This time Michael had to run to catch up with me. I stalked all the way around to the storefront side of the strip mall before I felt like talking, and almost all the way back to the van before I could think of anything to say. “You could’ve told me before now,” I said, stuffing my hands into my back pockets and glaring as he followed me around the corner. “This is one of those things it would have been nice to know yesterday.”
“You know what I was doing yesterday?” Michael countered, leaning against one of the concrete pillars and crossing his arms across his chest. “And the day before that, and the day before that? Do you really think I had access to a reliable phone?”
had me there. “Okay, probably not,” I muttered. “But you could’ve warned me back at my apartment. My go bag is still under my bed, and there’s no way I can go back and get it now -- wait.” I clutched at my hair as this sunk in, gripping the base of my ponytail like it was my last tether to a sane life. The sudden withdrawal of my hands from my pockets sent the envelope flying. “Michael, what if I can’t go back?”
Michael shrugged. “I didn’t think it would matter that much to you. I mean, you said all that back at the restaurant, but you also said you didn’t care that much about your job -- ”
“I don’t care about my job!.” I paced around in a tight figure eight, stepping up and down from the curb and twisting my hair tight around my hand. The envelope caught and dragged under my shoe. I didn’t really notice and didn’t really care. “I really don’t. What I care about is, who’s gonna take care of my cat?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?!” For a second he looked like he wanted to slap me. Instead he grabbed my shoulder right as I spun on my heel for another go-round, throwing me off-balance and forcing me to pay attention. “We have bigger problems right now!”
“You said you’d send somebody if we weren’t back in two days, but what if I don’t come back at all?” I wobbled and grabbed at his arm, his grip on my jacket the only thing keeping me upright for the moment. “None of my neighbors are gonna miss me, and nobody at work knows I have a cat. I’m responsible -- I’m not gonna let him -- ” I couldn’t catch my balance. “I can’t let --
Michael blinked at me behind his glasses. “What, can’t let him starve?”
I couldn’t catch my breath, either. “I’m -- ” The word filled up my throat. “I’m responsible.”
Michael shook his head, matching the motion to a little shake of my shoulders as I got my feet planted under me. “Rachel, it’s just a cat.”
“He is not ‘just a cat’,” I scowled, pushing back and holding him at arm’s length. My face was hot and tight, and my eyes burned. “He’s a living thing, and I won’t -- I c-can’t --” I pressed my steepled hands hard against my face and closed my eyes tight. The words didn’t want to come out, so I forced them. “I’m not going to let anyone else die on my watch,” I said in a rush. “Even if it is just a cat. I won’t do it.” I took a short breath, sharp and shuddering. “I can’t.”
Michael made a short, low sound in his top of his throat, like he’d been punched in the stomach, and the pressure of his hands on my shoulders went away. With my eyes still closed, it was like he’d disappeared.
And then, after a moment, he was back, just hesitant pressure of fingertips in the hollow of my cheek. “I don’t -- I don’t get a lot of sleep, these past few months,” he said quietly, the tip of his thumb tracing the dark half-circles below my eyes. “Bad dreams, that kind of thing.”
I nodded without looking up. “Wakeful,” I murmured. “I bet you’re a really light sleeper now.”
“Pretty much.” The fingertips moved up and over my ear, pushing back some stray hair, then returned to my shoulder for a reassuring squeeze. “Rachel, I give you my word, I will not rest until I find a way to take care of your cat.” I could hear his smile, only a little bit ironic. The squeeze turned into a lighthearted pat. “Worst comes to worst, we can always bribe somebody to go break in and stuff him in a box and mail him to us. It’s not like we don’t have experience in that kind of thing.”
“Ha. Yeah.” I sniffed and wiped my face on the end of my sleeve like a fourth-grader. Eyeliner came away in black smears on the corduroy. “That would work. CatForShort loves boxes.” I sniffled again and laughed. “He’d be all, ‘awesome, a box!’ and jump right in, and then you’d just have to tape it up and punch some air holes in the top and stick a label on it and boom, done.”
“Overnight, of course.”
“Naturally.” A brief, chilly breeze lifted the battered envelope and flipped it up against Michael’s leg. He picked it up and held it out to me. “Here.”
“Oh, yeuch.” I took it between two fingers and let it hang like a wet dishrag. “This thing.”
The gravel on the roof rattled again -- it sounded like something was digging around up there. Michael looked up at the underside of the overhang. “What is that, a raccoon?”
“At this time of day?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” It amazed me how something as simple as a folded and glued sheet of manila paper could focus my thoughts. “So what exactly is it that Parker has in store for me?”
“In there?” He indicated the envelope. “Could be anything.”
“I meant the other thing.”
Michael pinched the bridge of his nose and looked out across the parking lot. The main road could have been miles away. “Shoot, I dunno -- probably the same thing he did with Colin. Just straight-up blackmailed him to make sure he’d be quiet and well-behaved for the foreseeable future.”
What, that’s it? “Seriously?”
“Seriously. Threatened to disavow his actions and send a copy of his file to the FBI. There was quite a bit of material to work with.”
“Wow. Sucks to be him,” I said, somewhat relieved (and more than a little surprised) that Parker was so uncreative. “Guess my mom was right about that whole ‘clean living’ thing.”
Michael punched me gently in the shoulder. “You’re not so innocent.”
“Am so,” I countered, punctuating my brilliant counter-argument with the corner of the envelope. “More than you guys, anyway. I never committed any felonies.”
“Arson’s a felony,” Michael pointed out. “Besides, you’re one hell of an accessory to the rest of us.”
“You know what? If that’s all Parker has on me, I think I can deal with that.” I gestured with the envelope again, then stopped and took a closer look at it. “Huh -- weird.”
I held up the envelope. “Look at this,” I said, pointing to where one corner had been ripped open. “Either they put the dossier in here upside down, or this top sheet is blank.” I worked a finger into the tear to widen it and peered inside. “It is blank.”
We were nowhere near the given coordinates. I glanced up at Michael, saw that he was looking deliberately in the other direction, flicked out my knife and slit open the envelope. The papers slid into my hand in a neat stack, fifteen sheets of standard-size, standard-weight copy/print paper.
Every last one of them was blank.
The hell... ?
A slight change in the background noise snapped me back to the present. A single car had split from the distant pack, left the main road and headed up the access lane toward the overgrown parking lot.
Houston, we have a problem.