The Arrangement 12

By: H.M. Ward

CHAPTER 1

This can’t be happening. The phrase repeats over and over again in my mind as my skin prickles with dread. There’s so much blood on the carpet, seeping out from under the sheet. The crushed black bead did her no good.

The cop doesn’t see me yet. Any second he’ll turn around and I have no idea what I’ll say. The floor isn’t closed off. I don’t know why and I don’t care. Sean is going to kill me for coming back up here, but I can’t leave Mel like this. My heart is stuck in my throat, forming a giant knot that won’t go away no matter how hard I swallow.

A noise startles me out of my trance and I glance at the purse, clutched tightly in my hands. The cop turns and sees me. Sean’s voice is spilling from within the room and I only take notice when it stops. He knows I’m here. The ring tone clangs again before I realize what it means. My shoulders stiffen and I dig through my bag, trying to find the phone as fast as possible.

“You shouldn’t be up here, miss.” The cop says, and starts to walk toward me.

My smile is weak, timid almost. “I’m sorry, I—” I stop talking and look at the picture on my screen. Ice drips down my spine and pools in my stomach. Mel’s murderer stole her phone and is calling me. The crass stripper ring tone blares again and I swipe the button to accept the call. “Hello?”

The cop walks toward me as I stand still, shivering. I expect to hear a male’s voice, someone sick and twisted. He’s going to say something horrible, but what I hear shocks me even more.

“Avery? Are you listening to me? Get the fuck out of there! Now!” It’s Mel. My hands start shaking and I suck in a ragged breath.

“Mel—?” My voice catches in the back of my throat as my skin gets covered in a new wave of gooseflesh.

“Miss, this floor is closed.” The cop talks at the same time as Mel. The man is wearing his uniform, and he has that seriously displeased look policemen wear when they’ve seen too much. My God, what happened in that room while Sean and I were downstairs?

“Avery. Leave. Now.” Her words come out staccato, emphasizing each one so that it sinks in.

I’m still in shock, with a haze hanging over me, where I can barely think. “Where are you?”

Mel doesn’t tell me. “You’re not listening. Something happened and I did what I had to do. Get the hell out of there. I wouldn’t have even called, but the thing is, I think she was after you, not me. Be safe. Call me if you need help.” The line goes dead.

Swallowing hard, I place my phone in my purse and nod at no one. The cop thinks I’m nodding at him and lifts his hand toward the elevator banks. At that moment, Sean peeks out from the doorway. I turn back and our eyes lock, but neither of us speaks. He doesn’t want me involved in this, but I don’t know if it can be avoided.

“Mr. Ferro,” says a deep voice from within the room, “we’re not done here.”

Sean glances back at the man and then to me. “One moment.” Sean walks down the hallway toward me with swift, determined, strides. He stops a step from me, like we’re acquaintances and hands me a card. “I’ll be a little bit. Meet me here. I have to go out to Long Island to take care of something, after this gets settled.” His eyes are liquid blue and filled with worry. He blinks it away and his gaze once again turns to steel.

A large detective wearing a poorly fitting blue suit steps into the hallway. “Mr. Ferro, we’re not done.” The man has jowls that are cartoonish. He’s way past his prime, with a belly that hangs over his belt, and bags under his eyes. There’s a large nose in the center of his face that reminds me of Gabe. The man looks up at me and then glances at Sean. “Who’s this?”

Sean speaks before I have a chance to answer. “A friend. She wasn’t up here when this happened.”

The uniformed cop looks at me with added interest. The detective asks, “Then, where were you?”

I feel nervous with all their eyes on me and spit out the truth. “In the dining room, downstairs.”

The detective walks toward me. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” I tell him and he asks if I’ve been up here tonight. I omit the fact that I was up here with Mel earlier and talk about dinner. “What are you doing here, now?”

“I came to see Mr. Ferro.” It’s the truth and I look too innocent or naïve to them. They both disregard me after a few more questions, but then he asks for the paper Sean handed me. “Let me see it and you can go.”

I don’t want to show him, but I do. Holding the business card between two fingers, I lift it up so he can read it. The man grunts and shakes his head. “A strip club? He handed you a card for a strip club?”

I shrug and smile bashfully, like Sean and I are into kinky things. The cop inhales suddenly, and it’s way too loud. My outfit screams proper, refined, and totally average, but the card throws him off. The cop asks, “Why’d he give it to you?”

I smile, and look at the carpet and say the first lie I can conjure. “I was looking for a place to have a bachelorette party. He said he knew this place.”

The cop glances at my ring, and then at Sean who has a stoic expression and doesn’t speak. Sean’s hands are in his pockets, as if he’s bored. The two police officers look at one another, as if they know they’re missing something, but neither is sure what. It seems like it lines up, thank God. The last thing I need is for them to think I’m lying.

Sean finally lets out an irritated sound and says, “Gentlemen, can we please figure out who killed the woman in my room so I can get on with business?”

Holy fuck, his voice is cold. Sean makes the woman’s death sound like an inconvenience on the same level as missing a train. The words send a shiver down my spine. Sean tips his head toward me—bidding me good night—turns on his heel, and heads back to the room. I watch him disappear behind the door, and pass that lifeless body. He doesn’t flinch, or look down at her. There’s no indication that he’s upset in any way, which is really disturbing. The thing is, I know this is the way he acts when he has his guard up. Sean becomes a rock, this stoic man completely devoid of emotion. It’s damning because he looks like a freaking sociopath.

At that moment, I wonder what’s really going through his mind, and if he’s angry, worried, or what. That woman is dead. Someone killed her and I don’t think Sean knows any more about it than I do.

My mouth feels like it has weights hanging from the corners, making me frown. Staring at her dead hand, I ask, “Who is she?” My voice warbles slightly as my hand lifts to my heart.

I gawk at the sheet, thinking everything and nothing. It’s one of those weird moments where so many thoughts and fears are rushing through my mind that I can’t see any of them. They’re a squall of storms, devastating and powerful, reminding me that life is fleeting, as if I didn’t already know.

I can’t help it, I start shaking. My reaction is involuntary, and I have no idea how Sean can compartmentalize so well that he could step over her without showing any concern. I’m all emotion, and the turmoil within me is gaining speed, ripping away the small fraction of control that remains. My stomach twists and my throat constricts as the contents of my stomach threaten to come up. I cover my mouth and look away as sweat beads across my forehead.

The detective swears, before saying, “Get her out of here before she’s sick.” The cop nods and takes my elbow, and turns me toward the elevators as his boss walks back toward Sean. There are more people in the room. I hear their voices, but never saw their faces.

The elevator chimes and the doors slide open. The cop walks me inside and tells me to hold the rail, before pressing the button for the lobby. His dark gaze lifts and meets my pale, sweaty face. He shoots me a look of pity and smiles. “Don’t worry, miss. It’s not someone you would know. The woman was a prostitute. Go down to the bar and ask for a lemon. Suck on it and the queasy feeling will settle.”

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