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Chicago, Friday, June 24, 10:06p.m.
One more drink and he was out of here.
Lincoln Reece nodded to the bartender, an unspoken order for another of the same. He exhaled a lungful of relief that his latest assignment was successfully behind him.
There was no greater rush than the one that came with victim vindication. No one should be allowed to get away with taking advantage of little old ladies. Particularly not a man operating under the guise of the Good Book. The three elderly widows on whose behalf Linc had acted had gotten back the deeds to their homes, and the unsavory counterfeit minister who'd done the swindling was behind bars without bail, awaiting the next step toward prosecution.
The bartender left the glass on the counter and moved on to the next patron without missing a beat.
Linc took a long swallow as he turned on the bar-stool to watch the Friday-night crowd. Most nights he was not on assignment he was here. He liked it here at Hazel's House. The music was low enough for conversation, not that he ever talked to anyone. Best of all he could slide deep into oblivion and walk the three blocks to his rent-by-the-week room. No one cared who you were or what your deal was here in Hazel's House.
Unless you dogged out the Cubs or the Bulls.
A table overturned on the other side of the room. Shouting broke out as bodies collided and fists swung. Linc leaned back and propped his arms on the counter to watch the show. A woman hollered that she didn't belong to no man. Ah, the other reason the occasional brawl broke out in Hazel's House. Jealousy.
Bouncers swaggered over to clear up the debate. Linc rotated the stool, turning his back to the ruckus. He didn't need any trouble tonight. He was here to chill. The last time he'd let his old cop instincts guide him he'd spent the night in lockup. His boss had gotten the charges dropped within mere hours of Linc's call.
Slade Keaton, head of the Equalizers, had a seemingly endless supply of resources. Linc downed the rest of his bourbon. Keaton was a decent boss. Linc hadn't enjoyed anything about a joband he'd had
severalor about life in general for seven years. Working as an Equalizer gave Linc the closest thing to satisfaction he'd experienced in that time. If you could call existing to work a sense of satisfaction.
Linc laughed, the sound little more than a growl in his throat. Not living just existing. Sad. So sad.
"Thought I'd find you in a place like this."
Linc recoiled. What the hell? His bleary gaze cleared instantly. But his brain reacted a little more slowly. He blinked to banish what was no doubt an alcohol-induced hallucination.
The man laughed, near loudly enough to drown out the blues melting from the speakers mounted in the joint. "That's priceless." He leaned in close. "What's it been? Five years?"
Linc gave his head a mental shake as he looked at the man with the gray hair, matching scraggly beard and laser-beam blue eyes. Mort Fraley. Enough long-exiled memories abruptly bombarded Linc to leave him shell-shocked.
Anger rammed his gut. "How'd you find me?" Linc hadn't seen or spoken to anyone from his old life since he'd given up on the idea that she might still be alive. She. He couldn't even bear to think her name, much less say it out loud.
Mort slid onto the stool next to Linc. He raised a hand to the bartender, pointed to Linc's glass and held up two fingers before turning his attention back to Linc. "I can't believe you asked that question." His eyebrows reared upward. "I've been a cop for thirty years. Besides," he said as he picked up one of the two glasses the bartender dropped off, "I was your first partner. I taught you everything you know. Finding you was amateur hour, amigo."
Linc knocked back a long swallow. Didn't do a thing for the tangle of emotions roiling in his belly. He swiped his mouth and met his mentor's gaze. "How long've you been keeping tabs on me?"
"Since the day you hit I-10 and put the City of Angels in your rearview mirror."
That too-familiar searing pain roared through Linc's chest. He decided to cut to the chase. "What do you want?" Linc had moved around a lot the past five years. He'd landed in Chicago just six months ago. Six weeks later he'd hired on with Keaton as an Equalizer. L.A. was a place and time he had no desire to revisit.
Mort contemplated the question for an irritatingly long time before answering. "I retired last year." He shrugged. "Finally started to travel the way the wife has always wanted."
A smile attempted to crack Linc's defensive disposition. "You been driving a motor home around the country like one of those old geezers who retire to Palm Springs every year?"
Mort made a face. "It beats sitting around the house waiting to die of boredom."
Linc shook off the moment of nostalgia. He didn't deal with that sentimental stuff anymore. "You two passing through?"
Mort glanced around the crowd, then turned a deadpan expression in Linc's direction. "Is there someplace quiet we can go?"
That face was another blast from the past Linc could have done without. The impulse to tell his old friend and mentor to get back in his motor home and hit the road pressed against his chest. But Linc knew this man really knew him. Mort wouldn't have gone to the trouble to find him if it wasn't important. And he sure wouldn't be hiding behind that mask he saved for interrogations.
"You dying or something?" The possibility added another layer of uneasiness to the churning in Linc's gut.
Mort pushed off his stool and threw a bill on the bar to cover the two drinks. "I saw an all-night diner down the street."
Linc dropped the cash for his own tab tonight. "I know the place."
Mort jawed all the way to the diner, catching Linc up on the old narcotics team, whether he wanted to hear it or not. But he'd put that life behind him; he wasn't going back for anything. As if to defy his determination, Linc's bum leg ached, adding a noticeable hitch to his gait.
