I squatted beside one of the bodies. There was a long smear of blood beside him, like he'd tried to drag himself to cover after he was wounded, only to die here anyway. I shuddered and lifted the sheet.
My heart stopped.
"Holy--" I stared at the body, eyes wide and lungs paralyzed.
"What's wrong?" Max asked.
I lowered the sheet, but the face was still there in my mind's eye. The world spun around me, turning gray and black and white, and I grabbed a table for stability.
A hand rested on my shoulder. "Easy, man." Max kept his voice low
and even. "Breathe."
With considerable effort, I took and released a breath. Gradually, my vision cleared, but my heart still forced ice cold blood through my veins.
"Brian? What's wrong?" He glanced at the body. "You recognize him or something?"
"I..." I swallowed hard. With the sheet back over the body's face, I questioned if I'd read all the features right. Was it him? Did I recognize him?
Was that really my boyfriend lying in a pool of blood?
I gulped and pulled the sheet back once more. I held my breath to keep the nausea at bay. Dead bodies were part of the job, but this hit just a little close to home.
Focusing on his face instead of his blood-saturated shirt and mutilated throat--that must have been the wound that had halted his attempt to get to safety--I took in his all too familiar features. Dark, wavy hair. Sharp jaw. Smooth but pronounced cheekbones. His eyes were closed, thankfully. I wasn't so sure I could look at them when they were devoid of the spark of life.
One by one, the subtle differences slowly made themselves known. A faint scar above his eyebrow. A piercing in his left ear, though there was no earring in it now. A watch on his right wrist instead of his left.
The resemblance was uncanny, but it wasn't him. Thank God, it wasn't him.
Unable to pull my gaze from James's doppelganger, I said, "It's not him."
I looked at him. "James."
Max's lips parted. "He... seriously? He looks like him?"
"We have any ID on this guy?" Max called to a patrol officer.
The officer crossed the room and flipped through some notes. "Driver's license says Stephen Merrill. One of the Merrill brothers that ran the crack and heroin ring, I believe."
"Was the other brother here?" Max asked.
"One of them." The officer nodded toward the kitchen. "From what we've gathered, James escaped out the back."
My heart stopped again. "James?"
"Yeah. James Merrill."
Max looked at me. "What's James's last name?"
"Lawson," I said. The last names were different but the similarities were undeniable.
"Think they're related?"
I pulled out my cell phone and scrolled to a photo. I handed the phone to Max. "What do you think?"
Max's jaw dropped. His eyes flicked back and forth between the body and the photo. Then he closed my phone and handed it back. Keeping his voice low and discreet, he said, "Go call him again. See if you can reach him."
I nodded. "You have everything under control in here?"
"I don't think anyone's going anywhere who hasn't already." He stood. "In fact, I think I'm going to go see what I can get out of Avery. You said he's out back, right?"
"Yeah, I think he went out to the alley." I stood. "Probably having a smoke."
"Don't blame him."
"No kidding. I'll catch up with you in a minute." Guilt gnawed at me about putting personal ahead of professional, but in the back of my mind, I rationalized that this was necessary for the investigation. James was a potential witness. Or someone who could ID the body.
I was only kidding myself, though. At the moment, I was less concerned with him being a potential witness than I was worried he was a potential victim. Or, I thought with a sinking heart, a suspect. Involved in some way that could put him in danger or prison. The resemblance and names were too close to be a coincidence, though. Our relationship drama could be dealt with later. In theory, James could wait too, but I needed to know he was all right at the very least.
Standing by the bar, not far from some uniformed officers who were comparing notes about something, I speed-dialed James's number.
As they had all day long, the call immediately went to voicemail.
"This is James, sorry I'm away from my phone, but leave a message and I'll call you back." Beep.
"Hey, it's Brian," I said, almost whispering. "I need you to call me right away. It's really important." I shut my phone and slid it into my pocket, but kept a hand on it, ready to pull it back out the instant it rang. My stomach twisted and turned. I didn't care if he'd been cheating, blowing me off, playing me for an idiot. Even involved in something illegal. I just needed to know he was okay.
God, please, James. Call me.