Chapter 1

 

CAMDEN SANDERS stood from where he had been leaning over the engine of the year-old Honda. Out of the corner of his eye, he took stock of the car’s young owner. Not more than twenty-one, the boy looked panicked at the sight of smoke coming from under the open hood. Although the car wasn’t anything special, the clothes and particularly the watch the young boy wore told Cam what he needed to know. Probably still living at home, maybe fresh out of college, and trying to show his father he could take care of his own problems, even if he was living off his dad’s dime.

Cam sighed, curling his top lip as he sucked his front teeth, staring at the engine a moment longer. “Okay, John.” Cam always used his customer’s name. It helped give the impression they were friends and that Cam had their best interest at heart. “I can see this car is your baby, and I know how that is. It’s why I’m gonna help you out here. We’re gonna fix her up right.”

He nodded his head until John nodded along.

“Now, on jobs this complicated, I would normally have to charge over a thousand. See, when I worked in the city, they set the prices, you know? Out to take all the money they could get. But I ain’t like that. I just wanna help people and make a livin’, not a thievin’, right?”

He locked eyes with John, making sure John was following along. And the boy was right there, looking at Camden like he was his savior.

“I’m sure you’re savin’ money for something besides handin’ to some mechanic like me. That’s why I’m gonna do you a solid, man.” Cam leaned over the engine again and pointed to the area around the end of a black hose that had a small amount of white residue. “Now I learned this trick from the old man that trained me. See this white here? It’s calcification from the pH being all wrong in your motor oil. It’ll destroy a car faster than lettin’ the water deoxygenate in your radiator. But don’t expect them city mechanics to tell you that. They fix the damage, don’t tell the owner the real cause of their problem.” He stood back. “Immoral the way they do.”

The boy was just smart enough to be stupid, the way Cam liked them. He’d moved out to the small, recently upwardly mobile community of Hog Mountain on the far outskirts of Atlanta in hopes of finding people with more money than sense, and so far, he had hit pay dirt. The old country town had attracted a class of people who could afford the gas for a long commute back into Atlanta. Lots of upper middle class, kids getting money tossed at them to keep them out of the hair of Dad and the new trophy wife, divorcées using alimony and child support to fund their yoga and club memberships, living in a near-rural area where they trusted all the local businessmen to be honest and fair.

By the end of the day, Cam had made a simple repair of a leaking hose, charged John more than ten times what it should have cost, and had the boy promising to bring the car back monthly for a “free” check of the oil’s pH.

After watching the little Honda drive off, Cam pulled the garage doors closed on the former gas station he’d paid cash for several weeks ago. The pumps were no longer operational, but he only needed the garage area and a place to sleep anyway. It had come with the dilapidated farmhouse behind that he now lived in. It had been a smart move, getting away from the city and his former associates, cutting ties with a group of thieves that were making good money but also becoming increasingly violent. Camden liked his con games light on danger and high on rate of return. He’d already done prison time twice and was finally done with parole and off the books. He wasn’t going to push his luck again.

Camden stripped himself of his stained work shirt, exposing his inked skin as he walked back toward the industrial-sized sink. He dropped his shirt to the floor near the back door. Most of the tattooing on his arms were prison tats, which he’d gotten colored and enhanced once he was out, but the one on his chest was the only one that had been there before his first stint in prison.

Over the left side of his chest was a blackened anatomical heart with a leather strap squeezing it tightly and crimson blood dripping to create a puddle beneath. Scrawled in what looked to be the blood were the words Et tu, Brute? He’d had it put there as a reminder of the pain of betrayal, although, at the time, he hadn’t known what real betrayal was. Having a friend run and leave him to take the rap for shoplifting was pretty mild when it came down to it.

Camden scooped some of the orange stuff beside the sink and lathered up his hands and arms to the elbows, then frowned as he took a small brush to work on the black around his nails. It was what he hated about being a mechanic. He enjoyed working on machinery, liked fixing things and the solitude of working without someone else there with a running commentary, but he hated the way it left behind a stain on his skin to announce his unworthiness. Then again, didn’t he have plenty of those? Life had a way of doing that to him.

