Risky Behavior (Bad Behavior, #1)
This title is #1 of the Bad Behavior series.
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It’s day one of Darren Corliss’s career as a detective, and not only has he been assigned a notoriously difficult partner, but the guy might also be a pill-popping dirty cop. Internal Affairs needs proof, and Darren gets to be their eyes and ears whether he wants to or not.
Detective Andreas Ruffner doesn’t play by the rules, and he doesn’t play well with others. With bodies piling up and a list of suspects who are way above his pay grade, the last thing he needs is a wet-behind-the-ears kid for a partner. Or babysitter. Not even if that partner is easy on the eyes.
As Darren gains Andreas’s hard-won trust, they both realize there’s more than just mutual suspicion simmering beneath the surface. But their investigation is heating up as quickly as their relationship, and Darren has no choice but to go along with Andreas’s unorthodox—and borderline unethical—methods. As IA puts the squeeze on Darren to give up the man he’s falling for, he has to wonder—is Andreas the only cop left in this town who isn’t dirty?
Runner-up: Best Bisexual Romantic Comedy and Suspense in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Finalist: Best Bisexual Book in the 2017 Rainbow Awards!
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“I don’t need a goddamned babysitter.”
From across a desk covered in reports and folders—any number of which were probably about me—Captain Hamilton shot me a look I’d seen way too many times. Narrow eyes, tight lips, tilted head. The “I’ve had enough of your shit” look.
“He’s not a babysitter.” The captain folded his hands in his lap and leaned back in his giant leather chair. “He’s a damn good cop and a newly minted detective.”
I groaned. “You’re sticking me with a rookie?”
Hamilton rolled his eyes. “For fuck’s sake, Ruffner. What part of ‘newly minted detective’ wasn’t clear? He’s not a rookie.”
I snorted. “He knows how to be a beat cop. Call me when he’s cut his teeth as an actual—”
“This isn’t up for discussion, Detective.” He sat up and pressed his elbows onto his desk. “I’m partnering you with Detective Corliss.” He inclined his head and stabbed a finger at me. “And I expect you to treat this one as an equal. None of the bullshit like the last two.”
“How long am I stuck with him?” I asked through my teeth. “Until he’s ready to take off his training wheels?”
“Until I’m good and ready to reassign one of you.”
I studied him for a long moment. Long enough to make him twitch and fidget. Then, “What’s this about, Captain?”
“It doesn’t need to be about anything, Detective.” He glared at me. “You have your orders. Follow them.”
Aside from clenching my jaw, I didn’t move. “You want to tell me why you keep pairing me with new—”
“Well for one thing, if they can put up with you, then they can put up with anyone.”
“Isn’t that considered hazing?”
He exhaled. “For another thing, I’m assigning him because detectives work better in pairs. You might see things he’s missed. He might see things you’ve missed. Two heads are better than one. All right?” Before I could call bullshit on that, he said, “Dismissed.”
There was no point in fighting him now, so I got up and left without another word. Grinding my teeth so hard my jaw ached, I headed downstairs. Might as well get some work done on my last afternoon as a free man.
This “partner” idiocy was going to drive me insane. On the other hand, Detective Corliss probably wouldn’t be a pain in my ass any longer than Detectives Schaeffer and Phillips before him. Schaeffer had held out until he’d heard that one night, instead of staying at my desk to wrap up some paperwork like I’d told him, I’d gone out and collared a suspect we’d been hunting for the past three weeks. Neither he nor Hamilton had been impressed when I’d said I’d known where the suspect was hiding, but didn’t trust Schaeffer not to compromise things before I could get close enough to arrest the fucker.
Then there’d been Phillips, who’d insisted at every turn that my refusal to tell her anything was the result of being a misogynist who didn’t respect female cops. Hamilton himself had admitted to her that I was just an asshole who didn’t like working with any cops, and that I gave my male partners the same shit. She’d immediately requested a transfer, and we were both happier for it. And for the past couple of months, I’d been doing quite nicely on my own.
Until now. Couldn’t fucking wait.
I glanced at my watch on my way back to my desk. It was quarter after four. Shit. I doubled back and headed for the locker room instead.
When I walked in, there were a few beat cops talking about last night’s game over by the sinks. They ignored me, and I ignored them as I continued to the opposite side of the room and opened my locker, all the while keeping my attention trained on them in case one of them came my way.
They didn’t seem to be moving, but I worked quickly as always, pulling the small pill bottle from the shaving kit I kept in the back of the locker for those extra-late nights. Checking again that I didn’t have anyone looking over my shoulder, I opened the bottle, tugged free the wad of cotton tha kept the pills from rattling, and slid one out. Then I replaced the cotton and put the bottle back in its hiding place.
After making double sure no one had materialized nearby, I threw back the pill and washed it down with my water bottle.
There. Now I could get back to work.
This time as I walked past the other officers, they noticed me. Their conversation dipped just briefly, pausing midsentence while all three heads turned. I didn’t have to look at them to feel them watching me leave, and I wasn’t imagining it either. Not when it happened almost every time I left the locker room without being in there long enough to change clothes or shower.
