Stiletto Heels

Like an insistent saleswoman, the grieving mother held out a pair of high heels for inspection. “Look at them! These are what caused Kimberly’s death. Apparently she tripped. The police gave them to me in a plastic bag, along with what she was wearing—jeans and a top and her underwear.”

Bethany Jarviss took the shoes in hand reluctantly. They were bone-colored shiny vinyl with peep toes, grosgrain bows and, at a guess, seven-inch heels—a complete contrast to the flats Kim had worn as an intern at the Foundation office.

“Dress shoes like these are so dangerous,” Mrs. Harper said. “I don’t know when Kimberly bought them.”

Bethany fingered the blade-like heels. “Kim was twenty-one, wasn’t she? The age when stilettos have a special appeal. To show people you’re a grown-up.”

“And to attract young men. I know that.” Mrs. Harper squeezed out the words as if they hurt her throat.

All these weeks after Kim’s death, her mother still appeared shell-shocked. Bethany’s visit today was a follow-up to a chance meeting on the street, when she had noted Mrs. Harper’s understandably sorry state.

“Imagine one of Kim’s housemates finding her at the bottom of the stairs, ‘one shoe off and one shoe on,’ as it said in that nursery rhyme I read Kim when she was little,” Mrs. Harper said. “‘Diddle, diddle, dumpling,’ it started.”

Mrs. Harper gave her shoulders a little shake as if to force herself back on track. “Marla, that’s her name. The other housemate is her brother Ray. He didn’t come home until later, when the police had gone. Did you talk to Marla or Ray at the funeral? No?”

Mrs. Harper leaned closer to Bethany. “Marla—she owns the house—phoned me the other day. She said she hated to call about the rent. I never gave it thought, you see. I immediately mailed her two months’ worth since Kim’s things are still there. I don’t know when I can get up the energy to drive to Albuquerque to clean out that room.”

It was a two-hour trip from Las Cuevas—no great distance—but it was clear that to the listless Mrs. Harper, Albuquerque might have been on another continent.

“I can go,” Bethany said. “I’d be glad to help.” With the impulsive words out of her mouth, she realized she meant them.

Mrs. Harper’s eyes brimmed with tears. “I wouldn’t want to trouble you. You must have so much to do at the Foundation. Kim said people were always calling and writing your family for money for this project and that. You look so nice in that tailored suit. Some special occasion today?”

Bethany passed the high-heeled shoes back to Mrs. Harper and consulted her watch. “A luncheon at the community center. The Foundation is funding a new series of health and nutrition talks. But I’m free on Saturday. I can go get Kim’s things then.”

“Kimberly didn’t take much when she left home. It’ll be mostly clothes and college books. I was so proud of her getting her associate’s at the community college and going on to a big university for a bachelor’s. She would have been the first in our family to earn a four-year degree, but you know how she was. Hard-working. She did a good job in your office, didn’t she?”

Bethany agreed, remembering with a pang the likeable blonde who had been more girl than woman.

Mrs. Harper forced a smile. “She admired you, Bethany. Like the big sister she never had. Now those are pretty pumps you’re wearing. You would have told her not to buy such dangerous shoes.”

***

The house Kim had shared was nothing special: one in a line of almost identical two-storey structures with little front porches, attached garages and unimaginative xeriscaping. Bethany was met at the door by a woman about her own age, thirty or so, with a dust wand in her hand. The woman was plain and solid in appearance, in a white T-shirt and dark slacks. Wondering if this was the cleaning lady, Bethany introduced herself and asked for Marla.

“I’m Marla. Mrs. Harper called to say you were Kim’s former boss and to expect you this morning.”

She waved Bethany into the house with the wand, dislodging a puff of dust. “I always clean on Saturdays, but I’m doing more this weekend since people will be coming to see the spare room.” Dismay flickered in her eyes. “Once you’ve taken away Kim’s things of course.”

Marla shut the door behind them and stopped in a tiled entrance at the base of a stairway. To the left was a living room with shuttered Venetian blinds, to the right an opening to a kitchen. Marla didn’t head in either direction; she seemed rooted to the spot.

“I came home from work and found Kim right here.” She pointed the dust wand at her feet. “Nobody knows how far she fell.”

Bethany followed Marla’s gaze up to a railed landing. “It must have been a terrible shock.”

Marla flicked the duster at a pine table that held a beige telephone and a basket of dried yucca pods. “Kim apparently hit her head on the edge of this table, and on the tile, too. Her mother told me the gist of the medical report. When I found Kim I knew there was no chance she was still alive.”

She picked up the phone’s handset like someone re-enacting a scene for a reality crime show. “I called 9-1-1 right away. A fire truck came as well as an ambulance and police car. It seemed to take them forever to get here.”

