I met Lou last spring.
I was working on a restaurant fire. A very small case. A junior investigator should have taken it, but we were short-handed and my boss asked me to jump in. These cases are a dime a dozen. A disgruntled employee decides he can’t stand the chef and sets fire to the kitchen, or the owner figures he can get more from the insurance company than from the daily slog andthe grueling working hours.
Sometimes the fire is a real accident.
This one wasn’t. Carlo’s Bistro didn’t spontaneously combust.
I prefer more challenging investigations but priceless masterpieces aren’t stolen every single day. Or maybe they are but they’re not insured by the company I work for. I had just emerged from a protracted multiple car pile-up and I was ready for something that did not involve fickle brakes and improbable ice patches in April. Carlo’s greasy spoon was a welcomechange of pace.
I went to the burnt pile and poked around. The fire had started somewhere between the back of the kitchen and the owner’s office. The restaurant was old, the electrical wiring was years out of code, and the arson specialists couldn’t rule out a short. I interviewed the wait staff. Lou Morton had been working there the longest, three months, and she knew everybody.
Lou was funny. She made me laugh. She told stories about the owner, the chef and his helper. There was the usual bickering between the wait staff and the kitchen staff with Carlo fanning the fires – no pun intended. People didn’t stay in the job long enough for grievances to have time to fester.
I worked the case for a week and concluded that the staff had no motive to burn the place down. I moved on to Carlo’s finances. A deep dive into the books revealed that he was leveraged to the hilt and fudging his tax reporting. If he had to close he might as well go out with a bang. I submitted my report and closed the file.
I didn’t close it completely. I should have walked away from Lou Morton.
It would have been the smart thing to do.
Lou was twenty-one, a college student. If I’d stayed married to Susan, we might have had a daughter that age. This little fling had disaster written all over it. For me. Not for Lou. She was a kid, elastic and waterproof. Tears would glide off her like a spring shower on a new raincoat. Not so on my rattyumbrella. I had the good sense to be scared of what I was about to set in motion. The fear lasted a couple of days, then I lined up all the bad reasons middle-aged men invent to justify doingstupid things. Most of these reasons can be wrapped up in three words: life is short. I had experienced breakage many times before. I was familiar with the shards, the cuts and the scars. I thought I was well-weathered.
Lou moved in with me. She didn’t make bones about it. She was overjoyed. No more rent to pay. Food in the fridge. She was like a bird that had lucked on a comfy birdhouse with adjacent feeder. Opportunistic? Mercenary? Absolutely. Could I proudly wave the banner of moral propriety? Hell no, I was too busy licking my chops.
That entire summer, I was happier than I’d ever been. Wewent for long drives in the country and to the seaside on Sundays. I bought ice cream and waffles, cholesterol be damned, and I made the mistake of believing there were no shadows in the garden of delights.
Fall came. Lou got a job at a brasserie downtown. She was seldom home before midnight and was too tired for conversation or love. I told her she didn’t need the job, I could help with college expenses. We were friends. It was what friends did. I didn’t dare say we were lovers. I was afraid she would laugh.Lou refused my offer. I liked that she did. I thought: The girl wants to stand on her own.
But that wasn’t it.
Trouble was coming our way with the winds of November.
Lou came home later and later. Some nights, she didn’t come home at all. Some days she was too sick to go to her classes. Then she gave up on college altogether.
I’m a good investigator and I know the signs. I didn’t want to believe Lou was using. I had to make certain. I followed her. Iwent to the brasserie where she worked, sat in my car and watched. Her shift was over shortly after midnight but instead of taking a cab to go home she walked around the corner and disappeared in the narrow streets of the old downtown. I went after her. All cities have parts of town better avoided at night. Some of these parts aren’t even safe in daylight. Lou led me to a notorious square. The early morning garbage collectors that picked up restaurant and café trash gathered enough needles, empty baggies and condoms to clog a landfill. The cops carriedout occasional raids, and arrested the dealers and the customers that didn’t run fast enough. It didn’t change anything. Trafficking slowed down for a few days and then it all went back to where it was before, with a similar cast of characters.
