Signs

26Sep

The sign on the office door said:

F. MARTIN CHASE, M.S., J.D.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY ASSOCIATE

I could hear the secretary down the hall calling security.

I opened the door and Fred looked up at me, surprised. He’d gained a little weight. He was still thin, but he wasn’t quite as gym-rat-gaunt as he used to be.

“Hi, Fred.” He didn’t like that name. He said it made him sound like a cartoon caveman. “How’s the life of the flesh?”

He was just about buried in files. They were stuffed into five stacks of accordion folders and covered every open inch of his desk. The laptop off to one side didn’t even seem used. The power light was on but the screen was dark, as if he hadn’t looked at it in forever.

“Funny.” He hit the intercom on his phone with a manicured finger. “It’s alright, Joanie. You can call off the hounds.” He let go of the button and motioned for me to sit. “I’m assuming you didn’t get in here, unannounced, by asking nicely.”

“Nice view.” Out the window was a stunning view of downtown and the East River. It was overcast and I could see the clouds roll. “Fifty-third floor. You’re moving up in the world.”

I looked around the office. The sole bookcase was full of heavy law texts, the kinds that ran in series with an identical colored bar across the spine, like encyclopedias. I’m sure everything in them was online, which meant they were just for show, something to put clients at ease, to make the good barrister look serious and well-studied. The legal equivalent of fake fruit in a bowl.

I shut the door and sat down. “Heard from Mom and Dad lately?”

“Really?”

“Just breaking the ice. People tell me it’s polite.”

“Then my answer is a very curt ‘not much.’”

Freddie and I had both written our parents off years ago. To be fair, they wrote us off first. One has to be a little sympathetic, though. It had to be hard for a God-fearing couple to find out that not just one but both of their offspring were gay. Not that our parents were Bible-thumpers — just traditional folks who liked BBQ and football and who tried to raise their kids the way they’d been raised, which was the only way they knew how.

Things might have worked out better if there hadn’t been such a gap between us. I was older so naturally I blazed the trail. With an eight-year-old son sitting in the wings, they could comfortably blame my illness and everything that happened the year I spent in an institution for turning me gay. Six years later, when Mom caught Freddie with his tongue down the throat of the junior varsity quarterback, the reason was equally simple: my “elective” gayness had clearly rubbed off on their baby. After all, there’s no shortage of pastors on the internet who’ll explain in a calm and rational tone that that’s exactly how it works — the Contagion Model of Homosexuality. Like cooties. It was either that, I suppose, or the belief that God was punishing them for something.

I should probably add that they were never physically abusive. It was all a lot more subtle than that — not that that’s any excuse. As a young adult, I did what I could to protect Freddie from the worst of it, which meant intentionally stoking their anger so it stayed fixed squarely on me and not my teenage brother. As a result, he’s been able to maintain a strained but minimal relationship with them, whereas, for all I knew, they didn’t even acknowledge I existed.

“Don’t be jealous,” he said. “It’s usually just for help with their phone or computer or something stupid.”

“Since when do they call you for computer help? You’re a lawyer.”

There was a knock on the door.

“Come!” he called. “I’m an intellectual property attorney,” he said to me, “specializing in cybersecurity, fraud, and abuse. I know a thing or two. You might be surprised.”

He took a file from an assistant and thanked her.

“Still defending the corporations?” I asked as the door closed again.

“Well, you know how it goes. The little guy doesn’t have any money. That’s your line of work.”

“Not for much longer.”

He squinted at me. “Meaning what?”

“What would I do if I wasn’t a cop?” I asked.

“Christ.” He glanced to the ceiling. “Harry, I don’t have time for existential discussions.” He motioned to the files on his desk. “We’re going to trial in three days. Do you have any idea what that means? Surely you do. You’re a policeman. Woman. Person. Whatever.”

“And if I wasn’t? What then? What kinda life is there as a civilian for someone like me?”

He looked at me. “Seriously?”

I nodded.

He sighed loudly and strummed his fingers on his desk. “Garbage person?”

He saw my face. “I don’t know!” he protested. “Did you ask your friends?”

“What friends?”

“Oh, whatever. You have friends. Everyone has friends. What about Kinney?”

“What about her?” I asked.

“Don’t tell me she’s gone already.”

I turned and looked out the window.

“Shit.” He sighed. “How long was it? Six months?”

Almost a year.

“You know,” he said, “you should probably talk to a professional about that.”

