The hum and gentle sway of the light rail have an almost hypnotic quality. Across from him, an elderly woman is reading The Best Short Stories of O. Henry.
“Are you a fan?” a voice calls out.
Michael looks up.
“I noticed you were looking at my book,” she says. “Do you know the author?”
“Sure,” Michael smiles, not bothering to mention that he’d actually won an O. Henry Award once for a short story entitled, The Shape of Hearts. As a tribute to that success, Michael always tried to include an O. Henry reference in every story he wrote.
“Do you have a favorite?” she asks.
“I’ve always enjoyed The Green Door,” he tells her.
“The Green Door?” she says, shaking her head. “I don’t believe I’ve read that one yet. What’s it about?”
Michael thinks about it. “I suppose you could say it’s about fate, or more accurately, that fate rewards the adventurer.”
The train slows.
“This is my stop,” Michael says. Then with a nod he adds, “Enjoy the rest of the book.”
“I will,” she nods, “and I’ll be on the lookout for The Green Door.”
“Be careful with that,” he says.
“Oh?” she stiffens. “And why is that?”
“They’re all green,” he winks, as the train door slides closed.
A gust of wind rushes up to greet him as he steps onto the platform. Overhead, dark clouds close ranks across the sky. Following the exit signs, Michael is led across the platform and down a metal staircase to the street where he continues along the sidewalk past a series of shops on the way to his apartment complex. He’s about three blocks from home when an item in one of the shop windows catches his eye. He stops, steps back, peering first through the glass and then up at the shop sign. The sign reads, Bedelia’s Antiques Boutique. A mischievous smile pulls at one side of his mouth.
Moments later he steps outside again. In his hand, clenched between his fingers, he holds a hand-formed felt fedora. A cloud of dust erupts around his leg as he slaps the hat against his thigh. He places it on his head, drawn low with a forward tilt. Next, and while checking his appearance in the reflection of the store window, he pinches a crease into the top before ringing his fingers across the brim.
Now, only about a hundred yards separate him from his apartment complex, a distance he covers in a series of determined strides. At the corner, a gust of wind threatens his hat. He steadies it with a hand. With the other he reaches into his pocket and pulls out his keys.
Moments later, he pushes through his front door.
“What is this?” Katrina asks, turning around. She’s sitting at his desk, facing the open screen of his laptop.
“You don’t like it?”
“Michael,” she says. “It’s great, I mean, I’m really impressed.”
“It’s not my best work.”
“I disagree. I think it may very well be the finest love story you’ve ever written. The characters, the dialogue, the pacing, especially your female lead dropping those witty, double entendre-laced ripostes. And always so suggestive, so stimulating. I swear, I don’t know how you create such intriguing female characters. They’re all so attractive, so… desirable. How do you do it?”
Michael clears his throat, muttering something under his breath.
“What was that?”
“You,” he says. “She’s you. They’re all you. All of them.”
He’s looking at her now, staring straight into her soft round eyes.
Speechless, the silence grows, the silence and her curiosity.
Outside, it begins to rain, leaving the room dripping with atmosphere.
There’s a sense of uncertainty in her manner, an untrusting measure in her step. Through an open window, the bite of a passing breeze ruffles her hair.
“And the main character,” she asks, “is that you?”
A soothing chill slides across his neck.
“He’s not quite as black as he’s been painted.”
Amusement wrinkles deepen around the corners of her eyes. “Even a white cat is black in the dark,” she says. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“I suppose I was waiting for the right moment.”
“Is now that moment?”
“It could be.”
Her tongue makes a pass over her lips.
The distance between them all but evaporates. With her standing in front of him, he reaches his right hand around the back of her neck, pulls her close. A rush of passion flows between them, converging at the point where their lips meet. Her skin, her voice, her eyes are all as soft as the clouds. She leans against him, let’s herself go heavy. Time, like the air around them, seems to have been sucked out of the room, out of existence.
He leans back. Their eyes meet. In his, she sees desire. In hers, he sees two large question marks upon which are written all of the mysteries of the universe.
DING! The elevator’s heavy metal doors screech as they slide open. Stepping out into the hallway, he fumbles around his pocket for the keys.
Entering his apartment, he finds himself alone. Katrina had either gone home or was still at the laundromat.
Plunking down at his desk, he reaches into the top drawer for a silver cigarette lighter and a pack of Lucky Strikes. He shakes loose a cigarette, places it between his lips and, holding it there, runs his thumb over the lighter’s smooth silver face. Lighting the cigarette, he throws his legs up onto the desk.
