Sarah took a deep breath and faced Quinlin in the stuffy cubbyhole of an office. The room was hot and musty. Dust motes floated in the slivers of sunshine that had penetrated the haze of accumulated grime on the windows of the old building. The scent of his cologne hung heavily in the still air. Chaps. Rich, masculine, and too easily a distraction.
Dressed in a dark, somber suit, Quinlin didn’t speak. He watched her with the careful scrutiny of a snake considering a field mouse. A trickle of perspiration ran down Sarah’s back and dampened her white T-shirt. Shifting in the wooden chair, she contemplated the wisdom of taking off her jacket, then decided against it. He would interpret it as a sign of weakness.
She thought she was prepared for this. She’d rehearsed it a million times, remembering the images, nailing down the sequence, readying herself for his opener, “Detective Kingsly, tell me what happened that night.”
She recalled the moon playing tag with a few heavy clouds, casting weird, disorientating shadows on the crumbling buildings. She remembered wishing the clouds would give way to rain, anything to relieve the oppressive heat that had pounded the city relentlessly for weeks. She remembered thinking the heat made people do crazy things.
Maybe that’s why it had happened.
The rest of it flashed through her mind like a sequence of freeze frames.
Franco and the boy turn.
A glint of metal in the moonlight.
John pushes her away, reaching for the gun tucked in his waistband.
The clasp on her purse sticks.
A flash of gunfire.
The sharp report of return fire.
Struggling to get her gun.
Franco is down.
The kid swings his gun toward John.
She fires the same time the kid does.
The coppery smell of warm blood.
Goddam it, John, get up!
Why is everything so quiet?
Where is the kid?
There’s a big gaping hole in the cheap sequined evening bag.
Every time Sarah played the scene in her mind, she hoped for a different ending. It never came. Her purse always had the hole in it. John was always dead. And so was the kid.
“And you’re sure you had no choice?” Quinlin’s officious voice rankled with unspoken insinuations.
Sarah suppressed a surge of anger as he walked behind her chair. The son of a bitch is not going to trip me up. No way.
“Yes.” She didn’t trust herself with more words.
“That’s pretty easy to say since everyone else who was there is dead.”
The comment jolted her, and she clenched sweaty fists in her lap to keep herself in the chair. Don’t dignify that with a response.
Quinlin came up beside her and paused. Sarah didn’t look at him for a long moment, then turned and met his insolent gaze with steady gray eyes. Go ahead. Give it your best shot.
They maintained the visual standoff for a moment that seemed to drag into eternity, and Sarah breathed a silent sigh of relief when he broke contact first. It had been a minor skirmish in the overall war, but the small victory shifted the balance of power slightly in her favor.
Quinlin walked around his desk and sat down in his chair. “Have you scheduled your appointment with Doc Murray?”
The question was accompanied by a sincere smile she knew was calculated to disarm her. Fuck him and fuck his pseudo-compassion. “I thought it might be nice to bury my partner before I start putting my life back together.”
Quinlin pushed wire-framed glasses up and let his finger rest on the side of his nose. Sarah never knew if it was a pose designed to exude wisdom, but she recognized another familiar tactic. He could sit there like that forever, hoping the strain of the silence would open some verbal floodgates.
It wasn’t going to happen to her. Not here. Not now.
She clamped her lips tight and turned the nervous flutter of her hand into an acceptable gesture of tucking a strand of blonde hair behind her ear.
“The visit’s mandatory before you can be reinstated,” Quinlin said, his voice chilling her like a douse of ice water.
“I know. I’ll take care of it.”
Apparently satisfied with that response, he leaned back in his chair. “Did you have any suspicion the bust might go bad?”
Silence stretched between them like a guitar string tuned too high.
“You’re going to have to talk to me,” Quinlin said. “I have to know what went down that night.”
“Read the report.”
“Why the resistance, Detective? You know the drill.” Quinlin gently rocked in his swivel chair, creating a sound track of rhythmic squeaks. “I don’t make decisions based solely on reports.”
Sarah broke away from his intense scrutiny and clenched her jaw so hard her teeth hurt. Why couldn’t he back off? Just for a couple of days. He couldn’t be that much of a prick not to see she wasn’t ready to talk. Not until the words could come without the tears.
But then again, it was his job to be a prick. To catch people at their most vulnerable moments. Dig and probe and push until he was satisfied nothing was held back. He did this to every officer who used deadly force. Not just her. But the realization offered no consolation.
“Detective.” His voice called her to attention. “Did you know the kid was going to be there?”
“No.” She took a deep shuddering breath. “Can I have a drink of water?”
“Certainly.” Quinlin rose and went to the water cooler in the corner.
Sarah used the time to compose herself. She had to at least appear willing to comply. Answer some of the questions. Otherwise . . .
She didn’t want to think about otherwise.
She accepted the paper cup and took a soothing swallow of the cool water. Quinlin reclaimed his seat and she met his penetrating gaze again. “When we set up the meet, it was just supposed to be Franco. We’d been working him for a couple of months.”
“Why didn’t you abort the bust?”
