by Doug Allyn
Art by Ron Bucalo
There is a mirror beside Claire’s bed. It was there when I moved in. It offers a reflective view of all the marvelous amusements thereon.
Despite her age, or perhaps because of it, Claire is a voluptuary, a sensual and adventurous lover.
But there’s a problem with mirrors.
You can’t turn them off.
This morning, when the alarm buzzed us awake, I was on my side, facing away from Claire. Facing the mirror.
And as she sat up, she yawned and stretched, and glanced down at me. Or rather, her reflection did.
And her reflection smiled. . . .
How do you mark the moment when love ends? Not a fling or an affair. A love. Attraction that began with curiosity, became infatuation, then blazed into something fierce. And forever.
Or . . . maybe into an affair of the heart. A lark. That over time, simply runs its course.
And plays out.
What marks the difference? Is it a look? A tone of voice? A momentary lightness as the roller coaster reaches the top of the trestle and levels off, before beginning its final plunge?
Maybe it’s all of those things. But if you’ve loved and lost (and who hasn’t?), you do know when it happens. To your soul.
And I saw the End of Us in that wan smile, in Claire’s mirror. I saw fondness, and sorrow, and worst of all . . .
She knew we were crashing, and she’d already given up.
Without a fight.
Without even a word.
Saddened, sure. But maybe just a tad relieved that the waiting was finally over.
It was a suicide’s smile. Just before he swallows the pills.
Or points a gun at you, forcing you to shoot first.
“Suicide by cop” is the term.
I’ve been through that one. My partner and I once killed a man who chose death over prison. Who wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.
No thought for the ones who’d send him over. The ones he’d force to end his life. Or die themselves.
Myself and my partner.
No blaze of glory for us. It was simple light-switch logic. On or off. Life or death. Kill or be killed in a hyperviolent half-second.
An instant I often relive, in unguarded moments.
In slow, slow motion.
The night it happened, my partner and I drank a toast to the gunman’s bad luck. And to our own, which was better than his.
But we took no satisfaction in his death. We survived, he didn’t, but that was all. We gained absolutely nothing. Won nothing. Had nothing to show for it but the occasional night sweats or panic attack. And a dark cloud that settles over us now and again.
An aura that was haunting me that morning as I shaved and dressed in Claire’s guest bathroom.
I left for work without saying goodbye.
As angry as I’ve ever been with a woman.
My partner, Zina Redfern, was waiting in our shared office at Hauser Center, the House. Valhalla, Michigan P.D.’s Major Crimes unit. A soulless place. Two gunmetal gray desks facing each other in a glassed-in cubicle.
Zee’s the toughest female I’ve ever known. Not a gram of girly in her.
Yet she picked up on my gloom the moment I dropped into my chair. Perhaps that’s what women’s intuition actually is. Radar that alerts them to risky mood swings.
And I was definitely dangerous that morning.
Not to Zina. She’s a fairly risky package herself.
A First Nation woman, square and hard as a brick, Zee is always armed. Her Glock service automatic, plus a backup Smith Airweight in an ankle holster, and a Fairbairn fighting knife in her boot. Her emotional armor is as bulletproof as a Kevlar vest.
She even dresses for combat. Johnny Cash black. Black jeans, black T-shirts, black nylon police jacket. Wears her thick raven hair cropped short as a boy’s.
“Hey, boss,” she said. Then read my look. She swiveled her laptop screen towards me. It showed a car, idling. Exhaust rising in the December air. Couldn’t see much more. The windshield was lightly dusted with fresh snow. “We’ve got a homicide.”
“Good,” I said.
But it wasn’t.
It never is.
A silver BMW was sitting at a stoplight in one of Valhalla’s older, upscale neighborhoods. Roosevelt Drive. Not named for Franklin. The Roosevelt before.
Three- and four-story Victorians, most of them built before the first World War, all tricked out for the holidays. Santa and his reindeer on snow-covered lawns, holly wreaths glowing in the windows. Only ten shopping days before Christmas.
Despite the twenty-degree chill in the air, the driver’s window was down. He was slumped over the wheel, two neat bullet holes in his temple, ringed by charcoal-gray powder burns. Ugly, but not god-awful.
