"...those who enjoy the darker side of the genre are in for some serious thrills with this..."
Laura Wilson, The Guardian
Published in the UK by Polygon (March 19th, '09) and in the US by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (Nov '09).
The Sky Is Crying
by Brian Thornton
BRIAN THORNTON is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and received his B.A. from Gonzaga University in 1992. Brian earned his M.A. in 19th century American and Tudor-Stuart English History from Eastern Washington University in 1995, and has had articles published in The Pacific Northwest Forum and Columbia: the Magazine of Pacific Northwest History. He lives in Seattle.
My suit was a sodden mess. I ran my fingers through my wet hair and tried to wipe the rain out of my face when I got through the front door. Then I waved as I blew past Kenny at the front desk and hit the elevator button in the main lobby. Standing there waiting for it, I saw the ugly-ass piece of schlock art that Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson had donated to the law school that bore his name. For probably the thousandth time, I wondered whether he had donated it to the school as a polite way of getting rid of the hideous thing.
Turning to look at the light bar above the elevator door, I saw it stopped on the mezzanine level. In that common and ultimately fruitless gesture of impatience, I tapped the up arrow a couple of times. In its own sweet time the elevator opened to take me upstairs for my appointment with a tyrant. I stepped inside, punched four and waited the twenty or so seconds it took to get up to the fourth floor, going over and over in my head the choicest possible descriptives I intended to run past my erstwhile boss in the course of tendering my "immediate resignation."
The elevator opened almost directly onto Hanrahan’s office door, so I took three steps and was through it before I even noticed that it was wide open. That realization brought me up short, right there in his doorway. Hanrahan never left his door open, not even when he had students of the opposite sex in his office. This fact had caught the attention of many of the gals in the Women’s Law Caucus, and resulted in his yearly installation on their roll of honor as "Dinosaur Poster Boy for Tenure Revue." I was about to remark upon this very thing when I looked back from the open doorway into Hanrahan’s office, and saw him.
He was sort of half-slumped in his chair, in that bag of bones manner peculiar to the dead. A short guy to begin with, death made him seem even smaller. His glasses were on his desk in front of him, and his eyes bulged out of a mottled and unrecognizable face. His tongue hung out of a gaping mouth. His Harvard tie was knotted tightly around his throat above his collar. The fingers of both hands were tucked underneath it in what must have been a last, futile attempt at staving off the reaper. I touched his cheek with the back of my hand. It was still warm.
No sooner had I confirmed this than I heard footsteps coming down the hall. I turned back toward the door in time to see Gerald, Kenny’s partner on the security swing shift, stick his head in the office.
"Hey Sam, you’re here awful late," he grinned at me, then looked past me at the thing slouched, half bent over in Hanrahan’s chair. In my present position I partially blocked his view.
"What’s up with the professor? Is he ‘sleep?"
"With kings and counselors," I murmured.
* * *
A few hours later I was sitting in an interrogation room in the T-Town PD’s main branch. Although I worked for the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office the summer after my first year of law school, I hadn’t been on this side of the county courthouse/jail/police department complex. Based upon this first experience, I didn’t care for it. My head ached, my eyes were rheumy from cigarette smoke, and I couldn’t get the taste of beer out of my mouth.
Gerald and I had waited outside of Hanrahan’s office for the five or so minutes it took the cops to get the four blocks down the hill to the law school. I gave a statement to one of the first of Tacoma’s finest to make it to the scene, then we went up the hill for a second interview. Two hours after being ushered into the interrogation room with the requisite sound-proofed walls and two-way mirror, I was working on my third cup of tea when two of the detectives assigned to Hanrahan’s murder came into the room.
One of them was fifty-ish and balding. The hair in his ears was apparently an attempt on God’s part to make up for what he had lost on top. Beneath that shiny pate lurked a face like a sack of spoiled potatoes: lumpy and still flushed with the sleep from which he had recently been roused. He was stocky, thick-shouldered, and stood about 5’9". I was further convinced that he had been dragged from his bed to come interrogate me by the manner in which he was dressed. He wore a rumpled brown sport coat with sleeves an inch or so too short, a maroon polo shirt, wrinkled jeans, no socks, and docksiders, one of which was unlaced.
His partner was considerably younger. I placed him at about 30, with a full head of dark, perfectly coifed hair, and gold-rimmed John Lennon glasses perched on a long, straight nose. Under that nose was a mouth too small for his face, and above his glasses he had one eyebrow that he plucked meticulously in order to give the illusion that he had two. Even at 1:30 in the morning he was impeccably dressed in a charcoal gray suit and one of those banker’s shirts, blue with a white collar. His tie was a yellow and blue geometric number straight from the men’s department at Nordstrom’s. Black socks, Gucci loafers, and the strong scent of Polo completed his ensemble.
Pretty Boy spoke first, while his partner took a seat in the chair across from me and glowered in my direction with what he obviously deemed an appropriately threatening manner. "Mr. Grant, I’m Detective Sergeant Lewis. This is my partner, Detective Sergeant Niehaus." Sad Sack didn’t take his eyes off me, didn’t even nod when his name was mentioned. "Need anything? More coffee?"
