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The First Responders Bundle, From Ashes to Honor, Honor Redeemed & A Man of Honor
By Loree Lough
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Loree Lough
All rights reserved.
New York City
Would you agree that the 'watched pot never boils' maxim applies here?"
Austin looked up from his watch and hid his annoyance behind a grin. "May I remind you, Doc," he said, slow and easy, "that you were fifteen minutes late for the fifth time in a row, and, as usual, wasted another five tidying your desk before we got down to business." He shrugged one shoulder. "I'm only trying to make sure those high muckety-mucks at headquarters get their money's worth outta these sessions."
"How noble of you, particularly under the circumstances."
Translation: The Department put him on desk duty, and that's where he'd stay until the doctor deemed him fit to hit the streets again. That fact galled him, but he'd grind his molars to dust before he'd give her the satisfaction of scribbling "easily provoked" in his file. "They're just going by the book. I've got no beef with that." A bald-faced lie, but no way he intended to admit it to her.
She leaned back in the too-big-for-her chair. "If you think hostility will get you out the door faster, you're sadly mistaken."
Hostility? He looked left and right, as if to say "Me?"
Lifting her chin, the doctor added, "A talent for doublespeak might be useful on the streets, but it won't get you anywhere with me."
First hostility and now double-speak? In Austin's mind, she'd just confirmed the old "You need to be half nosy and half crazy to become a shrink" theory.
"Cooperate here," she said, tapping her desk blotter, "and maybe I can help you get back out there."
The only person who'd ever talked to him that way—and got away with it—had been Principal Buell. Well, Buell and Lieutenant Marcum, who cornered him in the bullpen six weeks earlier with a snarly "You're at the end of your rope, Finley. See the department shrink, this week, or you're through."
The threat made him call to schedule that first appointment, then arrive on time five weeks in a row—more than he could say for Dr. Samara. It also explained why he'd stretched his patience to the breaking point, and why he hadn't provoked her by admitting what a waste of time it was, nattering on and on about feelings. He didn't acknowledge that wearing stylish business suits instead of a burqa didn't fool him, because everything—from her name to her green-rimmed brown eyes and sleek, dark hair—branded her a Muslim. It galled him that she wielded the power to end his career, especially since, for all he knew, her kinfolk were 9/11 terrorists. But he didn't tell her that, either.
"You've been dancing around these police brutality incidents in your file long enough, don't you think?"
That haughty tone—a regular thing with her, he wondered? Or had she adopted it to tick him off, see if she could make him lose it, right there in her office? Well, if she wanted to play the game that way, she'd best prepare to learn a thing or two about scoring points.
He sat up straighter and cleared his throat. Because if she intended to talk about those, she'd better be prepared to cite the dozens of commendations he'd earned in the line of duty, too. But just as he started to make the point, she said "Eight separate incidents in the eleven months since 9/11."
Technically, there had been ten, but the first two had occurred in the first weeks after the terror attack, and the lieutenant had agreed not to put them in Austin's file. Knowing Marcum, he'd added both to cover his own butt after the third perp-cop confrontation, providing this arrogant little smartmouth yet another arrow in her "Get the Hothead to Hang Himself" quiver.
Her expression and posture reminded him of the black and white photo he'd found, researching Sigmund Freud for a Psych 101 assignment. In it, the doctor sat in an overstuffed wingback, fingers steepled under his bearded chin, wearing that same self-important smirk. Why would the little fool want to emulate a man whose theories had been debunked by his own contemporaries?
"Surely you have something to say in your own defense."
Austin pinched the bridge of his nose, hoping to buy time. Time to summon the patience not to let her have it with both barrels. Time to remind himself that he'd always been a good cop, and his actions didn't need defending. So he'd roughed up a few perps—thugs who'd beat their wives, robbed hardworking shopkeepers, got into gunfights in the streets and killed innocent folks. If it took a little "police brutality" to get animals like that off the streets, so be it! But that wasn't what she wanted to hear. Just play the game, he told himself, and keep your cool.
It dawned on him that he might be going at this all wrong. Maybe under that smug, buttoned-up exterior beat the heart of a "badge groupie," like those he'd charmed in cop bars from the Bronx to Manhattan. Austin rested his left ankle on his right knee and linked his fingers—not too tightly, lest she see it as a symptom of agitation. "You forgot to swear me in, counselor."
One perfectly plucked eyebrow disappeared under thick, gleaming bangs. "I beg your pardon?"
"'In your own defense'?" Austin chuckled quietly. "Seriously? You sound more like a lawyer than a shrink."
"I've never been overly fond of the term 'shrink.'"
"Ah." He grinned. "Maybe you prefer 'wig picker.'"
