Liar, Liar – Lisa Jackson

No! No! No! Forcing her way through a gathering crowd that had been barricaded across the sloped street, Remmi shielded her eyes with one hand and stared upward through the thickening fog to the ledge of the Montmort Tower Hotel. “Oh, God.” Squinting through the fog to somewhere near the twentieth floor, she saw a woman balanced precariously on a ledge, her back to an open hotel room window, sheer curtains billowing behind her. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t! Not when Remmi was so close . so damned close. Please, no! “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, she’s gonna jump!” a tall man said under his breath. He wore a heavy jacket and stocking cap, and a one-year-old in a hooded snowsuit was strapped to his chest. He quickly sketched the sign of the cross over his chest and the baby. Red-faced from the cold, the child began to whimper, but his father barely seemed to notice. Sirens wailed as fire trucks and police cruisers collected near the base of the stalwart San Francisco hotel, an Art Deco edifice of concrete and marble that had withstood earthquakes and fires, riots and time, rock stars and politicians. It pulsed with the fierce, eerie lights of emergency vehicles. People were talking and milling around, jamming the roped-off area of the steep San Francisco street.

High on the ledge, a woman with short, platinum hair, the hem of her pink dress dancing around her knees, wobbled on her matching heels, swaying enough to make some of the onlookers gasp, while others screamed. Don’t do it! Heart in her throat, her pulse a surf in her ears, Remmi pushed her way through the throng held at bay by police officers and yellow tape strung hastily over A-frame barricades. Twilight was descending, the lights of the city winking through the thickening mist, the streets shiny and wet, the bay nearly invisible at the bottom of the steep hillside. Most of the crowd, heads tilted back, stared, gapemouthed, hands to their chests, up to the thin ledge where the woman balanced so precariously. “This is horrible. Horrible!” a woman in a stocking cap and padded jacket whispered. She was transfixed, as they all were, but couldn’t turn away. Her gloved hand was clamped over that of a boy with ragged brown hair and freckles, a baseball cap crammed onto his head. “Let me through.” Remmi shouldered her way closer to the police line. “Come on.” The gloved woman observed, “She looks like Marilyn Monroe.

” “Marilyn who?” her son, all of about twelve, asked, earbuds visible beneath his baseball cap, acne vying with fuzz on his jaw as he stared upward to where the would-be jumper stood. “A–a beauty queen . actress from the fifties.” “So really old.” “No, no . she’s dead.” Gaze aloft, the woman shook her head. “Died a long time ago. Overdose of sleeping pills. Or .

or something.” Her forehead crumpled as she thought. “Then it’s not her.” “I know.” “Just someone who looks like her.” The kid’s eyes were focused on the ledge high overhead. “Is she really going to do it? Will she land in that fountain?” His mother was shaking her head. “I hope not. I hope she doesn’t . Dear God.

” She, too, made a hasty sign of the cross over her chest. “Impersonator?” a man in a long overcoat who had overheard the exchange asked. “I–I guess.” The woman again. “There’ve been a lot of them,” the man said with a snort, as if the woman’s life was of no importance. Callous jerk. “The outfit. Pure Marilyn.” The woman in the stocking hat was nodding, her head bobbing slowly, graying curls springing from beneath the knit cap. “But one impersonator .

in particular. Kind of famous. What was her name?” She snapped the fingers of her free hand, the sound muted through her glove. “It was . it was, oh, I almost had it . But gosh, I can’t remember. Doesn’t matter.” Didi. Her name is Didi Storm, Remmi thought, her heart frozen in her chest. And it does matter! What’s wrong with you people? Acting as if a woman contemplating suicide is just an interesting sideshow! Overcoat pulled a face of disbelief.

