Statement No. 010:
She gave off the impression of being alone, all right. Abandoned child alone. War widow alone. A class all by itself. That grade of alone you only run across in a city of three million strangers. You go for blocks and see nothing but strangers. Miles on end. Strangers far as the eye can see. Strangers with stories all their own and problems all their own. Strangers who look this way, that way, any way at all as long as it's the other way.
Another hunk of human flotsam. A leftover, a scrap. Ignored as a park bench in January. Discarded like that gee waiting for the pellets of Nevada gas to dunk into the acid. That man who can't focus on anything beyond the thick chamber windows. That man with numbered days, with no tomorrow, as good as forgotten. That's alone, and that's how she read.
I've seen some odd ones in my time. That one caught me off guard. Full of atmosphere, that one. Mysterious forebodings. You boys like that? Forebodings? I'll have you going all a'tremble. Sure.
But she must have clued you in already. She must have laid it all out for you. It's her story and she can tell it now. For a while there it was touch and go. I had my doubts. Plenty. You'd of had your doubts, too. Anybody would've.
You're just looking for a little corroboration, isn't that right? You've got to make sure the evidence jives with her story. Coming and going. I'll square it up for you, all right. We'll have it all tied up in pretty pink ribbon. The captain likes pink ribbon, doesn't he? I know I heard that one place or another.
Call it the case that wasn't. This was no case at all. I was minding my business when she popped into my life. Maybe it's more like I butted into her life. I guess that's neither here nor there.
I can't tell you how long it took before I noticed her. I can't even tell you how long she'd been there. Had no idea what she was doing there. For all I knew she could of been waiting for something. Could be she waited for someone. Could've been as simple as waiting for the bus. But it wasn't.
One bus passed by. Then another. Passengers got on, passengers got off. Miss Lonelyhearts remained on the bench, screwed to it, staring at the hands in her lap. I took note.
Raven hair framed her square face with cropped bangs, the sides curled to points at the jaw. She wore a heavy, grey cardigan wrapped close around. Could've been a guy's sweater, it ran so large. Wide and loose at the shoulders, ending inches below her hips. A plain, white organdy dress, ankle length, flowed from beneath the sweater. From where I watched it appeared stained or soiled down the front. The shoes, simple black flats. She carried no purse, no shoulder bag, no clutch.
I paid my check and caught sight of a third bus. It pulled up across the street and blocked my view of the bench. I could make out the movement of passengers inside the bus as they jostled and shuffled into place. The vehicle lurched into gear, began to glide forward, and rolled its way from the curb and into traffic. I could see the bench again. She read all alone, all right.
I exited the restaurant and lit a cigarette. I stood under the sidewalk awning and smoked and watched her from across the street. She existed in her own world. What world that could have been escaped me.
It got me thinking about another young jane. A woman I never met. A woman who one day just up and disappeared. I can't imagine that one's ever coming back. I recalled her father and the story he handed me. About the way he lost his wife, too. The poor sap seemed lost without his daughter. I guess he'll go on feeling like that for a long time.
As I watched and smoked and studied her, some sorry-looking joe approached the bench. Real down on his luck sorry-looking. His advance startled her back into this world. She clutched harder at the sweater and wrapped it tighter. He spoke at her, yapping and gesturing with outstretched palms. She gazed down at the street and shook her head. The vagabond kept up the patter. He wouldn't blow. He kept at her and he kept at her.
I griped to myself through a puff of smoke. I figured the last thing the lady needed was this tramp. I took a quick pull, flicked the butt into the curb, and crossed Clark Street. I stopped when I hit the far end of the bench. I faced the girl square, hands in my pockets. I looked her straight in the eye. She clutched at the throat of the cardigan and brought her dark eyes my way. A white cloth or handkerchief wrapped around her left hand. The beggar shut his trap at the sight of me.
"Drift," I said.
I only had eyes for her, but the tramp knew who I meant. His mouth dropped open. They both gave me the stare. Yeah, I'd take her gaze over his any day.
