If I Run, page 4
“Can’t blame you, man. What are you doing now?”
I look toward the front, where Brent’s parents stand shaking hands, their expressions tragic, devastated. His mother lived for her son. I imagine the news she got a couple of nights ago was like stepping on an IED.
I shake my thoughts back to the cousin. “I’m sorry, what?”
“Where are you working now?”
I hate that question. “Still looking for the right thing. Hey, I’m gonna go on up and talk to Mr. and Mrs. Pace. Good to see you again.”
I can see that the cousin is torn up about Brent’s murder.
Grief always baffles me. Mostly I avoid services like this, but Brent was my best friend not too long ago, and I couldn’t just blow it off. I’m walking down the aisle as the music starts to play. Halfway down, I wonder if I should slip into a pew or stay the course. There’s a line of about twenty people still waiting to be noticed.
I go on down and my gaze connects with Mrs. Pace. She surprises me by stepping out of the line and coming toward me. “Dylan . . . come here.”
I blink back the sting in my eyes as I walk into her hug. She bursts into a fresh round of tears and whispers something I can’t understand. I hold her like I would my own mother until she releases. When we finally separate and look at each other, I can’t find a single word.
“I’m so glad you’re back safe,” she says, touching my face.
I nod, my throat closing again. “This is awful,” I finally manage to say.
She can’t answer, just nods, takes my hand, and pulls me through the cluster of people to her husband. Mr. Pace sees me and shakes my hand, then pulls me into another hug.
The preacher steps to the pulpit and asks people to take a seat for the prayer service, so I leave them there and go toward the back, looking for a seat. I’m glad so many have turned out for the Paces, but I’d rather be alone in this place.
I sit on a pew that’s only halfway filled, and I stare toward the front of the room. It’s not a funeral, since it’s too soon. They’re waiting for an autopsy, and it’ll be days before they can bury him. Their church has turned their Sunday night service into a prayer service for the family. Will this just add one more stressful event to what promises to be a long mourning period, or will it be cathartic?
I suppose prayer is always a good thing, even when it hurts.
As the service begins with worship music meant to focus our thoughts on the One who gives life and takes it away, I can’t manage to sing. Some stand. I lean forward in my seat, chin planted on the heel of my hand, and remember those days with Brent when we were kids, running through the creek bed and stirring up hornets’ nests. Brent was always too curious for his own good.
I’m the one who was at war for three deployments. He’s the one who wound up dead.
My survival is wrong on so many levels.
I sit through the service, praying as the preacher leads us for the comfort and peace of this family, for the police department to find the killer and bring that person to justice . . .
Sudden anger assaults me, and I feel the ceiling sinking, the walls sliding inward, enclosing me. I can’t catch a breath, and my heart bangs against my chest. Sweat is clammy on my skin . . . I slip out of my pew and head outside.
The sun is beginning to set, and the air is crisp and clean. I settle my gaze on the trees surrounding the church and try to calm myself. The green lushness quiets my soul. There was so little green in those desert places halfway across the world. You would think it’s safe here, that no bullets would penetrate glass front doors while breezes whisper through elms. But my body is on high alert, as if it could happen at any moment.
The doors of the church open, and I look back to see the father of another high school friend stepping out. He doesn’t seem to notice me as he trots down the steps, but I call out. “Mr. Keegan?”
Gordon Keegan glances back at me. “Dylan! I didn’t realize that was you, man. Thought you were off somewhere killing Taliban.”
That flip statement grates, so I ignore it. “I’m home now. You still on the police force?”
“Sure am,” he says. “I’m working this homicide, matter of fact.”
“Really?” I step toward him, wondering if I should ask. “Do you guys know who did this?”
“We have a strong suspect, and she’s skipped town.”
She? “What’s the deal? Was it a fight or what?”
“That’s how it looks. He was stabbed six times in his home. Did you guys keep in touch?”
“Not for the last few years,” I say. “We grew up together, but we’d lost touch. Was it a girlfriend? What’s her name?”
He glances around; no one is near. “Keep this under your hat until we make an arrest. Reporters are buzzing about it, but I’d rather not confirm it. But did you know a girl named Casey Cox?”
I’ve never heard that name, so I shake my head.
“No, Kurt didn’t either. She’s a bit younger than you guys.”
Kurt is his son, also on the force.
“Did she have any priors?” I ask.
“None that we know of. Listen, I didn’t tell you any of this. We’re only calling her a person of interest for now.”
“I understand,” I say. “I saw Kurt last week when I was at the department applying for a job.”
He looks intrigued. “That’s right, you were a cop in the army, weren’t you?”
“Criminal Investigations Division.”
“Sounds like you’d be a great fit.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think it’s going to work out. But anyway . . .” My voice trails off.
“Well, I’ll put in a good word for you.”
