Infected: Life After Death
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by Andrea Speed
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: In a world where a werecat virus has changed society, Roan McKichan, a born infected and ex-cop, works as a private detective trying to solve crimes involving other infecteds. But when your heart is gone, it's easy to fall into a black hole and never crawl out. Roan has been lost and alone for more than a year, and his best friends think a new case might be just the motivation he needs. Roan forces himself back into the game and discovers a dead man who might not be all that dead, a street hustler that wants to hustle him, and a dominatrix who is well prepared to take Roan's orders. As Roan claws his way out of the darkness by diving back into his work, he finds himself in a race against time in the adrenaline-pumping realization that nothing helps a person want to live like helping someone else survive.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: July 2011
19 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [526 KB]
Reading time: 345-483 min.
Life After Death
* * * *
The Ghost of You
Paris threw open the bedroom curtains, letting in the unforgiving morning light. "You're going to do it again, aren't you?" he accused with weary affection.
Roan pulled the pillow over his face and burrowed deeper into the blankets. "What?" he murmured, barely articulating the thought.
"Stay in bed all day, stay here dreaming. Or hallucinating. Is it hallucinating? What's the difference?"
"You're asleep for dreaming."
"Yeah, hon, but you never get up anymore, so how do you know when you're awake or asleep?"
Roan felt the mattress shift as Paris sat on the side of the bed, reaching down to touch his arm. For some reason, his hand was cold. In these... dreams, hallucinations, whatever, Paris's hands were usually cold. He had no idea why.
"You need to stop this."
"I can't believe I'm being lectured by a dead man," Roan muttered, feeling the same old catch in his chest he always did when he realized Paris was gone.
"Well, someone has to do it," Paris replied, exasperated. "And you have a tendency to scare everyone else off."
"Not fast enough."
"You know this has nothing to do with me," Paris said quietly, his voice dropping to a deeper, more disappointed register. "This is self-pity."
Roan pulled the pillow off his head and looked up at Paris, then immediately wished he hadn't. Paris was looking down at him with so much pity and sorrow that Roan could hardly stand to look at him. "How can you say that? You were--"
"If you ever really loved me at all, you'd stop killing yourself," Paris interrupted impatiently, looking away.
Roan woke up to a nascent headache somewhere deep behind his eyes and the smell of cooking coming from downstairs. His stomach rumbled noisily, and he wondered when he had last eaten something. He had no idea; time had become irrelevant after Paris died, and days, weeks, and months blurred into the same empty, wan thing. The curtains were closed, but some fringes of light bled around the edges, letting him know it was daytime.
He rolled out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom--see, he did get out of bed occasionally--and after having a long-needed piss, he caught a glimpse of himself in the bathroom mirror. Holy hell, he looked like shit. He'd lost a lot of weight, mainly in muscle, as he was no longer testing the bounds of his ability to partially transform. In fact, he looked almost as skinny as Par had at the end; he could see his own ribcage, and the bony knobs of his hipbones stuck out just above the waistband of his boxers. Even though he'd shaved off his beard--a couple months ago, was it?--it was back again, a reddish-golden color lighter than the odd shade of his hair, spreading up the side of his face and down his neck like a fungal disease. It itched in much the same manner, although he thought he'd earned the discomfort. His hair came down to his shoulders and was so shaggy and thick it looked distressingly like a lion's mane. When was the last time he'd transformed? He could no longer remember his own viral cycle.
His eyes looked out from beneath a thick fringe of bangs, hot and glaring; they were the eyes of a madman, staring out from behind his own wall of hurt. That made sense. Did you know when you were going insane, or did you just wake up one day and suddenly realize that your sanity had packed up and moved away? That was his experience. He didn't mind either--sanity was overrated.
He smelled bad. When was the last time he had taken a shower? He couldn't remember. Probably the day of Paris's wake, which was just a colorful blur. He'd been hopped up on a lot of pills and a couple of beers just to get through the whole thing, and as a result he had few memories of it. He did remember feeling like he was hyperventilating when the DJ started to read a message Paris had written for him. The DJ had burned a CD of Paris's playlist for him, but he had no idea why. If he remembered correctly, he had thrown it on the coffee table when he got home, and it had been there ever since.
Roan wondered if he should go downstairs and figured he should. Dee had threatened to put him on an IV drip if he didn't eat occasionally, and once he had woken up feeling strangely groggy and found a strange bandage on his arm, over a vein. Had Dee actually drugged him and hooked him up to a drip? He honestly wouldn't have put it past him. Why couldn't Dee be like every other ex-boyfriend in the world and want nothing to do with him? And why oh why did he have to be a fucking EMT?
