Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Trouble with Murder: Chapter Two

Chapter Two

     I rolled out of bed after hitting the snooze button three times. I hadn’t slept well. I’d had vivid dreams that were ugly and destructive.
     My life got off to a rocky and violent start. From violent, it phased to uncertain, but always it was hard. I’ve been seeing a therapist regularly to help deal with what that means. Normally, I’m rather well-adjusted, all things considered. I still have patterns of learned behavior I have to work to overcome, but usually I’m successful and can function without major incident in polite society.
     But when I experience violence, physical or emotional, whether I’m a participant or an observer, the result is the same. The dreams, sometimes better described as “nightmares,” return, and I find I can be irritable, my temper short. From the moment I’d heard the scream last night, I’d known what I was in for. Walking into that lobby,
physically confronting the attacker, and seeing Stacy Karnes’s body had cracked some of the retaining walls, and my past was seeping back out. I would need to get it under control, and fast.

     The coffee pot was empty, as usual. Every morning I was the last to get up, and every morning I found the pot empty. Eternal optimist that I am, I always secretly hoped there would be a cup left, but there never was. Skipping it, I went back downstairs to shower.

     I stripped my clothes off and caught a glimpse before I went to the shower. Frowning, I walked back to the mirror. I didn’t like what I saw. Perhaps it was merely the result of my uncharitable mood brought on by the lack of sleep and caffeine, but I didn’t think so. That wasn’t the whole story, in any case.

     I’d noticed a slight weight gain after returning home. My family life has always been a huge source of stress for me, and stress seems to negatively affect my metabolism. The weight gain had continued until Barry Paige had been hired, at which point it exploded. See, Paige takes his position as my supervisor more seriously than necessary. In the last eight months, I’d gained thirty pounds. That’s more than a woman should gain while pregnant. I’m not pregnant. It was as if the stress I was feeling from every direction had shut off my metabolism, allowing every ounce I ate to slide right down to my butt and stick. My butt and my stomach and my thighs and that place along the back of my arms. Didn’t matter that I’d become more conscientious of what I was eating. I’m five-eight most days, five-nine on good days; I don’t have a lot of extra height to accommodate or offset the additional weight. And in the last two years, the additional weight totaled forty pounds. All right, forty-seven.

     Today it looked more like seventy. This was how I knew I was feeling unfriendly. The stress had brought wrinkles and gray hair, too, though I’m twenty-five. I have fair skin that never tans, only burns, and a smattering of freckles over my nose. It had been nearly flawless until recently. Now there are noticeable lines around my eyes and mouth. These irritate me most. 

     I saw the look in my eye then turned away from the mirror. My eyes fluctuate between deep green and hazel depending mostly on my mood. Just then, they were burning green: a reflection of the strong emotion I was feeling.

     I stood under the water for several long minutes, until I was thoroughly soaked, then reached up for my shampoo. I knew the instant I lifted the bottle what I’d find, but (optimist, remember?) I popped the cap and held my hand open, squeezing all the same. Nothing came out but a swish of air.

     Not to worry. I always keep an extra bottle of everything stashed behind the tampons under the sink. Dripping wet, I got back out and pulled the cupboard doors open, searching for my hidden cache. I couldn’t find anything. Confused, I removed everything until I’d reached the back of the cupboard. The only items remaining were deodorant and body wash.

     I replaced the items I’d removed and went back to the shower, colorfully cursing Bradley, the college student renting the third bedroom in the basement. He shared a bathroom with Zach and me, one he hardly ever cleaned, and he had a habit of helping himself to whatever he could find. It hadn’t been until he’d brought his boyfriend home that I’d understood why he was always using my products.

     A quick search of the available items in the shower left me with one option. I picked up Zach’s shampoo-and-body-wash-in-one and sniffed at the top. It smelled like a man; no way around it. But I had to wash my hair with something. With a sigh, I squirted some out and lathered it through my hair. I needed to have a conversation with Bradley sometime soon. And I was seriously considering raising his rent. Had I been planning to stay past tomorrow, I would evict him instead.

