Suspicious Behavior (Bad Behavior #2)
This title is #2 of the Bad Behavior series.
Detective Darren Corliss is hanging by a thread. In between recovering from a near-fatal wound and returning to work at a hostile precinct, he’s struggling to help care for his ailing brother. His partner and boyfriend, Detective Andreas Ruffner, wants to help, but doesn’t know how. And with his own family crises brewing, Andreas is spread almost as thin as Darren.
For cops, though, life takes a backseat to the job. When a stack of unsolved homicides drops into their laps, Andreas and Darren think they’re unrelated cold cases. But when a connection surfaces, they find themselves on the tail of a prolific serial killer who’s about to strike again.
Except they’ve got nothing. No leads. No suspects. Just a pile of circumstantial evidence and a whole lot of hunches. Time is running out to stop the next murder—and to pull themselves back from their breaking points.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“This is such bullshit.”
I hadn’t known Andreas for very long all things considered, but I’d already gotten pretty good at interpreting his declarations. If he bothered to mention how he felt about something, then odds were good he was serious about it.
“Hey, at least we’re finally getting some cases,” I said as I eased out of Andreas’s car, careful not to scrape my back across the seat as I went. I’d only been formally cleared for desk duty a week ago, but it had been a week of being alternately bored and pissed off back at our station.
The aftershocks of that case, where Andreas and I had proved that not only was the former mayor of the city dirty, but that he’d employed a bunch of dirty cops as well, had brought years of police work into question. Police precincts were cleaning house, and the process was a messy one.
That had been our only active case. I’d thought, rather naively, that Andreas and I would have our hands full as soon as I was back at work. After all, we weren’t the dirty cops. In the eyes of a lot of our coworkers, though, we were worse than dirty: we were snitches. Nobody wanted to work with us, and nobody was sharing cases, even as the files piled up on their desks.
“We shouldn’t have to beg work from other precincts,” Andreas said as he locked the car and joined me. “Much less from this fucking place.”
Precinct Thirty-Two was headquartered in a red brick building three blocks from downtown. The brass handles on its doors gleamed in the sunlight. They were probably the only shiny brass left in the place; this precinct had been at the center of the mayor’s operation, and the number of officers going down here was higher than in any other location.
“I completely agree with you.” God, did I ever. I felt like I was about to be shoved right into a lion’s den, and I was no Daniel. “But if this is what it takes to get back to work, then we have to suck it up. We won’t be long.”
“We better not be.” His hands twitched like he wanted to punch someone, but when we headed up the stairs, his gait was as smooth and easy as I’d ever seen it. Better, actually—it looked like his new HIV meds were working out pretty well. Andreas hadn’t had a dizzy spell that I knew of for weeks. I, on the other hand, felt more than a little pathetic at the way my lung twinged as we approached the building.
“Nah, I’m fine.”
You had to look carefully to see beneath the surface with Andreas, but I recognized the fresh tension around his mouth, and the way he opened the door before I even had a chance to reach for it. He scanned me with his bright-blue eyes, always watchful these days for a sign that I was worse off than I’d said I was.
“I really am,” I added, and he finally nodded.
“Try to stay like that.”
Andreas led the way into the station, and . . . whoa. It was like the temperature had just dropped ten degrees, and it wasn’t because the A/C was all that great. Two cops and the desk sergeant stared—no, glared—at us as we entered. Andreas waltzed up like he didn’t give a damn what they thought, and I followed his lead as best I could.
“We’re here to see Chief Singh.”
The desk sergeant looked between us, her lips pursing into a tight, wrinkled bud. “I don’t have you on the schedule.”
“Regardless, we’ve got a meeting with her.”
“She’s busy. You’re going to have to come back later.”
“Call her and check.”
“I don’t have to call and check to know she’s busy.”
“Do it anyway.” That particular growl was very motivational, and after a moment, the woman behind the desk sniffed and reached for her phone. Andreas kept his gaze on her while I looked around the entryway. The place was . . . odd. Strangely quiet for what should have been one of the busiest precincts in the whole city. The two cops who were in the room with us weren’t moving or talking, just standing there like scowling puppets without hands up their asses to make them move.
“Yes, ma’am. It’s Detectives . . .” The desk sergeant paused. “What are your names again?”
As if you don’t know. “Ruffner and Corliss,” I said when it became clear that Andreas wasn’t going to humor her.