"I said drift."
The tramp's mouth closed and popped open again, a couple times, and he turned tail and scurried off. Something about me must've told him I wasn't fooling. That made things all right. The day a gumshoe can't run off a hobo is the day to apply at the civil service.
The girl tilted her head to one side, big eyes taking me in, making a real good study of it. I didn't budge. I figured if she wanted to take a good look, I'd let her take a good look. If I could put up with it in the shaving mirror, she could put up with it, too.
Close up she was real easy on the eyes. Those angled, brown orbs set off by a strong, aquiline nose. Full, almost pouting lips. This one wore no makeup—she didn't need any as I far as I was concerned.
In the midst of this silent scrutiny a doddering, old bird wobbled her way around me and sat between us on the bench. We never stopped gazing at each other. The old bird fussed with her purse until a number fifty-one drew up. I assisted the old thing into the vehicle. The bus pulled away from the curb and left us alone like we were before.
I raised my chin to her. "I'd say you're in trouble, sister."
She brought her hands up to her throat. Her forehead crinkled with concern. "What did I do?"
"That was an observation, not an accusation."
"Strikes me like you could use a hand."
She gaped at her shoes, then brought those big brown eyes to mine, slow.
"I spotted you from that deli. People don't usually park themselves on bus stop benches for general amusement or to pass the time of day."
"No, not usually they don't. Mostly they'll go in for a picture show at the Oriental. Maybe at the Woods. Maybe catch an exhibit at The Field Museum, or drift through the zoo. Or catch a ball game, maybe. Tourists go for the view from the top of the Prudential. But hardly no one just sits on a bench."
"I don't know who I am." She blurted it out. Frank as that. Like she meant it.
"That's a riddle and a half, sister."
"I guess it is." She raised and lowered her shoulders quickly.
"You mean you don't remember anything."
She raised and lowered her shoulders quickly.
"A lost lamb, are you?"
She crinkled her forehead again.
"Were you planning on staying here all day?"
"I have no plan. No idea."
"Would you like me to get the police?"
"No, don't do that. The idea frightens me."
"It does, does it? All right, lamb."
She kept gazing at me. A deep, full gaze.
I said, "I don't know what you expect to see. I don't have any answers. I barely know the questions."
"I know." She looked away for just a moment. "I don't know."
"You don't leave a fella a whole lot of choices. I guess there's nothing to do but get you some grub. Are you hungry?"
"A little bit. I don't have any—"
The sweater fell open for a moment. She realized what happened, grabbed it quick, wrapped it close.
"Skip it, sister. I can't imagine your appetite would break anybody's bank."
I stepped off the curb and leaned into the street. I turned to look behind me. She hadn't moved.
"Come on, lamb," I said calmly. I started to cross and tilted my head. "Come on."
She rose slow and followed me, hesitating, lagging several steps. I waited for her beneath the awning, holding the door. For what it was worth I led her to a table towards the back. There's no such thing as a quiet booth at the Belden. I placed a business card on the table and slid it over as the waitress showed.
"That's right, Patricia," I said. "I'm back. Bring the lady here some scrambled eggs, white toast, orange juice and coffee."
"No coffee, please."
"I'll have the coffee, Patricia—just a moment." I turned to the lamb. "Show me your left hand, angel. Palm up."
She placed her hand on the table, gently. She rolled it over. A stain of dried blood created a blurred crease across the cloth wrapping.
"You have any bandages, Patricia? Or maybe just a clean handkerchief. Can you do anything about that?"
"We'll fix her up," Patricia winked at me. Pat's smile could warm up a judge at a murder trial. "Come on, honey."
The lamb gave me a hesitant look.
"It's all right, angel. You go ahead."
Patricia turned the grin up a couple degrees. The lamb clasped the cardigan tightly at her throat, slid out of the booth, and followed Patricia to the ladies' room.
