Ballerina Dita Marx and her composer husband, Dan Di Bello, have a two o’clock appointment at the now-boarded-up Harlem Center for the Arts with board president, Arlen Van Aiken, whose board voted to close down the center, which was very painful for the community, as well as Dita and Dan. They want to retrieve The Phoenix, a statue created in memorial to three board members lost when the World Trade Center collapsed September 11, 2001. But Dita is late, and Dan goes into the center looking for Arlen, whom he finds murdered in the basement, bludgeoned with the very statue Dan has come to collect. When the bodies begin to pile up and Dan is later arrested for murder, Dita is outraged and determined to prove his innocence—even if it means risking her own life…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Locked Out by Sarah Levine Simon, Dita Di Bello and her husband Dan have been working for the Harlem Arts Center, but now it’s closed by the board of directors. The community is understandably upset, since the center held dance and music lessons for the children. In addition, many people lost their jobs. When Dan and Dita come to the center to meet with the president of the board, they discover the man has been murdered. And Dan is the prime suspect…
Full of marvelous characters, intrigue, and suspense, this is a mystery you won’t want to miss.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Locked Out by Sarah Levine Simon is a story of greed, corruption, and murder. When the board of directors for the Harlem Arts Center closes the center without notice, the people who work there are outraged, especially Dita and Dan Di Bello. But when they arrive at the center to confront the board president, he has been murdered. Since Dan discovered the body, he becomes the main suspect. Dan is arrested, and Dita, four months pregnant, is determined to prove he didn’t do it, but as she digs for the truth, she uncovers more than she bargained for.
The author’s character development is superb, her plot solid, and the mystery intriguing, making Locked Out one you will really enjoy.
Dan Di Bello pulled the Jeep up to the front of the arts center and double-parked. He didn’t want to get out. He’d been dreading this all day. Strange word “dread.” It also described a momentary emptiness he’d felt from time to time in contemplation of his own mortality. Dan let a long moment pass before finally getting out of the car. It was a fine August day, and he would have preferred a stroll in Central Park. However, a work of art remained in this boarded-up building formerly called the Harlem Center for the Arts, and he needed to get it out of there. His wife, ballerina Dita Marx, had founded and directed the center until its board deemed it fiscally unviable and closed its doors forever. If the rumors of drug dealers now infesting the property were to be believed, it could be dangerous to go in there. Dita was supposed to meet Dan here one last time. But dammit, she was late.
Dita hadn’t taken ballet class in several months and had asked Dan if he would mind if she went to an eleven-thirty class at Steps on Broadway, before meeting up with him at the center. Dan had been fine with it. It would probably relax her. His sylph-like wife still turned heads in a ballet studio. He savored the image—curly brown hair frizzing out of a makeshift bun and a sheen of sweat beaded across the freckled bridge of her straight nose, almond shaped hazel eyes beaming out of a heart-shaped face, and those long elegant arms that were her trademark as a dancer. She was four months pregnant and just beginning to show. The belly poking out of her leotard would cut a different profile.
Dita’s ballet class ended at one p.m. She did “barre,” some of “center,” and then she wistfully watched the new crop of ballet dancers leap, jump, and pirouette across the mirrored studio, cannily avoiding the room’s pillars. It was too early to head uptown so Dita took time for a bowl of chicken soup at the Fairway Café next door to Steps. The café was jammed and she ended up taking the soup outside where she sat on a bench on an island in the middle of Broadway and Seventy-Fifth Street with its sliver of greenery behind her, traffic racing both up and downtown on either side. Her feet rested on the grate over the subway fifty feet below. It felt good to be part of the pulse of this part of the city. The air, clean by New York City standards, was enlivened by the scent of greenery.
At one-thirty p.m., she headed into the Seventy-Second Street subway station for the uptown number three-train. The train arrived after ten minutes. It was crowded but Dita got into it anyway, grasping at a pole with a cluster of other passengers their bodies pressing uncomfortably into hers. The doors closed and the train departed for the Ninety-Sixth Street stop, but then it slowed down, lights flickering, and stopped in the tunnel between stations. The alarming smell of something electric overheating filled her nostrils. Barely discernable through the static, a voice over a loud speaker informed the passengers that due to a track fire there would be a slight delay. Dita suddenly had to pee. She had swigged from a bottle of water while she ate the soup. She was beginning to regret the accumulation of liquid. Now she was so late Dan would undoubtedly enter the center and confront Arlen Van Aiken alone.
