Chapter One: Casing the Joint

 

CASEY USED to love the color red, but the fire engine parked outside his restaurant—lights flashing and hoses on full blast—had him rethinking that. Or it would have if his brain had bothered to register anything other than It’s gone. Because life as Casey knew it was over, burned to ashes like the first soufflé he ever made, and he had bad luck and a little faulty wiring to thank for it.

A strong waft of smoke punched him in the gut, and he fell to his knees as he struggled to catch his breath. He vaguely registered his girlfriend, Isabel, at his side before the paramedics ushered him to an ambulance. His vision started to blur, and he did his best to listen to what the paramedics tried to tell him, but his body felt as if it was in revolt.

“C-can’t… breathe,” he kept repeating, pawing at the collar of his shirt trying to hold off the boa constrictor tightening its hold around his neck. His chest ached, and he thought he was going to suffocate or have a heart attack. He blinked his vision clear and saw Isabel talking with one of the paramedics before the doors of the ambulance shut.

“We’re taking you to the hospital as a precaution, Mr. North,” said one of the paramedics. “Just try to take deep breaths. Everything’s going to be fine.”

But that was a lie; nothing would ever be fine.

Cinder was everything to him, his livelihood, the dream he’d spent nearly his whole life working toward, so the late-night call from the police informing him of the fire had turned his blood to ice. Then they’d pulled up and he couldn’t believe his eyes. The flames had devoured it.

He made Isabel take him back to the restaurant after the hospital released him, but what he saw when they arrived almost had him in need of a return trip. The fire had gutted the place, the burned remains filling his heart with a sadness mixed with the bitter taste of failure. An electrical fire had started in the restroom and quickly spread, taking the whole damn restaurant with it. The police tacked up yellow caution tape all around it, but little to nothing remained to salvage—of the restaurant or of himself.

Isabel vowed to stay by his side and assured him that the insurance company would pay for it all. He felt so thankful to have her support that he went out and bought her an engagement ring as soon as he could. He’d decided to wait for the right time to propose, but with every day that went by, the right time felt like it slipped further and further away.

Casey was in his therapist’s office when he got her two-word text: it’s over. And yeah, that pretty much summed it up.

Two months after Cinder, Isabel left him because of a different kind of faulty wiring, the kind that made it difficult for him to pull himself out of bed most mornings and mocked him from inside his own head. He couldn’t blame her for leaving, not when he let himself go. He’d gained twenty pounds in that time and didn’t bother shaving anymore, his jet-black hair growing in thick on his face.

When it became a chore to turn on the faucet for a shower some days, how could he turn on anyone else? But a little common courtesy would have been nice, instead of a text and a covert mission with her friends to pull a Grinch. She even took the lightbulbs and the toilet paper from their shared apartment.

Depressed, dejected, and utterly destroyed, he packed up what little Isabel hadn’t slithered off with and pointed his car north toward Land’s End. He had a sister there, older by a year and a half, but they had grown apart when he moved away. He thought he had two nephews, and he hated himself that much more when he called from the road and she corrected him: three nephews.

 

 

“WE’RE ALMOST there, Jasper,” Casey said, eyeing the cage strapped in the backseat.

The cat meowed a pathetic reply.

The serene drive up from LA to LE took a toll on both of them. Land’s End sat almost halfway between the Hollywood Hills and Seattle, nuzzled against the Pacific Ocean. The sleepy little coastal town had bed-and-breakfasts lining the shore and tiny shops where visitors could go antiquing in the afternoons when the sun got too hot to sunbathe. The fish place down by the docks stood as their biggest restaurant, which contributed to his skipping town as soon as he’d gotten the chance.

His dream had always been to own his own restaurant. He left home at seventeen and moved across the country to the Big Apple for culinary school. There he worked his way up from a dishwasher to a well-respected chef over the span of four years. When it came time for him to spread his wings and venture out on his own, he took the opportunity to move to Los Angeles. Even though New York had treated him well, the West Coast ran through his veins.

But the trip home to Land’s End signified him giving up, throwing in the towel and admitting that life had beaten him. He’d lost, and now he had come crawling home empty-handed with his tail between his legs and nothing to show for his twenty-nine years on earth. He felt like a total loser, and the Welcome to Land’s End sign mocked him on the drive-by.

