I snorted and stepped around Benny like he wasn’t worth my time, which he wasn’t.
“Five years is a long time to go without; it’s also a long time to work on a grudge and grow the f**k up. You don’t know me, Benny. Novak doesn’t know me, and I don’t care what kind of muscle or firepower he wants to throw at me, if he had anything to do with Race going missing, I’ll make him pay. Tell Roxie thanks for ratting me out.”
“You get what you pay for.” I wasn’t sure if that was a dig at me or at her.
“I don’t know about you and your ugly mug, but I’ve never had to pay for it in my life.”
I saw him scowl and took advantage of his distraction to lunge forward and slam the hardest part of my forehead right into the bridge of his nose. I heard a satisfying crunch, and then his scream of pain as his cronies hurried forward to keep him from folding to his knees in the dirty alley. I gave my head a shake to clear my vision, because the move hadn’t done a thing for my headache. I stepped around my now howling and blood-gushing adversary, tossing over my shoulder as I made my way to the mouth of the alley:
“You might not want to underestimate me, Benny. That was always your downfall.”
My name is Shane Baxter, Bax to most people, and I’m a thief.
Got a girl? I’ll take her from you. Got a sweet ride you dropped a mint on? I’ll take it from you. Got expensive electronics you think are safe? I’ll come and take them, because you probably didn’t need them anyway. If it isn’t nailed down or attached to you by unbreakable chains, there is a good chance I can make it mine. It was the only thing I was good at. Taking things that didn’t belong to me was second nature; well, that and finding all the worst kinds of trouble to get into. I was only twenty-three, had gone in for a nickel right on the heels of my eighteenth birthday, but that wasn’t even close to the first time I got busted or banged heads with the law. I wasn’t a master of good choices or clean living, but I knew my strengths and I stuck with them and I took care of my own. Whatever the cost might be.
I had two people in my life I bothered to care about: my mom and Race. There used to be three, but the last one let me down in too many ways to count, and now I swore I would coldcock him the next time I got the opportunity. My mom was long-suffering, stubborn, and the only person who stayed on my side when I went away. She had terrible taste in boyfriends, a bad habit of drinking more than was healthy, and trouble keeping a steady job. She was the very definition of down-and-out no matter how many lifelines I tried to throw her.
I started stealing stuff before I understood what I was doing because I was so tired of going without. As I got older and better at it, I did it to pay the bills and to keep a roof over our heads. My mom never judged me, never turned her back on me, and was the only person in the world who would actually be happy to see me out of prison.
Race and I were the two most unlikely friends anyone could imagine. He was college-bound, tech-savvy, and from a family that had all the right connections and pedigrees. He was well spoken and charming, always dressed like he was going to a job interview, and was full of patience and common sense. He was a delightful summer breeze to my blizzard of destruction. I hadn’t even finished high school, could barely read a full sentence, didn’t have a family beyond my mom and the slum we lived in, and I looked like what I was: a thug. Even before serving hard time I had carried layers of hard muscle and bulk making me a big guy who no one wanted to mess with. No one but Race.
I tried to jack his car one night when we were both teenagers. He was driving a sweet Roush Mustang with an even sweeter blonde in the passenger seat. I had no idea what he was doing in such a bad part of town, but I wasn’t the kind of guy who let an opportunity pass me by. I shoved a knife in his face, pulled him out of the driver’s seat, and proceeded to try and take his car. Only Race was in no hurry to let it go. I never knew if he was fighting for the girl or for the ride, but either way, we beat the shit out of each other. I broke his wrist, he cracked my ribs and knocked out my two front teeth. It was gory, and epic, and by the time it was all said and done, we were blood brothers.
I got the blonde’s seat in the Stang on the way to the hospital and I got a brother from another mother in Race. I never went to his fancy house on the Hill or dirtied up his good name at his fancy prep school. He never slummed it with me in the ghetto or had to deal with my mom’s drunken outbursts. When I started boosting high-end cars for Novak on the regular and needed help with the computer systems in the rides that cost in the high-six and sometimes seven figures, he was the only one I trusted to have my back. We had a good time, blew through hot girls, and partied with stuff kids our age shouldn’t know anything about. Every day I regretted asking him, regretted dragging him down to my level so badly. Five years was a long-ass time to work on an apology. It was just as long to wait for one that was owed, one that when it came, I hoped would be enough to keep me from having to put my hands around my best friend’s throat. We both had made some serious mistakes along the way that needed atoning for.
Trouble was, I had no idea where to start. When I went away, he had been enrolled in some Ivy League school out east. I wasn’t sure if he made it to that place, I went away so he could, but there were no guarantees in life. I learned that lesson the hard way.
I shook out a smoke from the pack I had snagged from Roxie and dug out the prepaid cell phone I had picked up when I went and got my car. I walked up and around the block to where I had parked the beauty, far away from curious stares and hot hands. I knew what kind of cars thieves looked for and what kind of cars car guys wanted for their own. My bumblebee-yellow-and-black, race-striped, 1969 Plymouth Roadrunner with its tricked-out hemi and hood scoop was both. It was loud. It was tough. It was faster than fast, and it was the only thing I had left after I got locked up. I told my mom to sell it when I went down, but she refused. She knew how much work, how much sweat and tears I had put into that car, so if it meant rent or my baby, my baby won.
I sucked the noxious fumes into my lungs and squinted up at the sky. I would kill for some Tylenol to get rid of the pounding throb in my head, but there were more pressing matters I had to deal with at the moment. Not to mention, a few rounds with Roxie had done nothing to dull the burning want at the back of my throat. I liked girls and girls liked me. When you grew up poor and without any kind of parental supervision, sex was just something you did to kill time and to chase away the monotonous moments of despair and depression. Two people could make each other feel good, so that’s what happened more often than it should. I wasn’t used to going without . . . well, I was used to it now, but in my old life, getting laid was like breathing. It took no thought and zero effort.