Slung over the towel rack, a puddle forms beneath my dripping clothes. Depositing my weight against the tile wall, I let the shower’s warm water steal down my back. Mirrors fog. After several minutes, I twist the knobs and watch as the last of the blood-swirled water circles the drain. Steam clouds the room as I pull back the curtain. There’s a folded towel on the counter. I use it to dry off. In the cabinet, next to several bottles of cleaning products, I find a first aid kit with a variety of bandages, tapes, and ointments that I use to treat and dress the gash on my leg.
Cassie had left a pink bathrobe on the back of the door for me. I put it on and step into the hallway.
“I’ll be there in a minute,” Cassie calls, suggesting I wait for her in the living room.
Beside the couch there’s a cup of dark coffee. A ribbon of steam rises off the surface.
“The coffee is for you,” she says, entering the room with a jar of beeswax herbal balm and a handful of cotton buds.
I sink into the couch, cradling the warmth of the cup in my hands.
“Lean forward,” she says.
Eyebrows scrunched together, she concentrates on applying the salve to the various scratches on my cheeks and forehead.
“So, what happens now?” she asks, pressing a medicated cotton bud to my cheek. The nerves around the cut react.
Clamping my teeth down hard causes the muscles in my jaw to stand out like thick wires. “Just before I was run off the road, a call came through from Agent Disney at Internal Affairs. Perhaps, that’s a good place to start.”
“Agent Disney?” Cassie balks. “Why would he be calling you?”
“If, somehow, they’re also onto Dobbs, he could have simply been calling to compare notes.”
“Considering there’s probably a contract out on her life, I imagine she’ll be taken into protective custody.”
Cassie leans back. “I still can’t believe Captain Dobbs is involved in all of this.”
I take a long drink from the coffee, feel its warmth wash down my throat. “Yeah, well, if you’d seen the way he tried to steer me off the case yesterday, you might.”
“And you’re sure he’s the one that ordered those men to have you killed tonight?” she asks, dabbing at another cut.
I do my best not to move as I speak. “How else did those guys know it was me in that phone booth if not for Dobbs?”
“But do you think he’s responsible for everything, the disappearance of the waitress, your neighbor’s suicide, Vance’s death, and the shooting in the subway?”
“I don’t honestly know. The scenarios are endless, but the most obvious could be that he and this waitress, Mary Angelis, were dating. At some point, he finds out she’s been accepting solicitations for sex and flies into a homicidal rage. After that it would have been all about containment.”
“So, he kills his girlfriend, makes her body disappear. Problem solved. Until he finds out her friend, your neighbor, Jennifer, is looking for her and may be able to identify him. That’s a chance he’s not willing to risk. But he also doesn’t want any more blowback, so, he decides to stage her death to look like a suicide. Now, Vance’s phone shows he called her just minutes before the attack. Assuming Dobbs was in her apartment when the call came through, it’s possible he could have overheard her mention Vance’s job title and mistakenly assumed she’d contacted him about her missing friend rather. Worried she may have already implicated him, he fears he’s losing containment. Until, that is, he hears them agreeing to meet that night at her apartment once she’s through with work. This explains how he knew to be there at two o’clock. Meanwhile, after attacking Jennifer, he remembers to delete the incoming call from her phone, but forgets, or rather doesn’t have time, to delete the outgoing call from Vance’s phone. Later, when he finds out Natalie has been inquiring about Vance’s body at the morgue, he works quickly to have the body cremated while ordering someone to have her taken out. The body is destroyed in what’s made to look like an accidental mix up, but again feels containment slipping after you arrive to rescue Natalie in the subway. Unsure about your role in all of this, he calls you in to probe your story. After listening to your explanation, he feels confident neither you nor Natalie can finger him as the boyfriend. Unthreatened by your delving into the waitress’s murder, where he’s sure you won’t find anything but a series of dead ends, he tells you to steer clear of the one area he’s not so certain of and that’s the investigation into Vance’s homicide. To keep tabs on your movements, it’s likely he had you followed, first to the morgue then to ballistics. Seeing how intent you were to keep digging, he probably felt he had little choice but to have you rubbed out.”
“You know you’re really wasting your time as just a secretary,” I tell her.
“Perhaps,” she says, distractedly, without delineating from her previous train of thought. “It seems the best chance we have of nailing this guy is to somehow tie him and this waitress together.”
“Easier said than done.”
“What about the club where she worked? He must have visited her there. If not before, certainly the night she disappeared.”
“What do you think that phony raid was all about?” I say. “It was clearly a ruse for Dobbs to requisition the footage.”
“So, we appeal to the District Attorney’s Office for a copy of the footage.”
“Did I not tell you?” I say. “That’s the best part. All of the video footage has been erased.”
“Erased?” Cassie says. “How is that possible?”
“It would appear someone went and placed the tapes near an oversized magnet in the storage locker.”
“Wish I was.”
Cassie tightens her forehead as if trying to squeeze out a thought. “There has to be some other way of retracing his movements on Monday night.”
