Authors: Archer Mayor
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller
She nodded seriously. “I’ll do that. You remember where Lloyd’s office is?”
Ron laughed. “Barely, but yeah. I’ll find it on my own. Thanks for your help and I am sorry we met under these circumstances.”
He took his leave, alone for the first time. As he traveled the balcony, the staircase, the rooms and hallways on the ground floor, heading to the office, he tried imagining the Tag Man doing the same thing hours earlier. For Ron was confident that he’d taken thorough stock of the entire house, not just its fridge. Whoever he was and whatever his motives, Tag Man was a collector of sorts. Ron was sure of it.
He just wasn’t sure of anything else.
The door to the office was closed, but rather than knock, Ron simply turned the knob and entered. Lloyd Jordan was sitting at his oversized desk, his hands in his lap, his features speaking of worse news than he was admitting.
He raised his eyes as Ron entered, neither surprised nor angered by the latter’s presumptuousness. “You still here?” he asked tonelessly.
Ron closed the door behind him. “So what
you lose?” he asked quietly.
Jordan glared at him. “Nothing. I told you.”
“Your body language says otherwise.” Ron closed the distance between them and made himself comfortable in a leather guest chair.
“You a shrink, too?”
Ron took a calculated guess. “Enough to know you’re missing something you’re worried’ll come back to bite you in the ass.”
Jordan let slip a regretful half smile, and for that split second, Ron thought he’d get what he was after—and what by now he was convinced existed.
But the other man wouldn’t play. He straightened slightly in his seat and said, “Well, that’s for me to know and for you to find out, along with the bastard who broke into my home. Just stick to that and I’ll worry about whatever I may have misplaced here.”
Ron could recognize a stone wall when he saw it, but it was early yet. He’d have time to dig up Jordan’s little secret.
He rose and looked down at the hodgepodge covering the desktop—not unlike the clutter crowning the dresser upstairs. Except for a small trio of objects located high and center, where most business managers usually keep their nameplates. There, an antique clock, a pen holder, and an expensive Brookstone weather-instrument cluster all stood neatly ranked, side by side, as if on parade. The striking orderliness of it reminded him of the bedroom coffee-table array earlier.
“Nice toys,” Ron said blandly.
Jordan dropped his gaze to the collection, then instinctively reached out and moved the pen holder out of place, putting it closer by. “Too much crap,” he grumbled, adding, “Are we done? Can I get back to work now?”
“Absolutely,” Ron conceded, not bothering to extend a hand, walking to the door instead. “We’ll be in touch.”
He didn’t look back to see the expression he already knew would be there.
Sammie Martens sat in a rocking chair by the window, her baby daughter asleep in her arms. The window was open, the air soft and soothing. She was feeling more settled than she had in a lifetime.
She knew the consensus among her friends and colleagues—that she was ill-suited to motherhood, too driven, and her job too unpredictable, not to mention too violent. And, naturally, the never-ending complaint: that her choice of partner in Willy Kunkle proved that she was emotionally self-destructive.
But she didn’t care. What she had snuggled up against her breast disposed of it all, reducing all protest to a murmur.
Besides, she wasn’t a complete idiot. She’d been among the first to recognize Willy as a loose cannon and a fierce moral force—she and Joe Gunther, of course. In fact, it had been Joe’s steadfast acceptance of Willy’s careening eccentricity that had helped her to see past the stinging smokescreen of Willy’s public persona.
And she and little Emma were now the beneficiaries of that effort. It didn’t mean that Willy had lightened up much. He could still be jarringly blunt and dismissive with people. But he and Sam had developed their own language there, none of which applied to Emma, with whom he was as soft and gentle as he wasn’t with everyone else.
She heard a car coming up the street and glanced out the window to see a familiar vehicle pull into the driveway. The three of them now lived on the edge of Brattleboro, at the bottom of a cul-de-sac in a quiet, barely noticed neighborhood. The house had originally been Willy’s alone, chosen to address his suspicious nature. It was screened from the houses on either side, had a full view of all approaches, and was unobtrusively wired with alarms and cameras. It was also peaceful, quiet, modest, tidy, and attractive—without a doubt the most embracing home Sam had ever known.
