MATT was glad that Callie had told him about the faulty bathroom window, or he’d never have been able to break into her apartment.
It was awkward, as he had to shinny through the narrow window and get down into the bathtub, but he was glad he was still pretty thin, and had done enough yoga to contort himself without pulling something. He belatedly wished he’d brought a flashlight, but he was new at this whole “breaking and entering” thing, and on top of that, he was never that organized to begin with.
He carefully drew back her shower curtain, which depicted colorful tropical fish of all kinds swimming in an ocean too blue to be real, and he quietly crept to the door, which was ajar. He peeked out and saw a light on in the bedroom (its door was open as well), but the front room looked empty, so he ventured out.
You could usually tell if a place was occupied, although he couldn’t say how. It was just one of those things, a sense that there was another warm, breathing person near you, a kind of sixth sense that everyone had. That sense was telling him he was alone here, which he’d kind of expected, but it was still a bit creepy. He really had no right to be here, not like this, but he knew something was wrong. Callie wasn’t answering her phone, and after what that bartender told him, he was really worried that something awful had happened to her. She should have been safe at Panic, and he had no idea what had gone wrong, or who could’ve wanted to hurt her. Sure, she was screwed up, but weren’t they all?
His eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and it was obvious now that he had not been the first uninvited visitor in the apartment.
The front room was totally trashed. Her glass-topped coffee table was lying on its side, her shell-shaped candy dish upside down on the oatmeal-colored carpet, and the M&Ms that used to be in it were scattered across the floor like confetti. Glossy fashion magazines were splayed open and strewn about like discarded fliers, while junk mail that she never bothered to open lay like broken tiles beside them. Judging from the indents in the carpet, her leather sofa had been shoved back as well.
Oddly enough, her Bose stereo system and flat screen TV were untouched. Thieves would normally take things like that, wouldn’t they?
He went to the bedroom, and things were no better in there. He could see her computer sitting on a desk, the hard drive, printer, and iPod dock all untouched, and the light in the room was coming from the bedside lamp, which had been knocked off its table and was now lying on the floor. Save for that and an open drawer on her nightstand, everything else looked perfect: her bed was made so that the wine-colored duvet looked as taut as the surface of a trampoline, her mirrored closet doors shut tight, reflecting all the clean emptiness in her expensively appointed but rather sterile bedroom.
Of course everything in this place had an expensive but rather cold, sterile look to it, because Callie was a rich girl, and she had a whopper of a case of OCD. She was one of those neat freaks, one of those kinds of people who had to scrub down an entire kitchen if they found a single hair in the sink. She’d tried a whole bunch of medications for it, but nothing ever worked, and her own obsessions drove her crazy, enough that she took to using more illegal drugs to try and kill the impulses she could barely live with. It also helped her anorexia, or at least the pot did; the pot at least made her eat.
She never would have left her place like this—never. She couldn’t even sit down if the chair wasn’t in exactly the right spot.
Something had happened to her, he knew it in his gut, something awful.
But the problem was, he couldn’t think of a single person besides himself who would care.
ONE of the biggest problems of working with the person you were in a relationship with was the arguments that occurred when one of you was sick but refused to stay home.
Roan had reached the point where he wasn’t going to argue with Paris anymore, mainly because it never got him anywhere, and it just made both him and Par upset. Par insisted he wasn’t sick, which was technically true, but he wasn’t well. The last transformation had taken a lot out of him, and it was shocking how skinny he was now. His heart problem kept him from working out too much, at least until he got his weight back up, and it was a constant struggle for him to gain back weight in time for the next cycle to begin, no matter how many fattening foods they kept giving him. Paris compared it to racing uphill in a hurricane: it wasn’t a race he was ever going to win. He used to be nearly two hundred pounds, most of that muscle, the kind you’d think an athletic, broad-shouldered man would have. Now he was closer to one hundred and fifty (to be generous), his handsome face lean enough to have an almost feral look to it. His clothes, once perfectly suited to him, hung limp and baggy on his frame. He was cold a lot and had taken to wearing lots of fleece and layering his clothes, the latter of which had the added benefit of making him look a bit more solid. Paris had enough vanity that he chose his clothes carefully, and he had had his hair cut in a mid-length, casually shaggy way that accentuated his sharp cheekbones and sensuous eyes, made him look like a male model, not only healthy but alluring. But he tired easily nowadays, and he had almost no energy at all, so that’s where his carefully crafted illusion ended.
