BRIGHT, arterial blood spurted from the shoulder of the man standing at my door. It contrasted with a darker stain that soaked his abdomen. The arm that wasn’t gushing blood was wrapped around the stomach wound, trying to hold his guts in.
He swayed a couple of times and crumpled to the ground.
I managed to catch him before he hit, lowering him to the floor as gently as I could. I cradled his head as his mouth worked, but all that came out was a rusty wheeze.
“Don’t try to talk,” I said. “I’ll get help.”
He focused on me with some difficulty, reaching for the collar of my shirt with a bloody hand. He pulled me close to his face.
“They’re coming,” he whispered again.
I gently laid his head back and placed the hand that had grabbed my shirt on his chest. I laid two fingers on his neck to verify there was no pulse, but I knew there was no life remaining in his blank, staring eyes.
I rocked back on my haunches and regarded the dead man on my living room floor.
I knew him. His name was Trav Becker. Thirty-two, eleven year veteran of our town’s police department, last four of those a detective. Single, but with a girlfriend totally out of his league. He was thinking of asking her to tie the knot.
I knew he’d broken his elbow jumping off a play set at his eighth birthday party.
I knew that he was still coming to terms with the death of his dad, even though it had been more than two years.
And that he was now strictly a beer drinker because of some very unpleasant memories involving vodka.
I knew a lot more about him than that.
In fact, I knew everything about him.
Because Trav Becker is also my name.
And this was not the first time I had found myself staring at my own dead body. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time in this room.
It is not something you get used to.
Strange as it may seem, as I regarded the corpse with my face on my (our?) living room floor, I wasn’t wondering how he had gotten here, or even why he was wounded. I was thinking, Thank God, Mary just missed him.
The day had begun quite normally–actually, better than normal. As my mind swam slowly up from the grey depths of a restful sleep, I had become aware of a bare leg lying across mine. And I soon realized what had woken me up was a slight muscle cramp in my left arm, due to the fact that it was wrapped around the owner of the leg. Her cheek lay on my shoulder, her breath making a tiny, cool breeze across my bare chest.
I ignored the ache in my arm for a few minutes, breathing in the scent of Mary’s hair and enjoying the feel of her soft, warm body wrapped around mine.
She’d shown up at my place about ten-thirty the previous night. I was watching an old Stargate episode on Netflix, dozing a little, when her keys rattled in the lock. I hopped up, and met her at the door.
She dropped her purse and violin case on the floor, spying the lemon drop martini I held.
“God, I love you. Gimme.”
I handed her the glass and she took a slightly-more-than-ladylike sip, eyes rolling back in her head as she moaned with delight.
“Ooh, I needed that. C’mere, you.”
She slipped her free hand around and hooked the back of my neck, pulling my face to hers. Mary put everything into her kisses, and a hot thrill coursed through my body.
We unclenched just long enough to move to the couch. Mary plopped down and kicked her pumps off with a grateful sigh. She shrugged out of her jacket, revealing a white camisole underneath. Reclaiming her drink, she swung her bare feet into my lap. I grabbed the nearest one and began to firmly massage her instep and footpad. She sighed appreciatively.
“Remind me again why I haven’t married you?” she murmured, eyes closed.
“You haven’t asked me yet.”
She cracked one eye open. “Don’t tempt me. I just might.”
I changed feet, and this time her throaty moan was downright sexual. I was not so much of a gentleman to resist sliding my gaze along her bare legs, still tanned from the summer, to where they disappeared into her short pencil skirt, now hiked up far enough to reveal several inches of equally-tanned thigh. It seemed a fair recompense for the outstanding foot massage.
Mary had long, wavy brown hair. Eyebrows that might be just a trifle thicker than current fashion topped her otherwise-fine features. Even dog-tired after a six-hour rehearsal, she was movie-star pretty. At least, to me.
“Long night?” I asked.
“You don’t know the half of it,” she sighed. “Putting the orchestra and opera together for Carmen looks good on paper, but is turning out to be a cluster.
“Theoretically, the orchestra is just supposed to be the pit band, but Rodney is having to work more and more with the stage director, and Phillip thinks they’re talking behind his back.”
Our town was blessed with both a symphony orchestra and an opera company that were far better than you would expect from a mid-sized Midwest college town. A few years ago, the two had begun collaborating on a couple of productions a year. The two maestros, Rodney and Phillip, always made nice for the cameras, but in private, hated each other’s guts.
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yeah, and add to that the personnel manager asking me every five minutes how I think the vote on next year’s contract is going to go. I am about ready to have a certified, complete snit worthy of my lofty position as concert master and head diva.”
“In that crowd, no one would even notice.”
