In the Guise of Mercy excerpt

In the Guise of Mercy

Chapter 1

Monday began as an ordinary day.  I won’t say perfectly ordinary because we had long ago given up on perfect and, considering the circumstances, were happy enough to get just an ordinary day now and then.

Shortly after dawn I opened my eyes to find Mike watching me.

“How are you?” I asked.

“So far, okay,” he said, holding out his arms to me.  “How’s my girl?”

“You’re here, I’m fine.”  I moved against him and rested my head on his shoulder.  There, with my eyes closed, still sleepy, listening to his heart beat, I could pretend for just a few seconds that the latest round of chemo he had endured to earn a few extra decent months had worked some miracle and Mike was actually okay again.

Mike broke the spell when he spoke.  “Maggie, who’s coming over this morning?  Rich?”

I had to think for a moment.  Mike’s friends took turns keeping him company during the day while I was at work; Mike had a long list of friends and a full calendar.

I said, “Yes, it’s Monday, so it’s Rich.”

“Good, I want to talk to him about something.”

“Nick is coming around noon,” I said.  “I’ll be home by four.”

“So I’m covered,” he said.

“You’re covered.”

We got up and showered.  I helped him dress into sweats and a tee-shirt.  Mike picked out a baseball cap from his collection, Cardinals that day, to keep his bald head warm and to cover the dent in his cranium where a piece of skull was missing.

Rich Longshore was already in the kitchen when we got downstairs, standing at the stove stirring a pot of oatmeal.  Rich and Mike became good friends years ago when they worked together on a serial murder case, Rich for the Los Angeles County Sheriff Homicide Bureau, and Mike for the LAPD, Robbery-Homicide Division.

Rich retired from the County Sheriffs a year ago, but the department hired him back to work cold cases.  On Mondays he went in late so that he could cover a shift with Mike.

“Good morning,” I said, kissing Rich’s freshly shaved cheek.

“Morning, Maggie.  Hey, Mike, how does oatmeal sound?”

“I’ll give it a try.”  Mike sat at the kitchen table, pale from the effort it had taken for him to walk down the stairs.

While I set out bowls, brown sugar, raisins, butter, and milk, Rich and Mike discussed the cold case Rich was currently working on, an unsolved murder, one they had both worked on at its beginning and had reexamined from time to time over the years.

All detectives, when they walk out the door for the last time, leave behind a few open cases that continue to haunt them.  This was one that Rich was happy to have another chance at.

After a few minutes, Mike turned the conversation to one of his own troubling unsolveds, the one that most frequently kept him awake during the darkest hours of the night:  About a decade ago, a teenage boy named Jesús Ramón got out of the backseat of Mike’s official car at high noon in downtown Los Angeles, and was never seen again.  Not dead.  Not alive.  Jesús just vanished.

As Mike and Rich plumbed the intricacies of evidence and witnesses, color came back into Mike’s cheeks.  There was a terrible thing growing inside Mike’s head, but that Monday morning all the synapses in his brain were firing.  Maybe he would manage to keep down some of his oatmeal, I thought, hopeful.

With Mike in Rich’s care, I felt no guilt that Monday morning when I left for work.  Indeed, when the two men started talking about detective work I was a bit of a third wheel.  Besides, there were medical bills that had to be paid, a pile as big as the Ritz, and the only way we were going to chip away at them was if I kept showing up at the studios of the television network that pays me to make pithy documentaries, and somehow managed to finish my next project on deadline.  On that Monday morning I did not mention to Mike that, though the network’s deadline loomed this side of the near horizon, I had made no progress on a coherent film.

As it began, that Monday wasn’t exactly an ordinary day, after all; I hadn’t seen Mike in such a happy frame of mind for months.  When I kissed Mike goodbye and walked out the door, I had no presentiments about the day ahead.

Sometime during the morning Mike called his afternoon companion, his last partner in Robbery-Homicide, Nick Pietro, and told Nick that he had a doctor’s appointment, told Nick not to come over until two o’clock.  Then he told Rich that Nick would be a few minutes late, and that he would be fine alone for a bit after Rich left.  In fact, he said, he would be taking a nap; what could happen?

Rich Longshore left at noon.  Sometime between noon and two when Nick arrived, during that interim when Mike was alone, Mike laid out some files on his desk, banded together with a note on top, and a stack of letters addressed to his near and dear.  He opened a very good bottle of pinot noir that we had saved for a special occasion, and poured himself a glass.

Carrying the wine glass in one hand and his service Beretta in the other, Mike went out to the backyard and sat down on the ground under our massive old avocado tree.  There, under a magnificent leafy green canopy, on a beautiful spring afternoon, Mike Flint once again took control over the course of his life.

Mike sipped the wonderful wine.  Then he set the glass safely aside before he leaned his head back against the tree, put the business end of his Beretta into his mouth and kissed the world goodbye.