Life Lessons #1.5
Copyright: Kaje Harper © 2017 And to All a Good Night – original publication year & copyright 2011
Cover art by Karrie Jax – karriejax.com © 2017
Edited by ELF – musingsbyelf.wordpress.com/
This book follows (and contains spoilers for) book 1 – Life Lessons
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Content warning: contains strong language and alludes to m/m sex
These stories are for all the readers who told me that Mac and Tony felt like real friends, like people they might one day meet on the streets of Minneapolis. For everyone who asked to share more moments in the lives of these two men.
And to All a Good Night
Tony Hart forced his eyelids open and rolled away from his lover’s warm body. The sheets at the edge of the bed were chilly on his bare skin and he fought a nearly overwhelming urge to snuggle in and go back to sleep.
Beside him, Mac grunted and mumbled, “Already?”
“Yeah.” Sitting up tumbled the covers off Tony’s chest, which did a fair bit to wake him up. Brrr! “Did you turn down the heat again last night?”
“Your electric bill is ridiculous.” Mac slid a hand under the covers.
The rough brush of that callused palm across Tony’s thigh made him shiver for a completely different reason. Three months together, and the lightest touch of Mac’s hand could still make him go up in flames.
There were a dozen things he’d rather be doing than heading to the airport for an early flight. But his mother had told him in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t show up in Florida for a family Christmas, she was coming to Minnesota to visit him. Which would make it really hard to keep Mac a secret. His mother had always read him like a book. All she’d need was to see him staring at Mac once, and their secret would be out.
Mac stroked gently across Tony’s hip. Definitely time to get up, before you jump that man again. Climbing out of bed, Tony stood and hugged himself against the chill, blinking sleep-bleary eyes. Through the curtains, the faint glow of a streetlight below did little to light the winter darkness. Mac reached out a long arm and switched on his bedside lamp.
Tony winced at the sudden light. “Hey, you don’t need to get up, babe. I’m all packed and I put my clothes in the bathroom. You catch another hour before work.”
Mac sat up. “You’re kidding, right?”
Now that’s a work of art. Tony gave himself a moment to just admire Mac’s hard, wide, lightly-furred chest, broad shoulders, and sculpted biceps. Not to mention dark hair, dark eyes, and a dark haze of unshaven stubble over a strong jawline. And then there was the rest of the show as Mac climbed out of his side of the bed, gorgeously naked.
“Mac, you didn’t get home until one AM. I don’t need you to see me off.”
“Maybe I want to.” Mac didn’t look at Tony as he bent to dig a pair of shorts out of his own drawer.
Tony hesitated, then went to the bathroom to get dressed. Jeans and a polo shirt were his usual choice for travelling. He wanted a hot shower, but hadn’t left enough time for one. No big. He always felt so grubby after an airline flight— he’d need a shower when he arrived at his parents’ place anyway. He ran water in the sink and splashed his face to wake himself up. Through the door, he could hear Mac heating water for coffee. Bless him.
By the time Tony was done, Mac was standing in the kitchen fully dressed, with a mug in each hand. Tony took his cup gratefully and inhaled the warm steam. “Oh, yeah. Now I remember why I let you move in here.”
“I haven’t moved in. I’m just here a lot.”
“Okay.” Tony drank the rich brew in small appreciative sips, drowning the impulse to call Mac out on that little delusion. For a couple of months now, Mac had spent every night at Tony’s place. Not one, not some, but every single one. He went back to his own squalid little apartment to pick up mail and swap clothes, but not much else. That was “moved in” by Tony’s definition, but evidently Mac didn’t see it that way.
Mac took a gulp from his own outsized mug. “I’ll drive you to the airport.”
“You don’t need to do that. I’ve ordered a cab. It’ll be here in ten minutes.”
“Cabs cost an arm and a leg. And the roads were icy out there when I came home… to your place last night. Giving a friend a ride is no big deal. I’ll drop you off and then head in to work.”
“Sweetie, I’ve given them my credit card. It’s a done deal. And the traffic around the airport will be intense, with Christmas Eve tomorrow. You don’t need the hassle.”
Mac rubbed a hand over his hair, which was still a little disarranged from their…enjoyable night. “I’ll probably head in now anyway. There’s no way I’m getting back to sleep. I’ve got a ton of work to do. Why do people get so crazy around the holidays?”
“Um, emotional stress? Worrying about money? You’d know better than me.” Tony was very aware of the long hours Mac had been working. Apparently the whole Minneapolis homicide department was burning the midnight oil, trying to solve a rash of new cases before Christmas. “Are you guys this busy around the holidays every year?”
Mac shrugged. “Most years, yeah. Homicides, suicides, assaults. They all go up. Peace on earth and goodwill to men.”
Tony winced. He liked the holidays. Of course, being a teacher meant Christmas was a nice long break from work, not days dealing with mayhem and despair.
Mac opened the fridge and peered in. “What do you want to eat?”
Tony rinsed his cup and set it in the dish drainer. “I hate to say it, but I really have to go. I’ll catch breakfast at the airport, if I have time. I’m betting the security line’s going to be a bitch even at this hour. You should eat a good breakfast, though. I bought those frozen waffles you like.”
Mac closed the refrigerator. “I can stop for something on my way to work.”
But will you bother? When work got busy like it was now, Mac tended to put food way down on his priority list. Along with heat and sleep. Tony wasn’t above a little subtle manipulation, or even outright nagging, to get a healthy meal into Mac, but today there wasn’t time. And then he’d be gone for a week. Dammit.
He’d sometimes been tempted to put a framed copy of that serenity prayer on his wall— the part about accepting the things he couldn’t change and the wisdom to know the difference. He used to think he was so good at staying calm and logical through just about anything, but Mac could drive him crazy. How could someone who was downright obsessive— occasionally smothering— about keeping Tony, and daughter Anna, and pretty much the whole damned city safe, take such crappy care of himself?
Let it go for now. That was Tony’s mantra. He and Mac were still feeling their way into this relationship, hidden away behind the apartment’s four walls. Compromise and going slow had to be his watchwords, even if he was personally ready for the time when he’d have more rights to Mac. Already, when Mac came through that door in the evenings and pulled him into a grateful hug, life was as close to perfect as Tony had ever known.
He focused on getting ready, choosing sneakers over boots, and grabbing a light jacket. His suitcase was bulky, although not heavy. The Hmong-crafted quilt had been an inspired gift for his mom, right up till he realized it meant he’d have to check a bag in the pre-Christmas madhouse. Too late to change it now. He pocketed his itinerary, phone, and keys. No hat, no gloves. He’d only lose them between Minnesota and Florida.
Hefting his backpack by one strap, he judged its weight. There were probably a couple more books in there than he really needed. But you never knew when a flight might be delayed, resulting in hours hanging around the airport. Better to be prepared.
“Should you be carrying that?” Mac frowned. “Your back isn’t fully healed yet. What about that little messenger thing you have? Or we could get you a wheelie bag. They even sell those at the airport.” He took the strap from Tony’s hand, pulling the pack away from him. “Something safer.”
“It’s fine. I’ll just use my right shoulder.” The latest, and hopefully last, skin graft surgery on his back was weeks ago now. Really, it was pretty much healed, if he didn’t abuse it. Mac hadn’t stopped worrying, though. It was endearing, when it wasn’t freaking annoying. “You’re hovering, Mac. I’m good.” Tony firmly repossessed his backpack and set it by the door.
Mac’s lips flattened, but he nodded and went to the kitchen, hand on the counter as he squatted to get his gun out of the safe under the sink. Standing, he strapped on his shoulder holster, checked the weapon, and settled it in place.
