The day happened; there was no denying it. There was no denying the regrets either, several and heavy. But trying to walk backward into the future only seemed, in Cabanela's firm opinion, a good way to fall down.
Jowd was only serving to prove his point. He seemed determined to wrap himself in a web of gloom and guilt under the guise of false cheer and laughter that grated against Cabanela like coarse sandpaper.
The bouts of inattention were starting to become a problem too, Cabanela thought as he neatly stepped aside, avoiding a collision with Jowd.
"Caaareful baby." He eyed the files in Jowd's hands. "Those would find a better home in evidence than on the flooor."
Jowd snorted, but his eyes remained elsewhere. "Sorry."
The isolated word grated on his senses, but was nothing compared to the fresh wave of guilt that washed through him. Even without having the far too close and intimate insight into those particular feelings, Cabanela could read Jowd's tension loud and clear in tight shoulders.
"Well," Jowd said more cheerfully and Cabanela bit back a frown at the plasticity of it all. "I'd better see these to their home before they meet with an accident of their own."
And without another word Jowd walked away, and as he did so, Cabanela found himself hit with another wave of… what? He blinked. Relief? Gratitude?
They nearly avoided smacking into each other, hardly the end of the world that. Cabanela stared after Jowd. Thanks were all well and good, but what in blazes for?
If anyone should be hauling a load of guilt and gratitude around, it should be him, so why was Jowd continually bent under the weight of the world?
What did you do, baby?
Alma entered the hall to find Jowd standing near the wall and the old antique gun in his hands. He seemed frozen as it lay in his hands.
He jumped, she gasped at the sudden jolt of fear and the gun hit the floor with a clatter.
"Um… is everything all right?"
Jowd bent swiftly to retrieve the gun. "Fine. I just thought we should replace this with a picture. Kamila doesn't need to grow up with more guns in the house."
Alma couldn't argue the point even if she wasn't entirely sure the thing was even usable anymore, and a picture would certainly be more homely, antique or not, but why the fear?
"There's that picture that's been sitting in the closet," she suggested.
"No." Jowd gave a crooked smile. "I never much cared for that one. I'll find something."
Alma blinked. If he wanted to engage in some interior decoration, all power to him, but why this sudden change and apparent distaste for that particular picture? He seemed to become wholly engaged in setting the gun in a box and she had a feeling she wouldn't get an answer even if she knew what exactly to ask.
"I'll look forward to seeing what ends up there," she said and left him to it, not quite able to shake a seed of worry.
Sometimes Cabanela felt like he could parade the place naked under a neon sign and every loud noise imaginable and Jowd would give no notice. And at other times his attention was almost suffocating. Nice to see you too, baby, but could you drop the mother hen act?
He wasn't made of glass but for Jowd's silent concerns he might start to believe it.
And if he found himself more often under Jowd's studying gazes, or questioning looks (can I help you baby?), it was nothing compared to what Alma received. How many times had he caught the worried looks? The startled looks? The disbelief she was there? He'd had to give himself a hard shake to disentangle himself from Jowd's unease before he too found himself believing she could disappear at any moment.
It was as if a boulder long lodged into a mountainside had suddenly dislodged itself. Sure, maybe it would create a new path or maybe there'd be something interesting underneath, but mostly it just left a lot of mess and confusion.
Jowd's hand landed on his shoulder and for once Cabanela didn't feel like he was about to have a close encounter with his desk, which was welcome in itself. The caution and faint confusion seeping off Jowd not so much.
"If you're almost done here, I can give you a ride home. It's pretty wet out."
"I will be sooon." Cabanela craned his head back to look up at Jowd. "You've been sitting on something. Care to elaaaborate?"
"I could say the same," Jowd replied. His hands rubbed against muscles that were tighter than Cabanela had realized and just who could be blamed for that? "Case causing you trouble?"
One case in a green coat and a badly done tie.
"Nothin' I can't haaandle, baby." Let that be a warning. He would yank Jowd out of this strange hole he'd somehow dug himself into, help or no help.
When Alma entered the living room she found Cabanela parked cross-legged on the floor, his elbows on his knees and his chin resting on his hands, staring at Sissel, or perhaps engaged in a staring contest.
She quietly left them to it. She couldn't blame Cabanela for being fascinated by him. The cat was an odd little creature. In a lot of ways he seemed quite aloof, never allowing anyone except Jowd to be too near, and touching him was out of the question. Only Jowd was granted such a privilege and only Jowd's lap earned his presence.
Yet in other ways he gave off an air of friendly amiability. He regularly followed Alma about her day and he hovered near Kamila more often than not.
And at other times it was as if he vanished into the aether and she couldn't for the life of her figure out where his hiding places could possibly be.
"Cats will be cats," Jowd had said.
"As long as he doesn't trap himself somewhere…" Alma had replied worriedly.
Whatever it was that struck Jowd as amusing about that comment was beyond her and no explanations were forthcoming.
