Collateral damage, p.20
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       Collateral Damage, p.20

           Katie Klein
 
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  My blood turns to ice, travelling through my veins, moving in slow motion.

  I will fucking destroy you.

  I hear Rusch: "Perimeter surrounded. Moving in."

  "How does it feel, man? Think I have it in me?" Vince laughs. It's short, bitter, devoid of humor. "Guess what? I do."

  Jaden's eyes pinch shut.

  Don't do it, Jaden. Don't give up.

  They surround us quickly. Squealing tires. Blinding lights.

  "Drop your weapon!" Detective Mendoza screams into a megaphone.

  And Vince—for a moment, there is fear and uncertainty. Hesitation.

  This is it.

  Jaden's eyes open, finding mine. "I've got you, Jaden!" I promise. "Cross my heart!"

  Her voice sings in my head, teasing: Nobody's crossed their heart since fourth grade.

  And that's when she gathers every ounce of strength left in her body and jams her heel into his knee. In this chaos they stumble, Vince loses hold of her, and it's just enough for Jaden to slip beneath his arms. She crashes to the pavement, leaving him open.

  In a blink, he aims his gun and squeezes the trigger.

  I feel the sting of impact the moment my own gun explodes.

  He falls against Jaden's car.

  I rush toward her, pulling her body close, sheltering her, flinching as more shots are fired.

  And when the world finally goes silent there is nothing but the smell of gunpowder hanging suspended in the air—sharp and metallic and acrid—and Vince's body lying in a heap beside us.

  I pull myself upright, roll Jaden over, shove the hair away from her face. Her face—half covered in blood.

  She gasps, gulping air, her entire body shivering.

  "Jaden? It's okay. Can you hear me?"

  Her eyes refuse to stay open. They won't focus.

  "Can you hear me? Jaden?" I can't let her eyes close. She can't go to sleep. I have to get her out of here. "Come on, Jade!" I beg. "Please stay with me!" I tear off my leather jacket, unstrap the vest.

  "Are you okay?" Mendoza asks.

  "I'm fine! Just give me your keys!" I slip the black vest over my head, off my chest. The tear across the center, the frayed edges—this vest saved my life.

  No—my life is bleeding beside me.

  "Jade? Jaden can you hear me? You're going to be fine, okay? You have to stay with me."

  Please, God. Let her be okay.

  I swear. I will never ask for another thing.

  Just let her be okay.

  I scoop her up, lifting her off the ground. She wraps her arms around me, buries her face in my neck. She coughs and sobs and coughs and my heart constricts, ripping in two.

  This is all my fault.

  "I'm sorry. I am so sorry!"

  I carry her to one of the squad cars, yank the door open, and place her in the passenger's seat. I push the hair away from her face, wipe the warm tears from beneath her eyes. My fingers are covered in blood. We're both covered in blood.

  The gash on her forehead is deep, still bleeding. "Shit." I remove my shirt, cram it into a ball, and press it against the wound. She winces.

  This is my fault.

  "Hold this." Her fingers tremble, but she manages to hold the shirt in place as I pull the seatbelt around her, fumbling, trying to buckle her in. Then my eyes....

  I can't fucking see a goddamn thing!

  I swipe them with the back of my hand, trying to clear them.

  As soon as she's in, I shut the door.

  "An ambulance is already on its way," Mendoza says.

  "She needs help now. I am not waiting for a fucking ambulance!"

  "You can't leave, Whalen. This is a crime scene."

  "Watch me."

  I circle the vehicle. Rusch tosses me the keys as I reach the driver's side.

  "Someone follow him," Mendoza demands.

  * * *

  The nearest hospital is twenty miles away. We arrive in fourteen minutes—fourteen of the longest minutes of my life. Fourteen minutes of eyes bouncing from the road to Jaden to the road and back to Jaden. Fourteen minutes of reminding her to stay awake, to keep the shirt against her forehead. Fourteen minutes of watching blood dry from a Harvard crimson to a dull rust.

  Someone radioed ahead. A team waits for us at the emergency room entrance, all wrinkled scrubs and anxious frowns.

