Excerpt from All Lost Things

Chapter 1  

 

Blood covered everything in the small room. It splattered the walls, coated the floor, and even dripped from the ceiling. The smell was nauseating, overwhelming all other senses with its metallic bite. It was hard to imagine that so much blood could come from only one person, but the killer knew that the body parts scattered around the room had once been a part of a single individual. 

The killer felt a sense of satisfaction at the sight. Some portion of his brain registered that the satisfaction was not right, but he couldn’t help the way he felt. His heart pounded as fear mixed with an intense adrenaline rush. 

What should he do now? The easiest course of action would be to leave everything for someone else to discover. The carnage would not be found quickly. The person that the bits and pieces had once comprised was not the sort of person anyone would miss, or if someone did, it would only be to appreciate the fact that he was absent. The idea of someone else discovering the man’s bloody and undignified end was very compelling, but it was too dangerous. As careful as one was, one just couldn’t be sure what kind of evidence they’d left behind. If even half of what they showed on TV was true, then the forensic investigators could practically work magic. No, leaving everything was definitely too risky. 

Luckily, the killer had come prepared. 

Gasoline splashed across the floor, mingling with the blood and overpowering the smell of death. 

 

 

 

 

Kane gripped the dashboard in feigned fear. “Will you slow down?” 

“We don’t have time to slow down. We’re running late.” 

“And we’ll never get there if you have an accident and we die in a fiery explosion.” 

I glanced away from the road long enough to give my little brother a skeptical look. “You watch too much TV.” 

“Okay, so cars don’t generally blow up in real life, but still, you have to admit we’ll be even later if you rear-end some poor, defenseless old lady in a Buick.” 

I was a little edgy after oversleeping and being violently awakened by a disturbing nightmare, but I had to smile at Kane’s comment. And he claimed I was a drama queen. 

“What’s got you in such a weird mood, anyway?” Kane asked. “You never sleep through the alarm.” 

“Whereas you do on a daily basis.” 

He shrugged. “Yeah, so that’s not unusual for me. What’s your excuse?” 

I frowned and shook my head slightly. “I had a nightmare.” 

Kane suddenly became serious as he studied my face carefully. “The same one as before?” 

I shook my head. “Those seemed to have stopped finally. This one was even worse.” 

“Tell me about it?” 

“I’d rather not.” He made a face. “Later, maybe. Right now, I just want to forget it.” 

He nodded. “Are we picking up Asher this morning?” 

Some days we picked up my boyfriend and some days we didn’t. It all depended on our schedules. “Why do you think I’m rushing?” 

“So that means you both have to stay after school?” 

“Yep. I have play practice and Asher has GSA.” We were doing The Laramie Project for our spring play, which was a really big deal for our high school. There were only eight roles, but I got one — and not just because I was openly gay. A couple of the other guys auditioning for the part were gay as well. 

Kane sighed. “I guess I’ll go to the GSA meeting then.” He attended the gay/straight alliance sporadically as a straight supporter. One of the guys who went religiously had a crush on him, though, so Kane — one of the least homophobic people I’d ever known — eventually got tired of fending off the guy’s persistent romantic overtures and had been avoiding the meetings. “So, how are rehearsals going?” 

“You know what they say — the worse the rehearsals, the better the show.” 

He gave me a cynical look. “They actually say that?” 

“They do, but I think it’s just supposed to make us feel better. It’s not really working. Opening night is only a week away, and I’m nervous as hell.” 

I picked up my cup of coffee, and Kane eyed it hungrily. I didn’t usually drink the stuff, but I figured I could use the caffeine boost that morning. Kane, on the other hand, was hopelessly addicted. He’d already finished his own. 

“Forget about it,” I said warningly. 

“Oh, come on. You don’t even like it.” 

“You’ve had enough. It’ll stunt your growth.” 

“Is that what happened to you?” 

I rolled my eyes. “Here come the short jokes.” 

“You started it.” 

As I set my coffee back in the cup holder, Kane made a dive toward it. I tried to snatch it back, and a brief tug-of-war ensued. The game ended when the hot liquid sloshed over the side and onto Kane’s lap. He let out a howl and released the cup, causing me to splash myself. 

With all the distraction, I failed to notice the car sitting at the stop sign in front of us. However, it got my full attention when it brought us to a sudden, bone jarring, metal crunching halt. We hadn’t even been going that fast, I’d hit the brakes after the first coffee spill, but there was still enough of an impact to deploy the airbag. The safety device exploded in my face, scaring me more than the actual accident. 

I punched the bag down and checked on Kane. He was white as a ghost, but otherwise unscathed. I then turned to see what I had hit and groaned. There was an older model, faded yellow Buick growing out of the front end of my Volkswagen Beetle. Kane’s earlier joke about running into an old lady in a Buick suddenly seemed like prophecy. 

I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and tossed it into Kane’s lap. “Do me a favor and call Adam.” 

“Sure, give me the dirty job,” he grumbled. 

“Kane.” My voice was sharp. “Not now. Just call Adam and tell him I need him.” Adam was our dad, Kane’s biological and my surrogate. He’d taken me in when my own father kicked me out upon discovering I was gay. 

I drew a deep breath and stepped out of my car. By now, the Buick’s driver-side door had swung open and a tall, thin, older man had emerged. At least he wasn’t a little old lady. 

“Are you okay?” the man asked me. He was in his late fifties or early sixties, with short-clipped, battleship gray hair and a clean-shaven face. Judging by his hairstyle and state of extreme physical fitness, I guessed he was probably retired military or a cop. 

“I think so,” I answered as I took in the crumpled front end of my beloved Bug. The front bumper had been shoved down and the hood had buckled from the impact. With the exception of a pair of busted taillights, the Buick didn’t appear to have a scratch. “I’m so sorry. I spilled coffee and got distracted...Are you okay?” 

“I’m fine. Wish I could say the same for Bessie.” 

My stress level jumped several notches. “Bessie?” 

“Bessie,” he said with slow deliberation, “was my trusted companion of twenty years. We’ve been through a lot together. It’s hard to believe it could end like this.” 

I stared at him in horror, feeling as if I might throw up at any moment. 

He chuckled. “Don’t pass out on me, kid. Bessie is, or rather was, my car.” 

I felt lightheaded as relief washed over me. “Your car?” 

“Yes, my car. Speaking of cars, I’m assuming you have insurance on your little windup toy there.” 

“Yes, sir!” Something about his military bearing made me want to salute. I dove back into the car. 

“Is he mad?” Kane asked, his hand over the phone. 

“He doesn’t seem too upset,” I answered as I rummaged through the glove box for my insurance card. “What about Adam?” He held up the phone, and I heard Adam’s voice squawking hysterically. I made a face. “Better you than me.” 

It took me a few minutes to figure out which card I needed. By the time I returned, the man was waiting for me with a business card in hand. He passed it to me in exchange for my information. 

Shane Novak, Private Investigator was embossed on the card in neat, black lettering, and under that, a phone number and address. 

“You’re a private detective?” I was unable to keep the note of awe out of my voice. 

Novak gave a grunt. “Retired police detective,” he said distractedly as he copied my insurance information onto a 3x5 index card. “I left active duty three years ago and quickly discovered I wasn’t cut out to sit home and tend the lawn. When I became a widower two years ago, I decided to open my own practice. I only take the cases I want. It keeps me busy. It’s not like it is on TV, though.” He straightened up and looked me over from head to toe. “You’re the famous Killian Kendall, huh?” 

“Famous?” 

“You’re the kid that shot and killed that serial killer a couple years back, aren’t you?” 

“What? Oh. Um, yeah.” I wasn’t used to people recognizing me on the street. 

“I followed the story at the time. Interesting case. You handled yourself pretty well for an amateur. Not many kids your age would have had the guts to do what you did.” 

“Uh, thanks?” I was unsure of the proper protocol when someone compliments you on killing another person. 

“I wrote my insurance info on the back of my card there,” he said as he handed me back my information. “Get in touch with your people, and they’ll take it from there. It was a pleasure getting rear-ended by you, Mr. Kendall.” He pumped my hand once and turned toward his car.  

“Wait! Don’t we have to call the police or something?” 

“Not unless you want a reckless driving charge. It’s doubtful they’d even do anything, since no one was hurt. I’m not going to sue you or anything.” He looked down at the back of his car, currently buried in the front end of mine. “I probably won’t even file a claim.” 

“Are you sure?” 

“I’m sure. You’re going to have enough headaches with your insurance company; you don’t need the police involved. Trust me. I was a cop for thirty years.” 

“But your car —” 

“My car is fine. I was just teasing you about her dying. She’s going to outlive me. She’s built like a tank. They don’t make ’em like this anymore.” 

I must have had a dubious look on my face. 

“Okay, here. Watch this.” He climbed in behind the steering wheel and turned the key. After a few sputters and an asthmatic wheeze, the Buick roared to life. He got out, leaving the engine running. “Don’t worry, she always sounds like that. Unless you want me to hang around, I should get going. I’m late for an appointment. If you need anything, just call me. My number’s on the card I gave you.” 

I nodded dumbly, and we shook hands again. He got back into his car and pulled away from mine with a metallic screech, leaving a trail of broken glass from the VW’s headlights. He waved and then drove off. I turned to Kane, who had climbed out of the car in time to catch the end of my conversation with Mr. Novak. 

“That went a lot better than I would have expected,” he said. 

I nodded. “He looked kind of scary, but he was really nice.” 

“A lot nicer than he had to be, considering you slammed into him.” 

“I didn’t slam into him! I wasn’t going that fast.” Kane cast a pointed glance at the front end of my car, and I sighed. “Do you think it’s totaled?” 

He shrugged. “Beats me, but one thing is for sure. Dad is going to freak when he sees it. You’ll be lucky if you ever drive again.” 

My stomach knotted up at the thought of Adam’s reaction. He was a great guy and more of a father to me than my real dad ever was, but he tended to be a little overprotective.  

“What did he say when you called him?” 

“Well, after he stopped speaking in gibberish and I convinced him neither of us had critical head injuries, he said he’d get here as quickly as possible.” 

“Let’s hope he doesn’t have an accident on the way, then we’d only have Steve’s car for transportation.” 

Steve was Adam’s partner. He was an architect and worked in a town about an hour from where we lived. If we were dependent on his vehicle, things would get very complicated. 

“Way to think positive there, Killian,” Kane commented dryly. “Shouldn’t you call Asher and let him know we’re running a little later than planned?” 

“Oh my God! I forgot all about him!” 

Kane tossed me the cell phone and went to examine the damage to the car more closely.  

I speed-dialed Asher’s house and his mom answered the phone. “Hi, Mrs. Davis. This is Killian. Is Asher there?” 

“Hi, Killian. Actually, you just missed him. Marcus took him to school.” 

Marcus was Asher’s older brother. He lived at home and went to one of the local colleges. On mornings when I couldn’t pick Asher up, Marcus drove him. However, I was certain Asher and I had agreed the night before that I would pick him up this morning. 

“Oh. Was he mad?” 

There was a long, rather pregnant pause. Mrs. Davis was one of the sweetest ladies I’d ever met. She loved me to death and hated it when Asher and I fought, which lately seemed to be more and more often. “He did seem a little upset. He said something about being late for a test.” 

“I’m sorry. I had an accident on the way there.” 

“Heavens! Are you alright?” 

“I’m fine and so is Kane, and the other driver. It just made us even later than we already were. I’ll explain to Asher when I see him at school.” 

“Okay, sweetheart. I’m sure he’ll understand when he hears what happened.” 

At least one of us was sure. 

Adam pulled up behind my Beetle just as I slipped the phone into my pocket. He was out of his car before the motor had even completely cut off. 

“We’re fine —” I broke off as Adam grabbed me in a rough hug. 

“Are you sure you’re okay?” His voice was thick with emotion. 

“Ahm fahn.” My response was muffled by my face being mashed against his shoulder. “Weally,” I added for emphasis. 

He released me from the bear hug but held me by my shoulders at arm’s length to look me over. 

“Hey, I’m okay, too, just for the record,” Kane deadpanned.  

Apparently satisfied that I was unhurt, Adam let me go and repeated the hug and inspection process with Kane. Once that was out of the way, he turned his attention to my car. “Oh my God,” he whispered. He sounded as though he might cry. 

“We’re okay. Nobody got hurt,” I reminded him. 

“Yeah, it looks worse than it is,” Kane chipped in.  

“Our insurance premiums are going to skyrocket,” Adam moaned.  

 

 

 

Adam called our insurance company and they sent someone out to assess the damage. Assuming it would even run at all, they advised us against driving the car since the front bumper was pressed against the tires. They were unsure as to the extent of damage to the engine itself. 

By the time the tow truck arrived and Adam finished dealing with the insurance company, Kane and I had missed most of our morning classes. Adam dropped us off at school, and we visited the office to get excused absences. I didn’t run into Asher until the final period was over, and we only had a few minutes before we had to be at our respective after-school activities. 