Tony tried hard to just admire the flex of Mac’s thighs and ass as he bent and stood, but didn’t quite manage. His heart did its usual little lurch, even though Mac’s actions were now as familiar as making breakfast. This still sucks. It was Tony’s daily reminder that the man he loved went out and put himself in harm’s way, part of that thin blue line. With that thought came the second acid bite in his stomach— if something happened to Mac, no one in blue would call Tony. No one knew about them. He’d only find out about a disaster when— if— Mac failed to come home, and there was a story on the local news about police officer shot. Worse yet, if Tony was way off in another state—
Enough. He rapped his knuckles once on the wood of the closet door for luck, then stepped up to Mac as casually as he could manage. He tugged Mac’s blue shirt smoother under the leather holster strap and fisted his man’s collar to pull him in for a kiss. Mac’s mouth was hot and coffee-flavored, and so sweetly familiar. Tony let himself linger.
Mac kissed back softly at first, but then he threaded his fingers into Tony’s hair to hold him steady, and took his mouth hard.
Tony leaned into the warm hand behind his head, let his eyes close, and opened his mouth to take anything Mac wanted to give him. So good. Mac’s other hand dropped to Tony’s ass. Damned shame the cab was on its way. Breaking the kiss, Tony opened his eyes. Mac’s intense gaze met his. “Um. You—“
Smiling, Tony stepped back and zipped his jacket. “Just a little reminder to keep thinking about me while I’m gone.”
“Ah. I might do that. Now and then.” Mac brushed past him, pulled out his own overcoat, and stuffed his new lined leather gloves into his pockets.
Tony suddenly wondered if it would be harder to fire a gun with the bulky gloves on. Would Mac’s finger fit around the trigger? Or would Tony go a little off his rocker worrying about six hundred details from a thousand miles away? It was a distinct possibility. He opened the door, and hefted his bags. “Look, I’ve got to run. Call me when you get the chance?”
The hallway behind Tony was empty, but still Mac hung back in the apartment, putting extra space between them. “Sure. Have a nice flight.”
“Like that’s gonna happen.” Tony tried for a wry grin. “Watch your back, Mac.”
Down the hall, a neighbor’s door began to open. Mac gave Tony a quick nod, and then Tony was looking at the beige paint on the outside of his quickly closed door. Tony squared his shoulders. Right. Bye, babe. The taxi had better be waiting downstairs, because Tony wasn’t coming back up.
Mac sometimes wished he’d taken a freaking typing class in high school, even if it’d meant being one of the geeks. Reports, reports, case forms, and more reports. He’d never have guessed that working homicide would turn out to be a damned desk job. This part always tried his patience, but today, coming in early and finding a mound of paperwork waiting irked him worse than usual.
Something wet and cold slithered down the back of his neck. He yelped and jerked away from the computer screen, whirling around. His partner Oliver laughed evilly and backed out of retaliation range. Mac slid a finger under the back of his collar and retrieved the remains of the offending snowball. “What the fuck?”
“It’s snowing out there, man. Looks amazing.”
“You’re cheerful. For a guy who’ll have to shovel the stuff.”
“My ex-wife is going to let me stay in the house with our boys over Christmas. We’ll try to bury the hatchet for two days and have a real family holiday.”
“Think you can?”
“Sure.” Oliver sighed and looked less cheerful. “We don’t hate each other. It was the job, the hours, and her feeling like she didn’t come first with me that broke us up. She says the boys see more of me now, with scheduled visitation, than they did when I lived at home. Hell, I still kinda love the broad. I think we can make nice for the sake of the kids.”
“Well, goodie for you.”
Oliver peered at Mac. “What’s got your panties in a twist?”
“Got the autopsy report on that old geezer. The one we hoped died of natural causes at home? He was poisoned with antifreeze.”
“Yeah.” The department had four other active cases. Two were just a matter of locating the killers. They knew who did it, had the witnesses and the evidence, but couldn’t lay hands on the men. Since one was an addict who had to be jonesing pretty badly by now, and the other was about as smart as a potted plant, odds were they’d both turn up soon. Just, so far they hadn’t, and the searches took manpower.
Another case was destined to go cold. A small-time cocaine dealer had been found shot in an alley. No witnesses, no physical evidence, and no ballistics match on the slug. They had to go through all the work, tracking down contacts and details that led nowhere, but odds were it would only get solved if a witness or confession turned up someday.
The fourth was a hit-and-run. They were working that one hard, checking body shops, talking to witnesses, and waiting for the lab report on trace evidence. Hit-and-runs were cowardice loaded on top of killing, but they had leads. With luck, their full-court press would nail the guilty driver soon.
Now the old guy made open case number five.
“Remind me about the victim.” Oliver stretched out in his desk chair.
“Andrew Smithe with an e on the end. Age eighty-six. No known relatives, living on a pension, not rich, not dirt poor. Found by his cleaning service, an estimated two days after he died. Signs of severe illness. Autopsy should’ve been a formality, but the report says ‘evidence of significant ingestion of ethylene-glycol-based antifreeze resulting in acute anuric kidney failure and death.’”
Oliver grunted. “So it’s murder. Follow the money. Old guy like that, it’s almost always going to be some long-lost relative in a hurry for an inheritance. I’ll stay on the hit-and-run. You go talk to the geezer’s friends, see if you can get a line on his will. Or maybe someone with a grudge. Check the neighbors, too.”
Mac would’ve given Oliver a hard time for telling him something that obvious, but he saw the way Oliver was unconsciously rubbing at his fourth finger, as if in search of that long-absent wedding ring. Maybe his partner’s cheer was a bit of an act. So he just said, “On it, boss man.”
Smithe had lived in a townhome. The narrow beige unit was identical to a dozen others that stretched out on either side down the row, and the cars parked in front of them had mostly seen better days. A few had windows decorated with holiday lights, or wreaths breaking the monotony of the matching front doors. An inch of new snow added to the holiday feeling, if someone cared about such things. Smithe’s place was dark, the front window curtained and blank.
Mac knocked on the unadorned door of Smithe’s left-hand neighbors, then after a wait, rang the bell. He’d checked IDs on the closest units. This one was home to Tom and Angela Jackson, two kids, no criminal records. He could hear male and female voices in a loud argument inside, but it took three tries to bring anyone to the door.
“Whaddya want?” A heavyset man in a stained T-shirt pulled the door open a few inches.
“Detective MacLean, Minneapolis Police. I’d like to talk to you about Mr. Andrew Smithe.”
“Mr. Smithe? Your next-door neighbor?” Mac pointed at Smithe’s unit.
“Oh, the old guy.” The man scowled at Mac from under dark, bushy eyebrows. “I thought he was sick and died. How come the cops are asking about him?”
“It’s just routine with any unattended death. We have to cover the bases. When was the last time you saw Mr. Smithe?”
“Jesus. Two months, maybe three? Old bastard almost never went out. Don’t know nothin’ about him.”
Mac put out a foot to block the door the man was trying to swing shut. “What about your wife? Had she seen him lately?”
The man shrugged and yelled back into the dim recesses of the house, “Hey! Angela! You see the old guy from next door recently?”
A response floated back, “He’s dead, you moron.”
“I know that. Cops are asking when’s the last time we seen him.”
“Cops?” A short blond woman appeared behind the man in the doorway, staring past his shoulder at Mac. “You’re a cop?”
The woman smiled, and ran a hand over her hair. “You should come in out of the cold and sit down.”
The man’s deepening scowl was the opposite of an invitation, and his glance back at his wife was dark. Not the sign of a happy home, but probably irrelevant to the death of an old guy like Smithe. “Did you see or speak with Mr. Smithe in the last few weeks, ma’am?”
“Well, no. Not since Halloween, when the kids went trick-or-treating. He handed out candy. But hey, come in, you look like you could use a cup of coffee. And I did talk to him about his life once, a couple years ago. I could tell you.”
“Cops don’t want to hear about that, Angela.”
Two years was a long time, but Mac made a mental note to check back, if no other information came to light. “Did he have any visitors in the last few weeks? Any cars parked outside his place that you noticed?”
“Nope,” the man said before his wife could answer. “Never saw anything in his second parking space. Just that old Ford Taurus of his.”
