“What about him? You don’t know him that well, either.”
“I know enough to draw some reasonable conclusions. He turned out great, and you just told me that you raised him by yourself, on your own.”
“Yes, so?” Heather blinked. “What are you saying, that I should get a job as a nanny?”
“No, not unless you wanted to. What I mean is, you need to view your skill set more broadly.”
“Skill set?” Heather threw back her head and laughed. “I have a skill set? That’s news to me.”
“No it isn’t, it shouldn’t be,” Chris said, meaning it. His tone turned soft and he didn’t even plan it that way. “It takes a lot of skills to be a single mother, raise a kid, and run a household by yourself. You have to pay the bills, repair what needs repairing, and make sure that Jordan gets to school and to the doctor and to practice, am I right?”
“Yes, when he was younger, I guess.” Heather shrugged. “But I don’t fix things, Jordan does. Or they don’t get fixed.”
“Then they didn’t need fixing. And all the time you’re working at a full-time job, so you have that to deal with. True or not?”
“True,” Heather answered, with the trace of a smile.
“And I’m sure you were very good at your job, whatever you did, and you said you wanted to leave it, and you did that, too. So you have a broad skill set and you should move forward with absolute confidence.”
Heather smiled, chuckling. “You’re an excellent coach! You’re getting me to think positive. Gung ho! Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose, all that.”
“So it worked?” Chris chuckled.
“It kind of did!” Heather threw up her hands. “Go, team, go!”
“Ha!” Chris burst into laughter, realizing that the weirdest thing had just happened. He had been playing the role of a coach and saying whatever a coach would say, but somewhere between him and her, the words had become true. And above all, they had helped her, which made him feel good. He felt not only like a coach, he even felt more … human.
Suddenly a cell phone started ringing in the living room, and Heather looked over. “Oh, excuse me, I have to get that, but I’ll be only a minute. It’s my cousin in Denver and she just had a baby—”
“No, that’s okay, I should go,” Chris said, standing quickly. He had to stop what was happening between them. Whatever it was, it wasn’t according to plan, backup plan, step one, or step two. It was basically something that couldn’t happen at all, especially not with Heather. He needed to use Jordan, and her. They could only be the means to an end, in a dangerous and deadly game.
“You don’t have to go. Give me a second.” Heather hustled for the phone. “I just want to see if she’s okay.”
“No, it’s late. Good night now.” Chris crossed to the door, pulled it open, and let himself out.
It was no time to grow a conscience.
An hour later, Chris was driving through thick, dark woods to a meet. The night sky was starless, and clouds swept across the moon, carried by unseen winds. He tried to put Heather out of his mind and focus on what lay ahead, but it wasn’t easy. He’d been with his share of women, but she was different. He didn’t want to figure out how, because any relationship with her could end only one way. So it had to end now, before it started.
Chris turned into a dirt driveway, and his Jeep’s headlights raced over a peeling white sign with faded letters, COMING SOON, CENTRE MALL & FOOD COURT. He parked and cut the engine, scanning the scene in the scant light. It was a construction site for a mall, but the project had evidently been abandoned after the pad had been installed, paving a footprint for the strip of stores. The concrete glowed darkly in the moonlight, surrounded by trees that had been cut to black stubs.
Chris got out of the Jeep, dismayed to see that the silhouette standing next to the car wasn’t the one he’d expected. Neither was the car. It was a gleaming black Audi coupe, not the nondescript black Ford SUV he knew so well. The man standing next to the car had on a Phillies cap, and there was only one man Chris knew who wore a ball cap thinking he was a Master of Disguise. The cap’s brim put his face almost completely in shadow, which was fine with Chris because Aleksandr Ivanov was ugly as sin.
Chris walked over. “Hey, Alek. Where’s the Rabbi? He said he’d be here.”
“He couldn’t make it.”
“What’s the difference? You miss Daddy? Deal with me. What’s going on?”
Chris bit his tongue. He wasn’t looking for trouble. “Okay, I have a guy. I’m in.”
Alek snorted. “By ‘guy,’ you mean a kid. A high-school junior. This is some next-level shit, Curt.”
Chris thought his real name sounded strange to him, but didn’t say so. He realized he was mentally betwixt and between, after the cookies with Heather. He had to get his head back in the game. Alek had a bad temper, and the stakes were too high to get distracted.
“Who’s the kid?”
“Jordan Larkin.” Chris felt a twinge offering up the name, like a betrayal. But he shooed the thoughts away.
“So what’s the problem? You called the Rabbi and told him you had a problem.”
“I said I might have a problem.” Chris didn’t want to talk it over with Alek, who was half as smart as the Rabbi.
“Gimme a break, Curt. I don’t have time to jerk around.” Alek checked his watch, a neat swivel of his head under the cap.
“Turns out one of the teachers is from Wyoming. He knows Northwest College.”
“You said that wouldn’t happen.” Alek snorted again.
“The odds were slim to none. It’s a fluke.” Chris’s chest tightened. Alek always reminded him of one of his foster fathers, the worst one. A bully to everyone around him, like a prison guard to his wife, his other foster son, even the cat. Milly was the cat’s name, a calico. The night Chris had finally left, he’d let Milly out and she ran off. She would never look back. Neither would he.
“What’s his name, this teacher?”
“So what are you telling me for? Handle it.”
“The question is how.”