his safety. That was, in fact, was what he planned to use everything for when he first arrived at wherever she was taking him. His dad had taught him to know his surroundings. Until he knew what people usually did, he would not be able to tell if something was out of place. The last thing he wanted was to miss anything telling him that a Russian hitman had shown up to collect his bounty.
When they reached Little Rock, Arkansas, they’d stopped at a strip mall, and Carter had made him buy some clothes with the money his dad had left him. She didn’t let him replace any of his lost Philly gear as she reminded him that he was in hiding.
Once he had a couple pairs of jeans and t-shirts, they were back on the road.
When they crossed the Oklahoma state line, Carter turned off the radio so they could talk.
“I expect you to make the most of your new situation.”
“Don’t tell me you’re dropping off in the middle of this?” Alex asked, pointing to mile after mile of nothing.
“It’s not that bad.”
“Says the woman who’s dropping me off in the middle of nowhere. Tell me you could survive living here and keep your sanity?”.”
Carter just stared straight ahead.
“Consider it payback for winding me up for the last several weeks.”
Alex was impressed. She was about to get the last laugh on him. He envisioned living on a farm as free labor. If Alex was lucky, he thought, he would get his own shed so he’d have some privacy.
He contemplated how long it might take before he would get even with Carter. It might take a lifetime, but vengeance would be his. Eventually.
“I contacted my college roommate, and she agreed to put you up. I have no doubt that she’ll be able to handle you,” Carter shared with a little upturn of her lips.
“Why’s that?” Alex blurted out and then instantly regretted giving Carter the opening he knew she so looked forward to.
“Her job is to catch people like you in lies,” Carter said, stone-faced.
“She’s an assistant district attorney.”
Alex looked at Carter as he began to realize how bad this might actually be.
“It gets better. Her father is the county sheriff,” she shared and then paused for effect. “And he lives across the street.”
This was a nightmare. Carter didn’t say a word after that. She was content to let him digest that bit of disturbing news.
By the time he saw the sign that read ‘10 Miles to Conclave,’ Alex had already started a plan for how he would run away.
As they entered the town’s limits, there was a sign that read ‘Population 12,350.’ The speed limit was only 25 mph. As they crawled along, people actually stopped what they were doing and waved.
‘Did someone notify the city fathers that I’m arriving in town today?’ Alex wondered.
Carter pulled up to a stop sign and rolled down her window. A teenage boy was walking down the street, who actually stopped to see what she wanted.
“Hey. Hello. Can you tell me how to get to 456 West Maple?” Carter called out.
Alex braced himself for what was to come. His next thought was to wonder why she hadn’t just punched the address into her GPS like every other normal person would have.
“Yes, ma’am. Just drive through downtown, and when you get to the big maple tree, take a left. You’ll see Miss Philips out watering her plants. Just go another two blocks and take a right. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks,” Carter said.
Alex was shaking his head, chuckling. He realized she’d done it to rub in the fact that he was now in Hicksville.
“What’s your problem?”
“He’s full of it. The ‘ma’am’ was a nice touch, though.”
Carter ignored him and rolled through the stop sign. They were quickly in the downtown area, and people were out strolling. He gawked when he saw that they were passing through an actual town square that covered four blocks. People were out strolling. He was amazed that no one seemed to be in a hurry.
After they passed downtown, three blocks later, there was a giant maple tree. Alex snorted when Carter turned left. They drove another two blocks, and there was a lady who had to be in her 80s with a hose out watering her plants. Her yard looked better than any park he’d ever seen.
They drove another two blocks before they took a right. At the edge of town, they drove through what looked like a state park. They followed a winding trail through some woods, which opened up to a lake on one side with ducks bobbing around.
They came around a bend only to find a large gate with a guard shack. The brick wall that the gate was a part of went as far as he could see in both directions. They pulled up, and Carter rolled down the window. A man dressed in khakis and a polo shirt with ‘security’ written across his chest came out. He had a tablet in his hands.
“We’re here to see Janice Conly.”
He tapped his tablet, and Alex could see a picture of Carter. The security guard smiled.
“Yes, ma’am. Ms. Conly let us know that you’d be coming. When you go through the gate, stay on this street and go to the last house on the left.”
‘Why was everyone so polite? Had they put happy pills in the water?’ Alex wondered.
When they got past the gate, Alex sat in stunned silence. Each house was built on what looked like a park. He now knew why Ms. Conly wanted him to come live with her; she needed someone to be the gardener. It would take him a week just to mow.
The road twisted around and then finally came to the end. Carter pulled into an honest-to-goodness circular drive.
“We’re here,” Carter announced and got out of the car.
Alex joined her and raised his arms to stretch, being tired from their long drive. Alex was fourteen and felt like he was nearing ripe old age of thirty-four. If he’d had to ride much longer, he might be ready for a walker.
The front door opened.
“I said, sit. Boomer, no!”
A prehistoric-wolf-sized black poodle charged past the woman trying to control him. He made a beeline for Alex and stuck his nose in his crotch, knocking Alex over with a painful ‘oof.’
“Man down,” Carter said as she barked out a laugh.
Alex curled up into a tight ball as he tried to catch his breath. The monster thought it was a game and licked his face like he’d smeared it with peanut butter. Alex gagged when he felt the dog’s long wet tongue snake into his mouth.
“Help!” Alex called, which made the two women laugh.
“Boomer, stop. If you don’t mind your manners, you won’t get your treat,” she threatened.
Alex thought the dog had gotten his treat when the monster French kissed him. Thankfully, Boomer sat. That allowed Alex to get up off the drive and meet his new foster mom. She must have just come from work because she wore a navy-blue jacket and matching knee-length skirt. She was gorgeous, with long legs, honey-brown hair, and big brown eyes.
“You must be Alex. I’m Janice. You can call me ‘Mom.’”
No! She couldn’t have a sense of humor too. Alex leaned close to Carter.
“This isn’t going to work,” he whispered. “Just take me to a real city, and I’ll figure it out.”
Carter put her hand in the middle of his back and pushed him into the house. Boomer bounced along at his side, nudging Alex’s hand to get his attention.
“Boomer, leave Alex alone, or you’ll go to your crate,” Janice threatened.
