Tony “Red” Harmon yawned as he rubbed burning, fatigued eyes with a palm. His cuff slipped back from his watch. 9:47 P.M. Too late for the family to be out. Nick dragged his feet on concrete, cheeks puffy, hand gripping Red’s index finger. So tired he didn’t even ask for a treat as they walked out of Walmart, past the candy machines. He looked up, snot glistening under a pink nose. Red winked at him, surprised yet again how his son looked like he’d cloned his mother’s eyes.
The shopping cart was full of things they needed, but didn’t want. School supplies and vegetables. A wheel with a flat spot clacked a steady cadence as Red pushed it under a rush of warm air blowing from above, into the January chill outside. How’d he always end up with the broken ones? He pushed with one hand, straining his wrist to keep the thing straight, pulling Nick with the other. He stepped slowly, careful not to slip on the frozen pavement. Just ahead, little Penny held Jackson’s hand so tight his fingers were turning blue. Her head was high. She was obviously pleased Dad thought she was mature enough to guide her younger brother through the perils of the parking lot.
Hope his fingers don’t go numb, Red thought.
“Look for reverse lights. They’re the ones that’ll run you over,” Lori told them. She reached for Penny, then tucked her hand back into her peacoat, as if trying not to be too controlling. Narrow hips swayed as she kept pace with the kids.
Red looked back down at Nick, who was yawning again. “Tired, buddy?”
“I wanna go bed.”
He laughed. “Me too. Been looking forward to it all day.”
2 • David McCaleb
Lori glanced back, smiling, and lifted her chin.
They passed through a fog of exhaust from an old Ford pickup, the decal of a deer and crosshairs on the back window. The smell of gasoline stung his nose. Their SUV was parked far out, under the same pole as always, the lamp casting a cone of brilliance like a stage spotlight. A few snowflakes whisked through its beam like mayflies in summer. They passed a red Nissan Armada, just like the one their petite Filipina neighbor drove, the vehicle’s tires tall as her shoulder.
The Armada was running, but without lights. Penny waited, watching the bumper, then scurried behind it with Jackson in tow. No more parked cars, so she skipped the rest of the way to their new Ford Explorer. Somehow it already had a dent in the quarter panel, and enough fruit juice in the carpet to make your soles sticky as a lint roller.
Penny had just pulled Jackson around the far side when Red heard two thumps—doors shutting. He glanced back. It was the Armada. Three people were following them through the dark, hands in pockets, heads down.
Red passed through a warm pocket of air rising from the pavement. He put Nick’s hand into Lori’s and reached for the keys. The horn beeped, the door locks snapped up, and the interior lights glowed. “Kids, get in.”
He pushed the cart to the rear bumper, leaving it sticking into the traffic lane. The kids jumped into the back and slammed the door, smiling, glad their once-a-week shopping torment was over. Red grabbed Lori’s shoulder, opened the passenger door, and pushed her in. The three men stepped past the shopping cart. Red locked the doors and tossed the controller into Lori’s lap, relieved as the door slammed shut.
All three wore black jeans low on the hips. Two were tall and sported matching red sweatshirts, hoods pulled up. A tight-fitting blue one covered the third, a short, slender man. He came close while the others stood back. When he lifted his head, the pole light illuminated a Roman nose and light brown skin. The hood shadowed the rest. He pulled a long knife with a serrated blade from his pocket. Its sharpened edge glinted in the brightness. His voice was young and scratchy. “Your wallet, bitch!”
Recall • 3
Sure. Take the damn thing. Red glanced to the SUV. The kids were bouncing in the backseat, blowing into cupped hands, unaware. Lori had pulled out her phone and was dialing. She could drive them out if she had to. Red reached to his back pocket and pulled out the wallet, staring at the gangbanger’s eyes. They were empty, soulless, like his nephew strung out on meth when his sister had called for his help last year.
Red held the wallet next to his hip for a second, then took a step back. He slipped it into his pocket. What the hell was he doing? His life wasn’t worth risking over a couple maxed-out credit cards. His vision blurred, then focused on the glinting edge of the blade. It was as if he were watching his own body from above. His arms spread, hands still as steel. Words surged from his chest, from someone caged inside him, forcing their way through his voice box. “Come and get it . . . bitch.”
