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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 - 8. Chapter 8


“Michael. Michael.”

That’s not a welcome sound. I’ve woken to Matthew Burke calling my name once before recently, and that morning had been filled with blood and gunfire. I open my mouth to say, “I’m awake. I’m fine,” but the words emerge garbled. There’s a sticky mess of something smeared around my left temple and snaking across my cheek.

“Fuck me.” I get that out clearly enough, though not without pain.

“Lie still.” A firm hand stops me from rolling onto my side. “There’s an ambulance on the way.”

“Don’t need one,” I say, willing the nausea back.

“Well, you’re getting one. Don’t move.”

I obey the insistent pressure on my shoulder and roll onto my back. Sam’s foyer swims into view. There are so many trays in the tray ceiling I honestly can’t tell if I’m seeing double. I raise one hand in front of my face. Not double, but something close. Burke appears in my field of vision, takes my wrist between his thumb and forefinger and presses it back to the floor. “I kept hoping you’d become a better listener as you got older.” He leans closer. “You got worse.”

“Thanks?”

“Lie still, I said.”

A siren, distant but getting louder, means my ambulance is closing in. I reach up and manage to grab a fistful of Burke’s shirt. “I do not want to go to the hospital.”

“Why not?” He places his hand over mine but doesn’t try to pry it loose. “Does it have anything to do with why you’re here in the first place?”

“Inertia,” I mumble and close my eyes.

Burke snorts. “That explains a lot.”

I thought so. What it doesn’t explain is Burke. My knight in shining armor. I crack an eyelid. “How did you know I was here?”

“I talked to Billie. And then I took a guess.”

“But…” I squint at the ceiling. Sam handpicked the modern brushed nickel chandelier that dominates the space. Currently, it’s blazing with twenty cool white LED bulbs. “Did you turn the light on?”

Burke blinks. “No. It was on.”

No, it hadn’t been. “How did you get in?” I risk turning my head in order to meet his eyes. He hesitates, measuring the unspoken question that lies behind the one I voiced. “The door was wide open, and the foyer was lit up like a carnival. I could see you bleeding from the street, Micco.”

The ambulance’s siren dies as it turns into the driveway. Red, swirling loops of light pass over Burke, painting him a bloody crimson one moment, a pale sickly yellow the next. My dizziness worsens, and I close my eyes. “Police came too,” Burke says before standing to motion the EMS team inside.

Of course they did. My life’s about to get even messier. The cops let the EMTs at me first, but I catch them hovering outside the front door. Watching and listening.

I agree to the concussion assessment while the tech bandages the gash above my ear. No, I don’t remember what happened. Yes, I apparently lost consciousness. Do I lose consciousness often? Definitely not answering that one. The man doing the asking assures me several times my memory lapses are normal after a blow to the head. He’s kind. And he looks a bit like Chase, though not as handsome.

God damn you, Chase, get out of my head. Maybe I need a brain transplant.

The tech’s lips quirk. Clearly, I spoke out loud. “I think you can keep the one you have,” he assures me. “Can you tell me your name?”

“Michael.”

“Full name.”

“That’s a secret.” The only people who know my Seminole name are me and Billie. And Chase.

“Michael Garrett,” Burke says as he reappears at my side. “Don’t be difficult, Micco.”

I nail the season—summer—but miss the date and the day of the week. Math was never my strongest subject, but I do remember six times seven. The paramedic makes a check on his notepad.

“Micco!”

I frown at the EMS tech. He looks and sounds like Chase. No, it’s the real Chase, pushing past the local cops to get to my side. He crouches at my shoulder, and the hand he places on my chest is shaking. “Are you okay?”

There’s more than passing concern in his voice. More than the specter of a friendship we shared over a decade ago. I wonder if I’m the only one who hears it. I roll my eyes to Burke. His arched brow and narrowed gaze are answer enough, but his next words turn my suspicion to certainty. “He’s going to be fine. Rein it in, kid.”

The words fail to penetrate. Chase blinks at him. Swallows thickly. His hand fists in my shirt. “There’s a lot of blood.”