The subway car remained in the tunnel. An elderly woman hugged the same pole as Dita and began to spew vile invectives about the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Dita sought to distance herself but she was captive. “They do it deliberately,” the woman ranted on. “I’ve lived here all my life and don’t believe any crap about things getting better. They just make sure Grand Central and Lincoln Center look good and the rest of the city can go to hell. I’d like to see Hizzoner down here among us. I’d fart on him. No, I’d shit in his face.” A few people laughed. Most tried to look away. Dita didn’t dare laugh. Her bladder was now painfully full and she squeezed to hold back a stream of urine. Pregnancy certainly brings on new inconveniences, she thought. The train started up with a jolt. Finally!
At Ninety-Sixth Street, she got out and ran upstairs to a McDonalds to pee. She tried Dan’s cell and got no answer. Afraid to go back down into the subway, she hailed a cab. Everyone had the same idea and there were no cabs available. She started to walk up Broadway, thinking to catch a bus across town at 125th. A glance at her watch told her she couldn’t possibly make the two o’clock appointment. Dan would be angry with her but the circumstances were beyond her control. Everything in her life seemed beyond her control lately. She hoped to find Dan fuming in the Jeep with the statue and the encounter with Arlen Van Aiken over without her.
In a community garden adjoining the center a team of elderly gardeners worked diligently and waved when they saw Dan approach. They were the eyes and ears of the neighborhood. Their garden was lush and verdant, a series of tiny raised plots. They gardened above ground. It meant more watering but the soil was organic and they could eat what they grew without worry about what had been dumped in the Harlem soil over the years.
Staked cucumber vines and spicy pepper plants flowered. Morning glory vines fastened their tendrils firmly to the bars of the fence and had climbed until they hung over the top. A variety of cutting flowers bloomed graciously in abundant clusters of color—dahlias, zinnias, cosmos, daisies and fleshy cockscombs. The sunflowers had grown to the height of ten feet. The productivity and bountifulness of the garden stood in stark contrast with the boarded up arts center. Dan’s soft brown eyes misted over remembering the rich cultural community Dita had created with her hard toil.
Oliver Outlaw, otherwise known as “Tomato Man,” came to the wrought iron fence, and put his hand out to shake Dan’s. Dan wasn’t a tall man but he towered over Oliver. He was famous for growing huge yellow and red heirlooms he fertilized with a mixture of fish scraps from R&B fish, and compost he collected from his friends and neighbors. As usual he wore a Yankee cap over his baldhead.
“How you been. How is the missus?” Stout Earline Wilson remained on her knees weeding but waved to Dan. Getting up and down was a problem for her. Two women were gabbing and shading themselves on a bench in a far corner. They waved to Dan then quickly returned to their chat, leaving Dan to make conversation with Tomato Man.
“We’re surviving, Olie.” Dan pushed a lock of wavy hair off his face. Since the closing of the center the dark brown was more threaded with gray.
“We miss you all. How ’bout some tomatoes?”
“Can’t say no to that.”
“You better not. Heirlooms. Only kind I grow.”
“I have a meeting in there with Arlen, I’ll come and chat with you on my way out. I came to get the Phoenix statue. It’s going to have a new home in the Schomburg Center.”
“That’s good,” Tomato Man said, shaking his head and indicating the boarded-up building next door. “That statue is sacred.”
“Yes, it is,” said Dan, whose thoughts turned to Ricardo Montero, a local sculptor, who had created the statue of the Phoenix, a flaming bird representing rebirth, in memory of center family members lost September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center collapsed. The statue was created out of lively colored enamel over metal, and had stood in a wall niche in the center parlor floor. Dita and Dan had come to think of the Phoenix as a protector. Indelible in their memory were those lost—Ferdie Forbush who traded stocks by day and spent every evening he could at the opera. He loved the arts and freely gave of advice and funding; Josh Grogan, who was having a powwow breakfast at Windows On the World that fateful morning; Jesus Avila, a waiter at Window’s on the World, who was so proud that his children learned to play and sing at the center. He helped out in many small and large ways with mechanical, gardening, and painting skills and served on the arts center’s board as its neighborhood representative.
