Milo James Fowler is a teacher by day and a speculative fictioneer by night. When he's not grading papers, he's imagining what the world might be like in a dozen alternate realities. Over the past 5 years his work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including AE SciFi, Cosmos, Daily Science Fiction, Nature, Shimmer, and the Wastelands 2anthology. His novels Captain Bartholomew Quasar: The Space-Time Displacement Conundrum and Westward, Tally Ho! are now available. Visit www.milojamesfowler.com and join The Crew for news and updates.
Where There's Smoke by Milo James Fowler
I smell it before I see him. The cigarette smoke wafts downward, trapped like a foul spirit between the morning fog and the ripples of chlorinated water, with me somewhere in the space between, struggling to finish my thirty-five laps for the day.
He watches me.
Monday was the first time I noticed him. He didn't come down the stairs from the parking lot above, didn't open the iron gate to rest his weary bones in one of the vacant lounge chairs around the community pool, didn't dip his feet in the hot tub. He just paced up there, back and forth, cigarette between the fingers of one hand and cell phone in the other, tight against his ear. Talking, smoking, pacing with sandals shuffling, glancing down at me in the pool. Arguing about something.
I didn't pay much attention. I had my laps to complete. By the end of the summer, I plan to be doing fifty a day. Nothing gets me in better shape; it's a total body exercise. By the time I go back to school in the fall, maybe some of this bulge around my middle will have transmuted into muscle across my chest and shoulders. That's the goal.
My wife, God bless her, says she likes me just the way I am. But she doesn't know what it's like to look in the mirror and see Jabba the Hutt where Matthew McConaughey used to stand. Well, maybe I was never that ripped, but there was a time in the not too distant past when my belly woke up fairly flat. But those days are long gone. Some kind of switch went off when I turned thirty and my metabolism ground to a crawl—yet my appetite refused to follow suit. Anyhow, swimming is something I can do to fight back.
He watches me swim every day.
My wife and I live in one of these horseshoe-shaped condominium complexes they've got in Southern California where they stack the units three-high, fill in the parking lot with trees and detached garages, charge criminally high homeowner's dues, but throw in a little gym and an outdoor pool just so you don't feel the shaft quite so deep. The gym's all right; we try to get down there a couple times a week. But the pool leaves much to be desired. The water's a little murky, and there are gobs of unidentifiable stuff all across the aqua-marine bottom—not to mention the stains a shade of brown you usually don't expect to find outside a restroom. Friday I noticed a bobby pin floating with some hair on it. Needless to say, I don't let my toes touch bottom, which is a great way to keep the laps going nonstop.
But like I said, I first noticed him on Monday, and he didn't really bother me. I could tell he had some kind of intense conversation going on, and the constant pacing and chain-smoking backed that up. I swam for maybe thirty minutes, and in that time, he watched me a couple minutes here, a couple minutes there, disappearing in the interim between. I didn't think that much of it.
Tuesday, he made another appearance, pacing, smoking, the whole routine on the phone, uptight about something. I ignored him, got through my laps, showered off and headed home.
Wednesday, I was carrying my towel to the pool and saw him standing just inside his ground floor unit, talking on his phone behind the dingy screen of the patio door. I had to pass by to reach the stairs to the pool below, and I kept my eyes to myself. It was at lap nine or ten that he came outside to pace, smoke, and glance down at me.
Thursday was the same. But on Friday, I took a roundabout route, stopping by the mailbox to send in our monthly HOA dues. I figured he wouldn't see me go that way, that I would get into the pool and be able to finish my laps before he noticed. No such luck. Halfway through lap five, he came out and repeated his routine three or four times before I met my lap quota.
Gay crush, maybe? That was my first thought.
"Why don't you say something to him?" my wife suggested when I mentioned it.
I told her I would, if he wasn't talking on his phone the whole time. If he came down the stairs and entered the pool area, I'd say, "Howdy." Or if I passed him while he was out for a smoke, I'd be neighborly. We live on opposite ends of the complex, but we're still neighbors.
