Posts Tagged ‘murder


Fate Pays The Rent (Twenty-third Installment)

“How did we go from your toe-curling love of Mr. Gomez to commands from God?” Josh said.
“All the time I try to talk with Aaron about the building and how I want him to put in a good word for Mr. Gomez and all the time he is busy with his own work. Then one night I come here late at night and his door is a little bit open. The lights are off and he always locks the door so I know he must be in there alone.”
“Weren’t you worried about going into a dark office with a slightly open door?”
“Aren’t you listening, Powell? She was in love.”
“A little bit of light was coming through the blinds and I can see Aaron lying on the floor behind the desk. I think he must have been working and decided to rest here instead of going home.”
“Did you know he suffered from migraines?”
“Never mind. Just go on with the story.”
“I walk over to him and say, ‘I need to talk with you about Mr. Gomez and the cleaning’.”
“What did he say?” Gary asked.
“He didn’t say anything. He was looking at me because I could see the light from the window shining on his eyes.”
“Was he moving?”
“No. He was just looking at me and he didn’t move and he didn’t say anything. So I told him again. ‘I need to talk with you about Mr. Gomez and the cleaning.’ And he still didn’t say anything but he turned his head toward the window.”
“That must have been a good trick.”
“Then I heard a voice but I knew it wasn’t his. I looked around and there was just me and him in the office and I knew it must be God.”
“Because she has regular conversations with him out loud.”
Clement frowned at Josh. “What did God say?”
“He said to me, ‘If you love me and you love Mr. Gomez and you love your people, you must kill this man.’ I said, ‘Aaron, God is telling me I have to kill you to save the building for Mr. Gomez. What should I do?’”
“Did he answer that time?”
“No, he still said nothing and God said, ‘He can’t hear me because he doesn’t believe. You pray to me and I answer your prayers but this man doesn’t answer you when you are physically in the same room with him. I talk with you because I care for you but this man cares so little about you that he turns his head away when you speak to him.”
“Then what happened?”
“I said, ‘Aaron, why won’t you talk to me? I thought we knew each other but now you don’t even recognize me. Why are you looking out the window instead of at me?’”
“And God said, ‘He doesn’t look at you because he feels you are not worth looking at. He has no respect for you or for your people. You must rise up and kill him so people like him will learn to respect you and your people and so Mr. Gomez will be safe. When you do this thing, I will give you a new name. Your name will no longer mean sadness but miracle.’ God told me he would give me the name ‘Milagra’ and I would not be Dolores anymore because I made a miracle happen for me and for Mr. Gomez and for the Mexican people.” Her eyes were shining with tears and Clement realized she wasn’t feeling any regret for what she had done.
“How did you decide on the shovel as a weapon?” Buzz asked.
Dolores looked up at the ceiling. “I knew that if God asks you to do something then you need to do it fast. I remembered how he told Abraham that a sacrifice would be provided and I knew if he wanted me to sacrifice Aaron then he would give me a weapon. I looked around and I saw the shovel shining by the door.”
“You never thought about walking out the door and just keeping going? Did you hear anyone outside?” Clement was thinking of Jeff saying he had almost gone into the building but got scared and left. If he’d actually come in, could he have saved Aaron’s life? Would Dolores have attacked him too or could he have fought her off and called the EMS to counteract the drink Mari had given him?
“God said he would give me a new name and I picked up the shovel and went over to Aaron. Maybe I ran because when he came back with the shovel he was closer to the door than I remembered. He was lying there and the shovel was shining and his face was shining and when I saw his face like that I felt the strength of God flowing through my body and through my arms and a smaller voice in my heart said, ‘Look how his face is shining. You’re going to be sending him home to God.’”
“And then you did it? After the little voice said that?”
Milagra’s face was shining too but it looked as if she was lit up by a spotlight from the inside rather than streetlights on the outside. “I saw his face shining and I felt the power of God in my body as I lifted the shovel and I brought it down with all the strength of God. Then I saw his head sitting on the blade of the shovel and he looked like John the Baptist and I knew he was with God.” She took another sip of coffee.
“That’s a good story, Milagra, but I wouldn’t count on God being too happy with you,” Josh said. “Forgiving sin is one thing but I’ve never heard of him looking kindly on failure.” Milagra’s eyes widened and Clement thought she looked upset for the first time since she’d begun relating what happened. “Yeah. You see, you didn’t do what God asked you to do. You didn’t cut off Aaron Whittaker’s head. We talked to the coroner and he told us the spine wasn’t severed. You have to slice all the way through the spine for it to count as decapitation.”
“I did what God commanded! He told me to kill Aaron and I did.”
“Whether you killed him or whether you didn’t is something a judge is going to have to decide. Aaron Whittaker wasn’t ignoring you; He was in a diabetic coma. If you’d called 911 and gotten some people in here to help him there’s a good chance we’d be celebrating you as some kind of a hero right now. You might even get a city holiday with your name on it.”
“No! I cut off his head with a shovel!”
“No. I’m not sure whether I should say ‘I’m sorry to tell you’ but the fact is you didn’t. In order to cut all the way through the spine you’d have to be a lot stronger or a lot crazier than you are and maybe both. You haven’t saved Mr. Gomez any trouble either.” Milagra threw the coffee at Josh and put her hands over her face. “We’ll be looking into whether or not he knew you planned to kill Aaron Whittaker and if he was involved in your unnecessary mission to save his job. He may not lose any contracts he already has but I’m guessing it will be hard for him to get any new ones.”
Milagra wrapped her arms around herself and started rocking on the chair. “Oh, Mr. Gomez. Mr. Gomez, I’m so sorry. Oh, Mr. Gomez.”


Fate Pays The Rent (Twenty-second Installment)

Dr. Phillips filled three cups with coffee and gestured to the sugar. “I have milk too but maybe you’ll be a little hesitant to take things out of the refrigerator here.” Buzz helped himself to some milk and held the small carton to Clement who shook his head vigorously. “I have to say I take exception to all this I’m reading about this young man being decapitated with a shovel.”
“Why would that be?” Buzz stirred his coffee and leaned against a counter.
“Because it isn’t true.”
“How do you figure that, Doc? A man’s head is attached and then it’s detached. It didn’t happen by itself ergo he was decapitated.”
“But it wasn’t completely detached. It would be almost impossible to remove someone’s head with a shovel. There’s a very tough assembly of muscle and bone in the spine a person would have to cut through. They’d have to be incredibly strong.”
“What if they were just crazy?”
“Or on drugs?’ Clement added.
“It’s possible but that isn’t what happened to this man. His spine is severely damaged but it was not cut through.”
“So was he killed with a shovel?”
“I would say that having his head nearly removed from his body definitely contributed to his failure to continue living. Add to this the fact that he was in a comatose state which he was unlikely to emerge from without medical assistance.”
“A diabetic coma?”
“His blood sugar level was incredible.”
Clement took a step forward. “I’m pretty new to this whole diabetes thing so let me ask you- if someone had a migraine and was basically unable to eat all day or maybe he ate something earlier in the day and then he threw up-“
“A common situation in a migraine sufferer as it sometimes takes them more than one incident of vomiting to feel better.”
“And if into this essentially empty stomach they were to put a white chocolate mocha and some kind of goody made with cranberries and cream cheese?”
“Their blood sugar would skyrocket and they would go into a coma.”
“Making it very easy for someone to come along and almost cut off their head with a shovel,” Buzz put in.
“I would say so.”
“So, which was it? The coma or the shovel?”
“As I said, it would have been difficult for this person to emerge from the coma without medical assistance. The shovel did not remove his head but it did damage the autonomic nerves meaning even if he emerged from the coma with help he would be unable to breathe for himself.”
“Not to mention he’d have a hell of a scar where they had to reattach his neck all the way around like he was Frankenstein’s monster.”
“Yes, that too.”
Buzz patted the coroner on the back. “It’s been fun but we’ve gotta go talk with a little lady who used to call herself Dolores.”
“Ah, yes. The woman with the shovel.”
“Wait a minute,” Clement said, “How would you know that?”
“It’s very simple. My walls have ears.”

