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High Noon in Sandbridge

By Elizabeth L. Brooks and Lynn Townsend


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2018 Elizabeth L. Brooks and Lynn Townsend

ISBN 9781634866637

* * * *

Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


WARNING: This book is not transferable. It is for your own personal use. If it is sold, shared, or given away, it is an infringement of the copyright of this work and violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

No portion of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form, or by any means, without permission in writing from the publisher, with the exception of brief excerpts used for the purposes of review.

This book is for ADULT AUDIENCES ONLY. It may contain sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which might be considered offensive by some readers. Please store your files where they cannot be accessed by minors.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

High Noon in Sandbridge

By Elizabeth L. Brooks and Lynn Townsend

Chapter 1

“Eight, nine, ten, eleven…goddamn it, where’s twelve?” Andy needed to get the inventory numbers to Scooter and then run down to the rental to do some repairs. Two months until the summer season officially started, but they already had the place booked for two of the four weeks in April, and none of the renters would be happy if there was a hole in the wall in the kitchen or the bathroom light was flickering.

But before he could do that, he had to find this missing package of pre-sliced cheese. Preferably soon; it was fucking cold in the walk-in fridge.

Andy’d had better days.

“Hey, babe,” Scooter said, strolling in and immediately wrapping Andy in his arms.

Andy leaned into the warmth with a sigh. “Almost done,” he promised. “I’m just one cheese short and I swear to God I can’t figure out—”

“Oh, shit,” Scooter said. “Cheese, that was me. I pulled one out last night and took it upstairs.”

Andy shot his husband an unimpressed look. “You what.”

Scooter looked sheepish. “I wanted to make omelets for breakfast this morning, and we were out.”

Andy sighed. “I’ve been freezing my balls off in here for twenty minutes because you forgot to tell me we were out of cheese?”

“Sorry?” Scooter tried. He nibbled at Andy’s neck. “I’ll warm you back up, hm?”

They’d been together almost three years, married a year and a half, and Scooter’s touch still sent a thrill right down Andy’s spine, every time. Unfortunately, they were both too busy to drop everything for a mid-day romp. He put a hand in the center of Scooter’s chest and pushed until they were out of the damn fridge, then shut the door firmly behind them. “I’ll take you up on that later,” he promised, tipping his head for a kiss.

“No making out in the kitchen!” Jason demanded from his spot by the grill.

“Fuck you, one kiss is not making out,” Scooter shot back, grinning.

“Alas, we don’t have time to test Jason’s delicate sensibilities,” Andy said. “I have to go over to the rental and see how much of that list I can knock off before dinner.”

“You should take Raniesha with you,” Scooter said, plucking the list from Andy’s hand.

Andy blinked. “What?”

Scooter grinned even wider. “Spring break. She’s home for the week, wants a job. I told her I’d have to talk to you since you’re the—”

Andy pushed past Scooter and through the kitchen door into the main restaurant floor. Raniesha Collins was leaning against one of the long picnic tables, arms folded. She looked up with a wide smile when Andy came in and opened her arms for a hug that Andy willingly gave her.

“Hey, boss!” she greeted him cheerfully. “Place is looking good!”

“Yeah, we replaced the floor over the winter,” Andy said. “Scooter says you’re on break?”

She nodded. “Got a week; I was hoping you had some odd jobs I could do, ‘cause otherwise I’m stuck working at the store.” She made a face.

Andy couldn’t blame her; she’d grown up working in her mother’s candy store, but it wasn’t exactly a booming business this time of year. “I’m sure I can come up with something for you to do,” he agreed. “You free now? I’ve got some repairs to do over at the rental.”

“You bet!” she agreed. “Let me just text Mom.” She bounced out the door, already poking at her phone.

Scooter sniffed, coming in behind Andy. “Our little baby, all grown up,” he mock-sighed.

Andy snorted. “I’m only, what, six years older than her?”

Scooter laughed and kissed Andy’s cheek. “Closest thing to a kid we’re ever going to have, though. Might as well enjoy it. Besides, we are paying her tuition.”

“No,” Andy said, pointing at him with narrowed eyes. “That is a scholarship foundation for women in STEM fields, it could’ve gone to any local girl.”

“Uh-huh,” Scooter said, smirking. “Keep saying that, maybe one day someone will believe you.”

* * * *

The phone was ringing as Scooter climbed up the stairs to their home above the restaurant. He tripped on the last step; ever since they’d had to replace the staircase and most of the second level balcony, the stair was just a little steeper than his legs expected on autopilot.

He cussed, scrambled to his feet, and got into the house, but the phone disconnected with a sharp click as he picked it up.

“Hmph,” he said. It probably wasn’t anything important. He only maintained a landline at all because of the restaurant—the combination meant they were on a cheaper phone plan than if they disconnected the house line. No one ever called on the residential line; both he and Andy had cellphones that they used for personal stuff. The only calls Scooter got to the landline tended to be cold sales calls, political robocalls and wrong numbers.

Still, it was late for any of those. He frowned down at the phone. He picked up the handset—the answering machine had broken years ago and he’d never bothered to replace it—and checked the callback number: 678-555-7100.

“Andy?” Scooter called out. His husband had been just locking up downstairs and was probably on his way up. “Babe, do you know what Mace’s work number is?” Because Andy always knew; it was freaky the way you could give him a set of numbers and he’d remember it months later.

“Uh…” Andy’s voice was distant, getting louder as he climbed the stairs. “It’s 678-555-7102, for the nurse’s station.” He came in and shut the door. “Why?”

“I think she called,” Scooter said. He was still staring down at the handset. It was weird that she would have called the house phone from work; Mace had his cellphone number, and usually called from hers, when she called. Well, maybe she’d broken her phone, in which case she might be calling him to attempt to convince Andy and him to replace it. Again. She was pretty notorious for it; phone calls from Mace ended up with the inevitable question—

“What’s she want us to buy her this time?”

Yeah. That.

“I dunno, she hung up before I got here,” Scooter said. Well, if she had lost her phone, the house number would be the one she’d remember; it hadn’t changed in at least thirty years; maybe longer. He was just pondering whether to call her back or let her stew until morning—it had already been a long damn day—when the phone rang in his hand.

He cursed, startled, and then stabbed at the answer button. “Hello?”

