May 2012 – Evening – Lachlan
Later, after they’d put away another beer each, and Alan had given up any pretense of trying to cheer him up, Lachlan said goodbye to his friend outside the bar and checked his phone for messages: nothing there except a voicemail from his mother that he couldn’t bring himself to delete but sure as hell wasn’t about to listen to tonight.
The days were just becoming long enough that it was still light outside when he entered his apartment building, the stairwell smokey with dust motes refracting off the setting light.
Amelia Hobbes must have been keeping an ear out for him because he hadn’t taken more than a single step onto her landing before she appeared to greet him, expectant expression giving her eyes a bit of life in contrast to that morning’s despair.
His guts twisted.
Her eyes fell away from his face.
In a moment of weak optimism, he touched two fingers to her shoulder and said, “I have to follow up on a couple things. I’m going to keep looking.”
Amelia nodded and patted his hand with icy cold fingers before she withdrew back into her apartment. Lachlan trudged up the last flight of stairs and threw himself onto his couch, feeling drained. Not tired precisely, but empty and worn down.
He flicked on the television for background noise and half dozed for an hour with the drone of FRIENDS episodes going in the background, none quite interesting enough to make him laugh.
Around 7 PM his phone rang and he swiped it on without thinking. It was his mother.
“Oh, Lachlan, I finally caught you, wonderful. You know, dear, I don’t think that voicemail of yours is working very well. I’ve left several messages today.”
“I’ve been working.”
“But today is your day off.”
“Living can be work too,” he mumbled.
“What was that?” she asked, a rebuke lurking under the words.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get your message.”
“Hmm, you should really call the phone company if something’s not working the way it’s supposed to. It looks very rude when you don’t return a person’s phone message.”
She made a dissatisfied noise and he could hear her sorting something on the other end of the line: something paper, maybe, from the soft swosh swoosh noise it made every couple of seconds.
“Well, I was just calling to see whether you planned to attend church this Sunday? I’ve been talking to Angel Perkins from the choir and…”
Lachlan closed his eyes and tuned out the rest of her sentence. He had little doubt that it would end with his mother telling him about how Angel Perkins’s second cousin’s youngest daughter would be perfect for him. Twenty-six years and she hadn’t given up trying to match him up with some nice girl from her church. Had, in fact, stepped up her efforts in the last two years since he stopped attending.
It was hard to sit in a pew and listen to someone sermonize about falling prey to the wickedness of magic users and the supernatural.
Everything was too complicated now for him to feel entirely comfortable listening to someone denounce werewolves as manifestations of Satan for an hour once a month. Not after—
“So, will I see you on Sunday?” his mother’s voice interrupted his straying thoughts.
“You know I have to work.”
She sighed. “I just don’t see why you can’t get them to change your schedule. You know they can’t discriminate against you for it if you requested Sundays off.”
“I know, Mom.”
He stood up, knee popping loudly after being still for so long, and limped into the kitchen. He didn’t keep a lot of alcohol on hand but he’d stashed a blue bottle of vodka in the freezer for conversations like this one. He set his cell phone down on the counter and poured half an inch of clear liquid in a juice glass.
“There’s no one else who can work Sundays,” he said, interrupting.
“But the same could be said about yourself, Lachlan, which is precisely my point.”
Vodka didn’t taste like anything to him, but it burned. It took an act of will to keep drinking it, as unpleasant as he found the sensation. The pain was worth it though if it blunted his mother’s voice in his ear tonight and the details of his conversation tomorrow. Worth it if it made it just a little bit easier for him to fall asleep later.
“Well, all right. If you’re sure. But maybe you can switch shifts. You should ask your co-workers. You never know when someone might be looking for a few extra hours and it doesn’t hurt to ask. You’ll ask, won’t you, Lachlan?”
“Sure,” he murmured, sipping the vodka.
“Good. Then I might see you on Sunday.”
Lachlan spent the rest of the evening reading through Julie’s Facebook page, sifting through comments and likes, cross-checking her friends’ pages when they were publicly viewable. It left him with a confused, twisted sensation in his stomach and restless thoughts enough to keep him tossing and turning well after midnight.
