“I’m looking for Paul Khan,” a woman said. “Your neighbor? He—”
“He’s not here and I don’t know where he is, so stop pestering folks. Do I look like a private eye? Call the cops if he’s missing.”
“Has someone else been asking about him?”
It was a man speaking this time, and the hair on my neck rose, telling me I knew that voice. I couldn’t place it, though.
“Couple kids,” the woman said. “Not ten minutes ago. Banging on his door, then banging on mine, interrupting my movie. I don’t have one of those fancy machines, you know. I can’t pause my movie to answer the door. You’re just lucky it’s a commercial now.”
“You said it was kids?”
“Boys. Raising money.” She sniffed. “Dressed like they go to some fancy school, asking for money from the likes of me. And for what? A trip. Probably to some amusement park. When I was in school, we were lucky if we got to walk over to the field to study the butterflies. That didn’t cost anything, though. These days . . .”
She rambled on for another minute before the man cut her off. “They asked you for money?”
“Well, no. They were looking for Paul. Said he’d bought chocolate bars from them. They were going to ask me next, though, I’m sure.”
“You said they were boys? Can you describe them?”
“Chinese kid with blond hair. He did all the talking. Didn’t get a good look at the other one. Big, though. Dark hair. Kept his mouth shut and his head down, the way he should. These days, kids don’t know nothing about respect. Look at those ones out front. Did you see them?”
She continued to rant. I cracked open the door another half inch, pressing my face to the opening, trying to see the people asking about Paul. I couldn’t see them well—just a glimpse of unfamiliar faces and business suits. Process servers for a law firm? Co-workers?
They kept asking about us. What had we said? Where had we gone? Finally, the old woman got tired of answering and slammed the door. A pause. Murmured voices, too low for even me to hear. Then footsteps . . . coming our way.
Simon heard them and started down the stairs. I caught him and pulled him in the other direction. We zipped up one flight before the door creaked open. We stopped, backs to the wall.
The door closed. No footsteps, meaning they were standing there, looking around.
“How long did she say they’d been gone?” the man asked.
“Long enough to get out of the building. Not long enough to get far. They aren’t going to find a cab around here.”
Footsteps now, hurrying down the stairs. When the door on the ground floor closed behind them, Simon turned to me.
“Are they looking for us? I mean, obviously that’s who they’re after. But specifically us? Or just the kids who were asking about Paul?”
“Should we still check out his apartment?”
Simon rubbed his temple, and then met my gaze. “You don’t have to know, Derek. I’m asking for your opinion. I don’t need you to make all the decisions here. Tell me what you think.”
Panic whirled in the pit of my stomach. How could I form an opinion when I didn’t have facts? I needed to think it through and come up with an answer. There’s always an answer. You can’t make decisions like this based on an opinion.
When I tried to focus, though, all I could think about was that man’s voice. I thought I knew it. But I couldn’t place it, couldn’t even be sure I really recognized it. Damn it, I needed to know. I needed—
“Okay,” Simon said slowly. “How about I tell you what I think, and you tell me if you disagree.”
“I think we can’t leave right now because those guys are looking for us. So we might as well break into the apartment. At any sign of trouble, we take off and don’t come back. Okay?”
I busted open Paul’s apartment door and got hit by a blast of ice-cold air.
“Did someone forget to pay for heat?” Simon whispered behind me.
It was more than that. There was a window open—I could smell the stink of the city. I could smell something else, too. Something that made me stop in the doorway. When Simon tried to push past, I blocked him.
“Yeah, and I can’tbe seen from inside, so—”
“If you hear anyone coming, call me.” I pushed him out and closed the door, then waited a second, making sure he wasn’t coming in.
I took a deep breath. Not intentionally sniffing, just trying to prepare. The scent was faint and I told myself it was probably an odor coming from outside. As I moved into the apartment, the smell got stronger.