Once Cam washed the soap from his arms, he grabbed a clean shop towel and stood back from the sink, taking a moment to examine himself in the little mirror that hung above it. He dried himself as he studied the face in the reflective surface. The blue eyes, which had always helped him earn the trust of others, were starting to come off more as cold. The pretty-boy looks were sharper and light on the “boy.”

At thirty-six, he could see the marks of hard living on his skin, but not near as hard as some others he’d known. For the most part, he’d stayed away from the drugs he’d pushed to others, kept his drinking to the weekends, and worked out when he could, at least while in prison. Cam had always been in the scams for the money, not as some way to self-destruct, but he’d seen his fair share of those who chose each and every aspect of their lives as a way to destroy themselves.

There were lines at the corners of his eyes and one between his eyebrows, likely from holding his “I will cut you” frown firmly in place while serving time. That face had just been for show, though. He didn’t have violence in him. At least not without some just cause, he supposed. Cam ran a hand over his closely cropped hair. It looked black when cut so short and there wasn’t a hint of gray. His beard and mustache were trimmed just as closely, but still visible. He’d always been concerned with appearances. There was no need to look scruffy, even if he was a grease monkey.

Movement around his legs distracted him from his thoughts, and he glanced down with a grin. “All right, Tom, we’re almost done here.” The orange cat had adopted Cam not long after he had moved in and now spent most of the hot July days lazing close to the box fan that kept a breeze circulating in the unair-conditioned garage. Tom had now insinuated himself enough into Cam’s life that he knew Cam’s standing in front of the sink heralded the end of the day.

Cam dropped the towel back to the counter next to the sink and took a moment to make sure the place was all locked up, the fan unplugged, and the lights switched off before scooping up his shirt. When Cam opened the back door of the shop, Tom led the way out. Cam had yet to let the huge cat in the house, although he had made the mistake of putting a bowl of water on the porch.

He made his way across the littered backyard of the garage toward the small white clapboard house that sat behind it. He had bought a swing blade and cut the grass down to about calf height, but that had only revealed all the old tires, engine parts, and beer bottles the higher grass had been hiding. The property had sat empty for a while before Cam bought it, and he felt sure that during that time both the yard and the house had been an unofficial site for teenaged parties and trysts.

The old house looked as worn-out as he was feeling that evening. The place could do with a coat of paint, new roof—some tender care, for sure. If he planned to stay there, which he hoped he would, Cam was going to have to do some work on the little cottage.

It was the first home he’d ever owned. Although for the people around these parts, it wasn’t much to write the family about, he felt some pride for it, like he was finally coming up in the world.

On the first floor, it had three small bedrooms and a large country kitchen in the back—although he didn’t consider himself much of a cook—but the best part was the large second floor—“the attic” was what the realty agent had called it. It was under the gables and the entire length and breadth of the house, but the last owner had finished the area into a large master bedroom with attached bath, which Cam had claimed as his room.

He headed up the steps to the front porch. They were a bit wobbly and so was the handrail. Another for his list of projects. At some point, he was going to have to start on that list before the house fell in around him. As he made it to the door, he took the handle in one hand while leaning and putting the other hand out in front of Tom, knowing all too well the cat would make a try to scamper inside with him.

“Sorry, boy. I’m sure you got fleas or ticks or something I don’t want in the house.”

He slammed the door closed behind him, but then turned to peek out the window at the cat as he slumped down right in front of the door in the shade of the porch. God, I am such a sucker.

With a grumble, Cam stripped off his shoes and socks before making his way into the kitchen, tossing his shirt and socks into the washer as he passed it. “Tom survived just fine before you came to town. He’s playing you,” he mumbled to himself. He’d read an article about how cats had domesticated themselves in order to take advantage of the perks related to being a pet. “The damn thing is running a scam and you are falling for it.”

