13

Dugan’s jeep was parked on the street by the time Anni finished shopping, but there were no lights glowing from her second-floor flat. She went through the gangway to the rear entrance, locked her bike, and carried her bags up the steps, wondering where Dugan was, feeling apprehensive. His last words on the phone—had his voice sounded a little weird? She played it back, looking for clues. She wished she could read him as clearly as he did her.

He was sitting at the kitchen table, not lounging on the couch as usual. “What are you doing in the dark?” she asked, hitting the switch with her elbow.

“Thinking.” His mouth tightened and he took a breath. “Trying to figure out how to say this.”

Something squeezed her chest hard. The bags slid from her hands, the wine bottle clanking on the floor. She closed her eyes, the lights too bright.

“Hey, sweetie. It’s okay.” She heard his chair scrape across the floor, felt his arms around her. “Shit. It’s not that, whatever you’re thinking.”

She pressed her face into his chest and listened to his heart, a steady thump thump thump. She took a deep breath, and then another. Then she pushed away and rubbed at the tears with the heel of her hand, feeling ridiculous.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Are we okay?”

“We’re okay. We’re great.”

“Good. Fuck. Don’t do that again.” She reached for a kitchen towel and scrubbed her face with it. “Sorry. Oh, God, it’s your family. What happened?”

“Nothing. Everybody’s all right. The bullshit at work just got a little deeper, that’s all.” He picked up the bottle of wine, checked to see if it was intact, then opened it and filled two glasses. He pushed one across the table toward her. “I’m never going to leave you. Not ever. You know that, right?”

“Dammit.” She had grab the towel again. “Quit it, Dugan.” She started laughing. It turned into hiccups.

He took their glasses and bottle to the couch. “Come here.” She sat on the couch beside him. His arm went around her and she leaned in, fitting into that spot where she felt so at home. Where she felt safe, except when that familiar threat of abandonment came at her like a straight line windstorm, ripping away her sense of balance, of security. It had come up before. Dugan knew it was a remnant of being left with her brother and a box of powdered donuts in a train station, with hardly any memories of a mother who had decided strangers would take better care of her kids than she could. “How’d you end up with such a basket case?” she said.

“You’re fine.” They kissed for a while.

“So, tell me,” she said, sitting up. “How bad is it?”

He tipped his head, gave a little shrug. Bad, she thought to herself.

“It’s this stupid task force I’m on. It’s a political powder keg. Everybody’s touchy about the possibility of a leak. We don’t want the subjects to know they’re under investigation. If the press got wind of it, it would be bad. People high up would get raked across the coals. Could lose their jobs. Thing is, a name cropped up in the investigation. Turns out there’s a connection to one of your cases. I can’t say—”

“Of course not.”

“But the upshot is . . .” He paused to sip from his glass and find the words. “I got called in for a talk today. Our relationship has become an issue. Not for me. I’d chuck the goddamned task force in an instant, get back to doing real work, but that’s not an option. The head of this task force, he’s got juice, he calls the shots. So, I say to him, fine. You don’t think I can be trusted? I don’t need this shit. I’ll resign.”

“No. Dugan, you can’t.”

“Huh. That’s what he said.”

“No way I’m letting that happen.”

“I could get another job.”

“Not one you want. No way. You will not resign, you hear me?”

Dugan held up a hand. “Shh. I hear you. So do the neighbors. I’m not in any hurry to burn bridges. I talked to Bridget about it.”

Dugan’s sister, the book-smart one, the one who had put in her time in uniform before moving up the ranks, leaving to get a law degree, graduating with honors and getting snapped up by the Federal Attorney’s office for the Northern District of Illinois. She could analyze things more dispassionately than her brothers.

“She suggested I get together with Emil, which I did,” he added. “Guess what he said.”

“Don’t resign?”

“You people are so predictable.”

Emil was the given name of the chief of detectives. Not too many people were in a position to call him by his first name, but the Dugans were so rooted in the department that the chief had probably dandled Dugan on his knee when he was a baby and sent a gift for his first communion.