“May I speak to Mr. Winston Stahl, please?” The voice was a woman’s, cultured and silk-smooth, and no one he’d ever heard before. If Mace’d given his name and number to some hospital charity fundraiser, he’d…be pissed, but realistically, he probably wouldn’t do anything. He was too tired to think of something sufficiently nasty at the moment.

“This is he,” Scooter said, more or less on autopilot.

“Hello, Mr. Stahl,” the woman said, staying formal. “This is Doctor Ellen Huang. I…have some distressing news for you, sir, regarding your daughter.”

“Excuse me?” Scooter wiggled a finger in his ear and then put the phone back to it. “I don’t have a daughter—”

“This is Mr. Winston Stahl, 100 Sandfiddler Road?”

“That’s me, but—”

“And Mary-Alice Stahl is your daughter?”

“My sister,” Scooter corrected. “Our Dad’s been dead about four years now. I got th’ same name.”

“Mr. Stahl,” Huang continued, “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you. I would have waited until the sheriff’s department contacted you, but since you live in Virginia…”

“Yeah,” Scooter said. Everyone knew about Georgia and Virginia police; Scooter personally knew of several deadbeat dads who’d relocated to Georgia because of the difficulty in legal conversation between the states. He stepped back a few paces and almost fell in one of the kitchen chairs.

Andy cocked his head, watching Scooter carefully, a small line of worry forming between his brows. He came over to stand in front of Scooter, leaning against the table and picking up Scooter’s free hand.

“Your sister was involved in a violent episode that took place in our emergency room this evening,” Huang said. “A narcotics addict had self-injured, and while under our care, acquired a pair of medical scissors. When Ms. Stahl went to check his blood pressure, he stabbed her in the throat—”

“Oh, God, is she all right?”

“We had the entire trauma team working on her—she was one of our own—but I’m afraid we could not stop the bleeding in time. She died from a combination of blood loss and asphyxiation. I’m—”

The phone dropped out of his fingers. “What? What?”

Andy caught the phone just before it hit the floor and lifted it. “Hello? I’m Mr. Stahl’s husband, who—” His lips thinned and his eyes widened. “Oh, God. What—Yes. No, but—Okay. I understand. Hang on.” He brushed his knuckles lightly down Scooter’s face. “Honey?”

“No,” Scooter said. He wasn’t sure what he was denying. The whole thing. Everything. All of it. “No.”

Andy took a breath. “Okay, honey, I’ll take care of it.” He turned his attention back to the phone. “He’s…Yeah. How long ago did it happen? Uh-huh. And it’s the middle of the night—where’s her daughter right now? Has she been—Yeah, no, I honestly couldn’t say…As a matter of fact, Scoo—Winston is the guardian of record, unless she’s updated her will in the last six months. Yeah. We’ll make arrangements to be there as soon as possible. Where can I get in touch with you in the meantime? Okay. And the babysitter, do you—Okay. Yeah. Okay. Thank you. I’m…I’m sorry.” He hung up the phone and set it gently on the table. “Scooter, honey.”

“I don’t…” Scooter stared at the phone as if it was an alien artifact that had just appeared on the end table. “I don’t understand.” How could she just be gone? It didn’t make sense, he’d just…they’d just only recently started to try to form any sort of relationship at all, after being essentially estranged for most of their lives. Mace had been a teenager before her brother was even born, already resentful and hostile with parents and location. The addition of a sibling that she was supposed to look after and take care of had just cemented what had already been a rocky start.

In other circumstances, maybe Mace would have been more mother to him than sibling, but not in the Stahl household. Mace had pretty much loathed him from the get-go and wasn’t shy about telling him so, either. It had been mutual—Scooter had called her “Malice” more often than her preferred “Mace.” But they were trying—had been trying. Past tense now, because—

Scooter chewed on his lip until he could taste blood, eyes flickering from spot to spot as he tried to hold onto some sort of control. He didn’t cry anymore. Well, only once, since his Ma had died and—yeah, he didn’t like to think about that much. He and his father had some issues left unresolved their whole lives.

Mace had cried though; he remembered. Sobbed hysterically and had to be dragged away from their mother’s coffin. At the time, Scooter remembered having the uncharitable thought that Mace was crying from rage, from not being able to make Lorraine understand, for not making Lorraine sorry enough.

He blinked. Lost it, just a little. One tear slid down his cheek and he couldn’t decide whether or not to angrily brush it away or just ignore it and pretend it hadn’t happened.

“…honey.”

Oh. Right. Scooter wasn’t alone in the room the way he was with his crazy shattering thoughts. Without quite meeting Andy’s eyes, Scooter reached for him. Thank God for Andy, because Scooter really did not want to be alone in this world without any family. Later, he would think about Jason and Kat and Jeff and Debbie and D’ante and Elaine and Melissa and Melissa’s son, Jordan, who made up the Dockside family. But right now, there were only a few Stahls left in the world. Scooter. And Andy…and—

“Oh, fuck. Where’s Billie? Is she okay?”

“With the babysitter right now,” Andy said. “Mace was on the night shift, so…Dr. Huang said they decided not to wake her up to tell her. The next few days are going to be rough enough, and it’s not like they were going to be able to bring her in to say goodbye, not…” He took a hard breath, stopping his rambling. “She’s at the babysitter’s, sleeping. Dr. Huang is calling the babysitter now. I’ll let both of them know as soon as we have an itinerary.”

“Right,” Scooter said. “Yeah, okay, that…we should call Jason, he’ll…” Well, it wasn’t like Jason had ever considered Mace a sister. Scooter’s parents had fostered Jason after his mom died, but Mace had left home very shortly thereafter, and she had resented the intrusion of Jason even more than she did Scooter. But they would need Jason to take over Dockside while they were gone. Again. For another funeral. There weren’t a lot of Howards left, either.

Jesus.

“And plane tickets, we can get bereavement…well, it’s not like we’ll need that, honestly. Just first class.” That was at least something; Andy—and by way of marriage, Scooter—were actually multi-millionaires, even if neither of them took anything like advantage of it, partly because they didn’t want too many people to know. First class tickets, though, no one in Sandbridge would even ask. Of course Scooter would have to fly down for his sister’s funeral, and if anyone even noticed they were in first class, well, last-minute flights, you took what was available.

