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Hocus

AN IRENE KELLY MYSTERY
By Jan Burke

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Chapter One

I told them I was going to try to get some sleep, but I don't think I fooled anyone. None of us would sleep that night. I hadn't even tried. I was still wide awake, sitting in a chair across the room from the too wide bed, staring at it as if it were a stranger in my house; thinking too much; repeatedly, relentlessly recalling that the last thing my husband and I had done together was to part in anger. I do not know of any potion as bitter as the realization that one may have lost all opportunity to ask forgiveness.

Hours earlier I had been more complacent about making apologies. Frank didn't show up for dinner, but I figured work had held him up. After all, a homicide detective's schedule is not one you can set your watch by. As a reporter, my own hours are fairly irregular. This was not the first night one of us had eaten across from an empty place setting.

I didn't have much of an appetite. I sat there, wondering how a week that had begun so gloriously had so quickly gone to hell. On Monday Frank had been instrumental in breaking a major case: his work had led to the identification of two members of Hocus, a group that had been on a destructive rampage in Las Piernas for several weeks. On Tuesday he had discovered the whereabouts of the suspected ringleader of the group, one of two men who were then taken into custody.

Wednesday, life made an about-face. A story about the arrests appeared in the Las Piernas News Express, an article that painted homicide detective Frank Harriman as a hero. That might have been cause for celebration, except the article didn't give much credit to the other cops who had worked on the case, and worse, it included details apparently leaked straight out of classified police reports. It didn't take long for a department that had been patting Frank on the back to start pointing a finger at him, the only cop married to an Express reporter.

The Hocus story had been written by our crime reporter, Mark Baker, an ace who does his own work and has no need to consult with me. It never would have been my story anyway -- because I'm married to a cop, crime stories are off-limits. But most members of the police department and the district attorney's office are cynical about the press to begin with, and few would buy any of Frank's explanations about our ground rules. Frank's pressures at work quickly became pressures at home.

Perhaps peace would have been restored in our household if that were the only difficulty we faced, but problems rove in packs, it seems. Trouble arrived in a trio this time and left us silent and distant throughout Thursday, shouting at breakfast on Friday.

Friday afternoon, tired of worrying over the magnitude of our current rift, I had called his office. Big of me, I thought.

My noble intentions were wasted. He wasn't in. I called his pager. No return call.

I tried a second and a third time, to no avail.

At home, while cooking too much dinner, I considered the possible explanations for his lack of response. One was that he didn't have the pager with him. Unlikely, but possible. Another was that he hadn't found time to call back. Maybe. Most likely, I decided, he was ignoring me.

By eight o'clock the leftover chicken was in the refrigerator. The dogs, Deke and Dunk, had been walked and fed. They lay at my feet but watched the door. Cody, my big tomcat, more attuned to my mood, was restless, prowling from room to room, tail snaking and snapping in displeasure. He went into the guest room, where the lights were out, and yowled. When I went in to see what his problem was, he sped out of the room, waited for me to settle into a chair, and then repeated the performance in the kitchen. We toured the house in this fashion. I had just about decided that I could make a nice pair of booties from his pelt when the phone rang.

I ran to catch it before the answering machine picked up.

"Irene?" a man's voice said.

"Yes. Hi, Pete." Not a good sign, I thought, to have his partner make the call.

"Is Frank there?"

"I thought he might be with you," I said. My worries started to shift direction.

"No. Christ, I thought he'd be back by now."

"Back from where?"

"Riverside."

"Riverside?"

"He drove out there this morning. He had to talk to a guy out there. A witness."

"Oh."

"Yeah, I stayed here," he said, and I could hear the edge of uneasiness creeping into his voice. "I had a lot of other stuff to follow up on. You know."

Might as well face it, I thought. "He's being kept out of the office because of the leak on the arrests, right?"

"Yeah, probably because of the leak. You know, if you'd just get that other reporter to name his source -- "

"If that didn't work for Frank, why the hell would it work for you?"

"I guess you guys fought about that this morning, huh?"

I sighed. "Did he tell you what we had for breakfast, too?"

