A Short Story on the Website of
the Red Dirt Writers Society

Just Dumb Luck
by D. J. Russell (Aug 2010)


The first ring of the telephone pulled Alexandria Dansilov reluctantly from the depths of much needed sleep.  The second ring only served to make her burrow more deeply beneath the mass of sheets within which she had cocooned herself.  When the annoying jangle of the phone came a third time, she furiously exploded from the cozy darkness, only to be greeted by the harsh brilliance of the afternoon sun pouring through her bedroom windows.

She picked up the receiver and immediately slammed it back down again.  She was considering unplugging the unit, and possibly throwing it against the far wall, when the ringing resumed.  With a groan of resignation, she picked up the receiver and burrowed once again beneath the sheets.

“Hello?” she said, groggily.

            “Lexi?  Is that you?”

            “Yeah.  Who the hell is this?”

            “It’s Phineas.”  She wasn’t sure she could handle Phineas Morgan without coffee in her system.  The nice thing was that he liked her as little as she liked him.  Like every other time in their past, Phineas would likely be quick and to the point.

            “What time is it?” asked Alex.

“It’s almost two o’clock in the afternoon.  You do know that most people get up before noon.”  There was that note of sarcasm she had come to know and dislike.

            “Most people don’t stay up until eight in the morning snapping pictures of cheating husbands.”  With a sigh, she dislodged the sheets from around her, sitting up and placing her feet on the cold hardwood floor.  “What is it, Phin?”

            “I’ve got a job for you.  Unless you’re too busy, that is.”

              “Depends on what the job is.  I don’t think I’m in the mood to spend three weeks trying to find out if Little Mary Sunshine is faking whiplash.”

            “Nope.  This one’s not that simple.  It may be nothing at all, actually, but I’d like someone I trust to take a look at it.”

            “Why me?  When did we become such good friends again that you decided to start throwing work my way?”  She reached with one hand and snagged a pack of Marlboros and a lighter from the nightstand.  As they spoke, she lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply.

            “Because no one else will touch it.”  There was a sigh at the other end of the line.  “Besides,” he said, “I figured I owed it to you after everything that happened.”

            “It would have to be a damned big check to get me working for you again.”

            “Would you just put your ego on hold and come down here so that we can discuss it?”  There was a pause before his final jab came across.  “By the way, you never put in a forwarding address.  I just got the third notice of late payment on your car loan.”

            She tilted back her head and blew a stream of smoke into the already stale bedroom air.  “Was there ever actually a time when you weren’t a bastard, Phin?”

            “You thought there was.”  There was again a gulf of silence between them.  When there was no response from Alex, Phineas said softly, “I’ll be here until five o’clock.  Make it down if you can.”  There was a click and then the hum of an open line.

            Wearing nothing more than an oversized t-shirt, Alexandria Danislov stubbed out her cigarette, stumbled into the kitchen, and pressed the button to start a pot of coffee brewing.  Back in the bedroom, she opened her dresser and found that her only clean panties were white and bore the printed likeness of Snoopy on the back side.  Shrugging indifferently, she snatched them out of the drawer and headed for the bathroom and her first opportunity at a shower in two days.

            With a cloud of steam tenaciously hanging like a potential summer storm, Alex wiped the fog from the face of the mirror and stared at her reflection.  It was her face, a fact that she knew all too well, that made most people fail to take her seriously.  Her features were delicate and pixie-like with pale skin that accentuated a light spray of freckles upon her cheeks and nose. 

Men had always thought she was “cute as a button”.  She never argued with them.  People are less likely to shoot at you if they don’t think you’re a serious threat.  She plugged in the hair-dryer, clicked it on high, and began running a brush through the tangled knots of red curls that framed her face.

* * *

            Having arrived at the local office of the United Insurance Corporation, Alex sat in the waiting room impatiently tapping her fingers against the arms of the plastic chair.  She had been waiting for nearly thirty minutes now and, being in a foul mood already, was considering leaving if Phineas didn’t show his sorry excuse for a butt soon.

            She was in much better condition than she had been the telephone had rudely drug her from sleep.  Her dark red curls had been drenched in conditioner and then blow-dried into silky submission.  The length of it was tied into a ponytail, with small strands of ringlets allowed to hang, freely-framing her delicate features and offsetting the deep green of her eyes.

            Alex was about to call it a day when the secretary ushered her into the office of Phineas Morgan.  Taking a seat across the desk from him, Alex noticed that he appeared more over-starched and over-fed than usual.  His black hair was cut close to the scalp.  Though fifteen years out of the U.S. Marines, Phineas was proof that some habits die hard.

            He set a thick manila envelope in the middle of the desk that separated them.  On top of it was a smaller, white envelope.

            “What’s this?” asked Alex, picking up the white envelope.

            “It’s a base retainer.  Two-thousand dollars whatever your determination is about the case.”  He cocked one eyebrow.  “Suitable?”

            “It’ll work.”  Alex slipped the envelope into the small purse on her lap, taking care to show that the check was of little consequence to her.  “What’s the case?”

