Before this moment, if you had asked me what color pain was, I probably would have replied “red.”
Red is the color of blood, after all. Pretty much all the wounds I’ve had, or seen (and there have been a bunch), started out some shade of red.
But as my mind swam back to consciousness through the muck of last night’s alcohol, cigarettes and general nausea, the agony lancing past my eyelids was definitely yellow.
Yellow like the sunlight that poured in through the dirty window. It speared my head even worse as I forced a gummy eyelid open. This allowed me to look around the room, and the floor swam blearily into view. My piece lay on the floor near my right hand. I’d fallen asleep holding it again.
The safety was off.
Christ, what a rookie. I safed the gun, trying to ignore how the room started to spin as soon as I moved.
Of course, adding to the pain behind my eyeballs was the ache in my neck and back from sleeping sprawled across the recliner that had been my bed more nights than not lately. I thought about standing up to stretch the kinks out, but even the slightest change in position caused the alcohol still in my stomach to try and force its way back out again. It seemed smart to wait till my stomach settled a little more.
The pounding in my head was like a relentless bass beat. Wom Wom Wom.
But after a few seconds I realized the noise wasn’t solely from my sluggish blood trying to redistribute itself amidst the alcohol. It was pounding on the door, and it had been going on a while.
Locking my jaws, I gingerly pushed myself upright, kicked the vodka bottle aside and made my way across the small living room of my apartment.
It was a measure of how flimsy the door was that even a pounding from Sam would make it rattle as much as it did. I’m slim and a little shorter than average. But next to Sam I look like a bodybuilder.
Sam Markus couldn’t have been more than five-five or five-six and may have barely tipped the scales at one hundred-forty pounds. He looked up at me through the forest of spiky red hair that sprang out from his head in uneven clumps—the mark of a scientist, particle physicist actually, whose journey from bed to lab only occasionally included a stop at the shower.
Which should have made the look of disgust he gave me amusing, had I been inclined to see humor in anything this morning.
“Christ, Trav, it smells like a tomb in here. What happened to you last night? I turned around and you were gone. You were going to come to my lab. I wanted to show you my new stuff.” He picked his way across the room and tried to open the lone window, through which the offending sun shone.
“Doesn’t open,” I said quietly, returning to the recliner. I sat down heavily, leaned back and closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw that Sam had given up on the window and turned around. He was looking at my gun.
“What the hell is this?”
“I’m a cop. I have a gun.”
“You’re suspended. Even I know you’re supposed to turn in your weapon when they tell you to leave.”
“And what’s it doing in the middle of the floor?”
I closed my eyes again.
I opened one eye.
“Don’t even pretend you weren’t playing Russian roulette with that.”
“You can’t play Russian roulette with an automatic. Chamber doesn’t spin.”
“You know what I mean.”
I shrugged again.
Sam didn’t need to know what I’d been considering last night before I’d passed out.
Instead I said, “This is where you tell me how much I have to live for? How I can’t do this to my friends, my family? Explain to me who that might be. Mary? Adam?”
“Yes, Mary. You think she doesn’t still care what happens to you? And… Adam. I’ve already told you how sorry I am. How sorry everyone is.”
“Yeah, we’re all sorry. And that makes it all better.”
I closed my eyes again as, unbidden, the scene replayed itself in my mind for the thousandth time.
The radio call sending us to the apartment complex.
Seeing one male chasing another male across the parking lot, practically smacking into our front grille. Grabbing the one, handing him off to Adam and taking off after the other one.
Turning around just in time to see the man pull a gun and put four shots into my partner.
Facing Mr. and Mrs. Yount at the funeral, and having to endure their resolute refusal to blame me. But no amount of therapy, sympathy or alcohol could erase the fact that I’d fucked up and Adam had paid the price.
I stood up. I had to move.
Which was a mistake.
My head started to swim, not to mention pound like the bass in a jacked-up Monte Carlo.
“Geez, Trav. You’re white as a sheet. Sit down.”
Sam dug into the messenger bag that always rode his right hip. He shook a couple of tablets out of a mint case. “Here. I’ll get you some water.”
He returned a moment later with a cloudy glass. “Take ’em. Doctor’s orders.”