And then there was the cat's diet or seeming lack thereof. She hadn't once caught him eating. She tried offering treats and they all went ignored. He wouldn't even touch chicken in a clear difference of opinion from Jowd.
"He probably eats at night," Jowd said with a shrug. "He's hardly starving."
And once again amusement for no discernable reason.
Odd or not, she quickly grew to appreciate Sissel's presence and she'd started to come to think of him as their family's little protector. He certainly always seemed to know when she most wanted company and he'd sit by, a quietly reassuring presence.
And again only recently while she felt trapped in a tired haze at the stove, a loud meow had alerted her to Kamila clambering onto a chair to try to reach a forgotten pitcher of juice.
He'd fit into their little family seamlessly. She only wondered why, when she tried to talk about him to Jowd, he always seemed caught between either amusement or shutting down completely.
Strange. Like owner like cat.
There had been a nasty storm the previous night. Fascinating to watch and Cabanela had found his eyes regularly drawn to his window to watch the arcs flashing across the sky. It had put a damper on some of his plans, but that was fine.
What was less fine was listening to Jowd the next day talk of how he'd been caught out in it and nearly struck and how the whole story seemed to lead up to one terrible joke.
Cabanela had long accepted their gap in humour as a foregone conclusion, but there were limits in morbidity and poor taste. However, what was worse than Jowd's uproarious laughter that put tears in his eyes was the hysterical urge to join in.
He retreated to his desk. Distance made no difference, but he could pretend.
Alma set aside the manuscript with a sigh. The cheery lunch with Emma had helped distract her for a little while. The latest draft of her current novel wasn't. She only found her eyes sliding over the same words over and over between frequent glances upward. It would have to wait.
The house was heavy with melancholy and try as she might she couldn't lift the cloud of it from her mind. She had hoped it would improve as the day progressed. The morning had started poorly with a gloom that couldn't be shaken. Jowd had hardly said a word before he retreated upstairs and isolated himself in their room. He just needed time, she told herself. Everyone was allowed a bad mood sometimes.
Sissel jumped up beside her.
"This is him," she told him firmly. "He feels like everything is wrong. But why? Why does he feel so ashamed? Why does it feel like we're about to lose everything?"
Sissel meowed once and curled up. A low soothing purr sounded shortly after.
"You're lucky, you know. So little to worry about."
Could a cat look incredulous?
The phone rang. She was half tempted to ignore it. It was probably unimportant and she'd had enough of being social. What was the point?
She forced herself to pick up with another look shot upward.
"Cabanela. Aren't you working?"
"On break. What's goin' on?"
"I'm afraid I don't know much more than you do. He's been like this since we woke up. I can't get anything out of him."
"Need me to swiiing by tonight?"
"Aren't you playing a gig?"
"I can cancel," he replied airily. "When there are more important things."
Almost tempting for his company, but... "No, it's been too long. Please don't worry about it. Just enjoy yourself." Heavens knew they could use some joy right now.
"I'm not on until later," he offered.
Alma laughed. "With the amount of time you take to prepare? Just have fun," she said firmly. In fact there was a thought. Kamila would be in bed by then. Surely Jowd had enough life in him for that much. "I might just stop by myself if I can."
She could hear the smile in Cabanela's voice. "I'll keep an eeeye out for you, baby."
Alma entered the lounge a little later than she'd hoped after another attempt at Jowd: "You could go instead. I'm sure Cabanela would appreciate seeing you." She'd only been told to go and have fun and his distance continued.
Cabanela's guitar and warm tones rolled through the room and she couldn't help a small smile as she settled at a table. His enjoyment was clear in his voice, the smile behind the mic and the bubble of warmth rising in her.
Shortly after she was seated a waiter approached. He stood by with a tray bearing a glass of wine and a decadent slice of chocolate cake.
"Would you be Ms. Alma?"
She blinked. "Erm yes?"
"This is for you, courtesy of Mr. Cabanela," the waiter said with a nod toward the stage as he set down the plate and glass.
She stared at Cabanela who caught her eye and winked. She smiled into her wine, smooth.
The song wound down to applause.
"Thank you!" Cabanela said. "It's a reeeal pleasure to be here again with you fine folks. Now, this next song is for a veeery special lady."
Alma took a bite of her cake, as rich as she expected, and stiffened as the familiar chords rang out. A cover of their wedding song. Her throat tightened. She'd been so happy that day, deliriously so. They all had been.
And they still were. Happy. Overall. They were.
There would be a light at the end of this tunnel despite feelings to the contrary. It wasn't all dark. It hadn't been even now.
She watched Cabanela, the song filling her ears. A strong sincerity ran through his words, swaying into a gentle softness and back to strength. They'd reclaim that joy. They would and with a growing certainty, she knew it to be true.
"Thank you," she mouthed at Cabanela.
She had no idea if he saw it, but it didn't matter. He'd know and as the night progressed there was a ray of light amongst the clouds.
