Shadows in the Light: Oscar’s Story – Chapter Four (This one is picture heavy.)
Making the decision was the easy part. How to go about achieving my goal was something totally different. Max was fragile, and what I had to tell him wasn’t going to be easy on him. There wasn’t a choice, though. I needed him ready to move.
I stood up, walked over to the tiny desk, turned the chair around, and plunked down.
“Okay, so we seem to have a situation here. I’ve got something I need to tell you, and I know you’re not going to want to hear it, but I don’t have the time to break it to you gently.”
His gaze narrowed as though he were assessing me. Seeing those eyes of his, darting up and down, still freaked me the fuck out. I needed my curiosity sated before I could continue.
“First off, what’s up with your eyes?”
He lifted a hand and touched right below one of them. “What do you mean?”
“They’re… One’s blue and one’s brown.”
“Shit. He turned his gaze to the table. “I… I must have lost a contact. They’re both supposed to be blue.”
He scrubbed a hand over his face. There was a sadness there, and it wanted to be acknowledged, but we needed to push on. And Max was about to learn, I don’t do subtle very well.
“Fine, whatever. Listen, this isn’t going to be pleasant, and I’m sorry about that, but we need to get out of here. Tonight your family was murdered. They were stabbed to death by someone who, I believe, wants me to think you did it.”
That got his attention. He practically flew out of his seat, his fists clenched at his side. “You’re lying!”
It was wrong of me, but time wasn’t on our side. I pulled the bag I’d stuffed his clothes into and tossed it to him. He pulled it open and for a second, I thought he was going to break down or, worse, puke again. Instead he fisted the bag in his hand and turned that freaky gaze of his on me.
The kid had a set on him, I won’t deny it. He was a solid foot shorter than me, slender, and judging by how soft his hands looked, he definitely was not a scrapper. But he stood there and stared me down. If he thought I was going to blink first, he was mistaken.
“I found you in the room, passed out behind the couch. There were seven other people there. All of them were dead, stabbed multiple times by a butcher knife that you had in your hand. So either you did it and you’re lying to me, or someone is trying to set you up. Now, Max, tell me which one it is.”
He deflated like a pricked balloon. His body went slack, and he turned away from me, his breathing hitched.
“Look, I’m sorry to be an asshole. But if they’re after you, I need to know why. Is it about the money?”
That got his attention. He turned back toward me, his face set into a stony mask. “What money?”
“The information I got was that you were going to kill your family for the money.”
His expression turned to one of rage. “That’s bullshit! I would never hurt them. I loved my family, and I know they loved me. As for the money? There was no money. Not a goddamned dime.”
Now I knew he was lying to me. “I was in your house. I saw everything.”
“What you saw was the house I grew up in. The one that my father had leveraged so much, he lost it all when the housing market collapsed. He and my mother were trying to come up with a way to save the place, but there was no way.” He sighed. “He had deep pockets, but there wasn’t enough to pull him out from under the mountain of debt that was crushing him. The bank had sent them a letter saying that they’d defaulted on their loan, and they were going to lose it all.”
Shit. None of my information had said anything about that. Had Knight known? He had to. Knight always knew. The thought he hadn’t given me all the information made my stomach twist. And, what made it worse, the idea Max was now in danger because of us? Hell no.
Max began brooding, and I couldn’t blame him. I had been pretty blunt when I told him about this family, but I didn’t regret it. With what he told me, so many things added up and others began to paint a picture I didn’t like. There was no way Knight didn’t know about this. He was the man who had several sources he gathered his information from. He was so fucking anal about it, he refused to send me on a mission until I had the most minute details about my target.
The why of it escaped me. What reason did he have to lie? And how was Max involved? One thing I was certain of, I couldn’t leave Max on his own. If Knight—or whoever was doing this—got wind of the fact Max wasn’t dead, they’d sure as shit come after him. I sighed.
“We’ve found ourselves in a bit of a pickle here.”
Max chuckled. “My mom says…said that, too.”
His expression returned to the sad one and it bugged me that I didn’t like seeing it.
“I am sorry about your family. I know it doesn’t help, and I wish I could have prevented it.”
I knew his reaction times were off because of the drugs, but when his eyes went wide and his fear became so overpowering, I could practically smell it, I knew the reality had finally hit home.
“Why were you at my house?”
Not one to mince words, I decided to go with the truth. If I wanted Max to trust me, I had to be aboveboard with him. Not that what I was about to say would help cement a trust. “I went there to… kill you.”
He scrambled toward the door, but I was on him immediately.
“Get off me! Help!”
I clamped a hand over his mouth. He continued to struggle beneath me. “Listen to me. I am not here to hurt you now. I work for an organization whose job it is to take out people who are after others. I was told you were there to murder your family, and it was my job to stop you. I don’t think you did it, but someone is trying awfully hard to make me think it was. Do you have any idea who would do something like that?”
