The “board”—with its various strings that connected headshots to maps to profiles to dates to victims and back to suspects—Olive learned had very little to do with the reality of working on a case. The case never coalesced into a singular “thing” that could be gazed at forever, like an abstract painting. Instead, there were fragments—a broken thing—so many scattered pieces, of not only this case but of all them, so that one never knew what was a piece and what wasn’t or what belonged where.
In the center of the detective office, Olive’s desk pushed up against Chelsea’s, their computer screens back-to-back, masks that each hid behind. The lead of the stolen poison from the university turned out to be janitors trying to clear out rats. And Chelsa’s car chase with an Audi and her father riding shotgun? All that came up from that was Chelsea’s father’s breakfast, an event that stopped the chase pretty quickly. Did that Audi have anything to do with these murders? Olive hadn’t a clue.
But the medical examiner had the poison identified. At least there was that.
“Did you know that Amadeus Mozart was treated for his syphilis with mercury pills—and it was the pills that killed him. Not the syphilis.” Olive gulped more coffee. Outside, the world darkened, the first blast of winter, unseasonably early and on its way. “Ironic.” Olive peeked around the screen. “Don’t you think, bosslady?”
Chelsea Simon’s hands hovered over the keyboard. “Notice how I’m not typing anything in. I said find me something useful about mercury cyanide poisoning. Key word: useful.”
“The Daily Travesty joked it could be the work of seitan,” Olive said, retreating again to the space behind the screen. “Reminds me of The Daily Prophet.” Chelsea remained silent. “Wizards disappearing: Muggle meat-eater suspected. Do you know my nephew got a scholarship at Penn to play Quidditch? He’s the golden snitch. Plays other schools. They run around with brooms between their legs. Craziness. Makes no sense.”
Chelsea’s phone rang and her tone announced Arturo! His yelps sounded as if they were coming from Olive’s computer screen. Arturo & Chelsea. She’d love to put that on the wall, string it out, see what lay behind it. Their relationship made no sense.
But the case didn’t make sense either. hat’s what had been bothering Olive about it all. No one benefitted. If the poisoner were a rival food cart, then that plan had clearly tanked, because no one was going to food carts—vegan, steak, or other. Did the murders drive people to restaurants? Not really. It drove people to prepare their own lunches. The victims had all been young students, but poisoners actually tended to be five to ten years younger than their victims. Were the students the intended targets? It didn’t add up. Not yet at least.
Poisoners, Olive knew, had to plan their crimes—and that meant that they were likely smart and creative. They were more likely to manipulate people to get their desires met rather than use their physical prowess. Not that they likely had any such skills. They were pretenders hiding behind a mask that covered something spoiled. They wanted the world to bend to their own wishes—a brat like Veruca Salt.
Salt! Holy mother of condiments. Salt.
As if the heavens had heard her, a shaking of white flakes sprinkled the students and the food carts and the bronze claws of the Drexel Dragon. Olive had brought Gutierrez here with her to check out not the food itself on all those carts, but the condiments, all the the stuff the customers squirted or sprinkled on the sandwiches to make them taste halfway decent. The brief warm spell had snapped, as if with a hard flick of a weatherman’s wand. Would the Quidditch match go on as scheduled? Not that Olive knew there was one scheduled, just a ridiculous thought. Gutierrez grabbed her arm and spun her around toward the Market Street subway.
Out from the underground came Arshad Mirou and Joey Delucca—their hands unlocking from each other’s. Olive let out a high-pitched whistle that silenced the entire corner—and probably sent a few dozen dogs into hysterics. Olive waved the two of them over to her and Gutierrez.
“What, are you selling weed to the Ivy Leaguers now?” Olive said.
“Mickey Marcolina,” Arshad said. “I’m going to continue my walk. You need something, you talk to him.”
Olive turned her attention to Joey.
“Joey, too,” Arshad said.
“How long you two been a thing?” Olive asked them.
“Partners,” Arshad responded. “Isn’t that what you two call each other?”
“You two are a ‘with,” Olive said. “We are a ‘without.’ Better watch yourself, Joey. This guy’s poison.”
“‘Poisoned his life, as a rusted nail driven through an oak-tree in its prime corrodes and kills,'” Joey said. “A quote from class. So of course Arshad doesn’t know it.”
“You think Joey is a knight?” Gutierrez asked Olive. “How did it feel moving that corpse so your buddy’s girlfriend wouldn’t find out he cheated. Bros before hos, right?
A car blew through the red light, heading south on 34th. “Audi?” Olive said aloud.
“I have an innie,” Arshad answered.
“You think she’s talking about your belly button?” Gutierrez said. “How much weed have you got on you today I wonder. I think that’s reasonable cause, don’t you? Olive? Olive!”
