HARD LINE 

EXCERPT COPYRIGHT SIDNEY BELL 2017

 

Chapter One

2011

Later, Tobias Benton would run through the day over and over to figure out what it was that’d set him off. It would take months to nail it down, but once he did, it would be as impossible to miss as a house on fire. Of course, he would think later. Of course that’s it.

But in that moment, sitting in the squeaky chair in his high school guidance counselor’s office and holding the blank career quiz with the bright red see me! scrawled across the top, he was lost.

“I thought this was voluntary.” The page was trembling in his hand; he pushed it onto the desk, neatly aligning the bottom edge of the paper with the edge of the desk. The ominous ticking of the mahogany clock on the mantelpiece was very loud, the ceramic Jesus faintly admonishing from his crucifix on the wall. “I didn’t know I could get in trouble.”

“You’re not in trouble,” Mrs. Marry said. She was a squat, horse-faced woman with kind eyes and yellow hair. She was wearing a brown suit and Tobias liked her. She was a good listener, and even after she’d met his parents, she’d never asked what it was like being the white son of a Haitian couple or whether he felt lost in a houseful of Caribbean adoptees or if the Alcides really believed in zombies or spirits. She’d acted as though there was nothing strange about his family, which he appreciated, because there’d been more than a few teachers and school officials over the years who had.

Still, he was less inclined to like her when she called him into her office like this. His stomach ached.

“I’m not in trouble,” he repeated doubtfully.

“I have some questions, that’s all.”

“About my quiz? I can do it now. I didn’t know I needed to. I’ll do it now.”

“I don’t want you to take the quiz, Tobias.” She leaned forward. “I want you to consider what it means that you didn’t write anything down.”

“I just didn’t do it.” He looked over her shoulder and through the window. The parking lot was a congested mess of teenagers in shiny BMWs and Mercedes leaning on their horns and cutting each other off now that school was over. Tobias’s parents were big believers that showering children with expensive material goods ran counter to crafting a compassionate, generous human being; unlike most of his friends, he didn’t have a car and usually rode the bus. If he didn’t get out of here soon, he would have to take the activities bus, which left two hours later. That wouldn’t be the end of the world. He liked the halls when they were quiet and he could fill the slow minutes with studying. Either way, though, he needed to get out of Mrs. Marry’s office.

“We’ve talked a lot about medical school.” She leaned back in her chair and folded her fingers across her belly. “How much time have we spent discussing science courses, both here and at Denver University? Enough time that I’d think these career questions would be easy to answer.”

“I’m not sure why you want me to do the quiz, then.” Tobias wished he could loosen his tie but he didn’t dare. School rules didn’t allow it, and he could imagine the raised eyebrow he’d get from Manman if he tried. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t here in the room; she would know. She always knew. Mothers were weird like that.

“I don’t want you to do the quiz,” Mrs. Marry said.

“I can. I will.”

“Tobias.” She licked her lips, studying him like he was an adorable but obnoxious pet.

He shifted in his chair and the vinyl squeaked. The office seemed suddenly very hot.

“You’re not in trouble. You didn’t do anything wrong. But I do think it’s interesting that a kid who’s been in my office for guidance seven times this year about preparing for an eventual career in medicine didn’t fill out a simple five-minute quiz about what you want to do when you graduate.”

“I didn’t think it was necessary.” He swallowed. His throat was dry. “You already know what I’m going to be.”

“You started it. You wrote your name.”

He had. He’d sat at his stupid desk in homeroom the other day and stared at the stupid paper with its litany of ten stupid questions and he hadn’t been able to make his hand move. He’d had to concentrate to write his name, and the letters had come out too sharp and aggressive to be his.

“I thought I was supposed to.”

“Tobias, you clearly began the quiz. And then you clearly didn’t answer the questions. Why not?”

“Because you already know what I’m going to be when I grow up.” Grow up, he thought, and mentally rolled his eyes. Like he wouldn’t be eighteen in a matter of weeks. Like this—all of this, school, quizzes, meetings—weren’t merely a stopgap between him and decades of practicing medicine.

“The quiz isn’t about what you’re going to be. The quiz is about what you want to be.”

“I know that,” he snapped, and now she was looking at him with a line of concern between her bushy eyebrows. He shouldn’t have snapped at her, but really. All this for a useless quiz. As if the world weren’t set in stone. “Look, I’ll fill it out now.”

“You’re willfully misunderstanding me,” she said calmly. “And we both know it.”

“We’re starting on Nixon’s gastrointestinal tract tomorrow in Anatomy and Physiology,” he said, and she blinked. He thought she probably remembered the name he’d given to the dead cat he was dissecting in his science class because they’d talked about his anxiety attack after that first day of the unit a few weeks ago, as well as his desire to never, ever cut up a once-living thing again. But maybe not. He wouldn’t want to think about it anymore if he didn’t want to. He’d thought that naming it after a bad guy might help, a little bit of gallows humor, but it really hadn’t. He had nightmares about that damn cat.

She came around the desk to sit in the chair next to his, leaning forward and pressing one hand awkwardly on the arm of his chair, like she wanted to reach out to him but the standards and practices of engaging with teenagers in a school forum wouldn’t allow her to. Or maybe she didn’t actually want to touch him but thought it seemed therapeutic to seem like she did. Or maybe—

“Tobias. It’s okay if you don’t want to be a doctor.”

He jolted to his feet. “I have to go.”

“Wait—”

“No, I forgot that I have a, a, um, a thing?” Why wouldn’t his backpack move? He yanked and the whole chair skidded, because the strap of his bag was caught on the leg. What had he been talking about? He searched for anything he could possibly be… “Drama Club.”

“You’re in Drama Club now?” she asked, frowning.

He yanked on his bag again. “It’s an interview. Um, a tryout, I mean.”

“Tobias, as your guidance counselor, I would prefer—”

“I feel guided.” He pushed on the chair so it tipped and the strap came loose. He stumbled toward the door, only realizing he was walking backward when he bumped into the door and the knob tried to take out one of his kidneys. The left kidney was located slightly superior to the right, his brain announced helpfully, and he nodded. He was—nothing in his head made sense.

“Gotta go.” Tobias fumbled his way out of the office.

She followed him past the iron-haired secretary typing at the desk, who looked up at him as he blew past her, rustling a couple of papers in his wake. “Sorry,” he said.

“Tobias,” Mrs. Marry called. “Come back. We need to discuss this.”

“Gonna be late.” He finally escaped, his shoes and breathing loud in the echoing hallway as he hurried toward the rear exit of the school where the buses were. He’d made it in time; the first one was only now pulling out. He jogged to catch up to his, thinking only about getting home so he could study and read and do all the things he was supposed to be doing, and he could—

Mrs. Marry was going to drag him back into her office tomorrow, he realized.

She might even call his house.

His stomachache got worse.