Shaking his head, Cam opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bucket from KFC along with several styrofoam containers. The last five pieces of chicken went on a plate, and then he emptied the other containers of green beans, mashed potatoes, and brown gravy. While his dinner spun in the microwave, he made himself a huge glass of iced tea and placed it on the little kitchen table along with the final styrofoam container, the last of the coleslaw. Then he leaned against the counter next to the microwave in eager anticipation.

Although there were several fast food selections in the small town, the KFC was out near the interstate. Before moving to Hog Mountain, five miles of driving had seemed pretty standard to get somewhere, but that had quickly changed once he’d relocated. Everything in the small town was much closer, in more ways than one. And country miles seemed so much farther than city ones, so when he’d made the drive out to the interstate a couple of days before, he’d bought the biggest barrel of chicken KFC offered plus several cartons of each side, even though he would be the only one eating from it. He’d finally worked through to the last of the food, and without the large red-and-white bucket in his refrigerator, it was pretty bare. He added a trip to the grocery store to his mental list of activities for the weekend.

A ding sounded as the microwave stopped, and Cam pulled the plate out and gingerly took it to the table along with a fork from the drawer. The chicken was always better fresh, but even heated over, it was better than anything he could have whipped up on his own or the shit he’d eaten while incarcerated. He scooped the rest of the coleslaw onto his plate and then dug into the meal.

Fried chicken always reminded Cam of his grandmother. She used to cook for him when he was younger and spent the weekend, or months on end during the summer, with her. She had been his savior while growing up, taking him out of a home with a drunk for a dad and a mother with her own survival—and her “stories,” as she called her TV shows—to worry about. His grandmother had put him in piano lessons, encouraged him to get good grades, and supported him, even when he had come out to her. She would have loved his farmhouse’s big, airy kitchen with all its counter space and windows. He wished she’d been around long enough to see it.

While gnawing on a chicken leg, he got up from the table, grabbing a napkin to wipe his hands, then took the cereal bowl from the dish drainer before settling back in front of his plate. Cam stripped the meat from the final piece of chicken and shredded it into the bowl, rolling his eyes at himself as he did. Once the bowl was filled, he took it to the front door, opened it, and knelt to place it beside the orange beast lounging there.

“Gotta keep your strength up for all that tomming, right, boy?” Damn, he was going soft.

He scrubbed the cat between the ears as it dug into the food, and was just rising to go back inside when a blue Ford Taurus pulled into his driveway and stopped in front of the old house. Cam couldn’t control his body’s reaction to the unexpected visit, his heart pounding and hands growing clammy.

An older lady stepped out from behind the wheel, giving Cam a smile that looked a bit unsure before leaning back into the vehicle. He glanced down to realize he was shirtless and barefoot. Well, wasn’t this embarrassing? With no time to run upstairs to rectify that, he simply stood and waited as the lady made her way up onto his porch with a linen bag full of something. He could only hope she wasn’t somehow in cahoots with Harold. It would be just like him to get some little old lady to do his dirty work.

“Hello, dear. Sorry to interrupt your evening and another apology for taking so long gettin’ over here. I’ve been meaning to stop by for weeks, but life has a way of foiling even our best intentions.” She smiled, and Cam couldn’t help but smile back, while also attempting to cover his bare chest with crossed arms. He had no idea what the woman’s intentions were, but if she was there to kill him, he would simply have to stand there and let her. She was way too sweet to ever disrespect by putting up a fight.

“I… uh….” Cam did a little wave at his chest and feet, words failing him for a moment. “Yeah, I woulda been dressed if I’d known. Um….”

“Oh, I’m Dotty Calhoun.” Dotty stepped closer as she spoke. “I wanted to welcome you to town and bring you a pie. And don’t you worry none about how you’re dressed. Men like their comforts.”

“Camden Sanders.” He held out his hand and shook the one she had free, then suddenly realized he was being impolite to his guest. “Would you like to come in? The house isn’t much right now, but it’s clean… fairly, at least.”

