Chapter One: Jamison
A knock at the door usually meant three things. Either the motel manager came by sniffing around for some rent, the truancy officer found out where I was hiding, or Larry had another bag of Mom’s next high. I never answered the door for any of them.
This time, the banging on the door woke me up from a sound sleep. I glanced at the digital clock on the motel nightstand. It said 1:37. I sat up quickly, not wanting to have slept for that long. With the curtains closed, the room stayed dark, but currently, tiny slivers of light showed through just enough for me to see Mom still semi-comatose on the far bed.
She looked exactly as I had found her at four o’clock this morning. Completely lifeless.
I moved to her and shook her shoulders. “Mom,” I whispered. “Mom?”
The sounds of Family Feud filled the room. I liked to leave the T.V. on because it drowned out the voices and activities of the motel, but I always covered it so the light from it didn’t keep me awake. As I checked Mom’s pulse, the laughter from the show seemed out of place.
This had become the new routine. She used to wake up when I tapped her arm or shook her shoulder. But that was before. This past month or two had been different. Scary different. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t worry me. Sometimes she would be unresponsive for a whole day. Her eyes would be half-opened too, like a corpse, which freaked me out big time.
Steve Harvey just said something funny on the T.V. The audience laughed. The door vibrated with each knock. And Mom lay there.
After I found Mom’s pulse, I kept the volume up on the TV, and as quietly as I could, I tip-toed to the door and checked the peephole. Some white guy in a fancy suit stood on the other side of the door. My stomach dropped. Never mess with a white guy in a fancy suit, especially in Detroit.
What had Mom gotten herself into this time?
Then again, it was the middle of an August afternoon. Not that daylight stopped anything in Detroit. I peered again to see if he was alone. That’s when I saw him make eye contact with someone to the right of the door. His moved slightly as if to say, Get ready.
He pounded on the door again, and something told me I had mere minutes, maybe only seconds. I moved in overdrive. I went inside the bathroom, stood on the toilet, and removed the plastic we used to cover the small window. Living on the run, you had to be prepared. Mom and I only stayed in rooms with back windows. When we moved in here a couple months ago, we had immediately shoved the window open. Then we kept it open and covered it with plastic in case of emergency. That way it would be easy to escape.
Grabbing her duffel bag, I threw her few supplies and clothing in it, then did the same thing with the handful of clothing I owned.
After I dumped the bag out the window, I took Mom and shook her. “Wake up,” I whispered fiercely. “Some rich pimp is here or something.”
Her eyes fluttered, but that was it. Sighing, I lightly smacked her on the cheek. I didn’t like the idea of hitting her. She was already beaten and smacked too much. Still, it roused her.
“Hmmm?” she said and squinted at me. “Is it time yet?” she mumbled.
“We got to leave.”
Her eyes widened, and I sighed in relief. Her blond hair was matted to the side of her face. She still had crusted on make-up since who-knows-when that was now smeared around her eyes and down her cheeks. But her pupils seemed at least semi-focused. I helped put her arm around my shoulder.
The distinct sound of the lock getting picked seemed to wake her up the rest of the way.
“Did you get my stuff?” she whispered.
“Yes. It’s out the window.”
“Good boy.” She absently patted my cheek while I rushed her to the bathroom.
I helped Mom get onto the toilet. She clumsily grabbed the window. She couldn’t muster enough strength to pull herself up and over. These last few months she had gotten so thin and frail, but I’d have to worry later. I pushed on her legs, and she slipped over and out. “Oh, your books,” she whispered from outside. “Get those.”
Without wasting any time I hoisted myself only to pause. I only had a few books to my name, but they were mine. I jumped down, ran to the end table, grabbed the small pile, and headed back to the bathroom.
The door banged open as a commercial of Charmin bath tissue came on. But I didn’t stop moving.
“Hold it right there!” a voice boomed.
I practically jumped into the bathroom and slammed the door. I threw my books out the window, then pulled myself out and over. I fell with a thud.
Mom was nowhere around. Then again, with all the drugs that probably laced her system, I understood why. I frantically scrambled around the ground until I found my books and the bag.
