When Stein and Wilcox pulled into the alley between Magna Photo and Varsity Apartments, the Varsity’s building manager was waiting for them. They were only a block away when the call came in. Two weeks before, they’d pulled into this alley to deal with a minor accident–a car in the Magna Photo parking spaces had slipped out of gear, rolled across the alley and smashed a basement apartment window. That day the building manager was relaxed, leaning against the rolled car, smiling and talking with the woman who owned it. The damage wasn’t bad.
Today, the building manager paced in front of the side door to his building. His brown SaniClean uniform was dark with sweat under the arms and across the stomach. He clutched a notebook and stared at the squad car as it pulled in. Wilcox thought, despite the manager’s booze-sloppy gut and red face, he looked like a guilty, scared child. She pulled the long flashlight out from under the seat. She thought they might need it to poke around. They didn’t carry billy clubs anymore.
Stein pulled his sunglasses out of his shirt pocket. They got out of the car.
“Where’s it at?” Wilcox said.
The building manager started down the alley toward the back of the Varsity. He led them to the dumpster behind the apartments and pointed to it from a few yards away. “In there.”
Stein and Wilcox each lifted one of the dumpster’s plastic covers. A cloud of flies hovered around them for a second, then evaporated. An empty plastic bag lifted out and floated down the alley. The air smelled of rotting cabbage.
Wilcox saw the foot, greasy Reebok tennis shoe and no sock. Pale, blue-veined ankle and sooty slacks. The arm, one hand trapped inside a pizza box, tracked with violent red from the wrist to the elbow. The thin, red-striped tee-shirt. They saw the face, open-mouthed, swollen black lips. Eyes half-open, bloodshot and yellow. Cushioned on a green plastic bag of garbage like a pillow, stringy dark hair pulled back in a bun. A fly crawled under the collar of the shirt.
Stein dropped his half of the dumpster lid, covering the face. “Shit,” he said.
“I’ll call in the coroner and the EMTs,” Wilcox said.
“Tell them there’s no hurry,” Stein said.
“Shut up,” Wilcox said. The building manager twisted his notebook with both hands. “Come inside,” she told him. “Come in and stay cool.” He followed her down the alley, unlocked the side door to the building and stood in the stairwell, his red face staring out the door’s small window.
After shift, Wilcox and Stein stood next to their cars and waited for the sun to go down. There was no ID on the body. They didn’t need any. You didn’t live in Lafayette a year without a story about her.
Running Woman. Gray Lady. The Crying Woman. Crazyjane.
Wilcox had just turned in the drive-through lane of the McDonald’s on Stadium when the woman drifted into the car’s headlights, a ghost. This was in December, and she was wearing her hooded gray coat, dark with dirt and wet, the hood cinched tight around her face. She wobbled in front of Wilcox’s car, then sat in the ice on top of a sewer cover. Wilcox ordered food, then saw her walk toward the Credit Union next door, off the sidewalk and out of the streetlight.
Stein’s wife had taken him to the opening of an art show at the Well’s Community Center in June. Everyone was drinking wine on the front steps. Somebody in one of the old Victorian houses across the street was playing Styx and REO Speedwagon loudly out the windows of a top-floor apartment. In the middle of it all the gray lady came running down the hill, down the center of the brick street, wearing the same clothes they’d found her in today, her arms folded over her chest in an X. She was crying. She ran by, everyone staring at her, her shoes clopping on the bricks. She disappeared a block down.
Stein said the kid who rented the apartment above his garage had told him he’d seen her picking cigarette butts out of the mud. She was hiding behind a bench by the library on campus.
“Enough,” Wilcox said.
Stein twirled his keyring around his finger. “Be another hot one tomorrow.”
“Not this hot.”
“No. Not this hot.”
Wilcox closed her eyes and pretended the police station wasn’t there, that Stein wasn’t there, that the parking lot was a long, smooth lawn. But there wasn’t enough air moving to even imagine wind. There would be nothing to eat in her house tonight. Nothing on TV to watch. No good books to read. Not enough cool spots on her sheets and pillows to sleep.
“Vacation time in exactly… three days for me,” Stein said.
The city, already small, felt smaller. It wasn’t darker, it wasn’t lighter, Wilcox thought. All the colors had just shifted a shade or two, one way or another. Tomorrow they would snap back.