The Long Walk
At eleven the phone buzzed. Fleck had been dreaming, gazing out the window at the busy Atlanta street scene four floors below. He punched the conference button and heard the loud tinny voice of Franklin Bell calling from California. "Hey, John," Bell said. "You are a hard man to track down."
"You found me now," Fleck said. He had been relaxed; now he was uneasy. He straightened his back and the action down there snapped into sharp focus.
A woman pushing a stroller paused to extricate an angry child while Bell talked through the speakerphone.
"I got a job for you," he was saying. "The firm has a problem."
"I'm listening." His eyes stayed with the mother on the sidewalk. The child struggled out of her arms, made a break for the street.
"Just how tied up are you in Atlanta?"
"Depends," Fleck said. "What have you got?" By now he was standing, watching the woman tear after her kid.
A roaring semi blasted through Fleck's sight line. The woman launched herself into a tackle, arms out. When the truck had passed, his eyes searched for her again and found her dragging her child across the sidewalk. She picked him up, smacked his butt, and tethered him back into the stroller, tears streaming down her cheeks. Fleck sat down, turning to face the wall.
Bell said, "Pete was talking about you the other day. He liked your work on the Ibanez fraud case. I told him you were in Atlanta. He said call you. Confidentially, of course."
Law firms were like that. Discretion was the big virtue, even bigger than turning misery into money. Fleck didn't like Franklin Bell, but he liked Pete Altschuler, Bell's boss, a senior partner at Stevenson Safik & Morris, Berkeley's best-known law firm. Pete had represented him in the divorce and taken his middle-of-the-night calls, calls he was ashamed of now.
So he waited while Bell moseyed through the Berkeley weather report--hot and sunny--and talked about the fraud case, and Pete's mild heart attack, and the latest craziness on Telegraph Avenue, a shoot-out at one of the college bars, until he got back around to the reason for his call, which was to ask Fleck to catch the Delta red-eye Sunday night and meet him and Pete Monday morning to look into something important.
"I've got four more weeks on contract here," Fleck said.
He was working a temporary security job at one of the Peachtree Plaza skyscrapers. He had been in Atlanta for several months, and he liked it, the jazz, the bars, the style. In fact, he was thinking about moving here. In Atlanta, people of color could feel comfortable, could forget the race issue much of the time. In Berkeley, his hometown in California, it would always be black folks in the flats and white folks in the hills, white guilt and condescension, black rage. His ex-wife had been white. She still lived in their house on the old Grove Street, on the borderline.
"Interrupt it for a couple weeks," Bell said. He kept talking, wheedling, persuasing.
Fleck let him talk. His mind returned to the memory he had been caressing. Last night in the candlelight, and Charisse in his bed.
In his small apartment for the first time, shy with each other, they had moved together to a slow song, bodies slick with heat where they touched. Charisse had started it, dancing him toward a blowing curtain and then past it, to the door of his bedroom. He had forced himself to follow her, lighting the candles by the bed, lifting her onto the pillows. He meant to hold back his emotion, but he couldn't help himself. Groaning, he had buried himself in her soft flickers.
Toward morning, brief thunder and lightning filled the sky off his balcony. Fleck admired Charisse's body with his hands. She stirred, mumbling something. Thick drops splashed against the glass. She sat up in bed, reached over to the bedside table for her glasses, wrapped her arms around her knees, and peered out, unself-conscious.
"You ain't goin' nowhere." He had reached up to tug gently at her.
"Fleck fits you," she murmured, looking down at him. "Yellow flecks in green eyes . . . where'd those light eyes come from, your mama or your daddy? Hey, now . . . hey."
Later, he had rolled his fullback's body out of bed, embarrassed because he knew Charisse was watching him. She got up too, classic as a temple goddess wrapped in the yellow sheet, stretching her brown arms above her head and yawning. They showered and dressed, then walked together across the concrete plaza toward the concrete tower they both worked in, avoiding the puddles, not hurrying.
Charisse had said, "Having second thoughts?"
"No, ma'am. Never. Just scared of my luck," he'd answered.
"Not luck," she said. "Don't you believe in destiny? Paths always cross for a reason." They walked into the building, got into the same elevator they had met in.
"Paths cross by chance," he said. "You never know."
