“Okay if I take my break now?” Madison asked the store manager. “Cathy’s got the register.”

“Sure,” came the reply.

“Let’s walk,” Madison said to Lucas as they left the store. “What brings you to mall today?”

“We gotta talk,” he said urgently. “They know.”

“Who knows?” Madison asked. “What do they know?”

“C’mere,” he said, pulling her gently toward the seating area in the center of the mall. The two found a pair of isolated chairs and sat down. He leaned in and whispered, “CLP. They know you’re my kid.”

“What? How?” she asked, not whispering.

“You don’t know these people, Mads. They got resources. They figure shit out. It’s what they do.”

“How do you know?”

“Dragon lady dragged me into the office. What’s her name? Gold? She’s one scary bitch, pardon my French,” he said.

Madison smiled. “Yeah, I’ve seen that firsthand. Did she threaten you?”

“Me, you, your mom, your mom’s husband—”

“Phil? Seriously?”

“Dude,” Lucas said, “she had pictures. Like grainy pictures she took herself through your window. The three of you eating dinner together. She took out a black marker and drew an X across each person’s face. That bitch is a psycho.”

“Whoa. Okay, that seems a little extreme. I was just with her a couple days ago. She didn’t say anything to me,” Madison said.

“Wait. What? You hang out with that monster?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t say we hang out. I was talking to Mr. Black, the guy in charge. She was in the room. I guess they’re playing good cop, bad cop, because he was really nice to me.”

“Good cop, psycho cop,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing, you gotta stop.”

“It’s just an act, Lucas. She isn’t going to kill anyone,” Madison protested.

“Madison,” Lucas said, gripping her knee. “Listen to me. You have to stop. These people are dangerous. I’m your father and I’m telling you to walk away. I forbid you investigating this story any further.”

Madison raised her eyebrows and pulled her knee away from his grasp. “Excuse me? Did you seriously just play the dad card?”

He didn’t respond verbally, but his stern, almost angry expression made his point clearly.

“Listen, asshole,” Madison said. “You don’t get to walk into my life seventeen years late and start bossing me around. You are not my dad. You have never been my dad. You are my mother’s fucking sperm donor. Nothing more, nothing less. A dad would have been there on my birthday. A dad would have been there at my school concerts and the science fair. A dad would have been there when I was fucking inducted into National Honor Society. I don’t have a dad. It’s just me and mom. And if you were my father, you would know that I’m a grown ass woman now, and you do not get to tell me what to do.”

“Keep your voice down,” he said. “People are staring.”

“Fuck you,” she said, and stood up. “I don’t give one single shit what you want me to do. I have an obligation to do what’s right and expose whatever it is those people know. I have an obligation to do my job and figure it out and tell the world.”

Madison walked away from Lucas, her fury still seething. She had been wondering where the anger she held for her father had gone when they met. She spent years hating him, yet when they finally met, she only wanted him to be her dad. Now she understood that anger had not gone anywhere. It was just suppressed by her hope, and apparently that hope was no longer enough to contain it.

She walked right past her store and broke into a jog. She needed to get her cool back before she returned to work, or she’d probably go off on Karen and get herself fired. She thought perhaps a lap or two around the mall would do the trick.

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