Chapter Three: Choking on a white collar
A/N: Thank you to everyone who's following this little ditty. Currently in my notes I have jots for a bunch of characters. Any POVs in particular people want to see? I have plot threads outlined but there is a degree of fluidity…not to mention replacing old ideas with better ones ;-)
Michael has long stopped caring what anyone thinks when he orders a late-morning mocha with espresso chips and whipped cream. His doctor says they would kill him—from the sugar, saturated fat, or non-organic espresso, depending on what's the fad. The highlight of that doctor visit was rolling his eyes and replying if an espresso chip did what a dozen bullets couldn't, he'd get one engraved on his tombstone. So he orders his motherfucking mocha, and a skinny latte for Amanda with a hefty shake of cocoa powder as per her text.
Returning home bearing caffeinated gifts, he finds his wife in the kitchen, sitting where the juicer used to be and talking to a girl leaning against the opposite counter.
"Hiya Trace," he says, hoping to spend some time with her before she leaves for college. He doesn't expect Amanda to look up like she's startled and shake her head to indicate his mistake.
It's not Tracey—they don't even look alike, and she seems closer to Jimmy's age than his daughter's. Amanda doesn't really bond with the fat cat housewives on their block so it's rare someone visits not related by blood or payroll.
"Ah," he ventures lamely, "couldn't really see you."
"Hey." The redheaded girl nods in greeting, arms crossed over a silk tank top.
He hands Amanda the latte while the girl pulls out her phone. Amanda takes a long sip of her drink.
"Sorry, I should've told Michael to get you something. Michael, this is Mira."
From the girl's not-quite-grin, Michael expects her to say she's vegan or morally against caffeine. Instead she shrugs. "They never get my order right anyway." Her voice is low, without the yippy southern San Andreas inflections he's gotten used to.
"So, you two met…"
Amanda answers that a mutual acquaintance introduced them, but he can tell from the set of her jaw he's a lumbering third wheel. Whatever. He loves his wife, but he has no desire to hang around while they talk about yoga or Grain of Truth or whatever's trending on Bleeter.
But fuck it, he's a thinker by nature, and as he heads for the den he wonders if the skinny redhead was some kind of test—Amanda's idea of throwing a steak in front of a dog and seeing if it knows 'stay.' Ha, he would have to remind her most of the women within a five mile radius annoy the fuck out of him. Why else did he used to book it across town to the Vanilla Unicorn?
Drink your damn sugar and shut it. Michael is his own worst enemy. Be happy you fat fuck that she's made a friend. He's flicked on the TV and settled into the sofa, but it's all news and cartoons.
Maybe that's been her problem. Amanda's too fiery for these brain-dead botox hags. He tries not to think about her stable of boy toys, just as she now rarely mentions his own missteps. Academically speaking, the guys were all high-energy Labrador types, except Fabien LeDouche—slapping Tantric on anything apparently makes it sexier. Michael can remember how foxy he was at twenty-five.
Be happy she's happy. We have our problems—like being linked more by criminal history than undying love—but we make it work.
Except that night she seems a little too happy. Maybe it's shitty sign about their marriage, but he knows something's up when he walks into his bedroom and she's kissing him like he smuggled in European absinthe. Her eyes are slightly unfocused, pupils too small for the dim light, and her smile looks boozy. They've had this dance before, and the music is always some kind of opiate.
Fucking Los Santos.
He's being unfair. They spent a long-ass time in the Midwest, long enough to choke on their vices. Stripping's hard he supposes; Amanda always had a weakness for instant ways to feel better, to feel free and grounded at once. He was always one for happiness without the baggage, for moments he could feel decisive without making decisions. Or, when relative stability dragged on, for anything that gave him a spark.
They don't keep each other on the straight and narrow, but they keep each other within spitting distance. He'd broken three fingers during a score once, and a month later she drowned his Vicodin and tracked down some decent weed—not the easiest in the Midwest. When she seems too happy for no reason, paired with chatty nothings and swoony goodnights, he hunts for whatever part of the poppy she's gotten attached to.
