JT wished he’d put up a bit more of a fight about this but Tally was right. He needed to come here. He owed Bright that much. So much had gone wrong and he’d been a part of that. Regrets layered over him like wallpaper in a hundred-year-old home, smothering him. JT needed to be shed of it. Honestly surprised that Bright buzzed him through after hearing him on the intercom, JT jogged up the steps before he thought better of this. The door was cracked open, and Bright waited for him inside, leaning against the kitchen island, his face a frightening blank.
JT shifted the container he held back and forth, not quite meeting Bright’s eyes. “Thanks for letting me in.”
“Did you think I wouldn’t?”
JT had thought exactly that. He heard Bright yelling ‘you need to start believing me,’ in his dreams and the horrible echo of them saying ‘you need to stop lying to us.’ Both things were true and painful. Yes, Bright had been fine with them as they waited for news of Gil from his surgeons but then everything had gone so wrong after that. “I wasn’t sure you were up to company,” he replied, diplomatic even though there was a ton of smothering regret attached to the memories dancing in his mind.
Bright spread his hands. “Honestly, I’m not but maybe this is what I need. Would you like some tea or bourbon or whiskey?”
“This probably needs a stiff drink.”
Bright nodded and stalked into the part of his loft that seemed to be half library and half weapons collection. “I have a nice scotch or would you prefer the bourbon?”
He preferred beer but he didn’t see that being Bright’s drink. “Whatever you’re having is fine. Tally sent this.” He hefted the container.
Bright poured some scorch into beautifully cut glasses. “How is she?”
“Good, a little morning sickness but she’s coping well, better than I could have.”
Bright snorted, carrying over both glasses and the bottle. “You get used to throwing up.”
He’d know, wouldn’t he? He handed JT a glass, casting a glance at the container.
“Lemon bars. Tally loves to bake.” And JT loved to eat. He was going to pick up more baby weight than she was if he wasn’t careful. “I’m pretty sure you like lemon, at least lemon suckers.”
Bright smiled faintly. “I can eat lemon. Thank her for me.” He swept a hand toward the sofa.
JT followed him, catching a glimpse of the unmade bed. It struck him that the loft wasn’t as pin neat as it had been the only other time he’d been in it. Even Bright seemed rumpled, his hair a bit on the bed-head side. Of course, he might have awoken him if he had been napping. Damn there were those restraints. Dani had told him about them early on but he hadn’t quite believed it until he’d been here to arrest Bright and saw them then.
“Did you want to have some of the lemon bars?” Bright asked, ever the solicitous host. He sat down and JT took the chair next to the leather sofa.
“Nah, I had two before I left home.” JT grinned. “That’s plenty.”
“You stole my lemon bars.”
JT widened his smile, seeing honest mirth in Bright’s eyes. “I did, which is crappy of me because I brought them as an apology gift.”
Bright’s brow got that little wrinkle in it, the one that said he was puzzled. “Apology?”
“You know what for. Look, just let me say what I need to. I hate having regrets. They weigh you down like tying a tank around your neck.”
“You don’t have to tell me. I know.” Malcolm slammed the scotch back restlessly and poured himself more. The flash of humor that had been on his face disappeared leaving emptiness behind.
“You and I haven’t spoken much since it all happened and I can’t imagine dealing with everything you have going on.” JT sipped the scotch. Damn, it was strong. He meant what he’d said. Having a girlfriend betray him only to end up murdered, to see his father go from victim to finger gouging out eyes, to nearly losing Gil, having his mother and sister threatened, to watch his sister go full on Jill the Ripper on Endicott and then everything that happened after that. “I regret that we didn’t believe you entirely. It’s not that we thought you killed Eddie, or at least we didn’t want to believe that but the evidence was strong.”
“Endicott’s men stitched me up good,” he replied, his flat gaze never leaving JT’s face. Where was the enthusiasm, the crazy energy, the Golden Retriever in human form?
JT hadn’t been this spooked since he left the war. The skin on his arms goose pimpled. “We’re lucky you told Edrisa what you found out about the lab but it should have been us you confided in. No, it should have been Dani and I who listened to you.”
