We buy our way out of jail but we can't buy freedom
We buy a lot of clothes when we don't really need them
Things we buy to cover up what's inside.
“All Falls Down” by Kanye West
Once the chopper beams cleared away and he thought there was little chance of being found, Jensen looked over at Joe as he settled in the train car. “Still going to Miami?”
“Hell yeah. I got family over there. I need a car to do it, though.”
“And I need one to find my baby girl.”
Even though the helicopter beams were gone and there was no wail of sirens nearby, they kept to the shadows of the car. They didn’t climb out of the train car until it stopped in a yard in Long Beach. Once there, they both made for the shadows of another train and ran from the yard onto a nearby busy road. Jensen, for one, had no interest in going back to Terminal Island. The courts would find a reason to send him back, despite his signed release papers, he knew. Blowing up the cop cars with his gas tank wouldn’t have helped his case. And Joe didn’t have anything like papers; he’d go back and probably be sent straight to solitary by the new warden. At least Hennessy wouldn’t be there.
The first parking lot they stumbled across lay outside a rundown shopping center. Most of the cars were junkers, nothing the cops would stop on suspicion of theft, but things that wouldn’t get far without some attention, let alone make it to Miami or Pittsburgh. Without a word, the two of them split.
When they met back up at the other end of the lot, Jensen had twenty-three dollars and eighteen cents in his pocket and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. He gestured to the sign listing shops in the center. “I’m going to see if the Internet café is open.”
Joe had found a hoodie, which he wore hiding his face. “For what? To see if we’re on the news?”
“No, to get an email address.”
Joe looked like he was considering it. “Okay, Igor. Let’s see if they’re open.”
“How much do you have?” he asked as they walked.
Jensen nodded silently.
When they got into the café, they each paid three dollars for half an hour on a computer. Jensen avoided news sites; he didn’t much want to know how wanted they were. Instead, he went to Hotmail and signed up as email@example.com; all he had to do was enter fake initials—F. M.—and a false location. Then he logged out of the site and the session, rose, and headed for the door. Joe wasn’t far behind.
“What’s yours?” Joe asked.
“Frankensteinsmask at Hotmail. Yours?”
Joe grunted. “You looking to get caught, Igor? That’s a giveaway.”
“Only if they’re checking every newly-created email address on every host.”
“Lickmydick at Yahoo.”
Jensen nearly smiled. “Easy to remember.”
Joe didn’t say anything, just walked back toward the lot. Jensen went in the other direction, toward the garage, where he found a decent enough Accord, probably four years old, scraped and dented but with a healthy-sounding engine when he wired it. It would do.
First goal: getting to the foster agency back home. He had a checkered past, and Suzy had known it. She’d kept him straight. But now, she wasn’t here to do that, and besides, she’d want him to get Piper back, have their daughter to raise himself.
So he drove, down 405 to 73 up to San Bernadino, then onto 15. In Barstow, he stopped at a gas station to get maps of Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and the country, plus a pair of two-dollar gloves, and spent some of his meager cash on a sandwich and coffee to see him through to Richfield. He should be able to get a Colorado map there. Back in the car, he found a pen in the glovebox. After scribbling a bit on a corner of the map to get it going, he drew his basic route back to Pennsylvania, then switched back to the state maps to be more specific. He’d need to avoid big cities like Vegas, which would extend the trip a bit, but he could do it. Just a matter of following the maps and sleeping in the car in deserted areas.
Before leaving again, he strolled to a strip mall nearby, staying casual and relaxed, and jimmied open seven car doors. Four had cash in the gloveboxes, under the visors, in the consoles, or visible in cupholders; one had a purse, which held two hundred thirty-six dollars, and another had a disposable cell phone, which he took to use as an alarm. Between the lot of them, he came away with nearly four hundred dollars. Given the cost of gas at the station where he’d stopped, that meant almost a hundred gallons of gas if he didn’t eat.
That night and the next morning took him through the Mojave Desert, east through Nevada and a corner of Arizona, and into Utah. It being December, snow dusted the ground, making some of the roads slick to the Accord’s worn tires. Still, he made it nearly to Fruita, Colorado, that night, where he pulled off onto a dirt road to sleep for a few hours.
When he woke four hours later to the burner’s alarm, he headed straight to Fruita to find himself more cash and a Nebraska map. Bypassing Grand Junction led to a small town called Palisade, where he swapped the California plates on the Accord for a set of Colorado ones; the old ones went into a Dumpster on the other end of the small, dying town. He thought it kinder than stealing a car in such a place.
He would feel worse about all this if he hadn’t been falsely imprisoned for murdering his wife. As it stood, he considered it justice.
The eleven hours on the road the day before meant he probably had twenty-five or a little more to go, which he might have powered through if he had plates that matched the car and didn’t mind risking a run-in with highway patrols. Instead, he stopped thirteen hours later in Newton, an improvement over Palisade, just past Des Moines. There, he ditched the Accord, dumped its mismatched plates well away from it, and took a Civic; he swapped the plates with another of the same color.
And the next day, he reached Pittsburgh.
He dumped the car in Hays Woods after thoroughly wiping it down and relied on walking to get through the city. By the time he reached a fleabag motel he remembered a friend staying in when his wife kicked him out, he’d picked up another two hundred dollars that had been left in cars, plus a ten he found on the sidewalk. That brought him to just over five hundred, enough for a couple of weeks in the motel and two cheap meals a day. Since he couldn’t very well case the social services building in daylight, he allowed himself to sleep for five hours in the twenty-dollar room.
That night, he identified the alarm at the county DHS building, clipped it, broke a window, and went to a terminal to search for Piper Ames. Someone hadn’t logged out that evening; it made it easy to find out where her file was kept, who her social worker was, and he rummaged through the cabinet to find her paper file.
Foster parents: John and Julie Espenson, 4983 Elmhurst, Pittsburgh.
He had to be patient now, bide his time. He’d let them get comfortable, not suspect he’d still come for his daughter, and then take her and slip away. If he went for her now, they would be on their guard, probably have a patrol driving by every half hour. He would do that, anyway, if he thought someone would be coming after his baby girl.
That meant lying low, which he hated, and finding some way to make money under the table, which could at least be better, more reliable, than the mill. Depending on what it was, of course.
Date: December 31, 2013
Subject: (no subject)
I’m waiting to take care of the baby thing. I think I’ll go to Mexico after that.
He sold the Honda to a junkyard, got seven hundred dollars for it. That covered the room in the fleabag motel and a third cheap meal a day, right up until Edie approached him while he walked from the 7-11 back to the motel one evening.
“Hey man, you need a job?” she called from behind him.
Jensen turned and studied her. “As long as it’s not drugs or kids.”
“You a cop?”
He stared. “Do I look like a cop?”
“Naw. I just need muscle. Bookie, you know? And my last enforcer got busted a week ago, I’m losing money every day these guys don’t pay up. Eight percent of everything you bring in, hundred dollars every week.”
“Ten percent and two hundred.”
“Deal.” She stuck out her hand, and he shook. “Where are you living?”
He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. “The Waldorf.”
She snorted, her face twisting into a picture of disgust. “I got a spare room. Besides, keeps me safe if someone gets the bright idea to steal my business.”
“How do you know I won’t hurt you?”
“One thing, you just asked that. Another, you don’t look it. You’re hard, but not that way. C’mon, get your junk.”
When he’d gotten his meager belongings—a garbage bag with two shirts, one pair of jeans, a pack of socks, another of shorts, and a crumpled photocopy of the foster family’s information—she led him down the street.
“That your first name?”
“Does it matter?”
Edie shrugged. “Makes no difference to me. I got a decent place. My job pays good.”
Jensen nodded and followed her the four blocks to an enclosed building with no buzzer or outside lock. The elevator worked, if slow and lurching, and Jensen made a note to just take the stairs. Edie lived on the eighth floor in a two-bedroom with a fresh coat of paint, new carpet in almost every room, hardwood floor in the kitchen, tile in the bathroom and laundry nook, and furniture that looked like just the couch cost more than all the used furniture Suzy had bought put together.
“Your room’s over there. It’s got a full bed, should be big enough for you. Linen closet’s there.” Edie studied him. “I’ll give you your base pay for the week early. Buy some clothes.”
