CRIMSON HOUSE BOOKS
BY SUSANNA SHORE
PARANORMAL AND CONTEMPORARY ROMANCES, COSY MYSTERIES
Tracy Hayes, P.I. and Proud
I was climbing out of a dumpster when I found the body. It was wedged between the wall and the large trash container, and couldn’t be seen except from where I was perched. A good thing, then, that I was there.
Mind you, I hadn’t meant to be in the dumpster. I wasn’t dumpster diving—this time around. I wasn’t broke—at the moment anyway—or ecologically aware. I was a P.I.—well, an apprentice of one—and going through people’s trash was a viable method for finding evidence, so sooner or later I’d have to do that. But I wasn’t here for that either. Based on my experience today, I wasn’t looking forward to it.
No, I’d climbed on the dumpster in order to reach the bottom rung of the fire escape ladder that was right above it. Being only five-foot-six, I needed the boost. Not that it had been easy to climb on the lid of the dumpster either, but I’d persevered.
Then the damn thing had given up under me, plunging me into the smelly depths. The plastic trash bags had softened my landing, but quite a few of them had broken on impact. There was a wet spot on the bottom of my jeans, and what I hoped were coffee grounds in my sneaker. I really didn’t want to know what was clinging from my hair.
Climbing out of the dumpster wasn’t any easier than climbing up on it. I’d managed to pull my upper half through the hatch and was taking a small rest, balancing on my stomach halfway in and out—not as comfortable as you might think—when I saw the dead woman. Only the legs were visible from my vantage point, but they were delicate and finely formed, and there were pretty high-heeled slippers on her feet, so I was certain it was a woman.
I froze for a few heartbeats, not entirely believing my eyes. I’d never seen a body before, and I definitely hadn’t expected to see one here. Well, not a dead body anyway. I was trailing a cheating husband, and if I’d managed to climb up the fire escape and get a peek through the window, who knows what kind of body I might have seen.
Then again: eww.
More to the point, this wasn’t a back yard in a crime-infested slum. This was a respectable neighborhood, and the alley hosting the dumpster was closed in with a tall wire-net fencing and a locked gate. Dead bodies weren’t expected here.
Recovering my senses, I dragged myself out of the dumpster, and after some maneuvering managed to drop on my feet without falling or tearing my clothes. Quite impressive, actually, for a woman with my physique.
I took a quick stock of my appearance, but there wasn’t much I could do to improve it. I wiped my hands on the legs of my jeans—no change in their griminess—took off my sneaker to pour out the coffee grounds, picked out the icky stuff from my hair without looking at what it had been—the texture and smell made me think of fish skin—and noticed that I’d lost my butterfly hairclips in the dumpster.
That upset me. I loved those hairclips. I’d paid dearly for those hairclips. I liked how they made my boss give me puzzled looks, as if he was wondering why he had hired a seven-year-old instead of a twenty-seven year old. But no way was I diving back in to fetch them. I’d sooner drive to Brownsville where I’d got them—not a nice neighborhood—and buy new overpriced hairclips.
Sighing for the loss, I dug my phone out of my only slightly dirty messenger bag. I hadn’t fallen on it—this time round—and my phone hadn’t suffered from the impact.
“I found a body,” I said the moment my call was answered.
My boss was silent for a few heartbeats. “Did you call the police?”
“No, I called you. I don’t know what to do.”
“You call the police. That’s what you do when you find a body,” Jackson Dean said with a patient tone. He was good with that tone. I heard it often. I’d only begun as his apprentice at Jackson Dean Investigations three weeks ago, and I had a lot to learn.
“I know that. I’m not an idiot, and I have two cops in my family. I called you because I’m not sure if I should be here when the police arrive or not.”
He sighed. “Where are you?”
“Somewhere in Gravesend.” It was at the southern end of Brooklyn, before Coney Island.
“What the hell are you doing there?”
“You told me to keep on that guy’s tail. He came here. I followed.”