*

He wasn’t the first one home. All of his siblings were already here: he could hear Ruby’s violin wafting down from the second floor, and Mirlande in the kitchen walking Guy through some terms he would need for a class presentation, because Guy’s mastery of English pronunciation, though very good after nine years in the US, didn’t quite extend to words with multiple Rs in them. Darlin was complaining in Kreyòl about America giving him too many states to memorize, and Marie was humming in the background, probably listening to her iPod even though that was against the rules.

Normally, Tobias would join them. As the oldest, it was his responsibility to keep everyone else on task—to make Guy double-check his geometry problems, to tell Marie to put her music away, to ensure that Ruby did something academic in addition to practicing her Mozart. He never had to do much to keep Mirlande working hard—she was only two years younger, and very much like him, devoted to her studies. They would eat papayas and drink limonade and work until their parents got home, at which point homework would be checked and dinner begun. Tobias hesitated in the hallway out of sight, just listening, then went upstairs instead.

He unloaded his backpack, putting everything away neatly, getting out what he would need for the next day. He used the handheld dustbuster to clean out the trash from the bottom of the pockets. When that didn’t help, he walked around the room, looking into every nook and cranny for any signs of chaos. There was no thought involved in these organizational routines, only habit, only order. He’d taken comfort in it before: his books on their shelves alphabetized by author, his shirts grouped by color in the closet, the fronts all facing to the right, always to the right, his hard copies of his school exams and papers filed by course number and date in the small file cabinet.

There was nothing to be done. Everything was as it should be. He sat on the bed. The sun came in hot through the window, making him sweat despite the air conditioning; he got up, closed the blinds, and sat back down again.

His feet wouldn’t stay still on the carpet, his toes following the tracks from the vacuuming he’d given it the day before. It was the oddest thing; his body usually weighed so much more than it should. Usually it was a fight to get up a flight of stairs or to get through his homework without falling asleep. Usually, he could admit, it was hard enough making his way through conversations without losing his train of thought.

This was the most energy he’d had in months. Maybe even a year. There still wasn’t color, exactly, but things had definitely sped up. He didn’t remember the world feeling this way: overbright, too jagged, his heart hammering—he was probably tachycardic. It was very unpleasant, the way everything was rushing and pulsing inside him.

That stupid quiz. Why hadn’t he filled out that stupid quiz? Dream job: doctor. It wasn’t hard. He’d written the word a million times, made plans a million times more complicated than a stupid senior-year career quiz. All he’d had to do was fill it out and none of this would be happening. Mrs. Marry wouldn’t have looked at him like he was an idiot and she wouldn’t be worried about him now, wouldn’t call to explain that the Alcide family’s oldest son, the young man following in his parents’ footsteps, couldn’t manage to answer ten simple questions.

He bent over and tried to breathe into his knees. The temperature had spiked in the room. That was why he was sweating. He couldn’t—he had—that stupid, stupid quiz. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected to happen when he turned it in without filling it out, but he’d hoped…he’d thought…but it was all still here.

He got up and went to the bathroom.

He locked the door behind him. It wasn’t anything. His younger brothers and sisters always knocked, but you never knew. He sat on the edge of the tub. The porcelain was cool through the denim of his jeans. It might’ve been nice, given how overheated he was, but it was strangely distant. His legs weren’t his, that was the problem. They were very far away.

Somehow, he’d gotten Marie’s manicure scissors. She was constantly complaining about her eyebrows, and had several different tweezers, and she would sometimes trim them with these scissors, and she usually kept them in the drawer, but right now they were in his hand.

He tugged up the sleeve on his left arm.

He wondered how much force it would take. He wasn’t going to do anything. There wasn’t anything to be done about any of it, not really. He was simply wondering.

*

The next thing he remembered was sitting on the floor in Ruby’s room beside her bedroom door. His youngest sister was only six, and while the whole not-spoiling thing meant that the rest of the kids shared bedrooms, no one could stand the repetition of her constant practicing, so they’d all agreed as a family that she should have a room to herself.

Her decoration choices leaned toward hot pink and garish purple and extravagant frills of fabric on any object that would stand still, but all frivolity vanished the second she picked up her instrument to practice. Then she became an intent general poring over tactical maps. More driven than any of the adults who fostered her gift.

The family had begun adoption proceedings for Ruby during a brief Catholic missionary trip to Jamaica a few years ago and she’d had trouble adjusting to the States. It had been a twist of fate, Ruby finding the violin. She had literally walked into a street performer playing outside a shop at the 16th Street Mall one weekend while the whole family had gone to lunch for Marie’s birthday. Tobias had given Ruby a couple of dollars to put in the woman’s case, but Ruby hadn’t seemed to realize what the money was for. She’d stood still as a statue, listening; they’d had to drag her away. It was the most interest she’d shown in anything since she arrived from Jamaica, so a few days later, she’d had a cheap practice violin of her own and lessons with a local teacher who’d been throwing around words like prodigy and generational talent by the end of the first week.

Now, barely two years later, his sister played Mozart and Bach and Beethoven for hours in her bedroom every day.

Tobias loved being in Ruby’s room. All right, granted, it was annoying to hear the same bits of music repeated ad nauseum, but by the end of each session she usually gravitated to pieces she knew in their entirety. She so rarely became distracted—a miraculous thing in a six-year-old—and the rest of the household was so respectful of her practicing time, that it was downright peaceful in Ruby’s room.

Quiet. It was so quiet here. No noise could possibly reach him past the music.

He listened to her play for what seemed like ages, until it registered that his shirt was soaked, that the half a roll of toilet paper he’d wrapped around his forearm hadn’t been able to sop up the mess after all. He’d forgotten about it, and he’d let up on the direct pressure too soon.

He couldn’t let Ruby see the blood.

He stood up and let himself out without speaking.

And froze in the hallway. He could smell diri kole cooking, the thyme and garlic scents familiar and normally delicious, and hear his other siblings downstairs talking to Papa, and he realized he’d lost a fair bit of time. It was time to eat. It was dinnertime, and Manman was coming upstairs, saying, “There you are. I’ve been—” Then her gaze went from his face to his shirt, and that was the end of the quiet.

Later he would remember this too, although this memory never made it past his lips to anyone else’s ears: his father looming over him, blue nitrile gloves on his hands, which clamped down on the wound in Tobias’s arm with thick cushions of gauze, his head jerking up when Marie began shrieking at the sight of her bloody scissors in the sink in the bathroom. Tobias would always remember the way Papa dropped into nearly inaudible, trembling Kreyòl. “Kisa ki rive ou?”

What happened to you, he asked, bewildered, as if he couldn’t comprehend that it was Tobias’s choice turning the hall carpet red, Tobias who had acted.

