There But For The Grace Of God
Find my pocket watch, he said. Easy as pie, he said. But the pie turned out to be of the mud variety and the watch, while easily found, carried more than what would fit inside Daisy Harris’s pocket.
She’d taken the job out of sentiment. The target held sentimental value and people paid well for sentiment. Retrieving stolen objects like a pocket watch in a city of eleven million people sounded hard but it was easier than you thought, even easier when you had the right training, and easier still when you could make yourself look like anyone.
Getting the building super’s keys was as easy as pretending to be the super (who was conveniently having a drink at the bar on the corner), walking into the super’s apartment, explaining to the super’s wife that he forgot his keys, and walking out again. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
She'd already checked that the building didn't have security cameras in the hallways or stairwells. The super's bulky form sublimed away as she climbed the stairs, revealing a skinny teenage hispanic girl, someone who would not look at all threatening to whoever answered her knock. A little fast talk if someone was home, a little B&E if they weren't, and she'd wrap this up before dinner. Easy peasy.
Until she opened the door and found the body. Then it was nervous queasy, sphincter squeezy.
Oh shit, Daisy thought. She checked the hallway in both directions. No witnesses. Good. Her first instinct was to close the door and walk away. Pretend she'd never been here. Only, a young woman was dead. Murdered, no less, if all the blood was any indication.
Or was she dead? Daisy didn't know much about medicine, but she did know that telling dead from mostly dead wasn't as easy as they made it look on television. She entered the apartment, closed the door quietly, and locked it. The last thing she wanted was someone finding her crouched over a body.
The young mark’s eyes were still open although if they saw anything nobody was home to see. Daisy couldn't find a pulse when she touched the woman's neck, but she had trouble finding her own pulse sometimes, so that wasn't proof of anything. But the woman's corneas were a little cloudy and she lay utterly motionless. No detectable breathing. She was still warm, though. Daisy was pretty sure she was dead--and pretty sure she’d not been dead long, maybe an hour.
Daisy carefully stepped around her prone form to avoid getting any blood on her sneakers while she cautiously searched the fresh kill’s pockets. Not for the watch – that had been sitting in plain sight on a coffee table along with what had to be other scores the thief must have been looking over when whatever happened had happened. There was a diamond tennis bracelet worth ten times the value of the watch sitting next to an onyx ring and several smart phones. So, not a break-in, Daisy mused. Not for money, anyhow.
She turned her attention back to the dead girl with a pang of regret. It was so tempting to just grab the jewelry, watch and phones and flee. They represented quite a bit of cash even at the steep discount a fence would demand. But, Daisy thought, I don't do that sort of thing anymore.
She found a small card wallet in a back pocket. The name on the driver’s license was Astra Brown, age twenty three. There but for the grace of God, Daisy thought. A young female thief met a bad, bad end. Knife wound, she could see now that she’d turned the body over – upper abdomen and very clean, almost surgical.
The apartment had been locked from the inside but the window had been open. Daisy walked over to peer out. It was a sixth floor flat with no fire escape which meant that the killer either had a key and locked the door on his way out, was able to climb like a boss, or was still in the apartment. That last thought made Daisy stand up quick and tense and focus on her hearing.
Ten seconds… twenty… nothing. It was time to go.
The sudden forceful knock on the apartment door made her jump almost clean up and out of her pants. The voice from the other side of it made her stomach take a dive in a different direction.
“Ms. Brown, this is Detective Sigliano and Detective Franklin of the NYPD. We need to ask you a few questions if you please.”
Shit, shit, shit. Daisy pushed down the surge of panic and forced herself to think. If she stayed silent, the cops might go away. Or they might not. Assuming they would just go away was a foolish hope. Assume they wouldn't. What options did she have? She couldn't hide in the apartment; once they found the body, they'd search it. That wouldn't look good. Too bad she couldn't change into an ottoman or something, but she'd never been able to do anything of the kind.
She could try to climb out the window. With no fire escape? No. She'd done a little tree climbing as a kid, but not for years. A six story drop onto the sidewalk was the mostly outcome if she tried that.
Throw the door open and barrel past the cops? Men who were almost certain bigger than her, and far more experienced at grappling with uncooperative suspects than she was? She might get away, but she didn't like her chances. And, again, it wouldn't look good.
