I present to you my first attempt at a detective short story:
The body is splayed like a wrinkled carpet between the pillars of the shoplifting detector, face to the ground. He’s huge, at least 6ft3 and must weigh well over 300 pounds. A trickle of blood seeping from his nose fissures the concrete floor.
“The guys are going to need some help moving this one.” I put on the rubber gloves Ed, the coroner, throws me and scan the scene.
Behind the police tape, only a handful of people stare back at us. We usually get a much bigger crowd for something like this, but I guess the sale was too good. Large cardboard signs featuring Rudolph the reindeer swing from the ceiling and announce Black Friday’s blow out sale in the red of his nose. “Everything with a red dot 80% off! One day only!” I stretch my neck to see behind the small crowd and sure enough, a mob of frantic shoppers are picking over the items on the racks like rats on a dog’s carcass.
“Hey, Ed. Whaddya think?” I ask and turn back to the body. A leg is sticking out at an odd angle and I can see the print of a shoe on his hand. “Death by greed?”
Ed smirks and rubs his eyes. It’s early, around 7 in the morning, and I can tell Ed wants to be back in bed or at least nursing a large, cappuccino. He does like his cappuccino, the pretentious bastard.
I search for the inevitable square bulge in the back pocket of the man’s pants and carefully fish out the folded piece of leather. The face of the dead man glares back at me. “William Ballantyne, Jr . 360 Waterforth Lane.” I jot down his name and address in my notebook and slip the wallet into the plastic Ziploc bag Ed is keeping open for me.
“Who in their right mind would get up this early on a holiday just to go shopping?” Ed whines. He leans down and inspects the footprint on the guy’s hand. The footprint spills from the victim’s hand to the floor, like one of those melting clocks by Dali my second ex-wife had hanging in our bathroom.
“Right minds are in short supply these days, my friend. Hadn’t you noticed?” I squat beside Ed and get a closer look.
The guy’s in his mid-forties and by the looks of it just missed death by massive coronary. His legs are at an angle that if he were upright would suggest the jitterbug mid-jitter. His oversized windbreaker is a sidewalk of muddy prints.
“Crushed windpipe,” Ed says.
“Hmmph. Another sacrifice to the god of good deals?”
Ed nods and speaks into his iphone. “Cause of death: Crushed windpipe. Cause of crushed windpipe: Trampled.” He creaks his way back up, holding on to his back like an old man in a cartoon. “Oooph. Getting too old for this.”
I look out into the crowded store. The manager is hovering by the tape, tapping his shoe and looking at his watch. I guess they want this entrance back open. Must be a helluva inconvenience having a dead body blocking the door on the biggest sale day of the year.
Behind him I see a woman, mid- to late-thirties, pretty in a my-job-pays-at-least-three-times-more-than-yours kind of way. She’s staring at me. I stare back.
She’s wearing a tailored leather jacket and a silk scarf tied in a complicated knot around her neck. Her boots reach up almost to the hem of her soft, shape-fitting skirt. Made of fine soft leather and tapered down to lethal spiked heels, they hug her calves in a compromising way. Mmmm. I do love a woman in boots.
Still, I glance down and examine the body for any rivet-like perforations. Can’t see any from here, but that doesn’t mean well-dressed lady isn’t as sale crazy as the rest.
The manager tries to get my attention. “Excuse me, detective?”
I ignore him.
“So Ed. See anything else? “
“Nah. Need to do the autopsy to confirm. The boys can take him away now. What about you?”
I glance at the scene. The outline’s been chalked. The floor’s a mess of footprints and handprints. I could check them all out, try to have them matched, but what’s the use? It’s pretty clear: trampled to death at a blow out sale. Not exactly brain surgery.
“Nope. I’m done. Let’s move out.”
Ed starts shouting instructions at his boys to come and get the body and the uniforms start cleaning up. I glance back to the woman in the boots, just in case eye contact means a drink later on, but she’s deep in conversation with another man. As they talk she gestures toward us and glimpses me watching her. She locks eyes for a second and I swear I see fear skitter across her face. Hmm. Now that’s interesting.
“You gonna notify the family?” Ed asks, as his boys haul the corpse onto a gurney and wheel him out the door. I hear a visible sigh of relief from the manager. Outside the media’s going crazy. Flashes going off all over the place and questions being shot out like bullets from machine guns. This is definitely going to make YouTube’s top ten.
“Yeah, I guess.” I hate this part of the job.
He nods. “Well, see you at the office. I’ll call if anything else turns up. But let’s go on the assumption that the victim was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Makes you want to shop online doesn’t it?”