When Dita had told Ricardo that the center had closed, he told her emphatically he wanted his work back. “I don’t trust those bastards,” he said, referring to the board members. Now that Ricardo had a following and exhibited in prominent galleries, Dan felt his request was reasonable. The board members would probably argue that the sculpture was commissioned and therefore the property of the center. If Dan remembered correctly the commission amounted to five hundred dollars paid in two installments—really a joke.
Tomato Man interrupted Dan’s thoughts. “Let me know if you need help. But you be careful in there. Before they boarded the windows there was a drug dealer sneaking in there. Then a coupla homeless guys. Don’t know if anyone’s in there now. Best be on the alert.”
“Hopefully the only person in there is Arlen.”
“I ain’t seen him come out.”
“Well then the meeting is on.”
Dan felt clammy apprehension. But if Arlen was in there, he thought it would be all right. “Thanks, Olie,” Dan said. “I will be very careful.”
He crossed the center’s paved front yard. The building was a brownstone located in a block-long row of brownstones in varying degrees of repair. Some were mere shells. Dan saw that the ground floor entry door of the center stood partially open. He waded through a heap of take-out menus and other debris into the doorway and pushed the door open even further.
The interior was totally dark. He felt for a light switch. He found one near the doorframe and tried to flip it on. The electricity was turned off. With the windows boarded up, no light could enter. “Arlen,” he called out. Then Dan repeated the name. He heard his own voice echoing in the empty building. He could barely make out the staircase leading to the parlor level and was hesitant to wander in the dark. He heard a whirring. A sound a bat would make. But didn’t bats sleep during the daytime? What could he possibly find? I’m a grown man. Why am I freaking out over neighborhood rumors? Even drug dealers need light. Dan returned to the Jeep where he found a powerful flashlight in the glove compartment.
As he returned to the center, Tomato man came once again to the fence. “When I seen him go in there about twenty minutes ago, I pretended I didn’t know who he was.”
The image of the wizened old man ignoring the Armani–clad fop made Dan laugh. “Did he come by car again?”
“Wouldn’t dare bring that fancy car up here.”
Dan anxiously consulted his watch again. He looked at his cell phone to double-check the time. “One of us will probably have to stay with the Jeep if we can’t park in front of the center,” he had told Dita.
Parking spaces were a rare commodity on the art center block. He worried about getting a parking ticket. They couldn’t afford the fifty dollars right now.
Dita was probably avoiding this encounter, Dan thought. She’d had an attack of nerves just thinking about seeing Arlen. They’d had practically no contact with him since he, as board president, had closed the center.
Flashlight in hand, Dan returned to the boarded up building and stepped inside. He mounted the staircase. His light beam fell on balls of dust that had accumulated in the corners of the stairs. No one had swept in months. The center was sadly abandoned, which Dan didn’t want Dita to see. She was taking the center’s closing very hard. His very spirited wife had become dispirited and unmoored with nowhere to channel her energy. Their baby was coming, and because of the loss of Dita’s job, they found themselves in dire financial straits. Dita believed in Dan’s compositions and didn’t want him to stop composing in order to take a day job. He wanted Dita to fulfill her dream of making dances. They wanted to collaborate—his compositions, her choreography. The center had provided Dita with a weekly albeit not very lucrative salary they both depended on.
Dan felt a surge of new anger. When he reached the parlor floor, it too felt closed in by the boarded up windows. From above he heard the whirring sound again. Maybe Arlen was doing something up there. It was difficult to illuminate the entire space and he began to inspect the parlor in segments. The front parlor windows had had a leaded glass border that would allow prisms of daylight to flood the parquet floor on a sunny day. This was where they had held concerts. It had served as a dance studio as well. Where were those beautiful windows? The bastards sold off salvage after they closed the center. They had turned the center into another Harlem shell.
