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"You're off the case, Jackperiod, end of discussion."
The decision being handed down by Tucker McDermottwho was the head of the Bear Claw P.D.'s Homicide Division and, therefore, Jack's immediate superiorwasn't a shocker, but that didn't stop the veteran detective from wanting to launch himself from the visitor's chair in Tucker's office and pace. Or maybe go over the desk to try and shake some sense into his boss. But that kind of behavior was what had gotten him into this mess in the first place, so Jack made himself take a breath and do a three-count before saying, "You know you can't afford to bench me right"
"What part of 'end of discussion' are you not getting?"
Tucker's don't-mess-with-me tone probably should have been a clue, but it wasn't until Jack saw a muscle twitch at the corner of his friend's jaw that he got it. "Oh." He leaned back. "Damn. This is coming from Mendoza, isn't it?"
"Even if the chief hadn't made the call, I probably would have pulled you off the case."
"I Yeah." Frustration welled up, and it wasn't entirely aimed at Tucker. It'd been an accident, but the reality was that Jack had had his hands on the witness when he went down. And with Mayor Proudfoot slashing the city's budgets like he was clear-cutting for a financial strip mine, the P.D. couldn't afford the bad press.
"And you did it in front of a rook," Tucker said, reaching for the antacids that'd taken up residence in his top drawer over the past month, ever since the birth of his daughter had coincided with the explosion of two major cases that had, thanks to budget cuts, landed in his lap.
"Doran won't get the wrong message," Jack said of his rookie partner. "He's solid."
"Maybe, but you're not. Ever since this case got hot, you've been on the warpath."
At six foot and one-ninety, with prematurely salted chestnut hair and light blue eyes, Jack didn't make any claim to native blood. But, yeah, he had some warpath going on these days. What Bear Claw cop didn't? Out in the Colorado wilderness they were playing hide-and-seek with members of a militia so slippery they were practically ghosts, while in the city they were losing the battle against a new fad drug that was ripping through the underground and leaving bodies behind.
Leaning in, Jack grated, "You need me out there on the streets. We're way too far behind the curve on this Death Stare thing."
That was what the media was calling the new drug, thanks to the fixed, almost terrified looks on the victims' faces. Why the hell that plus the number of bodies piling up hadn't been enough to scare people off, he would never understand. But to the hard-core users, the promise of an incredible high was apparently worth the risk.
Tucker shook his head. "You screwed up, Jack. You know it, I know it, Mendoza knows it and even if the higher-ups weren't involved, I can't ignore the fact that you're way too invested in this case, and it's making you unreliable." His eyes softened a bit, showing the tired guy, new father and dedicated cop behind the thick "I'm the boss" layer. "Look, I'm sorry, but if I let you back on the case now Mendoza will have my butt in a sling faster than you can say 'what the hell is this damn drug, and where is it coming from?'"
Unfortunately, there was no arguing that one. Jack shifted in his chair, still not letting himself pace off the restless frustration even though he was tempted. "So put me on background stuff. Hell, I'll even ride a desk if that's what you want. But don't boot me all the way off the investigation. I need to" He broke off. "Look, I need to be in on this."
"You should've thought of that before you put your hands on your wit. Accident or not, I can't let it go."
"I Damn it." Jack slouched back in his chair and scrubbed a hand over his face, knowing that Tucker was right, he had only himselfalong with a grease spot and volatile city politicsto blame. "This sucks."
"No argument there." Tucker slid a single-page printout across his desk. "Take this. It's your new assignment."
Jack eyeballed it, found airline info for an incoming flight landing at the local hub mid-morning and heaved a sigh. "You want me to play taxi? Who for?"
Actually, that wasn't the worst gig he could've gotten handed. There had been numerous law enforcement comings and goings in the past few weeks, and Tucker had pressed senior cops into chauffeur duty a few times before to get some informal lines of communication open between the local and federal teams.
"You're meeting a Dr. Tori Bay and you're going to be doing more than playing taxi. You'll be escorting her out to the Forgotten and watching her back while she's there."
Jack's tension eased some. If he couldn't be on the drug investigation, this case was the next best thing. A few weeks earlier, the members of the Shadow Militiaalso a name that came courtesy of the mediahad attacked a ranger, torched large sections of the state forest, shot down a government helicopter, nearly killed two deputized cops and then vanished from the camo-netted campsite that had been hidden within the Forgotten, a barren region at the farthest edge of the state park.
It wasn't just the three dozen or so people who had been living at the campsite who had vanished, either; there hadn't been any sign of the equipment and heavy vehicles that had left tracks in the drought-parched dirt. With the feds unable to pick up anything on satellite imagery or closer-in scans, the investigation had fallen back on fo-rensics and old-school tracking. And even those avenues had come up dry, as if the entire armed camp had simply disappeared into thin air.
