Stairway to the Bottom
By Michael Haskins
If I hadn’t gone to watch the comedy showcase at the Key West Fringe Theater, I wouldn’t have silenced my cell phone. If I hadn’t silenced my cell, I would have answered Dick Walsh’s first call at 1:10 A.M., and then things might not have gone so badly. If is a damn big word for only having two letters.
I unplugged the cell from its charger in the morning and the lighted screen reminded me it was on silent mode and that I had five messages.
Each of Dick’s messages was more frantic and pleading than the last. He needed help, but didn’t say for what. By the third message, he was cussing but still wanted me to call and that was at 3:15. He didn’t sound drunk, like most three in the morning callers do, he sounded scared.
The fifth and final message came at 5:36. He had calmed down, asked me to come by his house as soon as possible and gave me the address. His composed voice assured me I would understand the problem after I arrived and he would be in touch later.
“Mick, I need you to believe me, it isn’t what it looks like. Please help me,” his message ended with a quiet plea.
I dressed quickly in last night’s clothing and swallowed cold water from a bottle out of the cooler. Before I got into my Jeep and drove to Dick’s house on Von Phister Street, I called his cell but it went to voice mail and I left a message. We were playing phone tag.
Von Phister is a narrow, tree-lined street in a quiet neighborhood of old and new houses. Dick’s was an old two-story house with a large gumbo-limbo tree in front and two more in back. He actually had a decent-size backyard, something that is at a premium in Key West.
The house was dark. It was almost six-thirty, about an hour since his last call. The sky was a light gray with a reddish-purple sunrise pushing the dawn westward. Only a large yellow tomcat crossed my path on the empty street.
I parked in front and noticed Dick’s scooter was gone. I went up the steps to the wraparound porch, rang the bell, and then knocked. Nothing. I looked into the living room window. Nothing. I knocked again and when no one answered, I tried the door. It was unlocked so I went in.
The stench that greeted me in the hallway was familiar. The smell of death was strong and that told me somewhere in the house, death was very recent. Death, if left alone long enough cloaks all other odors, especially in the tropics – violent death even more so.
I called Dick’s name but no one answered. I walked into the living room and it looked lived in – a big screen TV, stereo with CDs stacked next to it, a sectional sofa set. A hallway led to a kitchen, small dining room, and bathroom. The stairway on the right went upstairs to the bedrooms.
Dick used the dining room as his office – medium-sized desk that was too big for the room, a computer, a printer, and a two-drawer file. I walked through into the kitchen. There was a table for two off to the side, dirty dishes in the sink and a woman’s body on the floor.
She lay face down and a large part of her head was gone. Pieces of shattered skull, along with parts of her brain and blood, tarnished the otherwise clean kitchen wall.
Blood and human waste soaked the tile floor and stained her clothing.
The stench of death filled the kitchen. I didn’t bother looking for a pulse.
An automatic with a silencer attached lay on the floor, her arm stretched out toward it as if reaching for the gun that had a small stream of brownish blood curled up next to it.
I ran upstairs to check the two bedrooms, calling Dick’s name. Both rooms were neat and the beds made. Nothing broken or seemingly out of place. Dick’s closet looked full with only a couple of empty hangers in the mix. The guestroom closet was empty.
Dick shot this woman, I thought as I looked down at her body. Whose gun was it on the floor? I didn’t touch anything, though I wanted to. My curiosity was getting the best of me.
I’m Liam Murphy, a semi-retired journalist and fulltime sail bum, some say. Key West has been my home for almost eighteen years. Before that, I lived in Southern California and reported on Central American civil wars and when they ended I covered the drug wars for a weekly newsmagazine so a dead body wasn’t something that frightened me it intrigued me.
In Key West, I’ve made friends with all kinds of characters, including the chief of police, Richard Dowley. We have a two-sided relationship. One side is Richard the cop, the other is Richard the friend. He considers me a friend but always thinks of me as a journalist. He says I only have one side. I called him on my cell, sure of catching him at home, and knew I’d be talking to his cop side.
I told him where I was and what I’d found.
“What are you doing at that nut’s house?” I could hear him banging around in the kitchen.
When I explained about the messages and Dick’s plea, he sighed loudly enough for me to hear on the phone.
“Don’t touch anything and I’ll call it in,” he said. “Best thing is go outside and wait for the first unit, and I’ll make it there too.”
“Okay, Richard, but tell the ambulance it doesn’t have to hurry,” I said and he hung up without replying.
Outside, I sat and waited, thinking of Dick’s last message telling me it wasn’t what it looked like. It looked like murder.