Grace is walking through a neighbor’s yard to the rear of Stefon’s apartment building. She stops and thinks about how alone she feels, how Cora was gone and all of her friends and colleagues were turned against her. She wonders again what FIND IT means and thinks about how she found the box from the PI among Cora’s belongings and that she will start her own investigation there.
She makes it to Stefon’s apartment house, climbs the fire escape, but the window is repaired. Instead of trying to break in, she goes to the front of the house and finds the door unlocked and opened. She climbs the stairs to his apartment door which is also unlocked. Inside the apartment, she notices that the kitchen is a mess, as if a fight took place. She hears someone else in the back room. When she goes into the living room to find the jewelry box, she finds Stefon dead on the sofa from a gunshot wound in the head.
Another person enters the apartment and the man from the back room goes into the kitchen and they begin to talk. Grace decides to sneak past them and escape through the back bedroom by the fire escape. On her way out, she notices a leather satchel on the bed. She goes back into the room and takes it with her, climbing down soundlessly and getting away.
A moonless sky was shrouding the borough in a cool downpour – the exact conditions that would enable her to break in, find the jewelry box, and then back out, completely unseen. There might never be a better time. Greta sat in her car sipping a lukewarm cup of tea. On her first try, she had driven past Stefon’s apartment house but kept on going, telling herself that getting something warm to drink would help calm her nerves. The second time around, she made a series of right-hand turns and then parked on an adjacent street where she could look across into his backyard. According to Lily, his apartment was on the third floor of a Tudor-style mansion whose past grandeur was now marred by fire escape ladders and air-conditioning units propped on the window sills.
The neighborhood appeared dark and foreboding. Greta had to fight an overpowering urge to drive away. Glancing around, she tried to envision Lily in these surroundings, forcing her mind to make the connection between this place and the woman she had shared a living space with for three years. When Lily asked her to do this, Greta had barely hesitated, and now, with Stefon’s third-floor window in her line of sight, she asked herself why. The only reason her mind could settle on was an instinctive feeling that all of her legal training from a law enforcement perspective would only go so far in helping her investigate Cora’s death and to resolve the matter in a way that would allow her the peace of mind she was lacking. Ultimately, the boundaries of the law might prove to be too limiting. If nothing in her old life had prepared her to live this one, then it was logical that she would need to develop a new skill set. Maybe this was an opportunity to do that. To be brave enough to function outside of the law even when it meant risking her freedom. Also, Lily would be up for parole in a few months and she would owe Greta a favor. Having some leverage over Lily could prove to be useful.
In prison, Lily never liked to talk about Stefon because she had truly loved him and he was the reason she was incarcerated. She had met him when he delivered a package to her at her shop. He was clean-cut, intelligent, well-mannered … and, as Lily quickly realized, a drug dealer. She said that she knew it wasn’t ideal but she had been as cautious as she could be, forbidding him to involve her customers in his business dealings. And no matter how much time they were spending together, she kept her own place in the city. The day the police came to question her about Stefon, she pretended to be surprised. She told them that of course she’d cooperate fully, to go ahead and look around. But she was genuinely stunned when they found two pounds of cocaine and a 7 inch ballistic knife in the back of a drawer beneath the register.
Since the cocaine was wrapped tight in cellophane blocks, they didn’t charge Lily with ‘intent to distribute.’ They knew she wasn’t involved in the drug business. They arrested her for possessing both the drugs and an illegal knife hoping that she’d be angry enough to provide information about her boyfriend’s connection to the drug scene. She was angry, just not enough to inform on anyone.
Lily reasoned that she didn’t have any kids, her mother had passed away and her father wasn’t in the picture. There was a brother in the southwest somewhere but Lily hadn’t heard from him in a while and she guessed that he had enough of his own problems. To her way of thinking, the years in prison would go by quickly and then she’d work to get her shop back.
Safely. Time served.
Setting aside thoughts of Watertown, Greta looked at her watch. It was time. Although she had been careful to park between lamp posts, the street was well-lit, and there was no way she could avoid being visible for the moment that it would take to exit her car and cross the sidewalk. Her only strategy was to stay hidden, and when that wasn’t possible, to make no sudden movements that might catch the eye of anyone awake at this hour. If she were caught prowling through the neighborhood like this, she guessed that one of two things could happen – either the cops would show up and she’d be arrested for trespassing, possibly for breaking and entering as well, or one of the other tenants would see her and they would deal with her on their terms, and she could only imagine what that meant. Taking one last look around, Greta got out of the car and leaned on the door with her hip. The lock clicked silently into place. Pocketing the keys, she slowly walked up the driveway and then between the two apartment buildings that backed up to Stefon’s yard.
