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Authors: Harry Dolan

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BOOK: The Last Dead Girl
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5

T
he next morning I made a bad mistake.

Jana was gone by the time I got up—off to one of her classes. She'd left a key and a note asking me to lock the door when I left. I showered and dressed in the clothes I'd worn the night before. The shirt she'd worn. I helped myself to a glass of orange juice from her fridge. Took it out onto the patio in back.

The morning sun had dried the grass, but there was more rain coming. As I walked onto the lawn, I heard the sound of a rake biting into the earth. Jana's landlady was working next door, digging up last year's flower bed, getting ready to plant something new.

The woman was thin, stooped over, ancient. She wore a scarf to cover her hair and a ragged dress that might have come off the back of a medieval peasant. I'd seen her before but she never said a word to me, and she didn't now, even when I wished her good morning. She shot me a dark glance from under her brow.

I turned away from her and looked off at the woods. Thought about the night before—Jana's feeling that she was being watched. She made light of it after, but there'd been a moment when she seemed genuinely afraid. I had a job scheduled for the afternoon, a home inspection, but for now I was free. I had time for a walk in the woods.

I could have set out straight across the lawn. I'm not sure why I didn't, except that I was feeling the weight of the landlady's disapproval. I was a stranger here, unwelcome. For all I knew, she owned those woods. I had no business traipsing through them.

I polished off the orange juice, took the glass inside, and went out again, this time through the front door, locking up behind me. My truck was parked beneath the oak. I skirted around it, walked east down Jana's little street until I came to a bigger one called Clinton Drive. Three blocks south on Clinton there was a run-down playground: basketball hoops without nets, a baseball field without bases. A sign by the street read
CYPRESS PARK
.

A few young kids were playing on a rusty swing set. Their mothers talked nearby. I cut across the ball field to the edge of the woods and walked along until I found the beginning of a trail. It wound aimlessly through a floor of wet leaves left over from the fall. Every now and then I saw a candy wrapper or a crushed can—the flotsam left behind by careless teenagers.

The ground began to rise and the trail smoothed out, heading west and north. It came to a ravine with a sharp drop, twenty feet down. The only way across was a narrow footbridge that might have had a railing once but didn't have one now. I crossed it slowly, listening to every pop and creak of the wooden planks.

After the bridge I left the trail and came to the northern border of the woods. I found a spot that overlooked the lawn behind Jana's apartment and saw a bent figure toiling with a rake—the landlady working in her garden. I kept within the cover of the trees so she wouldn't see me. A dozen feet in from the wood's edge I found a fallen trunk with the bark peeling off, a perfect place for someone to sit and watch Jana in the moonlight.

I would have given a lot for a bare patch of mud, a clear set of footprints. But the ground here was covered with the same carpet of leaves, not quite dried by the sun. If there were prints, they were indistinct. Yet there was one plain sign that someone had been here: a broken popsicle stick lying on the ground by the tree trunk. No way to tell how long it had been there or who had left it. Maybe a watcher in the night, or maybe one of the same teenagers who had been careless with soda cans and candy wrappers.

I walked back through the woods the way I'd come. Crossed the bridge. Followed the trail to Cypress Park. The kids had abandoned the swings and were taking turns on a slide. Their mothers supervised. I left the woods and marched through the ball field. None of them paid me any mind. On Clinton Drive a chipmunk scrambled along the top of a hedge, froze when it saw me, watched me go by. When I got back to Jana's duplex I saw a guy in a long tan coat sitting on her landlady's stoop, smoking a cigarette. He stared at me as I walked up the driveway, and when I approached Jana's door he crushed out the cigarette and got up.

“Hey,
kámoš
. You and me, we talk.”

I paused with Jana's key in the lock. “Do I know you?”

“You don't know me, I don't know you. That's what we talk about.”

He wore a silk shirt under the coat and what looked for all the world like leather pants.

“You're not a tenant,” he said, wagging a finger at me. Like I'd done something naughty.

“That's true,” I said, “but I know the woman who lives here.”

“You shouldn't have a key.”

“She let me borrow her spare.”

“Maybe you think you live here now, huh?”

“No. I'm visiting.”

“You don't live here. She pays rent for one. If there's two, it's more.”

“I'm visiting.”

“I can't have it. She's already behind.”

He had acne scars and greased-back hair, and he spoke with an accent but it seemed to come and go. I thought it might be Eastern European. Czech or Polish.

“You got a key,” he said. “Maybe you pay what she owes.”

“Who are you?” I said.

He smiled and his teeth were definitely Eastern European. “I'm the landlord,
kámoš
.”

I shook my head. “The landlord's a nice old lady. Lives next door.”

“That's my grandma. She owns the house, I collect the rent.”

He reached into the pocket of his coat and handed me a grubby business card:
LANIK RENTALS. SIMON LANIK, LEASING AGENT
.

“That's me,” he said. “You pay or no?”

“Why should I believe you? Anyone can have a card printed.”

“Oh, you can believe me,
kámoš
.” He looked over at the other stoop. The old woman was there now, standing with the door half open. “Hey, Nana,” he said to her. “This one's real slick.”

She put her head down and waved a withered hand in the air, as if she was disgusted with the both of us.

Simon Lanik turned back to me. “You got a key. Good for you. You won't be here long, and the girl won't either. Unless somebody pays.”

“How much does Jana owe you?” I asked.

He hesitated just a little, as if he might be padding out the number.

“Three fifty,” he said.

“I don't have that much.”

“What you got,
kámoš
?”

I brought my wallet out. “Four twenties,” I said. “Eighty bucks.”

“That's a start,” he said, reaching for the bills.

I held them back. Nodded in the direction of the old woman. “I'll give them to her,” I said, “and you'll write me a receipt.”

He laughed. “Whatever you want, Slick.”

