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Brian Cavanaugh leaned back in his chair as he studied the young man in his office. Intense was the first word that sprang to mind, prefaced by very.
His own words were measured when he spoke, as his goal was to put the other man, freshly plucked out of undercover work, at ease.
"The first thing I want you to know is that this is not a demotion"
It had been an exhausting thirty-six hours, beginning with a nerve-racking leap from the very jaws of hell. Esteban's surroundings right nowclean, orderly, devoid of verminseemed almost surreal. He'd all but forgotten places like this existed.
But he'd chosen that netherworld over this because he had a purpose, a mission. The mission wasn't accomplished yet. He needed to find a way back. Somehow.
"With all due respect, sir, when someone leads with that, it usually means that it is a demotion," the man who had gone by the name Juan Dominguez for the past three years pointed out.
The corners of Brian's mouth curved in apparent amusement. "You mean like when someone prefaces a statement with the phrase, 'With all due respect,' he or she usually doesn't harbor that respect?"
Unable to contain his restlessness, the detective who'd been summoned to Brian's office continued to pace. His broad shoulders stiffened slightly. "I wouldn't know about that, sir. In this case, there is a great deal of respect. It's just that"
"It's just that you feel as if you've been given a time-out, sent to stand in the corner, while everyone you know is still out on the playground, doing what they please," Brian guessed, completing what he anticipated were the younger, somewhat disheveled-looking man's thoughts on the matter.
"Something like that," the detective murmured. He returned the Chief of D's look, searching for an opening, a way to reverse what he knew in his gut the older man was planning on doing.
"You know you can sit down in my office," Brian reminded him patiently. He'd already extended the invitation to the man whose real name, according to the requisitioned file on his desk, was Esteban Fernandez.
Esteban stopped pacing. His tone was polite, with just a hint of defiance, as he asked, "Is that an order, sir?"
Brian had not reached his rank by choosing his battles recklessly. This was not a battle, just a reassessment of a situation. Fernandez could be either a valuable assetor a loose cannon.
"No, just a point of fact," he replied calmly.
"Then if it's all the same to you, sir," Esteban said,
"I'd rather stand."
"Actually, it's not," Brian told him, his eyes holding Esteban's. "But if you prefer to imitate a moving target, that's your call."
Esteban watched the Chief for a long moment. According to what he'd heard, Brian Cavanaugh was considered fair to a fault by the men and women who answered to him and whose undying allegiance he'd earned one by one.
Esteban wavered for a moment, wanting to stick to his guns, an army of one. Then, suppressing the sigh that rose to his throat, he lowered his lean, muscular frame into one of the two chairs that faced the Chief of D's desk.
Brian smiled. There wasn't so much as a hint of triumph in his voice as he said, "Thank you, Detective."
Esteban barely nodded, bracing himself as he waited for the inevitable shoe to fall.
The wait was almost nonexistent.
The Chief of Detectives' next words were the ones Esteban had been dreading for thirty-six hours, ever since Manny Diaz had opened fire on him. Part of him still didn't know how he'd survived.
But there was no part of him that didn't want to go back.
"You're being pulled off the undercover assignment, Detective." Esteban winced.
He'd been preparing for this meeting, for these damning words, ever since he'd been made less than two days ago. That was when he'd been identified as an undercover cop rather than a drug dealer with a growing clientele.
Made or not, he wasn't about to accept this decision quietly. "Sir, I could still"
The Chief cut him off before Esteban could waste any more breath, because that was all that it would be. Just a waste of breath. His mind was made up. Not because he was an egotist who enjoyed wielding power, but because he was not about to allow any of his people to risk certain death. Life was far too precious for that.
"No, you couldn't," Brian said firmly. His voice was not without compassion as he continued, "You were made, Detective. There is now a price on your head. A price that doesn't carry the option of 'dead or alive,' just 'dead.'" He leaned forward over his desk, creating an aura of privacy between himself and the young detective. "Jorge Lopez doesn't like being made a fool of. .and discovering an undercover law enforcement officer operating as a dealer right under his nose makes him out to be a huge fool. He wants your head on a pike in order to save face."
Brian lightened his tone. He didn't want to strike fear into his detective's heart, just arouse his dormant common sense.
"Call me selfish, but I'd prefer having your head just where it is. You're being pulled out to save your life, Detective. As good as you areand according to everyone who counts, you are very goodyou won't be any further use to us with a target on your back. So, unless you have a death wish, you will accept reassignment as graciously as you can.
"This is a good thing, Detective Fernandez," Brian continued. "A lot of men who came before you and went into undercover work never got the chance to get out. At least, not alive," he amended.
Esteban struggled to keep his reaction to the Chief of D's words from showing on his face. He didn't want to be gracious. He just wanted to continue doing what he'd been doing: getting rid of scum one drug dealer at a time. It was the only thing that gave purpose to his life.
"Yes, sir," Esteban bit off, staring past the Chief of D's head.
Brian heard the animosity in the other man's voicecould almost feel it. But he wasn't here to make friends at the expense of a man's life. Even a single life was one too many.
His eyes held Esteban's. "You don't sound as if you believe me."
