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The Troubleshooters

by Tabaré Alvarez

part 2 of 5

Once the super had unlocked 501 for them, Mrs. Medina thanked him and told him they’d stop by his office on the way down. It was a dismissal, and he was just smart enough for it to rankle him. He pursed his lips and mumbled under his breath, and Dutch had to give him that last little bit of encouragement by sidling up to him companionably. The super left.

Mrs. Medina raised a pale eyebrow at Dutch. “That was ‘sleepy’?”

“The complete name is a little unwieldy.” He swung the door inward. The hinges creaked, and the door itself caught a little as it made its arc, as though it were pushing aside someone. An image flashed in Dutch’s head, which he instantly suppressed, of a frail, elderly body on the floor, being nudged aside by an opening door.

The light was on inside. Dutch closed his eyes for a second, then kept them focused upward for a few beats, reluctant, despite himself, to look down. A greasy, yellow light was cast by a bare bulb that hung on a simple chain from the ceiling. The bulb swayed a little. Mrs. Medina speculated that perhaps there was an open window somewhere in the apartment and they had created a cross-draft when they opened the front door.

Dutch stepped inside. The door had pushed over a tower of newspapers; that was all it had been. In the room, there was a small antique roll-top writing desk with picture frames resting on handicraft doilies of some sort: knitting, crochet, one of those things.

The oldest picture, in black and white, was of an adult man with a grim face, conceivably a brother of Miss Potter’s or perhaps an old suitor. Dutch knew from the Mayor there was no account of a marriage or of children, but the city had had a few hurricanes over the past eighty years, and paper records could have been lost or damaged.

There was a separate black-and-white photograph of a young, slightly wild-eyed woman: Miss Potter herself, perhaps. The eyes could have simply been lively, reflective of an active intelligence, had they not also bugged out a little.

Cracks grew along the walls. In the dim corners, mosquitoes hovered in funnel-shaped clouds. A calendar from three decades ago hung on a wall, but Miss Potter might have kept it for the art: a Japanese woodblock print of a girl holding onto a bamboo umbrella during a strong gust of wind.

Somewhere a water pipe rumbled. Dutch could still hear the noises from the street, but distant and muted. Then a rushing sound, like hundreds of pebbles pinging against a steel drum, broke the relative silence. Outside, it was raining.

“So much for ‘Tree-Pruning Day’.” Dutch wove through strange piles of newsprint, some of them all pink, assembled from the financial pages, as he searched around for any windows. There were only two: a small one in the bathroom — a room which smelled of rubbing alcohol and mentholatum — and one in the kitchen. They were both closed. He noted, too, that the bed in Miss Potter’s room had been stripped.

So far, more or less within expectations, the apartment was that of an elderly lady living alone. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary except for the stripped bed: there was just the bare mattress, with no sheet, though there was a pillow, still in its pillowcase, on the hardwood floor by the bed.

But there were also these stacks of newsprint arranged in odd places, blocking the normal shortcuts that a person would develop living in the same place over many years. Even if she’d become something of a shut-in, you don’t block the front door; you don’t obstruct the space between the living room and the kitchen; you don’t arrange photos neatly on homemade needlework doilies and then fill the floor with stacks of newspapers. The Mayor had mentioned scratch marks on the floor, but Dutch had yet to find them.

Mrs. Medina said that it wasn’t looking to her like a hoax. That had been one of the Mayor’s concerns. Sans Souci College was a party school, a fact the Mayor had actively disseminated in hopes of attracting more young people to the city and, he claimed, stimulating the college-centered services sector of the local economy.

The Mayor had also originated a rumor about an unknown animal having been sighted downtown. He confessed to Dutch that he was trying to fuel a Loch Ness monster type of subculture that would draw in tourists all year round, not just from October to March, when the wintering crowd would come down to escape the cold. All this — party schools, Bigfoot stuff — had been the problem after the divorce: now he had no filter, and every stray idea saw the light of day.