Today the room was lifeless and still. The portable ballet bars and the roll of Marley flooring brought out for dance classes were gone. The grand piano was gone as well—ten feet of polished ebony and a mellifluous, rich sound, a joy to play on. The instrument was worth upward of one hundred thousand dollars. They’d have to ask Arlen about the pianos. There were other fine pianos as well in the center’s classrooms. Then Dan saw the wall niche where the Phoenix had stood. It was empty. So Arlen must have already had the sculpture removed. He steeled himself to search the two upper floors.
All he found were more empty dank rooms with windows boarded up. The other pianos were missing as well. Antique glass was missing throughout the building. Wires hung from the ceilings where chandeliers had provided kaleidoscopic, dancing light that made the rooms sparkle. Arlen couldn’t have intended for him to see this. But where was Arlen anyway? The only place he had not searched for Arlen was the ground floor and the basement, but there was no reason Arlen would be there—the only things in the area were the mechanicals, a workbench, and some storage.
As Dita continued walking uptown on Broadway, the day of the lock out replayed in her mind. It was May first. Just conjuring up the shock of it sent frissons of anger throughout her body. Fifteen years of her hard toil had gone for naught. In the years of running the center, she had developed an urge to create dances. On the center youth, she honed her skills and grew into a choreographer. As her dance students matured and some of them became advanced enough for professional training, she dreamed of starting a troupe. Teaching and making dances came to her more naturally than being a ballet dancer alone. Maybe that was part of the reason a different path was chosen for her, she reasoned. At breakfast that morning in early May, she found herself toying with the rims of mason jars. She stood the circles up by laying a spatula over the bottoms. A dance using circular objects began to form in her mind. The jar rims jangled in her pocket book as she walked. She intended to begin work on her dance that afternoon.
Instead, when she came to work that fateful morning, she found a crowd milling outside of the Center. Among them four music students from the Juilliard school she had booked to talk about chamber music. The talk about chamber music would touch on cooperation and teamwork. Part of what Dita loved about running the center was that it gave her the ability to send messages to her students. The arts could convey these concepts so well.
Dita remembered wondering why a fire drill would be scheduled first thing in the morning when the kids were just arriving. In addition to her overstuffed pocket book with its jangling mason lids, Dita’s arms had been full of books and music in a torn shopping bag.
A line of school buses filled with children waited at the curb. She had recognized the angry faces of two of the teachers who were miffed that the center was apparently closed.
As she drew closer, she saw the gray blue cap and folded arms of an enormous red headed security guard. Dita quickened her pace, but the shopping bag gave way and books plunged onto the pavement. Dita’s assistant, Marge Bliss, an older African American woman, shook her head and rushed over to help. Marge had tears in her eyes.
“Something tells me this morning is totally out of control,” Dita had said.
“No, it’s very much under control. We’re locked out!” Marge gathered the books to her ample bosom as Dita slipped the remaining few under her arms and rushed toward the guard. The Center and an adjacent community garden had been padlocked with massive chains. The neighborhood gardeners groused as they waited with pails and shovels.
“They won’t even let us in to water the plants. Everything’s going to die if we can’t get in there,” Tomato Man said.
Dita handed the rest of the books to Marge and the crowd parted enough to let her through. She’d found herself looking from the hooded eyes and doughy face of the security guard to the badge. It read Dirk. Dirk the Jerk, she had thought. “What is going on here, Dirk?”
“Place is closed down is all I know.”
The center cat, a little black tuxedo kitty with a white bowtie and three white paws, mewed incessantly from behind the barred window of the front office. Then he appeared on the building roof as if contemplating a jump. “Someone must have left the skylight open. My beautiful cat almost leapt to his death. I work here. I’m the director. I need to go in there,” Dita said, as she drew herself up as far as her five-foot-four-inch frame would allow.
“’Fraid that’s not possible,” the security guard said.
“That animal is hungry. It’s inhumane to lock him in there like that.”
“Cat’s been crying for the past twelve hours since they come with the locks,” a bystander screamed.
“Got my orders.”
“He ordered this place closed, Miss.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Dita reached into her pocket book and flipped open her cell phone. The number was readily available but Arlen wasn’t picking up. She waited an eternity for the outgoing message. “I think I’m entitled to an explanation and so are the people standing out here on the sidewalk with me. There is an animal starving to death inside, and I’m going to call the ASPCA if you don’t let him out immediately.”
