LAST WORDS

BY

MEGAN POWELL

Megan Powell grew up in upstate New York, where the winters are long and filled with the heady joys of lake effect snow. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a major in History, and now has a job completely unrelated to classical Athens, medieval Britain, or traditional Chinese architecture. She lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia with her husband Larry, two dogs, and two cats . She has two novels in print (Vocation, Double Dragon E-books, 2002;  Waxing, Zumaya Publications, 2005), and literally dozens of short stories published in several genres. She is also the editor of the Shred of Evidence Ezine.

 

            Everybody dies.  If you're careful and lucky it might take a while, but the curtain comes down eventually. 

            Most people leave a mark behind, even if it's only fleeting.  Eleanor Rigby's funeral at least got Father McKenzie out of the house for the afternoon.  If you're famous, people remember great works and/or great scandals.  If you're loved, those closest to you remember all the little things. 

            People will also remember the way you died.  Were you taken too soon?  Did you linger too long?  Was it tragic, fast, agonizing, unexpected, fated?  How did you face death, if you had the opportunity to realize what was happening?  How did you react, and what did you say?

             Lisa Irwin said "eggplant."

 

* * * * *

 

            Two days before her murder, Lisa Irwin walked into my office.  She was in her early twenties, still in college or recently graduated with a degree in some liberal art.  She carried herself proudly, not yet world-weary or genuinely cynical.  Her hair was dark, pulled back from a pale face free of makeup except for burgundy lipstick.  She wore black pants and a black turtleneck and dark-rimmed glasses.  In ten seconds I decided I could probably guess what books she read, what music she listened to and what causes she held dear. 

            I felt bad about that later.  Nobody deserves to be sized up and written off so quickly.  It didn't make me feel any better to know I was right, to find out that she'd been an English major with a concentration in Women's Studies, that she listened to Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco and the Indigo Girls, that she'd interned with nonprofits between semesters, that she adored Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison. 

            "Mr. Ogundana?" she said, and I offered her a seat.  "I heard about you from your brother, and I thought maybe you could help me."

            She probably thought that was a good opening, and it would have been except for the fact that my brother can charitably be described as a flake.  That wasn't her fault any more than it was mine, so I resolved that if she wouldn't hold my relationship with Ekundayo against me I'd extend her the same courtesy.

            "He's a friend of a friend, I just bumped into him a couple times," she continued.  "My name's Lisa Irwin."

            "Pleased to meet you." 

            Clients are nice and I figured this one couldn't have any serious problems.  She was too young, too privileged, to have amassed any history.  And I confess I was pleased to have an attractive young woman in my office, even if she was there to see me in a professional capacity.  It took my mind off my mostly-ex-girlfriend, and Lisa Irwin was young enough to be a cute young thing but old enough that I didn't feel sketchy entertaining fantasies. 

            Not that I expected anything to come of our conversation, except maybe her hiring me for a couple days.  But I like my fantasies to have some element of possibility, no matter how infinitesimal. 

            "I think someone may be stalking me," she said.

            "Any idea who?"

            She shook her head. 

            "I'm not even sure I should be worried.  It's possible it's just a joke."

            I made a disapproving noise. 

            "What sort of joke?"

            "I've gotten some kinky e-mails," she shrugged, "and a couple that sound a little threatening.  I think they're from the same person, but I can't be sure."

            "Is it just cyber-stalking at this point?"

            She hesitated, and I wondered how carefully she'd considered the possibility of a physical threat. 

            "I haven't seen anybody following me."

            "Okay, that's good.  The downside of modern technology is that you can be stalked by somebody half a world away.  The upside is they're half a world away."

            She smiled.  It was a nice expression.  She had good teeth, even enough to indicate orthodontic intervention, and free of smudged lipstick.

            "Is there anybody close to home that might be doing this?"

            "No one I can think of."

            "No bitter ex-boyfriends?"

            She shook her head. 

            "No bitter ex-girlfriends?"

            A smile, and another shake of the head.  I hoped it meant that she approved of my open-mindedness and not that she was a lesbian. 

            As I said, I like to be able to hope. 

            "Lascivious employers, inappropriately affectionate uncles, psycho fanboys from chatrooms?" 

            I was being flip.  It wouldn't have changed anything if I'd acted differently, but I still wish I'd taken the matter more seriously from the beginning. 

            "Sorry.  You've got to pound the pavement, literally or virtually," she grinned.

            "Money for nothing's too much to hope for, I guess.  Send me what you've got, and I'll see what I can turn up."

 

* * * * *

           

            Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure.  I don't particularly care for Hemingway, but I've always liked that sentiment.  It awards points for effort. Sometimes that's the best you can hope for, in a world where bad things happen to good people.