Roan's stomach was pretty insistent on eating, though; it growled rather relentlessly, and he wondered if it was responsible for his headache. Lack of food, just like lack of sleep, could be a trigger, and he knew lack of sleep wasn't responsible this time.
He went downstairs, wondering which of the revolving door of busybodies he'd face, and what month this was, and he still felt not only light as a feather but as hollow as a chocolate Easter bunny. If he could somehow untether his head from his neck, it would float away, and he would happily let it.
"Oh, hey there," Matt said brightly, moving about Roan's kitchen. He'd turned the radio on, but at such a low volume he could barely hear it. Matt's hair was longer and shaggier than it had been last time Roan had seen him, a calculated bedhead look that indicated a needlessly expensive haircut. He was clean-shaven now too, although he kept his beefier physique up so he didn't look so much like a twink. He was wearing a burgundy T-shirt advertising Dick's Drive-In and dark sweatpants, as if he'd come here on his way to or from the gym. "Hope you're hungry. I saw this recipe on the Food Network and decided to try it out."
"How the fuck did you get in my house?"
Matt looked at him with grave disappointment and let out a small sigh as he picked up the hot pads and turned toward the oven. "You asked me that last time, remember? Diego gave me a house key."
"Did he give everyone a house key?"
Matt pulled a pan out of the stove, and Roan couldn't tell what it was he had. "Me and Randi. That's it, as far as I know."
"Seems like too damn many." He walked over to the couch and collapsed on it, staring at the blank television screen and inactive stereo system. (Matt had brought his own portable radio, at least not feeling comfortable enough here to use his stereo.) "You ever have an ex-boyfriend this fucking annoying?"
He heard Matt put the pan down on top of the stove and then heard him shuffle with some plates and cutlery. Had making him suddenly the subject of the conversation made Matt nervous? Good. "Umm... well, I've had annoying boyfriends, yeah, but Diego's just concerned about you, Roan. We all are."
"Don't be. I'm a grown man--I can take care of myself."
"Really? Is that why you haven't left your house in almost a year?"
He glared at him. "That's my business, not yours." Had it really almost been a year? Wow. Time went by quickly... when you spent most of your time drunk or hallucinating. On some level, he was aware this was madness, that Paris would so kick his ass over this if he were here, but that was the point, wasn't it? Paris wasn't here. And it wasn't just that he loved him, although he did. The point was he had needed Paris. He sort of knew that before Paris had died, but he hadn't realized how much until he was gone. Paris was like the sun, and now that he was gone, Roan could no longer see anything; he was stuck in a world of eternal night. He hated being that way, he hated having been so emotionally dependent on anyone... but there was nothing for it now. Somehow he had survived before Paris, but he couldn't remember how to do so now. It was like he'd lost some vital part of his body, and now he had to learn how to walk again, but he didn't know how, and besides, he almost didn't want to. What was the point?
Matt cut into whatever it was he had and started loading it on the plates. "Well, I hope you like goat cheese."
"Paris did," he replied, and he felt that twinge at speaking his name aloud.
Matt froze, and it took him a moment to start moving again, this time with nervousness tainting his economic movements. "Uh, oh... I didn't know that."
"No, you didn't. You didn't know anything about him," he spat, suddenly wanting to beat Matt down with words if not his fists. He had no right to be here. What, did he think this would win him brownie points? That he'd eventually get into his pants this way? It would have been laughable if it weren't so pathetic. Dee had wanted Paris--that much Roan knew--but for some reason, this stupid, fucked-up kid wanted him. Clearly he had no taste at all.
Matt put a plate down on the breakfast bar, giving him a sad, puppy-dog look, as if that had actually hurt him somehow. Jesus, what a puss. "It's a frittata. Or it's supposed to be. Hopefully it came out okay."
Roan was hungry, but he didn't know if it was worth standing up. "Fine, you fed me. Thank you. Now you can go."
Matt sighed wearily and sat on the opposite side of the breakfast bar, picking up a fork of his own. "Not before I have my own breakfast. I didn't just make it for you, you know."
Roan leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling. Could you feel an absence in a home even though someone else was there? He could swear there was a constant emptiness that just wouldn't dissipate. Paris had taken something with him beyond whatever he ripped out of him.
"Not too bad," Matt said, commenting on his own cooking. "So when did you get that tattoo? I don't remember you mentioning that."
He was talking about the one on Roan's right upper arm. It was a broken heart with a ribbon reading "Paris" draped across it, blood dripping down from it in three fat, crimson tears, and a black rose laid across it. Yes, rather dramatic, but Roan had felt he needed some mark on his body, some outer sign of an inner wound. He was pretty sure he got it the night of Paris's wake, but he could no longer remember. He still wore his wedding ring; it never occurred to him to take it off. "I didn't," he said simply, and left it at that.
