Last Rites

The reported shots fired on Broadway and Twenty-eighth turned out to be fireworks illegally launched in the nuptial celebration of Bloomberg and Klein. Mr. and Mrs. Bloomberg, you're under arrest for disturbing the peace. Mazel tov!

Leo Banks sat on the concrete step, cradling his head in his hands. His vest was smeared with blood – not his – and he was pretty sure he had bits of glass in his hair. Thing was, Leo couldn't move. He was petrified. This one had been too close. By the time they took the door, Cole had already been shot, kicked in the face, and flung down the stairs. Apparently Amy Burch was chloroformed out of her mind, and no one knew yet if she'd come around.

At this point, Eric would have pointed out that Leo was looking at it the wrong way, that Cole and Amy were alive, and that Second Squad had managed to catch both Zimsky and Blanch.

Then Leo would counter by saying that they hadn't caught Ryerson yet, and the guy who fired on them at the Waldorf-Astoria was still at large.

And Eric would say, But Zimsky and Blanch, man, those were the king pieces, and couldn't Leo just be happy with the fact that the worst part of this nightmare was over?

His phone rang, jarring him from his internal dialogue. He pressed it to his ear. "Eric?"

A light female voice answered. "No, it's Harper Wrenway," she said. "And you're late."

"I'm late...?" he checked his watch. "Oh—"

"—I know you're busy, it's just that something amazing—"

"—No," Banks said, scraping to his feet. "You're right. We have an appointment, and I, uh—" He glanced about. Walsh and Shraeger were talking with a pair of uniformed officers. Sergeant Brown was inside with the tech unit. "I'm pretty useless here, anyway," he said. "I'll be there in ten minutes."

XXX

Cole's eyes flickered open. Lights glared above him, blurring and overbright.

"Hey, Henry. There you are." The voice was familiar and close. He realized that hearing it had wakened him.

"Allison?"

"Yeah." She squeezed his hand. "I'm right here."

"But the shooter—"

"We got 'im, Henry." she whispered. "You did good."

"No," Cole said. But he was fading again. "The other shooter. The one... they said. He said..."

But he was out again and everything was dark.

XXX

The first thing Banks noticed was a rather large dog curled and snoozing on the braided rug.

Harper Wrenway guided him over to gape at it.

"Look!" she said, when he said nothing.

"It's a... dog," he said.

"It's Elsa!"

Banks shook his head. "Elsa? The dead dog?"

"Not dead," Harper exclaimed. "Sleeping. Apparently she's narcoleptic. She was asleep the whole time! It's a miracle, right?"

Banks chuckled. "You put a narcoleptic retriever into a suitcase..."

"It was a dog-napping. Literally!" Harper said, grinning. "When the clinic called, they didn't know she was ever supposed to have been dead. It's just amazing. Can you believe it?"

He found his way to her kitchen chair and collapsed. He covered his face with his hands, and for a moment, he couldn't tell if he was laughing or crying.

"Hey..." she said. "You okay?"

Banks shuddered and lowered his hands. "I'm—not," he told her. "Really not."

She knelt beside him. "You want some tea?"

"No," he said. He exhaled a bitter sigh and put his hands on the table. "Look. My partner is dying."

She sat back on her heels. "The one you're in a relationship with?"

"What? No," Banks said. "My partner. Eric. We're detectives. We detect together. But we're friends. Just friends. You know what I'm saying?"

"Yes, I get it," she said. She dragged up a chair so that their knees were touching. Then she nested his hands palms up in hers.

He said, "This case was... it was taxing. We were targets. Well, not really, but some of us were, and we're like a family – Second Squad, that's all of us – and when one of us is in trouble, we're all in trouble, see?"

"I understand," Harper said, cupping his hand in both of hers. "Go on..."

"So the case is over," Banks nodded. "Mostly. I mean, it's down to the paperwork. Only now, life creeps back in and... Eric is still dying."

"And it's a problem you don't know how to solve," she said.

"Exactly," he said. "Like I don't know how to not be afraid. Or how not to put on this vest every day. I don't know how to... do this. Without him." Banks smiled. "It does sound gay, doesn't it?"

