Books & Badges – Chapter Five

NOT EDITED

Theodore sat down beside Russell on the couch, one hand wrapped tightly around his cane, the other wrapped around the handle of a coffee mug. He let out a slow breath, closing his eyes as he leaned back against the pillow shoved up against the back of the couch. It helped offer a big more support for his back, but it still wasn’t entirely ideal.

“How’s your pain?” Russell asked.

Theodore opened his eyes. He hadn’t been asked that since his parents stopped babysitting him after he got out of the hospital. “Fine. It just acts up a bit when I’m stressed out.”

“I’d imagine so. Do you take anything for it?”

“I have painkillers. I avoid them when I can. The last thing Vera needs is for her father to fall back on drugs instead of, like, yoga or something,” Theodore said.

“If you ever feel like you need them, it’s okay to take them as directed. Following the directions doesn’t mean you’ve fallen to counting on drugs. It just means you’re in a lot of pain,” Russell said.

Theodore turned his head enough to look at the man. “I know, thank you.” He cleared his throat, eyes shifting to the ceiling as he dug a heel into his hip. “So, umm, you said working homicide was better than narcotics?”

“Yeah. No more undercover work, no more drug busts, no more drug house raids.”

Theodore glanced over at him. “You were undercover?”

“Oh, of course. Sometimes, we need an insider in the gang or the house to get what we need for a raid,” Russell said.

“How long were you undercover?”

“Well, I did four times before my promotion. The longest was for a year, two months, and six days, though.”

“Must’ve been a pretty shitty time, right?”

Russell shrugged. “I don’t know. Why?”

“Because you had how long you were there memorized down to the day. That’s how I count how long I was married, how long I was in the hospital, how long court went on.”

The detective offered a smile. “Yeah, I suppose it wasn’t a great time.” He took a sip of his coffee and cleared his throat. “I watched three kids die that year. Either one of their members or the members of other gangs. They choose kids because they’re easy to manipulate, because kids think that gang shit is what they want. Sometimes, they think it’s the only option to keep themselves or their family afloat. It was just…” He shook his head. “I was off work for almost four months afterward. Alcohol, smoking, and therapy for four months straight. Thankfully, I’ve stopped leaning on all three to survive now. But, uh, it was hard. I had never in my life been more thankful for a promotion and reassignment.”

“Christ, I’m sorry you had to witness that kinda stuff. It’s… terrible.”

Russell nodded. “Yeah, it wasn’t ideal, that’s for sure. But, hey, I’m mostly okay now.” He took a sip of coffee before resting the cup on his leg again. “Mm. What about you?”

“What about me?” Theodore asked.

“Are you mostly okay now?”

Theodore raised an eyebrow. “Are you talking about the raccoon?”

“No, but I can ask about both. Are you feeling calmer?” Russell asked.

“My heart’s stopped racing. I guess that’s something, right?”

“Definitely something.” Russell shifted on the couch. “What about after your… stay in the hospital?”

“I am… mostly okay now. I was in, umm, therapy for a little while, as much as my insurance would cover.” Oddly enough, Russell was just about the only person that knew that, save for Vera. Russell coming forward to say he had been in therapy made Theodore feel more comfortable about it. “Most of my injuries have healed. The hip will be the biggest problem, the longest to heal, and my doctor said it’s pretty likely I’ll suffer from back pain for the rest of my life without more surgery.”

“Are you gonna get it?”

“Doubtful. I’m going to be in debt until I die from the hospital stay as is. I don’t wanna add another surgery to it.”

“Understandable. Besides, you seem pretty damn strong. You don’t need a million surgeries to keep up that strength,” Russell said.

Theodore snorted. “Strong?” He shook his head. “Strong isn’t in my vocab for any of this.”

“What makes you say that?”

“I stayed with the bastard for so damn long. It’s not like the beating that landed me in the hospital was the first one. It wasn’t the first time. It was just the first one that required me to seek care that wasn’t available inside my home,” Theodore said. Russell turned on the couch, elbow digging into the back of it. Theodore flinched away from him, closing his eyes as he shook his head. “Fuck, I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to apologize to me,” Russell said. Theodore forced his eyes open. “Do you want me to move? I wasn’t going to touch you. I need you to know that.”

“Y-you’re fine where you are,” Theodore said.

