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Guilt by Association

Gregory Ashe


Published by Gregory Ashe

Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2018 Gregory Ashe


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Chapter 1

February 10

Saturday

9:47pm


Emery Hazard needed to break up with his boyfriend.

As soon as the thought surfaced, Hazard buried it, turning his attention to the sights and sounds flooding his senses. The music in the Pretty Pretty seemed louder than usual to Hazard. Everything seemed worse tonight: the music was louder, the swiveling lights were brighter, Hazard’s headache was angrier, and he was definitely more drunk than usual. Even his dancing—which mostly consisted of swaying in place while his boyfriend, Nico, moved around him—was off. He’d just about broken Nico’s toes when he accidentally took a step.

Nico, aside from a yelp, had borne it all pretty well. He didn’t seem to notice that the music was louder, that the lights were brighter, that Wahredua’s only gay club was somehow worse than normal. Tall, slender, with skin the color of toasted grain and with his shaggy dark hair, Nico didn’t need to notice anything—everybody noticed him, and that was enough. Nico could just dance up on Hazard, peppering the grinding with long kisses that tasted like appletinis, and enjoy life. For Nico, the Pretty Pretty was heaven.

Hazard needed to break up with him.

There it was again, that thought worming its way through the pounding in Hazard’s head. The pounding, too, had gotten worse tonight. Ever since an unfortunate collision with a baseball bat—wielded by the last killer Hazard had apprehended as part of his work for the Wahredua PD—he’d suffered from periods of severe headaches. Over the last six weeks, bruises and abrasions had healed; the gunshot wound to his shoulder and the deep slice across his palm had closed; but the headaches, although they had grown less frequent, persisted. And tonight, they were persisting like a bitch.

Nico, his shirt unbuttoned to the center of his chest, his skin gleaming with sweat, pressed his mouth against Hazard’s, his tongue forcing a path between Hazard’s lips. The kiss was hot, especially in time with the feel of Nico’s muscled body thrusting against Hazard’s. Everything about Nico was hot. He was an underwear model; well, to be fair, he was only a part-time model, and most of the time he was a graduate student in theology who didn’t like to pick up his socks. But he was hot as hell. And kind, Hazard forced himself to remember. Nico was kind; he wasn’t just a pretty boy. And smart. And funny. Not the kind of jokes that made Hazard laugh, not usually, but plenty of people thought he was funny. Plenty of people like—

—not Somers—

—well, plenty of people. And what the hell did it matter what Somers thought, anyway?

As the kiss broke, Hazard took the opportunity to shout over a thunderous bass line, “I’m headed to the bar.” He pointed at his head. “Need to sit down.”

Something flickered across Nico’s face, but it was gone almost as soon as it had appeared. He nodded, kissed Hazard again—more coolly, this time—and as soon as they parted, a crowd of eager, attractive young men surged towards Nico. A second crowd surged towards Hazard, but most of them veered off when they saw his face. The few who didn’t, the few who tried to talk to him, the few who might have thought they had a chance at a dance, bounced off him—one of them, literally.

Propped on a stool at the bar, Hazard nursed a Guinness. He didn’t want it, not really. He definitely didn’t need it. And it sure as hell wasn’t doing anything for his head. What he wanted was to be back home, the lights low, his eyes closed as he listened to a book on tape and waited for the pain pills to kick in. What did he have from the library right now? Munitions of the Spanish Civil War, Small Caliber? Had he finished that one? Large caliber? God, his head.

This was the price of a relationship, though. After his last blow-up fight with Nico, Hazard had been forced to make concessions. No more staying at home on the weekends. That had been the biggest one. Nico, almost a decade younger and far more social than Hazard, thrived at the Pretty Pretty. Yes, thrived was the right word. Nico seemed to come alive here.

From his post at the bar, Hazard watched his boyfriend, glimpsing him through the crowd. Nico danced well. He was sexy in just about every way imaginable. He was kind. He was funny—yes, goddamnit, even if Somers didn’t think so. He was—

Hazard groaned and rubbed a big finger between his eyes, trying to massage away the headache. He was making a list. Jesus, he thought, shoot me now.

This was how it had been with Alec. This was how it had been with Billy. The lists. List after list after list. Pros and cons. Plus and minus. Some lists that went on and on and on, only the good things. And the other lists that he never dared put on paper where Alec might see, where Billy might come across it. But lists. So many goddamn lists. And here he was again; it all started with the lists.

It was all because of the Pretty Pretty. Hazard just needed one weekend of quiet. One night of calm. That’s all—and then things would be all right again. Things would go back to normal.

But Hazard couldn’t quite get free of his own thoughts. It always started with the lists. Every time—well, to be fair, there had only been two—his relationships had gone bad, he’d started the lists way in advance. With Alec, it had been early. Hazard had started the lists before Alec had ever used the belt, back when he just used his hands, when he’d still laugh and pretend it was a joke, when he’d land a slap, when he’d leave a handprint like a neon sign, when he’d growl and say how sexy it was. Even back then, the lists had started.

With Billy too. With Billy, the lists had started—God, what? Eight months ago? Ten? Before Hazard had lost his job. Before he’d left St. Louis and come to Wahredua. Before, and this was the real bitch of it all, before Hazard had suspected, before he had let himself suspect, what was going on between Billy and Tom. Tom was just a friend. Tom was just a good friend. Sure, Billy and Tom were close, but Billy had lots of close friends. Sure—sure, sometimes Tom stood a little too close. Sure, sometimes, after parties, when Hazard had had too much to drink, sure, sometimes there were fights about Tom. But he hadn’t known. God, he hadn’t suspected, hadn’t even let himself think those thoughts all the way to their conclusion. And before any of that, he’d started with the lists.

Hazard rocked his glass of Guinness, unsure if he could stomach any more of the dark liquid. Like chewing a sponge, that’s what it felt like tonight. Normally Guinness was his drink of choice, but tonight—it had to be his head. The music had gotten louder if that were possible, and the pounding in his head was off-beat. Hazard didn’t want to be here. There. He’d managed to think it to himself, which was one step closer to saying it out loud. Hazard never wanted to be here.

