"What we behold is censur'd by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight;
Who ever lov'd, that lov'd not at first sight?"
--Christopher Marlowe, "Hero and Leander"
Mike Logan yawned, tilting his head down to check his watch for the tenth time in as many minutes. Only four-thirty. An hour and a half into his shift, six and a half more lousy hours until quitting time. Today, Mike was sure that each of those six and a half hours would take an eternity.
Most days, Mike liked his job. Most days, though, he could also walk from his building to the car without losing all the feeling in his fingers and toes. On days like this, anyone with any sense would be home, in bed, and with any luck snuggling up with something a lot warmer than the twenty-below wind screaming off the river and through every imaginary chink in the patrol car's doors. Mike yawned again, and got a grumbled curse from his partner.
"Cut it out, Mikey," Ricky complained. "You'll get me started." He shifted in the passenger seat, wrapping his jacket more closely around him as he scanned the near-deserted streets. "Wouldn't want me to miss anything."
"Oh, yeah, Caruso. Even if the innocent folks were out walking in this weather, the muggers aren't in the mood to get frostbite for twenty bucks." Mike braked to a stop at a traffic light, and caught Ricky casting a longing look at the coffee shop across the corner. "Next round," he promised.
Ricky made a face. "Come on. We haven't stopped all shift. Besides, I gotta use the can."
"Jeez, Caruso, you're worse than my last girlfriend." But Mike pulled over anyway, glad for the excuse to break the mind-numbing routine, even for a moment. It was a dangerous thought to fall into, but today was just too damn cold for anyone to be making trouble. At least Mike hoped so.
A taste of cold air crept into the car as Caruso opened his door and hopped out, promising to return momentarily. Despite the breath of chilly air, the patrol car was warm, almost too warm. At the moment, though, Mike much preferred the cozy, slightly stifling air inside to the bitter February wind whipping up the street. Yep. He should have stayed in bed. He watched until Ricky disappeared inside the coffee shop, then picked up the clipboard he'd stuffed under the seat at the beginning of the shift.
The transfer form was old hat by now. He'd filled out five of them in the last few weeks, had even got as far as filing two of them. Days like today, it was easier to think about getting out, about moving to an investigative unit. He liked it here in the Ninth Precinct, liked his partner, liked his patrol, but lately he'd started to think that there was maybe something more out there for him to do. Mike searched for his pen, and started to write.
"Hey!" The thump on the roof of the patrol car made him start, and he leaned up to glare briefly at his partner's grinning face. Ricky waggled a paper cup at him, and Mike lowered the window a miserly four inches, just enough to let Ricky hand the steaming coffee over.
"You took your time, Caruso," he groused without ire, maneuvering the brimming cup carefully into the car. He put the application aside and uncapped the cup, wrapping his chilled fingers gratefully around the warm cardboard. He took a deep breath of the hot, bitterly fragrant steam, ignoring the temporary seismic disturbance as Ricky wrenched open the passenger door and fell inside.
"Man, it is freezing out there," Ricky announced unnecessarily, his breath puffing whitely in the confined space of the car. He pulled one glove off with his teeth, balancing his own coffee in the other hand, then took a hasty, injudicious gulp. "Ungh," he said with a grimace. "Someone needs to tell Mitch to change his filters."
Mike only grunted noncommittally, absorbed in sipping the excess from the over-filled cup. He heard rather than saw Ricky shift in the seat next to him, and turned only when Ricky lifted the clipboard between them. Mike made no comment as his partner's eyes scanned briefly over the form.
"Another transfer form?" Ricky shook his head, grinning. "That's the second one this week. Man, you must be desperate to get away from me."
"You know it, Caruso." But today, Mike's heart wasn't in it. He took the form. "I'm applying to Public Morals this time," he said, dropping the game abruptly. "Sarge says there are more openings there."
"Ah. Narcotics and Robbery booked up?"
Ricky hadn't said it to sting, but it rankled nonetheless. "Yeah," Mike said defensively. "It's a tough gig, especially without the seniority."
"Yeah, so I hear," Ricky said sourly, but flashed that grin again when Mike slid his eyes over to him. Mike supposed he had heard, at that.
He pulled his eyes back to the form. "You know, you could apply, too, Ricky."
"Yeah, and get the application fired back so fast it'll leave skid marks." Ricky shook his head. "No, thanks. You want to be Mr. Detective, don't let me stop you. Me, if I want a transfer, I'll just--"
"--move back upstate. Yeah." The clipboard made a satisfying clatter as Mike tossed it to the dashboard. "I don't know," he said. "Maybe this is a dumb idea. My old man, he walked a beat for thirty years. I could do worse."
"Yeah, you could get popped chasing some street mugger down a dark alley one night."
So could you, Mike didn't say. So he said nothing, and reached for the ignition.
They drove in silence for a while, Mike marking a slow, steady pace through their route, Ricky keeping an eye out the window and an ear to the radio. Finally, though, he drained the last of his coffee and stared thoughtfully into the empty cup. "How'd your date go last night, Logan?"
It was a feeble conversational sally, the partner equivalent of talking about the weather, but Mike accepted it with relief. "Why are you always so interested in my sex life, Ricky?" he asked.
"Did I say sex?" Ricky grinned at him, crumpling the cup in his fist and tossing it on the floorboard. "I said date."
"Is there a difference with you?" Mike retorted.
"Sorry," Ricky said presently. "Didn't realize I was touching a nerve." He grinned at Mike again, and Mike made an annoyed noise.
"You didn't touch anything, Caruso. I don't know where you get these ideas in your head." Mike signaled a turn, and cruised slowly up the new street. "And who says I even had a date last night?"
Caruso shrugged nonchalantly. "Just asking. Only I know that you've been seeing that girl from Dru's. Or trying to."
It actually took Mike a minute to make the reference. "Lois? That was weeks ago." There was no response from the other side of the patrol car, and he turned his head to find Ricky regarding him expectantly. "We went out a couple of times, that's all," he said firmly, and got a cocked eyebrow and a knowing leer. "Okay, we went out and we ended up in the sack. What's the big deal?"
"No big deal. Only . . . " Ricky shrugged. "I'm taking her out next week. I was just wondering what to expect."
"You . . ." Mike thrust his own empty cup at him, ignoring Ricky's laughter. "Well, good luck."
Ricky looked a little surprised. "Thanks."
"You're going to need it."
Ricky laughed again, and Mike settled back to driving, looking out at the rain-slick streets as they drove by. He wondered vaguely if he should be bothered by Ricky going out with Lois, since the whole point of Ricky's bringing it up was, obviously, to get Mike's tacit permission before moving in on his former girl. Fine by him, he decided. It wasn't like anything much had gone on between them anyway. Two dates, two nights in the sack, and then sayonara.
The story of his life.
They were nearly at the end of the shift when the call came in. The evening had been quiet so far, most of the muggers and thieves and dealers choosing, apparently, to stay inside and keep warm. But after hours of peace, the radio finally crackled to life, informing them of a domestic disturbance at Grady Towers, Number 417. Mike, now sitting in the passenger seat, exchanged a long, knowing glance with Ricky, even as he felt something clench in his gut.
"The Websters," Ricky said. "Christ." His voice was suddenly tired, and Mike knew just how he felt. "I hate this fucking city," Ricky said to no one in particular, and put his foot on the accelerator while Mike reached for the radio to tell Dispatch they were on their way.
Grady Towers was, as Ricky had once put it, one of the city's upscale slums. The building had gone up less than ten years ago, but it didn't, Mike reflected wryly, look a day more than twenty. They took the stairs up to the fourth floor, knowing from experience that it would be quicker by far than trusting their luck to the building's single functioning elevator. Mike could hear the Websters before they reached the stairwell door.
Mike glanced at his partner, and gestured for him to precede Mike down the hall. Caruso made a sour face, but wasted no time getting to the door and raising his hand to the knocker. He pounded on it twice, but the sharp raps had no effect on the volume of the voices that came through the door. Ricky put his mouth near the join of the door, and shouted, "Mr. Webster! Police! Open the door!"
There was a mad, undulating shriek from inside, and then a voice finally rose over the din, high-pitched with fright. "No! NO! Help me! Stop him!"
"Jesus." Ricky scrambled for the knob, throwing his shoulder into the sturdy wood, but the door wouldn't budge. "Mikey!"
Mike was already there, putting his shoulder next to Ricky's, nodding to him in a silent, swift countdown. One. Two. Three . . .
The door burst open under their combined weight, lock, bolt, and chain popping free as it flew open. Mike nearly took the rebound in the face, but he scarcely noticed, trying to take in the struggle in front of him.
"Oh, man." Ricky reacted to the knife the instant before Mike did, and jumped to intercept Mrs. Webster, seizing the weapon as she was about to join the fray. She shrieked, struggling with him, and Mike heard Ricky spit a sudden curse in Italian. Right then, though, Mike had other things to think about.
Joseph Webster was locked with his eighteen-year-old-son, his left hand wrapped in the boy's shirt, the other hand gripping his arm. Carl's face was white with fear as he tried, with all his gangly adolescent strength, to hold his burly father back. His voice, the same voice that they had heard out in the hall, raised in shrill terror. "No! Stop it, stop it!" he pleaded. "No, don't! Dad!" He cried out as one of his father's beefy hands flashed out, slapping his face hard enough to snap his head around, blood flying from his nose. Carl looked as though he'd already been on the receiving end of more than one slap, one eye swollen and red, his lip split and bleeding. Mike was already pushing between them, grabbing Joseph Webster by the shoulders and giving him a shove that staggered him backwards.
"Break it up!" he barked, and was gratified to see Webster, like most bullies, subside quickly once someone willing to stand up to him took over. But it only lasted a minute before he was full of bluster again, pointing a shaking hand at Mike.
"You have no right!" he shouted. "This is between us, family business! You can't interfere, pig!"
"The hell we can't!" Ricky said, his voice still breathless as he continued to hold a feebly struggling Mrs. Webster around the chest. His left hand was streaked with blood, but the snap in his green eyes told Mike that he wasn't feeling it, not yet. Their eyes met across the room, and Ricky jerked his head imperceptibly towards the boy, who was still standing in the center of the room, staring blankly at his father.
Mike whirled to Webster, and raised a hand. "You. Sit down, and don't move." He waited until the other man obeyed, then turned to look at the son.
"Carl." Carl didn't move. "Carl!" The wide, unfocused eyes finally slid to him, and Mike stepped forward, keeping Webster in the corner of his eye. "Carl I know he did this to you. Do you want me to arrest him?"
"You--" A glare from Mike stopped Joseph mid-protest. He heard the click of cuffs as Ricky took care of Mrs. Webster, and felt a tug on his belt as Ricky lifted his own set in passing. He turned his attention back to Carl.
"Carl, he hit you. That's assault. You want to press charges, we'll take him in right now."
Carl didn't respond, and Mike felt his heart sink. They'd been down this road before, too many times. The kid's nose was running blood, dripping down his face, and Mike decided that they might as well get him cleaned up, maybe get him talking that way. With a jerk of his head toward the kitchen, he signaled his plan to Ricky, and got a nod as Ricky finished putting cuffs on Mr. Webster.
Mike took Carl into the kitchen, sat him a chair, then found a towel and ran it under the cold water tap. He brought it to Carl and wrapped the boy's hand around it, urging him to press it to his face, to try to stop the blood flowing from his nose. He heard, in the room behind him, Joseph Webster's voice raised in protest, and Ricky telling him to keep his mouth shut. Carl shivered when he heard the voice, closing his working eye. "Carl," Mike said gently, and he started, looking up at him. "Carl, you want to press charges?" Carl looked at him blankly for a moment, his face half-obscured by the towel, and then, abruptly, nodded. Mike stilled, not sure he'd read him right.
"You want me to arrest him?" Carl nodded again. "You sure?"
"Yeah." The kid's voice was barely a mumble, spoken through the swollen, split lip, but Mike heard well enough. "Lock that son-of-a-bitch up."
Mike turned his head to the living room, still keeping his eyes on Carl's face. "Ricky!"
"Read the Websters their rights."
That jerked Carl from his near-stupor. "Not Mom," he said. "She didn't have anything to do with it."
"She assaulted a police officer," Mike reminded him. "We have to take her in."
Carl just stared, but didn't add anything more. Mike waited until he heard Ricky start the Miranda, then reached for his radio and called in for another unit and an ambulance. He didn't like the look in Carl's eyes, didn't like the way he was staring at him, blank, like he wasn't sure what was going on. He'd forgotten all about Ricky's hand until his partner appeared in the doorway, a reddening handkerchief wrapped around his palm. "You call an ambulance?" Ricky asked.
"Yeah." Mike glanced at him. "How bad is it?"
Ricky shrugged it off. "I'll be all right." He poised himself in the doorway, keeping the two Websters in sight. "How's the kid?"
"I don't know." Mike turned to where Carl still sat, the slowly reddening towel pressed to his face, his head tilted back to try to stop the nosebleed. "Carl," he said, raising his voice a little. "How do you feel?"
It took a long time for him to answer. "Dunno," he finally mumbled.
"Did he hit you anywhere other than the face?" A shrug. "What does that mean?" Mike persisted patiently. "He hit you in the side? The stomach?" He touched a hand, gently, to Carl's waist, and Carl gasped, jerking forward, the towel dropping from his hand. "Sorry," Mike said, and reached for the hem of his shirt. He pulled it up, and heard a swift, shocked intake of breath from Ricky. Mike didn't blame him. Carl's torso was covered in welts and bruises, a huge blackening mark already spreading over his side, right where Mike had touched him. Mike avoided that, instead putting a careful hand on the other side, pressing lightly on a patch of unmarked skin. The flesh was taut and rigid under his touch. He didn't have to be a doctor to know that that was bad. Mike quickly withdrew his hand, letting the shirt fall back into place as he stood up. "Where's that ambulance?"
"I hear it," Ricky said. "Almost here. Just hang on a little longer, kid."
In a few minutes, the apartment was overflowing. Mike backed off as the paramedics swept in and started swarming over Carl Webster, returning to the living room to find the parents being handed over to another unit from the precinct. Ricky, Mike noticed, wasn't looking so good anymore, his pale skin turning pasty, and a thin sheen of sweat tingeing his forehead even in the chilly apartment. The crude bandage around his hand was soaked nearly through, and Mike buttonholed the next paramedic that came through, dragging her over to look at Ricky's palm. She took a swift peek under the bandage, pressed a hand to Ricky's forehead, and turned to Mike.
"We've got our hands full with the kid," she said. "Best thing to do for him is for you to take him to the emergency room yourself. We're getting ready to move him soon, so you can follow us. Quicker than calling another unit out here."
"How's the kid?" Ricky asked, but she was already walking away, heading towards the controlled chaos in the Webster kitchen. Mike took his arm.
"You go on down. I'll tell someone where we're going and meet you at the car."
"Okay." Ricky glanced back. "God," he said quietly. "I hope he makes it."
"Yeah, you and me both." Mike gave him a shove. "Go on. I'll be right behind you."
They arrived at the hospital only a minute or two after the ambulance. By the time Mike parked the patrol car to the side of the entrance and walked Ricky inside, Carl had already been whisked back into the depths of the operating room, doctors and nurses bustling in his wake. To Mike's surprise, Ricky was next.
"Slow night," the nurse explained blandly, even as green-clad doctors rushed in and out of the swinging doors behind her. "Fill out this form, and we'll get you in to see a doctor."
"Thanks." Ricky started writing. Mike watched him for a minute, then stood up and reached in his pocket for a quarter.
"I'm going to call in, make sure they don't need us back at the apartment. You'll be all right?"
"Yeah, I think I can manage to spell my own name," Ricky said. "See if you can find out about the kid."
Mike couldn't have been gone more than five minutes, but when he returned Ricky was already gone, disappeared into one of the curtain-hung alcoves in the examining area. Mike finally found him sitting on a bed, having his hand examined by a dark-skinned, handsome young man in surgical scrubs. The doctor was saying something in a light, mellow baritone, holding Ricky's broad palm in his long, thin fingers. He glanced up as Mike came in, his eyes flicking once over the uniform, then up to Mike's face before sliding away quickly, his attention returning to Ricky's bloodied palm.
"How's the patient, Doc?" Mike asked.
"He'll need some stitches," the doctor said briskly. Dr. Nicholas Udall, according to his name tag. "Plus an antibiotic shot, just to make sure. He's lost some blood, but nothing serious." Udall felt briefly in his breast pocket, and produced a small, pointed stylus. He pricked each of Ricky's fingers, told him to open and close his fist, wiggle each finger. "Excellent. I don't think you'll have any problems, Officer." He put Ricky's hand down, and stepped to the curtain. "I'll go order your shots, and I'll be back in a minute to stitch you up."
Mike murmured an apology to Ricky, and ducked out, managing to catch the doctor just outside. "Hey, Doc."
Udall turned. "He'll be fine, Officer," he said soothingly, and suddenly smiled, showing white, even teeth. "He'll just have to give up the piano for a couple of weeks."
"Yeah, great, thanks." Mike cleared his throat. "Look, I was wondering if you could tell me anything about the kid that was just brought in. Carl Webster."
"Oh." Udall searched his face. "No, I don't know. I can check for you."
"That'd be great. Thanks."
His smile was a flash of sunshine. "Anytime, Officer."
Udall returned within a few minutes, accompanied by a nurse with a tray of instruments. Carl Webster, he told Mike, was in surgery, and probably would be for some time.
"Any word on his chances?" Mike asked, and got a regretful shake of the other man's head.
"All I know is that he's in surgery," he said, and smiled. "And that he's in very good hands. Now . . ." Udall turned and waved his hands toward the part in the curtains. "Go. I'll call when your partner's ready."
Mike allowed himself to be urged out into the corridor, but he didn't stay there long. Restless, Mike paced down to the waiting room, but the prospect of spending any more time numbing his rear in the hard plastic chair didn't much appeal to him. Instead, he headed towards the back door, with a vague idea that a few minutes in the cold, crisp air might ease the headache that was beginning to throb behind his eyes. But no sooner had he started down the corridor than he saw someone push through the outside doors, a tall, middle-aged man in a black overcoat and fedora.
"Spinelli!" Mike called, and headed his way, feeling relieved. There might be more gray than black in Spinelli's thick hair, and the belt that spanned his waist was beginning to sag under the strain of holding up his gut, but Mike knew that Spinelli was still one of the toughest, sharpest detectives in the precinct. Just the kind of man he'd want working on Carl's case.
"Hey, Logan." Spinelli closed the distance between them. "I just caught the Webster case. You talk to the kid?"
"Some." Behind them, the double doors swung open to admit a pair of nurses, and Mike shoved his hands in the pockets to counter the cold air that gusted into the already chilly corridor. Spinelli took Mike's arm.
"Come on. Let's get where it's warmer."
As they walked, Mike sketched briefly what Carl had told him, which wasn't much. "But," Mike said as they finally paused just short of the curtained treatment area, "he told me the old man was hitting him, no question who's to blame.
"He's going to press charges?" Spinelli took out his notebook and started scribbling.
Mike hesitated. "That's what he said," he told Spinelli, and saw the other man's eyes narrow.
Spinelli stopped writing. "You think he'll stick to it?"
That was harder. Mike wiped his hand down his face, turning away. "I don't know," he said at last, and lowered his voice, mindful of the thin curtains between them and the patients. "Look," he said. "We've been called to the place five times this year already. Husband beating the wife, husband beating the kid, husband beating the wife and the kid . . . I tried to get them to press charges before, and they wouldn't. You know how it is. Maybe he'll go through with it." He paused. "Maybe he won't. And even if he does, there's no guarantee the mother will back him up. She's terrified."
Spinelli shook his head. "May be moot anyway," he said. "I talked to the paramedics outside, they gave the kid a fifty-fifty chance going in. They're not doctors, but they've been around enough to know when a kid's in bad shape." Spinelli stopped. "Said it looked like someone beat the hell out of him. Ruptured organs, internal bleeding." He sighed. "If he dies, then the charges stick."
"And it's homicide." Mike swallowed the sudden thickness in his throat. "I hope he goes away, Spinelli. For a long time."