“Don’t move,” the same man said, now rounding the corner.
I spotted the gun immediately. His right hand rested on it. The other guy, the one who’d been hiding from sight, was some big bodyguard type. He even had a shaved head and everything.
Panic surged through my veins. Like a trapped animal, I searched for the easiest escape route.
“You can’t run from me,” he said.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” I said.
“Then why are you running? All I did was politely knock on the door.” He said the words very calmly, even straightened the sleeves of his fancy suit jacket. But I could tell he was fit for an old guy. He could probably take out some of my teeth with one solid punch.
What if they grilled me about Mom? Would I crack? What if I had to take a lie detector test? Could I get arrested for aiding and assisting her? I scanned the area. Mom probably hid in the dumpster. But there was no way I could make it without giving her away.
“All I need you to do is answer a few questions. There’s no need to worry.”
No need to worry? What powder had he been snorting? There were at least five hundred thousand things to worry about at this moment.
“Set everything down, please.” He took a step closer to me.
My hands still held the bag and my books. I glanced one more time at the dumpster. The lid shifted slightly. The two men stared me down, but I wasn’t about to give away Mom’s position. Sighing, I laid everything out in front of me.
“Now what?” I asked, not even pretending to be polite.
The bodyguard, or whatever he was, went to the bag, unzipped it, and dumped it out. Then he began searching.
“Where’s Claire?” the older guy in the suit asked.
“I don’t know,” I said miserably.
“Don’t cover for her,” he said. “It won’t end well for either of you.”
“I’m not covering for nobody. She didn’t come home last night. I went to look for her, but she wasn’t at her normal hangouts.”
“Where are those?”
I hesitated for a second. I didn’t want to bring trouble to any of the squatters. They were mostly harmless drug addicts or homeless folks.
“Where. Are. Those?” This time he reached for his gun.
“Mostly southside buildings. The old tire warehouse on Cleaver off of Five Mile. Around there.”
“Nothing’s here,” the other guy said, leaving the mess on the ground. “Want me to check the room?”
The older man’s cell phone buzzed. He glanced down at it, then swore. “This complicates things. Listen, you need to come with us, peacefully. If you do, no harm will come to you.”
“What about my mom? What’s going on with her?”
“She took something of mine. As soon as I get it back, I’ll leave you both alone. But you need to play it cool.”
Tires squealed out front of the motel. Doors slammed shut. “Jamison?” someone called out, pounding on the motel door. The sound echoed through the open bathroom window. “Jamison? Open this door.”
I glanced up at the bathroom window, then back to the men.
He seemed to read my mind because he gave me a classic sinister grin. “You have no idea what I’m capable of, Jamison.”
“How’d you know my name?” Cold dread filled me. Next time we were alone, I would seriously cuss Mom out. Protecting her from herself was one thing, but now she’s bringing in some kind of crime/drug lords or something. Then leaves me high and dry. I don’t think so.
“I know everything about you. I know how you’ve been taking care of your pathetic excuse of a mother since you were just a child. I know that you rarely go to school, yet you manage to pass all your classes. And you only hang out in motels or whatever other ratty place your mother finds. You keep to yourself. Basically, you hide. Isn’t that right?”
“No,” I muttered, even though it was exactly right.
“Both southside gangs are breathing down your neck.” He came even closer. “But, strangely, you’re a good kid. Don’t want any part of it.”
“Stop,” I said, feeling creeped out. I opened my mouth to ask how he knew my mom when two men rounded the corner. One was a police officer, and the other one was… “Mr. Langston?”
“Hey there, J-Man!” he said, waving a little too exuberantly. “How’s it going everyone? Looks like there’s some kind of party, huh?” He snorted at himself.
Mr. Langston was as out-of-place as a nerdy pasty guy could be in ghetto Detroit. I mean, he currently had on an extra-wide Bart Simpson tie with a suit that might have been in style a couple decades ago. Normally, I ran from Langston. The social worker was intent on taking me from Mom. Even though I was nearly a full-grown man, he still showed up unannounced every couple months to take me away. I’d manage to run, and he managed to leave me alone for another couple months. “Man, I’m seventeen. Seriously. You can stop coming by now.”
