The Troubleshooters

/ by Tabaré Alvarez

The air was heavy with humidity. It stooped Dutch’s shoulders and made his shirt cling to his back. When he entered the restaurant, the cool air was like that first morning cigarette with your coffee that crossed you over from the sluggishness of sleep to the briskness of day. It was also dimmer inside the restaurant, the mood lighting and whatnot, and the humming of the A/C was soft white noise, a welcome respite from the harsh sunlight outside and the blaring, screeching, and backfiring of the traffic. It was two-thirty in the afternoon, edging toward the lull between lunch and dinner, and the restaurant was mostly empty. A college-age girl with a clipboard, the hostess, he supposed, came up to him with a smile already forming on her face. He was impressed with it, the smile: it didn’t seem like that much of a struggle. But he was here on work, so he smiled right back, beamed, actually, like an idiot. The girl’s smile faltered. There it was: the brittleness, the dead eyes, a grown-up’s smile. No romance for him. Mission accomplished.

“Mrs. Medina, please,” he said.

“Oh,” said the girl. “Who may I say—”

“I work for Mr. Medina,” he said. “Say it’s Dutch.”

But Mrs. Medina was already coming out of the kitchen, her apron impressively filthy. Dutch had always pictured her as operating in a more supervisory capacity, ordering minions about; it pleased him to see that the chef got dirty.

“How are you, Holland?” she asked, and she shook his hand. She had a strong grip for a hand so small. She looked tiny, overall: this pale, delicate woman with short blond hair and small fingers. “Thank you for being punctual.”

“Thanks for not making me wait,” he said. He jutted his chin at the hostess and she backed away with the second version of the smile still on.

“Are you hungry?” Mrs. Medina asked. “I could make you a quick steak-and-fries.”

She had to have been coming off a four-hour stretch in the kitchen. It was an absurd kindness to volunteer herself for any more cooking. He lied and said he’d already eaten.

He hesitated at the door, reluctant to leave the cool air and slog back again through that humidity. “There is time for a stop at your residence, Mrs. Medina.”

“Not necessary,” she said. “I’d rather you call me Chef.”

“I’ll try, ma’am—” he smiled to take the edge off the ma’am, the coldness, the distance, the implication of age— “but no more Hollands, please. My mother, may she rest in peace, did me no service there. Had the Mayor never paid me a dime over the last fifteen years, I would still be grateful to him for giving me the nickname. It gets tiresome having to beat up that many people.”

“I’m sure it was invigorating for them, though,” Mrs. Medina said.

“Yes, ma’am.” He finally opened the door. The day slapped him on the face with both hands. “Fuck me sideways.”

Mrs. Medina said, “It’s hot.”

Once inside the cabin of his truck, he turned on the air conditioner and trained the vents toward Mrs. Medina, who sat in the passenger seat. “It’ll cool up in a sec.” He went to help her with the seat-belt buckle but she had already figured it out.

The streets of Sans Souci were clogged with the blue pickup trucks employed by the city. Some of them were already loaded with tree branches. On the sidewalks, sweaty men and women in blue overalls worked the almond trees, cutting off branches with chainsaws. The noise was deafening. “‘Tree-Pruning Day.’ On a Wednesday.” Dutch cranked up the A/C’s fan, more to drown out the chainsaws than for climate control. It was futile. He had never sprung for a radio, and he regretted that now, but he knew the regret would pass. “He can’t stagger it over a few Sundays like a regular mayor.”

Next to him, Mrs. Medina turned her hands up theatrically as though to  say, Don’t look at me, I divorced him.

Dutch asked her to open the glove compartment, where he had the address written down, but Mrs.
Medina recited it from memory. And he remembered now how things would go in the time before the divorce: the Mayor doing his Hamlet routine over some city business, hemming and hawing, wringing his hands, and then he would disappear upstairs and return mere moments later with a simple, reasonable solution. Dutch had considered other sources—the various advisors, the Mayor’s father and brother—but the common element every time he came back downstairs with that confident, resolute air, which he wore insufferably, of course, had clearly been Mrs. Medina.

In the cool cabin of the truck, they talked a little about the best route to take in this traffic. Here Dutch had the advantage: whenever he wasn’t doing anything specific for the Mayor, he was driving this truck, at all hours, all over Sans Souci. People paid him money to help them move. Sometimes he just drove, sometimes he did the lifting, sometimes he even bubble-wrapped. It depended on the client.

