ANNABELLE AND THE DUMPSTER DIVA
One night, while I was at work, a diamond ring hit me in the head.
It didn’t hurt, just surprised me, when it flew into the Dumpster and winged my cheek. Metal clinked against the side of the bin and the ring rolled to a stop over in the corner.
I stood up, brushing debris off my work clothes (sweatshirt from the New York State Fair a couple of years ago, elastic waist pants, yellow Crocs on my feet), and stretched before peeking over the rim of the bin. I caught sight of a woman running down the main drag of Bonaparte Bay, past the tourist shops, bars and restaurants.
She stopped at the curb, looked behind her, then bent to her feet. If she had any sense she’d take off those teetery heels, I thought, pulling out the small pair of binoculars I always carried with me. Sure enough, she was fiddling with the ankle straps. While she was busy with the buckles, I grabbed the ring and stuffed it into my pocket, then stood up on the plastic stool I’d brought with me, hoisted my nearly full bag of returnable cans and bottles onto my shoulder, and climbed out. I breathed in a deep lungful of the clean night air and wiped the smear of Vick’s VapoRub from under my nose. If it worked for coroners, it would work for Dumpster divers. Or a Dumpster Diva, as I prefer to call myself.
I’m kind of an eco-entrepreneur here in Bonaparte Bay, this little tourist trap town on the St. Lawrence River. We get a lot of summer visitors between Memorial Day and Columbus Day, though most are gone by early September. A lot of tourists means a lot of returnable cans and bottles. At a nickel a pop, they add up fast. Over the years I’ve developed a system. I make a preliminary tour of the back of the village motels, bars and restaurants around ten p.m., then a later one around three in the morning after the bars close. Most nights I collect fifty bucks worth or so. Combining that with my summer day job cleaning rooms over at the Northwind Motel and my winter unemployment, if I don’t live too extravagantly, I do okay. Even have enough to put some away. The work ain’t clean, that’s for sure, but it’s honest if you don’t count the fact that I sorta don’t pay taxes on it. There’s no overhead, I’m the boss and CEO of Brenda Enterprises, and I’m doing what I can to keep Bonaparte Bay clean. Everybody wins.
The woman began to run again, faster now that she was barefoot, her shoes in hand. The swingy skirt of her dark dress blew in the breeze coming off the river. I shoved my bag as far under the Dumpster as I could manage, figuring I could pick it up, along with my stool, on my later round. I followed her at a distance, fingering the ring in my pocket through the fabric of my loose pants. Of course I hadn’t had time to examine it, but if it was real it was a whopper.
Why would anyone throw away a diamond? I was tempted to keep it, believe me. Selling it would have brought me enough, I was sure, that I wouldn’t have to collect returnables for the next year, maybe two or three. But this wasn’t the kind of ring you buy for yourself. Somebody special had given it to her. No matter what had happened, the woman might regret the ring-toss tomorrow. So I decided to follow her, see where she was staying, and take it to her in the morning. If she was grateful, she might give me a reward. If she really didn’t want the thing, I could keep it guilt free.
She turned up Vincent Street. As the woman passed the Tat-L-Tails tattoo parlor, its blue neon sign flashing “Closed,” something fell from her hand and came to a stop between a Mustang and a Honda Civic. When I reached that spot, I retrieved the shoe, strappy and expensive looking, an instrument of torture for a practical woman like me. I shoved it into the kangaroo pocket of my hoodie where it made a not-too-cute bulge.
A sharp stitch pierced my side. Come on, Lady. Get where you’re going, why don’t ya? I followed her up the hill toward the Riverfront Park Pavilion. She sat down at a picnic table in the darkest corner under the canopy, her breath coming in ragged gasps, whether from exertion or deep grief, I didn’t know. She tossed the single shoe she’d been carrying into the Droid-shaped trash can, and lay her head on her arms on the tabletop. I wondered what size the shoes were. If I came back later I might fish that one out, then I’d have both.
Her back rose and fell erratically. Definitely crying. After a time she picked up her head and stared out across the water. The moon, bright as a halogen bulb in the sky, emerged from behind a cloud and illuminated her face. She shrank back into the darkness.