“I was.”

“And?”

“He’s the one throwing me under the bus.”

He laughed. Loudly. And he kept laughing. He laughed so hard, it took him a minute or two to calm down. “I’m sorry. Really. I am.” He wiped his eyes. “It’s terrible. It’s just . . . it’s so you to alienate your own therapist! Honey, seriously, if a professional couldn’t help you, I don’t know why you would think I could. This is why it’s worth holding onto someone, you know, no matter how hard it gets. People are occasionally useful.”

I looked at the sole picture in the office. Him and Chester. Chesty Chester with the receding hairline and pects bigger than my boobs. “It’s harder when you’re lesbian,” I said softly. “Harder to find the right person.”

“I suspect that’s true — and not nearly as important as you make it. What about your old partner, the erstwhile Mr. Hammond? Seems to me he was the closest thing to a real friend you’ve ever had.”

I shook my head, still staring out the window. “He’s a cop. I can’t ask him to get involved.”

“Why?”

“Because he’d help.” I watched a tiny ferry slide across the East River. It left a white V in its wake.

“Fine. Then by process of elimination, Kinney it is.” He crossed his hands on his desk, like this was a negotiation and he’d just resolved it. “Are you supposed to be taking those?” he asked after a moment.

I had been knocking my bottle of pills against my palm: once, twice, thrice. I didn’t even notice I was doing it until he made a comment.

I looked at the white-capped medicine bottle in my hand.

I was never a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure my sessions with the department shrink was covered under the same patient confidentiality as anyone else. I knew Dr. More would issue a report, of course. That was the whole point. But the idea behind soliciting the opinion of an expert is that normal folks aren’t competent to interpret someone’s medical history, not to mention their deeply private thoughts and personal ramblings. But mine had been excerpted verbatim, and in what was supposed to be an interim report only.

That was why Lieutenant Miller shared the file with me while it was still being routed to the managers, which was a clear violation of protocol. From her standpoint, protocol had already been violated. She was doing her part to even things out.

I knocked the orange plastic pill bottle against my palm again: once, twice, thrice. The caplets rattled inside like beans in a maraca.

Once, twice, thrice.

“Harriet?”

“Would it kill you to be my brother?”

“I am. This is what siblings do. They give each other a hard time to hide the painfully deep feelings they have for each other.” He clutched at his heart.

I started to stand.

“Fine,” he said. “You know this kind of thing isn’t me. I don’t do . . . whatever this is. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about you. You know I do. It’s why you’re here interrupting me at the absolute busiest time. So I’m telling you, as your brother, that I think you should talk to Kinney.”

“She made it clear she doesn’t want to see me.”

“As a lover, probably not. I can’t imagine you were any good.”

I scowled.

“I didn’t mean orgasms,” he said with a lilt in his voice. “I’m sure you’re queen of the meaty slurp.” He raised his chin in the air. “God knows you’re tenacious enough for that kind of thing. Talk to her as a friend. Someone you used to be close to. Someone who knows you.”

I stood.

“For fuck’s sake, Harriet, at least ask. She might surprise you. She liked you an awful lot, which, you know, is probably why she left.”

“People don’t leave because they care. They leave because they’ve stopped caring.”

He pointed at me dramatically. “And that is why you’re still single.”

I stepped for the door.

“At least ask,” he repeated, this time with a hint of compassion. “If she turns you away, come back and I’ll see if I can sit quietly for 30 or 40 minutes.” He motioned to the stacks of files on his desk.

“You’re a real saint.”

He raised his hands in protest. “Maybe an hour.”

“A whole hour?”

“Please don’t quit,” he blurted.

I stopped with my hand on the knob. “What?”

He was serious. “I’m not sure I could do what I do, you know, if you weren’t out there catching murderers and making the world a better place. For the both of us. I’m not sure I could live with myself, and if I couldn’t do that, I couldn’t bring home the bacon and give Chesty the life to which he’s become accustomed, which means he’d leave me and I’d probably kill myself. I’ll find you a good attorney. I’ll give you money. Ten thousand. Twenty thousand. Whatever you need. Just fight this. Whatever it is. Okay? Please. Do it for me.”

I nodded.

“I love you, sis,” he said.

“I know.” I opened the door and stepped into the hall.


From the third mystery in my forthcoming supernatural thriller FEAST OF SHADOWS.

Read the first part here.

Read the second here.

Read the third here.

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