I’m a mystery writer, a serial killer of sorts, and my latest victim is a Brooklyn landlord, not at all a likable character. His name is Viktor Charnov, and in addition to gouging his tenants, he’s done other bad stuff, revealed later on in the story.
I based his description on a painting I’d seen long ago, I think in the Brooklyn Museum, but it could have been somewhere else. Haunting. The figure, a woman wearing a long skirt, its stripes meticulously rendered by the artist, stares out at me still. I remember her eyes and those stripes as if she’s present in the room as I write this. And like all memory, it has been transfigured into something that forever touches me, its meaning just beyond my reach.
Here’s Lorraine on the subject:
The victim, probably in his thirties, had a shaved head and stubbled beard. He was wearing striped pants and a white shirt underneath a light jacket, the stripes too wide and distinct to be fashionable. Those trousers startled Lorraine more than the fact of him lying dead on the floor with a pork chop in his mouth, although she had to admit, the pose was bizarre enough. She was jolted, she realized, not because the man seemed to stare out at the world with defiance, but because his clothes reminded her of a painting she’d seen recently, a small oil, late nineteenth century. It hung in a remote wing of the Brooklyn Museum. The subject had surprised and arrested her at the time, a harlequin posing in pointed shoes and hat and wearing striped pants almost identical to those worn by the dead man.
Lorraine leaned against the wall, closed her eyes, and put a hand on her chest. She hoped she’d never get used to the sight of a corpse. She crossed herself and said a prayer for the speedy flight of his soul.
When she recovered, she asked Frank if the lock had been forced.
He went over to the back door and examined it. In a minute, he shook his head.
“Except for a dead man on the floor, is there anything else strange? Out of place? What about the pork chop?”
He held her gaze. “My chop. Fixed a tray of them last night so they’d be ready first thing this morning. Tray’s in here.” He gestured to the meat locker.
She walked over and opened the door. Inside, the cold smell of fat and blood accosted her, and she remembered that day long ago when she came close to betraying her marriage vows. Frank pointed to a metal tray sitting on one of the shelves. Like the dead man on the floor outside, the wax paper once covering the tray was crumpled and lay on the floor, and a chop was missing from its middle row, almost certainly the one now wedged between the victim’s teeth.
“Who is he?” she asked, walking out into the warmth of his office.
Frank Rizzo didn’t answer, and Lorraine saw he was trembling. He was trying not to cry. Probably he was in shock. But he was also withholding.
“Do you know him?”
Again, he didn’t answer.
She touched his arm and desire coursed through her. Silently she cursed herself for such a huge surge of emotion. What in the world was she doing, for the love of all things holy? “The body was brought here. Why?”
Again he took his time answering. “Beats me.”
She brushed sawdust from a new pair of slacks. Robbie had always insisted she wear a skirt; he would have hated to see her dressed like this, but two days after he died, she bought herself clothes that felt more like, well, more like herself. She hadn’t worn a skirt since the funeral.
“For whatever reason, the killer intended a comic effect,” she said. “Too dark in here. I need more light.”
After Frank turned on the overhead bulb and shone a flashlight on the dead man, Lorraine brought out her phone and took pictures. Then she bent to get a better view of the back of the man’s head and snapped more photos, not surprised to see dried blood near the base of his skull where he’d been hit. The wound couldn’t have been caused by a hammer; judging by its shape and size, it looked like the killer used something long and heavy to deliver the blow, a piece of metal or hardwood, like a crowbar or perhaps a table leg. She bent closer. She couldn’t see any splinters, but the crime scene techs would gather half a roomful of particulates, then spend weeks identifying each one. She stuck a hand in the man’s jacket pockets, looking for keys, a wallet, perhaps a comb—anything. She found nothing. She searched the floor near the body. Again, nothing.
Lorraine stood still for a moment, thinking. By rights she should call 9-1-1 to report a suspicious death and let them notify the appropriate precinct. But she had a working relationship with Detective First Grade Jane Templeton, a friend of her son, so she punched in her number, waited while the call went to voice mail, and left a message saying she’d been asked to investigate a body dumped in the back of Amity Meats. She gave the address and a few particulars. “Meet me here as soon as you can.”
Frank’s face mottled. “I didn’t kill him, I swear. I don’t know who did or why they dragged the body into my back room. I want you to investigate. Please say you will. I’m at risk here, Lorraine, hanging out on the line to dry.”
“At risk? You’ve got to tell me why.”
Death of a Brooklyn Landlord, Lorraine McDuffy’s first book in her new mystery series is available for preorder here.
Photo: Manhattan Bridge at Magic Hour. ChrisGoldNY (Flickr), Creative Commons