“And did you do anything illegal that would make it necessary that you’re not there when the police arrive?” I had to think about it and he groaned: “Tracy?”
“Well, I’m in this side alley that’s closed with a locked gate,” I confessed. “But a woman came out of there and she kindly held the gate open for me.”
“And where is the body?”
“Behind the dumpster in the alley.”
“The closed and locked alley?”
“Okay, I guess you haven’t done anything illegal. Call the police. And don’t move. I’ll come fetch you.” I gave him the address and he hung up. I called the 911.
The 61st Precinct wasn’t far and it didn’t take the first patrol car long to arrive. I was waiting by the locked gate ready to let the police in—and keep everyone else out. Two uniformed officers, one seasoned cop close to retirement and his much younger partner, came over to me, nodded, and then took an involuntary step back.
“Sorry about the smell,” I said, embarrassed. “I fell in the dumpster.”
“And how did that come about?” the older cop asked with a long-suffering voice.
“I’m a P.I. It kind of comes with the job.” I wasn’t going to confess I’d been about to climb the fire escape to take a look through someone’s window. I was pretty sure that was illegal. Or at least seriously frowned upon.
“Can I see some identification, please?”
I dug out the laminated P.I. ID from my bag. I hadn’t had many chances to show it yet, so I felt excessively proud when I gave it to the cop, who studied it closely. In my current state, I wasn’t sure I matched the photo.
Then again, it was a bad photo.
“Tracy Hayes.” He frowned. “I’m not sure I know of Jackson Dean.”
“He used to be a homicide detective at the 70th.”
That seemed to be good enough for him, because he gave the card back and asked me to show them the body. I took the men to the dumpster and pointed behind it, not looking myself. I really, really didn’t want to witness more than the feet I’d already seen.
“Have you touched it?”
Make that a hell no.
It was dim in the alley, the tall buildings on both sides blocking much of the morning light. The older cop took out a heavy duty flashlight from his belt and leaned against the wall to point the beam at the body. He couldn’t get much closer than the feet without moving the dumpster, but it was close enough.
He pulled back, looking ill. “Shit. Was the gate closed when you came?”
“Yes.” Sort of.
He sighed and addressed his partner. “Better call this in. Someone’s bashed the poor lady’s head in.” I fought the nausea his choice of words caused. The younger man took out his radio and the older guy gave me a grim look. “Hell of a way to start a Sunday, if you’ll pardon my French.”
“At least you’re not covered in fish entrails.”
That made him smile.
He ushered me out of the alley, but told me to wait for the detectives, so I leaned against the brick wall of the building into which I’d been trying to get a peek. People were already gathering to stare, most of them in their Sunday best, having been on their way to church. No one came near me and I didn’t wonder it. I reeked.
More patrol cars came, spewing out uniformed cops who began cordoning off the area. I showed them my P.I. card and told them I was the one who found the body, and they let me be.
The forensics team arrived in their van. A man and a woman got out, put on their white disposable overalls, and carried their heavy kit to the crime scene. I watched them work with fascinated interest. I’d never been to a crime scene before and wanted to know everything.
Finally a black Ford Edge pulled over behind the patrol cars, and to my utter delight my brother Trevor exited. When you’ve found your first body, family was exactly who you wanted to see. If said family member was a homicide detective, even better.
Trevor was four years older than me, half a foot taller, and quite a bit more muscled, though otherwise we looked a lot like. He had Mom’s strawberry-blond hair, and green eyes on a lightly-freckled, manly face, whereas my auburn hair came from a can and my blue eyes from Dad. My more feminine body came from Mom by way of various Brooklyn cafés. I’d worked years as a waitress, and free donuts had been one of the very few perks.
The only perk, come to think of it.
I don’t know which of us was more surprised to see the other. “What the hell, Tracy?” He looked more worried than angry when he leaned over to give me a hug, only to pull hastily back. “Whoa. What did you do, bathe in dead fish?”
“I fell into a dumpster.”
“Why am I not surprised. I take it was you who found the body, then?”