Charisse laughed, said, "All those chance events, all those coincidences for the last ten thousand years, all those ancestors, all those travels, all those births and deaths and tragedies and comedies, all that led to you and me meeting right here, going up. Honey, that is destiny."
He had looked at her, so small and sure and important-sounding, having to tilt her head up even in her high heels. He loved how she thought, big thoughts. He had wanted to hiss something sweet into her ear. Instead, as he stepped out, he touched her cheek, saying, "Doesn't matter why. Here we are."
Fleck wondered how long his silence had lasted. "No. I'll have to pass," he told Bell.
Now Bell paused. "We'll give you a five-thousand-dollar bonus for the rush."
"Now you have my attention. But get specific, okay?"
"Julie Mattei, remember her? Pete's legal secretary, pretty, ah, black girl, her desk right in front of Pete's door?"
He remembered Julie. He felt the familiar chilly liquid rush up his spine. "Yeah."
"She's dead," Bell said. "Beaten to death, awful thing, on a trail up behind the UC campus, up in the hills. Just before Easter. It's one of those random killings, some joker freaked on the latest street drug."
"She had a nice smile."
"Among other things," Bell said. "Three months now, and your former colleagues at the Berkeley PD still can't find the guy. They had to reopen the trail to the public. They're interviewing all the partners and staff again. They act like they suspect one of us. We're talking major PR problems. The Berkeley press is frothing at the mouth."
"Bring in a few clients," Fleck said.
Bell took him seriously. "This kind of coverage doesn't bring in the right kind of clients. Pete's upset. He got the okay to hire you to look into the murder at the last partners' meeting."
"I'm sorry to hear all this. But I don't want to come back right now, Frank."
"I'm authorized to offer a further bonus of ten grand if you locate the killer," Bell said, squeezing each word out as if it hurt him.
"Unless it's somebody at the firm," Fleck said.
"Would we be bringing you in if we thought that? Look, you know us; you know Berkeley." Another pause. Bell couldn't resist. "Come on, John, what's the big deal? You need the money, I happen to know."
"I'll call you back," Fleck said. The money, he needed. The job . . . it was wrong to go back there. Stupid, even. He hung up, thought a minute, then called Charisse, waiting impatiently for her line to clear. Finally she said, "Hello?" with that breathy Southern voice she had, and he said, "How about you fly to California with me?" She surprised the hell out of him when she said yes.
They flew out Sunday at midnight, first class. Charisse slept the whole way with her head against his shoulder. He froze his arm, not wanting to wake her up. While he sat there, he memorized her, her dark springy hair brushing his face, her full lips parted like a child's, her smooth broad forehead, her long eyelashes resting peacefully on her cheeks. The emptiness in him receded, to be replaced by something he was afraid to name.
He left her in the hotel room in San Francisco, driving his rental car against the traffic over the Bay Bridge the next day, morning sun assaulting his eyes the whole way. Atlanta had been warm and humid, but above downtown Berkeley, the East Bay hills shimmered dry yellow, the brush desiccating in the August heat. Sun baking him through the driver's window sucked the moisture out of him.
Stevenson Safik & Morris occupied the third floor of a downtown office building on Shattuck, half a mile from the UC campus. Inside, it felt too cold, too dark.
Franklin Bell hadn't changed. The smooth pasty face was crowned with a short TV-interview haircut and the muddy eyes appraised Fleck coolly. He didn't offer to shake hands. He'd done the job, brought Fleck in. There was no need to make nice anymore. He motioned at the secretary to bring some coffee, and strode off to find Pete Altschuler.
The two white lawyers came into Bell's office together a few minutes later. Pete Altschuler pumped his hand, saying how glad he was to see him. Altschuler had lost weight since the heart attack. When he smiled, the folds in his cheeks made deep parentheses; his lips had turned purplish. He sat down carefully in the other client chair. Bell frowned at both of them, then slid a heavy brown accordion folder stuffed with papers across his wide desk toward Fleck.
"The police reports. Autopsy. Photos. Lab stuff. It's all there. Take it with you," Altschuler said.
"We want you to clear the firm's name," added Bell. "Tamp the rumors. So she worked here; it's not like she got killed at her desk. No, she had to go marching around by herself out there in the hills until a crazy got at her. So much for the feminists."
A note of triumph sounded in his voice. Fleck thought, His wife's left him.