Replacing the handset on its base, she said, “I should use a spray cleaner on this phone. It must be full of germs.” She closed her eyes as if she were dizzy.

“You did all that anyone could have done.” Bethany heard her words as Marla might: inadequate and, coming from a stranger, possibly insincere.

Marla flicked open her eyes, which bulged, frog-like, in an otherwise unremarkable face. “You’ll want to get started. The room is upstairs to the right.”

“I’ve got some boxes and trash bags to get out of the car,” Bethany said.

“I’ll unlock the front door.” Marla fiddled with the knob. “There. Now you can go in and out as you like.”

***

From her SUV, Bethany took a stack of flattened boxes, several trash bags and a roll of duct tape. The street was empty of cars and people. In the cloudless, early May sky, a jet left a white trail. Normally such a sight filled Bethany with optimism but not today; a sense of gloom settled over her like a heavy cape. She slipped a strap of her leather daypack over one shoulder and faced the job ahead. Inside, she got a better grip on her load of items and carefully climbed the polished stairs.

In Kim’s room, the closet was stuffed with casual apparel. A mirrored vanity was crowded with makeup, hair ornaments and a curling iron. On a pine desk sat a laptop, a jar of pens and pencils, a spiral notebook and an accounting textbook. A backpack held other textbooks and a couple of binders.

On the bed, a purple teddy bear wearing sunglasses leaned against the pillows as if waiting for Kim to return. Several T-shirts and leggings were tossed beside him on a blue bedspread the same shade as a beanbag chair in a corner.

Bethany felt like a trespasser. Someone closer to Kim should have cleaned out her room, but who? The widowed Mrs. Harper hadn’t been up to it, and Kim had had no siblings. Mrs. Harper had never even visited this house where her daughter had lived for less than a semester. Kim had started college in January and died March 15, about a week before she was due home for spring break.

Kim hadn’t done much decorating. Above the bed a poster depicted a brilliant sun over the words, “Be Your Own Light.” The only other artwork was a pencil drawing taped on the wall next to the door. It was of Kim with slightly exaggerated features. The eyes were wider, the long, curly hair fuller. Although the drawing made her out to be prettier than she had been, it accurately captured her sweet, guileless personality.

Bethany peeled the poster off the wall and was taking down the drawing when a “Need any help?” startled her. She turned as a guy poked his close-cropped head into the room.

“I saw the door open,” he said. “Didn’t mean to make you jump. Marla said someone was here to get Kim’s stuff.”

He was in his mid-twenties, about an inch taller than her five-feet-five, Bethany judged, and so thin the hand he extended for a shake appeared too large for his arm. “I’m Ray.”

Marla’s brother. The woman had neglected to mention he was in the house.

“Bethany Jarviss,” she said. “Kim worked as an intern with me. Do you know who did this drawing of her?”

“Yeah, I did.” He tilted his head in a way that conveyed pride mingled with modesty.

“You’re an artist?”

He shrugged. “Sketch artist, like.”

He took the curling iron from the vanity, snapping it like the jaws of some small creature. His fingers were long and well-shaped, his face as solemn as a martyr’s. “I thought Kim’s curls were natural until I saw her using this. She’d leave her door open when she wanted company. I’d crash in the beanbag and draw her or help her with her accounting homework.

“You’re an accountant too?”

“Business major.” He said it without enthusiasm as he put the curling iron back on the vanity. “Kim left some other stuff in the bathroom we shared. I’ll get it.”

When Ray returned with a blow dryer, toothbrush and bottle of shampoo, Bethany was removing the tape from the back of the drawing. “Do you want to keep this?” she asked.

“No, give it to her mom, would you? She might like to have it.”

Gesturing to the bed, Bethany asked, “Was the bedspread Kim’s? I see it matches the beanbag.”

“No idea. Marla might’ve bought them for the room. If you want, I can ask her.”

He patted the toy bear’s head. “Mr. T—T for Teddy—she  called this old guy. Not a very original name, was it? Kim’s buddy from home. She asked me not to make fun of Mr. T, but I never would’ve.”

“Did she ever seem lonely? She never had lived away from home before.”

Ray gave the teddy bear another, gentle pat. “Everybody gets lonely, don’t you think? Let me know if you need anything.”

He looked so lost Bethany said, “You know what? I could use some help. Could you tape the bottoms of some of these boxes while I bag the clothes?”

“Sure. No problem.”

When she had filled two trash bags, she asked him to take them to her car. Handing over her key, she said, “My SUV’s out front. Just leave it unlocked. You don’t seem to live in a high crime area. I didn’t see anyone around when I arrived.”

“People beep themselves straight in and out of their garages. When I’m on my bike, I hardly see anybody else on this street, not like around the university.”

