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Max peered through the glass into the shop jammed with a jumble of bicycle wheels and frames.
Trev. The fourth member of the quartet of misfits that had been Max and Jaspar’s surrogate family growing up as orphans in the Eastside. Only Trev had stayed in the old neighbourhood to become a gang of one.
She took a deep breath, then called him. The shop was closed — despite being a lifelong rebel, he was apparently a smart enough businessperson to obey the edict of the Elders to observe the Day of Rest. She almost hung up when she saw movement in the apartment above it.
“Hello?” His voice was rough.
Max breathed deeply again. “Hey.”
A dense silence grew, and Max inhaled, preparing to explain herself.
Then the line cut off.
She exhaled heavily, glancing up at the window to the apartment. A curtain flickered, and Max’s head dropped to stare at the pavement as she considered her options. Kicking a cigarette butt, she turned towards the road, swearing she saw a black-clad collector, but the shape morphed into a utility pole.
A sound rose behind her, and she turned back as a red door beside the shop opened.
Trev emerged, trailed by warm light and the aroma of curry and basmati rice.
She stepped forward, then stopped. He did the same, half closing the door behind him.
“Hey Max.” He looked over his shoulder, then lit a cigarette.
“Hey Trev.” She chewed a fingernail, looking from him to the street to the sliver of staircase visible behind him. “How’s things?”
“Good. You?” He took a long drag on the cigarette.
She shrugged. “You know, same old.”
“He’s … still Jaspar. Very serious. Mostly respectable. Always carrying the weight of the world.”
“Right.” He breathed smoke slowly out of his nose as he looked up and down the street. “What do you want Max?”
She stared at the street number on the wall behind him, her eyes scrunched. “I need help.”
“You need my help? I thought you didn’t know me.”
Max’s face burned as she recalled the last time she’d seen Trev. She’d been out with some coworkers when she saw him … and he’d seen her. But she’d put blinders on, steadfastly walking past him. Her coworkers didn’t know about her childhood, and she hadn’t wanted to educate them about life in Eastside.
“I’m sorry, Trev.” It was true, not just because she needed him. “I wouldn’t bother you, but I need help. I don’t know who to turn to.” She glanced over her shoulder at a sound, but it was just a woman sweeping the sidewalk on the other side of the street. “I thought you maybe could hook me up. With a game … or a grift.”
“What’s wrong?” He squinted, not looking at her.
“Collections.” Max fingered the ring on her thumb, the first piece she’d bought after getting her job.
Trev’s gaze flicked back to her as he let out a heavy, smoky breath. “Who owns it?”
Max shrugged, studying the plug in his earlobe. “I don’t know. Doesn’t really matter now. I just know it’s been called in.”
“Sorry Max. I can’t help.” His brown eyes travelled over her face.
“I wish I could, but I’m out of it all now. Have been for a long time. No Trance, no gaming, none of it. I’m a family man now.”
“Trevor?” A woman’s voice drifted down the stairway, as if on cue. Trevor tossed the cigarette and ran a hand through his hair. A woman appeared behind him, as tattooed and pierced as he was, balancing a baby on one hip. Her gaze travelled over Max before settling on Trevor. “Lunch’s ready.”
“I’m coming,” he said, running a hand over the baby’s head, mussing up the ebony curls before kissing the baby’s forehead, just above the dark red dot. The woman’s dark eyes lingered on Max for a long moment before she turned and swayed up the stairs.
“I hope you figure it out, really, but I can’t help you.”
Max inhaled a ragged, stuttering breath. “Thanks anyway, Trev. It was good to see you.” Max walked away, looking up at the light poles. Trev had always been her fallback. They’d even made a pact when they were kids: they’d marry each other if they found no one better.
Walking down the street, back to the alley where she’d parked her bike, she tried to think of anyone she knew who had enough money to bail her out. A cold stone grew in the depths of her stomach.
