Henry leaned against the light-post on the corner of 2nd and Fuller, doing his best to keep a low profile, phone pressed to his ear. “Do I even need to say that it was a weird conversation?” he asked. “I don’t think I’ve had a single normal conversation since I got here.”
Kara laughed. “You want to talk about taxes?”
“I have no doubt that even if the mayor and I had been talking about taxes, he would have made it sound sinister.”
“By now you’ve met enough of the Brihtes and the Gauthes to know that they’re strange people. Something about generational wealth scrambles the brain.”
He repositioned himself slightly, double checking that he was still alone on the street. “He didn’t turn me in.”
“So you’re in the clear. What’s got you so paranoid?”
In the distance, he watched the door of his house swing open. Sheriff Leia Thao stepped out, rolled out her shoulders, and leaned up against her squad car. He flattened himself further against the post. “I can’t tell them where Emmaline’s body is. Not after what happened the last time somebody messed with it.”
“That ‘somebody’ being you?”
“Irrelevant information. I already let it slip that it was in the park. Do you think they’ll do some exploratory digging?”
“Not likely. Even if they knew exactly where to go, they’d have a hard time convincing people to let them tear the place up.”
Leia rustled through her pockets for a moment, produced a small bag of sunflower seeds, and popped a few into her mouth. She spat into the gutter. “Then I’ll just have to avoid them for a while,” Henry said.
“It’s a small village. You’re welcome to pop around the Anderson. Lots of hidey holes I can stick you in.”
He took a few slow, careful steps backward, then pivoted and hurried off in the opposite direction. “As much as I might like you to fold me into a wall, there’s something else I have to take care of.”
“We haven’t said a word to each other since we kissed.”
Kara made a noncommittal noise. “He’s a busy guy.”
“Everything is getting so complicated. It would be nice to have one thing going that was simple.”
“Romance is a rocky road if you’re after simplicity.”
Henry worked to master his frayed emotions, walking up to Niles’ house. He tried to move fast, but not so fast as to be suspicious. Every voice he heard, and every car turning a corner, made him whip his head around to investigate the source. How long could it possibly take the sheriff to track him down? In a village like Tortus Bay, it felt like it would be a matter of minutes until the rumor mill alone found him.
Then he would find himself in front of Leia once more; except this time, she might take him seriously. She might force him to point out exactly where he dug down to Emmaline’s grave. There was nothing he could say to stop her, if she wanted to check. No threat of magical repercussions would sway a woman who did not believe in the first place. And there Henry was, knocking on Niles’ door instead of dealing with any of that.
He felt ridiculous. There was no way around that. But of all the questions he had, this one would certainly be the easiest to answer. He knocked again, and Bruce’s deep booming finally replied. The dog audibly skidded down the hallway, then resumed barking.
That was all, for a while: the barking, which started slightly deeper than normal and gradually piqued into a whine. “Are you okay in there?”
The whining redoubled. Bruce pawed at the door. Henry tried the knob, and found it unlocked. He only experienced a moment of indecision, before pushing it open. The dog did not bound at him, lick him, or even raise a hackle at the near-stranger. Instead, he took one look, turned around, and raced into the kitchen—where the loud whining continued.
“Is anyone here?” Henry crept down the hall. “Not a burglar. Just a concerned neighbor. Part-time amateur mystery investigator. Viable romantic interest.”
Bruce’s odd behavior was explained the moment he stepped into the kitchen. A cutting board and a bread knife lay on the floor. An empty plastic container was wedged in the gap beneath the fridge, clearly torn open by canine teeth. On the counter sat a partially opened can of dog food, and a stainless steel dish. “You were about to get fed, weren’t you?”
He picked up the mangled container, and immediately regretted it. The plastic was dripping with saliva. “Or did you take matters into your own… paws?”
Bruce boofed again, this time with a hint of guilt in his large brown eyes.
“You had no idea you were dealing with Tortus Bay’s pre-eminent PI, did you?” Henry found the can opener beneath the stove, and popped the lid on the food. The dog promptly spun in circles. “So what happened to Niles? No, nothing. I see you’re a shrewd negotiator.” He slopped the can’s contents into the dish, set it on the floor, and had to snatch his hand away from Bruce’s slobbering maw. “Very shrewd.”