Rachel had convinced him to stop in and say hi before heading to his temporary home, but the drive had worn him out, and he wanted to sleep before he had to deal with family. What was he supposed to do with three nephews and a sister he hadn’t seen since their mother’s funeral? With that in mind, he made the decision to pass by the turnoff to her house and continue on.

Soon he pulled up to the house he’d rented with what little savings he hadn’t dumped into his restaurant. He’d have to make do with what he had until the insurance check showed up. The one-story dwelling looked smaller than it did in the online listing, but he was in no position to be picky. Powder-blue awnings on the exterior walls blended in with the sky, as did the white trim around the doors and windows, but he kind of liked the effect.

Jasper started to stir in his carrying cage when Casey turned off the ignition. A few sporadic meows here and there marked the extent of his protest about the long car ride, but Casey knew he should take the little guy inside. They both had a desperate need to stretch their legs.

Isabel had brought Jasper into his life when they moved in together, but she obviously rejected him too. Casey didn’t consider himself an animal person—his hectic job didn’t allow for much free time outside of work—but some days the marmalade tabby felt like the only friend he had in the world. They had a sacred bond.

Most days the feline gave him his only reason to get out of bed, and a shitty one at that. If he didn’t empty the litter box at regular intervals, Jasper would leave wonderful “presents” all over the living room to show his appreciation. His therapist said it was good he had some semblance of purpose in his life, even if it only consisted of picking up the fur ball’s excrement.

Casey didn’t know how long he spent sitting there trying to will himself to get out of the car, but a sharp rapping on the window startled him from his thoughts of despair. His heart leaped into his throat as he clutched his chest, the organ doing double time as he flinched and turned toward the noise.

On the other side of the glass stood an old woman, at least sixty or so, with snow-white hair and a suspicious scowl on her hardened face that looked like it took masons a thousand years to carve out of stone. Maybe she was a lot older than sixty. In one hand she held a wooden cane that she had tapped on the glass, and in the other a brown leash that led to a small yet round puffball of a Pomeranian. He could hear her mumbling something, so he rolled down the window.

“You live here or are you just casing the joint?” the woman asked, her eyes narrowing even more with every word.

“Uh, neither. I’m renting for a while,” Casey replied.

“Just the driveway?”

Casey wanted to bite back with a sarcastic comment, but he held his tongue. “The whole house. I just had a long drive and needed a moment to collect myself.”

“Do it from the inside, then. You’re gonna rile up all the neighbors.”

She turned to leave, but he felt the need to introduce himself. “I’m Casey, by the way.”

“Mrs. Walton,” she hissed back over her shoulder, tugging on the leash to get her dog to follow. Just what he needed: an old curmudgeon for a neighbor. He’d arrived in the town five minutes ago and already made an enemy.

He sat there for a few minutes longer, watching as she limped up her sidewalk to her front door. Her bright green house—almost lime—seemed in complete contrast to her dreary personality. It didn’t suit her in the slightest. As if she’d read his thoughts, she sent a glare his way as she opened the door before disappearing into the house.

Casey rolled the window back up and pushed the door open to step out. The smell of salty air always brought him comfort, and he was glad to finally escape the confines of the car. He stretched his arms above his head and groaned at the feel of his muscles loosening. His head lolled back so that the sun shone down on his pale face, warming his cheeks, which had spent the last several hours weathering an assault from the air conditioner.

After a minute or two of warming up his muscles, he walked around the back of the car to unbuckle Jasper’s carrier from the rear passenger’s seat. Casey accidentally jostled the carrier when he pulled it out, much to Jasper’s displeasure. “I know, buddy. I’ll let you out in just a minute. Just hold on a little while longer.” He set the carrier down for a second to get one of his bags. Once he’d secured it over his shoulder, he picked up Jasper again.

He chanced a glance at Mrs. Walton’s house and saw her curtain move as he walked up the sidewalk. It didn’t surprise him that she’d been watching him, but he couldn’t do anything about a nosy neighbor, other than hope he didn’t have to interact with her much. He had his own problems to deal with, and he didn’t need anyone or anything else making his life harder.

