Author’s Note: So I don’t talk much about my other job. I don’t really want to get fired.
That said, it had a real impact on my productivity today. I wouldn’t even care so much about the shift itself if it wasn’t for the the drain of my emotional and mental faculties.
Yet… I managed 2,039 words… Mostly because I got a bit reference silly at the end of the second scene. I’m tired and brain dead. I might have gotten a bit silly/loopy.
“You still want to say this has nothing to do with our past?”
Nolan studied the ugly red-orange paint that marked his car in seven hateful letters almost seared on the side of it, the anger of the writer visible in every line. He wasn’t sure if he was staring at it to try and make the paint and word disappear or if he was trying to convince himself it said something else, or if he just needed time to accept that it was what he thought he saw.
Nora’s words would make it that. Shaelynn hadn’t said anything, not since she joined him in staring at the word. In a way, it accused her, too, but he didn’t think they’d be after her, not here. She didn’t live here, she didn’t work here, and she was only standing by him because Nora somehow managed to convince her that Nolan needed her.
He swallowed, his eyes going to Shaelynn. “You… You didn’t think it was about the past, did you?”
“Would she really have told you if she did?” Nora asked, and he glared at his sister. She shrugged, unrepentant.
Shaelynn shook her head. “Cyril told me no one was interested. I accepted that for what it was and focused my efforts elsewhere. I thought the past was a distraction, nothing more. It’s hard not to jump to the conclusion that it was about that all along, but we still don’t know that it is.”
Nora snorted, pointing over at the car. “They painted traitor on his car, Shaelynn. How can you say that has nothing to do with the past? Someone’s sentence must be up, and they’re finally free to come after him.”
“Cyril said my father gave orders not to go after Nolan. He… Boath still thinks he can bring Nolan back into the fold.”
That twisted his stomach up, making him want to vomit. That wasn’t happening, now or ever. “He’s an idiot. I was never part of the fold. I don’t really want to think about what kind of prophecy he’d tangle up to make it seem like it was all supposed to be like that, or what he might paint me as if he got his hands on me again, but he is not getting me back into that hellhole.”
“The hellhole doesn’t exist,” Shaelynn said, letting out a breath. “It was basically razed when the feds arrested everyone, remember?”
Nolan turned toward the cop who’d spoken, forcing a smile. “Did you need anything else from us? Statements—did that. Fingerprints for elimination, maybe?”
“They want to take the car in to do some testing.”
“I didn’t know I ranked high enough to get forensics done on a bit of vandalism,” he said, frowning. That didn’t quite make sense. He could see the fingerprint comparison, maybe, but to have the paint chips analyzed or anything else—that had to be wrong, didn’t it? “Has there been a lot of vandalism in the area?”
“Or is there something worse like a bomb on the car or something?” Nora demanded. “Did they try and kill him, too?”
Nolan shook his head. “Nora, there’s no point in coming after me now. Even if one of Boath’s lieutenants got out, he’s still in there and won’t get out before he dies. They can’t rebuild his sick little empire, and trying to get me is stupid—he brought that whole thing on himself by ‘marrying’ all those underage girls and ‘dealing’ with unbelievers.”
“Still,” the cop said. “You are that Nolan Sheppard. There really could be people after you. This could be a lot worse than a word on your car.”
“Maybe, if I’d gotten other threats or if it was actually confirmed that one of them was out. I should have been notified if they were, and so at this point, we’re looking at a weird conspiracy where Ambrose or Coman isn’t dead, and yeah, that’s not something I’ll buy.”
Shaelynn almost suppressed a shudder. “That’s not possible.”
He wasn’t going to argue with that, though Nora looked like she might. He didn’t believe the feds would have lied about that, and he didn’t think either Ambrose or Coman would have ever cooperated with the authorities, which was about the only way that he could see the feds being willing to say they were dead if they were could have happened. Besides, why would the feds need more than what they had? The testimony of the women—the girls, mostly—that had been there and even the children was pretty much enough on its own. Nolan’s part in trial had been pretty small, truthfully, and he didn’t think that what he’d gone through had half as much merit as the story of even one of Boath’s wives.
“Since when am I a notable figure again?”
“That was what I came to tell you about,” Nora said. She shook her head. “They can’t quite smear campaign you, but those people who want to take your company? I’m pretty sure they’re the ones behind this article.”
Nolan took the magazine she held out to him. “How could these people do a profile on us without talking to us?”
“We’re a bit of a footnote in the actual article.”
“That doesn’t really matter when they put Nolan’s face on the damned cover,” Shaelynn said. He met her eyes, and she let out a breath. “Cyril told me no one knew where you were. Now they do. These people just made you a target.”
“You haven’t said anything since we left your car behind.”
