Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Corner Man

Here's another award-winning short story I penned a while back. Enjoy!~~LG

 “I didn’t even know the woman.”

That’s what I told him the first time Detective Bruno Janklow talked to me. We were at my front door in the four-story brownstone I lived in on Henry Street. He’d questioned me about a killing one floor below mine. A woman had been found dead in her apartment. It was hard to believe something like that had happened in my own building, and I told him that, too.

It was hot that afternoon.  Mrs. Schmidt, two apartments down the hall from mine, was cooking kraut and sausages with her door propped open again.

Detective Janklow’s stomach rumbled. “Damn, that smells good.” He winked at me. “You suppose whoever’s cooking might have known the victim?”

The wink surprised me, but I managed to shrug. “Beats me.”

He left then, sauntering toward the stench at the end of the hall. I heard Mrs. Schmidt and her broken English, then the thump of her door closing. There is a god, I thought, wishing the plug-in air freshener in my living room wasn’t empty.

Later that night, I headed out to work as I’d done a thousand times—for my evening shift at Calvin’s News. It’s a magazine store on the corner at the end of my block—one of those eclectic little storefronts you pass on your way to the subway. Besides magazines and newspapers, we sold smokes and candy and stupid stuff—like those fake tattoos, and rubber snakes, and fart cushions. We did a big business in fart cushions.

I was just getting ready to pull the iron gates shut and close up for the night when Detective Janklow showed up again. He nodded at me and picked up a skin magazine in the back of the shop. He thumbed through it, stopping once in a while, openmouthed, then dropped it back on the rack. He pulled a drink out of the cold case and wandered up to the counter.

“That’s a buck fifty.”

Janklow tossed a five on the counter and popped the lid on the plastic bottle as I made his change. He took a long drink, then sighed, palming his mouth. “Man, that hits the spot.”

“I thought you guys drank coffee and ate doughnuts by the gross.” I flipped the We Are Open sign with the conga-line of dancing bottles on it to We Are Closed, and turned out the lights. Janklow followed me outside where I locked the doors, then started pulling the security gates across the storefront. I glanced at the bottle dangling from his big fist. “All the caffeine and sugar in that soda is as bad for you as the doughnuts and coffee anyway, I guess.”

“Doesn’t much matter,” he said, stepping onto the deserted sidewalk, “we’re all dying of something, huh?” He started to leave, then turned back. “You work here every night?”

“Yeah, why?” The gates screeched as I forced them together.

“Just wondered. The medical examiner says Junie Davis, the dead woman from your building, was killed about ten hours before her kid found her. That would be about eleven or so the night before. You were working down here on your corner, huh?”

“I would have just got off. I usually close at eleven. But, not that night.” I locked the big chain-lock and pocketed the keys, thinking about the previous Thursday. “My dad needed help at his place up in Queens. I went up there for the day. Got home about two in the morning.”


“Look, why the hell are you bothering me? I told you I didn’t know this wom— ”

“—I just came in for a cold drink. The rest was just me thinking out loud, is all,” he said, dropping his empty soda bottle in the trash can on the sidewalk. “Sorry I upset you.”

Shaken, I brushed past him and headed toward home, but he followed me. I stopped and turned to face him. “What do you want with me?”

“Nothing. My car’s parked up the street here.” He gestured toward a dark blue, unmarked sedan half a block away. “I was finishing up the interviews in your building and thought I’d come down for a soda, that’s all. Your corner store was the closest place.” He smiled at me again. His eyes even crinkled up at the corners; but they were flat. Dark blue—and flat as a cat on the highway.

I started walking and he fell in step. “How long you been a dick?” I asked, trying to be nonchalant. I’d never talked to a cop before Janklow.

“Long enough to have thought I’d seen everything.”

That hit me, the things this middle-aged detective must’ve seen. “Bad, huh?”

