Stay Close Page 2

Fester pointed back into the ballroom with his enormous thumb. “Kid did a great job on his haftorah portion, don’t you think?”

Ray just stared at him.

“I got a job for you tomorrow,” Fester said.

“Groovy. What is it?”

Fester looked off.

Ray didn’t like that. “Uh-oh.”

“It’s George Queller.”

“Dear God.”

“Yes. And he wants the usual.”

Ray sighed. George Queller tried to impress first dates by overwhelming and ultimately terrifying them. He would hire Celeb Experience to swarm him and his date—for example, last month it was a woman named Nancy—as they entered a small romantic bistro. Once the date was safely inside, she would be presented with—no, this was for real—a custom-made menu that would read, “George and Nancy’s First Date of Many, Many” with the address, month, day, and year printed beneath. When they left the restaurant, the paparazzi for hire would be there, snapping away and shouting at how George had turned down a weekend in Turks and Caicos with Jessica Alba for the lovely and now-terror-stricken Nancy.

George considered these romantic maneuvers a prelude to happy-ever-after. Nancy and her ilk considered these romantic maneuvers a prelude to a ball gag and secluded storage unit.

There had never been a second date for George.

Fester finally took off his sunglasses. “I want you to work lead on the job.”

“Lead paparazzo,” Ray said. “I better call my mother, so she can brag to her mahjong group.”

Fester chuckled. “I love you, you know that.”

“Are we done here?”

“We are.”

Ray packed away his camera carefully, separating the lens from the body, and threw the case over his shoulder. He limped toward the door, not from the kicks but the hunk of shrapnel in his hip—the shrapnel that started his downward slide. No, that was too simple. The shrapnel was an excuse. At one time in his miserable life, Ray had fairly limitless potential. He’d graduated from Columbia University’s School of Journalism with what one professor called “almost supernatural talent”—now being wasted—in the area of photojournalism. But in the end, that life didn’t work out for him. Some people are drawn to trouble. Some people, no matter how easy the path they are given on the walk of life, will find a way to mess it all up.

Ray Levine was one of those people.

It was dark out. Ray debated whether he should just head home and go to bed or hit a bar so seedy it was called Tetanus. Tough call when you have so many options.

He thought about the dead body again.

The visions came fast and furious now. That was understandable, he supposed. Today was the anniversary of the day it all ended, when any hope of happy-ever-after died like… Well, the obvious metaphor here would involve the visions in his head, wouldn’t it?

He frowned. Hey, Ray, melodramatic much?

He had hoped that today’s inane job would take his mind off it. It hadn’t. He remembered his own bar mitzvah, the moment on the pulpit when his father bent down and whispered in his ear. He remembered how his father had smelled of Old Spice, how his father’s hand cupped Ray’s head so gently, how his father with tears in his eyes simply said, “I love you so much.”

Ray pushed the thought away. Less painful to think about the dead body.

The valets had wanted to charge him—no professional courtesy, he guessed—so Ray had found a spot three blocks down on a side street. He made the turn, and there it was—his piece-o-crap, twelve-year-old Honda Civic with a missing bumper and duct tape holding together a side window. Ray rubbed his chin. Unshaven. Unshaven, forty years old, piece-o-crap car, a basement apartment that if heavily renovated might qualify as a crap hole, no prospects, drank too much. He would feel sorry for himself, but that would involve, well, caring.

Ray was just taking out his car key when the heavy blow landed on the back of his head.

What the…?

He dropped to one knee. The world went dark. The tingle ran up his scalp. Ray felt disoriented. He tried to shake his head, tried to clear it.

Another blow landed near his temple.

Something inside his head exploded in a flash of bright light. Ray collapsed to the ground, his body splayed out. He may have lost consciousness—he wasn’t sure—but suddenly he felt a pulling in his right shoulder. For a moment he just lay limp, not able or wanting to resist. His head reeled in agony. The primitive part of his brain, the base animal section, had gone into survivor mode. Escape more punishment, it said. Crawl into a ball and cover up.

Another hard tug nearly tore his shoulder out. The tug lessened and began to slip away, and with it, a realization made Ray’s eyes snap open.

Someone was stealing his camera.

The camera was a classic Leica with a recently updated digital-send feature. He felt his arm lift in the air, the strap running up it. In a second, no more, the camera would be gone.

Ray didn’t have much. The camera was the only possession he truly cherished. It was his livelihood, sure, but it was also the only link to old Ray, to that life he had known before the blood, and he’d be damned if he’d give that up without a fight.

Too late.

The strap was off his arm now. He wondered whether he’d have another opportunity, whether the mugger would go for the fourteen bucks in his wallet and give Ray a chance. Couldn’t wait to find out.

With his head still swimming and his knees wobbling, Ray shouted, “No!” and tried to launch himself at his attacker. He hit something—legs maybe—and tried to wrap his arms around them. He didn’t get much of a grip, but the impact was enough.

The attacker fell down. So did Ray, landing on his stomach. Ray heard the clacking of something falling and hoped like hell that he hadn’t just shattered his own camera. He tried to blink his eyes open, managed to get them into slits, and saw the camera case a few feet away. He tried to scramble toward it, but as he did, he saw two things that made his blood freeze.

The first was a baseball bat on the pavement.

The second—and more to the point—was a gloved hand picking it up.

Ray tried to look up, but it was useless. He flashed back to the summer camp his father ran when he was a kid. Dad—the campers all called him Uncle Barry—used to lead a relay race where you hold a basketball directly over your head and spin as fast as you can, staring up at the ball, and then, dizzy beyond words, you had to dribble the length of the court and put the ball in the basket. The problem was, you got so dizzy from the spinning that you’d fall one way while the ball would go the other way. That was how he felt now, as though he were tumbling to the left, while the rest of the world teetered to the right.

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