Excerpt: Deal Me Dead

Big game or small. Penny bingo, dollar chess in the park, or high-stakes poker. In the end, it’s all the same. Everything comes down to connections. If you can see the connections—really see them—you’re in the game, you’re a player. Miss them and you’re out, you lose. Life is all about connections. So is death. So is everything in between. You either see the connections or you don’t. You win, or you lose.

I retired from the Bureau on my fifty-first birthday because I knew I was losing the game. Somewhere along the way, I stopped looking for connections. All I could see ahead of me was more bodies—disconnected, dead bodies. I didn’t even know who was dealing the cards, or why. My life had come loose. But, that was two years ago—a lifetime ago from today. I’m getting reconnected now, somewhat. I have a pretty good idea who’s dealing my hand these days. I’m feeling better about things.

This worn out joke of a bookstore grounds me. Keeps me safe. Gives me a reliable connection. The beauty of owning a business that does no business is time. Lots of time. That’s a new kind of connection for me—one I can depend on, no matter what comes along. Ground Zero. Home. Cheap game.

Cody’s a connection. He’s a teacher, too. Tough duty for a three-year-old Jack Russel terrier whose view of the world is always ankle-high. Still, he’s a true wizard. He’s the Master of the Shelves, nearly empty as they are. In Cody’s world, all connections are known. Everything is understood. What’s obscure for me—for the rest of the world—is obvious to him. Smell answers a lot of his questions, sounds tell stories, sight isn’t something that blinds him or cheats his sense of purpose. Everything is connected, unquestioned in his mind. Master of the Shelves, master connector, my friend.

Then, there’s Alexis Mandell. We’re connected. Out on Kentucky Street, out there beyond my crusty windows and stale, secondhand books, folks would say we’re partners—a kind of nondescript association that specializes in chasing down killers. Truth is, the connection is not that complex, not that deliberate. Japanese food, Valpolicella, long talks that start around midnight, scratching Cody’s ears when things go quiet. It’s really a simple situation. We’re friends. That’s the connection. It didn’t matter that the Kiraa Killer case brought us together, dealt us into the game at the same time, made us an “item” around town, and beyond. We would have found each other anyway—some way. That’s how the best connections happen. My only beef is that she’s a lawyer. But, I can overlook it. I’m sure she has a lot more to complain about when I cross her mind.

This town’s a connection. Petaluma. I’m comfortable here, somewhat. It’s a workable place, warm in the summer, tolerable in the rainy season. In some ways, it’s an old, faded picture postcard, still surrounded by sprawling cattle and chicken ranches, still sexy in a neo-Victorian way on the West side. Too bad the place is so boxy and beige across the river, out on the East side. The flatlands over there have been gobbled up by too many houses snuggled up against each other, all with too few colors and too much noise. The bright side of the situation is that the few remaining ranchers who hang on to their rolling Eastside land take their revenge during the hot months. They spray their open fields with watered-down cow poop two or three times a week, knowing that the predictable afternoon breezes will waft the stench right down on top of all those boxy, beige palaces. Farmer’s revenge. I see a connection here, and it makes me smile. Even better, it doesn’t stink on my side of town.

Still, this is a pleasant enough environment, even across the river. Nameless faces smile at you on the Boulevard, just the way they did thirty or forty years ago. Folks stroll across Walnut Park on warm Sunday afternoons. Lovers still hold hands in public, including the old ones, like me. There are lots of good places to eat. Not too expensive, either. Petaluma even has a real bookstore just two blocks north of my place, so I’ll never be accused of stealing business. It’s a guiltless life, and I like that. Here, at least, things don’t seem as disconnected as they do in the rest of California. I’ll call Petaluma home, for now. Besides, it’s Cody’s birthplace—his very first connection—and that means something to me.

Here’s one more to think about: those connections that everyone seems to miss. The ones that slither under every nose, slide by every eye, silently, sometimes deadly. These are my favorite connections. These are what I live for.

That’s what’s on my mind today.

* * *

I have a habit of not opening my mail. No reason to. If it’s important enough, it’ll come around again next month, then the month after, each time with a bigger, noisier headline on the envelope. Whatever it is, it can wait. It’s one of my habits that drives Alexis up the walls. There are others.

She’s over here a few times a week, feeding Cody something Japanese and yammering away at me about all kinds of things. Between sips of Valpolicella, she’ll usually wander through my mail, tossing away the junk and berating me for ignoring the bills. It’s become a tradition for both of us. Usually, it’s routine. Sometimes it’s not. This time, it was a shocker.

