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Aidan McInnis craved a foot-long sub, fully loaded. And a Coke. Well, a beer really, but he was driving, and his police partner, Len Gaitor, was not only fully loaded, but currently weaving his way down the aisle of Pop Daly's ancient Stop 'N Shop. Their friend, George Parkins, had fallen asleep in the backseat of Aidan's truck half an hour ago.
Overstocked and understaffed, the small store smelled of stale coffee and nacho cheese. Just south of two in the morning, it also carried the unmistakable scent of the marijuana one or both of the clerks had probably just smoked in the john.
Not his problem, Aidan thought, heading for the sandwich section. He and his friends were off duty tonight.
They'd watched the Brewers take apart the Pirates, then switched it up and checked out a handful of UFC matches in a backstreet venue whose operation was at best half-legal. But Aidan had drawn the line at the stripper bar Gaitor had suggested after that. Hey, barely twenty-four months married to a woman like Raven, even a detective of ten plus years could say no without hesitation.
The out-of-sight door jangled as another customer entered. Aidan heard a squelch of rubber while his gaze explored the piss-poor selection of subs. The store was half a century old and in need of a major renovation. But Pop being a major tightwad wouldn't lift a finger until the cash flowsubstantial due to locationdropped off.
"Only got light beer left." Gaitor grumbled his way to Aidan's side. "Can't keep a buzz on drinking damn soda pop. Your wife's in Minnesota until Wednesday, McInnis. Let's find us a girlie bar."
Aidan ran his gaze over the display again. Pathetic. "Gotta work tomorrow, Gaitor."
His partner snorted. "Night shift. And me a few months from retirement. It's a kick in the ass by an ass of a captain. I hate it when yes-men brownnose their way to the top."
No surprise there, Aidan thought in mild amusement, since Gaitor hated pretty much everything to do with police work these days.
He was about to downgrade his sub craving to a slightly more palatable ham and Swiss on rye when he caught the angry command up by the cash register.
Gaitor heard it, too, and scowled. "Wouldn't you just frigging know it. Stupid punk needing cash for a fix is hell-bent on screwing up my night. Talk about your bad timing."
Aidan drew his Glock from the shoulder holster under his jacket. "Kids behind the desk'll probably consider it good. I'll take the rear."
Gaitor patted his chest and sides. "Musta left my gun in the truck."
Maybe lucky for the thief, Aidan reflected, and left his partner muttering in the aisle.
He spotted the new arrival instantly, a lone male wearing a gray hoodie and ski mask. The 9 mm in his doublefisted grip was pointed at the forehead of the older store clerk. Less than two feet from his target, he was unlikely to miss if he squeezed the trigger.
The clerk gaped, openmouthed. "We don't keepI meanthere's no money." His hand fumbled for the cash drawer below. "Pop's rules. Nothing bigger than a twenty after ten o'clock."
"Open it," the thief ordered.
He sounded tighta little edgy and a lot mad. High was a given. Meth or crack, Aidan assumed.
The old-fashioned drawer pinged as it sprang outward. In the shadows, Aidan took aim.
"There's only fifteen bucks." The clerk's Adam's apple bobbed. "See for yourself."
Aidan saw the thief's teeth in profile. One step forward, and he'd have him.
"Lift the tray out."
"But Pop won't"
"Lift it!" the thief snapped. His gun hand shook, and his breath heaved in and out. "You don't do what I tell you, more than your night's gonna be over."
"Stop right there," Aidan said from slightly behind him.
The masked head jerked around. For a moment, nothing and no one moved.
"I'm a cop," Aidan warned. "And I'm guessing I'm a helluva lot better shot than you."
The thief started to lower his arms. Then the floor creaked, and he snatched them up again. He fired wide twice, and twice more with better aim. The clerks vanished behind the counter.
Aidan went for the right arm. It should have been an easy hit. But in a lightning-quick move, the thief leaped sideways and exposed his full chest. Aidan's bullet struck him at the same instant the thief's bullet embedded itself in a tall shelf. The man took two staggering steps forward. And dropped like a stone to the floor.
At the entry door, George Parkins stood with an owlish expression on his face that suggested he had no idea where he was.
Gaitor lurched into sight. With his eyes locked on the fallen man, he used his toe to nudge an unmoving arm. "Who'd have figured he'd pull a dumb-ass stunt like that. Bastard couldn't have hit you in a million years."
Aidan glanced at the bullet hole six inches from his head and wasn't so sure.
"Uh, what ?" was the best George seemed able to manage.
The younger clerk stared, pop-eyed. "Is he dead?"
