“Have you ever quit smoking?” Alex didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s a bitch. Ray Charles said getting off heroin was easier.”
“I was lucky,” she said, “never started, but my Dad smoked like a chimney until he died. Lung cancer.”
“When you’re fifteen and all the cool kids smoke… Charlie and I bought our first pack together. Split the cost because they were expensive even back then.”
“That was part of what kept me from smoking. I couldn’t afford it.”
“Neither could I, but I did it anyway.” He raised his hand to his mouth and pantomimed inhaling a cigarette. “My dad smoked, and I used to sneak his. When he quit, I found other ways.” He shrugged. They weren’t here to discuss his career as a teenaged shoplifter.
“Didn’t stores keep them behind the counter?”
He hadn’t fooled her, but it didn’t matter. “We worked as a team, Charlie and me. That’s pretty ironic, isn’t it?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Two months ago I decided to quit. I’m living with this woman, and I want to keep on living with her, like forever. Have kids, the whole deal. Problem was I’m working in a warehouse, taking boxes off a conveyor belt. It’s a dead-end job. You know what that means, right? No future.” She nodded so he continued. “I’m living one paycheck to the next, owe more on my car than it’s worth, and sooner or later some robot’s going to take my job.”
“I’m not making the connection.” A frown creased her forehead. “This woman didn’t like your smoking?”
“The connection is money. I needed more, but no way I’m getting a raise, and they won’t give me more hours because that would mean overtime, which they don’t want to pay. So I’m thinking about this all the time, including when I go to buy my weekly carton of cigarettes. I’m at the counter ready to hand over a hundred bucks when it hits me. Every week, a hundred bucks up in smoke.” He glanced over to see if she got the joke. “If I banked that money, in a year I’d have five thousand dollars. I could cut back on my hours and take this training course to become an electrician. Electricians make good money, and I was always good at math.”
“So you decided to quit smoking?”
“Cold turkey. I turned around and walked out of that store with my money still in my pocket. I haven’t had a cigarette since.”
“What does this have to do with what happened to Charlie?”
“He made a big joke out of my quitting. He’d blow smoke my way and ask didn’t I miss it, stuff like that.”
“So you got mad?”
“I didn’t like it, but I laughed it off. I mean, we’d been best buddies since grade school.” Alex checked his reflection in the mirror that took up half the opposite wall. “I told him why I quit and how I was socking the money away.”
“Okay.” She nodded.
“So last week, Charlie tells me his sister’s got cancer and needs money for the doctor or else she’s going on some waiting list and could die before a doc will even see her. I had five hundred bucks in the kitty, and I lent it to him.” His throat tightened thinking about it.
“You want anything to drink? Coffee or water?”
He shook his head. “Monday, I see her walking down the street, and I say how sorry I am. She doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I ask about Charlie, and she says he’s still recovering from his weekend in Vegas.”
“So you confronted him?”
“He laughed and told me not to worry. He’d pay me back when he could. And besides, it ought to be half his money because I’d been sucking up his secondhand smoke. I just lost it.”
“Anything you say can and will be used against you…”
“You told me that when you arrested me.”
“Just making sure you know what you’re doing.”
“I do now, but I didn’t then. I don’t remember pulling my gun or firing it.” She rolled her eyes, and he said, “It’s the truth.”
“Do you want a lawyer? If you can’t afford one, you’re entitled to a public defender.”
“What I want is a jury full of people who’ve quit smoking.”
Patricia Dusenbury is a recovering economist and the author of the award-winning Claire Marshall mystery trilogy, A Perfect Victim, Secrets, Lies & Homicide, and A House of Her Own. Her short story, Nor Death Will Us Part is included in Black Coffee, an anthology of mysteries noir.
Copyright © 2017 Patricia Dusenbury. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited.