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New Faces, Old Bones

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CHAPTER TWENTY

Another day dawned, dragged on and on and finally died. Bonnie passed the time, idly marking each show set as the hours passed and sometimes even humming along with the stupid songs he never had to sing again when their time came, but mostly lost in his guitar, imagining music as his fingers played just above the strings. He brought himself out of it at six to begin the excruciating process of waiting for Ana, but again, she didn’t come.

Tonight, that bothered him. He could understand her being tired enough to forget her promise to Chica yesterday, but he really would have thought she’d remember today. Ana forgot things easy, sure, but she also got reminded of things just as easily. The first time she saw a book, she’d have remembered. And she’d have definitely gone to get them, even if she’d been all the way home, because the one thing Ana took seriously was a promise. And that meant she maybe hadn’t just forgotten. Something had happened.

Something bad? He wasn’t sure. He’d be lying if he said the thought of her spinning out of control on the stormy road and crashing into a rocky outcrop hadn’t crossed his mind, but he didn’t really believe it. So if she hadn’t forgotten and she wasn’t hurt, what did that leave? Maybe the road had washed out. It didn’t look bad here, but there was a lot of road between here and town. He didn’t really believe that either, but it was plausible (and a much more comfortable thought than the one involving her burning truck flat-nosed into a boulder, maybe with her beating on the window, trying to get out as the cab filled up with smoke…), almost as plausible as it was totally unnecessary.

After all, Ana’s life had a lot of normal everyday threads and they could snarl up in a normal everyday manner at a moment’s notice. If she had to make a choice between picking up some reading material for Chica or dealing with more trouble at the house or the job or the people in town, she’d just do what she had to do and trust Chica to understand when she finally did come through. Bonnie knew it. More to the point, Chica knew it. No one was upset (well, Freddy was clearly upset, but he was doing his best to hide it), it was just hard to wait it out, and the hours between six and nine were the worst, because no matter how often he told himself not to get his hopes up or how convincingly he told himself he hadn’t, when that nine o’clock hour came around and there was no getting around the fact that she wasn’t coming, it stabbed into him like the goddamn Scoop and ripped his insides out.

But hey, there was always tomorrow.

So today, as yesterday, Bonnie’s hope started dying when the sun went down, and about an hour later, he’d stopped popping his ears up each time the thunder growled, making him think for one heart-wrenching moment it might be a truck’s engine. Within a short time, he wasn’t just fidgeting with his guitar, but really into it again, his head so deep in the music he pretended to play that he never heard the loading dock door open, or if he did, he processed it as an extra-hard gust of wind and thought no more about it. It wasn’t until light in the kitchen caught his eye that he realized someone was there and even so, he wasn’t immediately alarmed. It was probably just Freddy, making his rounds. Loud weather made Freddy nervous. Couldn’t hear vehicles approach. Or doors open.

But the light bobbing around the kitchen was a diffused bluish glow, not the twinned pale beams that came from animatronic eyes; a flashlight or maybe a phone’s screen. And even with the rain, Bonnie could hear footsteps—wet, squishy ones, squeaking a little on the tiles. Not animatronic feet, but rubber-soled shoes.

There was a human in the building.

How in the hell it had gotten in was a good question and one whose answer was just going to have to wait. Slowly, Bonnie put his guitar aside and shifted around on the stage, keeping his eyes locked on the open doorway to the kitchen. If his leg was working—big ‘if’ these days—then he had time enough to duck out into the West Hall, but he was going to make some noise doing it. The rain on the roof was pretty loud, but not loud enough to cover the rattle-thump-bang of his escape. Maybe it would be better to slump here and play doll, at least until he knew what he was dealing with. Right now, it looked like one light, which usually meant only one human. If he was just coming to do the Billy Blaylock thing, Bonnie would let him; they always ran off pretty quick when their silly ritual was done. Safer to let them run than to try to chase them.

But when the light appeared in the doorway at last, the silhouette behind it was familiar and Bonnie stupidly sat up and switched his eyes on, which would have given the invader a good running start if it had been anyone but Ana.

But it was. It really was.

“You okay?” she asked.

There was something off about the question, something in the way she asked or something in the way she stood, but something.

“Yeah, sure.” Bonnie scooted back into more of a sitting position and less of a sprawl. “Didn’t mean to scare you, I was just—” He acknowledged the inherent creepiness of his next words with an exaggerated wince. “—sitting alone in the dark, doing nothing, but hey, enough about how pathetic I am. You’re here! That’s awesome! I didn’t even hear your truck pull in.”

“Didn’t bring it,” said Ana, still in the doorway. “I walked.”

“Ah hell. Someone take your truck again?”

“No, I left it at home.”

