Noir #1 – Tia Atwater (Approx. 1500 Words)

© 2018 Rebecca Wralstad. All Rights Reserved. Time-stamped by Beta Readers.

“You got a job?”

I’m startled, dropping my keys on the worn carpet.  When I stand up I’m dizzy from either the sudden movement or the paisley swirls down our apartment hallway.  It’s 7 a.m. and a fair question.  My landlord sidles up and leans casually on the wall between the dusty sconces.

“No.  I’ve got guilt and I’m out of coffee.”

“You’re only two months behind on rent, nothing we can’t handle.”

I step away from my door and onto the creakiest floorboard, “you’re very generous.  Especially to be working so early.  You changing light bulbs?”

The sconce behind him shudders as he pushes off the wall and the light flickers.  “Joseph complains so much.  You know he woke me up when he left at 6:45 this morning.  Told me the screen is broken in the stairwell window.  He was worried about bees getting in.”

I glance down the hall, really needing coffee now, but he doesn’t take the hint.  He’s looking very closely at me, so I stare back hoping he’ll get to whatever it is soon.  For a split second the corners of his eyes squeeze tighter, he doesn’t like my direct look.  Then I see him dismiss it.

He even shrugs a little before saying, “I need you to do me a favor.”

I’m supposed to follow him down the hall and since it’s the way out, I do.  I see the broken screen on the way down the stairs.  The grapevines have taken over the front of the building, tendrils curling through the screen.  It is September and the weight of the thick leaves has finally pulled a gash open.  I fight the urge to touch the invading force of nature.

Dupont stops his descent and points to a first-floor door.  “I was working here when I saw Anna’s door.”

I see it is wide open and the empty threshold feels strange.  I wave my landlord on and take a deep breath.  Focus on Anna.  She’s friendly; we’ve walked back from the bus half a dozen times. The discord of the morning has me tense and when I follow him through her open doorway I feel the inevitable slide of fear down my spine.

“I know you don’t say it, why would you, but I know what you are.  I need you to take the case.  The police don’t get anything right.  She’s deserves more than that.”  Dupont spits the last statement out, white foam at the corner of his mouth from his perpetual cheap mint chewing.

Anna is dead, laid out across her tousled bed the blood dried and dark in her long blonde hair.  I tear my gaze away from her body, gulping at how fast the day has gotten dark.  “Why?  Why me?”

My landlord is agitated, unable to look at her or keep still.  He winces back and forth outside the bedroom door chattering, “someone killed her here in our place.”

“Call the police!”  I croak even as I hear the approaching sirens.

“Tia, please, I know what you are.  Just do me this favor.  Its Anna; its our home.”  My landlord swipes his mouth with a dirty sleeve and nods as if he’s decided for me.

Dupont darts out into the hallway to watch for the police, leaving me alone.  I’m not with Anna.  She’s dead, I’ve seen this before, and there’s nothing human in her cold and hardening leftovers.  No light, no smile, no breath, and no voice calling my name even if I hear it in my dreams and on my worst days.

I’m reeling and tug at my shirt, feeling like there’s a rope cutting off my air, unable to look away.  I fight to keep seeing Anna, to not let Maria’s face appear under her same dark hair.  I force myself to reason; my landlord isn’t trying to torture me.  He doesn’t know.  Dupont brought me in here to help him.  I take three deep breaths and think.

An inappropriate bubble of laughter pops in my throat.  My landlord thinks I’m a private investigator: odd hours, bad company, and admittedly too much drinking.  My friend from college is a criminal lawyer and helped the dude in 4A solve some unfortunate charges.  Cal also knows I’m always up for a drink.  And then there was Logan picking me up for late dates in his squad car.  He did have a couple of cases where my insight shifted everything towards the explanation.

Now I’m dodging into dangerous headspace, the worst symptom of unemployment.  I have nothing to do so naturally I’m casting around for anything I can do.  Like be a private investigator for my landlord in order to make up for two months of late rent.  Except there’s a dead body in front of me, and it’s Anna.  She is, was, two years younger than me.

Why would someone kill Anna?

I start looking around.  She was killed by a heavy blow to the back of her head.  There is nothing near her that could be the weapon, just throw pillows.  From the vivid image of her wound bashed into my mind, I’m looking for something heavy and just more than fist-sized.  Her one-bedroom apartment is hardly bigger than my studio and I stagger around looking for possibilities.