A hired car had parked in front of a fire hydrant and the driver went around to the back passenger door to help Violet Peters, an elderly African American woman, get out. Help, she didn’t need. She had stood rock solid, her arms crossed in mimicry of the security guard. Violet was buxom with a full round face, dark eyes that usually twinkled humorously, but not today. Dita thought she’d never seen Violet wear the same outfit twice. Today she wore a mint-colored light spring wool suit that made her coffee colored face glow under her wide-brimmed hat. The hat had matching trim. White patent pumps completed the outfit. Violet had been an esteemed mezzo soprano at the Metropolitan opera; and her connections with boards at Carnegie Hall, and Lincoln Center helped to open and sustain the center as a place where neighborhood children could learn to dance or play an instrument, where the ability to pay for lessons did not matter. The center was Dita’s brainchild and Violet was a staunch supporter early on.
Violet had hugged Dita tightly. “I was out-voted. I wasn’t supposed to tell you but I tried to call you last night.”
Dita choked back tears. “I heard your name in the messages but it was midnight and I thought it was too late to return the call, and I didn’t want to call too early.”
“For what it’s worth, Dita, I’m sorry. The board changed. No one really kept me informed. Everything was discussed before the meetings. They voted to close up the center. Lord only knows why.”
The guard’s phone had rung and everybody watched as he nodded in response to what he was being told. He closed the phone nervously and addressed Dita and Violet. “That was the boss man.” His pale face grew so red with fear, Dita almost felt sorry for him.
“You mean the board president Arlen Van Aiken?”
“If you say so. He said to tell you at ten a.m. the doors will be open for an hour so you can get your personal items.”
“For one hour to collect half-a-life time of stuff,” Marge demanded. She looked haggard. Her creamy brown skin had taken on a grayish twinge, making Dita worry for her. “And what about our pay checks?” Marge continued.
“Didn’t tell me nothing about no paychecks.”
“What should we do with the kids?” demanded a teacher. The buses weren’t supposed to come back for them until after lunch. “This is a mess. A lot of these kids have to pee now. They’ve been sitting on this bus since early morning.”
“Can I make a suggestion?” Dita took charge, despite the shock of the situation. “Let’s walk them over to the library. I’m so sorry this was handled in this way.”
As Dita continued to walk up Broadway, she frowned as she remembered Arlen Van Aiken, driving up the day of the closing in his BMW, top down. Showing his usual arrogance, he’d acted like the closing of the center was business as usual. Never mind the lives of students and teachers affected by his actions. All business, Van Aiken had gotten out of his car, straightened his tie, and smoothed his Armani jacket. Rex Turner, Arlen’s maintenance man had arrived with a key to the padlock. He looked so uncomfortable, caught between their opposing forces. Rex personified “workman.” He wore a well-worn leather tool belt crammed with carpenter’s tools around his waist. A pair of work gloves had been clipped onto a loop on his overalls. He was tall and well muscled. He spoke in a gravelly voice with a hint of the south. “I’m bricking windows down on that shell on One Hundred Ninety-Ninth Street like you asked. The cement’s going to dry up.” He impatiently ran his hand through his short Afro as he looked from Dita with her folded arms to Arlen with his superior smug grin.
“Good,” Arlen had said, “but get back here in an hour to close up.” Rex meekly agreed with a slight head nod. Dita knew that Arlen had humiliated Rex by making him his gofer. His discomfort was obvious. What she thought was a sympathetic look passed from Rex’s eyes to Dita. Rex was a strange one. Hard to read!
When Rex had gone, Dita had turned to Arlen. “So? You had to close up the community garden, too?”
“There was no choice. It was all part-and-parcel of the center’s assets,” Arlen had said, sounding like William F. Buckley. “It’s business, Dita. You had your hand in it, too.”
“Don’t start making accusations here,” Dita snapped.
“You ignored our budgetary concerns,” he said. She had let him get to her and winced, embarrassed by her choreography daydreams. Arlen crossed over to the security guard, and Dita could hear his strict instructions. “They can have one hour, and that’s it!”
