Mary`s Murders

Almost didn’t look dead. Eyes closed, chins on his chest – could have been asleep in front of his TV. Except it was two in the morning and he was on the roof of the State Street Church, slumped against the steeple.

“Just waitin’ on the techs,” the detective says to me. “Figure he’s not going anywhere.”

“You sure he’s dead?”

He smiles, goes over and sticks a wingtip in the guy’s nose. Turns to me.

RIP.

“Someone shoot him?”

He shakes his head. “If we had a pool goin’ I’d put down on stiletto, five, six inches. Neat. Very neat.”

“I’m listening.”

Long fingers in a blue glove, peeling back a lapel. Black blood under a silver moon.

“Lookit how clean he is. I bite a hot dog wrong I get more red on me. Gotta hit the heart straight off keep it half this clean. Even then you’re still poppin’ a water balloon-”

“Enjoy your job, detective?”

“-so I figure, long knife to get right in; small blade, keep the wound size down; an’ a little bulge at the end of the blade to block the hole until the blood stops movin’. Leave it in him for a few minutes, pull it out, wipe it on your pants an’ home for supper.”

I look at his pants. Pinstripes sparkling in the moonlight.

“A mobster?”

He smiles. “Not bad. Yeah, this here’s the mortal remains of local dickhole Peter Esterhazy. Porkchop to his friends. His lawyer’s gonna starve without him.”

“You think this was a mob hit?”

He shrugs. “Weed of crime only gets you high so long.”

Sudden buzzing. I don’t jump too much. He smiles, reaches into his pocket and checks his phone.

“On their way,” he says.

I reach into my purse, hand him a check.

He stops short of taking it. “Cash,” he says.

“ATM didn’t have enough.”

He hesitates. Looks at me. Shrugs. Slips it in his pocket.

“Cash next time,” he says.

“Almost hoping there won’t be a next time,” I say.

“Gettin’ squeamish?”

I look down at the dead man.

“Just poor.”

“Well, don’t be a stranger, Mary,” he says, pulling out a little flashlight. He sticks it in his teeth like a cigarette, bends over like he’s going to puff smoke into the dead man’s eye.

Spiral staircase. Heavy door. Aisle of the church, pew after pew, moonlight on the floor, walking on moonlight. Then steps. Then the streets of Portland, dead from the night.

Biking through the city. Unlocking my store, trying to hold the door open and bring the bike inside at the same time. Knock a book off the display. Leave it on the floor. Lock myself in.

Sit at my desk, turn on the lamp with the green shade. Pour a shot, toss it down, pour a second to sit at my elbow. Dock my tablet. Smile. Start to write.

Write it all. Everything I saw. Way it felt. Way it smelled. What he said. All of it. Just write.

Then downstairs to the basement, and to sleep.

***

The store’s called Mary’s Murders. I’m Mary.

It’s the bookstore I always wanted to own. Mystery novels. Spies and sleuths. Deerstalker on a hook, old posters of Bogart and Bacall. Bike maps for the tourists, maple candy for the kids, and t-shirts for the people who feel guilty they don’t read.

Opened it six years ago. Lived with my husband in the apartment above the store. Husband took the apartment, I took the store. He’s in Vancouver, I’m in the basement. Two things that make me happy.

It’s not a bad living. Best you can hope for in the book business. Got about thirty seniors who buy two books a week. Few other regulars. Author stops by I’ll draw a little crowd, feed a few hundred into the register. Few thousand if they’re famous or from Maine. Make ends meet and do what I want to do. Can’t complain.

Six years owning a book store and thought it was time I started writing. Already had the bio. “Mary Rhinebeck lives on the coast of Maine in the basement below a book store.” Can’t be beat.

Now I just needed to write.

Only problem: high standards. I read more than any of my regulars. I know what’s good and what’s trash. I know when an author doesn’t know enough, shouldn’t have picked up the pen. I’m a snob. I suppose I’m okay with that.

Met Detective Brewer at the bar at 188. Wanted to climb right on top of me. Think what he really wants is someone to cook him dinner every night. That might be by ex husband talking.

I told him I wanted to see a crime scene. A real crime. A murder. I wanted to know what it felt like to stand there. What it felt like to see a corpse.

He looked at me like I was crazy.

“I can’t write it if I’ve never felt it,” I said. “Otherwise I’ll just be recycling other authors. Most of whom don’t know any more than I do.”

“Can’t you just watch SVU?”

I stared at him.

“It’s pretty realistic. They do a good job-”

“I’ll pay,” I said.

He looked at my skirt. Then looked up to see if I’d noticed.

“Just let me stick my head in,” I said. “You can do that, right?”

“Not really, no.”

I got two more drinks into him and we settled on $500. For five minutes.

Think he thought I was bluffing. Wasn’t sure if I was or not.

He calls me from the crime scene. I show up, stare, smell, he talks down to me, I hand him a little stack of bills.

And I write.