I found Paul in the bedroom. Sitting on the floor beside the bed. Eyes open. A red crater through his temple. Blood and bits of brain splattered on the wall. Gun still clenched in his hand. Dead eyes staring at the door. Staring at me.
I swallowed. Clenched my fists. Looked back at Paul and tried to focus, but all I could see were his eyes, all I could feel was his accusation.
You did this. You couldn’t control it, and now look what’s happened. A kid in the hospital. Your dad gone. Simon on the run. And now me. I saw that article and knew what was coming. So I killed myself.
I shook my head hard. I had no reason to think that article in the paper had anything to do with this.
Right. It’s a complete coincidence. You screw up. You get in the papers. A guy your dad helped— a guy hiding from the Cabals— kills himself the same day, and it has nothing to do with you. Really.
Paul’s dead eyes told me to figure it out. I was the whiz kid. Think, damn it.
But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find a perfect solution. It was like being given a jigsaw with half the pieces missing. I could jam some of them together, but there were always a few left, and I knew they must fit, but I needed the rest first.
Had Paul been involved with the people Dad worked for? The ones who’d raised me? Or just a Cabal? If it was a Cabal, what did that have to do with me? Or with Dad?
Why would Paul shoot himself? Why not run? Hadhe shot himself? Or was this staged, the window left open to let in the cold, which would keep the body from rotting and stinking of decomposition away until the killer’s trail was dead. Or until it was too late for the news of Paul’s death to reach someone else. Like Dad.
I growled and rubbed my head. Too many missing pieces. I had to find the rest.
How? I couldn’t even manage to find a warm place to stay the night.
I stumbled out of the room and slammed the door behind me. When Simon saw me, he lifted his hands.
“I’m not sounding the alarm,” he said. “I just slipped in because some kids were coming up the stairs, making a racket. They went to the next floor.” He looked around. “Find anything?”
Simon studied my face. I struggled to keep it neutral.
“You’re stressed, bro. Let me handle this while you stand guard. You’re the one with the super-hearing anyway. I’ll take a look around and see if I can find luggage, keys, cell phone—”
“ No. I mean, no, there’s none of that. No keys. No cell or wallet. No luggage, but the drawers are full, so I can’t tell if he packed anything. All I know is that he left.”
“Maybe, but it’s not like Dad—his stuff is gone, so it looks like he went on his own. Maybe Dad called and told him to lie low for a few days. All I know is he’s not here and there’s no sign of where he went.”
“Okay, then. Better take off before we’re found.”
How many times had I complained that Dad didn’t give Simon credit, treated him like a kid? Now I was doing the same thing.
I needed someone I could talk to, bounce ideas off, get opinions from. But every time I considered talking to Simon, a mental wall shot up, telling me not to worry him, not to scare him. I’d done enough damage already and my job now was to get him through this as smoothly as possible.
If I’d told him back at the apartment, he’d have wanted to see for himself. If I couldn’t stop seeing that blood-and-brain spattered wall, it would be even worse for Simon. I processed things logically; he processed them visually. I wasn’t putting that image in his head.
But I couldn’t tell him after we left the apartment either, because then he’d know I hadn’t been honest. I hated lying. We did a lot of it—had to—and that bugged me more than I let on. I could justify it by telling myself at least I was honest with Simon. Now I couldn’t even say that.
“Do you want to talk?” Simon asked as we trudged down the road, leaning into the wind. Winter was hitting full force, gales whipping around us, ice pelting our faces.
When I didn’t answer, he asked again, “Do you want to talk?”
Yes. Yes, I do. But I can’t. I know you hate me for it, but I need to work this out on my own. You’ve got enough to worry about.
“Well, I’d like to talk.” He ran his hand through his hair, shoving off wet snow. “Can we do that?”
“Sure. Should get someplace warm anyway. You need—”
He turned into my path. “I don’t need anything, okay? Stop doing that. I know you’re hungry. I know you want to talk. I know you’re cold. Don’t make it all about me, Derek. I’m not five.”