Lovers Who Wander
The clank of the blinds against the office door drew a quiet sigh from John Stillman as he tried to concentrate on the pile of paperwork on his desk. Sometimes, the lieutenant was convinced his job was nothing but a series of interruptions, interrupted by other interruptions. Finishing the line he was scribbling through, he glanced up, expecting to see one of his detectives. Maybe someone from the DA's office.
He certainly was not expecting to see the Deputy Commissioner.
Stashing his pen in its holder, Stillman quickly rose to his feet. "Deputy Commissioner Hudson. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Smiling, Hudson extended a nut-brown hand. "Please. After all these years, you know you can call me Jack."
"I know. Reflex." Stillman returned his superior's handshake, then sat back down. "I see a uniform and I go formal."
"No need for that today." Hudson settled into one of the chairs opposite Stillman's desk.
The two men exchanged pleasantries and briefly caught up on kids and grandkids, but Stillman couldn't quite suppress the heavy dread in his stomach. He knew Jack Hudson well enough to know the man wasn't just here to pay a social call.
Finally, Hudson cleared his throat. "Listen, John…you and I go way back."
This abrupt transition did nothing to lighten the mood.
"Which is why I'm here." Hudson shifted in his chair. "If I may be frank?"
"The department is looking at a major budget shortfall this next year. Larger than any we've had to overcome to date."
Stillman slipped off his glasses and laid them on his desk. "I see."
"Donations at the gala were very generous," Hudson continued. "Ralph and Gina Newman in particular."
Stillman resisted a chuckle. Ralph Newman's name might be on the check, but it was Gina who controlled the amount. Gina, who Stillman had observed sinking her cougar claws into Scotty Valens on Saturday night, just as she had last year. And, just like last year, her donation was generous indeed. Stillman wondered just how Valens had done it, then quickly decided that was one of those things he really didn't need to know.
"But they still couldn't make up for what's projected to be a significant deficit," Hudson was saying. "And the news isn't good. Cuts across the board."
"Now, we've always managed to spare Homicide in the past…"
"But not this year." The churning dread grew worse.
"'Fraid not, John." Hudson's lips tightened beneath his ebony mustache. "There's just no way we can spare any department, no matter how crucial."
Feeling suddenly weary, Stillman fixed his attention on the framed collection of war medals on the bookcase across the room. Do more with less. That was the PPD way. "What's the damage?"
"Well, budget cuts or no, the Commissioner has made it clear we can't spare any of the guys on the line. Murders happen every day, whether we can afford to solve them or not."
The weight of dread made Stillman's stomach plunge to his shoes.
"So we're asking you to make a cut in the cold case unit," Hudson said. "One detective's salary."
Stillman blew out a breath. One detective. He'd feared it would be worse.
"Now I've pulled some strings." Hudson leaned forward in his chair. "You won't have to lay your guy off."
Stillman's brows lifted. "No?"
"Watterson over at Northwest just put his papers in. If your detective slides over there, he can stay with the department. Same salary, pension, rank, everything except the desk here. Not as prestigious as Homicide, perhaps, but I bet you've got someone who'd be willing to make the leap."
Stillman avoided Hudson's expectant brown eyes. It was a good solution. The best possible under the circumstances. But who could he cut? Which of the detectives—his detectives—could he bear to lose? Could he really say goodbye to Miller or Vera? To Will, one of his oldest friends? To Valens? Rush? Losing any of them was almost too painful to think about, but think about it he must.
Stillman rubbed a hand over the top of his head. Times like this, he hated being the boss.
"I'll need some time," he said.
Hudson's head bobbed up and down. "Of course. I don't envy you, John."
Stillman allowed a small, tight smile.
"But we'll need your decision by the end of the day tomorrow. If you can't find a volunteer, or if you can't make the cut yourself, then we'll have to do it for you."
Stillman nodded and rose to his feet as Hudson did the same on the other side of the desk. "Understood."
"I'm sorry." Hudson's eyes were rich with compassion. "I wouldn't be telling you this if there were any other choice."
"Sure." Stillman understood. His friend was in a tight spot, too. They all were.
But knowing that wouldn't make his decision any easier.
Scotty popped the last bite of burger into his mouth and tossed the wadded-up wrapper into the paper bag on his desk. Of course, his eyes drifted toward Lilly as he did so. He hadn't been able to stop looking over at her even before their trip to New York. But now, now that they'd been plunged deep into the ocean currents of after, he couldn't even try to fight it.
