KURT hunkered down behind the car, waiting for Ben’s signal. How bulletproof were these cars? Thirty years ago, they were built like tanks. His father still had one, called it an antique land yacht. Now… well, they sure as hell weren’t titanium.
The sun blazed, heating his face, making sweat drip down from his short hair and into his collar. His navy-blue shirt was already drenched—Kevlar vests were hot and heavy, but they were a necessary evil. Last Tuesday in May, but the temperature rivaled the middle of July. He fucking hated midday busts on sunny, summery days. The sunshine meant they had no visibility advantages, and a sudden glare could blind someone at a critical moment.
He swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. At least if he were undercover, he could be wearing a bandana to soak up the sweat. The acrid scent of the tar heating in the asphalt battled with rotting fish and garbage from the nearby market district. He wished they’d waited for backup. But he’d only been a detective for three years—Ben had been doing this for a lot longer, and he had to bow to Ben’s greater experience. His partner might be taciturn and reticent, but he was a dedicated and effective officer. Kurt trusted him with his life.
As it should be.
Ben slipped into position by the front door of the building and gave him the signal he’d been waiting for. Tugging the collar of his vest one final time, Kurt crept around to cover the rear of the building, holding himself close to the wall, out of any of the windows’ sight lines.
Gustav, one of Ben’s informants, had contacted Ben with a tip about a suspect. Ben said they had to follow up immediately, and Kurt trusted his partner to do what was best, even though the tip was for a case that wasn’t even theirs. But Ben had contacts everywhere, and it couldn’t hurt to get a few kudos from the drug squad.
Glock poised, the familiar grip kept him grounded while he waited for the inevitable dash for the back when an officer announces himself at the front. He stretched to peer through the dirty window. There were no people. No movement. Nothing to suggest the room he observed had been used in a long time. A layer of dust coated the table and chairs.
Ben demanded entrance loudly enough for Kurt to hear, bringing his attention back to the door. Almost simultaneously, Ben booted in the front door and the building exploded, throwing Kurt backwards.
THE light hurt his eyes, but Kurt couldn’t shut them any farther than they were. He wished he could scrunch his ears shut, too, against the infernal beeping.
“Are you awake?” a strident female voice asked.
“Come on now, it’s time to wake up.”
The beeping was regular, rhythmic… like a heart monitor. Right. The harsh smell of cleansers should have given it away. He was in a hospital. The monitors must have alerted someone of his return to consciousness.
“What happened?” God. That didn’t sound like him—that sounded like someone who’d swallowed gravel for breakfast. Talking hurt like a bitch too.
“Can you open your eyes, Detective O’Donnell?”
No fucking way. “Too bright,” he managed to say. A throbbing heartbeat of pain started in his temples. Other body parts threatened to chime in, which he wasn’t looking forward to, but hell, it meant he wasn’t dead.
The light level dropped, and Kurt cracked open his lids. A nurse with—he strained to focus—teddy bears on her scrubs, stood over him, holding a clipboard and scratching out a few notes with the loudest pen ever created.
Despite her glass-cracking voice, the woman smiled down at him in sympathy. “I know. But you can’t have anything until the doctor sees you.”
She patted his shoulder gently and left the room, rubber soles squeaking, making him wince.
What the hell had happened?
He tried moving each limb, gingerly, testing for soreness. Nothing screamed as loud as his head, but there were issues with his left arm and left leg. Glancing around the room, he couldn’t see anything with the date, or even the time. The last thing he remembered was getting into the car with Ben after receiving a tip. Did they have a car accident? Had he been shot? Trying to remember sent spikes of red-hot agony into his head. Heaving out a sigh, he relaxed as much as he could on the granite slab the hospital claimed was a mattress.
Although he wanted nothing more than to rip out his IV and storm out into the hallway, demanding someone tell him what was going on, in truth, he was afraid doing so would only make everything hurt worse. He’d never felt this horrible in his life—he didn’t want to know how much shittier it could get.
The unmistakable sounds of an irate Irish couple arguing in the distance wafted into the room. He relaxed even further. If his parents couldn’t convince the doctor to hurry up and see him, as soon as his brothers and sisters descended, the hospital staff would do whatever they could to get rid of the raucous brood as soon as possible.
“That’s my baby in there!”
Uh. They were getting closer, and Kurt hoped they’d either calm his mother down or let them in, because his mother was working herself into a fine state, and her voice tap-danced in his brain.
“Mrs. O’Donnell. Mr. O’Donnell. The doctor’s on his way, I promise. Come with me to the waiting area, it won’t be long.”
The firm voice belonged to his boss. What was he doing here? Did that confirm whatever happened had been related to the bust they’d been heading to? Why couldn’t he remember what went down? And where the fuck was Ben?