“An impersonator of a dead woman . long dead, by the way. She’s gonna take a swan dive off the Montmort? Doesn’t make sense.” “Does suicide ever make sense?” Knit cap snapped, her lips pursing a little. “Sorry. I was just sayin’—” On the ledge above, the slim woman swayed, and the crowd gasped. Firemen were gathered at the base of the hotel, and someone in a uniform—a sergeant, Remmi thought—was addressing the throng: “Stand back. Give us a little room here.” Water beading on his Giants cap, the kid observed, “Man. It looks like she’s really going to do it.

” “Oh . oh, no. Come on, let’s go. I can’t watch this.” The mother hustled her son through the gathering throng of horrified lookie-loos, and the boy, reluctantly, his gaze glued to the would-be leaper, was dragged past nearby observers holding cell phones over their heads in sick efforts to capture the horrible moment. Mother and son disappeared, melting into the ever-growing throng. Remmi didn’t listen to any more speculation. Heart pounding, fear driving her, she pushed her way through the crowd, past a businessman in a raincoat who, like so many others, was filming the macabre scene with his phone, while people around her murmured or gasped. All were transfixed by the horror unfolding right before their eyes. Traffic had been halted, headlights of the stalled cars glowing in the fog, horns honking, emergency workers barking orders.

Somewhere a deep voice was humming an old song she’d heard in Sunday school class. What was it? Then the words came to her: This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Remmi’s eyes turned upward, the song fading, her gaze transfixed on the woman teetering high above, the fog wisping around the building. Don’t do it, Remmi silently begged as she forced her way through a knot of women with umbrellas. Throat tight, she glanced up at the ledge. Please, Mom, don’t jump! To Remmi’s horrified dismay, as if the would-be leaper could actually hear her, the woman moved suddenly, a high heel slipping over the edge. The crowd gave up a collective gasp, then a scream, as she suddenly plummeted, arms pinwheeling, hair a shimmering, moving cloud in those horrifying seconds as she tumbled in free fall through the thick San Francisco evening. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine . PART 1 CHAPTER 1 Las Vegas, Nevada Twenty Years Earlier “You can do this,” Didi told herself as she drove her vintage, specially equipped Cadillac through the city. Neon lights sparkled and shone as daylight slipped away and Las Vegas became a beacon in the twilight desert.

God, she loved this town, with its hot, dry air, bustle, and excitement, and, most importantly, the glamour and glitz of the tall buildings that spired upward into a vast, star-spangled sky. The city itself was almost surreal in its stark contrast to the quiet, serene, eerie desert at night. Well, it wasn’t quite night yet, and she had no time to think about anything but her mission, one she’d been planning for the better part of a year. A tiny frisson of excitement sizzled through her blood, and the back of her mouth was suddenly dry with anxiety. “You can pull this off,” she said, the words a familiar mantra intended to calm her jangled nerves, push back her fears. She stepped on the gas as she reached the outskirts of town. Her chest was tight, her fingers clammy over the steering wheel, a million doubts creeping through her mind. She would have preferred to have the top down on the big car, to let the warm Nevada breeze stream across her face and through her hair, but she didn’t want to muss her makeup, nor her hair, and, really, with the twins, it was best to keep the convertible’s roof snapped into place and just leave the windows cracked enough to let in some air. In the back, strapped into their car seats, were her two infants. Her heart twisted at the thought of her precious little ones.

A boy and a girl, six weeks old and sleeping, cooing softly as she drove, not knowing their fates. “Oh, babies,” she whispered, guilt already gnawing through her soul. What she was planning was unthinkable. But she was desperate, and everything would work out for the best. No one would get hurt. She hoped. Despite herself, she crossed the fingers of her right hand as she gripped the wheel. Was she making a mistake? Probably. But, then, it certainly wasn’t her first—or fiftieth, for that matter. Swallowing hard, she fought a spate of hot tears and steeled herself.

She had to do this, had to; it was her one chance, their only chance for a better life. Sniffing, she blinked and wouldn’t let the tears fall and ruin her mascara. She needed to look good, perfect, to pull this off. Not like a sad sack of a clown with black streaks running down her cheeks. Involuntarily, seated in the soft white leather, she straightened her shoulders. You can do this, Didi. You can. She pressed a high heel a little more firmly on the gas pedal, and the Caddy responded, leaping forward, tires eagerly spinning over the dry, dusty asphalt. But what if something goes wrong? “It won’t.” It couldn’t.

