Chapter 5: 9 Days To The Deadline…
I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to say to Asa when I get to his house, but I thoroughly expect to be thrown off the grounds.
The house is hard to miss. It’s one of the largest in all of Montgomery County with its three stories, all brick exterior and large white pillars on either side of the front door. I remember all the time I spent in that house, tucked away in the basement office, pouring over Asa’s books, business contracts, and client files.
I don’t want to go in because I know things on the other side of that door will be very different this time around.
Still, I need to do this, so I take one long, deep breath and then press the doorbell. A few seconds later, a hunched over, mousy looking older man comes to the door. “Mr. Alexander,” he says, sounding not at all pleased.
I nod. “Bernard.”
He stands there looking at me and making it clear he’s not actually letting me in.
“I’m here to see Asa.”
“If I may, sir—”
“No, you may not. Just tell Asa I’m here.”
“Sir, may I remind you that you were told not to come back here. Maybe it would be best if you just left.”
I push past the small man with ease. “Asa,” I call out. “Come on down here. I want to talk to you.”
There’s perfect silence for a few seconds.
I call for Asa again.
“What the hell? What’s all that racket?” a raspy voice yells from somewhere up the stairs.
“I’m sorry, sir,” starts Bernard. “I tried to get him to leave, but he barged in.”
“Who?” asks Asa coming down the stairs.
He stops short when he sees me standing in the foyer. “What the hell are you doing here?” he says this through gritted teeth, voice dripping with contempt. “I thought I told you to never come back.”
I swallow and look around to see if there’s a shotgun anywhere within his reach.
You can take the man out of Texas…
“I’m not here to stir up any trouble,” I say.
“Yeah? Then what are you here for?”
We’re face to face now, the old man’s cloudy eyes drilling a hole right through me from behind wire-rimmed glasses. I was used to being the tallest guy in a room, but Asa had a way of making me feel small. At 6’4” he had an inch on me, and though he was aging — his ash-blond hair had considerably more gray in it since the last time I’d seen him — he was still pretty brawny.
“I’m here to settle a debt.” I slap a thick envelope into his hand. He looks at me for a moment and then he thumbs through the contents. “Everything I owe you. Plus interest.”
He shakes his head slowly. And then he starts, his voice raising a few decibels with each sentence. “You make it sound like I gave you a loan, son. This ain’t no loan repayment program. You stole from here. I took you in. Tried to teach you everything I knew. And you were robbing me blind the whole time.”
Now I wouldn’t exactly say I was robbing him blind. I took some cash, yeah. But cash was nothing to this guy. More money had probably fallen out of his pants pockets on laundry day. “Well, then add to that my heartfelt apologies.”
He looks over at Bernard, who’s fidgeting nervously. Then he turns to me. “Let’s go into the other room,” he says finally. “Leave us,” he barks at Bernard and the man scurries off. We walk off into the kitchen, and I sit on one of the bar stools. “Drink?” asks Asa, opening a bottle of bourbon.
The word is music to my ears right about now. “Yeah.”
He pulls out two glasses, pours, and then speaks. “Cut the shit,” he says. “You want
something. Or why else would you be here? What brings you back to town anyway? The way I hear it, you hightailed it out of here so fast, no one ever expected to lay eyes on you again.”
I fight to not react to that. “I like to settle my debts is all.”
“Our debt is not settled,” he snaps. “You’ve given me back what you took, but you still owe me.” He puts extra emphasis on the word “owe.” “Giving me back my money was an afterthought … a way to try to get in good with me. You came here for something. Why don’t you tell me what that something is?”
I can’t help but smile. Asa Callahan is a sharp man, the sharpest I know. And I realize at that moment how much I’ve missed him. “I left something here,” I finally say.
“The little key.” He says it matter-of-factly. Like he knows the whole time that’s why I’ve shown up at his house out of the clear blue sky.
Still, I perk up. “So you know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah.” He nods. “I know.”
“Do you have it?”
“What’s it worth to you?”
I nod toward the envelope. “You already have it.”
He shakes his head slowly, deliberately. “Not good enough.”
I take a deep breath and try not to let my desperation show. “Asa, I need that key.”
I open my mouth, and the words almost come out. I want to tell him everything. Tell him all about what a mess I’ve made.
But I don’t. I can’t. I’ve forfeited the right to. “I … can’t tell you.”
“You in trouble?”
My heart warms a little. He actually sounds concerned. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say the old man still harbored some affection for me.
“No. No, I’m good. I just need the key.”
He shakes his head again. “Until you can tell me what’s going on I can’t help you.” He swallows the rest of the liquor in his glass and gets up to leave. “You can show yourself out.”
I stand quickly, getting between him and the doorway. “Look, Asa, I’m sorry about what happened. I was in a bad way. Desperate. But I’ve given you back your money. Now give me what’s mine.”