            Two days after I met Lisa, I found the police outside her building.  I couldn't get into the apartment, but it turned out I was on the list of people the police wanted to question.  At the same time I'd been coming to see Lisa Irwin, they'd found my business card on her dresser. 

            I had nothing to hide, aside from the fact that it was technically illegal for me to conduct my business without a license, so I didn't see any reason to resist an interview.  No one answered my questions about Lisa, and as time dragged on that seemed more of a confirmation that she was hurt, possibly dead.

            My business cards say I'm a consultant; that was my sister-in-law's idea.  So, of course, I got a lot of questions about what sort of consulting I do.  I played up the family connection:  Lisa was a friend of my brother's, this was really just a favor, and so on.  I outlined what little I knew about her stalker. 

            Talking to the police always makes me feel guilty, and in this case I was in the wrong as far as my P.I. license, or lack thereof, went.  I felt far guiltier about the fact that something had happened to Lisa.  I played through all sorts of scenarios, all the things I could have done differently to save her.  Since I didn't have any details about what had actually happened, there were an awful lot of permutations to go through.  It provided me with something to occupy my mind between rounds of good cop/bad cop. 

            I hadn't done anything to hurt her.  I could account for my whereabouts for most of the morning.  Unless something had happened very early or during a very narrow window, I was pretty much in the clear, barring paranoid conspiracy theories.  So I couldn't distract myself from wondering about Lisa's situation by worrying about my own.

 

* * * * *

            Dropping by Lisa Irwin's apartment the day after she hired me probably wasn't the most professional move I ever made.  I didn't have any information for her about who might have sent the e-mails.  My friend Hakim had so far contributed the expert opinion that AOL is evil, which wasn't especially useful. 

But I wanted to be diligent.  It was nice to have a client I didn't dislike, and I wanted her to feel like she was in good hands.  At around six I called her work number and hung up on the voicemail system.  She'd joked about long hours and other drawbacks of working for evil lawyers, but it was possible she'd left for the day.  I didn't want to send her an e-mail, so I dialed her home number.  Neither Lisa, voicemail nor answering machine picked up.

            That struck me as somewhat odd, and I decided to use it as an excuse to see her in person.

            As it turned out she was home, and buzzed me up without hesitation after I identified myself.  In an effort to be professional I made a note of details, like the brick sitting next to the front door of her building.

            Lisa smiled and invited me in.  She was wearing another turtleneck, but this time her hair was down.  She kept a nice apartment, small but furnished with care and a certain pizzazz.  I guessed the landlord hadn't been the one to paint the walls green and purple.  "Did you find anything out?"

            "Nothing solid yet," I confessed.  "My technical consultant thinks the stalker's using trial CDs from AOL, which he could have picked up anywhere.  The e-mail accounts are owned by Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Wile E. Coyote, who live in Springfield, East Buttfuck, Gotham, and Metropolis, respectively."

            "Wile E. Coyote's good news, anyway." 

            I had the feeling her high spirits were a front.  "Maybe you should ask the landlord to remind the other tenants it's dangerous to leave doors propped open."

            "If anyone wanted to get in badly enough, he could smash the glass."

            A valid point.  I wondered how much time she'd spent considering that scenario.  Did she think about it every day when she walked past the brick sitting on the sidewalk?

            "Do you want something to drink?  I don't actually have much time, but I don't want to be a bad hostess--"

            "No, I'm fine."  I knew how to take a hint.  "I just wanted to give you an update."  I glanced around the room again, hoping for an inspired topic of discussion or a suave exit line.  Instead, I saw an answering machine sitting on an end table next to her phone.  "You've turned your machine off?"

            "Yeah.  It was such a pain, every night it would be filled with telemarketers or annoying parents or--"  She smiled, but the expression was off.

            "Or what?"

            She sat down on a dark purple couch.  "When I was in college I'd get obscene calls, especially around pledge time.  We'd have contests in the dorm, rate the calls for lameness and physical impracticality, and rate the wittiness of our responses."  She smiled faintly.  "I once told a guy I was wearing Wonder Woman underoos.  That was a good night."

            "When did the new calls start?"

            "I don't even know for sure."  She shrugged.  "Every so often some jerk calls, or somebody hangs up after a few seconds.  Maybe some of them are random crank calls or actual wrong numbers."

            Or maybe one of the jerks had AOL accounts under cartoon aliases.  "Do you have any of these calls on tape?"

            "There's no tape.  The chip gets wiped when you unplug it."

            "And you've unplugged it."

            Lisa nodded.  "I guess that was a dumb move.  But I didn't really think it was important.  I mean, it wasn't anything definitive...."

            But it was important enough that she didn't want to plug the answering machine back in.  I could understand denial.  "It might not be, but it's also possible that your stalker called." 

