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Checkmate!

checkmate ebook

Checkmate Prologue

Unedited and subject to change.
Copyright, Emilia Finn, 2020

 

Gunner – Eleven Years Old

“Come on, Doodlebug. You have to put your things away. We’re going out.”

I look up from my spot on the living room floor as Mom rushes across the room to snatch up her purse. My pencils line the original tray they came in, and sit just half a foot from my elbow. They’re all sharpened and in the order of the rainbow, because I don’t want them to get lost or broken. I sketch on old scraps of paper my mom swiped from the office at her work, but that’s fine, since only one side has stuff printed on it.

I live on the crappy side of town in an apartment building that has more bugs than humans – times a hundred. Cockroaches sometimes tickle my face when I sleep, and moths wreck my clothes, so I have to keep checking on my favorite sweater.

I don’t want it to be ruined.

My apartment is dark and crowded. Only one bedroom; and the bedroom isn’t mine. The floor is more comfortable for drawing than my couch, so I draw down here and try to stay out of the way.

My home is pretty crappy. It’s small, a little bit wet most of the time, and I think the metal bar in the couch has permanently warped my back while I sleep. But it’s clean. There’s no dust down here, no spilled food or dead bugs.

We let off a bug bomb once a month, spend the next week or two sweeping the dead bodies up as they appear, and then two weeks later, we bomb again and try to make sure cockroaches stay away at night.

It’s not so bad.

We’re going for a trip today, somewhere a few hours away. Mom’s been talking about it for ages, so I’m already dressed and have my shoes on. My favorite sweater sits on the couch so I don’t forget it.

Mom rushes to the bathroom one last time, so I set my pencil down in the tray and stare at the drawing in front of me.

It’s a man. A man I don’t know, but I’m supposed to be meeting him today.

Mom gave me a photo of him ages ago, so I drew his black hair from memory, since I spent forever staring at that picture. I drew his dark eyes and heavy forehead. His neat combover, and his broad shoulders.

I’ve never met anyone so big before; I guess I will today.

In the picture, he and another man smoke fat cigars and smile, but I don’t draw the cigars in. Or the other man. They look like they’re mid-joke, mid-laughter, and white smoke plumes around their heads.

“Doodlebug!” Mom flushes the toilet and rushes back through the living room. “Get up.” She claps her hands. “We have to go.”

“Okay.” I push the tray of pencils under the floral print couch and stack my loose sheets of paper on top where they’ll stay safe. Pushing to my feet, I catch sight of my red sweater and reach out to pick it up, but the thought of needing to pee on our drive makes me turn away and rush to the bathroom.

I’m nervous for today, and I don’t know why. I’m nervous to meet this man, but I shouldn’t be; I meet new people all the time.

Heading across the living room and into the bathroom, I work fast, flush, wash my hands, meet Mom in the living room, and when she smiles and pulls me into a hug, I wrap my arms around her waist and snuggle in.

She’s busy all the time. Always working. Always hustling so I can eat. She’s often short-tempered, she yells a lot, but she does it all because she has to. Because no one else will feed us. No one else will pay the rent so the cockroaches have somewhere to stay.

“This is going to be fun, okay?”

I’m the same height as she is now, so I bend my neck a little and rest my face on her shoulder. “Okay.”

“Don’t be nervous. This is an exciting day.”

Again, I nod. “Okay.”

“Alright.” She pushes me back and grins. “Let’s go. Our new adventure awaits.”

***

Three hours in the car isn’t so bad for an eleven-year-old kid with loads of music and a mom with an angel’s voice. We play “I Spy” with license plate letters, eat our pastrami sandwiches when we get hungry, and make good time when we don’t stop the whole way. I’m glad I peed before we left, because by the time we pull up out front of a large club and switch off the engine, I’m ready to go again.

The music cuts out, so we sit in the silence and study the multi-story building in front of us. “This is it.” Mom turns to me; she looks both happy and terrified. Nervous, but giddy. Emotions I’m not used to seeing on her usually serious face. “Are you excited?”

I nod and turn back to the club, to the blacked-out windows, and the overflowing dumpster at the far end of the lot. This place is dark, which sticks out weird, considering it’s the middle of the day and the sun shines down. It almost feels a little… I don’t know. Addams Family, maybe.

Mom wears a bright yellow sundress. Her long hair hangs low, and her lips, fire-engine red, make her blue eyes stand out against her light skin.

Blue eyes like mine.

Not like the man in the picture.

She doesn’t normally wear dresses like she’s wearing today, or heels, or a fancy purse. She doesn’t often wear lipstick, or style her hair overnight so it curls the next day.

My mom cleans hotel rooms seven days a week; she wears jeans, sneakers, and ponytails. She never wears heels, and she never ever takes days off, like she’s done for today.

That makes this special.

This place looks empty; there are no cars besides ours in the parking lot. The double front doors are closed, the windows dark. But this is where she brought us, so I guess this is where we’re going.

Turning back to my mom, I nod and reach out to pat her hand. She’s nervous, so it’s my job to make this less scary. “Let’s go.”

We push our doors open and step onto the parking lot of concrete and broken gravel bits. The breeze is chilly, and I forgot my sweater, so I fold my arms and slam the door closed. Moving around to the hood of the car, I wait for Mom to loop her arm in mine, then we move toward the front entrance.

She’s more nervous than I’ve ever seen her. It’s weird, because she’s normally our strong one. She’s our leader. She’s a single mom and she works herself to the bone.

The fact that she’s feeling weak means I need to be strong.

As though by magic, the doors at the front of the club open, and a man in a police uniform steps forward to wait. He’s not one of the men from the picture I’ve spent my life looking at. He’s like them, I guess. In the way that his face is hard, his jaw square and strong. This guy has shaved his head bald and wears a shiny diamond in his left ear.

He’s in full uniform, with a black gun on his hip and a shiny badge on his chest. His presence in this dark place brings me comfort in a way. Cops make some people nervous, they make the guilty worry that their crimes have been carved into their foreheads, but my mom and I have committed no crimes. We’re the good people, and he’s the police.

He watches us approach with heavy brows and narrowed eyes, and still, he makes me comfortable. But my mom doesn’t relax like I do.

