A thousand starry nights, p.22
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       A Thousand Starry Nights, p.22

           Addison Moore
 
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  Cash leans in. “Douchebag over there never got back to me about the missing funds.” He says it stern as if the answer to this mystery lies in those cryptic words.

  “So? I’ll get after him.” I frown at Lincoln as he hits on a blonde at the bar. “He’s been a little preoccupied lately with yours truly. He’s protective. I get it.”

  “Very protective.” Cash doesn’t flinch. “I grew tired of sitting on my hands, so I hired a guy. Turns out it was a pretty straight line leading us to the person who swiped the money.”

  “No shit?” I glance to Lincoln again. “He’s more stupid than I gave him credit for.” I’m not sure why this surprises me.

  “No shit.” Cash knocks his knuckles over the table. “It led straight to a charity called the Maritime Widows Association.”

  “Sounds like a good cause.” My chest expands with my next breath. “So who’s the asshole using poor unsuspecting widows as a shield?” I tense for a moment. “You think it’s the dick at the bar, don’t you?”

  He shakes his head. “The dick at the bar pisses more money than the federal reserve on a good day. He has no need to steal.”

  “Then he’s fucking with us. What better way to throw the company into a tailspin than to screw with our accounting? He’s pissed that Stevie put Ford’s name back on the Jinx board. He’s never approved of that.”

  “That may be so, but he’s not connected to the Maritime Widows Association, his sister is.”

  His sister. I slouch into him, trying to process this. “Stevie owns the company. Maybe she started the fund and didn’t realize that’s not how you go about donations. It’s just a mix-up.”

  “It’s not Stevie, and it’s not that ditzy blonde either.” He gives a single nod waiting for me to do the Lionheart math.

  “Aspen?” I give her name lower than a whisper.

  Cash doesn’t say anything, just bears into me with that I’m-so-sorry-you’re-being-fucked look in his eyes.

  My body goes numb. “There’s a mistake here somewhere.”

  “Nope. Double-checked my sources. She made five transactions, the first few were dummy moves, testing out the system.”

  “Maybe she needed it for something.” My mind buzzes like a hornet’s nest as I grapple to recall one instance of hearing Aspen even slightly imply she needed a dollar.

  “If she did, I hope she had a half million good reasons. This isn’t petty theft.”

  That look on my brother’s face isn’t sorrow, it’s retribution.

  My heart gives one violent thud as if it were about to give out. “You’re not calling the cops.”

  “Already did.”

  I leap across the table and shake the shit out of him.

  “The fucking detective was a cop.” He pushes me off. “Look, I’m sorry, but I’m tired of this Lionheart disease spreading through basecamp. Open your fucking eyes!” he riots at me until the veins jump from the side of his neck. “They’re infiltrating, coming for revenge anyway they can. First, Ford, now you? Don’t you think it’s a little coincidental? They gut our company and give it back under their watchful eye. The next bank accounts they’ll sweep will be yours and Ford’s. No prenups as far as I can tell. And what do you get?”

  “They’re not stealing shit from Ford or me. We still have our shirts, and we get to fuck them. Why can’t you ever look on the bright side?”

  He closes his eyes incensed. “It’s like you’re letting your dick brainwash you. The bright side is your lady friend will evade going to prison if you can get the cash back and have her issue an apology to the four of us before turning in her keys to the kingdom. I’m not too fond of thieves. She has a fucking screw loose if she’s doing this shit behind your back. I want her gone by the end of the day. And I want my fucking money back yesterday.”

  Lincoln gets up to leave, and I bolt over to him.

  “Where you going?” I hustle him down a corridor and toss his ass against the wall. “What do you know about the Maritime Widows Association?”

  His face smooths over, incriminating him instantly.

  “What did you trick your sister into?” I ram his head into the mirrored panel so hard I expect to see shards spiking through his forehead.

  Cash shows up by my side and plucks me off him.

  “I don’t know shit.” Lincoln irons out his shirt with his hand.

