All Zeb wanted to do when he got off the plane back home in Aurelia, California was go home and sleep. Instead, he got his car out of long-term storage and paid a visit to the shop where he had bought his previous cell phone. After giving them an abridged version of what had happened to that phone, he was set up with a new one of the same model.
He dialed his sister’s number first, once back to his car but had to leave her a message. He told her that he’d cut his trip a little short and that she wouldn’t need to come check on his house today. He told her, of course, she was welcome to stop by and hang out, if she wanted to, though.
He then called his parents’ house in Santa Barbara. They were on their way out for a day at a friend’s beach house, so he kept it brief and just told them he wanted them to know he was home. Though he could tell his mother wanted to question him further to get to the reason behind cutting his trip an entire week short, his father kept reminding her that their friends were waiting for them. She told Zeb she was glad he was home safely and that they loved him, then hung up.
Even knowing he was on an entirely different continent, Zeb kept looking around at other drivers the whole drive home, expecting to see Uno or Dos staring down the barrel of a gun at him. He tried to shrug off the feeling and pulled into his driveway with a relieved sigh.
He parked his car in the garage, retrieved his luggage from the back seat and entered his home. Home, he thought, had never felt like a more comforting word than it did that day.
The garage door led into the laundry room, and he could tell by the lingering smell of fabric softener that Zoe had been making use of his washer and dryer while he was gone. He smiled to himself. Though fiercely independent, he knew his little sister missed the days when they were both in college and had shared that house on campus just as much as he did. He also knew that her newest apartment did not have washer and dryer hookups, so a week of free laundry was too good to pass up. Not that she wasn’t welcome to it.
He went on through into the kitchen and found more evidence of Zoe’s presence in the form of used dishes cleaned and left to dry in the rack by the sink. She had kept up on the trash, however, and the dark granite countertops and hardwood floors were spotless. There was a note left on the whiteboard on the fridge in her scrolling, loopy handwriting: Get milk that’s not cottage cheesy. He laughed and opened the fridge to see that the half gallon of milk he had had in there when he left had been thrown out.
He made his way through to the living room, deposited his luggage on the floor, and sank into the dark brown couch, kicking off his shoes and stretching his legs out the length of it. Zoe had gotten out one of the throw blankets their mother had made and given him as a house-warming gift and it was tossed over the back of the couch. She must have spent a lot of time here while he was gone. He pulled the blanket down, and though it wasn’t even remotely chilly in the house, he covered himself up, intending to take a nice long nap.
But, just as he was getting comfortable, the familiar sensation of fullness in his ears increased, triggering the feeling of severe vertigo that was the result of his inner ear structures’ malfunctioning.
He closed his eyes, which only helped a little, and grabbed his head between his hands, wishing that this would stop the world from spinning around him.
He became aware of the sound of footsteps in another room and started to panic, thinking Dos had caught up with him somehow. He sat up unsteadily and tried to get to his feet, but ended up on his hands and knees on the plush oatmeal colored area rug, missing hitting his head on the coffee table by a fraction of an inch.
“Oh, my gosh, Zeb?” Zoe’s panicked voice cut through his misery. He felt her kneel next to him and put her hands on his back and shoulder. “Are you okay? What happened?”
He cradled his forehead in one hand and sat back on his heels. She looked him over expertly, her training as a nurse taking over. She held him by the chin. “Look at me,” she commanded softly.
He forced his eyes open and was greeted by the sight of her hazel eyes assessing him, her brow furrowed in concern. “What happened?”
He gently pried her hands from his face. “I’m fine, Zo, I promise.”
Her expression turned serious and a little stern – he figured this must be her ‘nurse face’, though he’d never gotten to see it in action. “You are on the floor and obviously in distress; you are not fine. What happened? And why are you even here? You weren’t supposed to come back for another week.”
“I guess you didn’t get my message,” he said, shifting his feet out from under him to sit with his back against the couch. The vertigo was still going strong, so he tried to stay as still as possible to keep from getting sick. He closed his eyes.
“Zeb, talk to me,” she urged, sounding more like his scared kid sister now.
He sighed. He’d already told one person this week about his disease, it was probably time to tell his family. He opened his eyes and tried to focus on only her face, attempting to ignore the way everything wanted to spin around them. “I have Ménière’s,” he told her.
She sat back on her heels, stunned. “Oh,” she said.
“I don’t know what to say,” she replied a bit defensively. “You’re kinda blindsiding me right now.”She processed it for a minute. “How long have you known?”
He cringed. He’d hoped she wouldn’t ask that so he wouldn’t have to admit how long he’d been keeping it from her. “Six months.”
“Six months? Zeb!”
“I know, I should have told you.”
“Dang straight you should have.” Her expression softened a bit. “How are you doing?”