*

When they got back from the hospital hours later, his brothers and sisters were in bed already, and Manman was waiting on the sofa in the light of a single lamp, her bare feet tucked up underneath her, a closed book resting on the arm of the chair—something about watercolors, a recent interest—her reading glasses dangling from the chain around her neck. Nadège Alcide rose and cupped his shoulders, holding him at arm’s length long enough to survey his face. Despite the lines of weariness at the corners of her eyes, she was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. When he was little, he’d thought she must be envied even by the great, perfect loa Erzulie Freda, Vodou goddess of love—a dangerous idea, for Erzulie could be jealous. It had been years before he’d broken the habit of whispering apologies to her image whenever he passed by the painting of the Rada loa—the good spirits—in his papa’s study.

For a moment none of them spoke, and the ticking clock on the mantelpiece was the only sound. It reminded him of the guidance counselor’s office.

“I’m okay, Manman.”

He meant it. He’d lost that manic energy and felt like himself again, if a bit slower and stupider. He could feel Papa watching him, categorizing him, searching for a definition for this. His family often joked that Andre Alcide was half computer, capable of tracking a million bits of data, a million facts and diagnoses, but it had never felt truer than now, when Tobias knew he was a problem to be solved.

Perhaps that wasn’t fair.

He was very tired.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Non, non,” she murmured, and pulled him into a hug. Her eyes were damp and red when she finally let him go, and he dropped his gaze to the carpet rather than see her hurt.

“Sit.” She gestured at the armchair, sat on the sofa, and took a deep breath. “Better to do this now.” His papa circled the coffee table to sit beside her.

“Do what?” Tobias asked.

“This.” She slid a packet of papers toward him.

“Woodbury Residential Treatment Center.” He flipped through the pages, catching phrases like troubled teens and housed in cottages and intensive, individualized therapy. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s a facility. They help boys who’ve been struggling with—”

“You’re sending me away?” he whispered.

“We’re getting you help,” Papa corrected. “The psychologist we met with at the hospital believes, and we agree, that inpatient treatment is called for. This place, Woodbury, it’s for teenagers who are struggling. They have psychiatrists there, but it isn’t a mental hospital, strictly speaking. No one will know why you’re going. This doesn’t have to affect your future.”

“I don’t…I don’t need help. I’m sorry about what I did. But I’m not going to do it again. I didn’t mean to.”

“What you did to your arm is a symptom of a much bigger problem,” Papa said. “I believe you that you weren’t trying to kill yourself, but that doesn’t mean that we can ignore this. We’ve got to treat the underlying cause.”

“I’m not a disease.”

“We can’t be cavalier about this, Toby,” Manman interjected.

“Please don’t call me that.”

Her lips tightened. “I apologize.” She exchanged a look with Papa, who nodded encouragement. “Tobias, you have to understand that the choices you’re making aren’t good for you.”

“The choices I’m making,” he repeated. “It feels like you’re the ones making all the choices.”

“Do you know what it felt like to see you bleeding like that, to find your blood in the bathroom after you went to the hospital? After everything that Ruby has been through, can you imagine how upsetting that was for her?” Her voice broke and Papa put a hand on her arm.

“I’m sorry,” Tobias whispered.

She cleared her throat. “Your psychological state is very fragile right now, and I will not lose you this way.”

Tobias put the packet on the coffee table and dragged his hands through his hair. His skin felt like it was on too tightly. He couldn’t breathe. He didn’t—he didn’t like this, didn’t like any of it.

“We love you,” she continued. “But this behavior…you need help, and we can’t give it to you. You need mental health specialists, and we can’t—I don’t think it’s good for your siblings to witness this. They’ve already been through so much.”

“You’re sending me away.” He could barely get the words out. He could barely think them.

“Only until you’ve gotten things in hand again. Only until you’re better.”

“When do I go?” he asked dully.

“Tomorrow morning,” Manman replied. “I’ve already packed your things. Go upstairs and get some sleep and tomorrow…it’s a fresh start, Toby.”

He opened his mouth to tell her, yet again, not to call him by that childhood nickname, only to stall out. It wouldn’t make a difference anyway, and he didn’t want them to think he was being combative.

“All right.” He didn’t say anything else, nothing about the terrible stillness inside him at leaving. Nothing about the hot tears that he fought back with gritted teeth.

What would be the point of saying any of that? It wouldn’t make them keep him.

“All right.”

Chapter Two

2017

“We need to talk,” Sullivan Tate told his boss darkly, holding up his coffee-stained white button-down. He was wearing only his slightly less damp tank undershirt now, and while he’d planned to look a little more professional for this conversation, he was out of patience. “If I get one more beverage thrown at me, I’m going to quit. Coffee, Raina. He threw coffee at me.”

Raina tapped one long red nail against her color-coordinated crimson mouth as she considered him from where she was seated at her desk in front of the window, paperwork strewn around her. Her glossy black hair was up in its customary chignon, her copper-hued skin was flawless, and her black suit was perfectly tailored to set off her figure to enormous advantage. He sometimes wondered if there was a rule that models should continue to be fashionable after they hung up their stilettos, because her glamour never faltered for a heartbeat. “Did you get burned?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? We could sue.”

“Your concern is duly noted, but it was cold, and that’s beside the point anyway. I want a better job.”

She stood up, hitching a hip against the desk. He’d triggered negotiation mode, and in negotiation mode, Raina refused to sit while others stood over her. “You seem very serious this time.”

“I am very serious this time. There was enough tequila in his mug that I’m lucky no one lit a cigarette around me or I’d be on fire right now.”

“Who puts tequila in coffee?” She wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“Child support-avoiding dirtbags.” He dropped the remnants of his nice shirt in the trash before coming to stand beside her at the window. They were in an older part of Denver, full of grand, crumbling red-brick houses and steep crayon-green lawns. Raina had chosen the two-story Colonial they used for office space with the same attention to image that she did everything else, finding the perfect balance between the modern, technologically advanced investigative agencies of the future and the smaller, more affordable and—to be frank—sketchier agencies of the past.

He was pretty sure that drive for balance was why Raina had hired him in the first place. She met with the upper-echelon clients concerned with privacy and status on her own, only pulling Sullivan into meetings when she needed to impress someone expecting a rougher element. On those days, he’d roll into the office wearing big black boots, ratty jeans and a T-shirt that showed off his tattoo sleeves, his dark hair gelled and sprayed into its full, gravity-defying, mohawked glory, and he’d curse every time he opened his mouth.

He’d be lying if he said it wasn’t fun to play the brute, especially since it didn’t fit the more upscale image of their firm.

Raina was a monster about money—if it didn’t build the client base or contribute to first-rate work, she was a notorious tightwad. Any parts of the first floor that clients might see were exquisitely arranged; the second floor was a cesspool of unfinished renovation. Raina’s office was downstairs, her furniture slick and polished, the chairs leather, the windows shining. Sullivan’s office, on the other hand, was in a closet near the upstairs bathroom. Because nothing larger than a fifth-grader would fit inside, he didn’t have a desk, just a tray that Raina had handed over with such a blank expression that he was certain she’d been laughing wildly at him in her head. Usually he sat in the kitchen next to the constantly complaining fridge, his laptop propped up on his knees because the table wobbled. He spent hours each day violating every rule of ergonomic practice possible, and when he did get out into the world, it was to have assholes throw doctored coffee on him.