And it scared Roan. Holy Christ, it scared him so badly he could hardly stand it. Paris was getting weaker, getting another day closer to dying, while he had never been stronger in his life. It was like he was a vampire, sucking the life out of Paris, even though that wasn’t exactly what was happening. The tiger was burning Paris from the inside out, consuming him, while Roan and his lion had reached some kind of equilibrium; they had reached a détente, as if aware how much they depended on one another to survive. He wished there was some way he could talk to the tiger in Paris, get it to understand that killing its host was counter-protective… but it didn’t work like that. The tiger wasn’t really doing it; the physiological trauma of it all was breaking down Paris’s body. It could no longer tolerate having its bones broken, its metabolism abused, its muscles and ligaments torn. As a virus child, Roan’s body had adapted to this insane abuse from the beginning; this was still a shock to Paris’s system, a shock that only got worse with repetition.
Things had gone downhill so fast. Just yesterday Paris was working on the Mustang, still his hobby of choice, but coming in from the garage, he looked oddly flushed. When Roan commented on it, he said he was just “overheated” and needed a drink, but he stumbled on the way to the kitchen and Roan could have sworn he fainted; Paris was limp when he caught him. But after a second of holding him up, Paris straightened as if by reflex and claimed that he hadn’t fainted, he was just “woozy.” It was bullshit, they both knew it was bullshit, but Paris refused to admit it. And Roan decided to just let him have it because he was weary of playing the role of the nag.
He’d avoided coming in to the office for days, so Paris had no reason to as well, but he just had to today. He was done with his usual adultery cases and had accepted a job to do some background checks, and he needed to access his computer at work. He was hoping to sneak in alone, but of course it didn’t work that way. He really thought Paris should have stayed home and slept, but Par felt differently. He still refused to be “babied,” and sometimes he could get downright surly about it.
Sometimes Roan wondered if Paris kind of hated him now. He was so obviously healthy and Paris was so obviously not. He supposed he’d hate himself if he were in Paris’s position, at least in the back of his mind.
The drive to the office was relatively quiet, and Paris nursed his coffee as Roan drove, the radio on and filling the silence. Winter was starting to come in and let itself be known in air cold and sharp enough to scour the lungs, a layer of frost glistening whitely on the grass and glazing the edges of the windshield. Until the heater really warmed up and filled the car, they could see their breaths like vapor trails in the frigid air.
Roan had dressed warmly but casually in a heavy blue plaid flannel shirt, black wool trousers, and his fleece-lined bomber jacket, and he knew he didn’t look much like a private detective, but fuck it, he didn’t expect to see any clients today. It was cold, and the holiday season had a tendency to scare off the suspicious spouses, or at least deprive them of the money to hire a private detective. Around New Year’s was a bit of a boom time, though.
Looking at his outfit, Paris had joked Roan looked more Canadian than he did. Paris was wearing lined jeans and a loose gray cashmere-blend sweater over a long-sleeved T-shirt, with a lightweight blue parka over it all, and a gray watch cap pulled down over his forehead. His haircut was so good that it could survive hat hair, which Paris said came from knowing where to find the good gay hairstylists in the city. Roan couldn’t help but point out that it also helped that the guys found Paris insanely attractive and wanted to jump his bones right in the chair, and with a slightly smug smile, Par admitted that never hurt.
By the time they reached the office, Paris had apparently decided to pretend that their brief but fraught argument that morning over whether he should come in or not had never happened, as he pulled out his set of keys, opened the door, and asked Roan what kind of coffee he was in the mood for. Roan decided to play along, and told him anything that had enough caffeine in it to kill a rodent would be fine.
