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Black smoke burned his eyes and strangled his lungs. Cries for help tore at his heart, begging, pleading. He had to get up, but couldn't feel his legs.
How many would die because he couldn't move or phone for help? Because he was pinned in place, weakened by the explosion?
Maniacal laughter hummed in his ears. Hummed, then echoed, then burst his eardrums with unbearable pain. Pain that was nothing compared to the heaviness clenching his chest.
His fault. They'd die because of him.
He searched the dense mass of nothingness. Had to see, had to make note of every detail, every nuance. His eyes fixed on black. Black with no shape or definition, black that hovered dangerously close.
It was his turn now. His turn to die... "Wake up!"
A woman's voice shook the breath from him. God, where was he and how did he get here?
He struggled to breathe, every muscle in his body strung taut with fear. Bright light streamed through a window. He blinked.
"What...where am I?" He swallowed back the panic.
"Shh. You're okay," a woman said. "You're home, remember?"
That's right, he'd run away, thousands of miles to another country.
"Cassie?" he said. Cassie, his assistant, his nurse.
"It's me. You're fine. You had a bad dream."
She put her hand on his shoulder and the warmth of human touch set off an explosion in his chest. He jerked away, swung his legs over the other side of the bed and planted his feet on the floor. He snatched his cane from the wall and stood. Steady now, steady.
"You're here early," he said.
And you're a bastard.
She didn't say it, but he heard it in her voice. And she was right. He was a bastard.
She stood in his bedroom, surveying the most intimate place in his flat. She knew everything about him: that he wore silk boxers, not briefs, kept a glass of water by his bed, along with bottles of Halcion and Vicodin. Yet she was nothing more than hired help, contracted to take dictation and keep him focused.
He grabbed the pack from the nightstand and lit a fag. His fingers trembled, bugger. Trembled like an old woman's.
"You should really quit smoking," she said.
She marched off into the living room, footsteps echoing on the hardwood. He'd aggravated her again.
Bad move, Max. You can't afford to lose this one. He'd already gone through two assistants, neither of them willing to put up with his surly nature. Some might even call it abusive.
He stretched out his neck. Only then did he remember he'd slept starkers because of his night sweats.
He glanced over his shoulder and took a long drag. She'd found him screaming in his sleep, stark naked, and all she could do was scold him for smoking. There'd been no spark of awareness, no sexual attraction. No temptation to touch him in any way but motherly comfort.
Sure, right. He was a cripple. The only feeling a woman could muster was pity.
"Scrambled eggs or over easy?" she called.
He didn't answer, hoping she'd go away. He'd awakened in a foul mood and couldn't deal with her cheerful nature.
"Well?" she said from the doorway.
"I'm not hungry," he said.
Let her make you eggs, fool. "Tough, I'm making them anyway," she said.
He turned to continue their verbal sparring, but the words caught in his throat. He realized he'd completely exposed himself to her.
Her sweet face showed no reaction, no shock or mild interest.
"I didn't have time to eat this morning so I'm making breakfast," she explained. "Scrambled or over easy?"
She looked quite fetching with her blond hair loose about her shoulders and her cheeks made rosy from the walk over. She never wore much makeup, but then, a girl like Cassie didn't need it.
"Well?" She tapped her foot against the hardwood floor.
She disappeared from the doorway and he heard the refrigerator door opening, then closing, an egg cracking, then another.
He glanced outside. A sunny day in rainy Seattle. He made his way to the bathroom, wondering if a trip to the doctor was in order. He had to get some sleep, but the nightmares made it impossible for him to get more than three hours at a time.
He turned on the water, then tossed his ciggie into the toilet and took a piss.
Only venturing out when absolutely necessary, he'd grown comfortable in his flat. He'd grown comfortable with isolation.
Thank God Brighton Publishing had made him an offer, providing him with moderate financial stability. Max had developed quite a reputation during his days as leader of the Special Crimes Initiative for Scotland Yard, a team created to track elusive serial killers. His experience and reputation had led Brighton to make Max an offer to write a book, a "tell all," the editor had said, "Really gruesome stuff."
Gruesome, like the one that got away?
Not waiting for the water to warm, Max stepped under the cool shower, the spray pounding against his face and chest.
