Smoke Rings

A Clarke Lantham Mystery

by J. Daniel Sawyer

Chapter 1

8:00 PM

I didn’t go to a New Year’s Eve party this year. Last year, I’d wound up at one where an impromptu murder spree broke out, and I’m not keen to repeat the experience. Aside from having to work on my day off—it takes the cops a while to get to a remote mountain cabin on New Year’s eve, no matter how much the wildlife complains about the rude, lumbering bald monkeys cluttering up their ‘hood—I also wound up losing a girlfriend I was getting pretty fond of: Kristine Warner, who I’d intended to propose to after the party died down. I would have, too, if those two bodies hadn’t shown up.

Kris was the kind of woman who liked her lines clear, and liked to pay her debts. Saving her life from a knife-wielding maniac put her in a position she couldn’t stand: she felt like she owed me. That was pretty much the last I saw of her.

Well, the last I saw of her in a social context, at any rate. I kept finding ways to bump into her on business grounds. She was happy to help out when I needed a doctor’s input for a client—she liked paying her debts—but nothing else changed between us.

In the year since, I hadn’t had time to make many dates. And I wasn’t keen to head out on the town stag, or in the company of my assistant and my current penance project.

This New Year’s Eve, I was determined to spend the time polishing the insides of my socks. It was the only time I’d have to myself in my office for the foreseeable future, and I knew it. My life had been wrecked a week back by dregs from an old case washing up on my doorstep in the form of the just-past-teenaged Nya Thales, a girl with more than a little bit going for her and a mother who has a psychotic interest in putting me in debt to the tune of seven figures because she doesn’t like the way I shot her husband in order to save her daughter’s life. The result of that particular family drama gives off a funk that’s going to be hanging around for a long time yet.

At least I’ve got Rachael on the line now. At three-quarters-past twenty, she’s taken to Nya like a recalcitrant older sister, if older sisters are allowed to kiss younger sisters like that when they’re drunk. Not something they allowed in the town where I grew up. I’ve decided not to investigate too much in that direction. Besides, days off, right?

My plan for the day—or night—off: take the time to enjoy the fact that, for a few brief, fleeting moments, I wouldn’t be dodging random gouts of post-teenage estrogen. Rachael had taken Nya out to some shindig in the city, and I didn’t expect either of them would be stop back here before the end of hangover hour tomorrow morning. I had a book to read that had nothing to do with law enforcement, a new bottle of scotch I planned on draining slowly over the next eight hours, and—an annual tradition—a bundle of Churchill-sized Excaliburs. I don’t normally smoke, but this one day a year, I take two in memory of a partner who taught me to blow smoke up the chief’s ass and keep myself out of trouble. She was five-foot-two, fifty-eight years old, and talked like she’d just gotten out of the coyote’s U-haul. She smoked like a chimney and blew rings that would hang in the air for three minutes if you didn’t move, just spinning in the light.

Alexia Lopez. A hell of a brassy dame. She bought it when we were hunting the Broadway Slasher—took a corner too wide on Skyline when we were doing the take-down.

You can probably tell by now that I have a bit of a checkered relationship with the opposite sex. It’s not of the “can’t live with ‘em, can’t shoot ‘em” variety. I’d happily shoot one that needed shooting, but I’ve been lucky enough that everyone I’ve had to plug so far has come equipped with the same plumbing I’ve got, so I don’t get to add “post-feminist homicidal ex-cop anxiety” to my list of mental disorders. I think if I can nail that one and “hypochondriac male artist” to the scorecard, I can send off for a free set of luggage.

The rain outside my office window was coming down hard. Hard enough that the Oakland city lights shining through the normally wavy Victorian glass looked like sequins in skin-paint from an energetic burlesque routine. I poured myself the first glass of the night—for me, eight o’clock is the official start of drinking hour on New Year’s Eve—and I raised it to the city beyond the window. “Here’s to surviving one more trip around the sun. If one of us has to go, better you than me.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like living—or, as far as the city planning department knows, keeping an office—in Oakland, but it’s a miserable town shot through with the kind of corruption you normally think they reserve for the movies. For the last five years I’ve been locked in a staring contest with it—one of these days, one of us will blink.

