The hallway smelled like berry potpourri.
“Are you sure this is legal?” the young woman asked.
“Completely,” I said.
She didn’t seem convinced, but she kept walking. She had an afro and a nose ring and jeans too short for her long legs and too skinny for her wide hips. It was quiet. I could hear the stutter of the key as she stuck it into the lock. It clicked and the door swung wide and I stepped into the bright condo.
“Wait there,” I said, holding up a hand.
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 blue latex gloves from the side pocket of my blazer and pulled them over my hands with a snap. 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 and make you feel like you’re getting more for your money.
“Do the wasps cost extra?” I asked.
On the other side of the tall exterior windows was a three-foot-wide balcony. The open space was swarming with wasps.
“Gross.” The young woman, Shané, shivered in disgust. “We’re supposed to keep this door locked until the exterminator comes.”
Her nose stud must have been new because she touched it gingerly every few minutes, like maybe it itched and she didn’t want to scratch.
“It’s just,” she went on from the door, “I could get into trouble.”
“I thought you said the resident moved out.”
She looked at the paper on the clipboard in her arms. “That’s what the computer says, but I don’t—”
“Then it’s fine.”
Police generally need a warrant to do a full search of someone’s residence, 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’s only if the dwelling is occupied. If the resident “abandons” it—if you move out of your house, for example, and put it 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. I pinched it between two blue-latex fingers and squeezed. I dropped the tiny carcass into the garbage disposal and shut the cabinet. 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 or the resident.”
“And those?” I pointed to a pair of cubical U-Haul 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’ve challenged me more downstairs. She couldn’t have been older than 19 or 20.
I opened the second box. There was a wine journal, a plastic horse figurine with a broken leg, a collection of body lotions, and a mess of other bathroom 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.”
“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, making it clear that wasn’t an answer to my question.
“I can see if we have it somewhere in the office,” she said.
“Great. And I’ll need a copy of the resident’s rental application.”
The wasps swarmed outside. One of them hit the glass. Then a second. Like they were mad at something.
“I hate those things,” she said.
They were definitely menacing, with fat black and yellow bands on their abdomens. I walked for a closer look, but as soon as I got within three steps of the balcony, they took off into the air like I was radioactive or something. Their impatient rustle faded, leaving the room awkwardly silent. Shané looked at me sideways, like I was from another planet.
“This unit is now a crime scene,” I explained as I walked back to the door. “A forensics team will be over today to tape and seal it and leave a notice that no one is to enter without police permission. That includes the exterminator and the lienholder and any on-site staff. Got it?”
She nodded. “What crime? Did something happen here?”
“I’ll need that application,” I urged.
I followed her back downstairs where I waited in the unobtrusive, pleasantly lit lobby while Shané tracked down her coworker. I watched a 30-something couple whisper to each other as they filled out paperwork at a little table by the windows.
Amber Massey, it seemed, had been interrupted as she was moving out of her apartment. The trunk of the blue sedan, the one Buddy found, was stuffed with boxes and clothes—not so much to make you think it was all of her belongings, but enough to say she was leaving in a hurry. The rest of the car was clean, no distinguishable fingerprints except the owner’s, as if whoever had taken her had made her drive and was careful not to touch anything.
First priority was to get Forensics through the condo. We needed to confirm identity. It wasn’t enough that Amber’s car was found several blocks from the body or that she was missing. We needed to confirm the woman in the morgue was her. I figured there was enough hair left in the bathroom to get a match.
“I talked to Kelsey.” Shané walked in from the back. She had a paper in her hand.
“The boxes were moved to the corner from the door,” I said preemptively.
I was pretty sure. I just needed confirmation.
“Yeah,” she said with enough audible exasperation to fill a high school. “She said the resident left them, but it’s not all that unusual,” she added. “People are gross. They leave all kinds of things and don’t care about whoever has to clean it up.”
“Does that include pictures and personal items?” I asked. “And do they usually go through the trouble of packing everything nicely into boxes for you?”
“Is that the application?”
She didn’t offer the paper to me, like she wasn’t sure she was allowed.
I snatched it.
It confirmed the last resident 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 asked, touching her nose again like she wanted to scratch it.
“Peroxide,” I said, “every few hours,” and walked out.
