COZY NOIR FINALIST

SANCTUARY

By Annette Dashofy


Gunfire exploded in the night, echoing through the concrete canyon and jolting Grace from her fitful slumber. She peered out from under her cardboard comforter and blinked. Across the street from her nest in the wedge of space beneath the overpass, two men stood over a mound of old clothes in the puddle of murky light spilled from the streetlamp.

Both men wore black suits. One of them had a fedora perched on his head and held something shiny and metallic in his right hand. The mound sat in a dark, glistening pool. Grace recognized the garish yellow and orange plaid coat that Crazy Joe always wore topping the pile. It only took a moment for her mind to clear. She realized Crazy Joe was still in those ratty clothes and the dark pool was his blood. The tiny cry that escaped her lips wasn’t intentional.

The two men looked up at the sound and their gaze locked onto hers. One of the men pointed in her direction and the second one, the one holding what she now knew to be a gun, took a step toward her.

Tossing her cardboard coverlet to one side, she scurried on all fours out from the wedge of the overpass. When she got clear from the concrete ceiling of her abode, she stood and bolted up the pitched cement apron toward the highway above her. Footsteps thundered behind her and a voice shouted, “She saw us. Get her!”

Her foot slipped in loose gravel and she went down hard, catching herself with her hands. One knee came down on a sliver of broken glass and the rough concrete bit into the soft flesh of her palms, but the pain that took her breath away was the fingernail torn back in the fall. Wincing, she scrambled the rest of the way up the hillside like a monkey.

A ballgame at the stadium had just let out and heavy traffic streamed by her. The breeze kicked up by the cars and trucks tossed her long, matted hair. She froze at the frenzy of four lanes of speeding vehicles in front of her. Behind her, dress shoes scraped on gravel. Grace knew that taking on this much traffic would be certain suicide. But her choice seemed to be death by Detroit steel or death by Smith and Wesson lead. Steel won out.

She plunged into the raging river of traffic and was greeted with screeching tires and blaring horns. First one car braked hard and Grace did a maddening ballet to dodge it. Then, she was the one who braked as a tractor-trailer, air horn blasting, careened passed her. She danced and ducked and thought she had made it across to the other side when a Chevy Blazer couldn’t swerve fast enough. Its front fender caught her hip. As she spun around, she caught a fleeting glimpse of a black suit and a fedora as she crashed to the pavement.

Grace sprawled, face down, clinging to the curb. The buzz of voices seeped into the haze of her brain as a crowd gathered around her.

“ Someone call an ambulance,” a voice rang out. But the question that leaped to the forefront of her consciousness was: would Mr.. Black Suit and Fedora be drawn to the crowd or away from it? Not willing to wait around to find out, Grace struggled to her feet against the advice of several crowd members, shoved her way through the ring of pedestrian rubber-neckers and ran/hobbled off into the night.

The city streets were black and gray with pools of brown and gold where streetlights made feeble attempts at illumination. Grace clung to the shadows moving with something less than her name would imply. With her bruised hip, her gait seemed reminiscent of Quasimodo. She stopped to rest in the blackness of the shadows beside a flight of concrete steps. Hunkered down, she sucked on the grimy finger with the ripped nail. It still seemed to be winning the what hurts most contest, but the hip was gaining ground and making a run for the title.

A long, black car crawled along the street in front of her and Grace squeezed deeper into the shadows. She heard men’s voices. She heard footsteps. She heard her heart pounding out a beat to rival anything Ringo Starr ever played.

Gradually her breath and her heart quieted and her brain kicked in to pick up the slack. She needed a place to hide, to lay low until those men in black suits moved on to some other prey. The shadows might provide some cover at night, but the light of dawn would soon leave her exposed and vulnerable.

Grace’s thoughts drifted to Crazy Joe. He had mentioned a place, a soup kitchen that he frequented in an old church nearby. Perhaps that might just be the sanctuary she needed right now.

When all seemed still around her, she ventured out of her dark cave. Moving from shadow to shadow, she crept along the sidewalk and slunk down an alley to its end.