As Paris started the coffeemaker going, Roan opened the blinds, letting in the icy cool light of day, and noticed that the bright bouquet of daisies, dyed in a rainbow of artificial colors (some also painted with glitter), was still alive. “Goddamn,” he cursed, inspecting the flowers up close. The blue plastic dollar-store vase they sat in on the back filing cabinet was the same, but you could buy a truckload of those and easily swap them out. It wasn’t above Randi to do it either. “I swear, Randi is sneaking in and replacing these damn flowers daily. She’s doing it on purpose.”
That made Paris chuckle faintly. “You really think she wants to annoy you that much?”
“I don’t like flowers. I don’t see the point of them outside a garden. And these damn things won’t die. How long have they been here?”
“Uh… God, is it almost ten days now?”
“I think so. And they’re still going. So either she’s replacing them and denying it, or we have undead flowers.”
Paris smirked at him. “I think I read somewhere that daisies can last as cut flowers for a long time. This is probably just proof of that.”
“No, I still say it’s a conspiracy. Somebody’s fucking with me.” He went ahead and turned the thermostat up, a bit beyond what he normally did. He usually liked to keep it warm but still fairly brisk in here, mainly so he didn’t nod off during interminable background checks, but he didn’t want to make Paris miserable. Paris had almost no body fat to help keep him warm anymore.
“Driving you insane with flowers? That’s a rather passive-aggressive approach, isn’t it, when forcing you to listen to a Josh Wink album will do the same thing quicker.”
“Yes, but you’re the only one evil enough to try that.”
Even though it was an unspoken rule that they keep home stuff at home, not bring it to work, looking at Paris was just breaking Roan’s heart this morning. He wasn’t cut out for this shit; he wasn’t. He was bad with people, and he was worse with loss.
Roan went up and put his arms around him from behind, and Paris leaned back against him with a sigh. “I’m sorry about this morning,” Roan told him, giving him a quick kiss on the neck.
“So am I. This is just so stupid. I want to have as much of a normal life as long as I can, okay?”
See, if Paris put it that way, it sounded perfectly reasonable. The bastard. As if he didn’t feel bad enough already. “I love you, you know.”
“I know. That’s why I don’t put you through a wall.”
“Bring it on, pansy,” Roan teased. He held Paris and wished somehow he could give him some of his strength, transfer it by osmosis, but that didn’t seem to work. Nothing seemed to work, and if he thought about it too long, he’d get too depressed to even get out of bed in the morning.
The phone rang, a noise that seemed shockingly loud, but it was their cue to go back to “work mode.” Paris did so easily, slipping out of Roan’s arms and moving to his desk to answer the phone, pulling off his watch cap and dropping it on his desk before lifting the receiver. And yeah, his hair still looked great. Why couldn’t hairdressers ever want to fuck him? If that was how you got a decent cut, Roan had to work on that.
The call was from Dennis Caldera, wanting to hire him to do some work on a case of his. On top of suspicious spouses, most of Roan’s other work came from lawyers and businesses, so he wasn’t too shocked to hear from him. In fact, Dennis had been his very first client, and helped him get a toehold in the private investigations marketplace. Roan didn’t kid himself, though—yes, Dennis was a nice guy (for a lawyer), and a decent human being (again, for a lawyer), but the reason he had hired Roan in the first place was because Roan was gay. And Dennis, being gay himself, liked to keep business “in the community” whenever possible, and it wasn’t like there was a plethora of openly gay private eyes around here.
He’d just gotten the first of the background checks out of the way when he heard the front office door open. His inner office door was slightly ajar, so he assumed it was just Randi come to see if the flower torture was working—or maybe Braunbeck offering them holiday gorp—until he heard Paris gasp in surprise, “Oh my God—just look at you!”
Curiosity made him get up and look.
At first he almost didn’t recognize the man, but when recognition finally clicked, he was just as shocked as Paris. There was a lean but obviously fit young man, with stylish but slightly spiky blond hair and a close-cropped golden blond beard framing a youthful, handsome face, with watery blue eyes and a tasteful silver stud in his eyebrow piercing. It was that and the four slender gold rings and fake gemstone studs in each of his earlobes that gave his identity away. “Matt?” he asked.