* * *

She sat across the old mahogany table at the back of the bookstore and went white staring at the envelope. On its face were three lines of hand printing. Childlike, straight up-and-down, oversized and irregular. Addressed to me, but no return address. Just three initials in the upper left-hand corner: “AAM.” Postmarked from San Francisco a few days ago.

“Oh . . .” she groaned, turning the envelope over in her hands, carefully studying both the front and back. “Oh . . .” she repeated.

I set my glass down and pulled my bulk closer to the table. “What?” I asked her.

She just rolled her head back and forth and gawked at the face of the envelope.

“Jesus,” I grumbled. “What’s the deal, Alexis? What?” I pressed.

She dipped her head and ran her left hand through a tangle of thick, black hair, brushing it away from her face. “I know this writing, Emmet,” she said, pushing the envelope across the table in my direction. “I’d know that scrawl anywhere. I know those initials. They’re the same as mine.”

I picked it up and stared at the printing. “Looks like a twelve-year-old wrote it,” I mumbled. “Besides that, no one I know calls me ‘Dr. Troop.’” I shoved the envelope back across the table, unopened. “Whose writing is it?” I asked.

“My father’s . . .” she whispered. “Anyway . . . it sure looks like his. No . . . I’m sure it’s his. Those are his initials, too.”

She rested her left hand on the table, close to the envelope, and looked up at me, her chin cupped in her right palm. Something was wrong—very wrong. She was giving me all the signals. Alexis wasn’t one to talk about herself, and never about her past. True, she could chatter up a mean streak on just about any subject, but never anything really personal. That had always been fine with me. But, tonight, that rule went right out the window. Something was wrong. Very wrong.

“You want me to open it, Alexis?” I asked as quietly as I could. “You want me to do it?”

She nodded and offered me a tight, tiny smile. The vulnerability was all there, right out in the open. Her usual uptown, tan and chocolate brown, precisely tailored suits—her assured, almost cocky posturing—her nice leather briefcase, jammed with all kinds of seemingly important papers . . . all the trappings, all the lawyer stuff, all that poise. Behind it all, she was frightened. Really, deeply frightened. I’d seen it before, that look. It was all there tonight, across my table, close enough to reach out and touch. There was a child hidden down there, trapped, scraping at the sides of a bottomless, vertical tunnel—the one that she usually kept away from everyone’s sight. Tonight, it was a gaping hole. Tonight, she was naked, and frightened.

Abandoning my usual indifference to things in envelopes, I carefully slipped the edge of my pinky under a loose end of the flap and teased it open. Turning it upside-down, I jiggled its contents loose. Two newspaper clippings slid onto the table, one fresh, the other frayed, more yellow than white, and obviously older. I moved the envelope closer to my eyes and inspected the inside. There was nothing else to be found. Just those clippings.

“Strange,” I muttered, reaching for them.

I was too late. Alexis grabbed both with her left hand and snatched them away from where they had fallen. She picked them up, noisily shoved her chair away from the table, and began to read. Her usual open, at-the-ready expression was dark and confused. For several moments she read the words, barely moving her lips, her hands trembling slightly, that same worried expression frozen on her face. Finally, she finished, and set them down between us. I wasted no time in getting my turn with them.

“I have no idea what it’s all about . . .” she said softly, hunching up her shoulders. “No note, right, Troop? Nothing else in the envelope?”

“Nah . . .” I answered, finishing up with the second clipping. “Just these two . . .”

“It’s still from him,” she interrupted. “That’s his writing on the outside,” she said, her pitch growing higher with every word. “That’s him. Goddamnit! Those are his initials, Troop!”

* * *

There they were—the pieces—the first few shavings of a bigger puzzle, staring me in the face. Just the hint of some kind of a connection looking back at me, laughing at me, taunting me. Alexis, her father, two short clippings from the San Francisco Chronicle, two dead men, each murdered years apart. Not much in the way of an opening hand, but a hell of a teaser for an old fart like me. Besides that, my friend was obviously hurting. Something was going on across the table, and I didn’t like the feel of it. Whatever it was, I couldn’t let Alexis just drift along on her own. This was one connection in my life that would never be broken.

I could tell by Cody’s squinting stare and taught lips as he circled around her chair, staring up at her, worried. He had already made up his mind. This was something we’d have to look into. This was not a piece of mail we could ignore.

 

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