Just to be on the safe side, she sent up a quick prayer, something she hadn’t done much of since she’d shaken the Missouri dust off her boots, bought a bus ticket, and headed west when she was still a teenager. She’d left her family, and God Himself, in the huge Greyhound’s exhaust. Tonight, everything would turn around. Over the roar of the car’s big engine, she heard a soft sigh, one of the babies probably dreaming. Oh God. Setting her jaw, she flipped her visor down to shield her eyes against the sun’s glare and reminded herself that she couldn’t back out now—her plan was set, the wheels in motion. As Las Vegas became a strip of glorious lights reflected in her car’s oversize rearview mirror, she pushed in the cigarette lighter, then let her fingers scrabble on the seat beside her for her purse. She shook a Virginia Slims from the glittery cigarette case she scrounged out of her clutch. A few hits of nicotine would calm her. She cracked open the side window and, after lighting up, held her cigarette near the window—no second-hand smoke for her babies! That was definitely a thing these days, and as long as she was a mother .

oh, Jesus, how long would that be? . she would keep the babies safe. Really? Who are you kidding? Condemning eyes reflected back at her in the mirror as she headed steadily west, where the blazing sun was settling over the cliffs of Red Rock Canyon. While the nicotine did its job, she turned on the radio to an oldies station and heard the Beatles singing “Let It Be.” Bam! Paul McCartney’s voice was drowned out as she hit a pothole, and the car shuddered, a loud thud sounding from the rear end of the Caddy. Oh, puh-leez. She couldn’t break down. Not now. Not when she’d finally screwed up her courage and set her plan in motion. Fearing that one of the car seats was too loose, that the strap securing it might have failed in this old car, she glanced over her shoulder.

Nothing seemed out of place. And the car was running well, no popped tire, no bent axle. The babies were still safely bound in their car seats. For now. “It was nothing,” she said aloud. Maybe something had shifted in the trunk or a prop had gotten away from its bindings in the specialized cargo space she’d had retrofitted into the big car so that she could use it in her act. God, how she loved to pop out of the “empty” white Caddy, in a scanty outfit . well, those days were gone, at least temporarily, until she got rid of the remaining fat and sagging skin from her latest pregnancy with the twins. So far, she’d lost a lot of that weight, but things had shifted, and her skin was not as taut as it used to be when she’d been a nubile teenager, and tonight she’d had to wiggle into some damned tight undergarments to even slip into her current outfit—her favorite pink Marilyn Monroe dress. The jeweled gown’s seams were straining, but scarcely being able to breathe was well worth the trouble.

Didi knew she looked spectacular. Cutting the radio, she kept the pedal to the metal, all the while listening for that disturbing noise again. She detected nothing more than the thrum of the engine, the whine of the tires, and the rush of wind through the partially opened window. Since the clunk had stopped, and there didn’t appear to be anything mechanically wrong with the car, thank God, she clicked on the radio again, this time to a current pop station. She squashed her cigarette on the tab in the ashtray, adjusted her sunglasses to fight the glare of those last eyeball-searing minutes before the sun sank over the ragged mountaintops, and told herself she was ready. Tonight, her bad luck was going to change. Forever. * * * Remmi hardly dared breathe in the tight cargo space of her mother’s ancient Cadillac. She rubbed the back of her head where it had bumped against the inside of the wall when Didi, at the wheel, had hit something and Remmi had bounced enough to slam the back of her head against the metal roof. Ouch! She was surprised her mother hadn’t heard the thud, stopped the car, and discovered her oldest daughter stowed away in the area where Didi usually hid the props for her stage act, a part of the voluminous trunk sectioned off in this boat of a white Cadillac.

