#3 Chapter One: His Dark Reflection

 

Part I

Sleeping With the Enemy

 

Chapter One

Hank rattled the keys in a one-handed grip to shake loose the house key from the rest. No lights on in the house, and beyond late for dinner. Starving and sleep deprived too. In his other hand, he held a thick file of case notes, because the night wasn’t over for him yet. At least Len had left the porch light on.

After letting himself into the house, he placed the file on the end table, keys on top, and toed off his shoes. The windbreaker he shrugged out of hadn’t done much to keep the cold spring off his back.

The rocking chair in the living room creaked. Hank spun around, hand going to his holster.

“Easy, cowboy.” Len yawned. He snapped on the table lamp beside him. “I fell asleep. What time is it?”

“Jesus, Len. It’s two in the damn morning. Let me put this away.” At the bottom of the closet, the gun safe sat on a shelf. He knelt, spun the dial around and tucked the gun away. When he turned, Len stood, arms across his chest, brown hair tousled. Another yawn stretched his mouth wide, and then he blinked like an owl behind his glasses. Hank, tired to the marrow, pulled Len into a bone-crunching hug, and Len laughed against his shoulder.

Relief tickled through him. On the drive home from the station, he’d feared the house would be empty. He inhaled the scent of Len’s pricey shampoo—vanilla and sweet tobacco with a hint of whiskey. His heart twisted with anxiety.

“I’m sorry. I—”

“You got caught up, I know. ’Sokay.” Len yawned again. “But I’m beat. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed wants me in bright and early tomorrow, so…” He stepped away from Hank’s embrace. Hank let him go with reluctance. “There’s lasagna and meatballs in the fridge. Or maybe you’re ready for bacon and eggs?”

“Neither. Both. I’ll figure it out while I read the case notes again. I need to make sure this guy doesn’t walk.”

Len turned back. “Hon? I know. You’ll be great. You always are. Night.”

“Night,” Hank responded as he picked up the paperwork. He sat in the rocker Len had vacated with the file in his lap and fell asleep with the first page between his fingers.

He awoke with a snort, thinking he’d heard Len’s muffled laughter and smiled. When he glanced at his watch, twenty minutes had passed since he’d first sat down. He could sleep in tomorrow, but he still wouldn’t have caught up on all the sleep he’d lost over this one. Hank stood and stretched his aching muscles, contemplating a shower, but his deepening desire for bed and maybe sex to relax him led him into the bedroom and not the kitchen. Len’s nightstand lamp glowed and his side of the bed rumpled but empty. Len’s soft giggle came from the other side of the bathroom door.

Hank rapped his knuckles against the oak. “Hey, babe?”

The toilet flushed. “I’m just washing up! Be right there.”

A cold weight settled into Hank’s belly at his husband’s rushed, the edge of guilty tone, slithery and with pointed scales brushing against his tender insides—a too-familiar feeling tilting the world on its axis. The bathroom door opened, and Len came out wreathed in the scent of mouthwash and minty toothpaste. “All yours.” He smiled but wouldn’t meet Hank’s eyes, making it all the harder for Hank to dislodge the sick feeling in his stomach.

“Who were you talking to?”

With his back to Hank, Len said, “One of the new interns drunk-dialed me. She’s a hoot, so we talked. Come to bed, Hank. You must be wiped out.” He slid between the sheets and pulled back the covers on Hank’s side.

Liar, the serpent in his belly whispered.

Too tired to fight, he said, “I fell asleep in the rocker, so yeah, I guess I am.” He gathered up pajama bottoms and a T-shirt and headed into the bathroom. When he came out, Len lay facing away from Hank, his breathing even. Maybe asleep. Hank doubted it as he climbed into bed with his back to Len, his eyes wide in the darkness.

* * * * *

Hank slept later than usual, exhaustion stealing any memory of dreams he might have had. When he awoke, Len had already gone to work. What had Hank been so afraid of last night?

He went into the kitchen and started up the coffee, then shoved a bagel into the toaster oven. Not the first time one of Len’s friends had called drunk or upset. Len had a lot of friends. They helped him through Hank’s late nights. Although their marriage went to hell last spring, in the end, love forced them to work things out. Hank believed in Len, still believed the tearful, heartfelt promises of renewed fidelity.

But—he plopped down on a kitchen chair as if his bones had untied themselves—why did he have such a weird feeling last night? A couple of weird feelings, actually.

He stopped watching for the signs of guilt or innocence, he told himself. A cop first, he believed in the blue sense and going with gut feelings. Yet he spent too much time with liars, thieves, cheats and murderers, so maybe the distrust had rubbed off on him?

Or should he stick with his gut feeling Len had more to hide? It wouldn’t be the first time…but he’d hoped they’d done with the past. Ugh, second-guessing himself again. He couldn’t afford the drain on his confidence today.

