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IT MIGHT TAKE A LITTLE while to get there, but I’ll tell you everything, and I’ll tell you the truth. As best I can. I used to lie, but when I tell you the story, you’ll understand why I had to lie. You’ll understand that I didn’t have a choice.
I just wanted to do my job.
No, I said I would tell you the truth. Of course I had a choice. We all have choices, don’t we? And if I tell myself that I didn’t have a choice, I’m no better than an adulterer who misses his daughter’s dance recital because he’s shacking up in some shitty hotel with his wife’s sister. He tells himself that he doesn’t have a choice too. But we know better than that. He has choices. He chooses to tell the first lie, and then he chooses to tell every other lie that comes after that. He chooses to buy a burner phone to send pictures of his cock to his mistress, and he chooses to tell his wife that he has a business trip, and he chooses to pull cash out of an ATM to pay for the room. He tells himself that all of his choices are inevitable, and he tells himself that he isn’t lying.
But when I hand his wife an envelope full of photographs and an invoice for services rendered, her world is turned upside down, because he chose. If I try to pretend I didn’t have a choice, I’m not any different from the liars whose lives I ruin, and that’s not who I am. I’m nothing like them. My job is to pursue the truth.
So, the truth: it’s not that I didn’t have a choice. I did. I had a thousand choices.
I was so close to making the right one.
* * *
The man who stood between me and the door to my office was trembling-thin, his restless eyes sunken with desperation, holding a knife out like an offering. It was warm for January, but he was shaking in the morning air. He wasn’t going to follow through, I thought. Too scared. But then he licked his dry lips with a dry tongue, and I knew that his fear and my fear were not the same kind of fear. He’d do what he thought he needed to do.
Nobody decides to become the kind of person who will stab a stranger in order to get at what’s inside her pockets. That’s a choice life makes for you.
“Okay,” I said, reaching into my tote. I hated my hand for shaking. “Alright, I’ll give you what I’ve got.” I rummaged past my wallet, past my camera, past the telephoto lens in its padded case. I pulled out a slim money clip, peeled off the cash, handed it to him.
He could have demanded more. He could have taken my whole bag. But instead, he took the cash, finally looking me in the eyes.
“Sorry,” he said, and then he made to run past me, up the stairs that led from my basement-level office to the sidewalk. He was close enough that I could smell his breath. It was oddly sweet, fruity. Like the gum me and my sister Tabitha used to steal from the drugstore when we were kids—the kind that always lost its flavor after ten seconds of chewing. Looking back, I can’t figure out why we ever thought it was even worth taking.
The man pelted up the stairs. One of his feet kicked out behind him, and he slipped. “Shit shit shit,” I said, rearing back, trying to dodge him before he fell into me. He flailed and caught himself on my shoulder with a closed fist, knocking the wind out of me.
“Jesus fucking Christ, just go.” I said it with more fear than venom, but it worked. He bolted, dropping his knife behind him with a clatter. I listened to him running down the sidewalk upstairs, his irregular footfalls echoing between the warehouses. I listened until I was sure that he was gone.
BAD THINGS JUST HAPPEN SOMETIMES. That’s what I’ve always told myself, and it’s what I told myself then: I could have bled out right there in the stairs leading down to my office, and not a soul would have known why it happened because there was no “why.” No use dwelling on it: it would have been the end of me, sudden and senseless. I clenched my jaw and pushed away the thought of how long it would have taken before someone found me—before someone wondered what had happened to me. I pushed away the question of who would have noticed I was gone.
I didn’t have time for an existential crisis. It didn’t have to be a big deal. People get mugged all the time. I wasn’t special just because it was my morning to lose some cash. I didn’t have time to be freaked out about it. I had shit to do.
I just wanted to go to work.
I made my way down the remainder of the steps toward the door that hid in the shadowy alcove at the bottom of the stairs. I nudged a Gatorade bottle with my toe. The man had been sleeping in my doorway. He couldn’t have seen it by the dim light of the streetlamps at night, but my name was written across the solid metal of the door in flaking black letters:
IVY GAMBLE, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
MEETINGS BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
I hadn’t gotten the words touched up since I’d first rented the place. I always figured I’d let them fall away until nothing was left but a shadow of the letters. I didn’t think I needed to be easy to find—if someone didn’t know where my office was, that meant they weren’t a client yet. Besides, walk-ins weren’t exactly my bread and butter then. The dead bolt locked automatically when the reinforced steel swung shut. That door was made to withstand even the most determined of visitors.
I didn’t run my fingers across the letters. If I’d known what would change before the next time I walked down those stairs, though? Well, I wouldn’t have run my fingers across the letters then, either. I probably wouldn’t have given them a second glance. I’ve never been good at recognizing what moments are important. What things I should hang on to while I’ve got them.
