Black Mask

The Long-Term Tenant

by Tara Laskowski

 

The police came on a Tuesday afternoon, in the dead middle of the New Mexico summer. Rolly was at The Jubilee, so it was just Mae in the front office of the Kewa Come and Stay Inn, swatting flies with an AAA brochure and cracking pistachios in front of the rotating floor fan.

When she heard Lee’s name, the hair on the back of Mae’s neck fanned, and she felt a trickle like a daddy-longlegs falling down her spine.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes. Room Three-twelve, in the back.”

They wanted to know if he was there—could they see the room, please, was that possible? There were two of them, one a skinny white boy with fuzz for a moustache and fidgety, so fidgety he made her nervous, and the other a rounded Mexican, hefty like a sack of ground maize, his stubble gray and white on his shelf of a chin. They were polite, but there was a tension in the air, snapping around in between the bursts of radio static on the thin one’s walkie-talkie.

“Well, my husband . . .” she trailed off. Her husband what, exactly? Hadn’t Rolly put her in charge when he was at The Jubilee? And if he didn’t like it, well, she could make her own decisions.

She gripped the safe’s dial lock in her small hand and twirled it with precision, wondering if the cops were impressed. She could unlock it in the dark if she had to. Inside, the skeleton key hung from a ribbon on the door, and she plucked it out, clasping its cool weight in her palm. Rolly wasn’t a big believer in modernizing, and when the salesman from Phoenix had dropped in to talk about digital swipe-card locks, Rolly had been polite, even slightly eager about it, until he’d seen the cost.

Mae didn’t mind, though. She liked the sound of a real key turning in a lock.

*   *   *

The two cops immediately went to work when they stepped inside 312. With an intense, destructive focus, they spilled things out of drawers and pulled back sheets. The skinny one rolled the corners of the floor rug, and Mae hoped he wouldn’t find any cockroaches. They flipped through the couple of magazines and paperbacks that Lee had stacked on his nightstand. The big cop took his time thrusting his thick fingers inside each pocket of pants. She could tell they wished she would leave, but Mae stayed, watched every move, trying to hide her nerves.

“Please, you can’t just destroy the place. . . .”

They ignored her, though at least now she could tell Rolly she tried.

The rooms weren’t big or fancy, but Mae liked to think they were comfortable. Most of them featured two queen beds, a small kitchenette, and a bathroom with a tub and a shower. Mae moved into the kitchen area and leaned against the counter in front of the ceramic canisters. In the amber light streaming through the dirt-crusted window, something metal glinted on the nightstand. Lee’s lighter. She remembered its bright glow in the darkness, the way he’d flicked it casually with his thick thumb. Her body felt like a balloon.

“You all right, ma’am?” the big one asked, bagging a gold chain she’d seen Lee wear sometimes.

“Fine,” she said, trying to get her voice back. She wiped her hands on her shirt and tried again. “Can I ask what this is about?”

“It’s important you tell us anything you know. He’s been staying here for how long?”

Mae squinted, making it look like she was thinking hard. “Maybe a month or so?” It was thirty-three days exactly.

“And when was the last time you saw him?”

“Goodness, I don’t know. We don’t keep tabs on our guests.” She shifted in her sandals and looked down at them, ashamed of their cheapness, the flat, unyielding soles and cheap leather straps already frayed at the edges. She’d been wearing the same shoes the last time she’d seen Lee, the Wednesday before. He’d been pulling away in his long blue car, a relic from another decade. She’d thought maybe he’d gone out for lunch, and she’d foolishly not eaten for two hours, hoping he might bring her back something from the diner or the fancy sandwich place in town.

“Did he do something?” she asked the officers. She wanted to sit.

She heard the skinny one sigh behind her. “What kind of tenant was he?”

She drew a deep breath. “He seemed . . . fine. Kept to himself, paid his bills. No trouble.”

“Did he have women here?”

