I liked to keep my back to the wall. It was a habit I developed in the Registan Desert. But tonight I was just in a neighborhood hangout, a strip club called Jiggles. I surveyed the strip club from a corner near the pool tables. A woman danced onstage while a rock song played. The booming bass had a slight buzz. The strip club’s sound system had blown a few speakers last year, but no one bothered to replace them.
When it was my turn, I leaned across the green felt. Bank shot. Three ball into the corner pocket. I closed my eyes and let the cue slide through my fingers. The balls cracked together. I heard the thump off the side cushion and then the rattle as the ball sank into the pocket. Easy.
I opened my eyes to set up my next shot.
“Hey, genius.” Clint laughed. “You’re stripes. Thanks for taking care of one of my balls, though.”
Fuck. I looked at the table. He was right; I was stripes. I hadn’t been paying attention. Instead of returning to my favorite spot against the wall, I sat on a stool in front of the bar.
“Hi, baby.” Asia, one of my favorite pay-to-play hookups, leaned in close. “I’d be happy to take care of your balls, but how about you buy me a drink first?”
I rolled my eyes and asked the bartender to get her a beer.
Asia pouted. “You haven’t called me in weeks.” She stuck her lower lip out. “I could call a friend, and the three of us could have our own personal party. Remember how fun it was that time?”
Tempting. Asia was always enthusiastic and willing to please in bed, especially if it would earn her a big tip.
“Actually, I don’t really remember much of that night.” I sipped on my beer. “I haven’t been in the mood lately.”
“Oh!” She smiled and started to root through her huge purse. “I got stuff for that.”
I put my hand on her shoulder. “That’s not what I meant. I’m just not interested, okay?”
What the hell was wrong with me? Asia was tall with long legs that she could bend any which way I wanted. And her fees were reasonable. But sex had just lost its thrill. It was the same old shit. Women in skimpy outfits trying to entice me to buy, which I often did. Then a meaningless meet-up in my room at the clubhouse and a morning alone.
Maybe I could soften the blow. “Why don’t you go hang out with Clint?”
We both looked over at him—he was chatting up a blonde stripper in a purple dress. Asia frowned.
“Well, maybe I’ll just make a new friend tonight. Thanks.” She walked away, hips swinging. I knew she wanted me to take a good look at her ass and change my mind, but I just didn’t care.
Leaning against the bar, I finished off my beer and surveyed the room. Hanging out at a strip club every Friday night was getting tiring. The constant noise and empty flirting made me wish for a night at home, and not just a night in my room at the MC. I bought a house last year and never fucking stayed there. I was always partying. Maybe it was time to move.
I tried to catch Clint’s eye; I was thinking of making the long drive out to my place. He was still talking to the blonde, so I decided to hit the john. Strip club bathrooms were always nasty. No matter how much froufrou crap they piled in there, it was still a urinal in a titty house.
As I was zipping up, something touched the back of my neck.
Cold. Hard. Steel.
“Thought I’d find you here.”
The man’s thick Cajun accent brought me home, the voice vaguely familiar. My father’s face floated in my head before I remembered the fucking gun pressed to my neck.
“I know you?” I started to turn to see who this fucker was.
He cocked the hammer. I froze. It’s a distinctive click, and when it’s pressed below your ear, it’s real fucking loud.
“Well, then put away the gun and we’ll go get a beer.” The barrel pressing into my neck eased off, and I heard him release the hammer. “I’m turning around now,” I told him.
Holding the pistol was Davide Lavernge. A year or two behind me in school, he had been a class clown who dealt a little weed on the side.
“How ’bout dat drink?” He grinned.
Davide followed me over to the bar, and we ordered a round. I sucked on my beer and studied the piece of shit next to me. His sour breath wafted over from two bar stools away. He smelled like crawfish three days after the boil.
Davide licked the salt off his lips and combed peanut shells out of his beard. His face was lined and weathered, his teeth yellow. He was no longer the happy-go-lucky guy I used to know.
“Tacoma, Washington, is damn far from Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. What’re you doing this far north, Davide?”
He put down the beer I had paid for and turned toward me. “I’m here about child support.”
He must be in a shit ton of trouble if he was coming to me for help. I shrugged. “How much do you owe?”
He shook his head. “You owe me, Skeeter. Forty large. I been taking care of your kid.”
The world went fuzzy, so I blinked. Again. My vision was clear, but my brain didn’t quite understand what Davide had just said.
“Embrasse moit chew.” Kiss my ass. I pushed back from the bar. “I haven’t been back to Breaux Bridge in years. I don’t got no kid.”
