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.
When the rain stopped a dense fog began to roll in, low to the ground at first but then it began to rise, and soon I couldn’t see more than a few paces in front of myself. I had parked on an adjacent street and was carefully making my way along the fence line of the yard leading to Stefon’s apartment house. I walked slowly; no sudden movements to catch the eye of anyone that might be awake at this time of night. When I made it to Stefon’s yard, I tested the sturdiness of the chain-link fence and climbed over it as soundlessly as possible.
As I had been doing for the past three years, I again wondered how this could possibly be my life. If I were caught prowling through the yard like this, one of two things could happen – either the cops would show up and I’d be arrested for trespassing, possibly for breaking and entering as well, or the neighbors would interfere and deal with me on their terms, and I could only imagine what that meant. In my previous life, even in a context when it might have been appropriate, I hadn’t been much of a risk taker. I had never gone skydiving or rock climbing. I’d never even traveled to a country where the hotels didn’t have room service.
To keep my feet moving in a forward direction, I tried to play tricks on my own mind. First, I reminded myself that my reasons for being here were not about personal gain and I didn’t intend to harm anyone. Lily was a friend and she needed my help and there was a time constraint to consider because Stefon’s sister was threatening to sell her jewelry box to the highest-bidding pawn shop. Then, motives aside, I tried to pretend that I was outside of myself, watching it play out from a safe distance as this other woman, who had no business being anywhere other than at home in her own bed, effortlessly climbed the fire escape, opened the window, and then retreated back to safety without anyone knowing she had been there.
I crouched down for a few seconds and waited. I’m not sure for what. Lights to suddenly flip on in the neighboring buildings? Police sirens to approach from every direction? Neither of those things happened. The darkness around me was cold, saturated and heavy, and I felt completely alone in it. I quickly dismissed the perilous thought that no one on earth knew where I was at the moment. Anyone who cared about me was either dead, in prison, or had distanced themselves from me long ago, believing that I was a convicted felon. News about my arrest and prison sentence had probably caused them to feel betrayed, to admonish themselves for ever trusting me as a friend or as a colleague. If I were caught breaking into Stefon’s apartment, or was harmed in some way, it would only confirm what they had been shocked to hear about me in the first place.
Before the jury had even made a ruling, though, I remember Cora cautioning me about opportunistic, harsh-minded people. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but now I did. She said that it wasn’t that our legal system was flawed, it was that sometimes the human beings witnessing it in action became irrationally empowered, caught up feeling qualified to stand in judgement of someone else and vindicated of their own indiscretions. Cora was warning me that even if the court found me not guilty, repairing my reputation would be another matter entirely. And now, from this vantage point, I could add that if I hadn’t been wrongfully convicted and sent to prison, I wouldn’t be here now putting even the broken shards of my life in jeopardy.
So much had changed in such a short an amount of time that it felt as if I was constantly trying to catch my breath but never could. I’m released from prison and this is the first thing I do? And feeling trapped beneath the weight of investigating Cora’s death without any help at all. When I was sorting through our belongings at the storage unit, I’d come across a box of files that the PI had copied Cora on about the details of his investigation. I guessed that he had probably talked with every one of the lawyers at the firm, the partners as well as my co-workers. Hopefully, there would be transcripts of conversations that he had had with them about how well they had known me, the quality of my work. I wondered what I would find. Is that what FIND IT was referring to? That I needed to find the one clue, the single piece of evidence that would explain why I was set up? That didn’t really make sense, though. FIND IT for who? If someone knew there was something to find in the first place, why didn’t they already know what “it” was? If putting me in prison wasn’t enough, if they went so far as to stage Cora’s suicide, then I had to consider the possibility that it might have something to do with a client of hers, past or present. Since Connor seemed unaware, then it might be something that Cora was working on privately, something that had escaped the attention of the investigator. Regardless, I had already determined that the box of files from the investigator would be a starting point.
