Story Excerpt

Big Blue Marble

by Doug Allyn

 

Big-Blue-Marble_RonBucalo
Art by Ron Bucalo

Screw the railrode pigs!

Ricardo Ramos, a.k.a. Ricky Rattle-can, took a step back to admire his handiwork. Freakin’ magnifico! The tag line he’d sprayed on the tanker car in neon green italics screamed its rage in streetwise style. Slick shading, phat calligraphy. Okay, okay, maybe the railroad misspell was a little bit over the top—

“Freeze, you little bastard! Right there! Drop that paint can!”

Ricky whirled to face the two security cops who were shouting at him, and coolly gauged the distance between them. They were at least a hundred yards down the tracks and one of ’em was fat as a hog. They might as well be in freakin’ Australia. No way they could run down the Rickster.

Taking his sweet time, Ricky recapped his rattle can, slid it into his shoulder bag, and took a deep breath—then he flipped the two bulls the finger and took off like a shot.

Sprinting down the line of tank cars, he counted them silently as he ran—two—three—four—

At the fifth car he ducked between, flattening himself in the shadows, but still counting, giving the yard guards ten seconds to cross over—then he poked his head out again—

Damn it! They hadn’t fallen for it! Only the fat cop had crossed the tracks. The younger one was still coming on hard, and he’d gained a good thirty yards.

“Stop where you are, you little prick!”

Whoa! The pig was not only big, he was fast, and seriously ticked off now. No more games. Ricky had to drop the hammer and outrun this cracker bastard.

Breaking into the open, he made a beeline straight towards a tear in the chain-link fencing that surrounded the rail yard. If he could get off D & E property, the yard bulls couldn’t touch him. Their jurisdiction ended at the fence.

Ducking out through the torn linkage, Ricky high-stepped through the tangled undergrowth, following a nearly invisible path he could run blindfolded. Once he hit the street, he slowed to a saunter, knowing he was home free. No traffic this late. He trotted across the side street, then ducked behind a Jag sedan to check his back trail. The Jag was the only sweet ride in the Motel 6 parking lot. Looked almost new, perfect for a quick tag—

But when he glanced around—? What the hell? The rat-bastard cop was still coming, cursing as he bulled his way through the underbrush. He looked meaner than most security hacks, and clearly didn’t give a damn that he was off railroad property now.

He was steamed, and looking to kick some ass. Ricky needed to ditch him quick.

Sprinting across the motel parking lot, Ricky charged up the back stairway to the second-floor balcony. He knew the layout well. This close to the tracks, the management usually left a room or two unlocked so junkies looking to crash wouldn’t kick in the doors. One open door was all he needed—but he couldn’t find one! Every knob he tried—locked, locked, goddammit! Locked! His sweat-slicked hands were slipping on the damn doorknobs now. Locked, lock—finally! A knob twisted freely.

Ducking inside, he eased the door closed, fumbling at the mechanism to lock it behind him—double damn! The freakin’ knob came off in his hand. It was broken! Already kicked in! And he could hear the yard bull’s footsteps thundering up the stairs. The hack was only seconds behind him! He heard the knobs rattling a few doors down. The cop was trying the doors the same way Ricky had. Backing into the room, he looked wildly around for a place to hide—and then his time ran out!

Hearing the lock on the next room rattle, Ricky dove across the unmade bed, dropping over the far side, slamming down hard—on top of a woman!

Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! She was naked, forgodsake! Ricky froze, expecting her to bust out screaming—

But she didn’t. She didn’t even twitch. Her eyes were staring up at nothing. Then he saw the blood matted in her hair, still pooling on the floor beneath her head—

When the yard bull burst into the room, he knew he’d found the right one. They could hear Ricky hollering in Australia.

 

My bedside phone went off, jangling me half out of a dream. My parents were in it, though they’ve been gone for years. The phone gurgled again, snapping me fully awake. I blinked at the clock. Three a.m.?

Damn! Nobody calls at three with good news. I picked up.

“Ray Beaumont.”

“Ray-Ray? It’s Uncle Gus. I just got a call from Valhalla P.D. They’ve got your brother locked up, something about roughing up a girl?”

