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Chapter 1 -- Zee
People talk about having an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. I had a pair of imaginary bill collectors, so no matter which way I turned, there was somebody to remind me I needed money. That's how I ended up on a train at four o'clock in the morning with my nephew and a hundred pounds of weed.
We were hours behind schedule, but the westbound Southwest Chief was running on time. When the two trains met each other, they rattled back and forth, and the air that leaked in through the vents smelled like diesel and burning brakes. I could see into the other train's windows, where a few people were still awake. Usually, it made me feel lonely, seeing those people so close, but separated from me.
This time felt different. Having Marcus' head resting in my lap reminded me I wasn't alone. He was small like his mother and dark-haired like his father, but when he was asleep, he was like me. Always running hot and trying to burrow his way into things. After hours of him sleeping on me, my hip hurt so much I kept hoping he would wake up, but he slept through the railroad crossing bells in every small town we went through. When he did wake up, rolling over and grinding his forehead into me, I didn't make him move, though. I smoothed his hair down and said, "Shh, it's okay. I'm here. Go back to sleep."
The trip to Trinidad had never been a big deal to me, but then I'd never had to take Marcus with me. I didn't have a choice, when LaReigne didn't come home, and twenty-four hours later, I was still waiting to hear from her. Waiting but dreading it, too, because there was no way I could keep lying to her. I would have to tell her about the weed and she would have to get over it. She could be as mad as she wanted, but that wasn't going to pay the rent, and maybe it was time she knew where the extra cash came from. Sometimes she spent money like it magically appeared in our bank account. Like the gas money she burned up driving to El Dorado to volunteer at the prison.
Back before I started doing the Colorado run, LaReigne used to call Asher my boyfriend, I guess because that was the only way me having sex with him made sense to her. She didn't understand it was just about the money. My hospital bills, the rent, the groceries, Mom's prescriptions, LaReigne's tuition, and whatever thing Marcus needed, because kids are money pits.
In my experience, you could fuck for money, or wait tables for money, or sit in an insurance office forty hours a week like LaReigne did. However you get it, you need it, because money always decides whether things get better or worse. They never stay the same.
I was in too much pain to sleep, so I practiced in my head how I would explain all of that to LaReigne.
The thing that bothered me was that she didn't always come home on her volunteer nights, but she always texted. She always had an excuse. One time, exactly one time, she had completely flaked out on us. It was right after she'd filed for divorce, so Marcus had only been three. We'd been in our apartment for a month and we didn't know where the next month's rent was coming from. We were living on potatoes and canned stuff from the food bank. One Thursday, LaReigne had gone out for a job interview and hadn't come home. I'd spent the whole weekend trying to find her, and gotten fired from my job for not showing up. LaReigne had finally come home on Sunday night and we had a knock down drag out fight. She never told me where she'd been, but she'd promised she would never do that again. And she hadn't.
Except where was she? If she'd lost her phone, she would have replaced it by now, so I couldn't keep pretending that's why she wasn't answering. For the first time, I let myself think about other reasons. Maybe she was dead. A car wreck. Some asshole with a gun who got her office and the Planned Parenthood clinic down the street confused. Her ex-husband was in jail in Texas or I would've added him to the possible ways LaReigne could die. He'd threatened her enough times. Looking at one of the last texts I'd sent her, I wished I could take it back. If you're not dead, I'm going to kill you. What if I'd jinxed her?
A new text popped up, but it was only from Asher's lackey, Toby: Why is the train so late?
Ok well if there r cops at Newton ur on ur own
WTF are you talking about? Why would there be cops? I said.
The little dots flashed as Toby typed. When the answer came, I would have fallen down if I hadn't been sitting down: This deal with your sister. Asher gonna murder u if the cops get his shit
Panic washed over me and my hands shook so hard I could barely type. What are you talking about the shit with my sister???
The thing out at the prison.
What thing at the prison???
Toby didn't answer.
I opened my internet app to look at the Wichita Eagle's website. While I waited for it to load, I couldn't tell if it was the train rocking back and forth or my stomach.
MANHUNT FOR ESCAPED INMATES was the top headline. Underneath that were grainy pictures of two guys in orange prison jumpsuits.
The smaller headline was TWO GUARDS KILLED IN RIOT, with pictures of the guards in their uniforms. Below that: Night of rioting ends with three inmates injured and two volunteers taken hostage. LaReigne was so unimportant, they mentioned her last. I didn't recognize the picture they used for her, so it was probably from her volunteer badge at the prison. She managed to look glamorous even in a mugshot style picture. Her hair in blond waves and her eyebrows drawn on perfectly. The other volunteer was a woman, too. Chubby and maybe fifty with short brown hair. Was it Molly, who LaReigne had stayed with a couple times when she had a migraine and didn't want to drive home?
