After Emery Hazard loses his job as a detective in Saint Louis, he heads back to his hometown–and to the local police force there. Home, though, brings no happy memories, and the ghosts of old pain are very much alive in Wahredua. Hazard’s new partner, John-Henry Somerset, had been one of the worst tormentors, and Hazard still wonders what Somerset’s role was in the death of Jeff Langham, Hazard’s first boyfriend.
When a severely burned body is discovered, Hazard finds himself drawn deeper into the case than he expects. Determining the identity of the dead man proves impossible, and solving the murder grows more and more unlikely. But as the city’s only gay police officer, Hazard is placed at the center of a growing battle between powerful political forces. To his surprise, Hazard finds an unlikely ally in his partner, the former bully. And as they spend more time together, something starts to happen between them, something that Hazard can’t–and doesn’t want–to explain.
The discovery of a second mutilated corpse, though, reveals clues that the two murders are linked, and as Hazard gets closer to answers, he uncovers a conspiracy of murder and betrayal that goes deeper–and closer to home–than he could ever expect.
They drove in a tan Impala with cloth seats and a pine-scented air freshener glued to the central vent. Neither man spoke, and Hazard took advantage of the silence to reorient himself. He’d lost his cool as soon as Somers had opened his mouth. No, it was worse than that. He’d lost control. It was like he’d been outside his head, watching, unable to stop as he got angrier and angrier. Every word Somers had said had been like dumping gasoline on a house fire.
And it didn’t help that Somers was so breezy. Everything he did and said came off cool, collected, composed, like he didn’t have a fuck to give for anything or anyone. In spite of his determination not to look, Hazard studied the man. John-Henry Somerset hadn’t changed. Sure, his blond hair was shorter and crisply styled, and he’d added on a few inches of lean muscle. But the major things hadn’t changed. He still had his preppy good looks: his smooth, golden tan, his eyes like tide pools, jaw cut sharp as a straight razor. He still had that way of walking, his shoulders back and his head up, like he owned this city and the next one over and he expected everyone to know it. Perfect—the word popped into Hazard’s head. John-Henry was still so goddamn perfect.
Somers shifted, as though sensing Hazard’s gaze, and adjusted his grip on the steering wheel. His cuff slid back, exposing a stretch of darkly-inked skin. Well, Hazard thought. That was very interesting. The golden boy had a tattoo; maybe John-Henry had changed a little.
“The guy we’re going to see, he’s a college student. His name is Rosendo, I think. I’ve got it written down. He reported vandalism this morning, and a patrol car went past. They passed it up to us.”
“Because it has to do with what? This PR crap?”
With a small shrug, Somers said, “Kind of. There’s been a lot of this going around.”
“Vandalism? That’s what we deal with?”
“This is about the most interesting thing we’ve had all year. And it’s not just vandalism. It’s a hate crime or the next thing to it. LGBT community is getting targeted for the most part, although it spills over.”
“And I’m the band-aid?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Somers didn’t answer.
After a moment, Hazard laughed. “The LGBT community, huh? What? You guys finally have enough queers around here to throw a stick at? Guess things change.”
“They—there’s always been a community here. You know, because of the college. But you’re right: things have changed.”
The way Somers said it, with that earnest tone and Boy Scout look, made it clear what he meant: he meant that he’d changed, that Wahredua had changed, that the world had changed. That was a nice dish of bull crap, as far as Hazard was concerned.
“Wroxall?” Hazard said. “That’s like two classrooms and a cafeteria.”
“Maybe twenty years ago. They’ve grown. A lot. Enrollment is around fifteen thousand.”
“Fifteen thousand? You’re joking.”
“No. And Wahredua had to grow too. The city’s pushing ninety thousand. We’re officially a city, you know, not a town anymore. And the college has brought the blue vote. All the old hippies, organic farmers, musicians, deadheads. It’s different.”
Hazard grunted; he’d believe it when he saw it. “Tell me about Cravens.”
“She’s decent. She’s a politician, but only because that’s her job. She’ll stick by you, for the most part. She bakes some good cupcakes and brings them on Fridays.”
“What’d you have to say to get her to hire me?”
“She wanted to hire you. I didn’t have to say anything.”
“What’d you say?”
“She thought you’d be good as the department’s face. You know: brooding detective, great shoulders, killer ass. You could—”
Hazard felt that same old house-fire burning deep inside him. “What’d you say?”
“It was just a joke. C’mon, lighten up.”
“Jesus, you really are the same, aren’t you? All right. Let’s get it all out on the table. Yeah, I’m gay. I like to fuck guys. Is that clear?”
