A/N: Hello everyone, and welcome to the as of a few days ago, Book 2 in the Nick Tate series. It is and isn't a storyline sequel to Edgeport in that you can read this book separately from Edgeport without needing to have read the first book, but just note it probably will spoil bits of Edgeport, so if you plan to read that one, I'd read it first for the best experience.
Well, I hope y'all enjoy.
The biggest what if in Nick's life had just become "what would've happened in the Gerard Edgington case if Dani had actually been there?"
"Why did you hire Spencer Breckin? He's a frickin' idiot!"
Shining chestnut hair, twenty-three years old, an actress's profile, and way too open to discussion, Sergeant Danica Preston sat next to him as they took that afternoon's patrol around Edgeport, Colorado. As with any towns at mountain level, despite it being the first of April, a ugly slush of snow still stuck to the ground, only getting more watery with the spring sun blazing down on them.
Nick didn't give Dani the pleasure of eye contact while driving, something he considered blasphemy when anyone did it while driving him. "He gave an excellent interview and has been doing great so far, I'll let you know. And, for the record, the only person's opinions I give less shits about than yours is Spencer Breckin's."
Dani had taken a yearlong leave to work the Peace Corps, taking her from Edgeport from January of the year before, the last few months of William Walker's reign as Chief of Police before his death, to a few months before. She had claimed she wanted to help people, but most of the force was convinced Dani had "rage-quit" after having to deal with Chief Walker's sexism, lack of morals and general asshole nature. (Nick didn't really blame her.) In that leave, she had been so disconnected from Western life that she not only had no idea that mayor's brother Gerard Edgington had turned out to be a child grooming rapist to his young niece, Alice, and was currently six feet under, but that Nick was police chief in the first place.
Dani had worked a solid two years as Nick's partner before his promotion, and even though some officers (Spencer Breckin, hilariously enough) wouldn't have let her back themselves, Nick was of a different opinion. Quite frankly, Nick loved Dani and was elated to have her back.
Well, he was mostly elated.
"I'm just saying that you're still a new police chief and people are going to analyze every move you make. Breckin is young, reckless, and two steps from—"
"Say he's going to become the next Junior Rennie, I dare you."
"I was going to say Melvin Searles."
"The kid with the giant dick?"
Dani nodded as if saying Spencer Breckin was going to become a sadistic, power-abusing rapist was not only rational, but not a serious insult to the real kid.
"Dani, stop. Tell me when Breckin has done something seriously off color, and then I'll investigate. Until then, you're just bitter."
They didn't speak for another town block. "Do you remember the time Breckin shoved his weed into Earl Yates' locker?"
"You hired that kid. I don't get it. Are you low on recruits?"
"Does it matter? You're a sergeant, barely above an officer." He shot his hand out, pressed her sergeant's badge between his fingers. "A promotion I gave you. Three months ago."
"You won't look at me, yet you'll take the precious two 'o clock hand off the steering wheel to touch my chest?"
Nick took his hand back, hoping he wasn't blushing. He had been dating Portia for nine months, and had resisted the unconscious "flirting" he used to do with all his officers for that long, but somehow, he still hadn't gotten the pace with Dani. Which was about the stupidest thing his primal need to breed ever did, considering she was a lesbian.
A change in subject may be necessary. "Where did you go for the Peace Corps?"
Dani actually stopped saying the name herself, her hand going to her window, face only close enough to the glass to not smash her face into it. No words.
"What?" Nick asked.
Nick pulled over, mentally putting their current location on the map of the town he'd memorized many years before. They were on the outskirts of town, the east side, where the only buildings around were the old arcade, a liquor store, and a vacant lot that had served every purpose from neighborhood kids' baseball field to sweetie central.
Beyond Dani, there stood six teenagers, not dressed for the wonky snowy-yet-sunny weather in beanies, fur-ladden hoodies, jeans, and skate shoes, still at that stage in development where their large feet didn't quite match their heights. Five of the boys stood around the sixth boy, very lean, even for his age, with features that would later give him model good looks, but only made him look a bit too feminine in that moment. The sixth boy had his hands in his jacket pockets, but the frown on his face didn't suggest the ease he may have been going for.
Nick cracked Dani's window open, inviting the nip of the air and the boys' voices into the car.
"Why didn't you help me with York's test today, Palmer? You saw that struggle. What kind of a study buddy are you?" a particularly short yet filled out boy with a purple hoodie and chin length dirty blond hair said as he got closer to the odd man out.
Nick was a bit embarrassed to have his interest peeked so much more at the mention of Portia's class. Then again, it did set the stage. Portia had gotten a yearlong transitional job filling in for a freshman English teacher before moving to a permanent position teaching eighth grade, so at least two of the kids were freshmen at Edgeport High School.
Palmer took a few steps backward and sideways, edging from one side of the vacant lot towards the street. "I didn't know the answers either. It wouldn't have helped."
"Oh, come on, Palmer, you practically ride that bitch," a second, taller boy who looked about as disproportionate as the dirty blond, with greasy dark hair he seemed to have cut himself, replied. "You knew the answers."