"Don't we all." Spinelli glanced up the corridor. "Hey, looks like your date's here." He slapped his arm. "Give me a report as soon as you can. Everything the kid said, everything the parents said. Okay?"
"Sure." Mike was already moving, walking up to meet a pale and slightly wobbly Ricky as he emerged from the examining room. Dr. Udall was with him, and he gave Mike a smile as he passed Ricky over.
"Okay, Officer. He's all yours. I gave him a mild sedative, and he should really go home and get some sleep."
"I'll take care of him," Mike assured him, and Udall nodded.
"He's lucky to have you, then," he said, and Mike felt himself start. Okay. Maybe that first glance hadn't been so quickly dismissive after all. He found himself taking a second look, at deep brown eyes, tanned skin, and a sudden, knowing smile.
"Well, we're supposedly off shift now, anyway," Mike said. "What else am I going to do?" he asked innocently, and saw Udall's eyes widen in suppressed laughter.
"Partner loyalty," Ricky said, oblivious to the second conversation taking place around him. He still looked alert, but there was still some fuzziness beginning to creep around the edges. He yawned. "Thanks, Doc."
"My pleasure." Udall glanced at his watch, and sighed. "Count yourselves fortunate. Me, I'm on shift another two hours." He smiled up at Mike again, and patted Ricky's shoulder. "Good night, Officers."
"Good night, Doc."
Getting Ricky home and poured into bed wasn't much of a challenge. Whatever the doctor had given him, it had started to work before they were halfway to Ricky's place, and Mike had to steady his arm as he wove his way gently down the hall to his apartment. Mike took the keys from him and got him inside, then marched him straight back to the bedroom. The first thing he did was get Ricky's gun, and left him to handle the rest of his clothes while Mike checked the safety and left the gun on the dresser, still snapped in the holster.
"You need anything?" he asked. "You want to take some of those pills the doc gave you?"
Ricky shook his head. "Nah," he said, and let his pants fall, stepping out of the crumpled heap and kicking them aside. "I'm fine. Just want some sleep."
"Okay." Mike watched him collapse on the bed, saw him wince as he reached down to pull up the covers. Mike went to his pants and picked them up, searching in the pockets until he found the bottle. He put it on the bedside table, then went to the kitchen and filled a glass half-full of water. When he returned to the bedroom, he set it down next to the pills, saying, "Here. If you wake up and change your mind."
"Sure." Ricky yawned. "Thanks, Mikey."
"Hey. That's what partners are for, right? You get some sleep. I'll call you in the morning."
"Yeah. See you." Ricky turned on his side, the bandage on his hand a white slash against the dark pillowcase, Ricky's face pale and peaceful next to it. Mike watched him a moment, as long as he dared, then turned and left.
Mike went back to the precinct to turn in his logs, and to make a start on the report Spinelli had requested. To his dismay, the report only took about half an hour to complete, the facts of the case covering a depressingly small section of the sheet. After the account of what they'd found on entering, there wasn't really much more. Neither of the parents had been exactly forthcoming, and Carl's accusations amounted to little more than a few disjointed sentences. Mike berated himself, briefly, for not getting a better statement from the kid, then realized that that was futile hindsight.
All the same, Mike felt a pang of dissatisfaction as he slid the report into Spinelli's box. The kid had been brutalized, maybe even beaten to death, and it all boiled down to less than a page. Hell of a statement on the value of a human life.
It was nearly one-thirty when Mike finally signed out. It was getting late. He was supposed to have lunch with his sister tomorrow, but that still meant that he had most of the morning to himself. He could run, do laundry, watch some television. Or maybe sleep in.
The one thing he didn't want to do was go home. Drag himself home to a cold, empty apartment and stare at the walls and think about Carl Webster's bloody face? No, thanks. Any other night, he and Ricky would have gotten off shift together, maybe headed to a bar for a beer, maybe gone to Ricky's place to watch the sports highlights and talk about nothing for an hour or so. Tonight, though, that option was closed off, and Mike found his thoughts turning, inevitably, to a different kind of companionship.
Even as he turned the notion over in his mind, though, he felt another wave of vague unease. He wanted it, but it was another thing he was tired of, slipping in and out of strangers' beds, using them to chase away the demons for a night, and then leaving before the inevitable morning regrets kicked in. There were worse things he could do, he knew that. All he had to do was look around the bars where cops hung out to see that. Sex was a cheaper drug, and at least when it was over it didn't leave a hangover behind. Tonight, though, he wasn't sure that it was really worth the price.
When he steered his car towards the hospital, instead of home, he told himself that it was because he wanted to check on the kid, and that was all. He'd done it before, swinging by after his shift, just to see how a victim was doing. Nothing unusual at all. He would have done it, he told himself, even if Dr. Nicholas Udall wasn't there, and about to come off his shift. By the time he reached the hospital, he almost believed it himself.
"Are you okay?"
The question barely registered, the words slithering through the dark, sluggish current of Mike's thoughts. He simply lay there, not answering, his body sunk in the apathy of post-orgasmic weariness. It was an all-too-familiar feeling, the high of the sexual peak followed by the inevitable plunge into depression. He should have seen it coming tonight, should have known that he was only replacing one placebo with another. First work, then sex, anything to avoid the memory of Carl Webster's face. Well, he was back, and not the soft flannel sheets, or the comforting dark, or even the warm, muscular body pressed so close to his, would take him away now.
"I'm all right," Mike finally managed, his voice sounding hoarse with disuse. God knew why, when he'd just spent most of the last hour moaning Nick Udall's name, gasping it, crying it out. The young doctor had been everything Mike hoped. Passionate, fervent, direct . . . and every bit as eager as Mike to erase the memory of the past day with the temporary oblivion of sex. To lose everything in the mindless, rough clasp of their naked bodies, wrestling and sweating under the sheets, their struggles finally reduced to a rigid, fierce embrace, their hips pumping in a harsh, frantic tandem, locked together, welded by bone and muscle and sweat into a single, hungry creature. They'd rocked there, inseparable, until finally they had climaxed together, gasping, panting, desperately clinging to one another until it was long, long over.
Now it was well and truly over, and it was time to pour the final drops of acid on the wound. It was late, and Nick had extended the invitation for Mike to stay, to sleep here snuggled up in the cozy flannel sheets of the doctor's bed. They had already made a warm nest of their bodies here, his pale limbs twining and linking with the other's dark-skinned beauty, a complex puzzle of interlocking pieces. It was a safe, snug cocoon, almost enough, Mike was tempted to think, to warm the cold loneliness that had crept into his heart. But he knew, too, from long, bitter experience, that by morning it wouldn't be enough. It was never enough.
"I need to go," Mike said, hating every word as it formed in his mouth.
Nick kissed his shoulder, his lips a soft, sleepy caress. "Stay," he whispered softly. "You don't have to leave."
Mike closed his eyes. "Yes. I do. I'm sorry." He turned his head, finding Nick's mouth for a brief, parting kiss. "I'm sorry," he said again when they parted.
Nick said nothing more, merely opened his arms as Mike slid from him, moving his legs obligingly as they gently separated. He pulled the sheets back up to his chest, watching Mike as he collected his clothes, silently tracking him with his eyes while he dressed. He lifted his mouth for another farewell kiss, reaching an arm from the sheets to caress the side of Mike's face. "Good-bye," he said. He didn't insult either of them by adding anything more. He was probably already asleep by the time Mike gently shut the door behind him.
Mike almost called Katy as soon as he got home, knowing that she wouldn't pick up, that he could leave a message canceling lunch without having to ever speak to her. Then he could just stay home, and stare at the ceiling, and probably not even get out of bed until time to go to work. He went to bed without making the call.
The phone woke him at ten, much later than the time he'd planned to get up, but long, long before he'd had enough sleep. He staggered over to pick it up, half-expecting to hear Katy, reminding him what time he was supposed to be there. Instead, it was Ricky's husky, mellow voice.
Mike yawned hugely. "Same to you. How's the hand?"
"Hurts like hell, but I can still shoot a gun and drive a car, what else do you need?" Ricky paused. "I was down at the hospital this morning, getting a shot of penicillin. They forgot last night, woke me up at seven this morning to get me back down there. Anyway, Doc Udall asked me to tell you . . . Webster didn't make it."
"Shit." Mike shut his eyes, slumping down onto the sofa. "Son of a bitch."
"Yeah." Ricky cleared his throat. "Spinelli wants us both after roll call, wants to walk it through with us."
"Sure. What are they calling it?"
"I don't know. Spinelli said he'd have to talk to the District Attorney." Ricky paused again, then added, with a quiet viciousness that wasn't him at all, "I'm hoping to God that they nail the son-of-a-bitch for Murder Two."
"Yeah," Mike agreed. He waited a second. "Thanks for calling, Ricky. I guess I'll see you later."
Ricky breathed deep. "Yeah. Later."
Ricky hung up. Mike sat for a long time on the couch, staring across the crowded studio to the unmade mess of his bed. Wishing he'd listened to his stupider half last night, and stayed with Nick. But then, if Nick was on duty at seven in the morning, chances were Mike would have been home in time for Ricky's call anyway. None of it would have changed the fact that Carl Webster died.
Finally, when he realized that he was about to be late for dinner at Katy's, he heaved himself off the couch and went to shower. With the hot water pouring over his head, washing down his tired body, rinsing the numb peace away, he could easily convince himself that the only water running down his face was from the shower, that the sting in his eyes was soap, nothing more.
Katy knew something was wrong. Mike didn't even bother to pretend that he could hide it from her, but to his brother-in-law he was hearty grins and handshakes, and to the nephews and niece he was smiles and hugs and pats on the head. By the time the seven of them sat down and plowed their way through an enormous pan of shepherd's pie, with the babble of conversation only mildly subdued by mouthfuls of food, the smiles were easier, and the laugh no longer caused such a terrible ache in his chest.
After the dishes had been cleared away, the minor trauma of a broken glass disposed of, and tempers soothed over a contested chocolate chip cookie, Katy firmly packed the children off to the living room to play and watch television. Next, Philip was sent off to work with a dinner pail and a kiss. Finally, with peace restored over the kitchen, she poured two cups of opaque black coffee and sat down across from her brother, pushing her straggling hair from her eyes.
"What's happened?" she asked, without preamble, without having to ask. Mike told her about Carl Webster.
"And now the kid's dead," Mike finished, then made a bitter, angry sound. "Not a kid. An adult. Too old for us to do a goddamn thing to protect him."
"Mike," Katy said quietly, and he shook his head.
"Sorry. I just . . ." He turned away, wiping a hand down his face. "He stayed there," he said angrily. "He wouldn't go. He had other family here, an older brother that would have taken him in. But he wouldn't go."
Katy's hand slipped across the table, clasping his briefly. "You did what you could," she said, then paused. "No, I take it back. You did more. I know you."
It was a hackneyed phrase, one he'd heard a thousand times, from a thousand frustrated cops. But from Katy, it actually helped. "Thanks," he said.
"It's hard," Katy said after a moment. "But you can't protect them all. Sometimes you have enough to do just protecting your own." Katy took a deep breath. "There are times, when little Mikey is being . . . little Mikey, when I could just--" She broke off, shaking her head. "But I don't. I don't even dare spank them." She looked away. "Like I don't dare to so much as touch a drink. I could be like Mother, Mike," she said. "I could be like her so easily."
So could I, he didn't say. Instead, he tugged her hand gently, saying, "Katy." He waited until she looked at him, until she could meet his eyes, hers shining a little too brightly, but clear. "You're not her," he told her softly. "Okay?"
"Thanks." Katy closed her eyes, squeezed his hand hard, then opened them with a smile. "Fortified for another week," she said. Then there was a thump, a crash, and the shrill crescendo of voices. "Break's over," she said with a wry smile, and stood up. Her smile faded, though, when Mike rose as well. "You're going?"
"I'd better. I've got some things to do before roll call, might as well get a head start."
Katy nodded her understanding. "You take care," she said, kissing his cheek swiftly, already edging towards the sounds of tragedy. "Say hi to your partner. Tell him he needs to come with you sometime."
"I will," he promised. "Be well, Katy Flynn."
"You too, Mike Logan."
Much to his annoyance, when Mike showed up for roll call, he discovered that he and Ricky had been taken off patrol for the next week. Okay, so Caruso had hurt his hand, but five days down in the file room was a harsh penance. Especially, he thought sourly, if you were being punished just because you were the partner.
First, though, there was a small mountain of paperwork to be completed about the Webster case. Ricky was useless as a typist, so Mike sent him to pull up copies of their other four calls to the Websters, knowing that Spinelli would want to know the details, and determined that they wouldn't get caught napping. Not on this one.
By the time Mike finished with the last of the paperwork, Ricky had returned with the files, and they spread them out on the table, passing them back and forth as they reviewed their own reports on their four-month history with the Websters. Finally, Ricky shut the folder he was reading and tossed it back, rubbing his hands over his eyes.
"I've had it," he announced. "One more word, and I'm going to fall into a coma right here." He pushed himself back, wincing as he put pressure on his bandaged hand. "I'm going to the can, and then I'm getting coffee. Want anything?"
"Yeah, extra large and cherry," Mike told him.
"You got it." Ricky left, and Mike picked up the last report.
He was staring at the page, trying to fix the memory in his mind, to sort it out from the other nearly identical calls, when he glanced up and saw Spinelli walking by the door of the squad room. There was another man with him, a tall, slim stranger in a blue suit, a dark overcoat thrown over one arm. Nice suit, nice coat. Too expensive for a cop, not expensive enough for a lawyer. Public defender, Mike decided, then reassessed the way Spinelli was talking to him, reserved, but still friendly. District Attorney, then. Great.
He'd spent just a second too long studying them. Before Mike could drop his eyes, pretend to be reading, the stranger had turned and was scanning the room, looking for someone. A pair of brilliant cerulean eyes passed over him, then returned, meeting his own with a cool, searching gaze. Looking for me? Mike wondered, and shot his own gaze over to Spinelli, now saying something in the lawyer's ear. Then Spinelli looked up, and raised his voice.
"Logan! Come here a minute?"
Your wish is my command, Mike didn't say. He gathered up the files they'd retrieved and walked over. He gave the other man a second look as he neared, sure, now, that he'd seen him before. Then Spinelli gestured, and said, "This is Officer Mike Logan. Mike, this is Assistant District Attorney Stone."
Mike shook hands briefly. Stone. That explained it. Maybe he didn't get his picture in the paper as often as District Attorney Schiff, but Mike could recall, now, seeing that placid face attached to some of the cases Mike had followed in the papers. Mike looked at Spinelli, wondering what the hell was going on. A second later, he found out.
"Logan was the first on the scene," Spinelli was telling Stone, while the other continued to assess Mike with his pale blue eyes. "He and his partner have been called to the Webster's . . . how many times, Mike?"
"Four. Not counting the last one."
Stone nodded, and addressed Mike directly for the first time. "We'll need to see your reports on the other incidents, Officer. Yours and your partner's."
"Right here." Mike handed them over, trying not to look smug at the surprise on Stone's face. But those eyes were still looking at him, curious, and something made him go on. "I was just looking them over myself," he explained. "I figured someone would want to talk to me about them." He paused. "I didn't figure for getting the DA's chief prosecutor right off the bat, though."
It wasn't a question, but Stone answered him anyway, propping a pair of glasses on his nose before he started to leaf through the folders with his long, fine hands. "Joseph Webster's lawyer got me out of bed at five this morning. That always gets my attention."
"Called you before the kid was even cold. Compassionate parents."
Stone's eyes flicked up to him again. "According to Mr. Webster, yes."
It took a moment to sink in. "Whoa. Wait a second, that's crap. He was the one beating the kid! He hit him right in front of me."
"And his wife stabbed your partner with a knife."
"So?" Mike retorted. "The kid didn't die from being stabbed."
Stone didn't seem impressed. "That may be so, but her involvement certainly muddies the issue. We're still waiting for the Medical Examiner's report. Meanwhile, I'd like to be present at the walk-through of the crime scene."
"What, the DA's office is moonlighting at the NYPD now?"
"Mike . . ." Spinelli said warningly, and Mike forced his mouth shut. Stone looked up at him, and suddenly it was as if he was seeing him for the very first time.
"Officer," he said quietly, "the last time I checked, we had a common goal: To make sure that Carl Webster's killer, whoever that may be, does not slip through the cracks. Can we agree on that?"
The anger surged through his veins, cold as ice, and Mike heard the chill in his tone. "Sure. So I expect you'll be asking me to look over your shoulder while you do your summation, right?"
That hit home. Stone reached up and removed his glasses slowly, folding them carefully before tucking them in his outer breast pocket. He regarded Mike with renewed interest, and for a second, Mike could swear that a corner of his mouth quirked up, as if he were amused but determined to hide it. Beside them, Spinelli was making sputtering noises, nearly on the verge of apoplexy, but both men ignored him. It was as if the entire world had narrowed down to the space between them, everything else blotted out, insignificant.
Stone looked him up and down. "If I thought it would help get a conviction, sir, I'd do a tango with you in drag. This isn't going to be an easy case. Anything I learn now can only help us all in the long run. I don't want to do your job, Officer. I just want to watch."
Mike took in a deep breath, willing the anger to subside. "Then I guess we'd better put on a good show." He nodded to them both, carefully not catching Spinelli's eye. "Excuse me, gentlemen," he said, and pushed past them. "I'll go get my partner."
Whether it was because of the confrontation, or in spite of it, Stone seemed content to stay in the background of the walk-through, propping himself in a corner of the room while Ricky and Mike talked Spinelli through the scene. There still wasn't much to be said, but over and over Spinelli came back to the tableau as it had been when they entered, trying, it seemed, to recreate in his mind a precise snapshot of what had occurred. Ricky, who'd been, technically, first through the door, came under the brunt of it, and Mike could tell after a few repetitions that his patience was wearing thin. He was looking a little pale again, his injured hand held in his pocket, and Mike knew from the tight lines around his mouth and eyes that he was starting to hurt.
"Look," Ricky finally said, "it's not going to change. I came in, I saw her, and she was moving towards the kid with the knife up. I don't know if it was because the kid was between her and the husband, or what. I ain't a mind reader."
Spinelli looked a little miffed. "Well, you've been here before. Has she ever hurt the kid?"
The partners exchanged glances. "I don't know," Ricky said at last, his eyes straying to Mike again. "Logan mostly talked to her and the kid. I know the old man beat them both. I don't know if she was in on it."
Spinelli turned to Mike. "Logan?"
"She didn't hit him," Mike said firmly. "For Christ's sake, half the time she was black and blue, too."
"Could Carl have been afraid to implicate his mother? Could he have been protecting her?"
It was the first contribution Stone had made, and the other three swiveled to look at him. "Maybe," Mike said at last. "But he told me his old man hit him. Why leave her out?"
Stone nodded, as if Mike had just told him something very useful. "Good point."
Logan looked at him for a second, as if he wanted to ask what had just gone on, but then he turned back to Spinelli and Caruso, directing his attention back to the job. Smart, Ben thought. He'd caught on quicker than either of the other two that if this was going to work, they'd have to find a better explanation for Mrs. Webster's behavior.
Under cover of his observation, Ben took another look at Officer Michael Logan. He wasn't nearly as young as the uniform made him look, Ben realized. Logan was probably nearing thirty, if not there already. Thirty, and still a beat cop. Not that some cops didn't stay on the streets, in uniform, until they retired, but those cops didn't usually have the kind of intelligence that had already distinguished Logan's understanding of this case. Maybe he just didn't have the ambition, Ben thought. Or maybe he just hadn't had the break. Either way, if this case ever went to trial, Ben knew already which officer was going on the stand.
Logan was talking again, describing another of the past incidents, showing Spinelli the cracked glass of the sideboard where a thrown ashtray had barely missed Mrs. Webster. Surreptitiously checking his account with his written report, Ben didn't find many discrepancies. Good memory. Now he and Caruso were arguing, amicably, about exactly where Carl Webster had been standing that night, and whether the ashtray might possibly have been intended for him. Although Caruso couldn't have been that much younger than Logan, Ben was interested to note that when it came time for the final say-so, he deferred easily enough to his partner. As if, Ben observed, he were used to Logan being right.
"How's your hand?" Logan asked him presently, and Caruso made a face.