As my mind works to come up with an answer to that riddle a light suddenly begins to tremble on the horizon of my mind. Shaking my head, I tell her, “It’s no use, Dobbs has an alibi for Monday night.”
“An alibi? How do you know he has an alibi?”
“He told me so, slipped it in there while we were talking the other day in his office, so smooth, he made it look like he was mentioning it as a sort of inconsequential afterthought. It happened just as we were discussing what day the girl went missing. When I told him it was Monday, he sort of paused as if checking his own mental calendar before remarking that that was the same night as the annual Policeman’s Ball fundraiser. Without even needing to elaborate, he knows I know those are all-night affairs and, as the police chief, he’d have been hosting, which would have put him there from before the party began all the way through to the end.”
“Then he must have hired someone to do it for him, contracted it out, the same he hired whoever it was that tried to kill Natalie in the subway and you tonight,” she says, pressing the cotton bud deep into another open gash. “That’s possible, isn’t it?”
“It’s certainly not impossible,” I say, wincing.
“Then there has to be a way to prove it.”
I take hold of her wrist, lower her arm so that she’s forced to meet me in the eye. “I didn’t ask to be involved in this.”
“I know,” she says behind a disappointed smile.
“What do you want me to do about it?” I say, placing the coffee mug on the end table beside me.
“I don’t want you to do anything. It just bothers me that there’s no justice for these people.”
“It bothers me too, but there’s only so much I can do. I’m only one guy. At least with Internal Affairs there’s a chance—”
A door slams.
Cassie and I jump to our feet as Natalie comes charging down the hall.
“Who’s here?’ Cassie asks.
“Men, three of them, they just pulled up.”
I rush to the window. From two cars, parked sideways, engines running, three men approach the building. One of the cars is black, carries a dent in the front right fender. The other belongs to Dobbs. “It’s them,” I say. “The ones who tried to run me off the road. Dobbs is with them.”
“What do we do?” Natalie says.
“What are they doing here?” Cassie asks.
I spin around, mind racing. “Dobbs must have realized the face on that photograph they took in the phone booth wasn’t mine?”
“Yeah, but they’re not just going to come in here and shoot you,” Cassie says.
“No,” I tell her, crossing the room, “they’ll probably kill me in transit with the excuse that I tried to escape.”
“But there are no grounds for an arrest.”
“Sure there are,” I say. “Who do you think murdered that poor fella in the phone booth back there?”
The buzzer on the video intercom erupts.
“Is there access to the roof through the stairwell?” I ask.
“It’s locked. Besides, it’s a trap. There are no buildings to jump to, no trees, not even a fire escape.”
“I can’t just stand here.”
The buzzer rings again.
“That’s it, I’m going to the roof.”.
“Wait!” Cassie exclaims. “There might be another way.”
“What other way?”
The buzzer screams for a third time.
There are moments in life, brief, fleeting moments, when, for an instant, an utterly irrational idea seems feasible. These moments typically last about three seconds. Three seconds. That’s all it takes for logic to intercede on your behalf. Unfortunately for me, by the time those three seconds have elapsed, momentum alone makes retreat impossible.
The small, metal plate drops down as a waft of germ-infected air belches up. Built to accommodate a thirty-three-gallon Hefty trash bag, the grime caked, sludge dripping garbage chute at the end of Cassie’s hallway had been offered as the best worst option. If given the last three seconds to do over again, I’d have probably taken my chances with the roof. Instead, I lean forward, curl my arms over my head, and dive in. The metal mouth swallows my kicking legs just as the elevator bell sounds and the doors slide open.
Dobbs steps into the hallway, giving a long look down each end. A nod to the men at his shoulder directs them to the stairwell.
“Be careful,” he says. “If he’s armed, he’s dangerous.”
“What should I do?” Natalie asks.
“Just act normal,” Cassie tells her.
“You don’t think I should hide?”
“I imagine they intend to search the place—Oh, shoot, Sphinx’s clothes! Quick, grab a trash bag.”
Like a pile driver, I slam head first atop a mound of bulky trash bags. The impact jams my neck, sends a slice of pain through the top of my skull. The base of the shaft doesn’t drop right into the dumpster the way it’s featured in the movies. Rather, it feeds into it through an L-shaped conduit. This means I have to twist and bend in order to drag myself through the foot and a half crawl space afforded by the pile of spilling garbage. The fetid smell of bacteria and rotting food sucks the oxygen right out of the air. Acids lurch up from my stomach, eating at the esophageal lining in the back of my throat. I choke them back, hold my breath. On my stomach, I’m forced to army crawl through the short metal duct.
The space shrinks as I slink into the dumpster. A steel lid presses on my back. To lift it, I position my arms for a push-up. Between two large, ooze-slicked sacks of plastic garbage, my hand slips, coming down hard on an intrusion of cockroaches. The crunch of exoskeleton is followed by the tickling of legs across my hand. Metal echoes like thunder as the back of my palm smashes against the dumpster’s roof. The scurrying continues up the sleeve of Cassie’s robe. Scraping and swatting, I fight to rid my arms of the scuttling creatures. Arms braced, I throw my weight against the lid. It doesn’t move. It must be bolted shut from the outside. Trapped and struggling to breathe, claustrophobia grips my chest.
