Posts Tagged ‘shovel


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 (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 (Fifteenth Installment)

Clement followed Buzz across the hall to the door of Aaron’s office which was standing open. The shovel was gone. The chair he had sat in the night before while discussing the future King David’s motivations was broken and tagged. As Clement looked around he noted that nothing else was as he had remembered it either. Had he been in this room with the lights on? He and Aaron had talked by the streetlight filtering through the blinds. Yes, he had left a note on Aaron’s desk the day Dolores had caught him so he must have seen this room. “There was a painting on that wall.”
“Yeah, it was a painting of Aaron, the man who had this office, and he was looking very much like one of those old lumber barons.”
“The Robber Barons.”
“Exactly. I thought at the time that it was funny someone that young would be so arrogant. Maybe it was confidence.”
“You know anything about a painting?” Buzz asked a guy with a brush.
“Yeah, somebody found a big frame down in the dumpster. It could have had a painting in it before they tore it up.”
“Did you find out any more about what he did here? I mean, while I was out in the hall.”
“The guys found some of what looks like coal but also some kind of orangey rocks, some blue ones and some green ones. We don’t know anything about rocks so we’ll have somebody that does give us a report.”
“Why would they ruin the painting?”
“Maybe they took it down looking for a safe and it happened that way or maybe they didn’t find a safe and they were ticked off and vented their uncivilized feelings on the painting.”
“Do you think that’s why he was killed?”
“Nah.” It was the man with the brush. “Whoever did that came along after he was dead or maybe didn’t even know he was in here and found the door standing open and decided to take advantage of it.”
Clement remembered Aaron saying something about excusing himself and encouraging Clement to take advantage of his absence. “Where is he?”
Buzz came to stand beside him. “You sure you’re ready?”
“I’m probably more ready than he was.”
“Yeah, there’s that.”
Clement walked to the window, tracing the path he’d taken the night before. When he reached the side of the desk, he looked down. “Holy crap! That’s a lot of blood.”
“That’s what I thought, too.”
“Is that the usual amount when someone’s head gets cut off?”
“I’ve only seen one of these before now myself. I asked somebody else and he said he thought it was a lot. Maybe some people lose blood faster than others. Some people got high blood pressure and that doesn’t help.”
“It was the coffee.”
“He told me people should drink coffee if they have a migraine because it constricts the blood vessels and keeps the pain from getting through.”
“It might constrict your blood vessels but it’s also going to raise your heart rate and as soon as the circuit gets cut-” Buzz looked apologetically at Clement.
“It’s a lot more okay than I thought it would be. He’s not still here and that makes it easier.”
“No, they moved him out of here real quick as soon as they got things marked. The rug would be outta here too but I wanted you to be able to look around and see what you remembered.”
“So, this is where they found him?”
“That’s just about where he was when I left last night.”
“That tells us something then.”
“Either he was really attached to that spot on the floor and he went back to it after he got up or-“
“Or else he didn’t get up to let the person in because they had a key.”
“Who would have a key? Or who could get a key?” They were back in the hallway beside the window that looked out on the goat. Two men wearing coveralls and gloves walked into the office then one stuck his head back out.
“Okay if we take the rug now?”
“You wanna look around in there any more?”
“I don’t think I’m gonna remember anything else standing there. I’m not sure I’ve been any help at all.”
Buzz nodded to the man in the doorway. “Yeah. Thanks for waiting on it.”
“No problem. We’re on the clock.”
“Mari’s out of town. She made a copy of the key to Aaron’s office while they were still together.”
“According to who?”
“According to Jeff. He didn’t say she made more than one copy though and supposedly I had that solitary copy last night when I unlocked the door and talked with him.”
“Heads up!” The two men in coveralls had the rug hoisted on their shoulders like a pig going to a luau.
“You guys are fast.”
“Takes practice.”
“Like putting on a condom.”
Buzz watched them carry the rug as far as the elevator then turned back to Clement. “So, you had a key and Mari may have had a key. Did Jeff have a key?”
“Not unless Mari gave one to him too. Or maybe he made a copy before he gave the key to me.”
“Okay, you, Jeff, and Mari. Who else?”
“Mr. Gomez or somebody else on the cleaning crew had one or they couldn’t get in to clean this office.”
“You think they’d clean if they thought Whittaker was gonna be gone for a couple of days?”
“Maybe not. Probably not. He said last night that the crew was competent but not impressive or something like that. He also said they’d never get anybody better as long as Dolores was in the building because she was so protective of Mr. Gomez and minority rights.”
“Did Dolores have a key?”