Scooter was okay, he was fine, he was making plans.

He took a deep breath, as if to express that to Andy and shocked himself by bursting into tears.

“Oh, baby,” Andy said, and Andy’s arms were around Scooter, pulling him close, holding him tight, rocking, just a little. “Honey, I’m so, so sorry.”

It was strangely reminiscent of the last time Scooter had wept. Andy holding him up and apologizing in his ear. When he’d thought he lost Andy. He grabbed a handful of Andy’s shirt, pulled him tighter. Thank God for Andy. “It’s unfair,” he managed. That was always Mace’s refrain, too, and that thought got him going even harder, sobbing until he couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Somewhere in there, Andy managed to get them over to the sofa to sit.

Scooter finally, finally managed to choke it off.

When he looked up, Andy was not dry-eyed either. “It sucks,” he said, his voice rough. “It sucks so much.” He brushed Scooter’s hair back carefully. “And it’s going to keep sucking for a while.” He closed his eyes, took a couple of breaths, opened them again. “I’ll handle all the arrangements,” he offered, “unless you want something in particular. Okay?” He hesitated, head cocked as he considered. “You want to call Jason, or do you want me to?”

“I’ll do it,” Scooter said. He considered the handset that Andy had put down for only a second, then pulled out his cellphone. For one thing, Jason probably wouldn’t answer if it popped up from the houseline, he doubted Jason had the number in his contacts list. And…Scooter wasn’t sure he remembered Jason’s number anyway.

Also…Scooter eyed the phone warily as if it might bite him. He was suddenly having really, really bad associations with that phone. He didn’t particularly want to touch it again. Not…not right now.

He tapped the icon for Jason—a snapshot of Jason standing with his surfboard—and waited.

“Scooter.” Jason’s voice was muzzy with sleep. “Hey, what…is everything okay?”

Scooter took a deep breath. “No. No it is not.”

* * * *

Chapter 2

Even this early in the morning, Atlanta airport was a circus. Knowing they weren’t going to sleep anyway, Andy had booked the earliest flights he could find. They hadn’t bothered with more than a carry-on, either; if there was ever a good time to take advantage of their wealth to skip unnecessary planning, this was definitely it.

Andy hefted his bag over his shoulder and steered Scooter gently through the crowds. Mace’s death had hit Scooter hard—well, not surprising, Andy supposed, given the shock and the nature of their relationship. Andy fired off a text as they walked, and by the time they’d reached the taxi stand outside the baggage claim, he had a response. “We’re all going to meet at the hospital,” he told Scooter. “I know you said you weren’t hungry, but this is probably the last chance to eat for a while.”

Scooter nodded, eyes foggy and not quite seeing what was in front of him. “Yeah, I ain’t, but. Something, I guess. Don’t need t’ fall down.” He raised his chin a little to look at Andy. “You pick. Somethin’ I don’t need to think about, okay?”

“Okay, baby.” He nudged Scooter into the cab ahead of him and leaned forward to tell the driver where they were going. “Stop at the nearest Starbucks on the way.” He leaned back into his seat as the car moved and closed his eyes for a moment.

“This is crazy,” Scooter said. “Mace an’ I don’t speak to each other pretty much th’ whole of our lives, and now…now? Why now? Why not three years ago?”

“I don’t know,” Andy said. Not that Scooter actually wanted an answer, even if there was one. Georgia, he thought and looked out the window. He wondered how much trouble they’d get into if they were seen holding hands. Atlanta was more LGBT-friendly than the rest of the state, though. He looked back at Scooter and decided, fuck it—if some asshole wanted to start shit, they could try, but Scooter needed him. He slipped his hand into Scooter’s and squeezed. “I’m just…grateful it is now, and not three years ago,” he added. “God, how much worse would that have been? You didn’t even know about Billie.”

Scooter shuddered. “Yeah, that’s…I ain’t sure I’m ready for this, but we’re all she’s got left. Poor kid.” Scooter gave a bitter, small sort of laugh. “Jesus, can…can you even imagine, if she hadn’t come t’ us last year? Oh, hello, Mr. Stahl, your sister was murdered by some jumped up druggie asshole in our goddamn emergency room and despite having a whole room full of doctors, we couldn’t do anything about it…oh, and by the way, did you know you had a seven-year-old niece? No? Well, come get her.”

“Yeah, that would…” Andy shuddered and rubbed his thumb across Scooter’s hand, soothing. “At least she’s met us a couple of times; we won’t be complete strangers.”

The cab pulled into a Starbucks drive-through. Andy fished out his wallet and handed the driver a twenty. “Two coffees, biggest they’ve got, one black and one with a little milk and sugar, and a couple of croissants or whatever relatively plain pastries they’ve got. Get yourself a coffee, too.”

He took the cups and bag from the driver and sat back again, handing Scooter’s coffee over, and a croissant wrapped in a napkin. “Here, honey.” It tasted like cardboard, and it couldn’t be much better for Scooter, but Scooter ate mechanically, not even looking at it.

Grady Hospital was enormous; originally a medium-sized brick building built in the late 1800s, it was now the largest hospital in Atlanta, and indeed, most of that part of the country, a huge sprawl of white, high-rise buildings. It took them a little while to find their way back to the proper nursing station—Mace had worked in the Emergency Room, but the actual office where her workstation had been was tucked around a corner and down a hall. Nurses and doctors and patients filled the corridors and the air was perfumed with sharp antiseptic.

Finally, they found where they were supposed to be.

Ellen Huang was a tiny Korean woman, her black hair pulled out of her face into a casual messy-bun. “I’m Dr. Huang. Your sister was one of my main support nurses. You have my condolences for your loss. Billie is just down the hall; I’m afraid we had to give her a sedative as she got rather violent at the news, poor girl. My daughter, Daisy, is with her. I paid Mary-Alice’s babysitter and sent her home. But she left a number for you to reach her to get caretaking instructions.”

Andy took the offered note, memorized the number, and passed it to Scooter. “Thank you, Doctor. We’ll be happy to reimburse any expenses, of course. Let’s…” He glanced at Scooter. “You want to go—”

“What happened to him—” Scooter burst out. “The man who murdered my sister?”

Oh God. Andy winced. “It’s a valid question,” he sighed, and lifted his eyebrows at the doctor.