     I twisted my long hazelnut-colored hair up and tied it in a knot on top of my head, pinning back my long bangs. (Probably it was good Bradley wasn’t home when I got out of the shower.) My hair is a hot mess as often as not. Reminiscent of a 90s-era Julia Roberts; it is thick, wavy, and has a mind of its own. Today, of course, it would have to stay up in order to cut down on the Axe smell. I did the best I could to make it look presentable then left it to air dry. Out of habit, I tucked two extra hairpins into my pocket, just in case I needed reinforcement later.

     Early in life, my mother had instilled the importance of such vain undertakings as makeup, hairspray, push-up bras, and control-top pantyhose. While I’d given up most of that as a gesture of rebellion, I still can’t bring myself to leave the house without mascara. And for work, I always wear complete makeup. It just doesn’t feel right not to. So, I did the makeup thing in a hurry, then pulled together a passable outfit of brown slacks and a green top. I grabbed my bag and hit the door.

     My first appointment was at eight. It took some negotiating, but the late walk-in client from the night before had finally agreed to come back first thing this morning. It meant coming in an hour early, but to get him out of my office, I’d agreed.

     I checked my mirror and changed lanes, grimacing at the recurring thoughts of the night before. I wanted to blame the walk-in client for making me late to meet Stacy Karnes, but that wasn’t fair. Sure, his timing had been unfortunate, but I should have been firmer about cutting the meeting short. I was responsible for keeping my own schedule, and I was responsible for being late.

     I couldn’t help but think about how different things would have been had I gotten there on time. I’d been mere moments too late to intervene before Stacy was stabbed. Had I left on time, had the lights and traffic been different, had I arrived two minutes earlier, would Stacy be lying in the hospital today? I couldn’t help but think not. I realized, had I been any earlier it could just as easily have been me lying in the hospital today. Or the morgue. I also knew I couldn’t help the fact Stacy had been in the lobby at that specific time. But she had been there to meet me, and that left me feeling more than a little responsible for what had happened to her. I knew this sense of responsibility and the associated guilt were the heaviest assaults against my retaining walls.

     Traffic wasn’t cooperating. My goal had been to stop for coffee on the way to the office, but all hope evaporated when I caught the third consecutive red light after leaving my house. If this continued, I’d be late as it was. Being late wasn’t something I tolerated well under the best of circumstances. After last night, I didn’t think I could tolerate it at all. I pulled my cell phone from the cup holder, wishing it were a perfectly blended, chocolate-flavored coffee instead, and dialed the office. The receptionist answered on the second ring.

     “White Real Estate and Property Management. This is Sandra. How may I help you?”

     Sandra York was new, having started six months ago. Overall, she did an acceptable job, but she wasn’t a natural for the role, and she wasn’t highly motivated to compensate for any deficiencies.

     “It’s Zoe. I need a favor. I have a meeting at eight; I left the info on your desk last night. Can you call the guy and let him know I’ll be five minutes late?”

     “There’s a guy in the lobby. Let me make sure that’s not him.”

     She put me on hold and I listened to elevator music for two minutes. I also managed to catch another red light. She came back on the line just as the light turned green.

     “Wasn’t him,” she said. “I’ll call him.”

     The four cars in front of me began moving. I put my foot to the gas, easing it down while I let my left foot off the clutch. The truck rolled forward, then the engine died. Hoping I’d stalled it, I twisted the key. The engine sputtered but failed to catch.

     In my heart, I knew this wasn’t something simple. I hit the hazard lights in response to the angry horns sounding behind me then tried the key again. The result was the same.

     “Perfect,” I sighed, leaning back against the seat. “Sandra, I’m going to need you to reschedule that appointment all together. I’m going to be more than five minutes late.”

     “Well, how late are you going to be?”

     “I hope to make my nine o’clock, but I may need you to reschedule that one, too.”

     She sighed. “Fine. Let me know.” Then she hung up.

     I dropped the phone back into the cup holder.

     “Yes, I’m fine,” I said to the steering wheel. “No, I don’t need anything. Thank you. Your concern is touching.”

     I was northbound on Shields in the far right lane, just south of Drake. About a block ahead there was a turnoff into a parking lot. I stepped out of the truck. A passing motorist belted his horn at me and flipped me the bird. I smiled, blew him a kiss, and waved. Shedding my jacket, I rolled down the window and took my position in the open door.

