Wednesday, January 29, 2014

EXCERPT: Disengaged

Title: Disengaged
Author: Lauren Gallagher

Tuesdays were nearly always dead in the pompously high-end jewelry store where I was miserably employed, and tonight was no exception. Aside from the other peons on the payroll and the occasional lone customer, the store was deserted, and we were too perilously close to Valentine’s Day for the store to be this empty. That probably just meant that the last few days before the fourteenth, the mall would be teeming with panicked husbands, fianc├ęs, boyfriends, other halves, and unsuspecting soon-to-be-exes.

But couldn’t they all come in tonight? At least that would have made the time go by quickly, and maybe kept my mind off the expected-but-unexpected end of my longtime relationship less than twenty-four hours earlier. I hadn’t said anything to the other girls. I hadn’t quite processed it myself, beyond wondering where I’d live and how I’d pay rent while Derek worked on selling our condo.

Oh, well. The Valentine’s Day customers would be along in due time. For now, I had a few minutes to flip through an apartment guide and get an idea where I’d be living in the foreseeable future.

Two bedroom. Nice view. Way too expensive.

One bedroom. Affordable. Shitty part of town.

Two bedroom. Moderately expensive. Brutal commute.

Studio. Affordable. Roughly the same size as a postage stamp.

I set the guide down. Blowing out a breath, I rubbed my tired eyes. The few places I’d found that would have worked didn’t have anything available until the first of March or even April. Derek wasn’t throwing me out, but I wasn’t staying in our shared condo a moment longer than I had to.

Tara, my manager, dropped into the chair behind another desk. “Fucking tire kickers.”

I looked up. “Again?”

She nodded. “Tried on every damned watch in the case, but heaven forbid they actually buy one.” She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically.

“Did they say they’d come back?”

“Of course.”

“Maybe they will.”

Our eyes met and we both burst out laughing. “I’ll come back” was customer-speak for “thanks, but no thanks.”

She nodded toward the front of the store. “Incoming.”

I looked up to see two women hovering near the sapphire and ruby case. I put my apartment guide under a stack of papers and made my way to the case.

“Is there something I can help you with?”

The redhead nodded and gestured at a pendant in the case. “How much is that necklace?”

“Let me have a look.” I unlocked the case and pulled out the pendant in question. I checked the tag. “Ninety-nine dollars even.”

The girl scowled and looked at her companion, whose expression was equally displeased. “Ugh, I knew he was a cheapskate.”

I cocked my head. “Are there any other pendants you’d like to see?”

“No, thanks.” She pointed at the one in front of me. “My boyfriend got me that one for my birthday, and I just wanted to see how much he’d spent.”

The other girl snickered. “Told you he wouldn’t crack a hundred.”

“Not surprised at all,” the first said with a disgusted look. “Think he’ll do better for Valentine’s Day?”

“Not a chance.”

I watched them go. After they’d disappeared into the current of passing people, I looked at the pendant and sighed. So that was romance these days. A price tag. A dollar figure that determined if someone was worthy.

I shoved the pendant back in and locked the case. This week wasn’t doing a hell of a lot to restore my faith in love.

Sighing, I picked up a bottle of glass cleaner and a rag to wipe down some cases. Above the anniversary band case, the clock on the green marble wall, with its pretentious faux gold Roman numerals and razor-thin hands, announced it was ten minutes until six. That meant the rest of my co-workers would be returning from their dinner breaks, and as if on cue, in they came.

Monica with her bouffant hair that was so highlighted it was almost zebra-striped.

 Gail beneath piles of jewelry and layers of makeup.

Shari in a vivid red suit with a short skirt that must have left her freezing when she went outside.

As everyone clocked back in, Monica paused to preen in front of one of the many mirrors on the wall. She scrutinized her reflection, smoothing her meticulously styled hair and adjusting the blouse that barely contained her ample upper body.

I resisted the impulse to roll my eyes, instead turning my attention back to cleaning glass. I’d been in this business for a few years, and as much as we were encouraged to dress professionally, there was an unspoken assumption we would also dress to use our own assets to our advantage. The men got away with traditional business suits, but it was just sort of expected that “if you’ve got it, flaunt it” applied to the women. The flashier the better, especially if flashy was combined with sexy. Exposed cleavage, clothing a couple sizes too tight, and of course, bright colors. Even some of the upper managers dressed like colorblind peacocks. Tara and I swore our district manager’s wardrobe was made up of clothing rejected by Cirque du Soleil for being too loud.

And it was no wonder customers assumed we were allowed to wear jewelry out of the case—ears and necks dripped with diamonds and gold. Bracelets jingled against Rolex watches. Fingers glittered with enormous rings. I was pretty sure Gail had the gross domestic product of three small countries on her right hand alone.

Then there were the heavily-scented hand lotions everyone slathered on in between marinating in cheap fragrances. Our store was a nauseating cornucopia of odors, from the on-site jeweler’s pungent torch to the perfumes that could double as chemical weapons. Stray garlic and grease fumes from the nearby food court rounded it out, making Friedman’s smell more like a street fair than a high-end jewelry store.

I picked up a bottle of glass cleaner and wandered to the Rolex case to wipe all the fingerprints off and make room for more. Same shit, different day. I glanced at myself in one of the seven billion mirrors in the gleaming store, meeting my own narrowed, glazed eyes.

Jesus. When had I become so damned cynical about everything? This wasn’t me. Except the last few months, it had been. But why?

Sighing, I looked at Gail. She’d been here nearly twenty years. Monica, almost ten. Shari and Tara, five apiece in this store and heaven knew how long at different companies.

And I’d been here six. Six years of my life I was never getting back. I’d known for some time I wasn’t happy with my relationship or my job, but this close on the heels of the former’s end, the latter was even less bearable.

God, why am I here? Six years in this place, four and a half with Derek, five since I’d applied to college for those classes I’d never gotten around to taking. How had this happened?

Where the hell was my life going, and why did I feel like it was going there without me?

Time to start looking for a new job. I was in the market for a new apartment and, eventually, a new man. Might as well shuffle everything around while I was at it. I made a mental note to browse some employment websites when I got home tonight. That, and I’d peruse that degree program I’d been putting off for the last five years.

A set of sharp, deliberate footsteps broke away from the steady rhythm of mall traffic, getting louder with every step. Time to put on the game face. I forced a smile, looked up, and—

Oh, hello.

Highly polished black dress shoes, black slacks, a crisp white shirt, and the most arresting pair of blue eyes I had ever seen. His dark hair was neat and messy at the same time; that tousled, spiky look that was like a deliberate form of bedhead. The kind of hair that just begged me to run my fingers through it. He was slender, but still had shoulders broad enough to be sheltering if he wrapped his arms around someone, hips narrow enough to—

Easy, Amber.

My mouth went dry, but I somehow managed to choke out a greeting. “Hi, welcome to Friedman’s.”

He smiled, which didn’t do a damned thing to bring my pulse back down. “Hi.” There was a hint of shyness in his voice and the brief downward shift of his gaze. “I, um…” He furrowed his brow, looking at some of the watches between us, something apparently catching his eye. I took advantage of his momentary distraction to drink in the sight of him, if only for a second longer. Just below his lapel was a sleek black nametag with the logo for Christy’s, the swanky bar across the street from the mall. Under the logo, in white lettering, Jeremy. I could certainly see why my co-workers went there for after-work drinks all the time. The scenery alone was worth it.

