Episode 12: At The End of A Gun
Agent Rogan sat in an interrogation room at the Hedgewater Police Department. He’d made certain the cameras were disconnected and that only his men were on the other side of the two-way glass. The interview he was about to conduct wasn’t for police ears. In their prior phone conversation Rogan had made it clear to Ira De Angelo that Chief Trusou wouldn’t hear a word. It was the only way Ira would agree to meet alone. It was the only way Rogan and Willinsky would get the information they needed.
“Who’s on the other side?” Ira flicked his eyes to the mirror. “I’ll lawyer up so fast I’ll make your head spin, Rogan. It would be in your best interest not to lie to me.”
“That’s a pretty defensive remark for someone who claims to be innocent. Lawyering up…” Rogan tapped his cigarette against the tray before taking a hit. Smoking in the room was forbidden, but he wasn’t there to play by Trusou’s rules. “Relax, Ira, this isn’t going on record. But it might if you don’t cooperate. I’ve got two of my boys and a female agent behind the glass. The Chief won’t hear anything you say.”
“I want that in writing. I want you to put it on a piece of paper, whatever I say right in this room is strictly confidential between you and me and them. I’m not going to prison because I know things beneficial to building your case. I’m here in this room because of what someone else did, what they’re still doing.” Ira stole a cigarette from Rogan’s box on the table. “I don’t even care if you mind,” he snapped, then lit it up and tossed the lighter on the table.
“Help yourself.” Rogan sighed and nudged his chin at the window, beckoning with his finger. Moments later an agent came into the room with a legal pad and a pen. “Thanks, Bortsch.” The agent exited. Rogan slid the pad across the desk. “Draw it up. I’ll sign whatever you want me to.”
“Just like that?”
Rogan exhaled smoke, giving Ira a casual stare. “Just like that.”
“And what about Kelly? I don’t want any implications directed at my son. Do you understand me, Rogan? I won’t threaten you when it comes to Kelly. I’ll put you in the ground.”
“That’s a felony, you know, threatening the life of a federal agent.” Rogan put his cig in the ashtray and rested his elbows on the table. “Kelly isn’t in any trouble, Ira, legally speaking. Physically, he’s being protected by our agents. All the boys are.”
“Oh. Really? All of them?” Ira took a deep drag of his cigarette. He snorted. “Funny how you say they’re protected, yet one ends up in the fucking hospital. So much for protection, Rogan. We all know who put River in that bed. So tell me why Owen’s out there walking free like a smug son-of-a-bitch? I know the answer to that. You’re scared the Chief is going to mess up your investigation, stick his nose where it doesn’t belong if you lock up his son. You’re a joke, you know that?”
“We need Owen to get to Francis right now, Ira. Francis has more to do with this case than you know.”
Ira squinted. “Shouldn’t you keep that to yourself?”
“It’s all confidential in here, isn’t it? That’s what you said. And if you’re going to be upfront with me, I’ll be upfront with you.” Rogan waited until a flicker of understanding eased through Ira’s eyes. “Good. Now tell me what you know about a woman named Marcy.”
Shoulders dropping, Ira’s nostrils flattened with a quick intake of air. He leaned back into his chair as if the shadows behind him would hide the truth. “I don’t know any Marcy,” he rushed.
“You sure about that? Your body language suggests otherwise. Come on, Ira. Talk to me here.” Rogan turned his hands palms up, ready to beg. “This is for your son. Whatever you can tell me will help me catch this killer. I want him locked up just as much as you do.” Rogan waited patiently for Ira to get his shit together.
Ira scratched his head and sighed. “Her name isn’t Marcy,” he murmured. He rubbed his eyes. Kelly’s father aged within moments. He let the exhaustion out with a slow exhale and his jaw went slack. The tension he’d kept bottled up became a rhythm as he drummed his fingers.
“What’s her name then, Ira?”
Ira shook his head. “I swore I’d protect her. You have no idea what happened back then, Rogan. Why I left my family, my parents, my friends. I won’t have done it for nothing. I’m not going to be your little nark. Leave her out of this.”
“I wish I could, Ira. I really do. But this afternoon a woman named Marcy broke into River’s hospital room. She conned his nurse with a prank phone call at the front desk, slipped past security with a hospital badge and scrubs, and was in his room for at least ten minutes before she fled the grounds.”
“What?” Ira lurched forward. “You’re lying.”
“She talked with River for a minute. She said she was there because she cared and she wanted to make sure he was okay. She used Jackie’s name, displayed sympathy for her from what I gathered. She knew who Owen Trusou was and stated he wasn’t responsible for the game the killer was playing. River is convinced she knows who the killer is, Ira. She kept referring to him, as in the man responsible for these crimes. We need to know who Marcy is, so we can find out who he is. Whoever this Marcy is to you, I can tell she means a lot, but doesn’t protecting your son mean more?”
“Can’t you look at the hospital security tapes? Maybe it’s not the same woman.” Ira splayed his fingers over his forehead. At any moment Rogan knew he would crack.
“It’s her, Ira.” Rogan leaned back and tapped the glass. “I can prove it. I’d like you to meet someone.”
“No, you said it was just us.” Ira stiffened as a female agent entered the room. She held a leather bound journal in her arms.
“Ira, this is Agent Anya Willinksy. Anya, this is Ira De Angelo, Kelly’s father.” Rogan pulled out a seat for Anya.
“It’s nice to meet you, Ira.” Anya extended her hand.
Ira kept his hands to himself, glaring at the pair of agents. “Where did you get that?” He nodded at the journal.
“Oh. This?” Anya placed the journal on the table and slid it to Ira. “Someone sent it to me a few years ago.”
“Someone just sent it to you?” Ira huffed. “I’m not biting.”
Rogan smirked. “No one asked you to, Ira. But thank you for letting us know you’ve seen it before. Now care to tell us who wrote this?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Ira’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed back lies.
Anya pulled a picture out of her jacket pocket. With trembling hands, she pushed the photo over the table. “Was it her? Was this author of the journal?”