So now we had phone records.  At any rate, somebody had phone records.  I somehow doubted that anyone would turn them over to an unlicensed private investigator who thought that maybe one of the callers might possibly be harassing his client.  And I had a feeling that the police had enough actual crimes on their hands that they wouldn't prioritize a report like this too highly. 

"First off, I'd like you to plug it back in."  The words were barely out of my mouth before she complied.  It was nice to be taken seriously.  "Save anything that's even vaguely creepy.  We might learn something.  My technical consultant's watched The Conversation more times than any person should, and he'd love the opportunity to play Gene Hackman." 

That earned me a smile, and I made a note to refresh my knowledge of 70s cinema. 

"Do you remember when you got the other calls?"

"There was one last Friday, I think, and a hang-up yesterday...."  Lisa shook her head. 

"Think about it.  Write down as much as you can remember," I said, "even if it seems dumb."

"Okay."  She seemed more comfortable now that someone was telling her what to do.  I was glad I could do at least that much for her, and that feeling lasted until she said:  "How are we doing so far?"

Honesty isn't always the best policy, but I didn't trust my ability to talk convincingly out of my ass.  "I have no idea.  When I'm hired to find someone, I typically know who that person is."

She just nodded.  "I know it's kind of unusual, but your brother said you'd do your best to help."

Ekundayo probably thought a little word-of-mouth advertising was just what I needed. 

"I won't string you along if I don't think I can do any good," I promised.  "And if we find anything that the police might take seriously, I really think you should go to them.  Just in case this is more than a bored frat guy."

"Okay.  Yeah.  That sounds like good advice."

I was no longer comfortable as the font of all wisdom and knowledge.  Before I could say anything, the buzzer sounded.  Lisa crossed the room quickly, and after the masculine

"It's me" buzzed up her new visitor.

"His name's Nick Marsh," she told me.  "We work together, and nothing else is the evil lawyer’s business."

Of course she had a social life.  Of course she and Nick Marsh would be discreet at work. 

"No, it isn't." 

Pretty clearly she didn't see me as fling or boyfriend material, and any sexual tension between us was completely one-sided. 

That was fine.  I hadn't really been under any illusions.

            Nick Marsh turned out to be white, skinny, and blond.  He might have benefited from braces as a kid but, despite my hindbrain's attempts to focus on his flaws, he wasn't bad looking.  Lisa introduced me as "the man I mentioned the other day," so apparently she and Nick talked as well as...whatever else they did.  In the elevator, I did my best not to speculate about those non-verbal activities.

 

* * * * *

 

            Apparently I wasn't considered good suspect material.  At least, the police didn't ask the type of questions I'd have asked someone I thought was guilty.  Eventually the designated Good Cop told me that Lisa was dead.

            I felt it in the gut, even though I barely knew her, even though I'd already come to the conclusion she was dead.  There were pictures as further confirmation.  It was difficult to resolve the dead body in the photos with my memory of the living woman I'd seen a day earlier. 

She was mostly naked, covered in blood.  I almost asked if she'd been raped or just killed, but stopped myself.  "Just killed" was a ridiculous statement, and I assumed a rapist wouldn't bother pulling her underpants back up.  Had he--and call me sexist, but when a semi-naked woman is sliced up with a sharp phallic symbol, I start thinking "he"--surprised her while she was changing?  Forced her to undress?  Or had she undressed for him willingly?

            "Do you have any idea who could have done this?" Good Cop asked, and I shook my head.  "Did she mention a boyfriend?  An unhappy ex?"

            "Not anyone dangerous," I said, reluctant to betray a secret Lisa had shared with me.  Good Cop and Bad Cop had Nick Marsh's name--I'd categorized him as a concerned coworker--and could connect the dots on their own.  Someone might already have established whether or not Marsh had been at work or otherwise alibied when Lisa was killed.  But in any case, time was no longer of the essence.

I looked at the photographs more closely.  Lisa's throat was cut, and stab wounds covered her chest and abdomen.  Her hands and forearms were sliced up as well.  Even without a background in forensics, I could recognize defensive wounds.  Lisa had known she was in mortal danger, and she'd wanted to live. 

            I also recognized bruises on her arms and ribs.  I frowned and looked more closely, not caring what Good Cop thought.  The bruising I could see ran the spectrum of abused flesh, from pale yellow to dark black-and-blue, and it seemed that she must have collected minor injuries over the course of time.  "You think she was in an abusive relationship?" 

            He shrugged, waiting for me to fill the silence. 

            Some people bruise more easily than others, and some people really do fall down stairs or walk into doors.  Lisa Irwin had never seemed to be particularly clumsy. 

