The Cold Case

Her name was Death. I looked at my receptionist’s note again, squinted, then reached for my glasses. Her name was D’Eath. Surname, that is. Her first was Maryanne, which was far easier to parse.

She looked over at me. I should say “down,” in the interests of accuracy. She looked down, then, and her face was a puzzle.

“As if the height isn’t enough?” I asked her. I like to get those things out of the way up-front: framing, I think it’s called.

“I’m sorry?” She had an accent, hard to place, and her eyebrows danced prettily as she spoke.

“You’re thinking that I must be cursed – not just a dwarf, but a short-sighted one. You’re wondering if my mother drank too much, or what I did in a former life to deserve this.”

“No, I…” The pause, and the guilty contraction of her lips joined a deliberate stilling of the eyebrow dance: a bad poker face.

“It’s okay, I get it. In the interests of full disclosure, I’m actually long-sighted. I also have a slight limp, several fillings, and my voice squeaks when I try to shout. On the other hand, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel already, and I’m the best you’re going to get.”

“I really didn’t mean…” You didn’t see many real blushes, not on my side of town, and it was a welcome sight. Maybe I’d been too hard on her.

“I’m just playing with you, Maryanne. It’s my real failing – I can’t resist teasing a client. Probably why I don’t get much repeat business. Why don’t you tell me what you need, and I’ll see if I can help.”

The blush remained, but she exhaled loudly, which was quite a sight in that outfit, and told me her story.

Why is it always the pretty ones who wind up in trouble?

She’d been hurt. They’ve always been hurt, but she’d been hurt bad; the kind of hurt that ties you up and leaves you in a dark cellar for days on end. The beatings came later, probably rape too, reading between the lines.

That’s what I do, when you get down to it: I take a job and I read the story between the lines, pencilling in the filthy narrative that nobody wants to speak aloud. Rape, betrayal, torture, murder. Not necessarily in that order. Give me a dirty word and I’ll give you a case file, a sleepless night, a healthy dram of Scotch.

She told me she was okay. Another bad poker face.

She cried. I listened. I read what there was to see. It was enough.

I left her there in my office, elegant hands still gracefully adding tear-stained tissues to the bin, and went to visit the bastard who had hurt her.

My car isn’t much, but it’s modified for my size, and gets me places. The bodywork is still good, and the engine runs more often than not. She started first try, and I drove slowly to Maryanne’s address, turning the job over in my mind.

The house was unremarkable. A drab cottage on a drab street, it screamed of mundanity. I hate the mundane: it’s usually a front for despair, which drives too many of my cases. Even the flowers in the front garden looked depressed, and I couldn’t blame them.

Give me a shabby but honest apartment any day: at least dreams can be planted, down at rock-bottom, when you know that any direction is an improvement. Here they spent so much time polishing off false faces that only cynicism could survive.

He hadn’t. Survived, that is. I found his body in the bedroom, knife still protruding from under his ribs. Dainty red handprints were stamped over the scene, and no doubt on the handle of the weapon. I gripped the hilt carefully in a plastic wrap, tugging the knife free without adding my own prints. The body slumped further, but the knife came out. A lucky strike for an amateur; she’d killed him with her first thrust, and avoided bone.

My stature brings with it the odd inconvenience, but for this job it conferred an advantage: at four-feet-two, the slightest stoop let me stand below window level, hidden from suburbia. A search of the house revealed nothing of interest, but I’d expected nothing less. I grabbed a case from my car and returned inside.

I’m as strong as any full-scale man – a high protein diet and plenty of exercise see to that – but a body is a body, and they’re always fucking heavy. I don’t use the word lightly. Heavy, not fucking: I’ve got no qualms about cursing, at least, not in the face of death. Time and place and all that.

Lugging a body to a car trunk has a way of putting things into perspective. It’s a very odd perspective, admittedly, especially if the body is now in pieces, stuffed into cheap suitcases. That moment when the neighbour offers to help is worse, but thankfully it’s only happened once, and he didn’t smell a rat. Or a corpse, which was more of a concern at the time.

I cleaned the scene as best I could. Which is to say, I burnt it down. Technically, I suppose I started the fire, then got the hell out of Dodge before smoke appeared, but let’s not split hairs.

I burnt it down, and I took the body to an associate who could use it. We operate under a don’t ask, don’t tell policy.

Trunk bleached and the usual plates back on my car, I avoided her neighbourhood on my way back across town to my office.

She looked up from my desk as I walked in, those innocent eyes still red and swollen.

“I’ve got some bad news for you, Maryanne.”

“I don’t know how much more bad news I can take today, Mister Cassidy,” Her lips actually quivered at this, the poor innocent. “Is he, did he…”

“No, he’s gone. He won’t be coming back.”

“Oh, thank God!” She slumped over the desk, tension leaving her in a rush.

“It’s about your house. I’m afraid there’s been a rather nasty fire.”

The edge of her lip actually curled up in a brief smile. “Oh, that’s too bad. I hope nobody was hurt?”

“Not a soul. The house was empty at the time – or so I’ve heard, you’ll have to check with the fire department.”

“Oh, Mister Cassidy, you’ve been wonderful! How can I possibly thank you?”

My heart quickened: I’m only human.

I repressed my baser urges, and responded more calmly than I felt, “My usual fee is nine-hundred plus expenses, but I’ll bill you for seven.”

She opened her purse, and withdrew a cool thousand. “Take this as a bonus, I would have been lost without you.” She stood and turned to leave the office, childish innocence locked away behind a veneer of professionalism. I watched her legs as she walked to the door, and only distantly observed myself saying “Hmm.”

She turned, and raised one of those perfect eyebrows.

I heard myself continue, “I just realised, your house didn’t have a cellar.”

I don’t know where she had hidden the pistol, dressed up as she was. In retrospect, that should have been a warning sign – who kills their husband in self-defence, then gets dressed to the nines to visit the cleaner? Trust a man to be distracted by a pair of pretty pins.

I saw her finger tighten, felt the first bullet tug at the hand I automatically raised, its motion faster than my brain’s translation of the pain impulses.

I saw the flash of the muzzle, felt the second bullet thud home.

Saw the last few hours flash before my eyes.

There’s always time, I suppose, for regrets, but I once again found myself admiring that shapely face, those lovely legs, and thinking that this wasn’t such a bad way to go.


This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #11. The challenge was a death scene, with the prompts “crossroads and dead-ends” and “the best-laid plans.”