Buh boom, buh boom.
My heart thrusts with a force that takes me by surprise. Telling me something I don’t understand. A splitting pain, a longing to slip back under. They tell me I was in a hit-and-run, but I can’t remember what happened that night. All I know is that I woke up with pictures in my pocket, a card from one of those photo booths in the mall. And I’m in the pictures. Cody Rush. Me and…
Her brother was there that night, and my dad, the FBI agent, was the one who put her mom behind bars. What’s the connection? And why won’t Julianna talk to me now? Somehow, she holds the key to it all, and getting close–real close—to her for the answers I need will be no hardship at all…
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About the Author
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Between Now & Never
By Laura Johnston
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Laura Johnston
All rights reserved.
Being the son of an FBI agent sucks.
I'll admit there was a time when it used to be cool. All I wanted was to wear the suit. Flash the badge, catch bad guys, throw out words like "informant" and "counterintelligence" and wield a gun. All in a day's work. I used to pin that gold paper badge on with pride, the one Jimmy and I laminated in clear duct tape so it would hold together. Those were the good days.
I walk through the front door behind Vic, my newest friend in this new town. We're moving from Scottsdale to Gilbert next weekend, a difference of about thirty miles.
"Hey, bro," Vic calls out, already at the fridge, framing the open door with his jacked arms. After witnessing the way Vic held a ball in a gladiatorlike death grip during our basketball tournament this week, I quickly assumed he could crush a human skull in his palm.
I started playing club ball back in third grade and I've worked my butt off ever since. Meanwhile, Vic dribbled around city courts. If you know anything about Division 1 high school ball in Arizona, you've heard of Vic Schultz. The guy's a natural.
"Coke? Dew?" he asks.
"Anything cold," I say, wiping perspiration from my forehead and checking for any sign of central cooling in this apartment, townhouse, whatever it is. It's June in Gilbert, Arizona, and I swear these people don't have AC on.
My eyes catch a wall of pictures, some framed, a few not, and something catches my attention. I step closer. A younger version of Vic stands surrounded by family: a girl with glasses and some serious hair—his sister, I assume—and a dad with blue eyes who looks nothing like him. Vic takes after his mom, with dark skin, hair, and eyes. His mom.
I blink. Do a double take. I swear I've seen her before. Can't place her.
A can of Dew spirals toward me and I turn just in time.
Vic has already polished his off. He crushes the can in that grip of his and adds it to the stack of aluminum and other junk on the kitchen table. Wire, metal, and bottle caps. Heaped up like a pile of trash on the table. But it looks intentional. Arranged, even. Art is one thing I've never understood.
Vic catches my stare.
"That's cool," I lie. I pretend to analyze it, like I'm seeing a deeper meaning in the monument of trash. "It's kinda ... abstract, you know."
Vic lets out a whoop of laughter. Punches my arm. "You're such a bad liar."
I take this as an insult. I'm no habitual liar, but come on. This is a dis on my skills. I stare at the sculpture of crap again, standing tall and regarding it as though it was my own.
Vic's laughing smile dissolves into an amused smirk. "You're serious."
Vic cocks an eyebrow up, totally falling for it. Guess I'm not such a bad liar after all. He shakes his head and opens another can. "My dad's a sculptor. Total loony. At least this project comes with perks. An endless supply of soda. So long as I save the can."
"Thanks for this," I say, holding up my Dew.
"Nah, man," Vic says and waggles his eyebrows. "Thank me later tonight when we get a real drink at Connor's. We've got the hard stuff."
Vic is not my typical friend, that much I already knew. I'm the son of two ambitious and highly successful parents, raised to be an overachiever, if not a law-abiding citizen. My friends up in Scottsdale are the same. It goes without saying that no one wants to move to a new city—a new high school—the summer before their senior year, especially when it's their last chance to prove themselves to college scouts.
"Lakers or Heat?" Vic asks, shoving a pile of mail off the couch. He plops down and flips on the TV
"Either, or," he clarifies, as though I'm dumb. "Comprende ese?"