Before I’d stared for an awkwardly long time, I said, “Is there something I can help you find?” The automatic words came in spite of my dry mouth and tied tongue. I wasn’t so sure I could improvise anything at the moment.

“Yeah, I…” A watch held his attention for another second before he met my eyes, and a hint of color darkened his cheeks.

“Looking for a Rolex?”

Jeremy shook his head. “Actually, I’m looking for…” Another downward flick. Eye contact again. More color. He cleared his throat. “An engagement ring.”

Of course he is. All the hot ones are here for engagement rings. I resisted the urge to groan aloud. Thanks, universe. That is one sick, sick joke, you know that?





Wednesday, January 22, 2014

EXCERPT: Search Me

Title: Search Me (Cover Me #3)
Author: L.A. Witt

(Note: This excerpt contains what might be considered spoilers for book #1)


Gun in both hands, I inched down the hall of Nick’s apartment. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, my nerve endings tingling and my senses on high alert for any indication there was someone here. So far, the apartment was empty. Nothing had been disturbed.

“Nick,” I said over my shoulder, keeping my voice down, “did you leave your bedroom door open or closed?”

“I don’t know. Probably closed.”

I pursed my lips. Up ahead, the door was ajar.

As I took another step forward, I said, “Stay up against the wall.”

Fabric rustled behind me, so I didn’t look back to make sure he’d done as I asked. Instead, I continued toward the door, listening for any movement beyond it. If Jesse was here, he could be in any state of mind. Lucid. Volatile. Going through withdrawal. In the middle of a high. The kid was mentally ill anyway, plus he was a crack addict. After he’d attacked Nick the other night, breaking his nose and nearly strangling him, there was no predicting what would be going on in the kid’s head now.

At the door, I paused for a moment, listening. Then I nudged the door open with my foot.

Everything happened so fast. So goddamned fast. He must have been completely still, completely silent, and I didn’t see him until he raised the gun. Until the muzzle flash startled me, sent me stumbling back in the same instant fire ripped across the side of my arm and a donkey kick’s worth of force hit the center of my chest.

Nick tried to steady me, but we both went down.

As he scrambled to his feet, I gripped my upper arm. It was a minor wound. Grazed me. My chest ached where my vest had stopped the second bullet, and breathing took some extra effort, but it was nothing serious.

And Jesse was still here.

“Are you okay?” Nick asked. Concern and fear were etched all over his bruised, cut-up face.

“The gun.” I coughed, then spoke through clenched teeth. “Get my gun.”

The pistol that had been in my hands had fallen just beyond the open doorway, so Nick took the revolver from my ankle holster.

From the other side of the doorway came a hysterical, familiar voice: “Oh God, oh God, oh God… ”

“Jesse, put the gun down,” I called out. I moved to my knees. “Jesse… ”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry!” came the shrill, shaky response. “I didn’t mean to, Mark, I didn’t—”

 “Jesse, just calm down.” I kept my voice low. The kid only knew me by my undercover name, and probably had no idea I was a cop. He was already delusional and had long ago bought into a charade my partner and I had put on for months. As I tried to figure out how to defuse this situation, I noticed Jesse had dropped his weapon. The noise and the kick must have scared the shit out of him. That, or he’d realized he’d hit me—not Nick, the one he probably wanted to shoot—and freaked.

Dropping my voice a little lower, I said, “Nick. His gun. It’s on the floor.” I nodded toward the bedroom.

Nick looked. Then he turned to me and mouthed, “What do I do?”

“Just stay there.” I gestured at the revolver in his hand. “Aim the gun at the doorway.”

He cocked his head. “Aim the—”

“Just do it. He goes anywhere near either gun, do not hesitate to fire.”

Nick nodded and drew the hammer back. He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple bobbing between the purple and red welts across the front of his throat. I thought he shuddered. He had to have been scared out of his mind, but he did as I said, adopting the shooting stance I’d taught him and aiming his weapon at the bedroom doorway.

“Jesse, move where I can see you,” I ordered.

“No, no, I can’t, it’s—”

“Jesse, move where I can see you. Now.”

Tentative, unseen movement shuffled across carpet.

“Jesse, I’m not fucking around.” I sucked in a breath as I gingerly pushed myself to my feet, still clutching my wounded arm. “Get in front of the doorway with your hands in the air and don’t touch that gun. Come on, Jesse.”

Another step.

“Can you see him?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Nick said.

“Come on, Jesse,” I barked. “Now.”

“Please don’t shoot me,” came the shrill voice from the other side. He was crying now, almost hyperventilating.

“I’m not going to shoot you unless you reach for a gun,” Nick said. “Come out now, or I’m coming in.”

Jesse stepped into view. His eyes were wild with fury and probably no shortage of chemical influence, but also red from crying. His hands were up and his face was blotchy, vertical streaks marking where tears had cut through the dirt on his skin. He struggled just to breathe in between sobbing, and when he looked past Nick and saw me, he cried even harder.

“Oh God,” he moaned. “I’m sorry, Mark. I’m sorry…” He whimpered and shook, brushing frantically at his arms like he had unseen insects crawling all over him. His legs trembled under him as he rocked back and forth. Fuck. He was probably coming off a high, maybe even a binge, and if ever a crackhead was going to be volatile and dangerous, this was it.

“Jesse, put your hands back up,” Nick said calmly.

Jesse’s hysteria shifted to anger when he glared at Nick.

“Fuck you. I wanted to hit you, not…” He looked at me again and crumbled into renewed crying. “Mark, oh God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to! I’m so...” He mumbled something after that, sobbing and struggling to speak. He started to sink to the floor, way too close to my gun for comfort.

“Stand up, Jesse,” Nick said sharply. “Stand up and put your hands where I can see them. Now.”

Jesse obeyed, but stared at Nick with nothing but rage in his eyes. “You killed Chelsea.” His voice cracked and he blinked rapidly. “You killed her! I saw you, I saw you and I tried to save her…”

“Jesse, I didn’t kill anyone.” Nick’s voice shook, but the gun in his hands stayed rock steady.

“Listen to him, Jesse,” I said. “He didn’t kill anyone. Chelsea’s alive. She’s fine.”

“No, she’s not," Jesse said. “I’m not stupid, Mark. I saw her. I fucking saw her.”

“And you damn near killed me,” Nick growled.

Jesse crumbled into incomprehensible crying and mumbling.

Struggling to keep my voice calm, I said, “Chelsea is not dead, Jesse.”

“You’re both lying.” Jesse’s voice inched toward even greater hysteria. He tore at his own hair, wavering back and forth on shaking knees. “She’s dead. I saw her, and they moved everything out of her house and took it all away, and—”

“Jesse, I can call her,” Nick said. “We’ll let you talk to her. She’s alive, I promise.”

Jesse clutched his hair and shook his head and fidgeted. “You’re lying. You’re lying. I’m not stupid, Mark. I’m not stupid and she’s dead. I saw her, I saw what he did to her, I saw it, you—”

“She’s not dead, Jesse,” Nick said.