I tried to find out more, but all the news sites had the same information. Rioting, low staffing, overcrowding, dead guards, escape, hostages. I was re-reading it over and over, when the train pulled into Newton.
I was the last person off the train, practically carrying Marcus while the conductor tossed my suitcases out on the sidewalk. Marcus flopped down on the ground next to the bags, cried for about two minutes, and then fell asleep.
I almost cried, too, but I held it together while everybody was meeting up with their families and finding their rides. The whole time, Toby was standing in the shadows, watching me. Maybe he thought he was keeping a low profile, but he looked like a creeper.
"Do you want this shit or not?" I said, after the train pulled away.
"Keep your voice down."
"There aren't any cops." I raised my voice, same as always, because being mad was easier than being scared. Toby came over and started towing my suitcases toward where he'd parked his car next to mine. After sitting for twelve hours, my hip felt like it was full of gravel, but I picked Marcus up and limped after Toby.
Usually Toby unloaded the suitcases into his trunk and gave them back to me, but when I got to his car, he was tossing them into the back seat. Those suitcases were serious business: matching, locking, hard-sided, polycarbonate, all-terrain wheels. The only place I'd ever taken them was Trinidad, Colorado, and the only thing I'd ever packed in them was Asher's weed. They'd cost me serious money, too, but right then didn't seem like a safe time to argue about them, so I set Marcus down and unlocked my car.
"Why the hell did you bring the kid anyway?" Toby said.
"Because I had to. Asher said if I didn't make the run tonight, he'd have you fuck me up."
Toby laughed and said, "You're already fucked up. What kinda person brings their kid on a run?"
"He's my nephew and my sister didn't come home last night, which you already know. There was nobody else to watch him. "
"Shit, for real? This is LaReigne's kid?" Toby looked at Marcus, who was asleep on his feet, leaning up against me. "So that's some crazy shit, huh? What do you think is--
"Shut up, you asshole!"
Even though Marcus was right there Toby reached out and grabbed me by the neck. He pushed me back against my car, digging his thumb into my throat.
"You need to learn some fucking manners, Zee."
"Please," I said, which wasn't what I felt at all. "Don't say anything in front of him."
When Toby let go of me, I opened the door and lifted Marcus into his car seat. After I shut the door, I turned back to Toby with my arms crossed, so he wouldn't see me shivering. There was a reason Toby couldn't do the run to Colorado himself. He looked exactly like what he was: a drug-dealing thug with a neck tattoo and a squirrely eye. He also happened to be one of the scariest people I knew. Him and Asher. Any time I got tempted by those blocks of cash, that was all I had to think about. Two hundred grand would pay off all my debts--hell, the debts of everybody I knew--but it would also get me killed.
"Jesus," Toby said. "I was gonna offer to make things easier for you with Asher. Smooth things over."
I knew what he had in mind for payment for a favor like that, and I really wanted to be done paying for things with sex. I hoped I was never going to be that desperate again.
"Anyway, doesn't matter now. Asher told me to tell you you're cut off. You don't call him. You don't text him. He'll call you after this shit quiets down."
I probably should have got in the car and left, but I had bills to pay.
"My money?" I said.
Toby snorted, but he reached into his back pocket and took out an envelope. He held onto it for a couple seconds after I reached for it, but he finally let it go. I stuffed the money into my pocket and walked around to the driver's side of my car. When I opened the door, Toby was still watching me.
"Tell Asher he owes me for those suitcases," I said. Those weren't cheap."
Chapter 2 -- Zee
When we were in grade school, LaReigne and I walked to and from school, separated by about ten feet or so, because she was too cool to walk with a baby. One day--I was in third grade and LaReigne was in sixth--when we got to our block, there were half a dozen cop cars parked in front of our house. I remember crying, even before I knew what had happened. I don't know when I learned to be afraid of the police, but I was. We all were. That day, LaReigne took my hand, and we walked down the street to our house together. Mom stood on the front porch, screaming and sobbing, with a cop on either side of her. Dad was locked in the back seat of a police car, with his head turned so he wouldn't have to look at his wife or his daughters.
Now, driving past our apartment building and seeing a police car and a police van parked outside, I felt eight years old again. Afraid and angry, but not ignorant or innocent anymore. I didn't dare stop. I had five ounces of weed in my backpack and a bunch of drops and edibles. Probably the smart thing to do was ditch the weed, but I couldn't afford to. I needed the money, and it was the only thing that really worked for my pain that didn't require a prescription.
I kept driving.
"You missed our turn," Marcus said. Five years old and he was already a backseat driver.
"We're not going home yet." I pulled up to the light at Central, white-knuckling the steering wheel to keep myself focused. In my side view mirror, I could still see the cop car parked in front of our apartment.
"Where are we going?" he said.
