“Mom? What? No. It’s not that at all. It’s just tonight, something happened, that’s why Rory dropped by.”
“Oh, I don’t care,” Jen said in a light tone that JJ knew was phony. “As long as you’re not doing drugs with him, do whatever you want.”
Rory got up from the couch. “Look, Mrs. Deveraux,” he said, “I get I’m not your favorite person, but I’m really a lot more than just a walking joint of weed.”
Jen turned towards Rory. JJ held his breath, praying this didn’t get too ugly. “I’m not trying to judge you,” Jen told Rory. “If my son still considers you a friend after everything he’s been through, I’m sure he sees so much good in you that he’s willing to ignore what you do when he’s not around. But I can’t forget that from the moment JJ met you, whenever the two of you were together, trouble wasn’t too far behind. So no matter how many other sides of you he sees, as long as you come into my house high or planning to get high, I’m sorry, but I can’t see you as anything but a bad influence.”
“Maybe you need your eyes checked,” Rory said. “You think you know it all, but you got it all wrong. When JJ was messing up, it was all his idea. I just came along for the ride. Yeah, I like to mess around, have a little fun, live a little, but JJ’s the one who was flipping out when he first hit Salem.”
Jen’s lips thinned. Rory said, “Look, I’m not any more crazy about you than you are about me. But I’ll put up with you for one night for JJ’s sake.”
“What is he talking about?” Jen demanded of JJ.
JJ reddened. “I kinda told Rory he can crash here tonight. I thought since Abigail’s out for the night and we have that guest room anyway, it would be okay.”
“Honey, I’m sorry ,but I don’t think that’s a good idea. In fact, I think it would be best if Rory went home now.”
JJ crossed his arms. “Mom,” he said, trying hard to keep his temper under control, “if he could do that, do you think he’d hang around here letting you look at him like he’s a serial killer?”
“JJ!” Jen put her hand on JJ’s arm. “Come over here right now.” She started to drag JJ towards the kitchen.
Rory started to pick up his bag. “Forget it, dude. Let’s just hang in the park tonight.”
JJ turned towards him. “Just wait, will you?”
“I don’t stay where I’m not wanted, man.”
“Just gimme five minutes alone to explain it to her. I guarantee you she’ll see it our way.” JJ glared at his mother.
Bev followed Cole almost to the clearing where she and Rory had been hanging out. She ducked behind a tree and watched.
Rory was long gone. In fact, the clearing was empty except for some guy lying on the ground. Bev leaned forward and saw that the guy had tape wrapped around his wrists and ankles. She couldn’t make out his features, but she didn’t think she’d ever seen him before.
Cole looked over his shoulder, so Bev ducked back behind the tree again. She listened as Cole said, “What the hell happened?”
“That’s what I’d like to know,” the other guy said. “You said this was some easy money. You’d better not have been lying to me.”
“I wasn’t,” Cole protested. “I can’t believe that scrawny little stoner got one over on you. How - “
“Never mind how. I’m gonna have to go to plan B. Get in the woods and find me my knife.”
Cole headed for the woods. Bev jumped back so he wouldn’t find her, then ran back to the tree she was supposed to be standing against. She leaned against it, trying to catch her breath before Cole came back. She didn’t know what to do about what she’d just heard, but she didn’t have time to think about it. He was going to be here any second now, and going against what he wanted was even more dangerous than she realized. She started to take out her phone, but she heard Cole’s footsteps. She shoved the phone back into her purse and made it look like she had been waiting for him this whole time.
Jen turned towards JJ, her eyes blazing. “You’d better tell me exactly what’s going on before I call Hope to come get your friend. I’m sure whatever’s going on at home, he doesn’t want to spend the night in jail.”
“Mom!” JJ’s eyes flashed. “Would you stop freaking out?”
“I’ve known for months that you were friends with Rory again, but I let it go because I trusted you. But tonight, you showed me that I was mistaken. Not only did you bring him home with you after staying out so late that you worried me almost to death, but you invited him to stay over, knowing that I’m not comfortable with him.” Jen paced back and forth. “You are lucky that you are too old for me to be able to punish you, because if I could you would be grounded for the rest of the semester. You may be 19 years old, but you are living in my house, and you have to live by my rules. I don’t care how bad Rory’s home life is. He is not welcome in this house. Now get rid of him.”
“I can’t do that, Mom. Look, I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t an emergency.”