     Despite how heavy a vehicle is, especially an old one like mine, I’ve never found them difficult to push, especially not my truck. This has been handy considering I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few months pushing it. I got a few more honks and hand gestures, and a kid hung his head out the window and shouted something dirty as he flew past. No one stopped to help.

     Once in the parking lot, the truck picked up momentum. I jumped inside and allowed it to roll as I manhandled the steering wheel, directing it to the far right of the lot, where it rolled to a stop across three spaces. Climbing back out, I walked around and lifted the hood. I stepped onto the bumper and peered over the innards of the truck.

     I have very little mechanical prowess but I figured it was merely due diligence to have a look and eliminate all obvious problems. I didn’t know the names of any of the parts I was looking at or their functions, but I would have been able to tell if a hose was hanging lose or wires were sticking out somewhere. Of course, I saw none of those things. I also knew the tank had gas.

     I’d found the 1978 International Scout II by happenstance. Shortly after moving back to Fort Collins, I’d listed my Mercedes for sale on Craigslist. Wanting to sell the thing quickly, I’d initially listed it low. But I realized soon enough that wasn’t drawing the kind of attention I needed—just lots of looky-loos wondering why the pretty, two-year-old Mercedes was so cheap. So I relisted and overpriced it. This cut interested phone calls by more than half, down to a more manageable number and seriously interested parties.

     About four people had already looked at the car by the time Stan had called and I’d met him in the Target parking lot. But there was something about Stan that I’d liked. He’d wanted to buy the Mercedes for his wife. Stan had been crazy about his wife, that was obvious to anyone after about five minutes. Her car had recently been totaled and she had been driving his truck, leaving him with his Scout. She’d hated the Scout and refused to drive it.

     The Scout had been either carefully restored or impeccably maintained, I’d known from first glance. Talking around an ever-present cigarette between his lips, Stan had told me he had purchased the thing new in ’77 and had taken exceptional care of it. A mechanic, he had done all the work himself. His wife may have hated it, but the Scout was a thing of beauty; hunter green with a white removable hardtop and Army-tan interior. And at that time, everything had worked as well as it had the day it rolled off the manufacturing floor.

     He’d noticed my interest, and he must have already known he was dying. I had come prepared to deal, and, like I said, there was something I liked about Stan. I’d knocked a big chunk off the price and he’d thrown in the Scout.

     For the next year, I took the Scout back to Stan for everything: oil changes, new windshield wipers, tire-pressure checks. He never charged me very much, and I always left the truck with him for the day, let him tool around in it for old time’s sake. When he got too sick to work, he gave me the name of a new mechanic: Leonard Krupp. Krupp was old school and could work on a vehicle as old as the Scout.

     But the wear and tear must have finally caught up to the thing, because it had been to visit the new mechanic routinely since. I occasionally consider offering to sell it back to Stan’s wife, even though she always hated it. Sometimes I dream about driving it over to Krupp’s, when it’s running, and sending it crashing through the front window of his garage. I’ve considered pushing it into Horsetooth Reservoir more than once.

     When reality finally settled back around me now, I walked back to the cab and retrieved my phone, dialing the number for the towing company from memory.

     After arranging for a tow, I called Krupp to tell him the truck was coming back. He didn’t answer. I left a message.

     Now I needed a ride. I never bother to call my mother. Zach was at work. Friday mornings my best friend, Amy, worked out of town. I knew she’d come get me if I called her, but I reserved calls like that for emergencies only. I tried my friend Sadie, but the call went to voicemail. I didn’t leave a message. Then I called Donald. Not only did he answer, but he agreed to come get me.

     “Works out perfect,” he said. “I was out cruising. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

     A small groan escaped me before I could bite it down. I knew what “cruising” meant.


     Donald is a lot of things, sentimental being one of them. In addition to his daily driver, he owns a 1979 Lincoln Continental. The car had belonged to his mother before her passing more than a decade ago, but he’d been unable to get rid of the damn thing. Most days it sits at the curb outside the house collecting dust and the occasional parking ticket. Every once in a while, Donald will take it for a little morning spin, cruising up and down College Avenue, just to keep it in running order.

