Black Wren Road

by Chris J

Chris had started with only six places on his list, and he'd already scratched off five of them for being unlivable. He could only hope the sixth would be better than the dank pit they'd just come from.

"It should be right around this corner," he told Joey, waving his hand-drawn map in the right general direction. "If this one doesn't work out, I'm gonna be sleeping in a cardboard box."

"Hey, you know you're welcome in our spare room any time," Joey reminded him, taking the corner slowly as he peered at reflection in the rear-view mirror and rearranged his red-tipped hair. As though he needed to be presentable, and not just Chris.

"The cardboard box would be more comfortable."

Chris watched the house numbers go by -- forty-five, forty-nine, fifty-five -- huge houses bigger than anything Chris could ever dream of living in. Growing up, just having reliable heat had been a luxury. His dorm room during his undergrad days had been palatial.

Of course, he wasn't an undergrad anymore, and he was half a country away from his family and his childhood, and he was on his own to find a place to call home. Thank goodness he had Joey to cart him around on his search, and put him up for a few days until he found one. It was one part good fortune and three parts good planning that his first choice school for graduate studies was the same school his old friend attended.

"Are you casting aspersions on my--"

"Oh my god," Chris interrupted him, arm snapping out to turn the stereo down. Raine Maida's voice faded to a whisper. "Is that it?"

Number seventy-seven Black Wren Road was a stately house, big and white and with blue-shuttered windows and a slightly overgrown lawn -- the 'gardener had the week off' look, not the 'crazed maniacs live here' look, thankfully.

"Nice," murmured Joey appreciatively, pulling into the gravel lane. "Wish I'd known about this place when we were apartment hunting last year."

"There must be some mistake," said Chris, shaking his head as they got close. "I don't care if this place has been cut up into apartments, it's still way out of my price range."

"Well, you've already set up a meeting with the property manager," said Joey, pulling up in front of the more-recently-constructed garage, "and there she is, so you can't get out of it. At least we'll get to get a look at the place, even if there was a zero missing off that price in the listing."

He was right that they couldn't really get out of it now, not without just jamming the car in reverse and fleeing, and what would be the point of that? Chris had spent his whole life seeing things he couldn't have. One more wasn't going to kill him. They got out of the car and Chris straightened his shirt and convinced himself to just have fun.

"Good afternoon. Mr. Kirkpatrick?" The woman was holding out her hand to Joey, who quickly redirected her toward Chris. "Mr. Kirkpatrick. Hello."

"Chris," he corrected her awkwardly. He's been Mr. Kirkpatricked enough lately, between meetings and registration and interviews. "I hope we're not late. We weren't sure we had the right place."

"No, no," she assured him with a plastic smile. "You're right on time, I only just arrived myself." She pulled a set of keys out of her purse and dangled them in front of him. "Shall we?"

Chris never really trusted people who smiled for no reason, but Joey elbowed him in the side and so he smiled back. He knew he was always pulling something when he smiled like that, and why shouldn't everyone else be the same?

"It's just a one-bedroom," she told them, leading them around a stone walk to the back of the house. "Perhaps the ad didn't specify that. Is that what you're looking for?" She looked back at them, smile on her face and question in her eyes.

Joey coughed politely, ducking his head, but Chris just smirked at her. "It's what I'm looking for," he said firmly, giving nothing away. What business was it of hers, anyway? "I understand it's spacious?"

"Oh yes," she said, leading them up a set of stairs, then fumbling with the keys on the landing. "Quite spacious, with large windows and hardwood floors. The floors are a little worn, naturally, but that's part of the charm."

The last place Chris had looked at, they'd said that the missing knobs on all the cupboards and the cracked and torn linoleum were 'part of the charm'. But then she opened the door and turned on the lights and the apartment was just what she promised it would be -- charming.

"Wow," said Joey, pushing right past Chris to get inside. "This is really some place, ma'am."

She threw the curtains open and turned back to look at them smugly. She knew how good the place was; it practically sold itself. A large living area with, yes, lovingly worn floors, led into an almost equally large kitchen with a huge center island. The appliances were outdated, but obviously well kept.

"Do you mind if we look around?" he asked, grabbing Joey's sleeve.

"Of course not," she said, waving a hand at them breezily. "Take your time. Let me know if you have any questions."

"I don't care what it costs," Joey muttered at him as Chris explored the bedroom. "You have to take this place. Think of the parties you could hold in here!"

Chris had only really known Joey over the previous four summers, working in the same revue at the same amusement park. He had been quite the partier, but then so had Chris. Chris hoped he wasn't quite as much of one when classes were in session.

"Okay, just two problems with that," he said, rolling his eyes at him as he opened the closet. He didn't even own enough stuff to fill it. "First, I've never actually thrown a party in my life. And second, I'd have to sell my soul to be able to afford it. Look at this place!"

"I have been," Joey assured him. "Believe me. I want this place so much it's making me hard."

"Thanks for the mental image," snorted Chris, wandering out of the bedroom and finding the bathroom. Same outdated appliances as the kitchen, in the mustard colour Chris remembered well from his childhood, but the water ran clear and nothing looked grimy or rusted.

"If you don't want it, I'm sure we can find someone who does."

"Hush, Joseph," said Chris, holding a hand up to him and sighing. "It's perfect. Time to fess up, though."

Joey actually hushed as Chris led them back into the central room, where the manager was still standing, staring out the window into the wooded yard. "It's wonderful," he told her.

She turned around, same smile still on her face. "So you're interested?"

Chris sighed again and shook his head. "It's wonderful, but there's no way I can afford this place. I think there's a misprint in your ad; I only came because I thought it was in my price range."

"Oh, there's no misprint," she said, nodding like she heard that a lot. Chris could imagine she did, if she was serious about that. "That's the going price for the place, plus utilities of course."

Chris stared at her for a moment while Joey made strangled noises next to him. "Either you're joking," he said finally, "or there's a catch. A big one."

"Oh no, no catch," she said quickly. But Chris clearly wasn't buying it, so she went on. "The owner, she's not interested in making a lot of money off the property She considers this home a piece of history, and prefers to rent to people who will appreciate that. You mentioned on the phone you were a grad student in American history...?"

Chris nodded numbly while Joey muttered, "You are the luckiest bastard I know, Kirkpatrick."

Chris had never been lucky before.

"Well, then," she said, sounding satisfied. "I do have someone else looking at the place tomorrow, so if you're interested..."

"I'll take it," Chris interrupted her.

* * *

"So you're the new guy."

Chris looked up from where he was locking his bike to the fence that formed the western boundary of the property. "I s'pose I am," he said warily.

It had been a week, but to any of the other tenants he figured that must still be pretty new. It was an innocent enough statement, then, but the man standing in front of Chris looked either smug or amused or both, and Chris didn't like any of those options.

"How's that working out for you?"

Chris clicked the lock into place and tugged it to be sure it held, then stood up, sweeping an errant dreadlock off his face.

The guy was at least a head taller than him, but then, most people were. But not everyone had spiked, streaky blond hair, designer clothes, and a faint, undefined accent that screamed 'overseas prep school'. This kid could probably blow more money in a week than Chris made in a year.

"It's working out like an apartment," he said, frowning. "What kind of question is that?"

"Just a question," he said, voice and expression full of feigned innocence. "I make it a point to welcome the new guys."

"There a lot of us?"

"In that apartment?" he said, gesturing vaguely at the second floor of the place. At Chris's place. "Every couple months someone new moves in. I figure if I don't say something quick, you'll be gone before I get the chance."

So much for no catches. "Every couple of months? Why?"

"Don't really know," he admitted. "You'll have to let us know before you move out, though, the rest of us are curious as hell. Rumour has it it's rats."

Lovely. "If it's rats," said Chris calmly, "I'll get out my hatchet and chop them to bloody rat bits and cook them for dinner." The man lifted an eyebrow. "I am not giving up this apartment."

"I've heard that before," he murmured. "Well then. I'm Wade. I guess I'll be seeing you around... at least for a little while."

Chris grudgingly took his offered hand and shook it. "Chris," he offered in return. "You'll be seeing me around for a long time." Then he turned and stalked around the house, and up the stairs to his new home.

* * *

"Loser!" Chris dropped a heavy book on the table in front of Joey's face, startling him into looking up. "What are you doing cooped up in a library at eight at night when you have a hot boyfriend to go home to?"

Joey grinned at him and kicked out a chair for Chris to sit in. "How would I get any work done with a hot boyfriend around?" he asked him. "Besides. The garage is open until nine tonight. He won't get off for another hour."

"A likely story," said Chris, sliding into the chair. "You're meeting someone on the sly, aren't you? You can tell old Chris..." Joey flushed and stared down at his hands. "Oh shit Fatone, I was joking!"

Joey shook his head and ran a shaky hand through his hair. "I'm not, I'm not," he assured Chris quickly. "I just... I think maybe he..."

"What, because he works late?" said Chris, shaking Joey's forearm. "God help me if my girlfriend thought that every time I had a midnight shift."

"She did dump you," Joey reminded him, a tiny little stab to Chris's heart. "And that's not it. I just got a feeling about it. Anyway, that's got nothing to do with today. He's picking me up at nine, a little after maybe, so I'm stuck here till then."

"And lucky you, you're stuck here with me," said Chris, setting down the other two books he'd picked up more gently than the first. "I met with my advisor yesterday but I still don't know what direction I want to take this in. Prepare to hear me whine about it for the next month or so."

"You don't have to know yet, do you? I swear you've gone through a dozen topics this summer so far."

"The sooner the better," muttered Chris, flipping past plate after plate, barely paying attention to any of them. Hoping something would catch his eye, spark his interest more than anything else. "Coursework just kills time."

Joey snorted. "I'm sure you won't be sharing that sentiment with the head of the department."

"I'm not sure he'd care what I have to say," said Chris, closing the book again, then his eyes. "Hell, he'd probably even agree with me. You can take all the courses in the world, but if you don't know where you want to go with it, you won't get anywhere."

"Wise, if a little strange," said Joey. Chris could hear pen scratching on paper, Joey making hieroglyphics on the page. Years from now, someone would unearth Joey's notebooks and wonder what the hell language he was writing in; good thing only Joey needed to read it.

"Tell me I don't suck."

"You don't suck, you fucking overachiever! We're two days into the semester, I think you can cut yourself a little slack."

Chris never cut himself any slack when someone else was paying his way. No matter where the money was coming from -- scholarship, fellowship or plain old wages -- he needed to believe he was earning it. "I didn't pick up and move across the country just to hang out with you," he said. "You're just not that pretty."

"That's not what AJ says."

"There's no way in hell that AJ calls you pretty," scoffed Chris. His own eyes followed a curvaceous blonde as she wove her way past their table and into the stacks. But they were back on Joey soon enough. "Hot, maybe. Sexy motherfucker, probably. But not pretty."

"Yeah, well, he doesn't call me much of anything lately," muttered Joey, dropping his head again. "Don't be surprised if I show up at that swanky new place of yours to sleep on your couch one of these days."

"Oh, don't be so melodramatic," said Chris. "I'm sure everything's fine. Besides, I don't have a couch, though you're welcome to sleep on the throw rug any time you like."

"It's offers like that that make me thankful we have a spare room," said Joey.

Joey really wasn't one to be melodramatic or suspicious, though. If he thought something was up then maybe something was up. Chris just hoped it wasn't what Joey was thinking it was. Chris liked AJ fine, though he liked Joey more, and he would hate for the only two people he really knew in this city to have their relationship fall apart.

"Well, you know I got the space, even if the neighbors are freaks," Chris said, giving him a firm smile. One that said he really did think everything would work out fine. "You know you're welcome, any time."

Joey just grunted his approval or thanks or something, and turned back to his work.

* * *

Chris woke suddenly and completely, flat on his back on his bed, staring at the ceiling of the dark room. His heart wasn't racing, he didn't remember any dreams, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Except that one moment he'd been fast asleep and the next moment he wasn't.

He turned his head, and the luminescent hands on his clock told him it was three-thirty-seven in the morning, give or take a few minutes because Chris had never been too fussy about getting the time exactly right. When he turned back to stare at the ceiling again, he first heard the sound.

It's an old house, he thought, things are bound to creak from time to time. But that excuse only held for as long as it took the creaking to settle into distinct footprints. The only thing that kept Chris from freaking out entirely was the fact that the steps were moving away from the bedroom and not towards it.

About thirty seconds after he stopped hearing them, Chris grabbed the nearest solid thing that came to hand -- a five-pound weight that had rolled half under the bed -- and crept to the door to catch the intruder red-handed.

But there was no one there.

Chris searched the whole apartment, turning every single light on as he went, but he couldn't find any sign that anyone other than himself had been in there. The door was still locked and chained. The windows still latched tight.

It was a long time before Chris fell asleep again. And he left all the lights on.

* * *

In the light of day, it didn't really seem worthwhile to mention the intruder to Joey when they met at Java Jungle after class. Besides, he was too busy complaining about the depths of dullness of Historical Method.

"It's kid stuff," he said, tapping his fingers on the edge of the table to the beat of Africa, playing faintly in the background. "I knew this when I was a freshman. Before I was a freshman. I knew this stuff in the womb."

"Yes, yes, I know, you're the brilliant Chris Kirkpatrick," said Joey. "You don't need no stinking classes."

"...Hurry boy, it's waiting there for you..."

"Chris!" laughed Joey. "You're so not listening to me."

"What? It's a good song," Chris protested, grinning back. "I can still listen to you. I can walk and chew gum at the same time, too. I'm multitalented."

"The first few classes are always review," Joey said, leaning towards him earnestly. "It was true in first grade and it's true now. They lull you into a false sense of security and then blammo, they hit you with the tough stuff."


"Blammo!" said Joey, complete with expansive arm gesture. "I would think a person of your advanced years would be familiar with the phenomenon. At least it's better than the kidlets you get to TA next semester."

"Advanced years?" sputtered Chris. "I should smite you for that, Fatone. In fact, I think I will smite you for that." He picked up his empty cup and tapped Joey on the forehead with it. "Consider yourself smitten."

"No smiting the hair!" said Joey, immediately looking at his reflection in the glossy tabletop and trying to fix it. "AJ and I are going out tonight."

"Yeah?" said Chris, resisting the urge to mess his hair up again. Barely. "Things are good then? No more worrying?"

"Yeah," said Joey, continuing to fuss. "Nothing's changed. So yeah."

Chris wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but a moment later Joey got up to get Chris another cup of coffee, so he didn't ask.

* * *

He saw Wade again one mid-morning when he was leaving for the university. He'd met -- or at least seen -- a couple of the other tenants by then, but Wade was the only one who showed any interest in saying more than two words to him. The others acted like Chris was beneath their notice. At least Chris was used to that. It wasn't hard to figure out that his own apartment was priced much, much lower than the others. Benevolent owner, his ass.

Wade standing on the front walk, his arms around a pretty, solid blonde girl. Chris gave him a wave and, when Wade waved back, he took that as an invitation to go over and talk to him.

"Hey," he said, shoving on hand in his pocket, then added a little 'hey' for Wade's girl, too. "Got a minute?"

Wade sized him up, then nodded. "Yeah, sure. Brit honey, you want to wait in the car for me?" She went up on tiptoes to kiss his neck then gave Chris a small smile before slinking off to Wade's silver Beemer. "What's up?"