To that point, her practiced expression hadn't changed much, but the subtle narrowing of her eyes and lips didn't escape his notice. In place of the "Gotcha!" reaction he'd expected, it made him nervous, and, much as he hated to admit it, a little afraid of what she'd tell Marcum.
If only he could go home, numb his brain with a little Jim Beam! Lately, he'd been moving in two speeds: Too Fast, and Off, like the windshield wipers on his beat-up pickup. It took more and more booze to knock him out, and mega-doses of caffeine to jack him up again. Maybe he ought to just tell her that, because what could it hurt to blast her with a dose of grim reality?
Austin leaned forward, elbows on knees and hands clasped in the space between, until no more than two feet of cluttered desk separated their faces. "Y'know, I do have something to say in my defense." He mimicked her earlier move, and aimed his forefinger at the window. "I'm a good cop, and I belong out there, not in here." He paused, more to ratchet up the courage to continue than to give her time to mull over his words. "And I think you know it as well as I do."
"Your dedication to the department has never been in question."
She might as well have said "The sun is shining" or "It's Tuesday." And then she leaned forward, too, and he caught himself pulling back to put more space between them. As he wondered how she'd read that, she said, "May I be perfectly honest with you, Austin?"
Her silent scrutiny unnerved him, but he couldn't afford to let her see it. So he matched her steady gaze, blink for blink. She tilted her head, and for an instant, he got a glimpse of the human being behind the stodgy title. If he'd ever seen a more appealing smile, he didn't know where. It was almost enough to keep him from noticing that she'd completely ignored his statement.
"As my sweet mama says, 'Honesty is the best policy.'"
As quick as it appeared, her smile vanished, like the whiff of smoke blown from a spent match. "You're seriously mistaken if you think you can charm your way out of the hole you're in."
Score one for the doc, he thought, frowning. Because that's exactly the way he'd been feeling since 9/11, like he'd fallen into a deep, dark pit with no flashlight and no way out.
"So be frank with me."
Austin cringed. In his experience, when people tucked the word 'frank' into a sentence, he'd best prepare for the verbal sucker punch that would follow.
"Why are you so angry?"
The question caught him by surprise, jarring him nearly as much as the left hook he'd taken on the jaw a couple weeks back, trying to cuff a drunk driver near the Brooklyn Bridge. "I'm not angry!" he ground out. Enraged, maybe. Even incensed. But angry? He nearly laughed out loud at the absurdity of it.
But he couldn't very well admit it, now could he? At least, not without opening his own personal can of worms, the one that barely kept a lid on the bitterness and resentment born on 9/11. The one where he'd tried to stuff the memory of his brother's final cell phone call, ignored by Austin as a chorus of radio blips summoned every available first responder to Ground Zero.
It took every bit of his self-control to keep his butt in the chair. He wanted to get to his feet, stomp around her messy little office. Wanted to slam a fist onto her cluttered desk and bellow, "Yeah, I'm angry. Who wouldn't be?"
But he sat still and kept his mouth shut, because only the most self-centered schmuck would moan and groan about his own misery when thousands of others had been hit much harder, had lost far more than he had.
So, yeah, he was angry, all right, and it made him the meat in a Life Sucks sandwich:
If he admitted it, she'd send for the men in white coats. If he didn't, she'd think he didn't have a handle on his rage, which would probably inspire the same outcome. Still, he needed to tell her something if he hoped to put these blasted pick-hisbrain sessions behind him, once and for all.
Her pen, scritch-scratching across the top page of his file, caught his attention. Just as he looked up, she met his gaze. "Are you angry because you feel guilty?"
"Guilty?" he echoed. "What in blue blazes do I have to feel guilty about?"
"You're alive, for starters, and many of your comrades aren't."
Score another one for the doc, for making him admit he was ticked off, big time. For reminding him that when finally he returned to his third-floor walk-up on September fourteenth, he carried the grisly images of mangled bodies with him.
Mental pictures of cop and firefighter pals and hundreds of uniformed officers he'd never met, all buried under smoking debris with badges and kids' tiny sneakers, women's high heels and spit-polished Wingtips.
Just tough it out, he'd told himself, and the pictures will fade. But all these months later, he saw it as clearly as he had that day. He'd never been a nail biter, but every cuticle glowed red and raw now. Never experienced a tic, either ... until he developed a few of his own. And though he'd quit smoking years ago, Austin burned through a pack a day. When memories of the thousands who fell that day shuffled through his head like a deck of gory playing cards—and it happened at the weirdest, most unexpected moments—steely determination had been the calmant that put a stop to head-to-toe tremors.
What happened that day stirred up a lot of differing emotions, but guilt at having survived? That sure as heck wasn't among them!