There in front of her, an ancient stone structure stood between the modern concrete and steel. Even with its towering spire, the church seemed dwarfed in comparison to the high-rises on either side of it. Sanctuary, Grace thought. With a quick check of the empty streets around her, she limped across the road and up the front steps to the massive wooden doors. Grasping the latch, she tugged only to discover that in this city, sanctuary was kept locked and inaccessible. With a moan, she limped down the steps and around the corner to a side entrance. Five more painful steps up to the stoop and she tugged on another locked door. Her gaze rested on a bush next to the steps. Sanctuary, she decided, would have to be the shadows and mulch behind the shrub.

She curled up in the corner, shielded by the greenery and hugging her knees for comfort. Poor old harmless Crazy Joe, she thought. Who would want to kill someone whose biggest claim to fame was a mouth that never seemed to stop spouting nonsense? Still, he had been ranting about coming into some money. No one believed him, of course. But could that have had something to do with the events of the evening? As questions circled her mind like vultures over a carcass, she drifted off to sleep.

***


Grace’s eyes flew open when a shaft of early morning sunlight suddenly spilled onto her face. She recoiled as she looked up into two faces: a young man and a sour-looking older woman. The man held back a branch of the shrub that had been shielding her.

“Easy, there, miss.” He said. “We’re not going to hurt you.”

The old woman snorted. “Just another worthless bag lady.”

Grace held up her hands in front of her face in a defensive posture, not trusting a stranger’s promise.

He reached out to her. “Please. Won’t you come inside and let us help you? When was the last time you ate?”

The desperation of an empty stomach overpowered the fear in her heart. Cautiously, she reached out one trembling hand to take his.
***


The young preacher showed Grace to his private quarters in the rear of the church and offered the use of the shower while he had his crotchety assistant prepare a meal.

The hot water that pelted her skin felt as close to Heaven as Grace imagined she would ever get. She couldn’t be certain how long she stayed under the current, letting the dirt and grime of too many days in the streets trickle down the drain, but a woman’s voice from outside the shower stall jarred her out of her reverie.

“ I’m leaving some clean clothes out here for you,” the old crone called through the hiss of the water.

“ Thank you,” Grace responded, surprised at the sound of her own voice. She hadn’t used it much lately. In the streets, silence truly was golden.

***


The young preacher, who had introduced himself as Reverend Timothy, sat across the table from Grace as she slurped minestrone. He smiled at her when she glanced up, but her gaze darted back to the bowl of soup in front of her.

For the first time in a very long while, she felt almost human. Her hair, still damp from the shower, carried the clean fragrance of shampoo. She had changed into fresh clothes that didn’t cling to her newly bathed body the way the old ones stuck to the dirt and the sweat. And she had a steaming bowl of soup in front of her with no one fighting her for it.

“What’s your name?” the preacher asked as she started on her third helping.

She lifted her gaze to meet his just for a moment before looking down again. Fear gripped at her throat, preventing any words from escaping.

“ You don’t look like you belong on the street. What happened to you?”

Grace spooned the soup into her mouth even faster than before. If she was going to have to make a run for it, she wanted her belly as full as possible.

“ It’s okay.” He reached across the table to pat her hand, but she withdrew it.

A tap came at the door and the preacher’s assistant poked her head in. “There are some gentlemen here to see you, Reverend.”

He thanked her and when she had closed the door behind her, he motioned toward the pot of soup on the stove. “Please feel free to help yourself to more. You can have all you want.”

Grace lifted her head to meet his gaze and forced an ever-so-brief grin of appreciation before diving back into the minestrone.

She watched the preacher go and took a deep breath of relief. Table manners were not foreign to her and she was all too aware that she was breaking most of them. Hunger trumped propriety. Still, she felt more comfortable scarfing down the soup without those judgmental eyes upon her.

By the time the spoon clinked against the bottom of the empty bowl for the third time, the acute hunger pangs had been sated. Grace sat back and looked at the pot simmering on the stove. Her tongue caressed her lips in contemplation of a fourth bowl. When was the last time her stomach had actually been full?

The sound of men’s voices drifted through the heavy wooden door, distracting her from her reflections on hunger. Curiosity had become a trait she learned to stifle on the street, but a comfortably full belly lulled her into a sense of security she hadn’t felt in a long time. She rose and shuffled to the door, her hip still throbbing. Silently, she turned the knob and opened the door a crack, just enough to peer through.

