Authors: Season Vining
She liked that Alex didn’t feel the need to ask about her well-being. She didn’t want
to lie to him, but she knew that if asked, she’d give him what he wanted to hear.
She’d tell the lie she’d told a thousand times, “I’m fine.” Alex looked after her;
she didn’t understand why. If she had just an ounce of self-preservation, she would
From what he could gather, Josie’s story sounded like one of the tragic mystery programs
Alex’s mother favored on late afternoons. While she drank her Café Bustelo and prepared
dinner, she’d watch the tiny black-and-white television mounted to the kitchen counter.
Even through the static, she clung desperately to the sordid lives of the unfortunate
men and women. Many days, Alex had come home from school to find his mother cursing
in Spanish at the blurry picture. At dinner, she would warn him and his brothers about
whatever danger had befallen that day’s victims.
“Mrs. Thompson’s cat escaped again. Meowed outside my door for two hours. Fucking
beast don’t know what floor he lives on.
” Alex grumbled.
“I think she trained him to annoy you,” Josie said, giving a slight laugh.
Alex had come from a large family, but being the youngest of six boys, he’d never
had to play caretaker to anyone or anything. No matter all his pleading, he never
had a dog or a cat or even a goldfish. His mother would always say there were enough
mouths to feed without adding an ungrateful beast to the mix.
He watched as Josie finally lay down her pencil, retrieved the bag of food, and ate
quietly. Alex spun his pistol on the tabletop, a habit that helped him focus. He planned
his day, making a list of deliveries to schedule and overdue debts to be collected.
Today was going to be either a very profitable day or a very messy day. Alex wasn’t
sure which one he’d prefer.
“Do you have to do that?” Josie asked, her cheeks swollen with food.
Josie pointed to the gun, still spinning after a recent nudge from Alex.
“You know I hate that thing.”
Alex rolled his eyes and slammed his hand down over the rotating pistol, abruptly
halting its movement. He picked it up, released the clip, and placed it on the table.
He waved his hands over the disassembled firearm, wordlessly asking if she was satisfied.
“Whatever,” she answered before taking another bite.
Tossing the empty weapon from hand to hand, he smiled.
“Where were you on Wednesday?”
“I went to see him,” Josie mumbled.
Alex thought for a second before realizing whom she was referring to.
“You see him all the time, stalker.”
“I’m not a stalker, just an interested observer. Besides, this time he saw me too.”
Alex turned, checking her face for seriousness.
“You talk to him?”
“His name is Tristan. He remembers me.”
“I guess so. Some
watching him lose his shit in the alley.”
“No. He remembers me from New Orleans.”
Alex dropped the pistol, letting it clatter to the floor.
“Yep,” Josie confirmed.
“You gonna see him again?”
Josie nodded, pushing the last of the noodles into her mouth. She knew she didn’t
have a choice.
“Be careful, Jo.”
She nodded again as Alex stood and headed out.
“Lock the door.”
Josie followed his instructions, threw away the empty food carton, and resumed her
position on the floor, completely ignoring the plastic bag of pills.
A dark spot or possible irregularity.
When he’d taken this job, Mort figured it would be an easy case. Eight years after
her disappearance, there had been a rumor that the boys in New York screwed up and
McKenzi Delaune was alive. All he had to do was go there and prove that she wasn’t.
Seemed easy enough at the time.
Mort always found himself in these positions. In the business, he was what’s known
as a cleaner. He cleaned up other people’s messes. No matter what kind of failed objective
or botched operation, Mort always came through. Entering the situation objectively,
assessing the missteps, and calculating a solution came naturally to him. Whatever
was needed, from the simplest task to the downright heinous, he was the man for the
job. He always succeeded and did so with a heartless resolve.
Chasing paper trails, bribing officials, and navigating his way through her disappearance
had been a great deal of work. Moloney’s associates in New York had been useless,
cowering behind excuses and fading memories. After learning nothing new, he’d dispatched
them quickly, moving on to the next clue. Interrogations of federal agents in dark
secluded rooms yielded cries of pain and eventually results.
