He awoke to a phone call.
Benji's voice was grim. "It's happened again."
John didn't feel any guilt when his pulse jumped with excitement. The killer had struck again. Maybe this time he had been careless and left behind a hair, a fiber. Maybe this time, John would bring him down.
He rolled out of bed, feeling like shit. A tequila-inspired hang-over was the worst. He vowed never to do another shot again.
That's when he remembered. Blue eyes like water in the Caribbean. Red hair as bright as a cherry.
The memory of what he'd done last night - what he'd felt for the first time in years - was enough to push his already queasy stomach over the edge.
After he'd cleaned up and flushed the toilet, he climbed beneath a scalding hot shower, trying to scrub away the betrayal that felt as though it was painted across his skin. What the hell had he been thinking? How could he betray the memory of his wife and daughter like that? With a cheap stripper? A male one?
John kept the spray on his face. If he cried, he didn't know it. But he wanted to. He had never hated himself more than at that moment.
The door opened to reveal the wrinkled face of an elderly woman, who peered apprehensively from beneath the security chain. "Who're you?" she barked in a ragged, smoke-ravaged voice. She started to cough, then turned her head and spat behind her, presumably on her living room carpet. "I didn't hear nothin'," she snapped.
Stonebrook narrowed his blue-grey eyes before he held up his badge for the woman to see. "I'm Detective Stonebrook and this is Detective Holloway. I understand that you think you might not have heard anything, but let me ask you a few questions about last night --"
"Why?" the cranky old woman demanded.
Stonebrook didn't miss a beat. "There was a homicide committed a block up from this apartment complex. We were hoping . . ."
"I didn't hear nothin'!"
The detective jammed his foot into the door as it started to slam shut. Into the woman's widened eyes, Stonebrook ground out. "Listen, lady, I don't care if you're in the middle of watching "Wheel of Fortune". One of your neighbors was just killed and it sure wouldn't hurt your chances of steering clear of Hell if you listened to a few of my questions, you got it?"
Benedictine Holloway -- "Benji" -- stifled a laugh and turned away as her partner began grilling the stunned old woman. The old woman was the fifteenth resident of the Baltic Arms Apartments that they'd questioned this evening. Like the others, Benji doubted the woman would provide the two detectives with any helpful information. In a neighborhood like this, tongues had a funny way of drying up.
Turning away completely, she looked down the hall, measuring it's hopelessness in the number of holes and mysterious stains in its carpet. What a shit-hole.
Benji was used to finding herself in places like this. It was the stomping ground of Metro Homicide. It was still damned depressing, though. A ninth-year officer from the southeast precinct had eaten his gun just two days ago. After a day like today, Benji couldn't say as she blamed the guy. But when things like that happened -- she glanced at her partner, who was holding onto his patience by a thread -- it got a mind to thinking, and she really didn't like that.
Not that she'd ever kill herself. No way. She'd been raised in a religious family -- hello, Benedictine , anyone? -- so suicide as an option had been drilled out of her head long ago. But not everyone shared her beliefs.
She faced her partner again, sizing up the large man she'd worked with for the last four years. John Stonebrook -- Stone, as he preferred to be called -- had turned forty yesterday. Four years ago, Benji had helped Stone's wife plan a surprise birthday bash for the guy.
Four years . . . It seemed a long time when it came to things like partnerships. It was bitterly short when it came to matters of death.
She took a minute to admire him because she usually only saw him as her partner, therefore, asexual. But John Stonebrook was a handsome man beneath the two day's growth of dark stubble. Shaggy black hair that was beginning to grey at the temples, steely blue-grey eyes and a strong, square face . . . definitely brooding heartthrob material. Stone had played football in college and that bulk had never left him. His six feet four inches were accentuated by broad shoulders made even bigger by his suit jacket and trench coat. Beneath that was a body Benji suspected was worth a peek at. Stone could be dating up a storm if he wanted to.
