CHAPTER ONE – BREAKING AND ENTERING
Several months earlier …
It was December in Winter Haven and, despite the city’s name, it was so cold that Ethan Koenig’s breath didn’t just mist in the outside air, it froze. He shot his best friend, Scott Westmore, a murderous look. Or at least Scott’s back got the look while rest of him was focused on picking the lock to Alan “Squeaky” Kimble’s front door. Squeaky was one of the strays that Scott had a bad habit of picking up.
"Stray" was Ethan’s shorthand for people who always got into trouble and needed to be bailed out. Scott was often the one doing the bailing out and he dragged Ethan with him every chance he got. Squeaky was the king of strays, which explained why they were out on the coldest night of the year breaking into Squeaky’s home.
What’s weird is that Scott won’t tell me what trouble Squeaky has gotten himself into. It’s got to be something crazy or illegal or both. Damn, why couldn’t Squeaky get in this kind of trouble in summer? Ethan stamped his feet against the snow-encrusted front step trying to get some circulation into them.
“So when did you learn to pick locks?” Ethan asked.
“I notice that you’re not surprised that I can,” Scott answered as he concentrated on getting the tumblers to align just right. His spiked, bleach-blonde hair caught and reflected the moonlight, making it almost look silver.
“You were the one to tell me that you were destined for a life of crime when we first met, remember?” Ethan pointed out.
Scott chuckled, “That’s right. How old were we?”
“Thirteen,” Ethan answered.
“Huh, five years ago,” Scott said. “That doesn’t sound long. But it feels like we’ve known each other forever.”
“I know what you mean,” Ethan said quietly. Five years did feel like a blink of an eye. He could still remember Scott’s thirteen-year-old high-pitched voice explaining to Ethan why he wanted to be a criminal, ‘I’m not going to do it for the money or the fame. It’s about freedom. Imagine being so free that you really could do whatever you wanted. Then you DID do it. Can you imagine that?’
Freedom's overrated, Ethan had responded. Freedom can get you in trouble. Scott had just given him one of those wild, quirked grins and promised Ethan that he would prove how good freedom could be. But that was before Ethan had gotten sick. Suddenly, after Ethan’s grim diagnosis, freedom seemed over-rated to Scott, too.
Before I was sick everything seemed possible. Now, the days where I can just do normal things are the ones that are amazing. Ethan shook those glum thoughts away. He and Scott were having a night out, damnit. He wasn’t going to waste it by thinking about the illness that was devouring his life every second of every day. Now if only we weren’t also wasting this precious, healthy, free time breaking into Squeaky’s home.
“Did it ever occur to you that Squeaky may be out at the clubs? Its midnight on a Friday. How else is he going to sell drugs if he’s not with his customers?” Ethan groused and rubbed his gloved hands together, hoping the sudden tingling in his fingers wasn’t a bad sign.
“He mostly sells on the internet. Anonymous. Relatively safe. He only goes to the clubs for the chicks. But he hasn’t been out in over a week.
"A week?" Ethan asked as he felt a trickle of unease run through him. A week in Squeaky-time was like a year to other people.
Scott made a triumphant sound as the last tumbler fell into place and the door unlocked. “I’m out of practice. This shouldn’t have taken so long.”
“God forbid your house-breaking skills lay fallow,” Ethan said. “What about the alarm?”
“Squeaky doesn’t turn it on when the parents are away. He can’t remember the code when he’s smacked out of his mind. So we should be fine,” Scott answered as he opened the door and gestured for Ethan to go in first.
“What a gentleman,” Ethan snarked good-naturedly. “Let’s hope Squeaky isn’t high, paranoid and hiding behind the couch with a shotgun to scare off any intruders -- oh, wait! He probably is, but you’ll be safe, because you’re allowing me to go first.”
Despite his protests, Ethan walked into the dark house ahead of Scott. In truth, he wouldn’t have it any other way. If anything happened to the other boy, Ethan didn’t know what he would do. If I die now, it’s just a little ahead of schedule, but if Scott does then it’s a whole long life cut short. Ethan frowned at the dark direction his thoughts insisted on turning. Scott’s snort of laughter drew him back to the moment.
“Do you honestly think I’d let anything bad happen to you?” Scott asked. When Ethan turned around, mouth open, as he prepared to list off the times Scott had let something bad happen, Scott held his hands up in surrender. “Okay, my track record isn’t the best. But you must admit that when we do get into trouble, I always take the blame.”
“My hero,” Ethan said, grinning.
“Damn straight,” Scott responded.
Once the front door was shut, the silence and darkness of the house settled over them. Ethan took off his gloves and reached for the light switch, but Scott grabbed his hand. Scott’s touch was firm and the warmth of his skin against Ethan’s seemed to burn. Ethan felt the now-familiar trill of excitement he experienced whenever Scott touched him. A trill he shouldn’t have for just a friend. A trill he’d never admit having to Scott. He didn’t want to lose the one person who still treated him like he was normal and not diseased.
“Someone might see the light,” Scott whispered in explanation.
Ethan gave out a huff of annoyed breath. “Won’t it look more suspicious if someone sees us skulking around here in the dark? Besides, if Squeaky is here, sneaking up on him is definitely a bad idea. It might make him do something untoward to us.”