Lifting his left hand as though to scratch his jaw, the policeman stops and speaks into his wrist like this is a spy movie. “They’re here.” He pauses, and while he waits, his eyes don’t leave mine. “Yeah, Sarge. On our way.” He drops his arm and finally meets Mom’s eyes. “Ms. Ellis, come on in.”

“Thank you.” Mom nervously pats her dress down and lets me lead her into the dark building and along a long hall. “Is… uh…” Mom looks around. She was nervous and a little scared, but the further we walk into this unknown place, the stronger she becomes. She becomes my protector, my leader, and helps my heart slow. “I’m here to see—”

“I know.” The handcuffs on the back of the man’s belt glint in the light that peeks through windows and doorways. Keys hang near the cuffs, and a flashlight sits on his left hip. He’s like the cops I see in the movies, which is super cool. I’ve wanted to be the law ever since Walker, Texas Ranger came out on tape. A tape I’ve watched so many times that it’s basically ruined.

Maybe if this guy is friends with the man from the photo, while mom talks to the man, I can talk to the cop. We can hang out and talk criminals, I can ask him about the cool cases he’s solved. I might even ask him if he’s ever shot someone before.

That would be really cool.

We’re led through the hall and into a large space that’s basically empty now except for tables and chairs, but I bet at night, people sit and drink while others dance. Colorful lights hang from the ceiling, though they’re all switched off right now. This is like a dance club, I think. People probably get drunk here, so maybe that’s why the policeman is here…

“Up here, Ms. Ellis.”

We follow the bald policeman when he turns left, then climb up a set of stairs that creak as we move. His boots stomp on the metal steps, Mom’s heels click-clack. My sneakers are silent, and when I release my mom’s hand, she and the cop move ahead without glancing back to me.

Arching my neck, I look around the club as we head up, and notice a long bar with a billion bottles behind it, empty milk crates stacked between, two cash registers, one on each end, and a box tossed on one of the tables, the flaps a little open, and black sticks poking out of the top.

Turning back to the top of the stairs, I jog to catch up, and reach the landing in the same moment the cop taps on a heavy door. Only a second passes, long enough for Mom to look back and take my hand when I step closer. She clutches me close, twines her fingers with mine, and pats our knuckles as she turns back to the door.

She holds our clasped hands to her chest, so I feel her heart racing as the door slowly creaks open and the policeman whispers to someone inside.

It’s all “she’s here,” and “she brought the kid.”

My pulse speeds as the cop steps aside with a kind smile and waves us in. Mom steps forward first, but she keeps my hand in hers and pulls me forward to step into a fancy office with black curtains and a heavy, wooden desk.

A man sits at the desk with his ankle on his knee, his hands clasped together.

He’s the man from the photo.

His eyes are almost black, the same as his hair. It’s a little bit strange, because this is a fancy room and there are two other men in here, both wearing black suits. But the man sitting in the center wears an Army uniform. He looks like a worker like the rest of us; rough hands, clean shaven, a uniform that isn’t faded, but it’s not brand-new either. The ankle resting over his knee is covered with scuffed combat boots and socks. A gun on his thigh, a knife on his ankle.

He clasps a cigar between his fingers, lit so the smoke plumes and spirals into the air.

One of the men in suits is the second man from the photo. I don’t know his name, and if my mom knows, she’s never said. He’s not fat, but he’s not skinny either. I guess I’d call him… well, fed. He wears a shiny silk tie and black shoes. His hair is combed, and so oily, I can still see the comb lines. His eyes aren’t as dark as the man’s at the desk, but they’re not light either. He wears glinting rings on his fat fingers, and holds a lit cigar between his lips, sucking on the end so the red ember glows and his mouth fills with smoke.

I turn when Mom’s hand begins shaking. My eyes drift to the side of her face; she’s so pretty, smiling at the men now like they’re our friends.

Maybe they are. Maybe we’re done living week to week, minute to minute, and now we have new friends. Powerful friends in police uniforms, suits, and army uniforms. Maybe they’ll help Mom make ends meet so she doesn’t have to work until she passes out. Maybe they’ll make it so she can eat enough that her ribs don’t poke out so much.

“Jacintha.” The man exhales and sends the plume of smoke across his desk. We stand at least fifteen feet away, but a hand on Mom’s back – the policeman’s hand – shuffles us a little closer while Mom nervously swallows. “You look as beautiful as I remember.” He stands slowly, powerfully, and makes Mom and me arch our necks back. “Just as lovely as always.”

If I was older, smarter, less naïve, I might see what’s going on today as a power imbalance. But in my eleven-year-old brain, all I see is power. And for us, always hungry, always poor, always tired, power to me is like a flame to a moth, and if my mom is smiling as she is now, it must be okay.

“Yes,” she says in a whisper. “We’re here.”

The army man brings his eyes over to me, looking me up and down for a long minute before he turns back to Mom. “You brought the boy. He looks good; tall, solid.”

“I guess that was to be expected.” Mom’s nervous laugh makes me frown. “His father is broad and strong.”

“Yes…” He sniffs, leans toward a crystal ashtray and taps the cigar against the side. “Hayes.” He looks to the man on my left, the man with the sausage fingers, and lifts his chin. “Take him to the girls. He can get to know his family while Jacintha and I speak.”

“My family?” My gaze darts between the two men. “What?”

“Wait.” He lifts a hand when Hayes grabs my collar. “What’s your name, boy?”

“Um…” I look to my mom and frown when her shaking hand gets shakier. She purses her lips to contain her nerves, but she lets them curl up just a fraction, as though to encourage me to speak. “Gunner, sir. My name is Gunner.”

“Gunner.” He nods thoughtfully. “Strong name. Prophetic, perhaps. Do you know how to use guns, kid?”

My eyes widen. “Um, no, sir. I’ve never used one.”

His dark eyes flicker over my shoulder to the policeman behind me. “We’ll teach him.”

“Wait, no—” Mom steps forward to object, but stops again when the final man in the suit peels his coat back and reveals a shiny pistol.

With a lifted brow, the army man watches her for a minute, then he looks over my shoulder. “Take him to the girls. We’ll be done in an hour or so.”

Fat-fingered-man grabs my collar and pulls me away. He’s not rough, he doesn’t hurt me, but he makes me move and doesn’t slow when I trip on my feet. “Move your ass, kid.”

“But my mom.”

He pushes me past the policeman and through the door. “She’s fine. She has business to see to, but you can see her again in a bit.”