I sat there in the dark for a good piece, stocking feet on the window sill, lights out, back to the door. I’d left the light in the outer office on so I’d have a good view if anyone tried to bash the door down—I had a standing suspicion that one of these days another one of the characters from the Thales case was gonna bust through there with more lead pills than the RDA allows. If I was the kind of guy who actually slept at night, it might keep me up.

Wasn’t going to happen tonight, I was pretty sure. Not in weather like this. I mean, would you want to be a hit man on New Year’s Eve? And since I had a .45 and a .375 snub within arm’s reach. I wasn’t hurting for options.

Besides, it was my day off, and I had a bright year ahead of me. If you think it’s a bit early to tell what kind of year I was going to have, you haven’t been keeping up. I could spend the entire year investigating low-lifes trading kiddie porn like baseball cards and it wouldn’t raise to half the level of weird, dark, and downright unpleasant I had to deal with last year. Actually, at this point, a handful of garden variety sickos would be a welcome relief.

Yeah. Good year. I could get used to this having-the-office-to-myself thing again. Even after a little less than a week, Nya was a sweet kid, but with a suffocating presence.

Speaking of suffocating…

I took one of the cigars and cut it, then warmed the end over half a match before sucking the fire from the other half into the business end. After the first few puffs, I got a good sized smoke ring to settle slow against the cold glass in the window frame and churn in place for about twenty seconds before the convection currents eroded it away into afterthoughts. Alexia would’ve been proud.

“Got another one?” A voice from behind me. One I hadn’t heard in a while—one I’d only heard a few times since last New Year’s Eve.

I didn’t turn around, just looked into the window glass. Once I re-focused, I could see Kristine Warner standing in my front doorway.

“In the bag on the file cabinet.” I didn’t invite her to sit. The acknowledgement of her presence was enough.

She closed the front door behind her as silently as she’d opened it, then soft-footed through my front office and into my inner sanctum, stopping at the file cabinet for the bag from the tobacco shop. A minute later, there were two fresh smoke rings dancing against the window-skin.

“Nice one. I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Same skill set,” she said, “different subject,” and she stuck the cigar into her mouth and sucked on it in a way that made me miss her all over again.

Nostalgia is a disease that hits widows, veterans, and old cops the way malaria hits naked sunbathers in the Congo. You’d think after what happened in Seattle last week I’d be pretty well vaccinated, but you’d be underestimating the size of my squishy underbelly. Good thing I didn’t have to turn around to see the look on her face.

I took another drag—my third in as many minutes—and popped a series of small rings, like spitting wispy donuts that broke on the glass, scattering everything else away before clinging to the cold like fog.

“It’s new year’s eve,” I said, “Shouldn’t you be out at a party or anesthetizing someone or something?”

“Mmm. No point. I’m on call tonight.” She had a job in the ICU at Children’s Hospital. She preferred emergencies, worked like she was paying off karma—would’ve gotten in the way of our relationship when we were together, except that I work like I’m trying to keep from remembering something. We were a good match, once upon a time. “What are you drinking?”

“Macallan twelve.” I reached down next to my chair, hooked the neck between my fingers, swung it around over my head to land it on the table behind me. “You remember where the glasses are. Don’t turn the lights on.”

She didn’t reply, but I saw her reflection stand and make its way to the little kitchenette behind the chintzy Ikea rice paper screen at the north end of the office. There were some clinks while she tried to sort between coffee mugs and bar glass in the dark, then more footfalls across the brown-painted 1920s wood floor and up onto the throw rug. The scotch glugged in the glass. Usually one of my favorite sounds—right now it just sounded like someone stealing my solitude and handing me loneliness like they thought I didn’t know the difference between the two.