“Did he go out very often?”
“Almost never. Car just sits there.”
The woman chimed in, “I saw him in Cub Foods once.”
The man sneered at his wife. “Well, no shit, Angela, I’m sure he went grocery shopping. Not like he died of starvation.”
Mac cleared his throat. “Did either of you ever go inside his place, maybe to help him out? Carry something heavy for him, fix a leak, anything?”
The man shook his head. After a moment Angela did too.
Mac kept his tone completely bland, with no hint of accusation. “Did you happen to hear anything the night he died? Did he yell, or groan, or do anything that might’ve been a call for help? A thump on the wall, anything?”
“Nope. Don’t even know what day that was. Heard nothing. The soundproofing’s okay here. Good thing, the way the kids run around screaming sometimes.” The man muscled his wife backward and began closing the door. “We don’t know nothing about the guy.”
Angela caught the edge of the door and gave Mac a long look, then brushed back her hair, arching her back so her bustline stretched the sweater she was wearing. “I bet I know lots of things the cop might want to hear.”
“I’ll be in touch, ma’am,” Mac said. The door slammed shut in his face. Through the thin wood panels, he heard the man’s voice raised in anger. Mac hesitated long enough to be sure there was no hint of violence, but their argument sounded the same as before. Two loud voices, moving off deeper into the house.
Self-involved people, with issues. Not observant, not likely to bother to listen to an old man. He wrote the date and a few words of recap in his notebook. Unless he was totally out of other sources of information, he’d keep a safe distance from both of them. Anger and sexual come-ons were a volatile mix. If Smithe had been forty years younger it might have been motive. Now it was just annoying.
The unit on the other side of Smithe’s was empty, and by the time Mac was three doors down, the residents didn’t even know a man along their row had died. Not much sense of community here. He headed back and used the key to let himself into Smithe’s townhome.
The front hall was just cold and unpleasantly musty, but as he moved into the kitchen he became aware of a growing stench of decay and illness. He shivered. The place was barely above freezing. Someone had turned the heat way down. Given the miasma of odors, that was perhaps just as well.
He pulled on a pair of plastic gloves, dabbed a little Vicks on his upper lip to cut the smell, and braced himself to dig into the details of the man’s life. The Crime Lab techs had made a first pass through here hours ago, taking photos. They’d come back as soon as they could for items and prints, but the place had already been pretty compromised. Smithe had looked like a totally natural death. There’d been a parade of EMTs and cops through, when the body was discovered, and no one had sealed the unit afterward.
Mac started with the bedroom. The traces of Smithe’s death weren’t as unpleasant as he’d feared, although that was bad news for the investigation. Evidently someone had stripped the soiled sheets off the bed, and wiped up the worst of the mess from the floor and bathroom. The narrow mattress lay bare and exposed, marked only by a patchwork of stains. A hint of chlorine cleaner mingled unappealingly with the other odors.
The ME had described the old man’s death as prolonged and painful. There’d have been a period of almost drunken disorientation, followed by burning thirst, severe nausea and vomiting, and increasing weakness. Smithe had been found on the floor in the bathroom, after vomiting in the bedroom, more than once. Mac wondered why the victim hadn’t called for help. Had the disorientation been too sudden and severe, or had Smithe mistaken the symptoms for simple stomach flu until it was too late? There was an old-fashioned corded phone right by the bedside, its receiver neatly in the cradle. Never tried to call? Replaced by whoever cleaned in here?
Mac picked up the handset carefully with gloved fingers, and listened. Dead air. Replacing the receiver, he traced the wired connection toward the wall, and knelt to peer behind the bedside table. The phone cord lay useless, cut through just above the plug. The loose end would’ve been completely hidden. Until the old man tried to use it, he’d have had no warning that his lifeline was cut. It wasn’t the most subtle way to disable a phone, but fast, if the killer only had a moment to do it.
The cut phone suggested a tight timeline for the murder. It made it unlikely that the antifreeze had been planted in some stored food or drink, waiting days or weeks for the old man to eventually get to it. That dead phone would need to stay unnoticed. So the murderer almost certainly would’ve cut the line and given the victim the poison at the same time.
Or perhaps Smithe called someone for help, and whoever came over was the murderer, and they disabled the phone and left him there to die. Either way, if Mac could find out who’d visited Smithe within the last two days of his life, he’d probably have the killer.
Mac turned to scan the bare little room, then opened the drawer of the bedside table, prying it from the lower edge to avoid smudging prints. The contents looked unhelpful— a box of tissues, ChapStick, faded bookmarks, a squeezed tube of eye ointment, a bottle of hand lotion, an empty antibiotic vial with dust in the bottom and a date years past. No notes, no greeting cards. The Crime Lab’s techs would get prints from everything. He left the drawer ajar.
In the front room, an old-fashioned desk held pens, pencils, envelopes, and paper. Recent mail was sorted into careful piles on the top surface, divided into bills, charities, and junk. Mac leafed through but found no personal letters. There was no computer, no tablet or e-reader, no sign of an address book.
A cell-phone charger sat on the desktop, but there was no phone. The lab team would have to make a thorough search for it. Hopefully the old man used it as his address list, and they’d get something useful, although the killer might’ve taken it. They would subpoena Smithe’s phone records too, but that would take time, especially over the holidays.
The lower desk drawer held carefully labeled hanging files. Smithe had clearly been an organized man. Mac located a folder marked “Will” and pulled it out. Reading it, he shook his head. The will looked legal, complete with witnesses, and left all the man’s worldly possessions to an arthritis-research charity. The charity was a large national group that hardly needed to poison an old man for his meager savings. A bank file showed a few hundred bucks in checking, and a savings balance of about four thousand dollars. Hardly enough to justify an elaborate plot in the name of medical research.
Another file held a life insurance policy. The most recent statement caught his attention. This is to confirm the change of beneficiary for policy number blah, blah, blah. The new beneficiary was another charity, this one for cancer, and the amount was a hundred thousand dollars. Not chump change. The statement was dated less than a month ago. Odd, since the ME said the old man’s health had been good, prior to his poisoning. No sign of cancer or any other severe illness. So why the switch?
He leafed through all the earlier statements, but found no details of who’d just lost out on a hundred grand. Suppose the previous beneficiary didn’t know the policy had been changed, and got tired of waiting. Or suppose they’d been told the change was in the works, and tried to strike first. Why would a man with no known family have bought so much life insurance in the first place? Secret lover? Unacknowledged child? Or just a favorite charity?
Searching the rest of the townhouse was frustratingly useless. Every room was spartan, with very few personal items. There was no computer anywhere, no cables, no modem, no accessories or thumb drives. The guy had been over eighty. Maybe he’d never owned one. There were no messages on the answering machine, although the lab might be able to retrieve old ones. The art on the walls was just a few cheaply-framed classic prints, with no personal photographs anywhere.
He did find a small collection of books in the living room, well-worn and eclectic enough to represent the man’s tastes. A leather-bound volume of Dickens sat next to a paperback Robert Crais; Vonnegut, wrapped in a brown-paper dustjacket, was wedged beside a battered hardcover of Alice in Wonderland. Mac went through them methodically, looking for annotations or bookmarks. A few scraps of paper fell out from between the pages, and he put each one into the meager envelope of evidence he was collecting, but frankly they all looked like junk. Three of the much older classic volumes were inscribed “To Drew from his Sarah” in a round feminine hand. The ink looked faded, and there was no last name.
He pulled another paper-covered volume out. On the flyleaf, under a rough scrawl of blue pen that just said “Drew,” was an adhesive bookplate. “From the Library of Aaron Goldschmidt.” Finally, a full name. If Aaron was local, it might be possible to track him down. Mac flipped to the title page, to judge how old the book was. He stared at the title. The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren. Shit.