I don't get cell phone etiquette. (If that's not an oxymoron, what is?) It seems rude to interrupt somebody while they're on the phone, yet it's perfectly acceptable for them to talk away at any decibel range, disturbing the peace whenever they get a call. I guess I could just smile and give him a little wave or something, but he always looks away whenever I make eye contact. Besides, if it is some kind of gay thing, I don't want to come across as too friendly and give him the wrong idea.
I'm off during the summers—the only perk to being a teacher that barely makes up for the lousy pay—so my schedule is fairly flexible. I've considered moving my swim time to another time of day, but if he's out of a job or on vacation like I am, it would be pointless. He might even be retired military for all I know. The gray stubble of his crew cut and the gold chain he wears tucked into his T-shirt give off that vibe—along with all the smoking.
I wish I knew what he was arguing about on the phone.
"Maybe there isn't anybody on the other end," my wife said with a mischievous twinkle in her eye. Yeah, that didn't help a whole lot. I'm getting to be paranoid enough as it is.
Take the other day, for example—Friday. Thirty laps down, my weekly goal met, I should have been feeling pretty good. But I got this feeling at the back of my neck as I hoofed it across the parking lot with my wet sandals squeaking, this weird feeling that he was standing back there at his screen door again, not talking on his phone, just watching me go. Of course I didn't look back; I didn't want to know if I was right. And besides, what would I have done? Smiled and waved? Maybe I should have.
Instead, I carried that tension in my gut back to our building and up the two flights of stairs to our unit. My eyes wandered down to the parking lot when I had my key in the lock. I thought I'd heard shuffling sandals approaching as I shut and locked the door behind me, but it had to be my imagination.
He doesn't know where I live.
I took the weekend off as far as my laps went, but now it's Monday again, the fresh start to a new week. I've decided to keep to last week's schedule and get my swim time in around nine in the morning. I took the direct route to the pool, and the area was as vacant as usual. I dove in and started swimming. The goal today is thirty-five laps. The place is quiet, and with every stroke across the length of the pool, I hope it stays this way.
The gate swings shut behind me. Probably just the old Indian lady who walks the treadmill in the gym every morning. But I smell it before I even hear his shuffling shoes. The stale cigarette smoke fills the space between water and air.
The NO SMOKING sign is right below NO GLASS BOTTLES.
I reach the end of the pool and flip-turn to stroke back toward the gate. He's standing there, squinting as he takes a long drag on the cigarette, blowing smoke out the side of his mouth, away from the pool—considerate of him. He makes no pretense at looking away this time when I meet his gaze.
I have to say something.
"Hey, how's it going." I do the nod—the favored form of nonverbal communication among males—and tread water.
"Not too cold, eh?" He spews smoke.
"No, it's fine." I don't mention the slime lurking on the bottom.
"Good exercise." He looks uninterested. "Down here much?" As if he doesn't know.
"Every day I can."
"Out of work?"
"Me? No, I'm a teacher." Barely even eye contact until now, and here we are in a full-scale conversation. "Summers off, you know. Gotta stay busy. Idle hands."
"Yeah? How's that go? Idle hands . . ."
My grandmother has always been a treasure trove of clichéd expressions, so this one is already out before I know it: "They're the devil's workshop."
He grins at that, baring an uneven fence of stained teeth. "Right. That's it." He spews smoke off to the side again. "So who's paying the bills?"
"While you're off work. You got some kind of trust fund you dip into, or . . . ?" Again, he leaves the blank for me to fill.
"No, nothing like that." Just a savings account I fatten up during the school year.
"My wife is working full-time now, so—"
"Hey, that's the ticket." Another grin and more smoke, this time spiraling out of his nostrils like the dragon in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. "You've got it made."
"What about you?" My right hip is getting a little sore with all the water-treading, and my leg starts to drift out of sync.
"Me?" He shrugs up one shoulder. "Yeah, I was married. Just about killed me." He looks away.
So I might have been wrong about the gay thing. He doesn't seem to be flirting with me.
"Well-uh, I should probably . . ." I mime returning to my laps.
