“I don’t want you to go back on the job yet. ”
Grayson Montgomery plunked his coffee cup back on the worn diner table and stared at Mick Winslow in confusion.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Mick?”
The older man shoved a tired hand over his face, a face that was now deeply grooved with wrinkles and fatigue. He’d called Gray earlier in the morning and asked him to meet him here for coffee. Gray was due for his physical and psych evaluation in a half hour. The last obstacle in his return to work as a Dallas cop.
He’d been plagued with doubts. What sane person wouldn’t be? He hadn’t been completely sure he could return to a job when Alex, his partner, wouldn’t. Ever. But, of course, he’d go back. Alex’s killer had to be caught. Justice had to be done. All that was standing in his way was a doctor’s okay on his physical condition and a shrink’s assessment on the state of his noggin. He could easily bullshit his way through that one.
“You don’t think I can hack it anymore?” Gray asked when Mick still didn’t respond.
“That’s not what I’m saying. ”
“Then what the hell are you saying?”
Mick focused grief-stained eyes on Gray. He seemed so worn down now. Not at all like the big, barrel-chested man with a booming voice and personality to match.
“Hear me out. I have a favor to ask. Son. ”
Gray flinched, not because Mick called him son, but because Mick’s real son was gone. Lost to them both.
“I want your help bringing Alex’s killer to justice. ”
Gray should have seen this coming. Mick was beyond frustrated at the lack of progress in Alex’s murder case. Understandably so. It mirrored Gray’s own burning sense of injustice. Which was why he was so eager to get back on the job. So he could find Alex’s killer and make the bastard pay.
“But you don’t want me back on the force. ”
“They dropped the ball on this investigation,” Mick said harshly. “You know it, and I know it. They’re all standing around with their thumbs up their asses while my boy’s killer is running free. They don’t even have a suspect. Alex was a good cop. Damn good cop. He didn’t deserve to go down like that. ”
Gray’s eyes narrowed at the slight. It wasn’t directed personally, but still, it raised his hackles to have Mick question the departments’ handling of the case. Nothing he’d seen had led him to believe anyone was taking Alex’s death lightly.
“Why don’t you want me to go back?” Gray prompted, trying to push Mick back to the point. He didn’t want to dwell on Alex. Not now. Not when it had taken him this long to be able to think about his partner without feeling like someone torched his insides.
A waitress walked over with a coffeepot and started to refill their cups. Mick waved her away with an irritated gesture. She quickly retreated, eyebrows raised at the dark scowl on Mick’s face.
“I’ve been doing some investigating on my own. ”
Gray frowned. Was this why Mick looked like death warmed over? Had he been devoting every hour of the day, forgoing sleep, in a desperate attempt to bring a killer in?
“You’re retired, Mick. Leave the police work to us. ”
Hurt filled Mick’s eyes. “I’m going to forget you said that, son. ”
Gray shook his head. “What have you found?”
“I think I have a solid lead on who may have killed Alex. He was at least at the scene that night, so if he didn’t do it, he damn sure knows who did. But my gut is telling me he’s the bastard who shot Alex in the back. ”
Gray’s stomach churned, and all the coffee he’d consumed burned like acid. Images of Alex, facedown, like a piece of discarded trash, blood pooling on the ground.
“If you have evidence, why haven’t you gone to Billings, and why are you here asking me not to go back to the job?”
“Because Billings is an obnoxious prick who has his head so far up his ass he can smell last week’s dinner,” Mick growled. “I went to him when I uncovered information on the guy who was there. Samuels. Eric Samuels. ”
“You know his name?” Gray broke in.
Mick held up his hand. “Let me finish. I know a lot more than the asshole’s name. ”
Gray nodded and tried to relax in his seat. He glanced at his watch. He was going to be late.
“I went to Billings. Told him everything I knew. He blew me off. Told me I was a washed-up has-been who needed to leave the police work to the professionals. Told me when he needed my help, he’d damn well ask for it. It’s going around the department that Alex was at fault in the shooting. ”
“What? What the fuck?”
“I’ve been hearing rumors, Gray. Seems that the prevailing belief is that Alex acted without cause, and that his death was an unfortunate consequence of his actions. The words ‘blatant disregard of duty’ were thrown around more than one conversation. ”
Gray stared at Mick in disbelief. “You can’t be serious. I was there. I gave my report. ”
“You’d say anything to cover for your partner. ”
Gray curled his lip in a snarl.
Mick held up his hand. “That’s what they’ll say. Not me. ”
Gray leaned back, taking deep breaths to calm the rage boiling inside him. He took a long, hard look at Mick. Was he jacking with him? Trying to get him pissed off enough that he’d agree to whatever Mick wanted? He’d never known Mick to be anything but straight up, but losing a son had a way of bending one’s conscience.
Mick propped his elbows on the table and leaned across, staring intently into Gray’s eyes. “You go to your evaluation, son. You talk to Billings. If you think I’m full of shit after you’ve been back at headquarters for a few hours, then by all means, you go back to the job and forget we ever had this conversation. But if you find out I’m right, you give me a call this afternoon. I’ll come over, and we can talk about how we’re going to nail the son of a bitch who killed my son. Your partner. Your brother. ”
Mick slid out of the booth and threw a few wadded-up bills on the table before stalking toward the exit.
It had been hard to calmly request a leave of absence when what he wanted to do was put his fist through the wall. Gray had considered tanking the psych evaluation, but that shit went on his personnel record forever, and he didn’t want that to follow him for the next twenty years.
