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THE ESCALATION CLAUSE - Ch 1 Sneak Peek

Of all the ways to start a new week, being hauled to the local police station after a traffic stop certainly had to win some kind of award for last place. Eden was a nervous driver at the best of times, so when she saw the flashing lights in her rear-view mirror, her hands had shaken and sweat had pooled in her lower back. There were no shoulders on Storrow Drive—possibly one of the most notorious of all Boston roadways—and sheer panic had almost had Eden driving onto the grassy embankment before common sense prevailed, and she turned on her hazard lights and pulled over. If she’d known then that she was about to be bundled into the backseat of a cop car, and escorted to the local precinct, well, she probably would have had actual heart failure.

Eden didn’t watch much television, but her stepdad had always liked cop shows. It was the scent that television got wrong. Not that anyone could smell through a screen—no matter how fancy their entertainment center—but she had definitely imagined something different. From the pieces she’d seen, she’d always imagined that the station would smell a bit like the tang of metal, a hint of cigarette smoke, and the earthy sweetness of leather.

It didn’t.

Instead, window units hazed the room with a musty dampness that couldn’t fully disguise the scent of sweat and weed.

Eden wasn’t in a fancy interrogation room like she had imagined, staring down a one-way window disguised as a mirror. She was sitting on an old, lumpy, orange plaid couch in what looked like a mismatched living room full of hand-me-down furniture from the seventies. A sandy-haired man slid an uncovered styrofoam cup of caffeine onto the coffee table in front of her. It was acrid and burnt, like it had sat too long in a warmer. Eden preferred her coffee loaded down with cream and sugar. The stuff being offered to her was a dark sludge she was fairly certain would eat through the cup itself, given enough time.

“Sorry to take so much time out of your afternoon, Miss Yates,” the officer said as he settled back into his chair. “If you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions, it would really help clarify a few things.”

His smile came with a little dimple in his left cheek, and he kept it on full display.

Eden could do questions. She could do answers. It wasn’t the officer’s fault she was here. He was doing his job. The least she could do was give them whatever information they needed. She wasn’t sure exactly why they’d brought her in—no one was answering any of her questions—but she wasn’t in handcuffs, so that seemed like a good sign.

“Of course.” Eden smoothed her sweaty palms down the length of her skirt. The tiny metal beads on the drawstring tinkled together as she moved.

“Now Miss Yates—”

“Eden,” she corrected. “Call me Eden,”

“Right.” The officer smiled wider, forming a second dimple. “Eden. Can you tell me how you know Justin Fredecker?”

“He was my boyfriend,” Eden said. He’d been a shitty one, but that probably wasn’t the information the officer needed.

“Was? He’s not anymore?”

Eden shook her head. Justin hadn’t just been a boyfriend. He’d been her first boyfriend. Her first real adult relationship. It had been fairly easy to stay single after seeing her mother shrink under the demands and opinions from her stepdad. She’d grown up on romance and love and fairytales and then her mother had met Greg when she was ten and things had changed. It had been easy to spend most of her early twenties keeping her romantic entanglements light and uninvolved, but by twenty-nine Eden had been lonely, dammit. Lonely and hopeful that maybe, just maybe, not every partner was like her stepdad.

And then Justin had been equally bad. Maybe not controlling, and maybe not threatening, but she’d still changed for him. She’d chipped away pieces of herself until she didn’t recognize the Eden that was left. Styling her hair just so, since he thought it made her more attractive. Makeup so she wouldn’t look older. Wearing certain clothes so no one else would lust after her body. Letting him drive her car wherever he needed to go, making him breakfast, lunch, and dinner, buying his new phone and putting it on her own plan because he just needed to wait until payday to pay her back and that’s what you did for someone you loved. Right? Until one day she looked in the mirror and there was her mama, Theresa, staring out from her reflection.

Eden wished that had been enough for her to leave Justin. Wished she’d fought for herself then, but she’d stubbornly hung on. Desperate to have her own happily ever after. Relationships took work, compromise. She could bend for her boyfriend. Except he wasn’t bending for her. He was cheating. That had been enough for Eden to shove him out of her life. She’d taken back her keys—both to her apartment and to her car—stopped his phone line, and told him they were over. And then she’d spent the last two months pretending he didn’t exist. That was until three police cars had pulled her over on Storrow Drive this morning on her way to teach her yoga class. It had been decidedly difficult not to think about him when she had been told to step out of the car with her hands above her head, while two officers pointed weapons at her and asked for the whereabouts of her ex.

“How did the two of you meet?” the officer asked, pushing the coffee cup closer to her clasped hands.

He seemed friendly enough. Keith? Was his name Keith? He’d been the one to apologize for the scare and the misunderstanding. It wasn’t his fault they had been looking for Justin and thought he would have been driving Eden’s ‘02 Toyota Camry. It was a reasonable assumption to make. Justin had used the car more than she had.

“We met at an art festival in New Hampshire,” Eden said, tucking her hair back to see the officer better, and smiled. “I was there to market my paintings, and Justin was there with a few friends.”

“Did you meet the friends?”

Eden frowned. It had been two years ago, so the memory wasn’t exactly fresh. She could see Justin, blonde hair falling around his slim shoulders and a scruffy beard covering his pale cheeks. He’d been wearing a collared shirt printed with some abstract swirling design in greens, purples, and muted browns that hung open over his low-slung cargo shorts. His blue eyes had sparkled at her in the bright summer sun as he had offered to buy her water from a food vendor.

