Greg pulled into the parking lot at Manfredi’s, thankful that it seemed to be a slow night and there was a space near the door. Ever since… well, he just didn’t like parking in the alley any more.|
He went inside to pick up the takeaway he’d ordered and waited at the cash register until the bag was brought out from the kitchen. The smell of lasagna made his mouth water as he added the tip and signed the receipt.
A familiar silhouette at the bar made him freeze.
“Thank you, sir,” the server said. “Here’s your order.”
“Um, hang onto it for a minute, will you? I think I see someone I know.”
The server nodded indifferently. “I’ll put it right here. You can get it on your way out. Thank you for choosing Manfredi’s.”
The restaurant was dark but Greg was sure that he recognized her in the mirror. His heart was pounding so loud he could barely hear the cheesy background music. He didn’t want to do this but he hated feeling like a coward. Finally, he approached the bar, waiting for her to lower the glass from her lips.
“I really am sorry,” he said.
Quietly, without turning her head, she said, “I know.” There was a heavy finality to her voice that made Greg wonder if she was drunk. She fished the olive out of her empty glass with long, brightly painted fingernails. There were small gems glued to the nail of her ring finger and both thumbnails.
She clicked her nails against the polished surface of the bar to summon the bartender. “I’ll have another. How about you, CSI?”
Shaking his head hastily, Greg said, “Nothing for me.”
He waited in silence, not sure whether to say more or just turn around and go.
“Have a seat, CSI,” she said.
“I have to go,” Greg said, stopping himself from babbling about picking up dinner and it having been a long day. She couldn’t possibly care about any of that.
“I got your letter,” she said.
“I– hoped that you did.”
“It must have given that idiot sheriff a heart attack.”
“Undersheriff. He fired me.”
“But you’re still a CSI.”
“They made him hire me back,” Greg said, swallowing hard. “Public relations.”
She lifted her new drink, peering at the droplets beading the glass as if they were fascinating. “Did you ever lose something? Something that changed your entire life?”
The sound of a plate shattering as it hit the floor made Greg flinch and suddenly he remembered the smell of burning chemicals. “Yes,” he said, thinking that the scars on his back couldn’t compare – and yet…
“You too,” she mused.
“Mrs. James, I…”
“They told me you recommended leniency for Aaron,” she said. “I thank you for that.”
“I didn’t mean to go off on you in the station when you came over to speak to me,” Greg said. “I was just… under a lot of–” He broke off, realizing that pleading stress was like complaining about a pebble under your sleeping bag when your companion was trapped under an avalanche.
“Speak to you?” Mrs. James laughed and Greg took a tiny step back as the shrill echo of hysteria reminded him of her emotional attack in the hall. “I was screaming at you.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and turned away. He froze again when he felt her hand clamp around his wrist.
“It’s just my way,” she explained, although there was no note of apology in her voice. “Aren’t you going to ask me to forgive you?”
“I wouldn’t insult you that way.”
For the first time, Mrs. James turned on the barstool, to examine his face. She nodded slowly. “Who taught you that?”
A bitter smile twisted her lips. “You had a grandmother.”
Greg waited but she fell silent, staring into her glass.
“Why, don’t you want my forgiveness?”
“It’s not up to me. I’d be grateful–” His voice broke and Greg cleared his throat. “It’s– what I did is… not that easy to… impossible… maybe…”
“So that you don’t have to look over your shoulder in dark alleys?” Mrs. James gave a throaty laugh. It sounded to Greg as if she was gloating, but for all her histrionics, he found her hard to read.
“No. For you. For Aaron.”
“Aaron?” she asked sharply.
“You said he was all you had left,” Greg said.
Picking his words carefully, Greg said, “Are you making him into a memorial to Demetrius? Or do you love him for himself?”
“Because he’s not such a good specimen?” Mrs. James said, her voice rising. “Like Demetrius, right? Out getting his kicks in a dark alley beating some drunk-ass tourist.”
“I didn’t say that.” This was a mistake. “I’m sorry for your loss, Mrs. James.”
Greg paused, but he really wanted to just get home to Nick. He was pretty certain that his partner would confirm that he should have just left when he saw Mrs. James but at least he could swallow that pill in the shelter of his embrace.
“My mama was from the south,” Mrs. James said. “She was a lady and she raised me right. I’m pretty sure she’d be disappointed in me. Cynthia, she would say, a lady is always gracious to a gentleman.”