The door opened into a small dining hall filled with long tables and brown Samsonite folding chairs. The preacher and two well dressed fellows stood between the rows. Grace had to squint to get a good look at them in the unlit room. One of the men fingered the brim of the fedora in his hands.

Grace broke into a cold sweat. She strained to hear the conversation, but the voices had grown too secretive. Instead she watched the body language. The preacher stood with his back to her, arms crossed in front of him, nodding slowly as the man with the black suit and fedora spoke. She wished she could see the preacher’s face. But she could see the expression of the other man dissolve from businesslike to glum as he spoke. The preacher’s back stiffened and he began to turn his head in Grace’s direction. She drew back, ready to close the door, but the preacher turned once again to his guests. He unfolded his arms and pointed directly at the door, which Grace now softly pulled shut. She turned around and pressed her back into the solid wood as she frantically scanned the kitchen. The door she leaned against was the only entry into the room. Two dirty windows hung high on the walls, one above the sink and another above an expanse of counter space. Grace limped to the counter and scrambled onto it, ignoring the screams of her hip. She fumbled with the window latch and shoved against the aluminum lip, struggling unsuccessfully to open it.

“ What do you think you’re doing?”

Grace spun on the countertop, nearly tripping over her own feet. Just inside the door stood the sour-faced old woman who now surveyed her with open distain.

“ Come down from there,” she said. “Reverend Timothy sent me to get you. There are some men here who can help you.”

Grace’s heart pounded against her sternum as though it wanted out as badly as she did.

“ No!” Grace squeaked. “They killed Crazy Joe! I saw them.”

Any vestige of color drained from the old woman’s rouged cheeks. “Crazy Joe? No, you must be mistaken. Joe’s not dead.”

Grace swallowed hard and her head bobbled up and down. “Yes, he is. I saw it. Those two guys out there with the preacher shot him.”

The old woman’s knees started to buckle. Catching herself against the edge of the table, she drew in a long, jagged breath. “I don’t believe you. Why should I believe you?”

Grace’s own knees wobbled and she squatted down on the counter, wrapping her arms around them. “You’ve got no reason to believe me, but it’s true. I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”

“ You actually saw him?”

“ I saw that awful orange and yellow coat of his and whoever was in the coat wasn’t moving.” Grace tipped her head toward the door. “They shot him.”

“ Orange and yellow…” The woman’s voice cracked and then trailed off. “I gave him that coat.” She turned and latched the deadbolt on the door. “Come down from there,” she whispered.

Without really knowing why, Grace sensed she could trust the woman and eased down from the counter.

The woman sunk into one of the chairs at the table and motioned to the other. “Sit down, child. Tell me everything you know.”

Grace proceeded to pour out the entire story of the last twelve hours of her life.

***


“ Joe’s dead,” Mrs. Mandel’s voice trembled after hearing Grace’s tale. “I just can’t bring myself to believe it.” She looked into Grace’s eyes through a veil of tears. “Joe…the man you call Crazy Joe…Joe was my brother.”

Grace watched in stunned silence as the old woman buried her face in her plump, callused hands. The woman’s shoulders heaved with the rhythm of her breath. Grace touched her arm.

Mrs. Mandel lifted her head. “I’m fine.” The look of anguish on her face said otherwise. “This is all my fault,” she whispered. “I told Joe I suspected foul play when the old Reverend McDowell passed so suddenly. I even told him I believed Reverend Timothy was behind it.”

“ The preacher?” Grace asked in astonishment.

Mrs. Mandel nodded. “Sweet, boyish Reverend Timothy, so eager to help, so eager to be in charge…” Her voice trailed off. Pulling herself up a little taller in her chair, she continued. “I told Joe I didn’t have any proof. Nothing that the police would buy, but I just knew it was him. I just knew.”

Grace shook her head to clear the confusion. “But I still don’t understand how that got Crazy Joe killed.”

“ Joe was always looking for some way to get rich quick,” Mrs. Mandel said. “He told me he was planning to go to Reverend Timothy with my suspicions and ask for money in exchange for his silence.”

“ Reverend Timothy knows you think he killed the old preacher?”

