BIG CITY HEARTACHE - JULIA MADELEINE
Someone gave her a cup of tea. Angie didn’t drink tea. There wasn’t any tea in her kitchen, at least none that she knew of. But holding the warm mug in her hands was comforting.
“It will make you feel better,” the woman said.
They were sitting at the dining room table in Angie’s apartment while the police milled about, opening drawers, cupboards, shuffling papers, and sifting through the mess. There was about six of them. They wore latex gloves and navy blue jackets with POLICE emblazoned on the back in yellow letters. They talked in hushed voices as they examined something with heads together, and cast furtive glances her way. The muddled sounds of their radios blared intermittently through the still of her apartment.
It was seven-thirty in the morning. Outside the window, the clouded Toronto sky glowed metallic, the sun receiving the day as if everything was perfectly fine and it was just another ordinary morning like any other. Ordinary except for the fact that she had lost an entire night’s sleep, and there were police searching her apartment.
She sat cross-legged on the chair in bare feet and pyjamas, twirling a ringlet of dark hair she had tugged from her ponytail. Her entire body ached. And when she moved, even the slightest movement, a jarring pain ripped through her insides. The left side of her ribcage was a deep plum colour, almost black. She’d once been kicked by a horse in the same spot but it hadn’t hurt this much. She touched the bump on the back of her head and winced. It felt like it was getting bigger. She needed to take some more oxycodone. Maybe she should see a doctor.
“You said you just moved to this apartment? You remember the exact date?” the woman asked.
“Three weeks ago. It was the beginning of June.”
Watching the police searching her apartment, Angie felt dazed and removed from herself.
“What are they looking for?” she asked and realized the woman was dressed in the same blue jacket. Hadn’t she introduced herself as Detective Such And Such? Of course. She was a cop. She just didn’t seem like one. She acted more like a therapist with her smooth voice, her smiles and sad eyes, reminding Angie of her guidance counsellor at school last year. Maybe that was her shtick to gain people’s trust and get them talking about stuff they should only be telling a lawyer. Angie couldn’t recall what she said her name was. She was heavyset and looked ancient, like way beyond retirement, with her lined face and grey-red hair, although her eyes were eagle sharp.
“They’re just looking for anything that might be a clue to help find your sister,” she said. “I know how it must feel, watching people going through your things like this, but it shouldn’t take much longer. And if it helps find Brenda then it’s for the best, right?”
Angie nodded. She sipped her tea and bounced a fingernail on the glass table. She would kill for a cigarette. Anything to keep her calm in that moment. She wondered suddenly if she’d done the right thing by letting the cops in the door. They wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for that fool landlady of hers snooping about. But then again, they did have a warrant. She wondered how much they actually knew.
“Angie, tell me how you got the black eye,” the woman said, placing a weathered hand over Angie’s.
“I told you, I fell. Tripped over the cat in the middle of the night.” Angie didn’t have a cat. Didn’t like cats. They were too shifty. She was a dog person. Dogs you could read. She pulled her hand away from the woman’s.
“Listen, if there’s someone hurting you, Angie, or if you’re afraid--”
“No one’s hurting me.”
“We can protect you.”
“Your sister was travelling recently?” A young, efficient looking cop approached her with a piece of paper in his hands. He was big in the gut, and had the well-fed face of a mama’s boy.
“Travelling? What do you mean?”
“She was in New York. Here’s a receipt for the Crowne Plaza on Broadway, dated last month.” He handed her a crumpled paper. “And another car rental receipt from Toronto in your sister’s name, Brenda Baker. Found it in the bottom of the trash can in her room.”
“Why are you going through the trash?”
“She didn’t tell you she was going to New York?”
Angie rolled her eyes. “I think it’s time you people left.”
“Who does she know in New York?”
“Nobody.” She gave him a level stare as she effortlessly told her lie.
Another generic-looking cop approached and stood with a pad of paper and a pen in his clean thick fingers, taking notes. She wondered if he’d ever known a hard day’s work in his life, like the kind her and Brenda were used to on their parent’s farm, where if you didn’t have calloused hands and dirt under your nails it meant you weren’t pulling your weight. She met a city boy passing though her small hometown once who didn’t know how to change a tire. He had manicured nails. Angie was astounded. She had changed the tire for him, leaving him grateful but clearly humiliated.
