Russ headed straight for the coffee when he got in, grateful to discover that he wasn't the first one there and wouldn't have to wait for it. He filled a cup and reached for the milk, only to discover that the carton was suspiciously light. Tipping it confirmed it--someone had put the carton back in the fridge empty. Rolling his eyes, Russ tossed it in the trash and resigned himself to black coffee. At least it was hot, he told himself. And he hadn't had to make it himself. He took a sip, and his gratitude evaporated as the liquid hit his tongue.
Even first thing in the morning, station coffee always tasted a little stale, like the ghost of late nights of ancient coffee and urgent investigations still clung to the pot. This coffee, however, was not just stale. Somehow, whoever had made it had managed to make it stale, weak, and burnt all at once.
"I think Walt switched brands," Font said from his desk, where he was busy trying to straighten precarious-looking stack of papers.
"No kidding," Russ replied, looking sourly at his coffee. One more reason to resent the new--and currently nowhere to be found--office manager. If Holly hadn't been so happy at law school, he might have tried to find a way to get Walt fired and Holly brought back. Maybe he could get Walt fired anyway, and bring in one of Milt's cast-offs instead. He bet they knew how to make decent coffee.
"You could use the machine," Font suggested. "We have lots of those little pods."
"Coffee isn't meant to come from disposable pods," Russ said with as much disdain as he could muster first thing in the morning. "It's meant to be poured. From a pot." He forced himself to take another sip, trying not to grimace at the taste. Maybe he could sneak in his own supply one night. Replace whatever was in the bag Walt was using.
"You could go drink Milt's coffee."
He could too. Milt would share, of course. Milt always shared. His unwavering generosity was one of the many tiny spikes he liked to drive beneath Russ's skin on a daily basis. And the coffee in Milt's office was inevitably fantastic. But going across the hall and drinking Milt's coffee would mean--Russ's train of thought was interrupted as his eyes swept across the FBI office.
In the outer office, Milt's newest assistant--number sixteen by Russ's count and just as improbably attractive as the first fifteen--was sitting at her tiny, drawer-less desk (what kind of desk didn't have drawers, anyway?), doing whatever the hell it was that Milt's assistants did to pass the time. Beyond her, in the inner office...
"Milt's late," he said aloud.
"Huh?" Font said.
"Milt's late," Russ repeated.
"Oookay," Font said, glancing up at the clock. "Maybe he had an appointment. Or maybe he just took the day off. What do you care? You're not his boss."
"Milt's never late," Russ said. "Except that one time, and we both know how that ended."
"Well, we haven't had any reports of car bombs recently, so I doubt he's late because someone tried to blow him up again."
Russ ignored him, taking another sip of coffee--he wondered idly if it would be any more palatable with milk--as he contemplated possible reasons for Milt's absence. Milt--New Milt--was pathological about being on time. He was never late for anything. Nor could Russ picture him just randomly taking a day off without saying anything. (Had Old Milt been the same? Russ suspected not, and wished once again that he could have known the cop who'd actually acted like a cop instead of an overgrown Boy Scout.) Milt was also disgustingly healthy, even after being shot, which made any sort of medical appointment unlikely. So what else could make Milt miss work?
"You don't really think there's someone else out there who wants Milt dead, do you?" Font asked.
"I don't know," Russ said. "Maybe Casey wasn't the only innocent kid he got killed."
"Seriously?" Font said, sounding pained.
"Not really," Russ admitted, doing a quick, belated check to make sure that he and Font were the only ones within earshot. He might have issues with Milt, but he wasn't mean enough to spill Milt's secret to the whole squad. "But Milt's been an FBI agent for eleven years. And we both know there are a lot of other ways for a cop--or a fed--to make enemies."
They'd come to a tacit agreement that day, the two of them persuading the kid in uniform to play along, that none of it was ever to be mentioned to anyone else in the squad. Oh, Guziewicz knew, of course, and Russ had told Holly that night, but the rest were allowed to keep whatever illusions they held about Milt.
There was movement across the hall as Milt finally made an appearance. Russ watched closely as he nodded a greeting to his assistant and went to pour himself a cup of coffee. The good coffee.
"See?" Font said, bending his head back to his work.
"I'm going to find out what's going on," Russ said, setting his coffee down on the nearest desk and heading for the door.