Max lurked in the shadows of the weedy trees that kept a tenacious foothold in the Green. She stared at the entrance to the Eastside Cathedral as she waited for Roddy to appear. Strangely, despite being the truly destitute and desperate, the Green’s denizens left her alone. Brimming with people, she guessed the next roundup was overdue. But, being Sunday in a city currently run by Universalist Elders, it wouldn’t happen today. So Max was safe in her lurking.
She bit her lip. She should have deleted Roddy’s number years ago. Still, he’d answered when she called. Getting ready for the Nones service at church, he said.
She snorted. He’d always attended services, even when she was a kid. And as sure as sin, he needed penance, but she doubted that’s why he went.
Max hadn’t been in a church since Jaspar’s wedding. Which was also the last time she’d seen Roddy: Jaspar had more of a sense of obligation than she did … or more guilt. ‘Uncle’ Roddy had taken care of her and Jaspar after their mother died, though she’d never quite figured out that family tree.
The bells of the church chimed again: quarter to three. On cue, Roddy, as squat and round as ever, sauntered down the sidewalk on the far side of the street. Dodging traffic, she crossed over to join him.
“Max,” Roddy said, his smile exposing capped teeth. “You look all grown up. Give your uncle Roddy a hug.”
Before she could react, his arms wrapped around her, and he pulled her close with stubby, ringed fingers. His hair was thicker than it had been at Jaspar’s wedding. His hands slid lower until Max took a long step back, forcing him to let go.
“Roddy.” Max plastered a convivial smile on her face. “You look well. What’s up with you?” she asked, out of habit.
“Not much.” He turned to shake the hand of an older lady who’d leaned in to greet him. He said something to the woman, then turned back to Max. “Same old, same old. I should ask what’s up with you, but first it’s time for church.”
Roddy led her into the building, his hand firmly on her elbow, despite her protests that she didn’t have time for it.
“There’s always time for church.” He shook the priest’s hand. “Good afternoon, Pader.” Max tipped her head at the offered hand but kept hers in her jean pockets.
Roddy forced her to go through the motions, rusty as she was, and refused to talk until the service ended. He actually seemed devout when he prayed, and he put a wad of cash in the collection plate rather than taking from it. Max fidgeted and glanced around the whole time.
Outside, he still wouldn’t get down to business. “I’m starving. Let’s eat.”
“A man’s gotta eat. And you’re getting skinny.” He slapped her ass and laughed. “You can tell me what’s up while we eat.”
At the restaurant, Max rapped the table with her fingers, tapped the floor with her toes, and used her chopsticks to play with the food. She only stilled when she got a message from her brother: Questioned by collectors, just left.
Finally, Roddy finished stuffing himself, and they headed to Roddy’s penthouse apartment. She perched herself on the edge of the genuine leather sofa and glanced around at the abstract art, the Persian rugs, and the burnished steel appliances. She shrugged her shoulders. This wasn’t the Roddy she knew. And whatever he was up to these days, it wasn’t as classy as all this.
He brought her a drink and sat down across from her. She swirled the amber liquid in the glass and sniffed it: real whiskey. She set it down on the antique wood table, not sure her stomach could handle it.
“So, about the money … do you think you can loan it to me? I know it’s a lot to ask.”
Roddy took a swig of whiskey and loosened his tie. “Please, it’s nothing for family.” He walked over to his desk, took off his jacket, and pulled some money out of a drawer. Placing the stack on the table, he sat down beside her.
“Thanks.” Max ran her hands over her thighs, towards the money. “I really appreciate this.” She paused, unsure if it was rude to count the cash in front of him. Instead, she hugged him, ignoring the voice in her gut until it was too late. His arms closed around her, and he didn’t let go when she did. One hand pressed against her back as the other slid up under her shirt.
“Whoa!” She pulled away, but Roddy was stronger than he seemed.
“Whoa what?” He grasped her wrist as she tried to push at his chest. “Everything has a price. This is yours.”
“But we’re family.” She pulled harder.
“Hardly. Now show me how much you want this money.”
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