"Hurts," he admitted, and pulled it out of his jacket, gingerly. Ben made an involuntary sound, and Caruso stared, too, at the swollen, reddening fingers. "Ow," he said mildly.
"Hey, that looks nasty," Spinelli said.
More than nasty, in Ben's opinion, and it looked like Logan agreed with him. "Here," Logan said, and reached for his partner's wrist. "Gimme that." He pushed back Caruso's jacket and sleeve, peering at his arm while Caruso tried to look as if it didn't hurt. One look at the angry red streaks pulsing out from Caruso's wrist, and Logan pushed the sleeve back, reaching up for Caruso's shoulder. "Okay, that's it," he said. "We're going to the hospital."
"Mikey . . . "
"Now," Logan said, and Caruso shut his mouth. Logan turned to Spinelli, then back to Ben. "Sorry to leave the party early," he said. "You need me back here, Spinelli?"
"No. You take Ricky in. If I need you I'll call you."
"Sure." Logan tossed an arm across Caruso's shoulders and headed for the door, quietly berating his partner the whole way.
Left alone, Spinelli turned to Ben and shrugged apologetically. "Sorry about that," he said.
Ben raised his brows, startled. "For Caruso?"
"No." Spinelli looked uncomfortable. "For Logan." He hesitated, as if groping for the right words. "He's a good cop," he said. "But sometimes he's got a big mouth."
Ben waved it away. "Already forgotten," he said, then proved himself a liar by asking immediately, "Is that why he's still a beat cop?"
Spinelli looked a little surprised. "No," he said, as if he'd never thought of it before. "I mean, not that I've heard." He smiled wryly. "But he's got the temper, that's for sure." His grin broadened. "Me, I'm Italian, like Ricky. I wouldn't partner with a Mick to save my life. But they get along fine."
"He seemed to have a good picture of what went on here that night."
"Yeah," Spinelli said, almost grudgingly. He hesitated. "Look, if it was me, I'd give him a shot at detective. But . . ."
"But?" Ben prompted.
"You know how it is. Some moron stops a guy for spitting on the sidewalk and bags one of the FBI's Most Wanted. Another guy busts his ass for years working cases and never gets a break. All Logan needs is one good case, just to show what he can do, and I'll guarantee him a gold shield."
"I'll take your word for it. Still, you know that some cops simply can't handle the big cases."
"Not Logan," Spinelli said, shaking his head. "You remember the Headhunter case, couple of years back? Logan was a rookie, right out of the Academy. His first murder, and it was that one. But he did good work. We all saw that."
"Well, I guess there weren't too many promotions handed out over that one," Ben said. "Case is still open, isn't it?"
"Yeah, four bodies before it was over, and the last one was the prime suspect's. They never even made an arrest. Not one of the department's finer moments, but that wasn't Logan's fault."
"Maybe he just doesn't have the ambition."
"Could be," Spinelli conceded. "His old man walked a beat for thirty years. Could be Logan doesn't want to do anything but follow in his footsteps." Spinelli grinned. "Literally."
At the hospital, it was deja vu. The same emergency room, the same nurse on the desk, darn near the same patients waiting, or at least it seemed like it. With all that, Mike shouldn't, he supposed, been as surprised as he was to see Nick Udall coming through the curtains to the exam room with a wry, amused smile on his face.
"Back again?" he asked, reaching for Ricky's arm, gently lifting the swollen wrist in his delicate fingers. "We'll have to get you your own parking space soon."
"Yeah, I should get stabbed more often." But the humor was feeble. Mike, standing in the corner, could see the tension in Ricky's jaw, saw him wince visibly when Nick touched his arm.
"Sorry," Nick said, although Ricky had said nothing. He flexed the wrist slightly, then reached for scissors and snipped through the bandage that covered his neatly stitched palm. A few more moments of probing, and he set the arm down again. "Well, congratulations, Officer. You've got an infection all right, but it's not that bad. Those red streaks are usually bad news, but there's no sign of serious infection around the wound. I'll give you a broader spectrum antibiotic, that should help fight the infection. In any case, I'd like to run some blood tests, make sure it's not something that's going to sneak up and kick your butt in the next day or two."
Ricky was looking at him doubtfully. "Does that mean I have to stay here?"
Nick shook his head. "I don't see any need to admit you, but you'll have to stay here while we take blood and run tests. Don't worry." He slapped Ricky's shoulder gently. "You'll be out of here in no time."
Ricky cast a pleading look at Mike. "Don't look at me, pal," Mike told him. "He's the doc, not me."
"See? Your partner trusts me." Nick urged Ricky to swing his legs up on the bed. "Now. Lie here for a minute while I see about those tests." He found a blanket and spread it over Ricky's prone form, then reached up and turned off the light above the bed. "Try to rest, all right?" He turned away, and gestured for Mike to follow him out in the hall. Mike patted Ricky's shoulder, murmuring something vague and encouraging, then slipped out to join Nick in the hallway.
"Is he going to be all right?" Mike asked, and got a sympathetic look.
"I think so," Nick said, but with confidence, and started walking down the hall, Mike pacing alongside. "The fact that it took this long to get infected suggests that it's a pretty weak toxin. If it was a kitchen knife, there's any of a hundred different bacteria that could have got stuck to it. We'll run tests, just to be sure it's not serious, but he should be out of here in a few hours." He patted Mike's arm. "Don't worry. I'll take good care of him."
"Lucky guy." The words came out before he thought, and Mike was sure he hadn't ordered the note of innuendo that came out with them. Almost sure. He was pushing it, he knew, and he half-expected Nick's next words to be a gentle, and no doubt genteel, brush-off. Judging from the look on Nick's face, he was thinking the same thing. But then he smiled, and for the first time, his deep brown eyes actually looked warm.
"I'm glad you think so," he said. He looked at Mike, and Mike could almost see him mentally scanning the corridor around him, choosing his words for the benefit of anyone who might be listening. It was a game Mike was well familiar with, and he felt a little thrill as Nick went on. "I'm about to get off in a couple of hours, but I'll stick with him until they get the tests back. How about you?"
"Me?" Mike shrugged. "Hey, you just tossed my partner to the disabled list. Not much for me to do without him. I have to go in and fill out my logs, but after that my sarge says I'm on my own."
Nick appeared to digest this for a moment. Then he glanced up and down the corridor, and, having satisfied himself that they were alone, lowered his voice and said, "I was going to go home and order some take out."
The sudden tightness in his throat made it difficult for Mike to answer, but he managed fine. "Then I guess you'd better order enough for two."
Nick nodded slowly. "On one condition." Mike raised a brow, waiting, and Nick went on. "That you let me buy you breakfast, too."
Mike almost said no. He knew that it would no doubt mean the end of the date, and, now that the possibility had been opened, maybe any future dates as well. Was it worth that?
"It'll have to be early," he finally said. "I'm on at seven."
To his surprise, Nick actually laughed. "What a coincidence. So am I." He nodded, and set off towards the administration desk. "Good night, Officer."
It was almost midnight by the time Mike got to Nick's place. He'd waited until Ricky's blood had been taken for the tests, then hung around for another half an hour while they waited for someone to send word that it was okay for them to leave. After he'd dropped Ricky off, it was back to the precinct, to fill out more forms and take care of informing the duty sergeant that Ricky might not be in for his shift in the morning. A hasty shower, an even more hasty change of clothes, and Mike was heading to the West Side.
Despite his tardiness, Mike arrived at the same time as the food, just barely beating the delivery boy to Nick's door. They spread the food on the floor in front of the television, each of them picking an entree at random, then tucking in. There wasn't much talk at first, both of them hungry enough to concentrate more on the food than manners. Nick turned on the television to catch Sportscenter, and they sat side by side against the couch, eating out of each other's cartons, Nick expertly manipulating a pair of chopsticks while Mike made do with a fork.
"I think you've got the advantage here," Nick said presently, watching while Mike unabashedly levered a chunk of beef from his carton. Nick retaliated by poking in Mike's carton until he found a strip of chicken, and lifted it out under Mike's watchful eye.
"Now who's got the advantage?" Mike grumbled, then raised a brow as Nick, instead of conveying the piece to his own mouth, dangled it in front of Mike's nose. "It's your carpet," he warned, and leaned forward to let Nick deftly slide the chicken between his lips. After that, it was a game, feeding each other their own food, until the sports news was forgotten and they sat facing each other, trading bites, and then kisses. Then Mike kissed Nick, and didn't stop until they were lying on the floor, cartons of Chinese food scattered forgotten around them, necking while the newscaster related the hockey highlights of the day.
Eventually, after Mike's elbow went into the remains of Nick's orange beef, they took the time to gather the cartons and take them into the kitchen. While Mike tossed containers in the garbage, Nick came up behind him, slipping his arms around his waist and slowly beginning to undo the buttons on his shirt, one at a time.
"Nick, what are you doing?" Mike asked mildly.
"Your shirt's dirty," Nick explained, sliding his hands across Mike's chest, reaching for another button. "I thought maybe I should put it in the wash for you."
"Getting domestic on me?"
But Nick only chuckled softly into the now bare skin of Mike's shoulder. "No. Selfish." He kissed him, then closed his teeth gently on the same spot. "Maybe even greedy."
"Mmm." Mike turned in his arms, kissing him, loving the feel of the soft sweatshirt against his skin, the heated softness of Nick's hands as they roamed over his bare back. Then long, strong fingers were working at the buckle of his belt, and tugging at his zipper until a gentle hand could slip inside, cupping him through his underwear. Mike let his breath out in a long sigh, his head falling back as Nick began to kiss his throat, his shoulders, the hand in his pants rubbing gently, then squeezing. Mike groaned out loud, almost unconsciously spreading his thighs, leaning his elbows back against the kitchen counter while Nick bent over him, tasting, licking, kissing him.
Nick's hand left Mike's crotch for a brief, agonizing moment, then slipped down inside the elastic of his underwear, fingers wriggling down over bare flesh, the fingertips stroking at the cool skin of his balls, the palm pressing against the pulsing vein on the underside of his cock. Nick squeezed him again, harder, and Mike gasped out loud, his hips jerking blindly against the hard, almost painful grip. His pants were down around his knees now, leaving him naked against Nick's softly clothed body, helpless under his tongue and teeth, his penis throbbing as Nick began to massage his balls, squeezing and releasing, rubbing his palm against the swelling hardness.
It took an effort of will, but finally Mike managed to summon to the strength to lift his arms, to wrap them around Nick's body and raise his mouth to give him a long, thorough kiss. Nick kept his hand where it was for a moment, giving him one last breathtaking caress, then slipped his hands around Mike's back, returning the embrace, pulling Mike's naked body against his clothed warmth. "Come on," Nick whispered into Mike's neck. "Let's go to bed."
Afterwards, they took a hot shower, too sleepy to take advantage of the big, jet-powered bathtub, too tired, in fact, to do more for a long time than embrace under the showerhead, letting the powerful spray do most of the work to sluice away the sweat and oil from their bodies. Once they were clean, they returned to the bedroom and fell into bed, shifting and turning until they had wound their bodies together in a tight knot at the center.
Nick's head soon drooped tiredly onto Mike's shoulder, his dark curls feathering softly against Mike's clean, warm skin. After a moment, he began to snore. Mike shifted closer, re-settling Nick's face against his neck, holding him close, his arms draped around the broad, strong shoulders. He thought for a moment about his promise, his stomach knotting as he felt the first stirrings of dread at what the morning might bring. Nick was sound asleep now. He probably wouldn't wake even if Mike were to get up, to separate himself from the warm tangle of their bodies, get dressed and leave. It might be easier, in the long run, if Mike did just that. But Nick was warm and pliant against him, his heavy, sleeping limbs weighing Mike to the bed. It was warm here, comfortable, and for once Mike had had enough of sneaking out of bedrooms in the middle of the night. To hell with it, he thought, and closed his eyes, snuggling a little closer, seeking sleep at last.
He woke again in the dark hours of the morning, Nick's body still a warm, heavy presence against his side. It was disorienting for a moment, the dark room unfamiliar, the smells and sounds of the apartment foreign, and strange. Then Nick shifted against him, sliding a leg over Mike's knee, cuddling closer in the pre-dawn chill, and Mike began to remember.
It wasn't unusual for him to be awake at this hour, to lie in the dark staring at the ceiling until the dawn crept slowly through the windows. There was no point in going back to sleep, or even trying. Sometimes, at home, he would get up and jog, or, depending on the quality of those early-morning thoughts, sit and stare blankly at the television until his alarm jangled across the room.
This morning, though, was curiously absent of his usual dark broodings. Despite everything, despite his fears and worries, it was surprisingly pleasant to simply lie here, soaking up the warmth and closeness of Nick's body, to feel his breath against his arm and savor the knowledge that he didn't have to leave him, not just yet. It was probably less than an hour until the alarm went off, but right now it seemed like all the time in the world.
Beside him, Nick stirred a little and opened his eyes, staring sleepily at Mike's face, his own features barely visible in the light from the street. "Hi," he said muzzily. "What time is it?"
"I don't know."
"Mm." Nick closed his eyes again, burying his face against the curve of Mike's shoulder, reaching up to slide a sleepy hand over his chest. "Best time," he said drowsily. He was quiet for a while, so long that Mike began to think that he'd fallen asleep again. Then he spoke, quietly, so quietly that at first Mike could barely hear him. "I always wake up around now," he said. "Got used to it at the hospital. So many people die, this time of the night," he finished softly, and Mike felt a chill.
"I'm sorry," was all he could offer.
"No, I'm sorry. It's not a pleasant thought. But it's true," he added all the same. "People will just slip away."
"Like Carl Webster."
Not sure why he was letting himself be drawn in, Mike went on. "Lot of suicides go down about now. Must be the time of night when people just give up."
Nick was quiet again. "That Webster kid. What a shame. I hope you get him. Put him away, I mean."
"I hope so, too."
"God." Nick rolled over on his back, sliding away from Mike's embrace. He pushed his hands through his hair, staring up at the ceiling. "I can't believe any parents would do that," he said unbelievingly. "I talked to his brother that night, just for a minute. Did you see him?"
"No. He must have come after I left." Mike tried briefly to recall Jake Webster's face, from the one time he'd seen him after a call to the apartment. All he could remember was a vague impression of a large quiet man, a younger version of Joe Webster.
"He was hysterical," Nick went on. "Crying all over the place. We couldn't calm him down. And I still almost couldn't believe it, that anyone would do that to their own child--" He interrupted himself with a harsh laugh. "You'd think I would've learned by now." Nick swallowed. "He blamed himself, you know, for not getting the kid out of there."
Mike's throat was suddenly too tight, his eyes burning. "Yeah," he said, and cleared his throat. "I know exactly how he feels."
Then Nick was back beside him, arms sliding around him in the dimness, his mouth pressing soft, apologetic kisses against Mike's shoulder. "You did what you were supposed to," he said. "All you could. That's all anyone can do."
"But it won't bring Carl Webster back," Mike pointed out softly.
"No." Nick sighed against him. "No, it won't." He leaned up, and kissed Mike on the mouth, his lips soft and gentle. "Please," he said quietly. "Let's not talk about him any more. Not now."
And Mike agreed, wordlessly returning the kiss, letting himself be drawn down into Nick's arms. They made love again, aware that the time was short, that all too soon the alarm by the bed would call them to the business of the day. But the urgency only added spice to the moment, and by the time the radio ticked over, blaring loudly in the quiet room, they were lying again in each others' arms, winded and spent, the quiet terrors of the darkness before morning forgotten, wiped clean. For a while, it was almost enough.
Three Months Later
The knock on Ben Stone's office door barely roused him from his studies, an absent, "Come in," his only concession to civility. He deigned to look up as the door creaked open, then returned to the papers before him as his assistant sidled in, a folded piece of paper held in front of her like a shield. She waited, and after a moment Ben relented and looked up again. "Yes?" he asked patiently.
"It's another motion from Joseph Webster's attorney." Sarah darted forward to put it on his desk, then retreated, the messenger removing herself from the message. Ben picked up the form, but continued to look at her, expectantly, until finally she cleared her throat and went on. "It's a motion to exclude testimony about the previous 911 calls to the Webster's apartment."
"Good lord." Ben couldn't even summon anger anymore. He peered down apathetically at the motion form, scanning over the particulars, mentally ticking off the points that would now have to be disputed. "This is unbelievable." He paused, reading on even as he waved Sarah to a chair. "He's claiming," he said incredulously, "that the only relevant testimony is about the night when Carl died, and the fact that the police were called repeatedly to stop him from beating Carl is irrelevant and prejudicial."
Sarah bit her lip. "But he was never arrested," she pointed out. "Couldn't Chapman argue that it's a prior bad act?"
"It's a pattern of abuse," Ben countered. He tossed the form down, taking off his glasses to rub at his nose. He shook his head. "This has got to stop." His appointment book was sitting on the corner of the desk. Ben picked it up, flipping through the pages until he reached that day's date, and reached for his phone. "Janice?" he said when his secretary picked up. "Could you please cancel my two o' clock, my three o' clock--" He flipped the page. "My three-thirty . . . Just cancel everything, all right? Thank you." He dropped the phone back in its cradle and tossed the book down, watching it slide to the end of the desk with narrowed eyes. He was half-tempted to just shove the thing off, send it clanging into the garbage can where it belonged. But responsible, mature, Assistant District Attorney's didn't do childish things like that. No matter how much they might want to.
Meanwhile, Sarah had watched all these machinations with a mix of doubt and wonder on her open, expressive face. "Is there anything I can do, sir?" she finally asked, and straightened up as Ben picked up the motion form and thrust it to her.
"Research this garbage, please," he said wearily, "and see what you can come up with."
"Yes, sir." She bit her lip again, then dared to ask. "What are you going to do, sir?"
"I'm going to call George Chapman and invite him to join me at Riker's. It's time we put an end to this nonsense."
Nonsense or not, before they were five minutes into the meeting, Ben realized, with a sinking heart, that he was wasting his time.
"Mr. Webster," he tried again, pitching his voice to be low, tranquil, reasonable. "Whatever your attorney might have told you, you must realize that it's your word alone against an overwhelming amount of evidence. Including your own son's last words."
Webster said nothing, merely looked to his lawyer. Chapman smiled. "Carl Webster was confused," he said smoothly. "He was in shock, he didn't understand what he was saying."
"The policemen at the scene believed him."
"Do they have MD's after their names? The police have had a vendetta against my client ever since he moved into Grady Towers. Four visits in three months? Some people might call that harassment."
"And some might call it responding to a repeat offender."
Chapman's smile had teeth. "You say potato . . ."
This was ludicrous. "This is a joke," Ben said, not bothering to keep the anger from his voice. "Your client beat his own son to death, and now you're trying to claim that the police harassed him?"
If the last smile had had teeth, this one had fangs. "If the shoe fits, Ben . . . And I'd say your officers have stepped in it." Chapman stood up. "See you in chambers."
When he returned to the office, Ben started making calls. First to Sarah, to have her drop her research and dig up the police reports and 911 transcripts. Then he called the Ninth Precinct, and five transfers later was finally informed that Officers Logan and Caruso were on a call. Two more transfers, a sergeant, and a captain later, he was finally assured the Logan and Caruso's next call would be to the offices of the District Attorney. It was time to get to the bottom of this.
It was nearing quitting time by the time the two officers arrived, and Ben's mood hadn't been substantially improved by the delay. He had had time to read over their reports of the incidents, and at least was reassured that nothing damning had been committed to paper. But George Chapman wasn't known for bluffing. He had to make sure.
Ben rose to greet the two men as they walked in, stepping around to offer a handshake and a cordial, if not exactly warm, greeting. It was the first time he had seen either of them since the walk-through of the crime scene, and he was surprised at how little about them he actually remembered. He had a vague impression of Logan as a tall, grim-faced young man, all of which was still true, but he had forgotten the startling thick brows over clear gray eyes, and the mobile, expressive mouth that was now set in a line of angry wariness. That, at least, was familiar. Caruso had made even less of an initial impression, and it was interesting to note, now, the guilt that seemed to lurk behind that innocent, sweet face. Lucky for Caruso, Ben reflected, that he's a big man. His size was the only thing that could make a criminal take him seriously. Ben's eyes flicked to Logan. Of course, with Logan glowering in the background, he mused, I'd probably think twice, too.
