Her eyes sharpened. “Don’t ever think you can’t be honest with me.”
“Thankfully, I rarely see cases this bad.”
“Still, if you need to unload, unload.” She reached up and cupped his jaw. “I’m tough.”
“You are.” He leaned into her hand. “But I prefer to leave the violence at work.”
“I understand that, too,” she said.
“Be careful today.” He told her about the second victim’s haircut. “It’s probably a coincidence, but . . .”
“I should be safe enough at the courthouse.” She registered the information with a tight nod. “How is Chet? Relieved?”
“I think so, but his reaction wasn’t as joyous as I expected.” How would Chet have fared if his wife hadn’t died? If he’d had someone to support him in his time of need? Brody had seen marriages torn apart by tragedy, and other couples brought closer. “He was drinking last night.”
“Thanks.” Brody squeezed her hand.
She moved to the counter, picked up both mugs of coffee, and handed him one. When he perched on the edge of a stool, she nudged the toast toward him. “Want me to check on him on my way home?”
“I’ll do it later. He might be in a state.”
Hannah put two more slices of bread into the toaster. “I grew up with a disabled father, and I nursed my mother through hospice. Trust me. I’ve seen worse than a man with a hangover.”
She hadn’t had an easy life. Brody resolved they’d talk about her past, just not today. But when? It wasn’t likely she’d be here much longer. She looked and seemed recovered. Even though the neurologist hadn’t cleared her for work this week, it would have to be soon. Then she’d be on a plane. Brody wouldn’t see her for weeks. Maybe digging into her emotions wasn’t the best idea.
“Chet would be embarrassed if you found him like that,” he said.
She nodded. “All right, but if you change your mind, call me.”
Her toast popped up. She buttered it and bit a corner. “Mac is supposed to be home today.”
“Have you heard from him?”
Hannah snorted. “Of course not. It’s Mac we’re talking about.”
“What is up with him?”
“He’s Mac.” She shrugged. “Of the four of us, Mac was the one who really needed a firm hand. Unfortunately, by the time he came along, there wasn’t one available. Mom was overwhelmed, and the Colonel wrote off his wildness as boys-will-be-boys behavior.”
“What do you think it was?”
“Escapism. Mac loved being in the woods because the forest wasn’t filled with medical equipment and suffering. My father was paralyzed. He was also in constant pain. Therapists and nurses were in our house all the time. The Colonel was tough, but he was also obsessed and bitter. Our home wasn’t always a pleasant place to be.” Hannah crumbled the remaining corner of her breakfast. “Grant was away at the military academy at least part of the time. Lee and I had our books, and Mac had the woods.”
Brody looked down at the plate. Empty. He’d eaten without thought, and the toast had soaked up the pool of acid sitting in the center of his gut. Or maybe talking to Hannah had eased the tension inside him.
“I have to go.” He stood, fortified by more than the coffee and food.
“Will I see you later?” She set the mugs and plates in the sink and reached for the dog’s leash. Wagging, AnnaBelle rushed to the door and waited.
“Want me to walk her?”
Hannah donned a short trench coat and snapped the leash onto the dog’s collar. “No. She already had a long walk at five thirty. She can pee next to the deck.”
Brody laughed. He leaned over and kissed her softly on the mouth. “Thanks for this.”
“Just this.” He kissed her again, and this time he lingered for just a few seconds. When he’d stopped here, there’d been an empty space in the center of his chest. But now he felt whole again. He was still exhausted, but she’d recharged him enough to get through the next couple of hours.
What would he do when she was gone?
Jewel curled on her side and put her arm over her ear to drown out the sound of Penny snoring from the next cot. The girl slept like the dead. Jewel would love to turn off her brain like that. As it was, she was too tired to keep her thoughts from straying to the past, to what happened six months ago in Toledo. To the beginning of her nightmare.
Jenna contemplated the rows of candy. Boxes and boxes lined up on the convenience store shelves. Not the most nutritious food in the convenience store but small, compact, and easily slipped into a pocket. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday. Her stomach grumbled as pangs of hunger turned to demands.