Gutierrez’s voice faded into the gathering wind and flakes as Olive ran down 34th toward Chestnut. At least she didn’t have to worry about people not getting out of her way. They scattered like ashes. The traffic lights were in her favor, and she caught up with the late model Audi just as it pulled into a metered spot on Walunt, a few spots from Josh’s food truck.
She hung back in the shadows of the coffehouse on the corner. Her skin burned, not yet used to the cold, the flakes more like tiny ice needles now. The Audi idled. She reached for her phone, stepped out to take a picture, the license plate obscured by a green tarp hanging out of the trunk.
Shit! The Audi spun out, but in reverse, over the curb, directly at her.
She slipped, not moving fast enough, the bumper a few yards, feet, inches. She shut her eyes, waiting for the impact that never came. She opened her eyes to see her own face staring back at her from the gleaming bumper—and then hundreds of salt pellets bounced off the street and lodged their sodium chloride into her scraped face and wide-open eyes. The city truck continued spreading its salt, unaware of the assault on one of Philly’s phinest.
Olive blinked and blinked and wiped at her eyes, and then hands were pulling at her, a cloth wiping across her face. “Detective Norvell, you okay? You okay? It’s Josh, food truck Josh.”
She struggled to her feet, snatched the cloth from him, finished cleaning the salt off her face. “Food truck, Josh.” She handed him the cloth. “Just the man I wanted to see.”
“What got into his pants?” Josh asked. “You know, the Audi driver?”
She held up a hand for him to hold his horses, then called Gutierrez. Gutierrez said that she’d talk some more to her boyfriends and Olive could continue with food truck guy.
“How you holding up?” she asked him. She still could see, if she wanted to bring it up, the image of Angela’s insides foaming out of her goddamn mouth. It had all begun with Josh, hadn’t it, with his “Without,” with the lacrosse player Nicholas Hodges dying from a poisoned vegan cheesesteak. Maybe the Philly gods and goddesses were turning on Josh for what he did to the city’s iconic sandwich.
“Just trying to make ends meat.” They were walking back to his truck as the storm intensified. No one had predicted this, just a few flakes. “I owe so fucking much on this truck.”
“You know the thing about poisoners,” Olive said, now under the awning of his truck and he inside, looking down at her. Usually it was she who had that privileged position. “They write the script, act in it, direct it, review it—the whole production. That sound like anyone you know?”
“A real Traversty,” he said. “That guy seems a bit all-about-Travers.” He looked around, probably for customers. “I’m sure you thought about that Pen & Pencil club for writers and wannabes. Or maybe someone in theatre—a one person show. Something like that?” He turned to scrape the empty grill. “You sure I can’t get you something? Anything?”
She reached for the Ben Franklin salt shaker and the Betsy Ross pepper one. “I’ll be needing these.”
“Check out the Kelly’s Writer House,” Josh said. “If you don’t mind the hipster douchebag crowd.”
The Kelly Writers House housed writers and readings and screenings and e-zines and blogs and workshops in a real house, a 13-room at 3805 Locust Walk on Penn’s campus. About five hundred people found their way to the house weekly. Olive went there in search of flyers and program notes, anything that might have to do with the case. If only there were a one-woman show The Vegan Monologues: Meat Your Maker. Or something along those lines.
Instead there were talks about the digital age, poems about identity in this digital age, being an aging poety in this digital age, and how to write about the digital age no matter your age. And then, when Olive looked up, she found something she hadn’t been looking for—Dr. Katrina Malfois. She threw a handful of salt over her shoulder and stepped out of the house with a dachshund.
Olive approached Dr. Malfois and they walked together toward Drexel, the dog Brutus belonging to her mother. She was on her way to the Gables, to meet her cousin first for coffee then for some quality time together, him writing, her grading papers.
“It’s an insult,” she said. “No office. No benefits. Yet the whole system would fall apart without us. Do you know adjunct comes from the Latin adiunctus. You know what that means? Of course you don’t. It means relevant. You know what that is?“
“Irony,” Olive said. The dog stopped to piss, and then, with his back legs, kicked the dirt and salt up into Olives’s face. “Et tu Brutus.” The good doctor seemed to reconsider Olive then. She seemed to look at her more intently. “So,” Olive said, “adjuncts are kind of like a vegan cheesesteak in the midst of meat eaters.”
“Not exactly. Here, on campus, the classic cheesteak might be anethema. The vegan ‘Without’ would be accepted, would get tenure, no doubt. Don’t confuse the campus with the city. They are two worlds apart.”
“Like salt and pepper.” They continued their walk. It would take them about fifteen minutes, from Spruce to 40th to Market to 42nd. Who are you Doctor? Really. Behind the mask? Where is Veruca Salt hiding, wanting the world to be hers. Why? Because she was spoiled, spoiled rotten. But an adjunct wanting recognition, pay, benefits, relevancy didn’t feel unreasonable. And how would murder solve any of theose problems? What did food carts have to do with the plight of the adjunct in the digital age?