“That’s bull. Cooper wouldn’t hit a girl. Ever!”

“I know that, son, but after two tours in the desert, he won’t do well in a cage. You’re the family lawyer. Fix this! Get your ass up, get down there, and get him the hell out!”

Gus rang off without a goodbye. Not much on small talk, my uncle. With a half-dozen family businesses to run, he can’t spare the time.

I got my ass up, pulled on a T-shirt and jeans, and scrambled into my summer car, a ’66 Corvette convertible. The night was cool for late July, the first snap of a northern Michigan autumn in the air. I kept the top down, hoping the wind blast would clear my head.

Speeding through downtown Valhalla was no problem. I was born and raised in this lakeshore resort town. Great-grandpa Beaumont rode up to Michigan’s north shore on a timber train in the 1880s, mowed down the pine forest like a field of wheat, and made our family fortune. A hundred years later, my uncle Gus stands as tall as the pines Gramps dropped.

The Beaumont family name carries enough weight to get us out of most scrapes.

Not this time.

Valhalla police headquarters is a four-story blockhouse in Olde Towne, the original heart of the village. Gene Dukowski, the balding, pudgy desk sergeant, looked nervous. Which made me suddenly uneasy.

“What’s going on, Gene?”

“They got Cooper up on four, Mr. Beaumont. In an interrogation room. He’s drunk as a lord. You’d better take the damn elevator for once.”

I took the stairs instead. I’m claustrophobic. I favor open cars, open doors, open relationships. Trotting past the elevator, I raced up the main stairway two at a time, up to the fourth floor. Maximum-security cells and interrogation rooms. In a quiet resort town like Valhalla, they aren’t used often.

One was in use now.

I paused at the head of the stairs, hearing raised voices. The corridor windows are two-way mirrors. I could see into the room but they couldn’t see me.

Cooper, my older brother, was seated at a metal table. He was dressed casually, chambray shirt and jeans. The female cop barking questions was new to me, a tall redhead in a blue pants suit. Not a local. I’d never seen her before. I would have remembered.

Valhalla P.D. Chief Marge Kazmarek was in the room too, watching from the corner, her beefy arms folded. Frowning. Easy to see why.

Coop looked like he’d fallen down the same stairs I’d just raced up. His face was battered, his knuckles gashed. And yet he was smiling, apparently agreeing with whatever the lady cop was saying.

What the hell?

I rapped once, then stepped in.

“Maybe it was just an accident,” the cop was saying. She gave me a quick frown, then turned back to Cooper. “Did she—slap you? Maybe you just pushed her away? Defending yourself? And she fell? Is that what happened?”

“Hell, maybe it did,” Cooper nodded blearily. “I can’t remember—”

“Whoa! Not another damn word!” I barked, grabbing Coop’s collar, jerking him around.

“Hey Ray, did they bust you too?” He gave me a boozy grin. “This lady—sorry, Red. I forgot your name—”

“Snap out of it!” I said, slapping him sharply across the face. “What the hell’s wrong—?” I didn’t finish. Grabbing my lapels, the lady cop jerked me off him and slammed me into the wall. Hard.

“What the hell are you doing? You can’t lay hands on a suspect—”

“It’s okay, lady,” Coop grinned. “Ray hits like a girl.”

“What’s going on here?” I demanded.

“An interrogation, numb nuts,” she shot back. “Who’s asking?”

“I’m his lawyer.”

“He didn’t request a lawyer, and you look like a beach bum.”

“Cop shops don’t have a dress code, at least not at four a.m. What are you, the fashion police?”

“No, I’m the damn sure real police, sport. Detective Lieutenant Cassandra Lacey, Detroit Metro Narcotics,” she said, holding up her ID tag an inch from my nose. “Who are you?”

“Raymond Beaumont, of Beaumont and Deveraux, attorneys at law. Which you’d know if you were from here. Has Coop been formally charged, Chief?”

“He was picked up, drunk and disorderly—”

“He’s been beaten! What happened?”

“He looked rough when we found him,” Lacey said.

“Okay, and he’s clearly had a few. Where does the disorderly part come in?”