Lewis cocked his head, took a seat, and said, "I wonder where they found tea in this place."
He motioned for Neihaus to sit as well. "We appreciate your patience and willingness to cooperate in this matter. Now that we’ve looked over your initial statement from the crime scene, we have a few routine questions we’d like answered."
"Am I under arrest?"
"No, not at all."
"So I can go, if I want to?"
His reply was hasty. "If you’re asking whether we see you as a person of interest in this case, then the answer at this point would be yes."
"That’s not what I’m asking."
Sad Sack broke in at this point, sounding like ground glass. "We ask the questions here, not you, Sonny. So quit wasting our time, and tell us why you strangled him, already."
I switched my bleary gaze from his partner to him and said, "Cute. Lots of people disliked him. You’ll get awful tired trying that strong arm approach on all of them."
Pretty Boy said, "Come on, Sam - may I call you Sam?" When I didn’t say anything, he continued. "It’s late, none of us are at our best, let’s try to get through this as quickly as possible and send you on your way."
"You said in your initial statement that Professor Hanrahan was dead when you found him?"
"Can you offer any proof of that?"
"Proof? How do you suggest I prove a negative? I wasn’t there when he died, it’s as simple as that."
"The security guard found you standing over your boss’s body. Can you tell me what you were doing there at such a late hour?"
"I went there after having a couple of drinks with a friend. I intended to quit."
"Your friend can verify this?" Lewis had begun making notes.
"What’s his name?" I gave him Jimmy O’Brien’s name and telephone number.
"Why’d you want to quit?" He hadn’t looked up from his notes once.
"The job wasn’t worth what I put into it."
Sad Sack broke in again; "Did you hate him enough to kill him?"
"No. I didn’t like him much, but I don’t hate anyone enough to want them dead."
Lewis said, "Any ideas who might have?"
"Like I said, lots of people didn’t like him much. He had a way of alienating people, especially women."
"He thought himself irresistible to them."
Lewis shuffled the papers in the file in front of him. "I thought he was married."
"I guess he didn’t believe in letting his wedding ring get in the way of a good time. Most of the gals around school think of Hanrahan as your prototypical sexist pig. He did plenty to encourage that impression."
"He hit on a lot of women?"
I nodded. "It’s not just women, though. There were other faculty members. Ones who envied his status at the school. Charlie Hanrahan was the closest thing to a rainmaker that the Jackson School of Law has. He knew his shit when it came to land use and water rights issues. So it ought to go without saying that there were lots of environmental types that despised him because he sold his expertise to the highest bidder. He had a very lucrative side-gig as an expert witness for hire."
"Any of them students of his?"
"A few. Lots more outside the school than inside, though."
"As far as students go, are there any you know of who might take a grudge this far?"
I shook my head. "How many lawyers do you know?"
"In this line of work? A lot."
"Then you know that lawyers are talkers. Big talk. I heard a lot of big talk around school, see what I mean? He wasn’t much of a boss, but like I said, he knew his shit, and he wasn’t shy about it. Some people get to resent that sort of thing, especially when they have to pass a class from the guy in possession of such a healthy ego. If you’re looking for an environmentalist angle on this thing, try the eco-terrorist crowd. It’s more their style. Lawyers sue."
Neihaus spoke again, "According to your statement you’re a second year student. You’re not a lawyer yet, sonny."
I gave him the best hard look I could muster. It wasn’t much. "Gee, I guess this makes it official. You two are trying that tired old ‘Good Cop, Bad Cop’ routine on me. I feel like a guest star on ‘Law & Order.’" Lewis looked from me to Sad Sack, then back, as I continued. "Tell me, are you more the Jerry Orbach or the Paul Sorvino-type of older cop?"
Neihaus said, "You got one biiiiiiig mouth. Got any idea how much trouble you’re in, smart-ass?"
"Well, Sorvino dressed better, and had a better vocabulary, so I’m guessing Orbach, although you’re a bit tubby and blotchy for Orbach."
He lunged across the table. I tumbled over backwards and hit the back of my head on the floor trying to get out of his way. I saw stars and heard ringing, a scuffle, and a heated exchange of whispers in that order as I pulled myself gingerly to my feet. Pretty Boy was following the script and trying to get Sad Sack to "calm down."
I found my chair, and plopped back down into it. When I looked up, Pretty Boy was pushing Sad Sack out the door. Closing it behind him, he turned back to me and said, "sorry about that. He’s just a bit testy, it being so late and all. He’s a good cop."
I grimaced as I rubbed the back of my head gingerly. "I’ll bet."
"I can’t help you if you won’t help me, Sam."
"I don’t need your help."
"Now what makes you say that?"
I stopped rubbing and ran a hand through my hair. "Ask your lab guys."
"Simple as that, huh?"
"Look, you’ll find my fingerprints all over his office, but not anywhere on the corpse itself. Like I told the cop who took my statement, I touched him once, to see if the body was still warm, on his right cheek with the back of my left hand."
"Maybe you wore gloves."
