The trip to my work – former work, anyway – was easy. Captain Robinson really didn't like me, me being hit by a car notwithstanding, so he didn't question my resignation, and instead lapped it up like a cat would lap up cream. I supposed. I'd never actually seen a cat eat cream before; most of the ones I knew didn't even like plain milk. But then, the most prolific cat in the neighborhood was a tom named Sprite due to his fondness for the soda, and most of the kittens the past ten years were related to him, so normal habits were not to be expected.
Ethan seemed completely shocked by my choice, the simple boy, but Rivera and Adessi just showed a knowing look. I bid them adieu (calling them mom and pop, because they always act like they're our parents – it was like I was the oldest boy, going off to college, but my younger brother Ethan was still at home), and did a quick run down to forensics (not an actual run; I, unlike Rivera, was smart and used the miraculous new invention called an elevator). I had brought Zack in with me, mostly because it would keep the captain from being too mean to me if I had a toddler along (yes, I will willing use my child as a shield from verbal abuse from former bosses, I saw no shame in that). To my shock and surprise, Tommy and the others started fawning over Zack, and I was lucky to get out of there without my son wearing duct-taped glasses and a pocket protector. Although I did receive numerous offers of microscopes and children's chemistry sets, even after I told them I was quitting (that news, by the way, got all the reaction of “I knew you had a brain!”, and then a couple of them started singing songs from the Wizard of Oz, and I got the hell out of there). Tommy actually decided that this move made me intelligent enough to join their weekly movie club, where they screen various terrible science fiction movies and mock them incessantly. I promised to go the moment I was released from house arrest by Max (which made them make various noises that I guess they thought what a whip sounded like).
We went back to the truck that Max was so thoughtfully driving, and I noticed that his eyes kept on me the second I exited the building, looking a bit nervous that I'd get run over again. I was partially touched, partially exasperated. I may piss people off constantly, but I can usually tell which ones to avoid pissing off to the point of homicidal impulses. Well, usually. I buckled Zack in and handed him both Grassy and his book (not Charlotte's Web; while it was a good book to read to a smart three year old, it wasn't usually recommended for three year olds to actually read on their own. Instead I had given him a Dr. Seuss book, despite my extreme hatred of all things Dr. Seuss related. I figure it's a thing all kids need to have in their childhoods, whatever their parents's weird hang-ups – and I wasn't stupid, I knew it was weird.
Then it was off to the museum. I had been a little uncertain about it, mostly because the main attraction was a hall of animals, all real skins that were stuffed, and I didn't want Zack to freak out over the dead animals. Max had convinced me that three year olds weren't going to freak out over that, but I still thought I'd prepare him.
“Zacky, at the museum they've got this area for stuffed animals,” I started. I felt him start to bounce in his seat and kick the back of my seat a little. “They look real, but they're not really real,” I told him, hoping he'd understand.
There was quiet from the backseat for a little, although the kicking was still going on, and then Zack spoke, in his tiny little soft voice. “Tho they don't have be fed?” he asked.
I was a little surprised. “Exactly, you don't have ta feed stuffed animals, do ya?” I twisted in my seat to look at him and caught the satisfied little smile on his face.
He loved the museum, especially since we had the bright idea of showing him the rest of the place before the hall of animals. Once we got to the animals, he zoomed over and focused in entirely on a sheep. A freaking sheep. “Baa!” he pronounced happily.
Well, I couldn't exactly correct him. I had called chocolate milk 'cocoa moo' until I was seven, and I still had problems pronouncing the 'l' in applesauce and apple juice (apple was fine, because I hadn't ever really asked for a whole apple when I was a kid, so I hadn't gotten into my habit of lisping over the 'l').
Because of the time of day, the museum was full of little kids and their moms. Me and Max got more than one sideways look from the moms – two guys and a kid, yeah, it looked a little weird (not as weird as I'd like it to look – and shut up, brain!), and a couple of grins (and a few disgusted looks, but there were less of those than the grins, so I felt things balanced out in our favor; and no, I didn't know how something that was balanced could be in favor of something, but it so could). Some of the looks were probably because I was still bruised and cut up from the car “accident” - which brought to mind the question, could it be called an accident if the person responsible did it on purpose? No matter. Zack made insta-friends with a little girl around his age that was just as enthralled with the sheep as he was, and the instantly fell into talking all about everything to do with sheep and sheep-like products, and then moving on to other fuzzy farm animals. Zack was in the middle of a lecture on the eating habits of the alpaca (where the hell he had picked that up from, I had no idea) when the mother of the little girl sidled over to where me and Max were holding a staring contest with a lynx. Yes, a stuffed lynx. It's a tradition, you don't question traditions!
“That your boy?” she asked, jerking her head at Zack. I nodded slowly and suspiciously. “He's, what, three?” Another slow and suspicious nod. “You should see about getting him in a gifted and talented program,” she said, giving me one of those bizarre 'We've both got smart kids, it's like we're related!' grins that I'd always seen parents give each other but had never realized how weird it would be to be on the receiving end of one such look. “Ashleigh's in the Brentwood program, very exclusive.” She bragged, and I made up my mind right then and there that Zack was so getting into that program, because he was at least twice as smart as little Ashleigh (and yes, I'm certain of the spelling; the way the mother pronounced it made it clear that it ended in 'leigh' instead of the more common and sensible 'ley').