“He took a swing at the arresting officer.”

“Probably confused, due to his inebriated condition. Which doesn’t explain why a Detroit narc is grilling my brother, Chief Kazmarek. What’s going on here?”

“Lieutenant Lacey was senior on the scene when my boys rolled up, Ray,” Chief Marge Kazmarek said. “We share jurisdiction with Detroit all the time.”

“Not for public drunkenness, you don’t. This interview is over. Coop can’t say another word without his attorney present, and I’m leaving. Can we have a word, Chief? Outside?”

I held the door for Chief Kaz, pointedly closing it in Lacey’s face as she tried to follow.

At a glance, Chief Marge Kazmarek looks like your favorite grandma. Seamed face, rosy apple cheeks, silver hair tightly curled as a Brillo pad. Khaki uniform, always impeccably pressed. Her husband, Walt, was chief when I was a boy. Coached my JV basketball team. After his coronary, the city council asked Marge to finish out his term to save the cost of an election. She’s won two full terms since then, with Beaumont family backing.

“What’s going on, Marge? This isn’t about a drunk charge.”

“No, it’s not. Do you know this woman?” She held out a photo in a transparent evidence envelope. A posed shot of a hard-eyed blonde. Smiling, attractive. Late twenties, give or take.

“Never saw her before. Who is she?”

“She’s a homicide victim, Ray. Found her dead in a room at Motel Six. Nude and roughed up. Somebody apparently bounced her off the bathtub, fractured her skull. Cooper was picked up a few blocks away in—well. The shape he’s in.”

“Coop wouldn’t—”

“There’s more,” she said, cutting off my objections. “Coop’s Jaguar was parked in her parking slot at the motel. And we found his picture and bio information in her purse.”

She reversed the evidence envelope, showing me a printed form, with my brother’s picture on it. Spattered with blood.

“The form is from a dating service,” Marge said. “Cooper must have—”

“That’s not his signature,” I said.

“But it’s his picture, Ray, and we found it in a dead woman’s room. Along with some pills. Oxy. Does Coop use OxyContin, Ray? For his leg, maybe?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Then maybe they were headed for stoned, monkey love—”

“Monkey love, Marge? Really?” I said, fighting back a smile.

“Don’t knock it, sonny,” she said. “I wasn’t born sixty, you know. I lived through the Summer of Love and had a great time.”

“I’m sure you did, but those drugs couldn’t be Coop’s. If his blood alcohol was at point two eight, an aspirin would put him in a coma.”

“It may not matter, Ray. She was beaten, Coop’s got bloody knuckles, and his car was parked at the scene—”

“What about the Motown narc?” I interrupted “Lacey? Where does she fit in?”

“She’s a Detroit Metro lieutenant who moonlights as a legal investigator. She was supposed to meet the victim tomorrow. She was staying at the same motel, heard the screams. A tagger running from a railroad dick picked the wrong room to hide in. The lieutenant heard him yelling, called nine-one-one. She was already on the scene when my guys arrived.”

“And the dead woman? Who is she?”

“A reporter, Shira Mosca. Detroit Free Press. Works the police beat, she’s fairly well known, actually.”

“And this lieutenant was supposed to meet her here? Why?”

“A job of some kind. Lacey says she doesn’t know what it was about. I called her boss, Ray. She’s good police. She has a rock-solid reputation in Detroit.”

“Valhalla isn’t Detroit. Lacey has a personal history with your victim and she’s out of her jurisdiction. I want her off this, Chief.”

“Lacey sees more homicides in a week than Valhalla P.D. sees in a year, Ray—”

“And she almost had my brother conned into confessing! Bounce her, Marge, or next election the family will bounce you!”

“Don’t push me, Ray. I don’t like it.”

I caught the dangerous edge in her tone.

“I, um—sorry, Marge. You’re right. That was out of line.” I took a ragged breath. “Look, it’s the middle of the freakin’ night, and I’m half awake. Let’s talk in the morning. Sorry I barked at you.”

“Noted,” she said evenly.

“But keep Lieutenant Lacey away from this case. Note that too.”