I know it won’t do much good. They have me marked as a victim of PTSD, and the force doesn’t want to hire people who could snap. The CID had a problem with it, too, which is why I was discharged. It’s the story of military life. They send you to places where bombs explode like jack-in-the-boxes, blowing your friends to pieces before your eyes. Then they punish you when you can’t stop thinking about it.
“I hope you find the girl,” I say.
“Yeah, me too,” he says. “I kind of thought she might show up here, but we have a lot of people watching for her. She hit the road, but we’re on her trail. We’ll get her back here pretty quick.”
I walk out to the parking lot with him, then sit in my car alone, staring as minutes pound by. I finally figure I could be praying, since that’s what I came here to do.
Keeping my gaze on the whispering trees, I ask God why I had to lose yet another of my friends. Why does life have to hurt like a shrapnel wound in the center of your gut?
I ask him when he’s going to plug up my holes and make me right again, before I wind up in the same state as Brent. Instantly, guilt pours through me. I should be praying for my dead friend’s parents and that they find the girl and bring her to justice.
I whisper the words aloud, hoping God will hear even if my heart doesn’t seem connected.
When I get back to my apartment, I don’t bother turning on the lights. I sit in the dark, thinking. It occurs to me that I could go to a bar and get loaded or drown my thoughts in drugs. The VA doctors have given me enough scripts to get wasted for months. But numbing the pain doesn’t buy my dead friends any justice. Brent, Blue Dog, Tillis, Unger . . . and all the others. If they had to suffer, why shouldn’t I?
I won’t take that path, because I don’t want to add more wounds to the ones I already have. Escape is not an option.
But that leaves me here in the dark.
I’m at Pedro’s Place at 7:15 the next morning, my duffel bag in tow. I knock on the back door, and he doesn’t answer. I consider going around front, but I don’t want to make him mad, so I wait.
He opens the door at exactly seven thirty and looks out, first to the right and then to the left. Finally, he lets me in.
“Do you have it?” I ask.
I open the envelope and pull out the driver’s license and social security card of the dead girl. I wonder again how she died. I’m curious what she looked like, but my own face stares back at me. I’m once again startled by the color of my hair.
“Memorize social security. It is yours now.”
“Thanks,” I say. “You’ve helped me a lot.” I look at him, waiting for him to meet my eyes, but he never does. “Just for the record, I’m not a bad person. I’m in trouble, but I didn’t do what they think—”
He lifts a hand to stem my rambling. “I don’t want to know your whys. Not my job.”
“I know, but I’m not used to doing illegal things. I just wanted you to know I’m a decent person. I’m going to prove my innocence somehow.”
“You never heard of me. Never saw me. Got that?”
“Yes . . . of course.” I dig into my purse for the cash I’ve already pulled out of my boot, and pay him the rest of what I owe him.
He takes the cash, counts it out. Finally, he gives me a grudging look. “Did you eat?”
“I make you plate,” he says. “You eat it back here.”
I’m starving, so I smile. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Wait,” he says and disappears to the front. His place smells like heaven on earth, and my stomach rumbles. While he’s gone, I sit in a folding chair and examine my driver’s license. It looks legit. I wonder how he does it, who he usually does it for. Illegal immigrants? Criminals? Innocents on the run, like me?
He comes back with a plate of eggs and hash browns, crispy bacon, and a biscuit smothered in gravy. He puts it on his desk, pulls his desk chair up to it, then motions for me to come eat.
“It looks so good,” I say. “Thank you so much.” I begin to eat, my salivary glands exploding with the taste.
I smile at him. “Yes. I don’t know when I’ll get to eat again today, so this is perfect.”
He watches me eat as if my pleasure gives him some satisfaction. Finally, he says, “I get back to work. You leave your plate here when you are done. Slip out back door.”
I wipe my hands and reach out to shake. He holds my hand a second too long. “You’ve helped me a lot,” I say. “I don’t know what I would have done without—”
He stops me again. “Do not make me regret it,” he says in a soft voice. “Don’t do stupid.”
I can’t promise that, because I know myself, and I’ve already “done stupid” since finding Brent dead. He lets my hand go, then returns to the dining room. I finish up, wipe my mouth, then slip out the back.
My name is Grace Newland. I wonder if I could get away with going by Gracie, which sounds like Casey, but that’s too close. I have to leave my name behind, and it hurts like another death. I’ve always liked my name. My dad gave it to me, and when he used it, it always preceded something profound.
Casey, humanity demands that you stand up for what’s right.
Casey, there comes a time when you have to take risks.
Casey, I love you.
I’m not ready to say good-bye to Casey just yet. If I go far enough away, can I someday be her again?
When Brent’s parents call me Monday morning to come visit, I figure they want me to be a pallbearer or do the eulogy or something. I hate the idea of speaking in front of a grieving crowd—calling attention to the tremor in my hands—but for Brent, I’ll do anything they want.
Brent’s family lives in a mansion. His father’s family had all the money, though I never knew exactly what the source was. They never treated me like I was inferior, and at the ballpark when Brent and I played, they were just like everybody else.