Clement leaned his head against the cool window and closed his eyes. “She came running up to me as I was getting off the elevator. We talked about what I was doing here. She insisted that I talk to someone else on this floor and she decided that person was Aaron. We knocked on the door and he wasn’t here and then-. Yes! She has to have a key. She let me into his office and made me write him a note. I wrote the note on his desk so we must have gone at least as far in as that.”
“Let’s get out of here.”
“So that gives us you, Jeff, Mari, Dolores, and somebody from the custodial team who probably was further from the office than any of the rest of you.”
“Why, Buzz. I believe you’re a cynic.”
“I’m a skeptic; it’s not quite the same.” They were sitting at a long table that appeared to be several picnic tables shoved together and covered with a large piece of oil-cloth.
“Why are we having lunch here at Judy’s? I mean, I understand it’s lunchtime but why bring me here?”
“I like to have a big juicy burger for lunch; it gives me a good excuse for a nap or a coffee break around four o’clock. Somehow I wasn’t really in the mood for a burger today. Plus I remembered what you’d said about being in the neighborhood around the office and I figured you’d like to get as far away as possible. Staying in the same city, of course.”
“Of course. Restrooms are where?”
“Over there in the corner and they’re guaranteed to be immaculate until you use them.”
“I see my reputation precedes me.”
“Yes. You want a Caesar salad, no anchovies, extra croutons?”
“Did Jeff tell you that too?”
“No. That’s how I order mine.”
It took Clement longer than he had expected to get back to the table from the bathroom. Judy’s was the kind of place he would never have gone on his own. There was a gift shop selling canned seafood and T-shirts with messages like “Judy gave me crabs”. Old toys, clothes, and furniture hung from the walls and ceiling of the dining room and more items were tucked into the rafters. Postcards- from loving couples describing honeymoons at Niagara Falls or from car dealerships congratulating buyers on the one-year anniversary of their purchase or from visitors extolling the beauty of Ames, Iowa rested under the glass table-tops. Clement felt eyes on the back of his head and stopped examining a candy-apple-red Duncan Imperial yo-yo. Buzz was watching him and he nodded his head at the two salads and coffee.
“Wow! That was fast.”
“No, you were slow. It’s all right though.”
“I had one like that when I was a kid.”
“A red one?”
“Yeah. I didn’t realize they made them in any other color but I guess they must have.”
“Took me six months of wheedling, cajoling, and bargaining to get my mom to buy me one. Coincidentally, she gave in a week before my birthday.”
“Coincidentally, huh?”
“Did you have one?”
“Not like that. I had a glow-in-the-dark Butterfly.”
“One of those tricky guys.”
“You got it.” He waited while Clement added cream and sugar to his coffee. “I did some checking while you were gone.”
“Aaron Whittaker was diabetic. That’s why he had the Benedict’s Solution in his desk.”
“It couldn’t have been used for anything else? No mineral tests or anything?”
“The one and only use according to my people is detecting the presence of glucose in a solution. In this case, that solution was urine.”
“If he was diabetic, why didn’t he use one of those blood-testing machines? Your grandmother used Benedict’s but that was before they had the newer technology. Right?”
“Maybe Whittaker didn’t like needles. Some people are like that. My sister became diabetic while she was pregnant and had to stick herself in the finger about eight times a day. Her hands shook so much the first time she did it that I thought she was gonna stick my brother in law instead but she finally got the hang of it. I guess some people never do.”
“I’d have a hard time doing it. But maybe he had the stuff for somebody else. Mari maybe?”
“I don’t think so because his fear of needles might also explain the coffee.”
“What about it?”
“You said Whittaker was lying in the dark and he had a thermos of coffee. That’s a very old-fashioned way of treating a migraine. Most people would take some kind of pill.”
“I thought I heard some of those things can give you a heart attack.”
“Yeah. It’s rare but I guess it happens.”
“So maybe he wanted to be out of pain but he didn’t want to take a chance on being dead. Makes sense.”
“Yeah, but there’s other ways of dealing with a migraine. Frank, the gentleman with the very tasteful prophylactic comment, goes to the doctor and gets a shot of Demerol. It knocks him out for a day but if he’s got a migraine he’s not gonna be much use to anybody anyway.”
“But that’s a shot.”
“That’s right. It’s another needle Whittaker was trying to avoid. I think it adds credibility to the idea that he was the diabetic and that solution belonged to him.”
“Let’s say that’s right and he was diabetic. How does that get us any closer to knowing who killed him? He was killed with a shovel, right? That could have happened to anybody. If you’re gonna kill him by cutting his head off then it doesn’t matter whether he was diabetic or not, does it? I mean, if you knew he was a hemophiliac and you wanted to make sure there was a better chance of him being dead before anybody found him then cutting off his head would be a good idea.”
