Long Time Gone
December 17, 2013 (Ebook)
October 23, 2013 (Print)
Hell or High Water, Book 2
Soldier of fortune Prophet Drews always worked aloneâ€”until Tom Boudreaux became his partner. But when Tom walked away three months ago, ostensibly to keep Prophet safe, Prophet learned the true meaning of being alone. Everyone knows that Prophet, a Navy SEAL turned CIA spook turned mercenary, can look after himself. Which means he mustâ€™ve driven his lover away.
Even with half a world between them, Prophet canâ€™t get the man out of his head. Maybe thatâ€™s why heâ€™s in New Orleans in the middle of a hurricane, protecting Tomâ€™s aunt. But the only looter around is Tom, bursting back into Prophetâ€™s life. It turns out that Prophetâ€™s been stuck in Tomâ€™s headâ€”and heartâ€”too.
Their explosive reunion gets even hotter when Tom is arrested for murder. As they fight to clear his name, they delve deep into his past, finding enemies among everyone they meet. Staying alive in such a dangerous world is hard enough, but they soon discover that fighting to stay together is the most difficult thing theyâ€™ve ever done.
Connected Books: Hell or High Water
Read an Excerpt
Kasey Coetzee backed against the cold stone of the wellâ€™s sides, hiding her knife behind her. Abject terror choked her, but she swallowed it.
She would survive, dammit.
After being ignored for days, someone was leaning over the side of the well, blocking the light. She wasnâ€™t sure which was the more horrifying prospectâ€”being left to die down here or her captors pulling her out.
The last time theyâ€™d thrown several bottles of water to herâ€”which had to be more than a full day and a half agoâ€”one of them had called down, â€śJy beter dit werd wees vir jou vader.â€ť
Youâ€™d better be worth it to your father.
Now, a distinctively American voice said, â€śIâ€™m here to help you, Kasey.â€ť She sagged and sobbed with relief. Even if it was the CIA again, at least she would be out of this hole. She saw he was lowering something down to her only when it got close enough to grab, which she did. It was a harness with a pulley and she forced back her tears at the first near-taste of freedom.
â€śStep into the rig and Iâ€™ll get you up.â€ť
Five days ago, her kidnappersâ€”soldiers from her own countryâ€”had trapped her in here by lowering her into the well in a rig just like this, except her hands had been bound in front of her. Sheâ€™d searched for days for something to cut the rope, which is how sheâ€™d found the knife.
And the bones.
The well was fifteen feet deep and both too smooth and too wide to climb. Sheâ€™d tried, of course, but all she had to show for it were bloodied and bruised hands, her nails jagged and torn. At least it had been somewhat cool, thanks to the depthâ€”that had been the only saving grace over the past few days.
But this man was her true saving grace, and his voice was a rough-and-tumble slide over her nerves. It was deep and low and commandingâ€”a voice she wouldnâ€™t have thought to disagree with.
â€śKasey, youâ€™re thinking too much,â€ť he told her now. â€śJust step into the rig and Iâ€™ll haul you up. Go on, thatâ€™s it,â€ť he encouraged as she pulled the rope around each leg. It was knotted to hold her around her thighs and waist, and as soon as she felt tension on the rope, she shoved the knife in the waistband of her jeans, grabbed onto one of the knots, and hooked her feet desperately into the smooth stones. She gained a foothold more easily now, thanks to the manâ€™s strong grip on the rope.
â€śCome on now. Iâ€™ve got you.â€ť He helped her up the unrelentingly smooth sides, his strength doing most of the work. When she got close enough to the top, she panicked and grabbed for his arms. Her muscles screamed, but he eased her up, making her do as little of the work as possible, and finally, the heat of the midday sun hit her face. She was halfway over the top when he grabbed her around the waist and hauled her completely out.
She remained balanced against him for a second, and even as she blinked to try to get used to the light, she could see a military-looking vehicle coming toward them through the heat shimmering off the sand. It mustâ€™ve been heading their way the entire time, but her rescuer seemed unconcerned as he set her feet on the ground and let her lean against the well. He immediately wound fabric around her headâ€”she assumed it was for camouflage, like the one he woreâ€”and in return, she shimmied the ropes off her legs.
â€śCan you walk?â€ť
â€śJa,â€ť she rasped. Coughed. â€śSorry, yes.â€ť
â€śOkay. Come on then.â€ť His tone was skeptical, but he let her try. She lurched forward, nearly fell face-first into the sand, and he caught her in his arms with a swift, easy movement, and carried her away from the well.
And still, the big green truck came closer. â€śIâ€™m sorry.â€ť
â€śNothing to be sorry for.â€ť
How he could be so calm when the truck was advancing was beyond her. But it was lulling her into the same state, and she didnâ€™t care anymore if it was a false sense of security. She was so tired of panicking. â€śMy father?â€ť
â€śAre you taking me to him?â€ť
â€śNo. Itâ€™s safer not to.â€ť
She was supposed to have been safe last week, when the CIA had taken her away from her fatherâ€™s house, claiming she was in grave danger. They were the only thing standing in the way of certain death, theyâ€™d told her. There are men who want to kidnap you. Weâ€™ve already got your father in a safe place. He wanted us to come and get you.
But theyâ€™d kept her away from her father, not with him. And not more than two days after putting her in a safe house, the two agents whoâ€™d been guarding her had been shot dead, and sheâ€™d been captured. Blindfolded, gagged, tied, thrown into a moving car, and brought here.
Now, she blinked and saw a tent. Two trucks were parked alongside it, and several bodies were strewn along the ground like they were made of nothing. Three terrorists down.
More are coming.
He helped her up into the back seat of one of the trucks by the tent and handed her a gun. â€śStay down. Shoot anyone who comes close. Except me. Otherwise, just wait here.â€ť As if she had someplace else to be.
She did as she was told, lying flat on her belly and peeking up to watch him walk toward the big green truck, his empty hands up in the air. The truck stopped near the other side of the well, and several men dressed in military camouflage got out with their weapons drawn. She instinctively started to raise her gun to save her rescuer, when, in a blur of motion, she saw him suddenly holding a pistol in each hand. With equal parts unmistakable grace and efficiency, he shot and killed the men before they could even register his weapons.
It was the second time in recent weeks sheâ€™d seen men killed. But this time, it was the bad guys who died.
She scrambled to the front seat as he jogged to the dead menâ€™s now-abandoned vehicle, searched it, and walked back toward her with two bags. He put them into the back of the old Land Rover and got in next to her. The truck started up with a rattle and then a roar. As he drove, he slowly pulled the camouflaging from around his face, loosening it so it hung around his neck. Ready, she supposed, to be pulled up again quickly, if necessary.
She didnâ€™t want to think about that.
She studied him surreptitiously as he droveâ€”there were no true discernible paths, but he didnâ€™t hesitate as he maneuvered the truck over the unforgiving landscape.
â€śAre you hurt?â€ť he asked.
â€śI donâ€™t think so,â€ť she said, and how stupid she sounded.
He smiled, just a little. She noticed fresh blood on the sleeve of his T-shirt, but when she gasped, he shook his head as if to tell her he was fine.
â€śWhy didnâ€™t they kill you on sight?â€ť she asked.