Cabanela had fallen asleep on his side, stretched across the couch. Sissel perched on the back and if Jowd didn't know any better, he would have said he looked ready to fall asleep too.
About time for Cabanela, Jowd thought. His tiredness lately, whether he wanted to admit to it or not (always not), had started to drag on them all. Extreme work habits, even worse than usual, took their toll. His mistake had still been kept between them, but he seemed determined to somehow make up for it, to do better than ever.
That's not all it is, a treacherous thought nudged him. Jowd grimaced as he placed a blanket over Cabanela. No, he needed to do better at keeping everything in line and contained. They deserved peace. They didn't deserve to be bothered by his problems.
As he left the room, he was caught in Sissel's stare and couldn't help but get the sense there was a feeling of disapproval from the cat.
Not your problem either.
Jowd waited at the base of the station steps until the familiar rhythmic tapping caught his attention. Sure some people, usually newbies, scoffed at his odd ways of handling stairs, but there was no arguing it made for a handy alert system.
"Hey," he greeted as Cabanela approached and was about to say more, when at the last couple steps, a twinge of pain shot through his ankle.
There was a yelp, and the next seconds passed in a panicked flurry of cloth and impact. When the world resolved itself, Jowd found his arms full of white coat and Cabanela clinging to him for dear life while their hearts hammered a rapid beat. Another few seconds passed in stunned silence in which Jowd figured Cabanela was recovering from the fact that that had just happened to him.
"Did those flamingo legs of yours finally trip you up?" Jowd asked lightly once Cabanela straightened, but he kept a hand at his back. If he had sprained something, he didn't need him falling all over again. Besides he looked as shaken as he felt.
"That wasn't meee."
Jowd sobered. "Alma." What happened? Was she…
"We'd know," Cabanela said firmly in response to unspoken fears.
"Right," said Jowd slowly. "I know I was going to drop you off, but I want to get home as quickly as I can."
"I'm comin' with you," Cabanela cut in and there was no arguing.
The drive passed in a tense silence and once home Jowd hurried inside.
But the lights were off and the door had been locked.
"Errands?" Cabanela supplied. "Or a walk. A simple misstep?"
Jowd tried to steady himself. Cabanela was most likely right, but… "And that panic?"
"Now, I'd say that's yooours, baby."
The phone rang before Jowd could muster a reply and he launched himself at it.
"Oh good," came Alma's voice. "You are home. I wasn't sure whether to call home or the station."
"Alma! Are you all right?"
"I'm fine! I'm fine. We're both fine. There was an accident. A car was coming right at us. I'm not really sure what happened. I tried to get us out of the way and must have got caught on the stroller wheel and the car somehow swerved into the alleyway. But we're both okay," she said again. "Police are already here. It looks like the driver may be drunk. Anyway, I didn't want to try walking home on this ankle with the stroller."
"I'll pick you up. Where are you?"
"Fourth Street. I'm using the payphone near Sal's Diner."
"I'm on my way."
When Jowd arrived at the scene after giving a hurried explanation to Cabanela it was to find a car being towed out from a pile of boxes and trash, and a man arguing loudly with a police officer.
"Yeah, might'a had a few too many, but I'm telling ya! My wheel! My wheel moved all by itshelf!"
Jowd passed them a look as a note of suspicion rose, but then his attention was taken by Alma sitting on the curb with Kamila in her lap. The girl was waving a hand toward the police car. As Jowd approached her whole face lit up.
Alma smiled wanly. "Hi hun."
A young looking cop stood close by and saluted at Jowd.
"Detective Jowd, sir!"
"Is everything all right here?" Jowd asked him.
"Yes sir! We already took a statement. She can go, sir." The cop cleared his throat. "I mean I wasn't holding her here, but we don't need her. Er, I mean, I was just making sure she was okay, and."
Jowd held up a hand. "I understand. Maybe go help your partner out hm?"
The cop visibly sagged with relief and scurried away. Alma covered a smile with her hand.
"Look at you intimidating the young officers."
Jowd looked baffled. "I can't imagine why." He scooped Kamila up who buried her face in his beard and he helped Alma to her feet.
"Let's get you home."
Alma sighed. "Gladly."
Once Alma was ensconced in the couch with ice and laughing merrily at something Cabanela was saying, and Kamila was sitting on the floor thoroughly absorbed in her large blocks, Jowd left to find Sissel, only to be found by him instead in the hall.
"We need to talk," Sissel said.
"Yes. We do."
The cat led him into the kitchen and casually jumped onto the table while Jowd took a seat.
"I'm guessing this has to do with a steering wheel," Jowd said calmly.
Sissel's ears turned back. "I had to. She doesn't know anything."
"Why would she? What happened?"
"She was hit. She got the little lady out of the way, but…"
"He came out of nowhere. There wasn't time, so I went back and took the wheel. She stayed unconscious."
Jowd sighed, relief and horror mingling into one confused mass.
