“Suspicion” by Lu Whitley

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The ice cream was overly pink. Dyed that way. As if, somewhere in the world, strawberries might actually grow that color.

“Is that all?”

“Hmm?”

“That all, sir?” She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, and while the baby blue striped uniform read child, the face and attitude it framed feigned adulthood.

“Yes.”

She rolled her eyes for perhaps the twentieth time and punched at keys on the register. “Three seventy-five.” I handed over my debit card. She swiped it without bothering to look at it and returned it to my outstretched palm with the receipt. “Have a delicious day.”

I cocked an eyebrow and fought back a smile. “You too.”

And there was eye roll twenty-one. “Next?”

The August air outside was more liquid than gas. Sweat beaded on my forehead before I’d taken the ten steps from air-conditioned storefront to air-conditioned car. I fired up all one-hundred-ninety horses and cranked the AC knob all the way to the right, furiously licking at the swirl of strawberry as it dribbled slowly over my hand and realizing too late I’d forgotten to grab any napkins. “Shit!” I thumped the center console with my elbow and fished around inside, finding only a few bottles of ibuprofen and an overdue electric bill. The envelope’s plastic window crinkled as I wadded it up and scraped the ice cream from my sticky fingers.

Out of respect for my high-quality, imitation leather, I gave up on driving for the moment and knuckled the radio button. An instrumental solo broke the stagnant hum of the vents and then House of Pain ordered me to ‘Jump Around.’ As I was in no condition to comply, I moved the dial on down the line past commercials for products I would never need and songs from artists I was much too old to sing along to while sitting in a parked car outside an ice cream parlor. Already, the mothers of sunburnt children eyeballed me suspiciously as they passed and gripped their sons’ and daughters’ hands a little more tightly. No doubt, if I sat here long enough, the police would be called. Questions would be asked. And I just didn’t need that in my day.

A long beep squealed from the speakers, so loud, I heard cracks forming in my ice cream cone where it was clenched in my fist.

“…Special Report: City Hall has been evacuated in response to a phoned in bomb threat earlier this afternoon. We tune now to Bob Stephens who is live on the scene. Bob?

Thanks Vanessa. City Police Chief, Carl Danvers, has been slow to comment on the situation, but we now know the threat appears to have been directed at a specific City Hall employee who was due in to work later today. The local authorities issued an evacuation order for City Hall and the surrounding buildings as a precautionary measure. Mayor Orback has yet to release a public statement, and no word yet on whether the threat has been substantiated, but police would advise anyone who lives or works in the downtown area to exercise caution and report any suspicious activity. City Hall remains closed until further notice. Back to you, Vanessa.

Thanks Bob. We’ll keep you posted as new details in the case are released. Local scientist says the rising heat could be effecting the city’s water supply…”

A hard rap had me turning my attention to the driver’s side window. My expression turned from wide-eyed surprise to a slow smile. I bit the top layer of cone from the melting confection in my hand and rolled down the window. “That was quick.”

Steve raised an eyebrow as he crossed his elbows and leaned on the window well. “What ya mean?”

“I was telling myself how much of a creeper I looked sitting out here, watching the kids go by. I figured it wouldn’t be long til someone called in.”

Steve chuckled, his badge gleaming in the sunlight. Hot air accompanied his breath through the window. “Nah. I was just stopping by for a shake before patrol. Pulled Edwards to Washington.”

“Not downtown? Lucky.”

“Yeah. That’s a shit storm and a half.” He wiped the sweat from his round face with his sleeve. “Glad I’m out here with the creepers and old folk.”

I returned his grin. “They know who the guy was after?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“Come on, Steve. You know me.”

He looked from side to side, as if his sergeant might be waiting to jump out of the nonexistent bushes, and leaned in closer. “Laura English.”

I popped the last piece of cone in my mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “She related to Danny?”

“Don’t think so. New in town.” (Although ‘new’ could refer to anyone who wasn’t born here.) “Moved in to Junior’s building.”

“Over on ninth?”

“Yeah. Poor girl’s only been here a coupla months and already some crazy’s after her, threatening to blow up City Hall.”

I whistled out through my teeth. “Tough break.”

“Yeah. You coming out to Randall’s tomorrow to watch the game?”

“Nah. Got to get my lawn mowed before I leave.”

“I hear ya.” He tapped the door jamb and stood. “Well, be careful going home. They closed down most of Main and Summer.”

“Will do.”

“If I don’t see ya, have a good vacation, and keep your eyes peeled for any creepers that aren’t you.”

“Takes one to know one.” He let out a hearty laugh and waved over his shoulder as he hopped the curb and strode into the ice cream parlor.

