The Mack Fraser Thrillers
Suspense in Seattle


The First

 

Saturday, September 13

1:14 A.M.

 

        In the short minutes before slaughter, the bull-necked man relaxed to the voice of vintage Pavarotti, the tenor’s voice streaming smoothly through the speakers of his rented Chevy Impala.  The car sat in a muddy lot just off Seattle’s Elliott Avenue in the southern shadows of the Darigold Building.  Towering high to the west, the Pier 86 Grain Terminal watched over the parking lot and neighboring railroad field, a silent sentinel waiting.

        Abruptly, the man cleared his throat, then popped the tape from its slot and slipped it inside his black leather jacket.  He reached into a satchel on the seat beside him and pulled out dark cowhide gloves and a 30-year-old Walther PPK, its barrel extended with a 6-inch suppresser.  In three decades the man had used the pistol to execute thirty-eight men and seven women.  He clicked the magazine release and felt the weight of it drop into his palm.  After a quick check of its contents, he slid it home again and strapped the gun into the holster under his left arm.  Settling the bag into his lap, he searched through the items remaining inside, smiled his approval, then extracted a black cotton ski mask, which he tugged on over his head and positioned in place. 

        Three minutes later the killer jumped down to the railbed and negotiated his way across the tracks to the fence on the far side, which bordered Elliott Bay Park.  Pale yellow light spilled from the few windows of the terminal and gleamed dully from the rails.  Opaque clouds, plump with rain, filled the night sky.  A chill wind sliced in from north Puget Sound, rustling the trees’ sparse leaves and stirring the pools of water on the park’s bike and foot paths.

        At the fence the man reached into the bag and withdrew a set of heavy wire snips, which quickly bisected a vertical strip of chain links.  With a tug he pulled open a wide gap and stepped through into the park.  He hesitated on the asphalt path, peering north, then south toward the city.  He detected no moving objects, no midnight bicyclists or joggers, no wandering patrolmen.  The park appeared empty.

        The man adjusted the mask around his neck, then struck out along the unlighted bike path, away from the city and deeper into the park.  After two minutes he slowed his step, noticing a brown amorphous bundle cast up against a low concrete wall.  He studied it for a moment then continued on.   Finally the man stopped, pulling up beneath a solitary spruce tree, its spine pitched high into the night like a lightning rod, drawing the fire of the killer’s passion.

Sprawled underneath the tree’s lowest branches, a body lay semi-conscious, swaddled in blankets, liquor-laced snores resonating from the dark hollow of its mouth.  The bull-necked man strode up to the tree, drew his Walther, and without hesitation pumped a single bullet into the sleeper’s left temple.  The target twitched once, then lay still.

        The gunman reholstered his pistol and kicked the body onto its back, then he reached into the blankets to find the dead man’s hands, which he extricated from the heavy folds of cloth.  From the black bag the killer removed a large shining blade, five inches wide and squared on the end, a butcher’s cleaver honed to razor sharpness.  Lining up on the victim’s left arm, he brought the blade to shoulder height, then hacked downward with swiftness and brutal strength, striking the flesh just behind the wrist.  The knife ripped through sinews and bone, severing the hand and plunging into the damp sod below it.

        An invisible wisp of ferrous scent climbed from the fresh seeping blood, crawled through the pores of his coarse cotton mask.  Unbidden, his nostrils flared in recognition.

        On the victim’s right side, he repeated the dismemberment, then wiped the blade clean against the blankets.  He replaced the cleaver in the satchel and withdrew a gray plastic garbage bag, in which he deposited the disjoined hands.  Twisting closed the plastic he placed the bag in the satchel, then searched a moment longer to recover the discharged bullet cartridge.

        The grisly procedure was accomplished in less than three minutes. 

        The killer stood over his victim a few seconds longer, examining his surroundings, confirming the secrecy of his monstrous act, then he struck out again, this time south along the seaside footpath.  Fifty yards later he came upon a second prostrate body, this man similarly unconscious, the reek of cheap booze tainting the autumn air.

        A single bullet through the forehead.  Dual blows to the wrists.  Silent, solitary dispatch.  Three minutes, then south.

        And again.

        And again.

        And again.

        When he was finished the killer had taken five lives and ten hands.  Twenty-nine minutes of murder and mutilation.

        Then like Grendel returning to the sea, the bull-necked man slipped through the gap in the fence, skipped across the six sets of railroad tracks, and vanished into the night.



Chapter 1

 

Thursday, September 18

 

        An early autumn thunderstorm hung low over the city, leaden clouds threatening and balmy winds whipping in from the Sound.  Somewhere deep within the roiling gray mass, an electrical circuit gapped across space, a burst of frantic ions seeking their opposite, then igniting a crackled streak of jagged light that slashed through the belly of the sky.  Warm rain fell in torrents.

        In the corner of his eye Mack Fraser detected the lightning’s flash and spontaneously began counting off seconds in his head.

    one one thousand . . .

    two one thousand . . .

        He turned his face and gazed through the sideyard window.

    three one thousand . . .

    four one thousand . . .

        Raindrops smacked against the glass and drizzled in tangled rivulets to the sill.

    five one thousand . . .

    six one—

        Then crraaackkk!!—crisp and sharp like a pile of shattered concrete.  Followed by the explosive boom and the rumble-rumble as it rolled over the city.

        He slowly smiled and gently shook his head.  Who couldn’t love a thunderstorm—the louder, the wilder, the better.  Then he smiled again, even more widely, this time at himself.  For the past thirty years or so he’d been counting the time gap from flash to thunder and damned if he could remember why he was even doing it.  Something about the speeds of light and sound and the distance from the storm.  He wasn’t quite sure if he’d ever actually known how it worked.

        “Curt would know,” he muttered under his breath, then slumped back into his leather swivel chair and locked his eyes on the computer monitor.  The oversized screen was filled with an intricate matrix of lines and symbols, the blueprint schematic for a job site in Auburn, the graphic highlight of every pertinent component: placement of alarm sensors, an elaborate video monitoring system, and countless numbers of hard wire electrical connections.  Multi-colored lines shot off in every direction, tags of blue, green, red, and black at every intersection.  Fill patterns depicted material composition: sheetrock, hardwood, carpet, steel; while the dots and circles, diamonds and squares symbolically designated each specific item. 

        Everything you’d ever need to know about a bank.

        The architectural plans detailed seven possible entry points: door and windows front, door and windows back, conference room window on the north side, and two ventilation ducts on the roof.  A state-of-the-art vault room filled the southwest corner of the structure, and three small day safes lay in mahogany cabinets directly behind the teller stations.  A patchwork of narrow lines crisscrossed the page, representing a sophisticated security labyrinth designed to thwart even the wiliest thief.

