WORDS TUMBLED through the air at Tyler McCall and crashed over him like a steamroller.
Phrases such as teaching license permanently revoked, banned from working with students, sexual battery, probation, restraining order, six months prison…. They went on and on, but Tyler, with all his education in the art of words, wasn’t able to comprehend or keep up.
The gist was he’d screwed up. Not simply a little mistake that would blow over in time. This was a major, “wreck your life and everything you’ve worked toward for the last six years” fuckup.
What had he been thinking? That was a question he’d asked himself many times over the next six months. And then the next ten years. He knew the answer, though. He’d known it all along. Thinking wasn’t involved in his actions.
Falling in love shouldn’t be punished. Except he’d come to see he hadn’t fallen in love. Tyler had become infatuated and fallen in lust. He let his hormones soak his brain and clog his thinking. Time and maturity finally allowed him to see that, but at twenty-five, the only thing he saw was the young man who made his blood run hot and his head spin. The fact that the young man was a student in the school where Tyler worked didn’t seem to matter.
Until it did.
How many times had he told his students bad things can happen to you? You aren’t invincible? Yet Tyler hadn’t managed to follow his own advice. Maybe the real question was, how could he have been so stupid?
He’d lost everything. His degree was nothing more than a useless piece of paper. The career he’d worked toward was over, with no hope of revival. All because of Dimas. Tyler’s situation wasn’t Dimas’s fault; he knew that from the beginning. He also knew he couldn’t see Dimas ever again. That loss was something Tyler carried with him for a long time.
Six months in a correctional institution—Tyler had a hard time even saying the word prison. That’s where he went, though, to prison. His sister came to the trial. She didn’t stop talking to him. His parents barely tolerated the fact Tyler was gay, let alone accepted it. This? This they used to sever him from their lives once and for all.
“It’s not forever,” he mumbled as he was led away. Practice what you preach, Tyler. Turn the situation around and make it into something good. His inner pep talk did little to improve his mental state, but it did give him an idea. In prison, unlike out in the world, Tyler could still teach, even without a license.
The correctional facility was minimum security, and many of the inmates worked at various jobs. Tyler volunteered at the prison school and spent his days fighting illiteracy, which not only enabled him to feel productive, but also kept his mind occupied. At least during the day. His nights, however, were filled with memories of his time with Dimas, no matter how hard he tried not to think about it. As Tyler lay in his bunk, he’d think of Dimas’s deep, dark brown eyes. Dimas always wore ebony stud earrings that somehow complemented his eyes. When it was lights out for the night Tyler’s mind would drift to Dimas’s soft skin, lean body, and sweet smile.
But one morning as he waited in the line for breakfast, it hit him that it had been several nights since he’d last thought of Dimas or dreamed of him. As the months wore on, Dimas was on his mind less and less. More and more, instead, he thought about what he’d do with the rest of his life.
No matter what he decided, it was going to be a different life than he had planned.
IT WAS raining the day Tyler was released.
He recognized his sister’s Beetle sitting in the parking lot when he glanced out the window of the visitors’ area. She was waiting there for him, smiling and waving.
As he walked out the door a free man, Briley ran to him, threw her arms around his neck, and hugged him hard.
“Thank you for being here,” Tyler whispered in her ear.
“I wouldn’t have been anywhere else.” She slipped her arm through his and walked him to the car. “What are you going to do now?”
Tyler shrugged and waited for her to unlock the Beetle so he could throw his small duffel into the backseat. “Look for a job, I guess. Doing what, I’m not sure.”
“It’ll work out.” Briley sighed as she got behind the steering wheel and started the car.
“That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one who totally effed up their life.”
Briley glanced at him before turning out onto the main street. “There’s plenty of other things you can do and….” Her voice trailed off and she shook her head. “We’ll work it out. You can stay with me until you get back on your feet, like we talked about.”
“What about Mom and Dad?” Tyler picked at the knee of his jeans.
