A man's work is hard enough without having to put up with a murder investigation.
Any other day of the week, the front hall would be empty by 5:15, frustrated yuppies charging down the stairs or out the elevator with brief cases and jogging shoes, looking to get to the PATH train and home before sundown. On those days, I'm half way through with the front hall and working my way towards the stairs, knowing that if I'm lucky I'll be home before midnight.
But tonight the yuppies pile out the elevator and stop, gawking at the office at the end of the hall like a flock of highway rubberneckers hoping to catch a sight of blood, as anybody could see the body behind the wall of blue uniforms or the nearly closed office door marked: ``Paul M. Kalafort, personnel director.''
``What happened?'' they ask me, knowing that after forty years cleaning these floors, old Mr. Barton's got his thumb on the pulse. I know more about the habits of this place than most bosses do, where someone hangs his coat, which junior executives have been taking in the motel for lunch. I've watched the young grow old here, seen them get married, give birth, get divorced, seen tempers flair, people fired, but this is the first time I've seen anybody murdered or all the rubbish associated with this kind of thing: EMT's shoving their way through the crowd, yanking their wheeled stretcher behind them, and cops shaking their heads saying nobody's taking nobody out until fingerprints get done, photographs getting taken and the assistant coroner comes and makes the death official.
While only two people actually work in Mr. Kalafort's office, almost anybody who's anybody has a reason to come down here during the day, particularly now with all the forced retirements, layoffs and changes in job description. Most people coming out of that office look a lot less happy than they went in. Yet if any of those same people looked happy now, I couldn't see if. Most looked pale and nervous, glancing over their shoulders as if expecting a heavy hand of the law to settle on them.
Then, this thin girl pops out from the stair and gasps, stopping not a foot from where I'm standing, her face going so white I could have used it for chalk. It takes me a minute to remember her name, though I've seen her name plate on her desk from the thousands of times I've been in and out of Mr. Kalafort's office. Most people think she belongs more in accounting than personnel, if just to keep track of all the raises Mr. Kalafort's given her.
``What happened?'' she asks me
``Somebody went and killed Mr. Kalafort,'' I say, watching her face turn every shade of red before turning pale again.
``Wh-Why would anyone want to do that?'' she asks, her voice so shaky I can hardly hear her over the squawk of police radios.
It surprises me to think she doesn't know, but then she's perhaps the only employee in the whole company without a motive.
That's when I notice her purse hanging open, its small mouth open almost as much as hers.
``You're gonna lose something walking around like that,'' I say and point, whereas she looked down and lets out a little gasp of dismay.
``Oh that,'' she says, shivering a little as she yanks out the contents: a winkled handkerchief, a small wallet and a pack of Virginia Slims cigarettes. ``I've already lost something.''
Then, when the police stir near the office door, she stairs up, her thin red-painted lips turning queer.
``You're lucky you weren't down here when it happened,'' I says, drawing a look of alarm from her.
``You think I might have...?''
``I think whoever did this waited for you to leave,'' I say. ``Almost everybody knows you go upstairs about this time of day, though I'm sure the police'll want to talk to you, wanting to know who he saw last. You do all his appointments, don't you?''
This time she stares at me, a frown denting her thick second skin of makeup, creating a whole sea of wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Just now, she looks twenty years older than she is, though from the center of her eyes, the real fright comes. It is a look I've seen up and down the building later, look people get over rumors of budget cutting and down sizing, waiting for pink slips in with their pay. I think it occurs to her that the next personnel director might not need her as his personal secretary.
``We had people in all the time,'' she says. ``With all the people leaving lately, you know Mr. Kalafort's not been a very popular man.''
``I didn't mind him much,'' I say.
``You can say that after he gave you notice?''
I shrug. ``A man's gotta retire sometime or other.''
``But you had words with him only the other day. I remember you asking me to hold your wrench from when you were fixing the rest room sink while you and him went into his inner office. I broke one of my nails waiting for you two to finish,'' she says, holding up her hand, offering the one broken designer nail as proof.