        Mack tapped a few additional notes into the Dell Inspiron, then pushed himself away from the whole mess.  The lines and symbols had begun to blur, the complex notations turning Greek before his eyes.  Working your typical bank job, he’d come to understand, was like a three-month vacation in the deepest pits of hell.  Unlike many in his profession, he chose to handle only one such gig each year.  The rest of his time he spent on the light stuff: private residences, mom and pop storefronts, and the occasional special event, like the auction the previous month at the Seattle Art Museum. 

        Quick, in and out, no complicated plans and procedures.  Simple house jobs.  Quaint little places out in the country, maybe a widow with kids or a retired couple, their life savings trickling in each month from Uncle Sam.  Short, sweet, finished in one afternoon.  The pay usually sucked, but then he didn’t need a degree in electrical engineering to set them up either.

        “Bank jobs.  Christ!”

        Mack glanced at the framed diploma on the wall above his desk.  City University, Elec. Eng., then to the letterhead on the stationary stacked beside his laser printer: Fraser/Kennedy, Inc. Security ConsultantsBurglar Alarm Systems.  The Seattle Yellow Pages listed the business twice, a holdover from when his partner still lived and they needed all the advertising they could rustle up.  Lately, it was all he could do to keep his head above water.

 

        The buzz of the desk phone interrupted his musing; it was Sam.

        “You in the middle of something?”  The distant caller sounded out of breath.

        Mack glanced at the bank schematic.  “Nothing that can’t wait forever.  What’s up?”

        “Better get down here.”

        The blinking clock in the corner of the computer monitor read 10:30—still a good hour until lunch.

        “Little early isn’t it, Sam?”

        “Not for you, lad.”

        The words echoed around in his head for a moment, their portent obvious, their meaning unclear.  Not for you.  What the hell’s with that?  Mack felt the pace of his heartbeat jack up a notch.

        “Yeah, okay.  I’m on my way.”

 

        Half an hour later, he pulled his Jeep into the parking lot of Sherlock’s Brews & Books, the fulfillment of his best friend’s decade-long fantasy.  With his detective career abruptly terminated by a bullet in the back, Sam “Sherlock” Duncan had opted for a healthy pension and the creation of a combined British-style pub and mystery bookstore.  Dark wood, stained glass, brass fixtures.  Cozy fireplaces in the corners and a book loft above with comfortable chairs.  Tasty food and good cheer.  A loyal clientele that packed the place every night.

        Mack sat down at the oaken bar in the back of the main room and Sam handed him a cup of coffee—light, no sugar.  The older man wore wrinkled khaki slacks and a white polo shirt with a magnifying glass logo over the pocket.  A kelly green apron encircled his ample waist, its front stained by all manner of pub fare.  Dull black Crocs clung loosely to his feet.  Bright track lights on the ceiling reflected off his gleaming skull, which was ringed with a fringe of close-cropped, gray hair.

Sam got right to it.

        “Maggie Coyle was in here a bit ago.  You remember her, from the squad?” 

        “Yeah, tough gal.”  Mack studied his friend’s face, visually probing for a hint of what was going on.  “I met her on a couple of protection gigs.  You worked with her dad, right?” 

        “Just a couple years.”  Sam rested his thick hands on the edge of the bar.  A droopy mustache framed his mouth, giving him a Wilford Brimley walrus look.  “Seems his kid’s done real well for herself.  Big cases, high profile stuff.”

        “And her a woman.”

        “Now, I didn’t say that.”

        Mack smiled and sipped his coffee.  Two cups at home had served their medicinal purpose; he drank this one just because it was still too early for a beer.

        “Yeah, anyway,” Sam cleared his throat, “seems something came up on one of her cases.  You know, the park thing.”

        Like every other person in the city, Mack knew the park thing.  The park was Elliott Bay Park, a strip of grassy waterfront just north of the downtown piers.  A few trees, a great view, and plenty of benches set along a meandering bike-path.  A popular day place for walkers and joggers, an equally popular night place for the ever-burgeoning numbers of Seattle’s homeless.  At least it had been until the park thing. 

        “She in here picking your brain again?  I tell you, calling this place Sherlock’s was a big mistake.  They know where to find you.”

They’d been through the whole issue of gratis cop-work before and both knew that after thirty-four years with a badge Sam would always be a working cop, even if he weren’t getting paid for it.  This wasn’t the first time they’d shown up for his help.

        “Coyle wasn’t here for free advice.”  From under the bar he pulled out a gray cardboard folder, the official seal of King County printed across its front.  Mack knew what it was as soon as he saw it; he’d seen them ample times before.

        Sam thrust the file out in front of him. “She brought this for you.”

        Mack felt a dull, welling ache erupt just below his sternum, as if he’d swallowed wrong and something was caught in there.  Something maybe the size of a tennis ball.  His eyes flicked to the cover of the autopsy report, but a meaty hand obscured the label. 

        “Who, Sam?”  The tennis ball grew another inch in diameter and slid down into his stomach.  “Who is it?”

        Without speaking, the retired cop laid the folder down in front of his friend.  Typed on a label in the upper right-hand corner was a name; last, first, middle: Fraser, Mackenzie Douglas.  That would be me, Mack mouthed the words, his lips numb, his tongue frozen.  The name was followed by a date, when the autopsy was performed: September 13.  That was five days ago. 

        He flipped open the cover and came up for air about twenty minutes later.

 

        It was similar to all the other autopsy reports he’d had the misfortune to encounter in his thirty-nine years, in that it consisted of basically four parts: a detailed transcription of the medical examiner’s procedure, a dozen standard questions and answers, a copy of a death certificate, and a few color copies of snapshots of the corpse.  The copies indicated this was not the original report.  Stapled to the inside cover was a black-and-white photograph, an enlarged version of the one laminated to the front of his driver’s license.

        Mack glanced at the photo, hesitantly amused that some idiot coroner believed he was dead, then flipped slowly through the pages, taking mental note of certain interesting details.  When he arrived at the first autopsy picture, his amusement instantly vaporized.  It was one thing to sit there fully alive and read about some dead man.  But to look at full-color 8x10’s of himself with a dark hole in the center of his forehead and the back half of his head blown off . . . well, that was a whole different deal.  His breath caught in his throat and his eyes glazed with tears.

        Sam saw he was finished with the report and grabbed the backbar ladder, rolling it past a thousand gleaming bottles stacked in towering pyramids as tall as the 18-foot ceiling.  He stopped, as Mack knew he would, directly in front of the single malt Scotch whiskeys.  126 of them—Sam liked to boast—more than at any other bar in the city. 

        With the agility of a man much less abundant, he ascended the ladder and reached for a particular bottle, six rows up and just left of center.  He took it by the neck, then carefully stepped down, setting the bottle on the smooth wooden bar.  It was 21-year-old Glenmorangie single malt and the bottle was nearly empty.  He split what was left of the peat brown liquid into two glasses and raised one to his lips.