“The man is an addict and was suffering from hallucinations brought on by detox,” Dr. Huang said. “We treated his injuries and he has been remanded to psychiatric care and evaluation. After an evaluation on his mental state is complete, he will be charged. He will get the help he needs, so that he’s able to face the consequences of his actions. I’m sure the sheriff’s department can answer other questions you might have.” She made a slight shrug. “It’s still murder, even if he did think your sister was a monster at the time.”

Scooter uttered a terrible, croaking sound that was nothing like a laugh. “Yeah,” he said.

“If you like, I’ll take you to Billie now.” Dr. Huang looked sympathetic, but she had to be busy, too.

Andy glanced at Scooter. “You want to see her alone first, or…?”

Scooter’s hand tightened on Andy’s. “We’re doing this together, right?”

“Absolutely,” Andy agreed. He nodded to Dr. Huang. “Let’s go see her.”

* * * *

It was dim but not dark when Billie opened her eyes. She knew this room; it was where the nurses and sometimes the doctors took naps when they had long shifts. Mom brought her here when Ms. Hillard couldn’t take her sometimes.

For a moment, everything seemed normal and quiet, and then the awful memory exploded: Dr. Huang telling her—”No,” she said, and her voice broke. “No, no no—”

“Oh, honey,” said a voice. Billie turned to look, and it was Nurse Huang, sitting up now from the cot where she’d been resting. She came over to sit beside Billie. “Honey, I’m sorry, it’s—”

“I want Mommy,” Billie sobbed. Nurse Huang pulled Billie into a hug. Billie wanted to push her away, like before.

She’d yelled and pushed Nurse Huang and for a second, everything had seemed very strange. But Mom hadn’t said, “Billie, you stop that right now!” and somehow that had been even worse, and she had…She had…She couldn’t quite remember what had happened after that. She was crying harder now, and Mom wasn’t going to come and hug her and take her home for ice cream or…She folded into Nurse Huang’s arms and cried.

The door opened slowly. Billie looked, hoping it would be Mom, telling her it had been a terrible mistake and for just a second, it was.

And then it wasn’t.

Billie had an uncle—two of them now. When she’d told her friends at school about them, Derek had overheard and been really mean about it, and told her having two gay uncles meant she was really a boy in a dress, which made her so mad she’d gotten in trouble with her teacher for biting Derek. Again.

She had two uncles, but she didn’t know them very well. She’d just met them for the first time, Christmas not last Christmas, but the one before that. She hadn’t realized how much her uncle looked like Mom, though, and it made her throat get all tight and hurt to swallow.

“Hey, kiddo,” her uncle—she wanted to call him Winnie, which is what Mom called him most of the time, but she remembered he didn’t like that name. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to call him though. She clung to Nurse Huang and stared at him, unable to respond.

Behind him was Uncle Andy—Mom just called him Andy, mostly, unless she and Uncle Winnie got in a fight, in which case Mom called him a bunch of words that Billie wasn’t allowed to say. He wasn’t really looking at her though. He looked at his phone and at Billie and at Nurse Huang and at Uncle Winnie and then back at his phone.

Uncle Winnie just looked at her, though, like he was waiting for her. She sniffled and dragged her arm across her nose. “Hi.”

“I don’t even—” Uncle Winnie started, holding out a hand like he expected her to take it, or hug him, or something.

Mom had sort of told her she ought to, but that if she didn’t want to, she didn’t have to. Mom was big on something she called bodily autonomy. Billie only really knew how to say that because she got a lecture every time Billie hit someone at school. Or hugged them. Or pretty much anything. Other people weren’t for touching, mostly, except for how sometimes they were. Billie still hadn’t figured out the rules yet.

“I’m sorry about your mom, kiddo.”

Billie’s throat closed up again. “I wanna go home.” Home was where everything was okay.

Uncle Winnie nodded. “Yeah, we’re uh…we’re gonna go there for a bit. Get stuff settled for your ma. Stay there for a while. Ms. Hillard’s gonna come by. An’ we’ll get your stuff all packed up.”

Packed up? She pushed off of Nurse Huang and frowned at Uncle Winnie. “Packed up for what?”

“Honey,” Nurse Huang said.

Uncle Andy made a face and said, “Maybe now isn’t—”

“Packed up for what?” Billie demanded again, louder.

Uncle Winnie made that face that adults did when they didn’t want to answer a question. “Shit,” he said under his breath. Then the face got worse.

Mom would—No, Mom wouldn’t be mad. Mom was never going to be mad again. Billie knew what dead meant. Her mom was a nurse. Billie knew an awful lot about dead. “Sorry. I’m…well, really, she’s gotta be told sometime,” he said. “You’re gonna come live with us in Sandbridge now. After…we get things settled.”

Billie shook her head. “Mom says we’re not ever going to Sandbridge,” she told him. Billie had asked, after her uncles had come to visit the first time, if they were ever going to go visit them, and Mom had been very firm on that. Sandbridge was a terrible place and they weren’t ever going.

“Well, not today at least,” Uncle Winnie said. “Right now we’re gonna go to your home. Is that okay?”

There was something wrong there, she just knew it, but home was what she’d asked for, wasn’t it? She nodded carefully. “Okay.”

“Thank you for looking after her,” Uncle Winnie said to Nurse Huang.

Nurse Huang pushed her hair out of her face. She was growing it out, she’d told Billie a few weeks back, and it was “in that awkward in-between stage”. “Is the service going to be here? A lot of Mace’s friends will…and co-workers. They’ll want to say goodbye, and Virginia is pretty far away.”

Uncle Andy nodded. “Yes, that’s the plan. Mace cut most of her ties with the people she knew in Virginia, so having it here will be more convenient for the most people. Were you close at all? We’ll need help figuring out…all the details.” He looked at Billie when he said that.

“We had opposite shifts a lot,” Nurse Huang said. “It makes patients weird when I’m calling the doctor ‘mom.’ Mom’s got your number, and I’ll have Danielle Hammond give you a call. That’s Mace’s best friend, she’ll know what to do.”

Uncle Andy just nodded. “Your mother has my cell number, feel free to pass it along to Ms. Hammond, then.” He smiled at Billie, just a tiny bit, not the big smiles he’d made at Christmas. “You ready to go?”

