Authors: Cassidy Salem
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Hopefully you can relate to the characters; however, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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A refreshing breeze cooled the air at the end of the warm fall day. Rather than wait for the bus, Hilary and I walked to McSweeney’s in Georgetown. Located on Wisconsin Avenue, McSweeney’s Irish Pub has a great happy hour special, with the best free appetizers.
First order of business, as always, was to listen to Hilary vent about work. She was frustrated with the research she was working on, she was having trouble getting the information she needed, and some problem or another. And her boss, Dr. Stickler, was giving her a hard time again. I sort of tuned out half way through her tirade, continuing to murmur what I hoped were encouraging responses.
Hilary had pretty much wound down by the time we reached McSweeney’s. A popular spot among men and women in their 20s and 30s, the pub was standing room only and the scent of Guinness hung in the air. Most of the guys were scoping the scene seeking out potential hookups – but that was nothing new. Petite and pretty, with strawberry blond hair and sparkly blue eyes, Hilary was a magnet for male attention.
We made our way to the bar and each ordered a glass of white wine. I even managed to grab a small dish of chicken wings for us to share. We did our best to eat, drink, and talk, while standing, constantly jostled by the crowd. Just as one guy was on the verge of striking up a conversation with us, we snagged a small table in the back corner.
More often than not I enjoyed watching the flirtations or even flirted a bit myself, but today my attention was on our conversation. Hilary’s mood had changed since our arrival. Seated at our relatively secluded table, she fidgeted in her chair. After we had both ordered a second glass of wine, Hilary took a few rapid sips, then confided, “Something’s going on with Duncan, he’s been acting strange.” She hesitated, then stammered, “Do you think he’s cheating on me?”
So how was I supposed to answer that question? I hated to lie, still neither Duncan nor I had ever mentioned to her that we had been an item a couple years back – a brief relationship that ended when his interest lagged. To add insult to injury, he had found a replacement for me before breaking it off. Duncan is hot; he knows it and he uses it to his advantage. Faithful is not his middle name.
A bit of a coward, I replied, “I don’t know. Has his behavior changed? Any special reason you think he might be seeing someone else?”
“Just a feeling I have, like there’s something he’s not telling me. He’s been almost secretive since his last visit home.” Hilary’s eyes welled up with tears. “I think maybe I should wash my face, freshen up before we leave.”
While I waited for her to return from the restroom, I finished that second glass of wine and did my best to drive any thoughts of Duncan and his cheating past out of my mind. My favorite strategy for accomplishing that was to check out the guys standing at the bar. Most of them were in their early 20s, with the standard Washington yuppie uniform – business-like suits or at least respectable jackets and ties. The only guy that stood out was wearing a Redskins cap and no jacket. I guess he didn’t know the local dress code. No one there struck my fancy, so I didn’t have to pretend I was going to work up the courage to approach anyone.
Bored and wondering what was taking her so long, I decided to check up on Hilary. I wanted to make sure she wasn’t hiding in there, crying her eyes out. It meant we’d probably lose the table, but I was about ready to head home, and a trip to the restroom before leaving wasn’t a bad idea.
The restrooms at McSweeney’s are way in the back, down a long narrow hallway a few feet past the entrance to the kitchen. The location was a bit out of the way, but someone had the foresight to put four stalls in the women’s room. There was rarely a need to stand in line, at least not this time of day. At night, when there is live music and the place is packed, well that’s another story.
I pushed the door open and saw that the sink area was empty. I glanced around and saw that the stall doors were all ajar. Strange. So where was Hilary? As I pondered that question, something on the floor of the last stall caught my eye. I walked over to take a closer look and saw Hilary slumped over on the floor.
“Hilary, are you OK? What’s wrong?” She didn’t answer. I moved closer, going partway into the stall, until I saw that she was leaning leftward, her long hair falling into a large puddle of blood. I screamed, quite loudly to judge from the size of the crowd that came running in response. I leaned over and tried to check her right wrist for a pulse. There was none. Shaking uncontrollably, I lost my balance and landed on my butt outside the stall.
The next thing I remember is coming to on a small sofa in the back office at McSweeney’s. The owner, Timothy McSweeney, and one of the waitresses were fussing over me, trying to make sure I was alright.
I sat up, drank some water, and ate one of the sugar cookies someone had put out on the coffee table in front of me. Gradually, the fog surrounding my brain started to lift. I had never been in Mr. McSweeney’s office. It was smaller than I’d have expected, somewhat incongruous with his rotund person. There was barely any space between the sofa and the desk.
The sound of raised and excited voices carried through the door. A young guy in a police uniform stuck his head in. “Mr. McSweeney, we need to speak with you.” Mr. McSweeney disappeared, closing the door behind him, leaving me in Daisy’s care.
Daisy was one of the place’s best waitresses. She loves to talk and has been known to gossip about the clientele. Never tell her anything that you wouldn’t want repeated. Left alone with me, the waitress couldn’t control her curiosity any longer. She bombarded me with questions – “What happened to the girl in the bathroom?” “Who is she?” and more, one after another, without waiting to see if I could or would answer them.
It took a few minutes for me to realize what she was talking about. And I burst into tears. Not a conscious choice, but at least it got her to shut up.
Moments later, the door opened again. Mr. McSweeney looked at me, my eyes all puffy and red, and said apologetically, “Missy, there’s a detective here who needs to speak with you. Do you think you can handle that now?”
I wiped away the tears with my sleeve and gulped down more water before nodding.
“That’s good, I’ll let him know,” he added, stepping back out.
Mr. McSweeney soon returned with a man I assumed was the detective. He started by stating in an even voice, “I’m Detective Saks. I realize this is difficult, nonetheless I need to speak with you about your friend.”