Stationed at her own desk a scant few feet away, she held a pair of fries almost absently in her left hand while clicking around on her computer with her right. Her gaze hadn't come anywhere near him since their return a few minutes ago to a mercifully empty office. Not that eye contact was necessary; she'd made her feelings perfectly clear in the car on the way back from New York. What they'd done together was a mistake, it was over, and she wanted nothing more than to bury it six feet deep and toss away the shovel. He'd expected that.
But what he hadn't expected was the chilly silence. The unmistakable sense that, though she'd welcomed him into the warmth of her inmost self, sharing things with him she'd never shared with anyone else, visiting hours were over, and she was politely, but firmly, showing him to the door.
He'd forgotten how cold and lonely it could be on the outside.
Stillman's office door clanked open and the boss emerged, escorting Deputy Commissioner Hudson. What the hell was the brass doing here? Scotty's brow furrowed as he considered the possibilities.
After a moment, the lieutenant came back into the office, looking pensive.
"Everything all right, Boss?" Lilly dug in the little cardboard container for the last of her fries.
"Sure. Yeah." Stillman gave the office a slow, reflective survey, then scrubbed everything but crisp professionalism from his face. "How'd the two of you make out in New York?"
Scotty froze. He couldn't look at Lilly. He couldn't. Couldn't. And yet his eyes cheerfully ignored his instructions. This time, she actually looked back at him. Well, for a microsecond anyway. Then she jerked her gaze away with an almost audible snap, crumpling up the paper wrapper of her chicken deluxe.
"Just fine, Boss," she said easily.
"Good, good." Stillman nodded toward the interview room. "You two up for a little chat with James Fleming? He's been in the box for an hour."
"Should be good and ready to talk, then." Lilly sounded relieved.
Scotty wasn't. Because the job, even this all-consuming job, wouldn't be distraction enough. Not anymore. Not fresh off three hours of the most tantalizing torture imaginable. Lilly's sweet fragrance filling the car. Satiny wisps of blonde hair slipping from her ponytail to dance around her cheekbones and drive him to distraction. Long-lashed eyes darting to and fro on the pages of the book in which she'd lost herself. Those three hours had just deepened the feelings he shouldn't feel. Increased the desire for what he shouldn't want. Her kisses had awakened a need that had hummed through his body since last night, making him unsettled. Unsatisfied.
So being near her right now, even in a professional setting, wasn't going to help. If anything, it would just make things worse. She wanted nothing more than for everything to go back to the way it had always been between them. For her, he was sure they could. But if he had any hope of reining in his runaway emotions, he needed to create some space.
"Mind if I sit this one out, Boss?" he asked.
Two pairs of surprised eyes swiveled toward him.
"I didn't sleep that good last night." This time, Scotty was the one who avoided eye contact, though out of his peripheral vision he saw a hint of color creep into Lilly's cheeks. "Ain't at the top of my game."
"Fair enough. You can watch from Observation." Stillman turned his attention toward Lilly. "Ready, Lil?"
"Ready." Without so much as a glance in Scotty's direction, she picked up her notes and rose from her chair.
Scotty waited until the door to the interview room had clicked shut, then gathered up the remnants of his lunch, tossed them into the trash can, and headed into Observation.
"Looks like you haven't told us the whole story, James." Lilly relished the startled expression on Fleming's face as she dropped the file onto the interview room table from high enough to create a loud smack when it hit the polished surface.
He recovered quickly, though, and assumed the droll mask that had been in place nearly the whole of their brief acquaintance. "Wow. It's like it's 1962 all over again." Chilly blue eyes glanced around the room. "You could at least give this place a fresh coat of paint."
To her left, the boss didn't even blink. "Well, here's something the cops didn't know in '62."
Lilly settled into the seat opposite the skeptical-looking Fleming, filled with the familiar tingle of anticipation as she prepared to level him with evidence. "Ellie was two-timing you, James."
"Unbelievable." Looking skyward, Fleming raised his hands in the air, then let them fall onto the table. "You people can't drag my reputation through the mud any longer, so now you attack her?"
"It's not an attack, James," she said quietly. "She was seeing a guy by the name of Rick Rodgers. We talked to him. Face to face."
Fleming gave a small sigh, then slipped off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Finally. After all these years, I have a name."
"So you knew." The guilt Lilly had been waiting to feel since last night chose now to begin gnawing at her stomach. "All along, you knew she was stepping out on you."
