The beginning of my attempts at a mystery novel
| Getting beaten up is probably never much fun, but if it happens for the first time on your 50th birthday, it's really a bitch.
I groaned as I rolled over onto my side. Moving was the last thing I wanted to do, but I was going to vomit, and I didn't want to do that lying on my back. My silly adolescent dream had been to live like Joplin and Hendrix, not to die like them. I always get these things wrong.
My name is Cassie Allen. As noted, I'm 56 years old and I look every day of it. (Actually, right now, I probably look about a hundred; I sure feel like it.) And believe it or not, I have a brand-new P.I. license from the State of New York. My daughter thinks I'm insane. Right now, I agree.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
Most of what private investigators do isn't particularly exciting. It's generally a matter of looking through public records and following the paper trail, or locating and interviewing witnesses to an accident, or doing background checks on prospective employees. In fact, it can be a real snooze. A lot of investigators don't even carry guns. I hate guns, personally, although I made myself learn how to use one. Turns out I'm a reasonable shot. When you get to be my age most things deteriorate and very few improve. While it seems my memory, my waist line and my knees aren't what they used to be, I've developed "presbyopia"--which basically means I'm not as nearsighted as I used to be. Yippee!
"Mom! Your nuts! You're a grandmother, for God's sake!"
"That isn't the same as dead, Irene!"
"But you could end up dead!"
"Don't be ridiculous! It's the same work I've been doing for lawyers and the insurance company since your father died and I haven't gotten so much as a hangnail doing it so far. The only difference is that I'll be working for myself, and I get to choose my clients myself. " I smiled happily at the certificate from the New York Department of State in its shiny new frame.
"Rayshawn! Talk to her!"
My son-in-law chuckled and shook his head, waving his hand at us from the ladder where he was tacking up the cables from my computer and phone. "Leave me out of this. She's your mother. Besides," he climbed down from the ladder and leaned over to kiss me on the top of my head, "I think this rocks." He ducked as Irene glared and threw a crumpled paper at him.
"You're just like my father! The crazier her idea, the better he liked it!" She turned to glare at me. "Remember when you decided to take up sky-diving?"
"Well, that was a lot more dangerous than this. For heaven's sake, Irene, pull yourself together! You've got to stop reading Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton if you can't realize that what they write is fiction. I've done this work for years, without a comment from you. You even helped me with the insurance investigator application. What's the big deal about my getting a license to do this as my own business?"
"Ohhh! I guess you're right." Irene pouted. "It's just that you're not getting any younger . . .."
"Stop right there! I can't even collect Social Security for another decade, so don't go there!"
"Okay, okay! I'll stop, 'cause I'm just wasting my time anyway. Just be careful, okay?"
I kissed her nose like I did when she was tiny. "Promise."
She's gonna be pissed.
The stench in the alley was enough to make me vomit, even without having been beaten up. Garbage cans had gotten turned over in the struggle, scattering broken bottles, chicken bones and disposable diapers all around me. I don't know how long I had been there, but it was long enough for a few stray cats to decide to investigate. The sun was setting, and the alley was shaded enough to make them bold. When I moved, they scattered and, as I paused for breath, the most daring one came back and peered at me curiously, sniffing as if to see if I was good to eat.
"No, sorry, not yet." I tried to push myself up with my left hand, but a pain shot up my arm, severe enough to push my nausea over the top. The cats decided not to stick around. The wretching caused explosions to go off in my head, and by the time my stomach was empty, I was crying in misery and frustration. I couldn't stand without support, so I crawled over to the wall, managing to avoid crawling through my own vomit. Holding my injured wrist protectively to my waist, I inched my way up the wall until I was on my feet. My head was spinning, and I thought I would either pass out or throw up again, but I took deep breaths and swallowed hard until things stopped spinning.
I wiped my eyes with my right hand and realized that my glasses were gone. I peered around the alley and saw them about ten feet away. They looked strangely twisted and I made a note to get contact lenses. The thought was so prosaic and ridiculous that I started laughing wildly.
*You're hysterical, Cassie! Pull yourself together!*
More deep breaths, more swallowing, more tears. I tried to wipe the worst of the mess from my slacks and sweater one-handed, then ran my hand over my hair. "One more advantage to cornrows," I thought, and started giggling again. *Stop it!* More deep breathing.
