. . . And Other Wilderness Pursuits
A Psych story
Chapter One: Get In And Set The SAT-NAV To Hell
For most of his life, Carlton Lassiter prided himself on being grounded in reality—early life had taught him quickly that having even a sliver of a dream was but a potential on paper—no good without the right amount of action bring it to life. Besides, he'd had no time for dreaming—and no use for it. Things hurt either way.
And when she came into his life . . . things got even worse. Or so he could see it now—but the truth was, Carlton had been fiercely in love with Victoria. "Nothing can be as savage as love." Now that he knew it . . . now that he'd loved her, only her, for many of his good years . . . denying it was going against fact.
But it was somewhere in that reality he existed in that held the sliver of his dreaming . . . of an entire lifetime with Victoria—and a house, a family, a family pet, family vacations, everything married people wanted when they wanted it together—growing older with her holding his hand, with her head resting on his shoulder.
Lassiter slammed his fist on his desk, reminding himself to take a break from torturing himself. He had actual police work to do, and he knew he had to get to it.
But what was this love worth, anyway? Monetarily, it must have a huge a price tag. Or at the least, her lawyers were doing their damnedest to stonewall his lawyers into believing that. Had he known that simply by signing his name on a legal document would bring more emotional and financial torment than he had been dealing with before—would he still have granted her the divorce? Why had he been dreaming under the assumption that signing his name meant only a permanent severance from her—they would no longer share the same name, the same bed, the same air? Truth was, they hadn't been "husband and wife" for years in spite of having the marriage certificate which proved it.
Lassiter's fingers curled into hard fists. A real life effect he could not deny—though he had been pretty good at doing so so far—was that strain of (not) dealing with all of this was starting to cut into his health. Sleep came less and less, so he pushed himself to keep at work. Dark circles under his eyes blackened, his skin itself taking on a gray sheen. He looked dull all over, as if drawn on the ground in white chalk. It was almost inevitable that he made himself susceptible to the latest seasonal illness creeping around the station—felling officers left and right. Not one seemed to be just a carrier; everyone it touched went down.
Lassiter huffed, barely having had a chance to skim the new case file he'd been handed before Vick wanted to see him. So it felt, anyway. At his desk, he'd turned the few pages, not bothered in the least by his audible cough which shook his body and echoed down the corridors of the police station.
Focusing on what was written and typed in the file was more than a little trying through his bleariness, a condition which usually only occurred after a shift of eighteen to twenty hours or more and counting, but Lassiter wasn't giving into the reasons why he felt like this after a brief period of just three hours. He'd only had the file for less than an hour—following stacks of paperwork from a previous investigation—and had accepted it with a batch of poorly disguised sniffles.
Los Padres National Park, he read through for the fifth time, followed by the ominous words "wildlife disturbance". He found a gem of annoyance at the scale of what a case like this might entail—and wondered if there wasn't a rookie or two he could hand this off to—hell, why wasn't the California Department of Fish and Game pulling their weight? But then he stumbled across the words "alleged disappearance"—a sure sign that the DFG had caved to ask for "outside" help. Hell, it was this or go to the Feds; the lesser of two evils, Lassiter considered. And damn, how often (too many times for him to count) had "alleged disappearance" changed into meaning "probable homicide"?
Other words jumped out that held his attention, but not for long. Maybe a fourth cup of coffee would do good, he thought, pretending he hadn't already downed three cups as if they were shots within only a hour and a half of being at the station.
Luckily enough, he didn't get the chance. He almost dragged his feet, going before Vick. He'd kept himself on duty, working without complaint, but he'd already been gently warned about this a few days prior, and now his number was surely up.
Carlton could feel a tickle in the back of his throat, but he ignored it. He did not get sick, not ever. Lassiter stretched his lips before pursing them as he remembered one time. . . . Vick stared at him through a massive curtain of the cold medicine he'd plied his body with—for preventative measures, he'd told himself. She almost wavered before him like a mirage—but her "Go home, that is an order, Detective!" was much too loud and clear.
Karen's nostrils flared. "Do not test me! We are already short Beckett, McNab, Dobson, Sanchez, O'Neil and at least three others because of this bug that is making its way around the station. Last thing I need is both you and O'Hara bedridden when I need you most!"
"Chief, I don't get sick," Lassiter protested. He tried to clear his throat, swallowing the tickle and ignoring his watering eyes. It left him gasping. "O'Hara doesn't either. We're detectives."
Vick pointed to the door. "Get out of my sight for the day, Detective! Go now before I have a detail assigned to guard you for 24 hours."