Somers was shaking his head, his eyes fixed on the road.
“I asked you a question.”
“All right. You think it’s funny or weird or gross. Fine. You want to give me shit about it. Fine. You want to make my life hell. Fine. I’m not the kid you used to push around. I’ve done this whole pony show before. If you think you’ve got something that the guys in St. Louis didn’t already try, you’ve got another thing coming. It didn’t work for them, and it sure as hell isn’t going to work for you. I’m not going—”
“Jesus Christ,” Somers growled, his cool snapping for the first time since Hazard had seen him. Somers jerked the wheel to the right, and the tires rumbled against the curb. They pulled to the end of the block, and Somers unbuckled his seatbelt. “Get out of the car. Right now.”
Without waiting for a reply, Somers kicked his door open and walked to the sidewalk.
Hazard only hesitated a moment. He had his .38, and if it came to that, he wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in John-Henry’s perfect golden tan. But the best odds were that Somers was going to try to slug him. Somers was right-handed. He had muscle, but lean, more like a runner—he didn’t have Hazard’s bulk. Hazard knew the drill. He’d move into the punch, take it on his shoulder or arm instead of on his jaw, and then he’d land one that would knock Somers out of the county.
When Hazard got to the sidewalk, though, Somers just shrugged out of his jacket, folded it, and held it out to Hazard.
Hazard stared at the coat and raised an eyebrow.
“Hold it for me,” Somers insisted. “And then why don’t you break my jaw or my nose or whatever the fuck you’re determined to do, and then we can get on with our day.”
Hazard hesitated again. Was this a fake-out? Would he swing as soon as Hazard reached for the jacket?
“For God’s sake,” Somers grumbled. He tossed the jacket on the ground and took a step forward, tilting his head back and presenting his jaw. “I fucked up in high school. I get it. This is your chance.”
“Yeah, and get myself out of a job on the first day. I’m not that stupid.”
“You want to record me? You want this taped? I’ll say whatever you want me to say. You’ve got my permission to take off my fucking head, so go on and do it. I fucked up, so let’s make it right.”
The heat of the day, even this early, prickled on Hazard’s neck; sweat dampened his armpits and the small of his back. Somehow, again, Somers had thrown him off balance, and Hazard couldn’t seem to get his feet planted.
Somers took another step forward. They were close enough now that Hazard could feel the heat pouring off Somers, could smell the clean scent of Somers’s deodorant, could see the nearly invisible blond stubble on Somers’s jaw.
“Are you going to do it or not? Either you hit me right now, as hard as you want, as much as you want, and you get it out of your fucking system, or you drop the chip from your shoulder and we go do this interview. I don’t know about you, but I want to do my job.”
Somers waited a full minute, his eyes still locked with Hazard’s, before Hazard finally looked away. Somers grunted and got back into the Impala. After a moment, Hazard followed. Then he stopped, turned back, and gathered the fallen jacket. He dusted it off and climbed into the passenger seat. Wordlessly, he shoved the jacket at Somers.
“Let’s get one thing straight,” Hazard said, his eyes on the dashboard. “I’ll work with you. I’m your partner. I’ve got your back, as far as that goes, and you can count on me when it comes to the job. But if you think I’m going to forgive and forget because you’ve gone to college and you think you’re open-minded now and can crack jokes with your faggot partner, you’re wrong. I know you. I know the special kind of piece of shit you are. Even if nobody else knows, even if you’ve got them all fooled, I know.” Hazard tapped his chest where the three shiny lines still marked him, but inside, he was thinking about what Mikey Grames and Hugo Perry and John-Henry Somerset had done to Jeff, that summer when they’d cut up Hazard’s chest, what they’d done to Jeff when they’d really gotten going. “You made sure I’d never forget.”
Somers paled as he took the jacket. He held it awkwardly, as though unsure of what to do with it, and then dropped it in his lap. He fumbled the key in the ignition, started the car, and then, his face pitched towards the floorboards, said, “I know I fucked up. But I am different. All I’m saying is give me a chance.”
Hazard didn’t answer; he’d said everything he needed to say.
Struggle showed in Somers’s face, and as he shifted the car into gear, he blurted, “And I wasn’t cracking jokes or trying to be funny. You do have a killer ass. So fuck you.”
And that, Hazard decided as they pulled away from the curb, made it official: the whole world had gone batshit.
Discover more of author Gregory Ashe:
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Gregory-Ashe/e/B004YYND70/ref=dp_byline_cont_ebooks_1
Goodreads Author Page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/1179529.Gregory_Ashe