A searing pain shot through the left side of his rib cage. Detective Ian McDaniel let out a gasp. His fingers instinctively sought his wound, feeling the thick bandage wrapped around his torso. In an instant, the entire nightmare came back to him, crashing into his consciousness like a car hitting a brick wall.
His eyes flew open. After a few seconds of panic, the detective realized he was at home, sleeping alone, on his own side of the king-sized bed. How long had Janice been gone? He couldn’t remember. His brain was sluggish and dull, his thoughts fuzzy around the edges.
His meds were on the bedside table behind his back. To grab the bottle meant rolling over. Not a pleasant thought.
Vicodin. One to two pills by mouth every four hours or as needed. “Needed” is what the bottle said. Did he really need the painkillers? And how long would it take to build up a tolerance? To become addicted? If the doctors at the hospital had advised him on these matters, he had no recollection.
But at this point, there was no way he could get out of bed, get dressed, get through the day without medication. He clenched his teeth and rolled over.
The pills were doing nothing for his mind, he knew that much. In fact, he guessed they were a large part of why he felt so disoriented. After taking them, he would still feel the pain, but he was somehow removed from it, almost as if he were watching another man suffer. A man who lived inside his body, and looked a lot like him, but wasn’t him. It was a strange sensation.
But then, everything was strange now.
He eased himself up, and swung his long legs off the edge of the bed. “Chicken legs,” Angelica always called them. She loved to tease him. It was practically her favorite hobby. The thought of her made him smile despite the ache in his side. His whole life might be turning to shit, but at least he had her.
Reaching for the pain pills, Ian froze, his hand in mid-air. Something was wrong. Something was out of place. What was it?
The clock on the bedside table. It normally sat on the opposite corner. He could see the outline of dust where it had been, probably in the exact same position, for at least four years. Since he and Janice had moved into this apartment together.
Someone had been in this room.
Ian remained frozen. There was something he needed to remember, something significant. His mental gears turned laboriously, grinding as if rusted solid. Damn drugs.
Then he had it. He knew why things felt odd in his apartment. His place had been searched.
That sleazy detective from the city had visited him in the hospital. When was that? Maybe a week ago? Ten days? Ian had agreed to the search, had given his permission. What else could he have done? The guy had a warrant. Ian had nothing to hide, but the aftertaste of a stranger rifling through his personal belongings was yet another bitter pill to swallow.
He reached again for the bottle, cringed at the accompanying stab of pain. Maybe just one Vicodin this morning. One would get him up and into the shower, over to Strawberry Place for a quick breakfast, and into the station. He was officially still on medical leave, but he couldn’t lie around this place all day. It was time to get moving, get on with his life.
Sitting on the dilapidated bed, the princess tweezed another eyelash out with her chewed-to-the-nub fingernails. The pop of pain was followed by a tiny rush of endorphins. It was addictive.
She tried to stop herself. Sort of. She’d look strange, one eyelid all pink and naked. But she didn’t care. What did it matter? Once she was locked in on the task, the repetitive plucking was like a drug to her system.
Like morphine. A shot of morphine sounded heavenly. A delicious escape. A shot of anything, really.
She needed an escape.
Out of eyelashes, she reached under the wooden bed frame for her pack of cigarettes. The nicotine would calm her down. Soothe her nerves. She really wished she had a joint, but he’d never allow that. She was lucky he bought her these cancer sticks. Marlboro Lights. They were a reward for good behavior. She had learned the hard way, it was easier to be good. Which was ironic. He had chosen her because she was a bad girl.
The sun had set at least an hour earlier. Cold as a snowman’s testicles outside. She shivered and rubbed her bare arms, blowing a stream of smoke out between the bars. It couldn't even be December yet, not even Thanksgiving, but it felt like the middle of January. In the middle of Alaska.
Through the open window, she heard the sound of footsteps crunching through the dead leaves.
She stabbed out the cigarette in the bottom of her chipped mug and closed the window quietly. Then she climbed back into bed, pulled the tattered covers up to her ears, and pretended to sleep, her fingers curled around her tiny gold cross. Maybe if he thought she was already dead out, he’d let her be.