"Have a seat, gentlemen," Ben said, gesturing to the chairs flanking the conference table. The two men looked at him, then at each other, then took the offered chairs, one on each side. "I presume you know why I've asked you here."
Caruso shifted in his chair, but it was Logan who answered. "The Webster case, right? I hear you're getting ready to take it to trial."
Department gossip? Or following the case? Ben would have liked to know which. "That's right," he said. "And there have been a few developments."
Now Caruso spoke up, his wide green eyes sliding first to his partner, then back to Ben. "I heard Webster was denying everything."
"Not quite everything." Ben gathered up the reports he'd been reading and handed them across the desk to Logan. "But he is denying that he beat Carl that night. And he's claiming that your reports of the other incidents were . . . exaggerated."
Absorbed in the files before him, it was only a second before Logan's head snapped up, his eyes meeting Caruso's across the table. Then he turned to Ben. "What do we look like, a pair of novelists? We've got better things to do than make up accusations."
"No one's saying you made them up. But Mr. Chapman is going to try to suggest to the jury that you were biased."
For a moment, they both just stared at him. Then Caruso gave a short, disbelieving laugh. "Yeah," he said bitterly. "We were biased. We don't like guys who beat the crap out of their kids. So sue us."
"Hey." Now it was Logan who leaned forward, his eyes narrowing as he bored his gaze into Ben's. "Our hands were tied behind our backs this whole case. No one would press charges, no one would swear out a complaint. We went over there five times, and all we could do was slap a quick fix on it and leave. Now the kid's dead. I'd say maybe that says we didn't exaggerate." He swallowed. "Maybe we should have."
For a long, timeless moment, he and Ben stared at each other, and Ben felt, not for the first time, the vague shock of meeting those soft gray eyes. Ben knew very well the power of a gaze, had used it more than once himself in a courtroom to punctuate a point to the jury, or to compel a witness to tell the truth. Logan's eyes, though, were more subtle, a surprise in a man who had, thus far, shown very little need for subtlety. As he looked, though, Ben was startled to see something under the anger and the frustration. Logan was trying to be angry, but the anger wasn't born of rage, or frustration. It was guilt. The same guilt, Ben now realized, that Caruso had been less adept at hiding, and which Ben had misinterpreted. Guilt that they'd done nothing, that they'd let Carl Webster die. Belatedly, Ben began to see their actions in an entirely different light. A light, he realized, that might just make a jury see Joseph Webster in a whole new way.
But before Ben could analyze any further, before he had the chance to continue his study of Mike Logan's clear gray stare, see what other secrets might be hidden there, Caruso broke the tableau, butting in with his soft, husky voice.
"C'mon, Mikey," Caruso said, pitching his voice low, almost a murmur, but Logan jumped, as if genuinely startled. He glared at Ben a moment more, then sat back, calmer, but still glowering under his dark brows.
"Gentlemen," Ben said, and now his voice was quieter, the note of sympathy not entirely intentional, but genuine. "I'm on your side," he went on, electing to ignore the almost inaudible snort from Officer Logan's side of the table. Nonetheless, he paused before going on, selecting his words and his tone with care, knowing that he had at most one chance to win them over. "The system let Carl Webster down," he said, and saw the words strike home, that blunt, tragic truth wedging the first crack in the wall that separated him from the two policemen. "And now he's dead. We can't fix that. But we can make sure that the man who killed him--" He paused. "The man," he said deliberately, "who is responsible for his death, doesn't escape."
It wasn't working. Caruso was staring at him, brows furrowed, his expression the faintly puzzled, blank stare of someone who has failed completely to follow. And Logan . . . Logan, he thought with a sinking feeling in his stomach, had followed all too well. It was one thing, apparently, to take on the burden of guilt for a young man's death. It was another thing altogether to have an arrogant Assistant District Attorney presume to absolve you of that guilt. Ben sought Logan's gaze again, trying once more to read the emotions roiling behind the neutral gray orbs, and this time failing. But then Logan looked away, away from him, and away from his partner, and Ben saw his hands, clenched on the polished wood of the table, relax, flattening out to press against the smooth surface. He breathed in deep, closing his eyes, then turned back.
"What do you need to know?"
It was hard not to feel victorious. Maybe not quite the same satisfaction as hearing the word "Guilty" at the end of a trial, or of prying loose that last damning fact from a recalcitrant witness, but it was difficult not to be just a little pleased with himself. He tried, though, not to let the relief show in his face, or his voice, knowing that neither of the officers would appreciate it.
"I need to know what happened the first time you went there," he said, trying to be professional, businesslike. "What happened every time you went there. I have the reports," he went on, anticipating what Caruso's intake of breath heralded, "but I need to hear it from you, including what you didn't put down on paper."
Not surprisingly, Logan bristled. "Now you're saying we exaggerated, too?"
"No," Ben said wearily, wondering if he was going to have to argue every sentence out of his mouth. "But you know as well as I do, Officer, that there's only so much that can be written down on a police report. I'm assuming," he added, not bothering this time to cut the sarcasm in his tone, "that you were observant and intelligent enough to form impressions of your own that might not be relevant on the report."
At least Logan had the grace to looked abashed. But instead of backing down, he simply switched fronts. "I hope you don't expect to go through all that today," he said. "Ricky and I just got off patrol."
"Fine." Ben was going to be civil if it killed him. "Then talk to my secretary, and make an appointment."
"You want us both, or separate?" It was Caruso's first contribution in a while, and Logan glanced at him, as if he'd forgotten that he was there.
"First separately, then together, please."
"So you can make sure we've got our stories straight?" Logan put in, without missing a beat.
Enough. Ben put down his glasses, and fixed the younger man with what his daughter Elizabeth had always assured him was a withering stare. "Yes," he said coldly. "That's exactly right. And I'm assuming, Officer, that you and your partner have enough sense to realize that the straightest story is always the truth. Or is that too much to expect?"
"Don't worry, Counselor." Logan pushed himself to his feet, reaching for his hat and tucking it under his arm with the finality of a man burning his bridges. "You'll get the truth. Whether you want it or not."
"I don't doubt it," Ben said, half to himself, and watched the two officers walk out.
The next day, Ben was scheduled to have lunch with Adam Schiff, but he was hardly surprised, when he arrived at the agreed-on place and time, to discover that he and Adam wouldn't be lunching alone. It was, admittedly, a little disappointing, especially since he'd hoped to have a chance to air some of his concerns about the Webster case to Adam's cynical, sympathetic ear. Just now, he was badly in need of that world-weary practicality. The fact that one of the other guests was the Police Commissioner himself didn't help, for Ben, privately, found the man to be a pompous bore. It was only when he caught sight of the Commissioner's companion that his spirits rose a little, and he began to have a faint hope that the lunch wouldn't be a crashing disaster after all.
"Mr. Stone," the Police Commissioner greeted him, extending a formal hand to be shaken. "It's good to see you again."
"You, too, Mr. Hombert." But the expression Ben turned to the other man was somewhat warmer. "Don," he said, and took the offered hand in both of his. "It's been a long time. Congratulations on your promotion."
"Thank you." Don Cragen shook his hand, trying not to look pleased at the reminder. He looked as though he would have added more, but Hombert butted in smoothly, inserting himself into the conversation.
"We were meeting with Adam," he said, "and he thought that you might be interested in joining our discussion over lunch." Adam's face, as he glanced at Ben from behind Hombert's shoulder, showed clearly exactly whose idea that had been. Hombert put a hand on Don's shoulder. "I've just made Don the Captain of the newest DA's Squad."
Despite his dislike of the Police Commissioner, Ben couldn't deny that it was good news. He held out his hand again, and gave Don's a firm shake. "That's wonderful. Congratulations again. Where are you working from? The Three Three?"
"No," Hombert said, as Don was opening his mouth to answer. "We're creating a completely new squad at the Two-Seven. The Captain of their Homicide Squad is retiring, and Don will be stepping in to create a new special team."
"The Twenty-Seventh has a terrific Homicide division already," Don finally managed to get in. "I'll be keeping most of the fellows who are already there, and just bringing in a few picks to spread out the rest of the load."
"Anyone in particular?" Ben couldn't resist asking.
"Well, I've only had the job a week, Ben" Don said, then grinned. "But I've already got my second whip."
Ben felt his brows go up. "And who would that be?"
Don's grin broadened. "Max Greevey."
"Max?" Ben was delighted. "Son of a gun. How'd you talk him into it?"
"It wasn't hard," Don told him. "He's been cooling his heels at the Thirty-Third ever since . . ." He trailed it off, clearing his throat, and looked away. "Anyway," he continued briskly, "he's ready to get out of there." Don made a wry face. "Now all I have to do is find him a partner."
Ben felt his face lengthen in sympathy. "Good luck," he said sincerely, then added, "You're going to need it. Congratulations again, Don."
"It's high time Manhattan had another full-time special squad," Hombert boomed, butting in once more. "A task force is all well and good, when needed, but we need to have men who aren't having to take time away from their normal case load just to deal with high-profile cases." He sobered. "We don't want another Edward Morrison on our hands, do we?"
The other three men flinched involuntarily at the name, and a brief silence fell over the little group. No, Ben reflected fervently, the last thing they needed was another Ed Morrison.
A year ago, Ben had tried, and convicted, Edward Morrison for the brutal rape and murder of a twenty-year-old waitress. It had been an easy case, a slam dunk, in the words of the police. Morrison was the victim's ex-boyfriend, a sullen man with a history of violence who'd been heard to say that he was going to "get the bitch back" for dumping him. When suspicion had inevitably fallen up him, he'd readily confessed to the investigating officers. So they said. Ben had gone to court with a truckload of evidence against him, and it had only taken an hour for a jury to return a guilty verdict.
Two weeks later, Morrison's new lawyer filed an appeal. Ben hadn't been worried, until he'd read the grounds. Even then, he'd put it aside as merely a minor formality until he'd discovered, by the slightest of casual inquiries, that the arresting officers hadn't, in fact, bothered to Mirandize the suspect before his confession. They'd had him sign the waiver only after the confession, and Morrison's overworked public defender had neglected to make even the most routine inquiry into the sequence of events. Ten months later, Ben's entire case was swatted aside by a single hour of deliberation from the Court of Appeals, an irony that he wasn't in the mood to appreciate.
The blame, such as it was, rested squarely on the shoulders of the detectives involved. Feeling pressure from the media, their superiors, and their own horror at the crime, they had blundered, made mistakes in haste that more experienced men might not have. All the same, Ben was willing to admit, too, that a little more diligence on his part might have mitigated the scope of the disaster. If he'd known, if he'd been more in touch with the investigation as it neared closure, he or Adam or someone else might just have caught the error in time to do something about it. But now, with the evidence inadmissible, and the original investigative trail a year cold, the chances of Ed Morrison spending even a single night behind bars became, at best, remote. Ben didn't want that to ever happen again.
"I couldn't agree more," was all he could say, and he saw Don's mouth quirk up in a smile.
"I'm glad to hear it." Adam finally came forward, a wry smile playing across his wizened face. "Because I'm putting the new squad in your jurisdiction." He clapped Ben on the shoulder. "Congratulations."
This time, it was Ben who was almost late to the appointment, slipping into his office mere minutes before his secretary called to say that Officer Logan was there. It would have to be him first, Ben thought in weary dismay, scuffling through the papers on his desk, searching for the outline he'd prepared for the session. He felt, somehow, that he was on his mettle with the policeman, that Logan had still not finished sizing him up. Ben didn't care to be found wanting.
The notepad finally fell into his hands moments before the door opened, giving him only a few seconds to review the shape of his questions, but the one glance would hopefully be enough. He rose to greet the other man, gesturing to a chair.
"Officer Logan. Have a seat, please."
"Thanks." Logan was in street clothes today, slacks and a long-sleeved knit shirt, both dark blue as if he didn't wear enough blue every day. But the colors suited him, emphasizing the pale skin without washing it out, bringing out the blue in his gray eyes. His thick dark hair had been trimmed since their last meeting, only two days ago, but it still tapered to a neat wedge just above his collar, eschewing the almost universal shaved nape that seemed to satisfy the requirements of most policeman. Ben didn't blame him. His own increasing awareness of the inexorably thinning hair at the top of his head made him applaud those who at least seemed to appreciate what they had.
But they weren't here to critique Mike Logan's hair. As Logan took the offered seat, Ben gave another look at his notes, and reached for a fresh sheet. "This is just a preliminary session, Officer," he said. "I'll be taking notes, but there won't be an official transcript yet."
"Sure." Logan shrugged, and leaned back in the chair, propping his elbow on the arm as he settled his ankle over his knee. It was a relaxed pose, comfortable, and Ben wondered which one of them it was supposed to make feel at ease. He dropped his eyes back to his notes, and picked up a pen.
"Now, please describe, in your own words, the first call you made to the Webster's apartment."
It took nearly two hours to go over the details of all five calls. Ben asked only a few questions, letting Logan control the flow of his own narrative. It was a way to see how well his account jibed with the other reports, but it was also a subtle means of judging how the man would be on the stand. He had a good voice for it, clear and soft, but still strong and resonant, just the thing to make every word out of his mouth sound like the gospel. He expressed himself well, too, his report organized and articulate without being too flowery or too repetitive. Add to that his dark Irish good looks, the strong jaw, wavy hair, and broad shoulders, and he'd be every juror's dream, just the cop they'd want patrolling their neighborhood. Luck for Ben.
When Logan finally fell silent, taking a last gulp from the water Ben had had brought for him, Ben looked over his notes, picking out the points he'd checked off with question marks for later.
"So far, so good," he said, glancing up to see Logan regarding him blandly, exactly as if he didn't give a damn what Ben's opinion might be. Undaunted, Ben went on. "I do have a couple of questions."
"All right." Logan's voice was a little rough, and he took another drink. "Shoot."
"You said that you tried to talk both the son and the wife into leaving. Exactly how hard did you try?"
Logan stiffened. "What do you mean? I gave them the phone numbers, I called Social Services." He shook his head, leaning forward to catch Ben's eyes. "I told them that son-of-a-bitch wasn't going to stop." His voice was soft, but there was something chilling in it, something dangerous, and angry. Then he blinked, and it was gone. There was just Logan, sitting there with an oddly sad expression on his face. Logan swallowed, and sat back again, resuming his casual pose in the hard-backed chair. "I guess they just didn't want to hear it."
"Hear what?" Ben heard himself ask.
"That the old man wasn't going to get any better. That there was never going to be a last time." Logan shook his head again. "The only way it was never going to happen again was if there wasn't anyone left for him to hit. But they didn't want to believe that."
Ben let his glasses slide off, folding them up on the blotter in front of him. "It sounds like you've given this a lot of thought, Officer."
That seemed to startle him, and Ben saw the wariness return, for the first time since he'd come into the room. "I see it all the time," was all he said, though. He shrugged. "It's a pattern that's not going to break unless one of them breaks it."
"Was there ever anyone else involved? Any other family?"
That got another hesitation. "There was older brother. He'd moved out a few years back. He offered to let Carl come live with him." Mike shook his head. "Kid wouldn't do it."
"I don't know." Logan was exasperated. "Maybe he was afraid to leave his mother alone. Maybe he didn't like his brother. Didn't you talk to him?"
"The brother?" Ben shook his head. "He won't be much help. He wasn't there. He didn't even realize what had happened." He glanced up as Logan's sudden stillness began to register. Logan was sitting, staring at him, his heavy brows coming together over the suddenly hostile eyes.
"The hell he didn't," Logan said harshly. "He was at the hospital that night. He had to know something."
Ben frowned, and began to look through his notes. "I think you're mistaken," he said, and finally found the place he was looking for. "Yes. Here it is. Detective Spinelli interviewed Mr. Webster, and he says he didn't even know what had happened until the following morning, when his mother's lawyer called him."
Now Logan was staring. "That can't be right."
"See for yourself." Ben tossed him the notepad. "Are you sure it was him you saw?"
It was, Ben would have thought, a perfectly innocent question. Perhaps a tad insulting, but no worse than anything else he'd asked in the last two hours. But for some reason, it seemed to have temporarily floored Officer Logan. "I didn't see him," he said after a moment, but it was a moment too long. "One of the ER docs saw him, happened to mention it." He hesitated again, but this time it was different, as if it was only beginning to sink in what the contradiction meant. "It's not in Spinelli's report?"
"No. He interviewed him the next day, at his home." Ben retrieved the notebook, and picked up his pen again. "What's the doctor's name?"
It seemed to take Logan a second to recall the name. "Udall. Nicholas Udall."
"And he was sure it was Jake Webster?"
Logan shrugged. "He seemed to be. He didn't have a reason to lie about it."
"When did you speak to him?"
"The next day, when I took Ricky back to get his hand looked at. He told me he was sorry Webster didn't make it, and he mentioned how upset the brother was."
"And you didn't think this was important enough to include in your report?"
For the first time, Logan actually flushed red. "Hey, it was just a conversation. I didn't mention how many cups of coffee I had, either."
Defensive. Guilt over having missed something significant? Or something else? "Calm down, Officer," Ben said mildly. "No one's accusing you of mishandling anything."
That made him hesitate. "Oh, great." But he didn't sound relieved.
Ben concluded the interview soon after, telling Logan he would be in touch when he was ready for a formal statement. Logan left with a reasonably cordial good-bye, but his face was set in a pensive scowl. Ben didn't have time, though, to wonder what might have been said that bothered him. He was too busy getting the hospital of record on the phone, and asking the administrator to track down Dr. Nicholas Udall.
"Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Doctor." Ben stirred his coffee gingerly, wondering if it was just his imagination that the stirrer was sticking sluggishly to the bottom of the cup. He set the stirrer aside, but didn't lift the cup. Instead, he planted his hands on the table, waiting.
"Sure." Dr. Udall had proved to be much younger than Ben had expected, surely not more than twenty-five, if that. He was blessed with dark good looks that were neither Hispanic nor Indian nor African-American, but perhaps some blend of all three. His voice was soft, and well-educated, no big surprise, but his dark eyes were regarding Ben with genuine puzzlement. "What I'm not sure," he went on, "is exactly why you want to talk to me. I wasn't on Webster's team, I never even saw him. I just happened to be here that night."
"But you still remember the case, even now," Ben observed, and wondered why he flinched.
"Everybody remembers it," Udall said presently. "Half the surgeons on shift were in there trying to save him." He quickly finished assembling the chicken salad sandwich on his tray, and lifted it to his mouth for a small, fastidious bite. While he chewed, Ben reached into his pocket, pulling out a photograph and sliding it across the table.
"Then, if you weren't in surgery, you might have seen this man there that night. Was he there?"
Udall glanced at the picture, and nodded. "Sure," he said, swallowing. "The brother. I remember him."
Ben pushed the picture closer. "I want you to be absolutely sure. This is the man you saw?"
After giving the photograph another dutiful look, Udall pushed it back. "That's him," he confirmed.
Slowly, Ben retrieved the picture. "Would it surprise you, Doctor, to learn that Mr. Webster denies ever having been here that night?"
Apparently it did. The doctor's sandwich stopped halfway to his mouth, and he stared at Ben as if he'd gone insane. "Yes," he said at last. "It would." His thick brows drew together. "That's crazy," he said. "He was here, half the staff saw him. Why would he deny it?"
"I don't know. Maybe you could tell me."
"Do I look like a mind reader? I barely spoke to him. He was almost hysterical, crying, ranting. I think they ended up asking him to leave." Udall shook his head. "Why are you asking me?" he asked. "I wasn't even remotely involved with either the boy or his brother."
"And yet you remember very clearly what happened."
Udall picked up his sandwich, bit, and chewed. After he'd swallowed, he said, with unnecessary care. "A friend of mine was involved. I guess it stuck in my mind because he talked about it."
"Officer Logan?" Ben inquired, and Udall stiffened as if Ben had slapped him across the face. Judging from his expression, Ben might as well have.
"Okay," he said evenly. "Yeah. I stitched up his partner, and we got to talking about the kid. I guess it sunk in."
"Enough that when Officer Logan came back the next day, you mentioned to him that you'd seen Carl's brother."
"I guess so." Udall carefully replaced his sandwich on his tray, as if it suddenly nauseated him. "I wanted him to know. He seemed worried about the kid."