He grunted as he hefted two full bags. Hearing them thump down the stairs, Bethany worried the weight was too much for the poor guy’s slight frame, or that, like Kim, he would trip. But she pushed the thoughts out of her mind as she filled a bag with purses, sneakers and boots.

In the bottom of the closet, there was an empty shoebox with, stenciled on one end, an image of a stiletto-heeled shoe. The price had been marked down from $114 to $79. The shoebox would do to hold the items from the vanity, but first Bethany filled a bigger box with everything from Kim’s desk. When Ray returned with her key, she asked him to make another trip to the car.

“The bedspread and beanbag stay,” he said. “Marla said the sheets and pillows were Kim’s. She suggested we take a break. She’s made iced tea.”

***

In the kitchen, Marla had set out a pitcher of tea and a bowl of mixed nuts on a table next to an empty china cabinet.

“This is so nice of you,” Bethany said.

Marla, in yellow rubber gloves, stood at the sink washing crystal goblets and placing them upside-down on a towel. Pieces of bone china dinnerware rimmed in silver were drying on a dishrack.

Ray slid into a chair across from Bethany and filled two tall glasses while Marla kept busy at the sink.

There was no sugar bowl in sight. Bethany sipped the strong, black tea, but Ray didn’t touch his. He opened a  sketchbook, took a pencil from behind his ear and began drawing something Bethany couldn’t see while she made small talk with Marla.

“Your dinnerware is beautiful,” Bethany said.

“It was my husband’s grandmother’s. The crystal too. When he left he didn’t want any of it, did he, Ray?”

Seeming not to hear, he kept the pencil moving.

Marla leaned against the counter and stripped off the rubber gloves. Her face was red from the steamy dishwater. “The china and crystal are the only nice things in the house. I’m a city records clerk. It was all I aspired to years ago, a steady job with benefits. But Ray will go farther than me. He’s finally going to get his degree and become a CPA.”

Ray frowned at his drawing. “Better late than never, right, Sis?”

“That’s what I always tell him,” she said. “If he concentrates on his studies.”

Ray set down his pencil and said to Bethany, “My sister wasn’t keen on me helping Kim with hers.”

Marla crossed her arms. “I simply suggested charging her a small fee. He was a year ahead of her. It wasn’t as if they were studying for the same tests.”

He shrugged and showed Bethany what he had drawn. “Not my best, but a good likeness, don’t you think?”

It was a drawing of herself. She gave a little gasp, impressed but unsettled as if someone had taken her photo without permission. “May I have a closer look?”

He had exaggerated her eyes, making them larger and longer lashed, and had made the eyebrows less heavy. But the prominent Jarviss nose and shoulder-length hair were realistic.

“You flatter me,” she said. The drawing made her appear  more attractive than she believed herself to be. It gave her an intelligent air, which she appreciated.

She held it toward Marla, who shot it a cursory glance, poured herself tea and took a sip, but didn’t sit down. “Ray was  well known in Old Town for speed sketching the tourists. But it didn’t pay the rent.”

“Which I don’t do now, do I, Sis? Pay for my room?”

“You know I’m happy to support you through college.”

Embarrassed to witness their exchange, Bethany flipped a page back in the sketchbook. A drawing of Kim confronted her, one in which Kim looked so perfect she might only moments before have applied makeup and curled her long hair.

Ray watched with an expression so sad, Bethany closed the sketchbook and passed it back to him, not knowing what to say.

He nodded as if to acknowledge a shared sense of loss. “I’ll finish your drawing. See you upstairs.”

“Ray, you didn’t drink your tea,” Marla said.

He eyed it as if to resist, then raised the glass and drank as fast as someone chugging a beer. He tossed a few nuts into his mouth, tucked the sketchbook under his arm, stowed the pencil behind his ear and walked out of the kitchen. His footfalls resounded on the stairs.

Marla dropped his glass and hers into the soapy water. “I’m always cleaning up around here,” she said in a beleaguered mother’s voice. She pulled on the rubber gloves and thrust her hands into the sink.

“I have a younger sister who’s taking a while to get her degree,” Bethany said, setting her glass on the counter. “She wants to work in theater costume design but for now has a job at a thrift store.”

Marla kept her back to Bethany. “On his own, Ray was literally a starving artist. I don’t mind supporting him, I really don’t. But I didn’t think it unreasonable for him to ask Kim to pay for the tutoring.”

“She probably couldn’t afford it,” Bethany said. “She was on financial aid.”

Marla whipped around, her gloved hands spraying water onto Bethany’s shirt. “She bought those shoes.”

One new item, on sale. Give the dead girl a break.

“What did you see in Ray’s sketchbook?” Marla asked. “A drawing of her? He loves hearing girls ooh and ah over their portraits. But don’t think his of you will be worth anything. He’s no great artist. My brother’s true talent is with numbers, for which he has no passion at all.”