Fortunately, Remmi had bit back a scream despite the radiating pain. Now, she was sweating. A lot. Drops drizzled down her forehead and off her chin, and covered her back. The space she was wedged into was tight. Claustrophobic. But she didn’t want to think about how she could so easily be trapped inside. There was a latch of course, but it could jam. She didn’t want to think about it and swiped at the beads of sweat on her chin. For a split second, as the huge car’s speed increased and she felt as if Didi were being intentionally reckless, Remmi considered calling out, letting her mom know she was hiding in the space, but she held back.

Didi would kill Remmi if she found out her teenager had stowed away in the car. Well, actually, Remmi hadn’t intended to stow away at all. She’d been hiding. From her mom. And it had backfired. Big-time. Cautiously, Remmi peered through a small slit between the cargo area and the back seat, a tiny peephole Didi had installed. The scent of cigarette smoke reached her nostrils, and she heard music from the radio. The twins, her half siblings, were silent for once, not crying, but Remmi couldn’t see them. From her vantage point, she saw little more than the back of her mother’s head, Didi’s blond “Marilyn” wig securely in place.

Why the costume? Remmi hazarded a quick glance toward the wide rearview mirror and caught a glimpse of her mom’s face, sunglasses over the bridge of her nose, lips pouty and colored a glossy pink, even a signature mole drawn near the corner of her mouth. Oh, Mom, what’re you doing? Remmi wished to high heaven that she hadn’t decided at the last possible second to hide in the cargo space. She’d thought Didi was working, and Seneca, the twins’ nanny, had retired to her room for the night as the babies had fallen asleep in their shared crib. Remmi, whose room was part of the converted garage on the far end of the house, had thought she was safe, that no one would check on her until her mother returned sometime after her last show, usually after 2:00 AM. She’d planned to sneak out her bedroom window, and with the keys she’d already lifted out of the drawer in the kitchen, she’d intended to drive her mother’s crappy old Toyota into the night. The windows of her room were mounted high, slanted panes near the apex of the sloped ceiling, accessible by climbing onto the headboard of her bed and scrambling over, impossible to reach from the outside without a ladder. But she’d done it. She’d slid through the narrow opening, hung by her fingers from the sill, then softly dropped to the dusty ground below, the heat of the desert still simmering, the sun beginning to sink in the western sky. All to meet a boy. A boy who was probably bad news.

Or worse. But there was something about him, something that caught her attention and made the blood pound a little in her ears when his dark eyes found hers. Even now, stuck in the sweltering cargo space, her heart trip-hammered and the back of her throat went dry at the thought of Noah Scott. Older, with a bad-boy reputation, he was definitely not Didi-approved. Which made him all the more attractive, she decided. But she couldn’t help herself. God, he was sexy. She had dreams about his hands on her body and how kissing him made her tingle all over, even in places she hadn’t realized were meant to tingle. Stop it! She couldn’t think about him—fantasize about him. Not when she was trapped in Didi’s Cadillac, going to God-only-knew-where.

Earlier, she’d snagged the keys to the Toyota, just after dinner, waited for Seneca to close her door, gave it another ten minutes, then slid out of the window and dropped lithely to the ground. She’d just settled behind the wheel of the Camry (she’d taught herself to drive on the sly and was fairly adept, even though she was still only fifteen) when she spied her mother’s Caddy rounding the corner of the street leading to their driveway in this crummy part of town. Crap! She’d sunk down in the Toyota’s battered driver’s seat, barely peeking over the dash as Didi had driven into the garage. Counting out three minutes in her head, she’d waited for Didi to head into the house. The second her mother was inside, Remmi had slipped into the open garage and thought she could sneak into her room, as it was just a few steps down the short hallway. Once Didi was past the kitchen, Remmi would be able to quietly ease the door open and make her way to the bedroom. No one, especially her mother, would be the wiser. She’d thought. Listening over the thudding of her own heartbeat, Remmi had wrapped her fingers around the doorknob when she’d heard the distinctive click of Didi’s heels approaching her direction. Crap! Rather than try to make it outside, where, if Didi chose to lock up, Remmi wouldn’t be able to get back into the house, she’d slipped away from the garage door and silently opened a back door of the monster of a car.

