Chapter 26

“Hello?” Andy answered his phone and walked out of the waiting room.

“Detective Vickers here,” came the reply.  “I’m trying to track down Paul Anderson.”

“We’re all together at General Hospital,” Andy said.

“Jesus Christ, is everything alright?” Vickers asked, shocking Ryan.

“No, no, detective, the boys are fine…. But we’re having our own drama here.  My father-in-law had a heart attack earlier today,” Andy said.

“God, I hope he’s alright,” Vickers said.  “And I hate to ask, but I need Paul in town.  I understand if I need to come get him, but….”

“Why?” Andy interrupted.  “What happened?”

“Robert attacked a woman in Paul’s neighborhood,” Vickers said.

“So?” Andy asked.

“She was two houses over.  The cops watching his house were the first on the scene.  Robert left her alive to call the police,” Eric replied.

“A diversion,” Andy said with a sigh.  “You think he’s in the house?”

“Or he left something, maybe a booby-trap, maybe just a message,” Vickers said.  “But I need to check it out.  It wouldn’t be safe to let that family come home, and there may be something to help us find him….”

“I can’t leave,” Andy said.  “But I’ll ask Sean.”

“I’m serious,” Vickers said.  “I can come.  I’ll bring him back in the morning.  He can stay at my place….”

“No offense, detective, but I don’t know you well enough for that,” Andy said, chuckling darkly.

“Understood, but please ask your boyfriend to bring him?  It’s urgent,” Eric accentuated.

“I’ll call you back and let you know,” Andy said, shutting his phone.  Then he motioned Sean out into the hall and explained the situation.

“I’ll be glad to, Andy, but I hate leaving you here alone.  And there’s Billy,” Sean said.

“Vickers offered to come get him and let him stay at his place,” Andy said hesitantly.

“He seemed like a legit guy to me,” Sean said.  “Why don’t you see what Paul wants?”

Andy shrugged and then waved Paul out, drawing notice from the others now.  When the whole situation was put to Paul, he shrugged and said, “Detective Vickers is pretty cool.  I don’t mind if Sean wants to stay here.”

“I don’t know how your parents would feel about me letting you go off to stay with,” Andy began.

“He’s not going to molest me or something,” Paul laughed, rolling his eyes.  “He’s alright!  And I really don’t mind.  I just want to get back here as soon as possible.”

Andy hugged the boy and called Vickers up, telling him Paul had decided it would be fine if Vickers would take him.  “Okay, we’ll get on the road….”

“We?” Andy asked.

“I’m bringing my boyfriend so Paul can meet him before he comes back with me,” Eric said, hanging up before there was any follow-up.  Vickers had a feeling Ryan and Paul would be thicker than thieves, but the men would need to see that.

“Did you know Vickers was gay?” Andy asked Sean and Paul as he hung up.

“You didn’t even guess he might be?” Paul laughed.

Sean and Andy both shook their heads.  “He’s such a macho cop,” Andy said.

Paul just gave him a hard stare and looked back and forth between Andy and Sean, shaking his head and laughing.  “Whatever, guys!  Anyway, I bet his boyfriend is cute!”

“Go tell Jim and Billy,” Andy said.

“I’m glad Billy’ll be here,” Paul said.  “Makes me feel better about leaving.”  Seeing the men’s faces, he added, “Just watch….”

When Paul was gone, Sean looked at Andy and asked, with a light laugh, “Doesn’t that kind of creep you out sometimes?”

“What?” Andy asked, laughing.

“The way he is so aware of … everything,” Sean said.

“Oh,” Andy chuckled.  “A little bit….  Phil and Molly are great people.”

Sean nodded, and wrapped his arm around Andy.

***

 Looking back at the car they had dumped in the woods near a little creek about ten miles outside of town, Connor asked, “Why here?”

Robert smile and shrugged.  “Why anywhere?” he asked Connor, ruffling his hair with a chuckle.  To anyone passing on the road, Robert might have appeared to be Connor’s brother or, to the more discerning eye, lover.  The truth, however pleasing it was to Connor, was more sinister: Robert was his tutor, his guide, his master.  So even to him, this lighthearted show of affection was disorienting.  Robert winked and said, “You still want an answer?  There is the answer.”

