After spending several hours at the university’s library studying for my forensic psychology test next week, I drive away from the campus, anxious to get into my apartment and warm bed. Though I love the class, the amount of required reading has kept me very busy.
Thankfully, I don’t have any classes on Fridays this semester, so I can sleep in tomorrow. I’ll need the rest for Saturday’s tennis match. The new coach doesn’t believe in canceling no matter the weather. I really hope the forecast for the weekend is correct. We’re supposed to have clear skies and temperatures in the sixties. That will be a relief since this entire week has been so cold, especially today, which is the coldest.
The car is registering the outside temperature at ten degrees below freezing. It gives me a chill just looking at it.
I pull into my parking space at Mockingbird Place, my home sweet home. Bracing myself to face the cold, I open my car door and immediately smell smoke.
I look around and see where it’s coming from. Shit. It’s Eli’s apartment.
God, I hope he’s at the fire station working and not inside.
The dispatcher answers, “9-1-1. What’s your emergency?”
“I’m reporting a fire at Mockingbird Place.” I give her the address. “Unit C. I’m going to run to the door and make sure no one is inside.”
“Sir, for your safety you need to wait until the fire department gets there,” she says in a stern voice.
As I’m running, I tell her, “No way am I waiting.” At Eli’s door, I try to turn the knob. It’s locked. I pound as hard as I can. “Eli! Eli! Are you in there?”
My neighbors come out of their apartments. More smoke billows out the front window. I see that it’s broken. This could be arson. That realization multiplies my worry. Where the hell are you, Eli?
“I know I’m not supposed to hang up on you, ma’am, but I have to call my friend to make sure he’s okay.” Not waiting for her to respond, I click off of 9-1-1 and call Eli’s phone.
Sirens begin to wail in the distance.
Out of the corner of my eye I see something move. Hoping that it’s Eli, I turn and see the white stray cat that we’ve all adopted running down the sidewalk.
I knock even louder. “Eli!”
Suddenly, the door opens, releasing a massive amount of smoke. Eli rushes out with a towel around his waist and another covering his mouth.
Coughing, he puts his arms around me. “Yes, I am.”
I’m overwhelmed with relief that he is safe, but I’m feeling so much more that I can’t explain. There’s no time to sort out these thoughts right now.
Eli coughs a few more times and then his demeanor goes into fireman mode. “Jackson, we need to step away from the building. It’s too dangerous. Please help me get everyone back.” He doesn’t wait for me but begins lifting his hands and motioning everyone to the other side of the pool. Following his lead, I do the same, directing our neighbors away from the fire.
Once he’s satisfied that everyone is safely away from the blaze, I take off my coat and give it to him. Then he and I run around to the back of Mockingbird Place and meet a fire truck, an ambulance, and a police car, which are pulling into the parking lot next to our units.
The firemen jump out and get to work like a well-oiled machine, pulling out the hoses and other equipment.
Still coughing, Eli steps over to the man in charge, who is broad shouldered with salt and pepper hair.
“Grayson? What the hell are you doing here wrapped in a towel?” the man asks.
“It’s my place, Captain,” Eli chokes out. “I was in the shower when I heard glass breaking and smelled gasoline. I ran downstairs and saw my sofa and curtains go up in flames. I grabbed my fire extinguisher from under the kitchen sink and tried to put out the blaze but it was already out of control.”
“Damn arsonists. This is the fifth fire we’ve had to deal with in the past two weeks.”
I curl my hands into fists, angry about the attacks on gays that have occurred in the area. First it started out as bashing. Eleven LGBT people ended up in the hospital. After the police increased their presence down on Cedar Springs, that’s when small apartment complexes around the area, like ours, were set on fire. Although there has been no evidence connecting the bashings to the arsons, the entire community is on edge.
The captain motions to the EMTs to come over. “He’s one of ours. Inhaled some smoke. Take good care of him.” He turns to Eli. “We are getting this under control. You know the drill. Stay put.”
As the EMTs give Eli oxygen and provide him blankets, the captain and his team put out the blaze.
“I’m fine, fellas.” Eli seems far from fine to me, at least not emotionally, which is no surprise considering all he’s gone through.
Even so, he’s still the perfect example of male beauty. He’s six-foot-one, just like me. Muscles for days. Piercing blue eyes. Thick, dark hair. Just like the old cliché says—tall, dark, and handsome. He looks like a very strong, tough guy, but still, who would be fine after their home caught on fire? I hate that this has happened to him.
A little while later, the captain walks over to us. “Eli, the good news is we were able to keep the fire from spreading to your second floor. The bad news is everything in your living room is toast. And you know the kind of water damage you’re going to have to deal with.”
“Yes, sir.” He sighs. “And the smoke damage too. The adjoining unit has a couple who are expecting a baby. I’m going to need help finding them a place to stay. Lashaya can’t take a chance breathing in the residual smoke.”
“You may be jumping the gun,” I tell him. I know how terrific a guy Eli is—always concerned about everyone else more than himself. “There might not be any smoke in their place. If there is, we’ll all work on getting them settled until it’s safe for her to return to their apartment.”
He nods. “I’m just glad no one got hurt.”
“We did find the remains of what looks to be a Molotov cocktail in the middle of your apartment,” the captain says. “Before you can get inside the investigators will have to go over your place first.”
Eli closes his eyes. “Maybe they’ll find a clue to who did this.”
Of course he’s still struggling with what has happened. Who wouldn’t be?