Alex looked around the entry and was overwhelmed. They were standing in the living room. A modular, black sectional framed a square marble-topped coffee table with a crystal bowl full of colored potpourri that gave the whole place a pleasant floral scent. The couch faced a large flat-screen television on the light gray walls that went with the floors that looked like they were real distressed hardwood. Not the vinyl planks that were popular today.
Alex’s first thought was that assistant district attorneys made more than he ever suspected.
Alex decided he was going to weigh three hundred pounds inside a month. At home, it was either him or his dad cooking, and they usually had TV dinners. Here, the food was fresh, and there was enough on the table to feed three times their number. That was even with him having seconds and thirds. He was still a growing boy, after all. He’d also been forced to eat takeout three times a day for the past three months.
After dinner, he went to the car and got his gear. Janice showed him his bedroom. When she opened the door, he had to stop to take it all in. First, it was three times larger than what he had at home. It looked like everything was new, and there was a queen-sized bed. He was used to having furniture from the second-hand store down the street. There also weren’t any mystery smells.
What he did smell was fresh paint. The walls were done in a dark chocolate brown, and she’d used deep red blackout curtains for the window. The rich wood bed, dresser, and end tables all matched in style.
He saw two doors. One led to a walk-in closet. He opened the door to the bathroom and observed that it was small but efficient. A single shower stall—Alex was not a bathtub kind of guy—toilet, and sink. He wouldn’t know what to do with his own bathroom. Alex had always before had to share one with his dad.
Carter nudged him, and he saw that Janice looked nervous.
“I wasn’t sure what a boy would want. We can change anything you don’t like.”
“He likes it all just fine. Don’t you, Alex?” Carter asked.
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” Alex mumbled.
Had he just called her ‘ma’am’? There were ice cubes in his coke. Was it possible that he could be brainwashed that quickly?
“Why don’t you get settled in?” Carter said to Alex. “I have to get going.”
Alex wanted to follow Carter out of there, but Boomer appeared and planted his butt in the doorway. Alex gently closed the door to prevent a repeat of what happened when he arrived. He made it a policy to only be sexually molested once a day.
Alex swung his feet out of bed and gasped because he felt dog fur on the soles of his feet. He looked down and saw Boomer lying on his side next to the bed with the bedroom door was wide open.
“Good, you’re up,” Janice said and then looked down at Boomer. “There you are—traitor. I wondered where you slept last night.”
“How did he get in here?”
She pointed at the doorknob. It was one with a handle that you pushed down to open. Alex would have to remember to lock the door to keep the beast out.
“We need to get going before the good stuff is gone.”
Janice was being secretive about what the ‘good stuff’ was. Alex decided to let her have her fun at creating the mystery as to where today’s adventure would take them. When they went to the garage, they made a quick pit stop to put Boomer into his crate.
Sitting in the garage was a Corvette. Alex didn’t think they could get too much ‘good stuff’ into that little car. Plus, he wasn’t sure he wanted to be seen in it. The Corvette had a custom paint job: hot pink. He almost changed his mind when the V8 rumbled to life.
Janice slowly backed out of the garage until she could turn around. Then Alex was slammed into his seat as she all but smoked the tires in the drive. They shot straight across the street and pulled up next to a large crew-cab pickup truck.
“My dad keeps an extra key under the front seat,” she explained as they switched vehicles.
Alex’s only explanation as to why this pickup hadn’t been stolen yet was that Carter had told him Janice’s dad was the sheriff. When she fired it up, he found the second reason no one had taken it. It had a diesel engine that could wake the dead.
When they reached the guard shack, they stopped so that Alex could get his picture added. The guard also promised to have a card ready when they got back so that he could get in after hours.
When that was done, they were officially on the hunt for the ‘good stuff.’
Five minutes later, he found the town square had been transformed into a 120-booth flea market. Janice drove them around the square once so she could devise her plan of attack. It looked like most of the booths held either yard-sale quality items or handmade wares.
There was another group that confused him—farmers. While he understood the appeal of fresh produce and jugs of honey, what made him scratch his head was the slew of baby animals that ranged from chicks and ducks to a cow, sheep, and goats.
Somehow, a parking spot emerged, and Alex held on for dear life as Janice maneuvered the beast of a truck into the empty space. When the engine turned off, and he could hear himself think again, Janice turned to him.
“Grace gave me your money for safekeeping. Here’s forty bucks to spend. Try not to blow it all on junk food. We’re going to my father’s house for dinner.”
Alex tried not to smile because Grace had to be Carter’s first name. For the past three months, she’d guarded that like it was a state secret. Barely 24 hours after being dropped off, he now knew.
The other little factoid was that Carter had only found some of the cash. Alex had discovered that the giant duffle bag his dad had left him had a false bottom. Inside he’d found memory sticks with the various software that he and his dad had used to set up jobs. Alex also discovered his tools and a switchblade, which was now in his pocket. He’d have felt naked without it, even though Alex had never used it in anger.
When Alex didn’t comment, Janice continued.
“I’m going to get some produce. Is there anything you want?”
“After last night’s feast, I’ll leave that up to you.”
That made her happy.
“Meet back here in an hour to touch base,” Janice said and got out of the truck.
Alex watched her go about five feet before she had to stop to talk to someone. He shook his head because he knew exactly where he wanted to go first. He’d spotted a booth selling bikes. Since Alex doubted Janice would let a fourteen-year-old drive her Corvette, that left hoofing it because he hadn’t seen a bus or cab. He would rather spend some money and get himself a bike.
He was halfway across the town square when he was stopped by an older lady. She blinked cornflower-blue eyes at him as if he had just materialized in front of her.
“Excuse me,” she said.
Alex sized the woman up like he was trying to decide whether she was sane or not. Nobody talked to anybody else in South Philly. Not unless the person initiating the conversation was trying to con you, was some kind of religious zealot, or was part of the tinfoil hat crowd and crazy as a loon.
“This is my first time here, and I was wondering where I could get a kitten for my niece’s ninth birthday.”
“How much are you willing to spend?” Alex blurted and then thought he might be coming on too strong.
Then he remembered that Carter had been working with him to lose his Philly accent. While he wasn’t as bad as many of his neighbors, she’d pointed out that a South Philly accent made people wary. So he concentrated on sounding Midwesterner.
