Shadows in the Light: Oscar’s Story – Chapter Seven
Thank you for sticking with me as I post this! I hope that you’re enjoying Oscar and Max.
Watching Kevin down the drinks made me physically ill. He’d had six glasses of the rotgut shit, and that was on top of already being three sheets to the wind. He must have a hell of a tolerance for booze, because that would have had me laid out after the second one.
Mick kept a close eye on Kevin, but as long as I kept paying for the drinks, he didn’t say anything. I glanced at the clock he had on the wall. It was nearly two and that meant closing time. Before he gave last call, I pointed to some booze he had up on the shelf.
“Do you sell that by the bottle?”
He glanced back to see what I was indicating. “Everclear? Nah, it’s not legal for us to sell full bottles after nine. And right now, it could cost me my license. We mostly have it because it’s cheap and pretty popular with some of our… less discerning patrons.”
It took me a minute to realize he was serious. Since we’d come in, no one else had walked through the doors. The couple in the corner had practically had sex in the booth before they left. Not a word did Mick say. If those were his high class customers, I shuddered at the thought of seeing his ‘less discerning’ ones.
I took out my wallet once more. I slid another hundred over to him. “I’ll buy the bottle from you.”
His gaze darted to where the hundred lay. I could see temptation in his eyes. “I would, but…”
Another hundred and he was practically salivating.
He reached up on the shelf, grabbed the bottle, blew off a bit of dust, then put it on the bar in front of me. “Don’t tell anyone where you got it, and we have a deal.”
I slipped it into the pocket of my jacket. “As long as you don’t tell anyone I bought it, I think we’re good.”
He snorted. “Do you know how many times the cops asked me about something that went on around here? I know nothing, I see nothing, I say nothing.”
I tipped my head to him. “Appreciated.” Kevin mumbled something, but neither of us paid him any mind.
“Suppose I should be getting his drunk ass home.”
Mick sneered. “Toss his ass in the lake. If you hadn’t covered his tab, I would have kicked him out myself.” He reached beneath the bar. “Or I might have just shot him.”
He had a gun. Good to know.
I clapped Kevin on the shoulder. “We ought to get you home, big guy.”
He pawed my face, his chilled fingers mashing my mouth. “This is my buddy, Mick. He’s welcome here anytime. You just put him on my tab.”
Mick shot him a disgusted look. “He paid for yours, asshole.”
It seemed that Kevin was a graduate of the how to win friends award. The disdain that Mick had for him was plain to see. I got up, tossed another hundred on the bar top, and thanked Mick for his service.
“You come back anytime.” He gave me the first warm smile I’d seen from him. Kevin got a sneer. “Just leave… that at home.”
I chuckled, slung an arm over Kevin’s shoulder, and helped him to his feet. He moved unsteadily toward the door, and more than once I had to help him keep his balance. When we got outside, he reached into his pocket for his keys. He grunted when he couldn’t find them. Funny thing, I had pickpocketed those, as well as something else he had.
It took a lot longer to walk the two blocks to the car this way. When it finally came into sight, I turned him loose.
“I’m driving. You’re way too fucked up.”
“Nah, I’m good.” He stumbled toward the car and fell flat on his face. He got up, a soppy grin. “A little help?”
“Sure. No problem.” I drew my leg back and kicked him in the chest. He slammed into the side of the car, adding another dent to the door.
“What the fuck?”
I kicked him again. And again. And again. He curled up into a ball, his arms covering his head, all the time wailing for me to stop. When I did, he struggled to stand. I hit him in the back of the head, driving him face first into the concrete. As he tried once more, I pulled open the car door and pushed him inside. I withdrew the bottle from my jacket pocket.
“What are you doing?” His voice came out as a wheeze.
“Gina is a friend of mine. You hurt her, and I’m gonna return the favor.”
I cracked open the top of the bottle. Surprisingly, the shit didn’t smell. I figured it was going to be all kinds of nasty, but nope. I splashed some on his leg.
“Well, that was a waste, huh? Here, let me clean that up.”
From my pocket I extracted the lighter I’d taken when I snatched his keys. For a moment, I wondered if it was the same one he’d used on Gina. Wouldn’t that be poetic justice? I gave it a flick and it flared to life. I reached down and touched it to his pants. They went up in a blaze of blue and yellow, and an ear-shattering scream. The alcohol burned away quickly, but his clothes stayed alight. I quickly patted them out.
“Wow. That worked better than I thought it would.”
He tried to get out of the car, but I wasn’t having it. And, drunk as he was, he couldn’t really put up much of a fight.
I took the bottle and doused him with the rest of it. His eyes went wide as he saw me reach for the lighter again.