            Phineas leaned back in his chair, but never took his gaze off of Alex.  “A mother of three was gunned down while on her way home from work.  She had no apparent enemies, no pissed-off ex, no money owed to any ‘less savory’ individuals, and her life outside of work revolved around her kids.”

            “What are the police saying?”

            “They’ve written it up as a drive-by shooting.  They’re saying this case can’t get any colder.”

            “That’s not good enough for you?”

            “I just don’t buy it.”  Phineas rocked his chair forward.  “You’ve got a white woman, with no known gang affiliations, being shot in a neighborhood that has had only four suspicious deaths in the last two years.”

            “So,” said Alex, playing the Devil’s Advocate, “the lady had a major case of dumb friggin’ luck.”

            “According to the police statement, only one shot was fired.  You want to talk about luck?  What are the odds of a banger, speeding by in a car, managing one perfect kill shot?”

Though she was no longer a cop, Alex’s relationships with a few members of the force allowed her access to the department’s firing range.  She spent no less than two days a week maintaining her “marksman” rating.  A shot like the one which Phineas was talking about would be beyond many sniper’s capabilities. 

“So, what’s the big deal?  I’ll admit that it’s not typical, but stranger things have happened.  Why are you so hot for me to investigate?”

“Because, in three days, I have to cut a check for $750,000 to the family of the deceased.  It’s a large policy that had only been fully in effect for two months before she was murdered.  I want a fresh pair of eyes to make sure that I’m not being suckered.”

Alex did the math.  A $750,000 policy would net her about $30,000 if U.I.C. didn’t have to pay out. It would be, by far, her biggest pay day to date.  The size of the potential check also made her a bit suspicious.

“And why me?”

“What’s wrong with me throwing business to someone I care about?”

“Because you never cared this much about me unless we were horizontal.  You’ve only ever offered me crumbs before, now you’re suddenly serving up the whole damned cake.”

Phineas took his feet off the desk and rocked forward in his chair.  Placing both arms on the desktop, he leaned forward and locked gazes with Alex.  “You want the money or not?  You’re not the last name on my list.”

She didn’t break eye contact.  “I also know I’m not in the top five.”

“I don’t want to argue.  I’ve had two other people take a look and they’ve found nothing.  Take it or leave it, Alex.  I really don’t care either way.”  He stood and grabbed a jacket hanging from the back of the chair.  “Police report, witness statements, health records, and everything else I thought you might need are in that envelope.  You’ve got thirty minutes to make up your mind.”  With that, Alex watched him walk out the office door.  As he passed her, she saw the usual flushed face that always seemed to signal the end of their conversations.

She was still sifting through the packet of information when Phineas’s secretary brought her a third cappuccino.   She brought the cup to her lips and sipped.  God bless caffeine.  The only thing better on this earth was pulsating shower-heads.

* * *

Phineas had been correct.  There was very little to go on.  There had been only one witness - an elderly woman who had seen the car speed away.  Even that witness was of very little use, telling the reporting officers only that the car was dark blue, or black, and looked new.

The envelope also contained statements from co-workers and from her family physician; Lydia Johnson was well-liked and the very picture of health.  The outcome did not look good for Phineas Morgan and U.I.C..  Alex would do a “walk and talk” anyway.  Perhaps she could jog some memories or find connections the detectives on the case might have missed.  Looking at the slim, silver watch on her left wrist, she thought she might have just enough time to speak with the last people who saw the victim alive.

The Sparklane Public Library wasn’t so much a library as it was an over-sized studio apartment with several steel bookcases loaded with tomes of every sort.  When Alex entered the building, she inhaled deeply.  She didn’t make it to the library often.  When she did, the smell of new books ignited wonderful memories of special times she had spent with her mother.

            She identified herself to the librarian stationed at the front desk.  The grey-haired woman scuttled out of sight, Alex hoped, to find the head librarian.  Little more than two minutes went by before a tall striking blonde came to the front desk and greeted Alex warmly.  The blonde introduced herself as “Pamela Martin”.  After Alex showed the woman her P.I. license, the blonde woman asked if they could speak in her office.  Alex nodded in agreement.

“It’s nice to see that someone is still actively investigating Lydia’s death.” As she talked, she poured a cup of coffee from a machine behind her desk.  Alex declined when offered a cup of the coffee because she was already riding a caffeine high and needed to pee somethin’ wicked.  “Most people in town know what she had accomplished with UpBeat, but very few knew just how incredible it was that she was even a part of it.”

Alex vaguely remembered having heard the name.  “UpBeat?”

            “Urban People Being Examples and Teachers.  It was a mentoring program that allowed students a second chance at a quality education.  We were not replacing teachers, merely filling in some of the gaps often found in public education.”

            “Sounds impressive,” said Alex.  “Why did you say that it was incredible that Lydia was even a part of it?  Did she have a problem with the program or people within it?”

            Pamela laughed.  “No, dear.  Lydia actually founded and ran UpBeat.  As far as why people would be surprised, you must understand that when Lydia started working here ten years ago, she was so painfully shy that it was difficult for her to interact with patrons on even a basic level.  Thankfully, she grew out of it and became one of the best employees I have.”