"You just want an excuse to drink better coffee," Font called after him.
Russ studied Milt through the glass as he walked. He looked like his usually impeccably-dressed self. Then again, he'd been impeccably dressed the day he'd shown up two hours after nearly being blown up in his car, so that didn't really mean anything.
"Hey," he said as the door swung shut behind him. He aimed the word at some vague point between Milt and his assistant, not quite talking to either of them, but also not quite ignoring either one. The assistant gave him a short nod.
"Good morning, Russ," Milt said heartily. He glanced over his shoulder as he added a packet of sugar to his coffee.
He sounded like himself, Russ decided: irritatingly bright and cheerful. Not that that meant anything when it was all an act anyway--Russ was sure it was an act, because no one could be this cheerful first thing in the morning--but on the other hand, he really didn't have anything to go on here besides Milt being a bit late. Maybe Font was right and Milt was late because he'd stopped to rescue a kitten from a tree or something.
"I'm just here for the coffee," Russ said.
"Help yourself," Milt said, stepping aside to make room. "Belinda just made a fresh pot." He reached out and grabbed another packet of sugar, which he added to his cup. Then another. And another.
Russ felt a rush of triumph. He was right. There was something wrong with Milt. Now he just had to figure it out what it was.
"You realize you've got more sugar in there than coffee, right?" Russ said casually, pouring himself a cup.
"What?" Milt said, looking down at the sugar packet in his hand as if he wasn't quite sure what it was.
"You've added like four sugars now." There was milk in Milt's office, of course. And cream. Russ helped himself.
Milt threw the packet away, then took a drink from his cup. "Ugh," he said.
"So what's wrong?" Russ asked, taking a sip of his own coffee. That was what coffee was supposed to taste like.
"What do you mean?" Milt asked.
"You're almost thirty minutes late to work, and you just dumped half your sugar supply in your coffee. I'd say there's something wrong."
"There's nothing wrong," Milt said, pouring himself a fresh cup of coffee. "I just had a late night is all."
"Yeah, right," Russ said. Belinda, he noticed, was focused on her computer, very carefully not looking at them. There were probably some things you just didn't want to hear about your boss. He waited for Milt to finish preparing his coffee, then followed him into the inner office. The Inner Sanctum, he'd mentally dubbed it. Or maybe Batcave was more appropriate.
"Can I help you with something?" Milt asked politely as he settled into his seat.
"Yeah, you can help me understand what's going on with you," Russ said. He was pleased to see a flicker of something closely resembling annoyance cross Milt's face before he suppressed it.
"Russ, even I occasionally oversleep or run into traffic. It happens."
"And occasionally you decide to protect people who are trying to kill you," Russ said, perching on the edge of Milt's desk.
"No one is trying to kill me," Milt said patiently.
"How do I know that? It's not like you'd tell me if someone were."
"Why not?" Milt asked, leaning back in his chair. "I told you last time."
"Only after you nearly got blown up."
"I didn't know anyone was after me until I was nearly blown up." Milt's tone was infuriatingly reasonable, like he'd deliberately pitched it to get under Russ's skin. Maybe he had. "I promise there have been no explosions in my vicinity in the recent past."
"There are a lot of other ways to get in trouble," Russ persisted.
"I am not in trouble," Milt said slowly, enunciating each word clearly, the way he only did when his patience was wearing very thin.
Not a bad morning's work, Russ decided. It's not like he'd really expected Mr. Lies-A-Lot to actually tell him what was going on; he'd had just wanted confirmation that there was something going on. Now that he had it, he could figure out on his own what it was.
"Fine," Russ said, standing up. "Don't tell me. Just don't come crying to me when you're lying in the middle of a cornfield with a bullet hole in your chest."
"You have my word," Milt said dryly. "I won't call you for help if I get shot in a cornfield."
Milt relaxed as he watched Russ head back across the hall. With no one watching, he let himself slouch in his seat just a little, and slowly rubbed his eyes. It had been one am when Malcolm had shown up on his doorstep, rousing Milt from a deep sleep, and it had taken him another three hours to extract the full story. Or at least a reasonable facsimile of it--no one ever got the full story from Mal. By the time he'd gotten his brother settled in the guest room, his alarm had been going off.
