THE CALL CAME three hours into the stakeout, just as the man in the cowboy hat pulled up to the curb in a red Lexus so polished it looked like it had been dipped in molten glass. It was a wet winter afternoon, and a flat gray sky spat sleet and ice onto the windshield of my black and chrome Chevy Silverado pickup. A sweet ride. Not so sweet in the middle of winter with the engine off to keep plumes of exhaust from drawing attention.
Shivering behind the wheel, I blew on my hands to warm them. Then, ignoring the phone vibrating in my cup holder, I lowered the window and reached across the seat for my camera. With the office rent due and Christmas a few weeks away, the two hundred dollars a day plus expenses my client was paying for surveillance shots said whoever was on the phone could wait.
It buzzed again, rattling against the plastic like a hornet against glass. Holding the camera to my eye with one hand, I felt for the phone with the other and pressed a button on the side, cutting the connection.
Across the street, the man in the cowboy hat, smalltime record producer and big time philanderer Richie Barron, clambered out of the driver’s seat and waddled to the passenger side, the tails of his leather duster flapping around his calves. The hat was a prop. He was built like a groundhog, and if he’d ever even been on a horse, it was being led in circles at some kid’s birthday party.
As he reached for the handle of the passenger door, I adjusted the lens and snapped a photo. The phone buzzed again. This time, I glanced over at the caller ID on the illuminated screen. My niece, Caitlin. I frowned. She wouldn’t risk losing her phone privileges to call me in the middle of a school day unless she had a serious problem. But why call me, instead of my brother or his wife?
I lowered the camera and fumbled for the phone with cold-numbed fingers. Flipped it open and held it to my ear.
“What’s going on, Katie-Bear?” I said. At fourteen, she was too old for the nickname, but as her favorite—and only—uncle, I got a special dispensation.
“Hey, Uncle Jared.” Her voice was almost too soft to make out, so I shifted the camera and put a finger in the opposite ear to hear better. “I’m not supposed to have my cell phone out, but . . .”
“But?” Phone tucked between my jaw and shoulder, I aimed the Sony and snapped another picture as Richie slung open the passenger door of the Lexus. Snapped another as a woman in black tights and stiletto-heeled boots emerged, looking like she’d stuffed the bra beneath her fur cape with casaba melons. A minimal background check had identified her as Destiny Mirage, a twenty-two-year-old stripper with musical aspirations. Gypsy Rose Lee meets Dolly Parton.
Caitlin said, “I have to tell you something.”
Across the street, Destiny planted a kiss on Richie’s cheek, leaving a smear of lipstick behind. I snapped another picture and said, “So. Tell me.”
“I’m not sure if I should.”
“If you’re not sure you should—”
“It’s just . . . Well . . . Josh . . .”
At the quaver in her voice, my mouth went dry. Overreacting, maybe, but in the past six months, Josh had given us reason to worry. Moody. Withdrawn. Flirting with danger. This past summer, he’d come out of the closet and run away from home to live with the pushing–thirty son-of-a-bitch who’d seduced him.
The son-of-a-bitch, Razor, had been murdered a few days ago, butchered by the group of vampire wannabes he’d gotten Josh involved with, and even though Josh hadn’t seen the man in months, the murder had hit my nephew hard.
And now . . .?
A series of disasters flashed through my mind. Pictures of my nephew crumpled in a spreading pool of blood. Shot by a classmate. Knifed in the high school cafeteria. Crushed in a smoldering tangle of tortured metal that had once been his mother’s Camry. Nothing simple like a nosebleed or a broken arm. Caitlin wouldn’t have called me for that.
I said, “What happened to Josh?”
“I don’t want to be a snitch, you know?” she said, and my chest loosened up a notch. Josh wasn’t hurt; he was into something Caitlin didn’t want to snitch about.
“Are you snitching or helping?” I said.
“Helping, I think.”
“Then tell me.”
As the couple across the street picked their way up the slippery walkway, I finally remembered what I was supposed to be doing and snapped another photo.