“Tony!” Lori said again. Only now did Red realize she’d been screaming it. Her eyes were wide, pleading. She pointed to the ground. One of the gangbangers lay on his belly, blood running from his legs and a small pool forming under his head. Red was bent over, knuckles clenched in the man’s hair, pulling him off the pavement. His forearm was bloody and he pressed a snub-nosed revolver at the mugger’s brain stem. Where’d the pistol come from?
The thug’s eyes were closed; he wasn’t moving. Dead? Resisting the urge to let go, Red laid the guy’s head on the asphalt.
“Tony, you don’t have to kill that one.” Her voice was shrill.
He backed up, pointing the pistol at the still body. Red licked a metallic taste from chapped lips, breathing fast and shallow as a panting dog. What the hell was going on? A tall man an aisle over held up leather-gloved hands, backing away. He ducked into a Dodge Charger, tires squealing as he accelerated out of the parking lot.
4 • David McCaleb
Red slowed his breathing, then turned to Lori. “The kids?” Where was the Explorer? He spotted it a few spaces away. The shopping cart lay to one side, three boxes of number two pencils scattered across the pavement like pickup sticks. He jumped over the mess, landing next to two bloody heaps, the bodies of the other muggers. He squinted as the light reflected off one of the scarlet pools and stifled a retch.
The SUV’s rear window was broken. High-pitched crying blasted from inside. He ripped open a back door and saw all three kids in the seat, huddled.
“You guys okay?” No answer, just more crying. He grabbed Nick’s shoulder. The boy’s frail body was quivering. “You hurt, buddy?”
Penny looked up. “Is it over?”
A smear of blood was across his daughter’s cheek, tear tracks streaking through it. He cradled her head, trying to wipe her face with his thumbs, only making a bigger mess with the blood from his hands.
“I’m okay,” she said, wiping her nose with a knuckle. “The— the blood. It’s not ours.”
The debrief room was gray, cold, and Spartan. Detective Matt Carter had designed it to look more like a morgue than a police interrogation chamber. “Three seconds!” Carter said. “Hard to believe.” He sat in front of the stainless-steel table he’d bought when the seafood plant across the street went out of business. The shiny, sterile slab and knife slots of the tabletop fit the mortuary theme perfectly.
He felt in the pocket of his tan d’Avenza herringbone sport jacket for the pack of Wrigley’s gum. “That’s all it took . . . three seconds.” He unwrapped a stick, then checked the time on his titanium Tag Heuer. No clocks in his debrief room. It hadn’t been a long night yet, he thought. Two delinquents dead. One all but. They’d deserved it, murderous punks. Feeding their habit. If all three were gone there’d be less paperwork. The commonwealth attorney perched, buzzardlike, next to him at the table. Pencil-neck politician. Probably resented being woken up this hour.
Recall • 5
Wasn’t long ago that Carter had left Chicago’s mean seventh district to become a detective in the sheriff’s department of his sleepy hometown in New Kent County, Virginia. He still did homicide investigation, but at nothing like the one-a-day burn rate his team had done for years. The whole bloody confusion was still too familiar.
The killer sat across the table. His reflection in the stainless steel was distorted, fuzzy from a surface scarred by years of filet knives. Carter threw the green pack of gum on the slab, then stood and paced, neck back, eyes closed. So, what’s wrong here? Stupid question. The killer, Mr. Harmon.
Guy has a good job. Nice family. No record. Acted in self-defense. Video from the parking lot cameras proved it. Even pencil-neck said they couldn’t charge him. But Harmon’s story didn’t make sense. Experience told Carter when a piece didn’t fit, something was hidden.
But he had to be careful not to overstep legal bounds.
“Yes, sir,” he said, scratching his neatly trimmed beard. Eyes were bloodshot, starting to sag underneath. He’d been to the bathroom to wash blood from his hands, but still picked at what was dried under his fingernails. That sweater would never come clean.
