Small Town

Page 27



what was her name?—“with Clara.”

The older woman came, the madam, and she saw Clara lying on her back, then registered the chisel planted in her chest, and looked up at him, naked, advancing on her, and opened her mouth to scream, to cry out, but before she could make a sound he hit her with the hammer. It was a glancing blow and it drove her to her knees. She held up hands curled into claws, she blinked at the blood flowing down her forehead and into her eyes, and he swung the hammer full force and smashed her skull.

Without checking if she was dead he bolted from the room.

Debra was racing for the phone. She tripped over a footstool, righted herself, and had the phone in her hand when he reached her. He wielded the hammer and hit her on the shoulder and she dropped the phone and cried out, and he swung backhand and hit her just above the bridge of the nose. She went sprawling and he rained blows upon her, hammering at her face until her features were unrecognizable.

His own heart was pounding. He steadied himself, got to his feet, and had trouble keeping his balance because the room was spinning. His knees buckled, and the black curtain came down.

Later, when he got around to noting the time, he calculated that he had been out for the better part of a half hour. He had fallen beside Debra, and he had blood all over himself, and he must have left fingerprints all over the place, and she’d cried out between the first and second blows, and someone a floor above could have heard her, could have heard the noise the hammer made, could have heard him when he fell.

He might have awakened to bright lights and sirens. Instead he came to in the midst of silence and death.

He found the bathroom. He showered, used the liquid soap, used the Herbal Essence shampoo. He retrieved the hammer from where it lay beside Debra’s body, the chisel from Clara’s chest, and washed them both in the sink before returning them to the briefcase. He dressed, tied his tie until he got the knot right.

He put his hand into the pocket of his suit jacket and drew out the little turquoise rabbit. He’d been carrying it ever since he took it from Marilyn Fairchild’s apartment, and now he walked over to Clara’s body, got down onto one knee, and placed the rabbit so that it covered the hole the chisel had left in her chest.

What would they make of that?

He went around the apartment, using a hand towel to wipe surfaces he remembered touching and others he might have touched.

But he’d touched the rabbit, hadn’t he? He picked it up and wiped it off and decided he wasn’t ready to leave it behind after all. He put it in his pocket and left Clara’s wound uncovered.

The poor girl . . .

He had the towel over his hand when he turned the doorknob to let himself out, dropped it behind him before he drew the door shut.

He walked crosstown to his hotel. On the way he stopped sev-

eral times to discard the tools from his briefcase, dropping them into three well-separated storm drains. He hadn’t used the big screwdriver, had never even removed it from the briefcase, but he got rid of it just the same, and left the briefcase propped against a trash can. Perhaps someone would get some use out of it.

eleven

FROM THE MOMENThe’d found Marilyn dead in her apartment, the very apartment he’d been so blithely cleaning, opening doors ceased to be a carefree enterprise for Jerry Pankow. He couldn’t turn a key without at least a quiver of anxiety over what he might find on the other side of the door.

Not so much with his commercial clients, the three bars and the whorehouse. But when he called on his once-a-week residential clients, he couldn’t entirely banish the fear of finding a dead person on the premises. He rang the doorbell first, as he had always done, and then he knocked, as always, and then he turned the key in the lock and opened the door and called out Hello! once or twice, and stood still listening for a response.

And after that, after he’d assured himself that there was no one conscious within, he was very careful to survey the entire apartment, to look in every room. Not until he’d determined that he was alone did he set about doing his job.

So far the most unnerving moment had come one afternoon when, after he’d done his routine of ringing and knocking and helloing, he’d walked through a silent apartment to find Kyle Lanza, who worked downtown all day every day, not only home but sprawled flat on his back on his bed, his eyes closed, his arms at his sides. He was wearing sweatpants and a Bad Dog T-shirt—and, Jerry noticed, just in time to keep from losing it altogether, a giant set of earphones. Roused, he was full of apologies. And, thank God, alive.

Time passed, and the apartments he cleaned kept not having dead bodies in them, and he kept up the precautions but lost the apprehension. It was possible to walk in on a dead client, it had in fact happened once, but that didn’t mean it was likely to happen again.

Nor did that July morning come equipped with premonitions.

All he felt was fine, and the sun was out and the sky was clear, and he didn’t have a residential customer today, so he’d made a date with himself—after breakfast he’d be stretched out on a towel on the roof of his building, wearing nothing but sunscreen and Speedos.

He was looking forward to it as he mounted the half-flight of steps to the building on East Twenty-eighth. He gave a wave to the Korean woman in the nail shop, opened the door of the vestibule for the three upstairs floors, rang the third-floor bell, rang again, used his key. There was a bell beside the door leading to the apartment, and he rang that as always and knocked as always and used his other key, and as soon as he opened the door he knew this was going to be a bad day, and he could forget about working on his tan.