•   •   •

I
got my receipt and Simon Lanik went away. I went inside. I poured myself a bowl of cereal and thought about whether Lanik might have been responsible for Jana's bruise. I decided he made a poor candidate. I could see him slapping a woman if she fell behind on the rent, but he had written the receipt with his left hand, scribbled it in pencil on the back of his business card. Jana's bruise was on the left side of her face. I thought she must have been hit by someone right-handed.

I took my cereal into the living room and sat at her desk. She had an address book with butterflies on the cover. Names and numbers committed to paper, because she didn't own a cell phone. The person who hit her was probably a man, because men hit women. Probably someone she knew, so his name could be in the book. I paged through it. There were about thirty entries. None of the names jumped out at me, except one.
Roger Tolliver.
Jana had mentioned him. He was one of her law professors, a rising star on the faculty.

I dragged a legal pad across the blotter, picked up a pen, and copied down his name and number. I didn't know what I would do with it. Call him up and ask him if he hit her in the face? Ask him if he hid out in the woods last night, with a popsicle?

I could figure it out later. For now, I copied more names—every man's name I could find in the book. Then I remembered the night I met Jana; I thought of it as the Night of the Doe. She had a file with her that night, a green folder thick with papers.

I'm curious about what's in there,
I'd said.

Now you're just being nosy.

I hadn't seen the folder since. But the desk had a file drawer. I opened it and found it stuffed with folders. None of them labeled, but only one of them thick enough to be the one I was looking for. I started to take it out, and that's when I made the bad mistake.

I stopped.

Because Jana Fletcher had trusted me to be alone in her apartment. She had given me a key. And she had made it plain enough that she didn't want to tell me about what happened to her face, or about the contents of this folder.

So I closed the drawer.

I kept the names I'd copied. Tore the page from the pad, folded it, and put it in my pocket. But I didn't do anything with it—not until after she died.

•   •   •

T
hat was Thursday morning, the twenty-fourth of April. In the days that followed I learned some important things about Jana Fletcher.

I learned that she'd been born on the night of the spring equinox, which made her an Aries, though she didn't believe in astrology. I learned that she had broken her arm as a kid—a fall from a rope swing—and that she had once stepped on a rattlesnake, but had been saved by a pair of knee-high leather boots.

I learned that she played tennis, but not well; that she had taken ballet classes; that she had played the part of Rosalind in her high school's production of
As You Like It
.

I learned that she sang with perfect pitch and that her favorite songwriters were Sheryl Crow and Dar Williams.

I learned that she loved dogs—handsome, purebred dogs and mutts from the pound and little yappy excitable dogs with black button eyes and too much fur. She didn't have one of her own, but she couldn't see one on the street without trying to stop and pet it.

I learned that her favorite color was indigo, mainly because she liked the word. I learned that her favorite restaurant was a place called The Falcon on Madison Street near the university, and that she liked to sit in a particular booth in the back—the one with a canoe hanging over it, suspended by wires from the ceiling.

I learned that she lit candles whenever she came home, that she could cook without following a recipe, and that she noticed the smallest of details—like the fact that I had leafed through her address book and copied some of the names on a page from her legal pad.

I found that out a few days later. Sunday night. Cool rain outside, but Jana and I were in her living room, with a fire burning in the fireplace. We had started out on our feet with our clothes on and by degrees wound up naked on the floor. At some point we'd had the good sense to put down blankets and pillows so we wouldn't have to lie on the bare wood.

“I know what you did,” she said.

She was beside me with her head resting in the crook of my arm, the flat of her palm over my heart, her right leg wrapped around mine. I wondered what she meant, decided she must be talking about Simon Lanik, about the rent.

I said, “It was no big deal. It was only eighty dollars.”

“Not that,” she said, propping herself up on an elbow. “Though I know about that too. It was sweet, but you didn't have to. I can handle the Laniks. And I'll pay you back.”

I didn't care if she paid me back, but I didn't say it. I said, “All right. What else did I do?”

Jana rolled away from me and got to her feet. Took the legal pad from the desk and brought it down to me. She straddled my waist, held the pad so I could see it.

I had torn away the sheet I'd written on, but the pen had left indentations on the page underneath. She had gone over that page with a blunt pencil, rubbing it lightly over the lines of text, so the indented letters showed up white on a field of gray.

Clever. I had to smile. “Where'd you learn that?” I asked her. “The Hardy Boys?”

“Nancy Drew,” she said.

“I can explain.”

“You don't need to. You haven't called any of them, have you? You haven't tried to track them down?”

“No. I was tempted. But I thought better of it.”

Jana tossed the pad away. “I'm glad. About both things. Glad you were tempted and glad you didn't give in to the temptation.” She rested her palms on my shoulders. “I just wanted to have that out in the open.”

I reached up to touch the mark on her cheek. “If we're getting things out in the open, we should talk about the other night.” The Night of the Doe. “There's something—”

But she was already shaking her head. “Forget about that. It's a stupid thing that happened. It's over.” She turned her head so I could see her profile. “Look,” she said. “It's fading. In a few more days you won't be able to see it.”

“That's not what I meant. There's something else. Something I should tell you. You never asked why I was out driving that night—”

She put her fingers on my lips to silence me.

“Is it important?” she said.

I nodded.

“Is it serious?”

I nodded again.

“I don't want to talk about anything important or serious right now,” Jana said. “But I'll make you a deal.” She shifted her body, moved her thighs down over my hips. “In a little while, if there's still something you need to tell me, you can tell me.”

She took her fingers away from my lips and I didn't say anything, and she brought her hands up to the top of her head and arched her back and I still didn't say anything. She lifted herself and lowered herself down again, and after a little while I forgot there was anything I needed to say.

BOOK: The Last Dead Girl
13.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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