"How did this happen? This didn't happen before." He'd remember if anything even close to this had happened. This wasn't part of the script. She was supposed to be safe!
"Things are different now," Sissel said. "We returned to a new present, right? Doesn't take much to change. I wasn't here. I doubt you were this gloomy."
"Look out," Sissel said mildly.
Cabanela sauntered in. "A drink for our pretty lady," he said by way of explanation. He passed a quizzical look over Sissel and an unreadable glance toward Jowd.
"You spoooil that cat," he said as he filled a glass.
Jowd shrugged. "He does as he wants."
"So I seeee."
"You know," Sissel said once Cabanela was gone, "this wouldn't be such a problem if you told them."
"We've talked about this."
"I'm sure they'd rather find out from you than me at death's door."
Jowd's teeth clenched. "It won't happen."
"It nearly did. I was fast enough this time, but I can't be everywhere." He settled himself into a loaf on the table. "You know your anger is obvious in the ghost world, right? I don't care, but they're going to wonder."
Jowd sagged into his chair. "What were you doing there?"
If Sissel noticed the obvious change in topic, he made no sign. He managed an impression of a shrug. "I was bored. Her usual ribbon has a core and people are interesting.
Jowd chuckled and rose from his seat. How many errands had Alma run with an unseen companion?
"Thank you," he said before leaving to rejoin the others.
Sissel didn't say it, but Jowd caught the stray thought clearly. I'm still right.
He was being lulled from his wandering thoughts, which in this particular instance wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but the source was confusing. Cabanela stared curiously from his dangling sprawl across the armchair to the family nestled together on the couch. Jowd's arm was around Alma who had dozed off against his shoulder. His other arm held Kamila securely while she slept on his chest. Sissel loafed on the back of the couch not far from Jowd's head, a silent watcher.
Love seemed to permeate the room. Cabanela knew it, but Jowd tended to be a lot quieter than this. He could only think of two other times anything quite like this had happened.
Their wedding where it was almost hard to breathe through combined swells of love and nerves and joy from the both of them, not least his own. Everything mixed into a chaotic mass of all things wonderful, and quite frankly he quickly gave up on trying to compartmentalize and rode the wave in a sea of pride for his beloved couple.
And more recently again when Kamila was born. When he found himself struggling to concentrate on his work through his own unease and then the sudden surge of pride and relief and a brief cloud of happy exhaustion, but love over all of it through and through.
But this was… different. This was protective and stronger somehow in its own way. He was being held, safe without feeling restricted, more like a heavy blanket on a cold day, or filled with a warmth from a cozy fire or a cup of tea, but so much more. All encompassing.
Things had been strange and worrisome lately, but right now there was only peace and security, and Cabanela found himself only too happy to sink into it and join in this quiet pleasure.
It was still added to his growing list of oddities filed firmly under Jowd.
Jowd looked up from his coffee as Alma entered the kitchen with arms folded over her chest and her lips pursed.
"Please tell me he is not going to work," she said.
Jowd shifted against another echo of a deep crawling ache. No need to question what she was talking about.
"I imagine he'll try. I can stop by on the way."
Alma pinched the space between her eyes. "Keep him there, and make sure he's taken something. I won't be held responsible if he prolongs this because he won't take care of himself."
Jowd chuckled. Stop by and warn him of the threat of an onslaught of enforced bed rest, lectures and soup if he didn't behave.
Jowd paused at Cabanela's door. He was free to enter. However, a knock would provide some warning, but if he was asleep the last thing he wanted to do was wake him. He opted for safety and quietly slipped in.
He found Cabanela at his kitchen table over a steaming mug with his forehead in one hand. Jowd didn't need to feel his bad mood to know it was there; it radiated through the room.
He was dressed and that looked to be as far as he got. His sleeves were rolled up, no doubt trying to compensate for the heat coursing through him. He looked up at Jowd's entrance and he could see the damp strands in ruffled and untidy hair.
"Just checking in," Jowd said. "Have you called in yet?"
"I'll be there," Cabanela said hoarsely. "Just waitin' for the meds to kick in."
Jowd raised an eyebrow. "I can see that. I'm calling you in. You can shock everyone and finally use one of those sick days. Maybe Alma will spare us."
Cabanela scowled at him, but didn't protest as Jowd left the room to use his phone. When Jowd returned ("Wait! Did you say Detective Cabanela?" "Yes, thank you Amber."), Cabanela was leaned back in his seat, glaring a hole through his ceiling. It was a fierce effort betrayed by the shiver in his hands.
"Get some sleep. Last night didn't do you any favours." Or any of them for that matter. "Your brain on a fever is not a place to tread lightly."
Cabanela frowned at him. "Cell wasn't mine, baby."
Jowd stiffened. That had passed through? It had become a common staple and he'd forgotten it amidst the rather more… interesting concoctions Cabanela had provided.
