Read an Excerpt
A Michael Spraggue Mystery
By Linda Barnes
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Linda Appleblatt Barnes
All rights reserved.
With sweaty fingers, Spraggue yanked a crumpled scrap of paper from the pocket of his running shorts. He didn't have to read it; he knew it. Awkward block printing on dime-store stationery. Today's date, in numerals and slashes, in the upper right-hand corner. CHESTNUT HILL RESERVOIR. Beneath it, RUN FOR YOUR LIFE. Beneath that, 3 P.M. And at the bottom, the scrawled signature that took most of the sting out of the threat, A FRIEND INDEED.
Frowning, he shoved the note back in his pocket, glanced around hoping to get a glimpse of the author.
The scene would have been picture postcard stuff if not for all the ragtag runners. The reservoir's shape could, have been fashioned by nature rather than bulldozer. Furled along an irregular rocky coast, the water seemed suspect — too perfect a blue, barely rippled by the mid-April breeze. If you ignored busy Beacon Street slicing through the middle, the grounds resembled those of an English country estate, with the tiny, boxlike gatehouses and support structures along the shore serving as outbuildings to the two ornate Chestnut Hill Pumping Stations.
Afternoon sunshine glinted off the surface of the pond and forced the runners to squint. Those who had come equipped with sun visors smugly pulled them down. Spraggue, lacking visor or sunglasses, momentarily shut his eyes, sun-struck, and stubbed his toe on a lurking rock. One more discomfort hardly seemed to matter.
Today's most aggravating scenario, he thought, plodding determinedly onward, would encompass aching muscles — worse — a torn Achilles tendon, the direct result of pretending a thirty-five-year-old body could still move like an eighteen-year-old one. Blistered feet. One car towed from its dubious mooring in a zone prominently marked by No Parking signs — worse — held captive by the dread yellow Denver Boot, bane of Boston drivers. He tried to recall whether he had the requisite five unpaid parking tickets stuffed in the dash compartment. And to top it all off, the anonymous letter writer wouldn't show.
The trail narrowed and changed from shin-splintering cement to a foot-mangling mixture of gravel and turf. A murderous incline made the fronts of his thighs shriek in protest, the backs of his thighs cringe in anticipation of the eventual decline.
The path swarmed with runners, atoning for training time lost to the freak April blizzard, chests emblazoned with the logos of sportswear manufacturers or the locales of popular road races: New York; Denver; Charleston; Falmouth; Eugene, Oregon. Fukuoka, Japan was represented by a slight, exuberant Oriental in spotless white running shorts. Through sun-dazzled eyes, the runners — despite their mismatched apparel and dirty sneakers — looked uniformly young, incredibly thin, disgustingly fit. Feeling like some creaky relic, Spraggue increased his pace. He'd have asked the attractive, bronzed woman running alongside him when they'd started letting babies run the Boston Marathon, if he'd thought he could summon sufficient breath to string together the ten or so necessary words. He knew that if he tried, he'd gasp like a salmon jerked out of a stream. He dug his balled fist into his right side, searching for the source of a gnawing ache.
Could the bronzed woman have composed the curious note, delivered it to Aunt Mary, the only person always able to contact him? Was that why she paced herself so steadily beside him? Even as he had the thought, she gulped in a deep breath, and sprinted ahead.
On the whole, he hoped his mysterious correspondent was a woman, a fascinating dark-eyed woman, with sculptured cheekbones and a ready, aching smile.
Didn't any of these runners perspire?
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
To keep his mind off a right baby toe that felt like a swelling balloon, off the letter writer's three o'clock deadline, he recited bits of As You Like It under his breath. Not his own lines, but those of the banished Duke Senior, words appropriate to the rustic surroundings. And he scrutinized the faces of approaching runners, chiding himself for paying greater attention to the females. It wasn't that he believed the anonymous note to be a feminine invention, he admitted. It was pure loneliness, pure longing.
He considered the possible benefits of consoling himself with one of his female colleagues at the Harvard Rep. The exquisite, if predatory lady who played Celia to his Oliver, perhaps. Was there any hope for an honest relationship with a woman with whom he feigned falling in love four times a week in Act Four, scene three?
The ache in his side took a fierce bite out of his appendix and his calf muscles picked the same moment to shift from minor grievance to screaming alarm.
"Spraggue! Over here!"
The rumbling voice was unmistakable. He turned his head and saw Pete Collatos, dark hair plastered in ringlets against his skull, sprinting toward him. A terry-cloth band, circling his broad forehead, failed to keep the sweat from pouring down his swarthy face. Spraggue's mouth split in a rueful grin. So much for the mystery woman. He tried to breathe normally. His lungs burned.
Collatos' running companion, a strikingly familiar-looking man wearing last year's '81 Boston Marathon T-shirt, approached from the right and halted, jogging in place, breathing as softly and regularly as if he'd been relaxing in a lounge chair by the side of a crystal pool instead of racing hell for leather around the Chestnut Hill Reservoir.
