For disclaimers and all that business, please see Part I.
Thanks again to the seemingly inexhaustible patience of Ruth, who read this time and time again…thanks Kamouraskan, and Jo, for your encouragement.
And feel free to keep 'em coming…
Christina began carefully re-writing her notes from the management meeting and the inspection. All in all, it was a great day.
Andrew was already off the clock, but she would keep a wary eye in his direction from now on. Alcohol and drug use while working was definitely not tolerated by the new management.
"Hey." Twinkling green eyes greeted her as she looked up from her paperwork. "Got a minute?"
"Have a seat." A crooked grin formed on Christina's face as Abigail sat across from her in the booth. "What's on your mind?'
"Abigail," she warned. "We're at work."
"Silly," Abigail said, flashing her a brilliant smile as she continued. "Are you coming over after I get off work tonight?"
"Yes. I mean no." She shook her head and grimaced slightly. "No, I won't be able to."
"Why not?" She leaned across the table, arching her left eyebrow. "Got a hot date with someone else?"
"No." Christina resisted the urge to kiss her girlfriend. "Owen's in town. He usually drops by and we catch up on everything." She lowered her voice. "He helped me stop drinking."
"Oh." She sat back and nodded her head. "I see."
"He's like a brother to me."
"Hey," she offered, feeling the need to dig herself out of her imagined hole. "Maybe we could all have breakfast in the morning."
"Sounds good," Abigail responded, somewhat appeased. "After all, you did go over to Trish and Nick's with me."
Tired of playing on his computer, Jack shoved the keyboard aside and got ready for work. It wouldn't hurt to be a little early, anyway.
He felt a lot better since letting go of the impossible hope of Abigail ever being any more than a friend. The pain, he mused, was only in his insistence to clinging to a dream never to be fulfilled.
Fortunately, there was that new dishwasher at work that he was trying to help out. Kept his mind off the strawberry-blonde he chained himself to for years. Maybe that was really all behind him now.
Friends. He hoped they could still be friends. That his heart would allow it.
They could be friends. He was sure of it.
He grabbed his apron and headed for the door.
Unfortunately, he had to park his Charger a little farther than usual last night. Some other jerk had stolen his spot and he was too tired to track the driver down.
As he approached his car, he noticed something odd about the windows.
They were black. Jet-black. Like they had been painted that way.
Owen couldn't believe the changes on the Lessie Mae since the last time he'd been on the boat. There was a picture of Abigail, for one. It was the first time he could remember Christina ever having a photograph of anyone. Then there were a few more touches, giving it a homier atmosphere. It looked liked Christina was finally moving in, after all these years.
"I never thought it would happen." He smirked as he joined her out on deck.
"You're getting domesticated." He laughed as he sat down next to her. "This must be serious."
"Well…." She began as a smile crept across her face.
"Well, what? Is that some kind of secret answer?"
"Owen…" Her voice trailed off as her protest fell on deaf ears.
"Hey, I'll buy a box of cereal with a secret decoder ring, if it'll help." He began fiddling with his watch. "Too bad this can't decipher the clues for me."
"I'm in love with her, okay?" She rolled her eyes and refused to look him in the face. "And she loves me, too."
"Did you use the 'L' word?"
"Yes." She kept her voice flat, fighting against the panic created by such an admission. "Do you need a hearing aid?"
"Are you serious? Is she living with you now?"
"Does she live here on the boat with you?" He caught her gaze and waited for an answer.
"No." Christina got up and walked to the railing. "I did learn something last time, you know."
"Hey," he said as he stood next to her. "'I'm proud of you. I know it isn't easy for you to be open for a relationship."
"Well," she grinned. "Somebody has to love that woman. Might as well be me."
"So tell me about it." He smiled warmly at Christina.
"Any fool can see that." He snickered and slapped her on the back.
"Do you want to hear this or not?" She growled, slightly perturbed by all the interruptions.
"Yes." He repositioned himself in his seat and continued. "Please. Do tell."
"Okay." Christina stepped back and took a deep breath. "We get along really well. Kind of like we fit, you know?"
He nodded his head and resisted the urge to comment.
"I'm very comfortable with her. I feel pretty safe with her."
"You feel safe with her?" He regarded her curiously. "Have you two talked?"