“Don’t do this, man.” He had tears, actual genuine tears, streaming down his face. Did I pause? No, not for a second. I lit him up like a fucking roman candle. The fire roared over his body, and he screamed and thrashed. The smell was awful. A sort of beefy-pork smell, combined with charcoal and sulfur.
As he shrieked, I shouted out. “Now that is how you burn someone, bitch.”
I stepped away from the car as it continued to smolder. The seat caught fire next, thick clouds of smoke adding to the already nauseating smells. Kevin had stopped screaming. Whether he asphyxiated or died from the shock, I don’t know, but he was well and truly gone. Gina would have her peace.
I turned from the car, knowing full well that in the morning it would be found if I didn’t have Knight do something about it. I was sorely tempted to leave him there, the tissues from his body feeding the fire until nothing was left but a husk, but that seemed a little mean.
Need a cleanup, aisle four. One well-done crispy critter. Probably want to tell them to bring air with them. This place reeks.
The reply came back a few moments later. GPS lock established. Crew will be there shortly.
I cast one last glance at what remained of Kevin Gardner as the car engulfed fully and hoped to hell Gina would be able to move on.
And now it’s time to deal with a problem a little closer to home.
Including an interminable wait of almost two and a half hours, it would take me nearly ten hours to get back home from Milwaukee. The only decent thing about it? A flight, a bus, and a ferry ride would give me plenty of time to think. Lilah could very well have been right. I saw the evidence in front of me, but I tried my best to deny it. Could there possibly be an excuse for what happened? Yes, of course. Was I going to trust him enough to confront him directly? My gut told me no, and I did my best to trust my instincts.
I did some mental Ping-Pong, trying to decide how to approach this situation. On the one hand, I could just kill Max and be done with it. Yeah, not really a viable option at this juncture. I could ignore it, but that could be pretty much the same as killing Max, because he wouldn’t stay cooped up forever. I knew what I had to do, even though it disturbed me, because it was something I couldn’t take back. If Knight was innocent, it would break our trust irrevocably.
Fuck. Moral decisions are hard.
As the plane landed, I called Lilah to let her know I was back in town. She sounded genuinely happy to hear it. Then she dropped a bombshell.
“I talked with Rook.”
Yeah, didn’t see that one coming. “What the fuck? I swear I told you that no one could know. Was that not you who gave me your word to keep it a secret?”
That was it. No apology, nothing. “Okay, what made you think this was okay in any way, shape, or form?”
“Because while Max slept last night, I sat here thinking about the situation. If you go up against Knight, what will the organization do? Do you think they’re going to let you accuse one of their highest ranking members and nothing will come of it?”
Well, now that she mentioned it, no. Fuck. “What did he say?”
She chuckled. “He gave me a number to give you. Day or night, you call it and he’ll answer. He doesn’t know whether or not Knight is guilty. He’s checking on his end to see what he can come up with.”
I started to protest, but Lilah cut me off.
“He’s being very discreet. He isn’t going through normal channels. Everything is being done through backdoor operatives. He asked for information, but if any exists, it’s going to be delivered to a dead drop. No one will trace this back to you or him.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “This is gonna suck, isn’t it?”
“Probably. I can’t see it ending well, no matter what.”
And neither could I. In every scenario I tried to come up with, it all ended in the worst way I could think of. I hated that she called Rook, but Lilah had a vantage point I didn’t.
“Thank you, I guess.”
She texted Rook’s number to me, and I saved it in my phone. As I boarded the ferry, I leaned back and closed my eyes. I pictured Max, with his different color eyes, laying dead on the floor. The back of his head had been blown away, and nothing remained now but a smear on the floor. I jerked upright. Fuck.
The rest of the trip, my hands shook. Tension rippled through my body. It was as though a spring had been wound too tight and needed to snap back. When I bumped shoulders with a man stepping through the door of the station, the urge to punch him rode me hard. Gritting my teeth, I apologized, then continued on.
As soon as I pulled into my yard, I saw Max standing out on the deck. He wore a button-down short-sleeved white shirt, tan khaki pants, and a pair of sandals. He smiled and waved, and just like that, the jittery feelings disappeared. I got out of the car and Max bounded over to me. I was kind of surprised when he threw his arms around me and squeezed.
“Missed you.” Max stepped back and peered up at me. “Is your friend okay?”
I took two steps back. “Yeah, fine.”
His smile slipped a little. “Oh, okay.”
Lilah came out to greet me. She was wiping her hand on a dishtowel, beaming a smile at Max. “Are you finished with your painting?”
Max nodded, but he didn’t take his eyes off me. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Lilah glaring at me. Not sure how I pissed her off since I just walked in the door, I shrugged. “What?”
