I was twenty-two years old, and universally hated. Which most of me was entirely pleased by, because it's not like you can be universally hated without working at it, at least a little bit. But part of me was not too happy with it, which was the part that had to walk into work every day and be sneered at by everyone. Even back at the academy, when I was mostly too worn down to bother trying to make people hate me, the others avoided me. I think it was because I was Irish, trying to be a cop, but refused to drink and started choking and gagging if anybody was smoking within, like, fifty feet of me. Which meant that hanging out at bars with everybody else? Not happening. Plus, at some point one of them had found out that I had been captain of the chess team in school, was on a bowling team, and that while I had majored in sociology (a respectable choice for a would-be cop), I had minored in both classics (which made everyone confused, until someone remembered that meant Greek and Latin) and English. This was obviously not acceptable.
It was start of duty, which for me meant damn late at night (oh graveyard shift, how I miss thee... not). And, of course, the conference room reeked of coffee, as everyone from the freshest of recruits to the lieutenant on duty at the front of the room was sipping coffee from either the station's pot, or stuff they had brought in on their way to work. It was making my poor little coffee-despising self nauseous as I chugged back my energy drink.
We were supposed to sit as our rank afforded us – which actually meant that the youngest, freshest guys were up front where the man in charge could keep an eye on us, so I was sitting in the very front row, off to one side. Those in my academy class avoided me like I was a particularly contagious and incurable form of the plague, so I was sitting next to a far too cheerful and bouncy Shannon Sloane, then a simple officer like myself. She wasn't talking, because her voice is naturally a holler (which the academy didn't help in the least bit) and the general noise level of the room was a dull murmur, but she was doodling all over her notebook and kept trying to get me to play hangman with her. I told her that hangman was a simply barbaric game, what with the killing of poor innocents if their loved ones could not guess the word, and she laughed at me. Even though I said it in my “I am dead serious, I really am this much of a stick in the mud,” voice. (It's the same voice and expression I use when someone is making fun of me; it takes a lot of wind out of their sails if you pretend that you have no idea what they're talking about and pretend not to understand you've been insulted.)
Finally, the incredibly bored lieutenant glanced at the clock and found that time for on-shift had, officially, arrived. He took roll and gave us all our assignments rather bluntly, not bothering to explain why he was actually running start-of-shift instead of, as was the usual, a sergeant (lieutenants were in charge of divisions, and generally too bogged down in paperwork to bother with daily events such as these).
I was assigned to the Xanadu and Washington beat (why they specified it like that, when that was only a small portion of the beat was on either Xanadu or Washington) with Charlie Kristofferson, a career beat cop who'd been there thirteen years at this point, although he was usually on the other side of the area our station covered. It was the new chief's policy that all officers should know at least all of their station's coverage, if not all of the city. It was our policy to roll our eyes at everything the new chief did, but we still had to follow his edicts.
Kris, as he was universally called by everyone but the higher-ups, who were very much focused on proper titles, was actually not that bad of a guy. He at least had something resembling a brain, which could not be said for the rest of the department. He was also unfortunately prone to whipping out Tombstone quotes at the most inopportune moment.
Current-time me was completely confused by why I had chosen to go back to this particular time in my life, when suddenly it hit me: it was March 17th. Also known as the night Officer Kristofferson died. Why had I decided to come back to this particular time?
Well, alright, I knew that answer at least. It was guilt over Fireboy having gotten away with killing Dovey, and that guilt had taken me back to the only other murder I'd been near that hadn't been solved.
That day had been incredibly boring until right after we stopped for food at a rather disgusting burger joint. I was in the middle of complaining to Kris that this was it, the final straw, I was becoming a vegetarian before they started actually putting rats in the burgers, when we got a call on the radio to go and check out the storage building of a local art school. It was a typical call, probably the second most common run you'd go out on, after domestics (and boy, were those fun, like the time this guy came at me with a rolled up rug because I was arresting his abusive boyfriend – I mean, seriously, a rolled up rug? What the fuck?), so neither of us had been too bothered.
When we got there and did a cursory sweep, we didn't find anything, so we split up. It wasn't a huge storage building, but large and narrow and cluttered enough that there was pretty much no way in hell we were going to be able to see each other, and very little chance of hearing each other even if we were stupid enough to go hollering at the top of our lungs.
I had heard the shot when I was getting ready to enter a hallway – known in the policing business as a 'fatal funnel', as there wasn't exactly places to hide and there were plenty of places for attackers to hide.
Everything even vaguely resembling protocol flew out of my head, and I was that stupid scared kid in an alley way again. I didn't revert enough to actually drop my gun, though my hands were trembling like I had just developed rapid-onset Parkinson's. Although, thinking about it, if I'd had a weapon back then I probably wouldn't have dropped it anyway, so maybe I had reverted completely.
I somehow remembered to call for back-up with a 'shots fired' and exact location, but I hadn't moved from where I was standing, completely not caring if someone was sneaking up on me to shoot me too, like he had shot Kris. Because I knew without a doubt that he had shot him, and killed him, and that if I moved he was going to shoot me too.
That was how the day had originally gone. Kris was, indeed, dead, shot execution-style between the eyes. They never caught the guy who did it, and that was the real start of people in the department hating me. I'd had to transfer districts, not that that helped me at all. I hadn't protected my partner, hadn't really tried to catch the guy who shot him.
But you know, I could change that now. I still wasn't clear on what I'd remember of all of this when I woke up (if, my brain whispered at me, if I woke up), but I'd make sure, completely sure, to remember who killed Kris. Because I could see that now. A little twitch of the sixth sense, and there I was, in the room filled with stacks upon stacks of chairs and some cardboard boxes, looking at Kristofferson as he carefully but quickly cleared the room... only to have someone come up behind him with a gun.
And with the help of a certain little coma, I could now see who it was. I ran forward, ignoring such insignificant concerns as the boxes and chairs all over the place (hello, I was a freaking-ass ghost). Kris's attacker turned a little and light flickered across his face. A face that punched me in the stomach, despite how retarded of a statement that was. I watched, stunned, as Chad Wyatt proceeded to murder Kristofferson in cold blood.