He'd left Mal a note firmly instructing him not to leave the apartment until Milt returned, which Milt figured had about a fifty-fifty chance of working. Mal had seemed genuinely scared, but Milt hadn't missed the calculation behind his desperate pleas. Mal no doubt had a plan. Mal always had a plan, and usually two or three back-ups, at least one of which relied on having an FBI agent for a brother. Well, except that one horrible time three years ago when all of Mal's plans had fallen apart, and even then he'd had a final contingency plan: throwing himself on Milt's mercy with a touching degree of faith in his big brother's ability to fix anything. If only that had been true.
Knowing his brother's tendencies, Milt had been strongly tempted to book the day off, but he'd left his work laptop at the office, and he needed access to the FBI network for what he was going to do next.
Straightening up--he could feel Russ watching him from across the hall, and wondered if he'd noticed the slouch the way he'd noticed Milt's late arrival; Russ could turn keenly observant at the most inconvenient times--Milt turned to his computer and began typing in a list of names from memory. One by one, the results came back. Prison. Prison. Prison. Prison.
Milt rolled back from his keyboard with a sigh. It wasn't exactly unexpected, but it was no less disappointing for all that. How many times had they been through this? Round and round and he believed people could change, he really did, but he also knew they had to want it and if he were completely honest, Mal...Mal had never been all that interested in changing. He still thought he could make it work, if only the numbers would come out right.
Milt made a couple of calls anyway, in case one of the names from his list had reached out from prison. Then, thoughtful, he made another call, one he hoped would prove unnecessary. Believe in the possibility of change, but don't rely on it. Mal had taught him that lesson too.
His next call was to the Marshal Service, who confirmed the timeline Mal had given him on when he left the program and wouldn't say much else. Then he talked to a tech who owed him a favour; she promised to get back to him as soon as possible.
He hung up on the call and turned his phone pensively in his hands. There was one more call he needed to make, one that he'd been putting off since Malcolm had arrived. He steeled himself and dialed.
"Hey, Marjorie," he said when his sister answered. "It's me. Is she--right. Can you please tell her that Malcolm is in town?" He'd thought his mother might break her silence at that news, but all he got were a few questions and a request--an order, really--relayed via Margery to take care of Malcolm. Even with the message coming through his tactful sister, he could hear the implied unlike last time ringing in his ears. As if he hadn't done his best last time. As if he should have been the one to pay the price, as if he should have been willing to throw his whole life away to protect Malcolm from himself and his terrible decisions. And the worst part was, Milt knew exactly why his mother had chosen her youngest son over her eldest, and he knew nothing he did was ever going to change that.
The buzz of an incoming call interrupted his reverie. He glanced at the name that appeared on his phone, and his stomach dropped like a stone. So much for hope, he thought as he took the call.
The tech got back to him almost as soon as he hung up, giving him a preliminary report on his brother's recent activities that was pretty much what he'd expected, along with a bonus he hadn't expected: his brother's current location. Not Milt's apartment. Naturally.
"We can only do what we can do," he reminded himself as he stood up.
Now it was the time to see what his brother was doing.
"There is definitely something going on with him," Russ said, leaning against the still-absent officer manager's desk. Across the hall, Milt was working diligently on his computer doing whatever it was he did when he wasn't busy interfering with Russ's cases.
"What did he say?" Font asked. He'd apparently given up on the stack of papers he'd been sorting, and had joined Russ in Milt-watching at the window.
"That there's nothing wrong."
"And you think that means that something is wrong."
"He messed up making his coffee," Russ said. "Who messes up their own coffee?"
"Maybe your charm and good looks distracted him," Guziewicz said lightly, emerging from her office to join them.
She must have gotten in while he was across the hall, Russ realized. Fortunately, she looked more amused than annoyed.
She glanced over at Milt and his assistant, then turned back to Russ. "Don't you have any cases you could be working on, Detectives?"
"You mean apart from the Case of the Tardy FBI Agent?" Russ asked.
"Yes, apart from that," Guziewicz agreed.
Font shook his head with a laugh and headed back to his desk.
Russ shrugged. Minor vandalism, paperwork, and a petty theft case he'd already solved. Nothing he was especially eager to get back to.
"So nothing too urgent," Guziewicz said. "Why don't you give Font a hand with this serial burglar? If Milt needs our help, I'm sure he'll ask for it."