Benji wondered if he even masturbated anymore. If there was a crease in his palm, it was from the neck of the bottle of Jack Daniels he always had available.
She blinked out of her thoughts when the old woman's door slammed. Stone flipped a bird at the door.
"I take it she was helpful?" Benji asked dryly.
"Why I'm surprised, I have no idea." Stone ran a hand over his face, his large blunt fingers lingering over his chin, measuring the stubble.
"Two days," Benji supplied helpfully. "You look like shit."
Stone raised a bored eyebrow. "Do I stink?"
"Not yet, but I'm not about to take a big whiff when I'm near you to check for certain."
"Some partner you are," Stone grumbled.
"Not part of the job description, buddy." Benji sighed as she looked down the dim hallway. "Last one. I'll take pity on you and handle this one. After this, we're getting something to eat then hitting Boondock's. I'm over this."
"About Boondock's -- I think I'm going to pass on it tonight. I'm beat."
Benji was six inches shorter than her partner, but that didn't prevent her from doing her best to stare him down. "No chance, Stone. We made an agreement, remember? You said you'd go to the bar every night after work. You promised."
Stone looked away, a muscle jumping in his jaw. Benji knew he could refuse. Stone had no real reason to keep any promise he made to her.
"Fine. I'll go."
She smiled, quietly releasing a breath of relief as he passed her on the way to the last apartment. Every day that she managed to get him to Boondock's and socialize with the others was a greater victory than Stone realized.
"My turn," she reminded him, stepping in front of the door. She stood in the semi-circle of worn carpeting in front of the door, her shoes balanced on wooden floorboards that peeked through. "You just stand there and look intimidating."
"My specialty," Stone remarked with a smirk.
Benji's heart jumped. Ah, but Stone could be a looker if he only wanted to.
She rapped sharply on the door, settling her thoughts to business. Inside, something hit the floor with a sharp clank. She leaned forward a little. She could hear movement, as if someone were rushing around, cleaning the place up. Or hiding evidence , her cop voice spoke up. Hah. If they could only be so lucky.
Finally the door opened. The door swung inward without suspicion; no security chain. Foolish , Benji thought. In this neighborhood, with doors without peepholes, opening your door that wide was just asking to be robbed. Or worse.
She definitely felt like sharing that warning when she saw who was holding the door open. A young man in his early twenties stood just inside, barefoot and dressed in frayed jean shorts and a black Cradle of Filth sweater with the neck cut out. The sleeves had been pushed up, revealing pale slender forearms that were a match for the shapely creamy legs that the jean shorts did little to hide.
Benji's cop eyes quickly catalogued the kid's slim build -- narrow hips, narrow shoulders, probably 5'4", 110 pounds -- then completed the inspection by raising her eyes to the young man's face. He had vibrant red hair -- the kind you couldn't get out of a bottle -- that was cut long so that it fell in messy waves around his heart-shaped face. It was his eyes that stopped her. He had blue eyes that were just stunning. The eyes of Heaven , she thought, transfixed by their pure, aquamarine hue.
Stone cleared his throat behind her.
Embarrassed to be caught gawking, Benji smiled at the young man, holding up her badge. "Hi, I'm Detective Holloway and this is my partner Detective Stonebrook. May we come in and ask you a few quick questions? It won't take long."
"Detective Holloway?" the young man repeated in a questioning tone.
"Benedictine," Benji said, and then blinked, surprised at herself. She never gave that name out.
"Benedictine," the man repeated softly, smiling at her.
Her name sounded like a whispered prayer on his lips. She found herself staring into his eyes again and no longer saw the blue, but herself at church, praying with her mother for Benji's father to recover from a stroke. The sun had shone through the stained glass windows above the altar in a myriad of golds, reds and blues. Blue, like his eyes . . .
The vision vanished as the young man looked over her shoulder. Benji dropped her eyes to the floor to compose herself. Weird. She hadn't thought of that day for years. Her father had survived and over time she'd forgotten how traumatic that day had been. But why think of it now?