“I can blow off Lacey, but there’s no wiggle room on the rest of it. I’ve got a dead woman with your brother’s picture in her purse, we picked him up a block away, drunk out of his tree with bloody knuckles, and he’s not even denying it. This isn’t going away, Ray. Coop’s in serious trouble.”

“I get that,” I said.

But I was lying. I didn’t get any part of this.

Out in the corridor, I paced in circles, trying to get my head around the situation. A woman? From a dating site? Cooper is six-four, ruggedly handsome, a war hero who owns his own nightclub with two army buddies. If he wanted to date, he could have his pick of—

I stopped. I was at the head of the stairs, staring down four long flights. Remembering another stairway. Years ago. The day everything changed.

I was ten. My mom was sick, dying of cancer. My dad hauled us out to the country to visit her sister. Aunt Agatha lived in a massive old mansion on Sugar Hill, the old-money section of Valhalla. While Pop and Agatha talked in low tones over coffee in the kitchen, Cooper and I ran wild around the old house, exploring.

I was in the attic, rummaging through years of castoff crap. Cradles, sleds, old trunks full of musty clothing—and then I found it.

A bowling ball. Not a black one. It was translucent turquoise, with an amazing, creamy swirly pattern running through it. It looked like planet earth, spinning in space. Like the Big Blue Marble on TV.

It seemed utterly magical to me; I couldn’t wait to show Coop. And as I stepped out of the cubbyhole, with the ball in my arms, I met him coming up the steps.

“Look what I found,” I said. “It’s the Big Blue Marble. Catch!” And I heaved it towards him.

But it was heavier than I’d realized and I bobbled it. The ball banged down beside Cooper, then kept right on going, hurtling down the long stairway, picking up speed with every bounce. I rushed past Coop, desperate to catch it—but I was too late. And halfway down the steps, I stopped, watching the disaster unfold. Horrified.

I couldn’t catch the damned ball. Nothing could stop it now. And when it hit bottom? It would demolish Aunt Agatha’s front door. An Edwardian masterpiece of leaded glass, ten feet tall, two hundred years old.

And that’s exactly what happened.

The Big Blue Marble slammed down on the landing, bounced five feet in the air, then exploded through the leaded-glass panels like an H-bomb, blasting Italian crystal all over Auntie Ag’s front porch.

But what happened next was even more amazing.

“It’s all my fault, Pop,” Cooper said, shouldering past me, “I told Ray to throw it, but he’s too little. I’m really sorry about your door, Aunt Agatha. I’ll pay for the damage.”

And ten-year-old coward that I was, I kept my little mouth shut, and let my big brother take the blame, hoping that would be the end of it.

But it wasn’t.

When we got home, Coop and my dad had a major row about it. Pop called it the “last straw.” Within a week Coop was packed off to military school, then VMI, in Virginia. And after that, to war.

I tried to explain to my dad but he wouldn’t listen. My mom passed soon after, and a few years later, my dad was killed in a plane crash. But for me, my childhood ended the day I dropped the Big Blue Marble. Nothing was ever the same again.

Except Coop. In that single, shining moment, my brother defined himself in my eyes. Super Cooper. My hero. Forever and ever, amen.

Until tonight.

The drunk I’d just talked to up in the holding tank? With the bloody knuckles and bleary smile?

I barely recognized that guy.

And as I headed down the steps, I could see that Big Blue Marble bouncing down ahead of me, all over again. And I hoped to God history wasn’t repeating, because this disaster could be one helluva lot worse than a smashed glass door.

 

Uncle Gus was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs, looking rumpled and unshaven in a tweed suit, his wispy white hair a shambles.

“Where’s Coop?” he demanded. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Coop’s going to be—stuck here awhile,” I said grimly. “We need to call a meet—”

“Already done,” he said. “Everybody’s waiting in the snack bar.”

I followed him into a small room off the main lobby.

A half-dozen people were jammed in there, seated around two picnic tables or leaning against the wall. The Beaumont clan, full strength.

“I’ve already asked,” Gus sighed. “Nobody knows squat, but they all came anyway.”