“An emergency?” Jen laughed. “What kind of emergency could he possibly have that - “
JJ took a deep breath to control himself. “Mom, Rory just got robbed. He took that shortcut through the woods and one minute he’s walking, the next he’s facing a knife to his throat.” He swallowed hard. “He got away, but Mom, he’s all shook up. I mean, he tries to act like he’s cool, but I can tell he’s not. I don’t think he should be alone.”
“Alone? Didn’t you tell me he lived with his brother now?”
“Kurt, um, he’s not around right now.” The lie slipped out too easily, but JJ didn’t have time to feel guilty about it. “Look, if it was me, and you weren’t here - “
“Then I’d hope you’d have the sense to go to someone like your Aunt Kayla who really cares about you.”
“Rory doesn’t have anyone like that, Mom. His brother’s useless and his mom, she’ll spit in his face and slam the door on him. If you make him leave, he’s gonna end up sleeping on a park bench and praying he doesn’t get robbed a second time.”
Jen hesitated, thinking. “I feel bad that Rory doesn’t have a family,” she said. “But JJ, choices have consequences. If Rory didn’t make such bad ones, maybe he’d have places to go other than the park.”
JJ turned away from her. “Where do you think I’d be if you’d given up on me like Rory’s mom did?”
“I could never do that, sweetheart. You know that. But as much as I want to judge Rory’s mom for turning her back on him, I can’t. I don’t know how hard she tried before she decided enough was enough or what she put up with. But what I do know, honey, is that Rory’s done a lot of things since then, and that’s what led him to this moment. And it’s sad, it really is. But - “
“Mom, please just stop, okay!” JJ couldn’t help getting loud. “I get why you’re upset with Rory being here. That’s on me cause of all the stuff I used to do. But Mom, it’s just one night, I swear, and I’m not doing that stuff with him anymore.”
“But he still gets high.”
“He knows he can’t do that here. I made that clear to him a long time ago. Look, Rory can get wild, but I swear, he turns all that off whenever he comes over. So maybe if someone like you actually gives him a chance he’ll think twice about what he’s doing.”
“He’s really important to you.” Jen sounded surprised.
“Yeah,”” JJ said. “He is.” He sighed deeply. “So can he stay?”
“One night, JJ. I don’t want him stretching it out into two, or a week, or six months.”
“He won’t. I promise.”
“I‘m sure Abigail doesn’t want him in her room, so he has to stay in yours where you can keep an eye on him. And if I see any drugs--no, if I even smell weed or anything else--I will call Hope and he can spend the rest of the night in jail.”
“Understood. Can I go tell him now, before he gives up and goes to the park?”
“One more thing.”
Jen hugged her son tight, surprising him. “If what happened to him happened to you, I don’t know what I’d do. You promise me that you will be careful from now on, you understand?”
She had tears in her eyes as JJ hugged her back and mumbled, “I will, Mom.”
Rafe sat on a tree stump in the clearing, interviewing the latest robbery victim. “So if you know this is where all the stoners hang out, and you don’t do that yourself, what were you doing here?”
“I hope you’re not blaming the victim,” Jeff said. “That wouldn’t reflect well on the police when it gets out.”
Rafe grimaced as he reminded himself that even victims he didn’t like were still victims. “And I hope you’re not wasting my time,” he said. “Now the longer you mess around instead of answering my questions, the bigger head start this guy has. So let’s start again. How exactly did this all go down?”
“I was looking for a story,” Jeff explained. “This is kind of embarrassing, but after your boss wouldn’t give me anything, I thought I’d just have to work up to the big stuff. So I figured I’d come out here and report on the stoner circle and how the university isn’t doing anything about it.”
“Okay, so you came out here to catch some kids smoking weed. Then what?”
“They all scattered; they must have had a signal or something. So I figured, back to the drawing board, right? But before I could leave, one of them doubled back. The next thing I knew, he had a knife to my throat. He made me lie down and he tied me up before going through my pockets.” Jeff’s voice cracked. “He...he must have thought I was an easy mark cause I was here alone at night. I know it was stupid but I was just trying to get a story.”
“Did you get a look at the guy?”
Jeff nodded. “It was dark so it was hard to see, but, um, he smelled really strongly of weed and alcohol, and I could make out some of his features. He had long hair, like shoulder length and a ring on his pointer finger.”
“Ever seen him before?”
“Yeah. He hangs out with my friend JJ sometimes. His name is...um...I forget...but it starts with an R… Randy… or… maybe… I got it. It’s Rory.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be there,” Rafe said to someone on the phone as Nicole walked in. “Give me a few to settle this.” He closed his phone.