Kurt brought his right hand to his head, and rubbed gently. God almighty, he needed some narcotics, or hell, maybe a beheading wouldn’t be so bad.
“Detective O’Donnell.” A tiny white-coated woman entered his room. “I’m Doctor Sarwa. How’s the head?”
“Hurts.” There went that croaking voice again. “What happened?”
“In a minute. Any nausea?”
“No, not really.” Not a lie, but he wasn’t ready to eat anything, either.
Dr. Sarwa gave a curt nod and made few notations on a clipboard before she set it down and flipped back the covers on his left side. Kurt peered down, despite the strain it put on his eyeballs, and saw a huge long bandage over his arm. Was it broken?
The doctor peeled back the bandage, revealing a number of black stitches along a jagged cut extending along the inside of his arm from mid-bicep to wrist.
“You’re lucky, Detective O’Donnell,” the doctor murmured as she gently probed at the… he couldn’t call it an incision. No self-respecting surgeon in the world would make a cut that ragged and random. “You didn’t break any bones.”
That was her definition of lucky? Having seen the damage, his arm began throbbing in time with the pounding in his brain.
Kurt took a deep breath. His throat was so dry, he didn’t want to say one more word than necessary. “Leg?”
She snorted. “Just a twisted knee, not serious at all.”
“I’ll tell the nurse when I leave. You can have a little juice.” She retaped the bandage. “Looks good. Okay, quick rundown. You conked your head, and shrapnel sliced open your arm.”
Kurt laughed, but shut it down after a second when it upgraded the tap-dancers in his head to a steel drum band. “Professional opinion?”
Dr. Sarwa smiled faintly at him. “I could get technical with you, but you’ll remember this easier once the grogginess wears off. The shrapnel was dangerous—you had to get into surgery immediately or you were going to bleed out. But it could have been a lot worse. I’ll be back later.”
He might have drifted for a few minutes, but a nurse showed up almost immediately with a cup of juice, followed by his mom and dad.
“Baby, oh, baby!” His mom flew to the side of the bed opposite the nurse. At the moment, he was more interested in the approaching bendy straw. The crisp bite of apples hit his nose, and his parchment-dry mouth salivated in response.
His mom grabbed his hand and squeezed lightly. Tears wet the back of his hand. This was the first time he’d been… certainly not hurt. With six elder siblings, he’d had his share of breaks and contusions. But this was the first time he’d been hurt on the job, because why else would he have a shrapnel wound, even if he couldn’t remember how he got it.
With his thirst eased, if not slaked, he turned his head to his mom. The nurse left, to be replaced by his dad.
“Mom, I’m okay.”
“No you’re not.”
Kurt winced, and his father spoke softly. “Deirdre, not so loud. Remember what the doctor said.”
“But he’s not okay, Sean.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“How are you feeling, Son?” His father’s hand hovered over his bandage, and finally settled on his shoulder.
“Sore.” But now that he was more awake, he was ready to go home. The pain was beginning to dull, settle, now that he knew what was physically wrong. “Dad, what happened?”
His parents exchanged a glance. His mother started weeping.
“What?” They were never at a loss for words.
“Baby, you could have died.” His mom’s voice broke.
The decibel level rose outside his room. The rest of his family must have arrived. Shit, this wasn’t any worse than when Ian dared him to climb that rotting tree in their backyard. He’d broken an arm and a leg, then. This was a bad cut, a knock to the head and a twisted knee. Really not cause for all the histrionics. But they still acted like he was a baby, even though he was thirty-one. Why did he have to be his parents’ last kid?
The door opened, but it wasn’t one of his siblings who entered. It was his boss.
“Sir?” Nausea boiled in his gut, and the throbbing in his head accelerated.
“O’Donnell. Glad to see you’re awake. I’m afraid I have some bad news.” Like the somber expression hadn’t given it away.
“What, Sir?” His mother’s grip tightened, and his father stepped away, looking out the window.
“Do you remember what you were doing when the explosion occurred?”
Explosion? Now the shrapnel made sense. Nothing else did. “I don’t remember an explosion. Just getting the tip from Gustav, before I got in the car with Ben. Did the car explode?” Why wasn’t Ben telling him this? The nausea had transformed to a sharp, burning pain in his gut.
“The building your informant directed you to was rigged. We’re almost positive that one of the guys Ben put away while he was on the drug squad—guy who goes by the name of Novi, the Russian Bear—was behind the explosion. He was released on parole a couple of months ago.”
Novi. Kurt remembered stories about him—drug runner and dealer, among other things. But he could tell by Inspector Nadar’s expression that there was more to come.