Daisy sighed and let the hispanic girl's form melt away, taking her own form again. Much as she hated to play it straight, that was her best bet here. The truth might actually serve her well for once. She stepped over the body again, careful to keep out of the blood. She pulled her cell phone out and dialed 911 as she hurried to the door.
Putting just a hint of hysteria in her voice, Daisy cried "Thank god you're here! I think she's dead!" as she flung the door open.
The two detectives seemed shocked but only for half a moment. Then both drew their handguns and moved quickly into the room. The older one ushered Daisy back inside in front of him while the younger one dashed in and carefully swept around, checked corners, and looked for more threats.
Daisy kept her hands up in plain sight, stepping back as the cops entered the apartment.
"Down," the older one said as his partner went out of sight to check a back room. He managed to come off commanding while remaining calm and almost polite. "On the ground, now - face down."
She knelt, then stretched out on the floor as directed. She didn't bother trying to explain herself. She'd dealt with the cops often enough to know that they weren't going to listen until they had secured the area. A tinny voice issued from her cell phone. "911. What is your emergency?"
"Clear," the younger one said as he reappeared from deeper in the flat. He bent down and checked the body for a pulse, looked up at his partner and shook his head.
"Check her," the older detective said to the younger, who moved over Daisy's prone form and started to frisk her. When he found something he'd eyeball it and leave it on the floor next to her. The Chap Stik he opened and sniffed. The penlight he clicked on and off a few times. The license he handed to the older man.
"She's clean," the young detective - handsome in a bad boy kind of way, she noted - announced before he stood up and let her do the same. The older man put his gun away but the younger didn't. He stood several feet away and behind her, in her blind spot - clever lad.
"Call it in," the older man said to the younger before he turned his attention to Daisy.
"Miss Daisy Harris, I'm Detective Franklin of the NYPD. Would you care to explain what happened here?"
"Sure, Detective." Daisy was just bubbling over with the desire to be helpful. "I was hired to try to find a pocketwatch that had been lost or stolen--that one there on the table, in fact." She pointed it out.
"I had heard that the woman who lives here--lived here, I guess--might know something about it. So I came to ask her about it. I knocked, but there was no answer. So I opened the door and saw her there. I wasn't sure she was dead, so I came inside and tried to check her. I couldn't find a pulse and she wasn't breathing, that I could see."
Daisy let her gaze slide away from Detective Franklin's for a moment, then forced herself to meet his eyes again. Time to give him something to explain any nervousness she couldn't hide. "I confess, I thought about just leaving and letting someone else find the body and deal with all the questions." That it was true made it that much more plausible.
"But I couldn't do it. I was just dialing 911 when you knocked on the door." And then she waited for the inevitable questions. The urge to keep talking, to try to explain herself, was as potent as ever--and just as dangerous. More people talked themselves into trouble than ever talked themselves out of it. Give him just enough information to convince him that she was innocent of this crime, and no more.
The older man didn't seem to be buying it. He stared at her skeptically, turning it over to see how it sounded but still somewhat on the fence. Daisy reminded herself that she really was innocent.
The younger detective - Sigliano, she figured - spoke from behind her and broke the thoughtful spell. Daisy turned to see him crouched down near the corpse addressing her wound with a gloved finger.
"Same MO, same wound, but no injection that I can find." He was talking to his partner, she realized. "Maybe she surprised him, I don't know. I'll bet my next paycheck she's short a spleen. CSU will be here in five, they'll confirm."
There's a mad spleen collector on the loose? This was the first she'd heard of that. Still, it was a big city. There was probably plenty she'd find interesting that she didn't know about. At least she hadn't gotten here early enough to meet the Spleen Collector personally. That could have gone very badly.
"Miss Harris I'm going to need you to come down to the station so we can ask you some questions, document a few things," Franklin said, recapturing Daisy's attention. "You're not under arrest but given the circumstances you might want to contact your attorney if you have one."
Daisy suppressed a sigh. This might have been her best play when Franklin and Sigliano banged on the door, but she'd figured it would also be the most time-consuming. If she were feeling less cooperative, or playing a less cooperative part, she might have gone for a rousing few rounds of "Am I under arrest or am I free to go?" with Detective Franklin. That sometimes worked when she was being questioned about minor shit and the cop in question didn't want to be bothered with paperwork, especially near the end of his shift.