She watched fondly as Joe Gunther slowly climbed out of the car, preparing to drop by as had become his almost weekly habit. Herself the product of a neglectful and chaotic childhood, Sam viewed this man unabashedly as a father figure. When they’d first met, she a young woman out of military service and new to police work, her affection had been more romantic, if unrequited, but it had quickly found its proper place, and had strengthened there ever since.
In her eyes, this was a remarkable man heading deliberately up her walkway, his shoulders slightly bowed and his brow somber. Thoughtful, deliberate, steady, and loyal, he was no life of the party. He didn’t tell stories, didn’t participate in practical jokes, wasn’t good at idle banter, and usually stood alone at social functions with his back against the wall and a Coke in his hand. But he was the proverbial rock—the man you needed when you were having doubts, and the one to have at your back in a fight.
He was also a man in trouble. Several months ago, Lyn Silva, with whom he’d been in love, had been killed in an assassination attempt aimed at Gail Zigman, Joe’s previous long-term companion. But the shooter hadn’t known about the recent change in Joe’s love life. In fact, it wouldn’t have mattered—Joe would have been devastated in any case. But the irony of this misdirected bullet hitting precisely the right target only added to the pain.
Sam regretted that her own unanticipated motherhood had come to bring her joy just as her mentor had been brought so low.
“Hey, stranger,” she called out softly through the window as he drew near, heading for the front door.
He stopped and looked up, scrutinizing the house before he saw her against the sun’s glare off the white clapboards. His face was creased with a sudden smile, sad but genuine.
“Hey yourself, little mother. You two enjoying the sunshine?”
Sam laughed quietly. “One of us is. Emma’s in La-la Land. Come on in. The door’s unlocked.”
The older man chuckled. “That’s got to mean Willy’s not around.”
She joined him. “And don’t you tell him, either.”
“No loose lips, Sam. Count on me.”
Joe continued on in. Sam heard him enter the house, carefully closing the door behind him to at least pay tribute to Willy’s sense of security.
Moments later, he stepped into her living room, crossed over, and kissed her and the baby’s forehead before settling into an armchair opposite the rocker.
“How’re you two doing?” he asked.
“Fine,” she answered, adding, “You look tired.”
He nodded without comment.
“Feeling any better?”
“Not really,” he answered. “It shifts around inside my head too much, like a dog looking for a place to lie down. I keep thinking ‘what if?’ What if I’d done this or that? What if I’d said one thing or the other? Or not? If Lyn had crashed in a plane visiting friends in Omaha, I would have been heartbroken, but I wouldn’t be feeling so guilty. I know that sounds self-centered,” he added as Sam held up her hand to stop him, embarrassed by such vulnerability in someone usually so stolid.
“Still,” he said, “I feel totally responsible.”
She’d known him to make mistakes in the past, and to suitably atone for them. But this ran outside any behavior she’d witnessed before in him. It was uncharted territory and, given her current calm and serenity, a little frightening.
“You know none of that’s true,” she tried.
He didn’t argue. “I know. But just because it’s irrational doesn’t make it less real.”
That didn’t give her much room, and she wasn’t skillful at this kind of conversation anyhow. That was Joe’s strength, sadly. He was the one they trusted to see clearly into a troubled psyche.
Fortunately, he seemed to realize that now, and changed the subject to get her off the hook.
“I know people have been giving you grief, Sam,” he said. “But I think motherhood suits you to a tee.”
Despite her misgivings, she smiled broadly and hugged her baby slightly, making Emma stir in her dreams. “I’ve never been happier.”
“Willy looks good, too,” he suggested.
She laughed at the thought. “Only you would notice that,” she told him. “You’re right, though. He hates to admit it, but this has given him something I don’t think he knew was missing. I understand the scuttlebutt, though. Giving Willy a baby must look like giving a lamb to a hyena.”
Joe wrinkled his nose. “Lovely thought.”
She kept smiling. “You know it’s true.”
“I do,” he agreed. After a moment, he said, “I’m sorry about the timing of my own mess, by the way, what with Emma arriving on the scene. I know it’s putting a strain on the unit, too.”
