Carruthers walked carefully down the icy steps, wary of a fall, and tried to push the man’s dismissal out of his mind. As cruel and mocking as they came. And did he really need to slam the door so hard? Brooding, it wasn’t until he crossed the street and eyed the next block of houses that he realized the mistake that likely instigated the encounter. At some point that evening, in the dark as the snow came down, he had unknowingly crossed the line from Grandview—the city of Columbus neighborhood—into Grandview Heights, the stand-alone village. The transition indistinguishable by the naked eye—the same early 20th century Dutch Colonials and Cape Cods and cottages lined avenues in both places. On paper, though, forget it. House values doubled or tripled once inside the urban village limits. Good luck finding anything under three-hundred-fifty thou these days, minimum. And with those house values came a certain expectation, chief among them: early evening was not a time for the community’s good burghers to be bothered by cable salesmen. Especially in the winter. And especially this winter.
Carruthers adjusted his blue medical mask, uncomfortably damp from the snow, and considered his options. Seven-thirty. Four sign-ups short of today’s quota, and he was already in the hole by three from the day before. The pickings slim from this point on unless he turned around, but he’d already covered most of the city neighborhood streets behind him. He needed to move to another part of town, but this late in the evening that would put him knocking on doors after eight. That wasn’t going to fly no matter how poor or wealthy the area. He sighed and consigned himself to his fate. He’d try one more block, despite his low expectations. What else was he supposed to do, at his age, in this economy, with everything going on?
A swift dismissal at the next door. No one home at the following house. A pitying glance from the woman at the house after that, but not pitying enough to entertain his offer to switch cable services, regardless how fast the broadband he offered was, or how many channels were available. One more door, Carruthers told himself, back on the sidewalk. Tomorrow would be another—
He glanced to his left. An SUV paused in the street, the passenger side window rolled down, wipers squee-squeeging against the snow. The driver leaned toward him.
“Excuse me?” she repeated.
Carruthers looked up and down the sidewalk out of force of habit, and then took a step toward the car.
The woman driver, wearing a floral print mask, gestured wordlessly at him to come closer. A moment later she pulled the mask down briefly, showing her face. Carruthers’ eyes widened in surprise. The look of recognition flustered the woman, and for a moment, she didn’t or couldn’t speak.
At last she said, “I’m sorry about my husband, back there. The way he spoke to you. That wasn’t necessary. Particularly on a night like this.”
The wife of the man who dressed him down and then slammed the door in his face.
“It’s all right. I’m used to it. It’s an intrusion, I know.”
“It’s not all right. Not in the least—”
A car approached and stopped behind the woman’s SUV, the sideways falling snow illuminated in its light beams. The woman shook her head in frustration and pulled ahead, then over, banking the vehicle against the curb. Carruthers, not certain what else to do, took a few steps forward to meet her.
“I brought you some coffee,” the woman said abruptly, raising a cup toward him. “You must be freezing out here.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Please take it.” She reached the cup toward the window. As she did, a sudden gust kicked a curtain of snow into his eyes that felt much closer to sleet.
“What a night,” the woman said. He heard the click of unlocking doors. “Come in out of this. Just for a second.”
Carruthers hesitated. He still had the final house he had committed to trying, and it wasn’t getting any earlier. But the snow was also getting worse, stinging him where the mask left unprotected skin. And the smell of the coffee was beckoning...
He opened the door and slid inside. The woman raised the passenger window, shutting out the elements. The car was warm, the heater blasting, and smelled invitingly of leather and the woman’s perfume. Even his seat was warm, he realized.
“Thank you,” he said gratefully, taking the Stauf’s cup. He raised his mask just enough for a sip.
“It’s the least I could do.”
“It’s bad out there,” he said, not sure what else to say.
“Can I drive you someplace? Is your car near?”
“Just around the corner. There’s really no need. It’s just nice to warm up for a second.”
“I’m sorry again about my husband.” She stared straight ahead. Carruthers took another sip of coffee and studied her face, illuminated by the streetlamp a few yards down. Early forties, he guessed, to judge by the quick glimpse he got of her over her husband’s shoulder at her house and the peek she gave him removing the mask just now. Pretty features but watching life through sad and tired eyes. Blonde hair pulled back by a scarf. A rock on her ring finger that glinted in the dark as she inched her hands up the steering wheel. He peered as closely at the right side of her face as possible without drawing attention to himself. Trying to decide if he was imagining things. He didn’t think so.
“It’s really all right.”
“He doesn’t understand how bad things have gotten for people.”
“It’s a difficult time,” Carruthers agreed, again not sure what to say. He was already thinking about the politest exit line to return to the street.
“Someone like you, for example.”
“I don’t mean to pry ...”
Carruthers sat quietly.
“But is this not what you really do?”
“What do you mean?”
She gave a little shake of her head. Carruthers could tell she was embarrassed. He was embarrassed too because he knew what she meant.
“It’s just, the way the economy’s been,” she said quickly. “So many people out of work. I only wondered if—”
He spared her further agony. “I’m not a career cable salesman, if that’s what you mean,” he said, keeping his tone light.
“It’s none of my business, I know. I just feel so bad. I’m Christy, by the way.”
He paused and then responded by reciting a name for himself.
“What kind of work were you in, if I may ask?”
Carruthers hesitated for just a moment.
“Deliverables,” he said.
“Nothing. It’s just that that’s my husband’s field as well.”
“What does he do?”
