Sneak Preview: Burdened to Death

I’m still on pace for a mid-October publication date for Burdened to Death, Jamie Brodie Mystery #3. To whet your appetite, here’s a sneak preview. Enjoy!

 

Sunday March 17

A phone call in the middle of the night is never good news.

Technically, it wasn’t the middle of the night. It was 5:00 am. But it was Sunday. My boyfriend Pete and I had hiked all day Saturday in Topanga Canyon with my brother Kevin and his girlfriend Abby. We’d covered a lot of territory and we’d been bushed when we got home. So the plan had been to sleep in this morning.

So much for that.

It was Pete’s phone. He disentangled himself from me and the sheets and snagged it off the bedside table. “H’lo.” I could only hear his side of the conversation.

“Kev. What the hell.”

What?” He sat up quickly, pulling the comforter off of me. I grunted and tugged at it.

“What’s the guy’s name?”

I heard Pete gasp. “Yeah, I know him. He was a friend of ours in Barstow.” Barstow. Pete’s hometown until he was fourteen. A place of excruciating memories.

“Um – yeah, I could do that. When?”

“Oh. Yeah, okay. Where are you?”

Whatever Kevin said made Pete turn and look at me. “Really. Okay. We’ll be there in a bit.” He said goodbye and hung up then just sat there, phone dangling from his hand, staring at the opposite wall.

I managed to roll over and switched on the bedside lamp. “What’s up?”

“Kevin got called out on a body and he needs me to identify it.”

“Why you?”

“The guy had one of my cards in his pocket. His name is Mark Jones.”

“Mmph. Where are we going?”

“Kevin said the building is where your old boyfriend Eric lived.”

“Ah.” Eric was an LA County paramedic that I’d dated nearly three years ago. He lived in an apartment complex in Westwood. “It’s on Midvale.”

“Okay.” Pete gave the comforter a final shove to the foot of the bed. “Gotta get dressed and get over there.”

At 5:30 am on Sunday, there was very little traffic between our townhouse in Santa Monica and the apartment complex. Once we were underway I asked, “So you knew this guy in Barstow?”

“Yeah. He was a year ahead of me in school, right between Steve and me. He lived down the street. He was the only person I stayed in touch with after we moved to my dad’s. Then we went to UCLA at the same time.”

“How’d he get one of your cards?”

“I ran into him about a year ago at Whole Foods. Hadn’t seen him for years. He said he’d like to catch up and I gave him one of my cards, wrote my cell number on the back. But I never heard from him and I kind of forgot about it.”

Uh oh. Pete was a psychologist. A friend who’d committed suicide was going to stir up significant guilt. I laid my hand on his thigh. “Did you have his number?”

“No.”

“Then it was up to him to call if he wanted to talk to you. You had no way of knowing.”

“I could have looked for him.”

“Did he seem suicidal a year ago?”

“No. He seemed fine.”

“Then don’t beat yourself up over this.”

“I won’t.” But I knew better.

We zipped right up Wilshire and pulled up to the front of the building. The street wasn’t blocked, but there were two patrol cars and a fire truck. My brother Kevin, one year older than me, was an LAPD homicide detective with the West LA division. He and Abby lived just a few hundred yards from here, in an apartment on Roebling. He’d arrived at the scene on foot and met us at the front of the building. “Hey. Sorry to drag you out like this.”

I said, “Where’s Tim?” Tim Garcia was Kevin’s partner.

“Since it was a probable suicide, I said I’d handle it. He didn’t need to come all this way.”

Pete asked, “You’re sure about the suicide?”

“Yeah. The coroner will have the final word, but there’s not much doubt. He hung himself from his own balcony. I just need to be sure it’s him before I notify the family.”

Pete looked grim. “Okay. Where is he?”

Kevin said to me, “Stay put.” He led Pete into the courtyard of the building. I waited. The firefighters came out, loaded up their equipment and left. Kevin and Pete returned shortly thereafter. Pete said, “It was him.”

We tried to avoid displays of affection in public, but I put my arm around his shoulders and gave him a quick half-hug. Kevin said, “I’ve got work to do. Talk to you all later.” He went back into the courtyard. Pete turned to me. “Want to go to Headlines?”

“It’s only 6:00. I doubt they’re open.”

“Oh. Any ideas?”

We ended up at Izzy’s Deli, not one of our usual haunts, but open 24 hours and close to home. We parked at the house and walked to the deli. Pete was quiet. I didn’t ask any questions – I figured he needed time to process.

We both ordered pancakes. I finally asked, tentatively, “Was it bad?”

“Not the worst I’ve seen.” Before earning his Ph.D., Pete was a cop. He and Kevin were partners during Kevin’s first five years as an LAPD patrol officer and had been close friends ever since. I knew Pete had seen bad stuff as a cop, but it had to be different when it was someone you knew. I said, “At least it wasn’t a gunshot.”