He shrugged. "Dreams don't make much sense. And let's be glad for that!" He added cheerfully and clapped Cabanela on the shoulder, earning a wince. Right, bad move, and he switched to letting his fingers rub over sore muscles.
"Come on, get some rest."
"I'm not spendin' all day in bed," Cabanela said flatly.
He eased Cabanela up, noted the more pronounced shivering, and firmly guided him to his sofa before retrieving his nearly untouched tea.
"I can stop by after work if there's anything you need," he offered once Cabanela was settled. He got a weak sort of wave that somehow managed to convey both acknowledgement and dismissal.
"Jowd," Cabanela said when Jowd started to leave.
He looked back and was met with a piercing stare. A pit formed in his stomach. No, this wasn't his. With his barriers of control eroded by illness Cabanela's worry hit sharp and clear.
"Not every dream is meaningless, is it?" he asked.
Jowd shrugged. "I daresay you could find meaning in anything if you put your mind to it, but there are far better uses for your time. Such as recovering."
With that he left and tried to ignore the lash of frustration.
Meaningless, he said and clung to it. After all none of it did mean anything, not anymore. It was gone, another lifetime that didn't exist. As for Cabanela, well it was best not to delve into his mindset at the best of times let alone now.
And yet… and yet… Most of the dreams had faded under daylight, at best a nonsensical jumble of fever dreams, but two points had remained clear.
A narrow twisted staircase spiralling endlessly downward.
And a blindingly white expanse under a harsh light until closer examination revealed slim lines of red like cracks, seeping through, breaks in a blank wall, yet no less painful on the eyes.
Jowd shook himself as he turned the key in his car. Follow your own advice, man. It was too easy for things to slide between them. Let it go.
Cabanela leaned against Jowd's desk. "Let's take a walk by the pier," he said. "There's a new stall with excellent fish and chips or so I've heeeard."
Jowd rose, but his eyes remained fixed on his papers as he tidied up in a sudden wash of tension. "I was thinking that new restaurant downtown. A change in scenery."
Cabanela stared at his bowed head. A change from what? They hadn't been by the pier in months.
They went to the restaurant.
"Muuuch better than this morning's gloom."
Alma blinked in confusion at Cabanela over her milkshake, product of their impromptu lunch date.
"It was clear earlier," she said and glanced out the diner window. "Still is."
She took in Cabanela's pointed look. Ah. Not the weather. Of course not. "I'm sorry. I hope we didn't bother you too much."
"Nothin' to worry about, baby."
And yet she could sense the faint sparks of worry, or were they her own? Difficult to tell… but it did explain why he whisked her away, leaving Jowd with Kamila.
"Rough night," she admitted, which he was also aware of, judging by the knowing look. "I'm sorry for that too. You shouldn't have to deal with us…"
"We are 'us'," Cabanela countered, "but this is him."
She involuntarily tightened her grip around her glass. "Not just him…"
Jowd had woken first, but she followed soon after, filled with a nameless dread. She started to make an attempt at talking only to be pulled away by Kamila's crying. When she returned after soothing their daughter, Jowd still sat, hunched and rigid. She'd made the attempt again—a mistake.
"We argued," she said. "If you can call it that. He was so distant. Maybe I should say I argued…" Then the morning rolled around in an awkward haze and descended from there to unfocused bad tempers. "I snapped at him earlier and he just took it." She laughed bitterly. "Nodded even, as if he deserved it. When I apologized he waved it off as unnecessary."
She tried to take a drink of her shake and drown the rising lump in her throat. She could only manage a small sip.
"I don't understand what's happened. I don't understand where such nightmares have come from. What is he so afraid of? I'm so tired, Cabanela." She looked up briefly to catch the sympathy in his eyes before averting her gaze. She bit her lip. "Just what he needs," she said, her voice breaking. "More guilt."
The tears she'd been fighting all morning welled and she buried her face in her hands. She heard a rustle of cloth, a light step, and then felt a gentle nudge to move. She shifted to leave more room in the booth seat and felt Cabanela slide in beside her.
He ran soothing fingers through her hair and when she was able to drop her hands enough to look at him, she saw he had angled himself toward her, his other arm resting casually on the table. A shield for some vague semblance of privacy.
She tried to focus on Cabanela's touch. He was a pillar of stability in this mess of a day and she knew she was fooling herself in calling it only a day. She sniffed, fought for control of her breath and found a napkin being passed her way.
"I'm sorry. You don't need this either."
"We've got one door tryin' and failin' to close. Don't go adding another one."
"I…" Alma sighed. "I feel like all I'm doing today is saying sorry."
"You sure that's just you, baby?"
She stared at him. There had been a faint sort of amusement in his tone, but she knew the question was serious.
"I… I don't know," she said, startled. She turned her attention back to the window. Still clear skies, brilliantly blue.
"You know," she said quietly. "I used to romanticise it. I'd find the one and we'd share everything, know each other better than anyone. What could ever be better than that? To fit together perfectly. Or find two," she added with a small smile toward Cabanela. "But it's not all sunshine and rainbows, is it?"
