Tough love, p.1
Also by Nancy Holder
Saving Grace: Cry Me a River
The Wicked series:
Witch, Curse, Legacy, Spellbound, and Resurrection
Pretty Little Devils
Possessions 2: The Evil Within
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Queen of the Slayers
(and many others)
Angel: The Casefiles (and many others)
Smallville: Silence and Hauntings
Athena Force: Disclosure
To the cast and crew of Saving Grace,
especially Nancy Miller and Holly Hunter.
With my deepest admiration and gratitude.
a cognizant original v5 release october 18 2010
Love is a given, hatred is acquired.
“Fight,” Grace told the boy, as he slipped further and further away from her.
Definite drive-by. Probable DOA. Dead on arrival. Sixteen, maybe, and his life was nearly over.
Not yet, though. He had backup: Grace Hanadarko and Ham Dewey, OCPD Major Crimes; and they were busting their humps to keep him alive. While Grace tried to stanch the grievous life-sucking wound, her partner talked to 911. Ham spoke calmly but loudly into the phone, running down the pertinent information: location, location, location; victim’s condition. By Ham’s questions and answers, Grace knew a squad car was en route for backup—lights and sirens—and an ambulance was practically there. But help wasn’t there yet, and it might not come soon enough.
The pitch-black alley stank of rotten food and dogshit, a terrible place to die. Wind pitched grit, gravel, and fetid newspapers against Grace’s face. The knees of her jeans were soaking up blood and rock chips as her bare hands slipped in and out of the hole in the kid’s chest. The hole. The big, gaping, fatal hole that was expelling blood like an Oklahoma gusher.
He can make it, she told herself.
The hole that was too big—
He will make it. He will.
She had violated procedure when she didn’t take the time to snap on a pair of latex gloves before she went to work. Maybe someone else would lose focus and fret about that, spin a mental mini-drama about getting a positive result on the subsequent AIDS test they would take. But she wasn’t someone else, and right now she had this kid’s whole world in her hands.
Despite the buffeting wind, Ham held the long, black flashlight steady while he stayed on the line with Dispatch. Grace’s world was reduced to a circular yellow glow, a spotlight. The boy’s complexion was very black, almost purple-black; she couldn’t tell if he had gone cyanotic, which would not be a good sign. But if this murder came to trial she was saying that there had been enough light for the shooter to see this short, scrawny boy, this unarmed teenager who was gurgling and dying. Plenty of illumination for the bastard to hit exactly what he’d been aiming for:
A one-way ticket to hell.
“Live,” Grace ordered him. Then something happened to his eyes: They fluttered open and she felt a thrill down her back as they focused on her. “Come on. You can do it. You can—”
His eyes widened. She saw him seeing her. He was aware, and with her. Ham’s flashlight shone like a halo.
“Yeah,” she said. “Good. Stay with me.”
Then they went dull and glassy, and she knew he wasn’t seeing anything. Her hands slid in the wound, and she set her jaw. If they got him to a hospital, got a transfusion going; got a team working on him—
“Grace,” Ham said softly. “Grace. He’s gone.”
She was silent a moment, aware that she was panting and that icy sweat was sliding down her face. Her back muscles were spasming. Her knees felt like ground glass was embedded in them.
Pain. Hurt. World of hurt. The boy, gone …
Then she said, “Hell with that,” and pressed her hands over the boy’s wound again.
And she didn’t let go until the ambulance came.
Around eleven that night, Grace blew into her house along with the fierce, near-gale-force winds, her long, curled blond hair brushing the shoulders of her black suit jacket as she shut the front door and leaned against it, head back, her dressy boot heels flush. Overcome with exhaustion, she wiped her eyes. She was wearing the change of clothes she kept in her locker at the office—black trousers, white shirt, the matching jacket—like the damn FBI.
A few drinks at Louie’s had done nothing to dull the pain of giving the news to the overwhelmed, methaddicted mom of the victim. He had a name now: Haleem Clark, and from the looks of it, he had bled out in that alley while making a drug buy for her. Some kids get sent to the store for a loaf of bread. Haleem died fetching a chunk of crystal for Mommy Dearest.