"You know who has master keys for all the apartments in here?"

Wade frowned at him, but his eyes were curious. "Just Miss Wright. And the owner too, I suppose, but I've never even met her."

"Uh huh," mused Chris. The memory of his intruder still nagged at him. "I don't suppose you know how a person might open up the chain on a door, get inside, then chain it up again before leaving?"

Wade looked startled, then amused. "Despite my misspent youth," he said, "I don't know any way to get through the chain on a door except to tear the lock plate off. Why? Having a little... rat problem?"

"Something like that," said Chris, eyeing him suspiciously. "Thanks, man, I'll see you around." Wade just waved at him breezily before joining Brit in his car and squealing away.

Chris unlocked his bike and slapped on his walkman and started the twenty minute ride to the school, and tried not to think about it too much. He probably just wasn't used to being alone in a place. Four years in a dorm and before that eighteen in a home with loud siblings. His mind was probably just manufacturing company for him.

His meeting with Dr. Pearlman was scheduled for eleven, but in the short time Chris had known him, Lee had always been running just a little late. Chris liked that in a man. It meant he never really noticed how late Chris was when he finally made it up to Lee's office and jammed his walkman back in his bag and knocked on the door.

"Mr. Kirkpatrick," said Lee, with a smirk on his face that said he knew exactly how Chris felt about being called that and was doing it anyway. Chris wasn't sure he appreciated that as much as the tardiness, but at least his advisor didn't have a huge stick up his ass. He could've done a lot worse.

"Mister Pearlman," he echoed back to him, letting the student -- undergrad, clearly -- who'd been in Lee's office slip by them and scurry to the elevators. "Thanks for making time, man. Email can only sort me out so far."

"I'm a face-to-face man myself," he confessed, letting Chris inside and closing the door after. The office was full of comfortable clutter. "Though email's a handy gadget, to be sure. Especially for my seminar students who now choose to email in sick rather than give me a call."

"Oh, but it's just not the same without the fake cough to go with it," protested Chris, affecting one on the spot then giving Lee a grin. "Can't fool me, though, I'm the master."

"I'm sure legions of freshmen are dreading getting you for a TA," agreed Lee. "You'd probably make them show up for class if they had cholera."

"Hey, I'm fair," protested Chris. "As long as they had a doctor's note, we'd have no problems. And speaking of problems..."

"Right," said Lee, taking off his glasses and cleaning them with the hem of shirt. "What can I help you with, Chris."

"I have a great idea," said Chris, slapping both hands on the desk. "You tell me what to write, and I'll do it. I'll do a fantastic job, I swear."

"I'm sure you would have passed my intro course with flying colours, Chris," said Lee, sliding his glasses back on and suddenly looking very serious. "However, you're a bit past that now, don't you think?"

Chris screwed up his nose and sighed. "I had a Plan this summer," he said finally, when it was clear to him that Lee was going to sit in silence and wait. "I was going to show up on the first day and already know exactly what I wanted to do for my thesis. I was going to have a partial bibliography and be completely ready to get to work on it."

"Yes, well, welcome to the real world."

Now that, Chris thought, was unfair. One look at his undergrad transcripts would have shown that it was something that had always worked for Chris before. He knew how to work for what he wanted, and he'd always known what he wanted.

"Listen, I think you're just putting too much pressure on yourself," said Lee. "Do you have anything to show me right now?" He clearly knew that Chris didn't.

"Just pages of ideas," he admitted. Pages and pages of notes scrawled down in the heat of the moment, every time he was sure he had picked a topic. First it was the west coast jazz scene, then the evolution of dance music, then pianists of the twenties. All of those far too broad, of course, but all of them able to be narrowed down as he progressed. If he ever did make any progress before moving on to the next big idea that fired him up.

"Pages of ideas are great," Lee said. "Having too many ideas is a lot better than having none at all. For now, just focus on getting through the coursework, and you'll stumble across what you really want to do. Trust me on this."

Chris had to; there wasn't much other choice. But he didn't think he could stop pushing himself on it, it just wasn't in his blood not to be driven. "Let's just hope it's not, like, the suffrage movement or something."

Lee laughed, and looked genuinely cheered the Chris seemed to be heeding his advice. "Well yes, it would be nice if you didn't drift too far afield of my area of specialty or you'll probably have to find yourself a new advisor."

"God forbid," said Chris, grabbing his bag off the floor and standing up again. "Well thanks, Dr. Pearlman, I'll keep that in mind."

At least today he didn't need to worry about either his coursework or his thesis topic. What he really wanted to research, more than anything else, was just who owned the house he was living in, and who might have been his mystery intruder.

Assuming it hadn't been his imagination of course. But Chris was having a harder and harder time believe that it had.

* * *

AJ was a great cook, and in the four summers that Joey and Chris had worked together, Chris had been over to their place a number of times for food. Despite his little gut -- which Chris preferred to think of as protection from the coming winter -- somehow the two of them were convinced he never ate enough.

"So Joey told me about Danielle," said AJ, serving Chris up a huge helping of lasagna. More than Chris thought he could possibly eat, though he knew he would. "I was sorry to hear that. I know how much you liked her. You should've said something sooner, Chris."

Chris shrugged, and the sting of it all was less than he'd expected. "It was bound to happen," he said. "It was one thing to wait for me when I went away to work every summer. It's another to have me move away for at least a couple years. It just wasn't worth bringing up."

"She didn't want to move here with you?" A generous helping of salad followed the lasagna. Chris almost dreaded seeing the portion sizes of the bread.

"She's still working on her MBA," said Chris, dousing the whole lot in pepper. "It just wouldn't have worked; we've both known that for a while, for the last year at least, since I started looking at schools. After this summer we just finally said it out loud."

"I told him that," said Joey, mouth already half full. A spray of crumbs hit the table, which he discreetly swept away with his sleeve. He swallowed before continuing. "Didn't I tell you, AJ?"

"Yeah, but you don't get to speak for him," said AJ, setting a big bowl of bread in the centre of the table and finally sitting down. "You're doing all right, Chris?"

"I'm good," Chris assured him. "Really, it's no big thing. We had a good run and it's over and it's not like we're not speaking anymore. Thanks for worrying, but it's all good."

"And being single's not necessarily a bad thing," added Joey, giving him a wink. "Oh! That reminds me. I met the sweetest girl in class today. I got her number for you, lemme get a pen..."

"Joey, can't you just sit your ass down and eat?" asked AJ.

"This won't take a second, Aje. Chris, got a pen? Before I forget, and you know I will..."

"In my bag," Chris told him, keeping his ass in his chair before he, too, risked the wrath of AJ. "I left it by the door."

Joey leapt up from the table, wiping his mouth on a paper napkin, and rummaged around in Chris's bag. "What's this?" he asked, carrying the whole thing back with him to the table. He held a sheaf of papers that Chris had photocopied at the city archives. "Housing records, Chris? This is a whole new direction for you..."

"It's just a personal project," said Chris, snatching the papers back, careful not to tear them. "You know me."

"Is this about your new apartment?"

"Do I have any other reason to be looking up property records in this city?"

"With you?" said Joey, "You never really know. You can't just leave well enough alone, man? It's not too good to be true, Chris, you really do have a fantastic apartment."

"Joseph, sit your ass down and eat your dinner!"

Joey found the pen and jotted down the number for Chris, tucking both back into a side pocket. "Coming, coming," he said. "I just didn't want to forget, Aje! You know how I forget stuff."

"Yeah, I know how you forget stuff," AJ agreed with him. "Chris, eat up, there's plenty more where that came from."

Chris tucked the papers back away again and started in on his lasagna, without another word. It wasn't lost on him that Joey and AJ had seated themselves at opposite ends of the table, with Chris in between.

* * *

When Chris woke up in the middle of the night this time this time, it wasn't a mystery why. He was so thirsty his mouth felt gummy and the air scratched his throat on the way down. Grunting, he dragged himself out from under the thin blankets and stumbled to his feet.

At least it wasn't completely dark, moonlight filtering through the flimsy curtains that Chris had yet to replace. That he probably never would, knowing how lazy he was about things like that. There were things that were important and there were things that were not and curtains definitely fit into the not category.

Before he was up long enough to come fully awake, he scratched his balls just to be sure they were still there and stumbled his way into the kitchen to get himself a glass of water. The living room looked so bare, with the minimal furniture Chris had picked up from the goodwill -- a chair, an area rug worn in too many places, a coffee table to put his stereo on. Enough for him, but not nearly enough to fill the room.

He poured the glass of water from the tap without mishap and drained half of it before starting back for the bedroom, but only made it halfway across the living room before slipping on the edge of the rug and drenching it with the last of the water.

"Aw hell," he muttered, salvaging the glass and planting it on the end table. He stumbled back into the kitchen again, squinting less as his eyes became more accustomed to the dim light, and located a roll of paper towel to sop the water up. Not that the carpet wasn't doing a good enough job of that on its own.

Down on his hands and knees, wincing a bit as his knees hit the hard floor, he patted the spill, but it didn't seem to be doing any good. In fact, it seemed to be getting bigger, filling more and more of the carpet in a dark stain. He lifted the paper towel to see if it was absorbing anything and saw it was stained dark as well. Darker than it ought to be, he thought.

He sniffed at it suspiciously and the sharp tang of iron hit his nose. "Oh fuck oh fuck!" he shouted, dropping the blood-stained paper towel on the carpet and springing to his feet, wiping frantically at his mouth with the back of his hand. The stain on the carpet was easily recognizable as a spreading pool of blood now. "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!"

He kept going backwards until he hit the wall, and reached back over his shoulder to fumble with the switch until suddenly, in a flood of light, it came on.

The stain was just a small pool of water, the paper towel damp with it. There was no blood in sight.

But Chris was sure of what he'd seen.

* * *

Mrs. Littrell, owner of seventy-seven Black Wren Road, was a frail woman in her seventies, who invited Chris in for tea the moment he showed up at her door. "If you're having any troubles," she said, urging him into a seat, "you should really talk to the property manager. She handles all those sorts of things."

"Mmm," said Chris, standing again as soon as she turned her back so he could help her in the kitchen. She looked like she would break if she so much as bumped into anything. "No, there's nothing she can help me with," he said, which was the truth. "I'm actually interested in the history of the building. I was hoping you could help me with that."

"Oh!" she said, turning back to him and looking delighted. "Oh yes, yes, of course. It's a lovely old building, isn't it? Shame it was cut up into apartments before I purchased it, but I supposed that's good for you now, isn't it?

"It is, ma'am," he said appreciatively. "You've owned it for, what, forty years now?"

"Yes, that sounds about right," she said, though she looked like she couldn't quite remember. "My late husband purchased it, along with a couple of other properties in the same area. Splendid architecture, he always said, and built to last. The one you're in was always his favourite, though."

"And why's that, ma'am?" Chris asked, cautiously sitting back down again when she seemed to have things well in hand.

"It was once owned by one of his favourite musicians," she told him, daintily carrying the teapot over to him. Chris held his breath until it was safely on the table. "Back in the teens, before even I was born. Hard to believe there was anything but stone and trees before I was born, isn't it?" She smiled at him, and Chris smiled politely back.

"Whose house was it? Someone famous?"

"You could say that," she said, finally taking her seat. Chris breathed a sigh of relief. "Nickolas Carter. Oh, he was a lovely young thing. My mother showed me photographs of him, and told me how my father and her used to sneak out to go hear him sing."

Chris frowned. "Nickolas Carter? I've never heard of him."

"Oh, well, you wouldn't have, a young thing like you. He was long before your time."

"Yes, but I study music history," said Chris. "You'd think I would have at least come across the name."

"Perhaps you have," she said. "It is a common name after all, it may not have registered. He never published and never recorded, so few people remember him these days. It's a shame; my late husband says he was one of a kind."

"It must have been a real pleasure for him to have bought the house from one of his idols."

"Oh no, dear, no. Poor Nickolas was murdered long before we purchased it."

* * *

"I think my apartment is haunted by the spirit of a murdered musician," Chris declared the moment Joey stepped inside it. Joey immediately took a step back out again, then laughed at himself. Or at Chris.

"The only thing your apartment seems to be haunted by is the lost youth of Bob Dylan," he said. "Can't you turn that down?

Chris sighed and stepped back inside to fiddle with the volume for a moment. "Joey, I'm serious, I really do."

"You just had to find something wrong with the place, didn't you. It couldn't just be luck."

"At that price?" scoffed Chris. "Nobody's that lucky. Will you come in already? It's the middle of the day, and he only seems to come out at night."

"Oh he does, does he?" said Joey, striding inside. "Naturally. I should have known that."

"Naturally," said Chris. "He likes to wake me up every time he shows up, too. Three times now."

"How do you know?"

"That I was awake? I don't know about you, but I have a pretty clear grasp of what's awake and what's asleep."

"Well, without even getting into the whole part about how you probably dreamt the whole thing," said Joey, "how do you know he wakes you up every time? Maybe he's here every night, and you only know about three times because you were awake for them?"

"That's a comfort," said Chris, feeling a mild chill go through him at the thought. "The footsteps seem to wake me up."

"Oh, footsteps?" said Joey. "Is that all? Chris, everyone and their dog has heard footsteps at one time or another. It's part of the character of old houses." Like worn hardwood floors, or cockroaches.

"Well, there was the blood thing, too," That seemed to perk up Joey's attention. "A few days ago, I spilled water on the carpet and it turned into blood while I was cleaning it up."

"It turned into blood?"

"While I was cleaning it up," said Chris earnestly. "It was all dark and smelled metallic. But when I turned on the light, it was just water again."

"Chris, all liquid looks dark when the lights are out."

"And the metallic smell?"

"This whole room smells metallic. I think it's because your furniture dates back to the iron age."

"Yeah, well, just be glad I have some," said Chris grudgingly, "or we'd be camping out on the floor for the evening." What Joey was saying made sense, but even while Chris could see the sense in it, he knew it was wrong.

"Yes, I see you have a second chair," said Joey admiringly. "How much?"

"Ten bucks."

"Does it actually recline?"

"I've been afraid to test that out," Chris admitted. "I think it's holding itself together by sheer willpower, or possibly rust and generations of body secretions."

"Gross, Chris," said Joey, but he was already plunking himself down it it. "Let me give it a test drive. If it can hold my fat ass, you have nothing to worry about."

"Just because your boyfriend can eat like a horse and not gain an ounce, doesn't mean you have a fat ass."

"No, I have a fat ass because my ass is fat," he laughed. "Hey, this is really comfy."

"Well worth the ten bucks I splurged on it," Chris agreed, sitting himself down in the other chair. "You know, whether you believe this place is haunted or not, there really was a musician murdered here."

"For serious?"

"In 1916," said Chris. "Back when it was one big house and not a half dozen apartments. Stabbed in the back eight or nine times with a pair of scissors."

"Scissors?" said Joey, looking vaguely horrified. "Who the hell kills someone with scissors?"

"Someone who couldn't find a knife?" suggested Chris. "Don't you ever watch Law and Order? Scissors are a good source of sharp, deadly edges."

"God that's morbid," said Joey. "Who was this guy anyway? Someone I've heard of? This is a hell of a house for one guy."