Still, asking someone riding the opiate train about a rediscovered friend is stupid. Michael kisses her back, enjoys her moans, and waits for her to get dozy. It doesn't take long. Soon she's dreaming pretty, curled up in some skimpy nightgown, lips parted in an indolent smile. Time to find her cache.
She's so gorgeous when she's happy. Fucker who sold the stuff to her is going to get Michael's fist through his cortex.
Nothing suspicious on the counter and nothing under the sink. She's never been one for stuffing things in pipes…hopefully she's not starting now.
He's digging through her nail polish kit and finding nothing, when he realizes the medicine cabinet's cracked open. Hiding in plain sight. There's a perfectly innocuous bottle with Amanda De Santa printed on one line, Percocet on another. So he's tracking down a prescription writer or a Dr. Feelgood, not a drug dealer.
Pussy. He'd rather go on a manhunt than get in a fight with Amanda. I'm sure as fuck not going to be the one she blames for yanking her out of her happy place. Let it be on some broke-ass med student.
Nailing the dealer requires some small manner of guile. The next morning when she's picking up her phone, Michael gets close enough to wrap his arms around her waist and nibble on her neck—earning a distracted giggle while keeping his eyes locked on her fingers as she swipes in a passcode. Once he hears the shower he's flipping through her phone.
Recent calls. That one's the pharmacy—telling her to pick up her prescription no doubt. He calls the unnamed numbers he doesn't recognize. Fish restaurant. Nail salon.
Third number: "Hey. You know you can—"
"Stay the fuck away from my wife."
"The hell?" the voice snaps back.
Ha, chica, you don't out trash-talk Michael Townley. He's smiling in his rancor. "Write her anything stronger than cough syrup and all the oxy in LS won't cover the bones I'll break."
She hangs up with a disgusted scoff. Stupid hag. There aren't any more numbers to try. If it's the wrong one, well, alchohol explains everything.
Michael heads to the master bathroom. An advantage of Rockford Hills is square footage. The bath and shower were in part a gift to her—a cave of tile, steam works, LED lights, and water pressure a firefighter would envy. Best of all she can't see him when he's at the medicine cabinet.
He counts the remaining pills. Toss them down the sink? She'd buy another bottle just to prove she could. Twelve Percocet tabs.
Ten. She'll chalk it up to forgetting about double-dipping. He has nowhere to be today, and Amanda's heading off to teach yoga.
He crunches down two and gargles mouthwash. You can take the boy out of the trailer park but you can't take the trailer park out of the boy. Plus, he's a certified thrill-seeker and chaos addict. Downers aren't his crack. Sometimes, he just likes the hazy bliss of synthetic poppy.
Three days later Amanda's cranky as fuck about something she won't tell him about—he's guessing she wants more scripts and her supplier isn't coming through. Even Jimmy notices at breakfast, making some strange motion at him when Amanda isn't looking.
Michael looks back in confusion.
'You and Mom?' Jimmy mouths, moving his fingers like a crocodile or hand puppet.
Oh, yapping. Fighting. Whatever. He shakes his head, putting down his cup of coffee.
"Ugh this coffee's fucking shit! No point in being addicted to the fucking stuff if it fucking sucks!"
Amanda returns to the table, scowling at her mug of coffee as if it's battery acid. Like they didn't drink worse in the old days. Michael supposes he can buy her some fancy espresso machine for Christmas.
He hasn't said anything about the Percs or the prescription writer—shit, he kinda-sorta feels bad about it but can he really complain when she drags him into their room and rides him like he's paying for new implants?
Let it pass. She'll be an unholy bitch for a few more days, she'll shake off whatever's left of withdrawal, then life continues as usual. There's a new movie being made, a proposed noir-action take on Paradise Lost. The surprise twist is Lucifer's not the hero at all, just a self-deluded has-been. Michael is Solomon's right-hand producer on it. So, he's feeling solicitous.
"Want me to make a Bean run, babe?"
Amanda's blue eyes shift from pissy to slightly less pissy. "That would be great, honey. Jimmy? Order."
"Uh whatever's low-calorie." Aww, he should congratulate Jimmy on his dedication. His boy is starting to lose the flab. Maybe a hot personal trainer for Christmas? It's not like he can't afford it.