I chuckle at his slang term of endearment, esé, like I'm his Mexican homeboy. Vic is half Mexican. Green eyes and blondish hair make me about as white as they come. But that's what's so great about Vic. He treats everyone like his equal on and off the basketball court, which is saying something, considering he's number two on the Tribune's Top Boys' Hoops Prospects.
"I'm a Bulls fan," I say, remembering how loyal my little brother Jimmy was to the team of our childhood home. "Suns aren't bad either."
During our tournament in Vegas, a few of the guys on our team started joking about a homeless guy outside the burger spot where we were eating. One comment led to another, and eventually the guy hunched over outside begging for money was proclaimed a mentally retarded fag. "And he's got herpes," Shawn said, which earned a round of laughter from the guys in return.
Not Vic. While the other guys pitched a porn card from the street into the guy's hat, Vic—the big guy, the team's revered power forward—handed the guy an extra burger. I followed up with spare change from my pocket. No one else saw. They were distracted by the bright lights.
"Your dad sculpts," I state and glance around. Piles of junk cover counters, the smell of dirty dishes chokes the air, the guitar in the corner gathers dust, and the inside of the fridge is about empty. Details. Something I was taught to look for. "And your mom?"
I grab the guitar and blow on it, sending dust billowing up before I sit on the other couch. I take a swig of my drink.
"She's dead," Vic says.
I almost choke on the flood of Dew. "Sorry," I cough out.
Vic laughs. "Nah, man, I'm kidding. She's still kicking."
I'm usually good at reading people. Vic is an exception, and I don't like it one bit. I find an uncluttered corner of coffee table and set my drink down. Start strumming a tune.
"She's in prison," Vic offers.
I peel my eyes away from the guitar and focus on Vic. A minor chord teeters in the air as my fingers hover over the strings. I watch him, waiting for a crack in his façade. But Vic merely stares at the TV, avoiding eye contact like people do when masking how hard the truth is to admit.
Vic isn't lying.
The doorbell rings. Vic stands. "Jewel," he calls up the stairs after opening the door, "for you."
I scoot some stuff aside on the side table to reveal another picture of Vic's mom. I study it, searching for that hint of familiarity I saw earlier. At first, I figured she might be some parent I saw in passing at a local basketball tournament. Now I wonder, the idea of even partial recognition driving me crazy.
Someone runs down the stairs. I quickly slide everything back into place.
"Yeah, yeah," a girl says. Vic's sister, I assume. I tilt my head but can't quite glimpse her around the corner. "I'll take good care of Daisy and the puppies while you're gone."
The door closes and she whirls around. She's wearing cutoff shorts and a T-shirt, her hair in one of those buns girls wear. She looks like she's about to weed a garden or clean out a toilet. Still, she sucks my attention her way. There's something about a girl who can wear grunge and strut around with confidence regardless.
I find myself sitting up straighter.
"Victor Jonathan Schultz," she snaps. "Where is it?"
"Where's what?" Vic asks, his eyes settling on the TV with obvious disregard as he sinks back into the couch.
"You know what I'm talking about."
"No, drama queen, I don't."
"How original, Vic. Calling names. What are we, in junior high? Oh, yeah, you did fail eighth grade. And I've been stuck with you in my class ever since."
Vic is on his feet now, too. "Shut up, Julianna!"
"No!" she yells, impressively fearless at five foot five, maybe, at the mercy of Vic's six foot three. I've already sunk back into the couch, a bit intimidated myself. Of her, not Vic. "You stole forty-five dollars from my underwear drawer and I want it back. Now."
"I didn't steal your money or your panties, tramp; get your facts straight."
I sit in the middle of all this, wide eyes ping-ponging from Vic to his sister and back. I certainly haven't seen this side of Vic. Didn't imagine this side of his sister when she first walked in either.
I wisely keep my mouth shut as Julianna digs one hand into her hip, her elbow cocked out at a determined angle. "You didn't steal it, huh?"
"No, but now I know where to go looking if I need some."
Julianna shifts her jaw to one side and narrows her eyes. "'Fess up, Vic; it was you. Who else in our family is a lying thief?"
"Mom," Vic says.