The book was old, all right. Mac knew it well. He’d read it twice. Once in furtive snatches at his public library, hidden inside a larger volume of World War II history. And again, a few years later, in mounting anger at the promise of love between two men that it held out and then cruelly withdrew. At sixteen he’d had a crush on Billy Sive. At twenty-three, he’d known better.
If Andrew Smithe was gay, the insurance beneficiary might’ve been some secret lover. Which meant that the killer might be some greedy old gay man. And wouldn’t that be a barrel of laughs? Not that having that book on your shelf, with another man’s name in it, made a person gay, of course, but it was a possibility. Maybe a probability for a man of Smithe’s era. He shook the book, and flipped through it extra carefully, but there was nothing else to be found. After writing Aaron Goldschmidt’s name down, he slid the volume back into its place on the shelf. An hour later, he’d found nothing else promising. The crime lab techs were arriving as he finished, and he made a few suggestions, then left them to their work.
Back at the precinct, Oliver was in the squad room typing on his computer. He glanced up, grinned widely, and waved Mac over. “Hey, partner, you’re not going to believe it. We collared Craig Johnson.”
It took Mac a second to haul his mind back to their other cases. Oh yeah, the potted plant guy. “How?”
“Idiot bought a case of beer and got drunk. He drove back to his old house, and passed out in the car in the driveway. The uniforms watching the place could barely wake him up to get the cuffs on. We’ll have to let him sober up and read him his rights again, before we can question him. But he had the damned gun laying there on the passenger seat. Stupid bastard.”
“Works for me.”
“Yeah, not complaining. How’s that new one going, the old guy with the antifreeze?”
“He had a big insurance policy, but the beneficiary is a charity. Still, it’s a recent change, and maybe the previous recipient didn’t know that, or figured they could contest it.”
“Who would that be?”
“Don’t know yet.”
“Will you need a warrant for the insurance company?”
“Yeah, probably. Checking a couple other items first.” It’d be time to bug a judge when he knew everything he wanted to ask for. That first vital forty-eight hour window of opportunity had passed. No point rushing now.
Oliver turned back to his typing, his grin making a comeback as he filled in the benefits of drunk and stupid.
Mac sat down at his own computer. Searching Driver and Vehicle Services records for the name Aaron Goldschmidt pulled up two in the state of Minnesota, both local in Minneapolis. Both were decades younger than Smithe, though. He phoned them, but each claimed he’d never heard of the victim. Mac made note of their addresses anyway.
A thought occurred to him, and he got back online. There were lots of nursing homes in the Twin Cities, and a guy the same age as Smithe might not drive. Three residences identified as Jewish and he started there. At the second, he hit the jackpot. They had an elderly Aaron Goldschmidt. When the nurse agreed to go ask him, she came back to report he did have a friend named Smithe. Eventually, she was persuaded to put the man on the phone. His thin, wavery voice said, “Hello? Are you there? You were asking about Andrew?”
“Andrew Smithe, on South 14th Street?”
“Yes, that’s Drew. Is he okay?”
“Um.” It suddenly occurred to Mac that he might be notifying this man of his lover’s death. Not something that should happen over the phone. “Do you know Andrew Smithe well?”
“For years. I don’t like the sound of that question. What’s wrong?”
“Perhaps I could come and talk to you in person?”
There was a long pause. Then the voice said, “I’m too old for beating around the bush. Nurse Maya said you were a police officer. Spit it out. What’s wrong with Drew?”
Shit. But more hedging wouldn’t be a kindness. “I’m very sorry, sir. Mr. Smithe died three days ago.”
“Ah.” He heard a small gasp of breath. “Damn. What…how did he die?”
“Kidney failure.” Even if it was due to poison. “Would it be all right if I came to talk to you, sir? We can’t locate any family for Mr. Smithe. Maybe you could give us more information.”
“Drew didn’t have anyone left, I don’t think.”
“Even so. I won’t take much of your time.”
“Sure. Not tonight. I don’t do well past dinnertime these days. But tomorrow, sure, if you don’t mind working on Christmas Eve.”
Mac made arrangements to visit the man the next day, and hung up. Despite the catch of sympathy in his chest, he couldn’t help feeling pleased with his detective work. Hah, who needs Hanson and his fancy computer skills?
Oliver walked by and paused at Mac’s desk, coat in hand. “I’m out of here. Are you working tomorrow?”
“Yeah. My cousin Brenda likes to do church things with my daughter on Christmas Eve. You know, carols and midnight services and stuff. I’m not up for that.” I’m not invited. Not that he really wanted to be. “So I might as well take the shift tomorrow. I’ll pick up Anna on Christmas morning and bring her to my place and play Santa Claus.”
“Your cousin still doesn’t let you go over to her house for Christmas?”
Mac didn’t remember telling Oliver about that. Maybe when you got drunk together last year. He snorted, as if amused. “Besmirch her beloved Jesus’s birth with my un-born-again self? Not likely. It’s okay. I have a tree and everything at my place for Anna. We’ll have fun on our own, and no one can complain about what inappropriate gifts Santa brings.”
“Oh, really?” Oliver perched on the edge of the desk across from Mac, like he was settling in for a nice chat.
Mac looked at him sideways. Oliver was as close as he had to a real friend. The guys he’d had hung with in his early years on the force had dropped away, during the painful months of his wife Mai’s cancer and her death. When they’d partnered up, Oliver had been lonely too with his divorce, and they’d started hanging out sometimes. But they never talked much, just had a beer, or watched a game.
It was tempting to share his worries with someone like Oliver— older, experienced, with kids of his own— but it was safer not to. Keeping the gay part of his life secret was getting so hard. If he talked about any personal stuff, the wrong thing might slip out unawares. He said, “Don’t you have someplace to be?”
“Yeah. Going to my house—my old house, now my wife’s, for our Christmas weekend with the boys. But I might as well let the traffic die down first.” Oliver’s tone was over-casual. Mac wondered if this holiday was going to be harder for his partner than it’d seemed that morning. The squad room was emptying, the desks around him becoming deserted. Oliver said, “Why do you let her do that?”
“Why do you let your cousin make all the rules about Anna? I know Brenda’s doing most of the child care, but she’s your daughter.”
Mac hesitated. He could tell Oliver to butt out. He’d gone round and round this topic with Tony, trying to make him understand, and somehow it still felt like Tony held an edge of skepticism, deep down. Like he was waiting for Mac to find a different answer. Maybe Oliver knew enough of how fucked-up the world was, and how hard parenting was, to really be on his side.
“I don’t just let Brenda call the shots. We have an agreement. I get to decide if I have time, any day, morning, evening, whatever, I can call Brenda and go get Anna.”
“But not on Christmas Eve? And never inside her house, right?”
Obviously he had told Oliver about that, somewhere, sometime. Well, he wasn’t ashamed of compromising. “This works. Anna’s happy.” That’s what counts, isn’t it? “Brenda loves her, in her own way, and Anna has someone to be like a mother. After Mai died I was such a mess, and Brenda really stepped in.”
“That was four years ago?”
“Yeah, a year before I transferred here to Homicide.” Mac tried not to think too much about those days, but sometimes it all crept back, threatening to suck him under. Lost days and nights, long before Tony, when he was barely hanging on by his fingernails. He dropped his gaze to the scuffed vinyl floor, enough to count off three steady breaths, then looked up. Maybe he could safely talk about it with Oliver, who was patiently sitting there like he had all the time in the world, waiting for an answer.
“I had insomnia so bad I was practically sleepwalking. I barely trusted myself to hold Anna without dropping her. I couldn’t stand being in our apartment without Mai, so I pretty much never went home.”
Oliver made a wordless, pained sound that felt like encouragement.
Mac pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling the ghost of a headache looming. Mai’s death was almost worse because she hadn’t been the love of his life, but he couldn’t tell Oliver that part. “Brenda was there for Anna. I went back on the job, working Sex Crimes, and, God, I spent my days around people who were the scum of the earth. I felt…dirty. Saw hookers who were just babies, kids abused by pedophiles. You have no idea how much it helped to see Anna taken care of by someone safe and clean who would care for her right. The strict religion thing seemed like a small price to pay.”