“No chance.” Sarah balanced the empty cup on the edge of his desk. “The action started almost immediately.”
“You think they made you?”
She shook her head, remembering the meets to set up the buy. “Franco was a punk. He wasn’t smart enough to make us. He just thought he was smart enough to take out a rich guy and his broad.”
“That’s the way you figure it?”
“Yeah.” Sarah wiped a clammy hand on the smooth fabric of her jeans, hoping to still the tremble of muscle that could quickly become jerky spasms. If Quinlin noticed, he gave no sign.
She waited out another silence.
“That’s all for today.” Quinlin sat forward abruptly and picked up a file from his desk, effectively dismissing her.
Rising, Sarah fished her car keys out of her jacket pocket and headed toward the door.
In the quiet hallway, she leaned her forehead against the cool cement of the wall and took an angry swipe at the tear that had dared to trickle down her cheek.
Mel unlocked the door to the maintenance room and flicked the switch on the wall for light. He still had fifteen minutes until his shift ended at midnight, but he didn’t figure anyone would notice if he bugged out early. There was only one other person left in the whole mall anyway. And by the time the security guard made his pass through here, it would be well past clock out time anyway.
He pushed his tool box into its designated place on the dented metal shelves with a harsh scrape, thankful that he’d had a light workload tonight. Wouldn’t have to lose time with a shower. He could just zip out of here and head straight to his favorite watering hole. If he was lucky, he could pick up some good shit on the way. And Rita would be there with some good stuff of her own.
After locking the door to the storage room, Mel set off at a brisk pace, his boots thumping hollowly in the empty corridor.
He stood in the shadowed doorway down the hall, watching. He’d watched unseen before, waiting for the right moment. He’d long ago quit worrying about the wisdom of what he’d planned. It was the only choice he had left.
He eased the door closed and listened to the thud of footsteps draw near, then pass.
It was time.
A rush of adrenaline sent his heart on a wild, erratic riff, and a sudden storm of panic threatened to overwhelm him. It was no simple act he was about to perform. All kinds of things could go wrong.
Maybe he should leave. Forget the whole crazy scheme.
The sound from the hallway ceased. He cracked the door open and saw the man stooped over the water fountain.
Mel whirled at the unexpected creak of the men’s room door opening behind him. Who the hell was skulking around down here at this hour? He relaxed when he recognized the man standing a few feet away.
“You scared the piss outa me.” Mel wiped drips of water from his chin. “What’re you doing sneaking around here, anyway?”
The man didn’t answer, and the lure of Danny’s Grill finally overcame Mel’s curiosity. If the guy didn’t want to talk, so be it. Bastard never was very friendly. Not even when Mel offered to share some of his best shit. If anything, the guy had been downright unfriendly since then. So screw him.
The decision to act was made somewhere deep in his subconscious. He lunged, whipping the weapon around Mel’s neck in one fluid move and pulling it tight.
The man’s feet scrabbled for purchase on the slick tile as Mel’s full weight fell against him. He had to stay upright. Couldn’t let the wild, grasping hands break his hold. Had to finish it.
It took forever for the crescendo of harsh gasps to recede into a soft gurgle. As if orchestrated by the sounds, the thrashing slowly subsided to a few involuntary twitches.
Was it over?
The throaty rasp of his own breathing was the only sound the man heard now, but he kept his straining muscles tight for a few more moments. Had to be sure. Wouldn’t do to let go too soon.
A sour taste of bile filled his mouth as the finality of the act hit him. Was he no better than the rest, deciding who should die to suit his purposes?
No matter now. It was done. The crusade was launched, and the ending was no longer up to him.
* * * * *
Sarah stirred her drink with the plastic straw, the ice clinking against the glass. She tried to remember if it was her fourth or fifth Rob Roy. Not being sure was maybe a good sign that she should stop. Wouldn’t do for one of Dallas’s finest to be stopped for a DWI.
“Shit,” she muttered, taking a big swallow of her drink. “Doesn’t matter anyway. If SIU doesn’t get me, the Review Board will.”
Normally, Sarah shied away from going to bars alone, especially in the late hours before night turned into day. She hated the mating ritual that was often triggered by a woman walking in alone. It created a veritable frenzy of anticipation, playing out in postures and expressions that said, “Maybe I’ll get lucky tonight.”
She wasn’t a virgin, or a prude, but she couldn’t reduce sex to the same level as buying a lottery ticket.
Tonight, however, was not a normal situation. The second week of her enforced exile had driven her to the point of near madness. Lieutenant McGregor had told her she needed the time away from the job for herself. Time to deal with losing John. Get her head on straight about the kid. But she also suspected that he wanted her away from the controversy. If she wasn’t accessible to the protesters lined up outside the Municipal Building, they couldn’t lynch her.
The waitress, who wore a tight, leather mini-skirt that restricted her movements to short, bouncy steps, paused by Sarah’s table and set a fresh drink on the scarred wooden surface. Sarah looked at the petite brunette, puzzled.
“From the guy at the bar.” The waitress nodded a mass of curls toward a man who raised his glass in salute when Sarah caught his eye. Ford truck ads with rugged cowboys flooded her mind, tempting her to rethink her position on the lottery.