“Oh right, right. The addict and the commissioner’s son.” She turned back to her phone, and I resisted the urge to grab it out of her hand and smash it against the faux-marble countertop. That rumor about Andreas was a vicious one perpetrated by Trent Newberry, the same detective who’d been so deep in the mayor’s pocket he’d been willing to kill to keep what he had. Andreas wasn’t a drug addict, but the damage to his reputation had been done. And while my stepdad had been the police commissioner for years, he was retired now, and I was sick of people insinuating that the only reason I was a detective at the perfectly reasonable age of twenty-eight was due to nepotism. It didn’t help that I looked young enough to be a college freshman, though.
The woman tossed the phone to the side. “Up two floors, first door on the right.”
Andreas didn’t even acknowledge her, just started for the stairs.
“Thanks for your help.” She gave me a dirty look and didn’t reply. I beamed a smile at her, then left her in a state of confusion behind the desk as I caught up with Andreas.
“You can’t charm everybody,” he said, waving for me to go ahead of him. I swear, he was still convinced I might fall down any second. All the more reason for me to be as unruffled as possible.
“I’ll never manage it if I don’t try.” One flight down, one to go. My lung and upper back ached a little, but I could handle it. “Needs more physical therapy,” my ass. “Besides, people won’t be angry forever.”
“Cops have long memories, Darren.”
“But short attention spans.” We reached the second landing, and I leaned against the bannister for a moment to make sure I could keep going without embarrassing myself. Andreas stood right behind me. I could feel the heat of his body, close enough to prop me up if I needed it.
It should have felt invasive. Not even close. I beat down the urge to lean back against him, and sighed. “Okay, I’m fine.”
“Good. Let me do the talking with Singh, okay? She’s new, so she hasn’t had a chance to peg me yet.”
“To what, peg you as someone who’ll challenge her authority?”
“Nah.” He smiled. “Peg me as an asshole.”
“That’s what I said,” I told him, but he was already moving. He turned down the hallway, knocked, and a second later entered the chief’s office. I followed right behind him.
Samara Singh was about as physically opposite our own chief as possible. She was a tall, thin Indian woman who wore her official uniform to work, while Hamilton was probably twice as heavy and half again as wide, with a handlebar moustache and a voice that I liked to describe as “shouty.” The look on her face, though? Very familiar.
“I think she already knows about you,” I whispered.
“Sit, please.” She pointed at the chairs across from her. We sat. “So, you’re Hamilton’s pariahs.”
Andreas shook his head. “We’re not pariahs.” I was amazed his nose didn’t grow two inches then and there.
“No?” She raised one slender eyebrow. “Then what are you doing here?”
“We’re doing you a favor.”
“Oh, no.” She shook her head. “No, gentlemen, you’re doing yourselves a favor by taking these cases. One, they’re murders, and nothing redeems an officer in the eyes of his fellows like catching a murderer. Two, they’re mostly cold, so you’ll have plenty to do and no need to bother your chief. And three?” She tapped one finger against the cardboard box on her desk. “These were all being personally investigated by Detective Newberry. The chance of any of these cases making it to a conviction is next to none if they stay in-house. You, as the people who caught Newberry, have the best shot at convincing a jury that you’re unbiased, if it comes to that.”
“What kind of murders?” I asked.
Chief Singh’s lips thinned. “Bad ones. Possibly serial killers, although any links between the victims are few and far between, or possibly individual vendettas. There was a task force on it for a while, but due to time constraints, they were unable to continue their work. Major Cases is down to half capacity right now—”
“Boy, Trent really got his hooks in deep, didn’t he?” Andreas remarked.
“And so,” Chief Singh persisted with a frown, “I discussed the situation with Chief Hamilton, and he assured me you two were the right men for the job.” She looked far from convinced. “Is he correct?”
Outside, I was trying to be cool. Inside, I was practically hyperventilating from excitement. I mean, murders were awful, the worst of the worst, but there was no denying that it was a worthwhile way to spend our time. I wasn’t going to be up to running down drug dealers for a while, and this sort of case would require a lot of meticulous research. And I was so, so tired of being bored.
“Give us what you’ve got and we’ll do our best, ma’am.” That was as polite as Andreas ever got, and Chief Singh seemed to realize it.
“Very well. Sign the transfer papers and take the box with you.”
That little explosion came from the door, the one I’d left cracked while we talked. The crack became a canyon as a man pushed the door the rest of the way open. He was dressed like a detective—that is to say, in a rumpled suit that looked like it had seen better days—but I’d never met him before. “Ma’am, I have to protest this,” he declared. And loudly, damn.