“Not a good idea.”
Tyler nodded and stared out the side window. Briley turned on the radio and left him alone.
AS IT turned out, it took Tyler longer than he’d thought to get back on his feet. Briley was infinitely patient while Tyler worked a series of menial jobs and fought twin demons of depression and guilt. Almost a year later, Tyler finally decided enough was enough and left the city he’d grown up in and the security of his sister’s support. He stuck a pin in a map and, as clichéd as it was, decided that was where he’d go. When everything he had was packed into the bed of his used pickup truck, he gave Briley a good-bye hug.
“I’ll call you when I stop for the night,” Tyler said.
“Are you sure about this?” she asked, looking anxious.
“Yeah, I am,” he replied. “I appreciate everything you’ve done. So much. But I really need a fresh start—for real.”
Briley kissed his cheek and visibly dredged up an encouraging smile. “Hey, at least now I have a great vacation spot to go to.” She shook her head. “My city boy little brother is going to go live in the Black Hills of Wyoming. I can’t wait to hear how that all works out. Just remember I’m here if you need me.”
Fresh air and a new start—that was what Tyler needed. As he hit the highway, he swore to put the past behind him, but still one question he’d worried at over the last year and a half refused to go away completely.
How the hell had Dimas and he been caught?
FRUSTRATION MIGHT have been Linden Bourne’s constant companion lately, but it sure as hell wasn’t his friend.
He took aim at the blotter on his desk and threw his pen at the center. It hit the mark, as had several dozen others, as evidenced by the number of little dents and ink spots there. Linden glared at the pen as it bounced over the thick paper and rolled to a stop a few inches away. He glanced around at the other cubicles in the large room, but fortunately no one was paying attention to him.
“Special Agent Bourne?” Linden glanced up. A young man holding a few covered cardboard boxes stood before him. “You must love having that name and being in the FBI and all.”
“Uh-huh. It’s a treat I enjoy every day.” The kid had pimples, greasy hair, and a tie that was too long. He shifted from foot to foot. Realizing the boxes must be heavy, Linden stood, waved at the chair beside his desk, and muttered, “Thanks.”
“Do ya need any help?” The young man set the boxes down, still rocking in place—Linden had the fleeting thought he might need directions to the bathroom—and grinned.
“Nope. I got it from here. Thank you.” After the kid walked away, Linden put one box on his desk and opened the other. “This whole thing sounds more like the plot to some over-the-top movie, and I’m right smack in the middle of it,” he grumbled. It wouldn’t be long before some reporter picked up on it, and then there would be even more pressure to solve the case.
Unless Linden beat the press and picked a reporter himself. His personal phone chimed.
“And that would be the press. The man is a freaking psychic,” he mumbled and swiped the screen to accept the call. “I was just about to call you. What’s up, Randy?”
“Beer and Italian.” Randy Seger’s voice was smooth and deep. He always made Linden laugh.
Linden leaned his forearm against the desktop. “I have to go out of town for a few days, but yeah, I think I need some help before I go. Regular place in an hour? No, make it more like two. I need to book a flight and pack.”
“Anything I need to start a file on?”
“I’ll let you tell me,” Linden said and ended the call.
He spent the next hour going through all the documents and evidence in the boxes, making notes on everything. Some items he took pictures of with his phone and stored them in case he needed them for reference. Next he checked flights and arranged for a rental. A glance out the window and Linden shook his head. Blue sky, patches of concrete, grass interspersed with sand, and stone beds dotted with desert plants filled his view from the large window near his desk. It was sunny, probably slightly breezy, and just cool enough he’d need his suit jacket when he went outside. He checked the weather in Wyoming. Snowflakes were hitting the ground at Devils Tower and doing so quickly.
By the time he got home, he was cutting it close to meet Randy, and he still had to pack. Just as he was sliding his key into the security door of his building, his phone chimed again.