            “Her success didn’t make anyone jealous?”

            “This is not exactly Wall Street.  Being a librarian, although an essential occupation, is by no means cutthroat.”

            “What about the kids she was mentoring?  Anything going on there?”

“No.  All of the kids liked her.”  Pamela put a polished red nail to her lips.  “There was one student, Juan Esposito, that required one-on-one time with Lydia.”

“Any signs that he might be violent, with other students or with Mrs. Johnson?”  Alex shifted in her seat and crossed her legs.  The library might have “Great Expectations,” but they had lousy furniture.

“Violent?  Juan could get angry and upset at times, but this was due largely to frustration that he was not advancing as quickly as he wished.  Lydia would talk quietly with him and, within a few minutes, Juan would quiet down and return to his studies.”

Alex needed something in the way of a dark cloud.  A day with nothing but silver linings really pissed her off.  “Is there anything you can tell me at all that might shed some light on the day she was murdered or the days just prior?  Is there anyone at all you can think of who might’ve had a reason to kill her?”

“To be honest,” the librarian said hesitantly, “I almost wish there was.”  She must have seen the startled look cross Alex’s face.  “I don’t mean that I ever wished anything bad upon poor Lydia.  I only meant to say that Lydia was so much a part of our little family, that losing her to something as vague as a random act makes it hurt even more.  It’s difficult to be angry at Fate.”

Alex stood and offered her hand to Ms. Martin.  “I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.”  She reached into her purse and removed a faded business card.  Handing it to the librarian, she said, “Please give me a call if you think of anything else that might be useful.”

            “I’ll be happy to.  I would like to say again how happy I am that you are investigating her death.  All of us, especially her family, hope to understand what happened.”

            Once outside the library, Alex flipped on her cell phone and dialed the Sparklane Police Department.  After the switchboard transferred her, she heard the gruff voice of Allistair Winslow on the other end of the line.

            “Winslow speaking.”

            “How’s the golf game, Allie?”

            “Alex?  Is that you, Sugar?”  A touch of the gruffness vanished from the voice on the other end of the line.  “Hmmph!  My golf game’s so bad my grandson has to spot me three holes in putt-putt. Fly fishing is my thing.  Ain’t nothin’ in this world like a big old beautiful rainbow trout.  When am I goin’ to get you out there fishin’ with me?”

            “Probably when they shut down Long John Silvers,” she replied, unable to keep a smile from her lips.  Allie Winslow had been trying to put a fishing pole in her hands since she was five years old.

            “Your daddy would roll over in his grave if he heard you talkin’ like that.  Shame on you, Alex.”  The man paused and let forth a bellow of laughter that was likely heard at the other end of the station. 

Winslow, now nearing retirement, had been in the same class at the academy as her father.  He was graced with wit, wisdom, and luck.  Her father had only been blessed with wit and wisdom.

“I’m calling for a favor,” said Alex.

“Of course you are.”  The reply was matter-of-fact.  “I’m all out of favors today, Sugar.  I’ll make you a deal though.”

“A deal?”  Allie had never refused her a favor.

“You promise me, on your daddy’s grave, that you’ll be at Felicia and my house on Thanksgiving and I’ll give you anything you want.  Well, anything the Lord won’t frown upon.”

He had been trying to get her over for the last five years. “Fine.  Despite the fact that I normally boycott anything involving cheer and good will.”

“Good.  Now, what’s the favor?”

“I need to know if there have been any updates to the Lydia Johnson case in the last six weeks.”

“Lydia Johnson.” There was a slight pause.  “Was that the library lady that got shot?”

“Yep.  I’m doing some final checking for the company that is about to pay out on her life insurance.”

            “Who’re you working for this time?”

            Alex closed her eyes and hoped that Allie would not make her answer. 

            The old man’s sigh filled the silent void created by her cowardice.  “You’re working for Phineas Morgan, aren’t you?”  The words that came next were filled with disappointment.  “I thought you were done with him, Sugar.  That man ain’t been nothing but trouble for you!”

            “I’ve got to pay the bills, Allie.  There aren’t a whole lot of people lining up to hire me.”

            “You could always come back to the—“

            Alex interrupted him, “You know I can’t do that, Allie.  They won’t let you play house if you can’t keep your problems ‘in house.’  Very few in the squad will even talk to me.  You’re the only person I can come to for help.”

            “I know, Sugar, I know.”  The sigh that now issued from him had a wistful air to it.  “I’ll see what I can find out on your library lady.  Had a whole lot of folks trying to make their bones when she was first killed, but haven’t heard a peep in the last couple of months.”

“Even if you don’t find anything, Allie, thanks for being here for me.  Do what you can and give me a call.  I’ve got one last question before I hope off here.  Can you run the name ‘Juan Esposito’ though the system?”

