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The Beginning After by Kiersten Modglin (34)

Forty

PEIGHTON

The most awkward car ride in the history of the world couldn’t hold a candle to this one. You could cut the tension with a knife as they drove in penetrating silence. Clay sat in the backseat, obvious worry on his face. She tried to catch his eye occasionally in her mirror, but his eyes were almost constantly locked on Frank.

Peighton leaned up, trying to read the upcoming street signs. “Almost there,” she announced. Thank God.

Frank nodded. “Help me look for the street.”

“It should be right up here somewhere,” she said, staring at the map. Frank had refused to let them use GPS, stating it could leave a trail back to them if things went badly here, whatever that meant.

“There,” Clay spoke up, pointing straight ahead. “I’ll bet it’s that house on the corner. Three-oh-two, right? Is that what the mailbox says?”

Peighton squinted, trying to read the distant numbers. “Yes, I think so. That white house,” she directed Frank.

They pulled onto the street and put the car in park away from the house. Climbing out of the car cautiously, they approached the house with Frank leading the way. He looked much more confident than Peighton felt.

He knocked on the glass window of the door. They waited for a few moments, staring around at each other. Finally, Frank shrugged, knocking again with more power. When he still didn’t answer, Frank put his hand over the door knob, twisting it carefully and pushing the door open slightly. “Drew?” he called into the house.

Peighton gasped as the door opened. “Frank!” she scolded him. “We can’t just walk into his house.”

“Do you want answers or not?” he demanded in a hurried whisper. He waited for her to nod apprehensively before continuing into the house. “Okay then.”

They walked into the quiet house, looking around. Peighton noticed a few pictures of Drew on the walls and mantle. This was definitely his house.

Frank held a finger to his lips, walking carefully across the living room carpet. Peighton and Clay followed close behind him, not making a sound. They walked into the dining room, a putrid smell hitting her nose. Peighton instinctively covered her nose and mouth, knowing what would be waiting for them before she saw it.

“Oh,” she winced, her knees going weak as she laid eyes on him. Drew sat at the table, his face down on the tabletop. Blood had pooled out of his arms, dripping down the table legs and puddling below him. A steak knife, hardly noticeable in all of the blood, lay on the floor. She shivered, feeling her stomach lurch. For a moment, no one moved, each processing what they were seeing.

Suddenly, Clay lurched forward, grabbing a plastic sack from the top of the refrigerator and handing it to her.

“What’s this—” she began to ask, but stopped as she realized she was going to be sick. She put her head inside of the bag, filled with embarrassment, as she emptied her stomach. She felt Clay’s hands on her head, pulling her hair back out of the way carefully.

“Shhh,” he soothed her. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Frank approach the table cautiously. She lifted her head once her stomach had calmed.

“How did you know I was going to be sick? I didn’t even know.”

“I’ve been around a lot of crime scenes,” he told her simply.

“Is he—” she asked, looking at Frank. She was unable to bring the word to her tongue.

“He’s dead,” he confirmed, his face grim.

Peighton tied up the bag with shaking hands. “What do we do?” she asked them.

“We call the police,” Clay answered swiftly, reaching for the phone on his hip.

Like lightning, Frank shot across the room, snatching his hand. “No!”

Clay jerked his hand back forcefully. “What the hell, man?”

“We aren’t calling the police.”

“What are you talking about? Of course we are. He’s dead! We can’t just leave him here and do nothing.”

“We can and we will,” Frank said vehemently. “Unless you’re going to explain to them why we are here.”

Clay paused. “Well, what are you suggesting we do then?”

“We need to leave. Make sure nothing has been moved or touched. I’ll wipe my prints off of the door. We’ll take that,” he pointed to Peighton’s bag of sick, “with us and dispose of it somewhere else. No one can know we were ever here.”

“He committed suicide, Frank. Why would it matter that we were here? We had nothing to do with this.”

“It looks suspicious. We shouldn’t be here. We have no way of explaining why we were here without making ourselves look guilty.”

Clay nodded, pointing past Drew’s body. “What’s that?”

Their eyes followed his finger, staring toward the far end of the table. A white envelope lay there, scribbled print across the front.

To whoever finds this.

No one made a move at first, each frozen, wondering what the letter might contain. Finally, Clay walked forward, stepping over the puddled blood. He reached for the envelope.

“Wait,” Frank stopped him, holding out a hand. “Here.” He held out a pair of leather gloves. “Fingerprints,” he cautioned.

Clay took the gloves. “This feels weird. I don’t like trying to hide that we were here. I’m a cop, you know,” he said to no one in particular. He carefully opened the envelope, his eyes skimming over the page before he gulped, looking up. “It’s a suicide note,” he confirmed what they already knew.

