Better Choices
Chapter 8 - Better Choices

Shane Ellis just wanted to get ahead for once. And if that meant breaking the law for a cool ten g's, so be it. What he didn't expect was a job offer...

Shane Ellis.jpg

Better Choices

 

It had been more than a month now and Shane had found himself relaxing, looking forward to the simplicity of each day.

He had finished with the prep work and the first customers would be trickling in soon. Any minute now, Anne would finish nursing Abby and hand her over to Grace. Then she would come downstairs and take her place at the register. 

They had been growing closer, finding themselves in the role of husband and wife, and last night, at bedtime, he had entered the room without thinking, catching Anne half-dressed. She hadn’t jumped or covered herself. She had stared at him, and he at her, and he could feel the stirrings of something forming between them. A slow spark of attraction. They were sleeping in the same room, and Abby was a sweet baby that Shane found was particularly fond of cuddling when Anne needed a break, or had her hands full.

Grace and Louis also lived above the shop in their own room and the two couples shared living space and the one bathroom. It was like acquiring an instant family, and the younger couple had found themselves sharing the older couple’s meals at dinner, chores, errands and more. In the evening, they all gathered in the living room to play cards or work on a large jigsaw puzzle that stretched across two small tables, Abby trying her best to take swipes at the loose pieces. In another month or two, they would need to figure out how to keep her from causing havoc. She was growing, and had begun pulling herself up and taking awkward steps while clutching the edges of furniture in her tiny hands.

 

“My Lou walked early,” Grace said, “Tom took his time.” She smiled, happy to have a tiny one in the house. Both sons were in their 40s and seemed disinclined to provide their elderly parents with grandchildren.

As the rays of the sun peeked over the horizon, Shane heard the door chime and looked up, a welcoming smile on his face. The first customer of the day was unfamiliar. He wasn’t a local, at least not one that Shane had met. There was a steady stream of locals who made it a point to stop in and load up on Louis’ Famous Donuts, as the sign promised. The old man had been operating and working in the shop most of his life. It had been handed down by his father and his before him. But old Louis would be the last owner and operator of the donut shop from the looks of it. Their oldest son, who both Louis and Grace referred to as Lou, which sounded a lot better than Louis IV and less like a monarch, was a venture capitalist. His brother worked for a large bank and handled real estate deals. Neither of them were interested in a tiny donut shop in a Podunk town.

This man had a buzz cut of black hair and a five o’clock shadow and dark brown eyes. There was something about him that set off Shane’s alarms. The other man gave him a curt nod and pointed to the glass case of donuts. “Give me two of the old-fashioned glaze.” He leaned on the counter, tapping his fingers impatiently, and looked around, casting his gaze to the Greyhound station across the street.

“That’ll be $1.89,” Shane answered as he handed the man the donuts. The guy pushed over a twenty-dollar-bill and then reached into his pocket.

As Shane counted the change, the man cast another glance at the bus station across the street. “I’m looking for someone.” He laid down another twenty and a photograph of him and Anne and what could only be Abby. She was tiny in the picture, not more than a few days old. “Maybe you’ve seen her?” Kirk had an obnoxious, shit-eating grin on his face in the picture and Anne had a huge fake smile plastered on. Her eyes, though, her eyes said it all. It was a plea for help that stared out of the photograph at him, caught forever in the space of a second. Who had taken the photo? It looked like a studio photo. He wondered if they had seen her desperation as well.

The bad feeling in Shane’s gut grew, and he glanced at the clock. Anne would be down soon. Any minute now.

“Her name’s Anne, Anne Withers. She would have had this baby girl with her. The baby’s name is Abby.” He paused, his eyes searching Shane’s, “I’m wondering if you might have seen them.” He smiled then, but there was no friendliness, nothing but emptiness and a shifting, coiling anger. Shane could see it now, all too clearly. “My wife. She got real depressed after our daughter was born. Took off just over a month ago. I’m trying to track her down, make sure they’re both all right, y’know?” His lips stretched into the same shit-eating grin in the photo. It didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve been real worried about her.”

Shane shrugged, “Eighteen dollars and eleven cents is your change.” He handed the man the bag of donuts and looked down. He grabbed a nearby rag and began wiping the counter, praying Anne didn’t walk in now. The building was old and he could hear every creak of the floor above. His heart rate increased. He strained his ears, listening for the telltale creak of the stairs that would announce Anne’s imminent arrival.

 

Would she hear Kirk Wither’s voice in time?

The man stared at him. The twenty was still on the counter. “So, have you seen her?”

He could pull this off, he knew he could. He met the man’s eyes, “Sorry, man, can’t say I have.”

The door jingled then, and Shane looked up, his eyes widening with shock at the man walking through the door.

Could my day possibly get worse?

 Jack Benton was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, but everything about him spoke of wealth and power. If Anne’s husband hadn’t been so intent on questioning Shane, he would have stepped aside. As it was, his head snapped back for a double take of Jack, whose demeanor held a calm confidence. Shane’s eyes tracked beyond Kirk Withers standing before him, and Jack Benton who had taken a seat in a booth nearby. There was no cop car outside. Not yet, anyway.