"As a doornail," Gaitor confirmed. He withdrew his fingers. "You had no choice, Aidan. You couldn't have known he'd turn."
"Are you hurt?" Aidan asked the older clerk.
"YesI mean no, not bad. Hehe got my arm a little."
Aidan made a head motion at George who was alert enough to duck under the pass-through.
"It's a flesh wound." George squinted as if through a fog. "Bullet didn't penetrate. I'll call it in."
"You saved my life." The injured clerk's voice trembled. "He was gonna do me for following Pop's stupid rules."
The eyes of the thief, already glassy, stared upward from the scarred linoleum floor. His mouth sagged open. Aidan tugged off the ski mask that covered his face.
And, closing his own eyes, he swore long and full.
"What?" Gaitor demanded. Then he looked down, and his shoulders drooped. "Jason Demars. Hell."
Close, Aidan decided. Dangerously close.
Thoughts spiraled through his head. But the one that stood out, the one that intensified as it repeated again and again and again was simple and concise.
He was a dead man.
Twelve days later.
"It was my fault." George Parkins rocked back and forth on the creaking church floor, ten feet from a wreath of white lilies. "I should have gone into the store sooner, but I drank too much and passed out in the backseat of Aidan's truck." He stopped rocking to clutch at Raven Blume's arms. "Johnny Demars's men will come for me and Gaitor now. Demars is all about revenge. It's his way, and Jason was his son, his only kid. Doesn't matter there's no hard evidence, we know it was him who did Aidan. Blew him to hell in pieces. It had to be him."
When George's grip faltered, Raven slipped free. Maybe some part of this nightmare would register later, but for the moment, very little of it, including, thankfully, the pain, penetrated the wall of shock that stood between her and grim reality.
Aidan, her husband of two short years, was dead. It didn't sound real even when she thought the words. But George was right. Aidan had been blown to hell in pieces six days ago. Blown there from the inside of a condemned movie theater. The resulting fire had blazed so hot it had consumed everything, human, rodent and insect, trapped within it.
Captain Beckett said Aidan had made plans to meet an informant in the lobby. No one knew the informant's identity, or if he'd been blown to hell, as well. However, strong speculation was that the explosives had been set by Johnny Demars himself. Which was absolutely possible since no one, except perhaps his late son, had any idea what the crime lord looked like.
Beckett had refused further comment, but everyone in the loop recognized Demars's name. They also knew just how vindictive he could be. Especially where his son was concerned.
Beside her, George continued to talk, but his words were a weird babble in Raven's head. Surreal. Like the hundreds of faces swimming in front of her.
Two of those faces belonged to Aidan's grandparents, the people who'd raised him. Her own parents had flown in from Illinois. And of course there was the tragic face of Aidan's police partner. Mere months from retirement, Len Gaitor blamed himself for Aidan's death even more than George did.
"I was right there in the store when Jason tried to rob it. I should've been there when Aidan " His fingers closed around the arms Raven had just succeeded in freeing. "We were partners. A good partner would have gone to that theater with him."
He continued to talk, wouldn't let her go.
Maybe it was just as well, Raven thought, because she'd been floating more than standing all day, and the ordeal was far from over.
The wreath that surrounded Aidan's headshot photo was going to be transported to McGinty's Bar downtown for a full Irish wake, as per the wishes of his grandparents.
Aidan had been born in Dublin to a pair of restless world travelers. They'd died before his fifth birthday. Afterward, he'd gone to live with his grandfather and grandmother McInnis in New York City.
The cop thing had been in his blood forever. Sadly, while Raven had always been aware that the meaning of forever could change radically on any given shift, she hadn't expected it to be so abrupt. Or so final.
"Everyone who knows the name knows it was Demars who did this." Gaitor gave Raven a shake that had nothing to do with her and everything to do with his own self-directed anger. "I knew he'd be out for blood. I should have dogged Aidan from dawn to dusk to dawn."
"You or me." Eyes glazed, George resumed his grieved rocking.
From her vantage point near the side wall, Raven watched Captain Beckett and Aidan's grandfather herd the crowd of mourners toward the front doors. In the background, Aidan's grandmother clung to her rosary and sobbed.
Friends and family paused to offer heartfelt condolences. Raven shored up her wall and acknowledged them, or hoped she did, with grace and gratitude.
The church fell silent. The shadows deepened. The setting changed from stoic cemetery to noisy Irish bar.
There were people everywhere. Laughing, crying, eating, drinking. Recalling. Recounting.
Gaitor huddled in a dark corner with a bottomless glass of whiskey and brooded. George, eyeglasses askew, danced with Aidan's grandmother. Raven's mother made sure everyone was fed well. Her father philosophized with anyone who'd listen. McGinty poured drinks and shouted some tidbit of information about her great-grandfather, Rooney Blume, who was his oldest and most colorful friend.