He parked the truck alongside the curb. The place was an old apartment building, one of many clustered tightly together in a residential area a few blocks from the coast. Dutch stepped onto the sidewalk, and even from this distance, and through the dense wall of humidity, he could smell the fresh salty air that wafted in from the Gulf. For a moment he wished he could go fishing, just sit down in a boat on the Gulf of Mexico and drink cold beer and feel the wind in his face. All his adult life he had been saving money. He was a mover: day upon day of seeing the junk people accumulate had instilled in him a reluctance to commit to furniture. He liked the liquidity of cash, its portability, its denseness: you could transform a small clutch of bills, on a moment’s notice, into almost anything. He kept telling himself he would do so at some point, spend some money, go on that fishing trip—which would add little, certainly, in the way of clutter—but the day, for no good reason, had yet to come.

He locked the truck and then pointed his chin at the building’s entrance. “You go ahead and do the talking when we go in there. I’m going to play sleepy.” As he was taking the few steps toward the building’s entrance, a breeze blew in from the ocean and a fat drop of what turned out to be rain fell on his head. He scanned the sky. The day had been bright, and now clouds were rolling in, partially blocking the sun.

The super’s office was musty. It occupied a basement, just below street level, and the shaft of sunlight that came in through the little sidewalk window revealed dust motes floating in the air. The air held a faint smell of boiled cabbage. The superintendent wore the uniform: hairy shoulders and wifebeater spotted with old crumbs and a few indeterminate stains.

Mrs. Medina did not introduce herself. She asked directly about the occupant of apartment 501. Dutch stood there with his eyes half-closed.

The super shrugged. “Her rent check cleared. There have been no noise complaints….” He let the sentence drift off so that it turned into a question: Is that why you’re here? When neither Mrs. Medina nor Dutch volunteered anything, he tried again: “You here to prune the trees? Cause they’ve already come and gone. Is there something else today? Fumigation? Lice control? Paint your door?” Finally, emboldened, perhaps, by the non-production by this point of badges or official papers of any sort, he asked bluntly, aggressively, as a challenge: “Are you relatives of the old lady?” He stuck his chest out and a few of the crumbs tumbled to the floor.

Dutch lowered his head and shuffled forward a little. The super instinctively stepped back, keeping a constant distance between them. Dutch dropped one shoulder and then the other, shifting slowly, at an odd pace, from foot to foot. The super kept backing up until he felt the wall behind him, then started saying, “Hey, hey, what are you about—” and edging sideways along the wall. From the corner of his eye Dutch scoped out Mrs. Medina, who stood as though completely absorbed by the back of her hand—quick study, that one.

Without comment, Dutch grew still again, his eyelids once more at half-mast. From that point on, the super kept his eyes on him at all times, even while addressing Mrs. Medina.

“It would not be inconceivable—” Mrs. Medina began; her voice was steady, reasonable, not quite friendly”—that Miss Potter might have accumulated some debts toward this building’s administration.” This was utter nonsense, spun out of whole cloth; and again, as with the address, she had committed to memory the old lady’s name. The super stood up straight and grew a few inches. “Doesn’t surprise me. Sure, her rent’s always been on time all these years, but that doesn’t surprise me at all, that she would have accumulated debts to this building’s administration.”

Mrs. Medina gave a neat little nod and gestured toward the door in a sort of Shall we? motion.

The super, suddenly silent, grabbed his key ring and pointed them up the stairs. To Dutch, it seemed the super was already spending, in his head, all his new, fictional money.

Once the super had unlocked 501 for them, Mrs. Medina thanked him and told him they’d stop by his office on the way down; it was a dismissal, and he was just smart enough for it to rankle him. He pursed his lips and mumbled under his breath, and Dutch had to give him that last little bit of encouragement by sidling up to him companionably. The super left.

Mrs. Medina raised a pale eyebrow at Dutch. “That was ‘sleepy’?”

“The complete name is a little unwieldy.” He swung the door inward. The hinges creaked, and the door itself caught a little as it made its arc, as though it were pushing aside someone. An image flashed in Dutch’s head, which he instantly suppressed, of a frail, elderly body on the floor, being nudged aside by an opening door.

The light was on inside—Dutch closed his eyes for a second, then kept them focused upward for a few beats, reluctant, despite himself, to look down—a greasy, yellow light cast by a bare bulb that hung on a simple chain from the ceiling. The bulb swayed a little on its chain. Mrs. Medina speculated that perhaps there was an open window somewhere in the apartment, and they had created a cross-draft when they’d opened the front door.

Dutch stepped inside. The door had pushed over a tower of newspapers—that was all it had been. In the room, there was a small antique roll top writing desk with picture frames resting on handicraft doilies of some sort—knitting, crochet, one of those things.