Ignoring her usual caution, Sarah accepted the drink and waited, trying not to be too obvious about watching him.
Finally, he pulled his lanky frame off the stool and walked toward her table. Two things caught her attention. Well, actually, three. A dimple at the corner of his crooked smile, wisps of curly black hair escaping from the neck of his red cowboy shirt and tight blue jeans defining well-muscled thighs and . . .
“May I join you?” His voice was as smooth as rich leather.
Sarah blinked, wondering if he was just a drunken illusion. But he didn’t disappear. He didn’t sit down either. He shifted his weight to his outside foot, and she realized he was waiting for permission. Maybe he really was a cowboy. The gallantry was a nice endearment.
Before she could respond to the man’s question, a large, beefy figure loomed behind him, and the voice of Lieutenant McGregor broke into the moment. “You’re a hard woman to track down, Kingsly.”
The sight of the men eyeing each other like junkyard dogs brought the first smile to her face in a long time. She offered an explanation before one of them drew blood. “This is my boss.”
After a moment’s hesitation the other man extended his hand to the Lieutenant, “Paul Barnett.”
“Thomas McGregor.” He accepted the handshake. “We just need to talk here a minute.”
Paul turned to Sarah and the depth of his eyes, the color of a midnight sky, held her. Then she gave a slight nod. He fished a card out of his shirt pocket and pushed it across the table to her. “In case you ever need help with your taxes.”
McGregor slid his considerable bulk onto the bench across from Sarah. “A casual bar pick-up? You?”
“Never had a chance to find out,” she mused, watching Paul stride back to the bar.
“I’m not sure.” Sarah dropped the card into her jacket pocket, then turned her attention back to McGregor. “How’d you find me, anyway?”
“Simple deductive reasoning.” He motioned for the waitress. “After a couple of weeks of waiting to hear if I had a job or not, I’d try to ease the tension with a few belts. And I’d do it close enough to home that I could walk if I needed to. So I did a little legwork that paid off.”
“You come just to commiserate?”
McGregor paused to order a Johnny Walker Red, straight up. “No. I heard from SIU this afternoon.”
Nerves sent her heart on a wild drumbeat. “And . . . ?”
“They ruled it a clean shoot.”
Her sigh of relief came out in a loud whoosh. The Special Investigative Unit, what some still referred to as Internal Affairs, could have stripped her of her badge forever. “What about the Review Board?”
“They don’t run things at the station. They just like to think they do.”
“What if they decide the shoot was racially motivated?”
The question slammed into Sarah like a freight train. “I thought you knew the answer to that.”
“I do.” McGregor leveled deep brown eyes at her. “I just want to make sure you do.”
The waitress stepped up and set a glass down in front of McGregor. Sarah lifted her own and took a quick swallow. “When do I get to come back?”
McGregor eyed her over the edge of his glass. “What does Doc Murray have to say?”
“I thought you made the decisions.”
“I do.” He paused and drained half of his drink. “Just gotta make sure I don’t have any loose cannons around.”
Sarah twirled her glass on the table, concentrating on the intricate design of wet circles. “Murray said I’m coping.”
“And what do you say?”
She raised her eyes to his, gauging how much he wanted her to say. Did he want to hear about the nightmares that plagued her restless sleep, or the nauseating, heavy feeling in her stomach each time she saw that kid’s face in her mind?
No, she finally decided. McGregor had two shoots on his record. He already knew.
“I can do the job.”
“Okay.” He tossed the rest of his drink down, then set the glass on the table with a satisfied sigh. “I’ll put you on the schedule tomorrow.”
McGregor stood and dropped a ten on the table. “I never doubted you for a moment.”
Sarah savored his reassurance. Maybe if she focused on that, it would help keep the demons at bay. Despite what the shrink had said, she wasn’t always so sure about the coping business. Her grief and her guilt hovered in separate corners of her consciousness, coming out and facing off like boxers responding to the bell.
Only she never knew when it was going to clang.
In desperate attempts to avoid the bout, Sarah had given in to silly impulses, including falling victim to the plight of a stray kitten. When the pathetic little thing had scooted through her open apartment door, she hadn’t been heartless enough to throw him out on an empty stomach. But that was all she’d planned to do. One meal, then he’d be history. She’d never wanted anything to depend on her for life. Not even a houseplant. But the feel of prominent ribs poking out of a ragged orange coat had touched some soft spot in her that she usually kept well-protected.
Now, she was actually contemplating letting the cat grow up before she gave him the boot.
Boy, wouldn’t John laugh himself silly over that.
The thought stopped her rambling mind cold. She hated having to remind herself that John wouldn’t laugh anymore.
Searching for a distraction, Sarah let her gaze travel back to the now empty barstool. Had the guy been real or just a player in some wide-awake dream? Dropping her hand into her pocket, she fingered the edge of his very real business card. She pulled it out, recognizing Bordowsky, Smithers & Payne as one of the largest accounting firms in Dallas, but her eyes faltered over the title neatly embossed under Paul’s name.
It couldn’t be.
No CPA ever looked like that.