“Why do you keep calling me Dolores when I tell you my name is not Dolores?”
“Ma’am, we’re calling you by that name because that’s the name that’s on your ID.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what God told her it was.”
“Josh, could you please see if there’s some coffee around?”
“Yeah, sure.” Josh’s eyes widened when he saw Clement and Buzz. “Hey look! It’s The Napper.”
Buzz looked from one man to the other. “What? How’d you two meet?”
“Clement was taking a nap in his hash browns a few nights ago over at the Shari’s. He didn’t seem to be drunk or on drugs so we gave him a ride to the bus stop. What’re you doing here, Clement?”
“I knew him.”
“Who? The dead guy?”
“Good friend of yours? Were you over here checking things out the night we found you?”
“No, I only met him once and I was kind of looking around over here. He’s the ex-boyfriend of the girlfriend of a friend of mine.”
Buzz stepped forward. “Have you started asking Dolores any questions yet?”
“Not so you’d notice. Which is to say we found out her name isn’t Dolores any more and we decided to give you a call.”
“Josh, how’s the coffee coming?” Josh made a rude gesture behind his hand and left the room.
Clement and Buzz walked over to where Josh’s partner sat with Dolores. Keeping one eye on Dolores, the man stood and extended his hand to Clement. “We met the other night but it looks like there’s been a serious change of circumstances. I’m Gary Roberts.” Clement shook his hand and nodded to Buzz. “Buzz and I know each other already. How’s it going?”
“It’s going.”
There was a wail from behind Gary. “Why are you all standing around and making new friends? Doesn’t anyone remember me? I’m the one you should be talking to.”
Josh came in with three cups of coffee. “Gentlemen, may I introduce the woman formerly known as Dolores Aceveda.” He handed a cup to Gary and set another just out of Dolores’s reach. He set the third on the desk in front of him and began adding sugar.
“God’s work is nothing to be joking about.”
“God’s work?” Clement asked.
“Yes,” said Josh, “Milagra here believes she tried to cut this guy’s head off on orders from God. It’s been ages since God told a woman to cut a guy’s head off and even then I don’t think she did it.”
“I don’t ‘believe’ I was on orders from God. I heard the voice of God and did what I was told to do.”
“Why didn’t you just stab him with some scissors? There’s scissors all over the place.” It was Dolores’s office. They were sitting in the outer room and Clement could read “Bliss In A Basket” on the door with the second line “Aceveda and Davidson, Props” just beneath the first. Spools of ribbon hung from rods along one wall, their tails waving brightly whenever there was sufficient breeze. Baskets, large and small, were piled along another wall. The fragrance of the handmade soaps and lotions nearly blotted out the smell of the not quite stale but definitely past fresh coffee in the cups Josh had carried in.
Buzz grabbed two chairs, put one behind Clement and sat on the other. “Can we start at the beginning? Were you angry with Aaron Whittaker for any reason?”
Dolores sighed. “Is that cup of coffee for me?”
“It was, but now I’m afraid you’d throw it,” Josh said.
“Preventing me from quenching my thirst is the beginning of the torments I must endure for carrying out God’s words?”
“It’s not worth all that. Just drink it. I suppose you want cream and sugar, too.”
“No, I will take my coffee as black as your heart seems to be.” Dolores sipped the coffee then set the cup beside her.
“So, you and Aaron Whittaker had an argument,” Gary prompted.
“No, there was no argument.”
“You just walked in and cut his head off for no reason? ‘Evening, Dolores.’ ‘Evening, Aaron.’ Slice!”
Dolores sighed again and took another sip of coffee. She gestured at Clement. “I see this man around this neighborhood several times. I know all the people who work here so I start to wonder why he is here. Then one day he comes into the building- a friend called me and I was at the elevator and ready to intercept him- and he is wearing coveralls and pretending he works for Mr. Gomez. I know Mr. Gomez would never hire someone like him and he is lying about why he is here. Mr. Gomez had to work very hard to get this building to clean and I know people were not happy when he did so I have been waiting for someone to come and try to take it away from him.”
“But I never talked to Aaron Whittaker so why would you think he had anything to do with it?”
“Because you and he would stick together and try to take away the building. You are like the people who did not want him to have the building in the first place.”
“You mean we’re white?”
“I tried to talk to Aaron about the building. I tried to ask him to put in a good word for Mr. Gomez but all the time he was busy with his own work.”
“I don’t understand,” Buzz said. “Why is it so important for you to have Mr. Gomez cleaning this building? Why do you care who does it as long as they do a good job?”
“Is it because he’s Mexican?”
“She’s got the hots for him.”
“Josh!” But Dolores’s bronze face was turning pink.
“And he doesn’t know about it. Ha!”
“Yes, it is as he says. I love Mr. Gomez.”
“That doesn’t really explain why him having this building is so important.”
“I told you. He doesn’t know and she can’t or won’t tell him.”
“Why couldn’t she? Um why couldn’t you?”
“Because I work in an office and Mr. Gomez cleans the building. I was in an elevator in a building downtown before it was torn down and I saw him there and suddenly I was in love with him. I tried to forget him and they tore down the building and I thought I would be fine because I would never see him again. Then I heard he was trying to get the contract for this building and I was so happy because I would see him when I came to work. He would say ‘Hello’ to me in the hallway or when he came to empty the wastebaskets. He hired more people and he only came by once in a while but it was enough. Then this man came and he and Aaron were trying to get the building taken away from my Mr. Gomez.”
Buzz eyed Gary’s coffee enviously. “Did you kill Aaron Whittaker to protect Mr. Gomez?”
“I killed him because God told me to.”