To tell the truth, I wasn't so shocked by the identity of killer. Chad Wyatt was my uncle's aide, his right-hand man, but I'd always thought he was a cold-blooded asshole. No, I was more shocked by the implications. Because my uncle had been elected mayor at least partially because of the death of Charlie Kristofferson. One of his key talking points was security, and how the current mayor was so ineffective that his own police force was being killed, and their killers were still running free.
Did I think my uncle had had Kris killed? I wish I could say that no, no way would my uncle ever do that, especially not just to win an election. But I'd always been a little weirded out by my uncle, and at some point during my university education I had decided, quite firmly, that he was a sociopath. One who was really good at passing as a normal human being, but from what our textbooks had said, a lot of sociopaths were like that. Which was how I had also finally decided that I wasn't a sociopath, because if I was I would be able to act like a normal human being.
He actually wasn't that bad a mayor, and I knew my mom loved him completely, and from all accounts he'd been a good dad to my cousin and a good husband to my aunt, but even when I was a kid I did everything in my power to keep from being in a room alone with him. My brothers and nephews, for the most part, didn't have that problem. Terri, my lone little niece, didn't like him either, and neither did Pat's one kid, Tyler. Tyler always reminded me of myself, though, in that no one liked him very much except his parents, who thought he was perfect.
So yeah, I was pretty damn sure that my uncle had had Charlie Kristofferson killed that night.
It would have been nice to say that I came out of my coma right about then and immediately spouted off the information, and Chad Wyatt and my uncle were arrested. But my life's not near as simple as that; it likes to be a lot more boring. So I followed Chad Wyatt around a little to try and figure out the 'why' behind Kristofferson's death (had he stumbled across something? Was he involved in something? Or had it just been a randomly chosen to make an argument for my uncle to stand on?). But my attention deficient-ness overran my investigative instinct pretty early on and I took to switching around between following Wyatt, revisiting favorite childhood memories, and peering in on the investigation and my medical situation. I tried a couple of times to go back and see the crusades, or Martin Luther King Jr's famous speech, only to slam into a sixth sensory wall. Turned out you couldn't actually go back to times you hadn't lived through while in a coma. Who knew? Well, probably Dovey, but she evidentially had pressing concerns on another continent, since I didn't run into her once.
A week after entering into my coma – yes, a week, a full goddamned week – I was visiting my corpse in the hospital. Well, alright, it's not really a corpse, but it might as well be, since it didn't move and my consciousness was elsewhere. Max was keeping a near vigil by my bedside, since my mother had taken Zack back to their place (not in a way that denigrated Max's possible child-care skills, but it was rather obvious to one and all that Max wasn't going to be up to caring for a three year old while I was in a coma). Terri tried to pull him away, arguing that “Ryan wouldn't want us all sitting here wasting away, staring at him.”
Max had stared at her for a long moment, before saying, “It's Ryan. Of course he would.”
Terri had laughed at that, and hadn't argued with him again.
At this point, he had his head resting on the edge of my hospital bed and was contributing a rather wide puddle of drool to it. He hadn't pulled his usual trick of actually sitting on the bed, but that was probably because he was afraid of unplugging one of my numerous wires and tubes which made me squirm just looking at them. I've never been a big fan of medical implements being stuck into my body – we'd once had a horror movie marathon, and I had been perfectly fine through all of it, until we came across one movie that had a scene with needles. I hid under a blanket and refused to come out no matter how much Max and our other friends heckled me about it.
I was amusing myself by sticking my hand into Max's head – I looked entirely corporeal to myself, although I quite obviously wasn't – when there was this sudden sucking sensation on my sixth sense. I swear I wasn't purposefully alliterating, that's just how it came out. Anyway, there was this sucking sensation and I started to black out, although whether that was because of whatever was making the sucking, or because I started to panic and hyperventilate a little, I probably would never know.
The next thing I was aware of was pain. Pain pain pain. Lots of it. Every single bone and muscle and centimeter of skin was screaming in agony, and I really really had to pee. I felt like I had gotten run over by a large and angry moose. As opposed to a small and docile one. I idly wondered if I was on any good pain medications, or if they'd given me that cheap-ass Advil knock-off I'd gotten the time I'd been shot. Considering my thoughts about moose, and how I wanted to call them mice, I'd say that yes, yes I did get real drugs this time.
Not enough, though, as my entire body screeched at me in pain and agony. My body is such a drama queen sometimes. My mouth seemed to agree with my body, though, as it let out a pained groan.
Max snapped awake, and from the look on his face he hadn't actually, really, truly slept in... oh, a week. Funny how the math worked out on that. “Ryan?” From the croak in his voice, I'd say he also hadn't had anything very hydrating to drink in that same period of time. I suddenly felt extremely guilty, because he'd been here worrying over me for the whole week, and I was not too sure that I'd do the same for him. Of course, I'd probably be out tracking down whoever put him in the hospital, but still.
I tried to make a response, but all that came out was a sort of strangled croak that tore at my dry throat. Yowch. Remind me not to try that one again.
Max seemed to get the gist of it, though, as he sprawled across the bed in a sudden spastic motion to smack the nurse call button. Unlike my numerous previous occasions in a hospital, a nurse appeared almost instantly – I should so stick in the coma ward when I have to be admitted, much better service here. And, oddly enough, much better lighting.
The nurse called in my doctor, and they both fussed over me for a while, not allowing me to get a single word in edgewise even if I had wanted to try to speak. I was informed that I was one lucky son of a bitch (well, not those exact words, but I am quite adept at translating doctor to cop), and that the hit-and-run hadn't actually caused too much damage. I was a giant walking (well, not really walking, it was painful just lying down) bruise and scrape, and they doubted there was a single one of my ribs that wasn't, at the very least, cracked, and they were still worried about the possibilities of internal bleeding, but otherwise I was fine. Their main concern had been the extreme head trauma I'd suffered, the thing that had put me into my bizarre coma. The doctor said he was still worried about brain damage, but since I had woken up and (after getting something to wet my throat a little so I didn't tear it up and start coughing up blood) was talking clearly with full memory and able to do simple math problems (well, as much as I'd ever been able to do them, anyway), he thought I might be in the clear for that.
