Life moves on whether they want it to or not. Family slice of lifing and murder.
* Special trigger warning for the return of non-consensual drugging, non-consensual mood/body-chemistry modifications, drug-related gaslighting, and normalization of abuse. Cases featured this chapter is 'The Computer Murder Case' and 'Alibi Testimony Murder Case'/'The Missing Melody'.
Richard didn't fly by the seat of his pants as much as he took the pants off and hoisted himself around by his butt hairs. Consistent routines were slow boring lobotomies he avoided, so when Rachel and Conan divorced themselves from the agency to concentrate on their annual spring hell-week of school benchmark testing, Richard found himself in the bizarre position of finally having them out of his face but having forgotten exactly what it was he'd used to do without a familial schedule to bore him. Cleaning took too much grease and so did bringing on more clients, so Richard eventually found himself moping around the apartment trying to ooze his sullen whiny toddler energy through their stonewalling. "Dad, for the last time, quit getting underfoot," Rachel finally snapped, throwing a harried look at the microwave clock as she turned the heat down under the skillet. "If you're not going to help Conan or me study, you could at least take over making dinner for a while so I have more time to go over my material."
His mouth was full of delicious fancy peanuts. "S'not my fault you didn't get started on this earlier."
"I did get started early. Can you guess what happened during all those times I was supposed to be studying like a normal teenager?"
Rachel's glance over was pretty terrible and didn't help convince him witches weren't involved or wouldn't be involved in the near future. "Look, you can't just throw every murder, suicide, and evil corporate takeover in my face," he said. "Lots of people get dead even when I'm not near them."
"That doesn't matter when you've reached a double-digit number of people who have gotten dead when you're near them. You can't out-statistics this, Dad. You're not even that good at math."
"I'm good enough at math to know that one flashlight plus one textbook equals homework time in the cab home, nerd," Richard said. "If you know people are going to die when you're out running errands, be proactive. It's why I bring liquor everywhere. Be your own port in a storm."
"I don't have time to address everything that was wrong in that because I'm trying to get dinner done and you are in the kitchen in the way stealing the food I'm trying to cook." Rachel guillotined his still-healing knuckles with her spoon when he tried to steal another sliver of beef from the skillet, and that was punishable by death in at least a few parts of the world. Richard considered shipping her to them. "Do you really expect me to be able to come home and focus on schoolwork right after seeing a bloody crime scene and having to give a witness statement for the umpteenth time? You don't think that's a little emotionally exhausting?"
"You're the one who's all bent out of shape about keeping your scholarship to Titan. Me, I wanted you to test into Brinkton. You just wanted to go to Titan High because the little Kudo asshole got in."
"I wanted to go to Titan because it's a good school with a famous athletic department, and don't call him an asshole," Rachel snapped. "You just wanted me closer to the agency so I could ditch campus during lunch and come home to cook you waffles."
"Yeah, exactly, and look what happened: I'm waffle-less and you're about to stress-flunk out of Titan because your asshole friend decided to decorate some other butt," Richard said. "Just transfer. I can have waffle-making supplies delivered here within forty-eight hours. We can steer you onto a career track early and maybe one day you can graduate up to head cook. For me."
"I know it threatens you to hear about real parents and what real parents would do in these situations, but real parents would encourage their child to stay in the best school possible instead of asking them to fail in order to have more time to make waffles."
"The only threatening thing here is that apparently 'real' parents have kids that can pass class and make waffles. All mine does is flunk science and beat me with spoons."
"Deep breaths," Rachel whispered to herself. She tilted her pinched face towards the ceiling in a desperate drowning gasp for zen. "You love your family. This struggle is proof of your love."
Richard took this moment of therapy as his cue to jump in and ease her burdens. He gently rested his chin atop her head to comfort her and tenderly relieved her of the crushing weight of more delicious sautéed skillet beef. "I will kill you," Rachel hissed, spearing the spoon handle into the bundle of nerves under his collarbone before propelling him back towards the kitchen table with her foot. "Are you listening to a single word I'm saying?"
"I want to do well in school. Not because of you or Mom or Jimmy, but because it's something I want for myself. The only reason I can't manage right now is because all my free time lately is being sucked up into cases. I would think that you of all people would understand that."
He was just as bored and confused as before but now with more nerve damage. "Then don't go to cases."
"The cases follow you."
"Then don't follow me."
She slammed the skillet back down onto the burner so hard the coil jarred off its moorings. "Bring it," Richard said. "I'm not wrong on this one. You're the one who fights me literally tooth and nail and fist when I try to send you home from crime scenes. I've run plenty of cases without you and been just fine. You two aren't my bodyguards."
"You're picking a fight with me because you're bored and are looking for a distraction," Rachel said firmly. "If you want something to do, take over dinner or go help Conan with his flashcards. I'm busy and you're being a toddler. Go away."
Richard leaned against the wall opposite the stove and chewed on another handful of fancy peanuts.
Rachel finished fishing out herbs from their spice cabinet. She'd tucked her hair into a topknot to get it out of her way as she worked; it swished like a pissy squirrel tail as she leaned to sight the rice cooker and then bent to check the status of that week's bread loaf through the oven window. As he watched, she stopped and braced herself against the oven handle with both blanched hands, visibly struggling to decide whether to fjord his shit.
She ultimately did because her temper was an inherited Moore autoimmune disorder. "So you're really going to stand there and tell me you didn't need any help that time Mr. Sawyer attacked you with a sword—"
"It was two scalp stitches and nobody stopped him from taking the swing. You all just stood there and made fun of me afterwards for bleeding."
"Then what about Nikki's dad? Maya? A bomb on a train?"
"A bully full of hot air, you'll understand when you're older, and I've pinched out stronger farts than that explosion. You're really not making your case here."
Rachel strangled her dishtowel in her fist.
Richard actually did have enough insight to know that his shittiness was scalar. There was no point or direction to this, just magnitude. "You want me to invent more hours in the day for you? Is that it? Write strongly-worded notes for all criminals everywhere to knock it off so Rachel Moore can study plant proteins? Look, it's this easy: if you don't have enough time to study, make time. I'll run the bigger cases on my own and I'll be just fine without you breathing down my neck and Conan biting my ankles. You can pass your tests, the Kudo asshole can solve whatever made-up overseas case he's using as an excuse to blow you off, and Asshole Jr. can get me his hot teacher's number before some other guy steps in on the goods."
Rachel did something unexpected. Instead of exploding, she moved the skillet to an unheated burner, took his jar of fancy peanuts away and tossed them up on top of the refrigerator, and gently guided him down into a kitchen chair. She then fetched a very large kitchen knife. "I already know where knives live," Richard yelped, scrambling backwards.
She pinned the chair to the floor with a foot on its lower rail. "It's for the onions."
"No it's not!"
"I'm going to make this extremely simple so you have no choice but to understand, and then I'm going to kick you out of the kitchen so I can go back to making the dinner you don't deserve," Rachel said. "Do you honestly expect me to be able to abandon you at a crime scene and concentrate on my homework at home knowing it's not safe for you. Yes or no."
"I mean, this knife isn't very safe for me," Richard said. "You can probably study plant proteins better by finding actual onions to cut with it."
"Focus. Yes or no, Dad."
"And do you understand how that's unfair?'
"No, because you can't have it both ways," he said. "You're saying you can't focus with me on a case, and I'm telling you I can't help that. You either have to compartmentalize better and stop worrying about me or you have to make a choice: the case or schoolwork."
"Oh yes, how stupid of me, of course it's that easy," Rachel said. "Just a little switch right up in the ol' noggin for the trauma. I see it all so clearly now. Switch up, worry about Dad! Switch down, who gives a crap about Dad! Like humans do."
"It's what I had to do."
He hadn't thought she'd been able to up the ante on behavior-correcting knives. What she did then was worse. She set the knife down on the table and suddenly leaned down to wrap him in a fierce, inescapable embrace.
Richard instantly became six separate exit ramps crammed into one head. "I'm going to save you the monologue because I don't have time to trauma-jockey with you," Rachel murmured. It was somehow both gentle and malevolent. "Every liquor store in Beika knows how traumatized you were on the force, Dad. You don't remember the stories you tell me when you're blackout drunk, but I do, and it just makes me even more determined to go along on your cases and keep you safe. I've wanted this since I was a little girl. It's why I worked so hard at my karate. But right now? Right at this second? I'm really, really busy with school, so maybe – and this is just a silly thought – maybe you could instead use your energy to pick up the slack around here, like say, I don't know, making dinner for your kids so they can have more time studying for their exams? Not being a jerk? Does that make sense? Are you listening?"
"You'd probably get dinner done a lot faster if you'd use the knife to chop onions instead of my face," Richard said, terrified but also a multitasker by nature and aware there was fragrant cow in the skillet beyond her. "At this point you're probably just getting in your own way."
"I'm going to go ahead and assume you're listening because we literally just had a seminar on listening to me last week," Rachel said. "Actually, this'll be good practice. So Dad! Here is a request. From me to you. The dad who is listening and who I give a crap about. Are you ready to listen?"
Richard's hand slithered out for the knife but Rachel got there first. "Are you ready to listen?" Rachel said with a knife.
"I am making dinner right now. You are in the way. You have been in the way all week. I'm going to ask you to stop being in the way. Good so far?"
"One more request since we're communicating so well." Rachel leaned in with a wide smile, and only extremely too belatedly did Richard finally see the quivering abyssal madness dilating her pupils. "I'm going to ask, really nicely, that you not steal ingredients from my meal prep on the way out, that you stop spoiling your appetite with fancy peanuts, that you not harass Conan while he's trying to work, that you keep the TV noise down tonight instead of blasting monster truck noises for four hours like you did last night, that you maybe consider doing the dishes after dinner, and that you not be a total and complete dick for once in your life, Dad!"
"I'm telling your mother you called me mean names," Richard mumbled on his way out, rescuing his unfinished can of beer from the counter. Whatever Conan was doing with open textbooks and flashcards at the living room table looked abusive too so he sideswept it, parking his boredom downstairs where there was more room for him. Beika's spring pollen traffic-jammed its way through his sinuses.
He was back upstairs two minutes later to yoink Conan's cowlick. "Please get therapy," Conan begged.
"What is that."
"Yeah, so here are my thoughts," Richard said. "Either 'Natural Science' became an elective course for first graders when I wasn't looking, or some punk from the high school is bullying you into doing their homework for them. Which is it."
"Rachel needed help and I was available."
"Like I said, some punk from the high school."
"Hey, you know what?" Conan brightened suddenly, desperately, snapping the book closed. He half-turned in his seat to address Richard with a beaming smile, and sure enough Richard's suspicion from two minutes ago was confirmed when the lamp-shadow on Conan's face turned out to be a bruise mottling the skin from chin to cheek. "I totally forgot! Uncle, you've been so nice to me lately that I wanted to do something nice for you, so guess what! Guess what I did!"
"What did you do."
"I thought you might be bored again tonight, so I picked up some surprises for you on the way home to make the evening more fun for you. Isn't that great? Just wait 'til you see! There are new magazines by the coffee pot and a box of your own baklava I got from the bakery. I put your name on it. I also picked up your favorite movie from the rental place and brought the VCR downstairs. Your TV is pretty old but I managed to find the hookup in the closet. If you want, I can even bring you popcorn later while you watch your movie!"
Well that all sounded pretty righteous and Richard wondered why he hadn't seen any of those colorful addictions when he'd gone downstairs. He walloped the base of Conan's chair with his foot while he thought about it until Conan bit out a sigh and climbed down to drag his chair further up the side of the table. "Cop tip: diversions work best when the target doesn't know they're being diverted," Richard said, scooting his chair over into the vacated space and folding into it with a burp. "Now I just want to stick it to you and watch the free movie later."
"I don't want help. Can't you just go away?"
Richard idled on an elbow, empty can tapping his front teeth rhythmically as Conan clambered back up into his seat. When Conan reached across the space for the textbook, Richard batted Conan off-course with the can and took up Conan's chin in his other hand, tilting his face to better light. "Someone nailed me with a soccer ball during PE," Conan supplied grudgingly.
"Nice shot." Richard squinted. "You see the nurse?"
"Did the knock help you remember where you abandoned your parents?"
Rachel's yell ricocheted from the kitchen underneath the hiss of hot oil and steam. "Stop being a dick, Dad!"
The mark was prismatic. There was a glass of ice-water on the coaster that hadn't fully sweated down yet. Richard fished the largest cube from the top, wrapped it in his handkerchief, and caught Conan's chin in his palm again in order to press the makeshift icepack to it. "Hold that on there. Seriously, what's with the flashcards."
"I already told you: I'm helping Rachel prep for her Natural Science test." Conan impatiently held the compress and waved Richard off, grabbing for the textbook again and this time succeeding in dragging it over to him. "It's a better use of my time than studying my own material."
Richard nipped a beer-burp into his wrist and stole the nearest flash card to examine it. When plant ovaries mature, they form… was on the front, with the back reading fruit. Mature ovaries form fruit while the embryo is inside the seeds themselves. "What the hell, I didn't sign her up for sex education," Richard squinted again.
"To be honest, I'm wondering why she's having so much trouble." Conan ignored his dumbassery with recently-acquired expertise, eyes flickering briefly up to the kitchen entrance before returning to his work. When he spoke again his voice was much lower. "It's really not that hard of a subject. She's visited Dr. Agasa all her life, I would've thought she'd have soaked up more science. Biology always stumped her too."
"Eva got her a math tutor early on to wire her brain for it, and I always helped her with history. Neither of us were big into science, so we probably dropped the ball between us at some point."
Conan didn't look up, but his mouth twisted down the way it always did when Richard went off-script in their dynamic. "You helped her with history."
"A gerbil could teach world history. Eighty percent of the Middle Ages can be summed up by asking 'who is Great Britain, the Ottoman Empire, Germany-Austria, and/or Mongolia harassing now'."
"What about the Americas?"
"The other twenty percent is 'who is France and Spain harassing now'."
"You're not right," Conan said. "I don't… know exactly how to unpack what's wrong, but in the meantime you're not right."
"Gimme the book so I can learn about plant sex."
"No. Go away."
"Rachel!" Richard leaned sideways to angle his shout. "He's not giving me the book and he's keeping all the plant porn to himself and won't believe me that I'm a genius about world history!"
Pots screeched on metal coils. "I will kill you, Dad!"
"I'm her favorite," Richard informed Conan. Settled in his new plan of action, he pushed Conan sideways with his foot until Conan snarled and completed the slide off the chair himself. "Give your eyes a break. Get me a beer. And make her give you a real icepack."
Conan took audible deep breaths as he stalked towards the kitchen.
Exponentially more invested now that ovaries were involved, Richard put distance between himself and the cow fumes by carting the material over to the sofa. He turned the TV on low for background noise, tossed his feet up on the coffee table, and skimmed the first page on autotrophs. Conan soon came back with a medical-grade ice-pack and a thunderous expression. "I don't wanna hear it," Richard said. "The table sucks and those chairs slaughter my tailbone. Just get your crap and bring it here."
"Look, I don't care if you're on downers or uppers, but could you please just pick one and pee it out somewhere else? Why all of a sudden now are you deciding to be helpful?"
"Rachel's up my grill with knives and she's not going to chill out until you prove to her that you're not going to flunk. You want to really help her out, give her one less thing to worry about. Hurry up. Get your crap."
Conan haunted his peripheries like a neurotic spectral Victorian orphan until Richard chewed off a corner of a notecard and spitballed it at him. "I know this stuff already," Conan seethed when he came back, dumping his texts onto the table. "I'm telling you this is a waste of time."
"Prove it. And keep ice on that."
Conan yanked a book into his lap and crooked an elbow on the arm of the sofa to jam the ice against his face.
Richard filled out flashcards and listened with two-fifths of an ear as Conan robotically recited his doubles facts, confirmed the spelling of fifty vocabulary words, and read an age-appropriate story aloud about a dog who adventured around the world with his goldfish friend in a hot air balloon. He'd hoped his display of superhuman altruism would buy him a better beef-to-vegetable ratio once dinner was on the table, but while Rachel was ferociously focused on the book at her elbow, she did spare enough attention to make sure his and Conan's plates were heaped with the things neither of them wanted. She said nothing to Richard about the flashcards he'd made beyond nodding and tucking them into the binding for later.
Salty and unappreciated, Richard ate dinner and concocted salty and unappreciated plans to store the dirty dishes in the vegetable drawer. It'd taken her nearly a week to find them the last time he'd done it and they'd already cultivated a layer of peachfuzz mold. Natural Science was all about watching flora and fungi do their thing without human interference, so the experiment would be bratty but also theme-appropriate.
He stood with his plans in hand and only then did Rachel finally bother to look at him. Her topknot was coming unraveled, notes and rubrics and texts and empty flashcards spaced haphazardly around her, wrists smudged with ink over her mother's bracelet. She tried a smile on for him that didn't reach her eyes. "Thanks, Dad," she murmured. She rubbed her eyes clear and braced her forehead on both palms, returning to her book. Her own plate was still untouched.
