avannah Carrington parked her BMW under a streetlight and cut the engine. She leaned against the headrest and groaned, the orange light flooding over her blonde waves and the apron dangling from her purse. It was five o’clock in the morning. Her mother had already sent twelve texts regarding the country club’s Charity Week events. It was always something. Her mother had signed her up, without consent, to drive drunk millionaires around the golf course this evening as they “putted for prostates.”
She held up the pleated golf skirt packaged and left in the car by her mother. Ridiculous. It’d be comforting to think her parents and their socialite friends had their hearts in the right place, but no. It was all to donate to a member of the club with prostate cancer. The same man whose father invented the microwave and who, just last year, brought his pet peacock yachting with him in Monaco.
Switching her phone over to vibrate, she crammed it in the pocket of her jeans. Each event this week supported a different charity just as ill-deserved as the next. She’d suggested a few, like one that built tiny homes for veterans and one that supplied inner-city kids with meals while they were on summer vacation. Or, better yet, the one closest to her heart: the soup kitchen she poured her life into.
Oh, they all knew about it, but discussing her extracurricular activities was frowned upon. The only thing that kept her mother from drinking her weight in martinis during happy hour was Holden Forsyth. One of the thirty-six “eligible bachelors” she’d set her up with over the last few years. The only one Savannah kept around longer than a first date. He was better than the rest: kind, funny, and was coming to the soup kitchen for the first time today to help with the Labor Day crowd.
She bit her lip and wiped a layer of dust from the dash. On paper, and in person, he checked every box. He made her happy, and her mother bounded around with an uncontainable joy. But, after two months of dating, something was missing. Perhaps, when Holden met Allen, she’d have a new perspective.
She looked out the window and smiled. Allen said he’d meet her at five-thirty, and because he was notoriously early, she could just make out his white hair and lanky frame approaching from a distance, between a few early risers headed to work. He was her sounding board, right-hand-man at the soup kitchen and, quite frankly, her best friend.
He was also homeless.
She didn’t care, and he didn’t mind the streets, even though he’d saved enough money to get his own place. It was a way to connect with other homeless veterans. He always talked about one named Joe, a young guy back from Afghanistan. They’d developed a close bond, and he wouldn’t leave him alone on the streets of L.A. Especially since, for some reason, Joe wouldn’t come to the soup kitchen.
Allen pulled the door handle. She tossed the skirt on the box before stepping out. “It’s gonna be a big crowd this mornin’. You ready, or you need more time starin’ at that skirt over there?” He threw a thumb toward the pile of pink wrapping paper in the passenger seat.
Her cheeks brightened. She slammed the door shut so the interior lights would go off, but it was too late. “Don’t ask, Allen. It’s another one of Dahlia Carrington’s stunts.” Her hands moved as she talked. “Let’s just focus on the menu. We’ve still got some prepping to do, and I wanted to make strawberry cake.”
Allen rubbed his eyes and wrapped a camo-clad arm over her shoulder. “Whatever ya say, boss.”
They walked together beneath the shadows cast by the buildings, her leaning in close to him, wrapping her natural-painted nails around his arm. She shook wildly, never able to contain her fear of the dark, and she rarely went to the soup kitchen when the sun wasn’t up. Allen never seemed scared of anything. But today, if she wasn’t mistaken, she wasn’t the only one shaking. They crossed street after street, until she couldn’t ignore it anymore. She halted and stared at him under a streetlight two blocks shy of their destination. His eyes were red, and he didn’t fill out his jacket as well as he normally did. He’d taken this six-block walk at her side every day for the last five years, but today was different. “What’s going on? Your arm is shaking.”
“I’m an old man. Don’t worry ’bout me. Everythin’s fine. Now tell me ’bout that strawberry cake. Sounds awful good.” He tugged on her arm and picked up his stride again, this time with a less noticeable shake.
The sidewalks were bustling around the soup kitchen. The sun wouldn’t make an appearance for another twenty minutes or so, but people were ready to get inside. Dirty faces smiled at her. Despite all the people she helped each day, she never walked through Skid Row without Allen at her side; when the sun went down, all bets were off. That’s why she served lunch. That, and her fear of the dark. The only reason she’d come before sunup today was because of the holiday.
A dozen people filed through the glass doors after she unlocked them, the bell at the top chiming with each new entrant as she washed off a few cartons of strawberries. This morning, instead of her normal background music, she enjoyed the click of shoes across the tile and laughter over a win at cards. She wasn’t trading in her comfortable apartment for a tent any time soon, but the soup kitchen wasn’t just a haven for the homeless; it was her escape from social obligations.
