Josh Lanyon Main Title

The Ghost Wore Yellow Socks

An excerpt from the novel by Josh Lanyon

CHAPTER ONE

There was a strange man in Perry’s bathtub. He was wearing a sports coat -- a rather ugly sports coat. And he was dead.

Perry, who had just spent the most painful and humiliating twenty-four hours of his life, and had driven over an hour from the airport in blinding rain to reach the relative peace and privacy of the chilly rooms he rented at the old Alston Estate, stood there gaping.

His headache vanished. He forgot about being exhausted and starving and soaked to the skin. He forgot about wishing he was dead, because here was someone dead, and it wasn’t pretty.

His fingers still rested on the light switch. Perry turned the overhead lights off. In the darkness he heard rain rattling against the window; he heard his breathing which sounded fast and scared; and from the living room he heard the soft chime of the clock he had bought at the thrift store on Bethlehem Road. Nine slow, silvery chimes. Nine o’clock.

Perry switched the light back on.

The dead man was still in his bathtub.

"It’s not possible," Perry whispered.

Apparently this didn’t convince the corpse who continued to stare at him under half-closed eyelids.

The dead man was a stranger; Perry was pretty sure of that. It -- he -- was middle-aged and he needed a shave. His face was sort of greenish-red, the cheeks sunken in as though his features were slipping. His legs stuck out over the side of the tub like a mannequin’s. One shoe had a hole in the sole. His socks were yellow. Goldenrod, actually. They matched the ugly checked jacket.

The stranger was definitely dead. His chest wasn’t moving at all, his mouth was ajar but no sounds came out. Perry didn’t have to touch him to make sure he was dead, and nothing on earth would have made him touch the corpse anyway.

He could discern no signs of violence. There didn’t seem to be any blood. Nor water. The tub was dry and empty --- except for the dead man. It didn’t look like he had been strangled. Maybe he had died of natural causes?

Maybe he’d had a heart attack?

But what was he doing having heart attacks in Perry’s locked apartment?

Perry’s glance lit on the mirror over the sink, and he started, for an instant not recognizing the pale-faced hollow-eyed reflection as his own. His hazel eyes looked huge and black in his frightened face, and his blonde hair seemed to be standing on end.

Backing out of the bathroom, Perry closed the door. He stood there trying to work it out through the fog of weariness and bewilderment. Then, eyes still pinned on the closed door, he took another step backwards and fell over his suitcase which was sitting in the center of the front room floor.

The fall jarred Perry’s thoughts into some kind of order. Scrambling up, he bolted for the apartment door. His fingers scrabbled to undo the deadbolt.

He yanked open the door, but it banged shut as though wrenched away by a ghostly hand. He realized the chain was still on. With shaking fingers he unfastened the chain and slammed out of the flat.

It seemed impossible that the hall should look just as it had when he walked upstairs five minutes earlier. Wall sconces cast creepy shadows down the mile of faded crimson carpet, which led to the winding staircase. Though the hall was empty, Perry felt that he was being watched.

He listened. Rain whispered against the windows, as though the house complained of the damp, the wood rot, the mustiness that permeated its aged bones. But it was the ominous silence on the other side of his own door that seemed to flood out everything else.

What was he waiting for? What did he expect to hear? Panic gripped him. He was desperate to get downstairs to lights and people, but he was afraid to make a noise, a sudden move, afraid that something unseen waited for him in the dim recesses of the long hall.

He had to force himself to take the first step. Then he barreled down the hallway, narrowly missing the half-dead aspidistras in their tall marble planters. Every moment he expected to feel a knife between his shoulder blades.

When he reached the head of the stairs, he had to hang tight to the banister; his knees were jelly. He took a second to catch his breath and then headed down the stairs. Fifteen steps; he took them two at a time.

Reaching the second floor, he hesitated. Ex-cop Rudy Stein lived on this floor. An ex-cop ought to know what to do.

Mr. Watson had also lived on this floor, but he had died a week ago in Burlington. His rooms were locked, all his belongings waiting for someone who would never return.

Maybe it was this memory, or maybe it was the notion of facing another dark, drafty hallway, that sent Perry half-falling, half-running down the rest of the grand staircase until, at last, he reached the ground floor, which served as the lobby of Mrs. MacQueen’s boarding house.

