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Urban renewal was in the air on Bryden Road. The dilapidated house across the street from my apartment had been condemned, foreclosed, and eventually purchased by a fighty grad-student couple who appeared to be using the renovation process as experimental marriage counseling. Then my upstairs neighbors moved out and were replaced by a twentyish hipster with a name I could never remember and dreams of starting a farming collective in the building’s narrow backyard. I knew this because she had long, loud phone conversations about it all day long.
It was a Tuesday, the kind of perfect June day that made it easy enough to forget how undesirable the weather was in Ohio most of the time. I was on my porch, listening through her open windows to Bridie or Birdy—whatever her name was—talk about the Brahma chickens she was thinking about buying for her farm. As annoying as she was, there was something compelling about it, like a hipster radio drama playing out one floor above me.
It goes without saying that aside from being pathologically nosy, I was also currently unemployed.
I was finishing my second cup of tea when the car pulled up. Tan Impala with no hubcaps and LED light strips behind the grille, easy enough to spot as an unmarked police-issue vehicle. A regular old cruiser was a more common sight in Olde Towne East, but an unmarked one wasn’t out of the ordinary either.
Upstairs, Birdy said, “There are cops on the street. Again. Do you think it’s, like, safe here?”
I thought about calling up to her, “Not for Brahma chickens.”
But I decided against it when the passenger door of the cop car opened and Tom got out.
That meant they were here for me.
Tom didn’t look happy about it. Neither did the other guy, who was short and dense with salt-and-pepper hair razored into a bristly buzz cut like a vacuum attachment. I didn’t know him, but his expression said that he knew something about me.
I put my mug down on the ledge and stood up. “I didn’t know I was getting company.”
“Hey, Roxane,” Tom said. His face was unreadable. “This is Detective Sanko. You got a few minutes?”
The vacuum attachment scowled at me. “You talk just like your dad did,” he said. “And you look like him, too.”
I sighed. “What’s up, friends?”
Sanko said, “Do you want to do it out here, let everybody on the block know your business?”
Upstairs, Birdy was silent for the first time in what seemed like days. “Why don’t you come in, then,” I said.
I led my visitors into the front room of my apartment, which served as an office of sorts. I tried to catch Tom’s eye but he still wasn’t playing. “So what’s this about?”
Sanko looked around my apartment, his eyes sweeping over an end table piled with laundry and a nearly empty bottle of Crown Royal. “Nice place you got here.”
“Ed, don’t be a dick,” Tom said. He looked at me, finally. There was tension in his face.
“Marin Strasser,” Sanko said once he finished his inspection. “You familiar with her?”
I stared at him.
Although I had no idea why they were here, I never would have guessed it’d be about her.
Until a few days ago, I’d been following Marin Strasser everywhere she went. Her fiancé had hired me to find out if she was cheating on him. She wasn’t, not so far as I could tell. Which wasn’t very far, because less than a week into the case, the man’s retainer check bounced and that was the end of it.
Or so I thought. “Yes.”
“I recently did some work for her fiancé. Why?”
They exchanged glances. “Because she’s dead,” Sanko said.
* * *
A week earlier, I had met with Arthur Ungless at the print shop he owned on the north side. It was in one of those stucco office parks where rows of one-story buildings housed an oddball mix of businesses; the print shop was nestled between a bulk candy distributor and a karate studio. The office smelled like ink and paper and had a pleasant hum of activity murmuring from somewhere on the other side of Arthur’s closed door. Business was apparently good: a slow but steady stream of cars coasted past the window behind his desk. “Norm said you were very discreet,” he was saying. “And easy to talk to. I need that. Telling a complete stranger that I think the love of my life is having affair. This is all very uncomfortable, see. Embarrassing.”
“I get that,” I said. I did a job here and there for Norm Whitman’s personal-injury law firm, surveillance stuff that fell on the dirtier end of the spectrum of the cases I took on. But money was money, and I valued Norm’s business enough to take a referral from him seriously. “But you’ve got nothing to be embarrassed about. I’m on your side.”
Arthur smiled faintly. “Well, you do seem very professional,” he said. “I like that.”
I straightened up in my seat. I wasn’t sure how professional I seemed. I was wearing a black T-shirt, jeans, and an old olive-colored military jacket I’d had for fifteen years that had sort of come back in style recently. But I’d brushed my hair for the meeting, and I was sitting here instead of having this conversation amid the laundry in my home office. So compared to my past self, maybe this was professional. “Why don’t you tell me about your fiancée?” I said.
Arthur nodded somberly. He was about sixty, short, barrel-chested, with reddish hair going silver, a wide mouth, and washed-out hooded eyes. The cuffs of his blue Oxford shirt were dotted with ink and rolled up to his elbows, revealing a faded Marine Corps tattoo on his left forearm. He struck me as a hardworking, friendly guy. By contrast, the woman in the photograph on the desk between us was coldly pretty, a well-dressed blonde at least fifteen years younger than him. “Marin,” he said. “Marin Strasser. You’re probably thinking what the hell does she see in me, good-looking woman like her.”
“No, no,” I said. But I could see what he meant. If leagues were a real thing, Marin would be out of his. I wrote her name down in my notebook and underlined it twice. “What makes you think she’s cheating on you?”
Arthur sighed and leaned back in his executive chair, idly fiddling with the end of his tie. “Well, we got engaged last October. We were at dinner at M when I asked her. You been there?”
I nodded. “Romantic.”
“She was so happy, just over the moon. We’ve had some real good times together, me and her. Trips and such. This year we’ve done Palm Beach and Vegas already, and we’re talking about Mexico for Christmas. I like taking her places, taking care of her.” He paused, his expression clouding over. “But honestly, something’s different now. She’s different. I can just tell. She’s distracted, and jumpy. She’ll get phone calls at all hours—that’s not really new, her clients are very demanding—but she’ll get up and leave the room sometimes too.”
I glanced down at the photo again, wondering briefly if she was an escort. “Clients?”
Copyright © 2018 by Kristen Lepionka
Excerpt from The Stories You Tell copyright © 2019 by Kristen Lepionka