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Avoiding Diego

The moment Diego left the house, Crystal went down to get herself a cup of coffee. She loved coffee. She dumped out the half pot of fully caffeinated coffee and cleaned the Braun coffeemaker. “How are you today, Arnie?” she asked, addressing her coffeemaker as she cleaned it completely. Once clean, she started a fresh pot of decaf. She decided she would do better at weaning herself off caffeine and today was a great day to start that endeavor. It made her healing even stronger, she knew.

She saw his letter but didn’t bother to read it or touch it. She’d heard every word from upstairs and trolled him with thought projection to the best of her ability. She knew he heard something, but not exactly what. Now that he was off to work… she paused suddenly as she realized he was signing up for more shifts at the supermarket. It was a brief impression she got, nothing concrete.

She proceeded to make herself breakfast. She thought about taking a trip to Canada to sort out her health issues in private. She knew he’d take care of the cats – or pay someone to do so – while she was gone. They liked him, the trio of kitties. They were her support animals and, ultimately, the reason she couldn’t get into an apartment. That’s why she ended up buying her own place in Maplewood.

Yeah, that seemed like a good idea. Just take off to Toronto, use her bus pass card, and go to endless doctor visits. She could be out and about without fear of her ex spotting her anywhere. It would be less expensive for her to get all the testing done and, because they weren’t milking insurance companies, they might even be apt to cure her, whatever was wrong with her.

She wrote Diego a letter in return as she booked a flight from her phone, as well as a room.

“Dear Diego,

I’ve decided to move to Canada to figure out my health. I’m going to visit there for the next month. The pre-paid credit card I’ve left behind will pay for maid service and a cat sitter until I get back. It is yours to keep as long as you will do these duties in my absence.

The cats require two litter scoopings a day. I feed them twice a day, twelve hours apart, giving them four drops of each of the medicines. Bill doesn’t eat soft food, so you’ll have to give him four of each on his noms. About eight noms is the right amount for his medicine. You can give them noms once or twice a day in addition to that. I stick to five a piece the best I can without reaching my hand into the bag.

I don’t expect to be gone for more than a month. I know this is abrupt and without notice. I’m sorry if it causes you any hardship. I’m just too stressed out over the idea of Ben finding me that I need to go somewhere where I can take a fucking walk without fear. Also, it’s high time I take my health seriously and figure this shit out.

Remember that my darling kitties are my world right now. Take care of them like you’ve taken care of me and all will be well.


P.S.: Keep eating lots of veggies & drinking lots of water all month.”

Sansara’s letter to Diego, re: Canada.

She went upstairs after breakfast and lots of decaffeinated coffee, packed her bags and her phone charger. She made sure the kitties weren’t in the den, where she had everything of value, and then locked the door. She double-checked her bedroom for valuables just in case, but there were none. There was a marble topped dresser with her sunrise alarm clock — she turned off the alarm — and her bed, which was neatly made. There was a box of sex-related items under the bed, but nobody in their right mind would be interested in those. She expected if anything went missing, it would be Ben’s fault. Her katana was in her den, safely tucked away.

The only thing of value in the entire house that was hers and out in the open was an iPad that she’d set Daniel up with for the Ring doorbell security. Everything else made her house look like it was ready to be shown for sale, basically. Her artwork littered the walls rather than known prints and posters, aside from her Namaste plaque in the living room.

She shut her bedroom door but didn’t lock it. There was a cat flap installed on this door but no other and the cats were free to come and go as they pleased. She normally left all the doors open so they would be unfettered, but she didn’t really want to return to her den being destroyed by “assholes like yourself.”

She was quoting Cannibal! The Musical, a Trey Parker and Matt Stone production. She disliked the movie until the Indians entered the scene. Her ex-husband had loved it so much he insisted she watch it. Chief was easily her favorite character.

She had a to go back packed already. She’d been thinking about running off for a month for a while, which is why she had a prepaid credit card to the tune of $1,000.00 to ensure her cats were taken care of. She could have taken them to a kennel for far less, but they would surely die, being separated from her that long in a foreign place.

The flight was in a few hours, so she cleaned the coffee pot again, set her letter and the card on top of his letter, and called an Uber to get to the airport. She was going to make him wait. Secondarily, she wanted to know he could wait. He’d been inundating her with his presence for about a month, being constantly available. He didn’t exactly hide his desires. If she wasn’t here, she wagered he’d bring somebody home or leave the house for an evening with a lady. She’d discover if he was another Ben one way or another.

She was absolutely sick of men giving her all the right signals and their words saying the opposite. His words hadn’t, but she’d see if his actions would. Maybe if she hadn’t been burned so many times, in so many ways, she’d have trusted him. Maybe she’d trust him if he’d actually come clean about his past. Or let him braid her hair.

