Monday, November 9, 2009

A Twist Of Noir 249 - Katherine Tomlinson

PROOF OF LIFE - KATHERINE TOMLINSON

Originally published in THUGLIT Issue #19, September 2007

It was 2:45 in the afternoon of a sleepy fall Friday and Michelle Martorelli was proofreading a report it had taken nearly a week to write. The document was meant to accompany a PowerPoint presentation but her boss was a Luddite who didn’t really trust data he couldn’t hold in his hand, preferably in a binder with tabs. He liked to see lots of pages arranged into topics and subcategories and separated by dividers. It made him think he was getting his money’s worth out of Michelle, whose title was Senior Data Analyst and whose salary was in the low six figures.

He always wanted pie charts.

Michelle knew he would like this report. In addition to pie charts, it had clip art and bar graphs and tables of numbers, all of which lined up in a positive way. The narrative sections were cogent and precise, models of elegant prose, written with a sharp eye for detail and a knack for making complex information accessible. The message the report conveyed was good news. The company, which was number two in a very competitive market, had unexpectedly profited when the CEO of their competitor had died in a sky diving accident. A notorious micro-manager and an all-around son of a bitch, the CEO had left his company without a clear heir. The resulting disarray was destroying the company from within and had left an opening for Ukacom to surge into first position.

Michelle had been working for Ukacom (rhymes with “puke”, some of the younger employees joked) since graduating from college 11 years earlier. She liked her job, though she never really became “part of the family”. She didn’t go to office picnics or go out for drinks with the other employees. She was what other people dismissed as a “numbers cruncher”, or if they were being snarky, “a bean counter”.

She didn’t really care what other people thought.

Her office was on the West side of the building, where the mid-afternoon sun poured in and cast a mellow golden light across her desk.

The light often annoyed her, creating a glare on her computer screen, so she kept her blinds more or less permanently closed.

The light from her computer screen cast the only illumination in the room as she finished reading her document and pressed the key to send it to the printer.

She was thinking about rewarding herself with a latte when the bomb planted in the base of a newly installed “water feature” in the building’s atrium lobby exploded.

The explosive had been shaped for maximum destructive force and it blew through the fourteen floors of the Ukacom building like a knife slicing a layer cake.

Michelle’s office was on the fifth floor, and she was still alive when it collapsed through the lower four floors. She was still trying to process what was happening when the nine floors above her pancaked at the bottom of the crater created by the bomb.

People always say, “They never knew what hit them,” but that wasn’t really true for Michelle. She died fast but not without pain. And she was awake until the end.

Seventeen people were pulled from the wreckage alive and for a while, there had been hope that more survivors would be found. Officials brought in search and rescue dog teams from but they found nothing but corpses. The dogs got stressed and depressed about that and their handlers did, too.

So the body count stood at 814, with 47 people missing, mostly from the lobby area where there was a café and a little convenience store. One of the building’s security guards had survived because he’d gone outside for a smoke. His wife quit nagging him to quit the habit after that.

The office building explosion dominated the news for the next three weeks and other crimes that had happened around the same time fell through the cracks. There was a home-invasion robbery, a missing person complaint and a rape that all got shoved to the back burner.

The home invasion crew made the mistake of hitting the home of a paranoid senior citizen who believed in his right to bear arms and who kept his aim sharp with weekly visits to the gun range. The geezer shot the gang’s leader, who turned out to be just 18, which confirmed the old man’s belief that the younger generation was just a bunch of hooligans. The kid survived the shooting and his parents brought a suit against the home owner.

The rape complaint was withdrawn because both parties had had a little too much to drink.

The missing person was a guy who’d left a bar with a woman and had only been gone 24 hours when his friends made the report. The cops weren’t too worried about him. And besides, they had other priorities. Most of them were working double shifts doing nothing but identifying the bombing victims.

There were enough miscellaneous body parts to account for 23 people on the missing list. They found one intact hand still clutching a ball-point pen with the Ukacom logo on it. The hand wore a white gold wedding band with an inscription in Gaelic. The hand belonged to Lisabeth Quinn, whose husband identified her by the ring and the close-bitten fingers on the hand. Ukacom didn’t fingerprint its employees, a policy that immediately came under review in the aftermath of the bombing.

After all the bodies and parts were processed, what was left was unidentifiable, just so many pounds of fat-marbled meat. The investigators had worked car accidents and plane crashes but only one — a National Guardsman who’d done a tour of duty in Iraq — had ever seen the effects of an explosive device on human flesh. It’s not something you forget and when he found himself scooping remains into plastic bags with a shovel, the investigator seriously began planning his exit strategy. He was getting way too old for this shit and he was only 37.