Dita noticed Violet eying the drooping shoots of the plants with a self-satisfied air about her. Violet was one of the most stubborn human beings Dita had ever dealt with and, fortunately, her dear friend. Violet pursed her lush lips and a long guttural sigh issued from her throat. The gardening folks had just that very week done their spring planting. The little plants wouldn’t survive without a daily watering. More effort gone to naught!
“I think somebody ought to go get a wrench and open the fire hydrant. I think the bus driver might have one,” Violet said and turned to one of the teachers with the smuggest of grins. “Why don’t you go see, and bring some of those kids out to help us send the water in there?”
Dita had seen this look on Violet’s face many times before. “I’m afraid to find out what you have in mind.”
The teacher had returned with a driver who opened the hydrant. The water spurted out with force. The kids streamed out of the bus. Violet gathered them around and spoke to them in a low voice. “Everything is going to get watered.” Little hands converged on the spigot and water jetted in a huge arc right to where Arlen Van Aiken was still giving instructions to Dirk. Both of them jumped back. Arlen’s drenched Armani suit clung to his body.
“What did you make those kids do?” Furious, he charged toward Violet, who whispered to the kids again.
Next the kids aimed the spray on the interior of the BMW.
“You’re going to pay for the damages, Violet.”
“What? Armani melts like the wicked witch of the west?” Violet said to an operatic chorus of laughter. “Anyone riding top down in this neighborhood is askin’ for it. You, of all people, should know better, Arlen, Just open the goddamned garden. Otherwise, you’re going to be in fear of your life!”
“You’d better do it,” Dita said.
“Okay! Okay! I’ll let the garden stay open.”
The crowd had cheered and jeered at the drenched duo of Van Aiken and his security guard.
Latter on that day when the last of the buses had pulled away from the curb bringing the children back to their various schools, Dita had been able to convince a drenched Arlen Van Aiken, to give them a few more hours to pack up their personal belongings. Then Arlen had driven off in his sopping vehicle, the butt of relentless laughter. Dita imagined him entering his Fifth Avenue residence to get himself changed as she watched the silver beamer weave through the congested street and disappear in front of a city bus. Back at the center, the gardeners continued to laugh as they tended to their tiny plots of earth. Chattering old women sunned themselves on the benches and talked with great satisfaction about “the hosing.”
Violet, Dita, and Marge were alone in the center for the last time. With all of its windows closed, it felt stale and dank—a shabby building, devoid of life, its paint peeling, linoleum scuffed. Someone would pull down the bulletin boards covered with concert ticket information, sell off the scored chalkboards milky with chalk dust where little hands wrote out scales and triads. Dita supposed the murals painted by local artists and their art students would be painted over to give the building a generic life.
Rex Turner hovered nearby listening to Dita’s interchange with Marge and Violet. He was taking measurements of the window frames and jotting numbers down on a pad.
“Since you have your tools, do you think you could help us remove the Phoenix?” Dita had asked Rex.
Rex scowled. “That’s got to go through Van Aiken. And he won’t be back today. I don’t want no trouble from him.”
“You know, you don’t have to be Arlen’s stooge,” Dita said.
“It’s work, Ms. Marx, with all due respect. I need to hurry, so if you ladies can finish up in here, then I can lock up.” He moved onto another floor with his notebook and tape measure. When he was out of earshot, Violet said, “Part of me can’t fault Rex for being a stooge. He has a wife with some sort of horrible degenerative disease. She keeps getting worse and needs more and more care.”
“Arlen hates that statue. He calls it Hispanic kitsch. It would be so simple to take it with us.”
Dita tried Arlen’s cell to no avail. She left a message asking him to set a time for the sculptor Ricardo Montero to get his work. Her calls were not returned. The sculptor also tried to call. Three months had gone by, and he had finally threatened Arlen with a lawsuit. That did the trick. But Ricardo was in Puerto Rico. He told Dita that the Schomburg Center wanted to exhibit the work and had asked if she and Dan could get the statue and take it there.
Dita had called Arlen once again.