“I don’t understand hard-line religious people like that.”
Mac wanted to be fair to Brenda. He did everything he could to be fair to Brenda. “She really believes she’s saving my immortal soul. I think at first she figured I’d agree to go to church, get right with her God, and it would all work out. The more I said no, the more rigid she got. And now she can’t back down. God won’t let her.”
“Can’t you just fake it?”
“No,” Mac said shortly, because he’d argued himself in and out of that about a million times. “I can’t.”
Oliver snorted. “Wouldn’t have picked you for having religious scruples.”
“It’s not that.” Mac glanced around the room. Other than Terrence, typing at his desk all the way across the room, the place was deserted. “If it just meant going to church, singing a few hymns, pretending for Brenda, sure. Not like I can’t lie when I have to. But her church is pretty…hands-on. Brenda wants me to kneel in front of the whole congregation, in front of Anna, and say her mother and I were sinners, for having sex before wedlock. I’d have to bare my dirty soul to be washed clean, and swear on a Bible to try to live by God and the pastor’s word and command, and…I can’t. I can lie, but I don’t break promises I’ve made in front of Anna. And I can’t make that one.”
“So you just let Brenda have her way?”
“She pretty much saved my life. Might’ve literally saved Anna’s.” Mac remembered waking from a stupor at Mai’s bedside, shortly before the end, feeling infant Anna’s sleeping body sliding out of his arms toward the floor. He’d caught her. It turned out okay. That time. He’d been even more exhausted, later. Brenda might have saved him from hurting his own child. For that, he could forgive almost anything.
“But that was years ago. Couldn’t you do something else now? Daycare, and at least have your kid home with her father every night?”
“I spend all the time with her I can,” Mac said, stung. “She’s a girl, she needs a woman to look after her, and she loves Brenda. I can’t give her everything she needs.” What had he said before? “I barely trusted myself…?” That was still true. He was totally making up the details of parenting as he went along. Anna deserves to live with someone who knows what the hell they’re doing. He always felt just one mistake away from really screwing up. This arrangement with Brenda fucking worked. “Anyway, you’re one to talk. I don’t remember you fighting for full custody of your kids when you got divorced.”
“They belonged with their mother…and yeah, my hours are unpredictable and Annette’s the one who’s done all the day-to-day stuff with them, since they were born. I guess I see what you mean. Although there’s got to be someone less Bible-thumping available, if you looked.”
“She’s the only mother Anna can remember.” And Brenda’s someone I can afford full-time, someone who’s safe. The idea of trusting Anna to anyone new was scary. Child abusers could look like anyone. For all her rigidity and coolness, Brenda would never, ever hurt Anna.
Oliver slid his butt off the desk and stretched. “Tough to live with being called a sinner.”
“Sticks and stones, partner.” No need to mention that sometimes he woke up in a cold sweat, thinking about what Brenda would say if she discovered the real truth about him. He forced lightness into his voice. “Day after tomorrow, Anna’ll be calling me Santa.”
Oliver smacked his arm lightly. “Okay. Whatever works. Merry Christmas, Santa. Maybe you can wrap up the perp in this new case and put him under the tree for me.”
“Ho, ho, ho. Is that what you want for Christmas, little boy?”
“Actually, I’m thinking more like the Swedish bikini skydiving team, but I won’t complain about a solve.” Oliver frowned. “Not that I want bikini babes in my holiday around Annette. You know, at least when she and I were fighting, it meant she still cared. I almost miss that. But a truce is better for the boys.”
“Well, have a good holiday. I’ll think about you slaving away in here tomorrow, when I’m eating Annette’s Christmas Eve roast beef. If you get off early, call me. You could come over and share the meal with us.”
“Wouldn’t want to put you off your food.” Mac ducked Oliver’s half-hearted swipe at his head. “Merry Christmas.” He watched his partner bundle up and head out for two days with his kids and ex-wife. Being straight isn’t easy either. In all Mac’s worry about how to make his life work for Anna, it was good to remember that. Being human isn’t easy.
Tony was almost asleep when his cell phone rang, the theme from Hawaii Five-O surfing thinly from under his pillow. He pulled the phone out and answered it. “Hey, you.”
“Hey. Good flight?”
“Not by any stretch of the imagination. But I got here.”
“Yeah, they’re fine. Mom’s cooking up a storm. Dad is trying to persuade me to go golfing with him.”
“Is he succeeding?”
“There’s only one man I love enough to do something like golfing for, and it’s not Dad.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. Tony sighed silently. He wasn’t going to stop putting it all on the line for Mac. Love was what he felt, and he damned well was going to say it. Someday Mac would say it back. But obviously not tonight. “Tough day at work?”
“Not too bad. Caught another case, but we closed one. Remember the dumb guy I told you about? The one who left a death threat, linked with his name and phone number, on the victim’s voice mail? Well, he got drunk, went back home, and passed out. Probably doesn’t even realize he’s been arrested yet.”
Tony chuckled. “That’s good.”
“Yeah.” Mac’s voice still had a strained quality.
Tony asked, “The new case. Is it a bad one?”
“Nah, nothing special. I don’t want to talk about work. Tell me about your day.”
“Not much to tell. Arrived in Sarasota. Mom met me at the airport with a homemade brownie. Rode back to their condo. Mom made a big lunch. Took a shower and a short nap. Mom had a crackers and cheese snack plate out.” He laughed. “I went to the beach for a while, just to put some distance between me and the food. And to look at all the cute guys, of course. If I’d had a pencil and paper in my trunks, I could’ve come home with half a dozen phone numbers.”
Okay, that sounded like Mac got kicked in the stomach. Tony shook his head, even though Mac couldn’t see him. “I’m teasing you, babe. You’re supposed to say something about keeping my pencil in my shorts. Then I tell you my pencil is all yours.”
“I guess I don’t know how to do this. Were there really a lot of hot guys?”
“Sure, if you like blond twinks and over-tanned gym-queens with skin like leather. Which I don’t.” There might’ve been other moments of aesthetic appreciation, but nothing Mac should worry about. Nothing to touch what Tony had waiting at home. “I miss you, babe. Someday we’ve got to come down here together, and then I can ogle you on the beach to my heart’s content.”
“Your parents do know, don’t they? About you?”
About me being gay, you mean? Mac’s reluctance to say the word out loud was less amusing as time went by. “Yeah, they do— although mostly they don’t ask and I don’t tell. This holiday, that’s working really well. They’re still all worried about me getting held hostage this fall.” Keeping his mother from flying up to coddle him in the aftermath had involved some of the fastest talking of Tony’s life, and a heaping quantity of emotional blackmail. And it appeared the coddling had been more postponed than avoided. But at least he’d kept Mac and his parents apart.
He remembered those first few days after the…incident, as people kept calling it. His sister had driven in from Chicago, which was probably the only reason his mother had agreed to stay away and not baby him. His best friend Sabrina had flown back from New York, for two days she really couldn’t afford to take out of her business trip, to be with him. Rick had taken a shift off work. They’d all circled the wagons to take care of him and support him, and he’d appreciated it. Really he had.
At the same time, he’d wished they would all just back off. In front of them, he had to keep it together, so they wouldn’t worry. So that Jaime’s reports to Mom and Dad would be, “Tony’s okay, seems to be doing fine.” So Bree could go back to her job before her boss had a hissy fit. So they would all just give him space to go running to Mac.
Bree had slept on his couch on the second night. If she hadn’t, Jaime would have, so he’d had to be grateful. He loved Bree, she was his best friend, but her snores from the living room were nowhere near as comforting as Mac’s arms around him had been the night before.
He’d called Mac that evening, while Bree was in the shower. “You can’t come here tonight. I wish you could, but I have a very intuitive fag hag on my couch.”
“Your friend Sabrina?”
