THE CASE OF THE SHOPLIFTER'S SORROW


Mary turned away, eyes blazing. “You bastard,” she said. And again, softer: Bastard. She felt tears welling, and it surprised her: it had been a long time since she’d felt that way. About anything. That made her all the more angry. And that made the tears ago away.

That’s how it usually happened.

“How’s Lori?” Mary said. She pulled a cigarette from the pack on the counter.

“This isn’t about Lori,” Lance said. “It’s -

“Oh, it’s never about her. It was never about her.”

“It’s about shoplifting,” Lance said, carefully. “I got the call. I heard the description. I figured you’d rather it be me than someone else. You want Tiny to pick you up again?”

Mary’s jaw clenched. She thought of that night, several months ago. Tiny, as they called him, had picked her up for putting a can of beans in her coat pocket. Taken her downstairs. Put her in the interrogation room. Sat real close. Real close. So close she could smell the whiskey on his breath. Put a hand on the table. Put a hand on her shoulder. Put a hand -

“No,” she spat. “How about no one rousts me at all? How about you don’t figure me for every sticky-finger beef you get, Lance? What’d the store manager say - look for a blonde? Look for a pretty blonde? Look for a pretty blonde with good enough legs? And you hear that and you think, Mary. That what you think? You don’t think Lori - you think Mary. Right? Right.”

Lance stared at her, stunned, and for a second wished he was behind the two-way mirror again, the way it had been the first time. He’d gone in the room to think; he liked the quiet, the darkness. It was the only place in the station where a man could think unmolested by the crudity, the nigger jokes, the spitting on the floor, the crack of a baton on a suspect’s mouth. He’d watched Tiny bring in a suspect. He’d watched Tiny lean forward, watched him put his hand on her shoulder, watched him put his hand on her mouth -

Lance was in the interrogation room before he had to time to think - if Tiny had backed off, it would have been fine. Everyone would have been fine. But Tiny had to snarl; Tiny protested. Tiny was on the floor in a second howling in pain, holding his eye.

“Goddammit, Lawson!” Tiny howled. “What for fuck’s sake -”

“Watch your language,” Lawson said, and he drew back his fist again. Tiny put a hand up - no more. Lance looked at the woman. She wore a heartbreaking expression of fear and gratitude, as if she didn’t know what could possibly come next, and wondering whether it might actually get worse.

“Apologies,” Lance said. “That’s not how we do things here.”

She managed to smile. “That’s a relief,” she said, her voice quavering. She coughed, then got that hard smart look you saw a lot nowadays. “How do you do things? Or shouldn’t I ask.”

You shouldn’t have asked, Lance would later think. But it was too late by then.

He pushed the handful of geegaws around the counter with a pencil. “Look, Mary. I don’t want to -”

“Of course you do. That’s your problem. ‘I was sure you were lying,’ you say. Why? Because it’s better for you if I was lying. It’s -”

Lawson patted the newspaper on the table. “Just brought this in, did you? And you said you were in the house all morning.”

Mary stared at Lance. Then she laughed - a short, humorless bark. She flicked the cigarette in the sink where it hissed and died. “And that proves I was out? Tell me, Lance - remember that Sunday - the one after you took me home from the station? What time did you leave the house? What time did you leave the room, for that matter? I think you left around two. The paper was on the stoop the whole time. Someone coming by might have thought I was out committing a crime. Someone might have gotten a warrant. Someone might have thought the worst. You -

Lance wasn’t expecting the slap; it caught him on the eye, and it hurt. It hurt a lot.

“At least Tiny was honest,” she said. “I hope he books me, Lance. If he doesn’t, I’ll ask for him. I know just how to beat the rap this time. It’ll be faster. You took six months of my life. I can give Tiny twenty minutes without blinking.”

She walked towards the door. She had the newspaper under her arm. “Well?” Mary said. “Let’s go. I want to show them I do things now.”

Lance walked past her - closed the door - walked to his car.

He wondered if Mary knew Lori’s last name. And he hated himself for asking it.

SOLUTION: Lance knew the woman lied about being home because she had not yet taken in the morning paper.