“You say that so calmly.”
“That’s because I’m not thinking about it being Aaron who sat on the floor and lectured me on good and evil. I’m pretending this is one of those cold case shows on TV and I’m trying to figure out who did it before the hour is up.”
“You don’t strike me as the kind of person who watches a lot of TV.”
“I don’t. I don’t watch those shows either but I’ve heard a lot about them. And I do love ‘Murder, She Wrote’.” Both men laughed and Buzz signaled for more coffee. The waitress refilled their cups and Buzz watched Clement put in the milk and four sugars.
“You always put in four sugars?”
“Pretty much.”
“Good thing you’re not diabetic. Do you like coffee?”
“I like caffeine.”
“Why don’t you have a Coke?”
“Because you ordered coffee.”
“Did Whittaker take sugar in his coffee?”
“I don’t know.”
“You said he had some in a thermos.”
“Yes, and he offered me some but I turned it down.”
“Did you see any food in the office?”
“No, but it was dark except for the light coming in through the blinds.”
“Did you smell any food?”
“No. I wasn’t expecting to smell any. Before you say it, yes I do know you can experience something without expecting to but I wasn’t expecting to and I don’t remember any.”
“Let’s make this the last cup. Your friend, Jeff, claims to have been in the office and to have left Whittaker alive. Maybe he saw or smelled something.”


Fate Pays The Rent (Thirteenth Installment)

“Why do you work here?” Clement placed a bottle of Diet Coke and a can of Red Bull on the counter. The Bi-Lo Market was the quietest he had seen it. There were no cars outside and besides himself and the cashier there was only the young man drinking a Liquid Charge against the ice-cream case. Clement had been asking the cashier, wearing a faded “Barkley” jersey over a black hoodie, but it was his friend with the drink who answered.
“Why you wanna know? You looking for a job?”
“Maybe I am. Is this a good one? Why do people work here?” He selected a candle with a painting of Saint Jude on it and put it on the counter beside his own drinks.
“What you gonna do with the votary, man?”
“I’m going to light it for someone who needs it.”
“Are you Catholic?”
“That’s kind of personal, isn’t it?”
“Because if you’re not Catholic then you should put that back. You can’t just walk in and buy stuff and start pretending.”
“God doesn’t listen if you’re not Catholic?”
“No, because he knows if you’re not Catholic then you got other stuff you should be doing. You can’t just take our way of doing something and do it too.”
“Why are you here?”
“This is where my friend is.”
“Right. He works here. Why are you here? Why are you drinking that in the middle of the day?”
“What? Are you my mother? How come you’re not at work?”
“Because I was at work and now I’m out looking for a different job. Do you have a job? Maybe I’d like the one you have.”
“Yeah, man, I got a job.”
“It looks pretty good. I think I’d like to stand around drinking caffeinated beer all day. What do you do at this job?”
“I do whatever needs to be done, man. I help people out. Why you jamming me up about the beer? You see a car out there? No, you don’t. Because I didn’t drive here. I walked here and I’m going to walk home.”
“What if you get a call and somebody needs you to work?”
“You know what, man?” He set down the can and moved toward Clement. “Maybe you own this country but you don’t own this store. You’re not the manager here. This isn’t your business. You’re a customer just like me.” He jerked his head at the counter. “Only sometimes he lets his friends be here, too. You don’t seem like a friend.” The silent cashier put Clement’s items into a brown paper bag and held out his hand. Clement gave him the money, dropped a quarter into the Humane Society jar, and put the rest of the change into his pants pocket.
“You’re right; it’s none of my business. You gentlemen have a nice afternoon.” He unlocked his car and set the bag on the passenger seat. He placed the can and bottle on their sides on either side of the candle to keep it from falling over.

The clock tower downtown was striking eight and Clement should have heard it. If he had been downtown, he would not have been opening the door of the third floor center office that belonged to Aaron Whittaker. The lights were off, the room was silent, and he knew from Dolores that Aaron would be gone at least one more day.
“Come in, close the door very quietly, and sit in the chair to the right of the door. If you turn on the lights or make any sudden or noisy moves, I will shoot you through the heart even though it would probably kill me too.”
Clement did as he was told. The voice, deep and melodious despite its violent warning, seemed to come from the floor behind the desk. “I thought you were gone.”
“You thought wrong or you were given incorrect information.”
“You’re Aaron?”
“This is Aaron’s office and I am lying on its floor. From this we can surmise that either I am the owner of this office or I am another wandering soul who broke in before you did and was knocked unconscious and am just coming to or I arrived early, found nothing of value and decided to steal forty winks instead.”