"Maybe I was the second gunman on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas, too. C’mon, the guy was still warm when I found him. Must have been killed within minutes of my coming up to his office. Your crime scene boys should bear that out. Besides, the security camera that covers the front door should put me in the lobby not more than two minutes before Gerald walked in on me and the body. Assuming that you haven’t checked it already, I suggest you do so."
"How can you be so sure?"
"I had Gerald look at his watch to confirm what time he first saw the door standing open and me standing over the corpse. That gives me a window of about 45 seconds to kill him before Gerald saw me. So you tell me, what did I do with these alleged gloves? It’s not like I had time to dump them before Gerald happened upon me." I snapped my fingers. "I know, maybe I grew wings and flew out the window."
"The window’s too small."
"And there were no gloves in the alley below that window, so I didn’t toss them there. I saw your boys going over the alley when they were bringing me up here."
He sat again. "You have an answer for everything?"
"That’s just for starters. Imagine what else I’ll be able to come up with once I’ve gotten some sleep and taken care of this headache."
"Were you drunk when you found him?"
"Nope. Two beers. Can’t get the taste out of my mouth."
"If you’ve got nothing to hide, then why all the lip?"
I cradled my head in my hands. "I’ve told my story twice in the last three hours. I’ve sat around in a wet, rumpled suit while waiting for someone to either mirandize me or tell me I could go. Then you two showed up and it started up all over again." I rubbed my eyes with the tips of my fingers. "Besides, the sort of ham-handed crap your partner just tried to pull doesn’t intimidate me. It only makes me cranky."
"Don’t you realize that cooperating with us would get you out of here faster?"
"Nonsense. I’ve made my statement. Nothing except money and status greases the wheels of a bureaucracy. I’m fresh out of both and running low on patience. If you guys were gonna charge me, you’d have done so by now. Like I said earlier, I know how the game’s played."
"If you’ve checked me out, you’ll know by now that I clerked for the prosecutor’s office for a while last year. If you haven’t, you soon will, and someone over there will verify it for you. If you liked me for this one, you would’ve squeezed me harder, you know, "Bad Cop, Worse Cop" routine, instead of something out of ‘NYPD Blue’." I looked at the mirrored glass behind him. "Now, I’m done talking, so either charge me or kick me loose so I can go pack my head in ice and try to get some sleep."
He leaned back and said, "Just one more thing, if you don’t mind." I sighed again. So much for my tough talk and firm stance. He shuffled the papers in front of him and read something on one of them. "You said in your initial statement that Professor Hanrahan was a creature of habit. One of his habits being to meet with you every Sunday evening so you two could go over the progress made on a book you were working on with him, is that right?"
"More like for him, but yeah, that’s what I said."
"How long have you been working for him?"
It’s all there in the statement. I’ve been his work study research and teaching assistant since school started in September, so that’s what? Five months? Every Sunday I had to get dressed up in this monkey suit and come down to the office for one of our little ‘business meetings.’"
"He insisted it be formal?"
"That’s the way he liked it. That’s the way he did things."
"And like I told the officer on the scene, he’d cancelled our meeting for that evening."
He took more notes. "Why’d he cancel?"
"He didn’t say."
"The guard at the front door said he had a girl up there in his office."
"Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t. One of the reasons I intended to quit was because I’d heard the speculation that the guy had himself a new girlfriend, and after so many cancelled meetings, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Sunday meetings with me were being used as a cover for playing patty-cake with some new conquest, and the idea didn’t sit very well with me."
"That’s merely speculation, though. For the record, and my statement reflects it, I can only attest to what I know for sure: he was alone when I found him. I didn’t pass anyone in the halls after I saw Kenny at the front desk."
Pretty Boy seemed satisfied by that, gathered the papers, opened the door and stood aside for me to leave. He tucked one of his cards into the breast pocket of my suit as I stepped past him. "In case you remember something which might have a bearing on this case," he said. Out in the hallway I came nose to nose with Neihaus. His breath matched the rest of my impression of him.
His voice had the texture of an iron grate. "Got a feeling I’m not finished with you."
"Careful, bright boy. The next time we tangle, I may just bleed all over you." With that I turned on my heel, headed down the hall, through the squadroom, and back out into that damned rain.
It was raining particularly hard, even for Tacoma, and that was saying something. People told me when I made plans to move from Spokane to attend law school in T-town that the rain would get to me. At the time I laughed those sorts of warnings off because I loved the rain. That was before the middle of my first year of school: before the January when it rained every second of every minute, of every hour, of every day for eight straight days. By the end of that first year I began to understand why the suicide rate in the Seattle-Tacoma area was so high during those oppressive winters.
After leaving the police station I walked down the hill to get my car. Getting out of that stuffy interview room and stretching my legs a bit felt good. I made the short drive home with the windows down, and parked in front of my complex. On the way up to my place on the fourth floor, I thanked God for the elevator in my building. Once through my door, I swallowed two large glasses of water and a handful of aspirins, unplugged the phone, then collapsed onto my bed still fully clothed.
I had no idea how long I had slept when I awoke to the need to peel my tongue off of the roof of my mouth. After sitting on the edge of my bed rubbing my face for a couple of minutes, I realized that the pounding wasn’t in my head. It was coming from my front door. I went grumbling to answer the summons of my insistent, uninvited caller.
