Shades of Gray
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by Brooke McKinley
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica
Description: Miller Sutton, a by-the-book FBI agent, is starting to see some troubling shades of gray in his black-and-white world. He comes face-to-face with his doubts in the person of Danny Butler, a mid-level drug runner Miller hopes to use to catch a much larger fish: Roberto Hinestroza, a drug lord Miller has pursued for years. Danny has no interest in being a witness against his boss, both out of a sense of twisted loyalty and because he knows double-crossing Hinestroza is a sure death sentence. But he reluctantly agrees to cooperate, and as he suspects, it doesn't take long for Hinestroza to figure out the betrayal. Miller is surprised to discover Danny's not the career-criminal lowlife he expected; at the same time, Danny finds himself helplessly attracted to Miller's innate goodness. They barely begin to explore the sparking attraction between them when Hinestroza's hitman tracks them down, and then they're on the run, both for their lives and for any kind of love.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: December 2009
103 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [446 KB]
Reading time: 285-399 min.
This is easily one of the most enjoyable books I've read this year. Captivating and enthralling, Shades of Gray shines with a tight plot and superior characterization. The writing is engaging and the characters have incredible depth. There are no cookie cutter villains or superheroes, only variations of good and evil within each person. The situations created are interesting and complex with few easy solutions and only one or two last minute heroics but even those are tempered by high physical and emotional costs. 5 of 5 cherries Cactus @ Whipped Cream Reviews
Eighty-two, eighty-three, eighty-four. Plop. Plop. Splat. Don't even want to fucking know what that was. Eighty-five... or shit, was it ninety-five? Son of a bitch! One, two, three...
Danny Butler was bored. And cold. That always happened when he was in pain, the shakes starting almost as soon as his body registered the hurt. He'd kept it at bay, just on the edge of his consciousness, by concentrating on filling his lungs with smoke. He'd already worked his way through an entire pack of cigarettes and counted the aged ceiling tiles three times. He still hadn't decided if the broken one on the edge should count as two.
Danny tapped the ash from his cigarette, eyes skipping over the red puddle spreading at his feet. The buzzing from the decades-old fluorescent lights overhead was the only sound other than the steady plop, plop, which he was trying to ignore.
He'd spent plenty of time in rooms like this. Small, dirty, hopeless. At least this one didn't have a smear of vomit caked on the wall like the last one. But the filthy cinder blocks in front of him held their own vile secrets. Scuff marks from flailing legs and straining arms, dried phlegm that had missed its target, ancient brown stains reminding Danny he wasn't the first man to have shed blood behind these walls. The familiar scent of desperation leaked out slowly, a toxic poison working on the men left to sit here. Last chance, end of the line.
Danny bit down hard on the filter, chattering teeth sounding like ice tinkling against a half-full glass. He risked a glance south at the blood pool growing bigger by the drop. A few dark red chunks floated in the soup, the source of the mysterious splat.
Time to get this show on the road. Send in the clowns.
Danny stood up on careful legs, ran a hand through his sweaty hair. He moved over to the greasy mirror on the far wall and rapped hard against it with his knuckles. "Hey, assholes! What are you waiting for? An engraved invitation?"
Silence. But Danny knew he was being watched, all too familiar with the crawl of judgmental eyes against his skin. He lit his last cigarette with his shiny silver lighter. He drew in a steadying lungful of smoke before he reached down and peeled up his white T-shirt, wincing when the material stuck to the congealed blood below the left side of his rib cage.
"See this? Thinking maybe it could use a fucking bandage." He tried to avoid it, but his eye caught the glint of bone peeking out at him from the gash. "Fuck," he muttered. "Or you could just throw in a needle and thread," he suggested, eyes on the mirror. "Have myself a quilting bee."
No response. He let his shirt fall back with a wet, squishing sound. Then he reached out and slammed his bloody palm against the glass. Souvenir for the next poor schmuck stuck in hell. * * * *
The two men behind the mirror watched Butler without speaking. The taller one took a step forward to get a better look. Up to this point, he'd only seen Danny Butler in photographs or through the gazing end of binoculars. He took in the thick, black hair sticking up in sweaty tufts, the face made pale by a combination of pain and bad lighting, a day or two worth of stubble outlining the shit-eating grin, huge eyes fringed with long, dark lashes, silver glinting from the small hoop in Butler's left ear.
"Jesus," the short man next to him groaned when Butler exposed his wound. "You get a load of that? Can he bleed to death from something like that?"
"No," the tall man said with a shake of his head. "He'd be dead already."
"Oh, that's comforting," Shorty said, rolling his eyes. "Still... don't you think we'd better have it looked at?"
"Later. When I'm done with him."
