He was the last in four generations of Worth men to wear the shield in this town, yet somehow it had taken the SaveMore to remind Matthew Worth why he’d wanted to become a cop in the first place.
This store had been a Food 4 Less when he’d worked here as a teenager, but mostly it felt the same. Back then, he’d always been the one zero his age who actually enjoyed having a part-time job at the supermarket.
He’d enjoyed sacking people’s groceries. There was something satisfying in fitting a mountain of shapes and sizes into a few uniform packages. He liked helping folks out to their cars, getting them on their way. It made him feel good when they said thanks and meant it.
Over the past few weeks, Worth had come to accept the sad facts:
He was living in a world where tired soccer moms were so accustomed to watching some apathetic teenager drop the milk jug on top of the eggs that they wanted to tip you just for trying to put a little extra “serve” in Protect and Serve.
And he probably felt more useful wearing an apron and a name tag than he’d ever felt wearing a gun belt and a badge.
Anyway, he only kept wearing the wedding ring because he knew it burned the shit out of Vargas in Homicide.
The last week in October, a cold front sliced down from Canada like a blade.
Worth hadn’t listened to a forecast for a couple of days. The night the weather turned, he took his 2 A.M. spin around the perimeter with his jacket collar up, bare hands in his pockets, watching his breath form frosty clouds in the drizzle. He heard her before he saw her.
The lamps out front cast a faint blue sheen over the oily wet surface of the parking lot. One of the lamps had gone dark. As he rounded the last corner of the building, Worth ID’d a tricked-out GTO parked askew in the shadows around the base of the pole. Muscle era, glossy black, rear spoiler, mag wheels. Vanity plates stamped BadGoat. Cute.
Gwen stood half-bent at the driver’s side.
“Honey, I’m sorry,” she said. “Okay? You’re hurting me.”
Worth saw the driver’s hand, clutching her arm through the open window. He lengthened his stride.
Whoever sat behind the wheel spotted him coming. Gwen got her arm back just as Worth reached the car’s front fender. He rested one hand on the butt of his stick as he came around the driver’s side.
“Everything okay over here?”
Gwen folded her thin arms and looked at the blacktop. “Hey, Matthew. Just finishing my break. Everything’s fine.”
Worth put his hand on the Pontiac’s roof. “How about in here?”
In the driver’s seat fumed a lean, muscular guy in jeans and a tank top. The guy gripped the wheel and stared straight ahead, stubbled jaw shaded amber in the panel lights of a custom stereo.
Russell, he presumed. Warm air laced with cologne blasted from inside the car as Worth’s fingers grew numb against the cold wet steel.
He said, “It’s not polite to ignore people when they ask you a question.”
“Man, you heard her. We’re fine.”
Worth straightened and turned to Gwen. Looking at her just then, he thought of Tiffany Pine. Unpleasant images flashed in his head.
He shook his head and said, “Walk me back inside?”
Before she could answer, the car roared to life. A sudden assault of headbanger metal came blaring as headlight beams leapt through the mist. Russell dropped into gear and gunned toward the nearest exit, leaving the two of them standing alone.
Worth waited until the GTO’s taillights disappeared around the curve, tires whining, before he asked her again if she was okay.
Gwen looked at the blacktop. Everything suddenly seemed too quiet.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said.
“Gwen, that’s why I’m—”
“No. I mean you really shouldn’t have done that.”
Gwen didn’t have a coat. He was halfway out of his tac jacket when she turned, hugging herself, and walked back toward the entrance of the store alone.
He found the Modell brothers clowning around in the break room, throwing box cutters at empty soup cases. They’d scrawled crude bull’s-eye targets on the sides of the boxes, presumably with the Sharpie marker now stuck behind Ricky’s ear.
Most nights Worth didn’t mind the guys. Good-natured, blond-headed tree stumps, both of them, stocking shelves full-time since losing university wrestling scholarships to a combined grade point average somewhere in the high decimals. But they had manners. They went out of their way for people. Either one of them would lift a car if you asked them to.
Tonight, he nodded them toward the door.
Ricky didn’t get it. As he stood there, blinking, Curtis punched him in the shoulder hard enough to dislodge the Sharpie. “Wake up, Debbie.”
Ricky reared back, rubbing the spot.
“You’re an ass-head,” he said.
Curtis ignored him, grinning at Worth on his way out the door.
Ricky caught up, nailed his brother a payback shot. Worth couldn’t help noticing the way Gwen flinched at the sound of a fist smacking flesh.
When he took a chair, she stubbed her cigarette in the grimy tin tray by her hand. She fished in her pack, lit another, finally gave him a weak grin.
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer.”
Hey, he almost said, thinking of the DV bag in the trunk of the cruiser. You read my mind.
He said, “I want you to do me a favor.”
“What kind of favor?”
“I want you to file a report.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
In the weeks he’d known her, Worth couldn’t remember seeing Gwen wear so much as a smudge of lipstick. Tonight she’d caked her face with so much makeup she might as well have worn a Halloween mask. He could still see the shadow of the bruise beneath, high on one cheekbone, cupping her eye.
“If you need a place to stay, I can arrange it.”
“Somewhere you’ll be safe,” he said. “If that’s what you need.”
Gwen still wouldn’t look at him. She crossed her arms, holding her cigarette near her lips. “I guess you know where you can find a place like that?”
The graveyard shift ended at seven. Worth went to the break room at 6:30 and waited by the time clock.
At 7:15, he went looking for her.
At 7:25, he circled back to find that she’d punched out and slipped away.
Gwen Mullen called in sick her next two shifts in a row. Sorensen, the night manager, told Worth she hadn’t missed a shift in the two years she’d worked for him at the store.
The second night, during roll call, Worth’s cell phone buzzed. Assuming it was Sondra, calling about the house, he let it go.
After muster, he checked his voice mail. It was Sorensen.
“She wouldn’t talk to me,” the manager said on the way up.
Worth nodded. “I’ll give it a try.”
“She wouldn’t take off her coat.”
At the top of the rough pine staircase, outside the door marked ASSOCIATES ONLY, Sorensen lingered. It seemed like he wanted to say something more.
Some of the employees made fun of the guy. He was around Worth’s age and lived with his mother. He had an average build but tended to look a little dumpy, and he’d probably never been much in style. He had a strange cowlick and a bit of a dandruff problem. Told the same lame jokes all the time.