In the name of flying under everyone’s radar, I’d kept the pills in my desk for a while. I still had a few there in case I absolutely couldn’t get near the locker room, but it was harder to be subtle about popping pills when I was out in the open like that. Especially when the whole goddamned place seemed to be on a low-level alert at all times, everyone poised like bounty hunters to be the one who caught Detective Ruffner red-handed. Sneaking off into the locker room at regular intervals raised suspicion, but I never let anyone actually witness the existence of the bottle or the consumption of the pills.
I kept some on me, of course, but those were strictly for when I couldn’t get back to the precinct in time. Lesson learned the hard way.
Properly medicated, I returned to my desk and picked up my coat. I didn’t bother telling anyone that I was leaving or where I was going. Never did.
Without a word, I left the precinct.
* * * * *
Two hours later, I parked in the weedy gravel in front of an abandoned warehouse about twenty miles west of town. When I stepped out and slammed the car door, it echoed in the stillness. In the distance, the last remnants of rush hour traffic ground along, but otherwise, no one and nothing moved.
To be sure, though, I scanned my surroundings. No cars. No people. Good.
And not surprising. I’d taken the most indirect route possible. I’d backtracked. Gone around blocks. Pulled over from time to time. Turned without signaling or even slowing down. Anything to make sure Captain Hamilton hadn’t decided to get cute and put some officers on my tail again.
Today, no one had followed me. Well, that cleared one thing up: Corliss was definitely coming along to keep an eye on me. No need to put someone on my ass when there’d be a rookie detective in the fucking passenger seat. Fabulous.
For tonight, I was still on my own, and taking full advantage.
Gravel crunched under my shoes as I followed the familiar pathway through the overgrown weeds toward the crumbling, graffiti-peppered brick building. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. All my senses went to high alert, searching for the faintest signs of life.
On the surface, this was a stupid, dangerous place for a rendezvous. That was exactly what I was going for, though. Something that looked like the last place any idiot would want to do business.
For one thing, there were dozens of places where a sniper could set up shop, but I’d know if anything bigger than a pigeon tried to make a perch. I’d combed this building from top to bottom long ago and had placed motion sensors in strategic locations. A lot of shady things happened here, but nobody was getting the drop on me.
Tonight, I knew exactly how many people were inside the warehouse besides me—one. His presence had tripped a sensor, and a message had come to my phone. Ten miles away, I’d remotely checked one of the cameras, and verified that only my contact was here. No one had followed him. No one was waiting to ambush him, me, or both of us. There weren’t even any drifters who’d happened by in search of a place to sleep.
Still, I kept a hand on the butt of my pistol as I stepped into the decrepit structure. No such thing as too much caution.
To my left, something crunched under a shoe.
“Jeff?” My voice echoed, even though I didn’t shout. “That you?”
“Yeah. Right here.”
I turned around just as the kid stepped out of the shadows. His face was partially hidden by a faded red hoodie, both hands tucked deep in its pockets.
I relaxed a little, taking my hand off the gun.
He stayed tense, eyeing me uncertainly. “You got the money?”
“You got what I came for?”
He slid a plastic-wrapped, finger-sized pack of white powder just far enough from his pocket to show me. “Pure. Just like you asked.”
“Good.” I made a slow, deliberate gesture of reaching into my coat pocket for a wad of bills. We’d done business before, but he wisely distrusted me. A seventeen-year-old who made narcotics runs for gangbangers and conducted clandestine transactions with cops was smart to trust absolutely nobody.
I handed him the cash. He tucked the brick back into his pocket, and we both stood in silence while he counted out the bills. I wasn’t worried he’d try to take off—he wasn’t stupid enough to believe he could outrun a .45. Not that I would ever shoot a kid, never mind in the back, but I didn’t stop him from believing I would.
He shoved the money into one pocket, pulled the brick from the other, and thrust it at me. “It’s all here.”
“Perfect.” As soon as the drugs—pure heroin—were in my possession, Jeff jogged toward the back of the building just like he always did. His boss was not a patient man and would be chomping at the bit by now for that cash.
I gritted my teeth as I headed for my car. Jeff’s boss wasn’t my top priority right now; there was an even bigger monster with a lot more blood on his hands who needed to go first. That motherfucker wouldn’t even make it to jail if I had any say in the matter.
All in good time, though.
I opened my passenger-side door and tucked the heroin into a compartment I’d built into the underside of the seat. It was sealed, insulated from anything that might detect narcotics, including the most sensitive K9 nose. Even if Detective Numbnuts dropped a pen and had to feel around under the seat to find it, he’d never be the wiser.
The thought of him made my blood boil. I was sick and fucking tired of Captain Hamilton assigning me “partners” under the guise of mentorship, making my investigations more efficient, or whatever other excuse he came up with on a given day.
Just say it, Captain.
Just come out and admit they’re reporting back to you so you can confirm I’m a dirty cop and a junkie.
Just fucking say it.
But so far, he hadn’t said it, and none of my “partners” had provided him with anything damning. So I kept on doing my job.
Tomorrow, I’d get a bead on Detective Corliss and figure out how to fly under his radar until I annoyed him enough to request reassignment. Tonight, with no one in the world aware of the heroin tucked safely away until I needed it, I drove back into town.