Chief Singh looked unamused. “I’ve already registered your complaint, Detective Perkins. My mind is made up, however. You have more than enough to keep you busy in Major Cases for now.”
“I have prior knowledge of these incidents,” he said, ignoring Andreas and I like we weren’t even in the room. “I have more experience with the complexities of cases like this than a guy who’s been working Narcotics for most of his career and a complete newbie. Let the files stay in-house and I’ll get you answers, I swear.”
“When will you do that?” Chief Singh demanded. “In between all the other homicides, suicides, and sexual assaults your team is supposed to be working on? Not to mention the kidnapping that just came your way, and that’s your priority as far as I’m concerned. You don’t have the people for this, George, and I don’t have any reason to wait for that to change. I’m handing them over.”
“We’re done with this conversation. Leave, before I send you home early for listening at my door.”
Detective Perkins’s jaw clenched. “I was just walking by, ma’am. Anyone else’ll tell you that too.”
Chief Singh scoffed. “Oh, I bet they will too. Get out, Perkins.”
He turned his glare on us, and if he’d been capable of killing us with his brain, we’d have keeled over right there. Then he left, and I exhaled a little more noisily than I’d intended to.
Andreas just looked unimpressed. His resting bitch face was a thing of beauty. “Is that all?”
“For now, yes. Do what you can with them. Hopefully, that will be more than we managed here.” She shook her head. “They were Detective Newberry’s private obsession for a long time. I don’t think it did him any good.”
Andreas stood up and grabbed the box of files before I could even attempt to take it. “We’ll let you know if anything turns up.”
“Thank you,” I added, and this time I got a smile. Darren’s charm: +1.
We left her office and headed for the stairs, and I could practically feel the eyes following us as we left. “I’m glad we’re leaving,” I said as we started down. “I feel like I’m gonna get knifed in the back any second now.”
Andreas stopped and stared incredulously at me.
“What?” I grinned at him. “Too soon?”
“Not too soon, just not funny.”
“But it could be funny someday,” I argued as I kept moving, Andreas following close. “I mean, it feels like something we could laugh about eventually.”
“You taking an actual knife to the back feels like something we could laugh about? You’re a maniac.” We were almost to the bottom floor.
“You have to admit, there are some funny aspects to it. Like—” My wit was derailed by the sudden wave of hot coffee that splashed against my shirt, almost throwing itself from the mug of the guy who ran into me. The cop who ran into me, actually. One of the ones who’d been hanging out at the front desk. He’d accidentally-on-purpose driven his shoulder into my right side, sliding over the healing edge of my wound and, fuck me fuck me fuck me, that hurt. I hissed a pained inhale and gingerly pulled my wet, steaming shirt away from my chest so it didn’t burn me.
“You should be more careful where you’re going, Detective Corliss,” the guy said, full of fake concern. He raised a hand, probably to thump me on the shoulder again, and wouldn’t that feel great—
The box hit the ground with a thud as Andreas caught the guy’s wrist. “What you did here?” He used his free hand to gesture to me and the mess of coffee on the floor. “That was a dumb move. What you’re trying to do now? That’s a form of fucking suicide. You understand me?”
“I didn’t . . . I didn’t mean . . .”
“I know what you meant.” Andreas gave his arm a little shake, and then let it go. “Don’t fucking do it again.” He looked at me. “You ready to get out of here?”
Thank God he wasn’t babying me. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
He picked up the box, and even while carrying it, he still got the door, but I wasn’t going to complain.
“So, are our tires slashed?” I asked. “Or can we get the hell out of here?”
“The tires are fine.” Andreas opened up the back of the car and put the box down, then threw me the fresh towel from his gym bag. “Take this.”
“Thanks.” I stripped off my jacket and got into the front seat, unbuttoning my shirt slowly. The skin was irritated, but not too red. “No harm done,” I said, wiping drops of subpar coffee from my chest. “Except for the smell, sorry.” I smiled at him. “You do a pretty good knight-in-shining-armor impression, I’ve got to say. Can you valiantly defend my honor in the bedroom too?”
Andreas snorted. “You don’t have any honor in the bedroom.”
“Fair point. Is it five yet?” It was 4:40. “Close enough. Can we take these back to my place for the night? I really want to get changed before we dig in to them.”
Andreas gave me an odd look. “Don’t you have to help move Asher tonight?”
“Nah, that’s tomorrow.” And I was grateful for that, because it was going to be a shit show and I needed a little more time to mentally prepare myself for the process that was moving my older brother into a damn nursing home. He was only thirty-five, and so deep in the grips of early-onset Alzheimer’s that my parents couldn’t handle him by themselves anymore. I’d offered to move back home to help, but I was quietly, shamefully grateful that my parents had refused point-blank. “Home?” I asked hopefully.
