As Brooke stood at the corner with Darien waiting to cross the street, a voice caught her attention.
“Hello, Officer Hudson.” The young man lifted his chin and glared against the sun. “I thought you was off on Tuesdays.” He didn’t smile, which was unusual.
“Paco? Is that you? I haven’t seen you for a while. My schedule changed since we talked last.” She smiled. “I almost didn’t recognize you. You were so proud of that moustache and now you’ve shaved it off.”
“I like this way better. It looks cleaner.”
“It makes you look younger. Are you still going to night school?”
“Nah.” He shook his head and looked away. “Not for a couple of months.”
“Paco, I thought we agreed you would get your high school equivalency.”
“I might go back.” He shrugged. “Or maybe not. It don’t matter no way. They only let the poor get so far in this country.” He looked at her, then away. “Besides, I don’t have time.”
“You still work for Joaquim in his store. Right?”
“No. Not no more. I got more important things I gotta do now.”
Concern filled her mind. Paco couldn’t be involved in the drug trade. Not when he had so much promise. Not when it was so dangerous. He couldn’t. “What things?”
“Just…just some things.” He looked at her for a few seconds and tilted his head to the side. “Just some things,” he repeated.
Brooke frowned. “You told me that Joaquim was like a big brother to you.”
“Yeah, well, I already got lots of brothers.” He glanced around, then settled his gaze on Darien. He stared. “You new around here?”
“This is my partner, Officer McKee,” Brooke said. She turned to Darien. “I met Paco when I was first assigned to town duty.” She turned back to the young man. “So you changed jobs already.”
“Yeah. You know how it is.” He nodded slightly and glanced at the patrol office across the street. “You checking in? So you still on first shift like before, huh?”
“Yes. Going off duty in a few minutes.” She glanced at her watch. “We’re a bit early, but we have things we can do until it’s time to clock out. I’ll probably see you around, Paco.” She touched his arm. “You stay out of trouble, okay? And think hard about going back to school. You know you’re limited without an education.” Brooke turned to go.
“Wait a minute,” Paco said. Brooke turned back. “If I need somebody to help me with my schoolwork, you know, my math and English and stuff, think you can find somebody to help me?”
“I’m pretty sure I can.” She smiled. “Tell you what. If I can’t find someone, I’ll tutor you myself. Deal?” She held out her hand.
Paco hesitated, then he took it. “Okay. Sure. Deal.” Brooke turned away, but again his voice stopped her. “I see you in a big hurry, but I got another question.”
“Okay. What is it?”
“Uh, how can I get in touch with you if I need to? You know, about the tutoring and stuff if I change my mind about school?”
“Just leave a message at the desk inside headquarters telling me how I can reach you.”
He hesitated before answering. “Okay. I’ll do that. So, you going off-duty, huh? You leaving kind of early today, huh?”
“You got it.” She stared at him. “I already said that. You gotta stay focused, my young friend.” She patted his arm. “You’re too young for memory lapses.” She smiled. “I’m gonna be looking for that message from you, so make it soon. Don’t disappoint—”
A tremendous blast shook the area, slamming Brooke to the ground. Before she could assess her injuries, a second explosion scattered debris into the air, then a plume of flames shot up.
Brooke tried to look around, but thick dust hanging in the air almost blinded her. She squinted her eyes shut against flying shrapnel. More fragments, some lightweight, but others large enough to make her wince, pelted her back.
Her own deep cough echoed that of other people spread on the ground.
It seemed to take forever for the rumbling to fade.