“You’re lying!” All at once, Jesse lunged and Nick fired. The sound and recoil must have caught him off guard, especially with the vertigo from his concussion, and he grabbed the doorframe for balance.

Jesse dropped to the floor, screaming. For about two seconds, I thought he was neutralized and this might be over, but then he went for one of the guns.

“Nick! The gun!” Without thinking, I shoved Nick out of the way. A gunshot. Pain. More shots.

I dropped to my knees, holding my arm. The wound was worse than it had been earlier. Far worse. No, no, it wasn’t. This was a new one. A deeper, bloodier one, right through my upper arm.

“Oh, fuck… ”

A hand materialized on my shoulder.

Nick’s voice sounded far away as he said, “Are you—”

“Get the gun,” I said through my teeth.

Nick left my side. I was vaguely aware of movement, of Jesse moaning beside me, but more than anything, I was aware of the hot blood slipping through my fingers and over the back of my hand. My head spun. I slumped forward, my vision turning black, and from nowhere, Nick was beside me again.

“Easy,” he said. “Lie back.” He guided me onto my back, which slowed some of the spinning. Then he was gone again. Panic rose in my throat, alternately directed at the wound, my waning consciousness, and Nick’s absence.

His voice and presence returned. “Look, I’m a paramedic and one of these guys might be bleeding out.” Who is he talking to? “I need both hands to do this. Just send help and send it now.”

A second later, something clattered beside me. A gun? A phone? Fuck if I knew, because the pain in my arm worsened. Someone was moving my arm. Squeezing it.

“Keep a tight grip on this.” Nick guided my hand to a towel he’d wrapped around my arm. “Hold it against your side. It’s going to hurt like hell, but don’t let go of it.”

I gripped the towel, which sent daggers of pain shooting through the wound. “Fuck, that hurts.”

“It’s going to. But don’t let go.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I looked around at the blood and bullet holes in the room. “Looks like you’re fucked for your damage deposit,” I muttered.

Nick chuckled. “And I thought I had a dark sense of humor.” He nodded at my arm. “Keep holding that.”

He started to stand.

Panicked, I seized his wrist. “Wait, where are you going?”

Nick gestured at Jesse. “I have to help him. He’s bleeding badly. I’m not going far and help is on its way.”

“Nick…” My heart pounded. My head spun faster.

Don’t leave me like this. Nick, don’t leave. Don’t go, please.

But he got up. As I fought to stay conscious, to see through the pain and my fading vision, he got up and walked away.

He walked away.

He walked away.

Nick… don’t leave me like this…



~ * ~



My eyes flew open and I pulled in a breath.

That same fucking dream again.

I wanted to tell myself it wasn’t real, that it was just a damned dream, but I knew better. Sighing I rubbed my eyes. The dull ache in my other arm reminded me that no amount of “it’s not real” would change the fact that the dream was real. It had happened. The better part of a year ago, yes, but whether it had happened back then or just now, it was anything but “not real.”

I fidgeted, cursing under my breath. No wonder my arm ached: it was pressed between the back of the couch and me. I moved just enough to free my arm, then raised it, bending and straightening my elbow gingerly. Same thing had happened last night. One of these days, maybe I’d learn how to sleep on the couch without fucking up my arm. Like facing the other direction or something.

Then again, it would all be a moot point if I just got up and stayed in the bedroom, but I couldn’t. Not now.

I couldn’t sleep in the bedroom because Nick was gone.

I was used to spending nights apart, but this was different. This wasn’t like when he stayed at the firehouse for his three day shifts. During his rotations, he was gone for a few nights, and when that was over, he came through the front door in the morning, sleepy-eyed and exhausted, shortly before I went to work.

Not this time.

He was really gone this time. Not moved out yet, but all it would take was a borrowed pickup truck, some cardboard boxes, and a few hours to take care of that.

He hadn’t decided yet if this was permanent, but it didn’t feel temporary to me. There’d been too much finality in the click of the front door two nights ago. He hadn’t stormed out. He hadn’t slammed the door. He’d just quietly said he couldn’t fight anymore that night, that he had to go, needed to go—Nick, please, don’t go—and then he’d slipped through my fingers.

I exhaled and rubbed my forehead, swallowing the lump that kept trying to rise in my throat. We’d had problems for a while now, but I’d been so sure we’d be all right. Even when we’d fought and couldn’t stand the sight of each other, when we’d gone days on end without speaking, I’d known we’d make it through. Somehow, we’d make it through.

I’d thought we would, anyway. There’d never been any doubt in my mind that what we had was solid enough to weather damn near anything.

Now, all I knew was that Nick’s side of the bed was empty.

EXCERPT: Trust Me

Title: Trust Me (Cover Me Book #2)
Author: L.A. Witt

Chapter 1


This is James, sorry I’m away from my phone, but leave a message and I’ll call you back.Beep.

I cursed under my breath and dropping my phone unceremoniously into the cup holder. He’d left a voicemail this morning about going out tonight, and he’d asked me to call him back, but he hadn’t answered his phone all damned day.

Letting my head fall back against the headrest, I sighed. I wanted to say this wasn’t like him, but lately, it was. For the first several months we’d dated, everything had been fine. Over the last three, though, things had changed. Long periods with his phone shut off at odd times of the day or night. Calls and texts returned hours after the fact when he used to call back right away. A suggestion of plans, only to invariably have something come up. Voicemails he conveniently didn’t have a chance to return until I called, at which point he was always just about to call me.

I rubbed my eyes with my thumb and forefinger. It wasn’t like I was a high maintenance man or anything. I didn’t expect him to be at my beck and call. There was something about his silences and cryptic explanations that didn’t sit well, though. The question was, did my suspicions come from being a once-bitten boyfriend, or was it just the habit of a homicide detective whose entire job revolved around picking apart little tells and details to see if someone was lying?

Whatever the case, sitting out here in the diner’s parking lot with an empty stomach wasn’t going to get me any closer to figuring out my other half’s transgressions. Muttering a string of profanity, I got out of the car and went inside.

My partner, Max Kessler, had already commandeered a booth and ordered coffee.

He pushed one of the three cups toward me. “Problems with the boyfriend again?”

“Yep.” I took a seat and pulled a couple of sugar packets out of the ceramic holder beside the napkin dispenser. “How’d you guess?”

He laughed. “What else pisses you off and has you ready to throw your phone through a window when we’re supposed to be enjoying a relaxed dinner?”

“Good point.” I tightened my jaw. “Yeah, still having problems with him.” Max was one of the few guys on the force who knew I was gay, and it didn’t bother him in the slightest. He’d invited me to countless barbecues with his family, and whoever I was dating at the time had always been welcome. Yet another reason we’d worked so well together for this long.

“When are you going to just dump his ass?” Max eyed me over the rim of his cup. “If he’s making you this miserable…”

“Unless he comes up with a damned good excuse,” I said as I stirred cream into my coffee, “he’s gone tonight. I’m over it.”

Max raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. I didn’t blame him for his skepticism. How many times had I said that in recent weeks? Even I didn’t believe me anymore.

The diner door opened, and Max glanced up.

“Ah, there he is.” He waved, and I didn’t have to look to know who’d joined us.

