Author's Note: It's been a while since I've come out with anything. I was struggling through a literary project that got 100,000 words in, and it completely flopped. I was then writing-impotent for several months. Inspired by something I read that I found on a bench, I broke away from my literary anxieties, and plunged into a writing frenzy. Love After Death (working title) is my first pure romance-genre novel, coincidentally peppered with elements of the detective story. I have currently completed all chapters except the last two, and am trying to fashion an ending that won't drive me nuts.

This piece would benefit heavily from your feedback, since it is my first "page-turner," or plot-driven story. Happy reading.

- The Breakdancing Ninja. July 30, 2009.


Introduction

Premium super gloss photos could not recapture Leon Corbett's myriads of thoughts, and paled in comparison to what he saw at Lebaron's Fireworks Plant. The earth was dark red and black, as if the explosion had bruised its crust, and most of the debris was confetti-sized. In mid-daylight, the scene sparkled like a holy mirage, and the tower of black smoke that rose from the plant spurted thunderous sounds, shot colored comets into the air, rained soot all over the surrounding area. She could have been in the millions of flakes that rained down. His eyes had been transfixed heavenward, even as firefighters and other personnel shoved past him and ran up the hill. He tried to count what might have been her eyes, her piano-playing hands, or her slightly large feet.

"It's like a bad Christmas," Matt Swanson said, coming around Corbett's desk. The photos were sprawled about like a gruesome collage.

Corbett tensed.

Swanson realized he had said something insensitive. Well, he didn't happen to say anything that Corbett wouldn't expect on a normal day, but for the last six months, he had been touchy. His mood swings were a storm front that Swanson learned to forecast and evade. Swanson would have recommended a counselor or even psychiatric help to diagnose the trauma, but Corbett was too proud and too quiet for any of it. Swanson sighed in defeat.

Their colleague, Kat Lauren, walked in with three cups of coffee. Her long hair was slicked back into a tight ponytail that licked her shoulder blades. Swanson looked away, suddenly remembering that he had a wife at home. Lauren carefully set the cups down on an adjacent desk, and watched the two men.

"Still haven't got any definite leads. I'm honestly sick of questioning the Lebaron's," she said, and took a sip.

Corbett leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes, giving Swanson and Lauren ample opportunity to shoot each other a look. Lauren handed Swanson a cup. The hum of the only fluorescent light by the water cooler was punctuated every now and then by speeding cars outside.

"Lebaron's brother, now I know there's got to be something with him. He hates talking to us, and he has that look," Swanson started.

"What look," Lauren asked.

"He just looks like a killer," Swanson narrowed his eyes and sipped more coffee.

Corbett stood up from his seat, and rubbed his hand all over his head. "I need a drink," he finally said.

Lauren held him out a cup. "Here. Freshly brewed."

Corbett took his jacket off his seat and slipped it on. "Call me tonight if anything surfaces. If not, I'll see you tomorrow." He gathered all his files, raked the photos into a folder, and hefted his briefcase out the door.

Lauren settled in a chair and watched the third cup steam. Swanson tried to make himself busy as he waited on a call from Norman Hollister, to see if he had any leads in Reno. He refilled the paper in the fax machine and ejected the toner from the copy machine. He shook it for a long time, and placed it back in the copy machine. Lauren liked to think that she and everyone else was working this hard simply to see Leon Corbett smile, if just once in his whole life.


Chapter One

As Corbett walked out to his car, he got an incoming call from Jim Stevens, his old neighbor. Jim wanted him to come out to the Etoile for a free dinner, and to touch base with him. On Ellen's request, he said, Corbett had to at least come out and eat a steak and lie and say he was okay. "Ellen would have gone out herself, if she weren't so intimidated by you," Jim laughed. Corbett drove over to appease Ellen. Ellen had been like a sister to his wife.

Etoile's construction had been fast and steady, completed just a short time after Maria's death, and following its completion, Jim Stevens had moved out of the neighborhood into a bigger house a couple miles away. Jim had tried to invite him to several parties over the past sixth months, but Corbett had turned down his invitations to all of them except the house warming, which was a painful affair, since no one knew exactly what to say to him concerning his wife's death, and almost everyone ended up giving him consolate looks before they turned and resumed conversation with everyone else. The only person to share, if even an ounce of his grief, was Ellen Stevens. She invited him to the porch, which was free of company. They drank their respective mixed drinks, and Ellen only spoke up once to ask if he wanted a plate of food. He had said no, and she had followed up with, "I don't even know how you've been able to stomach anything these past months," and sounded like she was going to continue, but ended up sitting in silence.

