Hot Contact

By: Susan Crosby

One




Joe Vicente strode into his office and stumbled over a body pierced with half a dozen daggers. He studied the giant of a man sprawled on the floor, then he did what any veteran homicide detective would do—he laughed. Small Corn Flakes boxes were stuck to the man’s chest, knife handles protruding from each box. Unnatural red blood dripped from the points of entry.

“You get it?” the body asked.

Joe got it. “Cereal killer. Good one, Reggie.” He walked backward toward his desk. “You going trick-or-treating on your way home?”

“Nah. I’m meeting the wife at the Blue Zoo for a Halloween party. Wanna come?”

“No, thanks. If I’m not there to pass out candy to the little monsters, they egg the house.”

Reggie straightened his costume as he stood. “I didn’t think kids did that anymore.”

“They do in my neighborhood.” Joe turned around and bumped into a descendent of Al Capone, wearing a pin-striped suit, black shirt, white tie and Fedora. Tony Mendes, the newest detective assigned to the elite Robbery-Homicide Division of the Los Angeles Police Department—and Joe’s partner.

Joe grinned. He couldn’t remember a Halloween in his seven years in RHD when anyone had dressed up. But then the Blue Zoo, the local cop watering hole, had just changed ownership, expanded and was making an effort to draw a bigger crowd.

Joe dropped his notebook onto his desk and spied Lieutenant Morgan heading his way.

“Interview room two, Vicente,” he said to Joe. “Now.”

The lieutenant’s tone of voice said Joe wasn’t being invited to a party.

He avoided eye contact with the other detectives as he followed Morgan. In the interview room he sat in the chair across the table from the lieutenant, slouched a little and crossed his ankles. His stomach caught fire, but he didn’t reach for the antacid tablets he chewed like candy, not in front of the boss.

Morgan leaned back, stone-faced. At six foot two, he was as tall as Joe but had ten years and thirty pounds on him. Morgan was a good supervisor. Fair. “Catch me up on the Leventhal case.”

“Dead ends. One after another.”

The lieutenant was quiet long enough to almost make Joe squirm. He knew the tactic, used the tactic. Shut up and the let other person bear the burden of the silence, forcing them to speak first.

“I’ve cleared you for four weeks’ vacation,” Morgan said, his gaze steady.

Shock rolled through Joe in tidal waves. He fought to maintain his equilibrium. Vacation, hell. He’d lost his cool too many times lately, but the last thing he needed was a vacation. Time on his hands? No way. “I know you’re not happy with my work—”

Morgan frowned. “It’s got nothing to do with your work, Joe. You’re a damn good cop. But you are this close to being reassigned. This close.” A piece of paper might have fit between his thumb and index finger. “That’s about a day from now.”

“I can’t go on vacation.”

“You need to get away from here. Right now. Before you get hurt, before someone else gets hurt. Never mind that you’ve worked the Leventhal case way too long. It should’ve been filed by now.”

“I can’t get the witnesses to cooperate. You know that.”

“Yeah, and you’re taking it out on everyone here. When you walked in just now, that’s the most civil any of us has seen you for months. You don’t think the captain hasn’t noticed? I’m saving your hide here. You start vacation tomorrow.”

Desperation slammed into him. His lungs froze. If he didn’t have work, he wouldn’t survive. The constant burning in his gut would only get worse. He didn’t want to think about what it would do to his insomnia.

“Two weeks,” Joe countered. Maybe he could tolerate two weeks.

“Four. And if anyone sees you at the site of the Leventhal shooting or hears you’re trying to contact a witness, you won’t have a desk to come back to.”

Joe knew Morgan was right. Something had to change. But staying away from the job wasn’t the solution. Legally they couldn’t force him to use his vacation time, either.

“You know I can’t leave town,” he said. It was as close to begging as he would get.

“Maybe that’s exactly what you need,” the lieutenant said, his voice not as gritty. “How long has it been since you went away? Since you went on a date, even? I know you’ve been through hell, but take the time and be grateful for it. Clear your head. Take back your life.”

“Or don’t come back?”

Morgan crossed his arms. “I want the case file and notes on my desk before you leave tonight.”

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