“She pretty?” he asked, scooping what looked to be month old coleslaw into portion cups.
“Yeah,” I understated, not comfortable unleashing just how beautiful she was to the likes of Mr.
Rogers. “She’s pretty.”
“She a good girl? Stay out of trouble? Go to school? That kind of thing?” I tried to contain my bewilderment that Mr. Rogers and I were having an honest to goodness conversation.
“Yes, yes, and yes,” I said, leaning into the counter across from him. The coleslaw smelled month old too.
I took a step back.
“Then what’s she doing with a son of a bitch like you?” he asked, flashing his toothy grin at me.
“That’s an unsolved mystery,” I said. “And I hope it stays that way.” He nodded. “Hoping to marry her?”
“Hoping. Praying. Meditating. You name it, and I’m doing it.” He nodded again, tossing the ice cream scooper into the vat of coleslaw. It made the second most disgusting sound I’d ever heard. The first was Nathanial’s farts after he’d eaten sauerkraut. “I know the feeling.”
I paused, wanting to keep the conversation rolling, but not sure how it’d go over. Mr. Rogers wasn’t exactly the open book kind of guy.
In the end, I decided to go with what I did best: plow on through. “Do you have a girl waiting for you?”
Since I knew he’d already served quite a few years and had at least a few more to go, and the fact I doubted a damn golden retriever would be excited to see him, I doubted not.
“Yep,” he answered, smacking his mouth.
This surprised me. So I had to continue on with the questions. “You two married?”
Another, even bigger surprise. “She must live far away,” I guessed.
“No, she’s close,” he said, staring into the mound of coleslaw. “Just a few minutes from here, actually.”
“Does she ever come visit?” I continued, smelling the burn of the slop behind me. It was an improvement on what it’d smelt like before. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her.”
“Nah, she doesn’t visit,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked before thinking if I should. It wasn’t the friendliest of questions.
“Because she’s dead,” he answered, those cloudy brown eyes meeting mine. “She’s buried in the cemetery just a couple miles down the road from here.”
And now I wished I took my internal warning and shut the hell up a few questions ago.
“Damn. I’m sorry, man,” I said, shaking my head and wandering back to my slop-slash-soup. Burnt was one thing. Charred was another.
He waved his hand. “It was a long time ago. And I’ve mostly gotten over it,” he said, going back to portioning the coleslaw. “It helps I got my revenge.”
Don’t say anything. Pretend like you missed that last part. My mouth opened—nope, I wasn’t going to heed my own warnings. “Your revenge?”
Pausing, Mr. Rogers stared at the wall off to the side. “My wife was raped and murdered over ten years ago.”
My stomach clenched. The story, combined with the smells, was only making it worse.
“The cops took the report, gathered their evidence, but me and Annie didn’t exactly live on Magnolia Lane. Our stations in life and our double wide on a half-acre of scab land wasn’t exactly the kind of circumstance good, upstanding taxpayers wanted to waste their tax money on,” he continued, glaring at the wall. I was half certain it was going to burst into flames if he didn’t turn his gaze somewhere else.
“The cops dropped the case after giving me some dog and pony show about lack of evidence and cold cases. That was one week after Annie’s murder.” He slammed the scoop against the metal counter.
“So I took matters into my own hands. I hired a private investigator who was able to identify the piece of shit in a matter of days. From there, I hunted the bastard down and shot him in the back of the head when he was leaving some yuppy bar one night. Cops came, I got sentenced for murder, and here I am,” he said, opening his arms. “The best damn coleslaw scooper this side of the Mississippi.” I focused on the slop as I stirred. “You avenged your wife?” I said. “You took the law into your own hands?”
“Hell, yes, I did,” was his immediate answer. “And I’d do it all over again.” So Mr. Rogers was a vigilante. A husband who had avenged his wife. Not the psychotic mass murderer he was rumored to be.
“Good for you,” I said, because I’d do the exact same thing. I wouldn’t care if the police were still actively working the case with every last detective on their squad.
If I found the man who’d raped and killed my wife before they had, I would have killed him where he stood. And made it hurt.
“Hayward,” he called over at me, back to scooping ‘slaw.
“You love this girl, you marry her, you hear me?” he said, waving his scoop my way. “And you protect her with your life. You hold tight to her because we’re living in one sick, messed up world and you never know when or who’s going to try to take those we love away from us.” He stopped, those cloudy eyes of his looking almost glassy. “You hear me?”
If this was what having a conversation of a personal nature with Mr. Rogers was like, I was pretty sure I wanted to stick to sports and the weather from here on out. However, the man made a lot of damn sense.
“I hear you.”