After a moment, Russell nodded. “I, uh, I was just going to say that… how long you stayed with him doesn’t determine how strong you are. How much abuse you took doesn’t determine how strong you are. He didn’t make you who you are or any of that bullshit. He put you in a situation that required you to be strong in order for you to make it through it and come out alive on the other side. You had, what, a shattered hip and a broken tibia? Fibula?”

“Tibia,” Theodore said with a nod. “And I messed up my shoulder and elbow pretty bad, not to mention the back.”

“Right. And you had surgery to repair at least three of those things, if I’m not mistaken,” Russell said. Theodore nodded. “You’re strong, Theo. You wouldn’t have survived any of this shit if you weren’t strong. There’s no doubt about that in my mind. Strong is… definitely in your vocabulary, and it’s influenced by this, not by how long you were convinced that you were a piece of shit who didn’t deserve better.”

“Well, umm…” Theodore cleared his throat. “Thank you.”

“No problem. I know it… doesn’t mean much, especially coming from some random homicide cop, but…” Russell lifted a shoulder. “But you don’t deserve to have to feel like you’re a piece of shit all the time. You don’t deserve to feel like, well, like you deserved what he did to you. No one–well, okay. The majority of people don’t deserve to feel like they’re garbage.”

Theodore raised an eyebrow. “The majority?”

“Yeah. People like your ex deserve to feel like they’re garbage, because they are garbage,” Russell said.

After a moment, Theodore nodded. “Yeah. If nothing else, I’ve managed to realize that part in my time since the hospital… visit.”

“That’s good. That’s one of the things you do deserve. The knowing part, not the hospital part.”

After a moment, Theodore nodded. “You know… I can’t decide if I like that it seems so easy to talk to you.”

Russell smiled. “Sorry about that. I try to present and hold myself in a way that makes people feel safe and comfortable when it comes to talking to me. A lot of my job involves talking to people on the worst day of their lives. Being closed off and aggressive isn’t the best way to go about it,” he said.

Again, Theodore nodded. “Yeah, I can imagine not.” He cleared his throat. “Thanks again for… for coming over here and checking the house, even if it was just a darn raccoon. I just–Thank you.”

“Not a problem at all. You’re very welcome.”

“My, umm, my body doesn’t seem to think it’s in extreme danger anymore. You can leave and get some more sleep or something whenever you want to. I’ll be okay,” Theodore said.

“I’m fine staying here if you need me here. Do you want me to leave?”

Theodore, rather than going with his usual immediate response, gave himself a moment to actually think. He shook his head. “Not yet.”

“Then I’ll stay.”

“Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Theodore shifted, resting the side of his head on the back of the couch. “Do you ever get tired of that?”

“Hmm?”

“Of everything being no problem?”

Russell shook his head. “No. I only go for ‘you’re welcome’ if I assume the person will be offended by ‘no problem’. Otherwise, I wanna make sure the person I’m helping or talking to knows that what I’m doing genuinely is no problem. I don’t want them to feel guilty for asking for help or whatever. A lot of people are already embarrassed to ask for help. I kinda hope my ‘no problem’s make seem less embarrassing. Though there’s totally nothing to be embarrassed about in the first place,” he said.

Theodore smiled faintly. “You’re a real good guy, Russell. I bet you make a pretty good cop, too.”

“Well, I try to be. Thank you.”

“Can I ask you… what drives you to be that way?”

“Of course.” Russell shrugged. “I mean, I kinda always wanted to do the cop thing. My aunt was a cop, a real good once. I aspired to be like her, to do the same thing. And because it was the job I wanted–to be able to help people, to solve crimes, to fight crime–I wanted to do it right. I don’t want people to be scared of me because I’m a white guy with a badge on his belt and a gun on his hip. I want people to feel comfortable reporting their crimes to me. I want them to be comfortable with me being at their house to question them. I just… want people to know that, y’know… the bad few in the bunch–the ones the media reports on–aren’t the only ones out there.”

After a moment, Theodore nodded. “Well, for what it’s worth, people like me feel… a little bit better when cops like you come into their hospital room and give them news.”

Russell offered a little smile. “I’m glad.”

Theodore closed his eyes. “So, since you’re planning on staying, would you like to watch a movie or something?”

“Sure, if you’d like to watch one, we certainly can. Don’t go looking for things just to entertain me. I’m not here to be entertained or catered to. I’m here to make sure you feel safe,” Russell said. “If you need to sleep or anything, you can. You look tired. I can imagine raising a little girl while you’re injured can make a man even more tired than usual.”