Nolan shrugged, not lifting his eyes from his window. Shaelynn didn’t mind the window-gazing so much—she did it herself, often—but she did have an issue with him ignoring all of his cats. Even Patchwork had come out of hiding to try and comfort him, but he hadn’t seemed to notice or care that they were mewing at him or swatting his pants.
This was what would have worried her if she’d been the one needing to make the call, but Nora had seen something even before he hit this point. Of course, they had more reason for concern now. They all tried not to think about it, but there were plenty of people that wanted Nolan dead. Some of the wives had been true believers, some broke and went crazy when they were with Boath, some had Stockholm syndrome, and they weren’t happy about their husband or prophet being locked away. Then there was the army that Boath was creating and some of his children—Shaelynn’s half-brothers or sisters that were just as dangerous as the adults if not more so.
She knew it was too easy to believe that the remnants of the cult would want Nolan dead. That was why she’d called Cyril first. She hadn’t entirely ruled out that as a possibility, but she had wanted to believe this was about a hostile takeover and not something from their past. She was no more ready to confront that than he was.
“Did you like it?”
“Your car. Some people get quite attached to them, you know. They name them, treat them like children or members of the family, that sort of thing.”
“It was functional,” he said, shrugging again. “It never mattered more than that. I never found it easy to be attached to objects, you know. Growing up in the tenement, we never had a lot, and so I made do with out it. Anything that could be sold usually was, so it was better not to be attached at all. Then in the cult, you didn’t get a lot in the way of material possessions unless you were Boath or one of his favorites, and I wasn’t a good enough liar to be one of them. Nora pulls in possessions like threads, the ones she thinks will sew up the broken places in her soul, but me? I’m well-beyond those kinds of band-aids, and I can’t get myself to believe in them.”
She nodded. She’d never had much growing up, and she’d found herself sticking to that sort of sparse lifestyle years after their escape. “So Nora picked the car.”
“It went with the firm’s image. I honestly didn’t care what I drove.”
“I think you need someone else to help you pick. You could get attached to something more suited to you and not to the image the firm supposedly needs.”
His eyes met hers in the reflection of the glass. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. I don’t feel like getting attached to anything.”
“It doesn’t always get taken from you.”
“No, sometimes it leaves.”
She frowned. “This about me leaving again? How much resentment have you been bottling up over that, anyway? How long have you hated me for it?”
“Oh, too long. Thirteen years, off and on,” he said, reaching up to rub his neck. He tried to stretch and groaned when he hit some of his tense muscles. “Damn.”
“What? You didn’t want to admit that? It’s past time it’s out, isn’t it?”
He snorted. “Is this because you think that I should be confessing before my time is over? I’ve been set out as bait, offered up on a platter—probably because someone wants my company, and they’re not shy about how they get it, but maybe someone there doesn’t really want me with it, they just want me dead. It would be easy to get rid of me if the right people knew where I was. I know I’m not exactly hiding, but I didn’t go advertising it, either. Taking back the name I was born with instead of the name Boath tried to give us when he married Mom was supposed to help with that.”
“I don’t expect you to confess, and it makes me angry—the idea of anyone stringing you out there like that—” She bit that off, uncurled her fists. “You already went through enough crap in your life, and they don’t get to screw with the one thing in your life that went right.”
“Thirty years and all I’ve got is a consulting firm. It’s a wonderful thing to show for my life,” he muttered, shaking his head.
“Come on, Nolan. Most people would be envious of what you built from scratch, and it is a good firm, so much so that someone wants to take it from you by force. They’re that jealous or that scared. Take your pick. You have good in your life, you know.”
“I never thought I didn’t. I just—I really wanted the one thing in my life that went right to be something a lot different.”
She let out a breath. Sometimes she wondered about him, about what he’d be if he hadn’t gotten stuck in the life he had. All that kindness and vulnerability that he hid in acts and obscured with sarcasm or deflected with self-depreciation, the fact that he was just so fundamentally good—he should have been out there running a charity or being a teacher or something that gave back, something that didn’t keep him at a distance and never getting attached. He would have that so-called American dream. He’d have a house and kids… and a real wife.
“I need a key to your place,” she said, and he frowned at her. She met his gaze, keeping her eyes hard until he stopped looking confused. “I’m staying here, remember? You’re going to have to put up with me—and you might even have to consider me your bodyguard.”
“Can I call you Betty?”
She gave him a look. “That depends entirely on the Betty you mean.”
“If I say Boop, will you do their work for them?”
“Then I didn’t say Boop.”
“Grable! I’m saying Grable,” he said, and Shaelynn found herself frowning for a different reason. Who the hell was Betty Grable? She knew of a few Betties—well, too, Bette Davis and that Betty from the comic book, and Betty Boop, but Grable wasn’t on that list.
“What did this Betty do?”
“Well, she had nice legs… and so do you.”
“You’re still a dead man.”