Without thinking, she’d rolled into the back seat of the Caddy and engaged the secret lever Didi had installed. The seat back had flipped down, and Remmi had forced her body into the cramped cargo space. Without really thinking, she’d found the inside latch, and the rolled leather seat had sprung into place once more, clicking into place as Didi emerged from the house with one of the baby carriers. Remmi, peeking through the specialized peephole, had held her breath and silently prayed, Don’t let her find me, oh, please God, don’t let her— The Caddy’s back door flew open. Muttering to herself as she’d secured the carrier into position, Didi didn’t seem to notice anything was amiss. She’d quickly returned to the house. Remmi had reached for the lever but never got the chance to escape. Less than a minute after strapping in the first carrier, Didi had reappeared with the second. Once both car seats had been locked into place, Remmi had been trapped. Only then did she notice that Didi was dressed in her favorite Marilyn Monroe costume, all pink and shimmery.

She’d climbed behind the wheel and jammed her keys into the ignition. The massive car with its huge engine had roared to life, and Didi had backed out of the garage without a word. Five seconds later, she’d rammed the Cadillac into drive, hit the gas, and headed to the desert. With her infants strapped into the back seat of this boat of a car, and Remmi hidden in the trunk, Didi drove as if the devil himself were chasing her. Why? What was with the full-Marilyn regalia? And where to? Remmi bit her lower lip nervously. Where the hell was she headed? * * * “Son of a bitch!” Noah kicked a rock hard enough for it to hit against the weathered side of the barn and bang so loudly that the dog sleeping on the porch gave a startled bark. Roscoe, who was a mix of some kind of sheepdog and who knew what else, raised his speckled, shaggy head, yawned, wagged his stub of a tail, then settled back on the old rag rug that was his bed, his nose buried in the faded fabric, eyes bright and focused on Noah. “It’s okay,” Noah grumbled, but it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Noah was itching for a fight.

He was supposed to meet a girl. Not just any girl, but a girl he’d just met the other day at the lake. She wasn’t his usual type, was a little on the nerdy side, and young, too, but she was smart and hadn’t been intimidated by him. The daughter of some weird showgirl, a woman impersonator, he thought. Didi Storm. Yeah, that was the mother’s name. Like him, the girl, Remmi, had no real dad in the picture, and he could see she would soon become a knockout. Her brown hair was streaked a reddish gold— naturally, he’d guessed, from the blasting Nevada sun. Freckles dusted a long but straight nose, and her eyes, somewhere between green and gold, flashed with intelligence and humor. He’d tested her, and she could give as well as she could take.

Built tall and lean, with small breasts and hips that barely flared, she didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t as curvy as some of the girls she hung out with. Including that bitch Mandi Preston, who, while they’d all been swimming in the lake, had made a point of pressing her impressive boobs up against him. She was a tease, and as those massive breasts, held in place by a slip of a red bikini bra, had grazed the bare skin of his back, he’d had an immediate reaction, a hard-on forming despite the cool water. He’d tried to hide his boner, but it had been impossible, and Mandi had known just what she’d accomplished. It was a game with her, but he wasn’t interested in her. Never had been. All blond tousled hair, bubblegum-pink lipstick, and highpitched giggling, he’d found her too . commercial? Too much like a TV bimbo? No, maybe she was just a fake. He knew she was smarter than she pretended to be; he’d seen flashes of it, and the flirty dumb act bothered him. Not so Remmi.

She said what was on her mind and didn’t seem to care what anyone else thought. She’d seen the display in the lake as she’d lain on a towel and read a book. Over the cover, she’d watched as Mandi had splashed and rubbed up against Noah. Arching a dark eyebrow, she’d caught Noah’s eye, given her head a shake, and closed the paperback. As she’d scooped up her towel, flip-flops, and small cooler, he’d waited for his damned cock to cooperate; then he’d followed her to the parking area. “What?” she’d asked when she unlocked the door of a beat-up Toyota and slid into the sunbaked interior. “I don’t know you.” “You’re right. You don’t.” She’d jabbed her keys into the ignition.

