by Daryl Wood Gerber
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by Daryl Wood Gerber aka Avery Aames. This story is rated PG-13 due to some language.
“David!” I pounded on the apartment door. “David, are you in there? Dave—”
The door swung open and my breath caught in my chest. David hung from a rope in the middle of the room, his face blue, body slack, boxers soiled. All the booze and crap I had consumed last night gushed up my throat. I drove it down and stared harder in an attempt to memorize the scene. The lamp on the table to the right of the sofa—on. The ancient Panasonic TV—on but muted. Picture frame—tilted. A watering can on the floor by the ficus tree. A drippy faucet. A plumber’s wrench lying on the warped hardwood floor. David hadn’t returned my phone calls, emails or text messages.
For my half-brother, not responding to a text was like an alcoholic passing on a drink.
“Back up, lady.” A bruiser of a Latino cop pushed me into the hallway, stepped out of the room with me, and slammed the door shut. The rotting wood snapped and split.
I wanted to kick the guy out of the way and barge back in, but he had forty pounds on me and a badge. At thirty-seven, I was on the far side of being stupid. I forced my knee-jerk reaction to the back of my brain.
“What happened in there?” I almost didn’t recognize my voice. It sounded raw, rancid.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Bruiser folded his thick arms across his linebacker-sized chest.
“Suicide? No way.” I pounded my fist against my palm. “No fucking way.”
“Why the fuck not?” Bruiser cocked his meaty head and smirked.
“Because David wouldn’t commit suicide.” I worked my tongue on the inside of my cheek. “He just wouldn’t.” What I didn’t add was, “Because last year, our father hanged himself after the stock market tanked.” I knew suicide. David and I had stood in Dad’s doorway, inhaling the stench of urine and death. David promised he would never leave me with that kind of mess to clean up. I had dittoed the promise.
I glanced at the closed door and wished, with hope bordering on lunacy, that it would open and David would be standing there, pointing a finger and laughing that stupid yuck-yuck laugh of his.
I said to Bruiser, “Where’s the chair?”
“What chair?” He cut a quick look over his brawny shoulder, like he could see through the door, then back at me.
A rat ran over the toe of my scuffed loafer, and a shudder ran through me, but I stood my ground. I said, “He had to have climbed on a chair, a stool, something, and kicked it over.” After Dad’s self-destruction, I became an expert on suicide. I think all survivors do. The question Why? scuds through our minds like raging storm clouds.
“There’s no chair.” Bruiser steeled his jaw, as if daring me to correct him.
“Then how’d he string himself up?” I jutted my jaw, too. I can go head-to-head in an asshole contest.
Bruiser took a step forward, crowding me. “Who are you?”
“The TV writer?” he said with disdain.
“The same.” I write a lot of cop TV shows, and I consult with cops—my brother David for one—to get the details right. He often made fun of me, said I should get a badge if I intended to write about people like him. Night and day, the two of us. He drank bottled water, I drank hard liquor. He followed rules. I’d dodged one or two in my lifetime.
“I’ve seen your shows.” Bruiser snorted. “They’re crap.”
I smirked and said, “But you’ve watched ‘em.”
“Okay, smartass, you’re outta here.” He reached for my arm.
I wrested away. “Wait a second.” I looked puny, but I wasn’t. I worked out at the gym two hours a day. I did my best thinking there. For now, I had to think in a tawdry hallway that reeked of piss, onions, and week-old, sun-baked meat. August heat in Los Angeles could make even the nicest of hallways stink. This wasn’t one of those. “Why do you think it’s suicide?” I whipped out my iPhone and snapped a picture of Bruiser just to make him nervous. Got a shot of his badge: Benitez. Like a good boy, he flinched. He knew, in a matter of seconds, I could broadcast his ham-fisted face all over the Internet.
“Because the doors were locked,” he muttered. “Your brother’s the only one in there.”
“Nah, anybody could’ve locked the door on the way out. I’ll bet his plant girl has a key.”
“What the hell is a plant girl?”
