Or, A Case for Chemistry
It happened in the laundromat. Detective Dan Morris arrived on the scene promptly at 12:01 in the afternoon, the very minute his client, Jeremy Aubrian, had asked to meet him. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Jeremy, the other three suspects had also hired Dan as their personal public investigator (as all four were under questioning) and had each, in turn, asked to meet with him at 12:02, 12:03, and 12:04, respectively. An unusual bunch, Dan figured. But they always were with cases like this.
So for the next five minutes, Detective Dan had to deal with half a dozen accusations of “Why’s HE here?!” or “Why’s SHE here?!” His answer to all of them was rote:
“We’re getting to the bottom of this right here, right now.” He spoke through gritted teeth, holding an artificial stick of nicotine between his lips. Smoking was an unhealthy habit, and his doctor said this makeshift cigarette could help him quit. He decided it was worth trying, since he’d much rather get killed by an angry client than a pack of ‘rettes he’d paid for with a slow week’s pay. His health? Didn’t care. His wallet? That’s where his head was.
Once the crowd was quiet, having finally accepted his ultimatum, Dan was at a momentary loss for words. There were four of them and only one of him. He had to proceed carefully, delicately, have the right one speak in turn, or else everything could unravel. He’d had his time with each of them. Now it was time to use what he knew about each of them to force the truth out of all of them.
Let’s see, he thought, continuing to survey the crowd. There was Jeremy on the far right, an average Joe kind of guy, shaggy brown hair, about as tall as Dan himself. He’d been the first to come to him, kind of timid in a boyish way, but one hundred percent man with all the muscles he carried. No matter his sportsman look, though, the kid was as sharp as a knife and would just as likely have his doctorate in three years flat than win a bodybuilding contest.
To Jeremy’s right was Shaw Shawson, a punk who’d been hanging out at the laundromat digging through the ashtrays for spare change (a connection Dan didn’t really get) with his dog the night of the murder. Shawson’s short hair and deep eyes were deceptive, however; the soldier look was only skin deep, and beneath that, there was barely a coherent thought to be had of anything, let alone the night of the murder. Dan would have to employ his rash simplicity with the utmost care if the truth were to surface.
Next in line was the honorable Chris Shephard, not honorable for any reason other than he had money and a good girlfriend, who thankfully had stayed home for this visit (she was more a nag than any client Dan had ever had and he couldn’t stand her phone calls after Shephard had first come in). He had orange hair, an orange goatee, and orange-tinted aviator glasses over his (surprisingly not orange) eyes. He wore expensive plaid shorts and an upscale white polo, an odd combination for someone at a public laundromat. Dan, however, wasn’t surprised: with how short Chris was, he wouldn’t have thought twice if someone had said he did his laundry publicly just to show off his wealth. It wouldn’t be the first time Dan had seen a short man compensate his vertical challenges in unconventional ways.
Last and stranger than all of the others was Fantasia. She–if Fantasia was a she at all; her prominent features and deep voice had many times made Dan question her gender, but he didn’t have the guts (or the stomach) to ask what she really was–was about as tall as the doorway and had to bend over to come in, largely on account of the eight-inch stiletto boots she wore that went up to her knees and the overabundant afro atop her head. Such an awkward woman she was, however, that none of the other guys seemed even remotely interested in her tight leather pants, her leopard-print halter top, or the unicorn-emblazoned denim blazer she wore over them. Her curves were among the finest Dan had ever seen on a woman, but he’d never had much interest in her kind of curves anyways.
Finally tired of chewing on the nicotine stick, Dan held it between his fingers and nodded toward Jeremy. The kid perked up at once, had an irresistible smile Dan wouldn’t have minded seeing on more of his clients now and then.
“Start us off, Aubrian. What was it like here the night Melissa del Aqua Vita san Torrez was murdered?
Even the victim was a trip, Dan realized, saying her name out loud beyond the confines of his city office.
“Well,” Jeremy said, fidgeting, one hand clenched in a fist at his side, the other placed deep in his pants pocket. “I came in about ten or so with a load of laundry. I’m single, so I got a small place, big enough for me and a bed, no washer or stuff. Come here every week or so, I guess.” He shook his head. His shaking was growing worse as he went on. Poor kid, Dan thought, can’t even face the memory.
“So, uh, yeah, I had just put my wash in, over in that one, there”– he pointed to one of the newer, small-sized washing machines located down the aisle. On the other side of the row, where everyone had conveniently side-stepped, was where Melissa’s body had been found. “I pulled out my book and sat down on one of the seats just like I always do.
“About 10:45, the lights flickered.” Jeremy shuddered again. This kid wasn’t afraid of the dark, too, was he? Then again, to see a grown man shade-struck was sort of cute to the detective, gave him a vulnerability the kind he’d come to admire after watching so many hardened criminals fill their lives with so many lies they begin to stick in places Dan had never known lies could stick.
“You know,” Jeremy said, Dan noticing at once that his eyes were suddenly brighter as a different thought came to mind, “half the town lost power that night. It was all on the news the next day. Eight hours almost, not a clue why it went out.”