Cabanela smiled and reached out for his forgotten milkshake. He stirred it once with the straw, stared critically into his drink, and then removed the straw with a flourish all without spilling a drop.
"Can't have a rainbow without rain," he said grandly. He tipped his glass toward her. "And ours will be the loooveliest."
She managed a small laugh and Cabanela's smile broadened.
"And it seeems to me a 'perfect' fit would be boring, but there's one thing you can always be certain of. You're never alone. He can keep tryin' to hide and lie teeerribly, but we'll crack him, you and I. You'll see."
Was he right? The ironclad certainty wrapping around her said so. It could be enough. For now.
Cabanela stared into his half-empty second cup of coffee, while his pen tapped lightly against the report still waiting for his attention.
All in all it was getting very tiresome, feeling as though he was living another life night after night. Feeling it triple really wasn't helping.
It wasn't even his, which made it all worse somehow. If it was he'd be able to explore more easily, to probe, search without being waved off (if he even got that far in broaching the subject.). At least… most of it wasn't.
There were some things that were more uncertain, more nebulous, faint snatches of… feelings and images that didn't make sense, but he somehow knew were his and he had to force himself to study them when he'd rather pull back from the sensation of being held taut, of threads wrapping around him and pulling him forward, of a darkness clouding every sense and the perpetual sense of running nowhere.
But it was Jowd. Jowd was what mattered here. If he could put the pieces together, find sense in dream logic and in Jowd's filters there were clues.
Guns and electricity. A prison cell and the roar of the ocean. A gun removed, a joke at near electrocution. An avoidance of the pier and a cat who seemed ever present with eyes that knew too much.
And now a new clue, a simple phrase that embedded itself into his mind in the earliest hours of the morning after waking up once more with a curse and worry directed Jowd's way, and try as he might to ignore it, it couldn't be chased out, like a song stuck in his head. He'd stopped trying. It was clearly important.
All at once he stood from his desk. Sometimes a direct attack was in order.
Jowd was at his desk, his mug in one hand and pen in the other.
Jowd looked up. "Procrastination or an all-nighter?"
As if he didn't already know the impossibility of the latter. Jerk.
"Nothing on my plate that will take much time." Some truth to that for now, until the briefing this afternoon at least, but it had all taken a backseat to the rather more pressing case at hand. (And why was there something… fitting… about that?)
He leaned casually against Jowd's desk. "Question for you, baby. Any ideeea what D99 might be?"
The pen slipped from his hand and his mug nearly followed as he choked into his coffee. He cleared his throat and set his mug down. "Can't say that I do," he said carefully.
"Not what your reaction is tellin' me."
Jowd smiled. "Realizing your coffee's gone cold will do that. I realize that's a foreign concept to you."
"Maybe you heard it on a radio station. All those stakeouts." He rose from his seat. "I have to go check a file."
"This ain't over," Cabanela said and his words may as well have fallen on deaf ears.
He brushed his hand against Jowd's mug. A petty satisfaction. It was still warm.
It was something of a victory, an empty point in another shut down. This had to end.
This had been a mistake, Jowd thought grimly as they searched the office under the grumpy eye of the current junkyard superintendent. He should have known better. Hadn't he learned how one small act could change so much?
This particular case had caused a lot of people a lot of grief. With the knowledge he had he thought he had found a way to ease things along without raising suspicions. Spare some pain. He never imagined that while so far he was successful in that way, a change in routes would lead to this particular junkyard.
It would have been better if he could have at least convinced Cabanela to remain behind, but he may as well have tried to drain the ocean with a straw for all the success earned.
"Not findin' much up here," Cabanela said in a low voice. "Basement?"
Jowd turned to the super. "What's down there?"
"What do you think?" the super sneered. "Junk and more junk. That's all that's in this place."
"We'd like to take a look."
"You're the ones with the warrant," he spat.
Cabanela nodded toward the basement door. Shall we?
Jowd looked curiously about as they started down the stairs. He'd only seen the office before, though by Sissel's account and Cabanela's condition there wouldn't have been much to see down below last time. He paused a few stairs down at the lack of steps behind him. When he looked back Cabanela still stood at the top, looking a million miles away.
"Cabanela? Would you prefer to stay up here?"
Cabanela blinked. "I don't think that man knooows anything, but I don't trust him."
"Trust your gut," Jowd said, but he knew that wasn't at all what had been on Cabanela's mind.
Cabanela waltzed down the steps. They entered the room and Jowd hissed through his teeth. Junk, the super had said, and he hadn't been lying. Tools and broken appliances littered the room. The table groaned under the weight of a jumbled mound of stuff, most of which Jowd couldn't make out.
"Not a tiiidy fellow, is he?" Cabanela said.
"May as well start somewhere," Jowd replied and approached the table.