She was about five-six, and must have weighed around 130, with shoulder-length, dark brown hair, a long, straight nose, tawny eyes and one hell of a figure, fetchingly decked-out all in black: black turtleneck underneath a black blazer. Black cigarette pants, a black handbag and a pair of expensive-looking black mules completed the ensemble. Her black belt sported the only bit of color on her person, a silver buckle in the shape of a "G."
We stood there for a few seconds, exchanging looks. While I was busy surveying the lay of her landscape, she took in my ashen face, bed-head hair and the wreckage of my suit. She had this look on her face as if she were about to burst out laughing at the punch line of a dirty joke.
She stretched out a hand. "Mr. Grant? Hello there, I’m Sydney Coelho, Tacoma News Tribune." Her voice was low-pitched, warm, and felt like a cold compress on my forehead.
I was tongue-tied. She continued. "I understand you were the person who discovered the body of Professor Hanrahan last night?"
I remembered just enough of my manners to take her outstretched hand. "No comment." I smiled my highest wattage smile. Given that I was sleep-deprived and mildly dehydrated, we were talking 20 watts, max.
"How about if we make it off the record? I could keep your name out of it, if you like."
Being a good little lawyer-in-training, I made a counter-offer; "On the record’s fine, with one condition."
"We play twenty questions on this one. I invite you in, you ask me about last night, and for every question you ask me, I get to ask you one in return."
"Do I have to tell the truth?"
"Only if you want me to."
She fixed that dazzling smile on me and said, "Deal."
I stood aside for her to enter. She preceded me into my living room. I told her to make herself comfortable while I detoured into my kitchen, loaded my little-used coffee maker and got it heating up. Then I joined her. She was standing and looking at the "I love me" wall on which were displayed my various degrees, a timeline of the reigns of the kings and queens of England picked up from a prof friend of mine in grad school, and my copy of Lincoln’s hand-written text of the Gettysburg Address. She was looking at my framed Shellback certificate.
"Navy?" she asked over her shoulder.
"See a lot of places?"
"A lot, and not enough. That’s three, by the way."
"Answers you owe me. Make it four, now."
"I was just making conversation, though." She fumbled in her bag, producing a pad and pen, her movements deliberate.
"A deal’s a deal."
Her glance was sidelong, her grin, sly. "Ok, so ask then."
I motioned her to take the armchair next to the kitchen door and stretched out across from her on my couch. Once we were both settled in I asked, "Married?"
"What does he do?"
She looked at my wall again. "He’s a junior executive at Microsoft."
"Been together long?"
"Seven years. That’s four, my turn, now. Did you find the body?"
"Yes. Are you two happy?"
She began taking notes. "If I tell you we’re deliriously happy will you drop this line of questioning?"
"Because you just answered a question with a question, and because I wouldn’t believe you anyway." I said, "Now you owe me two: ‘Coelho,’ C-O-E-L-H-O, correct?"
"Very good." She looked up from her writing again. "Most people have no clue how to spell it."
"You’re two for two. Dad’s from Brazil, and mom’s from Madeira. Was Professor Hanrahan dead when you found him?"
"Yes. Where’re you from? Somewhere in eastern Canada, judging by your accent."
"Toronto, and I don’t have an accent. How long had the professor been dead when you found him?"
I stretched. "Only a few minutes. The forensics guys could give you an exact time. Been in T-Town long?"
"About a year. Did you see anyone leaving his office?"
"Nope. Do you like sushi?"
The face she made answered that one for her. "Did he have any enemies?"
"Only most everybody who ever met him," I said as I stood and headed into the kitchen. I shot over my shoulder, "What do you like to do for fun?"
"Lots of things. Did you speak to him at all last night?"
"Yes. How do you feel about baseball?" I was rummaging around in the cupboard for coffee mugs.
"I’m bored by it. Do you have any clue who might have been the last person to see him alive?"
"Whoever was up in his office when I talked to him at a few minutes past six. Maybe you don’t understand baseball?" It was worth a shot.
"Of course I don’t. I’d have to be interested. What did you two talk about at a little past six?"
"He cancelled our standing Sunday night work session. He’d been doing that a lot lately." I returned with two cups, both filled with what passed for coffee in my world. "Sorry, I don’t have any cream or sugar. I hope you like yours black." I handed her the cup that wasn’t chipped. "What sort of music do you usually go for?"
That one threw her. "What do you mean?" I repeated the question. She fumbled for a bit. "Well, ummm… jazz, blues, that sort of thing, I guess. Anything with a sax in it. Was there a pattern to these frequent cancellations?" I watched as she took a sip from her mug and noted with satisfaction that if she had an urge to grimace, she stifled it superbly.
"Nothing I’d like to get into on the record."
"Oh? Off the record then?"
"Some people thought he had a woman visiting him up there. If I told you my oldest and dearest friend is a sax player in a local blues band, would you be interested in going to see him play?"
She regarded me with an amused smirk on her face. I was finding it hard to keep from blinking when she finally spoke: "I told you I was involved."