Nicole threw herself into her chair and said, “Workplace drama this early in the morning?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary.” Rafe smiled at Nicole. “Anyway, never mind all that. How are you?”
Nicole shrugged. “I’m all right. Listen, what can you tell me about the serial mugger on the Salem U campus? I shouldn’t have to rely on what little crumbs the newspaper’s got ahold of when I have a friend in the police department.”
“I can’t tell you a single thing. Not on a case this big where we have no leads--and don’t quote me on that.”
“Come on, Rafe, you know I’ll sit on it for as long as you need me to. Just give me something so that when the time comes, I can have an exclusive.”
Rafe put his hands around his coffee mug. “The brass put us under a gag order yesterday, Nicole. So I can’t breathe a word about this case, no matter how many promises you make to keep it to yourself. You can thank that intern of yours who was nosing around the station yesterday for that.”
Nicole scrunched up her face. “I don’t have an intern, at least not yet, and if I can drag this out long enough that Miles forgets about it, I won’t have one at all.”
“So Jeff Adkins isn’t actually working for you?”
“Nope. He apparently thought he’d get points for creativity after I already threw his application in the trash. Something’s strange about that guy, though. I can’t put my finger on it, but I get a bad feeling every time I even hear his name. I tried running it through all the public databases, but nothing. I thought maybe you’d have better luck.”
Rafe sipped his coffee, thinking. “I trust your instincts,” he said at last. “They’re just about as good as mine.”
“Yep, if I wasn’t a compulsive lawbreaker I would have made a good cop.”
“Yeah.” Rafe laughed. “Okay, this is completely off the record, and if anyone asks, you never heard it from me, but Jeff Adkins is supposedly our latest victim.”
“Supposedly. So you don’t believe him?”
“There’s too much that just doesn’t add up. There were details of his attack that are totally different than the other three, and when I asked him if he’d seen his attacker, a name rolled right off his lips. So no, between you and me, I don’t believe it. But until I can prove otherwise, I gotta go with the idea that he’s the fourth victim of our serial robber.”
“Maybe I can help,” Nicole said. “I’m tracking him down today anyway to let him know that the only person who gets to sabotage my reputation is me. Maybe I can get something out of him.”
“Even if you did, I don’t know how I’d use it. Here’s a free lesson in police procedure: don’t poke the bear unless you’re sure of what’s gonna come out.”
Nicole fake pouted. “Where’s the fun in that? Seriously, though, you really think this guy was faking being robbed?”
“Well, something happened, but I have my doubts it’s what he says it is.”
Nicole shook her head. “There’s just no lengths he won’t go to to try to get a story, and if there isn’t one, make one up. I’d better get to him before Miles does--otherwise he might get named intern of the year and I’ll be stuck with him.”
“Yeah.” Rafe checked his phone. “I gotta get to the station too.”
“Hey,” Nicole said as they got up. “This is crazy, I know, but do you think sometime maybe we can get together without either of us needing something?”
Rafe smiled. “When this case is over, maybe I’ll have my life back...so why not?”
JJ took out his music theory book and did some studying at his desk while he waited for Rory to get up. Since he couldn’t play his guitar right now, music theory was the next best thing--and anyway he needed to review some stuff in case there was a pop quiz.
Rory stretched and opened his eyes. “That’s what you do first thing in the morning?” he said. “Come on, dude, I know you wanna keep your grades up, but when do you have time for, yunno, living?”
JJ bit his lip as he turned a page. “I’m not one to tell you how to live your life, man,” he said, “but there is so much more out there than just getting high and getting wasted.”
“Um, which one of us was it who almost spent the best years of our lives in prison?”
JJ reddened. “Look, nobody knows more than me how much I deserved to be locked up. The reason I’m not is cause someone gave me a second chance, and I took it. Dude, all I’m saying is, after we’re done with school, don’t you want to be doing something with your life?”
Rory shifted his weight. “Yeah, I want enough money to get far away from here. Maybe travel the world or something, I dunno.”
“Well, how are you gonna do that if you’re baked all the time?”
“Why worry about that now, man? When the time comes I’ll figure it out.” Rory’s phone buzzed; he scowled as he glanced at it. “I know one thing, dude. I’m not living with my idiot brother once my money comes in. Look at this.”