Really, everything about his job sucked. He should’ve stuck with the game plan he’d sketched out when he was six and become Sherlock Holmes. Holmes might’ve had an opium problem, but the great detective had probably been spared carpal tunnel.

“Talk to me.” Raina’s eyes, dark and deep, met his. “We’ll brainstorm.”

He sighed. The air conditioning was up high to combat the August temperatures, and he shivered in his damp undershirt. “I feel like a mouse in an exercise wheel. Running fast and going nowhere.”

“Pretty much the definition of serving subpoenas for a living. But I can’t spare you. Cases come and go, but you’re the most reliable source of revenue.”

He’d been expecting that response. “You could serve some of the subpoenas and I could do some of the actual cases. Split the interesting ones and the boring ones fifty-fifty.”

“We could, but I don’t want to.” She smiled when he gave her a baleful look. “The good part about being the boss is that I can delegate all the shit work to you.”

“What if I find an intern? Someone to take over the subpoenas for college credit or something?”

She lifted an exquisitely groomed eyebrow. “What would I need you for then?”

Yeah, he’d walked into that one. He cleared his throat. “Okay, try this out. I do a couple of the more interesting cases on top of my current workload. If it turns out I can balance it, we’ll stick with it.”

“A raise wouldn’t—”

“I don’t want a raise,” he said in disgust, wondering what the hell went on in her brain sometimes. “You think this is about money? I’m bored. And underutilized, which offends me on a purely theoretical level, but mostly I’m bored.”

“And we all know what kind of trouble you’ll get into in that state.” She thought about it for a moment. “This forces me to babysit you.”

“I’m more than capable and you know it.”

“You’re more than capable when it comes to tracking people down, yes. And the coffee stain on your shirt notwithstanding, you’re very capable at interacting with horrible people and getting out in one piece. But the rest of our cases require more discretion and experience than serving subpoenas does.” She stared at him like she was trying to see the inside of his skull. “Be honest. How big a problem is this?”

He scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “I’m not going to quit over it today. But if something doesn’t change, it’ll happen. Sooner rather than later. I’ve answered all the questions I’m going to find in this work.”

She looked out the window, heaving an irritated sigh. “You and your unending quest for complication. You make me so tired sometimes.”

He shrugged. He’d long since given up on trying to alter that part of his personality. A few minutes passed while she thought about it, long enough that he was tempted to get up and find something to do. Then Raina made a considering noise and tipped her head closer to the window. He followed her gaze and watched a tan sedan pull into the driveway. The man behind the wheel was barely visible from this angle, but Sullivan recognized the car.

The Devoted Uncle.

Sullivan pursed his lips. “Give me the Devoted Uncle. It’s not like I can screw that one up. If I can solve it, you split the subpoenas with me and give me half of the fun cases from now on. If I can’t solve it on my own, I’ll stop bitching for…six months.”

“A year. And that includes the bitching you do about cleaning the kitchen.”

“Fine.”

They shook on it, and he ran upstairs to change. His heart was already pounding, excitement racing through his veins at the very idea. Excitement and a good deal of relief. He needed this, both for the sake of his sanity and because it was the next step to the dream job.

Opening his own agency. Taking the cases that interested him, working through the riddles no one else could solve. A dozen interns on staff so he’d never have to serve another fucking subpoena again.

Not that he was going to tell Raina any of that. She was a cutthroat sort of dame, and if she knew he was planning to become a competitor someday, he wasn’t sure she’d comply with furthering his training at all.

When his phone buzzed, reminding him of the tornado that was his personal life, he hesitated, but eventually decided to ignore the text message for now.

He had a client to meet.

His job involved enough assholes that he’d learned a long time ago to keep spare clothes in the office. When he was wearing a fresh Henley, he checked his hair to make sure it wasn’t too messy. Most days he used a little gel to brush the dark strands straight back so they’d stay out of his face, and it’d held out fine against the coffee-throwing bastard. He looked as professional as a guy with the sides of his head buzzed could possibly look.

Back in Raina’s office, she was behind her desk and the client was making himself comfortable across from her.

Their longest-standing client, the Devoted Uncle was Nelson Klein, a local insurance adjuster who came in once a year like clockwork. He was solid in that bulky way that was almost as much fat as muscle, and his frizzy, blazing-red hair was going thin on top, something he combated with an unconvincing combover. He was always brisk, occasionally bossy, and frequently bad-tempered—none of which spoke clearly of grief, but then, it had been more than two decades since his sister had been murdered and his young niece had gone missing.

Sullivan wondered if it was habit alone that still had Klein running searches all these years later.

“I assure you, we take the search for Nathalie as seriously now as we did the first time we looked for her,” Raina was saying. “Sullivan’s appointment is not a sign of lack of interest or effort. On the contrary, he has more time to apply to her cause at the moment, and believe me when I say that he’s the best researcher I’ve ever had on staff.”

Sullivan reached out to shake hands with Klein, who got up slowly—he was busy giving Sullivan a sharp up-and-down, gaze lingering on the haircut. “The best, huh?”

“If there’s a way to find out what happened to her, Sullivan will find it.”

Klein’s grip was tight. “If you say so.”

Sullivan returned Klein’s gaze—the man’s eyes were small and brown and bloodshot—until Klein released him. Sullivan tugged out the small moleskin notebook he habitually kept in his back pocket and snagged a pen from Raina’s desk before sitting down. “Okay.” He thumbed to a fresh page. “Start at the beginning.”

*

“The girl’s dead,” Raina said, once the Devoted Uncle had gone. She was pulling up the case number in the database so he could look up the files she’d compounded over the years. “You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” Sullivan agreed. People didn’t go missing in suspicious circumstances for twenty years only to pop up out of nowhere one day, alive and kicking. Almost certainly, her body was in a shallow grave somewhere, and the chances of finding and identifying her at this point were miniscule.

It was, in all likelihood, an impossible puzzle to solve. He could barely stand still, he was so eager to get started.

“If you find anything, it’s going to be a corpse.” Raina’s expression was half concerned, half cold. She probably thought he’d get involved emotionally, only to break down when he realized that this case wouldn’t have a miraculous ending where the girl was reunited with her family and lived happily ever after.

Raina might not be wrong about that emotional involvement thing, but it wasn’t going to stop him, and he wasn’t walking in blind. Sullivan wished he could be shocked by the idea of a ten-year-old girl vanishing, but you couldn’t serve subpoenas for as long as he had and not learn that some people didn’t give two shits for their own kids, let alone someone else’s. Call him a cynic, but just once he’d like to come across a dad who paid more child support than he was ordered to by the courts. Just once.