I leaned forward to tap the first little bit of ash off the cigar. Excaliburs are finicky with their ash—prone to dropping it in big clumps without warning you. I once lost a perfectly serviceable tiger-print silk shirt that way.

“Pass that back here?”

I grumbled something about a perfectly serviceable trash can next to the desk, but I passed it back anyway. There was paper in the trash can, didn’t really want to see the fire brigade tonight. I had all the fire I really wanted sitting on the end of six inches of thick-gauge portable coffee-and-vegetable tasting goodness.

Passing a full ash tray behind you when you’re leaning back in an office chair with your socks on a window sill is a bit like trying to do the can-can in chain-mail, but I wasn’t about to turn around and look at her. After a whole year, she could still make the fluid drain out of my throat and dance around in my stomach. To share a room with Kristine Warner is to live in that first weightless second at the top of a very high roller coaster for hours on end.

Time was, once, that I thought I’d eventually get to have a normal life. There’d be a girl—or, as I edged past thirty, a woman—who could deal with being married to a whack-job like me. There’d been a few along the way, but it wasn’t until Kris that I really believed it wasn’t a pipe dream. When she threw me over, she’d taken that last bit of hope I had that I’d get to have a normal life someday, put its teeth upon the curb, and stomped it until its skull cracked like an egg. Maybe she needed to find a way to forgive me for saving her life. I was never going to forgive her for breaking my heart.

You’d think that would stop me from wanting to turn around and tear her shirt off and start the new year with a bang, wouldn’t you?

So would I, except I was in the room with her, living at the top of that roller coaster, and I could still remember the way her sweat cut through the smell of the cigar like perfume. In between drags I could taste her skin, the soft way her lips always seemed like they were made of of white chocolate, the way her nipples reminded me of raisins when they tightened from pink to dark brown, even now, a year after the last time I’d seen her in anything less decent that jeans and a sweatshirt. And I hated her for it.

Which is why I didn’t turn around to look at her. I just talked to her reflection. “Drinking when you’re on call?”

“Special occasion.”

“Your malpractice insurance is gonna love that when you drop a kid on its head.”

“Fuck you.” She set the tumbler on the desk, picked her cigar up from the ash tray, and proceeded to poke me with visual reminders of why her diction was so precise.

I squinted at her reflection. Trouble was, she had the kind of poker face that kept me interested for the two years we were together—which gives her an unmatched Lantham record—and she’d only gotten better in the year since. Studying her wasn’t doing me any good. Still, I wasn’t eager to end the silence. The only thing worse than her face was her voice.

But the cigar was smoldering half-way down, and it’s a two hour cigar. My hips were getting achy sticking in one position for too long—one of the side effects of aging that leads me to tell my sister’s kid that he needs to find some really bitchin’ way to die before he hits thirty—and if she didn’t say something soon I was going to have to shoot her, just on principle. Or at least what passed for principles in my world.

The one thing I had on her, though, was patience. I do stakeouts for a living, she only has to wait for blood tests to come back. It’s a close contest, but in waiting games, I always won. Drove her nuts.

I won this time, too.

“Good cigar.” She blew another smoke ring.

“Yup.”

“How’ve things been? You know, around here?” She waved an airy hand at my makeshift domicile. I was suddenly glad that Nya hadn’t left her underwear to line dry over the radiator this evening.

“Things are fine. Business is good.” The English language is vague, and “good” is a very fluid term. My lawyer’s wallet was doing good extremely well, and I was doing good enough to keep it from starving, barely. None of my longstanding bill collector relationships had progressed to the “baseball bat” stage. Of course, I was now carrying one assistant and one stray, so what constituted a healthy income had taken a turn toward “ouch” territory. What are you fishing for, Kris? Let’s get it out of the way so I can enjoy my depressingly celibate New Year’s Eve.

“Got any plans for the evening?”

“None that you’re not currently wrecking.”

“What, you were going to sit here drinking and smoking till the sun came up?”

