Fusco could never understand why the peanut shells didn’t crack when Reese stepped on them.
The wide-planked floor of Barney’s was worn smooth by decades of foot traffic –- the bar’s complement of guilty and innocent plodding back and forth between the booths and rickety tables, always accompanied by the spiky crunch of discarded shells underfoot.
Like the familiar smells of stale beer and day-old hot dogs, the peanut shells of the old neighborhood bar denoted home to Fusco.
After years of steady patronage, drunk or dried out, he had grown to welcome that crackling sound. It was a sort of aural comfort food, the assurance that at least a few things in this screwed up world never changed.
He could count on the friendly mess on the floor of Barney’s to be dry and gritty, its sound a textured undercurrent to the waves of laughter and gossip that surged through the stuffy room during the exaggerated Happy Hour which extended from three to nine on Friday nights.
The crowd, the noise, the remnants of daylight seeping in through the windows, all of this was protective, Fusco figured, just a little insurance, like the peanut shells on the floor.
Except, it seemed, when the Ghost in the Suit was creeping around.
Reese had asked for the meeting, so Fusco had chosen the location.
Barney’s was his home turf, a setting he picked to bolster his courage in the face of what he expected would be another barrage of warnings from Reese.
These regular death threats had gone from horrifying to just scary to annoying over the months of their collaboration. Normalized danger seemed to be a hazing ritual, as if he had to pass through some elaborate rite to join Reese’s tiny club of crusaders. Fusco hoped by now he had emerged from the worst of the ragging, his nerves shredded but not severed by the abuse.
Mostly, Fusco had learned to brush off these threats, but when Reese slipped into the booth without the tell-tale crunch of the peanut shells it was still a frightening experience.
Heart clutching, sweat raising, teeth clicking, all rolled into one moment of terror. The lights seemed to dim in the already smoky bar and for a second Fusco thought all the other patrons had ceased talking when Reese materialized before him. A trick of the mind, he knew. But Fusco remained both thrilled and embarrassed that Reese could startle him into such churning turmoil after all this time.
He nodded at Reese to acknowledge his arrival, but kept quiet in part to avoid emitting the squeak he knew was caught at the back of his throat. Fusco decided to wait on Reese to launch the first salvo, so he took a long swig from the tonic water in front of him.
Dark and still, the man focused his shark-dead eyes at a point on the wall over Fusco’s head.
“Lionel, you’ve been talking with your HR pals again, haven’t you?”
Fusco shook his head to dispel images of black water sliced by a brutal, smiling fish. Reese took the head movements as a denial.
“I know where you go, Lionel, and I see what you do. Don’t ever forget that. And don’t lie. It won’t work.”
Time to come back at Reese with a rejoinder that was equal parts apology and pointed probe into the other man’s softer feelings.
“Look, I don’t know what you’re thinking there. But I’m watching my partner’s back.”
Fusco knew that this hadn’t always been the case, hadn’t been the hallmark of his shaky start with Carter. But loyalty was a trait he prized above all else. It didn’t matter if he couldn’t keep a wife and saw his boy only every other weekend. Carter was his partner now, so he had her back. And Reese had to know that much about him.
“Then just consider this a friendly reminder. Lionel.”
Reese smiled with a tight movement of his lips that showed the crooked bottom teeth just a little.
“Incentive to keep you both safe.”
Fusco rubbed his eyes and opened his mouth to offer the other man a drink, they were in a bar after all and the normal people all around them were getting loaded. But he shut his trap against the hospitable impulse and decided to let Reese spit out what was really bothering him.
He knew part of it, of course.
The last two weeks had been a nightmare, a grim alternation of tedium and suspicion. Carter had been suspended after the botched raid and her fatal shoot-down of that perp. Unarmed perp according to Terney’s story. But Carter denied it and Fusco believed her, even if no one else in the precinct did.
Like he told Reese, Fusco had her back, despite the sneaky looks and snarled whispers that curled around the squad room during the week she was suspended.