"Some singer named Nickolas Carter," said Chris. A cursory look at the books he'd hand on hand didn't turn up anything on him; he was going to have to look elsewhere. "Probably not your kind of music."

"And how do you know that?"

"Because it's not from the last twenty years. Do you know him?"

"Well, no."

"I rest my case," said Chris, satisfied. "He was real popular back then, locally anyway. People though maybe he was about to break out and then wham. Scissors in the back."

"Damn, Chris," said Joey, shivering. "Do you have to sound so gleeful about it? Let's talk about something else."

"Fine," said Chris, "Fine." Joey, after all, didn't have to spend the night in the place. Joey wasn't thinking about what he was going to wake up to the next time.

* * *

Chris set his alarm for three-thirty, tucking it under his pillow so the sound would be muffled when it went off. The muffling certainly worked; he didn't know how long it had been ringing when the noise and vibration finally woke him.

It was overcast, and it took Chris a few moments to get used to the dim light. First the bed became clear, then the dresser, the the door that Chris had left open, just a crack. Once he'd silenced the alarm clock he could hear the footsteps again, softly and leading away from him.

He couldn't help the chill that went down his spine, but he wasn't going to let it stop him. He was right and Joey was wrong and there was something in there. It wasn't Chris's imagination.

He crept out of the room, careful not to make any noise of his own. Or at least, as little as was possible in the same old house that allowed a ghost to make noises in the first place. The room was dark, curtains drawn and very little light leaking in. But Chris could see.

He'd moved the carpet, rolled it up and set it in the corner, and on the floor where it should have been lying was a pool of dark liquid. Chris didn't have to get close to it this time to know that it was blood. He just knew. The footsteps stopped the moment he stepped into the living room, but it wasn't empty this time.

There was a figure standing in front of the window, still, almost posed. Chris could just make out his features -- tall, young-looking, well dressed. And more beautiful than a ghost should have been. He blinked and the figure was gone again. The blood was gone. There was nothing left to prove that he'd seen anything in the first place.

But he had. He'd seen it. And he was right.

* * *

"So, okay," said Chris, spilling a bit of cappuccino froth on his thumb as he sat down. Take-out cups were a menace. "So you're the expert on this kind of thing."

"What kind of thing, exactly?" asked Lee.

"Local music history. You know, the stories of the people who made it big from around here. Or not so big, as the case may be."

"I suppose you could say that," he agreed. "What's this about?"

Chris waved the question, earning himself a surprised, almost affronted look from his professor. But the question just wasn't one Chris wanted to answer. "What do you know about Nickolas Carter?"

Chris was sure he saw a flicker of recognition, but then Lee said only, "Who?"

"Nickolas Carter. He was a singer back in the teens. You've never heard of him? He was supposed to have been some local big shot."

"Well, now that you mention it, the name does ring a bell. I doubt he ever amounted to much, though. Is this anything at all to do with your thesis topic?"

"Maybe," Chris lied. Whatever would get him the information he wanted.

"Well, what do you find so notable about him, then, that you want to follow this up?"

"Well," said Chris, "for one, he was murdered..."

Again, that glimmer of recognition. "A lot of people have been murdered," Lee said. "And it's tragic, but it's not always noteworthy. Did he have any musical accomplishments?"

"I don't know," Chris admitted. "I was kind of hoping you might be able to point me in the right direction on this one."

Lee frowned and tapped his fingers on his desk. In Chris's experience, that was never a good sign, from anyone. "Well, I hate to discourage you from anything you're driven to pursue," he said, "but there doesn't seem to be much there."

"But isn't that what we do?" Chris pressed. "Find the significance in people's lives?"

"Sometimes," said Lee carefully, "there really isn't anything to find. Consider this one carefully, Chris. I'd hate to see you invest a lot of time in a dead end."

"I will, Dr. Pearlman," he said, the formality both polite and dismissive.

"I'm sorry I couldn't help you more."

* * *

"You really didn't have to come with me," said Chris as Joey pulled into the library lot. Though it was hard to complain about getting a ride when he suspected he would be carting back an armload of papers and books. "I'm sure you have something much more interesting to do than stare at microfilm for a few hours."

"Like what, class?"

"You're skipping class for this? Damn, Joey, you know I wouldn't have let you--"

"And you call me a dork?" Joey interrupted him. "No, I was finished at one, Chris, I'm not skipping anything, so don't go all uber-student on me."

"I just refuse to be responsible for anyone screwing with their academics," said Chris, hopping out of the car as soon as Joey'd put it in park.

"What, like you've never skipped class?" Joey scoffed. "You may be a good student, but I know you, Kirkpatrick."

So maybe Chris had skipped a class or fifteen as an undergraduate. He only skipped the ones that didn't matter, and he always did the work. And as much as Joey knew him, he knew Joey, too. And knew his friend didn't have quite the same motivation to make up for time missed.

"You're probably gonna think this is boring," he said as he led Joey inside and up to the third floor. "Seeing as how you think I've gone completely insane and all."

"I don't think you're insane," argued Joey. "I just think you're... eccentric. And possibly a little obsessive."

"I'm not obsessive! Just driven. This way." He'd already put a hold on the films he wanted to start with; having the year of the murder had been helpful when looking things up in the local archives. He just hoped some of it turned out to be useful. He picked up the tray from a helpful young librarian and found himself a free machine.

"I gotta say, it's probably at least a little bit obsessive to be researching your hallucination," said Joey, "but you know, everyone needs a hobby."

"It's not a hallucination," said Chris calmly. "If it was a hallucination, I'm more then pink elephants type than the pool of blood type."

"I once had a hallucination of the Virgin Mary after a bottle of tequila," offered Joey.

"Doesn't every good Catholic have a vision of the Virgin Mary at some point?" said Chris, fumbling with the microfilm. No matter how many times he did this, he always forgot which way it went in. "I thought it was a rite of passage or something."

"She looked an awful lot like my parents' cleaning lady. It was kind of creepy."

"I saw Nickolas," Chris told him, finally getting the damn thing threaded.

"I'm sorry, you what?"

"Saw Nickolas. Last night, in my living room." As far as Chris was concerned, that beat the cleaning lady, hands down. Saintly or not.

"Chris, seriously, is the stress getting to you? I though you were handling the move and the break-up and everything just fine..."

"It's not stress! God. Is it so hard to believe that there's something haunting my apartment?" Joey just stared at him. "Okay, so it's not your everyday apartment problem, but it doesn't mean I'm nuts. I know what I'm seeing, and what I'm seeing is not natural."

"Whatever you say," said Joey, with the tone of someone who's getting a little afraid of the madman. "If it was me, though? Seeing that shit? Last thing I would be doing is looking up stuff on the guy that's terrorizing me."

"I wouldn't say terrorizing," said Chris. "It's really more of a nuisance. And even then, the guy cleans up his own blood and everything."

"You're a freak."

"I'm a freak with a great apartment and a ghost," said Chris. "And I'd like to keep the apartment, so I've got to do something about the ghost." He lifted his head for a moment, just look look Joey straight in the eye. "I really did see him."

Joey didn't look convinced, but at least he didn't mock. "So what did he look like, then, this Nickolas?"

Chris was scrolling through the microfilm and finally found the article he was looking for, on the death of Carter. Complete with photo.

"He looked," Chris said, "a lot like this." And he tugged Joey over to see.

* * *

Chris laid the pages out on his floor, spreading them out so he could see each. It would've been nice if he'd had a table to work at, but he didn't, and his desk was too small to hold much more than his computer. But floor space, at least, was more than ample.

The pages on Nickolas himself were on the right, and a few bits of information he'd tracked down on people who'd been close to Nickolas were on the left. All neat and organized, the way things always were before Chris's mind grabbed hold of them and jumbled them all together into new patterns.

Nickolas's manager had been a man by the name of Lou Pearlman, a source of amusement for Chris. He bet Lee would get a good laugh out of it, when Chris told him. Lou had apparently written all of the songs Nickolas had sung, and was credited with most of his success. No wonder Chris had never seen any works published by Carter -- they'd all been published posthumously, and under Pearlman's name.

Mrs. Littrell had described him as ahead of his time, but perhaps she hadn't known that it wasn't his own work. She only knew these things second-hand through her parents and her husband, and had probably never questioned what they told her.

And then there was darling Miss Mandy Moore, who had frequently shared the stage with Nickolas, to great reviews. But her name, too, had largely been lost to history. It was such a shame, really, that so many talented artists were being forgotten, because there was no one left to remember them.

The real surprise was Nickolas's association with Joshua Chasez. Now Chasez, Chris did know -- a ragtime pianist who was credited with helping to birth jazz in this part of the country. Chris had come across him frequently over the years.

He would never even have connected the two if it weren't for the pictures -- a picture of JC at one of Nickolas's shows, and then, when Chris looked, a picture of Nickolas at one of JC's. He woudn't even have noticed, but he'd done a paper involving Chasez a couple of years ago, and Chasez's face wasn't one you forgot.

Those pictures, plus one little mention of them together on the society page, were all the connection he had. Maybe it wasn't anything, just the coincidence of two musicians in the same town paying each other professional courtesy. But it twigged Chris's interest, and so he put Chasez in with the others.

Nickolas's murder had never been solved. Which wasn't much of a surprise to Chris, because what spirit who was at peace ever hung around scaring the pants off people? Miss Moore, of all people, had been the prime suspect at the time of the crime. The police speculated it had been a lovers' quarrel, but nothing had ever come of that. No charges were ever laid.

And that was where history had left Nickolas Gene Carter, to gather dust.

But it was not where Chris would leave him. He pored over the papers well into the night, hoping to glean something from between the lines. A couple of times he though he heard faint footsteps, but when he looked up there was never anything to see.

He slept soundly that night.

* * *

"We really don't need to be meeting this often, Chris," Lee said as Chris eagerly shut the door and sat down. "Not that I don't admire your enthusiasm."

"I know, I know," said Chris. "I just wanted to tell you, there's more out there on Nickolas Carter than you think. No recordings, unfortunately, but he was definitely a local celebrity. I bet if I start looking into diaries and memoirs, I'll start to find more accounts of his performances, and maybe even something about his relationships, professional and otherwise."

"Hmm," said Lee, lacing his hands together and pressing his forefingers tip to tip. "I did a little bit of looking on my own, after the last time we talked. Academically speaking, there's been little work done on Carter, but it seems exhaustive."

"Seems exhaustive," stressed Chris, not put off in the least. He was on to something, he could smell it. "Probably because no one's put in the time to really delve into it before. After all, who would? He was a nobody, according to current history."

"Which really begs the question, how did you come to hear of him?"

"Oh!" Chris chuckled mildly, rummaging through his notes for something to show his advisor, something to show he was serious about this. "Funny thing. Turns out I'm renting an apartment in his old house, and the owner was a bit of a fan."

Lee looked surprised for an instant, maybe even a little pleased, before he schooled his expression into something neutral again. "Well, looking up information on the former owner certainly makes for an interesting hobby," he said. A little condescendingly, Chris thought. "But I'm not at all sure it makes for an interesting or suitable thesis topic."

Much duller theses had been done, Chris knew. There was a whole class of singers who had been forgotten by history, because there was no one to care and no one to record their lives. Their names could only be found on dusty microfilm in library archives, and some not even that. And Chris was determined to do something about it.

"Well, we'll see," he said. "I want to do a little more digging, see what comes of it. You never know what might turn up."

"Well, don't get your hopes up," said Lee, dismissive but not completely so. And even if it had been, Chris would have forged ahead anyway. "Black Wren Road is in a lovely area. How do you like living there?"

"Very much, sir," he said, and it was a half-truth, at least. It was a lovely place, but for the ghosts and noises and bleeding floors. "I should get to class. I'll be in touch."

"Of course you will," said Lee, and gave him a wave that was little more than a flick of his wrist as Chris left the office.

* * *

"Man, what a killjoy," said Chris, scarfing down the last of his sandwich. "So, I'm finally thinking, yes! My ghost is just a sign pointing me in the direction of what I really want to be studying! And Lee tries to quash the whole shebang."


"Dr. Pearlman. My advisor. He thinks I've gone and narrowed my scope too far, and I should just give it a rest and be open to other ideas. If it's not one thing, it's another, with me."

"So wait," said Joey. "Let me get this straight. You're planning on writing your thesis... on your ghost?"

"Well, not just," said Chris, "but he's a prime example of a forgotten breed of musician. Even into the recording era, a lot of music wasn't preserved."

"How do you know he was any good?"

"That's actually not particularly important. As far as I can tell, the subjective opinion of his viewing public was that he was a good entertainer, which is more so. Are you gonna finish that?" He gestured at Joey's small tub of rice pudding.

"What? No, go ahead." Joey shoved it over. "So what, he's telling you you can't do it?"

"Well, no," said Chris. "Ultimately, it's my choice what I want to pursue. But he makes it sound like I'd be a fool to pursue this any further."


"Do not tell me you think he's right."

"Chris, it does sound crazy. Did you tell him the ghost part?"

"No, I did not tell him the ghost part," said Chris. "I'm not an idiot, Fatone, you're the only one who knows about all that. It's a good topic! I know it is. And I have a feeling the good stuff is yet to come."

"Yeah, maybe Nickolas will go all poltergeist on you and start breaking dishes and shaking the bed."


"Cause what you really need, I think, is a good bedshaking..."

"Joseph Anthony Fatone!"

Joey just grinned at him. "Kidding, kidding! I'm sure your pet ghost is very benign. So hey, what are your plans for tonight?"

"I've got a date with the library again," Chris told him. "I keep this up, she's gonna want a ring or something."

"More time with Nickolas?"

Chris chuckled a bit ruefully. "No," he admitted. "I've actually got an assignment to work on. Nickolas will have to wait until tomorrow. Why?"

"Oh, I just thought you might want to hang out or something."

"Ah, sorry, another time? You should go home and spend some time with AJ or something. You've been spending so much time helping me out lately, he's probably forgotten what you look like."

"Right," said Joey. "I'll do that."

* * *

It was a rattling that woke Chris up. More then sound of pipes than chains, though, so clearly it wasn't Nickolas going all Marley's ghost on him. Chris hoped the sound didn't mean he had no water, though, because he had to piss like a racehorse.

That particular need, however, didn't keep him from peeking into the living room after creeping out of his room instead of heading straight for that bathroom. It had become habit, in the middle of the night, to check for signs of the ghost if he was up.

He wasn't prepared for what was waiting for him this time.

He'd unrolled the rug onto the floor again, and stretched out across it was a man's form, flat on his stomach, a pair of scissors sticking out of his back. Chris recoiled, hitting his shoulder on the doorframe as he took a step back.

The form moved, turning onto it's side, and Chris could see Nickolas's face even more clearly this time. There was no doubt that it was him. Chris had seen enough photographs now to know. He opened his eyes and met Chris's gaze, and Chris just stood there, paralyzed.

Then he opened his mouth, like he was going to say something, and a gush of blood came out.

Chris considered himself lucky he didn't piss all over the floor.

* * *

"So you're still here, huh?"

Chris looked up from where he was unchaining his bike to see Wade standing over him. Tuesday again. They must have had a class at the same time every Tuesday or something. "Yeah, I'm still here. What do you know?"

"I'm impressed. You're poised to break the record if you keep it up."

