ABQ Heat: Book One Albuquerque police officer Benji Miller made the choice to hide his sexuality and devote his life to his career. He guards his secret carefully, believing he is protecting his job and happiness. Then, during a routine traffic stop gone awry, he shoots a suspect and his life spins out of control. A department-mandated paid leave rips away the only distraction he had, and he has to deal with the unsympathetic media who criticize the police department’s every move. One day, needing to get out of the house, Benji walks into a café, where he meets Neal McCoy—a gay man living without shame, unafraid to speak his mind or stand up against prejudice. Benji quickly falls for Neal but struggles to combine his new love interest and his career. With the media threatening the careful illusion he’s built around himself, Benji can’t stand the pressure. Benji has to decide: sacrifice his happiness in the name of his career and an easy life, or find the courage to give up the lonely existence he knows and take a step into the unknown.
BENJI Miller typed the address into the map system on his squad car’s laptop and flipped on the blues and reds. Without using the siren, he made a U-turn and raced northbound, only slowing to cross intersections. It was after 8:30 p.m., but the traffic was light, which made the trip safe and siren free.
Stealing a glance at his passenger, Benji wondered if anything could change the reporter’s expression or if he was stuck in a constant state of boredom. Maybe using the siren would make going eighty seem more thrilling to the stoic man.
Being slapped with a ride along was stressful enough—watching a civilian’s back as well as your own was not a walk in the park—but when it was a reporter, the stress was tripled. Expecting every word or action to be skewed in a negative light made for a bad shift and some awkward, stumbling conversations with the journalist for Benji.
“What’s the call?” Charles, the perpetually bored reporter, asked as he watched the 35 mph signs pass by without a hint of excitement. Had he taken cough syrup?
Benji suppressed the urge to ask if Charles had bothered to listen to the dispatcher. While she had used codes, Nancy had also explained the situation in regular words. “Reported beating,” he summarized.
“Could it escalate into a situation needing excessive force?”
Benji was grateful the sun had long since retreated, because the face he was making at Charles was nothing he was proud of. “Any situation could potentially lead to a bad night.”
“Is that what you think it is when a resident is gunned down? A bad night?”
Benji ignored the question as he turned onto a residential street and killed the top lights. He found Cedar and parked where the street met Pine. He could see Mathews’s squad car farther up Pine, where the next street intersected.
“Why are you so far from the address?” Charles asked.
“We walk.” Benji opened his door and stepped out, leaving the car running in case they needed to depart quickly. “Stay back until we know the situation,” he instructed, even though he expected Charles to ignore him, just as he had all evening.
Benji approached the address, lowering the volume of the radio attached to his belt. Mathews met him in the driveway with a grin. “I got the front door,” he said and Benji stepped to the corner of the house to watch his back. They were the same age, and Benji was larger, standing slightly taller at six feet, but Mathews seemed to crave excitement, so Benji never argued with him about who took lead.
Placing his hand on his Taser gun, Benji watched as Mathews stood to the side of the door and reached across, knocked, and announced their presence. The porch light blinked out, and Benji felt the first jolt of adrenaline kick in.
Mathews knocked again and shouted for the owner to open the door. Benji risked a quick glance at the reporter, and found Charles waiting on the sidewalk behind him—too close for comfort. He cursed under his breath and backed up to stand between Charles and the house.
“Standing farther away will keep you safe until we know the situation.” Charles met his firm tone with a shrug. He heard Mathews heading in their direction and dropped further argument with Charles.
“No one wants to come out.” Mathews lifted his flashlight and pointed the beam at a car parked facing in the wrong direction at the curb. “Think it’s the owner’s?”
“Call in the plates and see.”
“Parked illegally, so I could have it towed. They won’t open the door when we knock. I wonder if they’ll come out to talk if they see a tow truck.” Mathews walked around the reporter to read the license plate into his radio’s com, clipped on his shoulder.
Benji studied the quiet and dark house. Towing the car was a roundabout way to get the homeowner outside to talk, but a reporter would probably not agree with Mathews’s idea. “Which neighbor called in the possible beating?”
“Across the street,” Mathews answered and walked back to his side. “Vehicle belongs to a Leonard Lopez. Registration is this address.”