JJ glanced at Rory’s phone. Kurt’s text read, Where are u lil bro? Guess u never came home last nite...check in so I know ur alive.
“Guess he was so wasted he doesn’t remember a thing,” JJ said. “Sorry, dude.”
“No biggie. I’m used to it.” Rory picked up his jacket off the floor. ”Hurry up, will you? I wanna roll before your mom has the chance to kick me out.”
When Paige came out into the living room, her mother was looking at something on the computer. “Morning,” Paige said sleepily.
“Oh, hi sweetheart.” Eve hit her phone against her palm. “I was about to make a phone call. Can you excuse me for just a minute?”
“Mom,” Paige said as Eve got up. “I’ve slept on it, and I’m still moving in with Daphne.”
Eve’s face fell but all she said was, “We’ll talk about it in a minute, baby, I promise. Let me just get rid of this sales rep.”
Eve went into the other room and closed the door almost all the way. Paige didn’t notice that she’d left it open a crack or that she was watching her daughter sit down at the computer.
Paige glanced at the computer screen. She saw that her mother had been working on some kind of ad for the online classifieds. She scanned it quickly. “Large bedroom available in spacious two bedroom apartment, affordable rent… need tenant right away as my daughter is moving out,” she read.
Eve came back just then. “Sorry about that. You know how these sales reps are, they’re all the way on the other side of the world and they don’t care that it’s practically the crack of dawn over here.” Paige shot her a look and she said, “What’s the matter, baby?”
“You’re renting out my room?”
“I was thinking about it. You know, with you moving out I thought I might be a little lonely, plus let’s face it, I’m getting up there in years and every little bit of money I collect can help...that settlement from Jack Deveraux’s estate isn’t going to last forever, you know.”
“But I thought I’d leave some of my clothes and stuff here since it’s so close… and that I’d come back to visit sometimes.”
“Well, I’m sorry sweetheart, but if you’re moving out I have to do what I have to do. Of course, if you want to change your mind, I haven’t posted the ad yet.”
Paige crossed her arms. “You know, Mom, sometimes you disgust me. Do whatever you want. I’ll just pack up all my things and hope they fit in my side of the dorm room.”
“I’ll call you later. I have a lot to do today.” Paige stomped out.
Marissa sat at one of the outdoor tables at the coffee shop, sipping coffee and feeling like it wasn’t doing a thing for her. She opened her purse to check herself in the mirror embedded into the cover. Her hair was a mess and there were dark circles under her big, brown eyes. Great. Everybody who walked by could probably tell she’d barely slept.
Fishing through her purse for a brush, she found a business card she didn’t remember getting. She took it out and looked at it. It was Marlena’s card--that shrink she’d met at the hospital the day of the attack. Maybe talking to someone’s not such a bad idea, she thought. She took out her phone and started to dial Marlena’s number.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw two boys walking towards her. Her heart beat faster. Was that JJ? And who was that long-haired kid with him? They were both cute, but her eyes were drawn to JJ and she couldn’t look away.
She closed her phone as the boys came closer. Making an appointment with Dr. Evans would have to wait. Even though a voice in the back of Marissa’s head told her to be careful, she found herself pushing her hair behind her ears to make herself look halfway decent before JJ came close enough to see her.
Roman had called Hope and Rafe into his office for another briefing on the robbery cases. “Before you say anything,” he told them, “I want you to think long and hard about why we’re not making progress on this case. The last victim gave you a name and a description, so you’d better have a good explanation, Rafe, for why the suspect’s free to roam the streets instead of locked up in one of the holding cells.”
Rafe sighed. “I’m still checking out his story. If it all adds up, we’ll make an arrest later this afternoon.”
“Almost 24 hours after the crime was reported.”
“Yeah. I know the timeline. Look, on the surface of it, I’d say there’s been a break in the case. But something about it’s just too neat. None of the other victims even got a glimpse of the guy because he attacked from behind, so how is it that this one not only saw him, but could match a name to his face?”
“Maybe the perp just got cocky.”
“It’s not just that, though. Everything about this crime scene’s all wrong. The other three victims were attacked in the dorms. This one was in the woods.”
Roman shrugged. “You thought he might be hiding out there.”
“Like I said before, the MO’s totally different. The guy we’re looking for uses rope on the arms--which he always secures behind the back, not above the head--and tape only on the legs. He also rips off a piece of the clothing to use as a gag. This victim was bound just with tape and wasn’t gagged. Plus, usually someone finds them and calls campus security and security calls us. This one came in as an anonymous tip on our crime line. You gotta admit, something smells at least a little fishy about all this.”