“Yeah, Randy, I know I’m running late. Go ahead and—”
“I’m a block away, with pizza and beer. Figured you’d need a ride to the airport, and your place is closer to the highway.”
“Thanks,” Linden said and ended the call. He pulled in a deep breath and sighed it out as he opened his front door, tossed his keys on the kitchen table, and took the steps to his loft bedroom two at a time. He didn’t need to take much for what should be a quick trip in and out, and by the time Randy arrived, Linden had his bag ready to go.
The delightful aroma of warm cheese, pepperoni, and freshly baked crust filled Linden’s home. He took the cardboard carrier of beer bottles from Randy, opened one for each of them, and put the rest in the refrigerator.
Randy had gotten dishes out and put them on the table. He pulled large wedges of their dinner out of the box and arranged them on the plates. “Sing like I’m pulling out your thumbnails, G-man.” Randy grinned and plunked down in a chair before he started on the pizza. “What time’s your flight?”
“Don’t you need time to get through security?” Randy asked between bites.
“Pfftt…. I’m a federal officer with a badge.” Linden spent a few minutes working on getting some of his own pizza into his stomach. “I blew off lunch. Hungry.” He wiped his mouth and took a swig of beer. “Can you see what you can find on a Julius Hernandez?”
“What’s he done?”
“Died,” Linden said.
“Huh.” Randy nodded. “People would rather talk to a Spanish reporter than a black fed?” Randy asked. “Even if everyone from my mother’s parents on down was born here in the U.S. Okay, got an address or something?” Randy tended to ramble a lot.
“I do.” Linden pulled his phone closer and swiped over the screen before reading off Hernandez’s last known address. He added, “Which is where he was found.”
Randy had taken a small notebook from his pocket and was writing in it.
“That’s cute how you old-school your notes,” Linden teased.
Randy flipped him off and grinned. “Let’s figure this out.”
Linden sighed, trying to organize his thoughts. “I’ve been chasing this case for a month, and it seems to do nothing but go in circles. I’ve got a body, maybe two. The second one was in a burned-out building. They didn’t seem related at first, but my gut says they were.”
“Why are you—i.e., the FBI—involved?” Randy slid more slices of pizza onto his plate and wagged his fingers at Linden to push his over for a refill.
Linden ignored the question, musing his way through another thing that bothered him about the case. “The rest of the equation—motive, means, and opportunity—is thoroughly muddled. At first glance it looks like a suicide. A jilted, despondent lover ending his life, or so the note claimed.”
“I take it you don’t put much stock in that note?” Randy asked.
Linden shook his head. “The vic drowned in a bathtub. It’s not easy to drown yourself in a lake, let alone something as small as a bathtub. The main problem is that suicide by drowning is extremely rare and rarely successfully accomplished without help. And assisted suicide is still murder, no matter how honorable and good the intentions of the assistant. In addition, death by drowning is one of the more hideous ways to die. That is one cold act no matter what the motivation. So this apparent suicide doesn’t stack up, assisted or otherwise.”
Randy nodded, made a few more notes, and then asked again. “So why the FBI?”
“The vic was in the Army reserves,” Linden explained shortly.
Linden snorted. “I’ve got multiple suspects, although one of them doesn’t seem to have had any obvious reason to end the victim’s life, out of the goodness of his heart or otherwise.”
Randy was working on another slice of pizza and waved at Linden in a “go on” motion with his free hand.
“Suspect number two seems to have dropped off the face of the earth a few weeks ago. And I’ve got a third person who might possibly be of interest—not sure if he should be considered a suspect or not—but he’s become impossible to find,” Linden said.
“What do you know about them?” Randy asked.
“Not much other than their names and a few public and easily available facts. I have a niggling feeling they’re all somehow related.”
“And why the flight, and where are you going?”
“My most likely suspect at this point lives in Wyoming,” Linden said flatly. “Remember me mentioning a Tyler McCall?”
