By A. MOLOTKOV
Excerpt from A Bag Full of Stones.
The dry spot on the pavement vaguely resembled a human shape. “Where’s the body?” Detective Brenda Smith asked.
The residential street was lit with soft yellow lights floating over a long hedge. The moon sat on top of a building on their left. The air smelled of water: rain, rot, autumn. It was 6:17 a.m. Brenda was cold, her skin tight from the sense of dread and responsibility.
“What?” The man stared uncomprehendingly.
“The body.” Brenda’s partner, Dmitry Volkov, seemed frustrated too, a frown on his face.
“The body?” The man shrugged. “It’s gone.”
“Gone?” Dmitry’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean, gone?”
Dmitry’s mane of graying hair was more disheveled than usual. He was tall, athletic: wide shoulders, strong arms, a neck twice the size of Brenda’s. In the last few years, he’d put on a few pounds around his midriff, but the weight looked okay on him. With his broad frame, he could get away with more, especially with his long black overcoat on.
“What’s your name, sir?” Dmitry’s Russian accent hadn’t lessened since Brenda met him six years ago.
“Stan Michalski.” “You have any ID?”
“ID?” Michalski waved dismissively. “Stolen. It was in this shirt pocket right here.” He patted an area around his heart. “One morning, gone, just like that. I had twelve bucks in there.
Could’ve at least left the ID. It’s twenty-five dollars to get it replaced.” He seemed to run out of steam and just stood there, mouth half-open.
“Tell us one step at a time what happened to the body,” Brenda said. “They picked it up.” The man’s voice was flat.
He wore a long black sweater, a loose pair of sweatpants, large black boots without bootlaces. White, early sixties. Medium height, round face. By his feet, a beat-up black nylon backpack, stuffed to the brim. What looked like a light blue sweatshirt protruded from its partially zipped top. His body odor overpowered Brenda; she took a step back, trying not to make her move so abrupt it might be offensive.
“Who picked it up?”
“There was a car parked over there.” The man pointed. “I’m just standing here, right? Just looking at the dead guy. Then boom, the car lights come on. And then they go off again. Shit.” His face looked surprised even now. “Then the door opened. I knew I was dead if he got to me. So, I ran over there to the 7-Eleven, you see.” He pointed with his thumb. “Just waited it out. Finally, he drove away.”
“He?” Dmitry asked.
“Just saying.” The man made a broad gesture with both arms, as if the entire world could be responsible. “Hell if I know for sure.”
“So they just pulled up and collected the body?” Dmitry still sounded skeptical. The man shrugged. “Couldn’t see from the 7-Eleven.”
Dmitry stared at him for a few seconds, as if considering something. “And the car? What make and model?”
The man shrugged again. “I bet you it was dark blue or gray or something.”
“Sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me.” Dmitry turned to Brenda. “Let’s get out of here.” “I took a picture,” the homeless man insisted. “Here. I have this phone, see?” He held up
a beat-up old-fashioned unit, a foldable thing. “You can take pictures with it too.” A huge grin lit up his face. “You didn’t know that, did you?”
He seemed so proud of his device Brenda had to laugh with him. He laughed too, his face collapsing into each short, smothered sound. Dmitry watched them with a surprised expression.
“Can I see?” He extended his hand for the phone.
She and Dmitry stared at the picture for a while. A body, true enough: on the pavement, on its right side. A semi-fetal position. Dark jacket, the hood on. The picture looked grainy on the tiny screen; Brenda couldn’t make out the face or even the gender.
“Text it to me.” Digit by digit, Dmitry gave Michalski his number and waited as the homeless man fiddled with the buttons.
“Was the body male or female?” Brenda was still unsure what to make of this story. “It was a dude, no doubt. I saw his face. I was going to take another picture, but that’s when I had to run.”
Brenda was counting the minutes until her morning dose of caffeine. She’d been deep in dreams when the call came. Loud gurgling from her stomach. Embarrassing. She had to get a proper breakfast soon. It was awkward to feel hungry and human next to this unfortunate person, this empty dry spot on the pavement. Still, not having a dead body on their hands was a gift. As if there’d been no murder.
“You know, they give these out for free to low income folks,” Michalski said. “What?” Brenda tried her best to focus.
“Oh, yeah. Right. They distribute free phones.” Brenda handed him a card. “Give me a call if you think of something else.”
Michalski examined the small paper rectangle for a while, as if uncertain what it was. “Good luck then.” He offered something resembling a military salute, his limp palm up in the air next to his right temple.
“Thank you.” Dmitry winked to Brenda. Why the hell was he winking?
Michalski picked up his backpack and began walking away, casually swaying from side to side and clearly in no hurry. Brenda’s brain was as blank as this bodyless murder scene. They remained in the middle of the small street; there was no traffic at this hour.
“Do you believe him, Detective?” Brenda used a British accent she and Dmitry employed for their role-playing game, to help pass the hours of driving around or waiting for some warrant. “It smells a little fishy to me, Detective.” Dmitry did his best, but his accent still sounded more Russian than British. “Such a bloody shame.”
The last bit cracked her up, and Dmitry laughed too. A deeper layer of his face remained serious; Brenda was used to that.
“A bit of an odd bird, I’m afraid,” she continued in the accent—and then dropped it. “He seemed a little out of it. Could it be that someone was simply lying down on the pavement?”
“Yeah…” Dmitry sounded unconvinced. “We gotta take a look on a bigger screen.”
Brenda scanned the scene. A quiet street, only a few windows lit. A full moon above the buildings—too large, like a backdrop in a high school theater production. In one of the windows, she briefly saw a shadow obscured by the curtain, and then nothing again, just a faded light.
“Should we call forensics?” she asked.
“Forensics?” Dmitry’s broad face expressed humor and confusion and who knows what else, all at once.
“According to Mr. Michalski, we have a murder scene.”
“Come on, Bren. We’ll be the butt of the joke forever if we call forensics to a murder scene with no body.”
“So you think he’s made the whole thing up?”
“I’m not sure. The picture is awfully vague is all I know.”
“Come on, dude. Jim’s guys would love to start their morning examining this nice little street.”
“Tough one.” Dmitry pulled out a latex glove, knelt down and picked up a small object. A black BIC lighter, the cheap kind sold everywhere, including the 7-Eleven down the block.
“OK, call them,” he said.
“They always find something.” Brenda was happy that Dmitry didn’t argue, even if she could already hear the other cops’ stupid jokes in her head. Hey, Detective, where’s your body? Whatever. She called forensics as Dmitry packed the lighter in a small evidence bag and stuffed it into his jacket pocket.
“I could swear someone was watching us from that window over there.” Brenda pointed at the salmon-colored house across the street.
“Let’s talk to them as soon as forensics get here.” Dmitry seemed to be in a good mood, for no reason Brenda could understand.
“Let’s get some breakfast first. I’m about to pass out from hunger.”
A. Molotkov’s poetry collections are The Catalog of Broken Things, Application of Shadows, Synonyms for Silence and Future Symptoms. His memoir,A Broken Russia Inside Me, about growing up in the USSR and making a new life in America, is forthcoming from Propertius. He co-edits The Inflectionist Review. His collection of ten short stories, Interventions in Blood, is part of Hawaii Review Issue 91. Please visit him at AMolotkov.com.