Christ, was he ever right about that. “Are you sure?” Theodore asked.

Russell nodded. “Of course. If you need some rest, get some rest. I’ll keep an eye on the place while I’m here, make sure nothing–person or raccoon–gets in here.”

“Thank you,” Theodore whispered.

The detective only smiled. “No problem, Theodore.”


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Books & Badges – Chapter Four

NOT EDITED

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.”

“D-Detective?”

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?”

“No.”

“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.”

“You do?”

“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.”

“A-about what?”

“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?”

“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.”

“Uh-huh.”

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.”

“Okay.”

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?”

“Front 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.”

“Okay.”

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?”

“Off, please?”

“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.”

“Married?”

“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?”

“I do.”

“What time?”

“Six.”

“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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Books & Badges – Chapter Three

NOT EDITED

Theodore leaned on his cane a little heavier than usual as he reached out with his free hand to open the door. Gina stood in the doorway, three bags of groceries in one hand. He took a step back. “Need help?”

“Nope. You have enough weight to worry about without these,” Gina said as she walked into the house. Theodore smiled softly, closing the door. He’d always be thankful for Gina. Generally, she knew better than to take pity on him at every chance she got, and he’d appreciate that until the day he died. After the… incident with his ex-husband, he had received far too much sympathy from everyone around him, especially from people he didn’t even know. Anything was mild in comparison, even more so with Gina, and he loved that.

He needed that.

Theodore headed for the kitchen, leaning back against the counter as he watched Gina unpack the groceries. “What’re we making?” he asked.

“Is it what I’m making, or genuinely what we are making?”

“I’d like to help, if you’re okay with that. Been a while since I’ve been able to feel useful in a kitchen.”

Gina nodded. “Of course I’m okay with that. Besides, it’s your house, Theo.”

“I know, but you offered to come over and make it so…” Theodore offered a shrug. “I still have a hard time owning up to it being my house, believing that… I’m the one in charge. You know?”

“Of course,” she said softly. “Well, we are making something we both used to be obsessed with when we lived in New York.”

“Oh, my God. You did not.”

“Oh, I totally did.” Gina set a package of ground beef on the counter, a smile on her face. “We’re making ourselves a good ol’ fashioned Rochester garbage plate, baby. It’s time to introduce Vera to what our culture truly is.”

“She’s going to think it looks disgusting and tastes disgusting, and you’re going to become very disappointed in my child very quickly.”

“Nope, not even possible. You’re her bio-dad. I couldn’t be disappointed in her if a tried. And as your biological child, she’s totally predisposed for good tastes and garbage plates,” Gina said.

Theodore chuckled. “Yeah, okay. I’ll take your word for it.”

“She’ll love it! And even if she doesn’t, I’ll make her something else, and still totally love her.”

“Good to know.” Theodore nodded. “All right. Let’s make some garbage plates and see just how New York my little girl can be.”

***

Theodore carried Vera back to her bedroom, even though it wasn’t exactly good for his hip or knee. He hated that they were still a little busted up, but he wouldn’t let them or his pain stop him from carrying the sleeping girl to bed or from tucking her in.

He laid her down in her bed and tugged the covers up to her shoulders. A hand wrapped around the headboard, he leaned down and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Love you, sweetheart,” he whispered. She mumbled something that sounded vaguely like the same sentiment and rolled onto her side.

Theodore smiled and pushed himself away from the hearboard, straightening himself back out. He walked to the door, a hand on his hip. He’d definitely feel the extra pain from carrying her later on, but he didn’t mind. He carried her to bed any damn time she fell asleep in the living room. This was no different, even if it made him hurt just a little more.

He closed the door as quietly as he could and headed back for the living room. He grabbed his cane from where he’d left it by the couch.

“I could’ve carried her for you,” Gina said from the entryway of the living room, arms crossed over her chest.

“She’s my little girl, Gina. She needs to feel safe. I can’t make sure she feels safe if she thinks I’m not even strong enough to carry her up the stairs,” Theodore said.

Gina let out a heavy sigh. “Fine. But you can’t do it all the damn time, Theo. You shattered your damn hip. You need… You have to take it easy or you’ll never heal all the way.”

“That’s easier said than done, Gina. I have a kid, a job, a life. I have things to get back to, and I can’t stop them all or slow them all down even more just because… because of a bad night and an even worse fall,” Theodore said.

“Don’t say that like he’s not the one who did it to.”

