Peter had his eye on the guy in the leather bomber jacket. Tall, handsome, but with an ugly expression, the man swaggered down the dark alley with an air of authority. He wore Levi’s and, despite the summer heat, carried a hockey bag. He didn’t look at Peter, too busy was he muttering down his cell phone in Russian and securing the hockey bag in the back of his big black SUV.
Peter shifted slightly, careful to make no sound. He didn’t think the Russian would be happy to find him here, hiding between the bushes and the dumpster, snapping photos of the comings and goings at Pierogi Tea Café.
Or maybe he should spell it cummings
and goings when he wrote the article.
If he had been a writer for the Bellingham Herald
, they’d never let him get away with it, but the one benefit of writing for a weekly independent was the freedom to be vulgar.
In his mind, he composed a few lines of his exposé.
Who hasn’t wandered by the Pierogi Tea Café and wondered how it stays in business? Perpetually empty, yet also perpetually open, the café has been a cipher in the mind of many a downtown resident. The few bold souls who get drunk enough to venture into the dining room are treated with scowls, bad service, and the worst pierogi ever made.
And there is no tea.
So what, you might ask, does Pierogi Tea Café really sell? That’s what I was crouched in a stinking alley between Pierogi Tea Café and the Vitamilk Building trying to figure out.
A big Russian came by. He had a fine ass. Bubble-style. Meaty
Peter mentally scratched that last line out. He didn’t want to incline his readers toward sympathy for a guy who was obviously in the Mafia and probably a pimp.
After the Russian’s taillights had faded, Peter carefully stood, keeping his eye on the café’s back door. The next few seconds would be the scary ones, the seconds when someone in the upper floor of the café might see him emerge from hiding and walk back toward his car, parked in front of the Vitamilk Building.
The night’s silence was unbroken, save for the squeals of angry skunks fighting in the vacant lot next to the café.
Not that he could see the skunks in the predawn darkness. But he hardly needed to see skunks to know they were there.
The Vitamilk Building got its name from the enormous 1930s advertisement painted on its side. A happy, smiling milk carton, two stories high, sauntered across the 1920s brickwork exhorting the fishermen in the marina across the street to “Drink Milk!” presumably with the idea that they would acquire the same jaunty demeanor.
Vitamilk, as a product and a company, no longer existed. The building had been converted into a gallery with artist studio spaces on the second floor, but the building’s name had lingered on.
Although it was four thirty in the morning, several of the studios’ lights still burned, including the corner studio belonging to John O’Donnell, Peter’s informant.
Just the idea that he had something as romantic as an informant filled Peter with fierce journalistic pride. What did it matter that John was more of a tipster than an informant? He’d led Peter to an actual story to investigate. In Bellingham!
The informant was just one of the tools of Peter’s trade. In the living room at home, he had a bookcase crammed with style guides and dog-eared trades like Kristof and WuDunn’s China Wakes
and Sperber’s Murrow: His Life and Times
. It was next to an antique desk and chair set made from solid mahogany -- suitable for the likes of Daddy Warbucks -- acquired from a bachelor uncle who’d had a particular liking for Peter. On the desk’s glass top sat a flat-screen monitor and a wireless keyboard -- and nothing else. Peter forced himself to sit at that desk for three hours every day, whether he could make himself write or not. “No wind favors a ship with no destination,” that’s what his uncle had said to him. And Peter had a destination: journalistic greatness.
But, the City of Subdued Excitement was not widely thought of as a breeding ground for Pulitzer- -- or even Tom Renner- -- winning journalists. The biggest things to come out of the city in years were Death Cab for Cutie and Baker’s Breakfast Cookies.
He could have used a cookie right about then and wondered if he had one in his glove compartment. He’d very briefly dated one of the bakers at the breakfast cookie facility and for a couple of weeks he’d been ankle-deep in the things. He still found stashes of them here and there.
He opened his glove compartment and found a slightly smashed Vegan Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk.
Yeah, Robert had been a vegan, hadn’t he? No wonder it hadn’t worked out.
He tore open the wrapper anyway, crammed half a cookie into his mouth, and washed it down with the cold coffee sitting in his cup rest.
He was too excited to sleep but too cautious to risk going back into the alley so close to daybreak. His roommate, Evangeline, had a studio in the building. That was her window directly above the milk carton. Maybe she was still up. He walked around the side to look. Dark.
