Chuck shot his arm across Stan’s chest one second before impact.
Then came the sound of crushing and the jolt of a hard stop. Adrenaline laced Chuck Samson’s nerves. And anger. Because it was the Escalade’s fault, jamming on its brakes that way. Like the guy
to be rear ended.
“Oh God Oh God Oh God!” Stan’s voice, high and scared.
“It’s all right, Stan.” Chuck kept his arm against his younger brother’s wiry body. Feeling it tighten, no body fat, he’d always been this way, as a kid, as an adult. Stringy and ADD.
Stan writhed under Chuck’s arm. “What happened? What!”
“Little accident is all,” Chuck said. “You okay?”
“I’m all tingly!”
“Just take it easy now. Deep breaths. Can you do that for me, Stan? Deep. That’s it. I’ve got to talk to the guy.”
“Don’t leave me!” It was what Stan used to say when he was scared as a kid. Chuck showing up whenever Stan got pushed or teased, putting a beatdown on the bullies. Or getting there afterward to wipe the tears off Stan’s face and tell him he could be stronger, and Stan hugging his big brother and always saying
Don’t leave me!
Stan hadn’t said it in years. He was thirty now, and just starting to look it. But shouting the phrase made him seem ten again.
He knew he had his work cut out for him, keep his brother calm while he dealt with this crazy driver. “I’ll be right outside the––”
Chuck turned and recognized the face outside the window. Same guy. The one in front of his neighbor’s house just five minutes earlier. The Escalade had seemed out place at Lucy Bowers’ curb. She was single, new to the neighborhood. Driving by, Chuck had looked at the guy. The guy’s face wasn’t exactly friendly. Chuck nodded and drove on. What else could he do? He wasn’t the sheriff of the neighborhood. People could park where they wanted.
But here the guy was again. Longish brown hair, unkempt but with a part down the middle. Beard stubble. Large, flat nose. Looked close to Chuck’s age, thirty-four.
“You all right?” The guy’s muffled voice, through the window, carried a slight accent of some kind. Russian?
Chuck said, “I think so.” Suspicion gnawed him. Rear end insurance scams were common in Southern Cal. He wanted to give people the benefit of the doubt, but he knew too much about human nature.
Perfect setting for that scam, too. It was early morning and they were on a stretch of road on the other side of a new home development. One block north of Sherman Way, just before it turns into Platt.
And it didn’t help that the adrenaline was bubbling up the PTSD soup that was sitting on the back burner of his brain. He’d just started to get more control over it, but something like this could set it off, spill it. Chuck took a deep breath.
“Insurance?” the guy said.
There it was. In a rear ender, boys and girls, the guy in back always loses
In all his years of driving, Chuck had three speeding tickets but never an accident. That this one could have been so easily avoided rankled him.
They guy opened Chuck’s door. It groaned like a bored, metallic lion.
Chuck swiveled, put his feet on the street. His legs shook like he was in a ten-below wind. He felt duly embarrassed. He considered himself in good shape. Kept up his running, even a little of the kick boxing he’d learned in the Marine martial arts program. Not the usual training for a chaplain in Afghanistan, but it did teach a certain discipline. Which Chuck held onto now as he steadied himself.
Just stay calm and talk it through, the way Royce always told him to do it.
“Easy there, my friend,” the guy said with a little scratch in his voice. Chuck decided Mad Russian would be a good name for him, the way he drove. And he thought he caught a whiff of whiskey breath. At this hour? Mad indeed.
He was about Chuck’s height, a couple inches over six feet. Looked strong across the chest. A bar fight kind of guy. In high school Chuck had plenty of fights under the influence, and felt the familiar quiver of aggression shoot down to his fists. He told the quiver to shut it down, stay calm.
You were a man of God once, remember? A MOG . . .
“You okay?” Chuck said.
Mad Russian didn’t say anything. Just stood there. Was that a smirk on his face? What was up with that?
“So what happened?” Chuck said, keeping his voice steady. No need to get aggressive. Give the guy a chance.
“You look at me when you drive by,” Mad Russian said.
“You drive by, back there, looking at me.”