It wasn't that he didn't believe the Chief, it was just that he had no desire to play it safe, to get out of the game where he risked his life daily, betting that very same life against some pretty steep odds that he would see another sunrise.
"No, sir, I do believe you." He cast about for the right way to say this. Maybe he actually had a shot at changing the Chief of D's mind on this after all. "It's just that"
"You're afraid of being bored to death," Brian said. When Esteban looked at him in surprise, Brian allowed himself a moment to laugh. "I didn't guess at that, Detective. I've been in your place. Granted, it feels like a hundred years ago now, but I worked undercover when I was about your age. In my case, it was to take down a sex-trafficking ring selling innocent, underage girls to the highest bidder. Trust me," he continued, "I'm familiar with the adrenaline rush that comes from a job well done, a deadly exchange foiled, detection narrowly avoided. Can't bottle that or find a pill to evoke the same kind of feeling.
"That comes from seeing firsthand that you've saved a life, maybe several lives, and prevented someone else from being kidnapped in the future. Doesn't matter that that person will never know that, because of your efforts, they've been spared. All that counts is that they have been spared."
Esteban looked at his superior with newfound respect. He hadn't been aware that the Chief had ever actually walked the walk. "You were involved in something like that, sir?"
"I was and I know what a comedown it feels like to be handed a job that you feel an overage, half-witted Boy Scout could handle with one hand tied behind his back. But in all honesty, that feeling is unwarranted, not to mention inaccurate."
Listening intently, Esteban waited for Cavanaugh to continue.
"Aurora," Brian pointed out with pride, "seems like a sleepy little burg only because of the unending vigilance of the men and women in the police department, the officers who patrol and the detectives who piece together the puzzles."
Brian took a breath, allowing his words a moment to sink in.
"So, to reiterate, this is not a demotion, but a lateral promotion. There's been a recent opening in the Homicide Division."
Brian paused again, trying to ascertain the best approach to winning this man over. There was no doubt in his mind that Fernandez was an asset. But an asset who needed to have his focus redirectedand that didn't promise to be easy.
"We lost a good man two weeks ago," Brian stated bluntly.
"In the line of duty?" Esteban asked, sensing that the Chief of D's was waiting for him to respond in some way.
"Out of the line of fire," Brian quipped. "Detective First Class Ernest Lau made it to retirement age and the second he did, his wife insisted that he stop pressing his luck and leave the force."
"What's he planning to do?" Esteban asked, not because he was the least bit curious, but because he sensed that this, also, was expected of him. He had gotten to where he wasand lived to talk about itbecause he had the instincts to intuit in most cases what was expected of him in either deeds or words.
"Not get shot at anymore, for one."
The answer hadn't come from the Chief of D's, but from the woman crossing the threshold directly behind him. Esteban turned in his chair to glance at this newcomer walking into the Chief's office.
It wasn't Cavanaugh's administrative assistant. He knew because he'd passed the woman when he'd initially entered the Chief's office. He'd noted that she looked like an attractive, contained woman in her late forties. This woman walking in looked as if she'd just popped out of a Cracker Jack box a few seconds ago, and the experience had clearly invigorated her to go on popping.
How did she figure into this? Esteban wondered, even as he had the sinking feeling that maybe he really didn't want to know the answer to that question.
She also looked the slightest bit familiar.
Had their paths crossed?
And if so, when?
For the past three-plus years, he'd dealt strictly with people who either were the dregs of society or had dealt with the dregs of society on a regular basis.
If anything, this perky, peppy, blue-eyed blonde would fall into the second category. And yet..
And yet he wasn't all that certain he knew her in that capacity, either.
Maybe he didn't know her, Esteban decided a second later.
For now, he would let it be. If he did know her, well, then he'd find out soon enough one way or another. It was just that simpleand possibly, just that complicated. What it wasn't was worth his time wondering about it.
"You sent for me, sir?" she asked genially, directing her question as well as her attention to the man behind the desk.
She was also doing her very best not to stare at the other man in the room.
Even so, she couldn't shake the feeling of recognition that had instantly come over her.
That was Steve. It had to be, she thought.
If it wasn't, then it was his doppelganger. No one else she knew had hair like that, so black that it almost looked as if it had steel-blue highlights woven through it.
And those intense blue eyesthey'd come from his mother, she recalled hearing him say once. Those same eyes were responsible for melting an entire squad of cheerleaders in high school, not to mention almost every other teenage girl within a five-mile radius of the hunky, popular quarterback.
God knew she hadn't been immune to him either, but she'd had no desire to beat off a throng of adoring, salivating females just to get a little one-on-one time with the devastatingly handsome football player.
Funny thing about that. She'd always thought he would make a name for himself in the professional arena, but he seemed to have completely disappeared shortly after he'd graduated high school. They'd been exactly a year apart, even though she had shared a couple of classes with him.
Was this where he'd ultimately wound up? Working in law enforcement and looking like someone badly in need of a haircut and a shave, not to mention new clothes?
Maybe it wasn't Steve, she thought, reconsidering. As she recalled, the heartthrob of the gridiron had a grin that had a way of imprinting itself on the souls of every female, young and old, whom he ever came in contact with.