“Are you all right?” I asked softly, hoping I hadn’t startled her. She wiped a tear from her cheek. Despite the shadows, there was just enough reflected light for me to see that her mascara had run down over perfect high cheekbones in dark rivulets, and her eyes were sad and large and fringed in long lashes. Perfectly straight dark hair hung over her shoulders and reached her waist. I ran a hand through my short red curls self-consciously. I hoped I didn’t smell too bad. Even sitting at the picnic table, she barely had to look up to meet my eyes. Model, I decided. Or one of those trophy wives. Maybe both.
She reached into her glittery evening bag and came out with a tissue, wiped her face and sniffed. “I’ll be okay,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly high pitched and soft. Guess I’d expected something huskier, less Marilyn Monroe, from a woman like this. “I should be going.” She looked past me, and seemed relieved when she realized we were alone.
“This is none of my business,” I said. “Where would that be, exactly?”
Her eyes cut left. “I’m staying at . . . the Grant Hotel.” Nicest place in town, other than the Spa on Valentine Island. I should have guessed. “But I . . . had a fight with my fiancé. I can’t go back there now. I’ll have to get a room somewhere else.”
Something didn’t add up. “Fat chance,” I said. She raised the perfect arch of an eyebrow at me. “I mean, this is Regatta Weekend. Every place in town is going to be booked.”
“I’ll have to call a taxi and go to another town, then.” There was the barest note of desperation in her voice. Actress. I amended my earlier assessment of her. Not a very good one.
“Lady, have you seen the size of this place? A dozen streets in the whole village. We don’t have a taxi, don’t need one. There’s a water taxi to take people around to the islands, but that’s done running at midnight.”
The woman twisted the damp tissue into a tight rope. A tear formed in the corner of her eye. A real one. Something tugged at me. Normally I don’t go for the sentimental stuff. I’m a businesswoman, after all. But she looked so pathetic. And I had the feeling she was in trouble. “You could stay overnight with me.” I instantly wanted to take it back, but that’s not the way Brenda rolls.
Her perfect white teeth caught her lower lip. I could practically see the gears turning in that ridiculously beautiful head. “You’re sure there’s no place else?” she sniffed. “I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
Her lack of enthusiasm didn’t offend me. I know my job is dirty work, and that I wasn’t at my freshest right now. Someday I’m gonna call up that hottie from television, that Mike Rowe, and see if he wants to come on rounds with me. I sighed a little as I thought of being alone with Mike in a Dumpster, getting dirty.
“I can get you to my place with a minimum of people seeing you if we cut down the alleys between the buildings downtown. I’ve got a bedroom and a pullout couch with clean sheets and a decent mattress. You can go hang out there until I finish my work tonight. I won’t tell anybody I saw you, and I’ll give you breakfast in the morning. Hot Pockets and coffee. Take it or leave it.”
She took it.
“Here’s something you can sleep in.” I tossed her a 2XL tee shirt, which had once been bright red (my favorite color!) but was now faded to a soft pink. I need to use a lot of bleach on my work clothes, and this one had ended up in the load accidentally. Trace Adkins’ face was still recognizable though, so I kept the shirt around. We were standing in my living room. I don’t get a lot of company, and I was glad I’d vacuumed and dusted that morning.
She eyed the shirt, then shrugged. “I’ll just sleep for a few hours. Then I’ll, uh, figure something out about a car and be gone. I have a long way to go tomorrow, and I don’t want to . . . put you out.”
“Let me give you the tour of Chez Brenda,” I said. She glanced toward the windows overlooking the street and stepped back, just a bit. I pulled down the shades. “Have you got a name?”
The woman hesitated. “Annabelle.”
Pretty name. Most likely not real. “Well, Annabelle, this is the kitchen.” It was small, like all the rooms in my apartment over Margie’s Tee Shirt Emporium, but it had everything I needed. I opened the refrigerator, an ancient harvest gold Frigidaire. Fortunately, electricity was included in my rent. Otherwise you can bet I’d be complaining to Margie for a more efficient model. “There are wine coolers in here, Margarita flavor, plus diet Coke. Nacho Doritos and Oreos are in this cupboard. Help yourself. I’ve gotta shop soon anyway.” I led her to the bathroom and my room. I smiled at the larger-than-life framed poster of Alan Jackson over my bed. “You can sleep here. I just changed the sheets this morning. Or on the couch if you want. I’ve gotta finish my work and I won’t be back until close to sunup anyway.”
