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Authors: Peter Blauner

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled

Slipping Into Darkness (9 page)

BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
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“Ms. Aaron, those people lied,” he said coldly. “They lied and took everything I had and everything I was ever going to have. I spent the day of my father’s funeral in solitary confinement. And now you’re trying to tell me no one has to
pay
for that? Uh-uh. I can’t live with it. If you don’t want to take it to the next level and keep fighting for me, I’ll find some other lawyer who will.”

 

He saw her face fall and her hand close around her pearls. Oh, yeah, he had her pegged. From being in prison, he’d learned to see to the bottom of people quickly, to judge the level of their need and hunger in a glance. He’d already noticed the finger painting beside the law degree, and now he saw she had pictures of two kids on the credenza, a boy and a girl but no husband in sight. So she was a single mother who needed to get something out of this case almost as much as he did.

 

“You know we run a shoestring operation in this office,” she cautioned him. “I don’t have a lot of resources at my disposal, to hire private investigators or anything like that. If you want me to keep going with this case, you’re going to have to pitch in and do some real work yourself from time to time.”

 

“That’s all right,” he told her. “I did twenty years in the state system. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.”

 

“Well, all right then.” She sighed. “I guess I’ll get my papers ready and let the DA know we’re not taking any plea here.”

 

 

7

 

 

 

FRANCIS HEARD THE crunch of dead leaves under his shoes as he walked down West 89th Street toward the Wallis family’s brownstone. This was what the change of seasons was going to amount to in a few years. The air cooling for a couple of weeks, some snowflakes melting on his face, and then—
boom—
a patch of ice on the sidewalk for him to slip on. What about seeing a sugar maple burst to life in front of a Pathmark in Rego Park, as gaudy and flamboyant as a Moulin Rouge cancan dancer tossing her petticoats? What about the sycamores in Riverside Park changing color, like a sun god was dripping fire on their leaves? He should drive out to the country with Patti tonight, just to look at the stars before they melted away.

 

He spotted Tom Wallis from halfway down the block, rusty hair and fair skin, sweeping up in front of the house, in pressed slacks and a white shirt with the collar buttoned, as if he’d just come home from work in the middle of the day.

 

“There he is.”

 

“What’s doing, Francis?” Tom put the broom aside and offered his hand.

 

“Good to see you, man.” Francis skipped the handshake and gave him a hearty hug. “You’re looking well.”

 

It was true. Most families of crime victims got old before their time. You could see ten years pass on their faces as soon as you did the initial notification, the eyes receding into the skull right as you said the words “I’m sorry for your loss.” And watching them at trial was even worse: the skin tone graying, the hair going lank, the posture slumping as they realized this wasn’t about justice, but
the integrity of the process.
That these muted lawyerly compromises and confused halfhearted witnesses were all they had to address their pain.

 

But Tom, born five years before Allison, didn’t look substantially different from the way he did that last time Francis had seen him, at the Landmark Tavern in ’86, talking quietly over ginger ale and soda bread. He still had that stunned look of a young farmer seeing his first twister in the distance, the jaw just beginning to slacken, the high forehead lightly furrowed over a pair of faint, barely discernible eyebrows and that same contrast of milky-white skin and red hair as the women in the family.

 

“I’m glad I caught you home when I called.”

 

“Life of a salesman.” Tom touched the space between his eyebrows in the same shy, slightly self-conscious way that Francis remembered. “Gone all the time and then home on a weekday afternoon. It’s been a long time, Francis.”

 

“It has. I lost track of you guys. I used to send your mother a card every Christmas and every Easter.”

 

“Yeah, we moved around a lot for a while.” Tom nodded, only the slightest thinning of his lips hinting that he might be uneasy about this visit. “We were staying at my mom’s place in Sag Harbor for a while. Then we tried Connecticut. But you know how it is. You can’t stay where you were, but nowhere else feels like home.”

 

“I hear that a lot. It’s hard to settle.”

 

“That’s us, the Wandering Wallises.”

 

“Got your mom living with you now?”