Fate Pays The Rent (Twenty-first Installment)

“I thought you didn’t know this guy. I thought you only talked to him once.”
“It doesn’t matter. It’s the senselessness of the whole thing. One day you’re talking to a man about good and evil and Saul and David and the next day you find out someone cut his head off. The fathers go out to get food for their chicks and they come back to discover a bird ate them and it was a waste of time.” One of the little boys looked at their table and giggled. His mother, following his eyes, tapped his cheeseburger sternly.
“Okay, you’re scaring mothers and children and you’re starting to sound like Jeff. I’m not saying it isn’t hard to find out someone you knew has been murdered and I’m not saying you’re wrong to be angry or even scared about all this. But let’s figure out who did it so you can feel at least a little satisfaction on that count.” They chewed and swallowed in silence. KC declared that was the way, presumably answering an unheard question regarding his preference, he liked it. The little girl tussled with her older brother over a French fry. Their father said something low and decisive. The girl slumped back against the booth. “I can see why your family was disappointed because even when you’re not paying any attention to what you’re saying you still come up with something that makes sense.”
“I’m not sure if I’ve been complimented or insulted. What are you talking about?”
“Justification for killing someone.”
“In our society we usually accept that there are certain situations that excuse killing someone.”
“If they break into your house?”
“Yeah, in some places. There’s also self-defense.”
“Aaron Whittaker had a migraine and he was lying on the floor. I heard him sit up and if you’d heard the agony he was in you couldn’t be convinced he was capable of hurting anyone.”
“Or protecting someone,” Buzz continued.
“There again, I don’t see how Aaron could have been a danger to anybody. The man was in extreme pain. He couldn’t even reach up to the desk to get his own thermos of coffee.”
“And you’re sure it was sincere?”
“I don’t know. Can you fake a migraine? Women have been accused of faking things but I’ve always heard there was a purpose to what they did. What would be the benefit of holing up in a dark room and lying on the floor if you weren’t actually sick? I guess we could check with people who knew him and find out whether he actually suffered from migraines. Maybe Mari would tell you something if you promise her enough.”
“She’s someone else’s problem right now and I’m willing to keep it that way. Besides, everything we’ve seen so far has been consistent with the reality that he was suffering a migraine. He was in the dark, he was lying down, he was drinking coffee, he made disturbing noises when he tried to sit up, and he hadn’t eaten much all day.”
“Wait a minute, how do you know that?”
“Stomach contents report.”
“Could the migraine have been brought on by low blood sugar?”
“I’d have to check into it but my gut instinct says that even if it could be this one wasn’t.”
“He’d been diabetic for years, I’m guessing here, and he knew how important it was to keep his blood sugar stable.”
“Yeah, but cream cheese and cranberries and chocolate aren’t exactly low in sugar. Is that what you’d expect somebody to be eating if they wanted things to be stable?”
“No, but people who are diabetic do screwy things sometimes. I knew a girl who used to wash down Godiva chocolates with champagne.”
“Hold on. He said something about maybe having to excuse himself to throw up.”
“He was probably hoping he would. Migraine affects the nausea center of the brain. Sometimes the only thing that helps is to throw up.”
“So, we can assume he hadn’t already thrown up or he would have been feeling better?” The family was leaving now and as they were passing Clement’s table, the smaller of the boys mimed making himself vomit. His mother swatted him with the hand not holding the tray of garbage.
“You’re thinking that if he had been able to eat something earlier in the day and then he’d thrown it up the only thing left would be whatever he ate after he threw up.”
“Right. Which would be the cranberries and cream cheese.”
“I think it’s going to be pretty tough to figure out whether or not he threw up. ‘You can’t dust for vomit’ as they said in Spinal Tap.”
“How long does it take to digest cream cheese? Or cranberries?”
“I have no idea.”
“I’ve got another question you probably can answer.”
“Who called it in?”
“Who called 911? Who called the police or whoever and said ‘Hey, I found a dead body in this office’? Was it one of the cleaning people?”
“Tanner’s looking a little anxious up there. You wanna see if they have anything that passes for coffee?”
“Sure.” He came back empty-handed to hear Buzz signing off a phone call. “Tanner says they do but since we seem like we’re okay he wouldn’t recommend it. Vicky suggested a frozen mocha dessert type thing.”
“God help me. You might be wondering who that was on the phone.”
“Not really but if you want to tell me.”
“The person who called it in was Dolores only she’s not calling herself Dolores anymore.”
“Patience, my good man. All will be revealed. She didn’t show up for work for two days but she did call in on the second day and say she was very sorry but she was having some drug problems and she planned to go into rehab so please don’t fire her. When they did sit down and talk with her in person she had a very interesting story to tell indeed. Before we talk with her, however, we need to pay a visit to my old friend Dr. Phillips.”
“The coroner?”
“Yep. He has an interesting story too.”


Fate Pays The Rent (Twentieth Installment)

“We don’t have hanging in this state.”
“Well, being lit up like a Christmas tree then.”
“Or the electric chair.”
“It doesn’t matter. I’ve got no intention of dying for something I didn’t do and I don’t want to talk any more about it until I talk to my lawyer and he talks to somebody with the clout to keep me out of this.”
“Where is your lawyer? I can’t imagine what he was thinking letting you come in here and shoot your mouth off.”
“I told him I didn’t need him to come with me. He wanted to but I told him he didn’t need to because I was just going to be having a talk with my old friend Clement.”
“Then as soon as you saw I was gonna be here too you should have called him and had him come in.”
“Yeah, I should have. ‘Woulda shoulda coulda’ as my mother always says. But I didn’t. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t say anything I can’t deny later. I didn’t say anything you can hold me to. The only thing I said for sure is that I did not kill Aaron Whittaker. I don’t like the way this conversation is going and since I’m not under arrest and I have other things I’d like to do today, I would like to get the hell out of here.”
Buzz knocked on the wall beside the door and Mari was let out. Clement saw a gray-haired man come forward and take her arm. “She’ll probably get everything she wants,” Buzz said, when the door was closed.
“Why? How can you promise to keep her out of it when she might be the one who killed Aaron?”
“Because she’s right that the ultimate cause of death was determined to be decapitation.”
“But let’s say she really did do something before the other person came in and cut his head off. What if she did something that made it easier for them to decapitate him?”
“She’s an accessory.”
“What if she thought she killed him or thought she’d left him to die then someone else came along?”
“And finished the job.”
“Yeah, and she didn’t know anything about that until somebody told her. What if as far as she was concerned Aaron was dead or nearly dead?”
“That’s an interesting idea. If there’s any truth to what you’re saying then she must have been awfully surprised when they hauled her off the bus and brought her back and it wasn’t in cuffs.”
“How could she have done it? What’s a way she could kill him without really killing him?”
“Now, you’re confusing me. I gotta ask Sylvia something. You wanna wait out here in a nicer chair in a room that actually has windows?”
“Yeah, that’d be good.”
The two men went into the larger room and Clement selected a chair and a magazine. Buzz walked over to Sylvia’s desk. “Do we have the toxicology report on Aaron Whittaker? Also stomach contents?”
“It’s right here.” Sylvia shifted some papers on her desk and pulled a brown folder from the pile.
“Thanks.” Buzz walked back to where Clement was sitting. He opened the folder and scanned the reports. “She didn’t poison him.”
“The report says that?”
“In so many words. The tox screen was negative on all known drugs and poisons.”
“Stomach contents consisted of some walnuts, some cranberries, some cream cheese, and bits of a chocolate covered espresso bean.”
“That’s it?”
“You know, in a way that makes sense.”
“Aaron told me he had a migraine. It’s a little weird that he was in his office instead of home or somewhere more comfortable but maybe this was the place he felt the most at home. Or maybe it came on pretty quickly and he didn’t feel able to drive anywhere else.”
“My aunt had migraines that would lay her out. She couldn’t talk, she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t walk. The only thing that helped her feel better was puking.”
“Hey! You said your aunt couldn’t eat.”
“Yeah, so what?”
“So, Aaron Whittaker was diabetic. What do you suppose would happen to someone who was diabetic and who was unable to eat regularly?”
“Obviously their blood sugar would drop.”
“If it gets low enough you go into a coma, right?”
“Yeah. Are you wondering where the walnuts come in?”
“Aren’t you?”
“Yeah. I’m also wondering how someone who couldn’t drive ended up with cranberries and cream cheese in his stomach.”
“And a chocolate covered espresso bean.”
“That too.”
“There’s another thing I’ve been wondering about.”
“Can we talk about it over some coffee and a BLT?”
“Sure. I’m picking the place this time.”
“Any place but Anna’s.”
“Hey, I’m all for cleanliness but I like a little flavor in my food even if it does mean swatting a few flies.”
“You’re a cretin.”
“Yeah, it’s healthier that way.”