In the days after the bombing, investigators asked Ukacom for a list of all the employees who’d been working in the building on the day of the blast. The list the company gave the investigators was alphabetical. Michelle’s name was 438th on the list. The investigators also asked for floor plans to mark the last-known locations of the still-missing employees.

Five people from the fifth floor had survived but none of them, oddly, seemed to know who Michelle was. Her office door was nearly always closed. Computer logs showed that she always came in early, almost always worked late, and didn’t, so far as anyone knew, take a lunch break. One or two of Michelle’s office mates seemed apologetic, as if they were embarrassed not to have known the woman who had so suddenly vanished from their midst.

The investigators went to Human Resources and asked for addresses on all the people still missing. At their homes, they talked to loved ones who offered them soiled pillowcases and used toothbrushes and sweaty socks from the laundry hamper. These were used to distill DNA. And so, one by one, the fragments of bone and the bits of flesh were gathered up, put into boxes and burned or buried according to custom.

No one came forward to claim Michelle, so the investigators finally went to her apartment in hopes of finding something that would help identify which lump of flesh was her. The investigators had to track down the management company (an out of town group of doctors and lawyers who owned rental property all over the state). The owners’ lawyer came over with a set of keys and let the investigators in. They fanned out over the apartment and found...absolutely nothing except fingerprints they could not match to a missing hand.

There was no evidence of a roommate, a lover, a pet. There weren’t even any potted plants. The rooms were as sterile and impersonal as a hotel room between guests.

The investigators started with Michelle’s bedroom. Her sheets had just been changed and the old ones were found in the dryer of the little washer/dryer combo tucked away in her kitchen. There were no dirty dishes or utensils. She had stacked a bowl and a spoon and a coffee cup in the drainer after washing them. There was a large, serrated bread knife in the drainer too and investigators found a round loaf of raggedly sliced artisanal rye bread in a bin on the counter.

The bathroom was completely antiseptic. The toilet was clean enough to drink from, the faucets and mirror sparkling, the sink gleaming as if polished. The towels were freshly laid out. (The old ones were in the dryer with the clean sheets. The investigators concluded Michelle must have done laundry right after her morning shower.)

There wasn’t even a plug of hair in the drain of the bathtub, or a clot of that black ick that gathers in bathroom sinks.

Her bathroom cabinet contained no prescription medicines, no birth control pills, no over-the-counter remedies of any kind. There was a bottle of baby aspirin (half full) and some eye drops. There was a pump bottle of antibacterial soap. There was a small bottle of generic mouthwash.

There is not even a toothbrush in her bathroom, which the investigators found odd. They didn’t know that Michelle habitually took her toothbrush to work so she could brush between meals. (She actually did take lunch, but she usually brown-bagged it. Her office had a tiny “executive” bathroom so she never had to frequent the ladies room.)

There was no hair in her hairbrush, which was found soaking, along with her comb, in a container of some sort of antiseptic. There was nothing in her bathroom trashcan, no used tissues or tampon wrappers. The apartment dumpsters were emptied weekly, and the regular pickup had been on the morning of the explosion. By now, any trash she might have discarded was moldering under a foot of new garbage on the local landfill.

There weren’t any photographs in the apartment, no magnets on the fridge, holding cartoons or recipes or pizza coupons. She didn’t have a land line, but she’d had a cell phone. Presumably it been in her purse and had been destroyed in the explosion. Analysis of her phone records showed she called and checked her business line regularly but other than that, made no calls. Her only incoming calls were wrong numbers and solicitors.

The investigator had gone through her underwear drawer which was full of surprisingly sexy underwear — cobwebby lace bras, silken thongs, a sheer full slip that reminded one of the investigators of a garment his mother used to wear. He did not share this memory with his colleagues.

Michelle had been a petite woman, slim hipped, with tiny breasts. Her closet was full of shoes, all more or less the same style — conservative low-cut heels for work, a pair of ratty generic brand tennis shoes, recently washed. The investigators were not able to extract DNA from the shoes. Michelle’s feet apparently didn’t sweat much and she’d sprayed Lysol in them every night.

Her jewelry box contained a pair of pearl studs, a pair of gold loops the size of a dime and a pair of what looked like diamond earrings but turned out to be cubic zirconium. There was also a rose gold wedding ring, which excited them for a while. They thought they might be able to track down an ex-husband somewhere, someone who might mourn her death, or at least take notice of it, but the ring turned out to be a dead end.