I used to run through their house with Brent and slide across their polished floors in my socks, and I don’t remember them ever lifting their voices to us. His mother lived for her job as a stay-at-home mom, and she made Brent’s life (and mine, when I was there) pretty idyllic.
That’s why this seems surreal. Murder doesn’t usually cross into well-to-do zones, and this family seems like they should be immune.
I suddenly feel awkward standing at the double front doors ringing the bell. Though I was invited, even summoned, I feel as though I’m imposing. A maid in a uniform opens the door and greets me. I tell her who I am, and she invites me in.
I wait in the foyer. When Mr. Pace comes to greet me, he has deep circles under his eyes, wrinkles etched like marionette lines from the corners of his mouth to his chin. In the light, I can see that he’s aged more than his due. I wonder how many years this tragedy has stolen from him.
“Dylan, thank you for coming,” he says. “Come on back.”
I follow him through the dining room with its massive table and see the photographs of Brent laid out. “Elise has been going through his pictures. They want to blow some up for the funeral.” His voice catches. “Don’t even know when that’ll be yet. We can’t have his body until the autopsy is done. Like they need confirmation that the stab wounds were actually what killed him.”
I hear the pain in his voice, even though his comment seems flip, but I get it. The morning after two of my buddies were killed right in front of me as we drove through Kandahar, the guys and I shared crude barbs about how the government would handle it. Humor in the face of grief is like opening a valve, letting some of the steam out before the whole thing blows.
There are relatives in the kitchen—cousins and aunts and uncles, grandparents sitting at the table. I smile and shake hands as Mr. Pace introduces me, but he walks on through, motioning for me to follow. He takes me to his study, a room previously off-limits to Brent and me. His wife is sitting in there by a window, looking out on the back lawn.
“Honey,” Mr. Pace says in a soft voice. “Dylan’s here.”
She turns to me and I’m struck by her swollen eyes. “Thank goodness.”
They motion for me to sit on the rich leather couch, and Mrs. Pace gets up and turns on lamps around the room. “Sorry about the dark. I don’t know where my head is.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “You don’t have to turn them on for me.”
“I know, but it’s rude to invite someone into the dark. All these people in the house, I just needed to escape back here by myself. I love them, but I’m not myself today.”
“No, of course not,” I say. “Listen, Mr. and Mrs. Pace, I’m happy to do anything I can at the funeral. Whatever you need . . .”
They look at each other, then Mr. Pace says, “Call us Elise and Jim, Dylan. You’re a grown man. We want you more as a peer now than as a friend of our son.”
A peer? I’m not sure what that means now that our only connection is gone.
“Dylan, we want to hire you,” Elise says.
I frown and sit straighter. “Hire me? For what?”
Elise defers to Jim, and he leans forward, his hands crossed between his knees. “This girl who killed Brent. She’s skipped town, and we want you to help us find her.”
My eyes narrow. “But the police are looking for her, aren’t they? I ran into Gordon Keegan last night, and he said he’s working on the case himself.”
“He is, but now it looks like the girl has left the state, and the local police department’s resources are limited. Too much time has already passed. We don’t want to leave it strictly in the hands of the police department.”
There’s a knock on the study door, and I look up as Jim calls, “Come in.”
Speak of the devil. Gordon Keegan and his partner, some detective I don’t know named Rollins, come in. Handshakes all around. Keegan is much more grim and subdued than he was last night. Elise pours them coffee, then sits them down in chairs across from the couch where I sit.
“I was just telling Dylan that we need some help.”
Keegan sips his coffee.
“What can I do?” I ask.
“We want to hire you as a private investigator,” Jim says. “We’ll pay you more than you were making in the army, plus expenses. We want you to help us track her down.”
My heart begins to race. “So . . . the police department is hiring me?”
“No,” Keegan says too quickly. “The family is paying you, but the department is on board with it. We’ve had budget cuts lately, so the city can’t afford to fly us all over the place looking for this girl. Since the Paces are willing to pay, it works out for all of us to outsource this. We want her back as soon as possible.”
I set my coffee cup down. “I didn’t know this kind of thing happens. Do I need a PI license or something?”
“You already have a license from working with the Army Criminal Investigations Division.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been discharged.”
“Honorably. We’ll give you consultant credentials. That should be enough.”
I don’t mention that my PTSD was a red flag to the department when I applied for a job, but Keegan brings it up.
“Listen, I know the chief was hard-nosed when you tried to get on with the force, but since this is a privately funded thing, it’s different. And if you find her and bring her back so we can prosecute her, it’ll look good for you. It’ll be a chance for you to prove yourself. If all goes well, I don’t think there’s any way the chief wouldn’t want to hire you after that.”
That sounds good. And honestly, I have nothing better to do. “I’m honored that you’d think of me, Mr. and Mrs. Pace.”
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