Chapter 10. Exhumed
“Let me get this straight,” I said. My hands intertwined, and I leaned forward. “You think that Jennifer is alive.”
Joey sighed. “Look, I know how it sounds. Especially when you put it like that.”
“Man, I’m not putting it like anything.” My tone sounded disbelieving, and my expression probably gave away the same thing. However, I knew that Joey was a very rational guy, but for him to think this way worried me. Things weren’t easy for Joey after Jennifer died.
“Yes, you are,” Joey argued. “You think I’m crazy.” Joey rubbed his face with his hands in agitation.
My gaze flickered to Austin and Benny. “Give us a minute.”
Austin and Benny left the study and closed the door behind them.
I walked over to the couch and sat down beside Joey. “Joey, I know you have had a tough year, okay? You’re grieving. I get it.”
“Ace, stop. I’m not five years old!” Joey snapped. Joey jumped to his feet and turned to face me. Joey clenched his hands into fists and stuffed them into the pockets of his jeans.
My gaze flickered from his fists to his eyes. “We’ve been friends for a long time, Joey and—” I stopped and sighed.
Joey stared back at me with a mix of anger and sadness.
“I just think you might not be facing the fact that she is gone,” I said.
“I didn’t see a body. None of us did. There is nobody to testify that it was Jennifer in that box. They didn’t even check by DNA,” Joey said.
“That’s because there was hardly anything left of her to do a DNA test!” I shouted. I got to my feet and closed the distance between Joey and me. Firmly, I gripped his shoulders.
Joey’s shoulders tensed under my hold. “I still feel her, Ace. I can’t explain it. You wouldn’t understand. She isn’t gone. I know she isn’t. What if whoever blew the place up took her or Andersen or both?”
I sighed and bowed my head in defeat. The argument was pointless. Joey wasn’t going to sway on this. “Please tell me you haven’t talked to Joanna about this.”
“Joanna thinks the same thing, Ace. The coroner refused to let her identify Jenny. They refused to even do an autopsy,” Joey explained. “Someone is fucking with us.”
“Wow,” I said and swallowed hard. The more Joey talked, the more I believed what he said is possible. Crazier things have happened to us.
“It’s not just that. They didn’t even get her height right. Look, can we just exhume the body? We can pay for a DNA test or something. They don’t want us to do it, but I thought if we hired an investigator and you got behind us on it, then maybe. . .” Joey trailed off.
“You think that if I get involved, they’re likely to listen to me,” I said.
Joey nodded. “Joanna thinks so too. Everyone in this fucking city knows you, Ace, and most people won’t cross you or question you. Please?”
I exhaled loudly and plopped down on the couch. “Alright, fine. We’ll do it. I really want you to think about what we’re doing, Joey. This is really serious. I don’t think you want to see what is inside that casket.”
Joey shook his head. “You’re wrong. I need to know what is in that casket. I can handle it. I have to be sure.”
A few days passed since Joey asked me to help him. We hired a private investigator. We found out that the coroners that investigated the scene weren’t on record anywhere. The person that viewed Jennifer and Andersen’s body didn’t work for the hospital. How someone could get away with such a thing was beyond me.
Depending on what we found after we exhumed Jenny’s body would depend on what happened next. It seemed like things were spinning more out of control than ever before, and we had gone through an insane amount of shit.
Clouds filled the afternoon sky, hiding the sun. Thunder rumbled through the sky. My hair clung to my forehead and the back of my neck from the humidity. The hair on my arms stood up. I wasn’t sure if it was because of what we were about to do or if it was the weather.
The casket rose out of the ground filled with dirt, grass, and vines from the dead roses thrown onto the casket months prior.
Luis looked at me and mashed his lips in a straight line. He shook his head. “This is the craziest shit that I have ever done. Burying someone is one thing, but raising them? This is a hundred percent insane.”
“You’re not kidding,” Joey muttered.
“We need to know,” Joanna said.
“They’re going to open it. Stay back,” I said to Joey and Joanna. Luis and I walked over to the casket. We figured that it was better for us to see it than for them to see it.
The investigator we hired came to stand beside us. Luis and I carefully cracked open the coffin — just enough to see the inside of it.
My heart felt like it had exploded.