“ No, no. He doesn’t know Joe and I are related.” She hesitated and tears welled up in her eyes. “Were related. I was too ashamed that my own brother lived on the streets, begged for food and clothes, to admit that he was family. As far as Reverend Timothy is concerned, Joe and I were strangers.”

“ So Crazy Joe tried to blackmail Reverend Timothy and got shot for his efforts.”

The sound of a fist pounding at the door interrupted their conversation. “What’s going on in there?” Timothy’s voice boomed through the wood.

Mrs. Mandel put a finger to her lips. “Just a moment, Reverend,” she called. Then, she rose and caught Grace by the arm, leading her to a small bathroom just off the kitchen. She shoved Grace inside. “Be quiet,” she rasped as she shut the door on her.

Grace fought a rising tide of panic. Could she trust this woman with her life? She opened the door a crack and peered through. “What are you doing?”

Mrs. Mandel had grabbed a janitor’s mop and bucket. She jerked the mop from the murky gray water, making a sloppy pass with it over the kitchen floor. “I’m getting you out of here,” she said. “Now, close that door.”

Reverend Timothy pounded a second time and Mrs. Mandel leaned the mop against the table. She looked at Grace, still watching her from the doorway. “Now!”

Reluctantly, Grace ducked back into the tiny room, which really wasn’t much more than a closet with a toilet. She pressed her ear against the wood and listened.

She heard the click of the deadbolt.

“ What’s going on in here?” Reverend Tim demanded. “Where is she?”

Mrs. Mandel’s voice reeked of disgust. “She’s sick. When you put too much food in a belly not used to such things, sometimes it doesn’t stay down.”

Grace picked up her cue and responded with a gut-wrenching moan.

“Why was the door locked?” Timothy asked.

“I was cleaning up the mess she made. Didn’t want anyone coming in and falling on the wet floor.”

“Alright then. Just bring her out when she’s…done.”

“Of course.”

The muffled squeak of rubber soles on the wet floor filtered through the bathroom door. Heavier footsteps approached and Grace flinched as the door flung open.

“Listen close, child,” Mrs. Mandel said. “This is what we’re going to do.”

***


Grace stood shivering just inside the bolted door. “I don’t think I can do this,” she said, struggling to keep her teeth from chattering.

Mrs. Mandel shoved a brown paper grocery bag, with the top neatly folded closed, into Grace’s hands. “I don’t see that you have much of a choice.”

“I could still try to squeeze out through the window like I was going to do before you came in.”

Mrs. Mandel sighed and planted her fists against her abundant hips. “Child, that window hasn’t been opened in thirty years. And if, by chance, you could pry it open and get out, they’d just hunt you down again.”

Tears welled up in Grace’s eyes. The old woman was right. She didn’t have a choice.

Mrs. Mandel’s fingers closed around Grace’s upper arms and she gave her a little shake. “Buck up now. Pull yourself together. The only way this plan has any chance of working is if you give the performance of your lifetime.”

Grace drew a deep breath, let it out slow, and blinked away the tears.

“Are you ready?” Mrs. Mandel asked.

No, Grace thought. She nodded her head.

“Okay, then.” Mrs. Mandel turned Grace toward the door and unlatched the bolt. Grace hesitated when she spotted the three men waiting for her and Mrs. Mandel gave her a gentle shove.

Clutching the brown paper bag, Grace hobbled across the dining room toward the men with Mrs. Mandel at her side.

“Ah, here she is,” Reverend Timothy smiled his boyish smile.



Grace pretended that she didn’t recognize the two men standing with him.

The young reverend introduced the men as the managers of a shelter where he had found space for her. “It’ll feel good to get off the street, won’t it?” He patted Grace on the arm.

Grace forced a smile, which showed no teeth. Mrs. Mandel elbowed her. “Yes, thank you,” Grace said.

“What’s in the bag?” Reverend Timothy asked.

“Some extra clothes,” Mrs. Mandel said, “from the donations. And food.”

“Well, now, I don’t think she’ll be needing that where she’s going. The shelter will supply everything she needs.” He reached for the bag, but Grace clutched it tighter against her chest.

“Mine!” she cried, fighting the hysteria raging inside her gut. Then in a calmer voice, she explained, “I have nothing. Please. Can’t I just have this?”

“Yeah. What’s a bag lady without her bag?” one of the black-suited men grinned maliciously.

