Cassie leaned to the left, closing her eyes, and gave a tired little bang of her head against the window when they felt one side of the car dragging.
“Shit,” Rob said. “Did you—?”
“No, damn it,” she hissed, “I didn’t air it up. I was going to, but then we—”
She laughed, the sound bitter and slightly manic, as she was thinking, Sure, we blew a flat. Sure, let’s have to deal with that today of all days. It was a load of inner whining, but she badly wanted to go home, and they still had to go back in and fill out their reports. She opened her door with a hard irritated slap.
“Hey,” Rob said as he stepped out after her. “At least it’s the end of the week, right? Go pick us up a bite and I’ll get this over with?”
He already had a cigarette in his mouth as he got into the boot. Before taking off down the walk she took the lighter from him without saying anything, and she thought he did a double-take on her expression, like he saw the embers of agitation in her slightly narrowed eyes, but he looked back down.
When she was back with a couple sandwiches from the shop a few doors down, she leaned on the bonnet, and he looked up at the motion of the car rocking and said, “You’re rattled.”
“Fuck off,” she said simply. He looked up from where he was crouched down turning the jack, squinting some slightly imploring message at her until they both started to laugh at the slap of absurdity the entire night had been. She said, “Yeah, maybe I am. It’s coming out in the wrong ways, and so what?...Are you sure you want to do that? It’s a department car, we can always radio for someone else to come out and take care of it if we play up the urgency a little bit.”
“I can get it.”
She watched him for a while, then looked down and flicked the nearly dead lighter into sparks a couple times. “...Did you look at what was in it?”
“...The syringe?” One of the nuts gave a hard grumble as it unscrewed. “No. Maybe just air. But they say that can mess with your heart.”
“And you never know who’s been using it but Christ, can we not have a conversation about that; Frank’s told me stories...”
“I regret asking. Hurry up with that.”
“This last one’s...really bloody on there.”
“Hop on the spanner, Rob. I won’t tell the lads.”
He sighed in a vaguely mocking way. “I am not going to hop on it.”
She came around from the front of the car as he put his back into it for a fifth time. “Look out,” she said in a frank mutter, and a second later she’d used his shoulder and the car top to lever up and planted her left foot on the upturned angle of the spanner with a couple short jumps of her weight, and the last nut unwound with two shrill complaints.
Rob said, “Lovely,” in terse gratitude, and they ate their sandwiches side by side, silently.
There was almost no one at the office once they were finally done; after they turned in the reports O’Kelly was still feeling thorough and wanted the official business on what their actual interviewee had said. Cassie had been crossing her fingers he’d get the misapprehension that it had been the one they were questioning who came at Rob and this could all have waited at least till the next afternoon, but it was good enough that they wouldn’t be ordered in on a Saturday now.
After a good ten minutes of getting the whole story, O’Kelly gave Cassie a look that made her wonder if he imagined himself as some very enigmatic figure who should only grant looks of possible approval, and she had to root through her bag for something just to avoid the smirk that wanted to crack from under the examination.
In the end he said, “Ryan, you should have been keeping a better eye on the fucker, but you both managed to avert any real disaster. Be grateful your partner knew how to dive in.”
“Yes, sir,” Rob said.
“Thanks,” Cassie said, while her eyes were glancing to Rob.
Later Rob was locking up his gun at his desk just after O’Kelly disappeared down the main stairs, and she was tapping her nails on the back of her chair and anxiously feeling like she forgot something. She thought aloud, “I'm glad we've the whole weekend to see how the rumors blow this thing up...Hey: why did he say you should have watched the guy more closely? Specifically you, I mean.”
Rob blinked at her, then seemed to belatedly register the question, and she saw his expression hardening slightly.
“Did he look at our reports?”
He sighed, and the motion of his coat being pulled over his shoulders went slower.
“I had no idea that that guy had the syringe, Rob. If you did—”
“Yes, maybe I saw that he had it,” Rob said, exhausted. “And?”
She stared back, gradually becoming stunned by this flippancy. “And, if I didn’t see it, that means he was probably trying to conceal it. So you see him palming this thing and you don’t even try to call my attention to it?”
“Of course he was trying to conceal that he had drugs.” Rob made an irritated grappling motion in the air as she felt her own patience quickly getting brittle. “I thought we’d lose our presence if I called it out.”
“Because you’ve never given me a cue without having to say anything?” she twisted back with incredulous sarcasm. “Oh, try again.”