In Kim’s room, Bethany hurriedly stripped the bed and stuffed the sheets, pillows and teddy bear into a trash bag that she lugged down to her SUV. Marla, in the living room plugging in a vacuum cleaner, glanced up with a look of near hostility.

Only the small items on Kim’s vanity were left to pack. Bethany removed the shoebox’s lid and saw that Kim had left the sales receipt inside. It was dated March 15, the day Kim died. The time stamped on the receipt was 1:47 p.m. Kim must have come back to the house pleased with her purchase. She couldn’t have foreseen her life ending that afternoon.

Bethany put the receipt in her pocket and filled the shoebox. With the box and her daypack, she emerged from the bedroom to the drone of Marla’s vacuum below. From the railing, she saw Marla hard at work on a Venetian blind, moving a long, tubular attachment back and forth.

Seeing Ray’s door ajar, Bethany called, “Ray, I’m done in Kim’s room.”

He opened the door with his sketchbook in hand. “Right. You’ll want your drawing. I’ll cut it out so the edge isn’t ragged.”

He lay the sketchbook open on his desk. From a drawer he took a slim-bladed knife and sliced through the paper as Bethany felt a growing sense of alarm. Ray’s walls were plastered with pencil drawings of Kim’s face: happy, pensive, wistful, worried. There were also at least half a dozen drawings of Kim in her skinny jeans and the stiletto heels.

Bethany pulled the shoe receipt out of her pocket. “Ray, how did you know what Kim’s new shoes looked like? This receipt shows Kim bought them the afternoon she died. If you weren’t here to see her in them, how did you draw them so precisely?”

She waited for a reasonable explanation. Maybe Marla had described the shoes in such detail that Ray had rendered them exactly, right down to the peep toes and ribbed texture of the grosgrain bows.

Ray stared at the knife in his hand and for a moment didn’t move. Then he put the knife back in the drawer, rolled up the drawing of Bethany and offered it to her.

Realizing she had been holding her breath, she slipped the receipt into her pocket and took hold of the drawing. “Ray, can you please explain?”

He ran a hand over his cropped head. “She was prancing around in the hallway. Some guy had asked her to a wedding, and so she’d gone out and bought what she called the perfect pair of party shoes. She said this guy might have been ‘the one’. She called him ‘marriage material’. But what about me? All the times I tutored her, couldn’t she tell I loved her? She must have known.”

Clutching the drawing and shoebox to her chest, Bethany backed out of the room with Ray right in her face. At the top of the stairs he grabbed a handful of her shirt at the neckline and pulled her toward him.

“I never meant to hurt her,” he said.

Downstairs the vacuum’s hum had stopped. Marla, by the front door, clasped the long attachment like a club in both hands.

“Let go of me, Ray,” Bethany said. They were precariously close to the top step.

“You sound like Kim. ‘Let go, Ray.’” He said it in a mocking, girlish voice. “So I did. I guess I gave her a little push.”

Below them, Marla didn’t act a bit surprised. Bethany understood now. “You covered up for him, Marla.”

Marla tilted up her chin. “When I came home, Kim’s body was right here as I said. Ray was still sitting at the top of the stairs. I made him get his backpack and leave. I told him to ride his bike to the campus library and stay there.”

Ray’s big hand, with its fistful of fabric, pressed against Bethany’s throat. “I had to step over Kim’s body on the way out,” he said. “It was horrible.”

“Nobody saw you,” Bethany said. “So you didn’t have to take responsibility for what happened.”

Yanking herself free, she heard the fabric rip. She dropped the drawing and rushed down the stairs. At the bottom, she slammed the shoebox into Marla’s midriff like a battering ram, let go of it and ran out of the house to the SUV. She locked herself in and, with shaking fingers, found her key and started the ignition.

Among the welter of Kim’s things, Bethany struggled to catch her breath. Marla watched from the front porch, a hand across her mouth. There was no sight of Ray.

Bethany lowered the driver’s side window. “I’m calling the police, Marla. You know I have to.”

Digging in her pocket for her phone, she touched the shoe receipt. She would give it to the police and explain its significance. She wondered if Mrs. Harper would gain any measure of comfort from knowing the whole truth about Kim’s death.

END

 

Bio:

Rita A. Popp’s mystery fiction has been published online in Mysterical-E, Postcard Shorts, and Every Day Fiction. Her story “Ping-Pong Girl” appears in the 2017 book Fish Out of Water: A Guppy Anthology. Her flash fiction pieces have received several honorable mentions in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine’s “Mysterious Photograph” contests. She has drafted her first mystery novel featuring Bethany Jarviss, the protagonist in “Stiletto Heels,” and is plotting a second novel. Both are set in New Mexico, where she lives with her husband, a Golden Retriever, and two dozen goldfish.

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