“No.” She rushed. A mistake. The skinny officer raised an eyebrow at the stocky one. But before either of them could say anything, there was a noise at the door. The big cop’s hand moved toward his gun. Then sunlight filled the dusty room. And Rolly, red-cheeked and nervous, squinted in the doorway like a badger. Mae saw his nose twitch. He focused on her and narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

“What’s the matter here?” He pushed in, coming over to Mae, his hand heavy on her shoulder. She could feel his anger, hot as the alcohol on his breath. She wondered how much of their money he’d lost today.

The big officer relaxed a little. Slowly, his hand moved from his holster. “Conducting an investigation, sir.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“Your wife let us in,” the skinny one said.

Rolly glared at her, that impatient look he had whenever he found out she’d forgotten to change the air filters or get his favorite beef jerky at the store.

“It’s okay,” she said. “They are—it’s important.” She faltered, angry at herself for not asking them anything about it. Making it a tiny bit harder for them. Rolly had a right to be mad.

The bigger officer pushed past her and Rolly. She watched with dread as he manhandled the canisters she’d purchased, delicate ceramic containers she’d ordered in bulk from Walmart for all the rooms, to give them a domestic touch. He opened each one, and when he got to the biggest, she held her breath. But he merely dipped his finger in, shaking his head. “Flour,” he said with disgust, and pushed the canister back, where it clanged against the backsplash. Mae allowed herself a curling, secretive smile, and she exhaled slowly.

*   *   *

The officers finally told them. Lee was suspected of killing a girl. A young girl, barely legal. Strangled her, then shot her for good measure and left her on the side of the road like a squirrel.

After that, Rolly changed his tune. Now it was all, “Whatever you need, Officers.” And, “We’ll cooperate, of course. If we can help in any way.” He was all ready to wash his hands of that, of any sniff of a scandal. Just wanted to throw Lee in jail and lock the key, even though he wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup. Mae knew she’d be able to pick Lee out of a sea of men, identify his swagger within two seconds on a crowded street, even halfway across the world. She’d pick up the cedar-oil scent of his neck, that rough, snagged way he’d said “darlin’.”

*   *   *

Once the cops left, Mae threw up all the pistachios in the toilet. She wasn’t stupid. She’d known he was trouble, but it hadn’t mattered. She’d lost her head, is what it was. Take me with you, she’d said one night, arms draping over his chest, the desperate pleading in her own voice making her cringe. And his slow laugh as he lifted her off him like she was a tiny cat and opened the blinds to let the harsh sun back inside.

“I’m nothing but trouble, darlin’.”

They’d slept together eight times. It was all during the day, an hour here and there in the afternoon when the front desk was slowest and she could be, in theory, cleaning some of the vacant rooms. It was Rolly’s fault for never bothering to hire a new girl once Beth had gone and had her baby. And if Rolly hadn’t gone to see his best friend up in Taos, well, then Mae wouldn’t have been able to spend that one whole weekend with Lee, basically moving into Room 312. A time she’d wanted to place on the old Xerox machine in the back office and replicate over and over and over again, until it stretched out into a lifetime.

But now, now what? Had everything she’d thought was true just been another lie? Was Lee just another monster, exposed now to the light? And—and this is what gave Mae the shivers—if he was, did she care?

A fool, Mae thought. A fool never wins.

*   *   *

The next day was another scorcher. Not a cloud in the sky, 110 degrees by noon and climbing. Mae sorted the mail and delivered the laundry to the few tenants who’d requested it, trying not to look out to the highway for Lee’s big blue car each time she left a room to enter another. Rolly had wanted to clean up Room 312, change the lock, get it ready for someone else, but Mae had pointed out that Lee—Mr. Chadwick—had paid through to the end of the month. So the room stayed as it was, a loud buzzing alarm clock Mae tried in vain to ignore.

Behind the building, the geckos lounged in the parking lot. The only sign they were alive was their bellies moving in and out. It was all hot black tar and bits of gravel and glass, everything sharp and reflective and harsh. Mae had wanted to put a playground in. Dig up some of that gigantic expanse of pavement and plant some grass, install a swing set that would fill with squealing, happy kids. But Rolly said priorities were priorities and people would rather we fix the air-conditioning units than build a sliding board. Besides, we aren’t running a school here.