Patricia returned in a couple minutes with the coffee and orange juice. "Sweet doll you got there," Patricia sniffed. "Something of a mess, I'd say. That doesn't look like any of your doing."
"That's right, Pat. Just performing my good Samaritan bit."
"You just keep it up, honey."
The lamb got back to the table in time to exchange a hesitant smile with Patricia. She said, "Thank you," with a half-nod.
"Don't mention it, hon." Patricia winked over her shoulder.
"Stand there for just a moment," I instructed. She did as I asked. "Turn it around." She did, craning her neck my way. "Okay, you can sit down now. Those light smears down the front of your dress look like paint. The dark streaks are blood."
She cleared her throat. "The buttons at the top of my dress are missing. I'm not wearing a bra."
"How about panties? You wearing those?"
She showed no shame or embarrassment. No hesitation in her voice.
"Those blood stains on your dress—"
I waited while Patricia dropped off the eggs and toast.
"Go ahead, lamb, dig in."
"What about the blood stains?"
"Un-huh. Your hand sure didn't make those stains on the dress. Too much blood for that."
"I'm not hurt anywhere else." She spoke between bites.
"Do you remember anything at all?"
"Nothing. You're a private investigator?"
"Sometimes more private than others. What's the last thing you recall?"
"Just walking along the street. Clark Street." She glanced towards the front windows and back down at her plate. "That's all. I was walking up Clark Street and felt so awfully tired. I had to sit down think. When I did, there was nothing to think of. That scared me."
"How long have you been a private detective?"
"Feels like a couple of lifetimes."
"Hmm. Curious. Is that a tough sort of life?"
"Whatever you say, kid."
"You rescue a lot of damsels in distress?"
"You're the first missing person I've ever bought lunch for." That effort got a very nice grin out of her. "So you came up Clark."
"Yes. I look around me, and there I am, shuffling along the sidewalk. It's as though I simply showed up, almost out of thin air."
"As though you just woke up? Or came to?"
"Yes...in a way. With all these strangers buzzing past. Taking notice of me, then not. The cars. The traffic signals and signs. I began moving faster, and faster, until I had to sit down. I felt I had to. I tried to think. But empty. You see? I knew I was on a bench. I saw buses and stores. Webster, Clark, Grant, Belden. Only street signs. They didn't mean anything. Does that make any sense?"
"Just like you know how to read. How to talk and walk."
"Nothing signifies nothing. None of it means a thing."
"Yes, that's right. Nothing I saw meant anything to me."
She gave me the emptiest look in the world, this quiet, sweet pan wearing an expression blank as a skillet. A thing like that can spook you, if you let it.
"Anything else?" Patricia asked.
The lamb closed her eyes. She gave her head a slight shake.
I said, "If you don't mind, Patricia, see if there's any kind of label in that sweater."
The lamb crinkled her brow at me while Patricia took a peek inside the collar. "The Thrifty Men's Shoppe," Patricia read. "That's spelled shopee. Nothing but the best for our little girl. No store label in the dress."
"Good gal. You got a phone book behind the counter?"
"Sure do. Back in a jiff."
"Might pan out to be a lead. Then again, might not."
"I suppose a maybe is better than a nothing."
"You want a cigarette? Do you smoke?"
"I don't know. I guess not, thank you."
I lit up and pulled off a couple drags before Patricia came back with a Wells Street address. I settled up with Patricia and stood.
"What do you say, kid? Fortified enough for a walk?"
"Sure. Walking I can do. Thanks awfully for the square."
We started out headed south on Clark. We set a leisurely pace. It made sense to give backtracking a shot. She had come to at Webster. Before that, everything blanksville. I tried pointing out this and that and the other thing in the long-shot hope of ringing a bell. All real low pressure, of course. I kept it real casual, low-key. Clark Street could've been the surface of the moon for all she made of it. People, shops, diners, laundries, streetcars. As good as a foreign country to her. Like she's just off the boat. All the while she kept a tight grip on the cardigan with her right hand. Her left played with my business card, flipping it over and over in her fingers.
