A Friend in the Dark

An Auden & O'Callaghan Mystery: Book One

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Emporium Press

September 8, 2020

Cover art: Reese Dante

Genre: Amateur sleuth mystery, romance

At 2:45 p.m. Rufus O’Callaghan stood outside the freight entrance of 619 West Thirty-Eighth with nothing but a burner phone, a lifted pack of spearmint bubblegum, and a certain sense of dread in his gut.

At 2:46 p.m. it started to rain.

Rufus grabbed the handle of the heavy door, yanked it open, and stepped into a long, narrow hallway. The pseudoalley was like a hotbox. Dumpsters lined the right-hand side, the stink of uncollected garbage overwhelming in the late-July heat that’d been cooking New York City. To the left was an elevator, likely utilized by building staff and delivery services. The doors were caked in enough dirt and grease to leave a tag on. Water drip, drip, dripped from somewhere overhead, writing an urban symphony as it echoed against asphalt and bare brick.

Rufus pulled his phone from the pocket of his jean jacket, entered the passcode, and scrolled through a short list of text conversations. He stored no names in the address book, just memorized the necessary 212s and 917s.

619 W. 38, 7 Fl

3:00

Pickup job JB

Pocketing the burner again, Rufus approached the elevator and used his knuckle to jab the Up button.

The rain picked up, pinging off the tin roof overhead. Thunder cracked and muffled the sounds of Midtown like a television heard through the other side of a motel wall. Taxis honking, jackhammers and shouts from the construction crew across the street, dogs barking, startled pedestrians caught in the storm—they all clotted together and formed a throbbing headache at the base of Rufus’s skull.

The elevator door slid open, metal grating against metal. The fluorescent light in the car flickered wildly, which didn’t instill much confidence in routine maintenance being performed. Rufus stepped inside, once again used his knuckle to press the button for the seventh floor, then leaned back against the wall as the door groaned shut. Someone had taken a key to the metal interior at some point in the past. The word vaguely resembled FUCK. Rufus hoped the little shit hadn’t dropped out of art school to pursue a street career, because he was no Banksy, that was for certain.

Through the scratchwork and tacky residue, which was as prominent on the inside of the car as the outside, Rufus’s reflection stared back behind cheap plastic sunglasses. He was a tall kid. A skinny kid. But most importantly—not a kid. Rufus was thirty-three, but the carrottop red hair he hid under the frayed and worn slouch beanie still got him carded. At least, he figured the hair had something to do with being asked—more times than he could remember—if he was old enough to hold that bottle of gin. There had been a study published by Erasmus University in Rotterdam that suggested the mutation of the MC1R gene—responsible for his hair and self-evident nickname, Frecklesdid also contribute to the younger appearance of gingers.

The elevator lurched to a sudden stop.

Rufus straightened. He took the sunglasses off and hung them from his T-shirt collar while shifting from foot-to-foot as he waited for something to happen.

His gut was dropping the same way it had when Alex Mitchell, the thirteen-year-old bully who’d been held back a year, had called Rufus an ugly little pussy and pushed him down the stairs of PS14, causing him to break his arm. It was that same sick lurch of being airborne, of gravity taking hold, of the pop and snap of bone. But Alex had been shipped off to his grandmother’s somewhere upstate after seventh grade when Children’s Services intervened. Rufus never saw him again. So he took a deep breath and reminded himself that it was Jake who had texted him, not the ghost of a bully long since passed, and when Jake texted, Rufus came.

No matter what.

Because in this city of nearly nine million, Jake had been the only one to give Rufus the time of day in over a decade. Had been the only one who talked to Rufus like he had half a brain. And Jake had been the only one to notice that the mouthy redhead ate Maruchan ramen for dinner and that 190 calories didn’t go very far for a six-foot adult male.

The elevator door noisily opened onto the unlit seventh floor.

So if it was only Jake, and Jake was safety and security, why did Rufus feel like he was about to upchuck?

Rufus took a step forward, angled his body to be shielded by the call button panel, and peered into the dim expanse. There was a scattering of abandoned furniture—outdated office desks, a chair listing to one side on broken wheels, and a few obsolete Apple computer monitors. The floor was littered with the garbage of a hasty office move—pencils, crumpled papers, dust bunnies, a stray power strip. Rufus got down on the floor of the elevator car in order to see beneath the small gaps of erratically placed desks.

No one hiding.

He sat up on his knees.

No one waiting.

The elevator door began to close. Rufus thrust his hand out and forced it back.

Rain pelted the bay windows on the right. Gray shadows, fragmented and erratic, crept about the floor in time with the clouds rolling across the sky.

The elevator door tried to shut a second time. It let out a loud beep when Rufus blocked it. Getting to his feet, Rufus took a cautious step into the unoccupied space.

The door groaned shut behind him, leaving Rufus alone.

Except that was a problem.

Because Jake had texted him.

Where was he?

Rufus tilted his head and studied the linoleum at an angle. Whatever business had vacated the seventh floor had done so recently. There hadn’t been enough time for dust to settle and pick up any sort of shoe tread impressions after the fact. No splotches of wet either, which meant Jake had arrived before the rain.

Right?

Rufus walked on the balls of his feet toward the only visible door—back right—faintly illuminated by the overhead windows. His Chucks, so worn out, didn’t even leave a whisper in his wake. He counted the windows as he moved—one, two, three—six in total. Rufus pressed himself against the wall as he reached the far corner and studied the crack under the door.

No light.

And no living sound except the beating of his own heart in his ears, and to be honest, Rufus was only half-alive on his best days.

He felt that suspension in his gut again. That brief weightlessness and freedom again. Then the world grabbed Rufus by the throat and threw him to the asbestos-ridden linoleum of PS14 again and he was sobbing and vomiting and cradling a broken arm.

Rufus took a deep breath, wiped his palms on his jeans, then pushed down on the door handle with his knuckles. It opened noiselessly. He nudged the door with the toe of his shoe and peered into the darkness within. The initial smell to waft out was that of chemicals and waste, like sewage backing up into a safety shower. But then Rufus was hit with a stink that, once experienced, could never be mistaken for anything other than the inevitability of mortality.

Rufus’s hand shook as he felt the inside wall for a light switch. Finding it, he flicked it up.

© 2015-2020 C.S. Poe