Breck stayed horizontal following his chastisement and dismissal of Robbie.
He’s the least of my fucking worries and I can shut him down when I need to. Breck stretched his arm and looked at the bespoke suit that hung from the hanger on the back of the door.
He closed his eyes and dreamed of the green waves lapping at the Monacan levies, the stir he felt in his chest to lay his eyes upon Jean-Philippe’s tan skin, and the warmth of friendship that riveted his body when he shook Murphy’s hand again for the first time in years.
It seemed like a lifetime he had lived in a matter of hours. Returning home this on this occasion felt different – plastic, unremarkable, weary. That unrelenting comfort that embraced him when at last his feet returned to the city’s pavement was missing, as was the peace of those who always awaited and celebrated his inevitable return.
Breck dismissed the excuse that he was suffering from wanderlust. In his unimaginable travels, he’d trekked six continents and hundreds of countries. He came and went as he pleased, free as a bird with the expectation that he answered to no one.
Try as he might to pinpoint the origin of his angst, rationale continued to elude him.
It’s time, he told himself again, now more than ever. He was battling the fear that his choice to move on was cowardice in disguise – that this was nothing more than running from what he was too scared to face.
Having been petrified too many times in his past to count and still staying put was proof enough for Breck that he had nothing to escape from. Even if he did, he knew that his demons were always on target with his position.
They were perpetually aware of exactly where they could find him.
Slinging his legs off the side of the bed, Breck closed his eyes and waited for the world to stop spinning and the pain in his arm to slow its pounding rhythm long enough for him to get sturdily back on his feet.
Chicago’s evening shoulders had been cloaked in deep rich velvet for an hour or so. A bewitching hour was awaiting him, one he felt he’d be facing with surprisingly little trepidation. Numbness he’d come to rely upon was the one companion that hadn’t betrayed him recently.
Finally standing upright, Breck listened for the clamor of guests preparing for their event. Not a whisper was to be heard.
Now that’s odd. He opened his bedroom door to the blackened hallway and found no lights aglow, no conversations ringing with typical obscenity-riddled debate – not even a bleat or honk of at least one expected drunk.
An anxiety of abandonment washed over him and he stopped to determine if he was dreaming. Grabbing his wound, he yelped. Nope. Wide awake.
Stupid as that was, it needed to be done, he convinced himself that the pain was to ward off the madness he felt creeping in on him. Something wasn’t right. He checked his watch. It read 6:45 and the silence persisted on his journey to the staircase. Convinced that some soul must be lurking somewhere but unwilling to break the mystery with light, Breck felt his way down the stairs and into the unoccupied lounge.
He stood alone in the dark and the quiet, his mind racing with the burden of wondering what could have happened to the handful of invitees that he expected to be fumbling over one another in preparation for dinner. There was no arguing, no drink-spilling, no back-slapping. No one. Nothing.
Panic that had caught up with Breck at the foot of the staircase shattered the instant the light switch was flipped and the crowd roared in relief of finally expelling the secret.
Taking to heart Goddard’s ingenious suggestion to turn Breck’s dinner plans into a hearty welcome home surprise party for him, I permitted the social butterfly to put his creative strengths to work overloading the last-minute guest list and satisfying his unrelenting pursuit of the dramatic.
What welcomed Breck beyond the nanosecond of darkness was a flash of blinding light that revealed well-wishers dressed to the nines and screaming their delights in his clueless misdirection.
Unable to absorb the room’s transformation quickly enough, Breck stood frozen and gob smacked at the spectacle of dozens of party-goers raising glasses in hand to his unintended casual presence.
He looked down at his sleep pants and rumpled Henley shirt and bare feet as the first guest approached him to extend the merriment, a sentiment continuing to tax the senses that had yet to catch up with what he was witnessing.
Aching to take in the full scene, Breck scanned the sea of faces for recognition and understanding and participation. His heart regained its normal pace and he looked again in disbelief.