“Honestly, I really don’t know,” he said. “I’ve read up on it, but it seems like it’s different for everyone, so I don’t really have anything to measure my progress against.”
“Yeah,” she said sympathetically. “What are you experiencing right now? Just vertigo?”
He nodded. “It’s going away a little now,” he told her.
“Okay, then,” she said, gripping his arm, “let’s get you up off the floor.” She heaved him up to his feet, putting one arm around his middle to steady him. They both sat on the couch and she turned her nurse face back on, leaning toward him sternly. “Now,” she said, “tell me why you came back early. And don’t say it’s because of the Ménière’s, cuz if you’ve been dealing with it for six months, this won’t be your first cluster of attacks. Something else is bothering you.”
Despite everything, he had to laugh. He wished he had told her when he was first diagnosed, because it felt really good to talk about it with someone, especially her. “As usual, you see right through me.” He took a deep breath, thinking how best to start. “I saw something in Madrid, something I really wasn’t supposed to.”
She scrunched her brow in confusion. “What do you mean? What did you see?”
Knowing how much of a fan of European soccer she was, he was fairly certain she would be following the news about Milian’s accident. “You heard about Nicodemo Milian’s death?”
She nodded, her eyes wide. “Yes, it’s so awful! He was amazing – and completely hot,” she added with a frown. Then she tilted her head. “Wait, are you saying – did you see his accident? Were you there?”
He shook his head slowly. “See, that’s the thing: he didn’t die in a car accident, Zoe. He was murdered, and I saw who did it.”
She sat back, stunned. “But why…?”
“Why was he killed? I don’t know. But I do know two guys went to a lot of trouble to stage that accident to cover their tracks. And they tried to shut me up, too, but God was looking out for me and I got away from them.”
“Well, what now? I mean, I’m guessing you went to the cops in Madrid, right?”
He scoffed. “Oh, yeah, I went to the cops. But they didn’t find anything, so I left before the bad guys could find me again.” He leaned over and reached for the strap of his bag lying nearby on the floor. He pulled it over and retrieved his passport out of the side pocket where he’d stashed after being processed back into the U.S.
“The thing is, one of them men has some sort of official standing,” he said, unfolding the piece of stationery hiding the memory card. He got his laptop out of the drawer of the coffee table and booted it up, sticking the memory card into the port on its side. “I’ll show you the pictures I took-”
“You took pictures of the guys who killed Milian? And the cops still didn’t take you seriously?”
He looked at her. “I didn’t show them the pictures. I didn’t even tell them I had them.”
She shook her head. “Wait, I don’t understand. Why not?”
“I thought maybe one of the killers might be a cop or something. There was a badge on the shoulders of his shirt.” He pulled up one of the pictures showing Uno putting Milian’s legs into the trunk with the rest of his body.
Beside him, Zoe gasped. She was focused on the young soccer player’s face. “Yeah,” she said shakily, “that’s Milian.” She let out a breath. “Looks like there’s blood, how did they not find any evidence at the scene?”
“I don’t know, I guess they went back and cleaned up after themselves after they lost track of me. Anyway, take a look at Uno’s badge.” He pointed at the enlargement he made of the image.
She smirked. “Uno?”
“The other guy is Dos, until I find out what their real names are,” he explained. “Don’t make fun of me, Zo, I had to have something to call them and I wasn’t really in a more creative frame of mind at the time. You know, the whole witnessing a murder cover up and running for my life thing?”
She laughed a bit but turned her attention back to the badge. “I don’t think this has anything to do with the police…” She gave him a look. “Why don’t you get some rest, okay? Leave this with me for a bit, I think I may have an idea what this badge is.”
He gave her a grateful smile and nodded. She got up, taking the laptop in to sit at the kitchen table, and he stretched back out on the couch. The dizziness was all but gone, but he felt completely wiped out. It wasn’t long before he was fast asleep.
Zeb was awakened by his sister’s hand on his shoulder. “Hey,” she said quietly, “sorry, but I thought you ought to see this.”
“What did you find?” He asked, stretching.
She turned the laptop toward him and he saw an image search results list showing a ton of different pictures all of a badge identical to the one Uno had been wearing. “He’s a ref, Zeb. That badge is a referee’s insignia.”
“A soccer ref?” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his palms and blinked, looking at the pictures again. She was right; the badge in the pictures she showed him definitely matched the ones from the photos he took.
“Why would a referee want to kill a star player? And who’s the other guy, then?” Zeb asked.
She shrugged. “This is all I got for ya, bro, sorry.”
“No, this is great,” he said, somewhat distracted. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said. “So…what now? FBI? Interpol? The press?”
“I’m not sure…” He replied, scratching at the whiskers on his chin. But then he thought of one person who might be able to help.