Max gave a small shake of his head.
“If I take my hand away, will you listen and promise not to yell?”
This time a small nod. I didn’t even have my hand away from his mouth before he started crying out again and trying to buck me off him. I slapped my hand back where it had been. I’d never been in a situation like this before. Max should have been dead, and I was supposed to be on my way home.
“Listen to me. I’m not going to hurt you. Yes, you have no reason to believe me, I get it. But right now, I’m the only person who has a chance at keeping you alive. Do you understand me? If I wanted to hurt you, I would have done it already.”
His struggles lessened, but the mistrust in his eyes didn’t. When I pulled my hand away this time, he didn’t make a sound.
“This is so screwed up.”
Wasn’t that the understatement of the decade?
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Shit. I hadn’t even considered what to do with him. Sure as hell couldn’t call Bishop and say I needed a safe house for him. When I realized there was only one place I could take him I knew he’d be safe, I groaned.
“You ever been to Sequim, Washington?”
Sequim was often referred to as the lavender capital of North America. They grew the shit everywhere. Admittedly, it smelled nice, but sometimes it could be a little overpowering. I owned a tract of land there, five amazing acres right on the beach of the Salish sea. We’d driven twenty-six hours, then jumped on the ferry. Most of the trip, Max slept. He awoke just as the gated entry to the house—interlocking hearts, believe it or not—swung open. He blinked when he saw the gates.
I shrugged. “Thought about changing them when I got the place, but figured people were already comfortable seeing it, and I didn’t want anyone nosing around. Easier to leave them be.”
We continued along the drive, and the house came into view.
“You live here?” Max’s voice was filled with awe. He hadn’t said much since I rented a car to bring us here. It sucked for him, having lost his family, to be dragged into something he didn’t understand. I honestly wished there could be another way, because right now everything in him had to be in turmoil.
“I do.” I held out a hand and turned slowly, showing off the stunning views of the place. What do you think?”
He blinked a few times. “It’s beautiful.”
And it was. When I found the place, I knew it was going to be my home. I paid a local company to do the landscaping, which was right out of an arboretum—trees and shrubs I didn’t know the names of, blended in a sea of color with flowers of every hue. As we walked toward the house, Max’s gaze was drawn to the small wooden bridge that covered a creek that filled the air with a cacophony of frogs in the summertime.
The stream led to a manmade pond, which had concrete benches sitting near the waterside. It was a great place to go and think about nothing at all.
I ushered him toward the house. When the door swung open, his breath caught as we stepped into the living room. Tiered wooden hutches surrounded a marble and glass fireplace, which was lit when the breeze came off the ocean, where you could sit and gaze out the large panes of glass.
His voice was soft, reverent, when he stood at the windows. “Oh, damn.”
If he thought that was impressive… I showed him to the bedroom he would be using while he stayed here.
“You’re kidding, right?”
That was the first thing I said to myself every time I walked into the room. It was the smallest bedroom in the house, but it had a spectacular view of the sea.
“The beach is private, so you’re welcome to go down there to sit. I’m going to ask that you not venture off the property until I can get this sorted out. I need to ensure you’re safe.”
He shook his head. “This is all too much. Yesterday I was an artist, learning to paint in different mediums. Today I’m running from someone who apparently wants me dead.” He barked out a harsh laughed. “And don’t even get me started on why I’m trusting the man who came out and told me he had come to kill me.”
Max dropped to the bed like a rock, and buried his face in his hands.
“I can’t believe they’re gone. And my nieces and nephew.” He looked up at me, and tears filled his eyes. “Why would someone do this to them?”
I had no answer that I could give him. He cried for hours over their loss, and I could do nothing but watch. It wasn’t the performance that proved to me that Max hadn’t done it. It was the fact that his grief was as raw and genuine as anything I’d ever seen. I’d seen that haunted look every time I looked in the mirror after my brothers were wiped out.
I sat down on the bed and took his hand. “I’m not sure, but I swear to you I’ll find out.” It was a promise I wouldn’t take lightly.
After Max fell asleep, I trudged into my office. My options were limited now. The only sure thing was that Max needed to be protected. I considered contacting an outside security firm to send a bodyguard, but that wouldn’t work. Knight had his fingers in a lot of pies, and I couldn’t chance him finding out Max was with me.
I pulled my phone out and sent him a text. I’m back. Decided to take the scenic route home.
The reply was immediate. Glad to have you home. Cleaning crew took care of situation. No cases pending, enjoy some time off.
I put my phone away without replying. I grabbed my laptop and went to the website of the Milwaukee newspaper. There on the Metro section was the story about Max’s house being torched. The bodies that were found inside, and how they’d been brutally murdered. The details of the pending bankruptcy. Yet another thing that didn’t add up. Normally, Knight would send someone in to spin a story. The bodies of the victims never should have been found.