Chris stood up and looped the lock over the handlebars. "Well, I intend to stay for quite some time," he said, meeting Wade's eyes. "I can't imagine why anyone would ever want to leave this place."

"I always did wonder," Wade admitted. "There's really nothing wrong with the place?"

"What could be wrong with it?"

He shrugged. "I figured it might be the condition, actually, rats aside. It's the only apartment in the building that wasn't renovated a couple years ago. They usually rent it out to charity cases." Chris looked down at his bike and back up at Wade, and coughed politely. "No offense."

"Right," said Chris dryly, but there was no use in getting into it. "The place is actually in excellent shape. The rest of them must be astonishing, if mine's the bastard stepchild."

"They ought to be, what my parents pay for it," said Wade. "There's really nothing wrong with yours?"

He obviously had no idea what the deal was with the apartment Chris was in. But someone had to know what was wrong, or at least have some idea. Rats indeed.

"Not as far as I can tell," he lied. "All those people moving in and out of the place, and no one's ever said why?"

"Not to me," he said, shrugging again. His shoulders were pointy, sharp like the rest of him. "And not to anyone else I know who lives here. Maybe the manager?"

The manager seemed to think it was rats too, though. Chris had left her a message last night about the place, and he'd woken up to a complimentary package of rat poison on his front landing. As if he could have a rat problem when none of the other apartments did. Sometimes, people just saw what they wanted to see.

"Yeah, maybe," he said. "I gotta go. I think I can hear Dr. Rosensweig calling my name from here.

"But you'll be back."

"Yeah," said Chris, giving him a grin that was cockier than he felt. "I'll definitely be back."

* * *

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!"

Chris, who had been zipping purposefully down the hallway, found himself all but clotheslined on he way to the nearest cafeteria, right out of the blue.

"Mr. Speedy Gonzales," said Joey in his ear, arm still around Chris's shoulders. "What's the hurry? Didn't you see me there?"

Chris hadn't, and had to blink a couple of times before he realized he was seeing Joey now. "Sorry, man, sorry," he said. "I had my mind on other things."

"Yeah, and I can just imagine what."

"Right," said Chris, his hand shaking a little as he lifted it up to straighten his glasses. "Well, you know me."

Joey caught his hand and dragged him to the side of the hallway, into a cubby that housed a Coke machine and water fountain. "What's wrong? What's the matter? Did something happen?"

"What?" said Chris, blinking again under the verbal assault. Joey's words weren't quite penetrating yet. "No, nothing, I'm okay. I'm fine. I was just in a hurry, you know. Things to see, people to do."

"Right," said Joey, patently not believing a word of it. "What the hell? You know I'm holding you here till you tell me what's got you so freaked out."

"I'm not freaked out!" said Chris, a little too loud and a little too sharp. "I'm just... I saw him again last night."

"Who? Nickolas?" Could it really have been anyone else? "Chris, this is getting a little--"

"He was lying on the floor," Chris interrupted him brusquely. "Bleeding. Dying."

"Jesus, Chris. Morbid, much?"

"I'm serious," he said, yanking himself out of Joey's grasp. "Joey, I saw him laying there on my throw rug, scissors lodged in his back, and he looked at me."

"Chris are you sure this wasn't just a nightmare? You didn't see anything like this before you found out the details of how he died."

"No, I was awake, I was definitely awake," Chris insisted. He could still remember exactly how he'd felt, the moment blood started gushing from Nickolas's mouth. "This is something that's really happening, Joey."

"I believe that you think it is, Chris," he said. "But you have to know this sounds pretty unbelievable." Joey'd really been a good sport about the whole thing, carting Chris around the city to pick up obscure bits of information, but Chris had to wonder how long that would last if Joey thought he was just on a wild goose chase.

"I know how it sounds," he admitted. "But I'm not crazy, I'm not having nightmares and I'm not joking. And it's starting to freak me out a little."

"Starting to?"

"I just need to... I need to find out more. I need to track down more sources of information. I need to figure out what's going on."

"And how's figuring it all out going to change anything, Chris?" Joey asked him, taking hold of his arm again. "What are you trying to do?"

"I don't know," he said, "I don't know." But he did know, and if he would just calm down and engage the brain for a few seconds he would remember exactly why he was doing it, and what he hoped to accomplish. "I want to learn everything I can about him. His murder was unsolved, you know."

"You've told me," said Joey. "Are you saying you're planning to solve it?"

"I'm planning to learn everything I can about his life, about who he was and how he ended up the way he did," said Chris. The deep breaths were working. "If I do my job right, I'll not only have enough material for a great start to my thesis, but I will figure out who did it, and why."

Joey didn't look pleased, but he nodded his head. "Okay, Chris," he said finally. "Okay. Let's you and me go sit down and get something to eat."

It was the best thing Chris had heard all day.

* * *

"Okay, this is the place," Chris said, and Joey pulled up close to the curb. "Are you sure you don't want to come in with me? She's just the sweetest thing. She'll give you tea and cookies."

"Tempting as the offer is," said Joey. "I do have a few errands of my own to run. You sure you'll be all right getting back to your place?"

"I'm pretty good at using public transit, Joey," said Chris. "Been doing it all my life. What do you need to go do anyway, that's more important than tea and cookies?"

"Grocery shopping," said Joey and made a face. "Believe me, if it weren't for the fact that I don't want to starve to death, the tea and cookies would win."

Chris just grinned at him. "I thought that was why AJ did all the grocery shopping -- because you would just throw a few impulse items from the front of the store into your cart and be done with it."

"Well, don't I wish," muttered Joey, "but not today. Call me later, okay? Let me know how you made out." Joey might still not believe a word of it, but at least he cared.

"I will," Chris promised him as he got out of the car. "And not too late because I remember the last time I called at a bad time. AJ wasn't shy about giving me an earful."

"Really, Chris," said Joey. "Just call whenever, it's fine. If everyone's busy, you'll just get the voicemail is all."

"'Busy'," teased Chris. "You make it sound so romantic. Okay, so I'll talk to you later, man."

"Later," said Joey, but he didn't pull away until Chris had buzzed in and been let into the building. Chris felt like a teenage girl being dropped off after a date.

In the mirrored side of the elevator, Chris straightened his shirt as he rode up to the thirteenth floor. Something about visiting someone like Mrs. Littrell made him want to look more than just passable. She would never have asked for him, but he wanted to do it anyway.

"Christopher," she said, looking pleased as she opened the door. "Come in, love."

"I hope I'm not late," he said. He hadn't worn a watch and couldn't be entirely sure, though he'd been a little early by the clock in Joey's car, which he didn't trust.

"Oh no, dear, no, not at all. You're here right when you said you would be. How unexpected, in someone of your generation. My grandson's a good boy, but he's always running a wee bit late. He was supposed to be here half an hour ago with my groceries. Probably stopped off to see his girlfriend, and I can't say I mind that a bit. Oh, but she's a sweet girl."

Chris smiled politely and followed her into the kitchen where she already had the teapot sitting inside its cosy on the table. "Well, I do my best," he said, and suddenly wished he'd worn a tie.

"I was so pleased you called," she said, going right past the table. Chris followed her, but then she turned around and shooed him back. "Oh no, sit down, please. I just need to grab a few things."

"Are you sure I can't help?"

"You're a sweet boy, Christopher, but no, please sit. You're my guest and I have some things to show you. I won't be a minute." Chris sat, but only because it would have been impolite not to. And she really was back before he knew it, carrying a faded manila envelope. "Here we go. And please do help yourself to one of the dainties on the platter. My church group had them sent by after their last meeting. Lovely bunch."

"Thank you," said Chris and didn't take anything, though he was sure he would before the visit was over. A college student never turned down free food. It was like a law.

She took her own seat and slowly and carefully, with frail, shaking hands, untied the strings and pulled a sheaf of photographs out of it. "After you showed such an interest in Mr. Carter, well, I decided to have a looksee in my husband's things, to see if he had any keepsakes of him. I'm afraid there wasn't much, but he did keep some lovely pictures. Please take them if you're interested, they're no use to me."

Lovely photos was an understatement. Some of them were obviously publicity photos, hardly even faded, though even hidden from the light, the years had taken their toll on the paper. The newpaper photos hadn't done him justice, and lying bleeding on Chris's floor wasn't particularly flattering either. Nickolas Carter had been a very striking man.

Not all of the photos were posed, though. Candid photography hadn't been as widespread in the teens as it would be a couple of decades later, but someone had cared enough about Carter's celebrity to take more than a few, and Mr. Littrell, bless his soul, had collected them.

"Ma'am, are you sure you want me to take these?" asked Chris. "They're remarkable."

"My husband wouldn't thank me for being sentimental about them," she insisted, "especially when there's a young man with a genuine interest in Mr. Carter about. I think he would have liked you a great deal, Christopher."

Chris looked up and smiled. "I think I would have liked him, too, ma'am," he said. The gentleman obviously had good taste, at the very least.

"Quite a good-looking fellow, wasn't he?" said Mrs. Littrell after Chris had shuffled through the first few pictures. She almost sounded coy.

"He was definitely something," Chris had to agree, stopping himself from going through the rest of them right then and there. He had to leave something to look forward to, after all. "He's actually why I called you, sort of."

"Is there something else I can do to help you?"

"I don't know," admitted Chris. "I was just wondering, when you purchased the house, was there anything left in it? Anything at all, that might have belonged to him?"

"Oh no, no," she said, so quickly and certainly that Chris's face fell. "No, love, it had been through two other owners before us, I'm afraid. And even before that, there was an estate sale shortly after the poor dear died. Between that and the renovations over the years, I fear there's nothing to be found."

"Oh," said Chris with a heavy sigh. But he couldn't be too disappointed, not with the envelope full of pictures he was holding, which was much more than he could have expected. "That's a shame. His things could be anywhere by now."

Mrs. Littrell could only sadly nod her agreement. "I suppose some of his friends would have bought up as much as they could, at the time. Keepsakes of someone dear to them; I know I would have. And people who admired his work, too, I suppose. All of whom will be long dead, I'm sure." She let out the sigh of someone who has known many people who have since passed on.

"Well, at least it's a place to start," said Chris, both gently and thoughtfully. Items belonging to Nickolas Carter weren't the sorts of things to ever come up at auction, they just weren't worth enough. Which meant, if he was lucky, they stayed in the families they were purchased by. Assuming they were even kept in the first place; a lot of things didn't survive the thirties.

"You aren't eating, love," she said, picking up a tart off the plate and handing it to him firmly. "There's more there than an old woman can handle by her lonesome, don't be shy."

"Grandma?" Chris turned around, tart in hand, to see a young man peeking his head in the door. "Everything okay, Grandma?"

"Of course everything's okay," she said, a touch of impatience in her voice. She dropped the volume, just for Chris's ears. "My family gets suspicious every time someone comes to visit me. You'd think I have no friends, the way they go on."

"Just making sure," he said cheerfully, and he certainly sounded like a nice enough young man. "I brought your groceries, Grandma. Do you want me to put them away for you?" He was watching Chris as he kicked off his shoes, paper bag of groceries tucked safely in the curve of one arm.

"That would be lovely, dear," she said. "I do hope the milk didn't go sour on your way over here."

He winced a bit, but didn't have that air of guilt about him that Chris though he would have if he'd indeed snuck off to meet his girlfriend on the way. "There was an accident on the highway," he said. "The detour took me forever. But I had everything in the trunk so it all stayed cool. No need to worry, Grandma. And you know if you have any troubles, you just give me a call."

"I know, dear, I know," she assured him. "I do hope no one was hurt in the accident."

He just shrugged as he unloaded the groceries into the fridge. "I don't know; no one said." From time to time, he looked back over his shoulder at Chris, curious and perhaps still suspicious.

"Well," said Chris awkwardly. "I should really get going. The bus'll be coming shortly and I don't think they come by here too often."

"You're taking the bus?" she said, looking appalled. "Oh no, no. Brian, dear, surely you wouldn't mind giving this young gentleman a ride home."

Brian looked as surprised as Chris felt, but he nodded his head anyway. Chris got the feeling that if Mrs. Littrell had just asked him to go give himself a lemon juice enema, he would have nodded just the same.

"Where do you live?" he asked as he closed the fridge and opened the upper cupboards for the rest of the groceries. "Is it far?"

"Oh, dear, where are my manners," said Mrs. Littrell. "Brian, this is Christopher, he rents one of the places in the old Carter place. I was just telling him some of your grandfather's old stories about Nickolas."

Brian's face cleared instantly, as though knowing where Chris lived suddenly explained everything about why he was there, and he gave Chris a sympathetic look. Chris guessed he'd had to live through those stories for many years.

"Really, I'm fine with the bus," he tried to insist. "It's no bother."

"Oh, nonsense. Brian would be happy to give you a ride. He's been fascinated by that house since he was a little boy."

By the look on Brian's face, Chris doubted that, but he did look quite willing to give Chris the ride anyway. "Sure," he said, folding up the paper bag and tucking it into the cupboard under the sink. "I don't mind dropping you by there. Grandma, do you need anything else before I go?"

"No, dear," he said, folding one of her hands over Chris's as he resealed the envelope with the pictures inside. "I know you'll take good care of those," she told him. "And put them to good use."

It seemed a curious thing to say, but heartfelt nonetheless. He gave her a smile and nodded before standing up from the table. "Thank you so much for your hospitality, ma'am."

"You be sure to come visit any time you like, Christopher," she told him. "I do enjoy your company."

That earned her another smile. And truth be told, Chris found he was kind of enjoying her company, too. "You have a nice evening," he told her.

Brian called out a "Bye, Grandma," from the doorway, before leading Chris to a tiny Toyota parked just shy of illegally at the curb. Good thing they were both pretty tiny people.

"Are you sure it's not too much trouble taking me home?" he said again, giving Brian an out while his grandmother wasn't there to argue the point. "I would be fine."

"Naw," said Brian. "Hop in. My girlfriend's place is only maybe four blocks from there, so I'm practically headed by anyway. So you really live in the old Carter place?"

Chris got into the car and buckled up before answering. "Yeah, I just rented it last month. Why? Is it really so surprising?"

Brian, too, paused before answering, putting the car into gear and heading out across town. "Would you be offended if I told you I was pretty sure I knew what apartment you were in?"

Chris grimaced a little, but at least Brian was polite about it. "The cheap one, yes. It's no secret. It's really a nice place."

"Oh, I know, I know," said Brian quickly. "I've seen it, I saw it when they were putting the new cabinets in a few years ago. It's just..."


"This is going to seem like a really weird question," he said. Though after what Chris had gone through over the last month, nothing really seemed that weird anymore. "Is it true that it's haunted?"

So much for no one knowing about it. "Where did you hear that?" he demanded.

"I was sworn to secrecy," Brian confessed. "It was just... a guy -- no names -- who lived there before you. A while ago. I thought he was nuts at the time, and he thought maybe he was nuts too. But then the turnover in that place is just so high..."

"What does your grandmother think it is?"

"I don't think she realises," Brian admitted. "She doesn't really handle it at all, she just loves the house. It reminds her of my grandfather; she'll never sell. She's already told me she's willing it to me when he passes on, because I'm the only one who appreciates her stories."

"She's quite a lady," said Chris appreciatively. "I... yeah. Okay, yeah. I think maybe it's haunted."