“The quality varies greatly. If you’re looking for something with fleas and will get you banned from family functions, you can do it on the cheap,” he added.
The look of concern for him changed, and now she was focused on her family.
“Oh, no,” she said, getting worried. “I want to get her something nice.”
“I understand and know just the thing. How much did you want to spend?” Alex asked again.
“I planned to keep it under a couple hundred,” she tentatively revealed.
Alex scrunched up his nose and made a sucking sound between his teeth.
“Two fifty,” she quickly offered.
“Let me see what I can do. Give me the money, and I’ll try to make it happen for you.”
Alex had to blink a few times when she got her wallet out and started to peel off bills. She did it right there in front of him, and he could clearly see she had a lot more in there. If Tones had been here, he would have been trying to upsell her on all the kitty accessories she might need.
Thinking of his ex-best friend made his stomach tighten. That led to thoughts of his dad and the worry that he was okay. Alex quickly pushed those thoughts aside and went straight to where they sold all the baby animals.
As he got closer, he saw a boy about his age who looked like a tall, muscular geek, with honey-colored hair in a ponytail, standing between two stalls. The kid was acting nervous. The boy was trying not to look at what had to be this town’s version of the stereotypical popular jock—All-American, wealthy, and great looking. The jock was glaring at the geek and looked to be a couple of years older.
“You said you would get …” the jock paused to make sure no one was paying attention, “it for me.”
“I don’t have any that‘s dry. I’ll have some next week.”
“Bullshit. You’re holding out on me.”
“What are you looking for?” Alex asked to insert himself into the conversation.
Normally, he would never have done that. His self-preservation instincts would have kicked in. But the pretty-boy jock set his teeth on edge. Besides, if it came to it, he would bet that the jock had never been in a real fight. Even if he were bigger, Alex thought he could take him.
He could see that the jock wasn’t used to anyone standing up to him, so Alex gave him his best disarming smile. He was shocked when the jock just told him what he wanted.
“He was supposed to have …” he did the whole looking-around routine before whispering, “weed.”
Alex gave him a dramatic sigh.
“I might know a guy, but prices have doubled because there’s such a lack of supply.”
“But I only have fifty dollars on me, and I promised … well, I need some.”
“What if I can get you half as much as you normally get for the same price? Would that work?” Alex asked.
“I guess,” the jock huffed.
“Okay, give me the money and come back in thirty minutes,” Alex told him.
“I’m not …”
“You want it or not?” Alex asked like he didn’t care either way.
“No. Here,” the jock said as he thrust the money into Alex’s hand. Then he scowled. “You better come through for me.”
“No problem. Now go make yourself scarce while I work my magic.”
“I can’t stand that guy,” the geek said after he was out of earshot.
“Can you hook me up?” Alex asked with a big smile.
“Yeah, no problem. I’ll set you up with two half bags.”
“Just give me a couple of joints for my half, and I need a favor,” Alex said as he handed him the money. “I need a kitten.”
The geek barked out a laugh.
“We’re giving away kittens,” he revealed. “Why would you only want a couple of joints?”
Alex had seen the sign when Janice made the loop around the town square. It was part of his dad’s training to remember every detail, so the kittens’ price had surprised him. He did like that the boy had been honest, though.
“That guy was being a dick. You needed to put one over on him without him kicking your ass.”
“Thanks. I’m Decker.”
“Alex. I just moved here and getting settled in. When I get everything sorted, maybe we can hang out.”
“I’d like that,” Decker said and went to get his kitten.
While Alex waited, the jock came back, and Alex handed over the half-bag.
“Thanks, man. I’m Luke. You really saved my ass.”
“Alex. No problem, man. I’m always happy to help.”
“Hey, there’s a party tonight at the clubhouse. I’ll put your name down so the guard will let you in.”
“Sounds good,” Alex replied as Luke took off.
Alex had seen Decker hanging back until Luke left. Decker came over and handed him a cute kitten and a couple of joints.
“I’ve got to run.”
“I’ll see you around,” Decker said.
Alex had only made it halfway back when Janice spotted him.
“Young man!” she barked.
She’d spotted the kitten. Alex decided to give her some grief.
“What?” he asked in his best put-out teen act.
“Boomer will go ballistic if he sees that kitten. We’ll have our very own episode of National Geographic in my living room if that happens. Take that cat back, right now.”
“But the man said no refunds, and I spent all my money to get him,” Alex said and then held it up so she could see how cute he was.
She pulled two twenties out and handed it to him.
“Get rid of it.”
He took the money and gave the kitty a sad look.
“I’ll miss you, little guy, but Boomer runs our house, and we have to do whatever he says.”
Janice gave him a look that told him he might have gone a step too far.
“I’ll get rid of him,” Alex promised as he pocketed the money.
He hurried off before she could get started on him.
By the time he left the weekly market, Alex was up a hundred dollars, had two joints, and a new bike.
He’d discovered an almost new Montague Paratrooper 24-speed folding mountain bike. He’d always wanted one, but they were too expensive. According to their sales blurbs, the bike was designed for rough trails, hauling gear, bike camping, and recon missions. This one reportedly had been owned by some rich kid who had recently upgraded to a car.
Alex haggled until he was able to buy it for about twenty percent of what it had cost new. The best part was that he still had money left over after finding the lady a kitten for her niece.
As he made his way back to the truck, Janice spotted him.
“Oh, Alex. If you’d said something, I would have bought you a bike. You didn’t have to get a broken one.”
It took him a moment to realize what she was talking about. The Paratrooper was a folding bike, so it didn’t take up much storage space. He looked down and saw that it did, in fact, look like he’d bought a bunch of junk.
“The guy said I could fix it. He said there are videos on the Internet.”
Janice gave him a sad look.
“Alex, I know this might come as a bit of a shock, but people will take advantage of you. First, the kitten, and now a broken bicycle. I’ll go with you to get your money back,” Janice offered.
Alex gave her a stubborn look.
“I know you’re right, but my dad always told me that if I made a mistake, I have to own it. I’ll see if I can get it fixed. If I can’t, we can come back next week and talk to the man.”