She berated herself again for actually saying that to him. He didn’t consent to being touched and that was that. She shouldn’t have pushed him about it. She was putting herself on time-out, going to Canada to be as far away from him as possible and sorting herself out in private. She could do her new work from anywhere in the world, honestly.

She wondered if her cats would be ready to die by the time she got back. They would be, if he was a crappy caregiver. They liked lap snuggles and cuddling in bed. They even tolerated Max and sometimes she caught them in a cuddle puddle, all four of them. She’d taken pictures, but she never shared them with Diego, expecting he found them that way from time to time himself.

She bought herself something to snack on once she was on the plane ride. Being gluten-free meant she couldn’t have their crackers and she wasn’t a fan of peanuts. She wondered if people allergic to peanuts avoided flying because of that.

Diego saw her leave the house with her suitcase and get into an Uber. He worried over it, but there was nothing he could do to stop her. He texted her once he was on break.

“Where are you going, minx?”

“Away. I left a note explaining.”

“I’ll miss you.”


Ouch. That hurt. She gave him plenty cold shoulder, he realized. Almost all signals were to stop. She was only ever a yellow light, if we were to carry this analogy further. She’d never really given him the green light to say, “I consent!” He sighed over that. He had a lot of thinking to do after work and resolved to pick up a six pack.

He’d just signed up for more shifts again so he could save for and buy that ring. Every time he wondered what size, the number 7 emblazoned in his mind’s eye. He decided to go with that, because at the very worst, it could be resized for her. He wonder what her note said the rest of the time he worked. His mind filled in the blank over and over with catastrophes of varying magnitudes. He resolved that he’d rather know the truth than guess. She was typically unreadable, no matter what, so he most likely had no idea what it was actually about.

His hunch proved correct, he thought, as he nursed a Blue Moon and read her note. He wondered how much money was on the prepaid credit card, setting it to the side and forgetting about it for a minute. He set her letter next to his and read them both to see if they were at all connected.

He did think he tickled her until she wet herself the night before. He got distracted momentarily by some glitter he spied on his arm. He’d showered since, but as they say on the ‘net, it’s craft herpes. He frowned. That envelope had no return address and she’d said nobody knew where she lived right now, only him. It had nothing to do with his letter, he bet. It had everything to do with the envelope full of glitter.

He was surprised when she dumped it all over herself last night. It was not something anyone would expect from an adult. It was over the top childishness. She had acted vastly differently toward him, as well. She’d asked to braid his hair and then admitted somewhat petulantly that she wanted to play with his hair. He drank more deeply from his beer, contemplating that again.

She was normally much more reserved, he thought. He’d also never tickled her before that night. He was just so irritated at dying over and over from her headshots or this crazy tactic she’d developed… He decided to invite Manny over to share a beer with him. Manny was going to be tickled pink they could be alone together in a house instead of a bar… much cheaper than drinking out. Plus, he could walk to the house and back from his place. AND Camila would be less inclined to think he was cheating, he hoped, although he suspected she was stepping out on him.

He knew Manny would gladly talk about all of it with him for hours, if he had hours. Unless Camila was kicking him out by now, anyway. Then they’d talk about both. He decided to throw the letters into the recycling bin, crumpled up, and he went to do cat duty. Because their headquarters was the third floor, they didn’t come all the way down to the first floor very much. They slept with Crystal nightly so they stayed near her bedroom. Since he’d gotten there, she’d stayed up there most of the day anyway. She came downstairs to eat and that was about it. She spent an hour or two with him daily, which sometimes involved sitting on the couch.

He checked the door to the den and found it locked, which made him smile. She had prepared for this, he thought. He checked her bedroom door and found it unlocked. He frowned a little and, having never once laid eyes on her bedroom, gave in to his impulse and opened the door. He wondered if anywhere in her house looked lived in at all. Her bed was made neatly and had a pile of felines on it. The noisiest one yawned and stretched his front paws out toward Diego before sitting up to stare at him.

Her eyes said, “What do you want, human?”

He half-smiled at the cats and said, “Noms for the poor?” just as he’d heard Sansara ask them. To his surprise, the cat hopped off the bed and came right over to him, making a noise of complaint. He walked into the cat room, which was the third room on the third floor. It was full of cat furniture and the feeding station.

He wondered if the reason she had nothing was because she’d been robbed before. He counted out about fifteen noms and gave one third to Banshee. She’d been named that for being so noisy, Sansara said to him. Her brother, Brinx, was almost the opposite of her, and silent most of the time. The giant cat had them beat on silence, however.