Richard didn't realize how long he'd frozen until Conan's hand shot up to brace his wrist, hastily righting the plate. "You're dripping."
Richard soaped up a basin in the kitchen and dumped his dishes into it. He came back and poached the collection of beef Conan had saved for last in the center of his plate, ignoring Conan's howls of protest on the way back to the kitchen, then snagged Conan's suspenders in transit as he walked out to the TV area. Conan for his part seemed to catch sight of his expression and clammed up, cramming his glasses back onto his face sullenly. "Broom," Richard ordered, plopping him down in the right direction and giving him a nudge with his ankle.
Conan stalked off to the utility closet. Richard wheeled the TV flat against the wall and followed suit with the coffee table to make room on the rug, then left Conan behind to sweep up old crumbs while he went back to steal Rachel's textbook. "Get some food down your neck."
"Give it back." Rachel had already frothed her way half-out of the seat. "Dad, this isn't funny—"
He pushed her back down and pinned her by the top of her head, sucking in his stomach belatedly to avoid being gutted twice in a row by her goddamn pointy-ass goddamn elbows, damn it. One-handed, he wedged the textbook down between his back pockets and his underwear and Rachel gagged in horror. "Next step is up the butt, and believe me, I'll find room," Richard said. "Eat."
By the time Conan was finished sweeping, he'd seemed to cotton onto the idea and was now spreading Rachel's study material in organized piles out of the carpet: graded assignments on the left for reference, study rubric and flashcards on the right. Rachel's look of miserable fury as she accepted the ass-warmed textbook back five minutes later was pretty great and almost made the next two hours of well-meaning slow-roasting tedium worth it. Thermodynamics, hydrospheres, and plant organs as it turned out were about as unsexy as income tax. Near the end of their study session Rachel switched her neuroses over to Conan, double-checking Richard's earlier work, and once she was satisfied Conan's multilingual ass could pass a first grade spelling exam she sent him off for a bath. "I can handle things from here, Dad," she sighed after she loaded up Conan's school bag with extra snacks. She was rubbing her shadowed eyes with the side of her fist, forearms greased with ink. "I know I kind of lost it earlier, but I feel a lot better now. You can go to bed if you want. I'm just going to study for another hour or two to make sure I have all the terms down."
"Great," Richard said, and heroically ignored her screams of anxiety as he once again tucked her textbook into ass-ish territory and Judo'd away her tantrum until she surrendered and cleaned up her shit. When Conan was done in the bathroom, Richard pulled rank and booted her towards the shower, cramming every scholastic torture device he could find into her bookbag before locking it away in the agency's bathroom downstairs. The door would provide about as much resistance as a wet fart if she kicked it but it was a ceremonial gesture mostly. Sometimes brains needed to manually be told you're done and boundaries, even feeble kickable ones, made the directive easier.
Once he'd jailed both kids in their rooms as much as child welfare laws allowed, Richard ditched the apartment for a while to try to clear his cache. Beika had settled into dark alley-mouths and intermittent vision-wrecking headlights competing for his peripheral vision. It took nearly the entire time for his cigarettes to talk to him through the noise and when they did they needed a megaphone: he aimed and clocked his elbow on the brick edge of the post office as he passed it, and the pain sent an oily rush of adrenaline along with chemical fight or flight and there. The clarity left him breathless. He coped messily under starlight on his way back home, chaining addiction with precision until the rest of his edges disappeared under smoke.
His reflection supervised him as he cooled down a washcloth in the bathroom sink. Conan was curled away from the door of the bedroom, partially submerged in the pool of the hallway nightlight, shucked sock halfway under the bed.
His ears were whining with nicotine. Richard worked him over onto his back and settled the compress on the bruise. Conan swung out to cold-cock him in his sleep and Richard caught it, joggling Conan's fist back and forth absentmindedly between two fingers until Conan settled back down into snores.
Sleep malfunctioned, so thirty minutes later saw him back down in the agency burning through his last pack of cigarettes. It took his toe painfully rediscovering the box from Benoit and the bottom of the lamp and the edge of his desk before his subconscious brain finally cued him into why he was having so much trouble seeing shit. He opened the window and stuck his head out to peer down at the street, then squinted up at the too-bright starlight and back again.
Huh. Agitation bled out of him. Exhausted suddenly, Richard eased himself back against his desk again, grey-zoning as Beika continued its crawl past midnight.
He wasn't sure how long he'd dissociated until scratching noises overhead towed him back out. He tracked the footfalls to his room, to the kitchen, back to the hallway, and finally to the front door and down the stairs. The agency's door swished open to admit a triangle of night vision-killing backlight. "I can't sleep," Rachel said sheepishly.
"Join the club."
She shut the door. Richard made space for her against the desk, blowing his next lungful away from her as she settled into place beside him. She was gussied up tonight in a pair of throbbingly dickish silk monogrammed pajamas that could've only come from Eva's budget. "Wow," Rachel breathed, leaning forward to look up through the window. "What a bright sky. I can't remember the last time it looked like this."
"Streetlights are out," he murmured around his cigarette.
"Really?" She craned her neck further. "Oh my gosh, look at that. I didn't even notice. Why do you think?"
"I dunno. Just happens sometimes. The stoplights are out at the end of the block too."
"Isn't that dangerous?"
"I'm sure someone's already called to complain. If it's not fixed by morning, they'll call an officer in to direct commuter traffic."
Rachel made a contemplative noise in her throat. She eased her full weight onto his desk, slippered heels clucking against the drawers as she positioned herself. She rested her head against his shoulder without hesitation the way she'd done a thousand times as a kid nodding off next to him on the sofa, and the part of Richard that'd braced for damage eased a little. Their bridge was apparently high enough to put some emotionally co-dependent water under it. "I hate you sometimes, Dad," Rachel whispered, confirming it. "Sometimes I wish you'd just pick a lane. I never know when you're suddenly going to get serious and it bothers me that you can just… blink and be a completely different person two seconds later. I don't even know which dad you are right now and I'm sitting right next to you."
"Whichever one's the bored one," Richard said. "I'm not drunk enough for therapy tonight. You're freaking out over nothing. I saw your scores on those papers. One bad exam isn't going to blow that. If you're here to whine to me about it, find someone else to snot on. I'm not gonna feed into that."
Rachel sighed and buried her face into his bicep. "'Hardass dad'," she murmured dully. "Got it."
Richard and his many cigarettes all reflected for the thousandth time on how little staying-power good parenting actually had. Both his hardassing and his hard work had led to her resenting him as usual, which was just about all the proof a nihilist needed to continue self-annihilating. "The topknot freaked you out tonight, didn't it," Rachel said. "You saw Mom sitting at the table instead of me. That's why you got all weird afterwards."
"I got weird because you knifed me in my kitchen and tried to pass it off as correctional therapy."
"My god." Rachel rocked her head back with insultingly fervent breathlessness. Her wide eyes searched for gods on their ceiling. "My god, if I could get you into any therapy—"
"Are you down here just to roadrash me or did you actually want company?"
"Both. Consider this revenge for the past few days." The pressure on his shoulder increased as Rachel shifted her hip to begin pulling detritus out from under her. "You need to clean off your desk. This is the first thing clients see when they walk in. Just because there's not food rotting on here anymore doesn't mean you shouldn't still straighten out the desktop."
Richard tapped ash into the tray and tried really hard to cruciferous skillet vegetable-fart his way out of the conversation. "Oh, this is pretty." Rachel tilted a rescued silver pen case to the moonlight to better examine the engravings. "I don't remember seeing this around the agency before. Did a client give this to you?"
"It was my grandfather's. I dug it up out of storage last week."
"Really? I didn't realize you had anything of his."
"He didn't have a lot that mattered enough for him to keep, let alone pass down. He hated my old man more than I did, so he made sure to blow most of the inheritance on traveling and charities. What money he had left he lobbed straight to me when he died. I used it to pay for school."
"Did you get this out to put your desk pens in then?"
Richard vaguely flicked his cigarette upwards between his fingers. "Oh, Dad, come on," Rachel groaned.
"Isn't there anything you hold sacred? You just said this is a keepsake from Great-Grandpa. Can't you for once…"
Richard exhaled over Beika and listened to Rachel trail off. "A cigarette," Rachel murmured. She flipped the latch and opened it to check. She wasn't a stupid child. "Jamie's memorial cigarette."
"I haven't found a good time to smoke it." Richard wasn't sure why he felt the need to explain. Something about her tone and the darkness and maybe the pity. "Figured I'd keep it safe in something until I got a moment to myself."
"Okay." Rachel hesitated, began to speak, then stopped. She gently closed the case again and returned to surveilling Beika with him.
He ground out his cigarette and worked on a new one with an uncooperative lighter. Rachel's feet bobbed, creating muffled percussion against the desk that shivered under him. He wondered if she'd find the box underneath them both and for a moment genuinely couldn't decide if he wanted her to or not. As if she'd hitchhiked onto that sentiment, Rachel hopped his train with a murmur. "The washcloth had gotten warm, so I took it off and rewet it for you. Conan slept through it."
He grunted. "That was pretty unlike you," Rachel said. "Is everything okay?"
"It's just a bruise. You know that, right? He gets them all the time just playing with his friends."
"I don't care about it."
She said extremely fucking gently, "Are you worried because it's on his face?"
"Seriously, what's with the pajama inquisition tonight," Richard said, giving up. "If I wanted a reaming this hard I would've taken my cigarettes and fishnets down to Division and gotten paid for it. At least if the kid had gone to the nurse afterwards it would've had a paper trail a defense attorney could chase. Me, I thought they made kids that age see someone when they get beaned in the head. If it'd been you they would've put you in traction just to keep your mother out of their bank account."
Rachel was quiet.
He tried again to light the cigarette and realized the reason he couldn't was because his hand was aborting, not the lighter. He was backed up to his optic nerves in smoke. It was possible his body had overshot its abuse quota for the night but over a decade of concentrated mistreatment made some cues harder to translate than others. Horizontal and unconscious didn't always happen in the right order but vomit was the usual party-crasher in both scenarios, so he'd have to wait the old-fashioned way to see if he'd overdone it.
Rachel confessed in a rushed whisper, "I can't stop thinking about Jimmy."
Richard tried very hard to swallow down his frustration so it didn't splatter on her. "Thought you said you were done with that, kid."
"I thought I was. I really thought after the talk we had at the park, after that time I spent at Mom's adjusting, that I'd be able to pack it away and it'd stay packed away. But then exam week came up, and for some reason everything just…" Rachel gestured listlessly, abortive. "Never mind. You'll just think it's stupid."
"Well, yeah, that's a given."
"I said I think it's stupid, not you," Richard said testily. "You can jump two stories onto concrete to nab a runaway suspect but you let some seventeen year-old nerd jury-rig your neurons into a knot because he won't pick up a phone? Why now. I thought you were bent out of shape about your exams, not this crap."
"You're not getting it: the exams are the problem. All this hustle, all this studying and prepping and the fact that it's spring—" Rachel fought a moment. He could feel her expression struggling as her jaw worked against his shoulder. "Okay, listen, I know it's stupid, but just… work with me a second, okay? Do you know that dead space during the winter when nothing seems to move? Where you can trick yourself into thinking time has stopped, and things just kind of drag on forever because nobody wants to do anything?"
"What, like every day?"
"Maybe for you, but I only get that feeling in winter. And usually I really like it, but this year…" she swallowed audibly. He felt her fingers curl in his sleeve. "This year I think I might've leaned on it a little too hard. Okay? Like I kept trying to trick my brain into thinking Jimmy hadn't really been gone that long, and winter helped me believe in the lie. But then the trees changed and the weather warmed up and time started moving again, and before I knew it it was time for exams. This is different than when he was just missing class. He's smart enough to catch up on the curriculum in a matter of days. But exams… they're different. They prove time has passed and all this time I've been thinking to myself 'it's okay he's gone for a little while, everything can still go back to normal as long as he gets back before the exams'. And I know it's stupid, but Dad, I… there was just something inside me that clung on to that, and now exams are tomorrow and Jimmy wasn't here to study with me for the first time in ten years, and unless there's some sort of miracle, he won't be there tomorrow when I show up to school. And I know I said I was over it at the park but I'm not, okay? I'm not."
Every atom of Richard that'd genuinely believed they'd buried this corpse in the park wanted to abort so badly his quarks ached. The other part of him made a mental trip back to Rachel's anguish at the park and knew he couldn't handle being responsible for it a second time. He settled for unpleasant honesty. "His parents are way too loaded for that to happen and the school likes his publicity too much to get rid of him. Try to relax."
"The school isn't that corrupt. Not everything is a conspiracy theory."
"Who said anything about conspiracies? Schools are businesses. It's not corrupt for an administrator to work out special circumstances that keep a good asset in the school. It's done all the time for Olympians and diplomat's kids. Jimmy's good press. The school drops him, another school will yank him right up, trouble or no trouble. Even better if his parents' money keeps flowing in. They'll make an excuse to keep him enrolled no matter how truant he is, trust me."
"But don't they care at all about his education?"
"What education? The punk blew past curriculum a long time ago. He could've graduated back in his eighth year if he wanted to."
Rachel yanked herself away from him. "Come on, you knew that," Richard said.
"No I didn't. How…" Rachel fumbled frantically a moment. "Okay, wait. How did you even know about this? Who told you?"
"A few years after your mother ditched I got contracted for a one-time gig as part of Booker's security detail at a book-signing convention. He needed security presence because he was dealing with some kind of rabid female stalker at the time. Nothing ended up coming to anything, but I made the mistake of taking him up on his offer of drinks afterwards for old time's sake. Asshole wouldn't shut up the entire time about his kid. Only time I got drunk out of someone else's pocket and regretted it."
"And Mr. Kudo said Jimmy was ready to graduate? Why didn't he? And why haven't you told me all this earlier?"
"I don't know, shut up." Richard finally broke down and begged. "Don't you have logs to saw? Does it really matter that much? Who cares? He wasn't my kid. There's a million things about him you could bellyache over and this is what's keeping you up on an exam night? That Jimmy's too smart for high school and didn't brag about something for once in his life?"
He expected her to erupt. She did the opposite. She dropped her head against his arm again and folded inward, boneless with apathy, staring out into Beika like she'd forgotten why she was in it. "I just want to know why he never tells me anything," she whispered. "That's all."
His throat ravenously itched for the bourbon by his coffee pot but he suspected she wouldn't appreciate alcohol crashing their psychological war council. Richard floundered into the maw of their mutual abyss until he found a flotation device. "Look, how about a bribe or whatever, that usually works with you. Let's say if you do… what. What's considered good. Seventy, eighty percent? You do that on your exams, we'll go somewhere after they're done."
Rachel trenched in her silence for an excruciating minute. When she finally stirred it was suspicious. "What do you mean."
"What do you mean what do I mean. It's called a bribe. Karate's cancelled after school for the week, isn't it? Let's ditch the agency and go rogue on Friday to celebrate. We scale the reward to how well you do. That'll get your mind off things."
"What are the strings?"
"What, besides the obvious? Nothing. No strings."
Rachel slowly untangled herself to regard his profile. She cased him for duplicity point-blank a moment. "Like where."
"Dunno. Dealer's choice."
"Sure. Whatever. Yes."
Rachel's incredulity brightened in increments. She swiveled to face him head-on. "You're being serious right now."
He was being manipulative right now. Truthfully speaking this probably was good timing. Even before exam week he'd already fielded a handful of calls from her science teacher demanding to know why Rachel kept falling asleep in his class after lunch. 'Probably because you're boring' hadn't flown real well but the fact that his daughter was losing sleep over Beika's cavalcade of corpses would invite more scrutiny from child protective services, so he'd stuck with the ruder and more convenient truth. "Or you can just stay in this weekend and wallow in your snot. It's cheaper for me when you're too depressed to leave your room."
"Jokes on you, Dad: I can be depressed and gamble. It runs in the family. Fine, let's deal." She rubbed her hands before folding them briskly in her lap. "What's on the table."
"Friday movie. You get one mulligan exam I won't bitch about, one scored mid-seventies or above, and rest have to be eighties or above."
"Sloppy," Rachel said. "You should've asked for at least one in the nineties. Now I have leverage. How about this: five eighties and a mulligan, movie for me and Conan, bottomless popcorn. A mulligan, four eighties, and one ninety, movie and dinner for me and Conan."
"Well, you already failed grammar, so things aren't starting out real hot for you," Richard said. "That's a pretty steep betting pool you're putting on a lame horse. And Conan's not part of this."
"Of course Conan is part of this. You already know he's going to get perfect grades. Why not reward him for his hard work?"
"Hard work my ass, he does calculus in the sandbox!"
"We're a set." Rachel joggled her middle and index finger together for emphasis. "If I get to go, he gets to go, and you don't get to complain about it. And you buy him theatre candy, not just me. That's the deal."
