The hour-long sessions started at nine in the morning, twice a week, whether Harper liked it or not. The only good thing about this cold, damp Massachusetts morning was that it marked the near end of his commitment to therapy. Three sessions left, three hours of digging into his past and the series of events that led to his partner’s murder.
Neither the mild vanilla scent floating up from a flickering candle on Dr. Brennon’s desk nor the subtle gurgle bubbling from a tabletop fountain were doing their job to relax him. Harper rubbed the arms of the leather chair, working on his next set of words, knowing that whatever he said, would be sliced and analyzed until it resembled nothing close to what he had intended. After a minute, he broke the silence.
“You ever kill a man, Doc?” A subtle twitch of her brow told him he had her attention. “A split second. That’s all it takes, pull the trigger, and whoosh! He’s gone.”
“This wasn’t your first.” Brannon lowered her gaze and resumed her scribbling. The navy overstuffed chair seemed to swallow her petite, shapely frame. “What makes this one so different?”
“We had no reason to be there.”
“Then why go?” she asked.
“It was Gillies’s call. Mellow was our only link in the case. At least that’s what Gillies thought. Said Mellow had killed someone. Told me every damned thing hinged on getting to Mellow before homicide got their hands on him.”
“And you had reservations?” She continued jotting down details of his crumbling life.
His glance swept up to the dark paneled wall behind her desk. Framed certificates hung in an orderly row like crows on a wire. They mapped out her qualifications and gave credence to her ego.
Harper didn’t need her to question his motives or to dig into his past and drag the memories of that night to the surface. They were there, frozen in his mind – the second he got off his round. He’d never forget the blast or the hammering rain beating against his face. The look of Frank Gillies’s lifeless eyes was scorched into his memory. Harper leaned forward and dropped his head. Fists jammed against his eyes as if to rub out the intruding images. He had spun the moment any number of ways, but the outcome never changed.
“Yeah. I had reservations. Like that makes any difference.”
Minutes passed. The doc crossed her long, shapely legs then folded her hands and tapped her fingertips.
“You understand how this works, right? You don’t go back to work without these sessions.”
Harper knew the game all too well, but to share his suspicions would imply things he wasn’t prepared to admit.
“No one said this was going to be easy.” Brannon picked up the notepad again. The sound of her pen striking twice against its surface made dull, impatient clicks. “I can’t help you if you don’t open up. What do you say, Detective?”
Again, he ignored her attempt to bring him into the conversation. He didn’t know if he could, as she said, open up. He pursed his lips and watched a cluster of leaves blow past the window.
“Damned wind’s picking up again, Doc.” He buried his mouth in the L of his thumb and index finger touching the outer corner of his eye. He rose and turned his back to hide the familiar burning that blurred his vision. Apprehension had become his unwelcome companion, a reminder of the failings he refused to accept. Anger crept in. It bubbled and seared holes into his sense of reason.
“A storm is looming, but it’s not out there, is it?” she said. “Why don’t you—”
“Damn it! It should’ve been me.” The thrust of his fist made a hollow sound against his chest. He closed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose, and cleared his throat. “I was right in Mellow’s line of fire. The damned piece was inches from me. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“You wish it would have been you who died?”
“I’m saying it defies reason. Hell, you’re not even trying to understand what happened. The damned thing is, talking won’t change what happened. It won’t bring him back.” Harper leaned back into his chair and swept a hand across his three-day stubble. He wrestled between his grief and growing suspicions of Gillies. What really went down five days ago in front of the Roving Dog Saloon? He jabbed a white-knuckled fist onto the arm of the chair and looked away. Painful memories swallowed him in. Every sordid detail rushed back without prodding. At eleven twenty-five on the night of March third, Gillies got the tip that Mellow had violated parole.
# # #
“Come on. Gotta go.” Frank Gillies slammed a fleshy palm against Harper’s desk on his way to the elevator. “The big guy just answered our prayers.”
Harper caught his partner’s grin and his thumbs up gesture. The gray had gone beyond Gillies’s temples to the mass of short locks covering his head. His glance dropped to the new spot that had landed on his partner’s tie six hours before from a greasy burger. One of many meals that had settled around Gillies’s middle.
“Let me guess, Stewart Martin’s leaving the force.” Harper turned to the next page in the case file before him. He prayed every day that Detective Martin would transfer.
“Yeah right. Soon buddy, real soon, but not tonight. Word is Mellow blew a guy’s brains out.” Gillies struggled to slip his arms through the narrow sleeves of his overcoat.