Max saw the look on my face and groaned under his breath before grabbing me by the arm and hauling me away from the woman before I got into a hair-pulling hissy fit with her. You know, I had figured out that I was at least bisexual, if not completely gay, and already I was fulfilling every single damn gay stereotype that existed in Hollywood's collective mind. Smooth one, jackass.
We didn't manage to get out of there for over five hours (weren't little kids supposed to short attention spans? I was already dreading the idea of going to the zoo), and when we finally left the museum, we ran smack into a fight around the side of the building. It was some sort of school group that had managed to slip their chaperon, by all appearances. My finely tuned detective instincts told me that it was definitely an alternative school group, as normal high schools don't tend to let the delinquents (and, for that matter, at normal schools the delinquents don't want to) go on field trips. It was two girls doing the fighting, and they were well into the hair-yanking stage when we appeared. The other students could be classified into three groups easily: there were two girls that looked to be the youngest, and were definitely the softest, who stood huddled together looking nervous; there was the group that the girls themselves appeared to belong to, the hard-ass, trouble with the law, doing drugs type, who were all oddly enough trying to separate the girls and calm them down; and finally, there was a couple off to one side that could be summed up with the statement 'geek', and they were egging the girls on. Like, actually cheering them on and calling out suggestions for moves. The thugs didn't seem to appreciate it, but the geeks didn't seem to care what the thugs thought. And when I say geek, I really do mean it. The guy was dressed in a trench coat and fedora, with a Hawaiian shirt underneath; the girl had on a neatly pressed rugby shirt and tan corduroys. It was a little bit on the odd side, but I didn't contemplate it for too long. After all, I was a responsible adult – or, well, an adult, at the very least – so my duty was to break up the cat fight.
“Children, children, please, is this any place to give each other impromptu haircuts? And by the roots, how barbaric.” Yes, that really was me speaking, all proper-like. I went to college, I am able to talk like a real person. I'm just lazy and it takes too much effort to do on a regular basis, so I don't usually bother.
Both girls decided to ignore each other in favor of turning on me with twin snarls. Kids these days. They stopped it when they caught sight of Max behind me, though. Which makes sense. I mean, I'm a scrawny little blond who looks like he's already been run over by a steam roller, and Max looks like a guy who just got out of prison. Possibly because he had just gotten out of prison. Funny how that works.
There was a shout from the exit we had just left, and I turned to see their erstwhile chaperon racing towards the group. Well, more like hobbling, as she was all of five feet tall and at least seven months pregnant. I took this as our cue, and me and the family finally made it out of the museum.
After all of that drama, we all (okay, mostly me and Max since three years old is a little young for cooking unless you're Matilda) decided that we were far too exhausted to bother either cooking or ordering out (picking up a phone and dialing? Such a hassle), so we stopped at a little diner on the way home. It was one of those places that had been around not only as long as you could remember, but also as long as your parents could remember, and always with the same staff, always including a waitress named Rosie whose brood of children half live there. Zack was really too worn out to try and play with Rosie's kids, but you could tell he wanted to. I made a mental note to come by the diner more often. I wouldn't mind, Rosie was a complete sweetheart and the food was delicious. I don't get rich people's food, it's all overly complicated and tastes bad and tends to make me sick. Give me a simple sandwich with a pickle, and I'm fine and dandy. I still say that the single best taste I'd ever had was just warm bread with butter spread on it. Simple, but oh so delicious.
I got the pot roast sandwich – look, it's totally and completely delicious, I'm not going to lie. Zack went for the safer choice of peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and Max chose a salad. I gave him an incredulous look, but he completely ignored it. By the time we were halfway through the food and Zack's eyes were drooping, I had regained my energy and was starting to bounce in my seat a little. Hey, Zack had to get it somewhere, and I can assure you that Erin? Not a bouncer. Well, maybe, in the way bouncer refers to nightclubs. But the way that refers to liking and being prone to bouncing? Not her. Soooo not her.
Zack fell asleep in his car seat, despite my choosing to blast the music and hollering along to it (the ability to sleep through anything, that had to be his mother's genes). “Steady as she goes!” I hollered out on something vaguely resembling tune, at least in my warped little mind. I then hollered out what I thought were the words to the rest of the song, but probably (actually, almost certainly) weren't. Max smirked at me and switched CDs (one of my reasons for getting the truck was the multiple CD option; I like my music, okay?).
Max purposefully skipped to a track and then fast-forwarded through a bit of the song, and I knew where he was going. Sure enough... “Looking lost, then he wanders off/ And tries to sing along to some song/He's never heard but just keeps mouthing all the words!” I leaned over and smacked him – not too hard, he was the driver, after all.
“You are a terrible human being,” I remarked to him, which he just answered with a grin. Max knows that's the way I show affection and appreciate wit, by calling others terrible human beings. It's just a quirk I have, like people who fold their pizza slices in half (which, okay, I also do – it forces all the grease to the center, and if you hold it right, to the back, where the crust soaks it up, which then gives the crust flavor when you get around to eating it).