“Yeah, we might as well.”
Just what I wanted to hear. Hello pain pills, sweatpants, and new case files. It was the perfect evening in.
Darren and I jumped into the files as soon as we got home, but an hour or so after we’d settled in, we both started getting hungry. Neither of us felt like cooking, so around seven, I walked down the street to pick up some takeout.
The second I walked back through his front door, soda cans and food bags in hand, I knew his mother had called. Darren didn’t have to say a word. He was on the couch, surrounded by open files and his ever-present legal pad, but he wasn’t looking at them. His gaze was fixed on the TV screen. I doubted he even saw what was on. No one watched commercials that intently. Lips tight, jaw clenched, he barely acknowledged me.
Shit. He didn’t need this today. Or any day, really.
I cleared my throat. “I’ll, um, put this on some plates.”
He just nodded, still staring blankly at the TV.
I went into the kitchen, and once I was out of his sight, I swore under my breath. The only time I’d felt more helpless was when he’d gotten hurt. When there’d been nothing I could do except hope to God he didn’t bleed out right there in front of me, and whenever I slept these days, I could hear the doctor reminding me how much of a possibility that had really been.
There was nothing I could do now either. I couldn’t even go with him when he visited Asher. My presence—a new face—would only confuse and upset Asher. All I could do was be there when Darren came back.
I glanced into the living room. He was still staring at the TV. That would probably be our evening, then. I could only imagine how bad things were over at his parents’ house.
I plated our food and poured our sodas over some ice. He probably wasn’t hungry anymore, but he’d eat, if only so he could take a pain pill and knock out for the night. We both knew he wasn’t often in enough pain anymore to warrant continuing through the rest of his prescription, but I wasn’t going to judge him for a little chemical relief from the hell he was going through right now. Though I’d sure as shit keep an eye on him in case he got hooked.
His brother had started deteriorating rapidly while Darren was recovering from his injuries. Asher hadn’t understood why Darren didn’t come visit him, and no one dared tell him his little brother was in the ICU. Then he’d started going downhill. Fast. The worst part was that Darren had either been in serious pain or on even more serious drugs for the better part of the last month. He’d been devastated when he’d started bouncing back, only to learn that his brother had gone in the opposite direction and was being moved into a home.
And visiting him again . . . Jesus. Every visit took a heavier toll than the last. Asher still remembered him for now, but every day there were bigger holes in his memory. It was only going to get worse from here.
I glanced at Darren again and sighed.
What can I do? I don’t know how to be there for you.
Well, I could start with giving him some food. I balanced our plates on one arm and our glasses in the other hand. As I moved into the living room, I said, “Still hungry?”
He blinked a few times and looked up at me like he’d forgotten I was even here, or that he’d wanted food in the first place. His eyes flicked to the plates, and some life came back into him. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. Here, let me get this out of the way.” He quickly moved all the files aside, and I set the dishes down. “You were a waiter once, weren’t you?”
I laughed as I sat beside him. “For one miserable year after high school, yes.”
He switched off the television. “Looks like you got some use out of it.” He smiled faintly. I knew damn well he wasn’t feeling it, but I ran with it.
“You don’t want to know how many plates I dropped before I got the hang of that.”
Another hint of amusement. “How many can you carry at once?”
“Five or six, if they’re not huge.” I picked up a fry and dipped it in ketchup. “Got a second-degree burn once because I had a plate here”—I tapped my upper arm—“with a bowl of soup on it, and someone crashed into me.”
“Eh. Got me the night off.”
The conversation died away, and with it, that glimpse of the Darren who’d been here before I left. I didn’t know how to get it back. I wasn’t even great at filling weird silences with people I’d known for years. Navigating a new relationship with a new partner who was going through two different kinds of hell at once was some expert-level shit that I didn’t know how to handle.
Darren took a few bites from his burger before he set it back down. “So, um. I need to call out tomorrow.” He absently dragged a fry through some ketchup. “My mom needs a hand with packing Asher’s things.”
“You already have tomorrow off.”
His eyes lost focus and his hand stilled, but then he shook his head. “I had the dates mixed up. They’re moving him the day after tomorrow.” He ate the fry, and after he’d washed it down, muttered, “Guess I need two days off. Chief’ll be fucking thrilled.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll cover for you.” I sipped my own drink. “I’ll just tell him you’re at home going through all this shit.” I gestured with my burger at the files we’d abandoned.
