Dead and Over
This story takes place in July of 2008
"I don't do murders," I said. I was sitting in my high-backed leather chair in my office, looking at the man who wanted to be my client. He was an Anglo, tall and slender, with mousy brown hair and a forgettable face. He'd have made the perfect PI, assuming he was up to the work – no one would ever remember him afterwards. If appearance were the sole criterion, he'd have been a much better PI than I am, for I am anything but inconspicuous in my usual clothing.
"You've done a few." His voice was average too.
"A few, and never because I was eager."
"So what does it take to overcome your not being eager?"
The guy had walked in a few minutes ago. I'd been in the office for almost the first time since the first part of the year, having hit a streak of just not wanting to detect. If he'd come any other day, or any other time during this day, he'd have missed me. But he'd asked the right question, instead of just trying to bulldoze me.
"Well," I told him, "you'd have to convince me that this is a murder that I'd want to solve myself, rather than one I'd be content to leave to the cops."
"And what would that mean?"
I made an exasperated sound. "Oh, shoot, I don't know. I take notions. The last time I took a murder it was 'cause the client demonstrated plainly that they'd whacked the guy just 'cause he was gay. But if he'd come in the day before or the day after, I might not have cared about that."
"Are you gay?" the man asked, ignoring my tangled diction.
"That ain't none o' your business – though they's evidence in this office to answer your question."
He looked around, and I saw his eyes settle on the family portrait that hangs in back of my desk. It's a couple of years old now, and shows me, Cecelia, and Darlia all dressed up ... though my version of all dressed up looks pretty informal compared to Cecelia's everyday. I married a woman who really loves her clothes, and has better taste than anyone I've ever known. "Okay, you're straight."
"Yeah, and it ain't relevant to nothin' we're talkin' about." My English is always informal, and when I'm irritated it gets more so.
"Look, I'm just trying to find out what I need to say to get you to take this case."
"Maybe they ain't nothin' you can say." I could hear the finality in my tone.
I guess he could too, for he stood up. He'd been in the straight-backed wooden chair across the desk for not even five minutes. "Well, you came highly recommended, but if you don't want the job I guess you don't want it. I'll have to try someone else."
"Yeah, that's the idea." I pulled open my middle desk drawer, scrabbled around for a few seconds, and pulled out a card that said Kim, Investigations. "Since it's a murder, a PI who likes to shoot might not be a drawback. This lady'll probably love your case, and she is tough – more than me. An' she does shoot easy."
He reached across the desk and took the card, looking at it – noticing, I'm sure, the phone number in the lower right corner. "Thank you for this," he said. "And for at least listening to me." He looked back at the portrait behind me. "That must be your wife in the outer office."
I grinned. "Yeah, that's her. Without actually deciding to, I've wound up hiring her to be my part-time secretary."
"She's a striking woman." And he turned and went.
It was five minutes or so later that the sound of an automatic weapon came through the glass of the window. Before I could think I was out of my chair and at the window, whose low sill hit me at mid-thigh. I looked down, just in time to see a white minivan squeal out of the parking lot. My visitor, or at least someone wearing his clothes, was sprawled on the blacktop in that careless pose that only the dead can get into – because only the dead feel no discomfort.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, yanking me back. I spun to my right, to find Cecelia's sharp-featured face there. She's only an inch shorter than I am, and that's not enough to matter. I realized peripherally that she had her pistol in her right hand, her trigger finger lying along the barrel as I'd taught her years ago. A glance told me that her thumb has flipped off the safety and that the hammer was back – I had to assume she'd moved a round up into the chamber. "It's okay," I told her. "The shooters did their thing and split."
She nodded and dropped her hand. "I don't suppose they could have hit you from 40 feet down in any event. Such people seldom know how to do more than – what did you call it once?"
"Spray and pray."
"Precisely. From there, shooting upwards, they'd have probably blown out all the windows on the second floor." My office is on the fourth floor of the building.
"Yeah," I said, beginning to shake with adrenaline letdown. "Put your gun away, and I'll call the cops."
Cecelia nodded, and went back through the connecting door. But she poked her head back in. "I presume that you are now involved in this investigation?"
I looked up at her, my hand on the phone that sat on the right side of my desk. "Yeah – right now I am definitely involved."
My un-client had died at 10:30 in the morning, or thereabouts – I hadn't thought to look at my watch until I'd hung up the phone and sat in my chair for a minute. It was still a better estimate than forensics is capable of on its own. By checking liver temperature and looking at the ambient temperature, by judging the degree of rigor mortis and livor mortis, the scientists can make fairly good guesses at time of death, but a fairly good guess is still a guess.
He'd died at 10:30, and it was dark when Cecelia and I walked out of the building. I checked my watch then, and it was just after eight. We hadn't been there 12 hours, but it wasn't far off either. Cecelia held my hand as we walked to my Blazer, where I unlocked the passenger door and then walked around to unlock mine. I pulled my gun off my belt, stuck it in the clip under the seat, and climbed in. I stuck the key in the ignition, but before I could turn it Cecelia laid her hand on my arm.
"Why," she asked, "did you wish me to remain quiet on the matter of you taking the case?"