Robert pointed to a big green sign, which meant everything to him, but little to Connor.  The sign read, ‘Now entering DAVIDSON County.’  Connor hesitated before asking, “So?”

Robert smiled.  “Well, I just took a stolen car into another jurisdiction.  That’ll be a nightmare for the police.”

“And then there’s the rest,” Connor said.

Robert laughed.  “The rest is the best part,” he said, putting an arm across Connor’s shoulder as they walked, making the boy’s day.  The occasional car, headlights bright, passed, as they walked along to their old hiding place.

“We’ll need someplace new soon,” Robert observed.

***

When Eric walked in, dressed very much the professional in slacks and button up shirt, with a handsome young man in designer jeans and a nice coat, Paul smiled at the two men as if to say, ‘I told you so!’

“Hi guys,” Vickers said as he approached the boys, Ryan in tow.  “Jim I’m really sorry about your grandfather, and I wouldn’t take Paul away from you, but….”

“You just take good care of him and get him back here safely,” Jim said.  “And thank you.  Now who’s this?”

“This fellow is my boyfriend,” Vickers said with a look over his shoulder. “Or at least I’m pretty sure he is?”

Ryan punched him softly in the arm.  “I’m a supervisor in the crime lab,” the young man said, impressing them all, given his young age.  “At least I was until this case.  Who knows now?”

“You’ll be fine,” Vickers said, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder.  “Once this thing blows up, they’ll have no choice but to bring you back!”

“You’ve both been suspended now?” Sean asked, having overheard the last as he and Andy walked over.

“It’s complicated,” Vickers said.

“They put him out because he wanted to call in the FBI and admit we’ve got a psycho on our hands,” Ryan said.  “And they put me out because I wouldn’t falsify my reports so it would seem like the murders weren’t connected.”

“Maybe not so complicated,” Vickers smiled and put his arm around Ryan, making the boys smile.  “But if you don’t mind, Paul, we really need to get into your house.  The trail’s gone cold….”

Paul grabbed his coat, gave Billy a hug and Jim a hug and a big kiss, and said, “I’m ready!”

Andy asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“If it helps get Robert off the street, yeah,” the boy said.  “I’m tired of hiding and running.  I want this to be over!”

“Alright,” Andy said, putting a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  Vickers started to lead him away when Paul broke off and went and whispered something to Bethany.  Then he ran after the cop and Ryan.

For an hour and some change, Vickers drove through the dark smiling, listening to Ryan and Paul rate their relative dorkiness and talk about their hobbies.  When they were about twenty minutes away, however, he picked up his phone and dialed Fielding’s number and apprised him of their arrival time.

“I’ll be waiting with some uniforms,” Fielding replied.

“What about your partner?” Vickers asked.

“I told him I could handle this one and that he should go out and relax,” Fielding answered.

Vickers sighed.  “Thanks!”

“Don’t thank me, I’m covering my ass.  I’d like to keep this off the chief’s desk for a while,” Fielding said.

“Anyway, I’m bringing Ryan, and Paul’s gay, so it’s for the best,” Vickers said.

“See you in a few,” Fielding replied, hanging up.

When the car pulled up at Paul’s, they found four officers with Fielding.  “Paul?” Fielding asked.

“Yes, sir,” the boy said, extending a hand to the man.

Fielding shook and said, “May we search your house?”

“This won’t hold up in court,” one of the officers said.

“Sure it will….  We aren’t looking for evidence of any wrongdoing by this boy, and the criminal, not being the homeowner, will have no grounds to challenge our search,” Vickers said, withering the recent graduate of the academy.

“Of course,” Paul said, and went to follow the men inside.

Vickers grabbed his shoulder and said, “Let them clear the house first.”  But as he said it, he knew no one was inside.  His skin crawled.  He could feel eyes on them, watching them, studying them.  Or he was just imagining things.

A few minutes later, Fielding waved them inside.  “Nothing looks out of the ordinary!”

