Excerpt from If Looks Could Kill
It was Al MacNamara's first day on the job as police chief for Pyrite, Missouri, and he didn't want to screw up. It wasn't that he couldn't get another job if he did. After fourteen years pounding the streets along Chicago's Area Six, he could walk into damn near any metropolitan area he wanted and get work. He had enough commendations, not too many complaints, and only one ex-wife who still really hassled him. Forty was a year or two away and, according to his medical records, the steel plate in his head would only cause problems in airports.
But when he'd spent his medical leave poring over the ads in the law enforcement magazines, he'd ignored the name of every city big enough to be recognized. If he'd been wanting excitement and challenge he would have just stayed in Chicago. He'd spent all those hours while his eye had been bandaged closed looking for someplace just like Pyrite.
It was Monday evening, and the town was all but shut down for the night. Harry Truman High was in the basketball play-offs, which meant that except for the Pizza Hut, where the victorious champions would return to celebrate, the majority of businesses were locked and empty. Everybody was at the game.
With two square blocks of downtown, Pyrite sported the latest in video stores and the most vintage of hardware stores. It had the obligatory funeral home and used car dealership that labeled it a two-horse town, and three stop lights just to slow down the high school kids on Friday night.
Tucked into the northern folds of the Ozarks, Pyrite had once been a bustling little mining town. Now, though, it was just another struggling county seat a hundred or so miles south of St. Louis, in an area where the unemployment rate hovered in the teens. The town square boasted a Civil War monument, the Rock of Ages Baptist Church was the tallest building in town, and the city hall was housed in what had been Pyrite's only brush with supermarket convenience. After Chicago, just what Mac needed.
It was a town to walk, and that was what Mac was doing. He wasn't really used to it anymore, after the years in a black-and-white and then the detective's bureau. His senses were still too keen from surviving the projects to enjoy an easy stroll down Main Street. Last time he had walked a street he had been eyefucked by every gangbanger on the block. Tonight two little old ladies invited him to dinner, and the proprietor of the Kozy Kitchen intercepted him with a free cup of coffee. A long way from Cabrini Green.
For the first time in fifteen years, he could smell the fresh hint of spring on the damp night air. He heard a mourning dove in the tree in front of the barbershop and saw people sitting on their front porches. He was back walking a beat in uniform, and he felt pretty damn good. Not a bad way to start a new job.
He had just turned from Main onto Elm when he saw it. Or maybe he sensed it first. After this long, Mac no longer differentiated.
A shadow, back in the alley. A faint scratching noise. A very low curse. A funny itching at the back of his neck.
No mistaking that. Out of place here in Mayberry, but much too familiar from the real world to ignore.
Mac reached for his gun. Damn, not on his first night. Not on his first goddamn day here. He didn't even realize that he was already sweating, or that his gut had automatically clenched into a hard knot. When he drew his gun though, his hand was shaking, and it made him curse again.
Carefully, he stepped across the street and back onto the sidewalk. No use taking a bad guy out in the alley. It was a lesson he'd learned a long time ago in Chicago. Attempted got a slap. Catch 'em with their sneaky little toes over the threshold, though, and you had yourself a righteous collar with at least a chance at a sentence.
Mac took one more look around to see the streets still empty except for the appliance dealer across Main who was just locking up. But just his luck, there was somebody on the other side of the door the perp was testing. There were lights on in the shop and the shudder of movement behind the desk. Taking a deep, slow breath to ease the sudden staccato of his heart rate, Mac reached out with his left hand and opened the door of the How Do I Love Thee Flower Shop.
The little lady behind the counter looked up. "Oh, I'm sorry, we're closed," she said before her parchment and peach features folded into recognition. "Oh, Chief MacNamara, how lovely."
Mac lifted a finger to his mouth to silence her as he crept in, the gun held flat against his back where it wouldn't surprise her into really giving him away.
"Ma'am—" he began, sidestepping the horseshoe of carnations that read "To our lodge brother and most devoted bison" and heading for a counter that spilled over with ribbons and cards and charitable donation boxes.
The birdlike woman barely cleared the cash register. She was patting at hair the consistency and color of cotton candy and beaming at him with a coyness that looked well practiced. "I'm Miss Eloise Elliott, Chief. Please do call me Eloise. And welcome to town. No matter what Serita Ruth Patterson says, I'm glad to have you here."
So much for discretion.
She waggled a finger, even as Mac saw the lock on the back door tremble beneath the stealthy assault from the other side.
"Eloise," she admonished.
He nodded quickly, carefully bringing the gun around. "Eloise," he allowed very quietly, focusing on the job at hand instead of the shakes that threatened to take over, the liquid heat that seared his gut. "I want you to very quietly walk out the front door. I want you to do it now."
Miss Elliott's carefully penciled eyebrows lifted like gulls' wings. "Well, whatever for?"
She hadn't even seemed to notice the gun yet. Her hand had stilled against her bony chest, though.
"Because somebody's trying to break into your store, ma'am. Now if you'd just—"
He reached out to take her arm, just to get her going. She flinched away, shaking her head.
"Oh, no," she demurred, that hand now out front where it was shooing him away. "You go on, now. I don't believe I called you. I don't believe I called you at all. That wouldn't be fair, now, would it?"
One eye still on the pitifully inadequate door lock to the back alley, the other on Miss Elliott's now-smiling face, Mac did his best to hold his temper. He'd never been one to deal well with stupid civilians. It was much worse now. Much worse.
"No, you didn't call me," he said, making another try to catch her. "I saw it. Now, come on, before you get hurt."
"Hurt?" she echoed incredulously, looking around the pastel walls and the forest of real and artificial flowers in the little showroom. "Why would you think I'd be hurt?"
"Because somebody's trying to break into your store," he insisted.
Somewhere behind the pots of azaleas on the floor, there was a rustling. A faint hissing. Instinctively Mac spun on it, his gun up, his heart stumbling. The leaves dipped and his finger tightened around the trigger.
Nonchalant as hell, a cat stepped out of the foliage. Fat, nasty, and yellow-eyed, with a tail that stood straight up. Behind him were three more. Mac almost put six rounds straight into the goddamn things.
He tried his damnedest to get his breathing back under control before he returned his attention to the matter at hand.
The matter at hand had her attention on his outstretched arm.
"A gun," she accused, pointing at him. "Well, of course. Put that thing away, and we won't have any trouble, will we? After all, I didn't call you. I did not call the police."
Maybe this job wasn't going to work after all. The streets might be quieter, but the denizens certainly weren't any less loony. And the cats were beginning to circle him.
"Listen, Miss Elliott," Mac warned, struggling for control. "I'm not going to tell you again. Either get out of the store now, or I'm not going to be responsible for your safety. You have somebody trying to break into your store."
Unbelievably, she broke into a big smile. "Why, yes," she said with a bright nod. "That's the whole idea, isn't it?"