The oldest picture, in black and white, was of an adult man with a grim face, conceivably a brother of Miss Potter’s, or perhaps an old suitor. Dutch knew from the Mayor there was no account of a marriage or of children, but the city had had a few hurricanes over the past eighty years, and paper records could have been lost or damaged. There was a separate black-and-white photograph of a young, slightly wild-eyed woman: Miss Potter herself, perhaps. The eyes could have simply been lively, reflective of an active intelligence, had they not also bugged out a little.

Cracks grew along the walls. In the dim corners, mosquitoes hovered in funnel-shaped clouds. A calendar from three decades ago hung on a wall, but Miss Potter might have kept it for the art: a Japanese woodblock print of a girl holding onto a bamboo umbrella during a strong gust of wind.

Somewhere a water pipe rumbled. Dutch could still hear the noises from the street, but distant and muted. Then a rushing sound, like hundreds of pebbles pinging against a steel drum, broke the relative silence. Outside, it was raining.

“So much for ‘Tree-Pruning Day.’” Dutch wove through strange piles of newsprint, some of them all pink, assembled from the financial pages, as he searched around for any windows. There were only two, a small one in the bathroom—a room which smelled of rubbing alcohol and Vicks—and one in the kitchen, and they were both closed. He noted, too, that the bed in Miss Potter’s room had been stripped.

So far, more or less within expectations, the apartment was that of an elderly lady living alone. Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary, except for the stripped bed: there was just the bare mattress, with no sheet, though there was a pillow, still in its pillowcase, on the hardwood floor by the bed. But there were also these stacks of newsprint arranged in odd places, blocking the normal shortcuts that a person would develop living in the same place over many years. Even if she’d become something of a shut-in, you don’t block the front door; you don’t obstruct the space between the living room and the kitchen; you don’t arrange photos neatly on homemade needlework doilies and then fill the floor with stacks of newspaper. The Mayor had mentioned scratch marks on the floor, but Dutch had yet to find them.

Mrs. Medina said that it wasn’t looking to her like a hoax. That had been one of the Mayor’s concerns. Sans Souci College was a party school—a fact the Mayor had actively disseminated in the hopes of attracting more young people to the city and, he claimed, stimulating the college-centered services sector of the local economy. The Mayor had also originated a rumor about an unknown animal having been sighted downtown; he confessed to Dutch that he was trying to fuel a Loch Ness monster type of subculture that would draw in tourists all year round, not just from October to March, when the wintering crowd would come down to escape the cold. This—party schools, Bigfoot stuff—had been the problem after the divorce: now he had no filter, and every stray idea saw the light of day.

When the police came to him with the situation, the Mayor had balked. The tenant of an apartment close to the shore, an elderly lady who was something of a recluse (this was Miss Potter) could no longer be found inside—the building’s superintendent had checked. All bills, however, were still being paid, via checks in the mail, drawn from her bank account. The police had also found large quantities of black hair or fur, as well as scratches, as though from claws, on the apartment’s old hardwood floors. At that point, the likeliest theories, in the Mayor’s fanciful and erratic estimation, had been identity theft (which failed to account for the scratch marks and the shedding) or a college prank, someone trying to make it look as though a mysterious predator—a Sasquatch-type bogeyman, a chupacabra, something of that sort—had snuck into the apartment and spirited away its tenant. The Mayor didn’t want to open an official investigation until he was sure this was legitimate; the situation was potentially embarrassing for him, he said, as he had started the whole monster business himself. But on the chance that something sinister really was afoot, he could not afford to ignore the matter (as it would eventually surface, and that, too, would be embarrassing). So he had called Dutch, instructing him to take Mrs. Medina with him this time, and he had given the two of them the following mandate: Take a look. If you see enough that you grow convinced it’s not a prank or a hoax, turn it back over to the police.

Mrs. Medina was scanning the hardwood floor carefully, threading her way through the mounds of grey and pink newsprint. “If the scratch marks are under a newspaper pile,” she said, “that means someone has been here after the police. I don’t see any hair of any sort, either. Someone’s been tidying up.”

Dutch smoothed out the front of his shirt, recalling the crumbs caught in the super’s chest hair. “Not the super, I don’t think.”

Mrs. Medina’s cell phone was ringing. She took the call. Midway through, she pointed at the phone and, in exaggerated pantomime, mouthed the words, It’s the Mayor.

She put the phone back in her pocket. “I would have put him on speaker, but one time out of three I end up hanging up when I try to do that.”

Dutch nodded. “Same here. And I can take apart and put together a crib blindfolded.”