The tall man had already let the door slam behind him before the sentence was finished. Miller Sutton didn't need some local cop telling him how to run this investigation. He finally had Danny Butler exactly where he wanted him. He wasn't going to let Officer Friendly fuck it up.
Miller took a quick detour to the bathroom. He always had to take a piss before an interrogation. It was not a fact he'd willingly share with anyone. He did his business, washed his hands, and swiped a palm full of cold water across his face.
He stared at himself in the mirror, scrubbing at the freckles on his nose with two fingers as if he could erase them. He always hated them at times like this; worried they made him look childish, too young to be taken seriously. With a tired sigh he lowered his hand and turned his back on his own reflection.
It used to be this was his favorite part of the job: closing in on a case, trapping someone just frantic enough to save their own ass that they'd help you along. Fighting the good fight and all that happy horseshit. But today he just felt worn out, no anticipation in his gut.
Where'd it go, Miller? Where's that fire in your belly? Get it together. You're one of the good guys, remember?
He couldn't pinpoint when it had started slipping away, when he'd started to see more than an arrest, more than a notch in his career belt, when he looked into someone's eyes across a dirty table in a cramped interrogation room. He wished he could go back to when nothing mattered but the job, when empathy didn't have even the slightest toehold on Miller Sutton.
Maybe he had been doing this for too long. He'd always thought he would become more numb to the crappy state of the human condition as time went on, not less so. Besides, he'd only been at this job for seven years, not nearly long enough for burnout to set in.
Yeah, well, maybe you should have hung it up at five.
But that thought was too depressing to contemplate. He didn't know what the fuck he'd do with his life if not this. Everything set out in neat little boxes, all black and white, exactly how he liked it. Good and evil, right and wrong, innocent and guilty. Stay in the right box and it would all work out in the end.
Enough of this shit! Get in there and nail his ass to the wall. Show Danny Butler what desperate really feels like. Show him if he doesn't do things your way, his hurting days have just begun * * * *
Miller opened the door, shut it softly behind him. He crossed to the table, pulled out a chair opposite Butler, and sat down without a word. His power had always been in his silence. Never comfortable with coming in and barking out questions, he chose instead to use his quiet nature to work at a suspect. He'd discovered quickly that people weren't easy with silence. Pretty soon they'd be barfing up their life story, splattering Miller with their verbal vomit just to have some noise in the room.
Butler was leaning back in his chair, booted heels propped up on the table.
"Get your feet off the table," Miller said, not looking up from the file he'd spread out in front of him.
Butler took his sweet time about complying, lowering each foot deliberately to the floor. "Yes... sir," he drawled, lip curving up in amusement.
We'll see how funny you think this is in about five minutes, shithook. Miller glanced at the card in his hand. "I see you've been given your Miranda warnings."
"Yeah, where's the lawyer I requested two hours ago?"
Miller shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. Must be on his way."
"Uh-huh," Butler said. "Now why don't I believe that?"
Miller waited him out, praying he would be as over-confident as most of the men who'd sat in that chair before him. He didn't have to wait long.
"Well, get to it." Butler made a beckoning motion with his hand. "Not like I'm going to tell you shit anyway."
Miller swallowed his triumphant smile, flipping through the pages in front of him.
"They must've decided to send in the big dogs," Butler smirked. "Don't think I've met you before. Detective...?"
"Special Agent Sutton."
Butler laughed under his breath. "Should have known. A junior G-man. So they've got the Feds on my ass now. Excellent. I'm moving up in the ranks."
"Says here you've got some experience with the federal system." Miller thumped Butler's file with his index finger. "Done some quality time in Leavenworth, Marion, even a short stint in Super Max."
"What can I say?" Butler shrugged, spread his arms wide. "Wanted to see the world."
"Conspiracy to distribute cocaine, conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, conspiracy to distribute cocaine again. At least you're consistent."
"Yeah, but I was innocent all those times," Butler said with a lazy smile, gaze floating up to the ceiling.
Cocky son of a bitch. "Oh, really?" Miller gave a cold smile of his own. "Well, this time you're not. Felon in possession of a firearm, Mr. Butler." He made a clucking sound with his tongue. "That's a big no-no. Five years mandatory."
"It wasn't my fucking gun," Butler retorted, tilting his chair back on two legs, his voice bored.
"No good," Miller countered. "Thought you'd know by now, federal judges see right through that one. The gun was in your car when you were arrested. Nobody gives a shit whose it really is. You're on the hook for it, bud."
"As you can see, Sutton, I'm shaking in my boots over here."
Don't let him get to you. It's what he wants. You're holding all the cards here. Danny Butler is nothing. Nothing
"You ought to be scared. Haven't ever done five years hard time at a stretch, have you? And that's before we add on whatever goodies we find in your house during our search. Be a while before you see the light of day again, Mr. Butler."
