What did it have to do with the woman who was killed?
October 7, 2013
A VG Serial: ToxiCity
Donna Cleveland lived on the second floor of an old building with a view of Wrigley Field. White curtains fluttered in a half-opened window. Bookshelves supported by cinderblocks bulged with paperbacks, and the walls were hung with cheap Impressionist prints, the kind you find rolled up in bins in the back of a bookstore. Georgia sat on a battered sofa next to Cleveland. Matt was on a straight-backed chair. Despite the open window, the air was musty with the peculiar smell all old apartments seemed to have.
“When did she split?” Matt asked.
“About two days after you were at the Bullet.” Wearing jeans and a man-tailored shirt, she twisted around to face Georgia. Her pinched face was framed by short, spiky hair. “I had no idea. I really didn’t.”
“Shit happens,” Georgia said.
Cleveland threw Georgia a smile. Matt was glad he’d brought her along.
“Why do you want to talk to her? Does this have something to do with that woman you showed us the picture of? The one who was killed?”
Georgia glanced at Matt.
“How long were you two—when did you meet Brenda Hartman?” he said.
“We met at the Bullet a few weeks ago. We had a few drinks. We really clicked. She came home with me that night. She never left.” Cleveland swallowed. “Until now.”
Matt folded his arms.
“What’s the problem, Detective?” She said, the hint of a smile on her face. “You ‘gonna lecture me about safe sex?”
Matt felt his face grow hot. He cleared his throat. “What can you tell us about her?”
Cleveland leaned her arms on her knees. “Well, she was from Indiana and was thinking of moving here.”
“She never said.”
“Why not?” Matt said.
“A lot of women think they’re straight. They get married, have kids, do the white thing—you know what I mean? I figured Brenda for one of those.” A smile crossed her face. “She was a character though. She had all these crazy habits. She made sure the spices were all lined up in a row. Alphabetically. And the glasses. They all had to be upside down in the cabinets so they wouldn’t collect germs.”
Matt and Georgia exchanged glances. “She say anything after Officer Davis showed her the photograph?”
Lines appeared on her forehead as if she was concentrating on something. “You know—now that I think about it, maybe it did bother her.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, that night, she was different. Quieter. I thought she was just tired, but maybe it was the picture. Maybe she did know that woman.”
“And she left two days later?”
The squeal of rapidly applied brakes blasted through the window. The subsequent crunch of metal on metal and shattered glass made Matt grimace. Cleveland jumped and raced to the window. Pulling up the shade, she hung her head out the window. Then she pulled back and turned around. “Just a fender bender.”
Angry shouts and curses floated through the window.
“What else can you tell us about her? You can get to know someone pretty well in two weeks.”
“Well, like I said, I got the feeling she wasn’t used to being gay. Not that she was day-tripping, you know, but like she’d just discovered it.” She leaned against the open window. “You come across types like that every now and then. You try not to, of course, but it happens.”
“What do you mean, you try not to?”
She kept her eyes on her hands. “Women like that don’t usually settle down the first time out of the gate, you know what I mean? But who knows?” She looked at Georgia. “I might hear from her again one day.” She blinked. “Don’t you think?”
“Of course,” she said.
Matt shifted uneasily. It occurred to him that Donna Cleveland was only looking for the same thing everyone was—someone to laugh with, fight with over the dishes, hold through the dark hours of the night. How could he have considered the possibility she was different? Prejudice runs deep, he realized. Including his own.
“Do you remember what kind of car she drove?” He asked.
“A white Plymouth. A Duster, I think.”
“I never noticed. Indiana, I guess.”
“Did she like to cook?”
Cleveland eyed him curiously. “She was a great cook.”
Matt’s pulse picked up. He flashed back to the spices in Romano’s kitchen. “Did she use a lot of spices?”
The woman frowned. “Not really. She cooked plain stick-to-your-ribs stuff. Pot roast, potatoes, cabbage. You know.”
“Okay. Thanks. If you do hear from her, let us know.” He handed her a card.
“Of course. By the way…” She looked at Georgia, a smile creasing her lips. “I run into Clark a lot. I’ll tell her I saw you.”
Georgia’s face grew crimson.
The ride north was quiet. Back at the station, Matt put out a LEADS on Brenda Hartman, then caught up on paperwork. Procedure required him to make two copies of each report: one for the unit, the other for Records, but Matt kept his own casebook, and made copies for the Detectives working the case with him.
As he fed sheets of paper into the copying machine, he thought about Donna Cleveland. During his ten years on the force, he had talked to everyone from scumbags to VIPs, creeps to royalty. The asshole who killed his wife because she wouldn’t use starch on his shirts; the junkie who quoted Hamlet; the CPA whose ability with numbers netted him a half a million dollars under the table. The confessions of the desperate and sleazy didn’t faze him. But delving into the details of Donna Cleveland’s life today had unnerved him.
He pushed the green copy button. Paper riffled through the machine, releasing an inky scent. There was an odd purity about Cleveland; she wasn’t deceptive. In fact, she seemed remarkably secure. She knew who she was, and she accepted it. Sure, she was upset that Hartman left, but there was serenity about her just the same. She’d stopped struggling. He walked the copies back to his desk.
The trill of the phone broke into his thoughts. He picked it up. “Singer.”
As he listened he tapped his pen against the desk, slowly at first, then picking up speed. “We’ll take it.” He hung up and threw a glance at Pete. “Time for a field trip, Brewski. We got ourselves another body.”
Episodes in the novel will be published on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Please click the following title,ToxiCity, to read more about Libby Fischer Hellman’s books on Amazon.