His mouth quirked to the side a touch. â€śThatâ€™s a record. Usually, someone knows me at least twenty-four hours before wanting me dead.â€ť
She covered her mouth, but not before the laugh spilled out. A laugh, in the middle of all this shit. He was grinning too, and maybe inappropriateness during times of crisis was what got men like him through.
She didnâ€™t think heâ€™d answer her, but he said, â€śThereâ€™s a bounty on my head in this country. Iâ€™m worth more alive than dead.â€ť
â€śWhat about me?â€ť she asked.
â€śSame. But Iâ€™m worth more.â€ť
â€śThat doesnâ€™t seem fair. I think Iâ€™m cuter.â€ť
He glanced at her slyly. â€śLifeâ€™s a bitch.â€ť Then he blinked and demanded, â€śDid you just call me cute in a roundabout way? Because Iâ€™m not fucking cute.â€ť
She grinned again under her fist. If she didnâ€™t laugh, sheâ€™d cry, because it was all there, bubbling up underneath the surface.
And God, he hadnâ€™t said a word about what had happened in the desert, about the lives heâ€™d taken for her, and why heâ€™d done so. â€śDid my father hire you to come find me?â€ť
â€śNo,â€ť he said bluntly. â€śHe canâ€™t do that.â€ť
â€śSo who hired you? Because the CIA told me that if I got captured, they wouldnâ€™t negotiate for my release. And they said that the South African government wouldnâ€™t either.â€ť
â€śDid you see any negotiating?â€ť
â€śNo.â€ť She rubbed her arms at a sudden chill, despite the heat. He pointed to the floor by her feet, where a blanket was rolled up. As she draped it over her shoulders, she asked, â€śYouâ€™re not with the CIA, then?â€ť
â€śFuck no.â€ť He glanced at her. â€śDisappointed?â€ť
â€śBest news Iâ€™ve heard all day,â€ť she managed, and he gave a curt nod.
He was big. Fierce and determined, with gray eyes that were someplace between liquid steel and granite, a gaze that missed nothing when he glanced over at her. Even when he attended to her, he was watching everything around him, including where the truck was headed.
â€śYou know what my father used to do?â€ť
â€śI know. Nuclear physicists are all the rage nowadays.â€ť There was an edge to the sarcasm, and she noted his hands tightened on the wheel when he spoke, but only for a second, and then they relaxed again.
â€śHeâ€™d retired from all of that. Heâ€™s a high school teacher. We live in Dar es Salaam under new names.â€ť
â€śForced retirement, no?â€ť
â€śJa,â€ť she agreed. â€śSouth Africa stopped its nuclear program and left men like my father exposed.â€ť Something she wasnâ€™t supposed to reveal to another living soul. Because her father had worked on nuclear weapons, he was considered equal parts pariah and high-value target. She was his biggest liability. â€śWe were well hidden. I donâ€™t know how the CIA found us.â€ť
Her rescuer snorted. â€śYeah, theyâ€™re good like that.â€ť
A swell of panic washed over her. â€śDid the CIA finding us trigger my kidnapping?â€ť
â€śYeah, I think so, Kasey,â€ť he said, almost gently. â€śBreathe.â€ť
She drew in a few shaky ones at his reminder. It was as if the adrenaline rush keeping her going until this point had also been stopping the panic. â€śMy father never thought the CIA would try to force him to work with them.â€ť
He glanced at her for a brief second, his jaw clenched, but he didnâ€™t say anything except, â€śHe was wrong.â€ť
â€śDid they force him by saying theyâ€™d turn him over to the terrorists?â€ť
His answer was careful. â€śThe CIA protects their countryâ€™s best interests.â€ť
So then, yes. Fuckers. â€śThey made promises. I followed their rules. That nearly got me killed,â€ť she said bitterly.
He didnâ€™t say anything about that. Instead, he gestured to the back. â€śGrab some water. Go slowâ€”Iâ€™m guessing they gave you the bare minimum.â€ť
She reached over the seat to grab a couple of bottles. She handed him one and then opened one for herself. She did as he said, even though instinct nagged at her to swallow the entire bottle in one large gulp. He had food and water for her. She ate and drank gratefully, was hungrier than maybe she should be after such an ordeal, but he seemed pleased that she had an appetite.
After another half an hour, she was much calmer. He reached toward the radio, but before he touched the button, he said, â€śRules are usually in place because they help the people who made them, more than the people who have to follow them. Same goes for people who have questions they want you to answer. Keep some shit just for you. Gives you an edge.â€ť
Then he turned the knob and the low beat of the local music filled the truck. That plus the rumble of the truck lulled her to sleep. When she woke, she was in a hotel room. Tucked into bed. Safe.
But she wasnâ€™t alone.
The woman whoâ€™d been sitting in the room with her introduced herself as Special Agent Lawler and explained that someone had called them with Kaseyâ€™s location and told them to come and guard her.
â€śDo you have any idea who that was?â€ť Agent Lawler asked.
Kasey pulled the covers up like a shield. â€śHe rescued me. I donâ€™t remember him bringing me in hereâ€”I was asleep.â€ť
â€śDid he drug you?â€ť
â€śNo.â€ť She actually felt wide-awake, with none of the residual fuzziness sheâ€™d had from the initial kidnapping. â€śHe saved me. What will you do for me?â€ť
â€śYouâ€™re safe here. There are guards at the door.â€ť
Kasey glanced between the closed door and the agent. â€śThere were guards last time too.â€ť
Agent Lawlerâ€™s face tightened, and she ignored Kaseyâ€™s words, instead asking again, â€śThe man who rescued youâ€”who was he?â€ť
She blinked. â€śHe didnâ€™t tell me his name.â€ť
â€śDid he say who sent him?â€ť
â€śBut he knew about your father.â€ť
â€śHe said he did.â€ť
Why the man had helped her was a mystery. Why the CIA hadnâ€™t been able to find her on their own was another, and they werenâ€™t too happy with her when sheâ€™d pointed that out. They werenâ€™t happy that she didnâ€™t expand on what she and her rescuer had talked about either, but Kasey didnâ€™t see that it was pertinent.
Later that day, she heard Agent Lawler whispering into her phone, â€śThis is the fourth one this month, and she also wonâ€™t give any answers about him.â€ť Her back was turned away from Kasey. â€śHow the hell does this asshole engender such goodwill?â€ť
Kasey couldnâ€™t help but smile. Some people were just born like that.
Itâ€™s hotter than hell here. Reminds me a lot of home. You know, my Cajun voodoo home. I used to spend hours tracking my way through the swamps. I could go in there blindfolded and still know where I was. Could lead myself in the dark, based on the sounds around me. The feel of the bark and moss on my fingers. How the ground felt under my feet.
Hint: walk away from the squish or youâ€™re headed into actual water. Seems simple, but people tend to panic in the dark. I donâ€™t think you would. You take action.
I just fight.
* * * * *
I met Copeâ€™s girlfriend on Skype. Sheâ€™s very . . . perky. Doesnâ€™t seem to fit with Cope. Not that Iâ€™m an expert on relationships.
You have to understand why I did it, Proph. I couldnâ€™t risk you. With Cope, itâ€™s different, and I donâ€™t know why.
