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Excerpt from Retirement Plan

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Chapter One

Retirement Plan

Detective Morgan Holiday believed that Satan, herself, invented blazers. She owned a dozen of them. Originally, she’d planned to have two for each season. As it turned out, her weight tended to go up and down depending on her case-clearance rate, and her clearance rate hadn’t been good lately, so she needed one for each season in three different sizes. At eight a.m., June 4, when the call came in, her slightly snug-in-the-shoulders black linen was hanging on the back of her chair. She was sipping strong coffee from the shop on the corner and chewing on a plain whole-grain bagel. Her partner, Henry Zimmerman, was in the building but not at his desk. He’d stopped pretending he was ready to work before ten o’clock a month ago when he announced that he was retiring soon.

The light on the phone flashed, and she hurriedly swallowed a partially chewed bit of bagel. “Homicide. Detective Holiday.”

The uniform on the other end identified himself, then dispensed with formality. “We got somethin’ here that don’t look good.”



                   
Holiday picked up a pen and took down the details. Then she grabbed her blazer and headed toward the break room to find Henry.

A few minutes later she was making a trip across town in the usual manner. She drove, Henry complained. She didn’t use the lights or siren; according to the uniform, the victim had been dead for a while. She crossed through downtown, fighting the tail end of morning traffic. Then she took a side street and drove through an established, high-end neighborhood. The houses, probably built in the 1940s or ’50s, were large two-story Cape Cods centered on half-acre lots where mature trees often hid them from view. She didn’t see the black-and-white on the first pass.

“I’m getting so I hate every call,” Henry said. “The excitement’s gone. This job feels like I’m thirty years into a bad marriage. I look at other guys my age. Nice cars. Grandchildren…” Henry had three divorces behind him. Morgan had one. “Christ, Henry,” Morgan said, “you’d complain if you were hung with a new rope.”

“What the hell does that mean?”

Morgan shrugged. “Just something my ex-husband used to say. I think new ropes give a little. So if you’re hung with a new one, your toes might touch the ground.”

“Did he say that about you?” Henry asked. After a few seconds he added, “Did he think you complained a lot?”

Morgan glanced in Henry’s direction. He was surveying his side of the street although the even house number told them the address was on the driver’s side. All she could see was the back of his head. He’d had more hair when they first partnered up. She considered his question. “Did she complain a lot?” Not back then, she hadn’t. Her marriage had been a good one. Foolishly, she’d walked away from it because of her neighbor’s wife, which sounded like a goddamn cliché.

Henry turned toward her. His face was flushed and he sounded winded, though he hadn’t exerted himself. “Look, hon,” he said. (She hated it when he called her “hon” and he knew it.) “Old folks got a right to complain.”

Morgan spotted the black-and-white up near the house. She swung the unmarked car onto the wide driveway. As they got out, a young uniform came around from the side yard.

“It’s in back.”

“You or anybody move anything?” He probably hadn’t, but it was important to ask. “No. Trash collectors called it in a little over an hour ago. They’re waiting for you back there.”

With long strides, she rounded the corner of the house and the crime scene tape stopped her. She took everything in. A Ralph’s Garbage truck was parked, still idling, in the alley, which was easily 200 feet from the back of the house. Three men sat next to the garage on a wooden bench. The older one looked purposefully at his watch. The body lay in the sun. Holiday and Zimmerman ducked under the yellow tape and carefully approached the patio.

“Blood spatter fifteen feet or so.” The uniform pointed at the back of the house. Henry went toward it and he glanced back at the body. “Jeez. We got some brain matter here too.”

The late spring morning was heating up. Morgan was starting to sweat beneath her blazer. She pulled it off and draped it over her left arm.

“You okay?” Henry asked. He did this at every grisly crime scene. Blood and brains had stopped bothering her a long time ago, but Henry had been with her on the first call. He’d held her head while she puked and never let her forget it. “I’ll miss your coddling,”

Morgan said. She turned to the uniform. “You canvassed the neighborhood yet?”