“Maybe that’s good. I mean, I’ll be working real late. This case is still a mess. We’re tracking down the drugs, the guns, all kinds of details. Rewriting reports, amending reports, figuring out where all the bullets ended up. At least you have someone with you so I don’t have to be there.”
“You don’t ever have to fucking be here.” He’d hung up.
His phone had rung seconds later. He’d thought about not answering, but that was petty. “Yeah.”
“Tony, I said it wrong. I want to be there all the time, and I can’t, so I’m glad someone is.”
They’d talked a little, made it right. Tony had listened less to the words than to Mac’s rich voice sliding over him, the weight of his presence already so familiar Tony could almost reach out and touch skin. Until Bree’s shower stopped, and they had to hang up.
For the record, hot cocoa did not beat a hot man for the aftermath of a nightmare.
Bree and Jaime both stayed with him for his friend Marty’s funeral the next day. It’d seemed so wrong, so unlikely, that Marty could be dead. How could just standing next to Tony have ended up destroying the smart, mouthy, compassionate energy that had been Marty? It should’ve been Tony’s funeral. He’d been the real target. He should’ve been in that coffin, would have, could have been both of them…if not for Mac and all the other cops who’d saved his life.
Sandwiched between two staunch women, he’d made it through the service in a haze of unreality only partly due to his pain meds. The narcotics had him on a rollercoaster, one moment lifting him to some cold white space where a force field held the rest of the world at bay, removed and thin. And then suddenly dropping him into that mahogany box with Marty, a dark painful closed place where all that golden life and vitality was stilled and confined forever.
Bree’s tight grip on his hand had helped him stifle bitter laughter at the absurdity of the preacher, trying to eulogize Marty as an upstanding young man. Jaime’s painful concern beside him had held back his tears, as one gay man after another described the brilliance that had truly been Marty. Gone now. None of them looked accusingly at Tony, but as each one sat down Tony thought, I did that. I took that from him. Marty would never have died if Tony had been smarter, more careful, more observant.
Mac had been at the service too, dressed in what Tony knew was his one good suit, representing the MPD. He kept a careful distance. Despite the space between them, Tony felt Mac’s eyes on him over and over, waiting for him to look up. Tony thought meeting Mac’s eyes might break him. He’d kept his gaze fixed on his knees. But at the graveside, after the horrible thing was over, Mac came to him.
Tony was swaying by then, about done in. He stood staring down at the fresh dirt, at that improbable grave, momentarily alone while Bree had gone to bring the car closer, and Jaime was off in the bathroom. Mac suddenly appeared at his elbow, close enough to radiate heat. It’d been all Tony could do not to collapse against that solid support. It was Mac who said the words he wanted to believe. “This was not your fault. No more than Pinski was, no more than anyone Brad killed. Marty was not your fault.”
And then of course Mac left. And Tony went home with Jaime and Bree, and had a nap, and pretended to be fine. Until his friends were either convinced, or ran out of free time.
Once they were alone again, Mac had been patient with Tony for weeks and weeks. Tony kept waiting for Mac to bail, instead of hanging out with someone so irritable, forgetful, bitchy, and jumpy, having stupid fits of temper over minor stuff. Looking back, he probably should’ve gone for counseling, instead of putting Mac through all that crap. He’d wanted to just get over himself, to grieve cleanly for Marty and move on, but he wasn’t in control. Mac had hung in there, through the ups and downs.
Now, Tony felt like he was slowly getting back his normal balance. The nightmares were fading. He no longer jolted at loud noises. A big part of his recovery was having Mac, living with Mac, even though they were only together behind closed doors. They were making it work, mostly.
He didn’t push Mac to come out. Well, he didn’t push much. Mac didn’t complain about him being too obviously gay in public. Much. And if anyone got curious about what was going on in Tony’s life, or accused him of seeming different lately, the incident made a convenient excuse. Certainly that was where his parents were still fixated, even three months later, their concerns about his health keeping their attention off his social life.
Sometimes he felt like a Venn diagram, a series of overlapping circles, each with its disconnects. He could share Mac with Ben, his godson. He could discuss little Ben with Sabrina. He could talk to his parents about Ben, Sabrina, and his work. He could talk about his work with Mac. He didn’t talk about Marty with anyone, anymore…
“Tony?” Mac said over the phone, a hint of concern in his deep voice. “You still there?”
Tony blinked his eyes, coming back to that familiar, dark, Florida guest room. “Yeah, babe. Sorry, I spaced. Just thinking.” He pressed the phone against his ear. He’d taken on this complicated life, of his own free will. He’d given Mac his word that they’d go at Mac’s pace, and he was sticking to it. And if keeping everything together was harder than he’d thought it would be, well, he’d always topped out the IQ tests at school. He was a smart guy. He could do this.
Mac asked, “Are your parents giving you a hard time?”
“Huh? No, they’re fine.” He shook off his sadness. His life was more good than bad. “My adventure with Brad is finally becoming old news, and my love life is completely off their radar. Anyway, my sister just told them she has a serious boyfriend. Mom has her sights set on grandchildren. I don’t rate, compared to that. By the way, when I said I wish we could come back down here, I didn’t mean you had to meet my parents, just that I’d love a warm beach holiday with you. Anywhere.”
“Oh. Yeah, that sounds good. It’s minus four and snowing right now.” Mac managed a very Minnesotan blend of complaint and boasting.
“Tell me about it. Listen, is there anything you need me to do up here? Should I check on Ben?”
Tony considered it, but Mac hadn’t yet met Sandy, six-year-old Ben’s mother. Sandy fought her battles with alcohol on a daily basis, and Tony worried about Ben. His little godson didn’t have the life his dead father would’ve wanted for him. Unfortunately, there was only so much Sandy would let Tony do about that.
But he wasn’t sure Mac would have any better luck. Sandy had been married to a man who turned out to be gay, and they’d both paid a price. She’d taken to watching everyone for signs, for betrayal. She’d developed gaydar second to none, and had a habit of calling people out with it. And she hated cops. She and Mac would be matches and gasoline.
“No, I think Ben’ll be fine. Sandy’s parents usually drop by for Christmas, and she’ll be on her best behavior to prove them wrong. It’s New Year’s when I worry about her crashing, and I’ll be back by then. We can take Ben and Anna skating.” Tony shifted in bed, trying to keep his eyes open. Last night had been fun, but between Mac’s attentions and the early flight, he was seriously sleep-deprived. “I don’t miss the cold weather. Miss you lots. But I’m losing it here. Take care of yourself and call me tomorrow?”
“Sure. Night, Tony.”
“Goodnight, sweetie.” Tony barely had enough consciousness to be sure his phone was safely on the nightstand before falling asleep.
Around noon on Christmas Eve, Mac made a right turn and found himself on an unexpected dead-end street. Damn. He rubbed at his eyes and pulled over to try to make out the stupid lines on his GPS. He’d broken down and bought one, and he couldn’t deny it made finding an address much easier than the old maps. Except he hated a disembodied voice telling him what to do at every step, driving around his own city. So he usually tried to memorize the route, mute the audio, and remember the route. He could always pull over for a closer look if need be. Like now.
Left on 30th, not right. He put it back in the cradle, pulled round the circle, and retraced his path.
The Silver Arbors retirement home was a pleasant-looking brick building, set on well-tended grounds. A few big maples lifted winter-bare branches toward the sky. The evergreen bushes lining the walk were neatly trimmed, and adorned with nets of tiny white and blue lights, shining faintly in the daylight. He was a little surprised to see holiday decorating at a Jewish facility, but the effect would be pretty. Maybe they were Hanukkah lights.
Passing through the double doors, he stomped the snow off his boots. A few residents dozed in wheelchairs in an open lounge, and others sat in old-fashioned wingback chairs in front of a big-screen TV. Mac got a few hopeful and curious looks as he came in, but they lost interest as he approached the desk. A nurse guided him through signing the visitors’ book, then led him down the first-floor hallway.