“Asher!” I called as I caught sight of his retreating back from the opposite end of the hall.  

He stopped and waited for me to catch up, but he didn’t look happy about it. His usually silver eyes were a dark, stormy gray. “Asher, I’ve been trying to find you all day.” 

“Well, here I am. We have to keep this quick. I’m running late. In fact, I feel like I’ve been running late all day, starting with this morning.” 

“Ash, I’m sorry about that. I overslept, then got into an accident on the way to get you.” 

A startled look softened his expression. “Is everyone okay?” 

“Yeah, no one got hurt, but the Beetle got busted up pretty badly. They had to tow it off.” 

He frowned again. “I’ll call Marcus to pick us up.” 

“Adam can —” 

“I’ll call Marcus. I have to go. I need to be there before the meeting starts; I am the sole president, you know. Besides, don’t you have play practice?” 

I sighed. This had been a sore spot between us ever since I decided to step down from my position as co-president of the gay/straight alliance to focus on drama during our senior year. I hadn’t thought it would be that big of a deal — the GSA was running smoothly, and Asher knew acting was important to me — but apparently it was a big deal to Asher. It was months later and he was still pouting about it. 

“Asher —” 

“Oh, and would a phone call have killed you?” 

“I did call, but your mom said you’d already left. Asher, I’m sorry. Really.” 

He defused a little. “I was worried. You didn’t show up, and then I didn’t see you here at school.” 

“I know. I’m sorry. I should have called you sooner.” 

“You’re sure you’re okay?” When I nodded, he said, “We’ll talk more later.” He turned and quickly walked away. 

 

 

 

True to his word, Asher had called his brother. Marcus was waiting for us in the parking lot when we got out of school. 

“So, Killian, I hear you wrecked your car,” he said conversationally as I slid into the backseat with my boyfriend. Kane had called shotgun. 

“Dude, you should have been there,” Kane started in enthusiastically. “It was awesome! He just plowed into that guy’s rear end.” 

Marcus snorted and twisted around in his seat to face Asher and me. “Bet that was a first for you, huh, Kill?” 

“Ha ha, very funny. I’m glad everyone thinks my accident is so amusing.” 

“I fail to see the humor in it,” Asher said grouchily.  

“Big surprise,” Kane muttered under his breath, and Marcus guffawed.  

Asher’s eyes narrowed. “What?” 

“Nothing,” Kane sang merrily. He and Asher hadn’t been getting along any better than Asher and me for the last few months. 

“So how’d the GSA meeting go?” I asked Asher. It was a measure of how desperate I was to distract him that I broached this touchy subject. 

Asher shrugged. “It was okay.” 

“Okay? It was great,” Kane crowed. “Marco has a new crush so he barely noticed I was there.” 

Asher rolled his eyes. “We had a new kid today. I talked to him a little after the meeting while we waited for you.” 

Play practice had run a few minutes longer than GSA.  

“He’s a grade behind me,” Kane added. “He’s a little weird.” 

“How so?” Asher asked. 

“Stays to himself, kind of quiet.” 

“He seemed really sweet.” Was it my imagination or did Asher sound a little defensive? 

“He probably just seems quiet because he can’t get a word in edgewise when you’re around,” Marcus teased. Kane laughed good-naturedly.  

“Is he gay?” I asked Asher. 

“He said he’s not sure, but I think he probably is. I don’t think he’s ever told anyone before. It took a lot of courage for him to come to the meeting.” 

“It takes a lot of courage for anyone to attend the meetings.” Even though our school had become a pretty accepting place since Asher and I had come out publicly the year before, it still had its share of bigots and loudmouths. 

“That’s why the GSA is so important!” Asher was suddenly impassioned, coming out of his funk for the first time that day. “Our school needs this group. It makes us visible. Who’s going to take over next year after we graduate? Nobody has stepped forward and shown any interest in being president. Brandy’s already made it clear she doesn’t even want to be vice president again next year. Nobody else has any leadership skills.” 

“Do you have to be gay to be president?” Kane asked. 

“No.” Asher sounded guarded. “It’s a gay and straight alliance. Why?” 

“I could be president.” 

Asher snorted. “Right.” 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Kane demanded belligerently. 

“Like you could take things seriously long enough to be the president.” 

“I could! And I’d do a damn good job.” 

“You don’t even come to half the meetings.” 

“I’d be there if I was president.” 

“What if some other poor guy got a crush on you?” 

“Poor guy? Marco slipped naked pictures of himself into my locker. I was never even mean to him. I just...avoided him whenever possible.” 

“That’s my point. You can’t avoid people if you’re the president.” 

“You avoided Trish when she decided she was bi and wanted to be in a three-way relationship with the two of us,” I pointed out. Probably not my best move, judging by the nasty look Asher shot me. 

“That’s different. Trish is clinically insane.” 

“Look, if you don’t want me to be president, just say so,” Kane challenged. 

“I don’t want you to be president,” Asher snapped back. 

“Fine, then when the GSA folds next year, don’t blame me.” 

A tense silence fell over the car until Marcus couldn’t handle it any longer. “So, uh, anybody going to see the new Tom Cruise movie this weekend?” 

“Tom Cruise sucks,” Asher, Kane, and I chorused loudly. Finally, something we could all agree on. 

No one made any more attempts at conversation for the rest of the drive to our house. Asher didn’t even say goodbye when I got out of the car. 

“What got up his butt?” Kane asked as Marcus drove away. He smirked. “We know it’s not you.” 

“I’m really not in the mood, Kane.” That was another sore subject — one that too many people around us knew about. Even though we’d been dating for almost two years, Asher and I had never had sex, not real sex. We’d fooled around, but for some reason, I just didn’t feel ready to take that next step — much to Asher’s chagrin. “In case you haven’t noticed, this has not been a good day.” 

“Sorry.” 

Kane sounded sincere, so I gave him a break. “Asher’s been mad ever since I decided to step down as co-president of the GSA. He keeps saying he’s over it but then he brings it up again. It seems like all we do anymore is fight.” 

“Maybe it’s just sexual tension,” Kane suggested impishly.  

“You never let up, do you?” I started toward the door. 

Kane followed me inside. “Sorry, sorry. I just couldn’t resist.” 

“You don’t help things with the way you purposefully irritate him.” 

“Again, can’t resist. He’s such an easy target. He never used to be that prickly.” 

“Are you guys bitching about me again?” Adam asked with a smile as he stuck his head out of the den. He worked from home and used the den as his office. 

“No, we’re bitching about Asher this time,” Kane answered as he started up the stairs to our shared bedroom. 

Adam’s brow furrowed. “Something wrong?” 

“Just the usual,” he called back. “Asher’s a jerk.” 

“What happened?” Adam asked me. 

I dragged my backpack past Adam and into the den. I usually did my homework in there while Kane did his in our bedroom. “Asher was mad that I didn’t pick him up this morning.” 

“Even after you told him about the accident?” 

“He said I should have called. And technically, he’s right. I mean, I did call, but I should have done it sooner.” 

“You were in a car accident. You’d think he’d give you a little slack.” 

“There hasn’t been much slack lately.” 

“Is he still mad about the GSA?” 

“Yeah. Actually, it seems like he’s mad about everything these days, especially if I don’t do exactly what he wants me to do.” 

Adam ruffled my hair. “Relationships have their ups and downs. You guys have had pretty smooth sailing since things settled down after...” 

I nodded. “I know. I just wish things could have stayed like that.” 

“Nothing ever stays the same, kiddo. Consider this a test of your commitment to one another. If you pull through, your relationship will be stronger than ever.” 

“And if we don’t?” I asked, hoping he’d tell me I had nothing to worry about. 

He gave me a reassuring smile. “Then you’ll find someone even better.” 

That wasn’t the answer I was looking for. 

 

 

Chapter 2 

 

The next week went by quickly. The repair estimates for my Beetle were quite high, and no decisions had been reached about its fate. In the meantime, Adam was driving Kane and me to school in the morning, and either Adam or Marcus would bring us home afterwards. My relationship with Asher remained tense, but I didn’t have much time to focus on our problems as the opening night of the play loomed ever closer. I was pacing in my bedroom, rehearsing my lines over and over to myself, when a knock came at the door. 

“Come in,” I called, expecting Adam or Steve. 

The door cracked open and a blond head popped in, eyes squeezed tightly closed. “Are you decent?” 

“Mom!” 

Breaking into a grin, she pushed the door the rest of the way open and accepted my enthusiastic hug. “You didn’t think I was going to miss the opening night of your senior play, did you?” 

“It’s such a long drive...” After she left my father, Mom moved to Pennsylvania to live with my Aunt Kathy. She tried to get down to see me as often as possible, but she wasn’t working and couldn’t really afford the gas for frequent trips. 

“Psh. It’s nothing. I could drive here with my eyes closed...and I usually do.” 

I laughed and hugged her again, then stepped back to get a better look at her. “You’re letting your hair grow out?” 

“Or I’m just overdue for a haircut.” She laughed self-consciously and tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear. 

I definitely took after my mom in the looks department. We were both small and slender, with blue eyes and wavy, dark blond hair. For years, Mom had worn her hair cut off bluntly in a pageboy, but now it reached just past her shoulders. 

“I think it looks nice. Let it grow.” 

“Yes, sir!” She sounded sarcastic, but the twinkle in her eyes told me she was secretly pleased. Her relationship with my father had left her self esteem pretty battered. 

“So, what brought this on? Are you dating someone?” 

She burst into laughter. “Not hardly. I have no interest in dating, although I am thinking about going back to school and finishing my degree.” 

“I think that would be a great idea.” 

She smiled. “Me, too. Hey, maybe we’ll be in college at the same time.” 

I made a face of mock horror. “Just as long as it isn’t the same school!” 

“What? You think having your mom around would cramp your style?” 

“I don’t just think it would; I know!” 

She laughed again. “Well, you don’t have to sweat it. I’m sure I’ll be going to a community college closer to home. Since we’re on the subject, have you heard back from any of the schools you applied to?” 

“Yeah.” 

“And?” 

“I was accepted to PembertonUniversity.” 

“That’s where your cousin Aidan went.” 

“I know.” 

“I didn’t realize you were considering Pemberton.” 

“I thought I told you on the phone. I applied early decision.” 

She shook her head in surprise. “If you did, I don’t remember. What made you decide to go there?” 

“It’s a good school, I got a scholarship there, and it’s close.” 

“All good reasons, I suppose. So why don’t you sound more excited?” 

“I kind of wanted to go to the University of Maryland, but Asher didn’t apply. He wanted us both to go to Pemberton.” 

She nodded slowly. “I see. And how is Asher?” I shrugged. “What does that mean? Are you two having problems?” 

“I don’t know if I would say problems...” 

“Well, what would you say?” 

I dropped down on the bed with a thump. “We’re arguing a lot. Asher seems to be unhappy with a lot of my decisions. Sometimes I feel as if he’s just looking for something to fight about.” 

Mom sat down next to me. “Have you tried talking to him about it?” 

“Not really.” 

“Look, sweetheart, I don’t want to butt in, but if you two are having problems — er, make that ‘issues’ — are you sure it’s the best idea to base your college decision on Asher’s?” 

“It’s a little late to worry about that now.” 

“True.” She sighed. “Well, maybe you should try to talk to him. Communication is the key to a healthy relationship.” 

“You sound like Adam.” 

She grinned. “It’s nice to know he’s giving you good advice.” 

“You know he does. Adam’s great.” 

She gave me a one-armed hug. “He is.” Her smile slowly faded away as her gaze became distant. 

“What’s wrong?” I asked. 

She blinked and forced her lips back into a smile. “Nothing’s wrong.” 

“What were you just thinking?” 

She sighed. “Sometimes I wish things had worked out differently.” 

“Differently how?” 

“I guess I sort of...envy Adam.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I almost feel like I’m a stranger in your life. I’ve missed so much of your senior year. Soon you’ll be graduating and heading off to college. Things are going on with you and Asher. I’m so far away and Adam’s right here, a part of it all, giving you advice. He’s more your parent than I am these days.” 

“You’ll always be my mom.” 

“I know, I know.” She wiped at her eyes. “I’m just being silly. You’re lucky to have Adam. We’re lucky to have Adam.” 

I twisted around to give her a tight hug. “I love you, Mom.” 

She returned my hug briefly, then tickled me. “I didn’t come here to bring you down; I came to cheer you on in your big role. What time do you have to be at school?” 

I glanced at the clock. “I should probably get going now.” 

“I’ll drive you.” She stood up and pulled me off the bed. “Come on. Let’s go break a leg.” 

 

 

 

The play went great. I can’t say it went off without a hitch, but considering how bad it had seemed during rehearsals, our first real performance was a huge success. Judging by the audience’s response, no one noticed the few flubbed lines, or if so, didn’t hold them against us. 