Ira looked up at Anya. He frowned at the tear she wiped away. Still confused, Ira looked down at the photograph, then covered his mouth. “How? Why are you in this picture with Andrea?” He snatched the picture up. “Who are you? Why do you have this!”
“Because she was my Marcy.” Anya sniffled, but held it together with one look from Rogan. “She was the love of my life for almost ten years. She disappeared from our home, only leaving a goodbye note behind. A few years later I got this in the mail. The author said this was evidence against the killer. Can you help us understand what this journal means, Ira?”
“She’s still alive,” Ira whispered in awe. He sighed, tears gathering in his eyes. “All this time I thought…I thought she was gone. But she was with you.” His wistful smile was faint, but there. “She made it out.”
“Tell me what happened to…Andrea.” Anya reached out and took Ira’s hand. “I need to know. Please, Ira. Please help me to understand.”
Ira took a deep breath. He looked at Agent Rogan before settling back on Anya. Rogan knew Ira trusted Anya immediately. Something about this Andrea woman gave them a connection he didn’t understand. Ira took Anya’s hand in his. “I’ll tell you what I know, but none of them can know I said a thing. Do you understand?”
Anya squeezed his fingers. “You’re safe, Ira.”
“Okay,” he nodded dumbly. He took a deep drag on his cigarette. “I don’t know who the man was, so I can’t give you a name. I want to make that clear before I go on. None of us knew who he was, but he knew us. He knew everything about us and the girls.”
“The girls? As in Andrea and Birdie?” Rogan settled in for a long story.
“How do you know Birdie?” Ira narrowed his eyes.
“She’s mentioned in the journal quite a few times.” Anya rubbed his hand with a finger. “It’s all right. Please continue.”
“Sure,” he muttered and collected himself again. “Yeah, Birdie, Andrea, Jackie, Gloria, and Alicia went to Cavelle at the time. Hannah, Francis’s mother, she hung with us when she could. She was more of Yardley’s friend than ours. That’s Trusou’s wife, Yardley. She and Hannah went to Harvard together, but Hannah did write for the Hedgewater Holmes on summer break back when it was a paper.
“So we saw the pair of them more on school breaks. A lot more after Paul died and they moved to Hedgewater permanently. They got pregnant around the same too. It made sense back then to let your rich parents take care of your kid while you were off living it up at college, right? Kids were like accessories to them. Still are.”
“So am I right to assume you were all friends or was there a divide amongst you?” Rogan asked.
“We were friends back then, real tight. All of us guys were on the water polo team, best friends coming off the high of senior year in high school. Our families were close. We lived a good life in our little bubble. Everything was fine until Andrea started to pull away from the group. She was my girlfriend at the time and I thought it was my fault. I thought I’d done something wrong, something like the…” Ira put his face in his hands.
“Something like the what,” Anya encouraged.
Ira looked away. Rogan could see the teenager in him coming to the surface. His eyes sparked with embarrassment. He rubbed a hand over his face like his mother was giving him a talk about the birds and the bees. “Sex, okay? I thought I was lousy at it. I thought Andrea wanted to break up because of the sex and she was trying not to hurt my feelings by avoiding me. I was eighteen and fucking terrified the guys would find out I wasn’t such a stud. I was angry because I loved her and she just dropped me. Happy?”
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, Ira.” Anya smiled. “You were young and so was she.”
“But she was my best friend since grade school, more so than any of the guys. I thought she’d tell me anything, even if it was embarrassing or scary. Turns out I wasn’t really her type. That’s what she couldn’t tell me.” Ira looked down at his fidgeting hands. “She was in love with Birdie, not me.”
Rogan took a small notepad out of his pocket and began to jot down notes. “I see. Is Birdie still in Hedgewater?”
Ira nodded. “After Andrea ran away, Birdie and I stuck together. She lived with us the last few years back in Jersey, and when Kelly announced he was going to the college here, she moved back into her family’s house in town so she could keep an eye on him. She always loved that house and her parents only kept it around as an asset when they moved south. And she loves Kelly like her own. She wanted to give him a place to come home to when school got too hard. She knew how difficult moving here would be for me. So she took the decision from me.” He smirked to himself. “She knew I couldn’t stay in Jersey for long. It’s too far away from my son.”
“Are—are you and Birdie seeing each other?” Anya let go of his hand to give Ira room to think.
“That’s a tough question to answer.” Ira lifted his shoulders. “I’m closer to her than any other woman. We’ve been physical a few times, more out of loneliness than love. But we love each other in our own way. It’s hard not to love the woman you raised a child with. And Kelly is spitfire, just like her. He can’t keep his mouth shut to save his life. He also gets his soft side from her. I’m not sure what he gets from me.”
“He’s a good kid,” Rogan offered, smiling at his notepad. “You both did an excellent job.”
Ira’s distant smile eased the tension milling about the room. “Yeah. He is.”
“Ira, do you think Andrea would have contacted Birdie when she made it to town?”
“No. She wouldn’t want Birdie involved in this mess. She always tried to protect Birdie from all of it, up until that last night when she left and we never heard from her again.”
“Would you mind giving us Birdie’s real name?” Anya looked at the picture still on the table.
“I don’t want her involved—”
“Just a formality, Ira.” Rogan tapped his notepad. “There’s no harm in following up with all the suspects from Paul Fromme’s murder case. She was there that night according to this journal, and there’s a plausible connection between recent events and the night of Paul’s death. It’s reason enough to question her without raising brows. Okay?”
Ira thought about it for a second. “Promise me you won’t let anything happen to her, Rogan. Kelly wouldn’t recover. Neither would I.”
“I can’t make those kinds of promises, Ira. But I promise you I’ll have protection on her if it makes you feel better. I’ll have an agent patrol by the house every hour after we chat with her.”
“At least you’re not a sugar coater.” Ira sighed. “Fine, Birdie’s real name is Feema Brewster. Her address is 245 North Terrace Drive. She’s a librarian downtown for the Garden Society.”
