Hi, there! 🙂 For your enjoyment, I’m posting another chapter from IDENTITY CRISIS, my first murder mystery novel.
So, without further ado … here’s Chapter Four of IDENTITY CRISIS! 🙂
The front of Kent’s Gym was a huge plate glass window with treadmills and cross-trainers lined up so the whole world could admire the sweaty backsides of everyone using them. The ambiance was chilly and loud, overrun with a post-work-hours crowd that was busy flexing and extending its way to better health on various weight machines. ESPN and MTV competed on two TV sets. In the free weights section, a radio played head-banging music, and a man doing bench presses grunted so loudly with each rep, you would have thought he was giving birth.
I had no idea what Schaeffer looked like, so I asked a young girl reading at the front desk whether he was there. “Wow, he’s popular tonight,” she said. She had short, spiky black hair and marble green eyes, which did a quick sweep around the room. “He was just here, talking to someone. They might have gone back to the exercise room.”
“Okay if I take a look?”
“Sure,” she said, like she was surprised I asked. She pointed me toward a hall off the main gym and delved again into her paperback.
I walked down the short hall, past some closed offices, toward the entrance to the dark exercise room. As I approached, a woman inside the room yelled, “You bastard!”
“Keep it down, would you?” A man. Casually, I leaned against the wall near the entrance, as if waiting for someone, then stole a quick peek inside. Three people were in there—two women and one man. One of the women glared at the man. The second woman watched them. It was hard to see their faces, since the only light came from a walk-in storage closet across the room. But I recognized Miss Anger Management in the halter top.
“You’re lying,” she said.
“Why would I lie about such a thing?” he said.
“He can’t be dead. You son of a bitch. You’re just trying to protect him.”
“We’re going to get kicked out if you don’t shut the hell up.”
In the gloom, I made out her expression in profile, a mixture of disbelief and rage. For a moment, she was still. Then she threw herself at the man, wailing and pounding his chest like an infant having a temper tantrum.
The man was tall and well-built. He seemed able to take it, but he was struggling to catch her flailing arms. The other woman kept taking hesitant steps toward them, then back.
The man finally got hold of each of her wrists. She tried to move them and screeched when she couldn’t, then hurled a string of expletives at him that could have peeled paint from the walls. I kept expecting someone to come running to see what was going on, but I guess all the noise up front drowned it out.
Eventually, she stopped. She stood there, glaring at the man and sniffling.
He waited a few moments, then let go of her. “Don’t ever do that again,” he said.
“Men.” She hurled the word at him like an accusation. “I hate you. All of you.” She marched toward the door. I went back to leaning casually, and she stormed past without even a glance in my direction.
There was a quieter exchange I couldn’t make out between the other two. After a few seconds, I went inside.
The man had close-cropped, dark hair, and a beefy triangle of torso, with broad, well-developed shoulders tapering down to a trim tummy and hips. He surveyed me with a puzzled, wary expression.
“Bruce Schaeffer?” I asked.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Sam McRae. Melanie Hayes’ attorney.”
He gave me a cold stare. “Well, that’s nice. What the hell do you want?”
I sensed he would have been less polite if I’d been a guy. He had a round, boyish face, but he was no pushover. His arms were corded with muscle. His yellow T-shirt hugged tight, revealing a ripple of perfect abs.
The woman stood off to the side. Her back was to the storage closet, so her face was in shadow, but the light played off her tousled, honey-blonde hair. She had a chunky frame squeezed into a pair of jeans and a skin-tight shirt with a scoop neck that revealed an awning of cleavage.
“I’ve been having a hard time reaching Melanie,” I said. “I wondered if you might know where she is.”
“Are you shittin’ me?”
“You haven’t by any chance seen her? Or spoken to her?” The caller ID had clearly shown his number. I wanted to ask him why, but I didn’t want to get into how I knew about the call.
His mouth twisted into a contemptuous grin. “Like I have any reason to talk to that bitch after what she did to Tom.”
“She wouldn’t have thrown him out if he hadn’t hit her,” I said.
“Throwing him out did him a favor. I’m talking about how she whacked him.”
“Hold on,” I said. “You don’t know she did that.”
“Right.” He muttered something that sounded like “fucking lawyers,” and then said, “Excuse me,” and walked off.
I watched him leave, then turned to the woman. “That went well.”
She smiled. “He’s a little sensitive about Tom right now.” She had a three-pack-a-day voice. “They were friends. And he found the body in his own apartment.”
“That is horrible,” I said, trying to ingratiate myself a little. “I certainly didn’t mean to offend.”
“You’re just doing your job.”
“I couldn’t help but notice that little scene with the other woman. What was that all about?”
She shrugged. “Beats me. I just work with Bruce.”
“Did you know Tom, Ms …”
“Rhonda. Rhonda Jacobi.”
As she stepped forward, I got a better look at her face and flinched when I saw the scars. Plastic surgery had smoothed some of the damage, but the right side of her face carried the evidence of burns. Tragic in itself, but even more so when you looked at the other side, which was flawless. I felt awful about my instinctive reaction, but either she hadn’t seen it or chose to ignore it.
“I know he was friends with Bruce,” she said. “Can’t tell you much else.”
“So I guess you wouldn’t know where Melanie is.”
She chuckled. “I don’t even know who she is.”
“Well, thanks anyway.”
I still wanted to know why Bruce called Melanie if he hated her so much. Of course, it could have been a mistake. Maybe he realized he’d dialed the wrong number and hung up.