And Hazard wouldn’t be here, he wouldn’t have had to give up every weekend if he hadn’t fought so hard about the apartment. The fight had dragged on close to eighteen hours—not steady going, but on and off. Hazard hadn’t wanted to move. He’d liked his place, the place he shared with another detective, John-Henry Somerset, his partner. Somers. He hadn’t wanted to move.

Fast forward, and here Hazard was: he’d lost the fight about the apartment, and he’d lost his weekends too. He dug his finger deeper into his forehead, as though he could punch through the bone and massage away the worst of the ache. Just shoot me, he thought again. A list, a fucking list all over again, just shoot me.

Things were going to turn out the same, a dark voice told him. Things were going to get worse. It was a matter of time. It was only, always, exclusively a matter of time before they saw—

—the real Emery Hazard—

—whatever it was inside him that had made Alec reach for the belt, that had made Billy reach for Tom, that was going to make—

“Nico is looking good out there.” The voice was familiar: catty, warbling, a contrived lisp on the only S. Marcus, dressed in a sleeveless t-shirt and cut-off jeans in spite of the February cold, slumped against the bar next to Hazard. “Better be careful.”

“Go away, Marcus.”

Marcus sniffed. “I’ll tell Nico.”

“Tell him whatever you want.”

Marcus stayed right where he was, swishing his hips to the beat, and Hazard could feel the younger man’s eyes on him. “He’s got good taste,” Marcus said. With a twirl of his wrist, Marcus traced a finger down Hazard’s arm.

“Keep that up and you won’t be able to use that hand for a month.”

“You’re always so mean to me.” Marcus sidled closer. He had finally shaved his ridiculous mustache, and he wasn’t a bad-looking guy, even if he wasn’t Hazard’s type. His hip bumped into Hazard, and then again, and then again as Marcus swayed to the music. “I could be really nice to you. Nico wouldn’t mind. We’ve shared before.”

“Get lost.”

“Let me blow you.”

“I’ll say it a different way: fuck off.”

“Only if you’re doing the fucking,” Marcus hissed, arching an eyebrow.

Hazard got to his feet, and Marcus must have finally caught a hint because he scuttled backward, his eyes wide.

“This isn’t smart, Marcus.”

He must have expected something else because fresh confidence rushed into his face. “If you think Nico will be mad, I promise, he won’t. We’ve—”

“I don’t care. I don’t care if the two of you fucked your way through City Hall together. You think I don’t know what this is about? You don’t like me. Fine. No, don’t try to deny it. You think I don’t remember back at Christmas when you called Nico and tried to rat me out?”

“You were—I thought maybe the two of you—”

“Bull. Shit. You like stirring things up. And now you’re doing it again. If I say yes, you run straight to Nico with a story about how I’m cheating on him. If I say no, you run straight to Nico with a story about how mean I am, how I can’t take a joke, how I’m boring, how he deserves so much better. How am I doing?”

The change in Marcus’s expression was immediate and remarkable: his eyebrows knitted together, his mouth thinned into a line, and he bit his lower lip so hard that it turned white under his teeth. “You aren’t good enough for him. You’re—you’re a phony. You’re a joke, that’s what you are. You’re one of those butch gays who thinks he’s better than everybody else. Repressed. You’re trying to play it straight, but you moan like a bitch when Nico’s inside you. Yeah. He told me. He told me how you screw up your face when he really sticks it to you, just like a good bitch—”

It wasn’t really a punch, but Hazard’s fist was closed, so maybe it technically counted as one. It was more like knocking on a door. He rapped the side of Marcus’s head, that was all. Sure, maybe it was a hard knock. Harder than Hazard knocked on a normal door. But it was still just a knock.

Marcus staggered sideways. He clutched at the bar, but wood and metal slipped out of his grip, and he hit the ground. He scrambled to his feet again, and he didn’t seem to know what to say or do. He just stood there, frozen, eyes wide. Hazard guessed nobody had ever hit him before.

“Run,” Hazard said in his best cop voice.

Marcus ran.

When Marcus had disappeared into the dance-floor crowd—there would be hell to pay when Nico heard about it; Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, there’d be hell—Hazard dropped back onto the stool. Party boys watched him, their expressions a mixture of shock at the outburst of violence and persistent interest, but Hazard ignored them. In a matter of minutes, they went back to dancing and drinking and humping, although plenty of them still turned eyes toward Hazard now and then. He ignored them. His headache was worse than ever, and now his knuckles throbbed with heat. He slid the Guinness across the bar, but he couldn’t bring himself to take a drink. Thick as a fucking sponge tonight. He was done drinking. Throwing up—throwing up a lot, in fact—was climbing his to-do list.

“Don’t tell me,” a voice said. “He bought you the wrong drink.”

The man was tall, well-built, dressed in a sports coat and tie that made him look sexy instead of officious. He had the classic good looks of a politician—of a Kennedy, for that matter—the kind of good looks that run straight through the bloodlines at Yale and Harvard. Dark hair in a conservative cut, strong jaw with a cleft, muscular without being a meathead. He probably rowed. He probably played squash. He probably owned a polo horse. Outside of the Pretty Pretty, Hazard would have hated him. Inside—well, inside, Hazard suddenly found his head wasn’t hurting quite as bad. It was hard to focus on a headache when a perfect smile flashed your way.

“He thought I wanted a Bud Lite,” Hazard said, not quite sure why he said it.

That perfect smile glowed about ten degrees brighter. “That was stupid of him. You’re obviously a—” The man paused. His dark eyes darted to the half-drunk Guinness and then to Hazard. “You’re obviously an Old Fashioned man.” He tipped a hand at the bartender and then moved into the empty seat next to Hazard.

Hazard raised an eyebrow. “You saw what happened to the last guy.”

This man laughed, and even his laugh sounded like it had cost a couple of grand. “I like taking chances.”

“There’s no chance here, buddy. I’ve got a boyfriend.”

“I don’t mind talking. Half of the guys out there look like they’re still in college, and about seventy-five percent look like they’re trying to find a daddy.” His eyes were almost smoking as he studied Hazard. “Boyfriend, huh? Not that guy you gave a concussion, I hope.”

“No, he’s—oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Across the room, Hazard watched another guy shove his tongue down Nico’s throat.


