by Elizabeth Zelvin
This story first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in 2009.
When I got sober, I thought I’d had it with drunken strangers. But the Australian asked if he could share my table in a crowded Starbucks and sat down before I could chug the rest of my triple espresso latte vente and get out.
“G’die, mite,” he prefaced his request. I half expected him to pull an alligator out of his pocket and start to wrestle it. Instead, he informed me he’d just flown in from Oz and New York was not bad.
“Did you click the heels of your ruby slippers together?” I felt sour. It was mid-morning and I needed a full tank of high-test to turn human.
He scratched his head and then said, “Oh. Right. I flew Qantas.” He stuck his right hand out across the table. “Rufe.”
As we shook, he offered to buy me a refill. I never say no to coffee. He threaded his way through the clots of baby strollers and the next-Pulitzers scowling at their laptops. The back of his jacket said “Brumbies.” A nascent bald spot betrayed the promise of the shock of reddish hair that overhung his forehead like a sandstone cliff. Halfway to the counter, he turned and said, “I’m skint. Can you sling us some cash?”
I’d done variants of the same enough times in my drinking days that I should have recognized the technique. Instead, I fished in my pocket and handed him a twenty. Nobody to blame but myself.
I chewed on a toothpick until he got back with our coffees. He’d treated himself to a fancy scone along with his vente. No change. He dropped into his chair, kicking his faded backpack aside with a big, booted foot. Then he grabbed it by one strap and swung it toward him. From a tight outside pocket of the bulging pack, he pried out a battered metal flask. Unscrewing the cap, he sloshed some in his tall cup. He held out the flask.
“Want a splash?”
I shook my head. He didn’t need to know about my divorce from booze. The flask explained how come a guy with ethanol seeping out of his pores didn’t mind sitting in a Starbucks. He’d bellied up to bars not unlike mine, except where he came from everything hung upside down, not just the twinkling bottles. Or so I pictured it.
“Local talent’s not bad, eh, mite?” He looked around. “Check out the knockers on that blonde.”
I sighed. How do you explain Politically Incorrect to a boy from Oz?
“Got to take the old kangaroo out for an airing once in a while.” He gave me a lubricious wink.
He tilted his chair onto its back two legs, looked at the ceiling and started whistling through his teeth. The lyrics came back to me a moment before he started singing in an off-key under-voice: “Tie me kangaroo down, sport.”
I didn’t think the songwriter had meant what Oz-Boy meant. But I got the idea.
I can’t quite explain how this encounter ended up with Rufe sleeping on my couch for the next few weeks. I wondered as I handed over my spare blanket and the good sheets I usually kept for female company – and my extra key. And various garments I’d planned to wear myself. He borrowed with great charm. Speaking of female company, Rufe’s charm worked fine on women. Or else they agreed to come home with him because they couldn’t understand a word he said. My home. My couch. My interrupted sleep. Their noise. When I protested, he said, “Right,” and went on bringing them home.
My friend Barbara, who’s a counselor, diagnosed sexual compulsive disorder. She suggested I take him to SCA, a 12-step program for guys who couldn’t keep their kangaroo tied down. But that wasn’t going to happen. “I can’t help it if they like me old kangaroo,” he said.
I couldn’t get him to AA either, though I tried. I succeeded in getting his beer out of my refrigerator, where it looked dangerously at home. But that was the only rule he ever obeyed. I kept finding wisps of Victoria’s Secret underwear in the bathroom and waking up in the middle of the night to groans and thumps from the sofa. It got so I wished he’d just go hit the bars and come home sloppy drunk. Vomit on the rug and piss on the shoes in the closet I could have dealt with.
“Just ask him to leave,” Barbara said. “Set a boundary.”
“I’ve tried,” I said. “I’ve told him there are cheap hotels, or he could try the Y. He goes, ‘Right,’ and reminds me that he’s skint, mite. I can’t throw him out on the street.”
So I was stuck with him – until the day I came home and found him dead.
Rufe had been stabbed with one of my kitchen knives. He lay sprawled half-off the sofa. He’d leaked blood on the couch, the rug and his backpack, and more blood decorated the wall in spatter patterns that seemed to interest the cops. So did my story of how come the guy was living on my couch. Luckily, I could prove I’d been at work all day. I hated having my apartment turn into a crime scene. But when it came to sorting through his backpack – he didn’t have much else – and sniffing women’s underwear, better the cops than me.
