Excerpt: Waiting for You
Book 2: RightMatch.com Trilogy
“Gunman at East High School. All available RPD units required at the scene.” The urgent call came over the police radio, causing Sergeant Joe Moretti and his partner Shelly to exit the expressway in their unmarked car and race to the school. Although the two of them were alert and ready for anything, they remained calm. But Joe bet the two less experienced cops following in a black-and-white were shaking in their boots. School-violence incidents were taken seriously, and though regular classes wouldn’t start until the fall, a special summer session was held this year. Nobody expected something like this on a lazy August afternoon.
“So I guess this means we aren’t gonna talk anymore about the elusive dancer.” Shelly Banks made the quip as she worked on the laptop. Tall, slender but muscular, she was dressed in a suit, like he was, the jacket removed to reveal a Kevlar vest. Irreverence was her trademark, and Joe’s love life, or lack of it, was a favorite target of hers. They were on their way back to the precinct after lunch and had been discussing his ill-fated online relationship with a woman named Dana when the call came in.
“Give it a rest, Banks.” He nodded to the computer. The SWAT team communicated with her via the machine. “What’s the update?”
“SWAT arrived on the scene. They spoke with the principal. Boy’s seventeen, a loner, of course, a good student.” She frowned at the screen. “Jesus, really good.”
Taking a turn a little too fast, Joe eased off the gas. “Successful-student syndrome. Too much pressure. Just snaps.” Payback time for his pal. “Like you, Banks. Straight freaking A’s, right?”
“Yep.” Quiet while she fiddled with the keys, she finally said, “Got a blueprint of the building up. Want to see it?”
“No, we’ve been there before. And it’s my alma mater.”
Joe had graduated from East High School twenty-plus years ago and many of his teachers still taught there. They’d been impressed by his position with the police department since he’d been a C student, concentrating on sports instead of academics. He liked their new image of him. Being a good cop, like his dad, was central to his life.
“Oh, yeah, I forgot. You were a big football star.”
Back then, Joe had outshone every guy on the Spartan field, gotten a full scholarship to college, but had blown out his knee in his second season for Syracuse University.
“Seems like a lifetime ago. We’ll play it by ear to see who talks to the kid.”
The school loomed ahead with its brick façade, two stories and walls of windows. Joe hoped to hell the sharpshooters didn’t have to use any of those windows today. He’d been on a couple of cases where the perpetrator had been taken out with a bullet through the glass, and the result was a horror show. For one so young, the scene would be even worse.
“Damn,” Shelly said staring at the screen. “The kid wants to see a teacher. Ms. Falk. That complicates the situation.”
“Get the principal on the phone. No way is a civilian to go near the lab without us there directing this maneuver.”
Using her cell, Shelly relayed the message to Jack Sherwood. She finished talking to him just as they came to a halt at the double front doors. They bounded out of the car and hurried to the entrance. A sweeping glance of the outside told Joe SWAT was in place on the roof of the building and the backup officers were behind them. Everybody would wait for his assessment.
Once inside, he felt a sharp spike of adrenaline as they raced up the steps. Instinct kicked in with the jolt of energy, and Joe went into full-cop mode. When they exited the stairway, he caught sight of people near a science lab where a boy named Holden Rupert held a class full of kids and one teacher hostage with a sawed-off shotgun. The building had been put on immediate lockdown, though there were only about a hundred students taking classes. Quietly, quickly, they approached the group.
Sherwood let out a heavy sigh when he saw them. “Glad it’s you, Joe.” He angled his head to the room. “This is totally unexpected.”
“We’ll take over now, sir. I need an update from your point of view.”
After Sherwood confirmed what they already knew, the head SWAT guy approached Joe. “We’re ready on your signal, Sergeant Moretti.”
“Let’s hope the situation doesn’t come to that, Johnson.” He pointed to the cell phone the principal held. “You keeping the kid on the line?”
“No, he hung up after he told us to call back when Ms. Falk got here.”
Hell of a thing. “Any idea why he wants to see her?”
“The students like her,” the principal explained. “They say she understands them. Maybe that’s it.”
“Maybe.” And maybe not. After years on the force, Joe knew to assume nothing.
With relief evident in his face, Sherwood handed Joe the phone. Shelly led the school contingent a short distance away and Joe pressed redial.
On the other end, the boy answered, “Ms. Falk?”
“Hello, Holden. This is Sergeant Moretti. I’m a Special Unit officer.”
