Urban Fantasy Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
B ea   Ruud   floundered   for   a   year   as   a   victim .   Now   her   rapist   has   been murdered   and   the   investigating   detective   hounds   her   and   her   family. The   Ruuds   have   skeletons   four   decades   old   and   even   the   suggestion of    a    scandal    can    ruin    her    uncle.    But    her    rapist    had    the    kind    of associates   who   weren’t   above   knee-capping   and   castrating   a   double- dealing   attorney,   so   there’s   no   reason   for   the   cop   to   be   obsessing over    her.    Bea    must    get    her    life    together,    get    over    the    family’s shadows   she   has   lived   under,   beat   this   investigation,   while   being stalked by a psycho. Time for a gut check.
Chapter 1 ~ I    need   to   swill   in   moderation.   Without   opening   my   eyes   I   extended   a   leg   across   the   bed, a practice I developed the past year. Not that I expected anyone next to me. For   a   frightening   second   I   couldn’t   remember   how   I   got   home,   much   less   got   in   bed. The only time I woke without a memory of the last hours— Not   the   thought   process   I   needed   to   start   my   day.   The   consolation—I   did   lay   alone, in my own bed. The pounding at my front door that woke me repeated. “Go away. I don’t want any.” How’d   my   pest   get   past   the   guard   downstairs   anyway?   Elevator   security   codes   were intended   to   keep   solicitors   the   hell   out   of   the   building.   I   needed   to   instill   some   fear   in someone.   Whoever   stood   at   my   door   proved   to   have   no   decorum—shouted   like   they attended a ball game. One word clicked, and my eyes jolted open. Police? What’d I do last night? I   dropped   off   my   finished   project   at   the   Trib.    Rode   Baby   over   to   Rick’s   Pub   to celebrate   the   completed   assignment.   Ate   a   grouper   sandwich.   Kept   drinking   margaritas until Rudy cut me off. Bastard. Just because I wouldn’t give him my bike key. “Ahhh.” Dropped   Baby   at   a   light.   Lost   my   freaking   balance.   Was   the   oil   on   the   pavement.   Not alcohol. That   was   a   lie.   I’m   lying   to   myself   now.   I   understand   alcoholics   frequently   delude themselves. I    closed    my    eyes    tight    as    though    that    would    deaden    the    memory.    Stupid. Embarrassing.   Unacceptable.   Driving   with   a   full   sail   was   stupid.   Riding   a   bike   that   way is pathetically stupid. But I only had a few blocks to go. “Damn.”   Let   Baby   be   okay.   God,   you   got   me   home   alive.   You   kept   care   of   her   too, didn’t you? I   opened   my   eyes   as   though   God   would   give   me   a   sign.   The   knock   repeated.   Not   the sign I wanted. “I’m going to hell.” Another knock. Persistent bastard. I   whipped   the   sheet   off   and   sat   up.   The   room   did   a   spinning,   whirly   thing   and   my stomach   twisted.   It   calmed   after   a   five-count.   I   searched   through   the   detritus   on   the floor   for   jeans.   I   found   a   pair   of   running   shorts.   Pulled   those   on   hoping   whoever   insisted to   see   me   would   give   up   by   the   time   I   reached   the   door.   I   picked   up   and   sniffed   t-shirts until I found one not completely disgusting, and pulled it over my head. Wrong side out. “Shit.” I   headed   out   of   the   bedroom   without   reversing   it.   If   they   wanted   to   see   me,   they’d take me as I come . I   slogged   down   the   hall,   yanked   open   the   front   door,   and   the   bright   glare   exploded between   my   temples.   The   pain   induced   a   gag   reflex   and   I   doubled   over.   I   broke   out   in sweat.   My   hands   slid   off   my   knees   and   I   almost   reeled   forward.   I   have   no   idea   how   I avoided vomiting. While   I   caught   my   breath,   I   glared   at   the   two   pairs   of   black   shoes   that   leapt   from   the door   when   I   threatened   to   hurl.   Well   worn.   Comfortable.   Soft-soled,   designed   to   pass   for dress shoes by a casual observer. But I’m no casual anything. I   wiped   my   mouth,   walked   my   hands   up   from   my   knees   until   I   stood   mostly   erect, and    grimaced    against    the    glare    pouring    in    from    the    landing’s    bank    of    glass    that overlooked the pool and gardens on the west side of the building. “Better   be   fucking   important.”   I   walked   for   the   front   room   without   meeting   the   eyes of   the   two   men.   I   brushed   weeks   of   mail   off   the   couch   onto   the   floor,   jammed   an abandoned   bra   under   a   throw   pillow,   and   lay   down.   The   front   door   closed,   footsteps lapped across the foyer tile. “Are you Belinda Ruud?” a voice asked. I   nodded,   wishing   I   could   be   anywhere   else   in   the   world.   Preferably   without   a   bitch of a hangover. “We’re   with   the   Tampa   Police   Department,   miss.   May   we   have   a   few   moments   of your time? I’m Detective Reed. This is Detective Santiago.” I imagined Irish went with Reed’s freckles, Cuban with Santiago’s dark complexion. Reed   flashed   an   ID.   Both   of   them   wore   gold   badges   hanging   from   straps   around their   necks.   Bulges   broke   the   line   of   their   polyester   coats.   Those   things   had   to   be   hotter than    hell    in    a    Tampa    summer.    I    imagined    my    brother    ridiculing    their    clothes,    my cousins   having   fun   over   their   little   guns.   Probably   washed   their   suits   at   home,   hadn’t drawn their weapons in two decades, since their last re-certification. Why was I being so catty? Because I wanted to die, I was so sick. They woke me so I could live it fresh. My misery had to weaken the dirty look I attempted. “Have   you   given   me   a   choice?   Make   yourself   useful.   One   of   you,   get   me   a   glass   of water.” The   heavyset   detective   made   his   way   through   the   debris   on   the   living   and   dining room floors into the kitchen. He opened one cabinet after another. “You   probably   won’t   find   a   clean   one,”   I   called.   “Just   rinse   out   anything   you   find   on the counter—that doesn’t look too disgusting.” Santiago    cleared    his    throat.    Reed    eyed    the    landfill    that    is    my    living    room,    the remnants   of   my   last   several   trips—camera   equipment,   soft   travel   bags,   and   the   hard bags   that   fit   over   my   sport   bike.   A   couple   sets   of   leathers   and   other   cold-weather   gear lay   where   I   stripped   them   off.   Boots,   jackets,   and   gloves.   Two   helmets   made   the   litter   of half a dozen meals scattered on the coffee table look as though they belonged. Santiago returned as Reed bent over and picked something off the floor. “A hundred and twenty. What the heck were you thinking, driving that fast?” My freaking speeding ticket. “You’re here for that? Already got the speech. Don’t need another.” I   snatched   the   mug   Santiago   handed   me,   took   a   gulp   and   swished   the   water   around in   my   mouth,   before   spitting   it   out   in   one   of   the   takeout   containers   on   the   coffee   table. The   whiff   of   old   Chinese   tweaked   my   gut.   I   took   several   sips,   fearing   what   they   might lead to, before leaning back. “This   ticket,”   Reed   said,   “should   have   been   taken   care   of   two   days   ago.   I’m   surprised a bench warrant hasn’t been issued.” “You    pulled    me    for    warrants,”    I    mumbled.    “Interesting.    Guess    that’s    nice    to know—to hold over anyone who isn’t cooperative, huh?” “You’re thirty-seven?” “Do you mind?” I jammed my hand out. Besides,    I    wouldn’t    be    thirty-seven    until    after    Thanksgiving.    He    handed    me    the ticket and I half-wadded it in my fist. “What were you driving?” “GSX Thirteen-hundred,” I said. “A Hayabusa.” “You know your bikes.” “Powerful bike for a—” “Don’t   you   dare   say   it.”   I   flung   the   citation   toward   the   coffee   table.   It   fluttered   to   the floor, a good place for it, for the time being. “Sorry.”   Reed’s   freckles   indicated   an   appreciation   for   his   stupidity.   “I   ride   a   CBR. Never been on a Busa.” I closed my eyes tightly as my stomach complained. “Stiff   suspension,   I   hear,”   he   continued   as   though   I   cared.   “You   opened   up   on   that four lane stretch north of Gainesville, didn’t you? Best highway in the state.” “It    was    three    in    the    morning,”    I    said.    “Trooper    got    his    panties    in    a    wad    like    I committed a real crime or something.” Reed laughed. His partner scowled. “Can we focus, Tom?” “That’s   my   brother’s   name.”   Have   no   idea   why   that   statement   floated   out   of   my head.   Intended   no   bridge-building   with   this   cop.   Perhaps   Thomas   was   on   my   mind, because   of   my   impending   trip   home.   The   reminder   tightened   my   throat.   “Hope   you aren’t as stiff as he is.” And why the hell did that follow? Geez. I shut my eyes tight. Can I sound any stupider? The   two   stood   at   attention   in   the   middle   of   the   room,   not   even   blinking.   I   found   that amusing,   considering.   They   made   me   think   of   my   cousins   again—more   thoughts   of home.   Tina   and   Grace,   two   of   Cincinnati’s   finest,   are   so   starched   they   would   arrest   me for   indecent   home   care   if   they   saw   this   mess.   I   grew   hot,   recognizing   how   my   disaster zone must make me look the total slut to these Tampa cops. “This   isn’t   going   to   work,”   I   said.   “Throw   the   stuff   off   the   chairs   and   have   a   seat,   or leave . I’m not going to lay here looking up at you.” Despite   that,   I   sat   up,   and   slowly   stood,   grateful   my   stomach   didn’t   leap   into   my throat.   I   pointed   to   the   two   armchairs   covered   in   camera   gear   as   I   walked   to   the   kitchen. I glared at the coffee maker for a moment trying to decide if I really wanted a cup. In the living room, the two men did as they were told. “Could   you   tell   us   where   you   were   October   thirty,   Miss   Ruud?”   Santiago   asked   when he settled in a chair. “Hell   if   I   know.   I’d   have   to   check   my   credit   card   receipts.   I   stay   on   the   road   a   lot. What’s this about?” “Do you own a gun?” I missed a breath and the pain in my solar plexus intensified. “Wow.   That’s   a   jump   from   harassing   me   about   a   ticket.”   I   stepped   into   the   corridor to the dining room and studied the profiles of the two men sitting twenty feet away. “So, do you, own a gun?” Santiago repeated. “Several.   Three   .45s,   two   nines,   and   a   dainty,   chrome-plated   .38   revolver   my   mom gave   me   for   a   birthday.   But   I   don’t   carry   them   around.   Ruin   the   line   of   my   suits.”   Not that    I’ve    worn    anything    but    jeans    the    last    twelve    months.    “I    carry    enough    camera equipment, I don’t need another accessory.” “May we have a look at them?” Santiago asked. “Cameras?” “Guns.” “Have a warrant?” “Do we need one?” “My dad won’t let you in the house without one.” Santiago squinted. “Your dad?” “They’re all in a safe in his office, in Middletown, Ohio.” “Have you had them in-state the last three weeks?” “Never been in Florida.” Santiago   shifted   in   his   chair   and   peered   at   a   notepad   he’d   taken   out   of   his   jacket. “Can you tell me about your relationship with Philip Tobin?” An   invisible   linebacker   forearmed   me   in   the   chest.   My   body   vibrated.   I   stepped toward   them,   glared   at   Santiago’s   unemotional   expression.   I   froze   as   though   someone shoved   a   spear   through   me,   pinning   me   to   a   tree.   I   struggled   to   swallow.   My   skin crawled,   I   broke   out   in   a   sweat   and   tasted   vomit   again,   but   it   had   nothing   to   do   with being hung over. “That   son   of   a   bitch.”   My   voice   rasped   in   an   unnatural   octave.   “You   investigating him?   But   you’re   police.   I’d   expect   the   SEC   to   go   after   that   bastard.   What   the   hell   do   you guys want with him?” The   two   officers   exchanged   glances.   Their   expressions   explained   nothing.   I   stepped into   the   dining   room   and   grabbed   a   chair,   dumped   the   junk   in   it   on   the   floor.   I   had   to   sit down or throw up. I trembled, like a weak little girl. “Why are you connecting me with that slimy bastard?” Santiago   scanned   the   room   again,   particularly   the   entertainment   center   that   held only an MP3 dock in terms of electronics. “You don’t watch a lot of TV?” “TVs are for morons.” I willed myself to stay calm, but anger welled. “Among   this   mess,”   Santiago   said,   “I   don’t   see   any   newspapers.   I   assume   you   don’t read the paper?” Mess?   Jackass.   It’s   my    mess.   I   read   my   dad’s   paper   on-line,   but   that’s   none   of   their business. “I travel too much. What the hell is this about?” “You don’t know about Tobin?” Santiago asked. “Know what, about Tobin?” “You know anyone with any specific beefs with the man?” Beefs?   Guns?   This   sucked.   “Anyone   who   ever   passed   the   asshole   in   the   hall   hated Tobin’s guts,” I said. “What’s this about?” They exchanged glances again. “Any specific complaints?” “You answer my single question and I’ll consider answering yours.” The   two   detectives   looked   at   each   other   again.   Reed   asked   his   first   question   of   the interview. “Did he rape you, Miss Ruud?” I    sprinted    for    the    hall    bathroom    but    didn’t    make    it.    Lost    my    stomach    on    the threshold.   My   body   wretched   for   a   month   and   a   half,   as   though   that   man   hadn’t   given me enough shit to ruin my life. My   knees   ground   into   the   hardwood   floor   with   each   cramp   working   up   my   spine   and through   my   guts.   A   pair   of   hands   reached   gently   around   my   face   and   collected   my   hair at   my   nape.   I   knew   it   was   meant   to   be   supportive,   but   being   touched   that   moment   felt worse than dirty. When   the   heaves   stopped,   I   slumped   and   sat.   Reed   stepped   away   and   my   hair   flowed around my face, allowing me to hide behind it. “Please leave,” I said without looking up. “May I ask you a few more questions?” Reed said. He’d asked enough. “Leave. Now.” His   footsteps   retreated.   The   front   door   opened   and   closed   a   few   moments   later.   I leaned   against   the   bathroom   doorframe,   hugged   my   knees   against   my   chest,   rested   my forehead against them, and tried to take slow, shallow breaths. Tobin still hadn’t finished with me. Neither were Reed and Santiago. I would see them again. Six   months   ago,   when   I   became   a   pathetic   victim,   I   would   have   still   cried.   The   well   is dry. I   sat   unmoving   for   a   minute   before   getting   up   and   rinsing   my   mouth   out   at   the   sink. I splashed water over my face, but it didn’t help the stinging.  “God, Belinda Anne.” I glared at the mirror. “Get a grip.” The   reflection   of   an   old   woman   glared.   She   looked   nothing   like   the   tough   athlete   I had been. Puffy eyes, flesh sunken and gaunt. Emaciated. “A fat ten year-old could beat you in the four hundred.” You’re a disgrace. I hate you. I   grabbed   the   towel   off   the   bar   and   dried   my   face,   realizing   too   late   the   thing   smelled of mildew. I almost gagged again. Damn Florida humidity. Can’t leave guest towels unchanged for twelve months. I   draped   the   towel   over   the   vomit,   walked   down   the   hall,   through   my   bedroom,   into the   master   bath,   pulled   the   tee   over   my   head   and   slipped   out   of   my   shorts.   I   twisted   the shower on and stepped into the cold water. I   tried   to   keep   my   mind   from   working,   but   it   raced,   making   plans   I   didn’t   want   to follow through with, even consider—yet. Chapter Two ~ I    grabbed   my   cell   from   the   charger,   keys,   a   helmet,   and   headed   for   the   elevator.   I   was locking the front door when a sound behind me made me jerk. “Oh God! Mr. Weinberg— You scared the hell out of me.” “Sorry, sweetie.” He   hung   half   out   his   door,   as   though   he   wasn’t   allowed   out   on   his   own.   The   filigree of   hair   usually   glued   over   his   pate   hung   over   his   right   ear.   He   tapped   his   cane   against the tile a couple times and grimaced. “I was worried, what with the ado this morning. You all right?” “They were obnoxious, weren’t they? Sorry for all the noise.” “Not your doing.” He cleared his throat. “You okay?” “I’m good, Mr. Weinberg. Thanks for asking.” “You ever need anything—” I   gave   him   a   wink,   and   he   withdrew   into   his   shell.   I   took   a   deep   breath,   locked   the door, and headed for the elevator. In   the   garage,   I   inspected   the   Suzuki.   She   had   a   few   scratches   on   the   left   edge   of   her fairing. “I’m   sorry,   Baby.”   I   rubbed   at   the   scratches   hoping   they   would   disappear.   They didn’t. The   enormity   of   my   stupidity   racked   me—riding   after   a   bartender   decided   I   had enough.   He   needed   a   lower   threshold   for   bikers.   My   argument   that   I   was   only   going   a few blocks tolled pathetic. Lucky I woke up alive. I’m acting the ignorant adolescent. Freakin’ victim. A victim. Ruuds aren’t victims. “Stupid idiot.” The   echo   in   the   parking   garage   seemed   to   help   admonish   me.   A   scuffing   sound   made me   turn   toward   the   near   stairwell.   Nothing   moved.   I   glared   a   full   five-count,   searching the shadows. No one. Getting goosey in my old age. I    turned    from    the    red    Hayabusa    and    mounted    my    other    baby.    The    Goldwing hesitated a fraction of a second from a battery that hadn’t been used in a few weeks. ~ I    ordered   a   large   tomato   juice,   poached   eggs,   and   grits,   hoping   I’d   be   able   to   keep something    down.    My    stomach    lurched    every    few    seconds,    but    I    committed    to    not humiliating myself in public. I   pulled   my   cell   out   of   my   jeans   pocket   to   catch   up   on   some   of   the   things   spinning around in my brain. The tangential thought that my pants were too loose irritated me. First   call   was   to   the   condo   office   for   a   long-overdue   maid   service—the   expensive kind. “Executive service?” Marta asked. “Whatever   it   costs.   It’s   a   disaster.   I   have   laundry   strung   everywhere—wash,   dry, iron. Kitchen the same.” “Got it. Iron the dishes.” “Funny. And, uh—” “Yes?” “I was ill this morning, in the hallway. Didn’t get it cleaned up.” “I’ll   warn   them.”   I   heard   the   smile   in   Marta’s   voice.   “Hope   you   get   feeling   better. We’ve missed you. Been away a lot, Ms. Ruud?” “Had a surprising plethora of assignments lately.” “Our gentleman residents miss you out at the pool.” Again,   her   smile   rang   clear   over   the   phone.   The   complex   was   no   Mecca   for   young people.   The   average   age   of   the   owners   probably   topped   one   eighty-seven   and   a   half. Welcome to Florida. We disconnected. The next call was going to be less comfortable. The   receptionist   rattled   off   the   principals’   names   but   I   interrupted   her   to   save   her from the litany. “Shannon, this is Belinda Ruud. Is Tracey available?” “Ms. Ruud. It’s so good to hear from you. We miss you around here. How are you?” My   eyes   searched   for   my   frontal   lobes.   Didn’t   help   the   pain   radiating   in   my   skull. Why   are   people   who   hardly   know   you   driven   to   act   familiar?   “I’m   great,   Shannon. Thanks for asking.” “Ah,   Ms.   Landry’s   off   the   phone.   Let   me   connect   you.   Good   talking   to   you,   Ms. Ruud.” The   jazz   used   to   make   being   on   hold   palatable   came   over   the   cell   in   a   scratchy rendition   not   worth   listening   to.   Fortunately,   it   only   took   a   few   seconds   before   my   old friend answered. “Hi, Tracey, Bea. You have a moment to talk?” “Is this on the clock, or off?” Tracey asked. “You   can   bill   me.   But   I’ve   moved.   I’ll   be   sure   to   email   you   my   new   address   so   you   can invoice me.” “No problem. For you, I’ll chalk this one up on the pro bono column.” “You’re   such   a   pal.   I’ll   be   quick.   The   attorney’s   clock   runs   fast.   Police   came   by   my place today asking about Philip Tobin. Know what’s up with him?” “Oh, girlfriend, where in hell have you been? You haven’t heard?” “Tracey, if I had, why would I be bothering you?” “You   should   watch   the   news   now   and   then.   Phil   Tobin   was   murdered   in   his   office. You should hear the rumors.” I   lost   the   ability   to   breathe   for   a   moment.   My   ears   popped.   I   covered   the   phone   and cleared   my   throat,   struggled   to   complete   a   swallow.   “That’s   exactly   what   I   want   to   hear. The rumors.” “Well,   tongues   wag.   Believe   what   you   will.   But   this   juicy   bit   came   from   someone   in his   office.   It   must   have   been   brutal.   Shot   in   the   knees,   and   castrated,   among   other things—throat cut. Ghastly. Lots of blood. It was not  quick.” Vomit   made   its   way   into   the   back   of   my   throat.   I   swallowed   hard   to   force   it   down   but it   was   a   losing   battle.   The   waitress   chose   that   moment   to   serve   my   tomato   juice,   along with a small glass of water. I took a sip of each, trying to ease the burn. “Bea? Did I lose you?” “Sorry. An interruption on this side. You hear anything else worthwhile?” “Goodness.    The    story’s    been    on    the    news    and    in    the    paper    every    day    since    it happened,   but   I   haven’t   really   paid   much   attention.   I   rarely   crossed   his   path,   luckily. Some dirt’s rising. I guess that’s understandable, considering the way he died.” “I have to go,” I said. “I owe you a margarita. Maybe when I return from Ohio?” “Family for Thanksgiving?” “Comes every year no matter what I do.” “You have it so tough. Love to get together. Miss our lunches. You doing okay?” “I’ll catch you up then. Gotta run.” I   disconnected   and   shut   my   eyes.   Tears   made   their   way   onto   my   cheeks   but   I   felt   a satisfied grin crease my face. Took   advantage   of   the   wrong   man’s   wife,   did   he,   the   dirty   son   of   a   bitch?   “Hope   you rot in hell.” “Excuse me, ma’am?” I jerked and opened my eyes. “Sorry. Talking to myself.” The waitress set down my plate. “Are you all right?” I   wiped   at   the   tears.   “Yeah.   Thanks.   Just   talking   to   someone   about   a—peer   who recently passed.” “Ah. My condolences, hon. You enjoy your meal.” She nodded and walked away. I   picked   at   the   eggs,   finished   the   juice,   which   overpowered   the   burning   in   my   throat. I   motioned   to   the   waitress   with   my   empty   glass.   At   least   I   could   hydrate.   My   phone vibrated across the tabletop. I glanced at the display and smiled as I answered. “What’s up, Jake?” “You in town?” “Most of me.” “We still on for tomorrow morning?” he asked. “Yeah,   but   instead   of   meeting   at   the   Cracker   Barrel,   you   need   to   come   by   my   place. You mind?” “You live on Bayshore, right? A bit out of the way.” “It’s important.” “No problem. What time?” “Six-thirty?” I said. “Okay. Why the change?” “I   have   something   you’re   going   to   need   by   the   time   we   hit   I-10.   Probably   impact   how you   pack,   so   you   might   as   well   do   your   rearranging   here,   versus   a   restaurant   parking lot.” “You going to give me any hints?” Jake asked. “None   whatsoever.   You   wanted   a   chance   to   hobnob   with   your   idol.   This   is   another payment you have to make. You sure you want to do this?” “Are   you   kidding?   For   a   chance   to   meet,   to   spend   several   days   at   the   home   of   John Ruud, I’d eat a bucket of maggots and dance naked at the mall.” I   closed   one   eye.   “I   didn’t   need   either   of   those   images   this   morning.   Tell   me   again, what’s the farthest you’ve ridden that bike of yours?” “I’ve gone to the Keys.” “Nothing north of I-20?” “No, but if you can do it, I can do it.” I   smiled.   Why   was   I   being   so   cruel?   Looked   forward   to   the   riding   company,   but   he had no clue. “No winter riding?” “Sure,” he said. “Lots of winter riding. In Florida.” Not a clue. I   gave   him   directions   to   my   place.   “Can’t   miss   it.   Eighteen   stories.   Just   pull   up   to   the front of the building. Not the parking garage. I’ll be waiting for you at six-thirty. See ya.” I   may   have   cut   him   off.   Oh   well.   I   forced   down   the   last   of   one   of   the   poached   eggs   in one   big   bite   and   washed   it   down   with   a   gulp   of   newly   delivered   tomato   juice.   I   paused   to ensure   it   would   stay   down,   before   picking   up   my   phone   again.   I   pulled   spa   up   on   my directory and pressed send. “Hi.   Is   Louise   available?”   I   asked.   “A   ninety-minute   would   be   marvelous—   Sure.   I’ll be there in fifteen. Bea Ruud— Thanks. Be right there.” As   long   as   I’d   been   making   the   trip   between   Tampa   and   Middletown,   I   always   fit   the fifteen   hours   into   a   one-day   ride.   Breaking   the   trek   into   two   days   would   be   a   picnic.   But with the hangover, my body needed some TLC. Yesterday,   I   was   half-way   to   Ohio.   I   returned   to   nursemaid   a   freaking-virgin   to touring.   Couldn’t   very   well   tell   him   to   meet   me   in   Atlanta.   Well,   I   could,   but   it   didn’t seem right, considering what I was going to put him through. I   walked   to   the   front   counter   and   paid,   slid   my   credit   card   back   into   the   front   pocket of    my    overly-loose    jeans.    I    hadn’t    been    eating.    Binging    on    margaritas    didn’t    help. Probably   down   ten   pounds   from   my   college   sprinting   weight.   I   tried   to   remember   the last time I put in a serious run, or made it to the gym. High expectations at home. God. Don’t embarrass yourself, Bea. ~ R eturning   to   my   condo   late   that   afternoon,   it   was   a   relief   the   place   no   longer   looked ransacked.   Everything   picked   up,   the   dishes   washed   and   put   away,   probably   ten   loads   of clothes   neatly   folded   or   hung   in   the   laundry   room.   The   apartment   had   that   artificial- fresh smell. The service was expensive, but worth it. I   went   through   the   process   of   picking   out   the   two   casual   sets   of   clothes   I   wanted   to pack   for   the   trip,   collecting   the   necessities.   I   searched   my   closet   for   a   single,   dressy outfit that would pack well and be acceptable for the dinner. Preparing   for   travel   on   two   wheels   is   time   consuming.   Crazy   to   live   the   way   I   do,   but life   is   short—the   easy   path   boring.   I   got   a   lot   more   out   of   riding   cross-country   than   the time saved flying. All about the journey. I’d    mature    to    four-wheel    travel    before    I    began    flying.    In    seventeen    years    of boomerang   travel   between   New   York   and   Tampa,   I   spent   too   much   time   in   airports   to spend my personal time there. I   fussed   with   my   bags   till   midnight   getting   them   perfect.   I   ate   a   pair   of   nutrition   bars and   finished   off   the   half-gallon   of   orange   juice   I   brought   home.   Rechecked   the   clothes   I laid   out   for   the   morning   and   stripped   as   the   air   conditioner   came   on.   A   smile   etched   my face,   thinking   about   how   cold   it   was   going   to   be   on   the   highway   nine-hundred   miles north. The   two   detectives   that   started   the   day   interrupted   my   thoughts   as   I   completed   my nighttime   ritual.   I   turned   out   the   light   and   slid   between   the   sheets,   only   to   see   Philip Tobin’s face. The last few months he had left me alone, for the most part. Bastard was back. How did I allow myself to be a victim? Chapter Three ~ I    woke   ravenous   and   knocked   off   a   couple   more   nutrition   bars   and   finished   a   pot   of coffee.   Though   not   a   big   breakfast   person,   an   early   stop   at   the   Cracker   Barrel   this   side   of Gainesville,   after   being   on   the   road   a   few   hours,   sounded   good.   Jake   wouldn’t   have   a problem stopping. Guys can eat anytime, anywhere. I   grabbed   the   three   soft   bags   that   fit   into   the   Goldwing’s   trunks   and   headed   for   the parking   garage.   I   loaded   the   bike   and   moved   it   to   the   front   of   the   building,   returned upstairs for my electric riding suit, gloves, helmet, and the box with Jake’s surprise. I   stepped   out   of   the   building   as   Jake   pulled   up   behind   the   Goldwing.   He   flipped   up his   visor.   He   wore   a   foolish   grin   discernible   in   his   eyes.   I   shook   my   head   at   the   armored riding   suit   he   wore.   They   were   great   for   a   spill,   and   maybe   even   thirty   minutes   on   the freeway at fifty degrees. He had no idea how cold he would have gotten in those. “Is someone else riding with us?” he asked, gesturing at the Goldwing. I smiled. “No. That’s my ride.” “You   own   a   Busa   and    a   Wing?   You’re   more   obsessive   than   I   imagined.   Explains   the long trips you’ve mentioned. What do you drive when you need four wheels?” “I don’t. More than two is superfluous.” “You get more interesting every time I meet you.” “You’ve    never    noticed    anything    about    me    since    you    found    out    I’m    your    hero’s daughter.”   My   life   story.   Since   kindergarten.   Before   that.   An   old   haunt   nicked   my   heart. I didn’t need that on my mind, especially now. He    pulled    off    his    helmet.    “Not    true.    You’d    interest    me    if    your    last    name    was Hemingway.” I blew him a raspberry. “Take off your battery cover.” He cocked his head. “Why?” I held out the power plug. “You need to connect this.” “What’s that for?” I   shoved   the   big   cardboard   box   into   his   chest.   “This   runs   off   the   flow   of   ions,   not testosterone.” He   lifted   the   lid   and   pulled   the   bright-blue   riding   suit   out.   His   expression   made   me laugh. “May   not   be   nearly   as   pretty   as   what   you   have   on,   but   you’re   gonna   need   it.   Trust me.   The   cold   will   permeate   those   leathers.”   I   poked   him   in   the   arm.   “And   you’ll   freeze. Stop looking at me like I sacrificed a baby to the gods.” Big   surprise.   He   balked.   But   I   refused   to   budge   until   he   accepted   the   leathers   had   to go, well, be covered up at least. Like I wouldn’t win. I always win. Well, usually. The   sun   peeked   over   the   horizon   as   we   pulled   onto   Bayshore.   A   cool,   sixty-five degrees. Cool for a Floridian. It might have felt good for a while. ~ O nce   we   reached   I-75   the   temperature   dropped   a   degree   every   fifteen   miles   we   traveled north,   even   with   a   glorious   sun   rising.   It   would   be   in   the   thirties   by   the   time   we   reached Chattanooga   that   afternoon.   I’d   be   toasty   on   the   Wing   out   of   the   wind.   Even   with   the electric   suit   I   gave   him,   he   was   going   to   get   colder   than   snot   with   the   wind   blasting   his shoulders and legs. We   ate   lunch   outside   Macon,   Georgia.   Jake   only   said   he   was   chilly.   His   face   was ashen.   The   suit   didn’t   do   much   for   his   head.   His   helmet   took   a   forty-five   degree   blast   at eighty miles an hour, dead-on—no wonder he had a splitting headache. Every   ninety   minutes   we   stopped   and   filled   up   with   gas,   Jake   struggled   more   to   pull his   leg   over   the   bike   to   get   off.   He   rode   scrunched   into   a   fetal   position   on   the   Suzuki, feeling    every    inch    of    highway    through    its    tight    suspension,    fighting    the    wind    and vibration. My   sense   of   guilt   escalated,   gone,   my   smile   for   making   him   pay   for   his   drooling   to meet   Dad.   But   I   paid   the   greater   sacrifice,   for   being   John   Ruud’s   daughter.   Jake   could pay for reminding me every day whose shadow I had to live in. ~ T he   last   leg   of   the   day   I   offered   to   switch   bikes   with   him.   He   looked   at   me   considering, but was too stubborn to accept. It   did   drop   to   thirty   degrees   by   the   time   we   approached   Chattanooga.   He   practically fell   when   he   pushed   himself   out   of   the   Hayabusa’s   saddle.   Staggered   a   four-count.   He rocked   with   chills   as   we   checked   into   the   hotel—so   miserable   he   could   hardly   answer   the desk clerk’s questions. He kept stomping his feet as we walked to our respective rooms. “Give me your bike key,” I told him. His eyelids fluttered. “Why?” “I’ll go fill the tank and clean it up for tomorrow’s ride.” “That’s okay. I’ll do it in the morning,” he argued. “Trust    me    with    this.    You    don’t    want    to    be    messing    with    that    first    thing    in    the morning in the cold. I’ve been doing this for two decades. It’s better to have it set to go.” And   I’m   a   control   freak.   I   have   to   have   everything   my   way.   Jake   needed   to   adjust   to that. He   looked   at   me   blankly.   He   would   have   argued   if   he   wasn’t   so   blitzed.   I   empathized with   how   badly   he   wanted   to   get   in   a   hot   shower   and   bed.   I’d   experienced   the   feeling before   graduating   to   the   Wing   and   electric   suits.   At   least   we’d   had   dry   weather.   He finally held out his key and entered his room. I   dropped   off   my   things   in   my   room   before   returning   to   the   cold   to   take   care   of   both bikes.   Jake   didn’t   have   a   cover   so   I   used   my   half-cover   that   rolled   up   and   fit   in   my fairing   pocket.   Cut   to   cover   the   top   of   the   Wing   as   a   sunshade,   it   covered   his   whole   bike. Perfect to keep the frost off his Busa. Finishing   with   the   bikes,   I   walked   over   to   a   nearby   restaurant   and   wolfed   down   a hearty   meal.   Moving   to   the   bar,   I   flirted   with   a   few   of   the   visiting   businessmen.   They sucked   up   my   attention,   even   though   I   looked   a   mess   with   hair-by-Honda,   in   my   long- john top, jeans, and winter hunting boots. I   thought   one   middle-aged   man   nearly   had   a   coronary   when   I   loosened   my   braid   and shook   my   head   to   untangle   my   hair.   It   was   entertaining   to   watch   the   man   turn   purple and   squirm.   After   finishing   my   second   beer,   I   decided   I’d   been   hit   on   enough,   and ordered a chicken linguini to-go for Jake. ~ W hen   he   answered   the   door   it   was   obvious   he   wasn’t   happy   to   be   dragged   out   of   bed, but   I   pushed   past   him   and   flipped   on   a   light.   Jake   scrambled   to   pull   on   jeans   over   his boxers. “You   need   to   listen   to   Mother   Bea.   Yes   you’re   exhausted,   but   going   to   bed   at   six without   getting   some   carbs   in   you   is   going   to   screw   you   up   more   than   you   can   believe. You’ll   toss   and   turn   all   night.   You’ll   be   worse   off   in   the   morning   than   if   you   stayed   up   as late as you normally do.” He   sat   on   the   bed,   closed   his   eyes,   and   hung   his   head.   I   opened   the   Styrofoam   box   of pasta   and   set   it   on   the   tiny,   round   table   in   the   corner.   I   removed   the   cellophane   off   two glasses,   twisted   open   the   twenty-ounce   bottle   of   lager   I   bought   at   the   convenience   store, and poured us both some. “Come on, come on,” I said. He   finally   stood   and   pulled   on   the   thermal   tee   he   had   set   out   for   the   morning.   I enjoyed   watching   him   squirm   into   it.   He   owned   a   masculine   physique   of   someone   who cared   for   his   body,   not   an   idiot   that   lived   in   a   gym.   Just   a   tuff   of   hair   resided   in   the center of his chest. He trudged to the table to join me. “Man, I hurt,” he grumbled as he sat down. “My body’s vibrating.” “The   Hayabusa’s   for   the   track,”   I   said,   “not   the   interstate.   But   they   are   beautiful things, aren’t they? I’m on my second, and still get excited when I walk up to her.” “Her?   No.”   He   shook   his   head.   “Call   your   Goldwing   her.   The   Hayabusa   is   definitely masculine.” “Come   on.   Look   at   those   undulating   lines.   Lean,   tight   package.   Screams   like   the falcon she’s named for. Soars over the road, owning it.” “Falcon? No. Hayabusa must be a lion. He roars and commands attention.” “Look it up, fool,” I said. “The Hayabusa’s a falcon.” Jake   creaked   out   of   his   chair   and   trudged   to   his   pack,   dug   around   a   moment,   pulling out   his   smart   phone,   a   tool   I   doubted   I’d   ever   lower   myself   to   use.   I’m   happy   with   my flip   phone.   Tiny   and   convenient.   He   sat   and   fiddled.   A   moment   later   he   grunted.   “You think you’re so damn smart.” “I am. You said yourself my dad’s a genius. I have his genes.” He pouted, turning to his linguini. “Thanks. This is good.” “You’re welcome. I have to tell you thanks, too.” “Why?” I   studied   the   bubbles   floating   up   in   my   beer.   “I   wasn’t   looking   forward   to   going home this year. I appreciate your company on this trip.” “I thought you were close to your parents?” Not   the   conversation   I   wanted   to   get   into.   I   sat   silently   for   a   moment.   “I   am.   But   I— Haven’t been home in a while.” Thankfully,   Jake   gave   me   time   to   collect   my   thoughts.   He   took   a   big   mouthful   of   his dinner and sucked in an errant noodle, washed it down with a sip of beer. “I wasn’t looking forward to my brother peering down his nose at me, for one thing.” That was a much safer topic. Jake   stayed   quiet   and   studied   his   meal.   My   face   warmed   and   it   had   nothing   to   do with coming in from the cold. “I’m   a   bit   of   a   disappointment,”   I   said.   “My   brother’s   managing   a   gazillion-dollar trust   fund.   My   father—well,   you   probably   know   as   much   about   him   as   I   do.   It’s   tough being   the   daughter   of   someone   who   was   syndicated   before   he   was   thirty—has   sixty   best sellers. “My   mother’s   a   respected   professor.   My   uncle—   Hell.   I’m   the   pigmy   among   giants   in my family.” “You’re   a   successful   photographer.   You’ve   been   published   in   Nat   Geo    and   a   half dozen other premier magazines that I’m aware of.” Most   niche   rags,   not   premier.   I   glared   at   my   short   glass.   I   had   some   amazing   breaks the past year. Because  of the last name. “A year ago I negotiated contracts.” Jake’s brow arched. “Lawyer?” I   met   him   in   the   parking   lot   of   the   Tampa   Tribune .   He   only   knew   me   in   that   context, as a journalist. We hit it off because we rode the same bike—an uncommon bike. “Not to pry,” he said. “Are you taking a break?” “I   was—burned   out.   I   better   hit   the   sack.”   I   stood.   “Gosh,   look   at   the   time.   Almost nine.”   I   drank   down   the   last   long   gulp   of   my   beer   and   set   the   glass   on   the   table   harder than   I   meant   to.   “You   need   your   beauty   sleep.   See   you   in   the   morning.   Seven,   for breakfast, downstairs?” “Sure,” he said. I    hurried    to    my    room.    By    the    time    I    showered,    had    my    things    set    out    for    the morning,   and   got   ready   for   bed,   calm   reclaimed   me.   I   beat   myself   up   for   being   such   an adolescent   dolt   with   Jake.   I   stripped   and   got   into   bed,   but   lay   looking   at   the   dark   ceiling. The red dot of the smoke alarm was amazingly irritating. Am I ready for my old life? Do I ever want to be ready? I   enjoy   the   hobby   I   dabble   at,   as   a   career.   No   money   in   it.   But   was   money   all   that important?   Still   have   a   fat   bank   account   from   practicing   law   for   seventeen   years,   even with   my   self-destructive   behavior   the   past   twelve   months.   Condo   paid   for,   a   birthday present   from   Dad—a   fat   trust   from   Mother   and   my   grandparents   I’ve   never   touched. Didn’t owe a penny to anyone. No. I would never be in need of money. It was expectation, to be special. I was raised to excel. Certainly not to be a victim. A fucking, limp-spined, victim. Chapter Four ~ T he   air   was   freaking-bitter   cold   in   the   morning,   even   without   wind   chill.   We   shook   the frozen   bike   covers   and   the   frost   fell   onto   the   asphalt   in   fist-sized   dollops.   I   laughed   as Jake   struggled   to   mount   his   bike.   He   was   a   few   years   younger   than   me,   but   moved   like an old man, a broken down cowboy. He caught my smirk and gave me a mock snarl. “Ah. The seat’s cold.” “Wishing you rode a Beemer?” “They have heated seats?” And grips. Probably mini-bars. I grinned as I stuffed my braid inside my riding suit. “Wishing I was in balmy Florida.” “You can turn around.” My words were cut off by the roar of his engine. I   started   my   bike,   watching   my   tach,   since   I   couldn’t   hear   the   purr   of   the   Wing   over the Suzuki’s din. The Wing’s thermometer read twenty-two degrees. Eager   as   a   teen   on   prom   night,   Jake   kept   looking   over   at   me.   I   didn’t   even   put   on   my helmet   until   my   engine’s   idle   lowered.   I   was   getting   my   ear   plugs   comfy   when   he   pulled out, to wait at the hotel exit. I grinned, taking my time to settle in. In   freezing   weather,   best   to   have   everything   perfectly   in   place,   because   once   on   the highway,    I’d    never    pull    over    to    fix    that    sleeve,    collar,    or    pants    leg.    It’d    remain bassakward   until   I   filled   up.   Best   to   avoid   tweaking   things   while   traveling   eighty   or ninety miles-an-hour. Guilt kept jabbing me, for forcing Jake to survive this cold. The   temperature   didn’t   rise   with   the   sun   as   we   ploughed   north.   At   our   second   fill   up, Jake   accepted   my   offer   to   alternate   bikes   every   hour   the   rest   of   the   way   to   Middletown.   I didn’t   look   forward   to   my   turns   on   the   sport   bike.   At   five-foot-thirteen,   I’m   no   better than Jake at hunkering down to get out of the wind. I was more tired from the riding position than cold when I got off his Hayabusa. When   I   exited   I-75,   I   imagined   Jake’s   relief   as   we   throttled   down   to   forty   for   twenty minutes,   then   thirty   miles   an   hour   a   few   more   miles.   I   turned   up   the   lane   near   home, left and right shoulders lined bumper to bumper, and rode up the car-filled driveway. Three   bearded   men   clad   in   black   rushed   toward   us   with   assault   weapons.   The   guard detail   wasn’t   unexpected.   I   continued   up   the   drive   and   stopped   shy   of   the   garage   doors, clicked   off   my   bike   and   leaned   it   on   its   side   stand.   I   craned   over   my   shoulder   for   Jake and involuntarily squawked. He stood well down the hill with his hands in the air. His bike lay on the ground. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
SCI FI Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Living in Shadow Chapter 1 ~ I     need    to    swill    in    moderation.    Without opening   my   eyes   I   extended   a   leg   across the    bed,    a    practice    I    developed    the    past year.   Not   that   I   expected   anyone   next   to me. For    a    frightening    second    I    couldn’t remember   how   I   got   home,   much   less   got in    bed.    The    only    time    I    woke    without    a memory of the last hours— Not    the    thought    process    I    needed    to start   my   day.   The   consolation—I   did   lay alone, in my own bed. The    pounding    at    my    front    door    that woke me repeated. “Go away. I don’t want any.” How’d    my    pest    get    past    the    guard downstairs      anyway?      Elevator      security codes   were   intended   to   keep   solicitors   the hell   out   of   the   building.   I   needed   to   instill some   fear   in   someone.   Whoever   stood   at my        door        proved        to        have        no decorum—shouted    like    they    attended    a ball   game.   One   word   clicked,   and   my   eyes jolted open. Police? What’d I do last night? I   dropped   off   my   finished   project   at   the Trib.     Rode    Baby    over    to    Rick’s    Pub    to celebrate   the   completed   assignment.   Ate   a grouper        sandwich.        Kept        drinking margaritas until Rudy cut me off. Bastard.    Just    because    I    wouldn’t    give him my bike key. “Ahhh.” Dropped     Baby     at     a     light.     Lost     my freaking     balance.     