One afternoon, when he saw Grail’s hand moving toward the drawer, Worth said, “No offense, Doc, but don’t we pretty much know what I look like by now?”
Dr. Grail stopped his reach and leaned back. He had a narrow face, a shell of thinning hair, and a way of looking across the desk that always made Worth feel like he was letting the guy down.
“The mirror is only an exercise, Matthew,” Dr. Grail said.
“You say that like it’s a positive thing.”
“Does it make you uncomfortable?”
“Not really.” No way was he falling for that one again.
Grail ran a finger around the inside of his watchband. He did it ten or twelve times an hour. Worth sometimes counted.
“Last week you mentioned feeling concern for somebody at work.” The shrink checked his folder, flipped a page. “Gwen?”
Worth wished he’d never brought it up. “Right.”
“Would you like to talk further about that?”
“I guess not.”
Grail scribbled a note.
“By that I meant I guess there isn’t much to say.”
She was a nursing student at Clarkson and worked a combination of graveyards and swings. Weeknights, she kept a battered textbook under the register with a pack of Dorals and a highlighter pen. She had big gray eyes, a sly sense of humor, and a manner that seemed feisty and fragile at the same time. The first time he saw her, Worth thought of the bird that once came in through the chimney and tangled itself in the fireplace screen.
He wasn’t about to tell Dr. Grail that he’d grown to look forward to the shifts he worked with Gwen. That sometimes, watching from his spot by the cigarette case, he found himself entertaining pathetic fantasies.
Worth imagined coming to her rescue. More than once, in the long dead hours after midnight, he’d passed the time constructing elaborate scenarios in which he demonstrated steely-eyed heroism. Occasionally, he caught himself making adolescent, X-rated, cop-and-checkout-girl movies in his mind.
Ultimately, he drove back to assembly after sunrise feeling like either a sleaze or a sham.
Worth didn’t kid himself. He probably never had been hero material, but he wasn’t typically a letch. He was just lonelier than he’d realized. And he really didn’t know Gwen at all.
She sprained her other wrist in September. One night, she came in with a limp. Sorensen, the night manager, told him that Gwen seemed to play volleyball all year round.
“Rough sport,” Worth suggested.
Sorensen stood quietly in his tie and shirtsleeves. He scribbled something on his clipboard, met Worth’s eyes briefly, then agreed that it must be.
By then he’d already found himself in the habit of going for coffee when she took her breaks. One night she caught him off guard.
“I found stuff out about you.”
It messed up his regular small talk. “Stuff?”
“Mm.” Gwen looked up from her textbook. She took a drag from her cigarette and watched him through the smoke. Even in the harsh light of the employee break room, her gray eyes caught a warm glimmer. “I asked around.”
Worth went to the counter and worked a foam cup from the stack by the coffee machine. He suddenly felt clumsy. “Stuff like what?”
“Stuff like what. Hmm.” Gwen tapped her highlighter against her chin. “Let’s see.”
“You shouldn’t tease the police.”
“That’s what I hear.”
“I heard you punched another officer.”
He stopped pouring, tightened his jaw. Ricky.
Or Curtis. He couldn’t keep them straight. He didn’t know what the hell was the matter with him lately, telling macho stories in the stockroom for those two knuckleheads.
Gwen said, “Is that really true?”
“I wondered,” she said. “You don’t seem like the type.”
Worth slid the pot back. “I punched a detective.”
Now she closed her book and leaned over it, elbows on the table, cigarette trailing smoke beside her ear. “You did not.”
Vargas in Homicide. He’d told the Modell brothers, Ricky and Curtis, only about the Vargas-on-his-ass part. Worth hadn’t mentioned the part where Vargas came back up, feinted left, and shattered his nose with a straight right. He hadn’t even seen it coming. Just thinking about it was humiliating.
“Why did you punch a detective?”
“Poor impulse control.”
“It’s a long story.” It was a fairly short story, actually. Pretty simple.
She nodded along. “Is that how you ended up here? Keeping me company?”
Going on ten weeks, he’d realized coming on post tonight. The store had reported a rash of shoplifters in June and an unarmed robbery the first week in July; some crankhead from Fremont had jumped two checkout stands and run out the front doors with a cash tray under each arm, trailing loose coins.
Worth’s lieutenant had manufactured the detail when he’d initialed the reinstatement papers. Six months, A-shift, SaveMore at Saddle Creek and Leavenworth. Provisional duty pending a fitness sign-off from psych.
“More or less,” he told her.
“It’s not that interesting.”
Gwen sat back. He liked the way she smoked: thoughtful, slightly awkward, one eye pinched. He’d never really seen anybody with eyes that color. They sort of fascinated him.
“I heard something else,” she finally said.
“Boy. What else did you hear?”
“You’re a faker.”
He burned his tongue on the coffee. “Sorry?”
Gwen looked at his left hand. It took a moment before he got it: the wedding ring. Worth chuckled, felt his ears get hot.
“Right,” he said. “That.”
“How long was I married? Or how long have I been divorced?”
“Marriage, ten years,” he said. “Divorce, eight months.”
“It was over before that, I just didn’t know it.”
She nodded as though she understood. “Still hung up, huh?”
“It’s complicated.” It wasn’t.
Somebody came in then, and they both looked. Worth recognized LaTonya, one of the other full-time checkers, cornrows beaded tonight, smock draped over her shoulder. She went to the clock, punched out, and slid her time card back into the slot on the wall. She hung the smock on a hook.
Gwen smiled. “See you tomorrow, babe.”
“Good night, LaTonya.”
LaTonya glanced at Gwen, chuckled a little, and walked out humming.
When she was gone, he said, “What was that all about?”
Gwen had already gone back to her textbook. She shrugged, uncapping her highlighter with her teeth. “Who knows with that girl?”
Lately, he’d been thinking about something Sondra once said.
You want to know your biggest problem? This had been a few months before she’d left him for Vargas in Homicide. It’s not the job. It’s not the department. Christ, Matthew, news flash: It’s you.
He’d written the comment off at the time. She’d been pissed because he hadn’t put in for the sergeant’s test, decided to get mean about it. At some point in their marriage, Sondra had grown disappointed. He hadn’t even seen it coming. Just thinking about it was humiliating.
Lately, even Worth was beginning to see the irony.
His great-grandfather took a bullet in the ribs when the courthouse fell to the mob in 1919; the way all the stories told it, Mort Worth had gone on bleeding and cracking heads even after they set the building on fire. His grandfather worked Boss Dennison’s funeral in ’34. A great-uncle made captain in the Southeast. His father gave the force thirty years and his liver; his older brother Kelly gave three and his life.