I was a private investigator once. But then we’ve all been things we aren’t anymore.
Our most promising playwright had been a cab driver once, and before that a lab assistant for one of the big pharmaceutical companies in Jersey, washing out beakers for three dollars an hour. We had a short-story writer who’d once worked for NBC, selling commercial time to Ford and Gillette, and a handsome young screenwriter who still lived off the checks he got from the fashion designer he’d briefly been married to. She’d been three times his age when they’d gotten married. It hadn’t lasted.
We had a recovering agoraphobe. We had an ex-con.
And then there was Dorrie.
There was a picture of Dorrie taped to the window, a group photo, showing her with her arms around three or four of the other people who were here tonight, Steve Stern and Alison Bell and Michael, Michael...Jesus, what was his last name?
I wasn’t in the photo. I was the one who’d taken it.
Michael was standing in the corner of the room by the bulletin board, sipping from a plastic cup of white wine, looking at the announcements, many of them long out of date, from Columbia’s various literary magazines. They all wanted submissions; some of them were holding events to raise money; a few had famous alumni coming back to give readings or seminars. He seemed engrossed in these useless, useless posters until you looked at his eyes and realized they weren’t moving at all, that he was staring into the middle distance, seeing nothing.
Contini. Michael Contini. You’d think I’d remember; I’d processed his application. But I’d processed a lot of applications, learned a lot of names, and tonight my mind was on other things.
Lane Glazier was the only person in the room with a glass made of glass rather than plastic, and he tapped its side with a metal letter opener. He said "Everybody...everybody..." and the room quieted.
"Thank you for coming," he said. He had a round, soft face that generally looked beleaguered and sympathetic, and it looked both of those things now. "All of you knew Dorrie. Some of you knew her better than others, but we all knew her. She was our friend, she was our student—" he nodded toward Stu Kennedy, seated on the sofa "—she was our family." Heads turned toward the one person in the room none of us knew, except by name. I’d encouraged Lane to invite her and regretted it when she showed up looking less mournful than furious, as though we were all to blame for her daughter’s death.
"We’re here tonight to remember Dorrie, to remember her the way we knew her; she was a special person—"
"Her name was Dorothy," the mother said. Her voice could have cut steel. Lane stopped speaking, the rest of his sentence suspended halfway out of his mouth. "Dorothy. Not Dorrie. Dorothy Louise Burke." She glared at us, her head swiveling to the left and then to the right. "At least call her by her fucking name."
None of us spoke. What could you say? We were all embarrassed for her, wishing she wasn’t there or that we weren’t, that this woman could be alone with her grief and leave us to ours.
Finally Lane said, "Dorothy. I’m sorry. Dorothy was a special person. Dorothy Louise Burke, your daughter, was a special person and we all miss her very much." His soft face and spaniel eyes begged for acknowledgment, a gesture of sympathy, something. But the mother just kept staring, her eyes like coals in a snowbank.
Eva Burke was a short woman but not a small one. She had the build of a weightlifter, broad shoulders and hips and tree trunk legs. You couldn’t see her daughter in her, or at least I couldn’t. Which might lead you to think that Dorrie took after her father, but that wasn’t true either. I’d tracked her father down for her, as a favor, and he was a short, wiry, swarthy, sweaty, hairy man, while Dorrie had had long, graceful limbs and delicate features. Of course, I didn’t look much like my parents myself.
I’d thought about inviting the father, too, but Dorrie hadn’t seen him in years and I remembered what she’d told me about her parents’ break-up—putting those two in the same room would not have been a good idea. Not that inviting just the mother had been such a great one.
The lounge was empty now except for me and Mrs. Burke. I was cleaning up, throwing out used cups and paper plates and bagging the unused ones, moving gingerly because of my bandaged chest; so far I was only a bit more than a day into the six weeks the doctor had told me it would take to heal, and I’d been through a rough night on top of it. Mrs. Burke was standing in the center of the room, more or less where she’d stood throughout the evening. I was covering a plate of cheese with plastic wrap when she spoke.
I put the plate down, came over to her. "Yes."
"I want you to do something for me."
"Of course," I said. "What would you like?"
"I want you to find the man who murdered my daughter."
It took me aback. I’d thought she was going to ask me for a glass of wine or some cheese. "Mrs. Burke," I said, "I’m not—I don’t know what Dorrie told you about me, but I haven’t—"
"Dorothy told me one of the men she was taking classes with was a detective. John. That’s you?"
"It’s me," I said, "but I quit that job years ago, almost three years now."
"You used to do it. You can do it again." I shook my head, and she shook hers right back at me. "Yes, you can. You knew her. You’ve got a better chance than some stranger of finding the son of a bitch who killed her." She unsnapped the clasp of her purse, reached in, and pulled out a checkbook and pen. "I don’t care what it costs. You tell me. A thousand dollars? Is that enough? Two thousand? What?"
I took the pen out of her hand, dropped it back in her purse. "I know you’re upset, Mrs. Burke—"
She slapped my hand away from her. "Don’t patronize me. Someone killed my daughter and the police aren’t doing anything about it. That means I’ve got to. All I want you to tell me is, how much is it going to cost?"