Mac’s shoes squeaked on the bare tile floor. The place was clean and quiet, although nothing could quite erase the smells of age and incontinence. Under the scent of cut flowers and pine cleaner, a hint of urine lingered. Not as bad as some, though. He had an odd flash of his father saying “This place stinks like cat piss” on a long ago visit to someone— Mac slammed his mental door shut on unwanted family memories. Weird how smells could do that. The nurse had stopped at the second to last room, gesturing him inside.
Aaron Goldschmidt was in the window bed of a double unit. The nearer bed was empty but rumpled. Goldschmidt lay gazing out the window. He was a small, frail-looking man, with thinning silver hair. His shoulders were propped up by several pillows, and more than one type of medical tubing snaked out from under the covers. Mac’s hope of a quick solve disappeared. There was no way this man had travelled across town to put antifreeze in his friend’s breakfast.
The nurse said in an artificially bright voice, “Aaron, Mr. MacLean is here to see you.”
The man in the bed turned to Mac, his eyes bright with interest. “Detective. Come on in and sit down. You timed it just right. Brian, my roomie, has just gone to lunch and we’ll have a semblance of privacy for an hour.”
“Just followed your directions.”
The nurse hung around, fussing with pillows and checking connections, asking Mac to promise not to tire Goldschmidt out or ask too many questions. Eventually she was called away by a ringing bell, and left them alone.
“Foolish woman,” the old man said. “What else do I get to enjoy these days but conversation? And you’ll have something more interesting to talk about than the state of your bowels. So. Explain to me why a detective is interested in an old man who died of kidney failure. That was what you said, kidney failure?”
“Yes, sir. Maybe you could answer my questions first, and then I can answer yours?”
“Fair enough. What do you want to know?”
“How well did you know Andrew Smithe?”
“We were old friends, knew each other as boys and renewed our friendship many years ago when I returned to the Twin Cities after a stint in New York.”
“How long ago was that?”
“1985. God, it seems like yesterday, but it’s a quarter-century now.”
Mac hesitated, trying to ask without asking. “I found your name in the front of a book in Mr. Smithe’s library.”
“On a bookplate inside the cover? His name was written above it.”
The old man’s brow wrinkled for a moment and then cleared. “Not The Front Runner?”
“So he kept that, all these years.” The man gave a short laugh, then looked sharply at Mac. “And you wondered if maybe Drew and I were more than just friends?”
“The thought crossed my mind.”
“No. No, Drew was straight as an arrow. A one-woman man, too. He had a girl, Sarah, whom he loved when we were all young and thought we had all the time in the world. It didn’t work out, but I don’t think he ever looked at another woman seriously. For fun, sure, he wasn’t a monk. But never seriously again.”
“Nothing drastic. Just that she was Jewish, and he wasn’t. Back then it was a bigger deal. Her family hated him, his parents despised her. Sarah would have run away with Drew, but he couldn’t bring himself to take her up on it. She married someone else eventually, some Jewish guy, and had kids. He used to take an odd comfort in thinking he hadn’t deprived her of a family life.”
“Yeah. Now I am gay, if it makes any difference to you?”
Mac kept his tone even and unconcerned. “Only that it explains the book.”
Goldschmidt peered at Mac. “Well. Good for you, Detective. I gave Drew that book in 1986. We both got maudlin over a bottle of good Merlot, and I told him we were in the same boat, having lost the loves of our lives. Of course he lost his to cowardice, not death, but I didn’t tell him that. He insisted that you couldn’t compare how he felt about Sarah with my sex partner. I gave him the book and offered him a case of the Merlot if he would read the whole thing. He hated it at first, took a month to get through the first few chapters, but then he finished the rest faster. And he didn’t call Mike my sex partner after that. He was mostly ignorant, not really bigoted.”
“My lover. I lost him in 1985, in the early years of the plague. Big strong man, and he wasted away in a matter of a couple months. A blessing, I guess, compared to some who lingered through so much more pain before they died, but I didn’t think so at the time. I came back to Minnesota after that. New York was a ghost town to me.”
Mac heard the echo of that grief in the old man’s voice, still poignant after all these years. Goldschmidt shivered once, a tremor running through the frail body in worn flannel pajamas. Mac held back his impulse to lay a hand on the old man’s withered arm. Most straight guys wouldn’t touch a man who’d just announced he was gay, with a lover who died of AIDS, so Mac offered what he hoped was a sympathetic nod instead, and tucked the blanket up higher on the man’s chest. Goldschmidt closed his eyes for a moment and then opened them calmly. “Oddest things bring those days back to me. Mike was about your size.”
Mac pulled back his hand quickly.
The old man smiled. “I had a lot of good times, you know, with Mike, and after. I don’t regret any of it. But we got off topic. We were talking about Drew.”
“Yes. When was the last time you saw him?”
“About two weeks ago. Since I’ve been stuck in this bed, I don’t see him often, but he drove down then. Old fool. I told him his eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and he shouldn’t be driving, but he shrugged me off. I guess in the end it didn’t matter.”
“Was there anything unusual about him? Did he talk about changes in his life, anyone he knew who’d contacted him? Or someone he might have met recently? Any concerns?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” The old man pointed at a metal locker in the corner of the room. “That closet’s mine. In the bottom, there’s a cardboard box. I had the nurse put it there. Drew brought it with him, asked me to mail it if anything happened to him. I called him a pessimist. There was every chance he would outlive me, not the other way around. But he insisted. Maybe he was already feeling poorly. I wish he’d told me.”
Mac retrieved the box from the locker. It was smaller than a shoebox, taped up, and addressed in a clear hand to a woman’s name in Chicago, with no return address. Goldschmidt leaned over to look at the name. “Ruth Levi. I think that must be one of Sarah’s girls. She had two daughters, and her married name was Levi.”
Mac hefted the box. It was neither light nor heavy. The contents shifted a little. “I should take this back to the precinct with me, to see what’s in here. I promise I’ll mail it on.” Eventually. If it was held as evidence, it might be a while.
“You have to open it? You couldn’t just get Ruth’s address off it?”
“There’s a…technicality. I’d like to check through it first.”
“Can you open it here, then?” Goldschmidt hovered a finger over the lid. “Consider it a dying man’s request. I promised Drew I’d take care of it. And I want to know.” He looked at Mac with a hint of humor alight in his blue eyes. “Curiosity has always been one of my biggest sins.”
“I know another guy like that.” Mac considered it. The outside of the box had already been handled by several people. The dead man had brought it here himself, so there was no reason to think his murderer had touched it. And Goldschmidt might be able to shed additional light on the contents. “All right. But don’t touch anything.”
Mac pulled on a pair of plastic gloves from his pocket, set the box onto Goldschmidt’s bedside tray, took a couple of cell phone pictures, then used his pocketknife to carefully slit the tape. He lifted the lid aside, and looked in the box. A handwritten Post-it note, in the same lettering as the address, said, “I thought you might like to have some things of your mother’s from when she was young. She was a friend of mine.”
Under the note was a pile of photographs. Mac lifted one out carefully by the edges, tipping it so Goldschmidt could see it. A beautiful dark-haired girl posed against a railing, standing between two young men in vintage suits.
“Sarah,” Goldschmidt said. “That’s Drew on her left, and Roger Anderson on her right. Anderson died in the war.”
Mac lifted the pictures enough to leaf through them, but they all appeared of a similar vintage. A small envelope turned out to contain a lock of dark hair, and a velvet box revealed a thin gold chain with both a Star of David and a cross on it.
Goldschmidt reached for it, then remembered and pulled his hand back without touching anything. “Poor Drew. He never could let go. It was Sarah or no one for him, and in the end it was no one.”
Mac nodded. At the bottom of the box was a newspaper clipping. It was recent, the paper still white and crisp. “In Loving Memory of Sarah Rachel Levi (nee Borenstein) beloved wife, mother, and grandmother. May 1, 1924 to December 3, 2010. In lieu of flowers, donations should be made to the American Cancer Society.”