"Yeah, because he has such a great history of asking for help."
"As I recall, he did ask for your help the last time he was in trouble."
He had, and it would have been kind of flattering if Russ didn't know that he had only been chosen because Milt was confident he knew how to manipulate Russ. Even worse, he'd been right. "Only because he didn't have a choice."
"Well, I don't think you're going to find out anything else by staring at him from across the hall."
Milt had shifted from his computer to his phone. Russ wondered what the penalties were for bugging an FBI office or maybe tapping Milt's phone.
Probably pretty serious.
"Yeah," he said absently, tearing his eyes away from Milt and his cellphone. At least it was better than tracking down teenagers for spray painting graffiti. He went over and held out a hand to Font. "Give me some of those reports."
An hour later, Russ emerged from a sea of names and descriptions with pages of notes and no clear idea who the burglar was. He spun in his chair, stretching. Walt, he noticed, was still nowhere to be found, but Aaron and Erin were both in, and Nibblet had apparently come and gone. He risked a peek across the hall, just in time to see Milt grab his coat and head for the exit.
There was no way he could just let Milt leave. And there was also no way Guz was going to let him go tail Milt. Russ glanced around, trying to think of a reason to leave, and his gaze fell on the fridge. Bingo. He stood up casually and wandered over to Font's desk. "Hey, can I borrow your keys?"
"We're out of milk again," Russ said. "I'm going to go buy more, but my car's been acting up again."
"Isn't that Walt's job?" Font asked.
Russ gestured to the empty desk by the door. "Do you see Walt?"
"Fine," Font said with a sigh, dropping the keys in Russ's hand. "Get some more sugar while you're at it."
"Sure," Russ said. He resisted running after Milt, trying to time his exit so that Milt would be in his car, but still in sight. He paused at the door, watching Milt climb in, then slipped out and headed for Font's car. Milt knew Font's car, of course, but he wouldn't expect Font to follow him. Russ hoped that would be enough.
He pulled out after Milt, feeling a little exposed, and wished he'd thought to grab a hat to hide his face. He'd just have to hope Milt was too distracted by whatever was going on to notice him. He kept a couple of cars between them, keeping an eye out on where they were going. Milt headed toward one of the seedier parts of town, finally stopping in front of a bar that Russ recognized as the home base of a particularly ruthless loan shark. Was that what was going on with Milt? Was he having cash flow problems? Russ knew FBI agents were paid a hell of a lot more than BCPD detectives, but all those tailored suits and custom shoes didn't come cheap. Maybe Milt had overspent his budget...okay, Milt wouldn't do that, but maybe there'd been some sort of financial emergency that had drained his cash.
He was still debating a few minutes later when Milt emerged from the bar. He got back into his car and pulled out. Russ pulled out behind him.
His second stop was his own apartment building. Russ parked around the corner, out of sight of the entrance but somewhere he could still see Milt's car, and waited for him to return.
He was flipping through his phone checking for messages from Holly when there was a tap on his window. Russ jumped and turned.
Milt was standing outside the car. He gestured for Russ to roll down the window and leaned down.
"If you're going to follow me, you might as well ride with me," he said.
Damn it. He should have taken Guz's car instead.
"So where are we going?" Russ asked as he did up his seat belt.
Milt glanced at him out of the corner of his eye as he considered the request. He'd been hoping to keep this private, but Mal had already moved on from the loan shark by the time Milt got there, and Russ knew every place Mal was likely to go. More importantly, Russ was like a pit bull with a bone once something caught his attention. And Milt definitely caught his attention with that stupid slip-up with the coffee. He might as well have waved a red flag in front of Russ's face while yelling that he was doing something suspicious. Russ wasn't going to let this go now, and if Russ was going to investigate anyway, Milt might as well put him to work.
"Oh, come on," Russ said. "If we're going together, I'm going to see where it is anyway. You might as well just tell me."
On the other hand, he didn't have to tell him everything all at once. "If you were looking for a high-stakes poker game in Battle Creek, where would you go?"
"A poker game?" Russ said disbelievingly.
Milt held his gaze steady and waited. It didn't take long.
"Start driving," Russ said, slumping back his seat. "I'll give you directions."
