Author's Note: I co-wrote this story with my husband Ron Atmur. It was originally published in Skyline Magazine, Winter 2006.

The Golden Rule

"There have been claims of mysterious deaths in the town of Golden," Carlos said to his FBI partner Larissa. "But this is the first time that a homicide has been reported there."

Larissa shook her head and focused on the road. "I've never even heard of this place and I thought I was pretty familiar with California since I grew up in so many foster homes."

"It's such a quiet town," he said. "I've been through there once, several years ago. I only remember the town because the driver in the car ahead of me flung a lit cigarette out the window. It wasn't more than a minute later when his engine started smoking and he had to pull over. He was furious, cussing up a storm when I stopped to help. The car was a brand-new BMW that he'd paid plenty for. He was set to sue the company."

"What happened?"

Carlos shrugged. "The engine had apparently overheated, which was odd since he hadn't driven that far that day and, as I'd said, the car was spanking new. But the mechanic at the local shop wasn't that surprised. He'd seen plenty of similar things happen to drivers, usually tourists like that man. In passing he asked if the driver had cut someone off or been rude to another driver or littered. Then he said that the heat can sometimes be intense in this part of California."

"Heat? That doesn't make any sense. It doesn't get that hot. The driver had littered. How did he know?"

"I didn't make it up. I'm just quoting what he told me. But it shouldn't be any stranger than this homicide we're going to investigate. If it really was a homicide. I think the guy probably just killed himself."

Larissa stared straight ahead at the road, driving as Carlos shuffled through the files on the case. Endless rows of cornfields stretched out on either side. You'd think we were in Kansas, not California, she thought. This town really is in the middle of nowhere!

"It says here that the victim is Michael Conners, a twenty-six year old African American male who was on the lam for killing a police officer. There is evidence that he has committed earlier crimes and that his name is an alias. He was found, dead from a gunshot wound, on a residential street in Golden."

After what felt like endless hours of driving, they finally passed a bright yellow sign with iridescent letters that read, "Welcome to Golden, California. We Live by the Golden Rule."

Larissa blinked and tried to get a better look at the sign but it was too late. She had already driven past it. These small towns certainly have fun with their welcome signs! It would have made her smile if she wasn't so tired. She and Carlos had received the call at 7 a.m. and they had been on the road for well over eight hours.

There was something peculiar about this town that she couldn't quite place. Maybe it was the cleanliness. Lawns were mowed, hedges neatly clipped, and flowerbeds abundant. She couldn't spot a scrap of trash and yet there were no signs promising huge fines to offenders.

As they entered the heart of the town, Larissa felt a pang of longing. This was the kind of place she had dreamed of growing up in when she was being shuffled to different foster homes in Los Angeles. The homes reminded her of children's crayon sketches with their softly sloping roofs, gentle pastel colors, and neatly manicured lawns.

At the center of town were rows of small edifices consisting of a quaint grocery store, a chapel, a city hall, a few family restaurants, and the small hotel where she and Carlos were booked to stay during the investigation.

"Where should we start?" she asked as she pulled the car into the hotel's tiny dirt parking lot.

"First we should shower and go to dinner. It's been a long drive," he said, stretching his arms. "We can ask the hotel owners what they know but we'll start our real investigation tomorrow when we're fresh."

Larissa nodded and stifled a yawn. He was right. She just wanted to relax tonight.

An elderly woman greeted them in the lobby. She had a round face framed by wisps of dyed auburn hair. "You must be officers Larissa Hallowell and Carlos Rodriguez from Los Angeles," she said, shaking their hands with a grip that was surprisingly firm. "That must have been some drive for you. I'm glad you made it safely." She gave each of them their keys. "If you need anything, my name is Amanda."

"Is everyone in this town this friendly?" Larissa whispered to Carlos in the tiny, cramped elevator.

"Let's hope so. The more who are willing to talk, the better. Let's meet in the dining room at six o'clock."

A pang of nostalgia struck Larissa as she opened the door to her room. It reminded her of one of the foster homes she had lived in briefly when she was growing up, with its floral-patterned brass bed and rose-colored carpeting. She remembered lying on such a bed as she wrote a letter to her older brother Nick, whom she'd been separated from, about how she hoped that that family would adopt her and that maybe they'd want him as well.

Memories flooded back as she stood under the shower, letting the warm water loosen her travel-stiff body. She didn't remember her father who had deserted the family when she was still an infant. But she did recall the warmth of her mother as she was held, the rich brown of her skin and the faint scent of rosemary that always hovered around her. She had died when Larissa was six.