His breath caught as a sudden flood of heat passed through him. A sharp spike of fear knocked his hand into one of the piles and a toolbox already precariously balanced toppled down, littering its contents in a series of clanging crashes.
The feelings abruptly cut off in a soft thump.
Jowd whirled around. "Cabanela!"
Cabanela sprawled across the floor. Jowd dropped down beside him, once again cursing himself for letting things progress this far. Pulse and breathing both present and less than a minute later Jowd sighed with relief as Cabanela's eyes opened.
His gaze wandered the room. "What happened here?"
Any concern Jowd had for Cabanela's mental state faded under the entirely focused and pointed stare he found himself under.
"A point for the great detective," Cabanela said dryly.
He tried to sit up and Jowd caught hold of him.
"Easy. Take it slow before you go out like a light again."
Cabanela slumped in Jowd's arm and Jowd tried not to notice his fingers brush over his ribs. Accident? Coincidence? He could always hope.
"What are you not tellin' me?"
Jowd smiled, feeling none of his attempted humour. "My plans to win this case?"
Cabanela looked unimpressed. "We did something. What did we do?"
"There's nothing you need to worry about."
"Everything says otherwise, baby. Getting sick of the lies."
Jowd rose, leaving Cabanela sitting. "Stay put. I'll finish off here."
Cabanela's voice was sharp behind him. "Not winnin' any points, my friend."
And Jowd knew he wasn't talking about the case.
Alma sat bolt upright. Where was she? She couldn't see. Was she really…? Her mind caught up to her frantic senses. It was only dark, it was the middle of the night and she was very clearly alive.
She jumped when Jowd's arms suddenly wrapped around her and she was pulled into a tight and close hug. She trembled against him, his heart thudding in her ears. The feeling of her own blood on her hands faded.
"Why?" she whispered. "Why would you…?" She took a deep shaky breath. "Why would you dream of sh-shooting me?" A fresh wave of trembling took her as the terrible words left her mouth.
Jowd's arms tightened even more around her. His voice was too calm, at odds with the fear rolling off him.
"Only a nightmare."
A vivid confusion. The cold feel of a gun in her… his hand. The sound of sobbing. Blood. Her own eyes wide under an echoing crack and pain, so much pain and weight. A slick warmth on his hands. Her stomach turned.
"That wasn't just… that wasn't."
"It was just a nightmare. I won't ever lose you. Not a…" His words stumbled over themselves into silence.
Alma struggled to keep her voice even. "Jowd. What are you not telling us?"
They froze when the phone rang, sounding strangely fake in its normality.
"You'd better get that," Alma finally said after the third ring. "That has to be him and before it wakes Kamila.
Jowd reached out.
"Hold it out," Alma said.
Jowd held the receiver between them. There was an unfamiliar undercurrent of panic in Cabanela's voice.
"I'm here," she said. "I'm okay."
The panic dropped and his voice grew harsh.
"Care to explain what that was, Jowd?"
"Give the man a prize," Cabanela snarled. "Now tell me why you're drowning in guilt and why I can't get the feel of her blood off my hands."
Alma opened her mouth to say… something. She wasn't sure whether she wanted to join in the attack or defend Jowd, but Cabanela wasn't finished.
"Tell me about prison cells and electricity. How about junkyards? Why don't we start with the day at the park?"
"You know all about that day," Jowd said and it would have come off mild if not so strained.
The bed dipped and there was a loud meow close at hand.
"Not now, Sissel," Alma murmured.
"And the cat!" Cabanela snapped. "I know he's somehow tied up in this too."
"There's nothing I can tell you," Jowd said.
"Can't or won't?"
"Can't," Jowd grated out. "I told you once not to worry about it."
There was a muffled thump. "I didn't used to think you could spew such a load of garbage. I've got a whole lot in my head I can't explain and I'm getting real sick of you wallowing at the centre."
"Then leave it. Not every mystery needs to be solved."
"This one does. No more hiding… D99."
Jowd went rigid.
"I'm right, aren't I?" Cabanela asked flatly.
Alma tried to think past the bitterness—so much of it, what a hollow victory—and she could no longer tell who it belonged to. She touched Jowd's arm in an attempt to stop him, but he wasn't done digging this hole just yet.
"You're better off not knowing." Jowd gave a sharp derisive laugh. "You'd be better off not knowing me."
Alma's eyes widened and she gripped Jowd's arm. Of all the stupid, blind…! She shook herself. Don't add to it. She felt like she'd choke on Jowd's tension and Cabanela's fury, already unbearable, somehow managed to reach greater heights. She expected an explosion. Even hoped for it, as though it might be a release before she screamed. Instead his voice came colder than she'd ever heard from him.
"Guess what, Jowd. That's not an option, and you're an even bigger idiot than I thought if you think I'd ever take it."
Alma's chest tightened.
"Maybe you ought—."
"Enough!" Alma cut in, her voice ringing off the walls. Don't finish that sentence, Jowd. "That's enough," she repeated quietly, as calmly as she was able. "We talk about this in the morning. When we've all had a chance to calm down and sleep."