Collatos wiped his hand off on his shorts before offering it for a handshake. "I thought you were one of those lousy, good for nothing, half-hour-in-the-morning-if-it-doesn't-rain runners. You gonna do the marathon this year?"
"No way." Spraggue searched for a sign that he'd met up with his anonymous correspondent, decided not to mention the reason for his unusual afternoon run. Not yet. "How's Boston's finest?"
"Hang on to your hat; I'm not a cop anymore," Collatos said. "Got laid off. Goddamn Proposition 21/2." The ex-cop smacked himself on the forehead with the flat of his palm, a gesture Spraggue remembered from countless nights in a sweltering telephone booth of an office at police headquarters, and turned to the man jogging impatiently at his side. "Excuse me. Sorry, Brian. Meet one of the snakes I had to deal with when I was a humble civil servant. Michael Spraggue — Senator Brian Donagher."
That accounted for the overwhelming sense of familiarity. Spraggue mentally kicked himself for not tagging a name to the man earlier. But this Donagher looked much older than the brash upstart who'd run for U.S. Senate six years ago on a platform as liberal as that of any sixties Democrat and confounded all the pollsters by winning. He'd aged more than the time should have allowed. His hair looked darker than it did on television, on his ubiquitous campaign posters. His blue eyes, twinkling out of a nest of fine lines that belied his youthful physique, seemed just as frank, his face as gaunt.
The senator displayed a flash of even white teeth as he extended his hand, crinkling up his face even more. "If you're the Michael Spraggue who spells his last name with two g's, I've met your aunt at a few fundraisers lately."
"Pleased to meet you," Spraggue said, returning the man's smile. "Get anything out of her?" He wished someone would suggest going out for a drink.
"A few tips on playing the stock market."
"You running the marathon?"
Donagher's face seamed into another smile. "You bet. God, I've missed running the damn thing. Last year, when I was sitting on my butt on that reviewing stand at the Prudential Center, I vowed that I'd run it this year, if I had to get the Senate to pass a special bill letting me out for training time."
"Planning to come in second again?"
"Give me a break. It's been five years since I made the top ten. Warming a chair in Washington isn't the best preparation for Heartbreak Hill. Look, why don't I keep on moving while you guys chat about old times? I've got a few more miles to rack up and I don't want my leg muscles stiffening."
"You sure it's okay?" Collatos spoke in an undertone, full of concern.
"No problem," Donagher reassured him, using the same hushed tone. "This isn't exactly midnight in a dark alley. I'll pick you up next circuit. Nice meeting you, Spraggue."
"Stay away from the press," Collatos hollered after him, grinning.
As soon as Donagher was out of sight, Spraggue collapsed onto a large flat rock by the side of the trail and rubbed his legs. "You're looking good," he said after a two-minute pause. He wasn't going to be the one to mention the note.
Collatos laughed. "It's that goddamned diet. Preparation for the marathon. Man, the day after the race, I'm gonna down three six-packs and stuff five large Regina's pizzas with sausage, onion, and anchovies down my throat."
"Remind me to avoid you on April twentieth. Are you carbohydrate loading?"
"Nah, it's some fancy diet some doctor concocted for Donagher. I run with him; I follow his diet."
And why are you, a former detective, running with the junior senator from Massachusetts? Spraggue wanted to ask.
"Sorry you got canned," he said instead. Was Collatos responsible for that note? He'd been so sure when he'd first seen him; it was the kind of gag Collatos would pull. ...
"Hey, forget it." Collatos' irrepressible smile made Spraggue's legs throb painfully. "Oh, I was depressed at first. All that training down the tubes. Family tradition shot to hell. It's hard to kiss off the dream of twenty-five years and a good pension. But, hell, I wasn't in love with the department."
"Your ears still perk up when you hear a siren," Spraggue said.
"Can't help it." Collatos listened for a moment. "That's a fire engine, not a cop car."
"Sure it's not an ambulance?"
The ex-cop closed his eyes in concentration, frowned, shook his head emphatically.
"Too bad," Spraggue said, massaging his taut calf muscles. "I could use one."
"You gotta stay in shape," Collatos scolded. "Build up the miles gradually. Anyway, after I got laid off, not even a week after I'm out in the cold, I've got a new gig all sewn up."
"I'm telling you." Spraggue remembered how hard it was to push Collatos forward in a straight line. He leaned back on his hands and carefully flexed his ankles.
"I never even had a chance to reflect on my future," Collatos said. "My sister had a whole list of professions for me to try out; she even wanted me to go back to school. I was planning to take a two-week vacation, blow my severance pay in the sunshine, then maybe go into private practice, pirate a case or two from the cops. But the guys in the department, man, they really take care of you. Senator Donagher calls up, looking for a bodyguard. He's a runner; the guys know I run. Perfect match, they figure. The brass gives me top grades and here I am, training for the marathon while I earn more bucks than the dear old taxpayers ever shelled out."
"What's Donagher need a bodyguard for?"
"He started getting death threats in the mail. Makes him nervous."
"Doesn't seem nervous."
"I thought, maybe, besides just protecting him, I'd do a little snooping, find out who's sending the notes."
