March 24, 2018
The D.A. Wore Stilettos
by Mary T. Wagner
Third Place Winner of the CWA Annual First Chapter Contest
The black sedan cut its lights as it turned into the gravel driveway, a quarter mile from the edge of the cold freshwater sea called Lake Michigan. At three in the morning, between broken and back-lit cloud cover the waxing moon still provided enough light to navigate by where it landed, and there was no desire to draw attention. Idling now, the car inched forward easily on eight cylinders, pea gravel making tiny pops beneath the wheels. Where birches overhung the drive, moonlight dappled the car with silver flakes as it passed. But where cedar trees formed a windbreak, it was like steering into a black hole, emerging on the other side an act of faith. The driver guessed that the road ran straight. He certainly expected no help from his passenger in the back seat.
“You doing okay back there?” he asked with practiced casualness, glancing over his shoulder at the unkempt figure slouched in the far corner. Silence met the query, but he could feel eyes filled with frustration and anger, glazed over with alcohol, boring a dangerous hole in the back of his neck. The car hit a pothole deep in the shade, and the passenger lurched forward awkwardly, hands cuffed behind him, and hit the head rest with his face.
“Ow, goddammit,” was all he had to say as he struggled to push off the front seat with his shoulder and burrowed in again to the corner, leaning against the door frame locked against escape. He knew the real trouble was yet to come.
Andy Winters’ eyes snapped momentarily, unconsciously open as she turned over on her side of the king sized bed. A sharp breeze sailed over the window sill, and gave her bare shoulder an icy tap. About the time to break out the winter flannel, she felt rather than thought, and pulled at the edge of the down comforter, trying to burrow back into her dream without breaking it. There she was warm and safe, and if her dead husband’s face was starting by now to fade out of focus, at least there remained the solid feeling of him etched in memory. Strong. Uncomplicated. Steady, like her life used to be.
Logan County’s newest assistant district attorney tugged once, twice at the comforter, but it refused to inch forward, solidly anchored in to position by seventy pounds of softly snoring mongrel. Andrea Michelle Winters (nee McNulty) slid her foot through the sheets and none-too-gently pushed Ridgeway unceremoniously off the bed. He landed with a thud on the hardwood floor, and with a click of toenails and a shush of settling fur, circled a few times and adjusted to spending the next hour—or at least until his mistress fell fully asleep again—curled up on the braided rug by the dresser. Two years after Dan’s death, Andy had still not gotten used to freely claiming the middle of the bed for herself. Ridgeway, the aging opportunist, was constrained by no such sentiment or subconscious hesitation. He was a dog, and there was an empty spot in a soft place. Case closed. Freed of earlier impediments, Andy wrapped the cover around her shoulders while the cold air tickled her forehead, and she began to sink back into oblivion.
The night outside was never silent, and as she drifted, a familiar chorus of sound floated through the window with the breeze. Crickets, big and black, the ones who hadn’t moved indoors yet, fiddled their legs as the tall grass near the shore whipped back and forth and dead tree branches groaned and creaked in the woods nearby. A solitary owl hooted his contentment and existence far-off, and the waves crashed into froth at water’s edge. The sounds of night, the lullaby of nature’s breath, were varied but familiar and alive. Andy had almost reached that safe place again when the small sound of something muffled and metallic brought her bolt upright, a chill running down her spine that had nothing to do with the night air.
The bedroom faced the lake rather than the porch, and a quick look outside showed nothing out of the ordinary. The lawn, clipped short to the beginnings of the shore, fell away in a crinkled velvet swath. A fox lurked at the far edge of the yard, caught in shadowy relief. It looked backward at the source of the sound that woke Andy, then scampered into the safety of the woods. Ridgeway, entitled to be as hard of hearing as a twelve year old dog could be, simply looked up quizzically at Andy with icy blue eyes, His pointy ears cocked forward, unaware of any reason for alarm. Fat lot of good you are, fella, Andy thought. Pulling her robe on in the dark, she slid her cell phone into a pocket and walked silent and barefoot down the hall to check on her son and daughter.
Bella’s room was closest, and Andy turned the ornate copper door knob gingerly, trying to stay quiet. A floorboard creaked as she crossed the room to the bed, but Bella was deep in slumber, eight year old fantasies of ponies with soft muzzles and long, silky manes dancing in her dreams. The window shade was entirely up, and moonlight flooded the room through the lace curtains. It traced delicate patterns of silver and grey on the walls and floorboards, and glistened on Bella’s strawberry blond hair. Her freckled nose and smooth cheeks shone faintly as she breathed,, steady and shallow. Andy ran her fingers lightly across the bottom of the quilt at the foot of the bed, seeking tangible assurance that what she saw was real, then backed silently out of the room and quietly slid the door shut behind her.
