Someone other than Guy was manning the desk as September passed through the front doors of the Laurelton Police Department. Someone new who gazed at September a bit anxiously, as if knowing there was a tiny war going on between Guy Urlacher, the usual gatekeeper, and all of the department detectives as Guy was such a goddamn stickler for protocol that everyone wanted to throttle him. September’s partner, Gretchen Sandler, who was currently on administrative leave for shooting the man who’d been in the process of stabbing September ten days earlier, was fierce enough that whenever she gave Guy the evil eye, he would back down and let her pass without showing her ID. Not so September, who was fairly new to the department and, well, a nicer person than Gretchen. Guy demanded her ID even if she’d just gone out for lunch. He truly was a pain in the ass.
“Where’s Guy?” September asked the new woman, whose name tag read GAYLE.
“Sick with the flu, I guess,” she answered. “It’s my first day,” she added unnecessarily.
Without being asked, September pulled out her ID and Gayle looked relieved that someone was going to be cooperative. But then September said, “Memorize my face,” as she turned toward the hallway that led to the inner workings of the Laurelton PD. “Urlacher tries to make us show our ID every time we go by the front desk and it ticks everyone off.”
“Detective Pelligree said it’s department policy.”
September paused before pushing through the door. “Wes is screwing with you. Trust me. Urlacher bugs him more than anyone.”
Gayle looked like she didn’t believe her and September let it go. She’d given the woman good advice. It was her decision whether to take it or not.
September went directly to the break room, found her locker, set down her messenger bag, which she carried like a briefcase these days because of her injury, and eased out of her jacket. The wound at her shoulder was healing fine but it still hurt like fire sometimes. She’d been told to take more time off, but after the past week of being a semi-invalid at her boyfriend’s house, she’d thought she might go out of her mind. Jake knew better than to be too solicitous; she might just bite his head off. Still, she’d been relieved every time he left for work and she had the place to herself—which didn’t bode well for their long-term living situation. Was she just too used to being by herself? Or, was it being under someone’s care that she couldn’t stomach?
She hoped it was the latter.
“Tell me you’re coming back to work,” Detective George Thompkins expelled in relief as he saw her enter the squad room, his chair protesting as he swiveled his bulk around.
“I’m coming back to work.”
“My prayers have been answered,” he said, watching a bit worriedly at the careful way she moved into her desk chair.
September sent him a reassuring smile. “You look like you haven’t slept in days,” she said, to which he gave a loud snort.
No need to ask why. The detective squad was down in numbers, and though Wes “Weasel” Pelligree, who’d been seriously injured on a job the previous summer, had just returned to work on a part-time basis, September had been out for the last ten days, and her partner, Gretchen Sandler, was going to be off for a while. Auggie, September’s brother and another detective with the Laurelton PD, was currently on semipermanent loan to the Portland police. All of which left George doing pretty much all the detective work. Since he preferred sitting on his butt in front of his computer to any sort of fieldwork, September could just imagine how the days had been for him.
“Where’s Wes?” she asked.
“Around. He got a call about some guy tied to a pole.”
September had been looking at the jumble of papers on her desk, notes left by Candy in admin along with messages and papers that George had dumped there as well. There was even a memo from Lieutenant D’Annibal, asking her to check with him as soon as she got in, which looked like it might have been left yesterday. But her head snapped up at George’s last comment. “Tied to a pole?”
“Yeah, I know. You were working on that other case.”
“The postman who was stripped down and tied to a flagpole. Died of exposure.”
George nodded. “Same thing with this guy but he was left at an elementary school.”
She sucked in a breath. “What school?”
“Check with Weasel. He left about an hour ago to go talk to the vic.”
September had already snatched up her desk phone and was punching in the numbers for Wes’s cell. The line rang about four times before he answered, “Pelligree.”
“Wes, it’s September. You got a guy tied to a pole? At an elementary school?”
“Twin Oaks, but he’s at Laurelton General being checked out now. Hey, September. How ya doing?”
