“Truth or Dare, Mr. Bailey.”
It seemed to be a question, but the blonde woman with the intent blue eyes said it like a statement. Luke had no idea how he was supposed to respond, so he kept his mouth shut and waited for his prospective employer to explain.
“Spin the Bottle. Seven Minutes in Heaven. Sneaking beer from the garage fridge and hoping tonight you might finally get a chance for some time alone with that girl or boy of your dreams. A chance to relive those middle-school days when everything was new and unexplored. You remember what that felt like?”
She seemed to expect a response so Luke nodded. Better not to speak yet. Eyes and ears open. Mouth shut. That was the main lesson he’d learned during his five years in prison.
“That experience is what my bar offers.” Mary Scott was so full of energy and excitement she made Luke nervous. “My Parents’ Basement gives customers a taste of innocence, an opportunity to meet and flirt like they did at parties when they were young. But with alcohol.” She smiled, a flash of white teeth that was dazzling. “And trust me, Mr. Bailey. People drink here like they would in any other bar. But they also play games, dance, listen to music from their past and remember what it felt like to be young and uncertain and full of hope.”
She spoke with the enthusiasm of a televangelist and looked at him with bright eyes that demanded a response, so he nodded again even though the kind of party she’d described hadn’t been any part of his youth. Drinking malt liquor, huffing aerosol spray and screwing girls on an old mattress in an abandoned house was the kind of party he remembered from when he was thirteen.
“The ambiance of the club creates a level of intimacy with strangers right away, a focus for conversation as they start sharing memories. Basement is a great pickup place.”
Why was she trying to sell him on the bar? All he wanted was a damn job anywhere at all. He’d gotten a special exemption from the terms of his parole so he could be employed in a bar. She didn’t need to convince him this was a great place to work.
Ms. Scott was looking at him, and this time it seemed something more was required than a nod, so Luke spoke. “Sounds good. I’d be happy to work here.”
“About that. Joann told me a little about your history. I know how hard it can be for, um, ex-cons to find employment, and I’d be happy to hire you, but do you have any experience tending bar?”
Luke felt his shot at a decent-paying, legitimate job slipping like sand through his fingers. Of course it had been too much good luck to expect. His first impulse was to lie, tell this woman anything she wanted to hear in order to get the damn job, then learn fast. But she’d figure out his ignorance soon enough and know he was a liar. Maybe it was better to start with the truth. See how that worked for a change.
“I can pour whiskey or mix it with Coke. Nothing too complicated. But I’ll learn. Ms. Horton suggested I pick up a guide and I’ve been studying it, and if you want me to, I’ll take a bartending course or something.” He swallowed any shred of pride and prepared to beg. “If you give me a chance, I swear I won’t blow it.”
The bartending gig was golden. When his parole officer, Joann Horton, had arranged this interview, she’d said Ms. Scott would include room rental as part of his payment. She’d even done the standard home inspection already—no contraband, no guns. Ms. Horton had done a lot for him, and he was grateful. No struggling to make rent on some rattrap apartment three times as expensive as it was worth. Here Luke would have honest work and a bed at night, both provided in one fell swoop.
There was only one potential obstacle—the bar’s owner changing her mind about the offer after she’d interviewed him. Luke gripped his hands tight in his lap and willed with all his might for Mary Scott to hire him.
She looked down at the folder in her hands—his life reduced to a handful of facts, all of them bad—and he was certain he’d lost her. Why would she hire him? He wouldn’t if it was his bar. Then she lifted her gaze to meet his and for a second his heart stuttered. Her eyes were beautiful, wide and framed by dark lashes that enhanced the blue.
“I know what’s it’s like to be at a point in your life when no one has faith in you and maybe you’ve lost faith in yourself.” Her voice was kind but not condescending. “I’m not suggesting I know what it feels like to be fresh out of prison, but I’ve had my own hurdles.”
She gestured at the room around them. “I didn’t come by this easily. I couldn’t get backing. No bank would take my business plan seriously and my family thought I was naive to try such a venture. I got no support from them. But here it is—real at last, and successful.”
Luke looked around at the décor, the comfortable mismatched furniture grouped around squares of carpeting on a concrete floor, local band posters on the walls, tables and chairs with shelves of board games placed nearby. The place really did look like somebody’s basement rec room, casual, unpretentious and inviting.
“It seems really nice,” he said. “A good place to unwind.”
Mary smiled again and sunshine flooded the dimly lit bar. “Thank you. I love it.”