Chapter 2

February 10

Saturday

10:04pm


Hazard didn’t really think about clearing a path across the crowded dance floor. He was out of his seat, charging across the room before he had a chance. He didn’t think about a lot of things. He didn’t think about his headache. He didn’t think about the need to toss his cookies. He did think, briefly, of Billy. He did think, slightly longer, about Tom. In his head, in his fantasies, his fist connected with Tom’s nose, cartilage crumpling, blood hot between his fingers. Then he only had room in his head for the snapshot he’d seen. It had lasted only a moment before the crowd closed again, but it had been clear: Nico pressed against another guy, making out like a horny teenager.

To Hazard’s credit, even though he didn’t think about clearing a path across the room, he still managed to do it well. Some of it came down to his hard, efficient shoves that sent gay boys sliding out of his way. Most of it, though, was what Somers would have called pure Hazard: a brooding, hulking thunderstorm of dark hair and muscle. Dancers hurried to get out of his way. They damn well scurried.

And then the crowd parted. Nico was fending off a guy who looked like he was trying his hardest to pry Nico’s mouth open with his tongue. Hazard shoved the guy. He had an impression of the guy, just a flash, but the guy was clearly frat material: hair buzzed down on the sides, long on the top; a red tank top that showed just how much time this guy spent toning and flexing and grooming; and expensive sneakers that probably cost more than Hazard’s car.

“What the hell is going on here?”

“Nothing,” Nico said, drawing his hand across his mouth, the movement reflexive and furtive and guilty.

“Yo,” the frat boy yelled. Yo. That’s what he said, not ironically, not mockingly, but like he meant it, like that was the only word he knew. “Yo, what the fuck?”

Hazard ignored him and spoke to Nico. “It didn’t look like nothing.”

“It was a misunderstanding. It was—” Nico’s shoulders curved inwards, and he dropped his hand. It looked like it took a lot of effort, prizing his hand away from his mouth, and he couldn’t look Hazard in the eyes. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s go, all right?”

“Yo, motherfucker,” the frat boy said. He walked like an ape. He walked like he was all shoulders, and Hazard saw the punch coming about five years before the frat boy threw it. When it came, Hazard moved, and the punch went past his chin.

Hazard caught hold of the frat boy and tossed him before the guy even knew what happened. Five yards. Six if you counted where he stopped sliding. Hazard rolled his shoulders, conscious of a new ache; he was getting old.

Frat boy was picking himself up.

“Stay down,” Hazard said. He turned back to Nico. “Why should we leave? We’re having a nice time.”

“Emery, come on, we’ve got to go, he’s—look out!”

This time, the punch was wild. Frat boy, red-faced and swearing, swung his hands like he was trying to catch flies. Hazard ducked one punch, bobbed out of the way of another, and planted his fist in frat boy’s solar plexus. With a wheeze, frat boy collapsed.

“He wasn’t doing anything wrong,” Nico said. “He didn’t know, goddamn it.”

The music continued to pound, but around them, the dancing had stopped. In spite of the throbbing beat, the space was dead. The Pretty Pretty’s patrons stood and watched. Two of the bouncers were working their way through the crowd, and Hazard knew they only had moments before they were dragged out of the place—and, if he were really, really lucky, banned for life.

Frat boy had gotten to his knees. A long strand of saliva hung from his mouth. He was still wheezing, but it sounded like more of the air was reaching his lungs now. He looked like he didn’t know what time zone he was in. Hazard walked towards him.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Nico shouted, and it took Hazard a moment to realize Nico was talking to him.

“Getting that guy off your ass.”

Nico glanced around. It was hard to tell in the darkness and with his complexion, but he might have been flushed. “He’s just some drunk jerk-off. I don’t need you to do that. He can’t even stand—Jesus Christ, Emery, I’m talking to you. Stop. You can’t do that.”

Inside, Hazard was thinking, he isn’t Billy, and that isn’t Tom, and whatever the hell is going on you’d better get a hold of yourself fast, but it didn’t matter what he told himself. He was thinking of Billy. He was thinking of Tom. He could practically see Tom, see his face overlaying the frat boy in front of him, the two faces swimming together in his vision. And he heard himself say, “Yes. I can.”

The frat boy was trying to pick himself up. Hazard looked at Nico. Then he looked at the frat boy and planted his heel in the center of frat boy’s back. He shoved down hard enough that he heard frat boy’s jaw click against the floor even over the music.

“Stay down,” Hazard said.

Nico, shaking his head, said, “You’re unbelievable.” He pushed his way into the crowd.

Over the heads and shoulders of the crowd, Hazard saw Marcus emerge, as though sliding out of nowhere, and enfold Nico in a hug. The bouncers came next, ignoring Marcus and Nico and beelining for Hazard. Hazard watched as Marcus urged Nico towards the door. He was holding Nico’s hand and speaking into his ear. They were gone, vanishing out of the club before Hazard could take a second step.

“Let’s get some shots out here,” a familiar voice called from the bar. The guy in the suit and tie jerked a thumb at the bottles lining the wall. “On me until the first guy pukes.”

The stillness broke. Many of the men surged towards the free drinks. A handful picked up frat boy, still limp and floppy, and dragged him away. Some of the boys—Hazard noticed that they were exclusively young, with the kind of gleaming skin that vanished around twenty-two or twenty-three—clustered around Hazard. They grabbed at his arms, his ass, his crotch, and they talked over each other, telling him how brave he was, how hot it had been to see him trash the frat boy, what they’d do to Hazard if he gave them half a chance.

At the bar, the guy in the suit and tie tipped a shot glass at Hazard—an invitation, or perhaps a salute. Or perhaps, Hazard thought when he glimpsed the man’s smile, a kind of commiseration.

“Detective Hazard,” one of the bouncers said, as the two big men finally worked their way through the last of the crowd.

“Are we going to have a problem?” the second one said. They looked like they came as a matching set: bald, tall, and built like cement trucks.

“I’m leaving. Anyway, he took the first swing. You tell Bradley that. Tell Will Pirk too.” The Pretty Pretty’s manager and owner weren’t Hazard’s friends by any means, but Hazard knew he had enough status as a local celebrity to buy him some wiggle room.

“Are you walking out of here?” the first bouncer said.

“I’m walking.”

“Will might ban your ass,” the second bouncer said. “Doesn’t matter who you are.”