“You’re a PhD, not an MD. What are they?”
“Advanced B complex vitamins with ginger, prickly pear extract and a secret ingredient that elevates them from herbal supplement to actual gen-you-ine medicine. Testing phase. The lab rats say guaranteed hangover cure.”
“You have talking lab rats?”
“T.A.s. Grad students. They make extra money participating in drug trials. They always know the good shit. C’mon. Bottoms up.”
I washed the tablets down. The first sip made me realize how dehydrated I was, and I quickly downed the remainder of the glass.
Sam looked at me expectantly. “Well? You gonna get ready?”
“For your hearing. Don’t you remember? Before you left last night? You asked me to swing by and make sure you were up and got to the station on time.”
I had no memory of seeing Sam the previous night, let alone asking him for a wake-up call, but most of last night was a blank, as was much of the last two weeks, so I didn’t feel that surprised. What did surprise me was that I had even mentioned the hearing to Sam at all. I’d been planning to blow it off. The outcome was a forgone conclusion. Calling my suspension “administrative leave” was just to satisfy the union. The official ruling would be negligence in an officer-involved shooting.
Not for the first time, I found myself wishing it had been me instead of Adam taking the dirt nap. The kid had everything ahead of him, and the life that had been traded for it was not amounting to much.
Lost in this cheerful train of thought, I realized Sam was still speaking.
“C’mon, Trav. It’s not like you to give up. Even if everything has already been decided, don’t let the bastards sweep it under the rug. Go down there and make ’em fire you to your face.”
He slid his phone out of a side pocket of his bag. “You got time to shower. By the time you’re done, the Anacol will have kicked in, and you’ll feel better. Besides, my car’s in the shop. I could use a lift downtown.”
I held up my hands. “All right. You win. I’ll be back.”
Whether it was Sam’s miracle pills or the scalding hot shower, as I toweled my hair dry a few minutes later, I was starting to feel almost human again.
I wiped the steam from the mirror and brushed a thatch of black hair out of my eyes, still bloodshot even though my head had stopped pounding. A narrow, almost pinched face stared back at me. My nose was a little too long, my eyes a little too small to be called handsome. Remember in Star Wars, (the first trilogy, the real ones), the other X-Wing pilot? The one who got away with Luke when the Death Star blew up?
Yeah, nobody else ever does either. But people (okay, geeks like Sam) say I look kind of like that actor.
Or perhaps this morning, not so much.
Dark circles rimmed either side of my nose, and my complexion in general would have needed time in a tanning booth to get up to sallow. On the whole, I probably looked older than the thirty-one I was.
I certainly felt older. And tired. And I was wishing that Sam hadn’t shown up. Then maybe I could have stayed home and not had to face this day.
I knew I should have been grateful to him for sticking with me. Over the last few months, most of my friends had started avoiding me. They didn’t understand. Kept saying I needed to move on, get back to normal. I wish I knew how to explain that I didn’t know what normal was any more.
Finally, even Mary had given up, helped by a particularly nasty fight I had to honestly admit I had started.
But not Sam.
Like a yappy little dog, he was relentless once his mind was set. Easier just to go along. Be nice to get things over and done with anyway.
I found a black t-shirt on the floor that looked wearable and slipped it on. Yesterday’s jeans were still fairly clean as well. My shoulder rig came next. A St. Louis Cardinals jacket completed my normal ensemble.
Back in the living room, Sam had cleared a pizza box off the couch and made himself at home, idly swiping a finger up and down the touchscreen of his phone.
Which reminded me that my phone wasn’t in my pocket.
“You see my phone?”
Sam looked around. He moved the pizza box off the coffee table. “Here it… Aww, God, Trav. Haven’t you gotten rid of this yet? Why do you keep torturing yourself?”
My phone lay next to an LP. An honest-to-goodness vinyl record. Actually two records, since it was broken almost exactly in half. The two pieces lay on top of the album’s jacket, obscuring the lower half of the face of Miles Davis.
I bent to pick up my phone, not looking at Sam.
“Trav,” he said. “Mary is gone. Adam is dead. The record is broken. I understand it’s not easy, but you have got to find a way to move on. Otherwise, you’re going to find yourself sitting in this room night after night, staring at your gun.”