She inclined her head. "A little. Maybe you can tell me about it, and I'll do the reading while you talk."

Banks felt reluctant because of all the other things pulling at him, like the fact that he should be back at the precinct, filing that paperwork, or that he should call Bridget Demopolis and explain why he hadn't spoken to her in two days, or that he should track Eric down to see if he was all right.

Oh, and Cole was in the hospital, mustn't forget that. Nor should he ignore the blood on his vest or the glass in his hair.

She was smoothing her fingers along the lines in his palms though, and he kept talking. And after an hour, Elsa the Narcoleptic Dog got up and rested her graying muzzle on Banks' knee. He paused and ruffled the dog's ears. Harper Wrenway gave him a tight smile.

"Surviving a point blank shot gun blast," she said. "That's massively unlikely. You know that, right?"

"Like a million to one," Banks answered, laughing. "But he doesn't believe it."

"And jumping from that rooftop..." Harper said.

"Should've killed him. I know. It's crazy."

"Even his girl, Monica—"

"—Dr. Crumb—"

"—Her getting pregnant, like, the first time they were together... That's pretty uncommon, too."

Leo grinned. "Or just plain stupid."

"Regardless," she said. "It all adds up to something pretty astronomical, don't you think?"

Leo flexed his fingers. "Yeah. I think."

"Maybe you should tell him," she said.

Leo shrugged. "Maybe."

Harper patted his hand and withdrew. "Well," she said. "Your lifeline's in tact. Long and unbroken. That's a really good sign."

"So I'm not cursed?" he asked.

"Why would you be cursed?"

He shook his head. "I really have no idea."

"It's your life, Detective Banks. You gotta live it while you're alive," she said. "Anyway, that's what I believe."

Leo's brows knitted. "He said the same thing to me once."

"Well, there you go," Harper said.

"Yeah," he agreed, getting to his feet. "Maybe he does need to hear it."

She squeezed his shoulder. "Sure thing," she said. "And thank you, too, for Elsa." She scrubbed her knuckles over the dog's forehead. "Her family will be happy to see her."

Leo's smile grew abstracted. "Family," he mumbled. Then he nodded and shook Harper Wrenway's hand. Suddenly, he knew what he needed to do.

XXX

The night seemed to draw around the precinct like a heavy coat, and Shraeger shivered against the chill. Beaumont and Walsh huddled close, talking in hushed tones over Walsh's desk. Raindrops spattered the windows, which caught the street lights and headlights and broke them into colored streamers against the glass. She should have felt cheered by the image.

Just like she should have felt overjoyed that her plan had worked. They'd caught Noel Blanch and Harold Zimsky. They even had a lead on Ross Ryerson, now that Rothby was not as afraid of Noel Blanch offing him before the trial. Really, she thought, she should feel great, like the queen of the world.

Only the cost had been so high.

Tears welled in her eyes. She pushed them back and checked her phone. No new messages. None from Davis. Not even an annoying check-in text from her Mom. How sad am I, Shraeger thought, that I get teary-eyed over not receiving the standard worry text from my mother?

A moment later, a pair of men in dark suits pushed into the precinct office. One was tall, with short-cropped red hair. The other was portly, with dark hair and scraggly sideburns. Both looked as though they'd stepped into mud puddles in their best shoes.

"Okay, people, listen up," the dark-haired man said. "I'm Special Agent Boyle. This is my partner, Special Agent Rogers. We're here to confiscate all files pertaining to the Noel Blanch/Harold Zimsky case."

"What?" Walsh said. "On whose authority?"

Agent Rogers removed an envelope from an interior pocket and passed it to Walsh. "Internal Affairs," Rogers said. "We're launching a corruption probe into the Second Precinct, based on the counts listed in this notice. Are you Jason Walsh?"

"I am," Walsh answered. He glanced from the letter to Beaumont and Shraeger.

"As an individual named in the investigation, please be advised, you are not to leave the state of New York while this investigation is pending," Boyle said.

"This is insane," Beaumont yelled. "Jason hasn't done anything—"

"—That's for us to ascertain, Detective," Rogers snapped. "At this time, Walsh must surrender his sidearm and badge. We're calling for your suspension. Effective immediately."