Billie nodded, and let Nurse Huang nudge her off the cot. She crossed the room on trembling legs to look up at her Uncle Winnie, who was looking back. He looked very sad, and maybe a little scared. Maybe he’d feel better when they got home, too.

“You want me to carry you? Or you want to walk?” Uncle Winnie dropped down to one knee to get on level with her.

For just a second, Billie wanted to ask him to carry her. It would be a little like a hug. But she shook her head. “I’m not a baby,” she told him. “I’m too big to be carried.”

“I know you’re not a baby,” Uncle Winnie said. “But even big girls get tired sometimes. Let me know if you change your mind.” He stood up and offered a hand. “And even grown up uncles need a hand to hold once in a while.”

Well. If it would help him, she supposed. He did look very sad. She slipped her hand into his; it was big and warm and had lots of little hard-rough spots on it. It wasn’t much like Mom’s hand at all.

* * * *

Chapter 3

Dr. Huang had given Scooter his sister’s keys. They rode strange in his pocket, heavy and weird. Mace had apparently been fond of keychains, because dozens of them glittered pointlessly from the ring, which held only a few keys. House, car, mailbox. Another key, probably to a storage unit or a shed.

“Something will need to be done about her car,” Scooter said. They’d just bought that car for her birthday last year. Andy had bitched a little at that. But Scooter reasoned a few hefty gifts from time to time might sweeten Mace’s temper. It had been used, a previous lease model, with less than thirty thousand miles on it. Scooter didn’t want it. And he wasn’t sure he was prepared to bring it back to Virginia and see anyone else driving it around either.

Billie was sitting between them in the cab, scowling at her hands that she had bunched into little fists on her thighs. God only knew what she was thinking. Scooter didn’t know the first goddamn thing about kids. Melissa’s boy, Jordan, was the only one Scooter had really known since he graduated high school; sometimes when Melissa’s mom was ill, Jordan ended up running around in the restaurant or playing with Trick. D’ante had a niece and a nephew, but Scooter had only met them once or twice.

Oh, God. He coughed and then asked, “How are your guinea pigs doing?” More pets. Well, they could live in whatever room Billie wanted and they’d train Trick to stay out. Hopefully.

“Fine,” she said, and then after a minute volunteered, “Squeaker bit Mouse on the butt last week and Mouse got mad and chased him all over the cage.”

Scooter managed to dredge up a smile for that. “Well, that sounds like it was funny. Poor Mouse though. I remember Squeaker had some big teeth.” God, he didn’t know anything about rodents either, except that he didn’t like when they got into the kitchen. Jason was rather terrified of them, and everyone joked about it, that Jason was like an elephant and didn’t want to squash them, but Jason was always the first one to suggest putting out live traps as soon as they found evidence of scat near the bread bags. “We’ve got a dog, you know. Sometimes. He’s Jeff’s dog really but we share him sometimes.”

“Mom says we can’t have a dog,” Billie reported. “She says they take too much work.”

And for a full time, sixty-hour-a-week plus nurse, a dog probably was way too much work. Mace…Mace shouldn’t have had to be there all the time. Guilt pummeled at Scooter with thick, heavy blows. If Mace had agreed to come home, help him with Dockside, they’d have made it worth her while, but she didn’t want to. And they’d deliberately sort of stuck it to her, helped her out, but made sure she had to keep working, even though they could have—Scooter cut that thought off. Not helping. Not helpful.

“Some dogs are a lot of work,” Andy pitched in. “Trick’s pretty easy though. We just have to take him for a walk a couple of times a day and make sure he gets food and water. And he’s great for hugs.”

“And brush him out sometimes,” Scooter said, “and give him a bath, but he’s pretty good about baths. And there are a lot of us at Dockside who take care of him. Me, an’ your Uncle Andy, and Jeff and Debbie, and Jason and Kat. And D’ante, too, sometimes.”

Billie bit her lip and went back to looking at her fists. Andy looked over her head at Scooter with a sympathetic grimace.

Scooter pulled out his phone and tapped.

I suck aat this

A moment later, Andy almost jumped out of his seat when his phone buzzed. He fished it out of his pocket and looked at it, and typed an answer one-handed.

New text from Andy

Me 2. Well figuer it out. just gonna suck 4 a bit.

“What grade are you in now?” Scooter asked. It was April. At least school would be over soon, and…he’d already had words with the local grade school. Three days was all the time off students were given for bereavement, and then Billie could have another five days off as unexcused absences, but unless they wanted to let her fail for the year, she had to be in school in Virginia by next Monday. Or they’d have to go up for a hearing at the school board, which Scooter knew from listening to other people bitch about it was not likely to get them any grace.

“Second,” Billie said, as if it was the most obvious thing possible and why was he even asking?

“Doin’ better than me,” Scooter confessed. “I got held back a grade, so I was still in first grade when I was your age.”

Andy raised an eyebrow. “Did you? I didn’t know that.” Andy, of course, was probably in fucking high school or something when he was seven, the asshole.

Billie’s eyes were round. “How come? Mom says y’only get held back if you’re bad.”

Ugh. Mace would say that, wouldn’t she? Not that it wasn’t the fucking truth. “Kinda was,” he admitted. “Used to fight all the time. Got in a lot of trouble. They held me back a year on the theory that I wasn’t mature enough for school yet. Thought being a year older would sort me out.” Hadn’t. And then there was Jason, who was getting into fights all the damn time. It was lucky either of them got through high school at all. If it wasn’t for No Child Left Behind, they probably wouldn’t have.

“Oh.” Billie considered that. “I fight sometimes. Sorta.”

“What for?” Andy asked.

She fidgeted a little. “Because Derek is a giant poop-head.”

“Yeah?” Scooter snorted. Oh, God, Mace would have loved that; another kid who was a scrapper. Not, he reminded himself firmly, that he should in any way encourage that sort of behavior. He was supposed to parent now. Sort of. If Billie would let him. “What did he do?”

“He pushed me on the playground even if the teacher said she didn’t see it,” Billie said, angry. “And he stole my good pencil. And he cuts in line at lunch! And he called me a boy!”

“Well, Derek being the obvious exception,” Scooter said, “there’s nothing really wrong with being a boy.”

