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Give me ice cream or give me death.
—Chrissy McMullen, during an ongoing bout of teenage angst
I had just drifted into the feathery nest of Sleepdom when the phone rang. Cracking one aggravated eye, I glared at my bedside clock. Eleven-seventeen. Okay, eleven-seventeen may not exactly be the wee hours of the morning, but I have a deep and abiding affection for sleep and tend to get somewhat miffed when I and my beloved are separated. I happen to consider REM to be the next best thing to chocolate, which is the next best thing to . . . damnit. I couldn’t remember anything that beat the cocoa bean for sheer unadulterated bliss, and that wasn’t a good sign. I was pretty sure there had once been something rather titillating.
The phone blasted my eardrums a second time. I gave it a jaundiced glare, but it remained unrepressed and rang again. Cheeky bastard. Snaking an arm across Harlequin, a dog who disguises himself as a hundred-pound door-stop, I hauled the receiver from its cradle, dragged it into my lair, and rumbled an impolite salutation.
There was a moment of silence followed by, “Jesus, McMullen.” Rivera’s smoky voice sizzled through my system like cheap wine. “Did your larynx have a run-in with a sander or are you just on a bender?”
Meet Lieutenant Jack Rivera, LAPD down to his cotton boxers. He and I go back a ways. When Bomber Bomstad, client and ex–football star, dropped deader than kibble on my overpriced berber, Rivera was the first on the scene. Irritating, smart-mouthed, and preposterously hot, he’s as tempting as truffles. He is also equally restricted, because although a little dark chocolate may boost your serotonin levels, a steady diet is likely to be fatal. And I had no intention of suffering death by Rivera. On the other hand, I had no qualms about a little Latin appetizer. I turned on my side, letting the cord drape over Harley’s bicolored ear. He ignored it as if it were the “sit” command.
“Maybe this is how I sound when I’m satisfied, Lieutenant.” My voice was sexy-low and husky.
“Like you need a defibrillator?”
I grinned a little. After all, he couldn’t see me, so it was okay to admit that sometimes I kind of appreciate his smart-ass wit. “You a doctor now, Rivera?”
“If that’s what floats your boat.” I could hear the sigh in his voice as he started to unwind. A cop’s day can be as stressful as a shrink’s, which just happens to be my calling.
“In your dreams,” I said, but the dreams were more likely to be mine. I’d had enough fantasies about Rivera to fill an erotic miniseries.
“You’re usually Catwoman in my dreams.”
“Catwoman.” My stomach tightened a little at the thought that I might occupy his late-night imaginings.
“Crime fighter with a tail.”
“You’re one sick bastard,” I said, and he laughed.
There was something about the sound of it that did naughty things to my otherwise saintly equilibrium.
“Maybe you could play the doctor this time.” His voice rumbled through me, but I fought off the effects. After all, I was no longer a pubescent tuba-player. In fact, I had worked like the proverbial dog to become a card-carrying psychologist. Even harder to become immune to the kind of low-level charm Rivera exudes like rush hour exhaust fumes.
“Did you have a reason for calling?” I asked.
“This is it,” he said.
I could hear the shrug in his tone. “I won’t call the cops if you don’t.”
I snorted. Sometimes when I’m really tired I tend to sound like an overwrought Guernsey and it was now . . . holy cow . . . 11:22.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
The buzz that had begun in my overzealous endocrine system geared up to an insistent hum. “In general or—”
My breath caught in my throat. “You’re not under my bed or something, are you?”
“Freaky,” he said. “But if that’s what trips your trigger, I’ll try to squeeze in.”
“Big of you,” I said, and refrained from dropping my head over the edge of the mattress to take a peek.
“You’ve no idea,” he said.
I resisted rolling my eyes, mostly because, in actuality, I did have something of an idea. There had been a rather memorable episode involving an overdose of Nyquil and Rivera . . . in the shower.
“Listen, Rivera, as much fun as this is, I have to work tomorrow.”
“I didn’t think it would take that long, but I’m willing to call in sick if you think it’s necessary.”
“Are you drunk?” I asked.
“That’s not the adjective I’d use.”
“Adjective . . .” I rolled onto my back, warming to the conversation. “I’m impressed.”
“They’ve been teaching us to read down at the station.”
“Our taxes,” I said, “hard at work.”
“I’m willing to share what I’ve learned.”
“Maybe you can send me a syllabus.”
“I could deliver it in person.”
“I said ‘syllabus,’ not ‘syphilis.’?”
He chuckled. I could hear his chair squeak as he leaned back, and imagined him stretching, body arched, cuffs rolled away from well-muscled forearms, black hair teasing his button-down collar. “You always this mean when you’re sleeping alone?”
“Who said I’m alone?”
“Maybe you’re wrong.”
“I’m willing to put money on it.”
I considered swearing at him, but that was the old Chrissy. The new Chrissy was saving the “f” word for major emergencies. And L.A. drivers. Low-fat muffins. And Mondays.
“Unless Elaine’s sleeping with you,” he said.
“I’m not that desperate.”