The cast was taking its curtain call to thunderous applause when I noticed Asher coming up on stage with a bouquet of roses in his arms. He walked across the stage and handed it to me. I felt my face heat up until I must have matched the deep red of the roses exactly. If anything, the clapping and cheering grew even louder. Asher slipped his hand into mine as the cast filed off the stage. 

The minute we were out of sight, he leaned in for a quick kiss. “You were amazing.” 

“Thanks,” I mumbled, blushing more deeply. “I can’t believe you gave me flowers in front of the whole school.” 

“You deserve them. You were the best actor in the play. I’m sorry I gave you such a hard time about it.” 

I shrugged. “It’s okay. It all worked out in the end, right?” 

His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Right.” 

A strong negative feeling filled me. Although I couldn’t quite figure out what it meant, I knew something was wrong. “What?” 

“What do you mean, ‘what’?” 

“Something’s wrong.” 

Asher frowned. “Nothing is wrong.” 

I opened my mouth to argue, but my family chose that moment to rush backstage. 

“Killian, you were phenomenal,” Steve crowed. “You deserve an Oscar.” 

“Tony,” Adam corrected. 

Steve gave his partner a confused look. “Who?” 

“Killian deserves a Tony Award. Oscars are for movies; a Tony is for stage work.” 

Steve grinned and rolled his eyes. “Whatever. The point is his performance was award-worthy.” 

“I agree,” Mom said as she pulled me in for a hug. “I don’t care if it’s an Oscar, Tony, Grammy, or Heisman Trophy, just give my boy an award.” 

“Okay guys, jeez!” I interjected. “It was a high school play. Give it a rest.” Everyone laughed. 

“How about we go celebrate a successful opening night?” Adam suggested. 

Smiling, Mom asked, “Where?” 

“There’s a great little all-night diner not far from here,” Steve said. 

Adam nodded in agreement. “Sounds good. Come on. Asher, you’re coming, too, right? My treat.” 

Asher grinned. “I never turn down free food.” 

We rounded up Kane, who was busy flirting with a group of girls, and headed for the diner. I drove with Asher. Kane went with us, so I didn’t have a chance to pursue my sense that something was wrong. 

While the general mood at the diner was celebratory, I couldn’t stop thinking about the bad feeling I’d had earlier. Something was wrong, but I had no idea what it could be. Asher acted as if everything was normal. He seemed oblivious to my fretting. I was lost in thought when the table suddenly grew quiet. I looked up to see five pairs of eyes watching me expectantly. Obviously, I’d missed something. 

“Huh?” Everyone laughed. 

“I asked you if you’d chosen a major to study at Pemberton,” Mom said. 

“Oh.” I glanced over at Asher who was suddenly fascinated by his sundae. “Uh, not really.” 

“What do you want to do?” Steve asked around a mouthful of ice cream and hot fudge. 

I shrugged. “Beats me.” 

“You don’t have any ideas?” Mom pressed. 

“Nope.” 

Kane flicked a walnut in my direction. “How about acting? You were really good tonight.” 

I smiled in his direction. “Thanks, but I like it here. I’d have to go away to New York or Hollywood to become an actor.” 

“You could always be an architect,” Steve said. “You could work with me.” 

I wrinkled up my nose. “Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t think that’s for me.” 

“I don’t suppose you’re interested in graphic design or advertising?” Adam asked with a grin. I just laughed. 

Mom reached over and patted my hand. “That’s okay. You have time to figure it all out. You don’t have to declare a major right away; you can just take general study courses for now.” 

I nodded. “That’s what I’d planned to do.” 

“Oh, so now you have a plan?” Adam teased. 

I noticed that Asher had remained pretty quiet throughout this whole conversation. I turned my attention to him. “So, what about you? Do you know what you plan to major in at Pemberton?” 

His eyes flicked to mine for a second before sliding away. A sardonic smile turned up one corner of his lips. “It took me fifteen minutes to decide what sundae to get. What makes you think I know what I want to study in college?” 

Everyone laughed, and the conversation moved on. Although I kept a smile on my face and participated in the light patter, inside I was still troubled. 

 

 

 

Another week slipped by and I never found the opportunity to bring up my feeling of foreboding with Asher. Eventually, it just seemed pointless to even mention anything. 

Graduation was only a few weeks away. The closer it got, the more the days seemed to drag by. I was stuffing the books I didn’t need for homework into my locker when I remembered hearing Asher mention that elections for next year’s GSA officers were being held that afternoon. Since the play was over, I decided to pop in and surprise him. I thought it would please him if I rejoined the GSA, even if it was just for the last couple of meetings. 

It had been months since I’d made it to a meeting. The first thing I noticed as I walked into the room was several new people — like the pretty red-haired girl Kane was busy chatting up, or the youthful looking guy with whom Asher was deep in conversation by the window. In fact, he was so engrossed he didn’t notice me until I tapped him on the shoulder. 

Asher’s eyes grew huge when he saw me. For a second, I thought I saw a slight look of annoyance, but when a broad smile spread across his face I decided I must have been mistaken. He grabbed me in a huge hug. 

“I didn’t know you were coming,” he exclaimed as he released me. 

I glanced over at the boy Asher had been talking to and noted the expression of blatant jealousy in his large brown eyes. “I decided to surprise you.” I slipped my arm possessively through his. Asher followed my gaze. Once again, I thought I saw something in his eyes. 

“Let me introduce you,” he said. “Killian, this is Caleb. He’s new to the group. Caleb, this is my boyfriend Killian.” 

Caleb nodded grudgingly in my direction, and I gave him a wide, toothy grin in return.  

Asher quickly pulled me away in the direction of some of the other new members, but a peek over my shoulder told me Caleb was still glaring at our backs. After introductions had been made, Asher started the meeting. The first order of business was the elections. 

“As you all know, we’ve had a hard time coming up with candidates for next year’s officers. I’ll be graduating, and Brandy has declined to run again,” a tall, heavy-set black girl shrugged apologetically, “so we’re open to suggestions from the floor.” 

The kids in the room looked around at each other, but no one made any move to volunteer. 

“Come on, guys, this is important. If we don’t have officers, the group will be ineligible as an after-school club next year. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s important that we have a visible presence here.” 

“Things are better than they used to be,” Max, a short-haired, openly lesbian jock, pointed out. “My teammates accept me completely. Maybe the group isn’t really needed anymore.” 

“Things might be better than they used to be, but they’re still not as good as they could be. Who has experienced any kind of harassment about your sexual orientation here at school in the past year? It could be physical or verbal, from a fellow student or a teacher.” 

Most of the students raised their hand, including, to my surprise, Kane. 

“Exactly.” Asher went on. “Studies show that more than ninety percent of LGBT students in the U.S. experience some form of harassment at school. How many of you hear people use words like gay or faggot in a negative sense on a daily basis?” 

Every hand in the room went up. 

“So, do you still think this group isn’t needed?” When no one spoke up, Asher nodded, satisfied that he’d made his point. “You know, Max, since you are such an accepted and respected athlete, you’d make a great leader for the group.” 

Max bit her lip. “I could maybe manage the VP position, but there’s no way I’d have time to be president and balance schoolwork, field hockey, and softball.” 

Asher took what he was offered. “Great.” He wrote “Vice President” on the chalkboard, then underlined it. Beneath it, he wrote Max’s name. “Anyone else want to run for vice president?” 

Brandy sighed loudly. “You made me feel guilty, so go ahead and put me down for another year as VP, but y’all feel free to vote for Max.” Everyone snickered as Asher added Brandy’s name to the list. 

“Okay, guys, we still need a president.” 

Kane slowly raised his hand. “I’ll run.” 

Asher glared at him and, for a moment, I thought he was going to cause a scene right there in the middle of the meeting. To his credit, he clenched his jaw and wrote Kane’s name under “President”. 

One of the new boys, whose name I’d already forgotten, raised his hand. 

Asher pounced on him eagerly. “Do you want to run for president, too, Ron?” 

Ron seemed disconcerted. “Uh, no. I just had a question.” 

Asher deflated before my eyes. “Oh. Go ahead then.” 

“Yeah, uh, no offense or anything, I thought Kane was straight,” Ron said carefully. 

“I am,” Kane responded. 

“So, uh, how can you be the president of a gay group?” 

Kane turned to Asher with a raised eyebrow, an obvious invitation for him to answer.  

Asher gritted his teeth. “This isn’t just a gay group, Ron. It’s a gay/straight alliance. Officer positions are open to all members. Anyone can be president.” 

“Okay, but how can he understand what it’s like to be gay?” 

Kane frowned as he sat up in his chair. “I may not know firsthand what it’s like to be gay, but I bet I know as much about being gay as pretty much anyone else in this room. My dad and both of my brothers are gay. In fact, one of my brothers was murdered because he was gay, remember?” Ron looked down at his lap and Kane quickly went on. “I’m not trying to make you feel bad or vote for me out of pity; I’m just saying that I understand what you have to deal with better than you think. In fact, I probably get picked on almost as much as anyone. Simply attending this meeting makes me a target. I get called all the names, too. It just happens to not be true in my case.” 

“So you think you’d make a good president?” someone else spoke up. 

Kane nodded decisively. “I do. I want to make things better for LGBT students in this school — and their allies. I want to make it a safe place for everyone.” 

A handful of people broke into spontaneous applause. I had to admit even I was impressed with Kane’s impassioned speech. 

Asher sighed. “Is there anyone else who’d like to run for president?” He sounded almost pleading, but I think he knew before he asked that it was a lost cause. Kane had already won the election. 

Brandy handed out ballots, waited for everyone to cast their votes, then collected the slips of paper and left the room to count. While she was gone, Asher opened up the floor to discussion of various issues of interest. We were in the middle of debating the pros and cons of coming out to your parents when Brandy returned. 

“Congratulations, Kane and Max,” she announced. “You’re the new president and vice president.” 

 

 

 

After the meeting, I quickly made my way to Asher’s side while Kane enjoyed being the center of attention. 

“I can’t believe he pulled a stunt like that,” Asher seethed. 

I frowned. “Hey, it’s not like anyone else was stepping up. Besides, were you even listening? I think he’ll do a good job.” 

“He just wanted the position to get under my skin.” 

“Oh, please.” 

“Oh, please, nothing. You know as well as I do that the only reason he wanted to be president was because he knew it would upset me.” 

“That’s ridiculous. He brought up the idea before he even knew you were against it. I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal.” 

“Your brother gets on my nerves.” 

“Yeah, I’ve noticed. What I want to know is why?” 

“I don’t know why.” Asher paused. “Because he’s a smug little jerk, that’s why.” 

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. I think I’m going to stay out of this one and let you two duke it out.” 

“You’re always taking his side!” 

“What? I’m not taking anyone’s side.” 

“You probably voted for him, didn’t you?” 

“Who else was I going vote for, Ralph Nader?” 

“You know what? I’m —” 

A voice interrupted our argument. “Hey, um, Asher?” 

We turned to find Caleb standing a few feet away. I wondered how long he’d been listening, and whether anyone else had overheard us. I looked around, but everyone else seemed to be busy congratulating Kane and Max. 

Asher forced a smile for the kid. “Hey, Caleb. What’s up?” 

“I was wondering if you could stay after and talk for a little while — like last week.” 

“Yeah, sure. My brother is picking me up, so he can give you a lift home again if you need it.” 

Caleb smiled. “That would be great.” 

I felt my frown deepen. I’d thought Adam was driving us home. Asher hadn’t mentioned making other plans. I wondered if that was a spur-of-the-moment decision because of Kane’s election, or if he really had made other arrangements and forgotten to tell me. 

Asher turned back to me. His face was impassive, but his eyes were still stormy with anger. “I’ll see you later,” he said dismissively. 

My eyes narrowed but I smiled as pleasantly as I could, determined not to let Caleb see that Asher and I were fighting. “Sounds great. It was nice to meet you, Caleb.” 

He barely spared me a glance. “Right. You, too.” 

I took the opportunity to look him over. He didn’t appear old enough to be in high school. He was small, around 5’3”, and I doubted he weighed over a hundred pounds. He had a mop of unruly brown hair that I suspected was incredibly soft and silky. I wanted to ruffle it despite myself. His eyes were large and dark, and a sharp intelligence glinted in them. He looked rather like a cunning deer or an impish wood sprite. His skin tone, which was naturally olive, had the sallow quality of someone who doesn’t spend much time in the sunlight. Overall, he was a cute kid, yet there was something about him that put me off. Maybe it was the way he was ogling my boyfriend. 

I made a mental note to talk to Asher about Caleb later, after we’d worked out the issue of his ongoing feud with Kane. I sighed and turned away. Our laundry list of things to talk about kept growing, but the time never seemed right — or maybe I was just avoiding an unpleasant confrontation. 