“I said no cops.” The boy’s voice was trembling, nervous. Not a good sign.
“I know you did, but the school had no choice. I have the training to deal with the situation you’ve created. Can I come in and see you?”
“No. And I’ll shoot one of the other kids unless I get to talk to Ms. Falk.”
Covering the mouthpiece, Joe motioned Shelly over. “Get the teacher. Tell her she’s not going into the lab, but to come down here right away.”
Back on the line, he made sure he remained calm. “Somebody’s getting Ms. Falk. What happened, Holden? Why you doing this?”
“I’m not talking to you.”
“I went to school here, you know.”
“I did. I loved the place. Why do you hate it?”
“I don’t hate it! I’m mad, is all.”
“I want Ms. Falk!” His voice raised a notch.
“Hold on a second.” Joe put the phone on mute.
From down the hall, a young teacher walked toward him. Hell, she looked about seventeen herself, with a sleek haircut and trendy clothes. He remembered the utter agony of being sixteen and having a hottie for a teacher. Maybe Ms. Falk’s understanding of her students wasn’t on Holden Rupert’s mind at all. Could he be trying to get her attention? Impress her in some convoluted way? He’d heard stupider stories for the eruption of violence.
When she and Shelly reached Joe, Sherwood joined them and made the introductions. “This is Evelyn Falk. Evie, this is Sergeant Moretti.”
“Thanks for coming.” He held up the phone. “Any idea why this is happening?”
“No. I can’t believe it. Holden was the best student in my English class last year and now in my summer AP prep course.”
“Anything happen today that might have set him off?”
“We had silent reading time after a brief discussion of a few chapters yesterday. Holden asked to talk to me after the bell rang, but I didn’t want him to be late for science.” She gestured to the lab. “Mr. Jacobs always reams me out for keeping his kids after class. And he’s given Holden a rough time. So I told Holden to come see me at lunchtime.”
Another piece of the puzzle. Joe asked, “What are you reading?”
“Catcher in the Rye.”
“The main character’s name is Holden in the story, Joe,” Shelly put in. She’d been observing and would catch things he missed. Not this one, though.
“Yeah, I remember.” It had been one of the few novels he’d read in high school. Most of the rest had never held his interest. “Could the boy’s actions relate to the book?”
“He is taken with the story.”
“Would you talk to him?”
Drawing the teacher off to the right of the classroom, Joe spoke quietly to her. “Ask him to take the paper off the window of the door. Don’t go anywhere near it, though.”
She took the phone. “Holden, this is Ms. Falk.” A pause. “No, the police won’t let me inside. You can come out, though.” Another pause. “All right. Don’t get upset.” She glanced at Joe, then spoke to Holden again. “Can you remove the paper from the window so I can see you while we talk?”
After a moment, the paper disappeared. In a split second, Evie Falk stepped within view of the window; Joe leaped forward and pushed her out of sight range. She stumbled toward the wall.
A blast. Ear-shattering glass. Joe’s shoulder burned and he was thrown backward onto the floor. His head slammed on the vinyl. The world dimmed, and stinging pain clouded his vision, echoed in his brain. Then there was darkness.
Dana Devlin sat in a specially designed recliner with her computer perched on her lap. She was talking online with Craig Dawson, whom she’d met through a dating service called RightMatch.com. She had a week off from Devlin Dance before the last of the summer workshops started and she vowed not to go into her studio for seven whole days.
Craig returned her instant message, asking again for a date. Leaning back in the chair, sighing heavily, she hesitated. He was nice enough, attractive in his posted picture, and understanding. He even liked some of the same restaurants and shops in the city that she frequented.
But Dana had to admit she kept thinking about JoeyD, another man she’d corresponded with from the dating site. She hadn’t met him in person, either. From his photo, she could tell he was gorgeous, and from his emails, that he was funny, somewhat self-effacing and, shockingly, they had a lot in common. They both exercised religiously, enjoyed the same kind of movies and preferred similar food and desserts. From what she could tell, they had similar values—hard work, close relationships, enjoying simple fun.
Whenever she got the opportunity, she’d rush to open her email and more often than not, find one of his waiting in her inbox. For a while, it had been the highlight of her day. But she’d put him off when he’d asked to meet because she was afraid to get involved with someone as dynamic, outgoing and athletic as the handsome cop. At one time, she’d dated men like him routinely. But now, she avoided his type. She avoided any type, really.
