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The Beginning After by Kiersten Modglin (17)

Nineteen

PEIGHTON

“I don’t understand. Your wife was murdered?”

“Yes,” Clay said. “It was years ago, but I never stopped looking for her killer.”

“Why wouldn’t you mention that?”

“How could I? ‘Hi, I’m Clay Nealson. Your husband may have been killed by the same woman who killed my wife. No idea why. No idea how. No idea who she is’? That’s not exactly the best introduction.”

“You used me.”

“What?”

She took a step back. “How could you possibly know their deaths were related?”

“It’s a long story, Peighton, and this really isn’t the place.”

“I need to know the truth.”

“Let’s go somewhere else then. Somewhere private,” he said, standing up and pulling the keys out of his side pocket.

“How do I know I can trust you? You’ve been lying to me this whole time.”

“Because if I wanted to hurt you, I’ve had plenty of opportunities. This isn’t about you, Peighton. It never was.”

Feeling like she’d been slapped, she followed him, more out of curiosity than anything. They climbed into his truck, and he started it up. She took a deep breath, his truck smelled of copper cologne. They rode in silence, his jaw firm. She tried to watch him out of the corner of her eye, trying to decide whether she should trust him or trust her own instincts and report him. Truth be told, she couldn’t believe she’d even climbed in the car with him. Even more, she couldn’t believe she’d climbed into bed with him. She rubbed her temple, feeling a headache coming on.

When they pulled into his driveway, she gasped. “You live on my side of town?”

“Yeah, so?” He shut the truck off, shrugging his shoulders.

“You never mentioned that.”

“It didn’t come up,” he said, opening his door.

“What else are you hiding from me, Clay?”

“I wasn’t hiding it. There was no reason to tell you. It didn’t matter.” He shut the truck’s door, walking around to her side. She climbed out, following him into his home. He lived in a small brick house with green shutters. She’d seen the house dozens of times, as he resided merely three streets away from her.

He opened the front door for her, letting her walk past. She stared around the large living room. It was quaint, two oversized chairs on either side of the room and a couch in between. He had a computer desk on one wall and a flat screen TV on the other. She noticed there were a few pictures of him and a woman, she assumed his wife. She walked toward them.

“Make yourself comfortable,” he told her. “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?” she demanded suspiciously.

He didn’t answer, disappearing into a room off the kitchen. She turned, walking to the pictures on the walls. She had wondered if his wife would look familiar to her, but staring at the pictures, she was sure she hadn’t known her. She stared at the happy Clay, looking so different than the man she knew today. He had his arms wrapped around the woman, standing on a snow-covered mountain. They had skis in their hands, heavy jackets warming them. In another picture, her long brown hair blew into his face on what must have been a windy day at the beach. They were staring at each other, a beach towel shared between them.

Behind her, she heard him clear his throat. She turned around. “She was beautiful.”

“Yeah,” he said simply, “she was.”

“What was her name?”

He frowned. “Sarah.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I’m sorry for yours too.” He sat down on the couch, laying a stack of folders down. “Do you want something to drink?”

“Do I need something to drink?” she asked honestly.

“Probably,” he answered, though he made no move to get her one. Instead, she sat down beside him, staring at the papers in his hands ominously.

“Okay, what are we looking at?”

“Basically, everything I know about Beelzebub.” He opened the folder on top, holding up a single sheet of paper. “Starting with this. When my wife passed, I used some of my contacts to look up Beelzebub. I wanted to find her location through servers, but I couldn’t…she had covered her tracks well. What I did find, however, was a few other email addresses she’s been in contact with. One of those was your husband.” He laid the paper down, showing her a list with around fifteen other names on them. Todd’s name was highlighted.

“Wait, I’m sorry, how did you even know about Beelzebub? How do you know she’s the one who killed your wife?”

He sighed, rubbing his forehead. “That’s a long story.”

“Then start telling it,” she snapped.

“I’m going to,” he retorted. “What you need to understand first is that the beginning of this story is going to make me look bad. I never meant to do anything to hurt my wife. Never. But I did. And I’m probably the reason she’s dead. I have to live with that every single day. And you’re the first and only person I’ve ever told this story to, so please just hear me out before you judge me.”

“You had an affair?” she said, understanding what he was telling her.

No! Well, yes. I mean, sort of. I never meant to,” he said firmly, his eyes locked on hers. “When I first met Beelzebub, I thought she was a guy. I met her on a fantasy football website and we started chatting. It was all about football at first, cars, that sort of thing. But then she started telling me more about her. When she started hitting on me, and I realized she was a girl, I tried to break it off.”

“What do you mean?”

“I told her I was married, that I wasn’t interested in pursuing a relationship with her in that way. We had been talking for weeks and at first, I guess she was hurt because she just kept trying to talk to me. Then, one day, I didn’t hear from her. A few more days went by and I hadn’t heard from her. I just assumed she’d finally gotten the hint and moved on.”

