Officer Red Markham knows about the ugly side of life after a car accident left him scarred and his parents dead. His job policing the streets of Carlisle, PA, only adds to the ugliness, and lately, drug overdoses have been on the rise. One afternoon, Red is dispatched to the local Y for a drowning accident involving a child. Arriving on site, he finds the boy rescued by lifeguard Terry Baumgartner. Of course, Red isn’t surprised when gorgeous Terry won’t give him and his ugly mug the time of day.
Overhearing one of the officer’s comments about him being shallow opens Terry’s eyes. Maybe he isn’t as kindhearted as he always thought. His friend Julie suggests he help those less fortunate by delivering food to the elderly. On his route he meets outspoken Margie, a woman who says what’s on her mind. Turns out, she’s Officer Red’s aunt.
Red and Terry’s worlds collide as Red tries to track the source of the drugs and protect Terry from an ex-boyfriend who won’t take no for an answer. Together they might discover a chance for more than they expected—if they can see beyond what’s on the surface.
Shallowness can work both ways and most of us tend to forget that but with the characters of Red and Terry, the author reminds us of that fact. In the beginning, Terry is the type of shallow that we all think of when we hear the word, put simply beauty is on the outside only but after he meets Red, he begins to change or at least the person he was once upon a time begins to resurface. With Red, we have the kind of shallowness that almost works in reverse. Red still believes that beauty is only skin deep and because of those beliefs he is certain that he will never find love because of the scars he wears. Together they begin to realize how wrong they have both been, but is it enough for the pair to find true happiness? For that answer you'll have to read Fire & Water for yourself, trust me you will want to find the answer because not only is it a great read, you just might find something out about yourself too.
Fire & Ice #2
Carter Schunk is a dedicated police officer with a difficult past and a big heart. When he’s called to a domestic disturbance, he finds a fatally injured woman, and a child, Alex, who is in desperate need of care. Child Services is called, and the last man on earth Carter wants to see walks through the door. Carter had a fling with Donald a year ago and found him as cold as ice since it ended.
Donald (Ice) Ickle has had a hard life he shares with no one, and he’s closed his heart to all. It’s partly to keep himself from getting hurt and partly the way he deals with a job he’s good at, because he does what needs to be done without getting emotionally involved. When he meets Carter again, he maintains his usual distance, but Carter gets under his skin, and against his better judgment, Donald lets Carter guilt him into taking Alex when there isn’t other foster care available. Carter even offers to help care for the boy.
Donald has a past he doesn’t want to discuss with anyone, least of all Carter, who has his own past he’d just as soon keep to himself. But it’s Alex’s secrets that could either pull them together or rip them apart—secrets the boy isn’t able to tell them and yet could be the key to happiness for all of them.
From the moment Carter finds the scared little boy who is locked in the attic, you can't help but fall in love with little Alex and his rescuer too. Once again the author takes a very tragic crime and create characters and a story that warms your heart and helps to remind us that the risk of a broken heart is well worth opening your heart. Without taking that risk the only thing you're guaranteeing yourself is that your heart will harden and you'll end up alone. Donald has his reasons, or at least reasons he sees as worth it, for hardening his heart but with the help of a former one weekend stand and a damaged little boy he begins to realize that he's been living a very solitude lifestyle and that's not really living at all. As is with many series where each installment centers around a different couple, I had a little trouble at first letting go of Red and Terry from Fire & Water but it only took less than a chapter for me to get hooked on Carter, Donald, and little Alex.
Fire & Water #1
RED MARKHAM heard the call for backup through the radio, flipped on the flashing lights of his patrol car, and took off down High Street. He turned north and drove two blocks, going through the stop sign as quickly as he could. Red pulled to a stop behind the other squad car and unfolded himself from the seat. He could see over the hood what the problem was and strode over to where two other officers were struggling with a suspect.
“Get the hell away from me. I wasn’t doing nothing!” the suspect yelled at the top of his lungs, trying to yank his arm away from Smith. He managed it, too, and used the free hand to punch Rogers. “You have no right!” Smith got hold of him again. The guy wasn’t that large, but he was hopped up on something, that was for sure. When Red caught sight of his eyes, they were as big as saucers, red, dilated, and as wild as a feral cat’s.
“That’s enough!” Red snapped, wielding his voice like a weapon. The suspect continued struggling.
“Tase him, for God’s sake,” Rogers called. Smith went for his stun gun, but the suspect knocked his hand away. The situation was turning dangerous fast. Red approached and pulled his weapon.
“Get down now!”
The suspect turned toward him and instantly stopped moving.
“I said get down on the ground!” Red’s voice became sharper. Drill sergeants could take lessons from him, or so he’d been told.
The suspect’s wide eyes got even bigger somehow, and he stilled completely. Then he dropped to the sidewalk on his stomach and didn’t move. “What the hell are you?” the suspect asked under his breath.
Red ignored the comment and kept his gun on the guy while the other two officers cuffed him. Once the suspect was under control, Red put away his weapon.
“Jesus Christ, I’m in the middle of the freak patrol.”
“That’s plenty out of you,” Smith told the prone suspect. “You already have more trouble than you can handle.” Smith read him his rights and strongly advised him to keep his mouth shut for the foreseeable future. Red stepped back and glared at the suspect, making sure he made no move toward his fellow officers.
“What happened?” Red asked once the suspect was calm.