Watch your attitude of fucking gratitude, Mikey. That's more or less what the foxy Korean woman running the vegan restaurant said when Amanda dragged him there for her birthday. Michael fishes for his car keys and ducks out before Amanda can get crankier.
The Bean Machine is empty save for a glaze-eyed barista and some girl flipping through an iFruit pad. Michael orders his mocha, with extra whipped cream, and adds two skinny lattes. Lounging by the pickup area as the baked teenager flicks on the blender, Michael notices the lone girl reaching for her vibrating phone.
"Hey—I got your message. Three sound good?"
Hey. He knows that voice.
It's the redhead, her back to him. She's dropping her phone back into her whale-sized leather bag when Michael sidles up. Of course the only friends Amanda makes are gigolos, Tantric douchebags, or drug dealers—fake prescription writers, whatever the street name is in Rockford Hills.
"Most people here are writing screenplays. At least you're turning a profit."
The girl jerks around in her seat. He recognizes her voice, just as she recognizes his. Michael offers her a slaughterous smile as he takes the seat across from her. She's straightening, stiff fingers drumming like bird-thin pistons. If he still smoked he'd feel compelled to offer her a cigarette.
"Long day?" He jerks his chin at her coffee cup. "Want another one?"
The girl—Mira, he recalls—narrows her hazel eyes. "Not from you."
Fuck. She can't be much older than Jimmy. God, these fucking kids. He sold pot in high school because no one in town would hire him besides the skeezy mechanic. It wasn't a fucking extracurricular activity.
"So what is it? Delayed-onset rebellion? Finding a use for your art degree?"
Michael considers himself a gold medalist at riling people up. Her scowl deepens—she looks wonderfully contemptuous. And deferential to the adage discretion is the better part of valor. Her chair screeches as she pushes to her feet, reaching for her bag. But Michael is faster than he looks, and it's not a wide table. Before she can fully stand he grabs her wrists. She yelps, swallowing it with a clack of teeth.
"Staaay. I'm in no hurry to get back. My wife's biting heads off thanks to the Percs."
Maybe that's when she realizes the one barista is stoned as balls, listening to Metallica, and in the back corner cleaning the blenders. She swallows and sinks back into her seat. The moment he lets go of her wrists her fingers are drumming against the table.
"So?" Her voice is lower. Low to cover up unsteadiness he'd bet.
"I want to know why you're risking jail time for pocket money. Are your parents too strict?"
Gold medalist, returning champion. The girl's eyes shift from scornful to blood-spitting furious. The drumming click cuts off, her fingers splayed—if this wasn't Rockford Hills he thinks she'd be reaching for a knife.
"Dead, you bastard. Dead and broke." Her eyes are a fraction wider. She rubs her wrist. "Funny how owning a house means paying taxes on it. I can't even sell it now thanks to everyone else going broke."
Right up there with cancer is dead parents—those ripostes that you can't counter without feeling like a scumbag. Michael has felt like a scumbag on and off since the '80s, but it's never stopped him.
"That's why you get a job."
He knows as he's saying it the girl is caught between the urge to slap him and shore up her pride. Michael knows too well how brittle pride is. But he must admit, you never grow too old to enjoy giving angry things a poke.
Instead, she smiles. It's a smile he understands, across all economic and societal barriers. When it's smile or cry.
"My degree was in philosophy. It is fecking useless. Name a job requiring no experience that pays anything—I wouldn't crack property tax, not to mention food or my car. I mean, I was schooled in Ireland from twelve up, but I never needed a work visa."
Escort work, erotic housekeeping...meet the prerequisites and there's little in way of experience...but Michael doesn't know how hot her espresso is, and Trevor showed him once the damage you could do with really hot coffee. He keeps his mouth shut, so he can convince himself there are some levels of douchebaggery even he won't cross.
Anyway, the girl has a point. A small, stupid point, but a point. Michael still feels like chewing her out for laziness and self-entitlement, but he supposes he's going soft in his old age. Plus, she's not lying about her finances. It only takes a glance to see her coppery highlights haven't been touched up in months. God I sound like a fairy. Not his fault he shacked up with a stripper who always told him, emphatically, what he was paying for. She looks less angry now than stressed.