Dugan wrapped Anni in his arms and rested his chin on her head. “I won’t do anything hasty, but you need to know this: The job’s not that important to me, Anni. Not as important as you.”

“Don’t be dumb. It’s more important than you know. Please don’t wreck your career. I don’t want that on my conscience.”

“It wouldn’t wreck anything. Kevin already promised he’d find me a job.”

“In the suburbs?”

“They have crime, too. Didn’t you hear? The burbs are the new urban blight. Bridget said I could probably get hired as an investigator with her outfit if I really want out.” Dugan stroked Anni’s arm. “Besides, Emil says he can get me back to violent crimes. I told him he had three weeks.”

“You’re giving orders to the chief of detectives?”

“They’re questioning my integrity. I’d never jeopardize a case. They should know that.”

“Yeah, but even the appearance. Potentially a political shitstorm. I can see why they’re being cautious.”

“We agreed to a month. If I don’t get off this task force and back to my real job by then, I’m out.“

“But meanwhile, we have to stop meeting like this.” She tried to smile.

“Yeah, probably. That would be best. For now. It’s shitty. I’m sorry.”

“No. I get it. I always knew I’d mess things up for you.”

“You’re not—”

“It even makes your family uncomfortable.” He started to protest, but she interrupted him. “I testified against a fellow cop.”

“You told the truth.”

“But still, you don’t do that.”

“They need to get over it.”

“You’re so stubborn.”

“Code of the Dugans. Come here.” She leaned back into his chest. They slid deeper into the couch, then moved to the bed.

Afterward, as they lay together, Anni’s ear was pressed to Dugan’s bare chest, his heart slowing to a steady beat. Thump, thump, thump.

“Sorry I freaked out,” she murmured, finally. “It’s like with my brother. I get a little nuts when I think something bad might happen to him. I’ve always worried this would end.”

“I told you, I’m not leaving you, Anni Koskinen,” Dugan mumbled into her hair.

“A month won’t be so bad,” she said, then added, “It’ll be awful. A whole month?”

“Maybe less. Emil knows I’m serious.” He found that ticklish place and made Anni giggle and writhe to get away from his finger. “Besides, we haven’t told my mom about this yet. She’s my nuclear option. Let’s get going on supper.”

 

It felt weird, working on a meal together. So familiar. So fragile.

Dugan asked about her day. As she washed lettuce and he chopped things up for the salad she told him about finding Pat O’Hara, about discovering a former colleague had actually known Feliks Król. That made him stop and stare at her.

“Slovo? For real?”

“Are you pointing that at me?” Dugan looked at the knife in his hand and set it down.

“Have you told Franklin and McGrath?”

“I left Shirley a message. Haven’t heard back from her yet. Did you know him?”

“By reputation.”

“We overlapped at Harrison for a few years.” She crushed a garlic clove for the salad dressing. “So to speak. We never actually worked together, though he did hit on me a couple of times.”

Dugan snorted. “That’s the reputation.”

“Did you know he was married?”

“No way.”

“I talked to his ex. Weird conversation. They were high school sweethearts, she said. Can you even picture that? By the time I knew him, he was trying to pick up every woman who came within range, like he was trying for a record or something. Though that doesn’t make much sense; he never hung out with the guys, comparing how many women they scored that week.”

“Oh, is that what we do?”

“You know what I mean. Guys like to brag. Even when he was assigned to a team, he mostly worked solo, at least until Robin Freeling transferred over from wherever she had been.”

“Headquarters.” The room was suddenly cooler, as if the sun had gone behind the clouds.

“You worked together there?”

“No, she left before I got there. But I knew her.”

“She was awesome.”

“Yes, she was.” He ran out of scallions.

She handed him a celery stalk. “I thought she would be our first woman superintendent. Never understood why she wanted to work with him, of all people. Not a great career move.”

“She was trying to prove something. Goddammit.” He stuck the finger he had just sliced in his mouth.

