HE WORE the navy suit because it was her favorite, the light blue shirt because when he looked down at his cuff, the slender line of color made him remember her eyes. For twenty minutes he tore through the closet trying to find the tie she’d gotten him last Christmas, but his eyes kept filling with tears and he couldn’t see a thing.
Someone—maybe his sister-in-law, Elena—came to the door and told him the limo was waiting. He didn’t turn around, didn’t acknowledge what she said. The flare in the middle of his chest terrified him and he couldn’t find his voice. Eventually he gave up the search for the tie and settled for a blue one with tiny green leaves. He walked to the mirror, began knotting his tie while studiously avoiding looking at his own face. He fixed on a random point—the headboard of their bed—and suddenly fell into a pit he had been avoiding since she’d died.
Less than a week ago, he and Sherri had been lying there together, enjoying a rare moment of quiet grown-up time. He’d come home late—as usual—and found her already asleep, curled up on his side of the bed. When he’d slid in behind her, he saw she wore his faded USMC T-shirt. And nothing else.
“Mmmm, baby. What did I do to deserve this?” he asked, pressing his mouth to her tousled blonde hair.
She rolled over, rubbing her still-closed eyes, a sleepy smile crossing her face. “You? Oh no, honey, this is my reward.”
They’d laughed quietly, easily. Taking time to talk over her day, his hands roaming all over her body. She told him a silly story about her misadventures in carpooling that day and ended with, “Don’t you agree I deserve something special?”
The mischievous look in her hazel eyes was his undoing, and he leaned in to kiss her deeply. After nearly twenty years of friendship and fifteen of physical passion, there weren’t many surprises left when they made love. But somehow the pleasure that came from learned rhythms and unspoken commands more than made up for the lack of mystery.
Afterward, they’d cuddled, whispered sweet silly sayings back and forth—the ones too intimate to share in the daylight. Evan had gotten up to go to the kitchen for his ritual glass of “postcoital water,” as Sherri drolly put it. When he’d come back, she was curled up again—on her side this time—sleeping soundly. He went to bed, wrapping himself around her.
And three days later… three days later, at the precinct, his phone rang and she was gone.
THE VIEWING took six painful hours. Evan spent the entire time sitting in the front row, at least one of his children huddled by his side at all times. They were feverish with grief, restless and dazed from weeping. He knew he should get up and circulate the crowded room, but his legs would not cooperate. He could barely manage the small talk he was forced to make when someone new arrived.
He watched them kneel at Sherri’s coffin, whisper to each other. (He presumed about how she looked so wonderful, so young and beautiful. You’d never have guessed she was thirty-four, the mother of two teenagers, and two not far behind. You’d never have guessed that some asshole with a suspended license had driven his pickup through a stop sign and into the side of the family Explorer, killing her instantly.) Then they’d walk over to the MacGregors—her parents, Phil and Josie, and only sister, Elena—and finally end up in front of Evan, mouthing their condolences and sympathy.
He just wanted them all to go away.
By noon the crowd had thinned. Saturday afternoon meant errands to run, he supposed. Elena took the kids across the street to the diner for lunch. Phil went outside for a smoke. Evan and Josie sat silently next to one another. He was trying to swallow his sobs; his mother-in-law was on her fifth rosary of the day.
Listening to Josie’s earnest mumbling of prayer next to him, Evan thought about his own family. Or lack thereof. His father was long gone, as well as the stepfathers he assumed were dead by now; his mother vegetated in an upstate nursing home, losing another year of her memory every day. He had brought no family history into their marriage—no warm stories, no aunts, uncles, cousins. Just nightmares and demons that Sherri had tenderly soothed away in the dead of night. Everything they had created had been filtered through Sherri, through her happy childhood, through her dreams of a big family.
“Your friends are here, Evan,” Josie said softly in his ear.
Evan blinked and turned to his mother-in-law. Her face—Sherri’s face from somewhere down a timeline that didn’t exist anymore—was inches from his. He could barely hear her voice.
“Your friends, dear. From the police force.” Josie motioned to the group milling awkwardly around Sherri’s casket. Helena Abbott, Vic Wolkowski, Jonah Moses, and Kalee Jensen, all dressed formally, all wearing their ever-present trench coats.