"Would you stop with the Mr. Butler shit? It's Danny."
"And I can call you...?" Danny grinned, Cheshire cat coming out to play.
"Special Agent Sutton will do just fine."
"All right." Danny tipped his chair forward with a bang. He rested his elbows on the table, left forearm and hand streaked with crimson battle paint. "What the fuck do you want, Special Agent Sutton?"
Miller leaned forward, too, until their faces were only a few inches apart. "Roberto Hinestroza's head on a platter," he whispered. "That's what I want."
Danny sat back with a thud. His body slammed into his chair hard enough to force out air and his hand came up to hover over his injured side. "Don't have a clue what you're talking about," he said finally.
Not so cocky now, are you, asshole? Miller could smell blood in the air and not just from Danny's wound. He steepled his hands, rested his chin on his fingers, and waited. He wasn't impressed with Danny's denial, knew he was lying even without the eyes flickering from ceiling to floor to table, never once landing on Miller.
"What makes you think I know Roberto Hinestroza?" Danny asked when the silence grew thick, nervous fingers picking at the dried blood on his arm.
Bingo. "Well, gee, Danny, I don't know. Could it be because you're his number-two man? Been running coke for him since you were old enough to drive?"
"Don't know where you get your information, but I'm not his right-hand man," Danny scoffed.
"You don't want to fuck with me, Danny," Miller warned, voice level, no room for misinterpretation. "I've been investigating Hinestroza for three years now. I eat, sleep, and breathe Hinestroza. I know more about that piece of shit than he knows about himself. And I've had my eye on you all that time."
"Jesus," Danny leered. "I knew I was good-looking, but--"
"Shut up!" Cool it, Miller. He's working you now. Bring him back to where you want him, let him know who's boss. "We've been waiting for a reason to arrest you and today you gave us one."
"Running a red light?" Danny waved a dismissive hand. "That's the best you can do?"
"They didn't arrest you for the traffic violation. Arrested you for that Sig Sauer you had in the glove compartment."
"Speaking of my arrest, you gonna get me some medical attention anytime soon?" Danny gestured to his still-leaking side. "This has lawsuit city written all over it."
"That's what happens when you run from the cops."
"He didn't have to drag me back out through that busted window. Cut me all to hell."
Miller gave Danny a blank stare. "He wasn't going to follow you into an abandoned building. Besides, he had orders. I need you breathing to be any good to me at all."
"You're just a prince of a guy," Danny muttered under his breath. "Okay, I'll play along. Let's assume I even know this Roberto Hinestroza, I'm guessing you want me to roll over on him?"
Miller nodded, tapped his top lip with his pen. "Among other things."
Danny leaned his head back and howled. "Oh, man, that's a good one, Special Agent Sutton."
"I'm serious, Danny."
Danny's head snapped down again. "So am I. No--fucking--way."
"We're not going to throw you to the wolves. We can protect--"
"Ummm... the last guy I knew who fell for that line, they found him floating in the river with his tongue ripped out and his dick shoved down his throat. So you'll pardon me if I'm not jumping up and down and squealing like a teenage girl at your offer."
"That's not going to happen this time." You sure about that, Miller? Because you know as well as he does there's no protecting someone twenty-four seven. Hinestroza wants him bad enough, he'll get him. You willing to make that trade? Yeah... fuck, yeah. What's one low-life drug dealer? Who gives a shit about Butler if he nets me the big fish? Miller looked down at his hands. Sometimes he made himself sick.
Danny was watching him with knowing eyes, eyes that had been around this block a time or two before. Eyes that knew all the nasty truths hidden behind the pretty exteriors. "Thanks for the reassurance. Might work better if you believed it yourself," he pointed out. "Think I'll take my chances on the five years in prison, if it's all the same to you."
"Thing is, Danny," Miller said, voice all silky menace, "I doubt you'll make it out of those five years alive. Rumor gets around in prison you already ratted on Hinestroza...." He raised his eyebrows. "Not gonna be long before you're out of the picture, so to speak. Why don't you do the right thing for once in your pathetic life and help us out?"
The threat hung heavy in the room. Danny's eyes darkened with the knowledge he was trapped. Miller felt his own body tense up, registering Danny's anger, ready for however Danny tried to run.
"You fucking piece of shit," Danny spit out. "Gonna have me killed if I don't give you what you want? That it?"
"Never said one word about having you killed. It's just that without you being an informant, being protected by the FBI, word's going to get out pretty quick that you were in here talking to us. I'm a powerful guy. But I can't stop what people whisper about on the street."
"Unbelievable. You pricks are unbelievable." Danny pushed back in his chair.