The uniform dug a notepad from his back pocket and studied it. “Neighbors to the east are gone. House on the other side, I asked a woman,” he checked his pad, “Leona Pratt, if she saw or heard anyone, and she said that last night during Seinfeld, she heard something that might have been a shot. She’d assumed it was her teenage son,” he checked his notes again, “Joby, upstairs with his TV too loud. She said this guy, Zach Ingram, lived alone. Wife and kids moved out over two years ago. Worked long hours and rarely had company.”

Morgan pulled out her notebook and wrote the victim’s name. “Did she say where he worked these long hours?”

“She wasn’t sure what he did, but it had something to do with nursing homes.”

“Anything else?”

“After eight when my backup got here. Aside from a maid in the house across the street, the rest of the houses were already empty. Everyone probably gone to work.”

“Did you talk to the kid?”

“What kid?”

“Teenager with the loud TV.”

The uniform shook his head. “Mrs. Pratt was alone. The kid left for school already. She said he has a seven thirty calculus class.”

“Talk to her again. See what you can find out about this guy’s inner circle.”

“Right.” The uniform made some notes and walked away.

Moments later Morgan stood next to the body, staring down. Almost half the guy’s head was gone. The bloody wound, coagulated to black and crimson in spots, was alive with insects. Even the street gangs on the other end of town didn’t use weapons that would make this kind of mess. It had to have been an assault rifle or something military.

“This guy had his shoes blown off.” Henry pointed. “One over there beneath the picnic table. The other next to his left foot.”

“Probably should get some photos.”

“Camera’s in the car,” Henry said. “If you want to interview the garbage guys, I’ll take some pictures and watch for the crime-scene techs.”

Morgan nodded, turned away, and ducked under the crime-scene tape again. The trash collectors sat on the bench, waiting. The older, heavyset, light-skinned black man was probably the driver. Surely he wouldn’t lift and move full trash cans all day. A younger, darker, solid-built black man and a slim white guy, who, under closer scrutiny, could be a woman, sat as far apart as possible on the narrow bench.

Morgan motioned the older guy out of range of the others’ hearing and introduced herself. She recorded his name, Alonzo Thomas, careful to get the middle initial, J. She asked his age and discovered, though he looked older, he was in his late forties, just a few years older than she was.

Poised with notebook and pen ready, she said, “Tell me, in your own words, what happened this morning.”

He looked heavenward and said, “We was coming down the alley like any other morning. Cans supposed to be pulled out there, but this guy forgets often as not. Last time he did, we went on by and he called the office and raised hell. So when we come to this house and I seen the cans wasn’t out, I told Tashaun to take C. J., go up and carry them back.”

Alonzo Thomas stopped and took a couple of deep breaths while Morgan kept writing. Finally she prompted him. “You told Tashaun and J.T. to go up to the house — ” “C. J.”

“Yes, C.J., thank you.”

“Next thing I know, Tashaun come running back to the truck. He jump up on the running board and look at me all wide-eyed. So, I says, ‘What happen, boy?’ And he says, ‘We got to get out of here — they’s a dead body up there.’ I look past him and see C.J. standing over by the garage on her cell phone, and I say, ‘Who she calling?’ Turn out it was the po’lice. It was all I could do to keep Tashaun here. His parole’s almost up. He don’t want to be associated with no dead body. I told him it’d be okay. It will, won’t it, ma’am?”

A breeze carried the smells of garbage and exhaust fumes toward them. Sweat was running between Morgan’s breasts and the back of her neck was moist. She looked at the round-faced man, who was smiling, encouragingly, she supposed. “I just need to get a statement from those two and you’ll be free to go. I may need you to come down to the station later on. Those two will be going with you unless one or both of them have outstanding warrants.”

Alonzo Thomas nodded and said, “Thank you, ma’am. We’ll be working late tonight as it is. We got most of the route to cover yet.”

