Detective Liz Boyle knows there is no crime more heinous than the murder of a child. When she and her partner, Tom Goran, are called to a new scene in an area of Cleveland known as The Flats, they find that a killer has taken that to new levels.
As the investigation takes them deeper into the city’s seedy underbelly, the case hits frighteningly close to home when someone Liz loves is added to the list of possible suspects. While fighting her personal demons, she must also pick her way around the department bureaucracy to avoid being pulled from the case.
Liz and Tom will need to solve the most mind-bending mystery of their careers, one in which their personal and professional allegiances—and maybe their sanity—will be tested. But Liz vows to bring the killer to justice at any cost.
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"Are you ready to talk about the shooting?" Dr. Shue gazes at me from behind her chic rimless glasses and rebalances her notepad on her lap.
The ticking clock on the wall behind her is almost, but not quite, half a second off from the ticking of my watch. We have seven minutes until the fifty-minute hour ends. Eight hundred forty ticks, if I'm counting both the clock and the watch.
My phone vibrates in the pocket of my leather jacket, which is draped across the chair to my right. I tried to mix things up a bit today, so I sat on the couch instead. "It's warming up outside. Last week, that blizzard. What'd they call it? Greta? I think it's weird that they name winter storms now. I thought that was just for hurricanes. Anyway, I had to chip, like, an inch of ice off my car in the middle of the night, and it had me thinking."
Dr. Shue nods. "What were you thinking about that night?"
"About the vic, the frozen one. The perp strangled her and tossed her body into a bus shelter. It had frozen solid before anybody bothered to call 9-1-1." At least we got the guy. We indicted him yesterday and celebrated last night. And I didn't drink too much, even though the boss was buying rounds. I was proud of myself. It's the little things.
"You were thinking about the victim while you were chipping ice off of your car?"
"Well, no. I'd just gotten the call on that vic. I'm not sure what I was thinking about."
"What happens if you go back to that moment and try to remember?" Dr. Shue and I are so good at this little game we play. I was actually contemplating what it would be like to have a normal job that let me sleep regular hours, but I don't say that, because then she'll want to talk about sleep habits or something, and the thought makes my neck tense. "You know, how it might be nice to stay inside when the weather says there's gonna be a foot of drifting snow, gusting winds, and an occasional power outage."
"Do you want to use this time to talk about the weather?" Dr. Shue asks. "Is that effective?"
The shrink and her tough love. Jesus.
"Forgive me for sounding like a psychologist, here, Liz. But I really think you might benefit from using our time together to evaluate what you want and how you want your life to be instead of how you can make yourself feel worse."
My phone gives a short little reminder buzz. The clock and my watch keep ticking, out of sync in a way that feels oddly reassuring. Four minutes to go. "How do I want my life to be?" I ask.
"You tell me." She uncrosses and recrosses her legs, and I entertain myself by listening to the swish of the fabric. "Let's go back and start at the beginning. What made you want to be a cop?"
That's not the beginning, but I'll leave it there. "Since I was a teenager, I just knew. It was a calling." I'm using a sarcastic tone of voice that doesn't match how serious all of this really is, and my guess is that she knows that. She's not stupid, and I'm not stupid enough to think she is.
"Did anything happen in your life to make you think that law enforcement was the only choice for you?"
"You've read my police jacket." There's the tense neck, and we're not even talking about my sleeping habits, but I sidestep her question by chuckling. I can't tell if she buys it or not.
She writes something on her pad with her fancy fountain pen. "Take me through how you got to Special Homicide, then." She's using a gentle tone in spite of — maybe because of — my reticence.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly through my mouth. "I need to catch the worst of them. Not cases but people. You know, the ones whose motive is power and control. It's not supposed to matter to a cop, but motives ... I care about motives." I pause and fiddle with my shoelace. "Before I got this gig, I was a sex crimes detective, without the homicide part, for just over three years. Before that, patrol for four." I gaze out the window. "I mean, you know all of that. You've read my file."
"Yes, I have read the file."
"I just ... I craved the dirt, the grit of the homicide job. It's like I need it."
"What does it do for you?"
"I'm good at solving puzzles. And I guess I thought I could make a difference." I laugh again, but this time it's genuine because I see how naïve I was when I thought I could change the world. "The work I do matters, in some small way. They call me when the violated end up dead." I search her face, wondering if that'll be enough to placate her for the day. "Or when it's some high-profile thing. They like putting cameras on us." Good for us, right?
"I hear pride in your voice when you talk about your job. Where does that pride come from, do you think?"
Pride? I'm not sure about pride. But maybe I am proud of what I do. "We're an elite group." I wince and uncross my legs. "That sounds bad. I don't mean it that way. I just mean we're good. They recruited Goran — my partner — and me, what, five years ago now? Something about 'filling a gap' in the department."
I give one of those half-assed little chuckles. "They kept citing a 'disturbing rise in these kinds of crimes.' You know, since homicide and sex crimes go so well together. And of course, the whole PR thing. People want to think they're safe at night."