“He said that, you know, it’s raining—” She pointed in a completely arbitrary direction— “a lot, and he’s worried people might start freaking out. There’s no official watch or warning, but he’s concerned there could be runs on bottled water, batteries, canned goods, duct tape—everything that happens in the city when someone so much as thinks the word hurricane.”

In his head, Dutch was already playing back his movements this morning, trying to remember whether he had left any windows open. “Do you want to get anything for your place?”

“There’s no actual watch or warning,” she said, flicking her eyes up at him. She turned her palms up. “So, you know, it’s just, what, regular rain.”

After a beat, he saw a flutter of fear cross her face, as though she was afraid she had talked down to him, smart person to dumb person, and offended him.

“Wow.” He smiled. “What a drama queen. Starting to understand the divorce now.”

“I left him,” she said. She repeated the sentence, emphasizing each of the pronouns in turn. She pointed at herself then at the air that represented the Mayor. “I want that clear for the record.”

“You do know there’s no actual record, right?”

She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes at him. “So—as we’ve established—the thing isn’t the rain but the possibility of panic. He told me he’s not chancing a riot. In a word, he’s using all the cops now.”

All of them?” Dutch said. “All of the city’s cops.”

Mrs. Medina nodded. “Mm-hm. And the firemen.”

Dutch scratched the side of his nose. “That’s a new one. I guess it’s not going to be Loot-a-TV Day.”

“That’s bad,” she said, smiling.

He shrugged.

“Where’s-My-Roof Day,” she said. “Tree-in-My-Living-Room Day. Sell-My-Body-for-Some-Potable-Water Day.”

“Oh.” He blinked. “That is—that is— Oh.” He touched his forehead. “You went from, uh, zero to sixty there, huh.”

She was biting into the side of her index finger.

“I’m going to let you suffer there for a little bit,” he said. He walked past her and continued speaking over his shoulder. “I want to see where that draft was coming from earlier.”

She came up behind him and handed him a cigarette lighter.

He stared at it as though it were an artifact from another planet. He made a circling motion around his mouth. “But the palate—”

“Yeah.” It was her turn to shrug. “Not a fan of reality shows, are you. We all smoke.”

He flicked the lighter on and held it up. The flame leaned a little, toward him. He kept walking. “I stick to The History Channel—which is, like, round-the-clock World War II—and the Discovery Channel.”

“So,” Mrs. Medina said, “to summarize. People killing people and animals killing animals. This is what you watch.”

“Sure. Also animals eating animals and mating with each other.” He walked a few steps and took another reading with the lighter. “And cannibal documentaries and porn. But just for the symmetry.”

“What?” She slapped him on the shoulder. “I can’t believe you said ‘porn’ to me.”

“You can’t believe I said porn to you?” He switched to his left hand but the flicking motion was awkward. “Not ten seconds ago you were broaching the subject of hydrologically-motivated prostitution.”

“Oh, God,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said. “Now that’s on the record permanently.”

“I thought th—”

They had been standing in the hallway, next to an open linen closet; the door was propped open, which was peculiar for a linen closet, with a wedge doorstop made of pink rubber. The lighter’s flame now guttered wildly and went out. Dutch snapped it back to life and, once more, the flame died. He turned to Mrs. Medina. “Thoughts?”

She touched the back of her head. “For the life of me, I can only generate melodramatic scenarios right now.”

“Shoot,” he said.

“Well.” Absently, she squeezed her earlobe between thumb and forefinger. “Just how old, or more to the point, just how nimble was Miss Potter? I’m thinking she was being held here inside her own apartment against her will, signing checks at knifepoint. If she was that much of recluse, this could have gone on for weeks with no one the wiser. Then she managed to escape, somehow, out this cupboard. Maybe at some point in the past a single tenant occupied two apartments, one above the other, and he or she converted this into a dumbwaiter. Or else there are spaces between the walls for wires and pipes and maintenance. Or maybe some sort of hidden panic room. Or a place to hide valuables.” She licked her lips. “Or they had a secret family member locked u—”

“Are you doing Jane Eyre or Desperate Housewives? Because I need to adjust my opinion of you accordingly. You know. For the record.”

She pointed straight at his nose. “Dude, you asked me.”

“Fair enough—” Dutch said; he nodded slowly, more a rocking back and forth than actual movement of the head—“dude.” He smiled wide. “Really? This is how you go street, by saying dude? You knew, didn’t you, the moment it came out that no way is this guy letting that one go—”

“Give me back my lighter. Holland.” She took it from his hand. She tested the lighter.

Dutch stepped back and took a good look at the linen closet.