Miller laid his hands flat on the table, gave Danny his beseeching eyes, practiced hundreds of times in his bathroom mirror. One more trick of the trade. "You don't have a choice here, Danny. I'm your best option and we both know it."
"Fuck off," Danny bit out. He got up and walked across the room. "I want out of here!" he yelled at the mirror. "Either charge me or open the goddamn door!"
Miller was up and out of his chair before Danny could say another word. He spun Danny around, shoving him back against the wall beside the mirror, out of the sight line of whoever might be watching. He bumped his chest roughly against Danny's.
"Listen to me, asshole. You're going to do this thing whether you like it or not." Miller's thumb came up to rest a millimeter from Danny's wound.
Danny's eyes went wide, the muscle in his jaw clamping tight as he prepared himself for the pain. Miller had always been a master at honing in on a suspect's weak spot. And once discovered, he had absolutely no compunction about pushing it--hard. Whether it was the sobbing wife out in the waiting room, the adored child destined for the endless foster care roulette, or the actual physical injury that Danny Butler was sporting now, Miller always went for the jugular once he found the vein.
But now, with his face pressed up into Danny's, watching those green eyes watch him, he found he couldn't do it. Didn't have it in him to bring his thumb down and gouge out the answer he wanted.
What the fuck's wrong with you, Miller? Do it. Do it!
He lowered his hand, pushed back slightly to give Danny some breathing room. "What's it gonna be, Danny?"
Danny stared at him with wary eyes, his tongue sneaking out to rub once across his upper lip. "Yeah," he said after an endless moment of silence. "I'll help you." He turned toward the door and looked over his shoulder, voice mocking. "But only because you need it so fucking bad, Sutton." * * * *
Sutton led Danny into the empty hallway, gesturing him toward a wooden bench screwed to the floor with rusted bolts. The whole contraption tilted dangerously, threatening to pitch anyone seated there onto the ground.
Danny sat anyway, his fingers sticking to the splintery wood. He didn't want to picture the combination of bodily fluids that caused the tackiness under his skin. He watched Sutton walk away, surprised there wasn't more swagger in his step. The bastard had gotten what he wanted, hadn't he?
Danny's lips tingled, the tips of his fingers and toes numb. He didn't want to pass out; partly out of pride, partly because he didn't trust Sutton to pick him up off the floor. He tried to put his head between his knees and take deep breaths but his side screamed too loudly to allow that kind of movement.
It's not only the cut that's making you light-headed. It's the thought of how many pieces Hinestroza is going to chop you into when he finds out what you're doing that's really making you sick.
Danny's foot bounced against the floor, fingers drumming a staccato rhythm on the wall. He had never been good at sitting still. Or following orders. Be damned if he would sit on the bench like some dog told to stay. He stood on wobbly legs, feet heavy as lead blocks, and hobbled down the hall in search of Sutton. If he was selling his soul to the Feds, then he expected some help in return. Accepting a death-sentence assignment had to involve a few perks.
He followed the sound of voices around the corner to a small office, where Sutton and a short guy with a bad comb-over were in the middle of an argument. Danny had a fleeting thought of retracing his steps and walking out the front doors. But Sutton would only have to follow the blood--a vampire movie version of the breadcrumb trail.
"Hey," Danny called from the hall, voice unsteady. "I'm not fucking around. I need a doctor."
Sutton turned his head, ran his eyes up and down Danny. "We're working on it," he said, his manner vaguely bored, as though Danny were complaining about a splinter.
Danny leaned against the wall, and then slid down onto his ass, leaving a shiny red streak in his wake. Fuck it, whole place needed a paint job anyway. The cold linoleum bit through his jeans, revving his shivers up into high gear. Sutton and the short guy were giving each other hell, their words floating out to Danny as the volume increased.
"He needs stitches," Sutton said, biting off each word.
"No shit! I tried to tell you that a half hour ago. Take him to the emergency room."
"Why can't one of your officers take him and then bring him back here?"
"Because, Special Agent Sutton, you Feds have taken over this case. He's not my fucking problem anymore. You're so anxious for Mr. Butler, have at him."
"Whenever you two are done fighting over me, I'll be right here, bleeding to death," Danny interjected.
He heard the sharp click of footsteps. Sutton's annoyed face flashed out at him as the door shut with a bang. Danny rested his head against the wall and let his eyelids drift downwards.
"Hey. Hey!" A rough hand shoved his shoulder, snapping him back to consciousness.
He peeled his eyes open. "What?" he asked around a throat full of glass.
"Don't pass out on me," Sutton instructed, taking a cell phone from his pocket.
"I wasn't passed out, I was resting," Danny corrected, not entirely sure if the distinction was true.
