County Line Excerpt

Chapter One: No One Home

The discovery of a dead man in Ruby Jane Whittaker’s tub leads Skin Kadash on a frantic search through the haunted past of the woman he loves.

County Line, by Bill Cameron

– 1 – No One Home

To my credit, the first thing I don’t do is go stand in the street outside her bedroom window, iPod in my pocket and portable speakers raised above my head. Not that she has a bedroom window—nothing so prosaic for Ruby Jane Whittaker. The point is I show uncharacteristic restraint and so—lucky me—miss out on the chance to watch a man die.

I’ve been away a month. Ruby Jane called it a retreat, a chance to get my head screwed on at last after a long winter brooding and recovering from a bloody confrontation which left three dead and me with a near-fatal gunshot wound. She’s the one who found The Last Homely House, an out-of-the-way bed-and-breakfast at the coast esteemed for a breathtaking ocean view and the curative powers of its hot springs. When I asked if she’d chosen the spot because it sat in a cellular dead zone in a dale on a precipitous headland, she laughed and told me I’d have to hike into town if I wanted to call her. Doctor’s orders were for lots of walking, but despite repeated marches down the mountain, I managed to reach her only a couple of times during my sojourn, the last a couple of weeks earlier. She hasn’t picked up since.

Too long for me, maybe not long enough for Ruby Jane. She dropped me off, and had planned to pick me up again. But as radio silence lengthened, I arranged for an overpriced rental car instead.

I dial her cell before getting on the highway. She doesn’t pick up. During the drive to Portland—ninety-three-point-nine miles according to Google Maps—I keep my hand on my phone as though I can pull a signal from the air through the power of touch. By the time I’m negotiating the vehicular chop on Route 26 through Hillsboro and Beaverton, I’ve succumbed to the urge to redial at least twice as often as I’ve resisted. Doesn’t matter anyway. Every attempt goes straight to voicemail.

Self-delusion was easier in the days before Caller ID and 24-hour digital accessibility.

I pull up in front of Uncommon Cup at Twelfth and Ash shortly before seven. Her apartment is a few blocks away, but I’m more likely to find her at one of her shops. Through the window I can see a guy mopping. He’s mid-twenties, with dark flyaway hair and a five-day beard. As I watch, he spins and kicks one leg to the side. Fred Astaire with a mop handle. I don’t recognize him—no surprise. Ruby Jane employs a couple dozen people now. A lone customer sits at a table next to the window, a fellow thick with layers. Thermal shirt under flannel under a half-zipped hoodie under a denim jacket. He holds a ceramic cup under his nose. There’s no sign of Ruby Jane.

As I get out of the car, the guy in all the layers looks up, then checks his watch. He unwinds from his chair and is coming out as I reach the door. Tall and lean, baby-faced, with blue eyes peeking out from inside his hood. “Quitting time, man.”

“I won’t be settling in.”

He slides past me out the door. Inside, I breathe warm air laced with the scents of coffee and bleach. The space is cast in dark wood, and sandblasted brick with mix-n-match tables and chairs from a half-dozen different diners. Barbra Streisand caterwauls from hidden speakers. The guy with the mop pauses mid-pirouette when he sees me.

“Sorry, man. We’re closed.”

“I’m looking for Ruby Jane.”

He props himself up on the upright mop handle. His eyes gaze two different directions, neither at me. “Who?”

“Ruby Jane Whittaker? The owner?”

He sniffs. “Oh. Sure, Whittaker. I didn’t make the connection.” He looks around the shop as if he expects to catch her hiding under a table. “She’s not here.”

“So I see. Is she at one of the other shops?”

“How would I even know that, man?”

I don’t like his tone, or maybe I don’t like feeling so out of touch. “Who’s the manager today?”

He turns his back. “Marcy’s the only manager I know.”

“Do you know where she is?”

“She took off at five. Something about seeing a band.”

I take a breath and finger my cell phone. Ruby Jane’s newest location, I haven’t been to this shop more than a couple of times.

“Pal?” I look up. “I’ve got to finish up here, man.”

Streisand gives way to Sinatra and I wonder what possessed this jackhole to tune in the Starbucks channel on the satellite radio. “Do you have Marcy’s number?”