***

There aren’t a lot of murders in Portland. Fewer still that don’t have half the street filled with rubberneckers before the detective even gets called. It was two months before I heard from him. I didn’t think I ever would.

It was behind a brick-and-ivy on State Street. Homeless guy. Knifed about a dozen times. Mostly cuts, what Detective Brewer called defensive wounds. Two good stabs into the throat. Looked like a river had run out of him. The river ran its course. He died on the pavement, face up to the stars.

I was proud of myself. I didn’t throw up. I didn’t start shaking. Not until later. I looked. I’ll never forget the sight. Then I walked my bike around the corner and had hysterics behind Joe’s Smoke Shop. Then I wiped my eyes. Then I rode home.

He called me a few days later, asked if it was good for me too. I said it was. Maybe next time I’d be able to keep it together enough to look around, take in the whole scene. Instead of just stare at the eyes that weren’t alive.

Took ten weeks. In a basement in Libbytown, looked like eight people had been sleeping in a room even smaller than mine. Chinese guy in his twenties, probably illegal, definitely dead. Beaten to death. Day before a Chinese guy with no papers had checked himself into Maine Med with bloody knuckles and broken ribs. He’d get charged as soon as INS got around to turning him over.

There was a dead guy face down on the ground. I looked at him. I looked everywhere, even pulled out a flashlight I’d bought just for the purpose. Ten minutes of looking and I didn’t see anything but a dirty body in a dirty room.

I was standing outside, my back to the wall, looking down the alley at a dead streetlamp.

He stepped out of the building. “You alright?”

“Yeah.”

“It takes a while, get used to dead guys. Some guys don’t ever get used to it.”

“I’m sure.”

“My first time was this domestic on the Hill. Girl smacked her boyfriend with a Le Creuset fry pan. Took one look at his face, went over and threw up right out the window. Third story unit. Landed on the dead guy’s car.”

I gave him a wry smile. “I notice you didn’t tell me that earlier.”

“I’m tryin’ a new thing here. Showin’ I’ve got a sensitive side.”

“You still want to date me?”

He shrugged.

“That’s not why I’m… thinking,” I said.

“Sure it’s not.”

“No, it’s… it’s just not what I expected.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“It’s different than the ones in the books,” I said. “Not just… not just because it’s real. They’re different kinds. There’s no mystery here. No clues, no curiosity. Just dead guys on the ground.”

He shrugged. “Five years on the job and I ain’t had one homicide stay open moren’ a month. Only whodunnits are hobos and drugs and then you know it was another hobo or another dealer and so who really cares. That’s why murder police make about as much money as a street sweeper. It’s cause we’re street sweepers.”

“It doesn’t have to…” and then I realized how stupid I sounded.

“Course it doesn’t. Once every few years you might get somethin’, somethin’ with /mys-t-ry/. That’s why those ones make the papers. Because it’s not normal. Because it’s more than just a dead guy on a floor.”

I wished I had a cigarette. I wished I smoked.

“Disappointed?” he asked.

“A little.”

“Mean you’re done with this?”

I looked at him. “Means I’m getting my money’s worth.”

I shoved off the wall, walked down the alley to where I’d locked my bike. As I rode away I passed the police crime scene van, driving the speed limit, flashers off.

***

He called me not much later, said he had another homeless man. Down by 295, head beaten in with a rock. I said I’d pass. I think that’s what he thought I’d say. I think that’s what he wanted me to say, five hundred bucks or no.

I told him to call me if there was anything… he knew.

He said he would. Said it like he didn’t think we’d talk again.

A month passed. A Norwegian mystery series had dozens of new customers coming into the store. An Indonesian author I loved did a reading and six people showed up to hear. I sent my mailing list an excerpt from a new book and a few dozen came in to ask for it. I handed them a copy of The Maltese Falcon. They laughed. They bought it. I hoped they read it too.

Midnight on Friday. Heading to the Nick for a special screening of LA Confidential. I recognized at least half the people in the theater. Including two of the three who were cosplaying as Veronica Lake.

When I got the call I was in the lobby, getting hit on by men who were old enough to be my dad. That happened a lot. I was glad for the excuse to go outside. That didn’t happen nearly as often.

Detective Brewer. I feel my heart kick up the beat.

“Mike?”

“West End,” he said. “House with the columns. Park around the block and come in the back and stop at a cash machine one the way.”

I hitched up my skirt and started to pedal.

Warm night. I rode slow up the hill so I wouldn’t break a sweat. Locked my bike to a No Parking sign. Four story house on the edge of the city, view of the park. Big white columns that sparkled in the sun looked dull and heavy in the darkness. I went around back, cut across the yard and went in through an open door.

“Mike?” I asked the darkness.

“Come on up.” When my eyes adjusted I saw a narrow stairwell. Servant’s entrance? At least there was a banister. I climbed, saw a light in the floor above. Third floor. Slight smell of fire, slight smell of some sweaty cologne.