I hadn't yet forgotten about the Brentwood program. In fact, the idea of out-snobbing that woman at the museum took such a strong hold over my brain that I actually braved the new, scary frontier known as 'the intarwebz' to find information on it when we finally got home. Max gave me a humoring smile and went to bed himself (and I ignored the stupid part of me that wanted to make some really retarded pick-up line that had gotten me smacked more than once in high school. And college. And a few months ago).
It turned out to be much as the lady had implied, a day-care and after school program for highly gifted children ages three to thirteen. And, luck of all lucks, there was actually an open house just a few weeks off! Actually, more like a month and a few weeks off, I've always had problems reading calendars. They've got too many numbers, and stuff. I dunno. I'm just special that way. I carefully, professionally marked the day down in my little appointment book, acting like a grown-up or something. It was a little on the scary side.
The next morning, I awoke to find that I had overslept, and Max and Zack were both gone, leaving a Tupperware container of pancakes and a note. It was all quite strange and domestic, so I decided to take a shower after wolfing down the cold pancakes in a manner similar to that of a starving dog.
When I got out of the shower, I heard the phone ringing rather urgently, so I put off drying myself with a towel or getting dressed and instead just raced for the phone that was in my bedroom, on the dresser (my 'bedside table', as such, was actually just a stack of books about knee-high that I'd discarded into a pile after reading while in bed). “Gallow,” I snapped into the phone, still stuck in the mindset of my old job, where long words like 'Galloway' got shortened to two syllables or less. Hey, I'd only not been a cop for a day at this point, it was going to take far longer than that to break me of my habits.
“Is this Ryan Galloway?”
The voice was calm, professional, and cold as fucking ice. Yeah, it was definitely a nurse. “Yeah, this is him.”
“You're listed as the emergency contact for one Maxwell Garcia, is this correct?” the prim voice asked. She may have said more, but I was too busy trying not to pass out. Shit. A nurse was calling about Max. Max was in the hospital. Or – or worse. I wasn't entirely sure I was breathing any more. “Sir?”
“Y-yeah. Yeah, I'm his contact.” Thank you police training, for without you I'd probably be passed out on the floor right now. And/or hyperventilating. Maybe both at the same time, I was talented like that.
“There was an explosion at his place of work, he's currently in the intensive care unit here at Saint Dennis's. I'm sorry to tell you this, but he's in critical condition.” The voice was still cold, but there was something that was possibly trying at sympathy in her tones. If I was not so much in shock, I'd probably appreciate it – well, no, if I was not in a shock and was a different person, I'd appreciate it. But I was in shock, and I was Ryan Galloway, goddamn it.
“I, uh... thanks for calling.” She may have said something, but I didn't hear it. Instead I hung up the phone and just let it drop onto the bed. Shit. Max? In ICU? And an explosion? Someone blew up the public defender's office, that would be on the news, right? I turned my glazed eyes to the remote lying on my bedside table-books. But no, I didn't really want to see the charred remains of Max's co-workers, and possibly parts of him. Oh God. I surged to my feet and barely made it back into the bathroom before emptying my stomach. Ryan Galloway doesn't throw up, except when his best friend (who he's quite likely in love with) is in the intensive care wing of the hospital. I rested up against the wall in between the tub and the toilet, trying to calm myself at least enough to be able to get dressed and drive to the hospital. It didn't work so well. I did manage to calm myself enough to make it back to the phone, which I picked up and then shakily dialed the my parents's number on.
“Mom?” I asked weakly, half-sobbing.
“Ryan, what's wrong?” my mother instantly demanded.
“It's... Max, he's in the- his work got blown up, and he's in the hospital, Mom,” I said, barely managing not to call her mommy.
“Oh my God,” my mom whispered, before going into full-on Mom Mode. “I'll watch Zack, he's still got a lot of his clothes over here from before. You go to the hospital.” I knew she'd always thought of Max as one of her own kids, especially since Max's home life was not exactly ideal (there was a reason, after all, that he'd run away from home; I had merely followed him because I wasn't going to let my best friend live on the streets by himself).
“Thanks, Mom,” I said, already calmed down just by her voice. It was going to be all right, I mean, I'd come out of my coma, right? And people have died from being hit by a car going less than twenty miles an hour, and less people died from explosions than car accidents, right? Of course. Of course. Fuck, it's bad when I can't even believe myself.
Believing myself or not, I managed to make it to the dresser and pull out some clothing – I picked easy to put on clothes, only subconsciously choosing those with a connection to Max. Or so I'd like to think. But when I glanced through my shirts and saw that all I had clean was dress shirts, I didn't even think about it before I went into Max's room and grabbed one of his shirts. It smelled like Max, the whole room did. I glanced at the picture frame on his bedside table (he actually had a real bedside table, not a stack of books) and nearly lost it again. It was a picture from eighth grade, the family Christmas photo (of course, Max was part of said family). There were ten people in the picture – both of my parents, who were already pretty old at that point; Will and his wife, and their eldest (and at that time, only), Terri, who was all of five years old at the time; Pat and his wife, and their son Tyler, who was two; and then me and Max, our arms around each others's shoulders and mischievous grins on our faces.