“Thanks.” His voice was thick with numbness. Silence fell again, and damn if I knew what to do with it.
My mouth had gone dry, but I managed a bite of my burger. After I’d taken another drink, I said, “Is there anything I can do?”
“There isn’t anything anyone can do.” He picked at his food. I thought the silence would linger again, but it didn’t. “He’s asking for his wife.”
Darren nodded, staring at the coffee table with unfocused eyes. He wasn’t even trying to eat now. “The last week or so, he’s been asking for her.”
I swallowed, not hungry anymore myself. “What do your parents tell him?”
“Depends on how lucid he is.” Darren sighed, pushed his plate away, and gingerly leaned back on the couch. “Sometimes they can tell him they’re divorced. Other times . . .” He rubbed his forehead. When he lowered his hand, he looked fucking exhausted and sounded even worse. “How do you tell a man who’s convinced his wife just left the room that she’s been gone for years and isn’t coming back?”
“Jesus,” I whispered.
His lips tightened. Then he looked at me with haunted eyes. “This is the part when things start getting really bad, really fast.”
“How bad? And how fast?”
“Well, no one will come out and say it, but I’ve done research on his condition. At this stage, when we’re putting him in a home . . .” He closed his eyes and pushed out a long breath. “Once that happens, most people go downhill very quickly. There’s no stopping it, and there’s no slowing it down. And even though my parents refuse to say it, the fact is . . .” His Adam’s apple jumped, and he met my gaze. “Asher will be gone within a year. I’m almost sure of it.”
“Oh my God. I’m sorry, Darren.”
He didn’t speak. He looked toward the TV as if it were on, and his jaw tightened again. When we were on the subject of his brother, and his expression darkened like that, I’d quickly learned what it meant. No matter how much he tried to hide it, his mind always circled back to that place.
Cautiously, I said, “If you get the test, at least you’ll know.”
“Yeah?” He glared at me. “And then I’ll know I get to look forward to circling the drain for a few years before I forget everyone and everything I’ve ever known?” He sniffed sharply. “No, thank you.”
“Or you’ll know that’s not in your future.”
“It’s a fifty-fifty shot at knowing if I’ve got a time bomb in my DNA.” He shook his head. “I’ll pass.”
“This isn’t like HIV, Andreas,” he snapped. “What you have, it can be managed. You might not ever have a negative effect.” He gulped, and his voice wavered slightly. “If I have this, then there is nothing I can do. Nothing.”
“Okay. Okay.” I put up my hands. “I’m sorry. But if you do want to get the test, you know I’ll support you.”
“I don’t want to. But . . .” He dropped his gaze and his voice. “Thanks.” Before the silence could set in once again, he cleared his throat. “You want to just watch a movie or something tonight? Something stupid?”
“Sure. We can do that. What are you in the mood for?”
He sat up a little and reached for his drink. “How about Anchorman? Haven’t seen that one in a while.”
Ice water trickled through my veins, but I forced my expression to stay neutral. “Sure.” I nodded. “That sounds good.”
I didn’t dare tell him we’d watched that one three nights ago.
* * * * * * *
The next morning, I went into the precinct alone while Darren went to help his family. I ignored the icy stares—I was getting used to those—and headed up to our little corner of the bull pen. The desks near us were vacant now. After the fallout from Trent Newberry’s expansive network, a number of cops in our precinct had gone to prison, and the two detectives sitting near us had quickly jumped at the opportunity to move their desks elsewhere. Fine by me.
I’d brought a handful of Trent’s files with me, and stacked them on my desk. We hadn’t made much progress on them yesterday, which wasn’t surprising. Question was, where to start?
Well. I exhaled. No better place to start than the beginning.
I grabbed the first folder off the top and flipped it open.
Three or four files later, as I was looking over some of Trent’s handwritten notes and getting nowhere, approaching footsteps pulled my attention away. I looked up, fully expecting a snide comment or maybe another “accidental” coffee spill, but it wasn’t a cop.
“Hey, kiddo.” I stood as my eldest daughter came up to my desk. Good—I needed to talk to her anyway, mostly to ask about the friend’s apartment where she’d been crashing. She’d considered staying with me, but her friend was closer to work. Which was fine since I spent most nights at Darren’s these days, and wasn’t quite ready to explain that to her. “So, um, how’s the job going?”
“Eh.” Erin hugged me gently, then leaned against my desk. “They’re keeping me busy.”