“Scalp wounds are like that.” Burke lowers his voice. “Better back off now.” His head tilts toward the watching policeman.

Chase gathers himself with visible effort, glares at the blood stains another moment, then untangles his fingers from my t-shirt and rises to his feet. “I’ll be right back.”

I scowl after him. “He’s mad at me?” I ask.

“Has every right to be.”

I shift my frown to Burke. “Stop taking his side.”

“Stop making it so easy to.”

“I’m a detective,” I declare.

“No, you’re concussed.” Burke pinches the bridge of his nose. “And you’re both idiots,” he says under his breath.

The paramedics insist on a trip to the ER for a CAT scan. I decline. Chase’s disapproving glare bounces right off of me. Mostly. He turns his frustration on the local cops, shows them his badge, ignores their dark looks, and finally tells them to leave. They obey with as much grace as drunks being tossed out after last call.

Sam’s front door is eight feet high, and when Chase closes it behind them, the echo rings in my ears. Burke helps me to my feet, and we take what feels like a mile-long hike to one of Sam’s deep, soft leather theater chairs in the next room. My head feels like it’s about to split open, but the light here is dimmer, and that helps. Chase follows, arms folded across this chest, one hand rubbing at his mouth. He waits until I’m settled before losing his mind. But since he does so quietly, I don’t protest.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he snarls in a fierce whisper.

“What are you doing here?” I retort.

“My job, Micco. And you’re not making it any easier.”

“What are you doing here at this time of night?” I clarify.

He hesitates, but only briefly. “We have this address flagged. I was contacted as soon as the 911 call came in. I wasn’t far away.” He jerks his tie loose. “Your turn.”

We used to have a pact, Chase and I. Honesty above everything. Even if it was scary. I broke that pact once. Only once. I’ve regretted it ever since. “I couldn’t just keep sitting on my hands. Sam was my friend. I need to know what happened to him as much as you do. You aren’t going to tell me anything. I know… I know you think I was involved.”

For a long moment, nobody speaks. Then Chase strides slowly and deliberately toward where I sit, places his hands on the armrests of my chair and gets in my face. “You have no idea what I think.”

Maybe I do. Maybe I don’t.

“There was someone here.” I tilt my neck backward, let myself sink into the plush leather. My headache dials down a notch. “When I got here. Someone was already in the house.”

Chase straightens. Shoots a glance at Burke. “Who?”

“I don’t know.” I tell him what I recall. The noises in the office. The door flying open. “I don’t remember them hitting me.”

“That’s because nobody hit you.” Chase says this as he paces. “You hit your head on the edge of the table in the foyer.”

Michael Garrett. In the foyer. With the marble table. I feel like we’re playing a grown-up version of Chase’s favorite board game. “How do you know?”

“Because your blood is all over the corner of it.”

“So, I was pushed.”

“Or you tripped.”

Burke shifts beside me. He doesn’t like Chase’s suggestion any more than I do. Because, of course, it could be true. I don’t remember. “That doesn’t change the fact that someone was here. In the dark. In Sam’s office.” I wait for a sarcastic retort, but it never comes. I probably don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt, all things considered, but Chase gives it to me without a second thought.

“The security system didn’t go into alarm. Whoever it was knew the code to get in,” he says.

“Doesn’t that narrow your field of suspects?” I’m proud of my detective lingo and disappointed Chase doesn’t notice. He drops into one of the chairs and closes his eyes.

“No. Half of Sam Kincaid’s friends know his alarm code.”

That’s likely true. I run out of clever things to say. My foray into detective work is both a disaster and a waste. I found nothing. Except for a concussion.

“Tell me again.” Chase rubs at the tic in his jaw. “How your relationship with Sam Kincaid ended.”

I figure asking why isn’t recommended, but I can’t be positive what he’s fishing for. “I… what do you mean?”

“You claim he wasn’t upset?”

The question circles attention and suspicion back to me, but I don’t see a way out of answering. “He wasn’t.”