I glared at him until he turned away.
“Look, it’s getting late,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I grabbed my keys from a bowl next to the door and locked the apartment behind us. We didn’t speak as we walked down the stairs and outside where my Mustang was parked on the street. It’s the current model, not a classic. I’d always wanted something like the early seventies Cobra, but had never had the money and opportunity at the same time.
And it was probably just as well. Like everything in my life these days, the car had been nice at one time, but now looked the worse for wear. It was covered with dust. A collection of fast food wrappers, half-empty water bottles and loose papers littered the passenger and back seats.
“Sorry,” I said. “Been meaning to clean it out.”
I started the car and pulled into traffic, still silent. Sam reached over to turn on the radio, obviously unnerved by the quiet. He arched an eyebrow at me. I shrugged.
“It doesn’t work. There’s a CD jammed in there. I haven’t had time to try and pry it out.”
“You can’t even listen to the radio? Man, The Axe’s ratings will never be the same.”
I ignored his attempt to lighten the mood.
So we rode in silence downtown, where Sam’s office at the university and Central Station were a few blocks apart.
“Um…” Sam obviously was re-thinking the wisdom of blurting out whatever it was he was about to say. He had pulled out his phone and seemed to be studying the screen intently. “Uh, nothing.”
I was about to tell Sam to spit it out, whatever it was, when I was wracked by a wave of nausea.
My stomach started to try to claw its way up my esophagus. My vision swam. The street ahead exploded into a rainbow of colors.
…Dark brownstone now stucco…
…red coupe now blue…
…Woman in raincoat…tan…now red…now black…
I slammed on the brakes and squeezed my eyes shut. A moment later, the stomach ache passed.
I opened my eyes. Everything looked normal again.
Except the look on Sam’s face. He was white as stone. He turned to me, eyes wide.
“What the hell, Trav? Are you all right?”
I nodded slowly. “I don’t know what happened. My stomach got twisted up. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. That stop was a little abrupt is all. You all right to keep driving?”
“Yeah.” We had halted mid-block, and horns blared. I gave the Mustang some gas and we pulled back into traffic.
“You may have had a reaction to the Anacol,” Sam said. “Maybe it’s not ready for prime time after all.”
“I think you need some new lab rats.”
My knees were still a little weak a few minutes later as I pulled into a fenced lot, which served as a combination impound/motor pool area and staff parking. Sam had gone back to studying his phone, frowning and grunting.
“Not far enough,” he muttered.
“Huh? Oh, nothing. Trying to level up on this game.”
“Good to see you’re using your time wisely, buddy.”
I’m afraid I don’t see the point of computer games. Sam had suckered me into joining him in some rounds of Myst when we were in college, and I actually kind of enjoyed the combination of strategy with the randomness of the cards. But anything where you have to memorize a bunch of keypad or controller sequences to open a door or lift your sword, let alone kill the troll?
I don’t get the point.
We got out of the car, Sam still fussing with his phone.
As soon as I stood up, I was rocked by another bout of nausea.
This one was not quite as bad as the first, but I still had to lean against the side of the car to keep from sinking to my knees.
My vision went in and out of focus again, and the dusty car seemed to become shiny and clean, then back to dingy.
“Trav! My God. Did it happen again?”
Sam was at my side—I hadn’t even noticed him coming around the car.
I took a couple of deep breaths. Fortunately, there wasn’t anything in my stomach, or it might have come up all over the Mustang’s hood. But after a few seconds, it passed.
Sam was peering up at me with a worried look on his face.
“Maybe we need to take you to the emergency room.”
I shook my head. “Better now.”
I held very still, waiting for the last wave of dizziness to dissipate. When I was sure I wasn’t going to be sick, I hit the lock button on my key fob and ran a hand through my hair, trying not to think about what was to come.
“You need a ride home?” I said, trying for nonchalant. “I can swing by. Probably won’t have anything else to do.”
“No, I’ll catch a ride with Pete.” Pete had the office next door to Sam. “You sure you’re going to be okay?” he continued with concern in his voice. “I can come in with you.”
“No, it’s fine. Go smash some quarks, make some mesons or whatever it is you do.”
“All right,” he chuckled. “If I discover a new particle today I’ll name it after you. Seriously, call me if you need anything.”
