If you want a sneak preview of the first chapter of Too Hard to Handle, the new Mara Cunningham novel, look just a little further! The entire first chapter is below the cut:
Everything changes when the victim is a cop. The detectives no longer crack jokes. The first responders don’t gossip or bitch about the Red Sox. Everyone prowls the scene with grim alertness, like a platoon deep in enemy territory. It’s one of the few times real life resembles the cop shows on TV, and it makes me nervous every time I see it.
The Boston Tribune keeps someone monitoring the police band at all hours. When my editor Gary heard the call go out, he texted me immediately. I’d gotten home from teaching self-defense class and had drunk one glass of wine with dinner, starting on my second. The short message sobered me up like cold salt water: Officer down. North End. Holding front page for you.
I made it to the North End in twenty minutes, coordinating with Cathy Antisado on the phone. She would be filing the story; I’d be taking pictures. We got there at the same time, parking a few blocks away and tackling the North End’s narrow streets on foot. Ancient brick storefronts and townhouses crowded over us like bystanders.
Cathy Antisado looked like a soccer mom from Long Island: conservative haircut, olive complexion, slacks and blouse meant to be comfortable and stylish. But she didn’t get the Tribune crime beat by being the stay-at-home type. I had changed into a T-shirt and jeans after showering. I smiled at her as we approached the police barricade.
“What’s funny?” Cathy asked.
“I always feel underdressed next to you,” I said.
Cathy looked herself over and shrugged. “I haven’t changed from work yet. You look fine, honey.”
A pair of blue police sawhorses blocked off Hanover Street. A uniformed officer stood behind them, thumbs in his belt. He nodded when he saw us. “Cathy, Mara. This heat, huh?”
No kidding. I already felt sticky under the arms from the two blocks we had walked. It was late August and it hadn’t rained in two weeks. Every morning dawned pale and soupy. Kids weren’t back in school yet, so cops and community leaders had to find ways to keep teenagers out of trouble. Mixers, days in the park, even turning a blind eye to the occasional open fire hydrant. Anything to keep the pressure off.
Cathy and I didn’t have to ask directions. We followed the red and blue lights strobing off the row house walls.
Macullough’s was a corner liquor store on Hanover Street, one of those North End institutions that had been around for a hundred years. I had been inside once but never for work. People didn’t rob North End liquor stores. The bad old days of the Italian mob might be behind us, but the North End still felt like a connected neighborhood. Everybody who was important knew everybody else.
A phalanx of cop cars, lights whirling, blocked off the entrance. We pressed up against the barricades, joining the rest of the Boston media, craning our necks for a peek inside the store.
The interior of Macullough’s looked bleached out under its fluorescent lights. The air was sticky with the scent of spilled wine. Through the glass facade, I could see the caps of uniformed officers bobbing along the narrow aisles. The back door was propped open as well, leading to a narrow room stacked with wine and liquor crates.
Lying somewhere in that room was Officer Jesse Dominguez.
The alley door had been wedged open, and a floodlight had been posted outside, pointing inward. The crowd of officers and crime-scene techs prevented me from seeing inside. I didn’t want to see, though. My job required me to photograph these depressing scenes, but I didn’t have to like them. I tried not to speculate on the injuries or the state of the body in this heat.
I sighed. Cathy whispered a prayer beneath her breath. We had handled worse, but both of us were sensitive to the scene. Officer Dominguez had been young. Every death is a tragedy, but losing an officer in the line of duty stings. You know it could have been someone else—a shopkeeper, a mugging victim—and you hope the sacrifice was worth it.
A lab tech stepped outside, peeling off his gloves and stuffing them into a pocket of his windbreaker. The line of reporters erupted in questions, but he ignored us. He murmured into a headset that fed into a tape recorder, too quiet for us to hear. I zoomed in on his face with my 18-55mm lens and tried to read his lips.
Three, he said, the tongue darting between his lips and pulling back. Some other words. Then: close, his lips wrapping from the round o to the pursed s. A string of other words, mumbled too fast for me to process.
Finally: point blank.
“Hell,” I muttered. I squeezed off a few more pictures, widening the aperture to get the tech in focus, the store and the lights blurry in the background.
“What?” Cathy asked.
I ducked my head toward hers. “Don’t quote me on this, but I thought I saw the tech say ‘point blank.’” I had to raise my voice to be heard, but the din gave us a semblance of privacy.
“When’s the last time you saw that?” Cathy asked. “An execution-style shooting.”