He stooped and gave Bansh her noms and then proceeded to her bedroom to drop five beside each of the other two. They perked right up and started eating away. He sat down on the edge of the bed and pet the two sleepy heads. To his surprise, Banshee quickly found his lap and curled up on it. He’d never been up here alone before, so he didn’t know what to expect from the felines he was now charged with. He gave them all about fifteen minutes of attention before dislodging the smallest one and depositing her in the pile once more. “I’ve got to see to your litter before the night gets away from me,” he told them, moving to her bathroom.

He saw she’d left her bath towel in there, smelling of her bath products. He’d used this toilet one time and found it awe-inspiring she fit four litter boxes into it somehow. She also bought litter that was flushable, so he scooped right from box to toilet, flushing a few times to sweep all of it away. He’d brought litter all the way up here for her a few times, so he knew they went through quite a bit in a month. She always tossed everything left on garbage night and asked him to take it to the curb. Tomorrow was garbage night, so that would be his to do, he supposed.

He wondered how much money was on that card all of a sudden. Litter had a price, after all. He saw she had thirty cans of cat food and three giant bags of treats, so they were okay on all that for a while. He remembered she always had four boxes of litter in the linen closet, too. She would order it the day before trash day, taking the old boxes out and putting the new ones in.

She wasn’t being lazy, ordering everything to her doorstep. She never left out of fear. That had to be getting to her, he was sure of that much. He realized just then how much she did trust him, to leave him there with her animals. The setup was just about perfect, too, because Max didn’t fancy being on the third floor himself. He’d gone up there one time and all she did was point at him until he turned around. That was strange, indeed.

The cats seemed to forget all about him, so he wandered downstairs. He left her door open, even though she usually had it closed whenever he was upstairs. There was nothing in her room to look at except cats on a bed, really. He’d probably snoop eventually since she’d offered to let him do so anyway. It really didn’t feel quite right to look around her space without her permission being given again.

He thought about her bed covers as he reached the ground floor. They were extremely soft, about as soft as her smallest cat. She was the softest thing Sansara ever touched, that cat, so everything was on a scale of Rough to Banshee. It was just one level shy of Banshee, it seemed.

He could have had a nosebleed, thinking about how her bed must be soft and inviting. Hell, the woman herself was soft everywhere he’d touched. Soft and smooth. At least, her hands were. He thought about how he’d said he wanted massages when they first made their ‘friendship’ pact and that neither one had given nor received one yet. Maybe he had to ask her explicitly.

In fact, as he reviewed the past two months of hanging out with her, he detected a pattern. She didn’t do anything to him without his permission, basically. She made meals occasionally and offered him half, but she wouldn’t even get within five feet of him most days. Even when they sat on his couch, she stayed on the other end. It wasn’t until yesterday that they had been side by side, which led to him overstepping his boundary and tickling her. It had to be too fast for her, he thought.

She told him she was autistic. He looked it up once, but he decided to look it up again and take notes on it this time. He was going to study this until he remembered all the details, he thought.

He pulled out a piece of parchment paper and his quill pen. He wanted to use his fancy, silly things. The parchment paper was just fancy thick paper and the quill pen was a ballpoint pen that looked like a feather, but they made him feel official somehow. He decided to focus on writing down what he’d observed so far instead of everything.


  • Avoids or does not keep eye contact, discomfort during eye contact
  • May line up objects and get upset about order being changed
  • May focus on parts of objects instead of the entire object
  • Unusual mood or emotional reactions
  • Lack of fear (or more fear) than expected
  • Difficulty making conversation
  • Difficulty making or maintaining close friendships
  • Extreme interest in one particular topic
  • Hypersensitivity to certain sounds, smells, tastes, looks, or feels
  • Difficulty understanding sarcasm or idioms
  • Lack of inflection when speaking
  • Preference for solitary activities
  • Problems reading the emotions of others
  • Trouble understanding facial expressions and body language
  • Reliance on daily routines and difficulty dealing with change
  • Social anxiety
  • Superior abilities in a particular field
  • The need to arrange things into a specific order
  • Seeming blunt, rude, or uninterested without meaning to
  • Finding it hard to discuss one’s feelings
  • Taking things very literally
  • Having anxiety if routines change
  • Doesn’t understand social “rules”
  • Notices small details and patterns where others do not
  • Planning things very carefully before doing them
  • Fails to respond to her name or appears not to hear it
  • Resists cuddling and holding
  • Lack of facial expressions
  • Doesn’t speak (much)
  • Sometimes only begins conversations to make requests or label items
  • Speaks with an abnormal tone or rhythm and may use a singsong voice or robot-like speech
  • Repeats words and phrases verbatim… is questionable if she understood them sometimes
  • Does not understand simple questions or directions
  • Does not readily express emotions/feelings
  • Occasionally disruptive during social interaction, but mostly passive
  • Difficulty recognizing nonverbal cues
  • Performs activities that could cause self-harm
  • Has problems with coordination and odd movement patterns, such as clumsiness walking or having odd, stiff, or exaggerated body language
  • Unusually sensitive to light, sound, or touch yet indifferent to pain or temperature
  • Does not imitate others or make-believe play
  • Has abnormal intensity or focus when fixated on an object or person
  • Refuses foods with a certain texture
  • Complications from victimization and bullying
  • Socially isolated
  • Inability to live independently
  • Trouble completing postsecondary education?