"Wow, really?" Brian turned his head to look at him, when Chris just really wanted him to keep his eyes on the road. He'd counted at least three broken traffic laws so far. Why was it the most incompetent people were the ones with cars?

"Maybe, yeah," said Chris. It was probably unwise to really get into it. "Strange stuff happens there."

"Wow, that's kind of cool." Except for the blood and dying bits, that is. "Must be freaky, though."

"Yeah, it kind of is," agreed Chris. He almost fell into the window as Brian took the corner that led to the house. Chris hoped he was just anxious to see his girlfriend, and wasn't always like this on the roads. "But you know. Nothing that I'm gonna want to move out over. It's a great place."

"It really is," said Brian. "I used to beg my parents to let me live there when I was little. I'm on campus now, of course, but sometimes I still wish." He screeched to a halt just short of the bumper of Wade's car. "Well, here we are."

"Here we are," Chris echoed him. "Thanks again for the ride, and maybe I'll see you around."

"Maybe you will," said Brian, sounding sincere enough. "Take care, Chris."

Chris had barely hit the front walk before Brian was screeching out onto the road again. He just smiled to himself and clutched the envelope to his chest. He couldn't wait to get upstairs and dive into his new treasures.

* * *

Lee had told him that the academic work done on Carter had been minimal yet exhaustive, but Chris was having trouble finding anything at all. A couple of references in reviews of crime procedures of the era, one in the complete works of a popular stage reviewer of the time.

At least the photographs from Mrs. Littrell had proved useful. In one of them, Nickolas was arriving at a ball with Mandy Moore on his arm. In two others, he was caught standing inimately close to Joshua Chasez, having a drink and sharing a laugh. It was all the proof Chris needed to consider them more than passing acquaintances, to justify his inclusion of Chasez among Carter's friends.

And then, of course, there was the purely aesthetic value of the photos. Nickolas was simply beatiful, shining with charisma and charm, even in such faded and grainy photographs. Chris almost felt a physical longing, to have known him in life, to have seen, or even just heard, him perform.

It made Nickolas's murder, the reinactment of which was seared into Chris's brain, that much more painful to contemplate. It was a shock to realize sometimes that he had already been dead for almost ninety years.

Chris had almost given up his search for the day when he found it, the big enchilada, the holy grail. A paper on the life and death of Nickolas Carter, published fifteen years ago.

By Dr. Lee Pearlman.

Chris had to read the name three times before it really sank in. Lee -- who had feigned ignorance of the name when Chris first brought it up, who said he'd gone looking for information on Nickolas -- had published a paper on him.

Did he somehow think Chris wouldn't find this? Did he thing that by just suggesting Chris work in a different direction, Chris would give up? And why would he even want to hide it? It would make more sense to just be offering it up to Chris outright, saying, "Here, I've already done the legwork and there's nothing to find. Move on."

This, this was just bizarre. And made Chris all the more convinced there was something to find.

He printed off a copy of the article and stuck in on the pile with everything else, to bring back to his apartment to review.

Lee Fucking Pearlman. Chris just didn't know what to make of it.

* * *

Chris found himself in a tailored tux, cufflinks gleaming, hat in hand. A huge ballroom was full of people but he couldn't hear any of them, everything was quiet except for the tap-tapping of footsteps behind him, coming closer.

He whirled around, tails flying out behind him, and there was Nickolas, identically dressed, smiling at him. Chris reached out his hand and Nickolas took it, leading him through the ballroom, effortlessly weaving between dancing couples.

On the stage at the end of the room was Chasez, playing the piano, and Mandy Moore at the microphone, crooning a song Chris couldn't hear. Nickolas let go of his hand and stepped up onto the stage, leaning with his back against the piano, both hands bracing himself on the edge.

He opened his mouth and said something to Chris, but there was no sound and Chris couldn't make out the words. Then Nickolas just smiled, and Chris melted.

That's how he knew it was a dream. Because Nickolas was so beautiful and so whole and so alive.

* * *

Chris was tracing the contours of Nickolas's face with a finger when Joey finally showed up, sliding his iced mochaccino onto the table and dropping his books. One of them slid off the side of the table and onto the floor."What are you doing?"

Chris yanked his hand back from the photograph. "Nothing," he said. "Just going through some things. Have I told you about the Mayor's Ball, how Nickolas sang there...?"

"Only three times," said Joey. "Are you sure you should be touching that? I'm pretty sure that can't be good for it."

"It's a copy," Chris assured him, but he didn't touch it again. Not while Joey was watching. "I scanned all the pictures I got and made copies, I wasn't taking any chances. Some of them had dates on them, I was lucky."

"Yes, you told me," said Joey, taking his seat and slurping his drink through the straw. Chris threw a wad of paper at him. "So you're still obsessing over that stuff, huh?"

"I'm not obsessing, I'm researching," insisted Chris, pictures and notes still laid out in front of him. If Joey spilled on them, he was a dead man. "Obsessing would be locking myself in my apartment for weeks on end with nothing but takeout and photographs." Joey fell silent, and when Chris looked up at him he was staring back at Chris with a lifted eyebrow. "I haven't been! I see you all the time. I go to class. I'm social."

"You were petting a picture of a dead guy."

"I wasn't petting it," insisted Chris, pushing the picture away from him with two fingers. "I was... "

"Stroking it, maybe," Joey amended. "Come on, admit it, this is getting a little weird. You have this... you have what you think is a ghost making you terrified in your own home, and you're halfway in love with him!"

"I'm not!" said Chris, and flipped the picture over.

Joey reached out and turned it back over again. "You kind of are, Chris."

Chris was silent for a long moment, staring at the photograph. "So what if I am?" he said finally. "It's harmless."

Joey was quiet, too, then just patted Chris gently on the shoulder and slurped his drink again. "So you sounded pretty excited when we talked on the phone. You find some more new stuff?"

"Yeah, kinda," said Chris, and finally pushed the picture away again. "There's some weird shit going on, Joey. I told you yesterday I found some stuff at the library, right? I found some work done on him?"

"Yeah, you mentioned that, in between your gushings about the photo collection you got."

"Right, because I wanted to tell you about it in person," said Chris. "Guess who wrote it."

"What, the paper you found? I haven't a clue."

"Just guess!"

"My grandmother."

Chris rolled his eyes. "No! Lee wrote it. Dr. Pearlman."

"Your advisor?" said Joey, frowning. "Are you serious? I though you told me he said he hadn't even heard of the guy."

"He did!" said Chris. "That's what's so fucked up about it. You don't just forget you wrote something, no matter how long ago it was. You especially don't forget the name of your research subject, in whom he obviously invested a lot of time. He thinks Mandy did it."

"What's that now?" said Joey, shaking his head. "You lost me."

"Dr. Pearlman thinks Mandy murdered Nickolas." Joey still looked blank. "Mandy Moore. She used to perform with Nickolas sometimes. Lee thinks it was a lovers' quarrel of some sort. He says scissors are a woman's weapon."

Joey seemed to consider that for a moment, then shrugged. "Didn't you say he was stabbed a bunch of times? That's supposed to mean a crime of passion, right?"

"That's what they say on Law and Order," agreed Chris. "It seems like a bit of a leap, though, don't you think? I mean, what if the scissors were right there? They seem like more of a weapon of opportunity than anything else. What, does he think a singer like Miss Mandy Moore just carries scissors around with her, because she's a woman?"

"You're getting way too worked up over this..."

"I'm not worked up," said Chris, "I'm just confused. And frustrated. Mandy was the police suspect, too, you know. Did I tell you that?"

"Maybe," said Joey. "You've told me a lot of things, but mostly about Nickolas. So do you think Mandy did it?"

"Maybe," Chris had to admit, though from what he'd seen and read of her, it didn't have the right feel to it. Then again, what did he know about solving crimes anyway? "This is the first I've read about them being lovers, too."

"You don't think they were lovers?"

"I think if they were lovers, it would have been hinted at somewhere else," said Chris. "Not overtly, of course, it wouldn't have been considered appropriate at the time. But there would have been something, somewhere, that would give the hint, other than their professional relationship. It's common to assume that people are dating just because they work together and they're of opposite sex, but that's somewhat of a modern conceit."

"So they weren't lovers, then?"

"Lovers? I doubt it. Dating? Probably not, or he probably would have been courting her openly, and he obviously wasn't. That's definitely the sort of thing that would appeal to the public, enhance their image."

"So you think Dr. Pearlman was wrong, then. Is that what you're trying to say?"

"I'm saying that he doesn't have the facts to back up his hypothesis. Or if he does have the facts tucked away somewhere, he certainly doesn't cite them in the paper. But I can't fathom why he'd do that. I don't know. Maybe I'm just suspicious because he never told me about it."

"Maybe," agreed Joey. "Or maybe he never told you about it because he knew it was a lameass paper that he couldn't defend to you if you challenged him on it."

"Maybe," said Chris, giving him a little smile. "I am pretty good at what I do."

"Now if only we could figure out what you did, you're be set." Chris's smile broke into a grin and he elbowed Joey in the side. "Ow! What? You know I speak only the truth."

"Yeah, yeah," chuckled Chris. "Well, if nothing else, this paper has given me a few leads where to look for more information on the guy. Starting with, I think, tracking down some information on Mandy Moore."

Joey nodded his head and finally bent over to pick up his dropped book, placing it on top of the pile. "You need some help?" he asked a moment later.

"You sure you don't want to be getting home?" said Chris, glancing at his watch. "Isn't now about the time AJ usually gets home from work? Or is he picking you up again?"

"No, he's not picking me up," said Joey. "You don't need to worry about that."

"I'd offer you a ride home, but you're a little big to be riding on the handlebars of my bike."

"I have my car," said Joey, slurping again. "AJ hasn't picked me up in a long time. Not that you've noticed."

"Oh," said Chris, rearranging the papers on front of him, preparing to gather them up. "No, I guess I haven't. Still, you sure you don't want to be home?"

"No, Chris," said Joey, a little more firmly than Chris had figured he would. "No, I don't want to go home. I don't want to go home to see AJ's new boyfriend having dinner with him, thanks. If you don't want my help, I'll just find something else to do for a couple hours."

There was a thick silence for a moment, the Chris blurted out, "The hell?" Joey's didn't even flinch. "AJ's what?"

"AJ's new boyfriend. We broke up about a month ago, Chris. Not that you noticed that, either."

"AJ's..." began Chris, then just stared at Joey some more. "How could you not tell me?" he said finally. "That's... that's huge."

"I know it's huge, Chris. I don't need you to remind me." For the first time, Chris could see the sadness there. He was surprised Joey had hidden it so long, then wondered if he really had. "It's okay, we both knew it was coming. You really had no idea?"

"You really think I wouldn't have said something if I did?"

Joey just nodded, like he'd been expecting that, from Chris. "You've had a lot on your mind," he said. "I figured. You were pretty busy gazing at the dead guy."

"Joey," said Chris firmly. "Joey... forget about helping me out with this tonight. Forget about this whole thing entirely. Tonight you and me are going to have some fun, and you're not going to think about AJ and..."

"Trace," Joey finished for him, rolling his eyes. "AJ works with him. It's fucked up."

"You're not going to think about either of them."

"Does that mean you're going to get me so drunk I can't see straight?"

"If that's what it takes," Chris promised him, and quickly put all of his things away. Sometimes, just once in a while, there were things that were more important than the mystery of Nickolas Carter.

* * *

When Chris passed Dr. Pearlman in the hallway, he just gave him a brief wave and tried to look friendly. Lee didn't even really seem to notice anyway. He certainly didn't stop, and neither did Chris, even though he had nowhere he needed to be particularly urgently. In between two other projects that had cropped up in his classes that demanded his attention, Chris had managed to track down one vital bit of information that Lee had left out of his paper, and had definitely not mentioned to Chris.

Lou Pearlman, Nickolas Carter's manager, had been Lee Pearlman's grandfather. Not a coincidence of names, not even distant relative, but Lee's direct ancestor. And it hadn't occurred to him to tell Chris that, either.

Chris wondered what else he wasn't saying.

"No, no working today." Chris whirled around and there was Joey, arms crossed over his chest, looking at Chris sternly. "You promised, Chris."

It was a very silly promise, but yes, Chris had made it. "I'm just finishing," he assured him. "You can ask me not to work on Carter today, but you can't tell me not to finish my paper, Fatone."

"Are you done?"

"Well, yes."

"Good." Joey smiled at him. "Then we can go out and celebrate your birthday in style with nothing hanging over our heads. I can't believe you thought I would forget about it and let you away with sulking in your apartment all night."

"I wasn't going to sulk!" Chris protested, tucking all his papers away in his backpack, since obviously he wasn't going to get any more done before tomorrow. "I just... I know AJ was always the one to remember things. I woulda told you next week some time anyway."

Joey winced. "Okay, can we also make tonight an AJ-free zone?" he asked. "No work, and no AJ. And the fact that he had your birthday written on the calendar in the kitchen has nothing to do with how I remembered."

"Naturally," snorted Chris. "I can't believe you're still living there, Joey."

Joey just shrugged, though. And looked very resigned to that fate. "Where else am I gonna go?" he asked. "We had the extra room, I just moved all my stuff into it. I'd move back in with my parents but, you know, the commute from New York is a bitch."

Now there was an understatement. "That's gotta be weird, though. Can't he move out?"

"Did we not just decide this was an AJ-free night? I think we did," Joey interrupted him. "Besides, I couldn't afford the full rent on that place."

"Okay," Chris conceded. "Okay, no more, I promise. Where are you taking me, anyway?"

"Not telling," said Joey smugly. "You can just wait and see."

"What? Joey! You know I can't stand surprises. Just give me a hint or something, please? Pretty please with a cherry on top? And chocolate syrup and nuts? And those little sprinkles you like so much?"

"If you add some chocolate chips, I might confess to you that we're going to see a male stripper."

"We're what?"

Joey grinned at him. "Gotcha!" he said, grabbing Chris's sleeve to tug him out of the building. "More like tacos and a case of beer. Unless you'd rather do the stripper thing...?"

Chris pretended to consider it for a moment. "Nah," he said finally, elbowing Joey in the side. "Tacos and beer with you will be just fine."

* * *

"So you're Mr. Pearlman's little protégé, then?"

That, right then, was just about the last thing Chris wanted to be known as. "He is my graduate advisor," he told her candidly, "but I'm pursuing this project without his blessing. I am aware of his own work on the subject."

"Yes, well, his own work on the subject is fairly notorious in this family."

Chris nodded; he could well believe that. "I think his research was fairly shoddy and his conclusions drawn too hastily," he said. Perhaps it was telling her too much, but he thought maybe it was what she wanted to need or to hear.

"You'd think he'd made the whole thing up, the number of things he got wrong in there," she said with a heavy sigh. "Why don't you come in and make yourself comfortable, Mr. Kirkpatrick? It's a bit chilly out there."

Chris had suspected looking up Mandy Moore's descendants would be as much of a bust as trying to track down any of Nickolas Carter's. But he'd been wrong about that. While she hadn't been particularly prolific, she'd married just a month after Nickolas's death, and had two children. And they in turn had had children of their own. Which had led Chris to the woman in front of him, Mandy's great granddaughter, Christi Richardson.