“I didn’t break in here.”
“No, that’s right. You have a key. Maybe you’re Aaron Whittaker and this is your office and I broke in. In which case, I should probably apologize.”
“Do you really have a gun? Would you really shoot me through the heart? Shall we turn on the lights and find out?”
“You’re much crueler than I was led to believe.” The location of the voice had moved as if the speaker was now sitting up. “Geez, that was a bad idea. I hope that if I have to break off our conversation to vomit, you will take advantage of my absence to remove yourself and whatever it was you came in here to get.”
“Why are you here?”
“I heard from Dolores- among others- that someone was keeping an eye on my office and I decided to find out why. You didn’t really expect her to buy that story about checking with the tenants to see how they liked the cleaning service?”
“Somebody told me I shouldn’t just come in here and I needed to have a shtick.”
“That somebody would probably be Jeff. I’m not saying it was bad in theory and it might have worked with someone less zealous about protecting minority rights than Dolores.”
“She’s a real terrier about it.”
“Yes, she is. Mr. Gomez should be glad to have her on his side. His team’s work is competent but not spectacular which is a good thing as we’ll never have anyone better for the job so long as Dolores has a space in this building.” Clement heard sounds of stretching then a thump. “Oh god. This is better and worse than I thought.”
“What is?”
“I know you’re probably going to kill me although I’m not sure why you haven’t done it already. It’s probably part of that cruel streak I’m discovering. I know I’m seriously inconveniencing you by being here when I wasn’t supposed to be. That’s probably a cruel streak of mine. But seeing as how we’re both here and both still alive, could you do me a favor and by that I mean do exactly as I ask you to?”
“Why not?”
“Stand up and take three large steps to the right. Take care not to mistake your left for your right or you will knock over my father’s coal-mining shovel and we’ll be back to the bullet through the heart scenario. Walk forward until you reach the wall. You can see the merest amount of light around the edge of the blinds and that should help. On the left-hand side of the blinds is a hard plastic rod hanging vertically. Grasp the rod, turn it smoothly but quickly to the left so that the slats pass through the evenly horizontal position and are tilted upwards. That will give you enough light, without rendering me prostrate with pain again, to locate a thermos on the desk. Please pass the thermos to me and return to your seat by the door.”
“Why would I do this?”
“Because you’re filled with the milk of human kindness? Because you’re curious about why all this is happening? Because you want to get close enough to see if I really have a gun or if you should just knock me on the head with the thermos, ransack the place and leave? I haven’t actually seen you yet and couldn’t identify you to the police so really any of those answers is a viable one.” Clement did as he was told. Aaron opened the thermos, took several gulps, and offered it to Clement who shook his head. “Why did you do it?”
“Maybe I’m curious. Maybe I did want to see if you had a gun. I didn’t see one but it could be under the edge of the desk or in your jacket. I’m not familiar with your condition but from the noises you made when you were sitting up I can’t imagine you’d have anything you needed real far from you.”
“But the coffee was on the desk.”
“You wouldn’t want to take a chance of knocking it over. Maybe you set it on the desk and then the pain got worse and you couldn’t get up high enough to reach it. I guess you’re pretty lucky I came along.”
The two men sat in the almost darkness. Outside, the traffic swished by; Inside, the wall clock ticked and Aaron swallowed coffee from the thermos. He pulled a napkin from under the blotter and mopped at the rug where some of the coffee had run down the side of the thermos onto it. “You ever hear the story of David?”
“You mean in the Bible?”
“Yeah. There’s something I never got about that.”
“The whole David and Jonathan agape love story?”
“No, David and Saul. The story goes that Saul used to get these terrible moods. I think he had migraines. If they’d invented coffee sooner, his life would have been a whole lot better.”
“How do you figure?”
“Coffee constricts the blood vessels and prevents the pain from getting through.” He took several gulps from the thermos. “If that stupid goat had eaten those beans a little earlier then things might have been very different.”
“So, what happened?”
“The only person who could make him feel better was David. He used to do it by playing his harp and most of the time it worked pretty good. Every so often though, and this is what makes me think he had migraines, Saul would draw his arm back and try to bounce some furniture off of David’s head. He’d just throw a chair or whatever across the room and David would have to dodge it. I guess Saul could really bring it.”
“Must have gotten tedious.”
“You’d think so, huh? One night they’re out late hunting or maybe they had been hunting earlier in the day and had gotten lost. David finds his way home first then he goes out looking for Saul and he finds him. Here Saul is, the king of Israel, and he looks like a nearly drowned cat: He’s cold, he’s drenched to the skin, he’s starving. And here’s David who has been fed and is now appropriately dressed for the weather. It was just the two of them, mano a mano. Imagine David all alone with the guy who’s made his life such a hell for so long. He knew he was gonna be king after Saul.”