The silence lingered for a bit, uncomfortable and awkward--well, for Matt; Roan didn't give a fuck--although the radio filled it in faintly with whatever mall-approved emo crap the radio played nowadays. Matt ate for a moment and then said, "You might want to get a move on. Mr. Sikorski said someone was coming over at eleven."
Roan wasn't sure he'd heard him right, but unless he was hallucinating or sleeping still, Matt must have said what he thought. "Gordo talked to you?"
"Well, no, he talked to Diego, who told me."
Roan took a deep breath and realized he had a bit of a catch in his lungs when he inhaled. He didn't know what that was about. "Why is Gordo sending someone over here?"
"Diego said it was someone who needed your help."
"He did. I'm not--"
"I mean no. No, no, no. I don't help people anymore." Mentally, he added, If I ever did. "Hasn't my office been rented out yet?"
Matt snorted in disbelief. "Randi's been paying the rent and has been making sure your electricity bill gets paid, or haven't you noticed? Paris left provisions for that in his will."
Roan shook his head but had to stop, as the room kept moving almost independently of it. "I'm not a detective anymore."
"No, you're a sad piece of shit who wallows in his own misery," Matt said with a surprising amount of venom. "You were a fucking awesome detective, man. I know you miss Paris, and I'm not gonna pretend I know what that kinda loss is like, 'cause I don't."
"No, you don't."
"But you know goddamn well Paris didn't want you to do this, and he was afraid you were gonna."
"You don't know what he wanted!" Roan accused angrily, just wanting this fucking busybody out of his house.
"Yeah, I do!" Matt shouted back, his face flushing red with rage. "He told me before he died, you...." Matt pondered insults carefully and ultimately discarded them all. Was he too afraid to go that far? (Good. He should be.) "He spent his last days worried about you! I didn't get that at all, but now I do. I thought you were... fuck, man, I changed my life 'cause of you! I wanted to be better than I was, 'cause... I wanted you to be able to look at me and not think of me as just some fucked-up rich kid."
Roan fixed him with a caustic glare. "I will always think of you as a fucked-up rich kid. Live with it."
Matt flinched, like he'd hoped he would, but somewhere deep inside, Roan felt almost bad. Yes, that was needlessly mean--true, but mean. Matt looked hurt, but he also looked angry, his eyes shiny with conflicting emotions. "You're still alive, Roan. Barely, but you are. So why don't you try and act like it?" He shoved a couple of bites of egg in his mouth but had clearly lost his appetite. He picked up his plate and returned it to the sink. "Diego told me to tell you Sikorski said you were gonna talk to this woman, or he was going to break down the door and make you. He said he doesn't care that it's not legal, you're a fucking train wreck."
That sounded like Gordo, and he might actually bust down his door out of spite. Shit. Why couldn't people just leave him the fuck alone?
Matt bustled around for a moment, downing his coffee--from the cups, he'd gone out and gotten them Starbucks--and then grabbed his jacket from the side table where he'd put it. "If you need anything, call. But don't be a bastard," he warned, then headed out the door.
As soon as it shut, Paris--whom Roan could only see in his peripheral vision--said, "I don't think that's possible anymore."
"They're trespassers. I don't hafta be nice to them. I didn't ask them to be here."
"I did," Paris replied archly, folding his arms over his chest. He looked like he had when he was healthy, wearing black jeans and a royal blue T-shirt, his ebony hair almost shoulder-length. Still beautiful, still fierce, still the better part of him.
Roan waved his hand dismissively and struggled to get up from the couch, which was more difficult than he anticipated. "I don't need help." He staggered to the breakfast bar and almost slid off the stool once he sat down. He was pretty bad, wasn't he?
"Says the guy who can barely stand."
Matt had left his radio, but that was okay, as he was probably coming back. Roan switched it off and got down to eating his eggs. It both smelled and tasted pretty good.
"You owe him a big fat apology," Paris continued. "You do realize that there was no way I could have left Randi a year's worth of rent on the office, right? The money must be coming from somewhere else, and you don't know a lot of rich people. Do the math."
Suddenly Roan felt incredibly nauseous, but he rode it out--just barely. Had it been that long since he'd had solid food, or was it some last vestige of his guilt? He got down about half the plate of eggs and then couldn't eat anymore. He shoved the plate aside and gulped down his coffee. Matt had gotten him a double espresso with a shot of caramel; it was quite good and left him wanting more. "Why would he do something like that?"
