Over his shoulder, the front door sneaks open. Faint footsteps fall on the soft-fibered carpet.
Michael hears nothing.
Eyes trained on the narrow walkway leading to the dumpster closet, one of two shared by the complex, he studies the courtyard for movement. If the killer were to dispose of the body by conventional means, that would be the most likely option.
The figure edges closer.
“Are you watching for me?” a voice rises behind him.
The muscles in Michael’s chest constrict as he jerks his entire body around.
“What are you doing here?” he says.
“From the looks of it, I should be asking you the same question.”
“You’re going to kill me,” he says, placing his hand to his chest. “You can’t just creep up on people like that, Katrina. How did you even get in?”
About eight months ago, while under submersion as he was struggling to finish his previous novel before the deadline, Michael awoke one morning to find his house in utter disarray. The kitchen sink sat piled with dishes, the living room was cluttered with empty pizza boxes, plastic forks and several white, Styrofoam to-go boxes, garbage spilled out of every basket from the kitchen to the bathroom, the laundry hamper contained every item of clothing he owned and reeked of sweat and mold, there was no toilet paper in the bathroom, no clean towels on the rack, he was out of toothpaste, deodorant, and aftershave. It was then he decided to hire a cleaning lady, someone to take out the trash, wash the dishes, run the laundry, buy groceries, and water the plants. He contacted a private cleaning agency and that very day, Katrina arrived. A part-time job while she studied to be a hospice nurse, she was punctual, thorough, and sociable. In no time, Michael came not only to appreciate her service, but to look forward to her company.
“Well, you did leave the front door unlocked,” she says.
“The building, I mean. How did you get into the building?”
“I slide in past the mailman. He was coming out just as I was coming in. Why, did I catch you at a bad time?”
“A bad time?” he thinks, “No, I was just… Nothing.”
“Well,” Katrina declares, showing off the brown bag in her hand, “I brought bagels if that helps.”
“It does,” Michael says. “I’m starving.”
“What’s with the binoculars?” she asks, crossing into the kitchen. “Is there a nude rooftop sunbather?”
The question was meant as a joke, but something in Michael’s expression tells her he’s not amused.
“What’s going on?” she asks, leaving the bag on the table.
The explanation he offers has her needling her temples and rattling her head. “I’m confused. This is part of the story you’re working on?”
“I know how bizarre it must sound.”
“And you’re sure this wasn’t just a dream?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” he says, feeling a rush of heat rise across his shoulders. “I know what I saw.”
Katrina places a gentle, indulgent hand on his arm. “Okay,” she says, peering up at him with a pair of soft, unjudging eyes. “If you say you witnessed a murder last night, then I believe you.” There’s sincerity in her voice. “Have you called the police?”
“They sent over a squad car.”
Expecting more, Katrina coaxes him for further details with a lingering “But…?”
“But, they didn’t seem to believe me.”
“What?!” she scoffs. “You told them you saw a woman murdered and they didn’t believe you? Aren’t they obligated, by law, to investigate a claim like that?”
“They cited probable cause.”
“What does that even mean? You saw him kill her,” she says. “Isn’t the testimony of an eyewitness sufficient grounds to invoke probable cause?”
“Under normal circumstances,” Michael says, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
“There’s something you’re not telling me,” Katrina says, fixing him with her gaze. “What is it?”
“Come here,” he says, pointing out the window. “Do you see that wall there?”
“Sure,” she says, staring out at the building on the left.
“That’s where I saw them.”
“Okay,” she nods, anticipating some greater revelation.
“The only problem is,” Michael pauses, “the murder didn’t happen there. It happened somewhere over in that building over there.” With his finger, Michael now draws a line in the opposite direction, toward the building on the right, straight across from where he’d first directed her attention.
Furrowed lines wrinkle Katrina’s forehead. “I don’t get it. How is it possible that a murder happened in this building here, but you saw it happen in that one over there?”