“I’m back at work.” Twin Oaks, she thought with a frown. She’d recently been at the elementary school herself, on a different case.
“How’s the neck?”
“More shoulder than neck,” she said. “Coming along. How’s about you?”
“Coming along. Trying to put a full week in, this week. Y’know.”
“Yeah, I do.” It was annoying and a little scary how tired she felt. All part of the body’s way of working itself back to health.
“You were working on that case earlier this year?” Wes said. “The guy tied to the flagpole outside the post office?”
“I inherited it from Chubb,” she said, referencing the officer who had caught the case before September’s time at Laurelton PD. Detective Carson Chubb had since moved on to northern California. “That vic’s name was Christopher Ballonni. He worked for the postal service and was tied to the flagpole in front of his station. Happened last February. He died of exposure.”
“Ahhh . . . yeah.”
“He had a wife and kid. Teenaged boy named . . . I’ll have to look it up. Chubb’s report said they both sang Ballonni’s praises in the initial interview. Until now, there’s been nothing.”
“Sounds like the same doer’s at it again,” Wes said. “Only this time the guy survived.”
“So you’re at the ER?”
“Yep. Better get down here. The vic’s trying to leave.”
She’d always liked Wes Pelligree, who had a lean, lanky build and a quick mind. He was unofficially known as the “black cowboy” around the department because of his slow-talking ways and penchant for cowboy boots. Until September had reunited with her high school crush, Jake Westerly, she’d harbored a secret interest in Wes, even though he lived with his longtime girlfriend, Kayleen. She’d since gotten over that, but she was glad to be unofficially partnering with him since Sandler wasn’t available.
“Be right there. He was found at Twin Oaks?” September asked.
“Tied to a basketball pole. Lucky to be discovered before all the kids got to school.”
“You said it. What time was he found?”
“Six-thirty, seven, maybe.”
“Okay. I’m on my way,” she said, slamming down the receiver as she slid from her chair.
“I’ll hold down the fort,” George told her.
“You do that,” she said dryly as she headed toward her locker for her messenger bag and jacket.
Jake Westerly was emptying one of the drawers of his desk when the call came through. It was early and he’d been the first to make the coffee, the office’s latest intern, Andrea, having not shown up for work yet. Not that either he or Carl Weisz were sticklers for anyone getting to work on time. Though they worked on the same floor and used the same general office space, they were separate, and rival, companies who shared an employee, the hallway that was their break room, and an abiding dislike for the conglomerate that swallowed up all the other rooms on the eleventh floor of their building: Capital Group Inc., or CGI.
Picking up his coffee cup, he took a swallow, his eyes on the scattering of pencils, pens, paper clips, notepads, extra staples, and other detritus that filled his top drawer. He was facing a job crisis of his own making as he’d decided to quit the investment business and find something else to do with his life. What the hell that was remained to be seen, and his clients were making the change difficult while Carl was standing back, rubbing his hands, ready to pounce on them.
Jake was gratified that his clients trusted him and wanted him to stay in charge of their financial futures, but he’d become somewhat disenchanted with working with money in recent years. Yet . . . yet . . . on the other hand, he wasn’t particularly gifted at doing anything else that he could see. Apart from his new relationship with September “Nine” Rafferty—or maybe he should say “renewed relationship” as they’d recently reconnected—he wasn’t jazzed about much of anything.
So, he was cleaning out his desk. Slowly. Deciding whether this truly was what he wanted career-wise. His brother, Colin, ran the winery that they’d both inherited from their father, Westerly Vale Vineyards, but Jake didn’t think he was really cut out for working there, either. The rustic somnolence of the winery was wonderful for a weekend away, but the idea of working there full time was enough to make him half crazy.
Maybe he did want to stay. He sure as hell didn’t want Carl poaching his clients, or even worse, CGI.