"Why? Because he continues to have this big puppy-dog crush on you, although maybe you've finally convinced him you're such a dick he shouldn't bother. Now stop talking to yourself and get upstairs; you have a client on the way."
"I'm not a detective anymore. I'm crazy, for fuck's sake. I still think you're here."
Paris sighed wearily. "No, you don't think I'm here; you know I'm not. You just like to pretend I am. There's a difference."
"Which is a crazy thing to do."
"No, it's a lonely thing to do. You know you're just talking to yourself, to a remembered version of me. I'm still dead. I never came back. You know that. It's just easier to pretend otherwise."
Roan felt his eyes burn with tears, tears he had already shed so many times it felt like he was crying blood. The food felt like a lead ball in his stomach, and he desperately needed a drink. But he was fairly certain he had no more booze in the house, and Dee had taken all the pills, worried he would try and overdose or might do so accidentally. He might actually need to go out, if only to buy some vodka.
He went upstairs, dragging his carcass like it was only half alive, and took his first bath in God knew how long (he didn't take a shower because he wasn't sure he could stand up that long). He cried for a little bit, then washed the tears and snot off his face and cut off most of his beard with scissors, too tired to find the razor and shave. He cut off big hunks of his hair too, not looking in a mirror, figuring it didn't matter how bad he looked. He just cut it so it was easier to wash. He expected his appearance to scare the woman off no matter what.
He couldn't remember the last time he had done his laundry or even worn clothes beyond boxers, but someone had done it, as the clothes he had were mostly clean. He found Paris's shirts still in the drawer, still mixed up with his, and he could still smell a hint of his scent in the fibers, caught between detergent and fabric softener. Even though it was absurdly baggy on him now, he put on one of Paris's shirts, just to keep his smell near him. His own jeans barely fit anymore--he'd lost so much weight and muscle mass--so he had to scrounge up a belt. Ironically, it was also one of Paris's, from near the end, when none of his clothes had fit him properly anymore. Roan belatedly realized he probably looked like Paris had then; he was probably too weak to sustain another transformation. Did he want to work on that or not?
The funny thing was, the lion in him had already given up on him in disgust. It was like it knew there'd be no more fun to have, so why bother? It would have rather died than wander around an empty basement for another couple of weeks.
Sitting on top of the dresser was a simple gold chain that had Paris's wedding ring threaded through it like a pendant. Roan didn't remember ever getting it. Had Dee left it here for him? He must have. He didn't really wear jewelry, but he put the necklace on anyway.
Searching in his still grandly chaotic "library," he found an emergency kit Dee had apparently missed and popped a couple of pills. Maybe now he could handle talking to a real person for a little while. It also settled his stomach, at least a little bit. Heading back downstairs, he stood in the kitchen and ate a handful of potato chips and an apple and gulped down an iced coffee. He had no idea who bought these things, but he could almost hear Paris saying, The guy who was cooking your food this morning, dumbass! Yeah, probably. Now he felt really bad for how he had treated Matt. The kid had also all but admitted he'd changed his entire life so he'd be more attractive to him. Weird. Roan wasn't sure if he should give him a hug or a restraining order.
Roan was shaking and feeling both edgy and slightly ill when there was a knock at the door. He was sure he couldn't do this, but the drugs cast a comforting pall on his panic. He had nothing to worry about. She'd take one look at the crazy, homeless guy look he currently had going on and run away screaming. Problem solved.
Roan opened the door on a short woman wearing a blue, floral-patterned dress and thick, black-rimmed glasses that were endearing in their obvious ugliness. She was maybe five-two, her figure stocky but not completely unappealing, which also described her open, moon-shaped face, which was unadorned with makeup and a bit on the plain side. Her hair was a poufy black halo surrounding her head, the curls tight but natural, and something about her seemed to suggest the word "matronly," even though she was probably in her late thirties at best. From her dark eyes, which were almost perfectly black, and dusky skin, he had the impression she was Filipino, which was confirmed when she introduced herself. "Are you... Roan McKichan?" she asked warily, blinking up at him owlishly.
He nodded, then forced himself to talk. "I am, yes."
She held out her hand somewhat awkwardly and said, "I'm Dalisay Dormer. I was told by a police officer that I should hire you."
He shook her hand, feeling unbelievably awkward. She was a brave woman, which meant he was going to have to think of a way to scare her off. Still, old habits kicked in, and he invited her in before he caught himself. Damn it! She trailed a scent of floral perfume that made him sneeze, even though it wasn't that strong at all; it was just that perfume never did his nose any favors.