“Oh, sweet baby Jesus.” Marla gaped at me as I walked toward Captain Hamilton’s office. The blinds were down, but I could see movement through the glass door. It was still a few minutes to nine―I’d come in as early as I could justify before our meeting without making myself look like more of a noob, hoping to get a glimpse of my new partner before the formal introductions were made. “You’re wearing a suit.”
“Uh, yeah.” I made a show of turning my head, looking around the bull pen at the other detectives already at work. I saw a lot of discarded jackets, loosened ties and wrinkled dress shirts, but still. “So is everybody but you. Should I come in wearing high heels and an A-line tomorrow?”
Marla pointed a long, glittery fingernail at my face. “Don’t you try to sass me; I’m not your momma. I can throw more shit work your way than you can shake a cat at.” Her expression was grim. “A suit, my God. And you shaved today. You look eighteen. Ruffner is going to eat you alive.”
“Oh, come on.” I smiled, trying to coax one out of Marla in return. “How bad can he be?”
If anything, her frown deepened. “You have no idea. It’s like throwing a guppy into a shark tank. I don’t know what Hamilton is thinking, pairing the two of you together.”
“I can handle myself just fine.” What had years of toiling as a beat cop been for, if not to prepare me to deal with assholes? I wanted to get along with my new partner; life would be so much easier if we could be friendly. I was ready for any contingency though. You didn’t grow up hearing the stories I did without learning something from them: namely, that the only person you could ever really rely on in the field was yourself. I wanted a good partner, but I was prepared to deal with a bad one, at least for a while.
“Oh, Darren.” Marla sighed the world-weary sigh of the enlightened cynic. “It’s like trying to warn somebody about a hurricane when there’s nothing but sunshine outside. You’ll see when you meet him, I guess.” She leaned back and tucked a curl of dark-brown hair behind her ear. “Now, how’s your daddy?”
“Enjoying his retirement.” Enjoying it as well as anybody who’d been a cop for over thirty years could, at least. I thought my mother was two seconds away from flat-out demanding that Vic stop spying on the neighbors, regardless of whether or not he could “prove that they’re dealing drugs out of their basement, Jessica―it’s obvious!” She’d been encouraging him to spend a lot of time at the cabin lately, where the only things around to spy on were fish and game.
“Uh-huh.” Marla looked unconvinced. “Tell Jessica she can come to my place for drinks whenever he gets to be too much. I’ve got a cupboard full of tequila and a brand-new blender.”
“I’ll let her know.” Not for the first time, I wished that everyone who had been in the force for more than a few years didn’t know my entire family. Between my dad’s career, my mother’s yearly barbeques hosting the entire precinct, and my brother’s work in the district attorney’s office, there weren’t enough people around who didn’t remember me from when I was a kid.
Captain Hamilton’s door opened with a sudden bang, and both Marla and I started as we turned to look at him. His shoulders were so broad they barely fit inside the doorframe, but from the way they seemed to slump, he was already tired. “Corliss, get in here!” One of the chairs in front of his desk was already occupied. Was that Detective Ruffner? “And Marla, I need—”
“Decaf only until noon,” she said, sharp eyes flashing at him. “Or do we need to have a talk about the results of your last physical where everyone can hear it?”
Hamilton sighed. “Fine.”
“And if you shatter that door’s glass again, I am not going to be held responsible for my actions.”
This time he winced. “Sorry about that.” His vaguely apologetic expression evaporated as soon as he focused on me. “Corliss, inside.”
I followed him in and shut the door behind us—quietly—as he took his place behind his desk.
I sat in the spare chair, glancing at the man next to me. There was no way this was Andreas Ruffner. I wasn’t going to take shit for wearing a suit from a man sporting a silk pocket square.
“Detective Corliss, this is Detective Thibedeau.” He gestured between us with a scowl. “He’s going to have the pleasure of riding your ass for the next few weeks.”
I frowned, but before I could say anything, Thibedeau chuckled. “Captain, you exaggerate. I’m not here to make things difficult for anyone.”
“Tell that to my blood pressure.”
I took advantage of the pause. “I thought I was being partnered with Detective Ruffner.”
“You are,” Thibedeau said. He had his legs crossed and his fingers steepled―a little older and he might have pulled off a Godfather-type demeanor, but instead he came across more like a high-school guidance counselor. “Before you two start working together, though, there are a few extenuating circumstances you should be aware of.”
“Thibedeau’s with Internal Affairs,” Captain Hamilton interjected. He didn’t look happy about it.
Less than an hour into my new position, and I was already having a meeting with IA? Fuck me.
Not that I let any of my consternation show. I was a champion of resting nice-face. I crossed my legs to match my interrogator, then looked at Thibedeau. “What sort of things should I be aware of?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard some of the rumors going around the department about Ruffner.”
“No,” I said. I didn’t even have to play dumb for this part―I’d been so busy busting my ass to make detective that I’d consciously tuned out any and all gossip for months. “I mean, I hear that he can be a little difficult to get along with―”
“He’s goes through partners like paper targets,” Thibedeau said. “No one manages to stick around him for very long, and we’d really like to know why.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, Ruffner is and always has been an asshole?” Captain Hamilton said wearily. “He’s also closed more cases than any other detective on the force.”
“He’s also flouted regulations, exhibited poor anger management skills, and has been observed engaging in suspicious behavior both on and off duty.”