"Give me that," Beaumont snarled, snatching the letter from Walsh.

Meanwhile, Walsh removed his gun and his badge, and cast a worried-yet-resigned look at Shraeger who could only nod that she understood.

Beaumont continued to scan the notice, disbelief wrinkling into her brow. She said, "This says you knew Kowalski set Blanch up six years ago."

"I didn't," Walsh said.

"It says you knew Noel Blanch, though. Is that true?"

Walsh nodded. "Yeah, I knew him, but—"

Beaumont cut him off with a swipe of her hand. She read on, her eyes widening. When she spoke, her voice was a harsh whisper. "It says you suspected him of murdering your girlfriend. Jason, do they have a case?"

Boyle primly plucked the notice from Beaumont's fingers. "We intend to find out," he said.

Rogers took Walsh's gun and badge. He said, "We need to speak to your C.O."

"Right here," Sergeant Brown said as he entered the office. Eddie Alvarez followed on his heels, his eyes bright and sharp like an over-excited terrier.

Shraeger felt another cold trickle of dread work its way down her spine at the grim look on Brown's face.

Brown gave a curt nod before he said, "Apparently when Cole opened the projection room at the church, the computer system sent a file to Internal Affairs—"

"—The Frank Lutz sex tape?" Shraeger interrupted. "We already know about it. How does that substantiate an IA investigation?"

"Different tape," Brown said. "This one was a confession of sorts, created by our dear friends Blanch and Zimsky. In it they detail several very serious claims connecting Noel Blanch and Jason Walsh—"

"—But none of that matters," Alvarez said. He went to his desk and pulled a four-inch thick accordion file from the lower drawer. He shoved it into Boyle's hands.

"What's this?" Boyle spat.

"I've been here nearly two years," Alvarez said. "In that time, I've recorded every man-hour on every case that this precinct has worked, by every detective on the squad. Three times, I flagged Internal Affairs for a corruption probe into Detective Burt Kowalski; three times they turned a blind eye. But I kept up with my own investigations."

Rogers narrowed his eyes. "Just what exactly are you getting at?"

Alvarez' grin grew into a lopsided smile, as if that was precisely the question he'd been waiting for. "I think you'll find that all traces of corruption dried up in this precinct the moment Detective Kowalski was killed. The only hiccup since then was when Detective Cole was coerced by Frank Lutz to pull a small time heist in Soho, but that case was also solved by Walsh and Shraeger earlier this year."

Everyone stared agape at Eddie for a full minute before he continued. He said, "Go on and take those files. I sent copies ahead to the Assistant D.A. since she'll be the one trying the Hand Writing Killer—"

"—Mugger," Shraeger blurted.

"Whatever," Eddie said, not missing a beat. "I'm certain that the Commissioner will be interested in learning about the fact that Kowalski ran racket after racket around here for years while Internal Affairs did nothing. In fact, I'll be sure to tell him myself when my wife and I have dinner with him at Nobu this Thursday."

Sergeant Brown tucked his tongue in his cheek and winked at Shraeger. "Well, gentlemen," Brown said. "You can run along. Oh, and, Walsh'll be needing his gun and badge, 'cause I'm never gonna sign that suspension order."

Rogers looked as though he wanted to pound Eddie Alvarez in the face. Boyle merely glared at them before he motioned to Rogers to do as Brown asked.

Rogers sneered at Alvarez, then at Walsh. He said, "You'll be hearing from us."

"Countin' on it," Alvarez said. He clicked his tongue and winked.

They left, then, taking Alvarez' files with them.

After several seconds of stunned silence, Beaumont said, "What the hell just happened?"

Shraeger shook her head in disbelief. "Eddie just happened."

"I'll be damned," Walsh said, clasping Eddie's hand. "Second Precinct's secret weapon."

"Yeah?" Alvarez said. His face brightened. "Well, what good are connections if you can't use them, right?" Then he sobered. "But it is true," he went on. "Since Kowalski died, since Shraeger came... Second Squad has been—"

"—Better," Walsh finished.

After a moment, Beaumont nodded. "Better," she agreed.