Went through an open door into a well-lit room. Blinked in the light. Beautiful room. Hardwood floors, oil paintings on the walls. Curtains like clouds. A little ostentatious. Says the girl who lives in a basement.

Big bed, dark oak, wide curves. Like the prow of a ship riding through the waves, and the waves too. Black and white sheets. Silk, I bet. Didn’t quite go with the wood.

Dead guy on the bed. Mid fifties, not fat but out of shape. Grey hair, not enough of it. Black silk boxers. A little pathetic on a guy like him. But I chided myself. Let’s not speak ill of the dead.

He was handcuffed to the bed. Shiny cuffs. Not like the old pair I had in the store window. Ball gag in his mouth. Black like his shorts. Feet tied together. Looks like with an extension cord. Eyes bugged out. Strangulation? Surprise?

Went closer, looked at his neck. Red line across it. Little reds dots, like a thousand cuts underneath the skin. Petichillae. Sign of burst blood vessels. Surprise, maybe. But definitely garotted to death.

Bedside table. Condom, black. Open drawer. Inside, three more condoms, bottle of Viagra, bag of weed. Someone thought he was getting lucky.

I looked back at him. Wondered if he’d gone four times he wouldn’t have died of a heart attack anyway.

“You cut your hair?” the detective asked me.

“About a week ago,” I said. “Like it?”

“Pixie cut, right? It’s great. Makes you look like a teenager.”

Some women would call that a complement.

“Let’s focus on him,” I said.

“Your dime.”

“Who is he?” I asked.

“Well, if he’s the owner of the house, he’s Richard Quolette. Ring any bells?”

“Not unless he buys mystery novels.”

“Last thing he bought was a pharmaceutical company. Like the three more he bought before that. It was in the papers, right about the time his office got raided by the FBI. I don’t know what the hell he was up to but the windbreakers don’t carry out your hard drives by the shopping bag for nothin’. Then he cut a check to Maine Med and they named a wing after him. Didn’t help. He’s lookin’ at a hard life in minimum security… and he kicks it with a thing in his mouth like a roasted pig.”

“Quite an epitaph,” I said.

He showed me his phone, which had its browser pointed towards Google.

“Secret tools of the trade?”

“Not so secret.” He pulled a glove out of his pocket, used it like a kleen-ex to pick up the pill bottle. “Filled three days ago. Someone was getting ready for a date.”

“Wife’s lucky night?”

He shook his head. “‘cording to Wikipedia she’s in Africa with Doctors Without Borders. Gonna be a bitch just getting her notified. Not my thing, thank Christ.”

“So – what? Mistress? Date?”

“Sure. Hot date. Brand new Viagra. Brand new toys. Condoms like that – you think there’s a girl on the planet wouldn’t point at that and laugh?”

“What are you saying?”

“If he had a date I’m guessin’ he paid for more than her dinner.”

“Oh.” I looked down at him. Noticed a little blood on his chin. Cut himself shaving. Which explained that aftershave.

“So what?” I asked. “Bondage gone wrong?”

“Looks like it. I don’t know, maybe his wife sent him a killer callgirl. Maybe he’s in bed – ha, ha – got in with bad folk, someone set him up. Maybe they garotted him in the back of a limo in Ogunquit, then moved him here and set this whole thing up for show.”

“You think so?”

“No. I think bondage gone wrong. I think he says, here’s an extra hundred if you strangle me while you suck me off, she pulls too tight, feels him goin’ limp and looks up and that’s all, folks.”

“So where’s the hundred bucks?”

“I’m guessin’ it was in the dresser drawer, along with a bunch of friends, and now’s in the girl’s pocket. So I check with his bank and see if he just pulled a bunch of cash out. Find the serial numbers. Put out a trace.”

“What a good idea.”

“While I’m doin’ that the techs dust for latents, find her. Otherwise they do their pull, get DNA, send it to the lab, all closed up.”

“Ah huh.”

“Then while I’m doin’ that I find his phone, run the back numbers, find the escort agency, and they give me the girl before any of that other shit even starts. Girl pleads to a year and a day, his wife comes home to pretend to cry, and I see if I can get the feds to tell me what the fuck was going on just to calm my curious intellect.”

“If they tell you, will you tell me?”

“Depends what they tell me. Maybe. Why, worth another five hundred?”

“No.”

He smiled. “Just so long as I don’t read about it in some book someday.”

“Don’t worry.”

I looked down at the man on the bed. I couldn’t help thinking he just looked so ridiculous.

“Poor guy,” I said.

He shrugged. “Poor millionaire buyin’ tail while he’s got a sealed indictment waitin’ to go off. He will be missed.”

“Speaking of which,” I say, and hand over my five hundred pieces of silver. Thank the detective. Make to exit stage right.

“Better?” he asks me as I walk away.

I stop. Think for a minute. “Yeah,” I say. “Actually, yes. Better.”

“Glad I could oblige.”