I had the feeling I’d been shoved into the middle of an argument that had been going on for a long time. “What’s that got to do with me?” I asked, redirecting their attention off each other and back to me. Brows smoothed out, tense mouths softened slightly. It was my Bambi eyes; they were killers.
“We just want you to keep an eye on your new partner, Darren—can I call you Darren?” He kept going before I could tell him no. “Detective Ruffner has a proven track record in the department, but his methods have always been unorthodox, and the fact that he can’t keep a partner doesn’t speak well of his ability to adapt. No one in this force is an island, and no one can go without oversight. How else can we safeguard the public’s faith in us?”
He checked his watch, then stood up. “You and I will meet later this week for a casual discussion about what you’ve observed working with your new partner. You’ve come very far, very fast, Darren.” He smiled at me. I could practically see my reflection in his teeth. “I’d like to help you continue that arc.”
I shook the hand he extended. “Sir,” I said, as neutrally as possible. Thibedeau left, seeming to take extra care not to let the door slam, and I locked eyes with Captain Hamilton. For just a second, rank fell away, and he was the guy who had picked me up off the ground after my brother told me if I jumped off the swing set wearing a cape, I would fly. “What the hell?”
He sighed. “I know it’s irregular, kid, but we have to go along with it for now.”
“What’s he expecting me to figure out in just a few days? Even if Ruffner is up to something,” and holy shit, I really hoped he wasn’t, but, “he’s been a detective for over a decade. He knows how to cover his tracks.”
“I wasn’t lying when I said that Ruffner is the best closer on this force.” Hamilton looked like he’d bitten into an unripe persimmon. “But he’s not perfect. He makes waves sometimes when he shouldn’t, and he can’t keep a partner to save his life. And that worries me, not just because it might end up with him on a slab. I think he’s hiding something.” He shook his head. “I don’t know what it is. For what it’s worth, I give Ruffner a lot of leeway because I know he can get the job done, but he needs a partner. He needs someone to have his back.”
The look he shot me spoke volumes: Ruffner needed someone to have his back not just in the field, but in the office. “And if there’s something there after all? Then we need to know that too.”
“Got it,” I said quietly. Captain Hamilton dropped his gaze down to his files, and the moment passed. We were back to being boss and underling.
“He’s not gonna make it easy on you, either.” There was a suspicious gleam in Hamilton’s eyes, like he was amused but trying not to let on. “If you can survive being partnered with Detective Ruffner, nobody will say another word about you being too young for the job.”
I’d overheard some of those conversations. Never mind that I’d joined up straight out of college, or that I’d worked my beat for seven solid years—two more than required by the department—before taking the exam. I was the stepson of a revered cop and I had unfortunately youthful features: clearly, my success was all the result of nepotism. “I can do it.”
“I hope you can.”
The intercom buzzed. “Captain, Detective Ruffner is on his way up.”
Captain Hamilton rubbed his fingers against his temple. I tried not to take that as a bad sign. “Send him in.”
On the way up the stairs to meet Hamilton and my new partner, I passed Thibedeau. I knew that motherfucker well, and I didn’t like seeing him here. I didn’t like him, but no one from Internal Affairs came up this way unless they were talking to Hamilton, which meant he’d just come from Hamilton’s office.
Wow. I hadn’t even met the new kid, and he was already in IA’s pocket.
Good to know, assholes.
At the top of the stairs, I stopped, ostensibly to lean against the wall and check my phone. The new pills I was taking made me dizzy as fuck, especially after going up a flight of stairs, and I’d already blacked out twice this week. No point in pushing it, so I stood there as casually as I could, pretending to care what was on my screen until the sparkling faded from the edges of my vision. Hopefully that particular side effect would wear off soon—I didn’t need it happening at an inopportune moment. Like, say, a foot chase or a struggle to disarm a suspect.
When I was steady, I continued toward Hamilton’s office.
“Well hello, Detective,” Marla chirped from behind her desk. “How are you, sweetheart?”
“Depends on who my new babysitter is.”
She laughed. “He’s in with the boss now.” She gestured toward Hamilton’s office. “They’re waiting for you.”
“Of course they are.”
I didn’t bother knocking. Hamilton hated it when I did that, which was exactly why I did it.
“Ah, there he is.” Hamilton plastered on a grin and leaned back in his chair. “Corliss, meet your new partner—the infamous Andreas Ruffner. Ruffner, this is Detective Darren Corliss.”
Corliss stood and extended his hand.
I didn’t reciprocate. As I nudged the door shut behind me, I sized him up. He did have one edge over my previous partners-slash-babysitters: he was not hard on the eyes. Almost as tall as I was, so probably six one or so. Built like he made religious use of a gym membership. Bit of a baby face, which made me wonder how many dicks he’d sucked to make it through the ranks as quickly as he had; he couldn’t have been more than thirty. Maybe a little older if he came from one of those families where everyone kept paintings in the attic and looked twenty until they were sixty.
I eyed his extended hand like he’d offered me a bag of shit. “Corliss, eh? As in—”
“Yes, my stepdad is Commissioner Corliss.” He narrowed his eyes a bit and withdrew his hand. “Well, was.”
“Was? I hadn’t heard that he’d passed.”