Kirk Withers didn’t take kindly to Shane’s lack of response. Perhaps he was feeling ignored. He smiled, all teeth, and Shane could feel the man’s anger rising. It was thick and dark, like a thunderstorm building behind a fake show of geniality. He wasn’t buying it. Anne had opened up about how bad it had been. She had taken the slaps. Those had made way to blows, verbal and physical, and finally when he had shaken Abby once for crying too long, she knew it was time to go. 

“Past time, if I’m perfectly honest,” she had said, looking at her fingers. “I wasn’t going to let Abby grow up and see that. It wasn’t right. I might not have been a perfect wife, but when he started taking it out on Abby, I just…”

“No one is perfect, Anne, and that’s never an excuse for anyone to use you as a punching bag.”

Remembering that conversation, and hearing a small creak on the stairs from the closed door behind him, it strengthened his resolve. He ignored Jack Benton’s gaze from the other side of the room and focused again on the man in front of him. 

He persisted, staring at Shane intently, jaw clenched, his pulse jumping in his neck. “Really? Can’t say? Or won’t say? Because you looked like you recognize her. Maybe you should look again.”

He could feel Jack Benton’s gaze alongside Kirk Withers. He made a show of peering at the photograph before answering, “Sorry, can’t remember seeing them.”

The door opened then, and his heart banged in his chest, his head turning in time with Kirk Withers. He nearly cried in relief. It wasn’t Anne, thank God, but Louis, who had a broad smile plastered on his face. Considering Louis had long cultivated a rather dramatic, put upon attitude whenever he was alone with Grace or the rest of them, and barely smiled at customers, this spoke volumes to Shane. Anne must have heard Kirk’s voice and returned upstairs, most likely in a panic. The old man never made an appearance downstairs before it was time to close mid-morning. 

“Good morning!” He turned to stare at Kirk Withers, whose smile had vanished, replaced by what appeared to be his normal expression, a perpetually “angry at the world” scowl. The man’s lip curled at the sight of the old man. “It looks as if you have been helped, sir, so if you wouldn’t mind, I believe there is a gentleman waiting to order.”

Kirk glared at Louis and Shane in turn before slowly turning and walking towards the door, glancing over his shoulder at Shane. It looked as if he were going to open his mouth and say something, and at the door he paused for a moment and glared before turning back and walking out, the bell jingling as he left.

Louis’ smile dropped, and he looked at Shane. “Is that who I think it is?” He asked softly, pitching his voice low so that it didn’t carry.

Shane gaped for a moment, “You know?”

Louis snorted, “That you two aren’t a couple? Son, I wasn’t born yesterday. I’ve spent my life in this shop across from that there bus station. You think you and Anne are the first folks with trouble on their heels that we’ve seen?”

“I… I…” Shane didn’t know what to say. He cast a glance over to Jack Benton, who was sitting at the table patiently waiting. He was leaned back, body relaxed, watching Shane as if he had all the time in the world. How long had it been? Five weeks… six?

That dark, stormy night of bad choices and worse partners. There had been nothing on the news about it. Not surprising, not really. Jack Benton, who Shane had done a little digging into after the whole disastrous night, was a billionaire. A billionaire who liked his privacy and had power over plenty of key people. If he didn’t want to be in the news, then you could be sure he wouldn’t be.

Louis jerked his head in Jack Benton’s direction. “And I’m guessing he’s here for you. Am I right?” 

Shane nodded, “Yeah, he is.”

“Well, that’s on you, Son. Damn shame, too, you make some tasty donuts.”

“I’m uh, I’m sorry, sir.”

Louis tilted his head. “What for?”

“For bringing trouble to your door.”

The old man snorted. “I’ve seen my share. Besides, I haven’t seen Grace so happy as when she’s holding that baby. So I’m not sorry at all, Son, and that’s not something you need to carry, neither.” He stared at Shane and set a gnarled hand on his arm. “Whatever you have done, it can’t be that bad. I see good in you. I would never have let you stay if I didn’t see that in both of you. So, you deal with it, and we’ll make sure Anne and Abby are safe. Deal?”

“Yes, sir.” Shane sucked in a breath, steeled himself, and walked out from behind the counter and over to Jack Benton. It was time to face the music. Enough running. He had to face what he had done and pay the price.

Jack Benton stared at him, a bemused and curious expression on his face. “I’ve had quite the adventure tracking you down, Mr. Ellis.”

Shane winced. Some part of him had hoped that, somehow, it had simply been coincidence that Benton had found him here. He nodded then, trying to keep his cool, “Mr. Benton.”

“Sit down, Ellis, I don’t bite.” Jack said, and Shane eased his way into a chair across from the man, fighting the urge to run from the donut shop and not stop running this time. Not for anything.

There was a small rustle of activity from Louis, and both men had steaming cups of coffee set in front of them. Shane suppressed a smile. The old man was really something and Shane had vastly underestimated him, believing that they had pulled off the couple act good enough for the older couple to believe they were married. All of these weeks, and the old man had known the truth and said nothing. 