I’ve seen god-awful.
God-awful is a drunk fumbling his loaded shotgun in his garage, accidentally triggering both barrels of a Browning double twelve.
Which literally blew his head off.
Sprayed his blood and brains all over the garage ceiling.
Everyone who dealt with the aftermath worked in a steady drizzle of crimson and gray goo that dripped down on us the whole time.
Me, the coroner, the EMTs. It was bad enough for us.
God-awful for the pregnant wife who discovered her headless husband.
I scrubbed myself in a scalding shower for two straight hours after that one. And burned my favorite leather jacket.
But in a way, this one was worse.
And naturally, Zee read my face. And instantly picked up on it.
“What’s wrong, Dylan?”
“I know this guy,” I admitted. “Hell, I probably know who killed him.”
“Okaay . . .” She nodded warily. “Normally that would be a good thing. But not this time? Why is that? Who is he?”
“He’s an attorney named Blake Stanton. A newbie. Moved to Valhalla seven or eight months ago. Low-rent drug cases and divorce work.”
“You know a divorce attorney? Is something up with you and Claire I should know about?” Zina thought she was kidding. Until she caught the blaze of rage in my eyes.
“Okay, you know the vic,” she continued quickly. “From where?”
Ten days before, I was at the Jury’s Inn, a hangout for cops, lawyers, and media people, in downtown Valhalla, across the street from the courthouse.
The joint was humming, the jukebox thumping out holiday oldies, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole. Cops scarfing lunch while reporters sniffed out headlines and lawyers dealt away their client’s rights like a country-club bridge game.
The Inn has a Nordic ambiance. Blond oaken furniture that matches the paneling and hardwood floors. Christmas candles on the tables, but otherwise, business as usual.
I was in a corner booth, nursing a bowl of breakfast chili.
A guy in a suit slid onto the bench facing me. Not a cop. Tall, slender, and stylish. His jacket was tailored, Armani. Razor-cut hair, manicured nails. A lawyer. Definitely.
“Detective LaCrosse? My name’s Blake Stanton. Could I have a word? It’s about your cousin Andre.”
“What’s Dre done now?”
“It’s not like that. It’s a personal matter. I’m an attorney with Marley and Bates. I’ve been with Tom Marley about eight months but I’m stuck with divorce work and court-appointed drug cases. I’ve gotten a better offer from a Chicago firm, so I’ll be moving on soon. That’s the problem, actually.”
“A better offer is a problem?”
“One I’m hoping to avoid. I’ve been . . . keeping company with your cousin’s ex-girlfriend. Tracy Montroy?”
“Tracy was a bit more than Dre’s girlfriend. They were together a couple of years. They have a daughter.”
“Mindy, of course. A wonderful girl. We get along splendidly. So well that I’ve asked Tracy to come to Chicago with me, and she’s agreed.”
I paused with my spoon in midair. “You plan to take Tracy and Mindy with you? To Chicago?”
“It will be a good move for all concerned, especially Mindy. Chicago schools don’t close on the opening day of deer season.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”
“It’s certainly not the norm in civilized society. And in a big city, Mindy’s background will be less problematic. You know how sensitive young girls can be.”
“Is there a problem with her background?”
“I realize there’s not much stigma attached to mixed heritage in this part of the country—”
“Actually, our family’s pretty proud of our heritage. We’re Metis, the descendants of French voyageurs and their First Nation wives. If there’s any stigma attached to that, nobody’s ever mentioned it. Not to my face, anyway.”
“I meant no offense. It’s more a matter of class, I suppose. I want to give Mindy a proper start in life.”
“A white-collar start?” I asked. “As opposed to working class? You’re an attorney. You work.”
“It’s hardly manual labor.”
“Some folks prefer manual labor. My dad was a logger. A wood-smoke boy. Swung a chain saw most of his life. I’ve swung saws myself.”
“My point exactly,” he said complacently. “You rose above your background, bettered yourself. You have a degree, you don’t come home with dirt under your nails. ‘Like father, like son’ is the exact opposite of what makes this country great.” He raised a finger to signal the waitress for more coffee.