I knew every face in the room. My sister Peach, a five-foot, blue-eyed blonde, as sweet as her name. My cousin Rachel and her husband Jeff, R.N. and M.D. respectively. Two of Gus’s grown sons, both in business suits. The only non-Beaumont was Irish Mike Malloy, Cooper’s army buddy business partner. Irish Mike carried Coop four miles under fire after a Taliban mortar round chopped off Coop’s leg at the knee. Their third partner, “Doc” Sawchuk, was missing, which struck me as odd. All three were amazingly tight.

They came home from the Afghan Sandbox together, with a half-baked idea of opening a beachfront bistro in our hometown. Cooper put up most of the money, Doc is a fair hand in the kitchen, and Irish Mike’s wife, Jolene, sings like a fallen angel.

At the time, I thought Super Coop was just looking out for his buddies. I was wrong. Dosty’s Roadhouse may be the only good thing that came out of that war. The three buds turned an abandoned warehouse into a freakin’ gold mine, and have been having a ball running it.

Or so I thought. Until tonight.

There were vending machines and a serve-yourself coffee maker, but nobody bothered. Irish Mike leaned his back against the door to be sure we weren’t interrupted. Barrel-chested with a flat-top military haircut and a permanent grin, Mike runs the club business like a drill sergeant and deals with troublemakers personally. I saw a rummy nail him flush on the jaw with a sucker punch once. Mike wiped the blood off his chin, then dropped the goon like a bad habit. But kept on smiling the whole time.

I took a deep breath, then faced the family circle.

“This is a council of war, people. Here’s the deal. Cooper got picked up drunk and disorderly at two this morning. He’s in the tank for the night, drying out—”

“What the hell, Ray?” Uncle Gus interrupted, “Post his bail—”

“It’s not that simple, Unc. Coop’s not just a little buzzed, he blew a point two eight Breathalyzer. That’s nearly toxic, a lot more than a casual drinker can manage. How long has he been boozing like this?”

Irish Mike shrugged. “A few weeks, maybe a little longer. He handles the meet-and-greet until the grill closes at ten, then gets totaled by midnight.”

“Why? What’s going on with him?”

“I’ve talked to him about it, Ray,” Peach said. “He claims he’s fine. He’s just having a little trouble adjusting to the stateside world.”

“He’s entitled,” Irish Mike added. “Me and Doc came back from the Sandbox in one piece. Coop lost a leg below the knee. It’s different for him. Cut the guy some slack.”

“You’ve been back nearly a year,” I said. “Why is it suddenly a problem?”

“PTSD doesn’t always crop up on day one,” Rachel put in. “We’re seeing a lot of it in the E.R. Guys self-medicating with booze or pills. Coop’s smart, and tough as a boot. This will pass, Ray.”

“There’s more,” I said. “The chief showed me some kind of dating-service application—”

“Oh my God,” Peach said, paling. “I was afraid it might backfire—”

“What might? What do you know about it?”

“Coop’s been really down lately.” Peach sighed. “He hasn’t dated anyone since he’s been back. I’ve hooked him up with a few girlfriends, but nothing panned out. When I suggested a dating website, he totally blew me off.”

“Then how did he get on it?”

“Jolene’s been worried about him too. We thought if he could meet someone—”

“Whoa! Are you saying you filed out a form for him? Without telling him?”

“Of course not! We filled out a form, but we weren’t sure how a stranger might react to Cooper’s injury. Jo knew a friend she was sure could handle it, so we set them up with the dating app as a cover. We hoped meeting someone new might snap him out of his funk.”

“He snapped all right,” I said grimly. “Who’s the woman he was supposed to meet?”

“She’s a reporter who interviewed Jolene last year, named Shira Mosca. Jo fixed them up, I never actually met her.”

“I need to know about this friend, fast. Where’s Jolene now?”

“At the club, rehearsing,” Irish Mike said. “After hours is the only time we ain’t jammed, Ray.”

“I need to talk to her.”

“No problem. I usually pick her up around this time anyway, I’ll let you in.”

“Good. The rest of you, go home, I’ve got this. With luck, it’ll all sort out in the morning.”

But Gus couldn’t wait.

