To say goodbye is to die a little.
Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye,
The Dark Tide
It began, as a lot of things do, in bed.
Or, to be precise, on the living room sofa where I was uncomfortably dozing.
Somewhere in the distance of a very weird dream about me and a certain ex-LAPD police lieutenant came a faint but persistent scratching. The scratching worked itself into my dream and I deduced with the vague logic of the unconscious that the cat was sharpening his claws again on the antique half moon table in the hall.
Except…that boneless ball of heat on my abdomen was the cat. And he was sound asleep…
I opened my eyes. It was dark and it took me a second or two to place myself. Moonlight outlined the pirate bookends on the bookshelf. From where I lay I could just make out the motion of the draperies in the warm July breeze in the front room of the flat above Cloak and Dagger Books.
I was home.
There had been a time when I’d thought I would never see home again. But here I was. I had a furry heating pad on my belly, I had a crick in my neck, and I had--apparently--a midnight visitor.
My first thought was that Lisa had called Guy, my ex, and that he was dutifully looking in on me. But that furtive scraping wasn’t the sound of a key, it was more like someone trying to…well, pick the lock.
I rolled off the sofa, dislodging the sleeping cat, and staggered to my feet fighting the dizziness that dogged me since my heart surgery three weeks earlier. I’d been staying at my mother’s home in the Chatsworth Hills, but I’d checked myself out of the lunatic asylum that afternoon.
If Guy had dropped by, he’d have turned on the light in the shop below. There was no band of light beneath the door. No, what there was, was the occasional flash of illumination as though someone were trying to balance a flashlight.
I wasn’t dreaming. Someone was trying to break in.
I felt my way across the darkened room to the entrance hall. My heart was already beating way too hard and too fast and I felt a spark of anxiety--the anxiety that was getting to be familiar since my surgery. Was my healing heart up to this kind of strain? Even as I was calculating whether I could get to the Webley in the bedroom closet and load it before the intruder got the door open, or whether my best bet was to lock myself in the bedroom and phone the cops, the decision was made for me.
The lock mechanism turned over, the door handle rotated, and the door silently inched out of the frame.
I reacted instinctively, grabbing the rush bottom chair in the hall and throwing it with all my strength. “Get the hell out of here,” I yelled over the racket of the chair clattering into the door and hitting the floor.
And, surprisingly enough, the intruder did get the hell out.
Not a dream. Not a misreading of the situation. Someone had tried to break into my living quarters.
I heard the heavy thud of footsteps pounding down the staircase back to the shop, heard something crash below, heard another crash, and then--as I tottered to the wall light switch--the slam of a distant door.
What door? Not the side entrance of the shop below because I knew that particular bang very well, and certainly not the front door behind the security gate…it had to be from the adjacent structure. The bookstore took up one half of a subdivided building that had originally, back in the thirties, housed a small hotel. The other half of the building had gone through a variety of commercial incarnations, none of which had survived more than a year or so, until I’d finally been in position to buy it myself the previous spring. It was currently in the expensive and noisy process of being renovated, the two halves divided by a wall of thick plastic.
Possibly not the greatest security in the world, although the contractor assured me the perimeter doors were all guarded by “construction cores” and that it was as safe as it had ever been. He obviously wasn’t familiar with my history, let alone the history of the building.
I leaned back against the wall, trying to catch my breath and listening. Somewhere down the street I heard an engine roaring into life. Not necessarily my intruder’s getaway car fleeing the scene, but this was a non-residential part of Pasadena, and at night it was very quiet and surprisingly isolated.
There was a time when I’d have intrepidly gone downstairs to see what the damage was. But that was four murder investigations, one shooting, and one heart surgery ago. I picked up the phone, slid down the wall, and dialed 911.
I was having trouble catching my breath as I waited--and waited--for the 911 operator, and I hoped to hell I wasn’t having a heart attack. My heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever when I was sixteen. A bout of pneumonia had worsened my condition and I’d been in line for surgery even before getting shot three weeks earlier. Everything was under control now and according to my cardiologist I was making terrific progress. But the ironic thing about the surgery and the news that I was apparently going to make old bones after all was that I felt mortal in a way that I hadn’t for the last fifteen years.
Tomkins pussyfooted up to delicately head-butt me.
“Hi,” I said.
