Business is slow at the restaurant. Today is the top of the week, two hours to close, and I’m standing behind a bar shaded by neon blue lights. It’s Jack’s first night open since Noah got jumped, and whether it’s because it’s Monday, or the rumors of the shooting, the place is dead.
I haven’t had to do much other than pop the tops off a couple beers, and make change a few times. That may be a good thing, since I don’t know dick about bartending. Right now, it takes everything I have not to fidget. I’m not used to being confined to a small space, surrounded by glass bottles that more or less look the same. The blue light is still nice, even from this side of the bar, but this wasn’t what I had in mind in assuming the role of the diplomat.
It took me halfway through this day to realize that when Maria said Jack might need help, that I could literally help him keep his books. She sent me, the son of a banker, the one who had followed in his father’s footsteps until his arrest.
I know numbers, know the right columns and decimals. Without ever having to ask, I know that Noah is the math kid, and Jack is the creative kid. I’ve always known that Maria is smart, but still I’m impressed with her directive – as much as I hate it.
I hate it, because I hate numbers. I hate it because it made my dad a cold, greedy bastard.
I hate it because she’s so far from me, with only Izzy to protect her, and maybe I hate it that she was right.
I’ve never had a real job, just a lot of school. Somehow this is not what I imagined.
I’m staring at two men boxing on the TV screen, when movement in front of me catches my attention. It takes me a moment to swim out of my introspection, and to register the blonde female who has just sat down. She makes an easy smile that knocks my thoughts off-kilter.
“Hi,” she says when I don’t.
She laughs, and my brain finally tells me what a dipshit I’m being. Time to flip the switch before I completely burn. I let her laughter ring out for a moment before I crack a half smile, that innocent grin that always gets the first hit. I shove my hands in my pockets, and shrug.
Her smile softens, and she says, “I’m Eva.”
She’s wearing a low-cut black tank top that begs me to look, a nice curve, green eyes, dark red lips. I don’t make it past those eyes. When I don’t answer, she continues. “I wanted to introduce myself earlier, but you seemed scared.”
Scared? Some choice words race from my brain to my mouth, but I shut it down. Now is not the time. I’m just a friend of Jack’s, helping him out. Cute and dumb will do.
“Earlier?” I say.
She giggles, and there go her eyes, softening to me just a little more. I learned at a young age that girls will pity a stupid boy, take him under their wings, and fuss over him.
She says, “I work here. I just got cut.”
I widen my eyes, glance away. Even I am surprised at the shame I can fake. I say, “Wow, I’m so sorry. You look…I didn’t recognize you.”
Her smile shortens. “That’s what they all say.”
Shit, change of direction. I lost that round. Not too much too fast. Stupid, basic. “I’m Joshua.”
Her eyes flick back to me, warming a shade. I learned it from Maria, to own my name. I could be Josh – any idiot douche bag on any university campus. But to be Joshua, well, that carries a little more weight. I figured it out the first time she didn’t shorten it, because when she says my name it’s like a command.
Meanwhile, Eva gives me a smirk, amusement at my seeming ineptness. So I give her a real smile, full-fledged, dimples and teeth, and say, “What can I get you?”
Oh, Joshua. I went back and forth about which excerpt to share of him from the first book. I finally decided on this one. Josh definitely takes the most shit from the other guys in the group. Charlie aside, everyone else completely underestimates him – including Maria. I chose the above glimpse of him because I think it’s a perfect representation of the way he can flip the switch between acting like he’s a bit stupid when it’s beneficial, and engaging his criminal mind.
Josh isn’t stupid, not in the least, but he has perfected his act to the point where he fools even those closest to him. When the story starts he has been around for about a year. He hasn’t had the chance to harden off like the others have, who have lived the crime life for much longer. However, he rises to each new challenge and he wants nothing more than to belong.
His transition between books is, perhaps, the most predictable. He’s emotionally harder, bordering on bitter, and he doesn’t exactly take shit from anyone anymore. I think one of my favorite dynamics in the sequel is the tentative and unlikely friendship that has developed between Joshua and Frederick. As far as character evolution goes, I think Josh gives the best look into how and why he has changed. I will say this, he’s definitely not afraid to stand up to Maria anymore, and his sex appeal is super amped. You’ll have to read Rising Tide to get the full gist of what I mean.
Meanwhile, an excerpt from Cadillac Payback: Rising Tide:
The Challenger growls as I wait for the light to change. It’s dark, but I can still see the woman in the car next to me staring. I ignore her. The sound of the engine is haunted by the last thing Freddy said to me before he started his bike.
You should probably check on her. She’s a mess by now.
I’ve never heard that tone from him. It was . . . sad. All this time, I guessed he would have stepped up and been her man. Now I think I was wrong. What a dick, seriously, to have such an unchallenged piece of her heart, and to leave it wanting. For him to turn over so easy, to give me his place without a fight, it doesn’t sit right. Maybe that’s why I’m driving toward her place instead of mine.
The light changes. I punch the gas and shift her up.
I’m moderately buzzed from the beer and the second joint, but it doesn’t calm me much. If Freddy’s right, I’m on my own. It’s Maria, a ledge, and me. I have no idea what I’m doing.
I shift the Challenger into the lot, and the sight of the Caddy in its spot is a bloom of relief. At least she’s safe if she’s home.
I pull into the space beside the ’73 Calais, white paint covered in a coat of dirt. She’s no good at keeping it washed. Charlie would shit a brick of weed worthy of the garbage we’ve managed – miraculously – to move lately.
Goddammit. Once upon a time, he told me to stay away from her. We partied together. He knew I never invested in a woman for the long term, knew me for the smooth operator that I was. I always thought that was the reason he said that shit. I never was sure of his reasoning, but I can damn well guess that he didn’t imagine I’d be the one to show up when no one else will.
I kill the engine, and for a long time I just sit there. What the fuck am I doing? Is this smart, or really stupid?
My gaze tugs toward the Caddy again. Too many memories ride in those seats. Too many ghosts. One memory in particular plays like a dream that won’t let go. A roadside moment, a desperate Hail Mary, and my very first experience with a Molotov cocktail. It’s the only time I’ve seen something blow like that, a thought that threatens to turn bitter.
I slip my phone from my pocket, bring it to life, and hit her name. My thumb hovers over the call icon. Freddy’s intuition is damn near infallible. I’d be doing him a wrong by ignoring his advice.
The phone rings long enough that I’m sure the voice mail will pick up. It doesn’t. All she says is, “No more bus’ness today, Joshua.”
“Are you OK?”
She laughs, but it’s not an amused sound. She says, “Soy la reina de Mexico.”
Freddy was right. This is bad. Her words are slurred, but her Spanish is second nature. I wonder if she thinks I don’t know what she just said.
I say, “Are you drunk?”
She doesn’t say anything for a stretch. I can hear music in the background, punk, so I know she didn’t hang up.
Finally she says, “No. It’s all gone.”
And something large shatters.
Josh’s songs on the Rising Tide Playlist:
Blue on Black by Kenny Wayne Shepherd
It Ain’t Right by the Red Stick Ramblers
Howling At Nothing by Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats
View full playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSgJKLWWisA-ZmHhzzvPOacwXC485gR4c