He took him back to Brad and Vicky and the A&W. Except it wasn’t Brad today; it was a red-headed kid named Tanner who was even less ept than Brad. Vicky, who was in charge for the moment, supervised the making of three BLTs before one passed her muster. Both men ordered root beer floats and Clement rocked Buzz by asking for a large Coney Island.
“I can’t believe you frequent a place like this. I can’t believe you’d eat something like that especially when it was made by him.”
“I’m sure, it’s okay; Vicky kept a close eye on him.”
“Oh ho, so you’re a regular.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. I came out here the other day after I had lunch at the school. I was hoping some real food would help me recover from the sloppy Joe I’d had at lunch but then I didn’t have the nerve to put any fast food on top of it.”
“Which explains how you knew the employees’ names but not why you’re sitting there with a giant Coney.”
“Let’s say I was feeling nostalgic.”
“We used to go to A&W on road trips when I was a kid.”
“You still see your family?”
“No. We aren’t what you might call close.”
“What happened? Are you the black sheep of the family?”
“You know what? I think it’s a little early in our relationship for you to be psychoanalyzing me. Usually that kind of thing doesn’t happen until two people have slept together which you and I aren’t gonna. I wouldn’t say I was the black sheep, I would say people were disappointed. They thought I was smart and they thought I was probably gonna do great things with my life and make the world a better place for all living things and it didn’t happen. I haven’t made the world a better place and what I do is sell chicken strips that are generally acknowledged to be nasty.”
“How do you feel about selling nasty chicken strips?” Buzz was smiling. “You said you had another question about Aaron Whittaker. You’ve done your part; I’m sitting here with a BLT. Fire away.”
“How did he get there? I didn’t see a car in the lot when I drove up around eight.”
“He could have walked over. He didn’t live far from the office. That’s probably one of the reasons he chose the new complex when he moved the office from downtown.”
“It used to be downtown?”
“Yes, when Whittaker’s father started the business it was right near the center of town. That was partly so customers could find him and partly because at that time that’s all the town there was. A few years ago the powers that be determined the old building could be more useful as condos and everybody had to go. Aaron decided to take advantage of the situation by moving into the new complex which was a medium walk from his home.”
“He couldn’t have walked there after the migraine started, right?”
“It depends on how they are for him. Judging from everything you’ve told me, I’d say he wouldn’t have done much walking if he could avoid it.”
“That means he went to the office before the migraine got really bad. Why? I mean, yeah it was dark there and quiet but why go to the office.”
“Not a place I would choose or many other people would for that matter. But, like you said, it was dark and quiet. It had familiar and comforting things in it, stuff that had belonged to his dad. Mostly, I’m guessing, it was the idea that it was a controlled environment. Nobody knew he was there or expected to see him there so he could be left to recover without anyone bothering him.”
“Right. Just me and Mari and whoever cut off his head with a shovel. Did you guys find out what those rocks were?”
“Some ochre, some malachite, and we’re still working on the blue one. Nothing worth killing anyone over.”
“Isn’t it funny how we say that?”
“’Nothing worth killing anyone over’. Like if he’d had different rocks in his office there would be justification for his being dead now. Like there’s a good reason for killing someone, for cutting their head off with a shovel.” Brad and Vicky had competed an order for a family of five and they slid the trays across the counter towards them. Each parent picked up a tray and the mother gathered the children around her and urged them, duck-like, to a table on the far side of the restaurant.


Fate Pays The Rent (Nineteenth Installment)