I collected Kane, and we went to meet Adam, who was waiting in the parking lot. 

“I was elected president of the GSA,” Kane burbled happily as he piled into the back seat.  

“Really! Wow, that’s awesome! Congratulations, son.” 

“Thanks.” He giggled. “Man, is Asher pissed off.” 

I twisted around in my seat to face him. “Please tell me that’s not why you ran.” 

Kane looked offended. “Of course not. I really do think I can do a good job as president.” His evil grin returned. “Annoying Asher was just a lucky bonus.” 

“Why is Asher mad?” Adam asked. “I’d think he’d be happy there was a president at all, since it means the group he started will continue after he graduates.” 

“He’s mad because I got elected,” Kane gloated. 

“What’s going on with you two anyway?” I asked. “You used to get along fine.” 

“That was before he turned into a prick.” 

“He’s not a prick.” 

“Yes, he is, and over the last year he’s gotten progressively worse.” 

“I think you two just rub each other the wrong way,” Adam said in a placating tone. “You’re two very different personalities.” 

“Do you think Asher is a prick?” I asked Adam. 

He chuckled. “I think he can be a little prickly at times, but I wouldn’t call him a prick.” 

I sighed and slumped into the car seat. Adam glanced away from the road long enough to meet my eyes. “More importantly, what do you think?” 

I wanted to defend Asher, but I couldn’t deny that he had been acting bitchy lately. Instead, I shrugged and changed the subject. “So, what do you know about this kid Caleb?” 

Kane snorted. “You mean besides the fact that he has the hots for your boyfriend?” 

I yanked down the sun visor on my side of the car, flipped up the mirror cover, and shot his reflection a dirty look. 

He grinned back at me. “He’s the new kid who started coming a couple of weeks ago. Remember? Asher mentioned him.” 

“Yeah, I think so. You said he was kind of weird.” 

“That’s him.” 

“He doesn’t even look old enough to be in high school.” 

“He’s a sophomore.” 

“Really?” 

“Yep.” 

“So how is he weird?” 

“He’s just sort of standoffish and quiet. Actually, I feel kind of sorry for him. He doesn’t seem to have any friends.” 

“How do you know so much about him if he’s a grade behind you?” 

“Apparently he’s some sort of genius. He’s in a few of my classes.” 

I stewed over that for a few minutes. “And you think he likes Asher?” 

Kane met my eyes in the mirror. “It’s just a crush, Kill. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” 

I nodded. I wanted to believe him, but I couldn’t help feeling threatened. Even though it had been less than two years, it seemed that Asher and I had been together forever. In high school, a couple of years is forever. We’d never really had any serious problems until recently. Our relationship had never been tested. Suddenly I felt as though we were being bombarded from all sides. Kane may have thought I had nothing to worry about, but I wasn’t so sure. 

 

 

 

I forced myself to wait until after nine to call Asher. I was half hoping he’d call me, but somehow wasn’t surprised when he didn’t. I knew he’d still be upset over Kane’s election. 

Marcus answered and called Asher to the phone. 

“Hey,” he said as soon as he picked up, “I’m sorry about today.” 

“You are?” I hadn’t been expecting an apology. 

“Yeah. I was way out of line. I know Kane is your brother and you guys are close. I shouldn’t have said those things. I’m sure he’ll do a good job as president.” 

I felt like I’d entered an episode of the Twilight Zone. “Really?” 

“Yes. And it’s not like I’m going to have to deal with him. As long as the other members are happy, why should I care?” 

“Where did this change of heart come from?” 

“Just some things Caleb said while we were talking.” 

“Caleb...” 

Something in my voice must have warned Asher that we were entering dangerous waters. “Yeah, he’s a nice kid.” 

“Is he?” 

“He really is. He’s been through a lot.” 

“Has he?” 

Asher chuckled. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous.” 

“I’m not jealous. It’s just...you do know he has a crush on you, don’t you?” 

“He does not.” 

“He so does. You should have seen the way he was staring at you.” 

“You’re definitely jealous. He just looks up to me. He’s been telling me about his life. He’s been through some horrible things.” 

“Haven’t we all?” 

“You know what I mean.” 

“No, actually I don’t.” 

“Killian, I can’t really go into it. He told me this stuff in confidence.” 

“It’s not like you’re a freaking priest or something. You can talk to me; I’m your boyfriend. We tell each other everything.” 

“This is different. It’s not mine to share.” When I growled in frustration, he backtracked a little bit. “Baby, you know I’d tell you if I could. He swore me to secrecy. Just trust me. You have nothing to worry about.” 

Later, as I tried in vain to fall asleep, those words came back to taunt me. I wanted to trust Asher. Both he and Kane had told me there was nothing to worry about. So why was I so worried? 

 

 

 

The killer swung the ax again and again, feeling an intense satisfaction with each sticky, wet thud. Warm blood splattered his face. It would have splashed into his mouth if his lips hadn’t been pressed together so firmly. 

He paused and looked over his handiwork. The body was barely recognizable as human. He hadn’t planned to go that far, but it had felt so good he’d just kept chopping. He leaned against the ax as he struggled to catch his breath. His tongue crept out and tentatively licked his lips. A tangy, metallic taste flooded his senses. 

 

 

 

I woke up retching. I could still taste the blood on my tongue. Leaping from bed, I raced into the bathroom where I grabbed the bottle of mouthwash on the shelf and clawed frantically at the top. I swigged directly from the bottle, swishing the liquid around in my mouth until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I spat into the sink, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, then slowly raised my head to look into the mirror. The eyes staring back at me were filled with fear. What was happening to me? 

 

 

Chapter 3 

 

I paused in my studying when I heard Asher take another deep breath behind me, as if he were about to say something. Just like the last five times he’d done the same thing, he ended up releasing it in a soft sigh. 

I gritted my teeth and tried to get back to my calculus. This was my last final, and I was determined to do well on it. Since my grades were so high, my teachers had waived most of my final exams. Math was my worst subject, though, so I had to take the calc test. The problem was I’d been staring at the same page for ten minutes. I knew Asher had something he wanted to tell me, but he seemed to be having trouble getting it out. He’d said he was coming over to study, yet he hadn’t turned a page in his history book since he arrived. Then the sighing started. 

He drew in another breath. I’d had it. I spun around in my desk chair. “What?” 

He looked up at me with a startled expression from his spot on my bed, sprawled on his stomach, history book between his elbows. “Huh?” 

“I can tell you have something you want to say, so spit it out already. The suspense is driving me crazy!” 

A half smile formed on his lips. “You know me too well.” 

“Ash, you’ve been sighing so much I was getting worried you’d run out of oxygen and faint. What’s going on?” 

He pushed the textbook away and sat up, tucking his legs under him Indian-style. “It’s about Caleb...” 

I bit my bottom lip and tried to control my expression. I was getting tired of hearing about Caleb. It seemed he was all Asher talked about anymore; everything was Caleb this and Caleb that. I was starting to worry that Asher was developing a crush on the boy. 

“What about him?” I asked as neutrally as possible. 

“Okay, see...this is hard. I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone, but I really need to talk to somebody about it.” 

I opened my arms wide. “If you can’t trust me, who can you trust? We’re supposed to tell each other everything, right?” 

Asher looked down at the bed. “Yeah. Okay. He, um...he told me his dad abuses him.” 

I blinked in surprise. That wasn’t what I’d been expecting. “Abuses him how?” 

“Hits him. Beats him up.” Asher’s voice was low, troubled. He still wouldn’t look up at me. 

“Oh my God, that’s horrible! Shouldn’t you report it to someone or something?” 

He shrugged. “I don’t think it would do any good. People have reported it before and nothing happened.” 

“What do you mean nothing happened?” 

He looked up at me, and I could see frustration and pain in his eyes. “Just what I said — nothing happened. Social Services came out and investigated, but Caleb’s dad told them he was only defending himself, that Caleb was a troubled kid and had attacked him. They believed him. It’s so stupid.” 

I thought for a minute, then carefully asked my next question. “How do you know his dad isn’t telling the truth?” Asher stared at me dumbfounded, but I persisted. “What if Caleb did attack his dad? How do you know he’s actually being abused?” 

“Have you seen Caleb? He’s little. How would he be a threat to anyone?” 

“Think about it, Ash. If the authorities investigated, don’t you think they would have found signs of abuse if there were any?” 

“Maybe they did a crappy job, or maybe they just believed Caleb’s dad over Caleb. I don’t know, but I do know Caleb wouldn’t lie to me.” 

“You’ve only known him a few weeks.” 

“What difference does that make? Besides, why would he make something like that up?” 

“Kane said he was kind of a loner. Maybe he said it to get your attention, to get you to feel sorry for him.” 

“I can’t believe this; you’re blaming the victim!” 

“You don’t even know if there is a victim.” 

“I thought you of all people would understand.” 

I frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Your dad abused you.” 

I sat back in my chair and stared at Asher in stunned silence. He at least had the grace to look a little guilty. Finally, I found my voice. “First off, my father beat me up when he found out I was gay. Before that, he never laid a hand on me. Secondly, what the hell does that have to do with Caleb?” 

“I’m sorry, Kill. I just expected you to be more sympathetic.” He was back to staring at my bedspread. 

Why wasn’t I being more sympathetic? I thought about it for a few seconds, and I had to admit it was because I was jealous. I sighed. “Do you want me to talk to him or something?” 

Asher’s head snapped up. “No! He’d freak out if he knew I’d told you.” 

“Then what did you expect me to do?” 

“I don’t know. I guess I needed to talk to somebody about it. It’s kind of a lot to deal with, you know?” 

He sounded so pathetic that I suddenly felt horrible for giving him such a hard time. I sat beside him on the bed and put my arms around him. “I’m sorry. I’m being an insensitive jerk. I can’t imagine having that kind of knowledge and not being able to tell anyone. You must feel so helpless.” 

Asher nodded his head against my shoulder. “I wish I knew what to do.” 

I squeezed him tighter. “Me, too.” 

 

 

 

I was walking down the hall at school the next day when I turned the corner and saw Asher talking to Caleb. They were standing close together, their heads tilted toward each other conspiratorially. I felt a jolt of jealousy, which I quickly tried to tamp down. Caleb simply needed someone to talk to. He was going through a difficult time — so he claimed. Still, I decided it wouldn’t be interrupting to stop and say hello to my boyfriend. 

“Hey, Ash. Caleb.” 

Caleb jumped back guiltily and turned away. Asher gave me a dirty look. Okay, obviously I had interrupted something after all. 

“I, uh, just wanted to say hi.” I tried to keep the suspicion out of my voice.  

“Hi,” Asher said curtly. 

Caleb glanced in my direction before quickly averting his eyes again. He wasn’t quick enough to hide the huge shiner he was sporting. I couldn’t hold back my gasp of surprise. 

Caleb’s shoulders slumped, and he turned to face me with a resigned look. The black eye was even worse upon closer inspection. It was an angry dark purple that surrounded his bloodshot eye and covered half his cheek. “I fell in the shower,” he said in a flat tone. He clearly didn’t care whether I believed him or not. 

Asher gave me another pointed look. I got the message. “I’d better get to class,” I said weakly, then hastily walked off. 

The dead look in Caleb’s eyes haunted me for the rest of the day. I couldn’t get him out of my mind. I was glad I didn’t have any finals that day or I surely would have failed them. As soon as the last bell of the afternoon rang, I rushed to find Asher. I caught up to him at his locker.  

“So what are you going to do?” I asked. 

He jumped a little, then spun to face me with a deep frown. “What the hell were you thinking?” 

“Sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you.” 

“I meant earlier, with Caleb.” 

“I thought I was saying hello to my boyfriend.” 

“Caleb freaked out when you left.” 

“He didn’t seem that freaked out while I was there. Besides, how was I supposed to know he had a black eye? So, what? I can’t talk to you anymore when you’re with him? I have to keep my distance?” 

He sighed. “No. You’re right.” He turned back to his locker and pulled out a book, then knelt down to put it in his backpack. “I’m just really upset about the whole situation.” 

I leaned my shoulder against the wall. “What are you going to do?” 

He glanced up at me. “What do you mean?” 

“About Caleb.” 

He stood up as he slung his backpack over his shoulder and slammed his locker door. “Nothing.” He started walking away. 

I pushed off from the wall and rushed after him. “What do you mean nothing? You can’t just ignore something like that.” 

“I promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone. I can’t break my word.” 

“As a student leader, isn’t it kind of your responsibility to report the abuse? I mean, it’s not like they can ignore that bruise on his face. Now there’s proof that he’s being abused.” 

“I don’t know.” 

I could tell I was getting through to him. “I think Caleb’s safety outweighs any promises you made to him. You’d be doing it for his own good.” 

He nodded slowly. “Maybe you’re right.” 

