Miles Davis saved my life.
I was sitting on the couch in my front room, re-reading the three-inch-thick dossier, listening to Davis’ seminal album with his New Quintet. I’d slid the CD into the squat disc player minutes earlier, right after I’d poured myself a second Jack Daniels. Neat.
It was sometime after nine p.m. My broad picture window looking out on Grandview Avenue reflected an opaque darkness chilled by an earlier spring rain. As usual lately, I’d forgotten to draw the heavy drapes when I came home from work. Sometimes I even forgot to eat.
My only task, these past few nights, was to put the dossier on my lap and slowly peruse its many pages. To read yet again the police detectives’ statements, peer at the crime scene photos, review the Medical Examiner’s report. The hard-backed binder had become an important but cryptic artifact, the potential key to a mystery that I’d long accepted as buried in the past.
“Okay,” I said aloud, to an empty room. An empty house. “Tonight I find it. Whatever the hell it is.”
The key to a mystery. At least that’s what he’d claimed it was, the man who told me about it. Who believed that hidden in the dossier’s pages was an overlooked or ignored piece of evidence proving that my wife’s death almost a dozen years ago hadn’t been what it seemed. That the gunfire that ended Barbara’s life was not the lethal result of a mugging gone wrong.
It was murder.
And the proof was in this extensive dossier that same man had once prepared at a wealthy new patient’s request. Before she’d consider entering therapy. A dossier on me.
He told me all this over a week ago, as I crouched by his blood-soaked body, staring in disbelief at the man’s stricken face. Moments before, he’d saved that patient’s life by stepping in front of a killer’s gun, taking the bullet meant for her. Although the shooter had been quickly subdued, it was too late for the wounded man.
Gasping in pain from the slug lodged in his gut, he urged me to go to his office and find his copy of the dossier. Within moments his voice had fallen to a croaked, desperate whisper as he struggled to speak, to find words, which he somehow managed to do, right before he died in my arms.
I winced now at the memory and swallowed half the whiskey, barely aware of the artful harmonics flowing from the CD player atop the nearby bureau. Denied even the meager solace I usually derived most nights from the soulful, insistent music.
Truth is, I was still pretty scarred, both physically and psychologically, from the events of the past few weeks. The kidnapping of that troubled new patient. The shocking violence and sudden, unexpected deaths that followed. The final showdown with her captors. And, throughout, my own headstrong, perhaps foolish, involvement.
God knows, I still had the bruises to prove it.
I sighed heavily. My eyes, tired after a long day seeing patients, squinted down at the blurred, Xeroxed documents arranged chronologically in the ringed binder, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Especially the handwritten notes of the investigating detectives. As though, in the soft amber light of the table lamp, the hurriedly scrawled words had become meaningless cyphers.
Not that the police reports made up the bulk of the binder’s contents. This painstakingly prepared dossier was literally the paper trail of my entire life. From birth certificate to University of Pittsburgh psychology degree, from my clinical experience to favorite bar, hospital affiliations to tax returns. My family and its many sorrows. My marriage to the former Barbara Camden, also a PhD, including our brief stint in couples counseling. My friends and colleagues, my private practice, my work as a consultant to the Pittsburgh Police. All my forty-plus years condensed into a stack of documents, copied records, data printed off the Internet. The gains and losses, both professionally and personally, that made up my life.
But it was the material pertaining to Barbara’s death that drew my repeated, almost obsessive interest. Personal details were compiled by the police at the start of their investigation. Her own family’s history, her noted career as a linguistics professor at Pitt, her marriage to me not long after we’d first met as graduate students. Then came the forensics from the crime scene, the futile canvas of the surrounding area. Leads that went nowhere, anonymous tips that never panned out. And finally their interview with me a month after the mugging, as I lay in the hospital bed, recovering from my own gunshot wound.
There hadn’t been much I could tell them. Barbara and I had been approached coming out of a restaurant at the Point by an armed thug in a hoodie. He was about my size, I vaguely recalled, though his face was almost totally obscured by the peaked hood and the black of night. A chilled darkness barely broken by the restaurant’s soft-hued exterior lamps and a single light canopied over the valet parking kiosk.
It had all happened in what seemed like moments. The guy grabbed for Barbara’s purse, she resisted, and I tried to intervene. In the struggle, three shots went off, two finding my wife. I took the third to my head, putting me on the ground. Then the mugger ran off, his echoing footsteps the last thing I remembered before passing out…
He was never found.
Someone inside the restaurant called 911. But by the time the police and an ambulance arrived, Barbara had died at the scene. I, for some reason, didn’t.
I still bear the scar from the bullet that pierced my skull, evidence of my unlikely survival. My inexplicable, unearned luck.
I guess I’ve been trying to earn it ever since.