He lets out a guffaw and then goes out into the media mob. I’ll have to follow soon, but can’t stand that circus. Besides, I want to prolong the manager’s unease for as long as I can. Never could stand department stores.
I walk the perimeter of the crime scene, all the while stealing a glance at the crowd. Most of them are focused on the racks of brightly coloured items waiting to be re-gifted and don’t seem to notice the bright yellow police tape blocking off the south entrance.
There’s something not sitting right with me.
The good-looking woman is now talking on her cell, her back to the racks. I see a little smile dangle in the upper corners of her lips as she talks. She’s looking right at the spot where Bill Jr., the victim was just a second ago. I look around and notice that she’s not the only one looking my way.
That’s not unusual, I tell myself. It is a crime scene after all. Strike that. Accident scene. But then, there’s something odd about the way they’re acting. A teenage boy in the toddler section is flipping through clothes, but he’s not looking at the rack. His eyes ping pong between good-looking lady and me.
And I see a middle-aged man doing the same thing, except for he’s in the hosiery section. Now what would a teenage boy be doing in the toddler section? And the middle-aged man? Buying some tights? Hey, if that’s his deal, I’m not one to judge, but he doesn’t seem the type. More academic than transvestite, if you know what I mean, although you never can tell.
I shake the nagging feeling off like dandruff and button up my coat. A glance outside shows the weather isn’t improving. In the tepid glow of the streetlights flurries of snow attack the poor sods in the parking lot sideways. The media circus is disbanding quicker than high school kids at the last bell. Only a couple of the hardiest remain.
On second thought, I decide to give the manager one last heart attack. The guy’s going to be dedicating his bottle of whiskey to me tonight for sure.
“Okay. Almost done here,” I don’t even check to see if he’s listening. The man’s sweating so hard I can smell his attention. “I just need to get the names and addresses of all the people in the store.” An audible gasp from the man. I put up my finger to shush him while I call in the order. “Yep. Get everybody’s name and info before letting them out. Yes. You can start letting them out now.”
“Oh, we won’t keep anybody,” I turn back to the manager, ignoring his look of horror. “The men are already stationed at each entrance. They’ll take down people’s coordinates before they leave.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary officer? I mean, it was an accident, right? Why do we need to bother these poor people?” He’s looking more and more nervous. Sweat trickles down his forehead and drops off his nose. He wipes his face with his sleeve, leaving a stain.
“Oh you know. Precautions. We might need to speak to them. You know, get their accounts of what happened.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, officer, but isn’t it obvious? People got carried away. Somebody got hurt. It’s unfortunate but it happens. End of story.”
I don’t respond, just stare at him until he has to look away. His eyes dart back and forth until they finally settle for a second. I follow his gaze and see the good-looking woman again. Her coat’s zipped up. She returns the manager’s gaze, then looks away, a perfect poker face.
“Do you know that woman?” I ask.
“What?” He snaps back to attention. “Who?”
“The woman you were just looking at, the one over by the perfume counter,” I say.
His eyes find the place right away. He knows this woman. “No, no. Never seen her before in my life.”
Why would he lie?
“Just wondering. You were looking at her as if you knew her.”
His face glows red like Rudolph’s nose. “No, just looking I guess. She’s a good looking woman, that’s all,” he stammers.
“That she is.” I do up the last button of my coat. “Well, thank you for your cooperation. We’ll be in touch.”
The woman is walking toward the North entrance. I pretend to go in the other direction but follow her instead, hidden by racks of winter coats.
She walks with purpose, stopping at the queue to get out the door. I bet she never does anything without a plan. I see her look at her watch and tap her feet impatiently. Finally, she’s next.
“You need to see my what?” she demands. Her voice sounds like it’s traveling on a gravel road. Sexy. I could tell by the tone this was a woman used to getting what she wants.
“Your I.D., Ma’am. We gotta get everybody who was here this morning, just in case you’re needed for questioning.” He’s a young police officer, right out of the academy.
“But I didn’t see anything. I was way behind. By the time I was let in the store, the man was already on the ground.”
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. It’s procedure.”
She signs in exasperation, but reaches into her bag and pulls out her wallet. She hands her I.D. to the officer who takes down her name, driver’s license number and address.
“Here you go, Ma’am. Have a nice Thanksgiving now. “ He opens the door and lets her out.
As soon as she’s out of sight, I accost the young officer.
“Hey, officer Roundtree,” I say, reading his tag and flashing my badge all at the same time. He stands a little straighter. “Mind if I see that last address?”
“No sir, not at all sir.” The guy could have been military. He promptly hands me his notebook.