After a nice, thorough, hour-long examination, they finally left me and Max, who'd been shoved into a far corner of the room for most of the time. I was going to be in the hospital for at least a week, they said, and if I wasn't careful it would be much, much longer than that. I gave my sincere promise to be careful (better known as, I rolled my eyes at him and said “Yeah, yeah, yeah,”).
I was quite insulted. “What's that supposed to mean, Max?”
He shook his head at me. “You know that your friend Tina is going around telling everyone how you saved her.”
“Well, didn't I?” He just looked at me. “Fine, I was trying to get out of the way and I ran into her. There, I've admitted to being a selfish jackass. Are you happy?”
He grinned at me. “Ecstatic.”
“So,” I said, changing the subject quickly, “Have they found who thought running me over was a brilliant idea?” If my coma-dream had been real, then I already knew the answer to that. And I was pretty sure it was real, but pretty certain didn't mean completely certain, so I thought it was worth asking.
Max shook his head, confirming that the bizarro world my coma had put me in was, in all likelihood, real. Which meant that Fireboy was somewhere out there alive, and my uncle was responsible for the death of Kristofferson. I was vaguely aware of staring at Max as I reviewed the information in my brain, and debated whether or not to tell him, at least about Fireboy. I wasn't going to be telling anyone else because hello, who the hell would believe me? Besides Max, no one. No one at all. Hell, a large part of me didn't believe me.
But really, what purpose would telling him serve? It wasn't like there was anything he could do – at least, nothing legal. And I wasn't letting my best friend go back to jail, which was so what would happen.
Max seemed a little put off by my silence and staring, but he continued anyway. “That asshole you work for, though, Robinson?” I nodded. I was pretty certain that the captain's name was actually Josh Robinson, although I wasn't going to promise anything. “He thinks it has nothing to do with any of your cases, but that it has something to do with your personal life.” Max smirked. “He rather implied that I might have something to do with it.”
I shook my head at that. Sure, Max had gone to jail. But he was still Max Garcia, and everyone loved Max Garcia. Hell, even the detective who had arrested him had only good things to say about him. But while the captain was so incredibly wrong about that part, he may actually have something with the personal life bit. Or, at least, personal past.
Once upon a time, I had been a hyperactive jackass of a child. (As opposed to an attention deficit jackass of an adult that I was now.) And as a hyperactive jackass child, I had a bad habit of running around the almost completely Irish neighborhood I lived in. This was back before the gentrification of most of the city, so my neighborhood was actually the home base of the city's Irish organized crime families. I had also been more than a little bit of a firebug back then, and at one point had been at least partially responsible for setting fire to their main ammunitions store (I had thought it to be an empty warehouse, so when it exploded after the fire hit the gunpowder, I was as shocked as anybody – and I actually still have a few scars from where I got slammed into a chain-link fence by the blast). But the question still remained, why now? Why not, you know, when I was a kid and had actually just done the crime? It was twenty years ago at this point.
What else had I done recently that would make people want to run me over? I paused, considered the extremely long list, and decided to add the qualifier of 'the person might actually do it' to the filter. Huh. I couldn't think of anything. I'd actually been rather inoffensive recently (er, well, inoffensive for me). I stuck my tongue between my teeth and started chewing on it as I thought. Unless they'd just figured out it was me who'd done it, it was highly unlikely that the Irish mob had tried to run me down. And Max's enemies, if he had any enemies (highly unlikely), wouldn't come after me to get at him. I mean, that's just weird.
And hey, the captain may be a captain, but that didn't mean he was infallible. Actually, he was quite fallible. After all, he didn't like me, did he? In any case, it seemed like the only possibility was a case-related attack. But who...
My brain paused, and then stuttered out an 'ohshit'. The Wolters case. It had to be. One of the things we'd found out during our quick run through the case was that Ransom Malachi had a part-time job at the newspaper – the same newspaper that Catherine Appleby worked for before her untimely and extremely embarrassing death. How had we missed that? Christ! We were so completely freaking retarded sometimes.
Max noticed my agitation, but didn't do anything about it until I started to smack myself in the head with one of my highly wired hands while muttering, “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
He grabbed my hand quickly but softly and pulled it away from my head. “Hey, knock it off! You're in bad enough shape as it is without smacking yourself.”
I pouted at him. “But we totally missed a completely obvious thing!” I whined. Plus, I hadn't even thought to find out who ran me over when I was floating around in coma-space. Seriously, why was I such an idiot recently? Maybe there really had been brain damage involved in the crash. Except that wouldn't excuse the slip-ups made previously. Hey, maybe getting shot in the shoulder all those years ago had caused brain damage! Or hey, not long after that I'd fallen through rotting boards into a smuggler's hold, it was incredibly possibly I had smacked my head back then.
Or maybe, much as I'd hate to admit it, I was really just stupid enough to miss the completely obvious like that.
I only noticed that Max was still holding my hand when I tried to use it to smack myself in the head again. He frowned at me. “Seriously. Stop it. I know that it kills you to realize you're human like the rest of us, but you are.”
I glare-pouted at him. I always hated it so when he was right.
He knew that too, so he just smirked at me.
My pouting gave me time to think everything through. Okay, so Malachi and possibly Owen had killed Owen's father, and then arranged it so that it looked like self-defense with a side of scene-tampering. This left the question as to whether the thing with Catherine Appleby had been pure luck, or if maybe they'd just made it seem like autoerotic asphyxiation, knowing us dumb cops would fall for it easily.
I was dangerously close to brooding territory, so Max reached up and smacked me lightly in the face. I glowered at him. “What, it's okay for you to smack me, but not for me to smack me?” I demanded of him.
He smiled. “Now you're getting it. And if you really feel like you have to solve the case right after coming out of a coma, could you maybe do it out loud?”