  I park under the white awning. A nurse meets me at the passenger's side door.

  "Hey, sweetheart," she says brightly. "We're going to check you out. Okay?"

  Jaden nods, flinches.

  I help her out of the car, and when her legs weaken, giving way, I catch her. I pick her up, promise her everything will be okay, and lay her onto the gurney. I touch her gently. Carefully. I touch her like she deserves to be touched. Like she's made of fucking glass—on the verge of breaking. Then I take her hand in mine and kiss the tips of her fingers.

  They wheel her past those automatic doors, move her through the lobby and down a hallway. A doctor—a man in scrubs—meets us at another set of double doors.

  "I'm sorry. We can't allow you past this point," he says, words clipped, stone cold. An asshole of a doctor.

  My hand squeezes tighter, refusing to let go. "I'm not leaving her."

  "I'm sorry, but there are no exceptions."

  "No. Y—you can't make me...." But even as I stumble over the words they're pulling her away. An attendant moves between us, and my fingers are pried loose.

  "You should probably get looked at, too," the nurse says, smiling kindly just before the doors slam shut between us.

  Fuck!

  It takes everything I have left inside not to scream the word after them. To shout it down every goddamn hallway. My body collapses against the cement wall, slides to the floor.

  I can't breathe.

  My chest hurts.

  This shitty hospital air.

  I can't fucking breathe.

  My throat—it's swollen shut. Suffocating me. I try to swallow. Again and again and again. And my eyes—they're on fire.

  "Chris?" a voice calls. "It's okay, man." Rusch approaches, shoes squeaking against the floor of this bleak, sterile hallway.

  "No. No, it's not."

  "She's gonna be fine."

  I pull myself to my feet. "She's going to be...are you kidding me? She could've died back there!"

  "But she didn't."

  "That's not the fucking point!"

  "You can't blame yourself. There's no way you could've known," he insists.

  "I should've done better. I should've been better. She deserved better."

  He glances down the hallway, then back at me, eyes narrowing. "What are you saying, Whalen?"

  "I'm saying that I fucking love that girl more than I've ever loved anything in this goddamn world!" I choke on the words, struggling, forcing each one out. "And if something happened to her today because of me, you may as well dig my grave next to hers, because I sure as hell can't live without her."

  "Wait," he says, not understanding. "You know her?"

  I inhale. Exhale. I can breathe again, confessing this. I can breathe. "We're...partners. We're English partners." The words sound pathetic coming from my lips—so stupid and trivial. They don't make any sense. We're more than partners.

  Rusch eyes me carefully, then nods. "Okay. Let's go to the bathroom and get you washed up. We'll find you a shirt. Let's just...one thing at a time, all right?"

  He guides me down the hall, hand gripping my arm as I drive one foot in front of the other. Taylor and West have arrived. They're waiting in the emergency room lobby.

  "Hey," Rusch calls. "Either of you gotta clean shirt?"

  "My gym bag is in the trunk," Taylor replies, pointing over his shoulder.

  "Go get it."

  "You okay, Whalen?" he asks.

  "He's fine," Rusch replies, pushing through the bathroom door.

  "I fucked everything up," I whisper.

  Rusch turns on the water at one of the sinks, rips pape
r towels from the machine and hands them to me.

  I don't know this person—this thing staring back at me, standing in front of this mirror. My forehead drips sweat. Patches of dirt and dried blood stain my neck and face. My hands. My hands tremble. And the skin on my chest from where I was struck—the bruise from impact flowers, expanding. I know it stings. I know it hurts like hell. But all of my senses—everything is muted. Dull.

  I should've died.

  Jaden—she could've died. Because of me.

  "I have to admit, this is way more exciting than pulling people for burnt-out taillights. I should've gone undercover a long time ago," West jokes.

  The comment leaves me dizzy, the room spinning. I grasp the edge of the sink, fighting to collect myself.

  Rusch's eyes narrow, watching me. "Deep breaths, Whalen."

  Deep breaths.

  Deep breaths.

  The world stops swirling.