A second later, Andrew Carmichael slid into the booth next to me. “Sorry I’m late. Physical therapy ran over. Again.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “We’re just getting here ourselves. How’s the arm?”

He scowled at his right arm, which was in a sling. “Improving slowly. Emphasis on the ‘slowly’, not the ‘improving.’”

“Could be worse.” Max slid the third cup of coffee across the table to Andrew.

“That it could,” Andrew said.

“I can’t believe they still have you in a sling after all this time, though,” Max said.

“Oh, that’s just because of the surgery last week. They had to go in and get all—”

“Don’t want to know right before I eat,” Max said, putting up a hand.

Andrew laughed. “Don’t want the gory details?”

“No, thank you.”

“Bit of a weak stomach for your line of work, don’t you think?”

“I can handle it, it’s just not appetizing pre-meal conversation, thank you very much.” Max gestured at Andrew’s injured arm. “Any idea when you’ll have full use again?”

Andrew shrugged with the other shoulder. “Another six months? A year? Who knows? It’s better now that they’ve taken out some of the scar tissue, but…”

Max shuddered. “Ugh, man, I do not envy you.”

“You don’t?” Andrew grinned. “Come on, everyone wants a badass battle scar.”

“Battle scars are fine and good,” Max said. “Losing the use of my arm? No thanks.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Andrew muttered, and focused on stirring sugar into his coffee. He was getting more and more adept at using his left hand for tasks like that, but it wasn’t quite second nature yet. Laying the spoon beside the cup, he said, “So, what’s new on the streets these days?”

“Same shit, different day,” I said.

“He asked about the streets, not your love life,” Max said.

Andrew cocked his head. “Christ, Brian, don’t tell me you’re still having problems with James.”

“I’m still having problems with James.”

Andrew’s eyebrows pulled together in a sympathetic expression. “You know, I think you’re onto something with him. I mean, everything you’ve told me, I’d be surprised as fuck if he didn’t have someone on the side.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said quietly.

“You really think he’s got another man?” Max asked.

I winced. “Maybe. That, or a woman.”

“I didn’t know he swung both ways,” Max said.

“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t, but quite honestly, I don’t know anymore.” I sighed. “So help me, though, if he is, and uses that as an excuse to cheat…”

Andrew sniffed. “He plays that card, I’ll turn Nick loose on him. Nothing pisses him off more than cheaters using the bisexual excuse.”

“No kidding.”

Andrew’s boyfriend was as bi as the day was long, but there wasn’t a man or woman alive who could turn Nick’s attention away from Andrew. In spite of the tension between them since their respective injuries, I envied the two of them. I couldn’t say if they were simply that in love, or if they just refused to take anything for granted after nearly losing each other, but even when they were sniping constantly, their relationship was what I ached for, whether with James or anyone else. They’d put their lives on the line for each other before and would do it again in a heartbeat.

“Well,” I said, “I don’t even know if he’s cheating or not. Maybe he isn’t. Fuck knows what he is doing, though.”

Andrew shook his head. “I’m not kidding, man, if he’s that much of a headache, just cut him loose.”

“He’s right, Brian,” Max said. “You have enough stress in your life. You of all people do not need this shit, especially these days.”

I absently stirred my coffee, but didn’t say anything. They were right. I knew they were right. God knew I’d discussed this with both of them a dozen times in the last month or so, and I was running out of justification for keeping James around. The fact that he hadn’t even met my two closest friends after all this time—neither of us had met the other’s friends or family—was one of the many chinks in the armor of our relationship. I’d suggested it, he’d balked, and whenever he’d relented enough to make plans with someone, he found a reason to bail at the last minute.

Oh, no, I wasn’t being jerked around.

About the only reason I stuck around lately was the mind-blowing sex, and even that was happening less and less. For me, anyway. He probably had plenty these days.

“Well, it would help if I could reach him.” I set the spoon beside my coffee cup. “Kind of hard to dump a guy’s ass when I can’t even talk to him.”

Andrew shrugged. “Just stop calling him, then. Quit returning his calls, block his number, whatever you have to do.”

“Exactly.” Max inclined his head. “Okay, I’m not exactly Dr. Phil here, and you know I wouldn’t normally pry into your personal life, but this guy’s games are taking their toll on your ability to do your job. He’s gotta go.”

Pursing my lips, I rubbed my forehead. “God, I don’t need this shit.”

“No, you don’t,” Andrew said.

That was an understatement. The city was a few months into a grisly, escalating crime wave, and the last thing a homicide detective needed was to be distracted by a philandering boyfriend while trying to solve these damned cases.

I exhaled and shook my head. “Well, I’ll deal with him after work. For now, I need some food before I put my fist through something.” It was damn near six in the evening, and we had just now found a few minutes to stop for a bite to eat.

Max laughed. “Skipped breakfast again, did we?”

“I was in a hurry.”

“Uh-huh.” He eyed me, then laughed. “Do I need to have Anna keep after you like she keeps after me?”

“Oh, no, you signed up for that, not me.” I chuckled. “You’re the one who married a woman with an iron fist.”

“Come on, now, she’s not that bad.”

Sure she isn’t.” I looked at Andrew. “By the way, how are things going with your better half?”

He laughed half-heartedly. “Same shit, different day.”

I furrowed my brow. “Everything okay?”

With a dismissive gesture, he said, “Just ironing things out. Same as it’s been for a while.”

“Good God,” Max said with a wry grin. “Every time I tell myself gay guys have it easy not having to deal with women, I just have to listen to the two of you.”

Andrew laughed. “Says the man married to the pit bull.”

“The toy pit bull,” I said.

Max chuckled. He started to say something further, but his ringing cell phone stopped him, and he picked it up. “Kessler.” Pause. He stiffened, and I knew that change in posture well. He looked at me and gave a slight nod.

I groaned. I was never going to get to eat today, damn it. To Andrew, I said, “Looks like we have to bail.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll get the coffee.”

“Great. I’ll pay you back next time I see you.”

“Don’t sweat it. See you guys back at the precinct.”

On the way to my car, my heart pounded. Preemptive adrenaline flooded my veins like it always did before we arrived at a crime scene. I’d been to countless murders in my career, but I never knew what to expect. It could be anything from a house with a stabbed body to a meat locker filled with mutilated corpses. I couldn’t say there was never a dull moment in this job—the infinite amounts of paperwork ensured there were plenty—but there was no shortage of chaos, either.

“We’re about ten minutes from the scene,” Max said to the voice on the other end. “On our way now.” He shoved his phone into his pocket. “Multiple homicide in Masontown. Club on Jackson and Sixth.”

“Of course it’s Masontown.” I pulled out of the parking lot and turned. That area, the “bad” part of town by a mile, was the hub of the city’s massive drug problem. In the last three months, there’d been more bloodshed there than in the entire city last year. A major drug ring had gone down about a year ago, and now there was a turf war going between the three remaining rings. While I wasn’t involved with narcotics, homicide had been spending more and more time in the neighborhood recently.