But what really made me want to lose it was a picture that was tucked into the corner of the frame. It was of me and Zack, Zack's face completely smeared with pizza sauce and me making a face at him. God damn. For the first time, I thought of Zack – he was going to be seriously fucked up as an adult, with one parental figure just practically abandoning him, and then the next two parental figures switching on and off in the hospital. But as if to prove that I'm not that a good a father, I quickly forgot about his mental state and went back to worrying about Max.
I put together a quick bag with a change of clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, and some books. Max hadn't left me more than he'd had to when I was in my coma, I wasn't going to leave him either. Besides, I didn't exactly trust myself to drive back to the house or anything like that.
To further help this, I reached for the phone to call up a taxi rather than drive myself. I gave a momentary thought to calling Tina and asking her to drive me, but the poor girl had enough to deal with – my coma hadn't exactly helped her grades, especially since she believed that I had pushed her out of the way, sacrificed myself for her. Oh, poor naïve child. But right as I was about to pick up the phone again, it rang shrilly. I blinked at it. Whoa, psychic taxi companies?
“Ryan,” I answered the phone.
“Ryan?” I resisted rolling my eyes – hadn't I just said that? – because hey, it was my brother, and the one that was actually like a brother to me and not an uncle (that is to say, Pat, not Will). “Mom called me about Max. I'll take you to the hospital, alright?” His voice didn't exactly give me options, so I just acquiesced. I liked my brother, I really did, and I think I'd like the moral support of him driving me, even if he didn't stay at the hospital.
While I waited for Pat, boots on my nervously tapping feet and bag right next to them, my gaze kept sliding over to the remote. I finally gave up my inner struggle (I may be stubborn as hell with other people, but I'm a push-over when it comes to myself) and grabbed it, turning to one of the local stations that doesn't seem to play anything but news and soap operas. And sure enough, the explosion had made the news.
It turned out that the hospital's information was a little bit off – it wasn't the public defender's office that got blow up, it was one of the local courts. Whether this made it better or worse, I didn't know. It at least made more sense.
There had been a high-powered explosive stored in one of the bathrooms, the report said. They were still uncertain as to how it had been sneaked past security, although the leading theory was that it had been taken in in pieces that would look perfectly innocent by themselves, but when assembled made the bomb. There were twelve dead at current count, and at least twenty had been taken to the hospital in serious condition.
I was so focused on the news report that I actually didn't notice when my brother arrived. I didn't become aware of him until he put his hand on my shoulder softly and took the remote from my unresisting hand to switch the television set off.
I followed him, sort of in a daze. Most of my brain was sort of numbed, I guessed as a defense mechanism, but the part of my brain that wasn't, was busy working on a sort of a plan, I think. Or it was thinking, at the very least. I could already tell I wasn't going to be as faithful as Max, staying by his bedside until he woke up. I was going to find the bastard responsible for this, and quite probably kill him.
“Are cookies baked good, or is goodness thrust upon them?” Max's voice made it sound like the question was dead serious, but the grin on his face kind of ruined the effect.
I burst out laughing, probably a little more than the question deserved, but I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before, and things are always funnier when you've had no sleep and have had tons of sugar.
We were at Max's house for once, celebrating the end of the eighth grade school year like the teenagers we were – that is, by baking cookies and eating far too much raw cookie dough to be healthy. I never said we were normal teenagers. We were both absolutely covered in a fine layer of flour from when we'd tried to open the bag and it had exploded a little.
Suddenly, the front door slammed open. Max froze in the middle of mixing a new batch, and there was pure fear on his face. Max was never afraid. We watch the scariest scary movies, and go to the worst haunted houses, and he just laughs. We get sent to the principal's office or the police question us, and he just puts up the perfect innocent little good boy act. Maxwell Garcia doesn't scare, it was a fact of life like the sky's blue and water's wet. But he was scared, and I suddenly became less certain that the next time I touched water, it wouldn't feel dry like sand.
Heavy footsteps thudded over from the door towards the kitchen where we were standing. I gave Max an uncertain look, but he was completely frozen in place.
“What the fuck is going on in here?” The voice was harsh and more than a little drunk, and definitely that of an adult male. I shot Max a confused and surprised look – by this time, I knew that at least part of the reason for the move back when he was five was that his father had died. Then, of course, my mind kicked into gear, and I realized that this must be his oldest brother, Vincent (Max had six siblings, all of them older than him). “You're fucking cleaning this up, boy,” Vincent snapped at him, and I got the clear impression that if I hadn't been there, a lot more would be happening.
Sometimes, I can be really slow on the uptake. It wasn't until then, that day we'd graduated from eighth grade, that I put two and two together and didn't get fish. All the bruises Max had constantly, the way he was never at his home and was always at ours, why I hadn't ever seen any of his family other than Lizzie, who was just a bit older than us... I wasn't stupid, I knew that abuse happened, I even knew that it probably happened to kids at my school. But I had never put it together with Max.
We quietly finished up the cookies and then I helped Max clean up the kitchen until it was cleaner than it had been before we started. Then I went home, although I didn't really want to, because I weighed all of a hundred and thirty pounds soaking wet, what was I going to be able to do? The next morning, I awoke to find Max in my room, heavy coat on and bag over one shoulder, face still shiny from fresh bruises and cuts.