“I didn’t get a chance to really tell you. The FBI taught me well that no one was on my side and I had to do it all on my own. It was a lesson engraved on my heart and when you two ankle-monitored me and told me you weren’t even supposed to speak to me, I knew I was on my own again.”
JT caught his breath. He hated that he made Bright feel like that. “We struggled to keep your case because we thought we’d work it harder than anyone else to prove you didn’t do it. We didn’t even know if Endicott had bought off police too, who would have worked to keep you in jail.” Endicott had, they learned later. Police, judges, lawyers, doctors, forensic labs, that man has spun a sick web around so much of the city. “Edrisa confessed later that you were in her lab when we were there. Maybe Dani and I should have been as open minded as she was.”
“To be fair, Edrisa might believe in me even more than Gil does and that’s saying something.”
JT snorted. Edrisa could watch Bright kill someone and still find reasons to believe it was justified. “Still, I wanted you to know I regret what happened. I feel bad that we hurt you.”
“Thank you. You don’t need to apologize. We’re not…”
“Friends? I thought you knew better than that.”
“I was going to say we’re not in a bad place. When I saw you both in the waiting room, all of us praying Gil wasn’t going to die, I couldn’t hold onto my anger.”
“But you are angry. I can see it.” JT lied knowing he could do it well. Most cops did because they had to when convincing suspects they knew more than they did. He wished he saw anger on Bright’s face. It would be better than the nothingness.
“You let them put me in a psych unit,” Bright growled.
JT reared back, not prepared for that. “How did you think we could have stopped them? After what happened with Endicott, we had to arrest you and your sister.”
Bright sighed. “Ainsley is getting tired of being in the psychiatric ICU at Mount Pine or so I hear. I’m not allowed to visit but I do appreciate that you listened to me that she had killed Endicott in a fugue. She disassociated, and she needs help not incarceration.”
“I believe you, bro. You, on the other hand, didn’t make any of those kinds of claims. We wanted to keep you in a holding cell. We tried but your PTSD was off the charts and who could blame you? But when you kept screaming and running around like you were trying to escape the cell, they thought you were crazy too. Maybe if Gil was able to work, he could have argued your case. And to be honest, maybe you need as much help as your sister does. I don’t regret that because you know you need the help you got at Barnaby Hospital.”
“They sedated me! That traps me with my nightmares. I can’t wake up. It feels like my brain is shredding. They sent me home with more sedatives. I don’t want to take them. I guess I’ll give them to Mother. She’s a fan and she’s in worse shape than me with all of this. So yes I’m angry about being institutional again. How hard is it going to be for Gil to hire me back once he’s better?”
“I’m sorry for that but it was the better option because you might have found yourself in solitary at Rikers until we cleared your name.”
Bright polished off his drink and poured more. He offered the bottle to JT. “When you put it that way, I’m less mad. It was hard being there, cut off from everyone.”
“We weren’t allowed to visit. You can’t normally question someone in a psychiatric intensive care unit and we couldn’t come as friends,” JT said.
“I know. I don’t blame you for that. Edrisa isn’t a detective. She could visit and kept me apprised. She came several times to see me.”
JT drank and pondered what to say to that. “She told us. She wanted us to come and get you when they released you but your mother made it clear she didn’t want us around. She’s civil if we’re in Gil’s room but not so much otherwise.”
“She is highly overprotective. She thought you should have believed me, and she blames herself for everything. She was dating Endicott. She blames herself for Gil’s injuries when it’s my fault. I sent him there to get her away from Endicott.” Bright sank back against the couch, lost.
“I didn’t know that.” Man, when Bright said he had regrets he wasn’t kidding.
He tore a hand through his hair. “I nearly got him killed and I’m scared. He could still die.”
JT didn’t want to think about that possibility. “Gil’s tough. I know I don’t have to tell you that. I know what Gil means to you.”
He shot JT a petulant look. “Do you?”
“He’s your dad, Bright. Dani and I get that and being locked away, unable to be there for him when he needed you, that was hard on you. I wish we could have gotten you cleared of suspicion faster but we did our best. We’ll be cleaning up Endicott’s mess for years.”