I nodded. He studied me a moment, then nodded, and turned to go.
“You were right. I needed to see this through to the end. Thanks.”
“De nada, bro.”
I gave him a wave and crossed the parking lot, where the employee entrance was. I entered and slowly climbed the stairs.
The top of the stairs led right into the squad room, which could have doubled as a TV set, as it fit about every cop show cliché you’ve ever seen. Beat-up desks, most of them pushed together in facing pairs, crowded the floor space, leaving only the narrowest of paths in between. Not exactly ADA compliant, although that point was moot. The elevator didn’t work anyway.
Somehow, the air seemed cloudy, even though smoking had been banned indoors for years. It did smell, though. Of burnt coffee and too many, mostly male bodies in too close quarters for too many hours of the day.
But there was one incongruity. A little girl sat at a small conference table in the center of the room, wearing navy blue tights, a Hello Kitty jumper and a pair of Ugg knockoff boots.
She had frizzy red hair, a dusting of freckles on each cheek and a nose just begging to be tweaked. Her face was screwed up in concentration as she focused on the game she was playing on her iPod. My entrance caught her eye, and she looked up.
Holli Benjamin was nine. Her mom worked in records one floor up. Most mornings Anne brought Holli to work with her so she didn’t have to pay for a sitter for the hour between the time she had to report and the arrival of the school bus, which happened to pass right by the station house.
Technically, Holli was supposed to stay upstairs with her mom, but if there were no suspects being actively booked, she pretty much had the run of the station.
“Got a trick for me?”
Somehow, Holli had heard I used to do magic. But doing card tricks for children in the police station was a Mike Becker thing, not a Trav Becker thing. At least not anymore.
“Told you, kid, I don’t know any tricks.”
“Yes, you do,” Holli replied firmly. “Tomorrow I’m bringing a deck of cards for you.”
I felt a little bad that her mom would get the unpleasant duty of telling the girl that after today, I wouldn’t be coming back. But on the ever-growing list of people I’d disappointed, Holli would be pretty far down. I managed a smile and ruffled her head as I passed her.
I passed by my own desk—empty, of course. It faced the equally empty desk that had been Adam’s, whose personal items were still scattered across the desktop. Apparently, no one had thought to box them up for his parents.
The captain's office was at the far end of the room. A couple of detectives called out a cheerful greeting to me as I passed.
I waved back, but was a little puzzled. Everyone knew I was under suspension and about to be terminated, but people were nodding and greeting me like it was a normal beginning of shift.
No quick glances both at or away from me, none of the nervous chatter you tried to exchange with a cop who you knew was going down. No trying to act normal while at the same time hoping the unlucky-cop mojo wouldn’t rub off on you.
Maybe these guys were all better actors than I had ever thought they were.
Two chairs sat outside the captain’s closed door. I stopped by the desk nearest the office, occupied by a detective named Anderson.
Anderson sighed. He didn’t waste a smile on me. Acting as Captain Martin's unofficial receptionist pained him to no end.
“Yeah, he was waiting for you, but then Monroe had to see him.”
I nodded and grabbed the chair nearest the office door—which, as it turned out, wasn't shut after all. It gapped open five or six inches, and I could see Alex Monroe's wide ass taking up most of the space in front of the captain.
I wasn't trying to eavesdrop, but Monroe's voice easily carried to where I was sitting.
“It was dumb luck, Leon. We got to the scene, he was already dead. Shot close range, looked like someone came up to him on the dance floor and jammed the gun right into his abdomen. Between the loud music and the vic’s clothes, noise of the shots pretty much muffled. Got off three shots even. Couple of hundred people in the bar, no one saw anything, of course.
“Then we caught a break. Our CI was behind the bar. I know better than to go up and talk to him, of course, but he caught my eye. Everyone is craning their necks to see the body, buncha people are snapping cell phone pictures. CI makes sure I see the one guy who doesn’t appear to be interested in the commotion at all, he’s just inching toward the door. Not in a hurry or anything, just making sure he’s not looking at any of us. I intercept him right before he gets to the door.
“But he’s cool as can be. ‘What is the problem, officer?’ in that accent they all got. Why can’t they learn to use contractions?
