Page 27

Chapter Seventeen

Grant parked the minivan in front of the ice rink between another van and an SUV. He dropped the keys and fished under the driver’s seat. Ugh. He pulled out an empty juice box, a granola bar wrapper, and enough crumbs to feed a flock of pigeons before finding the keys. He crossed the parking lot, his boots scraping on the salt-dusted asphalt.

The interior was rough, the decor leaning heavily on concrete. The main office was on the left. A middle-aged woman sat at a desk behind the waist-high counter that separated the waiting area from her workspace.

Grant placed both palms on the laminate countertop. “I’m Major Grant Barrett. I’m here to collect Kate Barrett’s things.”

Tucking her reading glasses into the V neck of her sweater, she approached the partition. “I’m so sorry, Major.”

Grant nodded. People meant to be respectful, but their constant expressions of condolences slammed his loss home dozens of times a day.

“Could I see some identification, please?” she asked.

Grant produced his military ID. She squinted at it for a minute and then handed it back.

“Coach Victor should be next to the rink.” She pointed to an open door.

“Thank you.” Grant exited the office. He followed a hall and emerged in a cavernous open space. A waist-high dented red wall, topped by a Plexiglas shield, surrounded the rink. Parents huddled on bleachers. Some bent over phones. Others focused with painful intent on the oval rink beyond, where figures twirled on skates. Blades scraped on ice.

Two men stood at the opening to the rink, pointing and murmuring at the skaters. A group of teenage boys in pads and black skates burst out of another door labeled Locker Rooms. Hockey sticks clacked as the boys jostled each other.

“Hey, watch where you’re going, asshole,” one yelled.

“Fuck you.”

Two boys dropped their sticks, tugged off their mitts, and lunged at each other. One kid tackled the other. They went down hard, nearly knocking into a little girl in a miniature skating outfit and tiny white skates.

One of the men sprang forward, caught the child under the arms, and lifted her out of the way. Grant grabbed the teen on top by the back of the collar and lifted him off his combatant. “Knock it off!”

Fighter number two scrambled to his feet. The boy started forward, but the man grabbed his arm. The boy’s face was heated, his hair mussed, his eyes glowing with resentment. He broke the man’s hold and swung at his combatant. Still holding the first kid, Grant stepped between them and caught the sloppy fist in one hand.

He leaned in close and glared down at the angry teen. Their faces were barely an inch apart. “You do not want to do that.”

The boy opened his mouth and closed it as Grant stared him down. The kid swallowed as he registered the seriousness in Grant’s eyes. The teen backed off, but the hatred burning in his eyes didn’t dim a watt.

“Thank you.” An athletic man dressed in a black parka and jeans pointed at the two boys. “Save the aggression for the game. Both of you, go wait for your ice time in the penalty box. Coach Zack will be along in a few minutes.”

One protested, “But—”

“I said go.” The coach’s voice dropped an octave as he herded the boys off. Sulking, the two fighters picked up their pads and sticks and dragged ass toward a bench box surrounded by head-high Plexiglas.

One of the men offered a hand. “I’m Corey Swann, and this is Josh Winslow.” He gestured to his companion.

Grant shook it. “Major Grant Barrett. Thanks for the help.”

Josh lowered his voice. “The arena has a hockey program for delinquent teens. It’s an effort to keep them out of jail and channel their energy in a positive direction. But if you ask me, it’s a big mistake. Some of these kids are just plain trouble.”

Grant glanced over at the boys sitting in the glass-walled box. Mac had been like that, all anger and confusion. He’d been in juvie too, arrested for possession after falling into a gang. Grant was gone. Mom was sick. Dad was a mess. Looking back, Grant wondered if dementia was beginning to take hold back then and no one recognized the symptoms. Lee had been the one who’d coped with Mac’s drug and delinquency problems, and Mom’s deathbed talk had snapped her youngest out of it. A program like this might have helped his brother. “Who knows what those boys have had to deal with in their lives.”

Corey’s eyes turned somber. “We’re all sorry about Kate.”

Reminded of Kate’s death, Grant’s chest deflated.