“Something you want to tell me, lad?”

        Mack lifted his own drink, his hand shaking. 

        “No, not what you think.”  He poured the burning liquor down his trembling throat.  “Sam, who the hell is this guy?”

        Ten minutes later, the Scotch still hot in his belly, he went in search of the answer.



Chapter 2

 

        The office of the King County Medical Examiner lurked in the basement of Harborview Hospital, one of seven medical facilities on rising landscape east of the city; the area nicknamed “Pill Hill.”  Unlike the circumstance with most metropolitan hospitals, an overnight recovery in one of Seattle’s bevy of infirmaries often afforded the patient a better view of the city than half its high-end hotels. 

        Mack spotted an open space a block away, and squeezed his Jeep in without a hitch.  Before exiting, he slid open the drawer beneath the passenger seat and locked his Beretta 92FS inside, then skipped up a half dozen well-worn steps and through a set of double doors into the lobby.  Hanging above his head a large vinyl banner promoted the hospital’s new medical insurance plan: The Ultimate Get-Well Card.  Most people didn’t know that hidden within the dungeons of the building the County kept its dead.  He slipped past a middle-aged receptionist and walked down a long hall to a bank of three elevators in the south wing.  He stepped into the last car and pressed the level for the morgue—some smart aleck had placed a happy face sticker on the button.

        The doors opened on a bright hallway tiled with green linoleum that squeaked under the heels of his new Reeboks.  He scanned the dull plaques on each door until he arrived at the name of Peter S. Chu, the doctor who had performed the autopsy.  Mack paused briefly, then opened the door without knocking.  The man inside glanced up from his computer monitor.

        “Doctor Chu, my name’s Mackenzie Fraser.  I think we’ve met.”

        By the drop of the man’s jaw and the blanch of his face, Mack determined this was the correct ME, his reaction befitting a doctor who only days earlier had sliced up a dead man sporting the same face that now stood before him.

        Dr. Chu wore his short hair spiked with gel and exhibited a small silver hoop on his left ear.  Thick, black-framed lenses distorted the sudden fear in his eyes, but that quickly changed to confusion, and then anger.

        “Who are you, sir?  Why are you here?”  He stood up behind his desk, glanced quickly around the cramped office.  “There must be a mistake.”

        “No mistake.”  Mack pulled up a seat and sat across from him.  “According to you, I’m dead.”

        Chu pointed at the intruder’s chest.  “You . . . you are Mackenzie Fraser?”

        “My whole life.  And that’s life, as in alive.”

        “I see you are not dead.  Your brother, he is dead then?”

Mack thought it might head this direction and acted immediately to repress it.  “No, Doctor, I only have one brother and I talked with him two days ago.  I can’t tell you who this dead guy is or why he looks like me, but I do know that he’s not my brother.”

        “But that cannot be.  I will show you.  I do correct work, you can see.”  He stood and walked across the room toward a black metal file cabinet.

        “If you’re going for the autopsy report, don’t bother.  I’ve already seen it.”

The doctor stopped, hesitated a moment, and returned to his seat.  He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again.  Like a witness in the court dock, he sat rod straight with his hands folded in front of him.  His fingers were long and delicate, the nails carefully trimmed.  He wore no rings.

        “Look, I’m not here to accuse you of anything.  I just want to know what’s going on.”

        Chu leaned back in his chair, his face relaxing a degree or two, then he exhaled slowly.  “You read the file, what more can I tell you?”

        “Well, let’s start here.”  Mack breathed deeply and leaned another few inches forward.  “Why’d you think this guy was me?”

        Dr. Chu sat silently for a handful of seconds, contemplating the scope of the question, then answered in a pedantic and professional tone.

        “The night of park murders, I get a phone call at home and drive to the park, 6:45 in the morning.  Many police are there, so I know it is big, big deal.  Dr. Gavin is already working . . . when crime is multiple homicide we have more doctors.  Too many work for just one.  He is finishing second body, so I do number three.”  He hesitated and looked straight at Mack.  “The one he looks like you.”

        “And you did one or two more bodies after that?  How many total?”

        “I did two, the man with tattoo and your brother.  Dr. Gavin, he did three.”

        “He’s not my damn brother.” 

        Chu quietly nodded, but his face said otherwise. 

        Mack wiped the beads of sweat off his cheek.  “What happened there . . . at the crime scene?”

        “Like I say already, I do correct work.  When I come to the body, he is in sleeping bag.  He is curled up like sleeping.  The face has no marks for trauma, the body is relax position but beginning to get stiff.  Rigor mortis.  I believe he is asleep when shot, maybe five, six hours before.  The other bodies, too.  They are all asleep.”

        “But what about the gunshots?  Wouldn’t that—”

        “They did not hear gunshots, sir.  The men, they are far apart, not together, maybe fifty yards or one hundred yards.  And they are all drinking.  Three men are very drunk.  Your man, he is drunk.  There is much alcohol in his blood.”

        “Okay, what else?”  Mack’s throat had gone dry, like he’d swallowed a handful of flour, and his words came out a half octave higher than he intended.

        “I think right away how men die.  It is obvious.  The killer shoots one shot and chops hand very quick, one chop.  He uses a large, sharp knife, maybe a cleaver, like for meat.  One hand, other hand.  Then he leaves.”

        “So, no fingerprints.  What about ID?  Did he have identification?”

        “No, sir.  Not your brother.” 

        Mack opened his mouth to comment, then thought better of it and let the doctor continue.  “One man has his wallet in underwear.  He is from San Francisco, I think.  One man has social security tattoo on arm.  Three men have other tattoos, but old, not new.  After two hours in the park I finish my work, put body in bag.

        “When I get here, before I do autopsy, I check type of blood, color of hair, color of eye, height, weight.  I guess age.  I put all the data into my computer and wait to see if any matches.  I look at many pictures.  Finally, I see you. 

        “I have no fingerprints, but the computer says you have blood at the hospital in case for accident.  In the lab they check blood for you and for the dead man.  They are identical.  All red cell antigens line up: ABO, Rh, MNS.  That means over 99% genotype match.  DNA analysis will take one more week, but I know what it will say.  I have what I need for positive ID.  I see two men with same height, same weight, same hair, same eyes, same face, exact same blood.  I do correct work, so I say it is Mackenzie Fraser.  I say it is you, sir.”

        Same blood.  The words lodged in Mack’s head, the other statistics meaning nothing.  The height, the hair, the eyes—they were inconsequential.  But the blood?

Like some perverse mantra the words same blood beat their cadence dully against the roof of his skull, the weight of them pressed on the backs of his eyeballs.  Tears clouded his sight.  Same blood.  They echoed in his ears and drowned out the doctor’s sudden concern. 

        “Are you okay, sir?  You do not look well.”