“Maybe my dad can help you work on it,” she suggested.
Alex wanted nothing to do with the local sheriff. It was bad enough that the man was related to Janice and lived across the street.
“Let me see if I can do it myself first. If I can’t, I’ll go ask him for help.”
“You’re already a typical man, afraid to ask for help. I’ve learned to step back when you guys get this way.”
Alex gave her a dirty look, but he could see the twinkle in her eyes. He loaded his bike in the back of the truck.
Janice made another circuit around the market to pick up everything she’d bought. She’d stop, and Alex would jump out and go get it. He wondered who was expected to eat all the produce she’d paid for.
Once everything was safely in the bed of the truck, they’d stopped at a small restaurant for lunch. They grabbed a booth with a wobbly table and a sticky top, and soon a server brought them menus mainly composed of items that required deep frying. It all looked perfect, and Alex made plans to come back often.
The place was packed, so when their drinks came, their server finally was able to clean up the worst of the sticky stuff.
“Where’s the clubhouse?” Alex asked.
“When you come in the front gate, take a left, and it’s only two blocks down. Do you have swim trunks?”
“The clubhouse has three pools, tennis courts, access to a nine-hole golf course, and driving range. It’s where people in our subdivision go to unwind,” Janice explained. “We’ll go shopping and get you swimwear so you can take advantage of what’s available, plus you can meet some people your age before school starts.”
“I was invited to a party there tonight. I was thinking about going.”
“I’m going to come across as being overprotective, but from what I’ve heard of those parties, you’re too young to go.”
“You know that makes me want to go even more, but I’ll follow your advice for now.”
What he didn’t say was that he had an almost OCD-like compulsion to investigate any place he was going. Janice, driving around the market today, had helped calm him. Mixing with a group of supposed peers in unfamiliar surroundings was something he wasn’t willing to do.
He noted the relief in Janice when he agreed with her so readily. One thing Alex was good at was seeing things from the other person’s point of view. Inviting him into her home, a teen who had lived with a father who was in an organized crime family, couldn’t be easy for her. Knowing that he was willing to listen to her would put her at ease, to the point that eventually, she wouldn’t feel the need to watch him constantly.
After lunch, they went clothes shopping. Alex wasn’t the type who really cared what he wore as long as he didn’t end up looking ridiculous. Janice had pushed his comfort zone when she tried to buy him Speedo-style swim trunks. He explained that he was not some middle-aged Eastern European tourist. While not body-shy, he did have limits.
They then drove home, and he discovered what all the produce was for: her dad’s cookout was tonight.
While Janice took up residence in her father’s kitchen, Sheriff Conly and Boomer gave Alex a tour of his property. When they were done, they had a talk.
“Do you have any idea where your father is right now?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I think my daughter made a rash decision by letting her friend move you into her home.”
Alex decided that if the sheriff was going to be candid with him, he would be too.
“My father isn’t really a violent person and is no threat to your daughter. If anything, he would be grateful that she’s looking after me.” Then he added, “I have no idea where my father is.”
“Do you …”
Alex interrupted him.
“If we’re going to do this, it needs to be a two-way street. How many police officers do you employ?”
That got raised eyebrows in response.
“If I’m the criminal you think I am, I need to know these kinds of things.”
“Did you catch the baseball game today?” Sheriff Conly asked.
“No. Your daughter was being a perv and making me try on clothes all afternoon.”
“Better you than me,” was his sage advice.
The party turned out to be composed mainly of people in law enforcement and in the district attorney’s office. Alex hung back and took everything in. He could tell that Janice and her dad were well-liked and respected. While she was currently a junior assistant district attorney, the old guard included her in their conversations, which wasn’t true for many of the other junior members present. She had to be someone with a bright future.
Sheriff Conly was a deft politician, which you would expect for someone in an elected position. But he also was a good cop. Alex could tell that because of how comfortable all the other police were around him. If he was simply a mouthpiece, he would expect some to suck up, but the majority would have said their hellos and then gravitated to their friends. While they did do some of that, they genuinely acted like they thought highly of him.
The best part of the night was that Alex was reasonably sure that he had found his next girlfriend. He didn’t know her name, and she never acted like she was interested, but he would make it happen. She looked to be his age or a little older, had deep mahogany skin, her smile was warm and welcoming, and her hair was a chaos of delightful black coils.
What attracted him to her was that she was tall. Being six-one and still growing, he didn’t want a girl he would have to almost bend in half to kiss. Tones always said that girls were all the same height in bed. Alex, however, had concluded that Tones was a pig and that the majority of your time with a girl likely would be spent vertically, not horizontally.
When he saw her leave, he gathered Boomer, and they went home.
On this particular morning, Sheriff Conly’s daughter had called him to set up a meeting to discuss her new charge, Alex Wagner, now Turner. Only three people knew who Alex really was: Sheriff Conly, Assistant District Attorney Janice Conly, and Special Agent Grace Carter. Special Agent Carter had asked for an update to see how everything was going with Alex.
At the appointed time, there was a light knock on the door, and Janice stuck her head in the Sheriff’s office. She took a quick look around and shook her head. His desk, glass and chrome, was neatly organized with most of the surface visible, a sharp contrast to hers. Sheriff Conly was highly organized and thought everything had its place, and that was where it should be. His daughter’s office, in his opinion, was a wreck. Every square inch of her desk was covered in paper. God forbid if anyone touched anything because she claimed she knew precisely where each item was. That had to be why she consistently lost her car keys in that pile.
He picked up his laptop and took it to the office’s small conference table. Then he opened the email with the video chat login information that Special Agent Carter had sent and faced the screen toward him and his daughter. As soon as he was connected, they saw Special Agent Carter, and she kicked the meeting off.
“How’s Alex doing? Has he worked things out with Boomer?”
“I was worried at first, but Boomer has taken to him. The poor mutt actually sleeps in his room,” Janice shared.
“I was afraid we were going to have another Brad Davis situation,” Special Agent Carter said.
A year ago, Janice had started an office romance with one of her fellow attorneys. Boomer had taken an instant dislike to the man, and the couple couldn’t go back to her house for fear Boomer might take Brad out. Three months into the relationship, Brad had been caught doing something wrong; the bad kind that got your license suspended. Janice had paid more attention to what Boomer thought of people since then. He was her litmus test to see if someone had ill intent or not.