Then when Carter got back to work, it was even worse.
As if she felt she had something to prove, she churned through assignments like a tornado with teeth, barking orders at him, which was alright, and at the uniforms and techs, which was a recipe for disaster.
If the guys lower down the ranks weren’t on your side, you could count on catching hell anytime a case turned sticky.
Carter was good police, she knew how to work with colleagues up and down the line of command. But in this crisis, with HR pressing hard on her, she was losing her balance and her self-control. Fusco could sense her floundering in these new circumstances. He tried to cover for her rudeness, for her occasional over-eager assumptions, for her hard-charging tactics which ended up cracking the heads of as many police as perps. But he couldn’t be everywhere all the time.
He had her back, like he said, but that protection cost him too.
When the waitress came around for orders, Reese asked for a bottle of Sam Adams and Fusco renewed his tonic water. The two men remained quiet, tense, lost in their thoughts until the girl came back with the drinks and a bowl of salted peanuts in the shell.
Fusco wanted to push the talk, put Reese on the defense a little, so he broke the silence after each had taken a long pull from his drink.
“So, why don’t you check with Carter yourself about how she wants to be protected and all?”
He knew more than he was going to say about that relationship, but he didn’t think it was worth risking his ass to call out Reese about this entanglement with Carter.
Fusco wasn’t a fool or a virgin.
He had sensed the quivering wire of attraction drawing them together from the earliest days of their collaboration. It was a sex thing, sure; desire was easy to see, with or without a detective’s badge.
But Fusco suspected it was something more than that, right from the start, some fellow feeling made up of shared experiences and a common sorrow that bound them together. He wasn’t even sure if they knew what it was, really.
But as Carter and Reese wrangled and carped and circled each other, Fusco noted a longing underlying the tension and vowed to stay out of the line of that fire. He guessed they had started up some sort of casual arrangement; not sure exactly when, but he was positive they were an on-again, off-again thing.
Irregular but intense, just like the two of them, he figured.
Of course, he would always protect his partner, but he had to look out for his own ass too.
Good choice as it turned out.
“She’s not talking to me.”
Reese’s confession slipped out unplanned, judging from the way his mouth shut down tight right after finishing the sentence.
The man fiddled with his beer bottle, dragging a nail across the damp label, marring the face of the cheery patriot. Fusco pretended for a moment that his tonic water had taken on fascinating new depths.
Fusco knew he was going to regret opening his trap, maybe regret it for a long time to come if both of them decided to unload on him, but he did it anyway.
“I’m thinking she’s got plenty of reasons to be pissed at you right now.”
Fusco did a quick count of all the reasons he did too, but that wasn’t the topic at the moment. Besides being pissed at Reese never worked out well for him: lots of bile, nothing to show for it.
That prompt seemed to knock a little chink in the wall around Reese.
“I just wanted to make sure she was safe.”
He continued tormenting the beer label, peeling off pieces of Sam Adams’ face which fluttered to the table between them.
Fusco decided to let loose with the strongest volley at his disposal; he was all in now, his head swimming with a kind of drunken bravado, even though he was stone sober. Fortifying him wasn’t the alcohol of his youth, but a new and powerful sense of the rightness of things. For his partner, for himself, even for this troubled man before him.
“Terney’s dead, isn’t he.”
Although phrased as a question, Fusco didn’t let his voice rise because it wasn’t really an inquiry at all, just a statement of stark fact.
The department was buzzing about Terney’s disappearance.
No one seemed to actually regret the apparent loss; Terney, with his slick ways and braggadocio, had never been a beloved member of the blue brotherhood. But most cops were worried either that he would make an untimely return like some NYPD zombie, or that his death would unravel all those cozy arrangements which kept HR’s operation humming along.