  I wash away the blood and dirt and grime. Run wet fingers through my hair. Splash my face. Taylor returns with the shirt, hands me a bottled water. I uncap it and take a swig.

  "Someone needs to call her parents," I finally say. "Before the media get the story and fuck it up."

  "Do you know the number?" Rusch asks.

  "No." I should. But I don't. "Her name is Jaden McEntyre. Her family runs McEntyre Construction."

  Their walkie-talkies blast to life: "The Chief is on his way."

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

  I linger in the bathroom, destroy that bottled water, slip the clean shirt over my head. By the time I return to the lobby, other officers have arrived. They've moved Jaden to a room. They're stitching her up now. We hurry to the South Wing.

  "They're going to question her," Rusch says.

  The thought of someone—one of mine—holing her up in a cold room, asking all kinds of questions, demanding answers, poisons my bloodstream. "The hell they are."

  "A guy died back there, Chris. You were shot. And this girl—your English partner—walked into the middle of it all. If you think there's not going to be an investigation, you're kidding yourself. If there's anything you need to come clean about...."

  "I don't have anything to confess. She was my partner for a project. We spent some time together after school, and I fell for her. That's it."

  "That's it?" he presses.

  Is that it?

  I exhale, shoulders falling, and lower my voice: "One of the guys there today—he was her boyfriend. We got in a fight last week, and it was over her."

  "Jesus Christ," he mutters.

  "I didn't mean for it to happen. And I ended it, Rusch. I swear to God I haven't spoken to her since. Not until today."

  "That might save your ass."

  "I don't care anymore. I'm not..."

  "What the hell did you do to her?" A loud, angry voice punctuates this conversation. Footsteps pound against the tile floor. I recognize Daniel, Jaden's brother, instantly. And in a second officers are between us, holding him back, protecting me.

  "Daniel."

  Everyone freezes. We turn toward the voice—that beautiful, angel voice. The sound nearly brings me to my knees. Rusch tightens his grip on my arm.

  She's okay.

  The door to Jaden's room is open now. She sits on the edge of the bed in a paper-thin, hospital-issued gown. She doesn't look happy to see her brother.

  Or me.

  "Get out of my way!" He charges through the wall of officers, pushing them aside, and shuts the door behind him.

  "He was pissed," West mutters.

  Pissed? He was more than pissed. He was irate. Livid.

  I'll be lucky to leave this hospital alive.

  And why not? What kind of person am I—who sneaks to his house to see his little sister; who lets her skip school, driving the getaway car; who drags her into a drug arrest gone wrong; who can't tell her he loves her....

  It feels like forever before the door finally reopens. But when it does: "She wants to see you," Daniel tells me. "I don't know why. What I do know—and all of your little officer friends can hear this—is if you ever, ever, hurt my sister again, I will disfigure you so badly it'll take weeks to identify what's left."

  "Daniel," she chides.

  He turns to face her. "Sorry. That's the best I can do."

  Given my cue, I slink past him. Enter the room. Close the door.

  She's cleaned up. There's no blood on her face. In her hair. There are a few scrapes, but the gash on her head is stitched and bandaged. Monitors beep, tracking her vitals. I imagine her heart rate lifting when she sees me.

  Wishful thinking.

  "Are...you okay?" I regret the words the moment they slip past my tongue. It's such an inane question. Of course she's not okay. "Look, Jaden, I am so, so sorry this happened. No one was supposed to be at the school this afternoon. If I had any idea you were still there...."

  "First, I think I should thank you," she says. "You know, for saving me."

  I rake fingers through my hair, swallow back the knot blocking my throat. "I didn't save you. It happened because of me. Every time I close my eyes I see.... And you have to know that I will never forgive myself..."

  "Still," she interrupts, "it happened. And you're obviously good at whatever it is you do, because it could've been worse. For both of us."

  I exhale an anxious breath, trying to calm my racing pulse, thankful I'm not tethered to those machines—those machines that would, in a second, sell me out. Because truth is, I'm not Jaden. I can't pretend everything is okay right now. It's not.

  "So.... Who are you?" she asks.

