Jax laughed. “Cute.”
I grinned as I went for a slice of bacon. “So where are we going after this?”
“Inside Philly,” he said in between mouthfuls. “There’s a house she used to hang out at a lot. Maybe we’ll get lucky and she’ll be there or they’ve seen her recently.”
“Calla! And Jax!” shrieked a familiar voice. I twisted in the booth, spying Katie. She was trotting over to us. Literally trotting, and I blinked, wondering if we time-warped back to the eighties and I’d been unaware of it.
Katie was wearing hot pink spandex tights, slouchy purple socks, sneakers, and an off-the-shoulder black shirt. And a scarf—a polka-dotted red and blue scarf, and it was June.
“Hey,” I said, waving a slice of bacon around.
“Gurl.” Katie stopped at our booth, holding on to a carry-out box. “Look at you. Told you, your life was going to change.”
Jax shoved a huge slice of pancake into his mouth, and I could tell he was trying not to smile.
“What are you doing up so early?” she asked, and then went on before I could answer. “I was doing yoga. Every morning. And I get IHOP, Waffle House, or Denny’s every morning. It’s like the universal counterbalance or some shit like that. But it’s still kind of early for hot, busy bartenders to be eating breakfast. Together.”
My gaze shifted to Jax.
“We woke up together,” he said, and that was all he said.
Katie’s eyes turned into spaceships, and I almost shouted that it wasn’t what she was thinking, but then I realized that it was what she was thinking, so I forced myself not to say anything.
A big smile split across her pretty face. “Awesome sauce. Seriously. If you two stay together and end up getting married and having a kid, I think you should name your baby Katie.”
Warmth crept into my cheeks. “Whaaat?”
“I mean, you could name a boy baby Katie, but they’d probably get made fun of in school, and I don’t think you two would want that. Oh—is that grits?” She switched topics, not even taking a breath. “You need more cheese on them. One morning you need to come over to my house. I can make some mean-ass grits.”
“That sounds good,” Jax replied smoothly, his dark eyes twinkling in the lights. “And we’ll take the name thing into consideration.”
I turned my “what the f**k” stare on him.
Katie giggled. “Awesome. Well, I need to get home with my muffins and waffles. See you guys later.”
Watching her spin on her heel and flounce out of the restaurant, I had nothing of any value to say, so I went with the next-best thing. “Did you know she fell off a pole, hit her head, and is now psychic?”
“That’s what I hear.”
I bit down on my lower lip. “Roxy says she’s been pretty on point before.”
“Katie,” drawled Jax, and I looked over the table at him. He was smiling. “I wouldn’t be opposed to naming a baby girl Katie.”
“Oh my God,” I said.
Jax tipped his head back and laughed that deep sexy laugh, and I couldn’t help but smile.
I wasn’t smiling when we entered the part of town one did not willing venture into forty minutes later. The street wasn’t very active, as it wasn’t even noon yet.
Jax found a parking spot in front of the worn-down brownstones across from a city park that looked like it belonged in a postapocalypse movie.
My gaze skipped over the boarded-up windows and doors on some of the units. “I’m not sure about this.”
“This is the last shit hole I want to bring you to, but the last I checked, you served me with a dose of attitude about this being your problem and shit.” He killed the engine and turned what was probably a very smug look on me. “So that’s why we’re here.”
He had a good point, but it wasn’t like I was going to admit to that. “Whatever.”
His lips twitched. “Stick close to me. Okay? And let me do the talking—no, don’t look at me like you just sucked on something sour. Let me do the talking. If you can’t agree to that, then we’re going to drive off, I’m going to lock you up with Clyde or Reece, and then I’ll come back here on my own.”
My eyes narrowed on him. “You don’t have to be so damn bossy.”
“Yes, I do.” He leaned forward and kissed the tip of my nose. It was quick, but it still startled me. When he pulled back, he was grinning. “Do you agree?”