Morgan interviewed the trash carriers one at a time. After she radioed in Tashaun’s name, he checked out. She took his statement quickly. Forensics had arrived, and she wanted to talk to them. The slender blonde, C.J. Kent, had a baby-butch thing going: short cropped hair, men’s work boots, a tight camouflage T-shirt, and thin but ropey biceps. Her skin was tanned from working in the sun. According to her driver’s license, she was nineteen. She seemed to want to talk more than the others, but she didn’t really add anything new. Morgan gave her a card with the Homicide Department number on it and told her to call if she thought of anything else. As Morgan finished the interview, Alonzo approached her again and asked if they should take the trash. Morgan sighed and said, “No. Not this week.”

As the Ralph’s truck started to roll, with both carriers holding on to the sides, Henry motion to Morgan from the alley. One of the forensics guys was working on the back gate as she approached.

Henry pointed to a spot behind a bush. “This is where he was. Grass is kind of beat down. This guy must be a sniper to get the victim in the temple from this distance. He’s either a marksman or damn lucky. Far as anybody can tell, there was just one shot.” Morgan turned and looked toward the house. She could have hit the guy from there with a rifle, but someone who didn’t spend several hours a week on the range would be hard-pressed to. She said, “You think this is professional?”

Henry put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “Beats the hell out of me. I don’t think a pro would have left this spot in the grass. He must have remembered to pick up the casing. Should be off to the right, but I’ve gone over the whole area, including those bushes there, and found nothing.”

“I wonder if there’s more to the victim than meets the eye.” Morgan jerked her chin toward the body. “Maybe he’s involved in something shady. Maybe he owes money to the wrong person.”

Henry frowned. “I don’t think you can collect a debt from a dead man.”

Morgan scanned the alleyway. It wasn’t like the alley that ran behind her house. No broken glass. No abandoned tires. No bits of trash. In her neighborhood, a shell casing might be hard to find. But here the alley was clean. At last she said, “Let’s go see what forensics has come up with.”

Lois Burnett woke at dawn. She hadn’t been able to sleep and, not wanting to disturb Sophie, had gotten up to read. Even though the recliner was good for naps, her joints ached, and, of course, her shoulder hurt. Her Clark Kent style (although Sophie called them Mr. Potato Head) glasses were sitting cockeyed on her nose. When she righted them, she saw that her book had fallen to the floor. She hadn’t been able to read anyway. She didn’t know how Sophie could sleep. Lois had come home with adrenaline pumping. She had forgotten that killing a man could be so invigorating.

She’d aimed the rifle and squeezed the trigger, and, in an instant, she earned more than she got in three months from Social Security. But it wasn’t really the money that excited her. It was the power. She’d taken matters into her own hands. In addition, as a result of careful planning, the mess that came of it was someone else’s to clean up. She and Sophie had taken turns watching him — getting to know his routine. No current wife. Children grown. No pets. Everything in his life was by the clock. They’d narrowed his murder time down to the last cigarette of the day. At that time Lois could hide in the darkness in the alley behind the house, along which two mature, untrimmed bushes provided extra cover.

About ten thirty, when Lois and Sophie were usually sitting in bed reading, Lois had crept down the dark alley and knelt behind the bushes to wait until he stepped outside his back door. Damn cigarettes would kill him anyway. She was doing him a favor. Unlike lung cancer, a bullet through the brain was quick. She’d worried a little about the flash and crack of the single shot. But she couldn’t think of any way to avoid them.

Zach Ingram sat on top of a picnic table and lit up. Lois could see the orange glow of the cigarette as he brought it to his lips. The ember brightened as he drew on it, and his head made a distinct silhouette before the blue bug light. She squeezed the trigger gently, and his body slammed forward into the darkness. The blinding flash disappeared, but the smell of gunpowder hung in the air. Her shoulder hurt from the kick of the M-16, but she couldn’t use a tripod on this shot. She’d probably have a bruise.

The night remained quiet except for a dog several houses down that barked tentatively, then stopped. She knew the family in the house next door was on vacation. Plus the houses were well spaced in the west-end neighborhoods, but an M-16 made a helluva explosion.

