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The Best American Mystery Stories Part 15

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"Everyone gets lucky, even you," Tess said. "It's all too incredible that the warrant was lost all these years. What I don't get is how it was found."

"Department got some grant for computer work. Isn't that great? There's not enough money to make sure DNA samples are stored safely, but some think tank gave us money so college students can spend all summer keystroking data. The guy moved about two weeks after the murder, before he was named in the warrant. Moved all of five miles, from West Baltimore to the county, but he wasn't the kind of guy who left a forwarding address. Or the cop on the case was a bonehead. At any rate, he's gone forty years wanted for murder, and if he hadn't been in that fight night before last, he might've gone another forty."

"Did he even know there was a warrant on him?"

"Oh, yeah. He knew exactly why he was there. Story came out of him as if he had been rehearsing it for years. Kept saying, "Yep, I did it, no doubt about it. You do what you have to do, Officer.' So we charged him, the judge put a hundred-grand bail on him, a bail bondsman put up ten thousand, and he went home."

"I guess someone who's lived at the same address for thirty-nine years isn't considered a flight risk."

"Flight risk? I think if I had left this guy in the room with all our opened files, he would have confessed to every homicide in Baltimore. I have never seen someone so eager to confess to a crime. I almost think he wants to go to jail."

"Maybe he's convinced that a city jury won't lock him up, or that he can get a plea. How did the victim die?"

"Blunt-force trauma in a burglary. There's no physical evidence, and the warrant was sworn out on the basis of an eyewitness who's been dead for ten years."

"So you probably couldn't get a conviction at all if it went to trial."

"Nope. That's what makes it so odd. Even if she were alive, she'd be almost ninety by now, pretty easy to break down on the stand."

"What's the file say?"

"Neighbor lady said she saw William Harrison leave the premises, acting strangely. She knew the guy because he did odd jobs in the neighborhood, even worked for her on occasion, but there was no reason for him to be at the victim's house so late at night." "Good luck recovering the evidence from Evidence Control." "Would you believe they still had the weapon? The guy's head was bashed in with an iron. But that's all 1 got. If the guy hadn't confessed, if he had stonewalled me or gotten with a lawyer, I wouldn't have anything."

"So what do you want me to tell you? I never met this man before we became impromptu tag-team wrestlers. He seemed pretty meek to me, but who knows what he was like forty years ago? Maybe he's just a guy with a conscience, who's been waiting all these years to see if someone's going to catch up with him."

Tull shook his head. "One thing. He didn't know what the murder weapon was. Said he forgot."

"Well, forty years. It's possible."

"Maybe." Tull, who had already finished his coffee, reached for Tess's absent-mindedly, grimacing when he realized it was a latte. Caffeine was his fuel, his vice of choice, and he didn't like it diluted in any way.

"Take the easy stat, Martin. Guy's named in a warrant, and he said he did it. He does have a temper, I saw that much. Last night it was a soda can. Forty years ago, it very well could have been an iron."

"I've got a conscience, too, you know." Tull looked offended.

Tess realized that it wasn't something she knew that had prompted Tull to call her up, but something he wanted her to do. Yet Tull would not ask her directly, because then he would be in her debt. He was a man, after all. But if she volunteered to do what he seemed to want, he would honor her next favor, and Tess was frequently in need of favors.

"I'll talk to him. See if he'll open up to his tag-team partner."

Tull didn't even so much as nod to acknowledge the offer. It was as if Tess's acquiescence were a belch, or something else that wouldn't be commented on in polite company.

The shoeshine man - William Harrison, Tess reminded herself, she had a name for him now - lived in a neat bungalow just over the line in what was known as the Woodlawn section of Baltimore County. Forty years ago, Mr. Harrison would have been one of its first black residents, and he would have been denied entrance to the amus.e.m.e.nt park only a few blocks from his house. Now the neighborhood was more black than white, but still middle cla.s.s.

A tiny woman answered the door to Mr. Harrison's bungalow, her eyes blight and curious.

"Mrs. Harrison?"

"Miss." There was a note of reprimand for Tess's a.s.sumption.

"My name is Tess Monaghan. I met your brother two nights ago in the, um, fracas."

