By John Haymaker
Rain crashed a late night frat party. Just after one, Alex stumbled back to the student ghetto and up the rickety stairs to his loft. Once inside he misplaced his keys. He pat himself up and down but forgot about the keys the moment he found the dime bag he scored at the party. Local marijuana laws hadn’t figured in his college selection and the Badger State still enforced zero tolerance. Alex dimmed the lights, turned the stereo on low and toked. Afterward, he went to piss and regarded himself in the lavatory mirror – pretty ragged: bloodshot eyes, tousled hair. He ran water in the tub, crawled in and dozed.
Something roused him minutes later, but then he heard nothing – so just a dream maybe. Alex splashed water over his face, stood and toweled off. He’d just stepped into briefs when hard-soled shoes creaked the wood floor. Alex peaked out of the bathroom and saw men – with guns! Alex screamed and stomped the floor. The footsteps retreated. The entry door banged, setting Alex’s keys jangling in the outside lock. He screamed louder, jumped harder.
“Stop your screaming and step out. We’re police.” When he did, officers trained shotguns on him – he had no idea why. They spreadeagled him on the stairs, half-naked and completely afraid.
A heavyset guy dressed in a suit and tie at that hour with a scowl-creased face stepped over him and entered Alex’s loft without so much as a pardon the intrusion. “You got a warrant?” Alex hollered. Seconds later, the guy exited, pocketing Alex’s dime bag before flashing his badge: J.D. Lawson. Homicide Detective. “Shut up about the warrant or I’ll bust you now,” he said. “I’ve got three sets of footprints downstairs, enough blood to swamp the Sahara and no body. Now I want answers.”
Ah, that’s what this was about – Izzy, the bohemian ex-student living below Alex. “I don’t know him at all – except to say hi. I just moved in a month ago. Izzy pretty much keeps to himself.” Alex didn’t mention the late-night parade of creeps he’d noticed buzzing Izzy’s backdoor.
“He’s got quite a drug cache in the basement,” Lawson said. “Did you buy your weed from him?”
“No,” Alex said, knowing odds were high someone in the supply chain had.
Lawson re-entered the premises and returned minutes later empty handed except for Alex’s clothes and the sneakers. After Alex dressed, Lawson escorted him to the gangway between houses. “Stand there and don’t move,” he said, handing Alex over to a rookie before re-entering Izzy’s apartment.
“Can I smoke?” The rookie held out his pack. Alex smoked one down and was about to flick the butt when he’d heard the faintest sound from behind. He turned toward the neighboring porch, partially blocked by shrubbery and poorly lit. “Izzy?” Alex asked, stepping nearer to stare at the hunched form. “Hey, he’s over here.”
Spotlights and laser dots swept over Alex and Izzy’s lifeless body. Izzy still clutched at his throat, blood oozing through his fingers, soaking his shirt and matting his beard and long blond hair. Drizzle carried blood down the steps to pool at Alex’s feet.
Detective Lawson watched out a window as police photographed the body. As rain intensified, the rookie led Alex to a squad car where he sat alone in the back a few minutes watching red lights swirl through drizzle splattering the windshield. After conferring with the coroner just after two a.m. Detective Lawson approached holding an umbrella overhead to ask that Alex remove his sneakers.
“The tread-like outsole is distinctive,” he said, hunching down to speak with Alex through the back window of a squad car.
Alex glanced back at the stoop where he found the deceased. A forensics expert wearing a rain slicker kneeled, pouring white liquid into depressions. “You told me to stand there,” Alex said, handing over the sneakers, which Lawson dangled by the shoestrings.
“Mm-hmm. Look, there’s blood on them,” Lawson said before dropping the pair into an evidence bag.
“Well there surely wasn’t any blood on the sneakers when you gathered up clothes for me to wear earlier – unless you’re incompetent and overlooked critical blood evidence . . . .”
Lawson dodged Alex’s reproach. “Son, I’ve been working homicide forty years. My officers arrived ninety seconds after a neighbor reported gun shots. We processed the crime scene forty minutes – and until you bloodhounded one – we didn’t have a body. How do you explain that?”
“It’s pretty simple,” Alex said. “When I turned around the body was in plain sight.”
Forensics approached with the hardened casts. “We just need the weapon now.”
Lawson nodded, his scowl tightening as he eyed Alex: “I think you knew exactly where to look – because that’s where you delivered the fatal shot. I’ll wager you passed the gun off to a third party and rushed upstairs to bathe in such haste you left your keys in the lock.”
“You’re a pro,” Alex said, realizing Lawson had enough circumstantial evidence to frame him if police failed to find the real killer. For the time being, Lawson hauled Alex down to the station as a person of interest. An hour later Alex proved less than interesting when a tip line caller reported two men discarding articles down a storm sewer. Police retrieved the gun and shoes and released sketches. Alex was in the clear.
Two days later Alex grabbed a student newspaper on campus: Arrests Made in Drug Deal Gone Bad. The shooter confessed he shot Izzy over a long-simmering dispute about debt. Izzy had fallen backward but rose up and pursued both men outside before tripping into bushes. Alex snapped the paper shut and shook his head in disbelief. Lawson had missed the obvious: it wasn’t a homicide – not at first. Fearing arrest, Izzy must have lived forty minutes among shrubs dodging police lights. But his bleeding was unstoppable and he emerged on the stoop needing help – too late. Alex had heard his last gasp.
(Bio: Currently residing in the Bay Area, John’s recent stories and non-fiction appear online at Across the Margin, Bull & Cross, Better than Starbucks, Flash Fiction Magazine, Bewildering Stories and CC&D Magazine. Chinese to English translations appeared in Chinese Literature and Pig Iron Press. Contact John online at his website: http://johnhaymaker.com/