He collected the knife and the cutting board, and set them in the sink. Niles’ kitchen was busy, but immaculately organized. Glass jars of rice, beans, and a dozen different varieties of pasta that he didn’t recognize lined the cabinets. A heavily laden spice rack hung on the wall beside the window. Colorful mixing bowls, strainers, pasta makers, and various utensils took up the rest of the space. It was warm, somehow. A lot of time was spent in this room.
Henry took a stroll around the rest of the house, accompanied by a zoomy and effusively happy Bruce, and found every room empty. He settled in on the couch. The dog leaped up beside him, and buried his snout in his lap. Stacks of books still towered on the coffee table, but they had been rearranged. No sign of The Alpha Alien Patrol at all. Time-consuming hobby, for a supposedly busy guy.
Would Leia think to look for him here? Did anyone beside Kara know that this might be somewhere he went? And why was he here anyway? Was that connection real, or had he imagined it? Was that connection real, or was he trying to force it? He allowed his eyes to drift shut.
The front door swinging open woke him, sometime later. A tight ball of anxiety pulsed in his stomach. Bruce bounded off his lap, racing to the entryway. There, he was met with two pairs of footsteps. “I’m sorry it took so long,” a woman’s voice said.
“You don’t have to apologize,” Niles said. “Except maybe to Brucey. Hey, bud! You hungry?”
“I already fed him.” Henry stepped into the hallway. He recognized the woman from his first visit to the Anderson. Jennifer, the one who’d been working with the rope. Dried tears lined her cheeks, and her eyes were puffy. “I came around and found the door open. Bruce guilted me into the rest of it.”
Niles snapped his gaping mouth closed. “He’s good at that. Thank you.”
Jennifer splayed her hands and awkwardly stepped back toward the door, murmuring something about “not wanting to disturb,” but Niles caught her in the small of the back and pushed her forward. “Please, make yourself comfortable,” he said. “I think you two might have a lot to talk about.” At that, he caught Henry’s eye—only for a second.
The three of them shuffled into the living room, where Henry took a seat on the armchair and was instantly leaped upon by Bruce. “You feed a dog one time…”
“And you have a friend for life.” Niles and the woman sunk into the couch. “But apparently feeding one every day of your life gets you nothing.”
“Only the most recent meal counts.” He scratched behind Bruce’s ears. “Jealous?”
“It’s a display. Don’t get a big head.”
Again, Jennifer raised her hands. “You’re sure I’m not intruding?”
“No, no, of course not.” Niles shook himself. “Can you tell him what you told me?”
She squinted over at Henry. “Kara says you’re not who everyone thinks you are.”
“I’m not a reporter,” he said, “and I’m not any sort of cop.”
“But you seem to be involved in just about everything.”
“You have a very engaging community.”
She smiled, for a moment, but then it wavered. “You’re not going to believe me. I don’t know, I don’t think anyone will believe me. I saw Mathas Bernard.”
“I believe you. I’ve seen him too.”
Astonishment lit her face. “When? How did he look?”
“On the last festival day. He looked exactly like he did in his pictures. Except older.” So he hadn’t imagined it. It was real. “Where did you see him?”
“Out behind the hotel.” She shivered as she spoke. “Lurking around the dumpsters. There was something wrong about his face, but you’re right: he looks the same. His suit was dirty. I didn’t get a good look. I panicked, and ran for the nearest friendly face.”
Niles nodded. “We went back to check it out, but there was nothing there.”
“Was he going through the garbage?” Henry’s head spun. “If he’s faking it, he’s not doing a good job of keeping a low profile.”
Jennifer leaned back into the couch. “I don’t know what he was doing. And I don’t know what a person like him would have to gain from faking his own death.”
“No shady mafia ties?”
She rubbed her eyes. “The Tortus Bay mafia isn’t scary enough for all that.”
“Has anyone else seen him?”
“Aria mentioned that there’s been some screaming lately, coming from Beth Brihte’s place. The police have gone to check it out a few times, but they never seem to come back with anything.”
“Maybe she’s had enough of her husband’s antics.”
“Or maybe he’s rooting around her trash cans as well.”
Niles cleared his throat. “Okay,” he said, “I think it’s been a long enough night for us all. Jennifer, please stay on the couch. Henry, do you need to crash?”
“No.” He stood, disrupting the slumbering Bruce, who sloped away with a baleful groan. “I’ll be fine on my own.” On his way out of the room he glanced back, and once more locked eyes with Niles. Large, and brown. Beautiful. Words formed noiselessly on his lips: we’ll talk.