Bonnie stopped fighting with his leg and just stared at her for a few seconds. He didn’t know where Ana lived but he knew there were no houses within sight of the restaurant, or at least no lights at night. There was nothing but desert and mountains and sky as far as he could see in any direction.

“Why?” he asked finally.

Ana shrugged. “I don’t drink and drive.”

Bonnie would have raised his eyebrows if he still had them. As it was, all he could do was push the pins they were supposed to be attached to higher on the inside of his head casing. “Are you drunk?” he asked stupidly, because of course she was, and he was an idiot for not recognizing it right away.

“A little. Kind of not enough, if you get me. It’s been…” Ana moved from one side of the doorway to the other, exposing her other arm which, until this point, had been out of sight behind the wall. She had her duffel bag slung over her shoulder and her hand tucked down inside. He could see the muscles of her arm flexing as she fidgeted with something in there. “It’s been a really bad day, Bon.”

“You want to talk about it?”

She was quiet, which probably meant she did, but she wasn’t quite ready.

“Okay,” he said, trying without much success to keep his ears up and not broadcast his growing concern. She was skittish, reminding him alarmingly of the way she’d been that one night, the bad night, when she’d gone from totally normal to a little off to running crazy in the damn playground in no time at all. “Um…You want to come all the way in, baby, or are you going to just stand there in the doorway all night?”

She actually seemed to think about it, but judging from the way she kept looking back over her shoulder, she was also thinking about leaving.

“What’s wrong?” Bonnie asked. He tried to get up, but his leg only twitched an inch or so before his damn knee locked up on him again. It had been working so well since Ana had tinkered with it, but the last few falls had really done a number on it. “Baby, come over here. Talk to me.”

“I dunno,” she said, which was a weird answer to either of those invitations. “I shouldn’t be here. Been a bad day, but I don’t need to be spreading it around. I just…I wanted to see you. Is that all right?”

“What, are you kidding? Of course it’s all right.”

She accepted this like it was a punishment, shoulders slumped, eyes on the floor.

Bonnie thought a moment, then gestured toward her duffel bag. “What have you got in there?”

“Everything,” she said with a puff of drunken pride. “Like a snail m’man. Carry my home with me. Because you never know. You never know.”

“Can I see?”

Ana hesitated, then withdrew her hidden hand from the inner sanctum of her duffel bag to show him a bottle. It was a big bottle with not a lot left in it, but even more significant to Bonnie’s way of thinking was that it wasn’t her usual brand. Might have been on sale, might have been the first thing she saw on the shelf or the only thing the barkeeper offered (Bonnie’s notion of how alcohol was sold came mostly from the prototype posters of the Sarsparilla Saloon), but he couldn’t help but think she’d chosen it deliberately, that of all the bottles available to her, she’d chosen one she didn’t really like. She wasn’t drinking for fun tonight. She didn’t want to enjoy it.

“Was that full when you started?” Bonnie asked, eying the level of liquid as it sloshed in the tinted glass.

“Oh no,” Ana assured him, although she also found something extremely interesting on the wall to look at instead of him. “No, no no no. No.”

“Uh huh. Say it a few more times, I’m almost convinced. Hey,” he said, holding out his hand. “Come here, baby. Give me some of that?”

She perked up and came right over, not entirely steady on her feet. She gave him the bottle without hesitation, but her ready smile became a scowl when he quickly poured it all away inside him.

“Dude, I was not done drinking,” she told him, then glanced back at the kitchen. He could all but see the many bottles of assorted pills, pot and booze that made up her stash appear in a thought-bubble over her head.

“Come sit with me,” he coaxed, but it was no use.

“Hold this,” she ordered, handing him her duffel bag, and off she went.

Bonnie sat back down, listening to glass clink as she got herself another bottle.

“You want anything?” she called. “I hate to drink alone.”

“Looks like you can soldier through it when you have to.”

“Spare me the temperance lecture. Drinking is the very fucking least of my vices. You want a beer or not?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“I’m not an alcoholic,” she insisted, coming back to the dining room with a beer in each hand. She gave him one, opened the other, and drank half with an expression of almost frightening determination. She stopped for breath, visibly weaving. “I just wanted to switch off for a while. Stop thinking about it, because the thinking, man…the thinking is not doing good things for me.”

“Yeah, I get that. I’m just saying maybe downing most of a bottle of—” He looked at it. “—gin and chasing it with beer isn’t the best way to feel better.”

“Hey, first of all, I told you that wasn’t full when I started. I found it when I was cleaning and it was half-gone then. I barely even had any at all. Gin tastes like eating a pine tree’s ass. Second, I don’t drink to feel better. I’m not an alcoholic,” she said again, with emphasis, and drank the other half of her beer. She threw the empty bottle at Swampy, but missed. It exploded on the wall above him, showering glass as far as the tray return window. “I drink to feel nothing.”

