A week later, the air blew warm and dry as it often did, even in early December. It seemed a bitter insult to late autumn—as confusing as it was unpleasant—yet it was a reminder that Rafe lived in a city reclaimed from the desert by chicanery and sheer force of will.
The haulers Spence recommended had come and gone, hefting what was left of Rafe’s garage and those possessions he’d stored in it into a big old farm truck and taking them away for a price that seemed not overly steep to him. There was nothing salvageable; they’d had to break down pieces of the garage itself, those timbers and bits of the roof that had caved and fallen in, to fit them into the vehicle. They made several trips.
Rafe’s insurance company was preparing to pay out—eventually. There would be the inevitable red tape in his near future, but in the meantime, he had enough savings to rebuild the structure. He wasn’t a wealthy man, but he lived more frugally than anyone he knew. In fact, he spent money only when others would think it odd if he didn’t—on his car and business wardrobe, or when out with his coworkers. With no wife, no children, and virtually no debt, he could afford a new garage if he needed one. For the time being, he supposed he could cover his car with a tarpaulin, but what a nuisance, having to take it off and put it on day in and day out.
The ultimate cost of the fire came to him in bits and pieces. He regretted the loss of his indoor Christmas decorations—unretrieved from where he kept them stored on a shelf he’d built specifically for the purpose as he’d been waiting until closer to the holiday to purchase a tree. The small canvas tent and a rucksack he’d planned to use in an upcoming trip to Yosemite were gone. It wasn’t until he watered his lawn that he realized all his gardening tools had gone up in smoke.
He was in such a sour mood it didn’t seem unreasonable to go back into the house, pull a beer from the Frigidaire, and sit on the floor with Mooki as the early dark of December encroached.
Mooki had been unhappy all day—insulted by the presence of workers who didn’t fawn over her and assaulted by the acrid stench of burned rubber and other filthy smells that caused her eyes to water and her delicate nose to burn. She’d sneezed angrily whenever he’d taken her to the backyard to do her business, preferring instead to drag him around the neighborhood looking for greener pastures. He tossed a small hard rubber ball, and Mooki chased it across the room. The opportunity to play with him seemed to soothe her and did much to restore his mood to normal as well.
He’d been just as unsettled as she was and had welcomed their walks. He’d become quite a fixture anyway, carrying a toy shovel and a brown paper bag for her emissions—no one would ever say Rafe Colman had left anything unpleasant on their lawn—and a walking stick to ward off unleashed dogs. He had no doubt he’d become a joke—that German nut who’d had his garage burned down. Still, he tipped his hat politely to his neighbors and maintained a not-so-discreet hauteur.
The ladies still seemed to love him, anyway.
A light tap on the door brought his attention back to the present. He hauled himself up and followed his excited dog to the foyer. She was surely thinking, At last, here’s someone who will give me the attention I deserve.
“Ruhig, Mooki.” He opened the door a crack and found Officer Morgan there, hatless, dressed in a suit and tie.
“Officer Morgan. This is a surprise.” Rafe stepped back to let him in, and Mooki went berserk, circling their ankles and nearly tripping them up.
“Good evening, Mr. Colman. I thought I’d stop by to see how you’re doing.” Morgan fidgeted with his keys. He had competent-looking hands with square fingers. For a moment, Rafe got lost looking at the fine hairs on the backs of his knuckles.
“Please come in.” Rafe backed out of the way. Morgan had seemed larger in his uniform—but even without it, his was an intimidating presence. “What can I do for you?”
“This isn’t an official call or anything. I wanted to let you know the detectives have a possible lead on this. Probably nothing will come of it, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
“I see. No matter. Damage done.” Rafe motioned his visitor toward the kitchen, where he planned to retrieve another beer. His bottle opener was still on the counter, and he picked it up, holding it thoughtfully before speaking. Should he offer something? Was that proper? “Would you care for some refreshment? I was about to have another beer.”
“Thank you. That would be just great.” Morgan lifted a hand to his tie but asked permission before he loosened it. “May I? I’ve just come from taking my mother to mass.”
“Make yourself comfortable. You took your mother to church? What a gentleman. You must make her very proud.”
“She’s an old-fashioned girl.” He shrugged off the compliment. Ben stuffed his tie into his pocket and took a beer—served in a glass with the perfect amount of foam. “She doesn’t like to go without family. After my father died…”
“You go every Saturday night?” Ben nodded. Rafe couldn’t help but smile. “You are a very good son, Officer Morgan.”
“Please, call me Ben. I see you were able to begin the cleanup process.”