"That's double the cost. If he goes I'm gonna need more nineties from you."
"Fine. But if you charge me for him, then you have to help me study another night. Two nights if you refuse to buy him popcorn. Three if you make me cook all week."
"Yeah, no, none of that," Richard said. "Movie, popcorn, dinner for both: one mulligan, two nineties, three eighties, one night of help studying. Final offer."
"I still hate you." Rachel seized him in a sudden fierce hug and let go before he had a chance to feel whichever way he felt about it. "But I love you more," she confessed in a murmur, and stole his half-empty cigarette carton out of his breast pocket as she pushed off the desk. "I'm cutting you off. You're shaking. Drink some water and go to bed and I'll give them back in the morning. I don't even want to know how many you went through on your walk."
"We got a deal or not."
"We have a deal." She paused in the corner to switch on the agency's nightlight before heading to the door. Before she could disappear out of it, she leaned on the door frame for a moment, breathing, eyes closing a moment as she visibly counted her zens. "I know you're tired of hearing about Jimmy," she murmured. "But it really means a lot that you took the time tonight to listen anyway, so thank you. And thanks for giving me a carrot for the end of my stick, Dad. I know what you were doing and I really appreciate it, more than you know, so while I'm still mad at you and you've still been a huge jerk this week, I just wanted to say thank you for caring enough to try not to be a jerk. I feel a lot better."
"Yeah, life smells real great when you're bathing with other people's cash," Richard said, unaffected by sentimentality since the early 1980s. "You realize now I'm going to have a hard time paying the bill for my subscription to Yoko's book club, right? I thought you were different from those other women who only like me because of my good looks and wealth."
She was already halfway up the stairs. It floated back down to him. "I'm different because I'm the only one of them who's ever returned your calls."
Richard's ego was still obliterated as he made breakfast the next morning. Conan looked like he'd gotten maybe twelve entire winks of sleep and bitched himself up to a yowl as Rachel firmly adjusted his hat for him on the way out the door. The mark on his face was less vivid than it'd appeared at the table last night and Richard tried not to be too obvious looking at it. "Remember that the position of my full-time waffle maker and beer deliveryman is on the table in case you flunk," he told Rachel as she laced her sneakers. "Never be afraid to fail upwards. It's a family tradition. You'll just be honoring the bloodline if you come back under eighty percent."
"You're forgetting just one thing." Rachel hadn't stopped beaming since she'd first walked into the kitchen that morning. She fixed his tie for him and then gave him a hug. The whisper in his ear was cold Stygian bass. "I will do anything for yummy free food."
She passed her spring exams. Jimmy didn't, incidentally.
The romantic dramedy Rachel led them to that weekend ended up being pretty up his alley actually. Richard was still required by Dad law to be a hyper-masculine douche truck about it. "I still think we should've gone to see Shlock House," he groused afterwards, rolling frigid popcorn kernels between his teeth as they navigated the stairs amidst the crowd. "My chest hair had already run away by the opening credits."
"We have a little kid with us. The only other choice was that talking dog movie and Gomera, and Conan said his friends had already dragged him to those." Rachel blurted out a startled noise as a man tried to ram his way out into the aisle right in front of her. Richard and his karate-budget were pleased to see her elbow give him immediate guff in the sternum. "Conan, take my hand so you don't get run over."
"I got it!" Conan was wise to her and already out of dodge, twining in and around the thicket of legs. "I'll meet you in the lobby!"
"C'mon, who'd want to kidnap that," Richard said as Rachel's anxious gaze followed him out. "Anytime someone's tried they volunteered themselves for prison just to get away from his sanity-nuking yawp."
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised a theatre would be this packed on a Friday." Rachel took Richard's arm in lieu of an actual kid to boss around and escorted him firmly past the concessions stand, which he didn't fight because this wasn't the worst mood he'd ever been in actually. He'd ended up studying with her twice that week despite himself and while the second time had involved slightly more alcohol, her happy smile as she'd gone to bed had negated the need for more liquid therapy afterwards. He could dry-toast to a decent week.
Conan was people-watching by the exit with the open nosiness of a small child used to being overlooked. "So what did you think?" Rachel grinned breathlessly at him. "I was a little worried it might be boring for you, but whenever I looked over it seemed like you were enjoying yourself."
"It was fine," Conan dismissed. "I have fun predicting what clichés the writing will fall into. Movies like that follow a formula, so I like timing it on my watch to see if I can call the second and third act twists right before they happen. I got eleven out of twelve predictions right."
"Oh really." Her laugh was tolerant. "You know, Dad does that too with soap operas. He's constantly yelling at the screen as though the characters can hear him. You two are really peas in a pod."
"I called the whole 'car breaking down in the wilderness' thing that instant he had a hard time opening his gas cap." Richard tossed out his empty popcorn carton and wasn't competitive with first-graders. "They spent too much time focusing on it. It's supposed to be this dramatic heart-wrenching scene that they couldn't get to his sister's deathbed in time and all I could think about was the fact I'd missed my chance to refill our popcorn."
"It took you that long? I called the car thing when they showed us the garage receipt tucked under the phone," Conan said. "They even wrote RETURN CALL on the bottom and circled it in red ink. It was obvious even before we got to the gas cap scene."
"The hell, they never showed a receipt—"
"How could you not notice it? Even an amateur could see it was right there when he picked up the phone."
"Nope," Rachel said, shoveling them both out the door. "We're not doing this. God, you two are insufferable. You don't need to compete every second of every day. Did you know that? You can just enjoy the time we spend together and not turn it into a contest."
"I still say none of this would've happened if we'd seen Shlock House," Richard said, holding in a sneeze as warmth and popcorn grease tumbled out the door with them. "Everyone always knows who dies first in those."
"One problem: you're terrified of jump-scares," Conan said. "Ten to one you wouldn't have lasted twenty minutes in Gomera, let alone Shlock House. It's why you always watch soap operas and yoga. They don't make any sudden movements."
Richard thrust a finger at him and twisted frantically around to find Rachel. "He's being a butthole."
"Conan, stop bullying Dad," Rachel sighed. "It's not his fault he's got a delicate constitution and throws up in stressful situations. Are you hungry? I won dinner for both of us, so maybe we should think about where we want to go next."
"Yeah, me and my 'delicate constitution' buy food for mouths, not assholes, so both of you need to sweeten up before I ditch," Richard said. He thumbed his watch and planted his stance. "Two minutes. Pick someplace I can afford and that doesn't suck or I drop you off and head to a bar."
It ended up coming down to a fight between the extremely not-affordable Ginza Sushi in front of them and the slightly less not-affordable The Tavern down on 8th, which won because Richard liked disappointing his cardiologist. He turned to lead the way and bit it on an untied loafer just in time to avoid being caught in the violent displacement in front of Ginza: an overweight businessman tumbled out with a roar of laughter, a younger man on his heels at a more resigned pace to steady him by an elbow. Passersby scooted around the tangle.
Conan was still moving. Richard lassoed him by a suspender. "What," Conan said. "It's just some drunk. We need to hurry if we want to make it before closing."
"Park a minute." He relocated Conan behind him and returned to his shoelace. The man's manic laughter had devolved just as quickly into screaming. The younger man, a driver judging by the getup, was visibly deep in some kind of mental coping trench, unflinching and blank-eyed under the spittle.
Rachel crouched down by Richard to steady him by the shoulder. "Should we go around?" she murmured.
"Nah. Just wait a second. I'm too hungry to get caught up in that."
The onslaught lasted nearly another full minute before the man seemed to decide he was bored with abuse. He patty-caked the door handle for a while and then hollered when it wouldn't open. Expression unchanging, the driver opened it for him and immediately got slapped away. The businessman clambered inside like a toddler; Richard's ears caught a plastic clack and a rattle just before the door closed, and a second later the driver's door closed as well.
Conan sniper-fired towards the car. "Hey," Richard snapped, but Conan was already happily paddling around the back wheel on his hands and knees, fishing something out from the shadows.
The back window lowered. "Here you go," Conan chirped, waving up the pill bottle. "You dropped this, mister! It looked real important, just like you, so I thought you might miss it."
Rachel had already leapt to her feet to intercede. Richard honestly considered leaving both of them. This had been the exact confrontation he'd been looking to avoid and he felt he'd made his intentions on that pretty clear. He could take their dinner money and head back into the theatre to see a late-night showing of Shlock House. The twenty-something at the concessions stand who'd shoveled his popcorn had looked him baldly up and down and hadn't been real subtle about what she'd liked, so mutual eyeballing and popcorn were both on the menu if he lived his worst life.
He stood and slid a business card out of his pocket just in case, taking time to memorize the license plate while he decided. The businessman was blinking down, struggling to bring Conan and the pill bottle into focus. "Oh!" he said.
Conan backpedaled hastily to avoid a jolly drunk concussion from the door as the businessman threw it open. "Well, now look at this young man!" the businessman boomed. "Now this is the quality type of young man that I need for my company. What's your name, boy?"
Conan immediately launched his identity to an abusive stranger and was presumably moving on to his street address and social security number when Rachel yanked him into a tactical retreat on the other side of the sidewalk. "You the proud father, I assume?" the man beamed at Richard as Richard resignedly wandered in. "Raised a fine boy here."
"Yeah, it's mostly corrective hypnotherapy and pie bribes," Richard said. "Real sorry for his nosiness."
"You." The man reached in to slam a ferocious fist into the headrest of the driver's seat, making the driver's head bounce. "Get out here and thank this young man for doing the job you couldn't."
Conan was still smiling widely. "Dad," Rachel breathed, blanching as the driver climbed back out with soulless morgue eyes. "Dad, this is weird, let's just go."
"I'm sorry," the driver said to Conan, ducking his head. "Thanks for correcting my mistake. My failure would've cost Mr. Osgood dearly. I'll work on improving my service to him in the future."
"This nannygoat chased me out before I could get to the good stuff. I could always go for another round," the businessman told Richard. "Hows about we all shake off the gloom together and leave this idiot to park the car? You up for a drink and some Ginza sushi on me?"
Richard would've compromised his ethics just fine for fresh salmon and avocado in most other circumstances honestly. Tattletales were an unwanted seasoning. "Sorry." He handed over his information with a flourish. "I'm actually on the clock running security detail for these two. And I could do the very same for you in the future, sir, all for an extremely competitive price. Just say the word and my expertise is yours."
It took the man four tries to hamfist the card. "I'm sure you've heard of the Great Detective Richard Moore, famous PI," Richard said, and saw the driver jerk a bit upright in his peripherals. "No case too small, no crime unsolvable. You've probably read about me in the paper or seen me on the news."
"So both of you are in the business of being nosy," Osgood laughed, drunkenly unfazed. "Well, boy, it sounds as if your old man has been ruined already, but you've got a bright future ahead of you. What do you think? Might you want to grow up one day and have a role in my company? I could use your sort of integrity in the ranks, as you can see."
"Oh golly gee sir, I dunno," Conan said. "I'd sure like to drive a swanky car like this one, but what if I didn't do it right? I get super duper scared when people yell at me for trying my best, so I'd always be afraid of messing up and disappointing you. I don't think I'd do a very good job in that kind of stressful environment."
The man dragged his gaze from Richard's card to blink beadily down at him. "Yep, well, like I said, we'll just be taking our leave," Richard said, hand paternally and benevolently on Conan's piss-swollen brainless gourd. "Thanks again for the Ginza offer. Have a safe drive home, sir."
The driver avoided eye contact with any of them as he guided Osgood into the backseat. Richard continued to beam as the car hiccuped out of park and began a slow roll up the street. Through the tinted windows he could hear the man bellowing again, fading alongside with the haze of taillights as the car folded into the downtown heart of Beika.
Rachel massaged her face with her palms. "Well, that was a buzzkill," she said dully, resting her fist against the side of her mouth. "Everybody okay?"
Conan watched the car leave with eyes stacked with tinder. He sucked in a startled hiss and flailed up to claw Richard off when he realized Richard was gradually tightening his hold on his head. "Last time I say this: quit giving your information to strangers and mind your own business," Richard seethed, rattling his neck. "And what have I told you about brown-nosing?"
"You're the one who gave out your business card, not me," Conan snarled back. "Don't pretend you turned dinner down because you're some kind of great guy either. Didn't it bother you how that man was treating him? Why didn't you say anything?"
"Because it's not my job to worry about drunken meanie-pantses off the clock. The driver's an adult. He wants to walk out, he's got legs."
"He seemed so depressed." Rachel largely ignored them both, talking to herself around her the shield of her fist. She continued to fixate on the car's faded trail. "I can't believe anyone would let themselves be treated that way. I could never last at a job being yelled at and belittled like that."
"You find a way," Richard said, maybe not gruffly. Reality would sandpaper her down eventually without him applying pressure. "Find a good enough reason and a high enough paycheck and you'll be surprised what you can put up with. Are you still up for dinner? We can make it if we pick up the pace. Just might get some soupy kitchen dregs with our fries."
Rachel didn't answer. Her fist slowly uncurled but didn't migrate far. "Or we can postpone," Richard said, reading that. "Not a big deal. Your call."
"Are you sure?" The admission was weak but immediate enough that he knew he'd gotten it right. "What about you and Conan?"
"I filled up on popcorn and candy, so I'm good," Conan shrugged. "This was all for you, Rachel. If you're not going to enjoy it, we should do it when you're in the mood for it. After all, something really upsetting was happening. Maybe you'd feel better if someone would've done something other than try to farm client and con a free dinner."
"Yeah, absolutely start something with me when I've got my hand clamped on your cranium," Richard said. "You have such good timing. Stop butting into other people's business."
"It's not butting in—"
"It's butting in because you're a butthole nobody asked to be on their butt. All your little golly-gee-mister spiel did was earn him another earful on the way home. You really think your guilt-tripping is going to make his employer pull a 180 and start handing out fruit baskets to his employees?"
"At least I tried to help," Conan exploded. "Maybe if you spent less time drinking away your issues and more time helping people with theirs, you'd be able to tell the difference between being a bystander and being part of the problem!"
Richard ignored the startled looks from passersby as he hauled Conan upside-down from the ankles the rest of the way to the train station. "By the way, what was that medication you handed back to him, Conan?" Rachel asked later as they boarded the Orange Line in transit to Blue. "You said it was important."
"It was heart medication," Conan's feet said sullenly. "I recognized it right away by the cap. Even if he's a jerk, it's really dangerous to go without it. I didn't want to know I was the reason he was in danger."
"And that's admirable, Conan, but even though he's being sort of a huge ass about it, Dad's right for once," Rachel said. "I love your big heart, but you really do need to be more careful. You saw how violent he was being. He could've really hurt you, even if only by accident. It worries me that you don't think more about your safety before you act."
"Because sometimes doing the right thing has to be more important than safety. Maybe if a real man had stepped in to help, a defenseless little kid never would've been put in—"
"Dad," Rachel said sharply when Richard began jogging Conan upside down like a jammed Pez dispenser. "God, enough. I'll take him. Cool down somewhere else in the car away from him. I mean it."
Richard was still ferociously unamused by the time the train let them off at their spot. Two blocks from home something chirped; distracted and tired, Richard resented the Pavlovian response that had him reaching for his transmitter an instant before Conan fumbled for his own. "That's Dr. Agasa," Conan muttered. Richard was rusty but he caught a few letters of Morse code before Conan smothered the rest inside his fist. "My pickup's ready."
"What pickup," Richard said. "It's ten o'clock, did you tell him even drug mules deserve a day off?"
Conan ignored him. He was already moving with purpose, checking up and down the empty street in preparation to cross it. "It's late, sweetie." Rachel was the one to snag him, dropping to a knee and disguising the capture as an effort to straighten his jacket for him. "I'm sure whatever you have waiting for you there can wait until tomorrow morning."
Conan's switch from wolf to weasel was instant. "But this is something I've been waiting for for a super duper long time!"
"I know Dr. Agasa is eccentric, but I doubt he intended for you to actually come over at this time of night. He probably just wanted to let you know it was ready so you could swing by in the morning."
"I won't be long, I promise. It's really important that I get this as soon as possible. Please?"
Rachel hesitated. For whatever reason she glanced up at Richard. "What," Richard said. "Don't look at me. I'm off the clock."
"You don't say," Rachel sighed. She released Conan and stood, holding out her hand with a zero-nonsense clause in her eyes. "Fine. If it's that important and you're that determined to get it, you won't mind me tagging along."
Conan opened his mouth in protest. "Or I just go and pick it up myself while Dad puts you to bed," Rachel said ruthlessly. "Your choice. Pick one."
Richard was mining his nostril with his thumb and was just considering which toilet to pay with his fibrous popcorn poop deposits when a crushing force inverted his knee. He buckled with a curse and Rachel lunged to catch him before he collapsed. "Oh no, Uncle's arthritis is acting up again!" Conan gasped. He stumbled back several steps in horror. "It must be the chilly, damp night air. Oh, Rachel, help Uncle up the stairs. Be careful with him! I'll hurry and go get some arthritis medicine from Dr. Agasa right away!"