Vic made the sign of the cross and knelt down to pray. Helena rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath before crossing over to where Evan sat with Josie.
Evan stood and accepted Helena’s tight embrace.
“Hey, partner,” she whispered in his ear. “How ya holding up?”
He shrugged, resting his chin on her shoulder. No one except his children had touched him like this in days, and the comfort nearly destroyed his composure. “I just wish it was over,” he whispered back. I just wish this never happened, he thought.
Helena pulled back from the hug, keeping her hands firmly on his arms. “Do you need me to do anything? Anything at all, all you have to do is ask.”
He shook his head. “No. I think I’m okay right now. I’ll let you know—really.” He was grateful she let the lie pass without challenge. “Uh, Helena, this is Sherri’s mom, Josie MacGregor. Mom, this is Helena Abbot, my partner.”
The women shook hands. “Yes, I remember you from the hospital. It’s so kind of you to come.”
Oh right, the hospital. Running anxiously down the corridor, flashing his badge, trying to get some answers. Helena trailing behind—she’d refused to let him come alone.
“I didn’t know Sherri very well, but… I just wanted to say how terribly sorry I am for your loss, Mrs. MacGregor.”
Mr. Cerelli? This way.
“Thank you, Miss Abbot.”
We made the initial identification from information found at the scene.
“Mrs. MacGregor, this is our captain, Victor Wolkowski.”
“Thank you for coming, Captain.”
We just need you to verify this is your wife, Sherri Cerelli.
“I know something of what you’re going through, Evan. If you need to talk….”
Evan nodded grimly, tightening his grip on Vic’s hand. In all the years they’d worked together, he’d never imagined this was something they’d have in common.
Cold and pale on the metal gurney, a clean sheet placed over her. They’d wiped off most of the blood. The left side of her skull was crushed. All the air left Evan’s lungs in a single instant. An ER doctor was quietly telling him she’d been DOA—probably died on impact.
Moses and Jensen hovered quietly in the background until Evan motioned them over. Another round of introductions. Another round of helpful offers of comfort, camaraderie, assistance. Evan politely thanked them, an unspoken but shared knowledge that he couldn’t accept what they offered. The small group lapsed into awkward silence. Thankfully, the children and Elena returned from lunch, pulling everyone’s attention from Evan.
They let him touch her hand and kiss her icy lips. It wasn’t Sherri at all, and he felt as though he was cheating to be grieving for this corpse.
Helena and Vic stayed for the rest of the viewing, moving to sit behind Evan’s right shoulder once the crowds starting swelling again. He wished he could let them know how comforting it was to him.
The closing of the casket was the worst part by far. Sherri’s family finished their prayers over her body. Miranda and Kathleen held each other, reining in their emotions, he knew, to avoid setting the twins off. But nothing was going to stop Elizabeth and Danny from falling apart, quickly moving from weepy to hysterical. Evan clutched the twins to his chest, holding the seven-year-olds as if they were squirming toddlers, until caring hands pulled the kids away, as if sensing Evan’s growing helplessness.
Because Evan knew there were no more distractions, no more excuses.
Phil and Josie seemed to sense his bewilderment. They gently led the weeping twins away to get their coats and wait in the car for him, Miranda and Katie arm in arm as they trailed behind. Only Elena remained, but she stood outside the viewing room with Father Deckard, giving Evan his privacy.
He knelt down to finally face his wife. He looked at the pale representation of the strong and vibrant woman he had loved for twenty years. He remembered the first time he saw her, in junior high. He remembered falling so deeply in love with her, so quickly, that it bordered on obsession. It would probably surprise people to know he’d never kissed another woman in passion, never felt another woman’s body. It had always been him and Sherri, joined at the hip since they were fourteen, joined at the heart for twenty years. The panic set in so fast he didn’t realize he was sobbing until his forehead touched Sherri’s clasped hands, folded neatly over her prayer book. What was he supposed to do? She was everything.
His friend, his lover, his anchor. She made everything safe for him.
“Oh, Jesus, Sherri. Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. I should have been home more, I should have done more. Oh, I’m sorry. Please forgive me, Sherri.” He wept and wept until his entire being split in two. He drowned in his grief. Only the distant thought of his children brought him up for air.