Dotty smiled as she followed Cam to the door. “My sons aren’t homemakers, so I’m not expecting Martha Stewart. Hope you like pecan pie.”

Cam hummed in approval as he held the door for Dotty to enter. If his death was coming by pecan pie, all he could say was what a way to go! “It’s one of my favorites, but I insist you stay and have a piece with me. I can make coffee.”

He led Ms. Calhoun into the kitchen, then rushed to throw away all the containers from his dinner and place the plate and utensils in the sink. “Sorry about the mess. And uh… let me grab a shirt to put on. My work shirt was too dirty to wear inside.”

Dotty nodded and began setting out the pie and other items from her tote as Camden left the room and ran up the stairs. He had wanted to take a shower before putting any other clothes on, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen. Once in his bedroom, he grabbed a white tank-top-style undershirt from the top drawer of his dresser and yanked it over his head, then shoved his feet into a pair of shower shoes that sat beside the piece of furniture.

The habit of wearing the sandals had come during prison. When not required to wear the nasty slip-on tennis shoes that were part of his uniform, he’d changed to sports socks and the sandals, which were much more comfortable. There was never a moment while on the inside that he had allowed his bare feet to touch the floor, during a shower or otherwise. He’d seen too many guys who’d made the error. He shuddered at the memory. It had taken months once he got out before he had been able to walk around barefooted again.

The journey back down the stairs was slower due to the sandals, and much louder on the scuffed hardwood. When he reentered the kitchen, he found the table set with two small plates, each holding a piece of pie with a healthy dollop of whipped cream on top, and mismatched cups full of milk. Cam frowned and looked up from the table to find Dotty at the sink drying her hands, his dinner plate and utensils now sitting in the dish rack next to the sink.

Cam opened his mouth to protest, but Dotty beat him to it by saying, “Not a word. I did it because I wanted to. Now let’s sit and have some pie, shall we?”

He sat without speaking, but then took another look at the glasses of milk. “If this came from my refrigerator, I’m surprised it isn’t solid, ma’am. We might want to skip on drinking it.”

“I brought a half gallon along with me, and whipped the cream fresh. I have three sons, darlin’. I understand more than you know. And it’s far too late for me to drink coffee, even decaf.” She smiled and lifted her glass of milk for a toast.

Cam clinked his glass against hers and took a sip. Yeah, he needed to get to the store; milk tasted wonderful. Before taking his first bite of pie, he asked, “So have you and your husband always lived here in Hog Mountain?” Then he hummed loudly in approval as he savored the still warm, obviously homemade pecan pie with real whipped cream on top.

Dotty canted her head to the side. “Sort of. We started out here, married when we were right out of high school, but then James joined the Navy and we traveled around until he retired. After that, he got a job with the post office here in town and we took up again like we had never been away. Now tell me about you. Have you always lived in Georgia?”

“I was born and raised in Atlanta, ma’am. Your husband still working at the post office?” Cam said around another bite. Dotty was sweet, and it wasn’t that he was trying to be rude, but his entire goal in this situation was to keep the conversation off himself. Cam knew eventually people were going to learn some things about him, but that didn’t mean he was going to make it easy.

“No, darlin’. James died three years ago in March. He had a heart attack in his sleep and went like that.” She snapped her fingers, then picked up her glass for another sip.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. I didn’t mean to—”

“Now don’t you dare. He lived a good life and went the way we all hope: fast and painless. As much as I miss him, life goes on.” The kitchen grew quiet then, both of them focusing on their pie, and Camden felt he needed to get the conversation going again.

“You sure make a mean pie, Ms. Calhoun. I don’t think I’ve tasted anything this good in years.” When he glanced across the table, Dotty was looking at his uncovered arms and the tattoos there. He felt confident the fact they were prison tats was covered up by the re-inking and added color, and he wasn’t at all sure someone as sweet as this woman would recognize they were done while on the inside, but he still worried.