"So you volunteered that you'd seen Jake Webster."
Udall made an exasperated noise. "For the last time, yes." He leaned forward, his face set in an expression of cold anger. "What the hell is this about? Is it a crime to talk about who was and wasn't in the ER on a certain night? It wasn't like I was giving away state secrets. It was just a conversation."
Ben felt as though he'd been punched in the gut. It was just a conversation. Logan's exact words. Coincidence? If not, if Logan had actually bothered to rehearse it with him, the question then became
'Why?' "Did Officer Logan tell you to say that?"
"No." Now he was looking at Ben as though he were deranged. "Look. I haven't seen him in over a month, all right?" His expression was cold now, and his mouth tightened in what Ben realized belatedly was pure fury. "Very cute, Counselor," he said tightly, and stood up, reaching for his tray. "Stupid of me to think you'd bother over a kid like Webster. Well, you've had your fun. If you'll excuse me, I've got work to do." With that, he walked off, leaving Ben feeling as though he'd stepped on solid ground, only to have it sink under his feet. Leaving the dubious coffee behind, of which he hadn't even taken a single sip, Ben scrambled up and darted after Udall, catching him up just as he was about to slip through the doors.
"Doctor," he said urgently, and laid a hand on his arm. "Doctor, whatever you may be thinking, I am only here to find out the truth about Jake Webster."
"Sure." Udall pulled away from him, and started walking down the corridor, hands shoved in his pockets.
"Doctor!" Cursing under his breath, Ben trotted after, his long legs eating up the ground far faster even than Udall's furious stride. "Doctor, I'm not interested in getting you or Officer Logan in trouble. I just want to know about Jake."
Udall whirled abruptly in mid-stride, turning to face Ben so suddenly that he very nearly plowed into him. "I've told you what I know," he insisted. "If that's all you're really after, then this conversation ended about five minutes ago. Good night."
"Wait! Please," Ben added as Udall turned, then faltered. "Please, that is all I'm after. But I need to know who else talked to Webster that night."
"Why, so you can harass them, too?"
That did it. Ben took a step closer, lowering his voice to what a former associate had once referred to as "ball-busting range." "If you think this is harassment, sir," he said. "then I'll be glad to re-educate you down at Central Booking."
Muscles bunched along the line of Udall's jaw. He didn't back down, but Ben saw the threat hit home. He swallowed, and met Ben's eyes. "What do you want?"
"Just the names of the people on staff who might have spoken to Jake Webster. I promise you, if they cooperate, they will not be harassed, not even by your standards."
Udall breathed deep, once. "That's all?"
The other man regarded him for a long, wary moment, until Ben began to wonder exactly what kind of test he was being assessed for. "Look," he said at last. "I don't want to lose my job. I don't want Mike to lose his job. If I tell you the names, you'll forget you ever spoke to me, okay?"
Ben began to feel as though he were swimming in molasses, floating in a dark, unfathomable morass of sudden hidden meaning. He felt, despite the fact that it was only the two of them here in this hall, that he and Nicholas Udall were having two completely different conversations with one another. "Doctor," he said, and worked to make his voice reasonable again, reassuring. "Doctor, the guilty flee when no man pursueth. I swear to you, the only thing on my mind right now is finding out why Jake Webster chose to lie about being here the night his brother died. Anything else is secondary."
Udall didn't look reassured. "I wish I could believe you, Mr. Stone," he said quietly. He sighed, and looked down. "Will I have to testify?"
"Does that make a difference?"
"It does if they ask me where we were when I told Mike about Mr. Webster."
Ben opened his mouth to ask what difference that would make, then shut it again. Oh. Slowly, he began to understand what Udall was telling him--what he'd been trying to tell him all along. Or he thought he did. For a second, he couldn't even speak, his brain churning with so many thoughts that he could hardly pick enough words from the morass to form a sentence. Dear God. Dr. Udall . . . and Mike Logan. It was obvious, now.
Obvious to you, a more cynical portion of his mind finally retorted, and Ben realized that he needed to make sure. He blinked, settling his thoughts firmly in place, and tried to think of how to convey what he needed to Dr. Udall, without compromising him, or Logan . . . or anyone else. Ben lowered his voice, leaning a little closer, and saw the doctor's eyes dart to him again, wary and confused. "Doctor," he said quietly, "Just to be sure we understand one another . . . I don't care if you spoke to Officer Logan in here, or at a bar--" He paused carefully. "Or across a pillow. Does that help clear things up?"
Udall flushed deeply, but less, Ben suspected, from embarrassment than from the sudden release from worry. "Yes," he said stiffly, but the strain of trying to conceal his relief was apparent. "Thank you," he added. He glanced around, as if only now making sure that the two of them were alone, then reached in his pocket for a pen. "Here. Let me write down those names."
Ben left the hospital with a list of six names in his pocket, the unwarranted gratitude of an ER doctor, and the dazed, unfocused feeling of a man who, innocently lifting the sofa cushion to find a lost penny, discovers a hundred-dollar bill instead. Or, to be more accurate, discovers a love letter written by his wife to her boyfriend. Girlfriend. Either way, it was something he didn't want to know. Correction. Something he had no right to know.
The proper thing to do, as he well knew, would be to forget he ever had the knowledge. Mike Logan's personal life had no bearing whatsoever on this case, and it was Ben's duty to set aside all other considerations, no matter how intriguing or shocking they might be. In Logan's shoes, he told himself firmly, he would certainly appreciate a District Attorney who could keep his mouth shut, and refrain from bringing up the subject ever again. After all, he, of all people, should cherish the gift of privacy when it came to what happened behind the bedroom doors.
None of this soul-searching, however, explained why, as Ben drove back to his office, he had to close his eyes more than once to block out the picture of long, pale limbs tangling with brown, of two bodies locked together on tossed, rumpled sheets. It was unprofessional, he told himself sternly, even as his mind veered resolutely away from the image. He had no business engaging in any kind of speculation about a certain officer's sex life, not even to imagine what his face might look like flushed with passion, or how those full, curved lips would feel in a kiss, or pressed against bare skin . . .
Ben squeezed his eyes shut. This was not helping. What difference did it make, after all, to find out that Logan had slept with Nicholas Udall? A very big one, apparently. Ben admitted it. He had, in a small corner of his mind, assessed Mike Logan as an attractive man. Ben was human, and he had long ago given up trying to pretend to he didn't find other of his fellow beings appealing. Those considerations, however, didn't belong as part of the job of the District Attorney. He was long used to setting them aside, to breaking down the people in his office into defendants, witnesses, lawyers, and clerks, letting whatever function they served take precedence over the package they came in. He had never let it cross that fine line, and he was angry at himself for allowing the simple knowledge of Logan's involvement with another man to cloud his perceptions. It didn't matter, he told himself sternly. Logan was a witness, a fellow officer of the court, and therefore as off-limits as any other colleague, male or female. Period. Ben only wished that the decision made him feel better.
The next day, Ben was ready to talk to Jake Webster. He'd turned Udall's list over to Spinelli, without explaining where he'd gotten it, and within a few short hours Spinelli had assembled a gratifying array of doctors and nurses who would gladly testify that Mr. Webster's appearance was not a figment of Udall's imagination. That, and more.
Ben had never met Jake Webster before. He'd been described as Carl's older brother, but Ben was startled to discover that "older" was very much a relative term. He couldn't, Ben realized, be much more than nineteen or twenty himself, scarcely older than Carl. He was tall, and burly, his build much more in keeping with his father than his mother, but it was clear that he hadn't inherited much more than his father's bulk. He came in meekly, and sat where Ben pointed, twisting his thick hands in his lap while he studied Ben with pale, nervous eyes. Any other time, Ben might have pitied him. But there was another Webster boy that right now held the lion's share of any sympathy he might have to offer.
As soon as Jake was seated, Ben stood and walked around the desk, leaning over to lay a slim folder in front of him.
"Mr. Webster. This is a copy of the statement you gave to detective Spinelli the day after your brother was killed. Would you look at it, please?"
Jake's eyes darted to him, and his mouth opened, beginning to shape a question. Then he shut his lips, and turned to the folder, opening it slowly and taking out the typed sheets.
"Do you remember what you said?" Ben asked.
"Yes." It was the first word Jake had spoken, and he had to clear his throat before going on. "Yes, I do."
"You told Detective Spinelli that you were home all night. That you didn't hear about your brother's death until your mother's lawyer phoned you at eight in the morning."
Ben let the words hang there, let them sink in, let Jake hear the last echoes of the lie. He straightened slowly, and reached around for a second, rather thicker folder, and placed it carefully beside the first. "Then perhaps you'd care to explain, sir, why six nurses and doctors in the emergency room where your brother died, all remember you being there, all night."
The shock on Webster's face was almost comical, the innocent outrage of a child discovered in an impossible fib. He gulped. "You talked to them?" he asked incredulously. "Why . . .?"
"Because it's my job," Ben said quietly. He sank slowly into the chair across from him, folding his hands on top of the table. "Why did you lie?" he asked gently.
For a long time, Jake could only stare at him, his eyes round with shock, and fear. His lips worked, a pale tongue reaching out to lick them nervously. "I was scared," he finally admitted, the small, meek voice hardly fitting with his sturdy, rough bulk. "I knew--Carl was dead," Jake said, his voice almost a whisper. "There wasn't anything else I could do for him, see? I knew I couldn't let my old man know that--that I was there."
"But there was more to it, wasn't there?" Ben prompted gently. "You called 911, didn't you?"
The awe on Jake's face might have been flattering, if it wasn't also pathetic. "How did you find out?"
Out came another paper, a folded, creased printout from the phone company. "These are the usage details from your parents' phone. Someone there spoke to you for three minutes. The call to 911 came in less than a minute later."
The young man's lips pursed, tightening as he studied the papers in front of him. His teeth raked at his lower lip, and Ben thought he saw his chin begin to quiver, as if he were on the verge of tears. Ben swallowed, and pushed. "You tried to help him," he said softly. "You knew he was in trouble, so you called the police. You went to the hospital. What I don't understand is why you would lie about it."
The quiver ceased abruptly, as Jake clamped his mouth tight once more. "Because Carl was dead!" he burst out. "He was dead, and there wasn't anything anyone could do about it! What does it matter what happened?"
"It matters a great deal," Ben said sternly. "Your brother wasn't killed in an accident. He wasn't hit by a bus, or killed by a disease. He was murdered. And I think that you know by whom."
But Jake shook his head stubbornly. "I don't," he insisted.
"But you know something. That's why you lied." Ben waited. "Mr. Webster," he said evenly, "I'm almost ready to go to trial, to prosecute your father for your brother's murder. And when I do, I'm going to subpoena you as a witness, and you'll have to take the stand, and swear an oath to tell the truth. And I'll be asking these questions again."
Jack was staring, wide-eyed. "He'll kill her," he said flatly. "He'll kill both of us."
"Not if we put him away for murder. He killed your brother, Jake. If that means anything to you, then you'll help me put him in prison."
A long, still silence fell over the room, over the space between the two men. Ben didn't dare break it, not even to add another plea. The balance between Jake's cooperation and his refusal was as thin as the blade of a knife. One push, either way, and it would tip over. Ben wanted that push to come from Jake.
"He called me," Jake said, his voice soft, and sad. Ben breathed a silent sigh. "He called me, and he said that Dad was crazy, that he was worse than Carl had ever seen him. He begged me to help him. Then I heard Dad yelling, and the phone went dead." He stopped.
After a pause, Ben prodded him. "So you called 911."
Jake nodded. "I told them what was happening, then I got in my car and started over there. I live in Brooklyn," he said, apologizing. "By the time I got there . . ." He turned away, breathing deep, his eyes suddenly bright. "All I could do was go to the hospital after that. I stayed until Carl--" His voice broke. He looked down, staring at his beefy hands, lying loose in his lap. "I wanted him to come and live with me," he said presently. "But he wouldn't. He was afraid that Dad . . . without him there . . . that Mom . . ." He looked away again. "I should have stayed," he whispered. "I should have stayed, and taken care of them. But I--" He looked down. "I couldn't." He breathed deep, then lifted his head, facing Ben with the tears bright in his eyes. "I'll testify," he said.
By the time the trial began, and Ben was ready to begin prepping his witnesses, he'd convinced himself that he'd dealt sufficiently with his feelings about Mike Logan. It wasn't, after all, as if he had much choice. Whatever he'd learned, albeit inadvertently, from Nicholas Udall, he had no right to know. Every personal and professional ethic he held dear told him, in no uncertain terms, that it would be the worst kind of invasion of Mike's privacy to act on that knowledge, in thought, word, or deed. But, dear God, sometimes it was hard.
After the divorce, after Helen had left him, he'd wondered sometimes if he would ever have the courage to date anyone again, male or female. It had taken nearly a year before he had so much as ventured to ask an old friend for a casual dinner, and more long months had passed before he'd allowed himself to accept a more intimate invitation from another equally old friend. It had been an agonizing experience, the brief moment of release as painful as it was pleasurable, and after it was over he had embarrassed both himself and his partner by succumbing to tears. He'd yet to find the courage, or even the desire, to try the experiment again. Until he'd met Mike Logan.
The easiest thing, he supposed, would be to pass the whole thing off as simple lust. Ben could argue to himself that he was attracted to Logan for his looks, for his young, lithe figure, for the broad shoulders and strong arms and big, capable hands. He could probably convince himself, too, that it was the tactile itch of wanting to touch that thick, sleek hair, to explore the long planes of his face, to look closely, just once, into those deep gray eyes, and to find out, once and for all, if those soft, curving lips could keep the promises he imagined them making.
Unfortunately, this kind of thinking, he realized, wasn't helping at all. Especially when it was only half of the truth anyway. His own damn ethics had, after all, twisted around to betray him. Look at the person, not the body. Treat them as human beings, not as objects. So he'd looked at Mike Logan, looked at the quick mind behind the anonymous blue uniform, looked at the passionate anger, barely controlled, that had arisen on behalf of the victim. His compassion, his dedication, his youthful enthusiasm for a job that routinely made cynics out of fresh-faced rookies . . . all of it had been allowed to get through, to create an admiration for the young cop that had, at first, absolutely nothing to do with his long-limbed body, with the feral, dangerous grace with which he moved, and nothing to do with the quiet fire that smoldered behind those cool eyes. But now that he'd seen it, Ben couldn't make himself ignore it. It was all Nick Udall's fault.
It was a well-rehearsed refrain by now, Ben wishing that he'd never spoken to the young doctor, wishing, too, that the other man's fears hadn't betrayed him. Betrayed Mike. What was the phrase? "The bell can't be unrung," something like that. Nick Udall's words had turned Logan into a sexual creature, had revealed him as a man with a life beyond the uniform, beyond the job. Ben would have liked to believe that it would have been the same if Dr. Udall was a woman, but that was one lie he couldn't even tell to himself. No, the truth was that now that Ben knew that Mike Logan was a man who loved other men, he couldn't seem to help himself from imagining that he could be one of those other men. He despised himself for it, even as he indulged in the fantasies, in the dreams that he hoped would purge Logan from his mind. Finally, he believed that it just might have worked.
The illusion lasted all of about a minute after Logan showed up for his first prep session, just long enough for Ben to shake his hand, and invite him to take a seat. Logan was wearing black tonight, black knit shirt, black jeans. Ben found himself comparing it to the dark blue he'd worn before, deciding if he liked the contrast to the pale skin, or if the blue had been a better choice for accenting his eyes. About then, he realized that all his careful pretensions had been a lie, and hated himself for it.
Pretensions aside, Ben couldn't help but notice, as Logan took the offered chair and settled himself carefully into it, that he seemed nervous. His hands were just a little too busy, the line of his jaw just a shade too tight. With those clues, Ben felt perfectly justified in asking, as he returned to his own chair, "Is everything all right, Officer?"
Logan stiffened in the chair, his chin coming up defiantly. "Yeah," he said, far too quickly. "Everything's fine. Why?"
He all but barked the last, and Ben leaned back, startled, even as he forced himself to suppress a smile. "You seem a little nervous," he explained, and saw the other man's shoulders relax a fraction, as if Logan were willing the tension away.
"I've never done this before," he finally said, the admission forced reluctantly from him. "I dunno," he went on. "This all seems a little . . . unethical."
"Preparing a witness?" Ben shrugged. "It's common practice, Officer. Unclear testimony confuses the jury, and if the jury gets confused they might just give up. Neither side wants that."
"Yeah, but rehearsing it makes the whole thing seem kind of . . . predetermined."
It was an objection Ben had dealt with before, and he warmed gratefully to the subject, glad of the excuse to turn to the job at once, to focus on his work and ignore the all-too-obvious distractions occupying the chair not four feet from his. "It's not all rehearsal," he said. "I won't expect you to recite your testimony word for word. Far from it. I just want to make sure that when you do give your answers, you're clear, and I'm clear, on exactly what the facts are, and how you'll present them."
This didn't seem to reassure Logan. "Yeah," he said darkly. "Spin control. Great."
"That's not a fair judgment," Ben said quietly. He leaned back again, studying the other man speculatively, wondering how best to put it to someone who was so clearly uncomfortable with the notion of adjusting the truth. "Think of it this way," he said after a while. "Would you rather go in there without any preparation, and have Joseph Webster's lawyer trip you up on some minor detail that you'd never thought of before? Would you rather give him the chance to twist your words, and persuade the jury that his client wasn't responsible for Carl's death? These sessions won't change the truth. They'll just make sure that the truth gets told."
Logan still looked unconvinced, but he nodded grudgingly. "Okay." He sat back in the chair, spreading his hands. "Let's go."
Having been over the ground twice before, the session was mostly to familiarize Logan with the questions, to cue him on the sequence of the story, and to impart a few tips on giving testimony. Ben had guessed that he'd pick up fairly quickly on what was expected of him, and by the end of Ben's questions he was delivering exactly what Ben wanted: clear, concise answers, informative and to the point.
"Very good," Ben said when they'd finished, and saw the other man relax a little in his chair. "But that's the easy part," he added, and saw Logan's dark brows come together. "Next, you'll be cross-examined by the defense, and they'll be doing their best to poke holes in every scrap of testimony."
"So what do I do?"
"Don't help them," Ben said firmly. "If possible, just answer yes or no, and if you have to make a statement, make it short. Remember, their questions are designed to elicit information that will further their case. If you imagine every word out of your mouth as adding weight to their side, you won't be far wrong. They'll also do their best to try to make you look foolish, or confused." Ben paused, giving him an assessing look, and added, "Or make you lose that Irish temper."
A corner of Logan's mouth quirked up. "Equal opportunity harassment, huh?"
"Something like that." Ben reached back for his other notepad, and propped it on his knee. "Ready?"
Ben ran his eyes down the points he'd mapped out for himself, planning the best spot for an attack. It was a part of the job he secretly enjoyed, poking holes in his own case, finding the imperfections and flaws and doing his darndest to torpedo himself. Helen would have called it masochistic.
The thought was enough to sober him, and take a little of the thrill away. The perfect damper for every moment, he thought wistfully, and ran his pen down the page to the first question.
Because it was Logan's first time, he went easy on him, asking the questions in a straightforward manner, simply getting him used to what would and would not help the case. By the time they were finished, it was nearly eight, and Ben was ready to go home.
"That's all for now," he said at last, and turned his pages of notes back to the front. "Thank you, Officer. We'll do this again on Thursday."
Logan merely nodded shortly, and stood up. "Sure." He went to the door without another word, but when he would have opened it, his hand touching the knob, he suddenly stopped, his body frozen, hesitating. Ben glanced up, studying the impassive back that was turned to him, then slipped his glasses off and raised his voice.
"Officer? Is something wrong?"
It was almost as if Logan had forgotten Ben was there. He jerked, startled, and turned his back to give Ben a brief, piercing stare. "No," he said quickly. "Everything's fine. I'll see you Thursday." He opened the door, and stepped through, reaching back to pull it to. But his hand hesitated again, lingering on the knob instead of pulling it, and as Ben watched, his brows climbing, Logan strode back inside, letting the door shut behind him with a bang. He stared at Ben for a long moment, his jaw working, and Ben felt a small tightness begin in his belly. Even before he spoke, he knew what the other man was going to say.
