As soon as he heard the chorus of fight, fight, fight, Andy knew Rose would likely be in the middle of it. Since she was in the grade below him, her class was kept on the blacktop while his was on the adjacent field. Bolting through damp grass, he maneuvered through the sweaty ring of tightly fit bodies to just under the basketball hoops. It was that damned Devon and his wanna-be gang. Three boys surrounded one small, skinny girl. Stupid boys, Andy thought with a half-grin.
One of the boys was already bent over, holding his bloody nose. Rose was lightning quick and spun into one of her side-kick things, planting her heel right into the jewels of kid number two. Ouch, that had to hurt. Andy preferred more traditional methods.
The recess supervisors noisily made their way through the mass of students. He knew Rose wouldn’t make it to boy number three in time. He grabbed the little prick’s arm just before his fist connected with her head. Devon grimaced in pain. What a wimp. They always were, as he and Rose knew all too well. Andy recognized the drop in Devon’s other shoulder as the wanna-be geared up for the next sucker punch. Using his traditional methods, Andy landed a quick jab to just under Devon’s ribs. The kid gasped for air.
Andy turned to Rose. He could see pieces from the wild mass of her strawberry blond hair that were stuck to her sweaty neck. She turned on him and his gaze met the ice blue of her eyes. Together, they held years of secrets between them. His smile dropped as he recognized the look on her face.
“What are you doing?” she growled as they stood among the chaos. He would be in twice the trouble if he was caught fighting at school. His aunt taught first grade there. She’d been his first-grade teacher when he started at Bloom Elementary. In the few seconds their eyes were locked, they held an entire conversation without speaking a word.
Damn it. If Rose would just give him the green light to get her out of this mess … he had a knack for talking his way out of trouble. He always did. Instead he strode, dejected, past Rose and casually ran a hand through the side of his wavy hair. He slid it down into his pocket before disappearing back into the crowd.
* * * *
A man impatiently searched the Nolan home. He could do a decent sweep through a house this size in just under twenty minutes. Not bad, he thought, even as frustrated nerves bubbled beneath his skin. “But where is the fucking cash?” he ignited, clearing the contents of the kitchen counter in one sweep of his arm.
He was an average-looking man with stringy blond hair. It lay on the golden skin of his shoulders exposed from the tank he wore in the heat. His light blue eyes darted around the room as he worked to contain his temper.
“So, this is where you live now, Mandy baby. Doin’ good for yourself.”
He looked around at Amanda’s house. It was like frigging Mayberry and had to have some dough in it somewhere. Having already tossed around her dressers and closets upstairs, he grew angrier by the minute. Mandy didn’t like it when he was angry, he remembered, as he ran his hand down the front of his pants. He knew her from before she had the little house and family. It seemed like she had maybe two daughters from the look of the rooms upstairs. Wasn’t that just fucking nice?
“Where do you keep the rich girl money, Mandy?”
He tossed through coffee cans and the wraps in the freezer. Glancing around the kitchen cabinets into the living room, he considered the wall of electronics and had to remind himself he was just here for the money. Keep a low profile. Don’t take anything that could be traced. That’s what kept him in the game. It had to be here. She always had cash. Maybe it was on her. He could wait. Nice reunion, huh? Took him long enough to find the bitch. This was a long way from Nicaragua, where he first met her.
Hearing the front lock turn, he sneered with anticipation and stepped behind a corner. He looked around just enough to see who came through the front door. An elderly man walked in like he owned the place. Tossing his keys on the base of the entertainment center, the geezer headed straight for the kitchen, whistling some old jazz shit.
The intruder didn’t look for a place to hide. Didn’t want a place to hide. This was too perfect. He used his lightly gloved hand to skim his knife out from under the cuff of his pants. When the old man noticed him it was too late, of course. He turned to run as the smooth blade went through the thin, wrinkled skin of his back. The intruder closed his eyes and nearly purred as the knife reached soft flesh. Expertly, he moved his arm out of the way of the dripping blood and backed up to let the frail man fall where he stood.
Standing over the old man, he watched the blood begin to seep from his mouth. He could swear the guy had a look of recognition on his face as he gaped. His eyes were open like saucers, but not with the shock of impending death like most of his prey. Huh. If this was Mandy’s old man … No, he tilted his head back and forth to judge as he watched him writhe in his blood. Too old. Must be grandpa, he decided. If this was Mandy’s gramps, he corrected himself, he’d sure never met him before. He was trying to say something. Bending down, the intruder heard something about a rose before the old man went still with death.
* * * *
Lucky for Rose, she had Andy sitting in the seat next to her. If not, she knew the ride home wouldn’t be such a quiet one. Her mom and stepdad didn’t yell at her in front of Andy … usually.