“I’m not saying it to excuse him of it. He’s a monster, and I know that better than anyone. I’m saying it because acknowledging that the damage to my hip itself was from the fall makes it easier for me. He caused the fall, the fall caused my shattered hip. I know that, I accept that. I just don’t like thinking about the first part when I’m outside of a courtroom. Is that okay with you?”

Gina closed her eyes for a moment as she let out a breath. “Yeah, of course. I’m sorry. I’ve just never… I’ve never gone through what you did.”

“And I’m glad you didn’t. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” Theodore said simply. He sat down on the couch, digging the heel of his palm into his hip. “You planning on sticking around much longer?”

“I have to get home and take care of the dogs, and I’m cat-sitting tonight. But I can come back afterward if you want,” she said.

It would be nice to have the company, but if there was one thing Theodore was good at, it was making sure no one was inconvenienced on his behalf. “No, that’s okay. I’m just tired.”

“Are you sure? I can keep you company. I don’t mind, really.”

Given another chance, Theodore shook his head again. “I’m sure. I just need to get some rest. Should be good for me, huh?” he asked.

“Should be,” she agreed. “You let me know, okay? I literally don’t care what time you call. If you need me or want the extra company, call.” Theodore nodded, though he knew it as incredibly unlikely he’d call her. Theodore considered Gina his best and closest friend, and it gave him even more of a reason not to bother her. “Will do, Gina. Will do.”


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Books & Badges – Chapter Two

NOT EDITED

Russell Steele had run out to the dollar store to grab a gift bag to put the books in before heading out to his sister’s house. He knocked on the door, smiling a moment later when his younger sister pulled it open. “Nikki.”

“Russell.” She cocked her head to the side. “What’s in the bag?” Russell held it out to her, opening it enough that she could look inside. “Russell.”

“I know, I know. You like rewarding her for good grades and stuff. That’s fine. You can keep rewarding her for that. But can’t I reward her for being willing to read in the first place?” he asked.

Nikki sighed, but she nodded. “Go ahead, you nerd. She’s in the living room.

Russell’s smile broadened. “Thank you.”

“No problem.”

Russell kicked off his shoes on the rug by the dor and made his way to the living room. His neice, Abby, sat on the floor, a textbook open in front of her and an open notebook off to the side. “Hey, Abby.”

She lifted her head. “Uncle Russell!” She jumped to her feet and rushed him, throwing her arms around him. Russell smiled, happily returning to the hug. Very little in this world would ever beat out a hug from his neice. She pulled away from him, eyes falling on the gift bag in his hand. “What’s that?”

That is for you.”

“For what?”

“For me being proud of you for being such a good reader. A lot of kids today don’t wanna read at all, but you do, and that makes me real darn happy,” Russell said.

She met his eyes. “Really?”

“Mmhmm.” He held out the bag, giving it a good shake. She took it from him and sat down on the floor. Russell sat down beside her. He flipped back the cover of the textbook. History. Tragically, he’d be no help there. He was terrible with dates and the names of dead white guys.

“Did you get me the whole series?” Abby asked in a whisper.

“I did,” Russell whispered back.

“Oh, my God. Uncle Russell!” She threw her arms around him again. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome, sweetheart.” He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “You keep reading books, and I’ll get you whatever ones you want. In controlled quantities, of course. Your mom would kill me otherwise.”

Abby snorted. “Yeah, probably.” She pulled out one of the books, tracing the embossed title with her fingers. “Who checked you out?”

“A man. His name’s Theodore.”

“Was he cute?”

Russell rolled his eyes. He was used to this conversation. He’d only heard it a million times since he told his family that his interests weren’t limited to women. “He was very cute.”

“Are you gonna take him to coffee?”

He snorted. “No, sweetheart, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Because if I took every cute guy out for coffee, I wouldn’t have enough money to buy you books.”

For a moment, a thoughtful expression took over her face. “That’s okay, I’ll just reread these for a while.”

Russell laughed, gently shoving her shoulder. “You’re a pain in the ass, Abby.”

“You love me.”

“Yeah, there’s that. You’re still a pain in the ass.”

“No swearing around her, Russell!” Nikki called from the kitchen.

“Sorry, Nik!” He turned back to Abby. “Besides, I need a bit more than, ‘Remember me? I bought that series for my niece? Well, I like your face. Coffee?’ That’s just creepy.”

Abby laughed. “Then don’t be so creepy, you weirdo.”

“I’m not great at that.”