φ φ φ
I drove past the storefronts on Main Street toward home. I liked living and working on Main Street, because it represented old Laurel, with its little shops in brick buildings—the meat market, the pizza place, the comic book store. Off the main road, the residential sections were mostly old Victorians with front porches, and cozy brick ramblers. Throwbacks to the old days, before the malls and the plasterboard housing started sprouting like weeds.
The street was quiet, except outside Mitchie’s Restaurant, where the soaring sounds of blues from an electric guitar pierced the night. I drove another block and turned in at the entrance to my garden apartment complex. My luck was good. There was a spot in front of my building.
I didn’t see him at first. I was climbing the flight up to my landing, when he poked his head around the end of the balustrade and said, “Hi, Sam.”
“Jesus, Ray,” I said, putting a hand to my chest. “You took ten years off my life.”
“What are you doing here?”
Ray Mardovich got up, brushing off his Dockers. He smiled in a self-mocking way, looking abashed.
“I just wanted to see you,” he said.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Did it not occur to you to call?”
“I tried. Where have you been?”
“Here and there. I’ve had a strange day.” For a moment, I toyed with the notion of telling him I was too tired to invite him in, but he’d come more than 20 miles from Mitchellville in central P.G. County to see me.
“It’s been a while,” I said, stalling.
He reached out and tentatively touched my arm.
I frowned, and he withdrew his hand.
“I know,” he said. “It’s been difficult.”
“So … Helen’s out of town again, and you got bored?”
“I deserve that,” he said.
“I won’t argue the point.” The regret in his hazel eyes looked real. “Would you like a drink?”
We went inside and I got Ray a beer. I don’t usually drink, but I keep it on hand for the occasional guest. That night, I decided to join him.
I had known Ray for years. He was a prosecutor with the state’s attorney. I met him while I was with the public defender’s office, my first job out of law school. Our affair started six months ago, after a very boring bar association function. He’d been drinking heavily. I had no such excuse. I guess I could blame it on months of abstinence and the lack of a steady male companion for the past few years. Maybe I was looking for what Erica Jong once called the “zipless fuck.” Whatever it was, somehow our one-nighter turned into a series of trysts, whenever and however we could manage it.
The last one had been two months ago, and I was starting to wonder if things were winding down between us. Thing was, that whole time, I couldn’t bring myself to call or e-mail him. At first, I thought of calling, but as time passed, I thought better of it. I didn’t want to be a pain. If it was over, fine. It’s not like I expected this thing to last forever. That didn’t make it hurt any less though. I also didn’t know where it left our friendship and, for some reason, I was afraid to bring that up.
“I didn’t see you at the mixer today,” I said.
“I had a case and someone else drew the short straw.” He grinned.
“To the public sector,” I said, raising my bottle in toast. “And not having to market your services. Mind if I turn on the game?”
“Do I ever?”
We watched the Orioles play mediocre ball, sipping beer and exchanging thoughts on how they could improve their chances of getting to the playoffs, short of firing the entire team.
“You came quite a ways to drink beer and watch baseball,” I said.
“I didn’t come here just for that.”
“Oh, I can imagine.”
He shot me a glance. “I missed you.”
“I’ve missed you, too.” I wanted to say so much more. I’ve missed you, but you’re married. You’ve got a family. I can’t depend on you to be there for me if I need you. Instead, I said, “What if I’d brought home a date?”
I saw a brief flash of surprise. Then he laughed. “That could have been awkward.”
“Not that there have been all that many,” I conceded. Actually, there’d been none.
“I’ve been thinking about leaving the state’s attorney,” he said. “Opening my own office.”
“Really? You’ve been there a long time, but I always thought you were happy.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s burnout. I think it’s time for me to make a move of some sort.”
“It’s a big decision,” I said. “It means you have to go to those mixers you hate on a more regular basis.”
“You manage it.”
“Yeah, after I take drugs to suppress my gag reflex.”
“Maybe I just need to get out of criminal law. Try something else that might lead to an in-house position with a company.”
“Regular pay,” I said. “Regular hours.”
“Some places let you have your own practice, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the work you do for them. I could start small, doing stuff for fun on the side.”
Like us, I thought. Fun on the side. “It’s a plan. Maybe a better plan than mine. I guess I just had to get out on my own, win or lose.”
“I admire your courage.”
We looked at each other for a long time. He reached out and stroked my arm, then drew me toward him and kissed me lightly. When we separated, he looked guilty.
“I really didn’t come here just … for this. I really have missed you, but if you want me to go—”
I threw my arms around him and plastered my mouth against his. Our lips were still grinding together as we undressed each other. When our clothes were off, I shoved the coffee table over with one foot for more room. An unread stack of bar association magazines and bulletins spilled onto the floor.
“Get on top,” he whispered. We clambered to find a good position on the sofa, while Oscar watched us idly from the other side of the room. The announcer was screaming something about line drives as I put him inside me. Ray’s hands touched my breasts and squeezed.
Here we go again, I thought. Were we doomed to repeat this exercise in another two months? Or would it take longer next time? For some reason, it struck me as funny, and I laughed.
“What?” Ray asked.
“Nothing,” I said, breathlessly. I hooked my hands around his shoulders and humped with all I had.
Later, as Ray and I held each other, my thoughts turned to Melanie. I wondered how I could possibly help her when I couldn’t help myself.
Did I mention this book’s been optioned by a film producer?
Picture this! 🙂