“He retired, Andreas,” Hamilton said with no shortage of irritation.
I bit back a comment about it being a shame the man was still kicking. I did have to ride around with his kid for the foreseeable future, after all. “Well, if you’re the son of Commissioner Corliss, I guess there’s no need for this introduction, is there?”
“Stepson,” he said. “And no, I can’t say he ever mentioned your name to me. Why? Should he have?”
I started to answer, but the boss beat me to it. “Sit down, Ruffner. You too, Corliss.”
My new partner and I exchanged glares as we took our seats. I had to admit, he was ballsier than his predecessors. Most of them seemed nervous when they first met me. That usually wore off in short order. Once they realized my reputation for being an asshole was no exaggeration, they went from nervous to exasperated, and that was fine by me. The sooner they got sick of me, the sooner they were back in here begging Hamilton to be reassigned.
Hamilton had played a wild card this time, though. Corliss was the stepson of a man who blamed me for a significant portion of his gray hair, assuming he had any of it left. While my partner apparently hadn’t heard my name, he wasn’t nervous or intimidated.
Of course he’s got brass balls—they belong to IA. Along with his eyes and ears.
Just what I need.
Hamilton cleared his throat. “You two can get to know each other while you’re out on the streets. All you need to know right now is that you’re both top-notch cops, and if you can work together”—he shot me a warning glare—“then this will work out nicely.”
“We’ll see about that,” I grumbled.
Corliss said nothing.
Hamilton rubbed his forehead, probably exhausted from refereeing the two of us. Then he dropped his hand to his desk. “All right. What’s on your docket today, Ruffner?”
I fought the urge to steal a glance at Corliss. “I’ve got a lead on someone who’s working with one of the kingpins downtown. Going to see if I can squeeze a few answers out of him.”
Hamilton scowled. “And by squeeze a few answers—”
“By the book, Captain.” I smiled sweetly. “Of course.”
Beside me, Corliss fidgeted, but he didn’t speak.
The captain gave his forehead another rub. “You’re on thin ice after that last stunt you pulled. Do not test me, Detective.”
Corliss cleared his throat. “Uh, what stunt?”
“Never mind,” I growled.
“No. If I’m going to be out there with you, I’d like to know what I’m up against.”
I turned to him. “Does it matter?”
That baby face didn’t seem quite so babyish as he glared right back at me. “It does when ‘stunts’ happen in an environment that can get a partner killed.”
“Gentlemen . . .”
We held each other’s gazes for a moment, then turned back to the captain.
“Look.” He put up his hands. “You two don’t have to like each other, but you will work together. Ruffner, that means playing by the book. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“And Corliss, even if he does do something reckless and stupid, he’s your partner. Don’t get yourself killed, but have his back. Understood?”
Corliss hesitated. Then, “Yes, sir.” He said it with just as much enthusiasm as I had.
Well, wasn’t this going to be fun?
The captain dismissed us, and we walked in silence toward the stairs. That silence lingered until we were on the landing, and then the bastard spoke just before we started down the next flight.
“That was a pleasant introduction.” He didn’t even try to hide the sarcasm.
I halted on the landing. So did he. We faced each other, and without the captain here to moderate, there was nothing tempering Corliss’s hostile suspicion.
He folded his arms. “You want to tell me what ‘stunt’ the captain was referring to?”
“It was all blown out of proportion.” I started toward the steps again. “Now let’s get downtown and—”
He stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Hey. Answer my question.”
I glanced at his hand, then stared him dead in the eye.
Oh, it’s gonna be like this, huh?
Shrugging out of his grasp, I faced him fully, and couldn’t decide if I was impressed or annoyed that he didn’t draw back.
“You know, before we head out on the road,” I said, “let’s maybe get a couple of things straight between us.”
He folded his arms again and held eye contact without the slightest flinch. “All right.”
“You’re joining me on my investigations,” I said through clenched teeth. “Which means we do shit my way. You’re the kid. I’m—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.” He rolled his eyes and dropped his arms to his sides. “I had this conversation seven years ago with my FTO. Let me see if I still remember.” He glared at me as he ticked off points on his fingers. “I’ll call you ‘sir,’ you’re in charge, you’re going to remind me at every turn that I’m a stupid fucking kid, you’re—”
“And you’re going to report everything I say and do back to IA.”
That prompted a slight but noticeable flinch. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“Do I look stupid to you?”
He cleared his throat, recovering some of his confident exterior. “Look, Captain Hamilton assigned me to you. I didn’t exactly request—”
“Cut the crap, Corliss. I don’t like having a partner at all, but I especially don’t need a wet-behind-the-ears kid for a babysitter. Partners have to trust each other.”
“Yeah?” He swallowed. “So why don’t you start by trusting me?”
“Because I know IA was in there with you and the captain before I came in.”
Another flinch. Subtler than before, but not subtle enough to slip past me. “So, what? You think I told them where you’re keeping your secret weapons stash? Where you buried Jimmy Hoffa?” Despite his momentary loss of confidence, the arrogant little shit smirked. “I just met you. What would you expect me to tell—”
“It’s not what you told them,” I growled. “I know they’re investigating me. Unofficially, of course.” I stepped closer, and though he kept his feet planted, he leaned back a satisfying inch. “So let’s be clear right now: if I can’t trust you to have my back, if you’re going to be too busy watching me and taking notes, then this isn’t going to work.”