She saw where he was heading. “It’s okay,” she countered. “Things are quiet—down to a dull roar, anyhow. Willy and Les aren’t complaining, and I’ll be back in a few weeks, maybe sooner. I have child care for her all lined up already.”
“Still,” he persisted. “I left you high and dry, ducking out the way I did.”
She was already shaking her head. “Since the day we met, Joe, the only time off you’ve ever taken was when you were in some hospital, usually half dead. Give yourself a break. We’re fine; I’m fine. Take advantage.”
She was ill at ease, wishing she could find the eloquence to match her feelings. But she apparently had done well enough. Joe nodded as if in confirmation, stood, and kissed them both again.
“I will,” he said. “Thanks, sweetheart.”
He squeezed her shoulder and left as he’d come, deliberately and deep in thought.
* * *
Willy Kunkle removed the pen from his pocket and used it to tap sharply against the glass door of an Argentine restaurant named Bariloche. It was late, and Brattleboro’s Elliot Street was empty enough that a single cat felt free to stroll down the middle of the road a hundred yards away, looking around like a tourist taking in landmarks.
To gauge from the surrounding architecture, this moment could have been a hundred years earlier. Brattleboro was a poster child for the archetypal New England, Industrial Revolution museum piece—all red bricks and stone moldings with bas-relief titles like the Union Block, or Amedeo de Angelis. In fact, if anything, the few parked cars looked out of place in the gloom, rather than the buildings that seemed as cemented in place as the pyramids themselves.
A shadow moved in the dimly lighted restaurant, and a narrow form in a trim white apron and T-shirt approached the door like a specter, pale and silent.
The lock was thrown, and the door opened to reveal a clean-shaven, short-haired, nondescript man who smiled as he recognized Willy—not the latter’s usual reception.
“Mr. Kunkle,” he said, stepping back to let Willy inside.
“Dan,” Willy countered, not bothering to shake hands, knowing the other’s dislike of the form. It also didn’t surprise him that, although Dan Kravitz had been working in the restaurant’s kitchen for a full shift—a restaurant with open grills and a reputation for preparing juicy steaks—Dan’s white clothing looked as fresh as if it had come from the washing machine.
Kravitz was an intelligence source of Willy’s—a denizen of the town’s unnoticed lower levels, among the bums, fences, prostitutes, drug dealers, runaways, and others as invisible to society as the lampposts and parking meters lining the streets.
But Dan Kravitz was also something else, something Willy hadn’t known for the first ten years of their acquaintance. During that time, as cop and CI, respectively—or confidential informant—neither had put enormous effort into getting to know the other. Willy had found Dan to be reliable when consulted, and Dan had told Willy of certain illegalities only when they’d surpassed his own standard of outrage. This strictly business relationship had been additionally constrained by Dan’s almost exclusively monosyllabic speaking style, which had naturally led Willy to write him off as simpleminded.
A prejudice shattered just last year.
That was when a major case had occurred involving several of Dan’s friends, with whom he and his daughter had been living. When Willy had asked for his impressions at the time, Dan’s response had left him speechless. The insight, thoughtfulness, and careful, elegant phrasing—seemingly straight out of nowhere—had revealed a man of education, culture, and experience, steeped in the vagaries of the human spirit and refined in psychological analysis. His advice and guidance, in a single conversation, had been of enormous help. Willy had found the entire event comparable to a dog suddenly speaking English.
He had been both caught off guard and thoroughly impressed, not that he hadn’t immediately given Dan hell for engaging in such duplicity.
He recalled Kravitz’s response. “We’re alike in some ways,” he’d told him. “People think you’re a crippled asshole who acts like a Nazi, while they think I’m a retarded bum with good manners who knows how to shower. They’re wrong, but they buy what we’re selling.”
That comment alone had shot Dan Kravitz to the top of Willy’s estimation, if not just for his blunt clear-sightedness. More quirkily, Willy also liked the man for his perpetual cleanliness, a trait they happened to share.
Willy’s neatness didn’t match Dan’s. But, like Dan, he kept his need for order internalized, not holding others to his own standards. It allowed him to travel amid disorder and filth albeit uncomfortably, which may have influenced each man’s personality quirks. In Dan, spotless in the confines of a messy, commercial kitchen, Willy therefore saw a kindred soul.