"You're wrong," I said, because he was wrong. But now that he mentioned it, I could make him feel like an idiot for staying. "I looked you up in last year's yearbook, and I saw you were the ACT high scorer. I'm sure you were offered scholarships for that."
His steak suddenly needed his attention.
"Rig-ass scholarships," T said. "You were captain of the state championship track team."
His vegetables also needed to be cut into small bites.
"It's pretty common for people to put off college for a year," I said. "You could still go to UAB and join the track team with your friends, and the university would give you your scholarship back. Hell, with your police academy training, you could get a high-paying job as a security guard or a rent-a-cop while the rest of us are slaving away, waiting tables for rent."
"I have a job to do here," he muttered.
"What job? Your weird compulsion to protect and serve? You could do that anywhere. Why does it have to be here?"
"This is my home."
"I thought you lived by yourself in an apartment. Is your family in town?"
He looked up. "You mean my wife, and my children who read manga?"
I felt myself blush. Good one. "I mean your parents."
He shook his head. "They got divorced when I was nine. My mom stayed in town for a few years after that, but finally she couldn't stand it anymore, and she split. She lives in Virginia. My dad wanted me to finish school where I started, so he stayed with me until I graduated. Then he split. He lives in Colorado."
"This diner is the closest thing you have to a home." I mused. "You're like a bachelor homesteader on the prairie who eats all his meals in town."
"If I were a bachelor homesteader on the prairie, I'd know my way around a cast-iron skillet and some fatback." He was looking down at his plate, but his dimples showed as he smiled at himself.
"Your friends are gone, your family's gone, and you're not living in the house where you grew up. What makes this town your home? What do you have left here? Just the bridge?"
His dimples faded.
"Let's just say, hypothetically, that you went to UAB," I suggested. "Would you major in criminal justice?" "No. What a waste."
This surprised me, considering how into this cop life he was. Then I thought I'd hit on it. Aim higher. "Pre-law?"
"No. Getting people on that end doesn't help. You major in criminal justice or law to learn to send them to jail as cost-effectively as possible and keep them from killing each other while they're there. But they spend their time in jail learning how to commit bigger and better crimes. Why bother?"
"What would you major in, then?"
"I'm not going to college, so it doesn't matter."
Between bites he said, "Art."
My jaw dropped. "Art!"
"That's what everybody says to me. And that's another reason not to go to college. You can't make a living if you major in art."
"Some people do, if they try hard enough. It was just the farthest thing from my mind for you." For a few moments, I watched him eat. Officer After in the dark blue uniform—I couldn't see him as an art major. He would think art was for sissies. But Johnafter jogging in the park? Maybe. Johnafter from Spanish class? Definitely.
I said, "You could at least work as a cop and do art on the side, and feel more fulfilled because you'd studied what you wanted to study. If you don't, you'll always be bitter toward your wife and your children who read manga. You'll always wish you'd gotten out and lived life when you had the chance." I lowered my head, trying to catch his eyes, which were still focused on his food. He wouldn't look at me. "Why art?''
He attacked his steak with his knife again. "That's the way to move people, to change people, and prevent them from hurting each other and themselves. Art is the most effective form of communication. You can use it to lift the human spirit, and make people realize there's more to life than their next meth high." He took a bite, chewed slowly, looked up at me, swallowed. "What's the matter?"
I realized I was gaping at him. "Nothing." I shut my mouth.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot that cops are supposed to be stupid."
"I never said you were stupid."
"You don't need a college education to be a cop. You just have to be able to drive. Read. Write. Or not." He was quoting back what I'd said that first night at the bridge.
"Well, excuse me for making a rude comment when you had just arrested me!" As Purcell leaned over the table with the coffeepot, I said, "Waiter, this is not the policeman I ordered. I wanted one with a lot less sauce."
Purcell filled both mugs and turned away. "Your folks don't pay me enough for this."
John watched Purcell retreat to the grill. Then he leaned across the table toward me. He said quietly, "I'm not going to college. All you're doing is making me dissatisfied with my lot in life."
I leaned forward, too, and whispered like this was a big secret. "Your lot in life? A lot is something you draw, like straws. It's chance. You didn't get this life by chance. You chose it on purpose. If you're dissatisfied with it, you can change it."
"I'm not dissatisfied." He leaned back and raised his voice to a normal level, as if he'd flicked a switch. "So, you want to major in business so you can manage a restaurant that isn't your parents' restaurant."
I sighed and let him change the subject. It was a wonder I'd gotten all that out of Dudley Do-Right in the first place. "Yeah, and not your local Applebee's, either. I want to experience exotic locales."
"Exotic locales. Like what?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never been to an exotic locale. I was supposed to go to one for the first time over spring break." Like I said, it was a lot easier for me to take potshots at him when he was in uniform.
Rather than biting, he took a bite of broccoli.
I went on, "From watching the Travel Channel, I'd say the place in the world I'd most want a job is Key West, Florida. It looks so cool. A tropical paradise. The southernmost point in the United States, south of Miami even. And they seceded from the union. In 1982, they declared themselves a separate country from America. Did you know that?"
"It didn't work, though."
"No one took them seriously." "Imagine."
I was a little irked at him for making fun of my tropical paradise. "Have you been there?" "No."
"Have you ever been anywhere?"
He looked hurt again. "Of course I've been somewhere. Just because I'm a cop—"
"Oh, don't start with that again. I've never been anywhere, so I don't assume. Where did you go?"