Exit Mary, straight on home to write.

***

Every July the air in Maine is like hot water in a bowl. Mid August that bowl goes in the freezer. November on and it’s ice. Every block you walk. Every breath.

I kept the store open for Christmas, got about a hundred people over the course of the day. Hundred people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. Sold three hundred books.

The next day I drove to Massachusetts to visit my folks. Six years in a row I’ve been scolded for not having Christmas with them. But my brother and his family are still there, I still get a day or two to play with his kids. Lot more than six years I’ve been scolded for not having those.

I head back on the last day of the year. New Year’s I don’t do much, maybe go out, have a drink. This year I end up going home with a guy who doesn’t look old enough to drink. I know I don’t look that much older. I don’t feel much older. Which is just what old ladies say.

New Year’s Day it snows for seven hours. I’m glad the boy didn’t live too far from my shop. I get in before the snow’s above my ankles. I fall asleep in a big chair in the store, wake up and the snow’s piled up against the windows, up to my waist.

Power goes out. I run to get candles. And pyjamas, and a bottle of Irish Cream. I sit in my bookstore and read the new releases by candle-light.

I hear the plows go by in my sleep. I hear the power come back on, roll over and turn myself back off. My phone rings. I grope for it in the dark. Force myself to keep looking, even when it’s stopped ringing.

One missed call. Detective Brewer. Six fourteen in the morning.

I text him: What? Man hit by snowplow?

He texts back: Customs House. Man with cut throat.

***

The plow’s kicked up enough snow that I can’t get out the door. I get a stepladder, open a window, climb through. There are no sidewalks. I walk in the street. Pressing myself into the walls of snow whenever a plow rushes by.

The Customs House is four stories of granite done up like a Second Empire fairytale. It’s so out of place it’s like a statue in a park: just something you walk by. Being covered in snow doesn’t do it any favors. Looks like a wax building melting in the moonlight.

There’s a cop car parked in front, lights flashing. I walk by: nobody’s inside. Someone’s shoveled a trench up to the front door. I let myself in, spend a minute just shaking off snow and feeling my cheeks burn to life.

Text from the detective: you coming

Text in reply: I’m in the lobby.

Text from the detective: up

So I go up.

Remembering the power outage I decide to take the stairs. Four stories. I can feel it in my calves. I promise myself I’ll take a nice long bike ride, build a little strength. When the snow clears. Four months away.

There’s a metal cordon across the stairs. It’s been unlocked. I’m going to the roof. The door’s been wedged open with a gun-holster. I bend down to make sure it’s empty.

“Keep it wedged open,” the detective says. “One dead body on the roof’s enough.”

“Too early in the morning for a triple homicide?”

He doesn’t laugh. At first I think he’s just cold, hung over. Then I see how he’s staring at the body.

Man, older. Handsome. Beautiful silver hair braided with little icicles. Camel-hair overcoat, Italian leather shoes. Blue skin.

Face-down in black ice. Blood. Blood from his throat. Face turned to the side, eyes closed, look like he’s gagging. Covered in blood. Frozen to the roof.

“Shit,” says my detective.

I don’t think he was talking to me. “What is it?”

“Another fucking clueless whodunnit.”

I twisted the rubik’s cube, got all green: “Still no suspect in the last case?”

He looked up at me for the first time. “Not a thing. Had every girl in Cumberland County in the tank, didn’t get a thing. Nobody knows about it. Nobody’s talkin’ about it. Not shit.”

I walked around him so that I had my back to the wind. “What about the FBI?”

He grinned like he had a bullet in his teeth. “Seems all that allegedly in the Press Herald, all of that was true. Faking drug trials, doin’ em all in China on God knows what poor bastards. Couldnt’a happened to a nicer fellow. Doesn’t help me shit.”

He nudged the stiff with the tip of his shoe. “Now here’s another rich douchebag, another spread in the papers. Two open front-pagers. Merry fucking Christmas.”

I didn’t have to ask who he was. “It’s Rothstein,” I said. “The lawyer.”

“Gold star for Mary.”

Jacob Rothstein. Defense attorney with a silver forked tongue. Specializes in violent crimes. Specializes in acquittals. Made the Maine papers when he got a nineteen-year-old off of killing a bartender with a bar stool. Made the national news when the same kid, now twenty-one, got a walk after killing a schoolteacher with an axe.

That Vanity Fair cover story on him, I had it in my shop window for a month. Never saw so many walk-ins. Truth sells better than fiction.

“Front page indeed,” I said.

“Shit.”

I bent my knees, tried not to fall over my coat. “Throat slit?”

“Nah. Two punctures. I’m guessin’ someone came up behind him, grabbed his head, one, two, stepped back and called timber and watched him bleed out. Stumbles around a little, gets light-headed from the blood loss. Falls to the ground. Goes to Hell.”

I couldn’t decide if he was damned because of the things he’d done, or because he hadn’t left one Detective Brewer a suspect.