“Not in,” he clarifies, “on.”
“Shadows,” Michael tells her, “projected behind a light from a window in this building here on the right onto that building there on the left.”
“And you couldn’t determine which apartment the light was coming from?”
Michael shakes his head, “Do you see how half of the building on the right disappears behind the angle of my building?”
“The light was coming from one of the windows absconded from view. As far as the police were concerned, with no way to identify the suspect or where the incident took place, I may as well have made it up.”
“But you’re confident you know which apartment they were in?”
“After calling the police, I ran downstairs to check, but the light went out before I got there. But it’s clear to see, the only window with an angle capable of projecting light onto that part of the building is the third-floor corner apartment.”
Katrina offers a shallow nod. “I suppose I can understand the police’s predicament. For all they know, those shadows could have come from any of the windows on that side of the building.”
“But I know what I saw.”
“Okay, so, what’s with the binoculars?”
Michael turns back to the window. “If there’s a rotting corpse somewhere in that apartment, the killer’s not just going to let it sit there. At some point, he’ll have to dispose of it. Though it’ll probably have to be done in parts, he could easily drop them all down the garbage chute and be done with it.”
“What if he has a car, he could just drive it out to the woods, dump it somewhere remote.”
“There were only three cars on the street outside that building, all had parking tags and I’ve already run the license plates of each through the DMV’s online database. They’re all registered to women.”
“That’s convenient,” Katrina says.
“If it were fiction, I might consider it cheating.”
“What if the killer doesn’t live there?” Katrina contends. “What if the apartment belongs to the victim? If he was her guest, he may have just left and left her body inside.”
“I thought of that, but then I remembered that she was trying to get past him, trying to leave. If it had been her house, it seems more likely she’d have been pressuring him to get out. Besides, the name on the mailbox is a man’s. Wayne Knox.”
Katrina thinks about it. “Assuming he has no car and he’s not willing to dispose of the body so close to home, maybe he hires a cab.”
“And how do you see that conversation going?” Michael says. “‘So, never mind the shovel and the smell coming from the trash bag, could you just drive me out to the woods and wait thirty minutes while I dig a shallow grave?’”
“Okay, so the dumpster is the most likely option,” she says. “And what if he’s somehow already managed to make the dump? Have you checked to see if there’s a body in there?”
“It’s not that simple,” Michael says. “You see, to get into the dumpster closet you need a key.”
“Don’t you have a key?” she asks.
“To the dumpster on this side of the courtyard. It’s management’s way of evening out the distribution.”
“So, if he’s already made the dump, what do we do?”
“Exactly what we are doing,” he says, checking his watch. “The trash collectors are due to make their next pick up any minute.”
“So, that’s what you’re waiting for?” she says.
“If we can intercept them while they’re making their pick up and find a body, we won’t need probable cause.”
“Yeah, but since when is the trash collected on Thursday?”
“Not Thursday, Tuesday,” he says, nodding to the calendar on the wall.
Katrina laughs as she crosses to the far side of the room. “It would be Tuesday,” she says, tearing the top page off the calendar, “if it were still June.”
The new page shows July.
“Maybe that’s why you looked so surprise when I walked in this morning,” Katrina laughs.
“Wait a minute,” Michael says, placing a hand to his forehead. “If today is Thursday, that means the collection service has already made their mid-month pickup.” Placing the binoculars on the desk beside him, he adds, “So, they won’t be back until next week.”
“And between now and then?” Katrina asks.
Michael leans against the desk, scratches at the back of his ear, “Today’s laundry day, isn’t it?”
“I only come on laundry days,” Katrina says.
“Listen, I’m going to run downtown, I’ll be back in a couple of hours. I’ll leave my spare key with you so you can come back and forth from the laundromat. Of course, you’re welcome to stay here as long as you’d like, but if I’m not back before you leave, just make sure the door is locked. You can bring me back the key next week.”