I didn’t know what to do. Why would she listen to me, what authority did I have? Over the past weeks, she barely talked to me. Yet, I couldn’t ignore what I’d seen in the square and keep going as if nothing had happened. I knew what came next. She would ask for money, or empty my wallet and steal my credit cards. I couldn’t drop her as if she’d never existed. I had to help her.
I confronted Lou at home and she denied everything. Icouldn’t get through to her. And things got worse. She didn’t come back home for three nights in a row, sleeping who knew where, or not sleeping at all, doing who knew what. One of my police contacts told me they planned to raid the town square and clean up the area. I was tempted to tell her nothing. Maybe an arrest was the shock she needed to get her life in order. I couldn’t do it. That isn’t me. I warned Lou.
It turned out worse than if I hadn’t told her anything. Sheaccused me of using my despicable police connections to try to intimidate her. She didn’t care about the cops, they could all go fuck themselves, her friends knew how to deal with them. We’d had heated arguments before but never anything that violent. She slammed the door on her way out, swearing I would never see her again. It was an empty threat; her belongings were all over the condo.
I didn’t see her or hear from her for a week. I gave a few phone calls and called in some favors. Lou had not been arrested.
She came back home while I was at work, grabbed her stuff and left her key in the mailbox.
I should have let it go.
As if I could. As I said, that isn’t me.
I went back to the town square where Lou met her dealer. The warning about police activity had made the rounds and the square was almost deserted. A few shadows wandered about but there was very little business being conducted. If the cops chose that night to hit, the pickings would be slight. I didn’t see Lou that night but I recognized the young man she talked to the last time. He wore the same clothes and stood in the same spot as before. Dealers, like hookers, had their assigned street corner. The young man didn’t linger. I don’t tail suspects anymore, either on foot or by car, but the old reflexes are still keen. This wasn’t difficult surveillance; my target was unaware and unworried. The streets were empty. Even so, there were enough dark corners and parked cars to provide cover.
The dealer went into an old building near the post office. One of these soon-to-be-demolished places with cheap eateries on the ground floor and crappy apartments upstairs. Nobody living there expects anything permanent. Urban nomads thatpack and move with their possessions in plastic bags or cardboard boxes.
I hid in the entrance of a Chinese grocery store on the other side of the street. I wanted to make sure the dealer lived there and wasn’t making a delivery. I had already decided I wouldcome back the next night, and the night after that, until I found Lou, no matter how long it took.
The dealer had a routine. He always left shortly before midnight and was back an hour later. He had two places of business, the square and a narrow street near the post office. He met a few regulars every night. During the day he worked at a second-hand record store that also sold books and band t-shirts. The place reeked of patchouli and weed.
A few days later, on a rainy night, I spotted Lou with thedealer in the town square. The police raid surprised everybody. In the confusion, I almost lost sight of Lou. She was hiding in a doorway, in the shadows. Once the cops got busy searching the suspects, she managed to slip away. I was right behind her.
Lou walked fast and kept close to the facades, staying out of the streetlights. I called her name and she turned. She raised her hands as if trying to push me away and ran. I went after her. I’m not as quick as I used to be but I was close when she turned into a brightly lit street.
The cobblestones were wet and I slipped. I landed hard on my knees. It hurt like hell. I pulled myself up and kept going. Lou had a good lead by now. She could shake me off easily. Lots of little narrow streets in this good old town. Cafés and restaurants were busy with the after theater and concert crowds, cars and cabs zipped by ferrying the Friday night partygoers.
I stopped to get my bearings.
I heard the squeal of tires, and screams followed by blaring horns.
I knew, right away, that it was Lou.
I walked to the site of the accident. She was already dead. She had crossed in the middle of traffic and stumbled. There was nothing the cab driver could have done to avoid her.
If I’d let go …
M.E. Proctor worked as a communication professional and freelance journalist. After forays into SF, she’s currently working on a series of contemporary detective novels. Her short stories have been published in All Worlds Wayfarer, Bristol Noir, Tilde, Fiction Kitchen Berlin, The Bookends Review, The Blue Nib, Fiction on the Web, and others. She lives in Livingston, Texas. Twitter: @MEProctor3