Elena was holding him when everything came back into focus. She stroked his hair and made soothing noises close to his ear. “Evan? Honey, just breathe, okay?” He heard her say something to Father Deckard—Make sure the kids don’t come in. They shouldn’t see this. Oh God.
He pulled himself together one piece at a time. This wasn’t him, this wasn’t going to help anything. He had his kids to take care of. At some point he’d have to go back to work. Okay, Evan. This is who you are. Be a man. Sherri’s gone but you still have responsibilities. Come on. Get off your knees and say good-bye.
Gently, he shrugged Elena off. He staggered to his feet and leaned over the casket, this time pressing his lips against Sherri’s forehead. He prayed for her immortal soul. He asked God to take care of her, because she deserved to have someone watch over her for a change. She’d been the best possible wife and mother, and he loved her so much and he wanted her to be at peace. Amen.
Evan wiped his eyes on his sleeve and moved away from the casket. He didn’t look back. He couldn’t. Father Deckard made noises in his direction, but Evan kept walking. He’d never had much use for organized religion; he and God had an uneasy relationship at best. The children were being raised in the Church for Sherri’s sake—that wouldn’t change.
He strode out of the viewing room, through the tasteful lobby of the funeral home, and out the door. The kids were huddled together in the backseat of his sedan. Danny and Elizabeth had given in to their exhaustion, and the other two girls didn’t look as though they were going to last too long. His in-laws stood at the curb, their faces etched in sadness.
“Thanks, Mom, Dad. I’ll see you tomorrow at church.”
“Evan, please, we can take the kids to our place….”
“No. I’ll see you both tomorrow.” He kissed Josie, shook Phil’s hand, and got into the car.
As they pulled away, he heard Kathleen’s quiet voice from the backseat. “Daddy?”
“What are we going… I mean, what’s going to happen now?” The “without Mommy” hung heavy in the air.
Evan took a deep breath and tapped into the last reserve of his strength. “I don’t know exactly, Kathleen—I’ll be honest with you. But I’m going to do my very best to make sure we’re okay. I promise.”
This seemed to placate his daughter. She laid her head on Miranda’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Evan caught his eldest child’s eyes in the rearview mirror. They shared a weary moment; then Miranda rested her heavy eyes as well.
Then Evan was alone with his grief.
MATT HAIGHT sat in his car, watching the entrance of the Stag Bar with butterflies in his stomach. Come to think of it, it felt more like a hornet with an Uzi. He could smell all the cops in there from across the street; inside, in that sea of blue, was the place he wanted to be most, and least, in the world. Only Abe Klein’s retirement party could bring him to the city, into a room full of detectives and beat cops, reminding Matt over and over of what his life no longer was.
It’d been a long time since he’d hung with cops from Manhattan. Staten Island might as well be a leper colony (and he the head leper?), because no one wanted to be there and no one wanted to admit knowing Matt Haight. Then again, he hadn’t been a cop for almost a year, so basically, no one gave a shit in triplicate.
Jesus H. Christ, he needed a drink.
With shakier hands than he would ever admit to, Matt swung his tall, muscled form out of the sedan. He supposed it was some sort of psychological thing that he still drove a detective’s car, still dressed as if he were on the force. He just couldn’t seem to give up the illusion of his former life. They called him Lieutenant Matt at the security firm he worked for, and with a forced smile, he would laugh at the joke and walk away. He’d gotten good at walking away—a hard lesson learned, but he figured at forty-fucking-two years old, he might as well start acting like an adult.
Or so he liked to tell himself right before he got falling-down drunk.
Suddenly he was inside the bar, taking automatic inventory of the wood paneling, boxing memorabilia, and TVs playing baseball games at either end of the bar—gee, Anybar NYC. Boy, did this place look familiar.
A quick scan told him he didn’t know anyone milling around the main room; he could hear the roars of laughter and raucous buzz of conversation from the back. At some point he’d have to go find Abe in that sea of familiar faces and give him his most sincere congratulations, but first Matt moved to the bar, checked the Yankees score, and waited for the bartender to notice him. He knew there would be whispering and he didn’t want to hear it. So he’d wait until he was just a little bit drunk.
The door behind him opened and he turned to see if it was someone he knew. Vic fucking Wolkowski! A big smile crossed Matt’s face.