“I hate that I couldn’t be there for him. He was there every day when I was in the hospital.” That came out as a strangled whisper.
“Bro, he knows why. You’ve only been out of Barnaby’s for two days, and you went to the hospital both days. I got here late figuring you would be back. I saw you at the hospital this morning.”
Bright cocked his head to the side. “You didn’t come in.”
JT bit the inside of his lip. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted me there.”
“JT, I know Gil means a lot to you and Dani. I don’t care if you’re there. I’m not that angry. We’re not broken, or at least not more than we were in the beginning. You didn’t like me then.”
“Gil warned us we wouldn’t like each other but he was wrong. It took a while but I thought we managed to be friends.” Did Bright not see it the same way? JT doubted he could have read the man that badly.
Bright nodded. “Gil was coding things for me. You and I wouldn’t like each other. To Dani I was an acquired taste. He was letting me know that she would be easier to make head way with. With you, I had to watch more closely what I said and did. You were good at telling me what annoyed you, like when you thought I didn’t respect you. I’m sorry that you ever thought that but I think we go that worked out well.”
“It was more than just what you said on that stake out. I watched you try to protect both the killer and a high as hell potential killer. You work hard to preserve life, to talk people down. You have empathy, and I should have remembered that when you were looking so guilty over Eddie’s murder. Then again, he murdered your lover. That could push anyone over the edge.”
Bright’s face darkened. “True. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. I did and that scared me.”
“I’ve been there, seriously. It was in the war, which made it easier to justify thinking about killing someone. I didn’t but I understand it.”
Bright grunted. “You’ve never told me much about yourself. I know better than to pry into what you went through over there but I’m always willing to listen.”
“I appreciate that. Are we good?”
Bright still hadn’t come alive, still lacking any of his usual high energy, but he nodded. “We’re good. Do you want something to eat?”
“I’m good but if you’re hungry go ahead. How is your mother really? I’ve noticed she’s been with Gil a lot. She’s not carrying guilt around, is she?”
Bright got up and wandered into his kitchen. “She’s known Gil for twenty years, and yes she is. But there’s more. When I went yesterday, I was terrified Gil had flatlined because from where I was in the doorway it looked like she was giving him mouth to mouth and then I realized that wasn’t it.”
“Oh boy.” JT had missed that entirely. How had he not noticed why Jessica Whitly was so overprotective of Gil?
“I almost readmitted myself to the PICU. Things I’m not ready for, Mother being in love with Gil.” Bright threw open the fridge, scowled and shut it. “I have no food. Hell, I don’t even know where Sunshine is. Mother said a friend had her but didn’t elaborate.”
“Dani had her,” JT stood and stretched. He walked his glass to the sink. “But her singing was keeping Dani awake. Apparently Tally had parakeets as a kid and now I have your weird pet.”
“You didn’t bring her with?”
“I came from somewhere other than home,” JT lied. Truthfully they weren’t sure Bright was up to taking care of anything. He surveyed the loft, wandering it. “This is a nice space.”
“Thank you. Mother owns the building. I get to stay with various threats to evict me.”
The hint of amusement in his tone dragged JT’s attention back to him. “Mothers. Okay this is weird. I thought I saw these terrifying paintings last time but was hoping I imagined them.” JT walked over to get a better look at the enormous religious looking things.
“Family heirlooms that belong in a museum, and I’d wish Mother would put them there. They have a tendency to kill them mood.”
“I’m sure.” No wonder Bright had spent a lot of time in Eve’s place, judging by the recordings Eddie had made while spying. As far as he knew no one had told Bright about them yet, and he was sure this wasn’t the time. All JT knew was he’d never be able to get it up with John the Baptist or whoever that was in the floor to ceiling painting staring at him. He turned and spotted something on Bright’s end table. “Were you playing with your weapons collection?”
“Hmm?” Bright paused halfway back to the couch, his eyes on the scotch bottle.