I slipped an arm around his waist. “I am.” 

“I’ll call Social Services when I get home.” 

 

 

 

Caleb wasn’t at school for the next couple of days and Asher was frantic with worry. He tried calling Social Services, but they couldn’t — or wouldn’t — tell him anything. He even tried calling Caleb’s house, but when he asked for Caleb, Caleb’s father just cursed at him then hung up. 

Finally, on Friday morning, Caleb was back. I was with Asher when he spotted Caleb in the hall ahead of us. Asher’s relief was palpable. 

“Hey, I’ll see you later,” he said to me, never taking his eyes off Caleb. “I’m going to go see what happened.” 

He ran off before I could respond. It occurred to me that Asher had grown very fond of Caleb in a short amount of time. Once more I felt jealousy well up inside me, but I tried to repress it. It was only natural for Asher to feel attached to Caleb, I told myself. After all, Caleb had been confiding in him. 

Asher caught up to Caleb and grabbed his arm. Caleb jumped and jerked away. He didn’t exactly look thrilled to see Asher, but I couldn’t hang around to see what happened next. I had to get to class. Besides, watching them from a distance seemed voyeuristic and made me feel like some sort of stalker. 

I looked for Asher after school but couldn’t find him anywhere, so I called him the moment I walked in the house. His mom said he wasn’t home yet and she’d have him get back to me as soon as he arrived. When he still hadn’t called by nine that night, I tried him again but got a busy signal. I decided to try one last time before I went to bed. That time, he answered the phone. 

“Hey,” I said. 

“Oh, hey.” He sounded disappointed. 

“Were you expecting someone else?” 

“No. I mean, I thought maybe it might be Caleb.” 

I fought back a sigh as I dropped into the desk chair. “So what happened with him? He looked a little pissed off this morning.” 

“No, he was a lot pissed off. He was furious with me for reporting the abuse.” 

“Did you tell him it was you?” 

“No. He just knew.” 

“Why was he mad? What happened?” 

My desk was a cluttered mess from the last few weeks of seemingly nonstop studying. While we talked, I absently started straightening it up. 

“This time, Social Services took him out of the house. He’s living in a group home right now, and he hates it.” 

“He’d rather be getting beat up by his father?” I dropped a couple of books into my backpack and started sorting through the small mountain of papers, throwing some into the trashcan and stacking the rest. 

“Apparently he’s getting beat up at the group home, too. He said at least with his dad he knew what to expect for the most part. He’d learned what signs to look out for, and he had places he could go to get away. I...I just made things worse for him.” He sounded as if he might cry. 

“You got him out of an abusive situation —” 

“And into another one. How did that help him at all?” 

“He won’t stay in the group home, right? Won’t he get placed in a foster home?” 

“He said one of the other guys there told him boys his age are much harder to place. The guy said he’d been bounced around from home to home, and each one seemed worse than the last. I’ve totally screwed up Caleb’s life.” 

“Ash, you did what you thought was best.” 

“And I was wrong. I never should have listened to you.” 

That stung. “I couldn’t know —” 

He sighed heavily. “I know. That’s what I said to Caleb, too.” 

“Is he still mad at you?” 

“A little, but he did calm down. He called me earlier tonight. He’s allowed one phone call a night. We talked until they told him he had to get off the phone.” 

“At least he’s speaking to you.” 

“True. I just can’t help feeling I betrayed him. I should have at least talked to him first.” 

“You didn’t betray him.” 

“Then why does it feel like I did?” 

The conversation was going nowhere fast. I decided to change the subject. “You need to get your mind off Caleb for a while.” 

Asher snorted. “Like that’s going to happen.” 

The last paper I came to was a reminder to all seniors about ordering our caps and gowns for graduation. I dropped it on top of my “keep” pile. “You know we graduate in a couple of weeks.” A halfhearted grunt was his only response. I pressed on. “You’re not excited?” 

“I don’t know. I guess.” 

“Come on! We’ll never have to go to high school again. And we’ll have all summer to hang out.” 

“I’ll be working with my dad.” 

“Oh, yeah. Adam wants me to get a job, too. But we’ll still have free time. We won’t be working twenty-four hours a day.” 

“Where are you going to work?” 

“I have no idea. I’ve never had a summer job before.” 

“There’s always McDonald’s.” 

“Ha ha. You’re a comedian.” I shifted the stack of papers and a business card caught my eye. I picked it up. 

“You could maybe get a job at my dad’s.” Asher’s father was a dentist. Asher worked part-time at the front desk every summer. “Or what about Steve’s architecture firm? I’m sure they could use an office bitch for the summer.” 

I barely heard him. An idea was forming in my head, and my heart was beating faster.  

“Killian?” Asher prompted when I didn’t respond. 

“I have an idea.” 

“What?” 

“Remember when I had that accident?” 

“Uh, yeah. I do seem to recall something about that. You still don’t have your car back.” 

I nervously flipped the card over and over in my fingers. “Yeah, but remember the guy I hit?” 

“Not really.” 

“His name is Shane Novak. He’s a private investigator.” 

“So?” 

“Maybe he’ll hire me.” 

There was a long silence, then, “What?” 

“Maybe I can get a job with him.” 

“Doing what?” 

“I don’t know. Anything.” 

“Why would you want to work for a private investigator?” 

“I think it would be fun.” 

“Fun? Have you lost your mind?” 

I frowned. “Huh?” 

“Did you forget the last two times you tried to play detective?” 

“Asher —” 

“We almost died the first time, and your cousin was killed the second time.” 

“This would be different.” 

“How?” Asher scoffed. 

“I’d be working with a professional.” 

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. I really don’t want you to do it.” 

“Mr. Novak said it was nothing like you see on TV. It’ll be perfectly safe.” 

His tone became a little resentful. “Have you already talked to him about this?” 

“No. He told me that the day of the accident. Look, Ash, I’d really like to work for him. He seemed pretty cool, and I think I’d like the job.” 

“So what I want doesn’t matter?” 

“I didn’t say that. It’s just...I think what I want should matter, too.” 

“If you take this job, I’ll...” 

“You’ll what?” 

“Nothing.” 

“No, what? Did you almost threaten me?” 

“I just really don’t want you working for a private investigator.” 

“Yeah, I got that,” I snapped. 

“And I got that you don’t give a shit what I think or feel.” 

“Ash, it’s not like that.” I took a deep breath. “Why are we fighting about this? I haven’t talked to Mr. Novak yet. It might not even be an option.” 

“But if it is?” 

“Then we’ll talk about it some more. It’s something I’d really like to do. Just think about it. Okay?” 

“Fine.” 

“Hey, even if I do end up working there, it’ll only be for the summer. This fall, we’ll be starting college together.” A deafening silence answered me. “Hello? You there?” 

“Yeah,” he answered slowly. “There’s, uh, something I need to tell you.” 

“That doesn’t sound good.” 

“It’s not that big a deal. I mean, maybe it is. It doesn’t have to be.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“I was accepted at GeorgeMasonUniversity.” 

I didn’t answer for a second. “I thought you only applied to Pemberton.” 

“That was my plan, but you know that George Mason is my dad’s alma mater. He really wanted me to go there, so I applied. And I was accepted.” 

“That’s nice, but you’re still going to Pemberton, right?” 

“I...I don’t know.” 

“What do you mean you don’t know? The only reason I even applied there was because you made such a big deal about the two of us going to college together.” 

“I know, but it would mean a lot to my dad if I went to George Mason.” 

“It would mean a lot to me if you went to Pemberton.” 

“I, uh...I already accepted at George Mason.” 

I leapt up out of the chair. “What? 

“I wanted to tell you, I just didn’t know how.” 

“How long have you known?” 

“A couple of weeks.” 

“Oh my God, I can’t fucking believe this!” I was yelling now, but I didn’t care. 

“Kill, don’t freak out.” 

“Don’t freak out? I applied early decision to Pemberton just for you, then you applied somewhere else without telling me.” I raked my hand roughly through my hair. “Then, when you’re accepted there, you make a decision without even discussing it with me. And you have the nerve to get mad at me for telling you I want to work for a private investigator? I don’t consider your feelings?” 

“It’s not that big a deal!” 

“Like hell it’s not!” I started pacing. “The only reason I applied to Pemberton was for you. I didn’t even want to go there; I wanted to go to the University of Maryland. Now you’re going to be at a school that’s three hours away, and the ironic part is we’d have been closer if I had gone to Maryland.” 

“Maybe we should talk about this later. You’re upset.” 

“You’re damn right I’m upset. We should have talked about this weeks ago.” 

“You’re right. I should have talked to you. I’m sorry. I knew you’d freak out —” 

“No, you knew you were wrong and didn’t want to deal with the consequences. You know what? Maybe we should talk about this later. I’m so mad right now I might say something I’d regret.” 

“Killian —” 

“Good night, Asher.” 

“I love you.” 

I hung up without responding and threw myself across my bed. 

A knock sounded at my door a few minutes later. “What?” I didn’t bother getting up. 

The door opened and Adam stuck his head in. “Everything okay?” 

“Not really.” 

He walked over and sat down next to me on the bed. “What’s wrong?” 

I sat up. “Asher and I had a fight.” 

Adam gave me a sarcastic smile. “What else is new?” When I didn’t offer a smile in return, his quickly faded. 

“This is different. He was accepted at GeorgeMasonUniversity. He’s decided to go there.” 

Adam’s eyes widened in surprise. “I thought you guys were going to Pemberton together.” 

“So did I.” 

“Wow. What are you guys going to do?” 

I shrugged. “We didn’t get that far in the conversation. I was so mad he didn’t talk to me first that I couldn’t think about anything else.” 

He rubbed my back comfortingly. “That’s understandable, I suppose.” 

Suddenly I was fighting back tears. “I feel like everything’s over.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“We’re graduating, getting jobs, and now we’re going to different colleges hours away from each other. It feels like Asher and I are growing apart. It’s as if everything is ending all at once.” 

“Life is all about changes, kiddo. You either roll with the punches or you get beat up. Sure, you guys will be going to different schools, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything is ending. You’re just entering a new phase of your relationship.” 

“So you think we should try a long distance relationship?” 

“It’s not like he’s moving to the other side of the world. He’ll still be home for holidays and breaks.” 

“You said it was hard when Steve lived just an hour away, and you guys saw each other all the time. We’ll go weeks, or even months without seeing each other.” 

“So what are you saying? You think you should break up?” 

“I...I don’t know. Maybe. We’ve been fighting a lot. We even fought earlier tonight before he told me about his decision.” 

“What were you fighting about then?” 

“I told him my idea for a summer job.” 

“Which was?” 

“I thought maybe Mr. Novak would hire me.” 

“Who?” 

“The guy I plowed into, the private investigator.” 

Adam frowned. “I don’t know if I like the sound of that.” 

I sighed. I didn’t need another naysayer. “Why not?” 

“Would it be safe?” 

“Mr. Novak said it’s nothing like what you see on television.” 

“I know that. I’m still not sure it’s an appropriate job for a seventeen-year-old.” 

“I’ll be eighteen soon. Besides, I think it sounds really interesting.” 

Adam shook his head. “I doubt he’ll even have anything for you. From what little I know, I’ve always thought private eyes tend to be pretty solitary types.” 

I shrugged. “I guess I’ll find out when I call him.” 

“I guess so.” He sounded distinctly unenthusiastic. 

 

 

 

The killer stood in the doorway staring at the man in the recliner. The man was snoring loudly, likely passed out in a drunken stupor. The killer hefted the ax in his hands. The weight was comforting somehow. It calmed his pounding heart. 

He walked slowly across the room and stopped next to the chair. Looking down at the man, he allowed his hatred to wash over him, preparing him for what he’d come to do. He raised the ax over his head and took a deep breath. 

The man in the chair stirred, coughed, and blearily blinked awake. It took him a moment to focus on the figure standing over him, but as he did, his eyes widened in horror. Before he could make a sound, the killer swung the ax. 

 

 

 

I jerked awake with a start and stared at the ceiling, wondering what the hell was going on. Why was I having these dreams? What, if anything, did they mean? They seemed so real, almost as if I were the one wielding the ax. The very thought made me sick to my stomach.  

I lay awake for a long time in the darkness, half afraid the nightmare would return. It didn’t, but I felt far from rested the next morning. 

I avoided Asher all weekend, which wasn’t really that hard considering he didn’t call me, either. I forced myself to wait until Monday to contact Mr. Novak, since I figured he wouldn’t be in his office on the weekend. I made it until my lunch break on Monday before I couldn’t take it any longer. I walked outside and dialed Novak Investigations. After several rings, his voicemail picked up. I left a brief message asking him to call me back when he got the chance and hung up, disappointed. The rest of the day dragged by. 

I didn’t see Asher until after the final bell rang. I was on my way to my locker when I found him talking to Caleb. I slipped away before either of them could notice me — or so I thought. I still wasn’t ready to talk to my boyfriend. Unfortunately, Asher had other ideas. 