Mack tried to swallow but couldn’t, his tongue felt swollen.  He shook his head and ran a hand across his forehead.  The fingers came away damp with cold, clammy sweat.  Then suddenly, the tennis ball was back in his throat. 

        Never an expert on human physiology, he at least knew that no two people had the exact same blood.  Not unless . . .

        The answer to his question—how Chu could possibly think this man was him—was instantly as clear as glacial ice. 

        “I need to see the body,” his voice croaked.  “Where is it?”

        The doctor stood without speaking and stepped into the hall. 

        The air felt cooler out there, but the bright lights hurt his eyes, forcing him to squint as they walked.  Somewhere, as through a fog, he heard sharp squeaks, not recognizing them as his rubber soles against the linoleum.  The sounds stopped when they came to a large, stainless steel door.

        “It is here.” 

        Chu pushed open the door and they stepped into a spacious, high-ceilinged room, filled primarily with the tables and equipment of two autopsy theaters.  Against the far wall ran three neat rows of square chrome doors, each with a large lever handle and a small white plaque bearing a number and a letter.  The doctor walked straight to plaque B2.  He pulled open the door and reached into the space beyond it, then slid out a long sheet-covered drawer.

        “Are you well to see this, sir?”

        The question barely penetrated the muffled buzz filling Mack’s ears, and though he didn’t quite understand what the doctor had asked, he nodded his head anyway, then watched as Chu methodically folded back a layer of pale green fabric. 

        Except for the bullet hole in the center of the corpse’s forehead, Mack could have been looking in a mirror.

        Much like him, the dead man wore his hair short, barely touching his ears, which were slightly oversized and lay close to the sides of his head.  His hair was wavy and dark, the color of fresh loam, salted with silver at the temples.  Rugged eyebrows, full lashes, a sharp, blade-like nose bisected his face, with a faint patch of hair perched high on the bridge, just between the eyes.  A strong jaw, narrow chin, and sun-worn skin pocked with ancient acne scars.  He hadn’t shaved in the few days before his death.  Weathered, yet handsome, Mack thought.   

        A recent wound and crude sutures stretched from behind his left ear and upward into his hairline, testament to Dr. Chu’s autopsy handiwork.

        Mack glanced across the room to a shallow shelf bearing a half dozen gallon jars.  Pale gray lumps of tissue hung suspended in formalin, somewhere among them the brain of the dead man.  Without warning, his gorge surged high into his throat, burning the tender flesh with its acid.  He gasped and swallowed the spasm back into his chest, the taste lingering at the base of his tongue.

        It was time to leave.  He brushed his fingertips across the shoulder of the corpse, then headed for the door.

        “Mr. Fraser, please, before you go.”

        Mack’s hand froze in mid-air, suspended only inches from the doorknob.  From escape.  Then he slowly turned around.

        “Please, before you go, I wish to take a blood sample.”

        “No!”  Much like the bitter bile, the word erupted without control from the deepest core of his chest, unbidden and defiant, dripping with angst.

        Dr. Chu stepped backward, stunned at the sudden haunted torment in the other man’s face.  Yet his duty as medical examiner forced him to continue.

        “There is only one person this man can be.  Biologically . . . scientifically . . . only two people can share the same blood.  I would like to test once more your blood against his.”

        Mack waited, knowing the young doctor had more to say, and damned if he’d ever ask him to say it.

        “Sir, this dead man, he is your twin brother.  There is no question of that.”  Then, almost apologetically, “I do correct work.”



Chapter 3

 

        Oblivious to all but the ache growing inside him, Mack fled Pill Hill.  Travelling south on Broadway, he traced the spine of Capitol Hill, then wandered west into the city, slicing through intersections, traversing bridge spans, plunging pedals to start and stop.  Completely mindless, oblivious to time and distance and direction.  He wandered the city for an hour, his thoughts somewhere in the past, a fantasy long ago buried.  Finally, the harsh screech of brakes and a near collision at Seventh and Madison shook him from his stupor.  With lucidity came the image of Maggie Coyle.

 

        Seattle P.D.’s Homicide cops did their time on the fifth floor of the Public Safety Building, which occupied one corner of a four block area comprising also the King County Administration Building, the County Courthouse, and the City Municipal Building.  Of those four government structures, Public Safety was universally regarded as the ugliest.  Faux marble slabs tiled the entrance on Third Avenue and the ground level facade was topped by corrugated steel panels and rectangular sections the color and texture of cold oatmeal.

        Mack raced through the metal detector with all the aplomb of a terrorist only then to find an impatient crowd milling before the elevator.  Knowing better, he slipped around the corner and climbed the stairs.

        The Homicide/Cold Case department occupied that floor’s entire northwest corner, the open room cramped with a dozen individual desks, paired together for each team of detectives.  Except for the occasional family photograph and tacky knick-knack, the particulars of the workstations looked monotonously similar: padded office chairs, metal table lamps, aging computer monitors and keyboards.  Fluorescent ceiling lights added ambient light.  A bank of three-drawer filing cabinets filled the east wall, a cluster of waxy-leaved philodendrons arranged on top.

        Five male detectives in an assortment of skin colors shuffled papers and talked on their phones.  When Mack approached, a muscular African-American in Levi’s jeans and a long-sleeved white T-shirt looked up from his computer.  “You here for Tanenbaum?

        “No, I’m looking for Detective Coyle?”

        With his thumb the cop gestured to the wall behind him, then went back to work.

 

        As a lead detective, Maggie Coyle actually had an office, a small cubicle of glass and shiny wood overlooking Spring Street.  The door hung fully open, so he stuck his head in.

        “Hey, Detective, I hear you been looking for me.”

        Though he hadn’t called from the Jeep, it was clear she’d been expecting him—plopped down in the middle of her desk lay the original autopsy report.  She smiled, stood, and shook his hand—her fingers thick and full of knuckles, like grasping a bag full of walnuts.  Gym-sculpted biceps bulged from a forest green polo shirt and though he couldn’t see her legs behind the desk, based on her upper body, Mack knew he didn’t want to wrestle with her.

        “Well, if it isn’t Mackenzie Fraser.  You’re looking pretty good for a dead man.”

        “Thanks for noticing.  Mind if I sit down?”

        “Sure, you want coffee or something?”  She nodded toward a battered Mr. Coffee machine in the corner, but having tasted police java in the past, he declined.

        Maggie Coyle was a third generation Seattle homicide cop, her grandfather having joined the force three years after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  Her recently retired father was a police legend.  She stood five-eight, weighed one-forty, with a rat’s nest of amber-red hair and hard blue eyes that blinked less often than they should have.  And a nose that rescued her face, perfectly shaped with a cascade of pale freckles rolling down each side and spilling onto her cheeks.  Without it, she’d have gained ten years.

