Lavina was short, with a peaked face and a wild mane of salt and pepper hair best described as frizzy. The kind of woman Danny Parks never would’ve noticed even though she lived two doors down, sharing his townhouse building.
The place had four two-story units. Danny and his girlfriend Tammy lived on one end, Lavina and her whatever-he-was on the other.
Lavina’s live-in was too young to be her husband, said Tammy, picking at her cranberry salad, twirling the lettuce around on her fork.
“I ‘m still not sure who you’re talking about,” said Danny, pouring another glass of Vignoles.
“The woman in the end apartment. The one looks like Rhea Perlman.”
“Rhea Perlman on Taxi.” Tammy giggled. “She sorta looks like Ronnie James Dio. You know, the heavy metal guy?”
“Oh yeah,” Danny got the Dio reference. “I saw her at the mailboxes the other day.” He emptied half his glass. “Are you eating that salad or making and origami duck?”
“So do you think the big guy is her son, or boyfriend, or what?
Danny threw back the rest of the wine and didn’t bother to wipe his lips. “Who cares?”
“I think she’s a spook,” said Tammy.
Two days later Danny came home to one less neighbor. Before he’d even put his Ford Escort into park, he saw the open door on the unit next to Lavina’s.
Bob, the apartment manager, greeted him on the sidewalk. “Looks like you’re losing a neighbor,” he said.
“Elderly couple wasn’t it? What’s going on?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Peterson. Apparently she up and walked away a couple nights back.”
“I didn’t know she was having trouble. Dementia?”
“Not that I knew about.”
Danny’s stomach tightened with the look on Bob’s face.
Bob nodded as if he could read Danny’s mind. “They found her this morning up in the woods. Been dead a while too. Looks like some stray dogs got to her.”
“I guess I could’ve gone without hearing that.”
“Just saying.” Bob snuffed hard and spit into the parking lot. “The old man’s gone to stay with his kids. Wanted me to water the plants, keep an eye on things until they could make arrangements to move.”
By the time supper rolled around, Danny was starved, but Tammy wouldn’t eat.
“I just keep thinking about that poor old woman. Laying up there. Dogs.”
“It happens. Pass the ketchup, please?”
“You know what? I wonder if that Lavina had anything to do with it.”
“How could she?”
“Bob told me that the Peterson’s had complained about her. About her arguing with her boyfriend. Or whoever he is.”
“I saw the guy you mean. Big, bearded skinhead guy out polishing the wheels on his car.” Danny described the big man and his tattoo sleeve arms.
“That’s him,” said Tammy.
“If you’re worried about anybody,” said Danny, “worry about him. He’s a hell of a lot more scary than Lavina.”
“I think they’re both scary.”
“Have a glass of wine.”
Two weeks later, another neighbor was gone. Dan and Tammy had been on a weekend outing to the mountains. When they returned, Bob was sweeping the sidewalk outside of a yellow tape barrier. The tape read CRIME SCENE in big black letters.
“Damnedest thing,” said Bob when Danny asked him about it. “Nobody heard a thing. I didn’t even know Jerry was home.”
Jerry drove a truck on long hauls up the coast. He was often gone for weeks at a time. Sharing the apartment wall with quiet, absent Jerry was one of the things Danny appreciated about his apartment.
Now Jerry was absent for good.
Bob jerked his thumb toward the sealed apartment. “Lot of blood in there.”
That night neither Danny nor Tammy ate supper.
A month later, after they’d answered a few routine questions for the cops and most of the excitement was over, Tammy mentioned seeing Lavina at the mailbox. “She was really shook up about something. Real jittery.” She could’ve been talking about herself. “Danny, I think her arms were bruised.”
An image of the skinhead in all his inked glory popped into Danny’s mind. “You think that bastard’s hitting her?”
“Remember the Peterson’s complained about their arguing?”
“That sonuvabitch,” said Danny. Compared to an unsolved murder next door, old-fashioned domestic violence seemed fairly routine. It seemed like something a neighbor could do something about.
“Next time you see Lavina,” said Danny. “Invite her in for coffee.”
It happened sooner than Danny would’ve predicted.
Two nights later, when the knock came at the door, they both jumped.
Danny cracked open the door, keeping the security chain firmly in place. In the darkness outside, by the glow of the parking lot lights, Lavina stood, shrunken, sullen, blood on her sweatshirt. Blood on her face.
“Can I use your phone?” Meek. Crying.
If the sight of blood trickling out of Lavin’s nose didn’t immediately jerk Danny’s insides into a knot, the shadow of the skinhead did. He stood back a ways, behind Lavina, close to Dan’s car. His legs shoulder-width apart, his arms loose by his sides.
Then Tammy was there at the door, unhooking the chain, swinging the door wide to let Lavina in.
The woman’s eyes were wide, begging for help. “Come in,” said Tammy. “I’ll get my phone.”
As Danny turned to close the door, the skinhead spoke to him.
“What was that?” said Danny. He had to strain his ears to hear.
“Send the bitch back out.”
Oh, yeah. Right.
“So she can take another beating? Is that it? You haven’t had enough fun?”
Seeing Lavina the way she was had fired up something inside Danny. Two deaths in the same building. Now this creep working over a helpless woman.
Danny threw caution to the wind and stepped outside, closing the apartment door behind him.
By now, Tammy would be getting Lavina some help. Cleaning her up. Making some calls.
“This has to stop, man,” said Danny, walking forward. “You can’t just—“
The skinhead staggered forward. There was blood on him too.
“Send her out,” he said. “Or she’ll…she’ll hurt you too.”
The big guy fell over in a pile on the sidewalk.
Danny spun, rushed back to the door.
It was locked from inside.