EXCERPT FROM THE AVID ANGLER
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 28, 1009 HOURS
THERE WERE three slices missing from the meatloaf.
A tendril of dread lifted the hairs on the back of her neck, though she couldn’t say why. Otto would have laughed at her. “You worry too much,” he always grinned at her. Then he’d put his feet up on the couch with his shoes still on, though he knew that drove her batty.
Maureen Freeman pursed her lips and shook her head. Otto must have made a sandwich to take on his fishing trip. The meatloaf was still edible, though not as moist and tender as when she first cooked the loaf on Wednesday. One sandwich wouldn't be enough, she thought. He’d headed out early Thanksgiving morning. Although he had tried to leave quietly so as not to disturb her, she’d still heard him. Besides, she always knew when he was gone. There was an emptiness in the bed that she could sense.
As long as Otto was gone anyhow, Maureen wanted to start the day bright and early. The grocery store would already be busy, but thank the Lord, not with the same crowds as the weekend before Thanksgiving. Last Saturday had almost been too much for her, what with all the lines. The store promised never more than three people in a line, but she’d been fifth in line, and at least two other lines had six or more. She’d counted. She would have complained to the store manager, but then she’d have lost her place in line. Hopefully, that would not be a problem today.
Thanksgiving had been depressingly lonely. She knew Otto would be gone for Thanksgiving, so she hadn't bothered sweating over a fancy meal. Just the leftover meatloaf she prepared on Wednesday. She gnawed again at the thought that he hadn’t packed enough food--he never did. One sandwich would be okay for lunch on Thursday, but what about dinner, and all day Friday? Even today, he would need to eat. He always assumed he would cook and eat the fish he caught, but why not be prepared, she always asked. Could it hurt to take a few extra bites?
The kitchen was spotless, but out of habit, she wiped down the sink and counter. A strange scent in the air, an unpleasant tang that soured the usual smells in the kitchen of lemon-fresh dishwashing liquid and apricot hand soap. She decided to take out the trash. It wasn’t even half full yet, and the smell didn’t seem to be coming from there, but better safe than sorry.
She paused with her hand on the door from the kitchen to the garage. Another twinge of disquiet shivered down her back. She almost changed her mind about going through the garage to reach the trash cans. But that was silly.
Maureen opened the door and stepped into the dim room. The single light on the far wall cast weird shadows. The garage wasn't heated, and the still, cold air was tinged with a foul odor. It wasn’t coming from the trash at all. The unpleasant aroma was stronger here, in the garage. She wondered if the cat had dragged in a dead mouse or bird. Maureen looked past her car, hoping to see Otto’s car. There was only emptiness where Otto normally would park. So he wasn't home. He could have called and told her when she could expect him, she thought, suddenly angry. Otto could be so inconsiderate sometimes. Like going on this fishing trip. Who goes on a fishing trip on Thanksgiving?
That horrid smell. What was it? She shuffled forward, watching her steps carefully so she wouldn’t step on some half-eaten animal, then froze when she rounded the end of the car.
There was Otto, lying on the floor, unmoving.
Maureen called out to him. "Otto? Are you alright?"
She hurried to him. His skin glinted unnaturally in the dim light, waxy and pale. She knelt down and touched his cheek. It was quite cold. Then she noticed the small hole in the side of his head, hidden beneath his hair.
Maureen stared at him for a moment before she fully comprehended that her husband was dead. Only then did she start to scream, the air leaving her throat so forcefully she was wheezing, almost suffocating. When she finally gulped down her tears enough to see and breathe, she opened the trunk of her car and pulled out an old Army blanket, one that they had used on many mountain picnics together. She wrapped his body up in it, and struggled to get him into a sitting position, so that he would look more comfortable.
Then she went into the house and called the police.
Shopping would have to wait.
MONDAY, NOVEMBER 30, 1153 HOURS
“GIVE me a brat with all the fixings,” said Jerry, flicking some lint off his expensive Valentino suit. He turned to his companion, Mel, another defense attorney. “What would you like? My treat.”
Mel stared at the menu, shivering in the cold wind. He would have preferred lunch inside the courthouse across the street, but Jerry insisted on coming outside. “I guess the same thing. But I don’t want onions on it.”
The hot dog vendor, listening intently to the sounds buzzing in his earphones, didn’t even look up, but he deftly pulled out two warmed buns, picked up a well-cooked hot dog, and nestled it inside the bun, then repeated the process with the second hot dog.
“Hey, I said bratwurst, not hot dog, you asshole,” said Mel.
The hot dog vendor ignored him.
Mel scowled in Jerry’s direction, annoyed that they were eating their meal at a hot dog stand on the corner of Fourteenth and Elati. “Sheesh, how hard is it to serve a brat? The guy has one job and he can’t even do it right?”
“He probably doesn’t even speak English,” shrugged Jerry. He actually liked the brats he got from this particular vendor. Besides, the cart was conveniently placed between the Detention Center, the Courthouse and the parking garage. You couldn’t beat it for convenience. “So, the Freeman case...”
“The Freeman case. Go on.”
“I get this call from this woman. Maureen Freeman. She’s accused of murdering her husband. I talk to her, and I get the strong feeling that the woman is innocent.”
Mel raised his eyebrows cynically. “Aren’t they all?”
He and Jerry exchanged knowing smirks. “Sure they are,” said Jerry, snickering, “And the more hours we can bill to them, the more innocent they are. But I think this lady is innocent innocent. And I’m not sure I can get her off.”