"Yeah, don't let me hold you up." He makes no move to leave. "I should get into some kind of exercise regimen myself. That's one thing the old lady was always bitching at me about."
It was one thing to have him watch me from the parking lot, but I don't like the idea of him standing here at the water's edge. "You should try it," I offer without thinking. I don't really want him joining me.
"Maybe. But I don't think the ol' monkey would like it much."
He holds up the cigarette like it's his middle finger, as though it's all the explanation needed. I almost chuckle, but there's a humorless look behind his eyes that makes the sensation die in my throat.
"Had enough water in the Navy anyhow," he mutters.
Retired military. I was right.
"The gym's okay." I nod toward the row of oblong windows in the stucco wall behind him, where the weight machines sit alone in the dark.
He shrugs. "I guess." He turns to peer through one of the windows, ducking a little to see around the sun's glare in the glass. He frowns. "What the hell?" He goes up and plants his hand between the window and his brow, taking a good long look.
I stroke the remainder of my lap and float poolside. "What?" I frown up at him.
"What do you see?"
He stares inside, transfixed. The neglected cigarette smolders down at his side. He's whispering a prayer—that's what it sounds like at first. But then I realize he's just cursing an endless stream of profanities, invoking every member of the Holy
Trinity as well as their entire extended family.
With a grimace and a grunt, I climb out and stagger to my feet, blinking and dripping, up to the window beside him. I squint at my water-logged reflection in the glass and pluck at my clingy shorts, peering at the vacant gym inside, the blank TV's, the mirrored wall exposing our curiosity.
"Look." He jabs the index finger of his cigarette hand against the window without turning toward me. "The hallway in there."
I wipe residual chlorinated water from my eyes and lean into the window with one hand to block the glare, staring past the exercise equipment, through the glass door on the other side to the short hallway beyond and the restrooms—one for men, one for women—with a drinking fountain in between. The lights are off in there, same as the gym, but the sunlight behind me streaks inside and shines across wide granite floor tiles.
"What do you suppose that is?" His voice is low and husky; his breath steams up the glass.
At first, I can't tell what he's referring to. My eyes have to adjust to the glare on the tile. But from this angle, I think I can see something—and I don't like the looks of it.
"You mean—" I turn toward him.
"On the floor, by the women's restroom?"
"Yeah. You thinking what I'm thinking?"
I don't know. "It looks like—"
"We should check it out." He steps back from the window to fling his cigarette to the pavement and grind it under a sandal sole.
I glance at him, return my gaze to the hallway inside. "Yeah, maybe."
"You want to dry off first?" He gestures toward my beach towel, tossed over one of the lounge chairs and drifting flippantly in the breeze.
I reach for it with a frown, the image of the stained floor tiles vivid in my mind.
"You don't think—"
"Won't know what to think until we've had us a closer look." He sticks out his hand, a gesture that strikes me as foreign in the moment. "I'm Gerard, by the way."
I introduce myself, but my heart isn't in it.
"Greek?" His grip is firm, dry and brief.
"What?" I run the towel over my hairy arms and chest.
"I think so." My parents got it from a Planet of the Apes movie, but I don't tell him that.
"Well, I won't hold it against you." He winks at me.
I toss the towel back over the chair and tug on my white undershirt.
"Ready?" He turns toward the gate and the gym door beyond.
"You think we should—I don't know. Call somebody?" I hesitate.
"You've got their number?"
Oddly enough, I do. Paul, the facilities manager, painted my front door last summer, gave it a fresh coat of oil-based paint that wouldn't fade from army green to gray in direct sunlight. But my phone is back home.
"How about we see what we've got first." He cocks his head in a follow me sort of way and pushes through the gate, pausing at the gym door. He doesn't try the handle. "Got your key?" He glances back, expecting me to have it.
"Yeah." I fish it out of my soggy pocket. The pool/gym key is one and the same.
"Don't have mine on me." He steps back, allowing space for me to unlock the door.
"How'd you get in?"
"To the pool? You left the gate open."