“Her phone number?”

“No, her social security number.”

“I don’t know you. I don’t think she’d appreciate me giving out her number to a stranger.”

“I’m Skin Kadash.”

“Am I supposed to know who that is?”

My cheek twitches. “Who I am is a guy who has enough sway with the woman who signs your checks that you don’t want to keep fucking with me.” My fingertips run across a patch of red skin on my throat the color and texture of raw hamburger.

His eyes come into sudden alignment and he ducks his head. “It’s just, well, I’m new here and I don’t know you.”

Now I’m the jackhole. I lower my chin and turn my hands over, conciliatory. “How about you call Marcy? Tell her Skin needs to talk to her. I’ll be quick.”

He considers that for a moment, eyes fixed on my hands. “Okay. Hang on a second.” He props the mop handle against a table and goes back behind the counter. I wonder if I can convince him to sell me a bagel, closing time or not. I haven’t eaten since morning. He checks a notebook from under the counter, dials a number.

“Hi, Marcy. It’s Alvin … yeah, sorry, listen there’s some guy here—” He looks up at me. “What did you say your name was?”

“Tell her it’s Skin.”

His face blanches a shade or two. “He calls himself, uh, Skin—”

He thrusts the phone my way. “Marcy, hey.”

“Damn, Skin, where the hell you been? Been like a month since my last dose of bloodcurdling ugly.”

“I was off scaring starfish and sandpipers.”

“A month at the beach. Did you meet any nice lady sea monsters?”

“The surf was crawling.” I clear my throat and change the subject. “Hey, you know what’s up with RJ? I’ve been trying to get hold of her, no answer.”

“Shit, man. You didn’t know? She’s gone.”

“Gone? Gone where?”

“I’d have thought if anyone knew, it would be you.”

“I don’t understand.”

“A couple of weeks ago, she asked me to manage the shops while she took care of personal business out of town.”

“Did she say when she’d be back?”

“About two weeks, so she’s due anytime.” There’s a slight pause, half a beat. “She didn’t call you?”

I take a moment to respond. “Cell service was spotty where I was staying.”

“She must not have been able to get through.”

She could have left a voicemail, if nothing else. “You’ve no idea what’s going on?”

“She said there was nothing to worry about, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“What do you think?”

“This is RJ we’re talking about. I’m sure she’s fine.” I can almost hear her shrug through the phone. “Listen, I’m supposed to meet some people, but tell you what. I’ll be working at Hollywood tomorrow. Why don’t you come by? We’ll catch up.”

“Okay. Thanks, Marcy.”

“Good to have you back, Skin.”

Then she’s gone. Alvin takes the phone, places it back on the charger behind the counter. “Find out what you need?”

“Uh, yeah.” Ruby Jane, gone and out of touch, without explanation. Doesn’t make sense. In all the time I’ve known her, she’s taken only one vacation—a trip to Victoria with her one-time beau Peter and me. She fretted about the shop the whole time we were gone.

“You need anything else, man? Call you a cab maybe?”

Alvin’s color is coming back, his expression growing impatient. I don’t know if he senses my dismay or has recovered from the sight of my neck, but sudden heat rises in my chest. “Marcy told me to tell you to crack the register and sell me a bagel.”

His lips form a line and a crease appears between his eyebrows. “Yeah. Sure. Fine.”

“Sesame seed, with cream cheese. Toasted.”

But when I reach for my wallet, my pocket is empty. Back straight, Alvin slices the bagel and drops it in the toaster.

“Hang on a second, I need my wallet.” As I head for my car, I think about the guy in layers who brushed past me as I came in. I look up and down Twelfth. There’s no sign of him. My wallet is in the gutter beside the rental car.

I sigh and head back inside.

Alvin is waiting for me. “Everything all right?”

“The guy who left as I came in, do you know who it was?”

He ponders. “Like I said, I’m—”

“New. Right. I got it.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Bastard picked my pocket. Took my cash and tossed my wallet in the gutter.”

Alvin thinks for a moment, glances at my neck as he wraps the bagel. “I hope he left you your debit card.”