Rhino horn in eye.
Dan Lewinski had fantasies of his preferred method of death. If forced to shed this mortal coil, he wanted to exuviate in fanfare and aplomb.
Dying in a fiery inferno falling from ten thousand feet had some
panache, granted. It was way cooler than, say, embolism or choking on a pretzel.
But dying in a plane crash took a lot of time. Time when a man like Dan would think things like I didn’t pay that utility bill,
and I never made amends with my father,
and Wait, I’m thirty years old and still single. I don’t actually
want to die right this moment.
The Cessna Grand Caravan in which he plummeted to his death was shared with two frantic pilots, six locals on their way home to Tok, Alaska, and Dan’s subject, Connor Katz.
Connor Katz usually had a look of serene detachment. He was
Zen. At the moment, however, he looked more like purgatory. An expression of deep discontent made his bright hazel eyes widen way beyond normal size. And his typically lush and pouty red lips had gone white with fear.
For a moment it seemed the anxiously whispering pilots in the open cockpit did something to save them. The plane leveled out and began to rise.
Something sounding like shrapnel slammed against the windows, and the plane spun and dived. Their descent was fast and uncontrolled.
As they fell toward earth, Dan had enough time to consider that his last fleeting moments were not flashbacks of his own relatively comfortable and slightly boring life, but of Connor.
Married to your job, much?
He’d never officially met Connor, of course. A year ago, Dan and his business partner, Frankie Fisher, had been hired by Connor’s estranged older sister to keep tabs on Connor and alert her if he engaged in any suspicious or dangerous behavior.
Clarity as to what constituted suspicious
was never provided by Sheila Cole-Bergman. She remained downright sketchy about the whole assignment.
But Prospect Investigations, LLC, had been squeaking by for years until they’d been contacted by Connor’s sister. Frankie had been the one who’d first spoken with Sheila Cole-Bergman and informed her they rarely took on individual clients. They preferred working for companies or attorneys’ offices because those were more likely to actually pay for services.
But then Mrs. Cole-Bergman plopped down a retainer fee of $57,000.00, and Frankie and Dan could hardly say no.
That was over a year ago.
Since then, they had remained exclusively contracted to Mrs. Cole-Bergman. When Dan expressed concern they’d lose other business in the future if they stuck with a single client, Mrs. Cole-Bergman drafted a contract that would pay the two of them an ongoing monthly stipend for the next three years, regardless of what happened with the subject, Connor Katz.
It was the kind of offer a struggling private investigator could only dream of, and Dan and Frankie had been in total agreement when they signed it.
Even now, barely a year into the job, Dan still felt grateful this project had fallen in their lap. They made five times what they would have investigating false injury claims, cheating spouses, and missing persons. And the work was safe, easy, and steady.
That was what bored Frankie.
After all, Frankie had become an investigator because she loved puzzles. She liked figuring out the details of a situation, unraveling facts. But Connor needed no unraveling. She thought Connor was an open book.
He was a twenty-six-year-old white man of Jewish descent. He lived alone in a single-story craftsman bungalow among the wind-tattered trees of Sehome Hill in Bellingham, Washington. He had two dogs, workout equipment that he regularly used, and a piano he rarely used. He spent most of his time sketching. He was a compulsive artist, drawing on every scrap of paper or piece of mail that passed through his fingers.
He had some commission work and worked part-time for a local CPA as an accountant. His billing rate didn’t explain his Porsche or his well-manicured abode, but other than this mystery, he seemed like any typical dude. At the end of the day, he hiked around the Salish Sea with his dogs, filled sketchbooks, and enjoyed craft beers.
He was boring.
But Dan didn’t mind it. Over the past months, he’d grown from accepting it as a dull but steady job to having an almost obsessive curiosity about Connor. There was something
he hid, something big. A story whispered through his history, beyond the vague mentions from his sister of an “experimental phase in his adolescence” and a pattern of “unhealthy behavior” that she wanted to be alerted to.
That hook had sunk straight through Dan’s cheek, but it had slipped free of Frankie’s. She wanted to cut loose, just as Dan developed stronger feelings for Connor.
If he’d ever admitted his crazy affection for Connor to his blunt, unsympathetic, and completely practical partner, she would likely have hit him over the head with her thirty-pound rolling luggage bag she took with her everywhere.
It wasn’t even something Dan felt comfortable admitting to himself, for several good reasons. One, it was unethical. He now knew far more about Connor than any stranger should know about another. Two, Connor was supposed to be a subject, nothing more. Dan’s true allegiance had to remain with Mrs. Cole-Bergman, his client.
And there was the fact that it was, above all, unhealthy. He remembered the night he’d been waiting for Connor to return to his small but cheerful bungalow from the apartment unit he and Frankie had rented across the street, and he’d gotten a call from Frankie, who’d been tailing Connor.
“He’s on his way home,” Frankie had told Dan on the phone, yawning as she did so. “And he’s scored.”
Dan remembered the breath leaving his lungs in shock. “Scored?” he choked out dramatically.
Frankie laughed. “Oh come on
. Give the guy a little credit. He’s hot. He’s horny. And the guy he’s picked up looks like he’d pretty much let Connor do whatever he wanted to him, wherever.”
“Wait, what? He’s gay
?” How had Dan missed it?
Frankie had thought the same thing. “I thought you guys could find each other in crowds.”
Dan sighed loudly. “We don’t have superpowers, Frankie.” As Dan spoke, Connor’s Porsche roared up the quiet residential street and parked in the driveway. Connor’s house was basic, his fashion sense tasteful if slightly subdued, but when it came to his car, he had flair. That black Boxster was Dan’s dream
His fantasies about the car faded as the figure of a bulky, muscular man stepped from it. He walked alongside Connor, and they both seemed to be laughing. Connor opened the front door for his guest, closed it, and that was the last Dan saw of him that night.
“You still there?” Frankie asked.
“Yeah. Gotta go.” Dan hung up the phone and quickly drew the blinds of the apartment in case he caught even a glimpse of what transpired in those rooms. He was filled with such a fiery, irrational, all-encompassing jealousy, he worried he’d finally break his cover, march over there, and punch the other guy out.
That was when Dan realized he had a problem.
“Brace for impact!” one of the pilots shrieked.
The vibrations of the plane shook Dan into a senseless terror. The plane lurched one way and the other as the pilots struggled to control the fall.
After an initial burst of cries, curses, and a panicked sob, his fellow passengers became quiet. It scared Dan even more. He’d always imagined planes falling from the sky were full of people screaming with their last breath, but this eerie, absolute silence made their fate even more frightening. It was like they’d all given up. And they had
to give up—there was nothing they could do. Nothing at all.
Dan had never felt so powerless in all his life.
He glanced once more over to Connor. Irrationally, as he studied the man he’d followed for thirteen months, all he could think of in that moment was that it was a shame he’d never find out the secret Connor was hiding.
“Brace! Brace! Brace!” shrieked the pilot.
Dan forced his arms into movement, crossing them behind his head, tucking into the smallest, most secure ball he—
Shrieking. Crunching. Fire.