And that’s when Manny rang the doorbell. Diego set his pen and paper down and went to answer the door. He opened it wide with a big grin, only to find… Psycho Boy Ben, holding a bouquet of flowers. Diego furrowed his brow with a frown, deciding to play it cool and Max joined him at the door, unleashed.

“I… is Crystal home?” the stranger asked.

“I don’t know who you are, but nobody by that name lives here,” he told Ben, decided to pretend he didn’t know who the man was. “Just man to man, you probably shouldn’t show up on stranger’s doorsteps holding a bouquet of red roses looking for women who don’t live there. They might get the wrong idea about you.” Diego was smiling in complete malice on the inside.

“I… thought I saw her come here,” Ben said awkwardly. He looked down at Max, recognizing the dog, he thought. “Hi, Max,” he said. The dog looked at him quizzically, staying put next to Daniel.

“This is Bruno,” Diego asserted. “You need to leave, bro, before I call the cops on you for trespassing.”

Ben sighed. He didn’t look heartbroken, he just looked stupid, standing there in dress clothes with a bouquet of red roses. He looked down at the flowers, then at Diego and Max, and then he turned around to get back into his car and leave. Driving to his other bitch’s house, Diego thought after he was long gone. He watched the man leave with a stony stare.

Manny strolled up while he was just about to walk back in side. “Oh, damn, look at that. That’s what I call service, chino.” He raised his hand to show his brother from another mother that he brought a six pack as well. He chose Corona. In his other hand, he had a lime, too.

“You’re getting fancy on me in your old age, Manny. Get your tail end in here so I can tell you the most bizarre fucking thing that just happened.” Diego held the door wide for his friend to enter, closing it and locking every single lock on it. He thought about adding two more for good measure.

Manny asked him what he could open his beer with. Diego fetched the wine opener, which was also a can opener via the end of the handle. A pretty standard kind of device, he thought. Very generic looking, too. He took a look at Sansara’s paintings on the wall and how they were very stylized before he took the opener to Manny.

“Manny, you know how I told you the lady of the house hired me to protect her from her goddamn ex-husband?” Diego asked him. Manny nodded as he poured his beer into a beer mug. Next, he set about cutting up his lime so he could squeeze it into the beer.

“Yeah, dude, she gave you a nice big discount on the rent just because you got a gun, I remember like you told me yesterday,” he said.

“He just showed up before you did, carrying a bouquet of red roses and dressed like he was going to go out on a date with her or something, or maybe beg her to marry him. I have no idea what the fuck he thinks he’s doing, but I told him nobody named Crystal lives here. That was her name before she changed it,” he relayed to Manny, his agitation showing. He was definitely adding more security. Tomorrow evening.

“Dude, where is she at? I got your message she took off but where did she go? Is she gonna be safe there?” Manny was hooked on the potential Diego-Sansara romance brewing, he’d told his friend that ages ago.

“She left me a letter telling me she was going to Canada for a month to get her health sorted somewhere she wasn’t afraid of being seen out and about. She left about two hours after I went to work, too, cool as a cucumber and lugging an average sized suitcase. Just one. I thought all women traveled at max capacity, but she’s surprising every time I turn around,” Diego told his buddy. Manny just smiled at him, lop-sided.

“You got it bad, hombre. Did you try to put a ring on her finger yet?” he asked.

“Actually, it’s funny you ask me that… I asked her to marry me today. I mean, I wrote it in a letter for her, apologizing for being a douche bag last night. She left her letter right on top of it and vamoosed. You have to understand, though, she also got an anonymous glitter bomb last night through Fedex and nobody knows she’s here, ‘cept that asshole just randomly showed up.”

“Dude, you got any popcorn around here? This story is better than a movie. I believe every word, but I’m on the edge of my seat. So she got glitter bombed yesterday, you did something stupid — I swear, we all do, so don’t beat yourself up for forever brother, today she skips town and an asshole she never wants to see again shows up on the doorstep. What else can go wrong?” Manny asked him.

As if on cue, the power went out. Manny spooked himself, he thought, when he heard him make a noise of disgust in the dark. Diego pulled out his phone and turned the flashlight on. “Hold on, she has a couple candles on every floor, I’ll go get them. You got a lighter on you, pal?”