Once again, she told Craig she wasn’t ready to meet yet, then discreetly ended the connection. For a few moments, she stared out the window. A breeze drifted inside, cool on her bare arms. Lush oak and maple trees swayed gently in the yard and she could hear the chatter of kids down the street. Dana loved this neighborhood, loved living here and appreciated the convenience of a house in the same suburb of Rockland, New York as her dance studio.
Ruth Cosgrove came rushing into the room. The older woman was a housemate, business partner and all around best friend. “You’ve got to see what’s on TV,” she said, already picking up the remote. Ruth switched on the large plasma television in the corner.
One of the local channels appeared on the screen. A pretty woman stood in the foreground with a microphone in her hand, and behind her was a school building. Breaking News was scrolled across the bottom of the picture.
“If you’re joining us now for the first time, police have been called to East High on Main Street for an apparent hostage situation.” A remote camera panned the area—several cop cars with flashing red lights, fire trucks, and local TV station vans were at the scene. “No word has come out as to…” The woman raised her hand to her ear and listened. “Just in—shots have been fired by the gunman, and a police officer is down. I repeat, shots were fired by the gunman and an officer is down.”
Her hands shaking, Dana set her laptop on an end table next to the chair. “Do you think it’s JoeyD?” she asked Ruth.
Her friend’s brow was deeply furrowed. “Could be. Didn’t he tell you he was in a special unit that dealt with incidents like school violence?”
“Yes.” Dana’s chest tightened as she watched additional cars pull up within range of the cameras and more cops rush into the school.
The reporter continued, “We’re waiting on news of what exactly has happened. Meanwhile, we have a police spokesperson here with us.” A sober-faced, older man joined her. “Lieutenant Jenkins, can you tell us anything? Which officer is down?”
“I can’t reveal that information at this time. But I can assure the public that the team called in has had training in these kinds of situations and—” The cop’s cell phone rang and he answered while onscreen. After listening for only moments, he said, “Yes, yes…good. Great.” The man’s lined face had relaxed when he clicked off. “The situation’s under control. The gunman has surrendered to the police.”
“What about the cop?” Dana said aloud.
“What about the cop?” the reporter asked.
“I don’t know his condition.”
At Dana’s side, Ruth squeezed her shoulder. The show of support was needed because Dana was terrified. Had JoeyD been shot?
As they watched the coverage, Dana recalled some of Joe’s comments online about his job.… I love being a cop. My dad was one.… Nah, it’s not scary. Life in the department isn’t like they show it in movies. Do you know how infrequently police officers have to draw their guns?… I hated when my football career ended, but I was meant to do this.…
The channel filled in time by showing photos of other recent school tragedies, interviewing experts on school violence and giving statistics. An excruciating hour passed at the end of which the reporter received more information. “The authorities identified the gunman as Holden Rupert, a seventeen-year-old honor student. No information on the reason for his actions. We do know that he shot through the science-lab window, wounding an officer, then surrendered. Apparently, the gunman was aiming for a teacher, but the policeman at the scene took the bullet himself.”
Dana whispered, “Oh, no.”
More waiting. Ruth got them coffee, then pulled another chair up next to Dana. At one point she said, “Maybe it’s not him. We still don’t know the cop’s identity, or how badly he was hurt.”
Unfortunately, Dana had learned firsthand the possible ramifications of fluke incidents. She’d been the victim of one herself and it had changed her whole life. Irrevocably. The officer was not safe. No one ever really was.
Another hour crawled by before officials released the cop’s name. “The police have revealed that Sergeant Joseph D. Moretti is the downed officer. His injuries are not life threatening.”
Dana practically wilted. “Oh, thank God.”
After more details were given, Ruth crossed to Dana and stood in front of her. “Now listen to me, Missy. If you’re this upset because that man was in danger, you need to stop being so stubborn and meet him. Tell him the whole story and let him decide what he wants to do.”
“I’m scared, Ruth. Craig would be a better choice. JoeyD has such a presence, even online. He’ll overwhelm me in person.”
“You don’t know that. I haven’t taken a side before, but seeing you now, I’m certain I’m right. You were worried about him. He’s the one you want to date. Dana, sweetie, go after him. Stop being afraid.”
Ruth left her with that thought and Dana stared at the television, watching the aftermath but thinking about her friend’s words, knowing Ruth was right about Dana’s feelings.