“Yeah, real bad.” He rubbed his face. “Whoever raped and murdered Junie Davis is a monster. She’s such a mess the M.E. says it may be a couple of weeks before he’s finished detailing her injuries. It took the evidence team twelve hours to process the scene. God, what a shambles.” 

We reached Detective Janklow’s car and he jammed his keys into the door lock, looking at me as the mechanism clicked. “Whoever killed her was searching for something, that’s for sure. I just don’t know what. It wasn’t like he was after something that was in the apartment before he arrived; it was like he was grubbing around for something he’d maybe dropped, or lost, while he was committing the crime. No drawers or cupboards ransacked, but all the cushions were out of the chairs, the bed was stripped, the throw rugs were all in piles . . . and her body . . . well, she looked like she’d been thrown around for an hour. I don’t know if he found what he was looking for, or not . . .” He pulled open the door and dropped into the driver’s seat. “You’ve got my card. Call me if you hear anything, will you?”

I don’t know why he picked me to dump that on. Maybe it was because I worked at the newsstand and he thought I might pay attention to the customers. Maybe it was because I’d lived in my building longer than anyone else there. Maybe he thought I had big shoulders. Who knows? I’ve sorted it out in my mind a hundred times since then, and I still don’t know why he picked me. But he did.

I didn’t see Janklow for ten days. I was sitting at the lunch counter at Tony’s Deli, scarfing down a corned beef on rye—with lots of pickles and mustard—when he slid onto the stool next to mine and ordered a chocolate cola, a bag of chips, and a chicken salad sandwich, on wheat. Janis Joplin was screaming about Bobbi McGee on the radio.

“How ya’ doin’?” Janklow asked when Jessica, the new counter-girl, walked away with his order.


We sat there, side-by-side, me in my knees-gone jeans and khaki-colored t-shirt, him in his brown sport’s coat and slacks—like mismatched bookends. His order came and he ate while we both admired Jessica, in all her tattooed and padded splendor.

“Whaddaya’ want?” I finally asked around my last bite of sandwich.

“Nothing. Just wondering if you’d heard anything.”

“Nothing—except you guys don’t know your ass from a hole in the ground.” I couldn’t help it; he was getting under my skin. Just showing up out of the blue like he did. Like he was watching me. Spying on me.

I gestured for an apple and Jessica handed me one as she undulated past on the way to another lousy tip. I took a huge bite of the fruit, then another, but it was mealy, so I tossed it on my plate. “Look,” I said, my mouth half full, “how about we make a deal?”

“Whaddaya’ have in mind?”

“You stay out of my face and I’ll call you if I hear anything. Does that sound fair?”

“Why? Don’t you like my company?”

“Fuck, no, I don’t like your company! Is that plain enough for you?” I stood up and put on my jacket. “You creep me out, man. Always showin’ up out of nowhere.”

“Always?”  He sat there just looking at me for a few seconds. I’ve never seen anyone sit so still.

My heart pounded like I was guilty of something, and I felt like an idiot. It had been ten days. I tossed some cash on the counter then stuck my fists in my pockets and slumped back onto my stool like a nine year-old.

 Finally, he stuck out his hand. “Deal,” he said. “You call me. I won’t call you.” We shook on it.

“Hell,” he said. “I know what it’s like. When I was your age, having a cop around would have bugged hell out of me, too.” He gave me another of his flat-eyed smiles. “No hard feelings.”

The hair stood up on the back of my neck.

I walked the two blocks to my corner and took over from Kyle, the day guy. All evening, I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting Janklow to jump out from behind a stack of magazines, just to say hello. But he never showed. I closed up and went home. A shower and three beers later, I started to relax.

After a couple of days went by and I didn’t see Janklow again, I reached the conclusion that he’d finally gotten my drift. Heading for work that day, I detoured around three guys from Men Moving, who were hauling stuff from Junie Davis’ apartment to their van in the alley. There was an ‘Apartment for Lease’ sign in the foyer of the building.