Maybe that’s why, even with Holden’s charming personality and supermodel looks, she couldn’t give herself over to the idea of forever. He would always be connected to the part of herself she’d tried so hard to break free from.
“Savannah.” Allen stood inches away. “I made the tater salad.” He stuck a finger in the mixing bowl she’d just emptied between four baking pans and licked the batter. “The strawberry cakes are comin’ along. It’s six-thirty now. What time’s this Holden guy showin’ up?”
“He should be here any minute. And Allen?” She rinsed the bowl in the sink as he dried and stacked it back on the shelf behind them. “I do want your honest opinion.”
“You got it, boss.” He flicked water on her arm and laughed.
“I’m serious, and don’t think I’ve forgotten that something is going on with you. When everybody leaves this evening, let’s talk.” She squeezed his hand and pulled him over to the giant pile of hamburger meat. “For now, though, I need help forming about one hundred hamburger patties. I’ll get some of the guys over here to help you while I wait at the door for Holden. He’s as punctual as you. Something to bond over.” She passed the sink and flicked water his way this time, laughing as he dodged it.
“Sure thing. Just need to put somethin’ in your safe first.”
Savannah passed through the tables and mismatched rugs of the dining room, sending a couple guys to the back to help Allen. One of them turned on the stereo, the smooth sounds of Simon and Garfunkel filtering through the room. She wasn’t planning on the music, but it calmed her nerves over Allen and Holden’s first meeting. She wrapped a few patrons in hugs on her way to the door and straightened a tablecloth.
Holden was on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets, approaching. She bit her lip. She’d told him to dress down so her patrons would be more comfortable. Maybe that wasn’t clear enough. He was in jeans and a plain white shirt, but you could practically see where the gold-plated price tags once hung off them. That’s what she got for dating someone whose family owned the largest fashion house in L.A. Lucky for him, once he opened his mouth, people tended to like him.
“Hey. Come on in.”
“Savannah, good morning. You look as stunning, as usual.” He leaned down and kissed her cheek. “But I see a card game going over there I just have to be a part of.” Holden moved away and pulled up a chair between four men. He said something, and they all broke into laughter.
He’d be fine.
She stepped away and found Allen padding over the tile in his tennis shoes and wiping a red stain from the strawberries onto his tee shirt. She came around the counter, with her head down, and nearly ran into him. He held his arms out. “Woah, there!”
She laughed. Hopefully he would like Holden as much as everyone else did. His approval was important. “Hey. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. Holden is here.”
Allen clapped his hands together. “Great. Can’t wait to meet ’im. Had to put an envelope in the safe. Ya mind if I keep it there a couple days until I sort some things out?”
Holden excused himself from the table and approached as they chatted. “It’s more than okay. Use the safe as long as you please. Oh, and this is Holden.” She extended an arm. “Holden, this is Allen.”
They made eye contact, but Allen didn’t smile. He just stared at Holden with tight lips. The air around the three of them filled with tension. Allen was protective, but Holden seemed uncomfortable by the icy welcome. His back straightened, and his eyes grew wide. She nudged Allen. He needed to loosen up.
“Um. Sorry. It’s nice to meet ya, Holden. Savannah is special. Don’t ya ever let any danger or anything come ’er way. Ya hear?” Allen reached his hand forward slowly, and Holden shook it.
“Nice to meet you too, Allen. And don’t worry. I will do everything in my power to always keep her safe.” Holden wrapped her in a hug and smiled broadly. PDA was something that usually made her wiggle free. She and Holden had taken things slow so far anyway, but he seemed to need the closeness with Allen’s intensity. “I’ll see you in a bit, Allen. I’m going to have Savannah join in our card game. I need a lucky charm.”
Holden dragged her across the room to a wobbly oval table and gave her his seat. He knelt behind her on one knee and put his hands over her shoulders. Most of the cooking was done, so she had a few minutes to spare. She had just picked up her cards, when a wrinkly hand rested on top of hers.
It was Allen. “Savannah, I’ve got somethin’ to do. I’ll be back for ya tonight, and we’ll talk. I promise.”
“Okay.” She leaned back, with the cards in her hand, that familiar wrinkle of worry crossing her forehead. She couldn’t force Allen to share his troubles, even if her eyes were begging for it. “I’m here for you. If you need anything, tell me.”
He opened the front door and stepped through. “You got it, boss.”
Holden leaned down to her ear, brushing a strand of blonde hair away. “Is he okay? I can run out and check on him if you’d like.”
“No. Allen is private. It’s his way of protecting people. After everyone leaves, he’ll be back. I can talk to him then.” She laid down a three of hearts and spun around in the chair, her face an inch from Holden’s, which made her pulse race. Most girls would lean in for a kiss. For that matter, most men would too. He was stunning. Instead, she caught her breath and said, “I will need someone to man the grill today, since Allen left.”