I should have gone somewhere else. Anywhere else. A motel. A park. A fucking church. Even going to Marcus' other grandparents would have been a better terrible choice, if I was going to make a terrible choice. My mother's house was on a cul-de-sac that dead ended where they had widened Kellogg into a six-lane highway, so when I turned down the street, I was already stuck. There were three news vans, plus half a dozen other cars. Once again my family was newsworthy.
Reporters didn't scare me the way cops did, so I pulled up at the end of the line of cars and parked. I got Marcus out of the car and led him across the neighbors' yards, but as soon as we reached the weedy edge of Mom's yard, the reporters saw us. Holding Marcus' hand tighter, I walked faster, keeping my eyes focused on Mom's front porch, which was piled up with old furniture and lawn tools.
"Are you a member of the Trego family?" said the first reporter that reached us.
"Do you know the family?" said another one.
A TV cameraman cut me off at the sidewalk, while more reporters shouted, "Do you know LaReigne Trego-Gill?"
Marcus started to cry, and then his hand slipped out of mine. My heart lurched and I turned around, thinking it would be a reporter or a cop or … I didn't know who might grab Marcus.
Standing there, next to Marcus, was Gentry. Where had he come from? Had he followed me there? Of course, he followed me everywhere. Before I could think of what to say, Gentry picked Marcus up. What I would have done if my hip hadn't been hurting so much. Then Gentry reached past me and used his arm as a barrier between me and the cameraman who was nearly in my face.
"Let the lady pass!" Gentry bellowed. The cameraman backed up.
I ran the last ten feet to the porch, with Gentry behind me carrying Marcus. The screen door was only attached at one hinge, so you had to be really careful with it, and I wasn't. I was so freaked out, I jerked it open, and the glass panel on the top rattled into the bottom and almost fell out. I managed to shove the whole thing out of the way, but the front door was locked. I pulled my keys out of my pocket and got the deadbolt turned. When I pushed, the door opened, but only a few inches. For a second, I thought, Mom has finally managed to block both doors. She's going to die trapped in there.
"Has the family heard anything from LaReigne? Do you have any news? Has there been a ransom demand? Are the police negotiating?" Reporters were shouting behind me, Marcus was sobbing, and I could hear Gentry breathing hard.
"Push," I said to Gentry, and I stepped as far off to the side as I could. Still holding Marcus, he put his free hand on the frame and leaned his whole body into the door. There was a thump and a crash inside, and the door lurched open wide enough for us to squeeze through.
Inside, there was no room for us to do anything but stand packed together. Gentry slammed the door closed and set Marcus down on top of a half-collapsed stack of newspapers. I hugged Marcus tight, feeling his whole body quivering. I wondered if he understood why those strangers were shouting his mother's name.
"It's okay, buddy. I got you," I said. With this sick lurch, I realized that I was LaReigne now. Not just for Marcus, but for me. After Dad went to prison, right up until she left for college, LaReigne had been the adult in our family. After that I had to be my own adult, but now I would have to be one for Marcus, too.
"Zhorzha? Is that you, Zhorzha?" Mom yelled from the family room.
"Yeah, it's me. I have Marcus with me."
"What was that crash? What did you knock over?"
"I don't know. Whatever was behind the door. I almost couldn't get it open."
What had fallen over was a cardboard box full of ballerina figurines, too high on the stack to be the ones LaReigne had as a kid. There was also a tumbled over pile of romance novels, a broken laundry basket with a half-finished quilt in it, and two wooden boxes that maybe were for silverware. I knew she got stuff off Craigslist and eBay, but I didn't have a clue where most of the new stuff came from.
I turned around, intending to make sure the door was locked, and there was Gentry, looking the way he always did. Like one of Marcus' Lego people. Not very tall, but a solid block, dressed in a black t-shirt, cargo shorts, and Timberlands. He had his back pressed against the door, his head down, and his hands resting on the back of his neck. He didn't look at me--he never looked me in the eye--so at least I didn't have to hide the horrified look on my face when I realized what I'd done.
I'd invited my stalker into my mother's house.
Chapter 3 -- Gentry
I brought Lady Zhorzha and her little page safe through the throng of knaves, but twas no great task for the many months I was set to watch over her. To guard the threshold like a dog would give me joy, but my lady needed me carry the boy.
I set him down, and my lady embraced him while I made fast the door. I saw no clear path from that place, and I would not give offense, so I waited to hear my lady's bidding. I felt her gaze upon me, but knew not how to meet it. Twas rare I kenned her, nor she me.
From deep within the cottage, the air rumbled with a great voice, heavy and coarse with age. It called my lady's name and stirred all the voices in me.
"Come in," Lady Zhorzha said. "Come in and meet my mother."
Marcus led the way, clambering like a goat down narrow passages. On all sides heaped up weren manuscripts and folios, and great cupboards filled with platters and goblets. Our footsteps set them to rattle.
"How long has it been like this?" Lady Zhorzha called.