It occurs to me the killer wouldn’t put the murder weapon back neatly and nothing else is disturbed.  Also, I’m not a private investigator and I feel as if flood waters are closing in over my head.  The only thing I can see is that Anna was into Tarot cards.  One whole shelf is stacked with books on the subject with a beaten up notebook shoved in the corner.

I stop and breathe for a second before looking back in her bedroom.  Directly across from her bed, a Tarot card is tucked into a picture frame, covering up her boyfriend.  The Roman numeral VIII is etched at the top in gold and the figure below puts my stomach on ice.  A woman, blindfolded, stands in the middle of eight swords with her hands bound.  The illustrated sky is dark and foreboding.

“Get out, pretend you’re just walking by!”  Dupont appears, snatches my hand, and swings me into the hallway just as the police step up the front doors.  He hits the buzzer and leans on the doorway, blocking my view as I pretend to walk by.

I can’t solve the Tuesday crossword, much less a murder.  The only thought that will form is a blurry eyed memory of the crossword that stumped me a few days ago.  I have to calm down, stay calm so I concentrate on the first clue that stumped me, 23 down: Chaucer’s walking tour.

What kind of clue is that?  I rail inside my head and it has nothing to do with the crumpled puzzle any more.

It doesn’t work when I’m panicked.  I smooth out my breath and settle my face into a blank as I approach the police bottlenecked in our building’s tiny foyer.  I make it through the first set of squeaking doors and past the tight crowd scanning the mailbox names.  Then I’m outside and about to take a deep breath only to be stopped dead on the front steps.

“Tia Atwater.  I forgot you live here.”  Detective Larsen holds up his hands to block my way.

“She just walked past the scene, we haven’t questioned her yet,” a uniformed officer tells him.

“Perfect place to start.  Logan always thought she was a natural detective.  Almost a psychic.”  Then my ex’s old partner turns on me: “so you must have known what your break-up would do.  He got suspended, you know.  And now they’re transferring him.”

A tall, lanky man in a loose suit with a loose smile steps up to us.

Detective Larsen sighs.  “Meet my new partner, Detective Ramirez.  This is Tia.”

Ramirez smiles, this time at me despite recognizing my name.  “I just need to ask you a few questions before you go to work.”

Detective Larsen stops on his way in through the front doors.  “You got a job?  Case closed, boys, it’s the Apocalypse.”

I tell Ramirez that, no, I do not have a job.  I’m just heading out to buy a coffee.  He asks if I know who lives in apartment #209 and I’m honest when I say I only know her first name is Anna.  Then I can’t remember when I saw her last.  Off the bus, walking home, we passed on the sidewalk and she told me school was stressful.  That was maybe two days ago.  She’d mentioned a boyfriend before and seemed happy.  No, she wasn’t worried or scared and I have no idea if there was anyone who disliked her.  Our landlord loved her and checked on her often.   I’m just explaining how all I saw was Dupont standing in Anna’s doorway when Detective Larsen comes back out.

“Victim is Anna David.  Boyfriend’s name is Drew Thompson.  They’re picking him up now.”  He nods to Ramirez before pulling me aside.

“Something’s happened to Anna?”  I realize my eyes are wet when Detective Larsen frowns and loosens his grip on my arm.  I can’t help but reach up to my neck, an old gesture that doesn’t erase the cord marks I’ve seen.

“Anna was struck in the head,” he tells me because he remembers my past.  “It could have been an accident.”

That helps me fight off the dizziness of memories as I take a deep breath to spit out: “liar.”

“We’ll find out who killed her.”  Detective Larsen puts his hand on my shoulder, “Why don’t you sit down for a second.  You look a little pale.  Tia, sometimes we never know why these things happen.”

I slip out from underneath his concern and scowl, “but there’s always a reason.”

“And we, the police, will find out what it is.”  It’s a gentle warning, as irritating as a rock in a shoe.

Dupont’s right, the police will never get it right.

I force my grimace back into a blank face and fake a nod.  Detective Larsen steps aside though he has more to say and I hold my breath as I pass him.

Calm down.  23 down: Chaucer’s walking tour.

Pilgrimage.

It comes to me quick as I break away down the steps.  Chaucer’s walking tour is a pilgrimage.  They walk miles to see the relic of a dead saint, seeking favors, forgiveness, or God.  I walk away too fast down the sidewalk and wonder when I’ll stop.  It should be simple: all I want is a strong coffee and the truth.