“Don’t know. He looked strange, and when I stopped to see if he needed help, he went off,” Rogers explained. He was a few years older than Red, and they’d joined the Carlisle police force at about the same time. Not that Red knew him all that well, outside of work, or Smith, for that matter. Both men were good guys who Red trusted to have his back when he needed it. But calling either of them friends was a stretch.
“The guy’s higher than a kite,” Smith chimed in.
“Some new stuff has hit town, and it’s strong as hell. This is the second guy like this I’ve had to deal with, and the department’s had about six so far. It’s bad and getting worse,” Rogers added.
The suspect wasn’t moving, and Smith bent down. “Shit, call an ambulance. He’s barely breathing.”
Rogers radioed in, and within a minute they heard sirens approaching. That was the beauty of a town this size. The ambulance garage was only a mile away, and those guys were always on the ball. Red didn’t take his eyes off the suspect in case he was playing possum, but he grew more and more limp. The ambulance arrived, and the EMTs took charge of the suspect, worked on him on the ground, and then got him on a gurney and into the ambulance. Rogers rode along, and Smith prepared to follow in their car, but it didn’t look good to Red, not at all.
“Hey, man,” Smith said just before they got ready to leave. “Appreciate the help.” This whole situation had gone from bad to worse to possibly tragic within about two minutes.
“No problem. I’ll see you back at the station.” The back doors of the ambulance thunked closed, and Smith went to his car. Red waited until they all drove away before going to his. He sat in the driver’s seat and adjusted his rearview mirror. He did not look at himself in it. He never looked in a mirror if he could help it. He knew what he looked like and didn’t fucking need to be reminded. He was well aware he was never, ever going to win any beauty contests.
Red snapped out of his thoughts when he heard another call—an altercation at the Y. That was a new one. He responded to the call and was informed that an ambulance was already on its way, along with the fire department. What a fucking day. He wondered for two seconds if it was a full moon, but he didn’t believe in all that crap anyway, so he flipped on his lights and hurried to his next call.
The Y was in an old school building that had been expanded. The old part was just that, old, while the addition was new, shiny, and well equipped. Red parked near the ambulance and rescue vehicles. He headed inside and was directed to the pool area. Not that he would have had any trouble figuring out where to go from all the people huddled outside the door. People loved to gawk. “Excuse me,” Red said, and some of the people turned around. They stared, the way everyone seemed to stare, and silently got out of the way, tapping others on the shoulder, parting groups of people in workout gear and dripping bathing suits like the Red Sea.
Pushing through the door, Red took in the scene. A woman and a young man in a small red bathing suit stood off to the side. The woman, about thirty or so, Red guessed, soccer-mom type, was yelling and trying to poke the kid in the chest. One of the firemen was trying to separate them and looked grateful when Red approached.
“What’s going on?” His voice echoed off the walls of the natatorium.
The woman stopped still, and the kid took a step back, nearly falling into the pool. “He….” the woman began, regaining her composure. “He nearly killed my son.”
“I did not, lady,” the kid protested, crossing his arms over his sculpted chest. Red quickly took him in and swallowed hard. He was a specimen of damn near perfect manhood, like he belonged on the cover of some magazine. He allowed the thought for a split second. “If you’d have been watching your son and making sure he obeyed the rules the way you’re supposed to, none of this would have happened.”
“All right. You, over there.” Red pointed to the kid. “Sit down, and wait for me.” Red then turned to the woman. “You, follow me.” He took a step back and waited for both of them to obey his instructions. “Sit here, and I’ll be with you in a minute.” He waited for her to do as she was told and walked over to where a young boy lay on the tile around the pool. The kid was blue, and Red watched as two EMTs tried to resuscitate him. It didn’t look good, but then the kid coughed, spit up water, and gasped for air. Red motioned to the woman, and she hurried over. The boy, who looked about eight, coughed again, and the paramedics told him to stay still. His mother rushed to him, and he began to cry.
“You’re going to be all right,” the paramedic said to him. Red had crossed paths with Arthur before and knew he knew his stuff. “Just rest and breathe.”
“Mom,” the kid said.
She took his hand. “You’re all right,” she soothed, and then she began thanking the people who’d helped her son.
“We’re going to take him to the hospital so we can check him out,” Arthur told the woman. She nodded and didn’t release her son’s hand.
“Ma’am, I need to speak with you,” Red told her. She nodded and whispered to her son before getting up and walking over to where Red waited. “What happened?”
“I didn’t see it. I had dropped Connor off for his swimming lesson, and he was going to stay for open swim afterwards. He and his friends usually do. I got here and saw them pulling him out of the water. I called the police.” She turned toward the lifeguard, who sat where Red had told him to. He looked nervous as hell. “I only know that if he’d been doing his job, none of this would have happened,” she spat.
Red pulled out his pad and began writing down what she had told him. He got her name, Mary Robinson. He also got her address, telephone number, her date of birth, along with Connor’s, and all other pertinent information. “So just to be clear, you didn’t see exactly what happened?”
“No, but….” Her argument had rung hollow, and it looked like it was starting to sound that way to her as well. She looked toward her son. Red noticed that she was looking anywhere other than at him. It was something he’d gotten used to.
“It’s all right. We’ll find out what happened.”
She kept looking at her son, and Red stepped back to let her be with him. Then he walked over to where the lifeguard sat on the bottom row of a set of bleachers set up along the side of the pool so spectators could watch races.
Red saw the startled expression on the kid’s face as he approached. The kid did a better job than most of covering the pity Red saw flash through his eyes for a split second. “Can you tell me your name, please?” Red asked, getting things moving.
