Book 1: Mechanics and Mayhem Trilogy
Cross Lake Elementary, Tallahassee, Florida
Thursday, 11:22 a.m. Daylight Saving Time
“THERE’S A GIANT stealing your car!”
Lucy Spencer turned away from the chalkboard as twenty-three first graders rushed from their seats to the windows. “Boys and girls, no one is stealing my car. Please go back to your seats.”
Oliver, the kid who’d made the announcement, pressed his forehead against the glass. “He is! I’m not lying. Come look.”
Another boy, Danny, leaned into the window, too. “The giant looks mean.”
Oliver nodded. “I bet he eats babies.”
“Covered in ketchup.”
“Oh, my goodness.” She masked a smile to discourage the boys from continuing on with the absurd baby-eating, car-stealing giant in the school parking lot discussion and walked toward the kids. “There are no such things as giants and, if there were, I highly doubt they’d eat babies. Now, go back to your…” Stunned, angry and confused, she fisted her hands and stared at the baby-eating blond giant hooking her 2010 Toyota Corolla to a tow truck. “Son of a—” She caught herself before she released a string of swear words in front of her class of six and seven-year-olds, then cleared her throat. “Boys and girls, return to your seats,” she said, picking up the classroom phone and calling the front office. After requesting an aide to come keep an eye on the children, she grabbed her purse, then hurried to the classroom across the hall. “Paige.” She motioned for the other first grade teacher to meet her at the door.
Her friend’s eyes widened with alarm. “What’s the matter?”
“My car is being towed. An aide is on her way. Can you wait in the hall and watch my kids until she gets here?” After Paige agreed, Lucy rushed from the air-conditioned building. Her kitten heels clicked angrily against the concrete. The hot Florida sun scorched her, matched her blazing temper. She had no idea what this was about but would put an immediate end to it. That was her car, and she had the title to prove that fact.
As she drew closer to the blond giant, another man leaned out the window of the tow truck. He said something to the giant crouched near her car’s rear bumper.
“Hey,” she shouted when he looked in her direction. “What do you think you’re doing to my car?”
His face stony, his dark sunglasses making his eyes unreadable, the giant stood. Her steps momentarily faltered. He’d been big from a distance. Now that she was only twenty feet away she realized he really was a giant of a man who, even clad in jeans and a T-shirt, had a heavily muscled body. She ignored the way his sweaty, filthy shirt clung to the sinewy slabs of his chest and biceps, along with how his worn jeans hugged his lean hips and renewed her determined pace anyway. This man didn’t scare her, not when she had a gun strapped to her thigh.
The giant removed his sunglasses, revealing light-blue eyes fringed with thick, dark-gold lashes. When he folded his massive arms across his equally massive chest, his brow furrowed into a deep, menacing V. He still didn’t scare her, and not because she carried a concealed weapon. His soft gaze, which was filled with apology, with guilt, belied the harsh intensity etched on his handsome face. There was also appreciation in his eyes, as if he liked what he saw.
Why was she thinking any of this? She didn’t care if he thought she was attractive, she cared about keeping her car in the school parking lot.
“Are you going to answer me?” she asked, refocusing on the problem at hand, not the deep valleys and grooves of muscle running along the giant’s arms.
“Да. Do not give Vlad hard time,” he said in a thick Russian accent. “This a repo.”
“Repo? As in repossession of my car?”
“That’s absurd.” She stopped a few feet from him. “Who’s Vlad?”
He pressed a thumb to his chest. “Vlad is Vlad.”
What? She shook her head. “I don’t care that Vlad is Vlad. I care about my car. You have no right to repossess it. I’ve owned it—free and clear—for the past four years.”
“Vlad know not this free and clear.”
He might be nice to look at, but she couldn’t imagine being able to have an actual conversation with him. Who referred to themselves in third person?
“I told you before, don’t talk to these people.” The driver, who didn’t have a foreign accent, but a slight, southern drawl, opened the door, then hopped out of the tow truck. “You just give them a copy of the paperwork, then get on your way.”
“Sully repeat self. Vlad know this.”