The room Mari, Clement, and Buzz now sat in was light green. It was otherwise indistinguishable from the blue one the two men had visited the day before. Even the coffee in the cups appeared to be the same.
“Mari, why were you headed for the Oregon coast?”
“Clement told me Jeff wasn’t acting right and I should get out of town.” She looked at Clement who nodded.
“Why the beach? Does that seem like a safe place for you to go?”
“What do you mean?”
“Mari, don’t most people who know you know how much you love the beach?”
“So why would you go there?”
“Because I never have time to go to the beach. I’m always working or I have to drag someone like Jeff along who hates being there and gripes the whole time. I figured that this time I had an excuse to be out of town and while I was going on a trip anyway I might as well stop at the beach.”
“You were going to Alabama by way of the Oregon coast?”
“Yes.” She stuck out her bottom lip.
“Mari, did you kill Aaron Whittaker?”
The bottom lip shot in like a spring-loaded cash register drawer. “You can’t just ask me like that.”
Buzz looked confused. “I can’t ask you like what?”
“You can’t just come right out and ask me if I killed Aaron yet. You asked me about the beach and now you have to ask me if I knew Aaron and if we were still seeing each other and if we’d had an argument and if there was any reason for me to want to kill him.”
“I know you were seeing each other and I know you knew each other so why would I ask you that?”
“That’s just how it’s done.”
“How it’s done where?”
“Anywhere. Everywhere. CSI or Matlock or Columbo. You can’t go right to ‘Did you kill him’. You have to ease into it. You know, lead up to it a little more.”
Buzz put his coffee cup on the table and stood up. He was just a little taller than Mari when everyone was on their feet but now he was the only one standing. “We’re not going to do it that way, Mari. Because this is my room and I’m asking the questions so I get to decide how things are done but also because I don’t know just that you and Aaron were still seeing each other. You’re not the first person I’ve talked to so I know a lot of things. I know about the Millennium Prize and that you had your eye on winning it.” Mari looked daggers at Clement but Buzz continued, “I know you’re smart enough to be working on one of the problems and to possibly solve it. Jeff knows too.” Mari put her hands on top of her head. “He doesn’t know you’re seeing Aaron but he does know you’re a lot smarter than you’ve been pretending to be. That’s one scam you won’t be running any more.”
“It wasn’t a scam. Yeah, I’m smart and yeah I hid it but you don’t get it. When people know you’re smart they expect you to act smart all the time. That takes a lot of energy and sometimes I just didn’t have it. Everybody does stupid things sometimes but once people know you’re smart they don’t let you get away with that.”
“They don’t let you get away with murder either. Even setting people up for murder takes more intelligence than most people have. Agatha Christie couldn’t pull it off so what makes you think you can?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Mari was squeezing her Styrofoam cup and nibbling the edge.
“I think you do. You’re looking at Clement and I think that’s a good thing. It’s only right that you finally pay attention to the dumb goat you intended to hang everything on.”
“What?” Mari stood up and she was nearly eye to eye with Buzz.
“Sit down. I’m asking the questions in this room.” Clement, started to intervene but Buzz gave him a hard look and he sank back into his chair. After a moment, Mari sat down as well. “You’re the one who told Jeff that Aaron had nude photos of you. You knew that Jeff would want them back and you knew he was too much of a coward to either confront Aaron or to go in and get them himself. What he would do is pass the job along to his good friend, the supreme gentleman, Clement. But Clement wouldn’t just barge right into the office and toss things around looking for the photos. Clement would be seen in the area a lot while he was researching Aaron’s schedule and determining the best time and the best way to go in. He might even talk with the man himself to get a better feel for how best to do this job for you. You knew all that because you did research yourself and you knew that not only is Clement a good friend but he’s a sucker for anyone in trouble.”
“No. You’re wrong about all of that. Your wife should be the one getting out of town because you’re the one who’s completely irrational.”
“I don’t think so. Why did you call Clement from the party at your friend Allison’s house?”
“I didn’t mean to. I’d been drinking and I guess I got kind of lonely so I called him.”
“If you were lonely, why didn’t you call your boyfriend?”
“Because he didn’t care about me the way Clement did. Clement wanted to know how I was going to get home and whether I had a safe place to be and Jeff asked me none of those things. I wanted to talk to someone who really gave a damn about me.”
“No. That’s a pretty story but I don’t buy it and I hope Clement doesn’t buy it either. You called to thank him for going after the pictures because you knew that, if he hadn’t retrieved them yet, your call would be just the spur to get him moving. You called him to help alleviate any doubts he might be having about the whole thing.”
“No. I was lonely.”
“You weren’t lonely; You set him up right from the beginning. He knows that now. He also knows there never were any pictures.”
Mari stuck her bottom lip out again and looked at Clement. “You must think I’m awfully silly to be asking you to get pictures when there weren’t even any pictures to get.”
“No, I think I was silly. Silly and stupid and pathetic. Only somebody who was all of those things would have been an attractive target for you. Jeff was in love with you and you didn’t pick him. He wasn’t desperate enough for your attention, I guess.”
Mari stood and walked to the wastebasket. She dropped the half-full cup into the can and a little of the coffee splashed up onto the wall. “You’re not so innocent in all this. You were always hanging around us waiting to see what would happen. Maybe you were hoping Jeff and I would split up and you’d get a chance with me or maybe you just got your jollies imagining what went on after Jeff and I left you in the living room at the end of the night. You’re not just pathetic; You’re also a voyeur.”
“This is entertaining as well as educational,” Buzz broke in, “but you still didn’t answer the original question of whether or not you killed Aaron Whittaker. You might as well have after all the work you went to covering your butt. You set Clement up and then he gave you an excellent alibi by telling you to get out of town. So, did you do it?”
Mari sat down at the table again. She leaned back in the chair and crossed her legs at the ankles. She looked at the two men. Low, muffled voices came through the wall from the room on their right. A phone rang five times before it was answered. “Did I kill Aaron Whittaker?” She smiled and shrugged. “The honest answer? Not really.”
“All right, now I’m the one feeling blonde,” Buzz said. “How does one not really kill someone?”
“It’s easy. Aaron was decapitated with a shovel, right?”
“That’s been established.”
“I didn’t do that.”
“You didn’t cut off his head with a shovel?”
“No, I didn’t. So if that was the cause of death then I didn’t kill him and whatever I may or may not have done before that is irrelevant. Right?” She uncrossed her legs, folded her arms across her chest and smiled again.
“Technically, that’s true. I’d still like to know what you did before that. Just for my own peace of mind.”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that. I probably shouldn’t have told you I might have done anything except I was trying to be clear.”
Clement placed his hand beside Mari’s but didn’t take it. “Mari, I’m sorry for what I said before but I was really hurt when I found out you were just using me as a cover for Aaron’s murder. Don’t you want to help us find out who killed him?”
Mari slipped her hand into Clement’s. She squeezed it and looked at him with soft eyes. Clement squeezed back. She increased the pressure and her gentle smile became a sneer. She dropped Clement’s hand. “Why no, Clement, I don’t particularly want to help you find out who killed my ex-boyfriend. Why the hell should I care who killed him? He was my ex-boyfriend, emphasis on the word ‘ex’. Yeah, we still saw each other now and then and he was okay to talk to about math or science or gadgets but I didn’t love him, I didn’t like him and I don’t give a rat’s hindquarters who killed him as long as everyone is clear on the fact that it wasn’t me.”
“But we’re not clear on that. A million dollars is a lot of money and you’ve already told us you were in his office last night.”
“No, I didn’t.” She stood and walked to the wall and back. “All right, maybe I did tell you that in a roundabout way but I didn’t have any reason to kill him. All right, maybe that’s not entirely true either but I didn’t kill him. Look at me! Do I look big enough to be able to sever someone’s spinal cord with a shovel? Especially somebody who was fighting with me?”
“You can do anything if you get enough leverage. Buzz, isn’t that what you told me when we were in Aaron’s office?” Buzz nodded. “And I don’t believe Aaron was fighting with you when he was killed. They found his body in almost the same spot he’d been in when I left him earlier that night.”
“Yeah? So maybe you killed him and it wasn’t a set-up at all.” She was smiling.
“Absolutely out of character and no motive. No, Mari, you are suspect number one right now.”
“Well, I didn’t do it. I didn’t cut off anybody’s head with a shovel whether you think I could or not. Maybe I did something else and maybe I didn’t but you’re not gonna find out either way unless I get some promises.”
“You’ve gotten a lot smarter since you came in and sat down.”
“Maybe I had to. Maybe a girl has to get smart when you’re talking about swinging at the end of rope.”