“Someone who waters his plants. Duh!” Plants, David said, gave off good vibes, promoted health and well-being. I said pets did the same thing, but with his hours, he would’ve starved a dog. Whenever he came to my place for dinner, he rolled on the floor with my mutt, part-hound, part-Dobie, all muscle and love. “And he has a housekeeper who comes once a month,” I added, knowing that employing a housekeeper in this part of town simply didn’t make sense. David worked undercover. For all I knew, the housekeeper doubled as the plant girl. Maybe she was a good lay. “Bet she’s got a key, too.”
“I don’t think a housekeeper could’ve hoisted him on that rope,” Bruiser said, his confidence slipping a little.
“Besides, a housekeeper would have cleaned up the line of coke on the table, don’t ya think?”
Shit. I’d missed seeing the coke.
“Or doesn’t a TV writer think?” Bruiser snickered, his confidence once again intact, probably believing he could compete with Robin Williams for Funny Man of the Year.
“David didn’t do drugs.”
“You sure about that?”
No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t sure about anything, dammit.
I hooked a thumb at the door. “Can I take a look around?”
“Sorry. It’s a crime scene. But then a smart gal like you should know that.”
“Suicide is a crime?”
“Suicide is stupid.”
He didn’t have to tell me that twice.
“Was there a note?” I asked. Our father left a tear-stained one.
Bruiser had to think about that, which irked me. Exactly how well had he scoped out the room? “Nope,” he said after a long moment of screwing his gaze at the ceiling.
“Where’s his phone?” I said. “Maybe he wrote a text message or something.”
Bruiser ground his teeth together. “Look, I don’t know nothing ‘cept I got the call that a stink was coming from inside this apartment.”
“How the fuck do I know? I get here, that hunchbacked landlady lets me in, and now I’ve got this mess. I’m waiting for a forensics team to show up. When they do, I’m out of here.”
“But until then you’re in charge, so c’mon, officer, cut me a break and let me have a goddamn moment with my brother.”
I didn’t know why I wanted to torture myself, but I would swear on Coppola’s working script of The Godfather that my brother had never had a suicidal thought. Never.
Bruiser didn’t budge.
I’m good with faces. Good with names. Usually good with taking in the scene. But today, I could only think in broad strokes. I needed specifics. Details. While I bided my time waiting for the big guns to arrive—big guns I hoped I could cajole into giving me access to David’s apartment—I leaned against the wall and worked hard at recreating what I could remember from that brief moment before Bruiser slammed the door. Sexy guitar music coming from somewhere in the rear of the apartment—out of place. David preferred hard rock. The flame of a red candle on the dining table in the alcove by the kitchen— out of place. David didn’t like candles. The fumes bothered him.
The elevator clanked open, jerking me from my thoughts. A commanding Asian woman in her forties exited. Captain Lee out of West L.A. PD, a USC graduate, smarter than smart. I had heard about her from David. She was his direct report. A horde of uniformed officers followed Lee, as did a medical examiner. Trailing the group was the landlady with the deformed back. I’d met her on a previous occasion. There was also a blonde with café au lait skin and a body men would pay big bucks for. Her long-sleeved ribbed shirt and cut-off jeans looked painted on.
The blonde detoured from the pack, fished a key from her pocket, and opened the door to the apartment opposite David’s. Lingering in the doorway for a second, she pivoted and ogled me from toe to head, her eyes hungry, not for me but for a fix. When I didn’t respond, she adjusted the sexy kerchief around her neck and sashayed into her place. The door slammed. The lock clicked. A man inside the apartment said something in a low growl that sounded like, “I gotta take a leak.”
I didn’t eavesdrop longer because the landlady, standing hunched by the elevator and polishing the bottle-thick glasses that hung on a chain around her neck, muttered something about seeing a woman in baggy jeans and a headscarf running from the building. Yeah, right, I thought, like she could see more than a foot in front of her nose. I looked around to see if any of the officers had heard, but none seemed to, all of them too busy listening to their esteemed leader, Captain Lee.
The landlady checked her watch, probably wishing she was back in her apartment watching Ellen and swigging down cheap scotch. She hiccupped and said, “If you need anything, you know where to find me,” and then she disappeared down the stairwell.
