Junior Watson was good-looking. Not movie-star-Humphry-Bogart good looking but GQ Magazine-fashion-model good-looking. He was pleased with his looks. No. He was proud of his looks. Narcissus had nothing on him.
It wasn’t just his face. He was blessed with an elegant physique, which he worked on constantly. He kept a set of gold-trimmed dumbbells in his pickup, often bringing them into the Last Roadhouse, where he’d play with them, doing presses and curls, between turns at pool or while sitting around bullshitting with the guys.
The dumbbell fetish, of course, presented a major temptation to the other guys. But, as they quickly learned, Junior had no sense of humor about the dumbbells and his temper made him dangerous. So the most someone might do was to move them to the next chair or under someone’s coat when he was off to the men’s room or the bar. This would generate a brief, but non-nuclear explosion.
Luther Schwarz didn’t know Junior. He moved back to town with his young bride, Liza, and their three-month old baby in September, having been away for about six years. He found minimum-wage work at the local Chevy dealer, washing cars and shuttling customers whose cars were in for service. He quickly became a regular at the Last Roadhouse, though not a part of Junior’s group. Sometimes he’d get home at midnight or later; sometimes he didn’t get home at all, if he happened to hit it off with some other woman.
On a chilly October night, Luther sat in his pickup outside the Roadhouse, convincing himself he was sober enough to drive home. He played with his pistol, loading and unloading it, aiming it at trees or cars on the highway and imagining shooting them. “Bang! Bang!”
He was parked next to Junior’s pickup. Junior came out, put the gold-trimmed dumbbells on the passenger seat and then, apparently having forgotten something, went back into the Roadhouse.
A big grin filled Luther’s face. He slipped out of his Ford and went around to Junior’s Chevy and grabbed the dumbbells. When Junior came out and saw that the dumbbells were gone, he turned to Luther’s truck.
“You sonabitch. You got my dumbbells?”
Luther sneered. “Come and get ’em.”
Junior pulled open the passenger door. Luther sat with the dumbbells in his lap.
“You want ’em, you gotta take ’em from me.”
Junior charged across the passenger seat and landed a punch in Luther’s face, a punch Luther was too drunk to avoid. It stunned him, but he managed to keep one hand on the dumbbells in his lap and swing out at Junior with the other. Junior dodged. He grabbed Luther’s gun from the floor and shot him in the chest. After putting the dumbbells back in his cab, he suddenly looked around, like he had only just realized his predicament. There was no one in the parking lot. No indication that anyone in the Roadhouse had heard the gunshot — probably thanks to the loud music that never let up. He wiped Luther’s gun and, checking again that there was no one around, sped rapidly out of the lot.
* * *
Bela “Bart” Bartkowski guided his rusted pickup down the cracked, pot-holed asphalt that seemed to merge without obvious distinction into the dirt front yards along its short quarter mile. The road ended in a wire fence separating the neighborhood from the noise and wealth of I-71, with its semis, SUVs and comfortable sedans. He pulled into the front yard of the last house, actually a shack, like the rest on the street, into the one open area in the aggregation of old lawnmowers and refrigerators, rusted auto and bicycle parts, tools, and an over-flowing garbage bin.
He climbed down from the twenty-year old truck, careful not to put his weight on the running board. The porch, one step up from the dirt and weeds, creaked as he stepped gingerly. Three years after his college football career finished, his six-foot-eight, two hundred ninety pound mass had a lot less muscle. He wore a faded, mostly blue, plaid short-sleeved shirt, his arms stretching the sleeves taut.
A young woman, looking older than the eighteen Bart knew her to be, opened the door. She held a baby to her breast, where it sucked noisily. Its diapers, though unsoiled, smelled, as did the entire shack, a unique blend of cooking odors, B.O., cigarette and marijuana smoke, and stale air.
“Are you Liza Conklin?”
When Liza saw the star on Bart’s shirt, she shuddered and looked like she wanted to run but knew there was nowhere to run. She nodded.
“Liza Conklin,” he said, “I arrest you for the murder of Luther Schwarz. You have the right — ”
Liza gasped, turned back into the shack, and set the baby down it its crib, where it began wailing, the kind of baby cry that Bart always found impossible to ignore. Liza ignored it, buttoned up her blouse, sat at the bare wood table that rocked on the uneven floor, put her head on her arm and cried.
Bart waited till her crying settled into quiet sobs , then finished his Miranda warning. Liza looked up, her tired face a puddle of despair and hopelessness.
“What happened to Luther? He hasn’t been home for two days.”
“That’s what we need you to tell us,” Bart said. “You’re going to have to come with me. Is there someone to stay with the baby?”