“Are you going to break it?” Mrs. Medina said. “Smash through the false back?” From the closet, he took out a folded white towel. “Hold this, will you?” he said. He kept piling sheets and tablecloths and napkins onto her arms until they reached her nose.

She wrinkled her nose. “I can’t just set these down on the floor?”

“They’re linens,” he said.

She scratched her nose against the edge of a folded towel. “You’re obviously convinced that that reply was apropos, and not a non sequitur at all.”

“I think I can fit in here,” he said. “If not, five of you can.”

“Ha ha, that’s very— Thanks. I think it’s this Pilates class at the gym, though my hips—isn’t it always the hips—just seem to, you know…” She trailed off for a moment. “Yes, I think you can fit, or if not, five of me can.”

He took the linens from her, walked back to the living room, and set them down carefully on the roll top desk. “So a cliffhanger about the hips, then?”

She held her head in both hands. “I might be allergic to starch. That’s the one I’m going with.”

Horizontal plywood partitions divided the closet into levels. Dutch removed them. Now he could stand up inside so long as he was turned sideways, with one shoulder out. He pressed against the back wall, but it didn’t budge. He leaned into it with his shoulder, to no effect. He stepped back and kicked at it. The wall—it was just a panel, really—fell forward.

“That kind of counts as breaking it.” She held up her hands. “Just saying.”

Dutch edged his body sideways into the opening. He stretched out his hand for Mrs. Medina’s.

“Oh.” She gave him her hand. It was warm in his, the skin soft, the fingers at once strong and brittle, as though the bones could break if you shook her hand too hard. The closet smelled of starch and mothballs and, now, something like green apples from Mrs. Medina. Dutch kept expecting, perhaps hoping, that she would speak up now with some sensible reservation about what they were doing. He wriggled into what seemed the crawlspace between two walls. Had he come alone, he would have been able to turn around now, but with Mrs. Medina here the words stuck in his throat. It was dark here, and as he shuffled sideways between the walls, Dutch’s chest and back scraped against what felt like simple brick and mortar. Mrs. Medina adjusted her grip on his hand for a better fit. There was a dripping sound from somewhere, water from a leaking pipe, perhaps, and a damp, dark smell, as of a mushroom cellar. Dutch had lost all sense that he was in the regular world of streets and buildings and regular rain, and though he didn’t have a handle on them yet, he sensed that this new place had different rules.

The path turned four times, by Dutch’s reckoning, though there were no forks and no choices. Finally, through a doorway similar to the linen closet’s, they came out into a dim corridor. What little light they had was coming in from an open door up ahead. Dutch strained to hear any sounds above the droning of the rain outside. As in Miss Potter’s, the apartment would occasionally creak for no perceivable reason, the wood emitting faint, drawn-out groans that went on so long that, after a while, you couldn’t even be sure they were really happening. Dutch took a step toward the lit room and the floorboards under his foot gave out a tiny, mouse-like shriek.

After his heart settled down again, he turned to Mrs. Medina, patted his stomach, and whispered: “Atkins.” She rounded her eyes at him, brought her finger to her lips in a quick, silent shush, and pointed him forward again, toward the lit room.

The human eye, he told himself, is designed to detect sudden movements; he would opt for a gradual approach, a sideways inching until one eye of his had cleared the edge of the doorframe. An idea popped in his head of simply sticking out his cell phone and taking a picture, but he had already built up the moment too much.

He looked. What struck him first was that, to his great relief, there was no one in the room. The second discrete impression, unavoidable, was the sheer amount of clutter in the room. He turned back to Mrs. Medina, brought her inside, and closed the door slowly, gingerly, behind them, wary of the hinges, but they did not creak.

The room was so cluttered there was barely enough space for Dutch and Mrs. Medina. They stood by the door, close to each other.

For a moment, Dutch tried to picture having to get all this downstairs and into his truck. The mere thought exhausted him, and he would have sat down if there were room. “I’m glad this isn’t a move.” There were shelves that rose all the way to the ceiling. There were boxes, the kind copier paper comes in, stacked atop one another. There were piles of newsprint, grey and pink, like the ones in Miss Potter’s apartment. There were trash bags, some black, some clear, scattered all over the room. Arranged on the shelves were neat little baskets, sorted by content: one full of batteries, one full of lint, one full of light bulbs (some of them slightly blackened), one full of (what looked like) chicken bones, one full of sea shells, and a jar full of pennies. There were also odd random objects tucked into any available space, at any angle: a hat stand, a rubber duck, a wire-mesh revolving drum for drawing lottery or bingo numbers, a marionette, a single two-tone shoe, a bird’s nest, an anvil, a spool of thread, an old rotary phone, a rocking chair, a candle, a remote control, and a boomerang.