        They’d met on a high-level security job two years earlier, working across the room from one another, but never exchanging more than a dozen words.  Like then, Mack found himself wondering what she did when she got off work.  Who it was she went home to. 

        He spoke to break the speculation.  “Well, you got this thing solved yet?” 

        Her eyes blazed for a second, then cooled, and she slowly shook her head.  “We don’t want to go there, smart ass.  In fact, your brother’s place on that slab sounds pretty cozy right now compared to what I’ve been—”

        Too late, she realized what she’d said.  “Hey, I didn’t mean anything . . .”

        Mack waved her off.  The detective was clearly a woman with worries, the whites of her eyes gone red, her skin turned sallow.  She probably hadn’t slept since Friday night.  “I take it Dr. Chu called you with his theory.”

        “He sounded pretty convinced. You have reason to think otherwise?”

        “Oh, just the fact that I never had a twin brother.  If that counts for anything.”

        “As far as you know.”  Her eyebrows rose a half inch.

        “As far as I know what?  Look, Coyle, I’m almost forty years old and never in that time has there ever been a twin.  I think I’d remember that, don’t you?”

        She snagged a thick red rubber band from a square receptacle on the corner of her desk then leaned back in her chair and looked him in the face.  As she talked Mack was aware of her stretching the elastic strip in and out and back and forth between the thumbs and fingers of both hands.  Like playing an impossible game of cat’s cradle.

        “You can cut the dramatic last name crap, Mack.  I’m only suggesting the possibility that this twin exists . . . existed . . . and that you just never knew about him.”

        “I guess anything’s possible.”  The words rang hollow in his throat, the forced disinterest tearing at the memory of a mirror-image corpse with a bullet-pierced forehead.  But now was not the time to pursue it.  “How about you, Maggie, what can you tell me about your case?”

        “What, you working homicide now?”  She snapped the rubber band, a sharp smack against her skin.  “You’re here to talk to me, you know, not the other way around.  I need some place to start on this twin thing.”

        “Look, I was just asking.”

        “Yeah, well, don’t ask.”  She looked down at her wrist, a thin stripe of skin now glowing red.  “Shit, there’s not much I could tell you anyway.  We’re almost nowhere on this.”

        “I gathered as much from the news.”

        Coyle’s face flushed pink and her jaw muscles bulged.  “Damn it.  Five days into the biggest investigation of my life and I . . .” 

        She shook her head and tugged again at the elastic ring, weaving it between her fingers.  ”The victims aren’t helping me any.  One guy we still don’t know yet.  That’s one guy plus yours.  The other three are street drunks from San Fran, Detroit, and someplace out on the Aleutian fucking Islands.  Three Whites, one Black, and one Eskimo.  Now there’s a pattern for you.”

        “Aleut.”

        “What?”

        “Aleut.  From the Aleutians.  They’re Aleuts.  Eskimos are further north.”

        She stared at him, her eyebrows lifting a notch.  “I’m warning you, Mack.  You don’t want to mess with me right now.  I’m not in the mood.”

        “Hey, it was just an observation.”

        “Yeah, well you can just observe your smart ass walking right out the door if you start up with that crap.  This whole thing’s a fucking nightmare, and your guy’s not helping matters any.  At least people knew the other victims.  It’s like your brother came out of nowhere, a total mystery.”  She leaned forward.  “C’mon, now, give me some help here.”

        Mack knew full well that his help wasn’t going to get them anywhere, but he figured he owed her something, if only to encourage additional conversation later.  He rocked back in his chair, stretched out his legs and crossed them at the ankles, then after a pause to collect his thoughts, launched into a brief history of the Clan Fraser.

        “My mom, her name was Delores Marie Calhoun, met my dad, Scott Harlan Fraser, in San Francisco in 1964.  They dated for about two months and then got married maybe three weeks before he shipped out to Vietnam.  He stayed over there for two years, and when he came back he was all screwed up mentally. Couldn’t find work, and if he did, couldn’t keep it.  Really pissed him off, which of course he took out on my mom.  When he found out she was pregnant with me, well, he totally lost it.  Beat the hell out of her and then took off.  Hasn’t been seen since.”

        “Helluva way to start off your life.”  She jotted down notes on a legal pad with a clear plastic mechanical pencil.  “So you don’t know where your father is now?” 

        “Nope, no idea.  I don’t even know if he’s alive.”

        “And how much do you know about the circumstances of your birth?”

        “Almost nothing, really.”  He pulled his feet underneath the chair and leaned forward, resting his forearms on his thighs.  “My mom never talked about it much.  She hardly had any money after my dad left, so she didn’t go to a regular hospital.  I was actually born in a clinic somewhere in east Oakland.  It’s not there anymore, though; I went looking for it about fifteen years ago.  The doctor’s gone now, too.  But I do have my birth certificate, and Alameda County has a record of me being born.”

        She nodded and scribbled a few more notes.  “You think you would have come across anything about a twin brother while you were down there then?  Anything seem odd or unusual?”

        “Not that I can remember.  A few months after I was born my mom met another guy and we moved up here.  He stayed around until Curtis was born, then took off, too.”

        She looked up.  “So your brother in Spokane is actually your half-brother.  Does Sherlock know that?”

        “No, I guess he might not.”  It didn’t surprise him that she’d already questioned Sam.  “I don’t tend to talk about family much.” 

        She smiled in sympathy.  “And your mom, she ever talk about this other brother?  It’s hard to believe nothing ever came up.”

        “She never said much at all about those years.”

        “Do you have any pictures that we could look at from when you were a kid, maybe there’s something there.”

        “No, I’m not much for pictures either.  Look, I’m sorry there’s nothing here for you.”  He stood up and rested his hands on her desk.  “This dead guy . . . he’s probably my twin brother—hell, I’m still sorting that one out—but about my mom . . . well, forty years ago she left him behind somewhere and never looked back.  She was done with him.  If it were any different, I would have known.”

        Coyle moved out from behind her desk.  “So, you don’t have anything that’ll help me.”

        “No, I’m afraid I don’t.”

        “And you’re not holding anything back?  Maybe something you might want to track down on your own?”

        “No, ma’am, not a thing.”

        “And you’ll let me know if you think of anything, right?”

        “Of course I will.  Being the good citizen that I am.”  He reached out his hand, which she grasped.  Her grip was hard, her skin hot.  She didn’t let go.

        “Do yourself a favor, okay?”  Her unblinking eyes bore straight into his. “Don’t even think about going maverick on this thing.  Your brother was just one of five men killed out there, and I’ve got brass all the way to the governor breathing up my ass to bring in the shooter.  If I find you’re holding out on me . . . well, not even Sherlock’ll be able to save you.  Do we understand each other?”

        He released her hand and nodded.  “Sure thing, Detective.”  The lie came easily to his lips.  And for the briefest fraction of a second, he even convinced himself that she might believe it.


