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HOT. HOT AS HELL. RELENTLESS SUN warped by thermals rising in sluggish, syrupy pillars above the dull landscape of rock and sand. The Shamal wind blasting his exposed cheeks with grit. The soft, steady rumble of the Humvee in front of him, fumes from the exhaust, and then a sudden, deafening sound as the unrelieved beige transformed into unthinkable things. Pink mist, a fireball—shining, twisted metal kiting awkwardly in the air and slashing down on him along with body parts. An arm, white bone with stringers of sinew and bloody, shredded muscle trailing from it. A leg, half a face, a hand … were those fingers? Disembodied phalanges snatching at the air in an attempt to break their fall?
What did you see? What do you remember?
A child screaming. And then total deafness, total blackness.
Sam Easton woke up shouting on the floor next to his bed, legs tangled and thrashing against the damp sheets he’d dragged to the floor during his somnambulant dive to safety. It had been three days since the last dream. He was getting better.
It took five minutes for his heart to subside into normal sinus rhythm, another five for his mind to firmly settle back into the present. He’d reluctantly given up the tranquilizers two months ago because they made him tired and fuzzy. They were also highly addictive and he’d felt that dragon growing inside him like a demonic fetus, so he’d slayed it to forestall any more dysfunction in his life. Those early days without the cute little oval crutches were bad, so bad that desperation had driven him to entertain more holistic options. The vast, dubious landscape of alternative medicine had frustrated him enough to consider voodoo, satanism, or anything else that didn’t entail a regimen of bark tea, yoga, or colonics. Whoever had come up with the notion that bowel-purging was equivalent to soul-cleansing was a masochistic idiot.
But it hadn’t been all bad because he’d learned a little about meditation, and lately, he found that if he took deep breaths and focused on the Maneki Neko lucky cat statue on the dresser—two paws raised for protection—he could cleanse his memory without pharmaceuticals or violating any orifices. Not entirely, but enough to function during the day without slipping back in time. That used to happen at the most unpredictable and inconvenient times—during job interviews, dinner out, while he was making love to his wife, Yukiko. She was the one who had given him the lucky cat. It was ridiculous, but it helped, and he had a very Machiavellian outlook on wellness.
The new antipsychotic Dr. Frolich had given him also helped, and the booze did, too, at least on a temporary basis. But that was expressly verboten, at least from a clinical perspective. Besides, he’d promised Yuki he’d stop drinking, although that promise remained woefully unfulfilled.
Not that she was here to keep tabs on him. Everything that was broken about him had finally chased her away three months ago. She’d been brave and loyal and patient, but everybody had a tipping point. He didn’t blame her for wanting some distance. For needing it. If he could leave himself, he would. He still regretted bringing that up in therapy.
Are you having suicidal ideations, Sam?
If, by that, you mean do I want to kill myself, then no.
He hadn’t exactly been lying to Dr. Frolich. He’d had enough death for a lifetime and he certainly had no plans to enact his own, but the thought did cross his mind on occasion. That was something he’d never confess to her because the repercussions would be endless and intolerable. And really, how many people in times of despair or hardship hypothetically pondered the idea of leaving this world prematurely by their own hand with no intention of acting on it? A lot, he was certain of that. Nihilistic thoughts were a dark, human indulgence, specifically a First World phenomenon by his estimation. Nobody who genuinely feared for their life thought about killing themselves; they just thought about survival.
Once he could trust his legs to carry him, he went into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and brushed his teeth without looking in the mirror. It hadn’t taken him long to break that very normal, knee-jerk human habit—just a simple check to see how you looked. Did you have crazy hair? Clear eyes or bloodshot ones? Dried drool at the corner of your mouth? But mirrors made you see things through another’s eyes, and nobody, including him, and maybe especially him, wanted to look at a bifurcated face.
Viewed from the good side, it was handsome, with sharp planes and a strong, straight nose inherited from his father. But the other half had been seared into waxen rubble that seemed to ooze over reconstructed bone. The plastic surgeons claimed they weren’t finished with him yet; but in his opinion, some things just couldn’t be repaired and he was beginning to accept that. Maybe one day he’d look at himself in the mirror again and see what was there, not what wasn’t.