Greg wondered how drunk Mrs. James was.
She turned to face him again and he noticed how dark her eyes were. And how sad. “You’ve said that you’re sorry more than once and I can tell that you mean it. I’ve never apologized to you. I know you were hurt.”
Greg nodded, watching her warily.
She laughed. “You don’t believe me.”
“Past behaviour is the best predictor of the future.”
She winced. “A rap sheet, huh? I suppose I deserve that. Did I deserve to lose my son because I was a lousy mother?”
“I never said–”
“Yes, you did. And you were right. Don’t bother lying to save my feelings now!” She reached out and Greg took a step back. Mrs. James let her hand drop but stared at the scar on his cheekbone. “Does it still hurt?”
Clenching his jaw, Greg replied tersely, “Sometimes.”
“That’s not your only scar, is it?”
“We all have scars.”
“Yes, we do. That’s what life does to us. We start out all bright and shiny and new and full of hope, and then…” Mrs. James waved her hand. Her attention was captured by the sight of her drink and she downed it in one long swallow. Her gaze wandered over him, stopping at the tear in the knee of his jeans. “They dock your pay to make up for the settlement?”
Greg glanced down. “It’s the job. Sometimes our clothes take a beating–”
After an awkward silence, Mrs. James said, “Your food is probably getting cold.”
“Yeah.” Greg turned to go but stopped when she spoke.
He faced her again, feeling prickles sweep down his spine. “About what?”
“Aaron. Or me.” She gave him a sad smile. “You don’t have to look over your shoulder when you go down a dark alley. Since we got the money…” She shrugged.
“So all the drama in the courtroom was just an act.” Greg’s mouth was grim.
“Thanks, I guess.”
Mrs. James stared at his reflection in the mirror. “Get lost, CSI.”
Without another word, Greg went to the front, picked up the bag and returned to his car. The muffled sound of his sneakers was soft on the asphalt, but it still sent a shiver up his spine. He was always watching now. Listening.
He felt vulnerable as he unlocked his door. Once the car was moving, he was okay. The worst that could happen then was that another car might slam into his, killing him in an instant. Or it might be a truck. Or a train.
But standing outside the car, unlocking it, getting in, fastening the seatbelt, putting the key into the ignition– Greg felt like a sitting duck, waiting for the sound of shattering glass behind him. Beside him. Hands–
He let out a sigh of relief as he pulled out onto the street; wondering if both he and Mrs. James would always be held hostage to that one moment in time that changed life forever.
He smiled when he saw Nick’s truck in the driveway. At least some things hadn’t changed.
Greg set the bag of food down on the kitchen counter and went looking for Nick. He was in the den, checking his email.
“Hey G, get the food?”
“Yeah. I ran into someone at the restaurant.”
“Don’t tell me Hodges is still trying to flirt with you.”
“It was Mrs. James.”
Nick’s smile faded. “You all right?” He got up and came to Greg immediately, holding his arms out.
Greg walked straight into them, needing to feel Nick’s arms around him.
“Did she go off on you?”
“No, she was very quiet. It was weird. Like for the first time she realized I got my ass kicked too. And she said thank you for the letter,” Greg said. He burrowed into his partner’s neck, inhaling the reassuring familiar scent of him.
“So all the whooping and hollering was an act to make a kill– to rake in the big bucks when she sued?” Nick’s voice was indignant.
“I don’t know,” Greg said wearily. “She’s so volatile, I just don’t know. Maybe it’s all true. Whatever she’s saying at any given moment.” He chuckled. “At least she didn’t slug me.”
Nick struggled to quell his desire to go out and beat the James family to a pulp for hurting Greg. “I’m sorry.”
“How come it’s so easy for you to say?”
“It wasn’t always,” Nick said earnestly. “The more you fight it, the harder it is. It just got easier with practice.”
“I said it to her. In person.”
“Did it make you feel better?”
“Don’t you care if it made her feel better?”
“Not much, only if you do.”
Greg thought about it. “It made me feel better. I think maybe it made her feel better too.” He grunted softly as Nick’s arms tightened around him.
“If you got it off your chest, that’s all that counts, Greg.” Nick brushed the cropped hair on the side of Greg’s head with his lips. “Let’s eat.”
“I’ll always be here.”
“I’m counting on it.”