"He said he left without breakfast."

"Shit."

"Don't get all hot and bothered about it, Irene. Frank and I have been partners longer than you've been married."

This is one of Pete's favorite things to say to me whenever I object to his sticking his nose into our business. Before I could reply, his wife picked up the extension.

"Pete Baird, you are ten pounds in a nine-pound bag," Rachel said. "What's this, Irene? Frank isn't home from Riverside?"

"No," I said, suddenly feeling as if I were admitting that he might not want to come home. But Rachel was on a different track entirely.

"Something's not right, Pete. Use the other line to call the department. Ask when he last checked in."

As Pete hung up I asked, "What do you mean, something's not right?"

"You sure he hasn't been trying to call you? You been on the phone?"

"No. The only time I've used the phone was to page him earlier today. Who was this witness?"

"The witness? It was -- "

Before she could name him, I heard Pete shouting to her in Italian. I couldn't make out what he said, but he was obviously telling her not to talk to me about the case. The clean part of her response, also in Italian, was, "I'll tell her if I want to," and something to the effect of, "Here's a nickel; with that you can buy twice as many brains as you're using right now."

To me, quite calmly, she said, "It's nothing to worry over. The man he went to see, he's an informant. Frank and Pete have talked to him before. He's not a prince, mind you. Just a junkie. Never been involved in anything big. Never hurt anybody."

I finally used a nickel's worth of brains and saw exactly what she was trying to avoid saying to me.

"Oh, Jesus."

"Irene, don't do that to yourself."

"You think something went wrong out in Riverside. That something has happened to Frank -- "

"Wait," she said. "Pete's trying to tell me something." She covered the mouthpiece with her hand, so that I heard only the muted sounds of their brief discussion. There was a stretch of silence, then she said, "Look, I'm going to come over, okay?"

"He didn't check in, did he?"

"Listen to me, Irene. For all we know, Frank is sitting in some bar, drinking with the local cops and thanking them for their cooperation, right? So I'm just coming over to keep you company, so that you don't drive yourself crazy thinking about what might or might not be making him late. Pete's going to go down to the office and get the informant's address and phone number. Pete can find out who Frank talked to in the Riverside PD."

"Tell Pete I want to go with him."

"What are you, nuts? That department is not exactly singing praises to the Express right now. They aren't going to let you walk in past the front desk. I'll be honest with you. They think of you as some kind of Mata Hari right now. They're sure you seduced a story out of your husband the cop. Pete told me that Frank was actually happy to get out of the building today. I guess their lieutenant has really been leaning on him. He's got almost everyone convinced that the only way the Express could have learned the details of the arrests is through Frank."

Rachel was at my front door not much later. She took one look at me, divined what I had been imagining, and said, "Look, I'm not going to bullshit you. Even though I think it's the least likely possibility, Frank might be in trouble. Might be. You can't do anything about it one way or the other, so making a nervous wreck out of yourself does nobody any good at all."

Rachel retired about a year ago -- while in her early forties -- from working homicide in Phoenix; she's now a PI. I figured she knew this kind of worry from both sides: former cop, cop's wife.

"If it were Pete -- " I began.

"I'd be concerned," she said. "But not as upset as you are. Not until I had more reason to be." She paused. "It's harder if you've had a fight, maybe."

"I'd say I owe it to Frank to keep my mouth shut for now," I said. "But you probably know more about it than I do. Sounds like he's told Pete quite a bit. Come on in and tell me what you already know."

Once we were seated and the pets had settled in around us, she said, "Okay, I know Frank was upset about the article. That's understandable, but I'm with you. Frank and Pete don't have any right to try to ask you to do something that's going to get you in trouble at work."

"Frank has risked that much for me now and then. It's more than just getting in trouble; it's much worse than that."

"What do you mean?"

"Look, I understand why Frank's upset. To him, finding out who talked to Mark looks like an easy thing for me to do."

"This Mark guy is a friend of yours, right?"

"Yes, he's a friend."

"So just ask him to tell you who the source is -- "

"But I can't do that," I protested. "In part, because Mark is a friend. If he's promised anonymity to a source, I can't use our friendship to get him to break his promise."

"So you're saying it's an ethical issue?"

"Yes."

"I don't suppose your editor would be too pleased with you, either."

I nodded. "He'd have a right to be angry. To fire me."

"I think Frank understands that. He's just frustrated."

"I know, I know. But he made this into a question of loyalty: where's my loyalty -- with him or the Express?"

"Ah, I begin to see."

"It made me furious. I was a reporter when we first got together. We've talked about this, talked it over before we got married. We had a whole system worked out, a way to avoid this problem. I've never taken anything he's told me about a case into the newsroom -- not unless he's told me it was okay."

"And he doesn't talk about your work at the paper with the cops -- not even with Pete, no matter what that little troublemaker says."

I quieted down. "I know. I know he doesn't."

After a long silence she said, "Just like you know he doesn't have any interest in his old girlfriend."

"Oh, hell. Does Pete know about that, too?" I sighed. That meant Pete was up on two out of three of our recent problems. Frank was usually more discreet, even with Pete. "What did he tell you, then?"

"I've got a better idea. Why don't you tell me your version of it?"

Before I could reply, the phone rang. I hurried to answer it. It was Pete.

"Have you heard from him yet?" I asked, all irritation forgotten.

"No, not yet. He hasn't answered any of our pages. Riverside PD hasn't heard from him since he called to let them know he was going out to talk to the junkie. Junkie hasn't been paying his phone bill, so there's no way to call his place. Riverside is on its way out to talk to the guy, find out when Frank left. Is Rachel there?"

I handed the phone to her.

So Frank wasn't out drinking with the Riverside cops. Pete must not have told them that his partner had a fight with his wife. If he had, he might not have convinced Riverside to send a unit out to the junkie's house. Then again, Pete could make such a pain out of himself, they might issue an APB for Frank just to get Pete off their backs.

I looked at a clock. Quarter after nine.

Rachel's half of the conversation didn't take long and was in Italian. I couldn't understand more than a few pronouns and endearments, but her tone of voice would have been understood in any language: she was trying to calm him down, to ease his worries. Mine escalated in direct proportion. I started to pace.

"So," she said when she hung up, "you were going to tell me about this old girlfriend."

"Former fiancée," I said. "Frank moved from Bakersfield to Las Piernas to be with her. She's with the highway patrol."

She waited.

"You know all this, and I don't want to talk about it anyway. I want to know what's going on with Frank."

"Of course," she said. "But we don't have any way of knowing what's going on with him, do we? So we can sit here and stew and let you wear out the rug pacing, or we can distract ourselves."

arI sat down. "Her name is Cecilia Parker. Frank's mother wishes he would have married her instead of me."

"Even now?"

"Well, no, maybe not. I don't know."

"Cecilia lives in Bakersfield?"

"Yes. She moved back there, and Frank stayed here. They both came from Bakersfield, originally. He was a detective in Bakersfield, met her, and they got engaged. She wanted to take a job here. So he followed her, even though it meant that he had to go back to uniform here."

"Then she changed her mind about living here?"

"Right. She didn't give it much of a chance, I guess. At least, that's how he tells it."

"From detective to uniform -- that's not easy on anybody," she said. "Pete told me that Frank made detective in Las Piernas in record time, but still -- he gave up a lot to move here. He must have been steamed when she wanted to go back."

"I don't know all the details. I know he liked it here, wasn't in a hurry to go back."

"But his family is in Bakersfield? His mom and his sister, right?"

The question came close to another area of trouble, and I wondered briefly if Rachel knew that when she asked. That would make Pete three for three. But just in case Frank hadn't mentioned that problem, I decided she'd have to be more direct.

"Yes," I said, "Frank's mom wants him to move back to Bakersfield. And she's close to Cecilia's mom."

"Hmm. I begin to understand. So why did this Cecilia call?"

How much should I tell her? "Just to talk to him about his family, people they knew in Bakersfield. And to tell him that she had some of his things."

"What kind of things?"

