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Authors: Sophia Henry

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Chapter 3
Jason

“Then this chick starts yelling at me for benching her brother. I mean, she was pissed because I swore at him, but I know it was really because I benched him.” I emphasized my point with a grunt as I hefted two hundred pounds over my chest. “I didn't even swear. I said ass.”

“Welcome to life in a small town, man.” Tone, my weightlifting spotter today at the Morris Courts gym, laughed. “Be glad it's hockey. People around here don't give a shit about hockey. Football is a different beast.”

I placed the bar on the rack and sat up.

“Real men play football.” Tone shrugged, throwing the towel draped over his shoulder to me. “Pussies play hockey.”

“Thanks.” I caught the towel with a smile and a shake of my head.

Controlling a tiny vulcanized piece of rubber with a stick as it glides over frozen water while trying to stay balanced on two thin blades as large grown men attempted to knock you on your ass seemed a lot harder than throwing and catching a large ball on stable ground. I like football. It's a grueling sport. But it doesn't take as much skill as hockey.

Tone picked up a twenty-five-pound weight in each hand and began curling them. “Whose sister did you say she was?”

“Damien Meadows.” I grabbed my water bottle from the floor before rising from the bench.

“Damien Meadows? Linden Meadows's little brother?” he asked, eyeing me in the mirror in front of him as he continued his curls.

I shrugged. I didn't have a clue what Damien's sister's name was. But Tone was born and raised in Bridgeland, so it made sense that he would know her.

“How the fuck could you mistake Linden Meadows for his mom? That girl could've been prom queen.”

“I barely noticed her,” I said.

A half-truth. After she announced she was Meadows's sister, I'd gotten an eyeful. I didn't agree with the prom queen description. Maybe a Victoria's Secret Angel on her day off.

“Bullshit. Every guy in this town looks at Linden Meadows.” Tone called my bluff. He seemed to be joking, but he eyed me with caution.

“I saw her walk away.” I got up and walked to another machine, hoping Tone would drop the subject.

“You should probably stay away from her. Her ex is a pretty big dude. With a temper,” he warned.

“Thanks for the heads-up.” I glanced up. “But I have no intention of going near her.”

“It's a small town, Officer. People talk.”

“Let it go, man. Sorry I brought it up.” I sat down at the rowing machine. I didn't need Tone to spot me with that, and hoped the guy took the hint.

The kid was a good person to lift with, because he was strong, used correct form, and knew his way around the gym. But he was annoying as fuck. Always talking about some chick he'd banged and all the partying he did.

As someone who left that lifestyle behind in college, I wasn't impressed. I knew Tone was still young, but he needed to get a job—or keep a job—and grow up.

—

After a half hour on the rowing machine, I left the gym to shower for work. Though my current shift had me working midnights, I'd picked up this afternoon for another guy.

As a fairly new Bridgeland resident, I didn't have much going on yet anyway. Taking on extra shifts gave me something to do and put me in good standing with the other guys on the force. Never hurt to have a few favors to cash in someday.

As a police officer, I consider it part of my job to be approachable and available. The people in town needed to trust me just as much as a guy they went to school with. Since I hadn't grown up in Bridgeland like the majority of the guys on the force, I had to find ways to get involved right away.

Which is why I started coaching a youth hockey team. Bridgeland had one of the best programs in the state. Kids who could actually get NCAA scholarships or be drafted to the OHL.

Since my playing days ended years ago, coaching satisfied my love of the game and my physical need to be on the ice. I enjoyed working with kids, taking them to the next level, watching their love and respect for the game grow with every goal—every play. I wanted to coach kids who breathed the game. Kids who would bend down and kiss the ice every time they touched it again after a long summer.

Coaching gave me something to do here, miles away from Detroit, my hometown. I like to keep busy, because when I have free time it's too easy to get carried away analyzing the odd turn my life had taken in recent years.

I still wasn't convinced I'd made the right decision leaving the Metro Detroit area to pursue my career. Though it would have been a tougher choice if the bankruptcy and a zillion other issues Detroit had gone through over the last few years hadn't made getting hired next to impossible.

The double-edged sword of politics and city mismanagement. The effects of those problems trickled down to every department, including police and fire.

Right before I graduated from college, when I'd been researching departments and academies, Detroit still had numerous hiring freezes. When they were hiring, I was looking at crazy competitive numbers: 650 applicants for forty open positions, and most of those jobs were going to go to people with connections.

The situation has since gotten better in the post-bankruptcy plan, with the city adding more jobs recently, but at the time I couldn't wait around.