Mae kept her mouth shut, but she knew what Rolly’s priorities were. Over the past year, he had spent most of his time helping his cousin manage a new hotel over in Albuquerque. Which really meant he spent the day at the casino, pressing buttons and sucking their savings account dry. Mae took over most of the managing of the inn, and she knew she should be proud that she managed it all on her own, but she couldn’t help but feel like she had given him permission to spend time with a brick-and-mortar mistress. The Albuquerque scene was for tourists, short-term visitors coming to see the hot-air balloons or ride the tramway, loud-laughing young people with colorful shirts and new cowboy boots that gave them blisters. Rolly liked the excitement, the buzz, being close to the city. He wanted to sell the inn and move, said it depressed him to be around deadbeats and losers with nowhere else to go.

But Mae didn’t see it that way. She saw it as giving people a new opportunity, giving them a place to call home when home goes away. Kewa was a small town, too far from Albuquerque to be considered a suburb, but still close enough that it attracted people who wanted to take it easy but still have access to the big things. Mae and Rolly provided a transition, a bit of stability in an otherwise chaotic world. They helped single mothers and divorced dads, veterans and food servers, widows and ex-cons. Sometimes people sent her letters, thank-yous with pictures of their kids all grown up, or a wedding photo from a fresh start and a new love. Sometimes they slipped in and slipped out without so much as a hello or a nod across the parking lot, and that was okay too. She didn’t understand the need for privacy—she herself desperately needed to be seen—but she accepted it.

Then Lee saw her.

She’d be lying if she said she hadn’t known he was dangerous. There were signs, of course, little things. And men like him didn’t stay at the Kewa Come and Stay Inn without troubles. Without a past they were running away from. Perhaps that was part of what attracted her—if she was being honest. The thrill. Of standing so close to someone who was about to blow up. Who could catch fire at any moment if she rubbed against him the wrong way.

*   *   *

The girl’s murder made the front page in color, her long brown hair framing a round face with innocent green eyes. Pamela Ann Orchez, just nineteen years old, a freshman at Central New Mexico Community College, a volunteer at the YMCA, one of the ones that had everything going for her . . . until.

The article said that the police were investigating several leads, and Mae fixated on that word: several. Lee wasn’t the only one, she thought, and in parentheses inside her brain she whispered eagerly. (Maybe he didn’t do it, maybe he isn’t what they think.) But when Rolly read it, he shook his head in disgust, took a big swig of his Folgers, and looked up at his hunting rifle on the wall. “That guy sets one toe on this property again and I’ll have his head.” He eyed Mae over the top of the newspaper, staring at her until she nodded in agreement. “His head, Mae. Don’t you forget it.”

*   *   *

Here’s what Mae wouldn’t forget: One afternoon Lee had taken her to the shooting range over in the warehouse district. He drove too fast on curvy roads, blazing past massive trucks, their brake pads burning with the smell of tar. All of the buildings were massive, hulking spaces. A furniture storage and delivery place. A children’s trampoline park. A showroom for above-ground swimming pools.

She was nervous the whole drive there, imagining that someone would call Rolly to complain that the front desk was closed. But that didn’t happen. No one cared where she was.

Inside, a man stood behind a long, L-shaped glass counter. The handguns inside were propped on velvet hills as if they were diamond necklaces. The man smiled, his eyes flicking over Mae, like he thought he knew her type.

“How can I help you today?” He directed his question at Lee.

“We just want some time at the range.”

The man’s smile got even bigger. “Well, usually when I see couples in here for the first time, it’s either because they’ve been burgled or because they want to make sure they’ll never be burgled.” He stopped, grinning at them in an amiright?

Lee said tightly, “How much is it for thirty minutes?”

In the range, with thick padded headphones on, Mae felt very out of place. A man a few yards down from them wore camouflage, sprawled on the ground like a sniper. The gun Lee handed her was heavy in her hand. She felt a surge of power she’d never felt before.

