WHAT IF?

If you’re reading this now, I’m gone. You won’t be able to find me, but at least you’ll know my story. It starts with a woman. Don’t they always? This woman was different. Aren’t they all? And, it ends with, well you’ll find out soon enough.

***

I live in Manhattan, on the ground floor of an old brownstone on East 82th Street. One of the few private buildings in the neighborhood scattered like birdseed that the real estate developers hadn’t gobbled up. I’ve been here for a just over two years in a cozy ground floor apartment tucked behind the built-in garage where my landlady keeps her old Volvo. I have a private entrance under a staircase that leads to the floors above. The apartment is small, but it suits me and I have the garden in back where I often sit and write.

***

It’s a quiet block with a couple of other brownstones and five-story tenements and a variety of mom and pop stores mixed in among them. If it weren’t for the giant condos anchoring either end, you might think you were in the city of days gone by with tree-lined streets and sun-dappled stoops where kids could hang out after school. The neighborhood has character though; enough that it makes a great setting for my Archie Beck New York P.I. series.

***

There are a lot of bars that Archie—and I—frequent where we occasionally score free drinks for the promise of a mention in a book. The owners lap this up. And why not, it gives their place a little free publicity and it saves me the trouble of having to make up a bar where Archie can meet his clients.

***
All that was about to change. If I didn’t come up with the next book pretty quick, Archie would be off the bookstore shelves and I would be out of luck. Not a prospect I favored. I had to get to work, and fast.

***

My editor was bugging me to turn in the finished manuscript, the sixth in the series. The one I’d told her was almost done, but I hadn’t actually started yet. Soon she’d figure out why I wasn’t taking her calls and there’d be hell to pay. Like a storm trooper armed with a cell phone instead of a Luger, she’d show up on my doorstep and stand over me while my fingers hovered over the keyboard, floating like scum on the surface of a stagnant pond.

***

I was having a problem. Unlike Archie who took on anything the bad guys threw his way with boyish good looks and slapdash wit, I couldn’t come up with a plot if my life depended on it.

***

Six foot two, blue-eyed, blond haired Archie Beck had become a household name, with each book a New York Times best seller. He was also a social media wonder thanks to my landlady and my muse, Meg Armistead, who managed all the tech stuff for me. Meg bought the building about year after I moved in. She kept me on as a tenant and lived on the top three floors, first on her own, and now with her husband of six months, Clive Darrow.

***

Meg worked from home creating websites for a variety of businesses. When she wielded her mouse on Archie’s behalf, it was like a fairy scattering gold dust over the Internet. Women Instagramed Archie naked pictures of themselves and proposed marriage. They ‘liked’ his Facebook page followed him on Twitter and put up YouTube videos about his exploits. Men drank The Big Thrill, a Bourbon and ginger ale potion that was his signature libation. Whatever Archie did, these people followed with a passion. I wondered if they understood it was fiction they were emulating, not real life.

***

Not that I’m complaining. With Archie, I’d been raking in the cash, but like I said, that could vanish as fast as a rabbit down a hole, unless I got my act together right away.

The trouble was Meg. I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in days and frankly, I was starting to worry.

***

She usually came down to my apartment and we’d sit out in the garden and do a “What if?” scenario.

***

“What if the Mayor’s office was taken over by terrorists and Archie rescued him?” Her big green eyes gleamed with excitement, her blond bob bouncing around her smiling face.

“Who’d want to rescue him?” I asked, unable to keep my feelings for Hizoner out of my voice.

***

“Ummm, true. So, what if one of the private school kids from Park Avenue was kidnapped and Archie thwarted the guys and killed them? You know, like Bogart’s Sam Spade.” You couldn’t miss the excitement in her voice. It was as if she was on the street with Archie dressed in a trench coat, standing under a pool of light spilling from a streetlamp staring up at a darkened building.

***

I shook my head, my scrunched up expression showing what I thought about that idea.

That’s the way it usually went. Eventually, we’d come up with a plot that fit Archie’s M.O. and I’d get to work writing it. But last time we got together, something had changed. Meg was chewing on her lower lip, her eyes focused far off in the distance.

***

“Let’s hear what you’ve got.” I prodded gently trying to bring her back to the here and now.

***

“What? Oh, yeah.” She took a breath and let it out slowly. “What if a husband was going to disappear without a trace? You know, leave his wife and take everything that…” Her words petered out and her eyes clouded over.

***

“You know Archie doesn’t take domestic cases. Divorces are…” The words flew out of my mouth before my brain could stop them. This wasn’t a “What if?” “What if?” I could see it was real. “Hey, is there something…”

***

Meg glanced at her watch and got up abruptly, cutting me off before I could finish. “You’re right, it’s not a case for Archie. Clive will be home soon. I’ve got to go.”

***

Clive is her husband, a boorish man, big and thick through his chest. Dark and swarthy next to Meg’s alabaster skin and golden hair. He’d let me know he wasn’t all that keen on her spending so much time with me.

***

In my eyes, he’s a loser. Works part-time at a big box electronics store where Meg met him. Not to mention he’s fifteen years older than her and not her type at all. I’d heard them arguing a few times when she’d gone upstairs after leaving my apartment and surmised it might be about me. A little voice inside my head kept telling me he married her for the money. I think I mentioned she owned the building. She also came from a well-off family and worked because she enjoyed it, not because she had to.

***

Three days ago, I’d heard a loud thump coming from upstairs. When I went out to investigate, Clive was already out on the landing looking down at me. “Meg tripped on the rug in the living room,” he told me as I started to climb the stairs. He shook his head and held up a hand, indicating I needn’t come any further. “She’s okay. I think she sprained her ankle. I’ll see to it.”

***

He’d stopped me in my tracks and I wasn’t pleased. This may not come as a surprise: I really don’t like Clive. Believe me, the feeling is mutual.

***

I admit it. I had a crush on Meg. I was sure she didn’t know and I was terrified that if she found out, it would change everything and she’d stop being my muse.

***

Over the next few days, I waited for her to call. She didn’t. I tried her cell and my calls went directly to voicemail. I headed up to the apartment armed with feeble excuses to see her. Clive was always around, the watchman protecting his investment, I thought. “Meg isn’t up to visitors.” He closed the door in my face each time.

***

I was getting suspicious. Wouldn’t you? This isolation seemed a little excessive for a sprained ankle. I stewed about it all afternoon and decided I’d go back later that evening and get in to see her no matter what Clive said or did. I had a shot of Bourbon to bolster my courage. I was just about to open my apartment door, when I heard the garage door clanking its way up. Clive is going out I thought. Good, I’d get to see Meg alone.

***

I quietly pulled the door open a sliver and peeked out wanting to be sure he was leaving and not just setting out the garbage. Clive was entering on the driver’s side and the overhead light of the Volvo went on. Meg was in the passenger seat, head slumped to the right leaning against the window. She didn’t appear to be moving.

***

I thought he’d killed her. Just as I was about to confront him, she started to shift in her seat, head lolling back and coming to rest on her left shoulder. She wasn’t dead. Not yet, anyway. Clive pulled the car out onto the street and the garage door started to inch its way down. I grabbed my keys from the hall table and ran outside to my car, a beat up old Chevy parked across the street. I slipped behind the wheel and got it started just as Clive turned the corner onto Third Avenue. I followed him, keeping two or three cars in between us, something Archie would do if he were tailing someone. When he got to 86th Street, he turned left and drove crosstown and through Central Park to Riverside Drive. There he turned left and then onto the road for the 79th Street Boat Basin and the park that flanked it.

***

The Boat Basin had become popular in the last several years, with a waterside café catering to New Yorkers and tourists alike. The druggies and muggers had pretty much disappeared. Pretty much. Archie had a case that had ended in this very spot and I’d done a lot of research to make sure the description was accurate. Some parts, below the overpass and along side the river, were still dangerous. I was sure that’s where Clive was taking Meg.

***

My heart thumped in my chest as I realized he was probably planning to kill her there and make it look like a murder disguised as mugging gone wrong, just like the case Archie had solved in my last story.

***

The police would come by and ask Clive their questions: Why was Meg on the West Side? What was she doing there? Was she with anyone? Clive would probably shrug and shake his head. Maybe mention that she’d helped me with a story that took place at the Boat Basin. Say I’d been turning up at their door too often; that she thought our relationship was strained, which would in turn lead them right to my door. I had to hand it to Clive; he’d actually thought it out. Well, stole it from Archie.

***

I left my car on a side road used by park maintenance crews, grabbed what I needed from the glove compartment and slipped out into the night. Clive had parked a little way up the same road and was lifting a softly moaning Meg out of the car. He laid her down on the leaf-strewn ground, picked up a thick branch and was about to bring it down on her head, when I shot him.

***

Guess he’d forgotten that’s how Archie saved the day. But I hadn’t. Clive went down like a tree felled by a logger. I walked over and looked at his inert form. Archie had merely wounded the would-be killer, but he was a better shot then me. I’d aimed for Clive’s shoulder, but hit his heart. Too bad. Clive was dead. I hefted the gun, a 45-caliber pistol that I’d bought on the street when Archie had needed one for self-defense in the second book. Moonlight glinted off the barrel as I heaved it far out into the Hudson where it would sink to the bottom, hopefully never to be found.

***

Meg was still heavily drugged when I got her home and up into her apartment. When she woke up the next morning, I told her I heard Clive leaving and I’d been worried about her. I decided to check on her and had to force open the door.

***

Thankfully, she had no recollection of Clive putting her in their car and taking her to the Boat Basin. All she remembered was falling and spraining her ankle a few days ago, but nothing after that. She said Clive had given her painkillers and she’d been sleeping most of the time.

***

That’s what she told the police when they came by to inform her Clive had been shot and killed near the Boat Basin. If she remembered the plot of the story she’d helped me with, she never said so to the police, or to me.

***

Meg and I are together now. She’s sold the brownstone and we’ve moved to the Islands. I can as easily write my Archie stories from under a palm tree as from a garden in New York City. Once in a while, I see that “What if?” look on her face but it quickly turns into a smile when I lean over and kiss her.

 

 

BIO:

Cathi Stoler’s mysteries feature P.I. Helen McCorkendale and magazine editor, Laurel Imperiole in her New York Mystery series, the latest of which is The Hard Way. She has published a novella, Nick of Time, and is working on a new series, Bar None, A Murder on The Rocks Mystery featuring Jude Dillane, a female bar owner. She won the 2014 Derringer for Best Short Story, “The Kaluki Kings of Queens.” She is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers. Visit Cathi at www.cathistoler.com.

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