Story by Mark Bilsborough
Illustration by Sheik
“Sometimes I swear I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you.”
I rolled over in bed and groaned as Lorna slammed the front door behind her. Trouble was, I didn’t know what was wrong with me half the time. And the other half I was asleep.
It took me half an hour to get round to stagger into the bathroom and I didn’t need the reflection in the mirror to tell me this was going to be a bad day. A very bad day. Or as Bennet always said at times like this, one of those days you just want to time warp out to tomorrow.
‘Cept today he didn’t. “Boy, you look terrible,” was all he could manage when I finally strolled into the office. Yeah, like, tell me something I don’t know. I unwrapped my bagel and tore the lid off my double espresso, smell hitting my nostrils hard. I ate and drank simultaneously, pausing only to belch.
Arven Bennet is my friend. Probably my only friend, come to think of it. We work on a crappy neighborhood newspaper in a crappy district of a crappy town somewhere on the east coast of the good ol’ crappy US-of-A. Stormville, New Jersey. The sort of place even the locals have never heard of. Population 21,356 at the last count, a good three-quarters of which is New York commuters and their bored wives and bratty kids.
I belched again. I really enjoy pissing Bennet off.
“Didn’t they have table manners in the slum you were dragged up in?”
“Didn’t have tables.”
Bennet rolled his eyes, which was a formidable sight. His vision was completely screwed so he had to wear the kind of glasses that make your eyes seem fifteen sizes too big, as though someone had painted joke ones on the lenses.
“Bonehead, just because you’re having a bad day doesn’t mean I have to listen to you digesting your breakfast. Why are you having a bad day, anyway? Lorna decided not to put up with you no more?”
“Very funny, Bennet.” He always knew what was wrong. Not too difficult, really, since it was usually the same thing. Lorna walked out on me most days, and most days came back. Not that she ever forgave me, of course, just stored things up ready to trot it all out again if the occasion ever arose. She hates me, I hate her. God only knows why we put each other through all that nonsense.
But hey, I haven’t properly introduced myself. My name is Emmet Bone and I’m thirty- two years old. I have a college degree, a rented duplex on what is laughingly called the East Side, a ten-year-old Toyota with more rust than paint, a large overdraft and not much else.
The phone rang. I let it. “Want me to get that for you, sir?” Bennet mocked. I ignored him but let him get the phone anyway. Bennet knew he was the only person in the office who could bear to be civil to anyone on the phone before lunchtime, so he ended up taking all the calls anyway. We employed a receptionist, Cindy, world number one at manicure and gossip but somewhere in the low billions when it came to professional and polite. I liked her a lot.
“It’s Henderson from the Precinct. Says he’s got a story for you. And only you.”
I cursed and took the receiver. I dreaded getting calls from Henderson. He’d sucked me in on some waste of time investigation into organized crime hereabouts and I was starting to see bulges under every big guy’s suit. Worse, because it was ongoing and getting nowhere, I couldn’t print anything. And since ‘no print no money’ is a pretty fundamental axiom for journalists, my enthusiasm was waning. If this was going to be more about Crowe Maguire’s little misdemeanors, he could forget it. “Hello Sergeant, what can I do for you?”
“Get down to the East Pier. Man here says he witnessed a murder.” Not big on small talk, Sergeant H.
“You believe him?”
“On my way.”
Henderson and I had developed a sort of working relationship. He hated all reporters, of course, that went without saying. But he wasn’t averse to giving us little nuggets and sending us all scuttling around until we found the goldmine. Journalists are just detectives after all. Big difference is we don’t pretend we’ve got any morals.
The East Pier was completely enveloped in fog, which is probably why I didn’t see Henderson until he loomed up two inches from my nose. At least his sternum was two inches from my nose – the rest of him was a foot and a half higher.
“Mornin” Bone. Boy, you look like you slept in your clothes again.”
“Mornin’ Sergeant. You don’t look too hot yourself.” Pleasantries over, we got down to business. Seemed there’d been some sort of struggle between a man and a woman and the woman had ended up in the water. The man disappeared fast and the pier manager had called the police, but the fog prevented a positive ID. No way to tell whether anything had really happened at all. Which is no doubt why Henderson had called me in. To give me a scoop and wait for me to crack the case for him. Henderson brought the manager over.