“Stop babbling,” Chris Shephard said, rolling his expensively adorned eyes. “Get on with it.”
Jeremy nodded quickly. He glanced at the others–Shawson absently watching a fly buzzing around the fluorescents, Fantasia popping a mouthful of pink bubblegum–and then back at Dan.
“Melissa came is around 10:15. I see her almost every time I’m in here. Always chatting on her phone, careless about everything but herself.” Jeremy shook his head, snorting. “Once, I had my basket on a table and she just knocked it off to use the dryer next to mine.” Jeremy’s fists were clenching in and out. Dan jotted this down in his notebook.
“So after the lights flickered a couple times, I thought for sure the lights were gonna stay out for good. Then it went dark once more, there was a scream and a thud, and when the lights came back on, I couldn’t see Melissa on the other side. I got up to look. That’s when I saw her.”
Dan was nodding, not realizing it. “And you were reading the book the whole time?”
“Well I stopped reading when the lights flickered, didn’t want to lose my place, you know, but I stayed in my seat, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Dan scribbled something else and nodded toward Shaw, saying “You next.” When he looked down at his notes, he realized he’d drawn little hearts all over them.
“Um, yeah.” Shawson’s eyes were rolling in circles, tracing the path that the fly was taking around the lights above them. Dan pulled a penny from his pocket, took careful aim when the fly landed, then flicked it right up onto the ceiling. The fly–with the penny–fell to the floor, Shawson’s eyes still on it the entire time.
When Dan stepped on the dead bug, Shawson finally came back to them.
“Huh, what’d’ya ask me?”
“The night Melissa del Aqua Vita san Torrez died. Tell me about it.”
“Ahh, she was pretty.” Shawson swayed back and forth, another layer of glossiness gathering over his eyes. “I was out with Hunts, doing our nightly runs ’round here, when she came. Her hair…” He shook his head. Dan was a little surprised he was using complete sentences. The level of his infatuation with the victim hadn’t seemed nearly as prominent in his office, though how the punk had ever found him in the first place, he still couldn’t figure out. Maybe he’d been sent their by the cops. No matter, Dan figured, maybe a return to the scene would provoke more than just lost-love reminiscings.
“She had brown hair, you know,” he said, his eyes completely somewhere else now. “Like mine, but you know, longer than mine.” He ran a hand through his cropped hair and laughed at himself. Pretty eyes, too. I came inside to watch her. She’s pretty like that.”
Dan sighed. “And when you’d notice she was dead?”
“The lights went dark a couple times and Hunts got scared. I picked him up to get going when I heard her fall. I was by the door when it happened, honest.” Just then Dan heard another buzzing sound and, seeing the new fly that had come inside, figured he wouldn’t get much more out of Shawson without another lucky penny toss, a feat he didn’t want to risk having to duplicate so soon.
He scribbled a few words, read over them quickly–“run hands through his hair,” “tight abs,” “thick arms”–and then stuffed his book back in his pocket. He’d already taken all their stories up once before. Now was just confirmation for his suspicions, to see which ones rose to the top, to see if he could get a confession from any of ’em.
“Fantasia, why don’t you go next?” Shephard was an arrogant rich kid. Dan liked making those types wait.
Fantasia popped a large one and then puffed up her brown afro with her inch-long red-painted nails. “I was bent over when it happened.” She bit her lower lip and then blew a long, slow, remarkably seductive pink bubble. She twisted her tongue, pulling it back into her mouth entirely, and then bit down so forcefully it popped like an air gun going off. “It’s kind of hard,” she puffed her hair again, “to pull out your clothes when you’re dressed as stunning as I am.” She rose onto her heels for emphasis.
“So when the lights flickered, it took all my effort to not shat myself right there, halfway in the hole and all.” She popped another bubble, continued puffing up her hair. Her other hand was on her hip now, which she was pumping side to side almost with every other word. “Finally I had it all in the basket, and when I turned around, there she was. Hadn’t heard a thing with my head in so far, and by the time I was out, all the others were already there.”
Fantasia had been the closest to the victim of all of them, Dan had deduced from previous visits on his own to the laundromat. She could have easily killed the girl and then hid in the dryer as an easily unquestionable alibi. Let any jury see those shoes, and they’d definitely sympathize somewhere. Then again, of all the suspects, Fantasia was the only one that didn’t have an obvious motive to off her. She’d been uptight and rude with Jeremy, she had captured the heart of a street rat, and well, with Chris? Too good to not hear him say it himself.
Then there was the matter of how Melissa del Aqua whatever had died anyways. There wasn’t any blunt trauma to be found, but the autopsy had shown an unusual amount of phosphates, sodium hypochlorite, petroleum distillates, linear alkyl sodium sulfates, and phenols in her mouth and throat. A white powdery mess that might have chocked her, for all the detective knew. How such had happened surely hadn’t been an accident, though how the cleansing brew of poisons had gotten into her, he still couldn’t figure out.
“Ever gonna let me talk?” Shephard said.
Dan smiled. He’d put the snob through enough patience training for the day, he figured. He said, “Go at it.”