“I’m not leaving Dicky!” she said, suddenly angry.
“Bring him along,” said Bart, tenderly. “We’ll figure it out.”
Liza got up slowly, took a backpack from the wall and stuffed in several diapers that were drying on a rack in the room. She picked up the baby, wrapped him in a faded blanket, and walked out to the pickup. Bart held the door for her and helped her up into the seat.
He again manoeuvered the cratered street. Once he reached the main road, he accelerated rapidly, the old pickup responding like a race horse, belying its dilapidated appearance. Bart had purchased the antique about a year earlier, one just like his father had owned. He had finished his work on the engine, suspension and brakes but hadn’t yet gotten to the body work. He sort of liked the rusted-out appearance. Just needed to patch up the rusted spots to make sure the body would hold together. When he could get away with it, he drove his own vehicle when doing his detective work.
* * *
Liza sat across the table from her cousin, Phil Cantor, defense attorney. The barren room, with its institutional green paint and gray metal furniture, was an exact replica of the rooms in which she had, on several occasions, waited at Child Protective Services, to meet her new foster parents. She knew Phil only slightly. A decade or more older, he had intervened twice in her foster-home upbringing but had never interacted much with her. When she told the police that he would defend her, they were impressed, so she felt a bit of hope. But not much. Now she sat, clutching Dicky with her right arm, picking at a whitehead pimple with her left, and staring at the floor.
“Tell me what happened,” said Phil, gently.
“You tell me. All I know is that Luther never came home last night and this big giant detective arrested me this morning, telling me he was dead.” Her voice barely reached across the table.
“They shouldn’t’ve arrested you,” Phil said, only a bit louder. “He was found shot dead with his own gun in the Last Roadhouse parking lot, about 12:30 this morning. They think you did it because he was cheating on you.”
“Sure I was mad at him. But that doesn’t mean I’d kill him. I loved the man. I cried and pleaded, but I never threatened. And what can I do without him? He managed to bring home enough to pay the rent and buy food, even after his drinking and partying. How am I supposed to have done this? It’s a two-mile walk to the nearest bridge over the Interstate.”
“Apparently some people cut directly across the highway, using gaps in the fence. Is it true you can see the Roadhouse from your house?”
“Yeah, but I’d never do that. I’d never leave Dicky home alone and I’d be afraid to cross with all that traffic. You don’t really think I killed him do you? Will they hang me? What will happen to Dicky?”
“No, I don’t think you did it. They’re going to have to release you. Unless they can find who did it, they’ll still consider you a suspect. But they won’t be able to make the charges stick.”
Bart stood at attention in front of the Sheriff’s gray steel aircraft-carrier desk. It felt like high school again, with the principal trying to decide how to deal with him. Bart’s Lieutenant glared from behind the Sheriff, and the Captain, flanking the Sheriff on the other side, stared impassively at the artificial rubber tree plant in the corner. For Bart, the plant exposed a minor character flaw in a man he otherwise respected.
“At ease, Bartkowski.”
“We made you a detective because you seemed smart and prudent.”
“After just six years as an officer, and much of that part-time while you were in school.”
“And then you go and spoil it all by doing something stupid.”
“So what led you to do that?”
“Irrational exuberance, sir.”
“Go on. And enough with the college-boy words.”
“Well, hearing about how unfaithful the victim was, how he wasted their little bit of money, how Liza had shown up at the Roadhouse a week earlier and begged and pleaded with him in tears, how it was apparently his own gun that shot him, I just assumed — ”
“What’s the first rule of detection, Bartkowski?”
“Sir, it’s ‘Don’t assume.’”
“See if you can remember that. Now get the hell out of here find out who really did it. If it was the girl, find the evidence.”
Bart saluted, made a military about-face, and left the room.
“And no more of this riding out on duty in your own pick-up.” The Captain’s voice followed him out the door.
His face burning, his stomach churning, Bart walked back to his cubicle, avoiding the looks of his colleagues. Two images clashed in his head. One, his superiors glaring at him from behind the desk. The other, Liza removing the baby from her breast and buttoning up her blouse. He had seen plenty of breast in his life, particularly in his days as a Division I football player. This was different. It was something about the way she did it, the character in her eyes and face, even as his words and actions cudgeled her. He was more ashamed of what he did to her than of the chewing out he received.
* * *
Another drive, not quite so careful with the official car, down the pavement scarred by losing campaigns against water and frost. A black Audi TT was parked in Liza’s yard, so he parked the five-year-old Ford Fusion on the street. Phil Cantor, defense attorney, answered his knock. Bart knew him well, having been cross-examined by him several times.