“He sources polypropylene,” she said, stretching out the syllables as if pronouncing a foreign dignitary’s name. “For takeout food containers. He’s on the numbers side of things. Not very exciting, except that business is booming, as you might expect.” She stopped herself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t worry. Deliverables isn’t supposed to be exciting. It’s a means to an end.” He snuck another glance at her face half hidden in the shadows.
“He thinks it’s exciting.”
“Maybe it is for him.”
She grew quiet. Carruthers took another sip of coffee. It was the best coffee he had had in a while. Since right around the time his income dried up between the first and second wave of the sickness. He realized with sudden clarity that he did not want to leave the warmth of the SUV and the balm of the coffee for another cold, fruitless walk up a set of porch steps. He looked at her again.
“May I ask you something, Christy?”
He studied the bruise on her right cheek. “How often does he hit you like that? Your husband, I mean.”
She froze as if Carruthers himself had just raised his fist. After a second or two her eyes brightened, and she choked back a sob.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That was completely inappropriate.”
She shook her head wordlessly, hand drifting to her cheek. “No,” she gasped. “It’s not that.”
“It’s just that I didn’t think it was so obvious.”
They sat in silence for nearly a minute as the heater pushed warm air into their faces, gusts of wind whipped the snow sideways, and thin rivulets of melting precipitation ran down the windshield.
Carruthers broke the silence. “Is there anything I can do?”
Christy shook her head.
“Is it, you know, possible for you to leave?”
“No,” she whispered. When he didn’t respond, she said, “It’s complicated. I’m the second wife. There’s a prenup. Oh God. I shouldn’t be telling you this. I’m so sorry. I just wanted to do something nice for you, after what he said. I didn’t mean to burden you.”
“It’s not a burden.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Half a minute passed. Each took a sip of coffee.
“I should go,” Carruthers said.
Neither of them moved.
Nine months and three days, in fact, since he could afford to buy such good coffee.
“May I ask one other thing?”
“Sure.” She laughed with the hopelessness of a woman staring at a foreclosure notice in her inbox. “Anything.”
“Could I tell you about the job I had before everything happened?”
“Of course,” she said, her eyes bright again, but now seemingly with relief that the conversation was moving away from her.
So he did.
Carruthers was not surprised to learn that Christy’s husband still went into the office most days. He couldn’t stand working at home, she told him, and while not a sickness doubter, he was skeptical of the conventional wisdom on transmission. Carruthers could have managed regardless, but the husband’s preference made things a little easier. His office was in the Arena District, one of the new brick-and-glass developments within walking distance of the hockey arena, Clippers stadium, and the new Crew field. The office parking garage sat a block down. It took a couple of days to work out the best sightline but eventually Carruthers found it atop the old municipal power plant off Hocking. He went back and forth but decided on a Tuesday morning, his preferred day, since the few brave souls now returning to the office after months at home were back in the rhythm of the work week by then and focused on the day ahead. After a week of reconnaissance, he figured he was looking at somewhere between 8:15 and 8:18.
Not bad, he thought that following Tuesday morning. 8:17 a.m. The benefits of punctuality. He settled in and leaned forward, letting the scope cup his right eye. He reached for the trigger but took his time, dissipating the rustiness that had set in over the past several months. It had been an unusually long respite; even in 2008 and 2009 jobs found him, if a bit sporadically. He was accustomed to ebbs and flows, but the sickness threw those models out the window. He paused, took a breath, released it, and squeezed off four shots in succession.
The first evaporated a brick at the corner of the parking garage just above the sign with the daily parking rates. The second eviscerated the rear driver’s side tire of a car in line for the garage. The third shattered the rear driver’s side passenger window of the next car up, sending a shower of glass into an empty child’s car seat. The last shot, directed at the front window of a black Lincoln Navigator waiting for the garage gate to rise, removed most of Christy’s husband’s head.
These things took time, of course. The speed with which ones and zeroes traveled through cyberspace when money was involved didn’t apply to every transaction. Especially this one. And especially with the various layered accounts the money needed to move in and out of. It was complicated: prenup, and all. But eventually Carruthers was paid, both the down payment and the final deposit. After all, he delivered his service without complications. Police were still looking in vain for the spree shooter who targeted several drivers, tragically killing one. Just to be safe, he kept the cable job until all the money arrived, paying closer attention to borders between neighborhoods. One week, he even met his sales quota. Despite that, his supervisor didn’t seem surprised when he turned in his notice.
“It must be hard out there, someone your age,” the young woman said.
“The days get long,” Carruthers said in agreement.
It wasn’t that much money, was the thing. He had offered a discount rate to Christy, given the circumstances. With his obligations, his and his wife’s, maybe enough to last them six months. He would have to drum up new business in-between or look for another job. Maybe retail this time, he thought. Both Target and Walmart were hiring. He was filling out an online job application in early spring when his phone rang. Not his personal phone. The other phone.
“2029,” Carruthers said, reciting the last four digits.
No one spoke for a moment. Then he heard a woman’s voice.
“I’m calling because ...”
“My friend Christy gave me this number.”
Carruthers did not say anything.
“The thing is ... She said you might be able to help me with a problem.”
Carruthers saved his work on the job application and shut down his browser. He examined the area code on the caller ID. Louisville, he was pretty sure. Not so far.
“Go on,” he said.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins, an Associated Press reporter and freelance writer, is the author of the Andy Hayes private eye series, including the Shamus Award-nominated An Empty Grave, and the editor of Columbus Noir. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, the 2021 Bouchercon anthology This Time For Sure, the collection Mickey Finn Vol. 1: 21st Century Noir, and other magazines and anthologies.