Someone was just coming in the front door, pushing it closed against the sheets of rain. Overhead the chandelier tinkled musically in the gust of the storm’s breath, throwing eerie blue and red shadows across the man’s figure.

He wore a hooded olive parka, and for a moment Perry didn’t recognize him. In fact, he couldn’t see any face at all in the cowl of the parka, and (his nerves shot to hell) he gasped, the soft sound carrying in the quiet hall.

Shoving the hood back the man stared at Perry. Now Perry recognized him. He was new to Mrs. MacQueen’s rooming house; an ex-marine or something. Tall, dark and hostile.

Perry opened his mouth to inform the newcomer about the dead man upstairs, but weirdly enough the words wouldn’t come. Maybe he was in shock. He felt kind of funny; detached, rather light-headed. He hoped he wasn’t going to pass out. That would be too humiliating.

"What’s with you?" the man said. He was frowning, but then he was always frowning, so there wasn’t anything in that. He actually wasn’t that tall, but he was muscular, solid. A human Rock of Gibraltar.

Finally Perry’s vocal chords worked, but the man couldn’t seem to make out Perry’s choked words. He took a step closer. His eyes were blue, marine-blue, which seemed appropriate, Perry thought, still on that distant plane.

"What’s the problem, kid?" he asked brusquely.

Obviously there was a problem. Breathlessly Perry tried to explain it. He pointed upwards, his hand shaking like a Jesus freak who lacked conviction, and he tried to get some words out between the gasps.

And now the corpse upstairs was the second problem, because the first problem was, he couldn’t breathe.

"Jesus Christ!" said the ex-marine, watching his struggle.

Perry lowered himself to the carpeted bottom step of the grand staircase, and fished around for his inhaler.

* * * * *

Perfect ending to a perfect day, Nick Reno thought, watching the queer kid from across the hall sucking on an inhaler.

The divorce papers had arrived that afternoon, but what should have felt like relief felt like another failure. The job at the construction company hadn’t panned out either. It was the wrong time of year for construction -- the wrong time of year for everything, it seemed. And now this. For the last few hours Nick had been hanging on to the idea of a stiff drink and some solitude, and what he got was this damn boy having hysterics.

"Kid, pull yourself together." What was his name? Something Foster. Nick had noticed it on the mailbox in the lobby.

The kid continued to huff and puff, his thin chest rising and falling with the struggle to breathe. Maybe he’d just missed an episode of his favorite soap opera. Maybe they had discontinued his favorite flavor at Starbucks. Who the hell knew? Queers.

Nick looked around the suspiciously silent lobby. Where were all the busybodies who normally littered the halls of Mrs. MacQueen’s nut house?

"I could use some help here," he called out, whether to the Almighty or the closed doors, he wasn’t sure. But after a moment he heard a chain slide. Deadbolts began scraping, latches cranking, turn knobs clicking. Old Miss Dembecki’s door opened a crack.

The kid, who had turned a lovely shade of blue, lowered the inhaler long enough to wheeze, "There’s a -- dead man -- " Suction resumed.

"There’s a what?" Nick demanded. "Where?"

People were now creeping out of their rooms into the hall. Miss Dembecki, wired for sound in pink curlers, pulled a gingham nylon bathrobe around her skinny body. "What’s happened?" she demanded querulously. "What did you do to him?"

"I didn’t touch him." Nick glanced up as a floorboard creaked.

Suspended above them was a white moon of a face. Stein, the ex-cop, shone down on them. His mouth made an ‘O’ as round as the rest of his perspiring face: round eyes, round mouth, squashed nose. "What’s going on? Somebody in an accident?" His voice floated down.

Dourly, Nick eyed the kid. "I don’t know."

"Perry, whatever’s wrong?" quavered the old lady.

Perry. That figured, Nick thought grimly. A pansy name if there ever was one.

Across the hallway another door opened.

A cat wafted out of the Bridger woman’s apartment, and pussy-footed towards them, white plume tail waving gently. The kid made a panicked sound, and pointed with his free hand.