"Oh, he felt so bad about that. He said it was shameful, how the only person who wanted to help him was a girl. He found it appalling."

She drew out the syllables of the last word, as if it gave her some special pleasure.

"It was so unfair what happened to him. And then this mix-up with the warrant. . ."

The bright catlike eyes narrowed a bit. "What do you mean by mix-up?"

"Mr. Harrison just doesn't seem to me to be the kind of man who could kill someone."

"Well, he says he was." Spoken matter-of-factly, as if the topic were the weather or something else of little consequence. "I knew nothing about it, of course. The warrant or the murder."

"Of course," Tess agreed. This woman did not look like someone who had been burdened with a loved one's secret for four decades. Where her brother was stooped and grave, she had the regal posture of a short woman intent on using every inch given her, but there was something blithe, almost gleeful, beneath her dignity. Did she not like her brother?

"It was silly of William" - she stretched the name out, giving it a grand, growling p.r.o.nunciation, Will-yum - "to tell his story and sign the statement, without even talking to a lawyer. I told him to wait, to see what they said, but he wouldn't."

"But if you knew nothing about it. . ."

"Nothing about it until two nights ago," Miss Harrison clarified. That was the word that popped into Tess's head, clarified, and she wondered at it. Clarifications were what people made when things weren't quite right.

"And were you shocked?"

"Oh, he had a temper when he was young. Anything was possible."

"Is your brother at home?"

"He's at work. We still have to eat, you know." Now she sounded almost angry. "He didn't think of that, did he, when he decided to be so n.o.ble. I told him this house may be paid off, but we still have to eat and buy gas for my car. Did you know they cut your Social Security off when you go to prison?"

Tess did not. She had relatives who were far from pure, but they had managed to avoid doing time. So far.

"Well," Miss Harrison said, "they do. But Will-yum didn't think of that, did he? Men are funny that way. They're so determined to be gallant"- again, the word was spoken with great pleasure, with the tone of a child trying to be grand - "that they don't think things through. He may feel better, but what about me?"

"Do you have no income, then?"

"I worked as a laundress. You don't get a pension for being a laundress. My brother, however, was a custodian for Social Security, right here in Woodlawn."

"I thought he shined shoes."

"Yes, now." Miss Harrison was growing annoyed with Tess. "But not always: William was enterprising, even as a young man. He worked as a custodian at Social Security, which is why he has Social Security. But he took on odd jobs, shined shoes. He hates to be idle. He won't like prison, no matter what he thinks."

"He did odd jobs for the man he killed, right?"

"Some. Not many. Really, hardly any at all. They barely knew each other."

Miss Harrison seemed to think this mitigated the crime somehow, that the superficiality of the relationship excused her brother's deed.

"Police always thought it was a burglary?" Tess hoped her tone would invite a confidence, or at least another clarification.

"Yes," she said. "Yes. That, too. Things were taken. Everyone knew that."

"So you were familiar with the case, but not your brother's connection to it?"

"Well, I knew the man. Maurice d.i.c.kman. We lived in the neighborhood, after all. And people talked, of course. It was a big deal, murder, forty years ago. Not the happenstance that it's become. But he was a showy man. He thought awfully well of himself, because he had money and a business. Perhaps he shouldn't have made such a spectacle of himself, and then no one would have tried to steal from him. You know what the Bible says, about the rich man and the camel and the eye of the needle? It's true, you know. Not always, but often enough."

"Why did your brother burglarize his home? Was that something else he did to supplement his paycheck? Is that something he still does?"

"My brother," Miss Harrison said, drawing herself up so she gained yet another inch, "is not a thief."

"But -"

"I don't like talking to you," she said abruptly. "I thought you were on our side, but I see now I was foolish. I know what happened. You called the police. You talked about pressing charges. If it weren't for you, none of this would have happened. You're a terrible person. Forty years, and trouble never came for us, and then you undid everything. You have brought us nothing but grief, which we can ill afford."

She stamped her feet, an impressive gesture, small though they were. Stamped her feet and went back inside the house, taking a moment to latch the screen behind her, as if Tess's manners were so suspect that she might try to follow where she clearly wasn't wanted.

The shoeshine man did work at Penn Station, after all, stationed in front of the old-fashioned wooden seats that always made Tess cringe a bit. There was something about one man perched above another that didn't sit quite right with her, especially when the other man was bent over the enthroned one's shoes.