Brian’s room was at the far end of the hall, and Andy was as afraid of what she wouldn’t find as much as of what she would.
She opened the door slowly. She tried to fight back the lurch of fear in her chest, but it was impossible, and her heart hammered up near her collarbones. She thought it would shake the pictures on the walls. The window was open. Andy felt the tingle of fresh air surround her as she entered the room, but the room faced north, and so it was entirely black. In the feeble glow that spilled forward from the tiny nightlight in the hall, Andy could make out a jumble of large lumps covered by a navy comforter, about the right size for a fifteen year old boy in the center of the double bed. She crossed the floor cautiously, sliding her feet along the surface so as not to step on the leaf litter of socks, books, paper clips, crumpled paper, dirty dishes and assorted flotsam that would inevitably wash up in the corners, but could prove treacherous crossing in the dark. When she reached the bed, she held her breath and gingerly palpated the covers from the bottom up. If she felt the outline of a foot, she would retreat quietly, unannounced, and visit the next level of her apprehension, the thought that there was someone outside that shouldn’t be there at this hour. Finding nothing there, however, but a pillow and some clothing balled up to create the rough outline of someone sleeping beneath the covers, she sat down heavily on the edge of the bed and began to triage her deepest fears.
The rap on the kitchen door was firm, but quietly unobtrusive. Designed to politely give notice only to someone who might expect it, not to raise the dead. Still barefoot, Andy flipped on the kitchen lights and cinched her pink chenille robe more tightly around here, then set her jaw, screwed up her courage and opened the door. She left the porch light off, but even through the screen the moonlight played on metallic gold flakes, and she could make out the familiar reflective striping and official logo of a Logan County sheriff’s squad car.
Two shapes stood on the porch in the dark.
“A.D.A. Winters?” The voice was unfamiliar, but still had that universal cop quality to it, both confident and wary at the same time.
“I believe this young man belongs to you.”
Brian edged forward out of the shadow, propelled by his escort’s shoulder behind him. No longer in handcuffs, he rubbed at his reddened wrists and glared at his mother. He looked like hell, more so than usual. His low-riding, boxer-baring, elephant legged pants were dragging even lower than usual, and the knees were caked with mud and smears of grass. His left cheekbone was already starting to show signs of bruising. His wrinkled flannel shirt was ripped up the side, and his hair looked like he’d been sleeping in a squirrel’s nest, fragments of leaves and dead grass stuck to the shoulder length brown curls. It was his eyes that were so hard to recognize, she thought with a sick feeling in her stomach, angry and lost and … what else?
He pushed past her into the kitchen. Andy didn’t know what to ask.
“He’s had a lot to drink tonight, so I don’t think he’s going to be much good for conversation,” the cop said with practiced ease. He stepped through the doorway, providing a buffer between Andy and her wildly competing urges to break down in tears of relief, shake Brian until his brains rattled, scream, run away, hang herself because this was just too fucking hard.
Andy gave her son a small shove toward the stairs, as much to just connect with a human touch as to direct, and he flinched at the contact. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said, not looking back at her, and walked heavily up to his room.
Andy turned back to the cop, and tried to gain footing on saner ground. “It looks like we’re going to be doing some talking for a while. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Coffee would be great if you’ve got some ready to go,” he said, noting the coffeemaker near the sink.
Andy shook her head. “Sorry to get your hopes up,” she said. “I’m not the real coffee drinker in the family.” She felt a glitch of disconnection at her words, realizing how long it had been since anyone new had sat in her kitchen that didn’t already know this about her. “That was for my husband. I started him a pot of the stuff every morning. I guess I should finally put it away.”
“Then tea would be fine.”
Andy filled the enameled kettle with water, and set the burner on high. A teabag and a mug of water in the microwave was her usual seat-of-the-pants pattern, but there was nothing usual about right now. The anticipation of waiting for the water to boil seemed instinctively to impose one more layer of ritual that might through the coming conversation. The kettle started warming with a metallic hum.
They both sat down at the square wooden butcher block table, and Andy eyed the gold name tag on the cop’s navy shirt. “P. Tyrrell. Have we met?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m Paul. I’m still pretty new out here. I usually work second shift. I’ve seen you in court a couple of times, but you were pretty busy at the time.”
“So what are you doing on patrol at this time of night?”
“We’re short-handed right now. A couple of guys got scheduled for training that should have been staggered differently. So we’re balancing where we can.”