His thoughts touched on his brother, Colin, who’d recently been released from the hospital. The psycho who’d targeted and attacked Nine had caught both his brother and his wife, Neela, in the crossfire, the two of them sustaining injuries, as well. Colin had been knifed in the chest and suffered a collapsed lung and nicked artery. Neela’s injuries hadn’t been as severe, and she’d been seen in the ER and released. Jake had tried to help at Westerly Vale while Colin was down, but Neela assured him everything was under control there even while she drove back and forth between the hospital and the vineyard. Colin had been home about a week now and under Neela’s loving care, he was getting stronger daily, definitely on the road to a full recovery.
But it had been an awakening of sorts, or so Colin had said when he’d called Jake this morning, catching him just as he was pulling into his parking spot in the building’s underground structure.
“Still going to the office, huh,” Colin had said, when Jake switched off the engine.
“I told Neela I would help her,” Jake had responded immediately. “She said—”
“Whoa,” Colin cut him off. “That was just an observation. You’re the one who said you were going to quit. Neela and I are fine. You know that.”
“I just wanted you to know, we’re on the baby train,” Colin said, a smile in his voice.
“You’re having a baby?” Jake responded, surprised.
“We’re working on it. Life’s short, y’know?”
“Yeah . . . but you just got out of the hospital.”
“Last week. Some parts were injured, others are working just fine,” he added dryly.
“Glad to hear it. Wow. That’s great.”
“You sound a little unsure.”
“No. No, I mean it. It’s great. I’m just thinking about you . . . a father.”
“Well, it hasn’t happened yet, but then, we’ve just begun.”
“How is that, trying for a pregnancy?” Jake asked. “Seriously. I’ve always wondered.”
“Pretty damn good,” Colin drawled, again with a smile in his voice, and both of them had started laughing.
Jake had also felt a twinge of envy. His brother and Neela had fallen in love years earlier and they were eagerly heading down a life path together that was almost scripted: First comes love, then comes marriage, then along comes a baby carriage.
“Well, let me know when something happens,” Jake said as they were about to hang up.
“You’ll be the first,” his brother had assured him.
Jake had shoved the drawer closed and leaned back in his swivel chair. He’d had an awakening of sorts, too. He wanted things to move faster with Nine. He didn’t want to wait, and yet they’d barely reconnected. She wanted to go slower and it made him chafe with frustration, even though he’d been doing that same “commitment avoidance” dance for years with his ex-girlfriend, Loni. They’d been that couple that couldn’t live with each other, couldn’t live without, until Jake had finally ended it nearly a year earlier, once and for all. He’d been happily single since, until he and Nine ran into each other again this past September.
Meeting September in September.
Only he’d always known her as Nine, the month of her birth. She and her twin brother, August, were born on the opposite sides of midnight on August 31, and they’d each been named for the month in which they were born. But August was Auggie to those who knew him, and September was Nine. Nine Rafferty. She’d agreed to move in with him, but she was dragging her feet, and though he understood, or tried to understand, or at least made noise that he understood, he wanted their relationship to get going already. Carpe diem. Seize the day. He might not be ready for the baby train quite yet, but he sure wanted her.
That’s when his cell phone rang, shattering his thoughts. It was lying atop his desk and when he glanced down at the screen, caller ID read: LONI CHEEVER.
“Jesus,” he muttered, automatically straightening in his chair.
Was she a mind reader? His thoughts out there, available for her to see? She was calling him now, though they scarcely spoke any longer?
His hand hovered over the phone. Loni, his high school, college, and most-of-the-years-of-his-life girlfriend. The one he’d broken up with after years of relationship dysfunction. The one he’d gotten back with—foolishly—after that spring night his high school senior year when he and September had drunk wine coolers and made love in her family’s vineyard. The one whose bipolar disease had worsened over the years.
He did not want to talk to her.
Chicken, he berated himself.
The cell phone sang away on his desktop. If he didn’t answer she would call back. Or, her mother would. Loni had accepted their final breakup far more than Marilyn Cheever ever had. It was Marilyn who generally called Jake—and those calls came most often whenever Loni was hospitalized again.