“I’m sorry, Kurt. Ben didn’t make it.”
Dead? He sucked in a breath. Shards of memories filled with heat and noise assaulted him.
“Honey, I’m so sorry,” his mom whispered. His parents had met Ben a couple of times. Ben had been a loner, and even after three years, Kurt didn’t know a lot about his personal life, but Ben was his partner. They’d worked well together, and he’d considered them friends. The almost fifteen-year age difference hadn’t mattered in the least.
His eyes filled, and he broke the gaze with Inspector Nadar, facing his mom. She pulled a tissue from her purse and dabbed at his damp face.
Pulling in a deep breath, he directed his gaze back at his boss. “How long ago? Have you informed his family?” As far as he knew, there was only Ben’s mother. He wanted to be there; it was his responsibility.
“I did that while you were in surgery. I don’t have any details yet, but the funeral will likely be on Saturday. If you want to be there, you need to concentrate on getting well.”
“Yes, Sir.” He’d be there, no matter if he had to drag an IV stand along behind him. Later he’d worry about getting the Russian Bear behind bars.
“Good day, Mr. and Mrs. O’Donnell.” Inspector Nadar nodded sharply before he spun on his heel and left the room.
“That’s right, baby. You need to get better. I don’t know what I’d do if I lost you.”
His brothers and sisters boiled into the room, all appropriately sympathetic for his loss, and glad he was mostly okay. Every one of them hugged him, awkwardly to be sure, but it wouldn’t be his family if there wasn’t any hugging or kissing. One of them had to be responsible for intimidating the nursing staff, because he believed most hospital patients weren’t allowed eight visitors at a time. He truly appreciated his family, and he hoped Ben’s mother had someone to help her, if she was having a lucid day and was able to comprehend the loss she’d suffered.
“Mom, I want to go home.”
“I know, baby. The doctor wants to keep you another day, then your dad and I will take you back home with us. Erin prepared the spare room for you while we rushed right here. We’ll take good care of you.”
He’d thank his sister later. Stupid to want his mom to take care of him at this age, but the thought of going back to his sterile apartment made him want to cry more. He didn’t have a girlfriend; he didn’t have anyone he even dated regularly. But he had his big, comforting family.
THE chapel was small, but already his leg protested the trip from the taxi. Ben wouldn’t care if he sat at the front or the back, so he slipped into an empty seat in the very last row. Drawing attention to himself, when he survived but Ben hadn’t, made him uncomfortable.
He should have let his parents come, but for some reason he’d wanted to do this alone. Stupid. The cane wasn’t quite enough support, not when he had to use the wrong arm. He scanned the attendees for anyone who looked like Mrs. Kaminski. He needed to pay his condolences to her, if nothing else. Most of the pews were filled with dress uniforms—very few in civilian dress.
The minister strolled out, appropriately somber, to start the ceremony. There was no casket as there had been at Granny O’Donnell’s funeral—the only other person close to him to have died. Kurt hoped the lack of casket was due to choice and not necessity, but he’d been so exhausted from his injuries he hadn’t thought to inquire about the details. The service began, but didn’t hold his attention. No minister could have anything to say to comfort Kurt. Not now.
Memories of the hours they’d spent in a department-issued car together flitted through his brain. Ben may have been reticent about his personal life, but he’d imparted years of wisdom to a green detective and Kurt had soaked it up, becoming better at his job every day because of Ben.
Two people, neither of them in uniform, were seated in the front row, but off to the far right. The entire front row was open, reserved for family that either didn’t exist or wasn’t going to arrive. From where he sat, only the woman’s profile was visible, but she was around Ben’s age. So, not Mrs. Kaminski. Who was she? He could see no physical similarities between Ben and the strange woman—it didn’t seem possible that she was family, despite her position in the family pew.
Under his gaze, she wiped at her eyes with a tissue and offered another one to the man beside her. He took it, but clenched it in his fist instead of using it. The woman moved slightly, and the man’s profile became visible. Kurt didn’t recognize either one.
The congregation rose for a hymn, blocking his view. He didn’t want to tax his leg any further by constantly standing and sitting, and he even had his mother’s blessing not to. She’d been adamant he not do anything to reinjure himself.
When the inspector stood to deliver the eulogy, a small stab of regret pierced his heart. If it wasn’t one of Ben’s friends from outside the force, it should have been him giving it. Shame made him accept the inspector’s offer to speak, and shame made him squirm in his seat while he listened, trying not dishonor his dress uniform by crying. But Nadar hadn’t spent nearly as much time with Ben as Kurt had, and his words reflected that distance. He watched the strangers in the front row, expecting one of them to rise to speak when Nadar was done. But neither of them moved, except for the woman who again blotted tears from her eyes.