He was as small as Henderson was tall. Skinny, too. Five foot five tops, and weighing – say – one-fifteen. The kind of guy that’s always busy running around, poking his nose in here and there, spotting struggles on piers, that sort of thing. Not that I ever make instant character assessments or anything.
“Fletcher Anderson,” Henderson introduced. “Works in that booth over there. Got a good look at the action.” In this fog? I doubted that very much.
“What time did all this happen, Mr. Anderson?” I licked my pencil for effect.
“‘Bout ten. Maybe ten-fifteen.” Then the guy stopped. I thought for a moment I would have to work at this then all of a sudden, his mouth opened and his whole story flooded out.
“Man drove up in a yellow Lexus. Couldn’t catch the license number, ‘cept it was from Pennsylvania. Came up fast, too. There – see the tire marks. Jumps out fast, runs across to the passenger side and yanks the woman out of her seat. She struggles a bit but he’s too strong and he pushes her back towards the water. Hits her a couple of times, hard. Then he throws her in, gets back in the car and drives off. That’s it.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Ran over to the water to look for the woman. No sign. She was gone.”
“Gone? You mean dead?”
The skinny guy snorted. “The water in there is well below freezing. Dead as soon as she hit, without a doubt.”
“See his face?”
“In this fog?”
I thanked him and pulled Henderson away.
“Guy’s telling us fairy stories. No way he could have seen all that stuff in this fog.”
Henderson had one of those know it all smiles on his face. “I thought that, too, first time I heard him. Then I saw this.”
Snagged on the pier head, torn in two. One half fluttering in the breeze, the other half God knows where. A scarf. Silk. Cost twenty-nine bucks in Sears last summer. I know. I bought it.
“And this.” Henderson produced a shoe. Size six. Just like Lorna’s. Hell, it was Lorna’s.
“And this.” Henderson pointed to a streak of blood meandering off the pier head into the water. Suddenly I felt sick. Henderson droned on about searching for a Lexus with Pennsylvania plates and how it wouldn’t be hard to find one of those so far from home. I must have been listening because I butted in.
“So, what do you need me for?” Knowing the answer.
“‘Cause you guys are good at motive, that sort of thing.” And because we made a good team, funnily enough. ‘Cept that this time I definitely wasn’t in the mood.
“Look, can I get back to you on this? Something I’ve gotta file back at the paper. Let me know how you get on with the Lexus, OK?”
I’ve no idea how Henderson reacted to my abrupt departure since I didn’t stop to look. Probably pissed, but right then I didn’t care. Didn’t care at all.
I couldn’t face going back to the office, so I went to a coffee shop on Eastland Boulevard, where the java comes thick and black and people leave you alone. Staring at the counter helps me think.
Dolores refilled my cup and gave me a knowing smile. “Woman trouble, honey?”
“You could say.” Dolores was in loquacious form today. Unfortunately.
“You’ve got that ‘my woman has just walked out on me’ look on your face, s’all. Bitch, ain’t it.”
“Bitch isn’t the word.” Still, I wasn’t about to tell Dolores my troubles. Except, of course, I did.
“That’s some story, Emmet.” Quite when we’d got to full first name terms happened sometime during the telling of the tale. Quite how she knew what my name was beyond me. For the best part of ten years, I’d never heard her call me anything but Fathead.
“So what ya gonna do about it?”
“Do about it?” I hadn’t thought about that one. “Go home and throw a few things at the wall, I suppose.
“And that’s goin’ to make you feel better?”
Dolores threw her seat back and stood up, rubbing her arched back. “Well, it’s up to you, but if I were you I’d want to see that sonofabitch behind bars. And fast. But go ahead. Trash your place. Go kill yourself while you’re at it. See if anyone gives a damn.”
She was right, of course. I went home and trashed the place anyway.
Three hours later I was back behind Dolores’ counter, half unconscious from the one bottle of whiskey I’d had the good sense not to pitch at the furniture. Not even my mother would have thought I was an attractive sight.
“Boy, you look rough.”
