The Call Not Taken

Amy didn’t have a lot of girlfriends, and the few girlfriends she had…  Well, they all had a talent for drama.  Amy didn’t like drama.  That’s why, when the phone rang after a hard day at the travel agency, when Amy saw that Marta was calling again, yet again, she let it go into voicemail.

Marta Brown had a talent both for drama and bad boyfriends.  Her latest, Chas, was the worst.  Possessive and mean and probably psychotic.  Amy forbade Marta from ever seeing him again, as much as you could forbid a friend from doing anything.  Marta obeyed this good common sense, but she still called Amy several times a day to whine.  And this time, regrettably, Amy didn’t pick up.

An hour later, when she checked her messages, there was Marta. “Before you jump to any conclusions,” she began, “I’m not with Chas.  You’re right.  He’s a psychotic loser.  I’m at my thinking spot now.  Remember?  The little park under the George Washington Bridge?”  The line went dead silent.  For a few seconds Amy thought she’d hung up.  “Amy,” the voice continued, “Don’t be mad.  But I think maybe I should give Chas another chance.  Even a psychotic loser needs…  Amy, hold on.  Something…”

The next ten seconds were confusing.  And the ten after that, horrifying.  Amy could hear noises and footsteps and finally Marta’s voice.  It was a little distant from the phone, but Amy could clearly make out her friend’s last words as she begged for her life.  “No!  No!  Please.”

When Amy got to Fort Washington Park, Lieutenant Rawlings and his team were already there.  So was Marta Brown’s body, almost directly under the huge span, illuminated by the lights of two police cars and a van.  On the grass nearby lay a bloody baseball bat, ready to be bagged.

Rawlings made an effort to be comforting.  “Even if you’d picked up when she called, there’s nothing you could have done.  Her purse is empty.  Her jewelry gone.  It was a mugging gone bad.”

“No,” Amy blurted back.  “Chas did this.”  She had told Rawlings about Marta and Chas when she’d called in the emergency, so the lieutenant was up to speed.  “He must have been following her.  He heard her on the phone, calling him a psychotic loser.  He lost it and attacked her.  Simple as that.”

“It’s not simple,” Rawlings said, still making an effort.  “Chas has an alibi.”

Amy paused, confused, allowing the constant, thunderous hum of bridge traffic to wash over her head.  “What’s his alibi?” she asked.

“He was home.”  The lieutenant pointed toward the far side of the Hudson.  “Fort Lee.  Chas was at a grocery store, buying cigarettes and beer five minutes before Marta called you.  Twenty minutes later he drove across the bridge into Manhattan.  My men found him in a bar on the Upper West Side.”

“Why would he buy beer then run off to a bar in Manhattan?”

“I don’t know,” said Rawlings.  “All I know is the grocery clerk I.D’ed him in New Jersey, his receipt set the time, and his EZ-Pass tells us when he crossed the bridge.  Numbers don’t lie.  He wasn’t here when your friend was killed.”

Amy thought it over, recalling so vividly the desperation in Marta’s last, distant cry for help, preserved forever on her voicemail.

“He did it,” Amy said, shaking her head.  “And I know how.”

HOW DID CHAS COMMIT THE MURDER DESPITE HIS ALIBI?

WHAT CLUE TIPPED AMY OFF?

Rawlings didn’t know whether to act angry or bemused. Showing emotions was always a choice with him. This time he chose bemused. “Alright, how? How was Chas here and in New Jersey at the same time?”

“He was in New Jersey,” Amy replied.

“Then how did he kill her?”

“In New Jersey with a baseball bat. I think Marta was at his house.”

“But Marta said…”

“Marta lied to me. They were together. When Chas stepped out for cigarettes and beer, Marta called me. She didn’t want to admit she’d gone to see him. She knew I’d yell at her. So she lied about being under the bridge. We used to come here all the time.

“Chas must have walked in during the call. He heard her calling him psychotic and he heard her lying about the bridge. After he killed her… After he calmed down and realized his predicament, he also realized he’d been given an alibi. He drove the body into town and dumped it here, where she said she’d been all along. Then he went to a bar.”

This time Rawlings chose reasonable. “Good theory. If the body was moved post mortem, we’ll find out. We also might be able to pinpoint the location of Marta’s phone when she made the call.”

“I’m right,” Amy said emphatically. “You’ll see.”

“How do you know?”

“The noise.” Amy pointed to the bridge above their heads. “When Marta called, there was no background noise, no constant roar of traffic. She paused for a few seconds and I almost thought she’d hung up. Listen to the message. You’ll see I’m right.”