The old man wore a dusty leather overcoat cinched around his waist and a wrinkled shepherd’s cap fit snug on his head. Considering that most of the customers who frequented the shop preferred gaudy counter-culture tye-dye and peasant blouses, it was safe to say he made an impression on anyone who saw him there that day. This was not to say any of them saw him do it, which would be too easy. They all were sure that he had, though, since in their own words, “Who else could it be?” As if the whole lot of them weren’t repressed anarchists who flirted with retro-paganism in order to eat shrooms and cavort with pleasantly loose men and women who reassured them that the bruises and rashes were the result of too many trysts conducted by moonlight in a poison ivy patch.
The officers that arrived first to the scene were underpaid and horny, so they gravitated to the braless vixens like Comic-Con fanboys to Olivia Munn. It was even possible that one of the girls was Olivia Munn. Nevermind that most of them smelled like cheap beer and worn out pussy. If that seems tawdry, keep in mind that in many of their cases, it was cheap beer and the phrase banana down a hallway didn’t invent itself.
One of the girls in particular vibrated with musical sexuality, which, of course, led the anxious, overstimulated cops to ignore her entirely save for a few fervent glances and sighs that echoed with longing and the deep-rooted knowledge that they would have to erase the search history on their computers later on that night.
Among the shop-goers she was known as Lily, but her real name was Anjy, a diminutive of Evangeline. She wore flimsy handwoven tunic tops, always whimsically untied, reveal the subtle swell of her underwhelming bust. Her short shorts were purchased at the Gap but she tore out the labels and strands of loose thread and if anyone ever called her out on it she might have stopped coming to the shop altogether.
By that afternoon it still hadn’t happened yet, so she was there with all the others, nodding slowly along with some Grateful Dead rip-off playing on an old vinyl handcrank. They would tell you that there is something about the purity of the music, as if things were always better merely by virtue of being old.
The owner of the shop benefited immensely from this. There was a signed picture of him and the band from some time in the seventies and if you don’t look too hard you won’t come face to face with his ludicrously small penis, which doesn’t hang so much as it peeked out of a tuft of pubic hair so desnse you might be forgiven for mistaking it for a rather furry loincloth.
His name was Phoenix Sunchild, according to the business card with the embossed dancing gummy bears. The medical examiner was able to determine that the body should more properly be identified as Eric Unseld, not an entirely horrible name. The picture had been doctored. Eric had never met Jerry, a fact that came as a surprise to just about no one except Jessica Fitz, the teenager who worked for the shop in exchange for weed and occasional trip drugs.
She broke down like a Yugo when the truth came out, which probably had something to do with the fact that the only reason she had for sleeping with Eric came from his having once shared a warm embrace with her idol. The police questioned her for most of the day, since the others at the shop remembered her arriving, but none had seen her leave. She hadn’t been there when it happened, she swore and re-swore, her face stained with black tears despite her insistence that she didn’t wear mascara.
Jessica was not arrested, leaving her free to meet up with Lily and another boy who bore more than a passing resemblance to a young Eric Clapton, down to his insistence on including a wah pedal in all of his folk jams. Their conversation, limited as it was discussion of where they would start hanging out now that the shop would inevitably be shut down—they settled on either an ironic comic store or an un-ironic, though startlingly modern coffee shop, was muted by the lashes of mortality that struck each of them in turn.
The boy, a college student who lacked the courage to reveal to any of them that he spent most night’s reading Donne, Hemingway, and volumes like Guns, Germs, & Steel when he should have been meditating or banging some dead-brained sorority girl, was the most affected of the trio. In a burst of clarity he would later wish he could take back he accused Jessica of the affair she had had with Eric.
“I loved him,” he said, unflinching in his judgment, “and you used him.” He was drunk, having drained the dregs of a bottle of vodka before arriving at the bistro where they had agreed to meet.
“Are you drunk?” she countered, her own scorn magnified by the intensity of his venom.
