Excerpt: Ruled A Suicide
I couldn't breathe. I had to remain anonymous.
My heart fluttered to a stop as I stared at the dead man in front of me. The body positioned under the Christmas tree oozed blood all over the carpeted floor, while the dead man's right hand held a gun. Upon closer inspection, I recognized him as the owner to the house. The picture window for the room would allow anyone walking on the street to look inside, but they may not see the body behind the tree, even with the small lamp that lit the room.
As I gazed the full length of the body, I noticed a note tied to the dead man's leg by a red bow. 'He got too close and others will pay,' it read in big black letters. The bow was clean of blood, as was the white note. It must have been tied after he'd died or there would've been blood splatter.
My stomach fell, realizing what was in front of me. This man had been murdered, because no one could write that on a note for themselves then tie it after they died. And to think I was standing at the murder scene caused me to panic.
I was in deep trouble if my fingerprints were anywhere in the house. I had to get out, because I'd broken in and would be a prime suspect, if they had my prints on file. I didn't think anyone did, but from my past, someone could've gotten them from anywhere, just in case.
I'd been so sure the place was empty before I entered the home, strolling right past the body without noticing. It didn't even strike me as odd that the light was on and no one was home. The murderer must've been the person leaving the house before I came inside because the owner was lying on the floor.
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. I was a witness and the cops would want to talk to me, even if they ruled me out as a suspect.
I didn't want to be found. I couldn't be found. My life and the life of my daughter depended on it.
A loaf of bread and a bottle of cold medicine in my hand reminded me of my true mission. I walked to the door, covered my empty hand with my torn sleeve, and wiped the doorknob clean. It wasn't the same door the killer had gone through, so I didn't feel too badly for damaging fingerprints.
I wracked my brain, trying to remember. Did I touch anything else in the house?
The medicine cabinet and the breadbox.
I ran to the bathroom and wiped the mirrored cabinet door clean, then headed into the kitchen and did the same for the breadbox. When I was satisfied my fingerprints were gone, I left by the side door, wiped the outside doorknob and edge of the door, and searched for witnesses. No one was nearby, so I ran to the curb and waited for two cars to pass. As soon as it was safe, I crossed the road and approached my daughter, Kaya, sitting on an old couch in an alley.
Yes, we were two of the many homeless in Phoenix.
"Mama, is that you?" she asked. She was my three-year old half-Navajo daughter. In the darkness of the night in the alleyway, I could barely make out her dark tan skin, black hair, and blue eyes. She got the blue eyes from me, as odd as that sounded, but she didn't get my blonde hair.
"Yes, Kaya, it's me. I have to make a phone call. Can you stay here for a minute?"
She coughed and sneezed, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "Sure."
I handed her the loaf of bread and dug deep into the cushions of the couch, searching for one of my only possessions, my change purse. Once found, I opened it, able to see mostly coins, and retrieved enough change to call the police if the operator required it.
Kaya dug into the bread, sniffled a little, and began to cough again. I grabbed an almost empty jug of water and tipped it to her mouth. She was sick, the poor thing, and it was winter. Even though it was the Southwest, the nights were cold for homeless people.
I kissed her forehead and walked around the corner, lit by the streetlamp, while keeping a vigil for anyone nearby. After depositing some coins, I dialed for help with my threadbare sleeve over my hand.
"Emergency," some woman said. "How can I help you?"
I lowered my voice as much as I could. "I'm at 2105 Puma Street. I was out for a walk and saw a dead guy under a Christmas tree in his front living room." I looked around yet again. I was still alone.
"What's your name?" the woman asked.
"Sorry, I don't want involved." I hung up the phone and checked to see if any change returned. It didn't, which was the story of my life. I sighed, knowing I'd spent some of my last bit of money, with barely enough cash left to buy clean drinking water. Maybe tomorrow would be a better begging day.
I ran back to Kaya, who'd eaten all but three of the pieces of bread. While guessing at the amount she needed for her weight, I poured some of the medication into the attached plastic cup and made her drink it, along with a sip of water.
"That's awful," she said, grimacing.
"You need it. We're going to get you better then we can figure out where to go next. I don't think this is a safe place anymore."
"No reason." I sat down and pulled her to my lap, then covered her with the one blanket we'd saved. "Now get some sleep."
