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No amount of booze could wipe a conscience clean. Not that Mike Lawson hadn't given it one hell of a shot tonight.
He concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, stumbling in the direction of the fleabag motel next door to the Beer-ly Alive Tavern. Gravel crunched and scuffed under his boots, the sound brittle as breaking glass in the cool April night. Not that he could feel the temperature. His nose and lips were numb as a plastic mask.
He groped in his pocket and pulled out a room key on one of those old-fashioned plastic paddles. No key cards at this place. At least he had brains enough to check into a room before bellying up to attempt to suck the worm out of a bottle of mescal. He sure as hell didn't need to risk driving back to the ranch.As a cop, Mike had seen what happened when booze and cars mixed. He didn't need to add vehicular manslaughter to his list of sins. That list was long enough already. "God, I was hoping you'd climb behind the wheel, Lawson." A voice ground out from the shadows. The light from a nearby post gleamed off a shaved scalp.
"I'd love to watch the boys slap the cuffs on you and jam an intoximeter tube down your throat."
Even in his inebriated state, Mike recognized the voice. His ears started to pound. "Aren't you in prison yet, Fisher?, He tried to hold his head steady and squinted into the shadows.
Three men stood next to his pickup truck. Fisher, Stevens and Rodriguez. The Curly, Larry and Moe of the Denver PD. If Mike had been sober, he'd have noticed them the moment he stepped into the parking lot.
"You think you're such a goddamn hero, don't you?, Stevens swaggered forward. He balled his hands into fists. The tendons in his wiry arms stood out with iron-pumping definition. "You didn't even wait for us to go to trial before trying to sell your rat-bastard lies to Mr. Movie Star."
The pounding in Mike's ears grew louder, making his molars ache.
"Mr. Dead Movie Star," added the Moe of the group, Rodriguez. "Too bad for you."
Mike inhaled cool, dry air. He hadn't approached Nick Warner. It had been Warner who'd come up with the idea of putting Mike's story on the silver screen. Mike had told Warner's people to forget it every single one of the half-dozen times they'd called. Unfortunately, Hollywood megastars weren't used to hearing the word no. And when the film festival rolled around, Warner had shown up in Denver, as if challenging Mike to say no to that famous face in person.
Nick Warner had been shot to death before Mike had gotten the chance.
Mike turned away from the cops the Denver Post had dubbed "the Dirty Three" and kept his feet moving toward his motel room. He didn't want to have this conversation. Hollywood and the Post might think he was a hero for cleaning up corruption in the Denver PD, but he sure as hell didn't. He was more inclined to agree with his old man's assessment.
Not that he'd had much of a choice. Not if he wanted to uphold the law. Not if he wanted to do the right thing.
Either way, he had spent the night striving to forget everything that had happened in the past few monthshell, everything that had happened in the past twenty years. And the last thing he wanted was to ruin a good drunk by strolling down memory lane with the dirty three.
"Trying to run away? Can't face us without Internal Affairs by your side?, Rodriguez taunted. He nodded to the others.
On cue, Fisher stepped into his path, his line-backer shoulders blocking sight of the motel. Stevens and Rodriguez positioned themselves on either side.
Run away? If only he could. "Going to bed. Been a long day."
"Not as long as it's going to get," Fisher said. Mike tipped his head back to meet Fisher's eyes. The parking lot seemed to sway under his feet.
"How much did you get for selling your story?, Rodriguez again.
"Who says I sold it?"
"The kind of money Hollywood throws around? You sold it."
Mike shook his head. Mistake. The whole world swirled around him. Of course they didn't believe he'd turned down the money. That's what had gotten them in trouble in the first place. Money. Greed. That's why they couldn't resist ripping off drug dealers. Easy cash, no victims. Not victims who didn't deserve what they got, at any rate. If it wasn't for greed, Fisher, Stevens and Rodriguez would still be on the job instead of on suspension awaiting the outcome of an investigation.
"We want a piece of that Hollywood cash."
"Can't help you." Fisher balled a bus-sized hand into a fist. "You will."
"Or what? You going to assault me? You going to beat me to a pulp?, He was in a bad enough position already without taunting them, but he couldn't help it.
White teeth glowed against Fisher's dark face. "I don't see any witnesses."