"Well," I said, "you'll remember I told you not to lie. Shoot, there wasn't anything to lie about, and even in this business I like the truth anyway. But ... well, remember that verse that says you shouldn't worry 'bout tomorrow 'cause you got enough problems today?"
I could see her teeth gleaming, looking whiter than ever against the dark skin of her face, which very nearly blended into the darkness outside. "I question the accuracy of your quotation, Darvin, but yes, I do recollect that statement."
I chuckled. I may be a preacher and an elder of our church, but I hit the limit of my ability to memorize the Bible years ago. When I preach I put the quotations in the manuscript so I'll get 'em right. "Well, it's that principle here. Why borrow trouble? I'm a licensed PI and I don't even have a paying client on this one, so I'm just a private citizen looking for answers if it comes to threatening me with my license. But there didn't seem to be any point in antagonizing the cops. They pretty naturally like to keep their cases to themselves, and murder especially so."
I could barely see Cecelia's nod; with the engine still off there were no dash lights to gleam on her skin. "That does make sense." She paused for a moment. "I've been your de facto secretary for a few weeks now, but this is the first time you've been involved in a case since the arrangement formed. I'm beginning, this evening, to see something of how different your world is from mine."
I turned the key finally, and turned on the running lights. Now I could see Cecelia's face – the outlines of it at least, with my mind filling in the familiar details. "You know," I said, "there's some validity to the cracks about being able to hide in the dark."
Now Cecelia chuckled. "I admit that my skin is more conducive to stealth after sunset; you whites stand out in the least light."
"That's what I get for marrying a black chick," I muttered, loudly enough to be sure that Cecelia heard it. I knew she'd take it the way I intended. "As for whose world is or has been worse, I don't think anything I deal with is as bad as looking out the window and seeing a burning cross. I never had to deal with that, and you did. I'd say you're the tough one here."
"I propose that we are both tough, in our different ways. You can face down armed criminals – I know it, though you've been careful not to bring frightening details into our marriage. And I could live with burning crosses, and that vile word, and people who treated me as much like a dog as they could get away simply because my ancestors came from Africa in chains. Let us hope that in this matter our particular kinds of toughness complement each other."
I put the Blazer in gear. When I bought it I'd paid my mechanic good money to pull the automatic transmission and replace it with a stick, both because a stick works better in the desert that we visit every year, and because I simply prefer a standard transmission. "Yeah, you're part of this, ain't you? I couldn't keep you out with bulldozers, I don't guess." I paused – my brief thought about the transmission had raised a question that I needed to ask. "Cecelia, if this thing continues..."
"Yes – our plans require us to leave in two weeks." I heard her take in a deep breath. "If necessary, we can forego Lanfair Valley this year."
"I'd be willing for you to take Darlia and leave me here. You can drive this thing as well as I can."
"It's true that you've taught me to drive a stick shift, and that I've acquired practice. But I will not leave you. If Darlia insists on her vacation, we can let her visit Memphis this August, and perhaps find a way to go to the desert later. I rushed into your office, weapon in hand, not knowing if you were alive and ready to fire back at anyone who threatened you. I have never before held my pistol ready to aim it at a human being, and I resent having to do it. I will not rest nor depart from you, beloved, until those who forced it upon me are in prison."
While we talked I'd been negotiating the complicated route away from my office building. After years of dealing with access that's only slightly less complicated than a Chinese typewriter, I was ready to fork over my own money to build a road to connect the parking lot with Bogan and McLeod and make it possible to get in and out without an act of God. Why on earth anyone ever built an office building with no way to get to it but a one way frontage road I'll never understand. "You're still tossing out the endearments," I said as I turned south onto Jefferson.
"I have not yet recovered." It was a simple answer, but it called back to my mind the reason Cecelia, who'd never gotten more emotional in her way of addressing me than to say my husband, had for a few months now been using all sorts of pet names. A creep had tried to shoot me, and it had terrified her into doing things that she normally wouldn't have considered. She'd invaded the crime scene, angering and hurting my best friend, who's also one of her best friends. And she'd taken to using those endearments. No, she hadn't recovered from her fright. And she very well might never fully recover. I knew I would carry the nightmares with me for the rest of my life, just as I carried the dreams from my first shooting years before.
"You're silent, my love," she said.
"Just thinkin', C. I've got you into some deep messes over the years. There was the deal with Larry Entragian, and our bad time, and then there was the Charnock shooting, and now this. Maybe I oughta get into an emotionally safer line of work."
"Perhaps you should, Darvin. But we shan't consider that now. We will first carry out the task we have in hand, and then – if it still seems profitable – we will consider alternative ways for you to employ your time." Her voice wasn't cold, exactly, but it wasn't very gentle either.
"Okay, that'll work," I said. By now I'd run Montgomery to Wyoming, and had turned south there. That would take us right close to home. "Just don't get yourself hurt, Cecelia. Not physically, not spiritually. I couldn't take that."
Her only response was to rest her hand, warm and callused, on mine where it lay on the gearshift knob. But the faint, very faint trembling in her hand let me know she had heard me.