THEY were talking about the shooting in hushed tones when I walked into the locker room. I was coming off the combination of an all-night training session and a two-hour workout. I’d powered through the gym time to take out some frustration left over from training a green meth-raid task force that was probably going to get itself blown up the first time they had to take down a major lab in less-than-ideal conditions. I was dead tired, and my first instinct was to ignore the conversation entirely. Even though my body was exhausted, my brain didn’t have an off function, and I couldn’t un-hear the words that floated over the bank of lockers that separated me from the officers talking.
“—fucking protestors. The funeral is tomorrow. You’d think they’d cut him some slack.”
“Has anyone talked to West? I know the chief told him not to come in until the attention died down. The whole thing sucks—it was a justifiable action. Man’s got to be having a hard enough time as it is.”
I stripped off my sweaty workout gear. The guys clearly either hadn’t heard anyone come in or didn’t realize who’d joined them; if they’d known I was the one listening, they wouldn’t have been talking. With just over two hundred and fifty sworn officers, the police department in Evansville, Indiana, was a close-knit organization, and I definitely was not part of the family.
That was fine by me. From what I’d seen, Evansville was a nice little city—safe, wholesome, in the grand scheme of things—but it wasn’t anywhere I planned to be long-term. It wasn’t the kind of place I usually found myself at all, actually. But a growing meth problem in the area had caught the attention of the state’s junior senator, who happened to be in a foursome on the links with my boss. I’d been between assignments, so he’d offered to send me down as a training consultant. I’d been in town a little over a month and still had sixty days to go on the schedule we’d laid out. Considering I wasn’t operating under the radar in a Colombian jungle, I’d have to say it wasn’t the worst assignment I’d ever been stuck with, but it wasn’t the best, either.
Even being firmly in the outsider category, I knew about the shooting. The kid’s name was Lucas Kingsley, and he’d just turned fourteen years old. He’d apparently been a good kid, played Little League baseball at the American Legion every summer for most of his life. According to the case file on the shooting, his mother died of cancer two years ago, and he’d bounced from a grandmother’s house to an aunt and uncle, and eventually landed with his biological father, a confirmed loser who lived in probably the only neighborhood in the city that could reasonably be classified as dangerous.
Gang activity in Evansville wasn’t in the same universe as I’d seen in larger places, but it was still out there. The one that sank its teeth into Lucas was Zoe Pound, a Haitian faction operating mostly out of Miami. With an active port on the Ohio River beset by a shortage of monitoring staff, ZP had zeroed in on Evansville as a minor transport hub for its trafficking network. The day Lucas died, he’d been spotting for the Pound and had seen Officer Joseph West pull up to a convenience store across from the house he was watching.
The cop had spooked him.
Lucas knew who West was, not only by the uniform, but because he’d helped coach Lucas’s baseball team three summers running. That and a general fear of cops had probably created a little bit of hero worship that made West seem more threatening than he was. Whatever the case, Lucas hadn’t seen Joe, his old coach, or even Officer West, a not-quite-rookie beat cop on patrol, stopping for a cup of coffee. Looking at the man through eyes bleary from the doctored joint he’d smoked just before he came outside, what Lucas saw was a threat.
According to West’s debriefing, Kingsley had screamed, “Five-Oh,” and, without warning, thrown himself out from behind the dumpster he was using as a hiding place, opening fire on West and the convenience store parking lot, where several people were loitering. With the instincts of a cop, West hit the pavement and returned fire. He hadn’t known who was firing at him, but even if he had, it was a justified shooting. It had easily saved his life, and probably prevented any of the scattered pedestrians out on the street that morning from getting caught in the cross fire.
Lucas Kingsley fired twelve rounds and hit nothing but a few cars and a scraggly tree; West fired four and hit nothing but Lucas Kingsley.
I didn’t know Officer West, but I thought about him as I methodically scrubbed and showered. He was going to be fully cleared of any wrongdoing by the investigation, no doubt about it. But I knew from personal experience that words like “appropriate situational response” and “justified police action” didn’t make taking the life of a fourteen-year-old boy any easier.
The only reason I was privy to the details of the case at all was because the situation was far out of the EPD police chief’s sphere of experience, and he’d asked, unofficially, for my input on handling it. I don’t know how helpful I was; most of the places I operated in didn’t have things like official investigations into officer actions. They were lucky to have officers at all. But I’d bullshitted out a couple of suggestions and went back to work with the narcotics divisions. It was five days since the incident, and I’d be lying to myself if I tried to pretend Officer West hadn’t been in the back of my mind all week. Killing a kid did something to you; there weren’t many people in the world who understood that the way West did now. The way I did.
