37 Where There’s Smoke

Chapter 37 wheres the

Bert and Guy were slowly climbing the back stairs, their escape route from the scene. Increasingly unable to match Guy’s pace, Bert deliberately paused to give each concrete riser all the scrutiny he could muster, giving his lungs a chance to catch up with his legs. Guy, taking only one flight at a time before stopping for breath and pretending that he was slowing his pace only for Bert, rued all those elevator rides home, post-workout.

“Did you notice that this stairwell isn’t very clean?” Bert stooped to point out a speck of dirt invisible to Guy from his vantage point several steps above the offending mote. “Should mention it, next meeting. Think I’m going to switch to the elevator.” He needed to save some breath to talk to Gertie.

“This is my floor, anyway.” Guy laid his finger along the side of his nose, in the classic gesture. “We’ve agreed to keep what we saw to ourselves, right? I could say I was here with you, doing our routine stairwell inspection.” Bert nodded, and when he later unlocked his penthouse door, Gertie was out of the bath and waiting for him.

“I was beginning to worry. You were gone longer than I expected.”

“Sit down, Gertie. We need to talk, again.” This time he poured out a glass of brandy for himself. She declined a refill and curled up next to Pocano, in what remained of the space left on his favorite chair.

“Tell me one more time. You shouldered him, ran out, and that’s all, right?”

“Daddy, why are you asking me this, again? I told you.”

“Well Gertie, it’s like this. I was pretty hot under the collar about it and went to the pool on the off-chance that he’d still be there. Figured if I identified him, I could get him thrown out of the association. Here’s the thing. There was a dead man in the water.”

“What?”

“Well, I am assuming he’s the same one who attacked you. What was he wearing? You said red hair?”

“Tropical swim trunks. Red hair.”

“Must be him. What the hell he was doing here, beats me. He’s mixed up in that proposed development next door.  I recognized him from their grand opening.”

“And he’s dead in our pool? How?”

“Looks like he drowned. Are you sure he was still on the deck when you left? That you left nothing there?”

“I didn’t look back to see. What are you saying, Daddy? That I pushed him in?”

“Of course not. But you didn’t hear a splash? For sure?”

“For sure. I was out of there and up those stairs so fast, I might not have heard one.”

“Congratulations on being able to run the stairs, Gertie, but are you sure no-one saw or heard you?”

“Well, going down I did hear a stair door close somewhere, but it was below me. I didn’t pass anyone on the way up.”

“Then I think it would be for the best if you were never down there at all tonight. Me either. There will be questions when they find him.”

“Wait, you mean you left him in there? You didn’t call anyone?” Gertie was incredulous.

“He’s very dead, not going anywhere. It’s going to look real bad for us all when it comes out. And I really don’t want our name mixed up in this. Let somebody else find him.”

“What are we going to do, Daddy?”

“You didn’t use your swim bag at all tonight, did you?” She shook her head. “Then, if you’re asked, you didn’t go down. You stayed here, took a long bath, and had an early night. We’re leaving first thing in the morning for a day in Chicago. I took my usual turn outside with Pocano. That’s our story, if we need one.”

“I suppose I could say that.”

“Speaking of Pocano, I still need to take him out.  Had to square this away with you, first.” Bert leashed up the dog. “I’ve already spoken to Gervase about the morning. He’s agreed to meet me in the lobby at quarter to seven, to take Pocano out. We need to be down and ready to leave by then.” Gertie sat dazed. “Come on, Gertie, I know it’s tough but pull yourself together. We mustn’t give ourselves away. Let’s just hope that we’re out of here tomorrow before he is found.”

“But who will find him?”

“With any luck, it will be Gervase, after we leave. Now get some sleep. This time, I will be right back.”

Bert made the descent and headed out the front door. Pocano obliged, getting straight to his business so they did not have to go far. As he returned to the lobby he saw Kitty Doyle, wearing a bright yellow dress and trailing a wheeled suitcase, waiting for the elevator.

“Good evening, Miss Doyle. Have you recovered from your fire?”

Downtown condo corridor with regulation fire alarm, stairway exit, and ceiling sprinkler system.

Downtown condo corridor with regulation fire alarm, stairway exit, and ceiling sprinkler system.

“Stupid candles.”

“It was too bad,” Bert replied, somewhat insincerely. As unfortunate a chance meeting as this one was, fate had still offered him up an alibi if he needed one, in the person of Kitty Doyle. “Quiet evening here tonight. I’ve just been out with my dog.”

“Oh, me too. I’m just getting back from a trip. The elevator is running very slowly tonight.” When the elevator did arrive, they rode up to the first floor together where she got out without another word.

Even after the fire, Kitty’s unit still smelled of smoke, despite her precautions in covering her alarms so she could freely play with fire. So she could sit alone in the self-imposed dark of dusk or midnight or dawn, strike wooden matches and light scented candles, whisper to the fire the belittling names she gave to people she despised while the flickers twisted, strained to listen, writhed and danced beside her little chapel of flames. So she could be hotter, sweatier, whirl and fling off the detested trappings of clothes, bathe in water sprinkled with oils and salts, dabble in herbal concoctions, whip up aromatic hills of frothing, foaming bubbles.

The morning of the fire she’d reclined, oblivious in her cauldron, as flaming candles in the next room ignited a welcoming paper lantern that hearkened to the invitation of the neighboring, rice paper window shades. The acrid smoke, diminished by overpowering scents of bath water, at last twirled under the bathroom door. Clad in a towel and rushing out into the already wispy corridor, doused by the cold streams of water from the overhead sprinklers, Kitty had heard and cursed the blaring hallway smoke alarms.

If she were going to move away from here for a better job and sell her condo, this lingering smoky smell would have to go. But for now, she would deal with those bottle caps. Tomorrow was garbage collection day. Removing a container of spoiled yogurt from the refrigerator, she pushed the caps down below the mold, snapped the lid back on the container and threw it into the kitchen trash bag that she carried along to drop down the communal chute.