by Tina Whittle
Lost Causes and Other Reasons To Live was previously published in Gulfstream Magazine and recorded for Crime City Central.
“I‘ve got half a mind to walk out of here right now,” I said.
He tilted his head, looked thoughtful. “But you won’t.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Try me. I don‘t care if you are married to my sister, I‘ll…”
“That’s Ms. Jones to you. And you’d better start treating me like the last best hope that I am, or I swear, I’m gone.”
Daryl Shuman, executive vice president of something–his nameplate wasn‘t specific as to what–took a beat and nodded, like I’d just tossed out an interesting business proposition. His office was as tediously tasteful as I’d expected, ponderous cherry-finished furniture, watery nautical prints, russet carpet that sucked up every footstep and the Atlanta skyline shimmering in the window behind. The man himself was just as smoothly correct, but I knew a fault line lurked under that Brooks Brothers façade, because this time there was a dead girl on his balance sheet, a dead girl who until a week ago had worked two doors down the hall, before she’d gotten herself murdered anyway.
Strangled, the newspaper had said, time of death at approximately seven or eight p.m. A friend visiting from out-of-town had discovered Kaitlin Montgomery’s body and called the police. This friend, a flight attendant, made regular trips to Atlanta, often called Kaitlin for dinner or a movie. She’d had no idea why anyone would want to do such an awful thing, had been distraught, inconsolable and had returned home immediately to Savannah, where her husband waited to comfort her.
And Daryl? He’d been spotted on Kaitlin’s front porch mere hours before the murder, bellowing obscenities at her. So he was right to be afraid. It was the one time in his whole life that his country club patois and trust fund manners couldn’t save him.
“I don’t care what the police think, I didn’t do it,” he said.
“Liar,” I replied.
“I’m telling the truth!”
“Doesn’t mean you’re not a liar.”
He cut his eyes to the far wall. I saw a twitch at the corner of his mouth. “Look, Clarice and I have problems–I’m not denying that–but they’re our problems and we’re handling them. They have nothing to do with this…this…”
“Murder?” I supplied.
I snorted. “That’s a pretty tame word for what happened to Kaitlin.” I opened the folder lying in my lap, the one I’d started that morning, and took out a newspaper clipping. “Says here she was attacked from behind with a piece of rope. Apparently she put up one hell of a fight, clawed her own neck bloody trying to…”
“Damn it, Roxanne, I didn’t do that! I’m not some monster!”
His voice shook when he said it, and I took a second look at him. His dark suit and creamy linen shirt were neat and unwrinkled as always, and I detected the scent of whatever expensive aftershave was in at the moment. But his skin was clammy and his eyes were tight behind his gold wire rims, like he had a migraine and if I hadn’t known him, I might have felt sorry for him. But I did know him. And I hated him.
It had started with the yelling. Clarice would call me and I’d go get her and then he’d scream at me to stop interfering, and it was only the thought of jailhouse food that had kept me from pulling my .38 and shooting him in the nuts. And then he’d started throwing things, smashing plates, punching walls, but even then the same routine. She’d call, I’d come, he’d rage, and then the flowers would arrive and he’d call her sobbing into the phone, and she’d be gone when I got home from work, leaving only a note saying everything was back to normal.
And it would be–for a while. And then the phone would ring again. And then three nights ago she’d called in such a complete frenzy, I thought he‘d finally hit her. Or worse. At first she stammered. Then she cursed. And finally she explained.
“It’s all so stupid, Rox. He’s not a killer.”
“All couples fight, something you’d know if you ever kept a man around.”
It was an old argument. I wasn’t taking her up on it. “Don’t you two have your own lawyer? They have lawyers in the suburbs, don’t they?”
“Oh, for crissakes, these people are our neighbors. We want this as low profile as possible.”
“And you said that McAdams guy you work for is good, right?”
“McCallister, Steven McCallister. And yes, he’s good, but I’m the only PI he’s got right now, and I swear to God you don’t want me on this, Clarice. I’d just as soon throw that bastard in a pit of vipers as…”
“Just stop it, all right? I get the picture. But something like this could hurt his reputation, and you know how PR work is. And what with the new house and all, we just can’t afford…we might lose…” She grew silent, swallowed hard. “You have no idea how hard this is.”
“That‘s not what I meant.”
“ …and it was always my room you hid in, remember?”