Nick pivoted impatiently but Ms. Bridger, six foot nothing, red-haired, and clad in an emerald kimono, was already scooping up the offending feline, and shutting it back in the apartment.

Dembecki called, "Ms. Bridger, perhaps you…something’s happened to Perry." She cast an accusing look in Nick’s direction.

Nick began, "Look, lady -- " then gave it up, stepping aside as Jane Bridger rustled up in her silk dressing gown. There was a dragon embroidered on the back of her gown. She was doused in Poison perfume. Nick recognized it as Marie’s favorite, and his stomach knotted.

"Perry, sweetie," she cooed, joining the kid on the bottom step. "What’s wrong?" To Nick she explained, "He has asthma."

"I noticed."

Foster lowered the inhaler once more and got out, "Dead man -- in my -- bathtub."

He was speaking to Nick as though somehow it was Nick’s problem; maybe he thought Nick was the only one equipped to deal with a dead body scenario.

The door to the landlady’s apartment opened at last, and Mrs. MacQueen billowed out in a cloud of cigarette smoke. "What’s all the racket?" she rasped. "What are you people doing now?" A blast of canned TV laughter followed from her rooms.

"Perry’s ill," Miss Dembecki quaked. "It’s his asthma."

Bridger patted Foster’s shoulder kindly. Her long fingernails were blood red against his dark shirt. "Hang in there, Sweetie. Take slow, deep breaths." Her robe slipped open to reveal the outline of breasts so perfect they had to be fake. Nick raised his eyes. If Stein leaned any further over the banister he was going to take a nosedive.

Two small dogs burst out of MacQueen’s rooms and, nails slipping on the hardwood floor, scrabbled their way to Bridger’s door, barking hysterically.

Fed up, Nick stepped back, treading on Miss Dembecki’s slippered foot; he hadn’t noticed her sidling up behind them. Now she yowled like an injured cat.

"Sorry," Nick exclaimed.

"Why can’t you look where you’re going?" moaned Miss Dembecki, hobbling to one of the overstuffed chairs by the fireplace. The fireplace was unlit. It had never been lit as far as Nick could tell. Maybe it was supposed to be décor. It just emphasized how unwelcoming the damn house was.

Foster gulped out more vehemently, "There’s a dead man in my bathtub!"

Dead silence. Another burst of televised laughter. Someone tittered nervously.

"What does that mean?" demanded MacQueen finally. She reminded Nick of James Cagney in drag; sort of sounded like him too.

"It means somebody ought to go upstairs and check it out," Nick said.

The boy shot him a grateful look.

"Who, me?" MacQueen actually backed up in one of those you-won’t- take-me-alive-copper moves.

"You own the place. You’re the manager, aren’t you?"

"But, that’s…I mean…sure, but…" Her bug-eyes traveled from face to face. She licked her colorless lips. The others were making sounds, wordless excuses, apologetic noises.

"Forget it," Nick said. "I’ll go." It would be a relief to escape the freak show for a minute or two. "Where are your keys, kid?"

Foster said, "I didn’t -- lock the -- door." He still sounded breathy, but he wasn’t blue anymore. He kept a tight grip on the inhaler.

"It’s the third floor. The tower room opposite yours," Bridger informed Nick.

"Got it." Nick started up the stairs.

On the second floor he passed Stein who twitched him a meaningless smile but didn’t speak.

Nick climbed on up to the third floor. It was dark and quiet up there; the scent of cats and the sound of TV didn’t reach. Neither, half the time, did the heat. It was cold, and the lace curtains over the windows floated up like specters then flattened back against the wall. Not the best visibility: the long hallway was poorly lit; a pair of half-dead plants on tall pedestals provided suitable cover for ambush.

Nick noted a funny prickling at the back of his scalp. It was a feeling he had learned not to ignore during ten years in the service -- but it was the last thing he had expected to feel in an old house in the middle of the Vermont woods.

He considered, and discarded, going back to his quarters and arming. He was pretty confident he could handle any garden-variety scumball that might have sneaked in.

Approaching the kid’s apartment cautiously, Nick turned the doorknob.