“And your professor’s happy with it? For the internship requirements?”
“Good. How’s the apart—”
“Can I talk to you about something?”
I blinked. The way she’d blurted out the question made my heart stop. After Trent had tried to use her as a pawn, I was on a hair trigger when it came to protecting my kids.
“Um. Yeah.” I cleared my throat and tried to play it off as nothing. “Sure. What’s up?”
She shifted her weight, glancing around the bull pen. “Can we do this someplace else?”
“Anywhere you want.” I paused. “Why don’t we take an early lunch?”
Erin chewed her lip. “I should tell Mark, then. He’ll—”
“I’ll send him a text. Don’t worry about it.”
I stashed the folders in a locked file drawer in my desk, then grabbed my jacket and keys.
My daughter was quiet the whole way out of the precinct and down the road, just nodding silently when I suggested the ancient Irish pub on the corner. This early in the day, most people were at work, so the place was practically deserted.
When our food came, she was a little chattier, telling me about her latest adventures working as an intern for Mark Thibedeau in Internal Affairs. I kept it under my hat that her job wasn’t helping with the hostile work environment Darren and I had found ourselves in recently. Every cop in the city was convinced he and I were in IA’s pocket now, and having my daughter working up there wasn’t exactly a point in our favor. But she needed the internship and God knew IA needed help sorting through everything that had blown up in the last month. In another month, she’d be done and back at school two states over. Good thing her other classes were online this semester.
I pushed my empty plate away and took a drink. “All right. So. You wanted to talk about something.”
“Yeah.” Erin squirmed, staring at her mostly finished food. Then she pushed her own plate away and tucked her hands under the table. “So . . .” She gnawed her lip and refused to look me in the eye.
A million worst-case scenarios flooded my brain. “Erin? Whatever it is—talk to me.” Just please don’t let it be . . . or . . . or even . . . I tamped those thoughts down. No sense working myself up. Except I was already worked up. Fuck. What was going on?
She brought her hands up again and wrapped them around her drink. “There’s a rumor going around the precinct.”
“Could you narrow it down a little?”
Her eyes flicked up to meet mine. “About you.”
My heart thumped against my ribs. “Still might want to narrow it down.”
She released a long breath through her nose. “Well, it’s . . . kind of two rumors, I guess. I’ve heard a lot of people say you’re a drug addict.” Her eyebrows flicked up slightly, and I schooled my expression, refusing to let anything show.
“And the other?”
She swallowed hard, holding her drink tighter. “They say everyone thought you were doing pain pills or something. But that someone recently figured out it was something else.”
I dug my teeth into the inside of my cheek. Shit. This was not a conversation I was ready to have with her. “Did they?”
Erin nodded slowly, and she leaned in closer. “Are you a drug addict?”
“No.” I looked her right in the eye. “I’m not addicted to anything.”
She studied me. Then, barely whispering, “Do you have AIDS, Dad?”
I broke eye contact first, regretting it instantly because I knew damn well it was a tell. Thumbing the thin paper placemat under my plate, I took a deep breath. “I . . .”
“Oh my God.” She sat back. “You do, don’t you?”
Fuck. There was no way out of this. I could have choked every last asshole at the precinct for letting these rumors fly. I didn’t care what people said or thought about me. I did care when it was within earshot of one of my kids.
Ignoring the churning in my gut, I looked at her again. “I have HIV.”
Her lips parted. “Seriously?”
I nodded. “It’s under control, though. The medications, now—it’s been undetectable for a few years, and—”
“A few years?” she squeaked. “How long have you had it?”
Oh, now wasn’t that a loaded question?
I sat up and folded my arms on the table. “I was diagnosed before Emily was born.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh God. Does she have it?”
“No.” I shook my head. “No, we’ve had her tested repeatedly, and she’s always come up negative.”
“What about Lisa?”
I winced, and yeah, she probably had her answer even before I spoke. “She’s positive too.”
“Oh.” Her expression was blank, eyes wide like she was shell-shocked. “How . . . how long has she had it?”
I exhaled. No point in lying to her. “We don’t know. But she . . .” I closed my eyes and tried not to get sick. “She most likely got it from me.”
Erin’s breath hitched. “Whoa.”
I opened my eyes again. “And no, I don’t know how long I’ve had it.”
“But you’ve known for at least . . . almost five years, right?”
“Do Ben and Casey know?”
“No.” I drummed my nails on the table and my heel on the floor, trying to relieve this nervous energy. “And neither does your mother.”