He read aloud, “To whoever finds this, to whoever finds me: I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything. They didn’t have to die. That was on me. I couldn’t live with myself and all that I’ve done wrong any longer. I couldn’t live with the guilt of knowing I’ve killed my best friend—a man that I loved. If you’re reading this, please let them know how sorry I am. I’d take it all back in a second if I could.” He looked up. “That’s all it says.”

Peighton covered her mouth. “So, it’s really true? It was really Drew all along? He killed Todd? And Sarah? He was right under our nose this whole time.”

“That’s how it sounds,” Frank said, his jaw tight. “He’d better be glad he’s dead.” His fists were clenched at his sides. Peighton could practically smell the anger resonating from him.

“Frank,” she said, shocked by his harsh words. “Don’t.”

“Don’t defend him, Peighton,” he warned her. “Don’t you dare defend this coward. Don’t you realize what he’s done?”

She walked toward him, touching his arm softly. He jumped at her touch, lost in his own world. “I know what he’s done,” she told him. “Frank, I do. I don’t understand it. I’m hurt by it. I hate him for it. But we have our answers. And right now, we just have to focus on that. We need to leave. You were right. We shouldn’t be here.”

Frank nodded, though his eyes never left Drew’s lifeless body. Clay placed the letter back in the envelope and laid it down.

“Let’s go,” Frank agreed with her finally.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t call someone?” Clay asked.

She shook her head. “We’ve done nothing wrong. We’re leaving him for someone else to find. There’s nothing that can be solved by us calling the police now. He can’t be saved.” She was surprised by the calm in her voice, the polar opposite of the storm brewing inside of her. Following her lead, the men walked out of the dining room and then out of the house. Frank stopped at the door cautiously, wiping off the metal of the door knob where his hands had been. They looked around, checking to make sure no one had seen them. Quickly, they disappeared down the driveway and to the car. The actions felt foreign to each of them: the Senator’s perfect wife, the cop, and the security expert. They’d never had to hide like criminals, and yet that’s exactly what they were doing. They climbed into Frank’s car, not speaking.

After they’d driven a few blocks, Clay spoke up. “It could be days until someone finds him. Weeks even.”

“He could’ve been there for days already,” Frank said.

“No,” Clay corrected him. “Did you see the blisters on his skin? He was solid as a rock. He’d reached maximum rigor mortis. He’d been dead less than twenty-four hours, I’d say. Maybe less than twelve.”

Peighton shivered. “No one breathe a word of this to Kyle. I don’t want him to know anything about this.”

They nodded in agreement. “No one needs to know we were here, besides the three of us,” Frank told them.

“I owe you an apology,” Clay’s voice carried to the front of the car. Peighton turned to look at him. His eyes were locked with Frank’s in the rearview mirror. Frank dismissed him, waving his hand.

“Nah, you’re cool, dude.”

“No,” Clay said. “I thought you were behind all of this. When I found your card in my wife’s wallet, I thought for sure I had it all figured out. I was wrong and I’m sorry.”

Frank held his arm up over his shoulder, shaking Clay’s hand in the backseat. “We’re okay, but I appreciate you saying that. I’m not going to lie, I thought you were behind it all for a while there too.”

Clay laughed. “What?”

“Yeah, I even had you tailed at one point,” Frank admitted.

“Why?”

“I wanted to protect her,” he said, looking at Peighton. He reached over and squeezed her hand quickly before pulling his gaze away.

“You and me both,” Clay agreed.

Frank sighed. “I did know your wife, by the way. Sarah Williams.”

Clay and Peighton gasped in unison.

“I didn’t want to tell you because I have agreements with my clients and I never break my agreements. Plus, you were really pissing me off.”

“How did you know her?” he asked.

“We worked together for a short time. I was sorry to hear about her passing.”

“What did you work together on?”

Frank sighed, rubbing his chin. “She thought you were cheating on her. She hired me to investigate.” He glanced up, meeting his eyes in the mirror. “I didn’t find anything.”

He wiped his eye, though Peighton saw no tears. “I would never.”

“Anyway, I’m sorry I lied. I didn’t know her well and to be honest, Sarah Nealson didn’t ring any bells at first. She’d always introduced herself as Sarah Williams. Once I realized who you were talking about, we were too far into the argument for me to admit I knew her.”

“Did you get to tell her I wasn’t cheating? Before she died?”

“Yes,” Frank said, “she knew.”

Clay nodded. That seemed to give him some peace.

“We’re in this together now, guys,” Peighton said. “We’re the only ones who know the secrets. All of them: Todd’s, Drew’s, mine, Kyle’s, yours, and yours.” She pointed to each of them. “It’s just us now.”

“Yep,” Frank teased, “and just like Mary-Kate and Ashley, my lips are sealed.”

Peighton laughed, despite the feeling of complete devastation, fear, and confusion in the pit of her stomach, she’d never felt so safe. Surrounded by the men she loved and who loved her, she was home.