"All right," Brown groaned. "Enough with the huggy-feely. We're due at the hospital. And after: drinks. I'm buying. Now get your asses out of here."

XXX

Beaumont brushed the hair from his forehead with her knuckles and whispered, "Ted? You with us?"

The corner of Cole's mouth quirked up. He groaned, "Alice?"

"Ha, you were right," Walsh said. "It worked."

"Jason?" Cole said. "Allison?"

"It's us," Beaumont said. "We're all here, but they won't let us in all at once."

"Where's here?" Cole shifted painfully in his bed.

"No no no," Beaumont cautioned, nudging him back into his pillows. "You're in the ICU. Remember, gun shot?"

Cole licked his lips. "Now... we're even, huh? Matching... scars."

"That's right," Beaumont said. She brushed his hair back again. "And it's all over. We got the guys who did this to us. They're gonna pay, right and proper, okay?"

"Other one, too?" Cole said.

Beaumont glanced at Walsh. "He mentioned that before. In the ambulance."

"What other one?" Walsh asked. "Ryerson?"

Cole's brows furrowed. "Maybe? They said they... had you... in their sights. Waiting signal."

Walsh scratched his jaw and shrugged. "Bluffing, maybe?"

"Or the signal was never given," Beaumont said quietly.

"I'll call it in," Walsh said. "Have the uniforms search within the line-of-sight of the Blue Spoon. Maybe they'll turn up something..."

Walsh left. A few moments later, Shraeger came in.

"Hey, Cole," she said, her voice thin and tremulous.

"Plan," he muttered, a faint smile touching his lips. "Worked."

"Yeah," she said.

"And Amy?"

"In the next room," Shraeger said with a nod. "They say she'll be fine. She's on a respirator, because of the chloroform..."

But Cole's eyes had fluttered shut almost as soon as Shraeger had started speaking, and she looked with concern to Beaumont, who took Cole's hand and gave it a squeeze.

"Oh, Henry," Beaumont whispered. "After all you've been through, you're still worried about her?"

For a long moment, he breathed in long slow breaths, and Shraeger and Beaumont believed that he had drifted back into drug-induced sleep.

Then his eyes slid open again. He muttered, slowly, laboriously forming the words: "In pardoning, we are pardoned. In dying... we are born... to eternal life."

"Nobody's dying, Cole," Shraeger said firmly. "You're not gonna die—"

"—It's okay," Beaumont said. "It's a prayer. St. Francis of Assisi. Cole's just saying a prayer."

Shraeger clenched her jaw against her tears. "Oh," she said. "Then okay."

Beaumont pulled her into a side hug. Then she said, "Pardoning. Can you believe that?"

"Believe what?" Shraeger asked.

"He's gonna forgive her." Now Beaumont looked as though she had to fight off tears of her own. "After what she did, he's willing to let it go. Hell, he probably already has."

Shraeger shook her head. Against the starched white of the hospital bed, Cole looked so young and fragile and pale. Tubes draped over the rail, running to an IV in his arm and the respirator in his nose. Sure, he was alive, but his forehead bore the tell-tale pinch of pain that existed beneath the layers of morphine haze, and he looked so vulnerable...

Suddenly, she didn't like the idea of Amy Burch one room over. She wondered if they could persuade the doctors to move her so that Amy couldn't just slide next door once she was able and be at his side, worrying over him, after she'd broken his heart and slept with his sworn enemy/mentor/best friend.

Beaumont raised her shoulders in a resigned sort of sigh. She said, "But that's Henry for you. That's what makes him such a great guy."

"Shouldn't we...?"

"We can't. Much as I'd like to rip out every hair on her head," Beaumont went on, speaking quietly through her teeth. "Henry expects better. We have to trust that he can take care of himself. Now let's go. I think he's out for the night."

Shraeger drew a deep breath and nodded. As they left, she couldn't help but feel partly responsible for Cole's predicament. If they'd been able to respond faster. If the GPS tracker had been more accurate. If, maybe, perhaps...

Henry had been prepared to give his life, Shraeger knew. That was the kind of man he was. And she'd exploited that by sending him directly into harm. Now he was half dead in a hospital room, weakened and helpless.

That, she knew, would trouble her for a while.

