Chapter One: How Life Was
The hall was dully lit by lights in offices and the speckly old fluorescents overhead. She fidgeted with some papers, feeling them stick to the sweat on her hands, hoping that Matt wouldn't be too late tonight. He was working overtime on his pet case, the secret one he had confided to her when they took advantage of a weekend in Redding, in an absolutely unbugged hotel room.
"Understand," he'd whispered to her as they sipped from glasses of ice coated with brandy and a hint of tea, "we can't talk about this again -- not in your apartment, not mine, not in the offices."
"You really think they have us bugged?"
"I don't know. Maybe. We just can't take the chance. This is big, almost the whole damn local involved, almost top to bottom."
She'd giggled. "Now wait, I just can't believe that Danny Chuster is a crook. All he cares about are computers and doughnuts."
"Hey," Matt had said, smiling and brushing her red hair away from her forehead, "didn't you ever see Jurassic Park? Those fat tech guys are crooked no matter which direction you look."
Danny wasn't, she was sure, a few weeks later. He'd been the one who came to her desk, leaned over the arm of her chair, and whispered nervously into her ear, "Wanna go to Starbucks with me? Please, Roj, play along with me, I gotta talk to you." He'd straightened up and said cheerily, "God, I love your perfume. Want to go for coffee with me?"
"You creep," she'd answered with a laugh. "Sure. But I want a toasted bagel and butter, and Oregon chai, and you're buying."
"Anything for you, Rajah."
Instead of walking down the block to the coffee place, Danny had surprised her by hailing a taxi and directing the driver to take them to a Starbucks on Orangeburg and Rose, near the city hospital.
After ordering and receiving their hot drinks and Roj's bagel, Danny had excused himself, gone to the restroom, then returned in moments with a small stack of papers in his hands. "Roj, you gotta see this shit. Matt's been fingered."
"Shit? You brought shit out of the bathroom? Wait, what?" she'd exploded. "Matt? What are you talking about?"
"Shhh, you dopey paper-pusher! Keep your voice down!"
"What," she'd hissed quietly, while salting her buttered bagel.
"Matt's been backtracking those drug pushers he busted a couple weeks ago, you know, the ones packing the meth?" Danny had been practically dripping sweat, and Roj could smell him, smell his fear.
"Ugh, what, did you have these in your shirt?" She'd said, gingerly touching the damp pieces of paper.
"No, my pants. Nobody looks at my ass, but there are some guys around the office that are always looking at my nipples."
"Wear plaid shirts, Danny. Optical illusion thing."
"That's so gross, Roj, I can't believe you said --"
The words on the papers had arrested her, and her fair skin had blushed red. Words like, Pest has got to go. Canada Girl says he saw her, and she's refusing to continue shipping until he's gone. And another page: 1701 Sherman, Arlington Apts -- where can we see his windows?
Emails -- and a copy of his hiring agreement, forwarded to a lawyer named Dave Galloway. "Shut up, Danny, what the hell is this crap?"
His mouth had puckered bitterly. "Do you mean for me to shut up, or for me to explain?"
"Where did you get this?" she'd whispered, horrified.
Danny had leaned forward, speaking barely above mouth movement. "The meth corridor through Modesto. Garrison's tied in, using his people to get them through. They're afraid of how close Matt is getting to the trail. They want to off him."
"'Off him?' You talk gangster as well as tech? Why are you even showing me this stuff?"
"You're his girlfriend. Everybody knows that. Maybe you can tell him to lay off before they kill him. Only they're already planning to kill him. I overheard Garrison saying to some lumpy goon in his office that they should convince 'Mr. Pest' to take a perpetual leave of absence,"
"Crap, Danny, he thinks that it's some Mexican gang hunting him -- he trusts Garrison!" Pushing the papers back across the table, she'd begun to sweat, herself.
"He's wrong, Roj. He's a dead man unless he backs off. You're the only one he'll listen to. You gotta tell him to drop the case."
Looking at the bottom sheet of sweat-blurred words, Roj had read with stomach-spinning fear an email that said, "Get rid of Mr. Pest ASAP." The email addy to which the message had been addressed looked like it was a typical spam site: firstname.lastname@example.org.
"They could have just been emails about roaches or termites," she'd said, her eyes tearing up and her teeth faintly chattering.
"Huh-uh," Danny had confirmed. "They want to kill him."
She had laughed, a couple bursts, still refusing to believe the news. "They kill a cop, and they'll never sleep easy. The rest of the precinct will be after their blood like vampires on the full moon. It would be stupid."
"Roj, come on -- half the precinct is in on it, you dummy! Can't you get him to go off with you on some South Seas vacation for a while?"
He was serious, she'd suddenly been able to see that. Her eyes teared up more and overflowed as she'd put a hand to her mouth. "He won't listen, Danny. I know him. He thinks he can take care of himself."
"You gotta try, and we gotta get back," he had said, standing, hitching at his baggy pants.
As they'd left the restaurant, Danny dumped the papers into the Modesto Paper Recycle bin by the door. Neither of them had seen the tall man in a dark blue suit pick the sweat-dampened sheets back out.
"Woot, woot, Roj," said Ayers from his cubicle. "Hot lunch?"
She sneered at him and walked on past, trying not to look as scared as she was. They wanted to kill Matt. Matt was so honest, so gentle, so hopeful. He had proposed to her, and she had accepted him, and they were going to raise babies with his dark hair and brilliant blue eyes ... they would be named Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Naomi, and well, if they could have more, there would be Nathaniel and Galadriel (they argued about that one) and Rafael-or-Rafaella ... soon, so soon, as soon as he could put to rest his concerns over this case about the meth connections. It can't be. He's a cop, they can't touch him.