She nodded. The heavy foundation she wore was creased, damaged from the crying and running. I’d seen makeup like that before. On my own mother. I’d have bet my autographed picture of Reba McIntyre I knew what lay underneath the Clinique. A big ugly bruise, purple as twilight over the St. Lawrence. Or maybe it would have morphed into a sickly greenish yellow by now. “There are washcloths and face cream in the bathroom. Use what you need.”
Her eyes locked onto mine. She knew I knew. “I’ll never forget you.”
I had a feeling I’d never forget her either.
Back on the street, I retrieved my collection bag and stool from under the Dumpster at the docks. I was pleased to see that no one had messed with my things.
There was a commotion over in front of the Astrolabe Lounge. Probably a New York Rangers versus Montreal Canadiens fight that had started inside the bar and moved to the sidewalk, even though it wasn’t hockey season. Never seemed to matter.
I pushed my way through the crowd toward the trash receptacle in front of the bar, intending to extract the glass and metal goodies that were bound to be in there. The crowd paid no attention to me (I’m used to that. Trust me when I say it comes in handy sometimes). Every pair of eyes was focused on the same spot on the sidewalk. Every other ear had a cell phone attached to it. I peeked through the space between two people. A crumpled form lay on the concrete, motionless.
I looked closer. Khaki pants, leather loafers with tassels (ugh! Real men do not wear shoes with tassels), a white polo shirt covered in what appeared to be chunky crimson vomit. Not quite the color of blood. Red wine, maybe. The man’s hand, darkly tanned and covered with coarse black hair, sported a huge gold ring, square and heavy.
A wail of sirens sounded in the distance. The Bonaparte Bay Volunteer Fire Department ambulance screeched to a halt, double parked next to a line of shiny Harleys. Jed Lawson and Davey Deen, dressed in matching navy blue Dickeys and tee shirts with the BBVFD emblem over the left pec, made their way through the spectators. Davey put his fingers on the guy’s neck.
“Pulse, negative,” Davey shouted, then peeled back the guy’s eyelid and shined a flashlight on the eye. “Looks like an overdose of some kind. Let’s get him to the hospital stat for a stomach pump. There might be a chance for resuscitation.” He didn’t sound confident. Jed threaded his way through the Harleys and threw open the back doors of the ambulance. Moments later, the lifeless body was strapped to a gurney and wheeled into the back of the vehicle. The ambulance roared off, lights spinning colorful beams into the night.
I went around to the back of the Astrolabe. My friend Sheena works there as a cocktail waitress, and she’s pretty good about setting out returnables for me when she has a breather. Sheena was outside, blowing smoke rings up to the stars.
“Hey, girlfriend,” Sheena said.
“Busy night? Something going on in there?”
Sheena took one last long drag, held the smoke in for a second, then puffed it out. She dropped the butt into a can of sand at her feet, straightened, and smoothed out the front of her uniform.
“Guy face-planted into the dish of popcorn over at table four. A half hour or so before, I’d served him and some woman a bottle of Cabernet. The expensive stuff. She headed for the ladies’ room and never came back. Must have gone out the emergency exit. Can’t say’s I blame her. The guy was real mouthy. Gave me the creeps. He collapsed, and some of the guys at the bar carried him outside for some air. Thought he was passed out.”
Sheena pulled a lipstick out of the pocket of her black denim skirt, twisted off the cap, and applied a thick layer of something bright pink. “I gotta get back to work. They never paid for the wine, and I’m out a tip. At least we’re busy tonight – I better go make sure that table’s been cleaned and the glasses are gone to the dishwasher in case that guy had something contagious.” She shuddered. “I rinsed out the wine bottle and left it for you. I know you like to drill a hole in the pretty ones and stuff Christmas lights inside.”
“What did the woman look like?” I asked, opening up my collection bag and moving toward the box of glass and metal containers by the employee entrance. The wine bottle lay on top. I emptied the entire contents of the box into my bag.
“Gray dress. High heels. Dark hair up in a twist. Looked like a high-priced hooker to me. Polite, though.” She opened the door and went inside.