The door to David’s apartment swung open and officers swooped inside. I tried to get a peek but the door slammed shut. Frustration gnawed at my insides. What would the cops do if I simply barged inside? Slap cuffs on me? Arrest me?
Before I could tempt fate, Captain Lee approached, spa-honed thighs pressing against her tight red skirt. She stopped about two feet from me, cocked a hip, and assessed me like a cheap steak at a swank restaurant. “Are you a relative?” she asked.
I added astute to her many attributes, not to mention she was hot, for a cop. She wore classier makeup than the blonde neighbor. Her lips were plump, eyes sizzling. I didn’t have a thing for women, I just noticed things.
“Half-sister,” I answered. “Look, can I go inside? I think—”
I nodded. “Dear Old Dad stepped out on Dear Old Mom the first year they were married. Double-dipped. Boffed his secretary the same night I was conceived. David and I were born on the same day, Dad doing Mom the courtesy of telling her first. Our mothers handled it well. They both ditched him and left him with two kids to raise.” I realized I was blathering and offered my hand. “Name’s Regina Wald. Reggie. TV writer by trade.”
Lee didn’t shake my hand. I jammed it into my trouser pocket. Lots of people in town acted like writers had the clap or something. Maybe all of them had aspired to be a writer at one time and were afraid, with physical contact, they might catch the bug again.
“Why are you here, Reggie?”
People never called me Regina, probably because I didn’t look like I’d earned it. I had a rag-tag sort of look, shaggy hair, funky nose, quirky eyes.
“I asked you a question, Reggie.”
“David wasn’t answering his phone or his text messages.” I shrugged. “He and I, cool or not, like each other’s company. We keep in touch. See, we’ve got this ESP thing going. If he’s in trouble, I feel it.”
Like tonight in the middle of a game of eight-ball at my local hangout.
“Twins have ESP.” Lee smirked. “Half-siblings aren’t twins.”
For twelve years, David and I believed we were fraternal twins until we took a good assessment of each other and decided that I, with blonde hair, blue eyes, weighing in at one-twenty, didn’t look very much like him with his swarthy skin, brown eyes, and hulking form. That night, Dad spilled the beans about our moms.
I shifted feet. The itch to get inside my brother’s apartment swelled inside me. “Please, can I take another look? I might be able to help you—”
“The coke on the table. It’s all wrong,” I blurted. “David doesn’t do drugs.”
“Sisters don’t know everything about brothers.”
“He doesn’t do drugs,” I repeated. “He’s a health-nut. An eco-nut. A morality-nut.” My latest TV spec-script had a character just like David as the lead. A real hero. My agent thought this script could rekindle my career. “Trust me, David doesn’t—”
I swallowed hard, shifted verb tense. “He didn’t do drugs.”
Lee gripped my elbow and ushered me to the far end of the hallway where one of her underlings had opened a window to let in some fresh air. “Reggie,” she said in a hushed tone. “What do you know about the case your brother was working on?”
I didn’t. After Dad killed himself, I turned to writing to exorcise the memory. David joined the cops. He remained close-lipped when it came to work. I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to tell every Tom, Dick and Joe the Plumber what my next project was about. David said I was a talker because I wasn’t comfortable being alone in my own skin.
“Reggie,” Lee said. “Spill.”
I inhaled the night air. Heard a siren. “All I know is he was working undercover, living in this dump, trying to bust a drug ring.”
“So why in hell would you compromise him by showing up here?”
“I didn’t think—”
The door to my brother’s apartment swept open. I dashed from the hallway window and peered inside. David was no longer swinging like a piñata. He lay on the floor. The M.E. was taking his temperature. A woman with a pony tail was swabbing beneath his fingernails. David’s neck looked raw. Were those fingerprints on his neck?
The hallway warped and narrowed, and I felt something clench my guts. That twin sibling pang, real or not. I shoved my head between my knees and drew in deep gulps of air. Captain Lee crouched beside me, laid her hand on my shoulder. I dragged my head from my knees and peered at her. Her mouth was moving, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying. She sounded as if she was trapped in some echo chamber deep beneath the ocean.
I found my own voice and said, “David was strangled before he was strung up.”
