Take It Off
by Judi Lynn
Noira wore a smug smile as she laid down three aces and two queens. She raised an eyebrow at Speed. “Take it off.”
She reached for her wine as her boyfriend gave a smug smile. They were sitting across the kitchen table from each other, their empty wings container pushed to the side, along with crumpled napkins and paper plates. She didn’t cook. Takeout containers littered the countertops. She’d worry about them tomorrow. Sometimes, she cleaned on Saturdays. Sometimes, she didn’t.
Speed’s biceps bulged as he flexed his muscles for her and pushed his thumbs below the elastic of his boxer shorts—his only remaining article of clothing—lowering them a little to tease her. With a smirk, he tugged one side wider and pulled out a handkerchief to toss on the floor.
Noira’s jaw dropped. “No fair!” She still wore her bra, panties, and both socks. The socks didn’t match, but she’d been in a hurry getting ready for work this morning. “A hanky doesn’t count.”
“It was on my person, so it does,” Speed argued. He took a long draw of his beer. He had a strong chest, great abs, and a fantastic fanny, but skinny legs. His fanny was still covered.
She narrowed her eyes at him. He’d won at strip poker the last two weeks and crowed about it. The dork still thought she was drool worthy, even though she was a little overweight and her left knee had two small scars and didn’t work right. Aftermaths of the pickup running into her small car. She was ready for victory this time around, and a hanky wasn’t going to save him. Before she could protest further, though, Speed’s cellphone rang. He glanced at the I.D. and reached for it. “Speed here. I’m putting you on Speaker.”
“It’s me, Roly. I’m on duty tonight but just threw up, feeling worse every minute. Can you finish my shift for me?”
Noira’s shoulders sagged. Speed had worked last Friday night. They were looking forward to this one. Speed pressed his lips together, disappointed, but finally said, “Sure. Is Stringbean going to drop you off, then pick me up?”
“He’s already back at the hospital for me to get my car. He’ll be at your place soon.”
“I’ll be ready.” Speed wrinkled his nose as they heard retching in the background. “Spray the inside of the EMS so I don’t catch what you have.”
Roly grunted and disconnected. Probably a good thing, and Speed started to the bedroom to pull on his uniform. He stopped at the doorway, though, bent, and pulled down his undershorts to moon her.
Noira cheered. Her guy had a great ass. By the time he got off shift at midnight, though, her victory would be hollow. He wouldn’t feel frisky anymore. She grabbed her cane and went to the bedroom, too. Might as well change into her pajamas. Then as Speed’s EMS pulled to their door, she hobbled to the kitchen to grab a bottle of wine before settling on the sofa and flipping on the TV. She pushed an empty pizza box out of her way, so she could put her feet on the coffee table.
Speed dropped a kiss on Noira’s head on his way out of the apartment. “You got lucky, you know. I could feel it. You were going to lose tonight.’
“In your dreams.” She searched for something to watch while he was gone. As an EMT, Speed worked a lot of weekends, but for once, he’d had Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights off, like she did. It was too good to be true. Noira glanced out the window to watch him slide behind the steering wheel of the vehicle and kept watching until the EMS pulled out of the parking lot. Then she lifted the wine bottle to take a swig. So much for a great evening.
By the time Speed got back again, the show she was watching was over and the wine bottle was empty. She still had energy, though. She raised her eyebrows hopefully as Speed started to the couch. Then she got a good look at his face.
He flopped down beside her and reached over to push a stray chestnut curl out of her face. “We had a bad night. We’d made two heart attack runs before we were called to an accident. A guy ran right in front of a woman’s car, and she hit him. Couldn’t stop in time. He was still alive when we got there, but he was in bad shape. When we checked him over and decided we could load him on the stretcher, there was a pool of blood underneath his back. He had a gunshot wound under his left shoulder blade.”
She sat up to listen to him. “Did he make it to the hospital?”
He shook his head. “We did our best, but he’d lost too much blood. When I was trying to strap him on the stretcher, though, he grabbed my wrist and said, ‘Danny did it. I saw him, so he chased me down and shot me.’”
She frowned. “He couldn’t have run far. Was there a crime close to where he got hit?”
“Cops came to talk to the driver, and I told them what the guy said. They told me they’d check on it. I was thinking if you go to work on Monday and hear or see something, I’d like to know.”
“I’ll ask around.” She worked for a woman judge in the courthouse, knew a few detectives, too. With a case like this, she had a good chance of hearing gossip. But she didn’t have to wait that long, because when she opened the morning newspaper, she recognized the man who’d been shot. She and Jayce had been tight in high school. They were a couple their senior year until Jayce joined the marines and she started school to be a paralegal. Then she’d met Speed, and they’d been together six years.
She pushed the front-page news to Speed. “I didn’t even know Jayce was back in town. He was my high school steady. Was in the marines and sent overseas. He survived that and then came home and got killed? That’s not fair!”
Speed quirked a dark brow at her. “You, of all people, should know life isn’t fair. You got lucky you didn’t have to use crutches for the rest of your life.”