“He was released a couple of days ago.” Harper was unmoved by the news. Mellow was nothing to their case against Jimmy Owens. They were after the supplier, not the low-end dealer. “When was this?”
“Few minutes ago. Over on Calvert near the Trenton overpass. Homicide’s on their way. Come on.” Gillies shook his head. “Will you put that crap down already?”
Harper turned his head to the single window near his desk in time to see a bolt of lightning crackle and spark across the eastern sky followed by a quick clap of thunder. He adjusted his sight on the windowpane and the ribbons of rain flowing down the glass. “We don’t need him.”
“He knows where to find Owens.”
“Di Napoli is on it.”
“Di Napoli can’t find his ass with both hands. Move it, Harper!” Gillies rushed toward the fourth-floor elevator and jabbed the down button.
Harper glanced at his watch. It was exactly eleven twenty-five p.m. He grabbed his coat off the back of a chair and motioned to Gillies he would meet him downstairs. His partner was a master at spewing out insults. Harper wondered how he had managed to measure up to the man’s expectations when Di Napoli, the eight-year veteran undercover assigned to work with them, couldn’t. He took the steps two at a time and reached the lobby as the elevator doors opened.
“He’s out, what, four days and breaks parole?” Harper pressed Gillies for answers. “It’s a waste of time. The guys in homicide aren’t going to let us anywhere near him. Hell, you know what they’re like. Bunch of assholes.”
“No shit. That’s why we’re going to find Mellow first.”
“What’re you talking about? Where’re we going?”
“A dive over on Howard and Third. Just got a tip the fucker’s sitting in a booth there right now.”
Harper pulled his coat collar up and looked out the glass doors. The March rains were pounding down for the fourth consecutive day. He swept a glance over to Gillies and caught a similar sense of hesitation before the two of them made a run for the car.
“Harper?” Dr. Brannon leaned her head to one side. “Where did you go?” The light of a small Tiffany lamp on the corner of her credenza illuminated the right side of her porcelain doll-like face.
“Want to let me in on your thoughts? It’s just you and me here.” She tapped her pencil on her notepad again.
He threw back his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes. His left foot dangled over his knee while the restless right tapped on the floor.
“Right. You, me, and that thing.” He motioned toward the tape recorder on the coffee table.
“Cut the crap, Harper.” She glanced at her watch. “This is your fourth session and you have been defiant from the very beginning. The bad guys are out there.” She pointed toward the door. “You want to fight them, fine. Go ahead. But walk out that door and I’ll make sure you never set foot inside the CPD again.”
Heat rushed to his face. He hated her self-assurance. He wanted to run. To stop the questions. To stop the memories from assaulting his every waking moment. The door was steps away. Instead, he turned to focus his sight on the wet bark of the maple tree in front of the window.
“It’s spitting snow.”
“Damn it, Harper. “Talk to me. Nothing you say leaves this room.”
“Guess it’s only rain.” Guilt ate at his soul. If only he’d shot sooner. If only he’d known. If only. The questions outweighed the number of plausible answers. He rose to his feet again and paced.
“No one was supposed to get killed. Not Mellow, sure as hell not Frank.” His fingers sliced through his hair and spiked the blond strands with the random pass of his hand. The knot in the pit of his gut tightened like a vise. He knew the drill. The sessions, the job; he had to get through one to have the other.
“What do you want, Sam?” she asked.
“The truth. I just wanted the truth. What the hell was Gillies thinking?”
“He knew the risks.” She fixed a set of emerald eyes on him. “Let’s talk a minute about you. What have you been doing with yourself?”
“I’m on leave, remember? What difference does it make?” Mandated or not, he didn’t want to talk about himself and the baggage he had swung over his shoulder.
Brannon was as calm as she was cold and seemed as determined to make him talk, as he was to remain evasive.
“I finished a fifth of Scotch, and when I was good and drunk, I watched soap operas. Only damned thing I know more depressing than me these days.”
“Sam, let me help—”
“I can handle the booze.”
“I wasn’t referring to liquor, but since you brought it up, do you think you have a problem?”
Her dark green sweater set off the red tones in her hair that curved slightly beneath her chin and framed the curvature of her face. She was easy on the eyes but too damned clinical for his taste. There was nothing worse than a scrutinizing shrink to kill the moment. He assumed she was in her thirties, like him, but obviously twice as smart and a lot more obnoxious. Part of him wanted to tell her about Frank Gillies, how he died, and the thoughts that had haunted him since that night. He could still hear Gillies’s voice as they ran out to the car. He fingered the change in his pocket, leaned his forehead against the cool windowpane, and tuned her out.