The bald captain was taking off his jacket and looked up, smiling when he saw who it was. “Matty! What the hell are you doing here?”
It wasn’t meant to be a slight, but it hurt anyway.
“Couldn’t miss Abe’s send-off.” They shook hands heartily. “You look good, Matty. They tell me you left the force.”
“Yeah, yeah. Time to move on.” He shrugged, pretending it was no big deal. Vic kindly played along. “I got a decent job working for a corporate security firm. We analyze security for businesses, protect head honchos from disgruntled employees. That sort of shit.”
Matt laughed. “I’m doing okay.” I can afford to eat my dinner every night in the shithole pub down the street from my one-room apartment. I’m doing great, he thought.
“So let me ask you something. You think that highfalutin firm’d have something for me?”
“You thinking about retiring, Vic?”
“Might be nice. I get awfully tired these days. Vice can really be a black hole.”
Matt nodded. He’d never done any time in Vice but remembered his own dealings in Homicide, working in conjunction with the other department. Some things were actually worse than death.
“Hey, meet some detectives from my unit.” For the first time, Matt realized there were people standing a few feet away, waiting for Vic. A man and a woman. Jesus, thought Matt, how did I miss her? Must be slipping in my old age. He flashed a ten-thousand-watt smile in her direction.
“Helena Abbot, Evan Cerelli, meet Matt Haight. He used to partner with Abe back in Homicide.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Matt said with a squeeze to Helena’s hand.
She smiled back. Ho-ly cow. Gorgeous smile. Violet eyes. Short, glossy black hair that looked more Fifth Avenue professional than Vice cop. He shook the guy’s hand—Elvis?—and immediately turned his attention back to Helena.
He never got beyond opening his mouth. Helena moved past him and signaled the bartender. “Evan, Captain—Matt, right? What do you guys want?”
“Aw, c’mon, Evan, not even a beer?”
“Peer pressure notwithstanding, Helena, just club soda,” Evan said.
“Uh, I’ll take a beer,” Matt piped up, resisting the urge to sniff himself or check his teeth for a plank of wood stuck in between the front two.
“Tap or bottle?”
“Tap’s fine,” Matt said, unable to come up with anything witty.
Her smile looked warm but her eyes indicated her mind was elsewhere. Matt wasn’t getting any beeps on the interest meter. Ouch.
The drinks came and Helena played hostess. Her main focus seemed to be Evan. She kept touching his arm and shining her bright smile in his direction. The conversation was light and full of Vic catching up Matt on old acquaintances, peppered with a few “remember that time” stories thrown in. He listened with half an ear—Helena was a distraction. He couldn’t for the life of him figure out what she seemed to see in her partner. This guy was no player, that was for damn sure, and seemed on the stiff side. He obviously didn’t know how to respond to Helena’s flirting.
Vic excused himself when he saw a friend enter the bar, leaving Matt to officially become the third wheel.
Fuck. Maybe it was time to find Abe.
“Hey, I’m gonna check out the party in the back room. You guys coming?” He sounded idiotic. It felt like high school.
Helena smiled at him. “Thanks—we’ll be in soon.”
Thank you. I’m dismissed, thought Matt. He picked up his beer—and the dark cloud over his head—and walked into the back room.
About seventy-five of Abe’s closest friends were toasting his health and, apparently, the size of his penis. Classy bunch. God, but he missed them. Matt scanned the room and spotted his old friend chatting with a few suits in the corner. Trying to avoid eye contact with anyone, Matt moved toward Abe.
He had almost made it when a hand snaked out of the crowd and grabbed his arm. “Matt Haight!” a voice bellowed. Matt turned and looked down into the red and bloated face of Rick Hanlon, a former academy classmate. Last he’d heard, Rick was on the fast track to being a captain. If he didn’t drink himself to death first.
Oh great, thought Matt, exactly who I want to see right now.
“Matty, baby! How the fuck are you? Jesus, they let you off foot patrol for this!” The Rick clones sitting around his table laughed obediently. “What are you doing on the big island?”
Matt flashed his most charming smile and counted backward from ten. “Hey, Rick. No, no foot patrol for me. I’m outta the blue uniform these days. Working private security—”
Rick cut him off. “Security guard—niiice. Do ya have a spiffy outfit?” More inane laughter.