“He knew this how?”
“God told him. God had already told him that so he was basically just waiting till Saul got out of the way.”
“Here’s David who’s all dry and refreshed and feeling good and Saul who probably wished someone would kill him so nobody could see him plus I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had a migraine starting by then.”
“And nothing. David didn’t kill him. I’ve never gotten that. Saul didn’t get it either. ‘Why don’t you kill me? Why don’t you kill me?’ David could have done it right then and put Saul out of his misery and been king that much sooner but he didn’t do it. Why? Because he was cruel?”
“Maybe because Saul was a human being.”
“Is that why you haven’t killed me?”
“Why would I kill you?”
“You’d make a lot of people happier. I’d be happier because my head would stop hurting and the room would stop waving. My landlord would be happier because he could charge more rent. Mari would be happier because she wouldn’t have to split the money. Your friend, Jeff, would be happier because he’d never have to worry about me and Mari getting back together. By now, who knows if even you wouldn’t be happier if I was dead.”
“If Mari, didn’t have you she’d resign herself to life as an airhead. If Jeff didn’t have you, he’d find someone else who’d been with Mari to hate. If I kill you, I wouldn’t make anyone happier but you. I think you’re tired of this whole mess.”
“So you’re going to be like David.”
“Somebody probably will kill you but it’s not going to be me. It’s none of my business. I didn’t even know you’d be here today.”
“That’s the perfect time to kill me- when everyone thinks I’m out of town. They wouldn’t even be expecting to see me for at least another day.”
“I told you it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m not looking to kill anybody; I’m just here for the pictures of Mari.”
“The pictures?”
“The naked photos you took of her while she was asleep. Somebody told me you took them and they’re afraid you’re going to post them to be rated on the Internet.”
“That somebody would be Jeff again.”
“Having met you I don’t disbelieve him for a second. That seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d do, anything to keep torturing him.”
“If you came here for the pictures, you’re in for a big disappointment because there aren’t any.” Clement took a step back. “You’re not surprised. You’ve had doubts from the beginning about whether or not there were any photos. Just like you’ve had doubts about how tightly-wrapped your friend Jeff is.”
“Let’s suppose you’re right. Why would he send me over here and why would I come?”
“Why he sent you over here should be obvious. So you’d be seen in the area, so people would recognize you, so if anyone did happen to kill me and the men in blue came around with your picture the neighbors would say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s been hanging around for weeks.’ Why you came may be less obvious- to you anyway. You came because you are that biggest of saps- a friend- and you are a person who wants to believe. You want to believe that everything works for the best in this best of all possible worlds and a cord of goodness runs through humanity. You want to believe that Mari would never deliberately hurt Jeff. You want to believe that Jeff is a little high-strung but not a psychopath. You want to believe that women, including Mari, are essentially decent but confused and that children are not evil but misunderstood and unchallenged.”
“You’re wrong.”
“What you don’t want to believe that is true is some children are misunderstood and unchallenged but others are born with a tendency to do bad things just like some people are born addicted to alcohol. Mari chooses to hurt Jeff. She does it because he leaves the cap off the toothpaste, because he drops wet towels on the floor, because he lets the $25 a bottle conditioner run down the drain, or does a million other bad things; most women don’t need the box score to see who’s up and who’s down. Jeff is not only high-strung, he’s one of those kids who was born ‘bad’. He’s high-functioning but nuts and it’s that unpredictability that keeps women like Mari interested.”
“What about you? What’s your secret?”
“My secret isn’t so much about me as it is about you. See, no matter how much you deny it- even to yourself- you’d like to kill me because I make you question one of your very biggest beliefs.”
“Which is?”
“You should know. You want to believe that people are either good or bad. Maybe you think I should die for my sins and maybe you don’t but you can’t convince me or yourself that I haven’t sinned. I’ve made the people you care about unhappy and that makes me bad. But you were right before: I give Mari someone to talk with about math and science and something other than the Hollywood gossip and that makes me good. If Jeff didn’t have me to keep track of, he’d spend a lot of energy and money looking for one of Mari’s previous boyfriends to watch. He might even lose his job because he was working so hard on this side project. I’m near by and I keep in touch with Mari which gives him a close target and easily accessible information. I’m keeping his mind active- no doubt contributing to the prevention of Alzheimer’s- and helping him stay employed and that also makes me good. Probably even Saddam Hussein once helped a little old lady cross the street.”