If I had to rank every crime scene I’d set foot in during my career, most of the top ten grisliest had been in this very neighborhood. Three of those had been in the last few months, and hazmat and crime scene cleanup were still scrubbing the walls and floors of one of them. Two homicide detectives and three patrol officers had resigned or transferred out. One undercover had been murdered. Another was still on disability after a near-fatal wound. The chief had almost pulled the plug on all undercover ops for officer safety, but those still working under cover had insisted on staying. In spite of the risk, they were close to taking out the neighborhood’s entire drug economy from the top all the way down.

For their sake, I hoped they were right.

A few blocks from the scene, an ambulance went screaming past us in the opposite direction. A block away, another went by, its flashing lights reflecting off the countless “for sale” and “for lease” signs in the windows of businesses and apartments.. I couldn’t say I blamed all the residents and business owners for wanting to get the hell out of here by way of a moving van as opposed to an ambulance like the one disappearing in the rearview.

“I get the feeling this one’s going to be messy,” Max said.

“It’s a multiple in Masontown and they’re calling us in.” I glanced in the rearview again. “I’d say that’s a safe bet.”

Up ahead, it didn’t take much to figure out we’d found the right club. Had it been after dark, this would have been a hell of a light show. There must have been a dozen sets of light bars in front of the club, some blue, mostly red.

What little of the street wasn’t occupied by emergency vehicles was crammed full of news vans. Fucking vultures. I’d never been fond of them, but I’d developed an allergy to the media ever since their insatiable need for sensational headlines had kept Andrew’s boyfriend in the spotlight long enough for a stalker to find and nearly kill both of them.

I parked beside one of the news vans, and we got out and shouldered our way through the gathered crowd. We were plainclothes detectives, so some bystanders tried to keep us from pushing through and blocking their prime view of the carnage, but a flash of the badge was enough to get them out of the way.

A perimeter of barricades and yellow police tape divided the eerily normal-looking sidewalk from the crowd of onlookers. Several patrol officers loitered outside to keep people back and make sure no one made it past the line who didn’t have a reason to be in that club.

Upon seeing our badges, a uniformed officer held up the yellow tape to let us duck under it. When we were on the other side of the line and safely away from the prying ears of bystanders, he extended a hand. “Officer Rowland.”

“Detectives Kessler and Clifton,” Max said. “What do we know so far?”

“Looks like a sting gone bad,” Rowland said. “Dealers and undercovers. Wasn’t pretty.”

Max and I exchanged glances.

“Casualties?” I asked.

The officer exhaled. “Two wounded cops, one dead. Four dead civilians and a few with varying injuries.”

My stomach flipped. “Jesus.” We’d been to some bloody crime scenes recently, but this was bad.

Lowering his voice, Max asked, “The cops, you got names?”

The officer pursed his lips and released a long breath through his nose. “All undercover detectives.” He flipped through the pages of a notepad in his hand. “Rick Paulson had some minor injuries, and John Kelly is in serious condition. Vince Gray was DOA.”

Max winced. I squeezed his shoulder gently, offering a sympathetic grimace. He and Gray had been friends longer than Max and I had.

After a moment, he took a deep breath and we made eye contact. He gave a slight nod, the classic Max Kessler I’m okay gesture, and I released his shoulder.

“What about witnesses?” he asked Rowland.

“No eyewitnesses left standing,” he said. “The shooting happened in the VIP lounge. Apparently there was some sort of meeting going down, and something went to shit. Bystanders were hit when a shooter ran through the kitchen area in pursuit of someone. Otherwise, anyone who saw anything is gone, wounded, or dead. A few of the detectives were out of the room when it started, but didn’t see much. Got in just in time to squeeze off a few shots and lose the shooter and a witness out the back door.”

“Let’s go have a look,” Max said.

Without a word, I followed him inside.

Chapter 2

The club was swankier than most places in this area, and was a known hangout for dealers, pimps, and anyone else who could afford a velvet-rope night in this chain link and razor wire neighborhood. Above the tables, top shelf liquor flowed. Below it, stacks of bills and bags of white powder changed hands. With the right combination of cash and a wink, a waitress could be compelled to meet a customer in the restroom or the alley behind the club. The place was all dressed up and pretty, but that illusion was only skin deep.

The VIP lounge was a completely separate room, divided from the rest of the club by a narrow hallway, and the wall perpendicular to that hallway was backed up against another hall dividing the lounge from the kitchen. The room was dimly lit to give it an intimate atmosphere, and the handful of chairs and booths were appointed with deep red leather. I’d heard from the undercovers that all kinds of things went on in here. Over beers one night, a former undercover told me that in the course of an hour in this room, he’d witnessed a marriage proposal and a negotiation for a hit.

Now? The place looked like a fucking warzone. Either this had been a gunfight or a damned massacre. Since there were bullet holes and bloodstains on every wall and broken glass all over the room, it was likely the former.

The air was pungent with the brassy, all-too-familiar smell of blood. A hell of a lot of blood. The odor overpowered the fading scents of grease, bread, and spices coming in through the open door between the lounge and the kitchen, as well as lingering traces of gunpowder and hot metal.

Three forensic photographers inched their way around the room, documenting every last detail that could prove significant. Numbered plastic placards had been placed beside shell casings, blood spatter, broken glass, and toppled furniture. The dead remained wherever they’d fallen, creating macabre shapes beneath bloodstained sheets while they waited for the coroner. A pistol lay beside an unmoving hand sticking out from beneath a sheet. Next to one booth, inches from a corpse’s leg, a dropped magazine raised the hairs on the back of my neck. Whatever had happened here, someone had run out of ammunition and had taken the time—had had the time—to reload.

Blood covered a half-eaten sandwich and an abandoned beer beside a slumped, sheet-draped body. That was something that never failed to creeped me out—food at crime scenes. It was one of those eerie reminders that life had been something close to normal before all hell had broken loose. To the person hunched over beneath the blood-stained sheet, this day had probably started out like any other. Most people didn’t order a sandwich when they knew they were about to be murdered.

Max knelt beside one of the bodies to have a closer look. I followed the sound of voices out of the room, hoping for a witness who could run me through the events that had turned the lounge into a bloodbath.

My partner and I often split up at murder scenes. One of us inspected the immediate crime scene while the other checked the less obvious places for signs of what may have happened before and after—discarded weapons, bloody clothes stuffed in closets, smudges of blood in bathtub and sink drains.

In the kitchen area, I ran into Andrew’s boyfriend, Nick Swain. He worked as a paramedic, and the firehouse he reported to was woefully understaffed, so it was never a surprise to run into him if there were survivors at a crime scene. He leaned against the doorway with a clipboard in his hand. Furrowing his brow, he alternately wrote on the clipboard and kept an eye on his partner, who attended someone with minor wounds.

“Hey,” I said.

He looked up. “Oh hey, Brian.”

“I might need to borrow him when you’re done.” I nodded at the patient. “Doesn’t sound like we got a lot of witnesses.”

“He won’t be much use. He was a bystander. Tangled with some broken glass taking cover when a cop pursued the shooter through the kitchen. He didn’t see or hear much.”

“Still, I need everything I can get,” I said. “Even if it’s just the number of shots he heard.”

Nick nodded. “Leon’s almost done with him. The wounds are minor, so we’re not taking him in.”

“How serious were the other injuries? Did you get a look at any of them?”