“Where are you taking me?” I stumble along the hall, past the stair landing and into another hall.

Stopping outside a door, he lifts his chin. “My daughters are in there.” He leans lower, so our eyes are level. “If you touch either of them, I’ll snap your scrawny fucking arms.”

“My…” My eyes widen. “What?”

He smiles the way he did back in the other room. It’s fake and slimy. “My daughters are perfect. Introduce yourself, but don’t touch them. Capiche?”

“Umm…”

Grunting, he snaps the handle down and opens the door to reveal a bunch of kids, three of which are wrestling in the middle of the office. This one isn’t as fancy as the first office, but it’s not ugly either. But what makes it the coolest is that these girls are my age. Maybe a little younger. They’re definitely not grown, and they’re not in police or army uniforms — uniforms I thought cool until now.

 “Girls!” The man claps his hands loud enough that I jump, and the girls fall apart.

A toddler sits in the far corner on his own, quietly stacking blocks and bouncing his shoulders. Unfazed by the clapping — and the fighting — he looks up for a moment to assess the room, but goes back to stacking when he decides he’s uninterested in the rest of us.

“This is Gunner,” the man says in his gravelly voice. “He’s one of us now, so welcome him to the family.”

Two of the girls are beanpole thin. They’re younger than me by a few years, wear sundresses, tights, and black Mary Janes. I’m my mom’s only child, so it’s not like I have sisters at home, but I know what Mary Janes are, because the rich girls in my school wear them most days. The two thin girls are totally sisters, because they have the same pointy noses and thin lips. Their hair is the same; color, length, thickness. But the third girl, the one on the bottom of the pile, is a little chunky. She wears a dress too, and a cute coat that goes to her knees, but where the other two look like they enjoy their fancy dresses, the third looks like maybe she’s counting the seconds to toss it all away and wear shorts instead.

Her legs are thick enough for her knees to have dimples, which is kinda… well… cool. I’ve never met someone with knees like that before. All three girls pant, like they’ve been wrestling awhile, but the top two jump up super fast and turn to us, while the other stays down and sprawls back. Exhausted, she opens her legs a little, so I see a flash of white underwear, but I’ve seen my mom’s a million times before, so I turn away and pretend I didn’t see.

“Girls.” The man snaps his fingers and brings his daughters skipping forward. “Stella and Zoey, this is Gunner. I want you to make him feel welcome.”

“Daddy?” One of them looks up from beneath her lashes and makes puppy dog eyes. “He looks weird. Can we come with you?”

“No. Daddy’s got to take care of some business for now, but we’ll be done in a bit. Gunner’s coming back to the house with us tonight, so make sure you’re nice. We don’t get a choice.”

“But, Daddy!” The other one looks to me with a wrinkled nose, then she turns back to the chubby girl. “Why do we have to make friends with these people? They’re awwwful.” She drags the sound out and makes me regret thinking that just because they were kids, they would be cool.

“Because this is the cost of business.” He steps back without a single word for the third girl. Taking the door handle, his dark eyes stop and meet mine. “Play nice. If you’re an asshole to my girls, you’ll see the back of my hand. Do you understand?”

“Umm… yessir.” I jump when he slams the door closed, then I turn back to the sour-sisters and study them the way they study me. My mom taught me to mind my manners, she especially taught me to mind my manners around the female kind, but these girls act like I taste of lemons. “What’s your fuckin’ problem?”

Gasp! Shock! They can’t believe someone would speak to them in such a way.

“How dare you speak to us like that?” Sour-sister number one snaps. “You’re a dirty, poor, street filth boy who doesn’t belong here.”

I lift a brow and chuckle. They knew I was coming today, and they know I’m poor. “Did you practice that speech in the mirror this morning, or was that something you thought up on the fly?”

Sour-sister number two curls her lip and takes a step back. “Peasant. That’s what you are.”

“Yeah?” My eyes drift to the chubby girl to see whose side she’s on, then I look back to the elite squad. “If I’m a peasant, then what does that make you?”

“Worthy,” Sour-sister number one sneers. “We’re classy and demand respect.”

“And her?” I nod to the chubby girl. “How does she fit in?”

“She’s part of the help, just like you.” Sour-sister number two looks over her shoulder and glowers. “She needs to learn her place. Her daddy wears a badge; big effing deal. Our daddy owns this club. He owns all of this.” She lifts her hands as though to command her army of seahorses to swim up from the depths of the ocean or something. I’m going to call her Ursula. “This is our empire, and you’re nothing but a bastard child with a whore for a mother.”

I lift a hand and roll my bottom lip between my thumb and finger, when really, my hand tingles with the need to smack her down for talking about my mom. If she was a boy, we’d already be on the floor and she’d be knocked the hell out, but nobody ever prepared me for this kind of confrontation. Blood heats and roars through my veins as my temper wants to forget she’s female for a second and lay her out. But we don’t hit girls. We don’t hurt women.

Stepping around the sour chicks and stopping in front of the help, I extend my free hand. We’re both poor and unwanted, so I’ll stick with her and make sure those jerks don’t jump her again. “Come on up, girl.” When she’s up, she’s still a whole foot shorter than me, and I have to look down. I smile when I do. “You okay?”

“They’re bitches,” she growls. “Stuck up bitches think they can double-team me.”

I give the bitches my back and speak only to the chubby girl. “What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth.”

I nod. “How old are you, Elizabeth?”

Her eyes narrow. “I’m nine and three quarters. How old are you?”

“I’m eleven and a half, and my mom’s not a whore.” I stare into her eyes. “Will you call her a whore? Because if you do, we’re going to have problems.”

She hurriedly shakes her head. “I won’t say that. I don’t even know your mom, except that she’s Uncle’s girlfriend.”

I take a step back and frown as Elizabeth watches me through dirty green eyes. Her hand remains in mine, despite the fear that trickles into her gaze.

“No… My mom isn’t anyone’s girlfriend. Who told you she was?”

“Oh…” she hesitates. “I don’t know. I thought that’s what the adults said last night. But maybe I’m wrong.”

“You’re definitely wrong.” I hold her hand tighter and stand over her when she tries to step away from my glower. “Don’t say that shit ever again. In fact, don’t speak about her at all.”