At least it wasn’t Marilyn this time. Unless she was using Loni’s phone, which had happened before when she needed to reach him to let him know Loni was in the hospital from an overdose of pills.
“Hello?” he answered carefully, picking up the phone just before it switched over to voice mail.
“Hello, Jake,” Loni said, sounding world-weary. “I just wanted to call and hear your voice. You’re always so up.”
Not a good sign. He knew better than to get sucked in to another drama, but he also understood how fragile she was at times. Until he was sure which Loni he was talking to, he had to be careful.
“Hey, Loni. How are you?”
“Well, I’m not in a hospital,” she said on a short laugh.
“That’s always good,” he answered lightly. It hadn’t been that many weeks since she had been in a hospital. He’d gone to see her when Marilyn had called him.
“I know . . . Umm . . . you’re involved with Nine Rafferty. That’s not why I’m calling. I just . . .” She sighed. “It’s hard to lose a boyfriend and a friend at the same time. That’s all.”
Jake thought that over. They’d never really been friends, and since their last and final breakup they’d pretty much left each other alone, not counting that last bout with the downside of her condition and the pills that had sent her to Providence Hospital.
Before he could formulate a response, she asked, “How is Nine? I heard she was stabbed? Is that right? Is she okay?”
He tried not to let it bother him that Loni called September by her nickname. They’d all been in high school together. Everyone called September Nine. He did, so why couldn’t Loni? “She’s doing all right. I’ve been taking care of her.”
“She’s got a helluva scary job.”
“But she’s going to be okay?”
“She staying with you?” she asked casually. “You said you’re taking care of her.”
He kept his plan to have Nine move in permanently to himself and asked instead, “How are you? The last time I saw you, you weren’t doing so well.”
“I’ve been taking my medication, and it’s evened me out, but you know the deal. Makes me feel dull. But it’s given me a lot of time to think about how I’ve acted and I’m just sorry. For years and years of everything. I’m sorry, Jake.”
“It’s okay,” he dismissed it.
“No. It’s not okay. You always say that. But it’s not okay, and I want you to know that I know it’s not okay. But I really am better. I’ve gotten back into real estate, and things are turning around some in the market. I was showing this newlywed couple property before I . . . took that last trip to Providence. And they actually bought a two-bedroom house last week. Such a cute place.”
“That’s great,” he said, aware that she’d skipped over saying “before I overdosed.”
“It was hard, seeing them, y’know? The newlyweds. Thinking it could have been us. But that’s not why I called. Well, maybe it is.” She laughed again. “I just wanted to touch base, that’s all. I’m not asking for anything. Really. I just wanted to talk to a friend.”
“You can always call me.”
“Yeah . . .” There was a sadness to her voice. “I’ll try not to, okay? I don’t want to be a bother.”
“You’re not a bother, Loni. It’s good to hear you’re doing well.”
“Is it? Good to hear? Sorry. I sound so desperate. I just want everything to be cool between us.”
“I know it can’t be like it was. Of course it can’t. I was just thinking yesterday, y’know, while I was watching the newlyweds, that you and I used to have something really special. I know practically everybody says that about someone they loved, but we really did. I just started thinking about all the good times we had, and I forgot about the bad.”
Jake realized his hand was clenching the phone and he slowly released the pressure. He never forgot about the bad, but he said, “I hear you.”
“I’m going to be embarrassed about this phone call later. I can already tell.” She huffed out a half laugh. “But it’s worth it, just to talk to you. I know you don’t want to hear this, but you’re my touchstone, Jake. You always have been and you always will be.”
“I don’t know what to say to that.”
There was a long hesitation, then she finished with false cheer, “Well, I’d better get going. We’ve got the home inspection today. Their house is over by Laurelton High. Every time I drive by I think about high school and that makes me think about you. Guess that’s why I called.” Before he could respond, she said, “Take care, Jake,” and then she was gone.
