Nick Ridley felt he would be more comfortable outside.
Wednesday was his day off, and he normally spent such free time riding his Suzuki Intruder motorcycle in search of deserted roads. Sleek black and chrome, the fourteen-hundred cc’s usually pushed him ever faster away from the city and closer to the sunset. In the solitude and twilight, he typically found what he was looking for.
But inside the Overton Valley Discount and Factory Outlet Mall, thirty miles northeast of Las Vegas on I-15, he felt like a runner who’d missed two weeks’ worth of exercise. His limbs felt heavy, but every movement was quick as the energy tried to release itself.
The hands on his watch aligned. Six p.m. The banners of red and gold, wrapped in purple, faint streamers less than an hour ago, receded below the horizon. For him, all that remained was the cascade of meaningless fluorescent.
And then there was the guilt.
As deceptions go, it was mild, meant to help and not to harm. He and Megan agreed that they needed to do it.
Megan’s husband, Eric, had eluded Ridley’s efforts at direct contact. Ridley was unsure if Eric had purposefully done this, but mounting concern for his sister’s welfare made Ridley suggest the scenario to Megan.
Resorting to the ruse was not the source of Ridley’s anxiety, though. His private fears about her safety, and his difficulty confronting those fears, had shaken his self-confidence during the past ten days. He felt embarrassed that he had let his perceptions and comfortable assumptions about their lives prevent him from asking the hard questions. For a cop, for anyone, this was not good. There was no reason, he decided, that the facts should remain concealed, regardless of their impact on him or his family.
And so he waited and watched, resolute, concealed between the display racks and shelves of the Ascending Angels Bookstore. Sixty feet away, across the wide courtyard with its fountain and tiled planters, awaited the entrance to Ruby Tuesday Restaurant. Looking through a large glass case full of Jesus figurines and manger-scene snow domes, Ridley had a clear view of anyone who entered the restaurant. Behind him, an oil painting of giant, prayerful hands rested on an easel, while smaller vignettes of biblical stories hung on a nearby pegboard panel.
Within moments, Ridley saw them: Eric with his arm on Megan’s shoulders, Owen comfortably asleep in the carrier Megan held.
Ridley’s training took over, his eyes carefully assessing the scene. His sister and brother-in-law walked their way to dinner, a happily married couple, young and innocent, casual yet mindful of their child. Both dressed informally, she in a white blouse, sweater, and jeans; he wore jeans along with a green polo shirt and navy-blue windbreaker. It all appeared so normal, no hint of any problem.
Ridley let them move into the restaurant and continued to wait a few minutes more until he was certain that they had found a table, or better still, a quiet booth. Megan knew what he wanted.
Another couple entered the restaurant.
Slowly, Ridley stepped from behind the display case. Out of habit, he felt along the outside waistline of his leather jacket and ran a thumb inside the back pocket of his jeans. Gun and badge were there.
He strolled across the courtyard. People stirred all around, but apparently, none of them intended to eat at Ruby Tuesday.
One person, though, a late twenty-something blond man in a crimson sweater and squeaky brown loafers, sauntered past Ridley and turned toward the restaurant’s entrance.
This was Ridley’s chance, and he took it.
Just as he was about to enter the restaurant, however, his cover stopped suddenly. Ridley, a few paces behind, misjudged the duration of the pause and nearly collided with the blond man. Staring at the back of perfectly groomed blond hair, Ridley withdrew a step and leaned to his right, carefully trying to look beyond the obstruction. He saw Megan and Eric, seated as he had hoped at a booth near the rear of the restaurant.
“Excuse me, sir,” Ridley said. The request went unacknowledged. Between the man, a potted plant on the left, and the vacant greeter’s podium on the right, there was not enough room to pass. After a few seconds, though, the man moved ahead, rather casually, past the plant and toward the bar. Ridley sighed, a sigh of relief and frustration, and found his way to the booth, in full view of Megan, but not of Eric, who was facing the opposite direction.
“Hey, what a surprise this is,” Ridley said. He noticed Owen was in his carrier on the seat with Megan. At five and a half months, the child already showed a remarkable resemblance to his father. Brown eyes, dark hair, olive skin.
Eric looked up, while Megan pleasantly said, “Nicky.”
“Hope I’m not interrupting.”
“Hi, Nick,” Eric said.“Want to join us?”
Ridley believed his brother-in-law’s invitation sounded genuine, without any trace of apprehension.
“You bet,” Ridley said.