“Ray,” he said, clutching my arm as the others filed out. “I need a word.”

“Sure, Unc. What is it?”

“This whole thing may be my fault.”

“Your fault? Why?”

“Coop came by my office last week, which surprised me. We had a blowout a month back.”

“Over what?”

“Money. I know Coop’s banged up and has stuff to work through, but I’ve got problems too, Ray. I was hoping he’d step up, pull some weight in the family businesses. Instead he put up his inheritance as collateral to buy a frickin’ saloon with two broken-down army buddies who couldn’t raise a C-note between ’em.”

“It’s Coop’s life, Unc. If it’s what he wants—”

“But it’s not. I handled his original financing personally, Ray. Put up sixty percent out of my own pocket. But last week Coop hit me up for more. To buy out his partners, he said. But businesswise, it made no sense.”

“I thought Dosty’s was doing well.”

“It is, but they spent a pile on the start-up. To refinance now would be suicide. I tried to explain, but Coop didn’t want to hear it. So we cut a deal. Coop would meet with a counselor, lay out his plans for her. After that, if he still wanted to go ahead, we’d work something out.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened. Coop never showed.”

“What kind of counselor was this? Financial or—?”

“A therapist who specializes in treating troubled vets.” Gus sighed heavily. “Your brother doesn’t need business advice, Ray. His problems are in his head.”

“Maybe they were last week, Unc,” I said, “but they’re damn sure for real now. I gotta go. I’ll call you when I know something.”

 

Following Irish Mike’s battered van to the club, I mulled over what Uncle Gus had told me. Actually, the club was a loony idea. The old warehouse had been vacant for years when Coop bought it. Sure, Gus thought he was out of his freakin’ mind. So did I. So did everybody.

Before the army Cooper was a basketball star who took the VMI Keydets to the state finals his senior year. He had high hopes for a shot at the NBA after the army, but all that ended when the blast took his leg. And his career. His whole life, really. Made him just another wounded vet. Except in his hometown. In Valhalla, he was still a hero. Especially to me.

But seriously, what the hell did Coop know about converting a warehouse into a bistro?

I asked him straight out once, while the place was under construction. Coop was in dungarees, covered with sawdust, working with a gypsy drywall crew, grinning like a kid in a candy store.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked, gesturing at the chaos.

“Living a dream,” he said.

“Hanging wallboard is your dream?”

“Nope, playing pro ball was my dream. But when I woke up in the ICU in Kabul with my leg gone below the knee? I felt like the biggest idiot on the planet, Ray. That rock pile beat the British Empire, the Russians, hell, even Alexander the Great couldn’t hold it. They call it the ‘graveyard of empires,’ and I was just the latest loser.”

“That’s not true—”

“It is true! Mike and Doc were in the same boat. Tours coming to an end, headed home to the same crap lives they joined up to get away from. They came to sit with me every day, and we’d dream up crazy-ass ways to use our service skills back home. Hire out as hit men, smuggle drugs, blow up bridges. Every idea dumber than the one before. Until this one.”

“Dosty’s,” I nodded.

“It means friendship in Pashto. We could open a pub together. Doc would chef, Mike would run the biz, his wife’s a singer, I could meet and greet folks from my hometown? Easy-peasy.”

“If working construction’s your idea of easy—”

“Hell no, it isn’t! I know the idea’s crazy, Ray!” he said, his eyes burning into mine. “But through the surgeries, then rehab, it was all we talked about. Hell, what else could we talk about? My NBA tryout, on one leg? The dead friends we left in the Korengal?”

“I understand a guy might need a dream to come back to, but now that you’re home—”

“But I’m not home. I’ll never be all the way home, Ray. I only made it this far because the guys gave me reason to try! I owe ’em for that. Big. We dreamed this up together, and I’ll make it happen if it kills me.”

And in that moment, I realized that mortar round had blown away more than my brother’s leg. He was like a boxer who’d taken a punch that should have put him on the canvas. Yet somehow he was still on his feet, dazed and crazed and swinging away.

Super Cooper.

