I tossed my half-finished cigarette in the gutter. Across the street, the students shivered in their pajamas, rubbing their hands together, glancing around, still desperate for answers. I exhaled and watched my breath float towards the sky. They were scared, I knew, and I didn’t stop myself from pitying them. They were sheep looking for answers to questions they didn’t know to ask. God knows they wanted the truth, but they weren’t ready for their world to fall apart. I watched a rat emerge from the sewers and steal the dying embers of my tossed butt. I pulled my trench coat tighter, and I crossed the street.
As I worked my way through the crowd, I saw Tanya comforting a crying student. A chorus of coughing erupted behind me, and I spun, hands reaching for my trusty Swiss, only to find Ned skulking nearby. He raised a hand in apology and shuffled along. I shook my head and pushed my way to the front. It was no surprise who met me there.
“I thought you had someone on the inside. Couldn’t sneak you in?” I asked.
Darcy pointed to her phone, “false alarm.”
I narrowed my eyes. Brushing past her taunting gaze, I hopped onto the concrete slab that lined the building, slipping just a tiny bit. I ignored the crowd’s titters and stood tall to face the throbbing mass of students.
“Ladies and gentleman,” I said. “This wasn’t how we wanted to spend our night. We should be in our dorms right now. We shouldn’t be huddling for warmth. We shouldn’t be barefoot on the street. Yet, here we are.”
“We know!” shouted some wiseguy.
“What you don’t know …” I said. “Is why you’re here. Thankfully, I do.”
Murmurs from the crowd. I let the moment hang in the air.
“It’s simple,” I said. “Elementary, really, if you only stop and think.”
“Hey!” piped up another joker. “Aren’t you the guy who tried accusing the Dean of money laundering?”
“Quiet!” I yelled. “Allow me to explain. We all know it was the fire alarm that sent us running from our dorms just one hour ago. As the firemen finish their search in a few minutes, they’ll report that they found no sign of a fire. How could this possibly be, you ask?”
A freshman in front of the crowd shrugged: “Someone pulled—”
“I have discovered that someone pulled the fire alarm!” I said. “The only smoke tonight was the smoke of, uh, deception.”
I peered through the crowd: “Ned and Tanya: step forward. You too, Darcy. Won’t you all join me?” They emerged from the crowd with bowed heads.
“Three suspects. Three alibis,” I announced. “Tanya, our respected RA, tells a tale of rambunctious party-goers. Ned, the herbalist, would have me believe that he had a quiet night of burning some sticky icky. Darcy, the little princess, spins a yarn of scandalous roommates. How do we know who to trust? Who can we believe?”
Another enemy of justice interrupted: “What are you even talking about?”
“Newsflash,” I said. “Never trust anyone. In fact, each of these three is guilty as sin.”
No one gasped so, for dramatic effect, I did.
“That’s right,” I pointed to the guilty parties. “I overheard the dorm advisors talking in the bathroom about our floor’s performance. Tanya may have tried to stop the commotion in 408, but her story doesn’t end there. Another citation would have sent her packing, and she couldn’t let that happen.”
Tanya stammered, raised her arms in incredulity.
“Meanwhile, our dear Darcy was having her own trouble. Her roommate had been doing the nasty with a TA for weeks and she’d had enough. She wanted her revenge and she had the perfect opportunity. TA Fred would have been in hot water if anyone reported seeing him in the dorm, huh Darcy?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes.
“And innocent Ned, the sweet stoner. He nearly lit his own room on fire. A close call. Perhaps too close for the notorious budsman. He peeked outside his room, surely, checking to see if his pungent smells were trickling towards the guard downstairs. He needed a distraction, fast,” I said. “But what did Ned find when he went to that hallway? An RA on her last legs. A desperate roommate looking to let the truth out. Three sinners at a crossroads.”
I clicked my tongue and rested my hands on my hips, looking down at the culprits.
“And the perfect opportunity on the wall beside them. It was too easy. They got their stories straight, pulled the alarm and made out like bandits. They almost got away with it, too.”
Each of them turned red as a beet. The crowd was getting antsy. Just when I thought I’d closed another case, Darcy crossed her arms and spoke up.
“You’re wrong,” she said.
“You can admit it,” I said. “It’s all over.”
“Why would I pull the alarm? I didn’t want … ” she stopped herself. Darcy bit her lip and let out an exasperated sigh: “Look, I was recording them from the hall, okay? Fred is my TA. I didn’t want anyone finding out about him. I just, well, I just wanted to make sure he’d give me an A.”
I shook my head: “You’re not getting off that easy.”
“It wasn’t me either,” said Tanya. “I swear. After I tried to stop the party, some visitor stumbled out and vomited all over the place. I was getting him water. I didn’t need any more commotion. I was just trying to calm everything down.”
I let loose a crackle. “This is all very cute,” I say. “It’s nice to see that you put effort into your lies. The truth doesn’t care about —”
“Why don’t we check the security camera?” asked Ned.
“Oh, uh, of course,” I said. “If you want to. I think everyone is satisfied already, but I’d be happy to watch the, uh, tape.”
“Great,” he said, striding into the building. Darcy and Tanya followed him. I looked around at the crowd, who looked as confused as I felt. I hardened my gaze.
“Let’s all see the truth!” I said, motioning the entire crowd along with me. We blew past the confused security guard and took over his computer. Ned was already scrubbing through the footage: the screen showed hordes of students running backwards up the stairs and filing into their rooms in reverse, a few loiterers appeared and flashed away at high speed, and then …
“Look!” I pointed. Darcy froze frame. It was no surprise: the three little pigs were standing around, plotting away. “Just like I said.”
Ned pressed the spacebar. The criminals were next to the fire alarm for a moment. Then, they walked away. I watched each of them disappear out of frame.
“You must have, uh,” I trailed off.
A figure entered the picture. It was a man, hunched over, his narrow shoulders framed by his heavy overcoat. He took something out of his pocket, dropped it on the floor, brushed it off, picked it back up. Cupping his hands, he lit a flame, and I saw a cigarette hang loosely from his lip. It couldn’t be.
“Wait a second,” Darcy said. “That’s …”
The figure examined himself in the reflection of the elevator doors. He struck a pose, seemed dissatisfied and tried another. Suddenly, the doors burst open and freshmen poured out. The figure jumped back, banging his head on the wall behind him and falling to the ground. The students pointed and laughed. The figure picked himself up, wiped away a tear and ran out of frame, leaving only the dying light of his fallen cigarette on the carpet, tendrils of smoke reaching towards the alarm above.
“You!” Tanya said, pointing at me. She spied the fireman walking into the lobby and began waving her arms. “Over here. Over here! It was him — we caught the guy!”
And, just like any other night in this godforsaken city, I found myself running. My sneakers pounded against the pavement as the tails of my trench coat flapped in the breeze behind me. There was no fair play in this city of sin. There never is. The vultures are always circling, waiting for the next sucker they can turn to mince meat. There’s no place in this world of evil-doers for a man like me.
My breath grew heavy as I disappeared into the night, another victim of the fat cats and loud mouths. Case: closed. Justice: forget about it.
Email Alec Winshel at [email protected]