"What, is there an echo on this boat?" She knew what he was asking and intentionally dodged the question. "Yes, we talk all the time."
"Really?" He stood next to her and looked at her quizzically. "And she knows all about your past?"
"She knows I'm an alcoholic." Christina looked away, unable to meet his gaze. "That's all that matters."
"There's more to your life than that, Christina." He kept his voice neutral. "And more to what happened to you."
"Hey, want some coffee?" She looked at the empty coffee cups, hoping to stall this portion of the conversation. Owen was like a brother to her, but that never did much for encouraging sensitive chats. And, it seemed to her, that part of staying off the drink was just a series of those emotionally honest chats.
"Yeah. Sounds good." He backed off, allowing her a little space.
As he watched her grab the cups and enter the cabin, he exhaled slowly. This was going to be a long night and it was nowhere near over.
Lita placed her empty spray cans in her closet with the rest of her collection. She had quite an array; every shade she could get her hand on, she purchased, though she was careful to purchase none locally. The last thing she needed was to make a stupid, careless mistake.
She retrieved her sketchpad from underneath her bed. One of the important lessons she learned in prison was that sketching relieved her from the need to act immediately.
Patience was the key.
Unconsciously, she drew Special K's eyes. Special K was the one person in the world who was more deserving of her wrath than Abigail.
And they were such good friends, staying over at each other's residence. All the time.
With a colored pencil, she shaded the eyes that haunted her in her sleep. She enjoyed her artwork almost as much as she craved vengeance.
Almost, not quite.
Two thoughts kept her alive: That Abigail Thanis would pay for the time she spent incarcerated. That Special K, Christina, or whoever she really was, would pay for the death of Timothy Tomlinson.
As she remembered her brother, she snapped the pencil she was holding. Like a movie that never ends, she again saw the scene forever imprinted on her brain.
That evil smile, pale blue eyes and jet-black hair, belonging to the person who destroyed her world; Timmy, her beloved brother, at Special K's feet. Dead. Stolen from her by that bitch that now worked in the kitchen at The Edge.
The intense rage swirled inside her, drowning out all else.
That bitch looks happy. And Timmy is dead.
Lita tucked her art supplies neatly under her bed. She opened the closet and grabbed a can of red spray paint.
She has to pay.
"What happened, hon?" Trish slid Abigail's coffee across the table and looked at her young friend. "She didn't get stupid, did she?"
"Mom." She took the cup of coffee as she defended her girlfriend. "An old friend came to visit."
"Really?" Trish nodded knowingly. "What's her name?" She knew that Christina was no good for Abigail!
"Not her, him. And his name is Owen, the guy who owns The Edge."
"Oh." She took a drag from her cigarette. "I see."
"Owen inspected the store today, then wanted to get together with Christina. Evidently, they're pretty close." Abigail sipped her coffee, careful not to let it burn her tongue. "Anyway, we could use a small break from each other every now and then."
"Trouble in paradise?"
"No, but why tempt the hand of Fate?"
"You're right, hon." Trish relaxed as she doctored her coffee. "Everybody needs some breathing room." She paused for a moment, taking a sip. "Have you talked to Jack lately?"
"Not lately. I think he's avoiding me."
"I'm not surprised, hon."
"What is that supposed to mean?" Abigail sat back, slightly miffed.
"Well, hon," Trish began. "You know, he's had that crush on you forever."
"He knows I'm gay. It isn't like it's a state secret or something." She leaned forward, irritated. "What do I need to do, paint a neon sign on my forehead?"
"Hon," she replied. "I know he knows. What is he supposed to do? Get somehow absolved of his feelings because you don't want him? He feels what he feels; he can't control that. Don't tell me you're can't see it." Trish shook her head as she stared into angry green eyes. "Maybe he should put a neon sign on his head!"
"You act like this is my fault, Trish." She arched her left eyebrow sharply and narrowed her green eyes. "I can't control how he feels and I have certainly been giving him no encouragement."
"What do you call staying with him? You stayed with him when all this Lita mess started again." She took a drag off her cigarette and exhaled. "What was he supposed to do, ignore the fact this girl he's been mooning over forever is staying in his apartment?"