 

“Yeah. The price was right, so we sold the place we had in Danbury and jumped at it.” Tom blinked, making no move to invite Francis in. “It’s worked out nice. We cover the mortgage by renting out the top floor, and Mom’s got her space on the garden level, so she gets to see the grandchildren all the time and still have her own bathroom.”

 

“Jesus, I didn’t even know you got married, Tom.”

 

“We just had our ten-year anniversary.” He fingered his gold band, preoccupied. “Terrific lady from Indiana. We’ve got two little girls, three and six. . . .”

 

He stooped down to pick up a Swedish Fish wrapper that had blown onto his front steps.

 

“So, what’s on your mind, Francis? You said you had something important to discuss on the phone.”

 

“I don’t know if you heard about this yet. But they let Julian Vega out.”

 

Tom stood up slowly, the wrapper making crinkling noises in his hand. “What are you talking about?”

 

“Believe me. I know it’s fucked up. I just found out myself.”

 

“They-let-him-out?”
Tom reviewed the words, turning into an English as a second language student. “How could this happen?”

 

“It’s a technicality. They vacated his conviction because he claims his lawyer didn’t tell him he had the right to testify. It’s bullshit. Don’t worry about it. We’re gonna put him back in.”

 

Tom began rubbing the smooth space between his eyebrows, as if he were trying to work the idea into his head. “You mean we’re going to have to go through this whole thing again?”

 

“Tom, I’m sorry. This shouldn’t have happened.”

 

“Wow . . . I mean,
wow.
” A pink undertone began to boil up through his fair complexion. “Why didn’t anybody tell us this was happening?”

 

“It all came up very suddenly. No one was expecting it.”

 

Oh, Paul Raedo, the things I do for you.

 

“God. I don’t know if my mother can handle this.”

 

“You want me to tell her?”

 

Tom shook his head, his natural pallor returning only by gradual degrees. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

 

“Why not?”

 

Tom took a deep breath, like he’d just ridden a child’s bicycle up a long steep mountainside.

 

“She hasn’t been herself. For a very long time.”

 

“No?”

 

Francis cursed himself for not keeping up. Staying in touch with victims’ families was as much a part of the job as filling out DD5s and developing CIs. Sure, some of those phone calls were torture, mothers crying,
“Why did the Lord take my beautiful baby boy?”
when you knew damn well that Baby Boy was a drug-dealing ho-slapping little gangsta with a razor blade in his mouth when he got capped. But
you had to do it.
Not only because it was the right thing to give consolation to the brokenhearted but because
you never knew.
You could be two, three years from a dead-end case, thinking it was never going to get cleared, when Grandma calls up out of the blue, says she was watching
As the World Turns
the other day when Miss Thing sashays on with her big butt and flash jewelry that reminds her of that girl Baby Boy was seeing before he got killed, who it turns out had a jealous husband just up from Ecuador.

 

“I know she seemed like she was going to be so strong during the trial.” Tom gripped the broom. “But then she kind of went to pieces. You know, she’s been trying to write the same book for twenty years.”

 

“Uh-oh.”

 

It figured. The ones who could hold themselves up the longest sometimes fell the hardest. He remembered Eileen sitting in the second row of the courtroom every day, this indomitable red-haired lady who never wore any makeup and raised two kids on her own in the city after her husband, the failed Abstract Expressionist, decamped to Paris with an eighteen-year-old Meredith Monk dancer.

 

“What happened? She sounded good the last time I talked to her.”

 

“She sort of went downhill slowly at first and then picked up speed.” Tom’s mouth hardened. “Right after the trial, she started going to potluck dinners for all these support groups of parents with dead children. That was all right. But then she started having all these petty disputes with them. Complaining that people only came to the meetings when the guy who killed their kids was up for sentencing and they needed more people to come to court.”

 

“Sure,” Francis grunted sympathetically, knowing you could never take these things for granted.

 

“So after a while, she started hanging around with this other crowd. These New Age types. People into healing crystals and aromatherapy, you know, all that crap.”

 

“You don’t sound impressed.”

 

“What do you want?” Tom picked up a ball of tinfoil. “I sell professional medical supplies. These people are the enemy. But then she got hooked up with the real wackos. The ones that think they can talk to the dead.”