“Yes you are. But if she’s not doing her fiancé I think I can trust her with you.”
I scowled. He had inadvertently touched on a raw nerve. Brainy Laney Butterfield, beauty personified, and my best friend since the fifth grade, was betrothed to a man I referred to in nothing but four-letter words. The kindest of them was “nerd.”
“So how you doing with that?” he asked, and I wondered in my sleep-deprived brain if that was why he had called in the first place. It didn’t take a genius—or a Homo sapien—to know that I was patently unhappy about the impending nuptials. It wasn’t just because Elaine would forever belong to someone else. It was because she would belong to the geekiest guy on the planet. And that made my skin crawl.
“Of course.” Reaching out, I fiddled with the pad on Harlequin’s left hind paw. I’d learned early on that Great Danes did not necessarily make stupendous watchdogs. He was a gift from Rivera. As was my Mace, the cactus that guarded my yard, and the baseball bat I’d stuck in my hall closet. Rivera had a penchant for things that could inflict pain. “I’m a grown woman.”
I waited for his comeback but he was silent for a moment, then, “He’ll be good to her.”
For a moment I couldn’t say anything. Elaine had been my pillar through every major catastrophe in my life: my first period, zits, and the devastating realization that most guys are like my brothers. That truth can still bring me to tears. But the thought of her wedding looming over me like a gawking gargoyle was almost more than I could bear. The only positive thing to come out of the impending ceremony was the fact that this would be the first time my bridesmaid gown wouldn’t look like a pink train wreck.
“You know that, don’t you?” Rivera asked. “That he’ll be good to her?”
“Sure.” My voice sounded a little strange. I glanced up. The iron knob on the antique bed Laney had given me as a bridesmaid gift gleamed dully. She’d found it at a Hollywood estate sale. Upon examination, I had discovered the initials “A.A.L.” scratched in the metal. With my luck, it probably stood for the forerunner of Alcoholics Anonymous.
“Besides, you can always kick his ass if he isn’t,” Rivera said.
I refrained from sniffling. “It wasn’t his ass I was thinking of.”
He was silent for a moment, then, “Jesus, McMullen, if you’re considering any part of Solberg’s anatomy, it might be too late for me to save you.”
I scowled at the ceiling.
“But I’m willing to make the effort.”
Despite myself, I laughed. “You’re a giver.”
“Like a saint.”
“God, I hope not,” I said, and he chuckled.
“Last chance,” he said.
There was a momentary pause, then, “Not on your life,” he said, and hung up.
I did the same, shuffled the receiver into its cradle, and smiled even though there was less than a month left until my best friend’s wedding. A month during which she was staying with me since she’d given up her apartment long ago and didn’t relish the idea of hotel life. I had hoped we would have some time to spend alone together, but her schedule was pretty hairy. Not only was there the wedding from Elm Street to contend with, there was also a considerable amount of hoopla involving the upcoming spin-off of her popular television series, Amazon Queen. Jungle Heat featured several of Laney’s coactors and would premiere soon. Wesley Donovan, a relative newcomer to female fantasies, played the male lead and was creating most of the hoped-for heat.
All this meant that the Geekster would not only be nearby, he could damned well be in my house. The idea made my skin crawl, but the phone rang again, pulling me from my morbid musings.
I grinned through the darkness at it. There’s nothing like a trash-talking stalker to make a girl feel special.
I picked up the receiver on the third ring. “Okay. But bring a condom,” I whispered, then squirmed a little and wondered how I was going to sneak Rivera past Laney. “Hell,” I corrected, “bring a box of ’em. Do they still come in boxes? It’s been—”
“He’s dead,” a voice hissed.
I jerked upright in bed, heart crammed tight in my throat. “What? Who is this?” I rasped.
But the dial tone was already buzzing in my ear. 2
I been a pretty good mama. Too bad I’ll have to wait for my funeral to hear it said out loud.
—Shirley Templeton—mother of seven, and a vocal proponent of birth control
My muscles were frozen, my lungs petrified. I jerked my gaze toward the hall, sure someone was watching me, but the doorway was empty, so I yanked my imagination under control and jabbed Rivera’s number into the keypad.
His line was busy. I hung up and tried again. Same results. Settling the receiver into the cradle, I stepped off the bed, stiff as a pool cue, but just then the phone rang. I squawked as I swung toward it.
Atop the bed, Harlequin stared at me, sleepy-eyed, head half lifted from the mattress, one ear cocked up. Slowly I reached once again for the receiver.
“Who is this?” My voice quivered like a falsetto’s.
“I think I killed him,” the voice hissed again. It was juxtaposed eerily against a keening noise in the background.
“I’m calling the police.”
“They’re already coming.”
I moved to hang up, but in that instant a sliver of recognition pierced my foggy brain. Squinting, I tightened my grip on the phone. “Who—”
“I came to see the boy. Just wanted to see him. You know? Never had much family. Not really. Didn’t intend to . . . Didn’t think . . .”