“Special Agent Carter, what can you tell us about Alex?” Sheriff Conly asked to get their discussion back on track.
“Just call me Grace or Carter. That whole special agent thing is a mouthful, and this isn’t a formal meeting.”
Sheriff Conly nodded.
“I have no doubt that Alex saved my life the first time I met him. I was sent to interview him because my boss was sure that I would find a frightened child and because I’m a woman …”
She left the rest unsaid, but Sheriff Conly could see what she thought of her boss’s opinion on the role women played at the bureau.
“What I found was a young man who took charge of the situation. I have nightmares when I think of what might’ve happened if Alex hadn’t convinced me to follow his plan.”
Sheriff Conly had read the report. The Russians had cleared the hospital and sent in a six-man hit team to take Alex out. Not many people would have survived. Most FBI agents think that their mere presence will intimidate Mafia types. If she’d tried to stand up to them, he had no doubt that both Carter and Alex would have died with two to the chest and one to the head.
“I was surprised at how brazen they were. What caused them to respond like that?” Janice asked.
“Before we talk about that, let me give you some background,” Carter said. “Alex’s father grew up in South Philly. He had a long rap sheet as a youth that included drug possession, vandalism, and petty theft. Then when he turned 18, nothing.”
“I thought you said he was part of a crew,” Sheriff Conley said.
“He was until he disappeared. We think that they found other uses for him rather than being part of their street crew. We think part of the reason crime in South Philly dropped, around that time, was due Alex’s dad. Currently, there is ten percent less crime in their neighborhood than the average nationwide,” Carter explained.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Janice said.
“It does if that’s their home base,” Sheriff Conley said.
“They protect their neighborhood, and in turn, they are protected. Everyone I talked to thought the world of Stretch and Junior,” Janice said.
“Who?” Janice asked.
“Sorry, that’s Alex’s dad’s and Alex’s street names,” Carter explained.
“You said they found another use for Alex’s father,” Sheriff Conly said.
“He became their planner. Over the last ten years, there have been several major highly sophisticated thefts in the Philadelphia area. We think that the South Philly Crew switched their main focus from smaller things like auto theft and the like toward bigger scores.”
“What’s a planner?” Janice asked.
“The jobs we’re talking about require detailed planning to be done successfully. No one in the South Philly Crew has been arrested in the past three years. That tells us that whoever is organizing things is damned good.”
“You haven’t mentioned Alex’s mother,” Janice said.
“She was a girl from the neighborhood that Stretch was casually seeing. It sounded like she was one of many. The neighbor lady said that she disappeared when she started to show. The rumor was she was sent to live with relatives. When Alex was born, he was dropped off. No one knows where she went.”
“Tell us more about Alex,” Sheriff Conly said.
“Alex is brilliant …”
“Wait. He got all ‘C’s on his report cards,” Janice said.
“I think he got those grades on purpose. Alex isn’t one to want to draw attention to himself. If he got the grades he is capable of, it would certainly do that,” Carter explained.
“You sure about that?” Janice asked skeptically.
Both Carter and Sheriff Conly chuckled at that question.
“It confused me too until he showed what a devious little shit he really is, but I’ll get to that in a second. What changed my mind was watching him play chess. When he was in protective custody, he didn’t get any access to the outside world. To pass the time, one of the agents got him to play a game. Alex won in only a handful of moves.
“Alex refused to play him again, saying he wasn’t a challenge. That irritated the team, so they brought in one of the tech nerds who was supposed to be some kind of chess master. This time, it took Alex longer, but he prevailed.
“They told me that our tech guy was used to winning because he could think three or more moves ahead while most novices are just worried about the move in front of them. He said that Alex caught him in a trap that had been conceived multiple steps ahead of time,” Carter shared.
“I understand the kid is smart. It’s the devious comment that has me worried since he’s living with my daughter,” Sheriff Conly said.
“I might have misspoken. Alex has an almost compulsive need to know things. He wasn’t satisfied that we could keep him safe. I think it was only the third week when he made his move. He lifted one of our agent’s phones. What tipped us off that something was up was he suddenly went to his room and quit pestering the agents with questions.
“He used the phone to tap into the Wi-Fi, and he soon hijacked our video feeds. He created a loop of him taking a nap while he snuck out. I made an unscheduled stop and found him walking the perimeter. When I asked him what he was doing, he began to point out all the deficiencies in our security. He explained how he would break in, snatch him, and get out without anyone ever knowing,” Carter said.
“Was he right?” Janice asked.
“I’m afraid so. After that, we moved Alex to a new safe house every few days. Part of the routine was to let him do his thing and tell us how to make the place more secure. That, and I had to keep changing teams guarding him before he bent them to his will,” Carter explained.
“That doesn’t sound ominous at all,” Janice worried.
“Alex is very good at thinking on his feet and reading people. The agents gave him the codename of the Chameleon. With each move, he would at first appear to be a quiet kid, a loner. Then he would slowly warm to the agents, and they would find that they really liked him. I had to remove all the women from the details because he could wrap them around his little finger. They were constantly running and getting him a Philly cheesesteak or a book to read.”
“I would never fall for that,” Janice said.
Carter barked out a laugh.
“He’s already started on you. Remember when he called you ‘ma’am’? I would bet that until then, he had never used that particular term. He observed a young man who gave us directions say it when we arrived in town. He deduced that you would respond to him showing you deference,” Carter said.
“He did just watch everyone at the party at my place Saturday night,” Sheriff Conly said.
“Was it mostly people from your work?” Carter asked.
“Mine and Janice’s.”
“Alex probably felt like he was behind enemy lines and was gathering intel. He has a remarkable memory. I bet you could ask him a question about what someone was wearing that night or who they talked to, and he could tell you several weeks later.
“I tested him on that by commenting that one of the first agents on his security detail had been reprimanded for wearing gym socks with his dress shoes. Alex corrected me and said he’d been wearing argyles,” Carter said.
“So, you’re telling us that he’s a nosy nerd,” Sheriff Conly said.