Fate Pays The Rent (Seventeenth Installment)

Chapter 6

“Come in, Mr. Powell. Coffee?”
“Yes, please. I’m a little nervous.”
“That’s understandable. Would it help if you called me Debra instead of Mrs. Lamb? It’s after school hours and you’re not actually one of my students.”
“It might but you’ll probably have to keep reminding me. I wasn’t raised that way and I still have a hard time calling my boss by his first name.”
Mrs. Lamb stood up. “Would you like to walk down the hall to the teachers’ lounge and get the coffee? We’d still have a chance to talk but you wouldn’t be sitting in the principal’s office. I take it that’s pretty stressful for you.”
“Isn’t it for most people?”
“No, your friend, Mr. Matthews, was very comfortable down here. He seemed very proud of having spent a lot of time outside principals’ offices.”
Clement stopped to look at a painting hung about waist-high: A row of brilliantly-colored tulips stood against a blue background with their faces turned towards a smiling sun. In the lower left-hand corner of the picture, in black, the artist had attempted to paint his name. A large drop of paint marred the middle of the name and eight legs had been drawn onto it with a pencil. Clement straightened and listened to a vacuum cleaner humming in one of the distant classrooms. “I’d like to ask you something that has nothing to do with why I came here today.”
Mrs. Lamb chuckled. “You have an interest besides school reform? Can we continue?” She gestured down the hall.
“Oh, yes.” He took two steps then stopped and looked at the ceiling. “Mrs. Lamb-“
“Oh, yeah. You got an impression of Jeff when you talked with us yesterday, right?”
“Oh, yes.”
“Probably not the most favorable one.”
“I would say that I’m glad he’s not a student here.”
They began walking again. “Did he seem really bad to you?”
“He seemed like he had a great capacity for mischief and he seemed proud of having it. I doubt he’s ever done anything ‘really bad’ but he appears full of himself and wants other people to think he could be ‘really bad’. Why? Did he do something?”
“Do the walls have ears?”
Debra chuckled again. “Not at this point in the day.”
“Then maybe he did something. I’m not sure. I don’t believe he did. The police think he did and they’re holding him and asking him a lot of questions.”
“If the police are holding him then it’s serious.”
“Yeah, pretty serious. Jeff has a girlfriend named Mari. Mari used to have a boyfriend named Aaron. I say ‘used to’ because they broke up and because someone killed him last night.”
“Where is she now?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Aren’t the police going to want to talk with her too?”
“They said they would but they have to find her first.”
“Where did she go? You must have some idea.”
“Me? Why would I know where she is?”
“You’re the one who told her to go away, aren’t you?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Mr. Powell, Clement, my job greatly resembles the job of a policeman; I have to be able to hear a story and size up the storyteller and determine almost at once whether or not there is truth in either one.”
“And that leads you to believe I know where Mari went? Why?”
“You like to rescue people. You like to help them. Maybe all those dinner rolls you were hit with made you protective. It’s hard to tell what it was now but you can’t stand it. Whether it’s helping Nick Henderson get his sloppy Joes or giving his brother a dinner roll- yes, I know about that- or helping this girl get away from her dangerous boyfriend you have to do it. But you didn’t think this one all the way through.”
“What do you mean?”
“Clement, did this girl have a reason to kill her ex-boyfriend?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Would the police think so?”
Clement poured the fourth packet of sugar into his coffee and stirred. “They might.”
“Did this girl have the means to kill him?”
“They think he was killed with a shovel that was leaning against the wall of his office. Anybody that got into the office would have had access to the shovel.”
“She could get into the office?”
“At one time she had a key. I don’t know whether she still had one last night or if she gave it to Jeff who gave it to me. But she wasn’t the only one with a key.”
“Was she the only one with an alibi that you gave her? ‘I couldn’t have done it. I left town hours before it happened. Ask Clement.’” She took a sip of her coffee.
Clement slapped his forehead with his palm. “And the only way to find out whether she killed him or not would be to find her.”
“She probably won’t be so well hidden that the police can’t find her. She may not even be sufficiently hidden that her boyfriend couldn’t have found her if he was free to put in the effort. From what I’ve read, women seem to have a very hard time getting lost.”
“She wouldn’t be lost at all if I hadn’t told her to get out of town.”
“Before you beat yourself up too much, did you still want to talk about you and the Henderson brothers and how everyone can learn and be friends?” She sat in one of the cushioned chairs and set her coffee on the table beside her then invited him to do the same.
“Yeah. I would still like to do that. I’d like that very much.”

Clement reached the top step of the number 12 bus, stopped and smiled. He had a bus ticket and a mission. His shoes were free of jelly. The man he was looking for was halfway back on the right-hand side. Clement slid into the seat ahead of him and waited to be recognized. They passed under a streetlight and a moment later the other passenger said, “Is your car broken again? You should get a new one. Where did you go the other night after the bus stopped running?”
“No, my car is fine.”
“Then why are you on the bus? You said you don’t usually ride the bus.”
“I’m riding it tonight because I wanted to talk to you.”
“I don’t think that’s ever happened before. I don’t think anyone’s ever ridden on the bus because they really wanted to talk to me and not because they wanted to make fun of me. Are you gonna make fun of me?”
“No no. I want to talk to you about riding the bus.”
“You have a ticket now. You got on the bus so you have a schedule. You’re doing okay. Where did you go the other night? Did you go home?”
“No, not right away.”
“Did you go to some lady’s house?”
“Not really. I went to Shari’s.”
“Shari’s the restaurant or somebody named Shari who isn’t a lady?” He laughed and patted Clement on the shoulder.
“Shari’s the restaurant.”
“Did you get eggs? I like my eggs cooked so you can sop them up with the toast.”
“I like mine like that too. Maybe we’ll go over there some time and have eggs together.”
“No. That’s a nice thing to say but we’re not going.”
“No. Probably not.”
“What did you want to ask me about riding the bus?”
“Were you on the bus last night?”
“Were you on this one? Is this the only bus you ride?”
The man laughed. “You’re starting to ask questions like me. I was on the 47 until dinner time then I got off and had a sandwich and an orange pop. Then I got on this one and rode it till it stopped running. Then I went home and fed my cat and put some clothes in the washer and some soap and pushed the button and went to sleep. How come you want to know what bus I was on?”
“Do you remember that building I was keeping an eye on the other night when I rode the bus with you? I didn’t say that’s what I was doing but you probably noticed it anyway.”
“Do you remember going by that same building last night?”
“I rode this bus from after supper till 3 am. I’m sure we went by it every time we were down that street. What’s your name?”
“You and I have been riding together, this is the second time, and you’re asking me all these questions and I’m asking you all these questions and I don’t know what your name is.”
“Oh. My name is Clement.”
“Okay, Clement. Good to meet you.”
Clement realized the man was still watching him intently. “Oh gosh. I’m sorry.” He held his hand out over the back of the seat. “I forgot my manners. I’m Clement and you are?”
“I’m Kenny,” he said, grasping Clement’s hand and shaking it hard. “You can take classes, you know.”
“In what?”
“In manners and how to meet people and how to act. I took them and my coach says I’ve really improved. Maybe you should take some if you’re worried about your manners.”
“Thanks but I won’t really have time for a while. I’m going to be busy helping a friend of mine.”
“I like to help people. Maybe I can help too. If I’m smart enough.” He winked.
“Yeah, well. One of us had to walk all the way across town and it wasn’t you so I think you’re the smartest one.”
Kenny laughed. “I’m retarded; I’m not stupid.”
“Yeah, you told me that before. It makes a lot more sense now.” Both men laughed. “Okay, here’s where I need your help. Last night when the bus went by that building around ten o’clock-“
“Yes? What about it?”
“When you went by around ten did you see any cars in the parking lot?”
“Did you see any cars there at nine o’clock?”
“But I was there about eight. You saw my car when you went by after eight, right?”
“But I was there. My car was parked in one of the first parking spots. How could you not see my car?”
“Simple. You can’t see any cars back there from the bus because the parking lot doesn’t face the street.”
Clement slapped his forehead for the second time that day. “Of course! The windows on the other side face the parking lot and the goat. Aaron’s office is on the street side and that’s how we were able to see the lights.”
“I don’t know anything about a goat but I just told you about the parking lot.”
“So anybody could have been back there. They could have been there for hours after I left and nobody would have seen anything.”
“Maybe if they were driving in or coming out when the bus went by but the bus doesn’t go by that often.”
“Wait a minute! The lights in the office. At eight o’clock when I got to the office the lights were all off and there were just the dim night-time ones in the hallway. Do you remember seeing any lights on in that office I was watching before?”
“I don’t remember for sure. Maybe later on when we’d gone by a bunch of times.”
“How many times? Three or four?”
“Maybe. Maybe more like four.”
“So about eleven o’clock?”
“I guess so. I think so. I’m not really sure. I don’t look at the time because I don’t have any place else I’m supposed to be.”
The driver looked into his rear-view mirror. “You doing okay back there, Kenny?”
“Yep, I’m all right.”
“That guy giving you any trouble?”
“No, he’s okay. He was just asking me if I saw something last night.”
Clement turned in his seat to face the driver. “Maybe you saw it. I was wondering if you noticed if the lights were on in the third floor center window of the new business complex.”
“I keep my eyes out for three things- cops, passengers, and bicyclists who’ve done all they wanted to do in life and are prepared to end things on the front of my bus.” He looked in the mirror again. “Oh, and I also keep an eye on my buddy, Kenny, to make sure nobody’s giving him a hard time.”
“He wasn’t giving me a hard time. This is Clement. We rode the bus together a few nights ago. He didn’t know where to go when the buses stopped and he had to walk to Shari’s restaurant.”
The light turned red and the driver turned to look at Clement. “You walked all the way over to the Shari’s by 164th and Mill?”
Clement sighed. “Yes, I did.”
“Wow, you’ve got some walking feet. You’re crazy to walk all that way but I got to admire your perseverance.”
‘Yeah, well don’t be too proud. I fell asleep right in the middle of my hash browns and bacon.”
“I’ll just bet you did . That’s a long damn way to 164th and Mill.”
“Can I catch the number 37 up here?”
“Yeah, it’s two stops from now. You want me to let you off there?”
“Yes, please.”
“You got it. Any friend of my man Kenny’s is a friend of mine. Ain’t that right, Kenny?”
“That’s a nice thing for you to say even though it isn’t all the way true.” Kenny patted Clement’s shoulder. “If you know you need to take the 37 to get where you want to go then you’re really getting good at riding the bus.”
“I like my car.”
“With the seats that heat up. Yeah, that would be nice. Clement has a car that you can push a button in and the seats get warm.”
“For real?”
“And you’re out here riding the bus.” The driver shook his head.
“I wanted to talk to Kenny.”
“I told him people don’t usually look for me unless they want to make fun of me.”
“That is true.”
“Clement has been nice to me but he said he might want to take classes on how to have good manners and how to meet people.”
“We can all use more manners,” the driver said. “This is you.” He waited until Clement was stepping down from the bottom step to say, quietly, “Kenny’s a good guy. I’m glad you came looking for him.” The door thwumped shut and Clement was standing alone in a cough of diesel fumes.