I hesitated and then sighed. Wasn’t like I was Rambo and was going to run into the brownstones by myself, demanding to have them hand over my mother or else. “Oh, all right. Yes. I agree.”
Jax nodded and then he climbed out. I sat there for a second, said a little prayer, and then got out. I did stick close to him as we walked down the block and then headed up the crumbling set of steps to a brownstone that had two windows boarded up on the second floor.
“Mom used to come here?” I asked, folding my arms around my waist.
He nodded as he glanced down at me. “Yeah.”
Pressing my lips together, I knew I shouldn’t be surprised. Wasn’t like this was anything new, but seeing this and picturing my mom hanging out in a place like this just didn’t set well, no matter how many trailers I’d pulled her out of when I was a teenager.
Jax rapped his knuckles on the door. A few moments passed and when no one answered, I figured this was going to be a no go, but then Jax pounded his fist on it.
“Whoa,” I murmured, glancing around. “Do you think that’s a good idea?”
He ignored me as he leaned in. “Open up the door, Ritchey. I know you’re in there. Your piece-of-shit car is out front.”
My eyes widened as my stomach dipped.
There was a beat of silence and then the front door opened to a crack. I couldn’t see anyone, but I heard in a scratchy voice, “What the f**k do you want, Jackson?”
Jax placed his hand on the center of the faded red door. “We need to talk.”
“Talk” was the response.
“Not on the front doorstep of your damn house, Ritchey. Let us in.”
There was a pause. “Us?” Then the door opened to about a foot and a man’s head appeared. I took an involuntary step back from the sight of the unshaven face, bloodshot eyes, and bulbous nose covered in broken blood vessels. “Who the f**k are you?”
I recognized the man even though he stared at me like he’d never seen me before. Holy shit, there was no way I’d forget those watery eyes and nose. He used to come over to the house and party with Mom.
“Really none of your business, Ritchey, and I’m not here to make introductions,” Jax cut in, and his tone . . . wow, it was all kinds of badass. I was actually staring up at him, kind of shocked. “Open the door.”
Ritchey didn’t open the door.
There was a low curse and then Jax moved. Planting his foot into the door, he pushed with his boot and hand. The door opened and Ritchey went wheeling backward.
“Um . . .”
Jax took my hand, tugging me inside, and the smell—God, the smell was the first thing I noticed as he shut the door behind us. The room, which consisted of a blaring TV and two couches that had seen better days, smelled like a mixture of cat piss and booze.
Please do not let my mom be in here.
I know that I was wrong for thinking that. Finding her would ease my problems quickly, but I didn’t want to think of her in a place like this.
“Not cool, man.” Ritchey backed away, scratching at his throat with dirty nails. The skin of his neck was red. “Pushing the door open like you’re a damn cop or something.”
“You didn’t open the door,” Jax returned.
I had to wonder how much practice he had busting up into houses with um . . . questionable residents, because he was completely at ease doing so. I took a step to the side, because I realized there was a hole in the floorboard in front of me, and I could see over the back of a couch.
My chest squeezed.
There was a small child, maybe five or six, curled up on the couch, lying under a thin quilt. A cat was tucked in the little’s boy lap. I stared at the kid, sickened.
“What’s up?” Ritchey asked.
Jax kept his arms loose at his sides. “We’re looking for Mona.”
“Like there’s another Mona I’d come here looking for. And this isn’t the first time I’ve come here looking for Mona,” Jax said, surprising me. But then I remembered him saying he and Clyde had done this before. “Don’t pull crap. You know how this works.”
It worked a certain way?
Ritchey kept digging at the skin by his throat, but a certain gleam crept into his eyes. “I ain’t got no part in Mona’s shit.”
Jax took a step forward, dipping his chin. “I’ll only ask you once, Ritchey.”
“Man, I ain’t—”
“One time,” Jax warned.
Ritchey didn’t answer, and then Jax sprang forward, grasping the front of Ritchey’s shirt and lifting him onto the tips of his bare feet.