The investigators gave up and told the Feds there was no chance of identifying Michelle from the things she left behind. She’d been a ghost even before the bombing.

There were other remains whose identities proved just as elusive and in the end, the investigators had to give up on them, too. They still had their regular cases to work and the relatives of the guy gone missing from the bar was driving the department crazy, demanding that something be done. Nobody wanted to tell the guy’s mom the obvious, that when an adult disappears they don’t usually show up again, at least not alive.

There was a memorial service for the bomb victims. The governor came and so did the Vice President. The Veep made a speech to polite but desultory applause. An actor widely known for his support of Darfur spoke too and got a much more enthusiastic response. He later hooked up with the sister of one of the victims who was unclear on what the connection between the star and her sister’s death might be but who was happy enough to shag a celebrity in the name of sexual healing.

The unclaimed remains were combined and buried together. Ukacom paid for the grave and a handsome marker. They moved their operations to another city soon after and half the people who’d survived the bombing ended up losing their jobs in the reshuffle.

Life went on. Michelle’s landlords hired a cleaning crew to prep the apartment for another tenant. The head of the crew was supposed to box up her things and put them in a storage unit in the basement but instead he sold all Michelle’s clothes and gave her shoes to his wife, who had dainty feet even though she was pushing 200 pounds on a five-foot frame.

He gave Michelle’s pearl earrings to his mother, the gold loops to his daughter and the cubic zirconium studs — which he thought were diamonds — to Lucia, the new girl on his crew who could barely speak English and had the sweetest body he’d ever seen without clothes.

She was very grateful.

The owners put an ad for the apartment in the paper, charging $100 more for the one-bedroom, one-bath unit than they’d charged Michelle. A young woman who’d recently graduated from college moved in, unaware of the fate that had befallen the previous tenant. It was a building with a lot of turnover. No one had ever met Michelle.

Two months after she moved in, the new tenant was taking a shower when she noticed an uneven place in the bathroom floor. Curious, she pried up a loose tile and recoiled at the stench. Removing more tiles, she found herself looking at the severed head of a 25-year-old man named John Henderson. His friends called him Johnny. His roommate had reported him missing on the morning the office building had been bombed.

Johnny’s parents had haunted the police station in the wake of his disappearance. They hadn’t wanted to hear that the police resources had been badly stretched by the office building explosion and that they were doing the best they could.

On his own, Johnny’s dad had gone to the bar where his son had been drinking the night he disappeared. The cops had already questioned the bartender but he felt bad for Johnny’s dad and told him what he’d told them. Johnny had left the bar that night with a woman, but no one ever saw her face. She was small, he said, with slim hips and tiny breasts. He thought her hair was dark, but he couldn’t really be sure. She was dressed in a business suit, with conservative, low-heeled shoes.

Johnny’s devastated parents talked about suing the police, to make someone pay for the senseless crime that had taken their son from them. In the end, though, they chose to do nothing. Johnny’s mom gained a hundred pounds in the next six months and by the first anniversary of Johnny’s death, his parents had divorced.

Belatedly, the investigators who saw the bread knife in Michelle’s kitchen later realized it was probably the murder weapon but it was never found among her boxed belongings in the basement.

The owners re-rented Michelle’s apartment, tacking on another hundred in rent. The owners mentioned the new bathroom flooring in their classified ad, passing it off as an “upgrade”. The new tenant was happy to have the place.

Ukacom’s annual report had a special “in memoriam” section to list the employees who died in the bombing. There were 860 names on the list. Michelle Martorelli would have made it 861 but in view of the ongoing investigation into Johnny Henderson’s murder, the man in charge (Michelle’s pie chart-loving boss) decided it would be inappropriate to include her. No one noticed the exclusion.

No one ever really notices the bean counters.

BIO: Katherine Tomlinson lives in Los Angeles where she works as a freelance writer and editor. Her fiction has been published in Thuglit, Astonishing Adventures Magazine, Acorn Newspaper and other print and online outlets. Her story "The Sin Eater" will appear in the January 2010 issue of Dark Fire.

7 comments:

Cormac Brown said...

This is a wonderful, layered story about probably one of the most difficult subjects to write about.

randyrohn said...

Very haunting. This one will stay with me for a long time.

David Cranmer said...

I remember this one the first time around. And it still packs a wallop.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Especially timely and wonderfully done!

MRMacrum said...

Quite a bit going on in this story. Very nicely done. The matter of fact style fits the story so well. Her phrasing was excellent.

David Barber said...

Excellent piece of writing. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Regards, David.

Paul D. Brazill said...

Great piece of work. Meaty stuff.