Nodding, Fleming replaced his glasses. "Ellie was always a little…absent. Head in the clouds, nose in a book. I never felt like she was fully there with me, even when we were together. But the last few weeks, she seemed…I don't know, distant, maybe? Like she was a million miles further away than normal."
Stillman approached the table and sat down next to Lilly. "Did you talk with her about it?"
"I asked her one night if she was having second thoughts." Fleming tented his fingers on the tabletop. "She said she was. And I thought that was it. Just cold feet. Normal stuff. But then she said there was someone else. Someone she'd been friends with for a long time, but then it became more." He gave a slow, sad shake of his head. "I didn't want to know any more than that. If—if I didn't have a name, a face, that made it…less real, somehow."
Lilly cast an involuntary glance toward the mirror, the mirror behind which she knew Scotty was stationed.
"Sounds like you got pretty upset." Stillman was saying.
"Well, of course I did," Fleming replied. "But not until after the fact, after she'd already left. At the time she told me, I was just…I was in shock. She was a little flighty, but I never for a minute thought she'd go behind my back. She just wasn't the type."
"Must've been humiliating," Lilly slipped her own discomfort into a file and slid it into a box for later. "High-profile relationship, four hundred wedding guests, and you've gotta call the whole thing off because she cheated on you?"
"No one else knew." Fleming's lips tightened. "I'd only just told my family the wedding was off when she disappeared."
"So why not tell anyone back then?" Stillman's brow creased. "Why not tell the whole story?"
"Are you kidding?" Fleming gave a bitter chuckle. "I already had cops knocking on my door every day. If I'd told them I knew she was stepping out on me? They'd have never let it go. I'd probably be in jail right now."
"You sure that's not where you belong?" With another surge of anticipation, Lilly slid a file across the table and flipped it open. "We checked your alibi, James. And your brother finally came clean with us. He was the one who went to Detroit with your dad that night. Not you. Hotel registration confirmed it."
Fleming sighed, the sigh of decades' worth of secrets being released. "Well, then I might as well tell you the rest." Tenting his fingers again, he studied their carefully-groomed tips. "I wasn't in Detroit that night. It's true. I was…engaging the services of a prostitute. It wasn't something I did often, and it's certainly not something I'm proud of. I didn't want to tarnish my name. My family's name."
He looked up, all the polished pride gone from his expression. "We were good people. Honest. Hardworking. My grandfather built the company from the ground up with good, solid values, and…what I did that night didn't fit in with that. But there's no reason to hide anymore. Nothing left to protect except my innocence."
"You wouldn't happen to remember the woman's name, would you?" Lilly asked.
At Fleming's nod, she slid a piece of paper and a pen across the table.
Scotty's shoes tapped out a slow, steady rhythm as he paced the tile floor of the observation room. Cool and dark, its sole function was for whoever was in here to watch the goings-on in the two interview rooms. One to his left, currently unoccupied, and one to his right, containing their boss, their murder suspect, and Lilly.
It was right here where he'd first met her six years back. Scotty gave a rueful smile at the memory of his younger self. Cocky. Headstrong. Ambitious as hell, determined to prove himself to whoever happened to be paying attention. That Hammond job was a bag of bones from the start, but he'd busted his ass on it anyway. Found an angle. Figured that was what got him to Homicide.
Amid the shoulder-slaps and high-fives as he packed up his desk, his buddies in Narc had cautioned him, with mischief in their eyes, to watch out for Detective Rush. From the tales they spun, he expected some burly guy with a big mustache, one who'd been around the block and had the battle scars to prove it.
When Scotty emerged from the interview room that first morning, he hadn't looked twice at the reed-thin, messy-haired blonde leaning against the glass, though he did notice her noticing him. Unlike most appraisals he received from women, though, this one was cool. Critical. She tossed out some sparse praise about his prior case, but, strangely, she didn't seem all that impressed.
"This is Detective Rush," Stillman had told him. "Her partner transferred out. You'll be workin' with her."
Scotty wondered then if there was such a thing as mental whiplash. He'd shaken his new partner's hand, trying to wrap his mind around the stories he'd heard and the reality that stared him in the face, peering at him through glacial blue eyes.
He'd pictured a guy.
That was what he told her, what he kept saying to himself as he followed her in for their first interview. He'd expected a guy.
