Mercy Street 3 : Hold the Line

Takes place during Mirror Image. Caroline gets an unexpected visitor.

"Ma, some lady's at the door!"

Buried under the kitchen sink, Caroline cracked her head on the top of the cabinet at the shout inches from her ear. When she emerged, rubbing the new lump on her crown with one grubby hand, she found her son staring down at her, the corner of his mouth upturned in a familiar smirk, too mature for his round face. He'd been taking lessons from his father. She hoped sardonic expressions were all he was picking up from Sonny.

Not that Sonny had been around much lately.

"Not funny." She sat back on her heels and gave him a good-natured scowl. The U-shaped pipe she'd been fiddling with resumed dripping. "Who's at the door?"

Billy shrugged. "Dunno. And it was too funny." He watched her unfold herself from the floor and then scrambled full-tilt to the front door. By the time she caught up to him he was starting to throw the lock.

"What did I say about opening the door to strangers?"

He rolled his eyes and took a step back. "It's just a lady. She's pretty."

In her young son's nine-year-old judgment, girls were either pretty or icky. The woman standing on the front porch was neither. It had been years since she last saw Gina Calabrese, but the detective's doe eyes and cloud of black hair were still breathtaking. Caroline stood, doorknob in hand, aware of the grease under her fingernails, the lank tangles escaping her off-center ponytail, the threadbare World's Greatest Dad t-shirt she'd fished out of the laundry pile that morning.

For a long moment they stared at one another through the screen, Sonny Crockett's ex-wife and his one-time lover. Billy tugged on Caroline's shirt and Detective Calabrese's attention flickered to his sun streaked mop of hair. Something in her face folded in on itself. And Caroline noticed the flaws – the makeup that couldn't cover dark half-moons under the other woman's eyes, the lines bracketing her mouth (Sonny had kissed those lips, she thought, and pushed it away), the sag of her shoulders under the impeccable blue silk jacket. Her mind refused to put the signs together, to admit the only reason Gina Calabrese would have made the long drive from Miami to the home of a woman she'd spoken to a handful of times.

"Mom. Mom. I was gonna ask before the doorbell rang – can I go over to Jimmy's?"

Caroline turned to her son, leaving the detective to her silent vigil on the porch. It would be better if he wasn't here for whatever news Detective Calabrese carried. "Okay. But call me before you go anywhere else. And be home by six for supper."

Billy took a final curious gander at the woman on the other side of the screen. She stepped aside to let him by, watched him streak down the driveway and across the street to Jimmy Cortez's house. Caroline held open the screen door, waited while Gina Calabrese's long gaze drifted back from wherever it had gone. "Come in. Please."

"I wasn't sure you'd remember me," the detective said, following Caroline into the foyer. She didn't behave like a visitor – didn't offer Caroline her hand, didn't comment on the spacious living room with its glass tables and white leather sofa (Bob's idea – Caroline had despaired that the thing would last more than a day around Billy, but for some obscure little-boy reason he'd shown the couch nothing but respect), didn't try and make small talk to break the ice.

Caroline wiped her hands on her jeans and tried to smile. "Of course I do. You're the first cop I ever met who was prettier than Sonny." It was exactly the wrong thing to say but the words popped out faster than thought. It was only truth. The other woman looked more like a renaissance painting than an officer of the law. People underestimated her, too dazzled by her looks to notice the observant gaze and the fierce intelligence behind it. At least that had been Sonny's evaluation when Gina first joined the vice squad.

"Caroline." Her voice was soft. She was pale against the frame of her hair, and the bright windows cast a silvery corona behind her head.

"Please, sit down. Can I get you something to drink? Iced tea?" Caroline turned away and headed toward the refuge of the kitchen. She tripped over the open tool box she'd left out earlier and hissed as the metal edge scratched one bare foot. A thin line of blood ran down to her toes. What was she doing? She tore her gaze from the wound to find her guest standing on the other side of the kitchen island, face set with a terrible empathy. And she couldn't hold the question back any longer.

"Is he dead?"

The other woman swallowed. Her eyes were dull and reddened. Caroline hadn't noticed that before. Or maybe she'd just pretended not to see. "They… we…" Gina cleared her throat. "Yes. We think so."

Caroline planted her palms on the cool marble counter top. We regret to inform you… For the ten years she'd been married to Sonny she'd waited for the call. Somehow it had never come – seat-of-his-pants luck and sheer cojones protected him that long - and after the divorce she'd thought she was free. But despite his haphazard attention Sonny Crockett had a funny way of tying himself to you, and you to him, a bond that persisted even after he left you behind. She could see it in Gina Calabrese's eyes; she was tied to him too.