I know what youâ€™re thinkingâ€”by that logic, Copeâ€™s expendable. But thatâ€™s not it at all. Itâ€™s like . . . you took it, Prophetâ€”you took the goddamned curse, and you wrapped it all up in that tornado of yours, and now itâ€™s a part of you. Which means that staying away from you will keep you safe.
I keep picturing you, hanging there by your wrists in front of Sadiq. Fighting. Keep thinking that youâ€™d been in that exact position before. I wake up in a cold sweat, not worried about me, but searching for you in that warehouse. I swear I can hear your heartbeat.
Maybe it wouldâ€™ve helped us if I couldâ€™ve told you this face-to-face. Maybe youâ€™re not getting these. Maybe everyone at EE is, or maybe youâ€™re showing them to people and laughing your ass off at me. But thatâ€™s all right.
* * * * *
Subject: Cut the crap
Mick and Blue asked if Iâ€™d heard from you. Actually, they asked Cope, and theyâ€™re pissed and concerned, and I know the feeling.
I didnâ€™t know two weeks could affect me so much.
I thought I could walk away from our partnership. I ran. I was scared. <â€”I almost deleted this line, but what the hell do I have to lose that I havenâ€™t already?
* * * * *
No one knows where you are.
Iâ€™m not going to insult you by saying Iâ€™m sorry, because thatâ€™s too simple. Iâ€™m not sorry. Iâ€™m trying to take care of you.
But I could take better care of you if I was with you. I realize that now.
Iâ€™ve also realized that itâ€™s really never too late. For anything.
* * * * *
Tom was losing his mind. He was resolutely ignoring The Weather Channel on the muted TV, but everything he was doing was punctuated with the thunk thunk thunk of Cope, lying flat on his back on the floor of EE, Ltd.â€™s Eritrea office, throwing a tennis ball against the ceiling and catching it. Left-handed. A million fucking times.
Heâ€™d told Tom he did it because he was right-handed and needed to up his advantage.
When it had started on day one of their partnership, four months ago, Tom swore Cope did it because he knew it drove Tom nuts. That was, until heâ€™d reminded himself that he wasnâ€™t dealing with Prophet any more. That Cope was as straight a shooter as it got. That Tom had chosen Cope. Deliberately.
Six months of working for EE and he was already on his second partner, just like normal. Except this time, it was his choice, not the curse that had plagued him his entire life.
The two weeks heâ€™d been partnered with Prophet, theyâ€™d foughtâ€”each other and outsidersâ€”and Tom had, of course, nearly gotten Prophet killed. Then, just to prove a point, heâ€™d nearly gotten them both killed.
Finally, Phil had told him to make a choiceâ€”Prophet or Cope.
And here you are.
Tom had texted Prophet only a few times right after heâ€™d chosen Cope as his partner. Heâ€™d gotten a couple of short, general answers back that heâ€™d later discovered Prophet had sent out as mass texts to get everyone off his back. And then nothing.
But when he found out that Prophet had quitâ€”or had been forced out of EE, depending on which version you believedâ€”his chances of seeing Prophet again shrank dramatically. What if he never saw the man again?
And thatâ€™s when the anger had set in.
â€śHe could at least let me know if heâ€™s dead or alive,â€ť heâ€™d muttered to Cope time and time again.
Cope would tell him that Prophet was fine. â€śItâ€™s not Prophet you have to worry about. He does the killing.â€ť A half shrug and a smile. â€śGranted, sometimes Prophet does things that make you want to kill him, so maybe you should worry.â€ť
â€śComforting, Cope,â€ť Tom had muttered, and Cope had merely shrugged the shrug of a man used to dealing with Prophet for years.
â€śIâ€™m sure that wherever he is, heâ€™s driving someone crazy,â€ť Cope offered now, without stopping the throwing-the-ball-against-the-ceiling thing.
Tom sighed, because his first goddamned response was that he wanted Prophet to be driving him crazy. He played with the leather bracelet absently, the way he had since Prophet had put it on him, his mind tumbling through the mission, the cage match, the fights, Prophet getting shot . . . â€śHey, do you have Malâ€™s number?â€ť
The ball careened wildly off the wall. Tom ducked and caught it as it zinged by.
â€śMal, as in . . . Mal?â€ť
Tom threw Cope the ball. â€śIs there more than one? Dark hair. Tattoos. Canâ€™t speak. Kind of an asshole. Do you know him?â€ť
Cope snorted and started throwing the ball again. â€śFuckerâ€™s crazy. Like, of all the crazy motherfuckers in the worldâ€”and Prophet holds a spot near the very topâ€”Mal is so number one that heâ€™s off the goddamned charts, sealed in a fucking box somewhere thatâ€™s lined with silver, encased in cement, and buried so deep in the goddamned ground, youâ€™d hit China looking for it. Thatâ€™s what I think of motherfucking, crazy-assed, donâ€™t-let-him-on-the-same-goddamned-continent-as-me Mal.â€ť
â€śSo you donâ€™t like him then?â€ť
Cope shrugged. â€śHeâ€™s all right.â€ť Thunk.
Tom sighed. â€śCan you get in touch with him?â€ť
Thunk. â€śNot with a ten-foot pole attached to C4.â€ť
Tom wondered if Natasha could, but he decided against letting everyone in the office know how pathetic he was. It was already pathetic enough that heâ€™d been emailing Prophet every day, sometimes including scanned sketches like a lovesick puppy.
But writing daily to Prophet since the end of his first week in Eritrea had become the last thing Tom did every night, no matter what. The ritual calmed him and made him feel connected to the man whoâ€™d so desperately wanted to disconnect from him.
I mightâ€™ve quit you, Proph, but you quit me first. You just didnâ€™t come right out and say it.
He hadnâ€™t said that in his emails, though. Not at first. Heâ€™d kept them more focused on the job. Cope. His life in general.
But after the first few emails, heâ€™d let himself say whatever the fuck he wanted. Trying to woo the man with words, making promises he might not be able to keep. But what else was new? If working with Prophet had taught him anything, it was that promises were dangerous, especially if they were worthwhile.
But now, after nearly four months without a single email back from Prophet, he knew heâ€™d have to take things further to get in touch with the guy. If Phil ever gave him time off. It was almost as if Phil was purposefully keeping him too busy with constant training in between missions, so Tom couldnâ€™t even consider going to find Prophet.
Phil did nothing by mistake, so Tom bit back complaints, continued to prove himself with each and every job heâ€™d been assigned.
Cope liked working with him.
Cope was still alive.
Therefore, in Tomâ€™s mind, Prophet had broken his bad luck karma.
Prophet had definitely broken something, and goddammit, even though Tom had made the choice, he wanted Prophet to come back and put all the pieces back together.
â€śThe hurricaneâ€™s looking to be a direct hit,â€ť Cope told him now, interrupting his rhythm to point at the TV overheadâ€”heâ€™d been watching it upside down all day, with the sound off so Tom wouldnâ€™t worry too much. But the meteorologists had been having a field day with the fact that this hurricane was due to slam directly into New Orleans only days after Katrinaâ€™s late August anniversary.
Growing up in Louisiana had given Tom a certain perspective on storms. But that didnâ€™t mean he wasnâ€™t quietly frantic about his aunt. She was just like everyone else in the damn state, even after Katrina. Resilient as hell, stubborn with it, and utterly unwilling to evacuate. But with Dellaâ€™s heart problems and the storm amping up instead of downgrading like theyâ€™d said it would, he was worried. And in Eritrea.