“Then why don’t you start by telling me what the fuck has you on thin ice with the department? Because if I can’t trust you out there, then I will happily go back up there”—he gestured sharply up the stairs—“and ask to be reassigned. I don’t give two shits if you’re the asshole everyone says you are. I just want to know, here and now, if you’re going to play by the book, or if you’re going to get me killed.”
I blinked. This was definitely not the breed of partner I’d had in the past.
Before I could speak, he snarled, “You obviously don’t like me already. So tell me now, how do I know you’ll have my back?”
“Because you’re my partner.”
I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Or, failing that, grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. “You know how many partners I’ve had, Detective?”
“Eleven is the last count, I think.”
“Twelve. And do you know how many of them have been injured or killed on my watch?”
He gulped. “Uh . . .”
“None.” I reached for my hip, and he flinched. “Relax, idiot. I’m not going for my gun.”
He eyed me uncertainly, and he sure as hell didn’t relax.
I tugged my shirt free from my waistband, and lifted it just enough to reveal the long, jagged scar above my belt. “You want to know how that happened?”
“My ‘partner’ was too busy keeping an eye on me and didn’t notice our suspect was armed.”
Corliss’s eyes widened.
“He missed a six-inch hunting knife.” I pointed emphatically at the scar. “The six-inch hunting knife didn’t miss me.”
“So, how does that answer my question?”
“Because it wasn’t the first time that partner nearly got me killed by focusing more on me than the situation. But even after he got me fucking stabbed, I saved his ass three months later.” The memory made my skin crawl, but I forced my voice to remain solid. “He lost his situational awareness and was about to take a bullet to the back, but I took the guy out first. I had to fucking kill someone, and that someone had key information that would have helped my investigation.” I tucked in my shirt. “I had to kill someone, Detective, because I was watching my partner’s back even after he’d failed to watch mine and nearly got me killed.” I leaned in closer, deliberately encroaching on Corliss’s personal space. “Does that answer your question?”
His Adam’s apple jumped. “Y-yeah.”
“Good. So we can move on and quit with this bullshit.”
Once again silent, we continued down the stairs.
At the bottom, I gestured toward the locker room. “I’m going to get something out of my locker. Meet me in the garage in ten. We’ve got someone to interview.”
He just nodded, and we headed off in separate directions. Five steps later, though, he said, “Oh, Ruffner?”
I turned around, wondering if he knew how badly I wanted to lay him out. “What?”
“Just so we’re clear, I’m not calling you sir.”
Then he continued toward the garage, leaving me standing there like an idiot.
Yeah. This partnership is going to be great . . .
Getting some distance from Ruffner made me realize a few things. First, while the man was definitely an asshole, the main thing I was left feeling after our first sterling conversation was guilt. I’d jumped the gun with him, gotten aggressive too quickly, assumed too much. I couldn’t exactly blame him for not wanting to take on a new partner when one of them had literally gotten him stabbed in the back—or close enough.
There was something about the guy that instantly put me on edge, though. I was good at the long game, and all kidding aside, I knew how to keep my cool during confrontations. But less than ten minutes with Ruffner and I was acting out like a grade schooler. It was something I needed to get a handle on, fast.
The second thing I realized? Glancing back was totally worthwhile—Detective Ruffner had an incredible ass. I wanted to cut those tailored trousers right off his legs.
“Maybe save that for day two,” I said to myself as I headed for the garage. “If I survive day one.”
It wasn’t until I got to the garage that I remembered I didn’t know what Ruffner’s car looked like. I was stuck waiting at the curb until he showed up, so I pulled out my phone and checked my messages. Three texts: two from Mom, one from Vic. Mom’s read, Good luck today sweetheart! followed by Don’t listen to your father.
Vic’s just read, Don’t fuck it up, son. Heartwarming, as usual. Vic wasn’t so bad—he treated my mom like gold, as well he should—but he’d never really gotten a handle on how to comfort. I mused texting him back something ridiculous like, They all love me, I’ll be captain by the end of the day, or even better, the truth: IA wants me to spy on my partner, who hates me already. A second later a nondescript sedan screeched to a halt in front of me, and I forgot all about texting. If looks could kill, Ruffner would have just committed murder in the first degree.
I scooted around the front of the car a little warily, still not completely convinced the guy wouldn’t run me over just to get me out of the way, and got in. I put my phone away, and he scoffed.
“Sure you can live without it in your hand?” he asked as we pulled out into the drizzly morning.
“I think I’ll survive. Sorry,” I said with perfect insincerity. “So tell me about the guy we’re going to ‘talk’ to this morning.”
“His name is Jake Carter. He’s a run-of-the-mill scumbag with slightly more brains than most, which is why he isn’t already in a cell.” I was a little surprised he’d just answered me without taking the time to throw in an insult or two. “I’m sure something’ll turn up at his place to give us reason to bring him in, though. A couple of uniforms are going to meet us there, so you won’t even have to dirty your pretty little hands if things get rough.”
Aaand there was the insult. “Aw, you think my hands are pretty?” I clasped them in front of my chest. “I’m touched!”