“I could buy food.”
“Naw, I got that. Kitchen’s free to you. Just don’t touch the almond milk or coconut ice cream. I’ll buy some’ve your own dairy stuff if you want. C’mon, put your crap away and go eat. Look like you’ve missed good food. That makes a crappy enforcer.”
“I’ll be good.” Jensen walked into the spare room, which had the promised bed, plus a real wood nightstand and dresser and a closet that held only a row of hangers. An alarm clock sat on the dresser, a lamp on the nightstand. He put away his clothes, shucked his gloves, coat, and hat and stowed those, and returned to the living room.
Edie’s eyes followed him. “That’s your arms when you’ve missed food, I think I’m good.” She caught up to him when he pulled open the refrigerator and pressed bills into his hand. “Your two. Tomorrow, I’ll give you the lista miscreants.”
Jensen nodded and pulled out a container of fried chicken. “Mind if I check email every few days?”
“I’ll set you a login.”
Date: January 4, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Got a job. Pays all right, good enough to get me safe to Mexico and find a place to stay. I’ll be a mechanic down there. Miami suiting you?
Edie kept him busy, which meant some weeks he made over a grand just from collecting. She also kept him in food, and after the first couple of weeks, she started tossing magazines at him, Maxim and Car and Driver at first, then more varied, but still about cars and women.
Date: January 14, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
You’re a hard man to find. I had to hunt down Joe to get a clue. That wasn’t hard—”Hey, you know a guy with tally mark scars on his face?” “Oh yeah, he’s down in Overtown.”—and sure enough, found him in Overtown. How’s the kid thing?
Over the next couple of days, Jensen considered Case’s email while he worked. Easy job, really; most of the time, he had to show up in a wifebeater and worn jeans, muscles visible, and growl out, “Edie’s money. Pay up.” Sometimes they tried for payment plans, which was when he hauled them to Edie for any arrangement she wanted to make, and a couple of times they took swings at him, which ended with them on the floor—even the one a couple of inches taller and with about thirty pounds on him—their wallets ransacked, their drawers or jewelry boxes searched and anything worth enough to make up the difference collected.
Date: January 18, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
I’m working on it. Have a job with an accountant now. It pays well enough. There a reason you were hunting me?
A few times, Jensen’s job led him near Elmhurst. Those times, after collecting, he’d pull down a ski cap and shrug on a hoodie or his coat and jog down the street, eyes on 4983 as long as no one was nearby. One-story, so no stairs to creep up. Alarm sticker in the front window; he’d have to be careful of that. No bars on the windows, no other obvious security barriers. Not even a dog. When he made his move, it would be easy, he felt sure.
Date: January 24, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Just checking up on you. You’re a good guy. I don’t want you to end up in shit. What’s the plan after the kid thing? Going on a trip? Maybe I’ll come see you. Does your accountant know of any good gambling?
He’d make his move on February 14, Jensen decided. The foster parents would probably be out, or at least absorbed in each other, and Piper would be with a minder or asleep in her crib. He assumed, anyway. In the pictures, the bastard had looked the type to treat his wife. They’d seemed as close as he and Suzy had been.
Date: January 25, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Might leave Miami. Too much heat. Mexico, maybe.
Jensen smiled grimly to himself when he read Joe’s email. Mexico indeed. They could hook up there, fight like all hell if they worked together. He snorted. That made a real picture.
He kept working, kept roughing people up to get Edie’s money, and socked away his share. He had six thousand saved and another few hundred coming to him by the evening of Valentine’s Day, which Jensen declared for himself time off the enforcer job and time on his main, real, important job. He told Edie that morning that he had to quit, needed to get out of town, and she grumbled but paid him off.
Dark jeans. Dark, long-sleeved shirt. Gloves. Ski mask stuffed in his pocket. Ski hat pulled down low over his face. Set of lockpicks in his pocket. Cash stuffed down his boots.
The Espensons’ sedan wasn’t in the driveway, he saw as he jogged past; the minivan was. A compact was at the curb, an old Toyota Echo. The minder, he surmised.
The sun had already set when he jogged back up the block, and the streetlights didn’t quite shine into the Espensons’ driveway. Jensen veered up the drive, turning to get to the gate, and jumped it easily. He just hoped the back door had a proper lock, not a sliding door; sliders were harder to jimmy. As he slipped around the house, he looked in the windows; in the back bedroom, a pink nightlight shone, Piper slumbering in her crib.
Luck, the thing that had evaded him all those years until that final race on Terminal Island, was with him: the back door was a hinged wooden door with a proper set of locks, knob and deadbolt, and his lips pulled back in a parody of a grin.
Lockpicking wasn’t always quiet, but he made as little noise as possible; the minder didn’t come back, didn’t turn on the back light, and he hoped that she hadn’t called the police. Then he was in, slipping through the kitchen into a hall on silent feet; the minder, he could see in the living room, was watching some show.
Piper’s bedroom was an easy find, and he lifted her to his hip, pressing her face into his shoulder in case she cried. Then it was out the back door and opening the gate, and out he went.
The only thing left to do was hotwire the Espensons’ minivan, already equipped with a car seat.
The next time he stopped, he was across the Pennsylvania border, carrying his fussy daughter into a grocery store to buy her diapers, baby food, and formula. They slept in a cheap motel that took cash, and the next day, Jensen took her to buy a few changes of clothes for each of them in a department store and then boosted another car to get them out of there.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: February 16, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
I’ve taken care of the kid thing. Taking a road trip now.
He drove from Pittsburgh to Amarillo in a day, powering through the twenty hours until the road lines started to blur. On the way, he stopped only to refuel and feed or change Piper; she took the cool formula all right after fussing the first time. She slept most of the way, which he thanked his ongoing luck for; he could have handled her crying, but he would have felt terrible about not stopping to care for her.
After a night of ten hours’ sleep, he followed the map to San Luis, Arizona, and crossed the border into Mexico. They didn’t ask for a passport in that direction, probably figuring no one would leave the States to illegally live in Mexico, and, once past, he bought a map. A small town would be ideal, somewhere no one would look—not that he thought they’d look in Mexico—and found an ideal-looking one, Santa Rosalía. Another eleven hours later, a full day’s drive after Amarillo, he found a motel there; once Piper was ready to sleep again, she let him get nine hours, enough to get him recharged and ready to flat-hunt.
Date: December 31, 2012
Subject: (no subject)
Got a place. Nothing big, but I’m getting set.
Once he found a shit little place to rent in Santa Rosalía, he started asking around for a forger. It didn’t help that he only had sparse Spanish, but he found a smart, poor kid, about twelve, to translate for him and paid her ten dollars American for the day’s work, then another five to keep her mouth shut about what the Englishman with the baby wanted. The girl, Carmela, had the street smarts to hunt down a forger, who showed him documents she’d done before. Good enough for him; he paid five hundred dollars American to become Piper Anders and Jepson Anders in the computerized systems and on paper. She promised the documents, all of them, would be done in three days, and he handed over half the cash.
Now to find a job.
Date: February 18, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Where’d you stop?
Where’d you stop. That felt like a loaded question. Joe wouldn’t rat on him, Jensen felt sure, and anyway he had a new identity, an Englishman with his daughter who was registering with the government as a legal resident. But why Joe might want to know, Jensen didn’t know, beyond that Joe had mentioned Miami being too hot.
Date: February 23, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Santa Rosalia, Mexico.
Jepson Anders had excellent credit; the forger had done a good job fitting him into society. Thanks to Anders’ credit, Jensen could put in a bid on a for-sale mechanic shop plus junkyard. He’d be paying for it for eons, especially if it didn’t turn the profit he hoped for, but it would do. When the owner agreed, they made private arrangements for monthly payments instead of going through a bank; the owner, an old man, seemed to think he could do better that way.
They still lived in the crackerbox of a studio. Jensen couldn’t afford a bigger apartment and the payments on the shop together, but Piper didn’t know the difference, as long as she had a floor to roll over and start scooting on and as long as she got her bottles on time and diapers changed right off. She seemed to like sleeping in his bed, good because they didn’t have the room for a crib once he’d crammed in a dresser and made room for a TV and small shelf where he could stock books and DVDs for her. His cheap laptop, he kept in one of the dresser drawers, and his Internet connection stayed dialup to keep it affordable.