“Thanks.” It’s open to the last page so I don’t have any trouble finding it: Iris van Camp, 372 Waterforth Lane. I write the address down in my notebook right below the victim’s and that’s when I see the connection, the corner piece to help frame this little puzzle.
Bill Jr., the accidental floor mat. His house is on the same street as Ms. Van Camp.
The snow’s still blowing hard, making those unlucky enough to be outside look like escapees from a Siberian gulag. I turn up the collar of my coat, an ankle length black wool thing my first wife bought me in an attempt to gift me with a fashion sense. The fashion sense and the wife didn’t stick – the coat did.
Waterforth Lane is only about a ten-minute drive away, a tiny little cul-de-sac off Waterforth St.
The mailman must love that. I slow down as soon as I turn on the street and look for Iris’ address.
The numbers start at 350 and end at 374. Bill Jr.’s house is 360, five houses down from 372. If the little lane was a face, 360 would be the ear and 372 the right eye. Other than the fact the victim’s house is so heavy with Christmas decorations it looks like Santa’s yard sale, the houses are identical.
I park in front of Bill Jr.’s but keep an eye on 372. There’s a black Mercedes SUV, the kind that looks like an ice cream truck, parked in the driveway, along with a red Toyota Echo.
In the five minutes I sit there, I see a lady from 354 hurry across the snow-blown road and knock at Iris’ door. Then the neighbour from 370 does the same. All of them are wrapped like burritos in large coats and don’t give me a second glance until a shadow darkens my window and I see a woman, middle-aged and a little frumpy, stare at me through the window as she passes. She also knocks on 372 but hesitates before going in. I see her talking to someone in the doorway and pointing toward my car.
I sigh. Guess I’m going to have to get out. I hurry-shuffle to the door of 360 and brace myself before ringing the bell. No matter how hard you try and rehearse for this part of the job, it always ends in a whole bucket of bad dumped on your head.
Still. No point in delaying the inevitable. I ring the doorbell. While I wait, I hop around to keep warm. I steal glances at 372 but nobody else seems to be going in.
The Ballantynes take a while to answer the door. I don’t see a car in the driveway, but that doesn’t mean much. Bill Jr. had to get to the mall somehow. I ring again, this time listening for footsteps or any other telltale signs of life. Nobody.
Damn. I’m going to have to come back.
Time to visit the neighbours, I decide. Besides I’m freezing. I cross the street trying not to slip on the snow-covered ice and rap on the door.
The teenage boy I saw in Bullet opens the door. His eyes go wide and before I can introduce myself he lets out a blood curdling, “Mom!” and streaks back down the hallway, leaving the door wide open and me standing in the snow. I step inside and close the door for him. No sense heating the whole neighborhood.
It’s one of those roomy foyers that sit like a cherry in the middle of the house, it’s only purpose to impress people with its grandeur. A staircase snakes up along the rim, and embraces the entrance like a fur-lined collar. If I were a kid in this place, those banisters would be mine, I think.
There is already a Poinsettia and a Christmas cactus blooming on the side table and I see evidence of Christmas boxes ready to be unpacked.
On the walls are artsy photos in black and white, all snapshots of family scenes. Iris is in most of them, surrounded by the young boy I just saw and a younger girl, about ten. I recognize the academic from the mall in a couple shots as well, although not as many.
“May I help you?” Her voice rides the gravel train to the back of my neck sending shivers down my spine. Man, this woman is sexy.
I turn around and make a point of glimpsing at her left index finger. No ring. Hmmm. Interesting. What were they doing in the mall together then? Shopping for their children? Doubt it.
I run my hand through my hair, wishing I had used the photos to check my do.
“Ms. Van Camp?” I say, holding out my hand. She looks at it for a nanosecond, like she’s not sure if she should shake it or cut it off. Then she takes it in a firm, almost bone-crushing grip. “My name’s Detective Holly.”
“Hmmm. How seasonal.”
I smile. “ I was hoping for Mistletoe but woke up too late in the bad name line.”
I see the little smile twitch at the corner of her lips, but then it’s gone.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“Oh, no need to flatter me. I know it’s not much of a pleasure having a detective show up at your door on Thanksgiving. I was just wondering if you could answer some questions about this morning at the mall.” I wait to see if she’ll invite me in, but her face remains expressionless. I sure wouldn’t want to play poker with this lady. “Is there a place where we can sit and talk?”
A miniscule gesture toward the living room, a slight turn of the head and flip of the hair makes me very curious to see what’s in the room she just left. Instead, she takes me down a long hall.