I nod absently. The gate doesn't always shut itself completely, and I've often found it open a crack early in the mornings.
The lock clicks, and I jiggle the handle, press it down and heave the door open. Motion sensors inside kick the lights on, narrow fluorescents in the ceiling that ping and flicker to life. I step in and hold the door open for Gerard.
"Well?" He shuffles in behind me.
It's blood. It has to be. A whole lot of it, pooling up outside the door to the women's restroom, seeping out from underneath. Thick as wet paint, it's darker at the door, thinner and fermented like wine at the periphery of the puddle.
"We've got to call the police." I stumble backward, reaching for the exterior door; but instead I'm gripping the handle to the gym. How did I get turned around? And why is this hallway lurching now to the left?
Gerard grabs me by the shoulder. "Steady, neighbor. You okay?"
If what we're looking at is what I think we're looking at--
"Somebody's in there," I manage, pointing toward the ladies room.
"What's left of ‘em." He nods. The blood doesn't seem to have the same effect on him.
"I'll go—I'll call them. The police." I reach for the exterior door.
"You're gonna leave me?" He still has a hand on my shoulder. "Here alone?" But he doesn't sound afraid. His tone is more like, Are you sure that's what you want to do?
"We should call them right now."
"Before we even know what we've got?"
He wants to look, to open the restroom door and see what's inside. Morbid curiosity at its best. I'm cold at the thought of it.
"C'mon." He nudges me toward the puddle. "I've got my cell." He digs the flip-phone out of his cargo shorts and holds it up, the same one he was on all last week, pacing and smoking, talking in irate tones to whomever was on the other end. Ex-wife, perhaps? "We'll take a look, then give the cops a call. Hell, it might just be a dog or something. Some stupid kid's idea of a joke."
There's too much blood for it to be an animal. It fills the gap under the door, and it's spreading. Hard to tell at first glance, but if you use the grout between the tiles to gauge its progress--
"You want to . . . ?" We're maybe a tile and a half from the puddle's perimeter. I gesture toward the restroom door. There's no way we'll be able to open it—and hold it open—without stepping into the blood.
"Go ahead. I'll make the call."
I swallow. My throat is tight and dry.
"Don't you want to know what's in there?" He doesn't remove his gaze from the sluggish outflow under the door.
"I'd feel better knowing they were on the line, you know? The police?"
"I should call them now, when all we've got is a puddle of paint?"
"You know it's not—"
"How dumb would that look?"
"Yeah, you're sure about that?" He looks me in the eye. Again, I can see there's no feeling behind his gaze. "You know something I don't, neighbor?"
"Of course not. I mean, I don't know—"
"Then why don't you open that damned door, and we'll see." He's losing patience with me.
Why doesn't he open it himself? I guess I'm closer to it. He's kind of herded me this way, and he's standing there with his sandals spread, hands on his hips. His body language says he's in charge, and I'd better not even think of crossing him. Some kind of residual military aura.
"Don't tell me you're not curious," he says.
I guess I am. It's just that my nerves and my curiosity are at odds with each other right now.
"What if the killer is in there—" I whisper. "—still cutting them up?"
He grins at that, almost laughs out loud. "Man, you've got a real imagination."
He's right. We would hear something like that going on.
"It's fresh, like it's still . . . flowing in there."
He shrugs up one shoulder. "Can't say."
"Okay." I blow out a short sigh. Time to grab the bull by the horns. There might be somebody inside needing our help. Unlikely, considering the volume of blood here, but it's in the realm of possibility. And it's not doing them any good taking my sweet time. "Here we go."
I reach out, fingers spread to make contact with the restroom door, and I grit my teeth as I take the inevitable first step into the puddle of blood. The suction of my flip-flop's sole strikes me as the most horrific sensation I've ever experienced. Worse than accidentally stepping on cockroaches as a kid during those midnight trips to the bathroom, feeling them pop and squirt under my bare heel.
I glance back at Gerard. "Ready to make that call?"