“I’m aware.” He reached into his pocket for a piece of nicotine gum. He chewed with purposeful disinterest, trying to project hard-nosed-detective vibes, and she eventually scrawled the case number on a Post-It note.

“Cross your Ts, Sullivan. If you find evidence of criminal misconduct, you’d better be able to testify with ironclad precision.”

“No problem.” He tried to take the Post-It, but she held on to it.

“Be discreet.”

“Well, I was planning on shouting Klein’s name at anyone who would listen, but…” When she only stared at him balefully, he sighed. “Of course I’ll be discreet. He’s Bruce Wayne. No word of his secret identity will cross my lips. The facts of the case will only be shared as necessary to meet the needs of my client, and I will present my client with options in the event of a murky, slimy ethical gray area. You know that I know how to do stuff, right?”

“The stakes are higher when you’re doing more than shoving a file into someone’s face. Deadbeat dads are one thing. If there’s foul play here and you fuck it up, someone could get away with murder. And you can forget asking Klein for his opinion on murky, slimy ethical gray areas. He’s not with the DA’s office. He’s not even an attorney, and you can’t trust him to uphold the law.”

“Right, sure. That’s what I meant.”

She finally released the Post-It. “I better not be the last one to know if things start to fall apart on you.”

“I’m going to be so well behaved you won’t believe it,” he promised. “Altar boy style.”

With Raina’s gaze hard on his back, he headed for the kitchen. He grabbed some food—turned out to be a Mountain Dew and a piece of bread—from the gurgling fridge (which he was going to investigate one of these days, and possibly even fix), slid into a chair, and opened his laptop.

Sullivan didn’t make a lot of money, and what he did make went primarily to one of three things: his savings, his sex life, or his electronics. As such, his laptop was top of the line, less than a year old, and faster than Usain Bolt. Came in handy, since the first major steps in finding someone all took place online.

He put his earbuds in and got a little BtMI rolling—it was a happy day all of a sudden—and got to work.

First he read over the notes he’d taken during the meeting, then the police reports and witness interviews in the case folder.

On February 2nd, 1992, the home of a midlevel, wannabe criminal badass, Lawrence Howard, was invaded by the thugs of an unidentified, actual neighborhood badass, who’d apparently had strong feelings about Howard’s attempts to infringe on his business. Howard was murdered in his bed, along with two bodyguards and his housekeeper, Margaret Trudeau, who lived on the property with her ten-year-old daughter, Nathalie, who vanished. This was pre-Amber Alert, so the response had been unforgivably slow, and though the Denver Police Department and the media fanned the flames of the search as high as possible in the following days, she’d never been located.

It was assumed—sadly, if reasonably—that the girl had been taken by one of the killers, probably for horrifying purposes, and murdered later.

Two years later, with the case largely forgotten in the public consciousness, Nelson Klein, the Devoted Uncle, brother to the murdered Margaret, had gone to a local private detective agency to fund a search of his own. Eighteen years after that, when Raina bought the agency from the retiring owner, the case had fallen into her hands, and she’d worked it solo for the past five. And now, finally, it was Sullivan’s.

He looked at the scanned photograph of the girl, clearly taken on a school picture day back in 1991, and studied the blond hair, pale blue eyes, and gap-toothed smile. She looked cheerful and puckish in her pink blouse with the black piping on the collar, her hair curled for the special occasion. Sullivan couldn’t help imagining the things she might’ve witnessed or suffered, and a pulse of pity welled up in his throat.

He tucked the photo out of sight in the file, and blew out a breath.

The obvious steps had been repeated every time Klein had come in, but Sullivan went through them again because you never knew. If he was lucky, he’d find out that her body had already been located in a nearby jurisdiction in the past twelve months, the info kept from her family by some state employee’s incompetence.

He started by checking the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File with different variations on the girl’s name—Natalie Trudeau, Nat Trudeau, Nathalie Martine Trudeau, Nathalie M. Trudeau, and several misspellings of each, just in case.

No joy.

This wasn’t proof she was alive, obviously. The records of the Death Master File became scantier the further back you went, and the SSA erred on the side of caution when it came to listing missing people as dead. However, it did give Sullivan a chance to double-check that he had her correct Social Security number and date of birth, which he would need for his other searches. Now it was time to use the process of elimination.

The foundational rule investigators used in cases like this was that living people left marks. If no man was an island, there was always a road you could follow to find him. People needed jobs and places to live and banks and friends and phones, and everything left trails. Sullivan might not be able to prove that Nathalie was dead, but if he checked all the normal places where the living showed up and she wasn’t there, then death was the only possibility left.

He started with a simple Google search, using all the same derivatives of her name that he’d used in the Death Master File. He spent an hour combing through results, and came up with squat.

Next he searched the Federal Bureau of Prisons, in case she’d miraculously lived long enough to get arrested as an adult. When that didn’t give him anything, he went to each of the local jail and state prison websites, and spent a couple hours searching for her by name and SSN. Some of those sites let him search for parolees and those on probation, too, and he took full advantage.

Nothing. If she’d been incarcerated, he couldn’t find it.

He took a break to get Siouxsie started on his iPod and eat a sandwich—accidentally using the last of Raina’s peanut butter, whoops—before tackling the long process of checking with the different branches of the armed forces. Nothing. He went through the online court records for alimony, bankruptcy and the property appraiser’s records, and managed to kill another hour finding exactly zip. He would have to actually go to the courthouse to check more deeply, but that was a job for tomorrow.

His phone buzzed, and this time he checked the caller. Caty. And the earlier text message had been her too: don’t think I won’t sic Lisbeth on you.

After a brief hesitation, he set his phone aside with both the call and the text unanswered. He wasn’t in the mood to let her bully him into talking about his damn feelings again. Caty was an excellent friend, and he cared about her a lot, but Jesus, he needed some damn space. It was enough to make him want to go into hiding to avoid the hounding.

Wait. Wait a second. His hands went still over the keyboard.

While the vast majority of the time Sullivan was searching for shitty people hiding from taking responsibility for something they’d fucked up, every now and again, a search would turn up someone hiding for good reason—usually women on the run from abusive exes. Maybe that line of thinking was applicable in some way here.

It was almost certain that Nathalie Trudeau was buried in a field somewhere or resting under a river’s worth of water, but what if she hadn’t vanished because someone had taken her? What if all these years of silence weren’t because she had no voice, but because speaking up would be dangerous?

What if she’d run? What if she’d never stopped running?

She would’ve needed help. No ten-year-old was going to disappear off the grid without an adult’s aid, and Sullivan couldn’t begin to imagine who might’ve played that role for Nathalie, but if the girl was gone by choice, whoever had helped her knew their stuff.

Sullivan tapped his finger on the table as he considered.

He went back to the original police file and reread the section about wannabe badass Lawrence Howard, the unidentified local thugs who’d taken him out, and the poor housekeeper who’d been an innocent bystander, probably killed because she’d seen something she shouldn’t have.