She writes on her pad again. "How do you cope? It must be hard. Your job must be more difficult than most other detectives'." This isn't the first time she's asked this question, though she's asked it in several different ways over the past few weeks.
"Well, I see Josh sometimes. You remember me telling you about him. My best friend for forever."
She nods and pushes her glasses up on her nose. "Any other ways that you give your brain a break?" I catch her eyes flicking to the third timepiece in the room, the digital clock on my left.
"Not really." I work out compulsively. I hang out with my cat. I read. I pretty much gave up on having a personal life, or whatever the hours outside of work are called.
"This is something we're going to return to again and again, Liz, so think about adding to your list of ways to practice self-care."
Inwardly, I roll my eyes.
"Nice job today." She gives me a warm smile and sets the notepad on the table next to her chair. "I'll see you next week. Regular time?"
It's quiet when I get outside, save for a lone siren in the distance. Most of the city is deserted after five o'clock, and tonight is no exception. When the suits go home to the suburbs, it becomes a labyrinth of bums, kids going to concerts, and lurkers in dark corners.
I unlock my black VW Passat, which I bought used when I made detective, slide into the leather driver's seat, and crank the key in the ignition. The stereo comes on, and Henry Rollins shouts about pulling out his brain stem over a funk-punk bass hook, comforting me. Okay, Shue, there's something else for the list: music.
The first time I met Dr. Shue, I was coming unglued and doing my damnedest to hide it. Lieutenant Fishner had just taken my gun and my badge because I'd shot and killed a man in an alley. My options, beyond saying screw it to the whole job, were the department shrink, whom I'd heard bad things about, or an outside shrink on a menu of about ten names. So I closed my eyes and dropped my forefinger onto the list. It landed closest to "Grace Shue."
The shooting was justified. It took Internal Affairs only a week to figure that out, despite their long-winded, labyrinthine attempts to do damage control with the public — officer-involved shootings don't play well in the media. The guy would have killed my partner, and I care too much about Tom Goran to let that happen. The last thing any of us ever wants is to shoot somebody. But they train us, and sometimes, training takes over. I came around the corner, saw the gun pointed at my partner, then heard three explosions. I dropped the guy with two rounds to the chest, and I'm not sure how discussing it will change anything. I've never talked about it with anyone but IAU, except for the shrink in her nice slacks and her swanky office by the lake, and she always wants me to go deeper, to figure out how I really feel about it.
I'll be honest. I have nightmares that are worse than the ones I used to have. And maybe I'm in the beginning of an existential crisis. But whatever. I don't have time for that.
I look at my phone and decide to ignore the text message from my brother. Christopher gets needy sometimes, and it's not a good idea to encourage him.
In spite of the bite in the air, I crack the window. The wind off Lake Erie smells of Cleveland, my hometown, the place I swore to protect all those years ago when I was fresh faced and excited and thought I'd be the best cop in the world. It's a fairly typical Rust Belt city, downtrodden but not dead yet, coming back to life in some ways. The public schools aren't great, the homeless rate is pretty high, and there's more violent crime than there should be, but I'll argue with anyone who calls Cleveland "the mistake on the lake."
The perfect city doesn't exist, anyway. Put enough people together in a room, and there's going to be some kind of conflict. The same goes for a concrete jungle.
I hit the gym for a quick workout and get home a little after nine. I clean the cat box and take a shower. Then I pour myself my bourbon ration for the day, grit my teeth, and call my brother back because it's been a while since I talked to him. When he doesn't answer, I briefly consider calling my best friend, Josh, to catch up and make good on what I said to Shue earlier about friends, but I'm tired of talking today.
I grab my red Gibson guitar and plug it into the big amplifier in the corner of my living room. I play a few tentative chords as the amp warms up. Then I'm off, lost, consumed by the coordination of my right hand and my left.
Later, I find one of those police procedurals on TV and watch while scratching Ivan's ears and enjoying the vibration of his purr against my thigh. My favorite character, an incredibly sexy female detective, is about to kick down a door to catch a scumbag. She kicks it three times before it bursts open, then she's in his fleabag apartment with her weapon drawn. If any detective had hair that long, she'd pull it back and keep it that way all the time, not just when she wants to look sexy for the camera.
On police shows, they always get a search warrant in a few minutes. And when they enter a place, they find exactly what they're looking for within even fewer minutes. Then they Mirandize the suspect right away, which we never do. Usually the person we're arresting is so upset that all we do is exchange obscenities until he's in custody. But at least they've gotten one detail correct: she keeps her weapon down and to the right, holding it with both hands, thumbs forward, in a classic two-handed grip. It's always easier to bring it up than down if you have to shoot.
A part of me says screw realism, anyway. People only want a little taste — hints of crime scene photos, blood, and Stryker saws. They don't want to see the real stuff.