“I won’t believe that.”
“You claim to believe that hitting people with buttered rolls is wrong and yet you gave a roll to a child with a reputation for launching them.”
“How do you know that?”
“Jeff talks to Mari and Mari talks to me. You also say you want to get the photos for Jeff and Mari so they’ll have peace of mind when the real reason is you love Mari and you’re hoping if you do this she’ll get wise about Jeff and realize you’re a much better person.”
“That’s going too far!” Clement brought his fist down on the desk.
Aaron winced but continued to look Clement in the eye. “Really? So do something about it. Why don’t you kill me and make everyone happier and make the world a better place? Dolores says that’s everybody’s job, right?”
“You may be right about Jeff and Mari. Hell, maybe you’re even right about me but you’re the one who was born bad. If I kill you then you win and whoever put in all the work to set me up wins too. I refuse to die so the two of you can win especially when I don’t care about you enough to kill you.” Clement took his keys out of his pocket and walked to the door.
“You’re not as good as you think you are. Nobody is.”
“Maybe not. But I’m not bad either and I’m not a sap.” He gave the shovel beside the chair a hard kick. The handle slid down the wall until the blade clanged dully on the carpeted floor. Aaron chuckled and as Clement was pulling the door closed he heard the warm voice say, “We’ll see.”


Fate Pays The Rent (Seventh Installment)

“Then let’s get going. If he’s leaving early, he should be out of there soon and the faster we get in there and get out the better I’ll feel.”
“That’s not what she said.” Jeff started the car again and rejoined the traffic. The few people who had stopped to watch the argument saw the show was over and started moving along the sidewalk again.
“I’m serious, Jeff. I’ve seen this neighborhood at night and I don’t want to do it again. Now what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to cruise through the parking lot and see if there are any other offices in that building.”
“Yes, there are.”
“So, what else is on the third floor?”
“Why are you asking me these questions? I know the answers; I’m just curious why you don’t know the answers. Did you check any of this out before you sent me over here last night?”
“You didn’t, did you? How do you know there is a parking lot?”
“Well, Mari told me.”
“Right. Mari gave you a key. Mari told you the guy’s schedule. Mari gave you the lay-out. How do you know Mari doesn’t want to kill this guy and she’s sending you over here or sending me over here so we’ll be the saps standing over the body when the cops get here?”
“What the hell is wrong with you? You accuse me of wanting to kill this guy and you badger me until I admit it and now you’re saying maybe my girlfriend is the one that wants to do it and then she wants to be able to pin it on me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m still full of adrenaline from last night or maybe it’s being over here again that’s making me squirrelly. I told you a kid threw grape jelly at me? I was standing at that bus stop we just passed.”
“How did he get that close?”
“Why would you let someone get close enough to you to throw grape jelly?”
“He didn’t walk up, idiot. He was in a car. One of the other young men from the store was probably driving- although I didn’t really look at the car -and the passenger put the window down and threw one of those little plastic things of grape jelly at me.”
Jeff started laughing hard. “You were drive-by jellied. Oh my gosh, I can’t stand it.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have thought it was funny if it happened to you. You’d be whining about how it would never come out of your Air LeBron sneakers. I thought I’d gotten all the jelly off mine but-” Clement lifted his right foot and removed a scrap of paper from the bottom of his shoe. “This isn’t your writing.”
“Probably something Mari dropped. She’s always leaving stuff in the car. You know how women are. Ha. Ha. Ha.” He winked dramatically at Clement. “Let me see it.”
“You’re driving. We’re almost there; you can see it in the parking lot.”
“Describe it. What is it? A shopping list? Not a phone number?”
Clement turned the paper around in his hands. He slid his glasses down his nose then propped them on top of his head. “Is she building a beehive?”
“Anybody in her family keep bees?”
“Why? Is this it?”
“The building? Yeah.”
“You really have never been here before, have you? I was right.”
“Are we starting that again? Because I thought we were getting along okay.”
“Park in one of these first spaces. Not the handicapped spot. Holy crap. Pull into number eight.”
Jeff did as he was told. He shut off the car, slid his seat back and turned to Clement. “Okay, let me see this beehive.” Clement handed the paper to Jeff. “It’s not a beehive; it’s a stop sign.”
Clement took the paper back and rotated it again. “No, it isn’t. A stop sign is an octagon. It has eight sides. This is a hexagon which means it has six sides. That’s why it looks like a beehive. What does this say?” He held the paper out to Jeff. “I don’t have my reading glasses.”
“I can read it but it doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just tell me what it says.”
“It says, ‘Must be greater than equilateral’. What the hell does that mean?”