Most of Jerry’s clients were real scumbags. He knew, they knew, everyone knew it. He’d learned not to ask if they were innocent or guilty. It was a foregone conclusion that they were guilty as sin. It didn’t matter to him, not anymore. His job was to get them off or at least get them the best terms possible. No big deal, and he’d built up a good practice doing this. Just when he’d given up defending the innocent, a real innocent had crossed his desk. But if he was going to free her, he’d need some help, and he’d already realized it wasn’t going to come from the usual places.
Jerry reached out for the dogs.
The hot dog vendor leaned out past the cart and handed the two hot dogs to another man who shambled up to the cart behind them. The man’s unkempt beard, dirty clothes, and smudged skin proclaimed him as one of the many homeless people who prowled the streets of Denver looking for a handout. Jerry liked to be charitable to the homeless from a distance that did not involve any danger of ketchup stains. He motioned for his friend to move to the far end of the cart, as far away from the homeless man as possible.
“Hi, Rufus,” said the hot dog vendor. “Running a bit late today?”
“Just a little, boss. So many meetings to go to. Can’t hardly keep up with ’em all.”
“I saved you two dogs, slightly charred, just the way you like them. Help yourself to the fixin’s.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
Jerry noticed that the grungy man did not give the vendor any money.
The hot dog vendor fixed a strangely intense gaze on Jerry. Feeling like a kid caught spitting paper wads at school, Jerry resisted the urge to squirm.
The hot dog vendor quickly assembled two brats and handed them to Jerry. "Condiments are on the side of the cart. You can put whatever you want on your own brat. Did you want a drink to go with that? Chips? Okay, that'll be six fifty. Drinks are in the cooler over there. Choose whatever you like."
He turned away from Jerry, as if dismissing him as unimportant.
“You know who this hot dog guy reminds me of?” Mel asked suddenly. “You remember that cop who went ballistic on Peterson in court four years ago? What was that guy’s name?”
“MacFarland,” said Jerry, squinting at the vendor, trying to discern what in the man might resemble the “Crazy Cop.” The hot dog vendor was about five foot nine inches tall, probably weighed in at one hundred eighty-five pounds. Even with the winter jacket on, Jerry could tell the man was rock solid, the kind of compact mass that could burst through walls. He had close-cropped hair, cleanshaven jaw, and piercing brown eyes. Still…
“He was a good detective, but I’m pretty sure he was a lot bigger than this guy,” Jerry concluded. Privately, he added, Though I could use a guy like MacFarland right now.
Mel smirked again. “Peterson was a good client. It wasn’t my case, but I wish it had been. The ADA handed that case on a platter to the defense. Screw up the chain of custody, problems with the prosecution...Hell, even a law student could have gotten him off.”
Jerry smiled faintly. Peterson was rich, totally without scruples, willing to pay anything to get off and very, very good to his legal team. The Assistant District Attorney completely blew the case. Mismanaged chain of custody, lousy prosecution. When the jury came back with a not guilty decision, the cop went berserk. Leaped over the barrier and tried to choke Peterson.
“You ever hire a private detective?” Jerry asked Mel, following an earlier line of thought.
“Huh?” asked Mel.
“The problem is, there’s a lot of evidence against her.”
“Freeman. Maureen Freeman! I told you…”
“Yeah, yeah, the Freeman case.”
“The police are convinced she’s guilty. I’m pursuing a couple of avenues, mostly dementia or incapacity arguments. But I don’t think I can get a doctor to really sign off on that. I need someone to find the real killer. I mean, if it wasn’t her, it’s got to be someone, right? I need someone who can do what the police can’t do. Find out who really killed Otto Freeman.”
“Good luck with that! Admit it, Jerry, the woman probably did kill her husband. Didn’t you say it was her gun, with her prints on it? And the body was in their garage! I think you ought to plea-deal.”
“Nope. I need to find a good private eye.”
Mel laughed, wiping the last traces of mustard from his lips. “You might as well hire this hot dog seller, Jerry.” Mel laughed at his own joke. “Hey, I got to run. Thanks for the brat. I’ll see you later this week. Want to get some racquetball in?”
Jerry shook his head. “Got too much going on. See you around, Mel.” Jerry finished his brat and sipped the last of his soda. The homeless man, Rufus, had piled his hot dogs with condiments and had retreated to eat his lunch over in the doorway of the nearby parking garage, out of the direct path of the wind.
Jerry continued to stare at the vendor. The resemblance was uncanny. He tried to imagine the man in a suit.
“Was there anything else, Mr. Baker?” the vendor asked pointedly.
“How did you know my name? I never told it to you.”
“Not all street vendors are complete idiots, Mr. Baker. Some of us are just as observant as the average defense lawyer.”
Jerry felt his face heat up. Oh shit, you’ve got to be kidding. He tried to remember exactly how rude he and Mel had been, but couldn’t recall just what they said to him, or about him. C’mon, it wasn’t fair for a guy to expect to be treated politely if he dressed like a street vendor, right?
To cover his embarrassment, Jerry stepped forward, extending his hand. He withdrew his hand when the vendor didn’t respond. “MacFarland! I knew it was you! You were that detective! Damn, whatever happened to you?” Jerry had a bright flash of insight. He lowered his voice. “Oh, I get it. You’re working undercover.”
MacFarland glared at Jerry. “I’m not undercover, Mr. Baker. I’m a hot dog seller.”
Feeling a bit befuddled, Jerry Baker started to turn to go to the courthouse. He stopped, turning back toward MacFarland. Maybe he could salvage his pride. “I was serious when I said I needed a detective, Mr. MacFarland.”
When MacFarland made no comment, Baker hurried away.
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