“Years,” I said.
“When’s the last time you saw a cop get murdered?”
“Longer.” Cops get shot at serving warrants or dealing with aggressive drug dealers. But the last officer death in Boston had been a car accident two years ago.
I looked around the street and saw officers standing in tight little knots, murmuring with ugly looks on their faces. No jokes, no extraneous chatter, just grim talk in low voices. I knew how they felt. The liquor store felt petty and small, with its peeling tile and its cheap fluorescent lights and the odor of shattered wine bottles. Such a stupid place for a cop to die.
“I would not want to be the man responsible for this,” Cathy said.
I opened my mouth to agree, but checked myself as a loud voice caught everyone’s attention. The officers turned to listen. Cathy and I followed their gaze to where Detective Chuck Ivey of the Major Crimes Unit stood on the corner. Tall, black and handsome, he wore a gray suit and a loosely knotted silk tie.
“Again, thank you all for being out here,” he said. “I know the officer’s family appreciates your support. If you want to contribute, you can help us secure this scene. The evidence that’s going to catch this son of a bitch is somewhere in there. If you trample over it because you don’t know what you’re doing, you think about that. Think about telling this officer’s mother that the scumbag who shot him is going to walk because you stepped on a shell casing.”
“Who says there’s going to be a trial?” called a voice from the back. I heard ugly murmurs of agreement and scattered applause. Ivey frowned, but didn’t acknowledge the outburst. Either he knew better than to fight the tide or he was relishing the idea himself.
As the cops started to disperse, Cathy threaded her way through the crowd. She had her recorder out and waved it like a flag to get Ivey’s attention. I snapped some pictures but avoided Ivey’s gaze. Chuck Ivey and I had gone through a dustup last October. It ended on good terms—-he hadn’t arrested me—-but I had been cautious around him ever since.
As his head turned my way, I ducked down to examine the viewscreen on my camera. Officer Dominguez’s body was in no condition to be photographed. But I could still tell a story with some pictures from elsewhere on the scene. Cops huddling together with their heads low and their faces grim. Police tape strewn across aisles of gin bottles. I zoomed in through the liquor store windows and dialed for a low exposure, hoping to correct for the sick yellow of the fluorescent lighting. But when I examined my pictures in the monitor, everyone had a corpse’s pallor. I frowned.
I stepped around a cop car to avoid running into Ivey. An officer I knew sat in the passenger seat, watching something on a rugged laptop mounted in the center console. “Evening, Hank,” I said. “What’s that there?”
He jerked his head toward the liquor store. “Security footage off of a hard drive in the manager’s office.”
Looking over his shoulder, I saw the store interior, reproduced in grainy black and white. “You have anything on the shooter?”
“Can I see?”
“Ms. Cunningham, it would be irresponsible of me to let this evidence out of my hands. I can’t let you watch this. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna have a cigarette for about seven minutes.” He got up and left.
I allowed myself half a smile. Apparently I still had friends on the force.
Hank had already rewound the footage to an hour earlier. It was playing as I slid into the passenger seat. The store was empty in the video, having closed up just a few minutes before. The footage was so grainy that I could almost count the pixels. I waited, my breath shallow, looking for any detail that might give the killer away.
The rear door opened.
A man entered the store from the rear hallway. Black leather jacket, jeans, scally cap tucked low over his eyes. He walked through like he owned the place, as if he knew the storefront would be empty. The only interior lighting came from streetlights slatting through the windows and neon beer signs. He crossed under the security camera, and I lost him.
I looked up, peering through the store window, half expecting him to appear in real life. Something about his walk set off a hint of nausea in my stomach. It couldn’t be.
The man reappeared a few seconds later. He walked to the back of the store. He leaned against the wall next to the door, one hand in his jacket pocket. He stared into space as if he were waiting for something. Not a moment in time or a signal or a sound. As if he were steeling himself up to jump out of a plane. He shook his hands like he was flicking water off them.
Seeing that gesture cranked the nausea up even higher. This is a joke.
The man took off his cap and scratched his forehead with the brim. A thin ray of light from Hanover Street caught him full in the face. He looked around, his gaze settling on the camera. His movements slowed as he realized he had been spotted. Then he nodded, as if greeting me. We stared at each other: me, an hour into his future, and him, ten years into my past.
It was a choppy video image on the far end of an unlit store. But I couldn’t pretend I didn’t know him. You always recognize family.