Every day, when he went to work, he dressed Piper for the weather and carted her in her car seat. He had a Pack-n-Play in the shop for her; when the weather was all right, no chill rolling in, he’d set it up and let her play in there while he worked on the cars people brought him and, when no one brought them, while he examined the more promising cars from the junkyard. When there was a chill, he put her seat in the car he was repairing and left one door open with a blanket hanging over the gap to keep out the cold. If she cried, he’d drop a wrench where he stood and go to her. It didn’t take long before he was dressing her in a set of outfits that already had greasy, oily handprints on them, saving the fresher ones for when they were seeing people, going to her doctor, treating themselves to a dinner out.
Date: March 5, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Got a job that’s taking me out of Miami. Charger’s back seat and trunk are covered. Got a sweet new picture and a new face to go with it.
Jensen could only imagine what that meant. Joe could do anything for a job to take him out of Miami; he thought probably drug-running, maybe arms, but that might be too much of a risk for Joe’s tastes right now. If it paid, Jensen figured, and got Joe out of the heat, it would be enough for him.
He wondered if it meant he’d end up in Mexico, though.
Date: March 9, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Where in Santa Rosalía are you?
So Jensen would have company. It might be good; while he was learning Spanish from Carmela, paying her a few dollars a session, it might be all right to have someone who could speak English. Joe could help out in the yard, since he knew his way around an engine too.
He’d have to get his own flat, though, and Jensen wouldn’t be giving out his address.
Date: March 10, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Come to the junkyard outside town during the day.
While Piper played in her Pack-n-Play with a stackable ring toy and wooden blocks, Jensen had his hands deep in the engine of an old Cadillac. The transmission needed to be replaced, but, before that, he wanted to see if it should just be junked or could be resold after enough work. He should have the parts between junkers spread throughout the yard if it could be fixed.
“You think that thing can be sold, Igor?”
Jensen didn’t turn around. “That’s what I’m trying to find out.”
Joe stepped up beside him. “You actually make money off this place?”
“Enough to eat.” Jensen glanced at him. Joe’s face was bruised; the area around his eye looked dark and puffy, his nose swollen, and he had a split lip. “Done with that job?”
“A few days ago. I need to stay out of Miami. Thought I’d come see what you’re doing.”
“If you want a job, we’ll jack this up and you can take a look underneath.”
“How much you paying?”
“I’ll buy you a new identity to start. Pay depends on how good you are.”
That seemed to satisfy Joe; he crossed the garage toward the jacks, sitting by the far wall. Near Piper, he stopped and looked down at her. “Pretty little girl you have.”
Piper looked up and babbled at him.
“How old is she?”
“Almost a year.”
Joe nodded and continued to the jacks. He hauled back a pair. “Got something to roll under here?”
“Dolly over there.” Jensen pointed.
“Cheapass, man.” But Joe got it and went about getting himself under the car. “Rust,” he said, voice muffled, “but the muffler and catalytic converter look good. Brake lines need to be replaced. Exhaust is dented but okay.”
Jensen nodded to himself. “We’ll put it over the pit.” He pulled out his hands and wiped them on a rag he had draped over the hood. “New spark plugs and transmission, too.”
Joe rolled out and stood. “You have to buy that new?” he asked skeptically.
“There are more of these in the yard. We’ll salvage one.”
“We,” Joe repeated, shaking his head. “Wouldn’t have thought it, Igor.”
“How’s your Spanish?” Jensen asked instead of addressing that.
“I’m from Miami. I know my way around.”
“We’ll find Carmela to help out.” Jensen rolled his neck and dropped the hood. “She should be able to help tonight.”
“Carmela your girlfriend?”
Joe smirked. “Same question.”
Jensen glowered at him and growled, “She’s my translator.”
“Dada,” Piper called.
“Hungry, baby girl?” Jensen asked her.
She nodded exaggeratedly, pulling herself to stand.
“I could eat,” Joe put in.
“There’s a store in town.”
Joe snorted. “Some employer.” But he walked back out of the garage, shaking his head.
Jensen took Piper into the office and fed her first, pureed beef and peas followed by a bottle, which she could hold herself while he ate his sandwich and downed a bottle of water. “You can help me find another car,” he said to her after he finished.
She grinned around her bottle and pulled it away, smacking her lips. She babbled in what he assumed was agreement, and he set her on the floor, taking her hand when he stood.
“You’re a good helper,” he told her, and she was. Even if all she did was keep him company, it was better than anyone else could do.
Joe showed back up almost two hours later, wearing rattier clothes than before. Jensen had hunted up a transmission and noted where two other cars of the same model sat in the yard; he hadn’t looked under to see the brake lines or piping because of Piper.
“What’s there to do?” Joe asked.
“Getting the transmission. I know where one is.”
So the two of them took Piper and sat her in the Cadillac while they took out the transmission; then Joe checked under the cars and announced that neither had parts that would work. Jensen would have to order them, which shouldn’t cost much compared to what he could get for the car if it ran.
Mostly, they worked in quiet. Jensen didn’t have anything to say to Joe; he didn’t want to know about Miami or about what had brought him to Mexico, and Joe seemed just as uninterested in what had gone on with him.
At the end of the workday, nearing Piper’s dinnertime, Jensen closed up the car and wiped his hands nearly clean. “Let’s deal with getting you legal.”
Joe grunted in agreement. “I’ll follow you.”
“You could trade me that car for one registered in Mexico and cash.”
Joe gave him a look. “Got three thousand?”
“Keep it,” Jensen said, “but if you get pulled over, it’s on you.”
“I can take care of myself, Igor. Where’s this Carmela?”
“Follow me.” Jensen went about the process of locking up for the day and putting away Piper’s things. He settled her in the car, where she fussed at him but didn’t cry about being strapped in. She could watch some Sesame Street when they got home while she played, give her entertainment while he put dinner together and as a reward—not that she’d know it was—for being good all day.
They found Carmela where Jensen thought she’d be, on a street corner with some other kids her age. She looked up when he called to her, lifting her hand.
“I have a job for you.”
She nodded and separated from her friends, and they walked together toward Joe. “Who’s this?”
“Joe. He needs the forger.”
“Not a cop?” she asked suspiciously.
“No, he’s all right.”
She nodded. “Same price.”
Jensen didn’t bother arguing, just took out his wallet and, this time, paid her the equivalent in pesos to avoid the exchange rates.
She led them down a maze of streets into a poor part of town, up the stairs of a tenement, and to the same door as before. When Maria opened the door, Carmela spoke in rapid Spanish.
“Sí, sí,” Maria said, nodding, and gestured them inside.
Jensen sat on the floor with Piper, talking quietly with her, while Carmela translated the transaction; Joe didn’t seem to have adequate Spanish to handle getting an identity forged. When she said, “Three hundred American,” Jensen stood and took out his wallet. He’d have to withdraw cash from the business account ahead of when he generally paid himself, but if it kept Joe working for him, it would be worth it.
“Five days,” Carmela said at the end.
“It took three for me,” Jensen said.
“She has more work. Five days or you don’t get it.”
“You drive a hard bargain.”
Carmela grinned. “We make money.”
“Gracias,” Joe said. “Muchas gracias.”
Maria nodded and shook his hand firmly, and then they left.
“Will you bring me back here when she’s done?” Joe asked Carmela.
“You pay, I will.”
Carmela grinned. “Deal.”
She peeled off as soon as they got back to her corner, heading for the small store down the street; Jensen figured she’d spend some of the cash on a Coke, like usual, and then probably hoard the rest. He didn’t know for sure that she hoarded, but he did know that she needed to pay school fees and that her parents didn’t have much money for it.
“I need a place to crash.”
“There’s a motel down that street.”
“You have an apartment.”
“Yeah, a little flat,” Jensen said warily.
“I’ll take the couch.”
“Even if I had one, you damn well wouldn’t.”
“You’re not paying me, you’re housing and feeding me.”
“Get another job.”
“You need the help, Igor.”
That he did; he could turn around cars much faster with another mechanic. “You stay in the living room part. You leave Piper alone. And you cook.”
