Russell’s brow furrowed as his phone rang on his nightstand. He rolled onto his stomach, blindly reaching out until he found it. Eyes still closed, he easily swiped the green phone button to the right side and pressed the device to his ear. “Steele.”
Russell opened his eyes, blinking at the dark wall across his room. “Mister Eckart?”
“Yes. I-I have your number from when I was in the hospital. You gave me your card? I found it. Umm, l-look, I know it’s stupid and I’m probably imaging things, but I swear I heard someone outside, and I just…”
“Mister Eckart, it’s okay. It’s not stupid. I’m glad you called me.” Russell pushed himself up on his elbows, scrubbing his free hand over his face. “When’d you hear the noise?”
“M-maybe thirty seconds to a minute ago? It sounds like someone’s walking around in the bushes outside the house,” Theodore said.
Russell sat up on his knees and reached out to turn on the bedside lamp. He squinted at it, clearing his throat. “Where are you?”
“Living room, sitting on the floor. Just in case. All the lights are off. The TV’s the only thing I have on. Sh-should I turn it off?” Theodore asked.
“It can help cover up your voice while we talk. If someone’s out there, I want you to be able to keep talking.” Russell climbed off his bed. His gaze flickered over to his closet. Fuck a suit. He had jeans in the car. “You still hear the noise now, then?” he asked as he headed down to the first floor of his little apartment.
“Yeah. Rustling and… clanging. Like someone bumped into the garbage can.”
“Okay. Has anyone turned the doorknob?”
“Have you noticed anyone looking through the windows?”
“I-I haven’t been looking. Do I have to?” Theodore asked.
“No, of course not. I won’t make you do anything you’re scared of doing. Your fear is logical and reasonable. That’s why I’m on my way,” Russell said. “Give me your address, Mister Eckart. Just breathe.”
Theodore listed off his address. “I’m so sorry about this, Detective. I know it’s probably nothing.”
“You have a kid in the house. Don’t apologize for being safe rather than sorry.” Russell locked the door to his apartment and jogged out to his car. The wind whipped at his exposed legs and torso. He’d never regretted not wearing a shirt and pants to bed in early October quite as much as he did in that very moment.
Russell slid into the driver’s seat and shut the door, pinning his phone to his ear with his shoulder as he started the engine. “How’re we doing, Mister Eckart?”
“About ready to piss myself.”
Russell nodded. “Well, I get that way myself sometimes, too.”
“Of course. The shield doesn’t make me immune to fear. We get scared, too. It’s human. You’re rational,” Russell said. He clicked his seatbelt into place and shifted into drive. He set the call to speaker and set his phone in the cup holder as he pulled out of his parking space. “I’m leaving now. I’ll be there in about ten minutes. Unless you want me to turn the sirens on.”
“Nope. Nuh-uh. God, no sirens.”
“Okay. Thought so.” Russell cleared his throat. “Talk to me.”
“I don’t know. Your day. How was your day?”
“Umm… okay, I think. My friend came over and helped make supper for me and Vera. She needed that. Vera, I mean. I haven’t been capable of making supper since I… you know.”
Russell nodded. “That does sound like an okay day.”
“Yeah,” Theodore whispered. “I loved getting to see her smile. Vera. She’s got the most adorable smile.”
“I bet she does. Bet it was nice seeing her so happy.”
“It was. She’s been handling this all s-so well, but she’s still just a kid.”
“Kids are resilient. She’ll remember you healing, and she’ll remember you keeping her safe.”
“Y-you think so?”
“You called a cop to make sure your house was safe. Hell, yes, I think so,” Russell said.
Russell did his best to keep Theodore talking while he drove to the man’s house. He was rather certain that Theodore was right, and that he wasn’t in any danger, but that didn’t mean Russell wasn’t going to check and give him some peace of mind. And it certainly didn’t mean he’d allow Theodore to be terrified and silent the whole ten-minute drive, either.
Russell parked outside of Theodore’s house and grabbed his jeans from the backseat. He undid his seat belt and shoved his legs through his jeans, lifting his butt from his seat to pull them up the rest of the way. He grabbed his phone with one hand, buttoning and zipping his jeans with the other. “Mister Eckart? The car you hear, that’s me, okay?”
“I’m going to get out, so you’re going to hear a car door. That’s me, too.”
“Okay,” Theodore repeated.
Russell cut the engine and climbed out of the car. He closed the door and took the call off speaker, pressing his phone to his ear. “I’m going to open the back door of my car. That’s what you’ll hear.”
Russell opened the back door and grabbed his sweatshirt from the floor. He shook it out and pulled it on, quickly pressing his phone back to his ear. “I’m gonna close the door, now.”
Russell grabbed a flashlight before closing the door. “Okay, I’m going to walk up to the house. Is it the front door, or the back door?”
“Okay.” Russell headed up to the house, flipping on his flashlight. He shone the light over the bushes in front of the house. There weren’t any crumbled leaves or flowers, and there certainly weren’t any people there. He turned toward the trash can, jumping back as a raccoon bolted out of it. “Jesus,” he whispered.
“What?” Theodore asked.
“It’s okay. I’m sorry. It, uh, it’s a damn raccoon. It knocked your trashcan over, and it scared the shit outta me when it jumped out,” Russell said.
“A raccoon. God.”
“You couldn’t have known.” Russell bent down and set the trashcan upright. He put the lid back on top of it. “So, raccoon is gone. Anything else I can do for you, Mister Eckart?” He turned toward the door as it opened.
