Chapter One

 

 

I COULDN’T stop a giant yawn from escaping as I stared with bleary eyes at the document on my screen.

“What did you do last night? You’re usually the chipper one, and I’m the one moaning about the lack of caffeine,” Parker said, flipping the switch on the coffeemaker.

Saliva gathered in my mouth at the thought of freshly brewed coffee. Alex and I had overslept, and I’d only managed to eat a slice of toast before rushing to the car where Parker had already been impatiently tapping his foot.

“Earth to Jeff. Someone in there?” Parker was standing next to me, waving his hand in front of my face.

“Fuck off, Parker.”

“Wow. Remind me not to talk to you before you’ve had decent caffeine input. Now, come on, why are you so tired? I’m your new shrink, remember?” Parker blinked his blue eyes at me in mock-offense, flipping a lock of black hair back.

I snorted. Coffee aroma filled the air, and the water bubbled enticingly. After rubbing my hands over my eyes, I leaned back in the chair and looked up at him. The man drove me crazy on a daily basis, but he was my best friend—right after Alex, my lover, of course.

“Oh boy, this is going to be a long story, isn’t it? Hang on, I need to sit down.” With a theatrical flourish, he heeled a chair closer and fell onto it with gleeful expectation written all over his face.

“Sean’s going to lose sight in his left eye.”

Parker’s mouth dropped open, and for a long time neither of us said anything. I stared at him, wondering whether I should’ve cushioned my words a bit. His jaw muscles tightened, and he worked hard to get words out of his mouth. I’d probably worn a similar expression yesterday when Alex broke the news to me after the visit with the eye specialist. Sean was only seven years old—only seven. Didn’t he already suffer enough with his cerebral palsy?

“You can’t just drop a bomb like that without giving me fair warning,” Parker protested.

I shrugged. “Sorry.”

“Are you sure?”

I gave a curt nod. My eyes stung stupidly. Alex had tried so hard to keep it together, but in the end he’d wept for hours, cuddled up against me. He’d cried endlessly for his little brother and what he had to go through. I’d feared he’d make himself sick—which he had, but only once—and when he’d finally fallen asleep, I’d lain awake in our bed, helpless and hurting.

“What about another opinion? Maybe—”

“Parker, that was the third opinion. We noticed he was getting clumsier and he was losing focus on his left side. His sight in that eye has gone down to 10 percent, and it won’t take long for the rest to vanish too. We’ll cope.”

Whether I wanted to reassure myself or Parker didn’t really matter, did it? At least I’d had enough presence of mind not to throw that platitude around when I talked to Alex. He never bought into any of them. Parker, however, did from time to time.

“Does Sean know?”

Pain closed like a vise around my throat, and I coughed in a deliberate attempt to get rid of it. “Yes. We explained it to him.”

“How did he react?”

I grimaced. “He was worried about his other eye, but the doc said it was okay. Sean’s main concerns were if he was still allowed to go to school and if we’d still love him.”

I bolted from the chair, choking on my last words, and stalked over to the coffeemaker. I poured milk into Parker’s mug, added two spoonfuls of sugar, then attempted to grab the glass carafe. My hands shook.

Parker materialized next to me, nudged me aside, and filled our mugs. I was still blinking against the wetness in my eyes. Maybe it was a good thing I’d had no time for breakfast earlier. I wasn’t sure if it would’ve stayed down anyway. Alex hadn’t even tried to eat this morning. He’d been white as a sheet when I left. I hadn’t wanted to come to work, but the money had to come in from somewhere and—

“Jeff, come on.” Parker took my elbow and guided me back to the chair. Our steaming mugs were already sitting on the desk. “Drink.”

I eyed the blue mug with the light surface crack in it. It was only a matter of time till it broke. I put my elbows on the desk and hid my face behind my palms, mumbling, “Sorry. I don’t mean to freak out on you.”

“You’ve got every reason to freak out. And anyway, it isn’t as if you haven’t been around when I’ve flipped.” He patted my back before he ordered, “Now drink, or I’ll get David on the phone.”

I grabbed for the mug without realizing I was doing it. Only after I’d gulped down half of its scalding contents did I stop. I glared at Parker. “Why does your threatening to involve David coerce me into doing anything? He’s your partner.”

His lips curved into a lopsided smile. “Beats me. Don’t feel emasculated—he’s got that effect on most people.”

“Except on Alex.”

“It’s odd, isn’t it?” The smile slipped from Parker’s face when he asked, “Anything I can help with?”

I had no chance to answer because Alice Moore strode into our office after one brisk knock without waiting for an answer.

“Good morning, gentlemen,” she said.

“Jeez, Alice, how about waiting until we call you in?” Parker exclaimed. “We just had a very emotional conversation.”

