BEFORE I WAKE
The movers had gutted the house of her furniture and belongings. Rae Gabriella doubted she could find even a throw pillow remaining. She sank down on the living-room carpet to use the fireplace hearth as a backrest.
Stones dug into her back. The house had felt sunny and welcoming when she had moved in; now it felt ready to expel her too. Too much violence had happened here.
“You want the last piece of pizza?” Bruce Chapel asked, stretching out where her sofa had been.
“I can’t eat another bite. Go ahead.” Sweat had dried on Bruce’s blue sweatshirt and his jeans had picked up cat hair. Rae wished the movers had taken the cat too, but the Siamese she was watching for a friend was still prowling around here somewhere.
Bruce tugged over the open cardboard box and picked up the last slice of pepperoni pizza. “What time did you say your friend was coming by?”
He waited, but she didn’t offer more. “When we were dating, you weren’t this quiet with details.”
She smiled at him. “I’ve acquired a few bad habits in the last eleven years.” She finished her soda and then slid out one of the ice cubes to crunch. “I already miss being a cop.”
“I bet the FBI would ignore the resignation if you want to change your mind. And I know the Chicago PD would welcome you back.”
She trusted Bruce implicitly, but she wasn’t ready to talk about the last undercover assignment yet. “No, I’m done. I just want to equivocate now that the decision is made. I’m joining my uncle’s crime-scene-cleanup business at least part-time and I’ll see where I want to go from there.”
She’d seen her first dead body before she was seventeen and helped clean up her first murder scene when she was twenty. At least the work saved relatives of the dead from having to deal with the mess—and maybe for her it would be a bit of redemption through service. She studied the bottom of her glass and didn’t want to think about her motivations that deeply.
The cat came into the room hugging the baseboards. Bruce held out a corner of the pizza crust and the cat swished his tail and stalked over to check it out. Bruce deftly got his hand around the cat and pulled him over to pet. “I was thinking on the drive out here that I might do something more than just help you pack.”
“Offer you a job.”
Rae crunched another ice cube and shoved it to the side of her mouth. “What did you have in mind?”
It was the way he smiled. She blinked and dropped the ice cube into her hand. “You’re dangerous to my health, you know that? I about swallowed it.”
“You said you’d be my partner one day.”
“We were talking about getting engaged, not being business partners. Besides, it was eleven years ago and I seem to remember we were sitting on my uncle’s front porch at 2 a.m. when we had that discussion. A statute of limitations should apply.”
Her phone rang, the sound echoing through the hollow rooms. She got to her feet. “I’ll think about it, okay? But no promises.”
“None expected. The idea’s going to grow on you.”
She laughed at his confidence. “Maybe.” She went to answer the phone.
Spending more time with Bruce—it had an interesting appeal to it. The phone rang a third time and she picked up her pace, afraid it was news she did not want to hear. Mark Rivers was dead and she just wanted to get out of town before the next chapter in that story was written.
* * * * *
Bruce listened to Rae take the stairs two at a time. She was coloring her hair to keep away the gray and her glasses were new, but for a former girlfriend, she was in a lot better shape for the years than he was. He’d added thirty pounds and another break in his nose since leaving the Chicago PD. He was glad friendship covered a lot of flaws, for it appeared their relationship was going to pick up where it left off as if the years in between hadn’t happened.
But the secrecy was new. Bruce rolled onto his back. Rae hadn’t patched over the two bullet holes in the living-room wall well enough; he could still see the outlines of the impact in the plaster. He studied the painted white spots and a grim resolve replaced the casual expression he’d kept around her.
Rae hadn’t explained; he hadn’t asked, but he knew how to read the remaining trace evidence. The grit between the ceramic tiles of the kitchen floor had been bleached, but there were still faint traces of pink in the corners, suggesting blood had pooled and soaked in before someone had been able to clean it. Two of the kitchen cabinet doors had been replaced, the wood stain used not quite matching the older wood.
A weapon—a knife, a bat, something not small or fragile—had been swung to injure or kill. From the area involved, it looked like the bullet holes had come toward the end of the fight.
Someone had tried to kill her in her own home.
What had happened here?
He let the cat have the last of the pizza crust and got to his feet. He’d supported Rae’s move from the Chicago PD to the FBI, thinking it would keep her away from the trouble he saw on the streets and let her do more white-collar work. It had been that or else present her with the ring he had carried in his pocket and convince her to stay.
It wouldn’t have been the best thing for her; he’d been a bit too career intense back then and the chances he took on the job hadn’t meshed well with the idea of a wife expecting him to come safely home.
Rae had graduated from the FBI Academy, gone to Dallas, and then moved to Washington, D.C., where she had become involved with another agent. He’d let her go and wished her the best. But seeing this, it was obvious he had made the wrong choice.
A case gone bad? A relationship? He could speculate and contemplate, but he wouldn’t ask. Rae would tell him when she was ready. He had his own memories from the last eleven years that would not easily find words even with Rae. She hadn’t been that religious years ago; neither had he for that matter, but getting shot at might have changed things. It had for him. So much needed to be understood to know how he could best help.
“The Realtor will be over in the morning.”
Bruce turned as Rae came back into the room. She joined him by the window to look out at the night. She didn’t bear the visible signs of a fight, but her sweatshirt and jeans covered a lot. He settled his hand on her shoulder. He felt her weight shift to lean into his hand. “It’s a good clear night for driving.”
She smiled at him and he could feel the emotional hole that was her absence in his life fill a bit. The doubts he’d had about coming east, minor and merely whispers of regret, faded. He rubbed his thumb on her shoulder blade and then lifted his hand away. There was time and that was the best news he had. Time could fix about anything. “Traffic’s light. I should make good progress once I’m out of the city.”
Rae walked him to the door. “I should be ready to follow by noon tomorrow, once the Realtor has what she needs.”
“Call me occasionally as you travel.”
Bruce unlocked the door of the van packed with Rae’s more breakable pieces. Snow hadn’t stayed this far south yet, but the January night had a cold bite to it. At least Rae had called him, out of the blue and late at night, but when she needed a friend she’d still had his number. He could build on that. Whatever had happened here, it would best be dealt with by getting her onto his own turf.
Rae fingered the edge of the worn business card as she drove, her handwritten directions on the back faded after lying on the car dash in the sun. She turned the card over and read the raised black type.
Chapel Detective Agency II
Bruce’s cousin, Sam Chapel, had formed the first Chapel Detective Agency over in Brentwood years before. Bruce had decided a few years ago to follow in his footsteps. If working for Bruce was anything like dating him, she was heading into unpredictable terrain.
She didn’t have to do this. She looked at herself in the rearview mirror, into calm blue eyes that masked the accumulated turmoil of the past few years, and accepted that she had to do something.
She needed somewhere quiet to let the stress of the last years drain away, and it didn’t get more anonymous than working for Bruce in a small town she’d struggled to find on the map.
The town of Justice was south of Chicago and east of the Mississippi River; it had a population of twelve thousand six hundred four, and had the distinction of also being the county seat for Justice County: it sounded like a good place to disappear.
She reached around to the boxes in the backseat for another CD. Years of FBI service had been reduced to a few private files, paperwork on her future pension, phone numbers of friends and colleagues, and a pile of past daily calendar books noting appointments she could no longer remember. At least the music CDs were still useful. Rae pushed aside the regrets. If she had to start life over again at least it would be with a friend.
At least it had the sound of being an interesting town.
THANK YOU FOR READING THE OPENING OF BEFORE I WAKE