“I’ve got a chow mien and masturbation break scheduled for 3:30 AM, but other than that, yes. That was the general idea.”

She set her cigar down like a woman with something on her mind. “I’ve got a better idea.”

“I was already circumcised against my will by one of your kind. Forgive me if I don’t come over all gushy and trusting.”

“Women?”

“Doctors.”

“Ah.”

Now, I’m the kind of guy who hears sentences like Lantham, your check just bounced pretty often. Sentences like Lantham, the toilet’s just backed up and overflowed the plumbing, or Lantham, why is there a dead hooker in your bedroom? or Hand over the pictures or the girl gets it aren’t unheard-of. So you’ll understand what I mean when I say that I just about snarfed my scotch through my nose when she said what she said next:

“Actually, I came by to invite you to a New Year’s Eve party.”

“Right.” And I’ve got a bright green tattoo of George W. Bush snorting cocaine with the Pope on my chest.

“I mean it.”

“Mmm.” I sucked on the cigar, took my time making a ring, letting the smoke cool down so it would hold together properly.

“And where, pray tell, is this mythical New Year’s Eve party?”

“Santa Clara Convention Center.”

“At this hour? On New Year’s Eve?”

“Can you think of a better time for a New Year’s Eve party?

“How about when neither of us has been drinking.” The convention center was at the Hyatt near the used-to-be-kinda-Great America amusement park—about forty miles south of my tragically over-occupied office. The CHP and the locals were all pretty humorless on nights like tonight.

She picked up the bottle and examined its level. “You’ve only had one. You’re fine.”

“This is your considered medical opinion?” I put my tumbler aside—not quite finished yet—just in case I’d need to go driving.

“I don’t have any other kinds.”

“That’s not how I remember it.” I growled, and meant it. She was officially overstaying her welcome now. Ambivalence cocktails have a short shelf life before they turn completely sour, and the one she poured when she walked through the door was starting to smell like turpentine.

“Hey now…”

“Hey now yourself. What the hell are you really doing here?”

“Me?” It wasn’t coy and innocent. More like she was collecting her thoughts and screwing up her courage. I added it to the list of things she’d screwed up. “I wanted to make up for last year.”

“Trust me, Kris. Nothing could make up for the last year.”

“Not the last year. Last year. One year ago tonight.”

“You weren’t the one killing party guests.”

“Goddammit…just let it go, will you?”

“What, that you dumped me because I saved your life?”

“Fuck you.”

“That would be an improvement.”

“Look, I’m sorry…”

“You and the fucking Pope.”

“Are we going to have this fight again?

“No, not again. Still. This fight is all we’ve got.” I was getting surly now. “You’re the one who walked through that door and wrecked my evening. You can damn well walk back out again.”

“Fine.” She stood up and brushed her hair back like she was making sure she still had her dignity with her. “You just remember that you’re the one who slammed the door on a fifty-thousand dollar payday.”

“Say what?” Socks are fickle creatures with minds of their own. Mine chose that moment to give up their grip on the window sill. I scrambled to keep from dropping my cigar, barely managed to keep hot coals from falling onto my shirt. It emerged uninjured. My poker face, however, was mortally wounded and limped away to cough up blood in the corner. I spun in my chair and stared at her in open incredulity. “Fifty thousand? What the hell…”

She was already at the door to my inner sanctum, the light of the outer office wreathing her in a yellow halo. She half-turned back to me, and I thought I saw the side of her mouth twitch, like it wanted to smile.

“So you are interested.”

“When you put that many zeros next to each other…”

“You say that now…”

“Cut it out. What are you talking about?”

She shrugged. “It was gonna be a surprise.” She shook her head a little bit, like she was trying to decide whether to spoil it. Something else, hard to identify, fluttered across her face. Regret? Disappointment? Hard to be sure, but it wasn’t good.

Lantham, you asshole, she wanted you to come because you wanted her, not because you wanted the money. The icy realization clutched my stomach. I’d just blown my chance to patch things up, the chance I’d wished for all year. Now it was all business. And when it was done, whatever it was, she’d consider her debt paid, and I wouldn’t see any more of her.