"You weren't here. You guys were gone." Even as she spoke, the words struck her as rationalizations. "That was pretty stupid and uncaring."
"Yes, it was, given how he feels." The older woman leaned across the table. "You need to consider how that boy feels. Have a heart, hon."
"I was scared. And you guys were out of town."
"I know, hon. I hate that. But it doesn't change anything, does it?" She leaned back and continued. "But you need to do what's right now, don't you? Don't be an asshole, hon."
Abigail sat back, absorbing the knowledge. Jack was one of her oldest and dearest friends.
"I know, Mom." Abigail twirled a lock of her strawberry blonde hair between her fingers. "I didn't think about it when I stayed with him." She stood up and paced around the small kitchen. "All I knew that night was that that psycho bitch got out of jail and invaded my home. And he was right there. And convenient. I didn't consider how it might affect him."
"I know, hon."
"So where do I go from here?" She drew in a sharp breath. "I don't know what to say without making this worse."
"Talk to him, Ab. Just be his friend." She walked over to Abigail and placed her hand on the young woman's shoulder. "Seek him out - but be careful, hon. Be his friend, but be mindful of his feelings."
"I never meant to hurt him, you know."
"I know that."
"He's such a good friend, like a brother to me."
"I know, hon. But you can't afford to ignore his feelings. Not if you're going to be his friend."
"I'll talk to him." Abigail felt a wave of relief wash over her. She was so accustomed to the uncomfortable feelings of not dealing with the situation with Jack, she was unaware of how much stress that placed upon her.
"Good, hon. It's the right thing to do."
Andrew waited for Lita at the jetties as he sucked down a beer. He was glad she had no way of knowing his close call at work with Christina. The last thing he needed was to lose that job at The Edge; if he did, it would probably be the last thing he ever did!
As he ran his fingers through his hair, Lita's evil plan crept into his mind. It was okay in the beginning, before he had to directly work with Jack and Abigail. To his amazing disappointment, he discovered they were actually very nice. And nice to him. Far nicer than most folks had ever been. Plotting against them had begun to gnaw away at his conscience, making it hard to face them.
And what was this thing Lita had against Christina? Was she a casualty, because of her friendship with the Thanis woman?
Then there was this whole thing with Jimmy and TopCat. He had hoped to avoid any situation where he might possibly come under scrutiny of the mobster, gang leader, or what ever he was. Andrew shook as he thought about it. He didn't really care what TopCat was; he just wanted to be invisible to him.
Deeper and deeper, he fell into Lita's web. What ever she wanted, he did, like a puppet on a string. And he felt powerless to stop the downward descent his life had taken. If there were any tears left in his soul, any energy that was not consumed in fear, he would probably cry. But his main focus was staying alive, and that meant pleasing Lita.
It was a merry-go-round, a vicious cycle. Andrew felt like a needle stuck in an old vinyl record. He didn't know what he needed most - the alcohol to soothe his battered conscience, or Lita's approval.
All this thinking made his head ache. He reached into his jacket pocket and grabbed a fifth of whiskey. It burned as he swallowed. So intent on forgetting, he didn't notice Lita as she approached.
"Andrew." The disdain in her voice was evident.
"Lita, I was just waiting for you." He fumbled to put the cap back on the bottle.
"So, I see." She snatched the bottle from his hand and drained it. "I thought we talked about this."
He was struck speechless as he watched his only escape flow to the ground. Not my whiskey! That shit's expensive!
"I need you focused." Lita handed him the empty bottle, then gripped his chin in her hand. "Not drowning." She let go of his chin and sat down on the rocks. It would be so easy to rid myself of this idiot, right here and now! But I need him.... for now.
"Now, let's discuss our friends, shall we?" She smiled, completely devoid of warmth.
"Abigail and Jack?"
"No." She took a sharp breath and resisted the urge to snap his neck. "I mean Jimmy and that other one. Have you been to see them yet?"
"Lita," he began nervously, making certain to sit arm's length away. "I've been working. I can't get down there until the end of next week."
She stared into the sky, mulling over his words.
"I'm not off until then." Beads of sweat began to form on his forehead as he struggled for an answer that would please her. "And I get paid then. I could take you, we could maybe go on a date or something."
Lita maintained her silence as he squirmed.
