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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Keeper of the Rituals - 17. Chapter 17

HURRICANE ARLENE: NOAA SPECIAL DISCUSSION 500 AM WED JUN 21 2023

AIR FORCE RESERVE HURRICANE HUNTER AIRCRAFTS REPORTED 700-MB FLIGHT-LEVEL WINDS OF 128 KT IN THE NORTHEASTERN EYEWALL. IN ADDITION, THE CENTRAL PRESSURE HAS FALLEN TO 928 MB. BASED ON THIS DATA, ARLENE HAS BEEN UPGRADED TO A CATEGORY 4 HURRICANE. THE TIGHTLY-CLUSTERED TRACK GUIDANCE HAS CHANGED LITTLE. THE EYE SHOULD MAKE LANDFALL ALONG THE FLORIDA GULF COAST IN THE NEXT FEW HOURS.

ARLENE IS EXPECTED TO BRING INTENSE WIND AND STORM SURGE TO SOUTHERN FLORIDA. THE THREAT OF CATASTROPHIC STORM SURGE FLOODING IS HIGHEST ALONG THE SOUTHWEST COAST WHERE 10 TO 15 FEET OF INUNDATION ABOVE GROUND LEVEL IS EXPECTED. THIS IS A LIFE-THREATENING SITUATION.

 

We run for Chase’s SUV and are lucky enough to time our escape with a short break in the rain, although the wind, if anything, picks up as we climb inside and slam the doors, shutting out the caterwaul of the raging storm. Chase dials the rehab facility as he backs out of the parking space, asks for someone in charge, explains who he is, then slams on the brakes. “What?” he barks.

Five minutes into our plan and already things are going sideways. Typical. I sigh, rub my forehead, and mouth “What’s wrong?” to Chase. Brow furrowed, he shakes his head and listens to whoever is giving him the bad news on the other end of the line. When he ends the call and slams the phone into the cupholder, I swallow a groan.

“Danny checked himself out last night,” Chase growls. “He could be hundreds of miles away by now.”

So much for cornering one of his suspects. Still… “It doesn’t feel right.”

“He’s gone, Micco.”

“Not that.” I shake my head, holding onto the dash as Chase takes a sharp turn out of the parking lot. “Danny hurting Sam. He worshiped him.”

“And Sam was going to give up everything for the chance to be with you, Micco.” The skies open up in a torrential downpour, and Chase lets up on the accelerator. “Sounds like a motive to me. Standard crime of passion.”

“Are crimes of passion ever standard?”

Chase ignores my question.

“So your working theory is that Danny murdered Sam. Planted the rock in my car. Assaulted me at Sam’s house. Broke into mine. Ah—” I scrub my hands over my face. “I’m not sure the kid has it in him.”

“Really?” Chase’s tone, not unlike the one he used to use on me when we were kids, holds a healthy dose of sarcasm. He never could abide how I trusted most people on sight and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. “He probably took your keys from the refuge at some point. Or Sam did and Danny appropriated them.”

I purse my lips. “I talked to Danny right before he went to rehab.”

Chase risks a glance at me. “Is that a fact?”

It is. And facts are at a premium at the moment. “Yes. And I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but he’s convinced I killed Sam. He said…” I trail off, but Chase doesn’t urge me to continue. Maybe because he doesn’t want to hear it, but that doesn’t matter. I need to tell him. “He said he saw me do it, Chase. He’s positive he saw me do it.”

Chase chews on this. “Even if he was there and saw something, it was dark.”

Maybe. But days later, I still can’t shake Danny’s voice, his accusation, or his certainty from my thoughts. “So what happens to Charlotte’s money if the refuge is closed and Sam is gone?” I muse. I don’t expect an answer, but Chase has one.

“That’s the information Jeff has been waiting for.”

Figures Calhoun is steps ahead of me. Grudgingly, I admit his initial suspicion of my involvement was warranted. Also, that he clearly knows his job and, further, isn’t a horrible match for Chase’s talents and temperament.

Chase’s tires spin in the pond of loose gravel at the foot of my driveway as he makes the turn. I hiss, brace myself against the dashboard. “Easy.”

