DOG DAYS: CHAPTER 21

                “Do you always call your mother Judith?”

                “’Mom’ will slip out from time to time.”

                “Do you do it to hurt her?”

                “I don’t know. I’m telling you the truth.”

                “I never called you a liar.”

                “It just doesn’t feel right otherwise. It is what it is.”

                “You still blame her for splitting up the family?”

                “The car was right there. The luggage was right there. Ron and I were right there. She could have just taken us away, but that wasn’t enough. I struggled with that for a while, but I was missing the point. It wasn’t about her hatred for my dad, or her love for my brother and me. Judith was sick. Judith is sick. I have to remind myself still.”

                “How would you describe your relationship with women now?”

Chapter 21:

Somebody Else’s Problem

Luke listened to Ron’s away message for a fifth time. You were begging for my help on Sunday—now you’re screening my calls? Not a word came since Midlothian, and Luke was left to fill in the blanks. What if he fucked it up? thought Luke. What if Jessup starved to death because Ron got drunk and passed out? It’d be a fitting end to that swollen fuck. Their father would be less understanding, but as long as Luke kept his distance, the blame for any mishaps would fall solely on Ron.

What if Ron’s already dead? Maybe one of the Finishers tracked Jessup down, or worse, Jessup found a way out of his cage. Jessup’s last tirade promised death to every Reto, even Nicole and Tara. What if this recording is the last time I hear Ron speak? My brother might be dead and I can’t even bring myself to leave work early? If Jessup had escaped, Luke would join his brother shortly. The old killer need only step into Wingfield Sports Collectables to find his prey.

“It’s me,” said Luke. “I’m getting groceries tomorrow. Do you need anything…special? I need to know if—“

Jenna startled him, poking her head into the backroom.  She rolled her eyes when she saw him sitting at his makeshift desk of boxes and bubble wrap. She left as quickly as she came.

Lost my train of thought. “—I’m still at work so just leave a message if I don’t answer. Bye.”

Luke rose from his chair and leaned out onto the sales floor. What couldn’t wait five minutes? He found the problem—another of Jenna’s admirers. Luke did not recognize this one. The slick-haired whelp had cornered her behind the cash register. It’s past your bedtime, stud, thought Luke. He heard Jenna tell the kid that dating customers was against store policy.

“Hey, Jenna, I need you to finish organizing the shelves back here,” said Luke with his arms akimbo. “Let me assist this gentleman.”

“Okay,” said Jenna . She mouthed a “thank you” as she came closer.

His elbow grazed her breasts as she retreated into the backroom. You’re very welcome. He approached the admirer and asked how he could be of service. The young man shook his head and slipped back into the crowded currents of the mall.

Mangy little shit wouldn’t even know what to do with her. He returned to the backroom, leaning proudly against the doorway. “I took care of him,” said Luke.

“I think I earned my break tonight,” said Jenna. She grabbed her purse from a shelf. “Oh, and I need to start later on Friday.”

“How late?”

“Around seven.” Jenna bit her mango-colored nails. “My mom won’t get home until around six-thirty.”

“I thought you just got your license?”

“Permit. She hasn’t had time to ride with me.” Her lip gloss caught specks of orange.

“Can anyone ride with you or does it have to be a parent? “

“It has to be a parent I think, yeah.” She brushed her wet fingertips across her blouse. “Could you move a little from the doorway? I can’t get by.”

Luke moved to the cash register. He watched her tap the keys to punch out with remnants of nail polish still stuck to her cuticles. She ripped her time slip from the register and stuffed it into her back pocket as she left.

She wore yoga pants disguised as dress slacks as she did every work day. They appeared up to code until she walked past the display lights near the entrance. Luke saw every curvature in her legs, each flexure lead his gaze to the gap between her thighs. She began to look behind her when the boss walked in with a stack of boxes.

“What did I tell you about leaning on the register!?” said Wingfield “You can’t greet customers from the back of the store!”

What’s he doing here on a Wednesday? “I was making change,” said Luke.

“You gonna help me with these?”

Luke took a box from the top of Wingfield’s stack and followed him into the backroom.

“You didn’t open anything from the last drop-off?” said Wingfield.

“I will, I’ve just been busy.”

“Making change?” Wingfield dropped the stack against the employee bathroom door with a grunt. “You’ve been flakey all week. What’s the problem?”

I’m holding a killer hostage and my brother might be dead. “Do you actually want to know?”

“I want it to go away; it’s hurting your numbers.”

“Well, since you brought it up, do you remember my brother Ron?”

“I do,” said Wingfield as he stacked the glassware on the shelves to make room.

“I want to bring him on part-time.”

Wingfield tore open a small box as he spoke. “Work and family don’t mix. Running a business like that gets complicated.”