She’d carpooled with him since they started grade school. His house was just across her cul-de-sac and over Black Creek. She would have been much happier in her mom’s car. It was an embarrassing olive green minivan, but at least it wasn’t a frigging cop car. Rose’s stepdad was a detective—Detective Dave Nolan. The American-built sedan they rode in screamed unmarked cop car with its tan color, factory hubcaps and searchlight tucked near the driver’s side window.
They sat in the deafening quiet of the backseat as they drove from Bloom to Rose’s home. The windows were rolled up and the air on. Her fuming mother added to the heat as she sat stock-still in the front passenger seat.
The houses grew larger and the driveways longer as they came closer to their neighborhood. Rose sort of liked how everyone had big yards here, not like the new homes near the school that were so close together.
Northridge, New York, was a comfortable size—not so big that it was crammed with people, yet it was still close enough to Rochester and Binghamton if someone wanted to get away to a bigger city. The aging hickories and maples towered with millions of leaves that were just changing from the light color of spring to a deep summer green.
As they turned onto her street, Rose stealthily cocked her head, glancing at Andy. The waves of his caramel colored hair were just long enough to hide his eyes from the side, yet he must have sensed her gaze because he turned to look at her. Both of their shoulders jiggled slightly with a silent chuckle. She decided it was better to quickly look back out her window rather than get caught laughing in the backseat.
Her house was the smallest one on the short street. It wasn’t really even theirs. It belonged to her great-granddad. He had been living in sin down the street with the feisty widow Lucy Melbourne since Rose was five years old. Rose and her anti-nuclear family rented the conservative house from him ever since her mom had married Dave and became Amanda Nolan. Rose kept her mother’s maiden name—something about her mom not wanting to search for Rose’s dad so that Dave could formally adopt. Name or no name, Detective Nolan was good to her. Hopefully, she would still be able to say that after they had the talk about her little disagreement with the boys at school.
Detective Nolan pulled in the drive and shifted the car into park.
Here we go, Andy thought, as he took a deep breath.
He cringed as Rose’s mom turned to face the two of them in the backseat. “You.” She pointed her finger at him. “Stay.”
Then, she turned to Rose.
“You,” she said to Rose. “Come with me. I have just enough time to deal with you before I need to pick up your sister.”
Andy noticed Rose glance back at him before slinking out of the squeaky vinyl seat. He gave her a sympathetic look through the window as she shut the door.
Mrs. Nolan was giving her hell as they stood in the drive. He felt bad for Rose. It wasn’t her fault. That dickhead Devon and his boys were always ganging up on her. Then again, Rose was pretty easy to rile up. Still, she was a girl and that was just wrong.
Andy cringed a little deeper as Detective Nolan turned around in the front bench seat to face him.
Oh boy. He hated when he talked to him with his gun in that sling thing, and Andy saw him put it back in there as soon as they left the school. Rose’s stepdad was intimidating enough without the gun. He wore his usual dress pants and casual shoes, button-down shirt and badge attached to his belt. He was a mountain of a man and he loved Rose deeply, which meant he wouldn’t be one of those stepdads who shrugged and turned away any time his wife’s daughter got into trouble. Everyone knew he thought of Rose as his own and would take the time to come up with just punishment, meaning she might very well be grounded for the whole damned summer.
“Did you see it happen?” Detective Nolan asked bluntly.
Lucky for Andy, he hadn’t been caught. Rose would never squeal, and the gang would be too embarrassed about getting licked by a shrimpy girl. With Andy’s aunt working at the school, getting caught would have been very ugly for him. Still, he trusted the detective and owed Rose. So, faithfully, he confessed. The skin on the back of his neck prickled before he spoke.
“Yes, sir, Detective Nolan. I saw it.”
“Don’t give me that Detective Nolan crap, Andy. I want to know what happened.”
“She’s tried all that conflict resolution stuff. They pick on her. You should check the left side of her ribs. I bet she’s got old and new bruises from the times they nail her as they pass in the hall. She’ll never tell anyone and kill me if she finds out I told you.” He looked pleadingly at the big man. “They call her a dyke, Mr. Nolan … Dave.”
His eyes darted to Andy’s. “What? Why?”
Grabbing the seat next to his knees, Andy took one deep breath and decided he probably should have left that part out. “She doesn’t wear that stuff in her hair and the sandals like the other girls. She likes to shoot hoops at recess instead of standing around and whispering.”
Mr. Nolan turned and looked toward Mrs. Nolan and Rose, then shook his head and muttered, “Age ten is too old for girls to wear Wrangler jeans and t-shirts and prejudices are already forming?” He turned back but didn’t make eye contact. “Does she know what it means?”
“No, sir. I don’t think she does.” The fun was over. Andy looked out the window and watched his best friend already working off her crime by picking up sticks under their enormous weeping willow.
He watched as Rose turned to him and mouthed the word “chicken” just before they heard a scream so heart wrenching neither of them would ever forget.