ONE WAS A SOLDIER (Begin Reading)
I BELIEVE IN…THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS…
—The Apostles’ Creed, The Book of Common Prayer
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 5
Sarah Dowling’s first thought, peering through the wire-reinforced glass of the community center’s door, was that they were an odd group. Usually returned vets had a lot to talk about with one another, even if they were embarrassed to be seen in counseling. She would have thought that in a tiny town like Millers Kill—she couldn’t help it, she still saw the place as a cross between a Thomas Kinkade painting and Bedford Falls—they’d be even easier together, but none of these soldiers were speaking to each other.
The two men unracking metal chairs could have been father and son; both middling height, in khakis and button-downs, both with regulation crew cuts—the fifty-something graying, the thirty-something dark brown. The younger man kept glancing sideways at the older as if looking for clues on how to behave. He didn’t pay attention to the young woman opening the chairs in a ragged circle, watching him. She was maybe midtwenties but dressed like a teen, with a little muffin top squeezed between low-rider jeans and a mini-tee. Sarah would have to include her no-romantic-relationships spiel in tonight’s session.
The other woman in the group was a decade or more older than the little cutie, wearing unrelieved black that almost hid her taut physique. As Sarah watched, she stirred spoon after spoon of sugar into coffee poured from the community hall’s industrial-sized coffeemaker. The last participant—Sarah frowned. A young man, maybe still a teenager. His hair had grown out, indicating he’d been out of the service for several months, at least. Well, she could have guessed that even if he had still been wearing it shaved to the skin. They didn’t let double amputees out of Walter Reed until at least four months after admission. His presence here worried her. If he was having post-amputation issues, he ought to be seeing a psychologist at the VA Hospital, not hanging around an LCT’s group.
She checked her watch, then gathered up her stack of handouts. Time to get the road on the show. She opened the office door and strode into the meeting room, the soles of her shoes squeaking on the polished wooden floor. Beyond the closed door, she could hear the faint thump and holler of the basketball game going on in the gym. On the far wall, construction-paper letters spelling out HELLO SEPTEMBER were taped over bright cutouts of apples and school buses. A preschool met here mornings. She thought of the stiflingly tasteful tenth-story office she had left behind in Silver Spring. Free at last, free at last.
“Hello, everyone.” She gestured toward the chairs. “Why don’t we get started? If we have any latecomers, they can join us in progress.” She smiled and took her own advice, selecting the twelve o’clock position in the circle. The woman in black pulled two chairs out of the way to make room for the teen in the wheelchair. The rest of the gang of five followed suit, scraping and clunking the cheap chairs until they were all roughly equidistant from one another, and twice as far from her.
“I’m Sarah Dowling,” she began. “I’m a licensed clinical therapist. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, that means I’ve been trained in psychology and in facilitating therapy, but I am not allowed to diagnose or to prescribe medications.” She stood up and handed the first stack of papers to the graying man seated to her left. “Take one and pass it along.” She resumed her seat. “I’ve just recently relocated here from the Washington, D.C., area, so this is my first group in New York State. However, I’ve been doing veterans’ counseling and running the on-base family mental health program for the past four years at Fort Meade.”
The older man nodded in approval. Officer, she thought.
“Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, this is not a Veterans Affairs program, although it does receive funding from VA, as well as from New York State and the National Institute of Mental Health.” She leaned forward. “Participating in our group will not affect your VA benefits or treatment, nor will it be in any official record.” For those in the group who would be continuing on in the service, that was often critical. Seeking out therapy was still viewed in many quarters of the military as suspect. Talking about feelings was not a high priority for the average CO.
“I apologize for scheduling the first session on Labor Day, but the community center gave me this time slot, and I didn’t want to lose it.” She smiled at them. “I was afraid I’d be the only person here, so believe me when I say I’m glad to meet you all. Why don’t we start by introducing ourselves, and saying a little something about our service.” She looked encouragingly at the older man.
He looked around the circle, knitted up his brows as if he didn’t understand the reasoning behind her request, then shrugged. “Sure. If you think it’s helpful.” He straightened in his seat. “I’m George Stillman. The Third. I’m a doctor and a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard. I was with a forward surgical team outside Mosul.”
“When did you get back, George?”
He smiled a little. “Please. Call me Trip. I hear George and I look around for my father.”
“Oh. I got back from my second tour of duty about two months ago.”
The kid in the wheelchair looked at him oddly. “Three months ago. You were here in June.”
The doctor stared at the kid for a moment, then wrinkled his face into an apologetic smile. “Sorry. We had a death in the family this summer, and I swear it’s thrown my whole sense of time out of kilter.” He tapped his palm. “I’d better start carrying my PalmPilot around again. My wife calls it my portable brain.”
Sarah smiled reassuringly at him before gesturing to the young man. “Would you introduce yourself?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Marine, she thought, just as he said, “I’m Lance Corporal Willem Ellis, of the 5th Marine Division.” He looked down at the prosthetics strapped to his knees. “Formerly of the 5th Marine Division.” He glanced back up at her, then dropped his gaze. “I was only in-country a little over two months when this happened, so I can’t say I saw much traumatizing action.”
“How ’bout when your mother found out you’d enlisted?” Sarah was surprised by the black-clad woman’s accent, a southern Virginia drawl that sounded more out of place up here in the North Country than her own clipped urban consonants.
Willem Ellis laughed at the woman’s remark. “Yeah, I guess that counts as combat. Or at least battle royal.”
“And you are…?”
The woman slouched in her seat. “Clare Fergusson.” There was a pause. Sarah made a go-on gesture. Clare Fergusson sighed. “Major in the Guard, 142nd Aviation Support. Stationed in Ramadi, Tikrit, and Kirkuk.” She took a long drink from her coffee cup. Nothing more seemed forthcoming.
“Aviation support?” Sarah said.
“She flies helicopters,” the brown-haired man said. Before Sarah could ask, he went on, “I’m Eric McCrea. I’m a sergeant. Also in the Guard.”
“Did you serve with Major Fergusson?”
“No.” His gaze slid away from her and came to rest on the doctor. His lip curled up in what might have been a sneer. “I’m an MP.”
“What were you assigned to?” the young woman demanded. “Were you on base patrol? At the Green Zone?”
His lips thinned. “I was on prisoner detail. Camp Bucca.”
Sarah kept herself from reacting, but the rest of the group stared. They had all seen the pictures.
“That figures.” The young woman folded her arms over her generous chest.
“That has nothing to do with it.” Eric McCrea’s cheeks blotched with color. “You think you know what it was like—”
Sarah held up her hands. “Stop right there.” She gave both McCrea and the girl a measured look. “Let’s not go jumping in the deep end before we’ve finished getting our toes wet.” She dropped her hand, opening it to the last person in the circle. “Why don’t you introduce yourself.”
The brunette braced her hands on her thighs. “My name’s Mary McNabb, but everybody calls me Tally.” She looked at Stillman. “Sorta like you, I guess. I was formerly a specialist, formerly in the United States Army.”
“Where did you serve, Tally?”
That got some whistles from the rest. “Mortaritaville,” Fergusson said.
“Yeah, well.” McNabb ran her hands through her short hair.
Stillman snapped his fingers. “Mary McNabb. Fractured left ankle. A car dropped on you?”
McNabb laughed. “I was helping my husband fix it up for resale. I’m impressed you remember.”
Sarah put her hands up again. “Wait.” She looked around the circle. “Do you all know each other?”
They looked at each other. They looked at her. “Yes,” they all said.