Shaking her head, she raised her eyes again only to find the red-haired young man staring intently over her shoulder at Stone. Benji suddenly noticed the tension in the air. It crackled, like the electricity between two nodes.
Benji started to say something to diffuse the tension. She'd felt it before when someone rubbed Stone the wrong way or he them. Stone could be abrasive that way, not giving a shit to be nice. But this wasn't that kind of reaction. Studying the young man in the doorway, Benji realized that the odd purity that she'd automatically attributed to him because of his young face and soft voice no longer existed. In his eyes blazed a knowing sexuality. Towards Stone.
"Are you gonna let us in?" Stone asked quietly behind Benji, except it was more of a challenge, than a request.
A long, weighted minute passed before the young man stepped back into the darkness of the apartment. "For the police, anything."
It sounded like a come-on.
Benji and Stone followed the young man into the dingy apartment. It was trashed. Benji had to take a moment to figure out what she was seeing. The place looked like a wild fraternity party had wrapped up just minutes before the detectives showed up. She was sure if she checked the alley outside, she'd see kids spilling out of the windows.
What was apparently used as the coffee table -- a large cardboard box that had once contained a 27-inch TV according to its markings -- was littered with a week's worth of empty food wrappers and about thirty beer cans. A glass ashtray with a motel logo in its base lay on its side on the ragged carpet. It had disgorged its rather alarming pile of cigarette butts and ash onto the floor. A lamp that would have been rejected by the Salvation Army leaned tiredly against the wall, waiting to collapse. Its shade was skewed, revealing the single blackened bulb inside. Clothes and more trash covered most of the blood-red carpet. An old television balanced precariously on a dented, plastic crate. The TV's screen had been kicked in, the glass still scattered about the carpet.
"You can sit there," their host said, indicating the threadbare green futon whose back was tilted at an uncomfortable angle. Broken, obviously. A yellowed sheet and a small pillow were piled at the futon's base as if someone had used it for sleeping.
Benji took a breath and sat tentatively on the edge. It creaked, but didn't collapse. "Thanks."
She wasn't surprised that Stone remained standing. For all his lack of care for himself, Stone was very much aware of his body. He had a knack for knowing how to use his impressive size to affect other people. Standing beside the futon, he seemed to take up most of the space in the small room. It made their host stand awkwardly in the doorway that led to the kitchen. Poised for flight.
"You sleep here?" Stone asked, bending over to pick up the sheet on the floor. "Not in the bedroom?"
The young man shook his head, red hair tickling his jaw. "There's only one bedroom. My roommate is sick, so I give him the bed."
"You jerk off at night?"
Benji gasped, her eyes shooting to her partner, but Stone wasn't looking at her. With his eyes locked on the young man's, Stone brought the sheet to his nose and inhaled deeply. The redhead's mouth fell open, a small sound escaping his throat. Benji looked back and forth between the two men in confusion. What the hell was Stone doing?
"What's your name, kid? And don't name a fruit."
A flash of irritation lit the blue eyes. "I'm not a kid, Detective Stonebrook. My name is Finn. What's your name?"
Stone dropped the sheet. "You already know it."
Finn shook his head. "I want to know what I should call you."
Benji watched the strong lines on Stone's face shift, debating whether they should collect into an expression of irritation, impatience, or indulgence. They settled on boredom. "You should call me Stone. Or Detective Stonebrook."
"Neither of those sound very nice in the dark," Finn said quietly. He reached out and casually flipped on the light switch for the kitchen.
Stone laughed. Benji would have swallowed her gum if she hadn't already run out of sticks. Good God, when had she last heard Stone laugh on the job?
"So who else lives here, Finn?" Stone made a show of picking up a piece of burger wrapper between his thumb and forefinger. "You live like slobs. You and your . . . boyfriend?"
Finn shrugged, crossing his arms and leaning one shoulder against the doorway. "My friend. I told you he's sick. I've been busy taking care of him. I'm sorry if this is uncomfortable for you."