“Ow. Need a bandage?”

“Check the fish, first.” He mumbled and nodded toward the stove. She handed him a paper towel to wrap around his finger before pulling the salmon and grilled shrimp out from under the broiler. “Looks done.”

Dugan headed to the bathroom medicine cabinet to find a bandage while she filled plates with fish and salad and chunks of crusty bread and refilled their wine glasses. They ate at the kitchen table, talking about city politics, the weather, comparing crazy neighbors. Not talking about the lonely month ahead.

They carried the bottle out to the back porch. It had been the first day that actually felt like spring, and the setting sun lit up the sling-back canvas chairs they positioned to catch the lingering warmth. Dugan frowned down at Anni’s tiny backyard. He’d helped her turn what had been a barren, weedy scrap of land into a proper garden with a brick patio and raised beds that had overflowed with blossoms. In recent weeks he’d cleared away the dead stalks, but nothing had come up yet. At his place, crocuses and snowdrops were blooming and his windowsills were crowded with seedlings ready to put out as soon as the threat of frost had passed. He was probably thinking about how terrible her garden would look after a month without his attention. She didn’t know a dandelion from a dahlia.

“She was three years older than me,” he finally said. “Funny how much that matters when you’re kids.”

It took Anni a moment to figure out he was talking about Robin Freeling. “You knew each other growing up?”

“Our families were tight. She was always organizing things. Tournaments, contests. Seeing who was brave enough to jump off the roof of the garage, stuff like that.”

“Who won, Frank or Kevin?” They’d been in competition since toddlerhood and never missed a chance to show each other up.

“Are you kidding? Robin always won.” He smiled at the memory, but it faded fast.

“Funny. She seemed so level-headed to me,” Anni said. “Why she wanted to work with Slovo surprised the hell out of me. What was she trying to prove? That she was tough? Or that she could tame wild beasts?”

“It was her father.”

“I remember him. He was a big wheel.”

“He was an asshole.” He took a gulp of wine, wiped his mouth with his fist. “Robin was an only child, so it all fell on her, fulfilling his dreams. He made sure she would be in line for a white shirt job. She thought she needed more street experience if she was going to have any credibility. Pissed him off when she ignored his instructions and went to Area Four.”

“Huh. This sounds like someone I know.”

“Yeah, but my mother’s not an asshole,” he pointed out. “Headstrong and opinionated, but not enough to cross into asshole territory. Most of the time. Also, I didn’t transfer to spite my mom,” he added. “Robin kind of did. I mean, she had a point; the guys are hard on supervisors who don’t go through the ranks, and for a woman it would be even worse. Tactically, the move made sense. But mostly she was fed up with her dad trying to manage her career. She was declaring her independence.”

“And it got her killed.”

“No, he got her killed.”

“There were rumors, but I thought Slovo was cleared.”

“Not him. Her dad.” He hesitated. “A guy who hated Bill Freeling knew how to hurt him the worst way possible. His daughter being on a dark street on the West Side in the middle of the night just made it easier.”

That was so surprising it took Anni a minute to process it. “You mean—”

“The guy they nailed finally? Bill had put him away. When he got out, he knew how to get even.”

“I had no idea.”

“It’s not common knowledge. There was so much press attention already, and Bill was a wreck. Nobody wanted to make it worse for him.”

“Losing your kid like that, it’s got to be hard. Even for assholes.”

“I just wish that son of a bitch had gone after Bill, not Robin. She was . . .” He scowled at the garden for a while. “You ever meet her boyfriend? His name was Ewen. What kind of name is that?”

“I saw him at the funeral.”

“Where he was so distraught his brothers had to hold him up? That clip they kept running on television? Took him less than a year to get married to someone else.” He rubbed his eyes, looking weary. “Slovo,” he muttered to himself. “That’s just too fucking weird.”

“I asked for his advice on Danny’s case. He had a lot of experience with cases that involved kids.”

“Like Sharla Peterson.”