Then again, pedicures probably looked pretty demeaning, too, depending on one's perspective.

"I'm really sorry, Mr. Harrison, about the mess I've gotten you into." She had refused to sit in his chair, choosing to lean against the wall instead.

"Got myself into, truth be told. If I hadn't thrown that soda can, none of this would have happened. I could have gone another forty years without anyone bothering me."

"But you could go to prison."

"Looks that way." He was almost cheerful about it.

"You should get a lawyer, get that confession thrown out. Without it, they've got nothing."

"They've got a closed case, that's what they've got. A closed case. And maybe I'll get probation."

"It's not a bad bet, but the stakes are awfully high. Even with a five-year sentence, you might die in prison."

"Might not," he said.

"Still, your sister seems pretty upset."

"Oh, Mattie's always getting upset about something. Our mother thought she was doing right by her, teaching her those Queen of Sheba manners, but all she did was make her perpetually disappointed. Now, if Mattie had been born just a decade later, she might have had a different life. But she wasn't, and I wasn't, and that's that."

"She did seem . . . refined," Tess said, thinking of the woman's impeccable appearance and the way she loved to stress big words.

"She was raised to be a lady. Unfortunately, she didn't have a lady's job. No shame in washing clothes, but no honor in it either, not for someone like Mattie. She should have stayed in school, become a teacher. But Mattie thought it would be easy to marry a man on the rise. She just didn't figure that a man on the rise would want a woman on the rise, too, that the manners and the looks wouldn't be enough. A man on the rise doesn't want a woman to get out of his bed and then wash his sheets, not unless she's already his wife. Mattie should never have dropped out of school. It was a shame, what she gave up."

"Being a teacher, you mean."

"Yeah," he said, his tone vague and faraway. "Yeah. She could have gone back, even after she dropped out, but she just stomped her feet and threw back that pretty head of hers. Threw back her pretty head and cried."

"Threw back her pretty head and cried - why does that sound familiar?"

"I couldn't tell you."

"Threw back her pretty head ... I know that, but I can't place it."

"Couldn't help you." He began whistling a tune, "Begin the Beguine."

"Mr. Harrison - you didn't kill that man, did you?"

"Well, now, I say I did, and why would anyone want to argue with me? And I was seen coming from his house that night, sure as anything. That neighbor, Edna Buford, she didn't miss a trick on that block."

"What did you hit him with?"

"An iron," he said triumphantly. "An iron!"

"You didn't know that two days ago."

"I was nervous."

"You were anything but, from what I hear."

"I'm an old man. I don't always remember what I should."

"So it was an iron?"

"Definitely, one of those old-fashioned ones, cast iron. The kind you had to heat."

"The kind," Tess said, "that a man's laundress might use."

"Mebbe. Does it really matter? Does any of this really matter? If it did, would they have taken forty years to find me? I'll tell you this much - if Maurice d.i.c.kman had been a white man, I bet I wouldn't have been walking around all this time. He wasn't a nice man, Mr. d.i.c.kman, but the police didn't know that. For all they knew, he was a good citizen. A man was killed, and n.o.body cared. Except Edna Buford, peeking through her curtains. They should have found me long ago. Know something else?"

"What?" Tess leaned forward, a.s.suming a confession was about to be made.

"I did put the mayonnaise on that man's shoe. It had been a light day here, and I wanted to pick up a few extra dollars on my way home. I'm usually better about picking my marks, though. I won't make that mistake again."

A lawyer of Tess's acquaintance, Tyner Gray, asked that the court throw out the charges against William Harrison on the grounds that his confession was coerced. A plea bargain was offered instead- five years probation. "I told you so," Mr. Harrison chortled to Tess, gloating a little at his prescience.

"Lifted up her lovely head and cried," Tess said.

"What?"

"That's the line I thought you were quoting. You said 'threw,' but the line was lifted. I had to feed it through Google a few different ways to nail it, but I did. 'Miss Otis Regrets.' It's about a woman who kills her lover, and is then hanged on the gallows."

"Computers are interesting," Mr. Harrison said.

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The Best American Mystery Stories Part 15 summary

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