Authors: Lauren Stewart
“You okay, dude?” he asked, bending down. “You need some help?”
The guy grunted and shoved Mitch’s leg. “I don’t need your fucking help.”
needs help once in a while. There’s no shame in it.” Mitch stuck out his hand. “You fought the good fight, my man. Thank you.”
Through eyes almost swollen shut, the guy glared for a moment and then slapped his hand into Mitch’s. “You fight like the devil’s chasing you.”
Shaking his head, Mitch hauled the guy up to his feet. “The devil caught me a long time ago. Now I’m just his bitch.” When the guy smiled, Mitch winced. “I see many unpleasant dental bills in your future, my friend.”
The guy nodded, reached into his mouth, and yanked on one of his teeth. It popped out like he’d just flicked-on a light switch. “Give this to your keeper. Tell him it’s payment for the next hard fucking he gives you.”
If Mitch was a better man, he would’ve laughed at the joke, left the guy with a little bit of pride. But Mitch
a better man. Nor did he want to
a better man. Not now. So he slammed his fist into the guy’s jaw, hearing a crunch followed by a communal groan from the crowd. At least his ears were working properly.
“Watch your mouth,” Mitch said. “The Devil’s actually a hell of a guy. And he lets me be the little spoon.”
Limping out of the warehouse towards his car, Mitch was numb to everything—his thoughts were simple, easy, and frankly, barely coherent. Just the way he liked it. But once his adrenaline died down, he’d feel the physical pain. And it would almost be enough to cover the emotional shit. Almost.
When he got back to his house, he paused on the doorstep. Every time he came home, he imagined he would find her there, dumped off by Chastity, waiting to be woken up. Every time he walked up to the door, his gut would clench, knowing he wouldn’t find her there. Knowing what an asshole he’d been and how much time he’d wasted pushing her away. And now it was too late.
. The only thing he ever found was Landon’s ass, drinking all of his booze and sharing his miserable existence. “Hi, honey. I’m home,” he called out before heading into the living—
—room to check in with his babysitter.
“Damn, Turner! What the hell did you do?”
“I cut in front of an old lady at the grocery store.” He turned his face to the side. “Think it’s going to bruise?”
“I wish.” Landon’s nostrils flared, but he didn’t seem surprised at the mess of a face Mitch was showing off.
Something that would leave a normal man limping or bleeding or whining for weeks only bothered Mitch for about a day. A bonus of not getting his daily dose of Jolie’s poison perhaps. Like a fucking athlete, Hyde took good care of the body he constantly wanted to consume. And in return, Mitch did whatever he could to make it harder for the bastard, hoping that the healing would diminish. It never worked. Already his wounds were itching as the blood vessels and skin got reacquainted, the bones started building themselves back up, and the bruises started to fade.
tell me the other guy could walk away,” Landon said.
Mitch walked around him and headed into the kitchen for some ice. “Of course he can walk. I barely even
“You need another hobby. Or, hell, why not go back to your job?”
“Too dangerous.” For his former clients. “Plus, I haven’t found a suitable replacement for my assistant-slash-betrayer.”
“You applying for the job?” He shook his head. “I don’t know, Landon. You’re good with the whole keys-and-cage thing, but how fast can you type?”
Although, the guy definitely needed something to do. He was a disaster—jobless, basically squatting at Mitch’s, and drinking anything he could get his hands on. And the house’s maximum depression and total loser-dom limit was
over capacity. Any minute, Mitch imagined alarm bells would start ringing and both of them would be ejected out of a skylight.
As Mitch shoved an empty pizza box over, he thought he probably
hire someone, at least to clean up. “Clean up this shithole and I’ll pay you in booze. But you’re so far in the red already, it may take a while to work off.”
“So are you going back to work or not?”
“Sure. Just as soon as I find someone who will slip a let’s-fuck-Mitch-over cocktail into my morning java. Jolie was
good at that.”
“It’s probably a bad idea. With a face like
, who the hell would want to be in a room with you?”