The toaster oven tinged. With a fork, he dragged out the bagel. He loaded it with butter and the homemade strawberry jam his mother made. Licking his thumb, he dropped the two halves onto a plate and brought it back to the table.

He couldn’t trust much of humanity, going back to a time long before he’d become a cop. Hank didn’t want the scum bleeding into their relationship. Distrust bred more distrust. He often found it tough to leave the hard-guy persona behind at the office, to let his softer side out around Len. It’d been difficult when they first met, but Len had been patient. Well, Hank would be patient too. What if a family issue had set off Hank’s alarms, a secret Len couldn’t share yet?

He’d demolished the bagel as the wheels turned in his head. Sucking on his sticky-sweet fingers, he opened the fridge to grab another. Last night’s dinner sat wrapped in cellophane on the shelf.

He had to talk to Len. But first, where did he leave the damn file?

* * * * *

Hank’s court appearance went off without a hitch. Satisfied his part in the investigation and trial had ended, he first called Len at work and then made dinner plans at Len’s favorite place. He had the rest of the day off. He should have gone to the station and made a dent in the paperwork on his other cases, but man, he was too glad to have this particular case—a domestic homicide—off his chest and in the hands of the judge. He tried to coax Len home for a late nooner, but he couldn’t get away. Too bad. So. What to do? Couldn’t get dirty with Len, so maybe get clean, surprise him with a clean house? And the work would go a long way toward clearing Hank’s head.

He changed out of his suit and into old police academy sweats and T-shirt—behind a desk for four years, and he had the body of the twenty-year-old rookie ten years earlier. Sinewy and raw-boned, every time he looked in the mirror his Scots-Appalachian ancestors stared back; square jaw, ruddy complexion, and dirty-blond hair. The blue eyes, however, were harder and wiser.

Hank emptied the hamper in the bathroom and stripped the bed. He stuffed all he could manage into the clothes basket and headed for the laundry room. Balancing the basket on his hip, he crossed the living room, then backtracked a few steps to the laptop and flicked on the streaming music app he and Len shared. Sweet, serenading violins filled the room.

“Ugh.” Hank set down the basket and tapped the keys to get to his favorite country stream.

He put the sheets in the washer, then went through the pockets of their pants. He emptied the change into a jar, the notes into an old shoebox on a shelf. One of the handmade “gentleman’s” vests his mother stitched for him lay crumpled at the bottom of the basket. He shook it out and put it on a hanger, thinking of her. A bit of an affectation to wear them to work, but he loved them, and they looked good on him. So long as she stayed away from flowers and fruit patterns.

The afternoon flew by in a flurry of dust rags, vacuuming, and washing the kitchen floor. Their place wasn’t dirty, but it did show signs of many a lick and a promise, as his ma used to say. Len wanted to hire a housekeeper, but Hank thought it a needless expense. He liked to get back in touch with home too, to wrap himself in simple and safe. God, this case had been eating away at him—a murder-for-hire between a husband and wife.

His phone rang elsewhere in the house. When he followed the sound to the bedroom and glanced at the number for the collect-call service, his heart twisted. He took a deep breath and put a smile on his face, hoping it would show in his voice.

“Hey, Tripp! Glad to hear from you!”

“Hank, everything okay out there?” His brother’s laconic tone held a quiver of anxiety.

“Well, sure. I’m”—he tossed the rag in his hand into the hamper and sat on the bed—“cleaning the house.”

“Ma coming to visit?”

Hank laughed. “No, had time. What’s up? What do you need?”

“I didn’t call because I need… Shoot. I need underwear. And socks.”

“Got it. I’ll put them together with the science-fiction paperbacks I picked up. What’s the matter, brother?”

“Thanks. Nothing. Well. I had a bad feeling, had to call. It’s not like I can come around and check up on you.”

“We’re fine here. Did you call Ma?”

“It’s you I had the funny feeling about.”

“But we’re okay here.”

“You and Len getting along all right?”

“Sure, same as always, I guess. Don’t worry,” he said. “How about you? Getting along okay?”

“Same as always,” Tripp returned. “Nothing I can’t handle.”

“Still looking out for me, aren’t you?” Hank cleared his throat and rubbed at his stinging eyes. Here it comes… “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me every time we talk, Bean.”

Hank’s tears spilled over. “It’s not fair. You shouldn’t be in there.” He sounded like a little kid, the bean Tripp had nicknamed him for.

“You’re the one cop who thinks so.” Tripp rumbled a laugh though it turned into a cough. “I’d do it again. He was gonna kill you. That’s the black-and-white of it.”

“Yeah, he…” Hank pushed down the memories, like he always did, to be present for Tripp.

“How’s Ma?”