Even with the agreement, Jensen slipped a knife under his pillow before bedding down that night.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: March 17, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Enjoying Mexico? I got a job drag-racing for a crew in St. Louis.
Jensen only half-slept for a week, alert to every sound in the flat. Whenever Joe got up to use the bathroom or get something from the kitchen, he jerked awake, one hand slipping under his pillow as he reached for his daughter with the other. Every time, Joe didn’t come near the area designated as the bedroom. Half-sleeping on top of a physical job wasn’t sustainable, evidently; he fell into a deep sleep eight nights after Joe turned up and, when he woke, Joe wasn’t there.
Neither was Piper.
Jensen didn’t stop to lock his door, just raced out of the flat. Both cars were still in the lot, so Joe probably couldn’t have gotten far. He might have taken a car from the yard, though, and Jensen kept up his pace to run there.
There, he found Joe working on a car that had been dropped off the day before and Piper in her Pack-n-Play, chewing on a stuffed animal.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he erupted at Joe before he got to him.
“She was fussing, Igor. Calm down. You were asleep. She’s changed and fed, she’s happy. I left a note.”
“Did you think I’d look for a note when my daughter was gone?” Jensen growled.
Joe paused, didn’t answer.
“I thought you took her.”
“If we’re both gone again, we’ll be here. She’s fine. She likes me.” That part, Joe sounded surprised by.
“She likes everyone. You’re not special. I told you to leave her alone.”
“What made you think I’d listen?”
Jensen swung at him, his fist connecting hard with Joe’s cheekbone. Joe dropped the wrench and hit him back; pain bloomed by his left eye. He would have hit Joe again, but Piper wailed, the sound cutting through the air, and both of them stopped.
Jensen turned away, his shoulders set, and walked over to soothe Piper.
“I don’t want a kid, but I’m not going to let her be upset,” Joe said. “She’s a good baby.”
“If you ever hurt her, I will kill you,” Jensen said flatly. He lifted Piper and murmured to her, rocking her against his chest. Her cries subsided, and he kissed her forehead. “It’s all right, baby girl.”
Date: March 21, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
He took the baby without telling me. I could have killed him, but she was all right. Only reason I didn’t. Are you still planning a stop down here, or do you like St. Louis too much?
It took a month before Jensen stopped sleeping with the knife under his pillow. Joe took Piper twice more, both times leaving a note on Jensen’s pillow instead of wherever the hell he’d left it the time before, and one of the times, Jensen caught him playing with her. She burbled at him and squealed in happiness, and that let Jensen ease into the idea of someone helping with her. He might not like it much, but he felt better about it. And he did believe Joe wouldn’t take her for good; he would have that first time if he planned to.
A month and a half after Joe showed up, he came back to the flat with a bag of DVDs. After Jensen had put Piper to bed, Joe said, “I’m going to watch porn. Probably not your type.”
Jensen mentally translated that as ‘gay’. He had to think about it; instead of answering, he scrubbed a pot hard. It had been years since he’d watched gay porn or been with a guy, not since about two years before Suzy. He hadn’t even made time for straight porn beyond magazines since he’d gotten out.
At last, he said, “I’ll watch with you,” instead of asking if he could. He paid for the flat; he could do whatever he wanted in it.
Joe didn’t answer for a long moment. “That your kind of thing?” he asked after a few minutes, during which Jensen heard the thud of a bottle and the clink of glass.
“Sometimes,” Jensen said, keeping his voice neutral.
And like that, they knew, and neither of them commented again.
After he finished the dishes, he took the bottle of tequila and poured himself a shot, tossing it back. “We’ll keep it quiet.”
“Not for Piper’s ears,” Joe agreed.
They took the bottle into the living room with them and sat on the floor a foot or so apart once Joe had put in a DVD. The menu featured two dark-skinned men leaning into each other, the one in front wearing tight boxer briefs that did nothing to hide his hardon.
For porn, it was fairly vanilla and typical; kissing, touching, rubbing each other in a way that gave Jensen the impression that they were a couple, then a blowjob for the guy who turned out to bottom, and hard, furious fucking. Typical or not, Jensen felt heat pool in his groin, and when the blowjob began, he started to get hard.
He poured himself a shot, then another, enough to give himself a buzz. Joe took the bottle whenever Jensen wasn’t pouring, matching shot for shot, and Jensen began to relax.
By the second DVD, Jensen didn’t much care what Joe thought; he settled his hand on his dick and rubbed through his jeans. A glance over showed Joe doing the same thing. This time, when the fucking started, Jensen unzipped his pants and freed his hardon so he could stroke properly. The light slap of skin on skin from beside him told him Joe was also wanking.
Jensen felt reckless, relaxed thanks to the tequila and daring now that they were both jerking off to the same thing. It had been nearly a year since he’d touched someone else. He shifted closer, and Joe didn’t say anything or push him away. He reached across the small gap and took Joe’s dick in his hand. Joe stilled but didn’t push him away. It took three strokes of Joe’s dick before Joe settled his hand on Jensen’s, and without a word, they jerked each other off. No kissing, no other touching, just hands on each other’s dicks. Jensen hissed a bitten-off cursed first when he came first, his hand stilling on Joe’s dick as he spurted, until his muscles unclenched and he could finish Joe off.
After they’d finished, Joe stood, stripping off his dirtied shirt as he walked toward the bathroom. Jensen let himself admire the play of muscles in Joe’s back. Joe didn’t close the door when he washed up, which let Jensen watch his arms and side, bare glimpses of his stomach, and he shifted where he sat. He had the indefinable feeling that something had shifted between them, but he didn’t say anything, and neither did Joe when he came back. Jensen just stood and imitated Joe’s actions in cleaning up; he felt Joe’s eyes on him the whole time.
After, Jensen changed to his night shorts without bothering to go into the bathroom. He watched Joe switch off the TV and change into a clean pair of boxers.
Neither of them mentioned it the next day, but when they touched accidentally while they worked, neither of them pulled away.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: April 2, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Moving on from St. Louis. Crew shorted me, so I took what I earned and left. I’m thinking Seattle next.
The first time Joe kissed Jensen, they were both near drunk, eight beer bottles empty on the floor between them while they watched a movie—not even porn. They sat comfortably next to each other, arms just touching, and, right after an explosion, Joe turned and pressed his mouth hard to Jensen’s.
It took Jensen a second to process that Joe was kissing him, strangely more intimate than the jerking each other off they’d done before, and then he opened his mouth to kiss him back. It bruised his lips, and when he kissed Joe again, they clashed hard enough that Jensen tasted blood. It felt like an invitation to touch; he groped Joe’s dick through his jeans before sliding his hand up under Joe’s shirt and across his stomach, those muscles he’d hungered to touch for weeks, since they’d both stopped caring about changing in front of each other or closing the bathroom door when they showered. Joe gripped his thigh, other hand on his arm, then slid his hand to the back of Jensen’s neck and squeezed, pulling his head close to kiss him again. Neither of them were cautious or gentle; they bit, thrust their tongues hard, sucked at each other’s lower lips, clashed their teeth. When they broke apart, Jensen yanked off his shirt and tugged at Joe’s, and, once Joe had his shirt off, his hand dove for the zipper of Jensen’s jeans.
They landed on the floor, wrestling to be on top, yanked each other’s jeans and boxers down to mid-thigh, and thrust together like that, their pricks rubbing together and across each other’s thighs and stomachs. Joe bit down on Jensen’s neck, hard enough that it felt like it would leave a mark, and sucked up a hickey on his shoulder. Jensen dug his short nails into Joe’s arms and rolled his hips all the harder before levering up to flip them so he was on top. Joe didn’t fight hard against it, just bucked against him once and then thrust instead, and they stayed like that, kissing bruise-hard and scratching and sucking marks onto each other. Once Jensen came second, they stilled together and kissed once more; then Jensen rolled off and stood, shoving his jeans off the rest of the way and walking toward the bathroom. He felt more than heard Joe following; once he’d stepped into the shower, Joe crowded after him. It wasn’t really built for two people, let alone two men their sizes, but they made it work, pressing past each other to trade places and wash clean.
They didn’t talk about that, either.
Date: April 10, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Enjoying Seattle? There’s a space for another mechanic down here if you get tired of rain.