He blinked his wide, almond-shaped green gold eyes at me and meowed. He had a surprisingly quiet meow. Not as annoying as most cats. Not that I was an expert--nor did I plan on becoming one. I was just loaning a fellow bachelor my pad. The cat--kitten, really--was also convalescing. He’d been mauled by a dog three weeks earlier. His bounce back was better than mine.
I stroked him absently as he wriggled around and tried to bite my fingers. Apparently there was some truth to the wisdom about petting a cat to lower your blood pressure, because I could feel my heart rate slowing, calming--which was pretty good considering how pissed off I was getting at being kept on hold in the middle of an emergency.
Granted, it wasn’t much of an emergency at this point. My intruder was surely long gone.
I chewed my lip, listened once more to the message advising me to stay on the line and help would soon be with me. Assuming I’d still be alive to take that call.
I hung up and dialed another number. A number that I had memorized long ago. A number that seemingly would require acid wash to remove from the memory cells of my brain.
As the phone rang on the other end I glanced across at the clock on the bookshelf. Three oh three in the morning. Well, here was a test of true friendship.
My heart jerked again as the phone rattled off the hook.
“Riordan,” Jake managed in a voice like raked gravel.
“Hey.” I could feel him making the effort to push through the fog of sleep. He rasped, “How are you?”
That was pretty civil given the fact that I hadn’t spoken to him for nearly two weeks and was choosing three in the morning to reopen the lines of communication.
I found myself instinctively straining to hear the silence behind him; was someone there with him? I couldn’t hear over the rustle of bed linens.
“I’m okay. Something happened just now. I think someone tried to break in.”
“You think?” And he was completely alert. I could hear the covers tossed back, the squeak of bedsprings.
“Someone tried to break in. He took off, but…”
“You’re back at the bookstore?”
“Yeah. I came home late this afternoon.”
“You’re there alone?”
Thank God he didn’t say it like everyone else had. Alone? As though it were out of the question. As though I were far too ill and helpless to be left to my own devices. Jake was simply looking at it from a security perspective.
“Did the security alarm go off?”
“Did you call it in?”
“I called 911, but they put me on hold.”
“At three o’clock in the morning?” He was definitely on his feet and moving, dressing it sounded like, and I felt a wave of guilty relief. Regardless of how complicated our relationship was--and it was fairly complicated--there was no one I knew better at dealing with this kind of thing. Whatever this kind of thing was.
Which I guess said more than I realized right there.
Jake said crisply, “Hang up and call 911 again. Stay on the line with them. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
I said gruffly, “Thanks, Jake.”
Just like that. I had called and he was coming to the rescue. Unexpectedly, a wave of emotion--reaction--hit me. One of the weird aftereffects of my surgery. I struggled with it as he said, “I’m on my way,” and disconnected.
* * * * *
I went down to meet him, taking the stairs slowly, taking my time. From above I had a birds eye view of the book floor. I could see where the bargain book table had been toppled. Otherwise everything looked pretty much as normal: same comfortable chairs, fake fireplace, tall walnut shelves of books, same enigmatic smiles of the kabuki masks on the wall.
I unlocked the door, pushed open the security gate, which he’d knelt to examine. “You didn’t have to come down. I’d have gone around to the s--” Jake broke off. He rose and said oddly, “Déjà vu.”
I didn’t get it for a second, and then I did. Echoes of the first time we’d met; although “met” was kind of a polite word for turning up as a suspect in someone’s murder investigation.
Uncombed, unshaven, I was even dressed the same: jeans and bare feet. I’d thrown a leather jacket on partly because, despite the warmth of a July night, I felt chilled, and partly because I didn’t want to treat him to the vision of the seam down the middle of my chest from open heart surgery. Not that Jake hadn’t seen it when he visited me in the hospital, but it looked different out of context. The bullet hole in my shoulder was ugly enough; the incision from the base of my collar bone down through my breast bone was shocking. I found it shocking, anyway.
I said awkwardly, “Thanks again for coming.”
For a moment we stared at each other. These last weeks couldn’t have been easy on Jake, and not because I’d asked him to give me a little time, a little space before we tried to figure out where we stood. He’d resigned from LAPD, come out to his family, and asked his wife for a divorce. But he looked unchanged. Reassuringly unchanged. I think I’d feared…well, I’m not sure. That he’d be harrowed by regret. For his entire adult life he’d fought to defend that closet he inhabited. Been willing to sacrifice almost everything to protect it. I couldn’t help thinking he’d take to being out like a fish to desert sand.