An angular woman in a black dress, with lines of strain around her mouth, offered Raven a smoked salmon canape from a silver tray. A potbellied man in a plaid jacket offered her a puppy from his new litter. A young man with stringy brown hair played the fiddle onstage, while another, hairy as a werewolf, accompanied him on a wheezy accordion.
The bar was dim, and her head filled with smoke. A thick gray cloud of it that, like the wall, held the worst of the pain at bay.
Words flowed and, with them, an abundance of liquor. The drink loosened tongues and made those words slightly less guarded.
"How dreadful for you, a doctor, not to be given a chance to save your husband's life," a burly woman slurred. Raven thought she might be a desk sergeant from a cross-city precinct. "Aidan was a good man, a good cop. Totally hot." She set her arms on Raven's shoulders, leaned in and winked. "So totally damn hot you could scorch your eyeballs looking at him."
Yes, Raven thought, you could. Or could have. An aeon ago when he 'd been alive.
A thin whip of pain snaked into her heart. She felt her face go white.
Gaitor came up behind her. She recognized him by the combined smell of whiskey and drugstore cologne.
The scent gave way to smoked salmon as the server in black returned to press more canapes on her. In a stern, no-nonsense tone, she told Raven that starving herself would not bring her husband back. She knew that for a fact because she'd gone through a similar trauma when her husband had died more than a decade ago.
Raven merely smiled, nodded and ate the canape. Nudging the tray aside, Gaitor steered her to a vacant rear table.
As she drifted through the music and shadows, Raven's life with Aidan played like a newsreel in her head.
The detective and the doctor, living the Bohemian lifestyle in a third-floor walk-up.
Her intern hours had sucked. His alternating weekends and night shifts had made time together a rare and precious thing. That was in the early days of their relationship, when the sex had been stupendous and everything they'd done had been a magical mystery tour.
They'd sailed around Lake Michigan for three weeks with friends. Later that summer, they'd ridden not-quite-trained horses on a colleague's ranch. They'd white-water rafted in Idaho and watched the worst ever off-Broadway play in a theater with a crippled AC system during a wicked August heat wave.
Then, on a glorious September afternoon, a year and half after they'd met, they'd gotten married. They'd actually stolen two full weeks away from crime and medicine for an amazing honeymoon in Tuscany.
Aidan had rented a castle, complete with staff. They'd made lovestill stupendousdrunk wine and, to Aid-an's amusement, wangled a cooking lesson from a ninety-year-old woman who didn't speak a word of English.
Two weeks had turned into two years. Just. Then she'd gone to Minnesota. Aidan, George and Gaitor had gone to a baseball game, and Jason Demars, nowhere near the phantom his father was, had decided to rob Pop Daly's Stop 'N Shop.
Aidan had understood the need to watch his back after Jason's death. So had Captain Beckett, who'd watched it even more rigorously. But cops like Aidan always had active case files. So when one of his more reliable informants had called him with a tip on a major homicide, Aidan had gone to meet him. Alone, as was his habit.
The informant might have been paid off by Johnny Demars. He might have been misinformed. Whatever the case, Raven knew the derelict theater had long been Aidan's meeting place of choice.
"You need to sit down now." Gaitor pressed her onto a leather bench. "I'll get you a glass of brandy. That'll do the trick."
It would do something, Raven thought, though probably not what he anticipated.
The music changed from Irish jig to Irish lament. Through the haze in her head, a picture of Aidan came clear. He'd been quintessentially black Irish, tall, lean boned and gorgeous, with black hair and almost black eyes. There'd always been a hint of dark stubble on his face becausewell, because polished had never been Aidan's style. He'd stuck to jeans and Ts, work or biker boots and, as a rule, some form of leather jacket. His hair? Grown a little long and more often than not, left to wave a little messily around his striking face.
"McGinty thought whiskey would do you better." Sitting, Gaitor pushed a glass, three fingers high, into her hand. "He tells me it's a family favorite."
And since McGinty also had a lot of family in Raven's Cove, Raven expected he would know.
With Aidan's image still front and center, she brought the glass to her lips, waited a beat, then shot all three fingers.
It was pure, liquid fire, a blazing line of it that decimated the wall and blew a wide hole in the smoke.
For six nightmarish days, Raven had been in shock. Nothing and no one had touched her emotions. Couldn't, because the wall had been there to hold them in. Once it vanished, the pain literally erupted.
Aidan was dead. The only man she ever planned to love was gone. Forever. That wasn't pain; it was devastation.