Rethinking their decision to back Terney’s story, the two juvenile unis had quickly recanted their testimony about Carter’s involvement in the shooting, their lies blown down in the winds raging through the HR leadership gap left by Terney’s absence. The precinct, the entire department really, was spooked with the evidence mounting daily that Terney’s disappearance was permanent.
Reese didn’t blink at the accusation, which was as good as a confirmation. He held Fusco’s eye for a long moment, then returned to picking at the bottle.
Fusco kept at him, not angling for more information about the assassination, but about its fall out for Carter.
“So if I figured it out, you know she did too. And I’m guessing that she didn’t think her job was worth another cop’s life. Even a dirty one like Terney.”
The beer label destroyed, Reese looked up at Fusco with a startling softness in his cool eyes.
“What do you think?”
His voice seemed shrunken, almost quavering, and Fusco paused before replying to make sure he had heard the question right.
“I think anyone working for HR gets what’s coming to ‘im.”
This was the closest to a personal philosophy Fusco was ever going to dole out.
He knew there had been a time when he could have been the one on the wrong end of Reese’s private vendetta. And imagining Terney’s last moments, cornered, piss staining his pants as the unblinking shark glided toward him, was enough to send an icy tremor scuttling down his spine.
So maybe Fusco felt a little sorry for Terney having to bite it that way. But apart from that twinge of sympathy, he was just so damn glad Terney was dead, happy the weasel couldn’t hurt his partner any more.
And beyond that, there was pure self-interest: he was amazed that yet another HR shakeup had left him unharmed. Call him a cockroach, a rat, any kind of vermin; it didn’t matter, surviving felt good.
If Reese was Carter’s guardian angel, Fusco liked finding a little place for himself under that sheltering wing too.
Fusco knew the only reason he wasn’t curled up in a flea-bag hotel right now, sucking on a bottle of rot-gut and puking his life away was thanks to this asshole.
And the only reason his job -- his life -- made sense right now was because Carter had steered him back from the brink, helped him see that he could be a good cop again, like he meant to be starting out.
He owed them both big, a secret debt he carried with pride, even if he’d never tell them.
Glancing up again at Reese’s hooded expression, in which guilt and fear seemed to play tag across his features, Fusco thought he knew what was troubling him.
So he wanted his next words to be reassuring without giving Reese a free pass right away.
“Look, HR’s not gonna do anything drastic right now. They gotta lay low for a while. The brass downtown is itching to climb up their ass if they could only get a foot hold. They got IAB swarming all over those two uniforms, turning the screws tight to squeeze out a story that sticks.”
Reese’s face sharpened, his eyes glittering with focused attention as Fusco continued the analysis.
“The funny thing is, those Internal Affairs narcs got nowhere else to look with Terney out of the picture. But neither does Carter. She’s in the clear now, but with no allies to offer cover for her position, she’s exposed in the department, alone.”
“She didn’t say anything.”
Reese spoke slowly, as if fitting together jagged pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that interlocked the HR cabal with his own tenuous relationship with Carter.
“Well, she wouldn’t, would she?”
His lips thinning to a grimace, Reese sighed and reached for a peanut. Cracking it between two long fingers, he pulled out the meat and flicked the shell to the floor. He studied the nut for a long while but never popped it into his mouth.
Fusco was poised for a counter argument, an acid interpretation that minimized the danger to Carter.
But although Reese remained mute, the silence seemed different this time, open, even warm somehow.
Maybe, grudgingly, the man finally admitted some kind of value in Fusco, some use beyond that of a sidekick with a snappy quip and a quick gun.
By not arguing, maybe Reese signaled acceptance of Fusco’s insights into both the deadly politics of the NYPD and the messy knots that tied him and Carter together.
Reese stood abruptly, twisting his hips to slide out of the booth in a single movement. This interview with the ghost was over.
He threw the uneaten peanut to the floor and without a sound turned toward the door of the bar.
As Fusco watched, Reese sliced through the giddy crowd which parted for a moment, quieting in anxiety or flat-out dread, then closed again after his dark passage.