But he looked okay. No, be honest. He looked a lot better than okay. He looked…fine. Fine as in get the Chiffons over here to sing a chorus. Big, blonde, ruggedly handsome in a trial-by-fire way. He was very lean, all hard muscle and powerful bone. Maybe there was more silver at his temples, but there was a calmness in his tawny eyes that I’d never seen before.
Under that light, steady gaze I felt suddenly self-conscious. It was weird to think that for the first time in all the time I’d known him there was nothing to keep us from being together but the question of whether we both really wanted it.
He asked matter-of-factly, “Do you know why the alarm didn’t go off?”
“It wasn’t set.”
A quick drawing of his dark brows. He opened his mouth, but I beat him to it. “We haven’t been setting it while the construction has been going on next door.”
“Tell me you’re kidding.”
He already knew I wasn’t. “The city threatened to fine me because we had too many false alarms. The construction crew usually arrives before we open the shop and they kept triggering it. So I thought…just until the construction was completed…”
His silence said it all--happily, because I was pretty sure if Jake got started we’d be there all night.
“I think he must have come in from the side,” I said, turning to lead the way.
He followed me across the front of the tall aisles. I pointed out where an end cap had been knocked over. “Only the emergency lights were on and he crashed into that.” I nodded to the fallen bargain table, the landslide of spilled books. “And there.”
We reached the clear plastic wall dividing Cloak and Dagger Books from the gutted other half of the building. Staring from one side to the other was like peering through murky water. I could just make out the ladders and scaffolds like the ribs of a mythological beast. I directed Jake’s attention to the long five foot slit through the plastic near the wall.
“Good call,” he said grimly.
I’d have happily been wrong. “The contractor told me that that side of the building would be secured with special locks. Construction locks.”
He was already shaking his head. “Look at this.” He stooped, pushing through the slit in the plastic and I followed him into the darkened other side of the building. It smelled chilly and weird on that side of the building. A mixture of fresh plaster, new wood, and dust. We picked our way through the hurdles of drop cloths and wooden horses and cement mixer to the door on the far wall. It swung open at his touch.
“Great,” I said bitterly.
“Yep.” He showed me the core in the center of the exterior handle. I could just make out that it was painted, though I couldn’t actually make out a color. “See that?”
“It’s a construction core. That’s a temporary core used by contractors on construction sites. They’re all combinated the same, or mostly the same, which means that if someone gets hold of a key, they’ve got a key to just about every construction core in the city.”
“Better and better.”
He shut the door and relocked it. “As security goes, this is one step above leaving the door standing wide open.”
I swallowed. Nodded.
“Whoever broke in may have been watching the place and was aware that no one’s been here at night.”
I said, “I already checked the register and there’s no sign it’s been tampered with.”
“It might have been kids prowling around.” He didn’t sound convinced and I knew why.
“Trying to break into my flat was…”
“Pretty aggressive,” Jake agreed. “But, again, I think that probably gets back to the mistaken belief that no one was here. No one has been here at night for three weeks, so it was a reasonable assumption.”
I absorbed that. “This might not have been the first time he was prowling around in here.”
“I don’t know that Natalie would notice the slice in the plastic wall. Hell, I don’t know if she’d have noticed a cartoon silhouette of someone bursting through.”
Sort of unfair to Natalie; Jake snorted, grimly amused.
All at once I was exhausted. Mentally and physically and emotionally drained dry. I didn’t seem to have much in the way of physical resources these days and this break-in felt like way more than I could begin to handle.
Jake opened his mouth but stopped. Through the dirty glass of the bay window we watched a squad car pull up, lights flashing, though there was no siren.
Better late than never, I guess.
I felt Jake looking at me. “You okay? You’re shaking.”
“And heart surgery.” He took a deep breath. “Go upstairs. I’ll take care of this.”
There it was again. That weird new emotionalism. The littlest things seemed to choke me up. Like this. Like Jake offering to talk to the cops for me.
Except this wasn’t a little thing. Jake, who had hid his sexuality from his brother law enforcement for nearly twenty years, who had been unwilling for people to even know we were friends, who had very nearly succumbed to blackmail and more to keep that secret…was offering to stand here in my place and talk to these cops -- and let them think whatever they chose to about us and our relationship.
I’m not sure what was stranger: the fact that he was making the offer or that I was ready to start crying over it.
I cleared my throat. “I can handle it.”
He met my gaze. “I know you can. I’d like to do this for you.”
