One

 

FOUR IN the morning was way too early to die.

Angel Daniels was sure of it, and getting shot wasn’t even a good way to go at that.

In fact, if there was any good way to die, standing in the middle of a former pizza shop while holding a five-pound bucket of cranberry-jalapeno-almond muffin batter wasn’t it and wouldn’t have been Angel’s first pick. Mostly because he’d spent way too much time making the damned batter the day before, and after being woken up following only three hours of sleep by his too-stoned-to-make-it-to-work Tuesday baker, he’d stumbled into the Pizza Shack Bakery with the small consolation of knowing the muffins would be a hit with his morning customers.

That was until some asshole busted in the back door and pulled a gun on him.

He was going to die with a two-day-old scruff because he’d forgotten to buy razors, and his long brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail with the only tieback in the apartment, a bright pink fuzzy thing he’d found tucked into the back of the bathroom junk drawer. They’d have to find something nice for the mortuary. He ran through what he had in his closet and couldn’t come up with anything better than what he was already wearing, an ancient Temple of the Dog T-shirt and a pair of loose jeans, both worn thin from washing and work. At least his underwear was clean. He had that much going for him. Nothing to wear to his own funeral, and he’d leave a hell of a lot of work behind, including whomever was going to be saddled with Roman…. God help them all… but his briefs were clean.

No, four in the morning wasn’t even the time of day Angel planned to die.

He’d spent a good hour at the bare-bones gym he belonged to, sparring with a few guys the night before, mostly to burn off his frustration at yet another note from Rome’s school about his attitude and alarming lack of completed homework. His arms hurt, and there felt like a bruise was forming on his left cheek. Even though he’d worn a guard, something always seemed to get through. He was too tired and worn out to deal with another piece of crap looking to stick itself to his life.

Besides, Rome was dead asleep in the front where Angel’d left him, sprawled out on one of the thickly cushioned sofas Angel got for twenty bucks at a church thrift store. He didn’t need his eleven-year-old brother to come in and watch him die. The kid already had too much to deal with, and Angel couldn’t add to it.

He also didn’t want to get shot, but better him than Roman.

“Are you going to get on with shooting me?” He glanced down at the bucket, hefting it for the gunman to see. “’Cause if you are, do it soon, because this is getting kind of heavy.”

The young man holding the gun said nothing, just stared at Angel’s face as if he’d seen a ghost.

The broken door was letting the sea-salt-kissed fog into the oven room, carrying with it the tarry stink of the rain-damp parking lot and exhaust-stung air from the nearby highway. Somewhere in the outer streets, a misfiring truck was making its early rounds, its brakes squealing as it went by. A few glowing dots penetrated the thick fog, a line of soft yellow lightbulbs running along the edge of the motel’s second floor. A slight ghost of aqua blue with a splash of red along the edges of the door, the light from the motel’s broken street sign leaking in. The cold followed the fog and lights, creeping in with a slithering intent to steal the heat from the hot kitchen.

Angel squared his shoulders and stared down at the young man trembling at the door with his hand wrapped tight around the very deadly looking handgun. Shit, he was just out of his teens, barely old enough to get a thick peach fuzz on his chin, and the fear in his swollen, bloodshot blue eyes was intense. If the boy was more than twenty, Angel would eat his left boot.

The guy holding the gun was half a foot shorter than Angel’s five eleven and so skinny his collarbones cast shadows across his skin from the overhead fluorescents. His hand shook, the gun’s muzzle doing a salsa in the air. The boy’s sun-brightened blond hair was matted into uneven dreadlocks, tangled in with bits of debris and twigs, and his nose was overbaked, peeling up at the edges of a very painful burn. A pair of filthy Vans and Dockers held together by sheer will and dirt was enough of a clue that the kid was sleeping rough, something Angel was all too intimate with.

Talking a kid off the ledge was already a daily chore, but at least Roman didn’t have a gun in his hand while he fell apart. And from the looks of the boy, he was only going to need a slight gust of wind to push him right over. He couldn’t save the world. He’d tried often enough in his thirty-one years on the earth, and nearly every single time, it’d come back to bite him in the ass.

Or in his brother’s case, his throat, but old habits were hard to break, and no matter how strong he’d gotten tossing around bags of flour and tubs of finished batters, he was going to have to put the damned bucket down soon enough.