Jowd's head bowed and he remained silent.
"We talk," Cabanela said. "All of it. I'll be there at 9." He hung up with a sharp click.
Jowd mechanically returned the receiver to its cradle and they sat in a heavy silence. Alma finally lay back after what was likely only minutes, but felt like hours.
She stared into the darkness. Jowd's tension still wrapped tightly around her. Cabanela's anger bubbled. And underneath a deep fear crawled through it all.
Exhaustion must have eventually won because she woke up to a light room, Jowd's empty half of the bed and the clock telling her it was 8:00. She wished she felt like she slept and now a knot of dread formed firmly in her stomach.
She forced herself up, washed up and got ready for the day in a daze before going downstairs. She found Jowd in the living room sitting on the couch with Kamila on his knee. Sissel perched on the couch arm beside him. She wavered on saying anything and found herself unable to. She retreated to the kitchen to engage in a debate of coffee or tea in a mindless distraction.
The agonizing wait passed in hardly any time at all and she went to the door to meet him.
Cabanela arrived at 9 on the dot. They met each other's gazes silently and she briefly wondered if the tiredness around his eyes matched her own before he swept her into a hug and pressed her close.
Jowd tensed at the sound of the door. He looked down at Kamila.
"She shouldn't have to hear this…"
"Do you remember anything from being 1?" Sissel asked.
"Sounds like an excuse to me. Give her her toys and that cat book." A slight tinge of smugness entered Sissel's voice. "She seems to really like it. Unless you want a repeat of last night?"
Jowd sighed and rose. Soon Kamila was situated on a blanket in one corner of the room, happily engaged in poking at cat pictures and Jowd made it back to the couch in time for Cabanela and Alma to enter the room.
Kamila waved a hand at Cabanela. "Co!"
The hardness in his expression faded briefly. "Mornin' kiddo." Until he took the chair, and arms crossed, pinned Jowd to the couch with a look.
"Spill it, baby. What did you do? What did we do?"
He met Cabanela's gaze—sharp, deep, intense. Rare. Why was it so familiar? Then it hit him. He had seen it once before so many years ago in the interrogation room, their final meeting before they met again under the moonlight with a gun between them.
He'd won that battle, but lost the war. In some ways it seemed history was doomed to repeat itself.
"Go on," came Sissel's voice. "There's no point hiding it now, is there?" And an underlying thought—I can always put on a show.
Alma caught Jowd's eye with a nod and wrapped her arm around his. Fear and despair once ruled this room. And now tensions clogged the air. Would it really be better for her to know she died and how?
He sighed deeply.
"You were right, Cabanela. For us, it did start in the park, though it might be more accurate to say it started a bit before that. For Sissel here, it started on a single night ten years from now."
And he plunged into the tale with prompts and nudges from Sissel as necessary. Alma and Cabanela let him speak without interruption until the end. Until the long and painful tale was finally over.
Cabanela unfolded off the chair to stand in front of Jowd. He leaned over him, resting a hand against the couch back beside his head. His eyes wandered over Jowd's face. The harsher lines had dropped away from his face and the corner of his mouth turned up.
"You really are the biiiggest idiot I have the good fortune to know, baby." His voice lowered. "Lot of mistakes made that day. I never could have imagined such consequences."
Jowd slowly shook his head. "Not only that day and they weren't all yours."
Cabanela raised an eyebrow. "Yes, you made that veeery clear."
Alma looked past Jowd to Sissel as Cabanela pulled back.
"It seems we owe you more than we could ever repay, Sissel," she said.
Sissel hopped down, padded across Jowd's legs and settled into Alma's lap.
"Oh!" she exclaimed, startled. She ran a hand through his fur. "You really are cold."
Jowd caught the concern in her voice. "He's dead. In a manner of speaking. It doesn't bother him."
Alma looked thoughtfully down at the cat. "Well, it's no wonder I never see you eat."
There was a pause before Cabanela snorted and his laughter rang clear around the room. "A speeecial cat indeed!"
He tossed himself onto the couch beside Alma, a picture of relaxation in perfect contrast to the coiled spring he'd been just minutes before.
Kamila yawned hugely from amidst her field of toys. No need to dislodge the cat and Jowd suddenly wanted to feel her close and safe. He lifted her and stood in the corner of the room while she dropped her head on his shoulder. A bubble of time just for them. He would watch her grow up all over again and this time he wouldn't miss any of it. Not for anything. And another deeply set fear started to loosen its grip.
As Jowd returned to the couch, Kamila snug in his arms, he watched the pair. It was disturbing how much better they were taking this than he'd imagined. It wasn't perfect he knew. This was only a release of tensions, a giddy relief. Hardships would still come. Difficult conversations dwelled in his future. The nightmares wouldn't suddenly end. But on this side, Jowd knew they would pull through it.
They always did.