XXX

Eric Delahoy stared at the statistics page of the Spider Solitaire game on his laptop, which proclaimed that he had played 5,142 games.

He felt vaguely depressed by this achievement. He'd bought the computer in February to replace the desktop he'd had since college. Since then it had been little more than a glorified paperweight. Or, as the stats page proved, a six hundred dollar solitaire playing machine.

But playing Solitaire kept his mind occupied, so he didn't have to think about Monica's printouts. Oh, he'd read them, all twelve of them. And they were horrid, down to the last.

He shoved the laptop away and drew his blanket around his shoulders. He had a frustrating number of conflicting desires buzzing around his cluttered brain. Hungry; didn't want to eat. Tired; didn't want to sleep. Bored; see above, RE: tired.

That was why, when the knock sounded on the door, he merely called out, "It's open," and remained where he was, staring at the spangles of rain on his windows.

Leo came to the corner of the sofa.

"Oh it's you," Eric said.

"It's dark in here," Leo observed.

"Yeah, well, the light hurts my eyes," Eric said. "What do you want?"

Leo pulled a black vinyl sticker from his pocket and passed it to Eric. "I found this pinned to the board by your desk," he said.

Eric didn't have to look at it to know what it was. He chuckled, bitterly. "Oh, I get it," he said. "That's your brilliant advice? Never Give Up. Gee, I wish you'd told me that six months ago. I'd have so much less cancer right now."

"Always with the jokes..."

"Save it, all right? I already heard it from Monica."

"Well, that's not surprising," Leo said. "She's in love with you."

Eric winced like he'd been slapped. "What?"

"Yeah, and she's hurt." Leo edged onto the arm of the sofa. "I went to the Belvedere to find you. Found her instead. We talked. I took her home, by the way."

"But—"

"It's all right, she's safe. We got Blanch and Zimsky. But she says she's gonna stay with her folks for a while."

Eric covered his eyes, then scrubbed his hands over his face.

Leo added, "She left the address."

They sat a while in silence, before Eric spoke again. He said, "She gave me these packets, these treatment briefs, or whatever." Eric took them from the desk and brandished them at Leo.

"She told me," Leo said.

"So I read them. And." He blew out a breath. "They're like bad sci-fi, man. Like this one—" Eric thumbed to the third printout. "In this one they cut through my skull and blast my tumor-infested brain with photon beam radiation. Photon, it says that, right here, like something out of Star Trek."

"But it's—"

"Wait, there's more," Eric ranted. "How about dendritic cell vaccination? Survival rate: Eight out of every one hundred. Or viral-based gene therapy? Fourteen out of every one hundred. And then my personal favorite: localized chemotherapy, where they insert irradiated wafers directly into my brain." Eric chuckled darkly. "Best part of this one: it could increase my life expectancy by two whole months. Of course, I'd be violently, horrifyingly ill the entire time, but two months is two months. Never give up, am I right?"

Leo stared at his hands. "I-I don't know," he said. "Maybe you're right. It's your life. It should be your death. I mean, everyone says a positive attitude can make a difference—"

"—and what if it can't?" Eric cut in. "Hm? What then? Even the best of these treatments has a failure rate of eighty-six percent. Eighty-six percent? Out of every hundred poor saps who risk it, eighty-six of them die anyway?"

"Eric," Leo said. "I'm gonna say something that will sound crazy, and coming from me... well, I use plastic cutlery because I think forks are dangerous, so..."

"Really?" Eric said. "Forks?"

Leo grimaced. "Look, man. You've survived all this whacked out stuff to get to this point. So I think... there must be a reason."

Eric rolled his eyes and began to turn away, but Leo touched his shoulder.

"C'mon, hear me out," he said. "If there's a procedure in there with a ninety-nine percent failure rate, if only one out of every hundred survives, then... I believe you'd be the one to make it through."

"Oh, you believe that, do you?"

"Yes," Leo said.

"Why?"