“Thought we were in a hurry.” Chase squints through the rain, which has begun to blow sideways, dancing in gusty sheets.

“You know we are. But can we find a happy medium between the speed limit and suicide?”

He glances over, and for a moment I swear I see moisture in his eyes, but he looks away before I can confirm it. Our positions are reversed, for once. I feel pushed past the point of tears. Too many revelations. Too many worries. Where relief should be vibrating in the center of my chest, born of Rory’s confession, there’s none. Just a throbbing ache, and not a small amount of embarrassment. I should be a better judge of people by now. Apparently, I’ve learned nothing after all these years. I shoot a glance at Chase as he maneuvers through the small rivers which have opened up across my gravel drive, slashing from one gulley to another as the inundation picks up another notch. He wouldn’t have been so easily duped by Sam. Likely, most wouldn’t have been. What little pride I drew from pushing my earlier panic attack aside washes away with the rain. I’m a fool.

Ignorant of my shame, Chase squints through the windshield. “Jesus,” he says under his breath.

It’s not his first storm, but he’s been gone a long time. Forgotten the power a hurricane brings. Buried this particular demon, if not others. “It’s actually not that bad yet,” I feel compelled to say.

“Yeah.” He curses under his breath as another gust shakes the SUV. “Thanks.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“For Christ’s sa— I’m not worried about me, Micco.” The house comes into view through the deluge. Chase rolls up as close as he dares and slams the vehicle into park. “Go get your keys.”

I can’t abide the angry tone. “Wykaschay.” Be at peace. “We’ll be okay.”

His piercing look, barely visible in the gloom, reveals everything he isn’t saying. “Chehahcha?”

“Yes. I want that more than anything.”

We sit in silence, my proclamation floating in the air for several seconds. Finally, Chase nods and some of the tension in my spine unlocks. Progress, of a sort. I’ll take what I can get at the moment.

I’m reaching for the door handle when Chase lets out a vicious curse. His arm shoots across my chest, holding me in my seat. “What the fuck is that little piece of shit doing here?”

Before I’ve connected his statement with the huddled figure on my front stoop, Chase leaps from his seat, and he’s only a half dozen steps away when the deluge swallows the details. I’m left to watch through a waterfall as he yanks a figure to his feet and slams him against the front door.

The rain thumps on the roof of the car, hollow and deep as a base drum, menacing in its ferocity. The drama playing out on my front stoop is nothing but curtain silhouette performance art—silent and indistinct. Suddenly frightened, not for myself, I leap from the seat and into the rain.

I’m soaked before I take two strides, pushing waterlogged hair out of my eyes as I reach the step. Chase has Danny flattened against my door, left cheek smashed against the peeling paint, right arm twisted up and pinned behind his back. As I watch in shock, he snaps a pair of handcuffs over one wrist, then jerks Danny’s left arm back to join the first, securing both tightly.

“Chase!” I know better than to try to touch him, but I stretch out both hands in front of me, in plain sight. Danny eyes me through strands of his dripping hair, but wisely stays silent. “Chase, take it easy,” I say.

“Be quiet, Micco.” His tone brooks no argument.

I grasp for anything to diffuse the standoff. “Let’s go inside.” I’m not yelling to be heard, yet. But the way the wind is picking up, it won’t be long. “Chase, lakaw. Let’s take this inside.”

Danny opens his mouth, and Chase growls at him. “Don’t.”

I nudge them aside, unlock the door and slip across the threshold, and after a silent battle of wills, Chase follows, pushing Danny ahead of him into the living room. I try the light switch by the front door. No luck. Power’s out, which I’d suspected from the moment we’d passed the water tower. The streets were unnaturally dark, even taking the evacuation into account. It doesn’t matter. I don’t really want to see the destruction left behind from the police search earlier.

Chase pats Danny down, and while his touch is cold and efficient, it isn’t rough. Danny endures the search miserably, dripping and sniffing until, satisfied, Chase pushes him onto the couch. “Sit down, kid. Don’t move.”

After a cursory tug on the handcuffs, Danny asks, “May I speak?”

“At your own risk,” Chase replies.

“Are you going to read me my rights?”