The hero he’d been to me since taking the blame for the Big Blue Marble. And just as I’d done that day, I backed off. To let my big brother find his own way home. On his own.

And now I was standing outside Cooper’s big dream at four in the morning.

And he was back at Valhalla P.D., drunk out of his mind. Sleeping in a cell.

 

From the street, Dosty’s looks much like the riverfront lumber warehouse it once was. Inside, it was dim, lit only by the sconces along the walls. The ambience is steampunk, I suppose. Matte-black furnishings, industrial blueprints, and impossibly complex machinery suspended from the ceiling. It had a certain charm, but it looked half mad to me now. And I was beginning to wonder if it actually was.

Jolene Malloy, Irish Mike’s wife, was onstage with her two-man band, a chubby, bearded guitarist everybody calls Punkin (no idea what his real name is), and a gaunt First Nation bass player dressed in black and wearing shades, at four in the morning, indoors.

Jolene is a slim, dark Canadian Metis, who could pass as a body double for Cher. Waist-length hair the color of a raven’s wing. She was in mid song when I eased in, her voice soaring above the music like a dove, crooning a timeless folk melody about love and loss.

I waited in the shadows, loath to interrupt. And even at the end, I waited for the last echoes of the song to fade away before I stepped out, applauding. Startling the bejesus out of them.

“Ray?” Jolene said, shading her eyes to peer past the stage lights into the darkened club. “Is that you?”

“Afraid so, kid. Something’s happened. We need to talk.”

“No problem, that was our big finish,” Punkin said, setting his guitar aside.

“Call it a night, guys,” Jolene agreed, stepping lightly off the stage, dressed in faded denims, her straight, dark hair down to her waist. She gave me a quick buss on the cheek. “What’s up?”

“A lot,” I said. “You and Peach arranged a date for Cooper. I need to know about her.”

“Oh wow. I’m guessing it bombed out, huh?”

“Why do you say that?”

“Coop’s had the blues for a month straight. That’s why we set him up. He’s a beautiful man, he deserves a strong woman, a better life.”

“So you fixed him up with your friend, the reporter? How do you know her?”

“The club scene in Detroit. I played there while Mike was overseas. Shira interviewed me and we stayed in touch. Why?”

I looked away, searching for a way to tell her—but there wasn’t one. Only the truth would do. “Your, um, your friend is dead, Jo. She was killed tonight. I’m sorry.”

Jolene stared at me, stunned. So did her sidemen.

“What the hell, Ray?” Punkin demanded. “What happened?”

“They’re still sorting that out. She was attacked in her motel room. Coop was picked up near the scene, totally wasted. And they found a dating-site folder in her room, with his picture—”

“But I gave Shira that!”

“Why? Peach said you talked about a website, Jolene. So where did your friend come in?”

“We didn’t want to risk a bad outcome because of Coop’s—well. His leg. But Shira’d been to Afghanistan as a correspondent. She knows firsthand what it’s like. We hoped they’d hit it off.”

“Coop was totally stoned, looked like he’d been in a fight. Do you know anything about that?”

“I—know he’s been drinking. A lot. He was doing it here till I asked him not to. It’s tough to do your show with your boss falling out of his chair, front row center.”

“He moved his act out to the Gold Mine Club,” Punkin put in. “Same problem, though.”

“What problem?”

“Coop gets wrecked, and if somebody looks at him sideways, he goes off. Lays ’em out or gets decked himself. Doesn’t seem to care which.”

“Should I talk to the police,” Jolene asked, “explain what happened?”

“No, you need to stay out of this, babe,” Irish Mike said, moving up beside me. “Leave it to Ray. He’s the one Coop needs now.”

“What about your friend?” I asked. “Is there anything else I should know about her?”

Jolene mulled that over. “I know she covered dangerous stories in Detroit, sometimes. Maybe one of them followed her here.”

“We’ll know more in the morning,” I said, with a lot more confidence than I felt. “Sorry about your friend, Jo. Call it a night for now. I’ve got this.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Mike said, falling in step with me. But at the door, he turned to face me.

“Look, I know things look bad, Ray, but Coop wouldn’t do nothin’ like this. And anything you need from us, anything at all, you got it.”