“Tell him not to do me any favors.”

Hazard worked his way free of his clinging admirers, gave the man in the suit and tie a last glance—he was still watching Hazard, and his interest was obvious—and found his way out of the club. The February air was cold. Dead cold. It snapped into his lungs like a rubber band, and the shock doubled Hazard’s headache. At least it was cold, though. At least it smelled clean. It didn’t taste like sweat and vinyl and a hundred different colognes. It tasted sweet like car exhaust and sweet like upper-crust snow.

Nico and Marcus huddled at the end of the block, with Nico facing the length of the sidewalk, staring right at Hazard, and with Marcus between them like a bodyguard. Hazard’s steps sounded like explosions. It’s the cement, he thought. It’s frozen. That’s why I’m hitting it so hard. I wouldn’t walk like this. I never walk like this.

“Move.”

“Fuck you,” Marcus said.

“I’m not telling you again.”

“Stop it,” Nico said. His eyes were red, but he wasn’t crying. The cold, maybe. And that must have been why he hunched his shoulders, why he was practically folded in on himself.

“I’m not going to stop it. Not until he gets lost.”

“See?” Marcus said in a harsh whisper. “This is what I’m talking about.”

“Emery,” Nico said, “just stop. You’re being a jerk.”

“I’m being a jerk?” Hazard’s head was pounding. Not a drum. Nothing like that. It was bigger. Much bigger. Like somebody standing inside an abandoned freighter with a jackhammer and giving it hell. That kind of huge. “Some guy’s got his tongue down your throat—”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Some guy’s got his tongue down your throat, and I get him off you—”

“You’re an asshole.”

“And I get him off you, and somehow I’m the jerk. That’s it, huh?”

Nico didn’t say anything; he was staring out of those red eyes like he’d gone to a week’s worth of funerals, but he wasn’t crying. Marcus didn’t say anything either, but he looked pretty happy, pretty goddamn happy, like he was watching Hazard eat shit by the shovelful.

“I’m staying at Marcus’s tonight.”

“You’re fucking kidding me.”

“No. I’m not. We can talk about this tomorrow. Marcus, let’s—”

“You’re not going home with him.” Hazard took a step forward, knocking Marcus aside, barely even feeling the impact. Seizing Nico’s arm, he yanked him a step towards his old VW Jetta. “You’re coming home, and we’re going to talk about this like adults whether you—”

The blow to his head wasn’t that hard, but combined with the headache, it felt like it had cracked Hazard’s skull. He had the dizzied worry that somehow the punch had collided perfectly with the still-healing fracture and his brains were sliding out the back of his head. Hazard lost his grip on Nico and staggered.

By the time he’d pulled himself half-upright, Marcus had an arm around Nico and was hustling him down the block. Hazard watched them go, partly because his bell had just been rung like fucking New Year’s and partly because he had absolutely no idea what to do. After fifteen yards, Nico stopped and looked back.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said, his voice so thick that Hazard barely understood the words. Or maybe that was the headache again. Or maybe something was really wrong, something inside Hazard’s head. Aphasia. That’s what it was called. When words didn’t make sense anymore. That’s how it felt, tonight. Like they were talking nonsense at each other, and Jesus, how had it all gone sideways?

Emery Hazard thought he might have an answer, but before it could fully materialize, he dropped forward and sicked up all over his shoes.


Chapter 3

February 11

Sunday

11:15am


The phone’s ringing went through Hazard’s skull like a couple of inches of good steel. One minute he was asleep. The next, awake and feeling like someone had shoved a spear through the back of his head. It went on for a long time. Then it went quiet. Later, it rang again. A fragment of memory—not for us, the flashing bronze, was that Homer?—because the noise was like the blade of a fucking spear going into his brain. And then, again, blessed silence. The pillow, he thought drowsily as he tried to sink under the headache and into the gray stillness of sleep, smelled like Nico.

For a while he was there again, inside that grayness, while a part of his brain recycled the past night. The hammering music inside the Pretty Pretty. The smell of sweat and superheated lights and Guinness. Nico pressed against him—no, Nico across the room, far off, while Hazard talked to Marcus. No, to the hot guy in the jacket and tie. No, to the bouncers. And through it all, that mixture of headache and bass line, pounding, pounding, pounding—

Pounding on the door. Hazard jerked free of the tangled bedding. Immediately, he regretted it. The headache surged back to the front of his head, and he had to steady himself against the nightstand. The clock marked a bleary eleven. Whoever was knocking was really going to town.

“Just a minute,” Hazard shouted.

Pants. And a shirt. But he had no memory of where anything had ended up last night, and he came up with a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. The shorts fit. The shirt didn’t. It had to be Nico’s, but it felt like a child’s. A child’s small. Jesus, maybe an infant’s. It was choking the life out of Hazard.

And somebody was still trying to pound down the door.

Squeezed into the tiny shirt—had Nico bought it for a nephew? what the hell was it doing on the floor?—Hazard stumbled to the door and glanced through the peephole. Groaning, he turned back to the bedroom.

“I can hear you,” Somers called from the other side of the door.

Hazard kept going.

“I’ll keep knocking.”

Hazard kicked aside Nico’s empty laundry basket. His toes caught in the plastic mesh, and he swore as he ripped them free.

“I’ve got Big Biscuit.”

At the bedroom door, Hazard stopped.

Somers had gone silent. Even without seeing Somers, even with a solid door between them, Hazard knew the bastard was smug. Probably grinning. Hazard knew he should go back to bed. He should take one of those pills for his head and pull the covers over his eyes and just go back to bed, and when he woke up, he’d call Nico, and he’d figure out what he’d done wrong last night, and he’d apologize the way he’d apologized to Billy, the way he’d apologized to Alec. He’d eat the same old shit out of this shiny new bowl. That was it. He’d just get into bed and ignore Somers. He’d—

By that point, he’d already unlocked the front door.

“Took you long enough—Jesus God, what are you wearing?”

“Shut up.”