“I'm running away.” He said it all calm and dead fucking serious. I ignored what he said at first in favor of making him sit down while I cleaned him up and bandaged him, but after that it became a little hard to ignore the serious and determined look on his face.
“I'm coming with you,” I decided, saying it firmly. He opened his mouth, surprised, to argue, but I shut him up with a glower. I quickly packed my own bag, and wrote a short note to my parents, along the lines of 'it's not your fault, you're great, but I gotta go'. And then we left, out the same window and down the same tree that Max had come just an hour before.
Max looked far worse than I had, lying in his hospital bed. He wasn't very burned – the doctors told me that he wasn't touched very much by the initial explosion, but by the shrapnel that the bomb had created. I hadn't been able to see him for a few hours after I'd arrived at the hospital, because he was in surgery. Instead, I got to fill out paperwork on him and answer questions about his medical history. Which had given me a rather horrifying picture, as the doctor listed the numerous childhood injuries that Max had suffered – sure, the list was about as long as mine was, but I was clumsy. Max was about as far from clumsy as a person could get. And then the more recent injuries. He hadn't told me that he'd been stabbed, and stabbed five separate times, while he was in prison. And poisoned? He'd been poisoned while in prison? Why hadn't he told me?
By the time I was let in to see him, I had worked myself into such a state that it was a good thing I hadn't eaten anything since the pancakes that I had thrown up after the initial call, because I would have had to throw up again. Hell, even without anything in my stomach I had to run to the bathroom a few times to throw up air.
I was at his bedside for only two hours when I couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't just sit there while the bomber was off partying or what-the-fuck-ever he was doing. The doctors couldn't tell me when, if ever, Max would wake up, so I gave them my cell number with terse instructions to call me the exact second he woke up, or else, and then I left the hospital. I had forgotten, momentarily, that I hadn't driven there, which caused my powerful, determined stride to falter momentarily before deciding that the bus system could get me where I needed to go quite easily.
Why did I think that it was all up to me, that the cops wouldn't be able to find the bomber? Well, I'm an arrogant son of a bitch, that's why. Also, I didn't have to go through official channels anymore. And for a third reason, there was a guy out there who sort of owed me a favor.
I was just in time to catch the 37 bus, which ran almost directly to Dante's from the hospital, with only a handful of stops in between the two key locations of the city's Irish mob.
Dante's was busy, especially for early afternoon. Sure, the Irish drink, but we're not usually that bad. (Which reminds me of a joke: okay, so, an Irish guy walks out of a bar. Haha, you get it?) The TVs were all set to the news instead of sports or music videos, and everyone seemed to be talking about the explosion. Which wasn't surprising, things had been pretty quiet in the not-quite a year since our little serial killer had been caught, and people missed having a large death count to chat about. (I wondered, momentarily, if they were going to call in CIA Special Agent Benjamin Grant for this one too, and if they were, if I would be allowed to shoot him multiple times to get some of my aggression out. Probably not, I decided sadly, before dropping that train of thought.)
I didn't bother with pleasantries or fake stupidity, and just strode across the length of the bar until I was standing directly in front of Irish Saunders. His cronies seemed to be darkly amused by the sheer cheek of me, but Irish knew who I was (and he should; we'd known each other even longer than Max and I had, although we weren't anything resembling close, despite the many Halloweens I had spent following after him and my brother and their other friends as they did various highly illegal things).
“Who?” I demanded of him, not needing to clarify the question.
He gave me a lazy smile. “Why d'you think I would tell you, just because you demand it?”
“You owe me, Saunders,” I snapped. “Your dumbass of a brother tried to fucking kill me, you owe me.” To punctuate the sentence, I pointed stiffly at my face, which still bore the numerous bruises and cuts that comes from being run over.
From the smirk on his face, I knew that he had remembered that, he just wanted it verbally acknowledged so I couldn't use that debt later on, but I didn't care. What the hell else was I going to use it for? I doubted there was going to be a more important case to me in my lifetime, unless at some point in the future Max or Zack was murdered, and then I didn't think I'd even bother with needing an excuse for the information, I'd just demand it at gunpoint.
“You didn't hear it from me,” he started, which yeah, right. Everyone in the damn bar was watching us and listening to us at this point, and him saying that just made it more likely to be spread all over the damn city within an hour that yes, he had been the one to tell me. “But some of my sources indicate that, well... Chad Wyatt is possibly involved.” His sharp eyes were watching every twitch of my face, so I carefully kept it blank. It actually wasn't too difficult, because my emotions all just went cold and hard when I heard the name. Because Chad Wyatt didn't have a personality of his own, everything he did was just what my uncle told him to. This, a part of me decided, was my punishment for not going after them when I'd first gotten out of my coma and knew they were responsible for Officer Kristofferson's death. If I had done that, then Max wouldn't be in the hospital, barely hanging on to life.
My uncle's house was, well, actually more of a mansion. He had run the mayor's office out of it for the last eight years, although current poll projections said that he wasn't going to win the upcoming election, losing to newcomer Bill Lucas, who was the head of the court system in the city. It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who had motive to make the courts seem unsafe, understaffed, and unprotected, but I knew that the police would overlook that because the mayor? So above reproach.