Once she was safely in the shadows, she crouched down for a few seconds and waited. She wasn’t sure what for. Lights to suddenly flip on in the neighboring apartments? Police sirens to approach from every direction? Neither of those things happened. The darkness around her was cold, saturated, and heavy, and she felt completely alone in it. Greta quickly stifled the distressing thought that no one on earth knew where she was at the moment. Anyone who cared about her was either dead, in prison, or had distanced themselves from her years ago. If she was caught breaking into Stefon’s apartment, or was harmed in some way, it would only confirm what they had been shocked to hear about her in the first place. Facing the wreckage of her career had been difficult enough, but now, from this vantage point, she could add that had she not been wrongly convicted and sent to prison, she wouldn’t be here now putting even the broken shards of her life in jeopardy.
The cool night air swirled around her, made visible by a thickening fog. Greta had to clench her jaw to stop her teeth chattering. She couldn’t see more than a few paces in front of herself and she strained her eyes to search for obstacles in the dark. When she reached Stefon’s yard, she tested the sturdiness of the chain-link fence and climbed over it as soundlessly as possible. As she did, she felt her boot squish in what she guessed was probably a pile of dog poop, reminding her that Lily had warned that many of the houses in the neighborhood were guarded by hulking creatures that were a vicious mix of Rottweiler and the devil. Great, she thought. If there were any nearby, though, she hadn’t disturbed them so far.
Taking a deep breath, she bolted through the open backyard and stood with her back against the house. Thankfully, no security sensors were activated, and every window in sight remained dark. She unzipped her duffle bag and found the flashlight. Shining it upward, she could see the crisscrossing ladder of the fire escape that led to the third-story window. Flipping the light off, she looped the bag over her shoulder, looked up into the darkness where she knew the ladder would be, and jumped. She caught the bottom rung on the first try but for an awkward moment she just hung there – the metal hinges rusted and immobile. Surprisingly, the ladder was seldom used. When she carefully bounced up and down a few times, the rusted metal creaked under her weight and then gave way. She pulled the ladder down and started climbing. Quickly reaching the third floor, she paused to look down into the treetops for any movement in and out of the shadows of the neighboring yards. So far so good.
As it turned out, though, that was where her luck stopped.
Lily had told her that the third-floor window would be unlocked, that the roof directly above it had needed fixing for some time, causing the window frame to be badly damaged by rain and melting snow. She said that all Greta would have to do was push the window up and slide a dresser aside. That wasn’t the case, though. Not only was the lock working, it also looked like the window had been replaced – glass and all. As a last resort, she had planned to break through if it wouldn’t open. However, that would’ve been much easier – and quieter – if the glass was brittle with age. Looking through the window into the bedroom, she could see that it was a mess; clothing had been thrown on the floor, shoe boxes open with their contents strewn about. To the right was the closet that Lily had told her to check out once she had secured the jewelry box, the one with a panel that concealed a hidden shelf. Greta could clearly see that the compartment behind the false wall was not only exposed, it had been emptied of the drugs and money that Lily had told her would be there.
What did that mean? If Stefon had found a different location to hide the drugs, why would he leave the room in such disarray? That didn’t make sense. Even if he was in a hurry Greta guessed he would have put the panel back in place before leaving. Had he staged a theft and taken everything with him or had he really been robbed? With a spark of apprehension, Greta thought about the jewelry box and hoped she wasn’t too late.
Deciding to exhaust every other possibility before literally breaking and entering, Greta climbed back down the fire escape. She nudged the second-floor window and then descended and checked the ground-floor one. They were both locked. She reasoned that the interior of the house was probably a series of hallways and stairwells leading to locked apartment doors on each floor. It was doubtful that Stefon’s apartment door would be unlocked, or that he might have hidden a key somewhere nearby, but in order to check she would first have to find a way into the front hallway.
Rounding the side of the mansion, Greta headed toward the front porch, checking the block-glass basement windows along the way. Seeing that they were nailed in place, she continued on, bent over but looking both ahead and behind to make sure that she hadn’t been seen. Nearing the front yard, she climbed over the side of the porch railing and immediately crouched down behind a wicker chair. Just as she did, a small white van turned onto the street. Peering around as it passed by, she saw that there was nothing on the side panels – no company logo or any indication of what it might be doing in this particular neighborhood at 2:45 in the morning. The front windows were either obscured by the darkness or they were tinted. Greta couldn’t see the driver and she doubted that he had seen her. He drove swiftly past and there didn’t seem to be any indication that its appearance was connected to Stefon or Lily or to some unknown associate who might have been alerted to her movement through the shadows.
