Skulls Creek - 1
For LEO & CMO
The office phone rang at 4:55 p.m.
On a Friday.
When I had my keys in hand, bag over my shoulder, ready to lock up behind me.
I debated ignoring the insistent ringing, but since I didn’t have any actual evening plans, I walked backward a few steps and glanced at the caller ID. And froze.
I snatched up the phone before I could stop myself, forgoing the usual niceties of “Bernie’s Investigations” in favor of a clipped “Calla speaking.”
“Calla, it’s your father.”
As hard as he’d tried to be a part of my life, we didn’t speak very often, so “Hi, Dad” wasn’t exactly a major part of my vocabulary. “What’s going on?” I asked instead.
It was the way my mother had always greeted him, so I guessed, Like mother, like daughter. But just like all the times I’d spoken with him before, his voice soothed me. And, as I always did, I tried to ignore the brief moment of comfort. I was desperate for family but I’d grown up unable to trust any of them.
His tone didn’t change—it wasn’t chiding or cold, but still warm and comforting when he said, “Actually, your boss called me.”
“He was worried about you.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me. I know your brother stole your money. I know you had to sell the bar,” my father said.
“When did Bernie tell you that?”
“The first day you went to see him.”
Bernie had betrayed me from the start. I didn’t understand how someone I’d told a bit of my family history to, in order to find my thieving shit of a brother, could so easily take that information and hurt me with it. “That’s true. But I’m not homeless. I’m working and I’m fine. Bernie never should’ve involved you. I didn’t ask him to.”
The first time I ever spoke to my father, I was fifteen and in the hospital.
Because of that, I associated him with the very worst thing that had happened in my life. The entire conversation was like a knife stabbed through me. And maybe I was being dramatic, but my father and I never had the typical father-daughter relationship. Or any relationship at all.
My father sighed, like he was reading my mind. “Bernie contacted me in case I heard anything from your brother. That was all he asked. And I hadn’t heard from Ned, not until last night.”
Ned was my half brother, and Jameson Bradley wasn’t his father. “Ned contacted you?”
I heard a hard swallow on the other end of the line, which meant this couldn’t be good. “Does your brother know about what happened to you?”
My mouth opened and closed. My world spun. “Yes,” I managed. Ned was a year older than me, but we’d never been close.
“He’s got the pictures,” my father admitted reluctantly.
“I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“He wants money,” I said hollowly.
Which meant he’d blown through everything Mom and Grams left, including the money from the sale of the bar that he’d sold from under my nose. He’d always had far too much influence on both of them, and he’d twisted it to his advantage, even though we were supposed to make joint decisions regarding the bar and any money to be split. “I’ll find a way—”
“I took care of it. I am taking care of it. With Bernie’s help. I didn’t want to keep you in the dark, Calla. You have a right to know everything.”
Something about the way he said “everything” concerned me, but Bernie’s cell phone began to ring. And Bernie wasn’t in the office. He never went anywhere without that phone, and I knew that ring—an urgent one reserved for only a select few clients. Clients I never spoke to.
“Can I call you back?”
“Please do, Calla. I’d really like to talk to you . . . about more than just this.” He sounded so sincere and I convinced myself it was just years of practice. The rich were different.
So was I. “I will.”
I hung up and went into Bernie’s office, rooted around and found the phone on the ground. “Shit.”
I debated answering, when whoever it was hung up. And called again two seconds later. There were also texts from the same number with 911, and I knew what that meant.
My voice was tentative when I picked up with, “I’m not Bernie.”
A man’s rough voice countered with, “I’m dying.”
Okay, then, the dying man wins.
I never knew words could haunt, but those would. Fear raced through me even though I wasn’t the one in direct danger. I took a breath and started, “If you’ll just . . .” If you’ll just hang on a minute, dying man, I’ll try to track my boss down . . . “Can you tell me your location?”
“Where . . . the fuck . . . is Bernie?” His breathing was labored, his speech peppered with pauses, like he was trying to gain the strength to get the words out.
“Please, sir, if you tell me where you are I can send help—” I started and he broke in, saying, “No. Time.” And then, “Sir? Jesus Christ,” but his voice was so weak and slurred, I had to strain to hear it.
“Bernie’s not here. He dropped this phone in his office. Please, let me try to help you—I’ll send an ambulance and the police.”
I had no idea what else to do, but I wouldn’t hang up on this man. I took a deep breath, forced the words past my tightening throat. “Okay. Tell me what you need me to do.”
Talk? “I want to help you.”
“Might be . . . the only . . . one.”
“I’ve never had this happen.”
“Me . . . neither.”
He was drawing in harsh breaths between each of the words. He sounded so labored and I figured the more I talked, the less he’d have to. “My name’s Calla.”
“Sounds . . . soft. Pretty. Fits you.”
Soft. God. “Please don’t—” I took a deep breath and stopped before I could say die. “What happened to you?”
“Shot. Knifed. Beaten. Hit . . . by a moving car.”
“Just that, huh?” The sarcasm slipped out because I was nervous.
He huffed a laugh and then drew in a sharp breath and muttered, “Fuck.”
“What’s your name?”
There was a pause and I thought I’d lost him. But then he said, “Cage.”