            For that matter, Lisa Irwin had never seemed particularly frightened.  She'd been nervous about the stalker, nervous enough to hire me.  But she'd done it calmly.

            I'd seen the effects of physical abuse, and Lisa Irwin hadn't seemed to be suffering from them.  Her body language had never said "victim."  She'd never seemed skittish, never looked over her shoulder to see if she was being watched....

            "What do you think?" Good Cop finally prompted. 

            "I don't know, but nothing seemed to be wrong."

            "A battered women might believe she was at fault."

            "I know.  But she didn't seem guilty or scared." 

            "What does the word 'Eckland' mean to you?"

            I shook my head.

            "A name?  A person or a business?" he persisted.  "Is it close to something?"

            "It's something Lisa said?"

He nodded.  "Our witness isn't a hundred percent sure she heard it right.  Someone else heard 'eggplant.'"

Misheard words and a bloody corpse; maybe the orangutan did it.  It felt like Good Cop was grasping at straws, so I supposed Nick Marsh's alibi--not to mention mine--had checked out.  But the word--"Eckland" or "eggplant" or whatever it had been--was important.  It was the last thing Lisa Irwin had ever said.

I recalled reading somewhere that "shit" is the most common last word on cockpit voice recorders.  If Lisa Irwin had said "shit," if she'd said anything that even vaguely sounded like "shit," Good Cop wouldn't have give it a second thought--last word or not, it would have been written off as irrelevant.  That suddenly seemed like the saddest thing in the world.

            "She worked for Eddelson, but that's probably not it," I said.  Based on Good Cop's expression, he agreed.  "Eckland" could be anyone or anything, and "eggplant" was just ridiculous.  What, then?  Something screamed by a dying woman in pain, heard by two people who were within earshot but didn't see anything.  Strangers trying to make sense out of a couple muffled syllables.

I recalled dark purple upholstery. 

 

* * * * *

           

            "Mr. Ogundana?  It's Nick Marsh."

            "What can I do for you?"  I tried not to think of what he and Lisa might have been doing last night, and tried even harder not to hold it against him.  My involuntary celibacy wasn't his fault.

            "I'm probably being silly," he said, and I sat up a little straighter in my chair.  Sentences that begin like that don't usually lead anywhere good.  "Lisa's not at work."

            I glanced at the clock.  It was quarter after ten. 

            "It's not like her.  She'd have called in."  He was making a valiant effort to hide the quaver in his voice, but I could tell he was upset.  If he wasn't sincerely concerned, he deserved an Academy Award.  "I left a message a little while ago, but she hasn't called back."

            "Okay, try not to worry."  I tried to take my own advice and failed.  I did stop myself from demanding why he hadn't slept over. If someone else had been there, maybe this--whatever this might be--wouldn't have happened.  "I'll go check out her apartment and make sure everything's all right."

 

* * * * *

 

"You think she really said 'eggplant'?"

I nodded.  "It's utterly ridiculous.  It's not a common word.  Most people only say it in conjunction with 'parmesan.'" 

"Then why would she say it while she was being stabbed?"

The bruises, the turtlenecks and Lisa Irwin's non-victim demeanor now added up.  Unfortunately, none of it shed any light on who actually killed her.  "Talk to Nick Marsh."

"His alibi's better than yours."

For Lisa's sake, I was relieved to hear it.  Bad enough to be murdered; how much worse to be murdered by someone you trusted?  Surely Lisa would approve of me speaking up for him.  "Ask him about their safe words."

"Safe words."  I couldn't tell if Good Cop's skepticism was genuine or a professional put-on.  For all I knew, they'd already asked Nick Marsh about the particulars of the bedroom.  "This isn't a case of S&M gone bad."

A slit throat was a far cry from accidental death.  I imagined how scared she must have been.  And hated whoever had done that to her.  "She was hurt--really hurt--and she wanted it to stop."

"So she yelled her safe word." 

"Even though she knew it wouldn't do any good."  Her choice of last words had been a little more unique than "shit," but ultimately there was no hidden meaning to the word "eggplant," no clue as to the identity of her killer.  No significance at all. 

Grace under pressure.  What could be more graceful than using your final breath to identify your killer?  I would have liked to imagine Lisa Irwin doing that.  I would have liked to have that puzzle, would have liked to solve it and discover who needed to be punished.  In a weird way it would have been like collaborating with her.

But it had been much simpler than that, and I had no right to feel disappointed, not after she'd fought so hard.  Someone was hurting her, and she wanted him to stop.  She wanted to live.  There was no shame in that.  She still deserved points for effort.

She deserved a hell of a lot more, and I wished I could have offered more than posthumous praise.

 

END

 

Copyright © 2007 by Megan Powell

 

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