It was easy to understand why she and Maria had been close, and so Leon felt obligated to tolerate Jim for a couple of hours.

"Have a seat," Jim said.

Corbett didn't even know why people said those things, when there were two seats and both had agreed to come for dinner. He sat down and watched Jim.

He plucked up a menu, and ran a finger down his mustache. "What kind of wine do you want, old Corbett?"

"I prefer a gin and tonic."

Jim nodded. "All right. I'll order our meals."

Corbett watched Jim laugh and flirt with the waitress a little before he ordered. Once he was finished, he folded his hands quaintly on the tabletop, and gave Corbett a steady, grave look. After a period of time, he broke out into a smile, but Corbett did not return it. "Working hard?" he asked. "Any leads?" he asked.

"Yes, and no," Corbett said, and glanced out the window. Etoile's best restaurant overlooked the main strip on Las Vegas, which was teeming with cars and people. School was out and everyone was starting off their vacation unwisely.

"Nice view, huh? My friend, Jet Sanders, the guy who designed the cityscapes for a couple of other places in Tennessee, tried to imagine that everything about Las Vegas was a sick wonderland, which is why he made these gilded frames on all the windows," Jim said, indicating with his pinky, "So it would be like you were staring at a moving painting at all times."

Corbett didn't care about the artistic commentary. The design was too overwhelming. The whole hotel nauseated him.

"Ellen thinks it's tacky, but I tell her, hey, at least under all that gold paint is solid maple. You have to find something reliable about that," Jim laughed. The drinks came. They drank. He talked about how much his eldest son had hounded him for a second motorcycle after the completion of the hotel. He wanted a Ducati. Jim Stevens told a long and involved story about how he disciplined his son and eventually got him to take up an entry level job. "I've spoiled my kids too much. They don't have any shame asking for another motorcycle or a bigger television set in their rooms," he said. "At least I could count on my youngest. He does all his chores, and used to deliver newspapers until I told him not to. Even in a good area, you'll never know what type of trouble you could run into.—you look tired."

Corbett had barely touched his steak, but he was already on his fourth drink.

"Hey, if you want, I could check you into a room here. It's complimentary. Besides, you're like family," Jim said.

Corbett couldn't stand the thought of spending a night at this hotel, but the drinks were getting to his head. He would be a bad example if he got caught DUI. He nodded sickly and stood up, flinging his jacket over his shoulder.

"That's a nice tie," Jim said. "If I could, I'd steal it right off your neck."

"Maria gave me this tie for our first year anniversary," Corbett said.

Jim nodded, as if he had said "Thank you" or "Funny, Jim," and ushered Corbett out the restaurant.

-

Corbett hadn't wanted a big suite. He found that, of the nearly five thousand rooms in the Etoile's arsenal, the smaller ones were more tolerable. The lighting was warm and the beds were nicely furnished, and had bad views of the other wings of the Etoile. Jim made sure to get Corbett an outward-facing window so he could watch the city. Corbett awkwardly tried to thank him, but Jim bowed out before Corbett could say anymore. Corbett lowered his briefcase by the bed and unlaced his shoes. He thought better of it, and left his shoes on, and stood up. He watched the window and was distracted by his partial reflection. He turned off the lights, and the city jumped alive. There were times when he couldn't believe that he had lived here this long, or even that he had been born here. Perhaps, the only thing he had in common with the rest of the native Las Vegans was his craving for steak and eggs.

Drink. Another drink. He took an ice bucket and ventured into the halls, too warm and closed in for him. The ice machine on his floor was out of order. He stood in front of it blankly, his hand against the glass. "Polar ice," he read aloud. Now he really knew he was drunk. A ghost of an amused smile played over his lips as he slowly and awkwardly made his way to the elevator. The doors opened and revealed a woman in a blue outfit. She looked more like a nurse than a housekeeper. Corbett and her exchanged glances.

"Maria?" he blurted.

She opened her mouth, and the elevator dinged.

Corbett stepped out, and took a hard look at her. The doors closed. He found himself in a hallway exactly like the one he had just been in, and wondered if he had moved up a floor at all. It took him several minutes to figure out why he had even come out. He looked down at the bucket he was holding, and made his way to the ice machine. He could have sworn it was her—what did the difference in hair color matter? Those were her brown and green eyes, her pink lips, her pretty nose, that played a little bit more to the left than to the right. Ice overflowed from his cup. He leaned his head against the ice machine, allowing it to cool his forehead and his cheeks. A headache was mounting. Get a grip, Leon. You're delusional.