“Fine,” Timothy muttered. “Well then, off you go.”

The man with the fedora reached for Grace and she recoiled, taking a step toward Reverend Timothy.

“Aren’t you coming with me?” she asked him.

“These fine men will see that you’re taken care of. You don’t need me.”

Tears brimmed in her eyes and she leaned against him. “Please. I don’t know them. I trust you. You’ve been kind to me. Please come with us.”

Timothy did a poor job of hiding his annoyance, but he nodded. “Whatever. Let’s just get going.”

Grace stole a glance at Mrs. Mandel as the men led her from the dining hall. The old woman was smiling.

***


They piled into a long black Lincoln Town Car, the two killers in the front seat, Reverend Timothy and Grace in the back. She held the bag clamped tight in her arms as if it were her last friend in the world. And in a very real sense, it was.

She glanced out the window at the scenery sailing past the window. “The old train station,” she commented. “Where exactly is this shelter, anyway?”

“It’s down by the river,” the man with the fedora replied.

Grace caught a hint of a grin on the other man’s face. Again looking out the car window, she cried out, “Look! The library!”

Reverend Timothy gave her a perplexed scowl.

She shrugged sheepishly. “I used to go there. A long time ago.”

The car pulled to a stop at the edge of the river. Grace’s nose pressed against the glass. Her stomach did a slow flop and her knuckles glowed white as she gripped the bag. “Didn’t we just pass the old boat launch?” she asked.

“Yeah, yeah. Get out,” the man in the fedora ordered.

Grace pretended to be surprised. “But I don’t see a shelter.”

Reverend Timothy reached across her and opened her door, giving Grace a non-too-gentle shove. “Just do what the man says. Get out.”

They all climbed out of the car, Grace still clutching her bag. The man with the fedora pulled out a gun.

“You’re the ones,” Grace cried as if she had just now figured that out. She turned toward Reverend Timothy. “They killed Crazy Joe! I saw them do it!”

The man with the fedora smiled. “Finally figured that out, did you? Yes, miss, we’re the ones you saw last night.”

Grace ducked behind Reverend Tim. “Do something!” she implored him.

“What makes you think he’d help a worthless creature like you?” Mr.. Fedora sneered. “He’s the one who hired us to do the old bum.”

Acting stunned, Grace looked up into Reverend Timothy’s cold eyes. “Why would you have Crazy Joe killed?”

Reverend Timothy glared at the man in the hat. “You have a big mouth, my friend,” he snarled.

“What difference does it make now?” he shrugged. “Who’s she going to tell?”

The other man nudged him with an elbow. “She can tell the bum, when she sees him again, which will be real soon,” he snickered.

“Not soon enough,” Timothy said wagging a finger at Grace. “Let’s get this over with.”

Grace couldn’t seem to remember how to breathe. “I just don’t get it. Why Crazy Joe? Of all the street people, he never did anything to anyone.”

“The old fool knew too much,” Timothy growled.

“What could he know? His world was the street. He had no power over anything or anybody.”

“That’s right. He was a nobody. So what does it matter that one less bum shows up in line at the soup kitchen?”

“He was a human being and didn’t deserve to die for no reason. That’s all I’m asking. What reason would you have for wanting someone you considered a ‘nobody’ dead?”

Reverend Timothy’s face contorted and his fingers curled into claws as though he wanted to rip Grace to shreds. “Fine. You want to know, I’ll tell you. Like my friend here pointed out, you’re not going to tell anyone, anyway.”

Like a dam that had burst, the words rushed from him. “Somehow the bum found out I had poisoned that old coot, Reverend McDowell. Older than Moses and yet he just wouldn’t die on his own. I had to stand in his shadow, day in and day out. I did all the work and he got all the credit. The soup kitchen, the clothes collection for the poor, all my ideas. And that old scoundrel took all the credit, all the praise. Well, no more. He was going to die anyway. Sooner or later. I simply speeded up the process a bit.”

He laughed a dark, vicious laugh. “And then that homeless old beggar comes up to me last week and tells me he knows I whacked the old buzzard. Wants me to pay him two grand to keep quiet. Ha! I made sure he stayed quiet alright.”