The silence on Caitlin’s end of the line stretched on. I blew out a long breath that fogged the windshield and formed a cloud around the bobble-head Batman on my dash. A gift from my brother, Randall, who had a matching Superman on his. Batman wore a piece of tinsel around his waist in honor of the season.
“Okay,” I said to Caitlin. “This is where you tell me about Josh.”
She let out a sigh and said, “Maybe it’s nothing.”
“Or maybe it’s something. Tell me, and we’ll figure it out.”
“I don’t know. You know how you and Dad always say no tattling unless there’s destruction involved?”
“What if you’re not sure?”
“Then you tell.”
She was quiet for a moment, maybe thinking about it. “I don’t know where to start.”
At the door of the condo, Destiny rubbed her upper arms with her gloved hands while Richie jiggled the key in the lock. I snapped another shot.
“Start anywhere,” I said. “Is Josh into drugs or something?”
“No. I mean, I don’t think so.”
“What do you think?”
I imagined her, hand cupped over the phone, face scrunched with worry and concentration.
Another silence. I imagined her, hand cupped over the phone, face scrunched with worry and concentration. The same look she’d worn when she was five and I put her on my palomino Quarter Horse for the first time. Finally, she said, “It’s just . . . A couple of cops came and talked to him while we were at lunch. And then—”
“Wait a minute. Cops came and talked to him? Without Randall or your mom there?” No need to wonder what they’d discussed. Razor’s murder had been brutal; police would have questions for everyone who’d known him or his killers. I didn’t like it that they’d talked to Josh. It wasn’t illegal, but it pissed me off anyway.
Caitlin said, “They were just asking some questions. But then, when he came back to the cafeteria, this guy named Kevin called Josh a faggot and a criminal and sort of shoved him, and they . . . sort of got into it.”
I glanced up at the condo. Richie and his lady friend had disappeared inside. Nothing to see but the blank face of the door and a half-dozen thick-curtained windows.
“Is Josh all right?” I asked.
“He had a bloody nose. So the principal sent him to the clinic and then to detention.”
“What’d he do with Kevin?”
“Nothing. It was so totally not fair.”
“So Josh is in detention.”
“No, he was in detention. But about five minutes ago, I was in Algebra, only I was looking out the window, because who could listen to one more boring word about integers, you know?—and I saw him running across the parking lot. And when he got to the street, he just jumped in the middle of road and stopped this truck—it almost hit him—and then this big guy got out and they talked for a minute, and then Josh climbed in and they drove away. So I told Mrs. Taylor I had to go to the bathroom, and I came out here and called you.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a friend’s truck?”
“I never saw it before. It had one of those camper tops with a picture on the side, so I’d know if I’d seen it. Something with an eagle.”
“Why didn’t you call your mom or dad?”
“I told you. I don’t want to get Josh in trouble. But he looked—” She hesitated.
“He looked what?”
“I don’t know. It scared me. Would you go and check on him, Uncle Jared? Please? What if he got in the truck with some kind of psycho?”
I’d worked too many homicide cases not to know it was possible. The odds were with him, but they’d also been with every kid we’d ever pulled out of a shallow grave.
“I’m sure he’s okay,” I said, though a worm of anxiety squirmed low in my belly. “But if it will make you feel better, I’ll check it out.”
She whispered a quick thanks and a description of the truck Josh had gotten into, and the connection broke.
I dropped the camera onto the passenger seat and started the engine. A blast of cold air burst from the dashboard. I punched the accelerator without waiting for the engine to warm up and squealed away from the curb. Best-case scenario, I was wasting my time. Worst-case scenario . . . No point thinking about that.
I skidded on a patch of black ice and swerved to avoid the front bumper of a tricked-out Mustang with a Confederate flag on the hood. The driver blasted the horn. Shot me a salute with his middle finger. I started to flip him off, then gave a ‘whatever’ wave instead and eased off the accelerator. I’d be no good to Josh wrapped around the front grille of an eighteen-wheeler.