Smelling worse than a poodle in heat, I sat in a hardwood chair in Captain Lee’s office and downed a dry bagel, hoping the gluey dough would absorb the bile hounding my throat.
As I chewed, a penny arcade-style movie flickered in my mind. David’s apartment, the drapes, the leaky faucet, the plumber’s wrench, the watering can, the guitar music, the candle, the blonde across the hall, Bruiser a.k.a. Benitez sweating like a pig. The images replayed, faster and faster, until everything blurred together. Had Bruiser killed David? Was that what my mind was trying to configure?
I broke the images down scene by scene. My arrival. David dangling. Bruiser blocking the door. The Captain’s appearance, along with the blonde neighbor and the other officers. The landlady cutting out. The M.E. looking up from David’s body and saying the time of death occurred more than an hour before I arrived. The landlady shuffling back in, her gaze fixed on the floor, a flea-bitten tomcat tucked under her arm. She mumbled that somebody had called her and complained about the stench. Bruiser could have made the call to establish a time of death. He told me the doors were locked when he got there, but he could have been lying.
I ran my hands through my sweaty hair. Was Bruiser a dirty cop? Had he killed David because David knew Bruiser was involved with the drug ring? I slapped my thigh, angry that I had latched onto a theory at Bruiser’s expense. I never thought of myself as a bigot, but maybe I was. I didn’t have any Latino friends.
Captain Lee strode into the room, closed the door, and took a seat behind her stark desk. One pad, one pen, one picture, one stack of very neat files. A hint of Chanel.
“Feeling better?” she asked.
I’d passed out in the hallway outside David’s apartment and had awakened to a sea of Nike tennis shoes and the rousing smell of ammonia.
I nodded, wondered if her apartment was as shipshape as her office. A tidy woman wasn’t adventuresome in the sack.
That hadn’t been my problem. My ex-husband spared no bones telling me that I was good in the sack, but I was a loser. I needed to clean up my act. Cut out the booze. Sell another script or face up to failure.
“The finger-shaped bruises on David’s neck,” I said, forcing myself to stay focused on the present.
“We’re on top of it.”
David once told me that split-second impressions mattered. The leaky faucet. The watering can. Bruiser sweating.
I said, “Did you find out who his watering lady is?”
“He didn’t exactly set up a trust fund for her.” Captain Lee’s mouth drew up on one side. She was a wise-ass like me.
“—is in the clear. She was talking to her daughter and watching TV at the time of death, which was corroborated by the nosy neighbor at the top of the stairs who kept telling the landlady to can the noise.” Captain Lee leaned forward on her elbows, her fingers laced together. Her computer cast an eerie white light on her face. She lasered me with a look. “Did your brother have a girlfriend?”
David couldn’t go a week without getting his rocks off with some chick. Me, nowadays, I could go a month, sometimes two without a roll in the hay. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe because my writing sucked the juice out of me. Maybe because I had been dumped.
“Or…” Lee scrunched up her mouth. “…or a boyfriend?”
“You think a guy murdered him?”
“David wouldn’t have been easy to lift.”
“I agree, and a woman couldn’t have strangled him. David had a thick neck—”
A shriek ripped the air. “Get your paws off of me!” a woman shouted in homicide’s main room. Through Lee’s window, I watched as an officer ushered David’s blonde neighbor with the café au lait skin to a chair. The blonde plopped into the chair and, with a huff, folded her arms across her chest. A burly guy the size of a refrigerator, one cheek black and blue, sat down beside the blonde.
“What’s she doing here?” I said.
“We’ve encouraged everyone from the building to give a statement,” Lee answered. “Some are a little reluctant.”
The Refrigerator placed a meaty paw on the blonde’s bare thigh and eyed the officer. “Keep your mitts off, pal.”
The sound of his voice and the fear in the blonde’s eyes made the whole scenario at David’s come back to me in a flash. Seconds after the blonde had disappeared into the bowels of her apartment, someone inside the apartment—the Refrigerator, if my voice recognition equipment was working properly—said he had to take a leak. Maybe he’d said take care of a leak. Maybe he was a plumber.