I sipped mine to mask my annoyance. Stanton had clearly done some homework on me. I have a master’s in police science, no dirt under my nails. But he hadn’t dug deeply enough, or he would have realized how close I was to smacking the self-satisfied smirk off his face.
And he truly didn’t realize it. This smug suit had never taken a punch in his life. Or had his face rubbed in the dirt.
That could change. Maybe in the next minute.
“Have you talked to Dre about taking Tracy and Mindy away?” I asked.
“I’ve only met your cousin Andre once. It didn’t go well.”
“I’m not surprised. Dre doesn’t care much for lawyers.”
“In fact, he went to prison for assaulting one. A city councilman, I believe.”
More homework. Stanton was thorough.
“He also clocked two deputies in that scrum,” I admitted. “But that was years ago. He was a hot-headed kid then. It cost him eighteen months in Milan.”
“He could end up inside again. My firm’s investigators found indications of continuing criminal activity. Trips across the Canadian border, unexplained income. Your cousin lives very well for a guy who works so . . . irregularly, shall we say?”
“Dre’s not a nine-to-five type. Logger, trucker, pool shark. Sometimes those jobs are off the books.”
“So you claim to be unaware of any illegal activity?”
“I don’t claim anything, sport. I’m barred by statute from any involvement in the investigation of a blood relative. And you’re wearing out your welcome, Mr. Stanton. Cut to the chase or take a hike.”
He took an envelope out of an inner pocket instead, placing it on the table between us. I left it there.
“A peace offering, Detective. A way for all of us to come out ahead. How you divide the money up is your business. Just convince Andre to let Tracy and Mindy go without making trouble.”
“You’re asking me to buy Dre off.”
“Your cousin did time, and he’s living hand to mouth. I’m offering a substantial figure.”
“I’m sure you are,” I sighed. I glanced around the dining room, mulling this over. It was the usual Jury’s Inn crowd. An assistant D.A. lunching with the mayor, two sheriff’s deputies swapping lies. I turned back to Blake Stanton.
“Do you believe in evolution?” I asked.
“Evolution. Natural freakin’ selection. Animals that become extinct because they’re too weak, or too slow. Or too stupid. Personally, I have doubts. The concept seems simplistic to me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You, Counselor. After a meeting with Dre that ‘didn’t go well,’ I take it you had him checked out? There’s a saying along the north shore, ‘Never cross a LaCrosse.’ Did your investigator turn that one up?”
“I believe he mentioned it. Is it some kind of joke?”
“It’s a saying about Dre and me, that started back in high school. We played hockey for Val High. Earned serious reps as enforcers. Thugs on ice. But the saying includes Dre’s father as well, my Uncle Armand? He murdered his wife, and her lover. Did twenty years for it. Never cross a LaCrosse. The implication is, you’ll end up spitting out teeth on the ice. Or shot dead on a dance-hall floor. Are you getting the picture yet?”
“Which brings us to evolution. I’ve had my doubts because I’ve never actually met an animal that was too stupid to live. Until now. Miss?” I waved the waitress over, handed her the envelope. “Do me a favor? Drop this down the garbage disposal for me—”
“That won’t be necessary,” Stanton said, snatching it away. “I seem to have wasted my time.”
“Not mine,” I said. “It’s the funniest breakfast I’ve had in years. But if you want some advice? If you think Dre will give you trouble about taking his daughter out of state, you’re probably right. But he’s not your only problem. Being Tracy’s latest flame doesn’t give you any actual legal standing. Which is why you’re hoping I’ll bribe my cousin for you. Does that pretty much sum things up?”
“It’s . . . not inaccurate.”
“Mr. Stanton, that idea’s so stupid I can’t even frame an answer that wouldn’t land you in traction. So here’s the bottom line. If you want to work this out, you have to talk to Dre. One on one. I’d choose a public place. And for God’s sake, don’t offer him money.”
“Everyone has a price, Detective,” Stanton said, rising, staring down at me. “Especially an ex-convict with no legitimate income—”
“An ex-con who lives well, pays child support, and drives a new Dodge pickup that cost him forty grand. Paid cash for it too. Get a clue, pal. Andre’s not a guy you want to jerk around.”
