“That’s one word,” J.X. objected.
“Hm?” I was studying the colorful travel brochures littering my lap and the raw-silk ivory comforter. Walk in the footsteps of the Colosseum’s ancient gladiators! Cruise canals in a golden gondola! Live La Dolce Vita! read the cover of the brochure I held. I could practically feel the venerable blue of the Roman sky beneath my fingertips.
There was a bewildering array of options. Everything from private guided tours with personally tailored itineraries to culturally themed coach tours. We could do an eight-day Adriatic cruise or a fourteen-day grand tour by rail.
The only option not available to me was staying home.
“Kill. Slang. Three words,” J.X. said. “First word starts with D.”
It was eleven o’clock on a Friday night in late October, and we were cozily tucked up in our master bedroom at 321 Cherry Lane. J.X. was doing the San Francisco Examiner crossword, and I was figuring out our spring vacation plans. It really doesn’t get much more domesticated than that.
“Oh. Do away with.”
He was silent as his pencil scratched on paper. He made a disgusted sound. “Elementary, my dear Holmes.”
I glanced at him. “Bad clues, my dear Moriarity. Do away with isn’t slang. It’s a phrasal verb.”
“Right?” He regarded me for a moment, then nodded at the scattered brochures. “What do you think? What looks good to you?”
“I don’t know. They’re all pretty expensive.”
“Money is no object.”
I snorted. “It might not be the object, but it should be a consideration.”
He got that dark-eyed, earnest look he always wore when applying the thumbscrews. “I want to do this for you, Kit. I don’t care about the money. I want us to have this. We’ve never gone away on vacation together.”
“Yeah, I know. Possibly averting an international incident.”
His mouth quirked, but he said coaxingly, “Think about it. You and me. Hot, naked sex in a gondola.”
I gave him a look of horror. “They have gondoliers, you know!”
He laughed. “Okay, then how about a gondola ride at sunset and candlelight dinner on the terrace of our private villa—and then hot, naked sex. Beneath the stars?”
I cleared my throat.
Spotting weakness in his prey, J.X. moved in for the kill. “I’m serious, though. Just you and me. Together. Doing whatever we want. No conference, no convention, no meetings with agents or editors, no deadlines. We could explore Rome’s catacombs—or just visit a few museums and galleries. We could see the Pantheon and the Colosseum. We could go to Florence and see the Ponte Vecchio. Or spend a couple of days swimming with dolphins off the Isle of Capri. Or we could do nothing but sleep and eat and fu—”
“I get the picture,” I said.
Despite the fact that I don’t like to travel—hate to travel—a lot of that did sound appealing. I said, “Private villa, huh?”
“Whatever you want, Kit.” He was suddenly serious, gaze solemn, the line of his mouth soft. Such a romantic guy. Especially for an ex-cop. Well, really, for anyone.
“It sounds…nice,” I admitted. It sounded better than nice. Maybe even kind of lovely.
His smile was very white in the lamplight. He tossed the newspaper and pencil aside and drew me into his arms. We fell back against the mattress. The brochures whispered and crackled beneath us as his mouth found mine. He kissed me deeply, sweetly, whispered, “Maybe we could make it a honeymoon…”
My eyes popped open.
Before I could reply—not that I had a reply ready—the bedroom door pushed wide, and a small voice said, “Uncle Julie?”
J.X. sat up. “Hey, honey.” He only sounded the tiniest bit flustered, plus got bonus points for not flinging me aside and springing completely off the bed as I had done to him the first few times this happened. “You’re supposed to knock, remember?”
“I forgot.” Gage said huskily, “I had a bad dream.”
Gage was J.X.’s five-year-old nephew. Actually, it was more complicated than that, but the point was the kid was spending the weekend with us, as he did a couple of times a month.
“A bad dream, huh?” J.X. opened his arms, and Gage climbed into bed between us, snuggling against him. “We don’t have bad dreams in this house.”
I threw him a look of disbelief. He meant well, but come on. Everybody has nightmares. Him included.
“What did you dream?” I asked.
Gage rolled me a sideways look. Over the past four months we’d forged a truce, but he still largely took me on sufferance. Which was okay because frankly, I’m an acquired taste: best consumed with cream, sugar, and, yeah, a generous heaping of sufferance.
“Monsters,” he said tersely.
“Monsters?” J.X. repeated thoughtfully. “There are no monsters here. This is a monster-free zone.” He gave Gage a comforting squeeze. “You know what we do to monsters in this house?”
Gage shook his head, his gaze wary.
He was right to be wary because J.X. pretend-growled, “We tickle them,” and pounced.
Gage squealed, and the two of them rolled around on the travel brochures, Gage wriggling and kicking—managing to land a few well-aimed blows at me in passing—before finally sitting up and resettling themselves against the pillows bulwarking the headboard.
J.X. winked at me. I shook my head resignedly.
“What you want to think about is all the fun we’re going to have tomorrow when you and me and Uncle Kit—”
“Christopher,” I interjected.