“You look… I don’t know,” I said. Pensive? Concerned? I had plenty of words to describe a dead body. Guess I needed to diversify.

“Well, think about it,” he said. “On a roof. In the middle of the Old Port? Foot traffic central? Midnight’s good as broad daylight. Nobody sees a thing? He doesn’t scream, doesn’t gurgle loud enough to wake the neighbors? Then it snows, I’m guessin’ he’s been up here at least twentyfour hours. Ten below zero, strong wind, he coulda fallen into a tank of fucking acid and it’d have left a better crime scene.”

“Oh Christ,” he said, wincing like the weight of the world just hit him in the stomach, “if it’d been heavy snow instead of this powder, hadn’t had this wind, this roof’d be covered. He coulda been under the snow for a fucking month before he got found.”

“Who did find him?” I asked.

He pointed to a building across the street. “Hobo pissin’ off the roof saw it. Thought it was one of his. Called it in from his phone. Because the fucking hobo livin’ in the shelter has an iPhone.”

“Welcome to Portland,” I said.

He put a gloved finger on either side of his nose, closed his eyes and rubbed. I was about to offer him some Tylenol before I rememebered I didn’t have my purse.

I gave him five hundred cash. That helped.

“Do me a favor,” he said, eyes still closed, “you come across somethin’ in one of your books for pulling suspects outta thin air, you don’t keep it to yourself. Okay?”

“There’s a hot new series from Scotland about a psychic-”

“This is not gonna be a good year,” he said. Which I took as my cue to go.

***

January, paperbacks to seniors. February, new hardcovers to college girls. March, quiet, big thrillers to merchant marines for that long sail. Around then was when we found Porkchop on the church roof.

April vacation. Middle-school teachers come in for something to read in the bathtub. Rains for a day, snow washes away. Few days and it’ll be spring.

First thing in the morning. Call from my detective. I put a sign in the store window saying we’ll be opening late. Mary has a murder to attend to. I smile as I picture the eye-rolls of passers-by.

Still looks like rain. I splurge, call a taxi. Get an earful from Detective Brewer. Apparently he doesn’t like the idea of the taxi having records of dropping me at his murder. I tell him to stop having murders in the rain.

Waynflete School, Maine’s little Eton. Brownstones in the West End, first-name teachers and fundraising drives. Even has a little quad, locals walk their dogs through it at dawn. Someone’s dachsund sniffed out Charlie Smith.

Twenty years old. Beautiful, five ten in heels. Waynflete grad herself. Good family. Rich family. Never crossed their mind she wasn’t a good girl. Despite three busts for solicitation, five for possession, and now three pending for dealing: cocaine, heroin, cocaine.

She’s in the fetal position on the ground, leggings wet from the morning dew. Blood in the grass. Birds in the trees above.

“How do you know so much about her?” I ask.

“Bout a year, year and a half ago, her john and she were shootin’ up in his apartment. Musta been great dope. He fell out, she was so stoned she just lay there starin’ at the ceiling. He died. Daddy got a lawyer, she got off.”

“I think I remember seeing it on the news,” I said.

“That or one of her busts for tricking. Girl like this busted in a room at a hotel by the airport? Every mom at home gets to think her daughter’s better than a rich girl. Great TV.”

“So what happened?”

He shrugs. “Drug steal. Probably. Just cut her throat and grabbed her shit. Her purse’s over there-” he gestured a few feet away, to a small gold clutch lying in the grass, “all the money’s gone. Couple little Zip-Locs, empty. And over there-” he gestured to the street, where a Saab had its trunk open, “is milady’s automobile. Which looks like it got tossed in a hurry. Drug steal.”

“Didn’t steal the car?” I ask.

“Too easy to track. ‘sides, you can’t snort a car.”

There’s something different about his face. This time it isn’t just my vocabulary failing me. I can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“There’s something else,” I say.

He keeps a straight face for a moment. Then it bursts like a shell into a big fat smile.

“Come over here,” he says, and starts walking away.

I follow him to the car. He puts on gloves, reaches into the trunk. “Took any drugs,” he says. “But that was only half her business.”

It’s a little portable dungeon. Rope, whips. Dildos. He rummages through. Lube. Ball gags. Condoms. Black condoms. A harness for-

“Wait a sec,” I say.

I didn’t think his smile could get any bigger.

Black condoms.

“Wait a fucking second!”

He laughs. I must look like a little girl. I don’t care.

I remember a house. Columns. Aftershave. Silk sheets.

“You think she…”

He raises his eyebrows.

“You think she killed Richard Quolette?”

“Oh, I think our little Charlie catered to a par-ticular sort of john. Appealed to him. The businessman. The big shot. Maybe the guy with the guilty conscience. Maybe the guy who just wanted to get smacked around by daddy’s little girl.”