His editor would be pleased with Max's progress so far, and Max was pleased with the wages. There weren't many jobs for a retired detective fighting post-trauma issues, who hadn't solved the biggest case of his career. If only he'd had more time. If only he hadn't lost his grip after the bombing. He was sure that's what the boys at Scotland Yard had whispered when his back was turned: their leader had gone mad.
Bloody hell, they had medication to help him sleep and to ease the healing ache of a shattered hip, but no drugs seemed to help Max's case of post-traumatic stress syndrome. He had a unique case of it, doctors had said. It would take time.
In other words, Max was succumbing to a mysterious mental ailment. He was weak and pathetic. Maybe his biggest critic, Charles Edmonds, was right after all.
A knock interrupted his self-condemnation. "What is it?"
Cassie cracked open the door. "You have a visitor."
"What? At this time of day?"
"He says he's a work associate. He's joining us for breakfast. Hurry, we're getting hungry."
"Now wait a minute—"
The door closed on his protest. She was his employee, hired to listen and type, make grammatical corrections when necessary. He didn't pay her twenty dollars an hour for American female attitude.
He rinsed and dried off. Had someone from Brighton Publishing been sent to check on his progress? But the book wasn't due for five months. He hoped they hadn't uncovered his tangle with Jim Beam last year. He'd been seduced by the devilish malt, but had regained ground and was fully on the mend, at least with the bottle.
He ran his hand across his face, studying his reflection in the mirror. He wasn't prepared for visitors. He hadn't shaved in months, his beard scraggly and untrimmed. A terrible impression to make on a publishing executive.
"Ironed shirts," he muttered, limping across his room and putting on his boxers, then a pair of jeans. He found a shirt still in plastic from the dry cleaners. He slipped it on and grabbed a pair of black trainers.
Someone knocked on the door. "In a minute!" he called.
Button up. Tuck in neatly...belt...screw the belt, shoes tied...run fingers through hair. Done.
With a hand to the doorknob, he rolled his neck. He opened the bedroom door and aimed for the kitchen. "Good morning," he said, turning the corner.
Max stopped short at the sight of Jeremy Barnes settled at the kitchen table like a family friend. That sonofabitch.
"Get the hell out of here," Max demanded.
"Mr. Templeton!" Cassie scolded.
"It's okay," Barnes said. "He wasn't expecting me."
"Didn't you hear me?" Max stepped closer to the man who'd been a thorn in his side at SCI, the man who'd quite deftly taken Max's job.
"Good to see you, too, sir."
"What the hell are you doing in my flat?"
"Apartment," Cassie corrected.
"You can leave, too," Max spat out. He didn't mean it, but frustration made him lash out at her as well.
"Breakfast is ready," she said, fiddling with the gold locket at the base of her neck. "I have errands to run."
She went from the kitchen to the front door. Too fast. He wanted her to slow down, to stay and to eat her breakfast.
"I won't be long," she said. "Looks like you two need some privacy."
The door slammed, jarring his teeth. Blast, he was going to chase this one away, too. "Nice girl," Barnes said.
Max turned to his unwanted guest. "Leave. Now."
"What, and miss breakfast?" He took a step toward Barnes, figuring to grab hold of the bloke's arm and drag him to the door. Max might be a cripple but he stayed in excellent shape. He could still beat the crap out of Barnes, even if he was a black belt.
"Get out, you toff." He grabbed Barnes's upper arm, wrenching it away from feeding himself.
"Hang on. She makes good scramblers."
"You're eating her breakfast!"
"Eggs will be cold by the time she gets back," Barnes said.
Max squeezed Barnes's arm with one hand and pointed toward the door with the other. "Out!"
"I can't. I need your help."
"What?" Max released his grip.
"You heard me."
"Just got out of the shower. My ears are clogged. Say it again." The left side of his lips curled.A foreign feeling.
"We're in a mess and need your help."
"Well, isn't that bloody amazing? SCI needs help from a cripple."
"I'm not with SCI anymore and you're not a cripple," He paused. "Except in the personality department."
Smart aleck. Barnes was on the fast track to leading a team of his own at Scotland Yard. Max's resignation had made that possible.