Given the city's issues a couple of years ago with terrorist mastermind al-Jihad, the feds were taking the threat seriously, sending their best and coordinating things with the Bear Claw P.D. So Jack made a "bring it on" gesture. "The militia case? Hell, yeah, sign me up."
But Tucker shook his head. "This isn't about the militia. It's about the trees."
"The " Jack trailed off, remembering the weird tree fungus that'd also been found in that same part of the Forgotten, along with a remnant population of barred eagles, which had previously been thought extinct. Thanks to those discoveries, there had also been a steady stream of scientists coming and going from the barren, dangerous wasteland. His stomach sank. "You can't possibly want me to babysit a tree hugger. That's a ranger's job, or maybe a rook's." The Bear Claw Canyon Park Service had been coordinating with the P.D. to keep the scientists safe, both from the militants who might or might not still be in the area and from the inherent dangers of the backcountry.
"For the next couple of days it's your job," Tucker retorted. "Be grateful I'm not suspending you."
"Right," Jack said, trying to get the bitterness and "oh, hell, no" out of his voice. "Punishment."
Granted, he deserved a smack-down for his behavior, but it seriously sucked that his reassignment was going to hurt the ongoing investigations. The department was already so shorthanded that the detectives were partnering up with uniforms; his being out in the Forgotten on babysitting duty sure as hell wasn't going to help.
"I'd prefer to call it a few days out in the woods to get your head put back on straight."
"I can pull it together. You don't need to send me off to the Forgotten."
But Tucker shook his head even as he said, "Yeah, I really do. It wasn't just Mendoza leaning on me; it was the mayor's office, too. I need you off their radar screens for the next few days at an absolute minimum, until something else comes along to take their minds off your blowing one of the few leads we've had since the overdoses started."
Jack grimaced, huffing out a breath as he came to grips with the no-win he was up againstand the fact that it was purely his fault that he was up against it. "Okay, fine. I'll do it." Like there had ever been any real question on the matter. He hesitated, seeing the strain in Tucker's face and knowing the other man had undoubtedly gone to bat against the higher-ups on his behalf. "And thanks. I know it could've been a whole lot worse."
"Yeah, so behave yourself." Tucker leaned back in his chair. "And keep your eyes open, okay? The abandoned campsite is smack in the middle of the worst of the tree fungus."
Jack narrowed his eyes at that little tidbit, which said there was more to this assignment than babysitting and navel gazing. "You think there's a connection between the tree crud and the militia?"
"Maybe, maybe not and even so, what's the chicken and what's the egg? The environmental chemists didn't find any evidence of weird contamination, but there are stranger things on heaven and earth, and all that. Maybe this Dr. Bay will see something the others missed or maybe you will."
Jack took what felt like the first real breath he'd drawn since he heard the brittle crack of his witness's wrist. It wasn't the Death Stare case, but at least he was still on active duty, and with an unofficial sanction to work the militia case. More, if he stayed out of trouble long enough he was pretty sure Tucker would shift him back over to the Death Stare investigation, which was where he wantedneededto be.
The key there being "stay out of trouble," he reminded himself as he rose and grabbed the airline info. "Guess I should go get my tree doctor. Any idea what she looks like?"
"No clue." One corner of Tucker's mouth lifted. "Maybe she'll turn out to be a tall, cool blonde. That's your type, right?"
"Used to be," Jack said, and shot Tucker a kiss-my-butt grin. "Too bad you got to Alyssa before I did."
That was total bull. There'd never been anything between Jack and Alyssa Locke-turned-McDermott, the CSI who had become Tucker's wife, but as a diversion it worked just fine, especially given that Alyssa had the long, cool blonde thing going on in spades.
Tucker just grinned. "Eat your heart out, bachelor boy." He tapped the clamshell photo frame on his desk. "I've got myself two long cool blondes of my very own." Technically, only Alyssa fit the bill; two-month-old baby Laurel was more along the lines of short and wide-eyed, though the fine wisps of hair caught in a bubble gum-pink bow were definitely blond. But the two of them together, yeah, that brought a pang. It was what Jack had thought he'd had lined up, the future he'd seen himself living.
Hadn't worked out, though, and he'd moved on. Maybe he hadn't found his one and only yet, but he'd worked out his processslow and steady won the race when it came to relationships, at least as far as he was concernedand he'd come to grips with being single long after most everyone else in his generation of Williamses had paired off.
In the meantime, though, he had a good job, good friends and Bear Claw was home, even if it was having its problems these days.
It was those problems that occupied the forefront of his mind as he strode across the parking lot to his SUV, subverting the more pleasant thoughts of a tall, cool anything. And as he started mentally reviewing what he knew of the Forgotten and the militia case, he decided it wouldn't hurt to call a few contacts on the way out to the airport and make sure he was up to speed.
He might not want this assignment, but it was his ticket back on to the more important investigation. Besides, he'd be damned if anything happened to a visiting scientist on his watch.