Chapter One: The Approach
Wednesdays often brought the college boys to Jello’s Pool Hall. Particularly in the winter. I’d call it cabin fever, except we were in Georgia. Still, too cold to drink on their frat house front porch rocking chairs. Too early in the week to host a party. The non-heathens would be attending Wednesday night church. The good students would be in class or the library.
But the bad boys would bring money to places like Jello’s. Which was why I was there.
And how Lex knew to find me.
I had just racked a fresh round. Satisfied with the smooth lift of the triangle. No balls escaped. Feeling good about the roll of twenties tucked into the front pocket of my jeans. That gratification disappeared upon sensing a male presence behind me. The scent of his aftershave cut through the pervading smell of beer, stale smoke, and old fryer oil. I sniffed once. Recognized the spicy scent of his cologne. Rested the cue stick on the table.
“Wanna make a wager? I’m having a lucky night.” I bent over the table to place the cue ball. Angled the stick. Shot it backward. And turned to face him.
“Hello, love.” Lex grabbed the stick. “Watch yourself. I’d like to remain a baritone, if you don’t mind.”
“Sorry.” I didn’t sound sorry. Didn’t even get close. “Careful where you stand next time. Another town, maybe?”
He pushed the stick away. Grinned. Sidled forward. “Don’t want me too deep in your pocket?”
I rolled my eyes, then studied the man. His thick, sandy hair had been trimmed to maintain an artful dishevelment. Smiling blue eyes. Sensuous lips held a relaxed smile. His boy-next-door good looks never revealed anything but indolent charm and false promises. A real ace. Too careful and too practiced to show anything else.
“You look tired.” I took a careful step to the side. Rested my hip against the table. “Tinge of blue beneath your eyes.”
“Too many lonely nights.”
“I bet. They have medicine for that, you know.”
“Not the cure I seek. You’re looking fit, though.” His gaze traveled the room. “How’d you do tonight?”
“What do you want, Lex?” My hand reached for the cue ball. I rolled it beneath my palm.
His eyes snapped back to me and told me what I already knew. I narrowed mine. His mouth quirked.
“Relax,” he said. “Gave you my word I’d leave you alone, didn’t I?”
“Your word isn’t worth much. And you just proved it, seeing as how you’re here and all.”
“When have I ever lied to you?”
I gripped the cue ball.
He raised his hand. “Right. But I am here out of the goodness of my heart. Thought I should see you about Penny Forbes.”
“What about Penny?” I frowned. “Are you working together? Not interested.”
“You haven’t heard?” The mask fell. His face tightened and he appeared older, matured. “Fin, we should go somewhere private.”
“Why?” I didn’t like the mask, but I didn’t like what he’d replaced it with either. He looked worried. Lex never worried. The carefree charisma wasn’t just an act. I was the worrier. “You know I’m on the square now. If you and Penny have gotten yourself into a mess, y’all just get yourselves out of it.”
“On the level, but still dodgy enough to plunder these wankers,” he muttered. “Finley, I’m serious. I don’t want to tell you here.”
“You’re never serious.” I turned. Settled the white ball. Chalked the cue tip. Moved to the side and leaned over the table. Sighted the ball. Placed the stick between my thumb and fingers.
Lex leaned over me, close enough for his words to buzz in my ear. “She’s dead, Fin. Penny’s dead.” A hand fell on my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to tell you like this. Finley, come with me.”
I pulled in a breath. Ignored his hand and the clamor ringing between my ears. Gritting my teeth, I lowered my head. Centered my gaze on the space between the second and fourth racked ball. Brought the stick back and let it glide. The break rang. Two solids slammed into the back and corner right pockets.
Lex’s hand shot forward. Caught a stripe as it raced toward the front left. “Sloppy. That’s a scratch.”
“Hey.” I turned, swinging the stick with me.
He caught the stick again, pushed it aside, and grabbed my arm. “Love, did you hear me? I’m sorry. I didn’t want to be the bearer, but God knows I can’t… I had to see you. News like this. I cocked it up.” He shook his head. “Fin. Are you all right? What can I do, love?”
“Nothing.” I shook my arm free and fixed my eyes to a point on the wall behind him. I hadn’t seen Penny for months. She’d been busy. I’d been hiding. But dead? She was too young—mid-twenties, like me. Car accident? Cripes, I hoped she didn’t get sick. The fatal illnesses I knew that struck Penny’s age bracket weren’t pretty.
I sucked in a deep breath. Let it out. Hated how shaky it sounded. “How’d she die?”
“Let’s talk somewhere else.” He paused. Sighed. “Right. Drug overdose. Heroin, is what I heard.”
My eyes flew to his face. The blue eyes watched me. Soberly, with a hint of pity. I despised that look even more than the worry.
“No way on God’s green earth. Penny’s momma was a junkie. Crooked as she could get, Penny wouldn’t touch a substance stronger than champagne. You heard wrong, Lex.”
He shrugged. “I’m sorry, love.”