Her gaze swept the store. A guy was paying for cigarettes at the counter. The door buzzed as another guy came through it. The clerk’s interest was divided between making change and watching a tiny TV on the countertop. No one was paying her any attention.
She angled her body away from the security camera that hung from the ceiling. Her hand swiped three packs of peanut M&M’s. She walked up to the register and dug into her pocket. She plunked one bag of candy and a dollar onto the counter. The other two bags nestled in the front pocket of her hoodie. The clerk rang her up, his eyes drifting to the old TV, where a rerun of Friends played on the six-inch screen.
She pushed through the glass door out into the parking lot and zipped her hoodie against the cool air. Dawn was only a few hours away. In another few weeks, the temperature wouldn’t drop so much when the sun went down, but so far this May, the nights had remained cool. Pausing at the curb, she ripped open the top of the bag and shoved a few pieces of candy into her mouth. Sugar and chocolate burst on her tongue. She ate the rest of the small bag in three handfuls. She’d ration the rest. Where now? She needed a place to hide, to sleep. At night, staying out of sight was easy. But in the daytime, she was too visible. Not that her mom would be looking for her. She was busy with her new boyfriend, Lenny. Her last words had been “You’ll be back.” Then Lenny had called Jenna an ungrateful little bitch.
The street stretched out in front of her, the surrounding blocks, the entire city, flat as a griddle. Her gaze crossed an empty lot and settled on a strip mall. Laundromat, check cashing, pawnshop, pizza. The smell of fresh pizza wafted toward her, her stomach cramping as if her nose was screaming that the candy in her pocket was inadequate. She needed money, but she’d been turned down for six jobs today. Legitimate employment wasn’t an option at fourteen.
Yesterday, she’d slept in a shed behind her neighbor’s house, slinking out like a stray cat to feed at night. Maybe she could slip in there again if she was sure the neighbor was still asleep. She couldn’t risk being seen. If Lenny spotted her, he’d come after her, and she wasn’t going back home until he was gone. Resigned to another night nestled between two rusted bicycles and a stinking bag of potting soil, she stepped off the curb.
Whatever. She wasn’t going home. Not while Lenny was there. For all her mom’s stranger warnings, she’d brought a creep right into their house. What really hurt was Mom not believing her when she’d told her what he’d done.
Jenna tensed. Her instincts warned her as a tall man coming out of the store focused on her.
“Hey,” he called, quickening his steps to catch up.
Since Lenny, she was on alert for unwanted male attention, so she headed away from him.
“I saw what you did,” he said to her back.
His words stopped her. Fear whirled inside her. Would he turn her in? The cops would call her mom. She’d end up back at home, with Lenny sneaking into her bedroom while her mom was working the night shift.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She shrugged, setting her gaze on two young men in the rear of the empty lot. A discreet exchange was made, cash for a baggie.
“Hey, I’m not judging.” He fell into step beside her. “Do you need a job?”
She hesitated. Her mother’s endless warnings about talking to strangers echoed in her head. But Mom had brought home Lenny, so what did she know? “What kind of job?”
“You got a restaurant?”
“What kind?” she asked, suspicious. In her world, people didn’t do other people favors. Everything had a price.
He shrugged. “Pizza and sandwiches. Nothing fancy.”
At the word pizza, her stomach got excited.
“I’m only fourteen,” she admitted. As she’d learned, jobs required ID, and fake IDs required cash. How could she get one without the other?
“Not a problem,” he said. “It’s all under the table. What’s your name?”
“Nice to meet you, Jenna, I’m Mick.”
She squinted at him. The yellow glow of the streetlight highlighted a lean face. A thin scar bisected his cheek, but he was still good-looking. She guessed he was about twenty-five, with short black hair and a goatee. His jeans and T-shirt were clean, and his broad-shouldered body hadn’t regularly missed many meals. He didn’t live on the street. A gold chain gleamed from around his neck, just under the tattoo of a skull. There wasn’t anything special about him, no warning signs that she should have seen.
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