"Put whatever spin you care to on it."
"Do you make a habit of sleeping in your suits and polishing your dress shoes with a candy bar?"
"Only when I’m really trying to impress someone. You should feel honored."
" And you should get your hands on a good pair of galoshes before those shoes are ruined, especially with the weather we’re having."
I pressed my thumb along the crooked crease of my pants. "This coming from someone who could easily be accused of raiding Robert Smith’s wardrobe? Someone with a superhero’s belt buckle?"
"Who’s Robert Smith?"
"The lead singer of The Cure."
She waved a hand. "Oh him. Well, you get points for not making Johnny Cash cracks like the rest of my family does. And what’s wrong with my belt buckle?"
"It looks like you stole it from the Green Lantern."
"The ‘G’ stands for ‘Gucci,’ not ‘Green Lantern,’" she looked straight at me. For a moment I thought she might smile. "Besides, Aquaman was always my favorite superhero. He rode that cool seahorse. I thought for the longest time that seahorses were mythical creatures. When I finally saw one in a pet store years later, it sort of freaked me out. You know, like seeing an actual unicorn crossing your lawn?"
She stopped there and looked outside. "Jeeze, listen to me. I should probably be going." She stood, retrieved her purse, produced a card from within it, and handed it to me. "I can always be reached here, if you should remember anything you might want to contribute further on the topic of Professor Hanrahan’s death."
I took the card and stood to see her out. After holding the door open for her, I called out to her retreating back, "Sydney."
She turned. "Yes?"
"Does the story go to press tomorrow?"
"Sort of gratuitous to give me your card then."
She cocked a brow and almost smiled again. "Is it?" She turned to continue down the hall. I called out to her again. Again she turned.
"I always thought Aquaman was the wimpiest of the Super-Friends."
"Oh please," she said with an airy wave as she turned to leave again. Sauntering down the hall, she crowed, "Hel-lo? Robin? Those tights? No contest."
After washing the mugs and dumping the rest of the "coffee," I shucked my suit and indulged in the longest, hottest shower in the history of mankind. I dressed in my "One In The Oven" t-shirt and a pair of athletic shorts, then plugged the phone back in and proceeded to weed through my voicemail. I had fifteen messages awaiting me. The majority of them were from rubbernecking friends who wanted to know the juicy details surrounding my discovery of Hanrahan’s body. One was from Dean Niven, the head of the law school, asking that I call and make an appointment to see him as soon as possible, "in order to protect the best interests of the institution." There were two from local TV stations, both of which I quickly deleted. The last one was from Paulie Landstrom, the guy who lived in the apartment directly beneath mine. I decided to answer his call first.
I hung up, stood in the exact center of my living room and jumped up and down three times in short order. Then I sat back down by the phone to wait. Approximately ninety seconds later I picked up on the first ring.
"Dude, why can’t you just call or come down, like a normal human being?" It was Paulie. He was a native of Omaha, Nebraska. Like both of the other guys I had met from Omaha, Nebraska, he sounded exactly like Jack Nicholson. I found this interesting in light of the fact that Nicholson was a native of New Jersey.
"Bring up two, and I’ll regale you with the straight dope on what a law professor looks like with his Harvard cravat knotted a bit too tight."
"Gee, how can I pass that up?"
I was still sitting on the couch when Paulie stumped into my place. He was 27, stood all of five-seven, and was slightly built. Paulie always dressed well and today was no exception. Because of his dark hair and black eyes he favored darker colors close to his face. He was wearing a chocolate brown, sleeveless v-neck sweater over a drab olive t-shirt, tan twill pants, socks that matched his sweater, and a pair of highly polished black penny loafers. Paulie had been an electronic warfare specialist in the army. An exploding mortar shell in Iraq left him with a permanent limp, so he used a cane.
"Here ya go." He handed me a bottle of his favorite beverage, an evil concoction known as "Pete’s Wicked Ale." Who says there is no such thing as truth in advertising?
After taking a seat opposite me in the chair so recently vacated by the most beautiful woman ever to wear black, Paulie raised his bottle and solemnly intoned, "To becoming the most successful legal whore in American history." I lifted my bottle and took a sip of Pete’s. Sure enough, it was still vile.
Paulie smacked his lips with relish. "So tell me all about it, dude." I did, beginning with my conversation of the previous evening with Hanrahan, and ending with my interview with Sydney. When I finished, Paulie gave a low whistle.
"Dude, that all sounds completely nuts!" This followed by another long pull on his beer.
I grinned ruefully. "Definitely a night and a day to remember."
He started picking at the label on his bottle. "I’ll tell you this; your name was on the lips of everyone at school today."
"I’m not surprised."
Paulie looked at me. "Do you think you’re in any trouble?"
"Too soon to tell." I took another tiny sip off of the Pete’s.
He shook his head slowly. "Awful calm for a guy who’s not sure how much trouble he’s in. Anything I can do? Supply you a quick ride up the Five to Canada?"
"If I need any of that, I’ll come a-runnin’."
"It ought to make you the most popular guy at the hump party."
I shrugged. "I don’t even know if I’ll be going."