I checked to make sure I had my gun – I had, obviously, handed in my duty gun when I'd resigned the previous day, but every cop in existence (just about) had a back-up gun that wasn't from the department. I didn't, because who thinks to pack a gun when they're going to visit their friend in the hospital? Well, probably a lot of people, but I hadn't. So I took the bus back to my house, which the part of my brain that wasn't cold and focused on revenge noted seemed empty and creepy without Max and Zack there, even though neither of them had been living there a super long time. It's weird how quick you get used to things, even start expecting them.
While I was at my house, checking and loading my gun, I paused and started thinking: what the fuck was I expecting to do? Just walk up and shoot my uncle? How the hell was that going to work, and work without me being thrown in prison for the rest of my life? Which, being a former cop, wouldn't be too very long if I was behind bars.
So I added a camera and recorder to my arsenal, grabbed my cell phone and keys, and then I was out of there and headed to my uncle's mansion-house.
When I got there, I was faced with a new decision: do I just walk up all normal, pretend I'm coming for a visit, or do I sneak in and hope not to be noticed? Decisions, decisions... I went with the sneaky option, despite knowing how good the security at the estate was, because I might be able to get a look at some of his papers that way. If I went in normal, I'd be watched from the second I opened the door (plus, it would look highly suspicious; I don't exactly come by and visit very often).
I had, however, visited enough in the past that I knew all the secret passages and entrances in the house. It was an old house, very old, older than the city itself was, technically, according to legal documents. This age mostly meant that there was a whole separate house within the house that was never used anymore, having been previously used for the servants to get around without the owners having to see them. There was even a servant's exit to the garden, hidden by large bushes and trees.
That was my point of entry, because I knew they didn't bother with cameras and the like at the gardens, at least partly because that was where my uncle always went for a walk when he was with his business associates.
I lifted myself up to peer into the garden, thanking my ancestors for making the garden fence out of stone. After making pretty certain that there was no one in there, I hauled myself up and over the stone barrier and landed rather awkwardly a bunch of roses. Which, in case you were wondering, really fucking hurts, especially when they're digging into your chest next to your still slightly broken ribs. I managed, just barely and through a combination of extreme willpower and hard biting of my tongue, not to curse loudly at the top of my lungs. Given the pain, it was entirely likely I would have started cursing in Welsh, and that never ends well, since I don't actually speak Welsh. And, coincidentally enough, that's the language my uncle trained his dogs in.
“Rah rah ree, kick 'em in the knee. Rah rah raz, kick 'em in the other knee,” I muttered to myself as I moved through the garden – mostly to keep myself from humming a James Bond tune. Look, my good sense and conscience, as small and neglected as they normally were, were now locked up in a tiny little box shoved somewhere under my pancreas (no, I don't know why my pancreas, it just sounded good at the time). It was only luck keeping me from storming into the place with gun drawn and demanding my uncle confess to everything illegal he'd ever done, from spitting on the side walk (yes, it is technically against the law and can give you a fifty dollar fine, and dueling is a traffic offense. The law's not supposed to make sense) all the way up to blowing up Max (if I were a less self-centered person, I'd say blowing up the courts and killing twelve people, but I am self-centered. I would've cared, sure, but I doubt to these extremes unless one of the injured was Max).
Why I chose to use the old saying I used at all of Max's games back in school to keep myself from humming, I couldn't tell you.
Much as I had expected, the ground in front of the old servant's door showed signs of not having been disturbed since me and my cousin Bradley were kids playing hide-and-go-seek on one of the fancy Christmas parties my uncle held every year and Mom always insisted we go to, even though it was always just full of stuffy politicians who wanted to talk politics instead of singing Christmas carols or watching Christmas specials on TV. I always felt a bit sorry for Brad, who is only three years younger than me, having to live in this big house with no one at all to play with – there weren't very many other houses in the area, and absolutely no other children when we were growing up, so he couldn't even force neighborhood kids to play with him like I had before Max moved in – surrounded by politics every single day of his life. He actually grew up pretty normal, if a bit too polite. I like to think it was my influences.
One problem with no one using the door that I hadn't considered before was that it made the door damn hard to open. “Fuck,” I muttered under my breath, trying to brace my bruised body in a way that would make it possible to force the door open.
“Ryan?” Speak of the devil. You know that the second part of that saying is actually 'and he will appear'? Yeah, no one ever knows that, just like everyone forgets that the second part to 'curiosity killed the cat' is 'and satisfaction brought it back'. This has been Random Trivia With Ryan Galloway, tune in next week for more of the same! Unless I'm, you know, dead. Yes, it was my erstwhile cousin, Bradley Benjamin Olivier, aged twenty-seven and three months. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to break into your house,” I said bluntly. And, well, why not?
There was a pause from my cousin, although I still didn't give into the urge to turn around and look at him, instead concentrating on the door. Then, “Uh, why?”
I gave up on the door and turned to him. “Because I have every reason to believe that your dad is responsible for blowing up my best friend,” I snapped at him.