“We can talk in my study,” she directs me to a book-lined room with a large mahogany desk in the middle. The window faces out onto the street with a perfect view of 360. She waves me to the chair on the other side of the desk while she takes the leather bound office chair behind. Elbows on the table, chin on her knuckles, she looks for all the world like a president or a bigwig CEO. My hunch that this woman is used to getting what she wants is promoted to an evidence-based suspicion.
“I’m sure you know by now that the victim was a neighbour of yours, Bill Ballantyne Jr.”
At the mention of his name I detect a slight tightening of her jaw.
“Yes.” She doesn’t say, “how terrible” or any other platitude. Just yes, as if I asked her if she took milk in her coffee. Speaking of which, she’s a little short on hospitality. I could use a cup.
“And I noticed that you didn’t come forward with this information at the time.”
“The police didn’t question me. They already found his wallet, they knew who he was. I didn’t have anything else to add so why should I?”
Most people in her situation would be asking if they did anything wrong. However, I’m beginning to think that this woman thinks the best defense is offense.
“I see.” I make a note of what she says just to make her nervous. It doesn’t work. She looks down at my pad and then back at me with her blank stare.
“When you entered the store, was Mr. Ballantyne already down?”
“I saw a man down, but was in such a rush to get out of the crowd I’m ashamed to say I panicked. I pushed through like the rest of the people.”
I try to imagine her panicking and can’t. She doesn’t look the type.
“And your children?”
“They were behind me. They didn’t see anything.” There’s an edge to her voice now. I feel as if I just illegally crossed a heavily guarded border and have large guns pointed at me.
“And your ex?”
“How did you…never mind. Yes, he was there. I don’t know. You’d have to ask him.”
“Okay. I will. He’s in the living room with the rest, I take it?” A guess, but by the look on her face, a good one.
She looks at me, her mouth open in surprise. I’ve managed to crack the surface of this suburban ice queen, but it’s an empty pleasure. For a second she looks lost and vulnerable and I feel a little bad.
But I’m already down the hall. I can hear the tap of those killer boots as she runs to catch up.
I keep going. She’s right beside me now, her manicured fingers clutching my coat, trying to hold me back.
I stop short. She looks up at my face with large, dark eyes. I can smell her perfume, a faint musk, not too strong, but just enough to make you want to taste. Her hand is still on my coat.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?” I keep my voice down for the benefit of the guests.
She hesitates for a second, then lets go. The poker face is back, with a little twinge of the grim added to it. “No, no. It’s just that…well, some of the neighbours are over.”
“Good. I’ll need to talk to them too.” I turn back toward the living room. “And if you know where I can reach Mr. Ballantyne’s family, I’d be most obliged.”
“They left. Him, I mean. I don’t know where to reach them.”
“Oh, I thought for sure…” Stupid. Never assume. “ He lives alone then?”
She nods. Well, at least I don’t have to be the bringer of bad news. “Do you know of any other next of kin we can contact, then?”
“His mother’s in the nursing home over on Kirkland Ave.” She says through gritted teeth as if even mentioning the man leaves a battery acid taste in her mouth.
“Oh.” I pull myself together before entering the living room. Fat man. Family left in what I’m suspecting were bad circumstances. Lives alone. No close relatives. Going to a sale on Christmas day. Has a house decorated like the remainder sale at Kris Kringle’s Christmas Wonderland. The pieces just don’t add up. What the hell’s going on here?
I enter the living room and am greeted with a room full of anxious faces. I see the ex standing in the far corner behind a large overstuffed armchair. I didn’t notice it before, but he’s got a bandage on his hand and he’s cradling his arm as if it were a baby. The son is sitting on the arm of the chair, curled protectively around a ten year-old girl. On the couch is the frumpy lady I saw running over as well as an older man and another middle-aged housewife type.
They all look a little familiar. The crime scene. The people milling around. It wasn’t just Iris and her family, it was all of them. The whole of Waterforth lane was at the sale.
“Hello,” I say. I look closer. The frumpy middle-aged lady has a bruise the size of an apple on her cheek and the man has a footprint on his pants. The kids seem unscathed, but I do see the teenage boy rubbing his leg.
They all just stare at me, the fear in the room rising like steam.
“Mind if I ask you some questions?”
Once again, nothing, so I start anyway. There’s only one piece left in this puzzle and this next question will push it into place.
“What kind of neighbour was Mr. Ballantyne?”
All heads instantly turned toward me, like a field of sunflowers turning to the sun. Except sunflowers look less horrified. And I am definitely not the sun.
“Why do you ask?” Ms. Van Camp, finally says, her lips pursed together so tight I swear she’s a ventriloquist.
“It would greatly aid in the investigation Ma’am,” I say, trying my best to imitate the polite innocence of the rookie at the mall.