Paul walked into the front door and asked, “What’s that?”  He was pointing to a tray in the center of the dining room table, draped carefully and precisely with a white cloth napkin.

“Ryan, take Paul around and ask him to identify anything else out of the ordinary,” Vickers said, and as Paul turned his back, Vickers mouthed, ‘KEEP HIM OUT OF HERE!’

Fielding approached the table, pulling his gloves on, and reached for the napkin.

***

“Sheriff? It’s Conrad,” the deputy called into his radio.  “I’ve got an abandoned car out by the old mill.”

After a moment of crackling static, the sheriff replied, “SO?  Check it out!”

“I did, sheriff.  I ran the plates and it’s from that rape over in Davidson today,” Deputy Conrad answered.

“SHIT!” the sheriff replied, knowing his relaxing evening at home was over.  Then he thought about it; it was just a stolen car.  “Just call Davidson County and tell them it’s their show!”

“I will, sir.  Do you think I should check it out first?” the deputy asked.

“Of course you should check it out!  I assumed you already had!  You just ran the plates?” the sheriff yelled.

“Uhm, yes sir,” the deputy replied, approaching the car.  There was a messy smear on the driver’s side obscuring his view inside.  Whatever it was it was dark, maybe grease.  “I can’t see inside … there’s something on the window,” he said.

“Well open the fucking door,” the sheriff barked.

“It … it looks like there’s someone in there,” the deputy said as he reached for the door and opened it.  He would later be thankful he wasn’t pressing send when he did or the sheriff would have heard his panicked screams, which pierced the night like a banshee’s wail.

“Conrad, what the hell is going on out there?” the sheriff demanded.  He waited a minute more before demanded, “You’d better tell me what the fuck….”

“Sheriff,” came a weak-voiced response, “sheriff you’d better get some tech boys out here….”

“Shit,” the sheriff said, grabbing his coat and gun-belt.  “I’ll be there in fifteen.  Call it in to the station….”

***

Fielding dropped the cloth with closed eyes and stepped back.  “God, Vickers, what is this?”

“Welcome home present,” Vickers said with a stony gaze.  “So what do you think?  You think this was a random homeless guy in the park too?”

Fielding gave him an icy stare and clenched his jaw.  “That wasn’t me, Vickers….”

“But you could have done SOMETHING!” Eric replied.

“And get put on the bench like you two.  Then where would we be?” Fielding demanded.  Then he pulled out his phone and called for the crime scene guys.  “Get Ryan and the boy out of here, will you?  I don’t want there to be an issue with Ryan’s guys when they arrive….”

“Keep me in the loop?” Eric asked.  “You owe me that much….”

Fielding sighed and nodded.  “Will do.”

Vickers found Ryan with Paul.  They were going through the boy’s room.  “Anything else?”

“Just that,” Ryan said as Paul grimaced.  Paul was pointing to Paul’s pillow.

“Christ,” Vickers said.  “Let’s get gone before the rest of the team gets here….”  He led them downstairs and found Fielding before following them out to the car.  “Collect the boy’s pillow and search every inch of this place.  Who knows where he’s left something?”

“What’s wrong with the pillow?” Fielding asked.

“He jerked off on it,” Eric said before storming out and driving Paul and Ryan back to his place.

As they rode, Paul was quiet for a bit, but then he asked, “Who was it?”

“Robert, of course,” Vickers said, misunderstanding.

“WHO was under the napkin?” Paul demanded, his voice full of anger and fear.

“You don’t miss much, kid, do you?” Vickers sighed.  “Ken….”

“WHO?” Paul asked.

“Kid on the football team, one of your bullies….  One of the ones he was blackmailing,” Vickers said.

“It was … his head?” Paul stammered.  “We were … meant to find that after our vacation,” he added with a deathly paleness.

“How did you know?” Vickers asked.

“I figured if you could tell who he was, it must be that, or else he wrote it down,” Paul said, his voice faraway.  “He killed him … he cut his head off … to send me a message,” Paul whispered.