"You’re kidding." Paulie goggled at me. "You have got to go, Sam!"
"Why?" Paulie sputtered. "Because Hanrahan is barely cold and you’re already nearly a legend."
"That’s a stupid reason."
He looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought for several moments, then said, "It will, in all likelihood, get you laid."
I smiled and wordlessly took another token taste of Pete’s.
Paulie puffed out his cheeks and blew a deep breath ceiling-ward. "Well, if you change your mind, you can car-pool with me. I’d be more than happy to chauffeur the BMOC."
"Who else is riding with you?"
I made a face. "Think about what you’re saying."
"I don’t see the problem." He actually almost pulled that off with a straight face.
"A militant lesbian feminist in such close proximity to an unreconstructed, unrepentantly white male. Think about the damage to your interior!"
"My Camry’s handled tougher scrapes than that."
"You’re far too heterosexual to have such a good friendship with that gal."
"Dude, what can I say? I’m just the soul of tolerance."
"Yeah, that’s you alright. Who knew when I moved in here last year that I had Gandhi living one flight down?" I raised my bottle.
"Not just any Gandhi, but a Gandhi who brings you conversation and-" he imitated Homer Simpson- "beeeeeeeeerrrrrr… mmmm…." Then he downed the rest in a healthy gulp, following it with a belch that would have done an air-horn credit.
Finally he stood to go, saying, "If you need that ride, Sam, you just give me a call."
I inclined my head wordlessly. He left. As the door closed behind him, my phone rang. I turned the ringer off and took his empty and my still mostly full bottle into the kitchen, where I poured it down the sink, and tossed the empties into the trash. Then I returned to the living room, put Dvorak’s "New World Symphony" in the CD player, and sat watching the shadows get longer on my wall for quite a while, noting with pleasure how the Prague Symphony Orchestra drowned out the rain on the roof.
I felt like a Macy’s display window mannequin when I got to school the next morning. I was wearing my Hawaiian shirt, cut-offs, and canvas Converse high-tops, all under my trench coat, but I figured the stares I got were as much a result of my newfound infamy as of my "flasher" look.
Fifteen minutes and a dozen muttered "I am not at liberty to discuss it"’s later, I strolled into my first and last class of the day: Criminal Procedure. Ensconced in his accustomed seat next to mine was Jack Turner. Jack had decided at age forty-six that being a decorated Vietnam veteran and the multi-millionaire founder of his own investment firm just wasn’t enough. So he decided on a career change. Taking a good, hard, financier’s look at the world around him, he came to the conclusion that he would rather sue the people who pissed him off than pay others to do it. This was because, as he put it in that cement mixer groan of his: "Why should they have all the fun?"
Jack was an example of that interesting mix of gauche and haute couture style that one so often found in self-made men. Raised as the adopted child of poor Swedish immigrants, he had dirty blond hair that he took to Gene Juarez once a month to make a bit lighter. In addition to that, his stylist also cut it one length; bangs and all, just like all of the skate-dorks wore theirs. This allowed him to comb it straight back along the top of his skull, thereby covering the increasingly larger solar sex panel he seemed intent on hiding. The cowboy boots (worn to make him taller than his natural five-eight), Levi’s 501’s, button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and Armani glasses he was wearing today served notice to the world that Jack’s plebeian/patrician division followed the line of his Hugo Boss belt.
I plopped into the seat beside him. Without looking up from his casebook, he said, "Well, if it ain’t the man of the hour."
"How’d you know it was me? My distinguished presence? My air of command? The scent of my cologne?"
"Cut-offs. You’re the only person I know who wears shorts during the winter."
"Winter in Tacoma is like spring in Spokane. Besides, even on frigid days my legs don’t get cold."
He coughed. "You can take the boy out of Spokane…"
"You sound even more like a coffee grinder than usual today, Jack. You’d better cut back on the cigars."
"Hmmmm… let me see…" He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow in an exaggerated demonstration of concentration. "I could live to be 70 and enjoy the whole thing, or I could live to be 74 and enjoy none of my remaining days. I’ll take option number one, thanks, and don’t change the subject. Didja off him?"
"Are you gonna mount my defense?"
"That depends. If you killed for love I might have a few bucks I could slip you for attorney’s fees."
I crossed my legs and stretched backward, arms overhead. "I had no idea that sharks could be sentimental."
"That’s me, the last of the great romantics." After a short pause he gave me a side-long glance. "I’m waiting."
I started shoveling books out of my rucksack. "No."
Jack leaned over to his book bag and retrieved a copy of what turned out to be the Tacoma News Tribune. He spread it out before me so that the headline was plainly visible: "Law School Professor Found Dead." The sub-header read, "’Disgruntled law student’ held for questioning in matter." The byline bore Sydney’s name.
"Wow, I gotta get copies of this. Mom and dad will be thrilled! Small town boy runs off to the big city and makes good," I said as I scanned the paragraphs below. There was an interview with Lewis, in which he called me a "disgruntled law student" with a "dangerous and provocative attitude toward authority." The only mention Sydney made of her previous-day session with me was something in paragraph six that I had gone on record that Hanrahan was dead when I found him.
