I slammed the empty shot glass down on the bar, smacked my lips, and waved to the bartender, an unnaturally skinny guy trying his best to hide a receding hairline beneath a thin comb-over. “Give me another. And set a beer next to it this time, will you?”
I leaned back on the bar stool, checked my balance, and thought better of it. The glow of drink was coming over me, but it wasn’t yet enough to put down the demons. It was just making them angrier. The bartender looked me up and down. I tried to hide the beer stain splattered across my shirt and tie.
“You think you really need more?” he asked.
“The hell are you, a goddamn pastor? Gimme the damn drinks.”
He scowled, but started pouring. He probably needed the cash; the place was dead. It should’ve been, seeing as how it wasn’t yet midday.
I squinted up at the TV above the bar, trying to get it to stay still. The familiar jingle of the midday misery broadcast tinkled out, and my gut started sinking before the newscaster even came on the screen. I had a feeling I knew what the top news would be.
The bartender pushed the glasses of beer and whiskey over to me, but I didn’t want them anymore. He frowned and followed my gaze up to the TV. “Hey, ain’t that you on there?”
“You want a gold star?” I said, but I didn’t have the heart to put any venom in it. My ugly mug flashed up on the screen for a second, a shot that’d been taken when my dark hair was caked with grease and my eyes were so sunken you’d need to put on a scuba suit to reach the bottom.
Then the image cut away to a clip of me shoving my way through a crowd of hungry media at the foot of the courthouse steps as I tried to make it to the taxi waiting for me at the curb. I remembered it like it was yesterday, which was probably a bad sign, since it happened only a couple of hours ago. The bruise I’d got shoving aside the Channel 4 cameraman had stopped hurting after the third shot of whiskey.
Or maybe the fourth. It was getting hard to keep count.
I caught the bartender reaching for the remote behind him. “Don’t you dare turn that up,” I warned him.
Fat lot of good that did. The sound crackled to life a second later, loud enough to make me want to smash the beer glass to see if I could cut my own ears off before I passed out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite that drunk.
“…at Bluegate Courthouse earlier this morning as prosecutors dropped all criminal charges against freelance Tunneler Miles Franco. Franco was facing thirty-seven counts of murder, thirteen counts of grievous bodily harm, and twelve counts of aggravated assault following the so-called ‘Chroma Wars’ that decimated the city last summer.”
The bartender’s eyes bugged out and swiveled toward me like they were on stalks. I flashed a grin at him and downed the whiskey in one. In my mind’s eye, I saw the photos of the charred bodies they presented at the trial. I always saw them, now. Sometimes, at night, they seemed to stand around my bed, never speaking. In a messed up way, they were comforting. I figured going crazy was a pretty easy punishment for what I’d done.
“Franco was convicted of two counts of reckless Tunneling,” the voiceover continued, “for which he was sentenced to time served and had his Tunneling license suspended for sixty days.”
Time served. They made it sound like a cake walk. Bet not one of those dead-eyed reporters had sat inside a cell that small. They put me in a fucking box, like an animal.
I slammed the whiskey glass down harder than I intended. The crack of shattering glass only made the bartender’s expression even more comically fearful. He was so white you’d lose him in a bundle of sheets.
There was something wet on my hand, so I let go of the shattered glass and brought my palm up in front of my face. “Huh,” I said. “I’m bleeding.”
The TV screen cut away to an image of an overweight woman with permed, unnaturally blond hair. “There has been speculation that Bluegate’s new mayor, Juliet White, urged the prosecuting team to drop the charges against Franco in a number of behind-closed-doors meetings. The mayor’s office has so far refused to comment. Mayor White was elected on her promise to wipe out organized crime in Bluegate, and now many are wondering if her dedication to that goal will stretch so far as to include the condoning of vigilante activity. Back to you, Ian.”
Mercifully, the story disappeared from the screen. The newsreaders rolled right on to some story about the spate of unauthorized Limbus Tunnel openings in recent months. I gave my bloody palm another glance and shot the bartender a look. “You gonna give me a napkin or do I have to bleed out on your floor?”
He jumped to attention, scrambled around aimlessly for a few seconds, then thrust his cleaning rag at me. It wasn’t the most hygienic thing I’d ever seen, but I took it anyway and wrapped it around my hand. Tying it up had me stumped, though. I grabbed one end in my teeth and tried to pull it tight.
“Having some trouble, Mr. Franco?”
I swiveled in my chair, rag still in my mouth, to find the source of the voice. Then it was my turn to freak out.