Corbett returned to his hotel room, unsettled by the darkness he left it in, but he didn't seek out the light switch. He clumsily poured himself a drink from the mini bar, not even caring what he was throwing back. It numbed his tongue before he could even taste it. He sat lazily on his bed like a dethroned prince, and watched the world smoothly glide by outside. A helicopter hovered over the city and alighted a hotel top as naturally as a dragonfly. Corbett drank more, and saw a flash of the housekeeper's perplexed expression before the doors closed on her. Something churned just above his small intestine. He stumbled into the bathroom.

-

He arrived at the office newly showered but looking terrible. His colleagues had gotten used to his degradation in appearance, and only thought it a shame that a healthy, good-looking man could be reduced to something pathetically worm-like. They wouldn't have known the strength he had to summon to be at the office by eight. Swanson came in.

"You're double-parked, Corbett," he said with a grin.

"I'll fix it later," Corbett said, picking up the phone. He propped the phone between his head and shoulder, and looked at the downturned picture frame on his desk. After hesitating, he lifted it, and saw Maria's small and intelligent smile, and an almost too extravagant slew of reds, browns, and purples behind her. He remembered how she said the Grand Canyon frightened her more than it delighted her, remembered how he watched her as she stared down over the railing, how he had been afraid, for what reason he wasn't sure, that she was going to straddle that rail and jump into the canyon. Maybe it was his possessive fear—Maria wasn't the type of person to take her life for granted, unlike him, she had teasingly accused every now and then.

"Hello?" the voice said a second time.

"Oh, Mrs. Harmon," Corbett said, and lifted his eyes to meet Lauren's. She looked away. "Yes—I didn't come home last night either. Can you check something for me?" he said, turning his back. He stared out the window at some pigeons touching down, and continued to speak.

Lauren had a particularly cynical and shallow view of men, considering that all her past dates and boyfriends had been horrendously stupid and gross, and she couldn't help it that Corbett's grief gave her hope or even excited her at times. Just watching him indecisively turn his photograph of his wife upward or down-facing daily sent chills over her arms. She felt horrible for even thinking these thoughts, and felt like she was doing the ghost of his wife an injustice by finding something attractive about his grief, but what else could she do? Any other woman might long for a man with a deep, emotional intelligence, and if not intelligence, just the fact that a man feels and dwells on a woman that isn't some fling or an actress. Maybe she was just starved of attention, and lived too vicariously these days. After all, it had been nearly a year since she had broken up with Salvadore and transferred to Las Vegas.

-

"So, Mrs. Harmon has been a big help to you," Lauren said inanely.

Corbett donned his shades to avoid direct sunlight. He then rolled down both windows. "She runs the place these days. Hired her back in September, when my wife went to work for the Lytie Group CPA Firm."

"Maria had only worked there for three months?" Lauren asked.

"Yes," he said, and he tensed again.

Lauren steered away from the subject. "I've had trouble contacting anyone from Lytie. They have been trying to avoid the press for months, especially concerning Lebaron's account. Today is the first time I've gotten a hold of anyone remotely important to the investigation, and this was only after a good amount of cajoling. No one wants to be involved in a homicide-suicide case, which is understandable," she said.

Corbett simply nodded. "It'll be my first time visiting her workplace."

They dropped by Corbett's house.

Lauren's eyes grew two sizes. The house was incredible.

"Wait here," he said.

Lauren continued to stare. The front lawn had limestone cut-outs in the grass, leading in a curvy pathway up to the porch steps. The pathway's lights would not be visible in early afternoon, but she could imagine their elegance at night. To think that Corbett and his wife lived in a big house like this, all to themselves. She almost disliked him because of it.

When Corbett returned with an album tucked under his arm, she wasn't sure what to think of him. Was he a cold and indifferent person, only interested in his work? Was his wife a materialistic person who wanted a big house and two cars?

"Hold this, please," he said.

Lauren ran her hand over the dyed leather. "Can I open it?" she asked.

He said nothing, and so she didn't open it. The drive to the Lytie Firm was quiet and sleek, as Corbett never liked turning on music before an interrogation. He didn't want anything but his thoughts and the wind whistling outside his window, which was, in his opinion, the truest sound of movement.