“But I’m not one!” Billie said, obviously seething. “He said I was a boy in a dress! And he checked out the book I wanted on library day just ‘cause he knew I wanted it. He doesn’t even like Treehouse Mysteries!”

“He certainly sounds like he’s going out of his way to be a poop-head,” Andy said solemnly. “I can see why it’s hard to keep your temper.”

“My teacher says it’s because he likes me,” Billie grouched, curling in on herself even more.

Scooter scoffed. “Oh, that’s such garbage. You’re nice to people you like. You don’t hurt them, or call them names, or make them miserable, that’s not…” He glanced at Andy. Scooter had very strong feelings about abuse and what sort of horrible people engaged in it. Andy had been on the run from an abusive boyfriend when they’d met. “That’s not how you demonstrate affection, and you shouldn’t ever…ever have to accept that.”

Andy caught Scooter’s eye and smiled warmly. He knew what Scooter was thinking about, obviously. “Well, sometimes teasing looks like that. Like our friends Kat and Jason. They tease each other a lot. But if it’s just teasing, then if you tell them you really don’t like it, then they’d stop. That’s how you tell. So I have to agree with Scooter here, I don’t think Derek is teasing you because he likes you. I think he’s just being mean.”

“That’s what I told Ms. Meachum,” Billie pouted. “She said to just ignore him, like that ever works. So I bit him.”

“Ow,” Scooter said mildly. “You should probably not do that. It’s bad for your teeth. And there are a lot of germs in the human mouth, like, really. Loads. You break skin and he could have gotten an infection.” Yeah, he was gonna be a great parent; he could just see getting dragged into the principal’s office to explain to someone why he was encouraging his niece to kick people in the back of the knee instead.

“Good!” Billie said vindictively, crossing her arms. “He deserves it.”

“But then you might have to go to the dentist, to get your tooth put back in, too,” Scooter pointed out.

“Hmp,” she huffed, obviously not convinced. Thank goodness Derek wasn’t going to be a problem for much longer. But if hanging around Jason had taught Scooter anything, it was that there was always another Derek.

* * * *

There was a skinny woman wearing a black leather jacket and smoking a cigarette with her boots up on Mace’s kitchen table. Andy was already fumbling out his phone to call 911 when Billie ran straight into the kitchen and threw her arms around the woman with a plaintive, “Aunt Dani!”

Billie burst into tears and let the woman pick her up and snuggle her inside the jacket.

“You’re the brother, then,” the woman said, gesturing with her cigarette. “Detective Hammond. You can call me Danielle.”

“You’d be the best friend the nurse at the hospital mentioned then,” Andy said, pushing his phone back into his pocket. “How much do you—” He glanced at Billie, still sobbing, and sighed. “My condolences.”

Danielle Hammond had long black hair and pale skin that made her look more closely related to Billie than Scooter was. Andy wondered idly if Danielle had a brother or cousin or something who was Billie’s father. Or, hell, maybe Hammond was trans and had sired the girl herself. Though if that were the case, Andy didn’t know where Billie would have gotten those brilliant green eyes; Hammond’s were brown.

“Thanks,” Hammond said. “I’ve had a key here for just about ever. Mace is responsible for some of the neater stitches I’ve had this last decade or so. And she’s cheaper than the doc in a box. I’m gonna miss her.” She ruffled Billie’s hair. “I brought some apples for the spuds, do you want to give them a snack while I talk shop with your uncles, huh?”

Billie took the apple slices that Hammond offered her, but she pouted and sniffed. “You’re gonna talk about me, aren’t you?” she accused.

Andy tried not to grin.

“And your mom some,” Hammond said. “You don’t want to hear about that, baby girl. Not till you’re much older.”

“Fine,” Billie sniffed, and shuffled out of the room.

They waited a few seconds, and then Hammond said, “I ain’t kidding, Billie, go on!”

Billie’s huff of exasperation from behind the door was easily audible, as were her stomping feet.

“The Chief, she thinks I’m doing work on a robbery case downtown,” Hammond said. She pulled out a file and tossed it on the table. “S’why my car’s not out front. Now, I guess I need to know…you want justice for your sister, or you just want to take the squirt and go home?”

“Revenge isn’t justice,” Scooter said. He snagged one of the kitchen chairs and sat down.

“Sometimes that’s all we get,” Hammond shot back. “Now, this is the thing. This guy, he’s small. Worthless, really, except that he killed a nurse who was trying to help him. He doesn’t know much, but his lawyer will convince him to give up a few names, do two, three years max. He’ll leave town after eighteen months and we’ll never see him again. In the meanwhile, we might—might—be able to take down one drug dealer. One. Who probably, again, will cop a plea, give us some names. War on drugs is endless. Pointless. People die and no one fucking cares.”

Andy couldn’t quite pull a complete breath, his gaze flicking between Hammond and Scooter. “The alternative?” he asked, hoarse.

“I don’t want a war on drugs, I want this guy to pay for costing me the only friend I’ve never been able to sarcasm away,” Hammond said. “He’ll have some sob story, they always do. How he got on drugs, how he’s sad and scared, and I do not give a fuck. Everybody hurts. Everybody’s in pain. He doesn’t get to take his shit out on other people.”

She sat back in her chair for a minute, breathing hard. “Fuck. I told myself I would stay calm.”

Scooter just looked at her. “What is it you think we can do about it?”

“You have money,” she said. “Use it. Don’t let them offer him a goddamn plea deal. It’s a sure conviction. Our prosecuting attorney is running for state congress. A conviction would look good. Show voters that we value our nurses, our support staff. Give him a fucking donation for his campaign and make a suggestion. The system never works in the favor of the little guy. Your sister, she might not mean much to a lot of people, but she fucking meant something to me.”

It was very doable. Easy. State congressmen always needed donations, much more than their national counterparts. And the guy was, if Hammond could be believed, small potatoes, not worth holding back for his connection to higher-ups who hurt more people in worse ways. Andy leaned over Scooter’s shoulder and picked up the file, flipping through it and only half-seeing it.

“Isn’t he in a mental hospital right now?”

“Yeah,” Hammond said. “Doesn’t matter. Almost no jury ever goes for ‘innocent because he’s a fucking junkie’ as a plea.”