“You said you and your sister were close, did you not?” he said, his tone becoming demanding.
She wished they would just leave. She needed to try and sleep. And she needed more painkillers, she wasn’t thinking clearly.
“Yes, we are close.”
“Then why do you suppose she would take a trip across the border, spend the night in a hotel and not mention it to you?”
“I have no idea.”
“So why did it take you so long to file a report about your break-in and your sister’s disappearance?”
“I never reported my sister as missing, all right, like I’ve already told you. My landlady was the one who called you guys, not me. The walls in this fucking place are way too thin.”
“Why wouldn’t you report the break-in yourself?”
“I wanted to try and find my sister first...” Angie let out a breath, riding the wave of pain cutting though her, and rubbed a hand across her tired eyes. Why was this so difficult?
“What is Brenda involved in, Angie?”
“What do you mean involved in?”
“It’s fairly obvious what’s going on here,” he said, his fleshy face reddening. “Somebody trashed this place looking for something; drugs, money. And they beat the crap out of you to try and get it. And now your sister is MIA. So you need to stop blowing smoke up our asses here and start getting straight with us. Otherwise you and your sister are going down cause this investigation is cracking wide open. You’ll be looking at a long prison sentence. Is that what you want?”
She tilted her head as she studied him. Cops; they were all the same, like bloodhounds on a trail. Always looking to twist things around to suit their own agenda. This cop standing before her with his angry eyes, as intense as the men who kicked in her door last night, was just another gang member. She could see the hostility on his face; in that cold, infuriated stare.
“We’re not involved in anything,” she said.
“Angie, we already know what’s really going on,” the woman said, gripping her hand again as if she gave a shit. “The best thing for you to do is talk to us. You need to help us find your sister.”
“What’s really going on? What’s really going on is nothing, all right? The only reason you’re here is because my landlady has an overactive imagination. Now I’ve had enough of these stupid questions--”
“Angie, try and stay calm. Your landlady was concerned about you. But we already had a warrant--”
“How can you expect me to stay calm when you guys think it’s okay to come into my apartment like the fucking Gestapo and make accusations about drugs?” She turned to the man before her, raised her palm in a disparaging gesture and nearly collapsed from the pain that tore through her chest.
“We gotta go,” said one of the cops, with a cell phone pressed to the side of his sweaty head. There was a grave expression in his eyes as he spoke. Suddenly all the cops stopped what they were doing and headed for the door like a pack of dogs hearing a whistle blow.
“What is it?” Angie asked.
“I think we might have a lead on Brenda’s whereabouts,” the woman cop said as she got to her feet.
“I’ll call you as soon as we know something.”
Angie turned the deadbolt after them, thinking how useless it seemed. It hadn’t prevented Tito and his mob from kicking in the door last night and pushing their way inside. She shuddered remembering the feeling of Tito’s clammy hand around her throat, squeezing, as he pinned her to the wall. At least Brenda was smart enough to clue in when the guy forced Angie to call her. Brenda seemed to understand immediately from the tremor in her tone that they’d been tracked down. Hopefully, it was enough to save her. But now an entire night had passed and not one word from Brenda.
Brenda should have just given them the money like she was suppose to, the way they always did. But things had gotten complicated. Brenda wanted out. And she didn’t want to be Tito’s girl anymore. Getting out of the life was all she could talk about. She decided that keeping Tito’s cash from the next run--all two hundred grand--would be their ticket. It was stupid to think they could get away with it. Angie only hoped her sister was in hiding and waiting it out. But why wouldn’t she at least call? Just to let her know that she was okay. An hour later, as Angie was failing in her attempt to catch some sleep, she got a call from the policewoman, Detective Ryder, she said. “We found your sister’s car located in a church parking lot.”
“What about Brenda?”
“Haven’t found her yet, but...” The woman hesitated and let out a breath. It was enough to tell Angie that bad news was on its way.
“What is it?”
“We’re treating this as a crime scene.”