“Thanks, ‘lores. You look good too.”
“You got it all out of your system now?”
“You gonna stop feelin’ sorry for yourself?”
“Then we ain’t got nothin’ to say to each other.”
“Fine by me,” I mumbled as my head hit the counter.
Two refills later I began to come round to Dolores’ way of thinking.
“OK, what d’you think I should do?”
Dolores just looked me up and down, hands on her hips, like Aretha Franklin in the Blues Brothers telling John Belushi what she thought of him with her eyes. “What do you think you should do, sonny?”
“Damn it, Dolores, you know I hate that.”
“Always works, though, don’t it?”
“Yeah, always works.” I paused for a couple of seconds because I knew Dolores wanted me to get on with it. “What I think I should do is have another cup of your fine coffee…”
Dolores poured, on cue. “Don’t sweet talk me. It won’t work.”
“…and do some invest-tee-ga-tive report-ing.”
“Well, that’ll make a change.”
I have no idea why I stop off at Dolores’ diner twice a day for abuse and espresso, but I have to admit it keeps me sane. I suspect she sees her mission in life is mothering all the down at heel journalists that come walking crawling and staggering through her door. Since there’s only me that fits that description I get plenty of attention. I drank my coffee quickly and made for the door. “Gotta run. Work to do. Thanks.”
“And don’t come back in here smellin’ of whiskey again. Fathead.”
— ♦♦♦ —
I started with the Lexus. No-one could remember seeing it, apart from the pier manager with the x-ray see-through-fog vision. No-one locally owned one, for sure. Owner probably hundreds of miles up Highway One by now, other side of Boston and on into the wilderness.
Then I thought, what the hell? Let the police handle those dumb leads. Let Henderson waste his time running those tire treads through some million-dollar computer somewhere so he can tell me with a smile on his face they came from a yellow Lexus with Pennsylvania plates. The fact that I’d been living with the victim gave me an edge. Time I used it. I really ought to have told Henderson that Lorna was missing presumed dead but for some reason, I didn’t want to see myself locked up as the prime suspect. No, better check out victim and killer before saying anything other than ‘good morning’ to him.
So, I went home. I had to think. Lorna and me had a row. She stormed out. But she left her things behind. That meant she planned to return. It also meant she might have left some clues about who she’d been seeing behind my back.
I checked her secret hiding place, second drawer down, hidden compartment at the side.. Yup. Diary there. Small and red, tiny and dangerous. I flicked through. Who the hell was ‘Wayne?’ and wasn’t she supposed to be in Vermont on business that week? I found it progressively harder to maintain a decent level of grief.
The recent entries were tantalizing more than informative. But at least I now had a name. Cameron. Appeared five times in the previous two weeks. Not a name I’d ever heard her use. I flicked through to the address section, hoping for a break. No chance. I picked up the phone and decided to try her friends instead. Hardest call first.
Paula picked up on the third ring. “Hi, Paula.”
“What do you want, Bonehead?”
I was beginning to think that was actually my name. Bobby Bonehead, at your service.
“Just wondering if you knew where Lorna is, that’s all.”
“And if I do?”
“Be nice if you could tell me.”
“Be nice if you’d leave me alone.”
Guess I’m off her Christmas card list, I thought as I replaced the receiver. Once upon a time, I’d traded Paula for Lorna, and she clearly wasn’t the forgiving kind.
No luck with her other friends, either. Most of them were civil, though, which helped. But none of them had seen Lorna or heard of Cameron.
I decided to check out her afternoon appointment. Entry just said Margaritas, a new bar downtown. Figured that meant Cameron. If he owned a pus-colored Lexus I oughta know about it.
Only he didn’t show. Paula did. And she didn’t seem pleased to see me.
“You stalkin’ me or what?”
“Nice to see you too.”
I settled in the seat opposite her and tried to weigh her up.
“Waiting for someone?” I said.
“You know damn well I’m waiting for someone. So, where is she?”
I ordered drinks and filled her in. By the end of the story, she’d forgotten she hated me.
“You really think she’s dead?” she asked.
“No doubt about it.”