I roll over, wedging my body down between two bags. A cold, wet liquid seeps through the robe’s cotton fibers. Feet curled, abs flexed, I drive my legs against the lid.
It remains pinned down.
A cockroach scurries across my throat. Several more take to my legs. Soon, dozens are swarming all over my body. Knuckles scrape across the dumpster’s corroded lid as I fight to keep them out of my hair. One falls from my hand onto my lips. I spit it off. Another burrows into my ear, its bristly legs tingling as it struggles to cuddle deep inside my eardrum. Thrashing and kicking, I scratch and slap everywhere I feel movement.
Through clenched teeth, I holler. But the sound only bounces off the dull concrete walls. Then, without warning, something turns on. Somewhere deep inside the machine’s belly, metal moves. Something rotates. Complex parts turn. The roaches scatter. I push back against the far side of the container as an engine roars to life. A long beep is followed by the advance of a metal arm.
Cassie answers the door just as Dobbs raises his fist to knock.
“Captain,” she says, her voice laced with concern, “what is it, what’s happened?”
“Have you seen him?”
“Sphinx? Not since this afternoon. Why, what’s wrong?”
“Excuse me,” Natalie says, coming around from the kitchen, a large black trash bag in hand. “The smell is awful. I’m just going to drop this down the chute.”
“Three-day old catfish,” Cassie blushes.
Dobbs gives Natalie a leering glance as she slips past him into the hallway.
“Who is she?” he asks.
“A client. Sphinx thinks she might be in some sort of danger. He wouldn’t tell me what kind, just that he preferred she stay at my place for a few days.”
“What are the two of you doing up so late?”
“Nightmares,” Cassie says, tossing her head in the direction of the hallway. “Two nights in a row.”
Natalie turns her head, coughs. The putrid smell rising up from the garbage chute is noxious. The bag is heavy but balances evenly on the lip of the open slot panel. As she goes to stuff it down, the gentle vibration and low murmur of gears reverberates up the long metal shaft.
Deep inside, a heap of mounting trash rises at my feet. The veins in my neck cord as I press my legs against the flat metal ram. Corneas strain. But the compactor continues its slow, merciless procession. It’s not long before my knees buckle. Grinding gears drown out the screams of pain as my legs are smashed further and further against my chest. Fetal position, knees against my ears, the bones of my ribcage stab against the internal organs as joints pop and crunch.
Someone calls my name.
“Quick!” I yell. “There must be a cutoff switch!”
“Try behind the machi—”
Gears lock. The engine slows. There’s a pressure release as the giant metal arm retracts. Scrunched like a ball, I attempt to extend my legs, but the joints around my knees feel like they’ve been fused together. Despite searing cramps, I’m able, with effort and the help of my hands, to straighten them as the bolt is unlatched and the lid lifted back. In the muted orange glow of the overhead light, I stare up at Natalie’s soft round face.
Eyes wide, she leans in. “Oh my god, are you okay?”
“Where are they?” I ask, pitching my weight against the edge of the dumpster.
“They’re still here.”
“How’d you get away? Did they see you?”
“I think we’re in the clear,” she says, offering her shoulder as a brace but my body’s dead weight proves too much for her to hoist on her narrow shoulders. Spilling over the side, I come crashing down hard. Natalie screams as I land with a smack on the cold cement floor. Sprawled out on my back, in the shape of a chalk outline, I stare up at her through blurry vision.
“How did you know?” I ask.
“Your clothes,” she says. “We decided to trash them in case they searched the place. That’s when I heard the compactor. I’m just glad I made it in time.”
“You’d better get back,” I grimace, trying to roll over onto my elbow, “before they get suspicious.”
“Will you be all right?”
“Just don’t forget I’m down here,” I say, grabbing at my side.
Bare feet move toward the door.
“Natalie,” I call out.
“Thank you,” I say.
She smiles. “I suppose this makes us even.”
A gust of cold night air swirls in just before the door slams closed.
On my back, I lie, staring up at the grey, cobwebbed ceiling. There’s not an inch of my body that’s not swimming in pain. It was just four days ago that I’d been enjoying another uneventful Monday. But all of that changed the moment I’d been approached by my neighbor about the disappearance of her friend. Since then, I’d been embroiled in one catastrophe after another. First there was the police raid at the strip club, followed by an all-night interrogation. Released the next morning, I came home to find that same neighbor bathing in a pool of her own blood. As if that wasn’t enough, this guy Vance showed up at my office that very night with a .32 in his back. Later, I was knocked over the head by a woman whose life I wound up saving by shooting off a man’s hand in the subway. Which, as it turned out, may well be part of a conspiracy involving, among others, the chief of police, a fact which appears to have gotten me driven off the road and an innocent man murdered in a phone booth. And to top it all off, five minutes ago, I nearly died, buried beneath a mound of garbage.
I’m simply too old, too tired, and too sober to continue placing my life at risk for a case in which I have no professional, moral, or personal obligation.