“Last we talked, she sounded good. Misses you too.”

“Be nice to see her, if she wanted.”

“I’ll talk to her. You know how she is—talks herself into seeing you, gets excited, then talks herself out of it.”

“Okay, yeah, so soon?” Tripp spoke to one of the prison guards, Hank assumed. “Time flies, little brother. Take care. Be careful.”

“You too, Tripp. I’ll see you.” The assurance rang hollow in his own ears.

The line disconnected. Hank headed for the workshop in the garage because now he needed to hammer.

* * * * *

Len arrived late. No surprise there.

“You’re mad.” He sat across from Hank. “I can’t believe it.”

“I’m not mad. I must have my mad face on still. Sorry.” A couple of beers and a few shots in the bar hadn’t eased his mood any after talking to Tripp. “It’s not you.”

“What happened? I thought you said your testimony went well?” Len opened the wine menu and perused it. “What are you having?”

“Nothing happened. And I don’t know yet.”

“You had time to look at the menu.” Len glanced up at him. “You’re mad, hon.”

“Talked to Tripp.”

Len nodded. “And you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Pretty much.”

Len’s subtle pout wormed its way around Hank’s heart and found a way in. He made a deliberate effort to soften his tone before he said, “How was your day?”

“Crappy. My boss ran me ragged. I’m glad you called, though.” Len smiled, a real one lighting up his blue eyes.

Hank’s heart jumped. “We should take a weekend away.”

“I don’t think I can right now.” Len slapped down the wine menu and picked up the dinner one. “You should have spoken up before.”

“I can’t either, Len. It popped into my head,” Hank confessed. “I miss you, and we live in the same house.”

The server approached to take their order, but they hadn’t decided yet. Len picked up the wine list again and talked to him about wine choices, listening and nodding to the server’s advice.

“You got shrimp and grits tonight?” Hank asked when they were done.

“No, sir, I’m sorry.”

“We could share the seafood paella,” Len suggested.

“Sure. Another Johnnie Walker Black too.”

“I guess I’m driving.” Len handed the wine list to the server. “A glass of Vinho Verde, please. And a basket of bread as soon as you can, thanks.”

The server removed the menus and filled the water glasses through their silence.

When he left, Hank asked, “What’s that?”

“What?” Len unfolded his napkin and placed it on his lap. “The wine? It’s Portuguese—it’s a young white.”

“Since when do you like wine? You’ve been a Captain-and-Coke guy since we met.”

Len blushed. “One of my friends at the office is into wine-and-food pairings. It rubs off after a while.”

“The new intern?”

“Who?”

“The one who called you last night. The drunk one.”

Len shot him a sharp glance. “Aren’t you celebrating the end of your case? I asked you what’s wrong because you won’t tell me, and now you’re picking a fight.”

“I just asked—like a real conversation.”

“Like a real relationship and not an interrogation,” Len snapped. “Where there’s communication and trust?”

The server dropped off their drinks and the bread and departed with haste.

They sat in silence again until Hank said, “My bad. I’m sorry.” He swallowed hard. Maybe time to face facts. The anxious feeling churning in his gut resembled the one from last time, the last time Len left him and put him through hell. He closed his eyes for a moment.

“Are you okay? Eat the bread. You didn’t have lunch today, did you?”

Hank sighed, shoving down his fears, not ready to air them out. “I’m celebrating the fact I helped send a total scumbag to prison. I’m mourning the fact there are five more scumbags and their files sitting on my desk waiting for me.”

Len took his hand. “Okay. You must feel like you’re drowning in it.” He squeezed Hank’s hand. “Me too.”

Hank wished he could tell Len more about Tripp, but as a rule, he’d purged his brother and much of his past from personal relationships early on. No one at the station needed to know. Len worked as a paralegal for a civil-rights lawyer, but he’d grown up sheltered and upper-middle class. It would hurt Len to know the ugly truths making up Hank’s childhood. Len met Hank’s mother a few times, but she lived in West Virginia. She didn’t talk much about Tripp herself.

“Yeah.” Hank nodded. “The devil’s in the details.”

“Maybe we should get proactive about making time for a weekend?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“Up to the lake, maybe? Beth will let us use their place.”

Beth, the nice sister. “Peace and quiet would be good,” Hank said.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m tired and need a break.

“I’ll ask her.” As Len’s expression brightened, a familiar tug of affection around his heart kicked in again—and the push and pull of craving for intimacy and fear of opening himself to Len, to anyone. Of fucking it up because of the ugliness inside.

They went home after dinner still talking about a trip anywhere, together. Making slow love in clean sheets with the music turned down low would have been the best way to end the day and to start a new chapter in their relationship. But Hank tasted good-bye in Len’s kisses, and it took him a long time to drift into an uneasy sleep.