He nods, flips open his phone, trains his eyes, unblinking, on the door before me. The blue stick figure there, round, bald head, triangular skirt—I'll be seeing her in my nightmares, I know it.
The door swings open with ease as I push, driving back the blood and skimming it off to the side, smearing it away from its true course.
"Well?" He remains rooted, keeping his distance.
"I don't—" I give the restroom a cursory glance, tracking the blood flow to the third stall, the one against the back wall. The doors to all three stalls are shut. I crouch with my arm extended behind me, holding the door open, and peer under the first stall, then the second. No one there.
"What do you see?" Gerard insists.
"It's coming from the last stall, looks like."
"Go take a closer look."
"Yeah." I glance back, nod at the door. I don't like the idea of it shutting behind me.
But he doesn't seem to comprehend my body language. "Want to hold it?"
He makes no move toward the door. "Go ahead, I'll be right here." He holds up the phone again. "Ready."
Big help he is. Maybe he just wants to step out for a smoke.
"Thanks," I mutter, crossing the blood stream to where the floor remains clean. The restroom door swings shut behind me as I step forward, one flip-flop after the other, tracking red prints across the otherwise pristine floor tiles.
That's the one, the source: stall number three. I feel like I'm on some kind of horror-themed game show. All right Johnny, show us what's behind Door Number Three! A new car? A pair of jet skis? No, just an obese neighbor on the pot with her throat cut!
I grit my teeth. Gerard's right about one thing: I do have a wild imagination. And right now, it's working against me.
I inch my way to the third stall and reach for it, doing my best to sidestep the thick flow issuing from inside, and I glance back at the door, maybe hoping for some kind of deus ex machina to save me from my fate. Nothing doing. I'm all alone in this moment, just me and my morbid curiosity—and the source of all this blood.
"Hello?" My voice echoes, jarring me. "Is someone in there?"
I press my palm against the cold stall door, applying just enough pressure to check if it's latched shut. It swings inward, creaking on its hinges, yawning open to reveal a toilet backed up like nobody's business, with red paint oozing thick, bubbling out of the full bowl, down the sides and across the floor like something from The Shining. Two empty gallon cans sit on top of the tank.
I can only stare at them, wondering why. Then I realize I don't care why. Overcome by a wave of relief at the sight—that nobody's in here bleeding to death, that it's all some kind of elaborate prank—I fall against the stall and laugh out loud.
"Oh boy." I feel lighter than air. "It's paint!" I shout over my shoulder. "Just paint!" Mixed with toilet water, thinned out a little, but it sure looked like blood at first glance.
But no, it's not paint. I would have smelled it, known what it was. This is something else.
I slide my finger around the rim of the first can, then the second. Give it a whiff.
Definitely not paint. Pig's blood? Cow's? I didn't want to think of where else it might have come from. Paul the facilities guy has been touching up some of the curbs around the complex—fire code and whatnot. Paint would have made a lot more sense. Who would have carried paint cans full of blood in here? Why?
Probably those pot-smoking punks who like to ride their skateboards into the pool and piss on the potted plants. The dropouts. Their idea of fun: create this horrific mess to scare the crap out of their fellow residents. Real nice.
Shaking my head at the whole situation, I exit the stall and head back to the restroom door. Gerard's going to have to see this for himself.
It's been a true neighborhood bonding experience, one worthy of the San Diego Reader. I feel a little bad for thinking he was some kind of weirdo. But the way he kept arguing on his phone and looking at me--
I can hear him now, just a few feet away from the restroom door. Probably standing outside and smoking another cigarette, the addict.
"Gerard?" I rest my hand on the door handle, prepare to pull it open.
His side of the argument rises in volume, and I notice another voice arguing back, a woman's, high-pitched and strained. He's obviously not on the phone. And he's not alone out there. I press my ear against the door. Snatches of their interchange come through.
Woman: "—that's what you get when you—"
Gerard: "—not tossin' me out on my ass like that. You've got no—"
Woman: "—police and they will—"
Gerard: "—have the money when—"
"Woman: "—three months already and no rent—?"