The instant they slid into a booth Mort ordered a round of coffee. Black. This was serious.
"You know the wife always had a thing for country music." He chuckled before sipping his coffee. "All I've heard for thirty years is Nashville, Tennessee. 'I want to go to the Opry.'"
The coffee was hot and smelled strong enough to have been brewed at breakfast that morning. Linc fingered his cup. "Nothing wrong with having a dream." He'd had dreams once. Before he'd realized that it was better not to care. A man had nothing to lose if he owned nothing, cared about nothing. Especially dreams.
"Nothing at all," Mort agreed. "I figure I owe it to her for sticking with a narcotics detective for thirty years."
The abrupt lure of much-needed caffeine got the better of Linc, and he sucked down a gulp, then gritted his teeth at the bitterness after all that smooth bourbon.
"Last week," Mort went on, "we drove from Music City to a little Tennessee town named Blossom, of all things, outside the nursery capital of the world." He harrumphed. "Little village cluttered with antique shops, historic homes and nurseries filled with every sort of blooming bush and tree you can think of. As you can imagine, I was in heaven."
A deep, guttural laugh burst from Linc's throat. He couldn't remember the last time he'd laugheda real one, anyway. "I'm surprised you got out alive."
Mort didn't meet Linc's gaze. He stared into the coffee cup, both palms down on the table.
A choke hold tightened around Linc's throat. Something was definitely wrong here.
"The wife and I took one of those hokey historic tours." He shrugged. "You know, where they show you the oldest houses in town and whatever it is that puts the place on the map. Like the oldest Holly tree in the country. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, by the way. But none of that got my attention."
His instincts thumping like the subwoofers in a drug-dealing pimp's newest ride, Linc braced. Whispers, images from seven years ago seeped past the wall he'd built to block those memories.
Mort looked directly at Linc. "It was at the pink antebellum house, the Dowe house, that I saw her."
The urge to run hit Linc hard. He shook his head. "I don't want to hear this." He held up his hands. They shook. "I gotta go."
Mort grabbed him by the arm before he could slide from the booth. "Sit." He nodded to the seat. "Listen."
When Linc hesitated, Mort pressed, "You know me." He searched Linc's eyes, winced at what he no doubt saw reflected there. "I wouldn't be here if I wasn't sure."
Linc jerked free of Mort's hold and dropped back into the booth. He leaned across the table. "My wife is dead. You're the one who forced me to accept that fact!"
Mort heaved a heavy breath. "I can't argue with the truth." He nailed Linc with an unwavering stare. "But I know what I saw and heard."
Her body was never found. But then neither were the remains of most of the others who died that day. Only two survived. A thug. And Linc. Not a day had gone by since when Linc didn't wish he'd died, too. If he weren't such a damned coward he would have pulled the trigger one of those mornings when he'd stuck the muzzle of a gun in his mouth instead of coffee.
"Her face is a little different."
Linc scrubbed at his jaw, stroking the scar that slashed across his left cheek. "Then you could be wrong." Not could be. He was wrong. She was dead. Linc's wife was dead. It had taken two years for him to face that fact. Then he'd spent the next five running from the reality.
Mort shook his head. "It's her. The voice was hers. The way she moved. She goes by Mia Grant. The folks I talked to said she's lived there for about six years. The whole town loves her. But not one of them could say where she'd come from. I checked out the name. There was no Mia Grant matching her description prior to six years ago."
Linc couldn't do this. "I appreciate that you went to all this trouble to let me know." He was done here. If he sat here a second longer he would explode.
"I watched her restoring plaster molding in one of the houses on the tour."
Every single cell in Linc's body ceased to function.
"Her hands. The way she held the tools." Mort moved his head side to side again. "It's her."
Lori had been a tough cop. A narcotics detective. One who'd skipped her way to detective because she had uncanny instincts and an amazing ability to fall into character instantly. In her off time she loved driving around looking for old homes. She'd searched for months to find the perfect historic home before they'd decided to buy. A real fixer-upper. They'd hit a wall when it came to restoring the plaster. Hiring it out would have cost a small fortune. Lori had set out to master the skill of restoring plaster and she'd done it so well, her work had made a California home-builders' magazine.
A dash of hope combined with the agony that was churning deep inside Linc. He shook his head. What Mort was suggesting was impossible. "She's dead," Linc said. If she had survived she would have found a way to come home. No way would she be hiding out in some small Southern town. She had loved Linc. She wouldn't do that. His mentor was clearly growing senile or suffering from dementia.
Mort was the one to throw up his hands this time. "Believe what you will, but know that I watched and analyzed her for days before I came here."
Linc wanted to shake him. The man was pulling out all the stops. "Mort, I"
Linc shook his head. "Why would she do this?"
The resolution in Mort's eyes held steady. "If you don't believe me, go see for yourself. What've you got to lose?"
Nothing. The agonizing truth sank deeper into Linc's bones. He had lost everything seven years ago. The day his wife died trying to bring down a major West Coast scumbag, Linc had, for all intents and purposes, died with her.
"Just go," Mort urged. "Lori's alive."