The door swung open onto a large chilly room that smelled of rain and turpentine. It looked more like an art studio than an apartment. The curtains had been removed to allow in more light. A spattered drop cloth covered much of the floor. A canvas half-covered with inky pine trees rested on an easel near the window. Blank canvasses were stacked against the wall; painting utensils covered what appeared to be the dining room table. There were paintings everywhere: on the walls, on the floor.

In the middle of the room was a suitcase.

So the kid had been gone over-night; that meant someone could conceivably have got into his rooms and…dropped dead.

Except the bathroom door was open, the light on. Nick had a clear view of the tub. It was empty.

Surprise.

Had he really expected to find a dead man in a bathtub?

Nah, but something had sure scared the shit out of little Perry. The couple of times Nick had passed him on the stairs he seemed quiet, polite and reasonably sane.

Nick advanced down the hallway.

The bathroom was big, old-fashioned, the twin of his own. The tub was one of those claw-foot porcelain jobs, running hot and cold water through separate spouts, making it ideal for scalding your feet. There was a small, bullet-shaped window over the tub. For laughs Nick opened it, gazing down on distant muddy ground and tree tops sparkling wet in the house lights.

Nobody and no body.

There was a streak of brown on the inside of the tub. He knelt to check it out. Red clay? Paint? Rust? That smear could be a lot of things, and yet instinctively the hair rose on the nape of his neck. He scratched at it with his thumbnail, sniffed his thumb. No damn way.

He noticed black scuff marks on the tile. Like somebody’s heels were dragged across the floor?

Nick’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Rising, he made for the bedroom. Not much to see. A twin-size bed, a battered bureau. The only thing out of order was one brown shoe lying in front of the closet. He picked it up. There was hole in the sole. Nick set the shoe on the window ledge, glancing at the bed. A stack of books sat on the night table. Library books. I Like ‘Em Tough, They Can’t All Be Guilty, I Found Him Dead, Secrets of A Private Eye. A book shelf was packed with paperbacks flaunting equally lurid titles.

His mouth curved wryly. Okay, now things made sense.

Still, remembering the terror in those wide eyes, he opened the closet door. Oh boy. The kid even hung up his pajamas.

He glanced under the bed. Someone had raised their little boy right. No dust bunnies, no dead bodies.

Cursorily, Nick glanced through the other rooms and closets. No corpses. There was an asthma chart pinned to the refrigerator, which told its own sad little story, and a box of Fruit Loops on top of the fridge, which Nick found grimly amusing.

As he shut the front door, his attention was caught by the painted canvases lining the living room. Nick didn’t know anything about art, but he knew what he liked. He liked these. There was a sureness and maturity to these calm studies of covered bridges and autumn woods that one wouldn’t expect. Chalk one up for the boy next door.

The landing on the second floor was deserted when Nick reached it. Stein had either got bored or fallen over the balcony. Same scenario in the front lobby. MacQueen had escaped back inside her apartment and turned up the TV volume. In fact, the only people left were Foster, who seemed to have recovered somewhat -- the inhaler was no longer in sight -- and the voluptuous Ms. Bridger who stood before the unlit fireplace.

"All clear?" she inquired cheerfully. Her red hair and green dressing gown were like a shout in that drab room.

"Yeah." Nick remembered the streak of red clay on the tub and dismissed it.

"Then they moved him," Foster said stubbornly.

"They? What, it’s a conspiracy?"

Foster flushed.

"Sweetie, sweetie," cooed Bridger. "Couldn’t it have been a bad dream?"

"Or too many detective stories?" Nick put in.

Foster was still sitting on the bottom step or the grand staircase. He glared up at Nick. "I wasn’t asleep!" He turned that angry gaze towards the Bridger dame. "I got back from the airport, walked in, and there he was. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t hallucinating."

"There’s no dead body now."

Foster swallowed hard. "I think we should call the police."

Bridger looked in dismay to Nick. How was it Nick’s problem? Let them call the police. Just leave him out of it.

"But sweetie, Mr. -- uh -- Mr. -- ?"

"Reno," Nick supplied reluctantly.

"Mr. Reno has already checked. The police won’t find anything now. We don’t want to cause trouble."

Nick glanced at her. Maybe a little hard around the edges, but still a surprisingly good-looking woman to be living out here in the middle of nowhere. What was it about the cops that worried her?