Chapter 4

 

        Mack wandered back to the Jeep, then sat motionless behind the wheel for fifteen minutes, deciding what to do next.  Other than spending the rest of the day slouched in a bucket seat, his choices were limited.  Going home was out of the question.  The thought of sitting in an empty house turned his stomach, and the morgue was still too fresh in his mind.  At the thought of it, a wave of claustrophobic nausea fluttered up his throat.  No, he couldn’t go home.

        Briefly, he considered driving across the lake to see his daughter, Andi, then realized she’d probably be on her way to swim practice.  That and it wasn’t his night with her anyway.  Visiting his daughter would have to wait.

        Which really left only one viable option, a return to where the whole damn thing had started, back to Sherlock’s.

        Sam Duncan’s business occupied the lower two-thirds of an impressive three-story building on the corner of Roy and Howard at the base of Queen Anne Hill.  In its last failed incarnation the brick-and-timber structure housed an unfinished furniture store and interior design studio.  Built in 1914 by a family of Jewish immigrants, the building’s earlier occupants included a newspaper publisher, a carpet store, and in the early 50’s a home for unwed mothers.  After his retirement, Sam redesigned the exterior to resemble an old Tudor mansion and completely gutted the interior to build a bright, open air chamber with thick oak beams and slowly turning ceiling fans.  Based on its success, he had hit the motif right on the money.

        Mack’s Timex read 2:46 when he pulled into the parking lot, where he lingered for another ten minutes prepping himself for an inevitable conversation with his best friend.  Sam had a long history of coaxing confessions out of people, and Mack knew he was just as vulnerable as any criminal.  A strange foreign mix of thoughts and emotions stewed around inside him—sharing it with someone else right then seemed a daunting and undesirable task.

        As he pondered, a silver 700-series BMW whipped into the stall beside him and two young studs in tailored suits and designer neckties hopped out.  Broad shoulders, dazzling smiles, much more money than they probably deserved.  They hurried toward Sherlock’s front door, fist-bumping each other just before they entered.

        “Aw, to hell with it,” Mack muttered.  He just wasn’t in the mood.

        Instead, he cranked the Jeep’s engine back into life and steered out of the lot and down to the waterfront, cruising south, with the tourist-laden piers on the right and the railroad tracks and Alaskan Way Viaduct paralleling his route on the left.  At Jackson, he skipped over a couple of blocks east to First Avenue, then continued south into the city’s industrial district.

        At South Lander he began watching the storefronts, reaching back in his memory for bearings—it had been a few years since he’d been there.  And then he saw it, a weathered stretch of navy blue siding with a gray wooden door and two neck-high windows.  Colorful lights of twisted neon glowed through the dust-fogged panes—Budweiser, Hamms, Colt 45.

        Mack parked a block further south under a streetlight and in front of a market with round-the-clock security.  If all went according to plan, the Jeep would be there a while.  Then he walked back to the Night Shift Tavern, hesitated a moment with his hand on the door, then pushed it open and stepped inside.

        The room was easily twenty degrees warmer than the air outside and dark as dusk.  A dozen low-watt bulbs burned in fixtures on the walls and a professional billiard lamp illuminated the lone pool table in the center of the floor, slick numbered balls scattered on fresh green felt.  The smooth licks of Robert Cray oozed from speakers in the corners and a pinball machine hummed against the wall on the right.  He spied a dark mass hanging from a cable at the back of the room and a tingle of energy slid up his spine—that was one of the reasons he was there.

        A haphazard arrangement of tables and empty chairs took up most of the floor and the bar itself was a long plank of resin-impregnated pressboard stretching down the left side of the room, its surface painted with a hundred layers of shellac.  Eight wooden bar stools rested under its lip, only one of them currently occupied.

        As the door eased shut, a husky-voiced man standing behind the counter slammed his hand onto the bar.

        “And that’s fifteen more, my man.”  The crack of a domino tile striking wood resonated through the air.  Then he turned his grinning face to the doorway.  “Don’t just stand there, brother, come on—“

        The man's smile faltered for an instant, then he nodded his head and began chuckling.  “Well, I’ll be damned.  Look who finally showed up.”

        At the sound of the familiar voice, a heavy lump of pain swelled in Mack’s throat and tears clouded his vision.  Otis Sheppard had been his partner’s best friend and the Night Shift their favorite place to hang out.  They’d been drinking there the night of his murder and the last time Mack had mustered up the courage to even step inside had been for Alan Kennedy’s wake.  In an instant, he regretted the years he had stayed away.

        A stubble of course gray hair stretched from the surface of his old friend’s head and ran down onto his fleshy cheeks and chin.  Liquid caramel-brown eyes watched him over a broad, flattened nose.  His was a great old owl’s face, but with a chip of diamond sparkling in his left earlobe.

        “How you been, my brother?”  He whispered the words in Mack’s ear as he came out from around the bar and enveloped him in a massive hug.  At six-six and two-eighty, he towered over Mack, and his powerful arms enveloped him as by a thick blanket.  A youthful memory flashed in Mack’s mind, hiding from his brother Curtis by climbing into the coat closet, feeling warm and safe, burrowed within the layers of sweaters and scarves and wool parkas.

        “I’m doing all right, O.”  His voice felt thick, his throat tight.  “How about you?”

        “No complaints of late.”  Resting his hands on Mack’s shoulders, he scrutinized his prodigal friend’s face.  “Who you kidding: all right.   I’m looking at some mighty dark eyes here, Mackie.  You here for business or pleasure?”

        “Only pleasure, big guy.  Serious pleasure.”

        After a pause, the barman's wide mouth broke into a Cheshire grin of heavy white teeth and he chuckled again.  “Well, we can serve that up just fine, I think.  Ain’t that right, Coop?”  He turned back to his dominoes opponent, who stared back with indifference.

        “Oh yeah, ol’ Coop’s sitting there wondering who this white guy is coming in our place.  Here, give me your coat.”  Mack slipped off his bomber jacket and handed it to him.  As Otis placed it on a hook just to the right of the door, he snagged a key ring out of the pocket and slipped it in his pants.  His friend wouldn’t be driving anywhere that night without Otis Sheppard’s consent.

        “Now, Coop, you got to be more cordial to the white folks ‘round here.  This here’s an old friend.”  As Mack pulled out a stool and sat down, Otis moved behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of Cuervo Gold.  “You hear some of the vets talking about one we lost named Klash Kennedy, well, that’s Alan Kennedy.  Called him A.K.—like in AK-47, you know what I’m saying.  Well, this man here was his partner, McSpook.  Hell, all that Army I Spy shit you boys was into.  See, that’s them right on the mirror there.”

        He pointed with a thumb over his shoulder to a photo of Mack and Alan Kennedy dressed up for Halloween a few years before he died.  They wore the tennis togs of Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott—the roles Robert Culp and Bill Cosby played in the late-60’s TV series.  Kennedy held a pistol to his mouth, blowing away imaginary smoke.

        “Mack Fraser,” he extended his hand over two stools and the other man grabbed it, hooked thumbs, then palms, and let his fingers slide through the ritual three-step handshake. 

        As they finished, the man answered, “Name’s Leo Cooper,” then paused for a second.  “Call me Coop.”

        By then Otis had two full shots of tequila set out on the bar, a shiny swirl of limejuice squeezed into each.  Mack hoisted the first glass to his lips, the tangy citrus flaring his nostrils, and poured the amber liquid into his mouth.  A fiery heat burned at the back of his throat and followed the liquor as it slipped down into his gut.  Once there, a mini-detonation flared and tingling warmth spread throughout his body.

        Mack typically drank dark ales for pleasure, and dark rums or single malt Scotches for heavy conversation and solving the problems of the world.  But for purposes of getting shit-faced, he’d learned nothing worked better than straight tequila.

        He downed the second shot, enjoyed again the burn and tingle, then slid the glasses across to Otis. 

        “Keep ‘em coming.”

        As his friend reached for the bottle, Mack slipped off the stool and walked to the back corner of the room, to the dark mass dangling from a cable secured to the ceiling and anchored by a thick cord of elastic to an eyelet screwed into the floor.  The light was low there—all shadows and angles—and though he could have turned on the ceiling lamp, Mack chose not to.  He wasn’t there for anybody to watch.

        The boxer’s heavy bag was almost forty years old, crafted of rich cordovan leather and stuffed tight with 130 pounds of dense cotton batting.  Otis had “requisitioned” it from Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (29 Palms) in California after a year there as a drill sergeant, following two years in-country, 1st Battalion 8th Marines.  He’d come home from Lebanon with a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and clusters for both.  Those and a quarter pound of shrapnel still migrating the tissues of his body.

        Mack traced his fingertips across the bag’s surface, then gripped it with both palms.  The leather felt cool and sleek against his skin.  His nostrils flared at the forgotten scent of tanned hide and musty cloth.  He closed his eyes and pictured Alan Kennedy standing across from him, his shoulder braced against the bag, awaiting the flurry of punches. 

        They had met in Saudi Arabia, late spring of 1991, working clean-up on the anomalous triple tragedies in Khaji and Dhahran, including the downing of an AC-130 gunship and the disastrous Scud missile attack of a military barracks, killing 28 and injuring more than a hundred.  So, they were called in, two Army Intelligence operatives on loan to the Pentagon, the government requiring their unique expertise.

Each had been recruited straight out of college, Kennedy three years before Fraser, and shipped off to Fort Huachuca, Arizona for specialized training: strategies of war, battle analysis, aerial surveillance, and imagery interpretation.  They called it tactical intelligence, which was simply military parlance for government-sanctioned spying, and their own specialty and claim to fame became the astute and judicious assessment of enemy-wrought damage against America’s own troops and ordnance. 

As their CO had phrased it, “You tell us how good we done fucked up!”

        The Saudi jobs led to a dozen others, primarily post-Desert Storm dissection and analysis, sifting through crates of smoke- and sand-scarred documents, following information trails, most gone cold, and interrogating oft-numb soldiers and apathetic contacts in the field.  Sometimes individually, but more often together, they analyzed reams of cryptographic messages, traced counter-intelligence sources, and on occasion recommended targets for apprehension and sanction.  Their partnership developed naturally over time, as they complemented each other’s skills and strengths, effectively covering the other’s weaknesses.  Theirs was a high-pressure assignment, as exhilarating as it was at times frustrating, and they came to rely on one other as only soldiers in battle can appreciate.

        The end of their Army careers began halfway around the world in Africa.  October of 1993.  The Battle of Mogadishu. 

        Tagged with the misnomer Operation Restore Hope, the mission by a United Task Force of U.S. and allied troops came to epitomize the war term ‘cluster fuck’.  Seldom had the American military so thoroughly miscalculated an enemy and its battlefield as they did General Muhammed Farah Aideed and the urban warzone of Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.  Using little more than 106-mm. recoilless rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms, the Somali militia effectively stymied the superiorly equipped American soldiers.  And then, with the tragic downing of a Blackhawk helicopter — accurately depicted by Hollywood eight years later — the Clinton administration decided they had seen enough.  Three days later they called for the end of all offensive action and the complete withdrawal of troops within six months. 

        And two weeks beyond that, Mackenzie Fraser and Alan Kennedy arrived at the same conclusion as their president: they had seen enough.  It was time to call it quits, to bring an end to their dramatic and sometimes dangerous and mostly secret military careers.

        For one of them, it was the end of a half-decade which proved more damaging to his life than he ever could have imagined.

        Mack had married young and only two months before shipping out – and oh, how the irony haunted him.  As part of their original plan, he had intended to schedule two weeks leave every three months, a chance to restoke his marriage fires and reacquaint himself with the toddling daughter born while he was in Saudi Arabia.  Just as importantly, this was a calculated opportunity to clear his head and refocus on the mission at hand.  But the timing had never really worked as it was supposed to.  The nature of their investigative work was to follow a lead when it presented itself, and then milk it dry before it evaporated without a trace in the desert heat.  They didn’t have the luxury of bowing out in midstream.  In almost four years in the Middle East and Africa, he’d made it home for a total of nine weeks.

        His wife Kathryn got used to living without him, and any relationship he’d begun with his daughter diminished to a passing acquaintance.  Later, in a series of divorce sessions, a respected and bespectacled counselor dissected what made him tick and concluded that his Army career had simply been the catalyst for an inevitable break-up.  His wife sought security, while he craved adventure.  She desired a home, he wished to travel.  She needed a family, and he unburdened mobility.

        The truth was she knew what she wanted from their marriage—and he hadn’t a clue.  When the light finally blinked on, in the weeks after Mogadishu . . . by then it was too late.  A month after their divorce, Alan relocated from San Diego and the two of them set up shop.  Fraser and Kennedy, back in business. 

 

        Mack opened his eyes and the image of his dead friend vanished.  Then he stepped back and swung with all his strength. 

        The knuckles of his right hand dented the leather a half inch and the deadweight of the bag moved another six.  He felt the strain of tendons and sinews all the way up his arm and into his shoulder and back.  The muscles burned for an instant, then relaxed.  He stepped back and swung again, this time with his weaker left arm.  The body bag swayed, then resettled, awaiting the next attack.  Aggressively, he complied.

Right hand, left.  Right hand, left.  One after the other, then again.

        After five minutes, the pectoral muscles in his chest began to ache and his breath quickened.  A sharp left jab struck the bag at an awkward angle and a burst of pain shrieked through his wrist.  He shook it off and kept on swinging.

        Left hand, right.  Left hand, right. 