“And thanks for the help,” Corey said. “These boys can be a handful.”

“Is your son on the team?”

“No.” Corey nodded toward the rink. A pretty blond teenager executed a spinning jump on the ice. Corey beamed. “That’s my daughter, Regan. She’s on the junior figure skating team with Josh’s daughter, the one in black. The hockey team has the next slot of ice time.”

“The girls look very talented.” Even with an ex-skater for a sister-in-law, Grant knew next to nothing about figure skating. He should have paid attention. He should have known Kate better.

Josh stood taller. “They are. The team went to the sectional championships last fall. Next year, they’ll make nationals, right, Victor?”

Josh gestured toward the coach in the black parka, who had deposited the offenders in the penalty box and was walking back to them. “Victor coaches our daughters.”

Joining them, Victor offered a hand. He was a head shorter than Grant, maybe fifty years old or so, with a fit body and salt-and-pepper hair cut as short and sharp as his black eyes. “Victor Church.”

“Major Grant Barrett.”

“That was impressive, Major.” Victor smiled, the expression sharkish on his angular Slavic features. “Do you play hockey?”

Grant smiled. “Not since I was a kid.”

Victor shook his head. “Too bad. We could use another coach who can handle those boys.” He paused, sadness dimming his eyes. “I assume you’re here for Kate’s things?”

“Yes.” Grant glanced back at the girls twirling on the ice. The blond, Corey’s daughter Regan, reminded him of Kate. She’d been twenty and still skating competitively when he’d met her. He’d been on leave and had gone with Lee to Los Angeles to watch her skate in her one and only national competition. He imagined her gliding on the ice, her pale blue costume and golden hair giving her a princess air. He’d known then that Lee was a goner. His brother hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her. Grant still couldn’t believe she was gone, that someone had fired a bullet into her head. A quick vision of the insurgent’s face exploding in a red mist flashed into Grant’s mind. His pulse quickened, and anger simmered in his chest. He blinked the image away and, breathing deliberately, turned back to the coach. He couldn’t let his nightmares intrude on his day.

Victor gave him a tight-lipped nod. “Please accept my condolences. Let’s go to the office.” He turned toward Corey and Josh. “You’re both staying for the meeting, right?”

“We’ll be there,” Corey said. He and Josh walked back to the rink.

Grant followed Victor away from the ice and down a corridor. They passed the locker rooms and entered a small, dusty office. A brawny bald man scanned a grid on a clipboard. He looked up as they entered.

“Major Barrett, this is Zack Stuart, the hockey coach.” Victor gestured between them, then gave Zack a brief rundown of the fight.

Zack shook his head and tucked his clipboard under his arm. “Maybe an hour of power skating drills will drain off some of that hostility.”

Grant laughed. “I like to run new recruits long distances with heavy packs to keep them out of trouble.”

“Excuse me while I go do my best to wear them out.” Zack grabbed a jacket off a peg and left.

“Are you sure you don’t want to coach hockey?” Victor asked. “Our coach has his hands full. His assistant coach quit last month to play for a minor league team.”

“I’ll pass, but thanks,” Grant said.

Victor moved behind the desk. “We’re all sorry about Kate.”

“You worked closely with her?”

“Yes. She was in charge of beginners through preliminary level competitors. I handle the advanced skaters.” Church crossed his arms over a lean chest.

“Were you a competitive figure skater too?”

“I was a national champion, but that was a long time ago,” Victor said.

Grant scanned the half dozen trophies lined up on a row of shelves behind Victor’s head. “Have you been coaching here long?”

“Almost seven years.” Victor’s gaze followed Grant’s. He pointed to a golden trophy. “Kate’s had several preliminary skaters place in a local competition last season. She was thrilled. Building a good team takes time. This year will be my year. I have the best skaters I’ve ever coached.” Pride filled his voice. He cleared his throat, as if suddenly realizing, again, that Kate was gone.

Grant understood. He had moments of happiness with Carson and Faith, laughs that burst out of his chest before he remembered he should be sad because Lee and Kate were dead. All positive emotions felt inappropriate and selfish.

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