“Yeah, whatever. See ya, Rick.” Matt turned on his heel, heading blindly out the way he’d come. Jesus fucking Christ. How had he thought this was a good idea?
He could feel all the eyes burning into his back. He felt like America’s Most Wanted. Brothers in blue—what a crock of shit. Brothers until you turned one of them in for being no better than the people they arrested. Brothers who had your back, your life in their hands, until you decided that the truth mattered more than their crap codes. Then all bets were apparently off.
The anger and frustration washed over him like a wave.
This was where he always got himself in trouble, and he was determined to keep a lid on it. He’d paid the ultimate price—his career—for the temporary gratification of letting the anger escape in one punch.
Matt stopped, took a deep breath, and found himself back at the bar. He signaled the bartender, got his prompt attention by waving a twenty, and ordered another beer. Turning his head, he saw that the Vice detectives had moved to a table in the corner. Wolkowski was gone—probably in the back room—but an attractive woman had joined Helena and Evan. Jeez, didn’t any ugly girls work at Vice? He considered going over to say hello but thought again. Did he want to be ignored by two women?
Without anything else to do—besides the obvious option of getting drunk—Matt watched the three detectives at the corner table, still trying to figure out what this Evan guy had going to make two such hot women fawn over him.
But when Matt took a closer look, he realized that the detective barely reacted to their teasing. He smiled automatically but kept looking into the distance, as if engaged in an entirely different scene playing out in his head. After a few moments, he excused himself and got up, grabbing a cell phone from his coat pocket as he walked outside. When Matt looked back toward the table, he saw the two women frowning, whispering.
Something screwy going on in Vice. Wow, what a brilliant detective you were, Matt. Stunning they let you get away.
The door opened again and Evan returned, followed by another man. Round and balding, in a cheap suit, looking ten years older than he probably was—definitely a cop. There was general chatting as Evan grabbed another chair to add to the table, and a friendly wave of conversation filled the air.
EVAN SETTLED down, glad to have Moses there to soak up some of the attention from his fellow detectives. Ducking out of the conversation mentally, he looked up to see Matt Haight watching the table with a hangdog expression. Evan gave him a smile. He felt a little bad about what happened earlier at the bar. He could see Matt was interested in Helena and she hadn’t seemed to notice.
He knew why; he was there and Helena was sweetly transparent. She’d been working so hard at keeping an eye on him over the past year that their once equal relationship had become more of a nurse/patient one. Every morning she brought him breakfast and watched him eat it. Every afternoon she nagged him about lunch. She told jokes and kept herself so perkily “up” that sometimes he worried she was going to hurt herself. Before they took leave of each other at night, she reminded him about his dinner. The woman was obsessed with his eating habits. Sometimes she called him at home over the weekend just to chat, pretending she needed his expert help on something.
Evan missed just being Helena’s friend and partner.
Evan knew the story of Matt Haight. After a year of spending time in the Vic Wolkowski’s Widower/Divorced Guy Outreach Program (as fellow participant Moses had christened it), he’d gotten the dirt: Matt Haight’s legendary temper, his pissing off the wrong politicians with his also legendary opinions, and his career being offered up as a sacrificial lamb when he’d stumbled on a string of dirty cops while investigating a junkie’s murder. Bringing down a corrupt but well-liked cop to put a “solved” sticker on the case of a dead heroin dealer didn’t exactly get you a ticker-tape parade. NYC Homicide detective busted down to Staten Island beat cop and then leaving the force forever—a hell of a fall from grace. It was probably a cop’s worst nightmare outside of death or injury. Or maybe not. Death most likely meant honor. What happened to Haight stained a man, inside and out, forever.
Evan motioned for him to join them at the table. Haight hesitated, so he waved at him again. Matt made as though he was going to refuse, but Evan could read the loneliness on his face. After a small pause, he got off his barstool and headed over.
“Hi, Matt. Come and join us?” Evan said politely.
Everyone at the table looked up expectantly. Helena seemed to realize her faux pas before at the bar, because she nodded enthusiastically. “I didn’t see you over there or I would have waved you over myself!”
Matt smiled wanly and pulled over a chair. They all scooted until the chairs fit.
Evan gestured between Matt and the newcomers. “Matt Haight, Kalee Jensen and Jonah Moses. Vice.”