"They have forensic people," Foster said stubbornly. "Trained people who have equipment that can find microscopic traces of blood or hair."

Nick thought of the bloody streak in the tub again. The possible scuff marks on the tile. "Listen, kid -- "

"Perry. Perry Foster." He stood as though he had made up his mind.

"Whatever. Foster, the police are not going to send out their forensics team in the worst storm of the decade because of a crank call."

"I’m not a crank! There was a dead body. Someone put him in my locked apartment and took him away again. Someone in this house."

Bridger glanced nervously at MacQueen’s closed door. She chewed her bottom lip and said, "Sweetie, let’s the three of us go inside my apartment and think this through."

Nick opened his mouth but Foster beat him to it. "I can’t go in there," Foster said mulishly.

"I’ll put the cats away, sweetie."

"Their dander -- "

"Oh, for cryin’ out loud!" Nick exclaimed. "I don’t care what you people do, just don’t involve me."

The kid, Foster, gritted his jaw but his eyes were glittering ominously as he stared at Nick. "Sure. Thanks for your help," he got out, polite to the last.

Nick started to turn away. "The police might want to question you, Mr. Reno," Bridger warned. Her eyes were like green glass.

Nick drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "Let’s go inside and talk this over," he said very calmly.

* * * * *

The cops arrived while they were having coffee. The coffee was laced with brandy, which was a mistake in Nick’s opinion, but clearly the whole night was a mistake as far as he was concerned. Calling the cops was the biggest mistake, and he had waxed loud and eloquently -- but mostly just loud -- on the topic.

Now he was brooding in silence, taking up half of Janie’s horsehair sofa. The cops having heard Perry out, tramped upstairs to investigate. Nick Reno had been right. There was no forensics team, just two weary and wet sheriffs in yellow slickers, looking mighty unamused.

Before the sheriffs headed upstairs Nick filled them in about the mud smear on the tub and the scuff marks on the tile.

"How come you didn’t mention those things before?" Perry accused when the door closed on the officers of the law. "Those are clues."

"Let the cops decide if they’re clues or not," Nick returned.

"More brandy?" offered Janie. He held his cup out and she topped off his coffee.

Perry stared down at his coffee. He knew the other two were irritated with him for insisting on phoning the cops; it was like they were operating in an alternate universe. Of course he had called the cops. Any normal person would call the cops.

So now the three of them sat waiting for the law to finish, drinking spiked coffee and eating ginger snaps hard enough to crack a tooth on. The brandy was getting to Janie; she was flirting with Nick.

Perry’s gaze wandered around the room. Janie was not the Suzy Homemaker type. Her apartment was a mess. She must dress and undress walking from room to room, he thought, eyeing a silk blouse draped over a lampshade. The tabletops were dusty and there was cat hair on the overstuffed furniture. His chest tightened as he noticed it.

"How are you feeling now, sweetie?" Janie asked Perry, as though reading his expression.

"Fine." He shot a diffident look at Reno and then looked away. Nick Reno was staring at him like he was a freak.

"What happened while I was upstairs?" Reno questioned suddenly.

Janie shrugged and pulled at the shoulder of her slipping dressing gown. "Nothing."

"Mr. Center came out of his rooms," Perry offered.

"For about half a minute. He went straight back inside. Everyone did. Miss Dembecki went back in her apartment and locked the door. Ditto Mrs. Mac. It’s not like anyone thought you would find anything." Janie patted Perry’s hand apologetically, asking Nick, "Why? What did you expect?"

Nick had the kind of face that gave nothing away. "How many people live here?"

"Seven, now that poor Mr. Watson is gone."

Nick’s eyes narrowed at Jane’s tone but he went on. "Stein is the fat guy on the second floor?"

"That’s right. He works as a security guard at the mall most nights. Mr. Stein, Mr. Center and Mr. Watson on the second floor. On this floor it’s me, Miss Dembecki, Mrs. Mac, and Mr. Teagle. I’m sure you’ve met Mr. Teagle. He makes a point of meeting everyone." Her smile was sardonic. Mr. Teagle did not approve of Janie. "And way up on the third floor it’s just you and Perry in your twin towers."

