CHANGE THE THINGS WE CAN
On a drizzly September mornin’, James McMurphy, alcohol and drug rehab counselor, was found face down on his desk, dead. The tip of his finger-pointin’ finger was glued precisely at the end of the last sentence of the last entry of Irma Nelson’s file. Like a period.
Two weeks before, Irma had brought homemade oatmeal cookies to our therapy group. McMurphy went right off the Richter Scale. Ranted that Irma took care of other folks so she wouldn’t have to deal with her own problems. My opinion–McMurphy didn’t have no call to be lookin’ at none of us, ‘specially Irma. Not when he brushed at imaginary dust and refused to shake our hands, pullin’ back like we might contaminate him. ‘Course, who’s gonna listen to Sally–call me Sal–Whitewater, half-breed Indian?
A week later, Irma OD’d on booze and pills.
That evening our group bunched together for smoke break exactly the required twenty-five feet from the back door. Georges had measured the distance for us the last time McMurphy pitched a hissy fit ‘bout us bein’ too close to the door. Carol Johnson said, “Somebody should use McMurphy for target practice!”
Ray Perazon, the only other felon in the group besides me and Georges, chuckled. “You bring that gun you have, I’ll bring the red paint to draw the bull’s eye.”
Rita Anders piped up, “Her gun makes too much noise. Besides, it’s registered.” She batted her eyes at Ray. “Bet your gun’s quieter.”
Ray’s eyes shifted away as he forced a chuckle. When he looked back, his lips curled into a suggestive grin. “My gun’s quiet, but fully loaded, babe. If you want quiet, someone could take a pillow and stuff it over Mr.-Don’t-Touch-Me’s face. That’s quiet. You could even embroider a cute lil’ saying on it.”
Rita tapped a cherry red lip with a hot red painted fingernail. “Well, darlin’, what would I embroider?”
Ray chuckled again, this time sounding natural. “I’m sure you’d think of something.”
“Courage to change the things we can,” Jeff Georges’ muttered from beside me.
I shot him a glance, but he had on his ‘inscrutable Indian’ face.
“This is no joking matter.” Richard Semafore sniffed. “Irma was a good woman and McMurphy kept at her until he pushed her over the edge. He killed her as surely as if he’d poured the booze and pills in her.”
Me and Georges shifted to look at the mousy, little tax man. Everything about Semafore drooped, like a newspaper left out in the rain. He pinched a piece of lint from the lapel of his suit jacket. Holding it between thumb and forefinger, he rolled it into a tiny ball which he pocketed.
Carol laced an arm through Semafore’s. “Maybe someone’ll give McMurphy what he deserves.” Rita agreed with a vigorous nod as we headed back into therapy group.
Three days later, Detective Simons pounded on my door. He looked down his long thin nose at me like I was some kinda bug he was thinkin’ of squishin’.
“Yeah?” I’d never liked Simons. It hadn’t made things any better between us when he copped a feel during an interrogation a coupla years ago and I’d decked him. I got an extra thirty days in lockup; he still got razzed by the boys in blue. I figgered I won that round.
“I’d like to come in a moment and ask you a few questions.”
“You can like anything you want, but the hallway’s good enough.” I folded my arms across my chest and leaned a shoulder into the doorjamb.
He glared at me. I didn’t shift a foot. Finally, he growled, “Why’d you drop out of your group?”
My lip curled. “What’s it to you?”
His pasty-white face turned red. “You can answer my questions or I can get you a ride to the station.”
“And, I can sit down there, yelling for an attorney.” I waited a long moment then shrugged with one shoulder. “But hey, I ain’t fond of cop shops, so I’ll tell you. Judge only sentenced me to four months.”
Flipping open his notebook, he pretended to read. He shoulda known better than to try that routine. I’d grown up with silence.
He slapped his notebook closed and shoved it in his shirt pocket. “A week after you entered McMurphy’s group you threatened him. Said if he didn’t back off, he ‘might become one of the ghosts of the past’. What did you mean?”
The lids of my eyes dropped to half-mast to hide the anger in their dark depths. “Maybe I meant I was gonna drop his group.”
“Yeah, right.” He scowled like that was gonna make me give up the truth or somethin’.
“What’re you hasslin’ me for? You ain’t my probation officer.”
“James McMurphy was found dead this morning.”
“Ain’t like I’m gonna cry for the bastard.”
His pudgy face squinched up until he resembled a pissed off pig. “Where were you from nine last night to five this morning?”
“In bed. Asleep. By myself.”
He stared at me as he said, “We found the weapon.”
I almost grinned. He’d honed in on that like flies on shit. His piggy eyes narrowed. “You’re a felon. What’re you doing with a weapon?”
I did let my grin out then. “Who said I had one?” I let visions of my twenty-two and my .45, safely stashed where cops would never find them, dance in my head.