Like she was right there in the room with them, he heard Chica telling him that when you were used to feeling bad, feeling nothing was feeling better.

“That’s…not good, baby girl,” he told her, setting his unopened beer on the stage next to his guitar.

“No, I know. And it wasn’t working, either. That’s why I decided to come see you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” She came a little closer. “You’re good,” she told him, running her hand up his newly-shellacked chest and down it again. “I had to see you. I’m sorry. I know, I know…we’re not…but it’s been such a bad day, you have no idea, and you…You’re the only thing that makes me feel better.” She looked at the phone in her hand, shut it off, then reached into her duffel bag and brought her tablet out. She held it out with an odd, strained smile, as if she expected him to slap her with it. “Want to watch a movie with me?”

“Yeah, sure. Anytime.” Bonnie tried to get up, but before he could even begin to make his bad leg respond, Ana was climbing up on the stage beside him. He put his arm around her more or less by habit, took it back, and then sort of hovered it awkwardly over her. “Sorry, I’m not sure what to do here.”

“Do you know what you want to do?” she asked, just like she’d asked before and looked at him with those same eyes—a little lost, a little sad, but so beautiful and blue.

He was too quiet, too long, and maybe that was a good thing because the things he wanted to say in that moment would go on hurting long after she sobered up.

For now, she rolled her amazing eyes and sighed at him. “I never used to have to ask you to put your arm around me. Gimme.” Taking his hand, Ana pulled his arm down around her shoulders and snuggled in against his side. “Unless it makes you uncomfortable.”

There must be words for how this felt, but that sure wasn’t one of them. “No, I’m good.”

“It’s just that it’s a small screen.” She turned the tablet on, as if to demonstrate. “We need to be close if we’re both going to see.”

They’d watched movies together on her tablet before and Bonnie knew for a fact that they could both see the screen just fine without snuggling, but hey, if she was offering—

“In fact, it might be best if I sat in your lap,” she continued and looked at him from the corner of her amazing eyes as she did things to the tablet.

Bonnie’s ears tilted forward. “Um,” he said suavely and laughed a little. “Sure, why not?”

“Or we could skip the movie and have sex.”

“Whoa! Dear Playbunny…Wait, are you serious?”

“Just as friends,” she said quickly. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I just…I need to stop thinking about things for a while. I need to feel good or at least…you know, at least not feel like this. And you’re good, right? You’re so good. Maybe we could find someplace quiet and figure things out. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”

“Oh. Wow. Ana…no. You’re drunk and even if you weren’t,” he said, speaking right over the top of her protests, “well, sorry, but it means something to me. It means something and if I’m the only one, then…no. That’s not right.”

“Never mind,” she said, hunching over her tablet and tapping things faster. “It was just a thought. Now I made it weird.” She shook her head, scrolling down through titles and thumbnails too fast for him to read them, then suddenly thrust her tablet back in her bag. “I should go. Sorry.”

“Wait.” Bonnie caught her arm before she could get away and pulled her stiffly back to him. “Hey, we may not have those benefits, but I am your friend. Come on, talk to me. What’s wrong?”

She shook her head, pulled away from him and then either slipped in the puddle that had poured itself out of her wet clothes or simply fell, but however it happened, she went down. Bonnie leapt up and made a wild grab and for once in his whole miserable fucking life, that went right and instead of having his bad knee fold on him so that he fell on top of her and crushed her fucking dead on the floor, he caught her. His showtime protocol kicked in and without thinking, he spun her around, like she was Chica in Everybunny Needs Somebunny, up into the air and down again right up close against his chest.

She grabbed at him, her hand splayed over his battery, staring up into his face with her eyes so round and perfect…for one second…two…and then she shoved herself back, bent over and puked on his feet.

“You drank a lot more of that stuff than you said you did,” Bonnie observed, steadying her with one hand while holding her braid with the other.

“Ugh. Oh. Oh man, I’m so sorry. Oh God, it got right in there, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, it sure did. I, uh…I kind of want to hurl now too and I’m not sure how that would even work, so I’m, uh…I’m going to go hose off. You want to sit down or…?”

Ana shook her head, some of the color already beginning to come back to her cheeks. “I’m going to get some dry clothes on. Be right back.”

“Uh huh. Promise me you’re not going to sneak away.”

“Cross my heart and hope to…hope to…” She interrupted herself with a gurgling burp, a warning that gave Bonnie just enough time to get out of the splash zone before she threw up again. “…die,” she groaned when she was done. She staggered off to her room, one arm hugging her stomach and the back of her other hand pressed to her mouth.