“I just talked with Josh. He’s likely going under. Did you attend Angela’s funeral with your mom?” Katrina didn’t respond, preoccupied perhaps. “I know your mom is friendly with Mickey Marcolina—the defense attorney. Angela’s cousin.” Still nothing.
“Did you know, Detective, that 20% of murders involving poison are never solved? Do you know why that is?”
“Do you?” Olive asked her
“Me? Maybe that’s their whole thing—avoiding suspicion. I’ve been thinking a lot about who might be behind these murders. You think of women, don’t you, when you think of poisoners, but it’s mostly men. Especially if a woman has been poisoned. Then it’s almost always a man.”
“A poisoned pen.”
“You are an interesting specimen,” the doctor said to Olive, “of the human equation.”
“Are you into addition or subtraction?”
“Oh, don’t tell me I made myself a suspect by pondering the murders aloud?”
“How do you feel about Oompa Loompas?”
“I don’t follow.”
“It’s nothing. What was with the salt over your shoulder?”
“In da Vinci’s Last Supper Judas has, with his elbow, knocked over the salt cellar.”
“And now you will tell me where I can find the Holy Grail, that I suspect will be filled to the brim with vegan poison.”
“No. Salt blinds the devil.”
“Of course. And who is the devil behind you that needs to be blinded?”
She looked past Olive. “Oh, look. Her’s my cousin. He’s going to save us a few blocks.”
Olive turned around. The Audi again. It sped toward them, as if no one were behind the wheel.
You giveth, you taketh. I’d once—weeks ago, years back, yesterday—created a bar for all the characters deleted from stories. They didn’t know what to order. They wandered from seat to seat. They hunkered down in corners. They meditated in the bathroom stall. They had become no longer relevant. Someone somewhere sitting in a chair with other chairs all arranged in a circle thought that the story would be better without these characters. Relevant. What had Katrina said? From the Latin, adiunctus.
I drove the Audi around and around. In workshops, when characters were passively thinking about their problems, they called it “a guy driving around in his Volvo.” That’s not allowed. That will get you written off. That will make you no longer relevant to the way things are. Stories are the place for doers, not thinkers; for actors, not resters.
The author is dead. I think a lot about that as I drive around, sit in my room in Bellevue or Gables or wherever, thinking of something to happen that might be arresting. That’s why the story must be shown not told—because the author is dead, scene after scene, showing and showing, unable to tell, an adjunct, invisible but without whom the entire world would collapse.
Did I really write this world? Create it? Or am I imagining it? Is my brain as sick and spoiled as they said it was? What would be funnier? If I really were writing this world and its people into existence? Or if I merely imagined it? How could one know? How could one find out how much or how little one really mattered?
Is that irony? It’s a murder mystery, and the author is the one being declared dead. And is it irony that those are the ones I love, the discarded ones? Were I to be the bartender of that place, I’d say it all day. I love you. I love you. Because you’ve been cut out. Maybe the poisoner is actually tender, like a steak. Maybe the poisoner is sacrificing. Maybe the poisoner is just mad. Mad as a hatter.
One drives around enough and one runs into people. Look. Is that Cousin Katrina? And who is that with her? Is that, oh I think it is. Detective Olive Norvell. She’s gotten so close today to ending up in that bar, you know the one, next to Kelly Writers House. The Bar for Characters Who’ve Been Deleted from Stories. They really should work on shortening it. Don’t you think?
A Subaru cut off the Audi, skidded to a halt at the curbside.
“Hey, there you are!” It was Mickey Marcolina in the Subaru. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing harrassing my clients. I got an assfull of texts from those kids.”
“Arshad on his way to class? I’d like to see you prove that,” Olive said.
She turned to introduce the good doctor but she had disappeared. That Audi. A ghost car.
“You need a ride?” he asked. “I’m going to Drexel to pick up Carol. Hop in.”
The ice storm—at some time—had turned into mist. Mickey yelled some more about leaving his clients alone, and Olive lay her head against the window. It didn’t take long for Mickey to pull into the spot where the Audi had idled, back in the land of food carts. A woman waved, dropped a scarf, bent to pick it up. Where was her butt?
As soon as Olive opened the door and stepped onto the sidewalk, she could smell the fries the woman held in her hand, only they were orange. Sweet potato. They created puffs of steam in the cold air.
The woman—”this is Carol,” Mickey said to her—reached into her pocket and pulled out a packet, which she tore and began to pour onto the fries. Olive moved toward her, not sure why, but felt compelled to stop the salt. As she got face-to-face with Carol, Carol sneezed and the salt blew into Olive’s face, into her mouth, down her throat.
The last thing she heard in this world, “Bless you.”