“Killian, wait up,” he shouted as I was leaving the building. I cringed inside, but tried to keep my face expressionless as he caught up to me. “We need to talk,” he said 

I raised an eyebrow. “Now you want to talk?” 

“I’m sorry. I really am.” He did look truly remorseful. “I should have come to you right away. I just didn’t know what to do. I knew you’d be disappointed. I felt terrible.” 

“But not terrible enough to tell me for weeks.” 

“How many more times can I say I’m sorry?” 

“I don’t know. You tell me.” Asher looked as if I’d slapped him. “Adam’s waiting for me. We’ll talk later.” 

“When?” 

“Call me.” I walked away without looking back. I hadn’t realized how angry I still was until I’d seen Asher standing in front of me. 

Adam could tell I was upset as soon as I got in the car. “What’s wrong?” 

“Asher.” 

“Have you guys talked yet?” 

“Not exactly.” 

“You shouldn’t put it off.” 

“He’s calling later.” 

I was extremely grateful when he simply nodded and dropped the subject. 

“You know there are rumors that you and Asher are breaking up,” Kane announced as he jumped into the back seat. 

What? 

“People keep asking me about it. I’ve been telling them that as far as I know, you’re still dating.” 

“Who’s asking? And why do they think we’re breaking up?” 

“Everybody. And maybe you guys shouldn’t be so obvious when you’re avoiding each other. And don’t have those loud fights in the hall.” 

I slumped down in my seat. “Why can’t people just mind their own business?” 

“Because other people’s business is so much more interesting.” 

“Is that all they’re saying?” 

“Well...not exactly.” 

I sat up and twisted around in my seat. “What else?” 

He looked away. “Some people think you’re breaking up because Asher is cheating on you.” 

My mouth fell open. “With who?” Before the question had left my mouth, I knew the answer. “Caleb, right?” 

Kane’s eyes met mine and he nodded sympathetically. “For the record, I don’t believe it.” 

I rolled my eyes. “Thanks. At least not everyone thinks I’m a loser.” 

Adam cleared his throat. “Why would that make you a loser?” 

“Everyone thinks my boyfriend is cheating on me.” 

“Not everyone,” Kane hastily objected. 

“Almost everyone,” I amended with a sneer. 

“Wouldn’t that make Asher the loser?” Adam asked. “If he were cheating, I mean. Which he isn’t, I’m sure.” 

“Why would people even care if we were breaking up?” 

“Duh,” Kane said. “You guys are like a celebrity couple. You’re both popular and you’re the most visible gay couple on campus. If our school paper was a tabloid, there would be some sordid rumor about you on the front page every week.” 

Adam chuckled and I threw him a dirty look. “Sorry,” he mumbled.  

“Well, I don’t like it.” 

Kane shrugged. “I’m not saying you have to like it; I’m just telling you how it is. Oh, and if you do break up, I want to be the first to know so I can sell the story.” 

“Kane!” Adam and I yelled together. 

 

 

 

Later that evening, Kane and I played a fighting tournament on the game system. I was losing badly — partly because I rarely played that type of game, and partly because I wasn’t paying attention. My mind was on other things. When my cell phone rang, my first thought was that it was Asher, and I almost didn’t answer it. Then I remembered my call to Mr. Novak. I didn’t recognize the number when I checked, so I answered. 

“Is this Killian Kendall?” It was a man’s voice. 

“Yes.” 

“This is Shane Novak. You left a message earlier today asking me to return your call. Is there a problem with the insurance?” 

“Huh? Oh, no. Thanks for calling me back. I, uh, had a question.” 

“Okay. Shoot.” 

“You wouldn’t happen to be hiring, would you?” 

“Excuse me?” 

“I’m looking for a summer job and I found your card and thought I’d like to work for you.” 

“Why?” 

“Why what?” 

“Why would you want to work for me?” 

I hadn’t been expecting that question and I struggled for a few seconds to come up with a suitable response. “I like solving mysteries. I like searching for the truth, figuring out why something happened. I think I’d like working for a private investigator.” 

“You do know it’s nothing like what you see on TV or in the movies, right?” 

“You said that before, when we were exchanging insurance information.” 

“And I meant it. The majority of my work is very boring — insurance fraud cases, mostly. It involves long tedious hours and lots of paperwork.” 

I was slightly less enthusiastic after that description, but determined not to back down. “I could do that.” 

Mr. Novak chuckled. “I’ll tell you what, kid; you’ve got tenacity. It just so happens that my last assistant quit on me a few weeks ago. I haven’t had time to advertise the vacant position since my caseload is pretty heavy at the moment. Why don’t you come in for an interview?” Iheard some papers rustling.“Where’s my calendar?” he muttered under his breath. “Oh hell. Could you come in tomorrow afternoon?” 

“Uh, what time?” 

“How about one?” 

“Could we make it after three? I have my last final tomorrow afternoon.” 

“Sounds good. I’ll make myself a note.” 

“Thank you, Mr. Novak.” 

“Don’t thank me yet. See you tomorrow.” 

I said goodbye and ended the call, my heart hammering in my chest. 

Kane had restarted the game and was playing by himself, but he paused the action and turned to me when I hung up. “You got the job?” 

“No, but I got an interview tomorrow.” 

“Cool.” He went back to his game. “Are you done playing?”  

Was it my imagination or did he sound hopeful? I couldn’t really blame him. It wasn’t as if I’d been providing him much of a challenge. 

“Yeah, I’m done. I’m going to go check my email.” 

Before I could reach the stairs, someone knocked on the front door. Since I was only a few feet away, I answered it. Asher was standing on the porch. “I thought you were going to call,” I said flatly. 

“I was afraid you wouldn’t answer.” 

I couldn’t exactly argue. I wasn’t sure I would have picked up.  

“Can we talk now?” 

I shrugged. “Why not?” I turned and started up the stairs, leaving Asher to close the door and follow me. Once in the bedroom, I sat on the bed. 

Asher chose my desk chair. “Okay. I was wrong to make such an important decision without talking to you first. It was selfish and inconsiderate. Everything you said was right. I’m a jerk and I’m sorry.” 

“Do you know there’s a rumor going around school that we’re breaking up because you cheated on me with Caleb?” 

Asher blinked at me in surprise. “What?” 

“There’s a rumor —” 

He leapt off the bed. “I’ve never cheated on you! I swear!” 

“I didn’t say I believed it.” Though there was a part of me that had wondered. “So what do we do now?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“You’re going to George Mason; I’m going to Pemberton. What do we do now?” 

Asher shook his head in confusion and sat back down. “This isn’t going the way I thought it would.” 

“What did you expect? That I’d simply accept your apology and everything would be fine?” 

“No,” he said slowly. 

I could tell that was exactly what he’d thought. “Asher, we have bigger issues than you going to a different college.” 

He frowned. “Like what?” 

“It seems like all we do anymore is fight. You’re keeping things from me. You spend more time with Caleb than you do with me.” 

“I told you, I didn’t cheat with Caleb!” 

“I’m not saying you did, but if other people are noticing that you spend enough time with him to the point where they think you might have cheated, then obviously it’s a problem.” 

He looked ashamed. “So...what are you saying?” 

“I’m not saying anything. I’m just pointing out what we’re dealing with.” 

“You think we should break up.” 

“Maybe.” 

Asher’s face drained. “I...I can’t believe you said that.” 

I stood and walked to the window. “Why not? We can’t even make this work when we live in the same town; how are we going to make it work when you’re three hours away? I don’t want a long distance relationship.” 

Asher stood as well. I could see his reflection in the window as he raked his hands through his hair. “But...I love you.” 

I turned to face him. “Do you? What do we know about love, really? We’re a couple of kids.” 

“What kind of stupid shit is that? You know damn well I love you, and you love me, too. Or you used to.” 

I sighed and rubbed my face wearily. “I still do,” I said softly. “I just don’t think that’s enough anymore.” 

He stared at me in disbelief. “So that’s it? We’re over? You’re breaking up with me?” 

When I nodded, Asher shook his head and started backing away as tears spilled down his cheeks. “You know what? Maybe you’re right. Maybe this is for the best. Why would I want to date an asshole anyway?” 

I closed my eyes in an effort to hold back my own tears. When I opened them again, he was gone. 

What had I done? I hadn’t planned on breaking up with him. Where had those words come from? I didn’t feel any relief or closure, just turmoil and confusion. An unaccustomed numbness seemed to have taken over my emotions. 

I walked downstairs and into the den where Kane was still playing video games. 

“You can alert the press,” I said woodenly. “We broke up.” 

 

 

Chapter 4 

 

If it’s possible for time to fly and drag at the same time, that’s what it did over the next month. On the one hand, there was a whirlwind of activity: I graduated, celebrated my eighteenth birthday, and started my new job with Novak Investigations. On the other hand, I missed Asher. 

The last few days of school were slow torture. Asher and I were barely speaking, and the sympathetic looks people kept giving me were even worse. I didn’t relish being an object of pity for the entire student body. The rumors had spread, and everyone blamed Asher for the breakup. It couldn’t have been pleasant for him, either, but I didn’t waste much time feeling sorry for my ex. It seemed like I rarely saw him without Caleb at his side. I couldn’t help wondering if there weren’t some truth in the rumors. Luckily, I had my birthday and my new job to distract me. 

I got several very nice birthday presents, but the best by far was a new car from Mom and Adam. I almost stopped breathing when I opened a small box and found a set of keys. They were to a black Ford Mustang, used but in great shape. It was perfect timing; I was to start my job not too long after. 

Mr. Novak had hired me on the spot at my interview. When he said that a private investigator’s job was generally boring, he wasn’t exaggerating — at least, not in my brief experience. It seemed my job consisted mostly of answering the phone, greeting clients, typing reports, and filing. In short, I was a secretary. 

Not that I minded all that much. Maybe the life of a P.I. wasn’t overly exciting, but I did find it interesting. I was learning a lot just by typing Mr. Novak’s reports. He kept very detailed records of all his investigations. Some were hand scribbled in the small notebook he took everywhere with him, and some were taped on a mini-cassette recorder. I preferred the written journal, even though his handwriting wasn’t always legible. He was a former police officer, after all. When I was transcribing his taped reports, however, I’d sometimes get so caught up in his narrative that I’d forget to type. 

Our office was on the second floor of a ‘40s era, two-story brick building in the city of Salisbury. Besides my rather battered desk and surprisingly heavy swivel chair, the only other furniture in the cramped reception area was a pair of bright orange, fake leather chairs that looked like rejects from a waiting room circa 1975. In one corner stood a dusty artificial plant of some indeterminate species that I suspected did not actually exist in nature. A faded marine print hung on the wall over the chairs. The only thing in the room that had been made in the last decade was my computer. It was almost brand new. 

I’d been working there about a month when things suddenly got more exciting. It started off like any other day. I was alone in the office, typing up the reports of Mr. Novak’s latest completed case — an insurance scam where a man had claimed workman’s comp for an injured back until Mr. Novak had photographed him playing football with his two sons — when I heard someone knock. We had the stereotypical frosted glass door, complete with Novak Investigations stenciled in gold. It was one of the few affectations in which he had indulged. I could see a feminine figure outlined through the pebbled glass, but nothing more. Mr. Novak insisted I keep the door locked when he wasn’t there, so I jumped up to answer the knock. 

I swung the door open and was shocked to find Judy Cassara standing in the hall with a big smile on her face. I’d met her a couple of years earlier when I’d briefly dated her niece in an ill-fated attempt to hide the fact that I was gay. Judy had ended up saving Asher’s and my life when her nephew tried to kill his younger brother Jake, Asher, and me. I hadn’t seen or heard from Judy since she and Jake moved back to California. 

“Aunt Judy!” I exclaimed. 

She rolled her eyes. “Killian Kendall, I’m not your aunt. Even Jake doesn’t call me Aunt Judy, so you’re not about to. It’s Judy.” 

I nodded dumbly and motioned her into the office. It bought me time to find my voice. I watched her as she glanced around the cramped space with a wrinkled nose. She hadn’t changed much. Her blond hair was longer than when I’d last seen her, but otherwise she looked the same. Her faded jeans and PFLAG T-shirt fit her snugly, making her seem even younger than she was. 

“What are you doing here?” I asked after a moment. I didn’t mean to sound rude. I just couldn’t figure out why Judy was standing in my office, and she didn’t seem ready to volunteer the information anytime soon. Besides, she was something of a psychic. I’d never felt completely at ease around her. 

“I stopped by your house first and Adam told me you were working here,” she answered, closely inspecting one of the orange chairs. She turned to face me, her bright smile still in place. “So, you’re working for a private investigator. Why am I not surprised?” 