It was too late for traffic, yet still two hours shy of bar time. Mike was screwed. Not that he didn't deserve a beating. Hell, he'd deserved it since that afternoon when he was seventeen years old.
He focused on Fisher. He might as well get it over with, and the man mountain seemed most likely to end things quickly. Swaying slightly, he fisted a hand and smashed it straight into Fisher's nose.
The big man stepped backward, a bellow breaking from his lips.
Mike stumbled forward, carried by his own momentum, and ran smack into Fisher's return punch. He struggled to keep his balance, just as Rodriguez landed a punch to his kidney and Fisher thrust an elbow into his eye.
He hit the ground.
A boot connected with his mouth. Another slammed above his eye. Blow after blow bruised his ribs, his gut, his legs. He gasped for breath, taking in nothing but dust. Blood flooded his mouth, turning dust to mud, sticky and hot.
Ironic that his beating came at the hands of brothers he had betrayed. Brothers he'd let down.
Another kick landed square, reverberating through his head, making his brain flicker to black.
The whistling twitter of a bird cut through Mike's aching head, loud as a police siren. He considered lifting his head, then thought better of the idea. Every muscle in his body hurt. Gravel gouged his cheek and his mouth tasted like something had crawled in and died.
Maybe something had.
Gritting his teeth against the pounding in his skull, he forced his lids to open. Well, one lid. The other wouldn't budge, his eye swollen and aching to high hell.
The soft light of dawn glowed over the parking lot. Memories from the night before filtered through his sluggish mind. The argument with his dad. Shot after shot of mescal. The pummeling at the hands and boots of the Dirty Three.
A lovely evening all around.
Summoning what courage he had, he lifted his head from the gravel. Agony shot down the back of his neck. His stomach swirled in protest. But finally, breathing as if he'd just run ten miles, he worked his way to his feet and wobbled across the remaining ten feet to his motel-room door. Leaning against the jamb, he groped his pockets.
he'd had it after he left the bar. He was sure of it. He remembered holding the plastic key fob in his hand. Before he ran into his not-so-good buddies on the force, before they beat the crap out of him.
He swayed, brushing the door. It swung inward. Open.
Mike tensed. Darkness veiled the room's interior, but he could still make out the dark shape of his duffel, lying on the bed where he'd left it. A pair of jeans trailed from the open bag and draped onto the floor. If some bum had found the key in the lot and let himself in, he might still be inside. What Mike wouldn't give to have his weapon right now. Too bad he'd left it in the duffel. The duffel that someone had obviously ransacked.
He flattened himself against the door jamb and pushed the door wide.
He waited for a beat. Two beats. Three. No sound came from the room. No movement.
Here goes nothing. He moved into the doorway and peered inside.
The place seemed vacant enough. But the evidence that someone had gone through his things couldn't be more clear. The change of clothes and toothbrush Mike had shoved in the duffel were strewn across the bed. His razor glinted from where it lay on the worn carpet. And he didn't have to search through the shell of the duffel to see the worst of ithis service pistol was gone.
"UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE, you're on administrative leave pending investigation. I'm sorry, Lawson."
Mike squinted at Tim Grady's face through his swollen eye. Suspended for losing his gun. Stuck in a damn hospital room overnight for observation. Sorry was the right word. As in Mike Lawson was one sorry-assed son-of-a-bitch. "I suppose a lot of guys are finding this pretty funny."
"Well" Tim Grady grinned, exposing the wide gap between his front teeth.
Mike suppressed a chuckle, afraid it would hurt his face, his head, his neck. Even though he'd worked with Grady for nearly three years, that gap in his partner's smile still cracked him up at the oddest times. It was endearing. Disarming. And it had come in handy more than once when they'd had to play good cop, bad cop with a suspect. Once Grady flashed that grin, he was everybody's friend. "Did the lieutenant think to ask the Dirty Three if they happened to come across my gun? Say, after they got tired of beating on me and let themselves into my motel room?"
"I don't know about the LT, but I did a little nosing around. Off the record."
Mike tried to raise an eyebrow in silent question, but the gesture turned into more of a flinch and groan. "And?"
"They say they didn't touch your key. That some lowlife must have come across you at bar time, taken the key and let himself into your motel room."
"And you believe them?"