"Have we passed your office?"
"Not yet. Coming up." I pointed ahead. "About a half-block before Dickens."
We stopped when I thumbed towards the entryway to my building. She gave it a good once over.
"I could've told you. Nothing special."
"Can we take a look inside?"
"You're the subject of this investigation, not me. Keep walking, kid." The fleeting glance she shot me accompanied an appealing curve of the lips.
We kept quiet for the next four blocks. We took a hundred-foot jog on Lincoln, skipped over to Wells, strolled down the east side. We passed an occasional shop on the street level. A single-family house tucked in between here and there. Mostly older residences. Red brick and brownstone two flats. Four flats. Nothing taller than three stories.
She pressed her lips together and swung her head.
About two blocks down we hit upon the tiniest gallery. I paused to light a smoke and took a peep in the display window. We found a range of contemporary works, most of them city landscapes. A couple abstracts comprised of large sections of bright colors broke up the monotony.
Towards the back of the window I spotted a portrait. The artist had broken the surface of the canvas into flat planes of muted colors. The female subject posed on a straight-back chair. She held one arm slung behind the back of the chair. Her gaze came straight out at us, direct and cool. You felt as though you were the painting and she was staring at you.
"I don't know art..." I turned to the lamb. She looked absolutely absorbed by the portrait. Downright mesmerized, I'd call it. Her right hand floated in front of her, she almost reached out to touch the painting. Her fingers rested lightly against the pane of glass. Her eyes locked on the damn thing, to the point of tearing.
I glanced back at the portrait. Leaned back. That's when I saw it. And I got it. The resemblance in the eyes. The structure of the face. The likeness was a soft one, all right, but it was there. The lamb got it in a flash and it grabbed her, took hold of her. I let her be, without making a move, without a word, without a sound. I watched her close.
Her lips parted, slightly. Slowly, the right hand floated towards her face, one fingertip softly touching her lips. Then the hand opened and began caressing her cheek.
She spun around, swift, facing the road. I followed her gaze and it led me across the street. The opposite corner of Wells and St. Paul. She stepped straight ahead, focused only straight ahead. I tossed down the butt and grabbed her arm to keep her from reaching traffic. She flailed against my hold, strained against me, and slipped off my leash.
I made one wild, empty grab for her, then dashed into the street, waving my arms to the oncoming cars. Northbound traffic stopped easy, but a southbound cab only gave in at the last minute. The hack jammed the brakes, the tires shrieked, and the thing lurched to a stop barely inches from my legs.
"Where's the fire, Mac!" I barked and the jerk laid on his horn.
The lamb kept right on crossing, gliding, smooth as if she had training wheels. Her stare never broke. Nothing averted her eyes. Like a sleepwalker, she was. Like in a trance. The cabbie and me shared a bewildered look as she reached the sidewalk and continued down St. Paul.
I raced up to her side. I was going to stick to this one like glue. She stopped hard when she hit the second door down.
"Two hundred seven West St. Paul," I said. "All right. Mean something to you?" Her breathing ran shallow and fast. "What gives?"
She faced the door square. "Open it." She spoke quietly and firmly.
I tried the knob. "No dice. It's locked. See?" I rattled the thing nice and obvious for her.
"You want me to bust in?"
"That's what I thought you said."
I took out my pick-set, lowered to one knee, and set to work. She stood over me, close, tensed up, breathing rapid.
"You know it's not like I jimmy locks every day, sister."
The lamb never said a word, and she didn't have to. She worked the silent pressure bit pretty good. Eventually I got the tumblers to jump, the cylinder slid nice and easy, I pushed the door open.
"After you, lamb."
She ignored the buzzers, the mailboxes. She sailed through the vestibule, set her sights up the flight of wooden steps. Her right hand skimmed the top of the banister as she began climbing, her eyes fixed on the top stair. I came up right behind her. She didn't pause at the first landing, but kept right on and made for the top floor.