“That was his last. I was just finishing up at the academy when that happened, and by the time I got to Area Four everyone told me he was through handling those cases, but I was desperate and I figured he might have some pointers for me.”

“Did he?”

“Nothing that made any difference. I’d really like to find out what he knows about Król. I wonder where he is these days?”

“Boston.”

“Really? Do you  have—”

“Last I heard, but that was three years ago. He probably moved on by now.”

She could hear in his tone one of those lines being drawn, the kind they couldn’t cross. The kind that was going to keep them apart for a month. She didn’t want to think about it and said, instead, “I knew he went out East, but I thought it was some small town. Weird, how he took off in the middle of the investigation.”

“Turned up in Maine. The cops out there weren’t sure what to make of him. Leaving in the middle of all that, it didn’t look good.”

“It didn’t make any sense. He and Robin were total opposites, but they really clicked. Not fooling around or anything. They just made a good team. I couldn’t figure out why he took off like that. You’d think he would do anything to find out who was responsible.”

“He got injured too, probably wasn’t exactly rational at the time.”

“None of us were.” Things always went a little nuts when a fellow officer was killed in the line of duty. The work went on, but with everyone on edge, simmering with anger and loss and a heightened sense of vulnerability. Usually the anger was directed outward, at them, the ones who didn’t wear blue, who didn’t get it, but in this case it looked at first as if she’d been shot by her own partner and that made everything more complicated.

Anni suddenly had a vivid memory of Robin laughing as Slovo pecked, two-fingered, on a computer, saying “That’s not how you spell it, you dope!” Giving him a backhanded slap on the shoulder and taking his place at the keyboard. He’d scowled at his partner, just clowning. Usually there was something sexual in the way he leaned toward a woman, touched an arm, or studied her from across the room with his sleepy eyes. It was never like that with Robin. Between them there was the kind of rough and ready closeness of siblings, and it seemed to develop instantly.

“I spent a lot of time at that house after the shooting,” Dugan said. “Bill’s place. He was going crazy, but there were always people with him, people who cared. Bringing food. Christ, that kitchen. It was like a non-stop Thanksgiving dinner, only nobody felt like eating. I guess it’s some kind of release to try to fit another goddamn casserole into the freezer.”

“It was like that when Jim died.” Her friend Jim, who’d faded away in a hospital room, surrounded by machines that beeped and blinked, leaving a big empty place in her chest that still ached. Dugan reached over and laced his fingers in hers. The sun had slipped behind the rooftops and shadows were filling the backyard.

“Don’t ever get shot,” she said.

“No way. My mom would kill me.”

“She’d have to get in line.”

“Getting chilly out here,” he murmured after a minute, giving her hand a squeeze. “Let’s go inside and warm up.”

 

That night Anni lay in the dark looking up at the ceiling, thinking about Dugan. There was still a dent in her mattress where he’d lain. She ran her palm across it. Already cold.

A month.

She knew how hard it was to leave the job that was your life’s work. She didn’t want to put Dugan through that. If time ran out, if the chief of detectives didn’t come through, she should find a way to break up with him. She’d been on her own before. He’d find somebody. She rolled over and pressed her face into her pillow, wanting to scream and break things.

Then she lay on her back, forcing her mind to go blank. No need to imagine the worst, not until she had to. She found herself thinking about Jim Tilquist and the night he lay on the grass beside her, blood gurgling out when he tried to speak, that crowded funeral where she imagined that behind those grim faces officers were thinking it was all her fault, that she should have been the one in the casket. She thought about the morning after the night Robin Freeling died, the anger crackling across the room, arcing and sizzling, ready to lash out at something, anything. All signs said the cop she’d partnered with, the guy who was too close to his snitches, had taken her into a bad situation and tried to shoot his way out of it. When he took off abruptly, like a man on the run, Anni and everyone else who’d worked with him was left wondering who he really was.

She’d have to track him down and find out.

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In the Dark by Barbara Fister, 2020, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.