[by Tom Lokovic, circa 2007.]
Two weeks after his twenty-seventh birthday, Mel framed himself for a murder which he didn't commit. He did this to win the favor of the victim's widow. That is, she became a widow in the process, but she wasn't one at the time, and in any case he didn't even know she was married.
This may take a bit to explain.
Mel lived alone in a rent-controlled apartment in Lower-East Side Manhattan. He'd been unemployed for six months now, having found that Loan Officer was a job ill-suited for a man of his ambition. At least, that's how he thought of it. The real problem had been the ambition of Mel's manager, who had orchestrated a certain amount of fraud through the agency. Mel's coworkers were complicit in this, and Mel was thought to be, though in reality he had trouble following all the winking and whiting-out of numbers. The manager had finally let him go, offering a tiny bribe in exchange for Mel's promise of silence. Mel assured him that he couldn't explain what had been going on if his life depended on it.
After that Mel spent several months "exploring other options". He felt little urgency in this period. Due to a clerical error, his unemployment checks were 12% larger than they should have been. Specifically, he was listed as having three elderly mothers, all as dependents. Mel was almost certain that he hadn't claimed this on the forms, so he decided that it wasn't his job to correct it. And soon, the point would be moot when the paychecks started rolling in from his new job.
The details of his new job were unclear, except that 1) it would let him Work From Home; 2) he would be a founding member of a Network of Entrepreneurs; and 3) the job was Not a Scam. Mel was pretty sure that it was a scam until he received a piece of glossy literature that explained, in no uncertain terms, that it was Not a Scam. The brochure was emphatic on this point. This came as a quite a relief to Mel, who had already invested $150 and three hours at an extremely confusing Seminar.
Mel's future wife was named Anya. She wasn't aware of their fated future together, but he was working on that.
Anya worked as a cashier in an auto parts shop. Two months ago Mel had walked in there by mistake--his laundromat was in the same spot one block over. Mel was intimidated by what he perceived as sheer machismo in the atmosphere--a manliness in all the chrome and vulcanized rubber that he could never live up to. He was too embarrassed to admit his mistake, and so he pretended to browse, then bought something at random. It turned out to be a door handle gasket for a 1985-1993 Volkswagen Cabriolet. Ever since then he'd been going back to her shop, buying random things as an excuse to see her. Mel didn't even own a car.
Anya had an accent that Mel couldn't quite place. It was, in fact, distinctly and unambiguously Russian, but Mel wasn't good at that sort of thing. If pressed he would have guessed Italian. He found it enchanting and more than a little exotic.
Mel did his best to imply that he was restoring a car. He never said this explicitly and she never asked, but that was the pretext that he maintained on his visits there. He imagined his project was a classic muscle car of some sort, but he hadn't worked out the details, and preferred not to if at all possible.
On his seventh visit Anya observed idly that he kept buying parts for different car models, and it never seemed to be the same model twice. This thought had not occurred to him. Mel tried to mask his nerves as he paid for an alternator belt (Fiat Strada) and a gearshift knob (Daewoo Leganza), but once he left the store he fell into a panic. He couldn't sleep that night as he tried to rework his fictional automotive interest to match the evidence.
He was torn between two scenarios. In Scenario One, he was a member of an auto repair club that fixed old cars for the community, pro bono. In this scenario he might be an ex-con, doing community work with his former cellmates to atone for unspecified former sins. Mel liked this aspect of intrigue.
In Scenario Two he was an eccentric artist who created wild, dynamic sculptures out of auto parts. Why he would be doing this with newly purchased factory parts was unclear to him, but one thing was for certain: his art was too forward-looking for his contemporaries to appreciate.
Mel knew that both of these scenarios were ridiculous, and just hoped that the subject didn't come up again until he worked out a better cover. Considering that Anya had yet to show any interest in his life at all, he suspected that he had time.
Meanwhile the pile of still-wrapped auto parts on his kitchen counter grew. For the moment Mel had come to accept that a portion of his income went into this stream of incomprehensible doo-dads. He thought of the expenditure as an investment, which sounded cynical to him, but was more or less accurate.
After several more visits to Anya, Mel started to become disheartened. She continued to show no interest in him at all, and Mel was convinced that he was being shown up by the much manlier men who frequented the auto parts store, grease under their fingernails, motor oil on their overalls. Mel was determined for Anya to notice him, but was unwilling to interact with actual grease or motor oil in the process.
Mel was convinced that what he needed was an element of danger. Either that or a lot more money.
At home, depressed, he turned on the TV. The local news was chattering about a murder. On Tuesday a man's body was found in a dumpster, in an alley not far from here. Tuesday--that was the night Mel was across town attending another Seminar. Well, "attending" was a bit of a stretch. He had taken a bus, the subway, and two more buses to the Hyatt, arriving early to an empty conference room. He sat in the back, and over the next half hour watched a handful of fellow entrepreneurs file in and settle into their seats. To Mel, they all looked sad and desperate, and he hoped he never ended up like that.
