Lucas Trevlyn clung to the wrong side of the railing looking down at the passing traffic more than forty feet below trying to find the courage and conviction that had brought him to this place. His heart pounded as he considered all the reasons why this was the best, or rather the only answer to his life. He tried not to think of the good things he’d once done, the boy he’d once been or the man he’d become. Those days were never coming back.
“That’s not the only answer.”
The voice startled him and he almost lost his grip. Sweat trickled down his neck and the pounding in his chest grew more deafening.
“It is,” he muttered, not turning to see who had spoken. Lucas hadn’t heard the man approach. His drill sergeant would have scolded him for such appallingly poor situational awareness. He’d been so focused on his misery and finding the courage to end it.
“You know,” the man began, as if he was having a casual conversation over a cup of coffee. “Every week, I attend meetings where some guy thinks he has the only solution to a very sticky problem. Trouble is, there always seems to be another guy with just as much conviction and a totally different idea.”
“What’s that have to do with me?” Lucas asked in spite of his wish for the man to just be gone and leave him alone.
“Well, you’ve obviously talked yourself into believing that this is the only way out of whatever jam you’ve gotten yourself into. I just thought I’d be that other guy.”
Lucas did turn then. The man was average height but muscular and in great shape, and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt with paint stains. He didn’t look like a guy who attended meetings very much.
“What kind of meetings? What kind of problems?” Why do I even care?
The guy lifted one leg over the rail and sat straddling it. “Does it matter what kind of meetings or problems?”
Lucas shook his head. He looked back down at the gridlock of rush-hour traffic. This should have been so easy. So quick. His chest felt like it was in a vise.
“Right now the question would be what kind of problems brought you here?”
“Actually the question on my mind is why the hell you care?” Lucas shot the guy a sideways glance.
“Let’s just say it’s part of the job.”
Lucas let his eyes rove over the paint stained clothing and back to the man’s face. “The job,” he muttered trying to make sense of the explanation. “You’re a painter? And talking to jumpers on a bridge is part of the job?”
“Sam Montgomery,” the man said reaching his right hand toward Lucas. “Painting is only a part time chore.”
Lucas retreated as far as the slender ledge would let him. If Sam Montgomery thought he was going to save Lucas’ life, it might turn out badly. It was one thing to decide to end your own life, but he’d be damned if he was going to take this man with him. He’d done enough killing for a lifetime.
“What’s your name?” Sam persisted in a calm tone.
“So, Lucas, what has gone so wrong for you that you’re getting ready to give those guys and gals down there a nightmare they might never get over?”
Lucas glanced back at the traffic. That was a possibility he hadn’t considered.
“Please don’t tell me it was a woman, Lucas, because if she hurt you enough to consider ending your life, she wasn’t worth it in the first place.”
“There is no woman,” Lucas mumbled, his mind still fixed on the traffic and Sam’s suggestion that jumping might end his own nightmares, but bring them on for all those innocent commuters.
“Well, then,” the guy leaned forward, resting his hands on the railing between his legs as if he had all day and nowhere important to be. “It isn’t going to matter if you do this now or half an hour from now so why not tell me your story? You know, so I’ll understand why I couldn’t help out. My wife won’t be too happy if I wake her in the wee hours because I’m having a nightmare about a guy who thought he had nothing to live for, and I did nothing to help him.”
More on the guilt trip. Just what Lucas didn’t need right now. He glanced warily at the man’s hands still planted on the railing between his thighs.
“I still don’t get why you should care. You a priest or something?”
“I’m a cop.”
“Shit!” Lucas had never met a cop like this one.
“Like I said, it’s part of the job. I did take an oath to preserve and protect and stopping jumpers pretty much falls under that. But it’s more than just the job. I may not be a priest, but I do believe life is a gift. I’d like to help you see that there might be some purpose in not throwing yours away.”
Lucas stared out over the traffic that was beginning to move along more freely as dark began to settle in. The bridge was pretty high so maybe none of the drivers below could see the tableau unfolding above their heads and had no idea what was about to happen.
“I threw it away a long time ago.”
“So, tell me about it,” Sam suggested quietly. “My wife says I’m a good listener. She should know. She does most of the talking.”
Miss Jennifer Jones, better known as JJ, had a project in the planning to help young men get back on their feet and get their lives back on track after making some serious mistakes. Lucas was the man to make it work, and she’d invited him here today to convince the young reporter who was stirring up the opposition that the plan had merit. He wasn’t much of a speaker. He definitely wasn’t a politician like JJ, but he did believe in her plan. With all his heart.
“I was pretty messed up,” Lucas began as he glanced between the woman who had offered him an opportunity to pay it forward and the reporter who wore an expression that said she wasn’t eager to be impressed by anything he had to say. Retelling his story had never gotten easier, even when surrounded by people inclined to be supportive.