I feel the electricity in the air even before I see the first pulse of lightening. Rain falls from the sky like a gaping wound. The night, like the coffee in my hand, is cold and black. Outside, steam rises from the sewers like the doused end of a cigarette. Looking down from my third-floor office window, I catch sight of two lovers scurrying across the street below as they pause, briefly, under a streetlamp. Three floors up, I sit practicing fast draw tactics with my trusty .32. The gun is real, but the chambers are empty. This leaves the bottle of Johnny Walker Black in the bottom drawer my only means of self-preservation. A bundle of unopened bills on the desk speaks to why the neon light of the local sleaze motel, throwing its pulsating glare on the wall, is the only light in the darkened room. I could go for a steady client, preferably one with a case and a lot of money, though I’d settle for just the money.
The sound of a buzzer draws a distrustful glare.
Who could possibly be looking for my services at this hour.
Michael steps to the wall, presses a button that unlocks the building’s front door. Moments later, Katrina enters carrying a hamper load of neatly folded laundry.
The door to my office swings open and in walks trouble, blonde, as usual.
Curiosity tightens her forehead. “Thank goodness you’re back already,” she says, wrestling out of her coat. “Silly me, I forgot to take the keys with me when I left.”
Time stands before I can.
She tosses the coat over the rack. Underneath she’s wearing a red cotton dress.
Her dress flashes like a warning sign to STOP and look both ways—up and down—before proceeding with extreme caution.
So I do.
Without saying anything, Michael probes her with unwavering eyes.
She looks as if she had been poured into that dress and somehow forgot to say when. I flick a match into flame and draw at the spark until the cigarette flickers and cools.
Katrina laughs to herself.
She moves a pair of red lipstick lips that bring to mind a fresh-bitten apple, scarlet and moist with a poisonous nip.
“Are you all right?” she asks, angling her way around the furniture.
She moves like something they ought to keep behind bars or let loose in a jungle, crossing the floor with a smile so slight it’s almost grave.
“I brought you something,” she says, placing that morning’s copy of the Observer on his desk.
She’s carrying a copy of that morning’s gazette and promptly sets me to task reading it.
“I just finished the most disturbing article about a female police officer in Las Vegas who’d gone undercover as a stripper for nearly six months in order to draw out a suspected rapist. Good grief! What that woman had to go through in order to finally nail that guy, no pun intended. Have a look,” she says, stopping before the hallway mirror to primp her hair.
They say the fates reserve fifteen minutes of fame for everyone. And while I’ve yet to see mine, at least a small portion of her nine hundred seconds were going off right there on the front page of the Metro section. And while the details of the article are about as thin as her waist, I have to admit she has a case.
“Oh no!” she cries. “I think I lost an earring. You remember the emerald stud earrings I got last Christmas? Five will get you ten it came off on the subway this morning. The little clasp on the back must have come loose again. I bet it just slid right off.”
It seems someone broke into her mansion last night, nicked a piece of jewelry, an earring, some sort of family heirloom worth more than she’s willing to tell me.
An exacerbated sigh accompanies a shrug. “Oh well, I suppose there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
She’s soliciting my help to locate the whereabouts of the missing gemstone.
“I’m going to grab myself something to drink,” she says, making her way to the kitchen. “Do you want anything while I’m in here?” she hollers from the other room.
She was a woman who liked to drink and joke at a man’s expense, but I wasn’t buying this round.
When she returns, she stops to drink from the glass. “I like the hat,” she remarks between gulps. “It’s very 1940s, film noir. What’s the occasion?”
I prefer to ask the questions, so I ignore hers and deliver one of my mine own. I ask her who might have stolen the earring. She’s staring at my cigarette, so I offer her one, but she says she doesn’t smoke… not the last lie I expect from her. Neither is the next one, when she tells me she doesn’t know who might have stolen the stone.
Slowly, methodically, Michael lifts his head, peering up at her from beneath the brim of his hat.
Katrina watches him entertainingly, shifting slightly from one foot to the other.
A swivel of her hips is meant to call my attention away from her lies and to her physical attractiveness. Women are programmed to be a lot more restrained than men when it comes to subtle signs of devilry. But after years of back alley shakedowns, heat lamp confessions, and several longstanding acquaintances with politicians, I’d mastered the science of nuanced gestures.
“Are you going to snap out of this any time soon?” she asks.
One thing she’s got going for her is her, when she speaks, it’s with Mach precision.
The phone rings.
The jangling ring of the telephone goes off like a detonation blast and sends me lunging across the desk, knocking the ashtray tumbling to the floor with a clatter. ‘Michael Kincaid, Private Investigator,’ I snarl into the mouth-piece as I scramble to rid myself of the fiery spark that’s chewing a smoldering hole in my pants.
