Short Story: Three-Letter Words

After a bizarre police interrogation, a Thai immigrant studying in Dublin realizes that she is being followed by a man she has never seen. With an initially mundane phone call growing ever-stranger, all she can do now is keep walking—and never look back.

_____

“Do you remember the last time you saw Mr Levitsky alive?”

I stopped tapping my finger on the interrogation table, looking up at the two officers sitting in front of me. Both were women, which was surprising. I was all for empowerment, but still, it wasn’t often you saw two detectives working together that were female. It seemed like in every movie I’ve watched, every book I’ve read, the partnership would always be one man and one woman—or two men. That, apparently, was all right. But god forbid there was more than one of them working the same case. Women, they must have thought, were not suited for this kind of thing. 

That, though, was far from the point.

The room was hot. Way too hot for my liking, so hot that I was starting to think this was some sort of psychological warfare that the two officers were waging against me. Was I a suspect? Was that why they were being this tough with me? Who knew. It wasn’t like reading Tana French made me an expert on Murder Ds or anything. 

“Yes,” I told them. “I do remember.”

“Would you mind telling us what happened?” asked the woman sitting in front of me. She was the shorter of the two, with her red hair bobbed at her chin and blue eyes staring very intently into mine. She had what I would call a good presence, which is not to say that the other woman didn’t. I simply classified them in my head as different kinds of presence. Detective Kane would be a serious-serious, whilst Detective Joanson—why Joanson, I wondered, why not Johnson? Or Jameson?—was more of a serious-intimidating. 

Perhaps, I thought again, it was on purpose. I’ve heard that, in actual police departments, playing good cop, bad cop was a thing. How much of a thing it was exactly, I didn’t know. All I knew was that it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that they were just trying to manipulate me. Into what? I didn’t know. Because I sure as hell did not knife Jerome Levitsky in the chest five times with a kitchen knife. 

“Sure,” I said. “It was at—”

“When was it?” Detective Joanson interrupted. 

I stared at her blankly for a beat, not sure whether to feel offended she cut me off. Then I continued: “A few days ago.”

“How many days?”

“Five, I think. Or four. Actually, I am sure,” I said, a little sharper than I intended before she cut me off again, “that it was four days ago. So the 5th of November. Last Friday.”

“Please continue,” said Kane.

“Okay,” I said. “Okay. So, this is how it starts, with a big party at one of my classmates’ houses. I know this isn’t expected, coming from me. I’m sure you’ve read my file. Perfect student, perfect record. But there was a reason I was there. A very important reason. I’m sure you understand. You’d do anything for someone you really care about, wouldn’t you?”

A quick and curt nod from Kane. An expressionless stare from Joanson.

“So, I was—”

“There with who?” It was Joanson again. I wondered what her problem was with me.

“Carla Darlene Cress? I’m sure you’ve heard of her, she’s the—”

“Up and coming star from the English Department whose debut novel is getting published this year. So we have heard. And I believe,” Joanson passed a file to Kane and she flipped it open on the desk in front of me, turning it upside down for me to read, “that this was the case only until last month, when the publisher, Simon & Schuster, discontinued the publication. Am I correct?”

She didn’t need to ask me if she was right. The file was open right in front of me, and it was very clear that Detective Kane was, in fact, correct. Still, for courtesy, I said: “Yes. You are.”

“Are you aware of the reasons behind this decision?”

“I am not.”

I could tell she was skeptical. Her face was professionally blank, but I still could tell. Maybe it was the prolonged silence, or the tone in which she asked me her next multi-layered question. Either way, I don’t think Detective Kane believed me one bit.

“Interesting,” she remarked. That was the first tell, I thought. It wasn’t just her. It was me too. ‘Interesting’ was a word I often used, but also one I often didn’t mean. If I said that to anyone, either I didn’t want to know what they’d just told me, or it wasn’t interesting at all. “Because I have been told that you and Ms Cress are the best of friends. Cross-departmental friends, but friends nonetheless.”

I was in Biomedical Sciences.

“We are,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean she has to tell me about every single thing going on in her life.”

“I would assume the cancellation of the launch of her first ever literary career would be important for Ms Cress, an English major, enough that she would confide in someone.” 

Kane didn’t mention any names, but the message was clear. She would have told me. She should have told me something.

“Are you accusing me of omitting facts?” I asked, leaning my arms on the table. “Because if you are, please feel free to contact Ms Cress’s publisher. I have no information about this whatsoever, despite what you may believe.” But I had a good idea of who would have told them that I did. 

Him. 

I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to implicate me in any way. After all, we were both in this together, Graham and I. But that didn’t stop whatever he said from implicating me either.

“If you say so,” said Detective Kane, rather obviously unconvinced, “Ms…”

“Tanpaiboon.”

“Tanpaiboon. May I ask what country you immigrated from?”