One door stood at the peak of the stairway. Her hand quivered as she twisted the knob. The door gave in to her light push and swung easy.
I stayed on top of her as we entered the expansive loft, mostly left wide open. The space equaled that of a decent two-bedroom apartment. Scarred wood floors and molding. Brick walls in need of a fresh coat of paint. Three skylights ran the length of the place. Roughly two-thirds of the accommodations gave over to the work area containing an easel with two art lamps, workbench, etcetera. A couple drop cloths draped the floor, spread beneath the easel and bench. Plenty of brushes, tubes of paint, old coffee cans, blank canvases. Used up brushes and tubes scattered across the drop cloths. Vertical stacks of paintings leaned to against one of the short walls. Must have been maybe four or five dozen works. On the easel I spied a large canvas with rough charcoal lines of a figure and a few splashes of primary colors.
A little ways beyond the work area there was this pair of long, folding screens that came off the wall to create a hidden alcove. Past that, at the farthest end, you could make out a small kitchen set up. The narrow door next to that probably the john.
I glanced over at the lamb. She surveyed the room with a slowly turning head. Her breath became more and more regular as she took it all in, her eyes narrowed. She pointed across the work area toward the wall beyond the easel. She took in a small gulp of air through her mouth. She swallowed and cleared her throat. She released the words in a voice out of practice, faint and horse.
"That's where he attacked me."
The lamb's right hand rose, the index finger pointed beyond the easel.
"He grabbed me with both hands as I got dressed. There were two detail brushes in his right hand. He smelled like gin and turpentine. More so than usual, stronger. I pushed him back a couple of steps and the brushes dropped to the floor. That enraged him. He came right back at me, moving wildly, trying to seize hold of my arms and wrists. He caught me, the collar of my dress in his grip. He swore at me. I slapped him. He staggered one step, then slapped me back, very hard."
Her voice began to tremble.
"The blow knocked me sideways. I fell away from him, still in his grip. That's when my dress tore. I fell that way, to the floor."
I followed the pointing finger. It moved towards the easel.
"He picked me up and reeled far back with his fist. His swing was so big and so wide that I easily ducked out of the way. But his momentum pitched him forward and he caught his leg on mine. We tumbled over in a tangle. We must have bumped the worktable because brushes and paint spilled over us and onto the floor. I clawed and crawled away as swiftly as I could, and scrambled to my feet. I would have run to the door, but couldn't. There he was, between me and the door, standing there, releasing this hideous rasping noise as he exhaled. Smears of fresh paint streaked his pants. Pink radiated from the jawline and ear where I struck him. I stepped back, he moved towards me.
She continued aiming her finger at the empty spaces. She placed her other hand over her heart. Her chest rose and fell rapidly.
"Directly behind me were the kitchen and the bathroom. The back door was too far away. I turned and I ran. I ran for the bathroom, and I slammed the door behind me and I tried to throw the bolt as he pushed on the door. I leaned against it with all the strength I had and fumbled to catch the bolt. He pushed harder. The door flew open and I flew. It knocked me and I reeled across the sink. I must have fallen against the medicine chest mirror because I remember closing my eyes to the terrible, shattering sound. When I opened my eyes he was right next to me, grabbing at me and touching me and leaning against me and making that rasp, that ugly breathing rasp. His breathing sounded like the vilest excitement and hate, and I couldn't push the sound away. I tried but I couldn't push him off me, but I kept trying and trying and I couldn't. And my hand found that slice of mirror in the sink and I took it and I brought it around as fast as I could and as hard as I could and as deep as I could. And I buried it into his back. I pushed at it and I pushed at it and made it go in as deep as I could.
"He jerked up straight and burst into these hideous shrieks. His body lunged and flinched as he tried to reach the thing stuck between his shoulders. He twisted and wrenched and screamed as he tumbled past me and over the side of the tub. I covered my eyes and heard the low, dull slam, the thud of his skull meeting the tile. I heard quiet after that. And then I realized I was shaking and I tried to stop shaking. I wanted to stop shaking. All I could do was keep my eyes closed."