If possible, her lips purse even tighter and I can see the muscle in her jaw clench.
“He was an asshole,” This from frumpy middle-aged woman on the couch.
“Lois!” Ms. Van Camp gasps.
“Well, he’s going to find out soon enough anyway, isn’t he?” Lois, continues. “Haven’t you wondered why Mr. Ballantyne,” she says the name likes it’s a contagious disease, “has the only decorations up on the street?”
I shrug. “I noticed he had a lot of them,” is all I say.
Lois snorts. “Yeah. A lot of them. Did you happen to see a vintage Santa in a sleigh? The one made out of wood with the Rudolph’s nose lit up?”
“Well, that’s mine. My father made it back in the 50s for our house. It’s a family heirloom.”
“That’s mighty generous of you to lend it to him, “ I say.
“Generous, my patootie. He made me give it to him. Threatened to vandalise my prize-winning rhododendrons.” The amount of bile in her voice could melt snow.
Like water breaking through a badly constructed dam, the threats, insults, vicious gags Mr. Ballantyne made them suffer rush at me in a torrent.
“When I wouldn’t mow his lawn for him, he put cola in my mower’s fuel tank.”
“He wouldn’t let anybody else put up Christmas decorations.”
“He spray painted my house when I asked him if he wanted to join our walking group- thought I was calling him fat,” The middle-aged lady beside Lois adds. “Which I was,” she mutters under her breath.
“He threatened my children.”
Everybody shuts up. Iris looks right at me. Although her gaze is calm, I see the mother beast behind it. A shiver runs down my spine. She’s sexy, but scary.
I look down at my notepad and pretend to scribble something down. But really, I just wanted to avoid her headlight stare.
“I see. What exactly did he say, Ma’am?”
“Stop calling me Ma’am. You can call me Iris.”
“Iris, then.” Her name feels good on my tongue. “Do you remember exactly what he said?”
“He told me if I persisted in putting up my Christmas decorations, I just might get a call one day at work saying my child had been the victim of a hit and run. Or that one of them accidentally slipped on the ice and hit their head.” She delivers this in a flat monotone, poker face fully operational.
“Why didn’t you come forward to the police?” I ask.
A chaotic symphony of guffaws and snorts greet me.
“What good would that have done?” Iris asks. She looks at me and sighs. I see tiny lines at the edge of her eyes, cracks of fatigue in her perfect façade. “You don’t understand. This has been going on for five years, ever since he moved here.”
“We’ve been living in terror at what this man would do to us. We’re tired.”
“Nobody threatens my family.” Iris’s voice is as hard as marble.
Iris looks at me straight in the eye, the smile dangling like a Christmas ornament from her lips.
“We took him shopping.”
“And the manager of the store?”
She looks at me for a moment. A glint of admiration lights up her eyes.
“And, from what you’re telling me about Mr. Ballantyne, he would have made sure he was first in line.”
Iris just raises her eyebrows. The others are frozen with fear.
“And it wouldn’t have taken much to get that crowd going. Just some well-timed shoving and pushing, “ I say. The picture’s getting clearer and clearer.
Nobody could accuse the people of Waterforth Lane of lack of solidarity.
Iris doesn’t even try to play innocent. “You know how rowdy people get when there’s a sale…”
I look at her and at her two children. She really is a damn fine woman. Although I know I should have her arrested on the spot, all of them as a matter-of-fact, I just can’t do it.
I rise from the chair. “Well, I guess Mr. Ballantyne was just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” I say, flipping my notebook closed.
They smile and the tension in the room deflates like a leaky waterbed.
“Happy holidays to you all.”
Iris walks me out. “Thank you, detective.” She shakes my hand. She’s soft and tiny and I have to resist the urge to smell my hand for the scent of her.
I play innocent. “Just doing my job, Ma’am. I mean Iris.”
She smiles. “No, I don’t think you are. And once again, I thank you for it.”
I smile back.
She presses a piece of paper into my palm.
“You probably already have this,” she says, her dark liquid eyes staring right at me, “but this is an official invitation. Give me a call sometime. I’ll get a babysitter.”
I have one last look before she closes the door. Hands on her hips, boots up to her knees, a smile of relief on her face.
Oh, I surely will. I think to myself.
Back in the car, I rip up the notes I took and burn them in the ashtray. The Christmas lights from Bill Jr.’s yard dance like coked up fairies on my dashboard. I start the engine and take the scenic route out of Waterforth Lane, driving slowly by Iris’.
Couldn’t prove it even if I wanted to, I tell myself to sweep away the dust motes of doubt in my brain.
Besides. It’s Thanksgiving.