"Look," Logan said harshly, "I know, okay?"
Deliberately, Ben chose to misunderstand. "Know what?" he asked mildly, and saw Logan's face tense in anger.
"Don't," he said tightly. "I talked to Nick Udall this weekend. He told me that you talked to him about Jake Webster." Logan paused, swallowing. "And he told me what else you talked about."
Ah. Slowly, Ben reached up and removed his glasses. Despite the fact that he'd sworn never to have this conversation, he found, now that the moment was here, that the words were ready, as if he'd rehearsed them a thousand times. Maybe he had, at that.
He put the glasses carefully on the desk, and folded his hands in front of them, not quite able, yet, to meet the angry, all-too-vulnerable eyes that were, he was sure, still focused on him from across the room. "I'd hoped," he said, and heard the tired resignation in his voice, heard also the relief of no longer having to hold in the secret, "that you wouldn't find out. Dr. Udall gave me the impression that you weren't . . ." He tripped briefly over the phrase, and finally amended, "that he hadn't seen you in a while."
"He made the time. You can guess why." Logan's jaw worked, and he folded his arms over his chest. "So. What are you going to do?"
That was easy. "Absolutely nothing," Ben told him firmly. He leaned back, rocking gently in his chair. "Whatever you may think, it's hardly relevant to the case."
For a second, the other man all but gaped. "It's pretty relevant to me, Counselor," he finally got out.
Ben let his expression soften. "I realize that," he said quietly. "But I'm here to prosecute a murder. Not publish the bedroom secrets of the NYPD."
"So you don't care." Logan's voice was unexpectedly harsh. "It makes no difference to you."
"Should it?" The words were out before Ben could censor them, before he was sure that he really wanted to. He felt a little ill, and it wasn't hard to guess why. The truth was that it had made a difference, a big one. But he wasn't sure that Logan would appreciate knowing that right now.
While the words settled between them, laden, Ben was sure, with any number of dangerous meanings, Logan took a step forward, leaning down to brace his hands on the back of the chair. "I'm a good cop," he said, almost growling the words. "I want to stay a cop. And now you've got this hanging over my head. One word, and it's all over. You don't know what that feels like."
The anger that surged up in Ben's chest was hot and quick, exactly, he realized, like the metaphorical kettle that had finally boiled over. What the hell, after all, did this young man know about the disaster that such secrets could make of a life? "Are you so sure about that?" he heard himself say, and then shut his mouth hard, appalled and dismayed. Dear lord, were the wounds still that deep? Had everything he'd been through in the last two years left him that vulnerable, that fragile? Apparently so. The rest of the words were there, the story ready to pour out at the slightest provocation, the least excuse. But he clamped his lips, determined that, if nothing else, he could at least keep his dignity, if not his secrets. He took a deep, controlling breath, and forced himself to be calm, willing his next words to be rational, reasonable. "You aren't," he said, and surprised himself with the sudden gentleness in his voice, "the only one with secrets, Officer."
He'd thought he was being discreet, that the extra qualifier might just mitigate the implications of his first, hasty words. Instead, he watched Mike's eyes widen, the soft gray growing clearer as his face took on an almost comical expression of shocked understanding.
"Shit," he said, and shut his mouth quickly, as if unaware until he heard the word that he'd spoken out loud. "Wow." He stood upright, his hands twitching awkwardly at his sides as he tried visibly to find the words, the expression, to say what he wanted. "I'm sorry," he said at last, and the soft, careful rumble of that deep voice was surprisingly soothing, a gentle, apologetic caress over Ben's strained nerves. It was exactly the balm to finish the cure Ben had started for himself, and he felt himself relax, turning to look up at the other man with his equilibrium restored, in control once more.
"It's all right, Officer," Ben said. He leaned forward, dragging a finger idly along the rim of his desk. "I should have told you," he said presently. "You had a right to know that I knew."
"Yeah, well . . ." Logan looked away. "I guess we're even now, huh?" He cleared his throat, and shoved his hands in his pockets. "I better get going," he said. "I've got an early shift tomorrow." The excuse was lame, his eagerness to be gone almost palpable, but Ben couldn't fault him for it, not when he himself was suddenly very eager to be alone, to sort out the morass of emotions that were warring in his gut.
All he did, though, was nod. "I'll see you on Thursday, then."
"Yeah." Logan shifted from foot to foot, and nodded shortly. "Thursday." He hovered another moment, as if he wanted to say more, then the desire to escape won out. He nodded a last time, lifting a hand in farewell, then turned and all but fled out of the office.
Left alone, Ben sank slowly back in his chair, staring thoughtfully at the piles of papers in front of him. Intellectually, he knew that he had betrayed himself. Something that even his most intimate friends didn't know, and he'd all but poured it out to this angry young stranger. It didn't help, either, that even as soon as he acknowledged the error, he was finding unpleasant excuses to explain his own behavior. Face it, he told himself harshly, you wanted him to know. Wanted him to realize that you were available, as if the thought had ever crossed his mind. Ben felt the heat steal over his cheeks as he replayed the scene in his head, wondering if his intentions had been as embarrassingly obvious to Logan as they were, now, to him.
But that hadn't been the only reason, he protested to himself. He'd discovered Logan's secret, and it was only fair that Logan be given some assurance that he wouldn't be betrayed. An exchange of secrets was the best seal Ben could have thought of for his promises, a show of good faith. That's my story, he thought grimly, and I'm sticking to it.
Once outside the confines of the court building, Mike wished briefly that he hadn't driven down here. It was a nice night, balmy and breezy, and he would have liked to have had the excuse to walk home. It was a long way, but he didn't have anywhere to be, and the walk might have been a good means of clearing the turmoil of thoughts in his head.
Ben Stone was gay. He laid the words out in his head, looking them over, trying to wrap his mind around their meaning. Of all the things that could have happened, all the scenarios he'd run through his head, this was one he'd never considered. The best he'd hoped for, after Nick had told him what Stone had learned, was that Stone could be persuaded to keep it to himself. Well, that's exactly what had happened. But, good lord, he'd never expected the why.
Don't look the gift horse in the mouth, a more sensible, pragmatic part of his mind advised. Just be grateful that Stone's a fellow queer, and leave it at that. Solidarity, Mike thought sourly.
He considered phoning Nick, but the prospect didn't inspire much enthusiasm. Their last conversation had been awkward, strained and stilted, and he wasn't sure he wanted to repeat it. But Nick had a right to know, and whether or not he wanted to admit it, Mike still cared enough about him that he couldn't leave him hanging, not when he could ease his mind. Also, thinking about Nick was one way to distract himself from analyzing what he'd just learned about one Benjamin Stone.
Nick answered the phone himself, despite its being in the middle of his usual shift. Serves you right, Mike told himself. You don't know his schedule anymore, you shouldn't exactly be shocked.
"Hi, Nick," he said. "It's Mike."
There was a brief pause, an almost audible shifting of gears taking place across the phone line. "Hi," Nick finally said, tentatively. "What's up?"
It didn't take a genius to read the emotions coming over the phone. "Is this a bad time?" Mike asked.
Another pause, and then Nick laughed. "No," he said, and this time there was genuine warmth in the words. "No, I'm sorry, I was just surprised to hear from you. But I do have company."
Ah. Nick hadn't exactly been secretive about the fact that he was seeing someone else now, but Mike still appreciated the easy honesty. "This won't take long," he assured him. "I just wanted you to know that I talked to Ben Stone today."
"What did he say?" The tension was back in Nick's voice, and Mike hastened to relieve it.
"Everything's fine. He's not going to say anything."
"Thank God." The relief in Nick's voice was palpable. "He said he wouldn't, but . . ."
"He won't," Mike assured him. It was on the tip of his tongue to explain further, to tell Nick that the last thing Stone was going to do was out someone else, but something made him shut his mouth on the words. "Trust me," he said instead. "He'll keep it to himself." Mike cleared his throat. "Anyway, I won't keep you. I just wanted you to know."
"Thanks for calling, Mike. I appreciate it."
After hanging up, Mike went into the kitchen and poked listlessly through the cabinets, looking for something to cook for supper. He finally settled on a frozen dinner he found squirreled away in the back of the freezer, and stuck it in the oven to cook. Then he opened a beer and leaned against the counter, staring at the wall. When the buzzer went off half an hour later, he was still standing there, the beer bottle empty in his hand.
It wasn't even that Mike wanted him back. The relationship had been good while it lasted, satisfying on any number of levels. It wasn't as if they'd broken up badly, either. Or as if they'd broken up at all. They'd simply fallen out of the habit of seeing each other, until one day they suddenly were no longer dating. It was a song and dance Mike knew all too well, but he had to admit that there'd been more than the usual twinge when he'd realized that it was happening between him and Nick. But that was life, and now it was time for Mike to get on with his.
The next session with Stone was scheduled for six in the evening plenty of time for Mike to eat an early supper and drive downtown to One Hogan Place. He took his time, but even so it was still ten minutes short of the appointed hour when he finally stepped off the elevator into the quiet dimness of the DA offices. The air was hot and still, a reflection of the unseasonable warmth outside. Mike unbuttoned his collar as he walked down the hall to Stone's office, pushing his sleeves up above his elbows.
It had been a long day. It was the first really warm day of the year, and predictably, tempers had risen along with the heat. He and Ricky had spent the whole day playing teacher, getting people to kiss and make up, and, failing that, taking them downtown to the principal's office. Summer was coming.
Stone's secretary was gone for the day, but the door to his office was slightly ajar. Mike could see him through the open door, perched on the edge of his desk, leafing through a thick book propped on his knee. Sitting there, his sleeves rolled up, tie undone, peering down through his crookedly donned glasses at the book in his lap, he looked . . . Mike wasn't sure what. Human, maybe, and the thought made him grin wryly at himself.
It was the same old story. Lawyers vs. cops. Even, Mike reflected, when they were supposedly on the same side. Stone was no different. He didn't trust the police, didn't trust Mike. Or he hadn't. The last time they'd met, after all, Stone had trusted him a whole hell of a lot. Mike still wasn't sure what to make of that.
Stone looked up as Mike rapped softly on the doorjamb, tilting his head back to view Mike through his slipping glasses. "Officer Logan," he said, his voice betraying no surprise. "You're early."
"Yeah. Traffic let me down."
That got a faint smile, and Stone stood, gesturing to a chair. "Have a seat, then." He moved to the bookcases, shelving the book he'd been studying next to a row of identical brown-backed volumes. "I was just reading up on some decisions," he said, and turned back, taking off his glasses and tucking them in his pocket. "Rehearsing my opening arguments for tomorrow."
"Nice of you to spare me some time," Mike said dryly.
Stone spread his hands. "You're my star witness, Officer." He reached behind him, and picked up a folder. "Are you ready?"
The examination was old hat now. Mike had been through the story so many times that he almost knew it by heart. But Stone was asking each question as though it was for the first time, and Mike did his best to pretend that that was what was going on, that he hadn't already memorized every detail of that night. As if he could ever forget.
Logan was doing well. He was remembering the facts in sequence, repeating the story consistently without reciting it by rote. So long as he didn't freeze on the stand, they'd be fine. At least while Ben was asking the questions, anyway.
Finally, though, Ben ran through all the questions he had, and picked up his other notepad, preparing to be the defense. He didn't give Logan a chance to break this time, no pause for instructions or rehearsal. This was a dry run of the real thing, and he saw Logan shift in his chair, his hands folding over the chair arms as if bracing himself. Ben gave him another second, then plunged in.
"So," he began, "you went to the Webster home five times, is that correct?"
He saw Logan start to nod, then the officer corrected himself and said simply. "Yes."
"And each time, you found that Carl Webster had been beaten."
"And did you ever arrest his father?"
"Yes. Three times."
"But he was never charged."
"Because Carl Webster wouldn't press charges."
"Did he give a reason?"
"He said he was afraid of his father."
Ben pursed his lips. "All the more reason to want him locked up, I'd think." Logan said nothing, and Ben gave him a mental nod of approval. But he went on without pausing. "And yet you didn't lock him up. You went there five times, Officer, but there was never enough evidence to even charge Joseph Webster of any crime."
Logan took a deep breath. "We responded to a 911 call."
"And did nothing."
"We contained the situation," Logan said, and Ben was surprised at the sudden heat in his voice. "We broke up the argument. We took Mr. Webster in."
"And then released him."
"Because his son refused to press charges."
"And how hard did you try to get him to accuse his father? How much pressure did it take?"
"We asked him, he said no."
"Officer Logan, you visited this household five times. If there was such an obvious threat to Carl Webster's life, why didn't you see it?" Ben leaned closer, letting his gaze burning into the other man's, pitching his voice low, mocking him. Accusing him. "Carl Webster called 911 for help," Ben said quietly. "And you did nothing to help him. So tell me, Officer, who is really to blame for his death?"
"I tried to help!" Logan exploded. "Okay? I told him to get away from that son-of-a-bitch. I told him he wouldn't stop, I--"
"Logan!" Ben caught his arm as he surged up, shaking him to remind him of where he was. Logan's eyes were blazing, his mouth tight with fury, and for a split second Ben thought he might actually hit him. He shook him again. "Logan!" Ben barked sharply, and Logan started, as if he'd only just then realized what he was doing. He unclenched his fists and sank back into his seat, curving his hands over the cool wood of the armrests. He gripped the slats hard, his knuckles turning white, but it still wasn't enough to disguise the trembling in his hands.
Ben had obviously struck a nerve. He just wished he had any idea what the nerve was. He found himself reaching out, hesitated, then completed the gesture anyway, placing a gentle hand on Logan's shoulder. "Are you all right?" he asked.
"Yeah." Logan's voice was rough, but he seemed under control once more. He started to lift a hand, as if to wipe his brow, then let it fall. "I'm okay."
Ben didn't move his hand. "You sure?"
"Yes, I'm sure," Logan said tightly. "Let's get on with it, okay?"
Finally, Ben slid his hand away. But instead of resuming the questions, he reached behind him for a chair, pulling it up until he was sitting facing Logan, his notes propped on his thigh. "You want to tell me what just happened?"
The "No" was written as clearly over the policeman's face as if he'd spoken it aloud, but all he said was, "It was nothing." Logan cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again."
Ben gave an exasperated sigh. "That was hardly 'nothing,' Officer." He waited. "Officer Logan," he tried again, lowering his voice "if there's something personal here, I need to know."
"Look, the kid died. Isn't that personal enough?" But Ben wasn't fooled for a second. Not anymore.
Presently, Ben stood, tossing his notes on his desk, shoving his hands in his pockets while he paced to the far wall, and back. "I can't go through with this if you won't tell me the truth," he said to the neatly arrayed books on his shelf. "I can't have you losing control like that Monday. If you do, we're sunk."
"It won't happen," Logan muttered.
Like hell. Ben turned back. "It happened just now," he pointed out with pardonable sharpness.
It took Logan a long time to answer. "I--look, I just don't like seeing kids get beat to death by their parents," he said at last. "Is that a problem?"
Ben took a deep breath. "No. But if it keeps me from successfully prosecuting one of the killers, then it becomes a problem."
The gray eyes were staring, almost incredulous, but Logan's voice was taut with anger. "So I'm just supposed to shut that off?" he asked unbelievingly. "I'm supposed to sit there and act like none of it happened, like I didn't wash that kid's blood off my uniform the next day?"
It was one of the hardest things Ben had ever had to do, but he nodded. "Yes," he said softly. "That's exactly what you're supposed to do."
Logan swallowed, almost visibly forcing the anger down again. "And what if I can't?"
This time, Ben didn't hesitate. "Then we lose. And a killer walks." He stood up, pushing his hands over his hair, searching for the words to explain, to make Logan understand. He wasn't sure there were any words that could. "You said that you wanted to put Joseph Webster in prison," he finally said, addressing his words to the back of Logan's head. "If you want to accomplish that, then I suggest that you find a way." Logan said nothing, but there was something there, something in the set of those broad shoulders, in the angle of that bowed head, that told Ben that maybe, just maybe, there was something more to be said. Something more that Logan was willing to say.
Ben let the silence stretch for a moment, studying Logan from behind, trying to judge his state of mind from nothing more than the shift of his shirt against his back. Finally, Ben saw the other man's shoulders lift with a soft, deep breath, saw the light flow over that dark hair as Mike tilted his neck, an infinitesimal relaxation. It was now or never. "Would you care to tell me about it?" Ben asked, striving with every bit of his learned skill to make the words neutral, unfreighted. "If you tell me, then maybe we can do something to make sure this doesn't happen again."
For a long time, Ben was sure Logan wouldn't answer. He merely sat, unmoving, not even turning his head to look at Ben. Ben began to wonder what he would do if this failed, wonder how he could ever trust Logan to take the stand, when, finally, Logan spoke.
"Okay." His voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat before going on. "Okay, yeah, there's something personal." He finally turned, twisting in the chair to look up at Ben's face, his eyes hard, and defiant. "I know what it's like," he said, and Ben felt his stomach chill. He felt suddenly sick, and felt, too, like a fool for not having guessed it before. All that experience, all that training, and he'd still failed to see what was in front of his own eyes. He didn't want Logan to go on, didn't want to hear the rest, but he knew he had no choice. He'd opened this door, and now he could hardly refuse to look inside.
If Logan saw the dismay on his face, he ignored it. Or he didn't care. "My mother," he said, quick and defiant, as if daring Ben to stop him from telling. "Nearly every day, there was something I did, or something my old man did, or something she did, and I'd get the crap smacked out of me for it." Suddenly Logan stood up, pacing to the far door, staring at the rippled glass as if he could see right through it. "If you're looking for something personal," he said to the door, "you've got it."
The room fell quiet. Having brought it this far, having orchestrated this whole thing, having forced this confession, Ben was at a loss what to do next. There was nothing he could say, and the only thing he wanted to do, he couldn't. He had no right, and it shamed him that he even thought that any touch from him could comfort Logan right now. So Ben did nothing, waiting until finally Logan breathed deep, and spoke again. "Maybe you should get someone else to do this," he said, and turned back to face Ben again. "I don't want to be the one who screws this up."
Ben looked away, then back at him. "I'm sorry," he said, tasting the inadequacy of the words, hating them, but meaning them with all his heart nonetheless. "I didn't know."
"Yeah, well." Logan cleared his throat. "It was a long time ago." He heaved himself off the wall and returned to his chair, folding his arms over his chest while he looked up at Ben again. "Any other secrets you need out of me?" he asked sarcastically.
"That wasn't my intention," Ben said, but the words came out gentler than he expected, tinged, he was sure, with shame. "I apologize," he went on, forcing himself to return to work mode, to become a professional once more, both for his sake as well as Logan's. "I still meant what I said," he went on. "If we're going to win this case, you'll have to put your personal feelings aside."
"Yeah, so what else is new," Logan muttered. He leaned back in the chair, passing a hand over his eyes. "Look. I meant what I said, too. I want this to go down right. Maybe you should get Ricky after all."
"No," Ben said firmly, and Logan looked up at him. "No," he said again. "I have the right man." He folded his arms, and sat on the edge of his desk. "Now all you have to do is prove me right."
From the look on Logan's face, it was clear that he didn't think, right now, that he could. "And what if Chapman tries to use that against me. Can he?"
"No. You're not on trial here, Officer." Ben tried to smile, tried to reassure him. "You'll be fine. Trust me."
By the time Monday came, Ben was actually feeling good about the case. His witnesses were cooperating, the physical evidence was piled up on his side, and best of all, Webster's lawyer had yet to suggest anything resembling a cogent defense. His opening argument was, at best, a feeble attempt to sow doubt in the mind of jury about who, exactly, was responsible for Carl's injuries, a doubt which Ben hoped his own witnesses would eradicate.
He should have known better.
Logan was Ben's first witness. He was nervous as hell, even the jury could see that, but it only made his quiet, earnest answers that much more convincing. Logan was simply a handsome young Irish cop, doing his job. By the time it was done, Ben could have hugged him.
"Thank you, Officer," was all he could say, though. That and a brief, approving nod that was still enough to make Logan visibly relax. As Ben turned away, he heard him breathe deeply. Good luck, Ben wished silently. To both of us.