Chase pushes out of his chair. Resumes his pacing. “It would seem he was. Based on the letters he wrote to you.”

“What letters?” We’ve catapulted down the rabbit hole. Thoroughly confused, I shake my head. “He never sent me any letters.”

“He wrote them, though,” Chase mutters. He keeps his back to me, his body language no different at thirty than it was at thirteen. He’s agitated. Upset. Over what, I can’t imagine, but that doesn’t stop my knee jerk response. I want to comfort him.

I stand, wobble a few steps closer. “Hey—” When I reach out, he dodges my touch.

“Sir,” he says over his shoulder to Burke, “would you excuse us for a minute?”

I watch Burke silently calculate the pros and cons. “Sure.” He meanders away, climbs the three wide steps to the foyer landing and leans against a stark white column. His back is to us, but any conversation pitched above a whisper will reach him. I’m familiar with his keen hearing. So is Chase, because he mumbles something unintelligible before taking my arm and leading me to the other side of the great room.

“Are you really okay?”

Maybe not. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be thinking of how I can see a small slice of skin where his tie is pulled loose. “I’ll be fine.”

“What the hell were you thinking?” He’s raked his fingers through his hair so many times, it stands up all over. It takes some willpower not to reach over and smooth it down.

“I told you what I was thinking,” I say. “Are you going to look into who might have broken in?”

“You mean before you did?”

I suppose I deserve that. “There’s something else weird,” I add. “The house is for sale.”

Chase’s slow, distracted nod is at odds with his laser beam gaze. “I know.”

And he knows why, obviously. I wait, and after a few moments he says, “Your boyfriend was broke. I assume he was selling because he needed the money.”

First of all, “Sam’s not my boyfriend. And he has tons of money.”

“He had tons of money.” Chase shoots a look to where Burke is shamelessly eavesdropping and jerks his head to invite him closer. “Not anymore. You can’t party twenty-four seven, 365 for four years and not expect the bank to run dry at some point. Especially since he was supporting the habits of a dozen of his closest friends. His inheritance was gone. Which you know, I’m guessing.” He says this last bit to Burke, who nods.

“Spent the day talking to a few of Sam’s friends, such as they are. He’d been borrowing to support himself for months.”

Everyone gets to play detective but me. Though I don’t suppose Chase is technically playing. “Does that have anything to do with what happened to him?”

Chase nods. “I’d bet yes. He owes a number of people. Some dealers too. I know this isn’t how you wanted to remember your… friend. But it’s good news for you, Micco.”

Then why doesn’t he look happy about it?

“I’m having the security company reset the alarm codes to the house tonight,” he continues with a pointed look in my direction.

“Little too late for that?” Or not, I realize when he doesn’t reply. “That’s clever.” I try not to sound bitter but doubt I succeed. “You wanted to see if some idiot would crawl into your trap.”

“And some idiot did,” he snaps. “Now go home. And stay there.”

Chase ordering me around doesn’t fit with how I remember our dynamic. Not that he hadn’t set his foot down plenty of times when my exploits turned dangerous. His risk assessment skills had been precise. Surgical. He never willingly went into any situation knowing the odds weren’t in our favor. It helped that back then all he had to do was flash his blue eyes, and my temerity took a nosedive. It’s happening now, and he’s not even trying to be manipulative.

“So that’s it,” I say. “I just go home and wait for you to find enough circumstantial evidence to make me your scapegoat.”

I couldn’t have been more unfair and cruel if I’d had a year to plan my words. I see the truth of that in his eyes. In Burke’s disappointed hiss. Chase steps back from our little circle. Slides his hands into his pants pockets. He’s the poster boy for unaffected and casual, if I ignore the tremble in his voice. “I want you to leave, Micco. And stay out of my way. I need to be…”

“Focused?” I finish helpfully.

“Clear-headed,” he whispers, and as though it never existed, all the time and distance between us evaporates. The memory that surfaces is specific. Tied to a slew of heady adolescent emotions. We’d been high on life and cheap wine that long-ago night. Fourteen years old. Untouchable.