I cast a glance at him while I took another sip of coffee.

“An emotional conversation? Ah, yes, because that’s what you always do.”

He grinned. “What? You don’t believe us? What if we’d been checking out a new porn video and were beating off? You’d have gotten more than you bargained for.”

“Parker!” I barked. My bark wasn’t more than a sputtered wheeze because I was busy spitting coffee all over myself.

Alice didn’t bat an eye as she seated herself in front of my desk. “Walking in on two middle-aged men watching porn and jerking off isn’t anything new to me, Trenkins. And it wouldn’t excite me.”

“Maybe you haven’t watched the right guys—”

“Shut it!” I snapped.

He blew out a dramatic sigh. “You’re no fun. We’re playing.”

“I’m not in a playing mood.”

That got his attention. His gaze flickered from me to Alice. She tilted her head sideways, and they exchanged a glance that seemed to encompass a whole conversation. Irritated, I got up and retrieved some paper towels to soak up the coffee that had spilled over.

Parker rose and fetched Alice a mug, filled it with coffee, and set it down in front of her. She was a tall woman, lean, her blonde hair bound in a knot. Today she was wearing a dark navy pantsuit that gave her an aura of confidence and professionalism, which fit with her occupation—attorney. We shared her law office, meaning we occupied one small room and received most of our private investigation cases through her.

Changing careers from police detectives to radio DJ—in my case—and then to private investigator hadn’t been smooth sailing. But now we were in Washington, DC, working and doing our best to adjust to the circumstances.

“You okay, Woods?” Alice’s question pulled me out of my reverie.

I nodded. Time to pull myself together. Alice was a tough cookie, and if she deemed me not up to the job, she wouldn’t give it to us. We couldn’t afford that. Absolutely not.

“What do you have?” Parker asked.

The folder she’d been holding landed in the middle of my desk, scattering loose receipts and notes. I glared at her from across the desk. This wasn’t the first time it had happened.

“Clip them together,” she said.

“We’re poor PIs, we don’t have money to buy new paper clips,” Parker threw in.

Alice dismissed his statement with a wave of her hand and opened her mouth. Parker forestalled her by saying, “Oh my, maybe I should talk to Debby and ask her if she’d loan us a few.”

Debby was the secretary and Alice’s younger sister. Even though Alice was a brilliant attorney, she stood no chance against her sister, and Debby adored Parker to pieces.

He crossed his legs and cupped his hands around his mug, a lazy smile appearing on his face. A moment later, Alice’s face smoothed. “Don’t do that. I haven’t recuperated from the last time she took pity on you.”

Tsk, don’t let her hear that.”

“I shouldn’t have hired you after I found out how much she likes you.”

“You tried to get rid of us if I remember correctly,” he shot back.

“True.” She sighed and quirked a delicate eyebrow at him. “You do good work, both of you, and that’s enough praise for the next year, so shall we get to business?”

She didn’t wait for an answer. She opened the folder, snatched the clipped pictures, and spread them over my desk. The mouthful of coffee lost all appeal. After forcing it down, I put the mug aside in disgust.

The pictures showed the mutilated body of a man. Most significant was that he’d lost his head, which sat next to his outstretched left arm. His lifeless eyes stared from the pictures, showing his dread, and my stomach churned. Parker coughed and set his mug aside too. He pressed his lips together in a tight, bloodless line.

A year ago he’d been overweight, but nowadays he was turning to the other extreme. Alex had explained to me that Parker didn’t do well with the stress of changing careers, but whereas before he would have eaten or gotten drunk, he now went for a run.

With effort, I pried my gaze away from Parker to study the pictures. Lots of gore, lots of wounds inflicted by a sharp weapon, and nothing I was keen on scrutinizing for a long time. Parker and I obviously had the same idea because we reached out to push the pictures into a pile under the folder at the same time. I pulled the folder closer so we could both read the report.

The victim’s name was Dan Eller, age forty-two, married with two children, a banker working for a financial corporation. Before we could read on, Alice interrupted. “He was beheaded by a sword that belongs to my client.”

“What’s our job?”

“Find evidence that shows my client isn’t the murderer. We’re sure he’s been set up. I got him out on bail, but his reputation will suffer and cost him a lot of students.”

“Students? He’s a teacher?” I said in alarm.

“He has his own tai chi school, which is well-known in the area,” Alice replied.

My stomach twisted into knots of epic proportions. Alex had taken up tai chi lessons after we moved here. Surely he wouldn’t have picked the one establishment Alice’s client owned, right?

“What’s the name of the school?” I asked.

Alice inspected me with a frown. “Tai Chi Academy, and the owner’s name is Charles Cooper.”

Parker groaned, then cursed and got to his feet. My heart thudded to a halt. This could not be true.