“It’s a very small town.” Clare Fergusson’s voice was dry.
Sarah stopped herself before she could ask them to explain. She’d need a clearer picture of their interrelationships eventually, but right now she wanted to focus on opening the first door to whatever issues they might have. “We’ll get into that later,” she said. “I’d like to start by discussing your homecomings.”
MONDAY, JUNE 6
Their dispatcher, Harlene, had managed to get a red, white, and blue WELCOME HOME, ERIC banner printed up and hung from the front of the Millers Kill Police Department. It billowed and snapped in the warm wind gusting up Main Street.
“We gonna have to do the same thing for Kevin, when he gets back?” Deputy Chief Lyle MacAuley squinted in the bright morning sunshine.
The youngest officer on the MKPD had been shipped off for temporary detached duty almost a year ago, first with the Capital Area Drug Enforcement Association in Albany, then with the Special Investigation Division of the Syracuse PD, which saw more major crimes in two weeks than Millers Kill might see in a year.
“Kevin Flynn’s welcome home is going to be a bump up in pay grade, if I can ram it down the aldermen’s throats.” Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne shook his head. “What we really need is another officer on the force. That way, we wouldn’t be overscheduling everybody. I worry that we’re putting Eric back on the streets too soon. A few days ago he was eating MREs and holding down a guard post in Umm Qasr.”
Lyle raised an eyebrow. “I’m impressed. The only place I could name in Iraq is Baghdad, and don’t ask me to find it on a map.”
“I was in that neck of the woods, remember? First Gulf War.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “God, doesn’t that feel like an age ago.”
“It was. I think Eric was finishing up high school. Kevin was probably still in diapers.”
“Hunh.” And Lieutenant Clare Fergusson had been twenty-three. “They probably already have our beds reserved up at the Infirmary.”
“Speak for yourself. I plan to be shot to death by the enraged father of a pair of twenty-year-old twins.”
Russ laughed. Lyle gave him a sideways look. “You hear from the reverend lately?”
Russ’s laugh died away. “A phone call five days ago. The 142nd is still on target to ship home in three weeks.” He tried to smile. “Of course, they were on target to leave last March, too. Until their tour got extended.”
“She should’a gone into the chaplain’s corps instead of air support. She’d have been home by now.” Lyle hooked his thumbs in his duty belt. “A year and a half’s a long time.”
“Oh, yeah.” The longest damn eighteen months of his life, and that included a tour in Vietnam, going cold turkey on cigarettes, and quitting booze. Sitting home night after night, watching the casualty counts mount on the news—hell, giving up drinking again would have been easier. Drinking and smoking.
“How’s she sounding?”
“Like she always sounds. Chipper. Everything’s fine. She’s fine. The weather’s fine.” Russ glanced up at the banner, the granite, the clear blue sky. “You know what the temperature was in Basra that day? A hundred and five degrees. I saw it on CNN.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I can’t decide if she’s so happy flying helicopters again she’s forgotten there’s a war on, or if she’s babying me so I don’t…” He looked at Lyle. “You know how many helos have crashed or been shot down in Iraq since the beginning of the year? Fifteen. You wanna know how many pilots have been killed?”
“No.” Lyle held up a hand. “Stop it, or you’re going to make yourself crazy. Crazier,” he amended. “Eric’s home safe and sound, and your lady’ll get here, too.”
Russ touched the spot where, beneath his uniform blouse and undershirt, Clare’s silver cross rested against his chest. She had given it to him for safekeeping the day she left, and he hadn’t taken it off yet. He might not believe in a god, but that didn’t seem to stop him from putting his faith in superstition.
“Eric.” Lyle’s tone was deliberately workaday. “When I spoke with him, he was hot to get back into investigation, but if you think he needs more time, I can find some desk work to keep him busy.”
“What, running down addresses for check bouncers and updating the evidence lists? The last thing I want is for him to think we don’t need him anymore and head off for better-paying pastures. He’s our best investigator, after you.”
MacAuley touched one bristly gray eyebrow and smirked.
“Don’t look so smug,” Russ said. “Consider the competition.”
“A diamond in an ashtray is still a diamond,” Lyle said with immense dignity.
Which made Russ think of his recent purchase. He hadn’t told Lyle about that. He hadn’t told anybody, yet. What if she turned him down? A fifty-two-year-old widower with a bum hip wasn’t any great prize. His phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket. “Van Alstyne here.”
“His wife says he’s on his way.” Harlene, who had been at the MKPD longer than Russ and Lyle combined, didn’t believe in deferring to rank. “Get in here or you’ll spoil the surprise.”
“We’re coming.” He shut his phone. “Harlene says it’s time to get into the squad room and hide behind a desk.”
“I think she does these surprise parties as an excuse to stuff us with sweets until we can’t move.”
Russ thwacked Lyle on his still-flat belly. “She’s got a way to go with you, then, old-timer.”
Lyle tugged his uniform blouse into place. “I gotta keep my boyish figure. Just in case I find the woman of my dreams hanging around a church or something.”
Eric thought he might never have had a better moment, standing in the squad room, getting roasted by his brother officers. Harlene was squeezing his arm like she was testing to see if he was done, and the big boxed assortment from the Kreemy Kakes diner was on the scarred table where the chief liked to sit, and the old paint was still flaking beneath the windows, and nothing was changed. Everything was the same.
“Good Lord,” Harlene said. “How many chin-ups do they make you do in the army? You feel like you could pick me up, and let me tell you, there’s not many men as could do that.” She slapped her ample hips.
Eric wrapped his arms around her midsection and hoisted her a few inches off the floor. She whooped. “Now, don’t tell Harold,” he said, resettling her solidly on her feet, “but I did it all for you.” In fact, there just hadn’t been anything to do on his off-hours except sleep and pump iron. He’d heard up in the Green Zone, they had round-the-clock computers, and movies, and clubs, but in Camp Bucca, the only diversions were once-a-week access to a staticky phone line and the occasional smuggled-in bottle of hajji juice—Iraqi moonshine that was rumored to be al Qaeda’s secret weapon against the occupancy.
“Jesum, Eric.” MacAuley hitched himself up against one of the desks. “We oughta put you in one of them beefcake calendars.”
Eric laughed. “I’ll have to ask my wife first.”
“Might improve the recruitment rates down to the academy.” Harlene fanned herself.
“Only if you’re trying to get girls and gays.” Paul Urquhart laced his hands across his expansive middle, as if a beer belly were the mark of a real man. The chief frowned.
“How do you know we don’t already have someone gay on the force, Paul?” Hadley Knox picked through a Kreemy Kakes box. Despite her regulation uniform and cropped hair, she looked more like a model in a commercial than a real cop. “After all, we’ve already got a girl.” She ripped a doughnut in half and popped one piece in her mouth. “Come to think of it, I don’t recall ever hearing about you going out on a date.”
Urquhart straightened, quivering with outrage. “I’m divorced! I’ve got kids!”
Noble Entwhistle squinted, concentrating. He wasn’t the fastest runner off the block, but he had a prodigious memory for people and places. “Dr. Dvorak, the ME, was divorced. He’s got grown kids.”
“Yeah, and now he’s living with a big bearded guy.” Hadley leaned toward Urquhart, her brown eyes filled with sympathy. “We’re your fellow officers, Paul. You don’t have to hide who you are with us.”
“That’s enough,” the chief said.
Hadley grinned and bit into the other half of her doughnut.