This was how Grace and Ham figured it went down: The dealer met Haleem and they began to conduct their business. Then Mr. Dealer saw something he didn’t like and took off down the alley. They guessed that would have been the vehicle carrying the shooter. Maybe it was someone he owed money. Or sold bad drugs to. Or maybe he just saw the glint of a weapon.
Whatever the case, he was smart to run, because someone in the vehicle shot at him. At least once. Rhetta Rodriguez, head of the Crime Lab and Grace’s best friend since kindergarten, had extracted a bullet from the exploded remains of a pile of dogshit and it sure looked like a Sig P220 to the two of them. Grace and Rhetta were both assuming Haleem’s gut shot came from the same weapon. Rhetta would get back to Grace after Ballistics made their report.
Despite the Sig’s reputation as an accurate weapon, the shooter still missed the dealer. So Mr. Killer made another pass in his vehicle, leaving nice, deep tire tracks in the mud that Rhetta’s lab was already working on. Also, by tracing Haleem’s shoe prints through the mud and garbage, Grace surmised that Haleem had run toward the vehicle, maybe assuming the occupants would recognize him or else spare an innocent bystander.
Maybe the shooter didn’t like Haleem. Maybe he didn’t like black kids buying drugs. Whatever the motive, he—or she—took out Haleem on a second attempt, the vehicle hanging a U and driving by him again. They couldn’t quite figure out why he hadn’t been shot in the back-why he hadn’t dashed headlong back into the alley to get out of the range of fire. It was almost as if he had stood waiting to take a bullet while the vehicle drove past him one more time.
That second pass was Grace’s judicial ace in the hole. Coming back around implied intent and premeditation. That invited stiffer penalties, including the needle. If praying for an execution would get it done, then Grace was all for praying.
Okay, then, maybe just crossing her fingers.
Someone called the shooting in—though of course no witnesses came forward during the subsequent canvass; Dispatch sent Grace and Ham over, as they were already in the vicinity, working on a liquor store burglary. As first on the scene, they rendered assistance. The victim was strangled by his own blood anyway.
Grace went to the mom’s house while Ham attacked their shitpiles of paperwork. Later, Captain Perry bought them a round at Louie’s. With their first toast—two longnecks chased with tequila shots—Grace swore she would find the shooter—find him and strap him to the same gurney in the same death chamber where Leon Cooley had died—unless someone else got him first.
As for Haleem’s mom, she’d wailed like a banshee when Family Services came for her three other kids, screaming that she’d just lost one baby and how could they do this to her? High as a kite, and there was no food in the house, and the littlest one was wearing nothing but a filthy diaper and some flea bites.
“She might as well have pulled the trigger herself,” Grace muttered against her jittering door. She felt a million years old.<
Then toenails clattered, and Bighead Gusman, her white bulldog, greeted her with his nose against her kneecap and a low, happy moan. Without lifting her head or opening her eyes, she gave him a good scratch and a pat. Some of the storm clouds dissipated as he chuffed in response and led her toward the kitchen, where he knew that his five-star dinner sat waiting for him in a family-sized pork-and-beans-sized can. Grace remembered only then that she had a fresh rawhide bone shaped like a barbell out in the car. With a couple of growfs, Gus assured her that he was happy to see her even if she never brought him home another chew toy in his doggy-years life. He was always happy to see her. She smiled very faintly.
Okay, so maybe there was life after death, and dogs were in charge of it.
“Evenin’, Grace,” Earl said, as she grabbed a beer out of the fridge. One minute she and Gus were alone; the next, her last-chance angel was standing beside her in the kitchen. Earl did that, just showed up; it used to be the sight of him was enough to set her teeth on edge. Now, as with her Gussie, she was glad Earl was there.