The window next to hers was lit, though, the one belonging to Nick Olson, painter, recluse, Peter’s current crush. Nick was the only artist who didn’t open his studio for gallery walks and never kept his door open when he was painting. Evangeline claimed to have seen a few of his canvases once, but she’d failed to describe them as anything other than “abstract expressionist landscapes,” which communicated nothing to Peter. He’d spoken to Nick only once, at a reception at the Weydert-Harri gallery.
Nick had looked great, wearing a merino wool sweater, jeans, and two days’ worth of stubble. His hair was brown and his eyes very light blue. He had a scar just above his left eyebrow and wore small gold hoop earrings. His face closely resembled J.C. Leyendecker’s Arrow Shirt Man, if the Arrow Shirt Man had been allowed to get really scruffy and walk around in worn denim and paint-spattered steel-toed boots.
Not that Peter had been drawing Nick’s visage in the sketchbook of his heart or anything.
He wore two other plain gold rings, one on his left thumb and the other on his right index finger. From his tan and his muscles, Peter was willing to guess that Nick engaged in some sort of healthy Pacific Northwest pursuit like kayaking or snow camping.
Peter’d tried to summon the courage to approach, but Nick had been surrounded by a flotilla of middle-aged women in hand-crocheted ponchos who made it difficult to advance.
Then Robert, his date, had told him he was having an allergic reaction from “challenging” wheat gluten (by eating a cracker) and Peter had left to drive Robert home. For the last time, as it turned out.
Nick asked about him after he’d gone, Evangeline had said. He’d seemed interested, she’d said, because he’d asked who the thin brunet with the big brown eyes had been. But Evangeline was prone to exaggerating and embellishing details, so he hadn’t gotten his hopes up.
Maybe he should just go inside. Pretend to be looking for Evangeline, knock on Nick’s door, and see for himself if Nick seemed to like his peepers. Before long, he forgot the cookie in his hand and started writing the scene:
I knocked at the door, calling out, “Anyone home?” by way of announcing myself.
“Door’s open,” the low voice came from inside. I opened the door and stepped into the studio. The summer night was hot and muggy, and the smell of linseed oil hung thick in the air. But there was another scent, low and woody, the smell of another man. Nick stood before an easel, paintbrush in hand, pale eyes regarding me suspiciously. He wore no shirt.
“Peter, right?” He set his paintbrush aside, picked up his discarded T-shirt, and wiped the sweat from his tan, well-muscled chest. “I saw you at the Weydert-Harri. But you were…with somebody.”
“Not anymore.” My voice sounded husky. I closed the door behind me. “I just wanted to introduce myself.”
“Yeah?” Keeping his eyes locked on mine, Nick walked toward me, backing me against the wall. “I’m pleased to meet you, Peter.” His mouth closed over mine, hot and sweet. I parted my lips, allowing his tongue to slide inside. He pressed his body to mine, and I felt his huge boner press against my own. No more need for words
Erection? Rock-hard cock? Feeling like a fool, Peter came back to himself, cookie still in hand. He was standing outside a building in the middle of the night mentally writing imaginary porn about a man he’d never even had the guts to say hello to. He should just call it a night.
Then, from the Vitamilk Building, a woman screamed.
A long, prolonged scream with a ragged edge that said this is not a joke
Peter rushed forward and, finding the twin glass doors locked, grabbed a rock and smashed it through the glass. He reached in and flipped the latch. And just as abruptly as the scream had begun, there was silence, but only for a moment. Then a man’s voice, ragged and low, roared through the night, yelling for help. Peter raced up the wide, carpeted staircase.
“Where are you?” Peter yelled back.
“On the left, the open door!”
As Peter rushed down the hall, a door opened to his right. A stocky man with a thick, dark beard poked his head out in confusion. A heavy scent of pot rolled out of his studio.
“What’s going on?”
Peter shoved past him and ducked into the open doorway.
He was in a very large but well-kept studio. Huge, partly painted canvases leaned against the walls. In the center of the floor lay a woman. Blood oozed from a gash across her throat. Nick crouched over her, shirtless, as Peter had imagined him -- but sprayed with blood. Droplets of gore dribbled from his finely furred chest and forearms. Peter’s hand went straight to his phone, and he dialed immediately. He took a step backward. The woman’s eyes were open, darting from side to side.
Peter had to look away to keep his horror from building to panic. He gripped his phone tightly and tried to focus on counting the unanswered rings. Eleven. How long could it take 911 to pick up?