“No, no,” Ryan said, wrapping an arm around the boy.  “This is not your fault!  He’s latched on to you for no reason you can control.  You’re a victim here!”  Vickers looked in the mirror and saw Ryan hold the boy close, kissing the top of his head and crying.  And Vickers felt it too.

***

Eventually, a nurse approached Andy and said, “You folks really should go back to your hotels and rest. Visiting hours will begin at eight in the morning….”

“I think everyone wants to stay here,” Andy said.

“That’s fine but … with the medicines he’s on, he’s unlikely to be very responsive,” she said. “You’ll need to be rested, and this place takes it out of you.

Andy nodded and said, “Is there any way you could take my son back to see his grandfather?” Seeing her frown, he quickly added with a whisper, “Just in case?”

She thought through it carefully and nodded. “For just a minute!” Then the nurse approached Jim and said something to him, then led him into the room and said, “I’ll give you a few minutes.” Then she pulled back the curtain to give them some privacy and to keep Jim from disturbing the other patient in the semi-private room.

Jim sat on the edge of the bed and looked at his grandfather. Carl looked frail attached to the wires and tubes running from various machines. His skin was pale, and he wore a tired look even as he slept. He looked sick. Jim’s eyes filled with tears as, for the first time, when he looked at his grandfather he saw an old man.

Jim was wiping his eyes when he was startled by a weak but kind voice. “Enough of that, Jim!”

“Grandpa!” the boy exclaimed, hugging his grandfather gently.

“Don’t worry about this old dog, Jim,” Carl said with a weak laugh. “I’m gonna be around for a long time. Long enough to see you get married to that boy, for sure….”

Jim hugged the man tighter now and let his tears fall on Carl’s hospital gown. “We need you grandpa, we all do! Me and Jonathan, especially, and dad and grandma….” Even as he said it, he heard the monitors pick up an increased heart rate, but not dangerously increased.

“Let me get some rest, Jim,” Carl sighed. “Come back and see me first thing in the morning?”

“I promise!” Jim said. “I love you, grandpa!”

“I love you too, Jim,” he said, waving the boy off weakly. But before Jim could get gone, he added, “Jim, my family means everything to me….”

When Jim arrived in the waiting area with tears in his eyes, everyone gathered around him. Billy pulled him into a half-hug and asked, “Are you alright?”

They were all relieved to see Jim smile. Nodding, he laughed through his tears and said, “Yeah! Yeah, he woke up long enough to talk to me for a minute. He’s going to be okay….”

Everyone was smiles and hugs after that, though Bethany didn’t get the warmest reception. But before they divided off to go to their respective hotels, Jim did take her aside. “He’s gonna forgive you,” Jim said. “Just don’t expect him to make earning it easy…. But he hasn’t given up.”

“Thank you, Jim,” she said, hugging him. She noticed how stiff he was, and asked, “What about you?”

He looked at her with as much understanding as he could muster and said, “I’ll try … but I really don’t know if I can. I get that she’s your daughter, but to me she’s just the person who hurt me the most.”

“I understand,” she said with sad eyes.

“Maybe … you should suggest to grandpa that you guys move up here?” Jim said. “To be closer to Jonathan and me. He’d like that … and maybe it’d help me too….” She smiled and nodded. She could do that.

***

Billy was lying in bed propped up on his pillow when Jim emerged from the bathroom, his teeth brushed and ready for bed.  “Stressful week or two,” Billy said as Jim lay down and stretched out beneath the covers.

“Yeah,” Jim snorted, shaking his head.

“All this stuff with Robert, and me getting kicked out of my house, piled up on what’s going on with your little brother and grandfather,” Billy said.  “It all sucks….”

“What are we going to do?” Jim wondered out loud, his facade slipping to reveal the scared boy beneath.  And for a moment, Billy was relieved.  He wasn’t alone; he wasn’t the only one who was afraid.

But he did know what to do.  He slipped his arm around Jim and felt the bigger boy collapse onto him, shaking in tears, and he let Jim cry himself to sleep.