“You have a gun by your bed,” JT said, dreading the response. Sure there were reasonable explanations for it, especially from a collector. He doubted any of them would be what motivated Bright.
“Oh…I forgot about that.”
There it was, that hollowed out look. JT gritted his teeth, remember another time he had seen that look, hadn’t acted and what happened after. He glanced around at the weapons collection, made a decision and then asked, “Where’s your suitcase?”
Bright pointed to the upstairs. “In the wardrobe. Why?”
JT didn’t answer him. He took out his phone and texted Tally as he walked. Bright trailed up after him, catching him taking the suitcase out of the wardrobe.
“JT, what are you doing?”
“Go pack your toiletries. I’m betting you don’t have a bug out bag.”
“Not anymore. What are you doing?”
“You’re coming with me. You’re going to stay with me and Tally for a few days.”
Bright blinked. “I’m what?”
“You heard me. Go pack up your toothbrush and stuff.”
Bright shook his head, standing his ground. “JT, I’m not-”
Getting up in Bright’s space, JT narrowed his eyes. “Then tell me why you had a gun by your bed.”
Bright dropped his chin, his gaze falling to the floor. JT put a hand on his shoulder, drawing his attention.
“Like I thought. Listen to me, Malcolm. I had a friend once, Chris Wolfe, Brooklyn boy but I met him in Afghanistan. Trust me we saw some shit over there. When we were back, I stopped in for a visit. He swore he was fine but he had that same expression on his face as you’ve had since I got here, the one that says I’m done. I can’t anymore. I believed him when he said he was fine, and I have regretted it every day.”
“He killed himself,” Bright said.
“And I have to live with the thought of ‘if only I had’.” JT skimmed a hand over his head. “It’s a terrible feeling.”
“I know it well. If only I had immediately called the police when I found the girl in the box. If only I had realized what my father was faster. If only I had called the police the night I got back from the woods after I stabbed John Watkins.”
“Bro, you were a ten year old boy whose father was drugging him. You didn’t even remember half of that. Don’t shoulder all of that.”
Bright shrugged. “Even still.”
“Well, it isn’t happening again. I already have your bird at my place and you eat less than it so you’ll be no trouble. I can pack up some stuff for you while you get the toiletries and your underpants. No suits, just good casual lie about the house clothes. You have some right.” JT eyed him. Bright was in casual clothes now but had been wearing a suit when JT spotted him in the hospital.
“I do but I don’t want to bother you and especially Tally. She doesn’t need to hear me screaming in the night.”
“She already hears me doing that from time to time. You’re not the only one with PTSD.”
Bright widened his eyes but said nothing.
“You do have…I don’t know, a travel pack of your cuffs and stuff? You have to have taken something to Tahiti with you.”
He pointed to a black duffle bag in the wardrobe. As JT pulled it out, his phone dinged. He read the text that said BRING HIM NOW! and showed it to Bright. He sighed and started back down the steps. He paused, hand on the rail. “Are you sure Tally is okay?”
“Occasional morning sickness like I said, other than that, she’s tougher than the two of us put together.”
When he disappeared out of sight, JT pulled out a few outfits for him and packed them neatly in the suitcase. He paused in his task when he came across a spectacular tie. He pulled the vivid blue tie out, examining its sparkly geometric cross pattern. It was softer than anything he’d ever owned.
“I thought you said no suits,” Bright said, returning with a small bag that JT assumed were toiletries, a bag of ginger and a tea container reading mint.
“No suits but I was thinking, I promised Tally a nice night out on the town and this tie is probably the prettiest I’ve ever seen. I don’t like ties but I promised to take her someplace I’d need one. It just reminded me I need to get a good tie.”
“Take that one.” He tucked the little bag into the suitcase along with the tea and ginger.
“Really? I can borrow it?” JT shot him a look.
“You can have it if you like it so much.” Bright stepped passed him and got some even more casual clothing out. “I sleep in these,” he explained and then opened a drawer to select a half dozen black underpants.
“Thanks, bro. What’s with the tea?” He tucked the tie into the suitcase.
“Mint and ginger both help with nausea. I need it and I thought Tally might benefit if no one has shared that with her yet.”
