It was maybe ten minutes later, and everyone had arrived. I had immediately claimed Sammy as my teammate, knowing he was great when it came to numbers from a previous day where I had played blackjack with him and got my ass handed to me. Three year olds can be scary good at card games sometimes. Rivera was bank, because she was orderly but also didn't freak out if rushed or if things were going right, like me. She also didn't stop every two minutes to straighten the stacks of money and cards like I would've. Plus, she was scrupulously honest – a quality that Ethan, at least, shared, but Ethan had a problem with counting. Rivera was the only logical choice.
“Okay, Sam-the-man, should we buy Baltic Avenue, or not?” I asked the kid sitting on my knee with a smile.
“Bat-lick!” Sammy squealed, giggling at his wit.
“I'll take that as a 'yes',” I said, forking over sixty dollars in play money before I started tickling the kid. Rivera shook her head at me while the other two looked amused. I know, I know, jackass Ryan Galloway, the most arrogant and lazy detective on the force, and he was tickling and playing with a three year old like he could think of nothing more fun. Man, if my brothers saw me now, I'd never hear the end of it. Of course, I never heard the end of anything I did, so it's not like that would be a huge change or anything.
Just then, the front door banged open, causing everyone but me and Sammy to jump up and reach for guns – which no one was currently carrying, since it was off-hours and the two of our group who had children tried to keep their weaponry away from the curious hands of their adolescents, and Ethan's girlfriend freaks out whenever he comes home wearing his gun.
I didn't jump for my gun because I totally knew who it was. Instead I just sighed and rested my forehead on the top of Sammy's head as Sammy tried stacking some of the little plastic houses on top of each other with the concentration that only toddlers can have (although they usually only summon it for about two minutes in a single stretch).
And sure enough... “Ooh, Monopoly! Can I join, or are you too far in the game for that?” Max had barged into the house, dressed in his work suit and sports jacket, professional-looking messenger bag slung over a shoulder and charming grin firmly in place. He flung the bag into a corner of the living room, quickly adding his sports jacket, suit jacket, and tie before swaggering into the dining room and kicking off his shoes in a similarly haphazard manner. Max eagerly flopped into the empty chair next to me and Sam and started to undo the cuffs of his shirt before seeing the look on my face. “Don't worry, mother, I'll pick up after myself later. I promise.”
Adessi and Rivera were glowering at this crazy stranger who'd barged into our game night, Ethan looked completely confused by everything, and Sammy regarded him seriously for a long moment before grabbing a handful of colored money and handed it to him with a solemn, “Bat-lick.”
Max accepted the grubby collection of crumpled paper with equal solemnity. “Bat-lick back to you, little man.” Sammy gave him an inane grin, happy to have found a comrade in arms – and someone with the same relative intelligence.
“Everyone, this is Max Garcia. Max, this is everyone,” I introduced with a weary sort of patience that I had developed over years of being Maxwell Garcia's best friend. I glanced around the group and reconsidered my introduction. “And also Sammy.” Sammy, of course, merited a real introduction. The others could give their names if they felt like it, I was lazy.
“And Max Garcia would be...?” Adessi drawled at me, as if he expected me to fill in the blank. Like I ever did. You'd think he hadn't known me for the last two years, the horrible human being he was.
“What, Ry-Ry didn't tell you about his felon of a friend who's now working at the public defender's office and rooming with him? I am shocked and insulted by his behavior, truly I am!” You could just tell he'd been practicing that speech. Which, yeah, I was glad that it turned out he could actually practice speeches – his speech as valedictorian at graduation consisted of: “Hey, folks! We're fucking out of here!”, which, while widely considered the best graduation speech in the history of speeches, didn't take a lot of practicing to memorize. Hell, he probably didn't even memorize it, just randomly decided upon that exact combination the second he got up to the front and stood at the podium. Max did so love to improvise.
Everyone was speechless, switching between staring at me and staring at Max. Except, always except, for Sammy, who was making one of his plastic animals trample some of the houses lying next to the board.
“Uh.” This was Adessi's oh-so-intelligent response. No, really, I'm not being sarcastic this time. It really was intelligent, compared to Rivera and Ethan's open-mouth-insert-flies response.
“I hate you,” I muttered at my best friend, who gave me a grin and lifted brow that asked, “Why? Because I'm making you explain things?” Which was exactly why. I mean, I couldn't just leave my co-workers thinking... whatever it was that they were thinking right now. And Max, damn his soul, knew that about me. “Me and Max went to the same school all our lives. We've been best friends since we were five,” I explained shortly. “And twenty years later he went stupid and committed armed robbery.” Max's smile got a little more forced at that, but damn. If he didn't want me bandying about the exact details of his crime, then he shouldn't have opened his big dumb mouth in the first place.
“Oh.” Adessi again, with the intelligence.
Sammy, God bless him, was getting bored. “I want play game!” he growled at us boring adults, smacking his hands on the table impatiently. “Now,” he added for emphasis.