The smell hit him the instant he cracked the door. He probably would have noticed it under any circumstances, but he knew what death smelled like and recognized it immediately. He went in anyway and closed the door and threw the bolt, which was ridiculous, because he didn’t have to fear the outside world, where the sun was shining and people were alive. Anything fearful was here, and he’d just gone and locked himself in with it.

Every odor was particulate. He’d heard or read this somewhere, and it was information he wished he didn’t have, because it meant that, if you could smell it, you were breathing it in, you were taking it into your system. But in fact it wasn’t that overpowering, it wasn’t enough to make you gag. It was knowing what it was that made it so upsetting.

And then seeing it. One on the parlor floor, her face unrecognizable, and two in one of the bedrooms, one crumpled at the other’s feet.

God, couldn’t he just go? He’d been there only a few minutes, he hadn’t touched a thing or met a soul, so couldn’t he just slip out and rejoin the world of the living? This job, like all the jobs, was off the books, and he doubted that Molly (with her skull literally smashed in, Christ, who could have done a thing like that?) even knew his last name.

He’d waved to the Korean woman in the nail shop.

But would she remember? And what could she possibly say?

Yes, I see boy come to clean. He wave to me sometime. He nice boy.

She couldn’t exactly tell them anything that would have them making a beeline for his door.

Lois would know what to do.

But he didn’t need to call her to know what she would tell him.

For God’s sake, Jerry, be a grown-up. You’re a citizen and you just discovered three dead bodies, so what the hell do you think you’re supposed to do? Butch up and make the call.

He reached for the phone, saw that the receiver was off the hook. That might be important, he thought. It might be a clue, there might be fingerprints or trace evidence on the phone.

God, he didn’t want to do anything wrong.

He let himself out, found a pay phone at the corner of Third Avenue. It would be easy to keep walking, but he heard Lois’s voice in his head, telling him to butch up, and he dialed 911 and gave his name and the address of the crime scene, and told the operator what he’d found. Yes, he said, he’d wait for the officers at the scene.

T H E R E S P O N D I N G O F F I C E R S W E R E two uniformed cops from the local precinct, a man and woman his own age or younger, and he answered their questions but held back the part he didn’t want to mention. He’d have to, he knew that, but he might as well wait for the detectives to get there. Otherwise he’d only have to go through it a second time.

The detectives were older than he was, which was at once reassuring and intimidating. One was black and one was white, and both were balding and out of shape and looked uncomfortable in their suits and ties.

They went over the same ground the uniforms had covered, but more thoroughly. They wanted to know the routine at the apartment—when did they open, what time did they shut down, how many girls worked there, and did anybody stay on the premises overnight. He answered what he could, explaining that all he did was come in and clean the place when nobody was around. He didn’t even know for sure what sort of establishment it was, inso-far as no one had ever come right out and told him, although it did seem pretty obvious to him. They agreed that it seemed obvious, all right.

Then they wanted to know where he’d been during the past twenty-four hours, and how they could verify his whereabouts. He told them all that, and the black cop made notes, and the white cop said, “Pankow, what’s that, Polish? You grow up in Greenpoint, by any chance?”

Hamtramck, he told them. And where was that, somewhere out on the Island? No, he said, it was a suburb of Detroit, and pre-dominantly Polish.

A lot of Polish people lived in Greenpoint, the cop said, and he agreed that they did. You ought to go there for pierogi and kiel-basa, the cop said. He sometimes did, he said, when he got the chance.

Then he said, “There’s something else you ought to know.” Oh?

God, he didn’t want to do this. But he’d already started, and besides they’d find out themselves and wonder why he hadn’t said anything.

“Last month,” he said. “I had a client in the Village, I used to clean her apartment once a week. Somebody strangled her, and I was the one who discovered the body.”

They stared at him, and the black cop said, “The woman, she sold real estate? And they got the guy, some kind of writer. Aren’t you the guy who—”

“Destroyed the evidence,” he said. “She was in the bedroom so I started in the living room. I thought she was sleeping.”

“Well, they got the guy,” the black cop said, and the white cop said he hoped he hadn’t done any cleaning this time. He assured them he hadn’t.

“These women here,” the white cop said, “you wouldn’t make that mistake. You’d know right away they’re not sleeping.”

T H E B L A C K C O P ’ S N A M E was Arthur Pender. His partner was Dennis Hurley. Pender said, “That is one hell of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say? You think you’re hiring somebody to mop your floors, turns out he’s the angel of death.”

“They already got somebody for the one in the Village,” Hurley said.

“Maybe it gave the kid ideas. Maybe he liked the attention he got finding a body and decided he’d like to find a couple more.”