Luis and I dropped the lid at the same time and stumbled backward in shock.
“I didn’t get a look,” the investigator said.
“Y-you don’t n-need to,” Luis choked.
“What is it?” Joey came up behind us.
Joanna peeked around me.
“Ace,” Joanna said.
No doubt, I looked like a deer caught in the headlights. This can’t be real. “The c-coffin—” I spluttered.
“What?” Joey and Joanna asked.
The investigator cracked open the coffin, then threw the lid wide open for everyone to see. The investigator turned to face us, and his eyes were wide. “In my thirty years, I have never—”
“It’s empty,” Joanna gasped.
Joey’s knees buckled, and he fell to the ground. Joey stared at the casket in shock. “No,” he breathed.
Joanna took the note that Joey wrote from the casket, which was the only thing inside of it.
Luis and I grabbed Joey and pulled Joey to his feet. The three of us stood over the empty coffin in shock.
“Damn, I guess we better dig up Andersen too,” Luis said and looked at me with a horrified expression.
“We have to find them, Ace,” Joey said. Joey paced back and forth in front of my desk. “We have to.”
We found that Andersen’s coffin was empty too. So, unless some whack job was robbing graves, they might not be dead.
“This has to be a fucking joke,” Austin said. Austin’s face scrunched up in disgust. “Maybe it’s a grave robber.”
Joey stopped and looked at Austin in disbelief. “Yeah, right. Who would want to take two bodies that were supposedly burned beyond recognition?”
“I’m speechless,” Benny said.
“That’s a first,” Abel muttered.
“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Tina said.
“I don’t even know what to think or say right now. We will figure this out — one step at a time. Don’t get in a rush and point fingers at the wrong people,” I said sternly. “We need to think long and hard about who might have done this. All enemies.”
Aria came into the study and stopped. “What is going on?” Aria asked.
“It’s hard to explain,” I said.
“We’ll talk more tomorrow,” Abel said. “Everyone needs to get some rest.”
“You propose that we just sleep it off?” Joey turned to Abel. “She could be anywhere!”
“Joey,” I said sternly. I stood up and walked around my desk. “You’re exhausted. You’re no good to us like this. Go home and rest. There is nothing we can do about it until Benny finds out who the hell those men were.”
Joey sighed and nodded.
Everyone left the study except for Aria and me. Aria closed the distance between us. She grabbed my face between her hands.
The action shocked me. My lips parted. “What?” I breathed.
Aria’s eyes melted into mine. “I’ve never seen so much pain in someone’s eyes. Don’t you think it’s time that you be honest with me?”
“Bebita. . .” I trailed off and placed my hand on her cheek.
Aria gasped and stumbled back. “W-what did you call me?”
I exhaled loudly. “I’m sorry. I—”
Aria turned around and dashed out of the study.
I stared after her, dumbfounded. Confusion wasn’t a strong enough word for what I felt at that moment. Damn, she didn’t even react that bad the first time I called her that.
Aria had gone to her bedroom. Angel was already sound asleep.
I, on the other hand, wasn’t close to sleep. I had bodies missing that were supposed to be dead; that might not be — a fiancé with no memory — a son with a woman that didn’t remember him or me. I had paperwork that needed to be done. Not to mention investigating that needed to be done. When the explosion happened, I thought that life couldn’t get any worse, but I stand corrected.
I owed it to Joey to find Jennifer. It felt like it was my fault. Never in my life had I carried so much weight on my shoulders. If I could save her for him, then at least I did one thing right or even Andersen for that matter. I owed it to Andersen to find out the truth. He belonged to this family.
My vision blurred as I sifted through the file that belonged to Jenny’s life. Andersen’s file was beside Jenny’s. I stared through the pictures and what clues we had — some images laid around my bed. I laid on my stomach propped on my elbows as I stared at one photo that caught my attention. The image had a clear picture of the coroner from that day.
“Who are you?” I whispered to myself.
“Who is who?”
The bed shifted under my weight as I sat up quickly. My gaze met Aria.
Aria took a step forward. I turned around and started stuffing things back into the folder.
“What is in those that you don’t want me to see, Ace? You can’t expect me to trust you if you can’t trust me, right?”
I exhaled loudly and shook my head. “That’s the same damn thing you said to me a very long time ago.”