He stared down at his hands clasped between his knees, then back at the reporter.
“My teenage years were pretty wild, but not on the wrong side of the law. I had a good, hard-working mom, but my dad took off before I could walk. I had a foot in two camps. My mom was white. My dad was black. I wasn’t sure where I belonged or how I should be behaving until I joined the Army. None of my past mattered there as long as I fit myself into the mold and got the job done.”
No point in rehashing the hell that was boot camp or the real hell that was war.
“My troubles started after I came back from three tours downrange . . . From Iraq and Afghanistan,” he clarified. “I should have stayed in the Army. I knew my place there. But instead, I got out when my hitch was up. I wanted to go back to being the same kid I’d been when I left. I thought I could leave the nightmares behind and forget the stuff I’d seen.”
“How did that work out for you?” The reporter’s hand twitched in her lap as if she wanted to start taking notes. Lucas was thankful that JJ had made it clear this was off the record and Kate Shaw, reporter for the local paper had agreed.
“Not so good, actually. I got into a few scrapes. I was more than old enough to know better, but at the time I didn’t care. I went from one extreme to another. Obeying every order without question to breaking any law that got between me and whatever I wanted at the moment.”
Now came the hard part. Lucas sighed with resignation. He needed Ms. Shaw on his side. He needed to help her understand just how important this whole idea of giving young men a second chance was. He needed to be honest with her and lay his life open for her to condemn or not as she would.
“When I finally ended up doing time, I got drawn into an even more dangerous cycle of bad behavior and poor choices. I’d been drinking pretty heavily after I got out of the Army, and prison should have dried me out. Instead, I was introduced to drugs. Once I was back on the streets, it became a troubling cycle of more crime to support my new habit. In less than six months, I was back behind bars. I was no innocent, but the things that happened to me that trip weren’t pretty. By the time I got shoved back onto the street again with nothing but a few personal items in a trash bag, I was ready to give up. I did give up.”
Just thinking about his experiences made him blush. Lucky for him a blush didn’t show much under his dark skin, but there was nothing he could do to hide the despair he knew his eyes probably reflected. An important part of him had died during those two God-awful years in prison and he still mourned his youthful innocence. An innocence he’d remarkably held onto even after four years of war.
The look in Ms. Shaw’s eyes softened. Maybe it was okay to let his pain show.
“What happened?” she almost whispered.
If she wanted to know what had happened to him in prison, she was going to be disappointed. That was one chapter of his life he was not willing to recount.
Lucas sighed, and pasted a smile on his face. “A cop named Sam Montgomery happened. He was off-duty and on his way home when he saw me standing on the wrong side of the guardrail on a bridge over I-77 where I was trying to screw up the courage to end the nightmare my life had become.”
Kate Shaw’s eyes widened and her fidgeting hands clutched at each other.
“I’ve had a lot of time to get squared away since then,” Lucas hurried to reassure her. “I’ve found a place for Christ in my life again, and I believe Sam was sent to me that night for a reason.”
“Have you figured out what that reason was?” Kate Shaw leaned toward him, appearing as though she was really listening now, and maybe more receptive to the second-chance proposal.
“Some,” he answered quickly. “I went back to school, got my degree and then a master’s. I counsel men who’ve found themselves where I once was. Sometimes I serve as an advocate for teenagers who need someone to speak on their behalf when they get tangled up in the legal system or in foster care. Even if Miss Jones’ plan works out, I hope to continue that. Those boys need someone they can trust on their side in a system that seems to be rigged against them, but I could do a lot more to help guys like me.” That was how he wanted to pay Sam Montgomery’s concern for him forward. He wanted it more than he remembered ever wanting anything before.
Kate Shaw glanced at JJ, then back to Lucas.
He leaned toward her and let intensity and eagerness take over his words.
“I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to get sucked into a whirlpool with nowhere to go and no one to reach out and haul you back from the point of no return.” He made a gesture as if he were offering someone a hand up. “I know I can help these young men not to make the same mistakes I made when I got out the first time. I know what they need in their lives to make it.
“They need structure from outside until they learn how to apply it from inside themselves. They need people they can trust who aren’t going to lure them back into the mire they just got free of and won’t go reporting them to their parole officer the first time they slip up. They just need a place to go and a fresh start. A job that gives them satisfaction in doing something well and seeing the results both through their own eyes and the eyes of others. Success builds confidence, and confidence is their only sure way out.”
The reporter frowned as if she was trying to put his story into a framework she could understand.
Abandoning the passion of his last few words, Lucas looked at JJ. “I’d like to change the name of your project though. I’ve been thinking about it. It is a second chance and all that, but I think something that doesn’t always remind them where they came from would be more encouraging. Have you ever heard of St. Leonard of Noblac?”
Both women looked as if the answer to that was a big zilch. Well, he’d never heard of Noblac either, and he’d grown up going to parochial schools, so he couldn’t blame them.