 

“You’re kidding me. Your mother?”

 

Francis couldn’t quite picture it. They were talking about a wised-up hardheaded New York lady, a woman of substance. A girl who got a role playing Ophelia to Richard Burton’s Hamlet straight out of Julliard. An actress who worked with Cassavetes and then gave it up to raise her children. A woman who reinvented herself as a successful children’s book author after her husband hived off. Francis remembered reading one of the stories,
Hello, Walls,
to his daughter, Kayleigh, a few years after the case ended and being struck by how tough-minded, funny, and scary it was all at the same time—as if the author had some special subversive understanding with her young readers that specifically excluded parents.

 

“Well, she was always a little . . .
manic.
” Tom tossed the tinfoil ball into the garbage with a look of disgust. “But then after my sister died, she started getting more and more depressed until she literally couldn’t get out of bed some mornings. She thought these people—these
snake-oil salesmen—
could help her. They told her Allison wasn’t really dead.”

 

“Wha?”
Francis heard his jawbone crack behind his ear.

 

“One of the ‘spirit guides’ told her that was another girl buried in her grave.” Tom looked down at his feet, embarrassed. “Chief Missing Invoice or Something. He said a mistake had been made. Bodies were switched. Another girl was murdered and her face was mutilated, so no one could recognize her. . . .”

 

“Look, Tom, not for nothing, your mother is a great lady and all, but
that was your sister.
I saw her with my own eyes.” Being careful to say
her,
not just
the body.

 

“You don’t have to sell me. I saw her at the morgue too. But denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.”

 

“Oh, don’t I know it.”

 

Francis nodded, realizing that he still hadn’t written down the date of his next appointment with Dr. Friedan.

 

“And then she got into the private investigators. These vultures who said they were going to find my sister for her.” Tom swept at a Wrigley’s gum wrapper on a step. “A hundred and fifty dollars an hour to track a bunch of ATM statements. Like they were really going to find my sister sitting in a Taco Bell in Kenosha with Amelia Earhart.”

 

“Well, no one ever called me about it.”

 

“The thing is, she seemed to be doing a bit better these last couple of years.” Tom kept sweeping at the gum wrapper, getting more and more frustrated as it refused to budge. “Especially since the girls have got older. They’ve brought her out of the fog some. Particularly Michelle, my little one. They’re peas in a pod, her and my mother. She even looks like Allison did at that age.”

 

Francis turned toward the garden-floor window, thinking he’d just seen someone there from the corner of his eye.

 

“I really thought the sun was starting to break through,” Tom said. “The other day, we were in the park with the girls at the Alice in Wonderland statue and Mom suddenly turned to me and said, ‘I feel like I’m being given another chance.’ And for a half-second, it was the old her again. I felt like we finally had her back. But now that you’re telling me it’s going to start all over . . .” He sagged. “I don’t know.”

 

“Look, none of us wanted this to happen.”

 

“You know what the truly unbelievable thing is?” Tom said suddenly. “She
liked
that kid, Julian. Can you believe that? She met him when she was over at the building, visiting. She thought it was
sweet
the way he was always dogging after Allison. Like he seriously ever stood a chance with her.”

 

“Probably seemed innocent enough at the time.”

 

“They both should’ve known better.”

 

Tom picked the wrapper off the step and threw it in the trash, a light burn showing under his pale eyebrows.

 

“Yeah, okay, I’m not arguing.” Francis put his hands up. “I’m only saying anybody could’ve missed the signals. At the time I arrested him he looked about twelve.”

 

“Of course. I didn’t mean to go off. I just can’t —”

 

“I know.”

 

“— go through that whole torture again.” Tom looked down and saw that a gray smudge of gum had remained on the step. “I suppose we’re going to start getting calls from the media any minute now.”

 

“You don’t have to talk to them. Just direct all the calls to the DA’s press office.”

 

“You know, a part of me just thinks we should just let the whole thing drop,” he said, kicking at the gummy nub.
BOOK: Slipping Into Darkness
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