Handshakes and nods all around. Kalee flashed a flirty smile in Matt’s direction, and he gave her one in return before she launched into a rant against the public defender who’d cross-examined her at a trial the previous day. Things quickly turned into a “you think that’s bad?” contest, with even Matt joining in to tell a few stories of his own.
Helena signaled the bartender to keep the pitchers of beer coming, as this was obviously warming up into something big.
After a while the conversation degraded into Kalee and Moses getting into a fake fight over which was a tougher department, Vice or Narcotics, where Moses had spent most of his career. It slid dangerously close to a Mighty Mouse vs. Superman sort of thing, and everyone else just sat back and watched them go at it. Evan spared a glance across the table at Matt, who hadn’t said a word in quite some time. His rugged face reflected a weary acceptance of life that Evan recognized quite easily—he’d spent nearly a full year avoiding it in his own mirror.
Missing Sherri had turned out to be a full-time job. Add in raising his kids and working at Vice and he had simply given up a few things to get by. Like sleeping. Like eating (except when Helena or Miranda were around and forced him to sit down and swallow some food). Like conscious thought outside of what needed to be done. This zombielike existence seemed to be holding steady. His work hadn’t suffered—concentrating on the pain and misery of others proved to be a helpful distraction from his own looming grief. No one was really the wiser. They knew he was sad, figured he was lonely.
But they didn’t realize he’d become, for all intents and purposes, removed from life. He felt love for his children and friends, but it pretty much ended there. He couldn’t feel what they gave in return, didn’t respond when Elizabeth threw her arms around his neck or Danny curled up next to him on the couch after dinner. Every time Helena touched him, he had to stare at her hand to make the connection between his arm and brain. He knew at some point he’d have to seek help—this couldn’t go on, because sooner or later he was going to end up eating his gun. And he couldn’t do that to his children.
Over the din of conversation, Evan caught Matt’s eye and shrugged at his friends’ nonsense, smiled again. He wasn’t exactly sure why he was reaching out to this man—maybe force of habit. You see someone sitting that far down in the gutter, you lend him a hand.
MATT HAIGHT let the conversational buzz and beer settle into his bones. It’d been a long time since he’d been drinking with anyone else around. While the conversation didn’t actually include him, it was nice not to be invisible for a while. And Evan Cerelli—well, there was something in his expression that Matt recognized. Neither one of them was entirely comfortable here, but at the same time, where else were they supposed to be?
So Matt smiled back.
The friends at the table continued their raucous banter. Matt’s mind wandered again. He’d lost count of how many beers he’d consumed but knew he was nowhere near being smashed. His tolerance had built up to a pretty high level. More cops in and out the front door. More casual glances in his direction. More faint whispers of his name here and there, getting louder as the evening got later and cheap liquor destroyed any attempts at volume control. Matt’s back stiffened up slowly, his shoulders creeping up toward his ears with tension and discomfort.
“Hey, Matt,” he heard from a distance.
Evan was calling him from across the table, loud enough for Matt to hear him over the enraged shrieks now emanating from Helena and Kalee, as Moses had said something particularly ridiculous. “I see Abe over there with Vic. Have you had a chance to talk to him yet?”
Matt shook his head.
“Then let’s go over.” Evan stood up, promising the table they’d be back.
Abe and Vic were leaning on the bar, nursing club sodas and wiping their brows. Judging from the noise, no one in the back room had noticed the guest of honor had left to get some air.
Looking up, Abe broke into a huge smile when he saw Matt and moved to give him a big hug. Matt returned the affectionate embrace and felt a lump well in his throat. He always forgot how much he missed the old coot. It was a relief to see him retiring in one piece, the only one of Matt’s partners to be able to do that. He tried not to think of himself as the Harbinger of Death.
“I was hoping you’d grace us with your presence.” Abe winked over at Vic. “Shoulda checked the table with the beautiful women as soon as I came in.”
EVAN STOOD discreetly to one side, watching the warm reunion. Nice. It looked as though Matt needed someone to be thrilled to see him. He remembered how many times—before, as he thought of it—after the worst possible day, he’d come home to have one of the kids greet him with a simple smile or hug and suddenly he’d forget the ugliness. Sherri standing at the stove, turning to flash him a big smile, glad to see he’d made it home be