A randy, neglected wife of a movie producer had told him his face was sexy and mysterious, like a half-finished picture of Dorian Gray. This literate cougar had been drunk and probably coked up at the time, putting her education to use in a way she’d probably never imagined back in college. He’d escaped her wandering hands and the awkward encounter easily enough, but the memory hadn’t left his mind. There was something profoundly sad and bent about it.
His rear side was a different story. Without his face staring back at him, he was just observing somebody else’s misfortune, and it was morbidly fascinating to him. Every morning when he got into the shower, he glanced in the mirror at the strong, ropy muscles of his back and buttocks, and the scars that crisscrossed them. A chunk of flesh missing here, a little piece missing there. Whole but not.
At least you made it back.
That day nobody else had, not Kev or Shaggy or Wilson, who had left behind widows and children—and not Rondo, a colonel’s son whose greatest fear wasn’t death but disappointing his father.
Sam wasn’t entirely sure he’d made it back, either. He didn’t need a shrink to tell him that, just like he didn’t need a shrink to tell him why he could look at his ass but not his face.
He stood under the hot water for a long time, watching the suds from a bar of Irish Spring foam from his skin and swirl down the drain. The foam was always white, and he wondered what reaction caused the green variegations in the bar of soap to disappear when they hit water. His degree was in electrical engineering, not chemical, so he was content to let it remain a mystery.
He shaved the good half of his face blindly, then dried off and dressed in jeans and the requisite logo T-shirt for his lunch shift. Was Pearl Club the only cocktail lounge in Los Angeles that could boast a bar back with an engineering degree? Sadly, probably not.
MARGARET NOLAN WASN’T ANTISOCIAL; SHE JUST didn’t like human beings as a general rule. She especially didn’t like them in her private space, which was sanctuary from the world at large and especially from her work. The irony wasn’t lost on her that the only two people outside of family she’d invited to see her new house also happened to be colleagues: Detective Al Crawford, her partner in Los Angeles PD’s Homicide Special Section; and Detective Remy Beaudreau, also of Homicide Special Section, and a man she was probably going to sleep with soon, against her better judgment. So much for balance in life.
It wasn’t a housewarming party—to call two guests a party was pitiable. But whatever it was, it had been a stupid idea from conception, and in a moment of weakness, she’d allowed herself to be bullied into it by Al.
Come on, Mags, it’s not like donating a kidney.
How the hell did he know? He still had all his organs.
With the imminent arrival of Al and Remy, she was suddenly seeing her Woodland Hills rental from a different, hypercritical perspective, which really pissed her off. It didn’t seem so enchanting now; it just seemed like an outdated cube perched on a tuft of crab grass. There was no back yard, just a skinny strip of concrete walkway, shadowed by a vaulting, scrubby hillside that provided superior habitat for pet-devouring coyotes. The front yard wasn’t much better, the prominent feature being an overgrown clump of bird of paradise. The agent had told her it was the official flower of Los Angeles, which was news to her, but this one didn’t have any flowers. From the dismal appearance of the foliage, she doubted it ever would. Maybe she should fertilize it.
It’s really lovely, honey, so much better than that tiny apartment in Echo Park. Let me help you unpack the rest of these boxes and then I’ll take you to lunch.
Mom had seemed to approve in her usual reticent way. When she liked something, or pretended to, there was always a qualifier, always a reminder of something negative that killed some of the joy. Even so, it had been a nice morning spent together, drinking coffee and assembling a house. Until Mom had excavated photos of Max.
After ten minutes of crying in the bathroom, she’d declared a migraine and fled the scene like Satan himself was chasing her. Two days later, she’d dragged Daddy to Hawaii for an extended stay. Everybody dealt with grief in their own way, but she hadn’t realized until that day her mother chose not to deal with it at all.
She sighed and kept an eye on the front window as she fussed with the placement of the cocktail napkins, stemware, and plates on the dining room table—the vase of freesias in the middle. She shouldn’t have gone with the freesias. They were too small to be a proper centerpiece, and their aggressive fragrance competed with the funk of the cheese board she’d spent a fortune on at the Beverly Hills Cheese Store.
Why do you care? What is your problem?