“Well, if I remember it right ‘equilateral’ is a kind of triangle. That isn’t a triangle on that paper though.”
“I wonder why she copied this down? There’s some other lines on here too.”
“Just put it in your pocket. What time is it?”
“5:32. He should already have left to get his hair cut.”
“So, before we were so rudely interrupted by the fact that you’d never been here before and had no idea what it was like, we were discussing the plan. What are we going to do if I go in and he’s there because he decided his fingers were flexible enough and he wanted to adopt a slightly shaggier look? And, if I go in and he’s not there, where are we going to meet? And when?”
“Geez, don’t you ever read those Bernie Rhodenbarr novels~? You look at the directory to see what other places are on the third floor. You push the buzzer to get let in. If he answers, you say, ‘Oh gosh. I am so sorry to bother you. I thought I pushed the buzzer for Clarinda’s Flowers’.”
“You wouldn’t put a flower shop on the third floor. Flower shops depend on foot traffic and impulse buying. Nobody’s gonna see a bouquet and think they gotta have it if it’s on the third floor.”
“It doesn’t matter what it is. That’s what you say. ‘Oops.’”
“And what if there’s no buzzer to get in? What if he has the lights off because he’s just closing up or because he was up half the night riding the bus and decided he needed a nap before he went home?”
Jeff reached into the back seat. “I thought of that. I got you a little something.”
“Why, honey! How did you know I didn’t already have a pair of gray coveralls at home?”
“I took a chance.”
“What am I supposed to do with these?” Clement turned to look over the back of his seat. “I don’t see a mop and bucket back there. I’m assuming I’m supposed to look like a custodian. Although I haven’t seen many white, male custodians my age.”
“That’s the beauty part, man. You’ve got a tie on. You’re not a custodian. You’re a custodial supervisor. You’re going around to see what the needs of the tenants in this building are and whether or not they feel they’re being met.”
“This is too much. I’d rather just go up there, knock on the door, and ask what time ‘Pushing Daisies’ is on because the dog ate my TV Guide.”
“You gotta have a shtick. Bernie never goes in as just Bernie. He’s always a preppy or a businessman or a dog walker or an art collector. You should read those.”
“Yeah. I am not taking up burgling. Remember our conversation about that yesterday?”
“Yeah, I remember it. I just thought it might help you if you thought you were somebody else.”
“Method burgling.”
“Kind of. Yeah.”
Clement took off his jacket and laid it carefully on the backseat, putting the arms together and pressing a crease down the center of the spine. “Down the street about a quarter of a mile is a Piggly Wiggly~. Next to the Piggly Wiggly is Anna’s Burgers. If I go in and he isn’t there, I will meet you at Anna’s in forty-five minutes.” “The Piggly Wiggly is eight blocks from here.”
“You said ‘a quarter of a mile’. That would only be five blocks but the Piggly Wiggly is really eight.”
“Do you know where the Piggly Wiggly is? You saw it on our way here?”
“Then it doesn’t really matter how many blocks you have to drive to get there, does it? What matters is that you get there and that as soon as I can- but hopefully in less than forty-five minutes- I will meet you next door to there at Anna’s. All right?”
“I guess. But what happens if you’re not there in forty-five minutes?”
“Then you wait forty-six minutes.”
“How long do I keep waiting? I mean, Mari’s gonna wonder where I am.”
“You’re doing this for Mari, remember?”
“Then you wait.”
“What if the cops show up?”
“Am I in the back of the car?”
“Then you sit there and pretend like you’re eating a hamburger. Then you pretend like you’re drinking a milkshake and eating a sundae and however many other things they sell until I get there.”
“I’m really not very comfortable with this plan. It seems like I’m left just hanging out there. I’m all alone. Anyone at all could show up. Somebody could ask me what the hell I’m doing there.”
“You tell them you’re eating a hamburger. You wanna go in and look for the phantom pictures?”
“I can’t.”
“Then you go eat a hamburger. What the hell is this?” Clement had climbed into the backseat, where there was not much more room, to take off his jacket and slip on the coveralls.
“It’s a shovel.”
“I can see it’s a shovel. Maybe a better question would be ‘Why the hell is this?’ As in why the hell is there a shovel in the back seat of your car?”
“I dunno. A guy gave it to me.”
“When you were just driving around or you were stopped at a red light or what?”
“I was walking. It was lunchtime and I was walking by an office building where they were doing some landscaping. A guy was digging holes and putting bushes in and the handle on his shovel broke.”
“And instead of throwing it away-“
“He gave it to me. ‘Geez, the cheap crap they give me to work with! Hey you, you want a shovel?’ I said, ‘Sure’ and I put it in the car and it’s been there ever since.”