Holy crap, this was going to get physical.
My mouth dropped and then I moved forward, keeping my voice low as I reached their side. “There’s a kid on the couch sleeping, Jax.”
“Shit,” muttered Jax, but his hands didn’t come off the guy. “You got Shia here, in this rat hole?”
“His damn mother skipped out. I’m doing the best I can.”
His biceps flexed. “Let’s take this into the kitchen and you’re going to play nice. For Shia, okay?”
We took it into the kitchen, or what might have been the kitchen. It didn’t have a sink, just a gaping hole where one should be. Out of the corner of my eyes, I thought I saw something brown and disgustingly large scurry over the wall near the fridge.
“Mona ain’t here,” Ritchey said finally.
“You mind if I check that out?”
“Have at it.” Ritchey stepped to the side and leaned against the counter. “But I’m telling you. She ain’t here and you ain’t the first person to come looking for her.”
I stilled. “We’re not?”
“Who else has been looking for her?” Jax asked, not moving.
Ritchey’s watery eyes narrowed on me. “There’s something about—”
“Eyes on me, Ritchey.” When he obeyed the demand, Jax didn’t look any more relaxed. Unease formed in my belly. “Who came looking for Mona?”
“Some dudes. Some bad f**king dudes,” he replied, folding his scrawny arms across his frail-looking chest. I thought this probably wasn’t the best conversation to have in a room that a small child was sleeping in, but he went on. “Guys who work for Isaiah.”
Oh. Bad news.
“We already know that,” Jax replied calmly.
“There’s some talk,” he said after a few moments. “Mona’s in deep.”
“Another thing we already know.”
Ritchey grimaced. “Yeah, but do you know she was the go-between to what was close to three million in he**in for Isaiah? And she was supposed to turn that stuff over a week ago?”
I almost groaned. My worst suspicions were confirmed. The drugs belonged to the uber drug lord and not Greasy Guy.
“Word on the street is that someone else has got the shit and Isaiah wants to hear it from the horse’s mouth that she ain’t got the shit no more.” Ritchey hacked out a dry laugh. “Man, if I knew that stuff was at the house and she wasn’t there, I’d have been all over that myself.”
And he kept going. “She’s a dead bitch walking. You know that, Jax. Good thing she gave—”
“That’s enough,” he cut in harshly while my stomach ended up somewhere on the gross as hell floor. “Do you have any idea of where she is? Or Rooster?”
“Rooster?” Ritchey laughed again. “Man, he’s holed up wherever Mona is, or if he’s smart, he’s gotten far away from where she is. Man, Jax, you know how Mona was. She’d get high, get to talking and acting like she was big shit because she was running mule for Isaiah and the shit got out. Mona ain’t smart. She should’ve handed over that dope instead of sitting on it.”
“Why didn’t she?” I asked, and I could feel Jax’s eyes on me. “Did you hear anything about that?”
He nodded. “Stupid-ass Rooster was talking about trying to run some game over Isaiah. Instead of taking the cut they got for going and picking the dope up, he wanted more before they handed it over. So they were sitting on it. And that put the ass**le Mack in a bad position, because he was supposed to get that shit from them and hand it over. ’Cuz you know, Isaiah, he don’t want to get his hands dirty.”
Oh God, that was just worse in five hundred different ways. I didn’t know what to say.
“And knowing Mona and Rooster, they probably got themselves a bit of it, got messed up, and then freaked, knowing they’ve pissed off Isaiah. Shit ain’t looking good for them.” He paused, spreading his arms. “And now, here we are, and all that shit rolls downhill, right through Mack, Rooster, and Mona.”
A muscle thrummed along Jax’s jaw. “Damn.”
“Yep. You know who might have a clue to where they are?” Ritchey tilted his head to the side. Jax’s chin went up a notch. “You know Ike?”
“Met him a time or two.”