Lois took a little time finding the casing in the dark alley. The thing had landed a good eight feet to her right. She pocketed the shell and, with shaking hands, she took off her glasses to clean off the fog. Her mouth was dry as she opened the back gate and stepped into the yard. She was excited. No longer swept along by poverty, old age, and economic circumstance, she was in charge.

Ingram had fallen face-down and, except for a couple of leg spasms, hadn’t moved again. Lois approached him carefully, hoping he wouldn’t need a second shot. He didn’t. Sophie had been waiting in the truck with the motor running at the end of the alley. Lois turned from the body and hurried away. As she passed the garage, closer this time, a security light flicked on. Light flooded the patio. She picked up her pace. Why had she forgotten about that damn light? They’d discussed it more than once.

She walked faster than she had in several years, down the alley to the waiting truck. When she was safely inside, she looked back. Nothing had moved. All was quiet. She and Sophie sped away into the night.

Lois Burnett and Sophie Long still couldn’t agree on when the killing-for-money idea took shape. Lois said it was on pinochle night — the night of the potato-salad incident. Because their hostess knew better than to ask this bunch of women to “bring a dish to pass,” she’d asked them to bring a salad of some kind. Sometimes Myrtle Dixon would come in with a slow cooker full of those little hot dogs in grape jelly and chili sauce. But others weren’t as reliable. So they’d end up with six bags of potato chips, three different-sized tubs of store-bought dip, a loaf of bread, and a bag of Oreos that got opened on the way over.

That morning Lois found the lettuce floating in brown liquid. They often bought fresh vegetables with the best intentions, but the stuff usually rotted in the fridge. She told Sophie, “I have a few dollars. We’ll stop on the way and buy a salad of some kind.”

“What kind of salad can you get with a few dollars?”

Lois shrugged.

They stopped at Save Mart a few blocks from home. While Sophie waited in the car, Lois went in. A long while later she came out of the store with a plastic quart of potato salad. Sophie said, “I don’t think that’s the kind of salad they meant.”

“They’ll eat it.”

“We should, at least, take it home and put it in one of our own dishes.”

Sophie squared her shoulders. “Well, you’re carrying it in.”

And it was settled. Lois walked into the house and went straight to the kitchen. When Sophie found her twenty minutes later, Lois was working with a pair of pliers trying to pull the lid off the container.

“What’s going on?”

“Lid’s stuck.”

“Let me see.” Sophie easily lifted the lid off.

“How’d you do that?”

Sophie pointed to an arrow. “Directions.”

Sounds of laughter came from the crowded living room. Lois set the tub of potato salad on a card table next to a slow cooker of little hot dogs and a bag of chips. She and Sophie sat opposite each other at one of four card tables.

Myrtle Dixon said, “Murder. That’s rich.”

While Myrtle, two tables away, continued talking, Connie something-or-other, a younger woman, probably high side of fifty, filled them in. “Myrtle’s ex phoned her from Florida. She’s been all in a twist about it.”

Lois looked across the table at Sophie. She returned a toothy smile that made crinkles around her eyes. They’d had their differences, but no breakups. No ex-lovers in Florida. Not a single infidelity. Although fidelity wasn’t a virtue for Lois because she’d never wanted anyone else since the day she met Sophie. Sophie was her best friend. They’d been through difficult times in the past thirty-two years. They’d disagreed on things, but Sophie had never even mentioned leaving, nor had Lois.

Connie went on. “Myrtle told us she and the ex had this plan for their old age. They’d become hired killers.”

Myrtle’s voice startled them. She was standing between the card tables. “Think about it,” she said. “Everyone has someone they want dead.”

Lois laughed, but Sophie asked, “What if you get caught?”

Myrtle said, “Then we’d have gone to prison and had a roof over our heads, three meals a day, and free medical. Why, they’d even pay for our prescriptions.”

Other women around them tittered nervously.