But the storm was still five days out. Anything could happen in five days.
* * * * *
I know what youâ€™d do, Proph. Nothing would stop you. I guess thatâ€™s what Philâ€™s worried about, because he told me heâ€™d fire my ass if I even thought about leaving my post. He called my aunt for me, checked in. Sheâ€™s got her supplies, and he said sheâ€™ll be okay. And I guess Iâ€™m supposed to be all right with that, but fuck it, something isnâ€™t sitting right with me. Yeah, go ahead and laugh. I can hear you calling me Cajun or voodoo, clear as day.
The bayouâ€™s my home. Itâ€™s where I learned to fight. Every time I head home, I expect things to be differentâ€”and they never are. Thatâ€™s the definition of insanity, right? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a new result.
Itâ€™s a dangerous place for me, Proph. But I keep getting pulled back. Maybe Phil not letting me go homeâ€™s for the best. At least thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m trying to believe.
Otherwise, Copeâ€™s fine. Iâ€™ve gone four months without otherwise maiming him or getting him shot. Thatâ€™s a pretty good record, considering how many times weâ€™ve gone out on small jobs together. Heâ€™s a good teacher. Patient. Talks about his girlfriend a lot. I have to wear headphones when they have phone sex.
I always think about you during those times, Proph. Other times, yeah, but thatâ€™s when I miss you the most, and not just because youâ€™re decent in bed.
Tom sat in front of his glowing computer screenâ€”with his headphones onâ€”and thought about not sending this one. It would be his one hundred and twenty-second email (and yes, heâ€™d counted) without an answer, but in the end, he let it out into the universe, hoping that it might find its mark.
Twenty-four hours later
Blue slammed through the half-opened window.
On the fourth floor.
Prophet rolled his eyes. Blue, who wore a rope harness over his jeans and long-sleeved, thermal Tâ€”all black, of courseâ€”along with a black skullcap, even though it was hot as balls, looked unperturbed about having narrowly missed a table. And possibly killing himself.
â€śYou just took out my screen,â€ť Prophet told him. Didnâ€™t bother to ask why Blue hadnâ€™t used the door, because asking Blue that would be like asking God why heâ€™d created the universeâ€”the answer to both being Why the hell not? Which was Prophetâ€™s answer to just about everything too.
â€śYour friendâ€™s an asshole,â€ť Blue informed Prophet as he ripped his cap off.
â€śWhy is Mick my friend when heâ€™s an asshole?â€ť
â€śBecauseâ€”â€ť Blue stopped, pulled out his phone, and dialed. Ran his hands through his wild hair as he waited a beat, then said into the phone, â€śI just broke into Prophetâ€™s place. Fourth floor. And I didnâ€™t get a lecture. He didnâ€™t say a word about danger. No, I wonâ€™t put him on. You can call him yourself.â€ť
He ended the call and raised his hand triumphantly. â€śIâ€™m going to get something to eat.â€ť
Prophetâ€™s cell phone started to ring.
â€śI wouldnâ€™t mind dinner,â€ť Prophet called after Blue, then picked up Mickâ€™s call. â€śI hate it when Mommy and Daddy fight.â€ť
â€śIf you and Tom had fought instead of walking away from each otherâ€”â€ť
Prophet interrupted. â€śIâ€™m siding with Blue on this one.â€ť
â€śYou donâ€™t even know why Blueâ€™s pissed.â€ť
â€śEmpirically, it matters.â€ť
â€śDid you hurt your back using that big word?â€ť
â€śIs he using empirically again?â€ť Blue demanded as he came back in from the kitchen.
â€śWhereâ€™s my dinner?â€ť Prophet asked him.
â€śI put the water on to boil.â€ť Blue motioned for him to hang up.
Prophet did, because he knew it would make Mick mad. â€śYou know heâ€™ll be here soon.â€ť
Blue shrugged out of his shirt, leaving it like a trail along with the rope and his hat. By the time Prophet caught up to him in the kitchen, he had a Coke and was glancing down at his phone one more time before shoving it into his pocket. â€śYeah, I know.â€ť
And thatâ€™s why Blue could run, because Mick would always go after him. Prophet was semi-blown away by the simplicity of the entire situation.
Then again, neither Mick nor Blue came with much baggage. Not compared to him, anyway. â€śSteal anything good lately?â€ť
â€śLots.â€ť Blueâ€™s eyes lit up like a kidâ€™s on Christmas. He turned to stir the pasta heâ€™d put into a large pot. â€śI made bottled gravyâ€”you donâ€™t have any tomatoes.â€ť
â€śHavenâ€™t been home in a while.â€ť
Prophet winced at the tone of Blueâ€™s voice, but he didnâ€™t say anything. Actually, he was surprised heâ€™d been allowed an entire hour at home to himself.
He padded back into the living room, and after ten minutes, Blue was handing him a dish of pasta, putting the cheese and sodas on the coffee table.
â€śNice couch,â€ť Blue said.
Prophet gave a nod of agreement, especially because it had taken so much goddamned work to steal the thing the first several times heâ€™d done so. The last time, Cillian had actually wired the thing to the alarm system, the suspicious bastard. But then Cillian had up and gone and given the couch to him.
He wanted to hate the guy. Wanted to be so freakinâ€™ suspicious of him that heâ€™d get angry if he thought about him. And he was goddamned suspicious. But he couldnâ€™t get angry, and he hadnâ€™t been able to figure out why yet.
So heâ€™d kept in contact with Cillian, but in a strictly business capacity.
Well, mostly business. He told himself he needed to keep Cillian on the hookâ€”and busyâ€”but heâ€™d be lying if he didnâ€™t admit that he felt some kind of pull toward the lying bastard.
Because it would be fucking easy between you two.
Because it would be just sex. And maybe you trying to kill him. Or vice versa. There wouldnâ€™t be more, not on Prophetâ€™s end. But on Cillianâ€™s? Who knew?
But Cillian was Malâ€™s job now. Mal was just sadistic enough to enjoy the hell out of it.
Prophet shoved Cillian out of his mind as he and Blue ate in comfortable silence. The spaghetti tasted better than anything heâ€™d had in the past months, especially because Blue had seasoned it. Prophet had basically been eating to live, ignoring taste so he could get proper fuel.
After three bowls of pasta for Blueâ€”who still had the appetite of a teenage boyâ€”and two and counting for Prophet, Blue sat back and said, â€śSo you and Tom . . .â€ť
Prophet gritted his teeth. â€śThere is no me and Tom.â€ť Twirled the spaghetti on his fork. â€śPick a new line of questioning.â€ť
Blue ignored the warning. â€śHe didnâ€™t want to be your partner, but that doesnâ€™t mean he didnâ€™t want to fuck.â€ť His gaze took in the sketches that Prophet had printed out and left on the coffee table, since this was his goddamned house, and then glanced back up at Prophet. â€śFigured youâ€™d like it that way.â€ť
â€śWant me to call Mick back?â€ť
â€śMick said you fell hard and you got scared.â€ť
â€śDid he, now?â€ť
â€śNo,â€ť Blue admitted, having the decency to look semi-sheepish. â€śHe said thatâ€™s what you told him happened to him when he met me. Figured it could safely apply to you.â€ť
â€śGo climb the building again.â€ť
â€śToo easy,â€ť Blue scoffed. â€śAre you home because of that spy downstairs or because of the hurricane?â€ť
â€śNeither.â€ť Prophet shifted irritably. â€śAnd does the entire fucking world know my business?â€ť
â€śOnly the people who give a shit about you,â€ť Blue shot back, and Prophet wondered how such a fucking wiseass couldâ€™ve gotten under his skin so quickly.