“—Uncle Christopher go to the Halloween Hootenanny.”
Gage and I eyed each other in complete understanding. He knew I did not want to attend this Halloween Horrorama any more than he wanted me there. He knew, as did I, we neither of us had any choice. It was in these moments that we could actually walk a mile or two in the other’s moccasins—though I admit fuzzy bunny slippers were a tight fit for my ethos.
J.X. continued to extol the ordeals—er, delights—of the day ahead, which was scheduled to conclude with the movie Smallfoot and dinner at Rosario’s Pizzeria.
“So, no more bad dreams, okay?” he concluded.
“Okay,” Gage said doubtfully. And then, “Can I sleep in here?”
J.X. wavered but stayed strong. “No, honey. You’re getting too big to bunk in here. There’s not enough room for all three of us. Uncle Christopher and I would fall right out onto the floor!”
And then the monster that lives under the bed would get us.
But see, I was getting fond of the little cheese mite because I didn’t say it. Gage, however, had no doubt who the villain of the piece was. His bleak and beady gaze fell on me.
“What about a night-light?” I suggested.
His face brightened.
“Nnn.” J.X. grimaced. “I don’t think we want to get into that habit, do we?”
He seemed to be asking Gage, who looked to me like a kid who very much hoped they could maybe get into that habit.
“As habits go,” I began. I remembered I was technically only an honorary uncle and should not be debating Gage’s real uncle’s child-rearing decisions in front of him. I shrugged, but couldn’t help adding, “It’s a big house, and it’s still strange to him. I had a night-light when I was his age.”
J.X. frowned. “Did you?”
“Night-lights can disrupt sleep patterns. Maybe that’s why you have these bouts of insomnia.”
“You know what disrupts sleep patterns? Being scared there’s a monster watching you from the closet—or waiting under your bed for you to step onto the floor.”
Gage gulped. J.X. exclaimed, “Kit.”
I said hastily, “Not that monsters do that because monsters aren’t real, and anyway, this is a monster-free zone. Like J.X., er, your uncle Julie said. He’s the monster expert of the family.”
Gage was still goggling at me, and J.X. was giving me the full-frontal unibrow in silent censure. Oh please. Like I hadn’t voiced exactly what the kid was already thinking?
“Okay, I know what you need.” I threw the bedclothes back and swung my legs over the side of the mattress, thereby demonstrating there were no monsters under this bed. “How about a nice warm cup of cocoa?”
Gage considered his options and nodded grudging approval. J.X. smiled, pleased that I was taking an avuncular interest, and suggested, “Make it three?”
“Sure. You want brandy in yours?”
“I want brandy,” Gage offered.
“It won’t mix with the sleeping pills,” I said, and J.X. inhaled sharply. “Kidding,” I told him.
He shook his head, though fondly. “Are you doing that Nutella thing again?”
“I can if you like.”
“I like Nutella,” Gage volunteered.
“That’s a little rich before bed,” Uncle Ebenezer Balfour objected.
I said, “Okay, a round of cocoa, one virgin and two nuts.”
Gage giggled, J.X. looked undecided, and I departed posthaste.
I was thinking about the weirdness of my life, absently stirring the milk, Nutella, and four tablespoons of cream in a small saucepan, when the kitchen phone rang.
I tore my gaze from Gage’s latest artistic efforts pinned to the refrigerator door—a frantic-looking stick figure was racing away from two other stick figures wearing Jack-o’-lantern heads. The Jack-o’-lantern people were brandishing what appeared to be very pointy knives.
Yikes. No wonder he didn’t want to sleep alone.
Back when I lived on my own, I always used the answering machine to screen my calls. But J.X. was different. He liked to answer the phone and did so regularly. He looked forward to hearing from people. He enjoyed chatting. I don’t think he even truly disliked telemarketers. I, on the other hand, agreed with Ambrose Bierce when he said the telephone was “an invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.”
It had taken a couple of months to teach him—J.X., not Ambrose—that I was rarely at home to random callers, even when I was at home, but eventually he got the message. Or at least permitted my callers to leave theirs.
But phone calls around the witching hour are never good news, and after the first startled-sounding ring, I picked up the handset.
There was a hesitation—like someone had to pause to catch their breath. As slight as that sound was, I felt my heart drop through the cage of my rib bones and land with a thump on the black-and-white parquet floor. I too had to stop to catch my breath, as though picking up the phone had required monumental, heroic effort, and had I known who was on the other end, it would have. In fact, I wouldn’t have answered.
“Christopher?” That deep baritone had once been as familiar as… Well, choose your favorite domestic simile. That voice had once been as familiar as J.X.’s because that was the role in my life the owner of the voice had played.
“David.” My own voice was surprisingly flat, given the way emotions were zinging up and down my nervous system, emergency flares sparking into life—and promptly shorting out.
“I had a visit from the police a few hours ago.” His voice was shaking. “They told me they found a body in our backyard. Our old backyard. Your backyard. You killed him, didn’t you? You killed Dicky!”