"I don't know. Records, books, a few papers, I guess. Apparently, she's splitting up with a live-in boyfriend. Told Frank she ran across some of his stuff when she was packing up to move out. Invited him to come up to dinner some night so she could give it back to him."

"Invited him to dinner?"

I smiled at her look of surprise. "I see Pete didn't relate the entire story."

"Maybe she doesn't know that Frank's married now. It hasn't been so long...."

"Rachel, you weren't listening. Bea Harriman and Cecilia's mom are friends. I've met her mom. Trust me, Frank's mom has told her that their hopes have been dashed."

"Oh."

"I figured Cecilia could mail his stuff to him, or leave it with his mom. Frank said she wouldn't do that, and besides, he got the feeling that she needed him. That sent me over the edge. So he tells me I'm treating him as if he isn't trustworthy. I told him that I trusted him, but I didn't trust her. He didn't buy it. I thought it over today, and I guess I decided he was right. Two to tango and all that."

"What?"

"Worst case, she wants him to come back to her, right?"

"Maybe. Or maybe just un chiavata al momento. You know, a quickie."

"Whatever. He'd have to want it, too, right?"

Her look of skepticism made me laugh.

"Men!" She said it like a swear word.

"We're back to what you said a while ago, Rachel. I do trust him. The rest -- that's her problem."

rRachel shrugged.

"Besides," I added, "she touches him, I'll punch her perkies inside out."

She laughed. "That's more like it!"

We passed some time posing theories on Cecilia's motives. I kept glancing at the clock. Rachel tried hard to keep me distracted.

At 10:25 the dogs suddenly clambered to their feet, tails wagging, and scrambled toward the front door.

"He's home!" I shouted, exactly like a little kid, feeling just that excited and twice as relieved. I hurried down the hall and threw open the door.

The man who stood there was a fearsome sight. Tall, clad in black leather, scar faced. His head was shaved and he wore an earring. His tattooed arm was raised in a fist, but only because I had pulled the door open before he could knock, and the look on his face was astonishment, not aggression.

"Oh, it's you, Jack," I said to my next-door neighbor.

The dogs, who consider Jack Fremont their alternate owner, were rubbing up against him, rolling on the ground, panting in delight.

"Well, at least the dogs are happy to see me," he said, reaching to pet them. "As far as you're concerned, though, I'm clearly a big disappointment."

"Sorry, Jack. No, of course not. I -- come on in."

He was puzzled but followed me back to where Rachel waited.

"Hi," he greeted her. "Pete and Frank out on a case tonight?"

I briefly explained the situation.

"Maybe he's still steamed after that fight you two had this morning," he offered.

"Damn it to hell, does everyone in the city know about that?"

"Possibly," he replied. "After all, you were shouting at each other in the driveway."

I turned red. "Sorry if we awakened you," I muttered.

It was the last thing I said for a while. They discussed a variety of subjects. Jack spent a lot of years as a rover, Rachel as a cop; between the two of them there was no shortage of stories. I think Rachel was relieved to share the burden of distracting me, but that part of it was pretty much a sham all the way around. I could think only in sets of a few words at a time, and I didn't say them aloud: Please be safe. Please come home. Please call. Please don't be hurt.

This rapidly turned into praying. Sort of. I worried that maybe that was a sham, too. Every time I pray, I end up telling myself that I have no business praying, especially not if I am going to swear and doubt and misbehave in as many ways as I do. This has become a routine between me and the Almighty, like letters that say, "I think of you more often than I write." I'm sure I will hear about it later.

Rachel and Jack kept exchanging glances and trying to get me to do more than mumble and look between the clock and the front door. At one point Jack came over and sat beside me. Although we hadn't known each other very long, he had helped me deal with more than one crisis, and he was also one of Frank's closest friends. I thought about this, and the fact that I wasn't the only person in that room who was worried, and found myself joining their conversation again.

At eleven-thirty the phone rang. Rachel was still sitting next to it and answered it on the first ring.

"Yeah, Pete. It's me," she said, watching me stand up.

She turned away from me. That's when I knew the news would be bad.

Copyright © 1997 by Jan Burke

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