I frowned at him (yet again), but decided that it maybe wasn't such a bad idea. I explained quickly about Arden Wolters's death (and yes, Max found it just as amusing as I had, thank you very much), about how Ransom Malachi had been sobbing and hyperventilating all over the place and how Owen Wolters had just seemed grimly amused by it all. And not even that grimly, really. I also told him about Catherine Appleby, and finished up with my theory about who, exactly, had run me over and why.
And smart, smart Max pointed out the main problem with this idea: “Why wouldn't they go after your co-workers, too? They worked on the same case, came to the same conclusions.”
“Good point.” I frowned. “So, what, you think the captain's right, and it is to do with my personal, non-cop, life?”
Max gave a one-armed shrug. “Well, it's been, what, nine years since that thing?” He said it in a way that told me that I should be able to pick up on what, exactly, he was talking about. Sadly, I had just come out of a coma, so I was completely lost. He saw my expression and sighed. “Remember? You beating the shit out of Saunders?”
“'Oooh, yeah', indeed. Wasn't the length of his sentence about, oh, nine years?”
I winced. So it was completely possible that the mostly defunct Irish crime syndicate in the city was trying to kill me. Mike Saunders was the younger brother of Shannon “Irish” Saunders (yes, no shit, the guy's nickname was actually 'Irish'), the leader of the mob if they could be said to have a leader. Considering that Mike Saunders was also a complete dumbass, though, it was entirely possible – and actually even more possible than the other choice – that Mike was after me all on his lonesome, wrongfully believing I was responsible for his manslaughter conviction. I wasn't, not in the least, I hadn't even stepped forward to offer testimony for all that I had seen it. I could tell how it might look bad, though, what with me joining the academy just a few months after he got arrested. But hey, I wasn't an idiot, I knew better than to rat on a Saunders, especially if he was going to be convicted anyway. Now, if it had come down to me to make sure he was put away, I might've had a little ethical dilemma, but it had been about as air-tight as a case could get. There was a club full of witnesses (as it was the local criminal hangout, a good portion of them didn't have to fear retribution from Irish Saunders, and most of the were more than willing to testify against the guy that had disrupted their normally peaceful little club), plus some bit of mystery evidence that had never been released to the public that, I assumed, Mike thought I had supplied.
“So you think it was Mike on his lonesome, or do I got a hit on me now?” I asked of Max.
He rolled his shoulders a little – those hospital chairs are the single most uncomfortable things in the world, even worse than than the chairs in the principal's office of our old school – and then shook his head. “Definitely not a hit.”
“Because those usually actually work, or because you've got contacts in the underworld who tell you it ain't?”
He smirked. “Both.”
I had a sudden image of Max strolling into Dante's, throwing Irish Saunders up against a wall and demanding to know if he was trying to kill me. It was an oddly cheerful image, for all that Max would have probably gotten shot if he'd tried that. He may be a Garcia, but he wasn't even vaguely of the same Garcias who ran this branch of the Surenos (better known as the Mexican Mafia), so he had no protection from the Irish mob. Unless, of course, he'd joined up while in prison. But nah, this was Max.
“So we're both pretty certain that Mike Saunders is out to get me?” Max nodded. “Then why haven't you told the cops this?”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Wasn't sure you wanted them to know the exact circumstances as to why he'd be after you.” He paused. “Plus, I was sort of hoping to arrange a situation where I could accidentally shoot him in self defense.”
I ignored my first reaction – how can you 'accidentally' shoot someone in self defense – and went with my second. “Aw, how sweet!” I said in a specifically girly tone reserved for occasions like my best friend wanting to shoot people who hurt me. I mean, I really was touched by it, but we were guys. We can't actually have emotions and stuff, that's just weird.
He looked tempted to pull the pillow out from under my head and suffocate me with it, so I hurried on. “Call them up. I don't care if they know about the circumstances, it's not like it's going to lower their opinion of me anyway.”
Another frown from Max, who had heard at a very early age that it took more muscles to frown than to smile, and promptly started exercising. I ignored his expression (it was dangerously close to that 'feelings' thing) and flapped my hand at him. “Go, call.”
Max did as commanded for once in his life, and pulled out his cell phone. Evidentially one of my co-workers (Rivera, to my thinking, as she tended to be the most clear-thinking of them all) had given him their number with instructions to call when I woke up. “Yeah, Ryan's awake. He's got an idea who did this, too.” He pulled the phone away from his ear with a disgruntled look. “Well, that was no reason to be rude and hang up without saying goodbye,” he commented, seemingly to the phone.
Much as I said that their opinion of me wouldn't lower any by finding out I had not gone to the police after witnessing a crime, it was still not the easiest thing in the world to tell them. And the betrayed look on Ethan's face... yeah, it hurt a little. But not all of us could be wunderkins who help catch killers while still in middle school, I thought a little uncharitably. (Ethan's parents had been murdered when he was twelve, and he was instrumental in bringing their killer to justice. If he wasn't such a likable son of a bitch, I'd hate him, really I would.) Rivera wasn't into judging others – she always said that if she wanted to judge people, she would've gone to law school and become a lawyer – and Adessi had been a cop long enough (and looking at the place where he transferred over) that he was in no rush to tell me what to do. He was probably thinking eh, the guy got convicted anyway, much as I had thought.
What was worse, though, was Robinson's 'I knew it all along' look. Asshole. I seriously wanted to, like, punch him or something. Except that would get me fired. Plus, I was hooked up to about fifty weird beeping machines and couldn't breathe without being in a whole world of pain, so hauling myself out of bed and launching myself at my boss would probably not be too smart an idea medically, either. Not that I ever do the smart thing, anyway, but maybe I'd start now. Or maybe I'd just quit and become a private detective like Max had been hinting at since I first told him I was going to be a cop. He's very much into the idea of private enterprises. Especially since the death rate among private investigators? Much, much lower than that of cops. They also tend to get more TV shows. And more TV shows where they don't just hang around and wrestle mini-alligators – look, at one point in my coma I'd gotten bored and watched COPS, and there was totally an episode where the cops had to tackle a miniature alligator or crocodile (like I ever remember how to tell the difference between the two). It was sort of awesome, I'm not going to lie. At least, not too much.