“Yeah, dude. Is there an ashtray around here, by the way? I never see one when I come over… or did you finally quit?” Manny asked as he pulled out his lighter. Diego fetched the candles and they lit them both.

“Hold on, I want to make sure the whole block is out. That asshole might have come back, thinking I was lying to him.” Diego popped outside to take a look, quickly finding the whole block was out of service. He quickly re-entered the house and locked the door like it was Fort Knox. He had played stupid when Ben was there. Didn’t the man realize there was a restraining order against him?

Diego decided to call the police station to file the incidence once Manny left. His friend would only be there for about an hour, he figured, maybe two.

“I hope you don’t mind that I’m so paranoid I’m not going to drink too much tonight,” he told Manny.

“I only mind if you tell me I can’t drink too much tonight,” Manny responded. Diego chuckled, glad his friend was there while he was unnerved.

“You can smoke on the patio, let’s go outside and take whatever you want out. We can leave a candle inside and take one outside with us,” he said, blowing one out and lifting the other. “Try not to let any cats outside if we end up in and out a few times. I’m their caretaker until she comes back, lest I hire someone to do it in my stead.”

He wished she was home, even though he was happy to have Manny over. He was worrying about her right now. The longer she was out of sight, the more he worried. He wanted to shield her from that asshole. Before he showed up, it was more like playing house with a doll-faced woman, but now he wanted to be in between her and that man. He had the audacity to show up with a dozen red roses and most of a suit, to a house she’d never brought him to, and most of her friends were unaware of where she lived, if not all of them. She never had guests and she almost never left.

He thought about the half of a brownie he had on his night stand. “Hey, bro, you want a magic brownie?” he asked Manny.

Manny’s eyes got real round as he stared at Diego over the candle now on the patio table. “Does your momma like Pop Tarts?” he replied, which was his way of saying, YES, but how could you ask me so casually?!

“I don’t think I want it until after she gets back and I know jackass is taken care of.” A car moved on the street just then, driving by real slow. He glared at the blue Hyandai Elantra, about ready to climb over the fence to chase the bastard. It had to be his car, nobody drove that slow in this neighborhood. Nobody.

As if he could hear Daniel’s thoughts, the car picked up speed and got the Hell out of there. “I think that creepy bastard just drove by here again,” he told his friend. “I’m going to get my gun, too. I’ll be right back. Please enjoy your beers,” he said snarkily.

Manny toasted him from afar. “I’m on your side, my man. If anything goes down tonight, it was self-defense, no questions asked, no matter where he is or how you shoot him.”

He tried to smile at Manny’s devotion as he sprinted upstairs, retrieving the brownie and the shotgun. He took two shells and put them in his pocket. He wasn’t going to load it unless he had to use it. Once in a while, when his schizophrenia paranoia was kicking in, he thought about using it, and when that happened, he never remembered to load it, so it was safest to leave it unloaded.

He hated that part of himself. He sometimes created alternate realities. He was certain he’d done it on Sansara a few times now, creating sexual fantasies that were unnervingly realistic. He hated himself for that, too. He thought about how he heard “I do not consent” so clearly in his head earlier that day.

Just as he turned to go downstairs, he heard the voice that was his but not his at the same time again, “Diego, I love you. Be careful.” Well, that was certainly something. He never confessed loving himself in his head. “Is that you, Sansara?” he asked himself internally. “Yes, Diego. Ben will be back in an hour.” He sighed, thinking he was probably going to use the gun tonight. “Be safe, Little Minx.” He thought she replied, “You, too” but as soon as he got downstairs his head was clear again.

He popped back outside with Bruno and Manny, handing Manny the bagel he promised. Manny grinned at the parcel of food and let it sit on the table. “I’ll eat that later, when you’re not fixin’ to shoot someone in the face.”

“Good idea… I’ll put it in the fridge for you, mkay? I have a feeling asshole will be back soon,” Diego told his friend, popping inside to do just that again. He was back before Manny missed him. Diego hadn’t yet quit smoking, so he lit a Marlboro as he sat there with his friend, talking about Manny’s home life with Camila for a bit.

“Dude, I dunno what to say about Cam. She’s pissing me off lately. She’s always staying late at work, making me take care of Charlie all night every night. I’m starting to think she’s got somebody on the side. I hate to say it but I got a bad feeling that our marriage is already over and she don’t want to keep Charlie or me anymore.”

Diego sighed heavily. “Dude, I have to tell you something. That bitch came onto me like two years ago, hiking her skirt up at me at your birthday party. I figured she was just so drunk her inhibition was gone, but that’s the real reason I haven’t wanted to see your wife since then. I feel like I shoulda told you the minute it happened, but on the other hand, I rejected her and she probably took you straight to bed that night instead and I thought it was like a one-off shit thing she was doing like for revenge or something over you being oblivious to things. You know how women are.”