His eyes went wide, and a little calculating. “The court?” he asked. I nodded. “What makes you think that?” Some people may find it odd that he didn't bother protesting his father's innocence, but they hadn't grown up with Charles Olivier as their dad or uncle. Possibly the only people in the family who would argue would be Aunt Mary and Mom, and that's more because they feel it's their duty to believe in him, not because they actually do.
“Because I usually trust the word of Irish Saunders,” I replied.
Now, Brad grew up in the same city as me, albeit in a vastly different neighborhood. He knew who Irish Saunders was, which explained the shocked look on his face. “Since when do you hang out with Irish and his gang?” Brad asked me, a little apprehension in his tone like he was waiting for me to confess I was a dirty cop in the pocket of our city's sorry excuse for an Irish Mafia.
“His brother put me in a week-long coma, he owed me some information,” I told him shortly. “Now, are you going to help me with this fucking door or should I knock you out and use you as a ram to knock it down?”
He hurriedly came over and opened it easily. Either I had loosened it up for him, or I was a complete wimp. My money was on the second possibility, or would have been if I was actually into betting. But much like poker, any act of betting is far too complex for my simple mind to comprehend. Except slot machines, I fucking rule at those. I pushed past him into the tiny, cramped, and completely cobwebbed space. Oh, gross. I always forget about cobwebs – and, as I started coughing up both of my lungs as quietly as I could, the dust too.
“You guys should really hire a maid or something,” I muttered at my cousin as I made my way down the corridor and cursed myself for not bringing either a flashlight or a dust mask.
“Yeah, because that would so help with you wanting to sneak into the house,” Brad muttered under his breath. I was proud, and a bit surprised by this sudden show of a backbone by my normally pushover cousin. “That way,” he added as I started to make a left turn. Oh, right. Well, in my defense, it's not like it was my house.
We walked – alright, stumbled, really, but I'm on a mission of vengeance, I feel like I ought to be able to not sound like a dumbass – for a while in silence, making enough turns and going up and down enough stairs that I could've sworn that we were in the damn Ukraine, or possibly exactly where we'd started from. Same difference, I'm sure, before we finally reached my uncle's office. Well, not actually his office, which was a good thing as with my luck the exit would have a bookcase in front of it that I would knock over with a loud crash bringing everyone in the house running. No, the exit was actually hidden in a crook of the hallway, right next to his office.
I glanced at Brad, who seemed to understand what my eyes were asking. “He's out, press conference about the bombing.” I nodded, and pushed open the door to the mayor's office.
I don't know what I was expecting – possibly a giant white board with 'MY PLAN TO RULE THE WORLD' written at the top with a couple of charts and pie graphs below it – but it was just a normal, orderly office. I actually stood in the doorway and pouted for a moment over the extreme un-dramatic-ness of it all before Brad pushed me out of the way so he could get into the office and shut the door behind him. This knocked me out of my action movie loving introspection and I headed for the desk. Desks were where people kept paper. Paper is what notes were written on. Notes were what could have incriminating information contained within. My logic was supreme.
It would have been more supreme if my uncle didn't have a computer in the corner of the room with every sign of heavy usage. This was what Brad moved towards and sat himself in front of it, fingers flying across the boxy thing with squares representing the alphabet – hey, I didn't work with Rivera anymore, so why should I follow her supreme edicts in regards to technology terminology? Which, by the way, is a fun phrase. Everything that rhymes is quite fun, I've found after years and years of painstaking research in the field of fun phrases.
There was nothing in the desk. I mean, there was stuff in the desk, alright, and there was possibly even something hidden in the financial records that would implicate him as funding Argentinian terrorists and organized crime, but all the columns of numbers and stuff just made me go cross-eyed so I tossed it to one side and continued my search.
“Hey, Ryan, I managed to break into his email account!” Brad called from over at the computer. I zoomed over there and hovered directly behind him, looking over his shoulder to scan the outgoing emails list. Brad turned out to be one of those guys that doesn't like for people to read over his shoulder, so he moved out of the way and let me take over on the computer while he finished my search of the rest of the place.
There were all of the typical emails – some to family, some to friends, but nearly all to other politicians. Working on a hunch I had, a hunch that told me that my uncle had little to no contact with the actual do-ers of the crimes, just hired them through Wyatt, I shortened the list to emails to and from Chad Wyatt. It took me a while, but I soon had a handful of highly suspicious emails open and ready to be sent to authorities. As soon as I could figure out how to do that with my uncle's weird-ass mail program. I frowned at it for a few long minutes before finally figuring it out. There was some weird crunching noises behind me and what I thought might've been an exclamation of surprise from my cousin, but I was too excited about having finally figured out where the goddamn forward button was on the stupid program to turn around and look.
And it was good that I hadn't, because the exact second I clicked 'send' – no kidding, the exact fucking second, of all the times for my life to suddenly start acting like a movie, it had to be this one – the door to the office banged open and, yes, my uncle strode in, followed by his little toady Chad Wyatt.
Everyone sort of froze for a split second, me with my hands on the keyboard, dressed in my “burglar clothes” (all black, and nothing flappy; the last time I had purposefully dressed up like this was when me and Max had randomly decided to try our hands at graffiti – this was before the city made it illegal to buy spray paint under the age of eighteen), guilty look on my face. It didn't take a genius to figure it all out, and even my uncle and Wyatt were able to put it together given a few seconds.
