Deserving of Death

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Book 1 of the CJ Washburn, P.I. Series

Chapter 1

It was the best of days; it was the worst of nights. The words kept replaying in CJ’s head, though different from whatever novel inspired them; what novel and how they were different he couldn't remember and he wished they’d get out of his head. There certainly had been some good days since hiring Stella Summers and in the last few years there had been some great nights. But at this particular time, this particular night, things weren't so great. He was in his office, lights dimmed, alone with Jack D., wondering how he had gotten himself so worked up. Where the hell was Stella anyway? Was she dead like the other victims, stuffed in a dumpster as though nothing more than last week’s hot chili tacos? Or did she head up into the mountains, Summerhaven or Madera Canyon, like she was always talking about, to clear her head and realign her psyche? What the hell does realigning ones psyche mean anyway?

He took a sip of the amber liquid.

If she simply took off, that was okay. Well, maybe not okay becauseā€¦.
He sipped again.

Of course it wasn't okay. If she needed to clear her head, why wouldn't she want to clear it with him? He'd be glad to go into the mountains with her. She did say she wanted them to spend more quality time together. She even gave him her key. What the hell did that mean and what is quality time to a woman anyway? Does she even know? Does any woman know?

It's all about feelings, or so he's been told by every woman he has ever been with, including his first and only wife after whom he'd sworn off marriage seven years back. How the hell does a man get a hold of feelings? It's not something he can wrap his hands around.

He looked at the glass, held it in the air, swirled the liquid, emptied it with one gulp and licked his lips.

A man can deal with something he can touch, feel the grain, the weight, the strength... the taste. How can a man touch a feeling? He held the glass in the air again, stared through it and then at it.

It's like the air in this glass, he thought. I'm holding it, but am I really? I'm holding the glass but the air inside is invisible. It could be pure oxygen or laced with poison. How would I know until I've let it fill my lungs? How would I know about feelings of any kind until it's too late?

He put the glass to his lips again and realized it was empty. He considered refilling it but wanted to keep his head clear, in case. He let his hand fall to the side. The glass slipped away, bounced once on the rug and then rolled under the old sofa.

So where the hell is she?
His gaze fell to the cell phone where it rested on the edge of his desk, as though the act of wishing it would play its merry little ringtone would make it so, the ringtone he hated because it was stupid, the ringtone he loved because it was her ringtone. Beautiful Woman would have been perfect, but no, she liked the Gummy Bear song. One day she snatched the phone out of his hand and in a flurry of flying thumbs had downloaded the stupid song and assigned it to her number.

He wished it would play the Gummy Bear song right now... RIGHT NOW!

And suddenly, the phone came to life. It wasn't Gummy Bear, though; instead it was the default ring for any caller who was not Stella. He snatched at it, nearly tilting his chair over as he strained to keep from dumping his feet off the other corner of the desk. He settled and touched the Answer button.


He heard nothing but dead silence.


Still nothing. He pressed the phone to one ear and covered the other, dropped his feet to the floor and leaned forward.


There came what sounded like a shuffle followed by a soft slap as though a paperback book was dropped and then a click. He looked at the phone.

Call Ended, it displayed.

Duration: 19 seconds.

Caller Unknown.

After a time he took a breath, tossed the phone back on the desk and stood. He paced to the door, then back to his desk. He snatched up the phone and paced again, the fear he had been suppressing for the last hour rebuilding with each step, each turn. Without stopping he pressed "2" to speed-dial Stella's cell phone. When her voicemail kicked in he ended the call. He'd already left three messages in the last dozen or so times he had attempted calling her.

What was it he'd heard during the dead call? Was the shuffle actually Stella crawling out of sight while trying to sneak a call on the perp's phone? And the other sound, the paperback slap; what was that? Her hand reaching, slapping down for a grip? And then the shuffle; her pulling herself along? Why didn't she say anything? Couldn't? Gagged? Afraid of being overheard? Why did she hang up? Afraid of being caught? Accidental? Why has she not tried to call again?

He looked up at the ceiling.

Or was the call as simple as a wrong number, the caller embarrassed to say anything?

Something tightened in his chest. He pounded on his breastbone, blew out air, sucked in, blew out again, coughed hard with each exhale.

"Not now!"

He'd never had a heart attack, but Stella made him read about how to stave one off because he was at that age. He was only 44. What did she mean by that age? The pressure didn't go away, but there was no pain and he otherwise felt fine.

He jumped with a sudden start as the phone vibrated in his hand and began playing the Gummy Bear song. He looked at the name, Stella, displayed on the caller ID, unable to believe that she chose to call at that very second. He punched the Answer button and put it to his ear.




"Clinton. Sorry I didn't pick up when you called. I'm still a bit tied up and won't be..."

"What happened? You just disappeared."

"I know. I'm sorry. Can't talk right now, but tomorrow I'll call. Sorry. Okay?"

CJ looked up at the ceiling again and then closed his eyes. "I don't understand. Where are you? When tomorrow?"

"Sorry. Got to go. Bye."

"Stella!" He looked at the phone. The words, Call Ended, glared back at him again. He touched "2" until her number started dialing and then put the phone to his ear. It rang once... twice. "Damn!" He waited through the uninterrupted ringing until her voicemail greeting cut in, then waited for the tone.

"Stella. What do you mean you can't talk? You can always talk, even when you shouldn't. When tomorrow? What's going on? I'm worried about you. Call me."

He allowed several cycles of breathing and who knows how many racing heartbeats before he finished with the words he had been avoiding their entire relationship.

"I love you."

He looked at the phone for a long time before he pressed the End Call button, fearing when he did that the end would be all too literal. When the screen went black he lowered his weight onto his chair, the air escaping the cushions in rhythm with that escaping his lungs.

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