“Well, if you can’t bring yourself to throw it away at least don’t keep it in the back seat of the car.”
“Why not?”
“It’s bad luck.”
“Who says?”
“What do you mean? Everybody says. It’s one of those Old World superstitions. Besides, if I’d sat on it we’d be moving this whole party to the emergency room.” Clement stretched out on the front seat and zipped the coveralls to several inches below the knot of his tie.
Jeff nodded approvingly. “You look good. You could really pass for this guy. Bernie would be proud.”
“Let’s just do this already. You remember the plan?”
“Yeah yeah.”
Clement got out, smoothed down his coveralls and started walking to the building. A woman was just coming out the door and she smilingly held it open for him. Then she saw his tie, her eyes widened, and she pulled out her cell phone. By the time the doors of the elevator opened on the third floor, another woman came flying towards him. “Good evening, ma’am. I’m from the custodial company and I’m just checking in to see how you feel our company is addressing your needs for cleanliness.”
“No no no! Affirmative action! Affirmative action!”
“Excuse me?”
“This is not your building. Mr. Gomez has this building. Mr. Gomez bid for this building fair and square and he won it. You can’t take this building away from him! We won’t let you.”
“You don’t understand. I work for Mr. Gomez. I’m not taking the job away from him; I’m doing a job for him. I’m just going around to talk with our clients to see-“
“No no. Mr. Gomez didn’t hire anybody that looks like you. Mr. Gomez only hire the Mexican people. You are a spy. You’re trying to take the building away from Mr. Gomez.” Clement knew he should leave and preferably at a run but he was too far into the role and he now hated this unseen but heartily defended Mr. Gomez.”
“If Mr. Gomez wouldn’t hire anyone that looks like me then he shouldn’t have this building.”
“I knew it. You want to take his building away.”
“If he’s only hiring Mexicans, he’s practicing discrimination himself and that’s not affirmative action.”
“Yes, because the white people always get the jobs.”
“No, they don’t. Mr. Gomez refusing to hire white people is racist.”
“Mr. Gomez is not a racist. Mr. Gomez is a good man. His people keep our building very clean. They keep it cleaner than the people who did it before. Always I would find dust on top of the door frames and the wastebaskets were only emptied every other day. If someone puts a banana and a yogurt in the garbage and it sits there for two days you can’t get the smell out of the office.”
“No dust on the door frames and the wastebaskets smell great. Okay, thanks.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve learned what I needed to and now I can go back and report that Mr. Gomez and his workers are doing a bang-up job.”
“But you only talked to me.”
“That’s right.”
“You didn’t talk to anyone else on this floor.”
“No, I don’t need to talk to everyone. I just need a sampling of opinions and you think they’re doing a great job and that makes me very happy to hear.”
“I think you should talk to the man in this office over here.”
“Because he was here when I moved in and maybe he can tell you something more.”
“I don’t need anything more. They just wanted to know how things were going.” Clement backed a step toward the elevator.
“And you should talk to him because I don’t believe you.” She closed the gap Clement had opened and seized his left arm. “I think you are a spy who is trying to take away the building from Mr. Gomez. I want other people to see you so when I talk to Mr. Gomez and the people who give out contracts then they know I’m not crazy to think someone like you would do this.”
“It’s quite all right. I can go see this man on my own although I had heard he’d already left for the day. I’ve taken up enough of your time and I’m sure you’d like to be able to go back to your work and close up for the day.” Clement tugged at his arm but not very hard.
“My job is making sure the world stays a fair place for people like Mr. Gomez. That’s everybody’s job.”
“I’ve explained that and explained that.”
“I still don’t believe you.” Her constant pressure on his arm and her stubbornly forward steps had moved the two of them further down the hall.
Clement took a deep breath and slowly blew it out. They were now outside the door of “third floor center”. “You know there’s such a thing as kidnapping.”
“Keeping someone against their will. Taking them somewhere they don’t want to go.”
“You want to call the police and file charges? I’ve got a phone in my office or I can ask someone to bring my cell phone out here in the hall.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to file charges. I just think you should know about it.”
“Okay, now I know.” She raised her hand to knock and Clement knew there was nothing further he could say that might be useful. Maybe Mari’s former boyfriend wouldn’t be in. Maybe he would be more trusting than this woman and would reassure her enough to let Clement go. Even if he wasn’t there was very little they could do this late in the day. He hadn’t broken into the building; he’d been let in. He hadn’t assaulted anyone. That kept the cops out of it. If they called the custodial company, they wouldn’t get an answer and by morning, when the voicemail was listened to and returned, he’d be miles away.