Fat chance. Who was she kidding?
A minute later, she heard the soft snick of the padlock opening on the outside of the cabin door. Then the slow squeal of the door’s rusted hinges. Screaming like an animal caught in a trap. A baby bunny with a broken neck. Suffering and dying slowly.
“Princess?” he whispered, entering the room. The smell of liquor wafted off him. “Wake up now. Daddy’s home.”
On the spur of the moment, Ian crossed the street to knock on Angelica’s front door. It was Monday and the Coven Café, where she read fortunes for customers, was closed. Many of the restaurants and shops in Nyack took Mondays off after the busy tourist trade on Saturday and Sunday.
“Look at you.” Angelica rested one hand on a hip. She was wearing a pair of black leggings and an oversized sweater that draped and hugged her curves just right. Her hair was growing out of the shaved-head-look she had been sporting all summer and was more than an inch long now, completely covering the scars on her scalp. The ends were still bleached blonde, but the roots were dark brown, almost black. The added softness suited her. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in civilian clothing.”
On duty, Ian always wore a suit, usually some shade of gray. Light pewter for summer and charcoal in the winter. This morning he had thrown on an old pair of Levi’s and a hooded sweatshirt. While Angelica admired him, three dog snouts extended through the doorway, sniffing excitedly.
“Good morning, everybody.” He tried to bend over to pet her trio of canines, but immediately winced and stood up again.
“You want to sit down?” He could hear the concern in her voice. He guessed it was going to be like this wherever he went: people making a fuss. This would get old quickly.
But his wound, under the bandages, was throbbing. He picked his way over to the couch, wondering if one Vicodin was going to be enough to get him through the morning after all. He instinctively patted the front pocket of his jeans where the pill bottle was stashed. “Thanks. I’m not quite a hundred percent yet.”
Understatement of the century.
Ebony, Hawk, and Slice, Angelica’s canine protectors, followed him to the sofa and settled at his feet. Suzanne Vega was singing from the stereo, that song about the kid named Luca who gets abused. Not exactly uplifting. He could go for something more upbeat like classic rock, possibly a little Led Zeppelin.
Angelica watched as he sank back against the couch cushions. “Can I get you something? Coffee?” She hovered in the doorway to the kitchen.
“Don’t put yourself out.” He sighed as she continued to stand there. “Come sit with me for a minute. Then I’ll take you out to breakfast.”
“Strawberry Place?” she guessed, snuggling against his side.
“Mmhmm.” Ian wrapped an arm around her and drew her closer. Her warmth was a healing balm. Maybe this was all he needed.
“You look like you’re still in pain,” she whispered into his neck.
A jolt of electricity traveled down his spine. “You need to work on your sexy talk,” he whispered back. He felt her smile, her lips against his throat.
Then she pulled away. “Seriously.”
“Yeah.” He patted his pocket again. The pills made a percussive sound like a miniature maraca. “I took a Vicodin this morning, but it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick. Not completely.”
“I guess it’s going to take more time to heal.” She continued to watch his face. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
“If it weren’t for you, I probably would have bled out on the pavement.” He reached for her hand.
Angelica’s uncanny powers of intuition sent the ambulance rushing to the gas station where he had fallen only two weeks ago. Could that be accurate? Seemed like years ago. And it seemed like yesterday.
“Any word from Janice yet?” She referred to his missing wife.
He looked into her eyes for a moment, assessing her intent. Janice was the unspoken reason they kept their relationship platonic. Mostly. He had a distant memory of a few steamy kisses before he ended up in the hospital.
She placed her palm on his leg. He took it as a peace offering.
“Are you on the case?”
“No. I’m officially on leave. Chief White has given me as much time as I need. I had to turn in my badge and weapon after the shooting, but she said the investigation shouldn’t take very long.” Police procedure dictated an investigation into every case where an officer discharged a weapon, no matter the circumstances. His case had obviously been self-defense and would be cleared quickly, the chief had assured him. This being his first shooting, he was pretty much in the dark about how long it took for such matters to be resolved.