Mrs. Medina began brushing down the front of Dutch’s shirt, which had picked up dirt in the crawlspace. She turned him around and did his back.

When she had finished, he said, “You didn’t get any on you?” She shook her head. He shrugged. “Oh, wait,” he said, “you might have some in the back of the hips here, let me see—”

For the second time, she gave his shoulder a quick slap. Then her face changed, and he followed her line of sight: she was looking at two clear plastic bags, one of them—a cold stone dropped in his stomach—filled with dark hair, the other filled with fingernail and toenail clippings. The hair was short, black, curled, and very shiny. The nail clippings, packed tight in that bag, resembled sharp half-moons of bone.

“This is the part in the movie where we all wonder why the protagonist doesn’t just call someone.” She took out her cell phone.

Dutch nodded.

She called the Mayor and told him the situation: that, through a linen closet, they had found a hidden passageway into a second apartment that was dark and full of junk, including human hair and nail clippings, and that promised to be very creepy in every way.

She covered the tiny mouthpiece. “He’s asking me if I’m high,” she whispered.

Dutch made spinning motions with this index fingers, nodded, and mouthed the word Later.

“Later,” she said, and Dutch gave a slight jump. But she had done it on purpose: she was just hanging up, albeit more youthfully than their demographic might normally do so.

Dutch checked his pockets: just keys, wallet, and cell phone, nothing they could use now. His key ring had a bottle opener—that was the closest thing to a weapon. Maybe he could take the boomerang or the hat stand. “What did he say?”

Mrs. Medina waved her hand dismissively. “His head is elsewhere at the moment. He just kept going on about pressure systems.”

The question, of course, was whether there was any urgency: if they believed Miss Potter to be either safe or, alternately, dead, there was nothing to be gained by hurrying. Dutch cleared his throat. “I think we should call the police.”

Mrs. Medina glanced down at the clear plastic bags, kneaded her forehead with her knuckles, and then turned away so she was facing Dutch’s chest. She was stamping her feet, but slowly and without making noise. “I don’t know how much longer I can stand next to this hair.” She did the last word in a funny voice that did not seem entirely of her choosing.

So it was the bag of hair, rather than the old lady’s well-being, that finally moved them to leave the room. Dutch turned the light off first so his eyes would adjust to the darkness, then opened the door again carefully and peered up and down the dark corridor. He could still hear the rain and the wind outside; it certainly sounded like a hurricane. The light bulb he had just turned off was ticking almost imperceptibly above the cluttered room. Beyond that and the thumping of his heart and the noise of his own breathing, he could hear nothing, not even Mrs. Medina, who stood close enough behind him that he could feel the warmth. Okay, he said to himself. Okay. But the thought slipped in uninvited: This is where I die.

He was walking down the dark corridor. Every few steps, Mrs. Medina would rest her fingers on his back, as though to confirm that they both still existed. This time he saw no lights up ahead. It was hard to conceive of it, but it was the middle of the afternoon; normally, there would have been bright sunlight outside at this hour. It didn’t seem possible. In here, it seemed like permanent night. He couldn’t even imagine—not really; not vividly enough to make it seem likely—coming upon a window that opened to the outside. This was a cave, deep in the bowels of the earth, that saw neither sunlight nor fresh air, and whose pack-rat dweller hoarded little shiny things from the outside, and never, ever threw anything away. Alternately in Dutch’s mind, he was Golem, he was the Mole Man, he was a Morlock, he was Ted Levine’s human-skin seamstress in The Silence of the Lambs with that impossibly deep, rumbly voice.

A cold draft blew down the hallway, chilling Dutch’s spine, and he was glad Mrs. Medina’s hand hadn’t been there, on his back, at just that moment.

The draft had wafted in a new smell, and Dutch tensed, but then his mind told him to relax: the smell was familiar and comforting, the smell of a kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.

“It’s oregano,” Mrs. Medina whispered behind him.

There was another doorway up ahead, unlit this time; Dutch grew bold and quickly covered the distance, until he was in position for another sideways inching of a single eye. But now there was an undertone, something beneath the oregano, and without fully knowing what he was doing, he gave Mrs. Medina the forearm signal, Hang back, and he ducked inside the dark room. As quickly as could without making noise, he closed the door and fumbled for the light switch. A hollowness in his stomach told him that he already knew what he would find.

