Authors: Nicole Kimberling
Tags: #LGBT Suspense
Peter sidled up beside her. “Can I help you with something?”
She jumped and smoothed her straightened and streaked blonde hair, and glanced past Peter toward a black truck that sat idling close by.
Her ride, clearly.
Flame decals decorated the side panels along the truck bed, but the tinted windows didn’t allow him to see the driver’s face. Neither of these features was uncommon in the county, but Peter took note of the truck because it contained a large black goat. Again, animals in the backs of pickups were not unusual in this neck of the woods, but they were normally dogs.
The girl, who had recovered herself somewhat said, “I’m sorry, I thought this was my friend’s truck.” She went to retrieve the note, but Peter stepped between her and the windshield.
“Is your friend Shawn?”
She smiled. “That’s right. Do you know where he is? I really, really need to talk to him.”
Probably really, really needed to buy some pot from him, more likely, Peter thought ungraciously. Aloud he said, “Shawn’s taken a short vacation. You should try calling him.”
“I did, but he’s not answering.”
The driver of the truck honked, and the girl jumped again. She made a second attempt to grab her note from under the windshield wiper, but Peter was quicker. He pocketed the folded square of paper, saying, “I’ll make sure to give this to him, Miss…?”
“Thanks, I’ve got to go now.” She turned and practically ran back to the truck, which started rolling away before she even got the passenger-side door closed. Peter watched them peel out along 542, heading east toward Maple Falls. Mud spattered the whole back of the truck, including the license plate.
Not that Peter had any way of looking up a license plate number, anyway. He sipped his coffee and watched the car until it rounded a bend on the two-lane blacktop.
Then he unfolded the note.
It had been scribed in big, bubbly handwriting:
Fucker. We will eat your soul.
And there was a pentagram. Inverted, of course.
Peter pondered the note for a moment before replacing it in his pocket and heading back into town.
Unless Shawn had become engaged in some kind of live-action role-playing game, he seemed to be in some serious shit.
* * *
Peter’s last stop was a Mexican restaurant directly across the street from the Vitamilk building where Nick had his studio. Because Peter felt it was better to apologize than to ask permission, he was always in the position that he was in now—having to say he was sorry for not asking Nick about the kitten before he’d agreed that it could stay with them.
It wouldn’t do any good to prolong the agony. He figured he should cross the street now and see if Nick was mad at him.
Originally a dairy distribution warehouse, the Vitamilk Building had been converted into cheap studio space sometime in the mid-eighties. Nick and seven other artists, whose prestige and talent ranged from international gallery quality to church craft fair…er, fare, produced masterpieces in the dingy interior. It was where Nick and Peter had first met, when Peter had walked in on Nick, bent over the body of Shelley Vine at what looked like the scene of a murder.
Well, in fairness, it
been the scene of a murder, but Nick hadn’t been the culprit. Still, he’d been covered in blood.
Not exactly the best first impression, but somehow Peter had decided to ask him out anyway. The rest was history.
Walking up the wide stairs to the second-story studios, Peter always had a glimmer of a memory of that night. It had been the first time he’d ever seen a dead body, though, as it turned out, not the last.
He had no idea why Nick stayed here after that. He had enough money to rent a better space. Hell, Walter had had a better studio built into his house. It had climate control and ventilation. Nick never went into the room except to access his camping gear, which was all that he stored in that state-of-the-art facility.
Peter would have thought that Nick enjoyed the camaraderie of the Vitamilk Building, except he always kept his door closed, no matter how hot or cold it got. It was closed now, and Peter knocked, as he always did.
No matter how long they lived together, Peter didn’t think he would ever be able to just walk into Nick’s studio. It was Nick’s sanctum, seeming almost a sacred space—if Peter had believed in sacred spaces, which, as an investigative reporter, he most certainly did not. He dearly yearned to rifle through the drawers and canvases of Nick’s studio, leaf through the books, sniff the assorted solvents, and otherwise stick his nose into Nick’s creative business.
But Nick liked his privacy, and Peter wanted to keep him, so he always knocked and, like a lurking vampire full of hope, waited to be invited in before crossing the threshold.