Milt was tempted to make Russ wait a little longer, but if they found Mal, Russ was going to figure out who he was. Better to tell Russ now and control the story. Even if it would mean six months of evading Russ's prying questions.
"I have a brother," he said. "He arrived in town last night."
"Okay. And your brother likes poker?"
"Yeah," Milt said. "He does." A little too much, and that had always been the problem.
One of the problems.
"So he likes poker," Russ said. "Why are we looking for him? If you want to talk to him, why don't you just call him?"
"He won't answer."
Milt weighed his words carefully, trying to figure out how much he needed to give away to satisfy Russ. "Malcolm started playing in college. Then he started playing instead of college. Not just poker. Blackjack too. He did okay for a while, winning a little more than he lost. Then he hit a bad streak. A long one. He burned through his all of his winnings and kept losing. That's when he came to me and confessed everything."
"You get him help?"
Milt nodded slowly, remembering that conversation. Malcolm's fear and desperation and shame. He hadn't been quite as calculating back then. Not with family. "Paid his debts and got him into treatment. A month later, he was back at the tables. I hunted him down and dragged him away. We did that four or five times. The he moved back to Monaco." He'd almost said home there. He could imagine what Russ would make of that.
"Yeah. Next time he lost, he went to my mother. She paid off what he owed, but when she tried to get him some help, he stole from her and went back to the tables."
"Is that why he's here?" Russ asked. "Trying to get you to pay off his debts again?"
"Basically," Milt said. He didn't see any reason to get into the rest. The increasingly desperate steps that Malcolm had taken to pay off his debts once the rest of the family refused to give him more money. All the failed efforts to help, until that final fracturing.
He could see Russ aching to ask the next question; visibly biting his tongue to keep quiet. How do you have the money? He was fairly sure Russ already suspected the truth or something close to it, but he didn't want to get into it. With the way Russ felt about money, it would just be one more thing standing between them.
"Turn left," Russ said. "It's just up ahead."
A car pulled way from the building Russ indicated just as they got there. Milt pulled into a newly-available space. They were just getting out of the car when a sharp crack echoed through the air.
"Gunshot," Russ said, drawing his side arm.
Milt already had his gun out. A glance at his phone confirmed what he'd heard; the shot had come from inside the building. He led the way inside with Russ close behind, taking the stairs two at a time, and turning down the hall indicated by his phone.
They were met by a fleeing stream of people. Milt evaluated them quickly, then stepped in front of a man he thought looked reasonably calm, considering circumstances.
"They've got guns!" the guy said, trying to get around Milt.
"I know," Milt said, moving a little to block the man's path as he lifted his jacket enough to reveal the badge on his belt. "Can you tell me what happened?" He tried to keep his tone as soothing as he could. Just another day on the job, and never mind that it might be his brother who was getting shot at.
"Two of them," the guy said. "They just burst in and then--"
"Anyone hurt?" Russ interrupted.
The guy shook his head, still looking nervously down the hall toward freedom. "They said they just wanted one guy, then fired a warning shot to get the rest of us moving."
Apparently Malcolm had been telling the truth about something after all. No time to think about that now. Focus on the job. "How are they positioned?" Milt asked.
"We were in the living room, just beyond the front door. As soon as you go in, they'll see you."
"Thank you," Milt said, finally stepping aside to let the guy go.
"So what's the plan?" Russ asked.
"Talk them down," Milt said, but he kept his gun out.
"I was afraid you'd say that."
Milt spared him a glance. "What else would you suggest?"
"It's your brother in there, isn't it?" Russ said. "I mean, if he'd come out, he would have stopped when he saw you."
Milt nodded confirmation as they approached the door.
"He owes someone money?"
"It's more than just money," Milt said, and knocked loudly. "Police!"
He could hear someone swear loudly inside, and then a quick conversation.
"I suggest you surrender peacefully," Milt called. "Before you make things worse. Right now, the charges are pretty minimal." Which was true, relatively speaking. "If you kill someone, or start shooting at us, it's going to get a lot worse."
"You don't actually think that's going to work, do you?" Russ said.
Milt waited, counting the seconds in his head, and then...
"We're coming out," a voice called.
He could feel Russ's disgusted look as the two of them backed away from the door, guns still drawn.
"They're probably running for the fire escape," Russ said.