Chase makes a circle of the living room, moving in and out of shadows. His eyes never leave mine. “No.”

“Don’t you have to?”

“No.” Danny gapes like a fish, and at first I think Chase takes pity on him. “I don’t plan on questioning you here,” he says. “I’d rather do that with my partner in the room, after about forty-eight hours of detention.”

Danny pales, and now I see it. What Chase noticed—because he’s the professional. Danny’s three days into detox. Anxious and paranoid. “But…that’s why I’m here,” Danny says. “To talk.”

“To talk about Sam’s murder?” Chase asks, voice clipped. He moves to stand directly over Danny, hands on his hips, and the kid has to crane his neck to meet the icy gaze. He blanches and his retort gets stuck in his throat, which doesn’t surprise me. I’m intimidated, and I’m standing across the room. “Because if that’s your intention,” Chase continues, “I’ll read you your rights, but I won’t lie, I advise against it. You’re entitled to have an attorney with you, and, kid, after what I’ve heard today, you need one.”

“I don’t have anything to confess,” Danny whispers, dropping his head. Water drips from the tips of his blond fringe onto my floor. “I mean, I just…”

“Stop,” Chase says, and his tone has gentled enough that I raise a brow. “If you insist on doing this, I need to Mirandize you.”

I’m torn, desperate for what he has to say and desperate to get moving, to check on my wolves. Ultimately, it’s a memory of Sam that decides me. Of him singing to Banshee. 'Go easy on me, baby. I was just a child.’ You got this Micco? She still looks like she wants to eat me. ‘Feel the world around me.’

Sam. Who claimed to love me. Who betrayed and tried to hurt me. Yet, in multiple ways, was as damaged as I am. As damaged as Danny is.

“Do it,” I say. They both look to me, Chase impassive and Danny hopeful, of all things. “I want to hear what he has to say.”

Something large and heavy thumps against my front window, and Danny gasps. His eyes dart around the room, but they’re bright and clear. Not the bloodshot, blown gaze I’d come to associate with him. At least this conversation won’t take place through a haze of drugs. For what that’s worth.

“All right,” Chase says. He rattles off the Miranda warning. It’s the second time I’ve heard it today, a disquieting thought. “But whatever you feel like sharing, you’re doing it in the car. Micco, get your keys. We’re getting out of here.” His declaration precedes a second loud thump against the side of my house, and I don’t question the decision, just move to the drawer in the kitchen where I keep my keys to the refuge.

I wait until Chase loads Danny into the back before relocking my front door, jogging down the steps, and climbing into the passenger seat. We’re all dripping wet. The windows began to fog immediately. Chase turns the air conditioning to high and locks onto Danny’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “You gonna behave?”

Danny’s lip curls. The twitch doesn’t match the defeated tone. “I’m here, aren’t I?”

He is. A mere seventy-two hours, or thereabouts, into rehab, which isn’t exactly protocol for a successful detox. “Why?” I ask. “Why are you here?”

Chase executes a careful three-point turn, staying well clear of the soft, waterlogged sandy soil to either side of the gravel drive. “Talk fast if you have something to say. We’re not going far.”

I edge my hand across the seat to Chase’s thigh to get his attention. It’s a touch I hope Danny won’t see, but Chase’s sharp indrawn breath doesn’t go unnoticed. “What’s wrong?” Danny asks, and Chase scowls at him in the mirror.

“Are you seriously worried about me right now?”

Danny sighs. “I guess not.”

“We should head to the school. It’s the designated hurricane shelter,” I say. “Highest point above sea level, and away from any large body of water.” Also, solid poured concrete and not going anywhere, even in a cat 5 storm. With hurricane windows to boot. I can’t say the same for the station. “Burke will probably be there.” A possibility which, I won’t lie, comforts me. “Probably Calhoun by now, too. We can leave Danny with him.”

Chase chews on my words, glances at Danny’s face in the mirror more than once. “Fine.”

It will make for a slightly longer drive, and more backtracking later to get to the refuge, but it’s the safer option. The only one, really.