Fate Pays The Rent (Twelfth Installment)

Jeff took the mug from his desk, placed it in front of the coffee-pot, pulled the spigot and looked at the still-empty mug. Clement was just coming out of the bathroom. “So did you make coffee and then act like a selfish jerk and drink it all or did you just never make any?”
“I never made any; I had a Red Bull. Besides, why would I make any for you? You’ve been gone for hours. Where the hell did you go?”
“Where I said I was gonna go. I drove around and tried to forget about my problems.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah, till I came in here and found out there wasn’t any coffee. Then they all came flooding back.” He put his mug back on the desk, opened the refrigerator and the milk carton, swirled the milk in the carton and smelled it. “Geez, we need to get a new cow.”
“There’s another Red Bull in there. Go for it.”
“What did you do while I was gone?”
“I have been working. I talked to fifteen of our guys who ate lunch at a school today. Nobody ate the chicken strips and everyone they talked with about them cast their mark on the ‘nasty’ side of the ledger.”
“I don’t understand how that’s possible. We’ve been selling these things for two years. I guess I should say that I’ve been selling them two years. You’ve been selling them even longer. You must be really surprised.”
“Yes and no. I’ve been selling them but it’s not like I’ve been eating them. We didn’t eat them today and now that I think about it I can’t remember the last time I did eat any.”
“Yeah, but at trade shows-“
“We don’t eat them at trade shows. No one ever eats their own food at trade shows. I don’t even eat other people’s chicken strips at trade shows. I eat the white-chocolate and raspberry scones. I eat the chicken sausages. I eat the new kinds of apples.”
“Last time they had those Pink Lady apples. Wow!”
“My point is that we don’t eat our product on a regular basis so we have no idea how it tastes. Maybe they’ve been nasty for the last two years and we just didn’t know about it.”
“If they taste so bad, why do so many people buy them?”
“Because they’re cheap. The cooks at Chandler Elementary said they love the chicken strips because they get the kids to eat more vegetables.”
“Geez, I had the peas and they were like gravel.”
“You should have had the corn. At least, we could chew it.”
“Well, nobody told me to get the corn. That would have been a friendly thing to do, by the way. The little girls were too busy telling me about all the life-changing events their pets had experienced to have time to tell me what I should and shouldn’t get. If I hadn’t been trying not to listen to a dog’s hysterectomy, I wouldn’t have known about the sloppy Joes either.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“ So what are we going to do?”
“About what?”
“About the chicken strips? Are we going to keep selling them?”
“I suppose. Why wouldn’t we?”
“Hello? Because everyone thinks they’re nasty. Because little kids would rather eat peas that are like rocks than eat the chicken strips.”
“Maybe they’re not that way everywhere. Maybe some cooks know how to do them right.”
“And maybe I’m Santa Claus. How many guys did you talk to?”
“Is that fifteen schools then?”
“No, it’s probably about ten schools.”
“They were bad everywhere?”
“We don’t really know. Everybody else was like us. Some kid warned them off the chicken strips and they figured the kids would know. Maybe the chicken strips were fine at those schools and maybe they weren’t. Nobody wanted to push their luck so we don’t know.”
“I don’t think I can sell them if they’re that bad.”
“I don’t want to sell something that’s going to make a bunch of people sick.”
“Nobody said anything about making people sick. All anybody is claiming is that they don’t taste good. Maybe they just don’t taste good to kids”
“I don’t wanna do it anyway.”
“You’re the company’s conscience now? The guy who wanted me to break into a stranger’s office.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that any more either.”
“It’s over.”
“How what?”
“How did it get to be over?”
“It’s really simple. It’s over because I killed him.”
“You killed him? How?”
“Geez, Clement.” Jeff pushed his chair back, pulled out the bottom left drawer, shoved the files to the back and rested his feet on top of the rack. “I followed your advice and beat him to death with a shoe. I guess it was actually a boot. Is one of those Doc Marten’s considered a boot or a shoe? Anyway that’s what I used.”
Clement walked around the desk and shoved Jeff’s chair further back. Jeff’s feet thudded to the floor. Clement stuck his finger in Jeff’s face. “You lousy son of a gun! Why?”
“It’s just like you said. I couldn’t stand the idea that somebody else had been with Mari before I was. I went over there and confronted him about last night and he laughed in my face. I wrenched one of his boots off and beat him to death with it. Or is it a shoe?”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a boot or a shoe. What matters is that you killed another human being. You went over there and deliberately took the life of someone else.” He walked back to his own side of the desk and dropped into the chair. “You know what else doesn’t matter? Whether or not you want to keep selling chicken strips. That doesn’t matter because even if you don’t go to jail I can’t work with you any more.” He picked up the Red Bull can and rolled it between his palms. “You really did it? You really beat him to death?”
“Of course I did. You’ve known me for two years. Do you think I would come in here and lie and tell you I killed someone if I didn’t.”
Clement had dropped the can back onto the desk and was now rocking in his chair. “I don’t know. I don’t think so but then I never thought you’d kill someone either.”
Jeff sipped his energy drink and watched his friend. He counted under his breath. When he reached one-hundred-twenty, he said, “Clement, it’s all right.”
“Clement, it’s really all right.”
“How can it be?”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“You just told me you killed him.”
“I told you that but it wasn’t true. I just wanted you to lay off me. I didn’t know you’d take it so hard. Then when you did I figured I’d better tell you the truth.”
“You didn’t know I’d take it so hard? Jeff, he’s a person.”
“Yeah, but you don’t know him.”
“It doesn’t matter if I know him or not. What? Are you thinking if you beat someone to death and I don’t know them or I’ve never seen a picture of them then it’s fine.”
“I don’t know if I think you’re crazier now or you were crazier when I believed you’d killed him. I’ve gotta get out of here for a while.”
“Clement, can’t you see it’s okay?”
“How is this okay?”
“I didn’t really kill him. Nobody’s dead. We can go on selling chicken strips or whatever together.”
“How will we do that, Jeff?”
“Same way as always. Trade show booths, cold-calling, leads from the boss or from people we meet- the usual.”
“But we did those things as a team. Don’t you get it? How are we going to be a team now? How can I trust you?”
“You trust the people that make the chicken strips.”
“That’s different.”
“How is that different? For years we’ve been telling people the chicken strips were good and now it turns out that’s not true. For two years you’ve been thinking I was an okay guy and then for two minutes you thought I killed somebody and now you know that’s not true either. Yeah, I lied to you. For two minutes and then I told the truth. The Rockin’ Rooster people have been lying to us for two years.”
“Jeff, shut up! I have to get out of here and think.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Probably not today. I’ve had some pretty big shocks today.”
“It’s gonna be okay. We’ll find something else to sell. We’ll find something that’s really good, something kids like. Yeah, you wanna find a different job. That only makes sense. We can still be friends though. That doesn’t have to change, right?”
“Jeff, let go of my arm. I said I’d be back but you’re not helping.”
“Call me tonight. Will you call me?”
“Okay. Later. Probably. Okay, for sure. I just gotta get out.” Clement heard the heel of Jeff’s shoe scrape as it left the floor and returned to the desk drawer. When he looked back, both shoes were back in place and Jeff was reading the Business section of the morning’s paper.