"Dude. You survived a shotgun blast to the face. You took on a guy with a sword—"

"—Don't forget the light saber—"

"—How could anyone forget the light saber?" Leo said. "It's just, I don't believe it's your time to die—"

"—All right, enough," Eric snapped. "Leo. Enough. I know how the world works, okay. I know that irony would have me go through all this, then die anyway. I'm not gonna play that game. What I will do is die by my own terms. Because..." He shook his head. "Because it hurts less when you have nothing to lose."

"But that's just it," Leo said. "You have something to lose. You have a family, Eric. You got Monica. The kid. Second Squad... Me."

Now Eric did look away. He willed Leo to just stop talking and leave.

Leo got to his feet. "I guess the question is, when will you lose it? Now?" he asked. "A month from now? You really think it'll hurt less by letting it go today?"

Eric swallowed. His throat felt like it was lined with ground glass. He said, "You done?"

Leo hovered a moment longer. Then he slid the sticker onto the keyboard of Eric's computer and said, "Yeah, I guess I am."

"Good," Eric said. He pulled the laptop from his desk and clicked the icon to deal another game of Solitaire. Leo lingered minute longer before he finally left.

When he was gone, Eric crumpled the sticker into an unwieldy ball and tossed it across the room. Then, feeling both wretched and like an idiot, he retrieved it and smoothed it flat. He flipped it over and found the number and address to Monica's parent's house in Newark written on the back.

A lifeline, Eric realized. Anger flared inside him. Anger at Leo's insanely frustrating persistence. Monica's too, for that matter. And now they were co-conspirators. Why the hell wouldn't they just leave him alone? At least when he was alone...

He stared at the cards on the Solitaire screen until they blurred. His apartment felt coldly cramped and humid. The street below droned like a noisy, growling beast. The city ticked by, seven million people, each one inching closer to death second by second. Eric had been on the force long enough to know how the lonely people died – shut up in their apartments until the smell alerted the neighbors that something next door had gone south.

If that was the face of his future, it wasn't a pleasant picture.

On the other hand, they wanted him to face months of grueling pain, followed by years of torturous recovery, with the very real prospect of death, possibly losing motor control, and maybe even losing the ability to speak or walk or read ever again.

Would they be there with him through all of that? Did they really understand what they were asking?

Did he? Really?

Wasn't that why Monica came to find him? Hadn't she said she didn't want to raise their child without him? And did that mean...? And Leo, infuriatingly tenacious bastard that he was, didn't he just say that they were family, that he'd be there?

Eric shut down the computer. He picked up the sticker (stupid sticker, from his own damn desk) and moved to the sofa. He sank into the cushions, pulled out his phone, and dialed.

XXX

Walsh could tell from the way Beaumont kept squinting into the middle ground that she would have his ass later on. It was all right, though. He had it coming. He hadn't told her about Blanch, and he should have. He only hoped she'd forgive him this time since it was the last secret he had. Well, he thought, almost the last.

They gathered at the bar of the Apolo: Walsh, Beaumont, Shraeger, Alvarez, and Sergeant Brown, who was still on the phone, despite his attempts to join them.

Everyone else seemed to be doing a decent job of knocking off from work... Except Shraeger. She glowered into her whiskey, spinning the tumbler restlessly between her hands and alternately tapping her phone to check for messages.

Walsh elbowed in beside her. "Hey, Champ."

She pursed her lips. He knew that look.

He said, "So... what's up?"

"Cole almost died," she said.

"Yep." Walsh nodded. "But he didn't die."

"No, but he could have," Shraeger hissed. "The plan—my plan—put him in too much danger, and he's seriously injured, and it's all my fault, and you're all acting like it's all okay, and it's not okay!"

"Whoa there," Walsh said. "We caught the bad guys, right? Cole knew the risks, Case. We all do."

"And he's gonna be okay," Beaumont said, sidling in alongside Walsh. "Believe me. He's tougher than he looks."

"See?" Walsh raised his bottle. "So, drink up and let it go," he said. "That's how we do this job. Right Sarge?"

"That's right." Sergeant Brown joined them and motioned for the bartender. "We'll have plenty to worry us tomorrow. Uniforms found candy wrappers and an empty bottle of Mountain Dew in a walk-up on Chambers, within line-of-sight of the Blue Spoon. Possibly a nest for a shooter. CSU's dusting for prints. We'll know more in the morning..."

