I manage to make it outside after stumbling through the avalanche of books and overturned furniture on the living and dining room floors, retching violently but thankfully not actually vomiting in the mask I’m wearing. Still, I stick my head over the railing, belatedly yanking off said mask just in case I have another bout of the gags.
I suppose under normal circumstances, I might find Briscoe’s horrified reaction comical, given that he has to have seen much worse in his line of work than a woman on the verge of puking her guts up. But there’s nothing normal about having my home broken into and knowing it just as easily could have been me cut up into pieces instead of my belongings.
I’m lucky to be alive.
Had Dickhead not been the high-handed man he is by steamrolling me into staying at his place without asking me after heeding Briscoe’s advice, it would have been me they found in there this morning.
I owe them my life.
The thought is sobering.
We go through life thinking we’re invincible, thinking that nothing bad ever is going to happen to us because that kind of shit only happens to other people in other places far, far away from our perceived realities. It’s only when all the terrible things we read about and see on TV every day involve us personally that we even begin to realize our own mortality.
“Sorry about the tape,” I pant, referring to the yellow police tape I tore through when I thought I was going to lose my breakfast.
Still might lose my breakfast, at that.
It’s going to get a lot messier if my stomach doesn’t cooperate with my efforts to fight the revulsion of the unsettling scene inside.
“Understandable, given the circumstances,” Briscoe says. “That’s why we didn’t want you going in there. I’m just glad, well, you know.”
Yeah, I DO know.
That I’m alive.
“I’ll need to take your statements, but I can do that later at your house,” Briscoe tells us pointedly. “I hear the two of you have been very busy this weekend.”
I can’t wait to see Dickhead try to finagle his way out of this one.
Briscoe is pretty sharp, and I’m beginning to wonder if he might be an out-of-state transplant from a bigger city given his rather seasoned demeanor, although I can’t detect a distinctive accent of any kind. I’m not so sure about his partner, though, since I’ve never seen him so much as open his mouth in my presence. I’ll have to start calling him Harpo — as in the one Marx brother from the famous sibling comedy act who never spoke — if he doesn’t start talking soon.
Briscoe escorts us downstairs to Dickhead’s car once I give them the all-clear that my stomach has settled, making arrangements with Dickhead to drop by this evening after taking down his address. He also mentions his plans to contact the Derby County Sheriff’s Department to beef up patrol units around Dickhead’s house, particularly at night when we’ll be at our most vulnerable while we’re sleeping.
“Do you carry?” he quietly asks Dickhead.
“Yes,” he says. “I have a handgun, but it’s locked up in my safe. I didn’t think to carry it on my person this morning, but I won’t make that mistake again.”
Briscoe gives him a look, starts to say something before Dickhead cuts him off.
“Yes, I have a valid concealed carry permit.”
The detective nods.
“We have a lot to talk about later,” Briscoe says instead. “Until then … “
He heads back upstairs, waving us off as Dickhead starts the car.
Dickhead doesn’t attempt to make small talk as he drives, which is probably for the best.
There’s nothing anyone can say or do to make me feel better, to make me forget what I’ve seen this weekend. Sorry. What WE’VE seen. I’m being selfish — I’ve been completely selfish, I’m ashamed to admit — only thinking of myself. All of this must affect Dickhead immensely, but he hides it well. Too well. I’ll have to fix that. He needs to know it’s OK to lean on someone else. That’s how relationships work. That’s how love works. He’s only human like the rest of us, and it’s not fair for him to comfort me and receive none in return. That’s not an equal partnership, and it’s damn well going to change whether he likes it or not. He’ll just have to get used to it.
Our first stop is Bluegrass Mall — nothing like a little now-necessary shopping to take our minds off of everything else for a while — since it closes so early on Sundays.
My self-appointed fashion stylist takes over from there, miraculously selecting a week’s worth of comfortable business attire and a few pairs of shoes at closeout prices. I still don’t understand why someone who clearly has a great eye for fashion insists on dressing himself like a penguin every single day at the office. It just boggles the mind.