Mari was waiting by Clement’s car. “You don’t understand how scared I am.”
“No, you don’t understand how scared you should be. You need to get out of town and you need to do it fast.”
“Why? I wanted you to talk to Jeff about Aaron.”
“Yeah well, it’s too late for that. Get in.” Clement walked around to the passenger’s side and unlocked the door. He looked back at the building. Mari reached across to unlock the driver’s door and he climbed in and pressed the switch re-locking both doors. Mari had removed a pencil from her purse and she was tapping the eraser end rhythmically against her teeth. “I might as well tell you that there’s no point in my talking to Jeff about Aaron when Jeff has already talked to Aaron.”
Mari dropped the pencil and covered her mouth with her hands. “I can’t believe he’d do that.”
“I wouldn’t go believing everything just yet. He told me that he confronted him about last night and that Aaron laughed at him.”
“I told you he would.”
“He said he lost his temper after that and beat him to death.”
“Then he said he didn’t kill him. That’s why you’ve got to get out of here. If anyone figures out what you were working on and thinks Aaron might have been working with you and you decided not to share or they think he was holding something over you, you’ll be the first suspect. That’s if he’s dead. If he’s not dead and Jeff believes there really is something still going on between the two of you, he’ll have a lot of questions for you. Just a tip: he doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a long conversation that requires a lot of patience.”
“So what do I do?”
“Do you have relatives in a different part of the country? Not like your parents but somebody you’ve never really talked about. Do you have anybody living somewhere Jeff can’t imagine you’d want to go?”
“I’ve got an uncle who-“
“No. I don’t wanna know. Take as little as you can stand to and get the hell out of town. Wherever you’re going there are stores and you can buy things. The more you leave behind the less suspicious it will look when Jeff gets home tonight.”
“How do you know this stuff?”
“I read. It’s what some of us do instead of going to parties and drinking too much.”
“I said I was sorry.” Mari picked up the pencil and put it back into her purse.
“Yeah, you did. Maybe I should be sorry too.” Clement took the two pieces of paper from his pocket and handed them to her. “Take these with you too.” She opened a zippered compartment, tucked the papers into it, and zipped it again. She reached for the door handle and Clement took her elbow. “Were you still seeing Aaron?”
“Sometimes. But not last night and not in the way you mean. A couple of times a week, he’d come by work and we’d have lunch in the food court. Two old friends eating and talking in a public place in full view of mothers and fathers and aunties and grandmothers.”
“Jeff likes me because I’m cute. He likes me because I’m goofy and he doesn’t have to pay too much attention to what I’m saying because it was probably on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or the cover of ‘People’ and, if he misses my saying it, he can watch the show tomorrow night or read the magazine and it’s all good. He doesn’t expect a lot from me and sometimes that’s nice because I don’t have to work at it.”
“But you still saw Aaron. Why?”
“Because Aaron is smart.” She sighed. “Was smart. He knew I was smart and he liked that about me. I’m not just a girl who likes shoes and acts like a klutz around lots of glass bottles. Aaron understood that.”
“So why Jeff?”
“Aaron wanted me to be smart all the time. That takes a lot of energy and sometimes it took more energy than I had.”
“You’re wrong about Aaron.”
“He didn’t want you to be smart all the time. If he had, you two would have stopped seeing each other when you hooked up with Jeff.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She sighed again and made a second attempt at the door handle. He pressed the switch to unlock her door.
“Mari, be smart this time.”
“Get the hell out of here.” He went to her side and opened the door. She ran to her car, stopping halfway between the two cars to blow him a kiss, and Clement was glad the only window in the office faced the brick wall.