"And Ryerson?" Shraeger asked.

"That's a matter for the Feds," Alvarez chimed in. "As of 6 p.m., that cowboy's on their list. He'll have no place to hide. Also, Nicole called. She got Rothby's testimony. That plus the recording James Boorland made in holding this afternoon is enough to put Zimsky and Blanch away for a long, long time."

Sergeant Brown looked mildly annoyed with Alvarez but ignored it. "Our part in this is done," Brown said. "No more worries, all right? Sometimes you get everyone. Sometimes they slip away. It's not always our call."

"Okay," Shraeger agreed half-heartedly. "I know. I do. It's just, the cost..."

"It's worth it," Beaumont said. She nudged Shraeger and pointed at the door. Davis stood there, his hand on the glass, as if uncertain whether he should interrupt their moment.

She nearly toppled from her barstool in her haste to get to him. After a clumsy kiss, she stared up at him and asked, "How'd you know we were here?"

"Jason called me," David admitted. "Seems I've been initiated into the Inner Sanctum."

She shot a look over her shoulder at Walsh, who tipped them a salute and returned to his conversation with Beaumont.

"It's about time," Shraeger said. "The Outer Sanctum is nowhere near as fun."

"That's what I hear," he said, fitting his hand into hers. "Do you have a secret password?"

"And a secret induction ritual, too," she told him as she dragged him to the bar.

"Really?" he asked. "Can I see it?"

She stood on tiptoe and whispered the answer into his ear. A grin spread across his face as Shraeger put in their order. "Drink up and let it go, right?"

The others raised their drinks in a toast. "Until tomorrow," Walsh added.

Shraeger nestled against Davis and closed her eyes. "Until tomorrow..."

XXX

On Tuesday morning, Eric Delahoy woke at 7 a.m. He put on a decent suit and tie. He ate breakfast, trimmed his mustache, brushed his teeth. He even flossed (he never used to floss; this was entirely Monica's influence).

He took the Blue Line, Number 16. This was new, as well. He didn't take buses. Any errands he had, he did on precinct time, in a precinct car.

Today was different.

At Dr. Kinslow's office, he went in, sat in the same hard plastic chair he sat in last week, and waited. He thought of Monica sitting with him, her self-proclaimed first act as his girlfriend. He remembered the street grime on her trousers, her tiny feet and sensible shoes, the tough set of her jaw, her sober eyes. He recalled feeling with every second the growing need to run away, screaming...

She'd said, 'You've come this far, Eric. Why not go the rest of the way?'

He drummed his hands on his knees. He tried to calm his breathing. When that failed, he reached for a magazine, just as the nurse called his name.

Then he was in the office of Dr. Glenn Kinslow, FACS. The doctor shook his hand. Dr. Potato Head, Eric remembered. He grinned.

"It's good to see you in better spirits, Mr. Delahoy," Dr. Kinslow said.

Eric cleared his throat. "Yeah, about that," he said. He sat down, then stood back up. He flexed the tension from his hands. "I'd, uh..." He wiped his mouth. "I, um," he said. "I'd like to talk about... some kind of... alternate treatment."

Dr. Kinslow smiled. He folded his hands on the desk. "That's good," he said. "Have a seat, and we'll talk about your options. All right?"

"Yeah," Eric said. "All right."

After all, he'd come this far... why shouldn't he go the rest of the way?

XXX

"You wanted to see me?" Shraeger said, closing the door behind her.

"I do," Sergeant Brown said. He motioned her to the seat, and she took it.

"Good," she said. "Because I have a... I guess you could say I have a concern."

Brown's mouth puckered like he'd bitten into something sour. "Go on."

She steepled her hands. "It's about Blanch and Zimsky," she said. "See, it bothers me that they never really seemed worried about going to jail. That, plus the fact that Ryerson was a prison guard leads me to believe..." One glance at the Sergeant's expression and Shraeger's words ran out. "What?"

"The truth of it is this, Detective: Prison doesn't change reality for guys like Noel Blanch and Harold Zimsky. The fact that all of this was timed with Jeff Blanch's sentencing is not a coincidence."