“I grew up in Chicago,” Stanton said, unimpressed. “Compared to Capone’s old stomping grounds, Vale County’s a rest home. Think your cousin’s as bad ass as the Bloods? Or the Crips?”
“I think Dre loves his daughter. And if you try to buy her? Make damn sure your major medical’s paid up. . . .”
His health insurance wouldn’t do him much good now.
Autopsies are free.
“So? Do you think your cousin could have done this?” Zina asked.
“No,” I said automatically. Then kicked my brain into gear. I leaned in, examining the wounds more closely. “Small-caliber weapon, a pistol most likely, twenty-two or maybe a twenty-five. Powder burns, so the gun was fired point-blank. No exit wound.”
“His window’s rolled down,” Zee pointed out. “He knew the shooter.”
“Or thought the neighborhood was White,” I said.
She gave me a look.
“I don’t mean Caucasian-type white. In the army, there are three alert stages. Red for imminent danger, Orange for heads up. At White you’re safe. Home free.”
“This street definitely looks White,” Zina said, glancing around. “White Christmas, in fact.”
“Yeah, that’s the trick,” I said. “White’s like Santa or a Hallmark card. It’s a nice idea, but it doesn’t actually exist. Once you’ve seen serious trouble, you’re pretty much stuck at Orange forever.”
“I know that feeling,” Zee agreed.
“Detective? I found some brass.” A patrolman came trotting up, holding two fired cartridges in his palm. Zee took them, being careful not to smudge any prints. “Twenty-five,” she said, frowning.
“The cartridges are different brands, Dylan. One Colt, one Remington.”
“Street gun?” I said.
“Could be,” she nodded. The patrolman was eying us curiously.
“When you buy a gun in a shop, you buy a box of ammo with it,” Zee explained. “You load it up with one brand. Buy the same gun on the street, you get a fistful of whatever slugs the dealer’s got loose in his pocket. Different brands. Street gun. Stolen or unregistered. Check up and down the block, see if anybody heard anything.” The uniform nodded and hurried off.
“Any chance your cousin owns a street gun, Dylan?” Zee asked.
“I don’t know what Andre owns, but I know he wouldn’t do this. Not like this, anyway. If we’d found Stanton beaten to death in an alley, I’d rethink. The problem is, as soon as we identify Dre as a person of interest, the chief will bounce me off the case and kick jurisdiction to the state police. Dre’s an ex-con. He’ll top their list, guilty or not.”
“Then you’d better settle it one way or the other,” Zee said. “The coroner’s on the way. I’ll stay and work the crime scene. Get your cousin out of the crosshairs, Dylan. If you can.”
My cousin Andre?
I’m an only child. But I have a brother. Or close enough.
When I was ten, my favorite uncle murdered my favorite aunt.
Uncle Armand LaCrosse came home from the first Gulf War with a Silver Star and a shattered shoulder. But while he was off making Kuwait safe for the emirs, his wife had been keeping warm with an old flame.
When my Aunt Vangie ran away with her lover, Armand snapped. Tracked them to a backwoods tavern. They were slow-dancing to the jukebox when Armand stormed in out of the rain with his army automatic in his fist. He capped them both, then took a seat at the bar to wait for the law.
Armand drew twenty-five to life. And my young life went over a cliff.
My folks took in Uncle Armand’s three kids. I lost my bedroom to the two girls, wound up sleeping on a cot in the basement with the furnace, the water heater, and my cousin Andre.
Stuck in that basement with our childhoods in ruins, we took our anger out on each other, scrapping like badgers in a box.
My father put a stop to that. And over time, our fury devolved from a wary truce to friendship. Then more. Sharing our clothes, whispering our pimply teenybopper secrets in the dark.
I went straight into the army after high school. Military police, two tours in the ’Stan, then four years stateside with Detroit P.D. before I found my way back to Valhalla, on Michigan’s North Shore. Where I grew up.
Dre never left. He did eighteen months in Milan for assaulting the drunk who killed my father in a head-on collision. A drunk who was also a councilman and an officer of the court. To this day, Dre says it was worth it. But a prison record definitely crimps your opportunities.