“Yeah. That would have been worse.” Pete rubbed his face again. “I don’t think he’d been there long.”

“Had you always known him?”

“Pretty much. He moved to our street when I was about six. His dad was at Edwards. They’d been living on base but finally bought a house.”

“He must have been a pretty good friend, if you stayed in touch after you left Barstow.”

“He was.” Pete didn’t say any more. He seemed lost in thought. I didn’t push it. I knew Barstow brought back a lot of awful memories for Pete. His parents had divorced when he was ten, and as a fourteen-year-old altar boy, he’d been sexually abused by a priest. When Pete’s dad had found out, he’d moved Pete and his older brother Steve to live with him in Lancaster. Pete had begun counseling almost immediately and had come a long way. But as you’d expect he still had issues because of the abuse.

Our pancakes came and we ate, talking about other things. When we finished we decided to go to Vons and get our groceries for the week. Pete was still preoccupied, though. When we got home I said, “Let’s get in the shower.”

In the shower, I worked on loosening the knots in Pete’s shoulders. Then I worked on another part of his anatomy. By the time we finished we were both clean and relaxed. We put on sweats and settled on the living room sofa with the newspaper. I was reading the comics when Pete laid down his section. “I don’t know why Mark would do this.”

“It could have been a lot of things. You really didn’t know much about his adult life, right?”

“Right. When I saw him a year ago we didn’t talk much. Just the standard ‘what are you doing now’ stuff. He told me he had a boyfriend and I told him I did too. That’s when he said he’d like to get together and I gave him my card. And that was it.”

“A year ago? We hadn’t started dating yet.”

He gave me a sly smile. “No. But I knew we were going to.”

I laughed. “Pretty confident, were you?”

“Yep.”

“Did you know he was gay?”

“No.”

“Pretty brave to come out to you like that, after not seeing you for so many years.”

“It was. He was like that. Always positive, always determined. It’s hard to imagine the kid I knew committing suicide.”

“People change.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Is Kevin sure it was suicide?”

“Yeah. The way it happened – there’d be no way someone else could stage that.”

“Kevin referred to a roommate – do you think that’s his boyfriend?”

“I guess so.”

“Was Kevin going to notify the right people?”

“The roommate was listed as first emergency contact. Kevin was going to call him first, to get the family’s phone numbers. If it was his boyfriend, then at least Kev was notifying him first.”

“Good. You know – if you wanted to know more about why he did this, I could look into it.”

“How? It’s a suicide. There’s no case.”

“You’re thinking like a cop. The police don’t have a case, true, but I could at least find out as much as I could about him. Maybe it would give you some – I hate this word, but I’ll use it for lack of a better one – closure.”

“How would you go about this?”

“Newspaper archives, to start with. We have every issue of the LA Times back to the first in 1881. And I’ll Google him, of course, see what comes up. Once I find out a little about him, I can research the company he worked for, organizations he was involved in. I can get into government records.” I poked him in the ribs. “I’m a librarian. Never underestimate my ability to find shit out.”

He laughed. “Yeah, but the first time you went on a quest to find shit out, someone tried to kill us. And the second time, someone tried to kill Jennifer.”

Jennifer was Kevin’s ex-wife.

“Details, details. Anyway, this time I’m not trying to uncover a killer. I’m just trying to get you some answers about your friend.”

Pete leaned over and kissed me. “You’re a good boyfriend.”

“Thank you. I try.”

He just laughed.

 

It was nice to banter with Pete. We hadn’t been doing much of that lately. We’d started dating – for the second time – about nine months ago. Less than a week later an arsonist had burned me out of the apartment I’d been sharing with Kevin and Abby. I’d moved in with Pete on what was supposed to be a temporary basis, and I never left. We’d been doing great until last Christmas, when Pete told me about his abuse.

Pete’s admission had impacted our sex life. I’d been frustrated at the lack of variety in our bedroom – Pete would only top, and I liked to take turns. I’d been ready to suggest that to him when he dropped the bombshell. I certainly understood why he’d only top. But Pete’s news didn’t help alleviate the physical frustration I felt – it made it worse, since it seemed that things were not likely to change. A couple of months ago I’d begun seeing a counselor, in hopes of learning to deal with the frustration without taking it out on Pete. It was definitely helping. Dr. Bibbins had made several behavioral suggestions that would help me deal with my emotions.

But things were a little strained between us. Pete had been upset by the news that I was seeing a counselor. He felt guilty, but he was having trouble understanding my emotional reaction to his news. He was also afraid that I’d eventually leave him. Ironic, since when we’d dated before, he was the one who left me.

Doctoral candidates in psychology are required to undergo psychotherapy as part of their training. Pete was still with the therapist that he’d begun seeing in his Ph.D. program. It had been six years now. I hadn’t seen any indication that this therapist was helping him. His behavior and emotions hadn’t changed much since – well, since I’d known him, which was also about six years. He said that he wanted to work on our relationship – but so far I seemed to be the only one doing any work.

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