“Hmm. In my next life, no musicians.” She straightened up and, like a cat sneaking into your lap, maneuvered her upper body so that she was snuggled into the crook of my arm. She turned her face up for a kiss, and I obliged.
“Anything new at work?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Shit. Those poor girls.” She watched me for a minute, knowing me well enough to see the frustration behind my neutral expression, but also seeing I was not ready to talk about it. It had taken a long time for her to learn to suppress her natural inclination to try to draw me out, but she knew I didn’t like to talk about some things until I had fully processed them myself, and she respected that.
She squeezed my knee with her free hand, and looked at the TV.
“Stargate? Which one?”
“Are you close to the one where O’Neill and Teal’c get into the time loop?”
I thought for a minute. “That’s the next season, I think.”
“Too bad. I like that one.”
Well, it had been one of my favorites. The last time I had watched, a couple of the scenes had struck a little close to home.
“You really into it?” she asked.
“Good.” She raised herself a little and put her lips next to my ear, one of my top five erogenous zones. “Because as soon as I finish this excellent martini, I am going to take you into that bedroom and take out my frustrations by doing things with you that would make your mama forbid you from ever seeing me again.”
In times of fatigue and tipsiness, the four years Mary Logan had spent at a conservatory in Texas started to come through in her voice, which of course, did exactly zero to diminish its sexiness.
“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully, “Mom’s pretty liberal.”
“We’ll see,” she whispered.
She stuck her tongue out at me. As long as it was out, she decided to use it to trace the outline of my outer ear.
Which caused me to growl in a way that was downright sexual.
She smiled and snuggled against my chest again.
Five minutes later, she was sound asleep.
I watched the show for a little while longer, finally gathering her up in my arms and carrying her into the bedroom. She mumbled something about needing to brush her teeth as I eased her out of her clothes, but tumbled into bed with an appreciative sigh when I held the covers open for her.
It didn’t seem like she had moved at all during the next eight hours, other than to seek out my side of the bed and wrap herself around me.
I was not complaining.
But the ache in my arm wasn’t going away, and as much I enjoyed just lying here, I was going to have to move soon. I was just getting ready to gently roll her over when I heard her whisper.
“You put me to bed.”
“And you didn’t even take advantage of me.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Oh, I’d know, believe me. But you forgot something.”
She stretched, which had the side benefit of allowing me to flex my arm enough to get the blood flowing without having to remove it from her smooth back. Her pretty mouth stretched into a wide yawn as she wriggled even closer to me.
I realized that one of the things that had made my slow journey to wakefulness such a pleasure had been the pressure of her small but firm breasts pressed into me.
Which had the side benefit of causing the blood to flow to other areas of my body.
“What makes you think I forgot?” I murmured.
“Mmmm. Looks like you forgot your pajamas, too.” Her hand snaked across my body and her fingernails danced across the rapidly-growing erection in my boxer briefs.
“When do you have to be at work?”
“Swim lesson this morning.”
“Oh, too bad,” she said with a frown. She squeezed me, causing me to groan, and not with pain. “I hate to see this go to waste.”
“Oh, it’s not going to waste,” I growled, rolling over and reaching for her.
She was expecting this move, and quicker than she should have been able to do, unwrapped herself from me and rolled out of bed.
“You have to meet your boss. And I can’t show up at work wearing yesterday’s clothes. I’ll just jump in the shower.”
She padded toward the bathroom, turned and looked at me over one bare shoulder.
“You’re not going to make me shower alone, are you?”
Shower sex doesn’t last long, but boy, is it intense. I was still tingling forty-five minutes later, as Mary and I sat across from each other at my small kitchen table, sipping coffee and trading sections of the paper. The fruity scent of Mary’s shower gel filled the air. And it was probably just as well I was headed to a chlorine bath, as the flowery scent that now emanated from my skin probably would have gotten me some ribbing at the station house.
As we sat in companionable silence it occurred to me, not for the first time, that I wanted this domestic scene on a daily basis. And despite Mary’s jest from the night before, it was up to me to make the next move. It had been sitting at the top of my to-do list for some time, but I just hadn’t been able to pull the trigger.
Mary rose and stretched. She wasn’t wearing yesterday’s clothes after all, having located a track suit she kept at my house for workouts and lounging.
I rose as well, grabbing our breakfast plates and tossing them into the sink. When I turned around, she was right behind me, and glided into my arms.
“Seems to me you’ve already had your water workout,” she giggled.
“Yeah. I’m probably ruined for the day.”
I walked her out into the living room. “Dress rehearsal tonight, right?”
She nodded. “It’ll be another long one. Could be late.”
“Text me when you’re done and I’ll come over.”
“You just want to put me to bed naked again.”
She gave me one more coffee-flavored kiss and spun out the door.
I had shut it behind her and turned around just in time for a blood-soaked Trav Becker to collapse into my arms.