“Okay.” She tugs her hand from mine with a grunt, pulling it to her chest and rubbing away the ache from my squeeze. “I won’t say that anymore.”

One of the sour-sisters makes a grunting sound at my back — maybe because she’s got the manners of a wild warthog — so I step into Elizabeth’s space and make her move. This office is big, with a large desk in the center and a tall leather chair behind it, so I shuffle the girl back and around the wooden desk. We’re nearer the toddler now, but he’s still quiet, stacking his blocks and bopping to whatever music is in his head.

I would give Elizabeth the comfortable chair and sit on the desk myself, but that would mean having my back to the bitches, and call me crazy, but I don’t trust them. So I drop into the leather chair and nod to the desk so Elizabeth can sit.

She looks to the sisters, who watch on in silence, stunned at the fact that someone came along and didn’t bend a knee when they demanded, then her eyes come back to mine. She’s about as comfortable giving them her back as I am.

“I’ll watch out for you, I swear.” I snatch up a metal letter opener from the desk and spin it in my hand as she climbs her chubby butt up and makes herself comfortable. “You’re not friends with them, are you?”

Elizabeth looks into her lap, giving herself an extra chin, and snorts. “Does it look like we’re friends? I don’t waste my time hanging out with snobs.”

“No, it looks like you’re working off an old shiner to me.” I point the letter opener toward an old bruise on her face. “Bitches jump you before?”

She nods and peeks over her shoulder. “I can fight back.” Her eyes come back to mine. “I’m not weak. But two against one is hard, and their legs are longer than mine.”

I snicker and let my eyes wander down her legs. “You seem to be missing a little of what God intended us to have. Are you a dwarf?”

“No! I’m just a little slower to grow. Geez, you don’t have to be rude.”

“If you were taller, you wouldn’t be chubby.” She growls when I smile. “Stretch it out, and you’d be in proportion.”

“You’re no better than them.” She pushes forward to jump off the desk, giving me yet another flash of white panties.

“Stop, I’m sorry.” I push her shoulder back and swallow when our eyes meet. “I didn’t mean that in a bad way. I mean, I guess I was teasing a little, but I didn’t mean it to be horrible. I joke when I’m not feeling comfortable.” I cast a glance to the bitches, who try to sneak closer to us.

They stop with an almost skid, back up on a squeak, and make themselves busy across the room as they drop to the floor beside a Barbie Dream Castle, and act like the children they really are. They can’t be more than seven or eight, but arrogance makes them act bigger than they are.

Spoiled brats with a daddy that gives into their every whim; I’ve met a billion of them at school.

I come back to meet Elizabeth’s eyes. “I’m sorry for teasing. People tease me all the time for being tall and too skinny.”

She purses her lips. “You are tall. And you’re too skinny, too.” Her lips twitch. “People tease me for being fat.”

I smile. “I don’t think you’re fat. I think you’re thick, maybe. Like you have a little extra padding, I suppose. But you’re gonna hit that growth spurt soon, and you won’t be able to keep up with the food.”

“Yeah?” She looks me up and down. “That happened to you?”

“Uh-huh. I get sore knees and the kind of hunger that nothing can fix every couple months. I go to bed, sleep for twelve hours, and wake up another couple inches taller.” I flash a wide grin, because I kinda like it. I want to be the tallest, the biggest, the strongest. “My mom gets mad, because she can’t keep up with the clothes.”

She scoffs. “My daddy gets mad too, but because he doesn’t wanna buy ‘fat girl’ clothes anymore.” She bobs her head with extra exaggeration. “‘Why can’t you be thin like the Hayes girls, huh? Why can’t you look like them’?”

I scoff. “He sounds like a total asshole.”

She nibbles on her lip and hides her grin. The sour-sisters continue to sneak glances our way, but each time they move to approach, our eyes meet, mine fiery hot and still pissed about the comment about my mom, so they sit their asses down and turn away again.

“I don’t call him an asshole, though,” Elizabeth whispers. “No way José. He’d beat my butt so I couldn’t sit for a week.”

I spin the letter opener between my fingers. “Does your dad beat you often? He likes to hurt girls?”

Shrugging, she reaches for a metal ruler near the front of the desk. “He doesn’t, like, beat me or anything. Not with his fists. He spanks me if I’m bad, or sends me to my room if I back talk. But it’s not so bad. He has a stressful job, so…” She looks up. Shrugs.

“My mom has a stressful job too,” I counter. “She’s always working, always tired.” I peek around Elizabeth for a moment, then I lean in closer and whisper, “We’re always broke.” The sour-sisters might be right about me, they might even be right about my dirty clothes and poor life, but my mom’s not a whore, and our finances are none of their damn business. “My mom never beats me, though.”

“That’s probably because you’re a boy,” she argues. “You’ll be bigger than her one day. She’s making smart choices today, so you don’t turn and flatten her when you’re older. That’s not something my daddy ever has to worry about.”

“No.” I shake my head and study the letter opener. “I would never hurt her when I’m bigger. She’s my mom. There’s nothing she could do that would make me that mad.”

“Well, aren’t you lucky?” With a roll of her eyes for my very own kind of elitism, Elizabeth peeks over her shoulder and growls, “God, I hate them. They think they’re soooo special, but it’s all a lie. They’re the help too. If they think they’re special because of their last name, then they have no clue how much life is gonna kick their asses. Around here, unless you belong to Uncle, and even sometimes then, you’re the help.”

I narrow my eyes and sit back to study the girl in front of me and her constant need to flash her panties. She doesn’t even know she does it, which proves that she’s used to wearing shorts. I study her cute hair; mousy brown and tied in that half-up, half-down way girls do. A shiny pin holds it together at the back, and she wears cute unicorn earrings in her ears, though a part of me wonders if those are stickers.

Her eyes are like a rainforest green, but during a thunderstorm, when mud and dirt fling around. Her hands are fat like her knees, so her knuckles have dimples and tempt me to make a comment. But I don’t, because I’m not here to be mean, and she’s already laid down her rules.

Instead, I slowly spin the letter opener and watch the sunlight from the windows glint off the metal. “Your uncle the army guy?” When she nods, my lips firm. “Guess that makes us family, because word on the street is he’s my dad.”

Her eyes widen. “No shit?”

I chuckle, despite the fact that none of this is funny to me. “Shit. That’s why we’re here; I’m supposed to be meeting him. Does that make you my cousin?”