From Music Row, I shot across Chet Atkins Place, hit Broadway and then I-40 heading east toward my brother’s place in Mt. Juliet, a bedroom town about sixteen miles east of the city. Twenty minutes after Caitlin’s call, my tires crunched onto the gravel driveway of Randall’s split-level white brick house. No one answered my knock, so I used my copy of the key, pushed open the door, and called Josh’s name.
A light blue backpack lay on the hall table, zipper half open, a half-naked, scythe-wielding winged man sketched in black ink across the front of the pack. It was homoerotic as hell, and I knew Josh and Randall must have fought bitterly about it. It bothered me some too, but a bubble of pride rose in my chest anyway. It was a damn fine drawing.
The backpack meant Josh was here, or had been here. Maybe alone, perhaps with a friend. Maybe with Caitlin’s hypothetical psycho, though the odds were against it. A serial killer wouldn’t have brought Josh home. Probably.
More likely, I’d find Josh in bed with some other boy from school. Or maybe an older man. At the thought, my fists clenched. Razor was dead, but there was always some other lowlife ready to take advantage of a kid in crisis.
The kitchen and the living room were empty. Nothing in the hall but smiling family photos, a spectrum of blond. Wendy’s platinum, Caitlin’s butter, foster daughter Rina’s cornsilk, Randall’s and a younger Josh’s matching buckskin. All that gold, broken by an older Josh’s artificial black.
At the foot of the stairs, I called my nephew’s name again. Listened for the frantic scrambling of two kids about to be caught screwing around. Heard nothing.
Up the stairs, quicker now, glancing into each room as I passed. Guest room, master bedroom, Caitlin’s, Rina’s. Rapped my knuckles on Josh’s door, got no answer. Pushed it open.
The bathroom door at the end of the hall was closed. I knocked. No answer. Tried the knob. Locked.
I pressed my ear to the door. “Josh?”
Wrong, this was all wrong.
I took a step back. Pivoted sideways, rocked my weight onto my right foot, and had a moment to wonder how I’d explain the broken door if Josh was inside wearing headphones and jerking off to some heavy metal Goth punk band. Then I drove the heel of my left boot into the particleboard just below the doorknob. A blade of pain shot through my calf, the ghost of a bullet wound that would probably have healed by now if I had the patience—or maybe the discipline—to stay off it. The wood trim around the lock splintered with a sharp crack, and the door swung inward.
The crack widened in slow motion, and the room swept into view. Polished ivory tiles, a white porcelain toilet with a thin brown crack along the base, a set of monogrammed towels folded neatly over a ceramic bar. An old-style, claw-footed tub filled to the rim with what looked like watered wine.
The air in the room seemed to thicken. For a heartbeat, I stood paralyzed, unable even to breathe. Then I was moving, cell phone in hand, punching 911, my voice detached as if I were calling in a robbery to Dispatch. Not thinking, no time to think, but the details catalogued themselves into my brain all the same.
Josh slumped against the side of the tub, fully clothed except for his sneakers, which were neatly aligned on the bathmat, navy sweat socks tucked inside. Beside them lay a package of Schick double-edged razor blades, flap open. On the edge of the tub, a bloody half-handprint stood out like a flare against the white enamel.
I hauled Josh out of the still-warm water, cell phone trapped between my ear and shoulder, giving the operator my brother’s address with one part of my brain while another part gibbered like a madman. Praying, praying without words, because the only words my brain would form were in answer to the operator’s cool tones. Reddened water sloshed over the side of the tub, streamed from Josh’s hair and his shirt and his blood-darkened jeans, soaked my shirt through to the skin.
Too late, the madman whispered. My stomach felt lined with lead. Too late.
But sometimes, in His infinite mercy, God allows us to save the things we love.
Blood still trickled from Josh’s wrists, a good sign, even though his skin was so white he looked bleached. Only the living bleed. His skin had a waxy sheen, but his chest rose and fell almost imperceptibly.
The phone, useless now, clattered to the floor. I snatched the towels off the bar, pulled Josh’s arms above his head, and pressed a towel to each wrist. I held them there until the paramedics pulled me away.