"All over Europe. France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg." He traced his route in the air with his finger. "I rode the Eurail and stayed in hostels."
"God, you're kidding! When?"
"A few months ago. I graduated from the police academy in November, but I couldn't take this job until I turned nineteen in December. I needed something to do for a month. Something other than hang out here."
"I am so jealous," I said, meaning it.
"Well. I saved up my salary for this while I was at the police academy. I figured it might be my one chance to see the world, since I'll be in this town working for the rest of my life."
"Oh." What a buzz-kill. While I was at it, I decided to push the buzz-kill further. It would help me get over my crush on him. "Did Angie go with you?"
"She'd be scared to do something like that. Anyway, she broke up with me right before then."
I couldn't resist. "Small wonder. You're a regular barrel of monkeys."
He put down his fork on his empty plate and gave me the look.
I decided this was a good time to finish my lunch. I popped the last of the corn bread into my mouth and wished desperately that the Meg Special came with more meat so I'd have something else to do. He was still giving me the look. I could feel it singeing my hair.
Finally I gave in and glanced up at him, and almost flinched backward with the force of his angry dark eyes.
"Well, now it's my turn to backtrack," I said. "I didn't mean that like it sounded."
"How else could you have meant it?"
"I didn't know you still had the hots for Angie."
"I don't. But you don't know that. You're really going out of your way. The whole time we've sat here, you've been feeling around for a soft spot to stab me." He closed his eyes, sighed through his nose, opened his eyes. "Do you hale me?"
"I have good reason to hate you, John. You arrested me and ruined my spring break on purpose." I tapped my knife on my plate. "No, I don't hate you. But you're not exactly innocent here. An hour ago at the crime scene, you were giving me all kinds of Sullen Malarkey."
Ever so slowly, the look melted into two friendly, smiling eyes. "Sullen—You were touching the evidence."
"You were mad at me because Will pulled my hair. Come on."
He glanced through the windows at the cop car in the parking lot. "The night is young. Let's get back to work. Truce." He extended his hand across the table for me to shake. "Friends. Partners, for three and a half more nights."
I put my hand close to his, then pulled away. "I can't touch you while you're in uniform."
"For you, I'll make an exception."
What the hell did that mean? While the possibilities circled in my brain, I touched his wrist with my fingers. His hand clasped over my wrist, then slid back to my palm. His thumb grazed the back of my hand. There was no shaking, just tentative touching of hands.
This was like no handshake I'd ever shared. Clumsy, and sexy, and way too friendly for comfort.
Friends my ass.
“Something bad is going to happen here," Tiffany said.
Something already had. This was my third time riding along on John's graveyard shift, and this was the third wreck at the Birmingham Junction in as many nights.
Tiffany and I sat on the back bumper of the ambulance with the doors open behind us. Normally the too-familiar smell of hospital disinfectant would have driven me away. But I was tired, and there was nowhere else to sit and watch the paramedics treat minor injuries.
At least, I assumed Tiffany watched the paramedics as they eased an old man onto a stretcher and shone a penlight into his eyes. Personally, I watched John. He looked so hot standing in a circle of broken glass, directing traffic around two cars crushed together and two tow trucks easing into place to carry them away. The flow of traffic kept drifting toward John. Once he even had to jump out of the way to avoid getting hit. Probably the drivers were distracted by how hot he was. I wondered if I should tell him this for his own safety. Let Officer Leroy direct traffic.
"They didn't even bother with the fire truck for this one," Tiffany said. "They brought the fire truck last night because that wreck was worse. The paramedics told me this is the most dangerous intersection they've ever seen."
"More importantly," I said, "was Brian on the fire truck last night?"
"Yes. He told me not to call him anymore." She still stared at the paramedics, but she blinked more rapidly, fighting off tears.
"The Silent Treatment," I muttered. Honestly, I thought it was for the best. Brian wasn't good enough for Tiffany. But there was no way Tiffany would believe that. And I hated to see her unhappy.
Luckily, we were distracted just then from the subject I'd stupidly brought up. My paramedic friend Quincy came back to the ambulance. He cuffed me on the shoulder and wagged his gray eyebrows at me. "Hey there, tiger. I bet you're enjoying riding around with the cops. Top speed and making noise. Right up your alley."
"Aren't joy all daffodils and fluffy bunnies for springtime," I said. "Why were you so mean to me at the bridge last week?"
"You were trying your best to kill yourself after I worked so hard to keep you alive four years ago. Let me 'splain something to you. Here's thirteen, and here's seventeen." Blue veins showed through his weathered skin as he held his left fist low and his right fist high. He traced an imaginary line up diagonally with his finger. "You're supposed to mature." He grabbed a medical kit from inside the ambulance and sauntered back toward the wreck.
"Ha," I called after him. It was hard to think of a snappy comeback when he was right. Then I murmured, "At least I've matured in taste."
Tiffany sang quietly, "You like Johnafter, you like Johnafter."
"He's easy on the eyes." I liked his halt motion to cars. My favorite, though, was his what are you waiting for motion, waving curtly beside his ear. "But nothing will come of it."
"If anyone could date the cop who arrested her, it would be you."
"Why won't anything come of it? Would he get in trouble?"
"I don't think so," I said. "Not after I turn in my Goody Two-shoes proposal to the Powers That Be and John's no longer the boss of me. And I'm sure before we did anything, he'd okay it with the chief of police, and fill out some forms in quadruplicate. But there's the pesky detail that he doesn't like me very much."