  "Parker Whalen."

  Because I am more Parker than I ever was Christopher. I have felt more, learned more, loved more these last few months.... And what started as a lie has become my skin. And something good has come out of all this, because I get it now. I know what matters.

  An eyebrow lifts, skeptical. "Really?"

  "Yes."

  "Parker Whalen. High school student?"

  I clear my throat. "Officer Whalen, actually." I reach into my pocket and remove my badge, offering it as proof. The gold metal shimmers, light bouncing in every direction. She touches the shield carefully, the star in the middle, then places it on the bed beside her.

  "What's your story? What are you doing?"

  "I was on assignment. At your school."

  "You were after my boyfriend."

  "I know it looks that way, but it's not like that, I swear. Until a couple of weeks ago I didn't even know Blake knew Vince."

  She shakes her head, disbelieving. "You were undercover the whole time."

  "Yes," I whisper.

  "So...everything I know about you. It's all...a lie."

  "Jaden, I know it seems that way. And yeah, I had a backstory. I had to. I couldn't fall for you. And you have no idea how wretched I felt lying in bed at night trying to think up stories to tell you, knowing they weren't even true. All those things I said.... I didn't have any other choice. But you know me, Jade. You do. Deep down I'm the same guy. I love the zoo. And Sun Chips. And I think Mr. Darcy is a pretentious..."

  "Your dad?"

  My dad, the deadbeat.

  "Retired sheriff," I reply. "Small town."

  "Your mom?"

  My mom, who bounced from boyfriend to boyfriend. Kicked me out of the house when she couldn't deal with me anymore.

  "Married to him for twenty-six years. Somewhat happily for most of those. They live outside Hamilton."

  "You said they were divorced. You grew up broke."

  "I grew up surprisingly middle class," I confess.

  "Brothers? Sisters?" she asks.

  "I have an older sister in college. I'm twenty-one years old, Sagittarius, and this was my second undercover assignment."

  "You were kicked out of your old school," she says, tone hardening. "You were into drugs."

  I nod. "I was. I can't lie about that. But I was never kicked out, and never arrested. Not officially."

  Not
after the charges were wiped clean.

  Thank you, Mr. Donovan.

  "Your motorcycle? The drug money?"

  "No drug money. I bought it after my first few paychecks."

  "The bruises?"

  "Occupational hazard. And...paintball."

  She glares at me, eyes lit with fury. "How long have you been a cop?"

  "A couple years."

  "And this is something you always wanted to do?"

  "Seemed like the right choice at the time."

  "And you just...hang out at high schools and fall for girls in your classes?"

  "No." I swallow hard. I can't tear my eyes away from her—her beautiful, broken body—can't stop thinking about how it felt to cradle her in my arms. How she curled into me.

  How she trusted me.

  "I pose as a student to keep an eye out for drug activity. I've only fallen hard for one girl. And I'm still kind of freaking out because about an hour ago I thought I'd lost her. And if that happened...."

  Tears pool at the edge of her lashes. "There's nothing like a gun to the face to help sort out all your conflicted feelings," she says, tone harsh.

  "I know I hurt you, Jaden. I hurt you every way a person can possibly be hurt. But if you can forgive me, I promise..."

  She squeezes the corners of her eyes. A tear drips down her cheek. She exhales a breath, composing herself. "I don't blame you for any of this, so there's nothing to forgive. I'm glad that you were there, and you knew what you were doing. I just...."

  And at this, she gives up. She cries. Her voice cracks, breaking, tears spilling over. She gazes at the ceiling, still—even now—trying to force them away.

  Fuck.

  Fuck if something in my chest doesn't snap in two, ripping open.

  "I don't know who you are, Parker. I thought.... You let me believe...."

  "I had to stick to my story, Jaden," I interrupt, desperate. "It's my job. I'm undercover. I would've loved, more than anything in this world, to meet you under different circumstances. But it wasn't safe for either of us. And what happened to you today...you have to know that I'd give anything to take it back. I will not lose a second of sleep for killing that bastard, but what happened to you today is going to haunt me for the rest of my life."

 
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