It didn’t take Randy long to digest that bit of information before he grinned. “Ah-hah. A reason not only for the FBI to talk to him, but you in particular. Let me guess—a certain guy you met earlier this year in that same area? One blue eye, one green eye, messy blond hair? No, I don’t recall you mentioning him.” Randy made a “lips flapping” gesture with one hand.
“Ass,” Linden said. “But yes, I’m flying to Wyoming to talk to him. It’s possible he could’ve hopped on a plane, done the deed, and been home for dinner—crossing state lines in the process.” He smiled and shrugged. “I’ve met him, and that slight familiarity might lull the man into a false sense of security and cause him to slip up and say or do something incriminating in my presence.”
“Which we’re hoping doesn’t happen,” Randy added and Linden nodded. “Is he the type to commit murder?”
“I don’t think so. I didn’t spend that much time with him, but I really don’t think so.” If that were indeed the case, Linden would do everything in his power to prove his suspect innocent. “But at the moment, I have more questions than answers, not enough leads, and no theory that makes much sense.”
“Serial killers prefer a certain type of victim, and don’t usually like to cross state lines in pursuit of their next fix,” Randy pontificated. “They tend to stick to an area of comfort, right?”
Linden nodded. “And one confirmed victim doesn’t make a series.”
“Crime of passion?”
“I thought of that, but those are usually spontaneous and messy. In this instance the act itself was methodical. This death was premeditated,” Linden said.
“So back to assisted suicide?”
“But why would the young man who is dead want to die? He hadn’t been sick, and there was no evidence of clinical depression in his background. He’d broken up with his lover, yes, but not recently enough for it to be a convincing reason to end it all.”
“What about another serious relationship?” Randy asked.
Linden shook his head. “Not that I could determine. I’ve also ruled out a robbery gone south, a gang-related crime, or an accident. Those are all a lot messier and tend to leave physical evidence to follow.”
“Back to square one,” Randy pointed out. “Julius Hernandez didn’t commit suicide. He was murdered.”
Linden nodded. “Task number one is to dig more deeply into the life of Tyler McCall, currently residing near Devils Tower, Wyoming.”
Randy snorted. “Perfect place for a city boy from Detroit transplanted to the Phoenix, Arizona, field office.”
“I’ll admit spending time in the wilds of the Black Hills again isn’t high on my bucket list. It was autumn the last time I was there.”
“It’s winter now.”
“Thank you.” Even Linden knew Wyoming in the winter was no picnic.
“So Tyler McCall is a suspect?”
Linden sighed and took another sip of beer. “It’s possible. But I spent enough time with him a few months ago to doubt he’d kill someone, for any reason. So no, I don’t think so. But he’s my only lead right now.”
“You never called him, did you?” Randy asked.
“I got busy.”
“He turned out not to be your suspect in that case either,” Randy reminded him.
“Kismet, that’s what this is. Uh, you do know there’s some craptastic storm about to pound that area and dump something like twelve feet of snow.”
Linden laughed. “I don’t think it’ll be that much, but yeah, I checked the weather reports before I left the office. If I don’t get this next flight out, it’s likely I won’t be able to get there for who knows how long.”
“Yeah, so we should go. How come you aren’t going with a team?”
“I don’t think there’s any reason to. Have to watch that budget, you know.” Linden changed his voice to imitate his deputy director for that last, and Randy burst out laughing.
“Okay, I’ll get digging into this. You can e-mail me the rest of the details in the car.”
Randy’s driving ensured that Linden arrived at the airport in good time. “Let me know you’ve arrived,” Randy said when he left Linden outside the airport entrance.
Despite flashing his badge, Linden still had to wait in the TSA line. As he settled in his seat at last, a text from Randy arrived.
Had to go through check-in, didn’t you?
Linden shook his head, mumbled, “Ass,” then turned off his phone for the flight. With any luck he wouldn’t be stranded somewhere along the way to the Big Rock Inn and the Black Hills of Wyoming.