Howard had lived in an expensive section of Denver, the kind of neighborhood where cops would respond quickly to reports of gunfire. That didn’t leave much time for the murderers to hang around. Maybe they hadn’t searched the house thoroughly after taking out Howard.

Maybe they’d missed a ten-year-old hiding in a closet or under a bed.

Maybe he was grasping at straws.

He scrubbed his hands over his face. He needed to keep his head on straight—he was prone to flights of fancy on the best of days because he liked things interesting more than he liked things honest, and that could get him into trouble here. He needed to be ice-cold and by-the-book, not indulging himself in pointless questions about a could’ve-been that he had zero evidence to support.

He read himself the riot act for several more minutes, nodded definitively to prove that he’d gotten the message, and then promptly ignored all of that and went online to do a search for Nathalie’s mother’s name.

And okay, on the surface that seemed like a left-field kind of thing to do, but there was method to his madness. It was impossible to hide in modern America without changing your name, and there were different levels of competence when it came to fake IDs. The worst meant you wouldn’t be able to buy beer without someone calling you on your bullshit, while the best would carry you through pretty much anything except for a deep background check by a government agency.

The best new identities used names and SSNs stolen directly from the Master Death File, usually those of infants who’d died soon after birth, because there was less of a chance that the deceased’s old life would overlap with the thief’s new one. All it took was a few forged documents to complete the transfer.

Yes, it would be incautious for someone to help the daughter by using the mother’s name, thereby providing a link to the case, but…

But.

What real estate agent or employer or insurance adjuster was going to run a client or applicant’s ID against the SSA’s Master Death File to make sure that the person breathing in front of them wasn’t using a dead child’s name? Who looked up family members who had passed to make sure their names weren’t being used by thieves? No one. The chances that someone was going to look were infinitesimal. He was only looking because he was the kind of guy who didn’t mind wasting five hours following up a nonsense train of thought for a case from two decades ago because he thought it would be cool if it turned out to be right. If someone had helped hide Nathalie under a new identity, was there really that much risk in using the mother’s name? Even the Devoted Uncle wouldn’t think to start searching for his dead sister as a way of tracking down his niece.

A memorial, of sorts. A last tribute to a dead mother, maybe.

He double-checked that he had Margaret Trudeau’s correct SSN and date of birth, and tooled around a little, fiddling through Google and old websites, running haphazardly through the steps he’d taken with Nathalie, not really expecting anything. He found a marriage license for Margaret Trudeau in the online Denver Courthouse records and her maiden name did match her brother’s—Klein. Sullivan did a search for that name too, and found a birth certificate but little else.

He got up to piss, found an old bag of trail mix somewhere and ate it standing up at the counter. The sun took on the orangey tint of late afternoon while he told himself over and over that nothing would come of this. It was the stupidest waste of time ever.

Then he sat down and typed the name Peggy Klein into the courthouse records database because Peggy was, for some bizarre reason, an old nickname for Margaret.

And got a relatively recent hit.

He sat back in his chair, stunned. He made himself take a deep breath and double-checked the dates and the Social Security number, because there had to be a couple hundred Peggy Kleins in the world, but Jesus. It was her. The same Margaret Trudeau who’d been murdered in her employer’s house in 1992 had bought a condo twelve years ago under the name Peggy Klein and dutifully paid the taxes on it annually.

Strange behavior for a dead chick, he thought, and had to force himself to calm the fuck down. He’d stumbled onto something here, and maybe it’d been a flight of fancy that led him to this spot, but now was the time to rope everything into some semblance of rationality. He needed to document every step, make sure he had proof to support every decision he made. Plus, if he wasn’t careful, he took the risk of driving Nathalie or whoever it was using the name of Nathalie’s dead mother further underground.

He needed to verify.

He also needed to move. He was climbing out of his damn skin here. He popped another piece of nicotine gum into his mouth, looked up Riviera Condominiums online and realized he was barely a fifteen-minute drive away. The clock read 4:28 p.m. There was time, perhaps, to do a quick drive-by, maybe snap a couple pictures from the car.

Maybe he’d see a blonde woman in her mid-thirties.

He grabbed his laptop and jacket and headed down the hall to Raina’s office. She was on the phone, making inquisitive noises, and he went to her desk, ignoring the way she slapped at his hands as he opened the long, shallow drawer above her knees.

“I’m taking your kit,” he mouthed, and she held up a finger to tell him to wait. Her nonverbal noises into the phone became impatient. He grabbed the huge lockbox she stored in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet and hauled it out, gesturing toward the door. She shook her head and mouthed, “Wait.”

He made the universal gesture for “call me,” gave her an apologetic grimace and darted out, hurrying down the sidewalk toward his beat-up black 1974 Buick Regal.

He had a living dead girl to find.

 

Chapter Three

The letter rested on the dashboard, the white paper faintly malodorous and stained pink from the rank salade de betteraves his manman had thrown out earlier in the week, the torn-open top ragged. The return address, written in a loopy, almost childlike hand, read Ashley Benton. Tobias spun the orange plastic lighter in his hand over and over while he stared at it, wondering what the pages inside might say.

The interior of the car was sweltering even with the windows down; the metal spark wheel was hot against his thumb. He imagined, for one satisfying moment, lighting the letter on fire right there so it turned black and curled into itself, watching the flames billow orange, the plastic of the dash scorching and melting, the air filling with smoke. He flicked the lighter several times, testing himself, tempted.

Finally, he sighed and shoved the letter into the front cover of his biochemistry textbook on the passenger seat. The lighter went into his pocket.

He looked out the windshield at the two-story gray building he was parked in front of. Riviera Condominiums was nicer than his friend Ghost’s old cramped armpit of an apartment by a mile. Everything there had been worn, from the cracked parking lot to the threadbare carpet to the cheap windows, and the residents had been the same.

This new place was downright shiny. There was a pool with blue water and two tennis courts and the grass was neatly clipped and very green, especially considering it was the first day of August in a semiarid state. Flowerbeds overflowing with geraniums lined the sidewalks leading from the parking lots to the buildings, and interspersed between those buildings were small communal gardens thick with tomatoes and peppers. The patios and balconies were bordered with black wrought iron balustrades.

No way could Ghost afford to live here.

If Ghost even lived here anymore.

Contact between them had been spotty lately, text messages would go hours without a reply, if one came at all, invites ignored, emails answered with a handful of words. It wasn’t necessarily personal; sometimes Ghost simply disappeared for days at a time, and he always reappeared with as little fanfare as when he took off. In the past, Tobias had respected those bursts of antisocial behavior and stayed away, letting Ghost come back when he was ready.

But this was different. This was nearly two weeks of complete silence. It was different because of the favor.

Eight months ago, in order to bail their friend Church out of trouble with some local thugs, Ghost had agreed to do a favor for a woman no one should owe. Tobias didn’t know the specifics, but he knew enough to worry.