“Terry Baumgartner,” he answered, swallowing hard. “He and his friends were horsing around on the pool deck. I told them more than once to stop and was about to ask them to leave when I turned away because a little girl had approached my seat. And when I looked back, I saw him under the water. I dove in, along with Julie.” He motioned to the young woman in a red one-piece swimsuit who stood a little ways away. “I reached him first and pulled him out. We started resuscitation right away and continued until we were relieved a few minutes later.”
“Who called this in?” Red asked.
A man stepped forward. “I did. They yelled to call 911, so I did. The kids were roughhousing, and I remember thinking someone was going to get hurt.”
“Daddy, is Connor going to be okay?” a little girl in a wet bathing suit asked as she walked up and took the man’s hand.
“Yes, honey, he’s going to be fine,” he said, soothing the kid’s fears before turning back to Red. He swallowed as he met Red’s eyes. Very few people did that anymore. “What he said is the truth. The kids were asking for trouble. If the lifeguard did anything wrong, it was not kicking them out earlier. But he did warn them.”
Red glanced to Terry, who nodded. Some of the worry seemed to slip from his aqua eyes, and his godlike, lanky body lost some of its tension. He lowered his lean arms and let them hang down from his sculpted shoulders. Damn—the kid wasn’t big, but he was perfect, as far as Red was concerned. “Thank you,” Red said, turning back to the man. He took down his contact information and asked a few more questions before thanking him again. He then talked to the other lifeguard, Julie, who confirmed what Terry had told him. Red was satisfied that this was an accident and that the lifeguard hadn’t been responsible. He then spoke with the manager of the facility and got the necessary information from him. He was very helpful and seemed concerned and relieved at the same time.
By the time Red was done, Connor had been taken to the hospital, and most everyone else had been dismissed. He was getting ready to leave when he saw Terry and Julie standing off to one side, talking animatedly back and forth. Their voices weren’t as quiet as he assumed they meant them to be, because he heard little snippets of their conversation. “I’d die if that happened to me,” he heard Terry say and saw the kid looking his way. Red ignored him and walked carefully over the wet tile toward the door. Beauty was only skin deep.
“Red.” He turned and saw Arthur approaching. He’d obviously heard what was being said as well. “Don’t listen to them. That kid is as shallow as an overturned saucer.” Arthur said it a little louder than necessary, and the chatter from the corner ceased abruptly. “When you get off tonight, you want to meet us at Hanover Grille?” he asked more softly. “Some of us are going to have some dinner and hang out for a while. You’re welcome to join us, you know that.”
Red smiled slightly. He was self-conscious about his smile, and when it threatened to go wider, he put his hand in front of his mouth. “Thanks.” His impulse was to say no, thank you, and just go home after work, but Arthur was sincere, and it might be good to get out with people for a change. “Once I’m off shift and get my reports done, I’ll try to stop by. It may be late, though.”
“I know how things work,” Arthur said, and then he hurried away, out of the natatorium.
Red did a mental check that he had spoken to everyone and had all the information he needed. He confirmed he had, and when he checked the clock on the wall, he said a silent thank-you and left the building.
As soon as he pushed open the outside door, he saw four news vans out front, with reporters milling around getting ready to file their stories. Red went right to his car and left, even as they were making their way over. He had no intention of making any comments to the press. He would head back to the station and let the powers that be decide who they wanted to speak for the department.
He got back to the station and filled in the captain about both the suspect on the sidewalk and the near drowning. He made sure the captain knew about the reporters and then headed to his desk to start writing reports. It took an hour. He filed them and got ready to leave. It had been a long, exciting day, and he was exhausted. Red didn’t talk much with the other officers in the station. He did say good-bye to the ones he encountered, to be polite, and then hurried to leave.
Red was already in his car and pulling out of the lot when he remembered Arthur’s invitation. Since he didn’t have anything to do this evening besides sit at home, watch television, and drink too much beer, he decided to take Arthur up on his offer.
Fire & Ice #2
“SO YOU finally convinced the captain to let you go out on patrol,” Red said as he sat down across from Carter in the police department breakroom, which was in dire need of renovation. Carter accepted the cup he offered with a smile. “It took you long enough.”
Carter Schunk grunted. “No kidding. As soon as everyone found out I had computer skills, they seemed determined to keep me locked away in the basement behind a terminal doing their investigative work while they got to go out in the world. I’m a trained police officer and I went to the academy just the same as they did.” Carter sipped from his cup to cut off the diatribe that threatened to take over. He took a deep breath to calm down, but it wasn’t working. Just this afternoon he’d gotten requests for simple Internet searches that he’d been told were so important his patrol duty had been delayed until the evening so he could get them done. It pissed him off—the officers could do those searches themselves—but he shouldn’t be taking it out on Red. “I appreciate that you’ve been in my corner.”
“Always will be, bud.” Red flashed him a quick smile and then it was gone. Carter knew Red was still self-conscious about his teeth, so he rarely smiled for very long. His real smiles seemed to be reserved for Terry, his swimmer boyfriend, who was training for his chance at Olympic gold next year. “Everyone deserves a chance.”
Carter snickered. “You know you’ve turned into a real sap over the past few months.” He backed away, expecting Red to take a good-natured swipe at him. Red was huge—tall and wide—easily the biggest man on the force. He’d been in an accident as a kid, and while Terry had worked with him in order to help Red feel better about his looks, Red still sported the visible scars from that accident. “Not that it wasn’t well earned.” Hell, Carter would turn into a lovesick sap like Red if it meant he had someone like Terry to come home to each night.