She had to give Speed his due. He never even blinked when her leg got creamed in the car accident. He had her back through the whole rehab therapy sessions, listened to her when she felt sorry for herself, then told her to buck up, buttercup, and figure out how to deal with it. She pinched her lips together. “You’re pretty wonderful, you know that, right?”
He grinned. “I’m a prince. You got lucky.”
They both laughed. Then he asked, “Did Jayce have a buddy named Danny back when you knew him?”
A shiver slithered down her spine. “Danny lived a few doors down from him. They’d been friends since grade school, but boy, were they different.”
“Jayce always wanted to make a difference in the world. Danny thought the world owed him a good time.”
“Do you remember Danny’s last name?”
“Warshawski. Had a mouth on him.” Speed gave her a look, and she shrugged. “I know. So do I, but I’m nicer.”
“You’re the best. You have good taste. You like me.”
“There you go again.” She smiled, then looked at Jayce’s picture on the front page and took a deep breath. “This is such a bummer. Did you read the article? Was there another crime in the same vicinity?”
Speed scanned the rest of the news story and shook his head. “Nothing in this.”
Noira squared her shoulders. “I want whoever did this behind bars. Both of us need to keep our ears open.”
Speed finished his coffee and came around the table to give her a quick hug. “Sorry you lost an old friend. Let’s do something today. Want to take an overnight trip? Get out of town for a minute?”
They hadn’t done that for a long time. “Chicago? Lots of great neighborhood restaurants and things to do.”
“Can you make it through the history museum?”
“I’m slow but steady, like the tortoise. Pack light?”
“Let’s do it.”
Forty-five minutes later, they were on their way. They didn’t get back until almost dark on Sunday night. They’d pushed Jayce out of their minds all weekend, but once they stepped back in the apartment, his newspaper picture was still on their kitchen table.
Speed opened Sunday’s paper and shook his head. “Nothing new. They’re still working the case.”
“I’ll ask around at work tomorrow. Tell everyone I knew him, that we were close once.” And she found out that Hunter, the detective she knew best, was working the case.
“Was there anything unusual when you knocked on doors and talked to people?” she asked him.
Hunter studied her. “How close were you?”
“I went to school with him, dated him. He was my first love.”
Hunter grimaced. “Okay then, all we know is that someone called in a complaint that people were shouting at each other, arguing on his street. It wasn’t that far from where Jayce got shot, so we knocked on doors. No one had anything to report, but one woman had a black eye. When we asked about it, she said she’d hit it on a kitchen cupboard door she’d left open on accident.”
“Can you tell me her name?”
“If you don’t tell anyone else, including Speed.”
She crossed her heart and waited.
Hunter said, “Adalyn Miller. Divorced. Mean anything to you?”
“I went to school with an Adalyn, but her last name wasn’t Miller then. Danny had a huge crush on her.”
Hunter reached for the notepad in his pocket. “Tell me about this Danny.”
So, she did. When she finished, Hunter gave her a thumbs-up and said, “Gotta go.”
For the rest of the day, Noira sorted through crime photos and witness statements for an upcoming trial. When she left for the day and got home, Speed was already gone, working a night shift. He’d left an empty Arby’s bag and sandwich wrappers on the table.
The apartment couldn’t hold any more garbage, and she was restless. She grabbed a trash bag and went around the rooms, throwing away empty boxes and papers. When she finished, the apartment actually looked nice, so she called Door Dash and ordered chicken tenders, fries, and honey-mustard. After she ate her meal in front of the TV, she cleaned up her mess. Might as well let Speed see a clean place for at least one night.
When she woke the next morning, Speed was sitting in the kitchen and pushed a cup of coffee and two of her favorite donuts her way. “We should celebrate.”
“Are you back on days again?”
“Yes. And Jayce’s killer is behind bars.”
“Who was it?” But Noira already knew.
“You helped crack the case. Hunter went to question Adalyn. Her black eye had turned an ugly purple and yellow and he pressed her about it. She finally admitted that Danny had pounded on her door that night, and she’d let him in. He was furious with her. They’d been seeing each other but she told him she’d met a really nice guy, that they were over. And he lost it. Hit her. Dragged her into the bedroom. Jayce got there when he was holding her down and finishing up. He dragged Danny off her, then Danny realized Jayce was the ‘nice guy’ Adalyn was seeing. He ran to his car for a gun, and Jayce took off to lead him away from Adalyn. When she heard that Jayce had been killed, she knew it was Danny, but he threatened to kill her parents if she said anything.”
Noira felt numb. She knew Danny had an attitude, that he expected to get whatever he wanted, but she never thought he’d kill someone to get it. And Jayce had done exactly what she thought he’d do. He’d tried to keep Adalyn safe. It was so depressing.
Speed hugged her shoulders. “Want to call in sick today?”
She shook her head. “And miss all the gory details?” But her attempt at humor fell a little flat. She sighed. “No, it won’t change anything. Might as well go in, look at the crime pictures, and do my best to help Hunter nail Danny’s ass.”
Speed kissed her cheek. “Go kick butt, female warrior. I’m off to save lives.”
They got ready and left for their separate jobs. But when they got home that night, they went out to eat. And drink. And make merry. They needed it.