“Emmet.” Tender. Not talked like that to me since I broke her heart. “Can you leave me alone now?”
Then the door opened, and Henderson blocked the light. A couple of thugs in uniform pushed past him and towards me.
“Bone, you are in a truckload of trouble. Cuff him.”
— ♦♦♦ —
At the station, they did the usual stuff. Fingerprints, endless questions, photograph. They never get the good side, for some reason. Spite, probably. Then they locked me up with a body in a pile of rags and a bad smell, snoring the afternoon away.
Henderson had convinced himself I was the killer, in that slow A-leads-to-B leads to C way most cops have. Motive – had a big row with Lorna that morning. Suspicious behavior, too, since I didn’t let on it was her scarf down the pier and that I’d taken off like I’d seen a ghost. That’s what probably put him on to me. No doubt he’d checked the scarf back to the source and figured my credit card slip was significant. The yellow Lexus probably took some explaining but I’m sure Henderson had noticed the fog. Could’ve been a red Dodge for all the pier manager could see. And could’ve been me.
But it was all circumstantial. He needed a confession or a proper ID. I wasn’t about to give him the former, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to get the latter. So, a couple of hours later I was out.
Henderson seemed awfully pissed though. More than usual. You’d think I’d strangled his cat or something. Sooner or later he’d find something to pin on me, so I had to move fast before Lorna’s body turned up on a beach somewhere and I ended up in the slammer.
— ♦♦♦ —
I rang Bennet.
“Did you do it?”
“Do I look as though I’d kill someone, Bennet? Especially Lorna. I loved her, for God’s sake.”
“You were always arguing.”
“We’re always arguing, Bennet. Doesn’t mean I want to kill you.”
“Good point,” he said, after some hesitation. “We should find that Lexus before the police do.”
It all fell in place quickly after that. Lucky for me yellow wasn’t a standard Lexus color so I could trace it to an out-of-town dealership in Scranton. The dealer even kept records. Unlucky for me the name on the payslip wasn’t Cameron. It was Emmett. Emmett Bone.
To say things were not looking good would have been a major understatement. One of the good things about being Emmett Bone is that there aren’t too many of us about. The chances of someone with my name buying a yellow Lexus in Pennsylvania that turned up at the murder scene of my dear departed were not high. My name was well and truly in the frame.
I took Bennet to Dolores’ diner to plan the next move. Bennet wasn’t pleased. “Do the health people know about this place?” Dolores shot him one of her acid-dipped glances, even though there was no way on earth she could have been in earshot.
“Best coffee for miles around. And no cops to overhear what we’re planning.”
“What are we planning?”
“Track down Cameron, of course. Whoever and wherever he is. Gotta be some way to work it out.”
Bennet took a sip of his drink and grimaced.
“Best coffee? No wonder you always look so rough.”
I ignored him. “So, Cameron kills her, throws her off the pier head. Thinks it’s foggy so no-one”ll notice. Buy a car out of town and registers it in my name so that the cops’ll finger me for the killing.”
I was rolling now. “Then the pier manager IDs the vehicle and I’m fried.”
“Why’d he kill her?”
“Dunno. Lovers tiff? Maybe she got too close. Maybe he had a guilty secret and she was on to him. Maybe he’s a serial killer and she was just the latest victim. Maybe life got too boring and he just wanted to stir things up a bit.”
Bennet nodded. Who knows why people get themselves killed? “Bigger question is where’s he gone?”
We stared gloomily at our coffee for a while. Dolores came over with a refill.
“You boys figured it out, yet? I guess not.”
“I know nothing about Cameron, Dolores. So how can I tell where he’s gone?”
“But you know plenty about the girl, don’t ya. Well?”
Then a couple of pieces of the jigsaw came together.
“Pennsylvania! Of course! Lorna’s Aunt’s place. Aunt’s in the nursing home, house is empty. Perfect.”
“You want me to mail this check?” said Dolores to our departing backs.
— ♦♦♦ —
Paula sat on my sofa, drinking my beer, looking at me accusingly in a where-the-hell-have-you-been way. Just like the old days, I thought. Only it wasn’t.
“What are you doing here?” I said, welcomingly.