Once more she glanced at Luke’s file, which he’d shared in place of his nonexistent resume. He’d figured it was best she know all about his arrest record and conviction so she’d know he wasn’t trying to hide anything. He didn’t translate the details. He wasn’t that much of a masochist. Let her ask what 750.529 Sec. 529 really meant in his case.
She tapped the manila folder then handed it to him. “Joann is a friend of mine and her recommendation means a lot to me. She promises you’ll be a hard worker and the rest you can learn from Manuel. I’ll start you on days when we’re not so busy and he can teach you. He’s a master mixologist.”
He was nodding before she’d even finished speaking. “Yes, ma’am.” Should he have said Miss or Ms.? What was the correct address to show respect to a woman in a business situation? It wasn’t as if he’d been on a lot of interviews in his life. “Yes, Ms. Scott. That’d be great. When do you want me to start?”
In his mind he was already removing his few possessions from the halfway house. He hated that limbo between lockdown and real life.
“How about in two days? Wednesdays are usually pretty quiet.”
“Thank you. I really appreciate this opportunity.” He paused, wondering how to bring up the living arrangement. “Ms. Horton said you might be willing to rent me space here. A room…?”
Mary Scott’s face was transparent. He saw the doubt chase across her eyes like clouds over the sun. She was regretting her rash offer of having a convicted felon live in her place of business. But she blinked and smiled. “I did say that. It’s only a spare storeroom but there’s space enough for a single bed and dresser. You can use the microwave and fridge in the bar’s kitchen and clean up in the restroom. I live in the apartment above the bar so I have no better rooms to offer you. I can show the storeroom to you. It’s really small so I don’t know if it will do…”
“I don’t care how small it is, I’d be happy to have it. My year at the halfway house is about up, then I’ll have to find an apartment. Right now I can’t afford anything. I’d as soon not end up in the tent city under the highway bridge or begging for help from MPRI.”
“The um, prisoner re-entry initiative.”
Could he sound more pathetic? He was trash swirling around a storm drain. His life was humiliating right now. In some ways he’d actually felt better in prison, where he was used to the routine and his place in the pecking order. Out here anything might happen, and he was reduced to begging for scraps or making a dumbass mistake and violating parole. Hell, no wonder more than half of all inmates fucked up and ended up back inside.
Well, that wouldn’t be him. He’d more than learned his lesson and was through trying for easy money, which always led to stupid decisions.
A slight frown puckered Mary Scott’s perfectly arched eyebrows. “The room’s yours then. You can move in and start in a couple of days if you want.” She rose and that was Luke’s signal to stand too. She extended her hand, her smooth palm sliding against his, gave a firm pump then let go. It had been so long since he’d shaken anyone’s hand, let alone a woman’s, that he’d forgotten how good the simple contact felt.
“Thanks again for the job. I really appreciate it.” Luke picked up his jacket and headed for the door, feeling her eyes on him. He wanted to look back at her but waited until he was outside, then glanced sideways through the window.
Mary Scott stood where he’d left her and she was watching him leave, probably regretting her decision. She pushed back her honey-blond-streaked brown hair then bent to the table to pick up the cups of coffee neither of them had drunk.
Luke lost sight of her as he passed the window and walked down the crowded sidewalk. He felt a tremor of an unfamiliar feeling. Not anxiety, dread or fear, although this had the same prickly edge. It took him a few seconds to identify the unsettling feeling in the pit of his stomach as anticipation—maybe mingled with a glimmer of hope.
Mary didn’t regret her promise to Joann to interview Lucas Bailey, but she wasn’t feeling too comfortable about her new employee either. Bailey appeared rough, not in physical appearance so much—his dark hair was clean, his face shaven and he didn’t even have any visible tattoos—but in his manner. He’d be more fitting as a bouncer than a bartender, not that her place had ever needed a bouncer.
It wasn’t that the man was huge and hulking, but she sensed a general air of danger about him. Or maybe that was simply because she knew his background and was projecting her own fears. After all, he’d been involved in an armed robbery in which a store owner had been shot. Although he wasn’t the man who’d pulled the trigger and had even been caught on videotape trying to stop the shooter, he’d been part of the crime and locked away for it for a long time. Being in prison for five years had to change a person. If Bailey had already been trouble at age twenty-one, he was surely even more hardened now.
Or rehabilitated. Wasn’t that what prison was supposed to be for?
“This isn’t the sort of thing I do,” Joann had said when she’d approached Mary about taking on a new employee. “But I believe in Luke Bailey and I’d like to see him get a break, a chance to improve himself. Besides, you’re Ms. Sensible and you lock your doors. If you see him drinking or doing anything suspicious, call me. Day or night.”
