Chapter 04: A Clue

Monday came too soon. Kaylee had called twice, once on Saturday and again on Sunday to check on her. Lila had reassured her that she was fine and she didn’t need anything. If she had relented, Kaylee would have been knocking on her door. All Lila wanted to do was sleep and the pain meds kept her in a thick haze.

She had curled up in the thick feathertop bed, a new purchase that had arrived the month before, and watched endless episodes on Netflix and napped the entire weekend. It had been a luxury Lila rarely allowed herself – time to recover and rest from her injuries. Her throat, ribs, legs and arms all had livid bruises from the struggle in the parking garage. She took stock on Sunday night after a long, hot shower, noting that several were turning from a deep black and blue to green and yellow. Her skin was fair, and easily bruised, but she was also fit and active and young. A few more days and they would fade out completely.

On Monday, however, she had to stop taking any pills. She wouldn’t have been able to drive or work or even really think if she was all wonked out on opioids.

Her body was stiff, and her ribs and shoulder hurt like hell. The bruises on her face and neck were still a little shocking, but Lila didn’t want to stay in the apartment another day. It felt suffocating, the plain walls devoid of any pictures, the boxes still unpacked.

Besides, she was new at her job. She had done her time straight out of college in a bottom of the barrel intro level marketing position that had made her question why she even bothered with college, especially with those hefty student loan payments. Working for wages barely above the poverty line, with a Bachelor’s degree, had been a slap in the face. If it hadn’t been for her friend Kaylee who she had run into at a First Fridays event in the Arts District, she would probably still be there.

“There’s an opening at Kurgen for a Market Research Analyst,” Kaylee had told her after commiserating with Lila’s latest tale of woe, the two perched on stools inside of Christopher Elbow Chocolates, sipping coffee while nibbling on the decadent chocolates. “It’s better pay and you would be working with me, so we could lunch together!”

Kaylee was quite obviously making better money, if her Jimmy Choo shoes and handbags were any indication. Kaylee’s address had also changed from a ratty apartment south of the city to an upscale loft in the Western Auto building.

“They say that you need at least four years experience and a Master’s degree, but I’ve seen the sad line of applications coming through HR and they would snap you up in a heartbeat.”

She grinned, revealing perfect white teeth, and tapped her long, well-manicured nails on the counter. “Especially with me recommending you.” She had leaned in close, washing Lila in the scent of bananas and rum from the Bananas Foster chocolate she had just finished. “Promise me you will go home tonight and email me your resume.”

Lila had, of course, sending the resume to Kaylee that evening while the neighbors down the street blasted music that sounded more like a mariachi band and kegger party instead of the festivities for the toddler who was celebrating her second birthday. Lila had watched the older kids playing in the neighborhood from time to time but rarely interacted with them. The neighborhood was relatively quiet, a mix of young families, a couple of old codgers, and plenty of transitory residents, especially in her building. The tiny one bedroom apartment, complete with shag carpet that had matted in spots into hard, intractable lumps, with windows that rattled and blew in ice-cold air in the winter, and the regular cockroach visitors, the apartment was all that she could afford after trying to pay down a hefty student loan balance each month. She poured the rest of her “disposable” income into a decaying Honda Civic and wondered if she would ever be able to afford a new car.

That had been her life four months ago. And now? A modern one bedroom loft with a view to the west and tons of light that poured in through the tall windows in a secure building in midtown Kansas City, where the scent of the defunct Folgers Coffee plant still infused the air with ghostly whiffs of coffee. After nearly a century of roasting coffee beans before the company gave way and moved into a modern processing facility, the very bricks of the building held the rich scent of coffee.

The Honda Civic had expired, rattling its dying breath on I-70 as she returned from a trip to Lawrence and a show at the Granada two months ago. The payments on the Prius had simply replaced what she was paying to keep the Civic running. The loft space had an option to buy if she wanted it. She was giving it at least a year, and if things continued to go well at Kurgen, she had already decided she would go for it.