Then Billy slipped from beneath the big boy and grabbed his computer, sitting up in bed and got out his computer to chat with his friend Alan.  As he hoped, the boy was online, and again Billy didn’t activate his camera but typed, ‘Hey, my friend is sleeping, so I can’t talk….”

‘Boyfriend?’ Alan asked, and Billy for some reason felt his heart race.

‘No!  Just on vacation with friends, sharing a room,” Billy answered.

“Cool,” came Alan’s too quick response, followed shortly by an admission.  ‘I’m glad you don’t have a boyfriend….’

‘Why is that 😉 ?’ Billy replied, smiling to himself.  He knew he shouldn’t feel the flutter he felt.

‘I was kind of hoping you’ll like me :$ maybe you’ll let me apply for the job,’ Alan admitted, and Billy thought it took guts.  This wasn’t some faceless guy off the net; the boy had let Billy see his face and upper body, and more.

‘How do you know you’ll like me?’ Billy asked.

‘I have a good feeling about you,’ Alan replied.

‘Cool,’ Billy wrote, blushing fiercely.  ‘So what do you do at college?’

‘I’m a history major, with a minor in anthropology,’ Alan answered.

‘Brainiac, huh ;p ?’ Billy teased.

‘Major :),” Alan replied.  ‘But I don’t hold it against you that you’re a jock.’

‘I kinda think nerds are cute anyway,’ Billy replied.  ‘I really hope we can meet when we get home.  My friends don’t want me to meet you alone.  Maybe we can all meet at the mall?’

‘That’s cool,’ Alan said.  ‘When are you coming back?’

‘I’m not sure, but I’ll try to figure out and let you know soon,’ Billy said.  ‘Does me being so eager make me seem like a dork?’

‘Yep … a very sexy dork,’ Alan replied.  ‘I need to go, but let’s chat soon, okay?’

‘Definitely,’ Billy said.  ‘Real soon!’

When he logged off, he checked his emails.  There was a lot of weird and disturbing email in his box from people who had seen the video of his dad, but a few of his old friends were reaching out to him, so he did try to answer those and deleted the bad ones as quickly as he could.  He didn’t know how he’d face those people, but he looked over at Jim’s face, now peaceful with sleep, and thought about the other guys who’d helped Paul.  Maybe he could make it after all.

He put away the computer and turned off the light, sliding over to Jim and slipping the boy’s arm over himself, quickly drifting off in the comforting warmth.

***

It was after midnight, and Fielding had been listening to his partner, who had since joined him at the house, for too long.  The man was trying to spin some sort of fantasy about how this may not be a murder, but simply a desecration of a corpse.

Fielding drew the line when Anderson suggested that perhaps the residents of the house were somehow involved.  “Don’t be fucking dense, Anderson!” Fielding barked, bringing the room to a standstill and instantly halting the big man’s tongue.  In their years together, Fielding had never publicly called him to the carpet.  “They’ve been out of town, and besides, we KNOW who did this!  The kid Paul was one of Robert’s victims, and we KNOW he’s killed people.  Why look for a complex and convoluted solution to this?  Hell, the kid came back from vacation to let us look around his house!”

“Well, I’m just considering every angle,” Anderson grumbled.

“Well, FOR FUCKS SAKE, let’s limit it to reasonable angles!” Fielding said.  “Sorry but it’s been a long day!”

“No problem,” Anderson nodded.

Fielding’s phone rang and he answered, “Fielding.”

“Detective?  Your desk sergeant connected me.  Sheriff Foster over in Robertson,” the man replied.

“What can I do for you sheriff?” Fielding asked.

“Got an abandoned car here that belongs to that rape victim of yours,” Foster said.  “Funny thing about the guy in the driver’s seat….”

“Tell me you got Robert?” Fielding said with a hopeful expression.

“I doubt it,” Sheriff Foster replied.  “The body in the driver’s seat didn’t have a head, though, so it’s hard to say.”

“I got the head here, sheriff,” Fielding said.  “On a platter on a dining room table….”

“Fucks sake,” the sheriff said.  “I guess we’ll have to liaise on this one then….”

