He glanced up to make sure my mom was on the other end of the kitchen, out of earshot. Then he hissed, "I don't give a shit what your mother says. I'm tired of you playing her like a piano. I'm taking her to Graceland like we planned."
"You—" I stopped short. There was no point in whispering. You 're sending me to juvy? He would say I'd sent myself. Just then my mother dropped a baking pan with a clang like the jail cell door closing. The blood drained from my face and pooled around my feet. My heart sped up, pumping nothing. But I would not let my dad see me faint over this. I leaned farther forward over the counter and chopped more sausage, wondering vaguely where the knife would cut me when I lost consciousness.
My dad growled at me, " You are going to spend your spring break pulling night shift with that cop After, like the DA said on the phone. And then you're going to work morning shift here. If you have the energy to get yourself arrested in the eight hours you have left in the day..." Expertly he slid his spatula under the eggs and flipped them to cook on the other side without breaking the yolks. "Vaya con Dios. "
I watched the eggs sizzling on the grill, the yolks slowly growing darker. "What do you mean, I'm pulling night shift with After? I thought I might be on the fire truck or the ambulance."
"That's not what the DA said." My dad turned to me for the first time, blue eyes hot with fury. "You think you've got some more to learn riding in the ambulance?"
"Been there, done that," I sang, using the knife to scrape the sausage from the cutting board into a bowl. I pretended to put together the rest of the hash brown casserole with busy efficiency like I was kicking ass on Iron Chef But I was thinking of Officer After, his dark eyes sliding to my cleavage, his phantom hands on my helpless body. Now that I knew about my punishment, I rather liked the idea of taunting him with my sexy if by some chance we happened to be paired together. Screw his wife.
But if he'd not only masterminded the demise of my spring break but also chosen me to spend it with, he was back in control. Maybe he even intended to have his way with me. Stranger things had happened. More horrible things.
And I would deserve it.
"You stay in the vehicle," Officer After commanded me. "I may have to draw my weapon."
I frowned across the front seat at him. I had thought he might make me sit in the backseat tonight. Glory be, I had graduated to the front. And he didn't have a military haircut anymore. In the week since our unfortunate meeting, it had filled out into an almost normal haircut. He no longer looked like he'd just gotten back from Iraq.
Then I glanced at the rusty Caddy ahead of us on the shoulder of the highway, awash in broad strokes of blue from the police car lights. "Your weapon? Do you mean your gun? Why? They were just speeding."
"You haven't seen what I've seen. Yet." He used the controls in his door to raise my window, which I'd kept down all night despite the cold.
"Part of my assignment is to go with you everywhere and find out what your job is really like. I can't do that from the car."
"I think there's a rule that when my weapon comes out, you stay in the vehicle."
"No rule like that was specified by the Powers That Be."
He sighed through his nose. "If you get wounded, I'm pretty sure I'll be reassigned to jail guard duty." "I won't get wounded."
"I'm not going to argue with you. Do what I say." He opened the door.
"Wait a minute," I said, putting one hand on his bare forearm.
He looked down at my hand. Don't touch me while I'm in uniform. So much for his wanting to have his way with me.
I snatched my hand away. "Sorry. Reflex. But look, you can't leave me locked in your car. What if you get shot and I'm stuck in here?"
I didn't believe he'd get shot. I didn't believe anyone would get shot. Not considering how we'd spent tonight's patrol. After all his tough talk when he arrested me about how he wanted me to see something, this is what I had seen: I had seen a city cop herding cows out of the mayor's strawberry fields and back into the pasture next door. And I was paying this cop's salary with my tax dollars. Or I would be, if I were paying taxes, if I worked a paying job instead of slaving without pay at the diner. I owed, like, a dollar every year in taxes on my tips.
We had harassed a lot of innocent people. We chased skateboarders away from the sidewalks in the roundabout in the center of town. We chased kids parked in pickup trucks away from the back of the movie theater. Lois was right when she said Officer After knew how teenagers thought. Sneaky shit.
We had worked a fender bender at the Birmingham Junction, the intersection of the highway through town and the interstate to Birmingham. The Birmingham Junction was famous for wrecks, but this one wasn't even interesting—just a shattered taillight and a couple of infuriatingly polite Japanese businessmen from the car factory.
We had driven down to the bridge with the headlights off three or four times to make sure kids weren't drinking there. Ides of March my ass. It wasn't bad luck Officer After had caught us at the bridge. He caught us because he haunted that bridge, just as if he were the ghost of someone who'd died there himself.
We had eaten dinner, or whatever you called the 1 a.m. meal, at Eggstra! Eggstra! I could tell Officer After did this every night. Purcell served him coffee and cooked for him without asking for his order, just like he did for me. Weird that this had been going on in my backyard and I didn't even know, because I usually got off work around ten. While Officer After and I ate, the diner got slammed with the crowd heading home from the demolition derby. Of course Purcell wanted me to take orders and serve drinks while he cooked, and of course I refused. It was bad enough that my parents didn't pay me for working there. I sure as hell wasn't going to work there for free when it wasn't even my shift.
Purcell actually had the nerve to start cussing at me. I guess he wasn't worried about his job security. Our town offered plenty of jobs for an illiterate, and most of them probably paid better.
He cussed at me, that is, until Officer After half stood. That's all it took. Purcell suddenly became engrossed in flipping the chopped steak on the grill. Officer After went back to eating like nothing had happened, without looking at me.
Without talking to me, either. We'd spent most of the night in silence. And when we parked by the highway, cut the lights, and waited for speeders, it was like a game of sleep-chicken. Who would snore first?
