Nail polish remover.
The eye-watering reek of the acetone-based solvent assailed Louis Dakis the moment he opened his door. No matter how often you work with it, you never quite get used to the odor. It did not concern him, not at first, anyway. He’d been painting a medium-sized Christ Pantocrator and was working in acrylics instead of egg tempera. One needed uninterrupted time, even leisure, to paint with the latter, a luxury he no longer enjoyed. This afternoon, running late, and as usual, he’d dashed out the door for his class after he’d rinsed his brushes in distilled water and then soaked the older ones in the solvent to break up the accumulated pigment at their base. Commercial nail polish remover was cheaper than straight acetone, and easier for him to acquire out here in the sticks. He couldn’t remember if he’d put away the rag he used to wipe them. Must have forgotten. Even so, the odor seemed pretty strong.
He leaned the icon, Eleousa, The Virgin of Tenderness, the topic of his lecture that day, which he’d been carrying under his arm, against the door jamb and stepped into the foyer. There was only the one small reading lamp alight in the room’s corner next to a battered leather upholstered chair. Even so, its feeble light was sufficient to cause the glass shards littered across the carpet under his front window to glitter and attract his notice. Thin curtains fluttered in a brisk March evening breeze. Cold air pooled across the floor, and even though he’d just come in from the outside, he shivered.
Several competing thoughts vied for his attention. He nudged the door closed and shook his head, trying to arrange them in some coherent fashion, not necessarily in order of their importance. An open window should have meant lower intensity for the odor. Perhaps the wind had caused the polish remover bottle to tip over and spill its contents. But he was sure he’d capped it, hadn’t he? A broken window pane…Had someone broken a pane and then opened the window, broken into the house, spilled the bottle? Windows did not break spontaneously, did they? He brushed the knuckle of his index finger across his mustache and dislodged a bit of something. The trouble with facial hair he thought, not for the first time, is that you never knew what bit of your most recent meal might still linger in it. A frown settled on his forehead.
A noise at the back of the cottage, toward the kitchen, brought a halt to this checklist and confirmed at least part of the last entry. Might became had—someone had come in and was still there.
He realized after he’d spoken that he’d made a mistake, perhaps a serious one. A reasonable man would have backed out and called the police. All the security courses he’d taken while working in the nation’s capital had emphasized that point: do not confront criminals or, indeed, even a potential lawbreaker whatever the circumstance might be. He or she could be armed, could be desperate. As this admonition percolated up from the lower reaches of his conscious, he thought he heard the back door open, slam shut, and footsteps clomp across the back porch and then go silent in the grass of his back yard. The house was on the edge of Callend University’s campus close to a copse of cedars and forsythia and well away from its nearest neighbor.
He stood frozen in place. His heart rate jumped as adrenaline coursed through his circulatory system. Caution said call the police. Curiosity said go look. Curiosity won.
By the time he reached the back of the house and leaned over the sink to peer through the leaded glass of a kitchen window, there was nothing left for him to see. Perhaps a shadow had moved out near the cherry tree. He couldn’t be sure. It might have been the wind, which had picked up in the last hour. He flipped on the porch light. The feeble light pushed back the darkness no more than twenty feet or so, but past the tree at least. If there had been someone out there, he was gone now. The wind whipped the tree’s lower branches as if to taunt him. Whoever had entered his house had melted into the night. All he could make out beyond the dim pool of light from the porch were silhouettes of evergreens, black against a gray sky, and lighter gray splotches of forsythia blooms, bright yellow in daylight, and the long, very dense and dark hedge that bordered the northern edge of the yard. A movement over there. Was it possible that the shadow that caught the corner of his eye, near the back of that hedge might have been his intruder? He couldn’t be sure. Anyway, it had melted away almost the instant he’d swung his gaze toward it. He must be seeing things. Whether real or not, he could not say. Perhaps if he stepped outside he could see better. He reached for the door knob but stopped his hand in midair.