"They've been here since yesterday. And calling and calling. I had to unplug the phone."
"Oh my god, Mom. I tried to call you a bunch of times. Why didn't you call me if you were going to unplug the phone?"
First Marcus and then Lady Zhorzha withdrew through a doorway, flanked upon each side by mounds of chests and baskets. I followed, and at last, afound the answer to the question I asked of the Witch many a time. Twas my bounden duty to protect Lady Zhorzha, for she was descended of dragons.
There, in the inner chamber, reclined upon a throne of red leather that scarce contained her serpentine hugeness, was the dragon Lady Zhorzha called Mother. My lady was blessed with a great mane of fire that ne comb ne blade might tame. Mayhap in the dragon's youth, she had worn such a mantle, but in her age, her hairs weren grayed.
Fearless, Marcus approached the throne and flung himself upon the lady dragon. For a time, there was kissing and lamenting, for they weren greatly distressed with the fate of my lady's sister. The dragon clapped the little boy to her and succored him. Then she raised herself upon one red-scaled elbow and with a plume of white smoke spake: "I was calling you all day yesterday! I was about to report you and Marcus missing to the police."
"I had my cell phone on all day yesterday. What number were you calling?"
"Your apartment number."
"We don't have a landline anymore, Mom. You have to call my cell phone. And you can't smoke around Marcus," Lady Zhorzha said, but the dragon exhaled another blast of smoke.
"Who is this?"
I felt the dragon's gaze fall upon me.
"Hark, little knight. She would eat thee," Gawen said.
"Filth and the Mother of Filth," Hildegard said.
Tho none but I could hear them, I would not support their uncourtesy, and heeded them not.
"This is Gentry," Lady Zhorzha said.
"Gentry, I suppose we'll have to introduce ourselves, since she can't be bothered to."
"I'm sorry," Lady Zhorzha said. "Gentry, this is my mother, Dorothy Trego. Mother, this is Gentry Frank."
The dragon offered one sharp-taloned hand to me and I took it. I would go upon my knee but the dragon's hoard was too close upon her. I bowed over her hand to show my admiration.
"And who are you, Gentry?" she said.
"My lady, I am thy daughter's champion."
The dragon laughed like a clap of thunder and pressed my hand.
"Oh, he's charming. Nicholas was good looking, but he had no sense of humor. I never could--"
"Seriously, Mom? That's what we're talking about right now? Because I can think of a few things that are more important than my ex-boyfriend."
"Little pitchers have big ears," the dragon said.
"You're thirsty, aren't you, Gentry? Don't you need a drink?" Lady Zhorzha said, but I kenned not her intention. "Marcus, why don't you take Gentry and get him a pop out of the fridge?"
"Okay." Marcus came down from the dragon's throne and led me further into the maze. The dragon's hoard trespassed even into the scullery, platters and goblets piled upon the cabinets until the cupboards above opened not. So high weren the things heaped up there, I saw not the spigot.
We passed through another door and into the garage, where great towers of chests and crates rose to the rafters. In the midst of them, was a small ice box with a small oven stacked upon it. Marcus opened the door and shew me what was within. I wished not for a sweet drink, but would do as my lady bid.
"What do you want? There's Coke or orange," Marcus said.
"I would have an orange drink, Master Marcus."
"You talk funny," he said.
"Twas always thus."
"Are you Aunt Zee's boyfriend? You always park outside our apartment."
"I am her champion. I watch that I might her serve."
He brought from the ice box two cans and we sat upon the threshold to the house and drank.
"Do you know where my mommy is?" he said.
"Nay, I know not." Yet I knew what caused my lady's distress.
Always in the hall where we ate what was our midday meal, the Duke of Bombardier allowed his vassals see the news. The night past, I had seen the visage of my lady's sister. I knew her straight away, for oft I saw her with my lady and with Marcus. Taken, the news had said of the lady LaReigne, by knaves locked up in the gaol at El Dorado. Certs they weren men of ill intent, but mayhap my lady's sister still lived, though there was no word of her fate.
When the hour of my leaving Bombardier had come that morning, I went not home, but to my lady's house. There I saw the sheriff's men. I perceived not their task, but as I kept watch, Lady Zhorzha had passed and stopped not.
"Soon," the Witch had said for nigh two years. "Soon Lady Zhorzha shall have need of thee." As I sat beside young Marcus, the Witch spake again, saying, "They aren under thy protection now. Take them to thy keep."
"To my father's keep?" I asked.
"Nay, to thine own."
I kenned her not, for my keep lay in chaos, a field of stones, and no fit place for my lady, tho oft I dreamt it.
"I don't like being out here," Marcus said.
"Dread thee nought. Thine aunt and thee, ye aren under my protection."
The boy put his hand into mine and I took it as the Witch's surety. She oft spake in riddles, but I trusted her. If she said twas to be, it was.