JoeyD had done for Dana what no man had been able to do in the last twelve years. Though they’d never met in person, in their emails, he’d made her feel young, vibrant and hopeful about having a romantic relationship in her life. He’d made her believe all things were possible. He was a realist, of course, any cop would be, but he had a basic optimism that engendered the same emotions in her. For so long, those emotions, that expectation, had been totally missing in Dana’s world view. And if she wanted to keep the wonderful feeling, savor it, she’d have to take the risk of meeting JoeyD. As she’d learned long ago, and now from the incident at the school, no one should put off what she wanted to do.
Annoyed as hell, Joe sat propped up in a hospital bed, his shoulder bandaged and needle-like pain radiating from his skull. His daughters were scrutinizing him, so he tried to act as if he was fine. They’d come to the hospital with his mother when Shelly had called her about the incident.
His mom said, “I think it’s time for these young ladies to go home.”
Kara, eleven, and Kaelyn, seven, protested. Both of them resembled him with dark hair and eyes, though Kae was small and stocky. Kara was tall, slender, with a dancer’s physique. And, whereas Kae was shy, Kara was extroverted. She was the one to push tonight. “I wanna stay with Daddy.”
“Honey, I’m just waiting for my discharge papers. It’s late now and you’ve got your camp tomorrow.”
Kara frowned. “We’ll go home with you. We can take care of you.”
Joe’s older brother, Spence, stood and crossed to the bed. He was used to taking charge. “We’ll do that, Kara.”
Both Spence and Cole, the youngest in Joe’s family, had come rushing to the emergency room right behind the others. The three siblings had different fathers, and there was a wide age span between Joe and Cole, but as adults, they were close. His daughters, mom and brothers were the most important things in Joe’s life.
Spence slid an arm around each of the girls. “Your dad’s going to need the kind of help you can’t give him. Go on home with Grandma. If you want, I’ll come get you in the morning and bring you back to his house so you can see him before you go on to your camps.”
Reluctantly, the girls agreed.
“Well, that’s settled.” His mother leaned down and kissed Joe’s cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow, dear. Try to get some rest.” The tightness around her mouth told Joe she was upset, too, but trying to conceal her feelings. She’d been the wife of a cop and knew the drill.
Grasping her hand, he whispered, “Thanks, Mom. I am okay, you know.”
“I can see that.”
When the women left, Joe closed his eyes, leaned back onto his pillows and sighed heavily.
“How do you really feel?” Spence asked.
At least he could be honest with his brothers. “My shoulder hurts like a son of a bitch and I’ve got the mother of all headaches.”
“Take the painkillers.”
“When I get home.”
“I’m staying the night with you,” Spence added. “I already called Annie.”
Annie Hopkins was Spence’s soon-to-be wife, the woman who’d stolen his heart practically from the first time they met. They’d had a rocky time meshing their lives but worked out the differences and now were classic lovebirds.
And Joe was jealous as hell of what they had together. Though he appreciated that his brothers were there to look after him, Joe wanted a woman he cared about in his life, too. He hated being single. And now he’d have free time to ponder his failures in that department. Damn the screwed-up kid and the careless teacher.
“Joey?” Cole asked. “You zoned out.”
“Sorry. Hey, thanks for doing all this.”
“Wish I could stay over, too, bro.” A single dad, Cole had a nine-month-old at home he had to get back to.
“I got it covered.” Spence tried for a smile.
Both of his brothers were solemn. Worried. Joe had already put them through enough when he’d dropped out of college and his whole future had turned around on one aggressive tackle. He’d totally shut down with them, gone into himself and acted like a shit. He’d done the same thing when he was little and his dad had died, and as an adult when he got divorced. Then his partner before Shelly was killed and he’d been forced to go to counseling; the department shrink told him his unconscious mind was protecting him from hurt when he refused to open up about his pain. Spence and then Cole had a hell of a time getting through to him. “This isn’t that serious, you know.”
Cole’s fist bumped on his knee. “I hate the danger you’re in as a cop.”
“Somebody’s got to protect the world, guys. Who knew it would be a teenager with a grudge that took me down. Everybody thought he liked the teacher and she might help get the situation resolved. I knew not to assume anything. I even told the woman to stay back from the goddamned window.”
“He shot out at her because of a book.” Cole’s tone was incredulous.
“Seems he identified with his namesake in the story they were reading. The teacher made some negative comments about the character, and the kid took offense.”