Wow, he looked… different. He’d added about twenty pounds of sleek muscle to his frame, so he no longer looked like a string bean, and the close-cropped beard and mustache combo made him look less fey and more masculine. In fact, Roan had no idea a blond guy—usually not his type—could look that attractive. He was wearing battered black Converse sneakers, black sweatpants, and a brown leather jacket over a dark blue sweatshirt, making Roan think he had stopped by on his way to the gym or on the way back. He grinned openly at both of them, although his eyes seemed riveted to Paris. “I was about to say the same about you, man! Look at you! Love what you’ve done with your hair.”
“Love what you’ve done with you. You’ve been working out.”
Matt glanced down at the floor, his smile slightly sheepish as he blushed faintly—it was too easy to see on the fair skin. “Yeah, well… I had to do something to keep the cravings from driving me crazy, y’know.”
Paris eyed him sympathetically. “Drugs?”
Matt nodded, still not looking up from their industrial blue carpeting. “Yeah. It got kinda bad there for a while, but I got through it.”
“How long have you been clean?”
He looked up as he thought, as if trying to see inside his own head. Even his personality and demeanor seemed more thoughtful, quieter than when Roan had first met him. Maybe almost being killed by a stalker had had that effect on him, or maybe he’d finally given up caffeine. “Uh, wow, I guess it’s almost been a year and a half.”
“Don’t ever let anyone tell you it’s not fucking hard, ’cause it is.”
“I know what you mean, brother. After I discovered I was infected, I spent almost two entire years in a bottle. In fact, I’m still not sure how or when I got over the border. But detoxing wasn’t too bad for me, ’cause I was in a hospital at the time, and drugs made it better than it should have been.”
“I feel left out,” Roan admitted.
Paris rolled his eyes. “This one’s so squeaky clean, you’ll plotz. He has no fun at all.” He added a knowing wink to that.
Matt finally looked at Roan and smiled, and tried to give him a quick, surreptitious once-over, only Roan caught it. Still hadn’t gotten over the puppy-dog crush, had he?
“You look good too. Hey, are you wearing a ring? I never figured you as a jewelry type.”
“Oh. Well, it’s a wedding ring, so apparently I’m obligated to wear it, or I’m sleeping in the garage.”
Matt’s eyes got wide as silver dollars as he looked between Roan and Paris, and must have finally noticed the same type of ring on Paris’s hand. “Holy shit, you guys got married? Wow! Congrats! I didn’t even know that was legal in this state.”
“It’s not. We got married up in Canada. It’s more a symbolic gesture than anything.”
Paris cleared his throat, grinning somewhat evilly. “He has a thorn in his paw about it because he thinks I conned him into it.”
“You got me drunk.”
“Oh please! You were barely tipsy. The spite idea really appealed to you.”
“You took advantage of my weakness.”
Now Paris was grinning broadly at him, and he looked better than he had in days. “Crybaby.”
No matter what Paris claimed, he had plied Roan with a lot of pale ale that night—and he had to admit that the place Par took him to had some great microbrews—and convinced him that them getting married would piss a lot of people off. The rings they had weren’t traditional by any means; they were little silver metal snakes biting their own tails, forming a circle, that they bought in an open air market in Vancouver’s version of Chinatown. They were manly, and, as Paris cheerfully pointed out, wonderfully phallic, so of course they had to get them. They were also only twenty bucks apiece, so how could they say no?
Paris’s parents were pretty surprised, but Roan thought they handled it well, considering. They did seem like very nice, decent people, and certainly Paris’s sisters were impressive: Annie wasn’t just a lawyer, but a human rights lawyer, and Dee was a medical examiner (!) in Toronto. It was easy to tell that, only son or not, Paris was the black sheep in this studious family, and he clearly enjoyed that. His infected status never came up the whole time they were there, though, and Roan didn’t push him. They were invited back any time, and Roan sensed that they mostly meant that.
And Roan had to occasionally complain about the whole married thing so Paris didn’t see the truth of the matter: that he’d married Paris because it seemed like that was what Paris wanted, and he’d do anything for Paris if he thought it would make him live an extra day, an extra week… anything. He really didn’t care what. If he actually thought it would help, he’d sacrifice a goat to Ba‘al—that’s how desperate he was.