In front of them, the target hung from what looked like a clothesline. It was shaped like a vague silhouette of a person. Mae suddenly felt nervous. She wanted to impress Lee. She wanted to be good at this, to not show fear.

Lee rubbed his hands along her thin yellow blouse, which was much too nice now, she realized, for such a place. He nodded at her. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. The trick is to distance yourself from the subject. Always think of them as silhouettes, like this. Then if you ever have to hit someone for real, you’ll be prepared.”

She closed one eye. Pressed the cold metal trigger back with her finger.

BANG.

The shot was loud even with her ears covered. The gun kicked back in her hands the way her aunt’s horse had jerked from under his reins during a thunderstorm. She squinted at the target, but Lee spoke before she spotted it. “Hot damn, girl. You’ve got good aim.” And then she saw the tiny hole, right in the middle of the three gray ovals.

Lee’s eyes glittered. He kissed her. She felt her knees give out, felt the headphones sliding from her ears, but his arms were surprisingly strong, crushing around her. With just a little more force he probably could’ve broken her ribs.

*   *   *

Two days after the cops had come, Mae finally gave in to her urge. She waited until Rolly went off to the casino, made sure that the handful of tenants on the back side of the building weren’t peering out of their windows or smoking in the parking lot, and used the skeleton key to get into Lee’s room. It was still like the officers had left it, in chaos. Mae lifted the mattress and slid it back onto the box spring, tucking the sheets along the edges. She lay down in the middle of the bed, spreading out, staring up at the ceiling. It was hot without the air conditioning running, hard to breathe. Mae rolled on her side, pressed her face into his sheets to find his scent. There it was.

She closed her eyes. Could she pretend he was still there? Pacing back and forth in front of the bed, shirtless, his jeans unbuttoned? She liked the cool, certain way he moved, a man with purpose and confidence. He was restless. So was she. They matched, like salt and pepper shakers.

She sat up, her eyes focusing on the canisters in the kitchen. Remembering the time she and Lee had been in the kitchenette, slicing salami and eating it off the knife, when she’d seen him slip something into one of the canisters. Those silly cheap things, painted with yellow and blue flowers. None of the tenants ever really used them, of course, but Mae had liked the way they’d added a note of cheerfulness to the rooms.

“Is that your secret hiding place?” she’d asked, teasing, her lips still swollen from his kisses. She’d sauntered over, lifted the lid, mostly curious because she herself used her flour container for her secrets. She thought about telling him that, in a fit of pleasure. How she took a few dollars here and there from the safe in the lobby when Rolly wasn’t around. Kept it all in a Ziploc bag buried in the flour. She had $7,650 in it, just in case. Her getaway money.

She had been so into her thoughts that the sudden violent slamming of the lid on her fingers had hurt even more than it should’ve. Lee’s face was red and hard, his hands shoving her back. “Get out of there.”

Even now, in the bed, alone, Mae squirmed with the uncomfortable memory of it. Later he’d apologized to her—they’d even joked that he needed to find a better hiding place—but it had felt like a blemish in an otherwise clear photo. A stain on a brand-new carpet. Mae thought again about Pamela Orchez, barely old enough to vote. Had she seen that hardened face, those flashing eyes, just before she’d died?

Mae got up, moved into the kitchen. Lee wasn’t there now to slam her fingers, but even so she felt fear as she opened the lid of the canister. Lee had been smarter than she’d thought, filling it with flour. He’d learned something from her after all. The cops had overlooked it, hadn’t they? She was used to it, of course, how easily men dismissed those domestic things, but she couldn’t help but feel triumphant just the same.

She dumped the flour into the sink. A tightly wrapped package fell heavily into the basin, and Mae carefully opened it. She was smart enough to wrap a dishtowel around her hand before pulling out the tiny gun. A sleeker version than the one she’d used at the shooting range. She rotated it in her hand.

He must’ve been in trouble then, she thought. To leave this behind.

And then she saw what else was in the canister. A small black silk bag. The contents glittered across her palm, catching the dirty sun streaming through the window. Oh, Mae breathed in. Oh.