"I have to make some calls. Sit tight."
"Easy for you to say. Your ribs aren't sticking out of your skin like toothpicks."
Sutton ignored him, turned his back halfway when his phone call was answered. Danny shifted slightly on the floor, straining to hear.
"It's Sutton. Yeah, I've got him. He's going to need medical attention for--" Sutton paused, listened. "I know. Who should take him? No. No!" A heavy sigh, then Sutton ran a hand across his face. "Yeah, fine. You got someone watching his place? Okay. We'll be there later." He hung up the phone with a snap of his wrist and pivoted to look at Danny.
"Get up. Let's get going."
Danny leveraged himself off the floor, a groan escaping his lips before he could snatch it back. "You taking me yourself?" he asked, running his mouth to cover the pain.
"Looks like it."
"Wow, how'd I rate that?" He followed Sutton down the hall. "Thought you'd get one of your flunkies to handle it."
"I tried that. You're mine to babysit, apparently. Must be my lucky night." Sutton didn't sound pleased and his pace didn't slow on Danny's account; he was already half a hallway's length ahead, his suit-clad legs in a hurry to reach their destination.
Sutton looked good in a suit; Danny would give him that. Danny had always liked men in suits, with their crisp shirts, shiny ties, and polished shoes cracking against the floor. Maybe because growing up in a small town he'd never seen men dressed that way. Seemed like a better world than the one he'd come from. It was sure as hell a step up from the one he lived in now. Men in suits gave the appearance of having made something of themselves, of being in control inside and out--even if it was all an illusion. Those men weren't going to turn their lives into the kind of fucked-up mess Danny's had become.
Danny and Sutton rounded the corner at the end of the hall, dumping them out into the main area of the police station, where officers swarmed like flies. The room was reminiscent of every police station Danny had ever frequented: busy, loud, run-down. The same ever-present fluorescent lights as in the interrogation room, several bulbs flickering and snapping to cast gloomy shadows on the desks below. There were even a few obligatory handcuffed suspects spewing obscenities at unimpressed detectives. Danny could see a corner of the waiting area up ahead, small children crowded onto chairs for the privilege of watching their fathers or mothers paraded in front of them shackled at wrist and ankle. Just setting foot in the place sucked the life out of you.
"Wait here," Sutton commanded as he walked over to a uniformed cop sitting with his hip perched on the edge of a cluttered desk. Danny recognized the cop as the one who'd pulled him out of the window and slapped the cuffs on him, giving Danny's exposed ribs a not-too-gentle nudge with his boot as a parting gift.
The cop didn't seem to like Sutton any more than he had Danny. Whatever Sutton said caused the cop to stand up tall, pushing his body into Sutton's personal territory. Danny wished he had a cigarette so he could sit back and enjoy the show.
"I said get rid of it," Sutton barked. His voice drifted across the room, causing heads to turn from surrounding desks.
"I already did the paperwork, I can't just--"
Sutton leaned forward, hand cupped around his ear. "Am I hearing this right? Are you arguing with me?" One long finger came forward and poked the cop in the chest. "Lose it. I'm not saying it again."
Danny didn't know which man to root for in this fight, considering he wasn't exactly feeling warm and fuzzy toward law enforcement types as a whole. He'd have to put his money on Sutton, though, if it came to blows. The quiet ones always threw the hardest punches.
The cop picked up a sheaf of papers from the desk and held them in front of Sutton's face. He shred them with dramatic flair before letting the pieces flutter to the floor. Sutton looked down, and then stepped away from the mess as though it were a pile of fresh dog shit.
"Come on." Sutton grabbed Danny's upper arm in an iron grip and pulled him toward the main doors.
"What was that about?" Danny asked.
"Your arrest paperwork. I want it to disappear."
Danny snorted. Well, it's official. I'm fucked. "That's your big plan? Tear up some paper? Hate to tell you this, Sutton, but that's not going to throw Hinestroza off our scent for a single second."
"Let me worry about the details."
"Why is that not comforting me? Shouldn't--"
"That's him, right there! Right there!" The shriek cut across the din, pulling Danny up short.
"Oh, shit," he breathed, following the sound of the voice to its source.
"What?" Sutton looked in the direction of Danny's gaze. "Is that Amanda?" he asked sharply.
Danny cocked his head. "How'd you know about my ex-wife?"
"Told you already, Danny. I know everything about you," Sutton said, not taking his eyes off the woman in front of them. Only her upper half was visible from where they stood: all glossy auburn hair, vibrant red lipstick, and a skin-tight T-shirt that hugged every curve.
"Danny!" she yelled, waving both hands. "Danny!"
Sutton stepped in front of him, obstructing Amanda's view. "Get rid of her," he demanded as Amanda came barreling past.