“A crime scene? Why?”
“There is evidence of a violent crime taking place. There was blood spatter inside the car. A considerable amount. There’s also a trail leading away from the vehicle.”
“Oh my God!”
“We are proceeding as an abduction.”
Angie sat up in bed. The phone pressed to her ear suddenly felt heavy in her hand. Her arm was shaking.
In Angie’s head there was a picture of herself in another life, a parallel life, as if somehow she existed at that very moment safe on the farm they’d grown up on. The girl in this picture was happy, carefree. She didn’t know pain or abandonment, or death, or what it’s like to have a gun stuck in her mouth. And she’d never had to sit up all night hoping that miraculously her only sister was out there somewhere, still alive and was going to come home.
Quickly Angie gathered up some clothes and other necessities and stuffed them into a suitcase. She had to disappear in case those bastards came back. As she pulled on her boots, and grabbed her keys from her purse, she noticed they had a different sounding jingle. When she inspected them, she found a small gold key. It was a copy of the one to the safety deposit box. Brenda had said she was giving her the second key. Angie had completely forgotten. She touched the cool metal and thought of her sister. Maybe the contents of that box could buy her back.
Angie swallowed three oxycodone and dialed Tito’s number. She chewed a fingernail as she waited for him to answer.
“Where’s my sister, you stupid fuck?”
“Hey, lose the attitude, bitch or—”
“I’ve got your money.”
There was a pause on the line filled with the sound of Tito lighting a cigarette.
“Ok, so you want to make a deal, do you?”
They arranged to meet an hour later in a parking lot by Union Station where they would trade the money for her sister. Angie had a sensation of vertigo from the painkillers as she sat in her car with the engine idling, doors locked, backed into a parking space. She watched the mid-day commuters with their suitcases, texting as they walked, their attention occupied with everything but the moment. Then she spied Tito. He walked toward her car in that familiar gait of his; a slight skip in his stride as if he’d stepped on a nail. She felt her hands break out in a sweat at the sight of him. She looked for her sister but she recognized only Tito’s partner, slowly making a wide arch around the parking lot toward her. Where the hell was Brenda?
Her phone rang. She looked down to see Detective Ryder’s number. “I’m afraid I have bad news.”
Angie watched Tito’s progression across the tarmac, the glint in his dark eyes coming into view, his smooth bronze skin shimmering in the sun. She watched the muscle in his shoulders straining under his tattooed flesh. He kept a gun in an ankle holster and one in his glove box. She wondered what her sister saw in him. He wasn’t even good looking.
“We need you to come down to the morgue and identify a body.”
There was a moment of dead calm. Angie closed her eyes and let the phone slip to her lap. She gripped the steering wheel tightly with both hands as she felt the wave of emotion crash through her. When she opened her eyes, she saw Tito’s face through her windshield, inches from her car. Angie put the car in drive and peeled out of the parking lot. She heard a thump, felt the car bump over something, followed by a strange wailing sound. She looked in her rear view. Tito was on the ground, holding his knee up to his chest, his face contorted in pain.
“You’ll live, fucker, don’t worry,” she said and then screamed at the traffic to move as she tore out onto the street.
She sped down the Lakeshore until she reached the on-ramp to the highway. She headed west along the Gardiner, not sure where she was going. All she knew was that she had to get away. Far away. From both the cops and Tito. She had names and phone numbers. Enough information for the cops to go on, although she couldn’t testify. There was no way she could do that.
She would go home, back to Saskatchewan. Hopefully, with any luck, she could just disappear into her former life and leave behind all this big city heartache. Although she knew as she thought this, that it would follow her. The loss of her sister, what they had done and what it had cost them, would hover over her shoulder and tread on her heels forever. Sure she had the money and she could turn her life around, start over, go back to school. But some mistakes you just couldn’t erase. Some mistakes made you keep paying on them for a lifetime. And some money, even when it was free, cost way too much.
BIO: Julia Madeleine works as a tattoo artist in Mississauga, Ontario, on the outskirts of Toronto. When she’s not busy hurting people, she spends her time writing nasty little tales of mayhem and suspense.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
11 hours ago