His sandals shuffle with sudden ferocity, and the woman's squeal is cut short. There's a scuffle, and something heavy slams against the other side of the doorframe. I jerk back.
Are they fighting, Gerard and this woman? It's come to blows, and from the sound of things, the woman is getting the worst of it, releasing whimpers in short bursts as each of Gerard's fists land hard.
Should I intervene? If only I had my phone, I'd call the police and--
A final thump against the wall, then everything is quiet out there. No footsteps, no heavy breathing, no more squeals or whimpers. Did he knock her out? Or worse: Did he kill her?
I'm a witness to murder. I've just heard Gerard take this woman's life. And my fingerprints—they're on everything. I'm more than just a witness; I'm an accomplice. Was all of this some kind of setup, planned from the start? And now I'm the patsy, ready to take a big fall.
Too much old gangster movie slang is whirling through my head, and I'm finding it hard to think straight. What will Gerard do now? Come in and whack me, too? I jam the doorstop into place beneath the door. It might slow him down.
Too much imagination? Not this time.
I've got to find another way out of here. But first, my fingerprints—I can't leave them behind. They would make me the prime suspect. What have I touched? I whip off my shirt and glance back at the stall with the bleeding toilet.
The stall door. The paint cans. Anything else? No, that was it. The handle on the restroom door, but I can take care of that later. For now--
I scrub the door and the rims of the paint cans with my shirt, smearing red across the white cotton. The stains won't come out, but I can toss it in the dumpster on the way back to my condo.
What if somebody is watching? What will they think? I know what I'd think: a killer's disposing the evidence.
I swallow hard, turn toward the restroom door. I notice the tracks I made with my flip-flops and scrub them away with my shirt. I take off my shoes and inspect their stained soles. I wrap them up in my shirt. Every sign that I was ever here can't be here when the police arrive.
I won't go straight home. I'll leave through the back gate once I've expunged all my prints. Only the doors are left. That's all I've touched. I'm sure of it.
That bastard. Gerard had me open each of them. He'd planned everything from the start.
I have to hurry, get out before anybody shows up. The old Indian woman might arrive at any moment to start up the treadmill. She'll see the body outside and scream, and then she'll see me with my stained shirt and I'll tell her it's just paint, but that won't matter. She'll call the police, and there will go my summer vacation, right down the crapper, as I spend the next few weeks trying to explain all of this away. As if I even could!
There's no other way out of here. I go back to the door and listen, planting my ear against it. Silence. Gerard must have fled the scene.
I hope he's not waiting for me.
I remove the doorstop and pull the door open. It skims the surface of the paint. There's a body lying on the floor outside. The upper torso is out of view, but there are the cargo shorts, the hairy legs, the sandals.
Gerard lies flat on his back. The blood congeals around him, soaking into his clothes, his skin. His eyes are shut but his mouth gapes up at the fluorescent lights in the ceiling like he's frozen mid-snore. I can't tell if he's breathing.
My shirt is stained pretty bad now, but I find a clean patch and scrub at the handle on the restroom door's interior side, the brass plate on its exterior. No fingerprints remain to be seen—not mine, not anybody's.
I creep on tiptoe across the cold tiles and wipe the handle on the exterior door. I glance into the gym; it's empty for now, but the Indian woman has to be on her way. She's always in there this time of day.
The door handle is clean. None of my prints remain anywhere, finger or flip-flop. I frown, staring down at my bare feet. Is there such a thing as toe prints? Can the police check for them?
Footsteps and voices approach as the gate to the pool area clangs shut. I look up just as two police officers head this way, escorted by none other than the old Indian woman, gesticulating and explaining something, her words tumbling out.
"Why don't you just show us, ma'am," suggests the cop on her right, a bald walrus with a mustache that could sell plenty of oatmeal.
"Yes, this way," she says, bobbing her head.
Seconds too late. I'm trapped here. If I hadn't wasted time worrying about toe prints--
"Hold it right there." The other cop, a woman with over-erect posture and a brunette French braid, holds up a hand as soon as she spots me hovering in the doorway. "Sir, please stay right where you are."