Eric was laughing into his fist. It was so familiar, so normal and uncomplicated. “Man, I missed this place.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” The chief beckoned to him and stepped away to one of the tall windows. Eric followed him farther out of earshot of the others, who were continuing with jokes at Urquhart’s expense. The chief looked at him, steady, not smiling. “How are you? Really?”
Eric spread his hands. “You’re ex-army, chief. You know what it’s like.”
“Yeah,” the chief agreed, “but I don’t know if what’s going on over there is like Desert Storm or Vietnam.”
Eric thought of the wire. The prison barracks. “It’s not like either of them. I think…” The heat, pounding air and dust and dogs flat beneath it. Patrolling dirty streets down to the scummy harbor. “It’s its own thing. It’s…” The eyes of men, hating on him so hard that if they had had anything—sticks, stones, bottles—he would be dead. He snapped to focus again. Looked at the chief.
“It wasn’t any Caribbean cruise, but I’m okay.” He glanced around at the squad room. “And I gotta tell you, being back here, with all of you guys, is—” He didn’t know what to do, shake his head or nod. “It feels real good.”
“Good.” The chief slapped him lightly on his upper arm. “Look, if at any time you’re feeling stressed out, or if you feel like you need to dial back a bit—”
Eric shook his head. “That’s not going to happen.”
“If it does,” the chief emphasized, “I want you to come to me. You don’t have to give me any details. You don’t have to justify yourself. Just give me the word, and we’ll lighten things up for you for as long as you need it.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Eric said again. And it wasn’t. Home was stressful. Trying to deal with a wife who’d been running everything her way for a year was stressful. Discovering his son had gone from being a sweet, goofy kid to a moody irritable teen while he was away was stressful. Getting back to chasing down bad guys? That was pure gravy.
FRIDAY, JUNE 24
“You here to arrest somebody?”
The man with the fistful of helium balloons next to Russ grinned. “Huh?” Russ’s focus had been on the hangar-sized doors at the end of the armory. He couldn’t decide if staring at the damn things would make the 142nd Aviation Support Battalion appear sooner or not.
The man thumbed toward Russ’s brown-and-khakis. “That’s not the sort of uniform you expect to see here.” He squinted at the MKPD shoulder badge. “Millers Kill, huh? I’m from Gloversville. We used to play you guys at b-ball. You rode us hard for the Class E championship in ’69.”
“I was on that team,” Russ said. “Class of ’70.”
“Me, too!” The man laughed. “Hair down to my nipples and a big ‘Peace Now’ headband I never took off. Who’d’a guessed I’d wind up here waiting for my girl to get back from war?” He bounced his balloon bouquet in the air.
“Yeah. Same here. Well. Not the long hair bit.” Russ clutched the green-paper-wrapped roses he’d gotten from Yarter’s. They’d looked a lot better a few hours ago. How had all those petals fallen off? “The waiting for my girl part.”
A harried-looking woman elbowed her way through the crowd, one little kid on her hip and a six-or seven-year-old dragging along in her grip. “There you are,” she said. “You would not believe how far we had to go to reach a bathroom.” She handed the little one over to the balloon man. “Go to Grandpa, now.”
“Grandpa! Grandpa!” The seven-year-old pirouetted and leaped. “I think I saw the buses!”
The balloon guy—the grandpa—nodded toward Russ. “Turns out I played basketball against this fella in high school. He’s meeting his daughter, too.”
His wife smiled at Russ, amused. “You’d better stop whacking those flowers against your leg or there won’t be anything left for your girl.”
He could feel the tips of his ears turning pink. “It’s not—I’m—” He was saved by the rumble of the buses, bumping over the slow strip into the cavernous building, a sound immediately drowned out by the roar of the waiting crowd.
Russ didn’t join in. He watched the buses maneuvering into place, watched the exhaust rising to the fluorescent lights above, felt the sound and the light rising in him, lifting him off his feet, until he wouldn’t have been surprised to find himself floating through the air like one of those helium balloons.
The buses parked. The doors slid open. Guardsmen started shuffling down the steps, anonymous in urban camo. Was that her? No. Not that one, either.
He suddenly couldn’t stand it, couldn’t stand one more minute of not seeing her; after counting off the seasons, and then the months, and then the days, and the hours, he realized all the waiting had accumulated, and he was going to be crushed beneath it.
Clare, he mouthed without speaking. A stab of pain made him look at his palm. He had driven one of the roses’ thorns through the paper and into his flesh.
The dancing girl had stilled and was looking at his hand. Then she looked up at him. She had hazel eyes and a pointed nose.
“It’s really hard to wait,” he said.
She nodded. “My mommy says count to ten, ten times. She’s a helicopter pilot.”
The little girl reached into her pocket and pulled out a grubby tissue. She handed it to him. “Thanks,” he said, wiping up the blood.
“Pumpkin, I think I see Mommy,” her grandmother said. The girl whirled and danced away. That’s what their daughter would look like, he realized. His and Clare’s.
Then she stepped off the bus. He almost didn’t recognize her. Beneath her black beret, her hair was short, bleached lighter than he had ever seen it, and her face, all points and angles, was deeply tanned. She was looking around, scanning the crowd, her eyes alight with hope and anxiety.
The band struck up a tune, combining with squeals from children and the howls of babies to create an echoing cacophony that guaranteed she wouldn’t hear him call her name if he was standing five feet away instead of fifty. Instead, he willed her to find him. Clare. Clare. Clare.
She paused for a second, closing her eyes, breathing in as if she could taste the far-off Adirondack air above the fog of bus exhaust and machine oil and human sweat. Then she opened her eyes and met his over the heads of the crowd.
Her mouth formed a perfect O, then curved into a heartbreaking smile. She blinked hard and raised one hand, and then she was bumped from behind by the next man in line and stumbled forward.
He watched as she lined up with the rest of the brigade and came to attention. When the last guardsman was off the bus and in formation, the band wheezed to a stop. There was a shuffle of dignitaries and brass at the front, and then the families were welcomed, and a minister gave an invocation, and the CO read a letter from the governor, and the XO gave a speech about the brigade’s accomplishments in Iraq, and Russ thwacked and thwacked and thwacked the roses against his leg, until he looked down to see his well-worn service boot decorated with crimson petals.
Come on already! Come on! What jackass had decided it was a good idea to separate family members from soldiers they hadn’t seen for eighteen months? When he’d come home from Vietnam, he’d just stumbled off a Pan Am flight from Hawaii. Yeah, it wasn’t a hero’s welcome, but at least he got to hug his mom and his sister, not stand at parade rest in front of an officer who sounded like he was running for Congress.
Finally, finally, the official orders terminating the brigade’s deployment were read, and the CO dismissed his command, his words drowned out at the end by a howl of glee from the waiting crowd as they surged forward, mothers and fathers and wives and children, arms outstretched, too eager to wait any longer.
Russ stayed where he was as civilians swept past him. She had seen him. She had marked him. He had no doubt she would find him. Sure enough, there she was, wrestling her way through the crowd, beret stowed in her epaulet, rucksack over her shoulder, the reverse image of the woman he had last seen walking away from him beneath a gray January sky eighteen months ago. Major Clare Fergusson. She kept her eyes on him the whole while, an undeveloped smile on her face. She halted in front of him. Dropped the rucksack to the concrete floor. Looked up at him.
“Promised you I’d come back.” Her faint Virginia drawl sounded out of place against the North Country Yankee burrs and flat Finger Lakes twangs all around them.