"You can't scream that kind of stuff on a quiet street at night, you'll get us both arrested," Rachel gritted to Richard as she jostled his weight, slinging his arm over her shoulders and steering them towards the stairs. "Just let him go."
"Bastard kicked me!"
"I know. Just let it go. I'll talk with him tomorrow." She tolerated his bitching and puling against her as she maneuvered them up the flight, digging in her heels only when he tried to detour into the office. "Dad, it's late."
"It's super duper important."
Rachel made an inarticulate growl straight from her mother's throat. She deposited him on a sofa and disappeared upstairs for a few minutes, coming back down with an ice-pack and a college sweatshirt for him to change into. "I'm going to crash," she told him, folding his discarded jacket and shirt over the opposite sofa. "Will you wait up for Conan and tell me if he's not back in an hour?"
"Fine. Hey." He lobbed a pillow at her back when she turned to adjust the TV's angle for him. She caught it without looking. "Food didn't happen. Reschedule or no."
Rachel tongued her canine a moment. She looked out over Beika and its pinprick myriad starlight, kneading the pillow absently. "You're really sweet to be worried about it," she admitted. "To be honest, I think maybe it was a blessing in disguise. It wasn't until I lost my momentum that I realized how tired I was. I probably would've fallen asleep on my plate."
"So you're gonna drop it?"
"Oh hell no, I didn't even use my mulligan. That's totally payable by dinner. Just maybe not… such a fancy one. I'd actually prefer if we just play some board games tomorrow and order in Thai food or something. That sounds like a lot more fun to me."
Richard said, "So do you have no friends or what."
Rachel broke her reverie to roll her eyes. "I'm just saying, I don't want a nerd daughter," Richard warned her. "Kids at school are going to think you're weird hanging out with me all the time. Remember, I was the cool jock at the top of the social food chain. If people see me around town with two nerds it's going to obliterate my cool cred."
"If preferring to hang out with my family over my friends is being a 'nerd', I'm not going to waste energy pretending to be cool," Rachel said. She tucked the pillow behind his back. "I'll hit up Serena later for a shopping trip this weekend if it soothes your fears. Good night, Dad. I love you. Thanks again for the movie."
Richard spent a boozeless and mostly boobless half-hour budget-crunching and cross-referencing the calendar on his lap while Seize Our Days marathoned in the background. Willpower was spotty but he managed to jot in some billing dates and decode more or less what was on deck that month so he wouldn't be cold-cocked. Conan's fine arts display was in two weeks and Rachel's was the night after that at the high school. There was a field trip fee coming up on the ninth and a dentist appointment on the fourteenth he'd have to take on some extra security work for.
Rye was a real temptation that he nearly folded to, but honestly the cigarette binge a few nights earlier had weedwhacked some flora in his gut. At twenty-seven he'd been able to weave his addictions together but at thirty-seven they'd started to fight for personal space. His liver would have to wait another night.
He'd nearly forgotten his assignment when a thud downstairs jarred him out of a doze. He let his head fall back so he could see the upside-down outline of the agency's door. "Did Rachel go to bed?" Conan asked, poking his head inside.
"Dunno," Richard said. "Come real close and maybe I'll remember."
Conan trotted over to Richard's desk to set a duffel down and didn't come real close. He burrowed and pulled out a small unmarked grey square. "Here."
Richard intercepted the toss one-handed. The contents of the packet splintered upon impact and cold bloomed. "I'm sorry," Conan said. To his credit the grudging apology sounded genuine. "It was really important. It couldn't wait."
"I can't put weight on my knee. Rachel thinks I might need surgery."
"Come real close and find out."
Conan came sort of close. He jumped up on the opposite sofa out of direct striking range but not projectile range. Richard lobbed an empty cigarette carton at his forehead and Conan permitted it to hit and bounce off. "Question before I kill you," Richard said. "It's been bugging me and tonight reminded me. The other day when you were haggling to go over to Agasa's, you said you were working on schoolwork there. Was that you studying for your benchmarks?"
"Why didn't you just say so?"
"Because I thought you'd think I was stupid."
"You don't give a crap what I think," Richard said. "You didn't need help on your benchmarks. What is it you really do over there? And don't give me the runaround. You screwed up big tonight if you wanted to still keep me thinking it's nothing."
Conan massaged the top of his thigh with his fist. His expression was layered. Frustrated and gentle and wondering. "You really do think he's pushing drugs on me, don't you."
"Don't say it like it's stupid when you literally brought home drugs he pushed on you."
"You were sick. They were just souped-up antiemetics and antipyretics. He was trying to help."
"Seven year-olds say neither of those words, asshat," Richard said. "10-43. Let's go. Come on."
Adorable. "Prove it."
To his surprise Conan slid down and fetched the duffel without argument. Richard reached over the coffee table to get the crook of his finger into the opening, tipping the bag to the light. Bottles clicked together inside. "It's specially formulated paint for my school art project," Conan said. "This way I don't have to work so hard scouring the bottles so that conventional paint will stick. He used the ones you bought me as a base so your money wouldn't go to waste, but he changed the labels for safety. The reason I needed to make sure I got them tonight is because Dr. Agasa keeps weird hours and can't always be counted on to answer the door before mid-afternoon. If I didn't get them when I knew he was awake to give them to me, I might've had to wait until really late tomorrow to pick them up, and I wanted to make sure I made some headway on the project this weekend."
Huh. Not sure if he was mollified or not, Richard leaned back again and thumbed an itch off his temple. "Seriously, what's with you lately, anyway," Conan said. "You didn't used to be like this. Why are you suddenly so invested in where I go and what I do?"
"Your thing with Agasa is weird."
"He doesn't talk down to me and he doesn't punish me for being myself. He trusts me. Is it really so strange I want to be over there with someone who respects my opinions?"
"Don't try to guilt-trip me, you crusty three day-old skidmark," Richard said. "Let's see Agasa pay hand over fist for your dental care and your tuition and your field trips and then tell me how great he is. You really think I'm going to believe you were in that much of a tear to get art supplies for a project you've been trying to wiggle out of for a month?"
"Yeah, I do, because it makes sense and you're not actually mad about it. You're just tired and want something to swing at and I'm an easy target."
That was true. Richard dropped his end of the argument entirely and thought about making a bagel. Rachel had combined grated lemon peel and sugar the other day and stored it in the refrigerator to help give their toast exploits some variety. "It's really bizarre watching you do that in real time," Conan said. He was staring at Richard with consternation. "It's like a speeding freight train suddenly turning into a golf cart."
"Get me a drink or go away." He was sleepy again. He slung his arm over the back of the sofa and faded slowly, goosebumps on his neck from the open window across the room, letting all his peripheries fuzz in him for a while.
"Hey," Conan said, and Richard started awake to find another quarter hour gone on the wall clock. Conan was sliding a tray onto the coffee table by his feet. "Rachel reheated some dinner for herself upstairs, but it doesn't smell like you had anything down here. You should eat this before you go to sleep or your blood sugar will give you nightmares."
"Who did you kill over at Agasa's," Richard said. "You realize I'm going to sell you up the river literally the first chance I get, right? Buttering me up with room service isn't going to change my mind."
Conan shoved his legs off the table without responding. The enormous layered deli sandwich on the tray looked nonlethal and a scalding taste-test revealed the mug to be full of hot chocolate with some kind of hazelnut accent in it. "Who did you kill," Richard repeated, more alarmed by the second.
"No one. I just figured you could use something in your stomach."
"Did Rachel put you up to this?"
"She's asleep. I made it myself."
"What's in it?"
"Rat poison and amphetamines."
"You don't get to quote me without paying royalties," Richard said.
"Look, either eat it or don't, I don't care. I just thought you might be hungry."
Typhoons of bullshit were under his roof but there were clear skies outside tomorrow according to the weathergirl. Bewildered but a hedonist, Richard dropped his suspicions and flipped between weather boobs and Seize Our Days again as he worked at the sandwich. He didn't notice Conan monitoring him until he twisted over himself to grab the mug. "What," he said.
Conan was cross-legged on the floor by the coffee stand, book open in his lap, elbow propped on his knee. His chin jogged atop his fist as he talked. "Can I ask you some questions without you getting weird about it?"
There were too many chopped vegetables in the sandwich and Richard wondered what age-inappropriate knife Conan had used for them. He sucked chocolate off his thumb and navigated back to the weather channel to pay better attention. There were races scheduled at the track and while he'd already gambled away ice-cream and pizza money, he'd yet to gamble away personal hygiene money. There were still options as long as nobody stood downwind.
Conan kept watching him. "What," Richard said.
"Are you feeling okay tonight?"
"Just in general. I know you're tired, but it looks like you haven't been drinking or anything."
"Liquor cabinet's too far away."
"So you don't feel sick? I mean, would you say everything's pretty normal?"
"More or less. Why."
Conan thumbed the side of his shoe. Only belatedly did Richard realize the sneakers were different than the ones that'd massacred his leg earlier. "Are you still on painkillers for your hand, or did you stop taking those?"
"I'm getting weird about your questions," Richard said. "If you're that bored and you're looking for something to make you useful, make me another sandwich. Less tomato. And bring me some water."
Conan stood without a word and jogged up the stairs.
Richard had completely forgotten about it and was wrapped up in a subplot involving an amnesiac missing identical twin trying to kill her sister to take her place in her marriage when Conan reappeared with a second plate, loaded down this time with a handful of caramel chews and a sandwich with a more masculine deli-meat-to-vegetable ratio. "Okay, I'm being serious now, who did you kill," Richard said.
"The meat was about to go bad anyway." Conan ignored him and settled back down out of reach with his book. "Rachel will be happy we used it up so it doesn't go to waste."
Alerted now, Richard tucked in a little slower this time, splitting his attention between the murderous amnesiac breasts and Conan turning pages in his book just often enough to not be convincing. "Look, even if the murder was premeditated, they're not going to string up a seven year-old," Richard said, unable to stand it. "Just fess up and lead me to the body so I can get you a light sentence."
Conan thumped his book shut and leapt to his feet. "I'm gonna heat you up some milk."
Richard had thoughts. When Conan came back downstairs, little hands wrapped gingerly around the mug's cozy, Richard waited until he'd set it down before claw-machining Conan onto the coffee table next to it. "Rachel will yell at me," Conan said.
Conan wasn't real great at direct eye contact but frankly Richard wasn't either. He let the height difference and proximity do the work for him, holding Conan in place with a finger crooked in his collar. "You know, people can sometimes do things for you because they want to, not because they're hiding things from you," Conan blurted out suddenly, irritable, before Richard could figure out what to say. "If you weren't such a jerk about everything, maybe more people would want to do stuff for you like this and it wouldn't feel so weird. You just make it so nobody ever wants to try."
"You and I both know neither of us do anything without an angle. What are you playing at?"
"Nothing. I just wanted to make sure you ate. Why do I have to have any other reason?"
"You tell me."
"Rachel was worried about your weight at Birinmon. I knew she'd feel a lot better if I told her you ate dinner, so I was trying to be nice and make her worry less. I'm sorry if I didn't do it right. Are you happy? Can I go now?"
Truly nonplussed, Richard slowly released Conan's collar and watched Conan violently readjust his jacket. He escaped off the coffee table and threw himself back down into his space, wrenching open his book, thin-lipped and mulish. He refused to look at Richard again.
Murder Breasts' assassination plot failed but the episode's cliffhanger made the next attempt seem promising. Richard finished his sandwich and milk as the clock edged past midnight. When the last of his resistance was steamed out of him and his stomach was pleasantly straining at the seams, he hoisted himself up to brush his teeth in the bathroom and splash the sweat from the commute off his face. "Are you going to sleep down here?" Conan asked grudgingly. It was the first time he'd spoken in over an hour.
Richard lowered the volume and tossed the remote onto the coffee table. He stretched his legs out over the cushions with a muted groan and curled himself against the crook of his elbow to keep the screen in his line of sight. He wanted to get over to the track pretty early and it was a risk dropping off without his alarm, but without alcohol scrambling his internal clock his bladder could usually be counted on to wake him up around four or five. The thoroughbreds raced at noon but bad life choices would begin in the betting pools at nine.
He became aware of footsteps and the sounds of rummaging. He felt a blanket being settled over him and tucked down over his fucking feet and he rolled over and shot his fist out resignedly to catch the hood of whatever skinwalker was wearing Conan's face. "It's cold," Conan snapped, slapping him off. "Rachel will be upset if you get sick."
His stomach prickled with milk. His exhaustion felt alien and purposeless suddenly. He didn't protest a second time when Conan pulled the blanket up over his shoulders. He listened to the soothing sounds of Rika cheating on her husband with her ex and faded atop his elbow, wishing he had the energy to pull the sweatshirt's hood up.
He was deep enough to nearly miss the soft scoot of a chair dragged across the floor behind the sofa. A mosquito nailed the back of his exposed neck and he reached up to—
His forehead was pressed into the crook of the corner cushion and his nose was stinging from recycled trashfire breath. "Finally." There was a sound of a book snapping shut and little feet scrambling down from the opposite sofa. "Richard. Hey."
Richard rolled over and toppled over the side. Conan slammed into his shoulder with another startled curse and kept him from tumbling off the cushions. "Time-sit," Richard yawned.
Conan's bones creaked under him. His voice was a strangled scream. "0700."
His bladder considered this. His forehead was an inch from the corner of the coffee table. He fished lazily, got a hand on the floor, pushed himself back over onto the cushions. The rolling sensation was not great and for a moment he seesawed over an incredibly invasive abyss as his stomach decided if it wanted to greet the day personally. "Hey." Conan jostled his shoulder. A hand grazed by Richard's forehead and then his pulse, maybe by accident. "It's morning. Shouldn't you get up and have breakfast?"
Richard could tell he'd clenched his teeth most of the night by the way his neck muscles quivered. He reached up and ground a palm between his eyes and concentrated on his shifting center. "I can make breakfast if you want," Conan said. "I'm sure Rachel would help. Do you want egg or toast or—"
Richard rolled back off onto him. "You're going to hit your head," Conan howled, legs shaking.
Richard scooted his way on all threes and an extremely bitchy four to the agency's bathroom and vomited into the trashcan because the toilet was an unflushed crime scene. "Shit," he heard Conan grit. Water ran somewhere above him and a washcloth found the back of his neck. "Just great. Guess that one's a dud."
Richard dozed on the pile of unwrapped office toilet paper rolls for a while until a growling stomach and straining bladder woke him up. Conan was perched on the closed lid of the freshly-cleaned toilet reeking of bathroom solvents and looking pretty put out. "Are you going to stay conscious this time?" Conan said wearily.
"Where's my breakfast."
"You want breakfast?"
"You said you were making breakfast."
Conan's expression jammed. He opened his mouth and then shut it when footsteps creaked overhead. "Rachel's finally up," he muttered, mouth tense. "I'm going to go get her so she can help—"
Richard shoved him out so he could pee and then made his way out of the bathroom afterwards with the help of stationary objects. Nose burning enough to make his eyes water, he loaded up the coffee machine and left it to percolate while he checked the messages on the agency's phone, penned down two of the numbers, switched off the television, and vomited into the trashcan. "Oh geez," Conan snapped, flustered. He got a hasty grip on Richard's shoulder and braced it until the heaving stopped, then stumbled to get water from the cooler.
Toast with an egg on it sounded pretty great actually. Richard drank the proffered water, yawped it back up into the trash can, then stood and dumped the contents of both trashcans into the jon to flush. Ignoring Conan's toothless bitching, he dry-swallowed an anti-emetic and sleepily wedged himself between the toilet and the sink, hand plastered to his mouth until his stomach finally gave up and agreed to hold onto the tablet.
By the time Rachel had wandered downstairs to look for them, Richard had brushed his teeth and moved on to other annoyances. "Good timing." Richard tossed his wallet at her in the midst of setting up the agency's toaster. "Grab some bread from downstairs."
"Yum." Rachel caught it. "What kind."
"Something with fruit or cinnamon. And tell her she's a hag and I hate her bread. You always leave that part out."
Conan continued to linger like an airborne virus while Richard swapped pants and socks from the supply in the agency's closet. He was reluctant to part with the sweatshirt until he realized he'd ralphed on the sleeve, and even then it was a struggle to find the motivation to not be gross on a weekend. "You really should sit down," Conan fussed for the fifth time, looking over his shoulder at the door. "Aren't you going to tell Rachel you were sick?"
"Why." Richard stifled a yawn as he fixed his tie in the closet's mirror, leaning back out on his heels to check around the door when he heard Rachel jog back up. "Did you call her a hag like I asked?"
"Oh, yes, Dad. Right in front of everyone," Rachel said. "And I threw change from the tip jar into her face. She screamed."
"That's my girl."
