Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four. Plop. Plop. Splat. Don’t even want to fucking know what that was. Eighty-five… or shit, was it ninety-five? Son of a bitch! One, two, three…
Danny Butler was bored. And cold. That always happened when he was in pain, the shakes starting almost as soon as his body registered the hurt. He’d kept it at bay, just on the edge of his consciousness, by concentrating on filling his lungs with smoke. He’d already worked his way through an entire pack of cigarettes and counted the aged ceiling tiles three times. He still hadn’t decided if the broken one on the edge should count as two.
Danny tapped the ash from his cigarette, eyes skipping over the red puddle spreading at his feet. The buzzing from the decades-old fluorescent lights overhead was the only sound other than the steady plop, plop, which he was trying to ignore.
He’d spent plenty of time in rooms like this. Small, dirty, hopeless. At least this one didn’t have a smear of vomit caked on the wall like the last one. But the filthy cinder blocks in front of him held their own vile secrets. Scuff marks from flailing legs and straining arms, dried phlegm that had missed its target, ancient brown stains reminding Danny he wasn’t the first man to have shed blood behind these walls. The familiar scent of desperation leaked out slowly, a toxic poison working on the men left to sit here. Last chance, end of the line.
Danny bit down hard on the filter, chattering teeth sounding like ice tinkling against a half-full glass. He risked a glance south at the blood pool growing bigger by the drop. A few dark red chunks floated in the soup, the source of the mysterious splat.
Time to get this show on the road. Send in the clowns.
Danny stood up on careful legs, ran a hand through his sweaty hair. He moved over to the greasy mirror on the far wall and rapped hard against it with his knuckles. “Hey, assholes! What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?”
Silence. But Danny knew he was being watched, all too familiar with the crawl of judgmental eyes against his skin. He lit his last cigarette with his shiny silver lighter. He drew in a steadying lungful of smoke before he reached down and peeled up his white T-shirt, wincing when the material stuck to the congealed blood below the left side of his rib cage.
“See this? Thinking maybe it could use a fucking bandage.” He tried to avoid it, but his eye caught the glint of bone peeking out at him from the gash. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Or you could just throw in a needle and thread,” he suggested, eyes on the mirror. “Have myself a quilting bee.”
No response. He let his shirt fall back with a wet, squishing sound. Then he reached out and slammed his bloody palm against the glass. Souvenir for the next poor schmuck stuck in hell.
The two men behind the mirror watched Butler without speaking. The taller one took a step forward to get a better look. Up to this point, he’d only seen Danny Butler in photographs or through the gazing end of binoculars. He took in the thick, black hair sticking up in sweaty tufts, the face made pale by a combination of pain and bad lighting, a day or two worth of stubble outlining the shit-eating grin, huge eyes fringed with long, dark lashes, silver glinting from the small hoop in Butler’s left ear.
“Jesus,” the short man next to him groaned when Butler exposed his wound. “You get a load of that? Can he bleed to death from something like that?”
“No,” the tall man said with a shake of his head. “He’d be dead already.”
“Oh, that’s comforting,” Shorty said, rolling his eyes. “Still… don’t you think we’d better have it looked at?”
“Later. When I’m done with him.”
The tall man had already let the door slam behind him before the sentence was finished. Miller Sutton didn’t need some local cop telling him how to run this investigation. He finally had Danny Butler exactly where he wanted him. He wasn’t going to let Officer Friendly fuck it up.
Miller took a quick detour to the bathroom. He always had to take a piss before an interrogation. It was not a fact he’d willingly share with anyone. He did his business, washed his hands, and swiped a palm full of cold water across his face.
He stared at himself in the mirror, scrubbing at the freckles on his nose with two fingers as if he could erase them. He always hated them at times like this; worried they made him look childish, too young to be taken seriously. With a tired sigh he lowered his hand and turned his back on his own reflection.
It used to be this was his favorite part of the job: closing in on a case, trapping someone just frantic enough to save their own ass that they’d help you along. Fighting the good fight and all that happy horseshit. But today he just felt worn out, no anticipation in his gut.
Where’d it go, Miller? Where’s that fire in your belly? Get it together. You’re one of the good guys, remember?
He couldn’t pinpoint when it had started slipping away, when he’d started to see more than an arrest, more than a notch in his career belt, when he looked into someone’s eyes across a dirty table in a cramped interrogation room. He wished he could go back to when nothing mattered but the job, when empathy didn’t have even the slightest toehold on Miller Sutton.
Maybe he had been doing this for too long. He’d always thought he would become more numb to the crappy state of the human condition as time went on, not less so. Besides, he’d only been at this job for seven years, not nearly long enough for burnout to set in.
Yeah, well, maybe you should have hung it up at five.
But that thought was too depressing to contemplate. He didn’t know what the fuck he’d do with his life if not this. Everything set out in neat little boxes, all black and white, exactly how he liked it. Good and evil, right and wrong, innocent and guilty. Stay in the right box and it would all work out in the end.