Roman glanced at Hope. “Hope, you agree with Rafe on this one?”
“I don’t know.” Hope sighed. “The differences certainly sound suspicious, but I wasn’t there--Rafe was. Plus, I don’t know, maybe I just want this guy to be lying.” She checked her notes on her tablet. “The kid he fingered is JJ Deveraux’s best friend, so if Jeff’s telling the truth, there’s a chance JJ’s involved, and I don’t want to think about that.”
“Come on, Hope,” Rafe told her. “You’ve handled tougher cases than this without batting an eye. Besides, if you really thought you couldn’t be objective, you’d be asking to be let off the case, and you’re not.”
“I’m not worried about any of that,” Roman told them. “The question in my mind is, why would someone make this up?”
Rafe shrugged. “I’ve been racking my brains on this one. I dunno, this kid seems desperate to get that internship over at Titan. Maybe he thought faking a mugging’s a good way to do that.”
“That’s a little farfetched, isn’t it?” Hope interjected. “Wouldn’t the story he says he was trying to get about the drug problems be a better way to try to get Nicole’s attention?”
“I dunno. I still say something’s off about him.”
“All right,” Roman said. “With all due respect to your instincts, Rafe, right now we’ve got the name of a suspect and we’re just sitting on it. That’s gotta change before this kid goes to whatever press ties he thinks he has and complains that we’re not doing enough. I’m dispatching a couple of uniforms to pick up this Rory character. That way we can keep the arrest quiet til we’re sure what we’re looking at. Rafe, I want you in charge of the interrogation once we got him. Hope, you poke around the victims’ backgrounds--see if we got enough circumstantial evidence to tie him to any of the other robberies.”
“You know we don’t have enough for a PC hearing,” Rafe said*. “Basically all we got is this one victim’s say so.” (Author's note: PC stands for "probable cause"--i.e. enough evidence to make an arrest.)
“We’ll let the DA worry about that. Once he’s in custody we have 72 hours before we have to cut him loose.” Roman closed the file folder and said, “Tell Jenkins and Horowitz to come in here on your way out so I can brief them on the suspect.”
Rory’s phone buzzed again as he and JJ walked through the square. Rory hit the decline button and shoved his phone back in his pocket.
“Kurt again?” JJ asked. “Dude, he’s gonna be calling me any second asking if I’ve seen you.”
“So don’t answer. Look, dude, I’m not avoiding him forever. Just til I can smoke a joint, clear my head enough.”
Just then, a girl sitting at one of the tables called JJ’s name. JJ turned around. He blushed when he saw it was Marissa. “Hey. Marissa, right?”
“The one and only.” Marissa tried to smile. “You still owe me a sit-down over frozen yogurt,” she said, “but since it’s early, why don’t you join me for some coffee?”
Rory’s mouth dropped open, while JJ looked away from Marissa. “I’d like to, but, uh, I kind of have plans with - “
“Your friend can join us, of course.”
“Don’t have to ask me twice,” Rory said, and sat down before JJ could say anything. “Rory’s the name,” he said, “and whatever you like is my game.”
“Don’t mind him,” JJ said. “He has no idea what’s coming out of his mouth right now.”
“Well, it is early,” Marissa said. “What are you two doing out and about?”
“Just killing some time before class,” JJ told her. “Rory, um...he stayed over last night but neither of us has class til like four, so we figured we’d hang out here today.”
“Oh,” Marissa said. “So that’s why you weren’t into me yesterday.”
Rory giggled. “We don’t swing that way. We’re into girls, well I am anyway. JJ keeps passing up the hottest ones.”
“Dude!” JJ said. “My cousin’s gay, not cool to make it look like a big joke.” He turned back to Marissa. “Anyway, Rory had to stay over last night cause something happened...um…”
“A guy tried to rob me!” Rory sounded almost like he was proud of it.
Marissa’s eyes widened. She picked up her coffee, quickly, and took a sip. “Oh my gosh,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“Better than that. You wouldn’t believe what happened. I got one over on him and now he’s lying in the woods waiting…”
Marissa’s eyes got even wider. JJ could see her hands shaking, and her breath was coming a bit faster. “Can we… excuse me a minute, I just need…” She got up quickly, then grabbed onto the back of her chair.
“Marissa!” JJ said, getting up too and putting his hand on her shoulder without thinking, to steady her.