She shakes her head. “He’s not actually my uncle. My daddy told me to call him that, something about respect, but he’s not my blood family.” She pauses. “He’s your dad for real?”

I shrug. “That’s what I’ve been told. We have the same hair, I guess. The same jawline. Not the same eyes, though.” I lean closer. “Does that make you not want to hang out with me anymore?”

“No.” Her long lashes come down to kiss her fat cheeks as she blinks. “We can be friends, so long as you’re not a prick. But… isn’t it kinda weird that you’re only meeting him today? You’re eleven.”

“Don’t judge me.” I sit back with a scowl and watch the door like I’m waiting for them to come back. They said their meeting would take an hour, and it’s been no more than ten minutes. “He and my mom aren’t together-together. They used to be together, they had me, then they separated. Lots of kids at my school have divorced parents. It’s not weird.”

“Were your mom and dad married before?” Elizabeth sets her Mary Janes on my leg, I guess to stop them from dangling. “You said you only just met him.”

“You’re super judgmental, ya know that? Why the twenty questions?”

“I’m not judging! I’m only asking. Geez. If you think I’m judging, then that’s on you.”

“Cop’s daughter,” I grumble. “Cops are always trying to judge without saying they’re judging.” I pause, because three-quarters of my heart wants to be a cop when I grow up. The other quarter wants to draw, but Mom’s told me a million times, ‘art never pays the bills’. “Does your dad ever call himself Walker?”

“What?” She scrunches her nose and giggles. “No. That would be weird.”

“Does he carry a gun every day? Even at home?”

“He takes it off at home.” Leaning forward, she plays with the buckles on her shoe, and because of her new angle, the heel digs into my thigh and hurts. No way would I admit that, though. Men don’t admit to pain. Men suck it up and shut up about it. “He has others around the house and stuff. Like, hidden in places he doesn’t think I know about. But the one on his belt, he takes off when he walks into the house and hangs it up on the hat rack.”

“The hat rack?” My lip curls back. “That’s not safe. How does he know you won’t accidentally hurt yourself?”

She scoffs. “Now who’s judging? And because if I hurt myself, he’ll beat me black and blue until I learn not to be so stupid. He told me when I was little to never touch his belt.” She shrugs. “I was warned, so if I touch it and blow my face off, then it’s my own damn fault.”

My eyes widen. That was a speech she’s said and heard a billion times in the past. My mom is always busy, always tired, always working, sometimes snappy and mean with her words, but she would never talk to me like that.

That cop I thought was cool twenty minutes ago is a straight up prick.

I take the ruler from her hands and toss it to the desk. “Wanna go for a walk?”

“You can’t do that!” Sour-sister number one pops to her feet and surges forward with her hands on her hips. “You can’t leave this room. Daddy said so.”

I scoff. “Your daddy can go fuck himself with a metal ruler. Now go sit back down and play with your dollies, little girl.”

Her eyes widen and flicker between me and Elizabeth. “She’s just the help!”

“And yet, she’s way cooler. I guess us poor kids have enough money to buy brains and some tact. Now we’re gonna stick together the way rich folks do at stupid dinner parties. Let’s go.” I take Elizabeth’s hand, pulling her off the desk and around to my back so she doesn’t have to look at the bitches. “If my mom comes looking, tell her we went for a walk. She’ll know where to find me.”

“You can’t leave!”

I stop and swing back around when the girl grabs my arm. She literally growls and bares her teeth.

“Stop me.” Our noses almost touch, and she backs up an inch when her eyes lock onto mine. “Sit the fuck down and stay away from me. They say we’re family now, but they’re wrong. You and your sister are spoiled brats, and I like to keep my connections classier than that. Elizabeth is the only cool person I’ve met since stepping into this club; if I ever walk into a room and find you beating on her again, I’ll flatten you. I don’t hit girls, but I have no problem taking out a bully.” I flick her hand off hard enough that it yanks her shoulder and makes her cry. “Stay away from me.”

She slowly backs up until she bumps into her sister. Holding her arm, her eyes fill with tears and force me to roll mine and drag Elizabeth through the door. The hallway is empty, and voices fill the office my mom and I went into when we first got here. I don’t go in there. Instead, I lead Elizabeth to the stairs and down.

“What is this place, anyway? It’s creepy.”

“Club.” She catches up and walks beside me rather than behind. Her legs are shorter than mine, so she has to work harder to keep up. “People come in here and dance every night. They… uh…” We reach the bottom step and stop. “They do naughty things here.”

“Naughty like what?” I continue walking when she looks away to hide the way her face has turned red.

“Like, they sometimes sell pills to people that make them dance faster.”

I frown. “Drugs?”

She shrugs. “My dad never calls them that, but I guess. They also wear guns and stuff…” She hesitates. “But apart from my dad, they’re not the police. So I don’t think they’re supposed to be wearing them.”

“Aren’t the police supposed to stop people from doing drugs and carrying guns? He wears that shiny badge, but he lets people do bad things?”

She flexes her fingers in my hand and hurries to keep up. “I don’t think he’s a very good policeman,” she murmurs. “I don’t think he follows the law like regular people.”

I push the front doors open and glance back toward the club when sunlight floods in and warms my jeans. Nobody comes running for us, so I lead Elizabeth through and close it again at our backs. “So your dad is like a vigilante police? A bit like Walker, the Texas Ranger?” My voice is hopeful, but it drops again when she shakes her head.

“No. I think he’s bad police. He hurts people when he’s supposed to help them. He arrests people that maybe didn’t do anything wrong. Or,” she leans in a little closer and whispers, “if their skin isn’t the same color as ours. But bad people like Uncle can do bad things, and he doesn’t get in trouble.”

I slow my steps and yank Elizabeth closer until her shoulder touches my chest. “The army guy is bad? What do you mean?”

“I mean…” Her lips quiver. “My daddy will beat me to death if I snitch. It would be especially stupid to snitch about that man when I’m talking to his son.”

“I’m not loyal to him.” I pull her away from the club and toward my car. I don’t have the keys, and even if I did, I wouldn’t want to sit inside. Instead, I lead her to the back and slide down so we sit on the hard gravel and lean against the frame. “I don’t know the guy.”