Somers, a plastic carryout bag hanging from one hand, appraised him. And it was exactly that: pure, fucking appraisal. Somers was hot. He was runway hot, swimsuit hot, blond and golden-skinned, even in the middle of winter, fuck him, and with eyes like Caribbean waters. Today, like every day, he managed to look like he’d just rolled out of bed—and like he hadn’t been alone. His button-down was rumpled, his jacket was askew, his hair had that perfect messiness that made Hazard itch to run his hands through it. And he was still standing there, still appraising Hazard like he might buy him at auction. Now there was a thought. Hazard barely suppressed a second, very different kind of groan.

“What happened?”

“Give me the food.”

“You look like shit.”

Hazard tried to shut the door; he blamed his headache and hangover for the fact that Somers still managed to sneak inside. As Somers always did when he came to Nico’s apartment—Nico and Hazard’s apartment, Hazard amended—he made a show of considering the mess. Nico’s clothes, Nico’s books, Nico’s shoes, Nico’s latest shopping. There were about three square inches of space that weren’t covered by something that Nico owned.

Somers went straight to the table and shoved a pile of unmatched socks onto the floor. Then, after a moment’s consideration, he shoved a stack of textbooks.

“Hey.”

“I’m messy.”

“Please don’t start.”

“I know I’m messy.”

“Somers, I’ve got the worst headache, and I’m tired, and I—”

“I mean, I know I’m messy. I know that’s why you moved out. One of the reasons.”

Hazard gave up and waited for the rest of it.

“But this,” Somers gestured at the chaos—he paused, Hazard noted, when he saw a stack of some of Nico’s more provocative underwear. Hazard shoved them under one of the sofa cushions.

“Pervert.”

Somers, smirking, continued, “But this is insane. It’s like you’re living in a dorm. Or a frat. And as much as you might have enjoyed close quarters with all those rich, athletic boys, sharing showers, dropping towels, a few playful wrestling moves turn into something not quite so playful—”

“Somers, I swear to Christ.”

“—you’ve got to admit you don’t like living like this.”

“Are you done?”

“Finished.”

“You’re sure?”

“Perfectly.”

“Because if you’ve got more jokes, get them out now.”

Somers spread his hands innocently.

“Any more comments about my—” He had been about to say boyfriend, but the word stuck in his throat. For once, his hesitance to acknowledge his relationship with Nico had nothing to do with how he felt about Somers. “—about my apartment?”

“It’s not yours.”

“Jesus.”

“I’m just saying, it’s not. It’s Nico’s.”

“You’re a real piece of work.”

“I mean, I get it. You’re living here now. But it’s not like that’s going to last forever.”

The last words struck home hard. Hazard dropped into a seat at the table, head in his hands.

“Hey, what’s going on?”

“Nothing.”

“Ree, I was just teasing. Well, mostly. I mean, this place is a mess, but I’m not trying to—come on. What’s going on?”

The pounding in Hazard’s head had gotten worse. He needed one of those pills, but he couldn’t drag himself out of the chair. Not yet. Just a minute, he just needed a minute.

“All right,” Somers said. “Your hair is all loose and wild and sexy barbarian, which means you either just finished banging one out with Nico or you haven’t showered yet. You’re wearing a shirt that’s about eighteen sizes too small, and those gym shorts—well, you’re going commando, buddy. So again: either you just nailed Nico the wall, or you’re—” Somers whistled. “You’re hungover.”

“I’m not hungover.”

“You are. You had a fight with Nico. You got plastered. You’re wrecked.”

“You don’t have to sound so goddamn happy about it.”

Neither man spoke for a moment. Then Somers touched the back of Hazard’s neck, and Hazard flinched.

“He hit you? That motherfucking piece of shit put a hand on you?”

“What? God. No.”

“You’ve got a bruise about a mile long back here. Doesn’t he have any fucking brains? Didn’t he even think about the fact that you’re still healing, that you shouldn’t even bump your head, let alone—and the little bitch hit you from behind, didn’t he? Where is he?” Somers hadn’t moved, hadn’t raised his voice, hadn’t so much as lifted his fingers from Hazard’s neck. But it was like someone else had come into the room. It put a shiver down Hazard’s back. And deep in his brain, at the surface of conscious thought, he realized he liked it. “Where is he?” Somers asked again. “That’s all you have to say, just tell me where.”

“You’re acting crazy.”

“All right. All right. You don’t say anything. You don’t have to say anything.”

“You’re out of your damn mind. Will you stop acting like this?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ll find him myself.”

“John-Henry, will you sit down and listen to me?”

Somers fell back into his seat. They sat that way for a moment, neither of them speaking, both watching the other as though seeing something new. Hazard had grown up in Wahredua. He had grown up hounded, persecuted, tormented by the man who sat in front of him. He had come back to this place, to this town he hated above all else, unwillingly, and he had found himself partnered with a man he had hated for most of his life—hated and, even worse, been attracted to. And instead of the bully, instead of the thug, instead of the cocky football star, he’d found an intelligent, funny, skilled detective who had wanted to make the past right. It hadn’t hurt that Somers had grown up to be the kind of hot that, in a cartoon, would have made the mercury in a thermometer shoot up so fast the glass exploded. Somers’s hand was still on the back of Hazard’s neck. His fingers felt good there. They raised a strip of goosebumps down Hazard’s chest.

“I’m listening.”

So Hazard told him.

“He’s just not that kind of guy,” Somers said with a shrug.

“What kind? And don’t say something asshole-ish. Don’t say he’s not the kind that’s mature or something like that.”

“Me? I meant he’s not the kind that likes jealousy.”

“I’m not jealous.”

“You beat up a guy for kissing your boyfriend.”

“I didn’t beat him up. You make it sound like I’m in eighth grade.”

“In eighth grade, you were so scrawny you could barely hold a pencil.” Somers smirked. “Well, I guess you were definitely strong enough to hold your pencil, if you get what I—”

“I get it.”

“I meant your dick. That’s what I meant by pencil.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“Not everybody likes jealousy. Some people get off on it. Some don’t mind—they might appreciate it, but they aren’t looking for it. And some people don’t like it. Hate it, even.”

“I’m not jealous.”

Somers fixed him with a look.

“All right, I shouldn’t have hit that guy.”

Somers waited.

“I definitely shouldn’t have thrown him.”

Somers shrugged.

“And I should have let Nico handle it.”

“Yeah, well, you definitely shouldn’t have done that.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“What did you mean?”