There had been someone with him, a nebulous figure in Eden’s mind, that had waved a quick hello before turning and leaving the two of them alone.

“No,” Eden shook her head, “We just walked around the event and spent the whole day talking about our art. The next day, he dropped into my morning yoga class. He was charming.”

“Your art,” the man leaned forward, arms resting on his splayed thighs. “Sculpture? Sewing?”

“I do a little of everything.” Eden returned his smile, running her fingers through the curling end of her ponytail. “My booth at the festival was for my paintings.”

“Did Mr. Fredecker have a booth as well?”

“No, he was just a patron. Did something happen to Justin?”

In hindsight, he hadn’t bought anything, but that wasn’t abnormal for Justin. Funding wasn’t something he’d ever been overly concerned with. Why should he? Eden had always been there to take care of things.

“Did the two of you live together?”

Eden shook her head.

“Not officially.” She crossed her legs, making the ties on her skirt jangle loudly again, too loud in the small room. “He spent the night a few times a week, but kept his own place.”

She had never been to Justin’s apartment. He’d had roommates, and Justin had wanted them to have privacy. Eden lived by herself. She could afford to because her landlady let Eden teach guitar and piano to her granddaughter for half-off her rent.

“And the vehicle is in your name?”

Eden nodded. She thought she had given them license and registration when they had surrounded her, but she couldn’t be sure. It had been a whirlwind once they realized she wasn’t who they were looking for. Eden was trying not to be offended that she’d looked enough like Justin through the windshield of her old car to warrant their confusion.

“I’m sorry.” Eden twisted a lock of hair around her finger. “What is all of this about?”

The officers had mentioned needing her help, but they hadn’t been clear on what she was helping them with. The cop studied her from under his pale lashes. He wasn’t in full uniform, just a white shirt and a pair of khaki slacks with a gold badge clipped to his waistband like she’d seen on all the cop shows. He wore a pair of leather loafers, and Eden wondered if they were conducive to running or if he needed to change before going out into the field and chasing down suspects. Perhaps that was another thing that only happened on stages and sound lots.

“We need to locate Mr. Fredecker,” the officer said. “We know he sometimes drove the vehicle we stopped this morning.”

“Oh,” Eden relaxed into the couch. “Well, I haven’t seen him since April.” When she’d dumped him.

“What?” The officer shot his blue eyes to hers, narrowing with the question.

Eden smiled back, calm and serene. See? This had all been a misunderstanding. A terrifying mess that obviously stemmed from her ex. Justin had been a colossal mistake even before she’d seen him with his pants down getting serviced by Gem, the community garden coordinator. Okay, that wasn’t entirely fair. She didn’t have to forgive his cheating—and she definitely hadn’t—but something had drawn her to Justin once upon a time. Probably his passion for his poetry and the guts it took to risk everything to follow his dream. Or that way down deep in the depths of her soul, Eden wanted someone.

“Justin used to drive my car all the time when we were dating. At first, his car had been in the shop, so I let him borrow mine. After his car was fixed, we decided, since I didn’t drive much anyway, to sell his car and have him take mine when he needed to go somewhere or do something. That ended when we broke up over two months ago.”

The officer leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers in front of him. He tapped his pointer fingers against his mouth as he stared at her. Eden shivered under his scrutiny but kept up her smile. Of course he seemed frustrated. They’d been looking for Justin and found her instead.

“And he hasn’t had access to your car since?”

Eden shook her head. “Not that I’m aware of.”

“You gave police permission to look through the vehicle. Do you mind if we do a more thorough search with some of our techs? If Mr. Fredecker was a consistent operator, we may find something he left behind.”

“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?”

Keith shook his head. “We need to talk to him about something. I’m sorry I can’t say more than that, Eden.”

She was tempted to agree if it would help them find him. Something awful must have happened for the police to get involved. Eden wondered if it made her a horrible person for not caring what happened to Justin. What if he was in an accident? Or dead? She should probably feel something if that was the case. They had slept together on a semi-regular basis. Even if the sex had been mediocre, it should have been weird to think that something could have happened to him. But how long would a search take? She’d long ago missed her class, but she had others. The city made her tense, but having a car was still easier than waiting on the T.

“I promise it will be painless for you. We just need to find him, and your car might hold the key.”

“I guess that could be alright.” Eden waffled. “As long as it won’t take too long. I’m supposed to drive out to Worcester tomorrow for a meeting.”

“Don’t worry about a thing,” Keith waved a hand in front of her face. “Would you like something other than coffee? Water? I’m sure someone in this joint has bagels.”

She wasn’t really thirsty, but they were nice to offer. “Water would be great. Thank you,”

Keith got to his feet, the chair squeaking against the laminate as he pushed back. The door clicked shut behind him as he left, and Eden was alone with the hum of the AC and her own thoughts.

She pulled her phone from her pocket and thumbed through her contacts. She no longer had Justin’s number saved, but she still had a text thread from him. It contained several messages she’d left unanswered. The final one called her a few choice names after she wouldn’t return his calls. She’d kept the thread for one reason and one reason only: to remind herself why she was better off without him. Despite how things ended, Justin had been a nice guy. He’d listened when she spoke. He’d emotionally supported her chosen work. He’d never once pushed her into going home or seeing her stepdad again. For a few months Eden had really allowed herself to believe that she’d found the one. The person who’d love her and support her and let her be herself. She’d been wrong.

Eden opened the thread, refusing to look at the names he’d called her. She clicked the message box and watched the blinking cursor. If the police were asking her questions to get ahold of him, then she’d try to get them some answers

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