Once I finished in the locker room, I left the police station and made my way to my truck. I planned to head back to the furnished apartment the department had secured for me and crash. But somehow, that’s not where I ended up. Driving on autopilot, I pulled up in front of a small brick bungalow. West was home on administrative leave—standard operating procedure for an officer-involved shooting. I maybe wouldn’t admit it to anyone, myself included, but I’d known I would end up here at some point. I’d memorized his address and taken note of the neighborhood without conscious thought when I looked at West’s file with the police chief. Then, later, I’d done enough research to know how to find the place without missing a turn.
The front yard had been recently seeded but was already brown in patches, the way a yard gets when it’s frequently visited by a dog. Overall, the house showed signs of age but was in very good condition. The paint wasn’t peeling, and the steps were straight and firm. There might not be any frills, but it was clear West took pride in the ownership of his home. Inspecting the exterior, I knew I was stalling.
I was self-aware enough to find my presence at the man’s curb more than a little absurd. If there’d been another car in the driveway, I probably would have pulled back onto the road and driven away. The Evansville Police Department didn’t assign beat officers or patrolmen partners, but West sure as hell had friends on the force to support him. Family, maybe. But the only vehicle in evidence was a dark-green SUV backed into a carport. It had an EPD parking permit sticker in the windshield. So he was home, and odds were, he was alone.
I tapped the wheel. With a muttered “Shit,” I shoved open my door, trying not to think too hard about what I was doing as I climbed onto the front porch. There was no sign of a doorbell, so I knocked sharply on the storm door.
Then the scrabble of dog claws and a few whining barks. The dog didn’t sound aggressive or excited. It sounded uncertain. More than anything, this told me what the atmosphere in the house probably was. Pets are easily the most accurate mirrors of their owners’ moods available. This one was clearly feeling distressed.
I knocked again, harder this time, and the whining increased, now accompanied by scratching sounds. This, finally, elicited some human movement. “Damn it, Jack,” I heard a voice growl—West, I assumed, although I didn’t know him well enough to be sure. “Get down.”
I waited as locks tumbled and the door opened. The man was bare-chested, wearing worn jeans and white athletic socks. On another kind of day, I might have taken a minute to appreciate the look. But the situation, and the fact that he reeked of alcohol, were ample distraction today.
“Look, I told you. I just want to be—” West broke off as surprise flashed across his features for a second before his face blanked. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
“Olivera.” I pulled my jacket aside, letting him see the gun and Department of Homeland Security badge on my belt.
Confusion and a spark of recognition passed over his features—sometimes having a reputation is useful. His voice didn’t get any friendlier, but there was an almost imperceptible shift in his posture that acknowledged my authority, albeit unwillingly. “What are you doing here?”
I didn’t let his tone phase me. “Can I come in?” I asked, voice flat.
He looked like he wanted to throw me off his porch, but finally he gave me a curt nod and turned back toward the home’s interior. I assumed that was as close as I would come to getting an engraved invitation, so I pulled open the screen door and followed him.
The dog, a massive mutt with what looked like a lot of golden retriever in him, seemed happier now, dancing around my legs and looking for attention before he sidled back to his master. West barely acknowledged the animal, but he was gentle as he herded the dog through a bedroom door and closed it. He went back to the living room without looking at me and flopped on the couch, drinking from a brown beer bottle. There were five empties in front of him, as well as a quarter-full bottle of Jack Daniels. Looked like he’d been using the beer as a chaser.
The television was off, but West was staring at it like it was the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded in game seven of the World Series. Besides the sofa, there were two other chairs in the room. A light dusting of golden hair told me one of them belonged to the dog, and the other was full of a massive pile of laundry. It looked clean, but given the atmosphere in the house, I wasn’t sure. Since I wasn’t in the mood to rearrange the clothes or brush dog hair off my ass, I sat down on the opposite end of the sofa.
Patiently, I let the silence stretch between us and was rewarded when, after holding out for almost ten minutes, West finally looked at me. “If you’re here to debrief me, I’ve already been through it. Twice. Read the report.”
“Already have,” I replied.
A muscle in his jaw twitched. “Did Captain Dobbs send you, because I don’t need any of his fucking—”
“Dobbs didn’t send me,” I interrupted.
West’s temper, held in check by alcohol-induced apathy, flared. The fact that he reacted at all was encouraging; at least I shouldn’t have to sober him up before I got him in the truck. “Then maybe we can cut the guessing game and you can just tell me why a mysterious federal drug expert is in my house?”