Was     the     oil     on     the pavement. Not alcohol. That   was   a   lie.   I’m   lying   to   myself   now. I   understand   alcoholics   frequently   delude themselves. I   closed   my   eyes   tight   as   though   that would      deaden      the      memory.      Stupid. Embarrassing.   Unacceptable.   Driving   with a   full   sail   was   stupid.   Riding   a   bike   that way is pathetically stupid. But I only had a few blocks to go. “Damn.”    Let    Baby    be    okay.    God,    you got   me   home   alive.   You   kept   care   of   her too, didn’t you? I   opened   my   eyes   as   though   God   would give   me   a   sign.   The   knock   repeated.   Not the sign I wanted. “I’m going to hell.” Another knock. Persistent bastard. I   whipped   the   sheet   off   and   sat   up.   The room   did   a   spinning,   whirly   thing   and   my stomach    twisted.    It    calmed    after    a    five- count.   I   searched   through   the   detritus   on the    floor    for    jeans.    I    found    a    pair    of running    shorts.    Pulled    those    on    hoping whoever   insisted   to   see   me   would   give   up by   the   time   I   reached   the   door.   I   picked   up and   sniffed   t-shirts   until   I   found   one   not completely   disgusting,   and   pulled   it   over my head. Wrong side out. “Shit.” I   headed   out   of   the   bedroom   without reversing    it.    If    they    wanted    to    see    me, they’d take me as I come . I   slogged   down   the   hall,   yanked   open the     front     door,     and     the     bright     glare exploded    between    my    temples.    The    pain induced   a   gag   reflex   and   I   doubled   over.   I broke   out   in   sweat.   My   hands   slid   off   my knees   and   I   almost   reeled   forward.   I   have no idea how I avoided vomiting. While   I   caught   my   breath,   I   glared   at the    two    pairs    of    black    shoes    that    leapt from   the   door   when   I   threatened   to   hurl. Well       worn.       Comfortable.       Soft-soled, designed    to    pass    for    dress    shoes    by    a casual      observer.      But      I’m      no      casual anything. I   wiped   my   mouth,   walked   my   hands up    from    my    knees    until    I    stood    mostly erect,     and     grimaced     against     the     glare pouring   in   from   the   landing’s   bank   of   glass that   overlooked   the   pool   and   gardens   on the west side of the building. “Better   be   fucking   important.”   I   walked for    the    front    room    without    meeting    the eyes   of   the   two   men.   I   brushed   weeks   of mail   off   the   couch   onto   the   floor,   jammed an   abandoned   bra   under   a   throw   pillow, and    lay    down.    The    front    door    closed, footsteps lapped across the foyer tile. “Are you Belinda Ruud?” a voice asked. I   nodded,   wishing   I   could   be   anywhere else    in    the    world.    Preferably    without    a bitch of a hangover. “We’re       with       the       Tampa       Police Department,    miss.    May    we    have    a    few moments     of     your     time?     I’m     Detective Reed. This is Detective Santiago.” I     imagined     Irish     went     with     Reed’s freckles,     Cuban     with     Santiago’s     dark complexion. Reed   flashed   an   ID.   Both   of   them   wore gold   badges   hanging   from   straps   around their   necks.   Bulges   broke   the   line   of   their polyester    coats.    Those    things    had    to    be hotter    than    hell    in    a    Tampa    summer.    I imagined     my     brother     ridiculing     their clothes,   my   cousins   having   fun   over   their little   guns.   Probably   washed   their   suits   at home,   hadn’t   drawn   their   weapons   in   two decades, since their last re-certification. Why was I being so catty? Because   I   wanted   to   die,   I   was   so   sick. They woke me so I could live it fresh. My   misery   had   to   weaken   the   dirty   look I attempted. “Have    you    given    me    a    choice?    Make yourself   useful.   One   of   you,   get   me   a   glass of water.” The    heavyset    detective    made    his    way through     the     debris     on     the     living     and dining    room    floors    into    the    kitchen.    He opened one cabinet after another. “You   probably   won’t   find   a   clean   one,”   I called.   “Just   rinse   out   anything   you   find on     the     counter—that     doesn’t     look     too disgusting.” Santiago   cleared   his   throat.   Reed   eyed the    landfill    that    is    my    living    room,    the remnants   of   my   last   several   trips—camera equipment,   soft   travel   bags,   and   the   hard bags   that   fit   over   my   sport   bike.   A   couple sets    of    leathers    and    other    cold-weather gear   lay   where   I   stripped   them   off.   Boots, jackets,   and   gloves.   Two   helmets   made   the litter   of   half   a   dozen   meals   scattered   on the     coffee     table     look     as     though     they belonged. Santiago    returned    as    Reed    bent    over and picked something off the floor. “A   hundred   and   twenty.   What   the   heck were you thinking, driving that fast?” My freaking speeding ticket. “You’re   here   for   that?   Already   got   the speech. Don’t need another.” I    snatched    the    mug    Santiago    handed me,    took    a    gulp    and    swished    the    water around   in   my   mouth,   before   spitting   it   out in    one    of    the    takeout    containers    on    the coffee    table.    The    whiff    of    old    Chinese tweaked     my     gut.     I     took     several     sips, fearing    what    they    might    lead    to,    before leaning back. “This   ticket,”   Reed   said,   “should   have been    taken    care    of    two    days    ago.    I’m surprised    a    bench    warrant    hasn’t    been issued.” “You      pulled      me      for      warrants,”      I mumbled.   “Interesting.   Guess   that’s   nice to    know—to    hold    over    anyone    who    isn’t cooperative, huh?” “You’re thirty-seven?” “Do you mind?” I jammed my hand out. Besides,   I   wouldn’t   be   thirty-seven   until after    Thanksgiving.    He    handed    me    the ticket and I half-wadded it in my fist. “What were you driving?” “GSX Thirteen-hundred,” I said. “A Hayabusa.” “You know your bikes.” “Powerful bike for a—” “Don’t    you    dare    say    it.”    I    flung    the citation      toward      the      coffee      table.      It fluttered   to   the   floor,   a   good   place   for   it, for the time being. “Sorry.”    Reed’s    freckles    indicated    an appreciation    for    his    stupidity.    “I    ride    a CBR. Never been on a Busa.” I   closed   my   eyes   tightly   as   my   stomach complained. “Stiff   suspension,   I   hear,”   he   continued as   though   I   cared.   “You   opened   up   on   that four     lane     stretch     north     of     Gainesville, didn’t you? Best highway in the state.” “It   was   three   in   the   morning,”   I   said. “Trooper   got   his   panties   in   a   wad   like   I committed a real crime or something.” Reed     laughed.     His     partner     scowled. “Can we focus, Tom?” “That’s    my    brother’s    name.”    Have    no idea   why   that   statement   floated   out   of   my head.    Intended    no    bridge-building    with this    cop.    Perhaps    Thomas    was    on    my mind,     because     of     my     impending     trip home.   The   reminder   tightened   my   throat. “Hope you aren’t as stiff as he is.” And why the hell did that follow? Geez.   I   shut   my   eyes   tight.   Can   I   sound any stupider? The     two     stood     at     attention     in     the middle   of   the   room,   not   even   blinking.   