Red finished his coffee and tossed the paper cup in the trash. “Are you ready?”
Carter gulped the hot liquid and then tossed his cup as well before following Red out of the breakroom. He checked out a patrol car and got inside. Red stood outside his window as Carter excitedly went over everything in his mind. He’d done this before, but it had been a while and it felt damned good to be a “real” cop again instead of the computer geek in residence. “I’m all set.”
“Good.” Red patted the doorframe twice. “I’ll be out there as well. You call if you need anything. Hell, call if you think you need anything. I’ll be there.”
Carter chuckled. “Thanks.” Red had become a good friend over the past six months. Before, he’d always kept to himself, but since Terry had entered his life, Red had blossomed into a happy man. Truthfully, Carter was jealous of what they had, but not of Red. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Carter just wished it would happen to him.
He started the engine and pulled out of the lot with Red following behind. Carter’s area of patrol was the north end of Carlisle, so he turned in that direction and drove up Hanover Street before turning onto East Louther and slowly making his way through some of the rougher areas of the borough, making his presence known. Often just being out and about in some of these areas was enough to quell trouble. Tonight did not seem to be one of those nights. Almost immediately a report of a home invasion came over the radio. Carter’s heart raced as he radioed that he was responding, flipped on his lights, and sped up. He’d been just a street away and arrived as two men were carrying a flat-screen television out a passageway between two row houses. As soon as they saw Carter, they dropped the television, took off, and got into their truck. Another patrol car came up the street from the other direction, boxing them in. Carter heard Red’s voice boom over the street, and the men got out of the truck and lay down on the concrete facedown, as commanded. It was over almost as soon as it started.
He and Red cuffed the men and read them their rights as other units responded. Statements were taken from the homeowner, with Carter adding what he’d seen. Then the men were transported back to the station. “I’ll handle the paperwork,” Red volunteered. “Go keep the streets safe.” Red winked, and Carter went back to his car and headed out.
The next few hours were quite normal and dull. Carter had forgotten how patrol could be: hours of waiting and watching around moments of excitement.
“Domestic dispute 100 block of East North,” the dispatcher said over the radio.
Carter stifled a groan and responded. Domestic calls were the worst. Half the time it was nothing, like neighbors calling in because the people in the next unit were yelling too loudly. Most of the rest were people in need of help, but often they refused to press charges. Those were the most frustrating for everyone on the force. Carter pushed that from his mind, going as fast as he dared, reaching the house within minutes.
There was little doubt what had prompted the call. As soon as he opened his car door, high-pitched screaming rattled his spine. It seemed to be coming from inside the open-windowed row house. Carter called for backup and sprang into action. It sounded as though someone was being injured. Sirens blared in the distance and patrol cars arrived, blocking the street. Carter explained what he’d heard and the screaming began again, this time louder and more frantic. Officers spread out, and Carter headed to the front door. “Police,” he yelled and tried the knob. The door opened, and he rushed inside, weapon at the ready.
Carter heard other officers enter from the back. He quickly cleared the front rooms and the others the back. The house was quiet now, and Carter motioned toward the stairs.
“Get out of my house!” a man yelled as he barreled down the stairs, red faced, eyes glazed over in rage.
“Down on the floor now!” Carter yelled forcefully and pointed his weapon at him, finger on the trigger. The man reached the bottom of the stairs, and Carter wasn’t sure he was going to stop. His finger began to move against the trigger. His training kicked in. “Get down!” he yelled again, and the man stopped and dropped to his knees. Carter inhaled and released his finger from the trigger, but stayed alert. There was at least one more person in the house—this guy wasn’t the person he’d heard screaming.
One of the other officers cuffed the man as Carter began climbing the stairs. He stayed close to the wall, gun in his hand, ready to defend himself. He reached the top of the stairs and heard crying. The officers behind him spread out, checking the other rooms while Carter moved toward the sound. He pushed open a partially closed door and gasped.
A woman lay on a bed twisted in dingy sheets, nearly naked, rocking her head back and forth as she cried, clutching the mattress. Carter took in the room quickly. Pills sat on the nightstand in a baggie. “Ma’am, are you all right?” Carter asked, but she just kept crying and rocking her head on the bed.
“Call an ambulance,” Carter said over his shoulder.
Carter turned quickly, making sure he knew who was behind him. Aaron Cloud was an investigator on the force, and Carter instantly felt more comfortable knowing he was here. Aaron was an experienced officer and a man who believed in supporting his fellow officers, especially the newer ones.
“They’re on their way.” Aaron stepped around him to the woman. “Go ahead and check out the rest of the house. I’ll stay with her.”
Carter nodded and left the room.
“There’s no one else here,” Kip Rogers, another patrol officer, told him.
Carter nodded and began peering into the other rooms. They were mostly empty, but something in the corner of one of the bedrooms caught his eye. Carter stepped inside carefully. The house was a wreck, with torn carpet, damaged walls, and grimy paint that must have been applied decades earlier. He scrunched his nose at the urine smell from the carpet and bent to examine what he’d seen.
A small brown stuffed bunny lay in the corner of the room. Carter looked at Rogers and then pulled a glove out of his pocket. He put it on and picked up the toy. One of the ears flopped down while the other stood straight up, and the bunny smiled at him in complete contrast to this place.
“What are you thinking?” Rogers asked.