Despite the knot tightening in my stomach, I threw back the rest of the whiskey. It tasted as sour as I felt. Whatever clue I was supposed to discover in this dossier still eluded me, after a half-dozen careful readings on as many nights. Maybe the dying man had been wrong, and there was nothing to find.
I was just about to close the binder for the night when an old favorite track, “Just Squeeze Me,” came from the CD player’s speakers. Miles on trumpet, Coltrane on sax. Heart-stopping, elegant, and perfect.
Except the volume wasn’t loud enough. So, favoring my still-bruised ribs, I levered myself up from the couch and went over to where the player sat on the bureau.
I never made it.
I’d just bent to turn up the volume—
Suddenly, the front window shattered behind me. A booming explosion of glass, jagged shards cascading into the room.
Frozen with shock, I felt the rush of the bullet as it whistled past me, just over my shoulder. Missing me by inches. Embedding itself in the wall.
I threw myself to the floor. Sprawled there, unmoving. Conscious only of a dull roaring in my skull. The insistent reverberation of the gunshot.
I waited, heart thudding in my chest, for the sound of another shot. Another implosion of broken glass.
A sound that never came.
Still frozen where I lay, I felt cool air prickling the back of my neck. Heard the hushed rustle of the drapes.
I slowly got to my feet. A slight wind from outside, from the darkened, tree-shrouded street, wafted through the shattered window. I let out a long breath. Aware now of the sound of an angry, upraised voice, thick with drink, coming from the street.
Steadying myself, I walked carefully around the broken glass splayed at my feet and opened the front door. At first, deep shadows thrown by my porch light made it hard to see what was happening. Then, stepping from the threshold, I made out the slim form of a young woman, maybe mid-twenties, cowering behind my Mustang in the driveway. Long raven-black hair in disarray, staring out at the middle of the street.
I followed her gaze, and saw a large, thick-shouldered black man, in sneakers, tee-shirt, and sweats, waving an ugly revolver. His furious, sputtering voice cutting the moist night air like a scythe. Screaming obscenities as he raised the gun to the sky and fired again.
“Where you hidin’, you fuckin’ bitch? I swear to Christ, I’m gonna shoot this gun up your ass till you shit blood!”
Even in the uncertain light, I could make out his tall, muscular frame. All two hundred-eighty pounds of it. Maybe thirty, with close-cropped hair, he was strikingly handsome.
Behind him, across the street and hiding behind a car parked at the curb, was another man. Obscured by darkness, he’d begun shouting, too. Urging the gunman to put away his weapon.
“Goddammit, Burke, put that thing away. I called the cops this time. I mean it! I’ve had it with your bullshit!”
The man named Burke, footing unsure, swung his head around drunkenly to peer in the direction of the man’s voice.
“You want some o’ this, fucker? Mind your own damn business, you racist piece o’ shit.”
He tried to steady his gun hand, find his new target in the dark. Alcohol fueling an inchoate rage.
By then, I’d scrambled around to the back of my car and joined the terrified girl. Even in the faint glow of the porch lamp, she seemed vaguely familiar.
“You okay?” I clutched one slender shoulder.
Her blue-green eyes stared. “Do I look okay, asshole?”
“I meant, are you hit?”
“Eddie can’t shoot for shit, thank God. But with my luck, he’ll end up killing me by accident.”
I risked taking another look. Still standing uncertainly in the middle of the street, Burke had begun waving his gun again. But almost halfheartedly now. As though an engine running out of gas, his movements had slowed. Shoes scraping pavement as he stutter-stepped.
“Joy! Where the hell are you? Dammit, Joy…” His voice had grown weaker, shoulders falling. The gun now held limply at his side. “Aw, c’mon, woman…C’mon now…”
With a final, guttural sigh of resignation, he eased himself down to the pavement. Sitting with the revolver in his lap. Head lolling. Muttering to himself.
I risked getting to my feet, still at the rear of my car, while the man across the street slowly did the same. Also like me, he was reluctant to come out from behind the safety of his parked sedan. Instead, he and I merely looked at each other across the expanse of road, over Burke’s slumped head.
Before either of us could move or say a word, a patrol car, lights flashing, rumbled down the empty street toward us. It braked to a stop a dozen feet from where Burke sat, unmoving, looking as forlorn as a big man with a gun in his lap can look.
I headed toward the patrol car as two cops climbed out. One was white, and on the young side. The other was older, black, with a trim mustache. Each had his service pistol drawn. As they approached Burke, whose back was toward them, I called out.
“Gun!” I pointed at the sitting man.
That was all they needed to hear. Each cop two-handed his weapon, aimed at the back of Burke’s head.
“Lose the gun! Now!” The older uniform shouted at him. “Nice and easy. Two fingers. No sudden moves or you’re toast.”