“But you said he’s your dad. You said your mom and him used to be together.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. I’m eleven and a half, and I met him today for the first time ever. That means he ain’t loyal to me or my mom. That means I’m more loyal to you at this point. I promise not to snitch on you. I won’t be the reason your father hurts you.”

She watches me with those dirty green eyes and tries to find my lies. I think she and I live in a world of complete opposites. She’s fed and has nice shoes, but she knows bad people. I never get new shoes, but my mom is special. She’s kind, and doesn’t talk to bad people…

Until now.

“This club belongs to Hayes,” she whispers. “Stella and Zoey’s dad. He’s the boss here, which is why they think they’re special, but Uncle is Hayes’ boss. He’s the big boss that everyone is scared of. He makes sure everyone is working how he wants them, and I think… well…” She leans around the car to peek back at the club. “They sell drugs and stuff. I don’t know what kind, I don’t know about that stuff. But there was one time I touched this bag of pills Daddy brought home. They were in a sandwich bag, like the kind I take to school sometimes.”

“When?”

She shrugs. “When I was little. Like, year before last? I opened the bag, but I was only looking. I touched the pills.” She looks into my eyes. “They were the size of M&M’s, but not colorful. I wasn’t gonna take one or anything, I’m not stupid, but Daddy walked in and found me touching them, so I got into big trouble. He beat me so bad,” her voice shakes. “He screamed so loud and sent me to my room. Next thing I knew, I woke up in the hospital.”

“What?” I shout. “In the hospital?”

Elizabeth jumps and scoots a few inches to her left to create space between us. Her head swings wildly to the left to peek back at the club. “Sheesh! Shut up, or you’ll get us both beat.”

“I’m sorry.” I grab her hand and tug her back. I look around my side of the car, but the club doors remain closed. The windows covered. The Addams Family, undisturbed. “I’m sorry. You surprised me is all. Your own father beat you so bad you passed out and woke in a hospital? And CPS did nothing about it?”

“No, he didn’t beat me that bad,” she huffs. “I mean, he made it so I couldn’t sit very well, but he didn’t put me in the hospital. I didn’t really know what happened. I went to bed and cried about being in trouble. I, uh…” Her cheeks go red. “I used to suck my thumb, okay? It’s a baby thing that I liked to do. So I was sucking my thumb and trying not to cry, because he comes back and smacks me again if I cry too much, then I went to sleep. Woke up in the hospital.”

“I mean… shit.” I blow out a breath. “I don’t understand.”

She swallows and looks down into her lap. “I guess maybe I had drugs on my fingers. They said I’d overdosed, and they had to give me shots to make it all better.”

Holy shit. “You OD’d, and you were only, what, six?”

She lifts her nose in the air the same way the sour-sisters do. “I was seven and a quarter, thank you very much.”

“And CPS didn’t take you away?”

She shakes her head. “Daddy is important at work. He said it was because of a drug bust he’d made, and I accidentally touched his work stuff.” Her eyes sparkle like maybe she wants to cry. “I was told not to touch his stuff. So I was in hospital for a bit and they made me all better. Uncle got so mad at Daddy,” she whispers. “Like, really, really mad. He got in trouble from him, and then I got in trouble from Daddy.”

My brows pull closer together. “Where’s your mom?”

She lifts her shoulders until they touch her cheeks, then lets them drop again. “I don’t know. But Daddy says if I keep going the way I am, we’ll be together again soon.”

Elizabeth and I sit on that cold concrete for a full hour, huddled together when the wind picks up, and talk about… well… life. We live such different lives, but we’re still kind of the same. We’re both living with a single parent, and that single parent is too busy for us most of the time. We both go to fancy schools that we hate; I’m pretty sure the army man pays tuition for us both, but at least I get to go home each afternoon. Elizabeth is shipped off to some school far away where she has to sleep during the week and only gets to come home on weekends.

We’re both poor kids being pushed into a family we’re not sure we want a part of, but she’s been here way longer than I have. She’s been here for years. Years longer than I intend to be.

My arms get cold the longer we sit, so Elizabeth leans against me to share her coat.

Her legs get cold, so I tuck them close and push them under mine so my jeans keep her warm.

I don’t like girls. Not really. I’m not interested in kissing them yet, even if most of my friends have, and I’ve never sat with one and cuddled before, but we’re cold, so we do what we have to do and help each other out.

I like sitting with Elizabeth. She’s not judging my stained shirt or my scuffed sneakers. She’s not judging the fact I need a haircut or the weird way my chest caves in a little because it’s too broad and I haven’t grown into it yet. And her thickness makes for the kind of hug only my mom can give. Hayes said she and I are family now. I refuse to be family with the sour-sisters, but with Elizabeth… I could get on board with that. Even if Mom and I drive away after this meeting today and I never see Elizabeth again, she can still be my family.

“Do you think you’ll stay here forever?”

“No.” I play with the button on her coat and ignore how numb my butt has turned. “All our stuff is still in my apartment back home. We only came with the clothes we have on, so I think we’re going home in a bit. Mom never mentioned moving, and she would tell me.”

Elizabeth’s dirty green eyes meet mine. “Do you live very far away?”

“Three hours.” I shrug. “And Mom has to go to work tomorrow, so I bet we’ll have to leave soon. I don’t know why they’re talking without me –- she said I was meeting my dad today, but I only saw him for a sec, then I was taken to the room you were in, so it’s not like we hung out and tossed a baseball or anything.”

Elizabeth gives a soft laugh and leans closer. “Is that what you wanna do? Play fetch like a dog? Because I can tell you, it’s not as fun as it sounds.”

I smile and lean a little closer, putting all my weight on one bum cheek to help the other feel better. “You have a dad. And I have a mom. That almost makes one whole family.”

“Does that make you my brother, then?”

“Hmm…” I frown and switch butt cheeks. “I don’t think so. I don’t feel like you’re my sister. But I can promise we’ll always be family now, which means I promise to always love you.”

Her cheeks stain a soft pink. “Do you have a cell phone? We could text sometimes when you go home.”

I shake my head and grin. “No way could my mom afford an extra phone. Wait…” I stop rolling from cheek to cheek and look into her eyes. Chubby cheeks smoosh them up so they’re a little squinty. “Do you have a cell phone?”

She nods, but it’s not arrogant like how the sour-sisters would gloat. “It’s an old one from when my daddy upgraded. It doesn’t do much else, but I can text and stuff. It’s too bad you don’t have one, because it would have been nice to talk when you leave.”