“Daryl doesn’t drink.”
“Not the point.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “It’s a pattern, Clarice. If you’d take off the blinders for one second…”
“He’s trying, he really is. He‘s seeing a counselor, and he‘s never raised a hand to me, not once.”
“Not yet, you mean.”
She ignored me. “Besides, no matter what you think of him personally, he didn‘t do it. He was with me the whole night, God‘s honest truth.”
Uh huh. Like she wouldn’t lie to me. She lied to maintain cover, lied to keep up appearances, lied to keep me from knowing just how bad it probably was. She’d lie to cover Daryl’s unworthy ass, for sure.
But what if she wasn’t lying? What if…And it was for the sake of the uncertain, unsteady “what if?” and the truth hiding behind it, that I was sitting across the desk from the embodiment of everything I found wrong with the male half of the human race.
“Look, Daryl,” I said. “I don’t care what you did or didn‘t do. I’d like seeing you in prison orange. The thought gives me goose-bumps. But I’m here for Clarice, not you, and if I’m gonna do what she’s asked me to do, you gotta start answering my questions, and I mean now. You got it?”
He wiped his hand across his mouth, nodded. His fingers were trembling.
I put my feet on his desk and tipped the chair back until it rocked on two legs. “Let’s start with motive,” I said. “What were you two arguing about?”
“We weren’t arguing.”
“That nice old lady across the street from the dead girl seems to think otherwise.”
“You were yelling. At each other. You grabbed her arm and she pushed you away and you tried to grab her again, but she ducked inside. Slammed the door on you. You banged away at that for a while, and then stomped back to your car.”
That lip twitch again. “I wasn‘t yelling. And I didn’t grab her, I just put my hand on her shoulder to calm her down.”
“But you admit you were there, on her front porch?”
A nod, crisp, no nonsense. “We had some business that I wanted to take care of outside of the office.”
“Business? Like what?”
Of course I already knew the answer to this. It was in the file folder in my lap, along with the picture. Kaitlin Montgomery, the deceased, had been a classic Irish sweetheart: fair ivory skin, shoulder-length auburn curls, green eyes, the kind of girl who left a wake behind her.
But Daryl just shrugged off the question. “We’d been having problems with her.”
“Like what? Tardiness?”
“Boundary problems. Inappropriate behavior. She was young, immature. Didn‘t always behave in a professional manner, but I liked the kid, so I took the time–my own time, mind you, personal time– to try to get her back on track, and for this, I get accused of murder?”
“Spare me the violins,“ I said, and pulled out the paper, shoved it in front of him. “My interview with the receptionist. She swears that you’d been hitting on Kaitlin for a long time, so long in fact that she was thinking of filing a sexual harassment suit against you.”
He snorted. “That’s slander, and if she keeps repeating it…”
“You’ll what, show up on her doorstep too?”
He started to argue–I saw the flash in his eyes, and I was ready for it, waiting–but then he clamped his jaw and exhaled a slow deep breath. “All I’m saying,” he said quietly, as if it pained him, “is that I didn’t kill her, okay?”
I’ve got an instinct for BS, and an instinct for truth. Daryl Shuman was telling the truth. I started to get a headache.
“Dammit,” I said.
* * *
Of course Steven had a billion questions.
“Why the hell do you want to take this one on?” he asked, accepting the latte I’d brought him as a distraction.
“What, you don‘t need work now?”
“Not the point, Rox.” He shot me a look. “I‘m just trying to figure out your motives.”
Steven had been a lawyer for two years now, but I’d known him back when we were both APD blues. Sometimes I missed the way his sweet little ass had curved in that uniform, and sometimes I caught myself checking him out, even though herringbone suits and Windsor knots now ruled his wardrobe. But he was more than an employer. He was a friend, a good one. He respected my choices, my decisions. He respected me. And a good friend beats a good lay any day. Still…
“Rox? You listening?”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m just thinking. It’s a good question. I mean, part of me just wants to tell Clarice that she’s better off without him, that he deserves to be in jail, that whether he did it or not is immaterial, that she should…”
“So you really think he didn’t do it?”
I took back his latte just as his lips touched the edge of the cup, took a sip. “Hard to tell. Clarice says she was with him all night. Maybe she’s lying–that’s what the investigating officer seems to think–but I swear they’re both telling me the truth, about that part anyway. Of course, I seem to be the only one who believes that.”