“Yes.” I nodded a greeting at his partner, Detective Blair Kelley, a forty-something tall and commanding black woman, who had come in with Trevor. She nodded back from a safe distance, a small smile on her face.
“So how come you’re here?” I asked my brother. “You work in the 70th.”
“It’s Sunday. We don’t exactly keep homicide detectives on call in every precinct.”
You learn something new every day.
“Stay put. We’ll take a look at the crime scene, then you’re going to tell me everything.”
“I can’t wait.”
Trevor and Detective Kelley took their time. I watched them study the victim, the dumpster, and the small alley, and then talk to the forensics team. I’d never seen my brother at work. He looked pretty confident and in command, even though he was the junior in the partnership. Made me really proud of him.
When they were done, Trevor came to fetch me. “Let’s go through everything.” We entered the alley through the gate and I had to sign a crime scene log a uniformed cop held out for me. That was exciting too.
“Was this locked?”
“Yes, but a woman exited, having taken the trash into the dumpster, and she held the gate open for me.”
“What was the woman like?”
“Old and frail.”
I said it lightly to indicate she wasn’t a likely suspect, but my brother wasn’t amused. “Why did you come into this alley in the first place?”
That was where it got a bit sensitive. “I was following this man and wanted to look into the apartment he went into.”
“That’s not exactly legal, you know.”
“I didn’t plan on being caught.” My brother gave me a slow look. I ignored him. “I climbed on the dumpster to reach the ladder, but the lid gave in.”
He grinned. “Hence the smell.”
My nose had mercifully stopped working. “Anyway, as I climbed out I found her.”
“And you didn’t touch her?” I shook my head. “Or move the dumpster?”
It was my turn to give a slow look. “With what muscles?” It was a huge dumpster.
“You’re saying it was already placed under the fire escape?” Detective Kelley asked sharply.
“Not exactly a legal place for it.”
“Maybe someone else had wanted to climb the ladder,” I suggested. She looked thoughtful.
“Or whoever killed the woman wanted to hide the body.”
I frowned. “Wouldn’t it have been easier to move the body then?”
Both detectives nodded. “Possibly,” Trevor admitted. “But there was quite a lot of blood that would’ve left a trail if the body was moved.”
The mental image made me queasy, but I stifled it. “So she was killed here?”
“Difficult to say until we’ve examined the body,” Kelley said.
“But the dumpster was more convenient to move?”
My brother nodded. “Yep.”
“And whoever moved it would have to be stronger than me?”
“So the killer is a guy?”
Trevor looked grim. “I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, but this looks like a crime of passion, so yes.”
“How so?” I shuddered to think what sort of passion caused a person to bash someone’s head in.
“Based on the woman’s attire—she’s wearing a negligee and slippers the kind you wear for a lover—and also because it takes great emotion to kill that way.”
I could believe that.
Trevor and I exited the alley while Detective Kelley stayed to watch the uniformed officers move the dumpster so that the forensics team could access the body. I didn’t want to see what the container had hid and turned away from the scene.
“Now, would you care to tell me what the hell were you doing here in the first place?”
I gave him a lofty look. “That would breach client confidentiality.”
“Right…” he drawled.
I was actually itching to share my brilliance with him, so I stopped pretending: “I was trailing a man on behalf of his wife.”
“On a Sunday morning?”
“Yes. The wife believes he’s having an affair, and I had to follow him to find where he went when he wasn’t home. Jackson trailed him to an apartment in Williamsburg last night, and when he didn’t come out he told me to go keep an eye on the place this morning. So I did. And when he came out I followed him here.”
“How? You don’t have a car.”
“Neither did he.” That had been the best part. No one paid attention to people in the subway. Staying on his track had been easy.
“And he lives here?”
I smiled. “Nope. Which was why I wanted to take a look inside the apartment. I followed him into the building and found the apartment he went into. I would’ve seen into it from the fire escape.”
“Of course you would,” my brother sighed, put out.
