I got up early the next morning and drove to Irene’s apartment, which was on Malden right above Gracie Cemetery. It was right on the edge of Uptown. Not a great neighborhood. I parked Harker’s car on the cemetery side of Montrose.
Gracie Cemetery wasn’t one of my favorite places; I’d killed a man there once. I told myself I wasn’t there for a trip down memory lane and, even if I were, that wasn’t a lane I should go down.
When I found Irene’s building, it was a grand old brick apartment house, three stories tall and covering all of the lot from Malden back to the alley. It had originally been six apartments, but I walked up to the front door and saw there were twelve names on the modern intercom. Using the key Irene had given me, I opened the door and stepped into the lobby. Beyond it was the stairwell. As soon as I stepped inside, I noticed there were four doors on the first floor, and presumably the same on the floors above. It looked like the building had been divided at some point.
Irene’s apartment was on the third floor. The railing was on the right, which lately hadn’t been much fun for me since it was my right arm in the sling. Slowly, I climbed the three flights of stairs. It was kind of stupid; I didn’t need to hold onto a railing. I wasn’t decrepit. It’s just one of those things you get used to, resting a hand on the railing as you climbed stairs. It was stabilizing—something most thirty-six-year-olds never had to think about.
On the third floor, I walked over to the door marked A. It was on the right at the front. Slipping the key into the deadbolt, I turned it and didn’t encounter any resistance. Normally, you could feel the bolt moving out of its slot, hear it if you listened. I reached down with my left hand and turned the doorknob. The door opened. It hadn’t been locked. I was sure of it.
I leaned in and said, “Hello?”
When no one replied with a friendly, “I’m burglarizing this apartment, just give me another few minutes,” I stepped inside. I was standing in a decent-sized room that had a sunporch to my left and a narrow room on my right, which was part kitchen, part dining room. I opened a door to what I thought might be a closet and found a cramped bathroom with a shower.
The place was messy, but I couldn’t tell if someone had been in there making a mess or if the mess was Irene’s. Given the shape of the apartment she was staying in at Two Towers, I’d say it was possible the mess was hers. The stale odor of cigarettes hung in the air, making me quiver as I longed to light up and contribute to the stink.
I stood there a minute and realized something I hadn’t been expecting to realize. My gut said Irene hadn’t seen anything real, that she’d imagined the whole thing. But the door hadn’t been locked. If someone had been in her apartment, that changed things. It could be a coincidence, but I doubted it. And I doubted it more as I looked around.
There were pocket doors between the sunporch and the living room. Irene had put a bed onto the porch and covered the windows with purple velvet drapes. The living room had a big mohair sofa that was probably fifty years old, a wooden rocking chair, a large table with just one chair, a portable record player and a stack of albums. There was no TV that I could see, which left out the possibility that the murder she’d witnessed had been on the Sunday Night Movie. I suppose the TV could have been stolen, but there was no TV Guide, no empty space where a TV might have sat, no antenna, no VCR, no rented movies, no tapes at all actually.
And the longer I stood there the more sense the mess made. It wasn’t the kind of mess made by a person looking for valuables. There were stacks of newspapers on the big table, for instance, but none on the floor. There was a dresser at the foot of the bed with an unopened jewelry box on top of it. The drawers weren’t even open; no one had rifled through them.
Plus, the answering machine was there. If you’re going to steal the TV, why not steal the answering machine? They were easy enough to sell; easier even. They were smaller. Retail was almost a hundred bucks for most answering machines. Street value had to be at least twenty.
The answering machine sat beneath a black desk phone. Both were on top of a spindly wire telephone stand from the fifties that sat next to the rocker. On a lower shelf, beneath the phone and answering machine, sat the Chicago-area phone book.
A red digital five on the front of the answering machine told me how many messages there were. I turned the dial so the messages would play. The first was nothing but a long pause followed by a scratching noise. Weird. The second was from a Dr. Vann’s office telling Irene she had an appointment at one-fifteen the previous Thursday. Then there was another blank message with some scratching, this time the scratching went on longer and got louder. It was disturbing. Creepy even. The caller hung up. Another message began and it was the same thing: a long pause with some breathing, followed by another round of scratching. It was beginning to make my skin crawl.
