Are you sure this is legal?

28Sep

“Are you sure this is legal?” she asked as the key went into the door with a stutter. The lock clicked and the young woman with the afro swung open the door.

I stepped into the condo. There was a white Turkish sofa with throw pillows, a fancy rug on the hardwood, a TV stand with no TV. The small kitchen table in the nook had four matching chairs. The furnishings were nice but the space was snug, definitely smaller than I’d thought coming into the building from the street. But then, I’m sure that was intentional. High ceilings with equally high windows give you the impression of space, make you feel like you’re getting more for your money.

On the other side of the tall exterior windows was a three-foot-wide balcony. It was swarming with very large birds — black with scruffy collars and bare heads. One of them spread its wings and swiped its claws at another.

“Buzzards.” The young woman, Shané, stepped past the kitchen area and through the living space to the balcony windows. She had a new nose stud, which she touched gingerly every few minutes, like maybe it itched and she didn’t want to scratch. “Go on!”

She waved her arms at the birds. They didn’t move.

I looked up. The ceiling was exposed, loft-style, which matched the bare brick walls — part of the original 1920s structure, the marketing material downstairs had told me proudly. I grabbed the latex gloves from the side pocket of my blazer and pulled them over my hands with a snap.

“It’s just,” Shané went on, “I could get into trouble.”

“I thought you said the resident moved out.”

“She did but — ”

“And the mortgage company has started foreclosure?”

She looked at the paper on the clipboard in her arms. “That’s what the computer says, but — ”

“Then it’s fine.”

Police need a warrant to do a full search someone’s residence of course, but we’re always free to inspect anything the general public can see — stuff on the lawn, for example, or whatever anyone is doing in full view of the living room window. But that limitation only applies to an occupied dwelling. If the resident “abandons” it — if you move out of your house, for example, and put the place up for sale — then the police can enter and search without having to meet the criteria for a warrant, on the theory that there’s no longer an expectation of privacy.

I opened the cupboards. There was a four-piece collection of plain white dishes and bowls. Looked cheap. “This unit is pre-furnished? Or whatever it’s called?”

Shané checked her clipboard. “Ummm, yes.”

I was about to shut the cupboard when my eye caught movement. There was a wasp crawling on the lip of one of the ceramic bowls. “You might want to call an exterminator.” I shut the door, trapping it inside. I looked around the furniture. At the Turkish sofa. At the ugly modern lamp next to it. “So all this stuff belongs to the management company, not the lienholder.”

“Yes.”

“And those?” I pointed to a pair of cubical Uhaul moving boxes, stacked one on top of the other in a corner.

She shrugged. “Are you going to be much longer?”

“Dunno,” I said, walking to the boxes.

“It’s just, I’m not supposed to leave anyone in the units unattended.”

“Guess you’ll have to wait, then.”

I lifted the flaps on the first box. There was an embroidered pillow, three empty picture frames, and some medical texts, the kind a nurse or doctor would have.

“What is this about again?” she asked.

I smirked at the word ‘again.’ She actually hadn’t asked. She’d gotten flustered, as people do when I flash the badge. Now she seemed to be having second thoughts, like maybe she should have challenged me more downstairs. She couldn’t have been older than 19 or 20.

“A package was sent to the police.” I didn’t say it was sent to me personally. “This apartment was given as the return address.”

I opened the second box. There was a wine journal, a plastic horse figurine with a broken leg, a collection of body lotions, and other sundries.

I stood. I looked at the boxes in the corner relative to the rest of the space. “Were these left here in the corner by the resident or were they moved?”

“Umm. I don’t know.”

“Who would?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Anyone?” I asked insistently.

The girl flipped through the print out on the clipboard. “Maybe Kelsey. This was her unit.”

“Is she working today?”

Shané shook her head.

“Do you have a phone number for Kelsey?”

“Today is her day off.”

I arched my back and gave her my best unamused look.

“I can see if we have it somewhere in the office,” she said.

“That’d be great. And I’ll need a copy of the resident’s rental application.”

A pair of buzzards squawked at each other and spread their wings in aggression.

“I hate those things,” she said. “They’re so gross.”

They definitely were shady looking. And big. I walked for a closer look, but as soon as I got within steps of the balcony, all the birds squawked and flapped and flew away. And that was it.

Shané looked at me like I was from another planet.

“About that application,” I said.

I followed her back downstairs, where I waited in the unobtrusive, pleasantly lit lobby while Shané tracked down her coworker on the phone. I watched a 30-something couple whisper to each other as they filled out an application at a little table by the windows.