“We found a throw pillow with McMurphy’s blood on it.” His mean little eyes latched onto my face. “In a dumpster two streets from here.”
“Maybe you’d better find out who’s missin’ a throw pillow and a gun.” I pushed off the wall and stood up straight. “Go talk to people who like throw pillows and little guns.”
“I never said anything about the caliber of the gun.” He pounced on my words.
“No, you didn’t. So arrest me or get off my doorstep.”
“I’ve been lookin’ at your rap sheet.” He stared hard at me. “Yours and your friend, Georges.” He shoved his face toward me. “I don’t like felons.”
I waved a hand between us as I wrinkled my nose. “Eww, man, you gotta get some Listerine, or Scope or maybe bleach water.” I cocked my head. “You forgot to mention Ray Perazon. Is that cause he’s white?”
“I don’t like what you’re implying.” He puffed up like a ticked off cat.
“That an’ a coupla bucks might get you a cheap cup of coffee.” I studied him. “You been hasslin’ Georges?”
“I’ll ask the questions.”
“Why you messin’ with me?” I tried a different tact.
“A woman took McMurphy down.”
“Seriously? Where’dja get your crystal ball? Might wanna think ‘bout returnin’ it.”
The vein in his forehead popped up and throbbed. Like it had that day I’d decked him and he’d come after me. I’d been lucky we’d been at the cop shop. “I don’t think Perazon and Georges fingers would fit in the trigger guard.” He snorted. “Besides, everything at the scene was very tidy. Even the way the killer laid the tube of superglue right above the file folder. Let’s face it, men aren’t that neat.”
Thinkin’ about my apartment, I swallowed hard to keep from laughin’. I’ve been accused of lots of stuff in my life, but neat ain’t one of them. “You’re fishin’.”
He opened his mouth just as his radio crackled. Most folks don’t understand that garbled junk, but I’ve listened often enough to get it as good as the cops do.
He mumbled into the radio then turned back to me. “That’s all for now, but I’ll be back. When I return, I’ll have a set of handcuffs with your name on them.”
“Seriously? Hallucinate much?”
His jaw tightened so hard I thought he was gonna bust a tooth then he spun and hurried down the stairs.
Georges and me had dinner at his house that night. I told him about Simon’s visit.
“Hmmph!” Georges grunted at me. “He was over here earlier. Told me he heard I’d threatened McMurphy.” Georges wiped the clean stove top for the fifth time. “I told him threats go with the territory.” Neatly foldin’ the dish towel into three perfect sections, he hung it over the towel rack next to the cupboards.
It’d been a year since Irma’s dyin’. Word on the street had it that the police stuck McMurphy’s murder in the unsolved files along with a jillion others.
The day I heard that, me and Georges went over to Italio Ristorante. It’s got good food and decent prices. Irma’d brought me and Georges here when me and him hit thirty days sober. I could still see Irma’s big smile.
Now, we toasted Irma’s life with a couple of pots of coffee, the way most sober drunks celebrate. In the candlelight, I looked across at the man who’d took me in off the cold streets of Seattle back when I was a skinny twelve-year old kid. “Georges?”
“Hmm?” He replied as he refolded the linen napkin, placing it precisely next to his empty plate.
“You figgered out McMurphy’s murder?”
He shrugged. “Can’t resist a puzzle.”
“Can’t be a private dick, but it don’t stop you from pokin’ and pryin’.” I sighed and leaned back in my chair. “Okay. Who did it?”
A slow smile spread across Georges’ lips. “Who do you think?”
I pursed my lips. “We all hated the bastard. Wasn’t me. Don’t think you would’ve done it either. Might’ve wanted to, but since it wouldn’t bring Irma back, you wouldn’t.
“Carol was pretty friendly with Irma, and if she used a pillow to muffled the report of the gun…” I snuck a look from beneath my lidded eyes. Not too many folks could read Georges, but I knew from the smug look on his face that I hadn’t hit it even close. Tossing my napkin on the table beside my cup, I crossed my arms and stared over at Georges. “Don’t tell me Ray did somethin’ for someone besides himself.”
“No. Ray Perazon loves Ray Perazon too much to risk a prison sentence for an old woman, even if she did treat him like a normal person instead of like the slime he is.”
“That just leaves Rita Anders and that little tax man…what was his name, again?”
“Rita’s too tiny and there’s no way mouse man would take on a rat, especially not one who could ruin him like McMurphy could. Hell, he hardly spoke a word during group.”
Georges tilted his big head, his long single braid swaying to one side. “Funny how love can give a mouse great courage.”
“Seriously? No way. He hardly looked at Irma during group. I’d think a man who was in love with a woman would at least steal a glance or two.”
“He wasn’t in love with Irma.”