Fuck. Could he have worked with Ben this long and not known he had a girlfriend? The woman could be family—maybe—but Ben had never mentioned anyone besides his mother. The woman’s hand fluttered to her face, moving a strand of dark hair behind her ear, and this time he caught sight of something he should have noticed immediately. A wedding band.
What the fuck?
Why hadn’t Ben told him? Granted, Kurt probably talked more about his personal life than his partner had wanted to hear, but Ben deflected almost all personal questions. Kurt thought them friends, but he didn’t even know Ben had been married, let alone recognize the woman he should have at least met in the three years they’d spent partnered. Hell, most of the married cops he knew hung out with their partners off the job, frequently with their wives as well. Sure, he and Ben had never done more than eat lunch together, but Ben had met his parents and all of his siblings at least once, when they’d stopped by the station.
A burning pain lanced up his arm. Looking down, Kurt realized he’d rested the cane across his lap and was squeezing the shit out of it with both hands. Fine for his right, but definitely too much activity for his still-stitched left arm. Taking a deep breath, he unclenched his fingers. He’d talk to the two strangers after the service. He had a duty as Ben’s partner, and he needed to know. As long as he could keep his bitterness contained. Why hadn’t Ben asked for a transfer if he hated Kurt so much? Because Kurt couldn’t imagine any other reason for him not to mention a wife, even an estranged one, to his partner.
He couldn’t talk to Ben’s previous partner, find out if Ed had known. Ed had died of a coronary, after which Ben got partnered up with Kurt. The ache in his heart, knowing his partner hadn’t trusted him—at all—rivaled the emptiness inside where a friend had lived. It may have been a one-sided relationship, but Kurt missed his friend. God. Why hadn’t he known? Had he been too self-absorbed, or had Ben deliberately hidden the information from him? Guilt ate through him like acid, the burning pain in his gut returning. He had to have been at fault.
The service ended abruptly, or so it seemed, since Kurt hadn’t paid attention at all. The two people slipped out a side door almost before the minister had finished speaking. Without thinking, Kurt was up and out of the chapel, hobbling as best he could around the side of the church, to try and catch up to them in the parking lot.
Two dark heads swiveled toward him, the man murmuring something to the woman, who nodded.
“Thank you,” he puffed out. God, he hoped he got his strength back soon. He stood before them, and shifted his cane to his left hand so he could shake their hands at least. They were undoubtedly siblings, but the woman was several years older and had that slight puffy cast to her jawline his own sisters had displayed in early pregnancy. Ben was going to be a father? He wasn’t sure if he could find words beneath the bitter guilt drowning him.
“I’m Kurt O’Donnell. Ben’s partner.” The man gasped slightly and turned away. His sister elbowed him in the arm.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kurt. I’m Sandra. This is Davy, my brother.” She would have made an excellent witness on the stand. Her words gave him only a modicum of data that he didn’t have before.
“I’m very sorry for your loss.” Kurt took her hand and gently squeezed it. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and her face had the yellowish pallor he associated more with illness than with grief.
“I’m sorry for yours,” she replied.
He stretched his hand out to Davy, glad that Sandra at least had a brother to aid her through this, but their body language warred with his expectations. Sandra had her left arm around her brother’s waist, shoulders tilting toward him in a protective gesture. It should have been the other way around.
Davy turned red-rimmed eyes, like his sister’s, to him. But that was the only similarity.
Sandra was sad. Davy was devastated. Davy’s chocolaty eyes were filled with all the desolation in the universe. The scleras were more than bloodshot, like he’d been crying for days, and his nose was as swollen and red as his eyelids. His face had the deathly white hue of shock that Sandra’s should have had, and he didn’t appear to be focusing too well.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, Davy’s hand in his, shake forgotten. He had a sudden urge to hug Davy, but he was too busy trying to keep the shock and betrayal off his face. The world spun dizzily as all his preconceptions and conclusions vaporized, to be replaced by the new information now in his possession.
Davy’s mouth worked, but nothing came out. He dropped his gaze, but he left his hand in Kurt’s. Sandra separated them.
“We need to go now, Kurt. Thanks for introducing yourself.” She tried to smile.
They got into a car, Sandra behind the wheel.
Sandra twisted around in her seat.
“What about Ben’s mom?”
“Oh, well, she wasn’t having a good day. Sunshine Manors advised against bringing her.”
Kurt stood back and let them—there was no other word for it—escape. He steadied himself on his cane while the taillights receded. Assuming Ben hadn’t lied about his mother, it was entirely possible she’d been too ill or too disoriented to attend the funeral. But Sandra had been lying. He’d been a cop too long. He knew.