Andy nodded slowly. “Even if your prosecutor calls for voluntary manslaughter and lets them whittle him down to involuntary plus drug charges…he’s still going away for a long time.” He looked at Scooter. “We can make that happen,” he said. “Wouldn’t even have to stick around. If that’s what you want.”

“She was trying to help him,” Scooter said, voice breaking. “And he killed her. For no reason. Yes. Yes, I want that. Put him away, lock him up and fucking forget about him.” Scooter covered his face with one hand and roughly wiped his cheeks.

Andy nodded and pulled Scooter against him, his hand rubbing small circles against Scooter’s back. He looked at Hammond. “Get me the prosecuting attorney’s name, and the name of his campaign manager, if you have it. Important to do these things through the right channels.”

Hammond reached into her jacket and pulled out a business card, flipping it onto the table. “And…Mace told me you all have a rental house up near where you live. Email me about the possibility of renting the house and I’ll send you what you need. Hope I don’t scare you too much, because I ain’t lettin’ you drag that kid six hours away where she’s got no one without coming up to visit sometimes.”

Andy picked up the card and tucked it into his pocket. “I’m sure she’ll be grateful. It’s not our house; we’re just the managers. But we’ll make some space for you in the schedule. I’ll let you know.”

Hammond got to her feet. “For what it’s worth, Mace was grateful. She probably didn’t say it. Hell, she doesn’t—didn’t. Didn’t even say shit like that to me. But I know her. I gotta run. That robbery’s not gonna solve itself.”

Andy offered his hand. “Thanks. When you’re done with that, or ready for a break…Come back. We’ll need some help settling things, and it would be good if it was someone who knew her…better.”

Hammond made a clicking sound with her tongue and double-finger gunned Andy. She ran one hand over Scooter’s shoulder and ended with a pat on the back. “She was one of the best people I ever met. I mean that.”

And she was out the door.

Scooter rolled his tongue around his mouth for a second. “Is…was that the right decision, Andy?”

“I think so,” Andy said. “It’s not revenge, it’s…keeping someone else from having to suffer this.” He sighed. “We can sleep on it if you want.”

“I don’t think I’ll change my mind,” Scooter said slowly. “Just…” He turned to look up at Andy. “Want to make sure you’re…not going to see me differently. That I ain’t losing your respect.”

“Oh, honey.” Andy kissed Scooter’s forehead. “No, not for wanting justice done. This is…Plea bargaining is a tradition in the system, but it’s still a bargain. If we don’t want to take the deal, it’s not a deal.” He shrugged. “We normally wouldn’t get a say in that, but. If he doesn’t know anything that’s worth your sister’s life, then he shouldn’t be able to buy it.”

Scooter sniffled and wiped his cheeks again. “Using our powers for good, right, baby?”

“Absolutely.” He pulled Scooter close again, running his fingers through Scooter’s hair. “Love you. No matter what.”

* * * *

Chapter 4

When the screaming started, it was Scooter who had to deal with it, because Andy was on the phone.

That wasn’t unusual. Andy had been on his phone for half of Thursday and almost all of Friday. The service on Saturday had been simple but surprisingly well attended. Scooter hadn’t realized his sister had quite so robust a social life. Well, why would he know? They’d barely spoken to each other in years. Sunday had passed in a quiet sort of daze, and now it was Monday morning. And there was screaming.

Ugh. He rolled to his feet. It wasn’t “I’m in pain” screaming, which might have gotten Scooter to move faster. It wasn’t “I’m having a nightmare” screaming either. This was a hundred percent Stahl brand “I am pissed off” screaming. Seemed Billie had gotten that from her mom, at least. “I got this,” he told Andy.

Point of fact: he didn’t have this. At all.

“…no no no NO NO NO NO!” Billie was standing in the middle of her room, surrounded by piles and piles of her things that she’d torn out of the neat stacks of boxes and dumped everywhere. “I’m not going, you can’t make me!”

Scooter stared around the room. She had literally emptied more than a dozen boxes, strewn stuff everywhere. Drawn all over the walls of her bedroom with multiple colors of sharpie. Swear words, too, he noticed. Accurately spelled, that was nice. Good. Artistic. He particularly admired a lurid pink son of a bitch near her closet door. She’d drawn a little heart over the i.

He leaned in the door, as casual as he could. Crossed his arms over his chest so she couldn’t see that his hands were shaking and so that he wouldn’t be tempted to grab her. She’s seven, he reminded himself firmly. And she just lost her mother.

“Yep, you’re a Stahl.” He said that part out loud, because damn, he remembered how he had been after losing his ma, and Billie…Billie had nothing, nothing on him. “So…”

She whirled to face him face screwed up in fury, and if there was an instant’s guilt and apprehension in her eyes as they met his, it was gone again before it could even register. “I’m not going!” she screamed, and stamped her foot.

“Mind if I come in and sit down?” He hoped she didn’t, because really, he was tired. Sleep had…really not been a thing. He had noticed it when they’d gone to New York a few years back: he was so damned used to the ocean that being without it hurt, somewhere he couldn’t quite soothe. The cruise, for their honeymoon, had been inspired on Andy’s part.

Billie glared at him and crossed her arms over her chest, panting from the force of her tantrum, face blotchy and tear-streaked. “You can’t make me go!”

“We’re not at that point in the discussion yet,” Scooter said reasonably. “All I want to do is not tower over you while we talk about it. May I come in and sit down?”

Her jaw jutted out stubbornly. “What if I say no?” she challenged.

“Then, by all means, carry on. Throw your stuff around and scream an’ yell,” Scooter said. “I can wait. Might go wait in th’ other room for you to be done, but I ain’t in a hurry or nothin’. Just thought you might want to try talkin’ it through. You look tired. Little thirsty. And I bet your face is hot and itchy.”

She stared at him belligerently, then rubbed at her face. “…Fine,” she finally relented, “but I ain’t changin’ my mind!”

“Thank you. Now, I assume you know how to wash your face,” he said. “You want to do that and I’ll bring us some soda, and we can have us a sit down? That sound okay to you?”

Belligerence had given way to suspicion, but at least that wasn’t quite so actively hostile. “An’ some pie?” she suggested, almost hopeful. The house was full of more food than the three of them could eat in a month.

