Sunshine and blue skies. The defiant weather insisted everything be bright and cheery when things in my life were the opposite. A thunderstorm or dreary mist would’ve been more appropriate for my mood.
It didn’t help that my current patrol zone was dead boring. Where was a good ol’ high-speed chase when you needed one? Not in Cypress Creek today, that was for sure.
Instead, I watched from the squad car as parents pushed strollers down the streets, some stopping to chat along the way. Two teenagers handed out pamphlets in the shade of the oak trees lining the sidewalks of Main Street. The outside sections of the cafés and coffee shops I passed were crowded with people chatting and laughing while they enjoyed lunch.
I crawled by them at a snail’s pace, managing to smile when people waved. I even stopped to help the elderly Mrs. Millhouse load her groceries into her ancient car.
Life in Cypress Creek carried on, as usual, oblivious to anything heartbreaking or sinister going on in town. A part of me wished I could’ve been oblivious as well, but I wasn’t—not in the slightest.
My smiles had never been more forced, and a week had never felt longer than this one did. Exactly a week had passed since I’d last heard from Niki. After cutting our conversation short to meet with Darren about the case, I tried calling her, texting her, and calling her again. She didn’t respond.
Nothing but stony silence greeted me.
I even looked her up on social media, wanting to send her a message there as a last-ditch effort, or in case she lost her phone. Though I knew that was ridiculous, I was looking for any crumb of hope. But then Jeremy told me Marie spoke to Niki every few days. So much for wishing she’d lost her phone.
Every time I thought about her, my heart ached, the pain burning as if someone had driven a hot poker through my heart. What happened between us was my fault. I understood that, but it didn’t make it any easier to live with the reality of being without her.
A reality I didn’t want to accept, didn’t want to take as a permanent change. I’d win her back. There was no other option.
Even my sense of time was warped. Seconds felt like minutes, minutes dragged, and hours wouldn’t pass. The days were nothing compared to the nights without her. I didn’t know when exactly it happened, but I’d gotten accustomed to sleeping next to her, to having her in my bed. I savored it in a way I couldn’t have imagined until she wasn’t there.
Without her there, my bedroom felt cold, empty, and depressing. Just like my heart. And the rest of my house.
I sighed heavily, turning off Main Street and heading toward the library. Traffic was slow, but then it almost always was during lunchtime. All I was doing was patrolling anyway. In the week since she’d left, I’d waged an internal battle over whether to check on her. Before I did my first drive-by of her place while I was out on patrol, I’d hemmed and hawed over it.
Karen had called me so I wouldn’t worry. She’d told me Niki was still staying with her, and that they were safe. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her. I just had this compulsive need to confirm for myself that Niki was okay. I blew things with her—big time—but I wasn’t about to let anything happen to her. I needed to know she was safe.
Which meant I was keeping an eye on her, even if it was from a distance. My protective side won the internal debate—hands down.
I drove past Karen’s apartment building first, scanning the street and curb for a familiar forest green sedan or any other vehicle that seemed suspicious. All was quiet with nothing out of the ordinary.
All the cars parked on the street were empty, and no one seemed to be loitering around. I glanced up at the window I knew belonged to Karen.
I knew I wouldn’t see Niki there, but I couldn’t help myself. Resisting her magnetic pull was nearly impossible—she was a magnet to my metal. Every damn day, I was tempted to stop the car, knock on her door and beg until she took me back.
But the damage I’d done was absolute. She didn’t trust me, had walked out of my life and didn’t look back. I had to respect that. Fighting against the fierce need to see her, I pushed down on the gas pedal of the squad car and kept going, passing Karen’s apartment and leaving it behind.
Next up was a check on the library. A breeze was rustling through the trees when I got there, but all appeared quiet outside the library. The parking lot only had a few cars, all of them empty and none of them suspicious.
No men in suits lying in wait for Niki to finish work, no government-issued black vehicles, or any sign of the forest green sedan here either. For the moment, it looked like Niki was safe.
The burning pain stabbed through my heart again. I flinched but ignored it and hit the squad car’s indicator so I could go back to the station. My shift on patrol ended ten minutes ago, right around the time I decided to make my daily detour to check on Niki before returning to the station.
Darren stopped me when I got back to the station. He was waiting for me outside, standing with his arms folded against the wall. The GBI agent walked toward my squad car the moment I parked, his expression somber.
“Lovett, about time you got back.” There was an undercurrent to his tone I didn’t appreciate. It was also out of the ordinary. He was usually friendly. Darren Hanson had surpassed my expectation of transparency and cooperation since day one of his investigation. Today, however, he didn’t seem quite so friendly. “We need to talk. Have some coffee with me.”
I glanced around, making sure no prying eyes were spying on us from inside the station. When I was sure no one was watching, I nodded reluctantly. “Sure, I’ll meet you at the usual spot.”
Usually, I didn’t mind meeting with Darren, but I had a sense today was going to be different. Something was wrong.
“I’ll meet you there.” He fished his keys out of his pocket and sauntered off in the direction of his car, reaching for his phone and pressing it to his ear as he walked.
Who was he calling? Did the call have anything to do with what he wanted to talk to me about? Stop being paranoid.