"He's—" I point lamely back at Gerard, my knees swimming in their sockets.
She focuses on his body, gestures for her partner to handle me as she goes to the stream of blood. She kneels beside Gerard and checks his vitals.
"Do you recognize this man?" the walrus cop interrogates the Indian woman. But he's not referring to Gerard. He's looking right at me and glancing at the stained bundle in my arms.
"No, I don't know him." She shrugs in a quick, lopsided movement of her frail shoulders. "He swims here in the pool—"
"Right," I nod. "And I've seen you in the gym, every day on the treadmill."
She frowns at the body on the floor and holds both of her dark, wilted hands to her face. "Will he be all right?"
The she-cop speaks into a radio on her shoulder, gives some kind of code. 10-54, it sounds like. Dead on arrival, maybe?
"Can you explain what you're doing here, sir?" Walrus asks me.
"I was swimming. I . . . was in the bathroom and—"
"What's that on your shirt there?"
"This? Oh—" Nervous chuckle. "It's—"
The Indian woman lets out a short whimper, almost a squeal. "Did you do this?" She turns wide eyes up to me. "Did you hurt this man? Why?"
I stare back at her, unable to put the right words together. "No, I—" I face Walrus.
"There was a woman here, before. I heard them arguing, something about rent. And—"
"Know anything about this?" Walrus asks Indian woman.
She nods in a series of jerks, gesturing toward Gerard's body. "This man, he is a tenant of mine. I remind him his rent is due, and—"
"They were fighting." I point at her. "She did it. She did this. She killed him."
"Killed?" She gasps, horrified. "How could I do such a thing? I am an old woman!"
"When did you tell him about the rent?" Walrus has one hand on his night stick, and he keeps glancing at me in a way I don't find reassuring.
"I tell him about the rent, I go into the gym." She rests her hand on the gym door's handle. (Smart move. Prints. I know for a fact she wasn't in the gym at all.) "I start on the treadmill, and I think I hear something. I come out, and this!" She throws up her hands.
I point at Gerard. "He tried to kill her—she was going to evict him or something, and they've been arguing on the phone all week. But she got to him first—"
The Indian woman shrieks, aghast. A familiar sound. I heard something like it through the door earlier. The cop makes a snide remark about the size of my imagination, and he tells me I'll have plenty of time to explain things at the police station.
I'm just glad my fingerprints are gone, honestly. And as for my toe prints, maybe they'll be able to clear up the whole issue for me, once I'm at the station. Do they ever check for those at crime scenes? It makes sense that they would.
What doesn't make sense is the way this old lady is accusing me of committing the crime she committed. But who's to say differently? The only other witness is lying there in a pool of something else's blood.
As things turned out, I was exonerated despite my toe prints due to a lack of evidence, lack of motive, etc. But Officer Walrus told me not to leave town anytime soon, that the authorities might have some more questions for me at a later date. Fine by me, I said, as long as I could enjoy the rest of my summer in peace before the school year started up again.
The Indian lady—Anshula, her named turned out to be—was convicted of manslaughter, but her attorney pled self-defense and the jury bought it. I probably would have, too, even if I hadn't been listening through that door. Gerard had attacked her, and she'd struggled, hitting him as hard as she could as many times as she could; but the real damage had been done by the blood on the floor. He'd slipped and fallen to his death. Talk about a freak accident.
Anyhow, I eventually forgave her for trying to pin Gerard's murder on me. In the heat of the moment, emotions were running pretty high back there, and I had every appearance of being prime suspect numero uno. Had Gerard planned from the start to kill Anshula, his landlady, and make it look like I'd done it? I don't know.
Nothing about the situation made a whole lot of sense.
But the good news is that Gerard isn't around anymore to stalk me while I swim, and I can't say I miss him. Even so, I've decided to start paying the $3.50 a day to swim at the community center down the street. The lap pool over there is a heck of a lot cleaner, and the only person who watches me swim my daily thirty-odd laps is the showtune-whistling lifeguard.
So far, it's been a smoke-free environment.