"He was on a yacht, undercover. It was destroyed by an explosion. No survivors." The recitation was calm but Gina's knuckles were white, clenched around the strap of her purse.

"But you haven't found…"

Gina shook her head. "There wasn't much left, and DNA tests take time. They searched the water for two days."

A thought pricked the back of her mind, trying to distract her from the idea of Sonny, dead. "I thought he was on leave. His partner told me he'd gone to the islands."

Gina's expression went blank, and Caroline sensed the ache of an old hurt. Yeah, she knew the feeling. Sonny hadn't left her for another woman – deep down, his first commitment had always been to the job. But it still seemed like rejection, even when she was the one who'd made the final break. "He did," Gina looked down at her hands. "After his wife died – Lt. Castillo didn't want him in the field."

Caroline nodded, remembering the hollow echo of his voice over the phone when he told her his new wife was dead.

"I'm going to find Hackman," he'd said, and there was no emotion at all when he spoke the name of his wife's murderer. Caroline had known him too long not to catch his meaning. He would find Hackman, and he'd kill him. Caitlin's death had finally broken the last barrier between his ethics and his impulses.

"He was gone a week," Gina continued. She shrugged. "He came back and wanted to work."

And Castillo let him? Caroline bit her lip. The decision wasn't Gina's fault,and God knew Sonny was impossible to control once he'd made his mind up. Castillo was one of the two men who had ever had any real influence over her ex-husband. The other... "What about his partner?"

Gina shook her head. "Rico wasn't with him."

"He's okay?"

And though she didn't feel it yet, Caroline saw an echo of her own impending devastation in the other woman's eyes. "None of us are okay. Rico..." Gina sighed and set her purse on the counter. The black leather strap was wrinkled and twisted where she'd strangled it in her fists. "He's... he was Sonny's partner."

All at once Caroline was on the outside again, just a little bit. Gina didn't mean to throw a wall between them; but it was there nonetheless. Cops and their partners – the sacred, unshakable bond. The one relationship in a cop's life that truly was 'til death do you part.

Gina hadn't noticed the change. "He hasn't left the office since it happened. I don't think he'll believe it's true until there's some evidence..." She stared down at her mangled purse. "Most likely there won't be any evidence."

Caroline closed her eyes. "I could use a coffee. Would you like some?"

Gina gave Caroline a weak smile. "Yeah. Yeah, would I ever."

Coffee (not Cuban, but strong and black) in two mis-matched mugs. White-gloved M&Ms danced around the side of the mug Caroline handed Gina. Her own declared Florida to be the home of "Newly-weds & Nearly-deads." She was pretty sure Sonny had left that one behind. It was his humor. Four years divorced and cast-off pieces of Sonny still littered her life.

God. What was she going to tell Billy?

"Rico said he thought Sonny had a brother." Gina's attention stayed on the steaming coffee. "He never talked about him."

Jesus. "Yeah. Yeah, he's got an older brother. Jake." Caroline's hands were cold against the hot ceramic of the mug. "He and Sonny... they don't get along."

"I know this is... I'm sorry for coming to you for this, Caroline. But as far as we know Sonny didn't leave a will, and..." Gina stared at the drawings of race cars – Billy's current obsession – that plastered Caroline's fridge. "He never changed his life insurance beneficiaries. You and your son... it's not much, but he left it to you."

Damn him. A flush crawled up Caroline's neck until her ears were burning. "Why would he..." She shook her head. "I mean, I understand Billy, but... Jesus. It's been years."

"I don't know. Maybe he forgot to make the change." Gina didn't sound like she believed her own explanation. "His wife had more than enough money. When she died her estate went to Sonny. Without a will, though, there will probably be a court battle. As Sonny's only surviving relatives, Billy and Sonny's brother might have claim..."

Caroline's mug hit the counter with a sharp thunk. What had she expected? A nice quick memorial service? The man's whole life had been spent on the edge of chaos. Leave it to Sonny Crockett to make sure even his death was a mess of complications.

"I don't..." she swallowed. "I can't-"

"Caroline," Gina reached out and touched the back of one of her hands. A fleeting warmth, but it was meant in kindness. "You don't need to think about it right now. His death won't be official for another few days, and not much can happen while the investigation is still open. I just thought you should know. I didn't want it to be over the phone, or you know – in the tabloids."

You loved him too, Gina's even gaze said. You still do, don't you, even if you hate him just as much.

"No," Caroline said aloud, startling herself. She blinked, lost for a moment. "I'm sorry. I mean, thank you. Thank you for coming yourself." When she could look up again without feeling as if the floor was buckling under her feet she found Gina in silent tears. Grief retracted its claws from her own chest, settled to wait in a compact ball. She turned away and rummaged in the cabinet over the stove, the one Billy couldn't reach. "I don't think plain coffee is gonna cut it for me."