Manny stared at him. “She did what?”

“Dude, I was like outside having a smoke on your deck and she came outside and she showed me her goods and I just can’t even understand what makes her think she can accost a man’s best friend, especially since she knew I was married!”

Both men were shaking their heads. “Dude, I wish I knew that like a year sooner than now, because, you know, Charlie. I don’t want to split custody with her over a dog that I never wanted to begin with. He’s grown on me, though. He’s my little man now. She treats him like he’s chopped liver, barely giving him hugs or pets or anything. She don’t even give him a bone.”

“I’m sorry, Manny… That happened once before like twenty years ago and I told my friend about it and he ghosted me ’til she left him for a male stripper,” Diego told him.

Diego shook his head briefly, then stood up and walked over to the yard’s gate. Manny looked perplexed, then looked at the gun he’d left behind. He picked up the gun by the barrel and walked it to Diego, silent.

It hadn’t been an hour yet, but he’d gotten some sort of feeling that they were being watched or something. Just then, the power came back on, and both men relaxed a little bit after an almost imperceptible startle from the flood of lights. But not Max. Max stood there, staring out past the fence toward the street. A blue Elantra went by just then. This was starting to piss David off.

A note about Diego: because Diego is extremely dissociative, he assigns personas to different names. He had many, many personas, which are all different but consistent. Because of his multi-faceted nature, he gave each one a name, believing he was in fact more than eight people total. And as Sansara would put it, it’s rude to invalidate a human being, so he must be, in fact, more than eight people. He accepted that she called him Diego all the time no matter who was at the forefront, which was actually helping him reintegrate slowly to identify as one persona, but it was slow going. David was the angry one.

David grabbed the shotgun from Manny when he offered it and thought about loading the damn thing. He wanted to shoot the stalker right now. He wanted that piece of shit to roll up to the curb, get out of the fucking car, walk up to the front fucking door, and knock or ring the doorbell again. He’d shoot him, just like that. He’d be trespassing a second time in one evening and as Manny already said, “It’s self-defense, bro.”

He didn’t like the idea of lying about it, but he was ready to take that man to his grave. “Hey, hombre, let’s go inside and see if white boy is dumb enough to come to the door,” Manny suggested when it became clear that car wasn’t going to come back around immediately. David nodded at Manny. Manny learned not to use Diego’s name as a result of the PTSD that caused him to dissociate. He found it odd his friend chose such white names, but whatever. It is what it is.

The two men entered the house. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Manny exclaimed, looking for a fire extinguisher. The back door was on fire. How did Ben manage that? They were outside, for Christ’s sake. Thankfully, there was a fire extinguisher on the wall. Manny, being a fireman, pulled the pin and started spraying the door.

“Dude, call 911 and tell them the back door was set on fire by some arsonist punk, and then when they get here, we tell them about stalker boy. Put your gun away upstairs out of sight, so they don’t think anything of it. White boy going down,” Manny declared, somewhat gleeful now that the fire was under control. “You tell them I put out the fire but you want the truck to make sure it’s out all the way.”

David cried a little. If he’d just shot the fucker in the face… none of this would have happened. He started to wonder if the mysterious power outage was the psycho’s fault, too. He dialed 911 as Manny told him.

“911, state your emergency.”

“There’s been a fire at [this address]. I think it’s been put out by my firefighter friend and a fire extinguisher, but he instructed me to ask for a fireman on duty to come by and make sure the wooden back door was completely out. He’s had a couple beers.”

“Thank you. I have that as [this address]. You said there was a fire? Has anyone been injured?” the operator asked.

“No, not unless I missed a pet getting injured,” David replied.

“What’s your name, please?”

“Diego Donovan.”

“This sounds like arson to me. Has there been any sketchy activity at or around your address in the past twenty four hours?”

Diego was nodding, even though the operator couldn’t possibly see that. “Yeah… The owner of the house has a stalker that came by, violating a restraining order by showing up on her front door step with a dozen red roses in a suit. He drives a blue Hyundai Elantra and has gone through the neighborhood three times this evening and I suspect he sent her a glitter bomb yesterday via Fedex. There was also a power outage for a little under an hour for the whole block, which ended around the same time the door had to be set on fire.”

“Do you know this person’s name?” the operator asked, sounding hopeful. It wasn’t every day a criminal could be identified moments after they committed a crime.

“Benjamin Abraham Cartwright of 5 Haywood Court in [City].”

“Is the owner of the house home at this time? Is she in any immediate danger that you know of?” The operator was definitely being thorough, he thought. He knew it was their job, but he didn’t exactly want to answer that question.