“Micky?” The name came out on a rasp of surprise. Micky Goldenstone was one of my clients, but even I’m not stupid enough to hand out my home phone number like a suicidal real estate agent. “How did you get this—”
“Listen . . .” He drew a heavy breath as if searching for calm, and when he next spoke, his voice was steady, cool even, carefully enunciated. “I don’t have much time before the cops show up.”
“The cops . . .” I shook my head. Sometimes it’s the most intelligent thing I can think to do. “What—”
“I need you to drive over.”
“Over where?” Or whom? “What are you talking about?”
“Glendale. I don’t want the boy to spend the night here. Or with the county.”
“Jamel?” I was guessing wildly, mind spinning.
“I thought he was living in Lynwood with his aunt.”
“I guess the boyfriend’s loaded. Bought himself a big-ass house in Glendale. But that don’t . . .” His voice, calm just moments before, broke. “There’s a shitload of blood, Doc.”
My stomach pinched up tight, but sometimes in a crisis the professional me manages to squeeze past the real me and see the light of day. This was one of those auspicious moments. “I need you to take a deep breath, Micky, and start at the beginning.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
The keening in the background changed pitch, setting my teeth on edge and my nerves on stun.
“At the beginning,” I said again.
I heard him inhale. It sounded shaky, but when next he spoke, his tone had settled into default mode. “Like I says, I just wanted to see ’im.” Under duress, Micky’s lexicon tends to slip toward ghetto. Apparently, a “shitload of blood,” tended to cause duress.
“Yes. You told me.”
“But when I come to the door they was—”
“Whose?” I asked, voice firm and strong. “Whose door?”
“Lavonn’s. When I come to the door, her and Jackson was stoned out of their minds. Higher than—”
“We wasn’t stoned!” The voice in the background was pitched high with hysteria. “We wasn’t. We don’t do that no more. We was just relaxin’. That’s all. Jesus Christ! You didn’t have to shoot ’im,” she said and sobbed brokenly. In my mind I imagined her rocking back and forth, arms hugging her chest, head dropped.
“I don’t know what the fuck—” Micky began, but I interrupted.
“Did you shoot him?”
There was a pause, during which I could hear him swallow. “Bastard had a gun.”
Maybe he nodded. It was damned hard to tell. “He had a piece and he was high. I’ll swear to that.”
“Where’s the gun now?”
He drew a shuddering breath. “In my hand.”
I closed my eyes and swallowed bile. “You think the police are on the way?”
“I called ’em.”
I could imagine him doing that. “Okay. You have to put the gun down, Micky.”
There was a pause, long and wearing and filled with the residue of someone sobbing.
“I ain’t going to the pen,” he said finally. “They’re like caged animals there.”
And he would know. He’d been a guard at Folsom before becoming a third-grade schoolteacher. “So what’s your plan?”
I could imagine him glancing at the body. At Lavonn, crouching beside it. Maybe at the boy. “Could be, this is when I buy it.”
My mind went into a kind of slow spin, picking up a hundred crystal-sharp memories of my sessions with him. Micky had a past that would have doomed a lesser man. He had a history and he had a conscience. Sometimes that’s too much for anybody. “You think now’s the time to kill yourself?” I asked.
Another pause, long and painful. “Good a time as any.”
I kept my voice steady. “In front of your son.”
“I sent him to his room. Right after I called you the first time. Didn’t want him seein’ . . .” His voice broke again. “Didn’t want . . .” Words failed.
“I thought you said he was a smart kid.”
“Yeah.” He sniffled. “He ain’t got no one to help him with his studies, but he’s bright.” His voice had gone very quiet. “You can tell sometimes. You can just tell when they’re—”
“But you don’t think he’ll figure out that you killed yourself.” I cut off his blooming paternal pride. Cut off the meandering musings, and that changed the tone of his voice.
“I won’t be goin’ to the pen, Doc. I seen what it’s—”
“Yeah, he’s probably not worth your trouble. Just a skinny black kid with ears that stick out.” We’d discussed the boy’s ears at some length in our sessions. But Micky wasn’t talking now. The phone had gone quiet except for the sobbing in the background. “His mother was a druggie, wasn’t she?” I asked.
“I know what you’re doing,” he said. His tone had gone tight and edgy.
“That’s because you’re smart, too, Micky,” I said. “But it didn’t save you, did it?”
I could almost hear him wince. “You owe me,” he said.
I gripped the receiver tighter, because it was true. He’d done me a favor when my own life had been in danger, but I wasn’t about to pay up without gaining something. “Promise me you won’t use the gun and I’ll come get him.”
“So you’re going to screw him, too? Like you did his mother?”
“Fuck you,” he said, but his voice had gone scratchy and he didn’t hang up. A niggle of hope nudged me.
“Promise me and I’ll make sure he’s safe until you can take care of him yourself.”
“I can’t take care of no one.” His voice cracked.
“Not if you’re dead.”
He swore, then the line went quiet, almost silent, except for the humming keen in the background.
“Promise,” I said.
“Damn you!” His breath hissed into the receiver for a moment, then he said, “I promise,” and after rattling off the address, hung up.