“Is he someone important to you?” JJ asked.
Lucas thrust a finger under beneath his collar and pulled out a silver chain with a pendant on it. “Sam gave it to me.” He tucked the medal back under his shirt.
“St. Leonard is the patron saint of prisoners. But more than that, the story told of him was that he was granted the right to liberate prisoners he felt were worthy of a second chance. Of course, there are the usual tales of miracles.” Lucas shrugged and wagged his head to indicate he took those claims with a huge grain of salt. “Prisoners praying for release, supposedly invoked Noblac’s name and having their shackles fall away. That sort of thing. But in truth, many of the men Leonard of Noblac had faith in and secured release for came to him when they had nowhere else to go. Eventually the queen bestowed land on him, and those men who stayed with him were sometimes given small plots of their own to cultivate so they could support themselves honestly.”
The reporter sat back in her chair. “So, you want to call it St Leonard’s?” The woman smiled for the first time and Lucas realized how pretty she was. Blond, blue-eyes and slim-limbed. Her husband was a lucky man.
“Not Saint Leonard’s.” Lucas glanced from Kate Shaw to JJ. “That might put off guys who feel like God had deserted them, or maybe never had any faith to begin with. I thought maybe Leonard’s Place, or Leonard’s Promise, or something like that?”
JJ nodded. “I’m fine with that, Lucas.”
“What, besides your past experience, do you bring to the table?” Kate Shaw asked getting back to the reason they had been introduced in the first place. To convince her that creating a second chance establishment in Tide’s Way would not be a disaster for the peaceful town. “What did you get your advanced degree in, and how do you plan to go about helping these men who are barely more than teenagers?”
“Social work was my major. If I didn’t have a record, I might have tried for law school, but I’m actually pretty happy doing what I’m doing.” Lucas folded his hands on his knee and relaxed. “While I was going to school, I was a bouncer in a nightclub. That’s where I learned how to handle big, belligerent guys without using violence. With my Army background, I’ve taught self-defense at a YMCA. Most recently, I’ve been counseling prisoners who are soon to be released. Helping them get their plans pulled together before they find themselves standing on the outside of the prison fence with nowhere to go.”
Before they find themselves where he’d ended up. Alone and in despair.
“It’s easy to see why JJ thinks you’re a good fit for this job, but do you have any experience managing any kind of establishment? Things like budgets and inventory?” The woman was a bulldog! Probably what made her a good reporter.
“I was a sergeant in the Army, ma’am. Managing personnel and programs comes with the rank.” He glanced at JJ, then back to Ms. Shaw. “JJ told me you’re concerned about the safety of people living in Tide’s Way. Kids and, well, just safety in general. I would be running this place with that kind of concern in mind. Having a chance to live an honest life and make a decent future is too rare a gift to waste on men who can’t learn to discipline themselves and to make the most of the opportunity. They wouldn’t be staying long enough to make trouble. And I will personally answer for all of those we bring into the program.”
“That’s a lot of responsibility for one man to accept.” Her eyebrows rose expressively.
“I’ve got broad shoulders. I was very good at keeping men in line.” Except men bigger than he was that ruled the prisons and had a score of enforcers. But those men wouldn’t be in charge here. Not if he had anything to say about it.
“Are you going to be it?” It felt like she was reading his mind.
“Am I going to be it, what?”
“Are you the only employee for Leonard’s Place?” She hesitated. “The only one making decisions?”
“Lucas will be the only paid employee,” JJ jumped in. “But we plan on forming a board who will oversee his activities and the overall planning, running and decision-making as well as budget and finances. Some of those who’ve helped me get this far will be on that board, but we will be adding to it. Members who live here in Tide’s Way.”
“People who have skin in the game,” Lucas interjected. “They’ll get final say on who gets to move in, too.”
He didn’t mind not being the final decision-maker. All he wanted was to be the one making a difference in other lives. Making the kind of difference Sam Montgomery had made in his.
“I would like you to be on that board.” JJ shot a challenging took at Kate Shaw, then winked at Lucas.
Holy crap! If this project happened, he’d be butting heads with this woman at every turn.
“M-me?” Kate Shaw sucked in a quick breath. “You want me on your board?”
“Why not? You’re invested in Tide’s Way. You ask all the right questions. You’re smart. And—” JJ smiled slyly. “If you’re on our side, we might get some good publicity.”
And I get my chance to pay it forward, thought Lucas, forcing himself to keep his mouth shut and wait.
Kate looked back at him, but her sky-blue eyes gave nothing away. That brief stutter and intake of breath indicated surprise, but that didn’t mean retreat. For a long, heart-stopping moment if felt as if she was digging deep into his soul and measuring him.
Then she surged to her feet and stuck out her hand. “Welcome to Tide’s Way, Lucas. We’ve got some work to do, so let’s get started.”