They went out and questioned, and subsequently arrested, Mike Saunders. From what they told me later, Irish Saunders himself was actually there at the time, and when told what his idiot brother had done this time, Irish had actually gotten up and held his brother still for handcuffing – after smacking him upside the head a few times and piling verbal abuse on his head. See, a lot of the cops in this city (and, hell, in all of America really) are of an Irish background, so there tends to be a 'look the other way' policy in place between the Irish cops and the criminals (at least, the organized crime ones; the others were not so fortunate). Plus, Irish Saunders had gone to school with my oldest brother, Will, and they'd been rather good friends, so he wasn't too keen on his little brother trying to kill Will's little brother, especially not without a valid reason.
It's always nice to know that at least one version of the mob has a general 'do not touch' order out on you. Comforting, like. Of course, I still had the Norwegian Mafia to worry about – those guys, they'd rosemal me to death.
I was happy, of course, that my would-be killer had been caught and would be brought to justice (and hopefully, this time around, not get out of jail for a nice long time). But I didn't act quite as pleased as I should of, mostly because the pills I'd been made to swallow felt like they were still sitting in the back of my throat, and they were tempting me to try and throw up. I don't throw up. It's just not something I do, okay? Ryan Galloway does not throw up, and especially not just because his pills are in the back of his throat. I remembered, not so much from training, but from television, that smiling represses the gag reflex, but for some reason in this case it just made me want to toss my cookies more.
I fell asleep not long after I received the news that Mike Saunders was arrested. It was, thankfully, a perfectly normal sleep, full of perfectly normal dreams of me and a combination of scenes that seemed to be influenced by the Matrix movies, despite my having seen all of ten minutes of one. Plus, lots of subway trains. And I'm pretty sure that dream-me killed some people, but it was okay because they were evil. I really should make more of an effort to remember my dreams, they would make a brilliant children's book. Well, if you're talking children's books like I read when I was a kid. When I was three years old, I asked my parents where babies came from, and instead of telling me the stork, or that when a mommy and daddy love each other very much..., they handed me a book with illustrations on the exact act. And people wonder why I'm so screwed up.
Max must have left at some point when I was asleep, assured by the doctors that it was a perfectly normal, healing sleep, because when I woke up all bleary eyed and stale (look, it's just how I feel when I wake up if I go to sleep and haven't had a shower in a while; everything's all dry and stale and I sort of feel like scraping my own skin off) he was wearing a different outfit and had Zack with him.
My hospital room was set up a little more like a hotel room than anything else, with a small table off to the side with two chairs pulled up to it. Max and Zack were sitting at that table, both of them working on a coloring book. Max was rather purposefully holding his crayon in his left hand, despite being right handed, because he was sloppier and it makes kids feel better if the adult they're playing with is as bad at staying within the lines as they are. (I knew this because our school, being a Catholic school, required numerous hours of community service in order to graduate, and we'd both volunteered at a child care center in the neighborhood for our hours.) I noticed that Grassy was stuck directly next to me, and I felt touched, but again pushed the feeling away, since again: guys don't do emotions. Or at least I don't.
I groaned lightly and said in a purposefully playful manner, “Did anyone get the number of that truck?”
Max grinned at me. “It was a car, not a truck.”
I rolled my eyes at him, but focused on Zack. I had known him for all of a day before going and getting myself put in a coma, so I was a little worried about his reaction. I mean, I'd probably freak out if the father I had known for only a single day went and nearly got killed. But I guess three year olds are a little more resilient than I had ever realized, because he just smiled at me. He seemed a little uncertain of all the tubes poking out of my body and all the weird beeping machines, but hell, I felt exactly the same about them and I was hooked up to them! I patted the bed next to me (I may be thirty years old, but I'm still as scrawny as I was as a kid, so there was plenty of room). “Why don't you come on up here?” I asked him.
Zack still seemed a little uncertain about all the tubes and wires, but nodded hesitantly, so Max picked him up and carefully settled him next to me. I put an arm around him – ignoring the slight twinge of my ribs and the scream of nearly all my muscles, since I'd already figured they were going to be like that for a long time and I was not going to let it get in the way of me and the things I wanted to do. “Now, tell me all about your week with your grandparents,” I said, lightly commanding him. I also made sure to specify it as his grandparents, not my parents. According to the psychology classes I had taken, children up until age seven or eight tend to think of everything as how it relates to themselves. They don't have any real understanding of empathy. My theory (they'd never come out and said this in class, but they didn't tend to go deep into theories at the college I went to) was that it was a survival instinct – in ancient times, you weren't really guaranteed to live until you passed age eight (even then, it was iffy). So our minds were set up so that we were always our first thought until we were into the moderately safer ages and could afford to care about others as well.
Zack paused momentarily, but then started babbling away. Mostly about the dogs, not that I was too surprised by that given his performance the one time we'd had at my parents's place together before my hospitalization, but also a bit about the younger group of his cousins (mostly Rob, somewhat Mike and Marshall; but almost completely Rob, who always felt out of place, being years younger than his brothers, who were only a year apart and tended to act like twins). According to his jumbled words (easier to understand than Sammy's, but still pretty hard to decipher), Rob was possibly the coolest guy in the whole wide world. Max, who knew exactly how big a geek my youngest nephew was (X-Men was his main obsession, although he made plenty of room for staying up late watching Monty Python on BBC America), merely grinned at Zack's effusive compliments. It seemed that the school was having a break at the moment, so Rob had been staying over at his grandparents's place to hang with his brand new cousin that was, for once in his life, younger than him! A miracle.
