Melanie collapsed onto the the ratty old plaid couch that she and Elard rescued from a curb last year. The previous owner had dogs and you could still smell them. It reminded her of home, one of her few good memories of the place she and her brother escaped. They’d had a massive brindle pit mix who was a sweet heart in spite of Dad’s effort to turn him into a killer.
“Want a beer?” Elard fished around in their fridge, a few feet away from the couch.
“Yes. Oh good God, yes.”
He set two bottles on the counter and took out a plastic container. After dumping its contents into a pot on the stove, he twisted the caps off of the beer and brought the two labelless bottles to the living room. “Those are the last two of Donnie’s beer. He’s got another case ready for us. I’ll pick it up tomorrow.”
She took a long pull of the cold, homemade lager. The chill and bubbles burned her throat, and the bitterness made her lips pucker around the bottle neck. It cleared the saltiness of tears and snot from her throat. Her mouth popped as she released suction on the bottle. “Damn that’s good.”
Elard finished his swig. “The man knows his stuff.” He sat on the chair opposite the couch, giving her a little space. “So what’s the plan?”
“You said you could find out who got into the library’s computers?”
Elard nodded. “Maybe not who as in the name and address, but I can get some info and go from there. What are you going to do?”
She took another long pull at the beer. What could she do? “I’m just a liberal arts major in search of a degree. I don’t have your skills.”
Elard pointed his bottle neck at her. “You’re a damn fine researcher. It was what you were doing earlier tonight.”
“I could see if there are any other weird deaths in the area. I could find out whatever I could about the lady who was h- h- hurt.” She banged her knee with her free hand. “Damn it. Why didn’t I say no?”
Elard gestured around their apartment. The walls were bare except for two pieces of art made by friends. A long crack crept down one wall. The carpet was ratty and threadbare. “We live in a firetrap. We don’t even have a tv or stereo. I barely had money to buy what I needed for ballet last semester. You’re not much better off.”
“I burned a woman for rent money.”
“Damn it, woman. Stop. You didn’t burn shit. She opened a box she shouldn’t have.”
“She knew something was wrong.”
Melanie remembered the look on her face when she saw what was on the box. “She was resigned to whatever it was and she knew the ending wouldn’t be a happy one.”
“Go on.” Elard got up and moved to the kitchen. He stirred the stew and banged the spoon on the edge of the pan.
“The only thing on the label was her address. It was handwritten. It wasn’t a girl’s handwriting, or if it was it was very masculine. She recognized the handwriting. She knew her killer. Attacker. What the fuck ever.”
Elard pulled out a set of mismatched bowls and spoons. “That’s something. But nothing immediately helpful.”
“I didn’t see the contents of the firebomb, but there was liquid and glass.”
“I know someone who might be helpful there.” Elard dished the stew into the bowls and brought them into the living room. He handed her one. It was from the restaurant Elard worked at a few days a week.
“You know a bomb maker?” She took a small bite of the stew. “Fuck me that’s hot. But so good.”
“Mama G knows her way around a pot of stew. And no it’s not a fucking bomb maker. He’s a chemistry student I hung out with a lot last year. He likes to make recreational explosives.”
Melanie snorted, surprised that she could find it in her to laugh. “Recreational explosives? I didn’t know that was a thing.”
“Fireworks and that kind of thing.” He blew on the stew.
She drank a sip of beer, wanting to make the last third last. “Gotcha.” She already felt a little better about the whole thing. “Should I text this guy back?”
Elard ate a spoonful of stew and squinted. “I don’t know. That’s really iffy. We don’t want to attract a killer’s attention.”
She put the bowl down. She’d eaten half without even realizing it. “I’ve already got his attention. I wish I knew why.”
Elard shrugged. “It may not have been anything more than wrong place and wrong time. If he had that computer owned he could see who was using it. He saw what you were searching. Maybe he scanned your email and your bank account. He knew he had leverage and you had need. If you’d said no it would have been someone else.”
“What would you have said?”
“I don’t know, Mel. I mean I need the money as much as you do. I might have. I’ve done stupid things for money. Nobody alive hasn’t at some point.” He took another bite of stew. “This shit will make me think three times before I do anything stupid again. Guarantee that.”
She nodded. “Me too. So much for my future as a meth cook.” She ate the last few bites of her dinner and drank the last of the beer. With a belch that made Elard nod, she stood and stretched. “I need to see if I can get some sleep. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow. I was supposed to finish my research paper tonight so I could go to my knitting circle tomorrow. I’ve also got to go to work. I’m gonna have to miss my knitting circle and I may call in sick.”
Elard reached out his hand. Melanie took it. “You need anything, I’ll be here. I was gonna go out tonight, but I won’t be ten feet away.”
She squeezed his hand and pulled him up into a hug. They held each other for a long time. She whispered into his chest. “Thank you.”
He broke the hug. “You’re welcome. You’re my bitch. I’m gonna look out for you.”
“Bitches before riches.” They bumped fists. She walked to her bedroom and turned on the light. Her bed sat there, reminding her of nothing more than a crouching tiger. She didn’t think she’d get a wink of sleep. “You have any pills? You know for sleeping?”
Elard walked to his bedroom. After a few seconds of loud rummaging, he came into hers and sat down beside her on the bed. “You take one of these. He held out a small yellow pill. You’ll be asleep in five minutes.”
She popped the pill and reached for the half full water glass that sat by her bed. Mickey winked at her from the side of it. She took a long sip of the stale water and swallowed it and the pill. “Thanks, bitch.” She patted him on the thigh.
He got up and started to pull her door closed.
“Leave it cracked?”
She shucked out of her pants and shirt and walked to her dresser to grab a clean shirt. By the time she pulled it over her head she yawned. The pill was already kicking in. She heard Elard rummaging around in the kitchen. The noise comforted her. She crawled under the thin blanket, pulled it up around her chin, and turned off her bedside lamp.