“Sugar, you’re goin’ to owe me so many favors that our holiday table will be full for the next two years." Alex could hear Allie hunt and peck his way through the city’s antiquated computer network.  After several minutes, he said, “We’ve got him in the system, but not for anything more seriously than a few purse snatchings.  What’s the interest?”

“I don’t know quite yet.  Can you give me a last known address?

She wrote down the information and they said their farewells, with Winslow making her promise once again that she would spend Thanksgiving with him and his family.

Alex looked at her wrist watch.  It was after six o’clock.  She would have to wait until tomorrow to continue her interviews.  She was about to get into her baby-blue Mazda when she saw a priest locking the front doors of the small Catholic church across the street.  She hurried across the street and caught him as he was descending the steps.

“Father?  May I speak with you for a moment?”

Dressed in a black short-sleeved shirt and matching slacks, the priest’s slender and well-toned body belied the advancing years that his heavily salt-and-pepper hair and a face furrowed with lines could not hide.  He stopped at the bottom of the steps as Alex approached him.

There was a look of minor annoyance on his face.  “You can call in the morning and make an appointment if you like.  I don’t mean to be rude, but I am heading to the rectory for my dinner.”  When Alex made no move to return from where she came, the priest began walking down the sidewalk that led around the eastern side of the church.

“I only need a few moments of your time.”  Alex tried to look vulnerable, a disguise she did not wear well, in the hope that the priest might view her as a lost lamb and not as an intrusive annoyance.

The priest stopped and gave her his full attention, but he was all out of gracious smiles.   “Very well.  How may I help you?”

“I’m looking into the Lydia Johnson murder.  I was hoping that you might’ve seen something that day.”

            The priest’s stern expression gave way to a genuine sadness.  “Ahhh, poor Lydia.  I did see her that day, but I’m afraid that I did not see anything that might shed light on who killed her.”

“You saw her?”

“Yes,” replied the priest, his head bobbing in ascent.  “It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes before she was—before that terrible thing happened.”

“Do you know why she stopped by?”  Alex knew she was fishing; she just hoped that her luck was better than Allie’s.

            “No, my dear.  I’m afraid that we did not speak.”  He touched her lightly on the arm, urging her to walk with him.  “I was tidying up when she came in.  She lit a votive and prayed.  I went into the church office for more cleaning supplies, and she was gone when I returned.”

            “Was she a regular?”

“Yes, she came quite often.”  They had reached the front porch of the rectory.  “Her children still come each week.  Their aunt, Susan Allbright, is the one now taking care of them, I believe.”

“So, you noticed nothing different or out of the ordinary about Lydia Johnson?”

“No,” the priest mused.  “Lydia seemed in good spirits.  She had been battling a nasty cold for the last few weeks, but when I inquired after her health, she told me that she was getting the better of it and would be dancing a jig in no time at all.”

            A cold?  The best she was going to come up with was a cold?  Alex was not one to sneeze at an easy two-thousand dollars, but this woman was beginning to annoy the crap out of her.  I wonder if she wears that halo in the rain, she thought.

            When the silence had begun to stretch, the priest said, “I’m sorry that I wasn’t more help to you, my dear.  I’m afraid that I must go inside and eat now.  I have to pay a visit to a parishioner’s home in an hour.”

Alex shook hands with the priest, giving her thanks, and watched as he entered the rectory, the door swinging softly closed behind him.  Knowing there was no more that she could do today, she headed to her Mazda.  Perhaps tomorrow would provide better results.

* * *

            Alex greeted the morning with a sense of impending doom that she normally saved for reality television.  Lying in bed, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she watched the rising of the sun for the first time in three weeks.  She was not impressed.

            As she padded toward the kitchen in bare feet, she paused long enough to set her dryer for fifteen minutes.  Once in the kitchen, she warmed up the cappuccino machine.  While that was in process, she grabbed the manila envelope from the couch and emptied its contents on the dinning-room table.  She wasn’t sure what she might find.  She had spent an additional two hours poring through it when she had arrived home the previous evening.

            An hour later, no wiser but a great deal more caffeinated, Alex aimed the Mazda toward the address listed as the home, or former home, of Lydia Johnson.  It took only fifteen minutes before she parked her precious little junker across the street from the Johnson home.

It was an unremarkable home, mirroring a hundred homes in the surrounding blocks.  Two children, who were so alike in coloring and build that Alex assumed they must be brother and sister, played on the miniscule front lawn of the house.  She could not help but marvel at the resiliency of youth.  With all they had lost, these children were having the time of their lives on that little patch of green.  The boy, the eldest of the two, was spraying a garden hose at a little girl who, despite screaming and telling him to quit, also giggled and made little effort to get beyond his reach.

The children were so lost in their own little world that they did not notice her walk to the front door and knock lightly.  There was no response.  Waiting an additional fifteen seconds, she knocked again.  This time the door swung open, revealing an attractive woman with the beginnings of gray creeping into her rich, chocolate-colored tresses.  She wore beige shorts and a white cotton blouse.

“May I help you?” asked the woman.

“Hello,” said Alex, putting her most professional foot forward.  “My name is Alexandria Danislov, and I’m a private investigator.  Are you Susan Allbright?”  She dug into her purse and produced her credentials.  