“Look, obviously it might have been different if he’d been the one we were talking to, or if he’d had a knife or—”
Cassie cursed and threw her bag down onto her desk in a hard throw, made some half-fisted motion of her hands through her hair. “This wasn’t some cozy house call, it was the lowest of junkie town; you’re damned right we weren’t about to get served a cup of tea for flashing our brass, but did you think any further than that? The syringe could have had brown, it could have been empty, or infected, or it could have been filled with lye cleaner the second he saw his brother let us in at the door, with every intention of possibly using it on us.”
“You don’t think you’re being a little dramatic?”
It was the way he seemed so proud of himself for not being the one who was fuming: her hand had slammed into her desk at some misplaced angle—she could already feel her wrist guffawing back at her in a red swell—and she was barking, “You could have died.”
His eyes were on that slammed hand, widening in a quick flare of something, looking away.
“I can deal with us having a hiccup, Rob, I can deal with thinking we were a notch off and there was some little signal and I missed it, but look, I did not leave Undercover with my guts nearly hanging out thinking, ‘Well, gee, if only he’d tried to kill me with something less practical.’ For fuck’s sake. You can go back to the Quigley comedy hour if you think I’m going to let you drag me back into that scene out of sheer stupidity.” She let out a steely sigh, looking after him as he kicked in his desk chair. “Where are you going?”
“I thought I’d go home,” he said, eyes cast to the floor, “that is if you’re not too worried about me sneezing and falling on some broken glass before I get to the car.”
She was already grumbling past while doing up her own jacket. “I’ll get my own ride, you can fuck off to next month for all I care.” She was expecting some condescending retort before the swinging door shut all the way behind her, but she was certain by the time it did that he hadn’t even tried to say anything.
Cassie’s Aunt Louisa taught Sunday school out on the park across from her church whenever the weather wasn’t too spitting. Cassie took a walk out there in the early afternoon after making herself a solitary and too-quiet breakfast. The wind was weak that day, adding to the slow shy atmosphere that had snatched her thoughts into aimless daydreaming for much of the weekend. By dinnertime on Saturday she’d finally stopped picking up her phone to check if she’d missed any calls.
When she first sat down and crossed up her legs on the park bench, one kid from the neat rows of toddlers to preteens was bowing after reciting something and then returning to her position next to someone who looked like a twin brother. Louisa, pausing to smile as she noticed Cassie over on the bench and waving with some surprise, gave out the handouts while the lines dutifully sang a hymn in those earnest joined highs that only children can build in a choir.
Cassie could only hear snatches of the small lecture that came next, but she liked watching Louisa pace slowly around and give it. Something about Aunt Lou made Cassie half-expect her to pull out and open one of those old watch necklaces from under her vest (maybe one that opened like a locket and could be sternly snatched closed) like the headmistress of some monochromatic all-girl school proctoring an exam with close patient vigilance. These visions were an old game: translucent in their quaintness, not quite like or unlike Louisa but somehow resonating with how she had handled raising her orphaned niece. Cassie owed her a lot of gratitude and she loved her a whole bunch, but she sensed that the unusual sentimentality she applied to her aunt was a routine of that unconventional family as rote as all the other dutiful lessons and recitations she’d grown up with.
The children were reading a poem off the sheet in a solemn careful rhythm: something unorthodox that made Cassie cock a thoughtful eyebrow as she wrapped her scarf around her another turn. She could remember Sabbath school well enough; there was always a dash of the sad or unholy to make sure you felt that ghost grip of God’s discipline on your shoulder, but this was somebody’s whim more inspired by deep and simple grief. Or her mind had only reached out to hear it that way.
She was disappointed, that was the thing. Disappointed that maybe Rob had given some signal, some hint that she should have seen even if he hadn't meant to give it off, and she’d missed it. There was something like impatience but deeper and more urgent than that, what had made them have that fight, and the whole thing had left her a very angry sort of exhausted. It had hardly been anger at the scene of it, but when she thought about the way their eyes had met across the yellow cling of the air in the couple seconds of time when they both realized the reality of that sharp length poked against his throat, some bend went through her and sent her mind running back to that small grudge.
“We had a bad day,” she muttered to herself. Crazy junkie bastards, that was all it was. One fucked up day.