The door opened and a pair of hands appeared. Milt holstered his gun and pulled out his handcuffs. "The fire escape's broken," he said over his shoulder as he went to handcuff the first suspect. "I noticed when we pulled up."
He drove Malcolm to the station himself, letting Russ tag along as a thank you for Russ's help.
Milt's brother was a slightly shorter, slightly less good-looking version of Milt. Which meant he was still plenty tall and attractive. Same eyes, same hair, same air of effortless elegance, but slighter and more fragile-looking, a fragility that was enhanced by the dark bruise on his cheek.
He was in the backseat of Milt's car, posture broadcasting shame and defiance even though all Milt had done was hug him fiercely when they entered the room, and tell him they needed him to come to the station to give a statement. There hadn't been a single word of reproach, and if it had been anyone but Milt, Russ would have been impressed by the self-control that must have taken. Then again, the silence was almost a reproach itself. Apparently Malcolm felt the same way, because he was the one who broke it.
"How'd you find me?"
"I knew you'd find a game," Milt replied briefly. "Russ knew where the game was."
"I told you this would happen," Malcolm said. "When you told me to testify, I told--"
"You had a kilo of heroin on you," Milt interrupted. "It was testify or go to prison. Testifying seemed like the better option. If you'd stayed in Witness Protection--"
"I did stay," Malcolm protested. "They had me in fucking Idaho and I stayed there. They found me anyway."
"They found you because you started playing online poker," Milt said flatly. "And because you left Idaho and went to Atlantic City. How much do you owe?"
Russ shifted in his seat, torn between the satisfaction of finally getting a peek into Milt's life--his real life, not that carefully-constructed simulacrum he presented to the world--and the discomfort of feeling like he was voyeur.
"I don't owe anything," Malcolm said.
"Then why did you try to pull money out of my accounts?"
The question hung in the air, Malcolm apparently having no answer to that one. How much had he tried to take, Russ wondered. How much did Milt have for him to take?
The silence was interrupted by the buzz of Milt's phone. Milt glanced at the dashboard display, then answered the call.
"Milt, it's Joel. You asked me if Didier Mathieu had made any suspicious calls."
"You were right. We tracked a message from him to one of his old crew, putting out a new contract. We're still trying to work out the details. I'll let you know what I find."
"Thanks, Joel," Milt said. "I owe you."
He flicked his thumb, ending the call.
That explained who sent the guys in the apartment. Or it would have, if Russ knew who Didier Mathieu was. Presumably one of the people Malcolm had testified against.
"You looked into it," Malcolm said. "You believed me."
"I wanted to."
"How'd you know about the money?"
"I asked my bank to call me if there was any activity on my accounts."
If it had just been the two of them, Russ would have congratulated Milt on finally displaying a reasonable level of (totally justified) paranoia. But it seemed like the wrong time.
"Where are you going to go?" Milt asked as he watched his brother pack his bag. He'd already tried talking Malcolm into staying in Battle Creek, or going back to their mother. He wasn't entirely disappointed when it failed.
"Vegas," Malcolm said, stuffing in his shirt in a way that was sure to leave it wrinkled.
Milt twitched and fought down the urge to repack the bag for him. "How much do you owe?"
"Not so much that I can't win it back," Malcolm said confidently.
"You know that doesn't..." Milt began, and then stopped. "You should call Mom," he said instead. "She worries."
"Tell her I'm fine," Malcolm said, standing up and shouldering his bag.
Milt allowed himself a small, tight smile. "Mom doesn't talk to me anymore. Hasn't since you left."
Guilt passed fleetingly over Malcolm's face, and then he jutted out his chin. "I guess you're going to say that's my fault too."
"I can give you a ride," Milt said, but Malcolm shook his head.
"I already called a cab."
He watched his brother leave, then turned back to his empty apartment. He nearly jumped when there was a knock on the door. He opened it, expecting to see Mal telling him he'd forgotten something, but it was Russ he found there.
"Hey," he said, stepping inside. "Malcolm gone?"
Milt nodded. "What do you need?"
Russ shook his head. "I just thought...do you want to grab a beer?"
"Do you wanna grab a beer?"
Milt suspected the offer was driven more by pity than anything else. He looked around the empty apartment. He'd take it, he decided.
"Sure. Let's go."
This entry was originally posted at http://skieswideopen.dreamwidth.org/181