“But I don’t understand. How does that prove that she had anything to do with your wife’s death?”

“Because that wasn’t the last time I heard from her,” he said. “The day my wife died, I got one last email from Beelzebub. All it said was ‘I’m sorry.’”

Peighton covered her mouth. “So, what did the cops say?”

“Nothing,” he said. “I never told anyone about her.”

“What? Why? They could’ve helped you catch her!” she shrieked.

“No,” he said firmly. “No, they couldn’t have. I’m the police, Peighton. They couldn’t have done anything I didn’t do. I did everything I could, and some things I shouldn’t have, to find out who Beelzebub is. I couldn’t find anything. For years, I’ve been researching and searching for her. I eventually had to accept that I wouldn’t find her. And then, your husband passed away. And I was one of the officers on scene. So, I took your husband’s laptop and I lied to you about an investigation that wasn’t happening. Yes. But I did it because it was the first chance I’d had in a year to find out more about my wife’s death and the person behind it. I couldn’t pass that up.”

“I understand,” she said, “I really do. That doesn’t make it any easier to hear, but I get it.”

“The truth is, I couldn’t admit what I’d done. It was embarrassing and awful and I’m ashamed to admit it even now. But if I could make up for it by catching her killer, I would be satisfied.”

“Okay, so what did you find out? With Todd’s computer?”

“Not a whole lot,” he said, sighing. “I found over a year’s worth of emails.” He looked at her, pausing for a second to gauge her reaction before continuing. “Not anything consistent, just a few a week, then a few a month. Sometimes daily. I think they must have been talking another way but when I looked at Todd’s phone records, there are so many calls daily…without knowing Beelzebub’s phone number, or at least location, it’s been hard to narrow it down so far.”

She bit her lip. “I can’t believe I never knew.”

He reached up, patting her shoulder. “You can’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault.”

She pulled back. “So, what were you looking for in Todd’s office?”

He shook his head. “I never meant to hurt you, Peighton.”

“What were you looking for?” she asked again, irritation in her voice.

“I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Just something to help me get more information about what went on between him and Beelzebub: maybe a phone we didn’t know about, a picture, more messages, something.”

“But you didn’t find anything?”

“No, not before you woke up.”

She stopped talking for a moment, wishing she’d gotten that drink after all. “So, you were just trying to distract me when you kissed me?” she asked finally, not able to look him in the eye.

He was silent for a moment, she could hear his breathing. Finally, he said, “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I couldn’t tell you the truth about why I was there.”

“Oh.” She forced the word out of her mouth, though she felt like all her air was gone. “Right.”

He placed a hand on her knee. “I don’t regret what we did, Peighton. In another time, in another life…I would be chasing you down. That night wouldn’t have been enough for me. Sitting here…so close to you that I can smell you and not being able to touch you…that wouldn’t be enough for me.” He pulled her chin up so that he could look her in the eye. “But in this life, this time, it has to be enough. I can’t chase you.”

She stared into his blue-green eyes, so bright she could’ve been looking into the sea. Her eyes traveled to his lips for a split-second before looking back up. “I didn’t exactly make you chase me.”

“No,” he said softly. “No, you didn’t.” Their eyes were locked together and neither spoke for what felt like an eternity. Everything seemed to stand still, the air around them growing thick, and being close to him was all she could think of. Finally, he blinked, looking away. “But you should. You should run away from me, Peighton.”

“Why?”

“Because we aren’t supposed to do this. You’re grieving and you’re vulnerable, and I took advantage of that. And, even more than that, our spouses’ deaths are linked. Everything about us is just messy.”

Before Peighton could answer, her phone began to ring in her pocket. She pulled it out, staring at the screen. “Hold on, it’s Frank.” She stood up, walking away from the couch. “Hello?”

“Peighton, is Kyle with you?”

“What do you mean is Kyle with me? Is he missing?”

He groaned. “When I woke up this morning he was gone. I thought maybe he’d gone out with his friends or something, but he isn’t answering my calls. I can’t get ahold of him.”

“How long has he been gone?” she asked, panic filling her. Clay was suddenly beside her.

“I don’t know. He was here last night. I woke up a few hours ago and he’s not here.”

“Why are you just now calling me?”

“I didn’t want to worry you for no reason. I figured he’d show up eventually, but it’s been a while. He should’ve been back by now. Or at least answered my calls.”

She was pacing the living room floor, nervously rubbing her hair. “Okay, I’m coming there right now.”

“Okay,” he said. “I’m sure it’s going to be fine, Peighton. Don’t panic yet.”

Too late. She hung up the phone quickly, rushing toward the door.

“What’s wrong?” Clay asked her.

“It’s Kyle. He’s missing,” she said without turning to face him. “I have to go to Frank’s.”

Grabbing the keys from the coffee table, he rushed out the door, taking off in a dead run to the truck. “Let’s go.”

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