You can at least look me in the eye when you say no. “I’ve been running this store for over a decade; that should count for something.”

“Don’t do that,” said Wingfield, placing piles of shot glasses onto the cleared space. “Don’t waste the ‘decade’ speech on getting your brother a job. I’m aware you’ve been here forever. You do good work; don’t let him ruin your reputation.”

What is there left to ruin? “It wouldn’t be for long. He could work weekends until fall, then fill morning shifts when the kids go back to school.”

“If you want him, fire Jenna.”

“She sells more than anyone!”

“And has the most returns. I can’t afford them both. And don’t drag it out. I need your decision tonight.”

You’re  human garbage. “That’s not enough time! Be reasonable!”

“You’ve been managing for over a decade; manage it.” Wingfield stepped over the heaps of merchandise to reach the back door. He pushed the exit bar and let the door hang open. “And if you find time in between ‘making change,’ put this shit out where people can buy it.”

When the door locked shut, Luke spat into a box of t-shirts, and proceeded to the middle of the sales floor to greet customers.

*****

Jenna returned from her break, finishing what was left of her vitamin water and clutching a department store bag to her leg.

Luke followed her into the backroom. Let’s get this over with.

She looked back at him as she set her bags down. “I’ll be out there in a minute.”

“I have to tell you something, Jenna.”

“Did he come back?” She ran her fingers through her straight blonde locks.

“No, nothing like that.”Your hire, your fire, thought Luke.  She’s young; she won’t even remember this place in a few weeks. “You’ve been a great employee, but—“

“If Wednesday’s a problem I can find another ride,” said Jenna as her eyes welled. “I’m sorry for screwing up the schedule. I’d switch with one of the other girls, but none of them will.”

The weight of his silence nearly brought Jenna to her knees. Luke lingered there for no other reason than he could. “—your sales bonus won’t show up on this week’s check. It’ll be lumped in with the next one.” Sorry, Ron. She’s not going anywhere.

“Oh.” She shook her head. “That’s not a problem.”

“Good, I’m glad,” said Luke. “Got some shopping done I see.”

“Yeah, just dress pants for work, I’ve been meaning to buy some.”

When it came time for Jenna to punch out, Luke told her to leave through the back door in case her admirer returned. After she gathered her things and left, Luke pulled down the front gate early, letting it dangle knee-high. His cell phone showed no messages. Did you forget how to use a phone, Ron?

He counted the money in the register. Sixty-eight dollars. She brought in just sixty-eight dollars tonight. He wrote it on the closing report. I’ll be hearing about that number tomorrow. Luke tried not to think about the steel door that sealed Jessup from the world. A low-selling day used to be my biggest worry. How absurd it all seems now.

Luke lifted the gate to leave. When he switched sides he noticed a shape had been carved into the edge of the store entrance. Did someone try to draw a heart? It was far too bulbous, but an edge had been created by a shaky hand. Luke followed the shape with his finger, almost a perfect circle.

He dropped to one knee to secure the gate. The locks seized with a loud crack, catching the attention of a small group strolling through the empty mall. They barked and laughed at him. Teenagers most likely, no older than the kid who bothered Jenna. Luke ignored them before they stopped abruptly under the marquee.

Luke stood up to discover three wolves staring at him, their eyes concealed behind cheap rubber masks. They reminded him of Ron’s moronic protest group. Luke stared back, waiting for the gag to end.

“Where’s the girl?” said the middle one.

“She left hours ago.”

“We didn’t see her leave.”

“I didn’t realize she needed your permission.”

“Tell Jenna the wolves are at her door.”

This isn’t cute anymore. Luke ripped the mask off and hurled it into the common area. He was forced against the gate, nose to nose with a flush-faced balding man. What the hell is this!? Luke’s eyes darted between the three.

“THE WOLVES ARE AT HER DOOR!” said the bald man.

“Stop right there!” called a voice. The night security chased the three men out through the glass doors at the east end of the mall.

Luke fell to the ground, trying to process what had just occurred. His phone vibrated. He pulled it from his pocket to see “Nicole” printed across its screen.

“H-hello?”

“I can’t get them to leave! I need your help!”

Shake it off, Luke. “Slow down. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“These people say they know Jake, but they won’t let me talk to him! I tried calling Ron, but he won’t answer! Get over here now!”

*****

Luke parked near his father’s house and walked past three black sedans in the driveway. He heard radio chatter before he stepped onto the porch. Two men in black suits covered the front door. They made him wait as one grumbled his description into a radio—thirty-year old male, clean-shaven, light build. A woman’s voice replied among the static, too deep to be Nicole. It sounded like”let the boy through.”

