Thirteen Years Later
“Go. Go. Go. Go.”
Nothing like a chorus of burly fellow construction workers cheering you on to boost your ego. Miranda looked around at the half-demolished building, with its backdrop of modern skyscrapers and older structures against the gray, Pittsburgh sky, then she picked the bright green jalapeno off the paper plate that sat alongside the ham sandwiches and soda cans on the wooden slab that served as the crew’s lunch table.
She waggled it under Dombroski’s nose. “Number five, Dumbo.”
“That’s right, bitch,” he sneered. “Number five. I say you can’t do it.”
Dumbo. That was her affectionate name for this baldheaded bruiser with the big ears who’d made her life on the wrecking crew hell for the three months she’d been in Steel Town.
Miranda pulled at her leather jacket, took a whiff of the cool March air, and curled a lip at Dombroski. “Oh, do you?”
She leaned over the table. “I should have taken you down at Luigi’s last night.”
Little Jake stepped between them. “Hey now, we made a deal.” It had been the skinny twenty-year-old who’d talked her out of belting that bastard in the bar when he’d called Jake a whore-loving fag—which didn’t even make sense. At the moment, Miranda couldn’t think what had made her agree to this pepper-eating contest instead. Some things were worth fighting over. Oh, yeah. She didn’t want to risk getting carted off to jail and losing this job.
“Number five,” Miranda repeated.
“That’s the record,” said Nye, the quiet black guy with ham-sized biceps she admired.
Cassidy, the resident big guy on the crew at over three hundred and fifty pounds, shook his jowls. “Naw, the record’s seven. Some dude in Chambersburg set it.”
Miranda nodded toward her opponent. “Doesn’t matter. Dumbo here’s already out.”
“Don’t call me that,” he snarled. “You mean you’re out, don’t you, Steele?”
“Not on your life.” Years ago, she’d discovered she had high tolerance for capsaicin. Dumbo didn’t know who he was talking to.
Dramatically, she lifted the pepper to her lips, opened her mouth, and crunched down on it hard. The raw skin snapped between her teeth, burning like the Lake of Fire. She took a couple more bites, then put the whole thing in her mouth. She fought with the fiery seeds, forced back the tears behind her eyes, and finally got it down.
She spat out the stem and held her hands up to the rest of the crew. “Nothing to it.” Good thing she got the words out before her tongue started to swell.
They gave her a rousing round of applause for her efforts.
She took a bow then pushed the plate toward Dombroski. “Your turn.”
His eyes flashed like a police siren as he picked up his fifth jalapeno. “Take this, cunt.”
It took all the control Miranda had not to deck him. Might be worth a night in jail.
She leaned over the makeshift table. “Go ahead, Dumbo. Show me what you’ve got.”
“I said, don’t call me that.” It looked like smoke was already coming out of his elephant ears. But he bit down hard on his pepper.
For a minute, Miranda thought he might get it down. Then he grabbed his throat and started to sputter like a broken lawn sprinkler.
“Hell. Damn,” he coughed, getting to his feet. His face turned the color of a stop sign. He grabbed a can of soda and started guzzling.
Little Jake patted him on the back in alarm.
Nye chuckled. “Looks like you lost, Dombroski.”
Dumbo tried to answer, but all he could manage was a low, gurgling sound.
Miranda couldn’t keep a straight face. She burst out laughing. Cassidy giggled, and soon the whole crew was guffawing. All but Dombroski, who was still choking and chugging down soda.
“What the hell’s going on here?”
Cassidy’s large face went deadpan. “Uh oh. The Super.”
Charging toward them, the seven-foot man in the suit and blue hardhat looked like a steam cruiser. He went by the name Sherlock. As in, no shit.
“We was just having a little game during lunch, boss,” Cassidy said, as the man approached.
“Lunch time’s over,” Sherlock barked, glaring at Dombroski. “What’s wrong with him?”
“He’ll be all right,” Nye said.
Miranda picked up her hard hat and nonchalantly sidled back to the bucket she’d been filling with the concrete debris.
Sherlock caught up to her and tapped her on the shoulder. “Hold it, Steele.”
She turned to face him. “Jeez, boss, we were just having some fun.” Was she going to get fired again?
He shook his head. “Never mind that. There’s a call for you.”
She stared at him, taken off guard. “A call?” Nobody called her.
“You can take it in the office.” He gestured toward the small trailer that sat on the corner of the lot. “Or ignore it and get back to work.”
Might as well see who it was. “I’ll take it. Thanks.” She trotted over to the makeshift building.
Inside, the tight space was empty of people and held only a couple of filing cabinets and a metal desk crowded with papers.
Gingerly, Miranda picked up the line. “Hello?”
“Is this Miranda Steele?”
There was a pause, then what sounded like a determined snort. “Ms. Steele, my name is Barbara Thomas. I’m with The Seekers. The adoption reunion organization? You registered with us online?”
Miranda’s knees wobbled. The Seekers? Yeah, she’d registered with them. Along with every other adoption reunion agency she could find. She’d done that thirteen years ago on advice from a counselor at the battered women’s shelter she’d escaped to after Leon threw her out. And she updated her records every time she’d moved so they could contact her. But no one ever had. After all this time, Miranda had given up hope of ever finding Amy.
She smirked in disbelief. “You mean you people actually look at that information?”
After she left Leon, she’d tried to find Amy. With everything she had. She talked to counselors and social workers and clergy. Most of them thought she was lying about what he’d done. They believed she’d given her daughter up for adoption and changed her mind. She’d even petitioned the courts to open Amy’s records. The judge thought the same thing as the others and denied it.
The woman on the phone hesitated a moment as if she didn’t know what to say. “Ms. Steele, my manager would like me to speak with you.”
She looked at the receiver. “You’re speaking with me now.”
“I mean in person. Are you available this Saturday?”
Miranda’s heart started to race. She thought she might hyperventilate. Did this stranger have information about Amy? Did The Seekers know where her daughter was? “What’s wrong with right now?” Sherlock would give her an hour or so. She hoped.
There was a pause. “I’m a volunteer. I won’t be in the office until the weekend.”
It was only Tuesday. Miranda wasn’t going to wait all week to hear what this woman had to say about Amy. “Can’t we meet somewhere? A coffee shop maybe?”
Another pause. Miranda wasn’t sure if it was pity or annoyance in the woman’s breathing. “You can come to my apartment. I don’t have to be at my regular job for another hour.”
She exhaled in relief. “Thank you—what was your name?”
“Just call me Barbara.” She gave Miranda her address.
“I’ll be there in fifteen.”