The problem was, Nolan was an unrelenting perfectionist, even if she was doing something contrary to her misanthropic nature. She had no skills in this milieu, couldn’t even comprehend the desire to acquire them. Her transient military family, always exhausted from ricocheting from country to country, had never developed any yen to entertain, so she had no example to emulate or work from. Her former, hateful apartment in Echo Park certainly hadn’t been inspiration to start exploring the art of hosting, and her job didn’t allow her much time to even consider it because people were constantly killing one another in this city.
The throaty rumble of a Porsche engine announced the first arrival. Remy pulled into the driveway and climbed out of his sleek, sapphire-blue car carrying an obscenely large bouquet of white lilies and a bottle of champagne in a silver bucket. He was wearing casual linen instead of a suit, and it was disconcerting to see him out of his work clothes for the first time, one step closer to nudity.
Maybe it would be equally jarring to him, seeing her one step closer to nudity in a dress, her arms and legs exposed. But she didn’t think so. Aside from the fact that he was probably accustomed to imagining her naked, nothing seemed to faze him, not even the most horrific crime scene. He was either a sociopath or had a titanium shell protecting his soft spots.
She held the door open for him, noticing its clunky paint job for the first time. “Wow. Is this all for me?”
“It’s a housewarming, right? Or am I at the wrong place?”
She smirked and took the flowers and champagne. “Not a housewarming, but thanks, this is really nice of you.”
He was tall and thin, with black, indecipherable eyes, a terrific head of curly hair, a sauntering walk. She’d never been able to ascertain if his gait was out of arrogance or a result of his physique.
He looked around and nodded his approval. “This is a great place, Maggie.”
“It’s better than where I was.”
“Your enthusiasm is infectious.”
It suddenly struck her that she knew very little about this man on her threshold, this man bearing lavish gifts. The extent of her knowledge was that he came from a wealthy Louisiana family and had graduated from Tulane before signing up for the police academy in Los Angeles. He was affable enough, but there was a secretive, chilling darkness surrounding him that precluded the usual small talk that was a normal part of getting to know someone. It was definitely a factor in the attraction, maybe the sole source of it. How disappointing it would be to learn mundane details of Remy’s life, like he brushed his teeth in the morning along with everybody else.
She frowned, discomfited by the realization that she was hot for a human version of a redacted document, which said more about her than him. The fact that he hadn’t commented on her dress or how great she looked in it said more about him than her. She appreciated a grown-up who didn’t slobber for sex. Gratuitous flattery was repellent.
“No. Yeah. I’m a terrible hostess because we’re still standing in the foyer. Come in.” She gestured him into the dining room and stuffed his flowers into the vase along with the freesia. “They’re beautiful, Remy.”
“White is a representation of death in some cultures, so it seemed particularly appropriate given our mutual vocation.”
“I’m truly touched by the macabre symbolism. Interesting that brides wear white in Western culture, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s appropriate.”
He raised a brow at her. “You’re wearing a lovely shade of pessimism this evening. If it makes you feel any better, when I asked you out for a drink, I wasn’t talking about marriage.”
Her cheeks flared and Remy noticed. It was the bane of the fair complexion that accompanied strawberry blond hair. She’d been avoiding The Drink for weeks because she didn’t trust herself or Remy. They were both on the summit of the same hormonal slippery slope that led to regret and ruin. Life was dangerous in so many ways.
His flat, obsidian eyes were on her, eyes that seemed to follow her and see everything, like in those spooky portraits of Jesus her grandmother had hanging all over her house. “Open that champagne and tell me how you like living in the Valley. You were in Echo Park before, right?”
“Right.” She peeled the foil from the top of the bottle and wasn’t sure what to do about the metal cage around the cork. How pathetic. She was in her third decade and didn’t know how to open a bottle of champagne. He graciously spared her further humiliation by taking the bottle and deftly freeing the cork. Not with a dramatic pop but with the faintest hiss of escaping gas.
When you open a bottle of champagne, it should sound like a French man’s fart.
Where the hell had she heard that?
He poured, then lifted his glass to hers. “Cheers to a change of venue.”
She gulped down half the glass, then reminded herself of the virtue of temperance. “I guess we’re finally having that drink.”
“This is coercion, it doesn’t count. You didn’t tell me how you like the Valley.”
Copyright © 2021 by Traci Lambrechts