"Slow down." He raises a hand in peace. "I know something about your…novice enterprise…how long have you been at it?"
She shrugs. "Six months."
"So, you're fine for food and car insurance—it won't cover your taxes and will eventually get you arrested."
With some people, Michael learns more by what they don't say. The sharp-eyed girl is breathing harder, but steady. Amanda said she was twenty-five—'just leaving school' doesn't add up. If he were to guess, some kind of rehab forced a sabbatical. What better way to develop a passing knowledge of pharmaceuticals?
"Write me a script," he says.
A long blink. "Excuse me?"
"I want to see how stupid or well-trained these LS pharmacists are. Write me something—anything."
She looks perplexed a moment more, before whipping out a pad of prescriptions and uncapping a pen. Less than ten seconds and she hands it over. Michael skims it. An anorectic, very funny.
"I can barely read this."
Mira snorts. "That's the point."
"I know," he agrees. "I'm saying it's a good fake. Shitty handwriting, abbreviations that look like some Farsi take on Latin, believable dosage. What if I called the number?"
"An official-sounding voicemail." She shrugs. "But that's never happened."
"It'll be your clients who fuck you over." His acquaintances are more the supplying type than the writing type. But he can guess. "They'll need a fix, bring in scripts too early, too often, to the same pharmacy. Sure they'll get caught, but they'll rat you in a heartbeat."
From the glower in her eyes, he knows she's thought about this.
Sometimes, when he's boozy and stumbling around in his own head, he wonders if he actually had a choice. Two jail visits by twenty, more formal education inside the pen than in college. No choice at all. Steal or starve. Or scrape by, breaking his back or pride every day, with minimum wage and a rusty trailer to show for it. Yuck. The day he leaned against an old train car with a thousand dollars in cash, he knew there was no fucking way he was settling. Maybe some people are just born with an overriding apathy toward the law. Michael supposes…ah, fuck what he supposes.
"Look, I'm going to give you the number of a friend, one who's not quite a stranger to your brand of self-employment. He needs an assistant. If he likes you, he'll pay you better than your current customers. And he's the chatty type, so maybe you can get some mileage out of that philosophy degree."
Always one for the morbid, his mind had wandered to Trevor, followed by hell to the fucking no. Michael doesn't care about the psycho's talent scouting, but neither is he the guy who feeds baby goats to lions.
It doesn't have to mean criminal. Lester can use her for assistant work—recon, errands, maybe a bit of hacking. Michael knows the guy has a soft spot for pretty faces. Guiding amateur weekend criminals to more educational paths shouldn't fill him with accomplishment, but when her mouth softens the slightest and she murmurs a thank you, he feels like he's coaxing a stray dog out of a corner. It seems strangely like a good deed.
Something still nips at him. "I'm serious. Sell my wife anything again and I'll cut your throat. Were you only hanging out with her to sell scripts?"
Wariness—he sees it in the way her face tilts. "No."
After writing one of Lester's numbers on the back of the fake script, he scoops up his long-abandoned coffees and makes for his car. The girl remains, flipping through her tablet. Once in the car he texts Lester a head's up. The little guy has been complaining recently of problems getting around the city. Damn, he should advertise as a kiddie criminal coach.
It's a month or so later he's driving back from the studio, parking and heading to the front door. A familiar engine rumbles up his driveway, and his stomach does an involuntary cringe.
"Mikey!" Trevor's swinging out of the driver's seat as he cuts the engine. "Time for a consult, hope you accept walk-ins. Where the fuck is your secretary?"
He's brought a full truck.
A guy leans an elbow on the passenger window, heavy metal throbbing from his headphones. Something about his scarred face is familiar; Michael swears he's seen him at the Vanilla Unicorn. In the back of the truck he spots Packie McReary, who waves before he leaps out and offers a hand to the third passenger. The third passenger has Michael digging into his pocket, finding Lester's nonexistent picture, and hammering out a text.