Despite my earlier bluster, I can’t decide if I want Danny to start talking or take his secrets to the grave. To say I’m on the knife’s edge of losing it would be a generous statement. But… I sneak a glance at Chase. Is there a chance for us? If there is, even in the slightest measure, I need to be brave a little longer. I decide to move the proceedings along. I’m pretty sure I know the beginning of Danny’s tale, thanks to Rory, so I jump to the end. “Rory told us about the plan to let the wolves and panthers loose. Any why. And also that Sam decided at the last minute not to go through with it.”

Danny snorts disgustedly, but nods.

“So we know that part. But not what happened afterward.” I take a deep breath. “Do you still think I killed Sam, Danny?”

Chase’s hands, already vise-like on the wheel, squeeze tighter, but he doesn’t speak. I figure if I overstep, ask too many leading questions—or whatever—he’ll intervene. Since he looks content to let me take charge at the moment, I run with it. From somewhere deep in my heart, a pleasurable sensation surfaces. A reminder of our years of mischief and mayhem, mysteries and miracles. This scenario fits us. After all, in our youth, I was always the good cop.

Danny fidgets. Won’t lift his head. I turn to face him, though it unnerves me to take my eyes off the road. “Danny? Cause you were pretty sure before today that I was the one who did it.”

All he does is shake his head, which doesn’t meet Chase’s standard of detail. “Answer the question,” he says.

“God.” Danny tries flipping his hair out of his eyes. Doesn’t have much success. “No, I’m…I’m not sure. Like I said, that’s why I’m here.”

“Because you realized your mistake and felt a burning need to make things right?” Chase barks a laugh. “Why did you really come?”

Danny’s eyes, a deeper blue than Chase’s, but still compelling, finally lift to mine. “Because I realized my mistake and felt a burning need to make things right.” Before Chase can deride the statement, he says, “Because that’s what Sam would want.”

Chase closes his mouth. Presses his lips together, not exactly in disbelief, but close. Still, he doesn’t interrupt again, slowing the SUV to a stop at a river of water blocking the road. I squint through the windshield, measure the depth against landmarks and memory. “We should be good. It can’t be more than twelve inches deep.”

He doesn’t hesitate, just hits the accelerator, trusting my judgment, and hope stabs through me yet again. Maybe all isn’t lost between us. We coast through the floodwater, spraying waves up on either side, and make it to the other side without any trouble. I turn back to Danny. “Keep talking.”

And he does, as though the lid coming off makes the rest easy to say. “I thought it was you. I was there. That night. We both were. Sam and me. I mean, I was supposed to stay in the car. But he was taking so long, so I…” He shakes his head. “Sorry. He went in to open all the cages, to let them all out. And—”

“Wait,” Chase intercedes. “So this entire debacle… your plan—”

“It wasn’t my plan,” Danny spits.

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. The plan was orchestrated so the blame would land on Michael.”

“Well, yeah. Sam said he’d been, like, crazy in the past. People would totally believe he did it.”

Would they? That’s unnerving. I guess I need to own that possibility, though, based on my history.

“And we talked about things we’d say about him when they asked. Like, that he’d been acting weird.”

I bury the hiccup of hysterical laughter.

“But I mean, the animals would be gone. So…” Danny trails off.

“So the tribe would close the refuge and Sam would get his money,” I finish. “For fuck’s sake, Danny, did any of you even once consider the danger of letting these animals loose?”

“Sam said they would just run off into the Everglades,” Danny grumbled under his breath.

“The panthers, maybe.” Though I doubt Saffron would have survived very long on her own. I push back that righteous anger for the moment. “But there’s no guarantee on the wolves. Danny, there are people living less than two miles from the refuge. Whole housing communities less than five miles away. What—” I throw my hands into the air. The sheer irresponsibility of it steals my breath, and my rant.

“So Michael was your scapegoat?” Chase asks. “Why?”

“In case something bad did happen.” Danny jerks his chin at me. “‘Cause he’s Seminole. He’s got the protection of the tribe. He can’t be prosecuted.”

Now that’s just blatantly untrue, and so counterintuitive to how the world and the law works that I laugh. “You believed that?”

Danny’s combative expression falters. He sniffs and looks away. “No. I didn’t.”