Once she was inside, he gestured to the sofa, and once she sat down, she told him her story. Her husband, Ron Dormer, had presumably been killed two years ago when the Black Lightning Fireworks factory blew up in one of the worst industrial accidents that had occurred in this state in some time. Eight people had been killed and seventeen injured; one man had lost an arm and an eye, if Roan remembered the news coverage correctly. One of the corpses had been burned and maimed beyond recognition, and it was believed that the corpse was that of her husband, a deliveryman who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Eventually DNA testing was done to confirm this, although various bureaucratic snafus and general incompetence meant that the DNA results hadn't come in until last week (!). The DNA said the corpse was not Ron Dormer--it was the corpse of a man named Jeremy Halva, a man who had been reported missing by his wife five days after the explosion. She had had no idea he was at the factory or why he would be there.
It was at this point that Dalisay started crying quietly, and Roan, really feeling the drugs kick in now, was forced to search his own living room and kitchen for Kleenex.
"So he's not dead. I should be relieved, and I am. But on the other hand, I'm not. He's out there somewhere, alive. He must have seen the news coverage, he must have known that he was the suspected corpse, and he never came forward. He never came home."
Roan found the Kleenex and put the box in front of her on the coffee table. She nodded her thanks and took one. "It hurt so much when I thought he was dead that I didn't know if I could go on. I thought I was finally getting my life in order, and now... now it hurts just as much as if he's died again. Why would he do that? Why would he let me think he was dead? Did he hate me so much?" She paused to use the Kleenex and fight to keep her tears under control. Her grief was genuine, palpable, and Roan could feel it resonating with something inside of him.
The death of a spouse was almost unbearable. And it really fucking pissed him off that this asshole had taken advantage of an accident and a mangled corpse to hit the highway. If that was what had happened--it was possible there was another explanation, but he didn't care about that at the moment.
Was this why Gordo recommended she hire him? Because Gordo knew he'd be sympathetic to a widow? That fucking bastard! See if he ever helped him on a cat case again. "Were you having marital difficulties at the time, Ms. Dormer?"
She shook her head. "No. And please, call me Dalisay. We were fine. I hesitate to use the word content, but... we were. We had no real problems. We even had a barbecue planned that weekend. Ron loved to barbecue." She grimaced as if holding back a surge of sorrow or rage; Roan couldn't tell which. "Why would he do this? If he was unhappy, he could have told me...."
"Men disappear all the time," he told her, which was true. A sizable portion of missing persons cases every year were people--usually men--who just one day decided to walk away from their lives and start over somewhere else, or who committed suicide and were never found. It wasn't as common as, say, extramarital affairs, but it happened enough that civilians would probably be shocked if they knew the number. "The new wrinkle in this is that he knew his ass was covered by some other poor bastard's corpse."
She crumpled the Kleenex in her fists and held it in her lap. "Can you help me find him?"
Roan felt bad for her, ached for her, but he wanted to say no. He hadn't done any investigating for almost a year, not since he'd lost Paris. And what was the point? It had been almost two years; this guy was definitely out of state, probably out of the country if he was smart and had the wherewithal. While it would have been fun to nail his lying, insensitive ass to the wall, it would have been like looking for a needle in a haystack.
So even Roan was shocked when he heard himself say, "I'll do my best, ma'am."
Oh goddamn it, that was it. He wasn't taking those pills ever again.
* * * *
Why Can't I Be You
He told Dalisay everything he needed to even attempt to track down Ron, which was essentially every scrap of paper she had on him (including his Social Security number, resume, credit history, schooling, and anything she might feel was at all relevant), and it didn't take her long to get them, as she had them in an old briefcase in the trunk of her Nissan. This was a woman who came prepared. (It helped that Gordo had probably told her to have her "documents in order.")
Roan also apologized to her for his awful appearance, explaining that it had been a horrible year. She accepted that without requiring an explanation. She also gave him a check for the job, plus some initial expenses, and he stared at the check without too much comprehension. The drugs were not only in full swing, but he still felt disconnected from reality itself.
Roan sat down at his computer and booted it up, surprised that it still worked and wondering when he had last turned it on. He had no idea. Dee, Randi, or Matt could have had it on at some point, but he didn't know, and if they had, they hadn't left any obvious traces. (He could have looked deeper, but he didn't.) He started doing some basic searches on Ron's Social Security number and name, and he gathered up his courage and called Randi at her office. When she answered the phone, she said, "This is a joke, right? Jon, is this you?"
He sighed heavily. "It's me, Randi, you know it's me."
"No, it can't be Roan. He's a sad piece of shit who mopes all day."
"Look, I'm up now, I have a job, will you help me with something?"