“Well, you heard the boy, let's play!” Max said, carefully dealing himself the starting amount of money and grabbing the die, it logically being his turn since I had just gone. How he knew this, no idea. I had always suspected him of being psychic when he felt like it.
If I were to pick one word to describe the rest of the evening, that word would be 'awkward'. Hell, if I was given a hundred words it would be 'awkward' repeated a hundred times. Because that was the only real description that fit for anyone except Sammy, although even in his state of happy oblivion, he started to get a little uneasy by the time he was put to bed.
After everyone left and the remnants of the party were cleaned up, I grabbed Max by the collar and hauled the grinning idiot into the living room. “We need to have a talk,” I snapped.
“Kinda hard to do that with you choking me, y'know.”
“If I was choking you, you wouldn't be able to talk, would you? So how about I really choke you?”
He considered my offer for a moment. “Nah, I'm good.”
“No, you're not,” I snapped, shaking him by the collar, completely forgetting that he was taller than me and far, far stronger than me. “You're really not. What the hell is wrong with you? Do you just delight in upsetting my friends, or something?”
His nearly omnipresent smile was off as suddenly as if a switch had been slipped, and his eyes flashed in that dangerous way that had happened just before he beat the ever-loving shit out of Rory Connors in fifth grade after he found out that Rory had been beating me up. “What about you? Are you just ashamed of me, or something?”
I was too pissed off by this point to pay the least bit of attention to body language or common sense. “Hell yes I'm ashamed of you! I'm a fucking cop, and you committed armed-fucking-robbery and have no sense of tact or decency!”
We were both silent then, which is when I finally noticed I was still grabbing his collar and that he looked about a step away from throttling me within an inch of my life – if I was lucky. I quickly let go of my grip on him and moved away from him, crossing my arms to hide my shaking hands. They weren't shaking from fear – no matter how pissed off Max got at me, I don't think I could ever believe, deep down inside, that he'd really hurt me – but from anger and a bit of shame at what I had just said. I mean, it was true, but it still wasn't good form to say it. My mother would smack me upside the head, and then my sisters-in-law would line up to take their turns.
Max didn't say anything. He just stood up, grabbed his jacket from its corner, and left, slamming the door. Leaving me sitting on the couch in the middle of a suddenly empty and quiet house. Shit. I dropped my head into my hands and tried not to think.
The next day everyone at work was suspiciously quiet, and kept shooting me weird looks. A simple process of elimination left me with Ethan as the main suspect for the leaking of information, since the only thing Ethan's ever learned to keep his mouth shut about is cases, and then only to the press or under threat of a gag order. One look at his guilty as sin face and my suspicion was confirmed. Not that I could blame him – if I found out that Ethan was BFFs with a felon and was now living with him (not that I was too sure I was either, right now), I'd have it all over the station faster than you could say “OH MY GOD!!!” in a high-pitched teen girl's voice. And I already had a rather shaky reputation in the department, thanks to my uncle being mayor and everyone thinking that's why I was promoted so early in my career.
I was silent the entire morning, not looking up from my paperwork at all. I hated feeling like this, being pulled two ways by commitments. I was lucky enough not to have parents who fought a lot or got divorced, but that didn't mean that they never used me against each other, or that my brothers didn't, or even my friends in the few years I had more friends than just Max. And I hated it. I hated it even more than I hated my desk being messy, or hated being helpless. So I distracted myself with paperwork and with not thinking. Maybe the problem would go away on its own if I hoped hard enough.
I was still working on the 'Magical Fix-it Fairies' theory when the captain came out into the squad room and dropped our new case in front of us, not even bothering to call us in. The gossip chain may not spread up to the brass (thankfully), but he didn't become a captain by being completely oblivious to the environment around him, so he sensed that something weird was going on and that I was at the heart of it, which is why he gave me an extra-strong glare when he came over.
“Investigative reporter from the paper named Catherine Appleby was found strangled in her apartment this morning. And here's the interesting part – she was clutching a dead canary.”
He glanced at me, seemingly relying on me to pick up the inherent joke even in my abnormally subdued state. “The Cat who caught the canary,” I said dryly, only glancing up from my paperwork for the barest second. A pause from me. “And curiosity killed the Cat, since she was an investigative journalist.”
The captain nodded grudgingly. “Go check it out. I don't know about you four, but this seems highly suspicious only a week after video killed the radio star. And we never did find out who put the cassette in Arden Wolter's mouth.”
“What, you think we've got a cliché killer in our midst?” I asked, eyebrows raised with only a quarter of my usual enthusiasm.
“Hopefully not in our midst, I'd hate to think of our force being that close to a criminal,” the captain said, smirking at me in a way that told me that yeah, he completely fucking knew, before he turned and retreated to the safety of his smug office. Shit. Who decided to tell the brass? They were supposed to be out of the loop! Oh well, I had a case to focus on now.
“Well folks, let's stop gathering moss and catch us a killer with a sense of humor almost as bad as Galloway's, alright?” Adessi said, with fake cheer and an incredibly stupid looking hand-clap before making shooing motions at us. “Move!”