George Chapman was on his feet before Ben reached his chair. "Officer Logan," he said. "You were called to the Webster apartment five times, is that correct?"
Behind him, Ben heard Logan's voice, soft, deep, and sincere. "Yes." So far, so good. Ben had asked the same question in prep, and for a while it seemed that Chapman was going to follow right down that familiar road. Then Chapman turned back to his table, pausing a moment to pretend to consult his notes. It was an old trick, designed to break the flow of the witnesses concentration, start them worrying. Ben looked at Logan, and breathed again as he saw the other man sitting quietly, studying Chapman without the slightest sign of stress.
"I'm confused about something," Chapman said, turning back with a piece of paper in his hand. "After your first call to the Websters' apartment, was my client named in any charges?"
"Did Carl state that it was his father who had beaten him?"
Logan's mouth twitched. "No."
"And on your second visit? Was my client charged? Was he even accused?"
"How about the third visit? And the fourth?"
Ben could see the frustration in Logan's face. Ben only hoped to god that his worry didn't show in his own. But Logan came through again, with a calm, level, "No."
"You testified that you tried to persuade Carl to press charges against his father. How hard did you try?"
Logan shook his head. "I'm not sure I understand the question."
Ben could have kissed him. Chapman, unperturbed, went on. "Very well, let's ask it another way. How long did you spent trying to talk Carl into pressing charges? An hour? Two?" He looked at his notes. "On your second call to the Webster home, January 25th, how long did you stay?"
"About two hours."
"And how much of that two hours was spent talking to Carl?"
There was nothing Logan could do but answer, and Ben closed his eyes. "Maybe an hour and a half."
"I see. And even after nearly two hours of being questioned by the police, Carl Webster still refused to name his father."
Chapman returned to his notes for a moment, and Ben saw Logan dart a quick glance his way. Ben returned it with the fiercest glare he could muster within that brief second, and breathed in relief as Logan quickly looked away again. This was still proceeding as he'd expected, more or less, but the tune of Chapman's questions was slightly off-key. He was looking for something else, Ben would have staked his career on it, but damned if he had any idea what. Whatever it was, though, Ben was sure that he wasn't going to like it.
"Tell me, Officer. Did you ever see the defendant strike Carl Webster?"
It actually took a second for Ben to remember that he ought to object. "Objection," he blurted, rising hastily to his feet, angry with himself for falling for the trick, even after knowing that it was a trick. "Asked and answered, Your Honor."
Chapman didn't bother to argue. "I'll ask another question then. Officer, how many times did you see the defendant strike his son? In all the times that you were called to the apartment."
Once, Ben thought glumly, just as Logan answered, "Once."
"Was it a punch? With his fist?"
"No. He slapped him."
"Yes." Logan wanted to say more, Ben could see it. The words were practically seething behind his lips, but he kept them there. Just a little longer, Ben thought, hoping he wasn't lying.
"I want to be clear on this, Officer. Over a period of two months, over five 911 responses to the Webster household, you only saw my client slap his son once."
"And did you or your partner ever have to physically restrain my client? Was it ever necessary to pull him away from his son, or subdue him?"
"Did you or your partner ever have to restrain any member of the family?"
Son of a bitch. Ben had known this was where Chapman was going, but he hadn't anticipated this. He should have. On the stand, Logan hesitated, then swallowed and answered, "Yes. My partner had to restrain Mrs. Webster."
"Was she armed?"
"Yes. With a kitchen knife."
"And was anyone injured in this attack?"
"My partner received a superficial cut on his hand."
"A superficial cut that required six stitches and hospitalization, isn't that right?"
Chapman nodded, satisfied. As well he should be, Ben thought bitterly. He couldn't believe he hadn't seen it coming. All that flap about police harassment, trying to exclude the previous 911 calls, turning the attention to the officers . . . it had all been bait, and Ben had taken it. Hook, line, and sinker.
"As a police officer, you've witnessed your share of domestic disputes, haven't you?"
"I suppose so," Logan answered warily.
"Your share of cases of child abuse."
"And is it always the father that's the abuser?"
Ben was on his feet before Logan could draw breath to answer. "Objection. Your Honor, Officer Logan is not a psychologist, or a social worker." To his amazement, the words came out with some semblance of coherence, his voice steady and calm. He certainly didn't feel that way, not with his guts twisting sickeningly at the realization of his own drastic failure. How could he have been so stupid?
Quick as a flash, Chapman was giving it back. "But surely he knows which members of the family he's arrested."
The judge nodded to Chapman. "Overruled. The witness will answer the question."
"No," Logan said. "Not always."
"In your experience as a police officer, isn't it often the mother who's the abusing parent?"
Ben swore silently once more, praying to whatever saint that watched over prosecutors--and witnesses--would let him and Logan emerge from this day intact. Whether it was prayer or preparation, Logan's answer was even and smooth, coming out natural and, more importantly, unrehearsed.
"No, I wouldn't say that, either."
Chapman paced closer, leaning up to put a hand on the edge of the judge's desk. "But you've witnessed cases of child abuse where it was the mother, isn't that correct?" he persisted.
"So sometimes it is the mother?"
"Would you say that this is common?"
Nice try. Ben was admiring the tactic even as he soundly cursed George Chapman, and rose to his feet to object. "Your Honor," he said. "He's already asked if the mother is often the abusing parent."
"He's right, Mr. Chapman. Find another question, please."
Chapman shrugged, unconcerned. "Very well. What about you, Officer? You're an average citizen. Did your mother ever strike you?"
Logan didn't have to answer. Even as Ben jumped to his feet once more, he saw it written all over the other man's face. Logan's face had been flushed, partly with frustration, partly from the warmth of the courtroom, but now it was white as paper, even the stoic set of his lips unable to disguise the shock of the question. Damn Chapman, Ben thought, Damn him and his clever little questions straight to hell . . .
"Your Honor!" he protested, but it was already too late. The jury knew. They'd seen it, just as Ben had seen it. Seen what Chapman had known all along.
"Withdrawn," Chapman murmured, and walked away. "No further questions."
But Ben remained on his feet. "Redirect, Your Honor."
She nodded. "Go ahead."
Logan was still pale, the small silver precinct badges on his lapels winking faintly with the rapid beat of his heart. Ben took out his glasses, propping them on his nose, taking his time. He didn't dare delay too long, but he wanted to give Logan a chance to calm down, to realize that it was over, and that he wasn't answering the enemy any longer. He gave him five seconds, then asked, his voice as calm and soothing as he dared make it, "Did Carl Webster ever state to you, Officer, that his mother struck him?"
Logan's voice was perfectly even. "No."
"Did he ever state to you that his father struck him?"
Ben nodded. "Thank you, Officer."
Afterwards, Mike didn't remember how, exactly, he got out of the courtroom. He remembered the judge telling him he could go, and warning him not to discuss his testimony, but after that it was all just a big blur until he came to himself on the front steps of the courthouse, his lungs drinking in the warm, humid air as if he'd been drowning. He'd be just as glad, he decided, if he never had to testify in a courtroom ever again.
Thank God for Ben Stone. Mike wasn't sure what he would have done in there without him. Ben had warned him not to look at him during the cross-examination, to keep his eyes focused on the person he was answering. It had made the direct questions easy, watching Stone's face, watching his hands move, meeting those brightly colored eyes every time he responded. But when Chapman had started, the hardest thing, he'd found, was to keep his eyes turned away from the man sitting behind the table. Mike wiped a hand down his face, and couldn't quite suppress a grin. How embarrassing.
By the time the trial started, Mike had accepted the fact that he had a crush on Ben Stone. He tried to take it in stride, knowing that it happened, that sometimes it just couldn't be helped. It certainly wouldn't be the first time. Like the first day he'd laid eyes on his new partner, for example, and knew there was going to be trouble. He'd worked through it, fantasizing in the shower, sneaking looks when he was unobserved, and in general doing everything in his power to get it out of his system. With Ricky, it had worked.
This, though, was different. Ricky had been close to him. There had been innumerable excuses to get near him, to fulfill the little fantasies, to be constantly in proximity to the object of his affection. After a couple of weeks, it had passed. Ricky was still gorgeous, and Mike wasn't, even now, above stealing a quick peek whenever they changed or showered, but it had been a long time since Ricky's bare ass made him break a sweat. Familiarity bred, if not contempt, then at least a less urgent appreciation.
Mike just wished there was some way to get Ben Stone out, too. He admitted freely that part of it was because it had sandbagged him, creeping up from nowhere when his psyche was looking the other way. When it was no doubt ogling the nicely understated elegance of Stone's secretary, he reflected with a mix of wistfulness and self-annoyance. So, while one part of his brain was appreciating the contours of her silk blouse, the other was busy falling into the deep, soft well of Stone's voice. Ricky had been easy. One look, and Mike's libido had kicked into full swing, without apology, and set off every warning bell in his body. But he never would have thought, the first time he watched a lean, middle-aged, balding man walk into the squad room, that thoughts of his face, his hands, and his damned voice, would be keeping Mike company in the long, dark hours before dawn.
It was all over now, though. Mike's testimony was finished, and after this the chances of seeing Stone ever again were, he knew, pretty darn slim. Better get used to it, Mikey, he told himself. Get used to it, move on. He took another deep breath, trying to enjoy the warm air, and resolved to try to do just that.
Around him, the flow of people in and out of the court building continued, lawyers and cops and clerks, most of them leaving. Mike checked his watch, and was surprised to find that it was nearly half past four. While he was on the stand, it seemed as though it taken a year, but he was still surprised to find that it had been almost two hours. He'd better find a phone and call Ricky, tell him he might be even later for their shift than he'd planned. Better yet, he could just get Ricky to pick him up here.
He was about to turn back into the building when he heard his name called from the top of the steps. It was hard to see with all the columns in the way, but it didn't take long to pick out Ben Stone's tall, slim figure, striding towards him with a briefcase under his arm.
"I was hoping to catch you," Stone said. "I wanted to thank you. You did a good job."
"You think?" Mike wasn't expecting the bitterness in his voice, and he wished he'd bitten his tongue out when he saw Stone blink, as if taken aback. Then Stone shrugged.
"Yes, I do think," he said. Then he paused, and Mike felt some of the tightness ease in his chest as he recognized the soft regret in his eyes. "I'm sorry about the cross. I didn't expect that. He threw dust in my eyes, and I didn't even notice. I'm sorry."
"Yeah, well, join the club." But the apology helped, even if Mike didn't quite believe it was deserved. He turned away, staring out across the street. "I guess you were wrong about me being the person for the job."
Stone was silent for a moment. "Chapman knew it was inadmissible. He was just trying to shock the jury."
Mike laughed. "Think he succeeded? He sure as hell shocked me," he added, and swallowed the fresh surge of bitter anger that rose in his throat. "Anyway, there's no help for it now."
"I don't think it hurt us," Stone said. "If anything, Chapman might find that it backfired."
Mike turned back to him. "You really believe that?" he asked, and had the satisfaction of seeing a momentary flicker in those clear blue eyes.
"I can try to," Stone finally said, and smiled. "Cheer up, Officer. You did the best you could." He lifted his arm, checking the watch on his wrist. "I was going to go around the corner to the bar," he said. "Post first day ritual. Can I buy you a drink?"
It was a kind gesture, and any other day Mike would have taken it. If, he told himself wryly, for no other reason than to purge another small part of this infatuation from his system. Today, though, was not going to be the day. "No," Mike said reluctantly. "I'm supposed to join my partner on our beat in half in hour. I've got to call him for a lift."
"Ah." For a second, Mike thought he was going to say something more, and so did Stone, apparently. But then Stone closed his mouth, and held out a hand. "Maybe some other time."
Mike shook with him, realizing, again, that this was very likely good-bye. "Sure. Thanks. Let me know how it turns out, all right?" Yeah, as if it wouldn't be all over the papers, and as if Stone was going to remember the promise weeks later. But it was the best he could do for the moment. He let go of Stone's hand, and gestured to the front doors. "I guess I'd better go call."
"Yes." Stone nodded. "Good luck, Officer."
"You, too, Counselor." Mike walked away, scrupulously not looking back as he mounted the shallow steps that led back up into the court building. He was half-tempted to call in sick, tell Ricky to finish the shift without him, and follow Stone to the damn bar anyway. But even as the thought crossed his mind, he knew he couldn't. Stone was out of reach. Unattainable, probably unavailable, and almost certainly not interested. He might as well get used to it, and get over it.
All the same, it was impossible, once he'd reached the top of the steps, not to turn and search, briefly, for a particular figure among the sea of dark-suited lawyers moving along the street. He almost missed him, just catching a last glimpse of a tall, slender back as Stone disappeared around the corner, his long stride carrying him away too quickly for Mike to even think of following. Just as well. Mike sighed, and turned back to the doors.
He knew he'd get over it. It was only a matter of time.
Three Weeks Later
When the phone rang, Mike was sitting on the couch, trying to decide if he'd rather go out to a bar to watch the Yankees get creamed, or stay at home and do laundry. Neither prospect held much appeal, and he picked up the phone more than half-hoping to hear Ricky's voice, offering an alternative. But instead, he was greeted with the deep, drawling voice of Ben Stone. Three weeks since he'd last heard it, and still he knew him even before he pronounced his name.
"Evening, Officer," he said. "Am I disturbing you?"
"No." Mike reached for the remote to mute the sound on the television. Far from it. "What can I do for you, Mr. Stone?"
"I thought you'd like to know. The jury just convicted Webster of second-degree murder. It only took six hours."
Mike closed his eyes. "Congratulations."
"To you, too." Stone paused. "You did well, Officer. Your testimony went a long way to convincing the jury."
"Thanks. I appreciate you calling."
There was a long silence. Then Stone spoke again. "I was expecting to be here most of the evening," he said, almost hesitantly. "Waiting on the verdict. Now I'm at a bit of a loose end, and I was wondering . . . well, I was wondering if you'd care to cash in my rain check on that drink."
For a second, Mike wasn't sure what to say. That Stone had remembered that careless invitation even five minutes later would have been a surprise, but after three weeks surprise would hardly cover it. "Uh, sure," he said, before the more subtle part of his brain could even shape the thought that it might be better to act a little more suave, more cool.
"I was thinking," Stone went on, "that maybe you wouldn't mind joining me for dinner. I made reservations, but I hate eating alone."
This time, Mike did hesitate. "I hate to impose--" he heard himself begin, and kicked himself for even saying it when he heard the sudden silence.
"It's no imposition," Stone said presently. "You did a good job, and I think we both deserve a little celebration.
"Well, if you put it that way . . ." Mike smiled. "All right. Where should I meet you?"
"There's a place near the theater district. Rusterman's. You know it?"
Mike felt his brows climb up. "Yeah," he said. "I know how to get there."
"Good. Can you be there in an hour?"
"Sure. I'll see you then."
Mike hung up, and took a deep breath. Well. It looked like he was about to go out with Ben Stone after all.
Get a grip, Mikey, he told himself harshly. It's only a dinner date. Scratch that. It's only dinner, period. Just because he's gay, just because you're . . . whatever you are . . . doesn't mean that everything is going to be about sex.
Ben was early to the restaurant, and spent the time pacing up and down the sidewalk outside, trying to pretend that he wasn't nervous. Logan had accepted his invitation, but now that the moment was drawing nearer Ben wasn't so sure, anymore, that it had been such a good idea to offer it. He'd spent so many years being discreet, so many years not getting involved. He wasn't sure, even now, that he was trying to get involved, and that uncertainty in itself annoyed him.
Perhaps, he rationalized, it wasn't even Logan himself that Ben wanted. Perhaps it was more the idea of him, the thought of getting close to someone. Anyone. After all, he barely knew the man. But isn't that the point? another part of him argued. Isn't this all about getting to know him well enough to make that choice? As if, he reflected gloomily, the choice was going to be up to him.
The voice behind him made him turn around, and he couldn't stop the smile that spread over his face the instant he heard those familiar, deep tones. "Officer Logan," he said, and inwardly winced at the formality even as he extended a hand in greeting. "Glad you could make it."
It hadn't occurred to Ben to tell Logan to dress, but apparently the other man had anticipated him. Ben had yet to see him in anything other than his uniform or casual clothes, and the somber dark suit was a pleasant surprise. He looked good in it, Ben realized with a little start. More than good, in fact, and Ben felt the twinge of uncertainty return. He had no business being here, no business asking this man out to an expensive dinner, no business holding the thoughts that were in his head.
But Logan was shaking his hand, oblivious to Ben's inner turmoil, his hand warm and dry against Ben's palm. "Yeah, well." Logan grinned. "It was either that or sit at home and watch the Yankees get pasted."
Ben cocked his head, unable to resist saying, "You say that as though it's a bad thing."
"Oooh." For a second, Logan looked bemused, then he shook his head. "I dunno. This could get ugly, Mr. Stone."
"Well, how about we start the truce by you calling me 'Ben' instead."
Logan blinked at him. "Okay. Ben." He grinned. "My friends call me Mike."
Ben nodded, doing his best to be casual, and not appear as though a thousand butterflies had just settled in his stomach. To cover his nervousness, he turned and gestured at the entrance to Rusterman's. "Should we go in?"
Wordlessly, Logan--Mike--nodded. "Sure," he said, and reached up to adjust his tie. "I wasn't sure about the dress code," he said in what seemed like a sudden burst of frankness. "I figure a place like this, there's more than just a 'no shoes, no service' policy."
"You look fine," Ben said, before he thought, and before he could entirely suppress the quiet appreciation in his tone. To his relief, Mike didn't seem to notice.
"Good." Far from straightening the tie, however, Mike's efforts only skewed it, and he grimaced as he wrestled briefly with the suddenly awkward knot.
"Here." Ben stepped forward, unthinking, and adjusted the tie back in place, smoothing the knot with long practice. Mike stilled as soon as he touched him, standing unmoving, chin lifted, until Ben was satisfied. It was only when Ben caught sight of the two of them in the mirrored window that he realized what he was doing, and let his hands fall. He stepped back abruptly, distancing himself. "There. It's straight now."
To his surprise, Logan laughed out loud. "Hey, at least something is." Ben's eyes shot up, startled, and met Logan's grinning face.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I didn't mean--"
"Hey, don't worry about it." Logan laughed again. "You're one of about a half-dozen people in this freaking city I can make that joke with, all right? Don't apologize."
"All right." Ben smiled. "Then let's go in."
But the joke bothered him, even while he waited for Felix to find his reservation and escort them to their booth. Mike hadn't been offended, but Ben was suddenly, acutely aware that his motives in asking the other man to dinner had probably been transparent as glass. Ridiculous to even imagine that Mike had overlooked the fact that they were both gay, that Ben's invitation might have been made to any one of a half-dozen witnesses that had participated in the trial. Any pretense, he now realized, on his part that this wasn't a date, that this was something casual, meaningless, would be a lie.
He kept quiet, though, saying nothing until they were seated. Mike, after a quick glance at the menu, leaned forward and asked, "How much extra for a menu in English? With prices on it?"
Ben leapt gratefully into the opening. "Don't worry about it," he answered back quietly, with a smile. "This is my invitation, my treat."
Mike regarded him thoughtfully. "You take all your witnesses out after the trial? I'd hate to see your expense book."
It was suddenly necessary for Ben to swallow, to take a sip of water to moisten his dry mouth. To stall, while he tried to find the right words to say. "The trial," he said at last, "is over. You're not a witness any more." He made himself smile. "This isn't business."
Not a single flicker marred the features of the man sitting across from him. "Oh," Mike said presently, and lowered his voice, leaning just a little closer. "Then what is it?"
This time, the smile wasn't forced. "It's dinner."
Now Mike was smiling, too. "Okay. But in that case, you're going to have to help me out here." He took his menu and spread it out between them. "That, or teach me how to say 'I want a cheeseburger' in French."
After that, Ben began to relax. He translated the menu in an undertone, leaning over so that only Mike could hear. This close, he could even smell the faint scent of his aftershave, and when Mike cast his eyes down to refer to the menu, Ben took advantage of the chance to study him, unobserved. He'd never quite dreamed of being this close to him, not outside his office or a courtroom, anyway, and he was surprised at how pleasant it was to simply sit here, close by, and murmur the soft translations.