“Then stop your yappin’ and let’s get out of here. The kids in all those windows are givin’ me the willies,” he said, handing the Russian the paperwork.
Vlad glanced to the windows and nodded. “Да, Vlad find small children unnatural and ignorant.”
While Sully laughed, she fumed. She loved and adored kids and wished she could one day have a couple of her own. “Unless you were some KGB experiment and born a man, you were once a child.” She propped a hand on her hip. “And, I’ll have you know, kids are not only intelligent, but very perceptive.”
“Vlad is not of same brain.”
“Well, one of my students thinks you’re a giant who likes to eat babies covered in ketchup,” she said, giving Sully a reason to laugh again. “With the things you’re saying and how you’re trying to steal my car, I’d say he might be right. You’re acting like an ogre.”
He stepped closer. “One, Vlad repo car, not steal. Two, Vlad only eat baby covered in mustard,” he said, his gaze teasing before he looked to the papers he held. “Lucille Jean Spencer?”
He handed her the paperwork. “Vlad sorry.”
As Sully reminded Vlad that he wasn’t to engage with the people whose property they repossessed, let alone apologize for doing their job, she quickly scanned the first page of the repossession affidavit. “This is junk,” she said. “I never took out a loan on this car, or with this bank. I paid cash for it.”
“Heard that before.” Sully released a sigh. “C’mon, buddy, let’s get out of here.”
Vlad held up a hand. “What if Lucille Jean Spencer is truth teller?”
“Then Miss Spencer better bring proof to the garage before Cash has it towed to the auction lot.”
Garage? Auction? This was preposterous. The title for the Toyota was in a file cabinet at her apartment. She would do what this Sully person suggested, then contact the police. There had to have been some law broken here. “Fine. I will.” She stared at the Russian. “And while you illegally have my car, how about changing the oil, rotating the tires and checking the fluid levels? It could use a good washing, too. For free.”
Chuckling, Sully walked back to the truck while Vlad remained in front of her. When a hot breeze moved her hair and skirt, she expected to be knocked out by the Russian’s body odor. Instead, even sweaty, his tanned skin glistened under the sun. He smelled clean and fresh like baby powder. “Well?” she asked, when he didn’t respond. “Is there something else you want to say?”
Vlad Aristov had plenty to say. The problem was he’d rather do it in Russian. His mind formulated his words and phrases faster in his native language than in English, and sometimes when he talked, his thoughts didn’t always come out the right way. Especially if he was nervous or dealing with a stressful situation. And, right now, Lucille Jean Spencer didn’t just have his Russian tongue tied, she had tension coursing through his body. As a boy, he’d never once had a crush on any of his teachers, but none of them had had Miss Spencer’s dark eyes and curves or had known how to make wholesome sexy.
“Well?” she repeated and raised a dark-brown eyebrow.
His best friend, Harry, had told him he wasn’t cut out to be a repo man. Harry was right. This petite woman was likely lying about the car. But after having dealt with his own misfortunes, he had a soft spot for people who were struggling and hated to be the one to make the struggle worse. “Vlad will do these things for Lucille Jean Spencer,” he finally said. If she wasn’t lying, then she deserved an oil change and car wash for her trouble. Plus, he liked the way she looked and wouldn’t mind seeing more of her curves.
“Cash and Jude aren’t going to be happy,” Sully called from the truck.
“It fine. Vlad will take the burn and work on car at personal level.”
Her glossy red lips turned in a small frown. “Personal level? Do you mean personally?”
Yes, damn it. “That what Vlad say,” he replied, trying to keep the frustration from his tone. He hated when he screwed up the English language and how his mistakes made him sound stupid. “Garage address and number.” He handed her a business card. “It close at seven.”
She glanced at the card. After putting it in her purse, she pulled out a key fob, then handed it to him. “Here, you’ll need this to work on my car. Make sure it’s ready by four.”
“Vlad sorry,” he said again, then pocketing the key, he turned toward the truck. Once in the passenger seat he looked at the side mirror. As the teacher walked to the building, her pale-yellow dress bounced with the swing of her hips and drew his attention to her shapely calves.