Silence settled in and Andy wondered how soon the kettle would whistle so she’d have something to do with her hands. She glanced toward the stove and when her eyes drifted back, the cop had shifted his gaze to the dark outside the kitchen window. He didn’t look familiar in the least. If she had to size him up, it would be…average. Mostly. Average build, average height, average…hair (if a little thinning). Still, there was an edge from somewhere that didn’t seem to say Midwest.
“You from around here?”
“No. I grew up in the Army. Been living in California for the past ten years, but this job came up at the right time to make a change.” That would explain the sunburned squint around his blue eyes.
“Pretty big one, I would think.”
“Yeah,” he said, and his eyes looked like his mind was suddenly somewhere else. If she had any more room for feeling, Andy thought, she would probably like what she saw sitting at that kitchen table and then wonder about that look. Instead, she gripped the lower half of her face in her right hand.
“I didn’t know Brian was gone,” she said.
“Boys don’t often tell their mothers when they’re sneaking out,” Paul said in a practiced stab at diplomacy.
“Step-mother,” she countered softly. “He was five when I met my husband. And Dan didn’t even know he existed until a year after that.” All the cards on the table tonight.
Paul gave a low whistle. “Boy, I’ve got nothin’ to bring on that one,” he said.
“So what was Brian doing this time, and how much shit is he finally in?”
Paul looked back at her, and the corners of his mouth twitched with a tiny smile. “With you, I can’t imagine the depth of the trouble that boy is in. On paper, I’m planning to let this one go.”
“Some kids had a drinking party out at Raptor’s Point earlier in the night,” he explained. “We did the breath tests, wrote the tickets, called the parents to drive ’em home.”
“Was Brian there?”
“Yes and no.”
“How the hell does that work?”
“Apparently he was there, but when we showed up he ducked into the woods. We never saw him then. I just thought it would be a good idea later to come back and see if there was anything or anybody we missed.”
“Well, there he sat. Drunk as a skunk. I think he was hoping that one of his friends would come back and give him a ride home.”
Andy tried hard to process the information, but there was a mental block somewhere. “How the heck did he get there? None of his friends is old enough to drive.”
“Obviously none of the friends that you know about,” he said.
The kettle finally sang, and Andy busied herself with the cups and saucers, spoons and sugar for a couple of minutes. Ridgeway, curiosity finally aroused enough to give up his spot on the bed to come downstairs and investigate, gave the cop a cursory sniff and raised a hackle, then concluded that this might be someone who could rub his ears and gave up all pretense of being standoffish.
“Why the free pass this time?” Andy asked. She felt herself walking a razor’s edge here. No mother in her right mind wanted her kid sucked into the tar pit of the juvenile system…but on the other hand, whatever approach she was using with Brian was sure not making things better.
“Call it professional courtesy,” he said.
“Oh, bullshit. You’ve never even met either of us before tonight.”
“Well, that’s not exactly true,” he said. “I have met Brian before on a couple of occasions. Just for a few questions about other things and other people, mind you.”
Andy took in this news in silence.
Paul pressed on. “Look, if you want me to write him a ticket for underage drinking, I will. If you want me to arrest him for resisting an officer, I can do that too.” She looked at him bleakly. “But right now I don’t see the need. Frankly I don’t know what he needs from you or anybody else…but starting a record might not be the answer you’re looking for right now.”
“And what the hell do you know that entitles you to make that judgment?” Andy knew she was starting to sound testy and arrogant and bitter all in one, but under the circumstances she couldn’t help herself.
Paul pushed himself back from the table, giving her a little more breathing room. He couldn’t disguise a wince as he did so. Andy shot a sideways glance under the table, and saw a mud-smeared tear at the left knee of the navy uniform pants.
“Not his fault,” he said, hands spread. “It was dark, and the grass was a little slippery underfoot.”
Chastened, Andy took an ice bag from the freezer. “Don’t argue. I owe you. So what else were you going to say?”
“What I know is that he’s a boy who lost his dad in an accident two years ago. I know that three years ago, he got a deferred prosecution agreement for some stupid vandalism, but seemed to straighten out like most of the kids do when that happens. And I’m guessing that you’ve probably got a few holes left in you over the past couple of years that can’t be making this any easier on any of you.” He paused, reaching for the right words. “When I was his age I didn’t make it easy on anybody.”
“Now that, I can believe.”
They both suddenly found their cups of tea very interesting, and a wary silence hung over the kitchen table. Andy broke it first. “Okay, tell me what I don’t know about my son.”
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