The lamb's eyes had clamped shut, her hands balled into fists. But now the fingers gently rolled open and relaxed. Her breathing let up. She calmly lowered her arms to rest at her side. Her face came up towards mine and she opened those warm, dark eyes. She looked full at me, but I couldn't tell if she recognized me—it was that kind of gaze.
"I opened my eyes and I was walking down the street. Everything was strange. All the people were strange. I had to sit and rest until it stopped making no sense. Nothing made any sense. Then I saw you." Her stare was penetrating. "You'll find him in there."
"I know, lamb. I'll go check it out. You'll be okay out here?"
She gave me a little nod. I knew what I'd find. I believed her. She remembered, now. The whole ugly mess had come back to her and left her to pick up the pieces. I could help with that.
The door to the can was closed. I gave the knob a twist and shove. I entered careful, groping for a switch or a chain, feeling the crunch of glass and broken mirror under my step. I felt an overhead chain and gave it a yank. The hard glare of the naked bulb didn't pretty things up. The medicine cabinet ajar with collapsed shelves, scattered contents. Fragments of the half-shattered mirror lined the basin and the rim of the sink, sprinkled across the peeling floor. The body parked on its back, short ways across the tub. An awkward, distorted pose. The head and neck wedged up against the backside of the tile wall, the chin tight against the throat. The arms spread wide with tensed, curled fingers. Blood capped the fingertips. Legs flung over the side of the tub, the feet dangling above the floor.
You couldn't miss the real discovery, the real eye-opener: four bullet holes in the chest. Right at the heart. Small caliber and close up. Burn marks mixed in with the shredded cloth and blood. Very close up. Exceptionally close up. The killer could not have been any closer. I found it hard to believe she told it wrong, conscious or unconscious. But that was a possibility. The other possibility meant a surprise guest.
I unholstered my thirty-eight and called out. "Lamb, you there?"
"You all right?"
"Yes. I am. Are you all right?"
I heard her move. "Stay where you are."
"What is it?"
"Just stay where you are, get me?"
"I got it."
I exited the bathroom nice and easy. I twisted back toward the lamb, held up my palm for her to stay put.
I inched my way down the far wall, down to the rear door. The safety chain held fast. Lofts don't offer a lot in the way of hide-and-seek games, so that left whatever lay behind that partitioned alcove.
I advanced along the wall and came up on the screens. Behind the dividers I found a large bed, blankets and sheets thrown about. I also found a woman on the bed. She lay on her back, like she was resting. Having herself a nice siesta. Peaceful-like, you could say. The hands folded across her stomach with a nickel-plated twenty-two tucked against her waist. I leaned over the muzzle. I couldn't mistake the faint odor of fireworks.
An empty glass stood on the nightstand. Also an empty prescription bottle labeled chloral hydrate. I leaned over and put my head to her breast. No sound. No sensation. No rise and fall. At the wrist, no beating beneath the cold skin. I pocketed the roscoe and returned to the lamb.
She hadn't moved. I brought her a chair. She sat down while I told what I found in the bathroom. I told her what I found in the bed. I gave her a couple moments to let it sink in.
"That's probably Delores," she said. "She was like a wife to him."
"I have to call the police, now. Do you understand, lamb?"
"Of course you do."
"Do you mind waiting here? I could take you somewhere else."
"No, that's all right. It is. You go ahead. Make your call. The telephone is by the bed."
I crossed towards the partition and it came out of her. A quick eruption, almost like a laugh. "I didn't tell you—I remember my name!"
I'll never forget her name. I'm damn good with names. Sometimes my line of work calls for it.
* The photograph displayed at the top of this page was taken by Esther Bubley as an employee of a federal government agency. For more information on the photograph, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/owi2001022383/PP/.