It happened when Jensen was elbow-deep in an engine and Piper needed her lunch.
Joe had gotten used enough to taking care of her that he was comfortable feeding her, changing her, even bathing her the time Jensen fucked his wrist, and he lifted Piper from her Pack-n-Play. “Hungry?” he asked her.
Jensen didn’t see Piper do it, since he’d turned his attention back to the car, but he definitely heard her blow a raspberry and say, “Dada!”
Joe didn’t say anything. Jensen stuck his head around the hood of the car. Finally, Joe said, “No, Joe.”
“Dada,” Piper countered. She rested her head on his shoulder and said, “Hung’y, Dada.”
“He’s Joe, baby.”
Piper set her tiny jaw and looked so much like Suzy that Jensen couldn’t argue when she said again, “Dada.”
Joe shrugged at Jensen helplessly, and Jensen just shook his head. As Joe took her into the office, Jensen could hear him arguing with her, as much as anyone could argue with a thirteen-month-old. She didn’t start to cry, so Jensen let it go. They’d get her to call him Joe as she got older as long as, like he hoped, this was just a phase.
Date: April 16, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Seattle’s wet, but it’s not bad. I’m going to stick up here for awhile. If you really want me, I might come.
The days the garage had seven or eight, sometimes more, cars waiting for repairs were Jensen’s favorites. They’d each handle one until they needed help, maybe changing a transmission. On the rare occasion that they had one waiting for an engine rebuild, they’d park the car off to the side of the garage and wait for the part to come in; when it did, they’d work together past closing to get it done by the next day.
On one of those days, Joe said, “Case wants you.”
Jensen didn’t stop with his oil change. “She’s not here.”
“She will be.”
They fell into silence. Jensen could read the implications and unspoken questions, but he couldn’t well address them; they didn’t talk about fucking, about any of it. Besides, he didn’t know his answer. He still had to figure out exactly what was going on, where it fit into his life and what, if anything, Joe meant. Not something he exactly focused on, not when he had the garage and Piper.
“She’s gorgeous,” Jensen said at last.
Joe didn’t answer.
Jensen didn’t quite know where to go from there; finally, he settled on, “Not my type right now.”
When they broke for lunch, Joe crowded him against the desk in the office, kissing him hard until Piper demanded, “Hung’y!”
Date: April 21, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
Have a job up there?
Between Joe’s income—what he paid Joe out of the garage’s profits, which Jensen knew Joe didn’t spend a hell of a lot of—and what Jensen paid himself out of the business’s earnings after its expenses, Jensen felt sure they could finally move to a one-bedroom. They could have a couch for Joe, maybe even a foldout.
“We should move,” he said one evening while he sat with Piper, helping her do a pegged puzzle, while Joe put together dinner. “Get a bigger place.”
“Be nice to get off the fucking floor,” Joe agreed. So he didn’t want to move out. He could afford to now; Jensen paid him enough.
“There are a few places in the building.”
“We can get out of this roach motel.”
Fair enough. The number of traps and amount of poison they’d put well out of reach of Piper was ridiculous. “I’ll look.”
He did, in the evenings when they closed shop and a few times during their lunch breaks, when he left Piper with Joe. He gave up on the lunch ones quickly; landlords mostly didn’t speak English, and Carmela had school. Evenings were much easier with Carmela there to help. When they found a building that seemed roach-free and had a unit with a big enough bedroom for Piper to have a crib instead of sleeping in the bed, with a living room wide enough for a foldout couch for Joe, he thought it would work. Carmela cut Jensen off when he tried to negotiate rent and had a two-minute conversation he couldn’t interpret. Finally, she turned to him and quoted a price six hundred pesos less than the landlord originally said, but added, “And you maintain his car.”
He could do that. “As long as he pays for expensive parts.”
Carmela passed that on, and the landlord nodded in agreement.
She translated the contract, halting before a few words like she was searching for a meaning, but got through it for him. Jensen nodded and signed as Jepson Anders, then had Carmela pass on that he had a flatmate who would also have to sign in an hour. The landlord agreed, and an hour later, Jensen brought Piper and Joe to the building so Joe could sign and be responsible for his share of the rent. That made for an improvement over the other flat’s rent.
They moved in the next week; Jensen bought a crib, and Joe paid for the couch. Deliberately, Jensen picked a wheeled crib, in case. He assembled it in the bedroom, close enough to the bed that Piper would see him if she woke up first. She cried the first couple of nights he put her down into it, but adjusted by the third, crashing out without having to be soothed to near sleep first.
And the fifth night, he got her to sleep and, three hours later, pushed the crib into the living room so he could drag Joe in by the belt loops on his jeans and they could thrust together on the bed. Joe didn’t get up after, and Jensen didn’t bother cleaning up; the bed felt too good, compared to the floor where they usually fucked, and he let himself relax with Joe there in the bed beside him and Piper, for the first time since he’d gotten her back, not sleeping in the same room as him.
When he woke the next morning, he had a leg thrown over Joe’s, and Joe was dead asleep.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: April 29, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
I have a mechanic gig. The guys have learned not to grab my ass, thanks to a wrench to the first one’s balls. Good practice for if I join you.
Jensen watched Joe stand from the towel next to where he sat with Piper, who was shoveling sand into a bucket and grinning like it was the best thing in the world. Joe stretched, then started down the beach toward the sea. The muscles in his legs bunched as he walked through the sand; Jensen caught himself thinking of those legs without trunks covering them. He shook his head and turned his attention back to his daughter.
When Joe came back, sand sticking to his feet and lower legs and trunks clinging, Jensen stood, swinging Piper up. “Want to get wet?” he asked her.
She studied him.
“It’s nice, baby,” Joe said. “Not cold. The water feels good.”
“Wata,” Piper echoed. “Wet, Dada.”
Jensen assumed she meant him; they’d yet to get her to stop calling Joe that. “Let’s go find out if Joe’s a liar.”
Behind Piper’s back, Joe flipped him off. Jensen returned the gesture and carried Piper down the beach. He crouched at the tideline, holding her hand as a slow wave licked up over her feet. She giggled, stomping in place.
“Okay, we’ll get wet,” he agreed. He stood, holding her hand, and walked further into the water. When it was up to Piper’s diaper, he lifted her to carry her in deeper and finally settled her on his hip when they got to waist-deep water.
Piper shrieked, splashing at the water and kicking her feet. Her shriek turned into a giggle, and she squirmed against him like she wanted to get free. He held her around her waist and let her splash on her stomach, flailing her arms and legs as though she wanted to swim on her own.
They stayed in for fifteen or twenty minutes, until Piper started saying, “Done, Dada, done done done.” Then he carried her back out and let her walk on the hard-packed wet sand to the high tide line. He’d have to change her soon enough, but for now, she could get sandy and messy.
When they got back, Joe asked, “Have fun, baby?”
She bobbed her head. “Fun fun.”
Jensen let Piper play in the sand until she started fussing; then he brushed her off and changed her, dressing her in her regular clothes. Joe packed up her toys while Jensen did that, and they walked back to the car together. Strange, doing that with Joe, who’d tried to kill him not five months before. No stranger than fucking him, though, so Jensen put the oddness out of his mind and settled Piper into her seat. Joe stole the driver’s seat while he did.
Jensen had seen Joe’s driving when Piper wasn’t in the car; he drove like he had on the racecourse, except without the ability to shoot anyone. With Piper in the back, he turned into a new driver, sticking to the speed limit and keeping from anything reckless. Good thing, or Jensen would have knocked him out and steered them off the road so he could take over, maybe leave Joe on the side of the road to hitchhike back to Santa Rosalía.
Date: May 8, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
If you’re still in Seattle, you could call it home. You haven’t stayed anywhere that long until now.
“I asked Carmela if she could start coming over for Spanish lessons instead of meeting outside,” Joe said as they did an engine rebuild one night.
Piper called, “Dada,” and Jensen wiped his hands clean on a rag, then walked to her.
“It’s getting hot. She also said she’d charge less if she gave us both lessons at once.”
Less than fifty pesos per lesson wouldn’t make a huge difference, and Jensen said as much.
“Igor, you can leave if you don’t want indoor lessons. Not my problem.”
Instead of answering, Jensen took Piper to the office to find her a cold bottle of water. When they came back out, he said, “How many times a week?”