"Did you spend all night down here?" Rachel slid the box onto the coffee stand and frowned down at Conan with concern. "I'm not going to pretend you aren't in trouble, but you didn't have to be that afraid of coming upstairs to see me. It's not like I would've laid into you any worse than Dad probably did."
Richard watched him in the closet's mirror. "Sorry," Conan said after a moment. "I guess I was just ashamed of my behavior."
"You don't have to be ashamed, but you should really know better than to— oh my god, Dad." Rachel finished sliding Richard's wallet back and finally picked up on the frantic gymnastics his fingers were doing on his tie. She brushed them out of her way and undid it to redo it properly. "What are you even doing up at this hour? Torrential Hearts doesn't air until two."
"The track airs at noon. I'm running scheduled security surveillance and can't afford to be late."
"You know, we could actually accumulate some savings if you didn't always immediately run out to throw your money away." Rachel was tart but mostly resigned as usual. "Have you ever thought about not gambling on Saturdays? Just for a change of pace?"
Richard gradually elevated a middle finger up through the space between them until she had to impatiently duck around it to see her work. "Or how about you get a job, slacker," Richard said. "Newsflash: some people work for a living and like to blow off a little steam on the weekends. If you and the plague rodent weren't so busy infecting respectable members of—"
Rachel cinched his tie firmly enough to choke off his air and returned to the coffee table to slice Conan up some breakfast. Richard had un-asphyxiated himself and was doing something akin to buttering his toast when the phone rang at his elbow. Jumped-up reflexes had him reaching for it with the same hand holding his breakfast and his overcorrection led him to whack his sore knee against the side of the desk. He went down in a tangle of gluten and cords. "Morning," Meguire said after a beat. "Hand me a kid."
Richard flailed upwards until Conan rescued the receiver. "Moore Detective Agency, may I ask who's calling," Conan said.
Richard chewed on dried cranberries. He couldn't remember what he'd been doing last night to prompt the chaos in his gut but it was probably karmic and earned. "Hey." Conan pressed the receiver to his chest and craned to get a better angle on Richard's face. "Meguire says to name five animals alphabetically."
"Boobs, dong, fart, gassy fart, hippopotamus fart."
"He's sober," Conan reported into the phone. "Just uncaffeinated."
"Hey," Meguire said when Richard rolled back onto his side with the receiver squashed under his ear. "You up for some work?"
"Sure. Who died."
"Should've hit the local news by now. Claude Osgood. Ring a bell?"
Rachel was doctoring her own slice of toast. She looked over at him inquisitively. "Can't say it does," Richard said. "Is this someone I'm supposed to know?"
"You tell me," Meguire said. "He was found dead this morning in his home in the Hills. When we looked through the clothes he'd worn the previous night, we found your business card in the front pocket of his suit."
Richard's chewing slowed.
"Might want to come on down here before any more of this hits the press," Meguire said.
"Dad, I just don't think this is a good idea." Rachel had wrung red grooves into her hands as she paced outside the bathroom. "It's too soon. Can't you just give him your statement over the phone? Why do you have to investigate it yourself?"
"You've bottlenecked my gigs for two weeks." Richard checked his reflection before patting his cheeks dry and rummaging around for aftershave. "You want to keep eating, you gotta unclench, kid."
"I did let you take work. You said background checks were enough to pay the bills this month."
"She's sorta right," Conan said. He'd parked cross-legged in the hallway, riverwater eyes tracking Richard's every move for the better part of an hour. "This sounds like something that can be done over the phone. Is there any reason he physically needs you present?"
"So BPD can pay me for a consult instead of a free witness statement. I'm involved in this whether I get compensated for my time or not. He's doing me a solid by putting it in the books."
"We're going with you." Rachel seemed to come to a decision. She tossed his hand towel into the hamper and strode with purpose towards her room. "Conan's already dressed and I'll be ready in a minute. Wait for us."
"No," he called, exasperated, bending over the threshold to dodge bathroom acoustics. "You'll just get in the way. Stay here and order in if I'm late tonight. I don't need you two underfoot."
"We were there too last night," Conan pointed out. "If anything, my testimony will be the most valuable. I'm the one who interacted with him up close."
"My business card in his pocket was the only reason Meguire bothered to call me in on this. Just stay out of it. Go glaze up some booger ceramics and let the adults handle adult business for once."
"This isn't a discussion." Rachel grimly reemerged mid-prep, pajamas still on top and a skirt-leggings combination on the bottom. "Conan's right. We were witnesses just as much as you were. We saw him abusing that employee and being drunk in public. That could have a lot to do with whatever happened. If Inspector Meguire wants to see you, he should want to see us too."
Richard finished rinsing off his razor and toweled it off before rehoming it. Rachel latched onto his elbows when he tried to eel around her, firmly holding him in place. He bugged his eyes out at her. "Dad, I watched you break in Birinmon," she pleaded, lowering her voice to get his attention. "Not just crack – break. You can't tell me you're not at least a little nervous about heading back into all this murder stuff again so soon after that all happened. I know you too well for that. If you're not going to own up to it, at least own up to the fact that you're not a hundred percent yet. Conan and I are going to back you up, period. If you try to escape we'll hunt you down. I mean it."
Richard finally melted. He smiled at her, gathering her into a hug before palming her face to behold the miracle he and his beautiful wife had created. Rachel gaped back at him with shocked delight. "Okay, hon, you got me," Richard laughed. "Maybe I am a little nervous. You know what? This is a stupid thing to argue. You're right. Thanks for protecting me. I don't deserve it after everything I've done. Will you forgive me?"
She embraced him back fiercely. "Always, Dad," she whispered. "And of course you deserve to be protected. Just give me a few minutes to finish dressing and grab my things, okay? The taxi should be here any second. I promise you that whatever this is, we'll take care of this as a team this time."
"You bet. Thanks, pumpkin."
Rachel jogged into her room.
Richard grabbed his jacket and keys and booked it down the stairs. "Rachel, he's ditching," Conan screamed behind him.
Richard hit the sidewalk and was pell-melling towards the street when a ferocious impact took out his sore leg. He dropped and cracked his elbow off the sidewalk as a soccer ball ricocheted back into the bank of mailboxes. In the next instant he was lassoed and dragged by his own necktie in front of startled bakery patrons. "You are a bad person," Rachel hissed in his ear, drawing a brutal knot with it around the lamppost and leaving him to flail and choke under Conan's supervision as she finished getting ready upstairs.
The taxi ride ended up taking a bumpy half-hour tour through hodgepodge weekend traffic and back roads so lush with vegetation that the new spring growth threatened to eat the road signs. Knowing discretion was the least smelly alternative to valor when it came to backseat travel, Richard borrowed two hairties from Rachel's purse and cinched them around the pressure points in each wrist, then let the anti-emetic in his system and the sway of the car lull him into a doze by force. He was gently jostled awake by Conan in time to hear the driver call, "—get any closer with the roadblocks."
"That's fine." His fingertips were numb and the ringing in his ears hadn't stopped since he'd woken up crick-necked that morning. He handed the hairties back to Rachel and thumbed out the amount with swollen fingers, hoping the expense would be comped later. "Thanks for the lift."
"Dad, do you know anything about computers?" Rachel asked him as they closed the rest of the distance to the compound on foot. Richard felt her grip tighten on his sleeve as the police presence came into view over the crest of the entrance. "I know this is some kind of smart house and the magazines all said it was really advanced, but this seriously feels like we're time-traveling. Just look at the gate."
"It's card-coded." Conan pointed up to the inactive black panel embedded on the brick postbox pillar. "You don't get buzzed in by a guard, you buzz yourself in by flashing a security card. Cool, right?"
"I thought those were only in government buildings." Rachel hung onto him as she rocked back on her heels, taking in the breadth of the mansion with uneasy wonder. "I didn't realize it was an option for civilians to own this kind of security. It feels like lasers are going to get shot at us any minute."
"Don't get distracted by frills." Richard kept moving. He couldn't feel his feet and he had a feeling if he stood still without support his head would let him know what it thought about that arrangement. "I don't care about some rich nerd's security measures. This is just a case of a paranoid asshole with too much time and money on his hands trying to wall himself off from the peasants. Nothing 'cool' about this, just classist."
"You don't think this is at least sort of cool?" Conan had squatted to part the grass along the pathway, revealing the black eye of a small solar panel. A second and third discovery several paces later showed them to be spread equidistant around the property. "It seems like he was even trying to be self-sustaining. I'm sure with such a tech-heavy house he needed a way to offset its energy demands, so he was probably really interested in farming his own renewable energy so his electric bills weren't through the roof."
"That's kind of admirable, I guess," Rachel said reluctantly. "I just wish it was under different circumstances. Dad, do you think—"
"Pipe down." Richard's gaze caught on the cagey-looking employee sprinting up the opposite end of the path from the direction of the gardens. "I'm on the clock from here on out. Keep out of my way and don't touch anything while in you're in there if you don't want to get thrown out."
Rachel obediently subsided and took Conan's hand, slowing them both down a pace so they were walking behind him.
The sweaty runner ended up being Osgood's secretary Todd Morris, probably out of a job as of this morning and sporting an even fouler mood than Richard's. Richard pantomimed befuddled excitement over the tech wizardry as Morris opened the door with his handprint, then paid attention for real when the unexpected balloon of cold air burst over the threshold at him. Only sheer gastrointestinal stage-fright kept his stomach from greeting the ficus in the entryway. "Moore, what the hell are they doing here," Meguire sighed the instant he caught sight of them, center-mass in a throng of uniformed officers tagging the sitting room. "You think I called you here on some kind of sightseeing tour? A man's dead."
"This is a super cool house, Inspector," Conan chirped, already tip-toe to inspect the array of items on the antique hutch. "Didja know Mr. Osgood invited me to work here yesterday? It's true! I found his heart medication under his car and gave it back to him before he could drive off because he was too drunk to notice he dropped it, and he was so happy that he stopped screaming at his driver and told me I could have a job here! I thought it'd be a good idea to see what it was like before I gave him my resume. But I guess if he's dead now, I'll never get to work here, huh? Does he have any other family I can work for? Or close associates?"
"Yeah, Conan, none of that was, ah." Meguire massaged between his eyes with the capped end of his pen a moment. "None of that was real great. Moore."
"I'll kick them out if they make trouble." Richard plucked the notepad from Meguire's hand to skim over their shared shorthand. "Walk me through what we've got so far."
It was revealed Claude Osgood had suffered a massive heart attack sometime during the night and had been discovered dead in his bed at 0800 by the driver. The driver's name turned out to be Ken Tomason and from what Richard gathered in the next twenty minutes, 'driver' was either a misnomer or bald corporate fib. The secretary fielded the press and the compound's chef handled the meals, but the sheer quantity and scale of Tomason's duties blew past employment and toed into indentured servitude. With the exception of a privatized cleaning crew contracted to come in once a week, the house staff were virtually nonexistent, and the cook had been on medical leave for the past four days to be at the bedside of his ailing mother. The only two things of note that Richard could ferret out was that Osgood had apparently bloated like a ballsack over some lucrative new tech contract and that his wife and daughter were on an extended overseas trip together, which in addition to his cook being MIA had probably contributed to the unchecked drunken restaurant bingeing. "So to sum it up, guy had his doctors and his wife breathing down his neck about his stress and his diet," Meguire sighed, scritching his fingertips up under his hat and thumbing sweat off his brow on the way down. "Looks like his vices finally caught up with him."
Richard kept his eye on Rachel as she drifted around the room, murmuring to Conan and keeping his hand firmly in hers. Conan occasionally craned his neck to glance back at them but otherwise followed her lead without fuss.
"You look nonfunctional," Meguire said.
"I'm functional. Just bored. This was obviously a heart attack, I don't know what you want from me."
"Check over the body, see if you can add some insight on TOD."
Richard rolled up his sleeves to squiggle toes and fingers while Tomason haltingly repeated his alibi to Meguire on the other side of the room. He wasn't squeamish but Osgood's expression at point blank kept pulling his attention up. The man's hand had clenched and then cooled into a talon over his heart, his spine frozen in an arch. His eyes were blown wide with terror, saliva dried in thick ribbons from the corners of his mouth. Richard had seen dozens of heart attack victims before, but the sheer magnitude of the suffering evident in front of him threw him a little. "His clothes are soaked," Conan murmured at Richard's elbow, disgruntled. He lifted a sleeve and then grimaced, palpating the moisture between his fingertips. "It's really cold in this house. Even if he'd started perspiring because of the heart attack, it wouldn't have been happening long enough to completely dunk him like this. The sheets are a mess too. They're soaked all the way down through the mattress."
Richard was surrounded by police and didn't murder a small child. He did pick a small child up and drop him out the window into the buckthorn brush outside. "Oh," Rachel gasped delightedly, and Richard half-turned to see her dropping to her knees to baby-talk with the fat fluffy cat that'd sauntered in from the hallway. "And just who is this sweetie-pie!"
Tomason frantically bolted for it and in his haste barked his hip on the dresser, upsetting the crystal analog clock and smashing its casing open against a partially opened sock drawer. "This crime scene's on fucking fire," Meguire snapped to one of his officers. "Where's our perimeter? Where is our photographer? And get that thing out of here."
"It's not a crime scene," Richard said boredly as Tomason scrambled forward to scoop the cat up himself, stammering apologies, tripping over himself to get out from under the balloon of Meguire's temper. "Rachel, go ahead and follow him. Try not to smother the thing. I'm gonna wrap this up."
Rachel threw him a cross look but booked it after Tomason because soft animals had been making her periodically brainless since preschool. "I don't get it," Conan said from outside the window. "The computer in the house controls the air temperature, right? It's always comfortable. The only way for it to get off track would either be a glitch in the programming or someone deliberately tampering—"
Richard slammed it shut. "This smells, Richard," Meguire said. He'd deflated as the room had emptied out, reduced to slapping the notepad agitatedly against his thigh. "I hate to admit it, but Conan's right. I picked up on the soaked sheets too. A massive heart attack would've taken him out within a couple of minutes on the outside – no time to work up a sweat that drenching. A minor one would've given him plenty of time to call for help with all this safety tech installed in here. There's a phone right in the room that's voice controlled. All he would've had to say was 'dial emergency services' and they would've been over here in five minutes."
"It's a heart attack," Richard said. "What, you want to arrest his heart for attacking him? The guy was on heart medication and was mixing it with alcohol and probably recreational drugs if we sniff around here hard enough. This isn't the mystery you're making it out to be."
"Something smells," Meguire repeated. He was still scanning the room as though he could personally uproot the tech in it through sheer force of will. "The employees are squirrelly, the cook is missing, and the wife and daughter going overseas last week is a little too convenient for my tastes. Just seems like a lot of loose threads."
"There were no defensive wounds, no sign of forced entry, no staff on call to sabotage him. His heart medication was within reach on the floor and the prescription was filled two weeks ago. We could ask for a toxicology report to see if someone poisoned him but it'll be weeks for that turnaround. There's nothing to do here, Inspector. He rolled the dice on his addictions and this is what he got."
Meguire made a sound in his throat. He drummed his pen against his notepad, persistent and patient as a heartbeat.
Richard wrangled Rachel and her armful of cat and spent a solid quarter hour looking for Conan before locating him by a candy bowl in the main atrium. "The chocolate is melted." Conan pointed. "Look, it's in a lump. And the flowers are wilted. Don't you think it's strange in such a pristine household that these were allowed to sit out looking like this? It'd be one of the first things a guest would see."
"Unless their ugliness is what set off his heart attack, their alibi is clean." He clonked a palm against Conan's head and steered him towards the door. "We're leaving."
"But I didn't get a chance to explore the rest of the cool computer house!" Conan protested. "Mitch'll want me to tell him all about it and I haven't even seen half the mansion yet! Can't we please stay?"
"We're not here to sight-see." Richard rocked impatiently back on his heels to get Rachel in his line of sight. "Rachel, let's go. Get a move on."
Rachel had planted herself in the center of the atrium in everyone's way, burying her face against the cat's extremely bored mug. "Ohh sweetie pie," she marveled, muffled. "Sweet fluffy thing."
"I want to see upstairs!" Conan used his entire weight to try to tow Richard in the opposite direction. "Can't we see the upstairs? Please? Rachel can bring the cat!"
"I'm sorry," Tomason mumbled, embarrassed, kindly waving the cat's downy paw at Rachel from the window as Richard wrangled his uncooperative caterwauling baggage out the door and back into their taxi.
His morale rotted in messy and dramatic increments back at the agency while the thoroughbreds raced on his TV without him. Rachel crashed his pity-party with a handful of strawberry candies and smug contentment, snuggled into a pretzel on the arm of his sofa. "Look at it this way, Dad: any money you might've blown at the races would've been way more than you spent on the cab ride over, so you actually came out on top," she said very sensibly. "Try to find the silver lining. And we got to see a pretty cat and an amazing house. We would've never gotten the opportunity to step foot in it otherwise."
He tried and failed to shut down his liver on command. "Where's the brat."