~*~

“Have some more.” I passed the bottle to Chase, glancing over my shoulder and across the parking lot to make sure the store clerk hadn’t cottoned on to how the bulge under my shirt shared a striking resemblance to a bottle of Asti Spumante. No pursuit yet, which meant we were probably home free. The few gulps I’d choked down were already making my fingers clumsy. I fumbled the handoff, and some of the precious liquid splashed onto the asphalt. “Oops.”

Chase pushed it back. “I’m done. Someone needs to stay clear-headed and keep us out of trouble.”

“And that’s going to be you?” The next swig rolled smoothly down my throat. “Mmmm. Okay. If you insist.”

We broke into helpless, uninhibited laughter. Chase slung my arm across his shoulders and started us on a mostly straight path through the field. “Of course it’s me, Micco. It’s always going to be me.”

 


 

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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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. 
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Chapter Comments

It’s hard to guess who the possible culprit is, especially knowing Sam owed some nefarious individuals. This chapter made me think about the wave of energy that Michael felt in chapter 4 of anger, hate and hunger. It still sounds to me like an addict needing a fix, even if Michael may not be able to detect human emotions the way he does with animals. If Sam was dealing in an attempt to stay ahead of debts, he was playing a dangerous game and lost. I wonder who at the refuge might have known Sam was broke. 

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Damn @Libby Drew. My suspicions of Martina have weakened a little now it is apparent Sam was broke. And maybe I am clutching at straws, but Burke is the first one on the scene again. Deja vu? Coincidence, perhaps. Perhaps not.

Chase is clearly jealous. He is uncomfortable acknowledging Micco had a relationship with Sam. Their mutual attraction is obvious to Burke, perhaps to others as well.

The plot thickens, with more of @drsawzall's "friends", those pesky red herrings swimming freely. 

Edited by Summerabbacat
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33 minutes ago, Summerabbacat said:

Damn @Libby Drew. My suspicions of Martina have weakened a little now it is apparent Sam is broke. And maybe I am clutching at straws, but Burke is the first one on the scene again. Deja vu? Coincidence, perhaps. Perhaps not.

Chase is clearly jealous. He is uncomfortable acknowledging Micco had a relationship with Sam. Their mutual attraction is obvious to Burke, perhaps to others as well.

The plot thickens, with more of @drsawzall's "friends", those pesky red herrings swimming freely. 

Unless, as I theorized,  he was planning to contest the donation to the refuge. Regardless of the chances of success, it would require Martina to hire expensive lawyers and tie the money up for an unknown period of time.

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5 hours ago, Summerabbacat said:

Damn @Libby Drew. My suspicions of Martina have weakened a little now it is apparent Sam was broke. And maybe I am clutching at straws, but Burke is the first one on the scene again. Deja vu? Coincidence, perhaps. Perhaps not.

Chase is clearly jealous. He is uncomfortable acknowledging Micco had a relationship with Sam. Their mutual attraction is obvious to Burke, perhaps to others as well.

The plot thickens, with more of @drsawzall's "friends", those pesky red herrings swimming freely. 

Actually, I began to suspect Martina after your well thought out past comments and theories. Don’t give up on that idea yet. And, your thoughts about Burke are spot on. I wonder about him, too.  

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7 hours ago, Summerabbacat said:

Damn @Libby Drew. My suspicions of Martina have weakened a little now it is apparent Sam was broke. And maybe I am clutching at straws, but Burke is the first one on the scene again. Deja vu? Coincidence, perhaps. Perhaps not.

Chase is clearly jealous. He is uncomfortable acknowledging Micco had a relationship with Sam. Their mutual attraction is obvious to Burke, perhaps to others as well.

The plot thickens, with more of @drsawzall's "friends", those pesky red herrings swimming freely. 

Was on the road wrapping up a vacation and for those aficionados of red herrings...and boy...o...boy, do we have 'em!!!

The Red Herring eBook by William Hope Hodgson | Official Publisher Page ...

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