“The Garden Society seems to run this town from what I hear.” Rogan put his notepad in his lap.
“They run everything. They’re just a bunch of rich old ladies who squander their husband’s money away because they have nothing better to do. But to everyone else it looks like they’re being charitable and helpful, throwing parties and cotillions, guiding the cream of the crop of Hedgewater’s youth to stardom. I hate those old bags.”
“Why?” Anya leaned forward. “I thought they loved you. You were on the water polo team. They dubbed you the lily. Isn’t that an honorable position?”
“I never you told you that.” Ira looked at the journal. His jaw ticked. “Andrea did. She didn’t write everything in that stupid book. She didn’t tell you how they made our lives hell and tried to play match maker to marry us off like sheep. They acted like they owned us. I never cared about being a lily or whatever other flower they chose. The flowers were stupid. That bitch Alice Michaelson, she made Birdie and Andrea’s life miserable.”
“Alice Michaelson?” Anya prodded.
“Yeah, Dean Michaelson’s stuck up mother. She was the president of the Garden Society at the time. When cotillion season came around Alice paired us off with the Cavelle girls to go through training. It was right after Birdie had started telling people she was bisexual. It caused a wave all right, because Birdie was Alice’s prized granddaughter. No grandchild of hers would be caught dead sleeping with the same sex. It just wasn’t done. So, she denied Birdie the right to participate in cotillion, and gave her the title of junior secretary for the society. She had to sit out and keep her mouth shut about her relationship with Andrea. Birdie just wanted Andrea to be happy, even if doing so made her unhappy.”
Rogan began to jot down notes again. “So let me get this straight. Alice found out Feema was bisexual and didn’t like it. She didn’t know who Feema was in a relationship or that she was in one at all, but she punished Feema by cutting her out of cotillion?”
“That’s right. She almost cut Paul out, too, when the rumors started about him. Nothing with Alice could be flawed or unique. She couldn’t except that two people of the same sex could love each other beyond friends.”
“And you did? You accepted Birdie and Andrea’s relationship when she broke up with you?” Anya kept her body relaxed. She didn’t want to appear a threat to Ira.
“Of course I did. Yes, I was mad as hell at first. I loved Andrea. Birdie was my good friend. I felt betrayed and angry and all sorts of shit. But like I said, I loved Andrea, still do, and I’d do anything to make her happy. I know I’m pathetic for just letting it go. But if you had seen them together back then, you’d have let them be too.”
Rogan nodded. “They were in love. I get it. And you’re a good friend for defending them.”
“I wasn’t good.” Ira shook his head. “I fucked it all up. But the worst part is I’ll never regret it.”
“We’ll come back to that in second, okay?” Rogan tilted his head. “Ira?”
“Sure. Like I have a choice.” Ira stretched in his chair. His back cracked. He rubbed his neck to ease his stress.
Rogan smiled. “You have a choice here, Ira, and from where I’m sitting you’re making the right one. I want you to know that. Let’s go back to what you said about Paul. What rumors were going around at the time?”
“I thought that was rather obvious. He was gay.” Ira shook his head. “Alice got a whisper of it in her ear. Someone had seen Paul in the woods with another man, going at it, but that was just a rumor until after cotillion. Then he came out to us; no one else, not even his family. Just us.”
“Us who?” Anya got up and went to the metal carafe of coffee on a stool in the corner.
“The group. His friends. We all know who told Alice about Paul. It wasn’t that hard to figure out. Paul said he had a new man in his life, an older man, and he wanted us to be happy for him. He told us one night out at the cabins. We were having a bonfire to celebrate a game win and it should have been a happy memory, but Trusou and Rory Ozella fucked it all up. You would have thought Paul was a demon to them. They screamed and pushed him around a bit, called him a faggot and some other choice names. They said they hoped he would die for being disgusting.”
“Did you tell the police this when Paul died?” Rogan scribbled furiously on his notepad. He flipped a page.
“No. The threats started before Paul’s death. The threats from him.” Ira stared at the wall, unseeing. Rogan and Anya said nothing. They knew Ira was losing his battle. They knew he needed to get it all off his chest. “The group had split up. Rory and Trusou were too busy dealing with protecting their kids and hating on Andrea, Birdie, and Paul to talk to us anymore. The rest of us tried to act like everything was normal, but it wasn’t. Birdie’s sister Mildred moved out of the house to live with her grandmother in Vermont, leaving Birdie alone with her mother because her dad worked a lot. Her mom, Dean Michaelson’s sister, was kind of nuts. She wanted to straighten Birdie out. Stranger still, Birdie and Mildred were close. Mildred would have never chose to leave Birdie, even if she was bisexual. None of that mattered to Mildred. She was too young to care.
“Birdie spent a lot of time in the library after that. Other than me and Andrea, she didn’t talk with the others after that. She wanted to stay out of it. She was scared. Andrea started to fall back again after the letters and phone calls from our tormentor began. I didn’t get to see her as much because she busied herself with school and taking care of her dad. He was an alcoholic. He…he hit her.” Ira accepted the coffee from Anya. His breathing quickened. His hand trembled around the Styrofoam cup.
Anya sat down. She reached for his hand. “Ira, you can take a break if you need—”
He cut her off by pulling his hand back to take a sip of coffee. “Jackie missed a few days on her birth control. She wound up pregnant.” Ira looked at them. “You don’t understand. Jackie is the most organized neat freak you will ever meet. Someone like Jackie doesn’t forget her pills. Someone takes them out and makes her think she did. If you think I’m crazy, wait until you hear this. Six weeks later Gloria tells Dean she’s pregnant. He didn’t believe her at first. Gloria and Dean already had Leif when they were sixteen and that was pretty complicated as it was. They wanted to graduate college, get jobs, and get married before they had any more kids. They were both on board with that plan, strict with it too. Their parents were also. They took care of Leif so Gloria and Dean could go to college.”