     The truck was being loaded for transport when the road boat floated into the lot, Donald at the helm. The thing is nineteen feet long from bumper to bumper and the copper color of a freshly minted penny, with a matching vinyl roof. The tow truck driver stared openly at the Lincoln for a moment then turned to me. I smiled, waved, and climbed in beside Donald. He sailed the Lincoln home.

     “What’s wrong with your truck?”

     I shrugged. “No idea. It just died.”

     “Want to borrow the Lincoln?”

     Because it was Friday, I’d be lucky if my mechanic got around to looking at my truck today. Realistically, it would probably be Saturday, maybe even Monday. All said and done, it could very well be a week before I could bring it home. Did I want to drive the Lincoln for a week?

    “That’s generous of you, but I’ll be okay. I’ve got the scooter.”

     “You sure?”

     Donald glanced at me, and I noticed the childlike sparkle in his eyes as he maneuvered the Lincoln.

     I couldn’t help but chuckle.

     “Yes, I’m sure. Thank you. I’ll let you know if I change my mind.”

     Donald tipped his head back slightly and seemed to take in a long breath.

     “Say, you wearing Zach’s jacket or something?” he asked. “I smell his perfume.”

     “Yeah, borrowed his jacket.” I left it at that.

     When we arrived at the house, Donald docked the copper barge at the curb and we disembarked. Donald was, as always, neatly dressed like an accountant. Donald isn’t an accountant, but he always looks like one: button-down shirts, sweaters most of the year, khakis, and dark-rimmed glasses.

      He cast a fond, loving glance at the Lincoln before disappearing into the house. I went into the garage.

     The garage was a three-car tandem design. Two spaces were occupied by my mother’s cherry red Saab and Donald’s daily driver, a Ford Edge. If it were me, I would have parked the Lincoln in the garage. Monstrosity or not, the thing is a classic, and sitting exposed on the street year after year isn’t doing anything good for the value. Although, I have to admit, the paint is as shiny as the day it had been applied.

     At present, only the Edge was in residence. Donald works from home three days a week, including Fridays, and my mother was at her office. Despite her condition, she takes her job seriously, which is about the only thing she takes seriously, and she rarely misses work.

     The tandem space was used as storage for yard equipment, an extra freezer and refrigerator, miscellaneous items, and a 1963 Cushman Trailster.

     The Trailster had belonged to my paternal grandfather. He’d purchased it after developing a fondness for Cushman products during World War II. During the war, Cushmans were airdropped into war zones for use by the soldiers. My grandfather swore a Cushman Airborne saved his life. When he was no longer able to ride the Trailster, he’d passed it to my father. By that time, scooter travel had long been out of vogue. Mostly the scooter had been stored, though occasionally my father had taken the thing out for a ride. A few times, he’d even taken me.

     My grandfather had taken exceptional care of the scooter, but my father, who hadn’t had a caring bone in his body, had been rough with it. During his tenure, it hadn’t been properly stored or maintained. Neither had he been a cautious rider. The Trailster had been wrecked more than once. The way I feel about my father has always prevented me from pouring any kind of love or attention into the scooter. But because it is a classic, and because I have a few fond memories of my grandfather, I can’t bring myself to get rid of it, either. So it sits, covered in the corner of the garage.

     I removed the dusty cover and stared down at the yellow scooter, scuffed and marred from misuse. A piece of the front fender was missing, the left handle grip was badly cracked, and one mirror was bent. The driver’s seat was worn from use, and the material on the passenger seat had a long tear in it. The entire thing was dusty, and there was dirt caked onto the lower parts of the frame. Apparently, it hadn’t been washed before it was last stored.

     Grabbing the handlebars, I walked the thing out into the sunlight of the driveway. The design of the Trailster is more motorcycle than scooter, with its high handlebars and top-mounted gas tank. And, actually, because of the limited definition of “scooter” by Colorado law, the Trailster is considered a motorcycle.