Cole said, “There’s something wrong with him to confuse reality and fiction like that.”
A nurse Joe recognized from upstairs walked by the open door but didn’t see him in the ER cubicle.
“I just thought of something. Could one of you go up to the pediatric floor and tell them I’ve been hurt. With the hospital grapevine, it’ll get around that I was shot, and I don’t want the nurses to worry. Or the little patients, if they overhear I was down here.”
“I’ll do it when you guys leave.” Cole smiled. “It’s a nice thing you do for those kids, Joe.”
On the first day of school in September, the police department threw an indoor picnic at one of the local hospitals for the kids who wouldn’t be returning to school with their friends. That time of year was always hard on those left behind. And the party was a real pick-me-up for the cops. Joe personally felt like he hung the moon when he did his part.
“Yeah, call me Mr. Nice Guy.”
Joe’s phone buzzed.
“You’re supposed to have that off,” Spence commented.
“They love cops here. Nobody’ll complain.”
Retrieving his cell from the stand, he looked down at the caller ID. The number was unfamiliar, but he thumbed the talk button anyway. “Moretti.”
He didn’t recognize the voice. “Who is this?” Could a reporter have gotten his number? He knew Shelly wouldn’t give it out to the press.
A pause. “It’s Dana. From online.”
His heartbeat picked up. “Holy cow! I didn’t expect to hear from you.”
That was an understatement. He’d been disappointed as hell that the woman he’d come to like the most from Cole’s online-dating website had been so off-putting. Initially, she’d drawn him in with her insightfulness, sense of humor and sensitivity. Joe had damn near begged her to see him, but she wouldn’t. Not yet, she’d said. He was about ready to give up on her, and now she’d called! Doing a mental victory dance in his head, he kept his cool in front of his brothers. They razzed him about his dating habits. “How’d you get my number?”
“I contacted the precinct and when I said I was a good friend, they put me through to your partner, Shelly. She didn’t hesitate once I told her how I knew you.”
“A good friend, huh?” He glanced up at the guys. “Hold on a second.” He covered the mouthpiece. “Can I have some privacy here?”
Both of them sat back in their chairs. At least their anxious expressions were replaced by mirth. “Not on your life,” Spence told him.
Cole shrugged and crossed his arms over his chest.
Joey had no choice but to hold this conversation in front of them. “Sorry, my brothers are in the room and won’t leave.”
She laughed. It was a sultry sound, which flowed through Joe like fine pale ale. “Typical of them, from what you told me online. How are you? Your partner said your injury isn’t critical.”
“It isn’t. My shoulder took the bullet, but it went right through, so I didn’t need surgery. I passed out because I hit my head, hard. I’m being discharged ASAP.”
A sigh of relief. “I was worried.”
“Yeah? This change your mind about meeting me?”
A hesitation. “Maybe.”
“Glory Hallelujah! Come over to my place tonight. Nurse me back to health. We could get to know each other real well.”
No laughter this time, only silence from her end. Finally, she said, “I wish I could. But that’s impossible.”
Though he’d been half-joking about the visit, her answer struck him as odd. “Why?”
“Long story. Which I don’t want to discuss over the phone.”
“But you’ll go out with me?”
“I will. When you recover, I’ll meet you in a public place.”
“Hey, that’s not necessary. I’d never hurt you.”
“It’s necessary for me. I have my reasons.”
His gut told him not to push, and as a cop, he liked her sense of self-protection. The police were aware that predators stalked these sites. “We have to email until then.”
“Can you type?”
“I will if it kills me.”
A chuckle this time, which was cute, too. “I’ll hang up now. Let you rest. I’m…glad you’re all right, Joey.”
“Thanks for calling, Dana. It means a lot to me.”
Joe disconnected, and suddenly his shoulder didn’t hurt so much anymore. Instead, talking to her had filled him with an edgy kind of need. Hell, he had a near concussion and a hole in his shoulder and was thinking of her like that. She was one special woman.
“So?” Spence asked, raising an eyebrow.
Since his brothers knew Dana had given him the runaround, and they’d overheard his half of the conversation, he told them about this newest development.
Cole snorted. “You only had to get shot to land a date with her.”
“Screw you,” he said, pleased that the guys were joking about his injury now. He glanced at his phone. And even more pleased his little dancer had changed her mind! Getting shot was worth it if he got a real chance with Dana.