“Mind answering a few more questions?”
“Sure. Can I talk to Lori first?”
“Absolutely. No problem.” Carter peered through the small bulletproof window in the gray steel door at an empty hallway. “Looks like Sheriff Jenson is still talking with her. Mind if we go through this now? It’ll get you out faster. I appreciate your cooperation. You’ve heard about the gang problem we’ve had?”
“I can wait. Rather not come back.” The killer took a deep breath and pushed his fingers through tight red locks. “But I don’t know what else I can add. Been through it twice. Can I see that parking lot video? I don’t understand why I can’t remember more.”
6 • David McCaleb
Never answers my damn question. Knows exactly what he’s doing. Poker-faced.
“Don’t see why not. Maybe it’ll jog your memory.” Carter slipped out and grabbed the DVD off his desk. Walmart’s security manager wasn’t there tonight, but the store supervisor gave it over when Carter promised he’d bring it back the next day.
“Your vehicle was parked near a light. Surveillance camera had a perfect view.” Carter slipped the disk into a player at the end of the table and fast-forwarded to 9:49, then pressed Pause. “If you honestly don’t remember this, well—it’s graphic. As graphic as a black-and-white security video can be.”
Harmon shrugged. “If I did it, I need to see.”
Pencil-neck pulled his chair closer to the TV. “Okay by me,” in a nasal voice, as if speaking through a pipe.
Carter put it on slow motion. The closest gangbanger lunged at Harmon with the knife. He deflected the attack, grabbed the man’s wrist and locked his elbow, then snapped that arm and pushed the guy’s head through the rear window of the Explorer. He slammed a fist onto the back of his neck, slicing it open on the sharp edge of the broken window seal. As the body dropped to the pavement, one of the other thugs pulled a pistol from the front pocket of his sweatshirt. Harmon pushed it away, the gun firing three times into the air. He punched the attacker’s neck, grabbed the pistol as the body fell limp, and took aim at the last one sprinting away. That one knocked over the shopping cart in his haste. He was at full speed when Harmon shot twice with his left hand. The gangster fell, only his feet remaining inside the view of the security camera. Pause.
Harmon stared at the screen.
“Three seconds!” Carter said. “You killed two people, almost three, without a weapon of your own, and don’t remember. Sure you’re not a black belt or something?”
Harmon rubbed a knuckle. “Building manager. Like I said.”
Recall • 7
Time to press. Carter sat and pointed at the screen, rewinding a few seconds. “Look at this. The guy who pulled the pistol. You punched him in the neck. Look at your hand just before that. You’re not making a fist. It’s flat, like a blade. I saw this guy’s body. You didn’t hit him. You stuck your hand into his neck, grabbed his throat, and yanked it out. That’s why you’ve got all that crud under your nails. That’s only second number two. A building manager, buddy, you’re not. The last guy, the smartest of the bunch, runs. Just not fast enough. Two shots. You plant one bullet in each thigh of a moving target. Three seconds.”
Carter stood, tipping his chair so it crashed to the floor. Harmon was lying. But what could he charge him with?
Pencil-neck shook his head, as if anticipating the question.
Carter had nothing. Hell, he should thank Harmon for cleaning up. “You can’t see the rest in the video, but you scrubbed his face on the asphalt. According to our only witness, the guy in the Charger, you were swearing like a sailor. That’s saying a lot coming from a house framer. He thought you were the assailant. Thank goodness no one else was packing or they’d have shot the wrong guy.”
Carter picked up the three-page witness statement from the table and pushed it toward Harmon. “I don’t get this. He said you kept yelling, ‘Who are you? Who hired you?’ as you beat the perp’s head against the blacktop. Why were you asking him that?”
Red stared at the video screen and blinked. “I still don’t remember any of this. I’m sorry. Wish I could be more help.”
Yeah, sure he did. He knew Carter had nothing. “That must’ve been when your wife got your attention. If she hadn’t, you would’ve been guilty of manslaughter. The first two were self-defense, but this guy was running away. Good thing you didn’t kill him. . . . For your sake, that is. NHI.”