Lifting the bucket up to his hip, Angel stared the kid down. “Seriously, you sure you want to do this? Easy enough for you to take a step back out that door and we can call it done.”

“I… can’t.” The gun bobbled again, and the kid’s face scrunched, his lower lip trembling. “I just… I’m sorry, dude, but they want—”

“I got a kid sleeping out in the front of the house,” Angel cut him off. Terror clawed at his throat, and Angel quickly shut it down. Panic wouldn’t do him any good. If anything, he’d make a stupid mistake and they’d all be killed. He needed his nerves to be steady. “My baby brother. So I’m going to make it really simple for you. You take what I’ve got here and move on. There’s maybe a hundred bucks in small bills and change for the opening crew, but that’s about it. Unless you want something to eat, it’s all I’ve got to give to you.”

“Ange? What’s going on?”

Angel’s already chilled blood turned to ice when he heard shuffling footsteps behind him, then Roman’s sleepy grumble.

“And why do I gotta sleep here? I’m not a baby—”

“Rome, go back up front,” Angel barked, not taking his eyes off the guy with the gun. Roman was near, too near, and Angel spotted his eleven-year-old brother’s reflection in the oven’s inset glass panels. The fear he’d tamped down broke free, running through his blood and turning his nerves to an icy slick. “Roman! Get the fuck out of here!”

“They didn’t say there’d be a kid,” the gunman stammered. “Shit, I—”

Something sharp and dangerous tickled the cold air, a metallic snip of alarm pinging his nerves, and Angel wasn’t listening anymore, drawn to a movement framed by the open door, then a low rumble outside.

Headlights cut through the fog, a brief flash of white through the open door, and the sound of an engine rattled the back room’s jalousies. The beams cut off, the twin slices of light quickly extinguished in the thick shadowy morning, but the car’s motor continued to rumble, its menacing growl seemingly rising with each passing second. The dark outside turned black, the ambient light from the motel and street suddenly cut off by a tall, solid shape. A squeak of glass against rubber bounced into the kitchen, and the young man pivoted, his eyes widening and half-crazed. The boy’s hand shook, flinging outward probably from surprise, and the gun flew from his loosened grip. Angel wanted to lunge for the weapon, grabbing it away, but there wasn’t enough time. Not after he saw what was going on outside through the broken-down door.

There was a glint, something metal and deadly catching on the light coming from the door. He’d felt the heft of that kind of gun in his hand, knew exactly the shape of that particular familiar blunt silhouette in the choppy darkness. There wasn’t going to be any time to grab the weapon lying on the floor where it landed. Not if he wanted to keep his little brother alive.

Flinging the heavy bucket at the blond, he lunged for his younger brother and caught Roman up in his arms. His brother smelled of sugar, Ivory soap, and the powdery bitterness of slightly grubby little boy. Angel’s chest ached with his fear, leaden and heavy. It pressed into his heart, jabbing into his throat, and Roman began yelling for Angel to let go.

Running for the front would mean dodging around the bank of counters and putting Angel’s back to the action, making him and Roman a target. The kitchen was a narrow space, the ovens set up against the fireproofed wall between the cooking space and the front of the bakery. The walk-in refrigerator was out, and besides, Angel didn’t want to trap them in a dead-end box. It was too far to get Roman to the other room, not in time anyway, so Angel cradled his argumentative, panicking brother and dove down between two heavy steel mixers, praying the machines’ thick bodies would give them enough cover.

“Stop it!” Roman fought being shoved between the machines. “Fricking cut it out—”

Get down!”

Angel ignored his brother and shouted at the young man, but the blond didn’t move. Staring at the gun on the floor, the blond’s mouth moved silently, a goldfish smack-smack of his lips, and Angel found he could taste his own fear, as thick and rank as spoiled milk in his mouth.

“Fuck! Roman, stay here.”

The young man who’d broken in was still standing in the middle of the kitchen, oblivious to the world, when the gunman in the car began firing.

The pop-pop was surprisingly small considering the terror running hot through Angel’s blood. Rome was screaming, Angel tangled around him, arms flailing wildly as Angel dropped him to the floor. Catching an elbow across his chin, Angel saw stars, and his rattled teeth sliced through the edge of his tongue. The pain was intense, enough to keep him focused on the screaming kid he’d inherited from his lackadaisical father. There was a splash of something hot and wet across his face, and the kid’s shrill yells cut off sharply.