"Oh my God, Danny! I've been worried sick. You never called me back after you were pulled over." Amanda belatedly noticed Danny's blood-soaked shirt. Her already strident voice went up an octave or two. "Danny, what happened?"
"I got hurt during the traffic stop, hon. It's nothing," Danny soothed.
"Nothing? You're bleeding!" Amanda focused angry eyes on Sutton. "Is he under arrest?"
"Then why the hell have you kept him here?"
"We had to fill out reports, ma'am," Sutton cut in.
"While he was hurt?" She shot Sutton a withering glance. "Typical. Come on, Danny. Let's get you to the hospital."
Sutton moved forward, blocking her progress. "Actually, I'll be taking him. Liability reasons."
"Liability?" Amanda's eyebrows snapped together.
Oh, fuck. Danny was on a first-name basis with that look. Amanda's fuses were blowing faster than an overloaded circuit breaker. And if this dustup escalated to punches, Sutton would definitely be the one going down.
"It means we're taking care of our legal obligations," Sutton explained, his voice patient but the muscle in his jaw a ticking time bomb.
"I know what liability means. Jesus Christ. Don't think because you're taking him to the hospital that means we won't sue your asses!"
"Yes, ma'am," Sutton managed through gritted teeth.
Danny rubbed Amanda's back lightly and said, "Hon, it's okay. Let me get patched up and I'll give you a ring later."
"You'd better call me the minute you get home," Amanda instructed. She jabbed at his chest with a hot-pink nail to let him know she meant business.
"Sure thing," Danny nodded. He and Sutton were quiet as they watched Amanda walk out the door.
"She seems like a handful," Miller remarked once she was gone. His voice was mild enough, but his nose wrinkled up as if he smelled yesterday's garbage.
"You have no idea," Danny said with a laugh, and instantly felt like a bastard. God knew he owed more loyalty to Amanda than to the asshole standing beside him. He cut himself off mid-chuckle.
Sutton sighed, rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "Make sure you check in with her, like you said. We need to keep this contained. If she gets worried, she'll start making phone calls. We don't want that."
"Fine," Danny said, pushing his way outside. Chill air hit him full in the face. Fall had definitely arrived; not quite six o'clock and it was already dark, the streetlights illuminating small patches of sidewalk, the rest left to drown in shadowy pools. "Shit, when'd it get so cold?" He crossed his arms, feeling the loss of the leather jacket forgotten in the backseat of his car. Probably in some impound lot by now.
"It's not that bad yet," Sutton remarked, tilting his face upward. The slight breeze blew his blond hair off his forehead. His face relaxed for a split second, giving Danny a glimpse of the man behind the badge. Danny was surprised to realize it was a face he might be interested in getting to know better under different circumstances.
Yeah, like circumstances that don't involve Sutton being willing to sell your ass out if it gets him a better shot at Hinestroza
Sutton returned his eyes to Danny. "I'll bring the car around so you don't have to walk." It was the first time all night he'd given any indication that Danny's injury mattered in the least. * * * *
Miller left Danny sitting on the stone balustrade outside the police station. He didn't worry about him running. There wasn't anywhere he could go that Miller wouldn't find him. Miller's footfalls crackled loudly on the deserted sidewalk, his passage breaking the brittle backs of newly fallen leaves. He could smell the acrid scent of smoke, someone in a nearby home eager to embrace the coming winter. A few lopsided jack-o'-lanterns leered at him from empty porches.
He pulled the dark blue Crown Victoria around to the front of the police station, fumbling in the glove compartment for some cigarettes as Danny limped down the steps, his face a twisted grimace. Miller leaned over and pushed open the passenger door.
He was not in the mood for this. It may have been the local cops who had delivered Danny Butler to his proverbial doorstep, but he didn't feel particularly grateful. He hadn't busted his ass all these years to play nursemaid. It should be some doughnut-eating patrolman's job.
"Can I ride in the back?" Danny asked, leaning down.
"Sure. If you want." Miller shrugged and hauled the door closed again.
Danny climbed into the rear of the car, stretching his long legs out on the seat. "Don't know if I can sit up straight," he explained, leaning back against the door. "Jesus, do all cops drive the same fucking car? No wonder we can spot you a mile away."
"We vary the colors," Miller said, deadpan, eyes on the road.
"Got an extra smoke?"
Miller held the pack over the seat and Danny snatched a cigarette with nimble fingers. "Which hospital?" he asked.
"I usually go to St. Joseph's."
"What, you've got a frequent patron card there or something? They patch up two gunshot wounds, your next one is free?"
"Funny," Danny breathed, his exhaled smoke floating forward to tangle with Miller's mid-air. "For your information, I've never been shot."
