by Jamie Hill
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As if stumbling over a dead body isn't enough, Crystal Cartwright finds herself playing surrogate mother to two small boys when their father--her neighbor--doesn't come home. The kids aren't much trouble, but the thieves, drug dealers and kidnappers they're about to encounter are.
Detective Jack Dunlevy, a cop down on his luck, draws the cases no one else wants. A simple investigation involving a dead homeless man quickly changes as Crystal enlists Jack's help with the children. Drawn into a mystery that none of them could have anticipated, they're faced with a situation that will change their lives forever.
She thought about stepping over the body, but that would be awkward while she held hands with the children. The body of Manny, the homeless guy who hung out by the door of her apartment building, lay spread across the entrance. There was no way around it. Him.
Crystal tugged the boys backwards, away from the body. They didn’t need to see him that way, but she supposed it was already too late. She could see in their little eyes that they were soaking up everything happening around them like sponges.
“Come on.” She led them to a bench a few steps away from the door. It was an old bus bench, from when the busses bothered to stop in the neighborhood. Now people dragged the bench wherever they wanted it. The past couple weeks it had been parked in front of her building.
Fat chance of finding a bus around here now. Crystal pulled a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and lit one up.
“Is he really dead?” a voice said softly from the bench next to her. Crystal looked from the child to Manny sadly.
“I guess so,” she replied. “Sorry, I know this is kind of scary for you.” She had a thought and looked over to the alley next to her building for the other man she knew was hiding there. “Hey Ralph! Did you check his pulse? I mean, maybe Manny just passed out or something.”
“Not me. No way, nuh-uh!” The little man skittered around in the shadows nervously. “Mrs. G, she touched him. She called the cops.”
“Yeah.” Crystal nodded and puffed on her cigarette. Mrs. Gianelli from apartment 1A would be the first neighbor to notice Manny and call it in. Crystal didn’t know anyone who kept a more watchful eye on a place. She supposed that came from having nothing to do all day but look out the window. Mrs. Gianelli was eighty-seven years old, and when she wasn’t peering out from behind her tattered curtains, Crystal knew she stared at the TV for hours on end. She wasn't sure which the old woman preferred. The myriad of crime shows on TV, or the real-life crime scene playing out on the sidewalk in front of her right now. Mrs. G. was probably having a heyday with her front row seat.
Crystal was sickened by the whole event. Manny had been mentally challenged, in some ways he'd acted just like the boys. He'd always been glad to see them, and they'd usually shared some superhero information tidbits with each other. Crystal sighed. She hated to see anything happen to someone so innocent. No, "innocent" wasn’t exactly the right word. She imagined Manny had seen a lot living on the streets as he had. But he'd seemed naïve and almost childlike. That was the word she wanted.
“Say, uh, Crystal…?” Ralph kept in the shadows next to the building but worked his way closer to her. He didn’t smell very good, but Crystal felt sorry for him. She suspected he wasn’t quite right in the head, either. But like Manny, Ralph was harmless and Crystal knew he’d sooner run from a fly than kill one.
“Oh, yeah.” Crystal looked down at the paper bag she absent-mindedly clutched in her hand. “Here you go.” She tossed the bag to him and he grabbed for it. “Roast beef today. It’s pretty good.”
He grinned and opened the sack. “Thanks.” He sunk back into the shadows as he ate.
Crystal took a drag on her cigarette and watched as two uniformed police officers approached Manny. They checked him for vital signs, then began asking Ralph questions. Ralph answered, shoving the last of the sandwich in his mouth and talking at the same time.
“Mrs. Gianelli?” A shadow came over the bench as a man stepped in front of Crystal and the children.
She inhaled the last of her smoke and dropped the butt on the sidewalk, grinding it out with the toe of her shoe. She looked up slowly at the cop in front of her. He wasn’t uniformed but even in faded jeans, a black t-shirt and a leather jacket, Crystal knew he was a cop. The small notepad and pen he held was one giveaway. The other was his eyes. He had a cop’s tired eyes. “Nope,” she finally answered after giving him the once-over. “You’ll find her in 1A. I live in 3G.”
“And you would be?” he asked pleasantly.
She looked him up and down again. “Isn’t it customary for the policeman to introduce himself first? Show a badge and that sort of thing? Especially one who doesn’t even bother with a uniform.”
His eyes flashed irritation for a moment, but it passed quickly and Crystal could read amusement in them now. He pulled out his badge and held it in front of her face. “Apologies, ma’am. Detective Jack Dunlevy, Wichita Police Department.”
She pretended to inspect the badge, and then leaned back and nodded. “Thank you. I’m Crystal Cartwright. As I said, I live in 3G. I was on my way home from work when I discovered Manny…this way.” She glanced at the body that the uniformed officers were now frisking.
The detective returned his badge to his breast pocket and began writing on his notepad. “Cartwright. A long way from the Ponderosa, aren’t you?”
She lit another cigarette and blew the smoke up toward his face. “Good one. You can bet I’ve never heard that before.”
He smiled at her, and the grin took the rough edge off his features. He was actually quite handsome, with shaggy brown hair that curled around his collar as if overdue for a trim. When he smiled his eyes became a melting chocolate brown and didn’t seem so tired. He had a comforting look about him, which probably came in handy in his line of work.
“So you’re just getting off work?” He made some notes in his notebook.
“And you knew…” he nodded to the corpse that was still being poked and prodded in the doorway of the apartment building.
“Manny,” Crystal replied.
“Manny,” he repeated and wrote. “Any last name?”
She smiled at him coolly and answered, “I’m sure he had one. I just wouldn’t know it. We weren’t close.”
“Oh, so you and Manny never…” He looked at her sarcastically.
Crystal stood up to blow the last puff of smoke a little closer to his face. Even standing she missed, as the detective stood six feet or taller and she was lucky to hit five foot six in heels. Today she was wearing her sensible restaurant flats, so the smoke hit him at about chest level. She ground out the cigarette butt with her toe and looked up at him. “No, Manny and I never…” she repeated. “This uniform I’m wearing indicates I’m a waitress, not a frigging hooker.” She looked toward Manny and shivered as someone covered his body with a tarp. Turning back to the cop, she said, “But if I was, I think I might be able to do better than Manny, God rest his soul. Don’t you?”
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