The Collector

by John Whitehouse


A piece of noir fiction

Her name is Julie Harrison. Aged 32, she's slim and not unattractive. She's currently sitting in an interview room, next to her lawyer. Across the table are Detective Mike Gerber and his partner.

Julie's mind is numb with incredulity. The plan had sounded so simple. It was meant to be a new beginning. Instead, her life has spiraled into an unbelievable nightmare.

Her story begins three months earlier, in the chill of a snowy February. Julie was tired of her boring clerical job and her dead-in-the-water marriage. She went with some colleagues to a bar after work. That's when she met Dan Arlen. Around the same age as Julie, he was tall and ruggedly handsome, with volcanic blue eyes and the cutest smile. He worked as a car mechanic and was new to the city. And he was single.

They met as often as they could, spending most of their time at the motor home where Dan lived. He tantalized her with talk of a future together and Julie agreed to divorce her husband. However, Dan said there was a quicker, easier way.

They were sitting on a park bench at the time, blossom falling like rain from the trees on either side.

"Kill him? Are you sure?"

Dan nodded. "The divorce is bound to be messy, right? From what you've told me, he'll fight for every cent. Just think, the house will be all yours and the life insurance will be enough for us to make a fresh start."

No need to worry, Dan said. He'd make it look like a burglary gone wrong. He had contacts from whom he could purchase an unregistered handgun. And he and Julie could give themselves a cast-iron alibi.

"We'll say we were together the whole time. It's perfect. The cops will probably suspect us but they won't be able to prove anything."

Julie remembers the Saturday just gone only too well. She told Mark she was going upstate to visit a friend of hers and that she wouldn't be home until the following day. Then she went to see Dan. She stayed with him until midnight when he left to go to her place. She gave him her spare key and he promised to be back in a couple of hours.

Julie tried to watch TV, read, anything to occupy her thoughts. She paced around the motor home, biting her fingernails. Her anxiety increased when Dan failed to return by 2A.M. She rang his cell phone but it was switched off. Another hour passed. She rang him time and again but without success. Her stomach churned.

By 4 A.M. she was frantic. Her mind whirled. Something must have gone wrong. Perhaps he hadn't succeeded in killing Mark. She pictured the two men grappling, the gun going off, Dan being shot.

When she could stand it no longer, Julie drove to the house. Drawing up outside, she saw Mark's car parked in the drive, the place in darkness. She stepped into the house, flicked on the lights and found everything undisturbed. So Dan hadn't gone through with it. Perhaps he'd lost his nerve. But why hadn't he called, or returned to the motor home? Maybe he'd been in some kind of accident on the way here, or been the victim of a mugging. Her blood went cold at the thought.

Julie took off her coat and climbed the stairs slowly, so as not to disturb Mark, who'd be sleeping. She opened the bedroom door and crept inside. The light of a full moon streamed through the window, illuminating the bed.

Julie froze. Mark was lying there, eyes staring sightlessly upward. His bare chest was exposed and a cluster of dark holes indicated he'd been shot several times in the heart.

Julie bolted from the room and hurled herself down the stairs, frantic sobs tearing from her chest. Although she'd talked about the killing often enough, the sight of Mark's lifeless body had shaken her to the core. And through it all one question pounded in her brain: why hadn't Dan made it look like a burglary, as he'd said.

Another part of her mind told her she had to think clearly. She'd have to phone the cops. Therefore, she had to make it look like a bungled robbery, as she and Dan had planned. Scrabbling in her purse, she pulled out her cell phone and called him again but there was still no reply. What was he playing at?

She couldn't worry about that now. She'd force the lock on the kitchen door, then go through the house ripping out drawers and strewing the contents over the floor (but not in the bedroom - she couldn't face going back in there). She'd tell the cops some money had been taken. She'd tell them how she'd stormed out after an argument, how she'd driven around for a while. She wouldn't tell them about Dan. (Where was he? Why wouldn't he answer his phone?) It would only add to their suspicions.

Looking back, Julie marvels at how quickly it all unraveled.

"I notice the desk in the study is locked, Mrs Harrison," Detective Gerber had said. "Why didn't the burglar try to force it open, I wonder? Then there are your jewels. You say the pieces are cheap imitation, but whoever broke in wasn't to know that. But you know what really puzzles me? The way Mr Harrison was killed. You see, he was in bed when he was shot. That means he couldn't have disturbed the burglar. Whoever shot him must have gone into the room and fired. As if the whole thing was premeditated. And what about the neighbors? How come they didn't hear anything?"

Then came the killer punch. The cops had found a pistol hidden in the loft, along with a pillow which had evidently been used to smother the sound of gunshots. Julie's fingerprints were on the gun, which had been confirmed as the murder weapon.

That's when Julie broke down and confessed. She told them about her affair with Dan, how they'd planned to kill Mark. But it had been Dan who'd shot him, not her.

"Can't you see? The bastard's set me up."

"But why, Mrs Harrison? What possible motive could he have?"

"I don't know, but you have to believe me."

They don't, of course. The cops have checked out what Julie's told them about Dan Arlen but have drawn a blank. The motor home has vanished and no-one of that name or description has ever been employed at the place Dan said he'd worked. As for the cell phone, the number's registered in a different name and the address given turned out to be a derelict building.

The cops haven't pursued it. Why would they? They already have their evidence. Fortunately for Julie, there's no death penalty in this state. But she knows she's looking at a life stretch.

The detectives keep on at her. "Why don't you come clean, Mrs Harrison? Make it easy on yourself."

Eventually, unable to take anymore, Julie screams.

The man calling himself Dan Arlen snips an article from a newspaper and pastes it into a scrapbook containing a number of other clippings. "WIFE CHARGED WITH HUSBAND'S MURDER," proclaims the headline. The other stories carry similar banners. Once again it has worked like a dream, the fingerprints being a particularly neat touch. Easy to transfer them from a glass to another object with the aid of sticky tape.

He closes the scrapbook and stores it in a cupboard, alongside various fake ID's. He shaves and puts on his jacket. Then he steps out of the motor home into the warm evening air. He strolls along the block, heading for the nearest bar. Here he is - another town, another state. Best to keep moving around. It's safer that way.

He may not strike lucky tonight. But sooner or later, in some joint or other, he's confident he'll find what he's looking for. A woman stuck in an unhappy marriage. Who yearns for freedom. Who's agreeable to the killing of her husband.

Someone he can add to his collection.

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