“Ah, yes. Thanks to fine police investigation, they completed the insurance report on Thursday and gave me permission to have things hauled away. I am apparently covered for arson.”
“I believe your partner thought I did it myself.”
Ben stopped in the act of bringing his glass to his lips. “You think?”
“My brand-new car was elsewhere when my garage burned. I don’t blame him, but he isn’t a very subtle man.”
“No. He’s not. I’m sorry about that.”
“I did point out that if I wanted sympathy, I’d hardly put heil Hitler on the door.”
“Well, now…” Ben smiled. “You could be a spy of some sort.”
“You may laugh, but there was a time I passionately wanted to spy for the US against Germany. I had the language; I was familiar with the countries involved.”
“But you said your heart…?”
“Yes. I didn’t even know I had a problem, actually, until they told me. I rarely suffer from it. Occasional shortness of breath and palpitations, which I’d always attributed to overexertion or nerves. I was far too young to serve as a spy, but I imagined myself in the role. Then the war ended.”
“You might have made a good spy.”
“I would have been a great spy. I’m an excellent liar.” Before Rafe had a chance to regret saying that to a police officer, he changed the subject. “Follow me if you’d like more comfortable seating.”
Ben followed, and Mooki tagged along with them into the living room, her tapping toenails silenced as soon as they left the wood floor and crossed over the Oriental rug.
Was it his imagination, or was Rafe nervous? Ben supposed it was the normal reaction of having a policeman in one’s home. It was his experience that even his relatives acted out of character; they watched what they said around him.
The fastidious Rafe—who poured beer into pilsner glasses and provided cocktail napkins for his guests—sat in a wing chair, inviting Ben to take up a comfortable position on the couch. Ben placed his beer on a coaster on the coffee table between them.
“This is a nice place.” Ben glanced around. “Two bedrooms?”
“Three.” Rafe shrugged. He took a pipe from the table next to him and held it up. “Do you mind?”
Ben shook his head. “I like it, actually.”
Ben watched Rafe’s hands with interest. The act was precise and practiced. Rafe packed his pipe, then removed a wooden match from a box bearing the name of a local, swanky restaurant, He struck the match against the box, watching it flare for a second before putting it to his pipe and pursing his lips. He drew a number of puffs to ignite the tobacco, after which he blew out a thin stream of smoke with a deeply satisfied sigh.
“I work from home sometimes, and it’s ideal to have an office here.”
“It will be ideal for a family someday.” Ben watched him carefully when he said it, but it drew not a flicker of response. “I take it there’s no imminent Mrs. Rafe Colman?”
“I’m afraid not,” came the easy reply. “For all my immense personal charm, I have no luck keeping a young lady happy for long. Perhaps it’s because I can’t keep my eyes in my head.”
“That could make a girl unhappy.”
“There are just so many lovely girls. Don’t you find?” Smoke billowed into the air. Ben felt uncomfortable all of a sudden, as though Rafe was able to see right through him. As if Rafe was filling the air with smoke to create a barrier between them. “Girls are always ready to throw themselves at a man. What can one do?”
“Poor man,” Ben said, a little too sharply.
Rafe blinked. “I’m sorry. I don’t ever seem to say the right thing with you, do I?”
“Maybe it’s me.” Ben looked into his glass. Should he go?
“I make a very fine living saying the right thing to everyone. For the most part, it’s like a running tap. It seems to shut off when you’re around.”
Ben sipped his beer to hide his pleasure at this. He liked keeping people off balance; it was in his nature to poke at things to see what the result might be. He’d been told his curiosity was discomfiting, but it didn’t stop him. He thought he was more a stickler for honesty than most. “That or I’m some idiotic, prickly bastard who shouldn’t be around people much.”
“No. That’s not it.” Rafe’s face registered something like regret. “I think you may be like one of those polygraph machines. You should be a detective, not a policeman.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m working on that.”
“Does that mean you will wear horrible, shiny suits and gum shoes?”
“Certainly. I’ve been reading detective stories all my life, and I’d be disappointed not to.”
In the silence that fell between them, Ben found himself thinking about Dashiell Hammett and how Rafe reminded him of Nick Charles—elegant and effortlessly appealing—whereas he had more in common with Sam Spade. Sam Spade had seen things. He knew things—about life, about people—that made him an outsider and, at the same time, the ultimate chameleon. A neutral man in a black-and-white world. He wondered if Rafe would agree with the comparison.
Colman drew him. He was urgently attracted to the dapper Austrian. He’d come there that evening to poke at Colman, to drop the tiniest hint that they might have something more in common than a crime scene. To convey in some perfectly harmless way that he’d admired Colman’s composure, and more, that he felt connected to him somehow, that he might have liked—might imagine—Colman felt that too.
Nothing short of survival held him back.
When he glanced back up at Rafe, he found him wary. Maybe Rafe was a bit of a detective as well. If even the tiniest fraction of what Ben had been thinking showed on his face and Rafe saw it there, he might need to leave, and fast.
Rafe asked coolly. “Do you visit with all the people whose homes are vandalized, Ben?”
That yanked Ben back to earth with a thud. He clasped his beer in both hands and tried a bit of humor.
“All part of the service.”
“That must take a great deal of your free time.”
Ben finished off his beer in three large swallows and rose from the couch. “I’m afraid I’ve taken up enough of yours. Thank you very much for the beer.”
Rafe put his pipe down and stood. “You’re welcome.”
Rafe had grown formal so quickly Ben wondered if he’d click his heels. They made their way to the foyer, but in the end, Rafe only inclined his head, ever so slightly, in dismissal.
“You’ll let me know if anyone gives you any more trouble?”
“I will. Thank you for your concern, Ben.”
Once they reached the door, Ben turned. “It’s possible I’m a damned poor detective, but I’ve been in your home twice, and I haven’t seen a single photograph. You’re here alone on a Saturday night. There was one plate, one cup, and one fork in the sink.”
“So I haven’t done my dishes yet.” Colman thrust his hands into the pockets of his trousers. “I don’t believe that’s a crime.”
“Everything here”—Ben indicated Rafe’s living room—“is like movie set or an elaborate doll’s house. It feels cold. I guess when I met you, I thought you might be lonely.”
“I see.” Rafe was unreadable. In the face of his indifference, it was plain Ben had come to an erroneous conclusion. Still—Rafe hadn’t moved. He hadn’t reached out to take the knob in his hand, hadn’t conclusively opened the door to usher Ben out.
Ben’s heart contracted with fear, and his mouth went dry. If he was wrong about this… If he was reading things incorrectly—if he had Rafe Colman all wrong—there could be terrible consequences.
“I just thought…” He turned and oh so casually brushed Rafe’s forearm with his. It was the lightest touch a big man like him might deliver, and he was aware of every minute detail. Even through his suit jacket, he felt the warmth of Rafe’s body. When the bare skin of their wrists connected, the touch was so electrifying he nearly gasped. Surely Rafe must feel that? He let his hand linger for the briefest second, just enough for his little finger to brush Rafe’s, a seemingly accidental curl and slide along the skin, and gone.
The entire business was over in less than a second—just long enough for someone with experience, someone like-minded, to take his meaning and make a choice.
Ben watched Rafe’s face carefully, discovering to his dismay that he’d been clumsy again. Or worse. Rafe’s pupils had dilated, either with arousal or fear, but whatever it was, the reality wasn’t pleasant for him. He appeared shocked. He appeared revolted.
“Don’t.” Colman drew back with a gasp.
Oh, Colman understood all right. Knew what Ben was and what he’d intended by that. Christ.
Rafe rippled with strong emotion. “What makes you think…?”
“I’m sorry,” Ben said stiffly. “I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
Rafe’s voice dripped ice. “I think you understand perfectly.”
In a panic now, Ben stepped toward Rafe. He was a cop. He wasn’t going to let this get out of hand. If he had to intimidate—if he had to crush whatever threat was boiling up here, he’d do it—to hell with the consequences.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He rose to his full height, and even then he was only taller than Rafe by an inch. The difference was all bulk and attitude. “What exactly are you accusing me of?”
“Nothing.” Rafe swallowed. His accent thickened, and his face had gone pale. Even Mooki sensed a change; she’d dropped into a wary crouch and slunk closer to her master. “It’s nothing. Go. I wish you a pleasant evening, ja?”
After that exchange, Ben hated himself more than he usually did. “Good night, Mr. Colman.”
Rafe closed the door with shaking hands and leaned against it. His heart raced, and his chest ached. He couldn’t get enough air.
Mooki danced nervously along at his heels when he finally pushed away and stumbled to the drinks cabinet. He poured himself a good three fingers of whiskey. He got himself under control by about the third big sip, determined to rid himself of the sick, lingering aftertaste of terror.
It would pay to remember that Ben Morgan was a cop. Astute, intelligent, and highly curious. He planned to become a detective, but he was currently a rank-and-file member of the Los Angeles Police Department, where the unwritten policy with regard to unnatural men was entrapment. It would pay to remember how painfully—and at what tremendous cost—Rafe had learned that lesson.
© Z. A. Maxfield, December 2011
All Rights Reserved