“I’m sorry but you’re not going to be able to stay here.” The captain puts his arm around him. “You can stay at the station until this gets all sorted out. I know it might be hard to get much rest but at least you’ll have a clean bed and a shower.”
Everything inside me wants to help Eli. “Why don’t you stay with me? I have the extra bedroom now that Trace is living with Luke, Ava, and the baby. And you and I are about the same size. I have plenty of clothes you can wear.” I don’t want him to think I’m only offering as a gesture of charity, so I add, “And quite frankly, I could use the company. I’ve been a little lonely since Trace moved out.”
“Of course I am. The first thing we need to do is get you out of the cold.”
He shakes his head. “I’d rather stay here until the fire is completely out.”
Knowing I would feel the same way if it were my place on fire, I nod. “Okay. But I’m going to get something for your bare feet. I’ll be right back.”
I run into my place and up the stairs. I pull out a pair of slippers from my closet.
As I rush back to Eli, I see the fire is already under control. The captain is talking with two police officers, a male and female. I also spot Sarah and Martha, who we lovingly call S & M, giving the firemen coffee and hot chocolate.
I hand the slippers to Eli. “I hope these fit you.”
“My feet feel like icicles. Thanks, Jackson.” Putting them on, he smiles. “Perfect, buddy. Already feel better. But let me give your coat back. You must be freezing too.”
I was so concerned with getting him the slippers I didn’t think about grabbing a coat for myself. “I’m fine. Keep it, Eli.”
The captain leads the police officers to us. “This is Eli Grayson. Eli, they have a few questions they need to ask you.”
“I’m Detective Soliz,” the female officer says, and then motions to her partner. “And this is Detective Morrison.”
I recall what the outside temperature registered on my car earlier. Ten degrees below freezing. “Officers, I know you have to ask him questions but could we please go inside my place so he can warm up?” I point to my back door. “I live next door to him.”
Soliz nods. “Of course. Lead the way.”
Once we’re all settled into my apartment, I turn up the heat and put on a pot of coffee. I wish my friend Detective Derek Stone could take Eli’s statement. But Derek only works homicides.
“Mr. Grayson, I understand Captain Murphy told you about his suspicions that this could be arson,” Soliz says.
“Do you have any idea who might have done this?”
“No. I don’t have any enemies that I know of.”
Morrison asks, “Have you had an argument with anyone recently?”
Eli shrugs. “I did have an argument with my friend Scott a couple of days ago, but that’s not unusual. We’ve been arguing with each other since I kicked him out, but I’m certain Scott’s not capable of this.”
Of course the bastard is capable of this and so much more. Why can’t Eli see the guy for who he truly is?
Soliz looks directly at Eli. “What were you arguing about, Mr. Grayson?”
“Same old thing. He wants me to forgive him and take him back.”
We all know the asshole cheated on him, even if Eli has never said so. I saw Scott making out with a guy at a club when he was still living with Eli. And despite Eli breaking it off with the bastard and kicking him out, the creep somehow is able to make Eli feel sorry for him.
I bring out a tray with coffee, cups, cream, and sugar. “Officers, would you like some coffee? It’s freezing out there.”
“I sure would,” Morrison says.
Soliz smiles. “Me, too. Thank you.”
“What about you, Eli?” I ask him.
“Please. I’m still cold.”
After taking a sip of coffee, Soliz turns back to Eli. “What’s your friend’s full name, Mr. Grayson?”
“Do you have his address and phone number?” she asks.
“I do. In my cell.” Eli frowns. “Oh shit. It was on the table next to my sofa. Um…Scott lives in a condo on Cedar Springs not far from Oak Lawn. I think they’re called Whispering Pines.”
“Whispering Pines?” I’m stunned. “Those are really nice.”
“Where does Mr. Foster work?” Soliz asks Eli.
“He just started working part time at the 7-Eleven on Lemmon a couple of weeks ago.”
I wonder how in the hell his ex can afford to live in an upscale condo. Is Eli subsidizing him?
Eli takes a sip of his coffee. “But like I said before, Scott isn’t capable of such a crime.”
“But he certainly is a big jerk,” I blurt out and immediately wish I could take it back. “Sorry, Eli. You know none of us here like Scott after all he did to you.”
“What is your name?” Soliz asks me.
Damn it. I should have kept my mouth shut. “Jackson McAllen.
“What can you tell us about Mr. Foster?”
“I don’t really know him. I only saw him a few times when he and Eli were still together.”
She leans forward. “And?”
“And I don’t care for him.”
“Can you elaborate?” Morrison asks in a I-mean-business-so-don’t-try-to-bullshit-me tone.
“I’ve seen him throw a drink in Eli’s face, scream at Eli at a club, and throw Eli’s clothes in the pool.” Rage rolls up inside me. Why can’t Eli see his ex is a useless piece of shit? “Scott Foster is a total asshole.”
Soliz glances at her partner and then turns back to me. “Are you and Mr. Grayson dating now?”
“No, we are not,” Eli jumps in. “Jackson and I are only friends.”
His words sting me. “Right. Just friends.”
“I don’t understand why you’re wasting time, officers,” Eli says. “Stop trying to pin this on Scott. I told you, he’s not capable of this.”
The male officer’s eyebrows rise. “Have you heard the saying from Hamlet ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’?”
Is Morrison referring to Eli’s ex being the arsonist or that Eli and I should be together? God, I wish Eli and I could be more than friends. I like him. I like him a lot. But he and I wouldn’t work. His life is too complicated and messy for me. Blame it on my OCD. I must have things simple and orderly.