"Did bedbugs hire you?" she asked brightly.
He banged his forehead on the edge of his desk, but it didn't help much.
Eventually, after he'd apologized profusely and in every way he could, she decided to forgive him and grudgingly help him. He asked her to run Ron's Social Security number and name through the financial databases, and she agreed to do it, although he sensed she was not through busting his balls. (Was she ever?)
Not that he could be all that mad at her. She had been Paris's best friend, and he knew she felt his loss quite acutely; when Roan was in the transformational stage of his infection, she and Paris used to go out all the time. She had also been Roan's first acquaintance at the office park when he'd opened up MK Investigations, as she came over to welcome the "new dick" (she really enjoyed her double entendres) with a cup of coffee. They were very casual neighbors until Paris started working at the office, and then suddenly she was over almost all the time. She had had a crush on Paris, hadn't she? She knew Paris was devoted to him, but she probably hadn't given up hope that he was still bisexual at his core--if he had fucked women once, he always could again. Roan couldn't blame her for that either. Everybody was always falling in lust with Paris. As he liked to say overdramatically, It's my gift--and my curse. (This was usually followed with a mock sob, and then he would raise his arm like he was wearing a cape and stalk dramatically out of the room. Roan's contribution to the act was usually shouting after him, Drama queen! If they ever did it in public and not just amongst friends, they would get very funny looks.)
God, he missed Paris. He couldn't think about him right now, though--he had work to do.
While following up on all the Ronald Dormers Google brought up, he did something that he dreaded doing but felt he had to, if only for his conscience in the form of Paris's memory. He called Matt. As soon as he answered, Roan apologized to him.
Matt was quiet for a very long moment, and then he sighed and said, "Jesus, Roan, I wish you'd stop doing this to yourself, y'know?"
"I'm trying. I took the job Gordo sent over."
"Really? Oh, thank God! Is it anything I can help with? 'Cause I've gotten pretty good at followin' people and takin' photos of them."
Hearing this news shocked Roan to the core. It took him a moment to find his voice. "Matt, have you been playing detective?"
He clicked his tongue. "Well, playin' sounds so bad. Look, I've never said I was you; I identified myself as your assistant, that's all."
Roan felt like banging his head on the desk again, but his forehead still ached from last time. "Matt, I'm licensed. If you run off and do this shit on your own under my name, you're jeopardizing my license."
"I've never taken anything big or complicated," he claimed, sounding a bit guilty. "Just, y'know, cheating spouse stuff. And only a couple. There weren't any problems, except I had to learn how to really use a camera, and, uh, I didn't realize that being a detective could be so boring most of the time."
"Matt," he growled, aware that he only had himself to blame for this. He knew Matt thought he loved Roan and saw something glamorous in what was honestly a tedious profession.
"Well, it wasn't like you were gonna help these people," he replied defensively. "And I figured since I was paying the--" He shut up quite abruptly, and Roan could have ruffled his hair for confirming Paris's/his hypothesis, except he was talking to him on the phone.
"How long have you been footing the rent on the place?"
"I haven't," Matt lied, quite badly. "Umm, my twelve o'clock has arrived early, so I've got to go."
"Come by tonight," he told him, wondering if Matt would pluck up the courage to do so. He hung up the phone and continued sifting through Google results. That poor, deluded kid. Roan felt bad for him. All Matt wanted was to be loved and accepted, so nakedly that Roan couldn't help but pity him and yet at the same time fear that need. Matt had to be pretty high maintenance.
There was more than one Ron Dormer in the world; there had to be several. But Roan noted a couple of interesting things and wondered if they would add up. According to Dalisay, from what Ron had told her and what was listed on the copy of the resume she had provided him, Ron had graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Collins, New Jersey, and had gone to college at a state university in Kentucky. A man who was named Ron Dormer and seemed to have been about this Ron Dormer's age had graduated from Franklin Pierce High School in Secaucus, New Jersey at the exact same time. Could two men with the same name, in the same state, have graduated high school in the same year? Roan supposed it was possible, but Ron Dormer just wasn't that common a name. There was an explanation, though--they were family. An extended family throughout a state could indeed share a name, and New Jersey just wasn't that big.
But here was a problem: there was no Thomas Jefferson High School in Collins, New Jersey. Had Ron lied about where he went to school? Why? Oh sure, Franklin Pierce sucked as a President, but that wasn't enough of an excuse.
So Roan did a little more digging and called Franklin Pierce in Secaucus, giving the woman who picked up the phone the usual bullshit about being a detective who needed to confirm Ron Dormer's identity for the matter of a will's settlement. Again, when people thought other people were getting money, they were usually eager to help, and Francine was no exception. She even e-mailed him the class photo of Ron when he requested it.