“Oh, thanks. Need anything else?”
Malcolm shook his head. “This is fine for a few days.”
“All right, then let’s go. Bring those lemon bars back with us.”
Surprised Bright didn’t continue to protest, JT got him out to the car and they were on the road in a weird, tense silence for a few blocks before Bright finally said, “Is Sunshine okay?”
“She’s fine. Every night she lands on my head when Tally lets her out.”
He smiled. “She does that to me.”
“She doesn’t do it to Tally, just me.”
Bright chuckled softly and JT was relieved to hear it. “If you have Sunshine, who took Gil’s cats?”
“You haven’t been to your Mother’s since you got out of the psych ward, have you?”
Bright slapped a hand on the dash, turning in his seat to face JT. “Mother has the cats?”
JT smiled. “Yes. She was laughing with Gil about how she woke up with them in her bed.”
“My mother?” Bright shook his head. “I’m still in the psychiatric ICU. I’ve had a complete psychotic break.”
JT snorted. “Don’t make me swing past there to prove it to you.”
“Won’t be the first time I did what my hallucinations told me to do.”
JT wasn’t touching that. Maybe Barnaby’s had let him out too soon.
“I’m going there tomorrow to see this.” Bright wrinkled his nose. “I don’t know how she’s staying there.”
“I think she stayed at Gil’s the first few nights with the cats because she wasn’t allowed back in her house.” JT had seen that living room. It had looked like the Overlook Hotel after the elevator doors opened. He didn’t know how Mrs. Whitley had the fortitude to ever return.
“She has explaining to do.” Bright grinned a little but fell back into silence for much of the drive. That, as much as the gun, told JT he was right to bring Malcolm home with him. Bright was never quiet. He never sat still and right now he was doing both. It freaked JT out. He got his suitcase out of the car once JT pulled up to his old townhouse. Tally met them at the door. She threw her arms around Malcolm and hugged him tight.
“I’m glad you’re here.”
“You might not be if I have a bad night.”
Tally pulled him inside. “It’ll be fine. We have a convertible couch in the guest room, well I guess it’ll be the nursery soon enough. I’ve already folded it out into the bed and put the sheets on it for you. You look exhausted. Come on, let’s get you settled.”
Bright followed her meekly. JT had seen him obey Dani equally as mildly. Maybe he and Gil should let Dani issue all the orders. Bright seemed to like it when women bossed him around but with his mother, was that a surprise? Bright pulled the suitcase up the narrow staircase. Their townhouse dated to 1901 and the rooms were oddly shaped and smallish but there was pretty woodwork and Tally loved the place. JT would have liked something more modern. Of course having the nursery very close to their room would be helpful. Might be less helpful having a night terror prone Bright next door.
Bright smiled seeing the birdcage in the room. “Sunshine! Thanks so much for taking care of her for me, Tally.”
“I loved having her here.” Tally took his suitcase over once he hefted it onto the made bed. She pointed to the closet. “Fetch some hangers.”
“Tally, I can do this,” Bright protested as he fetched.
“What you can do is get unpacked and crawl into bed. You need sleep.”
Bright cast a pleading glance at JT but he had no intentions of rescuing him. Let Tally pamper him and maybe just boss him around a bit. Bright’s shoulders slumped. “I am tired.” He started hanging up his own clothes until Tally took them from him. He turned to putting his underpants in a drawer and then got out the black bag. Bright knelt down and slid one end on his restraints under the convertible couch.
Seeing that they were tied on one long strap, JT fished the restraint out on the other end for him and put it on the bed. Tally shot him a shocked look but JT shook his head. He’d tell her later.
“Twist it around the leg of the couch a few times first, JT. It makes it harder for me to slip it over the edge of the bed. It’d be bad if this ended with me going out your window.”
“Do I need to get more tie downs for you? I think I have some bungee cords in the basement.” JT smirked.
“You know that fetish shop guy. Bet he has just the thing,” Tally said, pulling the tea out of the suitcase. Bright side eyed her, a little smile on his face. “I have tea.”