I said earlier that I’m not the swiftest canary where women are concerned. In this case, I was playing for last place in a tortoise race—it wasn’t until that moment that I realized that I still loved her.

You don’t get very far in this business by “listening to your heart.” You get ahead—and stay alive—listening to your interpersonal radar and your wallet, and then occasionally throwing a glance over at your conscience to make sure it’s not throwing up all over your best suit. You listen to your heart, you’re liable to drive your wallet, your conscience, and your business all out onto the street to pace back and forth with cardboard signs saying “will work for anyone who’s not a chump.”

Fifty thousand. That’s a five with four zeros after it. Not counting the Beatles, anything with four or more zeros is officially worth my time, even on vacation. Even on New Year’s Eve.

“Oh, it’s a surprise. Third one tonight. You remember how I love surprises.” She’d once surprised me by yanking the string on a party popper behind my back when I didn’t know she was there. I was having a bad day, had just got in from a shouting match with the local deputy, so my hackles were up. If I wasn’t in the habit of carrying my weapon with the safety catch on, I’d probably have shot her.

She rolled her eyes and sighed. “Look, it’s worth it, okay? Trust me. I’ll tell you on the way.”

“Assuming we’re not going to a ‘who looks the most like Sam Spade’ contest to compete for the prize,” I crossed my arms over my chest and stuck my legs, one at a time, up onto the corner of my desk, “I’m gonna need to know the score so I know what toys to bring.”

That faint smile again. Maybe with some relief? Hard to tell. But she turned back to face me, walking forward into rippling rainlight. She took a seat, leaned forward so I could smell her again. I had to take a French lit class in college once—believe me, Proust had a gift for understatement. Seemed like every memory connected to Kristine came flooding back at once.

But I didn’t blink. I just listened to my wallet.

She propped her elbows on the desk.“Have you heard of Giles Noyce?”

I shrugged and shook my head. “Vaguely rings a bell.”

“One of the FBI’s most wanted. A medical insurance guy. He was an accounts manager who ran a Ponzi scheme on some patients a few years ago, disappeared when he was indicted by a grand jury. Killed a teenager in a hit-and-run trying to get out of town.”

“Cool.” If you’re from the Bay Area, this is one of those words that, depending on your inflection, can mean anything from “Oh my god that’s the greatest thing ever” to “I can’t believe you’re wasting my time with this.” My response fell somewhere on the unenthused end of the spectrum.

“There’s a fifty thousand dollar price on his head.”

“Standard FBI reward?”

“Yeah.”

“So, what about him?”

“Well, I can’t be sure, but I think he’s back in town. He’s been in and out of the hospital in the last couple weeks, and I recognized him from his post-office pictures. Him or someone who looks a lot like him”

“And he’s going to be at this party?”

“The company he’s working for is giving it. He invited a few of us—I think he was picking up on me.” Could blame him for that, but I wasn’t going to say it out loud. “So I thought that if you could ID him, you could get the reward.”

Yup. She was after payback. Get me off her conscience.

Still, fifty K is nothing to sneeze at, and nabbing white collar criminals is a hobby I don’t get to indulge near often enough.

“It’s already almost eleven. New Year’s Eve parties start to wind down around midnight…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. A couple of my girlfriends are already there, they say it’s going to last till dawn.”

A setup like that is hard to turn down. I took another hit on the cigar, made a show of chewing the proposition over while I made a mental list of the toy box I’d need to pack.

She watched me like she was trying to read my mind. I used to love it when she looked at me that way.

After a couple minutes, I stubbed out the cigar. “Give me five minutes to pack. Do you know if he’s got a room there? No, forget it, you wouldn’t. Let’s bet he does. Let’s see…stand up for a second, will you?”

She did. I studied her. Stood up and walked around, looking at her from all angles. “First thing, we’re gonna need to get you out of those clothes.”

End of sample

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