“Paulson was conscious and coherent. The bleeding was mild and under control, but he was showing a few early signs of shock. He should be fine, though.”

“So I’ve potentially got at least one reliable witness who’s still alive.”

“Two, if Kelly pulls through,” Nick said quietly. “And I do mean if.” He grimaced. “He’s in real bad shape.”

I gestured for him to step away from Leon and his patient so we were out of earshot. “How bad is he?”

“Massive thoracic trauma. I only got a look at him while I triaged the scene, so I don’t know the actual extent, but…” He shook his head again. “Judging by his vitals and the blood loss, it’s not good.”

“Christ. He wasn’t wearing a vest?”

“Didn’t do him any good.”

“Armor-piercing?”

Nick nodded. “He was still alive when they left, though. Anything’s possible.”

“Good to know.” My own vest made my skin crawl. Sometimes these things were unnervingly useless. “I’ll let you get back to work.”

“Yeah, ditto.”

I clapped him on the shoulder and then continued through the club. As I made the rounds, I found Detective Kent Avery leaning against the deserted bar. He’d been working undercover for the last several months, but I’d seen him around the precinct before. He looked a hell of a lot different now, though, with smears of blood all over his shirt.

As he thumbed the screen on his cell phone, his hands were remarkably steady, and he breathed slowly, evenly. On the outside, he appeared completely calm, but I had no doubt he was rattled, just not showing it. I was surprised no one was with him, either to ask him questions or to make sure he was all right.

 I approached cautiously. “Avery?”

He looked at me, and a hint of recognition manifested itself in a vague nod. “Clifton. Long time no see.”

“Would have preferred it under better circumstances.” I extended my hand. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ve had better days.” Ignoring my offer of a handshake, he pushed himself away from the bar. “If you’ve got questions about it, I’ve already answered all of them.”

I withdrew my hand. “Hey, I was just seeing how you were doing.”

“My partner’s on his way to the hospital with three bullets in him. How do you think I’m doing?” With that, he turned and stalked off. As I watched him go down the hall and disappear out into the alley behind the club, I was simultaneously taken aback by his hostility and sympathetic to his mood. He and his partner were as close as Max and me. Being on the verge of losing someone who’s covered your back that many times was bound to fuck with someone’s head.

Which made me wonder why he was even still here, but there was nothing he could do for John anyway. Maybe he needed to fall back on his work. We’d all been known to throw ourselves into our investigations to escape stress and trauma, though I wasn’t so sure about the idea of sticking around if I’d been in his shoes. Whatever got him through, I supposed.

I shuddered and went back into the lounge. For a moment, I just took in the scene, trying to picture what had gone down.

A bullet hole, splattered blood, and a long smear down one wall led my eyes to one of the bodies. Another body was sprawled across a bench in one booth. A few feet away was yet another, this one crumpled between a booth and a side door, below a Johnnie Walker mirror that had two bloody spiderweb cracks around bullet holes spaced about twelve inches apart.

Bullets had obviously flown in several different directions, so I’d have to wait for ballistics to plot a diagram of trajectories and bullet holes before I could piece together exactly what happened. Witness statements would help. So far we only had one potentially reliable witness. If Avery’s partner had been shot, odds were that Avery had been nearby, if not in the room. How he’d managed to avoid taking a bullet, I didn’t know, but thank God at least someone had escaped injury.

That may have explained his hostility, too. Survivor’s guilt was a strange thing, and he probably didn’t want someone else to ask him to rehash the moments in which his partner had taken three bullets while he’d gotten away unscathed. I still needed to ask him some questions, and he probably knew it, but there was no reason I couldn’t give him some time to breathe first. After he’d had a few cigarettes, and maybe Max and I had taken him someplace that didn’t have Detective Kelly’s blood all over the floor, I could try again.

For now, time to check out the scene itself.

“Find anything?” Max asked, glancing up from one of the two bodies beside a booth as I walked into the lounge.

“Not so far.” I pulled on a pair of gloves. “Avery’s pretty shaken up. He went out the back, so I figure I’ll try talking to him again in a little while.”

“Good call.”

“What about you? Anything interesting?”

He shook his head. “Counting weapons and bodies, seems like almost everyone who was here is either in an ambulance or…” His eyes flicked up to meet mine. “Still here.”

I gave a grunt of agreement, but didn’t say anything else.

I squatted beside one of the bodies. There was a long smear of blood beside him, like he’d tried to drag himself to cover after he’d been wounded, only to die here. What a horrible way to die. I shuddered and lifted the sheet.

My heart stopped.

“Holy—” I stared at the body, eyes wide and lungs paralyzed.

“What’s wrong?” Max asked.

I lowered the sheet, but the face was still there in my mind’s eye. The world spun around me, turning gray and black and white, and I grabbed a table for stability.

A hand rested on my shoulder. “Easy, man.” Max kept his voice low and even. “Breathe.”

With considerable effort, I took and released a breath. Gradually, my vision cleared, but my heart still forced ice cold blood through my veins.

“Brian? What’s wrong?” He glanced at the body. “You recognize him or something?”

“I…” I swallowed hard. With the sheet back over the body’s face, I questioned if I’d read all the features right. Was it him? Did I recognize him?

Was that really my boyfriend lying in a pool of blood?


Sunday, January 19, 2014

EXCERPT: Cover Me

Title: Cover Me
Author: L. A. Witt

Chapter 1

  
“You know, if you keep sitting like that, you’re going to break your damned legs one of these days.” Leon took his hand off the steering wheel and gestured at my feet, which were on the ambulance’s passenger side dashboard.

“Only if you crash.” I glanced up from the clipboard on my lap. “Though with the way you drive, that wouldn’t surprise me.”

“Hey, back off my driving. And if you’re that worried I’m going to crash, put your goddamned feet down.”

“I’m not worried.” I signed the bottom of my report and flipped to the next page. “Besides, if you do crash, and I do break my legs, you have everything you need to put them back together.” I pointed with my pen at the back of the bus.

“You keep your feet up like that, I’m going to let you suffer when your legs break.”

“Keep staring at my legs instead of the road, and I might have to tell Zoe I’ve turned you to my side.”

He shot me a horrified look. “Oh, don’t you even think about it, you son of a bitch.”

“Then quit staring at my—hey! The road! Watch the fucking road!”

Leon looked up and swerved just in time to avoid hitting the curb. “Now see? See? If I’d crashed just then—”

“My legs would have been fine and I’d have used them to kick your ass.” I glared at him, then went back to filling out my report.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He slowed the ambulance to a stop at an intersection and stretched his arms while he waited for the light to turn green. “Man, it’s getting to be dinner thirty.”

“Dinner thirty?” I laughed. “It’s not even five o’clock. Besides, weren’t you just eating before we left the station?”

He let out a huff of breath. “Yes, Nick.” He threw me a glare. “And I didn’t get to finish it because we left the station.”

“Damn those inconsiderate people.” I sighed dramatically and put the back of my hand against my forehead. “Getting hurt and keeping you away from your food.”

He started to come back with something snide, but the radio crackled to life.

“Code one, code one. Shooting at Jackson and Fourteenth. Multiple casualties. All units respond.”

We were just blocks away from the location. Leon and I exchanged glances, and he gave a sharp nod.