Matt was looking between them, as if not completely certain whether they were kidding or not, and Roan decided to give the kid a break—he probably wasn’t used to the way they joked with each other. “We’re legally married in Canada. Here, we’re dirty, filthy outlaws, and somehow a menace to all straight people everywhere.”
“Which keeps things hot,” Paris said, with such cheerfulness that Roan had to fake a cough to hide a laugh.
Matt smiled, apparently getting that joke. “Is that why you haven’t been to Panic lately? The guys were starting to get worried about you. They actually discussed reporting you as a missing person, if only they knew your name.”
“Hey, I’m married now. I have to become a fat, cold shrew. I don’t have time to go have fun anymore,” Paris answered, still clearly enjoying himself. Of course the real reason he hadn’t been to Panic was because he’d been too sick, but he wasn’t going to tell Matt that. “But I’m touched the guys miss me.”
“I’ll let them know you’re snubbing them for being a bunch of loser nellies.”
“Ooh, do that! But only if I can watch what happens after that.” The phone rang again, and Paris exchanged a surprised look with Roan before he picked up the receiver. Business was positively booming today—unless it was a process server making sure they were on site before visiting. That had happened before.
Roan took the opportunity to ask Matt seriously, “Did you just drop by to say hi?”
A slightly guilty look flashed across his face, and Roan wondered how good a junkie Matt could have been if he had never mastered the poker face. His emotions were all right there, out front where everyone could see them, and Roan had no idea how he had managed to survive so long in this world. “Umm, no. It’s funny, ’cause I was always trying to think up a good excuse to see you guys, but a reason kinda fell in my lap while I was still thinking about it.”
“Oh?” He hoped Matt’s crackhead stalker wasn’t out of prison yet… although it would be fun to kick his ass again.
“Yeah, I, um, wanted to hire you.”
Roan raised his eyebrows, and resisted making the obvious dirty joke. “Really? Well, I guess you’d better step into my office.” He led the way, wondering what Matt could possibly hire him for, and how precisely Matt could afford to on a barista’s salary. He suspected he’d have to let him down gently.
Once inside the office, he gestured to the lonely chair in front of his desk and shut the door quietly, deciding to cut right to the chase. “I’m not cheap, Matt.”
“Oh, uh, I know, I saw your web page. Nice job on that, by the way.”
“That’s Paris’s baby, tell him that. I just know what I need to know about the Internet and no more.” By the time Roan had taken a seat behind his desk, Matt was sitting as well, as ramrod straight and anxious as a third-grader called into the principal’s office for reasons unknown. “What’s the problem?”
Matt looked briefly confused, as if he wasn’t sure what the question was referring to, and then he seemed to understand Roan was asking why he wanted to hire him. Learning Roan had married Paris had really thrown him, hadn’t it? Poor kid. Roan almost felt bad for him.
“Um, a friend of mine from my rehab group has gone missing, and I was hoping you could find her. Or at least find out what happened to her.” He reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a folded check. “This is your initial fee and expenses, I believe.”
He took the check and looked at it, noting both the number of zeroes and the still youthful scrawl of the handwriting across the check. “Yes, that’s a good start. But how on earth can you afford this, Matt?”
Roan could see the play of emotions across his face, and knew then that Matt had to be the world’s worst liar. There was actually something refreshing about that; the world was so full of liars, himself among them.
“My family’s not exactly poor. I mean, emergency doctors don’t make much, but my dad’s a malpractice lawyer, and believe me, he’s rolling in it. Also, I gave up the barista gig and decided to try and grow up a bit. Although I don’t know if working at a spa is growing up exactly, but at least it pays better.”
“Yeah, Avalon Spa, you know that place near the mall?”
“Oh, right. What do you do there?”
Again the nervous glance at the floor, and the small flush of color rising up his neck. “I’m a masseur. Which I know sounds as phony as hell, but I’m licensed and everything. Also, my clients are women—the only men at Avalon are the ones on staff. And while I’ve got nothing against women at all—I’d have had no friends in high school if it weren’t for women—I find them as sexually attractive as roadkill possum.”
Roan had to swallow back a laugh. “Don’t tell them that.”
“Oh, God no! I’d never get any tips then.”