“Twice. The baby can learn too.”
“Make it three times, and I’ll join you.” He settled Piper back down and rejoined Joe, crowding up behind him.
Joe twisted and kissed him hard. “You talk to her.”
Jensen shrugged. “Fine. We’re doing it in the living room with the blinds open.” He wouldn’t want Piper alone with two grown men, especially not with the blinds closed or in a back room; better for all of them if anyone passing their ground-floor flat could look in and see that everything was clean.
Joe made a face. “Damn, didn’t think that way.”
“You wouldn’t. You don’t have a daughter.” No matter what Piper called him, Joe was more of an uncle than a parental figure, the way Joe seemed to like it.
“By the time the baby’s her age, I’ll think that way.”
Which was the first time either of them had mentioned anything that far ahead, and they both realized it at the same time. Joe turned back and Jensen pulled away, and neither of them said more except things like, “Give me the other wrench,” until they got home.
Something had Piper wound up; she raced around, pulling at their hands while they made dinner, demanding, “Dada, pay!” and then, “Ses’me Steet!” when she got restless from play. It saved them from any conversation about what Joe had said, which Jensen for one did not mind in the least.
Joe was the first to say anything about it, not until they sat down for dinner, and all he said was, “Because we’ll probably work together still,” and then no more.
Jensen cut Piper’s chicken into tiny enough pieces for her to pick up and chew without choking; he said, “If the garage stays open,” and they left it at that.
Neither initiated fucking that night, and Jensen went to bed irritable enough to be annoyed that Piper woke up at one, just after he lay down and before he even got to sleep. In the morning, he and Joe moved around each other silently, both only talking to Piper. Jensen didn’t know why it bothered him that Joe had treated twelve years down the line dismissively. All they did was fuck and work together. It shouldn’t matter to him. That didn’t stop it from rubbing him wrong, like sand caught in his shoe.
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Date: May 31, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
That job offer still open?
“See Case’s email?” Jensen asked after listing two cars for sale in the format Carmela had laid out for him; all he had to change was the price and edit from a list of vocabulary she’d given him.
“Haven’t checked in a few days. Why?”
“She wants to come down, get a job at the shop.” Belatedly, Jensen realized he hadn’t said ‘my shop’. It didn’t necessarily mean anything, but he hadn’t meant it to come out that way. He shut down the computer and closed it, avoiding Joe’s eyes.
“She’ll have to find a place to live.”
“If she’s been working, she should have money for it and an ID.” Jensen stood and stretched, then unplugged the laptop and put it away. “I have to see if I have the money to pay her.”
“You don’t, there are other shops, or she could get a different job.”
True, but a different job would be Case’s call and might break her decision to move to Santa Rosalía. “I’ll let her know after I do the budget.”
Joe ran his gaze over Jensen’s body. “You want to do that tomorrow?”
“Is there a better offer?” he retorted, smirking a bit as he returned Joe’s appreciative look.
“You want to get off, there is.”
Jensen glanced into the bedroom and walked over to close the door. “I might have to take you up on that.”
He let Joe fuck between his thighs, his prick pressed between them and rubbing against Joe’s stomach until Joe started jerking him off while he fucked. Jensen left hard bite marks, almost guaranteed to bruise, on Joe’s shoulders, and his lip split under the force of their kisses.
After, Joe put on a movie, and they sat on the couch just far enough apart to not touch. They slept apart, like they did about half the time, and when Piper cried herself awake that night, Jensen cuddled her in his bed until she fell back asleep. He probably wouldn’t do that if Joe was in the bed, not without kicking him out. But the fact that it wasn’t a definite made Jensen feel uneasy, off-balance. With it being a non-issue at the time, he put it out of his mind as best as he could. Still, the question itched in the back of his mind, no matter how he ignored it.
The next day, he stayed in the office for nearly an hour while Joe took care of the first car brought in; he worked up what he thought the shop—his shop—would make for the year, subtracted Joe’s salary and what he paid himself, then subtracted Joe’s salary again. If he paid Case the same, it would make things tight for the shop, maybe too tight, unless business picked up. If she worked part-time, it would be different; he could offer that, and she could pick up a second job if she wanted, at least until he had the shop earning more.
Date: June 3, 2014
Subject: (no subject)
You could work part-time and get a second job. I don’t have the budget for you to be full-time.
“We have to fix this car?” Joe asked. Jensen knew his opinion on the car, but they’d sold it and then it had fallen apart; they had to fix it or else buy it back. “How many times we going to keep doing this, man? This car’s not going to start.” Nonetheless, Jensen heard a spark a moment later and Joe cursing. “You say you want me to live the life of an honest man?”
“Yeah.” Jensen rolled himself out from under the car. “You better get used to it.” This was a familiar argument, one Joe didn’t seem to really mean since, to Jensen’s knowledge, he hadn’t broken the law since getting to Santa Rosalía, other than getting a new identity. He pulled himself to a stand just as a car sped past a row of cars and spun sideways in front of the garage.
Case stepped out, wearing tiny shorts and a tank that showed her stomach, paired with tall boots. She strolled over and hugged him, and he couldn’t help but smile when she kissed his cheek. He caught the amused twist of Joe’s mouth, his slight headshake, and broke the hug.
“What took you so long?”
“Had trouble getting my release papers approved,” she deadpanned.
“Wait here. There’s someone I want you to meet.” He turned back to the car and lifted Piper from the front seat, bringing her to Case.
She’d won the car in a card game, or so she said; with how she’d asked about gambling before, Jensen almost believed her. Joe pulled open the hood, studied the engine, as they asked Case about the car. Finally, Joe closed it; Jensen hadn’t gotten too close, since he held Piper.
“You want to help on this junker?” Joe asked, jerking a thumb toward the car.
“That thing?” she asked skeptically. “This is a junkyard. Trash it.”
“Can’t,” Jensen said. “We sold it, and it died. The buyer’s threatening to make us buy it back if we don’t get it running.”
Case clicked her tongue and walked back over, bending straight at the waist to examine under the hood. “Return their money, Frank.”
“It’s cheaper to fix it.” Jensen put Piper down and held her hand as she toddled toward the car.
“Then you’re paying me for the day. I need a place to stay.”
“I’ll pay you with a place to sleep for a few nights.”
“Where’s that going to be?” Joe asked. “I’m not sharing the couch.”
Good question. “I’ll take the floor. She can have the bed.” He’d share the couch, if Joe would tolerate it, except he wasn’t sure if he wanted Case to know about whatever it was they had going on.
“I could get used to being treated like a princess,” Case said with a smile.
“There’s one princess here.” Jensen lifted Piper to his hip and kissed her head. “You’re looking at her.”
“I see that,” Case agreed. “I’ll find a place. I have some money. You know where I can get naturalized?”
“We know a forger,” Joe said.
“I’ll find Carmela tonight,” Jensen agreed. “Unless you speak better Spanish than he does.”
Her smile broadened. “I could school both of you. Especially if you want to learn to swear.”
“Not in front of the baby,” Joe said before Jensen could. “But when she’s asleep, yeah.”
“So who’s Carmela?”
“Our translator,” Jensen answered. “She’s also teaching us Spanish. Fifty pesos each a lesson.”
Case clicked her tongue. “You’re ripping her off.”
“It’s what she set. She’ll need to introduce you to Maria for Maria to believe you’re not a cop, anyway.”
“How much is the forger going to charge?”
“Three hundred American. I’ll cover it if you’ll work it off.”
“Thanks, but I have that.” She reached for Piper. “Can I?”
Without hesitation, he handed her over and ignored Joe’s look.
“I got told not to touch her when I got here, but you just hand her over like nothing to her?”
“Case only killed two people,” Jensen said.
“And one deserved it, and I was coerced into the other,” she added. To Piper, she said, “I’m Case. Can you say Case?”
“Case,” Piper repeated. “Case-Case.” She reached for Case’s hair; Case swung it away.
“None of that, sweetheart. Let’s get out of your daddy’s way.”
“That’s not working off your stay in my bed.” But Jensen walked over to pick up a wrench and breaker bar.
“I’ll do it, but three people, one car, that’s too much.”