  “You don’t know shit?” Cash digs his finger in Lincoln’s chest. “I have a paper trail that bleeds your little sister’s name. Maybe you’ll know shit when she’s sitting in prison under felony charges. You think you’ll know shit then? I have a twenty-year veteran who’s just chomping at the bit to take her down as soon as I give him the word, so you better start figuring shit out, pretty boy.”

  Lincoln pinches his eyes shut with his fingers. “Fuck.”

  My phone rings, and I glance down hoping to find it’s Aspen, but it’s not. It’s Cher. I’m not sure what I would have done if it were Aspen. I probably only have enough information to make myself dangerous. God forbid I accidentally flush our second chance away over something that turns out to be nothing. I bury my phone in my pocket. I’m not dealing with Cher now either.

  Cash slams his hand right next to Lincoln’s head. “Tell us what you know, or she’s in cuffs in an hour.”

  Lincoln gives a hard blink.

  “Did—” I choke trying to get the words out. “Did Aspen move money from Jinx?” I refuse to even entertain the word stealing.

  Lincoln gives a slow nod, and the world around me grinds to a halt. She must have had a good reason. Aspen isn’t the kind of person who would maliciously set out to do something like this.

  My phone goes off again, and I pluck it out. It’s Cheryl again, and this time I answer.

  “What?” I bark into the receiver.

  Words stream from her, inconceivable words that string out like a series of broken bones.

  “What the fuck are you talking about?” I thunder into the phone.

  “Robyn called! She said you let that whore pick Abby up from school!”

  “What?” I stagger for a minute. “Aspen picked up Abby?” A knot forms in my stomach and uncoils throughout my body like a venomous snake.

  “She said there was a family emergency and took off with our daughter. So what’s the emergency? And why is that lying bitch picking up my baby girl?”

  A long bout of silence slips by as I try to excavate my brain for any logical answer.

  “I’m not aware of any family emergency.” The words sputter from my throat, dry as chalk. “Let me get a hold of her. I’ll call you right back.”

  Cher heads into a tirade shouting words like kidnapped, missing, police, full custody, and I simply hang up on her.

  Lincoln and I both race to call Aspen, but she’s not picking up.

  Aspen stole over a half a million dollars. And now she’s taken Abby. Maybe what we had wasn’t real. Maybe Cash is right. I’ve been brainwashed by my dick all along.

  I look to Lincoln tying hard not to vomit. “Aspen has my daughter. She said something about a family emergency and took her out of school.”

  His face turns to ash. “What the hell would she want with your kid?”

  “I don’t know.” I pull him in by the collar with a violent yank. “What the hell would she want with over a half-million dollars?”

  Cash pulls me off. “It sounds to me like maybe she wanted a new life.”

  A new life with Abby? One without me?

  I stagger for a moment as I let it sink in.

  Sounds like the perfect revenge.

  Void in the Universe

  Aspen

  When Henry VIII tired of his spouse, he simply arranged to have her removed. But it was never really that simple.

  I’m not sure how I envisioned my first shopping experience with my new stepdaughter, but I’m positive strolling her through a department store in a red plastic cart while noshing on stolen goods wasn’t one of them. Abby spotted a bag of Dutch choc
olate in pretty pastel colors, the size of dimes, and I promptly opened it and let her have at it. After evading our eminent doom, I took Abby and hid in nearby oleander bushes until the sun set. That bastard had a gun, and I was terrified to move one inch in broad daylight. Abby fell asleep in my arms while sobbing for her daddy. Little did she know, I was sobbing for her daddy, too. A small part of me believes Carter can fix anything. Once darkness fell, I ran us all the way here, and instead of following my instincts and screaming my head off until someone phoned the police, my better judgment took a U-turn as I plopped her into a cart.

  I just need a second to think—catch my breath, chase down my ruminating hundred-mile-a-minute thoughts and make them stay still long enough to make sense. My phone and purse are no longer with me. I don’t have anyone’s number memorized. I can easily find the number to Jinx and ask to speak with Carter. I take a deep breath at the thought. Carter is going to hate me for this. I had one job—get Abby home safe, and, because of Henry, I fucked it up in a magnificent way.