“A face like what?” He reached up, running a hand over his chin, wincing only slightly whenever he reached a bruise or cut.
“Like you got mugged. Every day. For the past couple weeks. By four assailants trained in Krav Maga.”
Mitch put his index finger along his nose, trying to judge how badly-offset tonight’s break had left it. “It’s not that bad.” And it would be better tomorrow.
“Why do you let them beat the crap out of you?” Landon asked. “I know you’re holding back. I know you could drop them in the first few minutes. So why do you drag it out?”
“For the pain.” He went to the sink to wash off his face.
“I should’ve known.” Landon rolled his eyes. “I’m living with a sadist.”
pain. Fighting, letting someone beat the shit out of me, numbs out the rest.” The bruises were reminders that distracted him from what was happening inside. And as soon as they disappeared, he had to think about that shit again. So he spent a lot of time in the ring.
“That’s frigging deep—deeply disturbing.”
“It satisfies him. Makes him easier to control.” He watched the blood-water mixture swirl at the bottom of the sink until it gurgled down the drain. “But it’s only temporary. He always wants more.”
“So you keep fighting.”
“If you’ve got another option, I’d love to hear it.”
“Then why fight back? Why not just let them hammer on you until they call the fight?”
Mitch shrugged but didn’t answer. Saying it out loud would make it real, and he’d never be able to take it back. Never be able to make it untrue. But the fact was that he
to fight back. He
Because Hyde always wins.
“Fine,” Landon said, wiggling his cell phone in his hand. “Maybe you’ll feel more like talking when you hear my good news.”
“You made the Olympic team for the javelin? No wait! The tests came back, and it really
just a rash.”
Landon had obviously lost his sense of humor along with his sense of pride.
“So tell me the goddamned good news!”
“It’s not just
. A buddy from the station.”
Mitch stopped in his tracks. Frozen. His heart pounding a rhythm unmatched even while he was in the ring. He took a deep breath. “If your news involves anything
than Eden or The Clinic, after I’m done with you, you may
be able to walk away.”
“No beating necessary. The intel’s from an off-the-record but in-the-precinct source. And it’s about Carter.”
“Hallelujah.” Mitch closed his eyes, silently thanking the saints, all the little people, and the Academy.
It’s about fucking time.
“What has the little boy scout been up to?”
“A friend of mine, who I’m Ivory-soap-percent sure isn’t working for The Clinic, thinks he saw the kid.”
“Not getting the Ivory soap reference, but don’t really give a shit either.” He stopped before he got to the kitchen, flipped around and headed back to the door. Shaking his keys angrily. “When, where, and why aren’t we already in the car?”
Landon’s steps matched his. “He was seen coming out of a liquor store.”
“The Clinic snuck him out of the hospital so he could get wasted? Well, that was thoughtful. And unlikely—considering the doctor seemed to think he was weeks away from being able to take a piss standing up. Did your friend say anything about a wheelchair?” He shook his head. “Screw it, let’s go. If it’s really him, I’ll make sure he’s in a wheelchair for a long, long time.”
Landon grabbed his arm. “Look, my buddy
he saw him. But he could’ve been wrong. Florida is filled with guys who look like Carter. And I can’t have you freak if it turns out to be nothing.”
“Five minutes ago I thought we had nothing, and I was perfectly fine.
, in twenty minutes from now, I feel that way again, I’ll be fine.”
Landon cocked an eyebrow. “You think you’re fine? That this”—he motioned to Mitch’s damaged face—“is
Mitch shrugged him off. “This is as fine as I’m ever going to be.”
Landon took so fucking long to get in the damn car, Mitch seriously considered leaving the guy behind. But he didn’t know where the hell Carter had been spotted. Nor did he really feel like going to every liquor store in the county harassing people. Well, he
didn’t feel like doing that.
Landon slid into the passenger side. “Are you sure you can drive? When’s the last time you shot yourself up?”
“Are you worried about me, Landon?”
past worried about you. You’re losing it, man.”