I looked up from the paper. "I didn’t kill him."
"Never figured you to be right for it, Sam. What’s your best guess as to who did?"
"Somebody who hated him one hell of a lot more than I did."
"That would be a long list," a familiar voice broke in behind me.
Jack launched one of his best glares over my right shoulder at the speaker. I turned to look at Paulie’s best friend: that universal hater of the rest of the heterosexual male population of the world, Stella Grendel.
She was pretty, and dressed to disguise the fact: clad unflatteringly enough in a voluminous smock that hid the shape of her body, with Birkenstocks, the standard footgear of the "butch" element of the Sapphic crowd, on her feet. Her hair was cropped closer than mine had been in the navy, and she had eight rings in her left ear, with none in her right. If she had ever entertained even a nodding acquaintance with make-up, I had never seen it, and it certainly didn’t show now.
"I never thought I’d say this to you, Grant, but you may have actually done womankind a great service when you wrung Good Time Charlie’s neck the other night." I wondered whether she consciously changed the "a" in "womankind" to a "y" in her head as she said it, because, as she had mentioned no less than fifteen times the first night I met her, "there is no ‘MAN’ in ‘Womyn’."
"Why on earth would I kill him, and deny you and the gals that pleasure, Grendel?"
Jack chimed in at that point. "You could have held a raffle amongst your membership for the honor, and think of what a fund-raiser that would have been!"
Grendel looked over at him. "Gosh, that’s funny. Thanks for the belly laugh. Here’s a chuckler in return. How many men does it take to decorate a room?" She waited to see whether we were going to have a go at the punch line. When neither of us offered up an attempt at it, she said, "It depends how thin you slice ‘em." I cocked my head wordlessly. She looked pleased with herself as she walked off.
Jack watched her go with open contempt. "She reminds me of my ex-wife’s sister."
"But not your ex?"
"Nope, not of Sylvia at all. She likes men. Hell, even after ten years of marriage and three of divorce, she still likes me."
"Think they’ll be mentioning that in the Vatican when she gets nominated for sainthood."
Jack gave me that pebbles in a miner’s sluice sound that passed for a chuckle in his throat. "I’ll tell you what, Sam, if anything you’re harder than I am. Let’s see you get married, let alone last ten years!"
"Funny you should mention that. I met the lucky girl last night."
He threw his head back and roared. For a guy with such a mortar-and-pestle voice, he sure had a loud bray of a laugh. It was genuine. That was one of the reasons I liked Jack so much. His hard exterior and rough edges were all real. There was no pretense in him. "Gimme her address so I can send her flowers and my condolences."
I tapped Sydney’s by-line in the TNT. His eyes followed my gesture, widening as I pointed at "by Sydney Coelho, Staff Reporter." He looked up at me with something akin to shock. "The one who called you ‘disgruntled,’ and ‘dangerous’?"
"That was actually my new friend, Detective Sergeant Lewis who called me that. She was merely quoting him."
"Oh, that explains it, then. Pity though. If that were actually her saying that about you, I’d have hope for your marriage, because it meant that she really knows you already, what with calling you ‘disgruntled’ and ‘dangerous’ and everything. So have you two set a date yet?"
"Nope. There are a few obstacles I need to take care of first."
"This I gotta hear."
"Well, she doesn’t know we’re meant for each other yet, and I’m willing to wager that the same thing goes for her boyfriend."
Jack’s drummed his fingers and looked over at me again. "Kid," he said, "Are you trying to copy my moves or something?"
"No. I’m picking someone with the good taste to see right through a jerk like you. Ange is a great girl, but you just might be her tragic flaw."
Our prof walked through the door and up to the lectern at the front of the room. As I turned to the front and got ready to start taking notes, I said, "Do you remember that Will Rogers quote you were always spouting the entire time you chased Ange?"
"’It ain’t braggin’ if you can do it’?"
"That’s the one. Have you ever, in the entire time you’ve known me, heard me make a promise that I didn’t keep?"
"I’m gonna marry that girl, Jack."
"And if you do, I’ll refer to you as ‘Will’ for the rest of your days."
"When you call me that, smile."
"You’re getting your cowboys mixed up. That one’s from Owen Wister, the guy who wrote The Virginian."
"I’ll take your word for it. You’re the one wearing the cowboy boots."
Jack headed down to the Annex to order a beer as soon as we got out of Crim Pro. I told him I’d meet him down there as soon Dean Niven got done yelling at me, and he agreed to save me a stool.
Dave Niven’s office occupied a section of the third floor where toys had been sold during the building’s original incarnation as a department store. It was a corner job with an impressive reception area and a ton of window space. Niven was very particular about his first name, and no one who worked for him, or attended his law school ever called him "David," at least not within earshot of the dean. He was the stuffy old scion of a fine Back Bay Boston Brahmin family. My Property prof, who had gone to law school with him back when the world was young, had gotten deep into his cups and spilled his guts about "David Niven" to a dozen of us at the year-end bash which the school sponsored every June.