"Conan said he had business and ran off before I could stop him. I assume he's with his friends or with Dr. Agasa. I'll check on him in an hour or so."
"Seem awfully chipper, kid."
"Well, nobody got hurt today, so that's a plus, right? Inspector Meguire said he's still going to treat it like a consult, so you'll still get paid, and Conan got to see the house he and his little friends were so excited about."
"A man's dead."
"Yeah," Rachel acknowledged, quieter. She watched Calamity Jane nose past Drunk Sniper in a shower of sweat and dirt clods. "Is it bad that I'm not all that sad about it?"
Drunk Sniper jostled back into position. The announcers started screaming. "No," Richard said. "But I wouldn't be proud of it either."
"I'm not," Rachel said immediately. "It's awful. And he's got a wife and daughter, and we have no idea if he was good to them or not. But I can't help what I feel. Tomason looked like he had such a huge weight lifted from his shoulders too."
"People being dead isn't something to celebrate, even if they have it coming."
"I know, Dad. I know it's not right for me to feel this way. But I just…"
Richard was mostly dead on a cellular level but he moved his forearm out of his face to monitor her. "I'm not," Rachel began again, and stopped. She thumbed a strawberry candy into her mouth and watched Drunk Sniper careen across the finish line, and thankfully didn't finish saying what she was not.
Conan came back extremely late that evening doused in cat hair and dragging his feet. Reeling with internal fugue and at this point barely functional, Richard didn't bother to ask questions this time. He booted him over to Rachel to supervise a bath and took a trip out to the corner mart to pick up some cigarettes to cope. By the time he came back Conan was bundled in an oversized sweatshirt and scribbling code into a notebook on his agency's sofa. "I'm not gonna play this game with you," Richard said, flicking the unanswered transmitter up between them. "You disappear like that again without checking in and I'm calling the cops. Got it?"
His ears rang and rang and fucking rang. Richard took a post at his desk, tossed his feet up on top, and switched on the TV to drown out the noise. Persistent motor tremors made his fingers scramble over the buttons of the remote and his body cracked like glass whenever he moved too quickly. Against his better judgment he medicated with a beer, then two, and watched the screen carousel in front of him with even that trivial amount of alcohol and something deeply buried in him rattled apart with the violence of his frustration.
Across the room, Conan stopped writing and went to fetch his backpack.
Richard clutched the neck of the empty bottle and with sudden terror wondered if he needed to call Rachel to evacuate Conan. Sensory data continued to splatter on him. He didn't dare move even to adjust the volume.
"Do you want to share something yummy with me?"
"What," he breathed.
Conan pulled out a small unlabeled canister. He was tired but genial. "Dr. Agasa mixed this up it as a treat for the kids when they visit. I've been telling them I'd try it out and I'm pretty thirsty, so I thought maybe I'd offer it to you if you were thirsty too."
"What is it."
"I think it's some kind of fruity powder drink. He uses it on their snow-cones too and they go nuts for it. I don't know, it just sounded good right now. I'll share if you want some."
The empty bottle shivered with tension in his grip. Richard sucked in air and let it out in a shuddering stream of hysteria. "Sure."
Conan poured two cups from the water cooler and meticulously measured the powder into both of them in turn, even borrowing the marked coffee scoop to double-check the ratio. He slowed as he neared the desk with it, gaze fixed on Richard's face, and strangely enough it was that expression specifically that finally jarred Richard out of his nadir. He diminished everything about him that he could reach, tucking his larger shadow away, reversing himself enough in his own skin that for a crucial second he was able to switch their positions in his head. "It's okay," Conan murmured inexplicably. Richard felt a hand brush by his wrist before the cup was carefully worked into his hand. "It's okay, Uncle."
Richard took the mix down in unsteady gulps, watching sound spill out of the speakers in floating neon geometry. By the time Rachel had come down to collect Conan for bed a half hour later, Richard's monsters were back in their closets and the motor tremors had diminished, leaving behind a settled stomach and a chalky smear in his head. The punch was a flavor of Red straight out of childhood. He massaged the residue off his molars to chew on it, chasing clean memories, navigating to the weather channel. This time the girl spoke with words instead of triangles.
He fell asleep jackknifed at his desk. When the phone rang the next morning, the raging tinnitus had mercifully died down enough for him to pick up Meguire's timbre on the other end. "What's the matter," Richard said.
Meguire took a moment to gather words. When he did they were thick with laughter that sounded at once dazed and pissed. "You'll never guess who in the everloving fuck just called me."
Conan's drink sat untouched on the coffee table across the room.
Rachel was silently mouthing to herself on the way home from the Osgood mansion. Figuring it was some kind of baby bird language he was supposed to be translating with dad cues, Richard directed their taxi to a diner to feed her beak. "I just can't believe it," she breathed again as they pulled into the lot. Her elbow was propped on the door, palm partially muffling her words in her daze. "He has the absolute nerve to show up at Agasa's and not tell me? He wasn't even supposed to be in Beika, he's supposed to be overseas!"
"The important thing is that the case is solved, though, right?" Conan said. "If it hadn't been for me going over there and seeing the clues the cat left at Tomason's place, the police would've never figured it out by themselves. Tomason would've gotten away with it."
"For the record, I always thought Tomason was suspicious." Richard handed the fee up and still wasn't competitive with first graders. "I was just pretending I wasn't to throw him off guard. Meguire and I were already on the scent. If anything, we loosened the jar for Kudo and now he's trying to take the credit as usual."
"You had no idea it Tomason," Conan sighed. "You kept blowing it off as a heart attack. I was the one who picked up the clues about Aslan."
"You just said Kudo solved it. If you're going to lie, at least be consistent."
"It isn't a lie. Jimmy heard the clue that his bed and bedclothes were soaked and put it all together there that Osgood died of a rapid temperature change caused by Tomason tampering with the house's software. Even if Tomason hadn't given himself away by taking the cat home overnight to protect it from the heat, there were clues all over the house. The bed sheets, the dead flowers, the melted chocolate – if he'd really been serious about not getting caught, it would've been easy to get rid of all that evidence before calling us. I think a part of him wanted to be caught. The trail was just too obvious."
Rachel drifted after them through the front door. She scooted mechanically over her side of the booth to once again plaster herself to a window, glazing out over the dark sea of parked cars. The diner ebbed and flowed around her. "Look, you've already talked to him since he left," Richard told her. He sailed through the orders at a quick clip and then dedicated himself to the drink menu a richer Neverland version of himself could afford. "What's the difference between contacting you and contacting the kid?"
"Because I wasn't aware 'the kid' knew him well enough to have a rapport," Rachel said tersely. "I had no idea Jimmy has been talking with Conan this whole time. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get him to commit to an actual conversation with me? A phone call that last more than two minutes? And in the meantime he and Conan are suddenly best friends and he showed up at Dr. Agasa's?"
"We're not friends," Conan said weakly. He'd been trudging through the nuclear fallout of Rachel's atomic bitchscape ever since they'd climbed into the taxi. "He just calls to check up on you sometimes."
"And why exactly doesn't he just call me for that information?"
"I don't know."
Rachel's knuckles whitened around the napkin-utensil roll. Her reflection in the diner window made it very difficult to see whether she wanted to murder them all or Jimmy very specifically.
Richard was pleased that their meal ended up being delivered at a rapid clip. He tucked into his fried fish and periodically stole bites from the carefully organized piles on Conan's plate to remind him who was pack alpha. "I just can't," Rachel said for the seventeenth time. She was dully sorting through the chunks of fruit in her bowl. "I just can't wrap my head around it. After three months of searching, he was right there."
"Now will you dump him?" Richard asked her, mouth full. "I've been telling you for years that the kid's not worth burning your oil for. Now you can finally call it quits and go back to our original family plan of no dating and strict celibacy into your forties."
"I'll leave the celibacy to you, thanks," Rachel said extremely fucking tartly, and Richard choked on his fish. "We're not dating. I don't have to be dating him to care about his well-being. I've been frantic for months. He disappeared at Christmas and it's March. Just who does he think he is? Is this all a big joke to him? Am I a joke?"
"If it helps, I think I just got lucky." Conan was tentative, clearly unused to dealing with this side of her. "He was super busy. He actually was annoyed with me that I called. He said he was way too busy to talk to a little kid about such an easy case."
"Oh did he," Rachel said.
"And actually, he was so busy that he even got kind of mad. He said I was a dumb kid and never to call again because he was way too busy to pick up phone calls, so it's probably a good thing you didn't get a hold of him."
Richard stole another nugget off his plate and simultaneously moved Rachel's knife away from her an instant before her hand slammed down to pick it up. "Oh did he," Rachel whispered from the ruins of Pripyat.
"Rachel, look, whichever way you slice it, Jimmy's not here." Richard caught another fry off Conan's plate and was nailed by a second fork to the brachial artery. Apparently Conan had run out of patience with pack hierarchies. "At least now you know the kid's not dead," he added, plucking it away. "Wasn't it you who kept yapping on about silver linings earlier? Isn't that the whole reason you were so uptight in the first place?"
"The reason I'm uptight is because my friend has been missing for two months with nobody seeing hide nor hair from him, and all of a sudden Conan tells me he was at Dr. Agasa's and didn't bother coming by the agency to say hello to me," Rachel snapped. "If I didn't know any better I'd swear he was trying to avoid me on purpose."
"Look, if you really want my opinion—"
"I really don't, Dad."
"— you just have to face the likelihood that Jimmy's a high school kid and you're giving him too much credit. He ran around for a few years playing detective, sure, and maybe he was passably good at it, but now that he's been upstaged by a better one? Kid's probably humiliated. Not everybody can be as good at solving cases as your old man. Bet you half my consultation fee that he's spending his time right now hunting down the hot 'cases' and dumping his cold ones."
Rachel said, very quietly, "You're hurting me."
Richard absently set a hand on the back of Conan's head and caught the eye of the waitress as she passed by en route. He signaled at her, pointing down at Conan's plate and holding up two fingers. She flashed him a quick smile and a thumbs up as she moved to her next table, jotting the note down on her pad. "Look, if you don't like being given the run-around, stop giving him chances to manipulate you," Richard said, backing off her fender a bit. "He wants a chase so bad, give him a chase. Turn the tables on him. Make him realize what he's got and what he could lose."
"I thought you didn't want me dating him."
"Who said anything about dating him? You've been in each other's faces since you were in diapers. You've got history. If he's not respecting that history, maybe he doesn't deserve to keep adding to it."
Rachel was fulminatingly silent.
He slid another fry off Conan's plate as he watched her think about it. "Maybe you're right," Rachel said eventually. The slant of her eyes was cool enough to give him pause. It was an expression that belonged on another face. "Maybe I should be harder to get. If nothing else is communicating to him how much he's hurting me, maybe it's time I do a little running around for a change."
Richard plucked another fry and swore when Conan harpooned him with a new fork. "Listen, don't go crazy," Richard frowned, wrestling it away and tossing it out of reach across the table with more force than the first two. "I'm not saying sever things, I'm just saying cool it down. Get the message across to him that you're not going to take it anymore."
"I'm not going to close myself off," Rachel allowed. "If he's in some kind of trouble and he thinks keeping me in the dark will protect me, he'll never admit to it. Ever. It's my job to read between the lines until I get the whole story. But it doesn't mean he gets to lead me around the nose however long he wants. There has to be some point where I put my foot down."
"If he's such a great friend, why doesn't he at least drop hints to let — where the hell do you keep getting these forks," Richard hissed as a fourth set of tines broke the skin on his knuckle. Conan squalled under his grip. "Do you stockpile these? How many restaurants do I need to call up to return their shit?"
"I'm going to wash my hands." Rachel tossed her napkin down at her unfinished plate and stood, scooting across the booth to exit. "Get me a to-go container, okay? I'll call a taxi for us on the way back."
Richard watched her disappear around the corner and dragged over what remained of her fruit bowl to steal melon chunks. Conan had stopped squalling the instant she was out of sight, stilling under the quashing pressure of Richard's hand. He said nothing else.
Diner grease and residual exhaustion from yesterday's purging had Richard dropping off steeper than expected on the way home. He didn't wake until Rachel shook his shoulder, and even then he admittedly needed the hand she pressed against the small of his back to help him fight gravity on the stairs. Conan detoured an extra flight to store his leftovers in the refrigerator but returned swiftly, bedtime books tucked under his arm and sleep-sweatshirt dragging on the floor. He arranged all but one of the books onto the coffee table and to Richard's surprise climbed up to nest in the cradle of Richard's ankles, fanning the hem of the sweatshirt out over his socked feet. "What kind of clingy shit is this," Richard said, bewildered. "I already bought you extra dinner, it's not like sucking up now is going to net anything for you after the fact."
Conan only shook his head. "Conan," Rachel said.
Conan took an extremely long time to look up. "Are you telling the truth when you said you saw Jimmy at Dr. Agasa's yesterday?" Rachel asked.
Conan took too long to answer. Tired and already wanting this interrogation to be over, Richard clumsily swallowed a burp inside a yawn and jostled Conan with his foot. "Yes," Conan murmured reluctantly. "It's the truth."
"It wasn't just someone who looked a lot like him?"
"I don't think so. I mean, at least I think I don't think so. You said it sounded like him, and Inspector Meguire recognized his voice on the phone, so I'm pretty sure it was him."
"And?" Rachel slid her hip onto the sofa arm opposite him. The anger that'd fueled her at the restaurant seemed to have been stripped away, leaving her almost too bareboned for hope. "Did he say anything to you? Did he ask about Dad or anyone else?"
"No. He was really busy. Like I said, he just sort of expressed interest in the case because I was talking about it with Dr. Agasa. He told me to tell him everything I remembered, and after he listened to all the details, he came up with the solution super quick. And I guess I just got so excited that I ran out right away to tell you about it, and I forgot all about the fact that you wanted to see him."
"Bullshit the kid solved it in a 'couple minutes'," Richard growled, heckled out of a doze. "I already told you Meguire and I had it pretty much figured out by then. Next time tell him to mind his own business and let the real professionals handle the cases."
Conan picked at the sweatshirt's hem. "Conan." If possible Rachel only grew gentler. "Are you sure he helped you solve it? It wasn't just you pretending to be him?"
Conan's head shot up. "I know I haven't been very good about keeping my feelings to myself, and I'm really sorry if that's burdened you," Rachel said. "I never meant to make it your problem. But Conan, you don't need to protect my feelings. They're my responsibility. So if this is just you… trying to make me feel better by pretending he's nearby, that he's safe, I just want you to know that it's okay to tell the truth. If you didn't really see him, it's okay to tell me."
Richard watched him.
Conan visibly drowned under their direct attention. He tented the book in his lap and submerged himself in the sweatshirt until his mouth and nose disappeared under the collar. "Conan," Rachel pleaded.
"I saw him," Conan whispered miserably. "I'm not a good liar. It was really him."
Rachel took a steadying breath and let it out. Richard expected her to bloodhound after the tidbit but to his surprise she started down a different trail. "You say that you helped him solve the case. If that's true, that's really impressive, Conan. You must have either helped him a lot or gave him a lot of information."
For no good reason Conan's eyes darted to Richard.
Kind of half-conked from glucose mismanagement and not clear on where this was all going, Richard shrugged off the request for an assist. He could kick Rachel out of the office but Rachel could verifiably scale walls at least two stories high, so even if they managed to duck a direct war it'd just turn into a guerilla ambush somewhere else down the line. "I don't know," Conan said at last, heavy. "I really didn't have to tell him all that much. I wasn't there that long. Like I said, I got excited, and I just—"
"But it was long enough to tell him all the details, right? And in all that time he never once asked about anything here in the agency? About school or tests or anything?"
"We just talked about the case. When I told him about Mr. Osgood he just instantly knew it was a murder."
Richard was jolted from sleep again when Rachel's bell tones suddenly brassed. "Well, Mr. Ace Detective sure is smart, isn't he."
Conan eyes sank further under the collar. "I've had enough of this." Rachel pushed her hip off the arm of the sofa and stood with intention. "You know where he is, Conan. Stop covering for him and just tell me already."
"But I don't know where he is," Conan protested. "I swear I just talked to him about the case and that's it!"
"Why didn't you come to get me right away? You know how important this was to me."
"I know it is, but I wasn't thinking, I just thought he could help with the case and I—"
"He didn't ask about me even once? Just talked about a dead rich man and ran away?"
Rachel's voice broke as her expression crumpled into tears. "Why are you helping him over me, Conan?"
Richard felt the exact moment Conan's fight-or-flight revved out of park. Wide-awake now, he lunged up and caught Conan with one arm as Conan tried to escape off the couch, then turned his shoulder to bodily intercept Rachel's lunge for him. "Okay, fuck off," Richard snapped at her, startled enough by the sudden escalation to be harsh. "You already grilled the juice out of him. He's done. Go upstairs and cool off."