“Rome! Fuck, are you hit?” He turned in the tight space, his hands skimming over Roman’s body as he looked for a wound. His brother stared up at him. His face was white from shock, and his gray eyes—so much like Angel’s own—were nearly black from his blown-out pupils. Gulping, Rome shook his head. Then they both ducked as another blast came from the vehicle’s rolled-down window.

Hit, the young man jerked forward, and a burst of crimson blood splashed.

“Dude, stay here,” Angel told his shaking brother. “Don’t move unless I tell you to. Got it?”

Roman whimpered when Angel began to pull away. Digging his fingers into Angel’s shirt, he held on tight. “Don’t go out there, Ange.”

It hurt to see Roman so vulnerable, especially after they’d battled over every little thing in the past two weeks. He wanted nothing more than to hug his baby brother and tell him life was going to be okay, but Angel promised Rome he’d never lie to him. People always break their promises. Rome’d spat at him when Angel reassured him their dad would be back. From the moment their father dumped an angry nine-year-old Rome at Angel’s front door, Angel’d been trying to prove Roman wrong—hell, he’d been trying to prove anything to Rome, but the kid wasn’t buying any of it—and now, when lying was oh-so tempting, Angel stuck with his word and told his younger brother the truth.

“I’m just going to see if I can get that guy safe, okay?” Angel gave his brother one last quick hug, pulling away slowly. “And I need to get that asshole outside to leave. Somehow. ’Cause if I don’t, we’re all dead, buddy, and I’m not ready to die. So stay right here and tuck yourself in.”

Rome nodded and set his jaw, rolling up as tight as he could into the space. Angel stuck his head out, as low to the ground as he could, and surveyed the damage. The kitchen was a mess, but the young man who’d come in hot through the bakery’s back door was a bigger concern than a few shot-up walls and batter buckets.

There was blood everywhere, and a large black hole punctured the young man’s ribs. His chest heaved with his struggling breaths, the wound sucking in air. Turning him over onto his side, Angel got the young man as far behind the bakery’s large metal mixing drums as he could. Then he fumbled for the dropped gun.

And came up with a plastic toy handgun with its orange tip filed clean off.

“Mother—” He bit back his frustration. The bullets seemed to have stopped, but the car’s rumbling engine roared loudly in their absence. Frantically, Angel looked for his cell phone where he’d left it on the metal prep counter, but it’d been turned into a few plastic pieces now lying on the floor next to the oozing shot-through bucket. “Shit.”

There’d been a time when he’d have had weapons stashed in places he could easily get his hands on them, but other than the kitchen knives they used to break down ingredients, the Pizza Shack Bakery was sadly lacking. Regret wasn’t going to do him any good. He was going to have to find something quickly or they both wouldn’t last for very long if someone else with a gun came through the door.

“Okay, they done?” Quickly reassuring himself that Roman was out of sight, Angel then risked a quick peek around the corner of the back door. None of it made sense. Why send a young guy in with a fake gun, then blow the place up with real bullets? “Okay, dude, I’m trying to get you out of here. I just don’t know how the hell to do it.”

If Angel’d thought things had gone to hell before he came up empty in the weapon department, whoever was in the car decided to bring out the big guns.

Literally.

Another shot, but this one boomed, rattling the jalousies, and pebbled shot filled the kitchen, sending Angel back down into a crouch. The smaller of the Shack’s two ovens took the hit with an angry crack of punctured glass. The blast hurt Angel’s ears, and he ducked down, rubbing at the sides of his head to ease the ache. A quick check of the kid assured him his first problem was still breathing, but the larger, more menacing one was still outside, and from the sound of the next echoing blast, the asshole was just getting started. Roman yelped, then shouted he was okay just as Angel’s stomach nearly burned its way up his throat.

“Stay. There,” he shouted back.

Looking up, Angel groaned at the demise of his newer oven. Then a gurgle from the kid behind him yanked him back to reality. There wasn’t anything he could use as a long-distance weapon, but the arm-length mixing hook was hefty enough to do considerable damage.