The air grew colder, as if a giant freezer had suddenly been opened. “See ya,” I said to Sheena’s back. I shivered and jammed my hands into my front pocket, fighting for space with Annabelle’s shoe. My fingers closed around it. I recoiled. “Damn it,” I said aloud. I hadn’t yet put on the latex gloves I use when I’m working, and my fingers landed in something sticky. She’d probably stepped in some gum.
Under the streetlight, I pulled the shoe out of my pocket and examined the bottom. There was a fuzzy residue on the leather. At one end of the residue was the source of the goo: a section of silvery duct tape still attached. I peeled off the tape, ready to roll it into a ball and shoot a basket into the butt-can. Some instinct told me to wait. The adhesive side of the tape was covered in a fine white dust, like cornstarch or Dr. Scholl’s foot powder. The stuff had a faint medicinal smell, but I couldn’t place it. I looked at the underside of the shoe again. The tape had been located, not on the sole, but on the arch. A place that would never touch the floor or ground with a heel that high. Annabelle hadn’t stepped in something and picked up a gunky hitchhiker. She’d deliberately hidden something on her footwear, in a place no one would ever notice.
I finished my first round, then made the second earlier than usual. I lugged my bags to the top of the stairs, gently opened the front door, and set the bags inside as quietly as I could. I heard movement from the living room and switched on the light. Annabelle sat straight up, her eyes wide with fear, clutching my afghan around her skinny frame. She blew out a breath when she realized it was me, and relaxed back into the plaid cushions.
“Hi yourself.” I still hadn’t quite decided how I was going to treat her, and I was tired. “You should try to get some more rest. I’m going to take a shower.”
Twenty minutes later I was clean and felt much better. I toweled off and dressed in a pair of comfortable knit shorts and a tee shirt. My feet I left bare. A delicious aroma wafted in from the kitchen, overpowering the scent of my favorite Bath and Body Works Cherry Blossom shower gel. I padded into the kitchen and sat down at the table. The coffeemaker burbled away, and the microwave hummed. It dinged, and Annabelle set a mug of joe and a bottle of French Vanilla non-dairy creamer in front of me, along with a plate containing a sizzling ham, egg and cheese Hot Pocket. She sat down with one for herself, but didn’t eat or drink.
“I couldn’t sleep anymore. I hope you don’t mind I made myself at home.”
I slurped up some coffee, then stirred in some more creamer. “No,” I said, fanning the breakfast sandwich in an attempt to cool it. My stomach growled. I got up and went to my backpack and undid the zipper. I pulled out the bottle, setting it on a napkin on the table. My companion blanched. She’d removed her makeup, and there it was, just as I’d suspected. A hideous purple bruise, weirdly square, on her left cheek, a perfect match for the big gold ring the guy in the hospital was wearing. I held up the shoe, letting it dangle from its strap over my index finger. “You dropped something.”
“Where is he?” she whispered.
“Getting his stomach pumped. Probably dead. Bonaparte Bay only has a dinky hospital, so I’m not holding out much hope for them bringing him back.”
Her head dropped into her hands as her hair spread out in a dark, shiny mass all over my table. “I didn’t mean to kill him. Only put him to sleep for a while with my prescription sleeping pills until I could escape.” She raised her head, and a steely glint replaced the panic. “He’s used and abused women before me. The last one was only seventeen. And he’s killed people before – and gotten away with it.”
“You realize the police are going to track you down once they find out where he was staying.” I took a bite of the sandwich, hot, cheesy and delicious.
“I don’t think so.” She said it matter-of-factly.
What was she, stupid? The minute he was ID’d, they’d call the hotels, match him up, and put out an APB on Annabelle. It was only a matter of time.
“They won’t know who he is. At least not for a while. Maybe never.” She reached into the little evening purse she’d been carrying and pulled out a brown leather wallet, buttery soft and clearly pricey. “He’s not carrying any ID.”
My estimation of her grew.
“He’s had extensive dental work done recently, by a dentist who doesn’t keep good records. Any records, really. And he’s too skilled a piece of scum to have a rap sheet. He’s never been caught, so I’d guess there are no fingerprints or DNA on file.”
I chewed. “How’d you get into town?