“Like how bebita is something you said to me a long time ago,” Aria said.
My head snapped up. “What did you say? Do you remember—”
“No, no, no. Well, not exactly. I remember the first time you said it to me or sort of, I think. I had a dream about it. We were in this huge apartment. . .” Aria trailed off. “I think it was an apartment. It had these huge windows. There were city lights that could be seen. It was dark. We were smoking weed or something, I think. We kissed, and that is what you called me afterward.”
I smiled and looked down at the floor. “Yeah, that was real.” I looked back up at her. “That was the first time I ever kissed you. When we started seeing each other, that is where I lived.”
“Just hearing you call me that. It made that dream so real. At first, I wasn’t sure it was real. I didn’t want to ask. It felt so weird,” Aria said.
I scooted to the edge of the bed, grabbed her hand, and pulled her closer to me. Her hand felt warm, soft, and fragile in mine.
Aria stood between my legs and glanced down at me. Her long black hair fell over her shoulders.
Instinctively, I pushed her hair behind her ear with my fingers. I meant to keep a distance from her because I knew what I was used to and what she was used to were completely divergent.
Aria shuddered at my touch. “How is it possible?” Aria whispered and closed her eyes.
“What?” I murmured, confused.
Aria opened her eyes and stared into mine. “What I feel when I’m with you is impossible. It seems impossible. It’s familiar, but I can’t. . .” Aria trailed off. “I’m crazy.” Aria shook her head.
“I get it, but you’re not crazy. It’s still there deep inside of you, bebita. I see it every damn time I look into your eyes,” I said.
I closed my eyes, put her hand against my cheek, and inhaled the perfume that she sprayed onto her wrist. The scent was like flames that engulfed me. Her skin burned against mine. When I opened my eyes, her eyes were filled with hunger. My mouth went dry from the desperation to have her lips on mine.
Aria moved closer. Her forehead rested against mine, and she hesitated.
The last thing I wanted was for her to stall. I didn’t want her to overthink it. “Just kiss me, bebita,” I murmured.
As soon as the words fell from my mouth, her lips claimed mine. Part of me wanted to break the kiss just to make sure that we didn’t catch the room on fire, but I didn’t care enough to check.
My arms wound around her waist, and I pulled her down onto the mattress. The exhaustion I felt earlier had vanished. Thinking wasn’t an option. I had no brain activity left for that. All I could do was commit the feel of her to memory. It felt like it had been decades since I last kissed her. My mind exploded into pieces, and it wasn’t ever going to be the same.
I lost her and still won her back.
Aria’s fingers traced me as if to memorize me too. She inhaled deeply through her nose and wrapped her legs around my waist.
My fingers caressed her thigh, and a groan escaped me. My jeans tightened, and I ground my hips against hers.
Aria gasped and broke the kiss.
Damn — my first thought. Too fast — my second thought. Oh, shit — my third thought. The third thought came when Aria placed a hand on her head and whimpered in pain.
“Bebita, what is wrong?” I climbed off of her and pulled her to a sitting position. When I let go of her, she started to fall. I caught her and held onto her.
Aria squeezed her eyes closed, opened them, and blinked several times. “I remember something, I think.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I’m too tired,” she murmured.
“Okay. Come on, I’ll take you to bed,” I said.
Aria clenched onto my shirt with both fists. “No. I want to stay in here with you,” Aria mumbled.
“Um, are you sure?” I asked.
Aria rested her head against my chest and sighed contently.
I put the files back into my drawer, turned the light off, and pulled the covers back. Aria curled up onto my chest, and she was out in a matter of seconds. I wanted to stay awake to keep an eye on her to be sure she was okay. Whatever she remembered caused her a sudden headache. As much as I wanted to stay awake, the fact was impossible. I was too drained to keep my eyes open any longer.
When I woke up the following day, I was thinking clearer than I had in months. I had eight uninterrupted hours of sleep for the first time in months. Aria wasn’t in the bed beside me, and I had to find her.
I pulled the shirt over my head as I took two steps at a time down into the foyer.
“Aria’s in the study,” Ramone said.
“Thanks,” I said. I sprinted down the long hall to the study.
The door flew open in my haste to get to her, but as soon as I stepped into the study, I stopped. “Aria, what are you doing?” I asked.