“I’m an idiot, all right? Stuff just comes out of my mouth sometimes.”

“You meant something. You—” Before Hazard could finish, his phone buzzed. He pulled it out, and a message from Nico showed on the screen. I’m staying at Marcus’s place for a few more days. Can you tell me a time you’ll be out of the apartment so I can pick up a few things?

“What?” Somers said.

Hazard dropped the phone on the table. Picking it up, Somers read the message. His eyebrows shot up, but he didn’t say anything.

“Don’t.”

Somers put the phone back on the table.

“Don’t fucking say you’re sorry. Don’t act like you’re not thrilled. Don’t act like this isn’t what you wanted.”

It took a moment before Somers answered, and when he spoke, his voice was carefully neutral. “I didn’t want you to get hurt.”

“Well, I didn’t.”

And it sounded so pathetic, like such an absolute, flat-out lie, that Hazard was blushing as soon as it was out of his mouth, and he was grateful Somers didn’t even acknowledge the words.

“Let’s eat. You’re hungover. Your head hurts. You need food.” Somers unpacked the clamshell containers of takeout from Big Biscuit, and then he touched the back of Hazard’s neck again. “You’ve got to eat something. And you need a drink. Water, I mean. Lots of it. And those pills for your head, have you taken any today? Christ, of course you haven’t.”

Hazard knew he should get up. He could grab plates and forks. He could pour a glass of water. He could clean the rest of this shit, Nico’s shit, so there’s was actually a decent space to eat. He didn’t, though. He barely had the energy to turn the phone face-down so he didn’t have to see that damn message any longer.

“Here.”

Hazard swallowed the pills dry, and then a cool glass was pressed into his hand.

“Drink.”

He drank, and when he’d finished, Somers opened the clamshells. Steam wafted off home fries, eggs over easy, and biscuits the size of dinner plates. Buttery, flakey, pillowy biscuits. Hazard waited for the smell to turn his stomach, but he was surprised that instead, he was hungry.

They ate, and as they ate and as the pills took effect, the worst of the pain—both emotional and physical—started to pass. It wasn’t gone. It wasn’t even close to gone. But it got better, and the world didn’t seem like one big turd waiting for the flush. At least, not completely. Not—

—with Somers there—

—while the biscuits lasted.

It wasn’t until Hazard had dragged the last home fry through a smear of ketchup that he noticed the third clamshell. Reaching over, he popped it open, and three delicate slices of strawberry french toast met his eyes.

“Are you shooting for three hundred?” Somers asked as Hazard speared the french toast and dragged it towards him.

“Screw you.”

“You’re not going to fit into your pants.” A smile crinkled Somers’s face, and it was so boyish, so genuine, that for a moment Hazard forgot about Nico and forgot about his cracked head and forgot, even, about the french toast dripping strawberries down his wrist. “You can barely fit into your shirt as it is.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“An idiot who made you smile.”

“I didn’t smile.”

Somers’s grin got bigger.

“All right,” the blond man finally said, shoving away the rest of his food. “We’ve got to think strategically.” Hazard barely heard him; a half-eaten biscuit was staring back at Hazard. Half. Half of one of those perfect, heavenly creations. Half just tossed aside, like Somers was going to throw it in the trash. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” Somers said, knocking the styrofoam container towards Hazard. “Just eat it before you choke on your own spit.”

Hazard did.

“They’ll have to order one of those shipping containers to bury you.”

“I’m recovering. I need to build up my strength.”

Rolling his eyes, Somers said, “Here’s what we’re going to do: you’re going to take a shower. I’m going to make some phone calls. Then we’re going to do it.”

The biscuit went sideways in Hazard’s throat, and he began to choke. When he’d managed to clear his windpipe, he said, “What?”

A rakish grin peeled back the corners of Somers’s mouth.

“You did that on purpose,” Hazard grumbled. “Going to do what?”

“Get Nico back.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in. “No.”

“Come on.”

“No. Whatever this is,” he gestured at the phone, “however it works out, it’ll be fine. I don’t need you—”

“Do you want him to break up with you?”

Hazard hesitated. Yesterday, at the Pretty Pretty, he would have said yes. But now—now things were different. Facing into the loneliness, facing into the abyss, Hazard found himself unsure. Things were good with Nico. Things had been really good. So they’d had a fight. So they’d had one little fight. All they had to do was work it out, figure where things went wrong, and things would be good again.

A little voice in his head, though, asked if that were true, then why hadn’t he answered Somers yet?

“That’s what I thought,” Somers said. “So we’ll take it from the top: flowers, a card, reservations at Moulin Vert. I bet if I ask, Cora will call him and get him to meet you there. She’s good with people, she really is. And we’ll have you dressed to the nines, and that poor boy won’t know what hit him.” Somers’s grin tightened. “You’re Emery fucking Hazard. He doesn’t have any idea how lucky he is, but we’re going to change that.”

Hazard suppressed a grimace at the mention of Cora, Somers’s estranged wife. “Look, this isn’t—”

But Hazard never finished the objection. Somers’s phone rang, and he glanced at the screen and answered it. His questions were short, sharp, and familiar.

When Somers ended the call, he shrugged and stood. “No time for a shower, I’m afraid, but you’ll probably want to change out of the shirt. It’s a little cold for that.”

Hazard ignored the jab. “What is it?”

“Shooting.”

“This isn’t one of those fake shootings, is it? This isn’t Batsy Ferrell calling because she’s upset about the gun range at Windsor?”

“No. This is the real deal. Looks like a murder.”

“Any ID on the victim?”

Somers blew out a breath. His eyes were very bright. They were bright like the sun flat on top of tropical water. But some of the color had left his face. “Oh yeah, plenty of ID. Just about everybody there ID’d him.”

“Well?”

“The sheriff.”


Chapter 4

February 11

Sunday

12:11pm


Somers drove the Interceptor, but he barely saw the streets. Autopilot, that’s what it felt like. Autopilot on the way out to Sheriff Bingham’s property at the edge of the city limit. Somers knew the streets. He knew all the streets in Wahredua; he’d grown up here, hadn’t he? He didn’t need to watch the houses shift, the cramped shotguns slowly giving way to sprawling houses with faded siding, and those houses in turn giving ground to larger, more substantial homes of brick and stone. It was a good thing, too, that Somers didn’t need to pay attention. His brain was playing a video loop of the same fragmented moments over and over again.