“Have you spoken to the detective from the city?” She meant the NYPD sleazebag. Janice’s well-to-do parents had filed the missing person report. He assumed they had insisted on bringing in this goon. Angelica had been visiting in Ian’s hospital room when the guy came to serve his search warrant.
Ian shook his head, remembering his earlier disorientation. How was he going to assist in finding his missing wife when his head was filled with cotton wool and his ribs pulsed with pain?
“Let’s not worry about that for now.” She had a gift for reading his mind. “I’m starving. How about we get some breakfast? You haven’t had a bacon-and-egg sandwich in a couple of weeks, right?” She stood and helped him onto his feet.
Ian had an uneasy feeling. Angelica's powers of insight were somewhat limited, ran hot and cold like the taps in an old tenement, but when it came to him, she was usually spot on. He wondered briefly if she might be able to sense the whereabouts of his wife. Did he want her to try? Having Janice gone was a blessing in some ways, and a curse in others.
For now, he decided to drop the subject. There was a beautiful woman right in front of him. He needed to concentrate on her. And maybe on a greasy breakfast sandwich. With hash browns.
“It’s nice to see you back on your feet,” Lorraine said, looking up with a brief smile. The receptionist was usually all business and rarely gave anyone a glimpse of her inner feelings. She wore her mousy brown hair pulled back in a tight bun and usually had at least one sharpened pencil poking out of it. Today there were two.
“Thanks.” Ian tried to smile back, to let her know he appreciated the effort at sentiment, but he was too winded from just walking up the front steps. The bacon and fried potatoes were not sitting well in his stomach, either. Maybe it was the pain meds. He leaned on the front desk to catch his breath.
“Dude!” Officer Martinelli came barreling toward him with a raised palm in the air, about to clap him on the shoulder.
Ian winced in advance of the attack.
Martinelli lowered his hand with a grin, offering to shake instead. Sergeant Niklaus stepped up to shake his hand next, and a line formed as other officers noticed his presence. It seemed that Detective McDaniel had become an instant hero in the course of receiving his wound.
“Is Chief White upstairs?” Ian asked the sergeant.
“Does the Pope shit in the woods?” Niklaus grinned.
Sergeant Niklaus was at least halfway through his forties, with a bulging gut and long graying sideburns. A perpetual patina of powdered sugar decorated the front of his uniform. Most of the time, the stuff that came out of his mouth was probably meant to be funny, but ended up being offensive.
Weaving through the rest of the crowd, Ian greeted Darlene, the dispatcher who had taken Angelica’s call and acted quickly in order to save his life. She was the only other person in the department who knew exactly how the ambulance had been summoned to that gas station. Not including the chief, of course. Ian tried not to keep too many secrets from his boss.
After shaking hands with everyone, he ducked into the stairwell and confronted yet another set of steep steps. Sagging against the railing, he felt exhausted and his rib cage throbbed.
Should he pop another pill? Already? It wasn’t even noon yet.
No. He could wait it out.
He had seen the effects of prescription drugs on his mother, a woman who had battled bipolar disease for most of her abbreviated life. About five years ago, his father’s sudden death from a stroke had pushed her to overdose. His youngest sister had found her on the bedroom floor. Ian had attended the funerals of both his parents within a single month.
And he knew Angelica’s mother had also struggled with a dependency on painkillers after receiving a gunshot wound from a stray bullet. Angelica’s father wasn’t as lucky. His wounds had been fatal, as he had been the target of that Mafia hit. Angelica had grown up without a dad, her mother drugged and often drunk, raised mostly by her Haitian nanny. He guessed it wasn’t surprising that she had developed some rather unusual coping skills.
Trapped in the stairwell, dreading the climb, Ian considered just turning around and heading home. He desperately wanted to get back in bed. The bed where he had been lying for days, like a useless vegetable. Gripping the banister with one sweaty palm, he plodded instead up the narrow staircase.
By the time he got to the chief’s door, he was sweating profusely, despite the cool temperature of the hallway. He knocked on the heavy wooden door and it swung open.
“Ian! What are you doing here?” Chief White looked stunned.
She hurried around from behind her desk. The mother of two teenagers, she often treated him like her third. Before he knew what was happening, she wrapped him in an embrace. This was a new one.