Harmon furrowed his brow.
“NHI. No humans involved,” Carter said.
Harmon squinted, and rubbed the bridge of his nose, as if to clear away disturbing thoughts. “Can I see Lori now?”
8 • David McCaleb
Hell, this wasn’t going anywhere. Might as well order cocktails. “Yeah. That’s enough for now. Let’s get you home.” Carter turned the doorknob. “I’ll see if the sheriff’s done with her.”
He shut the door behind him, making sure it didn’t slam. What was missing? Harmon was evasive for certain, but displayed no signs of it. Carter, if anyone, could read signs. He knew people, personalities, and when the two didn’t fit. Could tell when he was looking at the wrong pieces, or when some were missing. Oftentimes, like tonight, he couldn’t put it together right away. It all had to bounce around in his mind until the parts formed a meaningful whole. The other detectives in Chicago had called it women’s intuition. All the time jealous of his clearance rate.
He walked down the hall, head down, thoughts bouncing.
Turned the corner and bumped into Sheriff Jenson’s belly.
“Oof,” said the portly man. “What you find out?”
Jenson’s long, skinny legs led up to an ample middle, capped by skinny arms and neck. If he didn’t know where something was on his gun belt, he’d have to feel his way. Country boy, North Carolina type. Once Carter had settled in, this hillbilly first impression faded. The sheriff was slow spoken, but highly intelligent. Nothing got past him without notice.
“You mean other than don’t get on his bad side? Nothing. Just like he said on the ride here, he doesn’t remember anything after he pulled his wallet, till his wife started yelling. Can’t figure out why I don’t believe a word of it. You pull his record?”
“Yep. Nothing in it. Didn’t ’spect to find nuthin’, nohow. Hell, known his father for years. ’Nam vet, his daddy was. Tony played football with my boys. Get one hand on a pass and he’d bring her in. Not a single fumble, no matter how hard he got crunched. Back then he was small, but you had to add thirty pounds for meanness. Nasty as a boar hog on the field. One time some poor linebacker got between him and the end zone. Bastard woke up four minutes later, five yards back, and six points down.”
Carter shifted his feet. “Sheriff. Uh, I’ve got to—”
Recall • 9
“Sorry. Other than a speeding ticket, clean. Talked to his wife. Damn, she’s a hot number, isn’t she? Real upset. Still shaky, so I didn’t ask too much. Said he works as a building manager at Varneck’s.”
“What does she do?”
“Some exec at a think tank, whatever that means. ‘Process improvement,’ she says. Sounds like bullshit to me.”
Carter leaned an arm on the gray-painted cement block wall.
“No reason to keep him. Mind if I let Red go home?”
“The killer. You know—Mr. Harmon. Said everyone but his wife calls him Red.”
“Huh. Wouldn’t have thought he went by that. Once got in a fight with my youngest for calling him ‘Carrottop.’ Get him. I’ll let his wife know they can go.”
Carter slipped back into the debrief room. Harmon was still sitting, arms on the fillet table, eyes focused nowhere. “Okay, been a long night. Thanks for sticking it out. Stay in town till we contact you. Go home, get some sleep. Try to put it behind you. Remember, we’ve got counselors on retainer who can help you guys talk through things. Especially the kids.”
“Thanks. I’m sad they saw it, but glad no one got hurt—well, you know what I mean. We’ll keep an eye on the kids. They’re at my parents’ now. Always sleep good there. At least tomorrow’s Saturday. We can all sleep in.”
The chair screeched as pencil-neck stood. “I’ll let you know when a suit’s been filed.”
Harmon stared at him, blank-faced.
“We’re not charging you,” pencil-neck added, scratching a blotchy red cheek. “But this is America, so you’ll be sued by someone. Probably the house framer, for emotional distress. I advise getting a lawyer.”
Carter rolled his eyes. “Mind signing the incident report?” He pushed the form toward Harmon. The killer signed quick as a doctor, pen clicking over the knife-marks, and pushed the papers back. “You ambidextrous?” Carter asked.
“Not that I know of. Think I do pretty much everything right-handed.”