I kissed her forehead. Thinking back to what I'd just seen, I had to stay calm, but the terror of it all made me shake on the inside. If the killer saw me, he might return. There was no way I'd be able to sleep. I had to protect Kaya and myself.
Every night, I prayed we'd find a way out of the current mess, but every morning, the full weight of being homeless hit me square in the face when the sun came up.
As I looked up from Kaya's face, a dark figure walked toward us, making my heart race. However, I could tell from the way the person threw their hips that it was a friend and not the murderer. Killers didn't wear skimpy clothes like this person.
"Hey, Louise," I said. The sirens sounded from a distance, but I tried to ignore it.
"Hey, Ellie. Anything new?"
"Yep." I tried not to sound scared. "A D-E-A-D B-O-D-Y is in that house over there." I pointed, almost able to make out Louise's surprise in the darkness of the alley.
"Are you sure?"
"Yep. Called the cops."
Louise sat beside me and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Did you see anything?"
I glanced down at Kaya, sucking her thumb and almost asleep. "Yes. I was getting bread and cold syrup and it was obvious."
"Did anyone see you?"
I shook my head. "I hope not. I saw the guy, too, I think."
"The killer?" she whispered.
"Yep. Where were you?"
"I had a job over on sixth. It paid good too." Louise was a prostitute with a heart of gold. As a pretty black woman, she had short black hair and brown eyes, was short and slightly overweight. She had fun with her clients, so she had many repeats. When she wasn't working, she took care of Kaya and me, even though I had no way to repay her.
The sounds of the sirens got closer. They'd be on Puma Street in downtown Phoenix in a few minutes.
"So we have a movie to watch tonight," she whispered, looking out of the alley and across the street. "It's better than the usual bum channel, huh?"
We both chuckled. I was still spooked by the thought of the dead guy across the street, but Louise always made everything better, no matter how terrible it was.
Six police cars skidded to a stop on the street in front of us, lighting up the sky in blue and red, their sirens stopping before they got to the scene. While Kaya seemed to sleep through the commotion, Louise and I watched the cops work. From the way my couch was situated down an alley, they couldn't see us. It was fortunate for us, because we had to stay hidden. If they found me, they'd make life miserable for us and would take Kaya away from me. I'd lived that fact for almost a year, so I knew how to hide.
Across the street, one of the officers knocked on the dead guy's door, then looked into the front picture window with his hands shielding the sides of his face. I could hear some of what they were saying while Louise and I kept as quiet as possible.
"A light's on inside, but there's no way anyone could see that body without knowing it was here," one said to another guy standing behind the cop's car. "Think it was the murderer who called it in?"
"Could be." The other guy looked up and down the street. "Do you see any homeless? Sometimes they know things."
"No, they're useless witnesses. They're all either drunk or crazy."
Louise and I glanced toward each other and chuckled. Yes, we were the invisible population. It was as if we could see them but they couldn't see us, thinking we were alcoholics or insane. Louise and I were neither of those things. We could've told them many things, if we wanted to. But I had to stay anonymous and Louise respected that.
One of the officers kicked in the door while other emergency vehicles drove to the house. Eventually, they wrapped yellow tape around the perimeter of the building. Some reporters showed up, standing behind the tape.
Many people went in, more lights were turned on, and flashes from a camera lit the inside of the home. I just hoped none of my fingerprints would be found, even if they didn't have my prints on file for comparison.
"So what happened?" Louise asked, glancing down at my sleeping daughter.
"I broke in to get some cold medicine and bread because I thought no one was home, even though the side door was unlocked. When I was leaving, I saw the guy's feet sticking out from under the Christmas tree. His leg had a note attached to it by a red bow that said, 'He got too close and others will pay.' Blood was all over his leg, but not on the note, which means it was attached after he was shot."
"So it was a suicide?" Louise laughed. We both knew the scoop about the medical examiner ruling murders as suicides.
"Appears so. It was so quiet in the house and with only the lamp lit, I didn't notice the body until I was ready to leave. I would've missed it if I didn't just happen to see the tree. I stopped and stared, remembering Christmas as a kid. We used to put our tree up right after Thanksgiving, too." Kaya would never know the thrill of Christmas, making me sad. But I had to focus on the crime and not dwell on things that couldn't be real for my daughter. "When I called emergency, I said I saw it from the street, hoping it was true. The place was all bloody and I think someone shot him in the head while he was standing, then moved him under the tree and tied the note to his leg. There's no way he shot himself while he was under that tree. I'm sure it was the owner. I could see his face and familiar mustache."