“Do it, scumbag!” The younger cop took another step toward their suspect. “Fuckin’ chooch, do it now!”
Burke barely stirred. Then he slowly brought his hand up, the gun dangling between thumb and forefinger. Gingerly tossed it away. The revolver traveled about six yards and skittered to a stop on the pavement. The young cop hurried to scoop it up.
“Okay. Good,” the older one said to Burke. “Now don’t move, all right? Hands on your head.”
Burke did as he was told. Hands clasped tightly on his head, powerful arms spread like wings. Then both cops were on him, shoving him facedown, cuffing his hands behind his back. He didn’t resist.
“Damn bitches, all of ’em.” Burke’s voice slurred, more grief than rancor. The tone of defeat. “Bitches and ho’s…”
By this time, the man from across the street had come striding over to stand with me. Peering down at Burke.
The older cop craned his neck up at him. “Who are you?”
“Marv Kranski. Eddie and Joy are my next door neighbors. Eddie Burke and Joy Steadman. Lunatics, both of them.”
Though he stood in the glaring strobe of the patrol car’s flashing lights, I could just make out Kranski’s features. Middle-aged, with a beer belly and thick-rimmed glasses. I’d seen him, I now realized, a number of times as he drove to and from work. At least I’d assumed that was where he was going. I’d never even known his name. Unlike the old, Italian neighborhood in which I grew up, people on Grandview—at least on my stretch of street—rarely knew anything about each other.
“Were you the one who called it in?” the cop asked, as his partner hauled Burke to his feet. The big man was still muttering to himself, oblivious. Tear-blurred eyes downcast.
“Damn right, I called you guys.” Marv Kranski grunted indignantly. “Him and his slut girlfriend over there are always getting into fights. Screaming at each other. Throwing shit against the walls. Real picnic living next door.”
I turned to look at the pricey split-level house behind us, the one with the sedan parked in front.
“That’s your house, right?” I asked him.
“And my car, yeah. Used to be a nice, quiet street. Not so much ‘diversity,’ if ya know what I mean. Now it’s a goddam reality TV show. ‘Eddie and Joy’s Crib From Hell.’” He laughed at his own joke.
If the black officer took note of Kranski’s comment, he gave no indication. A thick silence grew between the two men.
Finally, Kranski gave a loud cough. “Look, I figure we’re done here, right? If you need anything more from me, you know where to find me.”
“Dispatch has your number. Thanks for calling it in, Mr. Kranski.”
He waved it off, as though suddenly bored with the whole affair. Then he trotted back toward his house.
“Speaking of Joy…” I looked past the two cops and Burke to find the young woman still motionless behind my Mustang, though she’d risen to her feet, staring distrustfully at the four men standing in the middle of the street. Even in the dim light, I could recognize the fear, the delayed panic cresting behind those angry, bitter eyes.
“Young lady.” The older cop called out to her gently. “I’m Officer Pratt. Mind comin’ over for a minute?”
He was practiced enough at handling domestic situations not to approach her, or ask too quickly for her side of the story. Acted as if he was just a regular guy, wanting to get to know her, giving her time to realize that the danger had passed.
But it appeared Pratt had misjudged the victim. Though she trembled slightly as she approached, her eyes remained hard. Wary. Older than her years.
As Pratt got some basic info from her, including her address—a handsome two-storied Colonial that sat at an angle across the street from my place—I suddenly grasped why she’d seemed so familiar before. I’d seen her a few times out in front of her house, retrieving her mail or getting behind the wheel of her Jaguar. She’d wave, and I’d casually wave back. Again, never having a clue as to her name or who she was.
Though now she was barefoot, wearing only jeans and a lacy, dirt-smudged top, I recalled how often she’d been stylishly dressed as she left her house. Model-stylish. Moneyed. The look and manner of casual, self-assured wealth.
Yet, appraising her pale, lovely face as she desultorily answered the cop’s questions, I could make out the faint marks on her cheek from the back of someone’s hand. Though he didn’t say anything, I knew that Pratt had noticed it, too.
The younger cop had bundled Eddie Burke into the back of the patrol car and locked the door. He came over to where we three stood, his gaze zeroing in on Joy Steadman. Openly staring at the swell of her taut breasts in the lace top, nipples outlined against the thin fabric.
With a grimace, Joy crossed her arms across her chest. Face turning to marble.
Unfazed, the young cop turned to me, his callow smile closer to a smirk.
“I know you.” He actually pointed at me. “You’re that shrink. Dan Rinaldi.”
“I’m not a shrink. I’m a clinical psychologist.”
“And you are?”
“Name’s McCarthy. Yeah, lotta us blues know about you. From the news and everything. You’re kinda on the job, right?”
“I consult with the Department, yes. When I’m asked.”