“I know, Mike, thanks.”

“Meantime, there’s something I need from you,” he sighed. “I manage the club, but Coop signs the checks. I need access to our accounts to keep the business going. Coop’s gonna need every cent we bring in.”

“It’s not that simple, Mike. Coop doesn’t actually own the business. My uncle gave him a personal loan. Without Coop, Gus is the majority stockholder and he was against Dosty’s from the start.”

“But—Coop made Doc and me full partners.”

“In his share of the business, but that’s less than half. And if I can’t get Coop out of this jam, losing the club will be the least of our worries.”

“Copy that,” Mike nodded. “Okay, I’ll keep things going the best I can. Should have known it was too good to last.”

“It’s a tough situation all around, Mike, but hang in there. I’ve got this. It’ll work out.”

Which was a bald-faced lie.

Driving back to my place, I ran through every scenario I could envision of what might have happened in that motel room. None of them made sense, and every one of them left Cooper in a deep hole. I desperately wanted to help him, but had no idea how to do it.

Because for most of our lives? It had been the other way around.

 

I was back at the cop shop first thing in the morning to find Chief Kazmarek waiting for me at the front desk. With storm clouds in her eyes.

“We need to talk, Ray. My office, now.”

We rode the elevator up in silence, with me doing my best not to fidget, hating every claustrophobic minute of it. In her office, Marge waved me to a chair, then stood at the window, arms folded, staring out at nothing. She hadn’t changed clothes. I doubt she’d been to bed. Her office was Spartan, no memorabilia or family photos.

“There’s no easy way to say this, Ray. Shortly after you left, your brother confessed.”

“What?”

“Before you go off on me, Lacey didn’t question him. Coop said he wanted to talk to her, she just listened. Here, see for yourself.”

She swiveled a laptop on her desk toward me and switched it on. A grainy download from a security camera. Cooper in a cell, sitting on the edge of a bunk, talking to the Detroit narc. Saying that some of what Lieutenant Lacey suggested earlier sounded right. That what happened to Shira could have been an accident, glancing down at his bandaged hands as he said it. He didn’t speak for a time, and his eyes closed.

“Mr. Cooper?” Lacey said. “Are you okay?” He snapped awake. I reached over to switch off the laptop.

“There’s more,” Kaz said.

“It doesn’t matter. That’s not a confession, Chief; he nodded out in mid sentence. What was his blood-alcohol level at the time?”

“We didn’t retest, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“It’s a moot point anyway. Under Arizona v. Beltran, his dozing off makes anything he said inadmissible. He’s clearly still under the influence.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s untrue, Ray. I’m giving you a heads-up here, off the record. But that’s as far as I can go.”

That took a moment to register. “Sweet Jesus, Marge. You can’t actually think he’s guilty?”

“What I think doesn’t matter; we’re way past that. Cooper’s on top of our suspect list, and with this video in hand, I can’t cut him loose.”

“Damn it, Marge, you’ve known us since we were kids.”

“You’re right. I remember a gangly kid who played great basketball for my late husband. But the guy in that cell with bloody knuckles, saying a murder could have been accidental? That’s not someone I recognize. Do you?”

I didn’t answer. Which was an answer of sorts.

“What about a weapon?” she asked. “Coop spent two tours in Afghanistan. If someone pulled a gun on him, how would he react?”

“I—have no idea. Why?”

“The dead woman, Shira Mosca, had a weapons permit, and went armed when she traveled. Her gun is missing and—”

“I don’t care if she had a damn bazooka. Drunk or sober, Coop wouldn’t rough up a woman. So where do we stand on this, Chief? Exactly?”

“I can hold him one more day on the drunk and disorderly, but if you try to bail him out, the prosecutor’s going to jack up the charge to homicide. Clear?”

“No,” I said honestly. “I don’t understand any of this.”

“Join the club,” she sighed, obviously exhausted. “Want some friendly advice, son? Forget he’s your brother. Treat him like any other client. Hire him a top-flight defense team, Ray. He’s going to need one. . . .”

 

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Copyright © 2018. Big Blue Marble by Doug Allyn