Washington, DC, is so cold it should be illegal.
I pull up the hood of my sweatshirt, but the material is practically threadbare, and it doesn’t do much good. I hate being out here playing lookout, but my brother has the worse end of this job, so I try not to complain.
Somewhere down the street, a man shouts and a car horn blares. I bite back a shiver and suck more tightly into the shadows. I found an old tire iron near the curb earlier, and I twist my fingers against the rusted metal, but whoever it was seems far away.
A glance at the timer on Jake’s phone tells me he has another thirteen minutes. Thirteen minutes, and he’ll be done, and we can go buy a cup of coffee.
We don’t really have money to spend, but Jake always needs time to unwind, and he says coffee helps. It ratchets me up so I can’t sleep, which means I don’t crash until four in the morning and then I miss school. I’ve missed enough days of my senior year that it probably doesn’t matter anymore. I sure don’t have any friends who’ll miss me.
So Jake and I will sit in a corner booth of the all-night diner, and his hands will tremble on the mug for a few minutes. Then he’ll tell me what he had to do. It’s never good.
I had to threaten to break his arm. I twisted it up behind his back. I think I almost dislocated it. His kids were there. It was awful.
I had to punch him. Told him I was going to hit him until a tooth came loose. He found the money real quick.
This guy was a musician. I threatened to smash a finger.
I don’t want to hear the ways he shakes them down for cash. My brother is tall and built like a linebacker, but he’s always been gentle and soft-spoken and kind. When Mom first got sick, when Dad got involved with Lawrence and his men, Jake would look out for me. He’d let me sleep in his room or sneak me out of the house for ice cream. That was when Dad was around, when Dad was the one getting threatened by Lawrence’s “bill collectors,” the men who’d come to our door to reclaim the money Dad had borrowed.
Now Dad’s gone. And Jake’s playing “bill collector” just to keep them off our backs.
Guilt twists my insides. If it were just me, I wouldn’t let him do it.
But it’s not just me. It’s Mom, too.
Jake thinks he could do more for Lawrence. Buy us more time. But that would mean actually doing the things he’s only threatening to do. It would mean truly hurting people.
It would break him. I can already see how even this is changing him. Sometimes I wish he’d drink his coffee in silence.
I told him that once, and he got mad. “You think it’s hard to listen? I have to do it.” His voice was tight and hard and almost broke. “You’re lucky, Harper. You’re lucky you just have to hear about it.”
Yeah. I feel super lucky.
But then I felt selfish, because he’s right. I’m not quick, and I’m not strong. Playing lookout is the only way he’ll let me help. So now, when he needs to talk about these near-atrocities, I keep my mouth shut. I can’t fight, but I can listen.
I glance at the phone. Twelve minutes. If his time runs out, it means the job went bad, and I’m supposed to run. To get Mom out. To hide.
We’ve gotten down to three minutes before. Two minutes. But he always appears, breathing hard and sometimes speckled with blood.
I’m not worried yet.
Rust flakes under my fingertips as I twist the ice-cold tire iron in my hand. Sunrise isn’t far off, but I’ll probably be too frozen by then to even notice.
A light feminine laugh carries in the air nearby, and I peek from the doorway. Two people stand alone by the corner, just at the edge of the circle of light cast by the streetlamp. The girl’s hair shines like a shampoo commercial, swinging as she staggers a little. The bars all closed at three a.m., but she clearly didn’t stop. Her micro-mini and open denim jacket make my sweatshirt feel like a parka.
The man is more suitably dressed, in dark clothes, with a long coat. I’m trying to decide if this is a cop busting a hooker or a john picking up a date, when the guy turns his head. I duck back into the doorway.
Her laughter rings through the street again. Either he’s hilarious or this girl is hammered.
The laugh cuts short with a gasp. Like someone yanked a plug.
I hold my breath. The silence is sudden and absolute.
I can’t risk looking.
I can’t risk not looking.
Jake would be so pissed. I have one job here. I imagine him yelling. Don’t get involved, Harper! You’re already vulnerable!
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