Brows wrinkled, I took a long drink of coffee. “If he wasn’t in love with Irma, where does love come into this?”
“There are a lot of different kinds of love, Sal,” he reminded me quietly.
Heat flooded my cheeks. I hated talkin’ ‘bout love. The closest I’d ever come to talkin’ ‘bout it was when I got drunk one night and tried to jump Georges’ bones. He’d gently pushed me away and made me suffer through a talk ‘bout how he didn’t love me like that, but like a brother. Like a brother….
I raised my eyes to Georges’ black ones as Irma’s smiling face rushed into my mind and the mouse man’s slowly came into focus next to Irma’s. “No way. They would never have put a brother and sister in the same group.” I shook my head. “Even if they did, no way mouse man had a gun, much less knew what to do with one. He was white collar DUI.”
“He didn’t own a gun, but Perazon owned an untraceable belly gun.”
A belly gun, or better known as a .22 two-shot derringer. “You just said Perazon didn’t kill McMurphy. He sure as hell wouldn’t have loaned the mouse his pistol.”
“Then how did mouse man get it?” I leaned forward, forearms propped on the white linen tablecloth, voice lowered.
“Carol lifted it.”
“Uh-uh. Ain’t buyin’ that. Perazon didn’t like Carol well enough to have her over at his house and she ain’t the B & E type.”
“But she is the party type.” A hint of a grin twitched the corners of Georges’ mouth.
“Why would Perazon be partyin’ with Carol? For god’s sake, she’s lesbian.”
“Rita is straight.”
I drummed my fingers on the table as I stared at him. “Are you sayin’ Rita got Carol the invite to a party at Perazon’s place?”
“Bingo.” He pointed a finger my way.
“So in the middle of a party, Carol walks out with the gun? How’d she know where it was? And where’d she get the tits to be that bold?”
“Rita and Perazon had a thing going.”
“You sayin’ Rita told her and then distracted Perazon so Carol could get it?”
When Georges didn’t say nothin’ I knew I was close, but no gold ring yet. “What am I missin’?”
“Just because Carol stole the gun, doesn’t necessarily make her culpable of murder.”
I huffed a breath and threw my hands up. “First you make me think Carol shot the bastard and now you’re sayin’ she didn’t. You’re insistin’ mouse man did it.”
“I’m saying that Richard Semafore pulled the trigger, but was he solely responsible for the murder?”
I frowned. “If he pulled the trigger, sure.”
“What about the pillow?”
I shrugged Georges question away. “He needed to keep the noise down, so he grabbed a throw pillow and….” There hadn’t been no throw pillows in McMurphy’s office.
“I talked to a friend in the Department.”
“Only you would have a cop for a friend,” I snorted. “What did your friend tell you?”
“She said that the throw pillow was embroidered with part of the Serenity Prayer.”
“So? That prayer’s smeared across everything from coffee cups to bed sheets.”
“Want to hear what part of it was embroidered on that pillow?”
Something in Georges’ voice perked my ears right up. “Yeah.”
“Courage to change the things we can.”
My jaw dropped a bit before I recovered my cool. “That’s what you said that day….the day right after Irma died.”
Georges’ deep chuckle rippled across the table. “No, I didn’t off McMurphy.”
I let the impossible thoughts roiling in my mind like a pot on full boil simmer down. “Perazon’s gun. Rita’s pillow?”
“How does mouse man fit in this picture?”
He picked up the fragile china cup in his big hand and took a dainty sip then carefully replaced it on the saucer. “I wondered about that, too.”
“And?” I nearly shouted with impatience, but at the last minute shifted in my chair instead.
“Some skills learned as a young man come in quite handy, especially for solving puzzles.”
“You didn’t!” I felt a bit sick to my stomach. “You made me promise not to B & E!”
“Your path is different than mine, Sal.” He gave me a tiny grin. “Besides, I only use my special skills for special cases. Even working as an investigator for a private dick now there aren’t too many special cases, but Irma was our friend.”
Georges didn’t never let his friends down. I swallowed my fear for him. Person couldn’t live worryin’ ‘bout what might happen. “What did you find?”
“Old school papers. Pictures of a boy and a girl. Neither of them changed very much over the years. The girl was a few years older than the boy.” He dropped his eyes, carefully centered his cup on its saucer though it was already perfectly centered.
Brows wrinkled, I tried to make sense of what he was sayin’. Finally, I shook my head. “Sorry, but I seem to be kinda dense.”
“I found Irma’s diary as well as her photo album. Semafore was Irma’s half-brother. When their parents died, she was nine and he was seven. They were sent to different foster homes. After a while, Irma lost track of Semafore. They only rediscovered each other in treatment.”
“Why didn’t the cops find Irma’s diary?”
“You know how cops are–always a day late.” Georges gave me a long look.
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