Shaking his head, Bonnie made a wide circle around the mess and limped off to the kitchen. His foot casings had broken away a while ago, but his feet were second only to his hands in terms of number of parts and complexity of fittings, and there were plenty of gaps for gunk to get in and not come easily out again. He squelched at every step. Gross.

Bonnie gave himself a quick spritz at the sink, then went into the store room for some cleaner. The room was empty, which surprised him a little, although he supposed it shouldn’t. Eavesdropping was rude and even if Freddy couldn’t swear he never did it, he was rarely caught in the act. It was probably unfair to say that he was keeping his distance just to avoid cleaning up a little secondhand booze, but it wasn’t necessarily untrue.

Bonnie poured a liberal amount of cleaner over each foot, ran a brush over his bones, and sprayed himself with the hose from the knees down. He finished up with a few spurts of WD-40, like cologne after a shower, and a shot of Febreze for good measure. Smelled like Cashmere Forest, according to the can. Bonnie couldn’t imagine that smelled too good, considering cashmere was a kind of goat (which Bonnie knew because it was the name of the goat who ran the town bank in Gallup Gulch), but what did he know? Maybe goats smelled good, at least the cashmere kind.

While he pondered the smell of goats in particular and the theory of odor in general, Bonnie filled a bucket and took it and the mop out to the dining room to clean up. Ana returned just as he was finishing, her mumbled apology becoming wide-eyed dismay as she saw what he was doing.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry! You should have left it for me, it was my mess!”

“You’ve cleaned up plenty of ours,” said Bonnie, giving the tiles a last swipe. “Besides, it’s no big deal. All those years pumping soda, pizza and cake into hyper kids, you think this is the first time I’ve mopped up a little vom? Hell, this is almost nostalgic for me. Okay, I’m gonna dump this and then we’re going to talk. You need anything? Bottle of water? Something to eat?”

“Ugh. Water, I guess. Thanks.”

Bonnie went, collected two bottles of water and a couple of Easy Bake cookies. He wasn’t sure if that would help with her stomach or not, but he could remember when Marion was pregnant, how nibbling on crackers was the only thing to calm the misery of never-ending sickness. This wasn’t the same thing and cookies weren’t crackers, but it was what he had, so hopefully it was good enough.

He returned to the dining room to discover that Ana had found his beer, but she hadn’t opened it, and she put it down again to take the water he offered. She accepted the cookies and took the tiniest bite of the smallest one. Nibbling, just like Marion used to. And for an unpleasant second there, the resemblance between the two of them—Marion and Ana—was so strong. Wrong hair, wrong eyes, wrong everything, but still he found himself remembering Foxy’s stupid insistence from the other night that Marion was actually ‘Aunt Easter’…and wondering.

Then she shifted and just as suddenly, she didn’t look anything like Marion. He guessed he was forgetting what Marion looked like, or maybe being sick and slumped over made everyone look the same.

“You going to be okay?” Bonnie asked, moving back a step, just in case.

“I shouldn’t be here.”

“Don’t say that, baby. What’s wrong?”

She only shook her head, avoiding his eyes. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“Maybe not, but I’ll listen. You know me, all ears.” He waggled them, which won him a pale imitation of a smile. Encouraged, he sat on the edge of the stage beside her and bumped her arm with his. “You felt better after puking up that other stuff, right? So come on, out with it. You’ll feel better.”

She sat.

He waited.

She glanced at him.

He forced himself not to fidget and not to speak, letting his silence do his nudging for him.

“There’s this guy at work,” Ana began haltingly.

“Same guy from the other day or a different one?”

“Same guy. So you know we got into it a bit. And by ‘we’, I mean ‘he’, and by ‘got into it’, I mean ‘called me a whore’, and by ‘a bit’, I mean ‘a lot’. After I got called out, he stayed there alone and threw a snit. When Shelly and the crew got back, the front office was trashed. And here’s where things start to get confused. It’s literally all anyone is talking about, but damned if I can find two people who can agree on exactly what went down. But the sheriff told me some of it and I guess I can trust what he’s got to say, and Hageman’s sister’s cousin’s girlfriend typed up the coroner’s notes, so I guess we can trust that angle too, and when it comes right down to it, the rest is all flavor text.”

“You’re losing me, baby girl. Why don’t we forget about who did the talking and just focus on what they were saying? The guy left the office and…and you said ‘coroner’, so now he’s dead? Is that what you’re saying?”

She nodded.

“Okay,” said Bonnie after a puzzled moment. “Call me an asshole, but so what? He was a jerk. Why do you care?”

“I don’t care that he died, I care how he died.”

Bonnie couldn’t see how that made any difference unless she’d been the one to do it, and clearly she hadn’t, but he went along with it. “Don’t keep me in suspense, baby girl. How did he die?”

