Defiance feels like freedom. Makes you a little bit drunk. I walked away from that midnight conversation with my brother as high as Ben had ever been.
But that's all it is, a feeling. Feelings don't last.
I couldn't focus, after I found him. I'm staring at pictures of evidence, trying to find a pattern, and instead of the victim's faces, I see Ben's. When I handle items from their homes, all I can feel is the dead weight of his arm, needles tugging under slack skin.
Creegan isn't the only one who's noticed. Enright seems willing to cut me some slack. Branca just looks at me like, what the hell is up with you? I can't tell them. They might take me off this case, and I want to solve it.
These women didn't ask to die.
They didn't ask for a fucked-up investigator who's so trapped by his younger brother (dead younger brother) that he might let their murderer get away.
When something isn't working right, you fix it. That's efficient, it's how things get done, it's responsible. To not do anything about it would be stupid. And when it's you that's broken, that means talking to someone, preferably a qualified someone. Maybe it can wait till we were back home, but.... I keep thinking about the local station's grief counselor. Usually they stay away from a visiting investigative team, out of our hair, but this guy goesout of his way to be helpful.
I decide it couldn't hurt to at least try talking to him. Maybe telling just one stranger will let me get past this enough to focus.
So I call him, walk in, he's in the middle of a late lunch or something--apples on a cutting board there on the coffee table, a bottle and glass of scotch. Which I turn down. And I try to talk. He's listening, all right, all sympathetic behind those scholar's glasses.
But somehow, I keep lying to him by omission. Even about Ben.
He tells me that my brother and I need closure.
That's so macabre, I can't decide whether to laugh or cry or start swearing at him. But it's not his fault, so I tone down my reaction. "I'll get closure at the funeral," I tell him; the closest I've come to telling anyone except the EMTs what happened to Ben.
He reacts, then. More than he has since I walked in, but not excessively. I would have missed the change if his meek manner hadn't wired me to notice it. That's when I realize I've been watching him the whole time.
Does he think I'm angry enough at Ben to kill him?
Or has he guessed what I haven't told him?
That bottle of scotch sits on the coffee table between us, golden brown in the late afternoon light. "I will take that drink," I say, breaking the awkward silence.
"Ice?" he asks, brightening into my host, that brief look gone.
He gets up, heads through the archway towards the kitchen. I barely wait until his back is turned to stand and lean forward, one hand bracing me against the smooth wood of the table, as if I'm going to look at the label on the bottle.
I'm more interested in the satchel he's left lying on his chair. Open, stuffed with notebooks, files from work...
A tight roll of white plastic garbage bags.
Everything clicks together, like tumblers in a lock falling into place. Those hearts, carefully bagged and presented to the men. Gift-wrapped, as if he can give them back part of themselves. Give them closure. Which is exactly what I asked him to do for me, just by coming here.
I move to straighten up. I want to see where he is before I go for my gun, but there's only a quick blur at the edge of my vision. I don't even have time to react.
His arms are around my waist, and pain thrusts spine-deep into my abdomen. Again, and again, and again. The world whites out around me. I can't breathe. I feel myself sagging forward, my palm against flat wood the only thing keeping me from falling. Another shove, and I'm tipping backwards, slamming into the couch I thought was soft. It feels hard as concrete. Fire bursts inside me, drowning every other sensation. I gasp, only able to think of the pain, and of breathing, for what seems like a really long time.
Finally it fades a little, and I guess that's it's actually been seconds rather than minutes. I've got my left hand pressed uncomfortably over the burning heat below my stomach. My other hand is free, near my holster...but since the gun is gone, that's not much help.
I look up. My attacker is still standing there, a geek in glasses, bloody paring knife in one hand (of course, from his lunch, I'm an idiot) and my gun dangling from the other. Like he doesn't know what to do next.
I can't help laughing, though it's like driving the knife in again. I was right in the middle of all this, right where Creegan usually is, grieving just like those men. I should've put the pieces together. Seen what was right in front of me. What was inside me. "It's pathetic," I tell my killer. He looks at me like I'm crazy. Maybe I am, a little, but it is. It's fucking ridiculous.
"I know, I know," he stammers. "I'm sorry–"
I stare at him, but he looks sincere. The bastard actually wishes he hadn't hurt me. I press my hand tighter, trying to make sure I hold together. Maybe he won't just shoot me and run. Maybe I'll figure out some way to call Creegan or Branca, and pull this whole mess out of the fire.
"I'm sorry I let you down," he clarifies gently, before turning towards the archway again.
"You didn't let me down." I'm vaguely astonished that he can think in these terms while committing murder. "I don't even know you." He keeps walking, as if he accepts my benediction, or maybe just as if he doesn't hear me.
I do know something about being let down. About letting others down. Ben...god....at least it was mutual. But Creegan, Susan.... this guy's going to get away because I didn't see what was right in front of my nose. Or turn quickly enough. Or tell either of them, hell, anyone on my team, where I was going.
He's out of the room. All I can hear is my heart, its quick thud drowning the traffic outside. Now's my chance to do something. If I can get off this couch, get to a phone....
I roll over, face-first off the cushions, hands out to break my fall and keep my shredded belly off the floor. That's it, though. The fire explodes like a muffled bomb somewhere deep inside, and pounds in waves, rolling sparkling blackness behind my eyes, timed to the beating of my heart. I breathe shallowly, trying to clear my head. Running water. He's washing his hands.
But I still can't move. Cautiously I let myself slump to one side, work a knee under me, prop my back against the couch. I've left a bloody hand print on the rug. And it's getting so damn cold in here. It was not this cold before.
I let myself slump back, head cradled on the edge of the seat cushion, hand pressed over my abdomen again, slick, wet, the only warm thing about me. There's nothing else I can do. It's not enough, but it's too late to ask for more. I don't have any more to give.
There's no high this time, just the shakes and nausea and growing numbness of a massive overdose. There's always a price to pay for the illusion of freedom. Sometimes it's higher than others.