What was in the brown envelope? Who had hidden it?
August 26, 2013
A VG Serial: ToxiCity
Julie Romano lived in a tidy brick building on a quiet block off Shermer Road. The lot included a small fenced garden plot, now rangy and gone to seed. As Matt pulled up, he spotted a uniform patrolling the front of the building. It had warmed up since morning and dappled sunshine flickered through the trees. Leaving his jacket in the car, Matt went up to the officer and pulled out his shield. “Detective Matt Singer.”
“Reed Tremble.” Young with rosy cheeks, he must have just joined the force.
“You see a resident manager or janitor on the premises?”
The kid shook his head. “There’s a phone number on the door.”
“Make the call.”
A middle-aged man from Palatine Realty Company arrived carrying a metal ring bursting with keys. He didn’t know Julie Romano, he said, but a check of the files indicated she’d been renting from them nearly ten years. He tried one key unsuccessfully. Then another. Matt shifted his feet. He flashed him an apologetic smile. “Someone stripped the numbers off some of the keys. I guess they thought it was funny.”
Six keys later the front door opened. Matt asked the realtor to send Romano’s records to the station.
As they headed inside he noticed Tremble’s eager face. The kid wanted to go with him in the worst way. Matt understood—this could be the most exciting thing to ever happen on his beat. But he couldn’t risk a rookie trampling through the apartment; it might turn out to be a crime scene. “You stay here and make sure things stay secure. I’ll fill you in before I go.”
Tremble’s face deflated.
Raising his canvas evidence bag onto his shoulder, Matt and the realty agent passed through a small vestibule with six brass mailboxes on the wall. He knew the type of building: quiet and modest, with two apartments on each of three floors. He stepped into an equally small lobby with a console table wedged against one wall. Junk mail was spilled across the table; a framed mirror hung above it. A narrow elevator stood on one side of the table, a stairway on the other. He took the stairs.
Romano’s apartment, Two-B, was at the end of the hall, across from a second flight of stairs that probably led down to a back entrance. The realtor slid the key into the lock. It opened easily.
“Do you need me to come in?” The man asked.
“Actually it would be better if you didn’t.”
“Fine with me.” Raising his palms, the man backed away. “I probably should have you sign for the key, but under the circumstances…” He hesitated.
“I’ll make sure the key doesn’t get into the wrong hands.”
The agent turned and went towards the stairs. Couldn’t get out of there fast enough, Matt thought.
But when Matt stepped inside, he wanted to flee along with the realty agent. Heavy furniture, and too much of it, sat on dhurri area rugs, the kind that K-Mart sold for twenty dollars. Books, china figurines, and other curios, among them clowns, birds, painted pillboxes, cluttered the surfaces.
He wanted to open the windows but settled for a few deep breaths. Opening his bag, he dug out latex gloves and put them on. Then he pulled out his Polaroid. He snapped a few shots of the living room, then, inching past the narrow space that separated furniture from walls, went into the bedroom.
A full size bed with a patchwork quilt was neatly made. A television and VCR sat in the corner, and a crucifix hung on one wall. On another were two standing bookcases filled with hundreds of videotapes, all labeled and alphabetically filed. Without touching them, Matt ran his eyes over the “G”s: The Godfather, Gone With the Wind, Grapes of Wrath. Most of them were in cardboard sleeves and looked like they were recorded off television or cable. He checked the deck of the VCR. Nothing.
He took a few shots with the camera, then peered into the bathroom. Decorated in blue and yellow tiles, it was spotless. Two thick blue towels hung on a rack. The fixtures sparkled. Inside the mirrored medicine chest, he found nail polish and remover, toothpaste, an unopened bottle of aspirin, and antacid tablets. Two brown plastic prescription bottles sat on a lower shelf. The prescriptions were for Amoxicillin and Dyazide. The trashcan was empty.
Back in the living room, Matt spotted a small desk in a corner. Next to a blinking answering machine was a photograph in a silver frame. An elderly couple and two younger women, clearly twins. Dark hair framed attractive faces, and they both aimed cheerful smiles at the camera. One wore a dark jumper with a frilly white blouse; the other was decked out in black leather. The woman in the jumper had short, tightly curled hair; the other’s hung in lazy waves to her shoulder.
Matt pressed the button on the answering machine. A red digital numeral indicated two incoming calls, but all he heard were hang-ups. Pocketing the tape, he touched the outgoing message button. “You have reached 555-9823”, a singsong voice pronounced. “Please leave a message and we will get back to you.” He backtracked to the closet. Women’s clothes, not many. But the message on the machine said “we”. A recent separation or divorce? Or a single women’s security system? He looked around again. Despite the clutter, the apartment had a lonely feel.
He hesitated before rummaging through the desk. He didn’t have a warrant. He reminded himself the woman was dead; he wasn’t invading her privacy. He reached down and opened the one drawer. Inside were neat files of manila folders, alphabetically arranged with color-coded labels. He thumbed through insurance policies, the title to her Saturn, and several appliance guarantees.
He moved to the kitchen, a tiny space with counters running along opposite walls. Two bowls and some utensils lay in a drain-board near the sink. A double-door oak cabinet held dishes, pots and pans. Another contained spices, many of whose names Matt didn’t recognize. He shot some pictures, stripped off the film and was laying the prints on the counter when he noticed a brown envelope wedged between the counter and the wall.
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.