Nobody ever arrived to run the seminar, and as the other attendees started to congregate to grumble and worry, Mel slipped out, hoping to avoid their conversations. He began his bus-bus-subway-bus ride home, knowing he was out another $50 ("Reserve your spot in advance!"), and wondering how he was ever going to pique Anya's interest. His status as a shrewd entrepreneur seemed more tenuous than ever.
Now, Mel's attention was drawn back to the local news. A police spokesman condemned the murder and asked the community to come forward with any information that might lead to the capture of the perpetrator.
And with that, Mel had a wonderful idea.
Mel walked several blocks to a payphone. He dialed the number that he had written down from the television.
A tired voice said "Precinct Eight."
Mel masked his voice and said, "I have information about the murder off 12th Street. The TV said to call."
"Hold please." A click. Then the same voice: "Go ahead, sir."
Mel took a deep breath, then said his own name into the handset. Then he hung up.
Mel sprinted home, giddy, and suddenly needing very much to go to the bathroom.
Back at home, Mel paced. He waited for a knock at the door, though he had no way of knowing if it would come today, tomorrow, or maybe never. How do these things work? He'd never been a murder suspect before!
Was it enough for them to have a name? It had to be, right? With a murder, they had to follow up, didn't they?
Mel's mind raced, scurrying back and forth among three distinct topics.
1) How exactly he would answer the door: Agressive? Relaxed? Enigmatic? Should he stand tall? Walk with a limp? What about facial tics?
2) The presentation of his alibi: Should he explain about the seminar right away, or should he let them stew a while before he disappointed them with his innocence?
and, most important:
3) How he would explain the whole "misunderstanding" to Anya. He was unclear on this one, but somehow he already knew how she would respond. It would involve wide eyes, admiration mixed with fear, the nervous touching of hands for the first time, and then the auto parts shop closing early...
Mel woke up to a knock on his apartment door. It was 10:41 am. He had been up all night pacing, and had only recently fallen asleep.
He opened the door to reveal a surly-looking Hispanic man in jeans and a leather jacket. The man flipped a badge. "Detective Garcia."
Struggling to wake up, Mel was completely unable to remember which affectations he had settled on last night. He had narrowed it down to either Belligerent/Lots-of-hand-movement/Narrow-eyes or Amiable/Fake-Drunk/Bad-Back. But which was it? To his horror, Mel ended up answering the policeman as himself! "Yes, can I help you?"
Garcia said, "I have a few questions, can I have a moment?"
Mel said "Of course," and it sounded far more accommodating than he intended. He scowled after the fact to toughen it up, but Garcia didn't notice. They sat down on the couch.
Garcia cleared his throat. "Could you tell me where you were on Monday at around 6pm?"
"I was uptown at the Hyatt, at a seminar. I remember it clearly because I've only been to two of them, and the seminars seem to only happen on Tuesdays."
Garcia frowned. "Okay, that's Tuesday. But I asked you about Monday at six."
"No, you're asking about Tuesday. That's when the seminar was."
"I understand. That should be easy to confirm, but it's not relevant to my line of questioning. So I'll ask again. Where were you on Monday at 6pm?"
"But... You need to know about Tuesday. It happened on Tuesday."
"What happened on Tuesday?"
The cop's eyes grew wide. "What murder would that be?"
With mounting panic, Mel said, "The news, I saw it on the news, they said it happened on Tuesday."
Garcia smiled. "I feel like we're getting ahead of ourselves, but okay. They found Petrov's body on Tuesday, which if you think about it, suggests only that the murder happened sometime before Tuesday. Sir, evasive answers don't seem to be in your best interest. So let me ask one last time: where were you on Monday at 6pm?"
Mel struggled to remember, and then it came to him. "Ah! Okay, Monday! Yes, I was at an auto parts store on 15th Street. I needed some..." Mel glanced at the pile of parts on his counter, and came up blank. "...auto parts."
"Okay, now we're getting somewhere. How long were you there?"
"I don't know... Twenty minutes? I was probably done there around six. Then I came home. I watched Wheel of Fortune."
"With whom did you interact at the store?"
"Just Anya--the cashier. I shopped around, picked out some stuff, and then we chatted for a minute."
"Anya... This would be Anya Petrova?"
"I guess so... Is that her last name? Wow. Petrova. So anyway, we chatted, but it was mainly me talking. She mostly just nodded and counted change. I guess she was distracted by...math. I know how that is. I was going to wait until she was done, so she could talk more, but she kept being busy. So I left."
"I see." Garcia smiled knowlingly. "She's beautiful, is she?"
Mel nodded absently, picturing Anya's face. Like an angel.
"Been going to see her for a while, have you?" Garcia leaned his head toward the pile of auto parts.
Mel nodded again. Her hair... I've never thought much about hair, but hers is so... is "lustrous" the word?
Garcia rifled through his notebook. "So, summing up... Here we're talking about Anya Petrova, yes? Wife of the victim? Sergei Petrov? Who was killed two blocks from your apartment? At 6:10? Ten minutes after you left the Auto Parts store for a ten minute walk back to your apartment? Does that all sound right?"
Bone structure... Such a strange term, but she really does have lovely--