And now? I’m a cop. In our hometown.
And Dre’s still the brother I never had. Which makes our relationship . . .
Finn’s Waterfront is a hole-in-the-wall bar near the harbor, a hangout for lake-freighter crews, long-haul truckers, and my favorite cousin.
Dre was on the job, shooting pool in the back corner. A saloon-size table, seven foot instead of nine. It makes the game look easy. A table for drunks and amateurs.
My cousin could hustle Minnesota Fats on a saloon table, with one hand behind his back. Blindfolded.
He conceals his talent by losing a lot, which he was doing when I walked in. If he saw me, he gave no sign. I slid into a booth in the corner, away from other customers. On his next shot, Dre scratched on the eight ball, a forfeit. Forked over a fifty to a fat trucker in a Carhartt canvas vest.
“You’ll let me get even later on, right?” Dre pleaded, pinching the bill tightly as he handed it over.
“Anytime, sucker,” Carhartt grinned as he snatched the fifty away.
“We’ll double down next time,” Dre called after him. And Dre would lose double. And then he’d double the stakes again, and lose. Until it was five hundred a game. At which point he’d squeak out a lucky win, then another, until he bled Carhartt vest dry.
At which point he’d kick him back fifty bucks gas money, and get him gone. Partly because Dre’s a sweetheart. Mostly so Carhartt wouldn’t hang around to warn off the next fish.
Dre slid into the booth facing me and we bumped fists. He hasn’t changed much since school. Still wears faded jeans, a gunfighter moustache, shoulder-length dark hair, with the same twinkle in his eyes. He was a heartbreaker back in the day. Still is, I expect.
Love is one of the many things my cousin and I don’t discuss anymore.
I gave him the rundown on Stanton.
“Somebody capped that schmuck for real?” Dre grinned. “If you catch him, I’ll buy him a drink.”
“No, you won’t. You’ll shut your mouth and listen up. You look really good for the killing, Dre. Stanton was a lawyer and people know you had trouble with him. They’ll be looking for somebody to hang in a hurry, and if you come up as a suspect, I’ll be pulled off the case. I won’t be able to protect you.”
“I don’t need protection, Dylan. I didn’t do anything.”
“Half the guys in the joint claim they’re innocent, bro. Know what? Sometimes it’s true. And you don’t want to be one of them. You’re gonna need an alibi.”
“Jesus, you really think I did this, don’t you?”
I hesitated, trying to come up with an honest answer, then realized I’d taken too long. Which was an honest answer of sorts.
Dre shook his head. “Screw you, cuz. And screw your alibi. I’ve got fifty thousand reasons not to cap that jerk. They’re in my bank account. Deposited four days ago. You can check.”
“Stanton offered you a payoff? And you took it?”
“Hell yes. I lived with Tracy two years, cuz. She was a good time, not a lifetime. It wasn’t like with you and what’s her name. Claire?”
“I hope not,” I said.
“What does that mean?”
“Never mind. Taking Stanton’s money helps your situation, Dre, but it may not be enough. Have your dad fix you up with an alibi. Rock solid, understand? No room for doubt.”
“The only doubts I see are yours, cousin. I better get back to the table before my fish swims away.”
“Luck’s got nothing to do with my game.”
“Mine either,” I said.
Marley and Bates, Attorneys at Law, had offices a few blocks across the river. On the north side. The wrong side.
Marley’s name was solo on the shingle over the door. Bates had been his father’s partner, dead since the eighties. But tradition matters in this town, so Bates’s name stays etched in the window.
I trotted across the sidewalk and took the narrow stairs two at a time. The door at the top was open. A pudgy Pillsbury doughboy in a white shirt and rep tie glanced up from an old library desk in the middle of the office.
“Jak si¸e masz, Tommy,” I said. “How you been?”
“Dylan? I’ll be damned!” Tommy Marley rose, coming around the desk. We shook hands, then embraced, long and hard.
“It’s good to see you,” he said, stepping back, looking me over. I did the same. Tommy was forty pounds heavier, and his baby-fine blond hair was combed sideways to conceal a bald spot, but the open, Dutch-apple-pie smile hadn’t changed a bit.