“Maybe nerd-adjacent. We were told that he would probably see playing time as a freshman for their basketball team. This is a high school with over 2,500 students and a rich tradition of success. The people from his old neighborhood were proud of him,” Carter shared.
“Anything we need to know?” Sheriff Conly asked as he checked the clock.
“Only that Alex never did anything mean-spirited or really bad. Shady, yes,” Carter said with a shrug.
“Tell us what got him into this mess,” Janice said to get to the heart of the call.
Carter transformed into Special Agent Carter at that moment. She was all business.
“Nikolai Mikhailov is one of the highest-ranking Russian mobsters in the US. We know that he runs things on the East Coast, which includes Philadelphia, where his bother Alexei oversees the day-to-day. Nikolai’s youngest son, Viktor, was sent to Philly to work for his uncle.
“Viktor was young and violent. From what we could piece together, he bought a jewelry heist job from the South Philly Crew. He did so without his uncle’s knowledge or permission,” Carter said.
“How did he buy the job?” Sheriff Conly asked.
“The Russian and South Philly organizations had carved out an understanding. The Russians handle the drug and prostitution trades while the Philly group is in charge of numbers and heists. Word on the street was that if the South Philly crew passed on a job, they would put it out to the highest bidder,” Carter said.
“What went wrong? I understand that Viktor was killed,” Janice said.
“Greed. When we processed the crime scene, we found that Viktor had breached the backdoor security and gotten into the safe where there was a new shipment of uncut diamonds. The potential haul was upwards of two hundred thousand.
“What triggered the alarm was when Viktor went to the front of the store and broke into the display cases. When he came out the back, he was confronted by the responding police. Instead of giving himself up, Viktor fired on the officers.”
“He went in alone?” Sheriff Conly asked.
“If Viktor had simply taken the diamonds, he would have been in and out with no problems. Like I said. He was greedy, and it cost him,” Carter said.
“I take it that Alex’s dad planned the heist,” Sheriff Conly said.
“That’s what we thought, but an informant told us that Alex actually did the heavy lifting. His father has been training him since he was little to figure out how to rob places. Our informant said that Alex looked at it as solving a puzzle. He told us that the South Philly Crew considered Alex their lucky charm, and for the past three years, he has been heavily involved in the process,” Carter said.
“That coincides with none of the South Philly Crew being arrested in the last three years,” Janice said.
“Bingo,” Carter fired back.
“What happened at his house the night he was stabbed?” Sheriff Conly asked.
“Mickey Mazzini and several of his men went to Stretch’s house to warn him that Viktor had been killed. We think they planned to deal with Alex and his father to avoid a gang war. Before they could do that, Nikolai ordered his brother to take them out.
“When the South Philly boys saw what the Russians planned, they stood their ground. In the subsequent firefight, both Alex and his dad escaped. We discovered a tunnel in the basement that led to a garage on the back of the property.
“I suspect both of them would be in the wind right now if Alex hadn’t been stabbed. As it stands, the Russians still want their pound of flesh,” Carter said.
“How do you see this working out?” Sheriff Conly asked.
“As far as we can see, Alex hasn’t been involved in anything that would get him tossed into jail like other little mobster wannabes,” Carter said.
“He was pretty busy at the market on Saturday,” Sheriff Conly said.
“What are you talking about?” Janice asked, suddenly concerned.
“Let’s see. Alex got a lady from Chester to buy a kitten from him for $250. He then convinced a local high schooler that there was a shortage of marijuana, so the price had doubled. He told him that he could probably get him a half-bag for all the money he had,” Sheriff Conly said.
“What?!” Janice exclaimed.
“I’m not finished,” Sheriff Conly said. “What kept me from having him arrested was that the young man buying the drugs was Luke Donnelley. Anyone else and I would have had my deputy step in.”
“I get it. Arresting him would have caused a shit storm. He’s both a sports star and eldest son of the family that employs nearly twenty percent of the people that live in Conclave,” Janice said, which caused Grace to nod her understanding.
“What also made me stop was that Alex didn’t keep the other half-bag. Instead, he traded it for a couple of joints and a kitten.”
“I gave him forty bucks to get rid of the cat,” Janice realized.
Sheriff Conly kept a neutral look on his face because Janice had missed the fact that her charge had two joints in his possession.
“He then took the money he made and bought a bike that cost upwards of a thousand dollars new. I remember hearing about it at the coffee shop when it was bought for just a couple hundred bucks. The kid negotiated a hell of a deal,” Sheriff Conly said with a ghost of a smile.
“That broken piece of junk?” Janice asked.
“It folds up so you can store it easier,” Sheriff Conly shared with his daughter.
“That little shit. I’ll make Alex pay that poor woman back when I get home,” Janice decided.
“Why? It sounds like she was happy with what she got,” Carter said.
“But it’s wrong,” Janice persisted.
“Says the girl that sold all my vinyl records to buy her first car,” Sheriff Conly said. He saw his daughter got what he was saying and then looked at the laptop. “You were telling us what you want us to do with Alex before I shared his exploits.”
“First, kudos for watching the kid. I bet that now that he knows who all your deputies are, he won’t get caught again,” Carter warned.
“He didn’t see all of them.”
“Keep thinking that,” Carter said with a smile. “This boy has the potential to be special. Right now, it’s a toss-up as to whether he’ll become a criminal mastermind or have all the alphabet soup crowd fighting over him in a few years. Personally, I’m not sure either is his best option.”
“I think you were right in sending him to us. I’ll play bad cop and shut down his con games,” Sheriff Conly offered.
“I’m not sure that’s the best idea. Alex has to learn to trust the police. It won’t surprise me if he hacks your systems to learn everything he can about you and your department. I know that hearing that probably makes you uneasy, but it goes to his need to know. Once he feels safe, then you can begin to win him over,” Carter predicted.
“You’re not worried that he’ll share sensitive information with everybody?” Janice asked.
“Not at all. One thing Alex isn’t is a snitch. He had plenty of reasons to share details about both the Russian and South Philly crews and never said a word. I mean, the South Philly Crew he’d grown up with turned on him, and the Russians put a hit out for both him and his dad. I’ve seen mob guys who were more experienced and completely hard-core flip for much less. You have nothing to worry about as far as that goes,” Carter said.