And then he remembered: because the kid had risked everything to save Mick, and anyone who risked fucking everythingâ€”including themselvesâ€”was pretty damned okay in his book. And the kid wasnâ€™t a kid at all.
Prophet pushed his bowl away. â€śNot that you donâ€™t already know, since you obviously broke the fuck into my phone, but Cillianâ€™s coming here tonight.â€ť
Blue raised a brow.
â€śNot here. Like, to his own apartment. Itâ€™s his place too.â€ť For the first time ever, theyâ€™d be in the same building at the same time.
Well, other than the warehouse, but that didnâ€™t count.
Blue drawled, â€śRight.â€ť
â€śShut up.â€ť For the first time, Prophet noticed the trail of sand leading from his suitcase to the edge of the couch. Sand would follow him fucking anywhere.
At least something had loyalty.
He snorted, and Blue looked at him strangely, then asked, â€śSo if itâ€™s not for the spy or for the hurricane, why did you come home?â€ť
Why did you come home?
His phone echoed from the cup holder in the old Land Rover, his vehicle of choice when he was doing black-ops jobs OUTCONUS. He grabbed it, saw the number, and knew who it was and what they wanted.
â€śIâ€™ve got another job for you.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m listening.â€ť Prophet watched the specialist whoâ€™d been his last mission preparing to board a plane, never to be seen again by his family or friends.
â€śItâ€™s an undercover assignment. You want it, get on the plane too.â€ť
Prophet ran a hand over the bandana that heâ€™d wrapped around his head to keep his too-long hair out of his eyes. The Land Rover was suddenly too fucking hot for his liking. â€śHow much?â€ť
The man on the other end of the phone laughed. â€śMore than last time.â€ť Because Prophet didnâ€™t need the money. The question was inane, a way to avoid the inevitable.
â€śA year. No contact. Three specialists. Youâ€™re paid if theyâ€™re dead or alive.â€ť
â€śWhatâ€™s in it for me?â€ť
â€śBesides a very large check? This is your way back into the Agency. Once they know what youâ€™ve been doingâ€”â€ť
Prophet laughed then, and it echoed through the truck, a sound so fucking foreign to him at this point that it made his throat tighten immediately. â€śI donâ€™t want back in. And trust me, they fucking know.â€ť
â€śYou must want something, because you keep doing this.â€ť
He looked over at the planeâ€”the man heâ€™d brought here safely had already boarded, and the pilot was at the door, pointing between it and Prophet.
In or out?
Heâ€™d known this offer was comingâ€”in some ways, heâ€™d been busting his ass just to get the damned thing. But whether he accepted or not wasnâ€™t the point. Proving himselfâ€”to himself, to the assholes in the Agency, to the motherfucking world at largeâ€”proving that he was still the best one to work with the specialists because he had balls, brains, and a goddamned conscience . . . well, that had always been the point. Not the fucking money. Not getting back in.
Waiting in the safe house last night, with his latest mission snoring in the other room, heâ€™d finally read Tomâ€™s emailsâ€”all eleven billion of themâ€”because he figured theyâ€™d be full of excuses or â€śitâ€™s better this wayâ€ť crap. Reading them was his way of saying good-bye, because, when the offer for the next job cameâ€”and heâ€™d known it was comingâ€”he had to be ready to leave everything and everyone behind.
Reading them had been the biggest fucking mistake.
â€śDecent in bed,â€ť he growled into the phone, realizing Tom had gotten the rise out of him that heâ€™d probably been looking for.
The man on the other end of the phone told him, â€śThatâ€™s not an answer.â€ť
â€śIt is for me.â€ť
He blinked and finally answered Blue. â€śI came home because the jobs were done.â€ť
â€śUh-huh.â€ť Blue crossed his arms. â€śNot sure why you lie to me, of all people. Iâ€™m the first one to admit that I still need to steal. And that I know Mick will chase me.â€ť
There was so much truth in what Blue said that he couldnâ€™t even look at the guy. And Blue also understood that and mercifully didnâ€™t comment further on it. Prophet was pretty sure heâ€™d bring it up again, but he was also pretty sure he didnâ€™t like Blue taking pity on him now. â€śHowâ€™s working with Mick been? I mean, besides your need to break into other peopleâ€™s houses to prove something to him?â€ť
Blue shrugged. â€śFor the most part, itâ€™s pretty fucking cool.â€ť
â€śYeah, I figured youâ€™d like it.â€ť Prophet paused. â€śCut him a break, all right? If he didnâ€™t give a shit . . .â€ť
â€śWas he this tough on a regular partner?â€ť
â€śHe never had one.â€ť
â€śJust like you.â€ť
â€śWe both enjoy working alone.â€ť
â€śBecause watching someone elseâ€™s back makes you vulnerable?â€ť Blue asked, and it was a sincere question.
â€śYeah, it does, Blue. But for Mick, I know itâ€™s worth it, okay?â€ť
Blue nodded, looking down at his plate, a flush blossoming on his cheeks. Heâ€™d had a rough yearâ€”lost his sister, nearly got killed, went mostly legit, and fell in love.
Prophet clapped a hand on Blueâ€™s shoulder, was about to get up and bring the dishes back into the kitchen when Blue asked, â€śWhen are you leaving for New Orleans?â€ť
â€śOkay,â€ť Blue said agreeably, then muttered, â€śAnd if you think I believe you, youâ€™re dumber than you look.â€ť
â€śYou deserve to get beaten,â€ť Prophet told him.
â€śThatâ€™s my job.â€ť At the sound of Mickâ€™s voice coming up from the bottom of the staircase, Blueâ€™s shoulders stiffened.
â€śShit,â€ť he muttered.
â€śBusted,â€ť Prophet told him, but Blue was already up, dressed, the rope wrapped around him with a grace that Prophet couldnâ€™t help but admire.
â€śIâ€™ll pay you if you give me a head start,â€ť Blue said from the window ledge, his body half hanging out.
â€śI donâ€™t need money.â€ť
Blue fumbled into his pocket and tossed a small bag to Prophet. He opened it to find a beat-up gold ring with some kind of green stone with a scarab inscribed into it. â€śWhere the fuck did you get this?â€ť
â€śYou know, around.â€ť Blue waved, as if things of that caliber just dropped from the sky.
â€śThis is an Egyptian artifact, isnâ€™t it?â€ť
â€śBlue . . .â€ť
â€śTell yourself itâ€™s from the gift shop, if you have to.â€ť
Prophet stuck it into his jeans pocket. â€śHeâ€™s going to find you.â€ť
â€śEventually.â€ť Blue dropped out of sight, like a tattooed Santa Claus, just as Mick burst into the room.
â€śI donâ€™t ever remember giving you a key,â€ť Prophet told him.