Steven reclaimed his latte. “So the guy’s headed for prison, this man you know is a complete SOB. Seems like you’d be happy.”
“Yeah,” I admitted, “you’d think.”
“So why? Why do this?”
I tried to sound righteous. “There may be somebody else out there, somebody even worse.”
“And they’ll catch him.”
I made a noise. “Yeah, one day, after he’s killed some other innocent victim.”
He leveled a gaze at me. “Is that what this is about, redemption? ‘Cause if it is, you can find yourself another partner. I got out of the truth and justice game when I turned in my badge. And so did you.”
I returned his look, but didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. He knew her face still haunted me, the sixteen-year-old with the teddy bear eyes they’d found by the MARTA tracks, battered to bloody meat. Steven and I had visited the house the night before on a domestic call, but the wife had stared at the floor and refused to talk. I’d seen it glinting in the man’s eyes, though, that look I recognized and I’d known. And all I’d have had to do was throw him one of those you-want-a-piece-of-me? looks, maybe smart off a little, violate his space. I’d seen my mother do it a thousand times and then slink away in martyred triumph when my father backhanded her.
Yeah, I could have made him come at me, and we could have taken him in, and Steven and I could have sanitized the whole incident into a more suitable fiction. And then he’d have been in lock-up the next night, and he wouldn’t have had a chance to smash his step-daughter’s skull with his other step-kid’s baseball bat.
Steven put a hand on my shoulder. “You okay?”
I shook him off. “I‘m fine. Past is past, can‘t do a thing about it. It‘s the future I‘m concerned with right now, keeping whoever killed that girl–and I swear, I don’t think it’s Daryl– from killing again. I can‘t have another victim on my conscience.”
“Doesn’t your sister count?” he said.
“Damn it, Steven, I told you…”
“All right, all right.” He held up his hands. “Sorry. I just want you to be clear on your motives, my friend. There’s no way you’re gonna be objective here, so you’d better figure out what you are gonna be, and quick.”
I glared at him. He was making me mad, which was making me confused. What did I want, really? A world without Daryl would have been nice. But Clarice, supposedly the brainy one in the family, clung to him like gum on the bottom of a shoe. He’s getting help, she said. The preacher’s working with us, she said. He’s always so sorry, she said. And then she’d run back to her half-million dollar home in the sterile confines of suburbia, and I’d sit on my hands and wait for the next eruption.
But somebody was dead. And somebody else was a killer. And if it wasn’t Daryl…
Steven nodded. “Took the tape down this morning.”
“So I can get in?”
“If you can get past the landlady.” He handed me the case file he’d started. “And if you think it’ll do any good.”
“It’s a start,” I said. “Worst case scenario, I don’t find anything and Daryl becomes cell-block D’s newest inmate. Waste of my time and yours, but nothing to lose sleep over.”
Steven saw me reaching again for his latte and held it away from me. “No, Rox, the worst case scenario is that you do find something. ‘Cause that‘ll mean we‘ve got an innocent client. And you know how much trouble those are.”
* * *
The information folder Steven sent with me wasn’t terribly thick, but it did include the police report, an inventory of the apartment and some preliminary forensics, which told me not much more than the newspaper had: well-nourished white female, strong and healthy. Her most unusual attributes had been double pierced ears and a series of tiny scars across her lower abdomen, the results of a partial hysterectomy due to endometriosis. A young single woman with a childless future. Or childfree future, depending on how you viewed it. Which didn’t matter, of course, when you didn’t have a future.
I sighed. Her personal effects had been insignificant–a pair of gold stud earrings and a serviceable watch, shirts and a t-shirt, plain cotton bra and panties. No shoes. The television had been on the Lifetime channel. She’d been lounging, comfortable, secure. Home safe home.
I called up her landlady. The woman seemed put out, annoyed at yet another official intrusion into her schedule. I recognized it for the defense that it was, this retreat into pettiness– it’s what we do when the unthinkable cozies up to us. So I told her we just wanted to pick up something for Kaitlin to be buried in. She told me to come over. I knew she would.
Nobody ever questions that one.
* * *
Kaitlin had lived in a renovated bungalow in Home Park, a shabby-chic little neighborhood next to Georgia Tech. Small, cheap, just on the cusp of hip. The landlady met me on the porch, already checking her watch. Obviously on her lunch break, she was a study in JC Penney sensibility: maroon skirt suit in a nubby knit, square heels, tidy pageboy. “Is this going to take long?” she asked.