But this was a murder investigation. More to the point, she'd been found in the same room with the cooling body. There was no way she wasn't going down to the station. And at least she wasn't under arrest. That was something.
"Of course, Detective. I'm happy to cooperate. If there's a serial killer out there, especially who targets young women, I certainly want to help you find him." She waggled her phone. "May I call my lawyer now?"
OOC: If Vincent Gambini (Joe Pesci's character from My Cousin Vinny) is too silly, I'll change the name, but that character thirty years later, after a long and successful career, is who I'm describing.
An hour later the NYPD had all of Daisy's relevant details about where she lived, how old she was, etc., and she was sitting in a well-lit featureless room across a plain metal table from Detective Sigliano, the younger of the two men. She wasn't handcuffed and hadn't been charged, but the cops made it clear there was a "not yet" somewhere at the end of that status.
"So, Ms. Harris," the detective started. "Tell me about your business. What is it that you do for your clients, exactly?"
Daisy glanced sidelong at her attorney, Vincent Gambini. She'd insisted on waiting for his arrival before she'd speak to the cops. He nodded. They'd briefly discussed how to handle the situation after he'd arrived. As a rule, simply remaining silent was the best tactic, but given that she'd been found standing over a dead body, cooperating seemed a better strategy. Despite her innocence, the circumstantial evidence was enough to justify holding her for twenty-four hours, or even arresting her. That same evidence would eventually confirm her innocence, but that could take a while.
She faced Detective Sigliano directly and gave her best sincere smile. "I suppose you might call me a salvage consultant. Or perhaps 'retrieval artist' might be more accurate. People hire me to find and return items which have been lost or stolen. I track down the items in question and return them to their owners. Simple, really."
"And how do these people hire you?" The detective asked. "How would they contact you if they needed an item salvaged?"
"Word of mouth, mostly. They hear about me from someone who has already made use of my services. Sometimes they ask around and someone gives them my name. Sometimes they remember hearing about me before--and now they can use my help, so they call me."
"And this latest client with the watch, how did he hear about you?"
"I couldn't say. He called me and said that he had lost something very valuable to him and that he'd heard that I might be able to find it for him. As I said, I get a lot of business from word of mouth. Not necessarily anything as formal as a referral, so I may or may not ask how they heard about me." Daisy felt one of Vincent's expensive dress shoes nudge her foot in warning, but she'd said all she meant to say to that.
"Who's your client?"
"I'd rather not say," Daisy said to Detective Sigliano. "Do I have to say?" She didn't absolutely refuse, of course. When push came to shove, she knew she had no legal right to withhold the information. Even if she were a licensed investigator, she couldn't keep that kind of information from the police in a criminal investigation. But it would do her rep no good to fold up immediately.
She turned to Vincent, repeating the question. "Do I have to say?"
"You don't have to talk to them at all," Gambini said, as much to the detectives as to Daisy, a pointed reminder that his client was cooperating. "But as long as you've chosen to do so, there's not much point in balking on this."
Daisy pouted for a moment. "Fine. His name is Jefferson. George Jefferson. He owns a chain of dry cleaning stores."
Sigliano wrote the name and info down on his notepad and thought for a moment. His questioning didn't seem accusatory, more like he was trying to connect some dots and was looking for something from her that might help him do that. The unspoken threat that she hadn't been arrested yet retreated a little. The knot of anxiety in Daisy's belly unwound a bit.
He asked, "How did you come to be in Astra Brown's apartment? Was there a lead you were following? Help me understand what led you there."
"Oh, that. Okay. Mr. Jefferson grew up poor. He didn't make it big until he was in his forties. One of the few things he inherited from his father was the pocket watch. It wasn't very valuable except to him, but he carried it everywhere. He's also a very hands-on owner. He makes the rounds of all his stores every couple of weeks.
"So he was in one of the Brooklyn stores a week ago. While he was there someone robbed the place, slipped in and emptied the till while everyone was busy in the back of the store. The thief also grabbed his overcoat, which held his iPhone, his wallet, and the pocketwatch. He filed a police report about it. He told me that. But he also knew you weren't going to look for his pocketwatch.