She held my gaze for a moment. Slowly, her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned into a straight line. “Have you bothered to tell anyone?”
The anger in her tone caught me almost as off guard as this whole line of questioning. “Erin, it’s—”
“Dad, Jesus.” She threw up her hands. “You’ve known for five years that you have this, and it never once occurred to you to tell your kids? What the fuck?”
“What difference would it have made?” I growled back. “It’s under control. It’s—”
“Because you’re our dad and we shouldn’t get blindsided by crap like this? Because it’s not something I should find out by hearing rumors about—” Her voice cracked, and she shakily went for her drink. After she’d taken a swallow, she slammed the glass down hard enough to make both of us jump. In a softer, shakier tone, she said, “What the hell, Dad?”
I didn’t have an explanation. I had nothing. When had I intended to tell them? Quite possibly never as long as no complications arose. And what if I had? The question had to be on her mind—where did I get it? How quickly would that lead us down the path of how much I’d slept around after their mother had divorced me? How I’d been depressed and reckless and thrown caution to the wind despite telling my kids to always use protection? How there was a chance Emily wasn’t their only half sibling? How it was possible I’d infected other people along the way, and how much that ate at my conscience even now? And while we were on the subject of “things I wasn’t ready to tell my kids,” how many more men than women there’d been?
And oh by the way, now that you know I’m bisexual, let me introduce you to my boyfriend?
“Look.” I forced myself to meet her eyes. “I’ve told almost nobody. I—”
“But we’re your kids, Dad! How can you not see how fucked up that is?” Before I could respond, she put up her hands. “I need to go. Mark’s got work for me to do.” And with that, she stepped out of the booth and stalked out of the pub.
I released my breath and sagged against the back of the bench.
This week was just getting better and better, wasn’t it?
“You said we’re going to a hotel, right?”
“Yeah.” I rummaged through the bottom drawer of my brother’s dresser, the only one with anything left in it at this point. It was the clothing equivalent of a junk drawer, full of all the things that didn’t quite fit anywhere else. Here was a pair of padded biking shorts, there was an old, tatty sweatshirt from his law school days, and at the back was a—
“What the hell?” I held up the red satin bustier and waved it at him. “Does this actually fit you?”
Asher rolled his eyes. “It’s Melissa’s, obviously.”
He was probably right—it didn’t really look big enough to fit him even in his marathon days, much less now. But why he’d decided to hold on to his ex-wife’s lingerie for almost half a decade was a mystery I didn’t care to contemplate.
“You’re being careful with her clothes, right? She hates wrinkles.”
“Mom already took care of her stuff,” I lied. One look at my mother’s face when I’d arrived this morning had assured me that discretion was the better part of valor today. Asher was focusing on a particular set of memories lately, and trying to persuade him that things had changed was as futile as arguing with a toddler.
It made me sick to think of my older brother this way, but that was the fact of the disease. The days when I could count on him to remember that I’d finally made detective, or that Vic had retired, or that Melissa didn’t deserve his attention because she’d divorced him over four years ago, were gone. And they probably weren’t coming back.
He was getting more and more combative, running away and refusing his medications, and after Vic had found my mom crying one too many times, he’d put his foot down; they couldn’t give Asher everything he needed, not anymore. He had to go into a home with a memory care ward, the kind that you needed a code to get into and out of.
That was gonna be a fun one to explain tomorrow. A hotel, yeah. Right.
My shoulder spasmed, and I straightened up with a grimace and decided that finishing this drawer could wait. I was happy to be cleared for work, but my body was more than happy to remind me after I stayed in one position for too long. The only time I could really get comfortable was when I slept, and that was probably more due to Andreas letting me use him as a body pillow than my eight-year-old mattress.
I really wished I could tell Asher about Andreas. More than anything, I wanted to be able to share that I’d found someone who was actually worth a damn, not like all the boyfriends I’d run through in college. Mom was “happy if you’re happy, honey, but isn’t he a little bit old for you?” Vic, who knew Andreas better, limited his commentary to “don’t let fucking him fuck up your partnership. You’re gonna have to work with him whether you like him or not.” It was sage advice, but not really inspiring, as words of wisdom went.
Asher would have gotten it. He would have listened to me and understood what a huge thing for me it was, to find someone who actually respected me, who I liked and respected right back.
Plus, I was ridiculously attracted to Andreas and wanted my brother to have the opportunity to thoroughly mock me, like I’d made fun of him when he’d gotten together with Melissa. She was a lawyer like him, cool and professional and sharp as a tack, and I thought she’d been perfect for Asher. I’d loved her, loved who they were together.