In the morning, he crawled out of bed and into rumpled clothes for work. He had the opening shift at the coffee shop (5 AM to 11:30 AM). After his shift ended, he sat at the bus stop for an hour, letting #21 drive past him twice before forcing himself onto it. Lachlan dug his nails into his palms all the way to Julie’s apartment.
“Why you doing this?” he muttered.
“What?” the woman next to him asked sharply.
“Sorry, just talking to myself.” Lachlan leaned his forehead against the cool glass window. He watched the street blur through the window, a dark grey smudge broken by rain as they pulled up a block away from Julie’s apartment building. He stuck his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders against the weather, jogging the last hundred feet to the front door.
As he stood there, getting soaked through in the atypically cool May shower, the lights in the building flicked off. Not one by one like they were being shut off by a person, but all together, at the same time. As though the grid had gone down. But the rest of the lights on the street remained on, pools of cool yellow against the grey day.
Lachlan jumped at the loud voice behind him. It was the same man—the werewolf—from the day before. He was taller than Lachlan remembered, thinner, all sharp elbows and sharper cheekbones. He might even have been considered attractive but for the dark circles under his eyes, the yellowish tint to his skin, and the obvious dirt under his nails. Not someone who took exceptional care of himself.
Lachlan was ready to shrug off the question but before he could beg pardon the werewolf had gotten right up in his space, teeth bared in a loosely controlled snarl—a show of dominance that made the hairs stand up on the back of Lachlan’s neck.
He tried to back away but the werewolf followed him.
“What the hell are you doing here? I remember you. You were here yesterday. But you don’t live here.”
The wolf’s nostrils flared, delicate pink skin moist and hairy.
“Just visiting a friend.”
But the other man wasn’t convinced. His eyes narrowed on Lachlan’s chest and he snarled. “You have to lie a lot better than that to fool me.”
“You mean to fool a were?” Lachlan snapped.
“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Times like this, Lachlan almost regretted giving up his badge. It would have been so simple to just flash it, to tack Officer onto the front of his name. It wouldn’t surprise anyone how many wheels the word “police” greased.
But here and now, he wasn’t anyone. Not anyone official at least. Just a barista on his day off, standing outside a dead girl’s apartment, being accosted by one of her neighbors because the wolf had stopped him before he could break into her apartment. Again.
Put that way, it didn’t cast him in the best light, did it?
“Look,” he said, raising his eyes in a sign of surrender. “I’m just here checking out a rumor. For a friend. That part’s true.”
The wolf frowned. It wasn’t technically a lie but it skirted the exact truth.
“Are you a reporter?”
“First honest thing you’ve said. Congratulations.” The man glanced back at the building, shoulders going tense and his mouth firming into a grim line.
“What?” Lachlan’s instincts sat up and took notice in the change in the other man’s demeanor. His heart started pumping harder, sweat broke out under his arms and on the back of his neck.
The wolf gave himself a full body shake. “It’s nothing. Stop distracting me.”
“I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing.”
“What? Did you hear about what happened and thought you’d get your kicks from ‘seeing the scene,’” the wolf made air quotes around the last part, a disgusted look on his face.
“What did happen?” Lachlan asked, seeing his chance uncover an insider’s opinion. He didn’t have access to the police reports anymore but he doubted they could tell him as much as someone who lived in the building. Especially one as openly off balanced as this wolf.
“Like I’d tell you. You’re a reporter, aren’t you? I fucking knew it.”
Lachlan frowned. “Why would a reporter care about a suicide? No disrespect to the girl, but it’s not exactly front page news. Is it?” He had more to say but a dark look passed over the wolf’s narrow face and Lachlan took a step back, instincts screaming that he’d taken a misstep with that question—or maybe it was just his phrasing. He was rescued from a messy confrontation when the wolf’s jacket pocket started ringing.
He made his escape while the other man was busy arguing with whoever had called him, ducking around the corner and jogging down the narrow, damp alley between the apartment buildings.
Tucked up in a dirty building’s back entrance doorway, mostly sheltered from the rain, he pulled his phone out and checked the local papers for a report on Julie’s suicide. There was nothing to even hint at it. So why was her neighbor so sure he had to be a reporter poking around?