Instead, I created a future plan. I'd spend five years learning the ropes and gaining experience in a different city, then move back to Detroit and apply. After interviewing in a few places in the Metro Detroit area, and a few more farther out, I chose Bridgeland, a small farm town about two hours outside of the Metro Detroit sprawl. Close enough to visit my mom and dad or make it down to Red Wings or Tigers games when I had the time off.

My brother Landon would kill me if I didn't get down for a few Red Wings games, since he'd snagged a spot as their newest defenseman. He already had his jock in a knot at me for moving out of Detroit in the first place. He would've never spoken to me again if I'd missed his home opener playing for the Wings.

But if I'd made it to the NHL, I guess I'd feel the same.

—

Two hours into my second shift of the night, a car sped by me. As I followed from a distance without my overhead lights on, I glanced at the speedometer. The car in front of me had left me in the dust, and I'd already accelerated to ten over the limit.

I flipped on my lights and stomped on the gas pedal, and after a quarter of a mile, the driver pulled over to the side of the road.

After inputting the plate number, I sat in the warmth of my patrol car waiting for the computer mounted on my dash to pull up the information.

“No fucking way,” I whispered when the name flashed across the screen.

Linden Marie Meadows.

I checked my reflection in the mirror before pulling the handle and pushing the door open. As if she didn't hate me enough already. This experience certainly wasn't going to help warm her up.

Chapter 4
Indie

I slammed my hand on the steering wheel before pulling my car over to the shoulder. I knew the blue lights on top of the car spun and flashed for me, since I was the only one on the road. I waited impatiently as the cop took his time getting out of the squad car. Two frickin' blocks from home. Two.

From my side mirror, I watched as the officer finally got out. I took in the way his broad shoulders filled out his dark-blue, department-issued leather coat. There were only a few young, fit cops in this town. I thought I knew them all, either from high school or from their routine stops at Peak City, the restaurant where I worked.

But when my gaze trailed back up his muscular body to his face, I almost lost my dinner.

“Do you know why I pulled you over, miss?”

Damien's hockey coach leaned over, peering into my car. He didn't look me in the eyes at first. Instead, he scanned the interior of my vehicle, as if I had something to hide.

No drugs or weapons in here, jackweed.

“No, sir.” I knew he pulled me over for speeding, but I refused to admit guilt.

“I clocked you at fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit.”

“Just trying to get home, sir.” I fought the sarcasm trying to weasel its way into my voice. Be civil. He's an officer of the law, after all. The cop paused, eyebrows drawing together as he observed me.

“Have you been drinking, miss?”

Observed might not be the right word. More like bored into my soul. I sat, mesmerized by the cute wrinkle that formed between his eyebrows when he squinted to get a better read. Arctic-blue eyes peeked through the slits beneath his lowered lids.

“No, Officer—” I tore my eyes from his to read the shiny, silver name tag on his chest. “Taylor.”

“You smell like a brewery.”

“That's probably because I work at one,” I said through my teeth. I'd never been disrespectful to a police officer in my life. But this wasn't any old cop, it was Coach Jackweed, so he didn't count.

“Have a few drinks after work?” he asked.

“No. I didn't,” I answered, squeezing my steering wheel. Guess he was a prick all the time, not just during children's hockey games. High school kids were still technically children.

Officer Taylor continued to stare down at me as if he could tell if I was sober or not by looking. Maybe he had super cop powers.

I jerked my head upward to meet his gaze. “Geez, I need to move to a bigger city. One where cops have better things to do than pull people over for going a few miles per hour over the speed limit.”

“I just came from one of those. You don't want to live there. I'd much rather be pulling you over for speeding than pulling your dead body out of a car.”

“Well, that's morbid.”

“That's life in the big city.” He lifted his head and scanned the road in front of my car.

I shook my head, trying to get the conversation back on track.

“I'm sorry I was speeding, Officer. I got an emergency call from my family and I'm just trying to get home. You're welcome to escort me to make sure I'm telling the truth if you need to.”

“Good idea.” He closed his uber-important cop notebook without ripping a ticket out for me.

“You're letting me go?” I asked, thoroughly confused by the exchange.

“Since you have a family emergency to get to.” He winked at me, causing a massive shiver to run through my body. His eyes were beautiful, light-blue orbs, cautious but warm. Hell, his whole face was gorgeous. He had all-American golden-boy good looks.

I immediately regretted the jolt of lust that passed through me. I wasn't supposed to be attracted to Coach Jackweed, or Officer Jackweed, or whatever his identity was. But my stupid libido betrayed me, and my heart was still pounding from the interaction as he sauntered back to his squad car. I watched him retreat in my rearview mirror, taking those few moments to catch my breath.

That uniform did great things for his ass.