"I'm glad you got Webster," Mike said after they'd gone over the appetizers, jerking Ben back from his contemplation of the thick waves of hair that covered the back of his head. "I didn't say that before."
"I rather took it as a given," Ben admitted. "That you were glad."
Mike turned to face him, and for a moment they were nose to nose, faces inches apart. Ben had to bite back the sharp intake of breath as he came eye to eye, for the first time, with those hazy gray orbs. Ben half-expected Mike to withdraw, to pull back, but he made no move to disturb the sudden proximity. "Yeah, well. Part of the job, I guess." he said presently.
"I should hope so." Ben felt himself smile. "You did good work on the case, and on the stand. You're a good cop. I wish we had more like you."
The thick brows went up, and that simple praise seemed to stump him for a second. "Thanks," Mike finally said. His mouth curved into a smile. "Thanks a lot."
For a single, heartstopping second, Ben was sure that Mike was about to kiss him. They were so close, no more than a breath apart, and it suddenly seemed impossible that it was accidental. He could almost feel it happening, could imagine the soft brush of those lips on his, the electric warmth of the other man's mouth. All he had to do was lean forward, to close that vast, aching distance between them, and it would happen.
In your dreams, perhaps, he told himself roughly, and forced himself to pull away, not caring how much it hurt to withdraw from that warm, intimate bubble. After a second, Mike did the same, his hooded eyes carefully blank. Just as well, Ben reflected, resisting the urge to reach up and loosen his collar. Rusterman's was hardly Santini's, after all.
Mike let Ben take care of conveying his order to the waiter, sitting back comfortably while Ben repeated everything to Pierre, smiling as Ben turned back to face him. "Thanks," he said once Pierre had gone. "I'd hate to have to sit and point."
"I'm sure you would have found a way." Ben unfolded his napkin. "Mike," he said, as much to get the other man's attention as to test the feel of the name on his lips, to savor the intimacy of the address. "May I ask you a question?"
"Have you given any thought to becoming a detective?"
Across the table, Mike stilled, his water-glass raised halfway to his lips. "Yeah," he admitted. "A couple of months ago, I thought about it kinda hard." He put the glass down, shrugged. "I even put in for some transfers, to Narcotics and Robbery and Vice, but . . ."
"But?" Ben prompted.
"I don't know." Mike looked away, casting his eyes out into the crowd, looking without, Ben was sure, actually seeing. "I like what I do," he said. "Most of the time. I'm not sure I want to change it."
"I see." The breadroll in Ben's hands fell apart on his plate, the crumbs sticking to his fingers until he brushed them away. "Well, that's your decision, of course." Ben paused. "But I think you'd be good at it."
A wry smile twisted at Mike's lips. "Well, at least someone thinks so."
"So does Detective Spinelli," Ben told him, and had the satisfaction of seeing Mike look up, startled. "He thinks if you had the right case, you could do it."
It took a second for Mike to recover. "Yeah, and he'll wave his little fairy wand and make it happen." He stopped, as if suddenly realizing exactly what he'd said, and shook his head, stifling a laugh. "More fairy than he knows, I guess."
Ben didn't answer right away. "Do you think that's a problem?"
"Are you kidding?" Mike looked almost comically shocked. "No one in the department knows, all right? No one." He took another sip of his water. "I don't date other cops. Other guy cops," he amended.
Mike regarded him for a moment. "What about you? I don't exactly see you painting a pink triangle on your briefcase."
Touche. Ben made a face. "I choose to keep my personal life away from the office," he said, realizing even as he spoke how prim it sounded. "All my personal life," he tried to qualify. "My . . . gender choices are included."
"Oh." Mike seemed to accept that, but there was still a faint puzzlement in his voice. "I don't know. I guess . . . when you told me--" He cleared his throat. "I didn't really appreciate it at the time, I guess. Thanks."
"No need." Ben smiled. "I'd found out your secret, inadvertently. It only seemed . . . fair."
"Yeah. Fair." Now Mike was smiling again, and there was something knowing, and perhaps even wicked, dancing behind his eyes. "Okay, so we're even. I can live with that."
At that moment, Pierre arrived with the appetizers, and Ben was satisfied to let the subject drop. He'd long ago resolved with himself his motives in letting Mike know, and it was something of a comfort that Mike didn't take those motives amiss, that in fact he was still sitting here, talking with him, laughing, and trying to figure out a graceful way to deal with the baked grapefruit appetizer. Ben allowed himself to take a deep, relieved breath, to set aside his worries, and settled down to enjoying himself.
After they'd finished eating, Ben only hesitated a moment before offering to drive Mike home, and as far as he could tell Mike didn't hesitate at all before accepting. He directed Ben to a neighborhood on the East Side, one of the older blocks where apartment buildings were jammed together like books in an overstuffed library, not a hair's breath of space between them. The street was crowded, but Ben turned in anyway, hoping that there would be a space. An excuse.
As if reading his mind, Mike shifted a little, pointing up the street. "There's usually some spaces farther up. If you want to park and come up for a nightcap." He couched the last as if it were an afterthought, an inconsequential remark, one that was most certainly not laden with the weight of innuendo that Ben suddenly heard in the words. He didn't answer. But he looked for the space.
Mike's apartment was on the top floor, a little studio squeezed in under the rafters. He made no apologies for the size, nor for the mismatched, used furniture, and Ben was glad. Instead, he waved his guest to the sofa, and moved into the kitchen to rummage in the cabinet above the refrigerator. "I've got whiskey, vodka, and brandy," he volunteered. "Or, I can make coffee."
"I'll take a brandy," Ben said. "And a standby on the coffee."
"You got it." Mike poured a generous measure into a small snifter, and carried it and a tumbler of whiskey back to the living area. There was a single armchair apart from the sofa, but instead of taking it, Mike sat down next to Ben, handing over the glass with a smile.
"Thank you." Ben took a sip. Not bad, actually.
"Cheers." Mike took a slug of the whiskey in his own glass, and sat back, leaning the tumbler on his knee. "Thanks for dinner," he said presently. "I had a good time."
"You did a good job," Ben replied. He wanted to say more, but it took a healthy sip of brandy to find the words. "I said it before, but I know it couldn't have been easy. You kept your cool."
Mike made a face into his glass. "Yeah, well. That smug bastard . . . it was a pleasure stonewalling his ass, I can say that much."
Not the way Ben would have phrased it, but he agreed with the sentiment. "And I'm glad you did."
Mike only nodded. He drank a little more of his whiskey, crossing his legs as he shifted again on the couch. "I, uh, I've been thinking about what you said. About being a detective."
It took a moment for Ben to recall the reference. "Yes." He tipped his glass at Mike. "I still mean every word."
"I've thought about it," Mike admitted. "More than thought about it." He waved his glass around. "I thought all I wanted was to be a cop, you know? But the more I do it, the more I see . . ." He shrugged, trailing off. "Beat cops like me," he said after a moment, "We see a problem, we slap a quick fix on it. Bust up the fight, take somebody in, diffuse the situation. But two nights later, we're back in the same place, busting up the same fight, taking the same people in. I'm not saying it's useless," he added quickly. "It keeps the peace, and that's what it's about. But then I see something I can't fix. Some kid beat up. Someone raped. Someone killed. And I know that no one in that house, no one on that street, is going to feel safe until the bastard who did it is behind bars. Problem is, where I am right now, I can't do anything about it."
Ben was silent. "Officer," he said quietly, "that's exactly the reason I think you should start thinking about promotion." He caught himself with his hand half-extended to Mike's arm, then completed the gesture anyway, laying his fingers on the soft cotton of Mike's shirt. "You're a good cop," he said. "And I think you could be a good detective. I know you're smart enough." He smiled at Mike's laugh. "It's true," he insisted. "The dumb Irish cop is a good act. I'm sure the people on your beat love it."
Mike laughed again. "Maybe it's not an act," he said. "Maybe I am a dumb Irish cop."
Ben only smiled. "Two out of three, maybe." He squeezed the arm under his hand gently. "Just think about it, Mike, all right?" He moved to slide his hand away, was startled when a warm, broad palm slipped over his fingers, stopping him.
"I will." They sat there, looking at each other, Mike's hand cupped warmly over his, not holding him, but not letting him go, either. It was Mike who finally broke the tableau, nodding at Ben's empty glass. "You want another? Or would you like that coffee now?"
Neither, Ben wanted to say. His mouth had gone unaccountably dry, every nerve his body tingling, focusing down on the small patch of skin on the back of his hand where Mike was still touching him. He should leave, he assessed clinically. Get out now, right now, before he started getting ideas in his head. But Logan was still looking at him, regarding him with those depthless gray eyes. He also hadn't moved his hand.
"Coffee, please," Ben heard himself say, and could have bitten his tongue out when Mike's hand slid away. He released Mike's arm in turn, and Mike stood up, bending over to collect Ben's glass.
"Coming right up," Mike said, and walked into the kitchen. As if he were on an invisible string, Ben found himself rising and following, leaning against the tiny counter while Mike measured coffee and water into the pot.
"I should probably be going pretty soon," he offered. "It's getting late."
Mike switched the pot on, and glanced up at him under his thick brows, his eyes dark. "Don't leave on that account," he said.
For a long time, Ben just stared, sure that he wasn't hearing what he was hearing. Despite all his efforts, had he been that obvious? Or was he so smitten that he was reading things he shouldn't into Mike's every innocent gesture. Innocent gestures like asking him up for a nightcap. Like putting his hand on his. And staring up at him with those heavy, sleepy eyes and telling him not to leave.
Some of his confusion must have shown on his face, because Mike took a step forward, a half-smile playing over his lips. "Hey," he said quietly. "You just got done telling me I'm not stupid." He reached up, those big, warm hands lifting to frame Ben's face, slowly, giving him every opportunity to pull away, to protest. Ben closed his eyes, swallowing, as he stepped forward again, tilting his face in. He sent up a brief, heartfelt prayer that this wasn't a dream, that he wasn't about to wake up alone in his own bed. Dream or not, he was frozen, unable to move even if he'd wanted to, his face flaming under Mike's cool touch, lips parting helplessly as he felt the other man lean in.
"Mike," he said, and hardly recognized the weak croak as his own voice. "Mike, I didn't . . ." He didn't have the breath to finish, but Mike stopped anyway, his mouth a pulsebeat away.
"Didn't what?" Mike asked, the question a soft caress of air on Ben's cheek.
Ben swallowed. "I'm sorry if I--if I presumed anything," he said in a rush. "It wasn't my intention to--" He stumbled over the rest of the sentence, for once unable to produce the right words. "I wasn't my intention," he repeated softly, looking directly in the clear gray eyes so close to his, "to proposition you. I only wanted to have dinner."
The corners of Mike's mouth lifted into a smile. "I know," he said. "But what--" He leaned closer, his lips nearly touching Ben's, then veering aside to press a soft, butterfly's brush of his mouth to Ben's cheek. "What," he said again, whispering into his skin, "if I wanted to proposition you?"
Oh. "Oh," Ben heard himself say, or try to, the syllable catching with an undignified squeak in his suddenly dry throat. He swallowed, and tried again. "Oh, I suppose that's different." Another swallow. "Then I take it back. I did want to proposition you."
To his amazement, Mike laughed. "Too much of a gentleman," he said. His hands, still framing Ben's face, moved, caressing his temples gently, pushing his hair back from his face. "I'm not a gentleman," he said, and something in the words made Ben's knees feel like jelly.
"Then don't be," he managed, and closed his eyes as Mike leaned in again.
Ben almost moaned out loud at the first, soft brush of Mike's lips on his, the mere touch of his mouth electrifying his whole body, spreading like wildfire from the top of his head down to his toes, gathering in a hot rush of desire in his belly. It was every bit as sweet as he'd imagined, Mike's mouth hot and tingling and alive against his. He opened his mouth to the kiss at once, felt Mike respond eagerly to the invitation, pressing closer, his hands spreading over the back of Ben's head as he tilted him for the kiss. Ben's own arms raised to slide around the broad expanse of his back, his hands caressing over the soft wool. Mike made a small, breathless noise into his mouth as they pressed even closer, locked together. Mike's tongue slid between his lips, and Ben did moan out loud, dragging his hands down Mike's back to cling to his waist, yanking their bodies closer together.
One of Mike's hands curled around his nape, stroking and caressing, while the other hand trailed downwards, sliding in a hard, direct line down his back until he could curve his hand over Ben's buttocks and squeeze. Ben felt the breath leave his body, felt his knees actually start to tremble as Mike began to caress him there, long, strong fingers stroking over him. He lifted his arms to hold Mike around the neck, holding himself up against him, feeling Mike shift back against the counter to support his weight, grabbing him briefly to hold him up.
It had been a long time since Ben had been with anyone quite so . . . direct. Long time, hell. Never. It was dizzying, intoxicating, the feel of those powerful hands on him, boldly touching him, moving unabashedly over the curves of his ass and thighs. Ben could feel himself getting hard against the other man, felt his cock swell in a delicious pulse of heat as Mike gripped him even harder, his hands sliding up under the hem of Ben's jacket. Then he was touching his back through the fine linen shirt, rubbing the soft cloth over his suddenly sensitized skin.
They kissed there for a long time, scarcely pausing long enough to breathe, groping each other in Mike's kitchen while the coffeemaker gurgled, unnoticed and forgotten, in the background. Mike tasted of whiskey and very faintly of the spicy food he'd had at dinner, all of it mingling deliciously under Ben's exploring tongue. He could have stayed here all night, just learning every inch of his mouth, every taste and texture of those soft, warm lips. But Mike had other ideas.
Ben made a wordless noise of protest as Mike finally pulled away, but didn't resist as Mike took his hand and led him back around the counter, across the room to the bed tucked into a small alcove. Ben might have used the reprieve to consider what he was doing, to decide whether or not this was, after all, such a good idea. Instead, he watched the way Mike's body moved under his clothes, and swallowed a surge of desire as he tried to picture what he would look like without them. Hoping that he got the chance.
Mike turned and grabbed him again as they reached the bed, and Ben let himself be gently pushed back onto the mattress. Mike joined him a moment later, and Ben groaned as a large, solid palm settled firmly over his crotch, heard Mike's soft noise of approval as he felt the rock-hard shaft outlined under his hand. He pressed down with his hand, rubbing slowly through the cloth of Ben's pants, his fingers gently squeezing the balls underneath until Ben was moaning under him, blind and deaf to anything but the strong hand massaging his cock. Then the hand was gone, and Mike's hips were pressing against his, his full weight settling over Ben's body as he leaned down to kiss him again. They soon ended up side by side, legs twined together, Mike's thigh thrusting between his legs. Ben began to grow impatient, though, with the frustrating slide of cloth on cloth, and before long he was slipping his hands down between their bodies, working at the waist of Mike's pants until he had loosened them enough to slip his questing fingers inside.
Mike bucked against him as he touched him, kissing him fiercely as Ben curled his hand around the hard, smooth skin of his cock. It took him mere moments to fumble his way into the waist of Ben's pants, and in a few seconds they were stroking each other, thrusting into each other's hands as they continued to kiss. But Ben soon let go of the cock in his hand, moving his nimble fingers up to work at the buttons of Mike's shirt. "I want to see you naked," he said into Mike's mouth, too blind with desire to say it any less baldly. Mike froze against him for a split second, his breath ragged against Ben's lips, then his hand slipped from Ben's own cock. The next second, he was enthusiastically aiding Ben in stripping them both out of every stitch of their clothes.
"My God," Ben breathed as he finally slid Mike's shirt over his shoulders, tossing it aside to leave him pale and naked against the covers. He knelt up over him, running his hands over the smooth, soft skin of his chest, down across the flat ridges of his stomach to finally stroke the hard, thick shaft rising from the soft curls between his legs. Mike was looking at him, flushed and panting, but his face wore a faint, puzzled frown, as if he were genuinely mystified by Ben's appreciation of his body. Then Ben's hand wrapped around his length, and the frown vanished, replaced by a soft, slow smile of pleasure. He reached up and pulled Ben down to lie next to him, wrapping his arms around him to press their naked bodies together, gasping a little as their bare cocks bumped into each other.
Ben leaned in for a kiss, then yelped in surprise as Mike abruptly rolled them both over, straddling Ben with a sly smile as he lay down on top of him. Mike bent down to kiss him, and at the same time ground his hips slowly into Ben's, rubbing himself between their sealed bellies, his cock sliding deliciously against Ben's own length. Mike shifted a little, reaching to the side, and a moment later Ben bit back a groan as he lifted himself away. But not for long. Something cool and liquid dribbled briefly on Ben's stomach, and he snapped his eyes open as Mike tossed the bottle of oil to the side. Mike lowered himself on top of Ben again, and Ben groaned deeply as Mike ground against him once more, their bellies slippery now with oil, their cocks sliding smoothly in the tight, slick space between their bodies. Ben arched up into him, mindlessly duplicating the incredible sensation, gasping as his hard length rubbed against Mike's. Mike grinned down at him, one thick lock of hair falling into his eyes as he began to thrust, driving himself against Ben.
Mike came first, his thighs gripping Ben's body as he bucked against him, his mouth catching Ben's in a hot, searing kiss as he shuddered on top of him, moaning into his mouth. Ben only thrust harder, driving himself mindlessly to the edge as he felt the warm wetness of Mike's spilled excitement spreading between them. He cried out as he shivered up against Mike's still-shaking body, clutching his back to anchor himself as he came hard underneath him, his hips arching off the bed in a series of long, shuddering spasms. It had been so long. Too long.
They lay together, panting, gasping for breath, Mike's body a warm, limp weight over Ben. Ben stroked his back idly as he caught his breath, trailing his fingers over the sweat-slick skin, feeling the trickles of perspiration slide down their sides. They were a mess, he reflected with sated satisfaction, sweaty, slick, covered with semen and oil. He traced the length of Mike's back again, and carefully shifted himself, urging Mike's thighs back so that he could spread his own legs, and settle Mike securely between them, wrapping arms and legs around him in a snug embrace. Mike made a sleepy sound of pleasure, lifting his head to search blindly for Ben's mouth.
"Thanks," Mike said when they finally parted. Ben thought for a moment that he was going to add something else, but then he smiled instead and kissed Ben again. "You really were wonderful," he said presently, almost abashed, as if it were something he'd said many times before, and was now embarrassed to find that he really meant it.
Ben was genuinely flattered. "I'll take that as a compliment," he said, savoring the drowsiness in his own voice as he reached up to hold Mike a little closer. "And thank you," he added softly in Mike's ear. "You were wonderful, too."
Mike smiled, and nuzzled at Ben's neck, burying his face in the crook of his shoulder as if he meant to stay there all night. Fine by Ben. Stay there all night, by all means. They'd worry about the morning when it came.
They drowsed for maybe half an hour that way, kissing, idly caressing, lying lazily in one another's arms. Then Mike planted a last, lingering kiss on Ben's shoulder, and rolled away, their sticky bodies separating only with an effort. The shower seemed a logical next step and a long, leisurely half-hour later, Ben emerged scrubbed and clean, a borrowed towel wrapped around his waist. He searched for a clock as he walked into the living area, and saw that it was still surprisingly early, not even one o' clock yet. Early enough, he realized with a stab of reluctance, for him to go home.
He made his good-byes to a drowsy, yawning Mike, who put up just enough protest to make Ben feel flattered, but didn't press him to stay. He did, however, make a point of walking Ben to the door, of helping him with his jacket. As Ben was reaching for the door, Mike stopped his hand, taking Ben's wrist in his fingers, turning him ever so gently so that he could kiss him. He lingered for a long while, holding Ben's face in his hands, then let him go, his lips parting as if to speak, then falling silent again.
Ben reached up, and clasped the hand that still cupped his face. "Good-night, Mike," he said.
Mike finally seemed to find his voice. "Good-night," he said. He opened his mouth again, hesitated, then said uncertainly, "Can I call you?"
For a moment, Ben wasn't sure what to say. That this was anything but a one-night stand had yet to occur to him. Or, more precisely, that this was anything more than a one-night stand for Mike. "Of course," he heard himself say, and felt a warm, soft glow begin to spread in his chest. "I'd like that," he added softly, and had the pleasure of seeing Mike smile in relief. "Very much," he finished, and reached up for one last kiss. "Good-night."