“So, naturally, Dean freaked out about another baby. I went over to check on him after our practice and he was just sitting in his dorm room, on the bed, holding a box of condoms. He was so proud of his little stash at the top of the closet, even prouder that he went through them like underwear.” Ira gave a wry smile. “When I sat next to him, he gave me the unopened box and told me to open them. I did. I didn’t see anything until he pulled an opened box from behind a pillow and pulled out a wrapped condom. He showed me the hole in the middle. Someone had poked holes in the side of the box, tiny little holes you couldn’t even feel with your finger. Clean through the unopened box too.
“Gloria was too much of a mess to have done it. She wasn’t ready to be a mother to two. And she wasn’t a liar. She was always too sweet for it. Then everything went so wrong. I thought the worst was over.”
“What happened, Ira?” Rogan whispered. He put his notepad down, entranced with the story unfolding.
“He planned all of it. He had our numbers and he knew how to use them. He sent out letters to our dorms, all of us, every fucking day. He knew about everything we’d done. He knew I’d cheated on my SATs to get into Hedgewater. He knew I’d…he knew I was doing speed before games. He knew I was in love with Andrea, so he made sure we were too scared to see each other. No matter how she felt for Birdie, there was still something between us. I wanted her so bad. He knew that. He had every mistake we’d ever done on paper.”
“How did he know this?”
“Because he was fucking Paul. And only Paul knew who the guy was. He took that with him to his grave.”
“You think the killer was Paul’s lover?”
“I know he was. That bastard made sure to tell us after Paul died,” Ira choked. He put his face in his hands and started to sob. “He ruined us.”
“Ira, listen to me. Ira.” Anya stood and went to his side. She put an arm around him. “That’s enough for today. You’ve been so helpful. You’ve done a very good thing tonight.” She rubbed his back until he looked up at her.
“One more question, Ira, and then you’re free to go for tonight.” Rogan pushed a hand through his hair. “Can you do one more question?”
“Last one.” Anya let Ira hold her hand. “Then you can go.”
“What? What else is there?”
“Plenty, but this is the most important right now. Ira, is Andrea Kelly’s mother?”
Ira sucked in air through his nose and closed his eyes. “I told you I wasn’t good. Neither of us were.”
“Yes or no, Ira.” Rogan stood.
“Yes, okay? How the fuck could you not see that?” Ira picked up the picture and waved it violently. “He looks just like her. Every fucking day I see her in him and I know she never really left. That’s why I don’t regret what we did, even betraying Birdie like that. Because Kelly is perfect. He’s perfect,” Ira’s tone died to a whisper.
“You need to tell him about his mother, Ira,” Rogan said sternly. “If Andrea tries to contact him, we can’t risk him falling apart. He needs to be prepared and you need to be the one to do it, you and Birdie. It’s not fair to that kid you’ve lied to him all this time. Lying isn’t protecting him, lying is hurting him. The sooner you come clean with your son and do a little healing, the sooner he can prepare for the worst.”
“He’ll hate me. I told him his mother was a drug addict that couldn’t live with us. He’s always been so understanding. He thought I did the right thing.” Ira wiped his eyes.
“You did do the right thing, Ira.” Anya crouched down. “You protected that boy when no else could, when his mother left him to go into hiding. He probably doesn’t even realize all you sacrificed to raise him, when you basically a child yourself. You graduated college for him. You got a job and a home for him. He’s a beautiful kid, healthy and strong, and that’s all because of you. Don’t believe any different. Don’t tell him anything but the truth. You’ll both be just fine.”
In a daze, Ira stood up from his chair. He offered Anya a hand and pulled her to standing. The two of them silently stared at each other, two lovers of the same woman. What could be said to comfort the other? In that moment? Nothing.
“Ira, please keep your phone on you at all times in case we need to reach you. I would ask that you not mention this meeting to anyone except Kelly or Birdie should the need arise. I also want you to talk with Kelly immediately. If you need us you have my number. He should be out with our agent at The Nook.”
“My son is meeting with your agent? You didn’t tell me that,” Ira growled.
“Relax, he’s a friend of Kelly’s.” Anya put a hand on Ira’s shoulder. “We did tell you he was protected, didn’t we?”
“My son is friends with an agent?” Ira put his hands on the table. He leaned into Rogan’s space. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Luca. Luca is one of ours.”
“The Luca I keep hearing about? Kelly’s friend, Luca? Oh, Rogan. You piece of shit.” Ira pushed off the table and grabbed his jacket. “If my kid gets his heart broken, I’ll break your face. I don’t give two shits about felonies, either.” He pulled open the door to the hallway.
“Ira, wait!” Rogan grabbed the door from him. “Whatever you do, don’t you dare tell Kelly about Luca or Anya. They’re in place for his protection. You got that?”
Ira narrowed his eyes over his shoulder. “Fuck you, Rogan.” He stormed out of the interrogation room and around the corner.
Rogan took a deep breath, counted to ten in his head, and let the door click shut. “Text Luca. I think Ira might try to protect his son’s fragile mental state and spill. He’ll want a heads up.”
“Got it.” Anya continued to stare at the photo on the table.
“Willinksy, what are you thinking?”
“It was a lot to digest, more than I’d thought we would get. But out of all it, the one thing I can’t shake is a name.”
Anya shook her head. She looked up, blowing a stray hair from her eyes. “No. Mildred.”
Kelly was so immersed in his conversation with the HGG he didn’t notice his cell going off on the table. He put his Italian soda down to keep liquid from spewing out his mouth when Priest told another funny story. The Nook buzzed with students gathered around small round tables, in cushy booths, or chairs. Indie music pumped out of speakers in the ceiling. The espresso machine whirred. Beans were ground with the press of a button. And near the back of the coffee shop, Kelly was crammed between a group of a dozen people that understood his language.
Priest nodded. Pleased with himself, his guild members broke into laughter. “And then I told those assholes that was how a female player does it. Damn online chauvinists had no idea I was a dude, but you don’t mess with my girlfriend, call her trash, and get away with it. I swept that score and left them weeping for mercy.”