“Cage. I like that nickname.”
“S’my middle name. First . . . is Christian.”
Christian Cage. I liked it.
“Talk,” he commanded, and God, I couldn’t let him down. So I asked the first thing that popped into my mind. “What do you look like?”
“Gonna . . . set up a dating profile . . . for me? Better do it . . . quick.”
It was my turn to laugh. “I can certainly do that for you.”
“Just don’t . . . call me ‘sir.’” There was a long pause and heavy breathing that sounded like he was in tremendous pain. I glanced out the window, hoping to catch sight of Bernie’s truck. He never went very far if he went out at all during his time on in the office. “Six foot four. Dark . . . hair. Green eyes. Your . . . turn.”
I was cute, certainly, but not a head-turning supermodel type. “I’m five foot five. And a quarter.”
He was teasing. Dying, and still teasing. Dammit, where was Bernie? “My hair’s blond. Shoulder length. And I have blue eyes.”
He wasn’t asking, but telling. “If you ask what I’m wearing, I won’t answer.”
Another laugh, another gasp of pain. “Won’t . . . ask. But I can picture it.”
“Should I even ask?”
“I’m not picturing clothes.”
My cheeks burned at the roughness of his voice. “You’re dying and you’re picturing me naked?”
“I’m a guy,” he said. And he did sound better, so who was I to argue? I laughed, then put my hand over my mouth simultaneously to keep from crying. “What . . . were you doing . . . before I called?”
“I was on the phone.” I didn’t mean for the words to come out so clipped.
“You sound sad. Can’t be . . . for me.”
“Calla . . .”
The way he said my name was like a warning and a command. The oddest thing, but I blurted out, “It’s just my family.”
Because a dying man needed my drama.
“Do you get along . . . with them?” he asked.
God, I didn’t want to talk about this. I felt the blurred edges of a panic attack closing in, sure that if I looked up I’d see the room glazed over. Instead of looking up, I forced myself into tunnel vision. “My mom died a couple of years ago. My Grams died early last year.” And I’m all alone.
“I know what being all alone’s like.”
I hadn’t realized I’d said that out loud. Cage and I shared a silent moment together, and I wondered if he realized the irony that, finally, neither of us was alone. “Grams used to tell me that being able to keep someone’s company is the most important thing in the world, and that the hard part was finding the person who you could tell your deepest, darkest secrets to.”
“What are yours?”
I almost didn’t answer, but knew I had to. “I’m scared I’ll always be alone.”
“By choice? Or . . . by design?”
“Both,” I admitted.
“Don’t . . . let that happen.”
I swear, it sounded like an order despite the hitch. “You sound better.”
“Yeah. Feel . . . beyond the pain.”
That couldn’t be good. I gripped the phone hard as I forced myself still.
“God, Calla, I really fucked this up.” He laughed, but it came out more like a groan. “Should’ve known . . . I tried to fight them. My whole life, I tried . . .”
“Don’t let them win, Cage. Please . . .”
“You sound like you know what it’s like.”
“I do. And I let someone win and I hate him for it.”
There was such a long pause that I thought I’d lost him—I closed my eyes and just waited for what seemed like forever.
And then he said, “Fuck, Calla. Would strangle the son of a bitch who hurt you” in a voice so strong and fierce that I actually took a step back and hit the wall.
“I’d let you,” I said softly.
“What did he do to you?”
“I can’t tell you.” I couldn’t tell anyone. It had been all locked up, put away. Except it never really was. “There was this guy. I was fifteen. He—” I couldn’t say much more except, “He took so much from me.”
I waited for him to say he was sorry, that he wished he could do something, because there were so many wishes associated with what had happened to me.
Instead, he growled, “Did anyone make him pay?”
Even though that’s not what Cage was asking, I thought of the money in my account. The pictures. “No,” I whispered.
“He will pay. I promise.”
How many broken promises had I waded through? “Don’t.”
“Don’t defend you?”
“I don’t goddamned believe you, Cage, so take it back.”
“Who gets into a fight with a dying man?” he asked out loud.
“I don’t believe in promises.”
“And I . . . don’t . . . break them. You need to be . . . prepared.”
Prepared? What did that mean? “Don’t do this to me.”
“What are you afraid of?” he challenged, sounding more resolved by the second.
“That you’re going to want to know what happened to me. That you’re not going to want me.”
“I think you’re really . . . scared that I might . . . want you, and you’ll have to let . . . those walls . . . all the way down.”
I wanted to tell him this was a hypothetical conversation, that I was happy he was going to live, but that I’d make sure he didn’t find me.
And what are you going to do, Calla? Quit Bernie’s and run away?
“I don’t want to believe you,” I told him.
“But you do.”
“Maybe,” I admitted.
“Fucking meet my angel in the middle of hell,” he managed, more to himself than me. “Gotta go, Calla. Remember . . . what I said.”
“Cage, please let me do something for you.”
“Babe, you have no idea what . . . you’ve already . . . done. I . . . Shit.”
“I’m . . . coming back.”
“I believe you,” I said, because how could I not? Because I wanted him to. “Let me help you.”
There was a silence and then he coughed and then, “Gonna give you a number. Remember . . . it.”
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