Harper rushed into the car and slammed the door. Gillies was behind the wheel revving the unmarked car’s engine.
“What’s Mellow doing in a bar?” Harper asked. “Is it near the scene?”
“Nah. It’s down in Avondale.” Gillies switched on the siren and cut through traffic. “Hole in the wall place smack in the middle of slum lord row.”
“That’s clear across town. How long ago was the shooting?”
“What do I look like, some fucking information sign?” Gillies pushed 70 in a 30 MPH speed limit zone. He jerked the car hard to the left to avoid a pothole. “How the hell should I know? Idiots in homicide can figure that one out.”
“You sure your informant has it right this time?”
“What the hell’s with you and the million fucking questions? All we need to do is talk to the guy about Owens before homicide gets to him.”
“Doesn’t make sense,” Harper said. “Most shooters would run like hell, not stop for a drink. Besides, what makes you think he’s going to talk now when he wouldn’t before?”
“No one accused him of having brains, you know what I’m saying, college boy? You and me, we’d be out of jobs if little shits like him had any brains.”
“Who called in the shooting?”
“Shit, Harper. Here, let me get my crystal ball out.” Gillies shook his head in disgust. “That’s homicide’s problem; I could give a rat’s ass about it. Alright, look, someone in dispatch called up about the shooting. Thought we’d want to know. That’s all. Just following a lead, alright?”
Harper knew about Gillies’s connections. Not who they were or how he managed them, but that they existed. They didn’t always pan out, but the grin that split Gillies’s face and the urgency in his voice implied this one was a sure thing.
“Seems stupid of Mellow to screw up right after making parole.”
“Yeah, well, like I said, if little shits like him had brains we wouldn’t be here.”
Harper knew how anger could take over people’s minds. It shoved them over the edge without saying how far or how hard they would fall. Maybe Mellow just hadn’t figured the distance.
Gillies turned off the headlights and nosed the car into position across the street from the Roving Dog Saloon. The deserted street and the rain thumping against the car roof gave a false sense of tranquility.
Harper glanced across the way at the tavern door and the red neon lights shaped like a dog just above it. The dog’s legs and tail appeared to move back and forth making him seem to roam for a good mug of beer. The sign’s light cast an eerie red glow and shimmered off the wet objects beneath it. Harper pulled up his collar, cupped his hands around his mouth, and blew warmth into them.
“You’re sure he’s in there?”
Gillies winced as he watched the windshield wipers slap the water from side to side. “Only one way to find out. It’s your turn, rookie.”
“The hell it is. I ran after the scum in the Capelli case, remember? Chased the guy five blocks through a foot of snow before you cut him off with the car.”
“Ah, come on. Rookies aren’t allowed to say no. Besides, you’re younger. What are you, thirty-one, thirty-two now?”
“You’re so damned smug. You and that stupid grin of yours. Cut the jabs.”
“What? What’d I say?”
“Cut the rookie and college boy bit.”
“I’m just joshing with you. Don’t go getting sensitive on me, alright?”
“It gets old.” It was almost midnight. Harper was tired and in no mood for Gillies’s mindless humor.
“Is that so?” Gillies chuckled and threw him a playful punch. “Alright. Listen. You don’t even have to talk to the asshole. Just see if he’s in there. Don’t want him running out the back or nothing and have to chase the little creep in this shit.”
“That’s it, huh?” Harper leaned his head against the window and watched the rain. “It’s not letting up.”
“Go on,” Gillies said. “It’ll take you two minutes. We’ll wait him out. Ask him a few questions and go home.”
“Was that a typical surveillance?” Brannon asked. Expressionless eyes studied Harper from behind a set of silver framed reading glasses.
“No. That night.” Harper shook his head. “Nothing made sense. One minute we’re just going to talk to the guy. Next thing I know I’ve got two fatalities to answer for and I don’t know what in the hell happened.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?”
“We didn’t need Mellow to get Owens. Gillies knew it as well as I did. He acted as if we were the only ones on the case. There was a whole team of us including some undercover. But Gillies, hell, he was so bent on going after Mellow that night. It was almost as if …”
“He wouldn’t take no for an answer. What the hell was I supposed to do? He was the senior partner. Had no choice but to trust his judgment.”
“But did you?”
“That’s what we’re supposed to do, trust each other.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
Harper paused for a moment then swallowed hard. “That night, after it was over, I checked with dispatch. There was no shooting reported anywhere on or near the Trenton overpass.”