Greta paused for a minute, staying hidden, and trying to organize her conflicting thoughts. Her instincts screamed at her that she was in the wrong place at a really wrong time, that there was no good reason to willingly put herself in this much danger. Walking back to her car and driving away would not only simplify the situation, it would be the wise thing to do. But she was caught off guard by a feeling of exhilaration that she had made it this far. She thought about how it would feel to find a loose brick on the ground, smash the window and climb through. Greta reminded herself that her life had taken an inescapable turn and that if she wanted to function in this new reality and find Cora’s killer, she would have to ignore her instincts, ignore the fact that this was trespassing and theft, and that there was no legal justification for what she was doing. To do it anyway despite all that. In her own defense, there weren’t any ethical issues at stake here. Her reasons for doing this were not about personal gain and she didn’t intend to harm anyone. Lily was a friend and needed her help, and there was a time factor to consider because Stefon’s sister had threatened to sell her jewelry box and its contents to the highest-bidding pawn shop.
Staying clear of the heavily curtained window behind her, Greta stood up and walked around the wicker furniture toward the front door. Then, she stopped dead in her tracks, her chest burning with a sudden rush of adrenaline. The front door leading into the hallway of the apartment building was not only unlocked, it was open a few inches. For a brief moment, she questioned whether that was good luck or bad.
Quickly deciding that it was a good omen, she slipped through the doorway and into the front hall just as another set of headlights appeared coming from the same direction. Not waiting to see whether it was the van making a second pass or a different vehicle, she closed the front door and turned the deadbolt clockwise. Then, changing her mind, she flipped the lock back open.
Just as she expected, there was an apartment door on either side of her. Straight ahead at the end of the hallway was a utility closet or small storage room. Stepping forward, Greta looked upward through the center of the spiral staircase. She saw that it wound all the way up to the ceiling, three stories high. Following the worn patches on the dark gray carpet, she started to climb. When she arrived on the third-floor landing, she exhaled quietly and paused for a moment to listen, hearing only the sound of rain pattering on the roof above the attic space.
To the right was a light-gray door with the number 31 tacked on at eye level. A green ‘welcome’ mat that looked like a patch of grass was on the floor in front of it. The door to the left, number 32, was covered with knife-carved graffiti and burn marks and badly needed a coat of varnish. Greta approached Stefon’s front door and slowly turned the doorknob, surprised to find it, too, was unlocked. That could only mean one thing. Either Stefon hadn’t flown to L.A. as Lily had been told, or someone else had broken in, leaving the front hallway door open and this door unlocked.
When Lily described the layout of the apartment, it was from the perspective of the back bedroom window. Greta tried to picture it in reverse. The hallway door where she was standing should open into the kitchen with the bedrooms straight ahead and the living room off to the left. That was where Lily had told her to check first since the last time she saw her jewelry box it had been on the bookshelves behind the sofa.
Greta leaned her ear against the door and opened it a few inches, listening for any indication that there was someone on the other side of it. Through the opening, she could see that the kitchen table was overturned, a chair was broken into pieces, and the linoleum floor was covered with shattered glass. There was no one in sight so she pushed the door open further and slipped inside, closing it soundlessly behind her.
Suddenly, Greta heard a low-pitched scraping noise coming from one of the bedrooms; a piece of furniture sliding across the hardwood floor. Shit. There was someone else in the apartment with her. Then she heard whispering. Okay, two other someones. She wondered for a moment about Lily’s jewelry box but then realized that she was being naïve. The intruders were more likely to be connected to Stefon’s drug dealings. Greta immediately turned to leave but then stopped herself and thought about having to tell Lily that she’d gotten this far only to bail. After all, the living room was just a few feet away. All she had to do was turn the corner. She reasoned that if her first thought was to run away, then this new skill set of hers meant that she should do the opposite – she should instead go for the grab and then backtrack out the kitchen door and down the stairs as quietly as she could.
With the flashlight pathetically poised to strike, Greta walked into the living room, careful to step around the broken glass on the floor. The only light in the room came from the street lamp outside the window. The first thing that Greta noticed was a man sitting on the sofa in the dark. Clamping a hand over her mouth, she instantly froze. She managed to stifle a gasp but then realized that no sound came from him either. He didn’t move a muscle. There was no way he couldn’t see her standing there. Was he asleep? Just then, a car passed in front of the apartment building. As the reflection of the headlights traveled counter-clockwise across the walls and then passed over him, Greta could see that his eyes were open. Open and staring.
He was dead.
Flipping the flashlight on, she could see that he was a young black guy, probably in his mid-30s, quite handsome – except for the dark hole in his forehead just above his right eyebrow. He was dressed in black jeans and a designer T-shirt. This must be Stefon. The only dead bodies Greta had ever seen were the ones in the county morgue, usually in connection with a medical malpractice suit or some type of gruesome altercation. This was neither of those and whatever happened here seemed to have happened quite recently. In fact, it almost looked as if Stefon could sit up and resume a conversation. So, the kitchen being in shambles meant he had fought for his life just before being shot in the head? A gunshot would’ve echoed noticeably through the apartment building in the quiet of the night, prompting a call to the police even by tenants who usually avoided such attention. Was he murdered somewhere else and then moved here?