"It'll do," Stone said enigmatically, dropping the wrapper to the floor.
"So what do you and your friend do for a living?" Benji asked, needing to find her footing again with procedure. She pulled out a small notepad and pen. "And what's your friend's name?"
"Jeremy is a bus driver. He works for the school district."
Benji unconsciously dug the tip of her pen into the pad. A school bus driver. Damn. She seriously hoped Jeremy wasn't an addict, because the way this place looked --
"And what do you do . . . Finn?"
Benji heard movement and looked up to see Stone approach Finn, invading the younger man's personal space. Finn straightened up from the wall and took a half step back as he looked up into the taller man's face. Stone braced one arm against the wall where Finn had been leaning, closing him in.
"You're a pretty kid, Finn." Stone's face was close to Finn's, his breaths actually stirring the long tendrils of red hair. Finn dropped his eyes to the floor, his breathing audible in the taut silence. "I wonder how you pay for your half of the rent. Or does your friend Jeremy take care of you that way?"
"I work at the Pump," Finn replied, his chest rising and falling quickly beneath his sweater. "I'm a cocktail server."
Stone's eyes took a leisurely ride up and down Finn's body, pausing on his bare legs before returning to Finn's face. "You serve . . . drinks, huh? You do anything else? A little cash on the side?"
Benji stood up, feeling slightly uncomfortable. She'd never seen her partner act so sexually aggressive before. She didn't want Stone to be accused of harassment. Especially towards another man. Stone was straight.
But Finn wasn't as cowed as she'd thought. He raised his head, the corners of his lips tilting up. To her surprise, the redhead slid one leg forward, inserting it between Stone's legs before the detective knew what was happening. In a fluid movement, Finn dragged his knee up and rubbed it once against Stone's crotch.
"Would you prefer I serve something else?" Finn said softly. "Is that what you want to hear? Because that's what it feels like. . . Detective."
Stone's face darkened. He took a step back. "The Pump, huh? Nice place," he jeered and turned his back to return to the living room.
Benji hid the frown she wanted to aim at her partner and instead concentrated on getting this interview over as quickly as possible.
"Finn, did you happen to be in the neighborhood last night around two thirty in the morning?"
Finn's eyes flicked once to the broken television set. "I was sleeping. I'd had a long night." The latter, said with a glance at Stone.
"Did Jeremy tell you he'd heard or seen anything?" Benji pressed.
Finn shrugged. "I doubt it. He was sick. He wasn't . . . himself."
Benji sighed and held out one of her cards. "Well, if Jeremy does mention that he'd seen or heard anything, or if you happen to hear anything from your neighbors, give me a call, okay? Someone was murdered just up the street and we'd really like to catch whoever did it and keep your neighborhood safe."
Finn accepted the card but barely looked at it. "Do you have a card, too?" he called to Stone, who held the front door open, waiting impatiently for Benji.
Stone smirked. "Not for you, kid. Call Detective Holloway. She'll handle you."
"Maybe I'd prefer it if you handled me," Finn persisted.
Benji felt the caress of Stone's gaze as it coursed over Finn's body one last time. "No, thanks, kid." He turned away. "I'm allergic to cherries."
"What the hell were you doing in there?"
John dug out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, breathing deeply. "Just playin' with the kid. I was trying to shake him up."
"You've got to watch out," Benji warned, taking the stairs ahead of John. "You know Anderson is under investigation by IA because of that girl he took in for shoplifting."
"That's different," John muttered. "She was sixteen and wasn't wearing any panties. She kept flashing him when he was trying to interview her. That case won't stick. Besides, this kid is a whore. He's used to it."
"Yeah, and he called your bluff, too," Benji said, throwing a grin over her shoulder. "I thought you were going to swallow your tongue when he rubbed up against you like that."
John studied the burning ash at the end of his cigarette. "I know him," he said after a pause. "He was the stripper Seth and Eric hired for my birthday party last night."