Asa stands calmly looking at me. At that moment, I can’t remember anything ever phasing him.
And that’s when I smell her.
It’s an herbal scent, like a lavender and a hint of spice. The scent wafts through the air unexpectedly, and before I can catch myself, I’m breathing it in deep.
“Well, at least it seems you’re an asshole to everyone and that it’s not just me.”
The voice … female, throaty and loaded with sarcasm, floats to my ears, followed by soft steps from bare feet. I turn to look at her.
“Honey, go back upstairs, will you?” Asa says.
“Now we’ve already had the whole ‘I’m not a baby anymore’ conversation twice since I’ve been here. Going for a third?”
A faint feeling of recognition hitting me as her eyes settle on mine. She looks pointedly back at me. Her ample lips are glistening a subtle shade of pink, with a little pout at the bottom and bordered by tiny dimples when she smiles, which she’s doing now. The smile is unmistakably wicked, as if she knows some naughty secret.
“Hello again,” she says with mock sweetness. “Looks like we were going the same way after all.”
“Tess,” Asa says with a warning tone. She doesn’t turn to look at him, just keeps her eyes on me.
The kid from the gas station.
Except this sure don’t look like no kid.
Her frizzy, honey-colored curls are a free-flowing mane. No baseball cap. And she’s traded in her t-shirt and jeans for a pink cotton dress, displaying curves that certainly were not evident the day before.
Regardless, there is still no way she’s legal. Which means she isn’t at all my type.
So why the stirring in the front of my pants just now?
Heat rushes to my face, making it tough to keep my smile cool rather than embarrassed.
Her eyes are still on me, studying me. “You’re up,” she says, telling me it’s my turn to respond.
She sure as hell has that right.
“You two know each other?” Asa asks. There’s a slightly dangerous tinge to his voice.
“We’ve exchanged a few pleasantries,” she says.
Asa looks back and forth between the two of us for a minute.
“And what’s your relation?” I ask taking another sip from my glass.
“Tess here is like a granddaughter to me. Her father used to work security for me. Good man. Was like the son I never had. I promised him I’d take care of her.”
I want to ask where the girl’s father is now, but I hear clearly the was in “was like a son” and decide it’s better not to.
“How come I’ve never seen you around?”
“She only comes to town during the summer,” Asa answers, even though I pose the question to the girl. “What’s it to you anyway?”
I shrug. “Nothing. Just that our conversation was interrupted and I’d like to get back to it.”
Asa smiles all of a sudden. One of those sly, predatory smiles.
“What are you grinning about?”
“I was wondering if you wouldn’t do me a favor, Logan. Since we’re old friends and all.”
I have the distinct feeling I am not going to like what he’s about to say. “What?”
“I’ve got to go away on business for the next couple of weeks. Why don’t you keep an eye on Tess for me?”
I laugh. “You want me to babysit? Are you joking?”
“No.” He pours himself another finger of bourbon.
“Can’t you get one of your hundreds of lackeys to keep an eye on her?” I glance in her direction. What’s she smirking about? “Are you sure you even need someone to keep an eye on her? The kid looks to me like she can take care of herself just fine.”
“I figured she’d need someone closer to her own age to hang out with. You know, take her where she wants to go. There’s an event tonight. A fundraiser dinner for Doyle’s mayoral campaign. I was supposed to take her, but now I won’t be able to. I want you to go in my place. Be her bodyguard so to speak. Don’t worry, I’ll cover the expenses.”
I shake my head in disbelief. “I didn’t come all the way here to babysit some kid.”
Asa then takes his pointer finger, dips it into his glass and stirs his bourbon, not taking his eyes off me.
This is his tell. I know this from working with him, from watching him do business. He does this whenever he is going to make a bold move. Or make someone an offer he knows they won’t refuse. “You sure that’s your final answer? You haven’t even asked what may be in it for you.”
And then I get his drift.
I look back and forth between the old man and the kid. She’s still sporting that stupid grin, and I feel myself getting more and more annoyed.
I have it all wrong.
She’s babysitting me, not the other way around. No doubt she’ll be reporting all my moves around town to her big, bad granddaddy. And with me having to show my face at some hoitytoity event, I’ll never be able to get my job done without being seen.
Which is undoubtedly what Asa wants. To make sure I can’t cause any trouble.
Well, any more trouble.
I want to curse. But I have no choice. I need that key. “OK.”
“Shake on it,” says Asa.
I stand and shake the old man’s hand.
“What about me?” Tess says, holding out her hand.
“Don’t push it,” I growl.
I’m on my way out the door and can’t shake the feeling that my luck has really just turned for the worse. The kid is a complication I don’t need, no matter how nicely she fills out her dresses.
I need to find a way to ditch her.
“See you tomorrow,” she says, mocking me.
I should have run her over yesterday. For a split second, I think about running her over now.