“Stop calling me that.” I felt my throat tighten and forced a swallow. “Don’t call me that anymore.”
“Can’t help myself.” His head tilted, the pitying expression deepening. “Let me at least buy you a drink. We should toast Penny. You’ve known her since, when? First time on the street?”
He reached for me, but I sidestepped. “I’m not drinking to that lie. She didn’t overdose.”
“Fin, it’s hard to hear, but it’s true. Heard it from Dot, then checked myself.”
“Who found her?” I gripped my cue stick. My chest felt like it was going to cave in. “Police? Which one? County? City? The heroin could have been planted, Lex. You know she’s on his list because of me. It’s not beneath him to do something like that just to make her look bad. He’s got the county coroner in his pocket. John Prince is a drunk and a gambler—”
“What would be the point in that? Penny was taken to the hospital, love. Wasn’t a bust or anything like that. Your da—”
I held up a finger.
“Right. Come on.” Lex glanced around. Spotted my cue case under a nearby chair. Pulled it out. Took the stick from me. Unscrewed the shaft from the butt, flipped the top open on the hard case, and slipped the sticks inside. Slinging the long case strap over his shoulder, he cupped my elbow.
I had stuck on the word hospital, rooted to the floor. Absently, I’d reached for the ring hanging from the chain around my neck. At Lex’s touch, I shook off my daze and dropped the ring.
“Where are you staying?” said Lex.
“Nowhere.” My stomach squeezed. I allowed him to walk me to the door. “Motel on Thirty-Four.”
“You’re coming to my place.” He glanced at me. “Don’t worry, love. You can trust me.”
“No, I can’t.” I could feel the tears forming. I swallowed hard. “I can’t go home with you. I should talk to Dot.”
“Let me go with you.”
I shook my head. Before I could speak, a voice hollered from the rear of the hall. The shouting intensified. We turned. A young man jogged forward, followed by a small herd of beefy minions. The insults thrown in my direction did nothing to faze the other patrons. Nothing new for Jello’s. Behind the bar, Jello called out, demanding payment of the young man’s tab. Jello didn’t care about fights as long as his end was covered.
“Did you take him?” whispered Lex. “Of course you did.” He spun us back toward the door. Hurried our pace.
“Wasn’t much of a hustle,” I said. “He saw me beat the pants off his friend first. He’s drunk.”
“Drunk, stupid, and big. Not a good combination.” Lex handed me the cue case.
“He practically begged me to—” The obscenity the guy shouted caught me off guard. “Vile boy. Guess he’s worked himself into a lather about it at the bar. I am a mere female, you know. A blow to his pride. Took him three large before he gave up.”
“Right. Blighter. He’s going to catch us in the parking lot. Student, yes?”
Before the doors, Lex stopped. Pivoted. Retraced his steps toward the ape. Lex put out a hand as if to shake, then used it to steady the gorilla. “Hey, mate. Couldn’t help but hear you. Let me correct the situation.”
Behind him, the man’s friends—an indistinguishable line of baseball hats, college-branded hoodies, and beards—blundered to a halt, confused by Lex’s friendly voice and relaxed candor.
“What?” bellowed the man. He shook a fist in my direction. “Were you carrying her stick? She friggin’ has her own cue? What the f—”
Lex cut off his drunken cursing. “Sorry, mate. Didn’t catch your name. Drew, was it?”
“Your friend mentioned it.” Lex jerked his chin toward the line of monkeys behind Drew. They shifted, widening the circle. One twisted away to wander back to the bar.
“Listen, Drew. She took you for a ride, did she? Are you upset that this young girl beat you in pool?” Lex’s voice rose while seeming to drop. “You know, she’s a brilliant mathematician. Really. It’s all in the angles. Trajectories. That sort of thing. Her father’s a professor. Maybe you had him. Physics. Genius, really. Doctor—”
“Williams?” offered Drew.
“You know him? You might know me as well.”
“Accent gave it away, did it?” Lex smiled. “Yes, a doctoral student. I work for Williams. Unfortunate situation, his daughter.” He gave a nod in my direction.
Leaning against the door, I shrugged. Gave Drew an apologetic smile.
“A bit touched. Explains the maths, yes? Can’t help herself, you know what I mean?”
“What?” said Drew. “She seemed normal.”
“We won’t speak the words. Minor’s right to privacy. So hard to tell sixteen from twenty-one these days.”
Drew’s eyes widened. “She’s sixteen?”
“And Jello,” Lex continued, “as all you students know, looks the other way on such things. Fake IDs and the lot. Probably why you and your friends are here. I trotted over to find her. Mission for Dr. Williams. Campus Police are on their way.”
“Security? They’re not cops.”
“No, but they report criminal incidents to the police. Under the Clery Act, I believe. Campus police is not mall security, Drew. The actual police will be just behind them. Nothing they love more than a fake ID bust. Identity theft and the like is a serious concern these days.”
As Drew swayed, Lex dropped an arm around his shoulder and steered him toward a table.
“Let’s chat, Drew. Dr. Williams has a protocol for these things.” Lex pulled out a chair.