Placing the phone to his ear, Michael’s eyes never move from Katrina’s as he asks who’s calling.
The caller introduces himself with a name that slides in one ear and continues right on out the other. My eyes remain trained on her non-verbal expressioning, which tells me she’s displeased with the interruption of our little soirée. As I begin talking, I notice how her glance shifts from my eyes to my lips. When she looks up again and notices I’ve caught her staring, she quickly crooks her head to the side and begins twirling the ends of her hair around her index finger.
“I’m sorry, who is this?” Michael asks again. A man asks to speak with someone named Taylor. It’s clearly a wrong number.
‘What’s that?’ I say into the receiver. ‘Never heard of him. Her? Fair enough, never heard of her.’
“What number did you dial?” Michael asks.”
‘No, no, private investigator…’
“It seems you must have reversed the last two numbers. Mine ends zero, three not three, zero.”
‘It’s clear this is a wrong number… Suicide hotline…? Not on your life… No, I’m not playing games with you.’
“Of course, it could have happened to anybody…”
‘If I wanted to mess with your head, I’d tell you to go jump off a bridge… Oh, you’re calling me from a bridge? And this was the number posted on the emergency phone? … I don’t know what to tell ya, pal…’
“No, need to apologize…”
‘Yeah, well, you and six million other people in this city…’
“U-huh, you too…”
‘Oh, I’ll sleep just fine tonight…’
“Have a good one.”
‘No, I won’t look for you in the paper…’
Michael hangs up the phone.
’Yeah, likewise! I say, slamming the receiver down.
“It’s probably best not to answer unknown numbers,” Katrina declares.
She wants to know if I’m always that short with people. ‘Only when I’ve got something else more important on my mind,’ I tell her.
“Oh,” she smiles, assuming that was a reference to her. It was, but just for the record, I was never fooled by that story about the earring or that deceptively simple smile.
“You just never know who’s on the other end, maybe it’s a telemarketer or maybe it’s a psychopath. Speaking of, I saw the killer leave his apartment today,” she says, delivering the statement as casually as if admitting she’d made lemonade.
“You what?” Michael says, finally breaking character. “But how, you don’t even know what he looks like?”
“I know, but you said you were almost positive he lived in the third-floor corner apartment. Well,” Katrina explains, “just after you went out, I realized I’d left my phone in the car, so I went down to grab it. On my way back, I thought I’d cross through the courtyard, take a look at the window, get an idea of the angle and how the light could have projected onto the building across the way, but as I looked up, I saw someone, a figure moving across the living room. I couldn’t see his face, but he was wearing a tan jacket and appeared to be leaving.”
“Okay,” Michael says, a wave of relief washing over him. “Just as long as he didn’t see you.”
“Yeah, I don’t think he saw me, I was careful to maintain a reasonable distance.”
“Maintain a reasonable distance, you mean you followed him?”
Smiling, she goes on. “I did. I went around to the front of the building and when he came out I thought why not at least see where he goes. And you won’t believe where he went.”
“What I don’t believe is that you followed him! What if something had happened to you? What if he’d seen you, suspected something? You could have been hurt! You could have been—”
“Butchered?” she prompts.
“That’s just it,” she says, her eyebrows bouncing.
“He’s a butcher!” she exclaims.
“I know, and he’s probably a madman as well!”
“No,” she laughs. “I mean, he’s a literal butcher, by trade. He runs the shop just around the corner.”
Michael takes a step back, thinks about it. “A butcher?” he says.
Katrina watches as Michael’s eyes run back and forth across the ground. “Penny for your thoughts,” she says.
“Certainly his being a butcher would explain the presence of a chef’s knife in his kitchen,” Michael says. “It might also go a long way in his being able to dispose of the body more discreetly. If he were, to say, cut around the joints, there’s no reason he couldn’t successfully divide the body into fourteen distinct, though more importantly, small, transportable pieces. Was he carrying anything, a briefcase or a rucksack?”
“No,” she says, shaking her head.
Michael considers the implications. There’s an itch on the top of his head. He removes the hat to scratch it. Then, looking at the hat in his hand, he feels a tingling sensation rise in his chest.
Katrina, reading something in his eyes, asks, “What are you thinking about doing?”
“If ever we were going to find probable cause evidence, it’d be now.”
“What are you suggesting, a break-in?”
“The longer we wait, the more time he has to dispose of the body.”
“And what if we get caught?”
“If he’s at work, then there’s nobody in his apartment to catch us,” Michael says, a sly grin creasing his lips. “No one living, anyway.”