“Yeah…”

I lower back to both butt cheeks and groan. It hurts no matter how much I move. Picking up a sharp rock from the ground beside me, I angle my torso so I can lean a little under my car, then I start scratching letters into the exhaust pipe. G… U… N…

I murmur each letter as I scratch it in, and when I get to Elizabeth’s name, she leans against me so she can see, and smiles.

“‘Gunner loves Elizabeth’?”

I smile. “For…ever…” I scratch and speak, and let my words stretch out. “It sucks that we have to leave. Maybe we’ll visit more, since my mom decided it would be good to know my dad now. You can tell me if the bitches pick on you some more, and I’ll take care of them when I visit.”

When I’m done vandalizing my mom’s car, I blow on my markings to make sure the dust is gone and I like how it looks, and Elizabeth leans off me to look back to the club.

She studies the darkened windows with narrowed eyes. “We should go back inside. If I’m caught out here, Daddy will get super mad.”

“I don’t want you to get into trouble.” I drop my rock and lift my legs to let her slide out, then I push off the ground with an old-man groan and make Elizabeth laugh. It’s a sweet sound, soft and silly, and nothing like the girls in my school. Reaching out, I take her hand and drag her to her feet.

“Thanks for being cool.” Her voice is barely a whisper as we make our way out of the wind and push through the club doors. “I heard you were coming today, and all I could think was Great, another jerk to pick on me while our dads are talking.

“I won’t pick on you. Never ever.” I turn to her at the bottom of the stairs and smile. “Except maybe about your knees. They’re chubby and cute.”

“I’ll stab you with the letter opener,” she growls. She’s like a little tiger cub, growling and snapping her teeth. There’s no strength behind her threats, no real danger. Just noise. “Take me back to the office, then turn around while I grab it.”

“The letter opener?” I reach back into my pocket. “You mean this one?” I chuckle when she gasps, then slip it back where I had it. “It’s shiny, right?”

“You stole it?” The tiger has turned back into cop’s daughter, and she can’t wrap her mind around a thief. “That’s so naughty.”

“Sometimes a kid has to steal to help supplement the money his mom makes. I’m not a bad person, but sometimes I take things that’ll help us eat.”

Her big eyes narrow with suspicion. “And how will a letter opener help you? You won’t sell it. It won’t feed you or keep you warm at night.” She slams her hands onto her hips and scrunches her nose like a little pug dog. “That’s not supplementing, that’s stealing.”

Uncaring, I continue up the stairs and pull her along. “Sometimes something shiny gets my attention. If I want it, I take it. It’s not such a big deal.”

“It’s a big deal to me,” she growls. “I don’t like breaking the law.”

“Says the daughter of the dirty cop.”

The way she recoils makes me feel like I hit her. “He’s not… he…” Her face drains. “Oh my gosh.”

“We’re in a club with bad people who have bad guns, your daddy beats you for fun and brings drugs home for snack time.” And my mom is meeting with them. I start walking faster. “Your daddy is seriously dirty. And my mom needs to be taken out of here now.”

I’m not dirty,” Elizabeth murmurs. We reach the top of the stairs. Turn right, and we head into the office with my mom and the man I’m supposed to call dad. Turn left, and we meet up with the sour-sisters all over again. So we stop in the middle, Switzerland, and she pulls me around. “I’m not a bad person, Gunner. I promise I’m not.”

“I know. You’re nothing like the bitches. And you’re not like your dad either.”

She shakes her head. It’s important to her nine-year old brain that I believe her. “I’m good. And when I’m a grownup, I’ll make sure that all of this stuff stops.” She leans closer to whisper, “If my daddy is dirty, I’m going to send him to jail. And if Uncle is just as bad, he can go and share a cell with him and whoever else is in on it. Then the bitches can live like regular folks without money. Let’s see how smug they are when they’re broke.”

“I believe you.” I squeeze her hand and grin. “I can’t wait to see you take them down. I can’t hit a girl, but I can sure as hell teach you how to throw a right hook. It’ll almost be like I smacked them down myself.” I look over my shoulder and study the door my mom is hidden by. I don’t like this place. I don’t like these people. “I’m gonna take you back to the office, then I’m getting my mom and leaving. This isn’t all it was talked up to be.”

“Okay.” She hurries along beside me, keeping up as we approach the office with the bitches. “Are you gonna take your mom and leave now?”

“Yup. She’s better than this place.”

“But you don’t have a phone?”

We stop at the door. I rest my hand on the handle, but don’t open it yet. “No. There’s no way my mom could afford an extra bill like that.”

Elizabeth’s light eyebrows furrow as she cranes her neck back and studies my eyes. “How will I find you again? I’m only nine, and if you’re leaving and not coming back…”

“Well…” I hate the way my stomach drops as I consider her question. “I’m not sure. What’s your full name? Maybe I can look in the phone book someday. It might be a long time, but I’ll try.”

“Tate…” She licks her bottom lip. “My last name is Tate.”

“Okay, Elizabeth Tate.” I run her name through my mind over and over again to sear the words into my brain. Elizabeth Tate. Elizabeth Tate. Elizabeth Tate. “I won’t ever forget, I promise.”

“You can call me Libby, if you want.” She wrings her hands together, and looks to the floor to avoid my eyes. “Nobody else calls me Libby. But it’s what I would prefer.”

“Okay.” I flash a wide grin and open the office door. “Libby Tate. I won’t ever forget, okay? I’ll come find you someday.”

Her gaze comes up. “Do you promise?”

“I do. I swear. Gunner and Elizabeth forever, remember?”

“Spit shake?” Her eyes are large and round, way more innocent than mine ever were, as she holds her hand out and hocks booger-filled spit into her palm. My stomach turns, but my lips pull up into a grin anyway.

“Okay.” I do the same, then we clasp hands and shake. “This is so gross, by the way.”

“I know!” She dissolves into silly giggles until her cheeks bounce. “You promised. Don’t break it.”

“I won’t. Come on.” I release her hand, wipe mine on my jeans, then push her through the door and into calculating silence. The sour-sisters look up from their spot on the floor and watch us with suspicion. I watch them with the same emotion, but I can’t steal Libby, and I refuse to let my mom stay here. “You gonna be okay?”