The man he’d rented the house from told him he’d left a key in the mailbox. Casey had to put Jasper down to fiddle with the door. After a brief struggle with the lock, he pushed it open. He deposited Jasper on the other side of the threshold before closing the door and opening Jasper’s carrier so he could stretch his stubby legs.

The house smelled lemony upon entry, thanks to a Lemon Fancy geranium on the table by the door. He’d been given instructions on how to water it, though he’d had plenty of experience keeping an herb garden. He knew a lot about edible plants used for cooking, so he had confidence he wouldn’t kill it.

The front door opened into the living room, and he dropped his bag in a nearby chair on his way to explore the rest of the house. The sparse furnishings appeared clean and sleek and made the house look modern while still managing to have that quaint beach-house vibe. The walls matched the exterior, with pale blues and yellows with white trim. Casey couldn’t decide if he liked it, but it would have to do.

The two bedrooms sat on the left, with a guest bathroom and the laundry room between them. A small office area sat in the corner by the front door and opened up to the living room with the kitchen just beyond, complete with an island and huge windows that gave a nice view of the ocean. He should’ve loved it.

The open concept would allow him plenty of room to move around while he cooked, but the thought of doing so turned his stomach. Every time he stepped into a kitchen, he smelled the burning of his hopes and dreams as pictures of the scorched remains of Cinder flickered through his mind. As a result, his recent meals consisted of cheap takeout or frozen foods he prepared in the microwave, even though he hated how junk food took up residence around his middle.

He peeked his head into the first room. It looked pretty standard and had a queen-size bed. He didn’t need two bedrooms, but he couldn’t find a one-bedroom that had beach access. The second room was the master, with a california king canopy bed complete with sheer white curtains tied to the four posts. It looked romantic; he hated it.

French doors led from the master out onto the deck, where a barbeque grill sat. He didn’t know if grilling would cause the same visceral reaction that a kitchen did, nor if he had the balls to find out. But the infinity pool looked tempting enough, the blue water seeming to blend right into the ocean as they both stretched into the horizon.

Casey needed to bring in the rest of his things and get Jasper settled before he could indulge in a nice swim. He considered his lack of material possessions a plus, as he only needed two trips to unload the car. He’d been too distraught to bother with his kitchen gadgets. A friend of his, one of the sous-chefs who worked for him, insisted on holding on to them until he worked things out. He tried to tell her to keep everything, but she insisted he would want them when he got his life back on track. If he got his life back on track.

He put his bags in the master bedroom and braved the kitchen for a drink. It took a few tries before he located the glasses, but he quickly filled one with ice and water from the refrigerator-door dispenser. He took a few sips, then made sure to fill a small bowl for Jasper. While he drank, he leaned a hip against the marble countertop and pondered aloud where he could put the little guy’s food and litter box.

“How about the guest room? No, might be too messy… and I don’t want to leave the door open all the time. Bathrooms are out too. You’ll get litter all over the place, as we learned the hard way…. Hmm, any suggestions?” He paused and looked down at the cat, who was lapping up water at his feet. “You’re really no help, Jaspy.”

He finished his drink and set the glass on the island. Then he scooped up both Jasper and his bowl of water to take into the laundry room. It would work for the time being. With that decided, he made one more trip out to the car for Jasper’s things: his bed, a half-empty bag of food, his dishes, the litter box, and a few toys. He caught sight of Mrs. Walton peeping out her curtains on his way back in. That had already gotten old.

Once he had Jasper’s things situated in the laundry room, he went back into the bedroom and unpacked his own. It was almost time for dinner when he’d finished putting away his clothes, but the hypnotizing sound of waves beyond his bedroom door had made him sleepy. He decided to take a nap first and then order pizza from the place he’d worked at the summer he turned sixteen.

He backed up to the bed and let himself fall onto the mattress, his body bouncing a few times before he melted into the comfy bed. He took in the sights, happy that he could see the ocean stretching on forever from where he lay, the shimmering crystal water of the pool dissolving into the deep blue of the sea. It was a helluva view, and it puzzled him how he’d snagged such an amazing house at such a dirt-cheap price.

But maybe his luck had started to change.