“Figured we’d better team up. Much as it hates me to admit it, you are a damn good investigative reporter. And now I’ve thought about it, I don’t think you did it.”
I couldn’t really think of anything to say. At least someone thought I didn’t do it, which was a big improvement. She also knew who Cameron was. And I didn’t like it much.
“Henderson? Cameron is Cameron Henderson?”
“Yeah. I did some digging after you talked to me the other day. You know him?”
“He’s only the guy who arrested me for Paula’s murder. The son of a…”
“Sort of makes him the prime suspect in your eyes, then.”
Then the door burst open.
— ♦♦♦ —
Back at the station, Henderson took me to an interview room and read me my rights. I guess he’d traced the Lexus.
“Henderson, we both know you ain’t being very objective about this.” I smiled, though inside I was quaking. Henderson breathed hard, genuinely angry. What was he so mad about?
“Shaddap. So, why’d you do it?”
Then another piece of the jigsaw clicked. “I didn’t. And neither did you.”
Henderson had the grace to look puzzled. I looked over at the other cop standing impassively by the door, and the recorder whirling steadily next to us. Henderson took the hint and stopped the tape.
“Five minutes, Gus? I want a quick word with Bone off the record.”
Gus shrugged and left.
I started. “I know you’ve been seeing Lorna. Which makes you just as much as suspect as me. Kill Lorna, frame me. Perfect. I mean, if I’m going to murder my girlfriend, do you think I’m going to rent an out of state car with a distinctive color and license plate to do it with? And put it in my name?”
“Yes, I do believe you are that stupid.”
“It’s a frame-up, for God’s sake! Someone wants you to believe it’s me that killed her.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Ten minutes later we were in an unmarked police car heading for Pennsylvania, with Paula was in the back seat, giving me evil looks. Presumably, she blamed me for the interrogation she’d just gone through. I could tell Henderson hadn’t yet bought the whole story, but even he could see things didn’t exactly sound right.
“So, you didn’t know Lorna was living with me?”
“Nope. Not until we traced the scarf. All I knew was that she was with some jerk who treated her like dirt. Should have figured it was you.”
To say the atmosphere was not exactly friendly would be being polite. We drove in silence for hours. So, it was a relief when we ended up at Lorna’s Aunt’s house. She’d lived in Pennsylvania all her life, a good five miles or so from the nearest town in an old farmhouse with twenty-five acres of scrub and the occasional apology for a tree. Perfect place to hide out. We got out. Henderson drew his gun. Mine, of course, was back in the station house, safely under lock and key.
We checked the barn first. Sure enough, we found the Lexus inside. Whatever the answers were, they were here.
We skirted round the side of the house, squinting in the sunlight. We entered through a slightly open window into the main bedroom. Henderson went in first, hauling his not so tiny bulk through the narrow gap. I considered leaving him there then, but I was beginning to feel sorry for him, so I followed him in. He’d left muddy footprints on the cream carpet.
“Henderson, you going to clean that mess up?”
He turned. “Shhhh.”
“There’s no one here, you know.”
“We don’t know that. Standard police procedure. Expect the unexpected.”
“Always wondered about that. If it’s expected, how can it be unexpected?”
I took my shoes off, so I could legitimately blame Henderson for the state of the floor. After creeping round the empty house for ten minutes or so we sat down in the living room.
With Henderson in tow, though, things started to get forensic. We started with the Lexus. There was a dark crimson stain on the rear seat which I’d have put money on being Lorna’s blood. Two hours later he was still taking swabs.
Police work over, I made Henderson clean the carpet while I made some coffee. I don’t know why he agreed to do it: I figured he felt guilty for wasting the whole of my afternoon.
That’s when the black sedan drew up.
If Henderson hadn’t been on his knees surrounded by carpet detergent I’d have suggested, we leave through the window we’d come in at. Probably. I was so bored that the prospect of some real action was getting pretty appealing. Paula had different ideas. She shot off out the door before I could stop her.
She didn’t get as far as the car, though. I heard a scuffle, then a thud as something got hit. This did not sound good.
I wasn’t really surprised when I saw Paula being dragged back inside. The guy doing the dragging, though, now that was unexpected. Bet even Henderson didn’t expect that one.