“Don’t you let anything happen to your girl,” he said, giving one last wave of the scoop. ‘Slaw flew into the air.
“I won’t,” I vowed.
“You’re going down, little brother. You know that, right?” I said as Joseph and I circled each other in our arena back home. It was late, cold, and the thick cloud cover didn’t allow any bit of light from the stars or the moon to break through, but I could make out every flinch of Joseph’s pinky finger, every blink of his eyes.
“While you’ve been in prison getting soft, I’ve been filling in for you on your favorite ass kicking missions,” Joseph replied, faking a lunge forward, trying to get me to respond. No cigar. “I’ve learned a thing or two.”
I huffed. “You mean you’ve finally learned how to tie your shoes and how to remove a woman’s bra?” I said, flashing him a wide smile. “I’m proud of you, little brother.” He lunged again, but this time I did respond. Dodging to the side, I ducked forward, chopping the edge of my hand down hard on the space behind his knee.
He grunted, going down.
“Mercy?” I asked, brushing my knuckles over my chest.
“Not in this lifetime,” he grumbled, popping back up.
“Come on. Go ride the bench for a while. I want to kick Nathanial into next week.”
“What?” Joseph said, lifting his arms in the air. “You afraid the baby of the family might actually be able to hand your pride to you on a silver platter?”
The kid was determined, I had to give him that.
I went from being a few body lengths in front of him to a half foot in front of him before he could even flinch.
“Not even a little bit,” I said, wrapping my arms around his head and swinging him over my back before driving him into the ground.
The trees groaned their protest around us as the earth rattled.
“No fair,” Joseph said, groaning as he got up. “No gifts allowed.”
“My bad, I thought we weren’t playing by a set of rules. I thought the goal was to win.” Joseph popped back up, not as spryly as the last round though. “You’re being a real dick tonight,” he said. “Is it that time of the month or something?”
Boom. And he was back down, my foot hooking under both of his and pulling them out below him before he knew I’d moved. And this time, I hadn’t used teleportation.
“I’m in jail. I haven’t touched, embraced, kissed, or copped a feel on my girl in months. I’m serving a sentence for a crime I didn’t commit. My brothers fight like a bunch of girls. And I find out Father is going over the Reversal Project with Bryn.” Extending my hand, I helped Joseph up. “So, yeah, maybe it is that time of the month.”
“Your life sucks,” Joseph acknowledged, patting my back after I hoisted him up. “Good luck with that.”
I grumbled at him, holding back from taking him down again.
“The RP, as it was intended to work, is a necessary evil, Patrick,” the big brother who I was happily going to kick into next week said. “You know that, right?”
I spun around, my eyes narrowing. “No, Nathanial. I don’t know that. In fact, I’m quite positive it was the worst idea ever conceived.”
Leaning into a tree, Nathanial crossed his arms, looking totally unconcerned with my lid about to blow. He was like William in that way. The only one I could get a rise out of was brother number four.
“You’re tainted because you lost a friend. We all lost friends to the RP,” he said. “But if it worked like it was supposed to, it would have been bloody brilliant.”
A tremble ran up my spine. “And instead all it was was bloody.”
“It was the perfect solution to those Immortals that never fit into the lifestyle, and those who no longer deserved it. It was an out for them, without actually having to kill them.” My brows came together as I searched the sky. “I don’t know, Nathanial. I seem to remember everyone dying where the RP was involved.”
“In theory,” he emphasized. “If no one died and we could successfully transition an Immortal to a Mortal, it would be another weapon in each Alliance’s arsenal.”
“It was a weapon all right,” I said, glaring back down at him. How did he have such screwed up views of what had been the Immortal equivalent of genocide?
“Stop being such a girl, Patrick,” he said, rolling his head back into the tree. “Father and the entire Immortal community learned their lesson. It will never happen again.”
“Then why is he talking about reversal with Bryn, huh?” I said, glancing over at Joseph, who was looking between the two of us like he was trying to decide if he should run for popcorn and a soda or try to break us up. “If he’s learned his lesson, why’s he spending copious amounts of time talking about the ins and outs of reversal with an Immortal who is able to single-handedly kill another Immortal?” Nathanial waited to reply, either gathering together a response or waiting for me to take a step back from the ledge. “Because he needs to know if it can be done.”
“Why?” I shouted. “Why does he need to know that?”
“Because if it can be done in our Alliance, it can be done in another Alliance,” he replied, still a pillar of calm. “Part of his role as Chancellor is to delve into the dark realms of possibility the rest of us would prefer to stay blissfully ignorant to.”
“What part of me has ever been blissfully ignorant?” I said, looking at him with a degree of disgust.