“Because you don’t need to be alone right now.”
There was a second of surprised silence, and then I could see his blood pressure rising as color rushed to his face. “I don’t even know you, man. Where do you get off telling me what I need?”
“Pete,” I replied tonelessly. West looked nonplussed, so I decided to clarify. “My name’s Pete. Now you know me.”
There was a long beat of incredulous silence. “Perfect. Great to meet you, Pete. Now that we know one another, you can get the fuck out of my house.” He picked up his beer and knocked the rest of it back in one long swallow. I waited until he finished before answering.
There was another incredulous pause. “No?” West repeated. “What do you mean, ‘no’? This is my house, and I don’t want you here.”
I glanced at my watch. The paper said the viewing was supposed to start around six o’clock, which meant we had four hours. We were going to have to speed this up. “Can’t do that, West. Like I said, you don’t need to be alone right now.”
He stared at me. I was pretty sure he was resisting the urge to flip me off. When he spoke, his words were slow. “You want to sit here and watch me drink? Nothing good on daytime television right now?”
I reached forward and plucked the bottle out of his hand. He’d had enough to drink, and I wanted to get on the road. “I don’t have time for this. Put on a shirt and shoes. You might want to pack a bag.”
Taking the bottle was enough to get him moving. West sputtered and grabbed for the beer, and when I held it out of his reach, his temper went from a steady simmer to full boil in a flash. Perfect. Probably it’s what I should have done ten minutes ago, but at least the delay meant all of the fucking school buses should be out of the way before we got on the road. West surged to his feet, swaying slightly. He didn’t let the alcohol keep him from wrapping his hand around the collar of my T-shirt. I let him. And I let him haul me off the sofa. Because I was feeling magnanimous, I didn’t even let my lips twitch into amusement when he pulled my face close to his and snarled, “I don’t know who you think you are, but if you don’t get out of my living room, I’m going to throw you out the fucking window.”
I held myself perfectly still for half a second to make sure he was finished, then said, “No.”
And I struck, lightning fast, breaking his hold and twisting one arm behind his back. Before West had time to register exactly what was happening, I had him on his knees, pushed face-first into the sofa cushions. Inside the closed bedroom, the dog was barking again. I ignored it. Underneath me, West thrashed, struggling for longer than I expected before he finally went still, panting in silent acknowledgement of the fact that I had him pinned. I waited until I was sure he was listening before I spoke, leaning close to his ear.
“Listen to me, because I’m only going to say this once. You’re hurting, and that’s okay. It means you’re human. Right now, though, Evansville is the last place you need to be. That kid’s funeral is this weekend.” West’s hands clenched, but he didn’t start struggling again, and I continued. “His picture’s going to be slapped up on every television screen and newspaper in the city. It’s going to hit you in the fucking face every time you open your eyes. When you walk down to the package store to get more beer, the asshole behind the register is going to start asking you questions about it. If you try to go in to the precinct to get some normalcy, you’re going to have to walk through the fucking protestors standing in front of the building, exercising their rights to be idiots.”
Something I said must have struck a nerve, because against the sofa, West panted and bucked again, but I knew he wasn’t going to be able to break the hold. Again the thought flitted unbidden across my mind that, any other time, this was a man I’d enjoy having pinned underneath me. Luckily, West started running his mouth before I let myself think too hard about that, and I used the distraction to focus. “What do you care? Why are you here?” he demanded, pulling my attention back to the task at hand.
“That’s not germane to the conversation,” I replied, calm. “What matters is that you have two choices. You can stand up, get some clothes on, get enough shit together for two days, and come with me.”
“Or?” He spoke through clenched teeth, still struggling. I had to give him points for effort.
“Or I can make you stand up, get some clothes on, get enough shit together for two days, and drag you out with me.” I let him go and stepped back, letting my expression convey the fact that I could restrain him again anytime I wanted. “Choose.”
As soon as my hands were off of him, West rolled to his feet and glared at me. His eyes swirled with fury, but underneath it, I could clearly see pain. “You whisking me away for a romantic weekend?” he spat. “That’s sweet. You know, there are a lot of rumors going around about you, Special Agent Olivera, but I wouldn’t have pegged you for a fag.”
I snorted. “You’re cute, West, but I don’t sleep with anyone—man or woman—who’s gone as long as you have without a shower. You reek.”
Apparently, that wasn’t the answer he’d been expecting, and it was enough to yank West out of his fit. His jaw dropped open. Clearly thrown, he sputtered. “Wait. What? You mean—I was just—”
“Shut up and get your shit. I’ll be in the truck. You have five minutes.”