WHEN THE CAT'S AWAY
By Jeffrey Nicholas
"Yes, I recognize her. She was a client of mine," said James Dalchner. He swallowed hard and stepped farther into his living room. "What was she doing here?"
"We're not quite sure yet," said Inspector McGillis. "We got a call about half an hour ago from a neighbor who'd been passing your house. Said she saw the body lying on your living room floor. How familiar were you with the victim, Mr. Dalchner?"
"Well, as I said, she'd been a client of mine for, um, about 6 months. Stopped into the office every two or three weeks, I'd say."
"Just a client, Mr. Dalchner?"
"That's what I said."
The inspector raised an eyebrow.
"I'm sorry. Yes, just a client." He added apologetically: "It's just kind of a shock, coming home to all this." Mr. Dalchner dabbed his brow as he sat down on the couch, staring straight ahead at nothing in particular.
"Where's your wife, Mr. Dalchner?"
"She's out of town on a business trip. She took a cab to the airport this morning."
As the inspector scribbled on his notepad more police arrived on the scene, spreading through the house like ants circling a dead insect. Mr. Dalchner remained on the couch, seemingly oblivious to the scene unfolding before him. His tie, despite hanging loosely around his neck, appeared to be choking the air out of him.
After a few minute's silent contemplation, reality knocked him back into the room. He sprang up and scanned his surroundings, his eyes eventually landing on the body lying on the floor. A mess of blond hair covered part of the face. A smudge of lipstick stained her cheek. Her blouse and skirt would seem perfectly fit for an evening out on the town had they not been charged with the morbid task of clothing a dead woman.
"Is it possible," he ventured "that she was attacked nearby and stumbled here for help?"
"Not likely," said the inspector. "And even so, that still means she knew where you lived, doesn't it, Mr. Dalchner?"
Mr. Dalchner stared at the floor. He said nothing.
"Anyway," the inspector continued. "She couldn't have stumbled far. You see those marks on her throat? Looks like someone strangled her. Maybe with a rope, or a necktie."
The inspector went back to his scribbling. Officers periodically came up and spoke to him in hushed voices. One of them handed him a slip of paper. The inspector nodded after reading it and went back to jotting his notes.
Mr. Dalchner paced the floor. Sweat soaked through his collar and moistened his hair. He walked to the kitchen and fumbled for a glass of water, swallowing a gulp with great effort.
"Okay, Mr. Dalchner," the inspector called him over after finishing his scribbling. With the calm decisiveness of a surgeon approaching the operating table, the grizzled inspector ventured his first cut at Mr. Dalchner, "Why don't you come clean."
"I told you — she was a client, that's all. I've been at work all day. You can call the office and check."
"Oh, we will, you can bet on it. But I'm old and tired, and it'll make my job easier if you just own up to everything now. You're in quite a mess. Your wife's out of town. You have the house to yourself, and a young blond, your...client...is found dead in your living room."
Mr. Dalchner stammered, but had no reply to this deep incision. The inspector motioned him over to his side and drew out from his pocket t he slip of paper the officer had handed him. "Found this in her bag."
She'll be out of town till Monday. Meet me at the house Friday afternoon and I'm yours all weekend.
The inspector watched Mr. Dalchner closely. "Come on, Jim. We both know what happened" he began, his tone lighter than it had been moments ago. "You had a little thing going on the side. Maybe you got tired of her, and you decided to end it. Maybe she didn't take it well, and when you tried to hush her up maybe you were a little too rough. You went out to find a place to ditch the body, but a neighbor spotted it before you got rid of it. I understand."
He was stitching the incision up tenderly now. "Just come with us down to the station —"
"No, inspector I swear... I didn't touch her, not like that," he said, gesturing toward the body. "I mean, you're right about us — I was seeing her. But you can't think I did this."
"Well, dead girls don't just turn up on random doorsteps, Dalchner!"
"You've got to believe me. I had nothing to do with it."
Inspector McGillis spun him around and reached for his handcuffs. Mr. Dalchner's pleading grew louder, though he didn't fight the arrest.
But the inspector was interrupted before he could finish reading Mr. Dalchner his rights.
"Inspector," called one of the cops he as rushed down the stairs. "Wait a minute."
An agitated McGillis left his criminal with another cop and hurried over to meet the officer on the staircase. The two conferred for a minute before Inspector McGillis turned back to Mr. Dalchner. "Looks like you're off the hook, pal," he called down to him.
"Wh — I, don't understand," Mr. Dalchner muttered, stumbling toward the inspector with relieved bewilderment.
"Did you write that note in this house, Mr. Dalchner?" Inspector McGillis asked over his shoulder as he ascended the stairs.
"Yes, I did," said Mr. Dalchner, chasing after him.
"Well," began Inspector McGillis as he turned the corner to the master bedroom. "You should be more careful about who sees your little love notes before you mail them out."
For an instant, Mr. Dalchner was unsure of the meaning of the inspector's reproach. Then, as he entered the room, he realized at once what had happened.
His wife was sitting neatly in the corner chair, smiling placidly. A length of rope stretched across her lap, and a packed duffel bag rested at her side.
"I'm ready, Inspector," she said. "Will you be taking me away now?"
Mr. Nicholas's writing credits include short stories in the upcoming mystery anthologies Dreamspell Nightmares and Vampire Dreamspell, as well as feature articles for Rowan Magazine.
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