Lily intervened, having known of both of their involvement with Phoenix. The three of them left, forgetting to agree to meet up again. The boy went back to his dormitory and poured a bath, because he planned to slit his wrists and because he felt dirty sitting so close to Jessica, who could not understand his pain. He stripped off the stained white underwear and folded it into the dresser drawer, checking to make sure that the room was cleaned up. He organized his books on the shelf and unlocked his computer. He sank into the tub and watched as the water settled around him, reminding him of the first night he had spent at another man’s house.
The cold porcelain was no comparison for Phoenix’s wiry chest, warm and thick with soft fat, his arms strong when they held him. The boy expected to cry, but he was disappointed. His cellphone rang in the other room, he could hear it skid as it vibrated on the pre-fabricated coffee table he assembled with his last boyfriend.
The police had gotten his number from Meegan, another one of the hanger’s on who congregated at the shop like penitents on Ash Wednesday. Her own story held water like a crocheted blanket, not helped at all by the reality that she was incoherent from the amount of acid she had just dropped. She did not care for the boy, ever since he had refused to roll with her at a Wookiefoot celebration. Still, she would not have given the police his name, or his number. They found it in her phone, along with an erotic text message sent around the time of the incident. She would not remember sending it, and the boy did not answer when they called, so the cops moved on.
Only three other persons had been in the shop, and none of them had stayed around after it had happened, although the cops knew one of the three had been the source of the emergency call. One of the officers, a young man by the name of William Russell had an important dinner with his prospective father-in-law. Unfortunately for him, he had discovered too late that his fiancée had been lying to him for years. She found the money to cover the bills when he came short not through shrewd borrowing or clever investments, but from the simplest source. She always called her father.
William did not make it well known that he had failed to graduate, but the truth ate at him, and over the last few days especially. When Candace told him about her father’s visit, he became distraught. His drinking resumed, with a fervor another observer might have identified as belonging to a man in prison who has tried to survive on fermented fruit cups and laundry detergent. He tried to hide the drinking, as he hid everything else about his past before he met her, but a violent crime threatened to expose his limitations, to lend an acrid stench to his deception. In short, he had no interest in what happened in the shop, and his partner was all too aware of the fact.
Tobias Goldstein was a portly man. Shakespeare would have cast him as an innkeeper, with his ruddy cheeks and ambling gait. But his appearance was constantly fighting a battle with his personality, a fact that William confronted every time they worked a case together. “Russ,” he implored, “we have to follow up. For the sake of my marriage if nothing else.”
William did not understand yet that marriage was often a duel of will, of assertiveness and acquiescence. Toby did not want to face his wife should he have to head home with no resolution. “Something wasn’t built in a day,” Russell told him.
Most things weren’t, Toby would admit if pressed, but it was very easy to tear something down in a few hours. His daughter frequented the shop.. His lingering suspicion told him she was, most likely, one of the three they had not spoken with, or identified, and dropping that bomb on the dinner table would be like a detonation in a Vegas parking garage—the whole thing could come down. He was always anxious around his daughter and her friends. It might be inexcusable, but he could never stop himself from looking. If she knew he had spent most of the day with some of those girls and did not have anything to show for it, it was easy to see where her mind would go. And if Beth’s mind went there, Candace would soon follow.
Beth went to the shop because her first boyfriend took her there. Not that she liked being reminded of him, since he had turned out to be a raging tweaker who couldn’t commit to the Value Meal he wanted, let alone a relationship. Instead, the shop had woken her up and Eric took her far away from her ex, showing her the sorts of things part of her had always hoped were real. That day, she wore a tight black leather skirt that was a half inch too long to be called indecent and a top that had to have been painted on. As usual, the clothes her mother saw her leave wearing were tucked into the studded bag she kept her essentials in, along with condoms and small bags of marijuana buds.
The officers attending tto the case never figured out the source of her drugs. Tobias didn’t even know she carried them. When they finally interviewed her, the question never came up. William asked about the shop and her ffriends. She answered in short sentences and tapped her foot as if she needed a cigarette.
“I told you about the old man in the jacket,” she repeated. According to her, he was the only suspicious character in the shop. Everyone else decked out in chains and strung out on coke were regular June Cleavers to her.