“If I don’t get my head blown off,” he muttered, grabbing the detached dough hook. It was unwieldy, but it was all he had, and an ear-shattering shotgun blast peppered the oven’s already damaged front. Standing up, Angel took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, making sure he had a good grip on the hook’s square end. “Fuck it, Angel. It’ll be just like being back with Dad in the bus.”

He leaped out of the back door, screaming at the top of his lungs, and nearly caught his heel on the edge of the cement pad the Shack rested on. His shoulders tensed, Angel swung at the black SUV idling a few feet away from the bakery. He couldn’t see in, it was too dark, and the window the driver shot out of was quickly being rolled up, its rubber guide catching on the glass in jerky squeaks. Catching the edge of the hook against a rear window, Angel struck it, turning his face to avoid a splash of glass pebbles when the pane gave way.

The damned thing bounced off of the glass—bounced—and Angel lost his grip on its end.

It tumbled over his forearm, an edge on its attachment end catching on the jute bracelet Roman made for him in art class. Twisting around, he grabbed at the hook, wrapping his fingers around the metal shaft. Getting a good purchase, Angel let the hook’s bulbous end rest against his clenched hands and he swung again as a howling shriek cut through the air.

For most people, the sight of a six-and-a-half-foot-tall golden-skinned, bright penny-haired man in curlers and a leopard-print onesie would be unique, perhaps even alarming. For Angel, it was simply Tuesday. More importantly, Justin, the curler-sporting ginger Viking in red bedroom slippers, wielded a crowbar and did not appreciate the Pizza Shack Bakery being shot up like a stationary paper-duck target at the county fair.

The crowbar came down on the roof of the SUV nearly the moment the driver gunned the engine and its tires tried to grab at the damp asphalt. The back end of the car hit a ridge in the lot’s uneven surface, and Angel threw himself back toward the Shack, grunting when the bumper grazed his thigh. The hit spun him around, and Angel landed hard on his hip. Scrambling to get his legs out of the way as the SUV hydroplaned sideways, Angel hit his shoulder against the doorframe, then folded his knees up into his chest, praying the car wouldn’t jump the cement slab and hit him.

The SUV’s massive tires chewed up the weeds growing along the edge of the bakery, grinding them into a choppy mess. Justin flung the crowbar at the retreating vehicle’s back end, and the bar struck the rear window. It hit hard, its edge leaving a spiderweb across the glass, but the window held. Another roar of its engine, and the SUV shot out into the fog, spitting loose gravel and torn-up greenery into Angel’s face.

They were left with a moist silence, fog-damp and echoing, punctured through by their frantic gasps for air and the wail of police sirens in the distance. A gurgling cry startled Angel out of his pained fugue, and he reached for Justin’s outstretched hand, letting the tall man drag him to his feet.

“Rome, I’m coming in now,” Angel warned his brother as he headed into the kitchen. “You okay, dude?”

“Yeah.” Rome’s voice shook. “Can I come out? Is Justin out there?”

“Yes, he is, but no, you stay there.” He wasn’t sure the SUV wouldn’t be back, and honestly, Angel didn’t want Roman to see what was left of the young man who’d held him up just a few minutes ago. “I’ll let you know when. Just stay there and be safe.”

Angel grabbed a handful of bar towels from a bin. The pool of blood under the kid wasn’t much larger than what Angel remembered, but he had no way to gauge the time they’d spent beating at the SUV. He was stretched out where Angel’d left him, his eyes closed and his mouth open, his body shaking under Angel’s own trembling hands.

“Justin, use the landline and make sure there’s an ambulance coming,” Angel ordered over his shoulder, pressing the thick pack of towels into the injured man’s wound. The blood was still hot, and the guy moaned under the staunching push. “They shot this guy who came in before they got here. He needs a doctor something bad.”

“Shit, one of the baker bunnies? Wait, who the hell is that?” Justin craned his head in, the thick spray of freckles on his cheeks standing out as the blood left his face. “Oh God, honey, he looks… dead.”

“I hope not,” Angel said, checking over the young man’s too-still body. His chest was moving, much to Angel’s relief, but his breathing was shallow and troubled. “Because the last thing he did in life was something pretty stupid. I’d hate to face God and have to explain I died holding a bakery up with a fake gun.”