“Whatever. Your whole job is talking to people without being creepy.”

“Technically, that’s not a requirement,” Russell said.

Abby shook her head, a little smile on her face. “Thanks for the books, Uncle Russell.”

“You’re very welcome, sweetheart.” He reached out and smoothed a hand over her hair rather that tossling it like he wanted to. She wasn’t quite young enough for that anymore. She didn’t get annoyed at him easily, but in his experience, messing up her hair was one of her few annoyances.

He avoided it whenever he could, to say the least.

“Can I set you up with my History teacher?” Abby asked.

Russell snorted. “No, you may not.”

“He’s cute, I swear!”

Russell laughed. “My God, sweetheart. I appreciate the offer, okay? But I’m not lonely enough that I need my niece setting me up, I promise.”

“You don’t date a lot since you came out,” Abby said. “I worry about you.”

He smiled. “I’m fine, baby. I’ve had a couple dates here and there. I mostly just prefer going dancing on the weekends right now. Mixing dating in with work just isn’t something I need right now. Gotta wait till this case is over.” There was no case right now, not for him, anyway. But Abby didn’t need to know that.

“Do you have a partner at the station yet?” she asked.

Russell was more than thankful for the topic change. “Not yet. We had a new detective lined up, but he flaked. Guess we’ll just have to keep waiting for now.”

“Don’t you hate working by yourself?”

“Oh, I don’t mind it. I’ve never worked with anyone better than Emilia and Andrew. So I think it’s kind of a crapshoot to try pairing me with anyone, anyway. When I really need help, I take it to those two. One of them normally ends up heading out with me for interviews if I need it, anyway.” Russell shrugged. “It’s not too bad. They’re my best friends, after all.”

“That’s good, at least.”

“Very good,” he agreed. He let out a sigh. “Well, I should get home. I hope you enjoy the books. Book guy said they were good, and you would love them.”

“Thanks, Uncle Russell.” She reached up and squeezed his hand as he stood up. “I love you.”

“Love you, too, sweetheart. See you soon.”

***

Russell, beer in his hand, made his way to the pool table in the bar. A man stood there, racking the balls for a new game. Russell caught the gun holstered at his hip first, the tactical belt second, and the broad, muscled shoulders third.

Russell took pride in noticing them third. Emilia always hated when he checked out her husband, but he couldn’t help it. Andrew Buchanan was a damn good-looking man. Though, since he came out to more than just Emilia and Andrew, Russell was more open about being able to check out people other than the men he worked with. His attraction to Andrew’s shoulders had thankfully dissipated since then. Russell stopped beside him and clapped him on the back. “Hey.”

Andrew flashed a smile. “Hey. Saved the pool table for us.”

“Awesome. Where’s Emey?”

“Friend of hers is in the hospital, and her family won’t be here for a couple more hours. They had to fly in from California. So Em’s staying with her for now, making sure she doesn’t get too scared.”

“What happened to her?” Russell asked.

“Kitchen fire. Em says she has third-degree burns all over her arms and neck,” Andrew said.

“Jesus.” Russell shook his head. “Can’t even imagine.”

“I know. It’s terrible. I told Em you’d understand her canceling on karaoke, but she wanted me to let you know that she’ll sing four songs with you next week instead of two,” Andrew said.

Russell snorted. “Perfect.” He took a sip of his beer. “Mm, had a lunch date today.”

“Right. How’d that go?”

“Ready?”

“Of course.”

“I left my phone on the table when I got up to go to the bathroom. He snooped, found out my interests don’t just lie in only men, and he told me there was no possible way this could ever happen again.” Russell chuckled, shaking his head. “I swear, man. Some of these fucking people, they preach solidarity and support, but when they’re actually given the chance to stand for what they speak of, they’d rather throw you to the wolves.”

“I’m sorry, Russ. Fuck him. You’re better than that guy, anyway,” Andrew said. He held up his beer. “To finding another person who respects you for loving whoever the hell you want.”

Russell smiled, tapping his beer against Andrew’s. “To that,” he agreed, taking another sip. “You know, I never thanked you guys for showing so much support when I came out to you, when you helped me work up the nerve to come out to my family.”

“Oh, please, we knew. You should never have to thank us for treating you like a human being.” Andrew squeezed Russell’s shoulder, holding out a pool cue with his free hand. Russell grabbed it from him. “You’re family, Russ. And Em and me, since we aren’t pieces of shit, love you for who you are. Besides, Emey’s somewhere on the asexual spectrum. You know that. And I’d be the worst fuckin’ person in the world if I hated you for being LGBTQ when I love her so damn much.”