Waiting for the crime scene guys to give me back my home, I picked up cigarettes at the corner bodega, then decided to kill some time mooching around in the Laundromat across the street. The elderly Hungarian manager, Tina, was a friend of mine or anyhow we were on kidding terms. If I’d had my laundry, I could have done a load or two, though I guess the cops wouldn’t have let me remove it from the scene.
“Schveetheart!” she greeted me. “I been lookink for you. Your friend with the funny accent left a clodink, and I tink it’s yours. Vait a minute, I find it.”
She reached under the counter and pulled out a hooded navy sweatshirt that I recognized by its indelible markings of grease and paint.
“That’s mine,” I affirmed. “Thanks, Tina.”
“He load machine so fest, it fall behind,” she explained. “I find it later. Nice boy. He do your wash?”
“No, he borrow – borrowed my clothes.” I took the sweatshirt. Should I tell her the nice boy would not be coming in to do his laundry anymore and why? No, I didn’t have the heart to wipe the smile from Tina’s pleasant wrinkled face.
Thanking her again, I left the Laundromat. I held the sweatshirt up to my nose and sniffed. It smelled of cigarettes – endemic on my clothes – and booze. Not hard to deduce Rufe had worn it to a bar.
The sweatshirt had deep pockets: kangaroo pockets, in fact, the front pocket on either side meeting in the middle. I thrust my hand inside. My fingers touched an assortment of small objects. I grasped and drew out a fistful of debris. I blew off the lint and examined my haul. A couple bucks worth of change. I slipped the coins into my own pocket. Oz-Boy wouldn’t need them, a crumpled Marlboro pack, empty and a Metro card, which I also pocketed. It might have a fare or two left on it. And three more items: a matchbook, a pen, and a single business card.
I knew I should hand over all of it to the cops. But I rationalized. It was my sweatshirt. I wanted to wear it, not have it impounded as evidence. I could have offered them the contents of the pockets. But they had told me to stay away until the crime scene folks released my apartment. So I stayed away and held onto what could be clues.
I squinted at each item in turn. The matchbook came from a bar on Second Avenue, a few blocks away. I’d spent countless hours in every bar in Yorkville since before the neighborhood yuppified into the Upper East Side. But this one, Dusty’s, had changed hands shortly before I got sober. That meant I didn’t know the bartenders and they didn’t know me. The pen, a nice roller ball, was blue and gold with a corporate logo – Amiable Exchange, Inc. I’d never heard of them. They had an address on Third Avenue in the East Fifties. The business card belonged to a Selena Robidoux, CPA. An accountant. I wondered if I’d seen her underwear. Or her. I had caught a glimpse of some of Oz-Boy’s visitors as I stumbled to and from the bathroom in the dark.
Only one way to find out. I waited till after dark to venture into Dusty’s. I kept looking over my shoulder, as if some fellow AA might come along and blow the whistle. I hadn’t walked into a bar since I got sober. As I let the heavy door creak closed behind me, a familiar music struck my ears: clinking glasses, a buzz of talk, laughter that ranged from hoot to whinny. The ball game on TV had the sound turned off, but I could hear an underlying thumping bass, a tape or radio turned low.
I ambled up to the bar. Suppressing a wild desire to say, “Gimme a sarsaparilla,” I asked for seltzer with lime. The woman tending bar squirted me a tall glass with a help-yourself gesture toward the bowl of lime and lemon wedges that lay on the counter between us. She had curly brown hair and a peach-like complexion that glowed even in the dim light of the bar. Her red silk shirt gaped open far enough to show a hint of black lace underneath. Hanging on a thin gold chain, the name “Carly” nestled against her collarbone.
I palmed two chunks of lime and squeezed them one-handed into my soda.
“Hi, Carly.” I looked her in the eye. “Can I buy you one?” As she quirked an eyebrow at me, I added, “Not what I’m drinking – whatever you want.”
“Sure. Thanks.” She flipped a bottle of Sam Adams out from under the bar, tossed it in the air in a double somersault to show she could, sent the cap spinning and took a long pull.
“We’ve met before,” I told her. She started to smile. Tending bar, she would have heard a million corny pickup lines.
“Enough foreplay, huh? Have we ever screwed? Sometimes I lose track.”
“No, but you’ve been in my apartment. Remember Rufe?”
Her eyes lit up. “Ri-i-ight. The Aussie. You guys roommates or something?”
“Or something.” I hated to break the news – if it was news. When I told her, her mouth turned down and her eyes went sad. She made me slide around to the end of the bar, away from traffic, so we could talk.