“You’re wrong,” he said, slamming the gearshift into reverse and peeling out before Landon had even closed the door.
wrong. You’re turning into a frigging menace. You’re losing control. Don’t tell me I’m wrong, because I’m not. And if you don’t see it happening, that’s the most frightening part of all.”
He kept his eyes on the road. “You’re wrong because it’s
done. I’m not
control. It’s already lost. I don’t fucking remember a time it wasn’t.” He’d never been free, not once. Controlled by Hyde and then by The Clinic. Being slung back and forth in games he wanted no part in. And if he were honest with himself, even
controlled him. The feelings he had for her, the fear he felt that she would never come back, that he’d never see her again, weakened his resolve, his will. Not for justice. No, that would never weaken. But for life? Well,
was a far more pathetic story.
“Where are we going?” he snapped.
Landon gave him an address about thirty minutes south of the house.
. Thirty minutes was nothing. Nothing, when it felt like she was a lifetime away already.
“You need to pull it together,” Landon said in that irritatingly ever-patient tone he had. “I need you to pull it together. Hell, so does
“After I rip the heads off of the bastards who took her, tear them apart limb-from-limb.
I’ll pull it together.”
Neither of them spoke for a few minutes. When Landon finally did, his voice was soft, sad. “What if by
, it’s too late?”
After that, neither of them spoke for a long time.
§ § §
They showed Carter’s picture to everyone inside until the cashier asked them to leave. Then, after Landon flashed his fake, right-out-of-a-cereal-box-looking badge, the guy told
to wait outside. So Mitch left peacefully and watched Landon do the helpful-cop-thing through the window with his nose pressed up against the glass.
As soon as Landon came out of the liquor store, shaking his head, Mitch asked, “Are you sure this is the right place?”
“Yes. How many people did you accost out front?”
Mitch scratched his nose. “A couple.”
Landon blew out a breath. “You’re attitude isn’t helping anything. No one wants to help me with you breathing over my shoulder, glaring at them. You’re scaring people, Turner. And every day it’s getting worse. Like a rabid dog or something.”
“You’ll know when I go rabid, Landon. It’ll be hard to miss.” He paced in front of the car. “So what now?”
is that Carter looks like the hundred other twenty-somethings in this neighborhood. So we wait to see if anyone resembling him comes back. But you need to stay in the car. I can’t have you wailing on some poor guy who just happens to be unlucky enough to look like him.”
“It’s a fucking liquor store!” Mitch slammed his fists down onto the hood of the car. “Unless he’s drinking as much as
are, he doesn’t come here every day. So how long will we have to wait?”
“You got something better to do?”
“No,” he mumbled, dropping his head forward. He felt so useless, so inept. He
he was doing more damage than good. But he couldn’t help himself. Between the constant pain from Hyde and the painful knowledge that there was nothing he could do, even
didn’t trust his judgment.
“When’s the last time you slept?” Landon asked.
“I don’t know, what month is it?”
. I promise I will go to bed early tonight. Happy?”
“Is it because of Hyde?”
Mitch sighed, rocking his jaw back and forth to loosen it. “Partly.”
“Let me guess. The other part is because of her.”
It bothered Mitch that they never used her name. Never saying her name fogged his memory of her. Like he’d done with his sister. Never referring to them by name somehow made one’s death and one’s disappearance less real. And the
part was that he liked it that way. He was starting to detach from the love he’d lost, his feelings becoming unreal or vague, as if he’d never loved her at all.
“No,” he said, wiping his hands over his face. “The other part is because of these fucking drugs. I’d like to spend at least a
hours a day enjoying a bit of coherency and be out of the cage. So sleep has moved
down on my list of priorities.”
“Then stop taking so much of it.”
“You should talk.”
Since he’d known him, Landon had cleaned out his liquor cabinet twice. By himself. He didn’t know how the guy did it and still be able to stand upright. Or speak without slurring. He would’ve put money on Landon being unable to stop himself from buying a couple bottles while he showed Carter’s picture around the liquor store. Maybe he was out of cash.