“You really want to tow it?”
“No. There’s no point.”
Charles tapped Benji on the shoulder. “You’re not going to go in and talk to these people?”
“We can’t go in unless they open the door,” Benji said, slightly confused as to what the reporter expected from them. “There’s no probable cause to force entry.”
“Don’t you knock down the door and sic a dog on the perp?”
Mathews turned quickly and walked away, his laughter filling the silent street. Benji glared at Mathew’s back until he could decide on an answer. “There’s no cause for that.”
Charles shrugged again and followed on Benji’s heels when he crossed the street behind Mathews. Mathews already had the neighbor out on her stoop talking when they reached him.
She was an older woman in mismatched bathrobe and slippers. Benji hoped she wasn’t the type to call the police over every party on the block. If she was, it was a waste of time and an aggravation to her neighbors.
“Like, right after I called you guys, an SUV showed up, and the guy got up and just left in it. Then they closed the garage and turned off the lights.”
“The guy,” Mathews repeated. “Which guy?”
“The one they were hitting.”
“By ‘they’ do you mean your neighbor and his friends?”
The woman nodded. “They have parties a lot, but I’ve never seen them beat someone up like that. But he walked to the car and got in, so I guess he’s fine.”
“Thank you for your time, ma’am.” Mathews abruptly turned and headed toward his car. “See ya next time, Ben-Ben,” he called out with a wave. Benji hated that nickname. He had picked it up in the academy, and only Mathews dug it out of the past to use anymore.
Benji gave the woman a smile and wished her a good evening before heading to his car with the reporter in tow. With the verbal report that the victim was gone, and the neighbors in question refusing to come out and talk, Benji and Mathews had no choice but to leave. “I need to clock out for lunch. I’m sure you have more questions for me.”
“Of course I do.” Charles tucked his six-two frame into the passenger seat and found his notepad and pen to jot down answers, but when Benji closed his door, the cabin was dropped into darkness. The blue light from the patrol car’s laptop would not be enough to see written notes, so Benji wasn’t surprised to see Charles close his notepad. “Should have done a day shift,” he murmured.
“Then you’d miss all the excitement from a swing shift,” Benji teased as he typed on his laptop to sign out for break. The dispatcher confirmed his request with a semicolon and parenthesis at the end to make a smile. Benji smiled in return.
“Excitement? You knocked on a door.”
“We try not to shoot civilians every night.” He immediately regretted his joke when Charles scoffed and turned away.
Benji was burdened with a reporter in order to demonstrate the department’s protocols in the field and act as an example for everyone in the department. Albuquerque was the largest city in New Mexico, covering over one hundred eighty square miles, with a population of approximately five hundred thousand, and it seemed to Benji that all citizens saw their city to be crime free. So when a police officer believed deadly force necessary, the citizens cried foul, and the local news outlets fanned the flames. With the media focusing on the department and the fourteen officer-involved shootings in the past fourteen months, the chief wanted to demonstrate what it was like to be a police officer to any journalists in the field willing to accept the open invitation for a ride along.
The plan was nice on paper, but Benji didn’t feel as if he was the best candidate for the task. He wanted to protect his city as much as the next guy, but he wasn’t an adrenaline junky. He’d never hesitate to take a call, but he knew men like Mathews preferred priority-one calls, so he stepped back for the thrill-seeking officers when he could.
There was also the fact that this reporter had picked an area of town lacking in crime. Sure, the reputation of the district was a bad one, but the statistics painted a different picture. The majority of the city believed the southwest side to be brimming with evildoers, simply based on the high concentration of immigrants. But it just wasn’t the case.
“Have you ever fired your gun?”
Charles’s question came as a surprise. He had expected it when the shift first started, and then figured Charles wouldn’t ask after the hours had rolled by. He directed the car back toward the station before answering. “I haven’t discharged my weapon while on duty.”
“If I exhausted all other means of subduing—”
“I want your opinion, not something out of a handbook. If a man was threatening to shoot you or anyone else, would you kill him?”
“No officer wants to kill someone, Charles. But personally, if I was faced with a choice between an innocent civilian and a gunman, I’m choosing to save the one wrongly put in danger. If that means using lethal force, I’ll have to accept it.”
