Someone’s Issuing Me A Challenge.

Somewhere in the city there’s a mouldering brownstone, where the lights only half work, where the stairwells always smell like old grey puddles, where the rust is the only thing still holding the fire escape together.

Somewhere below it, there’s an alley choked with melted cardboard and dirty plastic grocery bags, from which you can’t see the streets and the only light spills out from the windows above.

And if you were standing there, you’d see one window at the very top lit uncertainly, as if it was ashamed of it.

If not Bob Weber, then Comics Curmudgeon at Least.

There is a bare lightbulb, there. There is a bare mattress. There are clothes in liquor-store boxes. There is a copy machine. There are stacks of paper, looking bereaved and abandoned. There is the sound of water running.

And there is a woman, lost in indecision.

At least that’s what we figured out later. But I should be starting at the beginning.

It had been waffling back and forth between rain and drizzle all day, so I was feeling halfway restless and halfway lazy and all the way bored. They don’t send me out on traffic patrol anymore, not that I’d go if they did, so when it’s nasty outside I’ve got nothing to do but wait for something to come up that nobody else can wrap his brain around. The light outside was too dark to see by, but not dark enough for them to turn on the streetlights, so I had the lights in the office on for the first time since the president wore a beard. It lent an odd sense of isolation to the room, as if Max and I were sealed on some bubble. It felt like that game you’d play when you were a pup, how the floor is made of lava and you can’t get off the couch.

I was just about ready to say to hell with both the boredom and Max’s tuneless whistling and head down to the diner for a burger, wet fur be damned, when the phone rang.

“Yeah,” I say, expecting the chief, because who would call a specific policeman? Nobody. You just call ‘the police.’

Is this… Shylock the Fox? says a hesitant, breathy voice. Can you help me?

“This is detective Slylock Fox speaking,” I say, annoyance drowning in professional concern, “What’s wrong?”

It’s my husband. He… I think he’s going to do something.

“To you?”

No no, he’d never hurt me! Even angry, she never rises above the barest whisper. She really doesn’t want to be overheard. He’s going to hurt himself.

“Alright, just tell me all about it.” I motion to Max to trace the call, and to shut up his whistling, “and what’s your name?”

I can’t tell you that! she gasps, You’d be able to come after R- I mean, him.

Starts with R, I think, or maybe possibly an L, and say “Only if he goes ahead with it. That’s what we’re here to stop, right?”

I, I hope so. But it’s no good asking me to betray him, because I won’t, so please don’t ask again.

“I’m don’t want anybody to betray anyone,” I say. ‘Dang, I was hoping she’d betray him,’ I think. “Can you tell me anything about what he’s planning to do?”

“Ma’am?”

The silence lasts so long that I’m this close to thinking she lost her nerve and hanging up, when she whispers, Bank robbery. He’s going to knock over a bank.

“Alright then. And have you told him it’s a bad idea?”

Of course I have! He didn’t listen. He never listens…

I suppose I could have let her ramble on for a while, give Max more time to trace the call, but she’s skittish, I gotta keep her thinking I’m on her side. “Are you willing to do something behind his back?”

He has no idea I’m calling you.

“Fair enough. Can you tell me anything about how he’s doing the robbery?”

I don’t know! He’s going to take the money and leave! Isn’t that enough?! ON some level I’m impressed, she’s shouting at me without raising her voice at all. Maybe she’s had practice at staying quiet. I shove that thought right out of my head. Stop the robbery first, then work on the domestic abuse case.

Assuming you can find out the name.

“I can’t help you stop him if I don’t know how he’s doing it.”

Well, there’s… I can almost hear her looking around the room, some bags, like they have at the bank, and a big stack of blank paper, and a copy machine he got from a pawnshop I think, does that help.

‘That idiot,’ I snarl in my thoughts, that won’t pass for real money. “He must be planning to switch those bags filled with counterfeit bills for the real ones.”

If you say so.

“Ok, ma’am, is there some way you can mark the counterfeit bags, that he won’t immediately notice, but that might make him think twice about the robbery when he’s about to commit it?”

Like what? She sounds desperate. I hope she’s not making this call while he’s there.

“Have you got any perfume?”

So that’s how I wound up staking out the nearest bank–a tiny branch office built into a dilapidated supermarket. At least we’re not out in the maybe-rain, but this is ridiculous. I tell Max as much.

Dis is da nearest bank ta da call! he protests, eying a  display of wilting lettuce, Maybe nex toime youz can be da wun leanin over dat stoopid blinky console-thing!

“I suppose it’s possible the trick worked, he smelled the perfume and gave the job up.”

Ya wuzn’t xpectin him to?

“Naw, I just wanted to set up some obvious evidence. If he’s stupid enough to think he can photocopy bills, then a little Chanel 5 isn’t gonna stop him.”

Channel 5? What’s da TV got ta do wit dis? Max mutters, but before I can answer the walkie-talkie is crackling about a convenience store hold-up.

I figured the bank was a crock.

They brought in Reeky Rat for trying to hold up the corner Swift’n-buy. I watched the interrogation. It all went according to routine.

And if his wife hadn’t come to try to post bail, then that would have been the end of it.

She was perfectly inconspicuous. I didn’t even blink when I saw her. But I heard her. It was that same breathy, whispering voice. If voices could have colors, hers would have been the same as the sky outside.

As soon as I heard her, I understood it all.

“You made up the story about the bank heist.”

What? Who are you?

“The detective you called about a phony bank heist. You set me and half the force on stake-out for a crime that was never going to occur, I guess because that way you hoped your husband would be done with his much less noticeable robbery. You just wanted my eyes off the hand that had the coin in it.”

I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mister. I’m just here to get my husband.

“That’s why you did it, of course, because that much of what you said was true. You had told him it was a bad idea, and he hadn’t listened. So you settled for the next best thing. Your husband was never planning to knock over a bank. There was never any moneybags, never any copy machine, never any perfume.”

Mister, I don’t know anything about putting perfume on fake money!

“Then how’d you know what I told the caller to do with it?”

Her mouth drops open, then she just bites her lip and looks away. She’s obviously not used to this. What are you going to do to me?

“I haven’t decided. Could arrest you for obstruction of justice, I guess. Course, your real crime is getting hung up on that seedy-”

She slaps me.

Don’t you dare talk about my husband that way! And now she’s crying silently, still biting her lip. And all this time her voice hasn’t gone above a whisper.

After a long moment, I break the silence again. “I’m not going to let him go, you know.”

Arrest me then. Her voice drips contempt softly, like the grey sky. At least we’ll be together.

I watch them leading her off. As she goes, I can hear it finally start to rain in earnest.

The Final Word.

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