The Gremlin of Guesswork, Part One

May, 1984

Ethan Dillahunt and Vincent Bayonne stood over the body of a young woman sprawled across a wooden staircase badly in need of repair. The railing had broken away in places and several steps were split, cracked, and chipped. The heel of a shoe remained at the top of the stairs, while the shoe itself had descended two steps, and the shoeless woman’s momentum had carried her just short of the ground floor. 

The staircase rose from the apartment building’s entryway to the upstairs hall, a parallel version of the first floor. Each floor contained four apartments, two on each side of the hallways that stretched the length of the building, units one through four on the first floor and five through eight on the second. Stopped in her tracks, the occupant of apartment eight had hustled or been hurled into her current position.

Significantly younger and in better shape than her surroundings, at least until recently, the young woman wore a grey and pale blue plaid skirt and matching blazer over a white dress shirt.  The squaring of her shoulders suggested shoulder pads. Her hair had been shaped and pinned in place, and despite her ordeal, her purse hung from her shoulder.

Bayonne stared at the body for a few beats and thought he could see signs of a struggle. Was there bruising on her face, beneath her makeup, and what about the right arm that hooked away from her body? He’d only worked two homicide cases in the weeks since he’d transferred from narcotics, but he felt a new sensitivity at crime scenes, a growing awareness for how evidence fit together.

Dillahunt, who went by the nickname Hunt, knelt and lifted the woman by the shoulder to see her face and chest. When he lowered the corpse to the stairs, the arm shifted parallel to the body, a position that appeared more natural.

Bayonne asked, “You didn’t want the Medical Examiner to handle that?”

“He’ll be here any moment.” Hunt stood and turned to Officer Warren, the patrolman who’d secured the scene. “Who called it in?”

“The guy in apartment two. My partner’s in with him now.”

“Have you seen anyone else?”

“A guy on the second floor poked his head out of six and asked what we were doing. I took his statement, but he didn’t see anything. He said she was a nice girl, had an active social life. If he’d been a few years younger, he would’ve tried to keep up with her.”

“How old is he?”

“Maybe seventy-five. Frail.”

“Few years? Did he even know her?”

“He teared up when he saw the body.”

“When another unit arrives, have them canvas the building, talk to all the neighbors, and try to find out where she worked.”

Warren nodded, and Hunt walked from the entryway, down the hall toward apartment two. Bayonne followed.

The building, a two-story, stone structure, had seen better days. It had once been the home of a managing accountant for Central City Steel Company, a vice president when such a title meant something. The accountant died shortly after retirement. Long before his death, his children had arrived at middle-age in distant professions in distant cities, and his wife had long coveted a ranch house bordering a golf course in Scottsdale. Central City’s industrial infrastructure rusted along with the rest of the nation’s, and the house was bought, remodeled, and repurposed.

The interior of the building had been gutted and rebuilt either side of the central hallways with as little expense as possible. What had been an upwardly mobile family’s dream had been refabricated into a wage earner’s reality, which descended into a tenant’s nightmare one paycheck at a time. Wooden trim stained dark to hide abuse began to show the ravages of habit and neglect. Thin, industrial carpet wore to the floor. The plastered walls chipped and cracked, and yellow stains spread across the ceiling anywhere the roof or plumbing leaked. In such a stain, an optimist might see the face of Elvis where a pessimist found Richard Nixon. A realist would see a blotch spreading across the boundary of their existence, and they’d hope the color came from rust and not the chemical balance of a more human deposit. 

In apartment two, Hunt and Bayonne sat with the tenant who’d found the body and called the police. He stuck to his story, that he’d gone into the hall on his way to buy a carton of cigarettes, a paper, and eat breakfast at the café. He liked the bakery that delivered there, and he had a morning routine. He got as far as the hall and saw her body. She wasn’t moving, so he ran to help her. When he touched her shoulder, he knew she was dead. He came back to the apartment and called the police.

Hunt gave the man a cigarette and asked a few questions. Hunt asked the same questions in different ways and got the same answers. He looked up at the patrolman, and the officer nodded. 

Bayonne saw the exchange and cut in. “Did you know any of the victim’s friends?”

“Her friends?”

“People she spent time with, went out with? Was she dating anyone?”

“She was an attractive girl. I believe she had a date now and again. I don’t really know.”

Hunt stood, thanked the man, and motioned for Bayonne to follow him outside.

As they passed Andy Schaefer, the Medical Examiner and an old friend of Hunt’s, Hunt told Schaefer that they’d be at the café at the end of the block.

“That easy?” Schaefer smiled and touched the brim of his hat. “I guess I’ll be over in a few.”

Continued in Part Two.

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