Luke was greeted by a portly woman with a lazy eye. Nicole looked safe for the time being, sitting on the living room couch with Tara asleep in her lap. Other agents dotted the house. Luke was unsure of their number.

“Mommy needs to put you down for a minute,” said Nicole. “Stay close.”

“What’s going on here?” said Luke.

“I don’t know. They’re too busy protecting me to answer my questions.”

The woman stepped forward and extended her hand to Luke with a smile. “I’m agent Hampton.”

Luke reciprocated, afraid of what would happen if he refused. “Is this about my father?”

“If your father is Jake Reto, then yes.”

“What do you want with him?”

“I was just telling Mrs. Reto, that Jake is working with us on correcting a sensitive matter. Remarkable man, your father—his skill set has proved invaluable. I’m not at liberty to give any further information other than he stipulated protection for his family for the duration of his cooperation.”

“So you’re here to protect her and Tara?”

“That’s right, Baby, an entire security detail at their beck and call.”

Did she just call me baby? “Will there be guards in my apartment too?”

“Mr. Reto didn’t mention a son.”

“He has two!” said Ron from the porch. Five agents converged at the front door.

“Don’t hurt him,” said Nicole. “He’s my other stepson.”

The agents let him inside. Luke could smell why Ron had not answered his phone. Now that I know you’re alive you can keep your mouth shut!

“What gives you the right to come into my father’s house without a warrant!?” said Ron. “I want to see badges, Godammit!”

“They’re not cops, Ron!” said Luke. “And they’re here on dad’s request!”

“Will you look at this one,” said Hampton. “What was your name again…Ron? My god, you look just like Jake.” She turned to Luke and Nicole. “There are some good genes in the Reto family, but I don’t need to tell you, Nicole, do I?”

Agent Hampton sat next to Nicole and placed her hand on her knee. “Nicole, I know you want to talk to your husband, and I’d love nothing more than to connect you to him, but the risks are too great, Baby. As soon as we get the go ahead I’ll let agent Montang know. That’s Harry, you met earlier.” Hampton turned to face Luke. “He’s one of my best agents. He’ll take excellent care of your step mother and sister.”

“For how long?” said Luke.

“That’s up to your father,” said Hampton. “I know this is difficult, but we made a promise to him to protect his family. If you boys don’t feel safe, let us know. We’ll keep a real good eye on the both of you.”

At least one, I’m sure. “That won’t be necessary,” said Luke.

“Then I think my work is complete for tonight.” Hampton stood up and three agents accompanied her to the front door. “Goodnight Mrs. Reto… Boys.”

“What are you protecting us from?” said Luke.

“All kinds, Baby,” said Hampton. “All kinds.”

After Hampton left with her agents, Luke walked over to Nicole. “Will you be okay by yourself?”

Nicole picked up Tara and headed upstairs. “You can leave, and take him with you. I’m tired of Retos.”

Luke and Ron stepped out among the streetlights. The one by Luke’s car flickered in the darkness. He followed the blinking blue lights of the other parked cars, ignoring his brother’s staggered footsteps.

“Wait up, Luke! Can I get a ride to the bus stop?”

He’ll stumble into traffic if I leave him alone. “Shut up. I’m taking you home.”

“Thanks. Thank you.” Ron took a seat on the neighbor’s lawn.

“You can’t sit there.” said Luke.

“I just need some air. That’s all.”

“Why didn’t you answer your phone? I called five times. Have you been fucked up all day?”

“No. My phone has bad reception in the basement.”

“Basement? Ron, which basement?”

Ron looked up at Luke with a raised eyebrow. “Which do you think?”

“You were there all day!?”

“I wasn’t about to leave good company,” said Ron. “Stories were told, drinks were shared…”

“Cells were opened?”

“I’m not an idiot, Luke. That big bastard is locked down tight.” Ron wrapped his arms around his knees to form a ball. “I want to do this right, and throwing food at him wasn’t the way.”

“What did you tell him?”

“No one was talking about you so just calm down. He talked about dad. Things I never knew.” Ron looked up at Luke. “Did you know we had a half-sister?”

“You’re hearing things again. Jessup is dangerous, Ron. He’s trying to pull something.”

“Or maybe he genuinely likes me. Is that so difficult to believe?”

 You’re a fuck up, Ron, and Jessup sees that! We all see that! “You’re putting us all in danger.”

“You know what? I think I can handle this by myself. Dad was right; I should have just kept you out.”

“All this proves is that you CAN’T do this alone! You’re never going to that house alone, is that understood!?”

Ron released his legs and stretched out onto the grass.

“Goddammit, Ron.” Luke dragged his brother to his car and laid him out in the backseat. “You’re going to get everyone killed.”

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