The final message was from a man:
“Hello dear, it’s your father. It’s time for our Saturday call. I hope you’re out and about having fun, and not angry with me. Call me back.”
I stood there piecing things together. Clementine said the murder had taken place almost a week ago. So not Saturday and possibly not Sunday. I’d have to pin down the exact time later. If the murder happened on Monday night, then the first message came sometime on Tuesday or early Wednesday. The call from the doctor’s office would have been sometime on Wednesday, since a doctor’s office would call to confirm an appointment the day before.
The second and third scratching messages happened between that Wednesday call and Irene’s father calling on Saturday. Possibly one on Thursday and another on Friday. Someone was calling Irene nearly every day leaving disturbing messages. Not even messages, just sounds. I wondered if that someone had been in the apartment. If so, they’d have to have had a key.
I opened the front door again and looked down at the welcome mat sitting on the wall-to-wall carpet in the hallway. Reaching down I flipped it over.
Underneath was a key. Anyone could have gotten into the apartment. All they had to do was get through the front door downstairs and then look in the most obvious place in the world to leave a spare key.
If the person leaving the scratching noises was the same person as the one who’d left the door open, they’d likely gotten in on Friday or Saturday, since that’s when the scratchers seemed to stop. What had they been looking for? And had they found it? I wondered if any of the neighbors had seen who’d been in the apartment.
Going back in, I spent a few more minutes looking around. The only thing I saw was evidence of an interrupted life. A few dishes in the sink, some unopened mail—I assumed there was more of that downstairs in her mailbox—dirty clothes ready to go to the laundry.
Stepping out of the apartment, I shut the door and locked it, pocketing both keys. There was no reason to leave strangers a way into the apartment. It was around eight-thirty on a Sunday morning. I decided to knock on a few doors. I didn’t think people would like it much, but that wasn’t really my problem.
First, I walked down to the door of the apartment that had originally been the rear half of Irene’s apartment. From the way things were configured, I wondered if this door hadn’t once been a service door. The original apartments might have been luxurious enough to merit maid service. The maids might have gone up and down the backstairs, but they could have also slipped in this way without disturbing their masters.
No one came to the door.
Next, I tried the door directly across from Irene’s. As soon as I knocked a dog began barking. I waited, expecting someone to open the door. Instead, I heard a thwack and the dog whimpered a couple of times and then stopped barking. Someone was in there, and they’d just hit their dog with a rolled-up newspaper. At least I hoped it was a newspaper and not something worse. They didn’t come to the door.
There was no answer at the final door on the floor. This time I knew what game I was playing, so I watched the peephole intently. Thirty seconds after I knocked a shadow seemed to pass over it, telling me there was someone on the other side of the door deliberately not opening it.
I went down the stairs but stopped on the landing. This would have been where Irene witnessed the murder before she turned and ran. Well, there was no blood and no signs of blood being cleaned up. At first glance there didn’t seem to be anything unusual about the wall. It was wall-papered, had probably been wall-papered several times. The pattern was striped in various colors and thicknesses.
After staring at the wall for a full minute or so, I noticed a spot where the stripes seemed to wobble. The spot was about eye level. I ran my left hand across it. Behind the wallpaper, the plaster was dented. The indentation felt circular, almost like a crater. I ran my good hand up and down the wall but didn’t find anything else. I squatted down as close as I could to the floor. I could have gotten on my hands and knees, but that was challenging since the sling meant I could only partially wear my trench coat. Between the loose coat and the sling, it was hard enough just to squat.
When I did, I immediately smelled urine. Urine that could easily belong to the dog I’d heard upstairs. I stood up and then pushed the toe of my boot around the carpet. I found a squishy spot. It was directly below the crater. The crater in the plaster might have been from a man’s head being slammed against the wall. And the urine, well, that can happen when you die. Your bladder lets go. Everyone knows that.
It’s February 1985. Nick struggles to recover from a gunshot wound, while taking on the case of a woman with a mental illness, who may or may not have witnessed a murder. As he attempts to determine exactly what the woman saw and how much danger she may be in, he juggles the approaching DeCarlo trial, an ill Mrs. Harker, and the sexually precocious Terry. Valentine’s Day with boyfriend Joseph produces some big changes in their relationship. Life is evolving, but there’s no guarantee it’s for the better.
Find out more about Lambda Literary Award Winner, Marshall Thornton: