Authors: Loren D. Estleman
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Roses Are Dead
A Peter Macklin Thriller
Loren D. Estleman
To my brother, Charles
Goldstick thought, here's my partnership.
With the marinated grace of a professional pallbearer, the young attorney held the door for the frumpy woman in the dark skirt and beige silk blouse and drifted past her to slide out the chair on the clients' side of the desk. When she sat down, a small triangle of bare flesh showed at her waist where she'd neglected a button. Wads of Kleenex boiled out of her shoulder bag when it touched the floor. But it was an expensive bag.
From behind the desk he liked what he saw even better. In the puffy face framed by its horseshoe of gray-streaked blond hair he read anger and the ache for revenge. It carried down to her hasty dress and the solid way she sat, as if she were filling a notch in a fort wall. This one wasn't going to go gooey on him at the bargaining table and accept the first offer made by her husband's attorney. It shaped up to be a profitable relationship, one an ambitious young barrister with a Galahad flair could ride to a slot on the company letterhead.
He touched the razor point of a hard pencil to the page of notes his secretary had taken over the telephone. “Your husband's name is Peter Macklin?”
“And you've been married seventeen years?”
“As of last May.”
“You have a son named Roger, age sixteen?”
“Seventeen next month.”
The next month was November. Goldstick did some mental arithmetic and decided not to press the matter. He was of a generation that was always a little surprised to learn that it had not invented sex before marriage. “You're seeking a divorce on what grounds?”
“Well, the legal terminology is your department. But I'm sick of being married to the son of a bitch.”
“Breakdown of marriage,” he wrote in the margin of the sheet before him.
“May I ask who recommended us to you?”
“My neighbor, Marge Donahue. You handled both her divorces and she owns a Mercedes.”
He loved it. Aloud he said: “The object, of course, is not to make you wealthy, although your support is imperative. We're chiefly interested in seeing that you receive fair compensation for the years you invested in the partnershâthe marriage.”
“Mr. Goldstick.” She finished lighting a cigarette and spoiled the immaculate brass ashtray on her side of the desk with the burned match. “I'm chiefly interested in taking the bastard for every cent he has. You're chiefly interested in getting your cut. Let's get that straight before we both climb in up to our chins.”
He watched her for a moment. She looked like a woman in her forties but was probably younger, given the statistics involving parents of teenaged children. Her eyes were light and pretty in a face going to fat and showing the beginnings of whiskey welts. Take off fifteen pounds, cut back on the chain cocktails; he had seen the transformation take place enough times once the pressure of a bad marriage was released. He asked some more questions, not paying much attention to the answers, letting the rhythm lull them into the conspiratorial atmosphere so crucial to a successful divorce action. There would be plenty of time later for his secretary to get the stuff down.
“What does your husband do for a living, Mrs. Macklin?” he asked.
“He's a killer.”
It took him a moment to assimilate the answer. By then he had already written it down. He read it and looked up. “I'm afraid you misunderâDo you mean to say he beats you?” His inner cash register chimed.
“No, I mean he kills people for a living. He's a killer for hire.”
He smiled tentatively. Her face didn't move. Smoke curled in front of it. “You're serious?”
“Ask the widows of his victims.”
“A hit man.”
He nodded, made two marks with the pencil, and sat back, tickling his ear with the eraser. “And what is his gross income?”
Jack Dowd drove into the little lot behind the apartment complex in Southfield, spotted the silver Cougar, and parked two slots down.
He didn't get out of the car. At forty-six, with twenty-two years in the investigation business, he knew better than to accost a subject at his door, on enemy ground with only one way to run when the job was finished. What you did was you followed him to neutral territory and served the papers there. Preferably with a fence to jump over afterward and a supply of witnesses handy, not so much to confirm success as to save yourself a severe beating like the one he had drawn his first week on the job from a Chrysler dock foreman. The court had awarded Dowd twenty-five hundred dollars in damages (someone else had served
papers), and he had given no one else the opportunity to be sued by him.