"What do you think about it? Nice dinner, movie…anything you want."
"Andrew," she replied, her voice syrupy sweet. "What I really want is to talk to Jimmy. Would you let me down, knowing how much I rely upon you?" She sighed in frustration. "I thought I could count on you."
"You can, Lita," he replied quickly, in an effort to preserve his life. "I swear. Hey, if I have to ride down there after I get off my first job, I'll do it."
She remained silent and avoided him.
"If it means that much to you, I'll go tonight." He stood up and brushed his jeans off.
"What ever would I do without you, Andrew?" She looked at him, her eyes wide in mock innocence. "You're like my knight in shining armor."
Jack was depressed. Of all the things in his stupid life he could always count on, his car was one of the most reliable. And now, this! Jet-black windows! I must be living totally wrong!
It wasn't like he made a pile of money to take it to the shop for them to fix it.
He muttered to himself as he paced around his car. Thoughts of fixing the windows himself filtered through his mind as he dumped the gas additive in his tank. At least bi-weekly, he liked to use one of those water removers, just to be safe.
Touching the glass, he looked at his copy of the police report. This totally sucks!
"Hey," Abigail's voice trailed off as she approached him. "What in the world happened to your car?"
"Oh, hey, Abby." He said as he stood up to greet her. "Vandals."
"What a mess! Jack, I'm really sorry about this. I know what your car means to you." She walked around the car, touching the windows as she surveyed the damage. "I guess this is what happened to you tonight."
"What are you gonna do?"
"Well, the car's paid for and I've got insurance, so I might as well get it fixed. I'll find a shop that I can take it to or something. And I've got a bike I can ride to get to work." He paused for a moment and stared at her. "What are you doing here?"
"Well," she began, inhaling sharply. "I was just wondering how you've been. I haven't seen too much of you since I went back home."
"I'm fine," he responded sharply. "Thanks."
"Okay." She backed away.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to bite your head off." He waved his hands at his car. "But as you can see, I've had a really bad night."
"I see that." She paused as her courage waxed and waned. "If I'm bothering you or you'd rather be alone…"
"Abby." He interrupted her as he stood next to her and fought to keep the exasperation from his voice. "I've been meaning to talk with you. I've just got a lot going on tonight."
"Jack." She looked him squarely in the eyes. "We're friends. And I can see you've got your hands full. If you would like me to hang around and keep you company, I'll be glad to do it. If not, you won't hurt my feelings by telling me to leave."
"Okay." He motioned up the stairs. "Let's go inside and talk. I don't need to put this off."
She entered his apartment and was slightly amazed. The place was still clean. Not exactly Jack's typical housekeeping. Usually, she had to make room to sit down.
"You want some water or something, Abby?"
"So." He handed her a glass of water and sat down.
"So." She chuckled softly.
"Let me go first." He ran his hand through his hair as he gathered his courage. Better strike while the iron is hot! "I've been staying away from you lately."
"Well," he swallowed. "I know you told me way back when that nothing could ever happen. I didn't know it, but I never seemed to hear you. There was always this crazy hope, hanging out in the back of my mind."
She sat silently and nodded her head, encouraging him to continue.
"I don't mean to drag this out." He rubbed the side of his neck nervously. "I just needed some time apart from all this."
She acknowledged him and remained silent. He obviously needed to say what was on his heart.
"This last go-round with Lita and you staying with me made me realize a few things. I haven't been fair to me or to you."
"What do you mean by that?"
"I've been hiding behind you to avoid getting on with my life. I don't know if you can understand this, but I've stayed so wrapped up in you that I wouldn't take any chances with anyone else. It was the easier way."
Abigail bit back the urge to rush to her own defense.
"That didn't come out right." He struggled for a moment, searching for a better way to express himself. "Since Mike died, it's been like I'm rooted like a tree or something, frozen to where I was then. And you and me, we clung to each other. You were comfortable and familiar to me. I knew, even then, there was no chance of us getting together."
"As long as I held on to my fantasy, I could escape reality."
"Jack," she protested. "I didn't lead you on or deceive you, did I? That was never my intention. I told you I'm gay."
"I know." He shrugged his shoulders as an imaginary weight rolled off. "Don't you see? It was so much easier to be wrapped up in what I could never have with you. It kept me safe."