I went into the kitchen and got some paper towels to blot up the blood a little. Fortunately, my place has hard wood floors. Bloodstains on the carpet would have been really tough to explain. I tidied up the area where he’d been standing when I had entered the room. He couldn’t have been there more than a minute or two when I had wandered in, or there would have been even more blood to contend with.
I took the dirty paper towels into the kitchen and threw them away, knowing I was just postponing the inevitable. I went back into the living room and stood over the body, getting the distinct feeling of déjà vu.
Of course, déjà vu is the feeling you’ve done something or been somewhere before. Which this technically was not, as I had been in this exact situation before.
The last time was with my friend Sam, a particle physicist who had just gotten done explaining that he had pulled me in from a parallel universe to help him stop a killer. One who had done in the Trav lying in almost this exact spot.
Yeah, that’s right. Parallel universes. Sam called them streams, and the fact that he had produced an exact replica of myself, only not breathing quite so much, combined with a lot of other crazy crap that had been happening to me, lent more than a little credence to his story.
And if you’re confused hearing about it, imagine what it was like to live it.
That had been almost a year ago. Fortunately, I’d made it out of the adventure without joining what ended up being a rather long line of deceased Trav Beckers.
My life since had been normal to the point of boring, or at least as normal as a cop’s existence could be. And I liked it that way.
But it looked like my boring and happy life was going to get weird again.
I bent to examine Dead Trav. Normally, I would have put on a pair of rubber gloves, but since any DNA I would leave on the body would be the same as the victim’s, I didn’t see the need to bother.
The first thing I noticed were his clothes. The last Dead Trav I had examined was dressed identically to me, right down to the socks. This guy… well, his socks were the only part of his clothing that looked familiar.
Instead of the jeans I normally favored, he wore a pair of black cargo pants that had a vaguely military look to them. His t-shirt was black as well. Over it was a dark, gray cotton shirt, long-sleeved, and unbuttoned. It too had kind of a BDU-ey look to it. On his head perched a baseball cap, also black, with of all things, a Star Trek logo on it.
That sent me searching for clothing tags, but all of them had been cut off, except for the t-shirt, which was the tagless kind.
There was an empty holster strapped to a gun belt that wrapped around his hips. The holster looked like it would fit the Glock that was my service weapon.
His pockets were empty, except for a keychain. The key on it was familiar. It was to my car, a Mustang of recent vintage, with remote lock key fob.
No wallet, either. There are two things no American male is ever without. His wallet and his cellphone.
And he had neither. That was weird.
A glint of silver at his wrist caught my eye. I pulled up his shirt sleeve and saw something extremely curious.
It was a silver bracelet. Thick, almost more of wrist cuff, about three-quarters of an inch in diameter and not quite half an inch thick. It was smooth and featureless. It was like a fitness band from the future. No watch face, inscription, or anything to identify its purpose. I don’t go in for jewelry. My own watch was a cheap sport thing.
Which caused me to look at said watch. Crap. I was out of time. A more thorough examination was going to have to wait. In the meantime, though, what the hell was I going to do with the body?
Fortunately, my previous experience with Dead Travs provided an answer.
I got my arms under his armpits and dragged him over to my living room’s only closet. I balanced him on one hip, in an odd parody of the cross-chest carry lifeguards used, while I worked the door open with my free hand.
Once that was accomplished, I propped him up in a semi-sitting position on top of some boxes of out-of-season clothes. I pulled the cap’s brim down to hide his staring eyes. On impulse, I slid the bracelet off his wrist before shutting the closet door.
I pulled my smartphone, a fairly recent surrender to modern technology, out of my pocket and poked at it for a few seconds, then grabbed my gym bag and car keys.
I didn’t want to be late for swimming lessons.
Fifteen minutes later, a hot mix of humidity and chlorine filled my nose as I entered the natatorium at the university that also calls our town home. I had a towel thrown over one shoulder, and carried a water bottle and a pair of short bladed fins. A pair of goggles flapped against my thigh, held in place by the strap stuffed up one leg of my suit.
Two octogenarians water-walked in the near lane. At the opposite end of the pool, a college student in a lifeguard suit was in the water giving lessons to two young children.
A lap swimmer occupied the center lane. He barely disturbed the surface of the water as he sliced through it, his stroke relaxed, but Phelps-like in efficiency.
I set my gear down at the end of his lane and slid into the water. He pulled up just as I finished applying anti-fog solution (spit) to my goggles.
He pushed his own goggles up onto his forehead and we regarded each other.
“500 easy free to warm up.”
I nodded again and settled my goggles into place. He took off. I waited a couple of seconds, then followed.