Shining the light above Stefon’s head, Greta could see that the bookshelves behind the sofa were empty. No jewelry box. No books either. In fact, besides the flat screen mounted on the opposite wall, there wasn’t any other furniture in the room. No cupboards or drawers where it could be hidden. It looked as if the living room was a dead end. Especially for Stefon.
All of a sudden, footsteps came from the direction of the bedroom, thick-soled boots crunching over bits of broken glass. Something heavy was dropped on the floor. Her heart racing, Greta slipped into the shadows against the far wall, partially hidden behind the curtain. Both men were in the kitchen now, and she could tell from their unintelligible whispers that they weren’t local. Greta couldn’t help pondering her bad luck. She’d shown up to retrieve Lily’s jewelry box at the precise moment Stefon was being robbed and murdered? It suddenly became clear to her that this was much too dangerous and her only priority now was to leave the apartment quietly and get back to her car unseen. With a painful twinge of anger, she realized she would have to leave empty-handed. There were two options: wait for them to wrap up their business and leave, taking Stefon’s money – and Lily’s jewelry box – with them, and then climb down the fire escape, or, she could hope they would both walk back into the bedroom, momentarily leaving her a clear path back through the kitchen and out the front door.
From her vantage point against the living room wall, she could see through the kitchen doorway. One of the men, frighteningly tall and dressed all in black, set the kitchen table upright and kicked the splintered pieces of a broken chair underneath it. Another guy came into view, slim and almost as tall, and he placed a large leather bag on the table and zipped it up. Wordlessly, they turned toward the back bedroom.
Greta emerged from the shadows and took a last look at Stefon’s stunned expression. When she reached the kitchen doorway, she carefully peered around the wall to make sure that the hallway to the left was empty. The men were nowhere in sight. There was a clear path to the front door and then down the stairs and back outside into the cold, rainy darkness. She anticipated the elation of slamming her car into gear and leaving all of this in the rearview mirror. For a moment, though, she couldn’t move, stopped in her tracks at the sight of the large leather bag on the kitchen table. It was directly in front of her, just a few feet away, a cross between a suitcase and a workout bag … and it looked full.
Could she? Was there time?
Stepping silently over the broken glass, Greta grabbed the bag by the handles, eased the door open, and then closed it silently behind her.
It was incredibly heavy and she knew that it would slow her retreat. Instead of climbing over the chain-link fence in the backyard again, she hurried through the shadows to the sidewalk in the front of the house and rounded the block to where her Camry was parked. As she was nearing her car, she noticed that the street looked exactly as it had forty-five minutes ago, with one exception. A small white van – the same one she saw earlier – was idling on the opposite side of the street, facing her car. Greta glanced sideways but she still couldn’t see into it. The driver had parked directly beneath a street lamp and the light reflecting off the windshield had completely obscured whoever was inside.
Shoving the bag onto the passenger seat beside her, Greta quickly pulled away from the curb and turned right at the end of the street. Traffic was light and the only activity as she drove toward home was the crowded parking lot of a diner filled with early birds and night-shifters. Greta’s stomach was in knots at the thought of food. She was shaking again, drenched by the freezing rain and in complete disbelief of what she had done. While leaving one set of fears behind her, she was immediately confronted with another – a run-in with the police. She was driving an unregistered, uninsured car on an expired license at four in the morning into a south-side neighborhood known for drug activity. She thought to herself that something about that might possibly be a violation of her parole.
Looking sideways at the satchel, Greta knew that she was suddenly in a crazy amount of danger. The task of finding Lily’s jewelry box had been daunting enough. And now this? True, it was a dangerous favor Lily had asked of her. But Greta wasn’t sure if grabbing the bag on her way out the door was a shrewd act of bravery or one of stubborn impulsiveness. That might have been her only chance, though. She could only assume that the men had packed the satchel with everything of value and they were just about to leave. Once they were gone, they were gone and there would be no way for her to find them. The thought of being too late, or not clever enough, to protect Lily’s interests, would’ve made her angry. It would’ve meant she had failed.
For Greta, what it came down to was that Lily’s friendship was all she had right now. Lily had connections in the city, reliable street-level advice, solid experience reading people. Greta needed her trust and respect now more than ever. That respect would be bolstered if Greta could give Lily the news about Stefon’s death and his involvement with an international drug ring before she heard it from her other contacts.
Despite setting them aside, Greta knew her instincts would never mislead her. Wrong place, wrong time, and it wasn’t over yet. So far, she had gotten away clean, but she wasn’t fooling herself. For the foreseeable future, she was completely alone, and she would need to maintain vigilance in the presence of vengeful people with deep connections.