“I meant, what are you doing here in Salisbury. Are you just visiting?” I couldn’t imagine who she’d be visiting, since all of her and Jake’s family had been murdered. 

“Oh. No, not visiting. We’re moving back.” She casually sat on the edge of my desk. I was still standing awkwardly by the door. 

“You’re what?” 

“Jake and I are moving back to Maryland.” 

“Really? Why?” 

“I think it will be for the best, for both of us.” Her smile faltered a little. “California...didn’t work out the way I’d hoped.” She sighed and motioned towards my desk chair. “Why don’t you sit down? I’d like to talk to you for a few minutes — that is, if I’m not interrupting your work.” 

“It’s nothing that can’t wait,” I said weakly as I walked behind the desk and sat down.  

Judy twisted around on the desk to face me. “You can pull up one of those orange chairs, if you want,” I offered. 

She made a face. “I’ll pass, thanks. This place could really use a makeover. I’m surprised you haven’t redone it already.” 

I felt strangely defensive of my space, as humble as it might have been. “I haven’t been here that long. Besides, it’s not that bad.” 

“Sorry,” Judy said with a laugh. “Professional hazard. I’m doing interior design now. My hook is that I’m a psychic designer.” She gave me a wink. “That doesn’t mean I know what you want before you tell me. I just find the room’s aura, its personality if you will, and decorate to suit it.” 

My eyes grew wide. That sort of thing might fly out in California, but I didn’t see it going over as well on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. 

“But I didn’t come here to talk about my job; I came to catch up and ask a favor. First, tell me what’s been going on with you?” 

“I, uh...I graduated.” I didn’t know what else to say. It had been over a year and a half since I’d last seen her. How do you catch someone up on that much of your life? I didn’t even know where to begin. 

“I heard! Adam showed me some pictures. How are you and Asher?” 

I frowned. Adam could fill her in on my graduation but not my love life? “We, um, broke up.” 

Judy’s face fell. “I’m so sorry, Killian. I didn’t know. Recently?” I nodded. “Please forgive me for being so thoughtless.” 

“You couldn’t have known.” 

“Still, I’m sorry. I can tell it’s still fresh. Let’s change the subject. Do you like your new job?” 

I managed a smile. “Yeah, I do. Right now, I’m pretty much just a secretary. I’d really like to get into the investigative side of things eventually.” 

“You will.” 

“Is that a prediction?” 

She laughed. “Just a gut feeling. You’re like a cat with your insatiable curiosity. And you have certain gifts that I think you’ve been given for a reason.” 

“Like what?” 

“You’ll figure it out.” 

I shrugged off her enigmatic statement as typical Judy-speak. I was convinced she sometimes spoke in riddles just to confuse people. “How’s Jake?” 

She shook her head slowly and seemed to age before my eyes. “That’s actually what I came to talk to you about. Jake... It’s been rough since we left. He’s had a hard time dealing with everything, which is understandable considering his brother murdered his parents, his sister, and almost killed him as well. I’ve tried to get him to go to counseling, but he skips sessions or simply refuses to go. He fell in with a bad crowd, rich kids who do nothing but party. He did so poorly in school this past year, they failed him. He should have graduated, like you, but now he has to repeat his senior year. It’s been...challenging.” 

“Is that why you’re moving back here?” 

“Yes. I’m hoping if we get away from those negative elements, he’ll do better. We’re not moving back to the same town, though. There are just too many bad memories. I’m looking for something here in Salisbury. In fact, I’m viewing a house this afternoon. All this leads me to why I’m here to see you.” 

I raised my eyebrows expectantly and waited. 

“I was hoping that you’d reach out to Jake after we move back, befriend him again. I know he admired you a great deal.” 

“Admired me? For what?” 

“Well, dear, you did save his life.” 

“You rescued all of us.” 

“I helped, but it was mainly just a case of being in the right place at the right time. You put your life on the line for Jake, and I don’t think he’s forgotten that. Will you at least go talk to him?” 

“Of course. It will be good to see him again.” 

“He’s changed, Killian. He isn’t the same boy who left here.” 

“He wasn’t the same boy even before he left.” 

She nodded sadly. “I know. I don’t expect him to be; I’d just like to see him happy again.” 

Before I could offer some mumbled words of comfort, the office door swung open and my boss bustled in. He stopped in his tracks when he spotted Judy sitting on my desk. 

I jumped to my feet. “Judy, this is my boss, Shane Novak. Mr. Novak, this is Judy Cassara...an old friend.” 

“Not that old.” Judy gave me a wink as she hopped off the desk and shook Mr. Novak’s outstretched hand. 

“Pleasure to meet you,” he said. 

“The pleasure is mine.” 

Was it my imagination or were they flirting? 

“Have we met before?” he asked with the most charming smile I’d ever seem him muster. “You look familiar.” 

“I don’t believe so, and I think I’d remember,” Judy answered coyly. 

They were definitely flirting. I tried not to giggle. 

“So you’re a private investigator?” she continued. “How did you get into such an interesting line of work?” 

“I needed something to keep me busy after my wife passed away.” 

“Oh, I’m sorry!” 

“It’s been a few years. You never stop missing them, but the pain fades.” 

Judy still seemed a little flustered. It was nice to know she was human after all. “Well, I’m glad you hired Killian. He has a talent for uncovering the truth.” 

Mr. Novak gave me a look that was half amused, half curious. “Is that so?” 

I blushed under his scrutiny. 

Judy turned to face me. “Well, Killian, I won’t keep you from your work any longer. Just think about what I asked, okay?” 

I nodded, and she gave me a quick hug before leaving. 

Mr. Novak watched her go then turned to me with a smirk. “Isn’t she a little old for you?” 

I laughed. “She isn’t exactly my type. She was Todd Sheridan’s aunt. He was the guy who tried to kill me. She saved my life. She moved back to California not long after that, and I haven’t seen her since.” 

“Ah, that explains why she looked familiar. I must have seen her on the news at the time.” 

“Probably.” I sat down at my desk and prepared to resume my typing. 

“Is she single?” 

“Uh, yeah. As far as I know.” I kept my eyes firmly on my computer screen. I did not want to start laughing. 

He nodded unconcernedly, as if he couldn’t have cared less, and started into his office. He paused in the doorway. “Killian, could I speak to you for a minute?” 

I looked up nervously. Was I in trouble? Had I messed something up? Was he angry that Judy had been there to see me about something personal? He jerked his head toward his office and I followed him in. 

The office reflected Novak’s personality — comfortable, laid back, and undemanding. He had decorated the room in what could only be described as Early American Yard Sale. The furnishings were an eclectic mix of old elegance and modern efficiency, but somehow it all worked. 

His desk was an enormous expanse of scarred golden oak, so solid and sturdy I imagined it must have come with the office. I pictured some craftsman building it right where it stood. I certainly didn’t see how it could have fit through the door. Unless he was working, Novak kept the top cleared of the typical desktop clutter. 

One wall was completely taken up with mismatched bookcases of varying heights, widths, and woods. The shelves were filled to overflowing with books of all types: legal volumes, phonebooks for every county in the Tri-state area, atlases, and a set of encyclopedias quite possibly older than I was. One bookcase was reserved for Novak’s guilty secret — his collection of hardcover detective novels. There were books by Marcia Muller, Mickey Spillane, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Agatha Christie, Patricia Cornwell, Faye Kellerman, Sharyn McCrumb, and more. Many had been signed by the authors. 

Behind the oak desk, metal filing cabinets, each meticulously labeled and locked, stood shoulder to shoulder to create an intimidating wall of battleship gray. A strangely humpbacked sofa-sleeper claimed the third wall, hunched under the room’s only window. Novak said he kept it there for the rare occasion when he pulled an all-nighter. Besides being ugly, the sofa gave me a creepy feeling. It almost looked like some sort of beast crouching there, waiting to pounce on me the moment I let down my guard. 

He placed his briefcase on the bare desktop and dropped into his black executive chair. He motioned to one of the two big brown leather armchairs that faced his desk, and I took a seat. 

“Killian, we have an issue,” he said after studying me for several nerve-racking moments. “You’ve been working here for about a month now, right?” 

“Yes, Mr. Novak.” 

He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk. “And yet, you still insist on calling me Mr. Novak.” 

I blinked in confusion. Was that the only reason he’d called me in his office? “Sir?” 

“Look kid, if we’re going to be working together, we can’t always be so formal. Call me Novak. And while you’re at it, drop this ‘sir’ business, too.” 

“Yes — um, right. Okay.” 

He threw his head back and laughed. “One thing’s for sure, you were raised well.” 

I made a face. “Actually, my father was just really strict. I was expected to always refer to my elders as sir or ma’am.” 

“Elders, eh? Well, we’re coworkers, and I prefer a more relaxed office. I had to deal with titles and sirs for thirty-five years as a cop. I got my fill. Call me Shane, if you want. If that doesn’t sit right with you, stick with Novak. That’s what my buddies on the force called me.” 

I nodded slowly. There was no way I was calling him Shane. Novak felt right. It suited him. 

“So tell me, what do you think of the job so far?” 

I considered my response carefully. “I like it.” 

He gave me a look. “Would you care to elaborate on that?” 

“Well, it’s not quite what I expected, but it’s interesting.” 

He shook his head. “I think you’re getting into the wrong profession. You should be a politician. You’re already a pro at answering a question without actually answering it.” 

“No, really! I’ve learned a lot from doing your reports. It’s just...I have to admit that I was hoping to do more than sit behind a desk all the time.” 

“What? Did you honestly think I’d send you out on a case your first few weeks on the job? I wanted to give you some time to get used to how things work around here — learn my schedule, figure out what I expect. Eventually, if you stick long enough, I may start asking you to do some additional tasks to help me out in my investigations.” 

I perked up. “Like what?” 

“Don’t get too excited. Simple things like making phone calls, picking things up from a client, maybe the occasional Internet search.” I must have looked disappointed, because he chuckled. “If you do well with those jobs, you’ll graduate to bigger things.” I still must have looked somewhat dejected. “You gotta start somewhere, kid.” 

I nodded. “You’re right.” 

He grinned. “Damn skippy. I’m always right. That’s the first thing you’ve got to learn!” 

            I couldn’t help laughing, and he winked at me. “Good. The second thing you have to learn is not to take me too seriously. I joke around a lot, but you’ll have to learn to differentiate when I’m teasing and when I’m serious. If I tell you to get back to work, I expect you to get back to work. Got it?” I nodded. “Good. Then get back to work!” 

I jumped up and gave him a mock salute. “Yes, sir!” 

He rolled his eyes. “Just what I needed, a smartass,” he grumbled good-naturedly as I started toward the front office. “Oh, and Killian?” I turned back. “If I didn’t think you were worth the effort, I wouldn’t be wasting my time training you.” 

When I got home from work that afternoon, I remembered that it was Steve’s and my turn to make dinner. I found him in the kitchen, where he’d already started preparations. He was expertly cutting up a whole chicken. Both he and Adam were excellent cooks. Adam prepared the meals most nights, but once a week, Steve and I gave him a break by taking over the kitchen. We ate later when we cooked, but Adam seemed to appreciate the effort. We kept Kane out of there as much as possible, except for cleanup. He was hopeless when it came to food preparation. 

“What are we making?” I asked as I grabbed an apron and tied it around my waist. 

“How does chicken with forty cloves of garlic sound?” 

“Garlicky.” 

Steve laughed. “Actually, not as much as you’d think. The garlic becomes very mild as it roasts with the chicken. I’ve got the bird under control. Why don’t you start the salad?” 

I agreed and pulled the vegetables out of the crisper to start putting the salad together. Usually we chatted while we worked, but that day I was lost in thought. Seeing Judy again had brought up a lot of memories and with them, some emotions I thought I had put behind me. 

“You’re awfully quiet,” Steve said after a while. 

I looked over at him and smiled apologetically. “Sorry. You’ll never guess who came to see me today.” 

“Judy Cassara?” 

“You’ve been talking to Adam, haven’t you?” 

He grinned. “Yeah. He called to tell me she was thinking about moving back to the Shore.” 

“She’s doing more than just thinking about it. She’s here to look at a house.” 

“Really? I hope we’re not looking at the same place.” 

“What?” I dropped the knife I was using to slice scallions and spun to face Steve. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he had just said he was from Krypton. “Why are you looking at houses? Are you moving out? Are you and Adam okay?” 

Steve laughed. “Whoa! Slow down, kiddo. Adam and I are fine, and I’m not going anywhere.” 

“Then why would you be looking at a house?” 

“I’m thinking about getting out of the architect business. I’ve been in it for a while now and, to be honest, I feel like I’ve accomplished all I can there. I’m bored with it. I guess you could say I’m having a midlife crisis of sorts — or that’s what Adam says, anyway.” 

“What does that have to do with buying a house?” 