The woman eyed Alex’s ID before opening the screen door, admitting her into an immaculately kept living room.

            “Yes, I’m Susan Allbright,” said the woman, gesturing for Alex to take a seat on the couch, “I assume that you’re here about Lydia’s death?”

            The woman’s abruptness surprised Alex somewhat.  “Yes, actually.  You don’t seem surprised.”

            “I stopped being surprised a long time ago.”  A wan smile broke across the woman’s face.  “You get so used to the intrusions after a while that sometimes it barely registers.  If it’s not the police stopping by with questions but no answers, it’s the insurance company looking for some excuse not to write the check for Lydia’s policy.”  She stopped speaking and looked at Alex questioningly.  “Who do you work for?”

            “U.I.C., your sister’s insurance company.”

            “At least you’re not a reporter.  She hated the reporters even when she was alive and was the community darling.”

            “Why’s that?  From what I’ve heard, your sister was doing some pretty remarkable work.”

            “She wanted anything that was written to be about the program and not about her.  I know she wasn’t the wallflower she had once been, but she hated the schmoozing part of the work.  She wanted the money for the program to just magically appear so that her time could be spent on working with the kids.”

            “Little unrealistic, isn’t it?

            The smile that now crossed Susan Allbright’s face was one lighted with happier thoughts.  “That’s the way she was.  Even with three kids and a bastard for an ex-husband, she believed in the fairytale.  The bad things in the world could be fixed if you worked hard enough and wished with all your heart.”

            “I wish I could see the world that way sometimes,” said Alex, thinking about the train wreck her life had become.

            “I could never do it,” said Allbright, resignedly.  “I could never overlook the flaws long enough to appreciate the beauty of things.  Well, except with the children.  Lydia’s children are fantastic to be around.”

            Alex didn’t want to look down at her watch and break the easy rapport she had built with the other woman.  She knew, without looking however, that she needed to move things along.

            “Is there anything out of the ordinary about the days leading up to Lydia’s death?  Anything that you might have remembered since speaking with the police?”  Please remember, Mrs. Allbright, sometimes clues hide in the smallest of details.”

            “No.  She had been feeling under the weather for the last few weeks.  Despite the sniffles and a terrible cough, she was in remarkably good spirits.  She and Janey, her oldest, even spent a wonderful afternoon together shopping for a dress for Janey’s first formal dance.”

            “No harassing phone calls?  No suspicious people in the neighborhood?”

            “No.  Janey would have been the first to mention it.  She’s had it as hard as the other two children, but she has maintained quite a brave attitude through the whole thing.”  She suddenly sat forward, something clearly coming to mind.  “There have been phone calls from a young man since Lydia’s death.”


            “Not at all.  Exact opposite, actually.  He called a number of times to give his condolences.”

            “Did a name show up on the caller ID?”

            “No, the name was blocked, except for once.  One call was from a filling station or convenience store.  Can’t quite remember the name of it.”  Allbright paused and closed her eyes in concentration.  “Ruby Lee’s or Jubilee.  Something like that.”

            “Did you mention these calls to the police?”

            “No, they seemed quite harmless.  I just assumed it was one of the children in the UpBeat program.”

            Alex scribbled notes on a small pad she carried.  “There was a mention in the police report that she had withdrawn $5,000 only two days before she was killed.  Any idea what it might have been for?”

            “Not at all.  Like I told the police, I’ve never seen Lydia with more than fifty dollars in her purse.  It nearly cleared out her savings though.”

            Five minutes later, Alex stood and thanked Susan Allbright for her time and information, assuring the woman that she would be contacted if any new information was found concerning the case.  As she left the house, she thought she saw the slender form of a young woman silhouetted at the end of a long dark hallway.  Alex assumed it must be Janey Johnson.  Poor kid.

            Back inside her car, Alex cranked-up the air conditioner and sat in contemplation.  She wasn’t sure what road she’d take next.  She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel of her car, processing what knew information she had uncovered in the last twenty-four hours—not much that is.  Her cell phone rang.  Looking at the caller ID and seeing that it was not a number she recognized, Alex took the chance and answered it anyway.

“I’m so sorry for disturbing you, Ms. Danislov,” came a businesslike voice from the other end of the line.  “You mentioned that you wanted to be notified if we found anything that might be pertinent.”

“Yes,” said Ales, her ears perking up, “I appreciate you calling me.”

“It was no great effort,” the librarian chuckled.  “It was an accident actually.  We’ve been delay cleaning out Lydia’s desk this morning and I found a Post-It note on the insides cover of a book she must have be reading.”

“May I ask what the note said?”

“No much really.  It had a telephone number – 737-225-9321 – and the words ‘Wednesday – 3pm’ written on it.  Mean anything to you?”

“Nothing to me, at least not yet.  Thanks for the information, ma’am.”