Each Saturday morning included a pilgrimage to lively River Market for breakfast at Beignet’s and then shopping for fresh spices and produce with the local market vendors.

Lila was living her dream, finally, and she wasn’t about to endanger that by missing any days at work. She would feel better there anyway, there were several accounts that she was working on that were odd – properties that should have sold by now, but had instead lingered on the books for over nine months.

Kurgen Real Estate was a heavy hitter, aggressive, in control of a large part of the real estate market in the Kansas City Metropolitan area, and her job was to make sure that she gave her boss the advice he needed to eradicate dead properties that would glut their portfolio and reduce their profit margin. She had requested the entire files nearly two weeks ago and was still trying to open several puzzling encrypted files as well as some kind of email correspondence. She would work on that, along with her regular workload, instead of sitting at home feeling sore and sorry for herself.

Morris Endon, her boss, nearly dropped his mug of coffee when he registered her arrival, his eyes widening in shock, his ruddy red face paling at the sight of her. “My God, Lila!” His exclamation brought several other gawkers into the hallway. “Kaylee mentioned you had been mugged, I thought you would still be at home!”

Lila gave a rueful smile, suddenly deeply aware of the livid marks on her face as well as the lurid yellow bruising on her neck.

Perhaps this was a mistake.

“I’m fine, Morris, just a little sore.” She forced a light laugh, “Really, there is so much work to do, and sitting at home seemed overkill for an over-zealous purse snatcher.”

If she hadn’t been going stir-crazy at her house, there was also the pesky matter of her neighbor George, who after returning from his own visit to the ER had promptly begun haunting the hallway outside of her door. All she wanted was to be left alone, but instead, George had come by her apartment no less than six times on Saturday for a variety of reasons. Lila had finally stopped answering the door. She wasn’t interested in hearing again about George’s insomnia, or how his mother still felt it necessary to buy him underwear and socks, or explain why she wasn’t interested in dating despite being quite obviously single. Work was a respite from all of that.

Blanche, one of the high-powered sales reps, stared at her bruises in horror. In her early 50s, Blanche had managed to accrue more debt in botox and plastic surgery than Lila did in student loans, despite making at least triple the earnings. As a result, Blanche looked as if she could be Lila’s contemporary, instead of from her parents’ generation.

“Oh sweetie, you need Vitamin C and K for that bruising! I’ll be right back.” She zipped away, her diminutive five-foot frame augmented by five-inch stiletto heels. Lila watched her go, consistently amazed that the woman hadn’t so much as stumbled wearing those instruments of evil. Lila wore heels, one had to, but she did her best to find the lowest heels possible. Besides, with her five foot seven height, she couldn’t wear more than two inches without worrying about towering over most average-height men. The stilettos on Friday had been an exception to the rule and one she would not be repeating any time soon.

She made her excuses, grabbed a cup of coffee from the break room and escaped to her office in the far corner. It was one of the smaller offices, but it had a view of a corner of the Sprint Center. The walls were a uniform taupe, the same as the rest of the office. The exterior wall was floor to ceiling glass windows. She had opaque, solid walls on each side, and the door and wall to the hallway and cubicles outside were glassed in as well. Her office had a sleek wood desk, a Hermann Miller chair, and silk plant in the corner. She had tried to bring in live plants, but despite regular watering, they had quickly died. Like her inability to cook, she also seemed to have a black thumb, and any unfortunate plants left in her care immediately returned her attention and love by dramatically wilting and dying.

The office had a couple of extra chairs, and a huge wall of files, but otherwise was rather spartan. Lila sat at her desk, relieved to be in her office away from all of the looks of pity or horror.

Blanche swished through the door and plunked down a large jar on the corner of the desk, “Here honey, my plastic surgeon swears by this line of supplements. He says it cuts healing time in half and removes bruises overnight. You just help yourself, I’m not lined up for anything until next year, and he hands these things out gratis, so I don’t even need them!”