Hazard set the phone down on the table. Somers read the message—that damn message, like the kid wasn’t ripping out Hazard’s heart, like he just wanted a favor, like he wanted to borrow a cup of sugar. For a long time, for four months now, Somers had been waiting for this. He’d been waiting for Nico to trip up, waiting for the kid to make a mistake so Hazard would shuttle him out of his life and—

—be Somers’s—

—and when it happened, when it finally happened, what did Somers do? He wanted to groan. He wanted to bang his forehead against the steering wheel. He wanted to back in time and kick himself, hard, right in the balls, to keep his mouth shut.

We’re going to get Nico back. Jesus J. Christ, how had that come out of his mouth? Everything had been going right. Everything had been going the way it needed to go. Sure, Hazard was sitting there, moping, like a teddy bear with a thorn in his paw. Sure, those glittering, golden scarecrow eyes had lost some of their glow. Sure. Sure. But that was bound to happen, right? That was just the way things went. Hazard, for all his gruff exterior, was sensitive. Maybe too sensitive, Somers worried, although he hadn’t quite put it to himself that way before. Not in those words, anyway. Nico was taking the first steps to breaking up; Hazard was going to get hurt. That was life. That was every relationship in the world. All Somers had to do was wait it out. All he had to do was give it—what? A week? Two weeks? What were two weeks after he’d waited fifteen years? He could wait two weeks standing on his head.

But no. Somers wanted to scream. No, he hadn’t kept his mouth shut. He’d opened his mouth, wide as he could, and shoved his foot right inside. We’ll get Nico back. Fuck me, Somers thought. Somebody fuck me hard. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. Why? Because of those big shoulders, because of that hangdog look, because of those eyes.

“What?” Hazard asked, breaking the silence in the car.

“Huh?”

“I thought I heard something. Like a noise in your throat.”

“Nope.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

A few minutes passed. The roads had smoothed out; the asphalt here was fresh, newly replaced. These were the kinds of taxpayers that needed to be kept happy. Yeah, that was a good idea. Focus on the roads. On the streets. Just focus on finding your way to the sheriff’s house. Don’t think about Hazard. Don’t think about how you just dicked yourself over.

“Somers, are you messing with me? I can hear it again.”

“Yeah. I mean, nope. I mean, I don’t hear anything.”

“Are you grinding your teeth?”

“What is this?” Somers said, too loudly, too harshly. He laughed, but it was a shit job of smoothing over his outburst. “It’s like a witch-hunt. How’s your head?”

Hazard absently touched his temple and shrugged.

“You’re not still thinking about him, are you? We’ll get him back. Don’t worry about it.” What’s wrong with me, Somers wondered. What the hell is wrong with me that I just can’t keep my mouth shut?

“Yeah,” was all Hazard said. Then, “Thanks.”

“What are friends for?”

“Blowjobs,” Hazard said.

Somers yanked the car back onto the road just in time. Barely.

“I mean,” Hazard said, a humorless grin tightening his features, “if you ask Marcus, that’s what he’d say.”

“Oh. Oh, yeah. Right. He’s a real bastard, huh?”

“He wants Nico. That’s for sure.”

“He—”

“Listen, can we not talk about this? I just need to clear my head.”

“Yeah, sure. Yeah. Yeah, whatever you want.”

And Somers didn’t know if it was his imagination or not, but he was pretty sure that Hazard was starting to think something was up.

“You know much about the sheriff?” Somers asked hastily. “His reputation, I mean.”

“I know he raised a real bastard,” Hazard said. “And I know the sheriff didn’t seem too bothered about little things like laws and justice when the truth came out.”

Somers nodded. That much was definitely true. Their last major case had involved a shooting, and Sheriff Bingham’s son—and granddaughter—had been tied to the mess. When those facts started to come to light, the sheriff hadn’t hesitated to try to control the information. His first step had been blackmailing Hazard. Somers felt a satisfied smile part his lips. He’d taken care of that problem pretty neatly, though.

“What else? You remember anything from growing up?”

“Besides that the Binghams all seemed like royal assholes?”

“Maybe a little more pertinent to the case, yeah.”

“Not really. He thought he was hot stuff then. He thought he was hot stuff when I moved back. He probably thought he was hot stuff right up until he got hit with a bullet. And the recall petition.”

The recall petition had hit Wahredua a few weeks into the New Year. After the last murder that Hazard and Somers had solved, disturbing truths about the sheriff had come to light, and those truths had caused an uproar in the community. The petition had drawn ugly lines in local politics, and it had left the sheriff scrambling to solidify his position before the petition reached the requisite number of signatures. The fight would go on for another month at least—or until the petition was successful. Would have gone on. “Guess that’s not really his problem anymore,” Somers said.

“They say how it happened?”

“Shot in the back of the head.”

Hazard was silent for a moment. “Murder?”

“I guess we’ll see. I asked what you knew because—well, he’s kind of gotten a history over the last few years.”

“What kind of history?”

“The Wahredua Courier, you ever read it?”

“It’s about three pages thick, and they’re mostly used car ads.”

“Snob.”

“Hick.”

Somers grinned. “It’s not the New York Times, I’ll admit, but they’ve got a reporter, Amy Ann Tilden, and she’s trying to make a name for herself. She’s done some good work. Gotten a lot of pushback, too, but so far she’s stuck to her guns. At least, that’s what it seems.”

“And she writes about the sheriff.”

“He’s just about the only thing paying her salary.” Somers turned at the next road; the sheriff’s property lay a few hundred yards ahead, and parked at the drive was a black-and-white with its lights flashing. “Somehow, she got a source at the county jail. I don’t know who. I definitely don’t know how. But she started printing stories about people being beaten, raped, strangled, suffocated. Not killed. But tortured. She even got a few pictures—nobody you could identify, nobody you could point a finger at, but it really got things going. Some of the local papers picked it up too. And she laid all of it at the sheriff’s feet.”

“He must have been really happy about that.”