She looked confused. “That’s my problem.”
Not your only problem, missy, I thought.
“I planned to leave town immediately. The car was parked in the hotel lot, and I managed to pack it while . . . Stan . . . was in the shower.” She looked at me, a bit sheepishly. I appreciated the fact that she wasn’t giving me real names. “But after . . . I did it . . . I left through the emergency exit of the bar and ran to the hotel. The car was gone! I know Stan didn’t move it, and I don’t know where it could be. I didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself by asking the hotel staff about it. I panicked and ran, ending up at the pavilion in the park, which is where you found me.” She sank back into the kitchen chair, the padded vinyl back emitting a little whoosh of air as she did so.
I set down my sandwich and looked at her. My eyes were drawn again to that square bruise on her cheek. I believed her story. Hoped I wouldn’t be sorry. No fan of the police myself, I’d been harassed periodically while I was just trying to do my job. My decision was made.
“I think I know where your car is.”
She sat up straighter, hope dawning on her beautiful, damaged face. “Tell me, and I’ll leave right now. You’ve been so good to me. I don’t want you to have to stick out your neck for me any more than you’ve already done.”
“The hotel probably moved it to the valet lot behind the marina. Do you have an extra set of keys? What kind of car is it?”
She told me. This might actually be fun. I thought.
Twenty minutes later I’d retrieved the car, a beautiful Miata that glowed brilliantly red in the weird light of the sunrise. I could have made it back in ten, but I took a couple of extra spins around town, it was such a sweet ride. I pulled it up in the back lot behind the Tee Shirt Emporium and went back upstairs.
Annabelle was waiting, not too patiently, based on the foot-tapping that was going on. She was wearing my clothes, too loose and too short, and had appropriated a pair of flipflops. Thankfully not my favorite ones with the hot pink silk flower on the rubber toe thong. She held out a wad of cash in my direction.
“This is for you. For the clothes. For your trouble.”
I headed to the kitchenette and started tossing snacks into a plastic grocery sack. “Naw. You need the money more than I do.” Did I just say that? A woman who collects returnables and cleans motel rooms for a living? I handed her the bag. “So you won’t have to stop too soon for supplies.”
“I’ve got enough money to last me a while. Stan made me an authorized user on one of his credit cards. I took out a huge cash advance just before we left to come here, and there’s still some credit left. Plus his wallet was full of cash. The car’s in my name, but I’ll be ditching that soon and buying a beater. I’ll be fine for months.”
Annabelle crossed the carpet and wrapped her arms around me. “I’ll make this up to you, someday,” she whispered, then headed for the door.
“Wait!” I said, and reached for the coffee mug I kept on top of the refrigerator. The cup was full of spare change I’d collected on my circuits. On top of the coins was the diamond ring. “You’ll want this back.” A ray of morning sun shone in through the window and the ring sparkled up at me. A bit regretfully, I extended my hand, palm up, and offered her the ring.
She smiled at me. “No, you keep it, Brenda. I want you to have it.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but a little voice piped up inside my head. Are you nuts? it said. Sell that rock and you can take the rest of the summer off. Maybe take that trip to Branson you’ve been Jonesin’ for. I looked at Annabelle, then back down at the ring. My fist closed around it tightly.
“Goodbye,” Annabelle said, “and thank you.” She swung the strap of her purse up over her shoulder, opened the door, and was gone.
A little stab of pain in my palm reminded me that I was still squeezing that honker of a ring. I relaxed and opened my fingers, then placed the ring on my left hand. A perfect fit. I extended my hand into the light, which immediately fractured into a complete rainbow. I’d never sell this ring, I realized. I might need it someday. My thoughts turned to the guy who works in the kitchen over at the Bonaparte House Restaurant. He was no Mike Rowe, no Trace Adkins. But if he cut off that mullet, he’d be pretty damned fine just the same.
I walked to the back window and retracted the white lace of the curtain. Annabelle put the top down, donned a pair of dark glasses, and tied a colorful scarf around her hair. She slammed the Miata into gear and headed out of town.
She hadn’t said where she was going – north across the river to Canada, or south to just about anywhere else. Somewhere far, far away. Wherever she ended up, I had a feeling she’d be okay.
copyright Susannah Hardy