He was about to point out that she couldn't possibly have any extra uniforms to spare when he noticed her very hard glare. This was not up for discussion; sometimes, he knew better than to get on her bad side. Somehow, she always managed to win the pissing contest. Then Lassiter remembered Juliet had explained this to him—it was because of the Chief's rank.
"I will not have you being the cause of keeping this bug alive because you insisted on staying here when you were not at your best. And I don't want to hear a word about you just being a carrier."
Damn. Lassiter frowned. Again, he wanted to contradict her and tell her there was never a time that he wasn't at his best. Even at 4 o'clock in the morning after pulling a triple. He sighed. "Twenty-four hours?"
Karen sighed. She wanted to say forty-eight—give it a solid two days—but she suspected he would either go stir crazy or she would need him before that much time had passed. "Yes. And I will call you if I need you—otherwise, stay the hell away, Detective."
Lassiter recognized this pattern of her speech; she only used excessive "hells" when she was worried about her officers, of whom she pretended to have only minimal connections to. Only what was required. Maybe it was the medicine talking, but he recalled the crazed look in her eyes following the attempts on his and McNab's lives. Lassiter swallowed a lump, knowing suddenly that she was not making empty threats about that detail.
* * *
Carlton had no intentions of sitting around his apartment for the entire day. Lately, there had been too many remainders—reminders, he corrected to himself with a grunt. Mostly every second of his free time not spent asleep (when he could get it) had been spent in courts where he had to see Victoria almost daily. He was so tired of lawyers; he was tired of his ex-wife—a notion he never guessed would come to pass. More than a notion. It had taken him ages to fall out of love with her, and these last days had finally found his heart coming undone from hers, free. Sure. Free.
It hurt like repeated, ruthless kicks to the groin. When he was at work, there was little time to spare to give his ex-wife any consideration. But like the period of two year trial separation, this period was not an easy one. It was manageable; he was an adult; well, this wasn't really true. Yes, he was an adult, certainly, but it was "manageable" because he kept much hidden, took things out namelessly on the range, or on perps when it wasn't conspicuous. And his partner . . . he had let her in on some things, which had helped. But the more and more he thought of it—and the less and less he felt comfortable talking about with O'Hara—Lassiter considered he needed to talk mano-a-mano with a person who knew what he was going through. Because he had been there himself.
He did not want this person to be Henry Spencer.
But Lassiter was discovering he had less and less choice. Or options. There were a few on the force, but Lassiter had never been "friendly" with them, and it seemed funny to belly up to the bar with any of these men to commiserate about their miserable ex-wives. Besides, the last thing he really needed was it getting around the station that he was an emotional wreck. Carlton didn't mind telling O'Hara some things because he knew he could trust her not to spill the beans. She was a good friend, but she was not a man.
Plus, she wanted to help too much. He needed help, but much less of the feminine induced emotional kind; he didn't want to talk anymore about his feelings. Even considering his feelings regarding Victoria and their failure to be a successful couple brought Lassiter to a hard, bruised knot still turning his insides black and blue. And if he thought too long on it, there were notions streaked with red—the color of unshed tears—while he clenched his jaw and ground his teeth. Then he would inevitably reach for scotch. Or his gun, if he could get to the range. There wasn't too much longer he could go on like this.
Still, there was no guarantee that Spencer would talk to him. The two certainly didn't have the best history; they had one partially successful fishing trip—on which Henry nagged him to death about the proper ways of holding his goddamn fishing pole—and their brief stint as mismatched "partners"—Henry constantly stepping on Lassiter's toes—when the younger Spencer had gotten himself abducted. In the end, both had survived—as well as the younger Spencer—so there wasn't exactly bad blood between them, things left unsaid. Yet, there wasn't really good blood there either.
Lassiter scowled, feeling his steeled stomach turn. This was the lowest of the low, being reduced to what he was about to do. Almost grovel . . . because he was that goddamn desperate. This was the result of the hole his ex-wife had gouged out of him. And, he knew she was happy about it too.
Lassiter groaned, hating that, even though she was long gone, even though it was over (in some ways, in other ways, not over), his body would still react to the physical stress—his muscles retaining their memories of pain, the too familiar tightness in his shoulders and neck, the familiar ache at the bridge of his nose spiderwebbing far back into his head. With it, his jaw, his stomach, the backs of his legs—everything that was muscle on his lank, taut frame, that was everything—could remember how bad it felt to love her and despise her in the same breath. How she could make him heartsick when she wasn't even here any more?