I wanted to slam my computer down, but didn’t want to disturb Max. I put it on the table, went to the window and opened it wide. The cool breeze and the relaxing scent of the ocean always calmed me. Not tonight, though. If I had any doubts about whether something was rotten, this blew them away. I wasn’t sure how or why, but Knight had been in on the murders of Max’s family. My boss—no, my friend—wasn’t the man I thought he was. He was as bad as the people who I got paid to take out.
I went to the sofa that sat near the window. It allowed me to look out at the sea and focus my thoughts. Tonight that wasn’t happening. Memories and facts collided in my head. The many times that Knight had my back, the knowledge he’d even accepted someone like me in the first place, and the laughs we’d shared during my time with the agency. But Max was asleep in his room. He was living, breathing proof that something was seriously wrong. I needed to figure out what it was and, if it turned out that Knight was involved, how I would deal with it.
The sigh from the hallway had me turning to find Max standing there, hands fidgeting.
“Can’t sleep. I keep thinking about my family. Heather would have been eight in a few weeks. Josiah lost his front tooth, and he was so proud of it. And Lou—” His voice broke and the tears were back again. “Can I sit with you?”
I gestured to the nearby chair. “Yeah, of course.”
I expected him to go sit where I indicated. Instead he gingerly sat next to me.
He wasn’t telling me something I didn’t know. “Anyone in these circumstances would be.”
“It’s just… I don’t have anyone I can talk to now. My family is gone. My parents. My brothers. My sister. Now it’s just me.”
Brothers? There were only two adult males in that room. I knew one of them had to be his father, and based on the resemblance I could only assume the other was his brother. Did I miss a body in the house? I never checked the whole thing. I didn’t want to give Max false hope, so I said nothing.
“Why don’t you try and get some rest?”
He nodded and stood up. He turned to face me, nibbling on his lower lip. “You won’t… You won’t leave, will you?”
“No, I won’t be going anywhere.” Though I knew Lilah would be pissed if she found out, especially since someone had already drugged Max, I had to ask. “Do you want me to see if I have something to help you sleep?”
He shook his head. “Would you believe I never used a drug since I was like thirteen? The guys at school were talking about pot, and they wanted me to get high with them. I said no. No aspirin, no cold medication. Nothing. And now, someone puts it into my body without my knowledge. Guess being good only gets you so far in life.”
He turned and shuffled back to his room, went inside, and closed the door behind him. I lay my head back against the couch and closed my eyes, waiting for sleep to take me. I sat there for hours, watching as the curtains billowed out, the breeze from the sea getting stronger. We were probably due for a storm. As close as we were to the water, flooding was a possibility. It hadn’t happened yet, but I figured one day it would.
I closed the window, not wanting the rain to get in. Maybe it was time I should get to sleep, too. I yawned and stretched, groaning when the muscles protested. I hadn’t gotten a workout done in a couple days, so I was due one tomorrow. Maybe that—
A peal of thunder rattled the house. The lightning flash that followed had been so bright, it illuminated the house as if it were midday. When I heard Max scream, I took off for his room and threw the door open. He lay wound up in the sheets, struggling to get free. I hurried over to him and put a hand on his chest to keep him still, while I unwrapped him. He slept through it, thank goodness.
Tomorrow would be another day for him to recall what he lost, and wonder if it was best he couldn’t remember. I glanced at the clock. Almost eleven. I slipped the phone from my pocket. I knew I shouldn’t, but I dialed Lilah’s number.
“Hey, Oscar.” She yawned. “What can I do for you? Is everything all right?”
“He’s having nightmares. His world is shattered, and there isn’t anyone he knows who can pick up the pieces.”
“Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you brought him home with you, so his physical and mental wellbeing has to be your responsibility.”
Me? “Oh, fuck no.”
“Then who else is he going to go to? Did you tell Knight about him?”
“No! And you better not say a fucking word.”
She huffed a breath. “I gave you a promise, and you know I never say anything I don’t mean.”
Lilah was an amazing woman. I trusted her to care for me on many occasions. A knife wound in the thigh, a gunshot through my side. Each of them had seen Lilah’s tender mercies. To say she was the devil was selling her short. I think she had a lot higher aspirations. But she was loyal and true. Her first priority had always been to her patients rather than the organization.
I filled her in on every scrap of information I had put together, which, I reminded her, was a lot of speculation on my part. “I’m going to have tread carefully if I’m going to do this at all.” No one could know what I was up to.
“You know you’re stepping onto a fire ant hill, right?”
Yeah, I knew. “What choice do I have? Knight might have had a hand in several murders. I can’t let that slide, and I sure as hell won’t let Max be hurt.”
“I get that. Really. But you better make damn certain that Knight is who you think. Because you’re running the risk of losing a friend if it goes south.”
Yeah, another thing I was fully aware of.
***** For those interested in seeing the home*****