“Touched in the head, maybe.”
“I can’t imagine why nobody lasts as your partner, with all this sweet talk.” My phone buzzed with an incoming text, but I ignored it. “Why do you want to talk to this guy in particular?”
“Because he’s connected to Vincent Blake, one of the big players who’s losing guys right, left, and center lately. Mostly disappearances at this point, but bodies started turning up a few weeks ago. Nobody’s seen Blake in almost a month. There’s a shakeup going on, and I want to know who’s trying to be the new top dog.”
I frowned. “I don’t know much about Blake.” My phone buzzed again, but I ignored it. “Are there case files I can read to catch up?”
“Sure. Back at the precinct, on my desk.” He glanced over at me and smiled. Somehow the expression just made him look angry. And hot. “I can pull over here and you can walk back if you feel like you need some study sessions before you can be helpful.”
I can helpfully punch you in the fucking face. Jesus, five minutes in close quarters and he had me on edge again. “I guess I’ll just be on hand to keep you from causing another ‘incident’ then.” I smiled back. “I’m a team player.” My phone buzzed again. Shit.
“You should probably get that. Wouldn’t want to make your mommy worry.”
I already knew it wasn’t my mom. There was only one person it could be, and unfortunately, Ruffner was right. I really didn’t want to make him worry. I tried to keep from grimacing while I pulled out my phone and checked the new messages.
Asher: I’m already an hour late for work and Mom won’t even let me out of the house. Did I get drunk last night? Why am I here?
Asher: Where the hell is my car?
Asher: Darren, call me. Mom and Vic aren’t making any sense.
Another one came in while I was reading, this one actually from my mother. It’s a rough morning for your brother, sweetheart. Come by when you’re off work? But don’t worry! Well, shit. The surest way to get someone to worry was to tell them not to.
“You need to run back to the precinct after all?” Ruffner’s tone was snarky as ever, but the expression on his face was only half as murderous as it had been a minute ago.
“It’s nothing,” I said, stowing my phone in my pocket again. I waited for it to buzz, but there were no more incoming messages. Vic must have gotten Asher’s phone away from him. I took a slow breath; it was my first day on the new job, and my partner was just waiting for me to screw something up. This wasn’t the time for baring my fucking soul. “How long to Carter’s place?”
The rest of the ride passed in blessed silence. We stopped in a derelict part of downtown, a subdivision that had fallen apart after the meatpacking plant there shut down ten years ago. There were a few decent places left on the fringes, but the deeper you got, the worse it became. The street felt more like potholes than solid ground, and the cracks in the concrete were all populated with weeds—the only green I saw in any direction. The house we pulled up to had once been a duplex, but the right side of the building was half-collapsed. The left side sported empty flowerboxes and a beater in the driveway. A patrol car was sitting across the street, and two cops got out to meet us.
“Detective,” one of them said in a flat voice. “You got an actual reason for dragging us out here?”
“Are drug dealers no longer worth your time, Officer Huan?”
“Only when they’re doing something we can actually pin on them,” the cop replied. “This guy’s been searched before. He always comes up clean.”
“Maybe it’s time for someone else to do the searching, then,” Ruffner said. The cop bristled, but Ruffner was already heading for the door. I followed him, resisting the urge to apologize on his behalf. If I wasn’t careful, I’d get all of Ruffner’s enemies via osmosis before the week was out.
Ruffner banged on the door. “Carter! Open up.”
“Hold your fucking . . . Just hold on.” The door opened a moment later. The man standing in front of us smelled like stale beer and sweat. His T-shirt looked like one big stain, and his hair fell limply over his face. I could see enough of it to make out the guy’s smirk, though.
“Deeetective Ruffner,” he drawled. “What brings you here on such a . . .” he glanced up at the sky, “rainy day?”
“I’ve got a warrant to search the premises, Jake. Go sit down and shut up.” Ruffner pushed past the man and headed straight through the living room.
“Nah, don’t offer to take your shoes off or nothing,” Jake muttered. “Come on in, other cops.” He stepped aside. “I’d offer you coffee, except I know you guys can’t drink that shit without needing a donut, and I’m fresh out of those.”
“Just sit down,” Officer Huan said. His silent partner loomed by the door. I pulled on a pair of gloves and headed into the house to join Ruffner.
He seemed busy in the kitchen, so I turned left into the bedroom. It was surprisingly neat, no clothes on the floor or trash anywhere but the trash can. I rummaged through the obvious places, turning over the bedding and looking under the mattress, before moving on to the dresser. Jake’s socks were all rolled into individual balls. Shit. Maybe the guy had a split personality or something.
I checked all the drawers, including the balled-up socks, then moved on to the closet. Nothing. The bedside table yielded plenty of tissues and lube, but nothing illegal.
Ruffner met me just as I reentered the hall. “Find anything?” he asked.
“Not in there. You?”
“Not so far, but it’s just a matter of time. Try the bathroom next.”
The bathroom. Right. Lovely. I stepped into the dingy room across the hall, which was unfortunately not nearly as tidy as the bedroom, and sighed. Toilet first, then.