Larissa didn't know much about her father except that her mother had always called him her "blue-eyed prince." "He'll come back someday, I just know it," she'd always said. "He'll return with a truckload of presents for you kids and take us away from this place to a beautiful house high in the mountains. I'll bet you'd like that."

He never came back.

After their mother died, Larissa and Nick were sent to different foster homes.

Nick…

He had been her protector, her best friend. She smiled and held her face into the warm spray of water as she remembered a game they used to play when their mother was still alive. Nick would wedge a broom between the headboard of his bed and drape a sheet over it, forming a crude sail.

"I'm the captain and you're the first mate," he would say. "We'll go anywhere you want. This is a magic ship."

"Anywhere?"

"Anywhere."

"How about Egypt? Or the moon?"

"We're on our way."

Nothing was impossible for Nick. After they were separated, she and her brother kept in touch with letters over the years. She had loved his jokes and the humorous poems he used to send her. "We'll see each other again someday," he had said to her. "I promise."

When he was seventeen, he sent her a fifty-dollar bill in the mail and said he'd found an excellent way to make money but he had to keep it a secret. He promised to continue sending her money and, in a few months when he turned eighteen, he would come for her. But he never did. The letters even stopped and no one would tell her what had happened when she inquired. Nick had disappeared just like Dad.

She had secretly hoped that by joining the FBI, she'd be able to find Dad and Nick but no records ever turned up. Besides, she was kept so busy on other cases.

Cases like this one.

"That victim you're here about must have done something pretty bad to end up dead in this town," Amanda said to Larissa as she waited for Carlos. He was late as usual.

"What do you mean?" Her mind chewed over what Carlos had told her on the drive up.

"This town lives by the 'Golden Rule': if you are nice, good things come to you but if you aren't, you'll get what's coming to you." She chuckled. "I once had a patron who cussed me out and refused to pay because his room wasn't as neat as he liked. Then, as he was leaving, he tripped and fell onto my freshly manured lawn." She tossed her head and laughed. "I tried to keep a straight face; I really did. But the crowd of people who had been passing by at that exact moment couldn't. He threatened me with a lawsuit but never followed through. He probably just wanted to get away from here. The unspoken rule of this town is 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'"

"As in 'what goes around comes around,'" said Carlos, joining them. "I've noticed that here as well. Is this place jinxed?"

"I've seen good things happen too. Another one of our guests, who had been extremely polite, gave some money to a transient. A few weeks later I read in the papers that he had won over 5 million in the state lottery."

Carlos' eyes gleamed. Larissa shook her head, unable to believe any of this. They were probably just coincidences. She cleared her throat. "This is all very interesting but we are here on a possible murder investigation. Do you know anything about the death that had occurred a few days ago?"

Amanda shook her head. "Only through word of mouth. There was a similar incident a few months ago where another visitor had collapsed from a sudden heart attack. The records later showed that he had murdered his wife and was on the run from the police. But this is the first time that the FBI has been called in to investigate."

"Then you don't know of anyone who would have reason to kill a stranger?"

Amanda shook her head. "Not in this town."

The following day Larissa and Carlos interviewed the residents on the block where the victim's body had been found.

"I had just gotten into bed when I thought I heard a gunshot," said one man. "It was raining pretty hard so when I heard that, I thought it was thunder. I was starting to drift off when I was awakened by commotion outside. I went to check it out. My neighbors were gathered around a body."

"Had you ever seen the victim before?" asked Carlos.

The man shook his head. "No, sir. I believe he was just passing through. He must have been on the run from something."

The descriptions the other witnesses gave were similar. One actually saw the victim slip in the mud where he dropped something. As he bent to pick it up, a gunshot went off and seconds later he collapsed. He must have dropped his gun and accidentally released the trigger as he was picking it up, shooting himself through the chest.

"What do you make of this?" asked Larissa as they headed toward the coroners.

Carlos shrugged. "From what we've heard, the story is consistent. That this poor bastard was just passing through town, slipped in the mud, and shot himself."

"Do you really believe it could be that simple…that ridiculous? Besides, why didn't they find the gun?"

"It's the most likely story. It was raining fairly hard that night so the gun could easily have washed away. There is one way to find out for certain. The coroner should have the bullet. All we need to do is match that up with the bullet that killed the police officer and then we'll have our answer."

A chill passed through Larissa as Carlos pulled the car next to the curb in front of the coroners. It was the only building that wasn't painted in pastel. Instead, it was stark white and square in shape, standing like a beacon away from the other edifices.