He and Ghost had been friends since that horrible day in Woodbury when Tobias had been jumped by some guys in a badly lit bathroom, and a pale slip of a kid had bailed him out with nothing more than a dangerous rep and a half-mad smile. Tobias still wasn’t sure why Ghost—selfish to an extreme, frequently oblivious to the suffering of others—had put himself at risk to save someone he didn’t know, but that kindness was one Tobias would never forget.

Not that everything in Woodbury had been bad. That time had been good for Tobias in certain respects. He’d put earnest effort into therapy, and while he hadn’t been particularly successful at implementing the changes his therapist had encouraged him to make, he’d come out of it with coping skills that’d kept him stable ever since.

But there’d been a darker side to the facility, a side born of limited funding and political disinterest, where therapists cared but had too many patients, and people slipped through cracks the size of ravines. Ghost lived and breathed that same aura of struggle and poverty and violence, and worst of all was the way he’d never questioned his place there, the way he’d seemed so indifferent to the unhappiness emanating from every brick.

Tobias got out of the car and put his backpack in the trunk before heading down the sidewalk to Ghost’s condo. It was on the first floor of Building 18, tucked as far away from the clubhouse as possible, a corner unit abutting the line of trees at the edge of the property that blocked the noise of the traffic from the street beyond. He knocked hard—Ghost was a daytime sleeper—but when there was no answer, he stepped over a low row of bushes to reach the nearest window and put his hands up to block the glare so he could peer inside.

The living room faced north, so it was dim in the late afternoon light, but he could make out the hulking shapes of the couch and the entertainment center. He stared for a long minute, a shiver of unease tracing up his spine. The oddest thing was that nothing was out—no dishes on the coffee table Ghost had gotten from somewhere to replace the board and cinder blocks he’d used at his old place, no sign of Ghost’s black hoodie draped over the back of the chair by the door, none of his fashion magazines left open on the arm of a chair, no big black boots in sight. The remote was on top of the TV. Ghost was hardly a slob, but the place looked like one of those model apartments leasing offices put together to tempt would-be renters.

A single house key was resting on the breakfast bar separating the living room from the kitchen. Left in plain view as if to ensure it was found, right next to Ghost’s phone.

Tobias stepped back, raking a hand through his hair as he tried to make sense of it.

Had Ghost moved out? Was that why the key had been left? He wouldn’t put it past Ghost to move without telling either him or Church, but the phone was a different story. Ghost was very protective of his phone—he kept the numbers of his business contacts there. He wouldn’t leave it.

It was possible that Ghost had simply gotten a new phone. There’d been a lot of new upgrades in Ghost’s life lately, and this could simply be another one. Tobias pulled his own phone out and called Ghost’s number, intending to prove that the phone left on the counter was useless, the number forwarded to whatever new one Ghost had bought.

But a few seconds after Tobias heard the first ring in his ear, the phone on the counter lit up and began vibrating. Tobias let it ring for a minute, hoping maybe Ghost would stumble out from the bedroom to see who was calling him, but there was nothing.

Ghost wouldn’t leave his phone. He wouldn’t.

The small, niggling worry that’d wormed its way into his mind over the past couple of weeks abruptly became full-blown fear. Once again, he thought of the favor.

He thought about texting Church, but it wasn’t like Church would keep something from him, so—

Except Church did lie sometimes, when he thought Tobias couldn’t handle whatever was going on. He’d lied during the whole thing with the Krayev thugs, after all. Church probably didn’t realize how upsetting it was to be lied to all the time.

Well, either way, it wasn’t like Church would know what was up. He’d been just as frustrated about Ghost’s absence as Tobias had been.

He knocked again. Still no answer. He hadn’t really expected one.

For a minute, Tobias couldn’t help imagining the possibilities: Ghost in his bedroom, too scared to come to the door, Ghost too hurt from getting beaten up or stabbed to get out of bed.

Ghost dead in the tub.

Every fiber in Tobias’s body rebelled against that possibility.

Ghost was an inconstant, often absent friend, but Tobias knew in his bones that if someone hurt him, Ghost would move heaven and earth—or gut a few people, a small, guilty part of Tobias whispered—to help him.

How could Tobias be willing to do less?

He circled around the building to the rear. Unlike Ghost’s neighbors’ back patios, his had no chairs or flower pots or wind chimes to hint at the person who lived inside. After hesitating for a bare second, Tobias grabbed a rock and hopped over the hip-high railing. His hands were sweating; he was pretty sure this was a reasonable step to take, but that didn’t mean it didn’t feel like a transgression.

He took a glance around to make sure no one would see, and nearly had a heart attack when he saw a guy leaning against a tree about ten feet away, watching him with curiosity.

“Hi.” The guy gave him a small wave.

Tobias licked his lips, his heart pounding rabbit-fast. “This isn’t what it looks like.”

“So you’re not breaking in?” the guy asked, not sounding particularly worried about it. “It’s okay if you are. I’m not a cop. Feel free to go about your business.”

Tobias lowered the hand with the rock to his side. “Why are you watching me?”

“I was hoping that once you’ve taken care of the window, you wouldn’t mind letting me take a look around before you do whatever you’re here to do.”

The guy was maybe a few years older, in his late twenties, and about the same height, five-eleven. He was rangy in his jeans and brick-red Henley, not quite as solidly built as Tobias, but the sleeves of his shirt were pulled up to the elbows, revealing well-muscled forearms beneath the tattoos that went down to both wrists. He had an iPod shoved halfway into one pocket, and the earbuds were tucked into his collar so they wouldn’t get tangled.

His hair was—well, it was cool. It was dark brown, buzzed almost to his skull except for a fat stripe down the center that was gelled messily back in a mohawk that didn’t have enough product in it to stay in place. He had a narrow, bony face and interested brown eyes, and he was sort of hot, actually. Not even sort of, now that Tobias took a second look. He was fully hot, standing there with his lips twitching like he might be on the verge of smiling, like it was nothing whatsoever to chat with someone about to break into someone else’s place.

“What are you doing here?” Tobias asked.

“Lurking,” the guy said pleasantly. “You?”

“I mean why do you want to go inside? Are you here to hurt someone?” Not that Tobias had the first clue what he would do if the guy said yes, but still. Tobias wasn’t about to help anyone do anything that might hurt Ghost.

The stranger didn’t say anything for a moment, only looked at him as if he were trying to figure out how Tobias’s brain worked. “No,” he said finally, sort of gently, and for some dumb reason, Tobias felt inclined to believe him. If Ghost were here, he’d slap Tobias for being gullible. Tobias said staunchly, “I’m not going in, and neither are you.”

The guy’s eyebrows jogged up an inch. “You’re very protective of your turf. What if I said I had no interest in fencing anything? I just want to snoop around for a few minutes. Then you can go through the place to your thieving little heart’s delight.”