“There was just one problem,” Myrtle said. “We couldn’t figure out the killing part. It’s a messy business.”

“Use an assault rifle,” Sophie put in. “We’ll loan you ours.”

Myrtle shrugged. “Won’t work now. The hot-shot that came up with the plan is living in Florida with an ex-Playboy Bunny.” Before they could ask questions, Myrtle wandered off toward the food table. She picked up a paper plate and a fork and fished out a couple of little hot dogs.

For Sophie, the accident had set things in motion. She had been driving home from the drugstore when a teenage girl ran a red light and struck her broadside. The girl stepped out of her car, shoved her cell phone in a backpack, and hurried over toward Sophie. She yelled across her own crumpled hood and through Sophie’s broken driver’s side window. “Lady? Hey, lady, are you all right?”

When Sophie didn’t answer, the girl raised her voice. Traffic stopped, and people began to gather around the cars. Then a man in greasy coveralls leaned in the broken window and said, “Ma’am, we need to get you out of here. Your gas tank is leaking.”

Sophie shook her head trying to clear it. Finally the man appeared on the passenger side, worked the door open, crawled across the seat, and pulled her toward him. She tried to help him, but the pain in her left shoulder was nauseating.

The next thing Sophie remembered was sitting on the bus bench staring at her wrecked Subaru.

A paramedic asked her something.

“What?”

“Your name,” a voice said, “what is your name?”

“Long. I’m Miss Long.” She said her name like she’d said it every autumn for thirty years to the new fifth-grade class.

“Do you know who the president is, Miss Long?” the voice asked.

His face was close to hers. She could smell mint on his breath. He spoke again, louder this time.

“Who is the president, Miss Long?”

Sophie drew in a breath—she wouldn’t mention that she hadn’t voted for him. She exhaled. “Richard Nixon.”

That was all. The corners of her vision grew increasingly fuzzy, then the light shrank to a pinpoint and went out.

When Sophie woke again, Lois was sitting beside the bed, sleeping. A rumpled paper sack with some magazines was on the floor next to her. Sophie’s arm was in a cast, and she couldn’t move her head. She cut her eyes toward the nightstand. A porcelain vase from home held a bunch of crimson peonies from [MM1] the backyard.

A man’s voice startled her. “How are you feeling, Sophie?”

The older she got, the more often total strangers took liberties with her first name. She moved her eyes to the right but could barely see him. “Who are you?”

The man said, “I’m Phil, the dayshift RN.”

Not even a doctor. “I feel like hell.”

“You have a broken clavicle and a cracked ulna.” He moved into her line of sight — just a goddamn kid — looking at a clipboard. “Doctor says we’ll have to wait and see about the neck injury.”

“Where’s the little bitch that hit me?” Sophie said.

“I — I don’t know.”

Lois chimed in. “She got a bump on the knee. Didn’t even come to the hospital.” “That’s all?”

“Who knows,” Lois said. “Are you in pain?”

Sophie tried to nod, gave it up, and said, “Yeah.”

The nurse said, “You have pain medication ordered. I’ll bring it on my way back. Just try to relax in the meantime.”

When Phil the nurse left the room, Sophie said to Lois, “Scoot down a little. I can barely see you.”

Lois scooted her chair closer and into a better position.

“Why can’t I move my head?”

“You have a cervical collar.”

Sophie was quiet for a moment, trying to understand. Dismayed, she finally asked, “What am I going to do?”

Lois stroked her hand. “About what?”

“I haven’t been able to afford insurance on that car for twelve years.”

“The accident wasn’t your fault.”

“Do you think that matters? I’ll get a whopping ticket just for driving the car without insurance.”

Lois sighed. “The whole system’s stacked against us. I think Myrtle’s ex had the right idea — at least in theory.”

“I have a list of people I’d like to see gone, even if there were no profit. That kid with her cell phone is near the top,” Sophie said. “Hell, everyone thinks someone deserves to die. I say, find a person who wants another person dead enough to pay for it and oblige her for a modest price.”