“Mike,” I said, “what are you…”

He reaches a gloved hand to the bottom of the trunk, pulls up the liner. There’s an indentation for a jack, another for a spare tire. The tire spot’s empty. Where the jack should have been were-

“Oh, Mike. Oh, Jesus.”

A black handle. A lipstick-red grip. Some fat, clip-pointed, serrated. Some thin, almost like chopsticks. All shining steel.

Knives.

I take a step back.

He reaches in and pulls one out, dangles it in front of me. About six inches. Like a screwdriver with a needle point. And jammed onto it, like a hunk of meat on a kebab, a black ball. A ball-gag ball. Black.

I sit down on the curb.

“Not the first time I’ve heard of a girl gets busted with knives,” says the detective, trying not to smile, failing off the chart. “Call girl, sometimes just a regular lady. Kinky shit. More common than you’d think. Usually we say it’s legal so long as no one gets hurt. Kinda hard when hurtin’s the whole point.”

“Mike-”

“These go right to the lab,” he says. “And if that little crust there’s blood, and if that blood’s Porkchop’s…”

He chuckles. It turns into a laugh.

“Three clearances!” he says, waving around the knife as he throws up his hand. “Because our Charlie’s all kindsa fucked up, and then she’s tyin’ up Dick Quolette and it goes wrong… and the next time with Rothstein maybe she makes it go wrong… maybe she’s stabbin’ Daddy, maybe she’s just angry, maybe she just wants someone to put her away…”

I stare straight ahead. I see her hip rising out of the short grass.

“Three clearances,” he says, putting the knife back in the trunk. “All three of my open murders, all down to one-”

“Serial killer,” I say.

He looks down at me.

“Those three murders. Quolette. Rothstein. Esterhazy. They weren’t just random. They were connected. Serial. Escalating. And we never noticed. It never even crossed our minds.”

I meet his eyes. He’s still got that big smile across his face.

“Are you telling me,” I say, rising, my voice rising, heat rising in my face, “that we’ve been on the trail of a fucking SERIAL KILLER this WHOLE TIME and-”

“Jesus, keep it down!” he says. “How were we supposed-”

I reach into my purse, throw five hundred-dollar bills into his face. Turn, and walk away.

I hope I don’t hear from him ever again.

***

Late April I read it in the Telegram. Suspect named for all three of the biggest murders in recent memory. Big men brought down by their own kinky sex. Suspect killed in a drug-related homicide before she could answer for her crimes.

Picture of the girl. High-school yearbook shot. Gorgeous. Sad. Pictures of the men. Smiling. Can’t help but picture them getting their asses smacked by a cheerleader with a riding crop. Picture on the front page of Detective Mike Brewer talking into a microphone in front of City Hall. Trying to look happy and somber at the same time.

It gets national coverage. Six pages in the New Yorker. I put the issue in the window. Wish I could write up what I’d seen. If only I didn’t have such a strong aversion to jail.

Thanks to Portland’s first serial killer, May’s the busiest month the store’s ever had. June and July is beach reads and tourists, busy as ever. Store’s doing so well I think about opening a second one, before I decide I don’t think I want to. Every time I run into another bookstore owner I can barely look them in the eye.

Instead I write. And read and read, but that goes without saying. It’s not really a novel. More like a few short stories all intertwined. There’s not enough of what I’d seen with my detective to get him in trouble. Not unless you knew what to look for. And the only people who knew that much were him and me.

I draft it over and over. Sweat over it. Decide it’s no good. Decide it’s great. All the things you’d expect from a writer. I’m a mystery lover. We know how to savor a cliche.

I send it out to agents. And wait and wait.

It’s the Tuesday just after Labor Day. Just about the deadest day of the year. Kids back to school, teachers too, too late for beach folk and too early for leaf-peepers. I close the store at six, order in Thai, pour myself a glass of wine and do they day’s receipts while I wait for my spring rolls and a quiet night.

There’s a knock on the door. I get my purse, hope I have enough cash to tip. I open the door and there’s Detective Brewer.

From one moment to the next my heart beats so fast I think it’s broken a rib.

He just walks forward. I step aside, let him in. I think that if I’d stood there he’d have walked right over me.

He sees the bottle of wine, goes over and pours himself a glass. Drinks it down. Pours another. Then he turns to me.

“Lock the door and sit down.”

“I’m expecting delivery,” I say.

“Cancel it.”

I call and apologize and cancel.

“Not gonna ask me what this is about, are you.” It’s not a question.

“No.”

He looks at me like I’m a person he’s never seen before.

Or not a person at all.

I hold up my glass. “At least pour me some more wine.”

He stares at me for a very long time. Wondering if I’m trying to prove something. Manipulate him. Grovel or gloat.

I just look at him. At length he pours.

I sit. He leans against the counter. I take a sip. He takes a gulp, puts the glass down half full. And I know he’s trying to think how to begin.

“It was the knives,” he says at last. “In her trunk. Lab tested them all for DNA. Only two came up positive. An old hunting knife, Rothstein. The thing with the ball to hold the wound shut, Porkchop’s all over it. Match the wounds. They’re the murder weapons. But we tested all the other knives. Tested ’em twice. Nothing.

