It was a beautiful evening. A little chilly, maybe, but not enough to bother the little girl racing around the playground, who cast off her jacket for the sixth time, much to her watching mother's dismay. "Abby!" Amanda called. "Put your coat back on!" God only knew what Ben would say if she sent their daughter back home from her weekend visit with a cold.
Abby rolled her eyes dramatically, but she picked up her red jacket and thrust her arms into the sleeves before racing back to rejoin her playmates, two little boys whom she had just met that day. Their father sat next to Amanda on the park bench, his broad body slouching slightly. His tie was loosened and he looked tired.
"I'm sorry things had to happen this way, Joe," Amanda said. "This wasn't how I'd hoped to earn my captain's badge."
Joe Stonetree shrugged. "Ehh. It is what it is. I had a feeling that Commissioner Vetter had it in for me a while ago. He was just looking for the right person. He's a by-the-book sorta guy, Vetter."
"And I'm a by-the-book sort of gal, is that what you're driving at?" Amanda leveled a cool gaze at her predecessor. "I've been on the force for twenty years, Joe. I know how to bend the rules when I need to. And I know how to run a tight ship when I need to."
"Yeah," Stonetree sighed. "You've got me beat there." He lapsed into silence. For a while, the only sounds were those of Abby Cohen laughing at the antics of the Stonetree boys, and the more distant and intrusive noise of traffic from behind the sheltering line of trees.
The light was beginning to fade. "So," Amanda said, "was that all you wanted to say?"
"Never said I wanted to say anything, Amanda," Joe smiled. "Maybe I just wanted to have a friendly chat between colleagues while our kids tire themselves out."
"Right," she returned dryly. "Come on. Spit it out."
"You're gonna have to be a lot sneakier with that mind-reading trick around my people if you want them to trust you," said Stonetree, a serious expression settling over his broad features.
"They're not your people anymore, and it's not a trick. I just happen to know when someone's holding out on me, and it's never let me down yet. So what's your story, Stonetree?"
"There are good cops in your new precinct. They get results. They get who they're after. Sometimes it's best not to ask how they do it, so long as it stands up in court."
"Huh." It was dark now; the park lights came on, but the children took no notice. "And when it doesn't stand up in court?"
The big man shrugged. "Stuff like that had a tendency to work itself out without any help from me."
Amanda stared at Joe Stonetree, but his face was completely expressionless. She ran over a quick mental list of things he could possibly be talking about. Internal corruption, that was a big one. Kickbacks, maybe. Stonetree had a good reputation as a cop and a lousy one as a manager. Maybe his transfer had to do with more than just simple accounting snafus?
Threats, that was another option. Stonetree had a well-known dislike for perps who could work the system; he might have opened his mouth about the wrong people, and the official reason for his transfer to a new precinct was just a cover story for the department to move him some place where they could keep a closer eye on him--not because he'd done anything wrong, but for his own protection.
The threat might not even be from outside the precinct, she told herself. If Stonetree had discovered that one of his team was doing something criminal... and there were a few notable loose cannons in that office, particularly in the homicide division. One name came immediately to mind. "This is about Nick Knight, isn't it."
Stonetree pinched the bridge of his nose. "See, that's the kinda thing I'm talking about. You've got to learn to play things closer to the vest if you're gonna work with Knight."
"Why?" Amanda demanded bluntly. "What's so special about Knight?"
"He's... Let's just say, he's got his own methods."
"Not good enough. Who're you trying to protect, Joe? Yourself, your kids? Me?" She snorted. "Thanks. Don't need it."
"I'm just trying to look out for a good cop with a lot of problems." The big man's voice went quiet. "I had to make a lot of accommodations for Detective Knight over the years. The sun allergy."
"I know about it. I also know about his unofficial nickname--The Knightmare."
"He's got a bit of a short fuse," Stonetree conceded. "Real cold temper. He doesn't really raise his voice when he gets mad. Doesn't need to. He just sort of looks... looks through you, like he's seeing all your insides, every little thing that makes you weak and vulnerable."
"Sounds like a hell of a manipulator," Amanda pointed out.
Stonetree nodded. "He can be. I've seen suspects break down after a session with Nick Knight. And I've seen twenty year veterans refuse to be along in the same room with him. He's got a knack for making some people feel uncomfortable. And he's also got a knack for putting people at their ease and getting them to trust him. Depends on the person. Or the day. Or what Knight's after."
Amanda processed all this as best she could, still not sure where Stonetree 's meandering thought processes were leading her. "So which are you? The person who refuses to be alone with him, or the person who tells him all your secrets?"
"Neither. Because I know what Nick is."
"What he is?" Amanda eyed Joe Stonetree dubiously. "Just tell me what's going on. If Knight's been a problem for you, you can be damned sure he's not going to be a problem for me for long."
"He's been my best officer for the last few years. And I hope he'll be yours, too. But he's..." Stonetree paused as though searching for words, but as she waited, Amanda felt a shiver run up her spine. She had the strangest sensation that she and Stonetree were being watched. She would have happily dismissed the feeling as stupid, except that she swore she saw the burly man glancing at the treeline out of the corner of his eyes. Not as if he was afraid... but he was definitely aware.
"He's a good guy," Stonetree finally decided. "He's got some... peculiarities, and he's got his own way of doing things, but he's a damned good cop."
Amanda huffed. She was cold and she wanted to get her daughter home. "What was the point of this non-conversation, Joe? What do you want me to do?"
"Give the guy his space, is all." Stonetree raised a hand to his lips and let loose a piercing whistle. "Pack it in, boys! Let's go." He began to button up his trench coat. "Use your best judgment. Sum him up. And then pick your battles. Oh, and when he does something weird? Pretend not to notice. It's safer that way."
Stonetree turned up his collar. "For him." Something in his tone made Amanda realize that anymore questions would be pointless.
He strolled away, calling for his sons to race him to the parking lot.
Amanda made Abby walk close to her side, and held her hand until they reached their car.