With a mental shake, I ducked back into the car I’d just parked. If anyone asked, I could say I had to go back out on patrol. Or if Darren’s name came up, that I had to check something out for his investigation. We’d all been instructed to cooperate with him, after all.
Yeah, because half the damn department’s trying to cover something up. Maybe not half, but it felt that way some days. Like I was one of the last honest cops in the station. Doing my job was harder than ever, given I didn’t know who to trust anymore and who would leave me hanging in a dangerous situation simply to get rid of me.
With that depressing thought on my mind, I went to meet Darren at the small café we frequented on the outskirts of town. He was already there, waiting with two cups of coffee in front of him.
Pushing one over to me when I sat down, he stirred sugar into his and didn’t waste any time getting down to business. It was something I appreciated about him, regardless of what might happen today.
“I looked into you and your family.”
I stiffened, my brow furrowing. “I thought you did that before we even talked the first time.”
The impression he gave me when we first started working together was that he knew all about my family, my infamous father, and the connection of his case to Wayne Maclin’s murder. The way he was looking at me now, disapproval in the set of his jaw and lines of tension on his face, I wondered if I’d misjudged him.
“I did. I wasn’t talking about your family history.”
Brows pulling together, I scrubbed at the stubble on my chin. “If not our history, then what are you talking about?”
He sighed deeply, lifting his mug to his lips to take a long sip of the bitter coffee and letting his eyelids close before answering me. “It’s nothing personal, Sonny. It’s part of the job.”
Hearing that set me instantly on edge. “What’s part of your job?”
“I had to run a check on all of you,” he said, opening his eyes to focus his gaze on mine. I could’ve sworn I saw disappointment in his eyes when they first met mine, but he blinked, and whatever was there dissipated.
“You knew about my father, though. You knew about everything, and yet it looks like you found something you’re not happy about. Spit it out, Hanson. What is it?”
“This isn’t about your father. Not in so many words, anyway. Your brothers all came up clean too if you were wondering. You’re the one who didn’t.”
“Didn’t what?” I snapped, irritation biting into my gut. I couldn’t stand being treated like I was the criminal in the family. It was a feeling I’d grown accustomed to during training and after when I started my job and was the police officer with the town’s most notorious criminal as his father.
Much as I’d become accustomed to it, I still detested it. All of it, but especially having people look at me the way Darren was now. As if they were waiting for me to snap and admit I was just like my dad like they should be wary of me just in case.
“You didn’t come in clean,” Darren said, so matter-of-factly that it hurt to think that my having some kind of record was a foregone conclusion. The problem was that my record was squeaky clean, so I had no clue what he meant.
“That’s impossible,” I bit out. “I’m a cop. I don’t have a record.”
“Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, Sonny.” He sighed, sipping calmly on his coffee. “And I wasn’t talking about that kind of record. The searches I ran weren’t only the run of the mill stuff. I also ran your search history of our databases for the last few months.”
Blood drained from my cheeks. Fuck. Okay. I knew what he was talking about. I just hoped I could trust him to keep quiet about it.
“You’ve been looking into your father’s case for quite some time, Sonny.”
Busted. I squared my shoulders. I wasn’t ashamed of looking into my father’s case. I would own up to it—and not only because he already had my search history anyway. “I have been, but can you blame me with all the shit surrounding his case? You know as well as I do something’s not right there. If it was your dad in prison, would you let him rot away knowing what we do?”
Darren didn’t answer my question. He pursed his lips and his gaze on mine turned hard. “That’s not the issue here. You shouldn’t have been digging around in your own father’s case, and you know it. You’re going to have to take it easy for a while, Officer Lovett.”
“When you say that I have to take it easy, what exactly do you mean?” I had a pretty good idea, but I wanted to hear him say it.
“I mean that I don’t want to see you anywhere near the case investigating Maclin’s death. You have to stay out of it from here on out. I thought that despite your perhaps vague family connection to the murder, you would be able to maintain your objectivity to help me with the investigation, but it looks like I was wrong.
“You weren’t wrong,” I protested. “I have helped you. I still am.”
“Yes, you have. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation thanks you for that, but we’ve got it from here.”
Motherfucker. “Don’t cut me out of this now, Darren. I can carry on helping you. That hasn’t changed.”
Hanson drained his coffee and pushed away from the table with a scrape of his chair against the tiled floor. He picked up his laptop bag and gave me a very stiff, formal nod. “I can’t cut you out of an investigation you were never officially part of. Again Officer Lovett, the GBI thanks you for your cooperation and assistance.”
I stood, glaring at him. “So that’s it? You’re not going to tell me anything anymore?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. We can’t risk this investigation being skewed. I’m sure you understand. Maclin was, after all, an Internal Affairs agent. Whatever sins he might’ve committed, we owe it to him to do this right.”
I started to tell him that I was doing it right regardless of my father’s case, but Hanson silenced me with a sigh. “You might be tempted to keep digging, but as a colleague who’s gotten to know you some, I’m asking you for your own good not to do it. As the agent in charge of this case for the GBI, consider this your formal warning that we will be pursuing charges against you if you stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
Well, fuck. I sat back down, stunned. Darren gave me a tight nod and left me there in the café, gaping after him.