     I twisted the gas cap off and checked the gasoline. By no small miracle, it was still crystal clear and odor free. I went inside and pulled my backpack out of the closet. Then I stuffed my purse into it and slung it on. I got the vintage, open-faced, brown leather helmet my father had always worn out of its storage place and wiped it off, doing the same with the goggles. My father had always wanted a son. He had never forgiven me for being something else, but occasionally he had taught me all the boy things he’d wanted to teach a son. On even rarer occasions, he’d treat me like a daughter and act as if it was okay that I was his. One such occasion included presenting me with a pink, flowered helmet and taking me for a ride on the scooter. The day had ended in blood and tears (both mine), like so many before and after it. I still have the pink helmet, but I refuse to wear it.

     I fit the helmet over my head, fastening the chinstrap. I prepared the kick pedal then gripped the handlebars for balance as I threw my weight down on it. The engine coughed then, with a series of crisp pops, chugged to life. Stowing the pedal, I sat astride the scooter and brought up the kickstand with my left foot. I pulled the goggles down and accelerated out of the driveway, once again on my way to work. I buzzed into the lot and parked at eight fifty-five.


     “Geez, what happened to you?” Sandra asked when I walked in. She had her perfectly-painted lips slightly curled.

     Sandra is thirty going on fifteen. She’s petite, pretty, unnaturally blonde, and fashion savvy. She likely spent an hour on her hair alone each morning. Ditto for her makeup. In the six months she’d worked here, I hadn’t seen her wear the same pair of shoes twice. I confess, I don’t even own enough shoes anymore to do that for two weeks. Well, maybe two weeks. But certainly not three. Okay, definitely not a month.

     “We can’t all look like beauty queens,” I said, blowing by her toward my office.

     She took an indiscreet whiff as I passed. “Were you with a man?”

     I didn’t like the level of accusation in her tone. What the hell was wrong with me being with a man, if that’s where I had been?

     Without responding, I let myself in the door and dropped my stuff on my desk, then raised the blinds and opened the windows. It was May, and our weather was unseasonably warm, the daytime highs reaching into the eighties more often than not. Today would probably be one of those days. But this morning there was a pleasant breeze blowing and the office was stuffy. After settling myself in, I went back to Sandra’s desk.

     “Were you able to reach my eight o’clock?”

     She shook her head. “No. I left a message, but he hasn’t called back.”

     Weird, I thought. He was so eager last night.

     “Maybe he changed his mind,” I said. “Do I have messages?”

      Sandra shuffled through the items on her desk and finally located a stack of pink WHILE YOU WERE OUT notes under the current edition of Cosmo. She shuffled through them, sorting out mine, then handed them to me. The picture of efficiency.

     I glanced at the clock.

     “Heard anything from my nine o’clock?” I asked. “He’s late.”

     She shrugged and turned a page in her magazine.



     I walked back to my office. The other offices were occupied, most with doors open and voices drifting out. The office at the end of the hall belonged to Barry Paige. Paige was the director of the Fort Collins division of White Real Estate and Property Management. He’d been doing his job a few months longer than Sandra, but he wasn’t any better at his than she was at hers.

     Mark White, a real estate tycoon and the owner of White Real Estate, had originally offered me Paige’s position. He’d just expanded the company to include Loveland and wanted someone who would help bring growth. I would have done just that, but I’d had to refuse. Under Paige, our division had grown a measly seven percent. I would have more than doubled that number in the same time. As it was, my numbers accounted for four of the seven percent. I’m not sure White has totally forgiven me for turning him down.

     When I was eighteen, in my first year of college, working as a CNA in a nursing home in preparation for what I believed would be a long nursing career, a close friend at the time, Brandi, had introduced me to a man named Matt. A few years older than me, Matt had lived in Denver and worked for Colorado Property Management Group as a leasing agent for one of the pricier apartment complexes. Taylor Swift sings a song about being fifteen and believing someone when they say they love you. The same holds true when you’re eighteen. He told me he loved me and I believed him. Simple as that.

     I’d finished my second semester of school and hadn’t enrolled in a third, my nursing career on hold. I’d quit my job, taken a position with the same company, and moved to Denver. I’d been assigned to a different site, one that was less pricey and a good starting place. I was pretty motivated, but it turned out I was pretty good at that sort of work. Maybe it’s genetic. My maternal grandfather had been a salesman all his life and could literally sell ice to an Eskimo. My mother also seems to have this gene.