â€śThere are a lot of things you have selective memory about,â€ť Mick started, and Prophet began to see the benefits of being able to drop out a window at any given time.
Less than twenty hours after Mick left to chase down Blue, Prophet rolled into the Louisiana sunshine, the dog tags clanking randomly around the floor of his old Blazer. Sometimes they were under his feet and at others, they rattled around the floor of the backseat. Occasionally theyâ€™d get caught up under the driverâ€™s seat and he wouldnâ€™t see them for weeks, and then theyâ€™d reappear.
Ten-plus years and they hadnâ€™t gotten caught in the pedals once. Heâ€™d thrown them into the truck the morning of Johnâ€™s memorial service, and he hadnâ€™t touched them since.
Not that he was superstitious or anything.
He had the windows rolled down, the sunroof open, and the sunshine felt good on his face as the breeze ruffled his too-long hair. Music blared, and he dodged slower moving cars at a good clip, all while keeping an eye out for cops, which was how heâ€™d made the normally twenty-one-plus-hour trip in under eighteen.
It also helped that most law enforcement was being pulled in to handle storm-related shit. And thatâ€™s why Prophet was here after all, running toward the storm, rather than away from it, dragging an inconspicuous U-Haul behind his truck. The U-Haul held two generators. Food. Water. Guns. Cash. Enough to keep them safe and big enough to evacuate if necessary.
The French Quarter was one of the safer spots in terms of rising water. The biggest problems theyâ€™d face were loss of water and power. And looting.
The National Guard was directing people out of the city. Mandatory evacuation that half the residents wouldnâ€™t follow. Of those remaining, half would call for help when it started to get bad, and more would call when it was too late for rescue.
But a significant number wouldnâ€™t call ever. Theyâ€™d live or die here. Tomâ€™s aunt was among that group. Maybe Tom had more family in the actual bayou parish heâ€™d been born in, but this aunt was the only one heâ€™d been concerned with.
Prophetâ€™s fingers drummed the wheel as Jackson Browne blared â€śDoctor My Eyes.â€ť
â€śGot to be fucking kidding me,â€ť he muttered, but he kept the song on anyway because he liked it. Heâ€™d had his regular check-up with the eye doctor just before heâ€™d left for parts unknown.
Needed to schedule another one, but hell, itâ€™s not like the doctors could do anything. The genetic disease that predestined him to some degree of blindness was already progressing, according to his last exam, and Prophet was pretty sure heâ€™d know when it actually affected his day-to-day vision before they did.
When traffic slowed down, he noted the checkpoint, which meant he was right outside NOLA. In between the stop-and-go crawl, he checked his phone and saw Cillianâ€™s text.
Did you run from me? Cillian had sent the text an hour after Prophet had packed and left. Because, contrary to what heâ€™d told Blue, Prophet was supposed to meet Cillian. In his apartment. On Cillianâ€™s couch.
â€śI ran from me,â€ť Prophet muttered as he approached the checkpoint. Typed in Hurricane.
In your apartment?
Asshole. In Louisiana.
You have family there?
Ah, fuck it. Tom does. Gotta check on his aunt.
Tomâ€™s family isnâ€™t your problem. Neither is Tom.
That was all true. â€śAnd yet, youâ€™re in a truck headed to help a man who gave you away like yesterdayâ€™s news.â€ť Prophet shook his head at himself and dropped the phone into the cupholder without answering Cillian.
A camouflage-wearing Guardsman strode stiffly over to his truck. â€śYouâ€™re from out of state,â€ť he barked at Prophet.
â€śSir, weâ€™re not letting any out-of-state residents past this point. Please turn your truck around.â€ť
The guy was a former Marine. Even without the tattoo on his forearm of the globe and eagle and snake, Prophet wouldâ€™ve known it because of his stance. He thought about pulling the military card, decided against it because he was feeling like too much of a dick. Especially after Cillianâ€™s comments.
He flipped his fake FBI ID badge. â€śGonna let me through now, son?â€ť
Without waiting for the answer, he jerked the old Blazer through the barricade and gunned it, not bothering to look in his rearview.
Prophet: One. World: Zero.
Then again, Mother Nature was prepping to be the big bitch she was and would even out that score soon enough.
And heâ€™d climbed out of hell for this, using Tomâ€™s emails as a lifeline. Maybe just in time too. Because if heâ€™d gone any deeper, he wouldâ€™ve been unreachable in a way that no email could fix.
And thatâ€™s what heâ€™d been going for, of course. Dig deep, forget anything that happened above ground. Even now, he could turn around. No one was actually expecting him up ahead, so he wouldnâ€™t be missed. But his conscience wouldnâ€™t allow it.
Goddamned motherfucking thing. If he couldâ€™ve cut it out with a knife, he mightâ€™ve.
Heâ€™d already argued with himself (and lost, obviously) that he wasnâ€™t fit for human companyâ€”and by human, he meant civilianâ€”and thatâ€™s who heâ€™d be facing when he drove into New Orleans and the French Quarter and. . . Tomâ€™s wealthy Aunt Della.
Did she know about him?
He didnâ€™t know much about Tomâ€™s past, beyond the jobs with the FBI and the sheriffâ€™s department, but what little he did know made him angry. And he was in a really bad place inside his head to be around people who made him angry.
Who the hell had Tommy been fighting in that ring four months ago? Had to be family. Prophet had seen that same fury too often in John not to know that. And now . . . to have to face someone who had to have known what Tom had been going through as a kid . . .
Another Carole Morse, who saw nothing but an angry son and didnâ€™t investigate further.
Another Judie Drews, who couldnâ€™t do anything.
He mulled that over as he pulled into Della Boudreauxâ€™s driveway but kept the truck running.
The house was old but refined, well tended, and cared for. Obviously, someone with money lived there, because this was one of the wealthier sections of the city. And he sat in his truck in the driveway, unable to get out and approach the door.
He hadnâ€™t thought much beyond getting here to help Tommyâ€™s aunt. But that was a start. He would help her because Tomâ€™s words had helped him.
Iâ€™m not sorry. Iâ€™m trying to take care of you.
But I could take better care of you if I was with you. I realize that now.
Iâ€™ve also realized that itâ€™s really never too late. For anything.
For now, that would have to be enough. He finally shut off the truck, got out, and walked up to the porch.
There was so much opportunity here, but Tom had grown up in the parishes of the bayou, not in the French Quarter. So why would he be so concerned about Della, who could probably afford the queenâ€™s security?
He knocked on the door and was greeted by a shotgun to the chest. He stared down at the barrel and then the woman holding it. She was pretty. Cultured. And still somehow fierce, in ways that had nothing to do with the shotgun pointed at him.
And still, you didnâ€™t protect Tommy.