"I'm so sorry," she whispered softly. "I never meant to hurt you. I shouldn't have stayed here."
"Abigail," he replied, her whole name rolling off his tongue. "I'm glad you did. If you hadn't, I wouldn't have had to face what was going on with me." He paused, holding back the tears. "See, I just stopped living when Mike died. I didn't realize it until you stayed with me."
"If it's too much for us to be friends..." Her voice trailed off as she shook her head.
"Abby, I want very much for us to be friends." He smiled, reassuring her. "I just need to make you part of my world instead of my whole world."
By the time Andrew had finally gotten on the road, he had sobered up.
It was long drive, down to the Tampa area, but at least he wasn't stopping in unannounced. After searching his house and car, he finally located Jimmy's old telephone number and arranged to meet him.
Hell, my life is pretty much in the shitter, so I might as well go whole hog!
He resisted the urge to drink. He had never met this TopCat and wished that he wasn't going to meet him now.
But what Lita wanted, Lita got. It was as simple as that.
He gripped the steering wheel tightly as he looked for the coffee shop where he was supposed to meet Jimmy. Nervous anticipation threatened to drive him insane.
At last, he saw the small restaurant and pulled in. Without thinking, he searched for his small flask of whiskey he kept hidden under the passenger's side of the front seat. Instead of his flask, he found a note from Lita.
He fought to still the panic rising in his chest. Yeah, if she doesn't get me, TopCat will!
A fleeting thought crossed his mind of leaving right now. Just running. But his bottle of courage was missing, so he did the only thing he knew. He got out of the car and met with Jimmy. It didn't take long at all.
It wasn't like a meeting of old friends. It was strictly business, a business that he didn't really want to conduct. Still, he must have put on a good show because Jimmy agreed to take him to see TopCat in the morning. And he could look forward to reentry into the wonderful world of drug running, something he had hoped he'd left behind.
So much for his clean record!
As he paid for his motel room, he noticed that his hands were trembling slightly. Probably just the damn pressure!
A drink would relieve that. A drink always relieved his stress.
"You're avoiding me." Owen glanced at Christina as he drank his coffee.
"We're on a boat." She responded flatly. "There isn't that much room."
"If you're scared, say you're scared." He smirked as stared her down. "Are you scared, Christina?"
"Of course not." She snorted and looked at the Gulf. "It's only words."
"Have you told her the rest of it?"
"You mean, have I told her that I killed a few people along the way of becoming your Kitchen Manager? I think not!"
"What would you like me to say, Owen?" She stood up and gesticulated. "Hi, sweetie, how was your childhood? Did you play with a lot of dolls or play doctor? Oh, you want to know about mine? Oh, mine," she spat sarcastically. "Was just the typical American childhood. Killed a few boys that got in my way, got disowned by my mother, nothing of any consequence."
"Damn it, Christina." He stood up, exasperated. "Why do you do this?"
"Do what?" She gripped the rails of the stern and turned away. "Live with the fact that I'm a murderer?"
"Everyone has a past." Owen placed his hand on Christina's shoulder, relieved when she didn't push it off. "And you've changed. Give yourself a break every now and then."
"Owen, what most people hide in their past is really small." She tightened her grip on the railing and refused to look at her friend. "Like maybe they lied during job interviews or cheated on exams. Hell, some folks might have stolen something. Not me." She paused as the words stuck in her throat. "Me, I got to be different. I killed people. People are dead because I killed them. And you know what else?"
She stared at him, her icy blue eyes shooting right through him.
"I can't even claim self-defense. I did it because I was paid to do it. Their lives bought my drinks."
"Christina. You're not that person anymore." He tried to reassure her, but his words fell on deaf ears.
"I killed people, Owen. How do I tell her that?" She slowed for a moment to catch her breath. "Do you know what the single, most pivoting moment of her life has been so far?"
"Some crazy psycho killed her best friend. In front of her." Christina stared into the midnight sky. "How's that for justice?"
"What do you think she's gonna do when she finds out about me? This isn't a movie, damn it, it's my life!" She calmed herself down and forced herself to speak slow and clearly. "She won't understand it. Hell, I don't understand it."