Chris crossed his arms, which coupled with his wide stance and low height almost made him look like a department store mannequin. “When I got here, it was like a typical night. A few lowlifes outside, a couple regulars inside, nothing special.” That the others–except Shawson–looked notably offended, Dan was rather pleased of. “So I was waiting on my wash, just chilling, when Melissa came in, a total 83.43.1, if you know what I mean.” No, Dan did not know what he meant, but he figured it wasn’t pleasant.
“After a bit, when she finally got off her damned cell, she started sticking her clothes in the washer, one fricking piece at a time. It was excruciating! Every other second, ‘Ew!’ or ‘Gross!’ or ‘Disgusting!’ I wanted to wring her neck and tell her if she was off-put by her clothes to just not wear any!”
Chris stopped suddenly, perhaps having realized what he said, and then snorted. “But I’d never do that, okay? I just get frustrated sometimes, that’s all.” He nodded a couple times, all smug like a pug in a rug in need of a hug, and continued. “After she had her clothes in, she started complaining that she didn’t have any detergent. I was tired of her, though, so I grabbed the box I’d bought–I’d only used half–and brought it over. And you know what she tells me?”
“Haven’t the faintest,” Dan said, though in fact he knew exactly what she had said, but it made him smile every time he heard it, so for a spurt of pleasure, he feigned ignorance.
“She said to me,” and here Shephard pumped his fist in front of him, “‘You’re pretty short for a cute guy.’ I was mad, I was, but not mad enough to do anything. I just shook the box of detergent in her face then shoved it in her hands. Then I walked away. I was practically right next to that shmuck,” jerking his head at Shawson, “when the lights flickered and the girl screamed. Ain’t I right?”
Shawson was still following the fly, so Shephard jabbed him in the ribs, instantly getting the punk’s attention.
“Tell him, I was right next to you, wasn’t I?”
“Sure, uh, yeah,” Shawson said, his frantic look giving Dan the impression he’d forgotten where he was for a moment. “He was right next to me when she screamed. Hunts was sniffing at his shoes. Had to tell him it wasn’t a place to piss, not on this guy.”
Shephard looked both disgusted and amused, but quickly pulled himself together. “So there you have it, I wasn’t anywhere near her when the lights went off. After a minute, she was on the floor and everyone was around her.”
Dan looked sideways, catching a fact he hadn’t caught before, a discrepancy so minute, he hadn’t the thought to notice it till now. “Jeremy,” he paused for a second, realizing how innocent the kid looked, both hands in his pockets now, definitely squirming nervously, “you said she screamed right when she fell, but Shephard,” he looked over at the orange-haired rich boy, “you said a minute passed between her scream and when she fell?”
“I’d swear it in court,” Shephard said, and Dan secretly agreed, he’d soon have to. “She screamed when the lights flickered the first time, and she fell when they flickered the last.” He shook his head. “My hearing gets hypersensitive when I’m angry. I wasn’t paying her any special attention or anything.”
Jeremy kept fidgeting. “I dunno, maybe. I was a little freaked out, okay? With all the flickering, and the scream, maybe I missed when she fell. It all happened so fast.”
Dan nodded. Poor kid, he thought again, in the wrong place at the wrong time. He pitied him. Of course, he felt a bit of attraction in pitying the guy and quickly turned his mind back to the case.
It was beginning to look like the whole picture was coming into focus. Miss Melissa del Aqua Vita san Torrez was definitely a self-proclaimed princess, and from the reports he’d gotten from the suspects and her friends and family, she was more than just a bit of a ditz and easily frightened as well.
And all those chemicals? The coroner had said they were commonly found in laundry detergents, and phenols could be deadly to those with unusual hypersensitivities.
Dan grinned, nodding his head slowly. It all made sense now.
Melissa pisses off Shephard, so he gives her the half-empty box of powdered detergent, but he shakes it up first, aerating the whole thing. The lights flicker and she screams as she opens it, jumping up and throwing the powder into the air as she inhales rapidly from fear. The next moment, her throat’s clogged with the stuff, suffocating her, and when she has a reaction to the chemicals, it kills her. Thud. Dead on the laundromat floor.
“Am I done here?” Shephard said.
“Oh, you’re definitely done,” Dan said, pressing a key on his phone to summon a man in uniform. Within three minutes a cop car had arrived, and after a prime-time worthy dissertation on the fine details of the crime, Chris Shephard was carted off in handcuffs. It was unlikely a jury would find him guilty, but even a few days in jail could teach him all the lovely things that happen to rich short guys with orange hair. Poetic justice, Dan thought.
Fantasia popped a larger-than-usual pink bubble and excused herself, and in all the commotion of the arrest and Shephard’s reading of his rights, Shawson had wandered off. He was innocent, if perhaps screwed for life, so Dan didn’t give him a second thought for a second.
When the cops left, only Dan and Jeremy remained.
Dan sucked on his fake cigarette for a second, staring at the muscular dart before him. He still had his hands stuffed in his pockets standing ramrod straight as he stared back at the detective.
Dan asked, “Join me for lunch?”
Jeremy’s stance softened. “Thought you’d never ask.”