Davide scratched at his beard. “After you joined the Army, Delphie realized she was pregnant. She decided she wanted to raise it on her own. That’s why she dumped you.”
Delphie. My first love. We had been nineteen and full of dreams. Well, I was full of dreams, and she was full of meth, weed, whatever else she could get her hands on. I put a tiny ring on her finger and then packed up for boot camp. The letter came two days after I arrived in Afghanistan. Classic Dear John. I read it in my bunk and then had to find a private place to fucking punch something. A captain saw me, and I spent the next three weeks cleaning latrines in the Registan Desert.
I narrowed my eyes. I wasn’t about to fall for his line of shit. “She never told me she was pregnant.”
“Don’t matter. You got a kid that you ain’t never paid child support for. So, by my accounting, you owe me forty Gs.” Davide shrugged and stuffed more peanuts in his mouth.
I rolled my eyes. That’s what this was about. “This is a goddamn shakedown. If there was a kid, Delphie would be serving me with papers. You’re bullshitting me, and you fucking know it.”
Davide stared at me, cold, hard. This was not the man I used to know. Back then he sold a little weed and raised a lot of hell. He was always quick to laugh, the life of the boil. Whatever he was into now had changed him.
“Delphie overdosed about six years ago. Don’t matter, though. You got a fucking kid, and I want my fucking money. Once you get that through your head, call me. Else I’ll come find you again. I promise you that.” He handed me an old-fashioned matchbook with the name of a dive motel and a cell phone number scrawled in pencil. “Kid is here with me.”
Davide got up and left me with the tab.
The matchbook was blue with a red stylized horse. Cowboy Motel. Printed on the back was a map. It was just off the highway, south of town, in the middle of a bunch of apple orchards. Tourists would drive right on by and find a room in Seattle or Tacoma. This place was meant only for truckers or the kind of people who didn’t like to deal with society. The kind of people who would blackmail someone for child support for a kid that didn’t exist.
This was just another way for the Lavernge family to screw me over. Delphie had dumped me as soon as deeper pockets had come along, and now Davide was trying to milk me for all I was worth. I had enough to make ends meet, but forty grand wasn’t sitting in my back pocket for a rainy day.
I ran my thumb over the top of the matchbook and felt ridges. In the light of the bar, I could just make out indentations from a pen. Something was written on the inside. I flipped open the damn matchbook and saw a drawing. There wasn’t much room, but someone had drawn a sun with sunglasses. The rays of the sun weren’t quite even, and the lines all wobbled. A kid had drawn it.
What if I did have a kid? What if Delphie had been pregnant when I shipped out? I did some quick calculations. The kid would be nine or ten. I thought of myself at that age, all skinned knees and dirty hands. If I had a kid, what would he or she be like?
I flipped the matchbook over and stared at the map printed on the back. Same shitty location, right off the interstate. Davide was pretty desperate if he’d come all the way up here to Washington State hoping to get a lot of cash. I didn’t know what Davide was mixed up in, but it was bad, and no child should be caught up in it.
I paid my tab and went to find Clint at the pool table. If this was blackmail, I was gonna need reinforcements.
* * *
An hour later me and Rip and Clint cut our engines and parked in a field behind the motel. It was easy to track down which room belonged to Davide. There was a beat-up blue truck with Louisiana plates parked at the far end, as far away as possible from the motel office and the security camera.
So we crouched with ivy up to our goddamn shoulders and waited. The lights flickered in the room, like someone was watching television.
“Shit, Skeeter, it’s been forty-five minutes,” Clint muttered in our ivy hole.
A sliver of light shone in the dark motel as someone opened their door. It was a woman coming out for a smoke. She collapsed into a plastic patio chair and lit up a joint. Too short to be Delphie, dark hair. Craggy face. Torn jean shorts. Maybe Davide’s girlfriend? Under the hyperfocus of the binoculars, she looked worn.
Then Davide came out and sat in the other chair. They passed a joint back and forth. The door opened again and showed a small, dark figure. With the bright light of the inside of the room, the person’s features were in shadow. The shadow only went a foot or so past the doorknob. A kid
My heart leaped up into my throat. I tried to breathe, but it just came out as a guttural sound. Even though I couldn’t see the kid clearly, I knew. It was like a brush stroke inside my brain that spread truth. Davide hadn’t come all the way across the country just to shake me down. He was telling the truth.
I had a kid.
Copyright © Rebel 2017 Rebel Custody by Sarah Hawthorne