I looked around for my purse, locating it about twenty feet down the alley. I edged toward it, my left hand on the wall to stay upright. The purse was about eight feet away from the wall and, as I tried to stand unaided, my stomach turned over. "No, dammit!" I declared to no one in particular. I went down on my knees again, crawled to the purse, then back to the wall. This time I stayed on my knees, back against the wall, and dug around in the purse for my cellphone. I pulled it out and managed to get the ridiculously tiny "on" button depressed. Who was I going to call? Not Irene or Rayshawn, not yet. The car service. I looked around. It was getting dark enough for me to walk to the street without my disarry being too obvious. Lord knows what I smelled like, but I couldn't do anything about that.
I pushed the speed dial and then panicked. Where am I? They'd want to know. Deep in side, part of my brain was saying, "You're in shock. Don't freak out. You know where you are! Where did you go this afternoon?" Tears welled up with the terror as I tried to remember where I was. Sanity prevailed. I cancelled the call, stood up and edged my way down the wall to the end of the alley. I could see the outline of the Armory in the distance to my left, crenellated turrets like a make-believe castle sharp against the darkening sky. I pushed the speed dial again. "I need a pick up at the corner of DeKalb and Marcus Garvey, going to Oxford and Fort Green." The dispatcher wanted to know what I was wearing. Yesterday's garbage? No, that wouldn't do. "A peach sweater and dark brown slacks." Three minutes, she promised.
Home first. Then I'd figure out what to do. More than doctoring, I needed to be someplace safe.
It seemed forever until the car came, then I fumbled with the door handle until the driver rolled down his window and said that it didn't work, I'd have to go around to the other side. I got in, still cradling my left wrist, and got the door closed. The smell of cherry air freshner gagged me. "Death by cherry jello. Great."
"Nothing. Sorry." Should be grateful. The smell would certainly cover up my reek.
It wasn't a long ride, but every bump and jerk sent pain shooting up my arm, so intense I thought I would pass out again.
"How much will it be?"
That was a rip-off, and ordinarily I would have made him call the base and get the right fare, but I wasn't in the mood tonight. *Just let me get home, Lord, before I throw up again!*
Getting out of the cab at my house was harder than getting in, because the door was on the wrong side and I finally had to ask the driver to get the door for me.
"What's the matter?"
"Sorry. I fell and hurt my hand. I'm having some trouble. Could you please open the door for me?"
He glared at me for a minute through the partition then got out, grumbling. He was going to be close enough to me to smell me, which embarrassed me. *Just get out of the cab, Cassie!*
By long habit, I had the keys in my hand as I got out of the cab and I managed to get the gate open without a problem. It usually needed two hands to close it, so I tried leaning on it, but if I leaned on my right side, I couldn't use the key, and leaning on my left side hurt. Too bad. This was one night I wasn't leaving the gate open.
Tears of pain were running down my face when the key finally turned in the gate, and I started crying in earnest, fear, pain, shock, relief, disbelief, humiliation and sudden, horrifying loneliness battering at me. "Johnny!" I cried out for my dead husband. "Oh, God, Johnny!" Fumbling through my tears, I got the inner doors open, cursing the New York mentality that put three doors and five locks between me and my home - although the thought of all those doors and locks between me and the men who had done this to me was comforting as well.
Khym and Spirit met me at the door, as they always did, sniffing at my pants cuffs. I stumbled over them unti I got into the living room and sat at my desk. I reached for the bottom drawer and pulled out the fifth of rotgut bourbon my son-in-law had put there as a joke. "Can't be a P.I. without a bottle of booze in the desk drawer!" It was new, and I couldn't get it open one-handed. The ridiculousness of the situation hit me, and I started laughing hysterically.
The sensible part of my brain, the part that never seems to shut off, took over and without even realizing it, I managed to call the local precinct. Not 911; I didn't want flashing lights and ambulances, and I didn't want to tell my story to a couple of young patrol cops who would roll their eyes at the "Crying Private Eye". I got the squad room. "Detective Patterson, please." The cop who answered put the receiver down and I heard men's voices. *Thank God he's on duty!*
"Patterson." His voice was gravelly, and I could tell his mouth was full.
I sniffed, then swallowed. "Greg?" It came out wrong. More like a bark.
"Who is this?" he demanded.
I swallowed again. "Greg, it's Cassie." It came out in a rush. I was afraid he would hang up.
Concerned. "Cassie? Are you alright?"
I took a deep breath. "No. I'm not. Can you come over here? It really is police business." I giggled and sniffed and started coughing.
"Cassie, what happened? What's the matter?"
I was suddenly surprisingly calm. "I've been beaten up, and I think my arm is broken. Can you come?"
"I'll be right over. Don't open the door until I come." He hung up before I could answer.