“I want to talk to my daughter alone,” Tobias said.
Russ had taken him out of the room and explained why it would be better if he did. Tobias left. Beth told William about the drugs when he found them in her purse. He told her that he didn’t care about the drugs. She was nervous, he could tell, he saw the drops of sweat bead up on the corners of her brow. William pushed her about the other kids in the shop.
“Anything you might not want to say in front of your dad. There’s always stuff I wouldn’t say in front of my dad.”
He was trying to playing the good cop. She told him to talk to Meegan. Russ had slumped in the aluminum chair opposite from Beth and thought about talking to Meegan again.
The second interview was easier. She had come down and she was showered and she answered the door with a towel on. Tobias tried not to think about the towel, but William didn’t mind. It kept his thoughts off of the dinner he was running out of time to get ready for. Meegan enjoyed teasing older men. She hid behind an open refrigerator and pretended that the towel slipped. She made sure the cops caught a glimpse as she bent to pick it up, holding the carton of milk with her other hand.
She told him that the boy, Josh, was the one she didn’t talk to. He always seemed off, as if someone had repackaged a Lego set and there was a piece missing that no one even knew about. She finished the interview while dressing in her room. The door was left open. It wasn’t her faults that she kept her underwear on the other side of the room from her closet. Tobias had settled for waiting in the kitchen. He told his partner if they left, they could catch Josh at home and still be done by five.
Josh was chain-smoking by that point. Cigarette butts floated like white submarines in the bathtub. The water had long since gone cold. He shivered and watched his blood trace cryptic patterns in the soapy water. The smoke from the cigarettes curled around the fire detector like ghostly cat tails, and Josh had an answer to whether or not it actually worked.
He heard knocking at the door to his apartment. It was muffled, and he remembered he had slipped below the water level. His cat looked at the water. His leg itched but he was not willing to scratch it. He thought he heard voices. That bitch, Jessica, just wouldn’t leave him alone.
Jessica had left the bistro and gone straight to her parent’s house. She could not believe that Eric had been lying to them for so long. She brushed her teeth and got ready for dinner. Her mother would come home and wonder why her daughter was waiting for her. The phone rang but she ignored it both times. She was confused when she looked in the mirror and saw that her eyes were puffy, her cheeks smeared with the dregs of her tears. She didn’t know if she was supposed to go to work tomorrow. She wanted to call Phoenix.
The medical examiner would eventually decide that the owner of the shop hit his head on the steel corner of the desk in the back room. There were indications that it was more than an accident. Eric had lived at the shop, a smallish cot set up in the corner of his office space, as if her were afraid to leave the building unguarded. He had moved in when his wife caught him with the boy. She had come home from work early and she picked up the littlest one at day care.
She was not angry at him, she had said, but it would be best if he left. He had ended it with the boy and found solace in his part time employees. He had been partial to the brunette. Jessica had been too demanding. The brunette had left weeks before. He had missed her, Lily had been barely speaking to him.
For her own part, Lily waited out the rest of the day in a quiet used book store, curled up on an antique recliner with a stack nearly as tall as she was resting on the floor beside her.
“Nothing ever really changes,” she had said to the one customer who came in, an out-of-town visitor hoping to find a first-edition that hadn’t been properly appraised. “It all just re-arranges.”
She’d heard it before, even recently. She did not remember where. It was the first time someone she knew had died.
The old man in the leather overcoat sat on a bench in the park across from a row of local stores. He had walked a good distance from the shop. He felt the tiny bag in his pocket. He found the rolling papers he kept tucked inside his wallet and tapped out enough to fill a decent smoke. He chuckled when his clumsy fingers couldn’t roll the joint. He thought of the girl who had sold him the bag, she had small hands. She had disappeared into the back room after he had forked over the ten dollar bill.
He had overheard an argument, he remembered as he toked on the joint. She had been saying something about Bob Sagat and coke. She had soft brown eyes, he remembered being surprised that she could get so angry. So he had left the store, the heavy glass door had clanged shut behind him. He did not hear anything else. Her weed tasted good. If he ever came back to town, he would have to visit the shop.