Kelly huffed in air. “I can’t believe you stole their ammo like that. They must have been pissed. Serves them right for thinking girls can’t play. In my old guild, this girl Heather, man…she could hand those guys their asses.”
Priest grinned and slung an arm around his girlfriend Jessie. She was skinny and tall, a little bit taller than Priest. Her bright red hair was pulled into a messy ponytail and her frameless glasses made her look like a scientist. But she was pretty and nice, and Kelly could see why Priest liked her.
Jessie looked at Kelly. “It’s good to know you have a heart for the ladies. We may like lipgloss, but we can handle our weapons like any other man.”
Priest squeezed Jessie’s shoulder. “Jessie here ranks top ten on the Xbox Live leaderboard. It’s unofficial, but she’s number three in Call of Duty on a national level. She’s got bites from several developers for after college. They’ve even invited her to fly to California next summer.”
Jessie blushed, hiding her face against Priest’s thick neck. “Stop it.”
“What? Can’t we show you off?” He mussed her hair then got a slap to his soft belly from Jessie.
“That’s really cool, Jessie.” Kelly smiled, holding Luca’s hand under the table. “I want to open my own developing company after school. I’ll probably have to work a few years under someone else to gain connections, so keep me in mind when you get rich and famous.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to work for anyone with scores like yours. People online already know your old guild. Hell, I’ve heard of you guys. That’s why we were so psyched to have you here.” Priest looked at Kelly. “Dude, you’ve got to go out for the semester competition. People will freak when they hear GrayLordTwelve is playing. It’ll be nuts. And I heard Jack Rhinelin will be there from Mesa Games. He’s got a little brother who’s a senior in high school the next county over. His little bro is some hotshot wannabe. If you catch Jack’s eye, doors will open up, my friend.”
Kelly salivated at the thought of Jack Rhinelin watching him play. Jack had been Kelly’s idol for the past few years. The games coming out of Mesa were beautiful, bold, and creative. They were the next big thing in the gaming world. Kelly wanted to be a part of their glory. He glanced at Luca, excitement in his eyes. “You didn’t tell me that.”
“Didn’t think I had to.” Luca leaned in. “I thought you’d say yes no matter what. You’re kind of a celebrity on the East coast.”
“With gamers maybe.” Kelly chuckled.
“Which is a big deal,” Luca reminded him. “Are you having fun?” he whispered in Kelly’s ear.
“Tons,” Kelly murmured back. He glanced at the guild out of the corner of his eye. They started another conversation now that Luca and Kelly were having a moment. It was nice they didn’t care if he and Luca were gay. They just accepted it like his hair was brown and not blonde. It was nice to fit in and not have to worry or make excuses so they didn’t harass him.
“They’re going back to Priest’s after this to play Bioshock. If you want to go, that’s cool, but we could always go back to my room.” Luca’s hand rubbed Kelly’s thigh.
“And do what?” Kelly’s breath caught. Luca’s hand whispered over his zipper.
“I thought I owed you one.”
Kelly cleared his throat. He plastered on a smile when a guild member glanced at him. “Sure. Yeah. I mean, yes you do.”
“Good,” Luca purred. “Finish your drink. If we leave soon maybe Priest won’t notice.”
“Maybe Priest won’t notice what?” Priest eyeballed them over the rim of his latte mug.
“Nothing,” Kelly squeaked. His phone lit up on the table. His dad’s face filled the screen. “Uh, excuse me a minute. I have to take this.” He stood up so fast his chair hit the wall. “Uh, I’ll—”
Luca sniggered. “Make it quick.”
“Yeah, newbie, make it fast!” Priest drummed his hands on the table. The HGG picked up the drumroll across the table until the barista at the counter told them to cut it out. Kelly made a beeline for the front door and stepped out into the cool, evening air.
He answered the phone with a huge grin on his face. “Hey, Dad.”
“Kelly?” Ira choked. “Kelly, are you all right?”
“Yeah.” Kelly frowned. “Why wouldn’t I be?” After a moment passed with no answer, Kelly leaned against the corner of The Nook and looked around. “Dad, what’s wrong?”
“I was just called into a meeting with Agent Rogan. I don’t want to have this conversation on the phone. It should be in person. I need to tell you something.”
“Dad, you’re scaring me.”
“Kelly, I’m scared, too. I’ve been scared for a long time, but you’re my kid and I’d do anything to protect you. If it means I have to shed some ugly things from my past to keep you safe, I’ll do it. You’re all I got, Kelly.”
“Dad, what’s going on? Why are you talking like that?” Kelly eyed the empty streets of downtown Hedgewater. It was getting late, past eleven the last time he’d checked. It was a school night and only one solitary figure was walking up to The Nook from across the street. Leary, Kelly stepped into the shadows, away from the street lamp’s glow, and held his phone tightly to his ear. “Dad, tell me what Agent Rogan said.”
“Not on the phone. It’s not safe. Where are you? I can come pick you up. I’m headed over to Aunt Fi’s.”
“I-I’m with Luca at The Nook. I’ll have him take me over there.”
“No! I’ll pick you up. This is a family matter.”
“Dad? What the hell is it?”
“Trust no one, Kelly. You can’t trust anyone, do you hear me?”
“Dad, Luca is my boyfriend. I trust him.”
“And did the boyfriend you trust so much happen to tell you he’s a federal agent?”
All the air from Kelly’s lungs disappeared. He clung to the brick wall of The Nook, numb to the core. “You’re lying. Why are you lying to me?”
“I’m not lying to you. I heard it for myself, Kelly, from Rogan’s lips. Wait there, I’ll pick you up in a few minutes. Don’t wait outside. It’s too dark. I’ll text you when I’m there.”
“You’re a liar,” Kelly repeated, rage building in his voice. “I hate you.”
“Kelly, don’t do this to me. I didn’t want to hurt you. God knows I’ve hurt enough people, but this is serious. This is your life and I won’t chance it to anything, not even a boyfriend.”
“Fuck you,” Kelly spat. “You’re nothing but a liar and a coward and I hate you.”