Russell’s smiled widened. “Someday, I want what you two have.”

“You’ll get there. Just gotta find yourself someone who doesn’t bitch and complain when you have to go into work at three in the morning because someone’s been murdered.”

“Oddly enough, easier said than done.”

Andrew chuckled. “Yeah, that’s why I scored myself a fellow cop. They understand if you have to leave really early in the morning. And with Em, it doesn’t really matter one bit, since we’re partners at the station. We go together most of the time.” He smiled at Russell. “The couple that investigates crime together, stays together.”

Russell snorted. “I’ll make sure to keep that in mind.” He nodded toward the pool table. “C’mon, let’s at least get one round in before you get us both totally shit faced.”

Andrew laughed. “Sure thing, Steel.”


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Books & Badges – Chapter One

NOT EDITED

The early morning sun peeked between the window curtains, casting an orange light on the bedroom door and a little rainbow of color across the bed, where the sunshine cut through the fish tank on the computer desk.

The door to the bedroom creaked open, and a little girl walked through the doorway, one hand on the knob, the other clutching a teddy bear to her chest. She padded across the room, hugging the toy as she stared at the man on the bed. Tentatively, she reached out with one hand and poked his arm. He groaned, rolling onto his stomach. “Daddy?”

“Mm?”

“I had a bad dream.”

Theodore Eckart cleared his throat, turning his head to the side to look at the little girl. “You did?” She nodded, bottom lip pulled into his mouth. “I’m sorry, baby girl.” He tugged the covers back, holding them up in the air. “Get your butt up here.” The fair-skinned, red-headed girl climbed onto her father’s bed, snuggling up against his side as he dropped the covers again. “What was your bad dream about?”

“That Father came back.”

“That’s never happening.” Clearing his throat again, Theodore rolled onto his side, tugging the girl, Vera, to his chest.

“How do you know?”

“Because he’s in jail.”

“ ‘Cause he hurt you?”

Theodore closed his eyes. “Yeah, baby, because he hurt me.” He lifted a hand and rubbed at his eyes. “What time is it?”

“I dunno. I saw a four on the clock.”

Theodore cracked open an eye to peer at the analog alarm clock on his nightstand. Six forty-six. “Yep. Definitely a four in there. Good job, baby.” Theodore smoothed a hand over Vera’s hair. “How about you try to get some sleep? I’ll make breakfast for us in another hour or so. Till then, I’ll keep you safe, and I’ll scare all the bad dreams away.”

Vera stuck a pinky finger up between them. “Promise?”

Theodore wrapped his own around it. “Promise.”

***

With Vera at school, Theodore had gone to work and headed straight over to the in-house cafe part of the bookstore.

“Theo! Oh, my God, I didn’t know you were coming in today,” the woman behind the counter said.

Theodore smiled. “Had to come back eventually, right?”

“Of course. I’m just so happy to see you.” She stuck out both hands, bangle bracelets jangling against each other. Theodore leaned a little heavier on his cane and grabbed one of her hands. She immediately laid the second hand over his. “How’re you doing? How’s Vera?”

“I’m better, and she’s… handling everything well, save for the fear that he’s coming back.”

“He’s in jail. Fucker got a decade.”

“I know. You, uh, you should come over and see her. She misses you, and maybe having someone else at the house for a couple hours would help,” Theodore suggested.

“I would love to. Tell her I’ll be over… tonight?”

“Sounds perfect, Gina.”

Gina Beckett smiled. “Great.” She let go of his hand. “So… what can I getcha?”

“Just, uh, just one of the caramel cappuccinos.”

“Can do. Back in a jiff.” She patted the counter before pushing away from it. Theodore stared down at the floor as she went about making his coffee. Gina was one of the few people in his life that he had allowed to see him when his ex-husband had landed him in the hospital. With God only knew how many scratches and bruises and a broken hip–among a few other sprains and fractures–Theodore had looked awful and weak. He hadn’t wanted his co-workers to see him that way. He hadn’t wanted his boss to see him that way.

Hell, it had taken Gina two days to convince him that his parents deserved to see him, even if it upset them to see their baby boy like that. In the end, Gina and his parents had helped take care of Vera while he was in the hospital, and the first week back home, they had taken turns taking care of him, too.