“He got his head bashed in. All the way in.” She looked at him, her eyes troubled and sunk in shadows. “I heard the words ‘bone pudding’ today. All my years of living with Rider, and I have never heard a thing like that before. Someone broke Big Paulie’s head down into bone pudding.”

“That’s…” Pretty impressive was probably the wrong response. Bonnie thought for a moment and substituted, “…pretty bad. Do they know who did it?”

“Well, the sheriff made an effort to pin it on me—”

“The hell you say!”

“Yeah, well, fortunately, I had an alibi, which is a goddamn miracle in itself, but I’m clear, so now everyone’s saying the guy’s wife must have done it.”

“Oh. Good.” Bonnie studied her while she nibbled her cookie and at last said, “Why don’t you believe it?”

“I’m trying to, Bon, but I can’t help it. I’ve always been able to see how pieces go together and I’m telling you, these pieces don’t fit. From what I hear, his wife had asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and a heart condition. Physical exertion was not her thing.”

“Was?”

Ana made a face. “Yeah, she’s dead, too. Heart attack.”

Bonnie tipped an ear toward her. “What, you don’t believe that either?”

“Oh, I believe she had a heart attack, it’s just…I never met his wife,” she told him, frowning out into the empty room at Swampy. “I wouldn’t know her if I passed her on the street. But Big Paulie? Is big. Was big. His mom’s maiden name was Gallifrey, you know. He might not be bigger than Tiny Tim, but he’s plenty big enough. Over six feet tall, three through the chest, just a solid, solid man made of meat. He’d been working with his hands all his life and he was strong. Yeah, he was sixty, but the kind of sixty that comes from working construction his whole life. I never met her, but I’m willing to bet his wife was the kind of sixty that comes from keeping house, raising kids and playing piano on Sundays. That’s strong too, I guess, but it’s a different kind of strong than the kind it would take to put a man like Big Paulie down. I don’t care how angry you are, physics is still a thing.”

“They think she did it with her bare hands?”

Ana squirmed, shook her head. “No. Hageman’s sister’s cousin’s girlfriend says a frying pan was involved.”

“‘Involved?’ That’s a funny way of putting it.”

“Isn’t it? From what I hear, he was beat so bad, it’s impossible to say at what point during the whole thing he actually died, so while they know the pan was involved from the condition it was in, they can’t say it’s what killed him, just that it might have been how she put him down. There was also a refrigerator involved. She apparently pulled it out from the wall and used it to block the door to the garage. Then she started grabbing all the heavy jars and cans out of the cupboard to hit him with and when she ran out of those, she pulled the shelf out of the cupboard and hit him with that. Then she pretty much went through the entire kitchen looking for weapons. I’m talking dinner plates, knives, some forks, some spoons, the faucet from the sink, the sink itself…basically, if it was remotely sharp, heavy or just within reach, it was ‘involved’ in killing Big Paulie.”

“The sink?”

“Oh yeah. According to ‘Them,’ after the faucet was broken off and rammed down his throat, Paulie was repeatedly hammered head-first into the sink, until the sink broke loose. Then she went to work on the counter until it broke, too. There were bone splinters and teeth and hair and stuff—” Ana paused to nibble the last of her first cookie and start in on the second. “—wedged into the wood from the top of the counter all the way to the floor.”

“Whoa.”

“Damn right, whoa. Like, I would need a sledgehammer to break a counter apart and this little old church lady used her husband’s head. By the time she was done, there was no head, just a big ol’ pile of…bone pudding. Rumor has it, they carried him out in a body bag, two buckets and a dozen Ziploc baggies.” She started to take a sip of water, then lowered her bottle and said, “But here’s a funny thing. The wife had a mark on her face like she’d been hit hard and some light bruising consistent with falling into the wall, but that was it. No scars, no old bruises…her clothes weren’t even all that rumpled. That may not mean much, because God knows there’s plenty of ways to go at someone without leaving marks, but it’s…it’s just a little funny. Also, she had no defensive wounds and no skin or hair or anything like that under her fingernails. No sign of any kind there was an actual, like, back-and-forth fight. Remember that.”

“Okay?”

“And apart from some normal working-man wear and tear, Big Paulie had no defensive wounds either! There was nothing under his fingernails but some wood splinters and flecks of paint that he probably got redecorating Shelly’s.”

“Meaning no sign that he fought back either,” Bonnie guessed.