“You better not be here to harass my client.”
“No, Counselor. I just need to ask her some more questions.”
Liza was at the table. Four-month-old Dicky lay in his crib. When she saw Bart, she wrinkled up her face, a round face that would have been pretty if it wasn’t so haggard. Bart thought she only just kept herself from sticking her tongue out at him. He liked that.
“Sit down, Detective,” said Phil, his head barely reaching Bart’s chest. “I won’t have you towering over my client.”
Unsure that any of the chairs would hold his two hundred ninety pounds, he sat cautiously.
“Liza, first off, I want to apologize for how I handled this. I got carried away by my suspicions and treated you badly.”
Liza stared at him with angry eyes.
Bart looked around the room during the awkward silence. His eye focused on a good sized marijuana plant in the corner. He looked at Phil. He looked at Liza. He looked back at the plant.
“Fake,” she said. “Luther bought it for me. I don’t like it. I think artificial plants are stupid and I never use weed. Now it’s all I have — besides Dicky — to remember him by.”
Bart smiled. “I feel the same way about artificial plants. Ma always says they’re worse than no plants at all.”
He went through the questions he should have asked her earlier. Did Luther have any enemies? Had he said anything about a fight with anyone? He asked about Liza’s background. She had fled her last foster home on her eighteenth birthday and married Luther that same week. They lived in various places around Cleveland before ending up here, where Luther had grown up. Luther didn’t seem able to keep a job, but he got along with people real well. Only thing was a tendency to tease and bait people, which sometimes backfired.
Bart’s smart phone barked.
“Appointment with a personal trainer,” he said. He squeezed his nascent potbelly. “Time to hit the weights. Thanks for your time. If you think of anything else, call me. Here’s my card.”
“Weights!” Liza mumbled. “Luther’s been talking about weights lately. Somebody at the Roadhouse with gold dumbbells or something like that.”
At the door Bart said, “Liza, really, I’m sorry about Luther and I’m sorry about arresting you. Counselor, see you in court.”
Bart’s mind, as he drove back to Medina, was filled with pictures of Liza and the sound of her voice, not with anything she had told him. He imagined bringing her a live potted plant. He was partial to Christmas cactus. Coming into Medina he passed a flower and garden shop, did a quick U-turn and went in. Yes, they had Christmas cactus.
He was moving the plant from the Fusion to his truck when his buddy, Caleb, another deputy, walked by.
“New house plant?” he asked.
“Not for me. I’m going to give it to Liza.” He felt embarrassed as he said it. “She’s got an old fake plant there and it just seemed that it would lift her spirits to have a real house plant.”
“You can’t do that, bro,” said Caleb.
“Think, man. She’s still a suspect in this murder case. You can’t go having a thing for her.”
Bart stared at Caleb and his fists clenched, anger stirring along with his embarrassment. Then his mind cleared as he realized Caleb was right.
“I guess I do have a new houseplant.” To himself, he said ,we’ll see about that.
It suddenly felt like every window in the Sheriff’s building shielded disapproving eyes. But he knew, one way or another, he was going to get the plant to Liza. And he knew that whatever he was feeling was different than the feelings he had in his relationships in college.
He drove out to interview Luther’s parents, who lived several miles beyond the Roadhouse. The interview yielded little insight, but Bart talked them out of a photograph of Liza and Luther. He scanned it into his computer and emailed a copy to the office. Then he drove to the Roadhouse and spent the evening interviewing. People were willing to help, but it proved impossible to pin down who had left when.
The next morning the initial report from forensics was on his desk. Little or nothing to go on. Some unidentified finger prints on the passenger handle and the seat cushion. Some strange marks in the blood on the seat, like wheels being dragged through it. Bart studied the report, then tossed it into his in-box, muttering in frustration. He spent the rest of the morning tracking down the denizens of the Roadhouse whom he had yet to interview. Between interviews he pulled out his phone and stared at Liza’s picture.
Why am you doing this? It’s not like her picture will tell you anything. And you can’t go falling in love with her. Even if she’s not the killer — and for all you know at this point, she could be — she despises you for how you treated her. She’s made that clear.
* * *
About noon, the police called Phil — Liza had no phone— and told him she could retrieve the truck.
“Great,” said Phil. “What’s she going to do with a blood-soaked truck?” But she didn’t have any other transportation, so he drove down and picked her up. He warned her about the blood.
“I know. I’ll be OK. We can go to a junk yard and replace the seat and seat-back.” No way they could get the replacements first, with Phil’s small TT. Phil searched on his iPad, made some calls, and found a junkyard that had the right stuff. She covered the driver’s seat of the truck with an old canvas, belted in Dicky’s baby seat, and followed Phil to the junkyard. The junkyard dealer replaced the seat for them.