Lila smiled at her co-worker, Blanche was a sweetheart. She had given Lila a welcome basket her first week at Kurgen and taken her out to lunch twice. “Thanks, Blanche, you are so good to me!” Blanche merely waved her fingertips, painted a blood red this week and dashed out of Lila’s office as her cell phone began to sound. She punched a button and Lila could hear her cooing to someone on the other end, probably her granddaughter, a tiny and adorable three-year-old that Blanche had brought by the office one day.

With her cup of coffee in hand, and her computer booting up, she pulled the sheet of paper she had found out of her purse and stared at it. It just didn’t make any sense. She wasn’t anyone, this had to be a joke. But a joke that just happened to line up with someone who tried to strangle her to death in her parking garage? That seemed a little too coincidental.

Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation is often the correct one.

But why? Why would someone be trying to kill her?

“Lila…what the hell?!” A voice at her ear, Kaylee’s, made her jump a mile. She had been so absorbed in the slip of paper in front of her that she hadn’t even registered her friend’s presence.

Kaylee jumped back as well. “Jesus Lila! What are you doing here today? You had the crap beat out of you and here you are! And what the hell is that thing?” Kaylee grabbed the slip of paper and stared at it, her eyes widening.

“Where did you get this?”

Lila breathed deeply, trying her best to get her breathing under control, her heart pounding from the scare Kaylee had given her. Her friend was dressed to the nines in yet another new designer outfit, her blond hair perfectly coiffed in a haircut reminiscent of the 1920s. Kaylee had a talent for changing her looks on a weekly basis. Last week she had looked like one of the actresses on Mad Men, right down to her manicured toes.

“I found it on the ground in my building’s parking garage. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.”

The paper was torn, but it had several color photos of her and a general body description, along with Lila’s name. It also had something that looked like a price…$20,000…next to her photo, which must have been taken when Lila was just exiting her car. It was a candid shot, with Lila half-facing the camera, caught in the act of turning, her long black hair flying in the wind. For the life of her, Lila could not imagine when it could have been snapped. She certainly hadn’t noticed anyone with a camera that close to her. Could they have used a telephoto lens?

Kaylee sucked in a breath, “Lila, this is bad. I don’t care what that cop told you about it just being a snatch and grab. That’s bullshit. This is something else, it has to be. Why would that guy have been waiting there for you in the garage? And why you?”

Lila just shrugged. When she had found the piece of paper on the ground, all of her senses on high alert, she had grabbed it and then sprinted to her car. Coming here, where there were plenty of people, seemed far safer. “Don’t tell anyone, Kaylee. It could just be a joke. It could be nothing. It probably is nothing.” Saying it out loud didn’t sound any more convincing then it had in her head.

Kaylee looked at Lila, her lips pursed, eyebrows raised, “Riiight.” When Lila’s eyes returned to the paper, Kaylee made up her mind, “I know someone and I’m going to give them a call.”

“You know someone? What does that even mean, Kaylee?”
Kaylee stared at the paper, a haunted look crossed her face in a brief flash. It was quickly covered up with a glare.

“Look, I’ll call them. They are…discreet.” She grabbed the crumpled paper and scooted away before Lila could stop her. “I’ll be back in a flash.”

Lila stared at her friend’s retreating back and shook her head. None of this made sense. She was a nobody – she had no family, no money, nothing. She hadn’t been the unwitting witness to a murder, and she didn’t know anyone with ties to the criminal underground.

Just thinking those words sounds so ridiculously like an episode of Law and Order gone wrong.

Lila winced at the memory of the police officer laughing at her.

Unless it was a case of mistaken identity. She laughed and shook her head. Next, it will be an alien conspiracy! It was all crazy and ridiculous. Whoever that guy was, he was gone, long gone, and that was that.