Kelly sucked in air and ended the call. The noise that came out of his throat was like an animalistic sob. He couldn’t blink. He couldn’t feel his body, only the rip in his heart. His awkward slide down the wall left his hoodie in disarray. Only when he was in a full crouch, ready to cry like a baby, did his phone beep with a new message.
He thought it was his dad, begging him to answer, but it was someone else. Someone he never wanted to hear from again.
Hedgewater Holmes has a new message for you. Do you accept?
Kelly’s thumb hovered over the screen. He gave in and hit yes.
It’s funny how no one suspects the new kid. He moves into town right after a string of heinous crimes, with a father who ran away from it all, and why? Why does no one look at poor little Kelly De Angelo? There the night River Hathaway was sent to the ER. Unknown whereabouts the night Shay Foster was attacked. He could have been in town for all we know. Yet, no one seems to care. What are you hiding, Kelly? What is your deepest, darkest secret?
Kelly looked up just as the figure on the sidewalk corner moved slowly to cross the other street. Growling under his breath, Kelly shot to his feet. Who else would know when to send this message out, especially when he was so upset? Who else could’ve heard the conversation with his dad? Who else would know when to hit him when he was down? There was only one person who could have heard. Only one person who was walking away from him…
Kelly stomped onto the corner, and threw his hoodie back just as the figure was in the middle of the street. “Holmes,” he shouted. The figure kept walking. Kelly took a chance and screamed, “Francis!”
The figure stopped like he’d been zapped. He stayed there in the middle of the street, frozen in time.
“I know it’s you. I know what you’ve done. Why me? Why do you want to bring me down? What have I ever done to you that you didn’t deserve?” Tears ran down Kelly’s face as he stepped off the curb. “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you so evil?”
The figure turned around. His identity masked with a black, hooded sweatshirt until he looked up and Francis Ozella’s eyes were revealed to Kelly. His tears matched Kelly’s. His lips puckered with unsaid things. He inhaled and swallowed; a complete mess under the safety of his hood. “I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want to hurt people. I just didn’t have a place to fit in. You can understand that, can’t you? You never had a place until you came here. You never had a purpose.”
“You could’ve made friends. You could’ve talked to someone, Francis. This, ruining people’s lives, is not how you’re supposed to do it.” Kelly fisted his hands. “What do you gain from all of this? Huh? What the fuck do you get?”
“It doesn’t matter anymore, Kelly. Nothing matters anymore.” Francis’s arm came out from behind his back. A gun slipped from the back of his jeans to point at Kelly. “No one can know who I am. He’ll kill me, too. I’m sorry, De Angelo. I’m so fucking sorry.” Francis sniffed and licked his lips of tears. “You just had to push me.”
Kelly panted, backing up to the curb. He stumbled and fell onto the sidewalk. “Francis, don’t! Please,” he begged.
“Please isn’t going to save you. It never does. I would know.” Francis aimed the gun at Kelly.
The rev of an engine made both boys whip their heads to the right. Tires squealed. High beam headlights came from around the corner. The driver pushed the gas to the floor, screeching at top speeds as they made the turn. Francis’s mouth opened, but a scream never came out. The sporty black car hit him so fast Kelly didn’t even have time to blink. Francis’s body thudded against the hood, over the top of the car and splat to the pavement. The gun hit the ground hard, then swirled to a stop in the intersection.
The driver revved the engine a few times, stopped in front of Francis’s body, as people ran out of The Nook. Kelly stared in fear at the blacked out windows. He clutched his chest, pushing with his heels to scoot over the sidewalk. It was as if the driver wanted him to know what they’d done and they were proud of it. This was no drunk driver. This wasn’t an accident. The driver of the car with no license plate or identifying marks had hit Francis on purpose.
People flooded the sidewalk around Kelly. The driver peeled off into the night. Kelly sucked in air over and over, staring at Francis’s still body. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. Francis was looking at him with lifeless eyes. Blood trailed down his face. His arms and legs were twisted in way that reminded Kelly of a ragdoll. Kelly’s shoulders shook. He curled up on the sidewalk, crying like a baby.
“Kelly! Shit, Kelly!”
Luca’s shoes stopped in front of Kelly. His face soon appeared as he crouched down. His hand reached out, but Kelly scattered away from him. “Don’t touch me.”
“Kelly, I need to make sure you’re all right.” Luca’s eyes were pained, yet alert. “Please, let me take a look.”
“No. Don’t you fucking touch me.” Kelly pushed off the building to stand. He waited until the HGG crowded around them.
“Holy shit, Kelly. Are you okay?” Priest’s chest rose and fell. True concern clouded his eyes. “Dude, what happened?”
Kelly hugged himself. He stepped forward until he could see Francis again. Long blond hair fanned over the wet, red pavement. Francis was dead. He could have been dead. “I don’t know. Why don’t you ask the agent?”
“Agent?” Jessie put a hand to her mouth. “Did someone call it in already? Are the Feds here?”
Kelly turned to Luca. His eyes narrowed. He could let the cat out of the bag if he wanted. Judging by Luca’s face, his dad hadn’t been lying. Luca had. None of Luca’s friends knew. None of his fake friends. Only his fake boyfriend knew his true identity. “Not yet. Luca, you want to do the honors?” Kelly’s voice was so gruff and deep he didn’t recognize it.
Sirens rang out in the distance. Kelly’s nostrils flared. Tears still wet his cheeks. Overwhelmed was somewhere far behind him. Kelly didn’t know what to feel anymore. Everything in his life seemed to be a lie or a game to someone else. Who was he? Where did he fall on the board? Who was after him? What did he ever do to deserve this life?
“Kelly, are you okay?” Luca tried again. His voice sounded so far away, so shut down. Kelly wanted to hug him, but he wouldn’t know who he was hugging anymore. He hadn’t really known Luca to begin with. He’d just fallen, fallen hard.
“There’s a dead body behind me, Luca. Francis. Francis tried to kill me. Then someone hit him with their car. He’s. Dead. So, no, I’m not fucking okay.” Kelly took a step back. “I need to go.”