Before long Zack got tired of talking (not as soon as those who aren't around small children often might think, though; toddlers, once they get into the slightly expanded vocabulary stage and as long as they have your attention, will talk and talk and talk long after an older child would get bored), and we settled back and I read him a book. Not a real children's book, as Max told me he'd tried those and unless they were little more than a list of animals and details about animals, Zack was totally not interested. He'd found a list on the Internet for books to read to gifted three-year-olds, but he knew of my irrational hatred for all Roald Dahl books that weren't Matilda, so he'd mostly discarded the list. He'd brought Charlotte's Web, and Ender's Game, which I glowered at him for. He gave me a completely innocent look, and I was tempted to actually read it. But no, Zack's eyes had lit upon the cover of Charlotte's Web and he'd started bouncing on my bed, forgetting his hesitance about my injured state in favor of a book with tons of animals on the cover. I sighed, and started reading.
I was released a few weeks later with another strict order to 'stay out of trouble this time, dumbass!'. I pretended to be humble and agree, but the doctors by this point knew me well enough to know what I was doing, so instead he just looked at Max and commanded him to keep me under control. Max nodded, all serious-like, and I sighed, because Max always does exactly what doctors tell him to do, has ever since he was little.
I soon got bored out of my mind at home. Not that I was craving work or anything, but I have to get out of the house, or I go completely insane. I wasn't very good company, either, which is one of the many, many reasons why Max starting taking Zack over to my parents's place when he left for work each morning, picking him up on his way back. My parents were delighted to have another midget running around the house, and Zack certainly loved the dogs (and my parents, I guess, although the dogs were the main thing), so it worked out for everyone. Except me, because I wound up stuck at home, and there's only so many cartoons you can watch for hours in a row before going trying to break the television or throw it through a window (which would also probably break it). I got bored to the point that I started going through old boxes up in the attic, a lot of which were leftover from when I moved back to the house from my hole of an apartment.
It was in one such box that I discovered my old notebooks from the academy. I had taken tons upon tons of notes, mostly because the teachers tended to drop little bits of trivia every time they spoke and I am nothing if not a trivia hound. I shifted through the binder. Ah, radio directives! Those were always useful. It took me an embarrassingly long time to memorize those – I mean, I got code one down easy-quick, but some of the others? Not so much. I was glad that, as a detective, I wasn't so bound by radio usage, so I didn't have as many embarrassing moments where I'd call the code for mentally disturbed instead of going out to lunch (yes, I did that, and yes, I did that on more than one occasion).
Then there were all the notes on domestic violence (or DVs, as the acronym-happy police department likes to call them) and on proper building search procedure and proper arrests and traffic stops and high-risk traffic stops... My eyes nearly crossed. Had I really had to learn all this at once? And on paper? Christ. Why had I wanted to be a cop, again? Ah, but here was something interesting! The old department organizational chart! It had been re-done about five times since the sheet I was looking at had been printed out – for instance, there was an actual homicide department now, one headed by a captain, instead of the old Persons Unit, Crimes Against Children Unit, and Major Crime Unit (each headed by a lieutenant). Yeah, it had changed quite a bit, but it was still cool to see how things had been once (not so long ago, either, less than ten years). Plus, it had the names of all the section heads and higher, and it was a little amusing to note that the last names could all be separated into three ethnicities: Irish, Hispanic, and Scrabble. Well, what else would you call 'Fenstermacher'? (He had been the lieutenant in charge of professional standards; I'd never met him nor seen him nor heard anyone talk about him or his section, so I sort-of assumed that it was on par with being in charge of records, only without the benefit of people actually needing to access what you're in charge of.)
I was still in the attic when Max and Zack got home, now staring at an old picture album and feeling so melancholy that I didn't even care I was venturing into 'emotions' territory. They were quiet, and I heard the creaking of the stairs that meant someone was going up to the second floor. Using my amazing investigative skills, I figured out that Zack was probably passed out, exhausted from a day of cookies and books and (most important) dogs, and Max was putting him to bed. This happened at least half the time he came back from my parents's, which was making me a bit sulky. I mean, he was my son, and he spent hardly any time with me at all! I barely knew the kid, and it wasn't like I was going to get more time to spend with him once I went back to work.
It was maybe ten minutes later that Max finally realized that I wasn't sulking downstairs in a closet or something, and noticed the stairs to the attic were open. The house actually has two attics – there's the one above the garage, which is rather tiny, and then the one over the main part of the house, which is large enough to actually live in (you know, if there wasn't already four bedrooms on the second floor). More creaking, as all old houses do, and Max was standing at the entrance to the attic, looking at me.
I hadn't bothered to get out of pajamas – why should I? It wasn't like I had gone anywhere in the past as long as I could remember (slight exaggeration, but it didn't really seem like it; I'd been out of work for over a month at this point). My plaid pajama pants and flannel shirt (it was starting to get cold outside, so I was wearing warmer clothes to bed these days) were pretty much covered in dust and dead bugs and all the other unmentionable stuff that congregates on unused things in the attic, but I was too far into my melancholy to really care.
“Ryan?” Max's voice was soft, which made his using my full first name even odder. I hadn't really realized it, but he'd been calling me Ry pretty exclusively since I first got sick. Being called Ryan again made me feel kind of weird.
“Look,” I said, my voice equally soft. He crouched down and cleared a small space for himself to sit next to me before settling down and taking the album from my hands. I had it open to a page of snapshots of the two of us as kids. We had been inseparable practically since that first day in kindergarten, when we'd beaten the crap out of each other.