“Right! So…So what the actual fuck went down on Monday night? We know Paulie’s wife picks him up at the station last night at around eight. Their home security system says they got home about ten minutes later and locked up again. Then what? Maybe she said something about what he’d done at Shelly’s. Maybe he was just pissed that dinner was cold. So he gives her a slap and for whatever reason, that’s the trigger that makes her decide to pick up that pan and hit her husband. At that point, either she drops him or she didn’t, and either way, what happens next does not add up. Because if he’s still standing, he would knock her the hell out. And it’d be her grisly murder everyone would be talking about today, maybe, but it sure wouldn’t be his. What follows only makes the itty bitty shred of sense it makes if she puts him down in one hit, got me?”

“I don’t know,” he said, trying his very best to sound uncertain. “People don’t always stop hitting just because the other guy is dead. Sometimes they keep going, you know? For…For a long time.”

“Yeah, and if it was just Paulie I could maybe see that, but it’s the fridge, Bonnie!”

“Huh?”

“If he’s down, why would she bother pushing the fridge over?” Ana asked, pointing her water bottle at him on certain words for emphasis. “Standard fridge weighs three hundred pounds empty. These people are Mormons, okay? That fridge was stocked. But this little old church lady grabbed it and threw it on its side in front of the garage and presumably did it faster than Paulie could run. I don’t know the house, but the average kitchen runs eight to fifteen feet across and that’s what, three to five running strides? She muscled that fridge out from the wall and threw it down before Paulie could take, at most, five steps? Nuh-uh, man. That pony don’t trot.”

“Maybe she did that part later, to…to make it look like a burglary or something.”

“No. We’ll get to that in a minute,” she added ominously, “but no. They know she did the fridge first because of how the blood splattered. But Paulie’s still not down, apparently, because she then empties the pantry cupboard throwing shit at him, then beats him unconscious with the shelf, then picks him up and throws him across the room, where she proceeds to take everything out of the dish drainer and either break it over him or stab it into him before piledriving his face into the edge of the counter until the fucking sink falls out! Are you seeing this, Bon?”

“Yeah,” he said slowly, and he was, but it sure wasn’t a sixty-year-old lady doing the beating. “Yeah, go on.”

“Well, when she’s finally satisfied that her husband is dead, she apparently floats out of the room. We know that because the only footprints in the ocean of blood on that floor were the cat’s. She gets completely cleaned up, disposes of the bloody stuff where no one can find it, then comes back to reflect on things, and when she fully realizes what she’s just done, she has a heart attack. She falls into the wall hard enough to do some damage to it and is dead by the time she hits the floor. And call me paranoid, I just have trouble seeing it play out like that! But…”

Bonnie gave her a minute, but the mystery of who killed the asshole at Ana’s work was looking less and less mysterious to him, and he just couldn’t wait her out. “But?” he prompted.

Ana scowled and drank some more water. At length, she shook her head. “I don’t know, Bon. I admit, this complete garbage-pile of a theory is the closest thing that fits all the other facts.”

“For example? Come on, baby girl, don’t stop now. What facts?”

“No burglary, for one. Burglars don’t make much of a mess, as a rule—and I’ve never heard of one tossing an appliance around—but when they do, it’s because they can’t find anything good enough to steal. These two were moving out of state in just a few weeks. They were right in the middle of making all kinds of expensive arrangements. There was an envelope with fifteen thousand dollars in cash on the kitchen table, plus the wife’s jewelry packed in a box labeled ‘good jewelry’, plus the computer, the TV, and all Paulie’s tools right there in the living room! This was a hell of a haul, yet nothing was taken! All the windows intact, all the doors locked and the security system still armed. If it was a home invader, the only way in was down the chimney or through the cat-door. And everyone in the office says no way anyone bigger than a toddler could squeeze through the cat-door.” She was quiet a moment, nibbling and sipping, then remarked, “They can’t find anyone to take the cat. Probably going to put it down. Apparently, it had been snacking on Paulie, but that’s just cats for you. A dog’ll starve to death lying next to its owner’s body, but a cat will chow down on your face even with a bowlful of kibble in the room.”

“Stay with me, baby. If the door was locked and there was no sign anyone else had been in the house, what’s the big mystery?” Bonnie asked, keeping his ears up to hopefully disguise the fact that he did not believe what he was about to say. “Maybe, just maybe, it actually happened the way they say it did. Maybe she did it.”

“Bonnie, were you even listening to me? His wife was sixty and frail! Paulie was huge!”

“People can surprise you when they’re cornered. Hell, you’re not that big, but I saw you go at six guys and kick the living shit out of them.”

“I got lucky.”

“Yeah, you did,” he said seriously. “I want you to never forget that, but my point is, it does happen. Maybe she got lucky too. And maybe it was overdue, if he was in the habit of taking out his frustrations on other people.”

“Maybe,” Ana said, still frowning. “I just don’t see how it could have happened. Bone pudding, Bonnie. How can one person do that?”

Oh, Bonnie had a pretty good idea, all right, but he kept it himself.

