Hi folks! This story was published in Masthead: Best New England Crime Stories, an anthology just packed with goodies! I recommend picking up a copy (your local library might have it). But I’m reprinting my own contributions, “The Inside Job,” below:
The Inside Job
By Clea Simon
Carefully, carefully, her fingers trembling, she tilted the jar. Lifted the square of cardboard that had blocked the top and watched as the mouse slid out onto the bare ground by the stoop. For a moment it stood there, black eyes wide and whiskers trembling, and then it took off, tawny back disappearing into the dried grass. Eager, it seemed, to be free, despite the growing chill. The coming winter. Maybe it would find another shelter, another kitchen to haunt. Maybe not, but she had done what she could.
She stepped back, closing the glass storm door with a shudder of relief. The innocent creature had been set free. She was safe inside.
Thoughts of the mouse running through the yard, burrowing into a hillock of grass or eating the fall from her neighbor’s bird feeder preoccupied her as she washed the jar. She enjoyed such fantasies—a wild thing, running through the wild—and silently thanked the therapist who had suggested them, as she set the jar aside to dry. He had called it “desensitizing,” a term she smiled at now. It didn’t matter. Even before disability stopped paying his bills, she had ended the weekly calls. It was better to accept reality. Her reality. Inside.
It wasn’t like she was out of touch with the outside world, not at all. If anything, she was more connected now in this, her second life. As she took her tea over to the kitchen table, she mulled the apparent contradiction.
She had never been one for newspapers. That had been Hugh’s thing, reading from the front page through the obits, saving sports for last. Especially once he’d retired, he’d devoured the news—not just the city daily but the Journal, the local weekly, with its tales of neighborhood crimes and heroes.
She’d kept the subscriptions after Hugh passed. Not from the virus, thank God, but gone these four years nonetheless. Now she found them a comforting part of her morning ritual, a connection with the world outside. At first, she’d seen them as a first step—the exercise of retrieving them from the stoop a test of her nerve. The virus had passed by then, but after the months in quarantine, she’d still found herself disinclined to venture out. “Disinclined”—her therapist had had issues with that word. “Afraid,” then, but with delivery services easing up since the pandemic, she really didn’t see any reason to push herself. When the paper missed the stoop, she let it be. The town, her neighbors… someone picked them up eventually.
Thinking of Hugh, she made herself start with the paper’s top story. A shooting death, it wouldn’t have been her first choice for breakfast reading. But the headline had been misleading, she realized a few paragraphs in. This was a continuation of a report she had been quite absorbed in only a few days earlier. Then, it was about a break-in, a kind of crime that she found particularly threatening even though it had been at a store—a well-known jeweler’s—and not a private home. Still, she’d been grateful to read that initial reports indicated an inside job—a guard had been seen taking pictures of the security system. A former police officer, he’d been injured when the robbery had gone awry, and so questioning had been delayed. In the week since the last Journal had been published he had died, but the police had another suspect in custody for what was now a murder charge.
“Hugh, you wouldn’t recognize the neighborhood.” She knew he wasn’t there but speaking to him helped her air her thoughts. “A homeless man, no less. After what they went through during the virus, maybe it’s no surprise.”
The suspect, a former Army vet, was described as proficient with weapons, though no gun had been found. And unlike the poor sad souls who so frequently couldn’t string a coherent sentence together, this one had made a statement. “The suspect, Edward Worrell, 58, said he had not intended any harm. ‘I didn’t know there’d be a guard,’ Worrell had told the investigating officers.”
Evil? Understandable? Whatever the intent, the result had been diabolical. Breaking her own rule, she pushed the paper away. She imagined Hugh chiding her, pointing out all the stories unread. But she’d finished her coffee, and she needed to take a break. Just because she was a shut-in did not mean she couldn’t exercise, and she’d been good about her 10,000 steps. Most days, anyway, and right now some physical activity was what she needed.
Today she took her favorite “walk,” heading into the town center via the hallway and, for variety’s sake, around the kitchen. Keeping up a brisk pace, she visualized the houses as she remembered them. The neighbor’s yew, its berries red as the cold came on. The holly that had taken over the corner. Although the slight hill that led to the high street wasn’t anything like the stairs, she started up them as well, feeling her breathing quicken.
