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The Troubleshooters

by Tabaré Alvarez

part 3 of 5

He stared at the lighter as though it were an artifact from another planet. He made a circling motion around his mouth. “But the palate–”

“Yeah.” It was her turn to shrug. “Not a fan of reality shows, are you? We all smoke.”

He flicked the lighter on and held it up. The flame leaned a little, toward him. He kept walking. “I stick to The History Channel — which is, like, round-the-clock World War II — and the Discovery Channel.”

“So,” Mrs. Medina said, “to summarize. People killing people and animals killing animals. That’s what you watch.”

“Sure. Also animals eating animals and mating with each other.” He walked a few steps and took another reading with the lighter. “And cannibal documentaries and porn. But just for the symmetry.”

“What?” She slapped him on the shoulder. “I can’t believe you said ‘porn’ to me.”

“You can’t believe I said porn to you?” He switched to his left hand but the flicking motion was awkward. “Not ten seconds ago you were broaching the subject of hydrologically-motivated prostitution.”

“Oh, God,” she breathed.

“Yeah,” he said. “Now that’s on the record permanently.”

“I thought th–”

They had been standing in the hallway, next to an open linen closet; the door was propped open, which was peculiar for a linen closet, with a wedge doorstop made of pink rubber. The lighter’s flame now guttered wildly and went out. Dutch snapped it back to life and, once more, the flame died. He turned to Mrs. Medina. “Thoughts?”

She touched the back of her head. “For the life of me, I can only generate melodramatic scenarios right now.”


“Well...” Absently, she squeezed her earlobe between thumb and forefinger. “Just how old, or more to the point, just how nimble was Miss Potter? I’m thinking she was being held here inside her own apartment against her will, signing checks at knifepoint. If she was that much of recluse, this could have gone on for weeks with no one the wiser.

“Then she managed to escape, somehow, out this cupboard. Maybe at some point in the past a single tenant occupied two apartments, one above the other, and he or she converted this into a dumbwaiter. Or else there are spaces between the walls for wires and pipes and maintenance. Or maybe some sort of hidden panic room. Or a place to hide valuables.” She licked her lips. “Or they had a secret family member locked up...”

“Are you doing Jane Eyre or Desperate Housewives? Because I need to adjust my opinion of you accordingly. You know. For the record.”

She pointed straight at his nose. “Dude, you asked me.”

“Fair enough,” Dutch said. He nodded slowly, more a rocking back and forth than actual movement of the head. “Dude.” He smiled widely. “Really? This is how you go street, by saying ‘dude’? You knew, didn’t you, the moment it came out that no way is this guy letting that one go–”

“Give me back my lighter, Holland.” She took it from his hand. She tested the lighter.

Dutch stepped back and took a good look at the linen closet.

“Are you going to break it?” Mrs. Medina said. “Smash through the false back?” From the closet, he took out a folded white towel. “Hold this, will you?” he said. He kept piling sheets and tablecloths and napkins onto her arms until they reached her nose.

She wrinkled her nose. “I can’t just set these down on the floor?”

“They’re linens,” he said.

She scratched her nose against the edge of a folded towel. “You’re obviously convinced that that reply was apropos, and not a non sequitur at all.”

“I think I can fit in here,” he said. “If not, five of you can.”

“Ha ha, that’s very... Thanks. I think it’s this Pilates class at the gym, though my hips — isn’t it always the hips — just seem to, you know...” She trailed off for a moment. “Yes, I think you can fit, or if not, five of me can.”

He took the linens from her, walked back to the living room, and set them down carefully on the roll top desk. “So a cliffhanger about the hips, then?”

She held her head in both hands. “I might be allergic to starch. That’s the one I’m going with.”

Horizontal plywood partitions divided the closet into levels. Dutch removed them. Now he could stand up inside so long as he was turned sideways, with one shoulder out. He pressed against the back wall, but it didn’t budge. He leaned into it with his shoulder, to no effect. He stepped back and kicked at it. The wall — it was just a panel, really — fell forward.

“That kind of counts as breaking it.” She held up her hands. “Just saying.”

Dutch edged his body sideways into the opening. He stretched out his hand for Mrs. Medina’s.

“Oh.” She gave him her hand. It was warm in his, the skin soft, the fingers at once strong and brittle, as though the bones could break if you shook her hand too hard. The closet smelled of starch and mothballs and, now, something like green apples from Mrs. Medina. Dutch kept expecting, perhaps hoping, that she would speak up now with some sensible reservation about what they were doing.

He wriggled into what seemed the crawl space between two walls. Had he come alone, he would have been able to turn around now, but with Mrs. Medina here the words stuck in his throat. It was dark here, and as he shuffled sideways between the walls, Dutch’s chest and back scraped against what felt like simple brick and mortar.

Mrs. Medina adjusted her grip on his hand for a better fit. There was a dripping sound from somewhere, water from a leaking pipe, perhaps, and a damp, dark smell, as of a mushroom cellar. Dutch had lost all sense that he was in the regular world of streets and buildings and regular rain, and though he didn’t have a handle on them yet, he sensed that this new place had different rules.

The path turned four times, by Dutch’s reckoning, though there were no forks and no choices. Finally, through a doorway similar to the linen closet’s, they came out into a dim corridor. What little light they had was coming in from an open door up ahead. Dutch strained to hear any sounds above the droning of the rain outside.

As in Miss Potter’s, the apartment would occasionally creak for no perceivable reason, the wood emitting faint, drawn-out groans that went on so long that, after a while, you couldn’t even be sure they were really happening. Dutch took a step toward the lit room and the floorboards under his foot gave out a tiny, mouse-like shriek.

After his heart settled down again, he turned to Mrs. Medina, patted his stomach, and whispered: “Atkins.” She rounded her eyes at him, brought her finger to her lips in a quick, silent shush, and pointed him forward again, toward the lit room.

The human eye, he told himself, is designed to detect sudden movements. He would opt for a gradual approach, a sideways inching until one eye of his had cleared the edge of the doorframe. An idea popped in his head of simply sticking out his cell phone and taking a picture, but he had already built up the moment too much.

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2009 by Tabaré Alvarez

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