She heaved a sigh. I noticed that I seemed to have the effect on people. She crossed the deck until she stood next to Max. She reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. “Why don’t you go ahead and set the table for dinner? It should be done soon.”
His chin drooped. “Yeah, sure.”
He shuffled into the house. As soon as the door closed, Lilah rounded on me and snapped me with the towel.
I turned and scowled at her. “What the fuck?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? He’s been waiting for you to come home. He kept asking when you’d get here. The painting? He did it for you, and he was proud of the damned thing. Then you come back and barely acknowledged him.”
Her annoyance made no sense. “Okay, and?”
If looks could kill… “Are you always this much of an asshole and I just never noticed?”
I went inside and took a seat next to the fireplace, with Lilah hot on my heels. I turned my gaze on her. Much to her credit, she didn’t even flinch. The thing of it was, in my job, you ever thought of a woman as the weaker sex, they’d take you down and put a bullet in you before you could blink. Lilah definitely qualified as a badass. She might be a doctor, but if you judged her by that, you didn’t know her at all. Having dealt with her bedside manner more than once, I can tell you she knows how to put the hurt on people.
She stood there, hands on her hips. “Okay, I get that you’re a guy, but does that always mean you need to be oblivious?”
“I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about.”
Lilah shook her head. “I don’t get it. I really don’t. Agents are taught to keep the world under constant surveillance. You’re supposed to notice things. Yet in your own lives, you can be blind as a fucking bat.”
I held up a hand. “Bats aren’t actually blind, that’s a—”
“If you say one more word, the next time I have to do surgery on you, it’s going to be without anesthesia.”
The scariest thing about that threat was that it wasn’t a threat. She’d do it.
“Okay, so clue me in, Doctor. What am I supposed to notice?”
She stalked over to me and grabbed my hand. She dragged me with her into Max’s room. When we got there, she pointed at a painting on the wall. My jaw dropped.
“No shit, Sherlock. He’s been working on that since you left.”
It was an image of me, standing with my arms spread as if in challenge before a stormy sea. The sky was lit by lightning, the sea churned and crashed against the shore. Lilah wasn’t wrong. It looked so much like a photograph, as though Max had been there, watching me. Well, what would be me, if I’d ever stood out in a storm.
“Why would he make this?”
She rolled her eyes. “He likes you.”
“I like him, too.”
“No. He likes you. After you left, he did nothing but talk about you. How you liked his pancakes, and how you seemed genuinely happy when he made breakfast. He said you stopped scowling, and actually smiled. And, he said, you’d told him your name.”
Shit. “He heard me mention my name when they called about Gina. And yeah, I was glad about breakfast, because I didn’t have to make anything. It’s like having Micah back.”
“You hated Micah.”
That was true, but the man could cook like no one’s business. “Max takes care of the house. I appreciate that.”
She glared at me. “You know, if I was a man, I’d punch you right now. As it stands, I’m still considering it.”
I threw my hands in the air. “What do you want from me?”
“How about you to get a damned clue? Max wants you to notice him.”
“Uh, he lives here. It’s hard not to notice that.”
Lilah shook her head. “I give up. Dinner is done.”
She turned without another word and walked into the kitchen. Her reaction was weird. Okay, so Max liked me. Why did she expect that I returned those feelings? I appreciated the fact he was interested, but I didn’t do emotional entanglements. Fuck and flee had always been my motto.
“Oscar, your food is getting cold.”
Not unlike the reception I was certain I’d get when I went into the kitchen.
As soon as I sat down, Max brought a plate over and put it down in front of me. Lilah had made lasagna and herbed rolls. My stomach rumbled at the decadent smells. The rich tomato sauce, the tang of garlic, the scent of freshly shaved parmesan cheese.
I grabbed the serving spoon and started to heap my plate. “This looks good, Lilah.”
She puffed up her chest a bit. “Max made it.”
I stopped, the sauce dripped onto the tabletop. “You made this?”
His eyes were still downcast, but he nodded. “It’s my favorite meal.” His voice barely broke a whisper.
I put the spoon back and took a forkful. Goddamn, it was probably the best meal I’d had in years. It was tangy, but had a sweetness to it. The bread was fluffy and soft, and the butter melted on its warm surface. I’d had dinners in five-star restaurants that hadn’t been this delicious.
“It’s… I don’t know if incredible does it justice.” Max’s ears perked up. “It’s amazing. Thank you for making it for me.”
The frown morphed slowly, becoming a wide smile. He reached out and started to scoop up his own dinner, while Lilah nodded at me.
Max had talents. He could paint, he could cook.
I was surprised by how much I was going to miss him when he left.