This time he answered. “What can I do for you?” Arlen had asked with the usual noblesse oblige. The vain bastard still has all of his hair, albeit silver to match the spoon in his mouth. This is as casual as the man can get.
Dita dispensed with greetings and salutations and came to the point. “Dan and I can be at the center on August ninth, that’s tomorrow. We promised Ricardo we’d pick up the Phoenix sculpture. It’s going to have a new home in the Schomburg Center.”
“How about two o’clock?”
“Works well. We need to get it to The Schomburg Center before five o’clock.
Arlen had put down the phone, aware his wife Mindy was watching him.
“The artist, again?” Mindy asked. “You seem so nervous.”
The woman is a bother, Arlen thought. If she thinks the designer shoes make her look taller or the bobbed nose makes her look less Jewish she is much mistaken. His daughter was beginning to look just like Mindy. He wouldn’t say these things. He knew his unkindness would tip her towards a messy divorce he could ill afford. He also knew he could never live on his own trust fund alone. That was the problem with old conservative money, set up in an unbreakable trust in another era.
Rex Turner had called to ask if he could pick up his check and Arlen reluctantly wrote out a check for him from his personal account. These payments couldn’t continue. He needed desperately to raise cash.
There was still no sign of Arlen Van Aiken. Flashlight in hand, Dan descended to the ground floor. He shined it into the little front office that had been Dita’s. More debris. It felt like a dungeon and he backed out, turned, and walked toward the rear of the building. The room leading out to the garden was the building’s original kitchen. It had been stripped of its modest appliances and fixtures. He located the entrance to the cellar under the staircase. He found the door ajar and called Arlen’s name once again. He consulted his watch. It was now two-fifteen. Where the hell was Dita? He wondered if the basement was rat-infested. If the garden floor felt dungeon-like, he could only imagine the basement. Dan descended the stairs. He shined his flashlight—no sign of vermin. The light landed on a workbench, and on the workbench the Phoenix sculpture was laying akimbo.
Thinking he would retrieve it whether or not Arlen showed up, Dan went to pick up the statue barely managing to hold onto the flashlight at the same time. As he grasped the cumbersome statue, he felt something wet and sticky. Letting the statue rest in the crux of his elbow, he shined the flashlight on the sticky substance on his hand. It had the unmistakable look and metallic smell of blood. He looked for something to wipe his hands on and the statue slipped from his grasp spraying him with its sticky gore as it clattered to the cement floor. Beyond the workbench sprawled a body. Arlen—the back of his head cruelly bashed in, was dead.
Dan backed out of the basement and up the staircase with the flashlight trembling in his shaking hand. When he got outside, he fumbled for his cell phone and punched in 9-1-1. Tomato Man, seeing the look of utter fear on Dan’s face, came through the gate. “Mr. Dan, you look like you saw a ghost. What’s that all over you?”
“I called the police. I found Arlen Van Aiken in the basement. I think he’s dead.”
The sirens began to blare. Soon six police cars, a fire truck, and an ambulance blocked the street and a crowd gathered.
“Who called about a body in the basement?” asked an officer named Mulroney.
Dan blurted out that he had had an appointment, and found the body while looking for the sculpture.
“Your appointment was with the deceased? Where is he?”
“In the basement.”
“Wait here with officer Clemmons.” Mulroney indicated a short, light-skinned black female officer. Detectives emerged from an unmarked car.
“I need to sit down. I need to wash my hands. My clothes are a mess.”
“You’re not going to be able to wash right away.”
“They’re covered in blood.”
“How did they get that way?” she stared wide-eyed at him, her right hand resting on the gun in her holster.
“From the statue that was supposed to go to the Schomburg Center.” Thoughts began to tumble through Dan’s brain. He should have washed his hands before calling the police. He realized that he was covered in Arlen’s blood. Presumably someone had used the Phoenix to murder Arlen and he had touched the weapon. The sculpted flames of the Phoenix had caused the horrible bloody striations he’d seen on the back of Arlen’s head. The sight of the terrible wound was engraved in his memory. His stomach began to churn. His limbs weakened. He heaved his breakfast and lunch onto the pavement between his legs. Tomato Man could vouch for him. He must have heard Dan calling for Arlen.
© 2019 by Sarah Levine Simon