I got to my corner and took over from Kyle. Business was brisk in the late afternoon as commuters stopped for the papers, magazines, cold drinks, and candy. I even sold a couple of those damn fart cushions. Later, I watched the Cubs’ game on the fuzzy, nine-inch black and white TV we kept on the counter next to the register. I waited on maybe half a dozen customers between the end of the game and closing time.

I locked the register and was getting ready to close the gates when Janklow came in. He nodded at me and headed to the back, where he grabbed a soda. He strolled up to the counter. “I know,” he said, smiling, “a buck fifty.” He laid out the exact change.

There was something different about him. He seemed almost—I don’t know—almost jovial.

I unlocked the register and dropped the money inside. “What’s up with you?”

“Not much—been doing a little follow-up.” he said. “Just heading in for the night.” He smiled again.

“You still working the murder in my building?”

“Nah,” he said, “case’s closed.”

“Closed? Really? I hadn’t heard?” I was actually happy for him.

He chugged his drink, then burped, twisting the lid back on the empty bottle. “Not many people know.” He walked over to the gate and grabbed one side of it. “C’mon, I’ll help you close up,” he said. “My car’s parked near your place. I’ll walk back with you.”

Together we closed the gates. Like buddies, almost.


 I snapped the chain lock, and we started up the sidewalk toward my brownstone. “Who did it—if you can say, that is?”

“It turned out just like I figured—a guy in your building. I think I’ll be able to tie him to a string of other rape/murders across the river, too.” He walked beside me, his hands in his pockets. “Took me a while to get him though, but I finally did.”


“Dental records.”

Dental records?”

“Yeah. See, when I told you Junie Davis was a mess,   I wasn’t exaggerating. Raped, strangled—and the perp bit her—in twenty-three places—by the M.E’s count.” He stopped next to his car just as two men came out of the dark and crossed the street. “Hi Bob, Jeff,” he said, as they walked up. He gestured in my direction. “Meet Sean, here.”

“It’s OK, kid,” he said to me. “They work with me.” He pulled something out of his pocket. “Like I was saying, I got the guy with dental records. Well, not really records, but close enough for now. See, I was lucky enough to get my hands on some pretty good dental impressions he left behind at a lunch counter one afternoon. I took ‘em to the M.E’s office, and they were able to match them to the bite marks on the victim’s body.”

“L—lunch counter?” I stammered.

“Yeah. You remember? The apple?” He smiled again, a bit sadly this time. “Oh, and the lab was able to pull some saliva off it, too. I’ll bet my pension it’ll be a perfect DNA match to the suspect fluids we collected off Junie’s corpse.”

I started to back away, but Bob and Jeff stepped up.

“Then there was this.” Janklow said, showing me the item he’d pulled out of his pocket.

I didn’t want to look, but I did, anyway. It was a picture of a small, white, triangular-shaped object.

“What’s that?” My voice was very still. Even I could hear the lie in it.

“It’s your corner.”

My corner?”

“Yeah—you know, Sean—your corner?” He gestured toward my mouth. “The chunk of front tooth you lost in Junie Davis’ apartment.”

“Bu—bu—I loo—”

“—I know. You looked all over for it, didn’t you?” He pocketed the picture. “But it wasn’t in Junie Davis’ apartment. It was in Junie Davis. The M.E. found it in one of the bite wounds on her right thigh.”

I took a deep, deep breath. It was a relief, really. “I knew you’d figure it out the first time we met,” I said, scraping my hair back. “You have that bulldog look about you.”  I couldn’t help tonguing the still sharp, recently-broken corner of my front tooth.

Janklow opened the car door. “Yeah, I know. People have called me a bulldog before.” He sighed, smiling. “There’s just one more thing I need to tell you.”

I nodded and squared my shoulders—ready for anything. “What’s that?”

Janklow smiled, and this time his eyes lit up like the rest of his face. “You’re under arrest.”