            When the phone was dead, Alex felt quite a bit better.  She didn’t have the killer yet, but she did have a mysterious phone number with a note saying ‘Wednesday – 3pm--.  It was probably just a reminder note to go see her dentist.  She also had an address to a possibly new witness.  There where what they called leads.  Leads were her friend.

Dexter Avenue was a definite candidate for an urban renewal project.  Many of the homes were in an advanced state of decay and disrepair.  Only a few looked as though a fresh coat of paint had been applied since the end of the Cold War.  The home of Juan Esposito was one of the few bright spots on its block.  The owner of that particular home, though the building itself might not be particularly picturesque, had taken great pains to keep the postage stamp size lawn well mowed and the area closest to the house and the walk dazzlingly brilliant with flowers that seemed to represent each color of the rainbow.

Alex would be the first to admit that she couldn’t tell the difference between a radish and a gardenia. She did appreciate beautiful flowers as long as she was not expected to weed them, pick them, or buy them.

Before getting out of the car, she typed the sticky-note phone number into her cell.  She was surprised just how quickly the call was answered, and by whom.  What followed was a few minutes of rapid-fire questions and answers, Alex trying all the while to take notes, balance the phone between head and shoulder and not spill an oversized soda she was clenching between her knees.  When she had returned her phone to the dark confines of her purse, she stared blankly into the distance, chewing lightly on her lower lip.  This just gets stranger and stranger, she thought.

Alex climbed out of her car and went to the Esposito’s front door.  An elderly black woman, who introduced herself as Mary Frances, Juan’s foster mother, greeted Alex.  She warmly welcomed Alex into her home.  When Alex declined her offer of tea, the old woman wobbled into the innermost section of the house and returned five minutes later with a young man in tow.

Juan Esposito was no taller than Alex.  His features were more delicate than one might think for a boy of his age.  Despite what some would consider a touch of femininity to his appearance, Alex was also quick to see the emerging line of muscles upon his bare arms and chest.  She judged that the boy was no more than fourteen or fifteen years old.

“Sit down, Juan,” said the elderly woman.  “This lady has some questions for you about Miss Lydia.”  The young man sat in a well-cushioned easy chair, the one situated farthest from Alex’s own seat.


Alex asked him many of the same questions she had posed to the others she had interviewed.  Her questions elicited only monosyllabic responses or shakes and nods of the boy’s head.  Juan rarely looked her straight in the eye as they spoke and was quick with the back of his hand when a set of tears formed and slid down his cheek.

            Alex did not question him for long.  There seemed to be little gained from hammering questions into a young boy who was obviously still grieving for his mentor.  Thanking Juan, as well as his foster mother, Alex was about to leave the home at 2315 Dexter Avenue, when she noticed for the first time that the table nearest the chair in which she had been sitting was littered with unopened letters.  She paused only long enough to see that several of them were from the Sparklane Division of Courts and that the letters were addressed to Miguel Jimenez.  Not wanting to appear overly nosey, she headed to her car.

It was almost noon and Alex knew that the people she needed to interview next would likely all be at lunch for the next hour.  Food was beginning to sound like a good idea to her as well.  Her only meal so far had consisted of a stale bagel and two cappuccinos.  Pulling into the drive-through of a local fast-food place, she ordered a double bacon cheeseburger, large fries, and a coke.

            She was only half finished with her burger when her cell phone rang.  Grumbling at the interruption, she dug it out of her purse and flipped it open.

            “Alex?”  It was Allie Winslow.   


“Heya, Allie.  Got anything for me?”  Alex lit a cigarette as she waited for whatever news he might have.


“Not much,” replied the old cop.  “The case has been inactive for the last four months.  The reporting officers wrote it up as a random homicide.  They spent more time investigating this case than they do most drive-by shootings ‘cause this lady was so high-profile.  It should get someone’s attention again about election time.”

“Are you at your computer?” Alex asked, taking a drag from her cigarette and then flicking the ashes out her open window.

            “Yes, why?”

            “Can you run a name for me?”

            There was a sigh at the other end of the line.  “What’s the name?”

            “Miguel Jimenez.”

            There was a brief period of silence, broken only by the slow tapping of fingers on a keyboard.  “We’ve got a Miguel Jimenez who is currently a guest of the Department of Corrections.”

            “What’s he in for?”

            “Armed robbery and attempted murder.”

            “He didn’t happen to live at 2315 Dexter Avenue, did he?”

            There was another pause on the line, though Alex guessed that surprise was likely the reason this time.

            “And how did you know this, Sugar?”

            “Just a hunch.  The name came up while I was doing interviews for the Lydia Johnson case.”

            “Well,” said Allie, “I don’t think this is your guy.”


            “Because he was arrested for soliciting on the day of Mrs. Johnson’s murder.  He was in a jail two-hundred miles away when the shot was fired.”

            “Damn!”  Alex slapped the dash of her car in frustration.  “I knew it couldn’t be that easy.”

            “Very few things ever are, Sugar.”

            “Thanks for the information, Allie.  If you come up with anything really good, I might just throw in Christmas dinner as well.”  Alex closed the phone, stubbed out her cigarette, and launched into the other half of her burger.  Before long, she had her car moving once again; its destination was a medical complex on the outskirts of town.