Carter set the stuffed toy back where he found it and pulled open the closet door. A pair of small shoes lay jumbled in the corner, and a pair of tiny jeans and a sock rested on the dirty carpet. “Is there a kid here?” Carter whispered to himself and then turned to Rogers. “We need to make sure there isn’t a child somewhere in this mess.”
Rogers looked in the closet and then at Carter. “That stuff could have been there for years.”
“Maybe, but we need to make sure we’ve checked everywhere.” Carter left the room and went back into the tiny hallway. “Could you make sure the basement has been searched? I’m going to see if there’s an attic.” He began opening doors but found no stairs.
The ambulance arrived and Carter got out of the way so the EMTs could pass. Then he went into the last bedroom. It had a bed with a bare mattress and nothing else. Carter opened the closet door, but it was empty. There couldn’t be much attic space in the house, but he knew many of them had some. He then went back in the master bedroom and pulled open the closet. Pushing the clothes aside, he found what he was looking for: a set of stairs that went upward.
“What are you doing?” Aaron asked.
“Checking everything.” He turned on his flashlight and carefully entered the space. The stairs curved and he had to bend so he didn’t hit his head.
The smell was the first thing to assault him, and Carter had to stop himself from gagging repeatedly. It got hotter as he climbed, and the air, God—his eyes watered and he half expected to find something or someone dead. As he reached the top of the stairs and peered into the space, he nearly jumped back when someone looked back at him. Almost instantly he heard scrambling. Carter shone his light in that direction and gasped.
A small bed had been pushed against the far wall, if you could call it a wall. More accurately, it was the roofing studs. A small pile of clothes sat nearby.
“It’s all right,” Carter crooned. “I’m not going to hurt you, I promise.”
Whimpering reached his ears, and Carter followed the sound. As he got closer to the bed, a tiny head popped up from behind it, and huge eyes filled with terror looked back at him.
Carter could hardly breathe as the realization of what he was seeing hit him. This was a child—a little boy, by the looks of it. “It’s okay. I’m Carter and I’m here to help.” Sweat ran down Carter’s back, and he wondered just how long the boy had been up here. From the smell, long enough to have needed to go to the bathroom and not have a place to go. “I promise.” Carter had seen plenty of shitty things in his life and heard even more at the police department, but this…. His throat went dry and fuck if he didn’t want to cry at the sight. But he held it together and slowly extended his hand. “It’s okay.”
“They were yelling,” the boy said without moving.
“Yes,” Carter said. “But it’s okay now. They aren’t yelling anymore.” Carter wanted to get a better look at the kid, but he didn’t want to shine his flashlight light in his eyes. He glanced up to see if there was any light in the space other than the tiny window in front, but saw nothing at all. “Please come out. I promise it’s okay.”
The boy began to stand.
“What did you find?” one of the other officers called up the stairs, and the boy skittered back behind the bed. Carter swore under his breath.
“Just a minute,” he said back without raising his voice. The last thing he wanted was half the police force up here scaring the kid even more than he already was. “It’s okay. He’s just a loudmouth.”
“He yelled,” came a muffled reply.
“It’s okay. He was just talking loud. I promise.”
The boy lifted his head and slowly stood up. He wasn’t very tall. Carter waited for him to climb on the bed and then lifted him into his arms. “What’s your name?”
“Piece of shit,” he answered seriously. Carter needed like hell to get out of there, but was rooted in place by his answer.
“Is that all they ever called you?” Carter’s eyes watered and his throat was starting to burn. And the heat—how could this little boy stand it up here?
“Mommy called me Alex sometimes.”
“Then we’ll call you Alex. That’s a nice name.” Carter held the boy closer, carrying him toward the stairs. He placed his hand on Alex’s head and descended slowly out of the attic. Alex trembled in his arms the closer they got to the entrance to the attic. “It’s all right. No one is going to hurt you.”
“He said I was to stay there,” Alex said and then began to cry. Carter thought he was going to cry right along with him. Jesus, maybe he wasn’t cut out for this and should have stayed behind his computers.
“Well, I’m here now and I say you can leave.” Carter bent nearly in half to get through the door and then squeezed into the closet and finally the bedroom. Various sets of eyes turned to him in near astonishment. Carter said nothing. He simply held Alex’s head against his shoulder so he couldn’t see his mother on the bed and got him out of the room and down the stairs to the main floor. Almost instantly Carter could breathe more easily, the oppression and smell from upstairs dissipating slightly.
“Oh my God,” Rogers said when Carter walked into the living room. Carter put a finger to his lips, and Rogers lowered his voice. “Was he in the attic?”
“Yeah. You should send some people up there, but get masks for them. It’s noxious.” Carter shifted Alex in his arms, and the little boy gripped him even tighter.
Rogers nodded. “We should call….”
Carter put up his hand. He already knew what Rogers was going to say, but he didn’t want Alex to hear it in case he reacted and got upset. He was calm in Carter’s arms, and Carter wanted it to stay that way. “I know.”
Rogers nodded his understanding and left the room. Carter moved farther into the room to sit on the sofa. Alex whined softly, and as Carter got ready to sit, he began to struggle and fight.
“No, no, no,” Alex cried, releasing Carter and putting his hands over his little head.
“It’s all right,” Carter soothed and wondered what had been done to this poor child. He’d obviously been relegated to the attic. The emotional abuse was so evident it tugged at Carter’s heart, but he had to push it aside. He had to do his job, and he knew he couldn’t let it get to him or he’d be back in the basement with only his computers for company faster than they could say, “We knew you couldn’t cut it.”