“Dad and I will talk and come up with a plan,” Janice assured her friend.
At that point, they said their goodbyes to Special Agent Carter.
“What do you think?” Sheriff Conly asked.
“That we have our hands full.”
Alex had had a busy morning. First, he’d run into town to buy the supplies he needed to install a security system in Janice’s house. If it hadn’t been for Boomer, her home would have taken him less than a minute to break into. It would have taken even less time than that if she had continued to leave the doors unlocked.
He’d just gotten done running wiring in the attic and was a sweaty mess when the doorbell rang. He peeked out the spyhole and saw a girl with a plate of cookies outside. Boomer was at his side with his tail wagging.
“Sit,” he said before he cracked the door open. “You selling cookies?”
“No. I heard that you’d moved in with Ms. Conly and wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood.”
That put a smile on his face. Alex had been stuck in safe houses for the last few months, and they’d been total sausage fests. He hadn’t yet thought of going out to find someone to hook up with, but if girls wanted to throw themselves at him, he wasn’t going to turn them down.
He swung the door open and let her in.
“Hey, Boomer. Who’s a good boy?” she said when she spotted him.
She obviously knew the hound because he was on his best behavior as she rubbed Boomer’s ears hello. Then she turned to Alex and noted his disheveled look.
“What have you been up to?”
“Who are you?” Alex fired back.
She waited for a beat before answering.
“Alex,” he offered, and when she raised her eyebrows at him, he added, “I was in the attic.”
“Okay,” she drawled out like she didn’t believe him. Then she thrust the plate of cookies at him. “My mom made these and told me to bring them over.”
Alex took them and saw they were oatmeal raisin, his favorite. He went to put the plate on the entryway table before she stopped him.
“Someone,” she said as she tilted her head to indicate Boomer, “is a bad boy and will eat them if you leave them there. I would suggest you stash the cookies somewhere high.”
Alex looked at the monster poodle and saw that the tabletop was at Boomer’s eye level.
“Let’s go up to my room,” Alex said.
He didn’t give her a chance to say ‘no.’ Alex just started up the stairs. Boomer was at his side, and he nudged the plate.
“No, you’re not getting any,” Alex said as he reached his bedroom.
Alex opened his dresser and put the plate inside to hide the cookies from Boomer. The stupid dog sat in front of it and whined. Alex resolved not to cave to his furry manipulator.
Ivy tentatively entered his room and looked around.
“I’ve never been in a boy’s bedroom before,” she admitted.
Alex took his shirt off.
“Where do you normally go to be with a boy?”
Alex was confused.
“You said you wanted to welcome me to the neighborhood.”
“Oh, my God! You plan to rape me.”
He found it funny that she thought that. If she believed he was a rapist, shouldn’t she make a run for it? Then he saw that her eyes were locked on his sweaty chest as she worked to catch her breath. If she weren’t careful, she might hyperventilate.
“Why are you smiling?” Ivy asked.
“You tell me you want to ‘welcome’ me to the neighborhood,” Alex said with air quotes. “Then you accuse me of raping you when I take you at your word.”
“You have it all wrong. Welcoming you to the neighborhood isn’t code for getting naked,” Ivy all but shouted.
“Settle down. I think we have different ideas of what was said. Where I’m from, that would be much more fun.”
She still looked at him warily.
“I don’t plan to rape you,” he assured her.
Ivy stared at him, so Alex grabbed some clothes. If he got naked in front of her, Ivy might stroke out.
“I’m going to take a shower. Feel free to snoop,” Alex said and then smiled at the shocked look on her face.
When he came out from his shower, he found Ivy sitting cross-legged on his bed, eating his cookies, with Boomer lying next to her eating something.
“You’d better not be spoiling him,” Alex said with mock sternness.
“Boomer’s my buddy.”
“I’m hungry. Feel like some leftover barbecue?”
“Sure,” Ivy said as she handed him the last cookie.
He couldn’t believe that she and Boomer had polished off a plate full of cookies so fast. While Alex contemplated that, Boomer snatched his cookie out of his hand. Alex started to tell Boomer to drop it, but the cookie now had dog drool on it, which Ivy found hilarious.
Alex led them out the front door and walked across the street to Sheriff Conly’s home. He found the key under the welcome mat and unlocked the front door.
“Are we allowed to be in here?” Ivy worried.
“I would think that leaving the key like that is a clear invitation,” Alex said as he and Boomer walked in.
Ivy took a moment and then hurried in, mumbling something about them getting into trouble. Alex went to the refrigerator and began to take out leftovers.
“Plates are in that cabinet,” he told Ivy and then decided to play with her. “What kind of beer do you drink? He has Heineken, Miller Lite, and Coors.”
“Funny,” Ivy shot back. “I’ll have a Mountain Dew.”
As the teens pigged out, Alex quizzed Ivy about their subdivision. Two other teens, Nell and Zac, would be freshmen this coming year. Everyone assumed Nell would someday go to an Ivy League school because she was a little brainiac. Zac played basketball, like his dad, who’d played for the University of Kansas when he was younger. Ivy said Zac was already getting interest from some colleges.
Alex scrunched his nose when he learned that Luke, who would be a junior, also lived just down the street. The other junior was Dawn, who was Luke’s girlfriend.
When they were almost done eating, Ivy’s phone chirped. She checked her text.
“Everyone’s going swimming this afternoon.”
“Okay, let’s grab my swimsuit and a towel, and put Boomer in his crate. Then we can swing by your house so you can explain how you and the cookie thief ate all my goodies,” Alex said as he stood up to leave.
“We have to clean up,” Ivy worried.
“If we do that, how will the Sheriff know that we broke in?”
“I thought you were allowed to be in here,” Ivy said as she began to do that hard-breathing thing.
Alex laughed as he began to clean up to hide the evidence. This girl was too innocent for her own good. Alex decided he had to be her friend, if for no other reason than to corrupt her properly. Who knew what shoddy work other potential corrupters might do …?
When they got to his house, Ivy made him show her what he planned to wear. Alex made the mistake of thinking that a swimsuit and t-shirt were just that. Ivy started to explain about color trees and how to tell what tones complemented each other. That was when Alex gave up and let her dress him.