Wyatt shut the door behind them and my uncle pulled out a gun – which I totally didn't think he had a permit to carry concealed, and also was thinking that if he didn't, it didn't really much matter at this point.
“So, here we are,” I said, going for nonchalant and falling somewhere around constipated, as I admired the shiny barrel of the gun and noted that my cousin had totally disappeared from the room. Maybe he had super powers, and could turn invisible. It might be worth investigating, if I actually survived long enough for that to be a viable option. Which currently? The odds were not looking good. Not that I knew anything about odds, I had been a damn sociology major and a classics minor, do you know how many math classes are involved in that? Like, none. In case you were wondering, I tend to thought-babble when I'm panicking, at least for the times when I'm not hyperventilating instead.
“I must say, Ryan, I'm a little disappointed in you,” my uncle said, voice all condescending. Boy, if he weren't holding me at gunpoint and about to shoot me, I'd sure be pissed about that tone. As it was, I thought I could stick with just being pissed about my imminent death. “I didn't think my own flesh and blood would be one of the opponents to my re-election.” Yeah, the guy was definitely nuts. How had my family not realized this, over all these years? Denial is truly not just a river in Egypt. Actually, it wasn't a river in Egypt at all. I never got that saying. Like that joke, what's black and white and red all over? The answer can only be a newspaper if someone spilled red paint or blood on the newspaper! Stupid people. I really needed to learn to control this thought-babble problem I have, or it was going to get me killed. Hah, I still crack me up!
“So that's why you decided to make the court into a fireball?” I asked, making sure my tone was bordering on impudence. I knew from experience that that is something he absolutely can not stand. “Or were the court officers after your lucky charms and you had to get rid of them?” The other thing he hates is for people to comment on his shortness and flaming orange hair (well, previously flaming orange; it had been gray for years upon years now).
His face crumpled into pure anger and he cocked the gun. Now, I'd never seen my uncle at a firing range, but I wasn't willing to bet that he'd be able to miss shooting me from a few feet's distance. I wasn't ever that lucky. Now, I might be lucky enough that he wouldn't make an immediately fatal shot, but not make it at all? Nope, not happening. “I must say, though,” my uncle continued through gritted teeth, pretending not to have heard my comments, “This is quite fortuitous for me. My darling little nephew, going missing just weeks before the election? And then his dead body showing up on the outskirts of the city just before. Why, I'll be heartbroken. The voters love that.” He smirked at me suddenly. “Goodbye, Ryan.”
As has been established, I am a self-centered whiny little wimp, so I closed my eyes and cringed away from my imminent death instead of facing it down like a man. But when the gun went off and the room echoed with the sound of it and the sharp rotten smell of sulfur, and I was unharmed, I cautiously opened an eyelid.
To find my cousin standing in front of what was, it seemed, a rotating bookcase, holding a smoking gun (oh the cliches, my brain moaned at me) in his shaking hands. My uncle was on the ground, not dead but definitely down for the count, and Wyatt was just staring, stunned, at Brad. I took advantage of his distraction to tackle him to the floor and handcuff him quickly (the department, in its infinite wisdom, makes all cops buy their own sets of handcuffs, meaning we get to hold onto them after leaving the force) before doing an abbreviated version of the typical high-risk search (the non-high risk searches are all done with the suspect actually standing, hence the high-risk part of the statement). Sticking him in a corner where he couldn't grab a hold of anything, I did the same for my dazed and bleeding uncle. A quick cop-glance (fully assessing but with absolutely no sympathy) at the wound and I jerked my head at Brad, who seemed to be going comatose standing up. “Put pressure on the wound. I'm going to make a call.”
As I went for the desk phone, I marveled at how awesomely cool I was being. It was, like, an action movie or something, and I was for once not the hapless sidekick, but the hero! Take that, Benjamin Grant, you whore. I also mentally complained to myself that jeez, everybody was carrying concealed these days! A quick hit of 9-1-1, and then, “Yeah, my uncle just got shot. And he's also responsible for the bombing. Oh, the address?” I smirked as I gave it to her. “Yeah, I know that's the mayor's address. You're a quick one, ain't ya? Oh, my name? Ryan Galloway. I was a detective up until yesterday. You might've heard of me? I helped bring down Hell's Monster before?” I pouted as she replied that sorry, no, she hadn't ever heard of me. Goddamn Benjamin Grant and his goddamn stealing of my fame. “You may want to send some cars fast, the bullet may have hit an artery. Not that that would be a huge loss, but I'd like him to be brought to justice before dying.” I paused. “Preferably by the electric chair. That's still an option, right? Oh, right, we don't have the death penalty here.” I frowned. “Can we pretend the city's actually in a different state? No? Okay, thanks.” I then hang up, because I was starting to feel a little woozy and I was also not one of those people that needed to hold a conversation with the 911 people to keep from panicking. I was a cop, damn it! Well, former cop, anyway. And I really was feeling woozy... and there was blankness at the edges of my vision... Whoops. Smooth move, Galloway, was my last thought before blacking out.