The exterior of the building which housed the office of Dr. Eugene Zalinsky looked as boring and cookie-cutter as any that might be found in a traditional office park.  Alex got lucky and found an empty parking spot close to the building’s entrance.

            The interior of the doctor’s office was as unique as the exterior had been plain.  Comfortable, brightly-colored chairs lined one wall of the waiting room, while the entire length of the other wall had been reserved for one of the largest aquariums Alex had ever seen.

            “Miss?”  Alex’s attention was reluctantly drawn away from the hundreds of multi-colored fish to the dour expression of the office’s receptionist.

            “Yes.  I’m sorry, I was just admiring your aquarium.”

            “May I help you?  Do you have an appointment?”

            “I’d like to talk with Dr. Zalinsky about an ex-patient of his.”  Alex pulled out her P.I. identification.  “I’m looking into the woman’s death and thought the doctor might have information.”

            “I’m afraid that the doctor is not in today.”

            “Is there a nurse or office manager that I might talk with?”

            The heavyset receptionist stared at her blankly for several seconds before reluctantly picking up the phone and punching in three digits.

            “Alice?  I’ve got someone up here who needs to speak with you.”  Replacing the phone, the woman said, “Have a seat.  Someone will be out shortly to speak with you.”    She barely had time to sit before a young blonde woman came into the waiting room, shook Alex’s hand warmly, and introduced herself as Alice Crane.  Alice led her into the inner sanctum to an office whose door bore the sign “Office Manager.”

            Alex explained to her that she was looking into the death of Lydia Johnson.  Alice said that she knew of no patient named Lydia Johnson.  When asked if she might double check to make sure, Alice shook her head no.  She insisted that she knew all of the doctor’s patients very well and that name was completely unfamiliar to her.

            Alex reached into the envelope given to her by Phineas Morgan.  She withdrew a picture of Lydia Johnson and handed it to the other woman.  Alice stared at the picture and then looked up at Alex in confusion.

            “I do know this woman,” she said, “but her name was Erica Christian.”

            “Erica Christian?”  Now Alex was as confused as the blonde.  “Can you tell me what she was doing here?”

            “Actually, I don’t think I can.  There are privacy laws.”  The woman looked at the picture again.  “You say she’s dead?”

            Alex explained about Lydia/Erica’s murder.

            “Well,” said the nurse, regretfully, “whoever did it was doing her a favor.”

            “What?”  Alex was shocked at the woman’s statement.

            Alice stood and walked to her office door.  She looked up and down before pushing it shut.  “Mrs. Christian, er, Mrs. Johnson would likely not have lived for another two months.  And those two months would have been spent in a great deal of pain.”

“Was she ill?”  As soon as the words left her mouth, Alex wished that she had phrased the question a bit differently.


“There were a lot of things wrong with her.  Her eventual killer would be cancer that had spread like a demon throughout much of her system.”


“Was her insurance company notified?”


“She paid her bills in cash.”


“That didn’t strike you as a little odd?  I can’t imagine any of the treatments were cheap.”


“No, they aren’t cheap, but we’re here to treat patients, not do their income tax.”


“Did she give a billing address?  Or a phone number where she could be reached if appointments were changed?”


            “Let me check.”  Alice stood from her desk again and marched out of the office.  When she returned, she was carrying a file folder of her own.  Opening it, she scanned the front page.  “She lists her address as 2315 Dexter Avenue.  There is no phone number or next of kin listed.”


            “2315 Dexter Avenue?”   Why would she list Juan’s address on her forms?  Why not get a post office box?

            “Yes, that’s it.”

“Did she ever come in with anyone?”  The nurse’s response was not one Alex wanted to hear.

* * *

She found him on the basketball court where his foster mother had said he would be.  Alex watched him for several minutes as he expertly nailed three-point shots through the naked hoop.

One shot hit the edge of the rim, causing the ball to careen to one side and bounce to within fifteen feet of where Alex was standing.  When the young man saw her, his shoulders slumped in resignation.  He walked close enough to her that only the chain-link fence separated them.

            Alex tried to keep the sadness and disappointment out of her voice.  “I thought she was your friend, Juan.  I know that you rode with her to her appointments.  That’s the kind of thing friends do for each other.”


“How’d you know?”  He turned his back to her and leaned against the fence.


“A nurse spotted you waiting in the car when she came for one of her visits.”


He averted his eyes rather than respond to her.


Alex moved so that he was once again forced to look her in the eyes.  When she knew she had his attention again, her voice was quiet, “There are three kids, one just barely older than you, who want to know why their mother had to die alone in the street.”


“Yeah?”  Anger flushed his face and the corners of his eyes became moist.  Gone was the timidity of only hours earlier.  “I lost about the only person who thought I was worth a damn.”


“Did she offer you money to do it?”


“I wouldn’t take no money for something like that!!”  He shoved his fingers through the hole in the fence and shook it furiously.  Energy and anger spent, Juan lowered himself to his knees.  “The money was for Miguel.  She offered him everything she had to do it.  He just laughed at her and told her it wasn’t enough.”


