She looked at me with emerald shadows drifting over questioning eyes. Just like always, she was trying to paint me in a better light than I deserved. The reality was much darker and uglier than I think she could handle.
“That’s not exactly true, Bax. Parents are supposed to love their kids, provide for them and guide them into adulthood. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen across the board anymore. Titus made the choice to let your mom go and build a life for himself; you made the choice to stick with her and provide for the two of you the only way you could. You could have let her go, just like she did the two of you. You could have given yourself other opportunities. It wasn’t entirely Titus’s fault.”
“I was a kid, Dovie. What were my options? Starve? End up in the system? Find some nice, rich family to take me under their wing like a charity case while my mom drank herself to death? You tell me how any of that would have been better than becoming a thief.”
She cleared her throat and I could have sworn there was a sheen of tears in her gaze when she looked back up at me.
“You wouldn’t have ended up in jail. You would have never had to sell your soul to Novak. You wouldn’t have to fight for Nassir and end up getting stabbed. I don’t know what the exact answer is, Bax, but I do know you made the choice to be a bad guy and you can make the choice not to be.”
I thought her point was moot. I had only ever been this way. It was how I survived, how I lived, and aside from getting out from under Novak’s thumb, it was a life I made work for me. It wasn’t my problem that she not only wanted but deserved someone better than me. I was going to have to exist here long after she was gone. She didn’t get to come in and dismantle my entire world for the short time she was a visitor in it, even though that was exactly what she was doing.
I needed a cigarette but she always gave me a look when I lit up inside, so I chugged back the rest of the beer and changed the subject to why we were here in the first place.
“Hartman wanted Novak to kill you. Your mom got locked up for intent to sell and blackmailed him. She wanted him to bail her out and get the charges dropped, which of course he had no control over. When he told her that, she lost it and told him she would tell the wife, that she would plaster it all over the society pages because that junk still mattered to people on the Hill. Hartman freaked out, tried to put a contract on you, only Novak is smart and has plenty of money. A rich man in his pocket was a much better tool.” I shook my head at her. “I don’t know how you feel about looking into where your mom is at, but I would bet good money she’s not breathing anymore or that Novak somehow arranged to keep her locked up and quiet in order to keep Hartman under his thumb.”
Her eyes darted away and then came back to me. She looked a little paler than normal, but she just waited patiently for me to keep going even though her chest was now rapidly rising and falling.
“Hartman wanted you dead, but turns out Novak wanted to keep me on the leash even more. I guess he knew I was getting ready to bail, so he told Race about you and the contract on your life. He also oh-so-generously gave Race a recording of the old man trying to arrange for your death. That’s how Race blackmailed your dad into claiming his parental rights and pulling you out of foster care. It’s also how he got control of his college fund, which he used to support you guys while you finished high school.”
I saw her shiver. I wanted to go wrap her up in a hug, but this was ugly, and offering her comfort wouldn’t make any of it easier to swallow. “What did Race have to give Novak in return?”
“My undying loyalty and some kind of guarantee that I would behave and follow the rules from here until eternity. The old guy Race pulled out of the house that night was in business with Novak. He was some retail giant, worth more money than you and I will ever see in our lifetime. He took Novak’s dirty money and made it clean. I guess he was getting ready to go to the feds because he was tired of being owned by a gangster. Novak wanted him out of the way and wanted me to be the one to do it. Race was supposed to grab the old guy, we were supposed to meet up at the spot, and I was somehow supposed to end up putting a bullet in his head. Novak was gonna tape it, use that as leverage to keep me tied to him or face serious jail time for murder and kidnapping, only Titus and the heat showed up and things went to hell.”
“Why did Novak think you would shoot the guy? What could he have done to make you go that far?” Her voice was quiet, like she was scared of my answer.
I sighed and threw my head back and closed my eyes.
“Because if I didn’t do it, he would’ve made Race do it, and he knew there was no way I would’ve let it go down like that. He had you as leverage to work Race like a puppet, and he had Race to pull my strings. The ass**le didn’t get to be king of the city by being stupid.”
I had to say she was taking the news that she had narrowly escaped being the target of a murder-for-hire contract pretty well.
“So when you went away and Race was of no use anymore, why would he come back? What is this all about? Why is Race so sure he can take Novak down and why is he flashing pictures of Lord Hartman around?”
“The old bastard had no clue about any of that, but if I can read between the lines, I think I know.”
“I told you a rich guy on the hook is better for a guy like Novak than money any day, and his launderer died the night I got busted. Not in the way he intended, but the guy still got smoked. That means Novak was in the market for someone else to spit shine all his dough, and nobody is better for that than someone he already has a bunch of dirt on.”
“You think Novak is blackmailing Lord Hartman to launder his money?”
“And you think Race figured that out and that’s why he brought us here, why he threatened Novak, and why he was asking all those criminals if his dad had been around?”
She was quick. “I do,” I said again.
I lowered my head so I could look her in the eye. She was messing with her hair and worrying her bottom lip.
“Just ask, Dovie.”
I saw her chest rise and fall under the thin material of her T-shirt. I had to admit, she always impressed me with her self-reliance. She never just folded.
“What does that mean for me, Bax? How does it all end for us?”
For me, it ended in blood or more time behind bars. For her, I would like to promise that it ended with her back at her crappy apartment, waiting tables and finishing school so that she could help kids like she wanted, but I wasn’t going to lie to her like that.