“You most definitely are seventeen,” he said, repeating my words loudly. His nervousness couldn’t be any more apparent. Even with the police officer standing beside him. “Yes, but this time is different. We are determined to get you a high school diploma. So, why don’t you come with me? I have someone ready to take you in. Someone you’ll probably want to meet.”
Normally, I’d put up a fight, but not today. If it was between nerdy white guy and scary white guy, it wasn’t exactly a fair contest. “Fine,” I said too easily.
“Really?” he asked, not hiding his surprise.
“It’s our song and dance, Mr. Langston. I’ll go with you, then I’ll take off.” I left out that it got me away from these two thugs intent on hurting me and my mom. I threw all our stuff in the duffel bag, picked up my books, and walked over to Mr. Langston.
“What’s going on here?” the police officer asked, pointing to my bag and books, then pointing to the guy in the suit. The older man went to answer, but the police officer cut him off. “I was talking to Jamison.”
Everyone looked at me, and I started sweating even harder than I had been. I knew that I couldn’t tell the truth. Somehow it wouldn’t end well for me or my mom. This guy was trouble in a big way. “They were helping me with Mom. I couldn’t find her last night, and they thought they might have seen her.”
“And don’t worry,” the older man said to me. “We’ll keep looking. I won’t stop until I find her. I promise.” He smiled politely at Mr. Langston and the cop.
But I wasn’t buying it. If I left now, would they keep looking? It wouldn’t take them long to find her in the dumpsters. I had to distract them somehow. “Flanigans,” I said to him, acting like it hurt me to give out the information. I needed him to take the bait. “Sometimes, after the bar closes, he lets her stay over.” I closed my eyes like it hurt so much to think about Mom’s extra-curricular activities.
Mr. Langston patted me on the shoulder. “How about if we send someone to go and check on her?”
“Please, allow me,” the older man said. “She’s a friend. Mr. Langston, is it? I’ll call you when I find her.” They shook hands, and Mr. Langston handed him a business card.
Mr. Langston walked me to his gray Taurus, while the fancy suit guy and his bodyguard got in a fancy SUV with completely tinted windows. They peeled out of the motel’s parking lot, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“You know I’m gonna have to send someone to Flanigans to keep an eye on those two,” the cop said. “What does Chit Baltagio want with your mother anyway?”
“Wait. You know that guy?”
“Every cop in Detroit City knows that guy. He owns all the Baltagio car dealerships from here to Canada’s border. And that’s on the side. What he does most of the time is nearly every crime under the sun.”
“And yet, you let him go free,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s no wonder cops have such a bad rap in the city.”
“He wipes his hands clean, kid. That’s why I needed you to give me some morsel of info. That way I could at least detain him for a couple hours and annoy him.”
“No way was I gonna give anything on him. He’s trouble.” I looked up and hoped Mom would have enough time to get to safety. “Come on, Mr. Langston, let’s get our show going. I need to be checking on my mom soon.”
“No can do,” Mr. Langston said, walking over to the driver’s side. “This time is different.”
“Sure.” I slid into the passenger seat and propped my duffel bag onto my lap.
“I’m for real.” Mr. Langston waved at the cop, then backed out. “When you run away, I always check up on you and your mother. Your mother begs me not to take you. To give her another chance. But this time, she called me. Told me to come here today and pick you up. I was supposed to be here earlier, but I had to wait for an available police escort.”
“Back that up a sec,” I said, refusing to believe what I had heard. “Mom did what?”
“She…called me. Late last night.”
My ears rang like someone kept smacking a big bell right by my head. “Did you just say she called you last night?”
“Yes. On my card, I have my emergency cell phone number. I got a call from her about two in the morning. At first I couldn’t understand her. I think she might have been crying, or the connection was bad, but she said, ‘This is Claire Jones. Do you still want my kid?’”
“What’d you say after that?”
“I asked if everything was all right. And she didn’t answer me. She only said, ‘You need to pick him up tomorrow at Torch Motel. Do it early.’ Then she hung up.”
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