Spirit had jumped up on my desk and, head tilted, she examined my face, then leaned forward and butted her head against mine. "Hi, kitty." I smiled, and smoothed her head with my good hand. I felt something bump against my leg, and I reached down to stroke Khym. "Hey, Big Guy." I scratched him between the ears.
I really was calm all of a sudden. Now that there was someone else to be upset, I was fine. Soon, everyone would be losing their heads and blaming it on me, and I would be unfazeable. It was always that way. I went into the bathroom and looked into the mirror, wincing. No, there was no way I would be able to persuade Irene I had fallen down the stairs and hurt my arm. Nothing but a human fist could have made my face look like that. I wet my washcloth and wiped away the worst of the blood, dirt and tears. I found the Advil, then realized that the childproof cap was also injured-adult-proof. "Shit!" I pounded my fist on the edge of the sink. "Shit! Shit! SHIT!" Then I stopped because the pounding jarred by injured arm, and I shook my head, laughing.
"Okay, Allen, pull yourself together here." I went into the kitchen and got a basket of loose ice cubes from the freezer, then saw the flexible icepack I used for my knees after working out. "There you are! Always prepared!" One-handed I got the kitchen towel and wrapped it around the pack, then got a glass, put one ice cube in and returned the basket to the freezer. Clutching the icepack and the glass in my right hand, I walked back to the living room. I put them down on the desk, then went to the breakfront where I got a bottle of Maker's Mark that was already open. Silly woman. I went back to the desk, poured about two inches of bourbon over the ice cube, swirled it for a moment and took a good drink. The burn down my throat and spreading my chest was remarkably comforting.
I put the glass down and looked at the icepack for a moment. I laid it along my thigh then, carefully, I tried to rest my arm across it. I stopped and pulled the sleeve of my sweater up. Or I tried to. It was astonishingly painful. "God!" I bit my lip and closed my eyes tight as the tears of pain burst through my lids. What the hell had I done to myself? Or rather, what the hell had those apes done to me?
The bell rang. I pulled myself together and, picking the keys off the desk, I went to the door. I hadn't actually locked all of the intervening doors; I hadn't even closed them completely, I had been so anxious to sit down. I turned on the light by the outer door and saw Greg Patterson and his partner, Jim Macy. And they saw me.
"Jesus Christ, Cassie! What the hell happened?" I struggled with the gate, then let them in, backing into the hallway. I turned and walked into the living room. "I got beaten up, like I said," I called back over my shoulder. I turned and sat at my desk, grinning at them. "Say 'Happy Birthday, Cassie!'" Then I hiccoughed. I took another sip of bourbon.
Jim Macy frowned. "How much of that have you had?"
"This is my second sip. I called as soon as I got in. I haven't had time to drink anymore." Chuckling. "I can't get the Advil open." I held out the bottle. "Can you open this for me?" He took the bottle and was about to shake pills into my hand when he pulled it back.
"You got water? You're not gonna wash these down with booze." I nodded and reached for the bottle of water I keep on the desk. I looked at it, then held it out for him to uncap. I took a sip, put the bottle down, got the pills, put them in my mouth, picked up the bottle and drank enough to wash the pills down. "This is going to get real tedious real fast," I grumbled. "Can you help me pull my sleeve up so I can use this icepack?" Jim reached for my sleeve and I caught his hand. "Careful! I just tried to pull it up and I almost passed out." He looked at me, then reached past and opened my desk drawer, searched and took out a pair of scissors.
"Shut up, Cassie." Greg spoke mildly as Jim cut the sleeve. "I don't know if you've looked in the mirror, but you aren't going to want that sweater any longer." I looked down at blood and other, less easily identified stains. Spirit was by my shoulder sniffing intently. I sighed. I loved that sweater.
"Jesus!" exclaimed Jim again. I looked down. The outer edge of left forearm was the purple-black of an eggplant. The color was slightly less pronounced as the bruise spread out. "Can you move your fingers?"
I knew the answer to that one already. "No. Not at all." Greg reached for the phone. "No! No ambulance. Can't you guys just drive me over? Please?"
Greg looked at me for a moment, then shook his head. "You're a piece of work, Cassie. Alright. Let's see what we can do with that icepack and get you to the emergency room." I gritted my teeth as Jim wrapped the pack around my arm. He was gentle, but there was no painless way to do it. We finally got it settled.
As we headed for the door, Greg held his hand out for my keys. "Now, tell me what happened. All of it. From the beginning."
I sighed. Sometimes there's no way out but through.
[To be continued . . .]