"Thank you," he said, quick to duck inside as he felt the first tentative drops of rain hit his shoulders. He almost tripped over the tricycle in the middle of the hallway and had to brace himself on the coatrack.

"Amy!" she called out, pushing the tricycle out of your way. "You know better than to leave your things out like this. Someone's gonna lose an eye one of these days."

Whoever Amy was, she didn't appear, and Christi led him through the house to a more formal living room than the cluttered den they passed on the way. "I hope you're okay," she said finally, an afterthought.

"I'm tougher than a preschool toy," said Chris with false bravado, making her smile as she gestured for him to sit down. The furniture looked so unused Chris was almost surprised it wasn't covered in plastic. "So I guess you know why I want to talk to you, then."

"Well, you mentioned on the phone it was about Nick," she said, tucking one leg up under her. "Have you talked to anyone else in the family?"

He nodded once, and sat carefully on the very nice couch. "Your brother Will," he said. "He told me to just skip anyone else in the family I had notions of talking to and come straight to you."

"It's too bad you never had a chance to talk to my father," she said wistfully. "Everything I know is only second hand through him; he got it straight from my great grandmother."

"I'm sorry, too," he said, and tried not to be too awkward about it even though he wasn't sure what exactly he was supposed to say to that. "But I'm sure whatever you know will be very helpful. I understand your great grandmother knew him well?"

"As well as anyone knew him," she said. "They used to perform together, back in the teens. Which I'm sure you already knew, since you knew enough to look me up."

Chris smiled. "I did know that much," he admitted. "I've read a few things, and seen a few pictures. And of course, I've read Dr. Pearlman's paper."

She made another face. "I was so disgusted the first time I read that. My great grandmother did not kill Nick."

"You're sure about that?"

"Absolutely," she insisted. "There's just no way. And if Dr. Pearlman had actually talked to any member of this family instead of writing the paper to cover his own grandfather's ass, he would have known that."

Chris just blinked at her a few times. "You think Pearlman did it? The manager?"

"Well, of course!" she said. "Don't you?"

It wasn't as though the thought hadn't occurred to Chris, but it had also occurred to Chris that it could have been any number of people, most of whom he'd probably never even know the name of. "Let's back up a little bit," he said. "So I get the full story."

She looked agreeable to that, maybe just grateful that Chris had come to her at all rather than just accepting what had already been written about the event. "Well, what can I tell you, Chris? I'll do the best I can."

"I hope this isn't a sensitive subject..." He said carefully, accepting the offer at face value. "But were your great grandmother and Nickolas Carter... intimate?"

She laughed. Laughed long and hard enough to attract the attention of a very small person, who poked her head in the doorway. Christi waved a hand at her. "Amy, mommy's got a guest right now. Go pick up your things, okay? And I'll make your favourite for dinner." Her favourite for dinner was apparently good incentive, because she disappeared quickly and Chris could hear her scrambling through the house.

"I said something funny?" he said, his own lips twitching a little. "Dr. Pearlman certainly seemed to think they were."

She dismissed that with another wave of her hand. "That was probably the single funniest thing in the whole paper," she told him. "Since everyone at the time knew that Nick and Joshua Chasez were -- how did you put it? -- intimate."

And wasn't that interesting. "Are you certain?"

"Straight from my great grandmother's lips," Christi swore. "Of course, that sort of thing wasn't ever open or acknowledged then. No one ever dared ask or even really speak of it. But they knew, even if they couldn't admit it."

"That's... that hadn't occurred to me," Chris admitted. That threw things into a whole new light. "Are you sure Chasez didn't do it, then?"

"Oh, quite," she said confidently. "Even if he could have, why would he? But he was never even a suspect, he was in hospital at the time."

"In the hospital?" said Chris, frowning and trying to recall what he knew of Chasez's history. He really should have brushed up, but Chasez had seemed such a minor player in this up until now. "Wait, this wasn't the night of the Blue Room raid, was it?"

"Well of course it was," she said. "Didn't you realize?"

Chris hadn't, and now he was kicking himself for that. If he was researching the murder -- and he had to admit that at this point he was -- then he knew enough to take a look at what else was going on alongside it. But he'd spent so much time focused on Carter alone.

"So what happened that night?" he asked her. "What happened that led to Carter's death."

"I can only tell you what I know," she said. Chris wasn't expecting any more; but what she knew was obviously more than what he did. "Joshua was playing that night -- Dad called him JC so I guess great grandma did, too. He says all his friends did." Chris just nodded. "They were all there -- grandma Mandy, and Nickolas Carter and his manager, and a bunch of other people. The place was packed."

Chris nodded, remembering the story. Or at least the parts of it he knew. "Chasez was playing when the police came."

She nodded. "It was after dark when the police showed up, with charges it was a morally indecent establishment and a bunch of other things that probably made sense at the time but seem absurd now. Obscenity. That sort of thing. Everyone started fleeing the place. JC was hit on the head--"

"--by a beer stein," Chris finished for her. "Which someone had thrown in his haste to get out. Which is why he was in the hospital overnight."

"Dad told me it was maybe the only time Nick had shown JC any special affection in public, rushing to his side to see if he was okay. That was one of the things she remembered most, about that night. A few moments later he was hustled out by his manager. That was the last time grandma Mandy saw him. She was there with a young man, her escort, who got her out as quickly as he could."

"And he took her home?"

Christi coughed politely. "Well, as it happened, he didn't live very far away, and took her to his own place. And... well. There's a reason great aunt Mary was born eight months after the wedding, if you follow."

Chris smiled in spite of himself. "So the last person to see Nick alive was his manager, then?"

"That I know of," agreed Christi.

"And that's why you're convinced he did it?"

"No," she said, shaking her head. "I think he did it because what he did after Nick was dead."

Chris waited.

"He stole all of Nick's music and published it as his own," she said bitterly. "That's pretty cold."

Chris took a few moments to process that, too. "So Pearlman didn't write Nick's songs?"

"What, are you kidding?" said Christi. "According to my dad, Pearlman was tone deaf and couldn't put a string of pretty words together if his life depended on it. There's no way he wrote any of those songs. Besides, my great grandmother told my dad she remembered Nick writing some of them when they were backstage together."

"Why didn't she tell anyone?"

"She did," said Christi, "but she was just a woman, and a pregnant, "hysterical" one at that, so no one who mattered believed her. Lou Pearlman was a powerful and respected man, even if he was a greasy slimeball."

"And so he got away with it."

"There was no proof," said Christi. "There was no proof of anything they could use. These days, of course, they probably would've caught him within a day, but it was tougher back then."

Chris nodded again; the whole thing was a lot to take in at once, so many of his assumptions had to shift. "Thank you," he said finally. "I think that'll help me a great deal."

"Is there anything else I can do for you?"

"Actually..." said Chris hesitantly. "I don't suppose your great grandmother kept anything of his, did she? Anything at all?"

"Just a couple of trunks of old clothes," she said apologetically. "She wanted a keepsake of Nick, but mostly I think she just wanted to keep a couple of things out of Pearlman's hands. She bought them at the estate sale; or, my great grandfather did, anyway, for her."

"I don't suppose you know where they are?"

"Sure," she said easily. "They're in my attic. Do you want to borrow them to take a look at? I don't have much use for them myself, we just keep them in the family for great grandma's sake."

"Would you mind?" said Chris, trying not to look too eager for them. "There might be something in one of them that could tell me something. Perhaps in a pocket or something." It was a longshot, but worth a try. Chris didn't have to admit that part of him really just wanted to touch something that had been Nick's.

"If it'll help you prove my great grandmother's innocence without... sullying her reputation... I'm all for it," she said, unfolding herself from the couch and standing up. "You're on your own to move them, though; they're awfully heavy. My ex-husband was the one who got them up there in the first place."

"I'm sure I can manage," said Chris, rolling up his sleeves and hoping he'd brought enough money for cab fare home with the trunks. "Thanks again, ma'am."

"Christi," she corrected him with a smile. "Just do what you can, Chris. It'll all even out in the end."

* * *

The first trunk hadn't yielded much, except some very well preserved clothing that had obviously been pawed through before at some point. Some of it probably belonged in a museum or something, or at least carefully on display, not shut up in a trunk in an attic. There was nothing there that told him anything, though. Except, perhaps, what Nick would have looked like on a daily basis, dressed up nice and not in grainy black and white photos.

The second trunk was locked tight, and no amount of jimmying Chris did could get the lock to pop open. And he wasn't exactly inexpert either. He finally gave up on it after dinner and left it in the middle of the living room; he would go to a home store in the morning and pick up something that would loosen it up more, so he could open it without damaging the chest.

In the meantime he made himself a cup of coffee and cranked up the Bob Marley on the stereo and watched the rain through his kitchen window for a few moments. It dripped off the eaves and off the yellowed leaves of the trees and in some way reminded him of his childhood, standing in a dozen different kitchens and doing the same thing. He wondered if his mother was doing the same thing right then.

A loud knock at the door distracted him enough that he almost dropped his coffee mug onto the counter. "Coming, coming!" he said, and sifted frantically through his memories to make sure he wasn't late with the rent. When he through the door open, though, it wasn't the building manager on the doorstep; it was Joey.

"Can I come in?" he asked water dripping off his nose and fingertips. He looked like he'd been out in the rain longer than it took to get from the driveway around to Chris's door.

"Of course," he said quickly and backed away from the door so Joey could come in out of the rain, shutting the door up tight again afterwards though the kitchen window remained open, letting the breeze in. "I didn't know you were coming over tonight."

"Well, neither did I," admitted Joey, wiping his feet off on the tiny mat, then just kicking his soaked shoes off. "I should've called, man. You might not have even been home."

Chris snickered. "Where else am I these days? You're still the only person here I know well enough to hang out with."

"Well, that's your choice, man," said Joey. "You know you could have half the school in the palm of your hand if you wanted."

"Well, not quite half," said Chris with a wry, appreciative smile. "So what brings you here? Bored?"

"Something like that," said Joey, running his fingers through his damp hair. Chris should probably offer him something to wear, if he had anything that would fit. "It's just... you know that guy Trace, that AJ's seeing?"

"Yeah?" said Chris warily.

Joey shrugged. "He's spending the night. And I'm cool with AJ dating him and all, but... just don't need to be hearing that, you know? AJ's never been quiet." Chris made a sympathetic face. He'd known it would come to this at some point, with Joey still living in the same apartment as his ex, but that didn't mean it didn't suck. "I just wanted to get away from it for a while."

"You should stay here tonight," Chris told him firmly. He knew Joey wanted to, even if he'd been polite and said he just wanted to get away "for a while". Sometimes he had to offer, when Joey wouldn't ask. "I have some extra blankets, we can find space in my room."

"I'll be fine," said Joey, shaking his head. "Out here, I mean. Thanks, Chris. I really didn't want to have to go back to that."

"I know," said Chris sympathetically. "You really don't want to be staying out here, though. You know what goes on in my living room at night."

Joey gave him a skeptical look. "Chris, it's not that I don't believe you..." Well, actually, that was exactly it, Chris thought. "Really, even without moving that old trunk, there's plenty of room. I'll just bunk down in one of the chairs. I'll be fine."

Chris just nodded; it wasn't like he could force him. "It does actually recline, if you push hard enough," he said. "I found out last week, by accident."

"Do I want to know what you were doing accidentally push it hard enough to get it to recline?" Joey asked him, shaking the last of the water out of his hair.

"Probably not," Chris admitted. "Though it's not nearly as kinky as what you're imagining."

"I'll just stick with the mental image I've got, then," Joey said, grinning at him. "You're bendier than I thought, Kirkpatrick."

"You'd better believe it," said Chris. "You want a drink or something? I've got some beer in the fridge, I think. And the last of that bottle of tequila from last time you came over."

"Beer," said Joey, making a face as he finally stripped his jacket off, hanging it on the back of the door. It dripped onto the mat. "I'm never drinking tequila again."

"Yeah, I've heard that before," said Chris, getting him a beer. "Give it a week. And hey! Don't use that trunk as a footstool, that's very valuable."

"No offense, Chris," said Joey, stripping his socks off and leaving them on the floor where Chris suspected they would make a little puddle, "but it doesn't really look it."

"It's not mine," said Chris quickly, before Joey put his feet up again. "I'm just borrowing it."

"Whyfor?" Chris handed him the beer as he made himself comfortable in one of the chairs.

"Used to belong to Carter," said Chris, running his hand over it almost reverently before he sat down. "One of a pair, other one's by the door there. Lock's jammed, though. I need to pick up some oil tomorrow and see if I can get inside."

"What's in there, anyway?" asked Joey. He reached out to nudge it with his foot, but couldn't quite reach.

"Clothes," said Chris. "And if I'm lucky, maybe something else, too. I suppose a confession from the killer in his coat pocket would be too much to ask?"

Joey laughed. "Yeah, I wouldn't get my hopes up for that one, Kirkpatrick. You're really... you're really into him, huh?" For once he didn't sound like he was teasing, and he didn't sound dismissive. He just sounded curious.

"It's not like that, Joey."

"Then what's it like?" asked Joey. "Cause I know it's not just academic curiosity."

Chris sighed. "It's not," he had to admit. "Not just, I mean. I'm not kidding when I say I see him in here, Joey. I feel like... almost like it's my duty, to learn about him, to not let people forget he existed and what happened to him."

"Like your sacred duty?"

Chris chuckled softly. "Well, maybe not sacred," he said. "But the more I learn, the more... I look at that picture of him, and I feel things I haven't felt since I was with Dani."

"You were in love with Danielle..."

"I'm not in love with Carter," said Chris. "I'm really... I'm not. But still. I guess..." He sighed. "It's easy to think about him like that, because he's not here, he's not real. I can't fuck things up."

"You're in love with a dead guy because you're afraid of commitment?"

"No, no," said Chris, staring down at his hand. It was awkward, being forced to say things that had only existed in his head before. "I'm not in love with him, and it has nothing to do with commitment. Maybe it's a fear of trying again."

"You didn't do anything to fuck things up with Danielle, though," said Joey. "It's not like she threw you out on your ass; you said it was just because you guys didn't want to try long distance."

"No, I know," said Chris. "And I made my choice not to go to grad school in California and I'm still happy with that choice. But still."

"Maybe that's why you're seeing him so much. Because you want to."

Chris didn't really want to see Nick with blood gushing out his mouth and a pair of scissors lodged in his back. "I think it was the other way around," he said finally. "I didn't get curious about him until he first started to appear. And Joey... I'm not in love with him, okay? I'm not some psycho. He's just, you know, a nice, safe object of affection."

"Hmm," said Joey. He was nodding thoughtfully, and Chris hoped Joey finally believed him. "I saw those pictures. He was pretty gorgeous."

Chris laughed finally. "And plus -- plus -- I found out today that he and Joshua Chasez were lovers."

Joey lifted both eyebrows. "For real?"

"From the most reliable source there is left," Chris assured him. "I never really thought about him that way before, but Joshua wasn't so bad looking himself..."

"Seems to me you never thought about any guys that way before."

Chris just shrugged. "Just never really came up," he told him. "What with me and Danielle being together since the dawn of time and all. But seriously, it was never recorded anywhere, but they were together. I guess a person could see it if they read between the lines enough, but no one ever has."