“You feel hot.” She reached a palm up to his forehead. “Are you okay?”
“To tell you the truth, I think I need to sit down.” Dizzy after the climb, he felt like he was running a fever to boot.
Chief White helped him into a chair. She leaned over, bringing the back of her hand to his temple. “You’re burning up. What were you thinking? You should be in bed.”
He had to admit she was right. He didn’t know why he felt the need to push himself. Except that there was that damn detective from New York City nosing around in his business, searching his apartment, trying find his missing wife. Or pin her disappearance on him.
“Any word about Janice?” he croaked, wiping beads of sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Not as far as I know. That sleazeball doesn’t report to me, though. He’s parked himself in your office.” Ian locked eyes with the chief. “Yeah. Sorry. I got word from his boss to make him feel at home here. Not much I could do about it at the time, but now that you’re back…”
“That asshole,” he muttered. “I’ll bet he’s nosed through everything in there.”
Chief White nodded her agreement. “I think it’s time we escorted his pasty ass out of our station. Care to join me?”
Ian laughed, despite the pain in his ribs and the perspiration running into his ears. “Let’s do it. Then I think I need to put myself back to bed.”
“Now you’re talking some sense.” Chief White slipped her arm through his and assisted him down the stairs. When they got to the bottom, she whispered, “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
Ian shrugged. “I feel like shit warmed over, but I want to boot the bastard out.”
“You look more like shit boiling over on high heat.” Chief White held the door open but allowed Ian to walk out of the stairwell on his own steam. He was relieved not to have the entire squad room watch him hobble like an invalid holding the chief’s hand. The woman had a mean mouth on her but a kind heart.
The door to Ian’s office was closed.
Chief White raised a fist to knock, but Ian held up a hand to stop her. “Let me do this, okay?”
She stepped back and gestured for him to take the lead.
Ian skipped the courtesy of knocking on his own office door and simply turned the knob. Detective Frank Longuria of the NYPD lounged in Ian’s chair, his scruffy shoes resting on Ian’s yellow legal pad in the center of his desktop. A copy of Penthouse magazine was open in his lap. Madonna graced the cover, partially dressed, but nudes of her were promised inside.
Ian paused, taking in the full picture. As he hoped, Chief White waited out in the hallway.
“If it isn’t the Boy Wonder,” Longuria drawled, leaning further back. Ian’s desk chair creaked in protest. “Your colleagues around here seem to think you walk on water. I can’t be the only one who sees through that bullshit.”
“How’s the investigation going?” Ian chose to ignore the sarcasm, propping himself up on the back of a wooden chair. “Any leads?”
“Nothing concrete.” Longuria smiled and slid a hand over his greasy hair. “But I know who did it.”
“Did what?” Ian was woozy again and really needed to sit down. But there was no way he would give this asshole the satisfaction. “You just said it yourself. You got nothing. No crime has even been committed.”
“I’m sure that’s what you’d like us to think. But the woman is your wife. Or should I say was your wife? You must have some clue as to her whereabouts, no?”
“You married, Frank?” Ian teetered, but caught his balance, gripping the back of the chair with white knuckles.
“What’s it to you, Boy Wonder?” Longuria snickered, appraising Ian’s demeanor. “You look like you could use an ambulance.”
Chief White had obviously been listening behind the door. She stepped into the room, bumping straight into Ian’s back. Before he could fall, she grabbed him by the arm.
“I waited as long as I could,” she apologized to Ian, guiding him into the chair. Then lifting her gaze, she addressed the NYPD detective. “You need to remove your nasty shoes from my detective’s desk. And remove that nasty trash in your lap from my sight. And while you’re at it, go ahead and remove your nasty ass from my station.”
“Aww. You got your mommy to do your dirty work. Adorable.” Longuria folded his magazine in half and slipped it into his jacket pocket. Rising to his feet, he looked down at Ian. “You’ll be hearing from me, Boy Wonder.”
Ian had moved beyond dizzy into nauseous now. He couldn’t waste any energy on a retort. It took everything he had not to collapse to the floor.
“I’m calling an ambulance,” Chief White told him.
He was too weak to protest.