“Not nothing to the crime scenes. Not nothing to another open murder. Nothing. They’re clean. Could use ’em in a surgery.

“So what? She sterilizes all her shit except the two that are murder weapons? And even they’ve been cleaned. Just not well. Not like the other things, which are so clean they might as well be brand new.”

He looks at me. Waits for a response. Just looks for a reaction. I have none.

“So I’m thinking, fine, OK. Check all sorts of homicides, nothing else like these. Most likely she’s only killed the three guys. Only two done with knives. She freaks out after, doesn’t do a good job cleaning up. It’s possible. But it doesn’t feel right. Doesn’t feel right at all.

“So I go down to evidence, look at the rest of her stuff. It’s pretty much brand fuckin’ new. And I mean, this girl’s on and off dope, coke. She’s trickin’ for shit, that’s all. She’s not a pro. She’s not a dom with a web site and business cards. No credit card history of buying this stuff, no FedEx records. None of the dirty stores recognize her. Lady at Nomia says she thinks she bought a vibrator there when she was 16. We found it in her apartment. Not exactly brand new.

“It just doesn’t fit.”

He takes a breath. “No. Some of it doesn’t fit. And if that part doesn’t fit, the rest of it fits way, way too good.”

He starts pacing as he talks. “I mean, how’s she get in touch with these guys? She’s not with a service. She barely uses a computer, nothin’ on her phone but texts to well-known assholes. And a girl like that? Doing out-call, showing up at these wierd places with old guys? Esterhazy runs girls, he doesn’t need to pick up trash like her. And I don’t think Rothstein would be caught dead fucking a twenty-year-old, let alone a hooker with arm tracks. It just doesn’t fucking wash.”

He takes a deep breath. “So I figure, okay, just for argument. Let’s say it’s a setup. Wouldn’t be hard. Throw some stuff in her trunk. That’s all. That’s ALL. And what else is there? There’s no real motive. No corroboration. I sure as fuck wasn’t looking for…”

He looks around, then looks at me, daring me to move. I keep absolutely still.

“So I go back. Work it. See if she’s alibi’d those nights. And it’s hard, guys found outside like that, hours later, time of death’s hard to call. But we’ve got her fucked up at a New Year’s party for Rothstein, and she’s in fucking Prout’s Neck with her parents for Esterhazy. If it wasn’t for those knives-”

He fights a battle with the glass in his hand, loses. Fills it up again.

“So I play it out. If it’s a setup then the three murders are still related. Related through whoever set up number four. Have to be. Well, they all involved kinky sex. Did they? Don’t think someone strangled Quolette and then tied him up. But Rothstein? Porkchop? No evidence at all. Who the fuck knows what they were doing. Why they were out there, on a church, out in a fucking snowstorm. We still don’t know jack.

“I mean, really, the only thing they all have in common is they’re all assholes. They’re bad guys. They’re front-page assholes and everybody knows it.

“So what, it’s fucking Batman? Some guy in a mask killing all the evil people? That’s bullshit. Serial killers kill for fucked up reasons and justice isn’t one of them.

“So I’m just thinkin’ and thinkin’, what do these three murders have in common? Besides a murderer? Well, OK, let’s start with the murderer. They’re all guys who like girls. Older guys who’ll like a girl who’s young but not too young. Rich guys who’ll appreciates a bit of class. Smart guys who’ll want a smart girl. So what? That’s lots of guys. So maybe this girl says, what the hell, we’re gonna kill some guys, let’s rid the world of a few douchebags. Might as well. Maybe she thinks it’ll help her sleep better at night.

“But, Jesus, if this is right, there’s another fucking serial killer out there. But there haven’t been any more murders. Nothing that fits the profile. And they already went to the trouble of setting someone up for ’em. Fix is in. It’s over. They got away with it. Maybe they’re all done.

“I’m wrackin’ my brain, tryin’ to think of anything, anything else they have in common. Waitress from the same restaurant? Same call girl? Anything? I’m basically working each case from scratch. And I find nothing. Absolutely nothing. Looking back at the original investigation, there’s only one solitary thing that’s the same across all three – all four – murders.”

He turns to me.

“It’s you.”

He stares at me. I stare back. I don’t think my face betrays anything. I don’t think they’re anything for it to betray.

“It took me about three minutes,” he says. “Minute one was thinking, well, you were at all three, all four crime scenes. Maybe I call you, see if there’s something you’ve thought of that I missed. Have you tell me I’m crazy, let me start sleepin’ again. Minute two I think, man, I wish I could just say that you’d been there, bring you in official. But I can’t admit that. Can’t have any evidence I snuck a girl into a crime scene to show off. Minute three I realize there’s plenty of evidence, I’ve taken money from you for each of the murders, and you made sure, you made FUCKING SURE to give me that check, make sure there was a big clear record of you paying me off. Just like you made sure to take a cab, just like you made sure to do that one by text message-”

His voice breaks. He turns away.