Nick answered the door and invited him in, his expression not as hostile as Peter had imagined it might be. Warm afternoon light slanted in the large, mottled windows to illuminate Nick’s most recent canvas—an abstract expressionist seascape.
He wore his typical autumn studio gear: an old army T-shirt, paint stained and so threadbare that Peter could clearly see the outline of his muscular torso. Nick’s only concession to the chill air had been to put on a pair of fingerless gloves, which lent him an air of starving, turn-of-the-century Paris Bohemian.
Peter perched himself on a three-legged stool that Nick had installed specifically for this purpose. He wasted no time, just got down to business.
“Are you mad about me offering to take care of the cat?”
Nick glanced over at him. “I’m not happy about it, but I’m not mad. I thought you were doing the
“I just finished.”
Nick nodded, taciturn as ever—but not more taciturn. That was a good sign.
After painting a few wide strokes, Nick said, “I guess as long as we don’t end up keeping the cat, it’ll be all right.”
“Did I say anything about keeping the cat?”
“You like cats.” Nick spoke as though delivering incriminating evidence at a trial.
“You get a cat, you’re going to get attached to the cat and end up keeping the cat. And I’m just not really a cat person,” Nick said. “If we got any pet, I think I’d prefer a dog.”
“Yeah, a big dog, right?” Peter crossed his arms and leaned against the wall behind him. The chilly mid-October air seeped in through wide cracks in the window frames.
“I like retrievers.” Nick didn’t look away from his painting. Nor did Peter expect him to. After spending hours and hours in Nick’s studio, he’d grown used to having conversations during which little or no eye contact was ever made.
“Regardless of the fact that you suspect me of being some kind of stray-cat sympathizer, I do not want to keep this cat forever. I just want to give her a hand until she’s better, because nobody is going to want to adopt a mangled little dehydrated cat.”
“She’s not mangled.”
“She’s definitely not completely whole,” Peter countered. “And I don’t know why you’re getting so bent out of shape about a having a cat houseguest for a couple of weeks. I live with your dead husband’s furniture every day, and I don’t complain.”
Even as the words were leaving Peter’s mouth, he knew he should not have said them. And yet, he had. More shockingly, to himself at least, he hadn’t even known he was going to say them.
Normally when he was going to fire a shot across the bow of Nick Olson, he rehearsed. He carefully chose his words. He didn’t just say whatever the hell he was thinking the absolute moment that it occurred to him.
Nick dropped his paintbrush into a jar of solvent, fixed Peter with his Viking blue eyes, and said, “Where the fuck did that come from?”
Peter himself did not know where the fuck that had come from. But he also intuitively knew that the words he’d spoken were nonetheless true. Peter replied, “I know I didn’t pay for the Castle. My name isn’t on the title, but I live there too, and I think I should get to make some sort of decision about it. That’s all I meant.”
“But we’re not talking about the house. We’re talking about a cat.” Nick picked up his brush again, swished it though the solvent.
“Are you allergic to cats?”
“No, but—” Nick began, but Peter cut him off.
“Are you afraid of cats?”
“Of course I’m not.”
“Then why are you fighting with me? She weighs less than a pound. She’ll be there for maybe a couple of weeks. How much trouble could she be?” Again, even as he spoke, Peter knew that his argument was anything but watertight. A single kitten could cause quite a lot of trouble, and he knew it. But he stared levelly at Nick anyway, daring him to call him on it.
He daubed his brush in Naples yellow paint and said, “I’m not fighting with you at all, and I’m not bent out of shape. I already said she could stay until she’s better.”
Suddenly embarrassed that the fight that he’d been preparing to put up seemed now irrelevant, Peter said, “Thank you.”
Nick shrugged, saying nothing. What started off as a pause stretched into silence. Peter couldn’t tell if he was getting the cold shoulder or if Nick had just become absorbed in his work. Either way he’d won Battle Kitten.
Even as he savored this victory, he realized that he didn’t have anything to keep a kitten in, not even a carrier to get one home. He decided that before he returned to the Castle, he should call on someone who did.
Peter’s best friend, Evangeline, had been his roommate during the last half of college as well as three grim post-baccalaureate years when neither of them could find a real boyfriend. During that time he’d grown very attached to her late three-legged cat, Tripod, and grown well acquainted with her family, since he was her usual date for any holiday-related event. It wasn’t that Peter didn’t have a family. It was simply that his own parents had moved to Austin some years back, and flying to visit them in Texas more than once a year rarely fit into his schedule.