She didn’t leap into his arms. They had been circumspect for so long, always standing apart, controlling their eyes and hands like nuns in a medieval abbey. They had no easy familiarity with each other’s body. The two weeks they had been lovers—a year and a half ago, before she shipped out—seemed like a fever dream to him now. The small velvet box he had stuffed in his pants pocket suddenly felt like a five-pound brick.
He thrust the roses toward her. Two more ragged petals fell to the concrete floor. The bouquet looked as if a goat had been chewing on it. She bit her lip, just barely keeping a smile from breaking out. “Why, thank you, Chief Van Alstyne.” She took the flowers in both hands and buried her face in what remained of them. She had tiny lines etched along the outsides of her eyes that hadn’t been there when she left.
“They don’t have much of a scent.” He shoved his hands in his pockets, brushed the velvet box, jerked them out again. “But wait till you get to St. Alban’s. You missed the lilacs, but the roses are amazing. You can smell ’em halfway across the park.”
She looked up at him over the fraying flowers, her smile changing to something wistful. “I can’t wait.”
He stepped toward her just as she bent to reshoulder her rucksack. She let go, opening her arms in time for him to nearly knock her over as he ducked to grab the duffel for her.
“Screw this.” He kicked the canvas sack to one side and took her by the shoulders. “C’mere.” She folded inside his embrace as if she had always been there, and he kept his arms hard around her, his cheek resting on her too light, too short hair. Letting the reality of her, the warmth and weight and solidity of her, sink into his bones.
“Holding on,” she said against his chest.
“Not letting go.”
“I want to go home.” She tipped her face up. “Take me home.”
He smiled. “Petersburg, Virginia?”
She shook her head. “No. Millers Kill, New York.”
The parking lot was throwing off heat like a griddle in the late June sun. He tossed her rucksack into his truck bed and popped the doors. He thought for a second, then slipped the velvet box from his pants to the driver’s seat pocket. He jumped in, ratcheting the AC to full as soon as the engine caught. “Sorry,” he said as she climbed into the ovenlike cab. “I would’ve kept it on for you, but I didn’t want to risk running out of gas. The army doesn’t seem to have changed its hurry-up-and-wait policy since I was in.”
She laughed. “Don’t worry. It’s been so long since I’ve been in an air-conditioned vehicle, I’ve forgotten what it’s like.” She unbuttoned her bulky uniform blouse and stripped it off, revealing a gray T-shirt that stretched across her breasts when she twisted to drop the heavy shirt and the roses onto the narrow backseat. His throat went hot and tight. He shifted into gear and rolled out of the lot.
“Do you—” He coughed to get his voice under control. “Do you want to stop for a bite to eat? I went by the rectory yesterday with the fixings for a couple meals, but I didn’t know what you’d feel like doing. What you’d want to do.”
She stretched her arms toward the vents, which had begun blasting cool air, and closed her eyes. “Oh, Lord, this feels good.” She smiled, still shut-eyed. “Just to be sitting here in a truck without having to wear thirty pounds of Kevlar.” She ran her hands flat-palmed down her T-shirt from her collarbone to her waist, a perfectly natural gesture that nearly caused him to swerve over the centerline.
He corrected with a jerk. Which he was starting to feel like. She had just gotten in from a combat zone, for chrissakes. She still had dust on her boots. She was enjoying the first real freedom she’d had in a year and a half, and all he could do was salivate over her. She’s not a piece of meat, asshole.
He focused on getting up the ramp and into the flow of traffic on the Northway. The only good thing about the battalion’s delay and the interminable ceremony was that it put them on the road after Albany’s rush hour. In his rearview mirror, the Empire Plaza towers caught the setting sun, their marble and steel surfaces almost too bright to look at.
From the corner of his eye, he saw her turn toward him, tucking one leg beneath her. “You’ve gotten back from more deployments than I have.”
“Probably.” Definitely. He’d been in more than twenty years. Funny. He’d thought that would make him more sure of himself, welcoming her home.
“What were the first things you always wanted?”
“A shower.” He didn’t have to think about that one. “A home-cooked meal. A bottle of whisky. Sex.” He felt the tips of his ears pink up.
He felt, rather than saw, her slow smile. “Well. That’s what I want. A shower, Lord, yes. A home-cooked meal. A bottle of whisky. Sex.”
He took a breath.
“And I can’t wait to celebrate the Eucharist again at St. Alban’s.”
He laughed. “I can guarantee you that’s one thing I never considered when coming home.”
“Multifaceted, that’s me.” She touched the side of his face, curved around his ear, traced his jawbone. “What sort of fixins did you put in the fridge?”
He swallowed. “Uh. A rotisserie chicken and a bag of salad.”
She slid her hand down until it rested on his thigh. “Doesn’t sound very home-cooked to me.” Her fingers kneaded his suddenly tense muscles.
“Quick,” he said. “Quick prep.”
“Good.” He heard the snick as her seat belt unlatched. “I’ve waited eighteen months for you. I think I’m about out of patience.” She flipped the console out of the way and slid toward him.
“Buckle up,” he said automatically, and then she wrapped her arms around his chest and shoulders and her lips were on his neck, her tongue flickering along his jaw, her teeth worrying his ear.
He braced against the wheel, arms shaking, trying not to let his head drop back and his eyes close. “Clare,” he got out. “Jesus, Clare…” Her hands were all over him, touching him, unbuttoning his uniform blouse, tugging his T-shirt out of his pants. “What are you doing, you crazy woman?”
She kissed the corner of his mouth. “If you can’t recognize it, it’s been too long.”
He flew through the twin bridges, barely keeping the truck in its lane. “I got it all set up for you at the rectory.” His voice was a grating whisper. “I got candles.”
“I hope they’re in better shape than your flowers.” She pried his belt buckle apart.
He gritted his teeth. “I was shooting for romantic.”
“I don’t need romance,” she said. “You had me at ’Scuse my French.’”
She laughed against the back of his neck, and he laughed, and he said, “God, I love you,” and her hand closed around him and he groaned, laughed and groaned and shook. “Stop.”
She pulled his T-shirt away from his neck and bit into his shoulder. “Do you mean that?”
“God! No.” He thumped the back of his head against the headrest. “I mean yes.” He flapped a hand at her in a half-assed way. “I don’t want to make love with you for the first time in a year and a half in my goddamn truck.”
“I missed you,” she said into his skin. “Oh, my love. I missed you so much.” She stroked him, once, twice, three times. He made a strangled sound in the back of his throat. Exit 14 was coming up fast. He could pull off there. Where could they go? It wasn’t dark enough to park behind—he lifted his eyes to the rear view mirror and saw the whirling red-and-whites behind him.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “Clare, get off me.” He glanced at the speedometer. Eighty miles an hour. He jerked his foot off the gas and signaled to pull over.
Clare looked back over the edge of the seats. “Uh-oh. Is that what I think it is?”
“Sit down and buckle up.” One-handed, he attempted to zip back up and refasten his belt.
“Can I help you with that?”
“I think you’ve helped quite enough, don’t you?”
Laughing, she swung back into her seat and put on her seat belt.
“Christ.” He brought the truck to a standstill and turned off the ignition before stuffing his T-shirt back into his pants. “Let’s hope it’s not somebody I know.”
In his side mirror, he saw the state trooper get out of his car. Russ placed his hands on the steering wheel in plain sight. Clare had hers over her mouth, trying—not very successfully—to stifle her laughter.
The trooper reached Russ’s window and signaled him to roll it down. Russ complied. The trooper glanced into the cab, taking in Russ’s radio and switch light, the lockbox and roses in the back, and Russ’s crumpled uniform blouse, hanging loose over his T-shirt.