A woman in a white lab coat greeted them as they showed her their badges. "We've had a few deaths in Golden, but this is the first time a homicide has been reported," she said, pulling open a large drawer in the wall. "Strangely, we have had a few fleeing criminals escape into our town. We are on a major road and the heat does get intense. They usually collapse either from cardiac arrest or embolisms." She pulled back the sheet.

A rising nausea threatened to choke Larissa as she looked down at the body. She hadn't expected this to bother her since she had seen enough dead bodies before, but this one…

"Nick?" she whispered, studying the skin that was, although ashen with death, a toasty caramel just like hers. The chin and cheekbones were strong, the features, more mature than she remembered, matched her brother's. His hair was black and wavy, just like hers. If only she could see his eyes, then she would know for certain: both she and Nick had eyes the color of turquoise stones, a shade that was luminous against the dusk of their skin and hair. When they were young, people had always commented on how alike they were and, had they not been two years apart and the opposite sex, they'd be identical.

"Are you all right, Larissa?" Carlos said, grabbing her arm to steady her.

She forced a smile and nodded. She longed to collapse into a chair and close her eyes, escape from this place, but she was determined not to weaken. That's not Nick, she told herself. He'd never become a criminal. It's just someone who looks a lot like him.

"This one was killed by a gunshot wound, no more," said the coroner, revealing a large, ugly scab on the corpse's chest. Larissa swallowed in an effort not to throw up. "That's not Nick," she kept repeating silently to herself. "Not Nick, not Nick, not…."

"Do you have the bullet?" asked Carlos. "We suspect that he accidentally shot himself."

"That wouldn't surprise me," the coroner said as she replaced the sheet over the body and pushed it back into the wall. Larissa was momentarily relieved. "This is the bullet that I found." She held up the small metallic object. Carlos took it.

"Do you believe this town is governed by the Golden Rule?" Carlos asked Larissa as they turned to leave. "I try to work in fact but criminals do have more than their share of bad luck here. All we need to do now is take this bullet back to L.A. and see if it—Larissa, are you going to be okay? You look like you're about to faint."

She nodded. "I'm fine." Her voice snagged on a suppressed sob. "But I…I think that body…that criminal was my brother Nick."

"Are you sure?" He stared at her. She could see her reflection in his glossy black eyes. "I thought you hadn't seen your brother since you were a little kid."

"I'd know Nick at any age. I could swear it was him, but I really need to know for sure."

"Look, we don't have to go back today. I'm positive this bullet will match. I'll call the boss and tell him we're still investigating. I brought my laptop. We can search our database for anything on this so-called 'Mr. Conners.'"

Larissa smiled, a genuine one this time. She blinked in an effort to clear the stubborn moisture from her eyes. "Thanks. I'd appreciate that."

She met Carlos in the hotel lobby that afternoon. This time he was there first, sitting at a small table and typing on his laptop. His forehead was furrowed, his eyes narrowed with concentration.

"Did you find anything?" she asked, slipping into the chair next to him.

He nodded, but his gaze remained veiled. "I'm afraid you may not like it. It turns out that Michael Conners was an alias—one of many—for Nicholas Hallowell." Tears blurred Larissa's eyes. She wasn't hearing any of this. It was a nightmare. She'd awaken any moment…any…

"He wasn't a murderer. Well, he didn't start out that way," continued Carlos. "He was a drug dealer, a gig he had started in his teens." Larissa thought about his last letter and the money she had received. Her hands and feet felt numb. "He apparently did this for years going from town to town. He got caught only once and spent some time in jail. When he was released, he continued his old job. But he refused to get caught again. When he did, he shot the arresting officer and escaped to Golden. I guess he thought this would be a safe place to hide since he apparently didn't know anything about the Rule. Are you going to be all right?"

"Not right away, but eventually." A surge of emotions swirled through her: anger, depression, sadness. "It's my dad's fault. If he hadn't left us—" Rage choked her words.

"You can't blame this on your father, you know," Carlos said gently. "You and your brother had similar experiences, yet look at you. You turned out fine. Your brother just made different choices. He didn't have to turn out the way he did."

Larissa nodded. A tear tickled her cheek. She rubbed it away and felt her face grow hot.

"You don't have to be embarrassed. It's just me. You're partner."

"More than that." She laughed suddenly. A queer, fuzzy warmth filled her chest. "Thank you for listening to my ranting."

"My pleasure. You know the Rule here: give bad and you will get bad back but if you give good—"

She hit him lightly on the shoulder. "Is that the only reason you were willing to listen?"

He grinned at her, an expression that turned her insides to fluid. "Not the only reason, no. We may not be able to remain partners, but maybe we can become partners in another way."

She could feel her fondness for him multiplying. "Why don't you buy me dinner and we can discuss it."

The End