His fingers found the switch, and with a loud click the light came on. This room, too, had been filled with clutter. Shelves. Boxes. Bags. Piles of newsprint. Loose items fit into whatever free space remained. At his feet, though, lay not a stack of magazines but a human body, wrapped in what appeared to be plastic wrap and sprinkled in oregano. Through the clear plastic he could see the face, the nose slightly bent by the wrapping, the bulging eyes open and cloudy, the mouth slightly agape, the skin wrinkled and pale, almost blue. The late Miss Potter. His hand came up to cover his nose and mouth: despite the oregano, it was clear decomposition had begun.

Mrs. Medina was out in the hallway, alone, in the dark; breathing through his mouth, and as little as possible, he turned off the light, opened the door just wide enough, and wriggled out of the room.

Officially, he had known Mrs. Medina for fifteen years, the fifteen years he’d been working for the Mayor, but in truth they’d just met today: in the last few hours, they had exchanged more words than in the past decade-and-a-half combined. He didn’t know her, but he didn’t want to lie; she wasn’t someone you lied to. If she screamed, though—

She took hold of his forearm with both of her hands. She had short fingernails, but even so they were digging into his skin. Her eyes, which had stayed here in the darkness, right now could probably see much better than his. He knew she was staring down the corridor, but still he saw nothing. He blinked, willing it to happen more quickly, the adjustment of his eyes, but before anything else, blind still, he heard it, the sound of footfalls approaching.

They were not hurried steps, a detail which gave him hope. He and Mrs. Medina were, after all, protected by the darkness as well. Maybe Dutch would recover in time, maybe his eyesight would adjust before this person noticed—

A switch flipped, and a light in the hallway came on. About ten steps away, a short man, five-foot-oh at the most, was standing with his hand in the air, his fingers still touching the light switch. He was thin, with squinty eyes and closely shorn hair. The man tilted his head as though listening for something, narrowed his eyes in their direction, and then proceeded forward toward them at his same unhurried pace.

Dutch had frozen in place. Mrs. Medina was tapping him on the shoulder. Dutch didn’t turn around; he wanted to keep his eyes on the man. Mrs. Medina’s hand came up to Dutch’s face and touched his eyes. Later, she would explain that she had been trying to communicate that the man had poor vision and hadn’t spotted them yet. Mrs. Medina touched her fingers to Dutch’s eyelids and squeezed them together lightly. Dutch squinted to see if something would happen, but nothing did. Mrs. Medina stood behind him and wrapped her arms around him. He felt himself shift into as wide a stance as he was capable of, placing his feet far apart, throwing back his shoulders, sticking out his chest—not that any of that would help if the man pulled out a gun. He patted the back of her hand, but she shook him off. She hugged him, then pointed at the man, then hugged Dutch again, a pretty tight squeeze, a bear hug.

Dutch stepped forward and felt Mrs. Medina’s arms slip off him. He bent his knees a little, leaned forward, and charged toward the man. It took maybe ten steps, and the man had time enough to register a noise and look up, and then Dutch closed his arms just below the man’s shoulders, pinning his arms. Having gotten a sense of the man’s weight, of how light he was, Dutch yanked him up off the floor and held him there in the air. The man was now kicking back at Dutch’s shins with his heels, which caused Dutch considerable pain: he had always had tender shins. It was a warm pain that pulsed and traveled up and down his legs. Mrs. Medina sprang forward, squeezed past them, and ran off in the direction the man had come.

The man was now trying to strike with the back of his head, but first contact with Dutch’s chin quickly put an end to that experiment. So he went back to the shins. Dutch didn’t want to squeeze any harder because he’d heard stories of broken ribs puncturing a person’s lungs—old wives’ tales, probably, but he didn’t want to risk it.

He didn’t know what he had expected—mothballs, mold, old sweat—but the man he was holding smelled of regular soap and shaving cream. Dutch tried asking him questions, but all he did was squirm and kick him in the shins. He didn’t even yell or curse.

The minutes ticked by. Dutch was now humming—he had made no conscious decision; it had just happened—and either the humming was having a calming effect on the man, or he had tired himself out, or maybe he was pooling his strength for one big effort at escaping. It seemed incredible to Dutch that a person could grow used to doing something so strange—bear-hugging a man who had possibly snuck into an old lady’s apartment through the linen closet to stack it full of newspapers because his own apartment was already full—but Dutch had certainly been regaining his ease when Mrs. Medina finally came back to the room and told him the police were on their way. The super was waiting for them and would walk them up to the right apartment.