All around her the houses droned with their family cars coming and going in polite slow landings; all of that Sunday safety was setting her oddly on edge against the grass standing up sharp as soldiers in the slightest crisp of cool air, the desolate tickle of her hair in a lick of wind, the children finishing in their small solemnity, “Take our fortune of tears and live like a spendthrift lover; all we ask is the one gift you cannot give.”
“Heavy stuff for the babies, isn’t it?”
She said this as she approached Louisa, her head giving a motion to the handouts the children were reaching one-by-one to give back to the stack in her arms.
Louisa raised her brows as Cassie fell in next to her to walk her the couple blocks to the car. “Sometimes children need a bit of heavy stuff.” And she nudged at Cassie to interrupt her getting out her lighter; Cassie did an innocent wide-eyed apology of a look as she pointed the cigarette back behind her ear, having forgotten how much she hated the smell. Louisa had only become aware a couple years ago that Cassie even smoked, from some equally absent-minded moment.
They walked, passing over the usual small talk. Louisa kept Cassie up to date on the family gossip with the list form precision of a legal secretary that made the occasional discovery that she was actually very prone to exaggeration seem all the more unexpected, no matter how many times Cassie got the story a different way from one of the militia of cousins at the Christmas evening card game. Cassie sometimes caught herself wondering how many arrests she‘d made or how many men she’d dated in that mind that multiplied like there was need for spares. Rob would laugh if...
Cassie frowned, slightly shaking her head.
She looked over, almost startled.
“When I saw you outside at first I wondered if you had something important to tell me.”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged. “Usually if you stop by at all you’ve got that Rob with you...The two of you just walk around on Sunday, right?”
Their steps had slowed to a leisurely stroll, and Cassie was absently trying a turn with her still aching wrist. “Hmm. Rob and I got into this big argument on Friday. I haven’t talked to him since then.”
There was a hesitant blink and Louisa asked, “A really bad one?”
“...I don’t know,” she said, not finding the energy to twist the truth. She hadn’t expected Louisa to take this as some imparting of her emotional life, and that dutiful tone of consolation that had crept in made her feel tense. “Probably not. Partners are...sort of supposed to fight. And we’ve had tiffs before.”
“What was it about?”
“I'm not sure if we were even fighting about what we were fighting about, you know? It was a rough day. Somebody pulled a weapon on him; neither of us were prepared for it so I had to talk the guy down and...” She didn’t look to see if Louisa looked at all struck about this sudden glinting anecdote of professional hazards; her aunt had never shaken the habit of looking at the harder details of Cassie’s job as a dripping thing best left on the porch. She shrugged, flatly elaborating, “Well, neither of us were in a very good mood about it.”
A middle-aged couple passed by them nodding in greeting, and the two of them went quiet for a moment.
Then Louisa said: “You know, it’s no small thing to depend on somebody.”
The tension bottomed into wobbly near-shock. Cassie wasn’t sure what she even meant when she muttered, “Heavy stuff, Lou.”
“I mean it, Cassie.” She was frowning, solemn now. “I don’t know if I’ve seen you be very close with anyone, not since...”
A short look Cassie’s way conveyed that she was thinking about when Cassie dropped out of her university years. That was always a vaguely accusing thing: Cassie had never been wiling to quite come up with an elaborate enough lie for the time she had, in less than a week, upturned her entire life into a suitcase to France, and this had never been undone. Louisa—though Cassie didn’t think she consciously knew it—had taken the enigma as some allowance or excuse for the decidedly un-motherly affection between them. (The girl’s a mystery from curls to ankles so relax, Lou, and just mention it in passing with laughter about “that odd little quarter-life crisis of hers.”)
Cassie decided to say aloud, “I had my reasons for leaving.”
“And you must have had reasons for coming back. I remember thinking you must have gotten lonely, but then you didn’t exactly go out for friendly work. That time you had working Drugs...” Louisa shook her head. She’d been very quiet around Cassie soon after the stabbing.
“I’m done with that,” Cassie said, and there seemed to be a strange double meaning to her words. Something about the things Louisa was saying made her want to cross her arms and protest “I’ve got loads of mates!” like an affronted five-year-old. But the idea that she actually needed any one of her group of girlfriends she saw once a month had a thorniness to it. The things she depended on all seemed to walk in officer’s boots. Every bullet sleeping in the gun cabinet, every little ridge on her badge. And Rob, of course Rob, though the idea had taken her by surprise after all.