“There’s the bakery, Hugh. The one where we used to get the babka. In good weather, they put tables outside now, and they sell the babka by the slice.” A trainer had told her that as long as she could speak, she wasn’t pushing herself too hard. Besides, it made the “stroll” more fun. Having come back down, she decided to start back up again and then stopped herself. It wasn’t the exertion, though she had begun to perspire. It was the memory. “No, let’s not walk down Somerville Avenue today,” she said to her late husband. “Something happened there. I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
The next morning she had only the daily to deal with. A bigger paper, but, in a way, a relief. International news and then a story about city finances. The only mention of the local crime was in the Metro section, a tiny item stating what she already knew: that there had been a shooting but that a suspect was in custody. An investigation was ongoing.
The next day—or maybe it was two—she’d seen another mention of the investigation but allowed herself to skip over it. Surely, by this point, it was a formality. By the end of the week, she had nearly forgotten about the case. She’d even taken to “walking” by the jeweler’s again. Hugh had always liked that street, with its ancient maples. Toward the end, she’d been cautious about walking it with him—the tree roots buckled the sidewalk in places, making the footing treacherous. In the privacy of her own home, such concerns didn’t matter, and as the autumn progressed, she could enjoy the changing colors of those plentiful, broad leaves. In her memory, anyway.
When she sat down with the next edition of the Journal, she was ready. She’d been weak to stop reading, and, really, she couldn’t allow herself to let anything else go. Luckily, the shooting story was no longer on the front page. But after two pages of city taxes, she was grateful to find the Crime Blotter. “Witness comes forward,” she read with interest. The new report revealed that the witness, a retired policeman, had just emerged from the T stop at the time of the crime, and chance had prompted him to glance at the jewelry shop across the street. Until he’d heard the noise, the former Officer Stewart Laskow hadn’t thought anything of what he saw through the jeweler’s big front window—two men apparently in close conversation inside the small shop. Only when he’d heard the shot and seen someone run out had he realized what was happening. He’d immediately called the local precinct and run to help the victim, doing CPR and accompanying him to the hospital.
“How horrible.” She could picture the street, the storefront, so clearly. It all seemed too close to home. No wonder she never wanted to go outside.
The story then recapped the details of the crime. A robbery gone bad. False leads, and finally the arrest of an indigent man known for sleeping in the alley by the T station. It was the picture of the suspect at his arraignment that had sparked the witness’s memory. That, and his statement.
“‘I hadn’t seen the guard when I went in,’ the suspect had told the investigators. The witness contested…”
She paused mid-sentence, taken aback. “He hadn’t seen…” Was that right? She thought she’d had the details down. The man’s name—Worrell—the shop, the victim. Was she misremembering? Or worse?
“No one ever thinks they’re losing it, Helen.” Hugh’s voice. She could picture the smile that had softened his frank words. “That’s why we need other people, sometimes. A community.”
A community. Well, she didn’t have that. But she did have other means of confirming her memory, if not her sanity.
Steeling herself, she walked up to her front door and took a breath. A deep one, and let it out slowly, through her nose. Then, before she could lose her nerve, she pulled the door open and stepped out on the stoop. The stack of newspapers she had tied so neatly, by way of an apology to the sanitation workers, was still there, and she pulled it back in, slamming the door behind her. Her hands still shaking, she fumbled with the knot and then gave in, cutting the twine to extract the previous week’s Journal.
Page one, she skimmed down. A robbery gone bad. A new lead, and an arrest. Edward Worrell, homeless. “I didn’t know there’d be a guard.” How strange, and yet how reassuring. Her memory had been correct. The original statement had been reported as slightly different in the more recent issue. “I didn’t know…” had become “I hadn’t seen.”
The shift was subtle. A correction of an earlier misreporting, perhaps. Or a story clarified under questioning. Unless…
She went back to the new report. The witness said he’d been across the street—over by the T station—when he had seen the suspect through the window. She knew that station, that window. She had walked down that very street the previous afternoon. Hugh would back her…
No. She stopped herself. She had not walked down it. She had imagined walking down it. Pretended. And Hugh was not around to support any tale she had to tell. Not anymore.
“Don’t be crazy, Helen.” Unbidden, his voice came to her. “Not any crazier than you already are.”
“You’re right, Hugh.” She spoke the words out loud. Habit. “I really don’t need any more challenges to my sanity.”
She made herself move on. Through the shopping news. A poorly written review of a local play, no doubt no better constructed than the dramatic production itself. She shook her head. Once, she had considered herself an intellectual. “A smart cookie,” Hugh had called her. And now here she was. Locked in her house and reading second-rate criticism.