The pictures were arranged chronologically on the page, starting with us around age six in the upper left corner. It was almost a full year after we'd met, and we were all dressed up to go trick-or-treating. Max had wanted to be a high-powered corporate attorney, and I was a detective, so we were both wearing little suits and had bubble gum cigars clutched in our hands. The next picture, we were playing hide-and-go-seek, and were maybe ten or so. I had my head stuck in a tree, and Max was looking at me from around the side of the tree and grinning. Below that, there was another one of the two of us up to mischief, me lifting him up to get over the top of a fence. I smiled fondly at that one, remembering how I had argued that he was bigger, and therefore should be lifting me, and him arguing back that he had better upper-body strength than I did and therefore actually stood a chance of lifting a body over the fence. And right after the picture had been taken, by Pat if I remember correctly, I had dropped Max, startled, and then we'd both tried to chase my brother down. Of course, two eleven year olds after a twenty-something wasn't ever going to come out in our favor, but we had delusions. Every kid does, at that age. And often far, far past it. In the second-to-last picture, we weren't too old in it, maybe twelve or so, and definitely not high school age. It was the annual camp-out at the neighborhood park (a grand neighborhood tradition where most of the boys and a good few of the girls take sleeping bags and tents out to the park and everyone has a grand old time, although the parents mostly hang around the perimeters and drink, and there's been more than one occasion where the cops had to be called in to break up fights – this was a mostly Irish neighborhood, after all), and me and Max were sharing a tent. I was mostly asleep already, although it probably wasn't too late, and had curled around Max. He was still wide awake, and reading a book by flashlight.
But the picture I was really looking at was the last one of the page. It was taken while we were in high school, either sophomore or junior year. It had actually been taken in class for the yearbook, and I had no idea how my mother had gotten the original for her little book, but she had. I remembered the day it had been taken, extremely well. We had been in our relationships and marriage class (as required by the school curriculum in order to graduate; Max had always found it completely hilarious), which was really more of a communication and 'figure out what you want out of life' class, which is always frustrating for those of us who didn't have concrete goals outside of 'go to some college, become a cop, maybe have kids one day ish?'. There had been a guest speaker that day (another thing the class was rife with), and she'd decided that audience participation was cool, so she asked us all what we wanted to be when we grew up. Those exact words. The class full of sixteen year olds shared an incredulous look with each other, but reluctantly answered.
“Attorney.” A sneer from that kid to all the losers who'd gone with the simpler answer of 'lawyer' instead.
“Barrister.” A sneer from that kid to the previous one for using lowly American terms.
“Federal law enforcement agent, specializing in behavior analysis.” There was dead silence around the room as everyone stared at the girl who'd just spoken. As well we should, because she was a rather dumpy, unfriendly girl (although I vaguely remembered her, back in grade school, as being an extremely hyperactive and manipulative little twit). She bared her teeth at us and looked about ready to start growling, so we all glanced away quickly.
“Public defender.” This was Max, of course. He'd long since reconsidered his childhood dream of high priced corporate attorney when he realized that he wasn't really that into money, and law was dead boring where it didn't intersect with criminal law.
Then it was my turn. “Uh.” I started out brilliantly, mind racing for an answer. Sure, when I was a tiny little kid I'd wanted to be a detective, but I sort of tossed that away around age seven (not the least because it was around then that I discovered how fun breaking the law could be). “Cop,” I blurted out, just to say something. And after it left my mouth, I realized it was true. I did still want to be a cop, deep down. I was still interested in people and how they interacted (at least partially, I thought, because interactions and relationships just don't come naturally to me, so I like to know what to imitate), I still wanted to get bad people off the streets – hell, after the months I'd lived on the streets two years back, I wanted them off the streets even more than before. I wanted to be a cop. Weird.
After class, Max had pulled me aside – which was highly unnecessary, since we were already walking together, and no one else was even vaguely near us. He turned me around to face him and asked, dead seriously, “Do you really want to be a cop?”
I nodded at him. “Yeah, I really think I wanna be a cop.”
He frowned at me, all thoughtful, and then nodded. “I think it would be good for you.” Now, normally I hated it when he talked to me like that – like I was some kid that needed watching over and guidance, but right then with my thoughts all jumbled up and around, it was actually reassuring. Equally reassuring was what he did next, which was drag me to the library and load me down with a bunch of books on law, and punishment, and psychology, and martial arts. He told me, quite seriously, that he wasn't going to let me become a police officer unless I could defend myself at least moderately well.
Back in real time, I turned to Max – well, not really, since we were both sitting on a wood floor, but I did sort of lean up against him. “I don't think I wanna be a cop anymore,” I remarked quietly, staring at the picture.
There's a reason I don't like to be bored. Partially because it's, well, boring, but also because it leaves me alone with myself for entirely too long and I start to freak out over everything, and worry about everything. When I'm around other people or have something that others are waiting on me to do, I can push all of that away and ignore it easily. When it's just me sitting in an empty house with my only thing to do is 'get better', which I couldn't exactly hurry up with sheer will-power, I start worrying over everything and thinking about everything, and this time around I'd been thinking about my job. Because let's think about it. I liked Ethan and Adessi and Rivera and all, and sure I'd miss Tommy and the guys down in forensics, but I wouldn't miss my boss or the way we worked and worked, and never made any damn difference in this city. We pretty much existed to keep people from panicking and rioting – if they actually did that, there was no way we'd be able to do jack shit. And to tell the truth, one of the big draws to uniform for me was the sense of brotherhood that came with it, thinking I'd finally be accepted. I mean, sure, my family accepted me, but they have to. And sure Max accepted me, but he was just one person. I'm only human, I want to be liked just like everyone else. I'm just too stubborn to hide parts of my personality just to fit in and be liked. Which does not make for a very happy life.
I was just sick of it. Sick of all the paperwork and routines, and still having the bad guy go loose half the time because of stupid evidentiary laws and twelve stupid people chosen at random from the population. I was a little young for disillusionment, but then I'd always been a gifted child.
Max looked at me, the same way he had fourteen years earlier, dead serious. “Are you sure?” he asked again.
“Yeah, I think I am,” I said quietly, leaning against him more. “I'm just sick and tired of it all, you know?” I said, well aware that I sounded like a little kid, and not really caring.
Max, as always got me. “Yeah, I know,” he said, and I could practically feel him smiling, for all that I couldn't see his face.
I felt the sudden, completely irrational, urge to turn my head a little more and kiss him like I'd never kissed anyone before, but I shook it off and instead pushed away from him. You don't go around kissing your best friend, at least not if you want to keep them as a friend. (But, my brain protested, how do you know he doesn't want to kiss you, too? Shut up brain, said I, I am not an idiotic twelve year old, so stop acting like I am!)