I am also the new owner — albeit inwardly kicking and screaming — of a cell phone, courtesy of Dickhead. It’s an older Blackberry something or other like his, although I imagine his is the latest version of whatever the fuck model it is I — UGH — have sitting somewhere in the bottom of my purse. Where it will stay forever forgotten, if I have MY way.
Our next stop is Wal-Mart, where I pick out some casual clothes to wear away from the office while Dickhead is busy sending a flurry of texts nearby. But he stops as soon as I trudge to the department I dread most — lingerie — to grab the usual bras, underwear and socks, as well as a couple of sleeveless cotton nightgowns, before heading to the health and beauty department for toiletries.
He steers me to the pet section afterward, loading our cart with everything a cat could possibly need and beyond.
Dickhead doesn’t let me pay for any of it, but I refrain from arguing with him after our, uh, heated confrontation in the first store we went into at the mall. We caused one hell of a commotion bickering about who was going to pay when we were at the register. Finally, after one of the sales clerks threatened to call security on us, I let him have his way so we didn’t continue to make a spectacle of ourselves or ultimately get booted from the mall. I’m independent to a fault, although it doesn’t seem like it lately with him coddling me so much — not that I’m complaining — and I pride myself on paying my own way. Always have and always will. It’s my downfall, this hubris of mine, even though I know he means well, that he just wants to help.
One step at a time, Piccolo, one step at a time.
He calls Mandy Jo on his cell as we leave the store to ensure she’s home so we can swing by to collect Stinky. Luckily for us, she is and Dickhead pulls up to her apartment complex mere minutes later. I ring the buzzer to get into her building and soon, we’re inside her apartment trading pleasantries. She knows me well enough to know something’s up, but Dickhead is no dummy and doesn’t let the two of us out of his sight.
Stinky makes a beeline for me with a loud “prrrowww” when she hears my voice. I scoop her up and cuddle her as she purrs noisily, reveling in the attention. Dickhead reaches out to give her a tentative pet, and she rubs her face lovingly against his hand. He smiles, surprised by her uninhibited show of affection.
I wonder if he’s ever had a pet. Probably not. It makes me ache for the lonely boy he was and the even lonelier man he became. But he isn’t alone anymore.
He has me. And Stinky. He won’t stand a chance against the two of us. I almost feel sorry for him.
Almost, but not quite.
I gently nudge Stinky into her carrier, thanking Mandy Jo for taking care of her while we were out of town. On our way out, Dickhead warns her not to go anywhere alone and orders her to stay away from my apartment because of “alarming new developments possibly related to the murder of Lester Smith,” to use his exact words. She rolls her eyes until I beg her to listen to him. I want so badly to tell her about the break-in — she’s bound to find out soon because she’s been handling Coach Smith’s story since he was found murdered Friday — but I dare not say anything until we have it out with the detectives.
It’s getting late as Dickhead drives off. It’s already after 5 p.m. We need to get to his place soon, else Briscoe and Harpo will beat us there.
As it is, we manage to beat them there. Just.
After depositing our packages in his bedroom, I open the carrier so Stinky can explore her unfamiliar surroundings while I set up her new litter box in the master bathroom. Dickhead, meanwhile, fills her bowls with food and water and is in the midst of placing them on the kitchen floor when we hear a knock on the front door. I enter the room as he looks through the curtains covering the massive living room window before opening it to the detectives, who nod their approval at his caution.
They sit at the table with Dickhead while I get the coffeemaker going, easily finding the supplies I need on the kitchen counter to complete the task quickly. I have a feeling we’re going to need the caffeine to get through this interview.
Briscoe doesn’t waste any time.