     Being closer to Matt, I’d believed our relationship was getting stronger. After six months, he’d begun talking about wanting to marry me. He’d officially proposed after eleven months. Of course, I’d agreed.

     I’d thought my life was shaping up to be exactly what I wanted it to be. I was engaged, had begun a career, and the money was pouring in. I was making more than most college graduates. I was doing all the things I wanted: taking vacations, paying off my car, buying nice clothes and jewelry, saving for a wedding. I even bought a house, then a condo, then later a second house. I’d gotten a serious elevation in economic status and was thrilled to explore what that meant.

     My success caused me to get noticed by the higher-ups and advance within the company. After working at Colorado Property Management Group less than a year, I’d been appointed to a management position overseeing nine of the properties. The Northern Denver Region, as it’s called. I’d been responsible for hiring, firing, the budget, and everything else. Turned out I wasn’t half bad as a manager, either, and I’d certainly liked the doubled income. I was able to pay off the condo and one house entirely and make a serious dent in the debt on the other.

     Ultimately, I’d been a fool. Matt’s interest in me was just a way for him to get closer to Brandi. And despite being my friend, she’d begun a relationship with him behind my back, one that carried on for several months. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t catch on until Brandi wound up pregnant. A scheduling slip-up connected the dots for me; Matt was the father.

     I’d been heartbroken, but mostly out of spite, I’d kept my job and stayed in Denver. Matt had prided himself on his job and his stats. So I’d thrown myself into work, and quickly climbed the ladder, earning two major promotions and an income twice as big as his. 

     I’d continued to immerse myself in the lifestyle of wealth and success, but it had lost a lot of appeal after that. Through the tint of heartbreak, all I’d seen were miserable people trying to ease their pain with objects, money, status, and power, myself included. For a moment, I’d almost lost myself in that world.

     When I finally broke free, I knew I never wanted to go back. But after bouncing around from one minimum wage job to the next, I’d finally taken a position with a small, local company working for Mark White. I liked this job, and I did good work, but I couldn’t let myself get drawn in. Accepting White’s promotion would have put me a step closer to a life I didn’t want.

     Paige’s door was closed, but I could tell the windows were open; he was in. Paige rarely made appointments so early. Actually, Paige rarely made appointments. Appointments mean work. White is one of the only people Paige meets with.

     As I turned into my office, glancing at the messages, I wondered if White was meeting with Paige now.

     I had three messages. Two of them were from residents in Elizabeth Tower. They both expressed concern regarding the safety of the building.

     The building had been wired for exceptional security when it had been for senior living; the cameras and other security measures still in place. The only pieces of equipment currently being used were the three-dozen security cameras. The controlled access doors had been disabled, along with the rest. After Stacy was stabbed, it had crossed my mind the people living in the building would be upset. I’d even considered the idea of posting a security guard, if only for temporary measure. I didn’t foresee the attacker making a return visit, but there would be no explaining that to hysterical and terrified college kids. Or to their parents.

     I returned to my desk and scrolled through my address book until I found the number for a commercial security company we’d used in the past. I called and set an appointment for noon. 

     I had accepted that my nine o’clock had stood me up when I heard the front door. Just in case it was him after all, I went and poked my head out of my office. A woman in her late twenties trailing two children under five spoke briefly to Sandra then another agent came to greet them, leading them down the hall into an office.

     Sandra saw me standing in the doorway.

     “She’s the first person to come in all morning,” she said.

     I nodded and turned away, then stopped.

     “You said there was a man in the lobby this morning,” I said. “When I called.”

     “Oh, that,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “That was a cop. He doesn’t count.”

     The most frightening part of that statement was that I followed her logic.

     “What did the cop want?”

     She shrugged. “Asked to see Barry. He was here quite a while.”

     “Who? Did you get a name?”

     “Uh, something with an E I think . . . uh . . .”

     “Ellmann,” I said softly to myself.

     She snapped her fingers. “Yep, that’s it. Ellmann.”

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