“Looks that way,” Fielding said.  “Come down in the morning, and we can go over what we’ve got?  You bring me copies, and I’ll have copies for you….”

“Will do.  Meet you at ten,” the sheriff said and hung up.

“This’ll be a jurisdictional nightmare!” Anderson exclaimed.  “Davidson County Sheriff’s got the body.”

“Robertson,” Fielding said.

“Well, fuck!” Anderson said.  “I’m calling the chief!”  While his partner was away, Fielding called and updated Vickers.

Vickers feelings on the matter were very different than Anderson’s.  “Some people are about to get theirs,” Vickers grumbled.  “Thanks, Fielding.  I won’t forget this.”

“Night Vickers,” Fielding said, hanging up.

***

Paul woke up very early in the morning to the smell of coffee.  He rubbed his eyes and pulled on a pair of pants and a clean shirt before wandering into the kitchen.  He was stopped short by the sight of Vickers in just a pair of fairly form-hugging pajama bottoms.  The man’s eyes were closed as he was draining his first cup of coffee, and Paul could see the muscle’s in his back flex as he stretched.

Paul was blushing when he coughed and said, “Good morning, detective!”

Vickers turned without embarrassment, developed by a lifetime spent in and out of locker rooms, and smiled, “Good morning, Paul.  Please call me Eric….  Would you like some?”

Paul’s eyes lingered on the man’s hairy chest for a moment, but then he nodded nervously.  “There’s cream and sugar on the counter.  Help yourself,” Vickers said as he handed Paul a cup of hot coffee.

Paul spooned in cream and sugar to his taste and said, “If you don’t mind me asking, how long have you and Ryan been going out?”

“Not very long,” Eric smiled.  “Just a few days, really, but we’ve been working so closely to stay involved in the case.  And Ryan is very … persuasive….”

Paul snorted a little with a conspiratorial nod.  “That or the monk here was hard up after a long dry spell,” Ryan said from the door.  Paul blushed again as he caught sight of the handsome young nerd, whose soft shorts and t-shirt were still rumpled from bed and left him looking very cute, especially combined with the wild bed-head he was still sporting.

“We’ll get you back to the hospital after breakfast,” Eric said.  “I know you must be keen on getting back.”

“No rush,” Paul said.  “Carl’s gonna be fine and Jim’s in good hands….  Could I ask you a favor actually?”

“Of course,” Ryan jumped in.  “We owe you!”

“Before you take me back, I’d like to go by the psych ward to visit Gregg,” Paul said.

“Gregg?” Ryan asked, not making the connection.

“The boy in the hospital who Robert was using to bully Paul,” Eric said, giving Ryan a quick nod.

“Uh, okay,” Ryan said, totally thrown off.  “So … what do you want for breakfast?”

“My kitchen is under stocked,” Eric said.  “How about International House of Pancakes?”

“Yum!” Paul smiled.  “Let me go finish getting ready!”

“No hurry,” Eric said.  “It’ll take us a little bit to get ready ourselves.”  When Paul was gone, Ryan just looked at Eric, who gave him a nod.  “Yeah, he’s for real….”

“Weird kid,” Ryan said with a tone of affection.

“Yep,” Eric said, wrapping an arm around Ryan and kissing his temple.  “Let’s get this show on the road!”

***

When Carl woke up in the morning, feeling a little less weak than he had the previous evening but very stiff, he looked around.  It was before visiting hours, as yet, and he was all alone.  He reached for the button and pressed the little image of a nurse.

It took a few minutes but at last and older African-American woman appeared and asked, “What can I do for you, Mr. Proctor?”

“Could I get some ice water?” he asked.  “I’m parched!”

“Be right back, honey,” she said, and returned quickly with a big cup full of ice chips and water.  “Start slow, sweetie….  Don’t want to excite your stomach!” she instructed.  “Doctor should be around in a little while, and your family is already waiting in the lobby watching the clock.  You’re a lucky man,” she smiled and then rushed off to the next call.

Carl took a few sips before setting the drink aside.  He closed his eyes and thought about what she’d said.  He knew it was true.