Shock and rage tighten the small features of her face. That's when I notice her eyes—blue. A shocking contrast to her dark hair and golden tan. Something about her eyes reaches through me, puncturing all barriers. "How dare you," she says, her eyes glossing over. "Mom wouldn't even be ... be ... where she is if it weren't for you."
"Prison, Julianna. Just say it. Mom. Is. In. Prison."
"You shut up. You still think Mom's perfect. She stole hundreds of thousands—"
"Because of you," Julianna shouts over him.
Something kicks on inside me; shock for sure, and a gut instinct that launches my brain into action. Vic's mom, a convict. She stole money. Lots of it. And my dad works in white-collar crime. I dig through my mind for tidbits of her story. And that's the worst part. There s a good chance I might know it.
I fling a glance toward the door. Even if I could slip out discreetly—which I can't—I'm not sure I want to.
Vic's last name: Schultz. Dad always uses the offender's last name to identify his cases once they go public and he can tell us about them. The Miller case, the Baer case, the Howard case. I rake through my memory. The Schultz case?
"Well," Julianna says, jerking me out of the chaotic sea of thoughts. She buttons it up, an invisible mask hiding her emotions as she holds her chin high. "Don't forget to water Mom's lantanas. It's your turn. And don't miss any of the bushes."
Vic stands and puts on a mocking grin. "As you wish."
"And next time you come back from a tournament," Julianna calls after him, "don't leave a trail of gym socks all the way up the stairs. This place stank when I got home, stank!"
She turns to the mirror on the wall and whips something out of her purse. Standing on her toes, she puts mascara on her eyelashes. Vic mutters something, whispered curses that peter out as he slams the patio door behind him. Julianna finishes both sets of eyelashes before I consciously realize I haven't looked away.
She yanks out whatever is holding her hair up and it all tumbles down her back. I soak in everything about her. Her lips visible in the reflection of the mirror as she puckers to wipe some glossy pink stuff on. Her hair: long, dark, thick. It swooshes around as she straightens up. My eyes follow her hair all the way down her shoulders, down her back, and keep on traveling down toward those cutoff shorts until she spins around.
My eyes snap up.
I put on my best smile and offer a wave, a casual flick of the hand.
She snags her purse without so much as a glance my way and vanishes out the front door.
The water spigot outside lets out a high-pitched hum. I peek through the blinds. Vic sprays water at full blast from the hose onto the plants. Mud splashes up on the window. I seize the moment.
I slip my iPhone out and pull up the Arizona Republic news site. Type in Schultz.
Injured rock climber chooses to end life support.
Deadly crash in Phoenix, authorities report.
Too vague. I need a first name.
Dad's a bit of a fanatic when it comes to details. Always told us that having an eye for key facts is invaluable. "Open your eyes"—one of his favorite sayings, always delivered with a wink—"See everything."
My eyes settle on a magazine on the coffee table. I pluck it out of the mess and search for the addressee's name. Jonathan Schultz. Dang. Then I see it, a corner of leather visible beneath the pile. I shift things aside. Bingo. A wedding album.
I pull it from the pile, praying Vic doesn't pop his head in. Hoping Julianna doesn't dash back for something she forgot. I flip it open.
Jonathan and Sonia
I close the album and slip it back under, my heart hammering a guilty beat. Snooping. I can't believe I'm doing this.
My thumbs fly over my iPhone. Sonia Schultz.
This time, my query nails it.
Woman indicted on fraud charges. I scan the blurb. Sonia Ana Schultz. The hairs on my arms stand up as I take in the keywords. Arrested on charges of mortgage fraud. $300,000. FBI.
Clicking on the article link pulls up one last irrefutable piece of evidence: her picture.
I sit alone in the Schultzs' living room, like prey in a den with lions who haven't yet realized I'm not one of them.
The glass door slides open. I jolt.
"Hey, man," Vic says.
I close the article and sit back. Relax. Fake it.
Vic shuts the door behind him. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah," I say and stand, trying my best to smile. I slide my phone in my pocket, the image of that article seared in my memory, an article I've seen before.