The man, whose name was Ignacio Smith, never did explain anything or utter many words of any sort, but the sequence of events that Mrs. Medina would eventually accept as most probable was the following: As Ignacio began running out of space, he began exploring the limits of his apartment. He found the access to the passageway and, one day, chanced upon what turned out to be Miss Potter’s linen closet. He would have realized he had entered another apartment, an occupied one, but, to him, a mostly empty one, something that he could annex to his own. He might have started visiting it at night, while Miss Potter slept. One night he found she had simply died in her sleep. Here Dutch had made an objection: there was no way Ignacio had carried Miss Potter’s body through the narrow crawlspace. Mrs. Medina speculated that he had, in fact, in the middle of the night, taken her out her own front door, dragging her body on the bedsheet. He had re-entered his apartment, with Miss Potter’s body, through his front door. The nickname the newspapers gave him was the Pack Rat. From what the Mayor told them, his lawyer wanted to seek an insanity defense centered on Ignacio’s compulsive hoarding, but in the end they copped a plea, and Ignacio was sent to prison for check forgery, trespassing, and transporting a dead body.

It was 11 p.m., and the night held a slight chill. When a breeze blew in, it had enough of a bite that Dutch resolved to make the switch to long-sleeved shirts starting tomorrow.

Dutch went inside and the college girl, Maura, promptly fulfilled her gatekeeper duties and pointed in the direction of the kitchen. She had a thick book open in front of her and had been tapping a pen against the side of her face. He pantomimed a tip of the hat, crossed his eyes at her until he got a smile, and wove his way through the nearly-empty restaurant—there was one couple left, regulars, and they were already on their coffees—until he reached the kitchen doors. He poked his head inside and called out “Chef” rather loudly. He had considered, and then discarded, first a fly-in-my-soup joke and then an allusion to Ratatouille, but while the couple might be regulars, this was still mixed company.

Mrs. Medina came out, her skin pale, a slight darkness under her eyes—by Dutch’s reckoning, she had been working the kitchen for twelve hours straight. She squinted her eyes at him. “What kind of day was today?”

He led her to the nearest table and helped her into a chair. “He’s planning a hot-air-balloon festival,” Dutch said.

“Oh, good Lord.” She crossed her arms on the table and rested her forehead on them, theatrically. But then she kept her head down there; she was tired.

“He sent you a cappuccino machine.” He waited. There it was: she lifted up her head. “Really,” he said. “I brought it in the truck. It’s right outside.”

“He does know I don’t own this restaurant,” she said, but she was happy now, her eyes bright and warm, her hands restless.

Dutch emptied his pockets unto the table so she could play with his keys. “Belated payment, he said, for the Ignacio thing.” He found himself whispering; the dining couple was still there.

One of her hands stalked stealthily across the tablecloth toward his key ring. “What about you?”

“Significantly more portable.” He took out some bills from his wallet and waved them a little in the air between them.

Thanks to the Mayor’s intervention, knowledge of Dutch and Mrs. Medina’s participation in the case of Ignacio Smith had been limited to the police. Other information not revealed to the public at large involved the bags of his own hair and fingernail clippings that Ignacio had kept in his apartment. The scratches were never fully explained, though it did come to light that, six years before, Miss Potter had adopted, for all of one day, a stray cat from the street, whom in a caustic diary entry she referred to as the Tasmanian Devil. With surprising self-awareness, the same entry went on to say that there would be no further feline experiments; a career as a cat lady was not for her, and she would have to look into being the neighborhood witch or the snoop.

Mrs. Medina looked up from her close inspection of his keys. “A quick steak-and-fries?”

“How about I cook you something for a change?” he said.

She waved the notion away. “Please. I don’t know how gynecologists do it. The last thing I want is food right now.”

He felt his eyes bug out a little, but she was focused on the keys. “I actually understood that,” he said. “Well, I also have beer in the truck. That counts as a compromise, right?”

She sniffed. “No one gets to eat? Sure sounds like a compromise. Courtesy of the Mayor as well?”

“Of the Mayor’s staff.” He hurried out and retrieved the longnecks before there could be time to raise objections. On the way back in he left one by Maura’s book; she didn’t look up this time.

He gave Mrs. Medina both their bottles, and she uncapped them with the bottle opener on his key ring.

She took a sip. “If they would fuck off already, eh.” She jutted her chin at the regulars, who were lingering over their empty coffee cups. “Dying to smoke here.” Out of nowhere, she smiled at him. “Tell me about the plans with the fishing and the beer and the Gulf.”

Dutch rested his forearms on the table and leaned toward her. “There’s a second job,” he said.

There was his beer bottle and then hers and then her face; she was leaning forward, too. “Another job?”

Dutch nodded, pursing his lips. It was important that he not smile.

Tabaré Alvarez has an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He has published a handful of short stories in a magazine called Santo Domingo Times as well as previously in Reflection's Edge. He lives in the Dominican Republic.

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