Dotty lifted her gaze to his, obviously proud he enjoyed her cooking, but Cam spoke before her. “I should have put on something with sleeves. Hope I don’t offend you.”

She waved a hand. “My husband had some, but they were all anchors and military stuff. Yours are prettier.” She pointed to the flower in full bloom on the back of his right hand.

He raised a brow, since the back of his other hand had a skull, which she probably didn’t find “pretty.”

“Okay, that one is prettier,” she corrected.

Cam chuckled. “You like blue roses?”

“I love all flowers,” she said, passion clear in her voice.

He nodded and traced the flower tattoo with his finger. “My grandmother did too. I think you two would have gotten along just fine.”

The flower had been a signature design for his grandmother. Her china pattern and even the wallpaper in her bedroom had borne the dainty blooms. The image of his grandmother and the flower were so intertwined, he couldn’t think of one without the other coming to mind. The tattoo on his hand was a permanent reminder of the woman who had been there for him when he felt no one else was.

Both of them had finished their pie by that point and Dotty rose to clear the table, but Cam stopped her. “I can get that, Ms. Calhoun.”

Dotty pulled her hand back from the plates with a guilty expression but did take the pie and leftover whipped cream to the refrigerator. While putting them away, she said, “You can call me Dotty, dear. But I have to get going. My eyes aren’t what they once were, and roads can get dark as sin out here in the sticks.”

As Cam took the plates to the sink, she patted his shoulder, then scooped up her now-empty linen bag. He followed her to the door and opened it for her. “Thank you again for the delicious pie and the nice visit.”

“Out here can get awful quiet when you live alone. You ever need another pie or a visit, you just call, you hear?” Dotty handed over a flowery piece of stationery with her name and number carefully printed on it, and Cam took it and nodded.

They each waved good-bye as the Taurus left his driveway, and Cam sighed as he closed the door. What had just happened? Shouldn’t he feel put out by the visit? But he’d actually enjoyed the company, although it still was a bit odd to have anyone treat him as anything other than a criminal. Weird is what it was.

Back in the kitchen, he used a dish towel to wipe off the table before washing the plates and forks in the sink. When the dishes were drying in the rack, he started the washing machine since it was finally full with the week’s work clothes. As the water filled, Cam shed the tank top he’d just put on, his underwear, and his jeans, pausing to dig into the pocket of his pants to retrieve his earnings for the day, then tossed everything in and closed the lid.

The sloshing and rattling of the old machine could be heard as Cam made his way into one of the first-floor bedrooms. They were usually closed off since there was spray paint on the walls and he didn’t have furniture for the rooms, or even any use for the space at the moment. Well, other than this. He knelt in the corner, and with a butter knife from the kitchen, he worked loose one of the floorboards. Underneath, a glass mayonnaise jar lay sideways, cradled between two boards underneath. The jar was full with wads of cash, and Cam added most of his haul for the day, only keeping back enough for the errands he needed to run.

Once the floorboard was returned, Cam went upstairs, leaving his spending money on the dresser in his bedroom before entering the attached bathroom to take a long shower.

In a pair of basketball shorts and with a towel around his shoulders, Cam returned downstairs to refill his tea glass before heading for the living room.

The space was filled with mismatched furniture he’d found at yard sales in the area. Cam reached for the remote to turn on the TV but paused when he noticed the pulsing hum of crickets and other night creatures outside. When he’d lived in Atlanta, he’d never really noticed the evening sounds before, but here in Hog Mountain there was little else to hear. Maybe it was because he didn’t have any assholes around who didn’t know how to shut up, but Cam found it peaceful. He sat back on the sofa and dropped the remote beside him. Taking a sip of his tea, he relaxed and enjoyed the country. He hoped Dotty had made it home safely.

Cam considered going back out to the porch to sit with Tom, but when he looked out the window in the door, the cat was no longer there. With nothing else to do, he decided to turn in for the night. Before bed, Cam took his glass to the sink and then moved the clothes from the washer to the dryer. It all seemed so normal that at times he felt the very real need to pinch himself.