I found    that    amusing,    considering.    They made   me   think   of   my   cousins   again—more thoughts   of   home.   Tina   and   Grace,   two   of Cincinnati’s    finest,    are    so    starched    they would   arrest   me   for   indecent   home   care   if they   saw   this   mess.   I   grew   hot,   recognizing how   my   disaster   zone   must   make   me   look the total slut to these Tampa cops. “This     isn’t     going     to     work,”     I     said. “Throw   the   stuff   off   the   chairs   and   have   a seat,   or   leave .   I’m   not   going   to   lay   here looking up at you.” Despite   that,   I   sat   up,   and   slowly   stood, grateful   my   stomach   didn’t   leap   into   my throat.    I    pointed    to    the    two    armchairs covered   in   camera   gear   as   I   walked   to   the kitchen.   I   glared   at   the   coffee   maker   for   a moment   trying   to   decide   if   I   really   wanted a cup. In   the   living   room,   the   two   men   did   as they were told. “Could    you    tell    us    where    you    were October     thirty,     Miss     Ruud?”     Santiago asked when he settled in a chair. “Hell   if   I   know.   I’d   have   to   check   my credit   card   receipts.   I   stay   on   the   road   a lot. What’s this about?” “Do you own a gun?” I   missed   a   breath   and   the   pain   in   my solar plexus intensified. “Wow.    That’s    a    jump    from    harassing me    about    a    ticket.”    I    stepped    into    the corridor   to   the   dining   room   and   studied the   profiles   of   the   two   men   sitting   twenty feet away. “So,    do    you,    own    a    gun?”    Santiago repeated. “Several.   Three   .45s,   two   nines,   and   a dainty,     chrome-plated     .38     revolver     my mom   gave   me   for   a   birthday.   But   I   don’t carry    them    around.    Ruin    the    line    of    my suits.”    Not    that    I’ve    worn    anything    but jeans    the    last    twelve    months.    “I    carry enough    camera    equipment,    I    don’t    need another accessory.” “May     we     have     a     look     at     them?” Santiago asked. “Cameras?” “Guns.” “Have a warrant?” “Do we need one?” “My    dad    won’t    let    you    in    the    house without one.” Santiago squinted. “Your dad?” “They’re    all    in    a    safe    in    his    office,    in Middletown, Ohio.” “Have    you    had    them    in-state    the    last three weeks?” “Never been in Florida.” Santiago   shifted   in   his   chair   and   peered at   a   notepad   he’d   taken   out   of   his   jacket. “Can   you   tell   me   about   your   relationship with Philip Tobin?” An    invisible    linebacker    forearmed    me in   the   chest.   My   body   vibrated.   I   stepped toward       them,       glared       at       Santiago’s unemotional   expression.   I   froze   as   though someone     shoved     a     spear     through     me, pinning     me     to     a     tree.     I     struggled     to swallow.   My   skin   crawled,   I   broke   out   in   a sweat   and   tasted   vomit   again,   but   it   had nothing to do with being hung over. “That   son   of   a   bitch.”   My   voice   rasped in   an   unnatural   octave.   “You   investigating him?   But   you’re   police.   I’d   expect   the   SEC to   go   after   that   bastard.   What   the   hell   do you guys want with him?” The    two    officers    exchanged    glances. Their     expressions     explained     nothing.     I stepped   into   the   dining   room   and   grabbed a   chair,   dumped   the   junk   in   it   on   the   floor. I   had   to   sit   down   or   throw   up.   I   trembled, like a weak little girl. “Why   are   you   connecting   me   with   that slimy bastard?” Santiago     scanned     the     room     again, particularly   the   entertainment   center   that held     only     an     MP3     dock     in     terms     of electronics. “You don’t watch a lot of TV?” “TVs   are   for   morons.”   I   willed   myself   to stay calm, but anger welled. “Among    this    mess,”    Santiago    said,    “I don’t   see   any   newspapers.   I   assume   you don’t read the paper?” Mess?   Jackass.   It’s   my    mess.   I   read   my dad’s    paper    on-line,    but    that’s    none    of their   business.   “I   travel   too   much.   What the hell is this about?” “You      don’t      know      about      Tobin?” Santiago asked. “Know what, about Tobin?” “You    know    anyone    with    any    specific beefs with the man?” Beefs?     Guns?     This     sucked.     “Anyone who    ever    passed    the    asshole    in    the    hall hated    Tobin’s    guts,”    I    said.    “What’s    this about?” They exchanged glances again. “Any specific complaints?” “You   answer   my   single   question   and   I’ll consider answering yours.” The   two   detectives   looked   at   each   other again.   Reed   asked   his   first   question   of   the interview. “Did he rape you, Miss Ruud?” I    sprinted    for    the    hall    bathroom    but didn’t    make    it.    Lost    my    stomach    on    the threshold.   My   body   wretched   for   a   month and    a    half,    as    though    that    man    hadn’t given me enough shit to ruin my life. My    knees    ground    into    the    hardwood floor    with    each    cramp    working    up    my spine    and    through    my    guts.    A    pair    of hands   reached   gently   around   my   face   and collected   my   hair   at   my   nape.   I   knew   it was    meant    to    be    supportive,    but    being touched     that     moment     felt     worse     than dirty. When    the    heaves    stopped,    I    slumped and   sat.   Reed   stepped   away   and   my   hair flowed    around    my    face,    allowing    me    to hide behind it. “Please    leave,”    I    said    without    looking up. “May   I   ask   you   a   few   more   questions?” Reed said. He’d asked enough. “Leave. Now.” His   footsteps   retreated.   The   front   door opened   and   closed   a   few   moments   later.   I leaned    against    the    bathroom    doorframe, hugged   my   knees   against   my   chest,   rested my    forehead    against    them,    and    tried    to take slow, shallow breaths. Tobin still hadn’t finished with me. Neither     were     Reed     and     Santiago.     I would see them again. Six     months     ago,     when     I     became     a pathetic    victim,    I    would    have    still    cried. The well is dry. I    sat    unmoving    for    a    minute    before getting   up   and   rinsing   my   mouth   out   at the   sink.   I   splashed   water   over   my   face, but it didn’t help the stinging.    “God,   Belinda   Anne.”   I   glared   at   the mirror. “Get a grip.” The   reflection   of   an   old   woman   glared. She   looked   nothing   like   the   tough   athlete   I had    been.    Puffy    eyes,    flesh    sunken    and gaunt. Emaciated. “A   fat   ten   year-old   could   beat   you   in   the four hundred.” You’re a disgrace. I hate you. I    grabbed    the    towel    off    the    bar    and dried   my   face,   realizing   too   late   the   thing smelled of mildew. I almost gagged again. Damn    Florida    humidity.    Can’t    leave guest      towels      unchanged      for      twelve months. I    draped    the    towel    over    the    vomit, walked      down      the      hall,      through      my bedroom,   into   the   master   bath,   pulled   the tee   over   my   head   and   slipped   out   of   my shorts.     I     twisted     the     shower     on     and stepped into the cold water. I   tried   to   keep   my   mind   from   working, but   it   raced,   making   plans   I   didn’t   want   to follow through with, even consider—yet. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017