I picked up the radio. “Dispatch, this is Twenty-seven Alpha. On our way to Jackson and Fourteenth, over.”

Leon accelerated through the intersection as he flipped on the lights and siren. I dropped my clipboard and feet to the floor. God only knew what the scene would be like, but I had little doubt there would be blood and lots of it, so I went ahead and pulled on a pair of rubber gloves.

“Busy night in Masontown tonight, isn’t it?” he said.

I didn’t reply. We’d already been to that neighborhood once tonight, but that wasn’t unusual. Between the people so wasted they couldn’t remember how to care for themselves and those who were too poor to do so, Masontown was no stranger to flashing red lights. Sex and substances were the staple crops of that place. This wasn’t the first shooting we’d attended there, and I doubted it would be the last.

As signs, cars, and buildings blurred past us, I shifted into autopilot. Training kicked in, pushing emotions to the back of my mind along with any thoughts I didn’t need for the task at hand. It wasn’t apathy per se, but it was close—something to keep me calm and focused on the clinical so I could do my job.

In minutes, we’d arrived at the scene. A small crowd had gathered, but there were no flashing lights in sight except for our own reflecting off cars and windows.

“Think it’s safe?” Leon asked. “Or do we wait for the cops?”

I surveyed the scene. With no police in sight, it was our discretion to move in or wait. In this case, there didn’t appear to be anyone brandishing a weapon, so it was probably safe for us to attend. That, and shootings usually meant serious injuries that couldn’t wait long.

“Safe as it’s going to be.” I unbuckled my seatbelt. “Let’s go.” I went into the back, grabbed the jump kit, and stepped outside. There was blood on the pavement, panic in the air and four people on the ground. No one else looked to be injured, but the wounded still outnumbered us for the time being. Triaging the scene, I silently cursed the budget cuts that had only two people manning the ambulance instead of three or four.

I could use a few more pairs of hands right about now, you fucking bean counters.

I went from patient to patient, assessing wounds and vitals as quickly as I could. Triaging a situation like this always did weird things to the passage of time, or at least my perception of it. I moved in slow motion while everyone around me was in fast forward, and even they couldn’t keep up with the rapid fire ticking of the clock.

One male was in obvious pain with blood seeping between his fingers as he gripped his upper arm. He was lucid, though, and not in immediate danger.

The other male was on the ground, semi-conscious and bloody. His vitals were fairly stable, but the bleeding was significant and his condition could quickly deteriorate at the drop of a hat. A few paces away, a woman writhed and moaned in a blood-soaked shirt, clinging to the hand of a bystander, who pressed a wadded rag against her chest. She was bleeding profusely and her breathing was labored.

The second woman lay motionless in a huge and rapidly expanding pool of blood. The man kneeling beside her alternately screamed at her to wake up and shouted at me to help her. Her vitals were bad and worsening by the second, and had she been the only victim, I’d have helped her immediately. With more wounded than medics, though, she was too far gone. I had a better chance of saving the other three, so difficult decisions had to be made.

Glancing at Leon, I gestured at the unconscious woman and the bleeding, cursing male. “She’s a black tag. He’s green.” Then I pointed at the semi-conscious man and the moaning woman. “The other two are red. You work on him and I’ll take care of her.”

Leon nodded and we went to work.

“Hey! Hey!” The man beside the dying woman screamed as we both walked past her. “She needs help!”

“We’re doing everything we can,” I said. “Backup is on its way.”

“She’s going to die!” he shouted. “You gonna let her die just because she’s black?”

I gritted my teeth. There wasn’t time to explain to him what ‘black tag’ meant, or that it had nothing to do with race. Though I felt for him, and I certainly felt for the woman on the ground beside him, there simply wasn’t time. With her plummeting vitals and that much blood loss, there probably wasn’t much that could be done for her even if I had the manpower to try.

Kneeling beside the other woman, I looked at the man by her side. Her husband, I assumed, judging by the gold ring on one blood-stained hand and the way he gripped her hand with his other.

“What’s her name?” I asked.

He opened his mouth to speak, but hesitated.

“Her name?” I asked. Maybe my assumption was incorrect. Maybe he wasn’t her—

“Chelsea. Chelsea Wayland.”

“Chelsea? Can you hear me?” I touched her shoulder. “Chelsea, my name is Nick. I’m here to help you. Can you hear me?” She moaned, which could as easily have been in response to the pain as to the sound of my voice.

Her husband looked over his shoulder, then back at me. “Tell me they’ve got backup coming.”

“On their way.”

Come on, guys, where are you?

Getting into Masontown was a nightmare in heavy traffic, and as luck would have it, we were right in the middle of rush hour. Every unit in town was probably stuck on that fucking two-lane bridge.

Chelsea tried to take a breath, wincing and wheezing with the effort. Her lips were losing color and quickly.

“Her breathing has been getting worse,” he said. “When she could still talk, she said her chest hurt, but I assumed she meant where she was stabbed.”

“Stabbed?” I looked up. “I thought this was a shooting.”

“It was.” He nodded toward the other woman. “She had a knife, though.”

A comment about bringing a knife to a gunfight stopped at the tip of my tongue. Gallows humor may have kept me sane in these situations, but the same usually couldn’t be said for a husband applying pressure to his wife’s bleeding chest.

“We need to get her shirt off,” I said. With her husband’s help, I cut it away. To my surprise, removing her shirt revealed a bulletproof vest underneath. In a less urgent situation, I might have questioned just what I’d walked into, but the vest was stained with too much blood to wonder why she was wearing it in the first place. We quickly unfastened the straps on the side and got rid of it.

With the vest out of the way, I looked at the wound. It was a deep laceration with substantial bleeding, but it was more or less under control. It was her breathing that concerned me. Removing the vest didn’t make it any easier for her to breathe, and the color of her lips continued to fade.

“Chelsea, can you hear me?” Again, I couldn’t tell if the response was to the pain or my voice. I held her free hand. “If you can hear me, squeeze my hand twice.”

She responded with two squeezes, the second more feeble than the first. I pressed the stethoscope against her chest and she flinched weakly.

“Chelsea, can you take a deep breath?”

She tried, but immediately grimaced. Her chest barely rose. The more I took her vitals, the more pieces fell into place, and it didn’t look good. Her heart was racing, her blood pressure was dropping, and the shallow, rapid breathing was getting worse.

“I’ll be right back.” I sprinted to the ambulance, ignoring the furious, panicked shouts of the man beside the black-tagged woman. Cursing the traffic that kept backup dangerously far away, I grabbed a few items out of the ambulance and hurried back to Chelsea’s side. There, I slipped an oxygen mask over her face and opened the valve on the tank.

Her husband raised his eyebrows. “How bad is it?”

“Her lung’s collapsed.”

“Jesus,” he whispered.

It wasn’t quite so simple, but I had no time to explain in detail that she had a tension pneumothorax and needed a thoracentesis to release the air building up in her chest cavity. This wasn’t the first time I’d treated something like this in the field, and I anticipated the barrage of questions about how bad it was and if she was going to die. He said nothing though. In fact, he was quite calm given the circumstances.

Kneeling beside her again, I gestured to two bystanders. To them and Chelsea’s husband, I said, “Hold on to her. Keep her as still as you can.”