“Jesus, Nick, did you kill Shelley?” asked the bearded man Peter had nearly crashed into.
“Call fucking nine-one-one, you idiot!” Nick bellowed.
“I’ve got it,” Peter said. Nick glanced up at him, and for an instant, confusion drifted across his face. Then suspicion.
“Who the fuck are you?” he demanded.
“Peter Fontaine.” He continued to retreat while the bearded man stepped forward.
“He’s Evangeline’s roommate,” the bearded man told Nick. “Do you have your fingers in her neck?”
“I had to stop the bleeding,” Nick said; then he turned to Peter, “Are they fucking answering or not?”
“Not --” Peter cut off his own answer as the operator came on the line asking what she could do to help him. “Send an ambulance! There’s a woman who’s been stabbed in the throat!” Peter’s words came out in a garbled rush, as though racing each other to get past his tongue. His heart pounded.
“Can you tell me where you are, sir?” the operator’s voice seemed calm, unhurried.
“The Vitamilk Building on the corner of Chestnut and Central Avenue next to Pierogi Tea Café.” Peter took care to enunciate clearly this time, forcing himself to be comprehensible. “We’re on the second floor. The woman is in her early fifties. Nick’s trying to apply pressure, but I don’t think it’s working. There’s a lot of blood.” Peter didn’t think he’d ever seen so much blood in his life.
At the sound of his name, Nick looked up at him. A fine spray of blood darkened his face making his pale eyes blaze almost supernaturally.
“I’m not applying pressure. I have my finger stuck in her artery.” Nick’s voice was controlled despite his fierce scowl. “She has two more wounds in her chest, but they aren’t as deep.”
Peter reported Nick’s correction to the 911 operator. Distantly, he could hear sirens approaching. They must have come from as an Indian Street Fire Station only a few blocks away. The operator told him that an ambulance had been dispatched and that he should stay on the line.
He saw the woman’s eyes flutter and close.
“I think she’s lost consciousness,” Peter told the operator, interrupting her. He heard the sound of heavy boots running up the stairs. Three paramedics rushed down the hallway and into the studio. One crouched next to Nick. After a moment, the paramedic instructed Nick to pull his hands away. Nick retreated to the far wall; blood dripped from his hands to the canvas behind him and marked it with diffuse red dots of primal red.
He looked like a murderer, and the first police officers on the scene treated him like one, surrounding and questioning him.
“I heard her screaming, and when I came across the hall, she was lying there holding her neck.” Nick’s concern showed on his face. He didn’t take his eyes off Shelley.
“Did you see anyone leaving?” A middle-aged cop with a head as round and bald as a honeydew melon, stepped in front of Nick.
“No, but I didn’t look for anybody, either. I just went to her,” Nick said. “I guess there could have been someone else still in the room.”
“But you didn’t see anyone?”
“No.” Nick looked past the cop to where the paramedics had clustered around the woman, and Peter followed his gaze. The paramedics wore drawn, tense expressions; their hands moved with deliberate speed. All Peter could see from the doorway were the woman’s bare legs and feet. Her toenails had been recently adorned with blue nail polish.
The bearded man stood against the far wall. He said, “Hey, man, did Shelley just die?”
One of the paramedics looked up, furious at the bald cop. “Get these people out of here!”
Officer Melonhead turned to Nick and said, “We’d like you to come with us.” Nick walked compliantly down the stairs and out of Peter’s sight.
Two other cops ushered Peter and the bearded man downstairs. Peter reached the sidewalk just in time to see Nick ducking into the back of a police cruiser.
Peter’s own pair of police officers asked a lot of questions about Nick and what he was doing when Peter came on the scene. Officer Clarkson was wiry, blond, and wore a mustache. Officer Patton was a burly woman with one of the five classic dyke haircuts: the curly she-mullet. Patton asked him what he was doing walking by the Vitamilk Building so late at night -- as if being out after dark had suddenly become a crime. Peter kept his initial surge of hostility under control.
He couldn’t tell them about what he’d learned from spying on the Pierogi Tea Café. Not yet. He didn’t have enough material to write his piece. So he said, “I was trying to get up the courage to ask Nick Olson out on a date.”
The sun was just breaking over the horizon, and Peter felt dazed and faded gazing into the soft gray light.
The two police officers glanced at each other; then Officer Clarkson said, “I think you might want to reevaluate your plans.”