“There are two waiting to have their oil changed and flushed and another that needs a new battery.” He lowered himself to roll back under the car.
“Let me bond with the princess. I’ll work soon.”
Case worked half days at the shop, leaving at two every day to do whatever it was she wanted. She took Jensen’s bed for four days before announcing on the fifth, “I have an apartment I’m moving into next week. Your building.”
“So Igor gets his bed back.”
And, Jensen thought, they could fuck again.
That night, the three of them split two bottles of wine.
“No, it only took two weeks to get my paperwork through,” Case said. “Two weeks longer than I wanted, but since Hennessy signed, they had to let me out, even though she was dead.”
“Why Miami?” Jensen asked.
She shrugged. “Why not? I wanted anywhere but California by then, and I knew Joe would be there. Might as well hook up with you two if he knew where you were, you know?” She took a long swallow. “So I got your email, spent some time with Killer there, and then we split.” She shrugged. “I wanted to make some money, keep moving instead of being trapped.”
“Are you going to move on from here?”
“Depends on what I get for work and how much I like you two. Piper’s a good reason to stay.”
“Half days at the shop,” Jensen said, “but I don’t know what else you could do.”
“There’s the strip joint,” Joe said.
“Why would you know about that?” Case asked.
“Carmela’s oldest sister works there,” he said, seeming not to care that Case knew he was gay. “She told me she wants to go to college so she doesn’t have to, too.”
Jensen hadn’t known that, and he thought Carmela liked him. “She’s a smart girl. She should go.”
Joe slouched down in the couch. “If she can get out of this town when she’s older, she will.”
“I wouldn’t mind stripping,” Case said, which Jensen didn’t try that hard not to picture, “but I could also waitress or something. And there are other mechanic shops in town.”
“You’d take my business?”
“If you’re giving me half days, hell yeah I would.” But she smiled as she tipped the rest of her wine into her mouth.
“I’ll never be able to give you full days if you do.”
“You take the business, he’ll lose the shop and wind up back in the roach motel apartment,” Joe commented.
“So would you,” Jensen said.
“Me? Hell no. I’ll run drugs before that happens.”
“What happened to being an honest man?”
Case’s eyes darted between them; Jensen couldn’t tell what she was thinking, if she thought they were together or just if she thought they were friends, and he didn’t know how he felt about either thought. Either way, she said, “I don’t think he’d let a drug runner around Piper.”
“No,” Jensen agreed, “not in a thousand years.”
“Then I’ll jump ship to another shop, same as you’ll have to.”
Case sank back in the couch. “You have any good movies?”
“What counts as a good movie?” Joe asked. “And don’t say romance, because there’s none of that in this apartment.”
“No, something with explosions.” She smiled. “But not too much violence besides that.”
“I think we have something,” Jensen said, getting to his feet. He found one and put it in the DVD player, then sat back beside Case. She leaned into his shoulder. After a moment’s hesitation, he wrapped his arm around her shoulders and didn’t miss Joe’s flat expression at the move. Case didn’t touch any more, though, and Joe didn’t say anything; if there would be fallout, it could wait until the next day, after Case left the shop.
They all dozed off at some point or another during the movie, despite the explosions; only when the menu came back on did Jensen wake. He shook Case’s shoulder gently. “Let’s get to bed.”
“Coming with me?” she asked with a blurred, half-asleep smile.
“No, I just want to sleep.”
Case staggered to her feet, and Jensen carefully stood too. Once Case padded off toward the bathroom, Jensen turned to Joe and woke him just enough that he lay on the couch instead of slouching in the corner. Joe grabbed his ass as he walked away, and Jensen shot him a look over his shoulder. They hadn’t talked about it, but neither of them had made a move with Case staying here.
The bathroom door opened again as Jensen finished pulling on a pair of pajama pants. Case walked into the room and gave him a smile. He returned it and waited for her to climb into the bed before sinking to the floor, bunching the pillow under his head once he did.
“You could sleep up here, you know.”
“I’m fine where I am,” he said in a low voice so as not to wake Piper or let it carry to the living room. “Good night, Case.”
“Good night, Frank.”
He heard her roll over, and he closed his eyes.
Case moved out the next day, into an apartment upstairs and two doors down. Jensen figured they'd see her just as much, which would make Piper happy. She joined them at the shop at eleven and said, “There's a guy with a busted truck. He's getting a tow here. I told him we'd fix it.”
Joe grunted. “What kind of truck?”
“Glass, not a semi. I worked on some semis in Seattle, though, so if it we get one, we'll be fine.”
“The pickup down there needs radiator work,” Jensen said to her as he rolled out from under the car he'd been tinkering with.
She smiled briefly at him and turned toward the truck. Her smile didn't look tight or tense, and Jensen counted it as a good thing; she didn't seem to care that he'd turned her down.
By the time Case left at two, Jensen and Joe had their heads bent over the glass truck's engine, studying the computer readout. As soon as she'd called a goodbye and started her car, Joe said, “Piper can have the living room tonight.”
Jensen nodded and purposely let his hand brush Joe's arm as he turned to reach for a wrench.
“You ever want to come see my act,” Case said to Jensen one morning as she twisted a wrench and he supported the brake disk of a car, “you won't have to tip me.”
“I might have to take you up on that.” Just because he and Joe were whatever they were didn't mean Jensen couldn't go to the strip club. They watched porn together; it would just be live-action, straight softcore. Joe could come if he wanted.
The bolt gave suddenly, and her arm slammed into his. She flinched. “That was a surprise.”
“Just a scrape.” She twisted her arm, and he saw where it must have caught against the frame of the car. Hardly any blood.
“Go wash it. I have this.”
After he'd fed Piper in the office and eaten his own lunch, he took Piper out to walk among the cars. She kept trying to dart ahead and grab onto bits of metal, and he kept having to rein her in.
When Jensen saw another shadow join his, he said, “I'm going to need to find a minder for her.”
“Call it daycare, Igor, same as everyone who speaks English on this continent.”
Jensen flipped him the V sign and swept Piper up. “Want to make friends?” he asked her. “Other kids to play with?”
“Carmela probably knows someone.” Fair guess; Carmela seemed to know or have connections to everyone in Santa Rosalía.
They reached a spot where the row intersected with one leading back to the garage and turned down that way. “I'll ask her tonight.” Jensen paused. “Money's going to get tight.”
“We could go back to a studio.”
Jensen liked that 'we' in a way he didn't want to examine too closely. “We might want to.”
“Or you could fire Case or work longer hours.”
“I'm not firing Case.”
Joe shrugged. “Then figuring out money's on you.”
They reached the garage then, and Jensen put Piper in her Pack-n-Play. She glowered at him but didn't fuss, just grabbed a stuffed bunny by the ear and yanked it up to her chest. He turned to Joe and stepped forward, into his space. The corner of Joe's mouth pulled up, and he grabbed Jensen's ass. Jensen crushed his mouth to Joe's, biting down on his lower lip, and Joe pulled him so they pressed together, knees to mouths. If not for work, this would normally lead to fucking as soon as Piper settled for a nap. Instead, they kept tight, near-bruising grips on each other, arms or hips or asses, and Jensen could taste blood, felt Joe's slight stubble scraping his face.
Someone cleared their throat, and they broke apart, spinning toward the front of the garage.
“Explains why you're not interested,” Case said dryly. “You're lucky I wasn't a customer.”
Jensen shrugged, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “We're closed for another...” He checked the clock on the wall. “Three minutes.”
“You want those three minutes to yourselves? I can take Piper out.”
“You can take her tonight,” Joe said. He walked over to the side of the garage and opened a toolbox. “Igor's talking about putting her in daycare.”
Case raised her eyebrows at Jensen.
“She's a bit old to be in the playpen all day, and it's dangerous to let her out on her own. Once I work out the budget, I'll find someone.”
“He's talking about moving back to a studio.”
Case turned to a truck and crouched down beside it, examining the bare wheel. “Or we could get a place together.”
Rather than address that, Jensen turned to the back wall of the garage and rummaged for the filter he needed to do an oil change. Joe didn't say anything, either.
“Two bedroom,” she clarified after a minute of no one but Piper saying anything. “As long as you don't mind me bringing guys home. It'd save us all money.”
“It might,” Jensen agreed.