Benji paused on the sidewalk, her short brown hair idly brushing her cheeks in the wind. Benji was what John would call a handsome woman. Not beautiful, not pretty, not necessarily attractive, per se -- but she had nice honest features that made a person trust her. Believe in her. Plus, she knew how to drop a guy twice her size. She was a good partner to have.
And also a good friend. John regarded her cautiously. "I wish I were joking. It was pretty damned uncomfortable, Benj."
Benji had calming brown eyes. "It's okay to let loose every once in awhile, Stone. You're only human. You're allowed to live, you know."
John looked down the broken sidewalk, counting the number of bottle caps and cigarette butts that littered the cracked concrete in the short distance to their car. Twelve. "The kid bothered me, Benj." John took another pull of the cigarette. "A lot."
When he lifted his eyes to his partner's, he found Benji studying him thoughtfully. "Means you're still alive, that's all. If nothing affects you, you're dead." Benji started walking to the car. "It's not a big deal, Stone. Feel the way you want to feel. The only one you need to care about anymore is you."
The reminder was a painful one. He had grown used to worrying about someone else, about thinking about the consequences of his actions as they affected others. Now, none of that mattered. If he made a mistake, it was his to deal with alone.
John followed her to the car, resisting the urge to look up to the window he knew belonged to Finn.
"Let's grab a burger," he announced, pulling away from the curb. "My treat."
"Whoa. Old age makes a kinder, more generous John Stonebrook."
John smirked. "Hold that thought until you see where I'm taking you."
Benji groaned as they pulled into the lot of the burger stand that had been a crime scene half a day ago. "Geez, Stone. You really know how to impress a girl. Weren't we here like, eight hours ago?"
"I want to try their burgers."
"Uh, huh," Benji muttered skeptically, glancing at the hosed off area of pavement beside the stand that had once been covered with blood and a body chalk outline. John thought it funny that a clean area of the street in a neighborhood like this one was usually a bad sign, not a good one.
As Benji took a seat at one of the old fiberglass tables, John ordered some food. The smell of grilling hamburger made his stomach growl and he ended up ordering fries and a side of onion rings in addition to his two burgers.
"Growing boy," Benji teased when he brought the food to their tables.
John quickly polished off the burgers and started in on the fries. "How long do you think it takes to walk from Boondocks to here?"
Benji stole a fry. "I dunno. Maybe ten minutes? Maybe less, if you're walking fast. Why?"
John held up a crumpled burger wrapper. "Look familiar?"
"It's right across the street, Stone. What's so surprising that Finn and his roommate buy their burgers here? Doesn't mean they killed someone after picking up a double-double."
"Finn was waiting for me last night, after the party." John rubbed some fries through a puddle of ketchup, debating how much he should reveal. "I left the bar at closing and we -- talked for awhile outside. If he headed straight home, he would've been here when the murder happened. Might have walked right past it when it was happening."
"Maybe you shouldn't have tried to intimidate him, then," Benji pointed out. She sucked noisily through the straw of her soda. "He might have spilled some details."
"Nah, he was tight." John could have kicked himself as the words provoked a mental image he did not need. "If he wanted to say anything, he would have. It would have given him a chance to spend time with me."
Benji snorted. "Little full of yourself, aren't you?"
"No. I know he likes me."
Benji eyed him. "Does he know you're straight?"
"I don't think he cares." The realization of that was very disturbing to John.
Benji gathered up their trash and dumped it into the garbage can. She returned to the table but remained standing, staring at the washed off square of concrete. "So if you think Finn might be involved, what are you going to do about it?"
John fingered the hilt of his gun. "I'm going to become his stalker."
Finn watched the two detectives climb into their unmarked blue sedan. He waited for the big man, Detective Stonebrook, to look up, but he didn't. The dark hair disappeared into the driver's side and a moment later the car pulled onto the street.
"What did you expect?" Finn murmured to himself. "He doesn't know himself."