Jake’s gaze was on the contents of his top desk drawer but he didn’t see any of it. He remembered Loni as she’d been: blond, beautiful, smart, spoiled. They’d been the couple mostly likely to break up, again and again and again, and they’d batted a thousand on that prediction. Her disease hadn’t really grabbed hold of her until college or maybe sometime after, but now it was in full play, and though he’d tried, he couldn’t save her.
With a feeling of desperation of his own, he placed a call to Nine’s cell. He might be Loni’s touchstone, but September was his.
The Emergency Room at Laurelton General was fairly quiet this Tuesday morning. September saw Wes as she entered through the sliding glass doors. He was wearing a black shirt and blue jeans and the ever-present cowboy boots. “Where’s the vic?” she asked, looking toward the closed hydraulic doors behind which she knew were curtained, exam-room cubicles.
His gaze followed hers. “Through there. He called somebody to bring him some clothes, but they haven’t gotten here yet. He didn’t even want to come, but the uniform who found him and the EMT got him into the ambulance. He didn’t have a car at the site. Name’s Stefan Harmak, and—”
Wes had been moving toward the hydraulic doors but now he stopped short, his dark eyes sweeping back to her. “You know him?”
“Yeah, I know him,” September shot back. “Stefan Harmak was my stepbrother. Unless there are two in the area, which I strongly doubt, that’s who our vic is.”
“Wow.” He shook his head.
“Stefan.” She couldn’t credit it. “What the hell was he doing?” From somewhere in her memory she recalled her ex-stepbrother had started working as a teaching assistant in the hopes of landing a full-time job.
“He told the guy who found him—a jogger—that it was a prank, someone tying him to the basketball pole. But he told Lennon, the uniform on the scene, that a guy had robbed him.”
“Which do you think it is?”
“The second. He’s got stun gun burn marks that he didn’t mention. A number of them. When I asked him about them, he clammed up.”
“I want to talk to him.”
“Seeing as it’s family and you should stay the hell away, I’ll go with you.”
“He’s not family,” September said succinctly.
“Tell that to the courts.”
Wes pressed a button on the wall that allowed the hydraulic doors to slowly swing inward. No one stopped them, and they walked into a large rectangular room lined with a row of curtained cubicles, only one of which was being used— Stefan’s, apparently. A nurses’ hub occupied an adjacent wall and there were double doors that led to other hallways on the wall opposite the cubicles.
September walked to the curtained off area and said,
“Stefan? You there?”
The curtain was pulled back by a nurse who stood on the other side. Beyond her, still in the bed, his hands folded over his chest and a look of angry determination on his face, lay her stepbrother. When he spied September color swept up his neck and suffused his face.
“What happened?” she asked him as the nurse replaced the curtain now that they were inside, collected a few items from the tray next to Stefan, then left them.
“Did Mom call you?” he demanded.
She shook her head. “I haven’t talked to Verna.”
“She was supposed to bring me my clothes.” Anger flashed in his eyes.
Stefan Harmak had been a gangly teenager, and it had followed him into adulthood. His hands always looked too big for his arms. When his mother, Verna, had been married to September’s father, Braden Rafferty, she’d placed a large picture of her son over the mantel in the living room of the sprawling Rafferty home—dubbed Castle Rafferty by Jake a name she’d adopted as well. But Stefan then, as now, had never been what you’d call portrait worthy. He wasn’t actually all that bad looking really, but his attitude, which permeated everything about him, was petulant and secretive, and it came in flashes of meanness.
Stefan’s portrait had been removed upon Braden’s marriage to his third and current wife, Rosamund, who’d replaced it with one of herself when she was in her early stages of pregnancy. Rosamund’s baby girl was due in January. While Rosamund insisted the child’s name would be Gilda, all of the other Rafferty children were named after the month in which they were born, so September and her brothers, March and Auggie, and her sister, July, expected she would be named January, no matter what Rosamund wanted.