“You can’t just leave. Cops are on the way, Kelly. You need to tell them what happened,” Jessie pleaded.
“Tell them what happened?” Kelly’s jaw ticked. “No one knows what the fuck is happening. It’s all one big lie we’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out. It’s all a lie,” he whispered.
“Luca, I think he’s going into shock,” Jessie snuggled into Priest’s side. “Call an ambulance.”
Luca stared into Kelly. The invisible tie holding them together pulled tight enough to snap. The tension bled over the crowd. They were two men at odds with life, standing next to death and facing it all at the same time. Could they recover from this? As Kelly shook his head, the answer was pretty clear.
Luca closed his eyes. He gulped for air. His phone was in his hand as he brought it to his ear. “I never lied to you. I only wanted to keep you safe. I can’t do that if you don’t trust me, Kelly. I’d do anything to prove myself to you.”
“What are you talking about, dude? What’s going on?” Priest looked between Kelly and Luca. “Will someone tell me something here? There’s a guy twisted up on the ground over there and no one seems to care!”
Luca continued to stare at Kelly as the line connected. “This is Agent Wickham, identification number…” He covered his mouth with a hand as he whispered. “We’ve got a 187 at Hilmore and Vine. Hold.” Luca stepped up to Kelly. “What did the car look like?”
Kelly shook his head.
“Kelly, the car. Now.”
“Black! It was black on black. Tinted windows. No plate.”
“What kind of car?”
“I don’t know, sporty, two doors?” Kelly covered his eyes with a hand. “It went that way.” He pointed in the direction leading out of town.
“Sports car, two doors, newer model; last known direction headed north on Vine,” Luca proceeded. “Yes. That’s right. I’ll wait.”
Luca’s arm was around Kelly before he could protest. Kelly sagged against his chest. He needed someone. Luca was his someone. Agent or not, lies and truths, Luca had revealed his identity to everyone, probably ruining his job just to keep Kelly as his. Kelly hugged Luca. He kept hugging him even after flashing lights and megaphones surrounded them.
Francis Ozella was dead. Kelly knew he was next.
“What the hell is he doing?” Jagger peered around a brick column. He looked at the seedy, one story motel across the empty street. They’d driven three hours north of Hedgewater to the small town of Temperance Flats, chasing Andrew, the guy Jagger knew as Lee.
“You’ve asked that almost fifteen billion times since we got in the car,” Marcus huffed. “It’s freezing out here and Asia’s about to get hypothermia.” Marcus rubbed Asia’s shivering arms. The artist had barely managed to throw on jeans and a tank top before he’d been yanked out of the house. They’d only caught up with Andrew because they’d lucked out and seen which direction he’d driven off. Now they were hiding out by a post office, scoping out the building Andrew had gone in. They were cold and hungry, but Jagger was too scared to move from the spot. He had to have some type of reassurance that crossing the street was safe.
“Get him a coat or something.” Jagger looked over his shoulder. He nearly melted seeing Asia with his arms wrapped around his chest, shaking like a leaf. “Shit. I’m sorry.” Jagger pulled off his leather jacket and handed it to Marcus. “You’re fucking blue, Asia.” The cold hit him like a thousand knives piercing his skin. The radio hadn’t been kidding about a cold front moving in. He could see his breath with every exhale.
“No,” Asia’s teeth chattered, “I’m white. It says so on my driver’s license.” He chuckled, but it wasn’t a happy sound. “Can you we at least go into the lobby, Jagger? It really is chilly out here.”
“And say what? Excuse me. We need a key to our drug dealer’s room. He might actually be involved with a serial rapist slash murderer?” Jagger rolled his eyes. “I’m sorry, that might be the dumbest idea ever. Warm the car up for him, Marcus. Take it around the block.”
“Jagger,” Marcus growled. “Asia is fucking cold and so am I. If you actually admitted it out loud, you are too. I’m tired. I’m hungry. And no one except Andrew and two other guys are over there, dude. We’ve seen the office guy go out for a smoke. There’s the truck driver who pulled in an hour after Andrew and both of them have been in their separate rooms the entire time. We can go over there and knock on Andrew’s door if you want some answers. He has to know we’re here. I mean, we did follow him for almost three hours, Jagger. He was bound to notice us tailing him.”
Jagger hung his head. He scratched the back of his neck, then looked up at the motel. There were twelve rooms, each with a different colored door that opened directly into the parking lot. Half of the lights didn’t work under the awning over the sidewalk. And the vacancy sign buzzed so loud they could hear it across the street. It was a dump, a very scary looking dump where vagrants, drug dealers, and prostitutes hung out. Temperance Flats wasn’t Hedgewater. The Flats was as ghetto as small towns got.
“There could be someone in there with him. Maybe they got dropped off.” Jagger put a hand to the column and pushed off. He walked a few feet out of the shadows to get a better look, coming to a stop at Marcus’s car. “What if they’re waiting for us in there?”
Marcus led Asia to Jagger. “Fine, you pussy. Keep him warm while I look in the trunk.”
Asia snuggled into Jagger’s open arms. He shivered uncontrollably, swimming in Jagger’s jacket. “What’s he looking for?” Jagger put his chin on Asia’s head, watching Marcus unlock his trunk.
“With him, you never know,” Asia chattered. “But I have to tell you, J, I don’t like this. I’m not a fighter and no matter how you dress and how bad you talk, you’re not one either.”
“No one is fighting, okay?” Jagger kissed his head. “If we go over there I want you to stay in the car. Keep out of sight and call the cops if something goes down. Can you do that?”
“You should have called the cops hours ago, Jagger. You should let them handle this. I hate to be the voice of reason, you know that. But this could go wrong, J. What if Andrew has a gun?”
Marcus shut the trunk as softly as he could. “Then we’ll have one too.” He clicked a magazine into a handgun with his palm.
“What the fuck, Marcus?” Jagger pushed Asia behind his back. “Shit. Where did you get that?”