I pour myself one last splash of bourbon. "Rations are idiotic," I tell Ivan as I slide down onto the couch.
The phone on the coffee table is silent, leaving me to my solitude instead of back out into the streets of Cleveland with my gun and my badge. I doze off before I can make the move to the bedroom for sleep.
I awaken with a thick feeling in my throat, as if I've been screaming.
My phone is buzzing away on the floor. Damn it. Those four hours were the longest stretch of uninterrupted sleep I've had in as many days. I grope around until I find my cell underneath the coffee table. "Boyle," I mumble.
The voice on the other end is gruff and insistent. "Body in the Flats," Lieutenant Fishner says. "It's a kid. Definitely not an accident. This'll be a big one."
After she gives me the location, I clear my throat, trying to process what I've just heard and waiting for the synapses to start firing.
"Boyle, are you listening? Get here now."
"I'll be there in twenty minutes." I drag myself off the couch and stumble into the bathroom. After flipping on the light, I gaze at my face in the mirror. The red in my light-gray eyes makes them look cold. Gray-blue fills in the recesses underneath them. There's a little bit of gray in my dark-auburn hair, too. I recognize myself, yet mirror-me isn't what I expect to see. I guess, maybe especially in these weird moments in the middle of the night, that I expect her to be younger, smiling, still in uniform, and definitely without that frown mark between her eyes.
I brush my teeth and wash my face with cold water. After running my wet hands through my jaw-length mop, I smear some deodorant under my arms. I hope I don't look too terrible.
I toss some clean jeans, a CDP T-shirt, and a dark-gray Cleveland Browns hoodie out of the dresser onto the bed. Its clean sheets have been untouched and pillows unmoved for probably close to a week. I dress quickly and put on my boots. I've been out of uniform for a while, but I still wear tacticals. I've always had a thing for combat boots.
I grab my leather jacket from the back of the couch and pick up my Glock and gold shield on the way out.
As I drive through Cleveland Heights and into Cleveland proper, my mind drifts. After I shot and killed that guy about six weeks ago and started attending the requisite head shrinking, I found out the average life span for sex-crimes detectives. We last three years before a transfer or retirement. Three years before we can't take it anymore and move back to vice or narcotics or, if we've really lost it, property crimes or lakeshore patrol. The worst cases exit with a self-inflicted service-weapon gunshot to the head. There aren't stats for people in squads like mine, but I'm willing to bet they're pretty grim.
"You know," Shue said two weeks ago, "there are other options in your pay grade. You could still solve cases, just ... easier ones."
I was sitting in that tan leather chair, staring at a point somewhere along her substantial bookshelf. I thought maybe I should consider moving to Homicide proper. Maybe cut-and-dried — well, not literally, but whatever, relatively unmolested — dead bodies would be easier.
But every single one of us has a hot button, the kind of case that twists the viscera. Mine happens to be tragic families, and I would run into those in any kind of detective work. Narcotics? Tragic families. Vice? Tragic families. Property crimes? Right.
Besides, no one can unsee what they've already seen. There is no magic mind eraser.
The Plain Dealer ran an article on me about a year ago. It's weird to be interviewed for the newspaper. Profiled, I guess I mean. I'm not sure if I can still muster the compassion the reporter played up in the article. Maybe I've become one of the cerebral, detached ones. I don't like that thought.
I sometimes wonder if it's the thrill that keeps me going, if I'm addicted to it in some twisted way. I hadn't said that to the paper, and I haven't uttered it in Shue's presence, either. But sometimes I think the opposite.
Sometimes this shit gets to me.
There's barely any traffic this time of night, so it doesn't take me long to get through downtown, down the hill, and to the Flats. Still, Goran lives closer to the scene, so I know he'll be there before me. I hope he brings coffee. I turn onto Merwin Avenue, right on the east bank of the Cuyahoga River, and wedge the Passat in next to Goran's rusty old Taurus, which he's parked in a lot about half a block away from the gathering of zone cars, patrol officers, paramedics, and gawking civilians. The water laps against a brick retaining wall that runs perpendicular to the narrow alleys between the buildings on my left. To my right stands a row of early-twentieth-century brick buildings that used to house tradesmen, shops, and bars. Now they're mostly dark, save for the bars and struggling nightclubs that haven't shuttered yet and the new upscale-housing construction up the hill.
It's cold even for March. My breath fogs out into the darkness. The smell of fish, booze, and industrial dust hits me as I make my way down the block, to the alcove — a boarded-up doorway, covered by the original awning — where the body lies. Last call is in about five minutes, but even dive bar clocks are always fast, so there's an exodus. Drunk college kids leave the two trendy — the Plain Dealer calls them "up-and-coming" — bars across the street and try to get past the police tape to their cars. Uniforms detain them to ask questions. I feel my senses sharpen to a fine point.
Excerpted from "The Flats"
Copyright © 2017 Kate Birdsall.
Excerpted by permission of Red Adept Publishing, LLC.
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