"Well," said Joey, smiling at him. "Your Nickolas is just full of surprises, isn't he."

* * *

Chris woke to a bellow and a heavy banging on his bedroom door. "Let me in! Let me in! Goddammit, Chris!"

Chris tumbled out of bed and shuffled to the bedroom door, opening it for Joey even though it wasn't locked. Joey just about knocked him over in his haste to get inside, and pulled the door right out of Chris's grasp to slam it shut.

"I swear," he said breathlessly, grabbing at Chris's shoulders, "I will never, ever, ever doubt another word out of your mouth. Ever."

"Whoa," said Chris, "whoa, calm down, Joey. Sit down, okay?" He grabbed hold of the elastic of Joey's boxers and tugged him toward the bed. "Sit down. On the bed."

Joey's eyes looked wild as he stared into Chris's face for a moment, then he finally seemed to understand what Chris was saying and tore away to throw himself onto the bed. His feet dangled off the end for a moment, like so much bait, before he yanked them in and tucked them up under him. "He's out there, Chris."

"I know." Now that Joey wasn't bellowing or knocking, Chris could hear the now-familiar footprints. "It's okay, Joey, he's harmless."

"He's dead and he's out there!"

"What did you see?" Chris hoped his voice was soothing, but honestly he didn't have much practice being all that soothing and didn't know if he was any good at it. "What happened?"

Joey swallowed a couple times and finally looked calm enough to communicate clearly. "I was... I was asleep," he said. "On the chair, wrapped in the blanket, I was asleep. And then I wasn't, I heard these footsteps. I thought it was you, and I looked up to tell you to stop being a fucking elephant in the middle of the night--" Chris grinned. "--but there was nothing there."

"No, I know," said Chris quietly. "Just footsteps."

"But then," said Joey, and a shudder went through his whole body. Chris put an arm around him just to try to keep him still. "But then I looked down, down on the floor, and it was there."

"He," said Chris.

"He was there, on the floor in a pool of blood. His clothes were drenched in it, and the scissors... god, they were still in his back." He closed his eyes. "And that was when it got awful. He... he moved. He opened his eyes and he moved and he reached around his back... and he yanked the scissors out." He shuddered again, and there was nothing Chris could do to stop it. "And then he offered them to me, looked right at me and offered them to me, covered in blood and guts and spine..."

"Shit, Joey."

"And that was when I came in here," he finished finally. "He doesn't come in here, does he? Tell me he doesn't come in here."

"He doesn't come in here," said Chris. "He never comes in here, he never leaves that one area, Joey." Joey shuddered again, but it was lighter this time, like his body was finally coming down. "It's okay."

"I can't go back out there."

"No, I know, it's okay," said Chris. "Just stay in here."

"I'm sorry I didn't believe you."

"It's okay," he said again, finally removing his arm from around Joey's shoulders. The footsteps had stopped, but Chris still had the feeling that Nick was out there. The air just felt different when he was. "Go on and get into the bed, Joey, it's big enough for two."

Joey hesitated for a moment, but one look at the closed bedroom door sent him quickly under the covers. A moment later, Chris followed him.

"Thanks, Chris," Joey murmured as he snuggled down. Now that the adrenaline had started to drain from his body, Chris figured he would crash quickly. Better that way, too; the less time Joey had to really think about what had just happened, the better.

Chris, however, didn't even close his eyes until the feeling of Nickolas faded from the air again.

* * *

Chris woke to the not uncomfortable feeling of Joey Fatone's arms around him. He thought about wiggling out of them, going to make breakfast, but decided to just enjoy the moment. It was too damn cozy to want to leave.

Finally, though, the needs of his bladder outweighed the needs of... well, just about anything else. Giving Joey a quick kiss, he slipped out of bed and felt his way to the bathroom to relieve himself. It wasn't until his dick was in his hand that he realized what he'd done.

Two minutes later he was back in the bedroom to grab his glasses off the night table. Joey still seemed to be sleeping, his arm now wrapped around Chris's pillow instead of Chris. It felt weird and not weird to have him there, so Chris just crept out of the room and went into the kitchen to make some coffee.

There was no sign of what had happened the night before, of course. There never was. Just the scattered blankets the Joey had thrown off, the carpet slightly askew where he'd probably skidded on it in his haste. Chris turned the coffee pot on and went to clean it up before Joey got up, folding the blankets and piling them on the first trunk. He could put them away later; they were hardly in the way where they were.

He was just pouring himself his first cup of coffee when he heard erratic footfalls behind him. Turning his head, he saw Joey stumbling out of the bedroom, yawning widely. A moment later he spotted Chris and gave him a sheepish grin.

"Morning," said Chris, reaching into the cupboard for another mug. "Coffee?"

"You know it," said Joey, yawning again. "Hey, so I'm sorry about last night. I totally freaked out there over... well, not nothing, but..."

"I shoulda had you in the bedroom to begin with," said Chris. "If you weren't so damn stubborn I would have, too. Next time don't be a hero, okay? Nick is harmless, but he's damn freaky."

"Yeah," said Joey, rubbing his arm like he was cold. It was still raining outside. "I'm not convinced about the harmless thing. It's a little less freaky in the daytime, though."

"Yeah, it always is," said Chris.

Joey rested his hand on the small of Chris's back as he picked his coffee up off the counter. Chris kept looking out the kitchen window for a moment, sipping his coffee. After a comfortable silence, he turned his head toward Joey and gave him a little smile.

Joey smiled back. "I don't have class for a couple hours," he said conversationally. "You mind if I hang around here?"

"Hey, feel free," said Chris, sipping his coffee again. Thinking about the last couple weeks. "So okay. Have we been dating or something?"

"Hmm," said Joey, and rubbed his thumb on Chris's back. "No, not really." He sipped his own coffee. "We could, though."

"You think?" said Chris slowly. "I kissed you this morning."

Joey grinned at him. "You mean that wasn't just a dream?"

Chris just had to grin back. "Well, if there was tongue involved then it was a dream, you letch."

"Ah well," said Joey. "Maybe next time. Maybe next time I won't sleep through it, too."

With one last stroke he took his hand away from Chris's back and wandered with his coffee into the living room. And Chris figured that was all that needed to be said about it. He refilled his own almost-empty cup and followed him.

Joey plunked himself down in the same chair he always seemed to occupy when he came over. "Don't you dare put your feet up on the--" Chris began, then stopped dead. "Did you move the trunk?"

"Did I what?" said Joey, looking for a place to put his coffee down. Finally putting it on the floor, he looked up again. "Did I move the--?" His eyes widened when he seemed to realize what Chris was asking. "Damn, Chris, that's fucking creepy. Where is it?"

The room was big, sure, but it was also still sparse. The trunk was sitting flush against the wall in the far corner, half in shadow. Chris just pointed.

"Shit," said Joey, jumping out of the chair to see. "Chris... he put it there."

"I know he did."

"Your fucking ghost put it there. That's..." Joey shuddered.

"It's harmless, Joey," Chris reminded him, approaching the trunk with a little trepidation anyway. "It's just a relocated trunk. It's not like he wrote his name in blood on the walls."

"Yeah, well, don't give him any ideas."

"Nick doesn't want to hurt us," insisted Chris. "He was the victim here."

"Chris, this is seriously creepy. You need to do something about this. I know this priest--"

"Damn your Catholic ass, Fatone, my apartment does not need an exorcism!"

Chris considered moving the trunk back to the middle of the floor, but Nick obviously wanted it somewhere else and really, no harm in leaving it there. At least no one was gonna trip over it, or put their feet up on it.

"Whoever this guy was in life, Chris, he's not that anymore. And I don't care what kind of crush you got going on, you can't go through this every night, with the footsteps and the blood and the ghost."

"I know, I know," admitted Chris, staring at the trunk and not meeting Joey's eyes. "I just... I don't think he wants to hurt anybody. I'm doing the best I can."

"By trying to figure out what happened to him?

"Well, yeah," said Chris. Because wasn't that what he was doing, really? At the core of it all? "I figure, if I figure out what happened here, I'll figure out why he's here, you know? And if I can figure out why he's here, then maybe I can get him to stop... bleeding on my carpet, at least."

"At least," Joey echoed him. "Okay, Chris."

"And you get used to it, you know," he added. "The footsteps. You just sleep right through it, after a while. Just... don't sleep on the chair anymore."

"Right. Yeah. Won't be doing that again." Joey finally relaxed a bit, even though his eyes flicked to the trunk warily.

"Right." The silence this time was a bit more awkward, then Chris shrugged and sipped his cooling coffee. "Do you think you could give me a ride today? I need to pick up some oil to get into that trunk."

"I can give you a ride any day," he said. "I'm gonna take a shower, okay? Then maybe I can cook up some breakfast?"

"Sure," said Chris. "Towels are in the hall closet. Knock yourself out."

Chris finished his coffee, watching the muscles shift in Joey's back as he left the room.

* * *

"Well I guess it would be nice," Chris sang, dancing up the steps to the Pederson Building, "If I could touch your body." He jumped over an empty planter and skidded to a stop in front of the double doors. "I know not everybody." He threw both doors open and bounced inside straight in between. "Has got a body like you."

Inside the building, he had to content himself with just bopping along with his walkman as he jogged up four flights of stairs and down a wide hallway. His shoes clicked on the marble floor, like inept tap dancing.

The two clocks hanging nearby told two different times, almost forty-five minutes apart. Chris looked from one to the other and back again, then shrugged and slid to the floor next to the water fountain, back flush to the wall, straight across from the classroom door. He could wait out the end of class, it couldn't be long.

The clock on his right turned out to be closer, only ten minutes out, or so. He'd managed to read about twenty-five pages of a book he didn't care much about, and successfully ignore the reading he ought to be doing.

Students started streaming out of the classroom, turning left and right, adjusting backpacks and throwing on jackets and stuffing notes into already overstuffed books. Joey already had his pack over his shoulder and was sliding on his sunglasses when he finally stepped out.

Chris whipped a disposable camera out and snapped a shot before Joey even knew he was there. He managed to get two more in before Joey made it across the hall.

"Chris?" he said, sliding his backpack up over the other shoulder and bouncing it once to test its security. "What the hell?"

Chris lowered the camera to chest level and grinned up at him. "Just takin' some pictures."

"I see that," he said, crossing his arms and staring down. "Should I even ask why?" He poked at Chris's knee with his foot as he waited for an answer, rubbing it softly against Chris's jeans. "What are you doing here?"

"Seminar let out early," he said, stretching one leg out to nudge at Joey's ankle. "Figured I'd come find you for a few minutes before heading home."

"And the pictures?"

Chris shrugged, still grinning. "Cause I didn't have any," he said. "A whole pile of pictures of Nickolas and none of Joey Fatone. It didn't seem right."

Joey's smile was bright, and Chris took one more shot.

* * *

"All right," said Chris, once the oil'd had time to soak in. Some Ella Fitzgerald playing softly on the stereo and he figured he was really ready to do this. "Let's try this one... more... time." He stuck the pick in to jimmy the lock, careful not to scratch, and moments later, pop! The mechanism clicked and the lock snapped open. "Damn."

He lifted the lid carefully -- the other had been so dusty he'd sneezed for ten minutes before he could get a good look inside -- but there were no clothes inside this trunk.

"Holy shit."

It looked like he'd been the first person in here since the trunk had been sealed up. By Nick himself, Chris figured. Had to have been, if they thought the trunk to be full of Nick's clothing, because a trunk full of books and papers would have been a hot commodity both at the time of the investigation and later on, when everyone was left wondering what had happened that night.

Chris gingerly touched the papers, but besides a healthy coating of dust, they seemed to be in very sturdy condition. He gingerly pulled out a handful and lay them on the floor in front of him, and began to work his way through through.

Most of it was just correspondence; Nick appeared to keep all of it, carefully pressed into stacks and tucked away. Another day Chris knew he would want to pore over every bit of it, piecing together Nick's life, Nick's history. But right now he was on a mission and he was determined not to get sidetracked.

The first interesting thing he found was in a letter from Lou Pearlman to Nickolas. Chris hadn't realized that seventy-seven Black Wren Road had been Pearlman's. Had been, seeing as he'd given it to Nickolas in return for what was only termed "future compensation". Which Chris could only assume meant the profits from Nick's blossoming musical career. Music didn't pay a lot, though; it would have taken a long time to pay him back for a house like this. Maybe that was the idea.

Nick had been estanged from his family, which was another thing that Nick had suspected that had been confirmed in his correspondence. Pearlman was just about the closest thing he had. Seemed to him Christi had implied something about that, too, as they'd loaded the trunks into her SUV and she'd given him a ride home the other day.

It took what felt like hours before Chris got through all of the business correspondence. Enough time to cycle through Ella and Miles Davis and come up on a double CD of Floyd.

Though there was a lot from Pearlman, none of it seemed really relevant. It actually very familiar and affectionate, much like a father corresponding with his son, Chris thought. Lots of mentions of their future plans -- Lou was planning on bringing Nickolas to New York in a year or two, to try their luck there.

It hardly sounded like the actions of a man who would then go on to kill him. And maybe Pearlman had stolen Nick's songs after he died -- though Chris currently only had someone else's word for that -- but did it really make sense to kill Nick for them before he hit the peak of his fame? Before he even approached it?

"I don't know if he did it, Nickolas," Chris murmured, then rolled his eyes at himself for talking to someone who wasn't there. But then the trunk moved. Not much, just about an inch or so to the left, but it surprised Chris enough that he scurried backwards from it. "Shit, Carter, did you do that?"

The trunk moved back to the right again. Back to its starting place.

Chris licked his lips and tried not to feel like a nutcase for talking to something that he couldn't see, but was sure was there. Now that he was thinking about he was having that same feeling again, that electrified air feeling. And it wasn't going away.

"Okay then, I'm gonna keep looking," he said finally, and happily his voice didn't crack. He crawled back over to the trunk again, to continue his search. "And don't you move it while I'm digging in there, either."

Nick didn't.

Setting the pile of documents carefully aside -- as carefully as he could under the conditions -- he pulled out a wooden box, lovingly engraved in a floral pattern and in pristine condition. "Nice," he murmured, but there was no response this time. "You know, Joey's gonna come walking in here and he's gonna think I'm nuts, talking to myself, you know. The things I do for you, Nickolas."

The lid popped off the box in his hands, just enough to set it askew. "Nick!" said Chris, his hands trembling. "What would you have done if I dropped that? I was getting to it, you know. Don't be impatient." The top of the box slid open a little more. "You're creeping me out, you know that, right?"

Except he wasn't, not really. Sure Chris's hair was standing on end a little bit, but this was by far the friendliest interaction he'd had with Nickolas yet. The only interaction, really, that went beyond eye contact. And Chris only felt a little terrified.

He took the lid off the box and set it onto the floor with a muted click. Inside were letters, a couple dozen at least, still inside their envelopes. Chris carefully pulled the first one out and read it, and instantly realized why they had been tucked away so lovingly. These letters were all from Joshua Chasez.

It was one thing to hear someone claim that Nick and JC were lovers, it was another to see evidence of it. Especially something like this.

Joshua's words were as Chris had imagined they would be, after poring over many examples of his writing in the past -- lyrical but also very plain, speaking of things they'd done together and not just alluding to them. It wasn't nearly as blunt as it might have been had it been written these days, but it was enough to make Chris blush.

