I’m looking for dirt, and I don’t find any.

I could contact Absalom and have him deep-dive it, but the fact is, I rely on him for very specific services, the ones strictly to do with Mel and the stalker posse. If I abuse our fragile, faceless relationship, I could lose a vital resource. Checking out a neighbor probably isn’t a good use of Absalom’s time. Probably. Until I have some better reason to suspect Cade beyond my normal garden-variety paranoia, I can leave it. As long as he avoids me, I’ll avoid him.

Still, it’s a little disquieting that when I step outside my front door, I realize that I can see his front porch from here. I’ve noticed it before, of course, but when we moved in, the cabin was empty, and I’d never found anyone at home when I’d come around the lake on my runs. We’re in direct eyeline, though his cabin’s modest and tucked in among the trees by the road. I can see the glow of lights in the front windows through red curtains.

Sam Cade, like me, is a night owl.

I sit in the quiet, listening to the owls and distant rustling of the trees. The lake ripples quietly and reflects shattered moonlight. It’s beautiful.

It’s also very late, and I finish my drink and go to bed.

I take Connor to the doctor to get his x-rays. He has bruises, but nothing’s broken, and I’m supremely grateful for that. Lanny goes with us, though she’s in silent mutiny the entire time, glowering at me and anyone who gives her a second look with equal displeasure. I ask Connor again if he’ll talk about the person who hit him, but he’s a well of silence. I let it go. When he’s ready to tell me, he will. I think about making the offer to both of them for more self-defense classes; Javier does teach one at the local gym. I make sure, as we pass the gym, to mention it. Neither of them says a word.

So. It’s that kind of day.

We eat out at the local diner, which is always a treat for me because of the fluffy meringue pies that they bake fresh daily, and while we’re out, I see Javier Esparza, who comes in, slides in at a table not far away, and orders lunch. He sees me and nods, and I nod back.

“Hey, kids? I’m going to have a quick word with Mr. Esparza.”

Lanny gives me a glare. Connor frowns and says, “Don’t sign me up for anything!”

I promise not to and slide out of the booth. Javier sees me coming, and as the waitress sets down his coffee, he indicates the chair across from him. I slip into it. “Hey,” he says, then takes a sip from his cup. “What’s up? The kid okay?”

“Connor’s fine,” I tell him. “Thank you again for jumping to the rescue so quickly.”

“De nada. Glad he didn’t need it.”

“Mind if I ask you a question?”

He glances up at me and shrugs. “Shoot—wait, hang on.” The waitress is back, delivering a bowl of soup and a piece of coconut meringue. “Okay.” He waits for that last until she’s out of earshot and clearly minding her own business, and although I don’t need the caution, I appreciate it.

“You know Mr. Cade? Sam Cade?”

“Sam? Yeah. Sure. Not a bad shot, for a chair force guy.”

“Chair force?”

“I like it better than flyboy. I mean, they do most of their work sitting down.” Javier grins to show there’s no real ill will. “Cade’s all right. Why? He bothering you?”

“No, nothing like that. I just—it was odd, having him show up with Connor. I wanted to be sure . . .”

Javier takes it seriously. He thinks about it for a moment, idly spooning his soup and letting it fall back to splash in the bowl, then finally takes a mouthful as if he’s reached a decision. “Everybody I know who knows him, likes him,” he says. “Doesn’t mean he can’t be bad, you know, but my instinct says he’s okay. Why, you want me to look into it?”

“If you can.”

“Okay. One good thing about being the range master: I know damn near everybody in this town.”

Only Sam’s new to town, hadn’t he said that? He hasn’t been here all that long, and he’s planning on leaving at the end of a six-month lease. Looking back on it, that seems troubling. Like someone staying a step ahead of trouble.

Or, again, I’m just utterly, hopelessly paranoid. Why do I care? I can avoid him easily enough; I managed not to run into Cade before, and I can duck him going forward.

“He offered to do some work on my house,” I say to Javier, as some sort of excuse.

“Yeah, he’s good with that,” he says. “He put a new roof on my cabin right after he moved in. I think he used to work with his dad in construction, and the price was good. Better than I would have gotten in town, and none of the local guys can nail shingles on straight. And they can’t shoot for shit, either.”

I wasn’t trolling for a testimonial, but I got one. Well, some part of me says, quite reasonably, the roof still has to get fixed.

“Thanks,” I tell Javier. He waves his spoon at me to dismiss that.

“Us outsiders got to look out for each other,” he tells me. And I think he believes it . . . that he and I are the same kind of outsiders. We’re not, of course. But it’s a little comforting to imagine.

I leave him to his pie and go back to mine—chocolate meringue—just in time, because Lanny and Connor have started shaving bits off the side of the slice and hoping I won’t notice. They’ve already finished theirs.

“Do not touch the pie,” I tell them sternly, which gets me a shared look and eye roll. Lanny licks her fork. “That’s a crime.”

Back in the old days, I would use the words hanging offense. I wonder if they’ve ever noticed that I stopped.

I eat my pie, and we head back to Stillhouse Lake.

That afternoon, I take a short walk up the hill to the neat little rustic box of Sam Cade’s place and knock. It’s 3:00 p.m., which around the lake seems a reasonable time to come calling, and sure enough, I catch him in the cabin.

Sam seems surprised to see me, but he manages to keep it polite. He hasn’t shaved, and the golden stubble on his chin glints in the light. He’s got on a lightweight denim shirt, old jeans, and waffle-stomper boots, and he waves me inside as he heads back toward the kitchen I can clearly see over a pass-through counter. “Sorry,” he says. “Close it, will you? I’ve got pancakes to turn.”

“Pancakes?” I echo. “Seriously? At this hour?”

“Never too late or too early for pancakes. If you don’t believe that, you can turn around and go, because we are never going to be friends.”

It’s a funny, quirky thing to say, and I find myself laughing while I’m closing the door behind me. The laugh dies as I realize I’ve stepped inside a cabin with a man I hardly know, and the door is closed, and anything can happen now. Anything.

I take a quick look around. It’s small, and he doesn’t have much: a couch, an armchair, a laptop parked on a small wooden desk that fits in the corner. The laptop’s lid is up, and the display shows one of those northern lights wavy screensavers. Sam has no television that I can see, but a nice vinyl stereo setup, with an impressive record collection that must be hell to move with. Bookcases on one wall, crammed full. Not the lifestyle I’ve developed, where nothing is cherished or necessary. I get a real sense of him having . . . a life. Small, self-contained, but real and vital.

The pancakes smell delicious. I follow him into a small galley kitchen and watch as he teases one loose from the pan and flips it in the air with the showmanship and dexterity of someone who’s practiced that move a lot. It’s impressive. He puts the pan back on the gas fire and gives me an unguarded smile. “So,” he says. “You like blueberry pancakes?”

“Sure,” I say, because I do, not because of the smile. I am immune to the smile. “That offer you made about helping me out with the house?is that still on the table?”

“Absolutely. I like working with my hands, and that roof needs replacing. We can negotiate a good price.”

“If the blueberry pancakes are your negotiating move, it might not work. I ate pie today.”

“I’ll take my chances.” He watches the pancake that’s on the fire and removes it when it’s perfectly toasted. It gets added to a pile of three already done, and he hands me the plate.

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