That hadn’t lasted for long.
Fuck this, it had to be lunchtime by now. “Come on, let’s get something to eat.”
Asher was staring at the blank wall behind his desk. “I’m not hungry.”
“But there’s leftover meatloaf in the fridge,” I said brightly. “It’s your favorite.”
“Where are my diplomas?”
“They’re already packed.” Mom had taken care of the delicate stuff.
“Why are we going to a hotel, again?”
“It’s just for a little while,” I evaded.
“Will Melissa meet us there?”
“Of course she will.” We weren’t actually moving him anywhere until tomorrow, but he wouldn’t remember that if I told him. “You know how she is. You can never get her to take a day off.”
Asher smiled. “That’s true. She brought her work cell on our honeymoon, did you know that? Just in case they needed something while we were in Spain. Her firm is really lucky to have her.”
“They sure are.” Melissa still worked at Stirling and Associates, as far as I knew. At least she was loyal to something.
Asher stroked his face. “She isn’t going to like me scruffy.” He headed into the bathroom. “Where’s my razor?”
“It’s already packed.”
“But Melissa doesn’t like me prickly.” Asher frowned at himself in the mirror, running his hands over his cheeks. “She says I give her beard burn when I kiss her like this. And she always has to wear stockings after I go down on her because her thighs are—”
“Jesus, TMI!” I exclaimed, coming up behind him in the mirror and making a yuck face. “I don’t need to hear about your wife’s thighs, man. Or what you do to them. That’s between the two of you.”
“Yeah, I guess so.” He met my reflection’s eyes. “I miss her. I feel like I haven’t seen her in years.”
Oh, Ash. I kept my face impassive through sheer willpower.
“When is she coming home?”
“Later,” I managed. “As soon as she’s done at work.”
“Good.” He stroked his chin again. “I need to shave.”
“I’ll go get you Vic’s electric one.” It had to be electric, these days; even the safety razors could cause too much damage under the wrong circumstances. “Hang out for a second, I’ll be back.”
I headed out into the hall and was almost immediately ambushed by Mom. “Honey!” She laid a thin, cold hand on my forearm. “Come and get something to eat, you must be starving.”
“I am, but I told Asher I’d help him with a shave first.”
“It’s almost three, and you’re probably behind on your pain pills. You need to take them with food, don’t you? Vic can help Asher shave. Vic!”
My stepfather’s gruff voice sounded from the living room. “What do you need, Jessica?”
“Can you help Asher shave while I get Darren some food?”
I heard his recliner squeak as he got to his feet, and a moment later Vic joined us in the hall. Half a head shorter than me, broad as a barn and wearing a football jersey and cargo shorts, he was the exact opposite of my tiny, elegant mother, but he’d stuck with us for over twenty years now. He was a fixture in our family at this point. “What’s he want a shave for?”
“Melissa doesn’t like scruff.” I said it with an eye roll, but my mother winced and let go of my arm. “What?”
“Come and eat,” my mom said, and left us standing there in the hall. I turned to Vic.
“Eh, it’s a bunch of nostalgic crap,” Vic said, but he looked uncomfortable too. “I’ll take care of Asher, you go eat something before your mother goes crazy.”
I wanted to argue, but I was hungry, and my upper back was starting to get a low, throbbing ache that could only be conquered by the magic of Percocet or lying down, and if I lay down now, I’d fall asleep. “Sure.”
My mom was already plating up a slice of meatloaf for me in the kitchen, along with mashed potatoes. “There’s some salad too,” she said, putting the plate on the table and motioning for me to sit down. “Do you want salad? You look like you could use the vitamins. You’re so pale these days, honey. Is that partner of yours taking good enough care of you?”
Not that I needed taking care of, but Andreas was weirdly good at it. He didn’t hover, but somehow, I never had to look far to find anything I might want. Maybe it was because he was a parent, or maybe he just had psychic powers that only extended to me. Either way, I liked it. “He does a good job, Mom, I’m fine. Why are you—”
“Salad!” She plunked the Tupperware down next to the meatloaf. “I’ve got some ranch dressing in here somewhere. Hang on, honey.”
“Darren, eat something!”
Ooo-kay, this was more than a little concern-tantrum. I nodded slowly. “Sure.” I spent five minutes eating while my mother bustled around the kitchen, not making eye contact. I heard the buzz of Vic’s electric razor and smiled grimly. At least one of us was getting what we wanted.
I finished half the plate and then pushed it back. “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong now?”