"Nothing against the police, of course," Daisy added, "but you have bigger things to worry about than a cheap watch that only has sentimental value. He knew that. His store is insured, and he could replace everything else--but he wanted that watch back. So he called me."
She shrugged. "I didn't do anything the cops couldn't have done. The security camera didn't help. I talked to the employees and customers. I talked to people in nearby shops, and people who lived in the neighborhood." It had been a time-consuming job. Too labor-intensive for the cops to bother with, given the value of the watch. But she'd negotiated a hefty fee if she found it; sentimental value was still value.
"One of the people I spoke to mentioned Ms. Brown. Told me she was a tramp and a thief. I don't know about that first part, but she matched the description of the thief. So I tracked her down and went to her apartment to question her. And to buy back the watch, if she had it."
"But how'd you get in the apartment," the detective asked. "Did she let you in?"
"Oh, that," Daisy said. She smiled at Detective Sigliano, as if sharing a secret with him. "You know the answer to that as well as I do. I knocked, but she didn't answer--obviously. So I used the super's keys." He'd taken them off her himself when he'd searched her. "I suppose I shouldn't have had them, but I can be very persuasive."
"The super's alibi checks out. He was at the bar down the street." Sigliano pointed out, eyeing her sideways. "So who did you persuade?"
"I persuaded the super, actually. I asked him for the keys. He went into his apartment to get them, came out a minute later with them. I went upstairs. I don't know where he went." Daisy squelched the urge to say maybe back to the bar. She squelched the urge to add, Ask his wife.
They would. And she would confirm that the super had returned to the apartment to retrieve his forgotten keys. The bar wasn't that far away. He could have come back briefly. His absence might have gone overlooked. The discrepancies could be explained away, but Daisy wasn't going to do it. The super's wife could back up her story, and that's what mattered.
Sigliano looked skeptically between his notes and Daisy for a few moments. He scribbled some lines on his pad and rubbed his stubbled chin.
Daisy braced herself for more questions. Before he could ask his next question the door to the interrogation room opened. The older detective from the apartment, Detective Franklin, stepped halfway inside.
"Excuse us for a moment, please," he said, which drew Sigliano out of his chair so they could have a private chat. They whispered just outside the doorway for a moment before they both returned into the room.
"Ms. Harris, I'd like to thank you for your assistance today. You're free to go." Franklin nodded to her once, his demeanor deadpan and blase, hands in his pockets.
Daisy didn't bother to hide her surprise. Guilty or innocent--and she was innocent--she'd expected to be here a while longer yet. Detective Franklin's behavior suggested that they had something hot to follow up on. Perhaps they'd gotten a line on the Spleen Wrangler.
He withdrew one hand and held out a business card with his information on it. "Please give us a call if you think of anything important that you might have missed or think might be important to the investigation. We may be in contact again if we have any more questions."
Daisy took the card as Vincent stood and picked up his briefcase. The unspoken message was the sooner we get out of here, the better. She and Vincent were of one mind on that point. The cops could always change their minds about letting her leave.
Still, she made a point of meeting Detective Sigliano's gaze. "Certainly, Detective. If I can do anything to help, I will. I hope you catch whoever murdered that poor woman soon." It took no acting skill to express sincerity on that point. The discovery that there was some psycho out there carving people up for their organs did nothing for Daisy's peace of mind.
She left the interview room and exited the station with Vincent at her heels. It wasn't until she was breathing the cold, damp air on the street outside that she relaxed. She turned to Vincent. "Thanks for getting here so quickly."
Vincent grinned, looking like the Vinny of old for a moment. "Don't thank me until you get my bill."
Daisy grinned right back at him. "It's worth it." And it was. He'd said and done little, but having him at her side had saved her bacon on several occasions. It wasn't cheap insurance, but she wouldn't dream of doing without it.
"Yeah, it is," Vinny agreed. He walked away. Daisy hugged herself against the cold and the wet, then turned and headed the other way.
Once she'd satisfied herself that she wasn't being tailed, she thought she'd look into this Spleen Wrangler business. The image of Astra Brown, bloody and motionless, kept intruding into her thoughts. If she'd gotten there much earlier, she might have run into the killer herself.