The fog was stirring up the cool night air and I had to clench my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering. I strained my eyes to search for obstacles in the dark. Before I had boosted myself over the fence I felt my boot squish in what I guessed was probably a pile of dog poop, reminding me that Lily had said that many of the houses in the neighborhood were guarded by hulking creatures that were a vicious mix of Rottweiler and the devil. Great, I thought. If there were any nearby, though, I so far hadn’t disturbed any of them.
Taking a deep breath, I bolted through the open back yard and stood with my back against the house. Thankfully, no security lighting was triggered so I unzipped my duffle bag and found my flashlight. Shining it upward, I could see the crisscrossing ladder of the fire escape that led to the third-story window. I looped the bag over my shoulder, looked up into the darkness where I knew the ladder would be, and jumped. I caught the bottom rung on the first try but for an awkward moment I just hung there – the metal hinges rusted and immobile. I carefully bounced up and down a few times and, slowly, the rusted metal creaked under my weight and then gave way. I started to climb. When I reached the third floor, I could hear the nearby traffic over the dense treetops. Looking into the neighboring yards I couldn’t see any other movements in and out of the dark shadows. So far so good.
As it turned out, though, that was where my luck stopped.
Lily had assured me that the window would be unlocked, that the roof directly above it had needed fixing for some time and the window frame had been badly damaged by rain and melting snow. She said that I just had to open the window and push aside a dresser. That wasn’t the case, though. Not only was the lock working, it looked as if the window had been replaced – glass and all. As a last resort, I had been planning to break through if it wouldn’t open, but that would’ve been much easier – and quieter – if the glass were brittle with age.
I decided to exhaust every other possibility I could think of before literally breaking-and-entering. Climbing as silently as possible back down the fire escape, I nudged the second floor window and then descended and checked the ground floor one. I was relieved to find that both were locked. Sneaking through someone else’s apartment to gain access to Stefon’s front door wasn’t a plan of action that I’d even seriously considered until now.
I rounded the side of the house, heading toward the front porch, checking the basement windows along the way. I reasoned that the interior of the house was probably a series of hallways and stairwells leading to the locked apartment doors on each floor. I knew that trying to access Stefon’s apartment from his front door was a long shot but I decided to try anyway. Emerging from the shadows alongside the house, I climbed up and over the porch railing. Just as I did, a small white van turned onto the street. I quickly crouched down behind a wicker chair and peered around as it passed. The driver didn’t slow down at all and the side windows of the vehicle were either obscured in the darkness or they were tinted. When I stood up and approached the front door I stopped dead in my tracks, my chest burning with a sudden rush of adrenaline. The front door was not only unlocked, it was open.
For a brief moment, I stood still, trying to decide what to do. That decision was immediately made easier as the headlights appeared again, coming from the same direction. I quickly slipped through the doorway into the front hall, closing it behind me and silently turning the deadbolt clockwise.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I’d climbed the third set of carpeted stairs and felt light-headed. When I tried the doorknob to Stefon’s apartment, I was stunned to find that it was unlocked. I paused for a moment again, but there was only silence from every direction. My instincts were telling me that I should stop where I was, that it wasn’t too late to quietly ease the doorknob closed and back away from the unopened door. There was the distinct possibility that I didn’t know what this meant – the door being unlocked. There was a chance that I was completely unaware of the danger I was in.
Was Stefon inside? If so, why was his door unlocked at 3:45 am? Lily said that he was in Los Angeles, but she had also been unaware that the back window had been repaired. What if his plans had changed? And if Stefon wasn’t home, then that meant someone else either had a key or had broken in before I arrived. Is it possible that they knew I’d be there? I considered that idea but dismissed it immediately. Even if Lily had managed to contact Stefon and he agreed to give her the jewelry box back, I guessed that he wouldn’t go about it by leaving himself that vulnerable. Something else entirely was happening here. I just couldn’t guess what.
I slowly pushed the door open, just enough to slip through. This time, though, I closed the door behind me but didn’t lock it. When Lily had described the layout of the apartment, it was from the perspective of the back window, so as I stopped to let my eyes adjust to the darkness I tried to picture it in reverse. The hall door should open into the kitchen with the living room off to the side. That was where she said the jewelry box probably was.