After Eric slid across the seat, opening a space, Ridley sat. Instinctively, he checked his subject’s hands.
“So, how is the Gonzales family?” Ridley said, noticing that Eric was not wearing his wedding ring.
“We’re doing just fine, Nicky,” Megan said.
“That’s good,” Ridley said, gazing at Owen. The baby seemed excited by his uncle’s arrival. For a moment, Ridley thought he saw the child wink at him. His parents apparently noticed this as well, as Eric and Megan laughed and voiced endearing “oohs” and “ahhhs.”
“So, what’s new with you?” Eric said, patting Ridley on the shoulder. “Megs says you have a new girlfriend.”
Smiling was difficult, especially when he looked at Eric. His brother-in-law had dark circles under his bloodshot eyes. He remembered that this was how Megan had appeared when she met with him at his apartment.
“Let’s not jump to any conclusions,” Ridley said.
Withdrawing his hand, Eric said, “No pressure, no pressure. You’ll know when the time is right.”
“What, for marriage?”
“Yeah. I know I’ve never been—” Eric stopped midsentence. His eyelids fluttered. “Happier.”
“That’s good to hear,” Ridley said, checking Megan for similar signs of weariness. There were no dark circles, but her eyes were red. Not a tired red, more of a crying red. “But, you know, cops generally make lousy husbands. Say, where’s your wedding ring?”
Gripping the table, Eric slid toward Ridley. Water glasses and condiment containers fidgeted and rattled from the motion. “I…um…can you move?” Eric hunched his shouldersagainst his neck.
“Sure.” As he stood, Ridley looked at Megan, confused.
She put her hands out, palms down, indicating to remain calm.
Eric mumbled something that Ridley could not understand, but it sounded like “He cop.”
Ridley let his brother-in-law pass and watched him walkerratically toward the bathroom at the back of the restaurant.
“You can sit down now, Nicky.”
Ridley returned to his seat. “What the hell was that all about?”
“I told you he was having problems.”
“Has he been drinking?”
Megan cocked her head. “You know he doesn’t drink.”
“Of course not.” She scowled at her brother. “Why don’t you order something? We already have.”
The suggestion made Ridley’s stomach churn again. “I can’t believe this.” He took a deep breath, trying to quell the nausea, and stared at Megan. “Both of you look terrible, especially him.”
Megan straightened the tableware that Eric’s departure had jostled out of place. “He needs help. He’s started having migraines.”
“What about you?”
She continued her busywork, avoiding eye contact with her brother. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m tired, if that’s what you mean, but only because of his sleep disturbances.”
Slowly, Ridley reached out. He gently held his sister’s hands. When she stopped moving and he had gained her attention, he let go, resting his arms on the table. “Megan, is he hurting you?”
“No.” Her tone was reassuring, but an impatient riff blended in as well. “He thrashes about sometimes.”
“In his sleep?”
“He used to, but not lately.”
Ridley leaned closer and lowered his voice. “Did he ever hit you?”
Megan tried wiping a grease smudge on the table with her napkin, but Ridley stopped her. Megan exhaled, her dewy eyes floating upward before finally centering on Ridley. “Not on purpose.”
“My God, Megan. Not on purpose? What the—” Ridley lowered his voice. “Have you talked to anyone?”
“Just you and base security.”
“Then you reported it?”
She shook her head. “Not exactly. They came by a few weeks ago. They said the neighbors had reported fighting and arguing. I told them they were mistaken.”
“So you’ve been protecting him?”
“He doesn’t want them to know.”
Through clenched teeth, Ridley said, “That’s bullshit.”
“It’s not!” Megan glanced across the aisle, hoping their privacy was still intact. She lowered her voice. “Besides, we haven’t been arguing or fighting.”
“Then why would the police investigate?”
“They probably had the wrong address or something.”
“So, he’s not abusing you?”
“Absolutely not. You know Eric—he’s the most loving, caring person I have ever met. But something just isn’t right. He’s losing control.” And just then, Megan looked up and away from her brother, startled by what she saw. “Oh no!”
Dishes crashed to the ground, and a woman gasped. Another screamed. The commotion broke Ridley’s concentration, and he quickly looked around. He saw Eric strolling up the aisle toward their booth. Shoulders hunched and brow furrowed, his brother-in-law’s eyelids fluttered wildly. Despite the dim light, Ridley easily spotted the wedding ring. It hung attached to the chain of Eric’s dog tags.
Metal glinted against smooth brown skin.
Eric was naked.
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