Crowe Maguire, in all his glory, flanked by two of his thugs.
“Change of plan, Bone. Your snooping round here means you know too much. So…”
“…you’re going to have to kill us both.”
Maguire smiled. “Oh, not me. You’re going to kill each other. Seems poor Paula was on to you and your murdering ways. Gruesome.” He winced. “Hands round each other’s throats. Suicide pact or double murder. Boys? Hands.”
The thugs lurched over. I realized two things. First that Henderson was in still in the other room. And second, that Maguire clearly didn’t know he was there.
I heard the unmistakable sound of a safety catch being pulled back. The thugs stopped in their tracks.
But it wasn’t Henderson. At the doorway stood Lorna, pistol in hand, pointed straight at Maguire.
I was stunned. Lorna, alive!
“This isn’t the deal, Maguire. You’re supposed to frame him, not kill him.”
Maguire sneered. ” What do you care? You hate him. I’m doing you a favor.”
“Seeing him squirm is one thing. Killing him is another. And I am not going to let you kill my best friend.”
“She knows too much.” Maguire didn’t look like the kind of guy who worried too much about the niceties of killing his friends. He looked genuinely puzzled that Lorna might not think the same way.
I was confused. Then Henderson came out of the bedroom, carpet cleaner in one hand, rubber gloves in the other and a puzzled expression on his face.
“Cameron! No!” Lorna screamed.
The thugs forgot about me and Paula and pounced on Henderson, pinning him to the floor.
Maguire grabbed Paula by the throat. “Bitch. All of this is her fault. Better off without her. Better off without you, too.” Maguire tightened his grip on Paula and pointed the pistol directly at my head. This was it. Suddenly, all was still. I was going to die.
Then a loud crack and Maguire’s head span left, then right, then he collapsed on the floor, groaning.
Lorna dropped her gun and smiled.
— ♦♦♦ —
With Maguire dead, the thugs released Henderson and barged past Lorna out of the front door. We let them go. Henderson dragged himself up from the floor, scratching his head.
Back at the station, Lorna told the police all they wanted to know. Maguire needed me to stop snooping and figured framing me for murder was less likely to draw attention to him than seeing my corpse float by on the river. The harbor guy – Anderson – was one of Maguire’s men. Figured. All sorts of illegal stuff came Maguire’s way through the port and he’d need an inside man. Lorna was strongly attracted to the large bag full of unmarked bills Maguire was offering. But they started to panic when Paula and I started getting close and I managed to stay out of jail.
Paula and I left her there. She’d done the cops a favor by dropping Maguire so I was pretty sure they weren’t going to charge her with anything major. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a whole bunch of questions she needed to answer. And although I was delighted she was still alive, that didn’t mean I ever wanted to see her again.
I drove Paula home.
“You knew she was alive, didn’t you.”? I said.
“Not for sure. But if she was I figured it was my last chance to settle an old score.”
I shot her a glance. I’d switched between best friends. Not many friendships can stand up to that, deep down. She sensed my unease and shifted the focus of the conversation.
“Anyway, she’s history. Just like me. You can drop me off over there.”
“That’s it. Don’t call, Bone.”
I pulled over. I had one last question. Paula gave me the answer before I had the chance to ask it.
“It wasn’t your fault, Bone. Lorna gets everything she sets her mind to. Always has. Nothing you could do about it. Doesn’t mean you’re forgiven, though.”
She slammed the door and I watched her disappear into the house. I gunned the engine.
I had one hell of a story to file. But I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm. For one thing, I was going home to an empty house and an empty bed. And for another, my unease was growing. I hadn’t figured Lorna for a killer, not really. Only I’d seen Lorna’s smile after she’d pumped a bullet into Maguire.
The kind of smile that says, “you’re next.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Until the Bone Shows Through Part 2. By Art by Jihane Mossolim
They call her “Switch” and she’s a very unusual PI in a hard city. Her territory? The harshest part of Cajun country. The line between reality and legend/myth/whatever is very blurry. In the second installment of this story find out if she’s going to make the fatal mistake of crossing that line while she’s investigating a disappearance.