“Interesting,” he said. “That’s two replacement seats for pickups in two days. Don’t see that very often.”
When the seat was ready, Phil lent Liza a hundred dollars. “Pay me back when you’re settled and working.”
When Liza got home, she loaded as many possessions and household goods into the truck as she could. Then she drove into the country, to an old cabin deep in the woods, a cabin that one of her former foster families never visited except in hunting season.
* * *
When he had tracked down his last interview, Bart drove to Liza’s house to check that she was doing OK. He needed an excuse for the visit, but couldn’t come up with one. Nervous, he knocked on the door. No answer. He peered through a window. Most of the furniture and furnishings were gone, including the fake marijuana plant. He walked slowly back to the car, then stood staring at the house for a long time. For some reason he thought about his father’s funeral.
“Cantor,” he said when the defense attorney answered, “where the hell is Liza?”
“I assume she’s at home. Last I saw her was when we left the junkyard. Seems to be a run on replacement pickup seats.”
“What the hell you talking about?”
“The blood. They returned her truck, but she can’t drive a truck with a blood-soaked seat. The guy in the junkyard was excited that he sold two in two days. I assume she was heading home after that.”
“Well, she’s bugged out,” shouted Bart. “I’m sure you know where she went.”
“Now, now, Detective. There’s no reason I wouldn’t tell you, if I knew. Let’s not get angry at each other. We may play on opposite teams, but we have to play together.”
With a sick feeling in his stomach, Bart reported Liza missing. They didn’t take kindly to her disappearance. He drove to the Roadhouse, ordered dinner and a big draft of Sam Adams, and tried to settle.
Halfway through dinner, and into his second large draft, he ran out to his car and grabbed a notebook. After he had written down all the obvious stuff, he stared at the page. No picture formed.
Junior walked in. Bart had interviewed him along with all the others. Someone called out, “Junior you sonabitch! Where the hell are your dumbbells?”
Junior seemed flustered. “I didn’t bring ’em.”
Now Bart remembered Liza’s comment about the “gold dumbbells.” He signaled to a waitress.
“Fanny, what’s the story on Junior and his dumbbells?”
Fanny took glee in telling about the gold dumbbells and how people would play tricks with them. Liza’s words about Luther playing tricks came back to him. Now the picture was gradually emerging, like a slowly loading web page image. He rushed to ask the next question.
“And what happens when people do pranks with his dumbbells?’
Fanny threw up her hands. “You don’t want to go too far. That guy’s got a temper like a keg of dynamite.”
And the last element: Remembering the junkyard that sold two replacement seats in two days.
He went out, leaving two twenties on the table. A quick examination of Junior’s truck showed a ratty front seat, totally out of character with the rest of the immaculate interior.
It took till 2am to finish the investigation and have Junior charged. When Bart got back to his apartment he was too excited to sleep. He stared at the Christmas cactus. He gazed at Liza’s picture. He drank good whisky that he kept for holidays.
* * *
He woke up late. Hung over, but he didn’t mind. He punched in Cantor’s number.
“It’s Bartkowski. I need to know where Liza is.”
“I want to talk to her. And apologize again.”
“I told you I don’t know where she is. If I hear from her I’ll ask her if she wants to talk to you. I doubt if she will.”
When Phil called back he said, “Liza heard the news about the arrest. I’m going to set her up in one of my vacant rental houses. She doesn’t want to talk to you. She heard your apology the other day, but you really mistreated her and she’s not likely to get over it.”
Bart felt the way he felt when they lost big games. He walked to a pub on the town square, where he sat by himself and consumed four whiskies, three more than he ever did at one sitting. He walked the two miles to his apartment.
The next day, after responding to an unrelated call, he was driving back through Maasdam, about ten miles to the northwest of Medina. Sitting at a traffic light, he spotted Liza pushing a stroller. She looked lovely. She was dressed more neatly and had her hair washed and brushed. He followed her till she went into a small house.
Now what do I do? I could go knock on the door. But she doesn’t want to see me. He drove back to Medina. That night, when he got off duty, he put the Christmas cactus in his truck. Parked across the street from her house, in the dark, he could see her moving around inside. Quietly, he put the plant on the porch, with a note:
Liza, I want to apologize again. I know I can’t make it up to you, but maybe this plant will do something to make your new life a little bit better.
The next day, he drove past the house. The Christmas cactus was gone from the porch. The artificial marijuana plant was on the curb next to the garbage dumpster.