When the police came to him with the situation, the Mayor had balked. The tenant of an apartment close to the shore, an elderly lady who was something of a recluse (this was Miss Potter) could no longer be found inside; the building’s superintendent had checked. All bills, however, were still being paid, via checks in the mail, drawn from her bank account. The police had also found large quantities of black hair or fur, as well as scratches, as though from claws, on the apartment’s old hardwood floors.

At that point, the likeliest theories, in the Mayor’s fanciful and erratic estimation, had been identity theft (which failed to account for the scratch marks and the shedding) or a college prank, someone trying to make it look as though a mysterious predator — a Sasquatch-type bogeyman, a chupacabra, something of that sort — had snuck into the apartment and spirited away its tenant. The Mayor didn’t want to open an official investigation until he was sure this was legitimate; the situation was potentially embarrassing for him, he said, as he had started the whole monster business himself.

But on the chance that something sinister really was afoot, he could not afford to ignore the matter (as it would eventually surface, and that, too, would be embarrassing). So he had called Dutch, instructing him to take Mrs. Medina with him this time, and he had given the two of them the following mandate: Take a look. If you see enough that you grow convinced it’s not a prank or a hoax, turn it back over to the police.

Mrs. Medina was scanning the hardwood floor carefully, threading her way through the mounds of grey and pink newsprint. “If the scratch marks are under a newspaper pile,” she said, “that means someone has been here after the police. I don’t see any hair of any sort, either. Someone’s been tidying up.”

Dutch smoothed out the front of his shirt, recalling the crumbs caught in the super’s chest hair. “Not the super, I don’t think.”

Mrs. Medina’s cell phone was ringing. She took the call. Midway through, she pointed at the phone and, in exaggerated pantomime, mouthed the words, It’s the Mayor.

She put the phone back in her pocket. “I would have put him on speaker, but one time out of three I end up hanging up when I try to do that.”

Dutch nodded. “Same here. And I can take apart and put together a crib blindfolded.”

“He said that, you know, it’s raining” — she pointed in a completely arbitrary direction — “a lot, and he’s worried people might start freaking out. There’s no official watch or warning, but he’s concerned there could be runs on bottled water, batteries, canned goods, duct tape — everything that happens in the city when someone so much as thinks the word hurricane.”

In his head, Dutch was already playing back his movements this morning, trying to remember whether he had left any windows open. “Do you want to get anything for your place?”

“There’s no actual watch or warning,” she said, flicking her eyes up at him. She turned her palms up. “So, you know, it’s just, what, regular rain.”

After a beat, he saw a flutter of fear cross her face, as though she was afraid she had talked down to him, smart person to dumb person, and offended him.

“Wow.” He smiled. “What a drama queen. Starting to understand the divorce now.”

“I left him,” she said. She repeated the sentence, emphasizing each of the pronouns in turn. She pointed at herself then at the air that represented the Mayor. “I want that clear for the record.”

“You do know there’s no actual record, right?”

She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him. “So — as we’ve established — the thing isn’t the rain but the possibility of panic. He told me he’s not chancing a riot. In a word, he’s using all the cops now.”

All of them?” Dutch said. “All of the city’s cops.”

Mrs. Medina nodded. “Mm-hm. And the firemen.”

Dutch scratched the side of his nose. “That’s a new one. I guess it’s not going to be ‘Loot-a-TV Day’.”

“That’s bad,” she said, smiling.

He shrugged.

“Where’s-My-Roof Day,” she said. “Tree-in-My-Living-Room Day. Sell-My-Body-for-Some-Potable-Water Day.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “That is...that is... Oh.” He touched his forehead. “You went from, uh, zero to sixty there, huh.”

She was biting into the side of her index finger.

“I’m going to let you suffer there for a little bit,” he said. He walked past her and continued speaking over his shoulder. “I want to see where that draft was coming from earlier.”

She came up behind him and handed him a cigarette lighter.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2009 by Tabaré Alvarez

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