It was torture. I had gotten off work at Eggstra! Eggstra! that afternoon, gone for my jog, and then tried my best to sleep, but come on. I never slept at 3 p.m. And I was too keyed up about tonight. Now Officer After was making me pay. Wasn't it enough to miss spring break of my senior year in high school so I could ride around this town with a cop all night? He didn't have to bore me to death, too.
No chance of that now.
"You'll still be able to get out the door," he said. "I've set it so only the back doors are locked and suspects can't get out. And no one will be able to open your door from the outside. Suspects can't get in."
"Get in?" I echoed as he hauled himself out of the seat with lots of clicks and clanks from the equipment attached to his belt and closed the heavy door behind him with an official-sounding thunk. But he was bluffing, trying to scare me. The blue lights took swipes at the back of his uniform as he walked casually to the rusty Caddy and stopped just behind the driver's door. He bent to talk to the driver through the window.
And then he slowly reached back with one hand and unsnapped his gun holster.
Frantically I felt for my cell phone in my pocket. I did not call people, but I pressed the button to call Tiffany at the hospital. We weren't close like we were as kids. We were back to being the tentative friends we'd been since eighth grade. Or maybe a little less, now that I'd caused her to miss her spring break and lose her boyfriend. But at school on Friday, I'd traded cell phone numbers with her when she asked. She'd told me the paramedics watched TV or slept at the hospital most of the night. But they'd warned her that when they did get a call, all hell would break loose. She'd wanted someone she could call to save her in case the speeding ambulance turned over. This was a similar emergency.
"Hello?" she said sleepily.
"Wake up," I hissed. "It's Meg. I need you to be on 911 alert. If I scream, bring the paramedics to the highway between the Shop Till You Drop convenience store and the Golden Cherry Motel. The cop has his hand on his gun."
"He has his hand on his gun?" She was awake now.
"I thought it was just a traffic stop. He has his hand on his gun. I'm sure there's some way for me to alert Lois the dispatcher from inside the police car, but there's not a red button clearly labeled Call for Help" I let out a little whimper and wanted to kick myself. "What's he doing?"
"Standing beside the car, talking to the driver."
"Calm down, Meg. He radioed in about what he was doing, right? And if he wanted backup, they're on the way."
"But what if they're across town? And what if he gets gunned down on the highway? I would feel so much better knowing the ambulance was already headed over here. Oh God, why didn't I pay more attention to Resusci-Annie in health class? Never mind, I'll tell you why not. It was Derek Bledsoe's turn to resuscitate her before me, and he slobbered all over her. Somehow the fresh sheet of Saran Wrap over her mouth did not make me feel protected."
"Meg, would you calm down? I've never heard you this upset. Nothing upsets you. Except, you know, claustrophobia."
"Now he's dragging the driver out of the car, handcuffing him, searching him."
"Calm down. Get your mind off it." She paused. "Was your dad right about this policeman being the one from the bridge?"
"Is he cute?"
Strangely, I felt myself blush. At least she was getting my mind off his imminent death. "You saw him that night."
"I told you at school. The only thing I remember from that night is babbling something about shandy and trying to blame it all on my grandmother."
"Right. Well, he has these beautiful dark brown eyes, sleepy eyes that look you over slowly."
"Rut other than that, he's military cop guy. You know, perfectly pressed uniform, shiny boots."
"Oh." She sounded disappointed. Then she lowered her voice to a whisper. "Be glad you don't have to spend spring break with these people."
"I have spent a lot of time with one of them, Quincy with the gray hair. He usually took me in the ambulance to the hospital in Birmingham."
"Really? Well, they are full of stories now. They say almost every household accident they get called to involves alcohol. Or a chain saw."
"Or alcohol and a chain saw."
"I see you've heard these stories. I'm like, people, I'm going to be an English major, not a doctor. And I'm never drinking again. So you really could skip it."
"It will pass, and they'll move on to the fireworks stories. At least you're getting some sleep."
She yawned. "You still haven't heard from Eric?"
"No." I would hear from him, though. He'd be furious with me right up until he was ready to make a booty call. That's how Eric worked. "And you still haven't heard from Brian? You haven't gone on an ambulance run and seen him on the fire truck?"
"No." She sounded forlorn. Brian had refused to speak to either of us at school last week. He acted like a martyr enduring trial by fire rather than a high school senior getting ribbed about his arrest.
Tiffany didn't remember anything from that night. So she didn't remember that when the long arm of the law reached out and grabbed Brian off the bridge, Brian abandoned her. But she probably didn't want to know. She and I were in very different places when it came to boys. She wanted a relationship, and I wanted a lay.
"What's your cop's name?" she asked. "You said he seemed to know us at the bridge. Did he turn out to be someone's dad?"
"I don't know. His name is Officer After."
"After, as in before?'
"Yeah. In fact, I asked him if Barry B. Four was his maternal grandfather, and he didn't laugh. Then I asked him what he was after. He said he could tell me but he'd have to kill me."
"I think I know who that is, Meg. What's his first name?"
"As far as I know, Officer."
"Is he tall?"
"Not as tall as Eric."
"Nobody's as tall as Eric," she said. "Thin?"
I gazed ahead at his Matt Damon body. "Oh, no."
"I honestly couldn't say. His hair is one-half of an inch long."
"Meg, I know who that is. It's—"
Oh shit!" I squeaked. The passenger of the Caddy opened his door and dashed into the woods. Officer After called to him, drew his weapon, and aimed briefly. Then he swore, holstered the gun, and took off after the suspect.
"What happened?" Tiffany asked sharply. "The paramedics have been listening to Officer After on the scanner. Another policeman is on the way."
"Tell him to hurry." The driver, handcuffed and leaning against the Caddy, had seen me. He walked toward the police car, shouting things at me that I did not want to hear.
"Who is that?" Tiffany asked. "Surely he's not saying that to you? Where is his mother?"