"Did he have the gun in his hand?"
"Yes. And it was up to his head, too. It was weird and I felt like an intruder."
Louise leaned closer. "Did you leave any prints?"
"I wiped them all off so I couldn't be found."
"I understand." She glanced down at Kaya. "I can't blame you, either." We were quiet for a moment. "You said you saw the killer. What did he look like?"
"Before I went in, I heard someone talking loudly. I figured the owner was on the phone because there was only one voice. It sounded like the guy who lived there, from what I'd heard in the past. I didn't hear any shot, even though I was beside the outside wall, just waiting for him to leave. Someone walked out the door, closed it, and limped away. He was in a dark outfit—dark coat, dark pants, and dark gloves. I figured the owner was just out for a walk and would return, because the inside light was on. That's why I had to hurry."
"Did you say limped?" she asked.
"Yeah. Weird, huh? Why would a murderer limp? You'd think he'd get out of the business if he couldn't run away."
"That is odd."
I looked out at the city lights over the building across the street. Way above the immediate area of red and blue lights sat a tall building that had me thinking. "You know, I bet someone would pay a bunch of money for this information."
"That's the name of the game, Ellie. I'm sure you could make a bundle with just what you've seen. If I were the murderer, I'd pay to keep you quiet."
"Yeah, or kill me."
We were silent for a while.
I sighed, thinking it through. I needed money for Kaya, and my mind was going a mile a minute, trying to figure out how to keep her alive. "You know, there are other people who would pay for that information, too."
"You mean like a snitch for the police?"
"No, because that would be a one-time deal. I mean a steady paycheck." I moved my eyes toward my friend, thinking it through. "What about an investigative reporter?" Could I do that job?
"You and those big words," she said, laughing. "What's that?"
"Someone who digs deep into a story. I used to type and I know I can write. When I worked at that car dealership, I had to write up ads for the cars, making them sound like they were the dream car for any owner, when in fact they barely had four bald tires."
Louise was quiet for a moment. "I have an idea of how to help you." She was definitely smiling as she stood. "I'm going to make you my pet project."
"Yep. Me and tons of my friends. Sister, you're going to be employed tomorrow, and be able to afford to give that baby girl of yours some decent medical treatment. You may even be able to afford an apartment or a house or something."
"What are you thinking? I'm homeless. No one hires the homeless. They're invisible, remember?"
"But I have to stay invisible," I whispered. "Remember?"
She leaned down and patted my arm. "Trust me." Straightening up, she sashayed away, singing an old hymn from my childhood days.
I had to hand it to her. For being a prostitute, she certainly had a proper upbringing and almost had morals. It was odd. Never in my wildest dreams growing up would I ever have guessed I'd be homeless and best friends with hookers. But life has a way of twisting and turning, and sometimes you run into problems.
I had to figure a way out of my situation, but I wanted to do it on my own and legally. Since we'd been forced to the streets, I'd refused to be a prostitute, so Kaya and I begged for change instead. Some days we'd make nothing, but when the tourists came to town, it picked up. One day I made close to fifty dollars, wishing I could do that every day. We stored all the money away in the couch cushions, never knowing when I'd need the cash. With Christmas coming, there weren't many people walking on our street, so all of our money had to last as long as possible.
A screeching noise made me turn back toward the house. EMTs carried the body to a waiting ambulance, the back door screeching as they pulled it farther open. What a shame for the homeowner to be killed. I'd been watching his house for a while and observed the dead guy kiss his wife goodbye at the front door earlier in the day. I overheard their conversation, not because I was nosy, but because the street was so quiet at the time. The wife was headed on a business trip to Europe, but would be back before Christmas. They seemed happy, with a very lengthy kiss. It made me miss being married with a home and a warm bed, even though my marriage hadn't even been close to being that happy.
The crowds gawking at the scene grew, and one man got closer to our alley. He walked with a limp and stood under the streetlight, smoking a cigarette, just watching from a distance. While taking mental notes, I was certain he was the murderer. He had a tattoo of a weird symbol on his left hand, kind of like an 'X' but more like two half circles meeting to form a black 'X'—black as his heart. He was the man who'd gunned down the victim and stuffed his body under his own Christmas tree.
I was staring at pure evil.