"Are the police focusing on anybody in particular here?" he asked Altschuler.
Altschuler seemed to have used up all his energy shaking hands. "Pete was just about to let her go," Bell interposed. "Her work performance wasn't up to par. She had told some of the other secretaries. She threatened to sue."
"So?" Fleck said.
"She was a flake. She told stories," Bell went on. "Never considered the consequences of her mouth."
"Ah, let's get it over with," Altschuler said in a weary voice. "You might as well hear it from me, John. We were having an affair. She wanted to break it off with me and I wanted to keep her. There were scenes. Everyone here knew about it."
"Why was she breaking it up?" Fleck said.
Altschuler shrugged. "Who knows? They never tell you the truth when they want to dump you." His voice was light, but his hands patted his thighs as if he needed comforting.
"Did you kill her?"
Altschuler's smile had turned into a grimace. "No. Guilty? Hell, yes. But not of murder."
"What about your wife?"
"You've got to be kidding. Anne never knew."
Franklin Bell's expression said, Yeah, sure. "Who else might have done it?" Fleck asked Bell. "Any ideas, Frank? Not that you knew her well, right?"
"It's no use looking for a motive," Bell said smoothly, leaning back in his swivel chair, clasping his hands behind his head, elaborately casual. "You of all people know this town, John. Every misfit with a grudge comes to Berkeley. Nobody follows the rules. Nobody leashes 'em. It was somebody she didn't even know. She met him on the trail, he had it in his head to kill somebody that morning, and there she was."
"She lived alone," Altschuler said. "Her mother lives in the city, teaches anthro at San Francisco State. She played piano, liked Japanese food, worried about her weight, decorated her desk with bottlebrush in a vase. This was a good, decent, fine girl, John."
"Have there been any other killings, attacks, anything like that, on that trail?"
"Not this one," Bell said. "But all those hill trails, bad things happen now and then. Berkeley's no exception. There was the Hillside Strangler in Santa Cruz. The Tamalpais trails are really dangerous. Hikers find bodies there every year."
"What about this trail--what is it called?"
"The college kids call it The Long Walk," Bell said. "It's about five miles, winding up from the UC stadium behind Strawberry Canyon. It's popular with the students, of course, and the hikers and the runners. At the top there's a stretch of flat granite and a rocky place they call The Cave, with a spring. They sunbathe there, rest up before going back down. It happened on a side path near The Cave."
"No witnesses, no weapon, no evidence. Somebody just grabbed her and bashed her brains in,"
Altschuler said. "It's not just for the firm, John. It's for her."
"She was a flake," Bell repeated, "and we really don't need this kind of attention."
"Why did you call me?" Fleck said. "Why do you think I can step in, when the Berkeley PD can't close it?"
"You worked there all those years. You know how it is," Altschuler said. "Other priorities. Drugs, runaways, domestic violence, foreign students getting robbed and killed, political demonstrations, the annual riots on Telegraph, the big murders, the orders to keep a low profile . . ."
Bell looked bored. He hauled himself out of the chair, said, "It's in the reports," looked at his watch. On cue, his phone buzzed. "Take care," he said. The meeting was over.
"Call me in a day or two, John," Altschuler said at the door into the hall. "Where are you going to start?"
"The Long Walk," Fleck said. He hefted the file under his arm. "You ever been there, Pete?"
"Not me," Altschuler said. His mouth opened in his long mournful face like he was about to say more, but the door closed, and Fleck was shut out.
Charisse had never been to the huge amusement park of San Francisco. That night they climbed the Coit Tower hill in a balmy sunset and ate at an Italian restaurant in North Beach. Then they drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito and had a few drinks on the outside deck at the Reef, looking back over the dark brilliant water toward the glowing city.
Some kids leaned too far over the railing, tossing bits of sourdough. A sea lion barked itself hoarse in the shallows below the deck and Charisse ran over to look. Pelicans and gulls circled and dove. Fleck sat there, too big for the flimsy wicker chair, finishing his drink, the sharp aromatic fumes of the brandy blending with the salt tang of the air. He had read the reports. He should not be on this case.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Sinister Shorts by Perri O'Shaughnessy. Copyright © 2006 by Perri O'Shaughnessy. Excerpted by permission of Delta, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.