“License and registration, please.”
Russ reached for his rear pocket. “I’m retrieving my billfold,” he told the statie. “Clare, will you get my registration out of the glove box?” He waited until she had gotten the slip of paper, then passed both documents through the window.
The trooper studied them. “Sir,” he said, “are you a peace officer?”
Russ sighed. “Yes, I am.”
“In Millers Kill?”
“Can I see your identification, please?”
Russ flipped open his billfold and handed it to the guy. The trooper studied the badge and ID. Looked up at Russ. “Chief Van Alstyne?”
Russ pinched the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses.
“That’s correct, Trooper—” he peered at the man’s name tag—“Richards.”
Richards handed the billfold, license, and registration back to him. “Mark Durkee’s in my troop. He was one of yours, right? He speaks very highly of you.”
Russ couldn’t think of a good response to that.
“Do you know why I stopped you, sir?”
“I was driving fifteen miles over the posted limit with an unbelted passenger in the front seat.”
“Actually, sir, when I first picked you up, you were going twenty-five miles over the speed limit. I’ve been following you for eight miles. You didn’t notice me?”
Trooper Richards looked at Clare, who was doing her best good-soldier imitation. “I see.”
“She’s just gotten back from Iraq,” Russ said inanely.
“Welcome home, ma’am.” The trooper eyed Russ. “I don’t need to lecture you on the importance of safe driving, do I, sir?”
“Or the importance of making sure everyone in the vehicle is properly belted?”
Russ resisted the urge to check his pants to see if anything was still hanging open. “No.”
“Then I trust the next time I make you at eighty miles per hour, you’ll be responding to a call.” He glanced at the radio mount. “You haven’t been on the radio, have you?”
“No.” Russ frowned. “Why?”
“Your dispatcher’s looking for coverage. A bar fight at some place named the Dew Drop Inn. She’s sent one unit out, but she wants another for backup.”
“I’ll get on it. Thanks for the tip.”
The trooper touched his hat. “You have a good night then, sir.” He glanced at Clare. “Ma’am.”
“Thank you, Trooper Richards. I’ll try to see that he does.”
The trooper’s stone face twitched. “After you get him home, please.”
Russ powered up his window as Richards got back into his car. “God.” He pinched the bridge of his nose again.
“What? You got out of a ticket. If I’d been driving it would’ve been two hundred dollars and a point off my license.”
“I’d rather get a ticket, if it meant I wasn’t going to become tomorrow’s coffee break hot topic. Staties are gossip hounds. They make Geraldine Bain seem like a hermit under a vow of silence.” The Millers Kill postmistress was better known for passing on the latest tidbits than she was for handing out the mail. He switched on his radio and unhooked the mic. “Dispatch, this is Van Alstyne, in own vehicle. I understand you’ve got some trouble?”
Harlene’s voice came on immediately. “Chief? What are you doing on the air? I thought you were picking up Reverend Fergusson?”
“I’ve got her right here. What’s up?”
“Brawling at the Dew Drop Inn. Hadley’s on her way, but I thought she should have some backup.”
“Good call.” Knox had graduated from Police Basic a year and a half ago, and she had come a long way, but he didn’t like the idea of a woman alone tackling the lowlifes that frequented the Dew Drop. “Who’ve you got?”
“Paul’s tied down with a three-car accident out past Lucher’s Corners. Tourists. Eric’s in the hospital with a drunk driver.”
“Off fishing somewheres. I left a message for Kevin. He was planning on getting back to town today. I asked him to call me if he can assist.”
“He doesn’t have to report for duty until tomorrow.”
“Tonight, tomorrow, what’s the difference?”
He sighed. “I’m on my way.”
“No!” Harlene sounded scandalized.
He looked at Clare. She nodded.
“I’m on my way. ETA thirty minutes. Let Hadley know.”
“What about Reverend Fergusson?”
He looked at Clare again.
“I guess I can be patient a little longer,” she said.
He keyed the mic. “Reverend Fergusson,” he said, and she smiled at him, as if there were a chance in hell she’d do as he asked, “will wait in the truck. Chief out.”
Love makes people do some pretty dumb-ass things, Officer Hadley Knox thought. In her case, it had convinced her a self-absorbed La-La Land user would make a good husband and father. She had paid big for her mistake; crawling back to her grandfather’s hometown for refuge, taking this pain-in-the-ass job to support her kids.
In the case of the shaved-head army guy in front of her, it had made taking on a small-town thug and his posse seem like a good idea. He had paid for it with a split lip and battered face.
When she arrived at the bar, he’d been getting the worst of it from a group of the Dew Drop’s finest: skinny-shanked guys with ropy muscles and nicotine-stained teeth. The big black guy in camo pants looked like he could have taken on two, maybe even three of them, but five tilted the odds way out of his favor.
Hadley had waded in, rapping elbows and knees with her extendable baton, giving it her best Russ Van Alstyne impression: hard voice, big presence, short commands. A pair of construction-worker types helped her take hold of Soldier Boy and drag him back into the jukebox corner; the locals retreated behind one of the pool tables.
Now, she noticed the soldier kept looking toward a trio of girls backed against the bar. Two of them had long acrylic nails and streaked hair scraped back in Tonya Harding ponytails, but the third was a blunt-fingered natural brunette with a Dutch Boy bob. Short. Practical. Like maybe it fit under a helmet. Tears had smeared the girl’s makeup, but she looked more angry than upset. “Tally, get your ass over here,” a good-looking guy in a Poison T-shirt and steel-capped boots yelled; in response, the girl flipped him the bird.
The soldier lurched forward. Hadley blocked his path. “Sir, you have got to stay here.” The man wiped his bloody nose on the back of his hand and stared over her shoulder. “Sir? Are you listening to me?” Hadley slapped her baton into her palm for emphasis.
The man shrugged off the hands holding him. Hadley nodded to the two guys behind him, letting them know it was okay, even though she was worried it wasn’t. The air in the Dew Drop sparked with the tension of a boxing ring between rounds. “What’s your name, soldier?”
“Nichols,” he said. “Chief Warrant Officer Quentan Nichols.”
“What are you doing here, Chief Warrant Officer Nichols?”
Finally, he focused on her. “You ask that of everybody who visits this podunk town? Or just the black folks?”
She thumbed toward the pool table. In the light cast by the hanging lamp, she could see the good ol’ boys scowling and glaring at the CWO. Poison T-shirt was at the center, speaking fast and low to the guy next to him. “I want to know why that man and his buddies were trying to take you apart.”
“Maybe they’re down on the army.” His eyes darted back to the angry brunette. This guy was a worse liar than her eleven-year-old.
She pointed the baton toward the girl. “You know her?”
Nichols jerked his attention back to Hadley. “We were talking.”
“Uh-huh.” She slapped the baton into her palm one more time. “Stay here.”
She crossed the scarred wooden floor toward the bar, her boots sticking with every second step. She was maybe five feet away from the girl, close enough to read the in memoriam tattoo circling her arm, when she heard the thud of footsteps and the shouts and she whirled to see the locals charging Nichols. Shit! Dumb, sophomore mistake. She should’ve shut those assholes down once and for all before talking with anybody else.
Somebody bumped her from behind, sending her stumbling. She staggered upright, baton at the ready, but it hadn’t been aimed at her. The brunette had joined the melee, punching and kicking at the white boys like Xena, Warrior Princess, while her girlfriends screamed and wailed.