The voice mail from his brother, played for the first time on the fourteenth, after showering and wolfing down a bologna and mustard sandwich, after looking at his most recent credit card bill, after checking his email? Oh, he felt plenty guilty about that. Because Avery, knowing full well that he'd never get out of his office in the North Tower alive, wanted to spend his final moments with his twin. And when Austin didn't pick up, he'd launched into a trembly voiced rendition of the Lord's Prayer. He got as far as "... for Thine is the kingdom ..." before an ear-blasting explosion cut him short and—
"What a horrible thing to carry around in your head all this time," she interrupted.
The look of shock and disbelief on her face mirrored the ache that had clutched his heart.
"Have you talked about this with anyone else? A relative? A clergyman? Someone?"
Until she asked the questions, Austin hadn't realized he'd said it all out loud. He glanced at his watch. Last time he'd looked, it had been one thirty-five. Now the dial read one thirty-seven. He'd interviewed enough witnesses to know how much could be divulged in two short minutes.
Confused—and flat-out annoyed with his lack of selfcontrol—he got to his feet, slapped a hand to the back of his neck and began to pace. He'd wanted to be a cop since junior high school, when two somber-faced cops informed him that his dad had been shot in a convenience store holdup. They could have left him alone to deliver the dismal news to his twin and their mom, but they didn't. And when they promised to check in with them often, Austin chalked it up as just another one of those well-meaning but empty promises grownups sometimes made. But he'd been wrong. Separately and together, they returned every few weeks, sometimes to throw the football or teach the boys how to catch a pop-up fly, other times to mow the lawn or fix a leaky faucet. That's the kind of cop he'd worked so hard to become. If his maniacal blathering cost him his job, what would he do with the rest of his life?
"Please, sit down, Austin. We still have ten minutes left before—"
That first day, while waiting for her to grace him with her company, he'd paced off the space, and estimated her office at eight-by-ten feet. Right now, it seemed hot as Hades, and half that size. "Gotta go," he said, flinging open the door.
It slammed into a shoulder-high stack of books, and for a moment, Austin could only stare as it swayed to and fro, exactly as the Towers had, milliseconds before collapsing in a sky-blotting plume of roiling black smoke. A colorful "Come to Jamaica" brochure stuck out about halfway down the pile, and for a blink in time, it reminded him of the brightly colored tail section of the jetliner that had pierced the first building.
He reached out to steady the pile a tick too late. Novels, textbooks, and a copy of How to Build a Birdhouse clattered to the floor. Feeling stupid and clumsy, he dropped to his knees and began shoving them, one by one, onto the nearby bookshelf. "What kind of idiot piles books behind a door!" he bellowed, tugging at the how-to book, wedged under the door. After several futile tries, he got up and kicked it shut with enough ferocity to rattle her black-framed diplomas and degrees against the wall.
Trembling and sweaty, he faced her. "Was that another one of your cockamamie tests?" He drew quote marks in the air, raised his voice an octave to mock her. "'Let's see how riled up the crazy cop will get if the tower of books falls down around him, reminding him of the day when—'"
She grabbed his wrists and held on tight. "I give you my word, Austin," she said. "I'd never do such a thing."
For a long, silent moment, she gazed into his eyes, and in that moment, she looked every bit as vulnerable and helpless as he felt. Without the doctor-patient wall between them, they were just two people. A man and a woman who, like so many others, were forever changed by that dreadful day.
Her expression softened to a slow smile. "Thanks," she said, nodding at the tidy row of books he'd arranged on the shelf.
"I've been meaning to do that since I moved in here."
As he stared at their hands, he couldn't help thinking that maybe he really did need therapy, because he would have sworn she'd grabbed his wrists. When—and how—had their fingers become so tightly linked? He'd been a cop for years, for crying out loud. Why hadn't he noticed? And why were his eyes smarting with unshed tears?
If he didn't get out of there, and fast, he'd get the psychological treatment he seemed to need, all right ... in a padded cell, wearing a jacket with no arms.
He strode purposefully toward the elevator and thumbed the Down button hard enough to make him wince. From the corner of his eye, he saw that she'd followed him. Saw the Exit sign, too, and for a second, considered racing down the stairs instead of waiting for the car to reach her floor. But the image of once-normal and civilized people, screaming and crying as they crawled over one another to escape the Towers, stopped him dead in his tracks. He didn't need a shrink to tell him those were normal reactions to a thing like that, but he sure wouldn't mind knowing long it would take before he could ride in an elevator or climb a flight of stairs without breaking into a cold sweat as his heart beat double-time.
Excerpted from The First Responders Bundle, From Ashes to Honor, Honor Redeemed & A Man of Honor by Loree Lough. Copyright © 2011 Loree Lough. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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