I wrote this flash fiction piece in response to a prompt at our last DWWP meeting: “There have been many theories about how she was killed.” I tweaked the line a little once I started writing. Now that I’m done I can see how much more I could have done with it, but this is the direction I went. I’d like to do a different take on it later.
I’m a few hours into my shift when he starts telling me about his dead wife. But before we get into that, it might be helpful to know something about the bar where I work. It has no identifiable personality. Whether by design or default, it’s ideal for our clientele. They fall into two main categories — tourists who don’t know any better, and commuters who would rather eat an imposter quesadilla in a place that smells like the night before than catch the 5:40 PM train home.
Occasionally, you get a character that is neither an office worker nor tourist, but seems to come out of the woodwork; out of a slice of dark, narrow space between skyscrapers. These tend to be grizzled men who have been part of the fabric of this city for longer than I’ve been alive, and who blend seamlessly into the bar’s absence of aesthetic. I can’t seem to place them out in the world of shiny high rises and store windows. When they walk out our door they must vaporize in the predawn air.
This guy seems to be one of those types at first because of his graying hair and sneakers, but his bomber jacket and gold watch tell me he’s trying harder. He looks like Ralph Lauren if Ralph Lauren was employed in the public works department. He cares what I think. He pauses throughout his story to make sure I appreciate what he’s saying. After ordering a Jack & Coke he tells me to keep his tab open. I set down his drink next to a pack of Pall Malls.
“You married?” he asks, nodding at my wedding band.
“I was. Married. Until about five years ago.”
I wipe down the bar. He continues.
“Wow, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Crazy thing. She was murdered.”
It takes me by surprise. I look him in the eye and he rightly takes it as a sign to go on.
“It wasn’t the traditional husband and wife relationship. We had . . . an arrangement. I helped her out with a green card situation.”
“Ah. But still . . . ”
“Yeah, still.” He coughs from deep in his lungs. “There are several theories about how she was killed.”
That’s an odd way of putting it, I think. Just then, the only other customer at the bar flags me down for his tab.
When I get back to Ralph Lauren there’s a woman sitting on the barstool nearest him — another patron I can’t quite put my finger on. It was going to be one of those nights. I’d guess she’s mid-thirties, heavily made up, dark hair, long nails, cleavage. She looks like Raquel Welch’s paralegal cousin, if Raquel Welch had a paralegal cousin. She orders a glass of pinot grigio.
I normally wouldn’t re-engage with the guy unless he initiated it, but curiosity wins over my standard detached professionalism. “So it wasn’t solved?”
“Nope, nope”, he says, shaking his head. “Unsolved.” Longish pause. “She was shot, in case you’re wondering. At her house. We didn’t live together.”
“That’s terrible, I’m sorry.”
“Yeah. That’s OK. The police thought it was a home invasion gone wrong. No leads.”
“And the other theories?”
“She worked for a trucking company, doing bookkeeping. Might have been something going on there but they could never come up with anything concrete. They also had a crackpot theory that she was involved in some Honduran drug smuggling cult, but that’s just because she attended church with those people. They kept barking up the wrong tree.”
“Huh.” He didn’t need to be particularly intuitive to know what I’d left unsaid. I’d been following the Drew Peterson case in the news, and seen plenty of reruns of 48 Hours. It’s always the husband.
“They investigated me, of course. Thoroughly.” He rubs his hands together and flashes me his palms, as if to say “Look, all clean.”
I notice that Raquel Welch is unabashedly listening in on our conversation. She sips from her wine glass, leaving red lipstick marks on the rim. Her cat eyes ping-pong between Ralph and me.
“Do you have your own theory?”
“I do.” He leans into the bar and I see Raquel’s shoulder tip towards him, her head cocked.
“I think the police were partly right. Someone broke in and didn’t find what they were looking for, found her instead. And I think I know what they were after.”
I’m clenching my bar towel. Raquel had swiveled so that she’s almost facing Ralph.
“She had this rare doll, a collector’s item. You know Barbie?”
Raquel and I both nodded. Of course.
“She had the original Barbie. Not the first edition with the holes in the feet — for the stand — but the second edition. Worth upwards of twenty-five grand.”
I let out a whistle.
“Oh my god”, says Raquel. Ralph glances at her and angles himself to encircle both of us in his story.
“Thing is, Barbie was at my place at the time. I was storing it for her. They ransacked the closet where she usually kept it, but didn’t take nothin’.”
“So it had to be someone who–” Raquel ventures. She places her hand on Ralph’s arm.
“– knew she had it.” Ralph finishes.
“And knew where she kept it.” I say.
“And there ain’t too many of ’em.” Ralph adds.
The three of us contemplate that fact in silence. Ralph asks for another Jack & Coke and goes to the restroom. I’m mentally generating a list of questions for when he gets back. Raquel reapplies her lipstick and checks herself in a hand mirror.
“Is he single?” Raquel asks.
That’s twice in the past hour I’ve been taken by surprise. I’m not used to it. “I don’t know.”
She points to her empty wine glass. I pour her another.