Something gnawed at the edges of my fried mind. A trail of water led from the ficus to the front door. Along that path lay the plumber’s wrench. David didn’t know how to record a TV program, let alone fix a leak. I doubted he owned a plumber’s wrench. But I bet his refrigerator-sized neighbor did.
I glanced at the captain who had fixed her gaze on her computer screen. Her fingertips clacked the keyboard. Doing email, I figured. Multi-tasking.
“Uh, Captain Lee?” Would she listen to an out-of-work screenwriter? I had no right coming up with theories, but what if David’s blonde neighbor was Plant Girl? What if she and David had been getting it on, hence the candle and the guitar music, neither for David, both for the blonde? What if the Refrigerator got home from a plumbing job, heard some moans and groans and, suspecting something, knocked on the door? The blonde, a.k.a. Plant Girl, hustled out of bed, threw on her clothes, and, to keep her cover story intact, filled the watering can. She raced to the front door, can in hand. The Refrigerator didn’t buy that she was doing her duty. He barged in and hurled her across the room—hence the crooked picture frame on the wall. The long-sleeved ribbed shirt she wore covered the bruises on her arms.
Before David could find his weapon, the Refrigerator attacked. He strangled David, and then went back for the blonde. He grabbed her by the neck. She yanked his wrench from his tool belt—-the guy had to have a tool belt—whacked him hard enough on the cheek to daze him—hence, the bruise on his cheek—and she ran for her life. Not back to her apartment. Out of the building, tying a headscarf around her hair as a disguise—the headscarf that was now a kerchief around the blonde’s bruised neck. The Refrigerator didn’t go after her. He had other business. Guessing David was a cop, he hanged him, poured out a line of coke to make the scene look like David had bought into the very thing he was investigating, and then locked the door with the blonde’s key—David handed out way too many damned keys. The Refrigerator went back to his apartment and he waited. He knew the blonde would return. She would need a fix. The scenario made sense, but what proof did I have?
“The guy with the blonde out there. The Refrigerator,” I said, working at keeping my voice under control. “I’ll bet my career that his fingertips will fit the bruises on David’s neck.” My career wasn’t worth much, but it was all I had.
“I’m not sure we can prove—”
“He strangled the blonde he’s with, too, but she escaped.”
“Look, Reggie, we can’t match bruises on a gal’s neck to David’s.”
“The landlady saw her run off.”
“She said the woman who ran away was wearing baggy jeans.”
“Captain, what if the blonde cut off her jeans?”
Captain Lee exhaled loudly, as if ridding herself of bad air. “The landlady would have recognized her own tenant.”
“Are you kidding? She reeks of scotch, the hump on her back makes it hard for her to lift her head, let alone make eye contact, and did you see the coke bottle glasses hanging around her neck? I’ll bet she sits a foot from the TV screen.
C’mon, Captain, you’ve got to arrest him.”
“We can’t, Reggie. You of all people know how this works…” Lee waved a hand in the air indicating that the wheels of bureaucracy revolved slowly. “I’m sorry.”
I felt a chill on the back of my neck, as if David was grabbing me from the grave. If I didn’t do something fast, the Refrigerator might get away with murder. I leaped to my feet, my hands balled into fists, my teeth clenched so tightly they stung, and headed for the door.
The captain hurried around the desk. She braced my shoulders. “Be patient.”
“Fuck patience.” I pushed past her, burst through the door, and marched to the middle of the investigation room. “Hey, you, the bozo in the ugly plaid shirt!”
The Refrigerator looked up.
I said, “I got it on with your woman, too. In my brother’s apartment. Yeah.” I snorted. “She’s a lesbo, man.”
The Refrigerator reached me in seconds. His meaty hands gripped my neck. If officers hadn’t pulled him off me, I’d have died.
I crumpled to the floor, my windpipe burning for air.
Captain Lee crouched by my side. “What are you, an idiot?”
I coughed. “What do you bet my neck’s the same size as the blonde’s? Match up our bruises.”
“How did you figure—?”
“I’m a writer.” I grinned. “I wrote that same scene in a TV show.”
Finally, life was imitating my art.
More mystery reviews, short stories, articles and giveaways can be found in the current issue, and those and others can be found in our mystery section, including another July 4th mystery short story.