He’d have to take Vera out to see his parents, too. They hadn’t seen him since the bruises had faded, and he figured they deserved to see him in better shape again.

Gina set the cup down on the counter. “On me,” she said as Theodore reached for his wallet.

“Gina, come on.”

“Theo, you haven’t worked in over a month. Let me pay for your damn coffee. Please.”

After a moment, Theodore managed to swallow his pride, and he offered a nod. “Thank you.”

“Of course. Can you get it back to the book counter okay?”

“Oh, yeah. Just a cane, no crutches.” He held up his free hand, wiggling the fingers. “This one’s all good for carrying things.”

Gina snorted, pushing the cup a little closer to him. “What time do you want me to meet you at your house?”

“Depends. Do you wanna help me make supper? I’ve just been ordering pizza and takeout. She’s been real good about it, but she deserves so much more.”

Gina nodded. “Of course I wanna help. I’ll even get groceries if you let me know what you want before my shift’s over.”

“I will. Thank you, Gina.” He grabbed the coffee cup. “You’re a lifesaver.”

“My pleasure, Theo.”

***

“Did you find everything you were looking for today?” Theodore asked, lifting his eyes to the customer’s face as he set a small stack of books on the counter.

“Oh, I think so,” the relatively cute and oddly familiar man said. He crossed his arms over the counter as Theodore started ringing up the books.

Theodore rang up the second book in the Beautiful Creatures series. “Have you read the first one yet? Or preparing for when you read it?”

“Nah, my niece. She loved the first one, and her parents only buy her new books for her birthday. I’m switching it up and getting her one just for being willing to read books,” the man said.

Theodore chuckled. “A darn good thing to be rewarded for, if you ask me.”

“I thought so.”

Theodore couldn’t help but think just how familiar the man looked to him. “Well, she’ll love book two, promise.”

“I sure hope so.” The man cocked his head to the side. “I’m sorry to ask, but… is there any chance I know you? You just look real familiar to me.”

“I don’t know.” Theodore chuckled. “I kinda thought the same about you.” As he rang up another book, his eyes caught the badge pinned to the man’s belt. Steel. “Oh. I know where we know each other from.”

“Oh?”

Theodore nodded. “You, uh, you were the one who arrested my ex.”

The man glanced off to the side before it dawned on him. “Theodore. Pardon me, your last name escapes me.”

“That’s okay. It, uh, it’s changed since then anyway. Back to Eckart, now.”

“Russell Steel. How’ve you been?”

“I’ve been okay. Better than when you saw me last.” Theodore offered a chuckle, packing the books into a bag. “I never saw you after you talked to me in the hospital.”

“It wasn’t my case. I’m a homicide detective. I just happened to see the guy walking after the warrant for his arrest went out. I only went to the hospital to make sure the news got back to you as quickly as possible. I knew safety and comfort would be hard for you to feel. I just wanted to give you at least some sense of peace of mind,” Russell said.

“It was appreciated. Still is.”

Russell nodded. “And I’m glad you’re mostly healed up.”

Theodore smiled. “Me, too.” He set the bag on the counter and gave the price to Russell. After the detective paid, Theodore tucked the receipt into the bag and held it out to him. “Your niece will love that book.”

Russell smiled back at him. “Thank you.” He took a step away from the counter, bag of books in hand. He glanced to the side, seemingly making sure no one else was in line. “You have a daughter, don’t you?”

“I do.”

“How’s she doing?”

“Great. Couple, umm, couple nightmares here and there, but she’s doing great.”

“Great,” Russell whispered. “Is she a reader?”

“She likes being read to and pretending she can read at a seventh grade level.”

Russell chuckled. “Kids are the best.” He touched a hand to the counter, eyes locking with Theodore’s. “I’m glad you’re both doing better, really.”

“Thank you.”

The detective nodded. “Enjoy your day, Mister Eckart.”

“You, too, Detective.”

Theodore let out a slow breath once the door closed behind Russell. Seeing the detective hadn’t exactly brought anything bad to the forefront of his mind, but it certainly hadn’t been what he had expected his first day back at work to bring.

If nothing else, he found himself thankful that seeing Russell hadn’t brought back memories of his ex-husband. He found himself thankful that the cop he saw was the man who had arrested his ex rather than any of the ones that worked his case or the lab tech that had taken pictures of his bruises. He had a feeling he wouldn’t have been able to escape bad memories if it had been one of them instead.

At least that was finding a way to look on the bright side. That was something.


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