But Sam did, he leaves unsaid, and I have to wonder where, or from whom, he got that information. “Why did my… culpability, or lack thereof, matter so much to Sam?” I ask.

Danny’s face screws up. Hatred twists his features, then slides away a moment later. When he answers, resignation is all I hear. “Because he loved you, asshole.”

It’s still hard to hear. I feel guilty, despite everything. Chase’s hand clamps onto my thigh. Heavy. Possessive. “He had a funny way of showing it,” I mutter.

“What do you expect? You didn’t want him. Made that clear enough.” Danny appears eager to share this part. “He wasn’t good enough for you. Too much baggage.”

Okay, I’m not letting that one go. “First of all—” Chase fingers squeeze my thigh. I jerk my leg away from his hand. “Nobody in this equation has more baggage than I do. Don’t shake your head, just trust me on this, Danny. And Sam didn’t have baggage. He had addictions. Those two things can be the same, but they weren’t in his case.”

He hadn’t wanted to stop the drug use. Had told me as much more than once. Because if he’d expressed, even once, the desire to do so, I would’ve helped. And my life today may have looked much different.

No sense thinking about that now.

“Danny,” Chase says, trying, I’m sure, but failing to keep the glee from his tone. “According to Rory, Sam had changed his mind about your plan. He wasn’t going to go through with it. Because of his feelings for Michael.”

“So you said,” Danny whispers. A single tear escapes the corner of his eye. Which, to me, means he already suspected that possibility.

The car swerves suddenly. Chase’s curse gets lost in Danny’s squeal of surprise as a tree limb scrapes the side of the vehicle and lands with a thud next to us. For several heartbeats, the only sound is pounding rain. Then Danny clears his throat. “How far away is this place?”

Chase and I share a look. “Ten minutes in normal conditions,” he says. More today, for sure. I turn, determined to pull the story out of the bitter young man in the backseat before we arrive at the school.

“Okay, I have a handle on what your plan was. What went wrong?”

“He didn’t. He didn’t come back. Right away.” It’s a stuttering start, and I brace myself to pry the rest loose, but Danny surprises me and finds his stride. “He said fifteen minutes. That’s all it would take. But it was twenty-five. He left the gate open, so I… I got out and went looking for him.”

I put him on pause with a raised index finger, then ask for clarification. “The back gate?”

He nods. So do I. So much for our rigorous security. I gesture for Danny to continue, and he does in a rush.

“It was so dark. And that fucking place… it’s all confusing with the—” he makes a flapping gesture with his hand, “trails and paths and shit. And those fucking dogs were howling. I heard voices. Sam was yelling something. And that’s when I turned this corner and…” He trails off, noticeably shaking and pale. I don’t want to pity the kid, but it’s how I’m wired.

“You okay?” I ask after a few seconds.

He’s surprised by my question, suspicious, but he nods. “I was high,” he blurts. “But… I’ve been thinking about it some. Shit.” He grimaces, swipes his nose against the shoulder of his t-shirt. “It’s all I’ve been thinking about.”

Chase is watching him in the rearview mirror as much as he dares, but most of his attention is on the road. For that reason, I strive to remember every word. “And has something changed with how you remember it?”

It’s slightly leading, sure, but the kid sounds like he needs a nudge to get going again. He nods. “Yeah.” He sits straighter, looks to steel himself, then says. “I saw two people. They were just shadows, but one was Sam, cause I heard his voice. They were inside a… a cage.”

I nod. I assume Kane’s, but don’t offer the information. It wouldn’t mean anything to Danny anyway.

“Sam yelled ‘No!’ And then one of them started to move. Him, maybe? I don’t know. But then there was this other sound. It—” Danny’s breath hitched. “Like a thud. Like a… when you smash a watermelon.” His voice breaks, and I fight a bout of nausea at the visual of Sam’s head breaking open. “One of them fell over. Like… dropped. The other ran away. But I heard what he said. I heard him.”

“Which one?” Chase asks softly.

“Sam. He was the one on the ground.” Tears blend with rainwater on Danny’s face. “He said, ‘Micco. Micco, I’m sorry.’”