Goddammit, this was without a doubt Henry Spencer territory.
Henry was living proof that there was survival after divorce. That attraction returned; that the female of the species was not a creature to be repulsed, or feared, or sniveled about; Lassiter clenched his fists. He just wasn't there yet. Women were still his enemies, with the exception of his partner and his chief, but he wasn't comfortable not yet resenting women in some ways.
She had been the great love of his life.
But Henry had also lost his great love . . . and he . . . Lassiter clenched his fists tighter, feeling his stomach also clench tighter, then his heart squeeze hard in his chest. How was he ever going to get there? Was it even possible to fall in love again? He had trysts for his physical needs and emotional comforts—but he didn't love any of these women. He'd gone through Lucinda's loss with dull aches, missing the sharp warmth of her taut body, her soft hair against his cheek when they were at rest, the way she filled his bed and his arms. But what they'd had wasn't love. She had been the first to tell him that. She had been the last.
Lucinda had been so unlike Victoria; it was an easy sell. Neither had entered in thinking they'd end up as lovers—wrapped up in each other's arms, carrying on in secret. He'd breathed her in, held her tight as if he couldn't bear to let her be without him, but he'd never . . . given up on his wife.
Lassiter drove to Spencer's house without calling first, making the assumption that Henry would be home, rather than out getting sunburned on his boat, or imparting in other mundane chores of retired life. He did so to leave himself the chance to change his mind, to walk off of Spencer's property with nothing—without even having to ask, or worse yet, being rejected. Lassiter knew he could deal with barbs and taunts, suspecting Henry would have plenty when he discovered the real reason for Lassiter's uninvited visit. But if Spencer said no, or flat out refused to even have a discussion; again, Lassiter's steeled stomach twisted. At this point, he was willing to give up valuable and desired hours at the range as long as he didn't have to make this errand.
Carlton sighed. He got out of his car.
On his way up the driveway, Lassiter briefly considered what Henry would make of his unannounced arrival. He hoped, because he was alone, that Henry wouldn't jump to conclusions, thinking that something had happened to his son. He squinted, considering the implications, wondering, if such a time came to pass if Vick herself wouldn't personally be the one to call—who would insist on making the notification herself. Lassiter wondered if Henry had considered this as well; he'd caught the man working outside, squinting down the driveway as Carlton made his way. Carlton hoped Henry wouldn't mistake his slow, measured steps as a sign of personal bad news. Henry stopped, staring, waiting for Lassiter to speak. Lassiter felt sheepish then. He scrambled for one of the many practiced openers he'd had for this meeting.
Henry glared at him, but relaxed the minute tension that had crossed his face and widened, slightly, his eyes. He could read Lassiter's hesitation, though it was new to him, but realized quickly that Lassiter's presence hadn't a thing to do with some jackassery of his son. No one had been impaled, or shot, or spirited off by bears. That Lassiter knew of, Henry thought. It was an odd sight, to see the gruff, usually growling Head Detective shuffle his feet, then pull the skin of his face tight against his bones. Whatever he was trying to spit out looked like it might be about to kill him, so it couldn't possibly be about Shawn. And there was no apology in his eyes, or determined setting of his mouth.
In fact, Lassiter seemed ready to bolt at any second. But there had to be a good reason that he was here. "Henry, glad I caught you," he spoke, an awkward smile on his lips.
Henry repressed a smile of his own, because the detective's words belied anything willing—his body language professed a great suffering. He wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Lassiter looked hard pressed to form actual words following his false greeting. Slightly annoyed, Henry cleared his throat. His mind had been on planting new shrubs around the front of his house, and tending to his small garden's pest problem, but now he found himself curious at to just what could make Santa Barbara's Head Detective struggle with speaking.
"Something I can do for you, Carlton?" Henry asked finally after too long a silence. He raised an eyebrow. "Am I wanted for questioning?"
Lassiter shuffled closer, shaking his head. "No, I'm not here on behalf of the SBPD."
It didn't escape Henry that his teasing had failed to miff Lassiter's paranoia at all. He'd figured Lassiter would jump all over that, demanding to know what crime Henry may have committed—or thought he committed—that would require a "voluntary" trip to the station. He decided to try another tactic. "Then why are you here?" he barked. Lassiter stopped dead, just a few feet from him. He looked . . . defeated.
"I . . ." Lassiter jumbled some words together under his breath, but finally looked Henry in the eyes. Ready to take his medicine. "I need your help."