Hadley breathed in deep and bellowed, “Break it up!” One of the construction workers, a fresh-faced blond with pierced ears and impressive muscles, came in on Nichols’s side. Oh, great. Hadley advanced toward the nearest man, baton extended, and whacked him: back of the thigh, side of the arm. He staggered away, howling, but two more roughnecks came off their bar stools in defense of the home team, causing the construction worker’s buddy to wade in, airlifting another guy, who went flying into the jukebox. Shit! Property damage. Hadley advanced again, whacking away with her baton, trying to weigh her blows—pain, not injury, because injury could mean lawsuits—aware that she wasn’t going to be able to stop them unless she reached the ringleader, aware that getting into the middle of the fight would make her utterly vulnerable.
A crack, rifle-sharp, sliced through the meaty thuds and half-voiced curses, bringing every head up for a second, like a pack of coyotes spotting a much larger wolf. “Police!” a man bellowed from the door.
Now or never. Hadley thrust herself into the crowd, driving the butt end of her baton into stomachs. Men folded, retching, around her. She reached Poison T-shirt, grappling with Nichols, and swung the baton with all her might into the small of his back. He arched upward, screaming, and Nichols lunged toward him, knocking Hadley aside, and then there was a tall, lean man blocking the way; yellow letters on a black T-shirt, cropped red hair, and Officer Kevin Flynn was twisting Nichols’s arm around like a pretzel, bringing the soldier to his knees.
“Straps?” he asked, speaking loudly to be heard, and she tugged the plastic restraints off her belt and tossed them to him.
Poison T-shirt was pawing at his back. “You broke something!” She captured one wrist with her cuffs and locked the other one in place. “Didja hear me? Jesus Christ, you broke my friggin’ spine!”
She pushed his shoulder, nudging the back of his knee so he’d get the message. “We will provide transportation to the hospital if you’ve been injured.” He collapsed into a sitting position. “Sir,” she tacked on.
With two cops in the room and the instigators restrained on the floor, the air went out of the balloon fast. Poison’s buddies limped back to the bar and the pool table, clutching their midsections and wiping blood off their mouths. The frosted-blond gal pals tried to drag the brunette away, but she shoved them off to kneel beside Nichols. “I’m sorry,” she said, low, for his ears alone. “I’m so sorry, Quentan.”
“Goddamn it, Tally!” Poison T-shirt made to rise from the floor. “You were supposed to have got rid of him!”
Hadley pushed his shoulder down, harder this time. “Stay seated. You get up again before I tell you to and I’ll cuff your ankles as well.”
He sank back down, glaring at the brunette across the floor.
Hadley gestured to Flynn to step away, out of earshot, trying to figure out what was an appropriate way to welcome a fellow officer back after a year. A fellow officer she had dumped after a very against-the-regs one-night stand.
The earringed construction worker came up to them, grinning and wiping his hair out of his eyes. “Hey, Kev! Haven’t seen you in dogs’ years, man. Where you been?”
“Hey, Carter.” Flynn bumped fists with the guy. “I was away on detached duty. Albany, and then Syracuse.” He sounded older to Hadley. More assured. Or maybe she had forgotten his voice.
“Dude. They put you on a SWAT team or something? You look like you’re ready to blow shit up.”
Flynn did look like a tactical agent, with the black police T-shirt and the many-pocketed pants laced inside a pair of paratrooper boots.
“Badass Officer Flynn,” she said under her breath.
“Yeah. Well.” Flynn’s cheekbones went pink and he rubbed the back of his neck, popping a bicep and a blue Celtic armband. Hadley knew neither the muscle nor the tattoo had been there a year ago. He still looked like a reed next to Carter’s bulk, but he had put on some much-needed weight while he was away. She became aware that she was staring at him.
“So.” She bobbed her chin at him. “Not that I don’t appreciate it, but what the hell are you doing here? I heard you weren’t back on duty until tomorrow.”
“Harlene called me, looking for backup for you.” He glanced to where Poison was rocking back and forth on the floor. “Although it looks like you didn’t really need it.”
She snorted. “Right. John McClane with boobs, that’s me.”
Carter stared at her chest. “Who?”
“Die Hard,” she and Flynn said at the same time. He dropped his eyes to the floor and smiled before looking back up at Carter.
“You know this guy?” Flynn gestured toward the black soldier, who was sitting quietly, bent well forward to take the stress off his shoulders.
“Never saw him before in my life.” Carter dragged his gaze away from Hadley’s chest. “But I know that dipshit.” He flicked a finger at Poison. “We worked together on the new resort before his ass got fired.” Carter shook his head, sending his blond hair swinging. “What a tool. I figured if he was against somebody, I’m for him.”
“What’s his name?” Hadley asked.
“Wyler McNabb.” Carter smiled winningly at her, displaying teeth as dazzling as the diamond studs in his earlobes. “What’s yours?”
“Not Available.” She turned toward Flynn. “Will you find out what McNabb’s story is? I want to talk to her.” The brunette was hunkered down next to Nichols, arguing with him, from the tone and her body language, though Hadley couldn’t make out what they were saying.
Hadley slid her baton back in her duty belt and squatted next to the girl. “Ma’am, I need to talk with you.” Hadley stood up. “Leave your friend for a minute, and let’s go over there where we can have some privacy.” She waited while the girl rose, then steered her toward the dark corner past the jukebox.
“Am I in trouble?” Up close, she was older than Hadley had guessed. Flynn’s age, maybe; twenty-five or twenty-six.
“Let’s try to figure out what happened before we start assigning blame. What’s your name?”
“Tally. Tally McNabb.” She rubbed her hand over her in memoriam tattoo. “It’s really Mary, but nobody ever calls me that except my mom.”
“Okay. Private McNabb?”
“Specialist. But I’m out of the army now. It’s just plain Tally.”
“Okay. Tally. Chief Warrant Officer Nichols there said he was talking to you before the fight started, but you two didn’t just meet tonight, did you?”
Tally shook her head. “We served together.”
“Did Nichols come here looking for you?”
Tally nodded. She looked at her feet. She was wearing red and white high-tops. “He wanted to see me again.”
“Uh-huh.” Hadley glanced over to where Flynn had hauled McNabb off the floor and was questioning him. “Is that your brother, then?”
Tally sighed. “My husband.”
Oh ho ho. “Wait here.” Hadley crossed the floor, now decorated with blood spatters to go with the spilled beer, and gestured to Flynn. “Officer Flynn?”
He laid a hand on the guy’s shoulder. “Sit down.” McNabb did so, groaning theatrically. “I’ll be right back. Don’t move.”
Hadley retreated a few steps to make sure the guy couldn’t overhear them. Flynn closed in, towering over her. He was definitely taller than she had remembered. Either he had grown or she had been squashing him in her mind’s eye. “What is it?” he said.
“What’s his story?”
“He says he works construction for BWI and your girl over there’s his wife. He claims the black guy came into the bar and started hassling her. When he told him to back off, the guy swung on him.”
Hadley nodded. “I got a slightly different take. The one on the floor is Chief Warrant Officer Quentan Nichols. Specialist Tally McNabb says they served together in Iraq and that Nichols came here because he, quote, wanted to see her again.”
“Ah-hah.” Kevin sucked in his lower lip. “Yeah, that does put a different perspective on it. Whaddaya want to do?”
She felt a flush of pleasure. He might be eight years her junior, but he’d been on the force for five of those years, and whatever they’d had him doing in Syracuse and Albany the year he’d been gone, it was clearly more involved than manning the radar gun and making DARE presentations. She had assumed he’d be telling her what to do.