“You’ll tell me what I want to know or you’ll die,” Mort told the agent.
The man struggled against the ropes that bound his wrists, but it was no use.
“I’ll die anyway,” he said.
“Yes. One way you die fast, the other … well, I’ve got days.”
Mort turned and grabbed a hammer from the nearby table. He inspected the metal head
and ran his fingers over the clean and shiny surface. He approached the agent and
displayed the weapon of choice.
“Where shall we start?”
The agent flinched but did not answer.
“If you don’t tell me what I want to know,” Mort said, circling the agent, “when I’m
finished with you, I’ll pay a visit to your little brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.”
The agent’s eyes widened and he struggled against his bonds.
“You stay away from there!”
“Tell me,” Mort answered.
The agent was silent again, his chest heaving with angry breaths.
“The girl wasn’t dead. We knew her father was working with us to nail an organized
crime leader in New Orleans. So we faked her death, changed her name, and she was
put into witness protection.”
Tears fell from the man’s eyes now. He felt relief and shame for giving up this girl
to save his own family.
“The name? And where did she go?” Mort asked.
“I don’t know,” the agent answered. “The file was sealed.”
Mort swung the hammer hard, landing it on the man’s kneecap. His screams of pain echoed
through the empty building, startling a group of pigeons that’d been nesting there.
“I know you worked the case.”
“I work a lot of cases. I can’t remember every detail,” the agent screamed.
“Your wife Bonnie sure is a beautiful woman. I bet she’s a fighter. Is she a fighter,
“Josie! Josie Banks is her name! She was placed in state custody in San Diego!”
Mort smiled, pulled his pistol from its holster, and shot the man in the forehead.
He dialed Moloney as he exited the building. The cool night air welcomed him and he
grinned victoriously up at the moon.
“What have you found?” Moloney asked.
“She was alive. They changed her name and sent her to California.”
“I’ll follow up and get back to you,” Mort promised.
“See that you do.”
* * *
Tristan stood in front of his bathroom mirror, raking his nails over the scruff covering
his jaw. He didn’t feel like shaving today. Connie, his cougar of a manager, always
said that he looked like a hobo when he didn’t shave, but his tips never proved that.
Tristan assumed it was her personal preference and had nothing to do with image. Connie
had a way of feigning interest in people’s lives, making them think that she only
wanted what was best. All she cared about was the bar’s bottom line. That, and discovering
what the young male employees were willing to offer in exchange for a raise.
Once a week she would call Tristan into her office and make him stand at attention
while she sat filing her acrylic nails. Today was his day. The leathered skin of her
chest was sprinkled with freckles that seemed to cascade into the deep valley created
by her silicone breasts. She pressed them together and leaned over her desk.
“How’s it going, Tristan? You still happy with our arrangement?” Connie asked, her
voice raspy with tequila and menthol cigarettes.
Tristan huffed, annoyed at her ability to make every conversation sound like a sexual
“Yes, ma’am. I love my schedule.”
“Ugh, don’t call me ma’am. You make me out to be some old church lady. I’m not your
mother. Am I, sweetheart?”
“No.” Tristan squashed his desire to add “ma’am.” “You certainly are not.”
It was the same song and dance each time and Tristan had mastered the steps. Connie
searched for conversation, anything to keep him in her eyesight longer. He felt her
try to stay professional, but it never lasted long.
“Is there anything that you need, Tristan? Anything I can give you? To help you better
perform your job, of course.”
“I’m capable of stocking the bar, checking IDs, and mixing over twenty-two thousand
drink combinations. I think I’ve got a handle on it.”
Privy to her internal battle, Tristan smiled and toyed with her, playing his part.
Though deep down he hated the way she regarded him solely as a pretty boy moneymaker.
“So it seems,” she answered and dismissed him. “Make sure to send Lee up here when
he gets in.”
