Chapter Excerpt

The long-distance call from the fifty-three-year-old chief of detectives reached Benjamin Dill three hours later. By then, because of different time zones, it was almost half-past eleven in Washington, D.C. When the phone rang, Dill was still in bed, alone and awake, in his one-bedroom apartment three blocks south of Dupont Circle on N Street. He had awakened at five that morning and discovered he was unable to go back to sleep. At 8:30 A.M. he had called his office and, pleading a summer cold, informed Betty Mae Marker he wouldn’t be in that day, Thursday, and probably not even Friday. Betty Mae Marker had counseled rest, aspirin, and plenty of liquids.
Dill had decided to forsake work that morning, not because he was sick, but because it was his thirty-eighth birthday. For some inexplicable reason he had come to regard thirty-eight as the watershed year in which youth ran down one side, old age the other. He had spent the morning in bed wondering, with only mild curiosity, how he had managed to accomplish so little in his more than three dozen years.
True, he told himself, you did manage to get married once and divorced twice—no mean feat. A year after his ex-wife had slipped quietly out of his life on that rainy June night in 1978, Dill had filed for divorce in the District of Columbia, charging desertion. Apparently convinced that Dill would never do anything right, she had filed in California, charging irreconcilable differences. Neither divorce was contested and both were granted. The two things Dill now remembered best about his former wife were her long and extremely beautiful blond hair and her unforgivable habit of sprinkling sugar on her sliced tomatoes. As for her face, well, it was fading into something of a blur—albeit a heart-shaped one.
During that long morning of reevaluation, which turned out to be both depressing and boring, Dill wisely ignored his financial balance sheet because it was, as usual, ridiculous. He owned no insurance, no stocks or bonds, no vested pension, no real property. His principal assets consisted of $5,123.82 in a non-interest-bearing checking account at the Dupont Circle branch of the Riggs National Bank and a recently paid for 1982 Volkswagen convertible (an unfortunate yellow) that was parked in the apartment building’s basement garage and whose sporty demeanor Dill now found disconcerting. He assumed this new attitude was yet another symptom of galloping maturity.
Dill gave up on his morning of pointless introspection when the long distance call from the fifty-three-year-old chief of detectives began its seventh ring. It was then that he picked up the phone and said hello.
“Mr. Dill?” the voice said. It was a stern voice, even harsh, full of bark and bite, gravel and authority.
“Have you got a sister named Feticity—Felicity Dill?”
“My name’s Strucker. John Strucker. I’m chief of detectives down here and if your sister’s name is Felicity, she works for me. That’s why I’m calling.”
Dill took a deep breath, let some of it out, and said, “Is she dead or just hurt?”
There was no pause before the answer came—only a long sigh, which was an answer in itself. “She’s dead, Mr. Dill. I’m sorry.”
“Dead.” Dill didn’t make it a question.
“I see.”
And then, because Dill knew he had to say something else to keep grief away for at least a few more moments, he said, “It’s her birthday.”
“Her birthday,” Strucker said patiently. “Well, I didn’t know that.”
“Mine, too,” Dill said in an almost musing tone. “We have the same birthday. We were born ten years apart, but on the same day—August fourth. Today.”
“Today, huh?” Strucker said, his harsh voice interested, overly reasonable, and almost kind. “Well, I’m sorry.”
“She’s twenty-eight.”
“I’m thirty-eight.” There was a long silence until Dill said, “How did—” but broke off to make a noise that could have been either a cough or a sob. “How did it happen?” he said finally.
Again, the chief of detectives sighed. Even over the phone it had a sad and mournful sound. “Car bomb,” Strucker said.
“Car bomb,” Dill said.
“She came out of her house this morning at her regular time, got into her car—one of those all-tin Honda Accords—threw out the clutch, and that’s what activated the bomb—the clutch. They used C4—plastic.”
“They,” Dill said. “Who the hell are they?”
“Well, it might not’ve been a they, Mr. Dill. I just said that. It could’ve been only one guy, but one or a dozen, we’re gonna get who did it. It’s what we do—what we’re good at.”
“How quickly did she—” Dill paused and took a deep breath. “I mean, did she—”
Strucker interrupted to answer the incomplete question. “No, sir, she didn’t. It was instantaneous.”
“I read somewhere that it’s never instantaneous.”
Strucker apparently knew better than to argue with the recently bereaved. “It was quick, Mr. Dill. Very quick. She didn’t suffer.” He paused again, cleared his throat, and said, “We’d like to bury her. I mean the department would, if it’s okay with you.”
“Is it all right with you?”
“Yes, it’s all right with me. When?”
“Saturday,” Strucker said. “We’ll have a big turnout from all over. It’s a nice ceremony, real nice, and I’m sure you’ll want to be here so if there’s anything we can do for you, make you a hotel reservation or something like that, well, just let—”
Dill interrupted. “The Hawkins. Is the Hawkins Hotel still in business?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“Make me a reservation there, will you?”
“For when?”
“For tonight,” Dill said. “I’ll be there tonight.”
Copyright © 1984 by Ross E. Thomas, Inc. Introduction copyright © 2003 by Lawrence Block.

Excerpted from Briarpatch by Ross Thomas, Ross Thomas
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.