“Dead bodies seem to be turning up everywhere,” he begins, carefully choosing his words while he and his partner observe us with hawk-like eyes that miss very little, if anything. “I received quite an interesting phone call from the Perrysville police chief early this morning. She said you asked her to do a welfare check on Bob Gallant. Now, why, after going to visit your employee’s parents in Alabama, did you suddenly decide to go out of your way to check on the welfare of a former employee who’s been gone — what? — two months? That concern seems a little overdue, don’t you think?”
Dayum, he’s good.
“How’d you know we went to see my parents on Friday?!” I blurt out, falling right into his trap.
“You’re a reporter, aren’t you?” he throws my profession up in my face like it’s some kind of communicable disease. “We suspected you’d go see your parents as soon as we left the newspaper, so thank you for verifying that. I’m just glad your boss here had enough sense to go with you on your lengthy excursion. We’re just curious if your parents told you something that they didn’t tell the police that prompted this little detour of yours to Perrysville.”
It’s not a question. It’s not exactly an accusation, either. In a manner of speaking.
“Would you like some coffee?” I ask, dodging their pointed stares.
“Yes, please,” Briscoe says, willing, for the moment, to play the game my way. “I take mine black.”
Just like Dickhead.
Harpo shakes his head. Negative.
I wait for the coffee to finish percolating before pouring three cups. I bring Briscoe and Dickhead theirs prior to doctoring mine with a bunch of milk and sugar and then seating myself at the now-crowded table.
“Piccolo here could regale you both with horror stories about me,” Dickhead says, offering up a harsh truth of sorts. “I am a perfectionist, and I expect no less from those in my employ, as she will attest. I am extremely hard on my reporters and editors, and I make no apologies for it. We do things the right way or we don’t do them at all. There is no in-between. I suppose the stress of working for me took its toll on Bob Gallant, as it has with others, and he quit two months ago with no notice. But that was of no consequence to me at the time because there is always someone waiting in the wings to fill an open position at the Daily Herald.”
Not if they know what an asshole you really are to work for, pal.
I barely succeed in biting back the words, at once remorseful for even thinking them, knowing what I do about him NOW. I have this nasty habit of saying — out loud — what everybody’s thinking, and HE knows that better than anyone else. Since Day One. But the dead giveaway, I’m sure, is the expression on my face that none of them miss.
“Sorry,” I tell Dickhead, meaning it. “But you can be very difficult sometimes.”
That’s an understatement, if ever there was one.
“Piccolo and I have always been at odds,” he admits, “but our trip to Alabama provided us with the opportunity to get to know one another outside of the office. We have since, for the most part, settled our differences, and, realizing the added stress I have placed upon her and her co-worker, Jackson MacKinnon, in our sports department, I wanted to try to make amends with Bob Gallant. He has no animosity whatsoever toward Piccolo, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to try to make things right with him. Hence, our DETOUR to Perrysville.”
This right here is Dickhead at his finest. I am positively giddy.
Take that and shove it up your asses, you fuckers!
“Then why tell Maybelle Flowers you had his paycheck?” Briscoe pounces.
“In case they refused to do the welfare check, of course,” he retorts.
Now, who has the upper hand?
“A welfare check that turned into another murder investigation, you mean?” Briscoe digs in, seemingly delighting in this masterful match of wits with Dickhead.
“Yes,” Dickhead says wearily, “the murder of Jane Gallant, may she rest in peace.”
This isn’t going Briscoe’s way at all, and by the looks of it, he isn’t taking well to being bested by his adversary of the moment.
“And what about your, ah, new relationship with Miss Granger, here?” Briscoe purposely baits Dickhead out of pure frustration. “Maybelle Flowers had quite a lot to say about that, too.”
Maybelle Flowers, bless her little heart, has a BIG mouth.
But seriously, what did we expect? That she’d keep her trap shut about us?
Not fucking likely.
Briscoe and Harpo would have a field day if they had an inkling that I’m in love with him. I wonder how he’ll react if he ever finds out. Knowing him, he’ll chalk it up to gratitude or trauma or shock or some other noble but lame excuse. But I know what I feel, and it’s none of those things. I’ve been fighting it for so long, it feels good to finally welcome it with my arms outstretched.