“She left this afternoon to catch a flight. I don’t know if she’ll be safe like that, but she said she might be gone all month. She needed a vacation from the same asshole who came over this evening and took off. She indicated she was going to Canada,” he told the operator. “I also want you to know she hired me to protect her and her home and I am armed. I already told Ben he was trespassing the first time, which I have audio and video recorded thanks to Ring technology that I intend to share with the police once they arrive. So, in short, I might be calling you back for a trespassing real soon.”

He counted his lucky stars tomorrow he was off from work. He really hoped Ben would come back and do something else stupid while he could shoot him. He thought a moment and realized he probably set fire to the back door because of the Ring camera mounted on it. He wondered if there was footage of that to share. He picked up the security iPad to take a look just as the operator was saying, “They’ve already been dispatched but I want you to stay on the line with me in case something else crops up.”

“Yeah, of course,” Diego replied. “There is a Ring doorbell out back, too. I’m checking to see if he’s been recorded tampering or not since it’d be an open and shut case for everyone.”

He could tell the operator was smiling. They loved Ring doorbells for this reason exactly. “That would be very good to know.”

“He must have thought that the Ring doorbell wouldn’t work with a power outage because he’s not even hidden. I mean, it’s dark, but the moon is pretty full tonight and there aren’t any trees to make it darker. Looks like the same guy to me, anyway. I think I hear the police now,” he said suddenly as there was some commotion near the front door. He was glad he wasn’t drunk.

“No, stay back from that door. Their ETA is still 45 seconds,” the operator informed him. Diego checked the blinds, relieved they were closed. He skittered into the kitchen to Manny, telling him it was about thirty seconds until the police arrived and, hopefully, the fire department. The operator didn’t much care about him talking to his friend, somewhat relieved to keep hearing his voice, actually. It sounded like they had an intruder, which wasn’t a very smart move on Ben’s part, if it was him again.

They saw flashing lights but there were no sirens. He guessed because they’d put out the fire themselves, they weren’t exactly in a rush that required a racket. He was grateful when the operator said they just apprehended a suspect. That had to be Ben, Diego thought. For once, justice seemed like it would be swift.

There was a knock at the front door, rapid and insistent. “Police, open up.” Diego checked the peep hole just to be absolutely sure and it was the police. The operator confirmed at the same time it was the boys in blue, so he swung the door wide open. He’d put Max in his bathroom to keep the dog from overwhelming the officer and he hoped to hell the cats wouldn’t bother to come down the stairs.

Diego had the iPad in both his hands so that the officer could view them unhindered. He’d been arrested twice before and knew it was best if they could see you were unarmed immediately. Diego went out onto the porch with Manny right behind him. Manny had put his hands on his head nonchalantly, knowing the drill too well from being on the other side of it.

Powell asked if there was anyone else inside the building. “No, just a dog in the bathroom on the second floor and three cats that like to laze about the third floor. No other human beings that I’m aware of. The dog isn’t aggressive but he does like to get into people’s faces and lick them. American bulldog. The cats are domestic short-hairs.”

Powell asked them both to put their hands against the wall and pat them down due to the report of firearms on the premises. He cuffed them both as a precaution and sent his other two officers to search the house for anyone else inside. They found the dog, as he’d said, and the cats. And one room locked on the third floor. They also checked the cellars out, finding nothing.

Powell nodded and just walked into the building, scanning the first floor for himself. Since Sansara was such a neat freak, there wasn’t much to look at. Officer Powell returned to Diego. “You told the operator you have some Ring camera footage. Would you mind showing that to me now?”

“Of course, Officer Powell,” Diego replied. He’d been waiting with the original trespassing video on the iPad around and indicated he should press play. It was already set to be full screen and clearly showed the exchange between Ben and himself. Powell nodded at the end and told him he did a good job warning Ben that was trespassing. The man they had taken off the street just in front of the house looked exactly like the man on the camera, that much was for certain to Powell already.

“Do you have footage of the back door, too?” Officer Powell asked hopefully, wanting an open and shut case for once.

“Yes, I do. It’s not as clear because there was a power outage through the neighborhood for almost an hour,” Diego commented as he verbally instructed Powell to call that video up on the iPad next.

“There’s a USB hub just inside the door in the drawer of the side table if you’ve got a jump drive to put those onto, or you can take the iPad with you altogether as long as we get it back,” Daniel told Powell.

Powell grinned as if Diego said the magic words and bagged the iPad without further ado. He labelled it then and there with a pen. The officers were setting about collecting whatever evidence there was, Daniel hoped.