“I don’t get you.” Sully pulled toward the parking lot exit. “You look meaner than cat shit but are nothing but a pussy cat. Being a repo man is like being a bill collector. You can’t care, you just gotta get the goods, know what I mean?”
When he lost sight of the woman, he looked out through the windshield. “Do not compare Vlad to helpless kitten and poop.”
Sully chuckled. “Sorry, man, but all I meant was that I thought you’d be more of a badass.”
“Because Vlad is big? Size does not make man badass. It attitude.” He shrugged. “Besides, Vlad have…deform,” he said after searching his American vocabulary for the right word.
“Deform?” Sully asked. “Do you have an extra dick or nipple?”
Out of habit, he reached for the glove box to grab his pack of cigarettes, then remembered the nicotine patch on his arm. “Deform not right word. But if Sully must know, Vlad have one large penis and two man nipples.”
Sully shook his head and grinned. “Was it necessary to add large?”
“Just saying.” He fingered the patch. “Vlad will be honest.”
“About your dick? Because I don’t need to know.”
He chuckled. Sully was a good guy, had easily accepted and befriended him, and had been willing to teach him what he knew about working on cars and repoing. He liked to joke around and tell stories—many of which Vlad didn’t always understand—and had a simple way of looking at life: food, drink, sex and sleep. The order did not matter. While Vlad also enjoyed all of those things regularly, Sully had two things he never would and desperately wanted: a clean record and U.S. citizenship. “Vlad too modest to tell.”
“So, what deform are you going to be honest about?”
“Not deform. Vlad cannot think of English word. Anyway, when Vlad a youth, Vlad was good. Then bad men force Vlad to be like them. Harry help Vlad see light of day, and now Vlad good again.” If he’d never met Harrison Fairclough, chances were, he would still be working as a henchman for a rich bastard and using his fists and weapons to intimidate or kill. Harry, and the circumstances that had forced them to partner together, had helped him realize there was still goodness within him. That he didn’t have to lead a life of crime and violence. Leaving that life behind was the best thing he could’ve done—for his sanity and morality—but because of his past, he would always have someone trying to find him. And if they succeeded, he would be executed.
“Ah, now I get it. You’ve reformed.”
Deformed…reformed…how had he fucked up those two words? “Да, Vlad reformed and try to remember good in people.”
“Well, buddy, let me tell you something about the people we deal with in our business: it doesn’t matter how nice they are, they didn’t pay their bills. Because of that, we make money taking back what they can’t afford to own. So, this little thing you were doing with the teacher can’t happen again. You have to ignore that urge to be nice.” He shook his head as he stopped at a red light. “Trust me on this. I came from nothing and realize there are decent people who’ve fallen on hard times. But there are also people who take advantage of the system.”
Vlad understood this, but for some reason believed Lucille Jean Spencer. Or maybe he’d allowed her sexy wholesomeness to mislead him. “Teacher very pretty.”
“Yeah, and you told her you’d work on her car.”
“Wash it, too.”
He stiffened. There had been two powerful men in his life who had suckered, manipulated and used him, made it so he’d had no choice but to do their bidding. Both were dead, and Vlad swore he would never allow anyone to shove him in a corner, make him vulnerable. Make him a killer again. “Vlad no sucker,” he said, his tone angrier than he’d meant as images of the dead men filled his head. Damn, he wanted a cigarette.
“Sorry, bud. I was just joking around.”
“It okay. Vlad…sensitive about some things.”
“Like the lady? She was pretty. For the first time in a long time I actually felt bad about a repo job.”
Jealousy needled him. “You like Lucille Jean Spencer?”
Sully smiled. “Nope. I like what you like: blondes who wear short skirts and show off lots of cleavage. Miss Spencer was a little too Mrs. Cleaver for me, know what I mean?”
“Vlad do not know this Mrs. Cleaver.”
“She’s Beaver’s mom.”
American names could be incredibly strange. “What about Mrs. Cleaver remind Sully of Lucille Jean Spencer?”