Still, there was rigor in discipline. She made herself continue. Through the sports and the obits. A tribute to the guard who had been killed. Lucas Steinman, a former police patrolman, he had retired in the wake of an investigation. He’d been cleared, the community liaison had stated, and he still had many friends on the force. “In uniform or out, Lucas Steinman was an asset to the community,” the statement read. “He will be missed.”
Lucas Steinman. She wrote it down: the victim now had a name. A story. On a whim, she jotted down the name of the liaison as well. When she finally finished the paper, she made herself wash the breakfast dishes and water the plants. The geranium needed pruning, which she did with care and circumspection, rotating the plant to change its exposure to the sun. Only then did she allow herself the indulgence of a Google search. The community liaison and the dead man, Steinman. It was a relief when the day’s article popped up, and nothing more. Still, she had the time. She typed in the name of the witness: Laskow. Yes, he had served with the dead man. No wonder he had run toward him. It hit her then how horrible that must have been. The shock. He’d been a friend. Laskow’s name came up in connection with that earlier investigation as well, once in a series of articles. She read them through to confirm that, yes, all the charges had been dropped.
That day, when she went for her “walk,” she found herself strolling down the avenue again. As she tried to convince herself her choice was random, she burst out laughing. She was intrigued, and she should admit it. Yes, she was probably making a mountain out of a molehill. She was amusing herself. Picturing the scene, without the shooting, of course. It would do her no good to imagine carnage.
That night, she dreamt of trees—big shade maples casting shadows on a plate-glass window—and woke thinking of her geranium. How it strained toward the fading autumn sun. When she woke, she told herself she was being silly. The maples might no longer be there. The sun might not be as angled as she imagined.
“Only one way to find out.” Hugh, the voice of reason. “You’re a smart cookie.”
Breaking her own rule, she booted up the computer, even before taking the paper in. Google earth confirmed that the trees were still there, at least as recently as September.
And the sun? She went back to the original crime report, which she had left on the kitchen table. The robbery had happened on September 22, a little after five p.m., shortly before the store would ordinarily close. The store was on the east side of the street, and at that hour, that time of year, the sun would have been sinking already. She could picture the light streaming through that big alley by the T station, the one where the homeless man had slept. Yes, those big maples would block some of it, but the glancing light on the windows…
She shook her head. This wasn’t some jigsaw puzzle, a pastime to make the days go by. So he had looked across the street and into the window. Maybe there was a patch of shade. Maybe he wanted to see his friend. She imagined a presentiment of danger. Of fear.
Only, why hadn’t Laskow mentioned knowing Steinman when he talked to the reporter? That the man he found, wounded on the floor of the shop, had been a colleague? Maybe he had, she told herself. Newspapers have limited space; reporters don’t use everything they’re told.
The next morning, she grabbed the daily from the stoop almost without thought, looking for a further report. When she found none, she left the paper open on the kitchen table and took her tea to the computer. Yes, other news outlets had covered the story. Yes, she realized, there were discrepancies, particularly in Worrell’s statement as it had originally been reported and how it was more recently presented.
There were many possible reasons for this, she told herself as she sipped tea that had gone cold. Perhaps the original phrasing had been a result of sloppy reporting. She searched for a clarification, some note correcting the earlier article. Just because she could not find one didn’t mean that one hadn’t run, perhaps in a print edition. Newspapers, she knew, erred on the side of caution, but nobody liked their mistakes to be bruited about. Likely, the new version had been vetted. Issued by the police as the case wound to a close. But since this new statement wasn’t qualified—wasn’t linked to new evidence and didn’t cite new interviews—she had to wonder: were the police somehow involved? The deceased had been an officer, even if he had left the force. Which led to another thought, one that even a brisk walk around kitchen could not resolve. Was an innocent man being railroaded?
It was a puzzle, she told herself, as she headed toward the stairs. Only with too many pieces missing. If only she had some way of having her questions answered. A source that didn’t raise more questions along the way.
She dismissed the urge to race to the phone. The local precinct had already done more than enough for her, answering her calls during those first bad days when every noise spooked her. Besides, if the police were somehow involved in a coverup. Or something worse…
The gravity of it made her freeze. She grabbed the bannister.
If she could only reach the man himself. Or someone who could speak for him. If only he had a liaison, like the police did.
“Come on, Helen. You’re smarter than that.”