I thought carefully about how to say what I wanted to say. "Mrs. Burke, there’s a reason the police aren’t doing anything. No, listen to me. There’s a reason. They found her in her bathtub with a copy of Final Exit on the floor and a plastic bag over her head." I took her hand, held onto it even when she tried to shake me loose. "They found sedatives in her system, the newspapers said at least twenty pills. Nobody forced her to take those pills. Nobody put her in that bathtub. Nobody made her read that book."
That wasn’t entirely true, of course. She’d found the book on the table next to my bed.
"Mrs. Burke," I said, "I know you don’t want to hear this, but maybe you need to accept that Dorrie’s death—Dorothy’s death—was what it looked like."
Her hand leapt out of mine. The index finger jabbed at my face while the rest of the fingers coiled into a fist. "That’s bullshit, young man, and you know it. She did not kill herself. My daughter would never do that. You should be ashamed of yourself."
I didn’t say anything.
"What’s wrong with you?" She didn’t wait for an answer, which was just as well because I didn’t have one to give her. "I’ll find someone," she said. "If you won’t help me, I’m going to find someone else who will. But if, because you didn’t help, the person who did this to my daughter gets away with it, if my daughter’s killer gets away because of you, I want to know how you’ll live with yourself." She was practically shouting now, and the sound had brought Lane to the doorway from his office across the hall. He stood there in his suit jacket and his loosened necktie looking desperately unhappy.
"Mrs. Burke? Please, John has work he needs to finish up tonight."
Dorrie’s mother stood between us, looking at each of us in turn the way a bull might look at a pair of picadors. Then she gathered herself and shoved past Lane, walking in silence down the hall to the elevator. "Let her go," he said, but I followed her.
"I’m not finished," she said as she waited for the elevator to arrive. The building is only five stories tall, but the writing department is on the fifth and the elevator takes forever to drag itself to the top.
Something in my face must have made her think I doubted her. "I’m not," she said.
I didn’t doubt her. I wished I did.
"Listen," I said. I grabbed a piece of paper someone had scotch-taped to the wall ("Submit to Quarto!"), turned it over, and took a pen out of my pocket. "I’ll give you the name of someone I know who can help you." I wrote a name and phone number on the back of the piece of paper. "She’s very good at what she does. Better than I ever was."
The indicator next to the elevator door lit up and the door sluggishly slid open. A maintenance man got out, pulling a cart of cleaning supplies behind him.
Mrs. Burke took the paper from me. For a second I thought she was going to say something. But instead she just folded the sheet of paper and tucked it away in her purse. The elevator door closed behind her without another word being spoken.
When I got back to my desk, I called Susan. She sounded hoarse, like I’d just woken her up from a deep sleep after a long night’s binge on cigarettes and boilermakers. I hadn’t. That’s just what her voice sounded like, what it had sounded like ever since she got out of the hospital three years earlier with one lung fewer than she’d had going in. Someone I’d known had stabbed her five times in the chest and left her for dead. Someone I’d thought I’d known.
"Hold on a second," she said, "let me turn this off." I heard the TV go off in the background, then footsteps approaching the phone. "Watching the news. I don’t know why I watch it. It just makes me upset. Do you know they’re talking about passing a law in South Carolina banning the sale of sex toys? Five years in jail. You can sell guns all you want, but god forbid you should sell a woman a vibrator. So how are you, John?"
"I’m sorry I haven’t called," I said.
"That’s okay, I didn’t expect you to. You’re busy, doing...what is it you’re doing again?"
"I’m working up at Columbia, in the writing program. I’m the administrative assistant."
"Yeah, well," she said. "That can keep you busy I’m sure."
"Susan, I’m sorry. Really. I didn’t mean to—"
"Yeah," she said. "I know."
"You seeing anyone?" I asked.
"Let’s just say I’m glad I don’t live in South Carolina. Why’d you call, John?"
I glanced around the office. No one else was left. Lane was back behind his closed door. I lowered my voice anyway.
"I need to ask you a favor," I said.
"Okay." She sounded wary.
"There’s a woman who’s going to call you tomorrow, Eva Burke. I gave her your name. Her daughter was Dorrie Burke. You may have seen it in the papers, she was the Columbia student they found dead in her apartment up on Tiemann Place—"
"Sure. That was the suicide, right?"
"That’s what the police say, but the mother doesn’t believe it. She wants to hire a detective. She asked me."
"And you didn’t take the job because being an administrative assistant pays so well you just wouldn’t know what to do with the extra money."
"I knew the daughter, Susan."
She was silent for a moment. "Jesus, John," she said, "I’m sorry."
"There are things I promised her, things about her life she didn’t want her mother to know."
"Things like what?"
"Like how she paid her rent."
"Was it anything like how I used to pay mine?" Susan worked for Serner, probably the biggest detective agency in the city and certainly the best known. But she hadn’t always. When I first met her, she’d been working as a stripper.
"More or less."
"Which is it? More? Or less?"
"More," I said.
"She was hooking?"
"Look," Susan said. "I’m not going to tell you it’s the right thing to do, but under the circumstances I don’t see why you have to tell the mother anything. You know? Just take her money, sit on it for a few weeks, then type up a report saying I’m sorry, ma’am, but it really was suicide. You know how it’s done, John. You taught me."
"Well, I’m asking you to do it this time."
"Because it’ll keep her occupied while I finish doing what I have to do."
"And what’s that?"
I felt the broken rib aching in my chest. "I’m going to find the man who murdered her daughter," I said.
Copyright © 2007 by Winterfall LLC. All rights reserved.