“Do you not care if the armed man has a family?”
“If he has a family, he shouldn’t be shooting people. Won’t be much of a father or husband in prison either.”
Charles let out another one of his annoyed scoffs, and Benji groaned inwardly. It was going to be a long night.
BENJI preferred eating alone, so he usually timed his dinners to be in the station’s break room when it was empty. He would never willingly choose to share his break with a reporter, and counted himself lucky that Charles mostly kept quiet. Benji had brought leftover chicken salad and a handful of mixed nuts, and Charles had also packed a sandwich, but it was a simple turkey-and-cheese concoction. He eyed Benji’s meal until both had finished.
“You married?” Charles asked between sips of his canned cola.
“No.” Benji gathered his trash and tossed it into the nearest can. “No girlfriend,” he said before Charles could ask the expected follow-up question.
“How old are you?”
Charles nodded thoughtfully, and Benji figured he was doing the math in his head. He knew the length of Benji’s police career. “You were just a kid in the academy.”
“Twenty-one. I worked as a public safety aide from age eighteen to the day I entered the academy.”
“Public safety aide? Those kids in the mock police vehicles?”
Benji gave a short laugh. “Those kids are useful to the department and the city. They run errands, take simple traffic incident reports, and assist in too many ways to list.” Charles didn’t look convinced, but Benji ignored the bland expression. Spending his shift with Charles, Benji had plenty of opportunity to make a few observations. The reporter had worn a suit and tie to the ride along. The dark blue material was tailored to fit his slim build, and the color of the tie matched his brown eyes. His fingernails were manicured and his black hair tamed with product. Charles clearly expected to be looked at and made Benji suspect he was more than just a reporter. “I wasn’t told which TV station you’re from. Have I seen you on TV?”
“No. I’m from the Albuquerque Tribune.”
“Newspaper?” Benji finished his bottled water and chucked it toward the trash can. It hit the rim before tumbling in. Outside of police-related conversation, Benji didn’t find Charles’s presence unappealing, but he still couldn’t bring himself to completely trust that Charles wouldn’t spin the quiet evening into a media nightmare. “Why the suit and tie, then?”
For the first time that evening, Charles’s smile seemed genuine. Benji couldn’t help but smile in response. “I figured tattered jeans and a sweatshirt wouldn’t have quite the same professional assertion.”
“I guess you’re right.”
Charles tipped his head, studying Benji with approving eyes instead of his aggravated look. Maybe the man had just needed a meal to better his mood. “How long have you known?”
“That you’re gay.”
Benji had grown used to unfounded teasing, but he had never been asked outright before. He briefly worried that Charles had caught his gaze lingering longer than necessary, but couldn’t remember staring at him during their short time together. While he had noticed that Charles was an attractive man, he had long ago learned to ignore the part of him that wanted an eyeful. Benji was certain there was nothing about him that screamed rainbows and unicorns, but every so often, someone figured it out or simply took a wild shot and hit the target.
Regardless, he gave nothing away and answered calmly, “I’m not.” He was also used to lying. He had grown up ashamed of his sexual orientation and knew from watching others that such things were better kept secret. And he definitely knew better than to out himself to a reporter.
“I hope your closet is roomy.” Charles downed the remaining Coke and stood up to walk the can to the trash. “Mine isn’t.”
Benji checked his watch to avoid Charles’s gaze. The confession could easily be a ruse to out a police officer. He’d need some story to print, since the ride along had been a regular night so far.
“My thirty is up. Time to clock back in.” Benji stood and headed down the hallway toward the parking lot. He stopped when his curiosity got the better of him. “Why’d you tell me that?”
“I hope I won’t offend you, but sitting in the break room instead of your car made me believe you’re more like me than I first thought. That’s all. If I’m wrong, I apologize and hope you don’t use what I told you against me.”
“I’m not like that.”
“Then we have nothing more to discuss on this topic.”
Benji turned up his radio and shoved the back door open into the chilly March night.
Neal and Benji are my all time favorite couple. I also enjoyed reading the polyester prince stoey also, I would love to read a sequel to their story.
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