I know Vic's mom all right. My dad put her behind bars.CHAPTER 2
The moment the door closes behind me, I feel it: less space, less sunshine, less air. Well, I'll admit: in Phoenix, Arizona, less sunshine this time of year is a good thing. But I hate this place. Hate it.
"Name?" the officer at the desk asks.
"Julianna Schultz," I say, folding my arms in front of me with every ounce of the Latina attitude I was brought up with. Makes me feel better somehow. I won't let this place give me the creeps. "I'm here to see my mother."
The officer raises a brow, looking past my shoulder. "And you, sir?"
I glance at my dad, his blue eyes, scruffy chin, and bean-pole figure.
I almost forgot he was here.
Dad steps forward and mumbles, "Jon Schultz."
Officer Pugmier clucks his tongue as he scans the approved visitor list. Not only do I recognize him from our last visit, I remember his name. I never imagined I'd know the inside details of prison like I do now. Pugmier stands and hoists up the belt at his hips with a grunt.
At least we're all uncomfortable to some degree. "Step over here."
We go through what's becoming "the usual." Pugmier checks my driver's license, which sports a dreadful picture of the old me. A lot can happen to a teenage girl in one year, and thank goodness. As I approach the metal detector, my heart races. Officer Pug watches me, stares. He, of course, is clueless about the nickname I've given him. Pug: it fits him, and it makes his stern face not quite so fearsome.
Pug clears his throat and I snap to, focusing on the detector ahead. I walk through without a beep, but Pug asks me step aside for a pat down.
"Don't worry," he says when I give him a pointed look. "It's a random search."
Why does this place make me feel like a criminal? I'm no angel, but I've never stolen, never cheated, nothing. Still, this place has my skin crawling. When my lovely pat down is over and I'm walking down the long hallway with no purse, no car keys, and no cell phone, I understand why. Even for a visitor, entering a prison means giving up a piece of your freedom.
The door opens and Dad hangs back. "I'm gonna grab something at the vending machine."
Good. I told him on the drive up that I wanted a moment alone with Mama. I know what I need to say. Even in prison, my mom is way easier to confide in than my dad. I sit and scoot closer to the table, the chair legs scraping the floor with a screeching echo. And then she walks in.
I pop back up, a myriad of emotions unfurling within me. The first genuine smile I've felt for weeks tugs the corners of my lips upward. Words evade us as she approaches the table. So not normal. My mother is Mexican, and I like to claim the same, even though I'm only half. She's everything to me.
She wraps her arms around me in a crushing embrace.
"Mama," I say, burying my face into her bony shoulder, hugging her back. Taking her in. Her dark hair, light brown eyes, warm smile, and her scent—like a fresh breath of air. Yet something is different. I pull back, then glance around. Excessive displays of affection are prohibited. One hug, one kiss, that's all. It's the craps.
We sit on opposite sides of the table. Normally, we'd kick back side by side on the living room couch for hours, exchanging stories and outbursts of laughter.
That's when I realize what's different: everything. I take in my mom's uniform, my gaze drifting down her baggy outfit before snapping back up. Mama notices.
"It's ugly as sin," she admits and then shrugs. "But really, it's not that bad."
I raise one brow, giving her a look that says otherwise. This earns a crack of laughter from her. At least I made her laugh. Mission one accomplished.
She leans forward and clasps my hands from across the table. Her nails have been chewed off. "Oh, mi joya, I have missed you."
How I've missed her—her voice, her rich accent. Mi joya is her own way of calling me her "jewel." Only Mama can call me that.
I bite back the crude words that would accurately describe how much the past three weeks without her have sucked, settling for a grin instead.
"I've missed you, too."
My eyes sweep the cinder-block-walled cafeteria, the fluorescent lighting making my eyes wig out. I blink, then glance down at the ratty edges of her nails again. "How's it going in here?" I ask, diving right into mission number two.
She doesn't budge, just glances away for a nanosecond and flashes a smile. "I can watch TV Read books. They have a library."
This breaks my heart, Mama looking for the positive. She's too optimistic, too sweet.
Excerpted from Between Now & Never by Laura Johnston. Copyright © 2015 Laura Johnston. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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