With a salute, he left her office feeling relieved and disgusted for playing her game.
Three hours into his shift, Tristan was struggling to remain focused. His eyes darted
to that dark corner every few seconds, willing McKenzi to materialize out of thin
air. He had no idea what he would say to her, everything in his head sounded childlike
and flimsy. All he knew was seeing her had rekindled a fire inside his gut, a fire
that he loved.
Last night, his dreams had been awash with the face and voice of twelve-year-old McKenzi
Delaune. It all meshed together in a photomontage of sorts. The way his brain filed
each image chronologically made it easy to relive his past. Tristan saw her adolescent
face smiling down at him while he climbed his way up their tree. He heard her giggle
as he chased her around his room with a frog croaking its displeasure. His visions
morphed into their first awkward dance in junior high, to the first time he’d seen
her in a bikini, and eventually to their first kiss.
He wasn’t sure who she’d become now. Tristan was selfish and didn’t know if he wanted
to mar his idealistic memories with this new, darker version of McKenzi. She seemed
so severe and troubled, like she’d been through a lifetime of hurt. Something drew
him in, like a kamikaze moth to a flame. He had no choice in the matter. Thinking
back, he never had.
His eyes checked the corner again. Nothing. He watched as Erin made her way to each
table before sauntering up to the bar, smiling widely.
“Thank God!” she said dramatically. “I don’t have to wait on Bundy tonight.” She grabbed
four bottled beers and turned to leave again. “She’s all yours.”
Tristan’s brows furrowed. He checked the corner again, still empty. Finally, his eyes
slid down the bar and found her there, scribbling. He took a deep breath and stepped
over to face her. He did not miss the drawing of his anchor tattoo now decorating
the bar’s surface.
“I may have to call the San Diego Graffiti Control Program and report you for that.”
“What’s stopping you?” Josie asked, one eyebrow raised in challenge.
“Well, that particular image,” he said, pointing to the defaced bar, “is directly
related to me. I could be implicated. There’s paperwork, a long form that you have
to fill out. Then you have to take it downtown to file the complaint, waiting in lines
and spending far too much time bathed in fluorescent lighting and breathing government
“Government air?” Josie asked.
“Yes. The exhaled breaths and sighs of people working for an uneducated supervisor
whose cousin got him the job. They bring paper bag lunches and drink diluted coffee,
both of which fill the air with stink and dissatisfaction. On their lunch breaks,
they sit in a room that hasn’t been dusted since the first Bush administration and
brag about a home life that is less fulfilling than their monotonous job. All those
feelings, words, dust, fumes, and tastes combine into the stench of regret for a life
never lived and dreams long forgotten. Government air.”
Josie just stared at him, wondering if she could make sense of this rant. After a
few seconds of inner debate, she decided to move on.
“Why don’t you just fill out the form online?”
“I prefer face-to-face interaction.”
“Even in government air?” she asked.
“Thanks for not reporting me, I guess.”
“No problem. What can I get you, Mac?”
“That’s what I called you when we were kids,” Tristan said, his eyes shining with
“My name is Josie,” she corrected.
“Okay, Josie,” he said, raising his hands in surrender. “Rum and Coke?”
Tristan made her drink and set it before her carefully as though it represented more
of a peace offering than a simple beverage. He watched as she capped her marker and
slid it into a pocket on her bag. She sipped her drink, the stretch of silence between
them becoming unbearable.
“What happened to you?” he asked, his mouth acting before his brain had worked out
a more subtle approach.
“Last night?” she asked.
“No, the summer after we turned fourteen.”
“Oh. Not here,” she pleaded, shaking her head.
“When? Where?” Tristan begged.
“You get off at midnight, right?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Meet me at City Deli.”
Tristan noticed this was not a question. He nodded.
Josie drained her drink in one swallow and left cash on the bar. She slung her bag
across her body and exited onto the street, leaving the sole connection to her past
behind. She had three hours to kill before meeting him and wondered what kind of trouble
she could get into before then.
* * *