The condo building was situated at the corner of a fairly major thoroughfare and a residential side street. The main entrance was off the larger road, of course, but although there was a nice large foyer, there was no parking out front, which suggested that wasn’t how people went in and out with boxes. I walked around the corner and found a double-door entry and a second single door farther down. The road was lined with a smattering of trees and a full row of parked cars. Following typical city etiquette, double-parking would be tolerated if you were loading or unloading.
I crossed the street and followed the sidewalk, scanning the roofs and doorways. Halfway down, past two multilevel blocks, I found what I needed jutting from an overhang in front of a public gymnasium. I went inside and smelled sweat and pool water. There was a bulletin board in the entryway and random printed signs hanging on the painted block walls announcing changes to old policies and various upcoming events. I passed a set of bathrooms and turned left and found the front desk. The kid behind it was on the phone and I waited.
In my mind, I kept seeing those long tapered cuts in Amber’s soft, waterlogged skin. Her face nibbled and distorted beyond recognition. The blood and bruising under her skin that had faded from red to brown to yellow. The distended blue veins that snaked through the discoloration. She looked completely inhuman.
When the call ended, I flashed my badge at the kid in a more or less identical repeat of my encounter with Shané. I asked for the manager and was shown to a cramped, window-lined office studded in plaques and trophies where a short, balding man with forearms like Popeye and a grip to match asked what he could do for me. I said I needed the security footage from the 180-degree camera that hung over his side door.
“That’ll be at corporate,” he said. “We can’t access any of that here. For security reasons.”
“That’s fine.” I pulled one of my cards. “But we’ll need it delivered to this address ASAP.”
He took it and read it, as if to make sure it looked genuine.
“Do you know if it has a view of the condo across the street?” I asked.
He said he wasn’t sure and followed that with all the usual queries. What was this about? Had someone been killed? Was the neighborhood safe? I deflected with the usual responses. We’re just following up on a few lines of inquiry. No reason to be alarmed. Anything he could do would be helpful.
“Of course,” he said. He seemed a lot calmer when he realized I was more interested in the condo than his place of business. “I’ll make the call right now.”
I thanked him and took one of his cards from the corner of the desk and said I’d be in touch and showed myself out. I saw him reaching for the phone as I left. There was no telling what the corporate office would say. They didn’t have to comply, of course. They could hold out for a warrant. But in my experience, most large business are happy to hand over anything and everything, even sensitive client information, as long as it didn’t affect their business or anyone in their management chain.
Since I was already all the way up in White Plains, I thought I might make a pit stop at the home of Dr. C. L. More, PhD. It was another twenty or so minutes farther north still. In fact, that it was such a long drive was half the reason I hadn’t stopped by. The other half was that I was busy. And the third half was that I just didn’t want to see the man.
I looked at my watch. It was just after 11 a.m. on Sunday, which I figured gave me a good shot of catching him. In my experience, most people with office jobs like his stay home and relax on Sunday mornings—if they’re not churchgoers. And after months of therapy, I was pretty sure the good doctor wasn’t vexed by his salvation. I didn’t know his 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, especially since that very morning I had logged into the system to find the last known address of my victim. My fingers fumbled over some keys and oops, Dr. More’s came up as well.
It was a nice house, tucked between some trees at the end of a cul-de-sac. The neighborhood was older and had an apples-and-oranges mix of original and remodeled homes. I imagined the folks in the 1970s split-levels were working families that had lived there from the start, or bought the homes off someone who had. Dotted between were the new-money folks, younger couples with important jobs, who, if they hadn’t razed the original dwellings, 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 easy 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 almost completely covered in fallen leaves. It was a proper autumn day—overcast and gloomy—and the leaves rustled about 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 inexpensive suit and squinted. I could feel the points poking my skin through the fabric.
Inside, it was definitely dark. No lights and no signs of movement. There were tribal masks on the living room wall. They covered it, in fact, spaced apart on a 5×3 grid. I could see a few singles hanging around 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 people.
“You’re not here to trim the hedges, are you? Dressed like that?”
One of the neighbors had walked 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?” I asked.
“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.
I’m posting the chapters of my forthcoming urban paranormal mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS, in order until the book is released. A blend of hard-boiled whodunit and contemporary urban fantasy, it’s been described as “Tolkien meets Dashiell Hammett for dinner in the present day.”
You can sign up here to be notified when the book is released.
You can start reading in order here: The old ones are patient.
The next chapter is: The disappearance of Alexa Sacchi