“Can you stay for a bit?” Theodore asked, phone still pressed to his ear, his free hand wrapped tightly around his cane. “I hate that my heart’s pounding, but it is.”
Russell nodded. “I can stay. My job’s protecting the people. You’re the people, Mister Eckart.”
“Thank you,” Theodore whispered.
Again, Russell nodded. “Of course. Let me go lock my car.”
Russell ended the call and tucked his phone into the back pocket of his jeans. Back at his car, he grabbed the keys from the ignition, closed the door, and locked them. Pocketing the keys, he headed back for the house. Theodore moved away from the door to allow Russell inside. “Shoes on or off?”
“Of course.” Russell closed the door and kicked off his shoes.
“Can I… get you anything?” Theodore asked. “Umm, coffee, tea, water, lemonade?”
Russell glanced down at his wrist. His shifted started in three hours. “Coffee would be great, if it’s no trouble.”
Theodore nodded. “Yeah, no trouble. Christ, you drove all the way out here at three in the morning. Coffee is no trouble.”
“It was only ten minutes. No skin off my back to make sure a citizen was safe,” Russell said.
Theodore shook his head as he started for the kitchen, leaning heavily on his cane as he walked. Russell followed behind him. “It was a raccoon.”
“You couldn’t have known that.”
“I could’ve checked before calling you.”
“This isn’t a horror movie, Mister Eckart. You don’t have to check out every noise you hear for yourself. You can think you’re in danger without, you know, walking down the basement stairs in high heels and a bath towel,” Russell said.
Theodore smiled. It was small and nearly timid, but it was there. “High heels and a bath towel. It sounds like you watch some real quality horror movies.”
“Oh, please. Is it a horror movie if a woman isn’t in the shower when she hears a scary noise that she must go to the basement to check out?” Russell asked.
Theodore pointed back at him. “That’s a fair point.”
Russell smiled at him before clearing his throat. “Anything I can help with?”
“I can manage to make coffee, I promise,” Theodore said.
“Of course. I have no doubts about that. I’m just… used to offering to help.”
“God, no. But when I’m at the station, I spend most of my time being the one to start a new pot of coffee. It’s such an old coffee pot, and I’m the only one it likes. Almost no one else can get it to work.”
Theodore snorted. “Won’t be long before the love story of you and the coffee pot hits the news, then.”
Russell smiled. “What do you mean? Coffee pot and I have been dating for a long time already, Mister Eckart.”
“Theodore. And of course you have.”
“Theodore,” Russell echoed. “In that case, you can call me Russell. I’m not working a case you’re involved in, so the detective stuff isn’t necessary.”
“Noted.” Theodore leaned against his cane rather heavily and reached up with his free hand to pull open the cupboard above the coffee maker. He pulled down two mugs and set them on the counter. Russell leaned back against the island as Theodore went about putting in a filter, coffee grounds, and water. After he started the machine, Theodore turned to face him. “What’s it like working homicide, then?”
Russell crossed his arms over his chest, offering a shrug. “It beats working narcotics. But, uh… I mean, it’s hard, you know? Investigating murders, hoping to give the victim justice while juggling their grieving family. Questioning said grieving family over and over again. You feel a little bit like a monster in each case, but you know you have to do it. But, uh, overall, I love my job. Working for the people, giving them justice. It’s what I do, and I’m very proud of it.” He cleared his throat. “How do you like working at the bookstore?”
“God, I love it. It’s one of the things I missed most when I was in the hospital, when I was stuck here at home. I love the people, the smells, the book covers. Getting to meet fellow book lovers is amazing. Getting to see what kind of people are reading what kind of book–I love that. I love unboxing new books when they’re shipped in. It’s weird, I know, but being the first one to open the box and flip through those pages?” Theodore shook his head. “I love it so much.”
“Not weird at all. It’s great you love books that much,” Russell said.
“You think so?”
The detective nodded. “I know so. I’m the guy who just bought a whole book series for his niece as a reward for her enjoying reading.”
Theodore chuckled. “True. Very true.” The little smile faded from his face. “Do you work today?”
“Jesus. I’m so sorry. Y-you can go. I’ll be okay,” Theodore said.
Russell shook his head. “I’ll only leave if you absolutely want me to. Theodore, my entire job involves being woken up at unbelievable hours of the day to get to a crime scene. Hell, I’m just happy this particular three AM wake-up call didn’t involve a corpse, just a raccoon. It’s a nice change of pace.”
Theodore let out a breath. “Well… okay. I’m glad I could help, then.”
“Good.” Russell cleared his throat. “I wasn’t lying when I said it’s my job to serve the people, okay? If you need anything, you can call me. If you don’t feel comfortable calling actual dispatch, you can call me. I’ll always show up.”
The man shook his head, fingers tightening around his cane. “I appreciate that, but you don’t have to worry. This is a one-time thing. I didn’t know what else to do. I was scared shitless. But, you know, it was a raccoon. One-time thing,” Theo said.
Russell knew arguing his point wasn’t going to do himself or Theo any good. Theo was a beaten man, one who had spent years being told what a piece of shit he was, how worthless he was, how he didn’t deserve better than a husband who beat the shit out of him.
A conversation with a homicide detective wasn’t going to convince him his fears were real and genuine and that he was important enough that he could call the cops, even if the noise turned out to only be a raccoon every single time.
So Russell only nodded. “Of course. Whatever works best for you, Theodore.”
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