``I do recalling you helping me,'' I say and wink. ``Prettiest plumber’s helper I ever had. We did have a pretty heated discussion, and if you can believe it, he was peeved at me over that darned sink. He said I was taking too long getting it fixed. You know how he was, always wanted everything done quicker than was humanly possible.''
``Don't I know it,'' she says, blowing a loose strand of blond hair out of her eyes, blushing a little. ``And if you knew him at all, you know he generally got everything he wanted...''
``I hear he had troubles at home with his wife,'' I say.
``Whatever do you mean?'' she asks, sounding a little indignant.
``Look,'' I say, easing closer as to lowered my voice. ``I can understand you wanting to be quiet about it. But the police'll ask. I won't say anything. But other folks around here won't be so kind.''
``You make it sound dirty,'' she says loud enough to turn heads, then in a lower voice adds: ``It wasn't like that at all.''
``I'm not saying it was,'' I say. ``I got no sympathy for the woman, not with the way she pushed him to make more and more money. God knows this whole retirement jag of Mr. Kalafort's was on account of her. Still, seeing them downtown in Church on Sunday, you'd think they were pillars of the community.''
``Mr. Kalafort in church?'' the girl giggles, then suppresses it with a guilty glance towards the office. ``I mean I wouldn't know anything about that.''
``I guess not,'' I says, then notices her purse open again. ``Is the latch broke?''
She glanced down and sighed, shaking her head again as she snaps it shut more firmly. ``I guess so,'' she says. ``But the damage is already done. I can't find an old broach. It must have fallen out somewhere, though God knows I've searched all over.'' She sighs, glances at the office, then looks at me. ``Do you know how he -- died?''
``That's the confounding part of it all and will teach me to leave my tools everywhere,'' I say with a laugh. ``But I was I to know someone would go and hit Mr. Kalafort over the head with my wrench?''
Then, one of the grey suited detectives eases out of the office, a heavy-set man with most of his belly on the wrong side of his belt, his tiny pistol floating on his blubber like a cork.
``What about that broach of yours?'' I ask. ``Was it that trinket I saw you looking at earlier today?''
The detective looks up sharply, squinting at us across the crowd.
``It was more than a trinket,'' she says. ``Paul -- I mean -- Mr. Kalafort paid a fortune for it, though the jeweler did screw up the engraving. I had it in my purse so I could go down there after work. Now I can't find it.''
``I saw you in the lunch room earlier,'' I say. ``But I know you never bring your purse with you.''
Something queer comes into her eyes as one think brow rises up into her forehead.
``You are a nosy old coot,'' she says, not completely kidding me.
``I notice things,'' I say. ``That's all, and wondered why you didn't lug around your purse the way the other girls do.'
``Because I'm always afraid of leaving it there,'' she says, still staring at me, still suspicious. ``Maybe I should have considered locking it up in my desk. But then, I didn't think anyone would come right into the office to steal it.''
``If anybody stole it,'' I say, trying to be as cold as she was, ``They would have likely taken your wallet, too, don't you think, and I noticed you still have that. If you kept the purse in the office lunch time, maybe you dropped it there?''
She glances at me, then the office, her face going pale again. Then she frowns when she notices the two men in grey coming through the crowd towards us, one of them, the fact detective.
``Did you say something about a brooch?'' the fat cop asks.
``As a matter of fact this girl here just lost one,'' I say before the woman could speak.
``Is this it?'' the cop asks, his large hand drawing out a plastic bag, an oval silver shape heavy inside it.
``Oh yes!'' the girl cries out, reaching for it though the cop jerked it away. ``Where did you find it?''
``In the dead man's hand,'' he says. ``Would you mind coming with us?''
``But...'' she says glancing around in a panic.
``Come with us,'' the other officer says and grabs her arm.
She looks at me, but I'm already ready staring at the floor and the thousand scuff marks I'll have to polish out when all this nonsense is over. But I'm in no hurry. Mr. Kalafort never did turn in my retirement papers. He told me as much when begging me not to hit him again. Heck, it might take another forty years for anybody around here to think up retiring me again.