As if on cue, Mr. McSweeney piped up, “Detective Saks, my office is at your disposal, let me know if you need anything. Daisy, let’s go take care of things outside.” She reluctantly followed her boss out of the office.
The detective sat at Mr. McSweeney’s desk and remained silent until they had both shuffled out. Meanwhile, I took a better look at the detective. He was young, not striking but not bad. He was dressed in a dark blue suit, with a pale yellow shirt and a blue pinstripe tie – conservative for sure.
Once we were alone, he pulled out a small spiral notepad and scrutinized me for a few minutes. Finally, in a gentle tone, he said, “I understand that you found the body, and that you were friends with the deceased.” His deep baritone voice had a hint of a Brooklyn accent.
I nodded slowly, still trying to assimilate what he was saying – Hilary was dead. Somewhere deep inside I had been hoping it was just a bad dream.
He continued, “I need to ask you some questions. First, a few formalities. What is your full name and where do you live?”
“Adina Donati, I live here in D.C.”
“Can you show me an ID?” he requested.
I looked around and saw that somehow my bag had found its way onto the sofa. I pulled out my Massachusetts Driver’s License and handed it to him. He glanced from the license to me, and back again, then wrote something in his notepad. “Current address and phone number?”
I rattled off my answers, and he wrote them down.
He continued, “I understand from the owner that you and Ms. Sterling came in together and that you’re both regulars here at McSweeney’s. What was your relationship with Ms. Sterling?”
“Hilary and I both work at the DIPPeR. We come here for happy hour almost every Wednesday after work – our girls’ night out.”
“You work where? The dipper?”
Without thinking, I had done it again. Forgotten that our silly acronym was more likely to conjure up images of an ice cream parlor than a respectable think tank. I work in downtown Washington, D.C. as an administrative assistant at the illustrious Drake Institute, or the DIPPeR as we insiders call it. Not what I dreamed of doing when I went to college, but the job market is tough. I had to compromise or move back home. No way was that going to happen.
“Sorry about that. DIPPeR is shorthand for the Drake Institute for Policy Planning and Research. Hilary is… I guess was… a research assistant there.” My eyes overflowed with tears. The detective passed me a box of tissues from the far end of Mr. McSweeney’s desk and waited for me to regain my composure before continuing.
“We found a Wyoming Driver’s License in her wallet. Do you know how long Ms. Sterling had been in the D.C. area?”
“Hilary moved here almost a year and a half ago, right after college. She started working at the DIPPeR a little over a year ago.”
“I understand that you found her body. What can you tell me about what happened?”
“I don’t know. We came here after work and sat around and talked for an hour or so. Then she went to the restroom and didn’t come back. I went in and found her slumped over and couldn’t find a pulse. I must have fainted. The next thing I remember is waking up on this sofa.”
“Let’s back up. What time did you leave work, and how did you get here?”
“We left work a few minutes after 5. The weather was nice so we walked. It took us around 20 minutes.”
“What did you discuss on the way here?”
“Mmm, let me think. Stuff happening at work, her research project, and harmless office gossip. Nothing special.”
“Were you and Ms. Sterling close friends? Did she confide in you?”
“Yes and no. We talked about lots of stuff, not necessarily everything.” For one thing, I hadn’t told her about my brief relationship with Duncan.
When I didn’t elaborate, he moved on. “One of the waitresses commented that she passed Ms. Sterling in the hallway on her way out of the restroom, and that she seemed upset. Do you have any idea why? Was she depressed?”
“I don’t think she was depressed, but she was a bit upset. She had just told me that she was worried about her relationship with her boyfriend, Duncan. She was afraid he might be seeing someone else.”
“Do you know the boyfriend’s full name?”
“Yes. It’s Duncan Fletcher, III. He works at the DIPPeR too.”
He looked up from his notes. “Was she distraught about the state of their relationship?”
“Distraught would be overstating it, she was worried, but anyone would be. Why are you asking if she was depressed? What happened?” My agitation intensified as my mind flashed back to the scene in the bathroom stall. “All I remember is seeing her on the floor and a puddle of blood.”
He hesitated as if debating how to answer my question. “The blood you saw was from a slit wrist. It appears she might have committed suicide.”
I was dumbfounded. When I recovered from my initial shock, I shook my head. I had to make him understand that Hilary would never do such a thing. “That doesn’t sound like Hilary at all. She was smart, pretty, and popular. Upset about a guy, yes. But suicidal, no way. She was too practical, too upbeat for that.”
“I realize it’s hard to believe when it’s someone you know, nonetheless we have to consider suicide as a possibility. We’ll know more after the crime scene team and the coroner have had time to run their tests. At any rate, we’ll investigate thoroughly to determine what happened.”
He continued, “One last question, did you notice anything or anyone suspicious or out of the ordinary on the way here, or while you were here?”
“Nothing that I can think of.”
“I think that is enough for now. We’ll need you to give a formal statement at the station. I’ll be here for a while, so you might as well go home and try to get some rest. I’ll be in touch to set up a time for you to come in.”
He handed me his card and added, “Here is my contact information. Thank you for your cooperation.”
I pocketed the card without looking at it, grabbed my shoulder bag and walked out of Mr. McSweeney’s office. The pub was almost empty and oddly quiet. A few uniformed policemen were interviewing some of the patrons and staff. Fluorescent yellow crime scene tape blocked off the hallway near the women’s room.
I must have looked a bit shaky because kind old Mr. McSweeney made a beeline for me, offering his arm for support. Shoulders slumped, his eyes lacked their usual merriment. I assured him that I was alright and left the pub.
I checked my watch and was surprised to see it was already 9:15. Exhausted, I decided to splurge on a cab rather than catching the bus. Fortunately, there are always lots of cabs on Wisconsin Avenue. I hailed a cab and gave the driver my address.