“Or even if you ain’t. Least, that’s how I hear it.” He chuckled knowingly. “Almost got your ass killed a couple times.”
I shrugged. “You had to be there.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Therapy, eh? That shit’s for mooks and pussies.”
I said nothing. He glanced over at his fellow officer.
“Want me to get the Doc’s statement, too, Henry?”
The older cop shrugged. “Fine with me. He did get his damn window shot out.”
I gave him a questioning look. “How’d you know that?”
Pratt laughed, and gestured toward my shattered front window. The wind had shifted, and was now sucking the drawn ends of my floor-length drapes to the outside.
“I figured you didn’t go and shoot out your window your own self,” he said. “For the hell of it.”
“Point taken. But look, how about I come down to the station later and give a statement? I’m on the payroll with the Department. You can be sure I’ll show up.”
“Why not tell us what happened now and get it over with?”
I turned to Joy Steadman, her hands dug into her jeans pocket, eyes averted. Fooling nobody. Especially not me.
“Because I think Ms. Steadman here needs someone to sit with her for a while. Just till her nerves quiet down.”
Her face came up, flushed, livid. “My nerves are fine, Doctor. I don’t need anything except to be left alone.”
McCarthy cleared his throat theatrically. “Not about to happen, Miss. We’re definitely gonna need your statement. Your jagoff boyfriend was out on the street, takin’ potshots and endangerin’ citizens. Figures you’d know why.”
“Sure I know why. Eddie and me got into a big fight, same as usual. And he was shit-faced, same as usual. Only this time he grabbed his gun and chased me out into the street. Started shooting.” A shrug. “There, that’s my statement.”
McCarthy stiffened, about to respond. But before he could, Pratt cut him off.
“I think the Doc here’s right. Let’s get Eddie down to the station. Ms. Steadman can come down later and swear out a complaint—”
With this, Joy whirled and shouted over at Burke, slumped in the back of the patrol car.
“And I will, too, you prick! I’ll see your sorry ass in jail! I hate you, I hate you, I—”
Suddenly she doubled over, took a half-step, and vomited onto the street. A violent, retching spasm, her arms flailing.
I raced to her side, as both uniforms instinctively backed away. McCarthy shook his head, laughing.
I looked the young cop over. Probably third-generation Irish. Classic Pittsburgh accent. Everybody was a chooch or a jagoff. Slang that you still hear sometimes, even as the Steel City continued to morph from a blue-collar, industrial town into a gentrified, white-collar hub of business and technology.
I turned my attention back to his partner. “Look, Officer Pratt, it’s obvious Ms. Steadman is in no shape to give a coherent statement. She’s trying like hell to fight it, but I think she’s in shock. Who wouldn’t be? Her boyfriend just tried to shoot her.”
“So what are you suggesting?” He folded his arms wearily.
“I told you I’d come down and give a statement—though I’d like to cover up my front window first. So what if I stay with Ms. Steadman for a while tonight, then drive us both downtown tomorrow morning? We can each give our statements then.”
Pratt frowned skeptically.
“Look,” I went on, “call in and ask for Angela Villanova. She’s the Community Liaison Officer.”
“I know who she is, son.”
“She’ll vouch for me.”
He stroked his mustache thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t be tryin’ to pull rank on an old beat cop, would you?”
I grinned. “Never. My dad was an old beat cop. He’d climb out of his grave and kick my ass if I ever tried that with one of Pittsburgh’s finest.”
The younger cop grunted. “Don’t listen to him, Henry. Doc got no rank to pull. He’s just a civilian, likes to see himself on TV.”
Pratt turned to him. “Do me a favor, will ya, Phil? Shut your damn pie-hole.”
Something in the older man’s voice made McCarthy do just that. Thank Christ.
Meanwhile, Joy had straightened up, wiping her mouth with her palm. Breath coming in gasps.
“I don’t need a baby-sitter.” Her sour squint took in both Officer Pratt and myself.
The older man sighed. “Well, young lady, here’re your options. You either come down to the station now and file a complaint against Mr. Burke, or you get a good night’s sleep and let Dr. Rinaldi drive you down in the morning.”
She thought it over for a few moments. Then, exhaling deeply, she finally relented.
“Well, one thing’s for sure, I can’t be seen looking like this. Bad for a girl’s image. I just threw up on myself, and I think I peed my pants while I was hiding behind Rinaldi’s car. I’ll need to soak in the tub for a week.”
Pratt’s gaze was steady. “Maybe. But we’ll need to see you downtown tomorrow, Ms. Steadman. Early.”
She managed an offended scowl, which he ignored.
Then Pratt gestured to his partner to follow and headed back to the patrol car. As he opened the driver’s side door, he peered over at me. A guarded smile.
“Now don’t let anything happen to our star witness, okay, Doc?”