“Why are you all staring at me like that?!” I ask, confused by the detectives’ knowing looks and Dickhead’s poleaxed expression.
“I believe Piccolo just answered your questions,” Dickhead says as if in a daze, never taking his eyes off of me.
“But I didn’t say anything!” I argue.
“Briscoe and Harpo?!” Briscoe asks incredulously. “Seriously?!”
Say it ain’t so!
Even Harpo snorts at my choice of nicknames for them.
Fuck! Fuck! FUCK! I am SOOO screwed!
Did I really just say that out loud?!
“Yes, you did, Piccolo,” Dickhead confirms, causing me to squirm under his relentless scrutiny.
“Do you have anything to add to that?” Briscoe recovers enough to goad Dickhead one last time.
“As a matter of fact, yes, I do,” Dickhead replies thoughtfully, releasing me from that hypnotic gaze of his to focus on Briscoe again. “We know that Margaret Granger had a relationship with Lester Smith while she was separated from her husband, Bill. We also know that she went by the name Meggy O’Brien — a combination of her nickname and maiden name — when she met Lester Smith. This was about 10 months before Piccolo was born.”
Briscoe impatiently taps his fingers on the table, acting as if he’s bored when we all know he’s anything but.
“Tell us something we don’t know,” he grumbles anyway.
“I will, IF you’ll allow me to finish,” comes the dry response. “Maybelle mentioned a rumor about Jane Gallant having an extramarital affair with a man named Smith many years ago. She also told us that Jane Gallant’s husband, Jack, has been missing for about 25 years. He just disappeared one day, it seems. And no one has been able to locate Bob Gallant for two months. And after what we … we saw today, we know Piccolo is in grave danger. And possibly even her mum, er, mother.
“I believe it’s all related, somehow. We just need to piece the puzzle together.”
Briscoe is scribbling madly on his notepad, clearly impressed with Dickhead’s hypothesis and his cool, concise demeanor while being interrogated.
“We could use someone like you on the force,” the detective says wistfully.
“I’ll pass,” Dickhead says with a genuine smile, pausing long enough to wink at me as he gets up from his chair to walk the two detectives to the front door.
“We’ll follow up on this information,” Briscoe promises. “Don’t go taking any chances investigating on your own. And keep your gun close.”
The detective hesitates momentarily before walking back over to the table, where I’m petting Stinky, who just jumped into my lap.
“Miss Granger, we canvassed your, ah, neighborhood, and no one saw anything,” he says apologetically. “Your neighbor in your apartment building was gone all weekend and didn’t return until late this afternoon, so that’s a dead end. The break-in was personal. Very personal. Whoever did it was in a rage and meant to harm, maybe even kill. We don’t know who did this yet, but we have at least one murderer at large and possibly as many as two victims if the cases are, indeed, related. Please don’t go anywhere alone, even in the daytime and even if you’re just going to the bathroom.
“It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Briscoe then informs Dickhead that the sheriff’s department will have patrol units out to check the house at least once every hour, more if the manpower can be spared. He asks the detective to relay the message that he will be reactivating his outside motion-detector lights, having previously disabled them because animals constantly set them off.
On impulse, Briscoe whispers something to him, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. Dickhead nods, whispering something back just as unintelligibly. Both men snicker, clapping each other on the back.
It’s almost laugh-out-loud hilarious watching them stand there talking like old chums after all of that psychological cat-and-mouse bullshit earlier.
Both give me sheepish grins.
I wonder what that’s all about? Knowing THEM, it has something to do with ME.
“Good luck,” Briscoe says, chuckling on his way out. “You’ve got your hands full with that one.”
Bite me, pal.
“I give as good as I get.”
Bring it on, boss man.
He closes the door, locks it securely, turns to face me.
“Alone at last,” he says slowly, striding purposefully toward me.
“Now, about that revelation of yours … “