This Ron Dormer, a pimply teenager, looked nothing like the Ron Dormer in the photo Dalisay had provided him. In fact, unless he'd had extensive plastic surgery, there was no way this teenager could have become that man. The teenager had a moon face, round and soft, with plump cheeks and a receding chin, with small, light eyes set a bit too close to a thin nose, his hair a muddy brown. The adult male had a long, oval face with a strong, prominent chin and an aquiline nose with a bump on the bridge; his hazel eyes were a bit too widely set, and his hair was a dirty, dishwater-blond. He could have gotten a nose job, dyed his hair, gotten contacts--but changed the shape of his jaw and face? No. The jaw was a possibility if he'd lost part of it due to some catastrophic accident or cancer, but the rest of the skull? Nope. These were two different people. They didn't look remotely related either. They were both plain, ordinary men, but in totally different ways.
He had a hunch. Maybe it was the drugs, but he had a sudden feeling reality wasn't just sliding sideways for him.
He had another bottle of refrigerated coffee in an attempt to sober up as he called the state university in Kentucky. He was lucky that he got a secretary with absolutely nothing better to do, and she was able to turn up a group photo that had Ron Dormer in it. Again, it was e-mailed to him, and his initial hypothesis was confirmed: this was the kid from the high school photo. He was taller, a little thinner, his hair cut severely, but his skin hadn't cleared up much, and his chin was still more of an idea than an actual thing, his face as round as a pancake.
Two possibilities. There were two men, distantly related, both named Ronald Lamont Dormer. Or there was one Ron L. Dormer, and the other, married to Dalisay, had stolen his identity. Employers weren't likely to check a high school--why bother?--but a college? That was more likely, so the fake (?) Ron used the "real" Ron's actual college, so the story would mesh if they checked.
Roan's Internet search turned up an odd thing: a note from a city council meeting in Rock Creek, Maryland, in August of 2006, where a Ron Dormer petitioned the council to allow him a permit to erect a "gazebo-like structure" on his property. It was approved. This led Roan to find the online Maryland phone book and a phone number for a Ron Dormer. He called him and did his bullshit spiel about looking for a Ronald Dormer who had once lived here, as he had come into a substantial inheritance. The Ron Dormer on the phone sounded interested but also disappointed, as he admitted it wasn't him. He said he'd spent most of his life in New Jersey, except for his brief college stint in Kentucky, and then he took a job in Maryland, where he'd lived ever since. If he was lying, he was good at it. Roan asked if there was another member of his family with the name Ron, and he said no, not to his knowledge.
But with an address and phone number, Roan could dig up a wealth of information on this Ron Dormer. He was able to confirm that he had purchased his Maryland home (well, started making mortgage payments on it) in the spring of 2005--before Ron Dormer's "death" in the explosion here. Also, according to public records, he had married a woman named Sherri Costello in the winter of 2004--again, while he was still here and still married to Dalisay.
Roan was dizzy, and his stomach was grumbling at him again. He was shocked to look at the clock on his computer and realize he'd been at this for hours. It was almost five o'clock. It had felt honestly good to throw himself into work, to think of something beyond himself and the absence of Paris. He probably should have done this before, but that would have required him to get up off his ass.
He levered himself up and went to the kitchen only to find meager scraps in the cupboards and fridge, and mostly stuff he wasn't crazy about. He decided he needed a break--and beer--and thought he'd try and venture out into the world for the first time in... shit, how long? He couldn't remember. In fact, he wasn't sure he could manage it. But he wasn't going to be able to work this entire case on the computer; at some point, he'd actually have to do some legwork. Might as well practice now.
He took the motorcycle, because both the Mustang and the GTO reminded him of Paris too much. They had been Paris's babies; he had loved them like they were pets. Roan hadn't realized how slow on the uptake and generally logy he was, though; he almost went off the road twice and nearly lost control of the bike at one intersection. He wanted to blame the drugs but knew he couldn't. It was him, all him.
Luckily, the Safeway he visited wasn't far from his home. But he wandered the aisles for a bit, not sure where anything was, and he was sure he used to know. Had he really just blanked, or had they remodeled since he was last here? As he was taking in the general strangeness of being in a store that was simultaneously familiar and yet not, he heard a man's voice behind him.