He stood in the living room of his apartment, pacing, too agitated to sit down and wait for Mick to arrive. The old man hadn’t sounded the least bit surprised when Gray had called him. Didn’t even ask what the word around headquarters was.
But then he knew. He’d told Gray, but Gray hadn’t believed him. Gray had gone back fully intending to ignore Mick’s request. No matter what, Gray wanted to be here where he could help with the investigation, not on some wild-goose chase. But Billings had drawn a hard line in the sand. Gray wasn’t allowed anywhere near the investigation. Too close and all that bullshit. Like he needed a bunch of psychobabble when his partner’s killer was on the loose. When he’d point-blank asked about the rumors floating around about Alex being at fault, Billings had flatly denied it, saying the investigation was ongoing and that the department would do everything in its power to bring the murderer to justice. Gray had also asked about Samuels and his possible connection to the murder, but Billings had refused to comment.
He’d left the office frustrated, only to be met with many sympathetic stares from fellow cops. Many murmured their opinion that no way had Alex done anything wrong. But the fact that they had to say it pissed Gray off to no end. There should be no question. It had raised questions in his mind about the direction the investigation was going.
Mick walked in the door, not bothering to knock. Gray met his gaze and found raw determination simmering there.
“So now you know,” Mick said quietly. “Are you going to help me?”
“I arranged for a six-month leave,” Gray said shortly. “Now tell me everything you’ve found out so we can nail this bastard. ”
Mick walked over to the couch and sank down on the cushion. He eyed Gray purposefully. “I need you to go to Houston. ”
“What’s in Houston?”
“Faith Malone. ”
Gray folded his arms over his chest. “What does she have to do with Eric Samuels?”
“Maybe nothing. But she’s the only lead I’ve got right now. ”
“So what about her? Who is she?”
Mick scratched at the back of his neck then shifted his head. “Eric Samuels hooked up with her mother right about the time of the shooting. They both disappeared just a few days after Alex got shot. No one’s seen them. I had her investigated. Pretty much a loser like Samuels. Goes through jobs like candy and has a history of drug abuse.
“Her daughter works for William Malone, the man who adopted her. He owns Malone and Sons Security. Top-notch firm. Colors outside the lines. You’d like him. ”
Gray waited impatiently for Mick to get to the point. It didn’t much matter if he’d like Malone or not. All that mattered was whether or not his daughter could lead them to Alex’s killer.
“Apparently Faith took care of the mother for most of her life until a few years ago when the mom OD’d, and Malone stepped in and took Faith back to Houston. Since then, Mom has sporadically called the daughter up, mostly wanting money from what I’ve gathered.
“Last time she called her was a year ago. Now, my thought is, if the mom is in the habit of calling up the daughter when she needs money, she might very well start calling her again now that Samuels has entered the picture. Samuels is desperate. He needs money now that he’s on the move. Money that the mother doesn’t have.
“If you get close to the daughter, do some snooping, she might very well lead us to Samuels through the mother. ”
Gray nodded. So far it made sense. Mom and boyfriend were on the run. Probably low on cash. She might very well contact Faith and ask for help. For all he knew, the girl might know exactly where her mother was.
“My buddy Griffin is friends with Malone, and Malone owes him a favor,” Mick continued. “I’ve arranged for you to have a job with his security company. He knows who you are, that you’re a cop and that your partner was killed. ”
“But nothing else, right?”
Mick shook his head. “What he knows is that you’re on leave while you deal with the death of your partner and make the decision about whether or not you want to return to the job. ”
Gray looked sharply at Mick.
Mick shrugged. “It seemed a plausible enough explanation. ”
Whatever. He didn’t give a damn what Malone thought his reasons for taking a leave of absence were.
“Does Malone figure into this in anyway? Does he have anything to do with Faith’s mother?”
Mick shook his head. “Griffin filled me in on this much. They were briefly married ten years or so ago. Hasn’t had anything to do with her since. He’s a good man. His son is ex-military. He has two other guys working for him. One was in Special Forces, and the other was a cop before an injury took him out of the line of duty. They do good work. ”
“So it’s only his daughter I need to be concerned about then. ”
Mick nodded. “Exactly. ”
It sounded simple enough. Go in, get the information and get out. Hand it over to the department on a silver platter. Sounded like a cakewalk after some of the cases he’d been handed over the years. And yeah, he could use the break. Then he wouldn’t have to think so much about returning to a job without his partner.
Mick stared at him for a long moment before he seemed to crumple right in front of Gray. “Thanks, son. I knew I could count on you. ”
“You don’t have to thank me,” Gray said shortly. “Alex would have done the same for me in a heartbeat. ”
He walked over and sat down by Mick. Neither spoke for a long moment, and then Gray reached out and put his hand on Mick’s shoulder. “Alex will get the justice he deserves, Mick. I swear it. ”
Faith Malone curled into John’s limp arm and tried, tried really hard not to allow the slow roll of disappointment to wash over her.
Her lover’s soft, even breathing filled the room even as he gathered her closer to his chest. His hand curled into her hair, stroking the back of her neck.
She pressed her cheek further against him and tried to relax. Tried to find some measure of contentment in the aftermath of their lovemaking.
“Was that good for you?” he whispered.
“Yes,” she lied. Well, it wasn’t really a lie. She’d certainly had worse, and John was a considerate lover. But he was extremely passive.
She sighed and rolled over on her back and stared up at the ceiling. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she find satisfaction? Why was she so afraid to push for more?