Back Alley Blues – M.E. Proctor
May 18, 2021
The conversation between the man and the woman sitting at the bar was of utmost interest to Harry McLean. Unfortunately, the happy hour crowd was more raucous by the minute and he was reduced to trying to interpret body language. He’d never mastered lip reading.
Harry had been glued to the man like a stubborn tar ball to a shoe sole for three days and most of three nights. Without anything to show for his professional dedication. The guy went to work at the bank, went to lunch and went home. So regular he had to be on a special high-fiber diet.
Harry wasn’t present for the briefing with the client. He was in Galveston poking around a suspicious restaurant fire as a favor to a buddy in the insurance racket. Diana Galindo, Harry’s employer and best friend, met Mrs. Mueller alone. The character at the bar was Mr. Mueller. Who the blonde with the hoop earrings was, Harry hadn’t a crumb of an idea. He shifted on his barstool, realigning his lumbar vertebrae, tender from a lifetime of sitting in cars waiting for bad people to do bad things, and pretended to read the future in the bottom of his whisky soda – a lot of soda, very little whisky. The blonde leaned over to whisper in Mueller’s ear. It must have been somethings kinky because he giggled inanely. Harry thought he was the most unlikely candidate for a hot extra-marital romance. Medium height, florid, with a gut hanging over his belt, and that unlucky way of balding that left a patch of hair stranded on his forehead like a floating ant nest. Harry shivered at the thought and ordered a refill. The noise was overwhelming but he was close enough to catch occasional whiffs of the woman’s perfume. Flowery. Jasmine. Not cheap. If she was a professional, she must carry a card sweeper. The dress was black, sexy without being obvious. She was pretty in a precious miniature way that Harry didn’t much care for. Little upturned nose, pouty mouth, big blue eyes with long – had to be fake – eyelashes and a low forehead. Doll-like. A nice body that she made the best use of on the swiveling barstool. Harry had taken a good picture of her, catching her reflection in the mirror behind the bar. He didn’t need more shots of Mueller. After tailing him for three days, Harry had a complete collection, front, back, and both profiles.
Mueller was completely under the spell of the blonde, mellowed close to the melting point by a steady supply of margaritas on the rocks. Somebody should warn him that the stuff packed a whopping calorie count. Harry sipped his drink and urged himself to be patient. This wouldn’t take forever. If only the music could be turned down. A headache, just behind his eyes, was waiting to burst like a yellow atomic mushroom. It reminded him to include his pharmacy bill on his expense statement. Diana would squeal that he munched aspirins like breath mints and he would have to remind her, once again, that he had a condition. That IED in Kabul, Diana, remember?
Dear Diana, founder of DG Investigative, the woman who never slept. That was the agency’s motto: We never sleep because something or someone somewhere keeps YOU awake. It was a good tagline. Pity it didn’t drum up more business. The case load had been sluggish lately. Diana wasn’t her usual upbeat self when she gave Harry the bullet points on the Mueller investigation. He had learned to decipher the downward curve of her mouth. This was a blah assignment.
“I apologize for asking you to do this, Harry, but we badly need the case. The agency’s bank account is so empty I hear a hollow sound each time I check the balance online.” She sighed. “I can’t help looking at it. As if something might magically appear in there.”
“No sweat, Di. It won’t kill us.”
“Mrs. Mueller left town on a business trip. She believes her husband will jump at the opportunity to do mischief. Here’s the home address, and this is where he works.”
Harry didn’t like or dislike the divorce beat. A wife wanted to get stuff on her husband, soon to be her ex, to get a better deal in the negotiations. It was all in the game. The guy might do the same to her and then they would be even. He understood Diana’s reluctance but a case was a case, and these surveillance gigs were easy. Blend in. Disappear in the background. Have another weak scotch and soda.
The blonde slid off her barstool and walked to the restrooms. She was very stable on her high heels. What had she been drinking, Shirley Temples? Mueller watched her go. His eyes were more than a little vague. Harry motioned to the bartender for his tab. Time to get ready for the next act.
Mueller’s car was parked in front. Harry’s was in a space nearby. He waited for the blonde to come back from the can. She didn’t perch on the barstool again, a sure sign she planned to leave. Harry exited the bar.