The weather was cooling, but the sunlight refracting through the windshield was drowsily warm. He cranked down the window to avoid succumbing, tilted his porkpie hat forward, and slid a fresh toothpick between his lips from the pocket where he used to keep cigarettes. This had the effect of shooting his jaw and bulldogging his potato-lumpy face. It was how he had posed for the picture he ran with his display in the Yellow Pages.
After two hours the mark came out of the building in jeans and a white knit shirt and got into the Cougar and drove out of the lot. Dowd took a second to compare the man's features with the photograph he'd been given. An ordinary face, a little jagged under a middle-aged quilt of tiredness and worry, hairline creeping back from a sharp widow's peak. The investigator gave the car two blocks, then pulled out behind it.
The Cougar was fast, its driver the kind that seldom misses a light. Dowd had to knock a piece off the red at Eleven Mile Road to keep up. The Cougar cruised along at forty-five for another minute, then made an abrupt lane change and turned into a mall at Twelve Mile. Dowd started to follow. A blue hatchback coming up on his right blatted its horn and he swung back into his lane. He squirted ahead to the intersection, made a right, and came in the back way. Meanwhile he'd lost sight of his quarry.
Prowling the lot, he worried. Getting shaken was nothing. It was the risk you ran when you tailed someone solo, and there were always other chances. But he didn't like thinking that maybe his man had made him. He knew nothing about this one beyond his name, Macklin, and license plate number and that he was self-employed. Usually he insisted on more information, but this particular legal firm paid a healthy retainer for the privilege of playing close to the buttons and Dowd had no wish to work past fifty. Still, the older a man got the more aware he became of the crazies around him.
But when he found the car, parked a quarter mile from the mall entrance with its nose pointed toward the driveway leading out, he stopped worrying and backed into a vacant space across the aisle to wait some more.
The wait was much shorter this time. When Macklin appeared at the head of the aisle carrying a large paper sack in the crook of his arm, Dowd got out and started toward him, eyes on the other end, hurrying his gait a little like a busy man on an errand. Which he was, but not in the way he wanted his subject to think. As they drew near each other, Macklin's gaze flicked over him casually and moved away.
They were almost abreast when Dowd reached two fingers into the inside pocket of his jacket for the summons. Instantly that wrist was seized in an iron grip and he was spun and his own arm was jerked across his throat with his elbow under his chin, and something stiff found his right kidney. He was dimly aware of loose oranges and food cans rolling across the pavement from the sack the man had dropped. Propelled between parked cars by his assailant, he stumbled over one of the items.
A woman in her thirties pushing a cart down the next aisle with a small child in the seat glanced at the two men, then stepped up her pace, staring straight ahead.
“I'm unarmed!” Dowd gasped.
A pause, then the object was withdrawn from his kidney and an empty hand came around in front of him and prowled over his chest and abdomen, paying special attention to the pocket the investigator had been reaching for. It slid inside the jacket and drew out the fold of fine-printed paper. The man's breathing was close to Dowd's ear and he heard the whispered words “dissolution of marriage.”
A further search uncovered Dowd's credentials and honorary sheriff's star. Then he was released with a shove. He clawed at the door handle of a battered van to keep from falling. When he turned, Macklin gave him back his badge and ID. Something bulged above the waistband of his jeans under the white shirt.
“Okay, I'm served,” he said. “Get out.”
There was an unspoken
in the speech that the investigator didn't wait around to hear. He adjusted his hat and walked back to his car, leaning forward on the balls of his feet with his shoulders hunched, still feeling the thing that had been prodding his back.
A loud bang shattered the peace of the parking lot and he screamed. Two lanes over, a supermarket bag boy in an orange apron and leatherette bow tie stared at him curiously, then resumed slamming abandoned shopping carts into the train he was pushing. Dowd started moving again. The toothpick he had been chewing was gone. He hoped he hadn't swallowed it.
Getting into the car he thought, Four years to retirement is too long.
Peter Macklin waited until Dowd's car was in the street before looking again at the paper in his hand. He read it all the way through, then refolded it and doubled it and thrust it into his hip pocket. He scowled at the scattered groceries. He hadn't wanted them, had only used the shopping trip as an excuse to lure out the man he had seen watching his car in the lot behind his apartment house.