I’d just finished looking under the sink when I heard a door slam shut. I pushed to my feet and went out to see what was happening, only to watch Ruffner emerging from the bedroom, looking grim and holding something in his hand. What the hell? I hadn’t missed anything in there. I opened my mouth to ask about it, but Ruffner brushed past me without even pausing and headed back into the living room where Jake and the officers were.
He held up a small, tightly wrapped white brick and waved it in Jake’s direction. “In the toe of a sock?” he said scornfully. “I expected better from a clever little fuckup like you.”
Jake shot to his feet. “Bullshit!” he shouted. “That’s not mine. This is bullshit!”
“When it’s nestled in with your tighty-whities, odds are it’s yours, Jake.” He put the brick down and turned to Officer Huan. “Cuff him.”
“Wait,” I said, stepping in close. I tried to keep my voice low as I turned to my partner. “Where did you find that?”
“Were you listening for the past minute, or do you have a memory problem?” Ruffner snapped.
I glared at him. “You couldn’t have found that in his dresser. I searched it, and there was nothing there.”
Ruffner shrugged. “Clearly you didn’t search it well enough, Corliss.”
“I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have missed a package of fucking heroin.”
Ruffner’s face darkened, and he stepped in so close I could see tiny flecks of brown in the blue of his eyes. He opened his mouth—
“Fuck this!” Jake drove his shoulder into Officer Huan’s chest before the cuffs were closed, knocking him back, and ran for the door.
I ran after him. Getting the truth out of Ruffner could wait.
I sprinted out the door behind Corliss. Huan and Simmons were ahead of us, and disappeared around a corner.
Before we’d even turned down the alley to find them, I heard a satisfying grunt. Sure enough, when we entered the alley, Huan had Jake flat on the pavement and was cuffing him.
“That shit ain’t mine!” Jake screamed. “I’m being fucking framed, man! That ain’t—”
“Shut it,” Huan growled. “If it isn’t yours, then why did you run?”
Jake glared at me with murder in his bloodshot eyes. To Huan, he said, “I’m being framed, man.”
“That’s for the DA to decide, not me.” Huan tightened the cuffs and stood, hauling Jake to his feet. “Jacob Carter, you’re under arrest for possession of an illegal narcotic. You have the right to remain silent . . .”
And that was when the short run caught up with me.
My knees wobbled and the edges of my vision darkened.
“Detective?” Simmons said. “You all right?”
I waved him away. “I’m good. Get him out of here. I’ll ask him some questions at the station.”
They started walking away, Huan still reading Jake his rights and Jake still insisting he was being framed, and I hoped their voices were getting quieter because of the increasing distance, not because I was passing out. My ears felt like they were stuffed with cotton—everything was muted and far away.
I planted a hand against the wall and breathed slowly, willing the dizziness to pass and the tunnel vision to clear. This new set of pills was screwing me all up. What was going to happen come summer? It was cool and drizzly today, but before the weather turned hot, I needed to get some—
“You sure you’re okay?” Corliss’s voice was somehow even more irritating when filtered through the cotton in my ears.
I squeezed my eyes shut. “You’re still here?”
“Well, yeah.” Was that sarcasm? Now? Really? “My partner starts wobbling after a half-block foot chase? I’m not about to leave you alone.”
I blinked my vision into focus and glared at him. The edges were still black and sparkling, and I kept my palm against the wall so my balance wouldn’t waver any further. “I’m fine. Look after the suspect.”
Corliss didn’t move. “He’s in good hands. You want to tell me what’s going on here?” He nodded toward my hand on the wall. “This have something to do with that?”
I looked the direction he’d indicated, and my stomach lurched. My silver medic alert bracelet was peeking out from under my sleeve. I jerked my arm back and tugged my sleeve down over the bracelet.
“Talk to me, Ruffner.” Corliss stepped closer. “Because if you can’t even run half a block without—”
“I’ll be fine.” I gave my sleeve another tug, then turned and headed out of the alley. “Now let’s get Carter back to—”
I stopped and turned around. “Pardon me?”
“Before we go anywhere, I want some answers.” He closed the distance I’d created, and looked me right in the eye. “One, I want to know if I’m going to be able to count on you if a suspect runs. And two—” he stabbed a finger toward Carter’s house “—I want to know where the fuck that heroin came from.”
“Funny,” I said, and stepped closer to him. “I’ve got some questions about that too. You said you already searched the bedroom, but you didn’t find it? How thoroughly did you search it, Detective?”
“Don’t try to gas-light me, Ruffner,” he snarled back. “I searched it, and I searched it thoroughly. So you tell me—where the hell did it come from?”
“Exactly where I said it came from. And while we’re on the subject, don’t ever question me in front of a suspect. You want to tag along on my investigation? You play by my rules.”
“I’ll play by your rules, but not if it means breaking every code of police ethics.”
“Yeah, and ethic code number one—you don’t throw your partner under the bus in front of a suspect.” I turned to walk away again. “Now let’s get the fuck out of here. We need to get down to the station and get a statement from him.”
I fully expected him to call after me or run up and continue our conversation on the way back to the house. Instead, he muttered something under his breath, then walked back with me in silence.
I just ground my teeth and stared straight ahead.
This was a new record. One hour working together and I already wanted to choke him.
**STARRED REVIEW** The plot is fast and harrowing, the romance is a slow burn, and the conclusion is as satisfying as it is thrilling.