“I think we ought to book both of ’em. That’ll give ’em time to cool off, and make sure the bar owner has an arrest report if he has to make an insurance claim.”
“I’m going to try to gauge how safe the wife feels. Ask her if she wants to file a restraining order.”
“Against which one? The husband or the boyfriend?”
Hadley shrugged. “I dunno.” She almost made a crack about one man being as bad as another, but that wasn’t fair to Flynn. He was a good guy. Too damn good. She had no doubt that beneath the menacing black uniform and the pumped-up bod, he still had the heart of an Eagle Scout. An Eagle Scout who’d been a virgin until he was twenty-four. Until she had nailed him. God.
“Okay, look,” she said, then the door opened. Another soldier, in urban camo and a black beret. This one was a woman, older, and she swung through the door with the ease and command of someone used to stepping in and taking charge.
“Military police?” Kevin said, and then, right on her heels, the chief walked in.
“No.” Hadley started to smile. “It’s her. She’s back.” She waved. “Reverend Clare!”
Clare waltzed into the Dew Drop like she was going to tea with the bishop. No, scratch that. She wouldn’t have been that enthusiastic about sitting down with her superior. Russ lengthened his stride, crunching across the gravel parking lot, and caught up with her inside the door.
He blinked, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness in the entryway. No fighting—at least not at the moment. Clusters of people at the pool table, the bar, half hidden in the darkness of the booths at the back.
Two perps restrained on the floor, bloodied but conscious. Hadley standing at the midpoint between ’em, talking to an officer in tacticals—Russ blinked again. It was Kevin. Twenty pounds heavier and looking like a real live grown-up. Huh. He was going to have to stop calling him “the Kid.”
Clare, he saw, had scanned the scene and was sensibly holding back. Or at least she did until Hadley waved. “Reverend Clare!” Well, she did go to Clare’s church. He could hardly blame her for being happy to see her pastor again.
The two women embraced, but Russ’s attention was caught by the perp in the BDU pants. He had been leaning forward, taking the pressure off his cuffs, but now he sat upright, craning his neck to get a better look at Clare. His expression, beneath the blood from his nose and a cut on his temple, was wary.
Clare was hugging Kevin now, setting the kid’s cheeks on fire. Russ crossed the floor. “Couldn’t wait to get started, huh?” He shook Flynn’s hand. “It’s damn good to have you back again, Kevin.” He slapped him on the shoulder, seeing, as he did so, the blue tattoo twining around his officer’s arm.
Kevin’s eyes followed his gaze. “It doesn’t show in uniform, Chief. I made sure of that.”
“Hmn.” Russ turned toward Hadley. “Knox? Talk to me.”
“Two guys, one gal.” She indicated the sullen white guy on the floor. “Wyler McNabb, the husband. He was here with his wife, Specialist Tally McNabb.” She pointed toward the black soldier. “Chief Warrant Officer Quentan Nichols, the boyfriend, who showed up apparently unexpected by either of the McNabbs.”
“A warrant officer?” Clare looked up at Russ. “May I speak with him?”
“Do you recognize him?” At Knox’s and Flynn’s puzzled expressions, he added, “Most of the army’s aviators are warrant officers.”
“No…” Clare’s expression was thoughtful.
“Then hang on a sec.” He turned to Knox. “Where’s the woman?”
She swiveled. “She was right here a minute ago.”
“You didn’t have her under restraint?”
“No. We figured—” She glanced at Flynn. “That is, I figured there were several individuals involved in the fight, but these two were the proximate cause. Since nobody else was hurt”—she laid her hand on her baton—“or hurt enough to complain to me or Officer Flynn, I thought we should book the two principals and leave it at that.”
She still had a tendency to give information like she was answering a quiz at the police academy, but he had to admit, she was always thorough.
“Go see if she’s in the ladies’ room. Clare?” He tipped his head toward Nichols.
Clare walked over to the man and plopped cross-legged in front of him as if sitting on a dirty barroom floor were something she did every day. “Chief Nichols,” she said, “I’m Clare Fergusson.”
He took a long look at her insignia. “Major,” he said. “I thought you were 31B for a minute there.” 31B? Russ couldn’t help himself, he stepped forward. “Then I heard the officer call you Reverend, but you don’t have any chaplain’s cross on.”
“That’s my civilian job,” she said. “I’m Guard. I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with 31B.”
“I am.” Russ reached down and hauled Nichols into a standing position. “It’s the MOS for military police. Mr. Nichols isn’t an aviator, are you, Mr. Nichols?”
The man shook his head. On his feet, he was several inches shorter than Russ, but he must have outweighed him by ten, twenty pounds of solid muscle. And Kevin had put him down?
“He’s an MP,” Russ said. Clare scrambled up off the floor.
Nichols eyed him. “You army?”
“I was. A long time ago.” Russ held out his hand to Hadley. “Gimme your clip, Knox.” She frowned but fished it out of her pouch. He turned back to Nichols. “Are you going to give me any more trouble if I cut you loose?”
“You don’t have to ‘sir’ me.” Russ snipped the clip through the flexible restraints. “I was a CWO just like you.” He glanced at Clare. “Her, you have to call ma’am, though.” She made a face.
Nichols rubbed his wrists.
“You have any ID?”
Nichols reached for a pocket on the side of his BDUs. “I’m retrieving my billfold.” Russ caught Clare’s flashing look from the corner of his eye.
He took the leather wallet. Twenty bucks. A military police badge. A base ID for Fort Leonard Wood, in Missouri. An Illinois driver’s license with a Chicago address. “You’re a long way from home, Mr. Nichols.” He handed the ID back. “I don’t suppose you’re working a case and just happened to forget to notify the local law enforcement?”
The flat, wary line of Nichols’s mouth widened into an embarrassed grimace. “No.”
“Didn’t think so. Would you care to give your version of events?”
Nichols’s gaze shifted away from Russ. “I’ve been trying to contact Tally—Specialist McNabb—ever since I got back stateside. She didn’t answer my e-mails. Her phone wasn’t working. I decided to take leave and come out here to talk to her in person.”
“Did you know Specialist McNabb was married?”
Nichols kept his eyes straight ahead. “Yes, sir. Chief.”
“And you didn’t think that might be the reason she was ignoring you?”
“She…I was under the impression the marriage was broken, Chief.”
Russ let his silence speak for him.
“It’s not what it sounds like! She wasn’t—” Nichols turned to Clare. “It’s different over there.”
“Yes.” Clare nodded, a small, sober agreement. “It is.”
Russ sighed. “So you came to the Dew Drop—how’d you find out she was here, anyway?”
“Her neighbor gave me a friend’s name and address. The friend told me where I could find her.”
“You flash your badge around to get that information?”
Nichols grimaced. Fresh blood welled out of the cut in his lip. “Yes.” He looked at Russ. “I didn’t set out to do it. It was the only way I could get the neighbor to open her door and talk to me.” His mouth twisted. “I take it seeing a black man on your porch is no common occurrence here in the Great White North.”
Russ opened his mouth. Closed it. “Mr. Nichols, what would you do if a civilian law enforcement officer came onto your post, used his police credentials to question a dependent, and then went to the enlisted men’s club and got into a fight with somebody’s significant other?”
To his credit, Nichols didn’t hesitate. “Arrest him and charge him.”
Russ nodded. “Wait here.” He crossed toward the bar. Hadley met him halfway across the floor, coming from the opposite direction. She looked upset.
“She’s not in the building anymore, Chief.”