"So now you're on his side?" Rachel's voice hiked an octave. "Now is the time you decide you're going to be Conan's knight? All because he has information on Jimmy that you don't think I deserve to have?"
"I'm on the side of whoever is going to shut up and let me sleep, and he's the only one here who brought a book instead of tantrums and hormones. Cool off."
"Jimmy has been lying to me for months about being overseas and Conan is the only one who's seen in in-person, and now he's sitting there pretending that he doesn't know where he is—"
"I don't," Conan yelled from Richard's other side. "I already promised! Why are you so mad at me?"
"I'm not mad, sweetie, I'm just—" and Rachel broke again just as suddenly, hands flying up to press over her face. She heaved with tears.
Holy shit. "Get." Completely out of patience, Richard physically steered her towards the door. Conan clung to him on the other side like a terrified tomcat and Richard reflected that this still somehow wasn't the shittiest part of his weekend. Just the noisiest. "Go upstairs and sleep this off."
Rachel let herself be herded. Richard shut the door behind her and didn't take his ear from the glass until he heard her snuffle her way upstairs. "Is she going to be okay by herself?" Conan murmured in her wake. Richard felt his fists shake and twist into the fabric over his ribs. "Maybe you should go after her. I've never seen her like that before."
"I have." Richard had some thoughts as he bolted the door. Rachel's temper had been a leaky isotope since toddlerhood, but as fallout went that'd been pretty severe. He'd have to give Eva a heads-up if it continued. For now he could reasonably chalk it up to shock and residual fatigue from exam week. "Brush your teeth if you're going to stay down here," Richard said, lowering him until Conan's feet touched down. "Your travel kit's in the closet."
"So you're not going after her?"
"She'll knock on the vents if she needs me to spot her. Just give her space. Ten to one she's going to light an aromatherapy candle and take a bath to steam this off. She'll be fine."
Conan obeyed without further argument. Richard changed out, rinsed down, brushed and gargled before collapsing on his increasingly dog-eared sofa. He'd have to get it steamed soon if he didn't want it regurgitating tentacles at guests. "Shy, huh," he noted with sour humor as Conan piled onto the opposite sofa this time. "Kind of gave yourself away earlier."
"I could tell she wasn't as calm as she was acting." Conan's motions were dull and mechanical as he spread his own blanket around him. "Jimmy was all she could think about this week besides her exams. Even Serena started avoiding her a little, and Serena's got a lot of patience for guy talk."
"It comes and goes. Just give her space to figure it out."
Conan's face was reddened from his scrub under the faucet. He massaged an oversized sleeve over his damp hairline and tucked into a book, cutting off any further conversation.
Richard thought about turning on the television but something about it seemed gauche. He regarded the ceiling a while, blinking drowsily, then slipped his fingers under the sofa to spider around. When he hit metal, he drew out the flask and held it up against the ceiling lights, jostling it expertly. About three fingers of whatever it was he'd packed in there during his last binge.
He took it down in two swallows, reversing the achievement of brushing his teeth before bed, then tossed his forearm up over his face to give the rye time to work on his remaining nerves. By the time the heat had faded from his esophagus and had settled in his stomach, Conan was a quarter of the way through the book and not looking like he was ready to pack it in for another several hours. "Grab the lights when you're done," Richard yawned, turning over.
Conan thumped down. A click sent the room plunging into darkness and a second click at his desk rearranged the shadows. Conan adjusted his lamp's trajectory towards the sofas before clambering back up into his nest with his book.
Richard thought about sleep. Cheek mashed in the cradle of his arm, he listened to the squeaky plumbing as Rachel drained the bath, saw the desk lamp's intensity flicker as it shared the same circuit with her hairdryer, tracked her travel into the kitchen for her post-bath juice. The vents stayed quiet.
"Richard," Conan said.
He'd sunk deeper than he thought. He blinked his way back topside. "What."
"What did you think about Tomason today? The person, I mean."
"This is what you want to talk about at eleven at night?" Richard wanted to know. "What am I supposed to think? Guy's a murderer."
"Didn't it make you sad when he told us how Osgood stole his life's work? He can't claim that software anymore now that Osgood sold it to a third party. Tomason could've spent his life making technology that changed the world, and now all that genius is going to rot away in a prison. I don't know. It just seems so unfair."
"Nobody put a gun to his head and forced him to off his boss."
"I'm not excusing him," Conan said. "Whatever the intentions, no matter how good the reason, murder is still murder. I'm just saying that it bothers me. He was kind enough to save the daughter's cat even though he probably knew the hair would give him away. He would've been famous if Osgood hadn't screwed up his life. I don't know. It's just… it feels like a waste. That's all I'm saying."
"And I take it that's why you felt the need to go and interview him on your own?"
Conan fussed with the pages of the book. "Yeah, didn't exactly escape my notice that you went over to a stranger's apartment unsupervised after you'd figured out he was probably the killer," Richard said. "I can think of a few words to describe that but Meguire got to them first. You can't keep drawing attention like that. Your bullshit at the mansion drew eyes too."
"I needed to know why he did what he did."
"Because intent matters," Conan said. "It's something juries and judges consider when handing out verdicts. I thought if I got him to admit it out loud to himself, he wouldn't try to clam up and go down a martyr. Now his lawyer can work with the confession and see about getting him a lighter sentence."
"I guess I'm just not sure what you're asking me, then," Richard said. "I already told you that a murderer is a murderer in my book. Motives are a tool you use to track down the killer, but beyond that it's the legal system's problem."
"I thought our job was to help people."
"My job is to put food on the table. You want to get sentimental about it, be my guest. Just leave me out of it. I don't have the gas to drive down those roads."
Conan was silent.
Richard dropped off. He woke somewhere around midnight and stumbled into the bathroom to wring the rye out of his bladder and steal a mouthful of water from the faucet. Conan remained abysmally huddled on the sofa, books back on the table. His fist was lightly bouncing off the top of his foot with a cadence that suggested he'd been doing it for a long time.
Richard cracked the window and medicated himself with a smoke he mostly didn't need or feel. Working on a hunch, he plucked Conan and his blanket up in transit on his way back and relocated him. His instincts paid off: Conan settled unresisting into his earlier position at Richard's feet as Richard rescued his own blanket from its tangle on the floor.
Richard drifted in and out for a while without hurry while nicotine re-ignited the whine in his ears.
Conan whispered on his periphery, "I really messed up, didn't I."
Richard swallowed a yawn that tasted like rye. "I can't stop replaying the moment she found out," Conan said. "It won't let me sleep. I knew it'd make her angry, but I had no idea she was that far down her rope. I didn't have to tell her about Jimmy. I could've just said I'd noticed the cat hair on my own. Meguire would've believed me. I don't know why I even brought him up at all and now I've ruined everything. She's going to resent me now that she knows I talk to him."
"Yeah, pretty sure you haven't actually met the girl," Richard said. "She's going to wake up tomorrow and fall over herself apologizing to you for blowing her lid. You've got nothing to worry about. She feels like crap."
"Why did you step between us?"
"What, you wanted me to let her toothpaste your boogers up out of your eyeballs?"
"You want to know the truth as much as she does. That probably would've been a good opportunity if you'd just let her go."
"Yeah, my favorite way to fish is to throw a nuke in the lake and reel up the fallout," Richard said. "You're being dumber than usual. Trust me, if I wanted you gone you'd be gone. I don't need her input."
"But I don't trust you," Conan said. It was impersonal. "Everyone changes their minds. Everybody can be bought. I'm never safe no matter where I go. Even when I am safe, there's always somebody who wants something from me."
"Oh for— cry me a river. Not one day goes by where I'm not being chiseled by someone or something for my money or my time. You want to disappear so nobody wants anything from you, disappear, but last I checked you needed us and that's why you're here. You're really going to concoct this spiel about how everybody keeps knocking down your door when you're literally here because you knocked down our door?"
Conan was still a bastion of eerie composure at his feet. "So you're saying you don't care about the truth."
"I don't know what I'm saying because I don't know what you're saying. Look, I don't have to explain myself to you," Richard said. "Sometimes I want things and other days I want different things. I don't care if Tomason was a good man, I care that he murdered some dumb rich bastard and tried to get away with it on my watch. I also don't care if you're not shooting all that straight with me right now as long as you don't put Rachel in the crosshairs. It's different. It's oranges and you're asking me about apples. When the truth's ready to come out, it's going to come out whether you like it or not. Maybe it moves further down the queue if you push it, but one day its number is up and you have to deal with it."
"That's a lie," Conan said flatly. "I've seen what lengths you'll go to to get the answer. You think I don't pay attention. Look what you did at Birinmon. You were ready to get thrown out a window to bring Craig in. You've just started really getting back into solving cases, and already your meditations are coming back."
"So what. I can handle it."
"You don't know that for sure. What if what happened in January happens again if you push too hard? What are you going to do if searching for the truth starts to take more from you than you can give? Are you just going to let it eat away all of you?"
"Yeah, or maybe there's a step in-between birth and death called 'retirement', polly snotpocket," Richard said. "I've been chucking evil into toilets for a decade, you think this is any different? I'll do what I have to do for as long as I have to do it. It'll get better or it won't. I'm not going to worry about it right now."
"And what about later?" Richard could feel the intensity of Conan's focus prickle his neck through the gloom. "What if it doesn't get better? What if it's just this for years and years, and nothing you do makes it go away?"
"Then I adapt. What the hell else am I going to do? Besides, it's not all thorns," Richard said. "Did you know Yoko sent me a newspaper clipping along with last month's letter and signed it with Xs and Os? We're getting lunch in three weeks when she gets a break in her schedule. You tell me where I can get that same kind of VIP treatment without solving crimes and chucking my spleen into toilets and you can have this uppity truth fest to yourself. Me, I'm just in it for the tangibles."
"You're such an idiot," Conan exploded, silhouette a portrait of despair as he slammed his face against his knees. "Why do you keep derailing like that? If you didn't care about this you would've switched jobs a long time ago. The reason you have a PI license is because you like bringing down the bad guy just as much as I do. Quit pretending it doesn't mean anything to you."
"You know what does mean something to me? Sleep," Richard said. "It means so much, Conan. How about this: you fulfill my wildest dreams and shut the hell up so I can get the thing I've always wanted, and we'll just forget this conversation happened because frankly it was weird and you're going to get amnesia in the morning anyway. Philosophize on your own time and leave me out of it."
Conan's silence was seismic.
Because no one on the planet respected him or his sleep schedule or anything that had to do with him living life on his own terms, Richard wasn't surprised when Conan broke the silence a minute later. "I need to ask you one more thing," Conan said. His voice was much quieter. "I'll let you sleep afterwards, I promise."
Richard turned his chin on his arm. "I get that it was a metaphor, but just to use your words… if I'd knocked down your door now, the way you said, and you knew everything about me that you know now, would you have stilled let me in?" Conan asked.
Richard set his chin up a little higher on his elbow, suddenly acutely attentive to the weave of the cushions an inch in front of him. "You said that if you wanted me gone, I'd be gone, but that's different than you wanting me here." Conan hesitated. He surged on. "So I guess maybe what I'm asking is what door I'm at."
Richard listened to the agency's bones settle in the humidity.
"Do you want me here?" Conan Edogawa asked.
Benoit's box lay unopened under his desk. Conan's glasses were discarded on the coffee table next to his books. The agency flared to life as a car's high beams turned down their street, and for the span of three blinks Richard saw Conan's shadow elongate and splash onto the upper wall, round little face and wren's tail and hunched shoulders stretched nearly to snapping before the rotating light chased it back into the gloom on the other side. The muffler continued to send reports back to them long after the car accelerated out of sight.
When it was quiet again, Conan untangled himself. He carefully tucked the blanket back down over Richard's feet, gathered his own up in the cradle of his arms, and resettled himself back on the opposite sofa.
Rachel made ass-kissingly voluminous pancakes the next day and Richard tried not to go too out of his way to remind her that he preferred waffles. "Pancakes get goopy," he said. "Waffles have the pockets you can load up with treasures. You had one job."
"Thanks for the yummy breakfast, Rachel!" Conan had managed the genuinely impressive feat of getting a full twenty percent of the syrup into his mouth and the other two hundred-seventy percent on his face and hands. "It definitely hit the spot. You're the best."
"Least I could do." As Richard had predicted, Rachel's cheer that morning was pale but dogged. She cleaned Conan's face off for him and the grin he gave her was earnest and nobody talked to anybody about anything. Sugar highs were emotionally generous that way. "I'm going to take it easy today after I clean the kitchen, but feel free to come in if you want company. Dad? Thai tonight?"
"Sure. Your treat."
"Oh ho, cute try." Rachel collected their dishes. "Don't make me tattle on you for reneging on a gentleman's bargain. After this we're square."
Richard spent the next several days in a purgatory of his own making, trying to sop up work that didn't require a lot of direct attention. His streak was broken early on by another homicide disguised as a suicide at a Laundromat in Beika-Minami and then for what appeared to be a gang-related revenge crime way the bumfuck out in Haido City, which necessitated him breaking ground with a new police department. Both times ended up with him teleporting between blinks but only one of them required that he trebuchet his dinner into the toilet afterwards, which was actually progress. He thought he'd nab a mental break at Haido City's world-famous aquarium on the way back but stumbled across a murder plot in the storage room before he could get to the tide pools. Rachel was too happily distracted by the meat-eating stingrays in the tank to squall about the blood on her shoes.
Despite his commitment to de-stigmatizing waifish swooning in male-dominated environments, the worry crept back in by the end of the week. After the third time waking up in a place different from where he'd fallen asleep, he flagged Eva, had a quick war council over their shared checking account, and on the next school day took himself over to Primary Care. "To be honest, I'm not sure what ball to swing at," his doctor confessed, thumbing through his records a third time. His pale eyebrows were knit over his glasses. "Your symptoms aren't consistent enough to make it easy to point to any one thing. We could consider a spinal tap to be sure, but most degenerative motor diseases would've been caught between your EMG and contrast MRI when you came in earlier this year. If I didn't know any better I'd think this was metabolic. Have you had a sleep study done?"
"Let's prioritize that just to get it out of the way," the doctor said. "I can schedule one for you as soon as next week if you've got room for it. Like to nab a thyroid panel and a vitamin workup on the side to see if you're deficient in anything. Vitamin B1 and B12 would be my guess, but I'd like to check magnesium and vitamin D while I'm at it. A glucose tolerance test could be our next step if we don't find any smoking guns."
"Yeah, so that all sounds expensive and March is looking pretty bleak," Richard said. "I just need to know if I'm in any immediate danger of dying or if I can hold off for another few months until my finances level out."
"I'd say I'm unqualified to make that judgment call without numbers."
"I thought you were supposed to be a doctor."
"Sometimes," the doctor said. "I'd say I'm a better doctor when there are concrete labs involved and I can target your treatment to the cause, not the symptoms. Without data I'm just a gambler like everyone else."
"Did you catch the race on Saturday?" Richard wanted to know.
"Did you win?"
"No." The doctor scribbled down his final observations, then reached over his shoulder to slide his referral pad towards him to begin filling out the forms. "I'd like to give you some help sleeping, but I don't want to prescribe you anything chemical without knowing the state your thyroid's in. If you want to pursue any of these avenues I'm about to recommend to you, let me know and we'll fax over the information to our affiliate offices."
"Am I going to die?"
"Extremely eventually." After a minute the doctor tore off multiple sheets and handed them over. "But not as fast as my paycheck did when I laid it all on Calamity Jane instead of Drunk Sniper. Let us know when you're ready to get some answers with us and we'll work with your budget as best we can."
Richard solved another case that Wednesday involving a dead male zookeeper and the bored lion framed for his murder and woke up in the front seat of Meguire's car with the kids in the back being subjected to 1930s jazz cornets. "Welcome back, kid," Meguire said, regressing to old monikers in his distraction as he checked his rearview mirror prior to a merge. "Pizza or breakfast for dinner."
Richard vomited scrumptious breakfast-for-dinner into the agency's jon three hours later and woke up in his upstairs bed with a nightlight and a half-finished thermos of juice on his bedside table. Conan was sitting at the foot of the bed in the quasi-darkness, back to him, feet swaying over the drop to the floor. "Changed your mind yet?" Conan said quietly.
Richard thought yes. He thought more coherently not yet. Sound waves needed mediums to be heard and he was vacuum and stardust in his head. He turned over onto his side and he was case records and tallies on a scoreboard and backalley stardust blindsiding him in his own cosmos.
Conan was at Agasa's for most of the next day.
The shift of the tide came during the case involving another rich businessman and his dickishly opulent hotel chain. After an hour's long meeting in a private room with twenty year-old cognac and hopefully younger fish eggs, Richard walked out maybe drunker and with the sensation that he'd just been hit on extremely aggressively. The sky blinked back from the floor-to-ceiling windows flanking the lobby. "That took a really long time, Dad," Rachel fretted as they walked, motioning Conan ahead so he was in front of her instead of by her side. Conan obliged just in time to miss getting mowed down in the hallway by a businessman trucking from the opposite direction. "I was starting to wonder if I should come up and rescue you. Is it really that serious of a case?"