Carter moved away from the furniture altogether and just stood off to the side, doing his best to soothe Alex.
“I not…,” Alex said and then stopped. “I bad.”
“No. You weren’t bad.” Carter took a deep breath.
Noise on the stairs caught Carter’s attention, and he turned so Alex couldn’t see what they were doing. The EMTs brought what was presumably Alex’s mother down the stairs on a stretcher, and one of them broke away and joined him.
“How is he?”
“Can you get me some water and maybe a little food for him? He seems okay otherwise, but when you have a minute, I’d like you to check him out.” Carter swallowed. “Phone calls are already being made.”
“All right. I’ll get some things from the truck and be right back. We’re going to transport her. I’ll stay behind and tend to him.”
“Perfect,” Carter breathed.
“I’m Chuck, by the way.”
“Carter,” he said and watched as Chuck hurried outside. He returned a few minutes later with a bottle of water and a small package of Oreos. Chuck opened the bottle and Carter held it for Alex, who drank and drank. Carter wasn’t surprised; the little guy had to be thirsty. Carter sure was, and he had only been up there a few minutes.
“It’s all right,” Carter said as he moved the bottle away. “Take your time. You can have all you want.” He spoke softly, and Alex lifted his head, his huge blue eyes filled with fear. “I promise. Just relax.” Carter placed the bottle to Alex’s lips, and he drank some more.
“Do you want a cookie?” He opened the package and handed Alex one of the Oreos. He looked at it and reached out to take it tentatively. Once it was in his hands, Alex shoved the entire thing in his mouth and chewed frantically. “It’s okay. No one is going to take it from you, and I have some more. See? So chew and swallow and I’ll give you another.”
Carter pulled out another cookie. Alex snatched it from his hand and held it close to his body. As soon as he swallowed, the second cookie went in whole. Alex reached for another cookie, grabbing it as soon as he could and once again holding it to him. Carter noticed that Alex watched Chuck closely, hiding the food from him.
“I’m not going to take your cookies, little man,” Chuck said. “I have more if you eat those. So don’t worry.”
Carter got Alex to stop eating long enough to drink some more water, and then more cookies were shoved in. Within minutes, all four cookies were gone and Alex settled down. Carter didn’t want to make the comparison, but he reminded Carter of the dog he’d had as a child. Snickers had always attacked his food dish, eating like crazy, as if the food would suddenly disappear. What in the fuck had been done to this little boy?
Now that he’d eaten and had something to drink, Alex settled against him.
Chuck stepped closer. “Can I look you over?” he asked. Alex blinked at him, but didn’t say anything or even move. He simply breathed. When Chuck moved closer, Alex parted his lips, baring his teeth.
“Hey. That isn’t nice,” Carter said gently. “He wants to make sure you aren’t hurt, okay? He won’t hurt you. I promise.” Alex blinked up at him. “Will you pull up your shirt so he can see your tummy?” Alex continued looking at Carter, who nodded, and Alex pulled up his shirt.
He was covered in dirt. Carter wondered how long it had been since he’d had a bath. Chuck got out a stethoscope and listened to Alex’s heart. Then he moved around to his back. “His heart and lungs sound good.” Chuck took Alex’s wrist and checked his pulse. “It’s a little fast but probably because of what’s happened. We can take him in if you want.”
“I don’t….” Carter wasn’t sure what he wanted. “We have people coming. They can make decisions for him.”
“Right now I think he needs food and water more than anything else.” Chuck turned to Alex. “Thank you,” Chuck said to Alex and then lowered his dirty shirt. Carter gave him more water.
“Do you need to use the bathroom?” Carter asked quietly. He wasn’t sure how old Alex was—four was his initial guess—but he took a chance and guessed he was potty trained. Alex nodded, and Carter took him through the house to the bathroom.
“Are you done in here?” Carter asked one of the officers as he came out of the bathroom.
“Yeah. There wasn’t anything of interest in there.” He continued on, and Carter put Alex on his feet. He hurried to the toilet and lifted the lid, then lowered his pants and went.
Carter turned when he was tapped on the shoulder.
“Child services is here,” Rogers said softly.
“Okay. We’ll meet them in the living room in a few minutes.” Carter waited while Alex flushed and then hurried to the sink. Carter lifted him up, and he turned on the water to wash his hands. The gesture seemed so foreign, given the surroundings. Carter set him down and found what appeared to be a clean towel. Alex dried his hands and then looked up at Carter. He lifted him once again, and then walked into the living room.
Carter suppressed the deep groan that threatened to erupt from his throat. Why the hell did it have to be him? “Hello, Donald,” he said formally as he stepped into the room.
“Carter,” Donald Ickle returned with his usually aloof demeanor. “Is this the boy I was called about?”
“Yes. We found him in the attic.” Some of the other officers came into the room. They were finishing up in the house, and Carter saw them carrying things outside. “He has apparently been living there. I’m not sure for how long, but there’s quite a mess in one corner, so I’d say for at least a few days. His things seemed to have been moved up there from one of the bedrooms on the second floor.”
Donald turned to Alex. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Piece of shit,” Alex answered just like he had before and in the exact same tone, like a parrot repeating what it had been told.
“You said your mommy called you Alex,” Carter prompted. Alex squirmed to get down, and when Carter set him on his feet, Alex went over the arm of the soiled sofa, pulled down his pants and leaned over, his little bare butt in the air. Carter was floored and looked to Donald for guidance. When he looked back, Carter saw red lines striping Alex’s skin. He let out a small gasp and then covered his mouth. Jesus Christ.