“I checked both restrooms. The second bartender says the door to the storage room out back wasn’t locked, because he’d been hauling kegs in and out. Once you’re in the storage room, you can get out through the delivery door.”
Russ huffed in frustration. “Is she trying to get away from Nichols? Or from her husband?”
“Maybe from you,” Hadley said. “She was hanging around the boyfriend, and she sure didn’t seem afraid of her husband. He yelled something about her getting rid of Nichols, after he was in custody, but she ignored him. She only took off after you and Reverend Clare came in. Maybe she thought you were here to haul her away?”
He glanced back toward Nichols. Clare was still standing there. She was speaking to him in low tones that didn’t carry. As Russ watched, she laid her hand on Nichols’s arm.
He shifted his gaze toward Kevin and Wyler McNabb. The latter was still seated on the floor, still complaining loudly about his injuries. “What’d Kevin do to him?”
“I hit him with the baton just above his tailbone.” Hadley indicated the spot on her own back. “I figured it would hurt enough to make him forget about fighting for a while, without causing any real damage.” She frowned. “You don’t think I did, do you? Really hurt him?”
He snorted. “No.” He looked at Nichols again. The chief had settled himself back on the floor, hands open on his knees, the image of compliance. Clare was making a beeline for Russ and Hadley.
“He doesn’t have any place to stay,” she said without preamble. “I was thinking—”
She frowned. “You could at least hear me out.”
“You’re not putting him up at the rectory, Clare.” He held up one hand to forestall whatever half-baked idea she was about to start in on. “Knox, get the address and phone number from the husband. Try to get some friends’ or relatives’ names, too.”
She nodded and strode off toward the guy, one hand still resting on her baton. Clare immediately said, “We can at least help him find a local motel.”
“He’s going to be spending the night in the lockup.”
Her mouth dropped open. “For defending himself in a bar fight? You can’t do that to him.”
He stared at her. “Of course I can.”
She blew out an impatient breath. “You know what I mean. Out here, it’s thirty days’ community service or a couple hundred bucks, but when the army gets wind of it, it’ll mean serious trouble.”
She was right. What was a normal Friday night on the town for a twenty-year-old enlisted kid could be a career killer for a thirty-year-old CWO.
“I didn’t say I was going to charge him, just that I’m going to book him.”
She spread her hands in a what? gesture.
“Look.” He touched her sleeve lightly, drawing her in closer. “My primary concern right now is the woman they were fighting over. She’s taken off, and I don’t know if one, or both, of these guys is a threat to her. Until I can locate her and get some more information, I don’t want to release either of ’em. So I’m going to send Knox out to track her down, and in the meantime, both men can cool their heels in the county jail.”
“You’re not going to book the husband? He started it.”
“What are you, the judge and jury? I’m going to develop facts, Clare. Then I’ll make a decision. That’s how people who think things through do it.”
She made a noise.
He smiled despite himself. “I gotta talk to the owner.” He started toward the bar. She fell into step beside him. He sighed. “Now you’ve seen what all the fuss was about, why don’t you go back to the truck and wait for me?”
“Are you kidding?” She looked around with lively interest. “I’ve never been in the Dew Drop Inn before.”
“For a very good reason. This piss-hole is no place for a—a—”
“Officer? Lady? Priest?”
“A nice Episcopalian.”
The owner, washing glasses behind the bar, looked up at Clare. Then at Russ. Back to Clare. Then to Russ. “Chief.” His balding head dipped in a motion halfway between greeting and warning. “She with that black guy?”
“She’s with me.” Russ spread his hands on the bar. The odor of yeast and wood and wet soapy rag, the smell of his days as a drunk, rose up around him. For a second, he felt the deep, gut-pulling urge for a Jack Daniel’s. He ignored it. “Want to tell me what you saw?”
“That black boy came in, ordered some fancy beer I ain’t never heard of. Told him I got Miller’s, Bud, and Matt’s. He bought a Matt’s and hung out at the bar until Wyler McNabb’s wife came up for another Seven-and-Seven. Then they got to talking. Arguing.”
“You hear anything that went on between ’em?”
The old guy was still eying Clare. Trying to figure her out. “Hell, no. After all these years with that damn jukebox playing, it’s a wonder I can hear a customer order.”
“Okay. Then what?”
“Wyler McNabb saw ’em. Came up, started getting in the boy’s face, with his pack o’ friends hanging off behind a ways. I could tell then and there it was gonna come to trouble, so I called your guys.” He raised his eyebrows. “And this woman shows up.” He shook his head. “Pretty goddamn embarrassing. Back in the day, I woulda run ’em all out with my baseball bat, but nowadays a man can’t protect what’s his for fear the lawyers’ll come after him.”
“Mmn. You want to press charges?”
“Naw. Wyler’s a good customer. Likes to buy a whole round at a time for his buddies. If I find something broke, I’ll just hit him up for the cost next time he’s in.”
“Okay.” Russ hooked Clare’s arm and drew her away. “I need to wrap things up, but—”
A pair of bikers walked up to them. One had a handkerchief where his hair used to be, and the other’s gray beard was so long he had twined the end of it into braids. Screaming eagles and snapping flags covered the fronts of their leather vests. Russ tensed, but they ignored him. “Ma’am?” the bearded guy said. “That lady cop over there said you was just back from Iraq.”
“That’s right,” Clare said warily. “I got home today.”
Both men grinned. “In that case, ma’am, we’d be honored to buy you a drink.”
She raised her eyebrows and looked bemused. “Why, thank you. I’d like that.”
“I don’t know—” Russ started, but Clare put her hand on his arm.
“I think I have time for a drink while you wrap things up, don’t I, Chief Van Alstyne?” She smiled up at him in a particularly Southern way, and that was it—she was off toward the bar, looking fascinated as one of ’em rattled on about how a helicopter pilot had saved his life. As they walked away, Russ could see the regimental and service tags from Vietnam sewn on the backs of their vests. These gray and balding bikers were his contemporaries. His brothers in arms.
It didn’t take him long to finish up. Kevin had driven his Aztek, so Russ had Knox transport both Nichols and McNabb in her unit—Nichols up front, as both a professional courtesy and a precaution against McNabb going after him again.
“I want all the info you have for the wife on Eric’s desk,” Russ told her. “He’ll follow up tomorrow and get her side of the story.” Knox nodded. “Tell the booking officer I want both these guys in a twenty-four-hour hold for D and D, and then he can release them.”
Knox worried her lower lip. “What about McNabb’s back? He’s still complaining.”
“Tell him we’ll take him to the hospital, but first he has to have a full body cavity search.” Kevin, who’d been hovering behind Knox, snorted laughter. “If he accepts on those terms, you’ll know he’s really hurting. If not, ignore him.”
Russ glanced at his other junior officer. “Kevin, we’ll see you at the morning briefing tomorrow.” He pointed to the blue band twining around the kid’s bicep. “You don’t have any other surprises for me, do you? Piercings, earrings?”
Kevin grinned. “Nothing you’ll see, Chief.” Knox glanced toward him, the twist of her mouth suggesting a kind of unwilling curiosity.
Russ shook his head. “Get out of here, both of you.” God, he was old. Old, old, old. Then he turned and saw Clare standing at the bar, laughing at something one of the bikers said, and as he watched she tilted her head back and swallowed the last of a tall glass of peat-brown liquor, her eyes closing, the long line of her throat exposed, and suddenly, in a rush of heat, he didn’t feel old at all.
ONE WAS A SOLDIER Copyright © 2011 by Julia Spencer-Fleming