Enough of this shit! Get in there and nail his ass to the wall. Show Danny Butler what desperate really feels like. Show him if he doesn’t do things your way, his hurting days have just begun.
Miller opened the door, shut it softly behind him. He crossed to the table, pulled out a chair opposite Butler, and sat down without a word. His power had always been in his silence. Never comfortable with coming in and barking out questions, he chose instead to use his quiet nature to work at a suspect. He’d discovered quickly that people weren’t easy with silence. Pretty soon they’d be barfing up their life story, splattering Miller with their verbal vomit just to have some noise in the room.
Butler was leaning back in his chair, booted heels propped up on the table.
“Get your feet off the table,” Miller said, not looking up from the file he’d spread out in front of him.
Butler took his sweet time about complying, lowering each foot deliberately to the floor. “Yes… sir,” he drawled, lip curving up in amusement.
We’ll see how funny you think this is in about five minutes, shithook. Miller glanced at the card in his hand. “I see you’ve been given your Miranda warnings.”
“Yeah, where’s the lawyer I requested two hours ago?”
Miller shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you. Must be on his way.”
“Uh-huh,” Butler said. “Now why don’t I believe that?”
Miller waited him out, praying he would be as over-confident as most of the men who’d sat in that chair before him. He didn’t have to wait long.
“Well, get to it.” Butler made a beckoning motion with his hand. “Not like I’m going to tell you shit anyway.”
Miller swallowed his triumphant smile, flipping through the pages in front of him.
“They must’ve decided to send in the big dogs,” Butler smirked. “Don’t think I’ve met you before. Detective…?”
“Special Agent Sutton.”
Butler laughed under his breath. “Should have known. A junior G-man. So they’ve got the Feds on my ass now. Excellent. I’m moving up in the ranks.”
“Says here you’ve got some experience with the federal system.” Miller thumped Butler’s file with his index finger. “Done some quality time in Leavenworth, Marion, even a short stint in Super Max.”
“What can I say?” Butler shrugged, spread his arms wide. “Wanted to see the world.”
“Conspiracy to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to distribute cocaine again. At least you’re consistent.”
“Yeah, but I was innocent all those times,” Butler said with a lazy smile, gaze floating up to the ceiling.
Cocky son of a bitch. “Oh, really?” Miller gave a cold smile of his own. “Well, this time you’re not. Felon in possession of a firearm, Mr. Butler.” He made a clucking sound with his tongue. “That’s a big no-no. Five years mandatory.”
“It wasn’t my fucking gun,” Butler retorted, tilting his chair back on two legs, his voice bored.
“No good,” Miller countered. “Thought you’d know by now, federal judges see right through that one. The gun was in your car when you were arrested. Nobody gives a shit whose it really is. You’re on the hook for it, bud.”
“As you can see, Sutton, I’m shaking in my boots over here.”
Don’t let him get to you. It’s what he wants. You’re holding all the cards here. Danny Butler is nothing. Nothing.
“You ought to be scared. Haven’t ever done five years hard time at a stretch, have you? And that’s before we add on whatever goodies we find in your house during our search. Be a while before you see the light of day again, Mr. Butler.”
“Would you stop with the Mr. Butler shit? It’s Danny.”
“And I can call you…?” Danny grinned, Cheshire cat coming out to play.
“Special Agent Sutton will do just fine.”
“All right.” Danny tipped his chair forward with a bang. He rested his elbows on the table, left forearm and hand streaked with crimson battle paint. “What the fuck do you want, Special Agent Sutton?”
Miller leaned forward, too, until their faces were only a few inches apart. “Roberto Hinestroza’s head on a platter,” he whispered. “That’s what I want.”
Danny sat back with a thud. His body slammed into his chair hard enough to force out air and his hand came up to hover over his injured side. “Don’t have a clue what you’re talking about,” he said finally.
Not so cocky now, are you, asshole? Miller could smell blood in the air and not just from Danny’s wound. He steepled his hands, rested his chin on his fingers, and waited. He wasn’t impressed with Danny’s denial, knew he was lying even without the eyes flickering from ceiling to floor to table, never once landing on Miller.
“What makes you think I know Roberto Hinestroza?” Danny asked when the silence grew thick, nervous fingers picking at the dried blood on his arm.
Bingo. “Well, gee, Danny, I don’t know. Could it be because you’re his number-two man? Been running coke for him since you were old enough to drive?”
“Don’t know where you get your information, but I’m not his right-hand man,” Danny scoffed.
“You don’t want to fuck with me, Danny,” Miller warned, voice level, no room for misinterpretation. “I’ve been investigating Hinestroza for three years now. I eat, sleep, and breathe Hinestroza. I know more about that piece of shit than he knows about himself. And I’ve had my eye on you all that time.”