“Surprised?” I made my way to within earshot. “Do you want to go put your suit on? It’d be a shame to waste such beautiful tailoring and you wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. We’ll be here waiting – ”
My giddy prattling was wasted on the guest of honor. His eyes were still tracing each soul in the room, a hunt for prey he wasn’t entirely sure was there to pursue.
“Breck,” I reached out and took his elbow, “are you ok? Did you hear me?”
The gaze he cast upon me was vacant, barely unchanged from the hollowness in his eyes that had gripped me upon his morning’s arrival.
“Are you looking for someone? We thought this would be a lot more fun than some stuffy back room – we wanted to celebrate you being home in your home.”
Pausing only so slightly to subdue his senses, he looked at me and blinked, the cold stare froze my skin. He yanked his arm from my hand and spun one hundred and eighty degrees.
“I fucking hate surprises, Sandy – you know that,” he finally sputtered and like a damaged ship tossed about on a merciless ocean wave, he was sucked into the crowd and out of sight.
What the hell has gotten into him? Flipping back through my cerebral annals of hardships Breck had endured, I failed to retrieve one memory of such him displaying such an unnerving switch of behavior. The person who returned wasn’t remotely the person I’d known, and whomever this creature was who’d shown up in Breck’s stead was alarming.
So much so that it raised in me a conscious need to match defenses. I targeted Robbie in the crowd.
“Do you have your nine on you?” My question stopped him dead and he nearly choked on his drink.
“Did yuh jus’ ask me if uh’m carryin’ me gun, Sandy? Did uh hear ya right, or am uh goin’ on to a batty radge now, too?”
“You heard me fine,” I boldly confirmed. “Do you have your gun with you?”
I found the smirk that crept across Robbie’s face a waste of my time. Ever willing to play the blithering fool, he was readying his humor, tickled with intrigue as to which direction my madness may lead.
“I’m serious, Rob. Do you have your gun – yes or no?”
Unaccustomed to flipping panic switches, Robbie grasped that I was in no position to joke. He reached his hands under his jacket behind him to retrieve the gun as proof.
“Not here,” I stopped him before he pulled the weapon into view. “I just wanted to make sure you had it on you.”
He skimmed the room searching to locate a danger he now perceived existed. “What’s goin’ on, Sandy?”
I joined his search of the space and shook my head. “I don’t know yet. There’s something wrong with Breck. I think your prophecy from earlier in the day may have been more precise than either of us would have hoped. I just have this sick feeling that something is going to happen and it isn’t going to be good. And he’s going to be the cause of it.”
I turned back to the steel-wielding well-dressed thug. “There’s just something that I can’t put my finger on – it’s been eating at me since the minute he got back. Shed some light? What happened while you two were away? And if you tell me that nothing, I swear to God I’ll use your own gun on you. That Breck is not my Breck, and I need to know what or who has the original.”
But the eruption that preempted Robbie’s response was a distraction that, to him and at the very moment, was of epic proportion.
“Aw, fuck me. This’ll be a wee stramash,” he drawled sarcastically and slithered through the crowd quicker than Breck had been swallowed into it, understanding full well that what he was headed for was a far cry worse than his facetious dust-up analogy.
His hands went for the 9mm tucked in his waistband as he scrambled away from me and toward the death of the party.
No one knows at what point Breck had spotted Jean-Philippe in the crowd that night, nor what indefinable rage had enveloped him at the sight of his former lover now turned bitter enemy.
None but three people in the room that evening was aware of what fueled Breck’s blind attack, least of all Goddard, who had placed Jean-Philippe at the top of the surprise guest list with all good intentions.
And to my knowledge, only two of those people were parties to Robbie’s gun making its way into Breck’s trembling fingers and its barrel dug directly into Jean-Philippe’s temple.
Of those two, a sole victim knew exactly how and when the trigger was squeezed and the bullet fired.
And that one wasn’t Breck.