By all appearances, Earl was a fifty-something workin’ man with straggly teeth and tousled brown-and-gray hair. He was wearing a gray jacket with a couple of militaristic-looking badges over a plaid shirt over one of his signature T-shirts—a photograph of a tornado and the words OKLAHOMA’S FIFTH SEASON. Ha, got that right. Jeans and black athletic shoes completed his ensemble. But he also had a pair of golden, feathery wings that he kept tucked away, unless he had to fly off to France or Milwaukee, or hold a dying child in his arms. When even one feather brushed her, it made her feel stoned and orgasmic. Blissful. She needed some bliss, just about now. Haleem Sampson Clark had not died in a state of bliss.
“Hey, Earl.” The fridge door hung open; she raised her brows and paused, in case he wanted one, too. Earl nodded. She grabbed three beers. Checked the level on the tequila bottle that was sitting next to an opened box of pancake mix. The bottle was nice and full. Grace was counting her blessings.
Earl took one of the longnecks and held it up, toasting. “To Haleem.”
They clinked, threw back. One of the things Grace loved about beer was that the seventh one tasted as fantastic as the first one. Every time.
“Where is he now?” she asked him, pushing coils of hair away from her eyes. “There a ghetto in heaven, too? Angels fly by now and then, and wave, then go hang out in the nicer neighborhoods?”
He smiled sadly at her with world-weary eyes. “You know heaven don’t work that way, Grace.”
“I don’t know shit,” she retorted as she crossed to the side door and forced it open against the stabbing wind. She made kissy noises at Gus. “Go wee-wee, Gusman.”
As her housemate moaned and trotted happily past her, she said, “I take that back. I do know shit. I know that kid is dead.”
“Dead in this world,” he concurred. “But in the next, he’s only dead to pain and sorrow.”
“Like I said.” A frustrated sigh escaped her. She didn’t think every single word coming out of Earl’s mouth was bullshit anymore, but she also wasn’t quite sure how much was lifted from the in-house marketing memos God circulated every morning, versus how much was stuff Earl made up on the spot. Or maybe some of it might actually be true.
“And Haleem knows his mama loves him, in her way,” he added.
“Yeah, loved him to death.” Grace grabbed the tequila bottle. “Just like God and Jesus, huh. God loved His only begotten Son so much He let Him hang there suffering …” She trailed off, as tired of her own cynicism as she was sure Earl was.
“You should close that pancake mix,” Earl said. “It’s going to spoil.”
“Clay’s coming over tomorrow night. We’ll finish it off.” Still, she set down the tequila bottle and crimped the edges of the plastic bag together. Then she opened up Gus’s can of wet food and thwunked the massive, chunky cylinder into his bowl. Broke it up nice with a spoon and set it on the floor as she opened up the side door again. The wind slammed it wider; she jumped; Earl did not. Equally unruffled, Gus sashayed in, harrumphed his thanks, and dug in.
“Good thing he ain’t a Chihuahua,” Earl drawled, and Grace grunted.
“Yeah, he’d be long gone by now.” She smiled affectionately at her puppy guy. “Gone with the wind.”
She leaned against the breakfast bar, awash in weariness. The last of her street-induced adrenaline had long ago burned off, leaving her to crash, hard. Crashing was difficult to take, so cops pulled brutal practical jokes and swore and drank too much and had libidos to match the need to stay alert so they could stay alive. Ham got that—the prime directive to mix it up—or rather, he used to, until he started feeling sentimental about her instead of simply lustful. Now he was muddying the waters of their firecracker partnership with buzz-kill feelings.
Did Earl understand that she had to drum it up to keep it up? She had a demanding profession; she had to stoke her fires to keep burning bright. Tonight he just smiled his pleasant, accepting smile and drank in silence with her. Her mind went over and over what she had done, and what she had failed to do. If they’d gotten there sooner, if she’d tried harder to stanch the wound. It was such a bitch when her best still wasn’t good enough.
She should have saved that kid.
Anger began to build. She felt it sizzle her blood and welcomed it. It shouldn’t have happened. She shouldn’t have let it.