Mary had laughed. “I really am doing you a favor.”
Joann had nodded. “He’ll go back to jail without a job. I know it sounds stupid to make predictions with anyone, much less one of my parolees, but I think he’s going to be fine.” She’d sighed heavily. “Just don’t forget to read the booklets and stuff I gave you, okay?”
Mary had to throw off her prejudices and trust that everything would be all right. Lucas Bailey would be an honest employee as Joann had promised. She could trust him to sleep in the storage room and not sneak up the stairs to her apartment in the night and molest her in her bed. This wasn’t some cheesy made-for-TV movie—She Let Danger In. Luke probably was as Joann had described him, an overall decent guy who’d made some really bad decisions in the past.
Two days later, she watched her new employee drop his duffle on the small rollaway bed that had been shoved into the storeroom. The tiny space reeked of cardboard and ancient beer. Letting him stay in this room was a mistake. No one could live here—and she treasured her time alone after the bar closed. Knowing he was downstairs, living in this cell, would make her feel ill at ease in her own comfortable apartment.
“I’m not sure how long this will last. It’s not going to be a long-term arrangement. All right, Mr. Bailey?”
He froze, hands still on the duffle. His face went utterly blank.
“The living arrangement, not the job,” she added. “If you and the job suit, then that’s fine.”
“Okay. Thanks.” He straightened and shoved his hands into his jeans pockets. “I understand.”
“In the meantime, if you need anything…” What he needed was a real apartment and this wasn’t it. She gave him another nod then left, walking down the corridor to the stairs that led up to her place. Even after she closed her door, she was too aware of his presence one floor below. He might as well be standing in the room with her.
She was distracted—that had to be why she forgot to check the caller ID before answering her cell phone.
“Dina Berkley made partner.” Her mother launched in without a hello. “We’re going to the party her mother’s holding tomorrow. You’re invited of course.”
“That’s great,” Mary said. “But I can’t come. I’ll be sure to send Dina something.” She hadn’t seen Dina for years, but hoped a good dirty card would make her blush then laugh the way she used to back when they were teenagers sitting by the country club swimming pool.
“Why can’t you come?”
“I’m training a new employee.”
“You hired someone?”
“Yup.” Mary tried divert her mother’s attention by asking about her sister. “How’s Abbie?” Bad idea, it turned out.
“She’s another one who’s making something of her life. I mean she’s never going to make a million dollars—”
“Not like Dina,” Mary tried, but her mother wasn’t going to abandon the familiar theme of what constituted a young woman’s success.
“—but you can’t deny that having children is something special.”
“Nope? What do you mean?”
“I mean I can’t deny it. You’re right.” Mary scrubbed at the kitchen counter.
Her mother surprised her by not using the opportunity to harp on the theme of grandchildren. “Even that friend of yours. What’s her name? Joan, the one who works with criminals? Even her work is worthwhile.”
“Joann. Yup. She does good work.” Mary pictured the man in her bar and wondered what Joann had been thinking, suggesting one of her parolees as an employee. It spoke well of Joann’s opinion of Luke that she’d been willing to take such a big leap of faith, putting Mary’s bar and perhaps her own job at risk if Luke should fail.
Mary looked at the clock on the stove. She’d put in five minutes and didn’t have to feel guilty about hanging up. “Listen, Mom, I need to get—”
“That woman is brave. I mean day after day with criminals. You remember our accountant, Bert Phillips? He was mugged, and that man got less than a year.”
“Not every ex-con is bad news.”
“You are showing your naiveté, sweetie. I suppose I should be glad you’re not going into Joan’s line of work.”
“Joann.” Mary picked up the brush to scrape the gunk off the kitchen sink faucet, silently admonishing herself, Do not be a smartass. Let her talk.
She did a fine job of half listening and making reassuring noises until her mother started in on the absurd trend of prolonging adolescence. She didn’t understand why people in their twenties hated becoming adults, a remark clearly aimed at Mary’s bar theme.
“Hey, hanging out with friends at a bar is better than doing time in a prison, right?” Mary said, and immediately wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
“What are you talking about?”
“You were talking about Joann before. Never mind.”
There was a soft knock at the door. Saved. “Gotta go. Love you. Talk to you later.” She hung up before her mother could protest.
“Yeah?” she called.
A low voice answered, “It’s me.”
Of course. It had to be the man living in her extra storeroom, since the front door buzzer hadn’t gone off. How much had he heard of her end of the conversation through the door? She hadn’t exactly been keeping her voice quiet. He’d think she’d been gossiping about him, of course.