Detective Vivian Reed had given up her usual pantsuit in favor of a slim-fitting button-down shirt and a pair of dark jeans that must’ve been painted on. Her dark hair was trimmed into a practical bob-cut that nicely framed the look of disdain on her face.
And she was drop-dead-and-stand-up-again gorgeous.
I stumbled off my bar stool, sending it skittering across the floor behind me. I made a half-hearted grab for it, missed, and tried to make it look like I’d been meaning for it to fall all along.
“Vivian,” I slurred. “Fancy seeing you here. Get you a drink?”
A flicker of her eyes was the only reaction I got from her dark-skinned face. “We have to talk.”
I nodded a little too quickly. “Yeah. Sit, sit. Barkeep! Liquor us up.”
“Not here,” she said, shooting the bartender a look and a shake of the head that she probably thought I didn’t notice. “There’s been an incident. You have to come down to the station.”
The station. My heart started pounding in a new way. I glanced at the door to the bar. I could’ve made it if I’d been sober. As it was, the tables and chairs in the way looked like a minefield. Still, I wouldn’t go back in a box. I wouldn’t.
“Take it easy, Mr. Franco,” Vivian said. “You’re not in trouble.”
“Easy? I’m easy,” I said, letting my eyes dance around the room. There had to be another exit. I wouldn’t lay a hand on Vivian, but maybe I could distract her. “I’m relaxed as a chimp on Valium.”
“Lady,” the bartender whispered, apparently squeaking out a little courage at last, “be careful. TV says he killed a bunch of people.”
“I know what he did.” She tapped the badge affixed to her belt without taking her eyes off me. “It’s okay. I’m a cop. And all I want is a little help. Something bad’s happened, and Mr. Franco’s going to help me. Aren’t you, Mr. Franco?”
“Not if you don’t stop calling me ‘Mr. Franco’,” I said, but she seemed to have one of those hypnotic voices. My heart rate was slowly coming down to a more reasonable level. “Give me a ‘Miles’ and I’ll come with you.”
I could practically hear her teeth grinding together, but she just sighed and narrowed her eyes. “Fine. Miles. I need you to come downtown with me.”
“What’s the magic word?”
She had me by the jacket collar before I could move. I waved at the bartender as she dragged me away. “See you, boss. I’ll be back to pick up the tab, don’t you worry.”
Vivian shoved me outside into the harsh daylight. Cars barreled past, kicking up smog and heat into a day that was already turning into one of the hottest on record. Summer in Bluegate was usually only distinguishable from winter by the new crop of reality shows that appeared on TV, but today I had enough sweat to make a coat.
She let go of me, and I rearranged my suit jacket on my shoulders. “Manners, Vivian. You heard of them?”
“You’re lucky I didn’t have some uniforms pick you up. They would’ve pulled a taser on you if you’d tried that nonsense with them. Let me look at that hand.”
She grabbed my hand before I could say anything, tossed away the filthy rag, and wrapped a clean bar napkin around the wound.
“Being tasered isn’t so bad,” I said. “Tickles, though. Haven’t seen you since you gave your testimony at the trial.”
“I was working. I’m not your babysitter, Miles.” She jerked her head toward her shiny sedan parked across the road.
“I don’t know what you are anymore,” I said. The drink had done a nice job on my inhibitions, what little I had. “All the shit we went through, and you couldn’t even look at me during the cross examination.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it again and pursed her lips. “Not now.”
She strode across the road in a break in the traffic, leaving me to catch up.
“Should I write you into my schedule?” I asked. “Only I was hoping we could be adults and talk.”
“We’ll talk about what happened when you’re sober,” she said as she opened the driver’s side door. “For now, we need to ask you a few questions.”
“We?” I said, getting into the back seat. “Who’s we?”
There was an asshole in a sports jacket sitting in the front passenger’s seat. I knew he was an asshole from the way he turned and flashed an immaculately white smile in my direction. He had a jawline that could cut stone, and the sort of perfectly sculpted yet dashingly unkempt blond hair you saw on commercials for men’s perfume. Christ, his chin even had a dimple.
“Detective Gunnar Wade, Special Investigations,” he said, twisting in his seat to offer me his hand. “Good to meet you.”
“The name’s Gofuck,” I said, shaking his hand. “Gofuck Yourself.” I tapped Vivian on the shoulder as she climbed in behind the wheel. “What’s with Pretty Boy?”
Wade’s smile didn’t slip, which just infuriated me more. “I’m Detective Reed’s partner.”
“Yeah? I got her last partner sent to jail. He was a lot bigger than you, as I remember it.”
His grin just got wider.
Vivian started the car. “You two want a pissing contest, do it outside. I just got the upholstery cleaned.”