And, as he and Lilly fell into a groove as partners, more often than not, he did think of her as just 'one of the guys.' She wasn't sweet and ultra-feminine like Elisa. Not one for dresses or makeup or high-maintenance hairstyles. And just in case her appearance wasn't no-nonsense enough, her demeanor was tough. Forbidding. She'd built frozen walls around herself six feet thick, and anyone who tried to scale them would immediately be stabbed in the heart with an icicle.
But over the years, as she learned to let him in, Scotty discovered the fire behind all that ice. Curves beneath those sharp edges. Sparkling eyes and a million-watt smile. Skin softer than his favorite silk tie. Hair like heaven. And a tender, almost heartbreaking vulnerability when she'd smiled shyly up at him, then pulled him close for that first precious kiss. Her lips had trembled briefly beneath his, then parted and melted until he couldn't tell where he ended and she began. And how, how could something so simple as a kiss turn his universe on its axis? Reduce him to a helpless pile of want and need and—
"Well, I heard you were back from New York, but right now I ain't so sure."
Startled, Scotty tore his eyes from the glass to where Kat Miller stood just to his right, her coffee-colored eyes twinkling with amusement. Heat crept into his neck. Madre de Dios, how long had he been standing there staring?
He cleared his throat. "Sorry, Miller. Guess I kinda…zoned out for a second."
"Uh-huh." Miller shifted her weight and crossed her arms over her chest. "So are you ready to talk about whatever happened up there, or do I get to fill in the blanks?"
Scotty gave an uncomfortable laugh. "What are you talkin' about?"
"Oh, please. You're practically droolin', and Lil keeps lookin' up like she knows you're out here."
"She does?" His eagerness, equivalent to that of a high school freshman with a crush, was tempered with a guilty clench in his gut.
Kat laughed. She actually laughed. That high-pitched, hyena-like cackle she got when she'd trounced him thoroughly and knew it.
"Look." He raised his hands in self defense. "Whatever you think happened up there…didn't. Nothin' happened."
Kat's expression made it clear she knew very well what a load of bullshit he'd just attempted to feed her. "Why, because you didn't get a chance, or because you got one and didn't take it?"
Irritation flared. He'd had a chance, all right, and he'd taken it. Taken it all the way up to the sixteenth floor, with that come-hither look in Lilly's eyes and his room key in her fingers. And if her jewelry, and the jackass it represented, hadn't gotten in the way, he'd have taken that chance as far as it led. He—he'd been cock-blocked. By a damn diamond necklace.
"Oh, wait. She's still with Saccardo, isn't she? So…wait, you…and then you…and she was…and you…" Kat's index finger bounced from Scotty to Lilly and back again as a slow, sympathetic smile spread over her face. "Oh, you poor son of a bitch. No wonder you hate that barbecue-lovin' bastard so much."
This brought a grin despite everything.
"Look, Scotty. It's not like she's married to the guy." One shoulder lifted in a nonchalant shrug. "Besides, you're here, he's not. Long as that's the case…" Kat raked her eyes over him in a thorough, yet not unkind, appraisal, "I figure you got a shot."
Scotty's brows lifted. "You think so?"
Kat smiled. "Ever since I got to Homicide, I've been watchin' you two, wonderin' when you'd wake up and figure out you were more than just partners. Somethin' like that, somethin' that special…" A pensive, thoughtful look crossed her face. "It doesn't happen every day."
And suddenly, Scotty wasn't the one staring into the glass, thoughts a million miles away. That honor belonged to Kat, who fiddled absently with her necklace, an uncharacteristic softness in her features he'd previously only seen with regards to her daughter.
A smile spread slowly over his face as all the suspicions he'd had about her and Nick crystallized into certainty. Not only were they together, this was the real deal.
It was improbable, and yet somehow, the more Scotty rolled it over in his mind, the more sense it made. Nick, though gruff and occasionally insensitive, had a heart of gold, especially when it came to kids. And Kat? Well, Kat could whip that galoot into shape in record time, and make him have the time of his life while she did it.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket then, and she dove for it. A flicker of a smile crossed her face before she pressed the button to silence the ringer.
Scotty grinned. "Tell Nicky I said hi."
Startled brown eyes flitted up his face. "No, it's not what you...it ain't...it's...Veronica. I gotta take this. 'Scuse me." And with that, she fled Observation as though shot out of a cannon.
Scotty couldn't help chuckling at her flustered reaction and rapid departure. Maybe he was hopelessly smitten with someone he shouldn't be. But he wasn't the only one.
And that, in and of itself, was an odd sort of comfort.