“Berry, or peach, I think is what’s cut already,” Scooter said. “Or a little sliver of each? That’s what I always do when I can’t make up my mind.”

“Peach,” she said. After a moment, she added a barely audible, “Please.”

Problem delayed for a bit, Scooter went and gathered up his bribe, half a cup of Coke poured over ice, pie, and a little extra whipped cream. Andy was still on the phone. He detoured around the living room with his tray of goodies and dropped off a slice of pie for Andy as well, kissed his cheek. “I…probably got this,” he confessed in an undertone.

Andy pulled the phone from his ear long enough to tug Scooter in for a quick kiss. “You got this,” he said softly. “I…am going to be a while yet.” He gave Scooter a bracing smile, then put the phone back to his ear. “Sorry, Jess, you’ll have to repeat that for me.”

Billie had, at least, made a marginal effort to wash her face, and it seemed like the effort of doing a small amount of self-care had helped her calm down a little bit. “Okay then,” he said, picking his way through the scattered mess of her toys and clothes. He risked a quick glance at the guinea pig cages to make sure the two potatoes on legs were still in there and there wasn’t a water bottle broken or anything like that. They seemed okay, although Mouse was making that horrible little grunt-squeal noise that meant he was upset about something. “Looks like this spot on the floor has the least amount of stuff in the way, let’s sit here.” He twisted himself down on the floor and winced as he managed to sit on one of her dolls; not Barbie, he’d been told quite firmly, but a Monster High doll. “Ow. Sorry…” He pulled the doll out from under his ass and looked at her. “Dracula’s daughter?”

“Draculaura,” Billie corrected, with the sort of resigned patience of children for their hopeless elders.

“Okay, I apologize for sitting on you, Miss Draculaura,” he said. He bent the doll into a sitting position and placed her on an upside down plastic bucket. She promptly fell over; the doll was terribly top-heavy. Billie didn’t seem to mind.

“Pie?” Scooter offered his niece the plate and a fork.

“Thanks,” she managed, taking the plate from him. She shoveled a huge bite into her mouth.

Scooter tucked into his own slice of pie and for a few moments, it was just the two of them eating, forks clinking against plates, and the pigs making little noises from time to time. When Billie was most of the way done with her piece, he said, “So, based on this display, I understand you don’t want to come back to Sandbridge with us. Want to tell me why?”

There was that chin again, accompanied, this time, by a little wobble. “‘Cause it’s…it’s bad.” She risked a glance at him, looked back down at her place. “Dirty and tiny and boring and only bad things ever happen there!” she burst, in an eerie imitation of Mace.

God, Mace, Scooter thought. “I understand why you might think that. Your ma didn’t care for it too much. But you know, sweetheart, what’s true for your mom might not be true for you, right? I like Sandbridge an awful lot.”

Billie shook her head. “Mom says you have to work all the time and you never get to have fun or make any friends and there aren’t any people to make friends with anyway. An’, an’ the ocean is loud and it never stops an’ the storms are scary but everyone laughs at you if you’re scared.”

And that one he was going to put squarely in the lap of Big Win, because that was all him. Scooter’s dad was never one to evacuate, even when it was a state ordered mandatory. “Okay. Let’s start with a few of these, okay? Now, nobody on my crew is ever going to make fun of you if you’re scared of a storm, okay? For the big ones, we evacuate, because that’s safe. We get off the water for bad storms. Always. I’d rather Dockside came down than put any of my people at risk. We sit around at a friend’s house and eat soup and light candles, and usually at some point someone starts a pillow fight because that’s just what happens.” He laughed a little. “And my friend D’ante? He’s scared of even the little storms. They really bother him, and not a single one of us would ever, ever laugh at him about it.”

She looked at him sidelong, not quite trusting. She didn’t argue though, and after a minute she looked back down with a barely-perceptible shrug.

“And yeah, it’s small, that’s true. Not a lot of people live there year ‘round. The ocean does make a lot of noise, the surf is pretty constant. I miss it when we’re not there, but I’m used to it. Andy came from a big city, like Atlanta. He’s from New York City. And he got used to the surf noise after a while. Maybe you will, too?”

“But what if I don’t?” she wailed. “What if I hate it and everyone hates me and Mom won’t even come and see me from Heaven ‘cause she hates it so much?”

Oh, God. Don’t got this, don’t got it at all.

“I will personally kick my sister’s ghost’s ass if she does that to you, sweetheart,” Scooter said.

“Not s’posed t’ say that word,” she sniffled.

“There’s probably going to be some rule changes, Billie,” Scooter pointed out. “I did notice that you already know all these words.” He gestured at the recent redecoration.

She looked around guiltily, and ducked her head, shoulders hunching.

“I’m not mad,” Scooter said. “And you’re not in trouble. You’ve had a bad time of it, and it wouldn’t be fair to expect you to be on your best behavior. It’s a lot to take in, I know it. I missed my ma like crazy when she died, and I acted out a bit, too.” A lot. But she didn’t need those details right now. Or ever really. “Okay, friends…there’s at least one boy your age that I know, he’s the son of one of my waitresses. His name’s Jordan. I don’t know if you’ll like him, or if he’ll like you, but he seems pretty cool to me. But you know, I’m a grown up, so what do I know, right?”

Billie looked dubious. “He’s a boy.”

“Doesn’t mean he’s not cool,” Scooter said. “Anyway, there’s other kids I don’t know as well, maybe you’ll like some of them. Won’t know until you try, right?” He went back over her concerns in his head. “Work, that was the other one, right? Now, back when your mom was growing up, our parents didn’t have a lot of help around Dockside, and your mom was an only child for a while, so yeah, she worked hard. Probably not as hard as she worked down here. Being an ER nurse is a busy, hard job, and from everything I understand, your mom was really good at her job. Is that right?”

Billie nodded frantically, hair flying.

“Okay, well, I have a lot of employees these days,” he said. “Me and Andy, we share the management, and Andy does a lot of the handiwork, carpentry and wiring, stuff like that. And Jason, he’s my cook. And Kat, Melissa, and Elaine all waitress. And Jeff and Debbie pitch in when they’re home. And D’ante, when he needs extra money. And I bought an automated dishwasher last year. So that’s eight people and one machine, doing the same work that three people used to do. I think that makes it a little easier, don’t you agree?”


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