I shook my head. “Not if I can help it.”
She let me in, holding the door for me. Then she stood stiff, arms folded, in the corner of the living room. “Just hurry it up, okay? I’ve got work to do.”
The rooms were small and spare, the furniture tasteful if a little bland for my taste–oyster shell neutrals and blond hardwoods. I went in the bedroom first and opened the closet. Tailored pantsuits, leather flats, and a fitted sweater in a soft fern hue. Very basic, but quality, the wardrobe of a woman with limited means but good taste. And then I saw them, the red heels, and I had to bite my lip. I wondered what had made her buy them, what wild impulse she’d been indulging and my heart broke just a little. I had a pair of red heels too. I’d worn them once, the last time my sister and I had hit Buckhead. Dancing and margaritas and lots of laughter.
“You got what you looking for?” the landlady called. She still hadn’t moved from her station at the front door.
“Not yet, “I called back.
“Because this is my lunch break, see, and…”
I turned away from the closet, took a deep breath. “Did you know her?
“Who? The girl? No.”
“So you never saw anything?”
“I told you, I didn’t know her. She paid the rent on time, and that’s all I cared about.” Another glance at the watch. “Can we move on with this?”
I moved on. Kaitlin’s bathroom demonstrated the same unfussiness as the bedroom. Plain white towels and floor mats. Aspirin and assorted OTC drugs in the medicine chest. Toilet paper and tampons and room deodorizer under the sink. Her biggest splurge seemed to be shampoo, several different brands, ranging from generic to pricey salon caliber, all in a neat row in the shower. Similar story in the make-up drawer: drugstore basics mixed with Clinique and Aveda.
And then it hit me, that fast. I got out my cell phone, punched in Steven’s number.
“Tell the cops to bring in Kaitlin‘s friend again, the flight attendant,” I said. “There’s something she‘s not telling.”
* * *
The friend broke down in two minutes, probably would have cracked sooner if anyone had thought to question her a little harder, had done a little research. Steven didn’t even bother with preliminaries.
“Okay,” he said. “Spill it.”
I shrugged. “Basic biology, tenth grade stuff.”
Steven raised one eyebrow, narrowed his eyes at me. “I cut biology,” he said. “A lot.”
I shook my head. “Now that’s a shame, because otherwise you might have paid closer attention to the inventory. Those cops saw the same things I did, but I’m betting not one was a woman or she’d have spotted it too.”
“Tampons. Didn’t you read the autopsy report? Kaitlin had a hysterectomy at age eighteen. So I‘m standing there thinking, why would someone with no periods need tampons? Which got me to thinking about other inconsistencies. Like all the different shampoos and the make-up and those damn red shoes–I mean, every woman has something like that in her closet, but what if? What if?“
“What if they turned out to be the only size nine stilettos in a closet full of size six ballet flats?”
I nodded. “Exactly. Not just unnecessary things. Intimate things. That‘s when I realized that the out-of-town friend was probably much more than a friend. And since this friend was also married…”
He cocked his head and looked at me in this meaningful way. I wondered if a speech was coming, something deep and personal, but all he said was, “Nice work, Rox. Very nice.”
I shrugged. But I couldn’t find any satisfaction. The whole damned scenario was just too depressing. After the friend had confessed all–how her suspicious husband had followed her to Kaitlin’s apartment, had waited until his wife had gone out before breaking in with a piece of rope–she‘d broken down in the real tears, the kind of tears you shed for your lover. And I supposed she cried for her husband too, and for herself. She’d lost two lives–and two loves–in one afternoon. I‘ve always said, Shakespeare‘s got nothing on the South when it comes to tragedy.
They officially cleared Daryl as a suspect the next morning. Clarice called to thank me. She sounded relieved and even cheerful, in a forced breathy way. But I was kicking myself.
‘Cause I knew that summer was coming, and with it the kind of heat that cauterizes your brain, makes you boil inside, melts clean through any civilized veneer. And I knew that on one of those heated nights, one of those stagnant hazy nights, my phone would ring yet again and it would be Clarice and she would be crying and screaming and I would probably end up killing the son of a bitch myself.
I hung up the phone, stared at it. “Should’ve walked away,” I said. “Should’ve just walked away.”
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