“I guess it’s tragic and all that,” said Bonnie, groping for something distracting yet supportive to say. “But you didn’t like the guy and you didn’t even know the wife, so why are you so upset?”

“Yeah, I know, okay? I get it. He’s such an asshole. Was,” Ana amended, rubbing her face. “Was an asshole. That didn’t change just because he died. But there were things I didn’t know.”

“Like the fact that he beat his wife?”

Ana acknowledged that with half a shrug and half a nod. “Like the fact that everyone’s surprised about that, maybe. They could be faking it, I guess, but when it was me, shit, everyone knew. No one’s trading glances over this. No one’s talking about how she should have left years ago or reminding each other about heavy makeup or long sleeves she wore. Everyone knew about everything else going on behind those walls except that. You know what they knew?” she asked suddenly. “They knew Big Paulie was broke.”

“You just said they had all that stuff. Jewelry and cash?”

“Yeah, because they were moving. Everything they had in the world was in labelled boxes in their living room. In fact, that fifteen grand that didn’t get stolen is a little mystery too, since they were overdrawn at the bank and in so much debt that Paulie’s paychecks were being garnished.”

Bonnie could not help picturing a maraschino cherry and some sugar sprinkles decorating a paycheck, but this was not the time to ask for clarification.

“He told me he owned that house free and clear,” Ana was saying, “but that was when there were twenty other families living on that back road. Then one day about ten years ago, someone noticed half those houses were standing empty. And I don’t know. Maybe the culverts were always backing up out there or the potholes were growing and it was time to resurface. I’m dead sure money exchanged hands somewhere in town hall. And the Tudor Lane townhouses were going up over where the Primrose apartments used to be, so it was a simple thing for the local real estate magnate to effectively relocate everyone. Great deal, huh? The residents could sell their old rundown places as is, buy new bigger ones with top of the line appliances already installed just a few streets away, and still come out twenty to fifty grand ahead. Hell of an opportunity. Everyone jumped at it. Everyone but Big Paulie. That was the family homestead and he wasn’t selling. Pretty soon, he’s the only one still living on that stretch of road and the town is getting kind of pissed at having to keep it open and in working order for one man. Electricity, water, phone lines, sewer, cable, internet, postal service—all for one guy. Then one day, the offer to buy his house goes away and he gets hit with an order to vacate.”

“What, like with your house?” Bonnie asked when she stopped to take a breath. “They condemned it?”

Ana shook her head. “Not even,” she said around a mouthful of cookie. “The city never tried to say that the house was in bad condition, they just took away his claim to it.”

“Can they do that?”

“Imminent domain. All townships reserve the right to seize private property for the greater good of the public. It usually only happens when they need to extend a road or build an overpass or whatever. And they have to pay a fair price. And the other guy can fight it. Which Paulie did. For ten years.”

“You’re starting to sound like you feel sorry for this guy.”

She squirmed again. “I know what it’s like to lose everything. I’ve done it lots of times. It’s never exactly easy, but I can start over. Paulie…man, Paulie was sixty! This was all he had, all he knew! His family name is on the wall of founders at the heritage museum and, thanks to a series of lawyers who swore he had a cast-iron case, he’s about to leave the town where five generations of his people were born. He lost everything, his retirement fund, his savings, his company…He and Shelly used to be partners, did you know that?”

“Uh, no.” Bonnie flicked one ear. “No, I don’t hear a lot of gossip anymore.”

“Well, they were. It used to be T & S Contractors and that T stood for Trammel. But he had to sell those shares and then stand back and watch as Shelly changed the name and the signs and the company shirts and wiped every last trace of Trammel off the company he’d helped build. And when that money was gone, he took out a mortgage on that house he owned free and clear, and then he took out another one. And then he lost his last appeal. His lawyers disappeared. The bank foreclosed. In four weeks, he moves in with his kid and everyone says it’s because the kid needs help with childcare, but the reality that everyone knows is that in four weeks and one day, he and his wife are homeless.”

“So far, everything you’re telling me just proves that he and his wife were stressed out, and stress can make people snap.”

“Oh, you haven’t heard the best part,” she assured him. “The dealership job that he was in charge of? Well, it’s owned by a guy named Eustace Green, but selling cars is just his day job. The rest of the time, he’s a town commissioner.” She waited, looking at him like that meant something, then sighed and said, “That means he’s one of the guys responsible for the imminent domain thing that took his house away.”

“Oh.”

“Damn right, oh. Paulie’s last job before getting run out of town is building a bigger, better workplace for the guy most responsible for destroying Paulie’s life. So, understandably, he has been dicking over that job from day one. I don’t mean just doing shit work and racking up costs, which he was, but also walking off with materials and who knows what else.”