When she got to her cubicle, she dialed his cell phone. All she got was his voice mail. "Matt, this is Roj. Call me, please, as soon as you can." She jittered through the next two thick folders, typing poorly with her fear stumbling her fingers on the keys. Another hour and a half, and it would be quitting time, and she and Matt would be together again, and maybe on a plane to London by morning.
Her desk phone rang. She picked it up, answering, "Rodgers, how can I help you?"
A deep, menacing voice said, "Stay away from him and you won't get hurt, Miss Red High Heels." A 'click' announced the break in the connection.
She looked down at the shoes she'd chosen to wear today -- red. Red, to go with the piping on her beige jacket. Her heart began to pound. Had Danny been crooked, and doing someone's job of warning her off, or was he just clumsy, and thought no one was watching him make copies of emails and letters?
Everyone knows you're his girlfriend, Danny had said.
Roj grabbed her purse and fled the office. As she entered the parking garage, she pulled off her red heels and slunk among the cars, silently, sure that no one was there to see her. Her manager would reprimand her for not clocking out, but she wanted no one to officially see her leaving work.
Twenty minutes later, she pulled into her parking spot at the apartment complex. Carrying her heels and her purse, she ran up the steps and down the hall. Her door was open.
Peeking inside, she saw the room ransacked. The mattress was flipped off the bed, the blankets and sheets on a pile beyond it. The refrigerator was open, the shelves swept clean -- clean shelves, not clean floor, where orange juice and olive jar and jelly jar and the past week's leftovers blended with the frozen stuff from the freezer side.
No one was in the apartment but her.
She entered, noting not only the bedding and kitchen mess, but also the broken memorabilia on the shelves that had been above the bed in the studio apartment. Her grandmother's portrait, a spiraling conch shell from Myrtle Beach, the little vase of cosmos she'd bought from the florist the day before.
The bathroom had been treated the same way, shelves and cabinets strewn onto the floor, stepped on so that conditioner and lotion and shampoo had squirted around, deodorant and mascara cracked and crushed.
Her laptop computer was gone from her nightstand.
She left the door ajar as she had found it, and called the police. Her police, her precinct, downstairs from her department, men and women she had known for nearly half a year. "Hey, Bill, this is Rodgers. I just went home for something and found my apartment broken into and my laptop gone -- can one of you come over here and see what the hell is up?"
"Got it," said Bill. "What's the address? We're on our way."
Candace Rodgers was sweating through her shirt at that point. Matt had been targeted, and she had been pinpointed; all the perps had to do was fire up her computer and Firefox would obligingly supply the passwords to everything she had, for she had blindly believed she was below anyone's radar. Too late.
The sun was drawing low as she returned to the offices. Her complex was dark, except for a few back cubicles where zealots worked overtime. She checked her messages, finding one from Matt, who said, "On my way" with a time-stamp about ten minutes before.
Candace Rodgers took up a position in the staff lounge, the room adjacent to the elevators. She felt sick to her stomach; what she had to say to Matt was to flee, but he wouldn't want to, she'd have to beg him, but he wouldn't listen, she knew him -- he'd rather die than run. She tried to think of what she could say to him that would make him run with her, to Canada, to Australia, to Norway.
The elevator bell 'dinged' and three men in neatly-pressed suits and dark glasses exited down the hall. She had never seen them before, all of them strangers, all of them after hours at this point. The lights of the staff lounge were out, and she would not turn them on; those suits were frightening in their anonymity.
Once again, the elevator chimed, and this time, Matt strode out, his wiry black hair mussed, his leather jacket open over his tight A-shirt. It was a guise that many a female had fallen for, along with his surly stride.
Candace Rodgers loved him. He was the entire world to her. Every grin of his mouth, every shrug of his shoulders, every move in their lovemaking melted her heart and she would not -- tolerate -- any threat to him. "Sst," she hissed to get his attention.
He immediately entered the staff lounge and put his arm around her. "Got your message, what's up? Why are you here in the dark?"
Roj pulled him to sit beside her on the couch. "Garrison's crooked, and you've been targeted. You have to get out of town, now, right now, don't wait. Go! Get on the elevator and go to Canada, or Mexico, or Honduras -- Now, Matt, now, go!"
"Roji, what are you talking about? I'm not going anywhere, and no one's got me in their sights."
"They do, Matt, you've got to go --" she stopped, hearing the footfalls of determined heels in the hall. She stood, then sat down between Matt and the doorway.
"Matt, I love you," she said, then turned again to the hallway light.
"Well, well, what is this? A little love tryst?" said the man in the lead. "I do see that this man is with his honey."
"Then why don't you guys take off and leave a couple lovers in peace?" Matt said, bristling.
"Ha, ha," said the tallest of the suits, "you talk about peace, but you not leavin' us in peace. They tell me to kill you, but I think I need to teach you about what peace is. They have the saying, 'Peace at any price.' What you think about that?"
"I think you ought to go fuck yourselves, that's what I think."
Oh, Matt, you beautiful fool.
"Maybe this the price of your little war, cookie." The tall suit pulled a pistol from beneath his suit jacket and put the barrel of his gun against the side of her head. She jumped a little, betraying her fear.
"Wait, wait, wait," Matt said, "she's an innocent bystander, you can't -- "
Candace Rodgers felt an exquisite shock at the same moment she heard a viciously deafening blast. And then she was free.