With my flashlight pathetically poised to strike, I walked past the kitchen. I didn’t dare flip it on but even in the darkness I could see that the place wasn’t just a mess, the kitchen was completely destroyed. It looked as if something violent had happened. Chairs were upended. A cupboard door was smashed in and hanging by its hinges. There was broken glass everywhere. I carefully stepped around a box of cereal spilled on the floor and turned toward the living room.
Suddenly, I heard a noise coming from one of the bedrooms, a low-pitched scraping noise, as if a piece of furniture was sliding across a hardwood floor. Shit. There was someone else in the apartment – either Stefon or whoever had gotten here before me. I wondered if there was the possibility that they were here to find the jewelry box as well. Lily hadn’t mentioned what was in it, just that its contents were really only valuable to her. If there was someone in the back bedroom though, chances were it had something to do with either Stefon’s money or the drugs. Definitely not a run-in that I wanted to wait around for.
I immediately turned to leave but then I stopped and thought about having to tell Lily that I’d gotten this far and then bailed. The living room was just a few steps away. All I had to do was turn the corner. According to Lily, there were bookshelves behind the sofa and that was where I should look first. I decided to risk it, to go for the grab and then backtrack out the kitchen door and down the stairs as fast and as quietly as I could.
Walking into the living room, the first thing I saw was a man sitting on the sofa, in the dark, the only light in the room coming from the street lamps outside. I froze, clamping my hand over my mouth before I could make even a gasping sound. I managed to stay silent, but then I noticed that there was no sound coming from him, either. In fact, he didn’t move. There was no way he couldn’t see me standing there. Was he asleep? Just then, a car passed in front of the apartment house. As the reflection from the headlights traveled counter-clockwise across the walls and passed over him, I could see that his eyes were open. Open and staring.
He was dead.
I turned my flashlight on then, making sure to point it away from the direction of the back bedrooms, shining it on the guy on the sofa. He looked like a young black guy, probably mid-30’s, nice looking – except for the dark hole in his forehead, above his right eyebrow. He was dressed in black jeans and a designer t-shirt. This must be Stefon. What in the world had happened? And when? I guessed that a gunshot would’ve echoed noticeably through the apartment house in the quiet of the night, prompting a call to the police even by tenants who wanted to avoid such attention.
In prison, Lily never liked to talk about Stefon because she had truly loved him and trusted him and he was the reason she was incarcerated. She had met him at her shop, describing him as clean-cut, intelligent, well-mannered … and a drug dealer. Although she’d known about his involvement from the start, he had kept a full-time job driving a delivery truck for a laundry service. And as for the drugs, he was only a distributor on the periphery of the organization. Lily said she knew it wasn’t ideal but that she had been as cautious as she could be, never allowing anything to change hands in her shop. And no matter how much time they were spending together, she kept her own place. 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 uncut, they didn’t charge her with ‘intent to distribute.’ They knew she wasn’t involved in the drug business. Lily said they charged her with possession of 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 but 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 south somewhere but they didn’t keep in touch. 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.
I quickly shook off thoughts about Lily since I was now feeling really unsure about my decision to break in and find her jewelry box. Stefon, if this was him, must have been killed a while ago, during the daytime. There was no odor of a decaying body in the room and, in fact he almost looked as if he could sit up, look over at me, and resume a conversation. Maybe he was murdered someplace else and then moved here, I thought. Then I reminded myself that the kitchen was a mess. Ok, take a breath. I was starting to get confused. I really needed to hurry up and get the hell out of there.
Shining the light above Stefon’s head, I could see that the bookshelves behind the sofa were empty. No jewelry box. No books either. Looking around, there weren’t any cupboards or drawers where it could be hidden. It looked as if the living room was a dead end. Especially for Stefon.
A doorway on the wall opposite the sofa led to a short hall and, presumably, the bedrooms. Without giving myself time to think, I turned toward that direction, but as I did, I could hear the front door to the apartment creak open and then closed. Great, I thought, now what. The deadbolt snapped with a metallic clang. Ok, so now there were at least two other people in the apartment, if not more, and we were all locked in together. Telling myself to breathe quietly, I stood in the shadows of the door frame, hoping that a car wouldn’t drive past.