Since then, both Evangeline and he had shacked up with men who suited them. Tripod had passed away, but Evangeline and her lover, Tommy, had recently acquired a young wiener dog from the Whatcom County Humane Society. The wiener dog had been scooped up along with seventeen other mixed-breed dogs in a raid on an animal hoarder who lived out in the county. Being a sucker for runts, Evangeline had picked the sickliest of the animals, nursed him back to health, and named him Mitch.
Peter resisted the urge to draw a correlation between the injured wiener dog and his own disastrous mental state when Evangeline had taken him in during his junior year of college. She was the first person he’d come out to, and when, drunk and bleary, at six o’clock in the morning, he’d finally managed to spit the words out, she’d said, “It’s okay. I already knew that.”
Shortly thereafter he’d moved into her rented house. No one had seen him through as many sad and angsty nights as she had done. Even today, when he and Nick fought, she was the first person Peter autodialed. While what had just occurred hadn’t exactly been a fight, Peter dialed her anyway, out of habit. He explained the situation and asked if he she still had Tripod’s old cat carrier. She did. She invited him over to pick it up.
While driving up the hill toward her house, he explained how Nick was being a jerk. Like the best of friends, Evangeline was always ready to believe the veracity of any deficit he cared to relate about Nick, including today’s complaint about feeling alienated by furniture that Nick seemed attached to but Peter hated.
“So why does he care about all that stuff anyway? None of it is his,” Evangeline said.
“It’s all worth a lot of money,” Peter said. “Everything. The chairs, the rug, the art. He could buy a whole other house if he sold just one of the paintings.”
“Maybe he should,” Evangeline said. “That house isn’t very cozy.”
“It’s plenty cozy,” Peter protested.
“The living room is like some kind bank foyer. I always think I’m going to get charged an overdraft fee when I’m over there. ”
“Well, Walter did do a lot of foyer art, apparently. His paintings can be found in the lobby of many corporate headquarters. Anyway it’s a great venue for a party. We’ll be able to fit at least a hundred people in there on Halloween.”
“So Nick signed off on that?” Evangeline’s voice perked up. Since they’d been in college, he and she had hosted a Halloween masquerade ball. The event had steadily outgrown their and all their friends’ houses as well as increasing in sophistication from a keg-and-bonfire affair to a lavish display of costumes and vintage cocktails.
“Nick says he’s going to rent a limo to take people home at the end of the night.”
“Smart man. He gets to kick everybody out by a certain time, plus everyone stays safe.”
“He’s a safety-first kind of guy.” Peter rounded the corner and saw her standing on the front walk. He waved, and she returned the gesture. She pulled her big Cowichan sweater closer around her body. Because her current fashion obsession was handmade recycled clothing, she wore a voluminous knee-length skirt that had been assembled out of dismantled blue and yellow T-shirts. She wore no shoes, in spite of the October chill.
They embraced when they met. Her wavy hair smelled like patchouli and
, which Peter normally hated but found comforting when associated with her.
“Want to come in? I just baked some pumpkin bread.”
“Normal pumpkin bread?” Peter eyed her skeptically.
“Absolutely normal. No magic whatsoever. Tommy has to take a drug test to get that shipyard job, so he’s detoxing.”
“I can’t imagine it,” Peter commented. “How’s he holding up?”
“Pretty well. I agreed that I’d stop with him so he didn’t feel bad.”
“How is that going?”
“Good.” Evangeline cocked her head, thoughtfully. “Though our weekly consumption of beer has gone way, way up.”
Inside the house, clutter and chaos reigned. Like Nick, Evangeline had a studio in the Vitamilk Building, but that tiny space was completely inadequate to her storage needs. Her primary artistic medium was found objects, and the house was absolutely crammed with shelves full of shiny, twisty, or unique pieces of machinery, doll parts, beads, and the like—the exact opposite of the austere beauty of the Castle on Wildcat Cove. Living here had been awkward as well, with Peter constantly in danger of knocking over some precarious tower of objects.