Only his name was new.
Tommy Marleski had played second-string hockey for the Vale Vikings. Went off to Chicago for his law degree. Ten years later he came home to take over his dad’s practice. As Tommy Marley.
“I heard you were back,” I said. “It surprised me. In school, all you talked about was getting out of this town.”
“I tried Taos after law school,” Tommy said, resting a plump haunch on the edge of his desk. “Heartless place, the desert. You can take your dog for a walk, miss a turn, and be dead in an hour.”
“That can happen here,” I said.
“Freezing’s an easier way out than rattlesnakes or sunstroke,” Tommy grinned. “Sunday brunch at the in-laws seems like a hassle until you live someplace where you’ve got no people at all. When my dad got sick, needed me to take over his practice, I came home. My wife didn’t, though. Marla stayed on in Taos.”
“Sorry, man, I hadn’t heard. What happened?”
“She said she wanted to find herself, whatever that means. Last I heard she was looking with a yoga instructor.”
Tommy shrugged. “It happens about half the time nowadays. Marriage has the same odds as a coin flip. That’s my sad story. What’s yours?”
“Blake Stanton,” I said, watching his face.
“Yeah, that’s a bit of a mess,” Tommy said, shaking his head. “I hate to lose him. We were frat brothers in college. Hooked up last year at a convention. He was bored doing corporate law, and didn’t need the money. Born rich. Maybe that was the problem.”
“What problem?” I asked.
“With his background, I hoped taking him on would score us some upscale clients, but he couldn’t seem to crack the country-club set here.”
“Most of the Maple Hill crowd keep the same family lawyers for generations. Old money, old connections. Being rich isn’t enough.”
“Changing my name from Marleski to Marley didn’t help either. I’ll always be a north-side Polack to those people. I had hopes for Blake, but with my divorce and all, I can’t afford . . .” He broke off, staring at me, frowning. “Why are you asking me about Blake?”
“He’s dead, Tom.”
“What?” Any doubts I had about Tommy vanished in that instant. He went ashen. So stricken I grabbed his arm to steady him. Eased him down in his chair. Gave him a minute to get himself together.
“What the hell happened?”
“Stanton was shot to death, Tom. In his car. On Roosevelt Drive.”
Something flickered in Tommy’s eyes. Just for a moment. But it was there.
“I need you to throw me a bone, Tommy. I know you can’t talk about his clients, but we’ve got nothing.”
“Haven’t you?” he said grimly. “Stanton was dating your cousin’s ex. Leaving town with her, in fact.”
“They worked that out.”
“Did they really? And now Stanton’s dead? What a coincidence.”
“It isn’t like that.”
“Then what’s it like, Dylan? We both grew up in this town, both know how things work. Stanton never figured that out. Took divorce cases that ticked off the wrong people. Took . . . other cases he shouldn’t have. When he started dating Dre’s ex, I knew he’d never catch on. You grow up in Motown or Flint, you know which streets to avoid, which colors you can’t wear. Stanton grew up rich in Chicago. I don’t know what he knew.”
“Not enough,” I said.
Driving back to the House, I thought about what Tommy said. About changing his name but still being from the wrong side of the river. In a northern town like Valhalla, geography is destiny. Where you’re born, who your people are, matter a lot more than your grade point in college or the career you choose.
Dre and I are wood-smoke boys, raised in the back country. We bounced a bit higher, because we were high-school hockey stars in a town crazy about ice. State champions our senior year. Champs get invited to the right parties, make the right friends. We’re still backwoods boys, and proud of it, but in Valhalla, people know who we are. Or who we were, anyway.
But Tommy was right. Having money wouldn’t help Stanton fit in. He wasn’t old money, or a hometown hero, and he’d signed on with a low-rent law firm from the wrong side of the river.
Stanton probably came here expecting to be an instant social lion, because he’d been born rich. Instead he found himself locked out of a community order that was set in stone before his grandparents were born.
Had he been so lonely that he started dating a woman with a child? Trying to create an instant family?
Had that loneliness gotten him killed . . . ?
# # #
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"Claire's Mirror" by Doug Allyn, Copyright © 2015 with permission of the author.
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