At least he wasn’t the male hustler kind of masseur; he had that going for him. Of course Roan had no idea how much they made, but the fact that he had to be licensed probably put him a pay grade above barista. Still, he had a sense there was something Matt wasn’t telling him. “So this is all your money?”
A nervous glance, and when their eyes locked, something in Matt caved, and his shoulders slumped appropriately. “Well, actually… her aunt is chipping in on this too. But I’m not supposed to tell you that; she doesn’t want it getting back that she hired you.”
He shrugged, rolled his shoulders a bit, squirmed slightly in his chair. “She doesn’t get along too well with her sister, Callie’s mother, and she’s afraid this could make things worse, y’know.”
“Callie—the missing woman?”
He seemed to feel better with this topic change. “Yeah, Callie Stone. Well, not really, that’s just the name she’s been living under. Her real name’s Thora Bishop—gee, I wondered why she changed that, right?”
Bishop—that last name sounded familiar, although he couldn’t immediately say why. “Tell me about her.”
Matt was more than happy to oblige. He had met Callie/Thora in the Laurel Springs Therapeutic Recovery Center, which was an exclusive, private rehab clinic for the children of the wealthy (proving that Matt was right when he said his family had money). Part of Laurel Springs’ recovery program was that the group you were put in with met twice a month on an outpatient basis, a sort of exclusive AA program. Callie had been in for abusing prescription drugs and coke, and was also an anorexic who weighed about eighty-nine pounds when she was brought in, and often had to be fed through a stomach tube. Her parents were also concerned about her OCD problem, which had led to her washing her hands until they bled.
The girl was pretty fucked-up, which was why Matt gravitated to her. He said he always sympathized with the deeply screwed (which may have led to his crackhead stalker problem, but Roan wasn’t going to bring that up now), and Callie kept to herself a lot, even in group therapy, although eventually she began to confide in him. Not a lot, but enough that he realized her family—the Bishops of the Thorp Chemical concern (that’s where he recognized the name: there was controversy all last year about Thorp buying a few thousand acres of formerly federal forest to build a new chemical manufacturing plant)—were fucked-up in quiet but elaborate ways. They exchanged e-mails once they were out of rehab, and plans were made to get together, but Callie developed a mild case of agoraphobia and never could manage it. They were never great friends, although Matt suspected that he was the closest thing she had to a confidante, which made him feel bad for her. He played that role a lot, but he figured he was the “safe gay guy” for most of these conflicted women.
Yesterday he got a phone call from her, and she sounded near hysterical, and the first thing that struck him as weird was that it was obvious she was calling from outside—quite a feat for a person with agoraphobia. She was really scared; she was sure there were these guys following her, and she was afraid to go home. She wouldn’t call the cops—according to her, “It wouldn’t help”—but he was at work and it was too far away from where she was to be of much use to her, and sending her to his apartment when he wasn’t there and she had no way to get in wasn’t something she was up for. So he told her to go to Panic and he’d meet her there as soon as he could, banking on the fact that, most likely, her pursuers were straight men who wouldn’t enter a gay bar in a million years, and besides that, the bouncers were gym queens with an excellent sense of gaydar—no straight guys were getting past them even if they tried. (Roan’s opinion of Matt went up a notch; that was very clever of him.)
But when he got there, she was nowhere to be seen, and the bouncers hadn’t seen any woman matching her description. One of the bartenders thought he might have seen her, though. He told Matt he had been out in the alley having a smoke break, and he thought he saw, on the street, a woman matching her description being helped into a silver sedan type of vehicle. He remembered it because she was so skinny; he thought maybe she was a junkie of some kind, someone who spent more on drugs than food. He thought she looked passed out, but he wasn’t sure.
Matt knew she had a couple of brothers, and hoped that maybe they’d picked her up, as far-fetched as that was. He had gone to her place, and said it was “trashed” and she was nowhere to be found, which really scared him. He was now certain something terrible had happened to her.
“Have you reported this to the police?”
Matt shifted in his chair, sitting up a bit straighter, his eyes suddenly troubled. “No. The family asked me not to.”
Of all the possible responses to that question, that was the one Roan didn’t expect.