“You know about Mother Teresa?” Earl asked. She cocked her head, because she knew it was a rhetorical question. She also knew he would get to the point when he was good and ready. “Her entire ministry was devoted to dyin’ people. One of those people said, ‘I lived like an animal in the streets. But I will die like an angel, loved and well cared for.’”
Earl took another pull on his beer. “That kid knew you were there. He knew you cared about him.”
“Except angels don’t die. But I get the point. Thanks, Earl.” For trying to get her out of her own tornado. Or at least help her find the eye of the storm.
“Friday tomorrow. Rocket club after school for Clay, and an Aunt Grace sleepover after that. Life is good,” Earl said.
“For some kids,” she replied, but she warmed at the thought of her nephew. A life with Clay Norman in it was a good life. As she pushed the door shut, she calculated whether she needed to make a store run for more popcorn and sour candy.
“Are you and Clay going to watch some rocket movie?” Earl asked. “Astronaut Farmer, maybe?”
She snorted, turning around to face him. “Astronaut Farmer? Are you kidding? Zombies, man.” Walking back into the kitchen, she hoisted the tequila bottle. “I hope rocket club’s not canceled due to the wind. Can you talk to your boss about that? I’m going to take a shower.”
Make that another shower; at the police station she’d washed Haleem’s blood away, and plastered some bandages over her pitted knees, before she put on her business clothes for her visit with Haleem’s mother. She went through a hell of a lot of jeans on the job; she wasn’t about to bleed on the good stuff, too.
Ham had offered to go with her to the mom’s but Grace wanted it to be personal, woman-to-woman. Then Ham had asked to come on by. She’d told him she needed some alone time. He wasn’t doing great, being single. It was clear to her now that he’d gotten divorced from Darlene so he could go for a do-over. Grace had honestly thought the Deweys had broken up because their marriage wasn’t working—that Ham would never have strayed into an adulterous affair with her, Grace, if he actually believed in the concept of holy wedded matrimony. Last laugh was on her. Poor Ham. She had no plans to get married, ever.
“We could get a pizza and watch the game after you’re cleaned up,” Earl ventured.
She was touched. She figured he had shown up because she was upset. And that he was sticking around for the same reason. He was a real angel that way.
“Which game would that be?” she asked, blinking her eyes in mock innocence.
He shrugged, watching Gus lick his
“Well, you figured right,” she told him. “Sooners played BYU tonight. I bought everybody a round at Louie’s to keep them from telling me the score. But I figure we won big. Sooners have got the real running backs. None of that platoon bullshit the Cougars use.”
He looked at her with a shit-eating grin. Her heart skipped and she narrowed her eyes.
“What, do you already know the score?” He raised his eyebrows, all innocence, and she turned her eyes into slits. “Don’t you dare tell me.”
“You ready to give your life to God? Otherwise … well, let’s see … the Sooners made the first down—”
She cupped her ears and turned her back. “It’s gotta be free will, Earl. This is duress.”
He chuckled. Tentatively, she lowered her hands, making a half turn. He just looked at her. Shrugged.
“You know that’s not my style, bribing you. But if you feel a declaration coming on …” He pantomimed uncapping his own ears.
“Let’s stick with pizza,” she said. “You in the mood for the usual?”
He nodded. “No mushrooms, extra jalapeños. And them bread sticks,” he added. “With the Parmesan cheese.”
She grinned crookedly. Earl went through more food than a linebacker.
“On it.” She crossed to the phone to place their order. Once that was done, she took another swig of tequila. “Want to jump in the shower with me?”
He shrugged. “It’d be tight quarters with the wings and all.”
“Uh-huh,” she drawled, unconvinced. Earl seemed to have a modest streak she had yet to cure him of. For her part, she flashed her next-door neighbor as a matter of course.
Still smirking, she maintained possession of the tequila and two more beers and sailed into the bathroom, stripped to the empty, dark window across the yard, and heard her TV go on. The volume was low, and she could make out the rumbly bass of Earl’s voice as he chatted with Gus. Apparently they actually communicated, which didn’t surprise her. She and Gus had a language all their own, too.