Understanding that didn't make suffering it any easier. Finn wasn't used to being rejected. He wasn't used to being alone, for that matter. Though he was rapidly learning that there were varying degrees of 'alone'.
He pushed away from the kitchen sink -- spotlessly clean as of this morning -- and walked to the other end of the apartment. He peered into the bedroom. "Jeremy?"
A large tousled head peered out from behind the closet door. "Are they g-gone?"
Finn smiled. "Yep. I told you it would be okay. They didn't suspect a thing."
The redhead staggered beneath the weight of the larger man. Jeremy easily outweighed him by a good eighty pounds and towered above him by more than half a foot. Jeremy often forgot how big he was -- and how small Finn was by comparison. Finn gasped as the large man squeezed him in a bear hug.
"Jeremy, you're crushing me!" he cried out, half-joking.
"S-sorry." Jeremy immediately released him, big hands pawing clumsily but sincerely at the redhead. "I d-didn't m-mean t-to hurt you."
Finn smiled at the big man's downcast face. "You didn't hurt me, silly. I'm your Guardian Angel, remember? You can't hurt me."
His smile didn't waver and Jeremy quickly matched the grin. "Yeah, you are, F-finn, aren't you?"
Finn winked, knowing exactly how it made the other man feel to have Finn's attention. Finn was a master of gauging other's reactions to him. It was part of who he was.
"They won't come back again, Jeremy, so you don't need to worry about anything. Even if they do, I'll take care of them. Don't worry."
The big man squeezed Finn in a hug again and this time Finn didn't protest. "You t-take care of m-me so well, F-finn. Y-you really are m-my G-guardian Angel."
Finn patted the big man's back as he felt tears dampen the top of his head. "I'll take care of you, Jeremy," he sighed, allowing the sadness in his soul to seep into his voice. "That's why I'm here. To make sure no one hurts you."
And to make sure you do the right thing, if you will listen.
He pried Jeremy's muscled arms from around him, shivering as memories welled up at the feel of that powerful grip. "I gotta go, Jeremy. I'm working tonight. You'll be okay, right? The police aren't coming back. You're safe."
Jeremy pouted at him, the childish expression at odds on his large frame. Long strands of pale blonde hair jabbed into the man's small, brown eyes. Finn was a little surprised that Jeremy's hair was so long, he was certain that Jack would have had it cut by now . . .
He shivered again as unwanted memories assailed him. He pushed them aside, keeping his smiling, cheerful face so Jeremy wouldn't get worried. The big man was often frightened when Finn left him alone at night. Finn wondered how the man had survived before Finn had found him. Probably Jack's doing.
"I don't l-like you w-working there," Jeremy said softly as Finn picked up the plastic garbage bag that held his work uniform.
Finn paused in surprise. He was pretty sure that Jeremy had no idea what the Pump was all about -- or why Finn had to work there. Jeremy must just be nervous because of the police visit.
"You'll be asleep while I'm gone, so don't think about it." Finn patted the big man's cheek fondly, flashing the grin he knew would make Jeremy do whatever he wanted. "Go to bed, Jeremy. I promise when you wake up, I'll be right here, watching cartoons." He glanced at the broken television belatedly. "Well, maybe not that, but I'll be here, I promise. And tomorrow we can see about getting another TV."
Jeremy stared at the broken set with mingled fear and despair. "I wish he hadn't b-broken that. W-we don't have the m-money for an-another one."
Finn rubbed his shoulder absently, where a bruise had already formed. "Yeah, well, Jack can be a little crazy sometimes. It's no big deal. Maybe I'll make enough tonight for a new set. In fact, I'll make sure I do."
Jeremy's face lit up, his brown eyes round as he clapped his hands. "Y-you think so, F-finn?"
"Sure. No one can resist me, right?"
Finn's smile was meant to lift hearts. When he left the apartment, Jeremy was happily tucked in bed, none the wiser for what his Guardian Angel was about to do.