“Piper could have the living room,” she added.
Jensen heard something drop over at the other bench and glanced toward it, but a truck blocked his view. He shook his head to himself and grabbed the tools he needed, then took the car's keys off the pegboard.
“You think we'd want to share a room?” Joe asked her.
“You looked like you were trying to get in each other's skin,” Case said plainly. “How long's it been going on?”
“We've been—” Jensen almost said 'fucking', then remembered Piper's presence. He didn't particularly want that to be in her vocabulary so early. “Doing things since about a month after he got here.”
“And you haven't tried to kill each other, and you've been living together the whole time. Why not share a room?”
“It's not like that,” Joe told her.
Except Jensen suspected it was like that, and he thought they both knew it.
“Fine, so you get the living room and Piper can share Jensen's room. Moving work for you guys or not?” Case strode to the workbench at the side of the garage; Jensen watched her walk. No tension to it, nothing he could see that meant she might be frustrated or annoyed, and she didn't sound it, either.
“I'm getting a real bed,” Joe said.
“There might not be room,” Jensen pointed out. “Piper needs space to play.”
Joe shot him a look that Jensen ignored in favor of getting in the car to back over one of the pits. “Our building has a few two-bedrooms. Case, you want to talk to the landlord?”
“After I'm off,” she agreed.
They didn't move until Sunday. Joe left Jensen to box up the books and DVDs while he went to church, and Jensen figured Case would be doing the same. Piper helped, throwing her toys in a box Jensen had set out for that purpose, and then Jensen had to take a Sesame Street DVD back out for her to watch while he took apart her crib.
The third time he had to take her back to the couch, he closed the door and found his phone to call Carmela.
“Hola, Señor Anders!”
“Hola, Carmela. Can you or your sister watch Piper for a few hours?”
“Okay. At your apartment?”
Jensen paused to consider that. “Take her to the park down the street.”
“We'll be there soon,” she promised and hung up.
He sat with Piper to talk to her about Sesame Street as it played, which naturally kept her attention on the TV. If he could manage to do this while taking apart the crib, he'd be done.
Carmela knocked on the door about fifteen minutes later; the younger of her older sisters stood behind her. Carmela grinned at Piper when Jensen opened the door with her on his hip and greeted her in rapid Spanish. After Piper babbled back—and she certainly had a couple of words of Spanish in there—Carmela said to him, “How long do you need us to watch her?”
“Do you have your phone?”
She produced it from her pocket.
“I'll find you or call you. No more than five hours.”
“Diaper bag?” Carmela's sister, Rosa, asked.
Jensen kissed Piper's head and set her down. He had the diaper bag on the kitchen counter. Once he'd handed it to Rosa, he took some cash, about a hundred pesos, from his wallet and gave her that, too. “I'll pay you the rest when I pick her up,” he said.
“Okay,” Rosa said, and then addressed Carmela.
Carmela nodded and lifted Piper to her hip. “Adios.”
Piper echoed her, grinning, and the three girls left for the stairs.
By the time Joe got home, Jensen had the crib taken apart, the bed frame folded up, and the dresser drawers held shut with plastic wrap. Joe glanced around and nodded. “What's left?”
Joe walked in there, and Jensen hefted the pieces of the crib.
It took some doing to get the new apartment organized enough that he'd want Piper in it; they had the crib and his bed assembled, the couch and loveseat in place, boxes either emptied or taped shut, shelves secured to the walls, and food put away. He met Carmela and Rosa at the park, where they had Piper on a blanket under a tree, fast asleep.
“She played much,” Carmela said.
Rosa nodded. “Very tired.”
“Gracias por...” Jensen couldn't remember 'watching her', so finished in English.
Carmela glared at him. “All my teaching, and you forget!”
“We'll have to do more lessons,” he said.
Rosa giggled, shaking her head. “Gringos.”
Jensen rolled his eyes but couldn't exactly argue. He took his wallet from his pocket and handed each girl what he thought would be fair for watching Piper for five hours. Carmela stuffed the cash into her pocket, while Rosa tucked it in her purse. He knelt beside Piper and stroked her cheek. She didn't stir.
“She played much,” Rosa reiterated. “Very tired.”
Worth the risk, then. Jensen lifted Piper to his chest, holding her there with one arm. She didn't wake then, or when he gathered the blanket and diaper bag, or when he walked back home. He got her settled in her crib and closed the door softly behind him.
“Is Case working?” he asked Joe, who had shelved the DVDs and now had Piper's books stacked on the floor.
“No, man, she said something about lunch and left.”
Jensen nodded and went about unpacking Piper's toys.
Case came back with two paper bags and a six-pack of beer. “Lunch,” she announced. “Don't get used to it.”
“I'll make dinner,” Jensen offered as he and Joe joined her in the dining half of the kitchen. He used the key he carried to pop off three caps, passing them around while Case and Joe unpacked the food.
It felt different, having a more solid living arrangement. In a way, it reminded him of his family before prison. Not the same, of course; nothing would ever be the same as having Suzy. But it felt closer than anything had been.
He put that aside in favor of his burrito and beer.
The first night in the new apartment, Jensen and Joe rolled Piper's crib into the living room and closed the door. The second night, they did the same. The fourth day, at the shop, Case smirked at them.
“I thought it's not like that.”
“Fuck off,” Joe suggested.
Jensen decided the best option would be to ignore the topic entirely.
Which meant, the next Sunday, when he caught Case rigging fishing line from eyehooks in the living room ceiling, each piece with a large ring at the end, he had to ask, “What are you doing?”
“Making Piper a room. We need to move the loveseat down there, and some of the shelves should be moved around if you want her dresser out here.”
“Frank, you and Killer've shared a bed every night this week. The kid's crib can't just be wherever it fits, and you're going to wake her up one of the times you move it.” She stepped down from the ladder she must have nicked from maintenance and moved it a few feet. “I bought blackout curtains. If she ever sleeps past six, the light won't wake her up.”
“It's not—” he started, and she cut him off.
“Lie to each other however you want, but don't tell me again.” She pounded a pilot hole into the ceiling with a nail, then pulled it out and began to screw in another eyehook.
He considered a moment. He could argue, or he could just tell Joe that Case had decided this on her own—which wouldn't even be a lie.
“I'll get her dresser.”
“The hell's that?” Joe asked when he got home from church and grocery shopping. “I don't remember a window there.”
“Case decided Piper needed her own room.” Jensen helped Piper stack another ring onto its stick.
“Case decided,” Joe repeated. “I don't remember Case being Piper's mom.”
“I'm sick of walking into her crib!” Case shouted from her bedroom. “I went to a lot of work to do it.”
“Guess I won’t argue with the lady,” Joe said after a minute. He set the grocery bags on the table and began to unpack.
Jensen grinned to himself, and his daughter must have thought it was at her; she grinned back and said, “Dada happy!”
“Yeah, baby girl,” he agreed in a soft voice. More normally, he asked, “Blocks now?”
She looked at the stacking toy, then began to pull the rings off. If it kept her busy.
Case came out of her bedroom, still fastening an earring. “I have a date soon.”
“It's two in the afternoon,” Joe said. “Who dates now?”
“When did you last have a date?” she shot back. “He works nights. Bartender.”
“Have fun,” Jensen said. “Be safe.”
She flipped him off, laughing.
No, nothing like he'd had with Suzy, beyond having Piper. He hadn't lived with two adults, and he hadn't formed some sort of family with them; he'd had Suzy and Piper, and that had been a true family. This, though, seemed to be easing toward one—Machine Gun Joe putting away groceries, Piper with her own room-like area, Case fixing her hair in the bathroom, and Jensen playing with his daughter.
“Daddy!” Piper shrieked when Jensen got to her preschool, zooming over to him. “Lookit what I made!”
“What is it?”
She grabbed his hand and tugged him toward the wall. “I drawed a picture.”
“Oh did you?” He followed her over and waited while she stooped to her milk crate cubby and pulled out an oversized sheet of construction paper.
“Look!” she said proudly. She unfurled it and handed it to him.
He crouched down beside her, holding it out in front of him. “That's me and Uncle Joe?” he asked, and she nodded. “And you and Aunt Casey?”
“Yeah!” Piper grinned at him. “We all drawed our families.”