Jack nodded to the old man, “Thank you.” He nodded over to the glass case filled with donuts. “I hear that the glazed old-fashioned are the best in the county. Could I have one for here and a dozen to go?” He laid down a twenty-dollar bill on the table. 

Louis nodded and busied himself with filling the order. As he did, several more regulars filed in, bleary-eyed, as they poured coffee from the carafe and placed their orders. 

Shane returned Jack’s stare, waiting for the older man to speak first. He didn’t. After several minutes, the shop now filled with people eating, walking in and out, and talking, Shane finally couldn’t stand it anymore.

“So, you found me.”

Jack smiled, “Yes, I did.”

“How?”

“I employ people who are incredibly loyal and good at their jobs. My assistant, Azule, handled your basic history - that you lost your mom a couple of years ago. That you dropped out of school to care for her. And that you have been working at least two jobs, plus hustling pool on the side, to pay back what you owe.” 

“Master Pao said that except for a disheartening incident seven weeks ago, you are an apt pupil and decent with a mop.” He smiled. “I had an interesting discussion with a rather troubled young man named Kenny. He was itching for a fix, but I convinced him to try rehab instead and he’s doing well there, should be out in a couple more days and is asking for you. He says you saved his life at least twice.”

He frowned then. “I also had several discussions with a Mrs. Langstroth. She is a complicated woman. In between telling me you were the gang leader of the Asian Boyz and had a rap sheet a mile long, which I quickly realized couldn’t be true, she also mentioned you helped carry her groceries, and fixed the lock on her door.” He raised his eyebrows and continued, “I met a rather voluptuous Dara Prak who, in addition to the lascivious glances she was giving my car and my person, explained that she didn’t hold you responsible for her brother’s concussion or broken wrist, since he was the one who initiated the fight, but she did suggest you not come back to the area. Apparently her brother has put a bounty on your head.” Jack took a bite of the doughnut and rolled his eyes with pleasure. “Did you make these?”

Shane nodded.

“Excellent, truly.”

“Um, thank you.” Shane paused. “Can I ask you something?”

“Fire away.” Jack replied.

“Did you point Kirk Withers here?”

Jack shook his head. “Nope. Not my style. Actually, I followed him. I already planned on coming by this place, but I wanted to see what you would do when he asked about his wife.”

Shane stared at him. “He’s an abusive prick. That guy will kill her if he gets a chance. I’m not going to let that happen.”

Jack nodded, “I expected nothing less of you, Ellis.”

“I don’t play games, Mr. Benton. I’m not a toy, and Anne deserves to be free and safe from that bastard.”

“No games, I promise you.” Jack said, leaning forward. “Are the two of you together?”

“What?” Shane stared at him, “No.” He ran his hand through his hair. “Look. What do you want from me? You want me to turn myself in? I’ll go with you right now, this minute. Just leave Anne and Abby out of this.”

Jack shook his head. “I’m not the one you need to worry about. It’s like you said, that guy? Kirk? He’s the problem. He definitely will be back to ask more questions. Especially if he asks after Anne at the antiques store down the way. The shop girl there runs her mouth a mile a minute. And no, I don’t want you to turn yourself in. I want to hire you.”

Shane scoffed, “Yeah, right. For what? Robbing billionaires? Don’t you have enough money?”

Jack smiled as he shook his head. “You don’t get it, Ellis. I hire loyal, capable people to do jobs they were born to do. Take you, for example. You were born to save people. It’s in your DNA. It’s in every action you have taken, with one small anomaly, your entire life. You took care of Kenny, Mrs. Langstroth, your mom, Anne and Abby Withers, and hell, even Louis and Grace here. That’s what I’m hiring you to do.” He set down a card then. It was made of plain white cardstock with simple black letters that read Benton Security Services. Shane picked it up and looked at it. It was thick cardstock, expensive, tasteful in its simplicity. “Come and work for me. It pays well and you will be doing something that comes naturally to you. Don’t you think it’s time to make better choices?”

“What… as a bodyguard? I don’t know anything about guns, or about security.”

The older man nodded. “You’ll learn.”

Shane stole a glance at the door that led upstairs, and Jack nodded again. “She can’t stay here, Ellis. That guy will be back. But I can help with that.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out another card. It was identical to the first except it read, “Benton Acquisitions.”

“Sometimes enough is enough. Perhaps it is time for Louis and his wife to retire and live somewhere sunny and nice, like Florida. And perhaps they would like company. I can arrange for Anne and Abby to have new identities. I have holdings across the country and resources to employ Anne once we have her new identity in place. They will be safe. You can even keep in contact, if you like.”

Shane gaped at him. “Why are you doing this?”

Jack Benton smiled at him. “You aren’t the only one who gets to be the good guy. It’s also what I do.” He shrugged, “I guess you could say I collect good people.” He leaned forward then, “So, do we have a deal?”

“You’ll make sure Anne and Abby are safe, and Grace and Louis can retire?”

“Yes, you have my word.”

Shane held out his hand, “Then you have mine as well.”

The men shook hands.

I hope you enjoyed Better Choices. Read more about Shane in Hired Gun. He also makes a brief appearance in Smoke and Steel and he and Lila will return in Broken Code (coming 2022!).