Perry was trying to work out a time-table. There was no way anyone could have entered the house from the outside, or, if already inside, use the main staircase without coming into view of the tenants crowded in the lobby. That meant that whoever had moved the body must have still been on the third floor during the time between Perry’s flight and Nick’s trip upstairs. Maybe the intruder had been in Perry’s rooms when Perry found the body. Maybe he had been watching from behind the door the whole time…

"The body must be hidden somewhere on the third floor," he told them suddenly.

Janie quit tapping her red acrylic nails on her cup, and stared.

"Where? My rooms?" Reno suggested dryly.

Perry blinked, focusing on the notion. That was the most obvious explanation: there was no body because Reno had carted it off to his own rooms. He had been outside when Perry came downstairs. Could that mean anything?

Watching him add it up, Reno commented, "You’ve got a hell of an imagination, kid." And strangely enough, Perry was reassured by that.

"Maybe it went down the laundry chute. The corpse, I mean." Janie handed round the plate of cement cookies.

Nick declined cookies with a shake of his head. "Describe this dead man to me," he ordered.

Perry thought hard. "He was about fifty, heavy-set. He needed a shave. His hair was reddish, like he dyed it. He was wearing a yellow and brown checked sports coat and mustard colored socks. He had a hole in his left shoe."

Nick went on alert. "What kind of shoe?"

"A brown loafer."

"You’re sure there was a hole in the left sole?"

Perry nodded, then, gripped by sudden memory, "He had bushy hair in his nostrils and a mole on his chin."

"More than I needed to know," Jane murmured.

A heavy hand pounded on the front door and she jumped. Perry faded to the color of one of the corpses in his tough guy novels. "It’s the police," he got out.

"No kidding. We called them, remember?" Since the other two seemed paralyzed, Nick rose and let the cops in.

The cops, tired and grim, regarded the three of them.

"Were you folks drinking this evening?" Questioned the senior partner. In his rain slicker and hat, he looked like the Gorton Fisherman guy.

"We had a little snort for medicinal purposes," Jane volunteered over Perry’s indignant protest. "We weren’t together all evening, so I can’t say beyond that." She stretched comfortably and the sheriffs’ gazes trained on her gaping neckline.

"The Gorton Fisherman harrumphed. "There’s nobody upstairs. No body."

"I told you that much," Nick said. "What about the blood?"

"Who says it was blood? Could have been…mud."

"You seen a lot of blood?" the second sheriff queried. He was younger and gave off an edgier vibe.

"Enough."

Perry said, "What about the scuff marks?"

"Scuff marks don’t mean didly," said the second sheriff. "And I didn’t see any mud." He glanced at his partner. "Did you see any mud?"

"Nope. That tub was clean as a whistle. Like someone just scrubbed it down."

"What does that tell you?" Jane put in.

The older man eyed her calmly. "That someone just scrubbed it down." His dark eyes rested for a moment on the brandy bottle in the midst of the coffee table clutter.

Perry insisted, "There was a dead man in my bathtub. He didn’t get there by accident."

"Maybe he wasn’t dead," the sheriff said. "Maybe he was a vagrant and he left after you found him."

There were so many holes in that, Perry didn’t know where to start. He protested, "My apartment was locked. How could he have got in?"

"How would a dead man get in? A vagrant would have a better chance of breaking in than a dead man."

Inescapable logic. Still Perry persisted. "But he was dead. Someone brought him in and took him away again so you wouldn’t believe me."

"It didn’t take that," the other sheriff said. The older one gave him a reproving look.

"Listen," Reno said, "I didn’t believe in that dead body myself, but I saw a streak of something in that tub that sure as hell appeared to be blood to me. And black marks on the floor tiles. Also, Foster said the dead man was wearing a shoe with a hole in the sole. I found that shoe. I left it on the window sill."

"We didn’t see any shoe with a hole in it."

"Did you check the bedroom?"

"Sure. We weren’t looking for footwear specifically."

"Did you see the shoe on the window sill?"

The sheriffs exchanged doubtful looks.

"I didn’t see any shoe," the Marlboro Man said. "You want to check for yourself," he added, "be my guest."