“Untoward?” Scott mimicked. “You’re watching way too much BBC with Jordan. That damn Brit’s a bad influence on you.”
“If you mean my father’s personal secretary is trying to make sure I’m cultured and not say ‘yo’ every sixth word, you’re right,” Ethan answered dryly.
“Yo is a perfectly good word. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m going to use it every chance I get right in front of him,” Scott threatened.
“I’m sure Jordan will care terribly.” Ethan said. “By the way, are we dating now?” he asked the question lightly, jokingly, even as something in him ached.
“What?” Scott asked, looking completely perplexed.
What did you expect? For him to be aware he’s …
“You’re still holding my hand,” Ethan said, cocking his head towards their clasped hands
Scott hesitated for a minute then released him. Ethan tamped down the feeling of disappointment immediately. He wouldn’t indulge this thing he felt for Scott. They were friends. Best friends, nothing more, and his libido had just better get over it.
Ethan flipped the switch for the vestibule’s light, but nothing happened. It remained dark. He flipped it again. Repeatedly.
“Clearly, there’s no light to be had, E,” Scott said, as he again stilled Ethan’s hand with his own.
“Is the electricity out?” Ethan asked, feeling the familiar crawling sensation he got when trapped in the dark.
Scott shrugged, or at least Ethan thought he did. The dim light coming in from the panes of glass at the top of the front door wasn't enough to see clearly. “Maybe the bulb’s just burnt out.”
Ethan went over to the next light switch panel and tried that one as well with no luck. He looked out the bay window to the houses across the street. Their lights were still on. Only Squeaky’s place was dark. So the electricity’s out ONLY in Squeaky’s house. That’s not at all creepy. No, definitely not creepy.
“This place is so empty it’s echoing. Can’t you feel it?” Ethan asked. “We should get out of here.”
“No, not yet.” Scott ran his hand through his hair and ducked his head, which were sure signs that he had been holding something back and was now going to confess.
“Are you going to finally tell me what we’re really doing here?” Ethan asked, hands on hips, trying to look cross and forbidding, but certain he just looked silly.
“Ah, well, you see -- Squeaky may have gotten himself into some trouble,” Scott said.
“I sort of guessed that. Not even you break into places just for fun,” Ethan snorted.
“Look, I don’t want to waste our time together, not when it’s a – a good day, but if I don’t check on Squeaky, I won’t be able to be in the moment with you, you know?” Scott pleaded
A “good day” meant a day for Ethan without bone-breaking fevers and nausea; a day without crippling fatigue that robbed him of even the strength to talk; a day when he didn’t feel as insubstantial as tissue paper. There hadn’t been many good days recently. So Scott wouldn’t squander one of those for nothing. That meant this thing with Squeaky must be important. And if it’s important to Scott, it’s important to me. Shit.
“I guessed that, too.” Ethan sighed and said, “Okay, Zen master, I want you to be in my moment, too. We’ll check out the entire house. But if we don’t find him here, we’re done looking, okay?”
Scott grasped his shoulder companionably and Ethan strained not to lean into that touch. “I knew you’d understand, E.”
“Yeah, I’m a saint. Now let’s do this thing,” Ethan said, fighting back the warmth that pooled into his stomach at Scott’s honest praise. You sucker. You just want him to think you’re the greatest guy in the world. Like that’s going to make him realize that you’re his one and only after all these years of watching him mack on women? Or just last week when I had to hear him moan about his breakup with Juliet? Shit.
“His bedroom’s the entire third floor. We should start there,” Scott said. “Even if he’s not here, there might be some intel on where he did go.”
“Intel, huh? I’m going to break out my old play spy kit if you keep talking like that,” Ethan laughed.
Scott smirked in response and began to lead Ethan over to the stairs.
As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Ethan could see the bottom of wide staircase leading upwards into deeper blackness. He grasped the handrail and began to climb the steps beside Scott. Ethan grimaced as the wooden treads creaked and groaned. He heard more than saw Scott stumble on something left on one of the risers.
“Son of a bitch!” the other boy hissed as he kicked a pair of shoes away.
“Don’t you think if Squeaky was here he would have heard us by now? Why don’t we just yell for him and see if he answers?” But even as Ethan asked that, he instinctively felt it was a bad idea. There was an ominous sense of watchfulness in the house. Don’t want to attract attention. Whose attention? There’s no one here. Probably not even Squeaky. Yet Ethan did not want Scott to call out.
Scott paused on the stairs then fumbled in his down ski parka. “Hold on a sec. Got an idea. Two ideas actually.”
Scott pulled something out of a coat pocket. It was his iPhone. The bright light from the screen illuminated his handsome face. Scott bit down on his full lower lip as he scrolled through his contact list. It was almost endearing. Fuck, I have it bad, Ethan thought and purposely looked away from that tempting sight.
Ethan jerked against the banister when he heard the faint ringing of a phone somewhere up above them. It was an eerie sound in the blackness.
“I recognize the tune. That’s Squeaky’s cell. He doesn’t go anywhere without his phone so he’s gotta be here,” Scott said as he held his own cell up to his ear expectantly.
The phone rang and rang and rang.