Holden straightened with a smile. “Yes, ma’am. Just let me make a call first.”
he beans were cold, the sun was hot, and the plastic crate beneath him imprinted tiny squares all over his fourth point of contact. It had been three hours, after all. Sitting there, watching, waiting. He scraped the inside of the can for the last bite of beans, but his eyes remained focused on the road.
Joe was hoping for trouble. It didn’t matter what kind. He needed something to do, someone to help, a bad guy to test his aim on. He was bored out of his mind with the mundane. Having a friend in Allen was the only thing that kept him sane, but it wasn’t enough. He’d been trained to act by the Army and, before that, by his dad. But if it was between this and allowing himself to be found, he’d choose this every time. There was no way he was ever stepping foot in D.C.
So, he waited, sweat rolling in beads down his back and through his thick beard. His foot tapped impatiently. The street was barren. Everyone was at the soup kitchen. He could always go. It would make Allen happy, but there was a high chance he’d try and play matchmaker between him and Savannah. Joe shook his head. Nope. He’d leave that as plan Z. What would he do there, anyway? Play cards and talk to people about their feelings? Pass. He wanted to make a difference, but more than that, he wanted to make up for his failure in Afghanistan. Not that he ever could. He’d bled to earn that Green Beret, just like his dad, and then he disgraced it.
Now he was alone on a street that reeked of piss and cigarette smoke. He ran his hands through his hair, grown out and wavy, and tossed the empty can of beans in a trash bin a few yards away. It clattered to the bottom. Allen would be by at eleven-thirty with good food. Food like his mom used to cook in their rusty, old 1960s kitchen. That woman was talented. Just like Savannah.
He rose from the crate and stretched, adjusting a faded ball cap over his eyes when a woman ran by in hot pink tights and jewel-studded sneakers, shrieking into her phone about taking a wrong turn on her jog. How many clues did she need to sense she’d left high society? Tents, drug needles, dilapidated buildings? Maybe a flashing sign would have helped. It did give him something to do. He’d follow her and make sure she made it safely back to her millennial friends and their venti soy, triple-shot lattes.
He listened for her voice as he shimmied a brick loose in the wall of a run-down chicken factory and retrieved his Glock, catching a reflection of a man he barely recognized in a broken window. He replaced the brick and brushed the mortar crumbs off his hand. He had slicks all over the city. Allen said he was like a squirrel hiding nuts. Instead of nuts though, he stashed pistols, cash, and C4. Any day could be his last in L.A., and he had to be ready in case someone found him. It made good tactical sense, and it kept his hands busy.
He slipped the Glock into a holster at his back and kept a safe distance. She didn’t notice, just continued her tirade, waving her free hand all around to signal her distress over the situation. With her boobs bouncing around in a low-cut top that was even tighter than her painted-on pants, she was lucky she’d made it this far without a threatening situation. Savannah’s holiday feast probably saved her life. He’d follow her the last block until she was safe.
Just as the thought of safety hit him, a man emerged from a side street behind her, lurking into the available shadows on the side of the street. She missed that, too. Was it possible for someone to lack all basic survival skills? He shook his head.
The man, who was wearing a black hoodie, closed in fast, with a knife reflecting the morning sun in his right hand. Joe sped up, breathing steady. He reached out and jerked the man backward just as he’d brushed the woman with the tip of his blade. She turned and screamed. The man—he appeared to be in his mid-forties—was completely off balance as he threw a lame punch. Joe dodged it and frowned. This wasn’t the rush he needed. It could barely be considered a rush at all. With a huff, he smashed his fist against the man’s cheek, knocking his head into a brick wall. The man fell to the ground, unconscious.
He looked up. The woman still screamed. It was high pitched, shrill, and drawing a lot of attention. “Oh my gosh! What did you do to that man? Is he alive?” She moved away a step at a time, eyes never leaving his. “Stay back. I’ll call the cops. I mean it, mister. Don’t touch me!”
She turned and ran. Fast. He’d just saved her from whatever that loser had planned, but all she saw was a scruffy Middle Eastern man with tattoos. Why did skin color dictate threat level? Screw it. She was alive. Job done.
He dragged the guy away and propped his limp body against a decaying dumpster with the rest of the trash. The dude would probably miss the irony when he woke, but whatever. He deserved worse, maybe to lose a finger or a hand, but it wasn’t his job to dole out justice. He did take the knife, stowing it in his boot before turning the opposite direction the girl ran. He needed to breathe some fresh air and stretch his legs. Yeah, it was the same air on Skid Row, but it never felt fresh. Each breeze that blew through was sour and stale.