*   *   *

The gun’s bulky heaviness, tucked in the pocket of Mae’s long skirt, pressed against her upper thigh like a warm hand. She had a newfound power, and it made her almost giddy, lightheaded, as she locked Lee’s door and started back to the office. She remembered something her mother had told her many years ago, about a woman she’d worked with at the flower shop who always carried a pistol in her pocketbook. Carolina, she’d said. She named her gun Carolina. Mae’s mother had thought that was so strange, but it made perfect sense to Mae. When an object took on such importance, it made sense to name it. In naming it, you gave it life.

“Mrs. Tierney! I’m so glad I found you here.” The officer swiveled out from behind one of the concrete pillars, smiling at her, breaking her thoughts. He was the bigger, round one. The skinny one’s boss, Mae thought. The one in charge.

“You startled me, Officer.”

“Did I? I apologize.” He didn’t look sorry. “I see you were coming out of Mr. Chadwick’s room then.”

Yes, she thought. And you missed it. You missed it all. Mae could see herself in the reflection of his sunglasses. Normally, she would’ve felt unnerved by this, her eyes flicking around like the bat that had gotten caught in the laundry room last winter. But now, with her secret hidden in the folds of her skirt, she was calm. The girl flashed in her head then, that photo from the paper of those glittery green eyes. Pamela, she thought suddenly. I’ll name her Pamela.

“Yes, well, Officer, you did leave it a mess. We’ll need to do a lot to get it ready for a new tenant.”

“Of course.” He reminded her of the detective in that old crime show that Rolly liked to watch in reruns late at night, the one who prowled around asking “just one more question.” A Mexican Columbo.

She shifted, and the gun in her pocket pressed against her thigh like a warning. Pamela. Whispering to Mae. Just play it cool. “Any leads in your investigation?”

He slid off his sunglasses and squinted. “Well, we’re checking DNA now for a match. I’m pretty confident, though.”—and here again, Mae thought of the newspaper article, that word “several,” and she felt her stomach flip with uncertainty—“It’s just a matter now of finding him. Which is why people like you can be so crucial.”

She nodded. “Sure. If I remember anything, anything at all.”

“There’s a chance he might come back here. You never know. If he does, I want you to call me. Immediately. He could be very dangerous.”

“Certainly . . . I will.”

He shook his head. “You never get used to it, I tell you. The violence. We’re dealing with the president of Sickos-R-Us here, Mrs. Tierney. I don’t want to scare you, but. Be careful.”

“The violence?”

“Well, I mean, I don’t want to shock you but . . .” He took a deep breath, lowered his voice. “One of her eyes popped out of her socket. That’s how hard she was beaten. We’re dealing with a man with a temper. So don’t try to approach him. No matter how . . . um, friendly . . . he might’ve been with you in the past.”

She nodded, feeling Pamela brush against her again. “I understand, Officer.”

*   *   *

Back in the front office, Mae pulled Pamela out of her pocket and wiped her clean with a microfiber cloth. As she worked, she thought about what her mother had told her about men. “They’re all good for one thing—and no, I don’t mean that. I mean you can learn one thing from a man, and once you’ve learned that, it’s time to move on.” Perhaps her mama had just been jaded after her husband ran off with another woman. Or perhaps she too had just been underestimated her whole life. Overlooked.

Mae picked up the gun and pointed it at the front door that Rolly would be walking through whenever he stumbled in. She felt a tingle run through her, a twitch of excitement, imagining the feel of the desert air through an open car window, blazing down the highway, living petty crime to petty crime. She could be Bonnie to someone’s Clyde. Just give me a chance. She remembered the feel of Lee’s hips against her back as he steadied her aim, whispered instructions in her ear. The one thing he’d taught her.

Mae lowered the gun, sighed. She put Pamela back in her skirt pocket. No, Lee had been good for more than teaching her how to shoot a gun. He’d lit a fuse inside her, a slow burn that she could feel creeping up into her belly. Propelling her into action. It was time to do something about it.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2019. The Long-Term Tentant by Tara Laskowski

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