I tried to keep the vision of Leon’s smooth, controlled stroke in my head as I made my own way down the pool. But in contrast to Leon’s smooth glide, I was sure I looked more like a dinghy propelled by a box fan with part of the blade missing.
Captain Leon Martin is my boss in the PD, which should explain why an appointment with him, even though not technically work-related, was important enough to keep that I would leave behind a corpse in my apartment.
A few months previously, I had raced in my first triathlon. I’m a pretty steady runner, and had invested in a decent bike. But I hadn’t spent nearly enough time working on the swim portion. I had survived it, thanks largely to a wetsuit giving me some extra buoyancy, but I had swallowed about half the lake in the process.
After that, I’d asked Leon to help me with my stroke. He was a nationally-ranked Masters swimmer, with a couple of state records in the 50+ age group.
However, I failed to realize what I was getting into. Leon interpreted “give me some tips” as “make Trav a real swimmer.”
So, for the last month, I’d been meeting him before work three times a week at the pool. He was as calm and patient a coach as he was a boss, but had made it clear that he’d only help me if I took it seriously. If I hadn’t shown up for our workout, he’d wonder why.
Which was why Dead Trav had to go into the closet until I had time to deal with him.
So, I tried to forget about the body in my apartment as Leon put me through a series of stroke drills designed to improve my efficiency and feel for the water. This was followed by some 100-yard repeats, each one getting a little faster than the last. Leon swam with me in addition to coaching. Somehow, he managed to finish each repeat with plenty of time to watch me and prepare the next set.
On anyone else, it would have looked like showing off.
By the end, I was breathing just as hard as if I had been running wind sprints. The funny thing about swimming is that because you don’t sweat, sometimes you fail to realize how hard you’re working until you find yourself panting so much your throat hurts.
Leon nodded at me approvingly. If he was amused by my wheezing, he hid it well.
“That last set looked good. You’re holding your streamline pretty well. Remember to fully extend your arms, even when when you’re increasing turnover. Stay long in the water. Imagine you’re reaching for something on a high shelf, and get some torque by driving from your hips.”
I shook my head ruefully. “God, so much to remember.”
“It’s simple really. There are only three rules in swimming.”
I’d heard this before. “I know. Technique, technique, and technique.”
“And they told me you couldn’t be taught.”
He clapped me on the shoulder and heaved himself easily out of the pool. I shook my head, hoping that I was as limber when I got to be his age, and followed.
In the locker room, we talked baseball while showering and getting dressed. As we finished up, however, Leon quit keeping up his end of the conversation, responding to my comments with increasingly vague grunts. I knew why.
“Task force this morning?”
He nodded, lips compressed into a tight line. “Feebs are bringing in a new profiler.”
He raised his eyebrows and gave a “What can you do?” sigh as he slung his gym bag over one shoulder. I followed him out into a clear, early fall day.
“You know, Leon, we can skip for a few days if you want. Even weeks. You don’t really have time for this right now.”
“Are you kidding?” he replied. “This is the only place I don’t have the Feds or the news media, or both, following me around. It’s the highlight of my day. No, you’re going to have to find a better excuse than a double kidnapping and interagency task force if you’re going to wimp out on me.”
“You see right through me.”
“Besides,” he continued, “they’ve asked me to add some manpower to the task force. You and Adam are up.”
“Now what have I done to you to deserve that?”
Leon chuckled, but then his expression turned serious. “Sorry, Trav. This is a real tar baby. Everyone who touches it gets sticky and dirty. The press is making me out to be ineffective at best. The governor has gotten involved. I would like nothing better than to dump it into the Feds’ laps and go home. But there is still a chance those little girls are alive, and I would offer donuts and coffee to the Devil himself if I thought it would help. Nobody kidnaps kids in our town.”
There was steel in his eyes and, not for the first time, I could see why he had closed nearly all of his cases when he had my job.
“I need you, Trav.”
“You’ve got me. You know that.”
He nodded. By now we were at our cars.
“See you at the ranch,” Leon said, opening his door.
I nodded and did the same.
Leon Martin was not much for speeches. It was a measure of just how much the Patel-Day case had gotten under his skin that he had just given, what was for him, major oratory.
As I drove to work, I mused that if the media had heard what he had just said to me, Leon might be having a better time of it. He barely tolerated the press, only giving statements when he absolutely had to, and taking as few questions as he could get away with. He did his best to keep all his emotions out of it, which unfortunately made him seem cold and distant on the air. Online forums had started calling him a variety of unflattering nicknames.
I generally shared his opinion of the FBI guys who’d been assigned to the case, but they at least did a better job of letting the media believe they were part of the team. Leon could not care less about his PR image, but this was the kind of case that could be a career-killer.
Leon just wanted to find the little girls. If bringing Adam and me in could help, I was on board.