"Just another cheating spouse and a client too cheap for a real therapist."
"Mr. Taylor kept you in there for nearly an hour and a half to ask you to track his wife?"
"What can I say, I'm a great listener." The cognac had greased up his brake pads enough that he skidded around the next corner, toe catching the underside of the carpet runner. "There was free booze and caviar in it so I put up with it until he got bored."
"But did you get anything useful out of it? I mean, did he tell you everything you needed to know to start investigating?"
"Cognac," Richard laughed, raising his index finger and thumb to very scientifically measure the amount of fun for her.
"I can't leave you anywhere." But Rachel again sounded more fretful than irritated as she latched onto his arm a little tighter around the next corner. "Did you ever consider that you might have missed something important because you didn't say no to his bribes? This man is worth millions, right? Shouldn't you be taking this seriously?"
"Look, no matter which way you dress it up, it's an infidelity case. Not to knock age gaps as a rule, but Catherine Taylor is your classic mid-twenties trophy wife. It's not my job to rehabilitate their marriage or be his on-set fluffer while he talks himself out of a midlife crisis. I don't care. I need dates, haunts, and patterns. Beyond that, I'm just in it for the booze."
"You have to admit it was weird he kept you in there that long to bend your ear," Conan said. "I agree with Rachel. It was almost like Mr. Taylor wanted to tie you up in there on purpose. Kind of fishy if you ask me."
"Spoiler: I didn't ask you," Richard said. "Look, lay off, you're killing a really expensive vibe. Stop looking for flags that aren't there. It's not like he trapped me in there. I already told you I was in it for the booze. Do you have any idea how much I would've put out to get something that rare down my neck? My pants were already halfway off before you left the room."
"Dad, gross, please stop forever," Rachel said. "The way you describe him, it sounds like he's really lonely. Should we actually… I don't know, call someone for him? A real therapist? I know we don't know him very well, but an hour and a half of complaining to a complete stranger about his wife seems… kind of like a cry for help."
"It wouldn't be well-received," Conan said. "It's a nice thought, but those types of guys usually like to keep a fist around their assets and don't like loose ends. It's hard to say, but he probably doesn't really love her all that much. It's more likely he was embarrassed and wants to make sure he gets her under an NDA before he divorces her."
"Conan." Rachel's expression spasmed a little. "Oh, Conan, that's so cynical—"
"Is it? I mean, I know I'm just a little kid, but he didn't seem all that sad to me, Rachel. Just kind of mad, like he'd left a favorite toy out in the rain or something."
"But who taught you to think like that?"
Conan pointed over his shoulder at Richard. "Go to hell," Richard said. "You came preloaded. I didn't teach you shit."
"So what are you going to do?" Rachel gently grasped Richard's elbow again to steady him as he toddled around the landing. "You're on the clock now, right?"
"I'm going to treat it just like every other infidelity case. The money's a bonus, but the process is the same. Let's just let it play out and see what we get. Worse case scenario, I get nothing done and we still got to spend an afternoon at a ritzy hotel. Best case scenario, we get to come back for seconds on someone else's coin and I can pawn Conan off at the gift shop for a snowglobe."
As it turned out, the cheating wife was found garishly dead in the bathtub in Samuel Taylor's house that evening at the age of twenty-seven, and despite himself Richard felt the switch in him wobble a bit. The state of rigor mortis confirmed a TOD between 1400 and 1500, and to Richard's mercenary relief Taylor's alibi mapped up with their mutual briefing window. Hopefully Richard's legal support would lead to a very long future of free hotel dinners provided coquettishly bare hairy ankles were an accepted trade. "Moore, are you sure you were there with Taylor between those hours?" Meguire pressed to be sure.
"Yeah, he only ducked out of sight once, and even that was only for a minute." Richard's pickled grey matter did remember a phone call, and the instant he mentioned it he saw Taylor perk up intensely. "And anyway, the hotel is ten kilometers from his home. He's good."
"The calls are recorded," Taylor said. "Could there be usable evidence there?"
Probably. Richard passed along the information to someone who could do something about it, made sure he'd cleaned up his timelines with the coroner, and took Meguire's directive to head home afterwards to give the on-scene crew time to work. The paper the following morning had clapped a bold LAWYER'S WIFE MURDERED on the front with speculative paragraphs underneath implicating witnesses that would either be enraged to be implicated or take the finger-pointing as a cue to duck out of the country. "For god's sake, can't anyone keep their yap shut?" Richard exploded to Meguire over the phone. "Did anyone think for three seconds that we might've had a stronger lock on this if it wasn't immediately leaked to the press?"
"Guy's a multi-millionaire with a major press presence, don't waste time chewing holes in my hide about it," Meguire said. "There's nothing for you to do over here right now. I'll let you know when we get some more of our tests back. Just try to stay away from reporters for now and don't answer any questions until after the funeral tonight."
"Pisses me off," Richard seethed as he clunked the receiver back down. "Lost the best-paying case of the month to some mook what couldn't keep his hands to himself. This was good money. Just my luck the whole shebang bled out into a bathtub before I could collect."
"You ever notice you talk like a mob boss when you're super mad?" Conan said.
"Go to your room."
"It's your room too. You can't escape. Is there a reason we're not looking harder at Taylor?" Conan asked. "I know Meguire has his eyes on the associate Jacobus, but Taylor would be the only one with a real financial motive. Jacobus isn't going to get anything with Mr. Taylor's wife dead. Even if he killed her out of jealousy, why would he be stupid enough to linger around the crime scene afterwards? It makes no sense."
"Yeah, one thing: what about an alibi don't you understand," Richard said. "I was with Taylor ten kilometers away during the window. If you can substantiate whatever deal he made with the devil to teleport from one building to the other to stab his wife, be my guest."
Conan slid to the floor and grabbed his backpack in transit. "I didn't mean that literally," Richard said. "Sit down."
"To be honest, I'm sort of uncomfortable with this case and I don't feel useful with all the adult stuff going over my head," Conan said. "I'm going to go see if any of my friends want to hang out. I'll be back later."
Despite his distracted impatience, Richard dug his transmitter out of his pocket and waved it over his head. "Fine," Conan said. "How often."
"More than zero."
Conan left with his skateboard under his arm.
Richard teetered between a psychological need to be drunk and a professional need to be not drunk as Rachel helped prep him for the funeral service. "I don't know why I need to go to this," Richard said, wincing as she expertly finger-combed a tangle out from behind his ear. "He's not my client anymore and I didn't even know her. This is a waste of transit money."
"Because Inspector Meguire wouldn't have asked you if he didn't think it was necessary. Just play along to be polite."
"I have more important things to do than waste time being polite."
"Name literally just two," Rachel said.
He was still struggling to come up with the second one by the time his taxi reached the outskirts of the service. A little startled to realize how wingless he felt without the kids flanking him for once, he tried to keep himself inconspicuous on the fringes until Meguire noticed him and came to collect him. "Tell me you have a good reason for this," Richard muttered, watching the weeping mother fold her grief around a stick of incense. "You and I both know I don't need to be here. I stick out."
"You clean up fine." Meguire's eyes had skated past the mother and lodged on the business associate. The tag on his chest read JACOBUS. "Something's screwy."
"The coroners reported some discrepancies with the TOD and something about the tape isn't adding up. It's too early to get anything persuasive, but I wanted extra eyes here in case either one of them decides this is the time to open any cans of worms."
"Who'd start something at a funeral?"
"A person with nothing to lose, and right now we've got two of them. Just keep it together and tell me if you detect anything before it starts."
Richard was just probing around the outskirts to see if he could detect a vending machine with ramen cups or a friendly neighborhood corndog cart when the cacophony of overheated brakes jerked his attention up. He imploded with six aneurysms when Rachel and Conan spilled out of the taxi at the end of the drive, pelting up towards him. "What's on fire," he blurted, then yelped when Conan jerked him around by his wrist without slowing, wheeling him back towards the main building. "Conan—"
"No time to explain." Conan was in for breath as he ran. "We have to get back. It'll all make sense in a minute."
Richard stumbled again over his feet in surprise as they collided with an unexpected wall of noise. Jacobus had surged into Taylor's space to scream accusations at him as the family parted to the fringes of the room, confused and terrified by the explosion of antagonism. At Richard's noisy reentry, Taylor whirled on him. "Him," he snarled. "He can confirm my alibi. Even if I wanted to kill her, it wouldn't have been possible for me to have any hand in this tragedy. Say it, Moore. Say where I was at 1500. Tell everyone here."
Abruptly pinned beneath seventy pairs of questioning eyes, Richard felt a familiar surge of stage fright shrivel his hamstrings. Rachel elbowed his back and the impact forced the air out of his throat. "I can vouch for him, but—"
"Jacobus, was it?" Taylor turned a jeer onto the man opposite him. "The 'associate'? Why not tell us about yourself? Where were you on the day my beautiful, innocent wife was killed?"
"Might be a good idea, Steve." Meguire's arms were folded as he kept himself out of the direct line of fire, but his tone had grown taut and he didn't look all that thrilled with the timing of Richard's distraction either. "Seeing as you're throwing out accusation, you might as well come clean on your own alibi while we're all here."
Richard quite honestly had mostly forgotten who the fuck Jacobus was. He glanced around himself for an exit to resume his hunt for corn dogs and felt Conan latch onto the back of his knee, preventing an escape. "I was tricked." Jacobus was in tears. He'd fumbled in his pocket and Richard saw Meguire tense a bit, hand straying towards his hip. "I only came here because of Catherine's letter. I'm innocent."
"'I'll be waiting for you at 1430, love Catherine'," Meguire read. He brusquely flipped it over to show Taylor. "Her writing?"
"Yes, but that's an easy enough thing to forge," Taylor said. "And this is all beside the point. He was on the scene when this happened and none of the staff were in the building. This is cut and dried already, Inspector. I'm not sure what other proof you need. Arrest him before he has a chance to flee the scene and maybe I'll turn a blind eye to BPD's gross incompetence."
"Richard, cut it out," Conan hissed, pushing against his leg more forcefully when he felt Richard try to retreat. "Just wait."
The hemispheres of Richard's brain crawled like two brawling ant colonies. He couldn't take his eyes off the broken mother still weeping on the floor by her daughter's ashes, hands folded in prayer around the stub of incense. It wasn't often he was irritated with Meguire and that was why it took him so long to recognize his own problem.
He made a snap decision. "Look, he couldn't have killed Catherine," he called, loudly interrupting. "I was there. Besides, Jacobus ruined my case and cost me money."
He saw Rachel flinch into her hands. Jacobus looked at him with pale snarling grief and Richard counted exits as he closed the distance. The mother kept weeping in rasping little gasps at their feet and his peripheries caught the blink of Meguire's cuffs and the shuffle of officers closing the trap from the opposite end.
Taylor was smiling sharkishly at Jacobus. Richard lifted his hand to—
There was a ringside parade of synesthesia over his head. Meguire was shouting and somewhere beyond him was a froth of violent sensory data as a man cursed and clawed for the exits. Something crashed to the floor hard enough to make Richard's teeth rattle. "Hey." Conan's tone was a jarringly calm, assertive contrast to the cacophony behind them both. Richard felt him catch his chin and steer it up. "Get this down, okay?"
Okay. The familiar flavor made him cluck his tongue sleepily. Taylor screamed as he fought off the restraining hands and somewhere to his left the mother was sobbing again, loud and ugly and ignored at the foot of her daughter's memorial.
"Good job," Conan said, and Richard—
He was at the pond out near the back entrance and the fat ducks wouldn't get any closer to him no matter how much he pretended his pocket lint was bread. "It's time to go back," Conan said. "Rachel's looking for you."
His stomach was lead and chalk dust. Richard waited for nausea to hit but all he got was a vague grease of grey behind his eyes when he blinked too long. At some point he'd taken his shoes and socks off.
Conan settled down next to him. He removed his glasses, setting them aside on the damp grass to massage his thumbs against his temples. "You have any bread?" Richard said.
Conan's head jerked up. "I usually bring crackers, but I think Rachel took them out," Richard said. "Did you bring any snacks over with you?"
"You're cogent," Conan said blankly.
He was hungrier than he was cogent but presumably not any hungrier than the fat ornery ducks. He'd admire their mercenary instinct if it didn't directly interfere with his own, which was his intense childhood desire to feed and maybe pet fat ducks. "How long have you been up there?" Conan asked.
"Since we got here."
"Why didn't you say anything?"
"You have bread or not."
Conan sighed, long and low. He settled his forehead back down against the jut of his knees. His hair was wilder than what was typical, mussed by humidity and the mad dash from the cab. "I solved the case, right?" Richard said. "Meguire seemed happy about it."
"How'd he get away with it?"
"Jacobus didn't get away with it. Remember? You deducted that it was the husband all along. Mr. Taylor made his wife wait in the guest room he always used for clients, then had her call the hotel at a predetermined time with a cell phone."
"Then you said that Mr. Taylor made you answer the unconnected call, and because nobody would ever suspect that the caller would be right in the next room, the ruse worked. But just after the business meeting with you ended, he went right next door and killed her. He then put the body in the laundry basket, dropped it down the laundry chute, and took the bundle back to his house to unload her there. The staple on the edge of the tub gave him away. It was the same staple used on the laundry bags at the hotel. Jacobus was innocent. He and Catherine were lovers and they'd planned to run away together after Catherine settled the divorce. Taylor killed her so she wouldn't strip him of half his fortune when she left him."
Neat. Pleased with his genius, Richard gave up on failing to coax the ducks over and leaned back on his hands, turning his face up to the fading patchwork sunlight between the branches as they shifted overhead. His arms wobbled at the position before his elbows locked. "As for the recorded call Taylor tried to use as evidence of his alibi, it actually almost worked except for one catch: you noticed there was a note missing in the wake-up chime that played in the background of the recording," Conan said. "Since music boxes are sort of like fingerprints and that effect would be hard to duplicate, it was easy for you to deduce that the call came from the next room once you double-checked the wake up time there. Great, right? You're so smart, Uncle. Everybody was really impressed."
"No shit they were. That's why I was there."
Conan waggled his feet absently at the pond.
There was a golf course near here that Richard could take Yoko to when she had a second. His golf game was mean but hers was so much satisfyingly meaner. He loved a woman who knew how to work a club.
Conan said, "I guess maybe I'm sort of confused by one thing, though."
"Did you really think it was Jacobus at first? When you were trying to break up the fight, I mean?"
"Dunno. Could've been him, might not have been. I wasn't a hundred percent yet."
"But why were you shouting those things at him? You even made that weird comment about him costing you money and that's why you wanted him to be guilty. You acted like you were so sure."
"Because Jacobus was being a dick and I wanted him out of there," Richard said. "Yeah he cost me money, and I won't pretend I didn't want to stick it to him, but it was just a bonus. Regardless of who the murderer was, this wasn't the time to bring it up. That was a time for the family to grieve and he stole that away from them for his own selfish bullshit. Now the family has to live with Catherine's death and remember the clown show that was supposed to be their final goodbyes to her, just so he could get his drama in the spotlight."
"You didn't want to make a scene." Conan was talking to himself slowly. His dawning realization was angled away as he turned his gaze out towards the other end of the pond. "You wanted it to be him so you could get him out and let the mother grieve."
"At that point I didn't care who was guilty. Taylor was being quiet about it, Jacobus wasn't." Richard didn't realize a cigarette had migrated into his mouth until Conan coughed a little at the shift of wind. His subconscious always knew how to pamper his id. "Whatever else needed to be figured out could be done later."
"So the truth waited in line," Conan said.
Richard bobbed the cigarette on his lip. "You're not throwing up," Conan said. "I guess your stomach feels okay then?"
"I don't know."
"You didn't throw up last time after your meditation either. And you came out a lot faster."
"What about it."
"Nothing." Conan was down to a breath again. He went back to kneading his temples, but it was redolent of a self-soothe rather than anything mechanically productive. He looked desperately tired.
Richard wondered if Meguire would be willing to front dinner for the second time that week. They weren't cheap dates but Meguire was responsible enough with his budget to have disposable income that Richard lacked. As long as they caught him at the right moment with the right arsenal, Meguire caved like flan. "Are you ready to stand up?" Conan asked.
"I want to feed the ducks."
"It's getting dark. They're going back to their nests. We should take the hint."
"You didn't check in this afternoon," Richard remembered. "What did I tell you about not checking in and me calling the cops."
Conan's eye contact was rare and terrible. He slowly slid his transmitter from the pocket of his trousers and pressed the button directly in front of Richard's eyes. Richard's pocket buzzed in morse. "Next time I'll arrest you for being a nosy pain the ass," Richard told him anyway, and lay back despite Conan's protests to nap on the squelching moss until Rachel gave up and started screaming into the trees for him.
He didn't throw up that night either.