“Someone tied you to a basketball pole at Twin Oaks?” September asked Stefan when he subsided into silence. She felt rather than saw Wes come up beside her.
Stefan’s beard stubble was just coming through. He was younger than September by two years but he seemed even younger now. He’d always been socially inept, kind of sneaky and hovering, and she’d stayed away from him as much as possible.
“Bastard drugged me so I couldn’t fight him and stole my wallet and phone. Left me there damn near naked,” he bit out, his face a dark glower.
“He drugged you in order to take your wallet and phone?”
His gaze flew to hers defiantly, apparently taking objection to her careful tone. “That’s what I said. He drugged me and then robbed me.”
“After he used a stun gun on you.” September, too, could see the small marks. Several of them. Wes was right. Whoever had zapped Stefan had done it more than once.
“Jesus.” Stefan’s face was dark red. “Yes! Used a fucking stun gun, drugged me, and tied me up!”
In the Ballonni case, the man had been drugged as well, but there had been no stun gun marks. And though Ballonni’s clothes and wallet were nowhere to be found, it hadn’t really felt like a robbery, especially because the body had been staged with a placard around his neck that read: I MUST PAY FOR WHAT I’VE DONE. This didn’t feel quite like a robbery, either.
“This thief left a placard around your neck?” September asked.
Wes said, “Crime techs have it now.”
“Fucker thought he was funny,” Stefan muttered.
“So, it wasn’t a prank. It was a robbery,” September said.
“It was both. Clearly!” Stefan snapped.
“Did he make you write it out himself?” September asked.
The color that had turned his face red now seemed to leach right out of his face. “What did it say?” she prodded when he didn’t answer.
“I WANT WHAT I CAN’THAVE,” Wes told her when Stefan’s silence continued.
“It doesn’t mean anything!” Stefan’s nostrils flared. “God! It’s all just so fucked up!”
“What were you doing when he attacked you?” September asked.
“What do you mean?” Stefan folded his arms over his chest and glowered down at them, refusing to meet her gaze.
“Was it at the school? It must have been fairly early this morning that the robber found you,” September prompted.
“Yeah, it was.”
“What were you doing there so early?” she asked.
“What the fuck, Nine.” He glared at her. “I was . . . I like to get to work early, and I was going to jog around the track.”
“And he Tased you while you were . . . jogging?” Wes asked.
“Well, I stopped for a moment.”
“So, he came up to you on the track, Tased you, then dragged you to the pole and tied you up,” September said.
“Did he say anything to you?” she pressed.
“Do you jog often?” she asked. “So that he might know your routine?”
“No. I don’t. . . . Jesus. You people—”
“Stefan?” a high-pitched voice called from beyond the curtain.
Stefan cut himself off short. Wes looked at September, then pushed back the curtain. Standing just beyond, her face taut with concern, was Verna Rafferty, Stefan’s mother and September’s one-time stepmother. Her blond hair was swept into a French roll and she wore a brown pantsuit with a white shirt, the collar of which was unbuttoned as if it had been hastily donned. She carried a gray duffel bag in one hand and when she saw Stefan in the bed, she dropped the bag as if her fingers had given way.
“Oh, darling . . .” She moved in quickly, arms outstretched, brushing past September without really seeing her, and then stopped short before giving Stefan the bear hug September had expected. Her arms dropped to her sides and it looked like she might cry. “What happened?”
“The clothes,” he said through his teeth.
“What happened to yours?” she asked, half turning to the abandoned duffel that Wes had picked up and was holding out to her.
“They were taken by the bastard who drugged me and tied me up and stole my wallet,” Stefan answered.
“Oh, baby.” Ignoring Wes, she threw her arms around her son, who accepted the embrace in silence, his body language screaming his discomfort at the display of affection. “I’ve got your things right here.” Now she accepted the duffel from Wes and placed it on Stefan’s chest. It was at that point she noticed September and her mouth began quivering.
Drawing herself up straight and looking down her nose in that haughty way that was pure Verna, she demanded, “What are you doing here?”