“Good grief, Soph, murder’s a crime.”

“So is driving without insurance. We’re only talking about a matter of degree.”

Lois squeezed Sophie’s hand. “This will all work out. The important thing is to get you feeling better.”

The RN came back into the room and passed Sophie a paper cup containing a pill. He poured some water from the pitcher on the nightstand. Sophie tried to lean forward to drink, but winced. The RN said, “Easy now, honey. We’ll use a straw.”

When the nurse had gone, Sophie said, “Do I look like his honey?”

“He was just trying to be nice.”

“Don’t make excuses for him. I’m not in a generous mood. He sees me as a helpless old lady. He doesn’t know that I stood in front of a bunch of Catholic fifth-graders longer than he’s been alive. Most people aren’t tough enough to do that for one damn day.”

“I know.”

The room was quiet. After a while Sophie said, “What am I going to do without my car?” “The girl’s insurance company will pay for your medical. We’ll worry about your traffic ticket when the time comes—maybe we could make payments. You just lean back and rest for now.”

“How is a body supposed to keep going when even a bottle of generic aspirin is a major expense?” Sophie was already getting groggy, but her anger had momentum. “I paid for car insurance all those years and never made a single claim.”

“I said this will work out.”

Sophie yawned. “I’ve earned a comfortable life. Young people think seventy-three is too old for women to expect comfort. That teen on the cell phone has a rude awakening in store for her.”

“Aw,” Lois said. “She has no idea what it’s like.”

Sophie’s eyelids were heavy. The last sound she heard was Lois saying, “We’ll be all right.”

A week later Sophie’s neck brace was still in place and her arm was in a sling. She couldn’t dress herself, and she was still angry. The young woman who had crashed into her turned out to have third-rate insurance, and the adjuster was haggling over every penny. Of course, they wouldn’t pay anything until all the bills were in, and all the bills wouldn’t be in until she was back on her feet.

Sophie was lying on the couch watching TV when Lois came in from the kitchen and said, “I’m going to hock the M-16. I only kept it around because it meant something to Matt.” Matt had been Lois’s grandson. She and Sophie had raised the boy after his mother abandoned him. He had been killed in Afghanistan just three years before.

“No. I won’t let you.”

“It’s the only thing we own that we don’t need.”

“No.” Sophie held her ground. “Let’s use it.”

“How?”

“I’ve been sitting here,” Sophie said, “mad as hell. I’d really like to kill somebody — the damn insurance adjuster, for one. If I, an old-maid school teacher, want a person dead, I’m sure others with less refinement do too. If we were to provide that service, we could make some extra cash — untaxed income to make us more comfortable. We’d probably only need to do a job every six months or so.”

“You don’t know how to shoot.”

“We’re a team, aren’t we? I could be the brains — get the jobs and make the plans. All you’d have to do is show up and pull the trigger.”

Lois said, “You’re not serious.”

“I believe I am.”

“I don’t know — ”

“Okay, then teach me how to shoot, and I’ll do the jobs alone. I’m sick of living from the third of one month to the next. I’m sick of wondering what’ll happen when we can’t pay the taxes on our home. I’m sick of going without the things I need.”

“What if we get caught?”

“Then, like Myrtle said, we won’t need to pay property taxes. We’ll have free medical care and three squares a day. Of course, appeals could take years. We might never see the inside of a prison.”

“Don’t you think the M-16 is overkill?”

“Here’s what I like about it,” Sophie said. “There’s no way to trace it to us. That rifle’s never been used in a crime. You got it from the army-surplus store before there were FOID cards. Matt only fired it at hay bales. Anyway, who’ll suspect us of owning a weapon like that?”

Lois seemed to consider this. At length she whispered (for if they were really going to do it, they had to speak softly), “Tell me why you think we won’t get caught?”

Sophie was ready for this question. “We have no apparent motive to kill anybody. If anyone is suspected, it will be the person that hires us. So we won’t do killings for our friends. We need as much distance from our employers as possible.”

 
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