Half an hour later, when he felt certain the wolf wouldn’t still be hanging around waiting to stop him, Lachlan ambled back to Julie’s building. He followed a young woman inside, shaking rain out of his hair with a wry smile that she returned easily enough.
It was cold inside the building.
“You’d think someone would fix the heat,” he said.
The young woman looked up from her mailbox and grimaced. “I know. I’ve actually called the landlord a couple times and he swears the boilers working the way its supposed to but it still feels like the middle of winter.”
“Or like someone left the air conditioning running.”
She rolled her eyes. “Heaven forbid the management fork up the money to replace a piece of copper in the thermostat. I bet that’s all it is.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
A loud thump over their heads made the smile slip off the woman’s lips and she jumped about a foot in the air, her eyes going wide. She emptied her mailbox into her purse and slipped around Lachlan.
“Cya,” she muttered, disappearing outside.
Lachlan stared up at the ceiling for a long moment; there wasn’t a follow-up thump. He examined Julie’s mailbox but it lacked any obvious signs of tampering and was, in fact, covered in a neat film of dust like it was irregularly checked at best and possibly even ignored.
“Of course she ignored her mail. It’s the twenty-first century.” Lachlan rolled his eyes at himself and made his way up the staircase to Julie’s floor. He shivered on the second landing and stepped aside to let a family of four troop past him lugging lumpy duffle bags. He smiled at the parents but they were focused on their children’s steps, each of them with a white knuckled grip on one child’s shoulder.
“Thought I told you to go away.”
Lachlan grimaced and met the eyes of the building’s self appointed guard dog.
“And I told you I’m not a reporter.”
“Which makes you a freak or a gawker. Not sure which is worse.”
“Trust me, it’s the ‘freak,’ as you put it.”
“Trust you, huh?”
He smiled, without irony or anything grim in the expression, a little rueful if anything.
“Yeah, trust me, I used to be a cop. I’d take a gawker or a real psycho any day.”
The wolf growled, eyes narrowing, and he looked like he’d been pushed far enough to leave his apartment when there was another loud thump from the floor above them. Lachlan had seen people afraid before—had felt his own share of visceral, bone deep terror—but the look that passed over the wolf’s face at the noise sent ice racing through his veins, chilling him even further.
He jumped when the other man slammed his apartment door closed in his face.
“Good chat,” he said to the scuffed door.
Lachlan jogged up the rest of the stairs, regretting his decision to leave his apartment that morning without a scarf or jacket. So much for Spring in Seattle. He should have known better.
Nothing much had changed about the scene in twenty-four hours. He picked Julie’s lock and grabbed the doorknob with the edge of his T-shirt, hissing at the cold metal that stung his hand. He slipped inside, toed the door closed behind him and heaved a heavy sigh, freezing when the air coalesced into a white cloud of cold in front of him.
“Whoa.” Lachlan shook himself. “Focus.”
He walked through Julie’s apartment a second time, mentally reviewing the mess and double checking it against what he remembered from the day before but nothing looked disturbed. In fact, he doubted anyone had been back to the scene since the police closed it off and wrote of their initial report. There was no reason to come back. To the casually trained eye, it really did look like a suicide.
“Except you weren’t anymore unhappy than anyone else your age, were you, Miss Hobbes? You had plans. Friends. Plans with friends which is more than some of have.”
He sat down on her couch where the TV and game console had put themselves into sleep mode, and rested his head against the lumpy cushions.
“You weren’t talking to the ghost of a dead girl. You had way more going for you than that, didn’t you? Jeez, this is creepy.”
Lachlan jumped at the loud thump against the floor, almost directly beneath his feet this time.
“Speaking of creepy.”
He pulled his knees up and tucked his legs underneath him, staring at the floor. Before, the sound had seemed to originate from this floor but now it sounded like it was coming from below him.
“Either you’ve got a serious rat problem here or…”
His mind drew a blank.
He wasn’t a complete idiot. No way were rats making that sound.
Thump thump: two quick raps against the wall on his right made him jump.
“Hello?” He gripped his knees and grimaced, straightening out his left leg, which protested the contorted position. “What the hell do you think is going on? Someone in the walls. Idiot.”
He barked his shin against Julie’s coffee table when he went to stand, crying out in pain and listening to the sound echo in the silence.