He froze his anger, stopped thinking about Tomâ€™s scars and his temper. Heâ€™d just have to use what anger he wasnâ€™t able to tamp down to fuel his hurricane prep. â€śYouâ€™re doing it wrong.â€ť
â€śSon, Iâ€™ve got a gun to your chest and youâ€™re telling me that Iâ€™m doing it wrong?â€ť
â€śCloser isnâ€™t better.â€ť He disarmed her with a swift motion, then offered the weapon back to her. â€śFurther away you are, the less unpredictable I can be.â€ť
Dellaâ€™s eyes had opened wide with surprise, but she recovered fast. Took the shotgun back and said, â€śOkay. Knock again so we can start over.â€ť
â€śIâ€™d rather spend time getting you ready for the hurricane.â€ť
She tilted her head and assessed him. â€śFriend of my nephewâ€™s?â€ť
â€śTom and I worked together.â€ť
â€śThink I wonâ€™t notice you avoided the question?â€ť Prophet raised a brow, and she shook her head. â€śTom didnâ€™t tell me you were coming.â€ť
He held up his phone to show the list of messages from Tom, proof that he actually knew the man well. â€śMy nameâ€™s Prophet. And thatâ€™s his work email, right?â€ť
â€śI thought he was busy with work, but I see heâ€™s got a lot of time to send emails,â€ť she said coolly. â€śNice to meet you, Prophet. Why did you bring a U-Haul? Are you also moving in?â€ť
â€śSupplies. Unless youâ€™d like to evacuate?â€ť
â€śNever have. Never will. And I have supplies, you know. This isnâ€™t my first hurricane.â€ť
â€śYou donâ€™t have supplies like mine.â€ť
She moved aside to let him in, and, after a brief pause as he realized there had never been any escape, he entered.
The house was just as nice inside. He thought back to Tommyâ€™s rental apartment, half an old Victorian near EEâ€™s HQ and wondered if that was a conscious thing, if somehow this home pulled to Tommy that badly.
â€śIs there anyone else whoâ€™ll be staying with you during the storm?â€ť he asked, taking in the portable oxygen concentrator a few feet away.
â€śRoger and Dave rent the third floor. Theyâ€™ve lived with me for the past ten years, but theyâ€™re completely useless during storms.â€ť
â€śI heard that.â€ť
Prophet had seen the man coming down the stairs before heâ€™d spoken. Della simply rolled her eyes. â€śProphet, meet Roger. Prophet is Tomâ€™s friendâ€”heâ€™s got supplies and heâ€™ll get us through the worst of the storm.â€ť
â€śIs that right?â€ť Roger asked.
â€śIâ€™ll do my best,â€ť Prophet said as he shook hands with Roger.
He looked to be in his late sixties. A man Prophet assumed to be Dave followed closely behind. Both men were still handsomeâ€”Dave was taller and thinner, Roger shorter and mouthierâ€”and Prophet liked that they had no problem holding hands, in front of a stranger or otherwise.
Roger saw him glance at their hands. â€śWeâ€™ve been together thirty years.â€ť
Prophet had known John for nineâ€”best friends for all of it, lovers for four years. Add to that teammates and confidantes. Sometimes Prophet had loved him, and sometimes it had been just the opposite, which he suspected happened in every long-term relationship.
â€śYou didnâ€™t ask what it feels like to be with the same person for so long,â€ť Roger noted. â€śWhich means either you are or were in a long-term relationship yourself, so you know what it feels like, or youâ€™re built for one.â€ť
â€śPlease ignore his rambling pontificationsâ€”theyâ€™re well-meaning but totally insane.â€ť Dave dropped his voice to a stage whisper. â€śHeâ€™s already been drinking.â€ť
â€śHurricanes frighten me,â€ť Roger said.
â€śWeâ€™ve got him,â€ť Dave said, pointing to Prophet. â€śDoes it look like anything frightens him?â€ť
â€śWell, does it? Wait, donâ€™t answer that.â€ť Roger held up a hand. â€śI need more wine.â€ť
Yes, they had a great hurricane planâ€”drink themselves silly. Granted, from where Prophet stood, it seemed like a decent way to go.
â€śSo, you work with Tom,â€ť Roger continued. â€śAnd your wife or girlfriend doesnâ€™t mind that youâ€™re here?â€ť
Prophet gave a smile that was harder than he thought to muster because Tomâ€™s face flashed in front of his eyes. And then it got easier because Tom would get pissed being associated with the word girl. â€śIâ€™m single at the moment.â€ť
They werenâ€™t trying to digâ€”theyâ€™d read him as straight. Most did, and Prophet liked it only because he never liked anyone knowing things about him.
He also liked surprising the hell out of people.
Dave sighed. â€śBefore we interrogate the man, why donâ€™t we let him get settled so he can save us.â€ť
Roger lifted a wineglass in Prophetâ€™s direction.
* * * * *
Della had pointed him in the direction of a bedroom on the second floor, and Prophet checked it out quickly. He only planned on using it for scoping rather than sleeping, but he didnâ€™t tell her that. Just like he didnâ€™t mention the inflatable boat and the power engine and oars heâ€™d keep on the second floor, in case they needed to float the hell out of there.
And then he got to work. He wore his iPod most of the day, blasting lots of classic rock so he could pretend not to hear Della or Roger or Dave trying to engage him in conversationâ€”as heâ€™d predicted, he just wasnâ€™t there yet. Back from battle and not ready for civilians. And it would pass, but not before the hurricane hit. And maybe he wasnâ€™t good at hiding his thousand-yard stare, because they really hadnâ€™t tried to talk to him much anyway.
They did, however, talk about him a little, because they thought he couldnâ€™t hear, and Della said she was worried about Tom, but other than that, they went about their business.
Mainly, they were helpful and unobtrusive.
It took him the rest of the day and overnight to finish his prep sufficiently enough in his eyes. First, he built the pad for the generator, and while it set, he worked on everything else.
Eventually, the groceries were inside. Prophetâ€™s truck was in back, away from the trees and wires, ready for an evac, if necessary. Radios, batteries, just-in-case flashlights, and water were set up.
â€śNeighbors?â€ť heâ€™d asked earlier.
Della had rolled her eyes. â€śMost of them evacuated. They like to follow rules.â€ť
He knew he couldnâ€™t say something like rules are important with a straight face, so he didnâ€™t bother.
Finally, he installed the generator to the panel, which thankfully wasnâ€™t as old as the house, because otherwise the thing would be useless. Still, he only wired for essentials so he wouldnâ€™t overload anything.
By then, the rain had started in earnest, the wind picking up quickly, a warning that this hurricane wasnâ€™t slowing down.
By 0600, he was sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by maps and his laptop, making several evac plans, just in case. GPS would be down, and even thoughâ€”thanks to EEâ€”his was satellite powered and installed directly into his truck, he didnâ€™t trust anything to work the way it was supposed to. Heâ€™d also gone through Dellaâ€™s medications, making sure she had more than enough, and heâ€™d made a few calls to ensure he could get more in a hurry. Because that shit you couldnâ€™t fool around with.
As early morning ambled along, Della wandered into the kitchen. Heâ€™d made a full pot of coffee, and she poured herself a cup while he continued to concentrate on what was in front of him.
He didnâ€™t look up, not until she slid sandwiches and a glass of lemonade next to him.
â€śYou havenâ€™t eaten much since you got here, and you canâ€™t live on coffee alone,â€ť she told him, and his stomach growled in agreement with her. Heâ€™d had a PowerBar at some point, and some soda, but that wasnâ€™t exactly the breakfast of champions.
â€śI got wrapped up,â€ť he admitted.
â€śIâ€™m grateful, but I canâ€™t let you starve.â€ť
Whyâ€™d you let Tom get hit? he wanted to ask back, but even he wasnâ€™t that much of a dick. Not when he could stuff a sandwich in his mouth instead.