"I know." Miller waited a beat. "Knife wound to the right lower back, done with a homemade shank while in Marion. Knife wound to the left thigh, almost bled to death from that one, wouldn't tell the hospital how it happened. And a fractured skull while in Leavenworth. Scar underneath your hair, back of the head."
"Somebody's done their homework," Danny observed, unimpressed. "Want a gold star? And don't forget to add tonight's to the list. Have a feeling it's going to leave a nasty mark."
Miller grunted, rolled down the window to let some fresh air into the smoky interior.
"Hey," Danny said suddenly. "I'm not feeling so great. Think I might be sick."
"For God's sake," Miller muttered, throwing a crumpled McDonald's sack into the back seat. "If you're gonna puke, puke in that."
"Anybody ever tell you that you've got a lousy bedside manner?"
Miller's mouth quirked up, a grin flirting with the corners. "It has been mentioned," he said, catching Danny's eye in the rearview mirror and then looking away quickly.
The last thing Miller wanted was to become friends with Danny Butler. Miller had a mission. He had to remain focused on a single goal: Hinestroza. In order to achieve it, he needed to draw Danny in while at the same time maintaining professional distance. Feelings couldn't enter into the equation. All part of the game.
When did a man's life become a game to you, Miller? He may be a drug dealer, but that's still pretty fucking cold. You got ice in your veins now?
The emergency room was relatively quiet when they arrived. They'd beaten the wee hours' rush, when all the drunks with smashed-bottle lacerations and head trauma from flying through their windshields would come rolling in. The bored front desk clerk handed them a pen and reams of paperwork to fill out, pointing them toward a row of beat-up chairs. The ripped vinyl spewed dirty pieces of foam that clung to the bottoms of their shoes.
Miller would have loved to cut through the red tape, flash his badge and start rapping out orders. But he couldn't risk it. Danny's future breathing prospects would take a nosedive if Hinestroza found out an FBI agent had accompanied him to the hospital.
Miller settled in to wait, something he was fairly good at once he accepted the need for it. Not so Danny, who was driving him nuts with his constant fidgeting, shifting, humming, and clicking of the pen he was using to fill out the hospital forms.
"Jesus," Miller snapped. "Can't you fucking sit still?"
"Apparently not." Danny didn't glance up from his lap where he attempted to balance the papers on his knees and write, while clutching at his side with his free hand.
"Give me the papers," Miller demanded. "I'll fill them out. I have all your information memorized anyway."
Danny passed them over without a fight, tilted his head back, and closed his eyes.
Full Name: Daniel James Butler. Age: 32. Same as me. Miller filled in Danny's address and phone number, leaving the section about employment blank. "It asks here about health insurance. I'm assuming you don't have any in your line of work."
Danny didn't respond.
"What about 401k?" Miller prodded. "Pension?"
"Have you thought about a career in stand-up comedy?" Danny asked without opening his eyes. "Seriously. Because you are fucking hilarious."
Miller allowed himself a smile only because Danny wasn't looking, his eyes still shut, the sweep of ebony lashes resting against the tops of his pale cheeks. Miller returned the completed paperwork to the front desk, which earned him a sharp snap of gum from the clerk and not much else.
"I'm starving," Danny commented when Miller sat back down. "Is there anything to eat around here?"
"How the hell should I know?"
Danny's stomach rumbled and Miller threw him a disgusted glance. "You are a pain in the ass," Miller pointed out, but he stood with a sigh and went in search of food. A depleted vending machine in the basement yielded a Coke and a package of peanut butter crackers after stealing the first dollar he fed it. Back upstairs, he tossed Danny the snacks, watching as he ripped into the cellophane package with his teeth.
"Fuck, could these be any staler?" Danny complained around a mouthful of cracker.
Miller took a deep breath, resisting the sudden impulse to smack him in the back of the head. Danny was just downing the last of his drink when a stout woman with a humorless face appeared in the hall, barking out his name. He muttered, "This should be fun," in Miller's direction as he walked away.
Miller collected the crumpled cellophane and half-crushed Coke can Danny had left on his seat and threw them in the overflowing trash can outside the bathrooms. Given the hospital's glacial pace so far, he figured it was a safe bet that he had time to go outside for a much-needed smoke.
"Hey, you!" someone called as he neared the exit. A petite woman in green scrubs, her ponytail askew, plowed through the swinging doors separating the waiting area from the trauma rooms. "Hey!" she yelled again, advancing on him. "Why didn't you bring him in here earlier? He was this close," she held up her thumb and index finger a centimeter apart, "to needing a blood transfusion. You should have called an ambulance!"
"We got here as soon as we could." Miller raised his hands in mock surrender, pulling on his ass-kissing smile. "Are you the doctor?"
