Archie Sheridan had a paper birthday hat on his head and six bullets in his front pocket. The bullets rattled when he moved, making a clinking sound that no one else seemed able to hear. The hat’s tight elastic band dug at his neck. He pulled at it, feeling the imprint of a ligature mark forming.
“How was the bridge traffic?” Doug asked. Archie guessed that Debbie had sent him over. Go make small talk with the awkward guest.
That’s what he was now, a guest. It still took some getting used to.
“Fine,” Archie said. He rolled the bullets between his fingers. It was a lie; the bridge had been backed up for miles.
Archie saw Doug’s face light up and then turned to see Debbie coming toward them from the kitchen. She was wearing a white chef’s apron and licking frosting off her thumb. Her hair was dark and very short and her body was strong and lean, though Archie supposed he wasn’t supposed to notice that anymore. Doug reached to put his arm around her waist as she stepped next to them, but she gave him a quick look and he pretended to do something else with his arm. No public displays of affection in front of the guest. He might feel bad.
“Archie says the bridge was clear,” Doug said. He was tall and long-limbed, with light brown hair and a wispy beard that made him look like a graduate student. He looked ten years younger than Archie even though they were the same age.
Debbie gave Archie a knowing smile. “Really?” she said. “At this time of day? That would be a first.”
Archie shrugged. He’d grown a beard once, but it had just made him look like a rabbi.
He could hear the kids in the kitchen, but he couldn’t see them. They had stationed him in front of a window in the far corner of the living room, while they frosted the cake. The apartment still smelled like the lasagna Debbie had made for dinner. There were dirty dishes on the table.
The window looked south, over downtown Vancouver. Archie could see the red taillights of airplanes lining up to land at the Portland airport, a barge making its way east down the river, the lights of the new Vancouver library, Fort Vancouver, a movie theater, a digital bank tower clock. Oregon was just on the other side of the Columbia River, a distant, indistinct horizon. Archie lived in Portland. He knew its topography, its skyline, its bridges and landmarks. But the view from Debbie’s window was an unfamiliar landscape.
“It’s not as far as people think,” Debbie said. “If you can avoid rush hour.”
“I know,” Archie said. But the truth was, he wondered sometimes if she had moved far enough. He missed his family, but he knew that the farther away from him they were, the safer he could keep them.
Debbie’s condo was on the tenth floor of a secure building. The kids didn’t have a yard anymore, but no one got in or out of the building without being buzzed in. The elevators required a keycard to operate. Security cameras monitored the hallways. Two security guards were on duty in the building around the clock.
The kids could live without a yard.
“Sara wants to be Gretchen Lowell for Halloween,” Debbie said.
Archie inhaled quickly and coughed.
Debbie patted him on the back. “I already said no,” she said with a glance toward Doug, who was staring at his shoes. “I just wanted to give you a heads-up. In case she brings it up.”
Archie’s fingers tightened around the slick brass cartridges in his pocket. “She’s seven years old,” he said.
“She wants to be something scary,” Debbie said. “It has nothing to do with you. Most of her friends don’t even know.”
It had been over a year since Archie and Debbie had split for good and she had enrolled the kids in school in Washington under her last name. It made sense for security reasons. It also required fewer explanations. Archie had been a public figure during the years he ran the Beauty Killer Task Force, but after Gretchen Lowell had kidnapped him and tortured him for ten days, he had reached a new infamy. Since her escape ten weeks before, the media had been revisiting every horrific detail.
Doug’s eyes darted around for something to say. “I hear you got a dog.”
“Sort of,” Archie said, not wanting to explain.
“The kids are excited,” Doug said.
Archie didn’t need Doug to tell him anything about his kids, but he decided that now maybe wasn’t the time to broach that particular topic.
“We’re ready,” Ben hollered from the kitchen.
Debbie pressed some matches into Doug’s hand. “Can you help the kids with the candles?” she asked him.
He smiled, happy to have been given something to do, and pattered off to the kitchen.
“He’s nice,” Archie said. He was making an effort to be pleasant, but he also meant it. Doug was dependable, good with the kids, kind to Debbie. Doug engineered wind turbines, a profession with limited exposure to serial killers. Archie liked him. When he could force himself to forget that Doug was having sex with his ex-wife and spending quality time with his children.
“Are you seeing anybody?” Debbie asked gently.
Archie’s fingers tightened around the bullets, and for a moment he thought that Henry might have told her about Rachel. But when he looked at Debbie’s face, he saw only tentative concern. The question wasn’t loaded.
“Not really,” Archie said.
She frowned skeptically. “What does that mean?” she asked.
Archie opened his hand and let the bullets drop back to the deep corner of his pocket. “It means I’m seeing someone,” he said. “But I don’t want to talk about it yet.”
Debbie’s face brightened with pleasure. “Is it Susan?” she asked.
“No,” Archie said. “Seriously?”
Debbie narrowed her eyes. “Does Henry like her?”
“Tell me she’s not blond,” Debbie said.
Before Archie could come up with an answer, singing filled the living room and Archie’s children appeared, faces bathed in the glow of lit birthday candles. Doug stood behind them, guiding them forward, protective hands on their shoulders. Sara held one side of the cake plate and Ben had the other. They were dark-haired and freckled, baby teeth giving way to changed smiles. Every time Archie saw them, they looked more like their mother.
They finished singing, and Archie blew out the candles.
As he stepped back from the cake, he felt his phone vibrate.
“Make a wish, Daddy,” Sara said.
He didn’t make wishes anymore. But he pretended. He closed his eyes. When he opened them, Sara was beaming at him. “What did you wish for?” she asked.
“I can’t tell you,” Archie said. He pulled a candle from the cake, and handed it to her to lick the frosting off.
The phone was still vibrating in his pocket.
Archie glanced at the caller ID. It was Henry.
He turned away from the cake, and answered the phone. “Yeah,” he said.
“I’m at the Gold Dust Meridian,” Henry said. “Homicide. You’ll want to see this.”
Archie turned back toward the cake. Sara and Ben were plucking candles off and sucking them clean. Debbie had threaded her hand into Doug’s.
Forty-two candles. Six bullets. Two kids, every other weekend.
“Okay,” Archie said.
He slid the phone back in his pocket and looked over at Debbie. He didn’t have to explain. She knew the drill.
“Do you have to leave?” she asked.
“One slice of birthday cake to go,” Debbie said. “Coming up.”
Copyright © 2013 by Verite Inc.
CHELSEA CAIN’s first five novels featuring Archie Sheridan were all New York Times bestsellers. Also the author of Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, a parody based on the life of Nancy Drew, and several nonfiction titles, she was born in Iowa, raised in Bellingham, Washington, and now lives in Portland, Oregon.