“Yeah.” Libby steps past me and digs her hands into the pockets of her coat. “I’ll be fine. I’ll see you around, okay? Don’t forget me.”

“I won’t.” I slowly retreat. One step, then two. I let my eyes drop to the sisters and narrow. “If you touch her again, you’ll have to deal with me. Do you understand?”

As a united pair, they roll their eyes and continue playing with their dolls.

“Hey, Libby?” I wait for her gaze. “Hard spot, soft spot.”

She narrows her eyes in question, so I nod toward the bitches, then I lift my hand and touch my knuckles. “Hard spot.” I touch the soft part of my throat. “Soft spot.” I touch my elbow. “Hard spot.” Then I touch my eye. “Soft spot.” I touch my knee. “Hard spot.” And finally, I point at my crotch. “Soft spot. Got it?”

Beaming, she nods. “I got it.”

“Good girl. Be safe, okay? I’ll catch you around.”

I step out of the room and close the door with a soft snick. Smiling, hopeful I’ll get to see her again someday, I move down the hall toward deep voices and odd noises. I’m eleven years old and not stupid, but in my rush, I approach the door with naiveté, gently push the handle down and inch the door open.

“Colum! No. Stop.”

My mom is laid out along the heavy wooden desk I saw earlier, but her panties are on the floor, and tears flood from her eyes. I’m the kid that pretends to be tough, the kid who stole a letter opener like it could be a weapon, and speak to girls smaller and younger than me like I’m a powerful mafioso of some sort, but now I watch the army man do dirty things to my mom on the desk while the cop and the suit guys watch on.

But she doesn’t like it. She doesn’t like it at all.

“The boy is mine,” he hisses. “He’s mine, and he will stay with me.” He pushes forward into my mom, but where the movies make out that the woman likes it, my mom cries and lets her head loll around like she’s in a daze.

She turns to the left as though she knows I’m here, but I didn’t make a sound. Her right eye is swollen shut, and the right side of her mouth is cut and bleeding. Her left eye, the only one she can open, stops on me and fills with more tears as my dad does those things to her body.

“Run.” Her voice is croaky, like she’s had laryngitis for a week. “Doodlebug, run.”

My heart races so hard that it hurts my chest. I reach back for the letter opener, though I have no clue what I would do with it if I needed it. I shake my head with quick, jerky shakes. I don’t want to leave her. I don’t want to go without her.

“Run!”

Colum’s eyes swing away from her for the first time since I came in here, but when I’m released from her eyes, I find the gun in his hand. The feral rage in his eyes. We stare for a minute while he… he… he pushes himself into her. His hips don’t stop for one single second, but we stare, and then Mom screams one last time.

“Run!”

Colum brings the end of the gun to Mom’s temple as his eyes go to the cop. “Get him.”

My body refuses to run. My feet refuse to move. But my brain screams and screams until it aches. I take a step into the room to get my mom, but then the cop’s hand snaps down and wraps around my wrist. Without purposely doing it, my right hand whips down so the letter opener pushes through his arm and comes out the other side.

Screams. So many screams.

The cop screams. My mom screams. Colum screams. And then my mom’s screams stop when the gun goes off, and her head slams back against the desk.

My stomach races up my throat until it comes out as vomit and splashes all over the cop’s shoes, but then Colum turns and points the gun at my face, and my mom’s screamed “Run!” echoes in my brain. Vomit on my shirt, stomach acid burning my nose, and tears in my eyes, I spin and run.

And run.

And run.

I run along the hall and down the stairs. I miss one step, then another, then one more until I’m not running anymore, but falling. I roll forever, then slam to the floor at the bottom until more vomit races up my throat. I slip in my mess, my shoes can’t gain traction, but then the men stop at the top of the stairs and bullets zing past my head.

“Don’t hit him!” Colum’s voice is booming and demanding. He grabs the cop’s collar and tosses him toward the stairs. “Bring him back. Unharmed!”

I race toward the final hall that leads to the front door, but before I turn, I catch sight of soft brown hair and loose curls. Libby stands at the top of the stairs and watches with tears in her eyes.

I want to stop. I want to help her. I want to bring her with me, because she’s not safe with these people, but then another bullet slams into the wall an inch from my head and sends wood and paint chips flying like shrapnel.

I turn and bolt toward the front doors. Toward freedom and hell. Toward the sunlight, and away from my mom.

Tears blind me as I burst into the daylight and the cold wind bites at my arms.

I forgot my sweater. I really wish I’d remembered my sweater this morning.

Footsteps echo in the club, and pee dribbles along my legs, because I still didn’t go after our drive, but I don’t slow as I hit the parking lot and my feet slip in the loose gravel.

I run.

And run.

And run.

And when the sun finally goes down hours later, I stop in an alleyway at the back of a restaurant in town and curl up in the tossed cardboard boxes. The letter opener is still in my shaking hand. Vomit is caked on my shirt. I wake at some point when the sky outside is pitch black, and shoo a stray cat away from my dirty shirt.

And the whole time, I don’t stop crying.

I want my mom.

I want Libby.

I want to go home.

***

BLURB:

Bishop men are nothing but a plague on this planet, a disease that needs eradication before it spreads.

They’re murderers. Liars. Thieves.

The day I met Colum Bishop, I thought my life was finally turning around. I was led to believe he would be our saviour. He was supposed to be our hero, a long awaited reprieve from the hardships life insisted on throwing at my mom and me. But in reality, he was the beginning of the very end.

Instead of accepting us, he destroyed us.

Instead of saving us, he had us murdered.

But before my final moments, I met a girl. My only ally in a savage war that would eventually end my life.

Elizabeth Tate was the first and last thought that passed through my mind as I lay in an alleyway and finally closed my eyes.

It’s ironic, really, that my name is Gunner Bishop. That makes me his heir, I suppose. But the Bishop kingdom is nothing to aspire toward.

I was born to be great, but my name makes it impossible.

I was born to lead, but my father made sure I wouldn’t grow to lead him.

I have just two more Bishops to take care of, and then I can rest knowing my mother’s death wasn’t in vain.

From a child in alleyway, I must shed and eradicate the filth my name implies, then I’ll emerge amongst the flames and rule the empire I was destined to lead.

I truly hope Libby’s loyalties are not with the man she calls Uncle.