Gina Calabrese watched her pull down a bottle of whiskey. "I'm not Irish."

"That's okay," Caroline uncorked the bottle and dumped a healthy slug into Gina's mug. "Neither is the whiskey."

"I have a long drive back to Miami." The other woman sipped her coffee despite the protest. Her high-boned cheeks bore the faint grey traces of teary mascara.

"No, you don't." Caroline carried her own spiked coffee into the living room, Gina trailing after her. "Not tonight, anyway." Gina didn't argue. Too tired and strung out to fight anymore. Caroline knew the feeling. Bob wouldn't mind the company. He'd be relieved when he heard the news.

That's not fair. Maybe not, but it was true.

Gina settled into the stuffed armchair by the window, toed off her heels and curled up, feet tucked under like a kid. Caroline sank to the carpet, the firm leather of the couch at her back. She didn't quite know what to do with Gina. She didn't know what to do with herself. Sonny Crockett and the pain he'd caused them was the only thing they had in common.

"He taught me everything I know about being a cop." Gina's gaze strayed to the window again, the late afternoon sun picking out the sparkle of drying tears on her eyelashes. "He was so damn good at it."

The coffee burned in Caroline's belly. "Not good enough." It came out more bitter than she'd intended.

Gina nodded. A black curl slipped from the neat silver barrette over her ear and drifted over her cheek. She swiped at it, then shook her head. "No. No, that's not it at all. He was too good. That was the problem. He was too good and it got him killed."

"After Billy was born he tried to leave Vice. Went back to Robbery, tried to keep regular hours. Regular hours for a cop, anyway." She needed more whiskey for this conversation, but that would mean getting up. "I didn't ask him to do it. He wanted to be around more."

"How long did it last?" Yeah, Gina knew Sonny too well.

"Longer than I thought it would."

A laugh bubbled up. She tried to stop it with one hand to her mouth but it escaped, a lonely sound in the gleaming expanse of the home she shared with Bob, a universe away from that first cramped apartment in Miami. How much did Gina know about Sonny? Had she meant something to him beyond a colleague and casual fuck? How far into him had she seen – how far had he let her in? With Sonny you never knew. It had driven her insane when they were married. He might pal around with someone for years and never reveal a thing about himself; and then he'd go and bare one of a multitude of exposed nerves to a near stranger.

"What happened?"

Caroline shook away the endless merry-go-round of questions. None of that mattered any more.

"After six months he was driving me insane. He..." She swallowed. It was still hard. "He wasn't getting what he needed from Robbery. He was like a junkie who'd gone cold-turkey. I didn't know what was worse, seeing him trying so hard not to be miserable or knowing that if he went back to Vice I might not see him at all."

"You told him to go back." Gina met her eyes, and this time Caroline had to look away. She shrugged.

"Like you said, he was so damn good at it." She studied her hands, the half-healed scar where she'd sliced her finger the night before, chopping onions for Bob's favorite tuna casserole. "Some guys came back from 'Nam addicted to heroin, or painkillers, or booze. Sonny came back addicted to the hunt. He had to be out there, on the line, or he went a little crazy."

Gina shifted in her chair and set her mug aside on the end table at her elbow. She stripped off her jacket and hugged her knees, heedless of marring the soft fabric of her blouse.

"For a long time I guess I thought he'd grow out of it, or that it would wear itself out. But Sonny, and Scotty Wheeler, and some of the other guys he worked with... it had kept them alive during the war, and it kept them alive on the job, and they'd got to the point where they couldn't turn it off. It was hard-wired into them."

"Yeah," Gina stared into her coffee, her face a weary mask. "It wasn't enough, though. Not this time."

"It was never enough. He knew that. But... there was nothing else he could do."

That said, Caroline found she didn't have anything else, as if all her words had escaped her. Gina let silence fall between them, and that was okay. Because what else was there to say?

There would be time for grief later. At night, in bed, Bob's arms around her. She was a mother, though, and that wasn't so different from being a cop sometimes – there were always other things taking priority over your personal feelings. Billy's toys had to be cleared out of the guest room; she had to make sure there were fresh sheets on the bed. There was dinner to fix – one more place to set on the table than anticipated; one less place occupied in her mental tally of people to worry over. And then there was Billy, who soon enough would look at her with his father's eyes and want to know what was going on, who the pretty visitor was and why she was staying the night.

Caroline would sit him down on her lap even though he was already too big, gangly little-boy limbs overflowing the circle of her arms. Remind him how much his father loved him. And then she'd find a way to tell him that Sonny was finally lost to the embrace of the sea.

And this time he wouldn't be coming back to them.