Ignoring the confused, slightly hurt look on his face (for all that it made guilt start to build up in the pit of my stomach), I got to my feet and started stacking up all the stuff I had been going through that day. Max got to his feet too, giving me a slightly odd look that made me nervous. Which was irrational, because I knew full well that he hadn't been taking any Egyptian mind-reading classes or anything, so he could have no idea what I'd been thinking just a minute ago. And boy, I was already acting like a little love-struck girl with her first little puppy crush, not the thirty year old with a child that I was.
“What d'ya want for dinner?” I asked him. Reeeeeal subtle there, Galloway, I thought to myself sarcastically. Lean against him, all warm and cuddly, and then suddenly jump up and go, 'What's fer supper?'. Idiot.
From the arc of his raised eyebrow, Max was thinking along the same lines. “I dunno,” he said slowly. “I think there's still some soup in the pantry,” he offered. Which yeah, there better be, when I checked last week we still had a few cases of it (buy in bulk, that's what I always say).
“Beef or chicken?” I asked of him, dusting myself off as I made my way to the stairs.
“Surprise me.” I could hear the smirk in his voice.
“Oh, so I can load it with maple syrup and strawberries, then?” I asked, a bit cruelly. Max shuddered and gagged in response. I always know exactly what buttons to push for him when it comes to food. Boy will eat anything, up to and including tinfoil (and no, you do not want to know how I found that bit out), except strawberries and maple syrup. He starts gagging if he even smells either. Thankfully, I wasn't too fond of strawberries myself and could do without syrup, so we didn't even have either in the house.
It wasn't until that night, laying in bed staring up at the ceiling, that I really started to think about my little flash of lust earlier in the day. I wasn't too weirded out by being attracted to guys – I mean, I didn't really notice it until now, but I could admit I was at least as attracted to hot guys as I was to hot girls – that is to say, a bit. I've always found personalities to be far more attractive than actual looks, although the kind of personalities I tend to go for are a bit weird.
But Max? Max wasn't just any guy, he was Max. I mean, what was I supposed to do? Max was almost definitely straight, and even if he wasn't, would not be interested in someone like me. This isn't me belittling myself, it's pure fact. I've seen the girls he's dated, and they are absolutely nothing like me in the little least bit. They are actually almost polar opposites of me, which is why I tend to get into screaming matches with all of his dates – not the only reason, my brain whispered at me. And was that true? Had I been crushing on Max for the past however many years, and had been purposefully sabotaging his relationships? Nah, there was no part of me that was near subtle enough to do that. Of course, I also hadn't thought there was a part of me that was in love with my best friend, and look how that turned out.
Wait. In love with? Where'd that come from? I rolled over and groaned into my pillow. Christ, maybe when I'd gotten hit by that stupid car (driven by stupid Mike Saunders) I'd had part of my brain replaced with that of a preteen girl's. I had a kid, and I was all of two steps away from grabbing a flower and doing he loves me, he loves me not. I attempted to suffocate myself with a pillow, even though you literally can't do that – survival instinct is too strong. Plus, eventually you'll pass out and without you forcing the pillow down onto your face, you can breathe through the thin material. But it still seemed like it was worth a try.
I eventually got to sleep, but it was not an easy-going sleep. Nor was it full of happy adventurous dreams, although they were still steering away from the real world category of events, which was nice.
When I awoke the next morning, I had at least partially forgotten my turmoil of the previous night and was instead sitting there happily with the knowledge that yes, I at the very least had an extreme crush on my best friend of twenty-five years. Oh sweet Jesus. But I was too hungry to panic over that, plus I had a resignation letter to worry over instead. Oh, life, you are far too funny for your own good sometimes.
Max was already up, making pancakes, although Zack was still slumbering peacefully. I stumbled down the stairs, rubbing at my bleary eyes, part of my brain taking in every reaction Max had to me. At some point in the night, I'd lost the flannel top, and was now clad in only plaid pajama pants. Which, hey, we were all guys here, right? No need for modesty. The part of me that was a teenage girl was extremely pleased when Max glanced at me, and then hurriedly fixed his attention on the pancakes.
“Can you take me into work today?” I asked him as I sat down at the table carefully, still mindful of my injuries despite them being mostly healed by this point. Today was Max's day off, and we were planning on taking Zack to the nature and science museum – always tons of fun, that place. Seeing the look on his face, I hurried on, “I just want to get the process started. Y'know, for me quitting.”
He placed a pancake plate in front of me. “You're an adult now. It's called resigning,” he said with a grin. “And sure. We can stop by on our way to the museum.”
I smiled happily and then dug into my butter-soaked pancakes. To make up for not using syrup, Max always puts about half the food in the kitchen into his pancakes, and the result is actually extremely delicious, although it tends to look like cat throw-up that's been put in a blender and then burned.
Zack followed my lead and stumbled blearily downstairs a few minutes later, Grassy clutched under one arm and a blanket trailing behind him. Unlike me at that age, Zack didn't have a security blanket, but he did love the feel of all his blankets, and so came out nearly every morning rubbing one against his face in a comforting gesture. He does it with clothes a lot, too. I'm already pretty sure that he's a tactile learner, he seems to understand things he can actually touch a lot faster than things he's told. Which was a little saddening, because I was the same way and it had caused me no end of trouble, especially in science classes where I was called upon constantly to try and imagine complex theories without having anything concrete to do with it. Complete pain in the ass, and something that Max had never quite understood because he's great at visualizing concepts.
I made faces at Zack over our food, and then started blowing bubbles in my milk (yes, I use a straw to drink out of; I tend to spill open-mouthed cups all over myself when trying to drink out of them). He found this incredibly amusing and nearly fell out of his chair laughing. Max gave me a highly disapproving look that was marred by the grin that followed directly on its heels, and I felt smugly satisfied. Things were going my way for once. The headache that was my job was about to be gone, my son was in hysterics, Max was looking at me fondly... yes, yes indeed, life was good.
I should've known better, really I should have. I knew better than to tempt fate like that.