“Will you hang on? I’m getting there. It’s always been a dream of mine to own and operate a bed and breakfast. I started making some inquiries — I have a lot of contacts — and I found a great place that’s available right now. I haven’t gone to see it yet. I have an appointment the day after tomorrow in the morning. You should come with me.” 

“That’s Saturday,” I said automatically. I was still processing everything he’d said, but I knew my plans for Saturday. They involved sleeping in and not much else. 

Steve just laughed again. He knew me too well. 

“So, let me see if I’ve got this straight. You’re thinking about buying a bed and breakfast?” 

“No, I’m thinking about buying a house and turning it into a B & B.” 

“Won’t that cost a lot of money?” 

“Most definitely.” 

“You have that kind of money?” 

“I inherited a hefty sum when my dad passed away years ago, and I’ve made good money as an architect. I’ve invested and saved, and with what I’ll make selling my share of the firm to one of my partners, I think I’ll have what I need. If I run into any snags, I have good credit. I could always get a new business loan.” 

“I had no idea you had that kind of money.” 

“I don’t make it a habit to walk around talking about my financial status. You sound insulted. Should I have divulged my bank balance to you sooner?” 

I rolled my eyes. “So you’re really going to buy this house?” 

“I don’t know. I haven’t even looked at it yet, but it sounds great on paper.” 

“And Adam is cool with all this?” 

There was a long pause in which Steve’s eyes didn’t leave the head of garlic he was breaking apart. “It’s hard to tell.” 

I gave him a skeptical look. “Since when is it hard to tell anything with Adam?” 

“He says he’s okay with it, but I can’t help feeling that he’s saying what he thinks he ought to say rather than what he really feels.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“He gave me the whole ‘follow your bliss’ speech. You know — the one about not giving up on your dreams.” 

“Vintage Adam.” I laughed. “So what’s the problem?” 

“It’s just...I sensed there was something he wasn’t saying.” 

“I’m sure it was just your imagination. If he’s encouraging you to go ahead with this, he must be okay with it.” 

“I sure hope you’re right.” 

“Would you like me to try and figure out if he’s upset or not at dinner tonight?” 

Steve glanced over at me. “How do you propose to do that?” 

“I don’t know. I think he’s usually pretty easy to read. Maybe you could bring up how excited you are about looking at the house, and I’ll gauge his reaction.” 

He shrugged. “It can’t hurt anything. We can give it a shot.” 

When Steve brought up the subject of the house over dinner, I observed Adam carefully. Unfortunately, Steve was right. Adam’s reaction was encouraging on the surface, but there was an oddly flat quality to his words, a lack of enthusiasm that made it sound as if he was simply going through the motions. 

Usually Kane and Adam did the dishes on nights when Steve and I cooked, but that night, I volunteered to take Kane’s place, hoping to get a few minutes alone with Adam. 

I thought I’d start with something easy and work my way up to discussing the bed and breakfast. “I hear Judy came by the house today,” I said as I scrubbed a pot. 

Adam smiled. “Yeah. It was good to see her again. She looks great. Did she come by your office to see you, or did Steve mention it?” 

“She came by the office. She wanted to ask me a favor.” 

Adam took the pot from me and began to dry it. “What kind of favor?” 

“She wants to me to be friends with Jake when they move back.” 

“Why wouldn’t you be friends with him?” 

“She says he’s changed a lot. Apparently he’s had a hard time out in California. He failed his senior year and will have to repeat it here.” 

A frown creased Adam’s face. “That’s really a shame. I can understand him having a hard time with everything that happened, though.” 

“Yeah. I know I had a hard time, and Jake’s situation was much worse.” 

“Was he in counseling?” 

“Judy said he wouldn’t go.” 

He shook his head. “Poor kid.” He took another pan from me. “Did she fly all the way back here to ask you that? Couldn’t she have waited until after they moved?” 

“Actually, she was here looking for a house. I guess everybody’s house shopping, huh?” 

I watched him closely but only got a “Sounds like it” in response. “So how do you feel about this whole bed and breakfast thing? Steve was telling me about it earlier.” 

Adam looked over at me with one eyebrow raised. “Did he set you up to interrogate me?” 

I gave him my most innocent expression. “What? No!” I didn’t even have to lie. The interrogation had been my idea. “I was just wondering.” 

He looked unconvinced but answered me anyway. “I think he should follow his dreams. He’s always wanted to have a bed and breakfast, and he’s at a point in his life when he can seriously consider it.” 

“Why do I sense a ‘but’?” 

“There is no ‘but’. Why don’t you go watch TV or play a game with Kane? I can finish up these dishes.” 

I had the distinct impression he was trying to get rid of me. “You sure?” 

“Yeah, go ahead.” 

As I passed the living room, Steve looked up expectantly. I gave him a shrug, and his face fell. I could understand his concern. Adam was definitely holding something back. 

 

 

 

I had a hard time falling asleep that night. There was too much going on in my head. Seeing Judy had churned up a lot of memories I’d rather have left buried. I was also worried about Jake. If he’d changed as much as Judy implied, could we still be friends? We’d been attracted to one another once before, but so much had happened since then. We were different people now. The atypical, muted reticence I’d felt in Adam was affecting me as well, leaving me tense and somewhat nervous, as if something big was building but I didn’t know what.  

I finally dozed off sometime after two a.m. but woke up with a jolt less than an hour later. At first I couldn’t figure out what had awakened me. As far as I could remember, I hadn’t been dreaming, and it was completely silent in the house. The only noise I could hear was Kane’s deep, even breathing. 

Becoming more alert, I slowly began to sense a presence in the room. The hairs on my arms stood up and a shiver ran down my spine. My first instinct was to duck under the covers and call for Adam, like a little kid who’s just had a nightmare, until I realized I sensed no malice. I eased myself into a sitting position and gasped out loud. 

Sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, centered perfectly in a beam of moonlight, was my former friend and Kane's brother, Seth. The white light gave him an eerie glow, making him look like a ghost. Then it occurred to me that, since Seth was dead, he probably was a ghost. I decided I had to be dreaming. 

“Hey, Killer,” he said with his familiar grin. “Long time no see.”  

He looked exactly as he had the last time I’d seen him alive — hair sticking up in every direction, jeans, and a fitted short-sleeved T-shirt. Even the impish expression on his adorable face was just the way I remembered it. An almost paralyzing ache spread through my body as I realized how much I missed him. 

“You don’t look any different,” I managed to say in a strangled voice. 

He cocked his head to one side. “I wouldn’t. You, on the other hand...You’ve grown up, Killian.” 

“I have?” 

He laughed. “In some ways, at least.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“You’re not the same scared little boy I met on my first day at a new school. You’re much stronger now. You’ve been through a lot and come out a better person because of it.” 

“In what ways haven’t I changed?” 

“You’re still fighting the real you.” 

I frowned. “I came out. The whole school knows. Asher and I dated for half our junior year and almost the entire senior year.” 

“That’s not what I mean.” 

“Then what do you mean?” 

He shook his head and stood up. “That’s not why I’m here.” 

“Why are you here? Am I really even talking to you? This is all a dream, right?” 

“Maybe.” 

“It has to be a dream. I’m way too calm for it to be anything else. Besides, if it isn’t a dream, that would make you a...” 

“Ghost?” He strolled to the side of my bed and leaned in close. I didn’t feel any warmth from his body, even though he was close enough that I should have if he had been real. I didn’t even feel the touch of his breath on my cheek. “Boo!” I jumped and he laughed.

“Why are you here?” I asked him testily. 

“I dunno. I just thought maybe you could use someone to talk to.” He sat on the edge of my bed. 

“I have plenty of people to talk to without resorting to a dead guy. Oh my God! Maybe I’m going crazy!” 

“Plenty of people, huh? Name one.” 

“Adam, Steve, Kane...that’s three.” 

“And I guess you’ve been talking to them about Asher?” 

“What about Asher?” 

“You guys broke up, right? Have you talked to anyone about that?” 

“Of course! Well, I mean...sort of.” 

“Do you miss him?” 

My breath caught in my throat. “Yeah.” My voice came out much hoarser than I’d expected. 

“No one would know it by watching you.” 

“How do you know?” 

“I keep an eye on you.” 

For some reason, I found that comforting. “So you crossed the void just to talk about my love life?” 

“Crossed the void?” He smirked. 

“Whatever.” 

“Actually, no. There is something else I need to talk to you about, but we haven’t finished talking about Asher yet.” 

“Can’t we just say we have?” 

“Why don’t you want to talk about him?” 

I shrugged and looked away. Kane was still sleeping soundly, which supported my dream theory. Then again, Kane would sleep soundly through World War III, so maybe that wasn’t the best way to judge this strange situation. 

“Killian?” Seth prodded. 

I sighed. “Maybe it hurts too much.” 

“Do you still love him?” 

I forced myself to look into Seth’s bright green eyes. “Yes.” 

“So why don’t you talk to him anymore?” 

“He doesn’t talk to me, either. We stopped talking to each other long before we broke up.” 

“What happened?” 

I slumped back against my pillows. “Hell if I know. It was just like...we drifted apart. Towards the end, all we did was fight. He didn’t even tell me he’d decided to go away to college. And then there was Caleb...” 

“What about Caleb?” 

“Asher was spending so much time with him. All he ever talked about was Caleb this and Caleb that. Everyone thought Asher was cheating on me with Caleb.” 

“Did you think he was?” 

I shook my head and fought back tears. “I don’t know. Were they?” 

“Are you asking me?” 

“You are the supernatural being here.” 

“Doesn’t mean I get to supply you with answers you have to figure out for yourself. Besides, how would I know? I’m not omniscient.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m new at this whole ‘talking to ghosts’ thing, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t know all the rules.” 

“No prob. So, am I a dream or a ghost?” 

“I haven’t decided yet.” 

He grinned. “Maybe I’m just your subconscious working out your issues.” I stuck my tongue out at him and he laughed. Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to stick your tongue out at your subconscious?” 

I laughed. “No. I think she forgot that particular life lesson. What else did you want to talk to me about?” 

Seth suddenly grew more serious. “It’s still sort of connected to Asher, but not exactly.” 

“Huh?” 

“I can’t explain, but something is happening tonight, something that will affect you.” 

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I didn’t like the serious tone in Seth’s voice. “Could you be a little more vague?” 

“I’m sorry, Killian; I really am. I can’t go into details, but you’re going to have to be very careful.” 

“I don’t understand —” 

“I don’t expect you to. Just remember what I’m telling you. Be careful. Watch your step.” 

“Will you stop speaking in riddles and just tell me whatever it is you’re trying to tell me?” 

Seth stood up abruptly. “If I could tell you, don’t you think I would?” 

“What do you mean?” 

“You want easy answers, Killian. It doesn’t work like that. You have to figure these things out on your own.” 

“You sound like Judy.” 

“Listen to her. She could be a great asset to you if you’d allow it.” 

“Asset? What are you talking about? I’m so confused!” 

Seth clenched his fists in frustration. “Maybe this was a mistake.” 

“Maybe what was a mistake?” 

“My coming here, talking to you. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe I’m not ready.” 

“Ready for what?” 

“Forget it. I shouldn’t have come.” He turned his back to me and stepped away. I wasn’t sure if it was just that he’d moved into shadow, but he suddenly seemed harder to distinguish, almost as if he were fading. 

“Seth?” He looked back over his shoulder. “Was this just a dream? When I wake up, will I remember any of this?” 

“I hope so, Kill. Pay attention to your dreams. They could mean the difference between life and death.” 

His words were still hanging in the air as he vanished completely, leaving me wondering if I was losing my mind. Had I really been talking to Seth’s spirit, or had I imagined the whole thing? Maybe I was still asleep and it was all some sort of bizarre dream. 

That last explanation made the most sense, so I rolled over, pulled the blankets up around my chin, pushed all the confusing thoughts and images from my mind, and went back to sleep.  

I felt strangely rested when I woke up the next morning, which only reinforced my idea that Seth’s nocturnal visit had been a dream. Oddly enough, the dream was extremely vivid in my memory. I could recall every word we’d said, even the expressions on Seth’s face. My heart ached at the thought of being with him again. I decided that seeing Judy, talking about Jake, and bringing up all those old memories had caused me to dream about Seth. 

Seth’s vague warnings and cryptic advice in my dream kept running through my head as I showered and dressed, ate breakfast, and drove to work. At the office, I mostly managed to put it all out of my mind as I immersed myself in paperwork, but every now and then, his face would float back into view and I’d feel a pang of loss. 

Right before I was about to leave for my lunch break, the phone rang. I scooped it up and answered with my usual, “Novak Investigations. How may I help you?” 

“Killian?” 

I would have recognized that voice anywhere, even with the note of panic it carried. My heart skipped a beat. I could tell something was wrong. “Asher?” 

“I need your help.” 

My heart was now pounding in my chest. “What’s wrong?” 

“There’s been a murder.”

  

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