Oh no. He turned warily, wondering whom he knew who would be in the produce section at this time of day. He found himself looking at a young man he didn't instantly recognize. The man was about two inches taller than him, lean but in an athletic way, handsome enough that Roan was sure he should have recognized him. He wore jeans and a black Ramones T-shirt (which won him points) under a black leather jacket that was more chic than butch. He had black hair in a sleek, neat cut and a tiny gold replica of an artist's paintbrush hanging from his right earlobe. Roan stared at this man blankly, wondering if this was one of Paris's friends, but as the man's deep brown eyes searched his face with sympathy, the penny finally dropped.
"I haven't seen you in so long. How are you doing?" Toby, the bartender from Panic, asked him.
Roan nearly hadn't recognized him with his shirt on, and he continued staring at him blankly. What? "Why do you care?" he wondered out loud. He wasn't being cruel--he was genuinely curious. He hardly knew the man.
Toby blinked at the aggressiveness of the question but responded without being defensive. (That won him another point.) "The last time I saw you was at the wake, and you left looking pretty distraught. I was worried."
"Why?" Again, genuine curiosity. Who the hell was this guy?
Toby dug his hands in the pocket of his jeans and shifted on his feet uncomfortably. "I know what it's like to lose the one person in your life who meant the most to you. I didn't think I'd survive it."
Oh holy shit, Roan so didn't want to talk about this. "Yeah, well, death's a bitch. Excuse me." He spun on his heels and headed for another aisle. He had no idea what was in it, but he no longer cared; he needed to get away from the nosy bartender as quickly as possible.
"It's not the end of the world," Toby said sympathetically. "It just feels like it."
Roan felt a coldness in his chest as those words sunk in, and once he was out of the aisle and out of sight, he waited a couple of seconds and peered around the corner to see if the weirdo bartender was coming after him. He wasn't; Toby had turned back to the apples. Okay, so his lover or whatever had died on him--Roan was sorry. But right now it was all he could do to hold himself together. He didn't need to hear someone else's tale of woe, no matter how relevant.
Roan bought two packs of a microbrew that wasn't his favorite but he thought he could live with and a random assortment of foodstuffs, including a premade sandwich from the deli the description of which he hadn't read, so he had no idea what it was. He also had no idea if he had any money in his bank account, but his debit card worked, so he figured he must have.
Out in the parking lot, though, he suddenly realized he wasn't sure how he was going to get his groceries home, since he'd taken the motorcycle. Jesus Christ, he was a fucking idiot now, wasn't he? Maybe he had always been.
His cell phone rang, but it took him a moment to realize that, as he had never changed the phone from the ringtone Paris had last downloaded onto it. For a moment, he just sat there wondering who was playing the Dandy Warhols's "You Were The Last High."
Yeah, he had become a complete idiot.
Finally he found his phone and answered it. "Wow, your bedbugs are on to something," Randi told him.
Oh good, the case. He seemed to be doing better with that than anything else. "We're looking at identity theft, aren't we?"
"Well, I got two guys using the same Social Security number at almost the same time on separate coasts, so yeah, something not kosher's going on."
It turned out that while one Ron was getting a mortgage in Maryland, the other one was opening a Visa account here, and neither financial institution seemed aware of the other. (Because, in Randi's opinion, "Most of these companies are fucking morons.") The Visa account that had been opened here was closed now--it had been since after Ron's "death"--and the only usage of his Social Security number recently seemed to be on the east coast, where the "first" Ron was.
Randi sounded animated and chatty, and she seemed to have forgiven him for all his pain in the ass suicidal depression. She always loved playing detective when she got a chance, although it wasn't too often that financial records he couldn't access came into play.
He hadn't gone into detail about the case when he initially called her--he was too busy groveling--so he told her how he'd gotten the case and what he thought was going on. "She hired me to find her husband, Ron Dormer. But the problem is, they're two different people."
"So you think whoever she married was an identity thief?"
"Yeah. It looks like he was living as Ron Dormer, but that's not really who he was. What I don't get is why. Dalisay didn't appear to have a ton of money, and the real Ron Dormer couldn't be more of a middle-class schlub. Why pretend to be him?"
Randi was quiet for a moment as they both digested this. "Because who he really was, was even more disappointing?" Randi suggested.
Roan nodded, rubbing his tired eyes. The sky was turning a blood-tinged red, but the evening was almost abnormally warm... or maybe it wasn't. What season was this? "Or worse. How do I tell Dalisay the man she thought she was married to was someone else entirely?"
"I wasn't looking for a joke, thank you."
"Well, that's all you're gonna get. I crunch numbers, I don't deal with people."
But his problem was even bigger than simply telling Dalisay she had married a fraud, a man who'd been living under another man's identity. He had to look for a man whose name he didn't know, who could be anyone else, who could have simply stolen another man's identity for himself.
How did you even start to look for a man who wasn't there?
* * * *