“I talked to Kelsey.” Shané walked in from the back. She had a paper in her hand.

“The boxes were moved to the corner.” I was pretty sure. I just needed confirmation.

“Yeah,” she said with enough audible exasperation to fill a high school. “She said the resident had left them by the door. It’s not all that unusual,” she added. “People leave things sometimes.”

“Things like pictures and personal effects?” I asked. “And do they usually go through the trouble of packing everything nicely into boxes only to leave a couple by the front door?”

She shrugged.

“Is that the rental application?”

“Yeah.” She didn’t offer the paper to me, like she wasn’t sure she was allowed.

I snatched it.

The resident’s name was Amber Massey. A doctor. Employer listed as Urban Outreach Center, the Bronx. It was an awfully nice condo for someone who worked at a free clinic.

“And you’re sure Dr. Massey didn’t leave a forwarding address?”

“Who?” Shané touched her nose again.

I walked out and left her with the young couple.

Since I was all the way up in White Plains, I decided to make an unscheduled pit stop at the home of Dr. C. L. More, PhD, which was further north still. In fact, the distance was half the reason I hadn’t stopped by yet. The other half was that I was busy. And the third half was that I just didn’t want to. It was just after 11 a.m. on a Sunday, which I figured gave me a good shot of catching him. In my experience, most people with office jobs like to stay home and relax on Sunday mornings — if they’re not churchgoers, that is. I was pretty sure the good doctor wasn’t vexed by salvation.

I didn’t know More’s home address — and technically wasn’t supposed to — but he had a driver’s license, as people do, which meant it was very easy to find.

It was a nice house, tucked between some trees at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was an older neighborhood, as most of them are in that part of the world, with an apples-and-oranges mix of older and newer dwellings. I imagined the folks in the 1970s split-levels were working families that had lived there from the start, or bought off someone who had. Dotted between were the new-money folks, younger couples with important jobs, who, if they didn’t raze the original houses, had at least remodeled them all to hell.

The doc’s was clearly part of the latter, although the work wasn’t recent. Early 2000s, I’d guess — when there was more money for that kind of thing. It was already showing some age, but nothing like the pair of older homes on either side. Most of the yards didn’t have fences, even in the back. There was a time it was fashionable to be neighborly.

I parked on the street and walked up the drive, which was nearly covered in fallen leaves. It was a proper autumn day — overcast and gloomy — and the leaves rustled with the chill breeze. Winter seemed to be coming early. I looked at the front windows. I didn’t see any lights.

I walked up and rang the doorbell. I knocked. I rang the doorbell again. After a few minutes, I walked through the leaves to the shrubbery under the front windows. The Venetian blinds had been partially turned. It was impossible to see anything in the dark house without getting very close. I leaned across the prickly bushes in my cheap suit and squinted. I could feel them poking.

It was definitely dark inside. No signs of movement. There were tribal masks on the living room wall. They covered it, in fact — spaced apart on a 5х3 grid. I could see a few singles hanging around here and there as well: next to a bookcase, in the hall, above the phone stand. There had to be a couple dozen at least, all different. I didn’t see any lights or any people.

“You’re not here to trim the hedges, are you? Dressed like that?”

One of the neighbors had walked over into the doc’s yard. Mid-60s, I’d guess. He had the appearance and demeanor of a man approaching retirement. I saw a ladder and a rake and some cans of paint in his driveway. His house needed all three.

I brushed my hands together to get the dirt off and stepped forward through the downed leaves. “Do you know the people who live here?”

“Not well, but we watch out for each other around here. Who are you?”

I pulled my wallet from my pocket and flashed the badge.

“What is that?” He squinted and took a step closer. “NYPD? Little out of your jurisdiction.”

“Any idea where they went?” I nodded to the leaves scattered across the driveway. “Doesn’t look like anyone’s been coming or going much lately.”

“Vacation, I gathered. Can I ask what this is about?”

“Nothing much. I just wanted to talk to Dr. More about a few things.”

“Oh, Dr. More?” He seemed to relax. “He moved out a few months back. A young couple live there now. The Caldwells. Professionals, I think.”

“Why do you say that?”

“No kids,” he explained.

“I don’t suppose you know where I could find Dr. More?”

“I might still have his cell number . . .” He reached for his back pocket.

“It’s alright,” I said, turning for the car. “I have it.”

I glanced one more time at the dark house with the masks on the wall. Then I drove away.

 


a rough cut from the third mystery in my forthcoming supernatural thriller FEAST OF SHADOWS. You can read the chapters in order:

A simple exorcism

I wanna tell you a story

The killing field

Signs

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