NYC Midnight Short Story Contest
I was assigned to Heat 42 (the answer to life, the universe, and everything!). Genre: Mystery. Subject: A Secret Hiding Place. Character: A Traveling Salesperson. I'm seized with the need to disclaim or explain, but I shan't do that.
He doesn’t like anything about this woman. Not the way she leans back in the cracked vinyl kitchen chair with one leg tossed carelessly over the other. Not the way her eyes slip closed and the end of her cigarette flares as she takes a deep drag. Not the way she’s cool and unruffled though the stifling summer heat presses down on every inch of the tiny walk-up.
“I don’t know him,” she says. She sheds a ragged length of ash into a saucer without looking. “I’m afraid I’m not much help.”
“I’m afraid you’re not.” He gives in. He roots around the inside pocket of his jacket and comes up with a limp handkerchief that already feels damp. He bumps up the brim of his hat and mops his forehead. “He’s on your back porch, Mrs. Grey . . .”
“Miss.” Her voice cuts through his. Her lips part in a perfect O, smoke streaming between them. “And it’s a fire escape, Officer.”
“Detective,” he snaps before he can stop himself.
“Detective.” She smiles and stubs out his last cigarette. “That’s right.”
“Miss Grey,” he begins again, trying for calm. “A man is dead. No identification. His head bashed in . . .”
“I know.” She makes her eyes wide. She leans in. He sways toward her, helpless, as her elbows land on the scarred formica and her chin settles on her palms. She whispers. “I called the police, remember?”
“You called. Must be, what, twenty tenants in this building? Thirty?” He jerks a thumb toward the back of the apartment. “But you called. Why is that, Miss Grey?”
He brings a palm flat to the table with force. She doesn’t flinch. She watches the ash jump in the saucer. She gives him a heavy, reproving look, like he should know better than to try the usual on her. Maybe he should. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like her.
“I’m a concerned citizen, Detective.” She raises one shoulder in something that hardly qualifies as a shrug. “What if there were a fire?”
“Walk me through it, Miss Grey.” He leans over the railing, jerking back as the wood groans under his weight.
He turns back to find her still inside, one hand on the rusted bars swinging out from the window. She arches an eyebrow, and somehow he’s there with his palm out to steady her as she steps over the low sill.
“He was here.”
He follows the arc she traces with one peep-toe pump. The gaps in the warped boards are wide enough that he can see red rolling over the white sheet on the gurney far below. The mouth of the alley is thick with looky-loos crowding around the ambulance. Now it is, and he comes back to the fact that she’s the one who called it in. That ninety-nine times out of a hundred that means she knows more than she’s saying. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, she knows everything. It’s just a matter of asking the right questions. The thought settles him.
“Walk me all the way through it.” He gives her a hard smile. “Our man was here. Why were you?”
“I live here.” She gestures inside. She holds his gaze. She keeps her peace just long enough that his nails break the skin of his palms. She props a hip against the wall and folds her arms like she knows it. Like it’s just what she was waiting for. “I heard something.”
His hand slaps against his chest, groping for notebook and pen. “Voices?”
“No.” She shakes her head, almost like she’s sorry to disappoint him. “I suppose that’s strange.”
“Miss Grey . . .”
“Evelyn.” She runs roughshod over his all-business tone. “I imagine you need to know that, right? My first name. For all your forms and things.” She nods to the pen in his hand like she’s waiting again and he won’t get anywhere unless he gives. “Evelyn.”
“Evelyn.” He grits his teeth and scrawls it down. “You heard something.”
“Footsteps.” She looks up. Her lips move like she’s counting to herself. “All the way from the roof.”
“One person? Two?” He wants the timeline, but he’ll double back for that. He’ll follow the path of least resistance for now. “Try to think . . .”
“One.” She closes her eyes and opens them, smiling a little as though she’s just realized something. “He was in a hurry like he was after . . .” She breaks off with a gesture, like she’s rewinding the moment in her mind. “Something fell. Before him, I mean. Heavy.”
She moves quickly to the railing. She leans on it with both hands. Smiling wide at the give under her weight.
He snatches her back, breath hissing between his teeth. “Careful Miss . . . Evelyn.”
“That’s new.” She points to the wood sagging outward. She runs her fingers along the upright rising to the floor above. “It must’ve hit. Whatever fell.” She jams the heel of her hand against the beam and pushes. The whole thing shivers and moans.
“Must have.” He sounds as pale as he must be. He swallows against nausea and breathes through his nose. “Not safe out here. We can finish . . .”
But she’s already pattering down the stairs. He follows, white knuckled and weak kneed. He doesn’t catch her until she’s three floors down, and even then, it’s only because she’s stopped.
“A salesman.” She’s crouched well outside the sickly spill of the one working light in the alley, but he sees the gleam of teeth. “Of course.”
“Don’t touch anything.” His voice bounces off the brick. She surges to her feet. Into the light, startled for the first time. Her smile vanishes. She hides behind the swipe of her palm. A cool gesture that hooks a stray, dark curl behind her ear. Her face, when it reappears, is hard again. He’s sorry rather than satisfied.
“Evidence,” he says more quietly. He stoops, trying to make sense of the shadowed heap. “A salesman?”