“Damn it.” I turned the key in the ignition with ferocity. I sounded like my mother. Flicking my turn signal down, I pulled back onto the road like a good, sober driver.

I was aware of him pulling out behind me in a different way than someone is usually aware of a cop driving behind them. My heart pounded, aware of him. Could he tell when my eyes flicked to the rearview mirror to check him out? Was it obvious?

Officer Taylor trailed me the entire ride. My eyes darted to my speedometer every two seconds and my sweaty palms began to slip off the steering wheel, nervous at the police escort.

I tried to deny the thought that Officer Jackweed was the reason my heart still hammered in double time. I blamed the mystery of a hot new resident in my quaint, little town that stayed stagnant except for the seasonal influx of faceless, nameless college kids.

When I reached my driveway, I pulled in slowly and gave the cop a small wave to let him know I was good. But he pulled up in front of our house and turned his lights off. Next thing I knew, he was getting out of his car.

Damn it.

I snatched my purse out of the passenger seat, scampered out of my car, and jogged to Officer Taylor.

“What are you doing?” I grabbed his wrist.

He didn't speak, just dropped his eyes to my fingers curled over his wrist. I released him immediately and held my hands up criminal-style in front of me.

“You said you had an emergency,” he explained. “I'm trained for emergencies. Thought I might be able to help.”

My teeth sunk into my lower lip as I tried to think of a way to cover my lie, since he seemed genuinely concerned.

“It's okay,” I stammered, glancing toward the door, then back at my feet. “The emergency is personal.”

He reached out and lifted my chin so our eyes met. “You're sure everything is okay?”

Anger burned in my blood. I backed away from the intimate touch and folded my arms in front of my chest. “Thanks for your concern, Officer, but I can handle it from here.”

He held his hands up, mimicking my reaction seconds ago. Then he turned around and walked back to his car.

I watched him get into his car with narrowed eyes. Despite his kindness and concern, he had no right to put his hands on me.

I may have had an exaggerated reaction, but his touch was completely inappropriate. I'm pretty sure he didn't lift the chin of other people he accused of being drunk to get their attention.

Before he drove away, he lifted his hand in a wave.

I lifted mine, too—to extend my middle finger.

Chapter 5
Jason

My shift ended at six in the morning. I'd planned on going right home, showering, and getting into bed, but I was too amped up from my meeting with Linden Meadows to sleep, so I hit the gym.

Physical exhaustion finally kicked in after a six-mile run on the treadmill, but Linden still ran through my mind.

When I reached my truck, I retrieved my phone from the glove compartment. There was a text from my sister, Auden, waiting for me.

Yeah, yeah. A cop should know better than to leave expensive electronics in his car, but it was hidden. And there was no reason to take my phone into the gym. For some reason, I couldn't listen to music when running, I needed a clear head.

Auden: Hey bro! I'm back in town. You awake?

Me: Yep.

Auden: Wanna meet me at Lil' Chef?

Me: Be there in five.

I tossed my phone into the cup holder between my seats and headed to Lil' Chef, the twenty-four-hour greasy-spoon diner beloved by night owls and intoxicated Central State University students. They served breakfast all day and had the strongest coffee in town.

I didn't need coffee after all I'd done to come down from my double shift, but I did want to see Auden. Especially since I found out I had a sister only a little less than two years ago. Not a half sister, but a full-blooded sister.

How did I not know about her to begin with? Family secrets. Not my family, the Taylors. My parents adopted me when I was a newborn and I've known that for as long as I can remember. They never kept it a secret from me; never kept anything a secret from me. They have an open-book policy. If I ask and they know the answer, they tell me.

The way issues are handled in Auden's repressed family is significantly different. Her grandparents, the people who raised her, have an “everyone shut up and don't ask questions” policy. And we all know policies like that tend to blow up in people's faces and hurt everyone involved. Auden's grandparents aren't horrible people. It's just how they deal with things.

Auden and I were both raised in Detroit, so, close, yet worlds apart. Parallel lives that intersected through hockey. My brother Landon and I played throughout our youth. After Landon, the talented one, was selected by the Charlotte Aviators in the NHL draft, they sent him to their AHL affiliate, the Detroit Pilots, to develop. That's where I met Auden.

While at home during her winter break from Central State, her grandfather had set her up with a monthlong job translating for Aleksandr Varenkov, who was one of the Pilots' star players at the time. That dude was a straight-off-the-boat Russian hockey star who knew English, but wouldn't speak to the media for fear of having his comments taken out of context.

At the game, Auden and I realized we knew each other from Johnny's, the diner in Bridgeland where she worked as a server while she was at university. I'd spent multiple lunch breaks at Johnny's, since they served quick, good food and gave cops free coffee.

From the moment I saw her, I couldn't get her blue eyes out of my head—and I don't mean that in any kind of weird, sexy way—even back then. Every time I looked at her, it was like seeing myself through the distorted Plexiglas at a hockey rink. I asked my brother Landon what her last name was. Figured he'd know, since Landon is Aleksandr's best friend and former roommate—before Aleksandr moved to Charlotte to play in the NHL.

The name Berezin sounded familiar, but I couldn't place where I'd heard or seen it. Then, out of the blue, it hit me. I asked my mom to look at my adoption paperwork. She confirmed my recollection.

My biological mother's name was Valerie Berezin. The wave of similarities I'd noticed between Auden and me almost knocked me over.

The same fair skin, the same dishwater-blond hair, the same bright-blue eyes. The pieces fell into place.

Valerie Berezin, a scared teenager, gave a baby up for adoption. Me.

Four years later, Valerie had another baby, one she kept. Auden.

When you've grown up in a repressed family your entire life, the way things are handled is significantly different than if you've grown up in an open environment.

Here's how my family, the Taylors, would have handled Auden's situation if they had been her grandparents: “Hey, your mom had a baby that she gave up for adoption before she had you. No big deal, but we wanted you to know so you aren't blindsided in case it ever comes up. We don't want you to hate us and think we've been keeping secrets from you.”

How the Berezin family handled it: “Nyet! Ve tell you nuhfing. You vill sit dere and shut up and never ask vun vord. Even if you find out de troof!”

Okay. It probably wasn't that bad. And they probably sounded more Russian than German…but the point is, the Berezins had kept a brother from Auden, and she blew up at her family over it. I think their relationship is almost back to normal—or as normal as it could ever be in a family that hides members from each other.

I'd never understood that way of thinking.

Deal with it and move on.

All of this happened during Auden's junior year at Central State. So, the best thing that came out of the unbelievably crazy situation was having a year and a half to get to know her before she graduated and moved.

That was something, right?

Auden waved to me from a coffee station in the back corner of the restaurant, where she stood filling up a brown porcelain mug. When I walked past the cash register at the entrance, I knocked softly on the glass top of the counter and winked at Rhetta, Lil' Chef's longest-employed waitress, and oldest, at eighty years young.

Anyone who saw Auden at the coffee nook pouring a cup of joe probably thought she was a server. Just like anyone who saw her push through the kitchen doors to grab a plate off the line might make the same assumption.

But she wasn't. Not at Lil' Chef, anyway.

“Why can't you just sit and be waited on?” I asked.

Auden smiled. And it wasn't the weird, tentative smile of a stranger, but the genuine smile of a sister who was happy to see me.

My heart slammed against my chest, still learning how to react to seeing her. It always amazed me that she wanted to build a relationship, rather than turn me away.

She set the steaming mug down before wrapping me in a hug. When she pulled away, she said, “I'm helping Rhetta. She's been here since three thirty this morning, and she's here for another half hour. Her knees can't take all those hours.”

Auden's not perfect, by any means, but that's really the kind of person she is. Compassionate, helpful, always thinking of others. She told me once that it was her way of combating what an unlikable, selfish kid she'd been.

But I don't think she has anything to make up for. She's not any more selfish than the average person. I'd grown up in a house with dozens of angry, grieving foster kids who acted out because they didn't know how to handle their grief. Auden was a textbook case. She didn't know how to handle her grief and she didn't get the right kind of support, because her entire family had been grieving as well.

She scanned my warm-up pants and hoodie sweatshirt. “Where's the uniform?”

I slid into the booth she'd secured for us before she'd taken over Rhetta's tables. “Just came from the gym.”

Auden looked over her shoulder toward the front of the restaurant, where Rhetta stood greeting another table. She grabbed a thick lock of her blond hair and began twirling it around her fingers.

From all of my previous interactions with Auden, I knew she was anxious by nature, the kind of person who worries about everyone and everything. But her vibe seemed off.

“Hey.” I reached out and touched her other arm, which was resting on the table. “You seem upset. Is it about Rhetta, or is something else wrong?”

Auden turned around. Her usually wide, bright-blue eyes seemed to hold a hint of sadness. “Today's the anniversary of Mom's death.” She paused. “Valerie. Sorry.”

“It's okay, she's your mom, but—” Confusion stopped me from blurting the first thought that came to my head.

Auden had come to town to get married. Though she and Aleksandr live in Charlotte, North Carolina, they wanted to tie the knot in Bridgeland, because this is where her grandparents live. They wanted them to be at the wedding without having to travel.

