The Nowhere Man

Joan stands by the door in khaki slacks and a blouse that has every color of the rainbow. She’s not plain, but the top does nothing for her. Neither does the scarf, which seems to have colors the blouse somehow forgot, and they work against each other like an oil spill in Long Island Sound.

“Ms. Devers, this is my computer specialist, Ms. Thirst.” Barnes can tell from the two women’s eyes that they dislike each other instantly. Svet has that effect on women.

Joan leads the way into a tiled foyer with a wall of mailboxes and digs in her purse for the key. She unlocks the cubicle and slides a bundle of paper into that purse before unlocking the door to the apartments.

“Does this building have an alarm system?” Barnes asks. “Or do you, personally?”

“I don’t,” Joan says. “I don’t think the building does either. But there are cameras in the parking lot, they’re just below the spotlights on the corner of the building.”

The second floor hall is about ten feet wide and carpeting is thick enough so Barnes doesn’t hear their footsteps. Once inside, Joan drops her purse on the dining room table. The living room drapes are open across a walk-out balcony.

“My PC’s in here.” She opens the door to a second bedroom.

“Have you a password?”

“Yes.” Joan blocks Svet’s view while she types it in. The PC whirs and grinds through its start-up sequence. She opens her email with another password and steps back.

“He uses ‘Howard Miller’ as his sender name,” she says.

Svet slides her hips into the chair and scrolls down the list. Joan has about a dozen unopened messages for the day, and Barnes reflects that he usually has about a hundred, mostly spam. Beth keeps at least three email accounts and uses one exclusively for her writing to cut down on that spam, but she still gets pop-ups for machine tools, reverse mortgages and porn. She ignores most of them.

Svet clicks open a week-old message and they scan it.

“Not particularly eloquent, I see.”

“We don’t even know each other.”

“But if he wishes to change that, he should become more so. Perhaps consult a thesaurus. Or copy some saccharine poetry.”

Svet types away and stares at the monitor. Barnes knows she’s completely self-taught on computers, but earned degrees in literature and psychology simultaneously and has the scruples of a feral cat.

She jots down some numbers and types again.

“Has Miller sent you gifts or anything?” Barnes asks.

Joan shakes her head. “I don’t think he knows where I live.”

“You’re in the white pages,” he points out. “You use your initial, but that’s not going to fool anyone.”

He shifts gears. “Can you show me around a little?”

“Why? You want to break in sometime?” Joan tightens her crossed arms.

“I’m a worrier,” he says.

The kitchen has a small window and no balcony or drainpipe outside. Barnes sees a calendar on the wall with several blocks filled in. A dentist’s appointment, a couple of meetings at the gallery. “Sam” fills the square for the following night.

“A date?” he asks, “if you don’t mind my asking.”

“Yes,” Joan says. “And yes.”

The living room furniture faces that balcony, and an iPod station with speakers sits on a shelf to the right of the door.

“No TV?” Barnes asks.

“It bores the shit out of me,” Joan says.

She walks to the dining room table and riffles through the mail. She drops the flyers in a pile, looks at one envelope and drops it on the flyers. She looks at another envelope and runs a fingernail under the flap as Svet walks through the bedroom door.

“All the emails have come from a Hotmail account,” she says. “And they were sent from the Burroughs and Saden library, the main branch in Bridgeport.”

She tucks the paper into her jeans. “I find no pictures or any address with the Hotmail account.”

“But somewhere in or around Bridgeport,” Barnes says. It doesn’t narrow his search down much.

Joan sucks in her breath and the others look at her.

“It’s a note,” she says. “From him. Howard Miller.”

“Lay it on the table.” Barnes slides a pen into the torn envelope. When he turns it over, he sees no return address and no stamp. The letter wasn’t mailed.

It’s in standard computer font, eleven-point Calibri.

Joan looks up at Barnes and her throat ripples as though she’s swallowing a large mouthful of something unpleasant.

“So much for not knowing where you live,” Barnes says.

He walks over to Joan’s balcony and looks at the sliding door. What might be an old mop handle lies in the channel.

“Good,” he says. “At least you’ve got a charley bar here.”

“How nice,” Svet says. “The man was able to get into her locked mailbox without a key, so the sliding door is a minor deterrent.”

Joan’s eyes turn back to the paper on her table.

“May I take this?” Barnes asks.

Ten minutes later, he and Svet walk around the building and squint at the cameras mounted at all four corners. The overhanging roof and the floodlights obscure his view and make him like what he sees even less.

They lean against his car in the parking lot and watch each other frown.

“Are those cameras even real?” Svet asks.

“I’m not sure,” he says. “And even if they’re hooked up, neither of the back ones covers the rear door.”

Svetlana stares at the buildings across the street.

“I am not one for unnecessary exertion, but I think I could reach her balcony if I wanted to.”

“Probably,” he agrees. “I know I could.”

All of a sudden, he takes Joan’s concerns much more seriously.