The first message was “murder.”
It came by plastic flamingo. A note tied on a string around its wire leg.
I found it just before dawn. An hour when the only suckers not sleeping were either the riff-raff from the night before or the psycho do-gooders doing a downward-facing-dog.
Four-thirty in the goddamn morning. Unable to sleep, unable to think, unable to avoid the pounding in my head. I threw on a windbreaker to go for a walk. And there it was: facing my front door like it meant to invite itself in for breakfast. One plastic flamingo, staring right at me with its stupid dead plastic eyes.
This message, well, it did me a knocker. My hands shook as I untied the string. My legs wobbled as I pulled the flamingo inside, shut the door, threw the thing into the basement. I didn’t look as it clattered down the stairs into the dark.
I knew there could only be one person behind this. My nemesis.
Two years ago, almost to the day, I had thrown him in jail, turned in my police badge, and walked into my first AA meeting. In that order. I left behind that old life in every way except for moving away. Now, life was calm. Boring all to hell, but calm. A counter job at the post office was all I needed. No more running around chatting up gang members, no more flirting for insider information. No more “my eyes are up here, bucko.” No more two-day hangovers. No more putting my life on the line. No more scaring myself shitless and drinking into an oblivion to forget.
But there was one who could never forget me.
He wanted me and could never get me. I dangled myself on a string and pulled myself away right before he could snatch. I dangled even closer; he told me nearly everything. I handcuffed him to the bed; he told me what was left. I opened up my shirt—and then I showed him the wire.
Now, he was still in jail but had puppets all over Tallahassee. The PanDemonium gang ran free.
The flamingo was my warning. Someone would soon be murdered. And only I could stop it.
Hours passed. I paced my front yard. I fought and fell to the urge to look for footprints. The grass was too ratty to tell the difference.
Finally, at a reasonable hour, I called Joe.
“Ruth.” His voice scratched the phone.
“Baker. You still sleeping?”
“No.” He cleared his throat. “What do you want, Ruth?”
“Really, Baker? First names now? After all we’ve been through?”
He didn’t answer. I could practically see him on the other end, fiddling with his police badge. He slept with it underneath his pillow.
“Alright … Joe. I’m calling because I have a scoop.”
“Come on. It’s bad.” I paused, gathering myself. “It’s … him.”
“Whatever.” He sounded pissed. True, I hadn’t talked to him since I left the force. True, I left him in the middle of a hot case. But still. I thought he’d understood I needed to leave it all at once.
“Is a snake biting you in the balls, or are you still sore at me?”
“Why don’t you leave me out to dry again with no warning, asshole?” Still pissed, then.
“I had to cut ties, Baker. Triggers and whatnot.” What I didn’t say: I couldn’t see you. I missed him, more than he could know. His smile, his voice, his flask. It all ran together, it all reminded me of temptation. After awhile, it just was easier not to. “It’s been two years.”
“Get off your bullshit, Ruth.” He clicked the phone off.
I wasn’t concerned. Joe needed time to cool off. If I knew my nemesis, I knew there was nothing to do now but wait.