I stood on my toes to tap at the lightbulb that hung above the door with a still-shaking hand. The filaments rattled. Dead. On nights when that bulb was lit, nobody slept outside the door, which meant that nobody got surprised coming down the stairs in the morning.
I bit my lip and tapped at the lightbulb again. I took a deep breath, tried to find something in me to focus on. Imagine you’re a candle, and your wick is made of glass. I gave the bulb a hard stare. I tapped it one more time.
It flickered to life. My heart skipped a beat—but then the bulb died again with a sound like a fly smacking into a set of venetian blinds and went dead, a trace of smoke graying the inside of the glass.
I shook my head, angry at myself for hoping. It hadn’t been worth a shot. I thought I had outgrown kid stuff like that. Stupid. I stooped to pick up the little knife from where it lay just in front of the door, squinting at what looked like blood on the blade.
“Shit,” I said for the fourth time in as many minutes. As I opened the heavy steel door, a white arc of pain lanced through my shoulder. I looked down, letting the door swing shut behind me. There was a fresh vent in my sleeve. Blood was welling up under it fast—he must have had the knife in his hand when he caught himself on me. I pulled off my ruined jacket, dropping it—and the bloodstained knife—on the empty desk in the waiting area of the office. It fell with a heavy thump, and I remembered my phone in the pocket, the call I was already late for. Sure enough, there were already two pissy texts from the client. I dialed his number with one hand, leaving streaks of stairway grime on the screen, then clamped the phone between my ear and my good shoulder as I headed for the bathroom.
I listened to the ringing on the other end of the line and turned on the hot water tap as far as it would go, attempting to scald the god-knows-what off my palms, trying not to think about the water bill. Or any of the other bills. The cheap pink liquid soap I stocked in the office wasn’t doing anything to cut the shit on my hands, which was somehow slippery and sticky at the same time. My shoulder bled freely as I lathered again and again.
“Sorry I’m late, Glen,” I said when he picked up. My voice probably shook with leftover adrenaline, probably betrayed how much my shoulder was starting to hurt. Fortunately, Glen wasn’t the kind of person who would give a shit whether or not I was okay. He immediately started railing about his brother, who he was sure was stealing from their aunt and who I had found was, in fact, just visiting her on the regular like a good nephew. I put Glen on speaker so he could rant while I peeled off my shirt with wet hands, wincing at the burning in my shoulder. I stood there in my camisole, wadded up the shirt and pressed it to the wound. The bleeding was slow but the pain was a steady strobe.
“I hope you don’t think I’m going to pay for this shit,” Glen was saying, and I closed my eyes for a couple of seconds. I allowed myself just a few heartbeats of bitterness at how unfair it was, that I had to deal with Glen and look for my long-neglected first aid kit at the same time. I was going to take just a moment of self-pity before going into my patient I’ve provided you a service and you were well aware of my fee schedule routine—but then I heard the unmistakable sound of the front door to my office opening.
I froze for a gut-clenched second before hanging up on Glen. I let my blood-soaked shirt drop to the floor, shoved my phone into my bra so it wouldn’t vibrate against the sink when he called back. I heard the office door close, and a fresh flood of adrenaline burned through me.
Someone was in the office with me.
No one had an appointment. No one should have been able to get inside at all. That door locked automatically when it closed, and I knew it had closed. I knew it, I had heard it click shut behind me. This wouldn’t be the first break-in attempt, but it was the first time someone had tried it while I was in the office. I pressed my ear to the door, carefully gripped the knob without letting it rattle in my fingers. The lock on the door was busted, but at least I could try to hold it shut if they decided to look around.
“I’m here to see Ms. Gamble.” A woman’s voice, clear and steady. What the fuck? I could hear her footsteps as she walked across the little waiting area. I winced, remembering my jacket and the bloodstained knife on the abandoned admin desk. She murmured something that sounded like “Oh dear.” My phone buzzed against my armpit, but Glen and his yelling would just have to wait.
“Once you’ve finished treating your wound, you can come out of the bathroom, Ms. Gamble. I don’t care that you’re in your camisole. We have business to discuss.”
I straightened so fast that something in my back gave a pop. My head throbbed. I stared at the white-painted wood of the door as I realized who was waiting for me out there. This was not good.
This was not good at all.
The shitty waiting-room couch creaked. She was serious—she was going to wait for me. I rushed through cleaning up the slice in my shoulder, wadding up wet paper towels and scrubbing blood off my arm, half ignoring and half savoring how much it hurt. The bandage I hastily taped over the wound soaked through with blood within a few seconds. I would say I considered getting stitches, but it’d be a lie. I’d let my arm fall off before setting foot inside a fucking hospital.
I checked myself in the mirror—not a welcome sight. I pulled my phone out of my bra, ran a hand through my hair. There was only so much I could do to make myself look less like a wreck, and I kept the once-over as brief as possible. I like mirrors about as much as I like hospitals.
Copyright © 2019 by Sarah Gailey