“I’m only saying that if you’re not sure what it really was you two were arguing about...” Louisa was turning to open up her car door and setting her satchel in the back seat, slow and stiff-backed, and some of that illusion of the limber old head teacher shuddered out. “You might want to figure it out.”
Cassie had no intention of initiating whatever heart-to-heart Louisa might have been advising, and she felt a thinness looming over this conversation, that she wasn’t really taking anything away from it at all, which was actually reassuring in its return to shallower waters. She took the cigarette out from behind her ear, set it between her lips, and fumbled around. It always felt vaguely like somebody trying to make a graceful exit from some badly botched audition when she took leave of her aunt.
She pointed at the stack of papers as they were folded up with a little crunching noise. “Can I have one of those?” Louisa half-smiled in surprise and then handed her one, and Cassie looked it over for a second before creasing it under her arm. “I’ll come help you pack up for that sale you were talking about, if I’ve got nothing big going on next week.”
“That’ll be sweet, luv. I’m glad you came by.”
Cassie nodded. Instead of walking back right away, she took out her lighter and began to smoke the cigarette, thoughtfully watching Louisa start up the car and drive away.
By Monday morning Cassie had forgotten to watch out for the congratulatory prank at least one of them had to have coming, so the sight of the many-colored stock of lollipops spread all over Rob’s desk puzzled her at first. The two of them managed to get through O’Kelly’s parade of announcements only slipping by while more or less pretending they just hadn’t seen each other, but when she’d finally had enough of this she stopped a few paces behind Rob’s chair and said, “Okay, I give up. What’s the joke with the lollies?”
Rob pushed a heel on the floor to rotate his chair and look at her with a hesitance that melted almost too quickly to have been there at all, and then he backed up and motioned dramatically to unveil his computer screen to her attention. Crossing her arms, she leaned in closer and saw that somebody had taped up a bordered collage of big round stickers of the kind they give to kids leaving the dentist or doctor’s office: It was all a tessellation of the same one, which had a personified syringe making squinty eyes and declared, “I WAS BRAVE TODAY!”
As she was kicked into giggles with a hand pressed on his shoulder, a soft chagrin played into Rob until he was smiling back.
“You know, I could have done them one better if I’d thought about it, but that’s really not bad,” she said. “How come I didn’t get anything?”
Rob had obviously not been so amused: managing to be sharply snooty about the motion, he grabbed a big handful of the lollipops and then stuffed them into the pocket of her hoodie, setting her into a shorter steady peel of laughter.
After a while she cleared her throat. “Do we still need to do the—”
“They’re almost done. I couldn't sleep Saturday night and came in to work on it.” Rob had leaned up out of his chair in a long motion to grab the pencil sharpener off the far edge of her desk; she wondered if he’d been hesitating to ask for it all morning. He tapped it in an idle rhythm against the side of his keyboard, letting out a thoughtful breath. “Is your wrist okay?”
Slowly she smiled, a less laughing smile. “Ah, you.”
He looked straight at her and then back down. “I’m sorry, Cass.”
"...Yeah, me too.”
“I was rattled,” he admitted, then cocked an eyebrow. “It came out in the wrong way.”
Cassie gave his forearm a little shake. “Yeah, I know. We were...I’m sorry too.”
“Sorry for saving my arse, more like,” Rob said, his voice returning to its usual sardonic drop, and she laughed.
“I don’t know that I saved your life, now, that might be getting too dramatic. Don’t be giving the rumor mill too many notions of Maddox’s chivalry.”
“...Did you think it might embarrass me if it got around like that?” Rob asked in realization.
“You may be a twelve-year-old, but,” she calmly shook her head and said, “no.”
There was a moment when the conversation could have been pushed down the more casual route, but Rob was tensing up a bit. “It’s not too dramatic, though. If I was still suffering around with Quigley...” He gave an incredulous scoff. “I could be dead, you know that?”
She didn’t want that thanks she could feel coming: some “thank you” that would feel like a greeting card, like “The dinner was delicious” or like “I didn’t know if it’s your style so I kept the receipt.” Cassie sat down on top of her hands on the edge of his desk, biting her lip. She finally said, “You’re my partner.”
And when she expected that thanks, Rob only seemed to consider that with a brief pensive warmth, and then nodded.
Silence buzzed between them for a few seconds, nearly awkward. Then in unison they both did a Monday morning sigh and snatched to take the wrapper off a lollipop, and got to work.