He walked to the corner and flattened himself against the wall. He had a good view of the front and the back doors. Cars were parked in the back alley. One of them might belong to the blonde. People didn’t walk much in Houston in the summer. Or any other season, frankly. Unless the blonde came in a taxi, she must have her own wheels, and she looked far more sober than Mueller. Harry wanted to light a cigarette and resisted the temptation. Just a smidgen of patience. Check the phone. On vibrate. Battery 90%. Good. He had emailed the pictures from the bar to Diana already. By themselves they didn’t make the case of course, he needed more.
Harry shared Diana’s fatigue. The predictability of these tawdry cases put lead in his step and soured his mouth; the script was tired and the stink of the back-alley dumpsters was too familiar.
He had been well-inspired to wait on the corner. Mueller and the blonde came out through the back door. A beep and a blink of lights on a white Ford Explorer revealed their destination. The woman would be driving. Smart move. Mueller was blotto.
The tail was easy with midweek night traffic on the light side. Harry was further helped by the woman’s cautious driving. She avoided the freeway and took Memorial, going west. She veered into a neighborhood of ranch houses with neat lawns in front and no fences. Hardly where one would expect a working girl to drop anchor. Harry turned off his lights and took his foot off the accelerator, letting the car roll to a stop on its own. He was out of the vehicle by the time the couple entered the house.
The rest was classical flagrante delicto in the best sleuthing tradition. Slip through the garden door to the back of the house. Take pictures of the couple kissing in the kitchen, follow them as they move to the sitting room, clothes hastily removed and discarded in amorous transport, a peek through the bedroom blinds for a blurry shot of the lovers on the bed. Mission accomplished. Harry typed the house address in his email to Diana, attached the pictures, and drove home. Easy peasy.
He had kicked off his shoes and was about to make himself a decent drink, not the watery excuse for a cocktail he had sipped all night long, when an image popped into his mind. He grabbed his phone and scrolled through the pictures he took at the house. Where was it? He enlarged the shots of Mueller as much as the device allowed.
It wasn’t visible in all the pics. Sometimes the angle wasn’t right, there were shadows, or limbs were in the way.
There! The sitting room.
Mueller was wearing gloves.
Harry grabbed his jacket and car keys, and cursed loudly as he remembered he was in his socks.
Harry had never driven that fast, even years ago when he was behind the wheel of a cruiser with sirens blaring. He was back on the west side in fifteen minutes, blasting through all the neighborhood stop signs.
The house was dark. The white Ford Explorer was no longer in the driveway.
Harry didn’t bother with the garden door this time and went straight to the front, triggering the motion activated lights. He pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and tried the door handle. Unlocked.
He hit the light switch in the entrance hallway, stepped inside and checked the carpet runner for traces of footsteps. He walked close to the wall. The dining room and kitchen were to his left. The sitting room straight ahead. The high-heeled pumps, the black dress and lacy pieces of underwear were scattered on the hardwood floor. The man’s clothes were missing. Harry oriented himself. Guest bedrooms to his right. Master bedroom toward the back.
The smell was slight but unmistakable. Wet. Metallic. Fresh.
The naked woman was on her back on the bed. Blood coated her from her slit throat to the top of her thighs. A long vertical gash bisected the entire length of her from neck to pubis. It was a straight, firm, clean cut, probably made by a scalpel.
Harry called 911. Then he called Diana.
“Mrs. Mueller got more than she bargained for,” Harry said. “No need to divorce the freak. It’s the needle, for sure.”
They were in Diana’s office at the agency. She had exhumed the good 15-year-old scotch. Harry had made the news. It was good advertising. Clink the glasses. They might avoid bankruptcy.
Harry’s police interview hadn’t been too embarrassing. He was on a job and, apart from trespassing, he hadn’t broken any law. The homicide detective wanted to know why he hadn’t noticed the gloves when he was taking the pictures, but it was a perfunctory question. “I wanted to catch them in the buff,” Harry said. “I wasn’t focusing on the hands.” The cops found Mueller at home. He didn’t resist. Guilty as sin. The police were digging in their unsolved and cold case boxes. It looked like it wasn’t the honorable Mr. Mueller’s first rodeo.
“Mueller wasn’t married,” Diana said.
Harry sighed. “You don’t say.” He raised his glass in salute. “To one very clever woman. We might never know her real name. I guess she paid cash.”
“She sent a nice thank you note. Signed Tisiphone.” Diana nodded in response to Harry’s questioning glance. “I looked it up. Tisiphone is one of the three Greek Furies. The murder avenger.”
Harry drained his glass. Whose murder did the fake Mrs. Mueller avenge? He thought of the blonde with the doll face. He knew her name now. He wished he didn’t.