“He just about burned down the Courier. Every threat you can imagine, that’s what he threw at her. Libel, of course, but plenty of other shit. And his deputies have made sure her life is a living hell. That woman’s probably had more speeding tickets than anyone you know. She showed me one. It was for going thirty-one in a zone thirty.”

“But he hasn’t sued.”

“That’s what’s so weird about the whole thing. Well, not weird at all, really. He hasn’t sued.”

“Because he’s afraid she has proof.”

“Probably. But it could be that he’s just afraid of fanning the flames.”

“Why didn’t I know about this?”

“Most of it, the big stuff, happened a few years ago. She’s printed a few pieces since—last year she had something on his finances, whatever she could get by public record, his pay, all that. But she’s quieted down. And things have been better at the jail—at least, that’s the word.”

“So the fourth estate, having accomplished its objective, quietly retires.”

“God, you’re weird sometimes. But yeah, I guess so.”

“That’s bull.”

“No, honest. You really are weird.”

Hazard flipped the bird. “You know what I meant.”

“Sure. But it’s a lot more fun to be an asshole.”

As they reached the black-and-white, Somers slowed. A crowd pressed against an invisible barrier. Men and women of all ages and races held signs, chanted slogans, and shouted defiance at the sheriff’s land. One of the signs said, Recall Bingham. Another said, Give Us A Choice. A third said, Racist, Embezzler, Murderer. And a fourth, quite simply, Killer.

The crowd parted reluctantly for the Interceptor, and angry faces stared through the glass. Hazard recognized more than he had expected. Men and women he had seen in the grocery store, men and women who had lived here when he was growing up, men and women who jogged along the Grand Rivere. And a surprising number of men Hazard had seen in the Pretty Pretty. A few of the bolder protesters hammered on the glass with their fists. One red-faced woman fanned them with her sign as though she could blow them away.

Somers swung around the patrol car, waved to the officer inside—it looked like big, red-headed Patrick Foley, a very miserable Foley—and headed up the gravel drive. The sheriff’s property butted up against the edge of the city limits. A good stretch of the Grand Rivere curled through the sheriff’s land, and the sheriff was also the proud owner of several hundred acres of old timber. It was what, in another time, might have been called an estate or a country house.

And the house itself fit the description: although not as old and grand as the Somerset home, Sheriff Bingham’s house was a sprawling brick monstrosity, something a railroad baron had built towards the end of the nineteenth century. It lacked the symmetry and simplicity of the Somerset home; in contrast, the sheriff’s house bristled with turrets, with gabled roofs, with wrought iron ornaments. There were faces among those ornaments. Somers remembered, as a boy, those faces. They were watching him now, and he was a grown-ass man, but they were watching him, and he still shivered.

A second black-and-white was parked where the gravel drive looped in front of the brick monstrosity. Somers parked, but before he and Hazard had finished climbing out of the car, Miranda Carmichael barrelled out of the house. She was a petite woman, muscled like a gymnast, with a shock of brown hair that was graying early. Carmichael was known in the department for two things: single-handedly issuing about half of the department’s speeding tickets every month, and her tomato-cucumber-and-onion sandwiches that left the refrigerator smelling like sweaty feet. Right then, she looked like she was about to spill her last tomato-cucumber-and-onion sandwich all over the driveway.

She hit the gravel with both feet—perfect dismount, a ten—and streaked towards them, already talking. “I’ve got them split up and in separate rooms, and Peterson’s standing in the hallway where he can keep an eye on them. Jesus, God, did you see anybody else? The chief? The ME?” Here she paused, but mostly because, it seemed, she had run out of breath.

“Where’s the body?”

Still sucking air, Carmichael jerked a thumb over her shoulder.

“Where? Living room? Bedroom?”

“By the river.”

“Yeah?”

Carmichael nodded.

“How long have they been here?”

“The protesters? Days.”

“Non-stop?”

“No. I mean, I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Foley when they got here, but I’d guess hours.”

Somers didn’t bother to reply. He glanced at Hazard, and Hazard shrugged.

“Tell Cravens we’re checking it out.”

“Wait,” Carmichael called after them, a note of desperation in her voice. “You can’t leave me here. Not with that woman.”

Hazard raised an eyebrow to Somers.

Somers shrugged as they left Carmichael behind. “Turns out we can leave her.”

“Who’s she talking about?”

“I’m sure we’ll find out. Whoever she is, you can talk to her.”

Hazard frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. You like to point out how rude I am—oh.”

“See? I told you it’s more fun to be an asshole.”

Somers barely dodged the swat that Hazard directed at the back of his head.

In silence, they rounded the house and found a path that led down the sloping land and towards the river. While the front of the house enjoyed a lawn—dormant for the winter but obviously well kept—the back of the house surrendered to the native prairie. February wind stirred grass that came to Somers’s waist. The grass whispered against Somers’s coat. Bright sunlight gave each blade its own shadow, and the sky was ultramarine, so blue Somers thought he could kick off and go swimming. And God, he thought as he shivered, wouldn’t that be cold.

The trail led them down to a sandy stretch of shore along the Grand River, and at the water’s edge, Sheriff Morris Bingham, senior, lay dead. Somers and Hazard paused together at the edge of the sand. Footprints—frantic footprints, left by terrified witnesses—had churned the sand, and it was obvious that no useful prints could be recovered. With a sigh, Somers started towards the body, followed by Hazard a moment later. They passed a folding camp table that was set with clay pigeons. Two rifles lay across the table, and another two had fallen.

“They were shooting for fun?” Hazard asked.

By then, Somers had reached the sheriff. He knelt down. By the end of his life, the sheriff’s good looks had thinned and hardened into what some might call dignified but nobody would call handsome. He was a lean, whipcord man. It was in the eyes and nose that the resemblance with his son was strongest. The hair, too, although the sheriff’s was salted heavily. Those features were ruined in death; the bullet had ripped away the forehead and nose and one eye. Sand crusted the wound, darkened by blood to the color of rust.

“Somebody moved him.”

“Obviously.”

Hazard squatted next to Somers. They studied the corpse together.

“He must have had his arms up,” Somers said. He glanced around. “There, that’s the fifth rifle, in the water there. He must have dropped it when he was shot. So he was taking aim. Maybe he had just fired. His attention was completely focused out there, and he wasn’t paying any attention to what was behind him.”


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