  My eyes flit to the patrons around me with a wary paranoia. The carefree young mothers with their hair tossed up in a messy bun, their well-worn flannel shirts and yoga pants underneath. Nameless, faceless kids with runny noses, and an entire sea of beautiful girls with school uniforms in navy and white. An elderly man stands in line to purchase vodka and toilet paper. So basic. All of it feels so criminally normal.

  I take a clean breath to ward off the nausea. It’s clear that paying those bastards off wasn’t enough. And now it’s not just me who’s in danger, it’s Abby. I close my eyes for a moment as I try to get my bearings. I need to stop stalling and call Carter right away—although, in truth, I’m afraid of the consequences. This entire mess is not going to impress Cher. I’ll have to move out of the house. Lincoln will probably have Henry killed. I’ll go to prison for embezzlement, and he’ll serve hard time for murder. The trauma will prompt Kinsley to have twelve more affairs, and Stevie will forget all about her psychotic siblings as soon as that cute baby of hers arrives. That part, actually, I’m glad about.

  God—how did this mess become my life? Somehow I’ve managed to burn the Lionheart house down and set fire to the Cannon curtains as well. This is going to destroy us all, specifically Carter and me. I’m trapped in a nightmare within a nightmare, no way out just a lot of pitiful exits that all lead to raping prison sex.

  Abby and I park in front of an army of television displays and watch Frozen on multiple screens for what feels like an abnormal amount of time. Frozen. I shake out of my stupor. I wish time would freeze. I wish I could rewind time—back before Cher, back before Henry. Abby laughs with delight and points to the nearest TV, and I startle. I guess I wouldn’t want to take Cher out of the equation too soon.

  A horrible sinking feeling settles over my shoulders—hot molten iron molding to my bare flesh, bleeding painfully down through my stomach as I push Abby to the front of the store. The awful rowing toward God, Anne Sexton once wrote. I never did understand that poem until now. But I get it. It’s stamped over me, hooked into my flesh like rusted razors as I drag the weight of this terrible dilemma. The awful rowing has begun. It’s time to start the real show. The dissolution of everything I know and love. In the end, I guess Henry did destroy me. You will get what you deserve. Henry, the prophet, has spoken.

  “Excuse me, sir?” I call to the young man working behind the counter with a crooked tag that reads Manager. “My daughter and I were in an accident. May I please use your phone?”

  * * *

  Of all the people to contact it was Kinsley whose number I was able to locate first. I called Jinx and, after listening to a rather lengthy phone maze of options, was connected with human resources, all of whom, rightfully, didn’t seem to know who this “Kinsley person” was because she’s hardly ever there. Once my sister was located, she promised to give the address of my whereabouts to both Lincoln and Carter. I made her swear she would contact Carter and not Henry. I didn’t mean to get all shouty with her on the phone, but it’s hard not to want to scream a little at my sister. Kinsley has the power to take a Tibetan Monk from still waters to a cat five hurricane.

  “Where’s Daddy?” Abby whimpers against my chest as I hold her limp body. She couldn’t stand another minute in that red cage on wheels, so I’ve been cradling her, trying to calm her nerves as much as I can. The first time I picked her up, I thought she was light as a feather, but after holding her for almost an hour straight, she feels more like a sack of potatoes—not the little round red ones that weigh nothing themselves, but the russet, dirty Idaho variety the size of your foot.

  “He’s coming.” I bounce her in my arms until my fingers go numb, and just like out of a movie, Lincoln runs through the double wide sliding doors, and I fill with relief.

  Right behind him, screaming like a fire alarm, runs Cher, and I fill right back up again with fear.

  “Holy hell,” I whisper.

  “Give her to me!” she bellows, peeling a now wailing, Abby from my arms.

  Carter runs in followed by an entire army of police officers—riot police with helmets, and nightsticks, and guns a blazing—oh fucking my.

  Lincoln gets in my face, squeezing my arm a little too tight as he pulls me into a hug. “Don’t say a word.”

  “Carter!” I struggle to get away from my brother only to find Carter locked in an embrace with Abby and Cher. In all fairness, Cher has entombed herself around Abby, and Carter has no choice but to hold her by proxy. But still, from here they look like a sweet, young family reuniting after some horrific ordeal.