The crowd on the street was pretty thick by now and I scanned it idly as we talked. I wasn’t terribly surprised to see the man I’d been tracking in the front row, looking as curious as everyone else there.
“If you glance to your left, he’s there right in the front. In his mid-forties, shortish, with spiky black hair. Not much of a looker.”
That had baffled me when Jackson first showed me his photo. I’d always thought that only handsome men had extramarital affairs—men like my bastard of an ex—but Jackson had laughed and told me it was nothing of the kind.
Trevor scanned the people and nodded. “The locked gate means the most likely killer is among these onlookers, because they’re the only ones with access.” I hadn’t thought about it and took a renewed interest in the people gawping at the crime scene. They all seemed so ordinary it was almost impossible to imagine they’d commit such a brutal murder.
“Except your mark,” he continued. “He has an alibi. Depending on time of death, of course.”
I nodded. “Jackson can confirm his whereabouts till midnight. I got there a little after seven. That would leave him plenty of time to come here, kill the woman, and then return to the first address.”
“That would imply that he knew you were following him and would provide the alibi.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. “Perhaps he was hoping the woman he was with would provide the alibi.” Then I shook my head. “But we shouldn’t suspect the poor man just because he’s having multiple affairs.”
“He could be here to visit a family member. You can’t actually prove he’s having an affair with more than one woman.”
No, I couldn’t, because they couldn’t make dumpster lids that would take the perfectly normal weight of a P.I.
Detective Kelley came over to us, holding an envelope. “She had this in her pocket. Sheila Rinaldi. She lives in apartment thirty-two here.” She nodded at the building I was leaning against.
“Out with it,” my brother said.
“That’s the apartment my mark went into.”
Trevor was instantly electrified. Without a word he crossed the street to where the man had been only moments before. But he wasn’t there anymore.
“Where the fuck did he go?”
The crowd parted around Trevor, both helping and hindering him as they did. I wasn’t tall enough to see over the heads of the onlookers, but I stood on tiptoes and stretched my torso as if it would help. The streets were wide and straight and you could see well in all directions, but the man wasn’t there.
“Perhaps he went back in the apartment,” I suggested.
“That would be stupid of him if he’s the killer,” Detective Kelley said. “Do you have his picture?”
I dug out my smartphone and opened the photo for her to see. She took the phone and gathered the uniformed officers around her.
“Listen up! As of this moment, this man is a person of interest.” She circled among the cops so they could take a good look at the photo. “His name is—” She paused because she didn’t know and glanced at me.
“Larry Williams,” I provided. “He’s only about my height and fairly slender, but wiry muscled, so he can probably outrun everyone if he needs to.” That earned me a few grim smiles. “He’s wearing black slacks and a light-green silk shirt, and has a heavy gold chain around his neck.”
The approving look Kelley gave me made me feel great.
She gave the phone back. “Let’s go take a look at the apartment.”
“Can I come too?” I asked hopefully.
“Well, I guess I’ve kind of gotten used to the smell already.”
A steel gray Toyota Camry pulled over outside the main entrance just as we were about to go in and my boss got out. I’d thought he would be here sooner. He lived in Marine Park, which wasn’t far, and Sunday traffic wasn’t exactly heavy around these parts.
In his mid-thirties, he was a former homicide detective turned P.I. He had a nicely built, long-legged body, a face that seemed average and unnoticeable until it didn’t—he filled it with strong character from the inside—brown hair, neat—now that Cheryl Walker, the agency secretary, had made him have it cut a couple of days ago—and slightly damp, as if he’d recently showered. And his brown eyes saw through all the bullshit you tried to give him.
He came straight to me, and like everyone else stopped and stepped back a good distance away. The worry in his eyes turned to glee. “I see you left something out of your report.”
I glanced at my clothes. Now that they’d begun to dry, I could see that they looked worse than I’d originally thought.
“It didn’t seem important. What kept you?”
“I was running in the park. Took me a while to get back home.” Hence the shower-damp hair, then.
“Are you two coming or what?” Kelley asked, and we followed her and Trevor into the building.
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