He lofts the question over his shoulder and waits. There’s an apology in the silence, though he doesn’t like this woman any better here than three floors up. She bites before too long.
“Sample case. Right behind the mop bucket.” She steps beyond him, one long leg flashing by, too close for comfort. She runs a hand along the railing. “There should be flowers here. Geraniums.”
“Second victim.” He doesn’t know what makes him say it. He’s a hard man, and not one to joke, but her laugh stirs the air and he’s thinking of changing careers.
“We have to wait?” She looks from him to the line of uniforms pressing back against crowd on the sidewalk. She crouches, suddenly, her skirt pooling around her. She leans in, conspiratorial.
“I’ve got a flashlight upstairs.”
“Flashlight,” he repeats dumbly. “I have . . . “ He presses awkwardly away from her, trying to get at his belt. “Got one.”
She laughs at that, too. The thick-fingered way he fumbles to free the penlight from the tools of the trade she’s made him forget entirely. But he twists the barrel and her attention snaps back to the cluttered corner.
“There.” She reaches past him, pointing to where the weak beam glints off brass latches. “Sample case.”
He fishes his handkerchief out again. He’s clumsy as he tries to one-hand the heavy case. Her fingers close around his wrist. He turns, blinking to find her close enough to breathe in. She’s looking away, though. She’s taking the flashlight from his hand and holding it high.
“It’s empty.” She sweeps the light past the handle and back again. “No name and address,” she adds, when it’s obvious that he’s just not registering the significance of the blank white oblong behind the plastic facing. She bumps his elbow and nods down at the handkerchief still suspended in midair. “Shouldn’t we open it?”
“Open it.” He clears his throat. “Yeah.”
He tips forward to grasp the handle, falling on to one knee when it proves heavier than he thought it would be. She shuffles back out of his way, keeping the light on the case as he struggles to haul it up and out. It’s caught on something he can’t see. The vinyl edging pulls away at one dented corner and it’s snagged. He jerks at it, frustrated and panting in the heat.
“Bingo!” She grins at him as the case thunks on to the warped wood between them.
The sweat streams past his temples, and he wants the handkerchief for something other than fingerprints. He busies himself giving the case a once over, slowing his heart with routine.
“Damage at the corner,” he mutters out loud so it’ll make its way into the notebook later. “Hinges and latches intact.”
“Sturdy.” She sounds annoyed. Impatient, as if she wishes the fall had split the thing wide. “Open it now?” She shines the light right in his eyes. He winces and swipes out blindly, reaching for it, but she pulls it back, just out of reach. “Open it,” she says again.
There’s a pleading note beneath that makes him want to do it. But a red light swings over them both. A door slams and then another, the ambulance getting underway at last, and he remembers a man is dead. He remembers he doesn’t like anything about this woman.
“Why of course?” He stands the case up on its bottom. He drags it out of her reach. “ ‘A salesman. Of course.’ That’s what you said.”
She stands. She twists the barrel of the penlight and tosses it at him. It clatters to a stop against the case. He leaves it there.
“Who else would he be?” Her hands twitch at her sides. He’s halfway to patting his pockets for a cigarette, but she’s long since ground out his last one. She lifts her palms and twists at the waist, taking in the building. The filthy alley and the knot of people drifting away, now the shows over. “Who’d come here if they weren’t selling something?”
He hauls himself to his feet, pushing down the urge to apologize. To offer her something. He struggles with the heavy case, muscling it up on to the railing. The flick of the latches is loud. Solid and satisfying. He half peers over his shoulder, expecting her, but she keeps to the shadows by some neighbor’s back door.
“Family.” He hooks a finger under the curling edge of a photograph taped inside the lid. “Wife. Couple of kids.”
“Won’t tell you anything,” she says. “His name.” She lifts up into a different voice entirely. Something high and sweet. “Such a good man.” She scrapes out a laugh. “She won’t know anything.”
She takes one step, then another. Toward the stairs. Away from him, and he should stop her. He should go after her and do his job, but the night is stifling and he can’t bear the thought of that tiny apartment. He can’t bear the thought of her in it.
“Check the bottom,” say says. She’s not facing him. Her hand’s already on the railing. She’s already gone. “It’s always at the bottom. All their secrets.”
His knuckles knock against the base of the case before he’s even decided to listen. It’s hollow and there’s a seam, now he’s looking for it. He pries up the lining and finds a hinge that’s not quite flush with the rest. He presses the opposite side and the lid swings up.
There’s another photo inside. A red-lipped girl pouting and leaning in to the camera. Blowing a kiss. The corners are worn. There’s a thumb print in one corner he can practically feel. He turns the snapshot over and the back is crowded with the round, looping letters of a girl too young for the man in the ambulance. Too young for the pouting red lips.
Jim. Soon. You promised soon. Love, love, love.
The signature is all flourishes. He can’t read the name. It hardly matters.
“You said you didn’t know him.” He leans out into thin air. He twists his face up to call after her.
She’s halfway up the flight above him. More than halfway before she stops, and he’s dizzy again.
“I don’t know him, Detective.” She leans her elbows on the railing. “I just know men.”