Author: L.A. Witt
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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?