The Troublemaker Next Door

By: Marie Harte

To my friends Cat and Teri for sticking by me. I love you guys. Hell-clickers, unite!

And to D.T. and R.C. for having patience when Momma was late with dinner. I love you.

Chapter 1

“But Uncle Flynn, you promised.”

Flynn McCauley shook his head, his eyes glued to the television, where the Mariners played out the top of the ninth inning. “Just let me see the highlights from last night’s game. I promise I’ll turn it back in a minute.”

“But, but…” Colin tapered off, and Flynn watched the next few minutes in disbelief. He hadn’t thought the Mariners could pull off the win. Damn, he owed Brody twenty bucks.

The frightening sound of a child’s tears tore Flynn from the game. He stared at his nephew in shock. “Colin?”

Five-and-a-half-year-old Colin McCauley didn’t cry when he skinned his knees, when he’d suffered a black eye from a wild pitch, or when his father had mistakenly thrown away his favorite T-shirt just last week, thinking the holey thing a rag. The kid was tougher than a lot of grown men Flynn knew, a mirror image of Mike in too many ways.

“Colin, what’s wrong, dude?” Panicked when Colin continued to cry, Flynn hurried to change the channel. Then he offered him some of the soda Colin had been asking for earlier but wasn’t allowed to have. Anything to dry up Colin’s tears. “It’s okay, buddy. Don’t cry.” He crossed the couch to hug him, concerned there might be something really wrong.

After a few moments, Colin stopped his tears and squirmed to get free so he could see the television. His grief dried up as if it had never been, not even a hiccup to indicate emotional trauma.

A remarkable recovery. “Are you, or are you not, upset about something?”

Colin took a long drag of soda and laughed at the screen. “Not now.” He beamed, looking exactly like Mike—smug and annoying.

“Scammed by a kid. This is embarrassing.”

“Ubie told me it would work, but I didn’t believe him.”

“Uncle Brody, right. Now why am I not surprised?” He had his best friend and business partner to thank for Colin’s ability to lie with a straight face. “When did he teach you that?”

“At dinner last Sunday. Oh, watch this, Uncle Flynn. See how the monster eats the school? Awesome.” Colin dissolved into boyish laughter.

Flynn sighed and sank into the couch. Babysitting duty wasn’t so bad, or at least it hadn’t been when the kid attended preschool. But if Colin was mastering Brody’s tricks now, imagine what he’d be like at eight, ten… hell, as a teenager. Flynn resolved to have a firm talk with good old Ubie. No point in encouraging Colin to scam people if Flynn wasn’t allowed to be in on the joke.

Flynn sat next to Colin, enjoying the cartoon despite himself. He rubbed the kid’s head. Colin McCauley, future heartbreaker. He had good looks, a great sense of humor, and a quick mind, one that would keep them all on their toes for years to come. Mike had done pretty damn good with the kid, but Flynn liked to think he’d had a hand in Colin’s greatness. At least the part of him that kicked ass at sports.

Just as the back door opened and heavy footsteps signaled Mike’s return—thank God—the phone rang. And rang and rang.

“Flynn, answer the frigging phone, would you?” Mike yelled from the other room.

“What, are his hands broken?” Flynn asked the boy as he reached for the phone. “Can’t he tell I’m busy watching you?”

Colin ignored him in favor of a cartoon sponge. Like father like son.

Into the phone, Flynn barked, “Yeah?”

“Um, hello?” A woman’s voice. She sounded soft, sexy. Interesting.

Flynn straightened on the couch. “McCauley residence. How can I help you?”

Colin turned to look at him with interest. Flynn never used the good voice on anyone but customers or women.

“Is this Mike?”

“No, but I can get him for you.”

“That would be great.”

“Hold on.” Flynn sought his brother and found him struggling with a tool belt and muddied boots in the kitchen. “Yo, Mike. Phone call.”

“Take a message, Einstein. I’m busy here.” Mike struggled with dirt-caked knots on his work boots, the scowl on his face enough to black out the sun.

Flynn flipped him the finger while he spoke to the angel on the phone again. “Sorry, but he’s busy right now. Can I take a message?”

Silence, and then a long, drawn-out sigh. “Can you just tell him that we’re having a problem with the sink? I hate to bother, but my roommate threatened to cut all my hair off if I don’t get this fixed soon. The problem has been going on for a week.”

“Ah, hold on.” He covered the phone. To his brother, he asked, “Why is some hot-sounding chick asking you to fix her sink?”

Mike groaned. “Hell. That’s probably one of the tenants next door.”

“Mom and Dad have new renters already? Since when?”

“Been four months now. You aren’t that observant, are you? Didn’t get the family looks or brains, apparently.” Mike’s sneer set Flynn’s teeth on edge. Arrogant bastard. His brother glanced at the phone and sighed. “Tell her I’ll be right over.”