"Yes. Dr. Allen." She didn't offer her hand. Or smile back. "How did he get that gash?"
"What did he say?"
"He said it's a paper cut."
"I don't know what happened."
"Sure you don't," the doctor said, her mouth a thin line. "I'm going to give him sutures. Then you can take him. He'll need antibiotics to avoid infection and he'll have to come back in ten days to get the stitches removed." She cocked an eyebrow at Miller. "And tell him to be more careful shuffling papers in the future."
Dismissed, Miller went outside and had his smoke, the wail of an approaching ambulance promising heartache for a stranger. He could already picture the look on Rachel's face when she smelled the cigarettes on him, but was too tired to care. He lowered himself to the concrete steps, to hell with his suit, and squinted at the night sky--something he didn't do often, always guaranteed to make him homesick. The stars were more visible now that winter was approaching than they ever were during the summer. He wondered if that was a trick of his mind or if the cold air snapped everything into clearer focus.
When he finished his cigarette he wandered back inside, figuring he'd check on Danny's progress. No one stopped him as he pushed through the swinging doors, craning his neck around closed curtains until he found the right room. He could hear a steady tick-tick from the IV drip running clear fluid into Danny's arms via the crook of his elbow. The doctor had gone, leaving behind an ugly row of stitches that poked through Danny's skin like spider's legs.
Miller took a step closer. Danny was unaware of his presence, eyes closed, head turned away. Miller's gaze roamed over Danny's chest, the hard muscles visible beneath the dark hair still matted with dried blood. Danny had a large tattoo on his left shoulder, the yin and yang symbol in all its black and white glory. Not what Miller expected from someone like Danny. Hearts with the word "Mother," prison gang insignia, or even a swastika were more common among Danny's colleagues.
All his life, Miller had preferred looking at people while he himself remained unobserved--from across the school yard, from behind a two-way mirror, from an unmarked surveillance car. From a distance. Although he had mastered the essential skill of pinning a suspect with his eyes, it never felt natural. He always fought against the urge to duck his head and look away. Now, when Danny stirred, bringing a hand up to rub his stubble-laced jaw, Miller drifted behind the curtain and disappeared. * * * *
Danny was feeling no pain. The doctor had ordered morphine in his IV drip along with fluids and antibiotics, smiling slightly at Danny's mumbled, "Bless you," before she had commenced giving him what seemed like a thousand stitches.
Now he rested his head against the cold glass of the passenger window, able to sit up front with Sutton on this ride. The reflections from the lights they passed bounced off Danny's skin, painting his arms all the colors of the city.
"We're here," Sutton said as he pulled up at Danny's apartment.
"Okay." Danny made no move to get out of the car. He was enveloped in a hazy fog, as if he were suspended over his body, watching but not participating. Too bad he didn't do drugs, because morphine might be the way to go.
"Hey, listen to me." Sutton's voice was brusque as he handed Danny a cell phone. "Use this to call me. My number's programmed into it. I'll be calling you on this phone to set up times and places to meet for your debriefings. Got it?"
"Got it," Danny said, palming the phone.
"If you notice anything out of the ordinary, Hinestroza acting suspicious, anything, call. We've got a couple guys watching your place. You'll be fine."
"Uh-huh." Danny wasn't convinced, but he was too damn exhausted to argue about it now. He opened the door and put one foot on the pavement. "See ya around, Sutton." He hesitated. "You have a first name?"
Sutton didn't look at him, both hands clutching the steering wheel. "Miller," he said finally. "My name is Miller."
"Miller?" Danny questioned, rolling the name across his tongue. "What the hell kind of name is that?"
"The one my parents gave me," Sutton replied, putting the car in drive.
"All right." Danny smiled. "See ya around, Miller."
It took him longer than usual to climb the three flights of stairs. He had to pause and rest at each landing. He let himself into his apartment, switching on lights as he moved to the front windows and peered out through the blinds. Miller's car was still there, idling at the curb--the glowing end of his cigarette winked up at Danny, a beacon in the dark.
Unbidden, Danny thought of Miller's burnished gold hair, his somber gray eyes, the whisper of the real man unmasked on the police station steps... his FBI badge. A small rush of heat moved up through Danny's core. Blood swirled in his head, pounding against the backs of his eyes.
He dropped the blinds back into place, went into his bedroom, and lay down with a weary sigh. Resentment over the bargain Miller had forced him into still stung, festering under his skin. But curiosity was creeping up behind the resentment no matter how hard he pushed it away. It had been a long time since he'd had the energy, or will, to be curious about much of anything.
This was going to be trouble. He turned the idea over in his mind and found it didn't frighten him. Trouble was the one thing Danny Butler felt qualified to handle.