"My my, Nick," he said appreciatively. It felt a little voyeuristic reading the letters knowing that somehow Nick was watching him, but Nick had made it as clear as Chris thought he could that he wanted Chris to know what was in the box. He took the time to scan over all of them, though he only read the first in great detail.

They were all largely the same, expressions of passion, of admiration. Details about their time together. It was an incredibly powerful historical record of the relationship, the likes of which Chris hadn't seen before. He knew at least a half dozen people who'd like to get their hands on this, for a half different projects.

"Would you mind?" he asked Nick, but he got no response this time. Carefully he put them all away and again slid the lid back on the box. It fitted tightly. So tightly that Chris may never have been able to get it off had Nick not decided to let him see. "Thank you," he said as he set the box aside. It only seemed right.

There was still a lot left inside the trunk, all packed neatly away so it wouldn't shift and slide as the trunk was moved. Very clever. He didn't know if Nick had planned for people to assume that it was full of clothes, but he certainly didn't want to make it easy for them to know what it really was, either.

Another box was fitted into the corner of the trunk, this one not nearly as fine or well constructed as the first. The wood felt almost as flimsy as cardboard and the lid was all but falling off. The one was stuffed full of notes, some full papers, some scraps, some that were written on the backs of posters.

They were Nick's songs. Nick's songs, in Nick's handwriting which was easily recognizable from the papers Chris had shuffled through earlier. No doubt now that Nick had penned the songs, the evidence of it hidden all these years. Christi had been speaking the truth.

"You know, maybe you should have made someone find this stuff a lot earlier, Nickolas," he said aloud. "You could've earned your family some nice royalties over the years."

He was glad that Christi wouldn't be wanting the trunk back any time soon; Chris didn't know if he could bear to part with it now.

"I wish I could have heard you sing these. It's a shame I never will." The papers he was holding fluttered I his hand, like a caress. Or an apology. He grinned to himself. "Would it have killed you to record something, Carter?" The papers fluttered again. "Just kidding."

He was getting way too comfortable talking to this ghost.

There didn't seem to be much else of note in the trunk, though Chris would definitely have to go through it bit by bit. He wasn't sure what he was hoping to find, maybe something that would unambiguously say "Here! This is the killer!" And there just wasn't that.

"Did I miss something?" he murmured aloud. It wasn't even meant for Nick's attention this time, but the trunk moved again. Not just moved, but jumped. "Shit! Okay, I guess that's a yes."

Chris went back to the beginning.

Lou had definitely stolen Nick's music, but that didn't seem much like a motive. Not the way Christi seemed to think of it. More of an opportunistic afterthought. Why that particular night, the night of the raid? What happened to change things?

He picked up a couple of the notes from Lou again, frowning at them. Lou kept talking about about what he and Nick would do together, what they would accomplish, the places they would go.

The night of the raid was the first night, Christi had said, that Nick had openly shown his affection for JC.

Lou had been with Nick at the club that night. Lou, who was talking about Nick like they were going to spend the rest of their lives together.

"Oh God," said Chris, dropping the papers to the floor. "Oh God, Nick, he was in love with you." And when he saw Nick and JC together, Lou knew that he could never have him. "And if he couldn't have you..." Then no one could.

"Lou did it. Lou really did it."

The whole trunk shot up into the air, papers flying out in every direction, whirlwinding and blanketing the whole room. Chris scurried back again, then watched in awe until it crashed back down to the floor. The silence that followed was thick.

* * *

Chris clutched Joey's arm tightly as they scurried down the hallway then out the front door of the building and down a narrow sidewalk.

"Are you sure?" asked Joey. "Are you absolutely sure?"

"Absolutely sure," said Chris. "You have to see some of this stuff, Joey, it's unbelievable."

"So what are you going to do, Chris? Do you think he knew he was wrong? Do you think he knew all along?"

"He went to a lot of trouble to hide from me that he even knew who Nickolas Carter was," said Chris, tugging Joey off the side of the path, between two bushes and right up next to the brick of the building. "I think that's a pretty good sign."

"But not proof."

"It's proof of something," argued Chris. "We're just not sure of what, is all. Those are not the actions of an innocent man."

"You have to go talk to him," said Joey, but he didn't sound like he was the idea's biggest fan. "If you want to know what he knew."

"That's where I'm headed," said Chris, nodding vigorously. Hyped up as he had been ever since he'd pieced it all together. Sleeping the previous night had been near to impossible. "After you, that's where. But I had to tell you."

"And you think this'll get Nickolas to settle down," Joey confirmed. "You think this is what it's going to take."

"I think it will," said Chris. He had no idea really, just knew this was something that had to be done. "But it's more than that. This is academic fraud, Joey. He fucked with history! And that's just wrong."

Joey was smiling at him. Chris was dead serious, but Joey was grinning at him like an idiot. "Okay, good stuff," he said.

"What?" said Chris. "What's that look all about?"

"Nothing," said Joey, shaking his head, still grinning. "Just you, is all. I gotta run to class. We still meeting after?"

"Of course," said Chris, tugging him forward and planting a firm kiss on his lips. "We'll go for a drink. I have a feeling I'm going to need one."

Joey gave him one last kiss before they ducked back onto the path, this time heading in opposite directions. Chris steeled himself, then headed for Lee's office.

* * *

"Mr. Kirkpatrick," said Lee as Chris stepped into his office, lacing his hands behind his head. "Long time no see. I was starting to think an entire couple weeks might go by without me meeting with you."

"God forbid," Chris murmured under his breath. "I need to talk to you."

"Of course you do," he said. "What have you come up with this time? An analysis of the evolution of whistling technique?"

"Fascinating as that would be," said Chris dryly, "I've been sticking with my original plan to study Carter and his ilk. It's been enlightening."

"I see," said Lee. He sounded unimpressed, but not particularly worried. It was really kind of an insult; it wasn't as though his article had been particularly difficult to find. "I'd have to assume you've found a new angle to come at it from, then, since I'm sure you've found that there's little of interest in Carter himself."

"On the contrary," said Chris, matching Lee's tone note for note. "The more I learned, the more questions I found I had about it. The first being, did you know your grandfather killed him when you fabricated that article?"

Though his face didn't so much as twitch, Lee's coffee mug slipped from his fingers and shattered on the floor. For a long moment, that was the only sound in the room.

"That's quite an accusation," he said finally, as though nothing had happened. "However, you don't know what you're talking about."

Chris was ready for that, though. He was ready for anything Lee could throw at him. "Oh, I think I know exactly what I'm talking about," he said cooly. "Because one of us in this room actually did some research on the subject and that someone wasn't you."

"My paper was immaculately researched," he said tighly. "Christopher, do you understand the consequences of making these accusations? You could be asked to leave this program..."

"These aren't accusations so much as questions, at this point," Chris said. "Questions which you haven't answered. Did you know? Is that why you accused Mandy Moore, without any evidence to support it?"

"Mandy Moore was the prime suspect at the time," Lee countered. "It wasn't pulled out of thin air."

"And the police at the time didn't have any evidence to back it up either. It seems like fairly shoddy research to me, to not even have spoken to Mandy's descendants."

"What could they offer me, because lies and defenses?"

"Extensive documentation proving not only that she didn't do it, but that your grandfather did," said Chris crisply. Not lies, not deceptions, just the unvarnished truth.

"If such things existed, they would have offered them up ages ago to clear her name."

"The funny thing was, they didn't realize they had them," said Chris, leaving out the parts that he was able. If the family wanted to preserve her reputation, he could honour that. "Until I spoke with them, and we went looking."

"You're lying," he insisted. "No such proof exists."

"Did. You. Know," said Chris, raising his voice only a fraction but putting ten times more power behind it. "Did you know all along, and write that paper anyway to cover it up?"

The following silence was all the confirmation Chris needed. He was up out of his seat and to the door again a moment later, giving Lee no chance to stop him. "There will be consequences for this," he said, and fled.

There would be consequences all right, and before he met with Joey he was going to go find the people who could mete them out.

* * *

Chris was dead tired by the time they got back to his apartment.

First, a meeting with officials of the university, laying out all his evidence. Going through it bit by bit, making his bulletproof case against Lee in front of them. And then leaving it in their hands, to do what had to be done.

Then a drink with Joey, which he really, really needed by that time. Chris had tried to talk him into the stripper thing this time, but Joey'd just taken his own shirt off, and that was good enough.

And after that, running around to half a dozen different libraries, picking up the bits and pieces he needed to fill out the end of Nick's story.

They pulled into the driveway a couple hours after dark, another car whipping in right behind them. Chris had already gotten out and stretched before he recognized it as Wade's. He gave him a quick, semi-friendly wave as Wade got out, Brit right behind him.

"Hey," he said as he waited for Joey, and would have happily left it at that, but Wade, with Britney in tow, sauntered up to the passenger side of the car.

"So you're still here," he said, but it was with a smile and the way it came out it was more of a running joke than an insult. "I'll be damned."

"I'm a tenacious fucker," said Chris, giving him a grin in return that was mostly a baring of his teeth. "I think I've finally taken care of the rat problem."

Wade's eyebrow lifted artfully. "Really," he said, sounding both curious and impressed. "Well, that's a first. Isn't that special."

"I'm a special guy," said Chris, trimming the grin back to a smirk.

"Well, good thing," said Wade. "I was just getting to like you. I'd hate to see you replaced."

Joey cleared his throat from the other side of the car, and Chris looked back over his shoulder to flash him a grin. "Right," he said. "Wade, this is Joey. Joey, this is Wade and, uh, Brit. And I think that's my cue to get my cute buns inside."

"My thoughts exactly," murmured Joey, just loud enough to be heard. "Nice meeting you Wade."

"I ought to be getting in too" said Wade with an acknowledging nod, Britney not subtly tugging on his hand. "I'll be seeing you around."

"You certainly will," said Chris, and once they disappeared inside he circled the car and took Joey's hand and led him around and up to his own apartment.

"Rats?" said Joey as Chris let them inside, and Chris just laughed.

"It's a long story," he said. "Remind me to tell you sometime."

"All right then. Straight to bed?" Joey suggested, bolting the door behind them and flicking on all the lights. "Or do you really want something to eat first?" He yawned widely, and it was no mystery which he would choose.

"I'm just going to grab some crackers or something," said Chris, hanging his jacket up on the door. "Meet you in there? I have something I need to do."

Joey didn't ask what. Given what Chris had spent the last few hours doing, he probably already had a pretty good idea. "I'll be waiting," he said after a moment, and gave Chris a quick kiss as he kicked off his shoes before disappearing into the bedroom.

Chris got himself a glass of water before clearing his throat to start. "Well," he said, wandering out into the middle of the living room floor. "Hard to know where to start here, Nick."

He could feel Nick in the room, that oddness of the air, that feeling on the back of his neck. Nick was listening.

"There isn't really a beginning, is there? And I don't know exactly what you want to hear..." Chris licked his lips. "I don't even know if this'll do any good. So we know that Lou did it now. I mean, if this were a police case, it would all be circumstantial but I'm pretty sure any jury would convict."

He noticed the trunk was back in the corner again, and not where he'd left it. Chris figured that was probably where it belonged.

"And your songs," he went on, "the world is going to know that the songs were yours soon. Well, maybe not soon, but I'm working on that. Things are complicated these days and it's gonna take some time. Bad enough that he killed you, but to take away the thing your whole life had been about?" That was a huge part of the tragedy of it all.

"He died in 1938," Chris went on. "Syphilis, if you're curious, and I know you are. Or I know I would be. So he went mad and died a miserable, lonely death, as he deserved. I love poetic justice, don't you?"

Nick didn't seem to be in much of a mood to respond.

"And Mandy, she had a lovely family, Nick. She married Richardson, who I'm sure you knew about even if you never told a soul, and they had two kids. And five grandchildren. And eight great grandchildren. And two great great so far, one of whom I had the pleasure of meeting. She did well for herself, Nick. She was loved." He sighed. "Mandy passed away in 1976, in Florida, just two years after her husband."

Chris felt a fluttering in the air, like a soft wind swirling around him. It wasn't unpleasant.

"And Joshua -- I suppose you would have called him JC, wouldn't you? He didn't work for months after your death, you know. Everyone thought it was because of his injury in the Blue Room raid, but it wasn't. I know that now. I think he probably loved you a lot, Nick. He went on to do great things, wonderful things. I'm so going to go out and buy some of his recordings to play for you, so you know.

"He died in 1968, after a good, long life. People remember him, like they're gonna remember you now, too. He stayed here his whole life; he's buried just north of the city. I don't know if you knew that, maybe you did."

He paced the floor restlessly, trying to choose his words. "I don't know what happens now," he said finally. "But I think I've done all I can, Nick. I hope you can find some peace, or whatever it is you're looking for. Or at the very least stop feeling the need to bleed all over my rug every night.

"I've got someone waiting for me in the bedroom now. I don't know if this is 'good-bye' or 'see you later' or what, but I'm gonna go now. Take care, Nick. I think you're a pretty cool guy."

Chris turned the light off, and as he headed for the bedroom to join Joey, he thought he saw the faint outline of Nick, sitting contentedly on his trunk of treasures.

"All done?" Joey asked him as Chris closed the bedroom door behind him.

"I think so," said Chris, stripping down quickly. The bed looked infinitely comfortable, especially with Joey in it. "I'm not sure what else I can do now. We'll just have to see."

"If I go out there for a glass of water in the middle of the night and see him dying on the floor again, I'm not going to be happy."

Chris grinned as he crawled into the bed, twining one leg around Joey's. "I don't think that's going to happen," he said. "Nice to see you've made yourself so comfortable. I was half afraid you were going to be asleep already when I came in here."

"Nope," said Joey. "Tired as you are, I was thinking you had other things in mind when you invited me back here." Then he grinned in return and reached behind him to turn out the light.

Chris pulled him close and kissed him for a long time, before he became aware that he could still feel the presence of Nick. Not an anticipatory presence like before, but a presence nonetheless.

"Okay," he said aloud, looking away from Joey and out to the empty room. "I'm fine if you stay, Nickolas Carter, but there will be no eavesdropping. Got it?" He waited a moment, and the presence faded again. He turned back to Joey. "Now where were we?"

* * *

The directions from Christi had been a little vague, but Chris managed to find the plot anyway after about twenty minutes of searching. It was very simple and very classy, and looked very much like the sort of thing that Chasez would pick out for him.

Nickolas Gene Carter, 1893-1916. It felt very strange to see it chiseled in stone like that, when all this time Chris had been seeing him as a living presence.

"I didn't bring you anything," he said plainly to the tombstone. "I know you're not really here. I think I just needed to see it for myself." He reached out and patted it, and the stone was cold. "It just seemed right."

It was a pleasant enough spot, soft grasses and tall trees that would surely be lush and green in the summertime. And not so far from Joshua, really, which Chris considered more important than any of those other things.

So he'd seen it, and perhaps he would come back some time, but he didn't think that would be necessary. This was enough.

"Yeah, so I guess I'll see you when I get home," he said, and when he turned and walked away, his steps were light.

For Don't Ask Me Why, a Chris-centric Challenge.

He's been stabbed in the back he's been misunderstood
It's a comfort to know his intentions are good

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