“That? No, I wasn’t looking at you. I was just—”
All right, simple misunderstanding. Chuck had learned to defuse emotional bombs. That had been a part of his work, his calling, after all. He said, “No, what happened is I’m driving to work, okay? So if—”
“Who is that?” Mad Russian nodded toward Stan, still in the passenger seat of Chuck’s Sentra. Stan was sitting with his arms crossed in front of his chest, rocking back and forth. Keep things calm, Chuck told himself, so Stan doesn’t freak.
“Look,” Chuck said, “let’s just––”
“I ask you question,” Mad Russian said.
Okay, the guy did not want to be reasonable. Clean this up later. All business now. “Let’s exchange information and I’m sure we—”
“You look at me and you study me.”
“You look like tough guy. You tough guy?”
“Listen, I told you, I didn’t—”
A hand of iron shot up and clamped Chuck’s throat. Mad Russian thrust his face within a hair of Chuck’s and said, “You tell me why you look at me.”
Chuck couldn’t tell him anything, not with his air choked off. He looked into crazy, blue-ice eyes, rimmed red. Not with the buzzing of his brain now, kicking into survival mode, and the heat of it in his chest, that old and bad feeling when they’d cut his throat. It was back, all of it, in a fireball under his ribs.
Mad Russian tightened the neck vice.
Chuck heard Stan screaming inside the car.
Stay there Stan.
Chuck tried to will the thought to his brother.
Chuck shot a fist at the guy’s arm. No movement.
Blood pumping behind Chuck’s eyes.
Stan screamed louder.
Chuck’s mind shot to military mode. Thrusting up with his hands, he caught the guy flush under the chin with the heels of his palms. Mad Russian’s head snapped back and he let go.
Chuck sucked for air, making a sound like a shovel scraping cement. His head was light and he thought for a second he’d pass out.
Stan was out of the car, racing around toward him.
Mad Russian was a couple of steps back. He just looked at the brothers, head cocked to one side.
Then he removed something from his pocket, as smoothly as a pool hustler pulls out a ten spot. With a flick of his wrist a blade flashed in the morning sun.
The half moon scar on Chuck’s throat heated up. He knew what knives that size could do.
Chuck pushed his brother toward the sidewalk. “Run!”
Stan stumbled, kept his feet, but did not run.
Chuck stepped in front of his brother, ready for an attack, as much as you could be for a guy with a knife when you had nothing in your hands. But he did not think, he did not analyze, there was no time, it was a flash of knowing that he would never let Stan get hurt. He would take the cut if he had to, he would kill this guy if he had to, and he felt the blood rush to his face. And he knew then, too, in that blink of time, that he needed Stan as much as Stan needed him. That the brother-blood tie was what was keeping him from sinking further down into the shadows.
And the Mad Russian just stood there. Smiling.
For a long moment no one moved.
Then a blue sedan came around the corner, off Platt, toward them.
Mad Russian watched it, holding the knife low against his thigh.
The blue sedan pulled to a stop.
As the driver’s window came down Mad Russian flicked his wrist again. The knife blade disappeared into the handle. He slid the knife back in his pocket as if he’d just exchanged business cards with somebody.
Still smiling, he pointed his finger at Chuck, and then at Stan. Then he calmly walked to his Escalade, got in and drove off.
No license plate, Chuck noted.
“What was that?” the sedan driver yelled. “Was that a knife?”
Stan gripped Chuck’s arm. “He had a knife, Chuck. Did you see the knife?”
“I’ll call 911,” the driver said. He was maybe fifty, short gray hair and glasses.
“Yeah, yeah,” Chuck said. He looked to his brother. Stan was trembling. Chuck gently gripped Stan’s shoulders. “It’s okay now, bud.”
“Why did he have a knife, Chuck?”
“I don’t know. But he’s gone.”
“I have to go to work. The new specials are out!”
“We’ll get you there. Don’t worry. Don’t––”
Chuck’s phone vibrated. He fished it from his pocket. A private number.
A male voice, whispery, said, “Don’t say a word.”
“You do and you’re dead.”
“She would not like that.”
“She would not like it. She can see past the grave.”
A cold, blue fire tore across his chest. Julia. He was talking about Julia.
The connection went dead.