It takes him a few minutes before he can drink. It takes him a few more to speak.

In a voice barely a whisper, “Then I spent the rest of the night curled up on the floor of my office with my knees to my chest like a fucking dead man.”

He turns around and stares at me. I was afraid what would be in his eyes. Rage. Hate. Instead there’s nothing. They’re the eyes of a dead man.

“It took a week,” he says. “But I checked your alibis. Quietly. Didn’t raise an eyebrow. Quolette, you’re at this movie thing at the Nick. People see you go in. People hang out with you in the lobby after. So if you sneak out that’s a two-hour window. And everyone in the theater’ll swear you were there the whole time.

“Rothstein was New Year’s Eve. People saw you leave the party with some kid. So you get him drunk, or you slip him something, he’s out cold for hours. Hell, if that snow’s a little heavier they don’t even find Rothstein till the Spring. You’re back at his apartment before he wakes up. He doesn’t know he was drugged. He’ll swear on a stack of Bibles you never left.

“Esterhazy you had an author talk at your store. Some old hack gave a 90-minute PowerPoint that put half the crowd to sleep. You sneak out the back, ninety minutes to get to the cathedral, meet Porkchop, climb up to the roof…”

He can’t finish the sentence. He finishes the bottle.

“And Charlie,” he says. “Fuck it. She’s a dealer. She knows where to go to not get made. You call her from a payphone. Say you want to buy. She hears you’re a lady. Classy lady. She’s not worried. Then you… you… take her keys, pop her trunk, fill it up with all that shit. Throw the drugs off the bridge, make it look like a rip and run.

“That how you did it? Kinky sex? Promise ’em on some chatroom, tell ’em you’d tie ’em up? Or did you just bump into Rothstein and flirt with him and say you wanted a cigarette, or tell Esterhazy you wanted to be romantic and go look at the stars?”

He shakes his head like he’s just been hit, stunned. “Bet you wore long gloves. Bet you wore shoes with a plain sole, threw ’em in the bay right after. Everything you know from reading all those books… you got the detective on your side. Got so you’d be the one person in the whole world he knew didn’t know anything about ’em. Then you make sure there’s records of me taking your money. You make sure that even if I do figure it out, I can’t say a word without losing my job, and either I go to jail for being the biggest fuckup in the force…”

He swallows. “Or I go to jail as your accomplice.”

“And it just goes on,” he says. “It gave you a chance to visit the crime scene again. Jesus… I thought at first it was to see if you’d missed anything, fix your alibi. Then I realized: DNA. This way if they find one of your hairs, half a fingerprint, you could just say you touched it while I was showing you around.”

His eyes go wide. He takes a step back. He looks like he’s about to break down and cry.

“You cut your hair… you cut your hair short so you wouldn’t drop long hairs at the scene. So you could fit it up under a hat…”

He slumps down against the register, slides down to the floor.

“This is the worst night of my fucking life.”

I think about saying that I’m sorry. That’d be disgusting. Anything I say would be disgusting. I don’t say a word.

“Mary,” he says, and stops.

I just wait. I can do nothing but wait.

“It’s just these three, right?”

He stares at me. Then his eyes screw up.

“Four. Jesus. Just these four.”

I close my eyes, and nod my head.

He leans his head back, eyes up, bites his lip.

“Worst night of my fucking life.”

He gets himself under control. It’s over now. Just the business to attend to.

“It’s over,” he says. “It’s completely fucking done. You don’t… some whodunnit shows up, anywhere, you’re my first suspect. I look at you for every fucking murder that gets done in this town until one of us dies first. If I hear you broke a guy’s toe in self-defence, fuck it. Fuck my career. Fuck time in jail. You get cuffs. I drag you in and I tell everything. Every single fucking thing. So help me God.

“It’s over,” he says.

“Yes,” I say. “It is.”

Suddenly his eyes burn with hatred. Like I knew they would.

Then they’re hollow again. And so is he. A tired man, who’ll be tired for the rest of his life.

He opens his mouth to say something. Doesn’t find anything to say. He puts his glass down, almost empty. Gets up and heads for the door.

“Hope it’s a good fuckin’ book,” he says, past exhausted, half drunk.

“It’s getting published,” I say.

He stops. Back jerks up like he just took a bullet.

“I just found out. Just… thought you should know.”

I can hear his teeth grate. “Is there anything-”

“No,” I say. “It’s just stories.”

“Because I see one fucking thing that shows… that shows we-”

“You might,” I say. “You might recognize things. But nobody else would. Nobody in the world. Just us.”

He stands there on the threshold, hands at his sides.

“What’s it called?”

I keep my face blank. Even though he’s looking away.

“Mary’s Murders.”

His head sinks forward, and he walks away.

~ by davekov on 26 August 2013.

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