The push from park to drive wasn’t as smooth as it once was. I made a mental note to have it looked at on the weekend and then erased it from my mind. Come tomorrow, I would be sipping cocktails on a sunlit foreign shore, away from the squalid humidity smearing my windshield.

The streets were bustling as I drove toward downtown. Onlookers and rubberneckers trying to get close to potential carnage, drawn like moths to a bloody flame. I scanned the crowds, lined up against the barricades along Summer Avenue as if, any minute, a winding parade might pass by. The same mothers that had peered at me with suspicion were now all too glad to drag their children by the hands toward the danger zone. Did bombs kiss babies as politicians do? Would they hold up their sons’ and daughters’ broken bodies to show the news outlets that their children had been touched by the tragedy?

Already, several news vans were on the scene interviewing spectators who were furthering their own political agendas. This one pointing out violence could be achieved without gunfire. That one advocating for better state mental health funding. This one blaming the Muslims. That one blaming the gays. Whatever got the best viewership in the twenty-five to fifty-four demographic.

Where did they get protest signs on such short notice?

Uniformed officers routed traffic around the fray, waving me left onto Gardener Street – right onto Chester Boulevard and into an ever-widening circle. More pedestrians choking the crosswalks at each intersection. Moving in herds. Droves. I watched them pass, wondering what their stories might be. Which ones of them were capable of violence? Which ones weren’t?

My media ravaged mind went automatically to the minorities. Anyone whose skin might be darker than mine. Though I’d been raised with no inherent prejudices, it was difficult to keep my wandering eye from spending a few more seconds on anyone who I perceived as different from myself.

A woman in a dark Hijab crossed the road carrying a full grocery bag. A young Hispanic man with shoulder to wrist tattoos walked an anxious looking terrier. A little girl with ebony skin weaved around her mother’s feet as the woman talked heatedly on her cell phone. All innocent. All guilty of something.

Just as the pulsing hand flashed, a man rushed across. His long, dark hair was pulled up in a bun. His clothes were impeccably clean, but his shoes looked as though he’d waded through mud. Where does one find mud in the middle of a drought? In his hands, he carried an unidentifiable package. It could have been a birthday present. It could have been a change of shoes. It could have been a bomb.

I slid my cell phone out of my pocket and held down the one button for my speed dial. The police exchange picked up on the second ring. Commendable with how much traffic they must be experiencing at the moment. “I’d like to report a suspicious looking man carrying a weird package downtown.”

“Where are you sir?”

“The intersection of Chester and Elm.”

“Can you describe the suspect?”

In that instant, he’d gone from innocent bystander to suspect. I recounted the color of his skin. His hair. How tall I thought he might have been. Where he was headed. Where he’d been. What I thought he was carrying. “It was suspicious.”

The female officer took all my information with minute detail. “I’ll have an officer check into it. Thank you, sir.” I padded the disconnect button and rode a wave of self-righteous satisfaction. Had I averted a crime? Was I a hero?

The high-rise buildings of Chester Boulevard shrank as I moved away from downtown. Little condos and apartment complexes dotted the way onto Bonaventure and over to Eighth Street. Light strobed through the leafy hickory trees, planted at even intervals. Though nothing in nature is ever truly even.

The shade of the garage at Eight Fifty-Seven North Ninth Street was jarring to my squinted eyes. Sun figments followed my gaze as it wandered down the rows of parked cars, looking for an open space. The berth for unit 4D was clear. As I hoped it would be. I rounded the other end of the aisle and found an open space next to a sign that read 5F.

I turned the key in the ignition, letting the car go silent. The garage followed suit. My footsteps echoed back at me from the smooth concrete walls and ceiling. The jingling of keys in my fist. My excited breaths.

At the curve of the ramp that returned to street level, I crouched behind the thick steel guard rail intended to keep cars from crashing into the building’s elevator shaft. Judging from the nicks and myriad of paint chips, it had been successful for quite a long time at doing precisely that. With my finger, I scratched my name into the dust while I waited. Humming the very House of Pain song I’d neglected to listen to earlier.

Would it be the last song I ever heard?

It’s a common misconception that all bombers are suicidal. Or religiously affiliated. I couldn’t remember the last time I went to church, and I’d certainly never felt strong enough about it to kill or die for any of the ideals. Jesus had never saved me. Allah had never called me to action. Buddha had never done whatever it is Buddha is supposed to do. Nothing quite so grand as all that.

In fact, it was the little things. A mountain of sand, built grain by grain until the whole thing collapsed to the ground. Much like a bomb itself. Dozens of innocent little pieces. Cogs. Gears. Wires. Completely benign until they stack up in a precise configuration.

Sometimes it was a complicated thing. Sometimes, as simple as a boy and a girl. Or perhaps that was the complicated one. The more the idea buzzed around in my mind, the more complicated it became. And the simpler the solution. A way to wipe it clean. Cleanse it with fire. As only fire can clean. Only fire is pure.