“What?” Auden asked.

“Why would you want to get married around an anniversary like that?” I asked.

She shrugged, still twisting hair between her fingers. Every time I looked at my sister, the similarities in our features stuck out. It was like sitting across from a female doppelgänger. I wasn't sure I'd ever get used to it.

“Why not have something to celebrate, so I don't have to be so depressed this time every year?” she asked, as if everyone should understand her logic.

“Ever think it'll backfire and you'll spend your wedding anniversary depressed instead?”

Auden's features might as well have been attached to a string on her wrist, because when her arm dropped, her entire expression did, too.

I'd delivered the line as softly as I could without whispering, but I could tell by her reaction that it struck the wrong chord.

“Been hanging around Gribov?” she asked, referring to Pavel Gribov, one of Aleksandr's teammates, who had a reputation for being a huge ass.

“What?” I leaned back, confused at her comparison.

“Sounds like you two are neck and neck in the Dickbag of the Year contest.”

Do not engage. Do not engage.

Auden was a little girl when her mom was murdered. It's been sixteen years and she's still grieving. I get that.

“Sorry. That was totally uncalled for. I didn't even realize how mean it sounded.”

Auden sat in cryptic silence, proving I still didn't know my sister very well.

“Did I ever tell you…” I began. The inherent need to fix things consumed me, but I almost didn't want to finish.

Fuck it.

“I looked into your mom's case,” I blurted out. “Did I ever tell you that?”

Auden's head snapped up and her eyes met mine. Still no sound, but I had her attention, and that was all I needed to continue.

“I called a friend of mine who's a cop in Detroit. He ran the file.”

My sister leaned forward, her hopeful eyes begging me for new information—any information on the cold case. Ice fucking cold. Just like more than half of the unsolved murders in Detroit.

Why did I even bring it up?

“But he didn't find anything new,” I continued. “The case hasn't even been touched since a few weeks after it happened.”

“Oh.” She slumped back in her chair and flicked at the straw in her water glass.

“Sorry.” I just clinched Dickbag of the Year by getting her hopes up, then stomping on her heart.

“Don't apologize,” she said, lifting her eyes to mine. “That was really cool. You didn't have to do that. And I appreciate it.”

“Well, I didn't do much. I was, I don't know…” I said, then sighed. “Trying to help, I guess. Not sure how.”

“The thought. I appreciate that you thought of doing something like that for me.” She tucked the lock of hair she'd been twirling behind her ear. “It's not like we get updates, ya know? No matter how long it's been, tragedy always eats away at you when it's unsettled.” She laughed and shook her head. “Wanna hear something funny?”

I nodded.

“I mean, I know it's not funny. At all. But I used to wonder if her murder was a planned attack. Like, was it our sperm donor? Or was it the Russian Mafia?”

Her description of our father, as much as her conspiracy theories, made me laugh. “The Russian Mafia?”

“Hey, Dedushka is Russian.” She spread her arms palms up in front of her as she shrugged. “Maybe he's got some enemies.”

Dedushka, the Russian term for Grandpa, is what Auden calls Viktor Berezin. I still call him Viktor, even though he's my grandfather, too. Getting to know Auden has been my first foray into my biological family. I'd only recently begun to get to know Viktor and Catherine Berezin by having lunch with them every once in a while.

I dismissed her idea, though Viktor Berezin probably did have Mafia contacts. “Speaking of Russians, when does Aleksandr get in?”

“Next Wednesday.”

“And the wedding is on Thursday?” I asked, my voice taking the disbelieving tone I use when I'm interrogating someone.

“Yeah. He's gotta leave on Friday morning. Aviators have a game in Minnesota that night.”

I tried to blink away my shock. “Why don't you guys just wait until summer?”

Auden shrugged. “For the same reason I'm wearing the shoes I bought for the wedding today.”

She twisted in her seat and lifted her feet off the ground, giving me a better view of red heels that looked like a glitter bomb barfed on them. Dorothy would be proud.

“Why wait to do the things that make you happy?” she continued, tapping her heels together. Then she twisted around so her feet were hidden under the table again. “Every day I wake up is a special occasion. I'm here. I'm alive. Can't say that about tomorrow, can I?”

If any other girl sat in front of me and said something like that, I'd ask her where she got the weed she'd been smoking—and if she had a prescription for it. But if I'd learned anything about Auden since I'd met her, it was that she truly believed that. Aleksandr had given her a new outlook on life.

Live in the moment. Love in the moment. Appreciate the moment.

Wasn't a bad philosophy.

If only it was one I could wrap my head around. I was too concerned with the future to enjoy the present.

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