"I’ll take your word for it," Jane said. She smothered a yawn, and said to no one in particular, "Gentlemen, I hate to be a party pooper, but I need my beauty sleep." She made a lazy shooing motion and the minions of the law obediently retreated.

"You’re damn right I’ll see for myself," Perry said, rising. But he couldn’t help checking to see if Nick was along for the ride.

Nick was on board all right. He marched up the stairs, kid and cops trailing, and let himself into the Foster boy’s apartment for the second time that evening.

Perry followed him in, staring around the rooms like he’d never seen them before. The night was taking on a surreal quality. He stared at his suitcase in the middle of the floor. It seemed a lifetime ago that he had walked out of Marcel’s wood-framed Victorian and caught the plane back to Vermont.

He trailed Nick into the bathroom. Sure enough, the tub was empty -- and sparkling clean.

Nick ran his fingers along the rim. "Damp," he commented. Perry stared at him. The sheriffs crowding the doorway also stared at him.

Pushing through them Nick headed towards the bedroom, zeroing in on the window sill.

A shoe stood in plain sight on the ledge. It was black, small, in good shape.

A muscle clenched in Nick’s jaw as he examined the loafer. "This isn’t the shoe."

"See for yourself, buddy. It’s the only shoe here."

Nick tossed the shoe to Perry who caught it, and swallowed. "This is my shoe," he said as though he feared his shoe was guilty of some misdemeanor.

"Yep, that’s what we figured."

"I thought you didn’t notice any shoes?" Reno retorted.

"We didn’t notice any suspicious shoes."

"Shut up, Abe," the older sheriff muttered.

Nick started to speak, then bit it back. There didn’t seem much to say. The cops had made up their minds about twenty minutes earlier; that was plain. Heart sinking, Perry realized it was over. They didn’t believe him. Even Nick Reno, who knew something was wrong, wasn’t going to push it. He waited in the front room, hands pushed in his pockets so they didn’t betray his nerves while the sheriffs took their leave.

"We’ll say goodnight folks. Keep safe." The Gorton Fisherman, last out the door, tipped the brim of his rain-spattered hat.

Nick caught the door before it closed on their heels. He glanced back at Perry Foster. He was staring at the tub framed in the bathroom doorway. The under breath comments of the sheriffs died away as they started down the stairs.

Situation defused, Nick thought. Rack time at last. "I guess that’s it," he said. "I guess I’ll say goodnight too."

Foster’s head jerked his way. "You’re going?"

"Yeah." Nick was elaborately casual in response to the note he didn’t want to hear in Foster’s voice. "It’s all clear here."

Foster was a frail-looking kid. He lived on his own and presumably held a job, so he couldn’t be fourteen, though that’s how old he looked. His wrists were thin and bony knees poked out of the holes of his fashionably ripped Levi’s. There were blue veins beneath the pale skin of his hands. Nick thought of the Fruit Loops cereal and the asthma chart on the refrigerator.

Hell.

"Thanks," Foster said huskily. "I know you probably think I’m nuts too, so I appreciate your helping me."

"I don’t think you’re nuts." Actually he had no idea if the kid was nuts or not. "I think you saw something. But whatever it was, it’s gone now. It’s over." Nick thought of the shoe with the hole in it. Someone had switched shoes after he left. Someone had swabbed down the tub and the floor. Someone had balls of steel. But it was not Nick’s problem. It was not his job to save the world. Not anymore.

"Yeah, well…" The kid managed one unconvincing smile. "Maybe I can get a hotel room in town." He picked up his suitcase. "I don’t think I want to stay here tonight."

Nick’s nod was curt. Great idea. Best idea yet. Except... A gust of wind shook the house. The lights flickered. From across the room Reno heard Foster give a soft gasp. His eyes looked enormous. Like one of those Japanese cartoon characters.

It was a dark and lousy night. Not a night to be out driving if you didn’t have to. The radio crackled with weather advisories. Anyway, what kind of bastard would send an asthmatic kid out in a rainstorm?

"Hell," he growled. "You can stay with me tonight."

"I don’t want to be any trouble," Foster said hopefully.

Nick snorted.


Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.