“Jesus,” Danny leered. “I knew I was good-looking, but—”
“Shut up!” Cool it, Miller. He’s working you now. Bring him back to where you want him, let him know who’s boss. “We’ve been waiting for a reason to arrest you and today you gave us one.”
“Running a red light?” Danny waved a dismissive hand. “That’s the best you can do?”
“They didn’t arrest you for the traffic violation. Arrested you for that Sig Sauer you had in the glove compartment.”
“Speaking of my arrest, you gonna get me some medical attention anytime soon?” Danny gestured to his still-leaking side. “This has lawsuit city written all over it.”
“That’s what happens when you run from the cops.”
“He didn’t have to drag me back out through that busted window. Cut me all to hell.”
Miller gave Danny a blank stare. “He wasn’t going to follow you into an abandoned building. Besides, he had orders. I need you breathing to be any good to me at all.”
“You’re just a prince of a guy,” Danny muttered under his breath. “Okay, I’ll play along. Let’s assume I even know this Roberto Hinestroza, I’m guessing you want me to roll over on him?”
Miller nodded, tapped his top lip with his pen. “Among other things.”
Danny leaned his head back and howled. “Oh, man, that’s a good one, Special Agent Sutton.”
“I’m serious, Danny.”
Danny’s head snapped down again. “So am I. No—fucking—way.”
“We’re not going to throw you to the wolves. We can protect—”
“Ummm… the last guy I knew who fell for that line, they found him floating in the river with his tongue ripped out and his dick shoved down his throat. So you’ll pardon me if I’m not jumping up and down and squealing like a teenage girl at your offer.”
“That’s not going to happen this time.” You sure about that, Miller? Because you know as well as he does there’s no protecting someone twenty-four seven. Hinestroza wants him bad enough, he’ll get him. You willing to make that trade? Yeah… fuck, yeah. What’s one low-life drug dealer? Who gives a shit about Butler if he nets me the big fish? Miller looked down at his hands. Sometimes he made himself sick.
Danny was watching him with knowing eyes, eyes that had been around this block a time or two before. Eyes that knew all the nasty truths hidden behind the pretty exteriors. “Thanks for the reassurance. Might work better if you believed it yourself,” he pointed out. “Think I’ll take my chances on the five years in prison, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Thing is, Danny,” Miller said, voice all silky menace, “I doubt you’ll make it out of those five years alive. Rumor gets around in prison you already ratted on Hinestroza….” He raised his eyebrows. “Not gonna be long before you’re out of the picture, so to speak. Why don’t you do the right thing for once in your pathetic life and help us out?”
The threat hung heavy in the room. Danny’s eyes darkened with the knowledge he was trapped. Miller felt his own body tense up, registering Danny’s anger, ready for however Danny tried to run.
“You fucking piece of shit,” Danny spit out. “Gonna have me killed if I don’t give you what you want? That it?”
“Never said one word about having you killed. It’s just that without you being an informant, being protected by the FBI, word’s going to get out pretty quick that you were in here talking to us. I’m a powerful guy. But I can’t stop what people whisper about on the street.”
“Unbelievable. You pricks are unbelievable.” Danny pushed back in his chair.
Miller laid his hands flat on the table, gave Danny his beseeching eyes, practiced hundreds of times in his bathroom mirror. One more trick of the trade. “You don’t have a choice here, Danny. I’m your best option and we both know it.”
“Fuck off,” Danny bit out. He got up and walked across the room. “I want out of here!” he yelled at the mirror. “Either charge me or open the goddamn door!”
Miller was up and out of his chair before Danny could say another word. He spun Danny around, shoving him back against the wall beside the mirror, out of the sight line of whoever might be watching. He bumped his chest roughly against Danny’s.
“Listen to me, asshole. You’re going to do this thing whether you like it or not.” Miller’s thumb came up to rest a millimeter from Danny’s wound.
Danny’s eyes went wide, the muscle in his jaw clamping tight as he prepared himself for the pain. Miller had always been a master at honing in on a suspect’s weak spot. And once discovered, he had absolutely no compunction about pushing it—hard. Whether it was the sobbing wife out in the waiting room, the adored child destined for the endless foster care roulette, or the actual physical injury that Danny Butler was sporting now, Miller always went for the jugular once he found the vein.
But now, with his face pressed up into Danny’s, watching those green eyes watch him, he found he couldn’t do it. Didn’t have it in him to bring his thumb down and gouge out the answer he wanted.
What the fuck’s wrong with you, Miller? Do it. Do it!
He lowered his hand, pushed back slightly to give Danny some breathing room. “What’s it gonna be, Danny?”
Danny stared at him with wary eyes, his tongue sneaking out to rub once across his upper lip. “Yeah,” he said after an endless moment of silence. “I’ll help you.” He turned toward the door and looked over his shoulder, voice mocking. “But only because you need it so fucking bad, Sutton.”