"How could I do it? Just kill people like I change clothes? And you know she won't be there after I tell her. Not for someone like me."
His heart ached for her as he stood up.
"Don't you think I want to tell her?" She kept her face from him as a silent tear slid down her cheek. "But I don't want it to end. I'm not ready for it to end."
"I'm not lying to her, Owen. I just can't tell her the whole truth."
"Christina," Owen said, stopping dead in his tracks. "You can't afford that."
"Haven't you been listening to me?" The hurt and rage built in her as she focused on her breathing.
"Yes, I have." He replied in a low whisper, knowing his friend was at a breaking point. "I've also seen you drunk. And watched you struggle to get sober."
She turned to face him, her eyes cold as ice.
"If it's giving you a problem," he continued, his voice growing in strength. "It is your problem. Do something about it."
"I am. I'm making a decision not to make a decision."
"Bullshit," he countered. "You're trying to take the easy way out. I love you too much to watch you fall back down that hole."
"What would you do differently? Do you tell everyone you were involved with the guy who put me in the ring, where I killed people and you knew about it? Do you?"
"You know what," he retorted. "I do. Because I never want another relationship built on secrets and lies again. When I start getting close to someone, I don't want a monster in the closet. I'd rather have it out there in the open."
She stared at him as her raw emotions churned and fought the urge to punch him.
"What's worse," Owen asked. "I tell them my sordid past now, or they find out later?"
"How in the hell will Abigail find out what I've done? She doesn't exactly strike me as the type to bet on murderous fights."
"It's been my experience, Christina," he replied in a soothing voice. "The past always catches up. It just takes time to get there."
"It's only my heart, Owen." The angry sarcasm rolled off her tongue. "No need to be concerned on my behalf."
"You do what you need to do to get you where you need to be." His face was soft with raw emotions. She was so much like his sister it hurt sometimes.
"Don't you understand?" The pain in her heart finally engulfed her as her voice began to crack. "This is my chance for happiness. I can't throw it away," she sobbed, turning away from him. "Not yet."
"You won't." As he pulled her into a hug to comfort her, he felt her body stiffen, then relax as long-held sobs emerged from her. "Just do what you need to do."
Abigail felt pretty good about herself. She had taken care of business with Jack and confronted the wave of emotions between them. Maybe she really had grown up!
She drove the car she borrowed from Trish back to her apartment as she listened to the radio. It's all good…things are going so great!
Normally, she would have walked to Jack's from Trish, but with Lita on the loose, Trish was concerned about Abigail's safety and insisted she take the car. Not that Abigail minded. While Abigail enjoyed walking, the ride was nice as well.
Her mind bounced around like a ping pong ball. Jumping from her conversations with Jack and Trish to Christina, she found it hard not to speed. She was giddy with warm feelings.
Pulling up to her apartment, she noticed a light in the window. Determined to not let fear ruin her good mood, she gathered her belongings and strength and made her way up the steps.
The door was slightly open. Like it was last time.
Her heart pounded wildly in her bosom, but she struggled to ignore her fear. She had to reclaim her apartment. She couldn't let Lita win. Again.
With great trepidation, she pushed the door open.
To her surprise, the apartment looked the same as she left it. She let out an unconscious sigh. Perhaps she left the light on and failed to shut the door in her haste to leave.
Tears of relief welled in her eyes but did not fall. The sense of comfort she felt was quickly stripped away by some smell.
Strange. Like paint.
Her mind quickly flashed to Jack's jet-black windows. She sniffed around, trying to locate the stench. Then she saw the bright, red letters.
God, Lita must have a secret desire to be an interior decorator! And what in the hell is that supposed to mean?
Taking the Polaroid from above cabinet next to the refrigerator, she snapped a picture of the latest graffiti on her living room wall.
As she drove to a pay phone to call the police, she wondered what kind of message Lita was issuing. She was talking about breakfast cereal in the graffiti. And what does that have to do with me? Maybe I should buy a box and leave it out for her with a note on it.
She read the graffiti in the photograph again. The feeling that she was missing a vital clue permeated her brain.
Didn't make any sense to her. Is this supposed to mean something, like Lita really likes that cereal? Can't she go to a grocery store like everyone else?
Continued in Part X
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