  “Ma’am, you mind stepping outside?” An exaggeratedly tall deputy asks with an unnerving amount of politeness in his voice, and I nod absentmindedly. It’s the way you speak to the mentally unbalanced, those you fear might take a leap off the edge. We make our way out, and the evening cools against my moist skin. The blanket of darkness only makes this entire nightmare feel more surreal.

  “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Cher pets Abby’s head over and over. “We need to get you checked out, baby.” She shuttles her toward the waiting ambulance, passing me in the interim. “You bitch!” she screams in my face, causing Abby to break out in a high-pitched howl. “You’re a monster!” her voice curls despairingly to the sky. “I hope you fry in hell for this!” Her voice shrills wild, sponsoring a viral panic in me. She’s going to hate me forever. Who am I kidding? She was going to hate me forever, anyway. But it’s Carter she’s going to punish for this, and he’ll hate me forever, too.

  I glance back to find Carter speaking with Lincoln—the whites of their eyes glinting in the night. He’s animated with arms flailing, red and angry faced, eyes bulging.

  He jogs up beside me, panting, out of breath. “We’ll talk later. I have to be with Abby.”

  “Yes. Absolutely.” I reach out to hold his hand, my fingers touching over the cold evening air, but he simply glances at them before heading toward the waiting ambulance.

  There’s something cold and distant in his eyes—confusion, a hollowness that I can’t describe.

  Officer Goliath reappears and begins to read me my rights.

  “What’s going on?” I glance to Carter first, then Lincoln. “Am I being arrested?”

  Lincoln expels a sigh that plumes out in the night like a veil.

  “Kidnapping,” he whispers. “With the possibility of embezzlement charges.”

  Carter gives a cold, hard stare as the doors to the ambulance close, and they speed out of the lot. Cher, Abby, and Carter whisk away in a siren of blazing glory while the back of a squad car waits for me.

  “He knows about the money,” I whisper to no one in particular. “He thinks I took Abby.”

  What the hell just happened?

  *

  The kind officer chauffeurs me to the booking department in style as I sit in the back of a police cruiser with the protective metal gate reminding me I’m on the wrong side of the law.

  My body riots
with a pulsating numbness. My ears stop up with the rush of blood. It’s as though I’ve stepped out of my body, my mind for sure, and am experiencing my worst nightmare in some otherworldly setting. It’s as if I’ve groped for the parameters of common sense and reason and somehow tore right through them. This is a disaster beyond comprehension, something so terrifying that the thought of losing my sanity might actually prove to be the best line of defense. I wish Henry had snapped my neck in that office today—that he damaged me enough to send me to the hospital rather than a holding cell.

  So this is how it feels, I marvel with the intensity of watching a public hanging, something so morbid you can’t believe it’s real, that our world could be so barbaric and cruel to let it happen in the first place. People go to jail all the time. They spend most of their lives behind bars, and when they get out, they beg to get back inside because they can’t assimilate into free society. I wonder how many years I could find myself confined? Maybe I’ll snap my own neck.

  We pull alongside a red brick building, and the kind gentleman cop helps me out, speaking to me softly in words that float like music notes from his mouth. I read once that when the women of the early West were taken captive by Indians, they would step out of their minds, howl, and chant to God as they were rushed off by their captors.

  Goliath ushers me down a long, white corridor where we’re met with a couple more officers. They speak to me, to each other, and I nod silently unable to decipher the King’s English any longer. The only words that reverberate through my mind are that of my brother’s, don’t fucking say a word. And that of Henry’s, you will get what you deserve.

  They ask for my information, and I stall with Lincoln scolding me in the back of my mind.

  “This is necessary,” Officer Goliath assures. “Nothing incriminating, just the basics.”

  I spew route numbers, social security, my old address. They ask for Henry’s name, and I present them with it like a roach smashed with a stone. In the end, all this insanity boils right down to Henry and his reign of madness. In the end, I was simply another unfortunate wife. And then an errant thought pops through my mind—one I never want to own, the sharpened blade of truth that twists down my throat. I, in fact, had done this to myself. I entered into a relationship with a man I had no feelings for in an act of reckless revenge. I did this. This is my truth, and I must own it.

 
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