Tonight we start the next section of this strange story we have been working our way through. Buckle up, this ride is about to get bumpy and we don’t want to get lost int eh ether.
I may have to find a new set up for posting the links to the sections in the future.
As always, if you want to refresh or get caught up you can follow the links to the rest of the story.
Always in the Alley
Stan made it to the shop in the morning before Bernie. Bernie had closed the shop and put away the receipts with a note that he had waited for Stan but gave up to go home before curfew. A broom and full mop bucket had been left in the middle of the main floor. Grime and dirt from the previous day’s work still crusted the floor, Stan felt the need to clean and organize before he could get to work. None of the overnight soaks had been started but there were a number of orders cleaned and packaged, ready for pick up.
Stan set to work on the soaks after he turned on the radio. With any luck, there would be nothing about the missing officer and he could go about his day in peace. Except his nerves were fried. He jumped at the shadows of those who walked past the shop on their way to other jobs or stores. The bell rang at the front door and his heart nearly jumped from his chest.
A man dressed in the khaki of the inspectors had stepped into the customer section of the shop. The breath caught in Stan’s throat when he saw the black armband. The man was Inquisition. They found the body. They traced it to him. He was sure of it. As he approached the counter he mentally scanned the shop. The inquisitor had already seen him so he couldn’t run out the back and the front door had been flanked by two Comfort Inspectors.
“How can I help you?” Stan said. He glanced at the packaged laundry beside the counter, he knew those names. He didn’t know the Inquisitor.
“Good morning citizen.” The man’s cold smile belied the cheery tone of the words. “It has come to our attention that you work here many nights close to curfew.”
“I do. I have the papers of allowance.” Stan pulled a notebook from under the counter and set it down in front of him.
The man waved his hand. “That is unnecessary. Do not concern yourself.” He leaned forward on the counter. “It is my hope that you might be able to help me solve a bit of a mystery.”
The man’s smile grew, sent chills down Stan’s spine. “I… I would love to help in anyway I can.”
“Yes citizen, as your duty requires,” he said. “We have reports, of a, disturbance, last night. It happened near this shop. I wonder, since you work and leave your shop close to curfew, might you have seen or heard something on your way home?” The man’s gaze never left Stan’s face. His eyes locked tight to Stan’s past the point of comfort.
“Last night,” Stan said. “I hadn’t made it to the shop last night. I spent some time helping a friend.”
“I see.” He turned away from Stan and stepped to the front window. “What time did you leave for home? Did you settle the issues with your friend?”
“Shortly before curfew. I knew I would be out well past if I had come to the shop so I went straight home.” The base of Stan’s neck burned a burn that threatened to travel to his cheeks.
“So you noticed nothing out of the ordinary? Nothing that would cause a good citizen concern?”
Why doesn’t he just say it? “Nothing, sir,” Stan said.
He approached the counter and pulled a card from his pocket. “If you happen to remember anything, anything at all, don’t hesitate to give my office a call.” He placed the card on the counter and his finger lingered on it a moment before he turned away and walked to the door. “Be careful on your way home, citizen. I can’t guarantee your safety after curfew.”
Stan released the air from his lungs with the clatter of the bell. The inspectors walked out of his view toward Rosemont. His shop was a few blocks from Abel’s apartment. They had to know something if they came to the shop. He wouldn’t have been close to the murder if he hadn’t been coming from Abel’s. But the inquisitor hadn’t said anything about the murder.
It had been hours since the inquisitor’s visit. Hours of Stan jumping at shadows. Hours with no sign of Bernie. Stan had dialed his number several times but Bernie never answered his phone.
Stan rotated loads of laundry, moving them from washer to drier, pressing and hanging wrinkled shirts and trousers. He had grown lost to the radio. The music slipped him into the work process and he forgot about the visit, forgot the incident. When the bell at the front rang he jumped in shock.
Abel chatted with a dark haired woman, her back to Stan as she leaned against the counter. He couldn’t hear their words but her laugh, loud, infectious, echoed and set the hair on the back of his neck on fire. It was the laugh of Abel’s wife Ema.
“Stan, I need to pick up our clothes,” Abel said. “Bernie said they would be ready this morning.”
Stan’s vision flashed from Ema and her warm smile to Abel’s face. There wasn’t a mark on his face. He looked exactly like Stan had seen him a few days ago, the beating and anguish had been erased. “It’s good to see you both,” he said. “I hope your trip went well, Ema?”
“I haven’t been on a trip,” she said. She held up a laundry ticket.
He couldn’t pull away from what he saw, left her standing with her hand in the air.
Abel snapped his fingers to get his attention. “Um… Stan… Our laundry?”
“Right, sorry, I’ll get that right now.” He stepped behind a row of shirts hung on a rotating line. Then he flipped through the few packages on the pick up bench and grabbed two packages wrapped in brown paper. He set them down on the counter in front of Eric and punched in the ticket on the register. “You paid at the drop off?”
“Ya, Bernie took care of it all, already,” Abel said. He gathered up the packages and motioned Ema toward the door.
Stan’s gaze followed them out the door and then on to the street. They didn’t look back, just walked away, the direction of their apartment. When they dropped out of sight he went to the front door and looked out on the street. Foot traffic had dropped away but there were still a few people out and about.
“What the hell?” Stan’s insides churned and bubbled, as the air around him crushed down on him. He ran into the back room and grabbed his keys from his desk. After he had flipped the closed sign and then locked the door behind him, he turned toward Rosemont. They weren’t on the street in front of him.
They were gone, gone like they had vanished. This couldn’t be. Stan searched, looked up and down the alleys on the way to Abel’s building but he never saw them. Ema was back, like she was never taken. His bruises were a grim reminder that yesterday did happen. But how could Abel have changed so much in such a short time. He would chase them all the way to their apartment if he had to. He needed to know what the hell happened.
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