Laura English was not pure. She sat in her rented Hyundai Sonata in slot 4D, rifling through her purse. Perhaps searching for her soul. Is that where she kept it? Rotting at the bottom with a smattering of pennies, half-open sticks of gum, and her favorite lipstick – a violent shade of plum that always looked as if she’d just been kissed. She’d been wearing it when she’d kissed Luke Salvos on New Year’s Eve. When she’d taken him home. It had been smeared all over her smiling face.

I had brought her roses. I had paid for her dinner. Luke Salvos had given her an eye to match her purple lips and left her waiting at a bus stop two weeks later. Yet she’d cried over him. She hadn’t cried over me.

The click of her heels on the concrete was like the chirping of summer insects in the hickory trees. Grating. But there was no window to close it out. No air conditioner to drown out the sound. Just the heavy buzz and the heavy heat resting on my skin. Like the detonator resting on my palm. A simple key fob. Undetectable. My thumb caressed the buttons, waiting.

Laura crossed the garage at a fast clip. Running from the memory of the man who’d threatened her life. Not knowing he was right in front of her. As I’d always been.

People tended to describe an explosion as a boom. But it began with a crackle. A rumble. As the air around the center sucked in on itself and set ablaze. The boom hit seconds later. A shockwave rushing out like a torrent of wind that knocked you off your feet then shook the ground under your back. After that, you heard nothing. Blissfully devoid of sound.

Like Laura. She was quiet. Still. Even though the air around her swirled and burned. Dust puffed from the no longer smooth concrete walls and ceiling. But there were no more echoes.

I breathed out a deep breath. Not my last. Though each time, I wasn’t completely sure. Explosions were unpredictable. Like the hearts of men. Dark. Hot. Dangerous. A fire that should never be underestimated. For fire often catches where you least expect it.

 

 

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The name’s Lu Whitley, aka ‘me’ for the remainder of this exercise because writing about yourself in the third person is creepy. So, yeah, me. I live in Springfield, IL with my husband and our two cat babies. I’m a professional aunt, a part-time fashion merchandiser, and a full-time slave to the voices in my head. I write a serial novel on my blog: check it out here!  I also dabble in the magical art of terrible poetry. I enjoy snail mail and anything covered in chocolate. And incomplete sentences. Shiny things make me happy. Books are my life. I write lame bios.

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3 Comments

  1. For starters, Lu has done the impossible for us again and filled in on late notice for a contestant who dropped out. So I have to say that this story is excellent given the extreme time frame.

    Approaching this like any other story, though, I would probably say that the opening is a little too padded? Why not get right to the crowds and the police? I guess we do get a policeman and the bomb threat news report pretty early, but for me this story is about paranoia, nervous crowds, high alert, and a hot summer day. I sort of wanted our main character out of his air conditioning sooner.

    As for the twist, well that was enjoyable for me. At one point I actually thought, “It’d be sort of neat if X happened” and then it did. And it was neat. That’s tough to pull off because at some point the reader is going to start wondering just *why* we’re even following this narrator, and then they’ll start asking themselves questions, so you have to shuffle this story along and keep the reader guessing, which Lu does nicely.

    Nice work. And I always love seeing Mrs Whitley here in the arena.

  2. Jon Jones (@dvwhat)

    Bravo! This story was fantastic, and expertly fleshed out. I admit I felt that some of the elements seemed a bit predictable and clichéd, but it wasn’t until I reached the end and thought about it a little bit that this story also scared me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

    By the time we learned that there was a specific target for the anonymous threats and an evacuation order had been given for the employees at City Hall something in the back of my mind suggested a plot to isolate the target, and by the time the main character had finished phoning in the “suspicious looking man” I started entertaining suspicions of my own. Slightly predictable or not, the way it all played out was perfect. The straightforward sequence of details made it all the more chilling, because the calm demeanor of the main character painted him as a psychopathic monster hiding in plain sight. No one suspected him, even up close… trusting him in fact with details others are not supposed to know. And he perfectly orchestrated the whole thing, using communal fears and ignorance to his advantage. Meticulous and chilling. Well done. A great story, perfectly told.

  3. I’m late with this comment, but I wanted to get it in anyway, because I really liked this story. My favourite part was how great it was at getting us inside this guy’s head, making us feel his rage and his impotence. In fact it’s almost too good at making us feel what he feels. As the story progressed I felt myself starting to identify with this unhinged killer, the stereotypical “nice guy” who isn’t really nice at all, and that scared me more than a little bit. I don’t know if that was the intent or not, but that’s what I got out of it. Adding on top of all that the difficult time constraints this story was created under, and you’ve earned even more of my respect Ms. Whitley. Well done.

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