Nick tightened his grip on the steering wheel almost unconsciously. He never realized how much it hurt and infuriated him to hear someone call his girlfriend a bitch. Get a grip. She's a teacher, and those little dipshits don't have advanced enough vocabularies to think of anything more complex than "bitch."
He and Dani exchanged a look, but neither of them moved.
Palmer sidestepped, but Greasy Hair shot his arm out and pushed him a sidestep in the wrong direction.
"Guys, I gotta go," Palmer said, finding his footing as he slipped on the slush.
In trying to form a barrier between Palmer and the street, the boys all had their backs to Nick and Dani. Nick opened the driver door and tiptoed his way onto the asphalt, avoiding even the tiniest bunch of crunchy slush. Dani hadn't moved, and watched him as he made his way to the passenger's side. He held his hand out, motioning her to stay put.
"For now," he mouthed.
He padded towards the teens, not quite sure if he was doing it to give the kids more time to pick up their acts or to stretch the encounter out enough to have a reason to arrest. (He hoped the former.)
He threw his hands onto the shoulders of two of the other boys. Up close, the three kids who hadn't spoken were definitely older, at least juniors in high school. Both boys he had touched startled, like Nick had sent an electric current through them.
"Is there a problem, gentlemen?" Nick asked as the boys turned to see what had upset the older ones.
Greasy Hair and Blondie let go of Palmer, and Palmer himself had gone from shifting his weight nervous to shaking like a Chihuahua, terrified, wide eyes, frozen movement and all.
The teens all took a step away from one another, like their physical closeness had meant shenanigans.
"Nah, we were just hanging out," Greasy Hair said, trying in one move of his hand to tame his unruly mane.
Nick eyed Palmer. "Seemed you were getting aggressive. Just wanted to check up on it."
Greasy Hair's eyes widened momentarily. "How long have you been here?"
Nick resisted smirking. "Just long enough to hear your gripes with that York bitch."
Greasy Hair blanched, eyes on Nick's gun.
Nick looked to Palmer. "Do you need a ride home, Palmer? You don't live near here, do you?"
In truth, Nick had no idea of Palmer lived near or far from where they were—he wasn't even sure if Palmer was the kid's first or last name—but something told him he should give the kid a way out. If he declined and got jumped by these dumbasses afterwards wouldn't be Nick's problem. It wasn't a fair fight by any means, but if Palmer didn't want to even the odds, forget him. It wasn't like one couldn't survive getting beat up by multiple guys; Nick had lived through it sophomore year after trying to defend Saud.
Palmer wrung his hands. "My mom would freak if I came home in a police car."
Kid wanted to run from the wolves. Fine, he'd give him one last fighting chance.
Nick motioned Palmer's leave, but stopped Blondie before he could take a single step to follow Palmer. "Five guys, right? That's a red flag number for us. Normally, I'd pass it off to a group of teenagers screwing around after school, but those fighter odds looked pretty grim for Palmer. If things had gone far, it would've been five to twenty five years for all of you." He took the time to study all the boys, less time on the talkers. They were straightforward—verbal manipulation and fists when words only gave so much pleasure. Schoolyard bullies who probably had lame family lives and low self esteem. It was the older boys that needed a bit more time. They may have dressed as ridiculously as their companions, but there was something different in their features. They had no expressions on their faces, like they were bored, yet they were alert, taking in every word Nick said. It wasn't that they look more respectable than their friends, but that they just looked more easily lost in a crowd. They betrayed nothing. It wasn't exactly the face of a killer—there was more pleasure in their expressions at the sight of violence or a challenge—but something felt wrong about them.
"Fits pretty badly into any plans you guys had for a future." Nick took a step back, wondering just what had hardened those three older boys, and if the two loud ones saw what Nick saw. "This is your first warning, and I won't have another. Now, don't be stupid."
He gave Greasy Hair and Blondie particularly long stare downs as he stepped back to the cruiser, somehow walking backwards through the snow without slipping and breaking a bone. A major accomplishment, if he had the time to think about it. Those boys didn't break eye contact until after Nick had gotten into the cruiser and shut the door, tinting them out. He scanned the area, and Palmer was definitely gone. Hopefully, he'd made it home, or somewhere where he wouldn't get gang assaulted.
Once Nick shed the teens' gazes, he fell under Dani's, always ruthlessly scrutinizing, despite knowing her place. This time, though, there was more concern in her eyes than any sort of judgment.
"Those older ones looked seconds from taking a swing at you," Dani commented.
Nick started the car.
Having a teenager punch him wouldn't be new; it had only been nine months since Kevin McCormick, seventeen, had socked him while coked out at one of Alice Edgington's infamous parties. Thank God, only Wayne was there to witness that moment of weakness, and knew to never mention it. He tried to recall the look on the older kids' faces. Something told him that they would've done worse than just punch him. He couldn't quite explain it. It was just the way they held themselves, how they had actually become less nervous when they figured out Nick had been the one to grab their shoulders. Nick wasn't purposely cocky all the time, but he was a big deal in terms of authority figures—police chief and the famous "guy who had survived being stabbed with a rusty screwdriver," no thanks to Gerard Fucking Edgington. It was almost creepy.