"What?" Shraeger said, baffled. "What do you mean?"

"A stone wall does not a prison make," he said. "Nor iron bars—"

"—A cage," Shraeger finished. "You mean they can operate from within prison?"

"That's exactly what I mean," he said. "They can run their games from inside just as easily as they can from without. Easier, maybe. Inside, they're untouchable."

She shook her head, irresolute. "Unbelievable."

"You'd be surprised," Brown said. After a beat, he said, "This came today." He passed her a letter.

She read it and looked up, surprised. "Medical leave?"

"He wants to keep it quiet," Brown said.

"Does Leo—"

"—Banks knows. But it means he'll need a partner. Which brings me to this," the Sergeant said. He handed her another document, this one marked with an official NYPD seal.

For a moment, her voice failed her. Then she managed to mutter, "But this is..."

"Alvarez has been promoted to Sergeant. He's transferring to the Two-two at the end of this week. Which means I'm moving you into his spot. You're now second in command. Congratulations—"

"—But I—"

"—Yeah, yeah. Least experienced officer, less than a year on the Squad." He waved a hand. "Look, you shouldn't be surprised. You're good at this. And you got the support of your team. I already spoke with Walsh..."

Shraeger swallowed. "You did?"

Sergeant Brown nodded. "He agreed, one hundred percent."

"That's 'cause he doesn't want the job," she said under her breath.

"It's high profile. A lot of talking with the press. A lot of diplomacy. It's a finesse thing. Not really Jason's style. You, on the other hand..."

Shraeger breathed in. "You're right," she exhaled. "I'm used to high profile. It's... kind of everything I was hoping to avoid."

"You can handle this," Sergeant Brown said. "And you'd be able to do a lot of good, for the city and for Second Squad."

"Can I think about it?"

Brown tilted his head. "I need to know before Friday."

"That I can do," Shraeger said. "And so... would Banks be Walsh's partner?" she added, doubtfully.

"You got a better idea?"

"Well..." she began. "Walsh would work better with Cole. I'd put Banks with Beaumont. Or maybe..." she tapped her fingers to her lips. "Maybe they could not have assigned partners at all. Maybe they could just collaborate, you know, switch up as needed. Be a team."

"And there you go." Sergeant Brown gave her a sage nod. "That could be your first act as Detective Specialist Shraeger. See? You'd be great." He shook her hand. "Now get out there and solve some crimes, will ya?"

Shraeger shut the door behind her and drifted, dazed, across the hall. Walsh met her at her desk.

"So he told you?"

"Hm?" She met his eyes. "Oh. Yes."

"And?"

"Haven't decided," she said. "And apparently, you'll no longer have partners. Once Cole returns, you'll officially be a team of four."

Walsh's brow furrowed. "We're a team of five, Case."

"No, but I'm... If I take Alvarez' place, it means..."

"...We'll still work together," Walsh said.

She smiled, obviously touched at the idea. "Yeah?"

"Of course." Walsh sat down at his desk and leaned back in his chair. "And if anything goes wrong, it'll be your fault."

"Thanks," Shraeger deadpanned.

He beamed. "Don't mention it."

Shraeger stared blankly at her desk. Walsh said, "You know you're gonna do it, so you might as tell him and get it over with."

"Shhh!" she hissed as Sergeant Brown peeked in.

"Got a case," the Sergeant said. "Who's catching?"

Shraeger glanced around: Beaumont was visiting Cole, Banks hadn't made it in yet, and Delahoy...

"Looks like it's us, Sarge," Walsh said, getting to his feet.

Shraeger joined him. "What've we got?"

The Sergeant passed her the case file and left. Walsh opened it between them, and they began to read.

"So," Shraeger said. "Suspect is a woman between the ages of fifty and sixty who robbed three pharmacies in as many weeks with a... game controller?"

"Nice." Walsh read on. "Last seen in Columbus Circle on a Segway taken from a Trump Tower security guard." Walsh gave Shraeger a knowing look. "Hmm. Just like old times."

"Yeah," she said. "Wanna go bust us a Segway-stealing Granny?"

"Hell yes," Walsh agreed, and they together headed down the stairs into the bright, brisk New York autumn.

THE END