“I’m not a robber.” Tobias frowned, considering what to say next, while the guy pulled a foil square out of his pocket, opened it, and popped a piece of gum into his mouth.

“Burglar,” the guy said, talking around it. “Robbery is when you force someone to give you something in person. Burglary is when you steal from an unattended place.”

Tobias had to subdue an urge to roll his eyes. “Fine, whatever, I’m not a burglar. But I at least have a good reason to be here—I’m friends with…and you could be anybody. So.”

After chewing thoughtfully for a moment, the guy came toward the railing, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket as he walked. He held out a business card, which Tobias took cautiously, stepping back to put space between them before taking his eyes off the guy to read it.

In large type, it said, American Secure Investigations. Underneath, in smaller lettering was printed Process and Surveillance Specialists.

“You’re a private detective?” Tobias asked.

“Yup.”

Tobias eyed him doubtfully. “You don’t look like a private detective.”

“I left my trench coat in the car.” The guy smiled, and Tobias’s stomach flipped over at the sight of it. It was earnest and a little cheeky, like they were in on the same secret.

Tobias looked down at the card again, at the name beneath the slogan. “You don’t look like a Raina either.”

“She’s my boss. I ran out of my cards.”

Tobias pulled his phone out and dialed the number on the card, noting the bloom of resignation in the guy’s expression.

A woman answered. “American Secure Investigations.”

“Hi, I’m calling to confirm that this guy works for—”

“Are you a LEO?”

“A…what’s a…”

“Are you a law enforcement officer?”

“No. I’m a…concerned citizen and I’m not sure if I should—”

“Concerned citizen,” she repeated, and made a noise that was only slightly too delicate to be called a snort. “What’s he look like?”

“He has a mohawk, sort of—”

“Yes, he’s mine,” the woman said, sounding annoyed. “His name is Sullivan Tate, and he’s one of my process servers.”

“What’s a—”

“It’s someone who finds people in order to give them legal papers they’d like to avoid receiving. Why? What did he do?”

“He’s—” Tobias broke off. He couldn’t exactly say he’s watching me do something illegal so he can do something illegal too. “I don’t, uh—he’s snooping?”

“Is that a question?” she asked acerbically.

Tobias gritted his teeth. “No, he’s snooping around. If—”

“He’s there for a missing person case. It’s legit.” Impatience rang through the line. “Give him the phone, would you? I need to yell at him.”

Tobias held the phone out.

The guy—Sullivan—grimaced. “Hi, Raina. Want a burrito when I come back?”

Tobias couldn’t make out what she was saying, but judging from Sullivan’s expression, she wasn’t happy. After a long minute, Sullivan said, “Yes, I promise. I’ll be excruciatingly law-abiding. I’ll explain everything later…Well, considering that I’m apparently in the presence of someone who takes all the fun out of things, I think we’ll be fine.”

Again, Sullivan gave him that friendly, teasing smile, as if he meant it affectionately. Tobias had to work really hard not to make a face. He wasn’t going to fall for it. They weren’t friends, and Tobias wasn’t an idiot.

And he didn’t take all the fun out of things. Tobias was fun.

He could be fun if he wanted to, anyway.

When Sullivan hung up, Tobias grabbed his phone back. “Why are you here, Mr. Tate?”

“Oh, God, Sullivan, please.” He smiled yet again, charming and handsome, making Tobias’s stomach flip again too. Stop that, he told his stomach. Being hot doesn’t make him a good guy. Sullivan added, “My client needs help finding a loved one. My search led me to this address.”

Tobias didn’t know much about Ghost’s personal life or family; he’d talked about them vaguely in the past, but since the details sometimes contradicted each other, Tobias usually assumed they were lies. He did know that Ghost had been homeless as a teenager from time to time. A Woodbury staff member—a more reliable source—had mentioned it during a group therapy session once, so Ghost had likely been a runaway. Could Sullivan’s client be someone Ghost was actually related to?

“What’s the loved one’s name?”

Sullivan paused, studying Tobias as he chewed his gum. “You’re friends with the person who lives here?”

“He’s my best friend.”

“Okay. I’d like to ask him some questions, but I get the impression from your rock antics that he’s not here. Can I ask you some questions instead?”

“No.” Not until Tobias had found Ghost and talked to him first, anyway.

Sullivan accepted that with good grace. “You don’t want to get him in trouble. I get it. I don’t want to get him in trouble either.”

Tobias narrowed his eyes, and Sullivan lifted his hands in an I come in peace sort of gesture. “Hey, I’m unaffiliated, I swear. I’m not turning anyone over to anyone else, and I’m not planning to make anyone do anything they don’t want to do. I just want my client to stop being terrified that someone he loves is dead.”

Tobias swallowed. He got a small taste of that feeling every time Ghost took off. He glanced around him, hoping against all sense that Ghost would show up and tell Sullivan to get lost, saving Tobias from making this decision. But of course, Ghost wasn’t here. Tobias wished he could learn to stop expecting otherwise.

“I don’t know where he is,” Tobias admitted quietly.

Equally quiet, Sullivan asked, “You think he took off? Or that something happened to him?”

“I—I don’t know.”

“That sounds frightening. I’ll keep my eye out for him as I work, huh? Maybe we’ll get lucky and I’ll stumble across him.”

Tobias found himself nodding. Maybe Sullivan could be useful. Maybe his case had something to do with Ghost’s absence, and talking to him would help Ghost. A private detective had to be safer than a cop. They couldn’t arrest people, which might be enough to keep Ghost from killing him when Tobias found him. Maybe.

“I haven’t heard from him in a while, but his phone is inside. He never leaves his phone anywhere, but it’s on the counter—” He could feel his words speeding up; he clamped his mouth closed.

After a moment, Sullivan asked, “What’s your name?”

“Tobias Benton.”

“Nice to meet you, Tobias Benton. And your friend’s name?”

“Ghost.”

“Okay, Tobias, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ve been given strict orders not to get arrested today, so I’m gonna turn my back in a second. During that time, you can do whatever you think is best for you and Ghost. When I turn back around, you’ll either be gone or—to my everlasting surprise—I’ll find that the window by the door has been broken, and that you’re very concerned about the suspicious circumstances. Like you said, he might be hurt, so we’ll have to go in to see, and if the cops have to be called, you can say whatever you like about how the window got broken. Since I didn’t witness anything, that’s on you. Sound cool?”

Tobias exhaled, unable to fight the burgeoning sensation of gratitude welling up inside him. Sullivan knew what to do, and Tobias couldn’t begrudge him for removing himself from the breaking part of the breaking and entering.

“Okay,” Tobias said.

“Please don’t hit me with your rock while I’m not looking.” Sullivan turned his back. He began whistling, something that sounded familiar—oh, it was the theme song from Jeopardy.

“You’re hilarious,” Tobias muttered, his gratitude vanishing, and broke the window.