“My dad’s into guns. He makes me carry one in the trunk in case I get into trouble, because he thinks I’m too pansy to handle my own, but he plays it off as me being more susceptible to gay bashings. Can you believe that crap?” A sound of disgust rolled off Marcus’s tongue.
“Can you even use that thing?” Jagger stared at the gun in Marcus’s hand.
Marcus snorted. “Can I use it, he asks. Uh, yeah, Jagger, I can use a gun that’s in my own damn trunk.”
“Fine. Whatever. Will you please just put it away?” Jagger held onto Asia from behind. “I don’t want anyone getting shot because you claim you can use a gun that you really can’t.”
“I’m not staying in the car. Not now.” Asia shook his head against Jagger’s back. “No way.”
“Yes, you are,” Jagger argued.
“Asia, I think you should stay here,” Marcus backed him up. “We can handle one guy, especially if I’m packing.”
“Watch out,” Jagger sneered, “we’ve got a badass on the loose.”
Marcus scoffed, bobbing his head. “Cut it out, bitch.”
Headlights lit up the street in front of the motel, driving in from the highway exit. The three of them ducked down behind Marcus’s car. Someone came to a stop at the motel. A car door slammed shut. Someone walked over the gravel parking lot. Jagger slowly rose until the tip of his nose was level with the trunk of the car. His eyes screwed up in shock. They widened. His mouth went dry. “No way.”
“What is it?” Asia hissed.
“Not what, who,” Jagger whispered, staring at a familiar blonde man who stopped in front of Andrew’s car. He bent over to look inside. Once the man was satisfied no one was inside the vehicle, he went to Andrew’s door marked number seven. He pulled something out from behind his back.
“Who is it?” Asia snuck up next to Jagger. He struggled to see across the street. When he saw the flashy set of wheels next to Andrew’s beat up shit-mobile and the man at the door, his mouth opened. “No fucking way. Rory Ozella? That’s Francis’s dad. What is he doing here?”
“He’s got a gun, Asia,” Jagger breathed. Something in Jagger left the building. His conscience, everything he knew to be safe and good flew away. He pushed Asia to get to Marcus. The gun from Marcus’s hand transferred to his with a swift pull. The light in his head clicked on as little things started to piece together.
“Jagger,” Marcus growled. “Jagger!”
“He’s going to kill him. Andrew, whatever his name is, he knows. He knows something important about the killer and Rory’s going to shut him up.” Jagger took a few shaky breaths, then tossed Marcus his phone. “Call Rogan. Tell him everything. Tell him to send the local cops.” Jagger looked around for anyone lingering on streets. When no one popped out of the shadows, or people who didn’t give a shit chose to stay hidden, he took off running.
Light poured around Rory Ozella’s shadowy frame in the number seven slot. Jagger heard the rusty squeak of the door’s hinges. He heard his heart pounding in his ears. Fear didn’t have a place in his body. Jagger closed the distance, racing over the gravel parking lot. He flashed by Rory’s black Mercedes. He stomped onto the covered sidewalk in front of Andrew’s room.
Andrew yelled something as he was pushed inside. Jagger flipped the door wide open. A lamp crashed to the dingy tile floor. Rory took Andrew to the ground, the gun held tight in his large hand. Andrew’s face turned red. He struggled to keep the weapon away from him. His bloodshot eyes flicked to Jagger.
“Him,” Andrew said roughly. “It was him.”
Jagger had never used a gun before. He’d never seen a real one up close. He’d never held the heavy metal in his palm. He’d never had a need to, until now. He took a few steps towards the man fighting on top of Andrew, struggling to aim the muzzle at Andrew’s face. Jagger put the muzzle of Marcus’s gun to the back of Rory’s head.
Time stood still.
Jagger’s brain registered what he was doing, but his heart didn’t seem to care. He was that much closer to finding out what was going on. Jagger wanted someone to pay. Rory knew who that someone was. Rory Ozella could be that someone for all Jagger knew.
“Put the gun down,” Jagger said in an unwavering show of determination. Had he not known the words came from his own lips, he wouldn’t have recognized his voice.
Rory stilled, positioned over Andrew. The gun in his hand was pointed toward the ceiling. Andrew didn’t let go of Rory’s wrist. Jagger didn’t blame him.
“Put the gun down, Mr. Ozella, and slowly get off him.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” Rory growled.
Jagger gripped the gun tighter. He shoved the gun against Rory’s head, until he could massage the scalp. He wasn’t fucking around. “I hear that a lot, but for once I know exactly what I’m doing, and what I will do if you don’t put that gun down.”
Rory’s light eyes slid from Andrew to Jagger as he turned his head. Not the slightest hint of fear resonated in his eyes. “Oh, Jagger, you think you know, but you have no idea what I’m going to do to you.”
Lines appeared between Jagger’s eyes as he sought some type of understanding in Rory’s words. He sniffed as he saw the gun transfer hands, from Rory’s left to his right like a magic trick. His body froze as Andrew struggled away from Rory, rolling up to the end of the bed made of three mattresses. All in a matter of seconds, Rory stood pointing a gun at Jagger. The two of them were left at a stalemate. It all came down to whether Jagger had the balls big enough to shoot Francis’s father between the eyes or whether he was a dead man standing.
They stood there, pointing loaded guns at each other for what seemed like an eternity. Andrew hid in the corner, cowering like the beautiful rat he was. Jagger’s arms burned from holding his position. His elbows locked up. Rory’s smile burned into his mind.
“Why?” Jagger choked on air that tasted of stale cigarette smoke and something else, something harder that was sold by the gram.
“I ask myself that every single day.” Rory didn’t blink. “I ask myself why me? What the hell did I do? And you know what I realized, Jagger?”
“Life sucks. Get over it.”
The cracked front door was kicked open. Jagger’s body lost the fight, turning around in terror. A large hand pushed him to the floor. He tasted blood in his mouth as his teeth made contact with the tile. And then the loudest boom he’d ever heard stole his ability to think.
TO BE CONTINUED…