“Now, I need you to go ID the suspect and tell us our eyes are as good as yours. He’s sitting in the back of my cruiser. Barelli!” Powell barked at an officer at the bottom of the steps. “Show’s almost over.” He indicated Diego as Diego walked toward him. Powell stopped him and said, “Hang on a minute, I’ll take those bracelets back now.” He released Manny, too, he noted as Daniel was taken to the police cruiser holding a very annoyed white man.

“Right this way.” Barelli led him to the car that was half-hidden by the shrubbery in the front yard of Crystal’s house. He saw the exact same man that had been on his porch. He wondered what he did with the flowers from just a few hours earlier. He looked at the Elantra parked down the street.

“That’s him. That Elantra right there down the block three houses is his car, I’m sure of it. I have footage of that, too, but I bet if you run the plate, it’ll come up Benjamin Cartwright,” Diego told the officer. “I’m sure the neighbor would appreciate it disappearing since that’s her usual parking spot and she’ll be home any time now.” Diego had made it a point to talk to the neighbors every time he saw them outside to try to get to know them. She was a second shift nurse named Tricia, he’d found out.

It seemed like the show would be over soon, he thought, relieved it was so quick. Who knew how long Ben’s reign of terror might last? Diego heard a mew and froze. Banshee was sitting next to him, watching everything, about a foot away. He leaned over to pet the cat, hoping nobody else came outside, but he saw Brinx going into the bushes out of the corner of his eye. He decided to pick Banshee up, cradling her just as he’d seen Sansara do about a million times now. “It’s almost chow time,” he told the little girl. She was purring in his arms before he knew it, but he didn’t think that was because she understood him.

“Your big brother is being a brat and ran into the bushes, I saw,” he continued conversationally to the feline. She dug her claws into his arm ever so slightly in response. He hoped she’d stay with him until the officers left.

“Cute cat,” Barelli said, making him jump a little. Banshee mewled plaintively at him for nudging her about. Barelli looked like he might be a big softy when it came to animals.

“She’s extremely friendly if you’d like to pet her,” Diego offered, half-expecting the officer to refuse. They’d defused the situation, it seemed, so he went ahead and scratched the middle of her forehead with one fingertip. The officer smiled as the cat’s purr deepened and increased in volume.

“So she is,” Barelli agreed. Before they knew it, it was time to get going. Thankfully, Banshee had stayed with Diego the whole time. As Sansara would say in her southern drawl, “She just wants a snug-snug.” He wondered where the woman came up with snug-snug. She clearly meant snuggle, but why snug-snug? It amused him every time, too, because he’d just forget and she’d say it again. Sansara had a complete other language, he had learned over time, and he loved every single word she taught him.

“Thank you, officers,” Diego found himself saying as they were packing up to depart. He’d already thanked the firemen that left fifteen minutes ago. The officers smiled at him, happy to have caught the arsonist immediately and took off with him scowling in the back seat, obviously furious at the men who thwarted him. They’d called for a tow of his vehicle, too, and that was meant to happen within the hour.

Diego called for Brinx softly, feeling like a fool because it sounded like he was calling for the security company. He walked up the front door and saw Bill standing in the doorway, curious and sniffing the air. “Come on, buddy, let’s go get your noms!” Bill stood there for another minute and then trotted inside, climbing the stairs dutifully one at a time. He was an old cat, that was for sure, but he also had fused vertebrae in his back, which made it slow going to get all the way up to the third floor. He guessed the lack of dog had encouraged them to come all the way downstairs to check everything out. He asked Manny to shut the front door as he carried the little princess up behind Bill.

“You sure you don’t want me to look for that other cat?” Manny asked him.

“You can if you want to, he went into the bushes outside. She said they have been outside before, so he might just be on walkabout, you know? They haven’t been outside in almost half a year,” he told his friend. “It’s dinner time, so he might be waiting on the stoop. I’ll hope for that outcome for sure.”

Manny chuckled at Daniel’s optimism. He’d opened the door and the cat just waltzed right in like he was waiting there the whole time. “Well, he’s back!” Diego chuckled, too.

“Good, good. You going to stay for more beer?” Diego had paused on the top step of the first flight up.

“Nah, man, but I’ll wait till you come back to leave. You sure you wanna share that brownie with me? I think you might need it after all this shit goin’ down,” Manny replied.

“I’ll stay sober. Thank you, though,” Diego replied, then he finished the trudge upstairs to give the cats their dinner. He’d given them a few extra treats a few hours before this and they had a continuous food supply, but they needed their medicine for mold detox and immune support.

Manny had not locked all the doors, it turned out. Just as Diego was walking downstairs again, the front door opened. His heart jumped into his throat and he nearly turned around to go grab his pistol. And there she was, looking fresh as a daisy: Ms. Sansara Crystal Scordias had returned home as if nothing ever happened. And she was wearing the most ridiculous (but sexy) set of pink and black fox ears, to boot.

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