Drew sank into it. His remaining friends drifted toward the pool tables.
Hovering above Drew, Lex crooked a finger at me and raised his voice. “Miss Williams, we need to settle this. If you could join us, please.”
I slunk to their table, doing my best imitation of sixteen-going-on-twenty-something.
Lex cupped a hand around his mouth and raised his voice. “Jello, how much does he owe you?”
“Fifty,” called Jello.
“Heavy night for three-dollar beer,” said Lex. “All right, Drew. Let’s pay Jello first. Jello only takes cash. Doesn’t like to pay those pesky credit card service fees.”
Or taxes, but I kept that thought to myself.
“Can’t.” Drew pointed at me. “She took all my money. I told Jello she’d have to pay.”
“You lost your bet,” I said. “Bets, rather. All six of them. After the first three times, you might have realized the odds were against you. Really, after losing the first two, it’s sixty percent in favor of losing. A betting man should know these things.”
“Miss Williams, what have we told you about speaking so bluntly? People perceive that as rude.” Lex shook his head. “Sorry, Drew. Looks like I got here just in time.”
He presented a clip of cash. Palmed the clip. Counted off what appeared to be fifty. Handed the folded notes to me. “Miss Williams, pay Jello. And tip him well.”
I nodded meekly. Trotted to Jello and delivered the fold. “Payment for young Drew.”
Jello scooped the bills into a meaty fist and dropped them in his till. “You’re going to catch it one of these days, Fin.”
“Not if they catch it first.” I winked. “Drew had an extra Benjamin for you. Gratis. Also in case the others don’t reconcile. These rich kids are the worst at paying their debts. Money spilling out of their pockets, yet too cheap to pay a tab.”
“And too dumb not to see it fall out of their pockets and into your hands. I thought you went straight, hon.”
“I did,” I said. “Can I help it if these boys won’t let themselves believe what’s right in front of their eyes? If I don’t hide my skill, it’s not a hustle.”
“This is Lex’s money then?” Jello’s smile stretched, making his chins wobble.
“I didn’t say that. Lex would never short you, any more than I would. But Lex would rather have Drew pay his own bill. As he should.” I leaned forward. “Jello, what did you hear about Penny Forbes dying?”
“Thought you knew, hon.” Jello’s chins quivered with a mournful shake. “Can’t believe it. She was engaged, too, did you know that? Found a way up.”
“Rich guy. Didn’t surprise me too much. That Penny. Gorgeous and smart. A legend.”
“Hold on.” I checked on Lex. While drawing out a story with one hand, he slipped the money clip back into Drew’s pocket. Typical Lex. Let Drew think he’d blown his cash when he woke hung over and broke.
I turned back to Jello. “Penny was engaged to a rich guy and OD’d on heroin? Doesn’t add up, Jello. She didn’t use and she’d never pimp out. She was a good roper, but never let herself get too dirty.”
“I reckoned the same. After her momma—” His chins shook again.
“Exactly. The rich guy, was he a mark? Or legit?”
“Dunno, hon.” Jello fixed his piggy eyes over my shoulder. “Lex is wrapping up.”
I turned, catching the exuberant expression lighting Lex’s face. He could be mistaken for a young doctoral student. A highlighted lock had fallen over his forehead. His lean physique gave the impression of slightness. I knew the wiry strength that hid beneath his designer button-down. He just needed a pair of wire-rims to complete the picture of a slightly nerdy but cute grad student. Not that Lex had ever set foot in a college classroom. No more than I had.
At least I didn’t think so. You could never be sure with Lex.
I wouldn’t put it past him to audit the classes that interested him. And it wouldn’t surprise me if he had somehow obtained a diploma. He was good at that sort of thing. Got his kicks from pitting his wiles against bureaucratic quagmires. Anything that frustrated a normal person, Lex loved to unravel and beat.
Including trying to lure me back into his questionable operations. And other areas of his life.
Catching my eye, Lex gave me a slight nod. I slunk back to the table, seemingly chastened.
“Thanks for covering my tab,” Drew said. “And if I see her in here again, I’ll leave her alone.”
“Do that, young man. Although I’d give Jello’s a wide berth, if I were you. He overlooks anything but paying your bill, which you almost didn’t do. But if you risk Jello’s wrath and do see Miss Williams, give Mr. Jello the word that you’ve spotted this young sociopath. He’ll escort her out the door. Likely you as well. Jello hates rats even more than scarpers. I think it’s a cattle prod he uses.”
Lex’s smile quirked as he peered down his nose at me. “You heard that, Miss Williams? It’s for your own good. Respectable young women don’t hang out in pool halls.”
I pursed my lips. Lex was really pushing it.
He grasped my elbow. “Past your bedtime, Miss Williams. Time to go home. Your father will be sorry to hear about this.”
“He certainly would,” I said dryly. My father was always sorry to hear about me and any sort of hustle—imagined or real. Particularly since my father was a cop.
And more crooked than any swindler I’d ever met.