“Justine, surely we can make a deal.”
I can make a deal to break your fucking nose.
A deep breath escaped my partially parted lips as I was surrounded by a chorus of knuckles cracking. It was annoying. Mike had a habit. My eyes slowly traipsed his disheveled appearance. He had several…habits. The one in question had to do with his short, pudgy fingers and his need to fiddle with them and crack his knuckles whenever he got nervous.
I always made Mike nervous.
The cracking had gotten worse since I’d broken his index finger last year. However, his behavior hadn’t improved consistently. So, once again, Mike was late. I needed to collect, and his fingers were making their own beats as they went pop-pop-pop.
I flexed my shoulders, keeping my deep brown eyes locked on his weathered and faded face. We had gone to school together, so we had to be around the same age. But time had not done him justice, and he looked at least twenty years older. There was grey at his temples and mixed throughout his unkempt, shaggy beard.
I didn’t say a word. He sighed loudly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He’d never be able to lift his balls enough to lunge, but I subtly adjusted to match his stance with every shift. If he moved, I’d break his fucking neck instead of his left arm, which is what was currently on the roster.
Yeah…I had a plan. This wasn’t a movie or a tv show. Things didn’t happen in a fit of rage and passion. Plans were made and set. If Mike had the money, he’d get a stern talking to and a gut punch for wasting my time. If he didn’t, well…
“It’s just been hard lately, Jus. I’m sure Big Z would understand that. He has to see how it is out here.”
I arched a brow, shifting slightly right to match his new stance. Big Z never understood deviations from plan or process. If a deal was made, then a deal was paid. Ecosystems collapse when muthafuckas deviate, Justine. Do not deviate.
“Do you have payment?” I finally asked. This was getting tiresome. I had a date with the Harris twins from the south side. We’d be adjourning to my apartment after, which meant I needed to scrub the place. They were sexy as hell, great lays, and knew how to keep the party rolling, but they were nosy as shit.
“Some of it.”
I stepped closer, and the leather pants hugging my thick thighs made a soft sound as I flexed my shoulders again, the action sending a tension release throughout my body. The new position made it damn near impossible for Mike to lunge or to get very far if he ran.
I did kind of like it when they ran.
“Do I ever inquire about or accept some, Michael?” I watched as he gulped, his Adam’s apple bobbing against his stretched brown skin. I could punch him there with medium force and solve this whole thing.
No more whiny Mike. But then I’d have a new Big Z problem. Killing Mike without replacing his share would cause a shortage. The ecosystem would suffer. It would be a deviation. Big Z did not suffer fools or danger to his realm.
My fingers flexed, my fists opening and closing as phantom pains snaked along the burn scars on my back. Lessons are like lightning in a bottle, Justine. Catch it, watch it, learn from it. Don’t test fate and attempt it twice.
No, I couldn’t force Mike to swallow his own Adam’s apple unless I was willing to suffer the consequences. And the Harris twins couldn’t ride my face if I was in the burn ward…again. It felt like my scars throbbed in agreement.
Mike finally answered, “No.”
I stepped closer. We were now exchanging air, my frown-covered face almost touching his. He smelled of sweat, fear, and old food. Big Z and I were going to have to discuss a promotion. I was tired of dealing with the Mikes in our…ecosystem.
“How. Much. Are. You. Short?” I whispered, enunciating each word as my hands reached out and gripped his forearms.
My nose flared, my fingers pressing into Mike’s flesh. His eyes closed instantly, a small grunt forcing its way past his lips. Even when I’d broken his finger, he’d been moderately silent. Mike had a high pain tolerance and high pride.
Pride was his problem. It goeth, and he still hadn’t released his.
“You are three-fourths short? Mike, I don’t believe you.”
My fingers pressed harder. He just grunted and looked away. “Greta got into some trouble, and I had to get her out. Didn’t have enough time to put it back.”
Three weeks ago, it was Elroy, and now it was Mike. When did these asshats start believing I gave a shit about their issues or that they had a choice in things? “Not my problem.”
“It never is.” His grunt was louder this time, right before he went deathly silent when my knee connected with his junk. His body dropped, attempting to pull his six-foot frame to his knees. My hold on his left arm tightened as my right hand let go, grabbing his upper left arm. I apply all my force to twist his forearm and upper arm in opposite directions, a slick pop-pop resounded through the room.
I let go, watching him fall backward, using his right arm to clutch his left as he rolled on the floor. His deep voice was low, almost pleading. He sounded like a kicked cat.
I almost felt bad. I loved cats. “One week.”
“Why the fuck are you like this? How’d you become the bad guy, Jus?” He was crying. Not sobbing, but his face was wet with tears, snot easing steadily out of his nose. “In school, you were our defender. You kept the bullies away. Now you are the bully.”
“This isn’t grade school. Life has long stopped being fair.” Big Z had shown me that. “You have a week. Next time, I take it out on Greta.”
His eyes flashed, filled with hate. I guessed the walk down memory lane was over.
“You’re evil, Jus, just like your father. You’ll never be clean.”
I shrugged. Even with the scars he’d granted me through our lessons, I always had been a daddy’s girl. It was the only way my life would have ever worked. Throwing down a visit card to Big Z’s community doc, I accidentally stepped on Mike’s arm with the tip of my steel-toed boot. “I’m just here to keep the ecosystem clean. Balanced.”
His squeal of pain echoed through the room, but I barely processed it. I pulled my foot away, stopping as my breath caught. My eyes slightly narrowed as I looked down at sniveling Mike.
Something suddenly felt off. I turned, looking around the small office and out into the furniture store. It was dingy, well used, and obviously a front to anyone really paying attention. We were the only ones there. Weren’t we? Was Greta watching? Was Mike taping me?
I adjusted my foot. The heel crested his arm, the tip of my boot on his chest. I pressed downward.
“You recording this?”
“No-no. You’re nuts. No, god…please.”
My scars tingled, anxiety rushing through my system. Something was off.
I moved my foot, kneeling over Mike’s prone form. “Mikey, ain’t shit that’ll save you if I find out you’re a rat. Nobody. Nowhere. Ever.”
He sniffled, closing his eyes and rolling to his side as if to protect his arm.
I sighed deeply, shaking my head. The idiot had protected his arm at the expense of his back and his kidney. He didn’t have rat capability.
“No rats in the ecosystem,” he muttered.
I smirked. He knew Big Z’s lessons well. Well, enough to recite, if not pay on time. We needed to work on that. I stood, pressing the tip of my boot into his back. “If I find out you are lying, I’ll be back before the week is up. It won’t be pleasant if I have to pull your truth.”
The gut-punch rounded again, and I stumbled a few steps back from his body. Wrapped in pain, Mike didn’t notice as I spun around, looking for someone, anyone, else in the store.
I shook my head, storming toward the front of the store. “One week, Mike. Four stacks, plus the layover interest,” I yelled back over my shoulder from the center of the furniture store.
There wasn’t a soul in sight. There was never a soul in sight. For the life of me, I didn’t understand how the man managed to even cook the books on such a dump heap. I kicked over a recliner before storming out the front door into the humid autumn night.
Something was off, and I didn’t like it.