Tears streamed down Grace’s cheek. “Two grand?” she whispered. “That’s it? Crazy Joe’s life wasn’t worth two grand to you?”

He leaned in close, his breath hot against her face. “His life wasn’t worth two cents to me. And neither is yours.” He grabbed her arm and wheeled her toward the two well-dressed men. “Enough already. Fellows, she’s all yours.”

The man in the fedora raised his gun. Behind him a police car, lights flashing blue and red, screeched around the corner toward them, sirens wailing. Grace’s gaze locked on the barrel of the gun. Ignoring the ache in her hip, she dived toward Timothy, seeking shelter behind his six-foot frame. Her toe caught on a chunk of concrete and she stumbled. The gravel seemed to rush up toward her.

“Drop the gun!” a voice demanded.

The explosion of a gunshot rang in Grace’s ears. As she hit the pavement, the brown paper bag sailed from her hands and a searing pain ripped through her skull. Her breath was jarred from her body and her world went black.

***


The murmur of voices and the crackle of police radio static crept into the fog of returning consciousness. Through closed eyelids, Grace became aware of a pulse of flashing lights. As her eyes opened to slits, the lights took on color, reds and blues. A lightning bolt of pain sliced into her head, jerking her wide-awake. She blinked at Mrs. Mandel’s concerned face. Grace’s mouth formed the question she couldn’t quite vocalize.

“You’re fine,” Mrs. Mandel said. “Just took a nasty bump on your noggin when you fell.”

Grace’s hand went to her head, but Mrs. Mandel’s was there first, holding a handkerchief to the wound.

Cops swarmed the riverside area. The man, now missing his fedora, sprawled in a pool of his own blood on the pavement. The other man stood with his hands on the roof of a police cruiser, spread legged as an officer patted him down. Reverend Timothy, wearing a pair of handcuffs, was being escorted to yet another cruiser. A shadow fell across Grace’s face and she looked up. A uniformed officer lowered himself to his knees beside her.

“How are you feeling, miss?”

She started to nod, but the movement sent blinding sparks of pain shooting into her brain. After catching her breath, Grace held her head very still and replied, “Alive.”

The officer smiled. “That’s good. The ambulance should be here any second and they’ll patch you up.”

“Thank you.”

He motioned to the brown paper bag, split open on the concrete, its contents spewed out around it. “That was a great idea. And you did a good job letting us know where your were.” He patted Grace’s knee and rose. “Glad it worked out the way it did.” The officer turned and strode away.

Lying on the ground next to a faded blue sweater was Mrs. Mandel’s cell phone, which the old woman had used to call 9-1-1 back at the church. She had explained the situation and left the phone with the line open to the emergency dispatcher resting on top of the jeans and sweaters in the bag.

“They say they got the entire confession recorded back at dispatch,” Mrs. Mandel told Grace.

“I didn’t think they were going to get here in time,” Grace whispered through the pain.

Mrs. Mandel took Grace’s thin hand in her plump one and gave it a squeeze. “It’s all over now.”

***


Mrs. Mandel glanced at the clock on the wall and wiped her hands on her apron. “It’s time. Better open the doors.”

“Are we ready?” Grace asked.

“We’re ready.”

Grace, her long shining black hair twirled up on her head and held by a tortoise shell clip, smoothed the skirt of her flowered dress. She walked across the dining hall and unbolted the doors leading outside, thrusting them open into the sunshine. A line of men, women and children waited, all wearing similar looks of hungry desperation. Grace remembered the feeling.

“Welcome,” Grace smiled as she stepped out of their way. “Please come in.”

The city’s homeless began to file into the church basement, moving under the new sign posted above the door.

Fifth Street Soup Kitchen
In Loving Memory of Reverend Howard McDowell
and Joseph “Crazy Joe” Winston


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Annette Dashofy is a mystery and freelance writer and a member of Pennwriters, Sisters in Crime and the Short Mystery Fiction Society. She has been published in Muzzle Blasts Magazine and has an article coming out soon in Pennsylvania Magazine. Annette has recently signed with an agent to represent her first mystery novel. When not writing, she teaches yoga. She and her husband of 23 years live in rural southwestern Pennsylvania with their two old cats. Check out her website at www.annettedashofy.com and her blog at http://annettedashofy.blogspot.com


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