“Somebody did it though, didn’t they?  The car that was seen speeding away looks a lot like the car your brother Miguel drives.  Miguel couldn’t have done it though, he was in jail.”


“What do you think you know, lady?  There’s a lot of cars out there that look like the one Miguel drives.”  Juan turned away from the fence and began to slowly dribble his basketball toward the pathetic hoop.


“Be a man, Juan,” she called after him.  “Be a man and admit that you killed her.”


Juan paused in the act of shooting the basket and turned back to face her.  “Be a man?  What do you think I was trying to be every time I went with her to an appointment?  You think it didn’t take a man to listen to someone cry about leaving their children?  She was supposed to be the grownup!  I had to turn into a man because she was too afraid to turn anywhere else.”  He walked defiantly back to the fence where she still stood.  “She gave me self-respect when I didn’t know what the word meant.  I gave her peace when she couldn’t even tell her own family that she was going through Hell.”


Alex knew that he had shot Lydia Johnson in the head; she also knew that she had nothing more than a gut feeling and some circumstantial evidence.  The kid was smart; there would never be a gun found that would link him to the crime.  It would take a year of this kid’s life before the police and the D.A. decided there wasn’t enough to take it to trial.  Meanwhile, Lydia’s children would hurt further by the fact that their mother had kept very important secrets from them.


“I’m investigating this case, Juan, and you’re the only person I have left who might have a clue what happened.”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


“Sure you don’t, Juan.”  This time, it was Alex who broke eye contact.  “I’ve got to ask you a question though.  Did you talk with Lydia Johnson on the day she was murdered?”


“Yeah, I did.”


“Can you tell me what she said?”


Juan bounced the ball twice before answering, “She said, ‘Thank you’.”

* * *

            Fifteen minutes later, Alex sat in the front seat of her car, cell phone in hand, watching Juan Esposito practicing his three-point shot.  The day had not turned out the way she had expected.  Lydia Johnson, also known as Erica Christian, had hired her own hit-man in order to scam a nearly one million dollar cushion for her children.  Who was the villain and who was the victim?  Damned if she knew.

            The ringing of her cell stopped, and the voice of Phineas Morgan, of the United Insurance Corporation, could be heard on the other end.  It took her a few seconds to tear her attention away from Juan and turn it back to the cell phone.

            “I’m finished doing my interviews.”

            “Anything new from the police?” asked Phin, hopefully.

            “No, it’s a cold case for them.  It’s going to get real warm though.”

            “You found something?”  Phineas was becoming excited.  He surely had visions of his ass and his Christmas bonus being pulled out of the proverbial fire.  “Please tell me you have something!”

            Alex wasn’t sure exactly she felt her loyalties should lie at the moment.  She kept her voice as emotionless as possible when she replied to Phineas, “I’ve got to tell you, Phin, that the evidence on this is weak at best.”

            “Just tell me what you’ve got.”

            “Lydia Johnson was likely terminally when she set up the policy.”

            “That might help us except for the fact that died because of a bullet in the head.”

            “I know that she offered $5,000 to a Miguel Esposito to shoot her within the next week.”

            “She planned her own damned murder???  Stupid or ballsy, I can’t make up my mind.”

            “Miguel refused the money.  Besides, on the day she was murdered, Miguel was behind bars 200 miles away.”

            “Well,” said Phineas, losing hope and growing annoyed, “I am assuming that she didn’t shoot herself.”

            “Nope.  I think your shooter is Miguel’s half-brother, Juan.  He was one of Lydia Johnson’s students.”

            “Cold little SOB.”

            “Listen up, Phin.  All of the evidence on Juan is circumstantial at best.  If he gets even a halfway decent public defender, the case will never see trial.”

            “That’s up for the police to decide, isn’t it?”

            “I’m just giving you my report.  What you do with it is your business.”

            “When can you fax the report to me?”

            “Tomorrow morning okay?”

            “Actually,” said Phineas, pausing for a moment, “Just bring the report by tomorrow and I’ll give you your check at the same time.” 

            “My check?  I haven’t exactly proven your case.”


            “No, but you have bought me time to do a further investigation.  At the very least, we have the evidence of fraud.  That should stop the policy payment.  You earned your money on this one, Alex.”  They said their good-byes and then both lines went dead.


            Alex started to pull a cigarette out of the pack and light it, but stopped when she thought of Lydia Johnson.  No one knew what had caused her cancer.  Sometimes things just happened.  Though Lydia Johnson had set her own Fate in motion, showing unbelievably bad judgment in the process, Alex could not help but wish that events would still err in the favor the Johnson children.  As far as Juan went, Alex hoped the kid would be able to get past his incredibly stupid decisions.


Alex knew that she didn’t want her life to be summed up with “it was just bad luck.”  She crumpled the pack of cigarettes and threw it out the window.  Turning the key in the car’s ignition, Alex went in search of a good cheeseburger and a little piece of mind.

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Revised August 2010.