Fuck. He did it again. It had to be that I was overtired and still shaken by the break-in. I worked to keep my face and voice from showing anything I was feeling, managing a brusque nod.
The cops, a man and a woman in uniform, were getting out their car. I turned and started back through ladders and wooden horses and scaffolds.
* * * * *
I was sitting on the sofa, sleeping, with the cat on my lap, when Jake let himself into the flat.
I must have been snoring because the soft sound of the door shutting seemed to come like a clap of thunder in wake of a windstorm. The cat sprang from my lap. I sat up, closed my mouth, wiped my eyes, and when I blearily opened them Jake stood over me looking unreasonably alert for four in the morning.
“Was that a cat I saw running into your bedroom?”
I cleared my throat. “Was it?”
“It looked like it.” He sat down on the sofa next to me, and every muscle in my body immediately clenched tight in nervous reaction. I didn’t feel ready for…whatever this was liable to be.
I said lightly, “Maybe the building is haunted.”
“Could be.” He seemed to study my face with unusual attention. “Your burglary complaint is filed. Tomorrow, first thing, you need to tell that contractor to get real locks on those doors. In fact, I’d advise you to change all the locks on both sides of the building.”
I nodded wearily. “I’ve been trying to think what he was after.”
“The usual things.”
“Then why not break into the cash register?”
“An empty cash register? Why?”
Good point. No point robbing the till after the day’s bank drop had been made. I must be more tired than I thought. Jake apparently had the same idea because he said, “I thought you’d be in bed by now.”
“I’m on my way. I just wanted to thank you…”
He said gravely, “Don’t mention it. I’m glad you called me. I’ve been wondering how you’re doing.”
My gaze fell. “I’m all right.” There was so much to say and yet I couldn’t seem to think of anything. “I’m getting there. The worst part is being tired all the time.”
“Yeah.” I knew he saw right through me.
When I didn’t continue he said, “I know. I know it’s a lot to ask. Probably too much, although I won’t pretend I’m not hoping.”
Forgiveness. That’s what he was talking about. Forgiveness for any number of things, I guess. I was talking about something completely different.
I shook my head. “It isn’t…I don’t know how to explain this. It’s not you, though. It’s me.”
He waited with that new calm, that new certainty in his eyes. He was expecting me to drop the ax on him. I could see that. He had been expecting it since the last time we spoke in the hospital and I’d asked him to give me time. That’s what he had expected when he answered my cry for help tonight--what he still expected--but he had come anyway.
Was that guilt or love or civic responsibility? He was the best friend I’d ever had--and the worst.
I said, “This isn’t going to make sense to you because it doesn’t make sense to me. I know how lucky I am. I do. I know I’m getting a second chance, and even though I feel like utter shit at the moment, I know I’m getting well and I’m going to be okay. Better than okay. That’s what my doctors keep telling me, and I know that I should be really happy and really relieved. But…I-I can’t seem to feel anything right now.”
Nothing from Jake. Not that I blamed him. What was he supposed to make of that speech?
I concluded lamely, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“There’s nothing wrong with you.” He wasn’t comforting me; it was more like one scientist debating another’s hypothesis. “You feel what you feel. You’re allowed.”
It was getting harder to go on, but I felt I had to be honest with him. “I was happy enough with Guy, but I don’t want Guy. I don’t want…anyone. Right now.”
There was another pause after he heard me out. He said, “Okay.”
Apparently it was that easy. I wasn’t sure if what I felt was relief or disappointment.
I heard myself say, awkwardly, “I just felt like I should--”
“Got it.” Was there an edge to his tone? He still looked calm. Actually, he looked concerned. He said, “Why don’t you go to bed, Adrien? I’ve seen snowmen with more color in their faces. You need sleep. So do I. In fact, I’m going to spend what’s left of the night on your couch.”
I said, despite my instant relief, “You don’t have to do that.”
“I know, Greta. You vant to be alone. But unless your need for space prohibits a friend crashing on the sofa, that’s what I’m doing.”
I didn’t have the energy to argue with him--or myself. I nodded, pushed off the sofa and headed for the bedroom. “There are blankets in the linen cupboard.”
A thought suddenly occurred to me. I paused in the doorway, turning back to him.
He was in the process of tugging off a boot. He glanced up. “Yeah?”
“Downstairs. With the cops. Was it okay?”
It seemed to take him a second to understand my concern. He smiled--the first real smile I’d seen from him in a very long time.
“Yes,” he said. “It was okay.”