"The older ones have something off about them. They seem like they'd be good henchmen. I just couldn't figure out what makes them tick."
"Mr. Forensic Psychology."
Dani was the only other person besides Nick and Conor Cooper who had formal background in any form of forensic science, and the two of them had shared expertise and jokes often.
Nick shrugged. "Just a thought." He paused. "Am I being too sensitive if I wanted to knock one of those kids' teeth out for calling Portia a bitch in fleeting conversation?"
"Nah, that's pretty normal. Just don't actually do it. Portia seems like she'd flip, not to mention your job."
Dani and Portia actually hadn't met yet, Nick preferring to keep his work friends and personal friends as separate as can be in a town of six thousand people. Besides, Dani was still scrambling to find a permanent place of residency without having to live with her parents again, too busy for hanging out.
"Should I be more concerned than I am about that situation? One or two high school bullies is bad enough, but five? I'm surprised that poor kid's still alive."
"Bullying really does seem like that monster that hides its fangs, y'know? Wonder if you should talk to Palmer's parents about it, or find out in some way what his life's like. I guess it really depends on the type of torment? We can only hope those guys are too dumb for mental abuse."
Nick shivered, thinking of what she was implying: suicide. "Maybe there's a reason we stopped them. I really ought to not let this go."
"Talk to Portia or Portia's coworkers about it. I'm sure if there's anything that happens in school, they've noticed. No kid deserves that kind of torment, even if some dick in the higher power of society decided that getting bullied is just a part of high school."
Nick snorted. "You mean Hollywood?"
"Californication is a real thing, especially in more remote areas. It's a means of wish fulfillment, and it often only leads south." She paused. "And I'm not talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers song."
"Yes, Dani, I know. Yeah, look, I'll talk to Portia." He exhaled. "I'm so delusional; thought dealing with bullies would stop with Luke. Kids are cruel."
"Have bullying cases really ever reached our level?"
Nick shook his head. "Never. I think they'd only want us involved if someone presses charges or someone goes over the edge."
Nick tried to relax; he was so concerned about this case because of the numbers and the fact that bullying had seemed so scarce lately. He needed to give Portia a chance to investigate and focus on whatever else this town expected him to do as a police officer. Plus, there was the matter of keeping track of Alice and Luke Trovateli, the two now high school seniors who had been most affected by the Gerard Edgington case. It was time he start delegating tasks. As of right then, his only real task was making sure the new employees didn't kill one another.
"You're on your best behavior in the break room, right?" Nick asked.
"Yes, I am."
"For God's sake, though, be the older one. I'm not going to deny that twenty-one is still young to be an officer, and you should be teaching him, not harassing him."
"I don't harass Breckin."
"Do I really need to do team building activities? Because don't call my bluff, I'll fucking do it."
She smiled. "Oh, how times haven't changed. You still secretly want to just fuck around, just with a shinier uniform." He could feel her studying him. "Yet, so much has changed. For instance, will you explain to me how you even got to dating one girl?"
Nick rolled his eyes. "Before or after explaining to you why I have to disinfect my desk three times a day?"
"Sorry I don't understand how anyone could miss their target by that much. For God's sake, if Pedophile Edgington pieced together that your stomach wasn't beneath your bellybutton, how the hell did he miss your stomach and hit your spleen?"
"How should I know? Maybe if you had been there—"
"If I had been there, you better believe we would've found those bone shards less than three months later."
There hadn't been a moment like pulling Saud's head out of the slop that night, but the investigation into Edgington's house following his death had come close second. Edgington had cleaned up pretty well, but Nick had come across an image that would haunt him for the rest of his life: Edgington hadn't cleaned out his bathtub/shower enough to have washed away the shards of bone that shot off when he had to saw Saud's body apart. Almost every shard had been dark red with old blood, and the more Nick got to contemplate it, the more he believed that Saud had been alive when Edgington had sawed him to pieces. Weak, yes, but alive.
The despair and horror came back like someone grabbing his ankle in the dark, and he desperately wished he hadn't offered to patrol with Dani. As the images grew clearer, those boys' stares joined the mix like some badly edited layover of memories. He could still remember an officer saying Nick would want brain bleach before he had entered a particularly grisly case of a murdered child years before. Right then, he really wished brain bleach existed.
"Where did you serve for the Peace Corps?" he asked again, knowing, hoping, that Dani could pick up the hint.
Yes, had Dani been there for the Gerard Edgington case, things would've gone way differently.
A/N: Alright, so a bit more of a connected book to Edgeport, but still in a different time with a different situation. Did you think there was enough set up/intrigue to keep reading? What do you think of Dani? For now, at least, is her absence from the first book believable? Is there enough or too much connection between this book and Edgeport?