“No. It’s okay. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Carter said as it dawned on him that Alex was expecting to be punished. Donald didn’t say a word, and Carter wanted to punch the asshole’s lights out right then. Yes, Donald Ickle was an asshole, at least in his opinion—a cold, arrogant, asshole. Carter went over and tugged Alex’s pants back up. Then he lifted him into his arms and held him.
“You told me the truth. That’s what good boys do.” Carter glared over Alex’s shoulder at Donald, who simply looked back at him as though this was completely normal.
“We gave him some water and a few cookies because we weren’t sure how much he’d eaten or had to drink recently. I didn’t see the marks on him until just now. There weren’t any on his back or belly, or at least I didn’t see any when the EMT looked him over. I figured you could decide if you wanted him taken to the hospital.”
“I should, and then I’ll call around and see if I can get him into foster care. Do you know anything other than the name Alex?”
“No,” Carter said.
Donald pulled a notebook out of his case and began jotting down notes. “I’ll get him to the hospital so he can be looked over thoroughly.” Donald pulled out his phone and made a call. “I have a few emergency shelters that should be able to take him for a few days.” Donald began making calls, but from what Carter heard Donald was striking out. “I have one more.” Donald made the call while Carter continued to try to soothe Alex, who was getting jittery and fussy.
“Do you want me to stay?” Chuck said, putting his head back in the room.
“No. I’ll take him in and make sure any injuries he has are documented,” Donald told Chuck in the same disinterested voice Carter imagined Donald would use if he were ordering Chinese food. He told himself that no matter what Carter thought of Donald “Icicle” Ickle, he had Alex’s best interests at heart, even if he didn’t show it. At least that was his reputation.
“All right.” Chuck nodded and turned to leave. Most of the other officers had gone as well. Red stood near the front door and closed it behind Chuck after he left.
“I’ll make sure the scene is secured,” Red told him. “You make sure the kid is okay.”
“I will,” Donald said and looked at Red, who ignored him and kept looking at Carter.
“Don’t worry,” Carter said and turned his attention to Donald, who had struck out once again and was making another call. It was dark outside and well after dinnertime. Carter’s stomach told him he should have eaten a while ago, but he ignored it. There was someone more important to think about right now.
Donald finished his call. “I can place him with the county for now.” He made more notes and then gathered his things. “I have a booster seat in my trunk. I’ll get it installed in my car and take him to the hospital. From there, I’ll take him to the county home for the night. They have a bed for him.”
Carter seethed, but didn’t want Alex to know it. Donald approached and tried to take Alex from him. Alex snarled and lashed out with his teeth. “Alex, don’t do that. He’s trying to help you, even if he is being a pain about it.” Carter hardened his gaze, letting it bore into Icicle. “I’ll get him to the hospital, and we’ll meet you there.”
Alex didn’t settle down until Donald backed away. “All right. I’ll meet you there.”
Carter suppressed a smile at the slight amount of fear he saw in Donald’s eyes. Carter moved away, and they went outside. Donald strapped the booster seat in the back of Carter’s cruiser, and then once Alex was secured, Carter let Red know he was leaving and headed to the hospital.
Officially he was off duty, and he drove as carefully as he could to keep from jostling Alex. The kid looked white as a sheet as he rode, but he sat silently and still. By the time they reached the Emergency entrance at the hospital, he was breathing hard and shaking.
“It’s okay,” Carter soothed. He parked the car and hurried around, opened the door, and unhooked Alex from the seat belt. Then he pulled him out of the car and into his arms. He was shaking like a leaf. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Alex looked up at the building and shook in Carter’s arms. A car pulled in behind them, and Donald got out and strode over to where they were standing. “He’s mean,” Alex whispered as Donald stepped closer to them.
“No, he’s not. He’s just”—Carter smiled—“grumpy.” He tickled Alex slightly, and Alex giggled and wrapped his arms around Carter’s neck.
“I’m professional, not grumpy,” Donald said and walked toward the front door of the hospital.
Carter followed along behind. “He is grumpy,” he said to Alex and walked inside.
Donald was already at the desk, and after a few minutes, he returned and motioned them to the chairs. “We need to wait, but it shouldn’t be long. I used your name as well.”
Carter looked at the woman behind the desk, and she smiled brightly at him. He sighed and sat down. Alex stayed on his lap, and Donald sat next to him. They didn’t talk, but every few minutes Donald shifted nervously. Carter kept his attention on Alex, but every few minutes he couldn’t help taking a peek at Donald in his suit and tie, all buttoned up.
Carter knew the exquisite body that lay hidden under those clothes. He and Donald had… well, they’d had a fling, a one-night stand that had ended up stretching out over an entire weekend a year earlier. It had been hot, sweaty, and Carter had thought well worth repeating as many times as possible, but obviously Icicle hadn’t. As soon as the weekend was over, Carter realized just why everyone referred to him as Ice, because Carter didn’t just get the cold shoulder; he’d had his nuts frozen off completely.
“You can go on through,” a nurse said when she came out to get them. Carter stood and followed her, still carrying Alex.
“I can take him. There’s no need for you to spend your entire evening here with him,” Donald said and carefully reached for Alex. He didn’t try to bite him again, but he most definitely was not happy, and after a few moments, he simply began to cry. Not whimpers, but out-and-out wailing, with tears of desperation.