I shiver, cold all over. I could blame it on the air conditioning, the damp clothes, the imminent danger… all those things. But the truth is, it’s Danny’s story that leaves me chilled. Would I have come to a different conclusion, if I’d witnessed such an act? Hell, no. I would’ve assumed the same. And worse, much worse, is the knowledge that Danny’s confession may help his conscience, but it sure as hell doesn’t do me any favors.

“I figured it was you,” Danny finishes, voice flat now, all emotion wrung out. “I mean, looking back now, I don’t think the other person was as big as you are. But… Sam. He said your name. And I was so sure… He curls up on the backseat, cuffed hands in fists, and closes his eyes.

Of course he thought it was me. And the idea that I’ve always been the bad guy, at least in Danny’s mind, would’ve sealed the deal.

“Why did you run?” Chase asks. “If you’d just called the police—”

“I told you, I was using. They probably would’ve blamed me.”

“I guarantee they would have suspected you, at the very least,” Chase says. From his tone, I wonder if Chase isn’t figuring Danny for the crime even now.

I take a deep, slow breath, then try to exhale the poison that’s been aired. Beside me, Chase takes up the same rhythm. We’ve resolved nothing, not really. An undercurrent of panic lies below the surface of my outward calm, beating with as much gusto as it was an hour ago at the station.

Which, of course, Danny decides to exacerbate. “I was going to call 911 when I got back to the car,” he says, voice faint, eyes still screwed shut.

Chase slows the SUV to a crawl again as he navigates through more standing water. The rain is so heavy now that even the high-speed wipers are useless. The afternoon has grown even dimmer, the sky an eerie mix of green, gray and yellow. Otherworldly. Isolating. “Why didn’t you?” he asks.

Danny’s silence prompts me to look over my shoulder. His eyes are no longer closed. No, they’re wide open, pupils dilated. “I saw something.”

“Something” sounds innocuous. But Danny’s voice, strained and hoarse, is utterly horror-struck.

“What?” I ask.

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

I won’t humor him by disagreeing. “Try me.”

“It was another person,” he whispers. If I hadn’t been leaning over the backseat I never would have heard his answer over the rain.

“Another person,” I say for Chase’s benefit. “Who?”

Danny shakes his head. “I turned on the headlights. I wanted to scare him away. But… he didn’t look scared. He was so fucking tall. And his arms,” he curls into a tighter ball, “were too long to be real. His hands looked like… claws.”

I glance at Chase, read the expression. Just how big a high was this kid riding that night? “Danny—”

“He was hairy.”

“Danny—”

“And there was a bad smell. Really bad. Like… rotten meat.”

My next statement dies in a primal rush of fear. It’s the fear of a ten-year-old boy who’s lied to his aunt, or stolen a pack of gum from the grocery store, or cheated on his math test by copying his best friend’s answers. It’s my fear, plucked out of time and memory and shoved right to the forefront of my brain and heart like it never left. I’m without words, and it takes me several seconds to realize the car has stopped.

Chase is staring straight ahead, but there’s nothing in our path, just more wind-driven rain and wet pavement. His gaze is turned inward, as I imagine mine is.

Danny is too wrapped in his own angst to sense our shock. “But then, Jesus fucking Christ, then it ran. It got down on all fours and fucking loped through the gate. Like an animal.” He turns watery eyes on me. “What does that? What fucking does that?”

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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Thanks for reading!
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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14 minutes ago, drpaladin said:

I believe decaying flesh is the most unpleasant and memorable of odors. If you are around it for any period of time, it will permeate both clothing and the pores of the skin. I've been in too many places where it was the dominate perfume to the point Vick's salve was a must have item.

As a long-time vegetarian @drpaladin I find the smell of lamb, pork and eggs being cooked particularly unpleasant (to the point where I dry retch, especially bacon and eggs), so I can only imagine what rotten meat must smell like.

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Let's all not forget Frank had a part in this plan and has been conspicuously missing in both Rory's and Danny's accounting of events that night.  Also, perhaps insignificant, but I have been wondering about Micco's father.  Who is he, does Micco know him, did he have anything to do with the fire, is he still alive?

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