“You got a license?” he asked. If she was sixteen, he’d be surprised. “So how is that any of your business?” She’d flashed him a cool smile and started the engine, stomping on the gas and backing up so quickly she’d nearly hit him—he’d jumped back, just in case— then, sliding her sunglasses over that long nose, she’d nearly clipped a signpost that listed the rules of the swim park. He wondered if she’d done it on purpose, as if she were thumbing her nose at authority. Or maybe he’d just hoped so. Didn’t matter. He was hooked, and he’d caught up with her twice more at the lake, bringing his own ratty towel and stretching out beside her as she pretended to read. Maybe she was really trying. But her gaze kept straying from the pages of the paperback, a battered copy of a Stephen King novel, to the lake, where the water shimmered under the harsh sun. Boats, sometimes pulling skiers, cut through the clear water, engines churning, frothy wakes widening behind them.

Swimmers kept closer to the shore, Moms with toddlers or teenagers hanging out in packs. Remmi came alone, most of the time. He liked that. In fact, he liked her. And it surprised him. She was, after all, jailbait, or so he’d thought. She couldn’t be sixteen, despite the car. She was kind of on her own, helping out with her infant siblings, working at a burger joint, and waiting for school to start. And she liked computers, was kind of a geek when it came to the net, something that was completely foreign to him. Yet, he’d felt a kinship with her, as if they were both some kind of misfit.

He was out of high school and fast running out of options, his job as the clean-up guy on construction sites a dead end. His life at home the same. He needed to move on. But tonight? Remmi. He felt a jolt of anticipation fire his blood and mentally kicked himself when his thoughts took him to imagining her warm lips and soft body. Shit, what was he thinking? Nothing good. Then again, not so bad. Oh, hell, who knew? Maybe he was making a bigger deal of it than it was, but say what you will, hadn’t she agreed to meet him tonight? In a park not far from the edge of town. They planned to go dirt biking in the desert. Alone.

Despite the fact that he was supposedly grounded. By his stepfather. Ike Baxter, a big, burly guy with swarthy skin, a thick salt-and-pepper flattop, and eyes drilled deep into his skull, seemed to think he could tell Noah just exactly what to do. If he ordered, “Jump,” Noah was supposed to respond, “How high, sir?” Yeah, right. Ike could go jump into the deepest lake around, preferably chained to a cement block. God, he hated that miserable son of a bitch. What his mother saw in him escaped Noah. But there it was. And the big jerk-wad had grounded him because his “chores” hadn’t been done in a timely fashion, the task in question being setting fence posts in cement-like soil after a ten-hour stretch at his job. Well, screw that.

“Shit,” he said, and swiped at the sweat running down his face. Mad at the world, Noah eyed the stucco house with its cracked walls and missing roof tiles. Even though he knew it was near-suicide, he considered “borrowing” the crappy Yamaha motorcycle on which Ike was forever tinkering. The dirt bike was a beater, circa 1968, in Noah’s opinion, but something the old man treasured and called “classic.” Noah snorted his disdain at Ike’s lofty notion of the relic. Still, the bike still had some kick in it, and he needed to get out. Now. While he could. Cora Sue, his mother, was MIA again, probably down at Slaughter’s, sipping vodka, getting wasted, and trying to forget the landscape of her pathetic life. As for his old man? Ike had taken off an hour or so ago, but not before rattling off a list of chores for his stepson, an edict reinforced by a threat that, if he failed to get them done, he’d be grounded “for the rest of the month, maybe more.