“Hence the envelope of cash sitting on his kitchen table,” Bonnie guessed.

“Allegedly, but yeah, most probably. And Shelly’s been stingy as fuck for the last few months, so everybody on his crew was kind of looking the other way or even helping themselves right along with him, all except Morehead.” Ana snorted with an affectionate sort of disdain as she took another swig of water. “Morehead’s so honest, it’s painful. When he finally figured out what was going on over there, he told Shelly. Shelly went out to the site and saw some stuff for himself, and sent Paulie back to the office. So that’s what happened Monday morning. Four weeks before he loses his house and gets run out of town to go live in his kid’s basement, he’s looking at being fired and arrested and maybe going to prison.”

“So he took it all out on you and you suddenly think that’s okay?”

“No,” said Ana, but she wouldn’t look at him. “I’m just saying, there’s some justification there.”

“For calling you names and shit-talking you all over town? Uh, no, there isn’t, and even if there was, what’s his excuse for doing it for the past three or four months? Seriously, how are you remotely okay with this?”

“He. Lost. Everything.” Ana looked at him, but her gaze soon wavered and she dropped her head back on his shoulder. “It was eating him up. He had a house and he lost it. I strolled into town and just scooped one up. He tried to fight the city and couldn’t. I fought and won. He lost his job. I got one. Twice.” She thought a moment, then added, “It’s worse than that, I got his job. Literally. Everyone, even Big Paulie, knew that as soon as he was gone, I’d be on the work-site crew. That was bad enough, but then Shelly put me in charge of it. Right in front of him. Do you get it yet? Paulie had nothing left in the goddamn world but his pride and Shelly took it away in front of everyone. In front of me. He took it away and he gave it to me. And he shouldn’t have done that, Bon,” she said, so seriously, so ashamed. “Everybody says Paulie is…was…a great guy. He didn’t deserve that.”

Bonnie had to take a moment there to really think about what he was going to say next, because what wanted to come out of him was black and wordless.

“No,” he said finally, with just a hint of static at the low end of his speaker. “I’m sorry, baby, but if he blows his life savings, he deserves to be broke. If he can screw around at work and steal and whatever else he was doing, then he deserves to get fired. And if he can say what he said to you and justify it with ‘because you were born,’ then he’s not a great guy.”

“I’ve called Freddy some awful things.”

“That’s different,” Bonnie said firmly. “You didn’t know Freddy had feelings. This asshole knew you did and lit into you anyway. That was his choice. They were all his choices. You weren’t the one who turned his life to shit. You don’t have to feel bad for being the one to walk in when he was on his way out. You don’t even have to feel bad that the asshole is dead.”

“I made it worse,” she insisted. “I make everything worse. He spent the last six months losing everything he had and watching me just snap shit up like it was nothing, and he spent the last night of his life being angry and unhappy, all because of me.”

“Yeah, well, that’s on him, baby girl. It doesn’t really matter what you do. I mean, you can try to be the best you every day. Take the high road, turn the other cheek and—” He gestured with half a laugh at the stage around them. “—put on a show, but ultimately, you’ve got no control over what other people think or feel about you. Some people don’t care who you are. Some people just want someone else to push around. And I don’t care how big the guy is, anyone who has to put someone else down to feel better about themselves is pretty goddamn small.”

“I knew you wouldn’t understand,” she muttered.

“I understand, baby. I do.” He understood so well that it took a little time before he could blink the black out of his eyes and keep talking. “But I’ll tell you something. This guy…whatever he was and however it happened, he’s dead. Whether you understand it or not, whether you feel bad or not, it makes no difference to him now. It makes no difference to anyone, really. I mean, he was going to be gone anyway in just a few weeks, right?”

“Gone, yeah, but not dead! I never wanted him dead!”

“Dead is gone,” Bonnie said with a shrug. “I’m not saying you should dance on his grave or anything, but you don’t have to feel bad just because he’s gone. And if you want to feel, like, relief or whatever just because you don’t have to deal with his shit anymore, that doesn’t make you a bad person. So forget him. Okay?”

She looked at him for a long time before nodding.

“Come on.” He picked up the tablet and put it back in her hands. “Find us something to watch on this thing. Let’s cheer you up.”

She nodded again listlessly, then boosted herself up to press an unexpected, sad-eyed kiss hard against his mouth.

“I’m not complaining, but, uh, what was that for?” he asked as she slumped down at his side again.

“Cheering me up,” she told him, pulling his arm around her like a blanket. “You’re so good. You’re the only good thing I ever almost got. You know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” He looked at the tablet’s screen as she began to scroll through movies, trying to ignore the phantom sensation of her warm and soft against his skin. “Yeah, I know.”