Heavy footsteps stopped in the kitchen and I could hear the ticking sound of someone texting on a cell phone. Then, even heavier footsteps coming from the bedroom. Thick-soled boots crunching over broken glass. So far it sounded like just two other guys. I couldn’t see either of them but they seemed to be talking, just to each other, so they must not have suspected that I was there. They were speaking in whispers that I couldn’t understand. I mean, how bad could my luck possibly be? I’d shown up – simply to retrieve something that rightfully belonged to Lily – at the precise time that Stefon was being murdered and robbed?
I suppressed a rising panic and forced myself to focus on the safest route out of the apartment. I figured I had two options: I could either wait for them to wrap up their business and leave, taking Stefon’s money – and possibly Lily’s jewelry box – with them, and then I could exit down the fire escape. Or, I would have to take the chance that they’d eventually both walk into the bedroom, leaving me a clear path back through the kitchen and out the front door.
I knew that I couldn’t possibly fight my way through them. The apartment house was so completely silent that I was afraid to even move. I was sure that they’d make a final sweep of the living room on their way out and there was really no place to hide. I’d have to try to sneak past them. I had to make it to the bedroom, without them hearing me, and then escape through the back window. Empty-handed, I thought, with a painful twinge of anger.
I had to cut my losses, though, and quickly. They were behind me in the kitchen and I could hear their back and forth whispering, as if they were discussing something and having a disagreement. It was now or never. I looked to the right, down the empty hallway, deciding that the bedroom with the window that led to the fire escape was the last door on the left. There was the possibility of them seeing me slip past, but if I stayed low I’d just have to gamble on them being distracted enough not to notice me.
Leaning over, I lightly stepped down the carpeted hall and past the kitchen door, glancing in to see the two men; one frighteningly tall with his back toward me, and the other one who would’ve had a clear view of the hallway but he was busy checking a text message on his phone. When I made it to the bedroom, I listened again for their harsh, guttural whispers. It seemed that I was in the clear. I walked to the window and quietly unlocked it. The thick glass still had the manufacturer’s sticker on it and I thought to myself that it was incredibly lucky that I hadn’t tried to break through. Even luckier that they hadn’t seen me. The window lifted silently on its tracks and when it was halfway open I ducked under and stepped out onto the fire escape.
Then, for some reason, I stopped. On my way to the window I had briefly scanned the darkened room. There wasn’t much in it, just a bed against the wall to the left, a small table next to it, and what looked like a filing cabinet near the open closet door. Something had caught my attention, though. I knew that this was not the place to stop and think, that I needed to hurry so I’d have time to climb carefully down the rusted fire escape that would no doubt rattle and scrape under my weight. If they saw me, I knew that they’d chase after me – or worse – I’d meet the same fate as Stefon had. But there was this sudden, overwhelming feeling that I shouldn’t walk away yet, that I was missing something vitally important. What was it that had caught my eye?
I ducked my head under the window and looked back into the room. There was a lamp on the bedside table but it wasn’t switched on and the only other source of light was this window that reflected only the pre-dawn blackness of the back yard. Inside the room I could see shapes and outlines but no details. As I climbed back over the window frame, I glanced to the left, and I could hear the men still whispering in the kitchen. I carefully switched my flashlight on and scanned to the right. The closet door was open and I could see that the hidden shelves built into the back wall were exposed and emptied. There was clothing on the floor, along with shoe boxes with the lids off and the contents strewn about. The guy that did this was either in a hurry or wasn’t concerned at all about covering his tracks.
Against the far wall was Stefon’s bed. That’s when I saw it. Sitting on the bed was a large brown leather satchel. It looked well-worn and battered, a cross between a briefcase and a workout bag. It was open … and it looked full.
Should I? Was there time?
Before I could berate myself for not stopping to consider every dangerous consequence of taking such a risk, I quickly switched the flashlight off. I grabbed the bag by the handles, pushed it out the open window, and exited onto the fire escape. From the other side, I silently eased the window down as far as I could.