We’ll see.” Who knew when the fucker would show up again? As if Noah cared. Ike Baxter was a hard-ass son of a bitch who didn’t like his wife’s “snot-nosed smart-mouthed jackass” any more than the jackass liked him. Yeah, Stepdaddy was a real dick-wad. Too good for Cora Sue, but she gravitated to losers, one after another, including his biological old man, who’d done a quick vanishing act before he was born. Never had he met the “sperm donor,” as Cora Sue had so appropriately named Ronnie Scott, though she’d chased him rigorously and futilely for child support that never appeared. The only help she’d ever gotten from Noah’s dad was in the form of Ronnie’s widowed mother, a religious nutjob who had taken care of her grandson while Cora Sue waited tables at one of the smaller casinos just off the Strip. The last Noah had heard, dear old Dad was banging out license plates or doing laundry or some other menial labor while serving time in prison in California. Noah didn’t know which lockup housed his father, and he didn’t much care. With that thought, he jogged to the hovel of a house, where his room consisted of an attic space that was hot as hell in the summer, colder than a well digger’s butt in winter, and tight enough that he could stand only under the crown of the roof.

His bed was a sleeping bag tossed over a mattress lying on a plywood floor, but there was a window, and through that small pane of glass, he could view the stars at night and watch the sun come up each morning. And neither Ike nor Cora Sue bothered him in the attic; they pretty much left him alone. Things could be worse. Then again, they could be a whole lot better. The sun was hanging low in the sky as he hurried up the dilapidated steps to the porch. Roscoe thumped his stubby tail, and Noah, in a hurry, gave the old shepherd a quick pat on the muzzle before crossing the dusty floorboards and opening the creaking screen door. He stepped into the house and found the single key dangling from a nail pounded into a post near the back door, snagged it, started outside, then hesitated. Knowing he was crossing a line, he walked through the kitchen and down a short, hot hallway, where pictures of Cora and Ike’s wedding, at one of the local drive-through chapels, were posted. Ignoring the shots of his younger, happier mother and the man who would become his tyrant of a stepfather, he slipped into the second bedroom, which was now Ike’s den. Unerringly, Noah went to the heat vent behind the scarred metal desk, removed the vent’s grimy cover, and stuck his arm down the dusty hole to a spot where the vent bent back under the house.

His fingers scraped not one, but two plastic bags, and he withdrew the first to find a wad of cash. The other small sack was either more money, which was unlikely, or Ike’s stash of “feel-goodies,” as he referred to the weed and ecstasy and whatever else he’d scored and hidden away. This one was enough. From the looks of it, there was nearly a grand hidden inside the first bag. After pocketing the plastic bag and replacing the vent, he headed for the attic stairs and climbed the steep, ladder-like steps to his “room.” Once there, he went to his own hiding spot, a board near the only vent in the ceiling; he slid it out of place and reached beneath the convex arch of a roof tile. He retrieved a sock holding several hundred dollars. Not enough to start a new life, but when added to the money he’d taken from Ike, he should do all right. Maybe. He didn’t take the time to think it through, just backed down the staircase, and headed outside, the screen door banging behind him, Roscoe giving up a disgruntled “woof.

” Noah didn’t bother with the steps, just took a flying leap off the porch and ran across the parking area to the shed, another one of Ike’s private spots. Inside, the shed was an oven, stifling and breathless. A wasp buzzed angrily near an umbrella-shaped paper nest tucked in rafters low enough to touch; the building was small and compact, not quite as large as a single-bay garage. Weathered siding smelled of oil and dust, mingled with the lingering scent of stale cigarette smoke from stepdaddy’s last Camel straight. Tools lined the walls, and motorcycle parts were strewn on a bench that ran along one side of the shed, beneath the single window, where cobwebs and grime covered the small panes. The Yamaha was propped against the far wall, and without a second thought, he rolled it out of the dingy building, down the short ramp, and onto the sparse gravel of the parking area between the sagging garage and the back porch. He kick-started the old bike into life, and the engine caught immediately. Then he was off, the back tire sliding a little as he slipped from the scant gravel to the asphalt of the two-lane. Take that, Ike, he thought, grinning smugly. It was time to give a little back to the man who didn’t think twice about back-handing him; he was a burly son of a bitch with a cruel streak that he tried and failed to control.