“Do you have mint tea though? It and the ginger do a good job of settling my stomach and JT said you’ve had some morning sickness. I thought you might like that and it’s safe for pregnant women.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you. I’ve not tried it.” She set it on the bed and took the tie out of the suitcase with a puzzled expression on her face.
JT extracted it from her grasp. “Speaking of that, there’s a bathroom on the other side of the hall, beside our bedroom and one downstairs.”
“I’ll use the downstairs. I wouldn’t want to disturb you two, especially don’t want in Tally’s way, just in case.”
“You are very thoughtful. You get to stay as long as you want.” Tally smiled at him.
“I’m sure it’ll only be a few days. I appreciate this. I really do.”
“You’ve gone through hell, Bright. You need a safe space to just relax. Normally I’m sure that would have been Gil’s but until he’s on his feet, you can lean on me and Tally,” JT said. “Dani and Edrisa too but staying with either of them might generate talk. You know how gossipy cops can be.”
“Oh, I know all too well. You’ll probably be hearing about how I’m likely to axe murder you and Tally by the end of the week,” he said bitterly.
JT clamped a hand on Bright’s shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “You let me worry about the rumor mill. Do you want to come downstairs and watch some TV with us or do you want to just try to get some sleep?”
Bright rolled a mouthguard through his fingers. “Sleep. Maybe I’ll get the first round of screaming done before you’re even in bed.”
“Who knows maybe you’ll sleep the night. Sunshine will keep an eye on you.” Tally said, gathering up the tea and ginger. “Try to rest easy. You can use the upstairs bath to get ready for bed. JT and I will be downstairs if you need anything. Towels are in the linen closet in the bathroom.”
“Thanks. Good night.”
JT appraised him quickly. He looked almost restful, less hollowed out than he had been in his own space. He gave him a nod, content that Bright wouldn’t try anything frightening tonight. They said their goodnights and left him to try and get comfortable.
Tally pulled JT down on the couch, hugging him tight. “This is a very good thing you’re doing, love.”
“I lost a friend to himself before. I’m not doing it again. I feel like I failed Bright but we got that worked out now. Having him here for a few days, to show him that he matters to people, you’re right, it’s a good thing. He probably will scream. I’ve seen him trapped in his dreams. It’s not pretty.”
“We’ll deal with it. You’ve worked with Wounded Warriors. We know how to deal with PTSD. We’re probably the best people for Bright right now.” She put the tea and ginger on the tape. “And he brought me gifts.”
“He likes you. He gave me this.” JT brandished the tie.
Tally took it from him, checking the label. “He likes you too.” She pulled out her phone.
“He does. I thought I could wear that when I take you out on the town.”
“You have that black suit. This would look great with…oh my god!”
Tally showed him her phone. “This is a handmade silk tie by Stefano Ricci. Those sparkly bits are Swarovski crystals and it cost seventeen hundred dollars!”
JT stared at the tie and then tossed it on the table as if it were a venomous snake ready to bite. “I can’t keep that.”
“You can borrow it. You might hurt his feelings if you say no.”
“But what if I drip something on it? Who spends that much on a tie anyhow?”
Tally rolled her shoulders. “To him it’s probably like you spending fifty bucks on a tie. And just don’t get pasta and you’ll be fine.”
“You’re not the one wearing a two-grand noose.” JT stared at the ceiling. “He was more hurt by the fact we couldn’t stop him from being hospitalized than he was about everything with Eddie.”
“Or he knows you’re upset and if he tells you he’s angry about that, something you couldn’t control, it’s his way of letting you off the hook.”
JT kissed her. “You might be right. I’m glad he’s here. Tomorrow I’ll take him to see Gil. I have the day off. I’ll get Powell to the hospital too. He’d like it if she took him to lunch or something. I know she wants to talk to him too.”
Tally took his hand in both of hers. “He’ll be okay if we’re gentle with him.”
“I hope you’re right.” JT thought about that empty lost expression and knew it could easily go bad. All he could do was work hard to help Bright hold on. Bright needed his friends now more than anything, and JT had no plans on leaving him behind.