Fingerprints, there might be fingerprints. This would not be the first time he’d called the police about a break-in, and in the process, he’d learned his lessons about crime scenes. And he did not want to confront anyone, armed or otherwise. Been there, done that, got the eight stitches in his scalp. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in 9-1-1 and then went to close the spilled bottle of nail polish remover which had rolled into the hallway, and to wipe up its contents and contemplate the mess it had made of the varnish on the hardwood floor.
# # #
The man sitting on the ugly plastic chair was unremarkable in appearance, youngish, maybe late thirties or early forties. Shaggy black hair and dressed in jeans, tattered white button-down shirt, and a bomber jacket, both of which seemed a size too large.
He could have been Middle Eastern, or not, Mediterranean, certainly. He had been seated for several hours in the corner on the row of chairs toward the rear of the waiting area. No one could recall how long or even when he had come in.
URGENT-C, the urgent care facility on Picketsville’s Main Street, did not offer the drama-filled weekends associated with big-city hospital emergency rooms; no ER here, no frenetic arrival of ambulances, drop-dead gorgeous nurses in scrubs and high heels, just the usual small town occasional semi-emergencies. But once in a while it did become crowded. A nearby automobile accident could create some excitement until the injured could be moved to Lexington and its hospital. On this particular Friday it had become unusually busy due, in part, to a sudden rash of intestinal influenza cases, which seemed to affect small children in particular.
“Under six, after six,” Jerry Stempak, the center’s director, said when he surveyed the bawling kids and looked at his watch. Added to this mini-epidemic was the fact that in the past several years the town’s senior medical practitioners, it seemed, had retired to condos at Hilton Head or Palm Beach to be replaced with for-profit clinics irreverently dubbed docs-in-a-box and staffed by young health-care professionals who preferred to keep strict office hours and not work outside them—either the hours or their clinics. As a consequence, the urgent care facility would begin to fill after five in the evening and would see patients off and on until midnight. This evening it had begun to fill around six-thirty with the sick children. Shortly after seven, a troop of Boy Scouts who had all shared a meal consisting of tuna surprise and egg salad, both prepared by their bachelor assistant Scoutmaster earlier in the day, arrived to augment the smaller children. All the scouts needed to be dosed with Compazine and fluids. They created a considerable distracting hubbub as vomiting children competed with wailing tykes for the staff ’s attention. Soon the waiting and examining rooms filled to overflowing with sick children, anxious parents, keening, unpleasant odors, and harried caregivers.
No one had noticed when or how the man had entered. The nursing staff and the physician’s assistant on duty assumed he must either have been a parent of one of the scouts or flu victims, or have a minor complaint that the triage nurse had deemed non-urgent. By eleven-thirty the crowd had thinned sufficiently to allow one of the nurses to approach him.
“Sir, can I help you?”
He didn’t respond. He sat slouched in the chair with his head lolled to one side, chin on his chest. She could not see his eyes. She only noticed that he sat awkwardly on the chair’s electric blue plastic seat. She glanced back at the reception desk.
Laurie Kratz looked up, shrugged, and shook her head. “He didn’t register. I thought he must be…” She shrugged again waved her hand over the desk, and returned to the paperwork stacked in untidy piles in front of her.
The nurse turned back to the man. “Sir? Are you all right? Sir?” Assuming he’d fallen asleep, she shook his shoulder gently. His head lolled to the other side. He slid off the chair and crumpled onto the floor at her feet. Startled, she stepped back and stared at the form on the floor, which seemed to be stuck in a sitting position, albeit he now lay on his side. She knelt, found no trace of a pulse and felt the cold skin under her fingers.
“I need a cart over here.” She flailed her arms at the entry clerk. “Get Elaine out here.”
Elaine Franks, the physician’s assistant on duty, bustled out and knelt beside the nurse. She needed only to feel the body to realize a cart with resuscitation equipment and defib kit would be useless. The man was very dead and had been for some time. Nevertheless, her training kicked in, and she opened his jacket in order to use her stethoscope. She yanked his shirt up, popping buttons and tearing the material. That’s when she saw the entry wound under his armpit. She rocked back on her heels and shook her head.
“Cancel the cart. Call 9-1-1, stat.”