Mary unlocked and opened the door. This was potentially too awkward so she had to just say it. “Hey, if you overheard that stuff about prison? I wasn’t talking about you.”
Of course he’d heard her. The walls of her apartment were paper thin.
She plunged on. “What I’m trying to say is that I know how rude it would be if I told everyone you’d served time, because no one would look past that fact, right? It’s invasive.”
He hunched his shoulders in a shrug.
She gave a sigh of impatience—mostly with herself. She had nearly learned to keep her mouth shut when it came to her mother but had yet to learn that skill with the rest of the world.
He looked up then and gave a twitch of the mouth that could have been a smile. “It’s not really invasive, Ms. Scott. Invasive is having to strip down for a cavity search. It’s someone with rubber gloves up your ass.”
She wasn’t sure if he was trying to make her feel better or shock her. “Yeah, I guess that qualifies.” She forced a laugh. “I won’t do either, okay? No gossip or strip searches.” The idea of him naked was too vivid, and it was her turn to look away into the dark of the hall behind him.
She had to say something to make it clear that she wasn’t a pushover. She had to draw the line again. “Since we’re talking about this, I forgot to mention what Joann said, that if there are signs that you’re, um…using, I should let her know.”
“Yeah, I know.” He must have been trying to save her from awkwardness because he quickly added, “I gotta submit to drug tests on a regular basis. It’s part of my parole, but it’s all right if you require them too. Do a drug test any time you want and I won’t pull an attitude. I’m clean and I’m going to stay clean. Drugs were never really my problem anyway.”
Mary wondered what he thought had been his problem. What had led him to rob a store and end up in prison? She had no idea why she felt as if she’d done him some sort of injustice by bringing up the question of drug use. At least the subject was out in the open now. Dealt with.
“So. What can I do for you?”
He cleared his throat. “I can use the bathroom downstairs to wash up, and that’s fine. It’s great. But I wonder if it’s possible every week or so if I could use a shower?”
A shower—he meant her shower, of course.
“I’d pay of course,” he added hastily. “And I don’t mean every day. And if it makes you uncomfortable or whatever, I have friends. And there’s the Y.”
She’d just had that thought of him naked in her brain and now in her shower. This was not helping.
“Sure,” she said too cheerfully. She was about to say he could use the shower when she was downstairs working, but she wasn’t ready to leave him alone in her apartment. Not because he was an ex-con, she reminded herself. She just liked her privacy.
“That’s fine,” she said firmly. “Want to take one now?”
His eyes widened a little, as if she startled him. “That’s okay. Thanks. But I’m not ready.”
What did you have to do to get ready for a shower besides take off all your clothes? She managed to stop herself asking that question and instead asked, “What do you need?”
He pushed a hand through his hair. “Towel,” he muttered.
“That’s it? You could borrow one of mine.”
“You’re already doing more than enough.” He glared at the floorboards as if they were arguing with him.
“A towel is not going to push me over the edge, Mr. Bailey.”
Something like a smile touched the corners of his mouth. “Yeah, but soap might.”
“You can use a towel, soap and even shampoo. I guess I have to draw the line at conditioner.”
He met her eyes then and seemed to relax when he saw she was grinning back.
“I never use that stuff,” he said. “I guess I’ll stay on the right side of the line.”
“Listen, now’s as good a time as any. Take a shower.” She didn’t mean to sound impatient but she felt unsettled by the intimate feeling of the shared joke.
He backed up, eyes still locked with hers. “I’ll be right back.” He turned and thumped down the stairs.
She waited at the top of the steps, her heart beating fast as she cursed herself. Joann had given her a pamphlet to read about the cons and mind games criminals might play with those in authority over them. But even as Joann had handed over the advisory booklet called Avoiding Offender Manipulation, she’d said she was pretty certain Luke was a good man—with emphasis on the pretty, as in she’d been fooled before.
“But guys who’ve never been incarcerated can fool you, too,” Joann had cheerfully added. “There are manipulative bastards everywhere.”
Mary wasn’t sure what bugged her more—that Luke was already encroaching on her space or that she was frightened by the thought. Frightened and excited. That excitement was the scariest part.
Don’t be a fool, her father would say about now. You know you’re a sucker for a sad story. These people—if you give them an inch, they’ll take a dozen miles.
No doubt her mother would notice Mr. Bailey’s dark eyes and thick lashes. He’s using your bathroom now. Next he’ll be eating your food and asking to borrow money, then…God knows what else.
It’s just a shower, she told the invisible presence of her parents. Once a week he’d take a shower and, anyway, he’d be gone soon. She’d find him another place to live.