Mac stared at the clipping, thinking about the insurance policy and the change of beneficiary.
Goldschmidt shook his head sadly. “So Sarah’s dead, too. I wonder why Drew didn’t tell me. I wish I could’ve helped him.” His gaze became distant. “I’m the only one left now. How ironic is that? But it won’t be much longer. I’ll see Mike again soon, and I’ll kick his sweet ass for leaving me alone so long. And maybe Drew and Sarah will finally be together. A good Jew shouldn’t believe in heaven. We live on in our children, and in loved ones’ memories. But I just know I’ll see Mike again. Don’t you think, Detective?”
“I’m sure of it,” Mac told him.
Goldschmidt smiled, and suddenly Mac got a hint of the young man he’d been. “And whoever it is you love, Detective, use your time wisely. I’m at the end of this road, and you’re at the beginning. Doesn’t mean you have all the time in the world, though.”
Mac closed the box carefully and rose from his chair. “You must be tired. I’ll go now.”
The old man nodded, and then said, “Wait. You still haven’t told me why you came all this way to talk about Drew.”
“Oh. Um, right before he died he changed the beneficiary of his insurance policy to the American Cancer Society. We wanted to know why. Now we do. Thank you.”
“Yeah. Still trying to give something to Sarah after all these years. And still doing it anonymously, without getting too close.” Goldschmidt pulled in a shaky breath, and turned to look out at the sky. “God, Drew, I hope dying made you grow up a little.”
Mac nodded, and left him there. The image of blue eyes shining with unshed tears stayed with him on the long drive back to Smithe’s place.
Mac hovered at his desk that evening, reluctant to leave work and go back to his own empty little apartment, even with the holiday touches he’d given it for Anna’s sake. Tomorrow was Christmas Day. He would bring his daughter home and enjoy the holiday with her. That should’ve been enough. But last night, sleep had escaped him in his low bed under the eaves, and he wasn’t looking forward to another evening of tossing and turning, missing another bed, and the man who should be in it. He was tired and yet restless.
He could take Oliver up on his invitation to come over, but really, he wasn’t fit company for a nice family gathering tonight. Finally he ran out of paperwork and gathered up his coat. The ringing of his desk phone caught him two steps from the door, and he turned back, glad of one more excuse to linger.
“Hey, Mac. It’s Linda at the lab. Looks like you were right. The credit card record shows Smithe went to his local hardware store a week before he died. We retrieved the receipt and he bought antifreeze. His fingerprints, and only his plus the clerk’s, are on a jug found in his storage unit. There was a smaller bottle in his kitchen, with traces of mixed antifreeze and orange juice, and his prints are the only ones on that too, and on a glass by the sink. His cell phone was crushed and dumped at the bottom of the kitchen trash bag. Fragments of the guy’s own prints were on the bedroom phone cord, with a nice palm-print where he leaned on the wall by the jack.”
“He cut the line himself, so he couldn’t change his mind and call for help.” Mac felt a little sick.
“Looks that way. The ME is calling it suicide.”
“I wonder why the hell he chose antifreeze. It doesn’t sound like it was quick or painless.” What made a person condemn themselves to puke to death?
“Wanted it to look natural, maybe? He might have read that it causes kidney failure and not realized that the crystals in the kidneys are a dead giveaway. Maybe there’s an insurance policy with a suicide exemption.”
“Maybe.” Mac hoped not, although he’d have to check, and the company would be informed of the outcome. Hopefully the Cancer Society would get its money.
He thought about Smithe, living through all those years without his Sarah, as the world changed around him. These days, a gentile marrying a Jew was pretty routine. How often had the man regretted failing to take the chance? It would be bitter irony if this last gesture from Smithe for his childhood sweetheart failed too.
Back in his apartment, Mac plugged in the lights on his small Christmas tree. There were no ornaments on it yet. Anna loved to decorate, and the boxes of balls and garlands, and “lots ‘n lots of tinsel” were ready and waiting for her. Under the tree, a heap of packages marked Mac’s efforts to please a four-year-old girl. Tony had given him advice, and helped pick some of them out. It should go all right.
Suddenly, he wanted to hear Tony’s voice. He tapped Tony’s contact on his cell phone, switching hands to hold it as he took off his holster and stowed the gun in its safe.
“Hey, babe.” Tony’s voice was soft in his ear. “Working late again?”
Mac stretched out on the bed. He would undress later. “I was, yeah. But I solved the case. It was this lonely old guy, dead from antifreeze poisoning. But it turned out to be suicide. So at least the guy wasn’t murdered.”
“Suicide is better?”
“I guess. No. I don’t know?” He had a flash of Andrew Smithe pouring antifreeze into orange juice and drinking it down, in bitter, grieved determination. “No. But it’s done anyway. I don’t want to think about it anymore. Talk to me.”
Mac listened as Tony rambled amusingly about his mother’s quest for a son-in-law and grandkids, and his sister’s determination not to be pinned down. Tony claimed he was gaining weight from his mother’s cooking. He’d been given three new Hawaiian shirts as early Christmas presents, to wear at the beach and keep the sun off his healing back. They were apparently ugly enough to work as twink-repellent. “Makes me worried about what my actual Christmas presents will be.”
The weather in Florida sounded like heaven. Mac could picture it as Tony talked on— the bright sun and clean sand and blue ocean, and Tony in shorts, his hair mussed by the breeze off the water. Maybe they would have to walk those white beaches together one day. Eventually Tony’s voice ran down. “You still there, sweetie?”
“Yeah. That was just what I needed.”
“Anytime. You know that. But I should get to sleep. Mom still thinks we’re little kids. She has Christmas breakfast on the table on the dot at seven AM, so we can stuff ourselves at the crack of dawn before opening presents.”
“That’s kind of nice.” Mac didn’t let his mind drift to the Christmases of his childhood. It was sweeter to picture Tony and his parents and sister, in a Norman Rockwell world. “Early, but nice.”
“Yes, it is. Speaking of presents, I left you something in the bedroom closet at my place. Wrapped, up on the shelf. You can open it tomorrow if you want.”
Mac clutched. “I’d rather wait till you get back.” Present? He hadn’t gotten Tony anything. A thought occurred to him. “Tony, did you ever read The Front Runner?”
“No, actually, I haven’t. I’ve heard of it, of course. It’s a classic. It just never made it to the top of my list. Why?”
“Oh, it came up in the context of this case. No big deal.” He could find a copy online, if the local stores didn’t carry it. Add express shipping, and it could be wrapped and waiting when Tony came back. He wouldn’t do anything dumb like writing an inscription in it, of course. This case showed the risks of that. But Tony would like it anyway. The man loved books.
Mac smiled with relief and eased down deeper into his pillows.
“So, babe,” Tony suggested. “We should say goodnight.”
Mac hesitated. “Don’t hang up. I’ll say goodnight, but I want you to put the phone open on your pillow.”
“You get off on me snoring?”
“Something like that. Would you do it anyway?”
“Sure.” Tony’s voice was warm. “My nighttime phone minutes are free. Goodnight, babe. Pleasant dreams. Say Merry Christmas to Anna for me in the morning.”
“I will. Merry Christmas, Tony.”
Mac turned his cheek onto the smooth, cool cotton of his pillowcase and tucked the phone in next to his ear. Over the open line, Tony rustled around softly, and then quieted. A moment later he heard Tony murmur, “Goodnight, John-boy.”
It took Mac a few moments to figure that one out. “The Waltons?”
“’S the effect of being home. M’ mother liked that show.” Tony’s voice was a sleepy drawl.
Mac smiled in the dark. “Goodnight, Tony.” As Christmas Eve rolled over into Christmas Day, Mac lay there and listened to the slow deep breaths of a man a thousand miles away.
Getting It Right
see Valentine’s – Life Lessons 1.8