There would be hell to pay when Noah returned, but maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d just keep riding west; he was old enough at eighteen to do what he wanted, even if it was on a stolen motor bike. Oh, hell. His mother, if she knew what he was doing, would have a heart attack. But how much did she care? If his whereabouts weren’t engraved on the bottom of a martini glass, she wouldn’t have a clue, right? No, Cora Sue left all of her child-rearing and now teen-monitor duties to Ike the Spike or his paternal grandmother, the Sperm Donor’s aging and oh-so-religious mother. As far as Noah knew, his grandmother still regularly wrote to her felon of a son and, no doubt, spouted the same Bible verses and quotes to Ronnie as she did to Noah. She plucked them at random, from the Old Testament as well as the New. They were often butchered and spun for her own purpose, but they continued to ring in his ears. “Do to others as you would have them do to you” and “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer . ” and Noah’s personal favorite, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

” Amen to that, Grannie! He wouldn’t dwell on the consequences of what he was doing. Not now, anyway. With the hot wind in his face, the Yamaha whining high and steady, only to catch, then thrum again as it wound through the gears, and his pocket full of the old man’s ill-gotten money, he steered the bike steadily west, where the desert stretched toward the mountains that were on fire, backlit by the setting sun. His heart surged. He felt free, and though it was a probably a temporary sensation, one he might regret, he didn’t care. At least not for the moment. He flicked his wrist, shifting as the motorcycle screamed down the highway, passing a few cars heading toward the lights of Las Vegas. Sin City. And his home. At least for now.

Probably not for long when Ike discovered his stash and bike missing. But who the fuck cared? Live for the moment, baby, that was his new motto. Grinning, he wound the bike up, engine revving, tires humming and eating up the dusty asphalt strip as he cruised by the park. Remmi wasn’t on the bench where she’d said she’d be. Disappointment welled inside him, and he waited, driving the bike in figure eights, then gassing it and popping up a wheelie, as the seconds and minutes rolled past. What do you expect? A girl like that. Emphasis on girl, and she is way out of your league. A braniac who reads books and doesn’t give a crap about what every other girl her age likes isn’t going to be into you. Still he waited and argued with himself, coming up with a dozen legitimate reasons why she hadn’t shown up: the car wouldn’t start, she’d been found out, she’d fallen asleep, she got called into work, she had to babysit those twin siblings, and on and on. Still he hung out, feeling the heat rising from the parking lot pavement, watching others come and go, mothers, and babysitters, even a dad or two, or a grandparent; all stayed only long enough for their kids to play in the sand and the fountain while they chatted on their cell phones.

But no Remmi. He checked his watch and noticed the sun was beginning to set over the ridge of mountains. Fine. She wasn’t going to show. Angry again, he pressed on the gas and sped out of the parking lot, racing to the part of town Remmi called home. He didn’t see her in the lengthening shadows surrounding her house, and even after several passes, he didn’t catch sight of her. The house was quiet, almost as if no one was home, just one lamp blazing from a back window, and the nanny’s car, a small Honda Civic, parked in the drive. Was Remmi inside? He drove loudly past twice, and neighbors across the street peered through the windows, but no one stirred in the Storm house. Either she didn’t hear him, couldn’t respond, or just didn’t want to see him. Fine.

He couldn’t wait forever, he decided, and hit the gas, speeding along the narrow bit of rapidly declining suburbia and onto the main road, his back tire skidding a bit again before it caught and the bike righted itself. Adrenaline burning through his blood, he wondered if he’d ever see Remmi again, told himself it didn’t matter, though that was a hard and fast lie considering his sense of disappointment. He pushed the bike ever faster, around a slow-moving pickup loaded with bales of hay, and then farther, the Yamaha whining in his ears, the wind screaming past as he headed unerringly west and into the Mojave, now burnished by the rays of the dying sun as it stretched silently to the mountains.

.

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