â€śYouâ€™re close with Tom?â€ť she asked delicately.
â€śWe were partnered up on a job.â€ť That was as truthful an answer as he could give.
She sat across from him at the table, her shoulders squared as if sheâ€™d read him and was expecting battle. â€śAnd now?â€ť
Prophet was unable to keep the anger out of his voice when he said, â€śIâ€™ve seen the bottom of his feet.â€ť It was the first time heâ€™d ever let himself actively think about that, never mind speak about it to anyone. The first time heâ€™d allowed himself to dwell on it.
The majority of Tomâ€™s scars were covered up by his tattoos, but his feet . . . There was no way to cover the scars of old cigarette burns on the soles of his feet.
Tom had to know Prophet had seen them. But heâ€™d offered no explanation, and Prophet wouldnâ€™t push something he understood all too well.
â€śIâ€™ve seen them too,â€ť she said quietly, the kind of quiet that held a carefully concealed rage. â€śI was the one who took him to the ER. But it was too late to stop them from scarring.â€ť
He didnâ€™t bother to hide his heavy sarcasm. â€śRight. Canâ€™t let them scar.â€ť He was tired as hell of concealed rage. Hiding shit was where all the trouble started.
She blinked. â€śListen up, boyâ€”donâ€™t come in here thinking you know everything.â€ť
â€śI think I know enough.â€ť
Della sighed. Muttered something that he was pretty sure were Cajun curses before telling him, â€śTom stayed with me on and off his whole life. Iâ€™m his fatherâ€™s sister. My brother and I arenâ€™t close. He always said I thought I was too good for the bayou. Maybe thatâ€™s true. Or maybe I just didnâ€™t like the violence. Tomâ€™s mother didnâ€™t fit in there either.â€ť
Prophet watched her hands wrap around the delicate teacup in a stranglehold.
â€śYou probably want to know why I didnâ€™t just keep him here all the time.â€ť
â€śOr why you didnâ€™t call CPS or social services.â€ť
She stared at him, anger flashing in her eyes before spitting out tightly, â€śProphet, I donâ€™t owe you an explanation, but Iâ€™ll give you one. I was a single woman. Family, yes, but in those days, they wanted a complete family, and that was an extremely narrow definition. Make no mistake about it, I wanted him here. My door was open.â€ť She tapped on the table. â€śHis father didnâ€™t care where he stayed. Tom was the one who chose to go back and forth. It was almost like heâ€™d come here, gain his strength, and then throw himself back into the wild.â€ť
Prophet stared at the scarred table and saw that heâ€™d unconsciously fisted his hands at some point during the conversation. â€śYeah, that sounds like the Tommy I know.â€ť
â€śIâ€™ve never heard anyone call him Tommy, but I like it.â€ť Her drawl was soft. â€śI donâ€™t know why he felt like he needed to take that kind of punishment. I told him he didnâ€™t, and I know he believed me.â€ť
â€śHe understood it, Della. Thereâ€™s a difference.â€ť
He unfisted his hands only when she reached out and covered them with her open ones and said, â€śSounds like you two have a lot in common.â€ť
â€śYouâ€™ve got that voodoo shit happening too?â€ť
â€śNo, but you donâ€™t hide your anger well.â€ť
â€śNot when it comes to him.â€ť He paused. â€śVoodoo or not, you do know about me. About what happened at EE.â€ť
She took her hands off his and pointed to the sandwich. He took a bite and only then did she answer his question. â€śYes. He called. He told me that heâ€™d made what felt like the hardest decision heâ€™d ever had to make. I asked him if it felt right, and he said that it hurt, which meant it must be right.â€ť She pressed her lips together. â€śI told him that sometimes it hurts when itâ€™s wrong, too, and that he had to start learning how to tell the difference.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m not the easiest man either.â€ť
â€śNo shit.â€ť She grinned and took a sip of her coffee. â€śWhat about your family?â€ť
â€śThereâ€™s just my mom. I donâ€™t see her often.â€ť
â€śBy choice, or because of your job?â€ť
â€śI blame it on the job.â€ť He paused. â€śTomâ€™s worried about you.â€ť
â€śHeâ€™s always worried about me. Thinks Iâ€™m too alone. But Iâ€™ve got tenants whoâ€™ve become close friends. Thatâ€™s all I need.â€ť
Roger stage-whispered into Prophetâ€™s ear (Prophet had heard him coming a mile away), â€śShe needs a man, but she never married, because she was too stubborn.â€ť Della shook her finger at him. â€śAnd sheâ€™s got this wicked, bat-like hearing.â€ť
â€śI was not stubborn. Connor wouldnâ€™t have been a good choice.â€ť
â€śHe was hot,â€ť Roger said. â€śHot is always the good choice.â€ť
â€śThatâ€™s been going on for thirty years. If it hasnâ€™t happened already . . .â€ť Della waved her hand and trailed off.
â€śWhereâ€™s Connor now?â€ť Prophet asked.
â€śI hear from him every once in a while.â€ť Della shrugged. â€śHeâ€™s a wanderer. And I knew heâ€™d break my heart if I let him. So I didnâ€™t.â€ť
Prophet saw the pain in her face. His chest squeezed a little, because it was obvious she still loved the guy after all these years.
He excused himself, went out onto the covered back porch, despite the rain and wind that still managed to find its way underneath, and sat with his phone in hand, staring at the number on the screen but refusing to hit Call.
The dread got worse each month, even though he knew what his mother would say. Sheâ€™d complain about the pills and the hospital, but first, sheâ€™d tell him that a man called, looking for him. He hadnâ€™t bothered changing her number. Because if they were still bothering her, it meant they were no closer to finding him.
Besides that, he made sure her phone and internet signals bounced off enough towers that they would never be traced back to her. The last thing he needed was his mother in the middle of a ransom war. The facility she was in received similar treatment in regards to their internet systems. His momâ€™s doctors too.
Finally, he sent the call and let the phone ring while he held his breath.
She answered with, â€śYouâ€™re late.â€ť
â€śBy four minutes.â€ť
â€śLate is late.â€ť
He put his head back against the cushions of the wicker couch and didnâ€™t say anything. Sweat trickled down his face and neckâ€”the humidity was fucking wicked, and the only way to get his body used to it was to let his body get used to it.
â€śNow youâ€™re not speaking to me?â€ť she asked.
â€śNever said that.â€ť
â€śThat man called again, looking for you.â€ť
His gut tightened. â€śAnd whatâ€™d you tell him?â€ť
â€śThat you werenâ€™t here. That I didnâ€™t know where you were. Then I told him to fuck off.â€ť She sounded so proud.
â€śThatâ€™s good, Mom. Thanks.â€ť
She sighed, an exaggeratedly exasperated sound. â€śI donâ€™t like it here.â€ť
Same thing, every time, but he answered that the same way he always did. â€śWhy not?â€ť
â€śThey wonâ€™t give me my pills.â€ť
At least she was taking her meds regularly. He spoke to her doctors weekly to ensure that.
â€śThey give you the pills you need.â€ť
â€śNot always. They forget. You never forgot.â€ť
No, he hadnâ€™t. And that reminder made him feel worse, not better. â€śIâ€™ll remind them, okay? Iâ€™ll take care of it.â€ť
Because he always took care of it.