“He was good in bed,” she told me. “Went at it like he’d really studied the manual and taken it to heart. But it was more than that. Like he enjoyed the work, you know?”
We talked a while about her. Carly seemed uncomplicated and I couldn’t detect any rancor toward Rufe or anyone else. But who knew?
I roped Barbara in to help me get a look at the accountant. If she’d seen me at the apartment, I could hardly pretend I wanted to hire her to do my taxes. So I lurked out in the corridor while Barbara told a pack of lies about her finances to Selena Robidoux, CPA. She was a tall redhead who looked maybe forty, impeccably dressed in a purple suit that ended halfway down her thighs and matching stiletto heels. I checked her out, peeping around the corner when she shook hands with Barbara at the door. Rufe must have met her, since he had her card, but I’d never seen her before.
“I don’t think it’s her,” Barbara told me afterward. “She had husband pictures on her desk and two adorable redheaded kids. What I really want to know is why can’t nice Jewish girls have legs like that?”
I was sure the corporate pen would lead me to a woman. I tracked down the address. Amiable Exchange occupied six floors of a big building. I went back at lunch hour, hanging out in front see if anyone I recognized emerged.
I got lucky. I spotted her talking on her cell phone as she hit the street. She looked Korean, with high, flat cheekbones and glossy black hair swinging around her shoulders. She wore a bright red power suit. Some of those alligators Rufe had never wrestled swung from her shoulder. She moved off at a brisk trot, her reptile shoes biting the pavement. I followed.
Two blocks down, she dodged into a nail salon. I loitered until a police car pulled up. Diving into the next-door deli, I kept an eye out until I saw her come out and head back toward work. I went into the nail place. While I made an appointment for an imaginary wife, I scanned the book. Marina Kim was a weekly regular. I got Barbara to call the salon and book the same time. She agreed women talk when they’re getting their nails done.
We had a week to wait. I don’t like waiting. I wanted to go back to Dusty’s, not sure if I wanted to pin the murder on Carly or ask her out. One day at a time, I stayed out of the bar. Barbara bit her nails – not, she assured me, from anxiety – but for artistic verisimilitude. Sure enough, when salon day finally came, the nailista who settled her into a seat right next to Marina exclaimed over her ragged edges and promised to work miracles.
I peeked out from behind a copy of Vogue as Marina kicked off the alligators and wiggled her toes. “I want a pedicure this week,” she announced. “With pizzazz.”
“Pizzazz?” I could just see the little manicurist’s brow furrow and then smooth out. “Ah, I know. We have a special on Kissable Flavors. Sweet Mango, Coconut Paradise, or Chocolate Delight?”
“Perfect.” Marina sounded smug. “Let’s try the Chocolate Delight. Unless you’ve got any liqueur flavors?”
“No, just Sweet Mango, Coconut Paradise, or Chocolate Delight.”
Barbara turned her head and flashed Marina an infectious grin. “Got a hot date?”
Marina laughed out loud. “In the land of Oz.”
Barbara managed to sound puzzled. “With a Munchkin?”
Marina shook her head and said something so softly I didn’t get it.
“She said,” Barbara reported later, “‘just a boy and his old kangaroo.’ She didn’t know he was dead.”
“Or she wanted us to think she didn’t know.”
“Who’s us?” Barbara demanded. “I was just a woman getting a manicure and you were just a male body with a copy of Vogue on top.”
A retroactive alibi? Maybe she was practicing her story just in case the police managed to trace her, or could Marina have spotted me as the owner of the couch of delight? I needed to think some more. Or I could stir things up.
Three phone calls would do it. Once I thought it through, I realized it would only take one.
The sash window onto my fire escape yawned invitingly. Dim orange light fell on my bed. I heard her tiptoe past the hump under the covers. She tried the couch first. As she grew more frantic, she made more noise. Now her panicky steps came closer.
“Don’t even try it, Selena,” I said. “I’ve already called the cops.”
I’d known it had to be her. The pen and the matchbook couldn’t have led the cops to any particular woman. Nobody had seen the women except me. Nobody else knew Carly and Marina had been there. But the business card identified Selena.
The police never came to question her, so she’d thought she was safe. Then, when she thought I meant to blackmail her, she had to come. She had the most to lose.
I’d known she’d think I was asleep in bed, too. My mother always had. I’d been getting out that fire escape since I was eight years old.
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