Niven’s mother, so the story went, was so upper crust that she considered motion pictures irretrievably vulgar. This explained how she unintentionally saddled him with the moniker of an effete English matinee idol. It was an even bet that she never realized her error. After all, those were pretty exclusive circles in which she traveled.
However, when good old Dave went off to college at Yale, he actually rubbed elbows with folks who had heard of the original David Niven. Since he was a stiff-necked sort of fellow even back then, it had let him in for a fair amount of ribbing at the expense of any number of upperclassmen. Niven took this about as well as Milosevic took the idea of an independent Bosnia.
When he graduated from Yale and moved on to law school at Berkeley, Niven had attempted to go by his middle name. Unfortunately, this was his maternal grandfather’s surname of "Condon." Apparently the name "Condon Niven" played even less well in California than "David Niven" did in Connecticut. The blue-collar girl who eventually married him (over the strenuous objections of his mother, who opted to skip the wedding) had called him "Dave," probably in an attempt to loosen him up a little. Even though this never had a prayer of working, the name stuck. Thirty years later he was still married to her, and still introducing himself as "Dave Niven."
His secretary smiled up at me when I walked into his office. We had gotten friendly when I worked down the hall in the graphics office the previous year. "Hi Ramona, is the Lord of the Universe in?"
"Yes, and in a very foul humor. This Hanrahan affair has him pretty upset."
"Well, I was going to answer his royal summons, but maybe this isn’t such a good time."
Before she could respond, the phone on her desk buzzed. She picked up, listened for the briefest of moments, and then put the phone back in its cradle. She looked at me and said in a stage whisper, "I swear to God that man has this outer office bugged. He says to go right in."
I gave her my best "condemned man" wink as I sauntered into the big guy’s office. He was a tall, thin fellow, well over six feet, and weighing well under one hundred and fifty pounds. His skin stretched tight over the bones of his skull, and the fringe of thinning gray hair slicked forward over the top of his forehead did nothing to reduce the "death’s head" quality of his countenance. Without looking up from whatever he was reading, he waved me toward one of the overstuffed leather chairs placed on the expensive Persian rug. When I sat, I found myself facing a highly polished mahogany desk that could have doubled for the deck of an aircraft carrier. He perched behind that desk, still reading intently.
I was sure he could have read that form three times during the amount of time he made me wait. I used it as an opportunity to get a real good look around his office. It was the sort of place that reeked of old school money, furnished with enough mahogany to have required the deforestation of half of Borneo. The banker’s bookshelves that lined the wall behind him were mahogany, and so was the entire paneling. The rug on the floor probably cost more than I could expect to make during my first three years practicing law, and the south and east walls of the place consisted entirely of windows. I was amusing myself by speculating on whether anyone in any of the office buildings across either street would notice a moon shot from the window of the dean’s office when Dave’s voice snapped me back to reality.
"Thank you for coming to see me about this matter, Mr. Grant," he said with typically icy formality.
"You were lucky, Dean Niven. My social secretary was able to clear a full thirty minutes for you this morning. Amazing, this being my active season and all." Not a muscle twitched in Skeletor’s face.
"Do you have anything to say regarding your involvement in Dr. Hanrahan’s murder?"
"Do you read the papers?"
"I have read the accounts of this affair in the News Tribune, the Times, the Post-Intelligencer, and even one carried in the San Francisco Herald-Examiner."
"Then you know how I found him, which is the extent of my involvement."
"I know that is what you told the police."
I just sat and looked at him. His eyes were so pale that they were nearly white, and there was something behind them that belied his patrician demeanor. "My time is valuable, Mr. Grant. Please do not waste it with schoolboy games." I just kept gazing at him impassively.
After a brief pause he said, "Do we understand each other?"
"Let’s get down to brass tacks, in the interest of not wasting any more of either of our valuable time. Why’d you call me here?"
"Only to express to you my dismay at having found one of our students at the center of an episode involving one of our most widely respected faculty members."
"You make it sound as if I was sleeping with him. All I did was find the body. Dr. Hanrahan was the one who had the bad grace to die in your school. Given his druthers, I’m sure he’d have picked someplace else in which to expire, so I guess he can be forgiven that little faux pas."
"Let us hope that you are telling the truth about that."
I decided that I wanted to see how he would react to an outburst on the part of someone he was leaning on. In one movement I was on my feet, leaning over that continent of a desk of his, jaw thrust out, eyes locked on his. "Is that your roundabout way of telling me that if it turns out I’m lying, you’ll be only too happy to show me the door?"
The creepy bastard just sat there. He didn’t flinch, didn’t even draw breath. "That and make sure that you never practice law in any state in the union, yes."
I straightened and walked over to look out that magnificent window. "In that case, consider me duly threatened."
His lips flickered. It was an expression that would have made Joseph Goebbels proud.
"So long as we understand each other, Mr. Grant. Now, unless there is anything else, as I told you before, my time is valuable…"
I turned to look at him again. "Now that you mention it, there is one small thing, Dean Niven."
"What is it?"
"Have you actually read all those big books?" I made a motion with my head toward the wall of tomes directly behind him.
I got that twitch-smile from him again. "Good day, Mr. Grant."
Copyright© 2003 Brian Thornton