“You know, you could just refer to her as Lucille or Miss Spencer. As for the Mrs. Cleaver thing, it’s the way Miss Spencer dresses. Like she’s stuck in the fifties and heading to church or something. Not that church girls don’t like to have fun. I learned at a young age that Catholic girls are—”
“Vlad do not care about Sully’s sex adventure. Tell me more of this Mrs. Cleaver.”
“Like I said, she was the mom on Leave it to Beaver. It’s an old show. Takes place in the fifties, but don’t quote me on that. The kids say gee, swell and lame shit like that. Mom and Dad are strict but understanding. There’s always a moral or whatever. You know, boring, unrealistic fake family bullshit.”
The bitterness in Sully’s tone had him glancing at the man and wondering what had happened to make him cynical. Even after everything he’d been through, Vlad didn’t dwell on the past. Since he couldn’t change it, what was the point? “This beaver show sound much like The Brady Bunch.”
“Beaver show,” Sully said, a smile returning. “Don’t say that in front of a lady or she might get the wrong idea and either punch you in the face or, if you’re lucky, lift her skirt.”
Although he’d been living in the States for over a decade, Vlad didn’t always get American slang, and assumed he’d inadvertently used it. “Vlad take it beaver show is vulgar.”
“Not for me. I never saw a beaver I didn’t like. As for the TV show, they didn’t dress like people on The Brady Bunch. Mrs. Cleaver wore dresses like what your Miss Spencer was wearing. That’s what I meant by her being too Mrs. Cleaver for me.”
Vlad considered the older American sitcoms he’d seen, especially those that had been in black and white, and easily pictured Lucile Jean Spencer setting an apple pie on the windowsill of a house surrounded by a white picket fence, then waving to the milkman as he brought bottles to the door. Not only did she make wholesome sexy, she now had him craving pie and milk.
“But,” Sully continued, “what do I know? Maybe Miss Spencer dresses like a goody-two-shoes church-goer during the day, then brings out the leather, whips and chains at night.”
“This true,” he agreed. He’d learned a long time ago that how people portrayed themselves didn’t always represent their real personalities or secret lives. “It does not matter. Yes, Vlad find teacher of intrigue. Can Sully see such a woman wanting Vlad?” He shook his head. “Vlad took car in front of small children.”
“Yeah, repossessing a woman’s car probably isn’t the best way to get a date. Then again, if she produces the title, and you make her car shine, maybe she’ll be game.” He pulled into the parking lot of the auto body and repair garage. “I dunno, though. I’ve noticed you like your women easy, and don’t go out with them more than a few times. Just a gut feeling, but I don’t see anything easy about Miss Spencer. She has commitment seeker stamped on her forehead.”
Sully was probably right about the teacher, and he wasn’t, nor would he ever be, in a position where he could commit to a woman. Besides, he’d tried that before and it hadn’t worked out well. At all. “Vlad once have girlfriend. Misty once love of life,” he said, surprising himself with the impulsive admission. He hadn’t thought about Misty Owens in a long time. Despite what Harry had thought, he had truly cared for Misty. Calling her the love of his life was over the top. He never loved her. But dropping the ‘love of life’ on Harry drove his friend nuts, and he liked to goof on him. For some of the crap Harry had given him over the years, he deserved it.
Sully parked the truck, then killed the engine. “What happened?”
“Misty live in Orlando by Mickey Mouse land and Vlad move to Everglades. Long distance drove wedge in relationship,” he replied, then remembered the olive green 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado he and Harry had bought when they’d been on the run from his former boss. He’d love that car and Misty had destroyed it with a baseball bat. “Now that Vlad think on it, distance not only issue.”
Sully climbed out of the truck and met Vlad by the teacher’s car. “Face it. Relationships are always complicated, which is why I don’t want one.”
“Have Sully love woman?” he asked, curious.
“I’ll answer on one condition… You said you were bad, right? Tell me what you did before you reformed.”
He rested his hand on Sully’s shoulder and leaned close. “Vlad do not want Sully to die.”