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COUNTERFEIT – AN EXCERPT
By Scott L. Miller
I fumbled in the dark for the phone, fighting the knee-jerk fear that something terrible had happened to someone I care about. Again.
I picked up on the first ring and said, “What? Do you know what time it is?”
A pause, then: “Almos’ midnight, Cool Breeze.”
I recognized that baritone immediately, and my body went rigid.
“You better be suicidal.”
“Not in this lifetime. Sorry for the late call. Easy to lose track of time when you’re on a stakeout. I have a favor to ask, but I’ll call back in the morning—when your head’s clear.”
“I’m busy in the—,” I said as the line went dead in my hand.
How times change.
And how tragedy changes us.
The baritone belonged to JoJo Baker, a towering, bald black man with bulging biceps and a nasty scar that serpentined around his left eye and ended well past his cauliflower ear. For months he’d been a major player in some of my worst nightmares, but since I rarely slept these days, he didn’t haunt me anymore. Now, his voice brought back memories best left buried.
I imagined Baker parked strategically on some dark street, hunkered down in the front seat of his battered, souped-up black ’95 Fleetwood, eating Power bars and drinking stale coffee, enjoying an old Marvin Gaye song with the volume turned low, leafing through the latest Ring magazine, a pee jar at his side and the back seat littered with trash while he stalked his latest homicide suspect. At least he’s not trying to imprison me for murder this year.
Baker belongs to the night. Me, I wonder if I belong anywhere.
My instinct was to forget about the call, forget about Baker, pull the covers over my head, and go back pretending to sleep, pretending to not think about Kris.
But Baker has a way of getting under your skin, so I got up, checked the front door locks and glass for signs of illegal entry before I returned to bed. No glass on the landing; this time the break-in was internal.
My morning began with an on-line therapy session with a depressed Trans-Alaska pipeline oil rigger living above the Arctic Circle. The feeling of aloneness in the Land of the Midnight Sun can wreak its own brand of havoc on someone prone to depression and stuck in an isolated town named Deadhorse. With the nearest social worker or psychologist or psychiatrist or counselor by any name besides bartender hundreds of miles from his remote outpost and travel difficult under good conditions, a webcam and a good internet connection can do a man down on life a world of good.
I’d logged off from the session and was sipping a glass of juice, staring, like I do every day, out the same windows the man who murdered my girlfriend last year tried to throw me out of when my private line rang.
“Mitchell Adams,” I answered.
“How they hangin’, Cool Breeze?” I could hear the smooth, bluesy sound of the Robert Cray band in the background as the goose flesh crawled up my arms right on cue and I flashed back to Kris lying on a slab in the city morgue on Clark Avenue.
So much for the dawn of a new day.
“How are you, Detective Baker?” I answered, fighting to keep my voice calm. “It’s been a long time.”
But not long enough.
Like a bad dream Mutt and Jeff tag team, Baker was the larger-than-life detective with the city of St. Louis who, along with his diminutive partner Detective Francis LeMaster, had dutifully followed the planted evidence last year to make me the fall guy for Kris’ murder.
“Look, there’s a little brother in city lock-up could use someone to talk to before he goes ape shit and offs himself. Baker’s hushed tone was edged with an odd trace of anguish, like it physically pained him to say the words. “He needs good psych care. I know you the man for the job.”
My pause lapsed into an awkward silence.
“If you got the time,” Baker said, even softer now.
“What’d he do?”
Baker exhaled deeply and turned off the music. He must have been driving with the windows down, for now I heard car engines and other traffic sounds fill the background. I imagined the wheels turning in his big bald head while he decided on a tactic, his trademark toothpick rolling briskly in his mouth under the Fu Manchu mustache. I could see him in his favorite parrot-green sports coat, those massive biceps stretching the sleeves. On the surface Baker appeared to be a throwback to the seventies, but he was the most street-savvy person I’ve ever met.
“He accused of counterfeitin’, armed robbery and shootin’ a pregnant security guard in the stomach.”
I closed my eyes. “Did he do it?”
“Oh, he a big-time forger, all right. May be the best ever was. As for the rest, I’ll let you decide. Looks bad for the little brother though, with the Chief Prosecuting Attorney hisself descending Mount Olympus to take on this case.”
The silence stretched and I sensed uneasiness on the other end of the line. This case seemed personal.
“I knew him when we was in school,” Baker admitted, as if reading my thoughts. “But that was a long time ago. The brother ain’t never had a break in life, and now this shit happens. He won’t adjust well to prison life; he’s already talkin’ suicide. If anyone can help him now, it’d be you.”
“The Chief Prosecutor,” I said, “will make this case a political football. A full media circus. Racial overtones. The works.”
“Uh-huh,” Baker said. “A royal cluster fuck.” He paused a beat. “Right up your alley, man.”
I didn’t respond, and Baker sensed my reluctance. “He’ll be chained to the interview table, legs and hands shackled, man. This boy, he the runt of the litter. Disabled to boot. A guy like you, you—”
“What’s his disability?” I cut in.
Another pause. “You’ll know it when you see him.”
Ever since Kris’ rape and murder, fear and dread tended to lodge in my throat at the merest provocation. Situations I once would have handled with aplomb now made me freeze like a rabbit in the headlights. As a result I’d gone into self-imposed hibernation, seeing only safe clients—garden variety depressives and those with anxiety disorders—and helping good, decent people face the everyday stresses of modern life. My practice was full of social phobia clients: a successful businessman with OCD, the disease of doubt, who compulsively checks under his car every time it hits a bump, fearful he’s caused harm to others by accident; West County housewives with agoraphobia, bathroom, germ or other social phobias; and professionals whose careers were cratering because they were afraid of flying or traveling over bridges.
There was nothing wrong with limiting my schedule to those patients, of course. But I did it because I had my own social phobia—clients with hot-button issues like marital discord, physical or sexual abuse, and psychoses. These challenging cases used to be my forte, now I refer them to other providers in the group.
Since the early years spent nurturing and building the fledgling practice, I’d done quite well for myself. As clinical director, I receive income every time one of the eight other providers sees a client in the office. This success afforded me the financial freedom to lick my wounds and return to work at my own pace after Kris’ murder. It also gave me an easy out to obsess over and nurture my own fears. Including the fear that Detective Baker was buttering me up to take a no-win case that any other provider would decline in a heart-beat.
As a rule, I try to take on a gratis client for roughly every nine paying ones. Along with giving blood, I consider it my “pay it forward” to society. Baker knew that. More important, he knew me. Yes, he’d known what he was doing from the beginning, the bastard.
The familiar tightness in my chest returned.
“Is there anything else about him you’re not telling me?” I asked.
“Listen, there was a time when I’d have been the man for the job … but not anymore. I’m sorry, Detective Baker, but I’m turning you down.”
This time he let the silence drag, and I felt uncomfortable waiting for the call to end. Finally, he spoke. “Why you think I called you, Doc?” He didn’t wait for me to respond. “That poor little brother needs you or he gonna die. But you need him, too. Look in the mirror, you dumb motherfucker. Get your shit together ‘fore it’s too late.”
And with that, for the second time in less than twelve hours, Detective Baker hung up on me.
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