The suspect was homeless. However, he had to have a lawyer—a public defender. But who? She thought of her computer, back downstairs, but after a moment continued her ascent and turned instead toward the bedroom, where she picked up the phone. A landline, it served as her panic button in those first bad days. More recently she treasured it for giving her access to the city’s 3-1-1 service. For once, she wasn’t calling about a city function, however. Asking for an exemption to taking her trash to the curb or for clearing the snow from the walk.
“Hello? I’m wondering how I can reach the public defender working with Edward Worrell.”
There was some confusion, but soon enough the young woman on the line caught on. Such things were in the public record, and Helen told herself the operator was grateful for the challenge. For a search that didn’t involve street cleaning or rats. She came away with a name, Bernie Kraus. He worked with the city’s legal aid clinic.
Helen had grown skilled at reading voices. This one was young—and tired. She introduced herself and proceeded right to the point.
“I have information that may clear your client.”
“You do?” Skeptical, of course. She expected that.
“I do. I know the area well, and there’s no way the witness could have seen into the store. Not at that time of day, with the shadows from the trees and the late afternoon sun reflecting off the window.”
“That’s great.” A young lawyer, she was sure. Grateful for anything that he could use. “When can you come in?”
“Oh, I can’t.” Momentarily taken aback. “I haven’t been out since the virus. But–”
Too late. He had hung up.
How rude! A brief flare of anger surged through her, and she sat heavily on the bed, feeling disappointment like a blow. Well, if he didn’t care enough about his client to give her two minutes of his time, why should she care?
“Because he’s not the one who’s locked up.” Hugh’s voice, the voice of reason. “He’s not the one you’re trying to help.”
“You’re right, Hugh.” She pushed herself up and headed back down to the computer, a plan already forming. “As always.”
Two hours later, she had the package assembled. Screen shots of street views. An item from a meteorological site, chronicling the increasingly oblique angle of the sun as the autumn progressed. The history she’d dug up, the connections between the dead guard and the so-called witness. Those news reports, the shifting statements highlighted and bold. As she hadn’t been able to do on the phone, she explained what everything meant—what it implied, anyway—in a letter.
…In conclusion, she wrote, a thorough re-examination of both the statements and the evidence suggests that not only is Mr. Worrell innocent of the crime but that Mr. Laskow, the purported witness, should be investigated. Not only is one man dead, but a vulnerable person has been implicated, wrongfully and with malice. These evils must not be let stand.
There she paused. If she signed it with her own name, would the young public defender dismiss the package without examining its contents? After a few moments of thought, she decided she would play into the system, falling back on a form she hadn’t used in years.
Mrs. Hugh Clevin
Briefly, she thought about printing it all out. She had envelopes, and the postal service regularly brought her a lovely assortment of stamps. But then she was struck by a vision of the lawyer’s desk, piled high with papers. Mr. Worrell, sitting in a cell.
A smart cookie, Hugh had always said, and it took only minutes to create a zip file—a folder big enough to hold everything. To make certain the file went through, she cc’d herself—and the director of the legal aid clinic as well. And with a dramatic flourish of the wrist, she hit “send.”
Within a week, the story was on the front page again. The investigation had been re-opened. The state had gotten involved. A front-page photo of Mr. Worrell leaving the courthouse, a free man. Eyes wide with wonder.
When the public defender called, three days later, she was surprised. She had missed the puzzle aspect, of course. But her role, she had figured, was done.
Indeed it was, the lawyer said. He had reached out merely to fill her in. It was her work, after all, that had freed his client, helping to prove him an innocent man. “Invaluable and dogged,” he called her efforts. That’s why he wanted her to know what was happening next.
“Next?” She pictured that mouse, quivering on the edge of freedom.
“Yes,” the young man said. “We are a community. We have a responsibility to each other.”
Worrell, he reminded her, was a veteran. That made him eligible for various benefits that he had never accessed. She blinked away the tears as he described the programs available. Counseling services. Vouchers. A second chance.
“I know it’s to avoid a suit, but the police community relations officer has really stepped up. She’s taking him around to look at apartments today.” He paused. This was hard for him, she could tell. “I’m sorry I doubted you. Thank you.”
“No,” she replied, her voice thick. Community. She could hear him still. “Thank Hugh.”
“The Inside Job” was published in Masthead: Best New England Crime Stories (Level Best Books) on Dec. 15,2020.