“Anyway, ‘You’re the only one leaving,’ I say. About this time, I recognize him as one of Kaaro’s chief goons. He says, ‘I don’t like looking at blood.’ Then I happen to look down. He’s wearing white leather shoes, like glow-in-the-dark bright. Except for three little red drops on the left one. I tell him I got a few questions, and that’s when he tries to bolt. Uniforms were right outside the door, of course, so he didn’t get far. We searched him and came up with a gun. Smelled like it had been fired recently. Bagged his hands. Tech will be here in a few minutes to test for powder residue, but I think we got this nailed down.”
“I agree,” said Captain Martin. “Do you think Kaaro had anything to do with it?”
“If it happened in The Kremlin, Anton Kaaro is involved somehow.”
“What’s your next move?”
“Gonna sit on our suspect a while. Might bring Kaaro or one of his stooges around. And…”
“You can contact him, but for God’s sake be careful,” Martin warned. “It’s taken months to get someone that close to the action in Kaaro’s club. And we don’t want him to disappear.”
“Right,” said Monroe. “I’ll keep you posted.”
He lumbered out past where I was sitting. “Hey, Trav,” he said pleasantly.
I stared after Monroe’s departing bulk. Part of me was chewing over the conversation I had heard, putting it together with investigations that had been ongoing when I’d last been here.
But then I realized I was wasting brain cells. This was none of my business. Leave the crime fighting to actual cops. Of which I would only be one for about another minute.
Captain Martin’s voice interrupted my reverie.
“Hi, Trav, thanks for coming in. Sorry to make you wait.”
“You hear any of that?”
“Nothing good ever happens at The Kremlin. Kaaro lets his thugs drink at the bar, then some preppie and his date go slumming, the wise guy hits on the girl, the preppie objects and the next thing you know, we’re carrying pieces of college boy out in a bucket.”
The captain sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Well, never mind that. It’s no concern of yours. Sit.”
He didn’t mention the CI—the confidential informant. I’m sure he was hoping I hadn’t heard that part. Letting a soon-to-be-fired officer know you had a source inside a crime boss’s inner circle was definitely a no-no.
I shut the door behind me and took the lone chair in front of the captain’s desk.
Leon Martin was in his early fifties, but looked ten years younger. His gray hair was cropped astronaut-close. There was only the barest hint of a middle-aged paunch at his waist. He wore black chinos, a royal blue oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled past his wrists, and a yellow tie, loosened at the neck.
A pair of glasses, rimless to the point of invisibility, were one of very few concessions the captain made to his age.
A nationally-ranked Masters swimmer, he was tan pretty much year-round, a result of hours of lap swimming in the sun. It paid off. He routinely crushed athletes half his age in the pool. Ribbons and trophies from a variety of regional and national meets lined a shelf behind his head, right next to a half dozen marksmanship awards.
“Trav, I don’t really know where to start.”
Martin paused, and looked down at his cluttered desk.
“Look, Leon. It’s all right. Let’s get it over with.”
“Good idea. Detective Becker, as a result of the events of 19 August and the subsequent investigation, it is the opinion of the review board…”
Here it comes.
It was funny. I had thought that I was prepared for this moment, but now that it was actually here, I didn’t know what to do.
I fought to keep a neutral expression on my face. I couldn’t look at Martin, so I studied a spot on his desk, which almost caused me to miss what he actually was saying.
“…That your quick thinking and bravery during the shooting prevented loss of life and certainly saved that of your partner. So, it’s my pleasure to tell you that in a unanimous decision, the board is recommending you to receive the Award for Valor in the performance of duty. There will be a presentation ceremony next month. Congratulations, Trav.”
What the hell?
“I…I don’t understand.”
Now I did look up at the captain, searching his face for some explanation.
“Is this some kind of a joke?” I finally managed to say.
“I’ll say,” came a voice from behind me. “I get shot, you get a medal.”
Still trying to make sense of this insane turn of events, I hadn’t heard the door open behind me.
Now, I turned and saw half the squad crowded into the doorway, huge grins on their faces. They gathered behind the young man who had just spoken.
Right arm in a sling, crooked grin on his face and not looking at all dead, Adam Yount leaned against the doorjamb.