"To a politician? Where are you going to start? The voting register? Probably some crank sending bouquets to both sides."
"Nope. I checked. Bartolo's people say he's not getting that kind of hate mail."
"Either they're waiting for the campaign to heat up or there's no accounting for taste."
"You said it. I mean, why hate Donagher and not Bartolo? Donagher's an all right guy. For a pol, he's a prince. I told him he ought to hire you, Spraggue."
Spraggue's smile was grim, a straight line between two parentheses. "So that's what this little charade is all about," he said.
"I knew that note would get you," Pete said. "You're a sucker for that kind of stuff."
"Hold it right there. You're not a cop anymore; I'm not a private investigator anymore."
"You're shittin' me."
"You sure it's not just that your politics and Donagher's politics don't mix and match? I mean, he is one of the original soak-the-rich boys."
"It's nothing political," Spraggue said. "I voted for the guy. The old families in Massachusetts expect to get soaked. We just hate to flush our money down the nuclear warheads toilet. If Donagher had more power, I'd feel a hell of a lot better about my tax bill."
"Jeez." Collatos yanked off his sweatband, twisted it in his hands, and watched the drops of water seep into the ground. "Spraggue quits the snoop business. Nothing stays the same. You working? Or you just clipping coupons?"
"I went back to acting. I'm almost making a living at it."
"No shit. You on TV?"
"I specialize in plays that close on opening night and movies that never get released. Right now I'm with the Harvard Repertory Theater."
"And here I've been thinking I could hook up with you on this Donagher business. We worked together okay on that stolen car beef."
Spraggue remembered the reckless enthusiasm that had characterized that long ago investigation and felt sorry for whoever had sent Donagher the anonymous notes. Their writer would be hounded by Collatos for the rest of his life.
"Why not work on one more case?" Collatos said. "Keep your hand in?"
"My P.I. license is expired."
"Good," Collatos said. "That's probably the only thing that keeps Menlo from confiscating it."
"Menlo! They haven't fired that cretin yet?"
"You kidding? He was my boss on the arson liaison detail. When the rest of us got laid off, he got promoted!"
"God help the Boston Police!" Spraggue muttered under his breath.
Collatos twisted a grass stem between his thumb and index finger, kept his eyes glued on it while he said in a disappointed tone, "So that acting stuff keeps you busy?"
"Up to my ears."
Instead of responding, Pete stared abruptly up at the path. Spraggue followed the ex-cop's eyes and found himself confronting the woman of his fantasy, dark-eyed and exotic, moving at a languid pace around the pond. He jumped up as quickly as his stiffening legs would allow.
"You know her?" Collatos asked eagerly.
"Nope. But I'm planning to. Think it'll be too obvious if I collapse at her feet?"
Collatos grinned. "You're not up to your ears, you're over your head."
A shot cracked through the trees. Spraggue named it even before he stopped hoping it might be some backfiring truck. A sharp series of repeats, punctuated by screams, followed hard on the first explosion.
Spraggue found he could still run.
His eyes met Collatos' dark eyes for an instant and then both men took off, tracing the path Donagher had taken, the gravelly, narrow, uphill trail. Spraggue's toes bit into the turf and he leaned slightly forward at the waist to counter the incline. He saw a flash of metal in Collatos' hand, wondered where the ex-cop had managed to conceal a gun in his running clothes.
They topped the hill. "Brian!" Collatos hollered, and Spraggue wondered, too, where he got the breath for the full-throated bellow. The ex-cop stared wildly around and plunged full speed down the slope.
The Beacon Street traffic noises faded into insignificance in the background. The pain came back to Spraggue's side; he ignored it. They passed the life-course exercise stations scattered along the side of the trail without stopping to perform any prescribed number of sit-ups or push-ups. The path changed from gravel to cement, broadened, leveled out. Spraggue's breath rasped his throat, and he ran slightly bent now, not because of hilly terrain, but in an attempt to ease the stitch in his side. A burst of noise erupted just over the next rise. Someone shouted, "Stay down!"
"Brian!" Collatos hollered again. This time his voice shook and died.
Collatos' relief was so great Spraggue could see the spasm pass through his whole body. He sagged momentarily, straightened, sped up, and Spraggue fell in behind him on the narrowing path.
"Don't come any closer!" The voice was Donagher's. Collatos ducked behind an overhanging boulder. Spraggue dodged after him, staring at the scene spread out in front of them. Donagher had taken shelter from the sudden barrage of fire by vaulting the fence that surrounded the reservoir and flattening himself behind one of the elms. Every other runner in the vicinity seemed to have followed suit. Faces peered out from behind bushes. The potential targets stayed low, some prone, the more daring on their knees. Those not staring at Spraggue and Collatos kept their eyes fixed across Lake Street on the old Boston College graveyard.
Donagher picked that moment to leap to his feet. "Behind the column," he yelled. "On the hill in the graveyard!"
Excerpted from Dead Heat by Linda Barnes. Copyright © 1984 Linda Appleblatt Barnes. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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