Aria sat at the desk as she looked through the files that had been tucked away in my end table the night before. Aria lifted her head and narrowed her eyes at me. The blood drained from her face.
“I have a better question, Ace. What the fuck are you doing?” Aria asked. She crossed her arms over her chest and rose out of the seat.
“Um, I can explain that,” I said.
“You can explain why you’re digging up graves?” Aria snorted. “This ought to be good.”
“Bebita, it’s not like that—”
“Don’t call me that,” Aria hissed. “You have two minutes to explain this shit.” Aria held up a picture of the empty casket that belonged to Jenny.
I sighed. “The grave belongs to a friend. Your head was injured by an explosion, which is why you don’t remember. Someone brought a bomb to the door, and you answered it. It was the night before our wedding, so I wasn’t there. I can tell you that two people were killed — Joey’s girlfriend Jennifer and one of our butlers John Andersen. John isn’t just a butler. He is an old friend of your father’s. More than that, really. Your grandfather had basically adopted John Andersen. Joey had suspicions that Jenny wasn’t dead. We exhumed the bodies, but there weren’t any bodies in either casket.”
“W-what does that mean?” Aria stuttered.
“They might not be dead,” I said and shrugged.
“Why would anyone want to do such a thing?” Aria asked. Her lips parted in shock, and she covered her mouth with her hand.
“Ransom, maybe, I don’t know. I have to figure that part out,” I said.
Aria plopped down in the chair and exhaled sharply. She stared down at the files.
I walked over to the desk and put the papers back in the folders, and closed them. “Forget about this for now. I have something that I want to show you,” I said.
Aria gazed up at me. “Okay.”
Aria followed me down into the basement. Like the old mansion. The downstairs was set up like a workout center.
“What are we doing down here?” Aria asked.
“Well, we used to spend a lot of time together in the basement of your father’s old place, which was sat up just like this. I thought maybe if we tried it, it might bring more of your memory back,” I explained.
Aria’s eyes danced in amusement, and she laughed. “You’re kidding, right? We worked out together?”
“A couple of years ago, I taught you how to fight. Kind of like karate lessons, but a bit more advanced. You learned fast. It didn’t take long to teach you. I thought it might not be a bad idea to reteach you,” I explained.
“Why did you teach me to fight in the first place?” Aria asked.
“To keep you safe,” I said.
“It’s a big bad city.”
Aria pursed her lips and shook her head. “No, there is something you’re not telling me, and I won’t agree to this until you do.” Aria turned on her heel to walk away.
I caught her arm and forced her to face me. “Look, I will tell you over time. I just can’t explain it all at once. At one point in time, you knew everything and everything there was to know about me and the life we shared. There was no dishonesty or disloyalty. You have to trust that for now, and trust that I will tell you when the time is right. Can you do that?”
Aria thought about it for a long moment. “Okay, fine. I’ll give it a try.”
“Good,” I said. I grabbed a pair of boxing gloves and two pads for me to block her hits. I helped her put the gloves on, and we climbed into the boxing ring.
Aria swung at the pad that I had on my hand, but she completely missed it. She gritted her teeth and huffed in irritation.
“Stop,” I said.
Aria looked at me with irritation in her eyes.
“Close your eyes,” I said.
“What?” Aria scoffed. “How will I see?”
“Just do it,” I demanded.
Aria sighed and closed her eyes. “They’re closed,” she muttered. “Now what?”
“Just relax,” I said. “Take deep breaths. Don’t even think about it. Just do it. It’s instinctive. It’s still there, and I know it.”
Aria visibly relaxed. Her shoulders slumped slightly, and she took several deep breaths as I told her to.
“Open your eyes, bebita,” I murmured.
Aria’s blue eyes fluttered open. Her eyes pierced mine. I couldn’t describe what I saw in them, but something was there. A part of her that was buried deep inside came to the surface, and I knew from the second her eyes met mine that nothing was going to stop her or stand in her way. Whether she got her memories or not, she would come back to me eventually.
This wasn’t a part of her I had seen in a very long time. She suddenly became the weapon that I turned her into. Aria had been lethal before she lost her memory, and somehow that part of her resurfaced when she opened her eyes.