“I don’t think she’s going anywhere,” her husband said through gritted teeth.

“No, but she isn’t going to like this.” As I pulled the large needle out of its packaging, his breath caught. “Don’t watch. Look at something else. Trust me.” When I pressed the needle against a groove between her ribs, he cleared his throat and looked away. At least he didn’t insist on watching. Leon and I had enough to worry about without a passed out husband on our hands.

Just before I pushed the needle into her skin, something cold and solid dug into the base of my skull. My hands and breath froze. Moving only my eyes, I looked at Chelsea’s husband. He stared past me, lips parted and eyes wide.

“Get away from her,” an unsteady voice commanded from behind me. Something creaked, and even with my limited experience with guns, I recognized the menacing sound of a hammer being drawn back. “Get the fuck away from her.”

“Jesse, stop.” Chelsea’s husband tone was still surprisingly calm, but the faintest note of uncertainty sent ice through my veins. “Listen to me, Jesse. Put the gun down.”

“No, no, he’s hurting her.” The voice bordered on hysterical now, and the gun’s muzzle twitched against my skin. I swallowed hard. It wasn’t just the metal against my skin that concerned me. It was the way that metal shook. A shaking hand on a loaded gun against my head wasn’t what I’d call a comfortable combination.

Chelsea moaned and gasped for air. Every breath was more difficult than the last, and her lips were beginning to turn blue beneath the mask’s clear plastic. Gun to my head or not, she needed this tube in her chest. Willing my hands to stay steady, I pressed the needle against her, but the muzzle of the gun dug even harder into my head. The shaking was more violent, and my mind’s eye showed me a trembling finger on a trigger. One twitch. One twitch was all it would take. Oh, fuck.

“Jesse.” Chelsea’s husband looked at him even as he tried to hold her still. “He’s trying to help her.”

“He’s hurting her, Mark.” The one called Jesse’s voice was getting shriller. “Mark, Mark, he’s hurting her. Make him stop hurting her!”

“No, he’s not,” the husband—Mark, apparently—said. “He’s helping her. Put the gun down.”

Chelsea tried to suck in a breath, wheezing hard and writhing on the pavement. The cyanosis worsened by the second, and she couldn’t wait any longer. Hoping to God I hadn’t just signed my own death warrant, I leaned against the needle and forced it between her ribs. She released a feeble cry, thrashing as much as the three men holding her down would allow, and a split second later, air hissed out of the needle.

For a moment, I held my breath, fully expecting a bullet through my head after my sudden movement and Chelsea’s struggles.

When that bullet didn’t come, I tried to continue concentrating on Chelsea. I gestured toward the kit.

“Hand me that plastic tubing,” I said to Mark. My voice shook more than I expected it to, and I shuddered. I could almost ignore this heart-stopping terror until I heard it in my own voice. I’m going to die. I’m going to die. Pushing those thoughts away, I forced myself to focus. He handed me the plastic tube I’d indicated, and as he reached over her, his eyes darted over my shoulder to the unhinged lunatic.

I worked as quickly as I could to get the tube into her chest. The faster I moved, the sooner I could get her on the ambulance and out of here. I could also pretend my hands weren’t shaking and maybe, just maybe, ignore the gun that was still pressed against my head. The gun that twitched every time Chelsea moved or made a sound.

“He’s hurting her,” Jesse said. “Make him stop hurting her.”

“Jesse, he’s helping her.” Mark’s voice got calmer and gentler as if to counter Jesse’s hysteria. “If you kill him, you’re going to kill her too.”

The gun twitched. Then again. After a second, it moved away from my head and I released my breath. As I slid the tube in and the needle out, some of Chelsea’s color returned. She murmured, then moaned, weakly trying to get away from the pain I was undoubtedly inflicting.

Clenching my teeth to keep them from chattering, I struggled to focus on Chelsea. With the tube releasing the air from her chest cavity, her lung would have room to reinflate, but she needed to get to the hospital. I needed to get her out of here. I needed to get myself the hell out of here. Away from this armed idiot.

With Chelsea’s condition improving slightly and the gun down, I became aware of my surroundings again. A crowd had gathered. The black-tagged woman’s companion was beyond hysterical now. In the distance, sirens filled the air, coming at us from all directions. Backup at last. Still, I prayed there were no blue lights among them. Though the gun was down, I didn’t know how crazy Jesse really was. Something told me if he saw cops and panicked, I was done.

Chelsea whimpered and tried to pull away from me, but the three men held her still. The whimper became a cry and feet shuffled behind me. I cringed, expecting the muzzle of the gun against my head at any second.

Mark moved suddenly, and the shuffling halted. Several bystanders gasped and the air around me flexed as they all took a collective step back.

“Put it down,” he snarled. My eyes flicked up and I sucked in a breath. He had his own gun now, drawn and aimed past me. His hands were alarmingly steady, and there was nothing but cold, murderous rage in his eyes. Slowly, he rose, eyes and weapon still trained on my unseen assailant. “Jesse, raise that gun again and you won’t live long enough to put it to his head. Put. It. Down.”

Then, feet shuffled again. More gasping, more movement, more oh God, where is that gun?

“Jesse, you son of a bitch!” Mark flew over Chelsea and darted past me.

All around us, emergency vehicles pulled up with sirens screaming and engines roaring. My senses focused only on the fading footsteps. I expected gunfire, but there came none, and eventually the footsteps faded away, leaving only the rumble of diesel engines and the murmur of panic and confusion in the air. A violent shudder rippled down my spine, relief knocking the breath out of me.

A hand touched my arm and I jumped, nearly falling back before I looked up to see Leon.

“What the hell happened over here?” he said.

I shook my head and gestured at Chelsea. “Let’s get her out of here.”

He cocked his head, but didn’t argue. With police on-scene and other firefighters and medics attending the rest of the victims, Leon and I got Chelsea onto the stretcher and wheeled her across the sidewalk to the ambulance.

Just before we reached it, a hand flew out of the crowd and seized my arm, nearly hauling me off my feet. I regained my balance and found myself face to face with the distraught companion of the woman I’d black-tagged.

“You racist son of a bitch,” he snarled. “Why didn’t you help her?” Behind him, the woman lay between two kneeling firefighters, one of whom drew a sheet over her face.

“You killed her. You fucking killed her!” He grabbed for my neck, but I deflected his hand with my elbow. Two officers pried him off me and I stumbled back, staring at him in stunned silence. I jumped when another hand touched my shoulder, even though I knew before I looked that it was Leon again.

“Come on,” he said. “We need to get her out of here.” I turned and followed him and the stretcher to the ambulance.

“You fucking racist!” The man called after me. “I will kill you! Do you hear me? I will fucking kill you!” I glanced over my shoulder at him, and the icy hatred in his eyes sent a chill down my spine.

He continued screaming at me, warning me over and over that he was going to hunt me down and kill me. The officers led him out of sight and I turned my attention back to my patient, trying to focus on the threats to her life instead of my own. Leon closed the doors behind Chelsea and me.

A moment later, he climbed into the cab. The tires beneath us squealed and we left he scene. As Masontown and its flashing lights faded behind us, I’d never in my life been so thankful for Leon’s habit of driving too fast.