Getting Boomer into his crate turned into a big deal. The stupid dog was too smart for his own good and wanted to go with them. Ivy watched Alex battle with the obstinate poodle, who flopped on his back and used his paws to fend Alex off. After she’d had enough entertainment from that, Ivy found Boomer’s treats and threw two of them into the crate, smiling innocently all the while. Alex made a mental note to carry Boomer treats around from now on.
Alex got his bike out of the garage and had Ivy sit on the seat as he peddled to her house. She lived in an older section of the subdivision that he hadn’t explored yet. She told him there was a shortcut to get to her home. They followed a dirt trail into some trees, plunged down a steep hill, shot up the other side, and got serious air before landing back on the trail.
Ivy screamed the whole way like … well, like a girl. She about fell off the bike when she realized that she’d wrapped her arms around his waist and had buried her face against his butt. Since he arrived in town, Alex had been molested twice. At least this time, it hadn’t been by a dog.
When they got to her house, Alex was told to wait outside. A minute later, she ran back out with her swimsuit and a towel. She got onto his bike, and they rode to the clubhouse.
One of the first places Alex had checked out was the clubhouse, so he wasn’t nervous about going in. He and Ivy went into the locker rooms and changed. He found her waiting for him when he came out.
The clubhouse had three pools. The first one was overrun with rug-rats on what Alex suspected was too much sugar. The next pool had all the moms out sunning. That left the back pool for the teenagers and young adults.
In the back corner, three teens were getting some sun. Across the pool, glaring at them, was Luke, the boy who Alex made pay double for weed on Saturday. Alex began to go say hello to him, but Ivy stopped him.
“My friends are over there,” she said as she pointed to where the other group was.
“I just need to say hi, and I’ll be over,” Alex promised.
Luke spotted him and gave Alex a head bob in greeting. He smiled when Alex took the seat next to his.
“You didn’t show on Saturday,” Luke complained.
“It turned out I had a family thing I had to go to,” Alex said.
“You missed a killer party …” Luke began as Alex tuned him out.
He was kicking himself for wasting time talking to Luke when there was a centerfold-looking girl sitting with Ivy and her friends. The unfortunate thing was her sending death stares toward where they were sitting. Luke finally caught on that Alex wasn’t listening to him carry on about the party, which sounded pretty lame in Alex’s opinion. With the South Philly Crew, parties tended to get wild. Chips, beer, and some weed didn’t sound that great.
“That’s my girlfriend, Dawn,” Luke said to clue him in as to who Alex’s first wife was going to be.
Who would have guessed that in less than 72 hours, Alex would find two girls he wanted to get to know in Nowheresville—better known as Conclave, Oklahoma? Alex was seriously thinking he might have to figure out what religion he would have to join. That is, one that would allow him to marry the tall black girl from Saturday night, Dawn, and Natasha Mikhailov, the forbidden Russian fruit he’d lusted after from back home.
“You sure about that?” Alex asked.
“That she’s your girlfriend.”
Luke looked pissed.
“Don’t even joke about that.”
“I’m just saying. Dawn doesn’t look like she’s happy with you.”
Luke got a text message to interrupt their conversation.
“I’ve got to go,” he said and stormed off.
Alex knew he’d hit a nerve and figured that he’d better be careful around Luke in the future.
Zac was a good five inches taller than Alex, but they probably weighed about the same. When Zac finally filled out his frame, he was going to be a big man. Once Zac discovered that Alex also played basketball, he decided that they would be best friends. Alex didn’t argue because the only other boys he’d seen close to their age, so far, were Luke and Decker.
Nell was every bit the nerd that Ivy had described. Alex had told everyone he was from Seattle, Washington. When Nell heard that, she’d immediately spouted off that while it rained there 156 days a year, it received less total rainfall than New Orleans, Miami, and New York City.
While Ivy looked like an innocent little pixie with her short dark hair, Nell was taller and thicker.
The four of them were quickly getting to know each other. Meanwhile, Dawn, the picture-perfect homecoming princess, as Alex was now mentally calling her, sat quietly. Finally, Alex got the nerve up to talk to her.
“I’m Alex, by the way.”
His three new friends all sat back in their chairs and were looking back and forth between the two of them. Alex began to think he might have made a misstep of some kind. It hadn’t been the first since he moved here.
“This would be a good time to introduce yourself to me,” Alex prodded, amused at her flippant retort.
“Why? So you can hit on me?” Dawn asked.
“Do you want me to hit on you?” Alex asked.
He heard three sets of hisses as Nell, Ivy, and Zac sucked in their breaths.
Dawn lowered her sunglasses on her nose so she could inspect him.
“You’re kind of cute, but I think my ex would kick your butt.”
“I’m confused. Luke told me that you two are dating,” Alex said.
“And you decided to hit on me?” Dawn asked as her eyebrows rose in surprise.
“No. I asked if you wanted me to. Plus, I think I can take Luke.”
“It wouldn’t just be Luke,” Dawn warned.
Alex must have looked confused because Zac jumped in.
“Luke runs with two other guys. They call themselves La Manada, or wolf pack. Alone, each of them can be okay. When they’re together, you need to watch yourself, or they’ll all come at you.”
“Who’s their leader? Maybe if I can come to an understanding with him …” Alex said, leaving the rest unsaid.
They all looked at each other, which confused Alex.
“Honestly, I don’t think any of them are. They all grew up together with silver spoons up their butts. Luke’s dad owns the fertilizer factory outside of town, while Ethan’s dad owns the only construction company in town. Caleb’s family owns most of the farmland around here. We sometimes refer to them as the three princes,” Ivy shared.
“Ethan and Caleb were gone for the summer until Saturday. The party at the clubhouse was to welcome them back,” Zac said.
“Where did they go?” Nell asked Dawn.
It seemed that when Dawn didn’t kill Alex, his new friends had decided it was safe to get back into the conversation.
“There was an incident at the cabin at the beginning of the summer,” Dawn said.
“Where?” Alex asked.
“Caleb’s family owns a cabin in the woods. They use it to get away on weekends. It’s where the wolf pack throws parties, sometimes very private ones,” Dawn explained.
The looks on both Ivy and Nell’s faces clued Alex in as to what kind of parties Dawn was talking about.