        The ceaseless battering refreshed him, the exertion and the strain, the rhythm and abandonment of thought.  Corporeal energy became an extension of an undefined passion fermenting inside him, growing and gaining strength.

        Right hand, left.  Hatred, longing.

        Left hand, right.  Confusion, regret.

        Mack wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, just that his heart felt ready to explode and punching the bag seemed to ease its pain.  So he kept at it until his arms hung limp at his sides and his shoulders burned with fire.  Then he walked back to his stool, where Otis had two more tequila shots waiting.

        “Slay any demons there?”  He nodded to the back of the room.

        Mack snatched one of the glasses off the bar.  “Not even close.” 

        Two longshoremen from the container docks had shown up and were heavy into a game of eight-ball.  They acknowledged him with nods, so he poured the drink down his throat—savored the burn and tingle—then nodded back.

        “Place looks good, O.  Business all right?”

        “Yeah, no thanks to you.  Where you been keeping yourself?”

        “Work’s been busy,” he coughed.  “Not much time to play.”

        “Ain’t that the truth.  You still seeing that sweet ballerina chick, that dancer?"

        The next shot glass froze against his lips, a dozen joyous and painful memories flashing through his mind.  "Damn it, Otis.  I just knew you’d ask me about her." 

        He flexed his wrist and dumped the tequila into his mouth.  "No, I’m not.  She broke things off more than a year ago."

        "Ouch."  Otis feigned a knife stab to the heart and shook his head.  "Enjoyed you bringing her in here.  Lit the place up a bit, you know what I’m saying.  Not to mention those late-night fantasies she inspired.  Them fine legs of hers wrapped around my neck.  That tight white ass . . .”

        He stretched out his hands and slowly clenched his fingers, as though squeezing supple flesh.  “Aw, nevermind.  You’re probably trying to forget about things like that anyway, huh.”

        “Yeah, and fuck you, too.”  He pushed the empty shot glasses across the bar.  “You working here or what?”

        His white teeth gleamed as Otis positioned two new jiggers and grabbed the Cuervo bottle.  “I hear you been spending some time at Sherlock’s, out by Queen Anne.”

         “Look, man, I said I’ve been busy.  What the hell—“

        “Whoa!”  Otis held up a thick brown hand to stop him—his pink palm reflecting the light of the billiard lamp.  “No harm, no foul, brother.  You forget who you’re talking to here.  Hell, folks do what they got to do—that’s just the way it is.  When you was ready, I knew you’d be back in here.  Matter of time.  I just been waiting for you, that’s all.”

        Mack nodded and his eyes went cloudy.  “Yeah, sorry, O.”  His voice rasped, the words tightening his throat and the tequila beginning to work its magic.  “How’d you know about—“

        “Sherlock’s?”  Otis laughed out loud as he poured two more shots.  “Hell, boy, you think I ain’t kept tabs on you since Klash moved on.  Some ten years ago we had a killing right down the road, just a block or so, over on Stacy.  Detective Sam Duncan, he was the man investigating that thing, came in here five, ten times for lunch and shit.  I been out his place a couple times, too.  Little fancy for my taste.  I seen you there one time from the window, after a ‘Hawks game.  Looked good . . . happy and all.  It’s best sometimes just to let things ride, I always figure.”

        Mack’s brain had begun to thicken and his eyes moved in and out of focus.  He smiled at the sensation, then tried to stop when he realized that the smiling might expose his mild stupor.  But trying to stop only made it worse, and he grinned again.

        “Shit, give me that.”  He reached for another shot and slugged it down, then shuffled over to the heavy bag for another round of power punching.  The blows carried only half the force this time and the emotional vise that had gripped his inner organs earlier had eased to a mellow tug.  He lasted about ten minutes, then made his way back to the stool.

        A few more customers had filtered in by then and Otis cranked the music up a notch.  Taj Mahal, Mack thought, the possibly familiar tune dancing around somewhere deep in his memory.  His inability for earnest recognition struck him as funny and he smiled again.  With quavering fingers he tapped out the beat on the edge of the bar and his toes beat an unsteady rhythm on the foot ring of his stool.  Finally, he realized everyone else in the room was watching him, the lone white guy in a room full of brothers, tapping his toes and trying to keep pace with a blues legend.

        “Damn.”  He smiled again.

        By his eighth shot—or maybe my twelfth, Mack giggled—the tequila’s burn-and-tingle had mellowed to a slow, steady glow.  Like the dying coals in a campfire, flaring every once in a while when a breeze passed by, but for the most part simply warming everything around it with a calm and comforting heat.

        “I miss him, O.”  His head dipped forward and Mack stared dully at the mottled surface of the bar.  “Miss him a lot.”

        “Yeah, he was something else, ol’ Alan Kennedy.”  Then Otis suddenly spun around and began fishing through a cubbyhole of loose papers.  When he turned again, he held a paper rectangle in his hand.  “Almost threw out this old box of shit a few months ago.  Last minute I looked through it and found this picture.  Been waiting until you came in.”

        Mack plucked the photo from his fingers and positioned it in the light from the pool table.  A gauzy film fogged his eyes and he had to squint for the image to come clear.

        Mack and Alan Kennedy stood side by side, their arms draped across each other’s bare shoulders.  In the background the Seattle Center Memorial Fountain spewed foamy jets of water into a cloudless blue sky.  Balanced between them, his daughter Andi perched on a concrete bench with a handful of pink cotton candy and a beaming smile as familiar to Mack as the beat of his own heart.  He touched a shaking finger to her face and then to Alan’s, and without constraint the tears welled from his eyes and spilled down his cheeks and neck.

        “Ah, damn it, O.”  He dropped the picture on the counter, then grabbed another shot of tequila and swallowed it.  “Why’d you have to give me this now?”

        Sliding his feet to the floor, he braced himself unsteadily against the bar and swiped twice at the remaining glass of Cuervo, finally secured it in his fist, and stumbled to the back of the room.  Once there, he held himself upright with one arm wrapped around the body bag, his forehead pressed against the cool leather.  Mack tried to focus on why he was there, struggled futilely to reanimate his earlier turbulent emotions, but the liquor had reliably done its duty.  His brain simply buzzed and the walls spun around in strange kaleidoscopic circles.

        He stepped away and stabbed at the bag, missed, and stabbed again.  Tequila sloshed to the floor and he leaned back against the bag to keep himself from falling.  Then he pushed away and tried to stand upright, but when his knees wouldn’t hold him, he reached once more, only to find the bag wasn’t there.  He twisted to locate it, but his equilibrium was tanked, and Mack pitched in a flailing pile to the hardwood floor. 

        In his final instant of cognizance he wondered if Otis and Coop had started playing bones again, then realized the sharp black crack of impact was his own head against the floor.

Titles available at www.amazon.com and www.smashwords.com
     
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