“It’s all right. I’ll stay with him. Maybe he’ll calm down.” Alex practically jumped away from Donald and back into Carter’s arms. That seemed to settle things, and they walked together to an examining room.
Carter laid Alex on the bed and hoped he’d stay there. Thankfully it seemed comfortable enough, and Alex stayed still. Carter found the switch and dimmed the lights. Alex yawned, and Carter held his hand. Eventually the little guy fell asleep. “I have no idea how long he’s been awake.”
“How did you find him? You said he was in the attic,” Donald said.
Carter nodded. “He was locked up there. It was hot as hell and all he had was his little bed and a pile of his clothes.” He wished he could forget it. “How can anyone treat a kid that way? You were there. When you asked him his name, he told us what he’d been told, and then when I reminded him he had told me what his mom said, he expected to be punished. And someone has definitely hurt him. What the hell else have they done?” Carter cringed and swallowed hard. Sure, he’d been trained as an officer, but he had to admit he was not emotionally prepared for a situation like this.
Donald glared stone-faced across the bed. “I have seen things you would not believe.” He turned away and sat down in a chair, staring straight ahead.
“Are you really going to put him in the county home? He’ll scream himself hoarse and….”
Donald didn’t turn to look at him. “There’s no other choice. Until we can find out who he is and if there is family who can care for him, I need to find a place for him, and that’s all there is available.”
“There has to be something other than there.” Carter wanted to walk around the bed and smack Donald in the chest. “I know they call you Ice, but you can’t be that fucking cold,” he whispered threateningly. Carter knew he was hitting low, but if it got results, so be it. “This kid has been through hell, and you want to add to it.”
Alex opened his eyes and began to fuss. “You yelled,” Alex whimpered.
“No, I didn’t,” Carter soothed, stroking his little hand. “Just go back to sleep. Everything is going to be okay.”
“What do you want me to do?” Donald kept his tone light. “If you’re so concerned, then you take him for the night.”
“All right,” Carter said, crossing his arms over his chest.
Donald rolled his eyes. “Do you have a place for him?”
“He can take my bed and I’ll sleep on the sofa.” He’d done it before when his parents came to visit… once. He could do it again.
Donald exhaled dramatically. “Fine. I have an extra room. He can stay with me, and tomorrow I’ll find him a more permanent place. Let’s see if we can find out who he is. Then we may be able to get him into a permanent home.”
“Fine,” Carter said. Fuck, they sounded like a couple of schoolkids having an argument over who ate the last hot dog, rather than the care of a small boy. But he didn’t want to upset Alex again, so he had to keep his voice low.
“You know we sound like something out of a stupid sitcom.”
“Yeah, maybe, but I got you to do what’s right. I’ll take it.”
Donald rolled his eyes once again. But before they could continue this argument, conversation, whatever the hell it was, the doctor came in. Alex whimpered and moved closer to Carter. “What seems to be the trouble, young man?”
“Alex here was rescued from a potentially dangerous situation. He had apparently been locked in an attic for an undetermined amount of time. We have also seen evidence of possible physical abuse, so we wanted him examined to ensure he is truly okay, at least physically,” Donald answered.
“All right,” the doctor said.
“Be careful. He has a tendency to bite,” Donald added quickly.
“Only you,” Carter countered and turned to Alex. “Will you be good and do what the doctor says? He won’t hurt you. It’s going to be like the nice man at the house.” Alex stared at him. “Will you lift your shirt for the doctor?”
Alex blinked a few times and then pulled up his shirt just like he’d done for the EMT. The doctor listened to his heart, and then Carter helped Alex sit forward, and the doctor pressed his stethoscope to his back. He checked Alex over everywhere, and the only marks on him seemed to be the ones they’d seen earlier. The doctor took Alex’s temperature, and his blood pressure and pulse. Alex didn’t mind the cuff too much, but after the doctor left and the nurse came in to draw a little blood, he screamed bloody murder as soon as he saw the needle. The nurse gave him a lollipop, which he ate in a matter of seconds. Then he handed the stick back to her. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” the nurse said and handed a few more lollipops to Carter. “Take these home for him. He needs them worse than the other kids.” She left, and the doctor returned a while later.
“He seems fine. Maybe a little dehydrated, but otherwise okay. I’ve ordered some blood work and the initial tests are fine. I’ve asked that they run some others, as well as a DNA screening that might aid in identifying if he has any relatives who could take him right away. We’ll send the rest to your office, Mr. Ickle, with a copy to the police as well as a report of what we observed. We’ll just need you to sign some things on your way out.”
Carter gathered Alex in his arms and lifted him off the bed. Alex folded against his chest, put his arms around Carter’s neck, and rested his head on his shoulder. Donald signed what he needed, and then Carter put Alex in the back of his squad car. “I have to stop at the station, and then I’ll bring Alex to your place. I remember where it is.”
“Fine. I’ll see what I can do about rounding up what he’ll need for the night.” Donald turned and strode to his car. Carter got in and began the drive to the station.
Andrew grew up in western Michigan with a father who loved to tell stories and a mother who loved to read them. Since then he has lived throughout the country and traveled throughout the world. He has a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and now writes full time.
Andrew’s hobbies include collecting antiques, gardening, and leaving his dirty dishes anywhere but in the sink (particularly when writing) He considers himself blessed with an accepting family, fantastic friends, and the world’s most supportive and loving partner. Andrew currently lives in beautiful, historic Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Fire & Water #1
Fire & Ice #2