Slashback (Cal Leandros, #8)

Written By: Rob Thurman

Slashback (Cal Leandros, #8) by Rob Thurman





ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


To my mom, who suggested why didn’t I give my old dream of writing a go? If I become a victim of artistic Darwinism, I blame her. Also to Shannon—best friend and sister with a black belt in tough love; to my patient editor, Anne Sowards; Brian McKay (ninja of the dark craft of copywriting and muse of a fictional disease we won’t discuss here . . . but did discuss at length in Roadkill); Agent Jeff Thurman of the FBI for the usual weapons advice; brilliant artist Chris McGrath; Lucienne Diver, who astounds me in the best possible way at every turn; and great and lasting friends Michael and Sara.





   A bad neighbor is a misfortune. . . .

   —Hesiod, b. 800 BC

   History repeats itself. That’s one of the things wrong with history.

   —Clarence Darrow, 1910



   If I cannot move Heaven, then I will raise Hell.

   —Latin proverb





1



Niko

Twelve Years Ago

“Our neighbor is a serial killer.”

It was that kind of day.

There had been tutoring no-necked football players lacking enough in brain cells that I was surprised they didn’t have calluses on their knuckles from walking on them. It would’ve gone well with their gorilla grunting. Following that had been the food poisoning caused by a casserole brought in by Mrs. Dumpfries. The teachers’ lounge had been liberally labeled a biohazard. The color of which is not orange like they tell you, but the bile green of nonstop vomiting. I stood witness to that. I’d gone through three mops.

And now we had a serial killer.

Or so said my little brother.

I closed the door behind me and locked it, not because I was immediately on board with the serial killer comment just issued, but we rented in a bad neighborhood. For us, an average neighborhood would be a more truthful way to put it. We’d not lived in better and we’d sometimes lived in worse. This cramped little house with a pronounced lean, no insulation, and cracked windows in east New London, Connecticut, was nothing special in one way or the other. When we didn’t stay anyplace longer than five or six months, thanks to our mother’s “occupation,” it was all the same. I put my duffel bag containing my schoolbooks and janitor uniform by the door and took off my worn, but warm, Salvation Army coat to hang it from a rusted hook by the door.

With everything in its place I moved to the kitchen table, which wobbled, where my little brother with pencil and paper sat in a chair, which also wobbled. I lightly ruffled his black hair, shaggy in length but with a gloss like silk. Thanks to Cal being a good brother, he let me without complaint.

“Where’s Sophia?” I asked. She had given birth to us and I used the word “mother” sometimes, but the truth of it never quite fit in my mouth.

“Gone. With her suitcase.” The pencil kept moving and he didn’t look up.

With her suitcase . . . that meant she would be gone anywhere from three days to three weeks. If business was slow in the area, she went looking for it elsewhere. She told fortunes, picked pockets, ran scams, whored herself out if the price was right. There was only so much whiskey you could shoplift before the local liquor store owners became suspicious and you had to actually start paying for it. Yes, life was hard for Sophia. I swallowed my anger as I’d been taught. I wouldn’t let Sophia have that kind of power over me.

And truthfully, the times she was gone were the best times.

“Are you doing your homework?” I asked with a little disapproval for him to hear. It was six p.m.—although I couldn’t make it home at the same time he did, I made it there before dark. Always.

The homework—he should’ve been done with it by now. There was also a pan crusted with burned SpaghettiOs in the sink, some less scorched fake pasta in spots on the cracked linoleum floor, and a purple handprint, grape soda probably, on the door of the groaning refrigerator. Cal was a good brother, but there are all sorts of definitions for good when it came to an eleven-year-old.

“Yes, Nik. I’m doing my homework. Watching the serial killer made me get behind.” I didn’t have to see his eyes to know they were rolling with the disdain and sarcasm only an eleven-year-old could manage, and I gave him a gentle swat to the back of the head.

I took the other chair and sat down. “All right. Tell me why our neighbor is a serial killer,” I said with a patience I didn’t have to fake. I listened to Cal when he had something to say. I always listened to him. I had even when he was three and thought a monster lived under the bed, because in our world . . .

In our world, there was every chance that he wasn’t necessarily wrong.

I also listened to him as he’d had to grow up very fast and deserved the respect and dignity that came from surviving a harsh road that I hadn’t been able to change nearly as much as I wished. There were times I could close my eyes and see the small bloody footprints on that blackly grim path. That my larger ones were beside his every step of the way didn’t help. Didn’t absolve.

I was fifteen and I was smart. More than smart. I could admit that because it wasn’t boasting. Being more than smart meant knowing too much. If I’d had a choice, I would’ve chosen to be less smart. I would’ve chosen not to know all about absolution and how hard it was to come by.