This was also in my file, I was certain. It was as if she was trying to look for a mistake—or intentionally trying to make me make one. “Thailand,” I said. “I moved to Dublin when I was eleven.”

“I see.”

You better, I thought. I was itching to turn my head and look at the clock behind me, but I knew that would have just made me look guilty. Never mind that I needed to attend a lecture, this investigation was all up in my face and I wasn’t going to let it blow up.

“Would you like me to go back to what I was telling you about the last time I saw Mr Levitsky?” I asked, very politely. 

I was fully expecting a yes. I really was. They had had me in that little room with zero airflow pushing three hours, at that point—but seemingly without any point. Their questions jumped from topic to topic with no apparent focus. Kane would ask if my dorm allowed pets, then Joanson would jump in and demand to know if I had a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend, or a romantic partner of any sort, followed by questions about what I thought about the faculty at Trinity.

Oh, they would say, we’ve heard you were not that much of an extrovert.

No, I would answer, I stick to my people and avoid the rest. 

So how did you become friends with Ms Cress, then? Aren’t you majoring in very different things? English and Biomedical Sciences are not even close.

And then I’d explain to them, in excruciating detail, how we were roommates by chance in our freshman year, which made us very close even though we had no classes together, no nothing, and they’d nod and nod, then ask more questions. It made me want to rip my hair out at the roots. 

“No,” said Detective Kane. “That is all. Thank you for your cooperation, miss.”

I was stunned. I must have stared at her in disbelief for a little too long, because Kane said, again: “That is all, miss.”

“Okay,” I said, rising from my chair. Joanson had moved away from the door—she’d been blocking it before, intentionally or unintentionally, I didn’t know—and was now holding it open for me.

“Thank you for your time,” she told me monotonously.

“No problem at all,” I said, glancing at the time, finally. 

I was going to be late for my lecture.

I waited until I was outside of the building to do it, just in case. I didn’t know how advanced the cameras in the police station were; if they had sound or not. If they did and I had started then, there would have been trouble. So I waited until I walked out, across the road and heading straight to Trinity—the Irish Trinity, not the American one or the English one—to take my phone out of my coat and dial a number that I knew by heart.

It took a few moments for the line to connect, but the moment it did, I said into the phone: “I don’t know where we stand.”

A beat before she answered.

“Stand where?” asked Carla. In the background, I could hear the sound of an engine.

“With the police. I just finished my interrogation.”

“Just? It’s been hours.”

“I know. I know. One of the detectives just suddenly decided I could go. She didn’t even let me finish telling my story about the last day I saw Rome. And—” I hesitated: do I tell her the truth, or what I wished with all my heart was the truth?

“What, Ree?” 

“But,” I told her, “I don’t believe the police think of us as suspects. Just that we’re hiding something. Well, that you are hiding something, and that I’m helping you.”

“Wonderful. Do you know how to play I Spy?”

I stopped, right before I was about to cross the road.

“What,” I began, “does that have anything to do with this? You have to take this more seriously, Carla. This isn’t one of your games. There’s a whole goddamn police investigation going on, and you’re acting like it’s some big joke—”

“I’ll start,” she said. “I spy with my little eye someone who is overreacting.” 

“Oh, for fu—”

“Okay, fine, sorry. I spy with my little eye a red 1964 Chevy Impala.”

I was very damn near yelling more obscenities into the phone, but that was when I saw it: the old Chevrolet Impala, having stopped right in front of me because of a red light. I stared at it until the light turned green, not quite believing my eyes. Only then did I remember my line was still connected with Carla.

Why are you doing this?” I hissed into the receiver. “Carla, I’ve done everything you asked me to, perfectly. What else do you want me to do? And that’s not even how you play I Spy.”

“It is now. I spy a man walking behind you.”

I turned.

The sidewalk was mostly empty. There were a few people behind me. Two of them looked male, all of them looked like ordinary pedestrians. 

She was trying to scare me, I thought. It was nothing. The car was probably a trick. Carla must have known someone in her classes that drove the exact model and asked them for a favour, albeit a weird one.

The light was still green. I crossed the street. 

“I’m going to hang up,” I told her. “I have a lecture to attend.”

“I think you’ll want to know this, though: I spy a man following you.”

I sighed, but still turned. 

And there he was.

It was one of the men I had seen before. Except now that I’ve crossed the road, everyone else went the other way, because I was going to Trinity—everyone except him. 

He didn’t look like a college student. In fact, he looked so nondescript that it was starting to freak me out, like someone dressed to not be remembered. 

“Carla, this is not funny.” I was walking faster now, fast enough to be inconspicuous. But at that moment, I didn’t care. Deep in my bones, with some primal animal instinct, I knew I just had to get away. It was the only thing that mattered. 

“I know,” she said. “It isn’t funny at all. I spy a three-letter word starting with ‘G’.”

I knew Carla’s tastes in literature too well to miss that.

There was a click, and I ducked. I would love to entertain you with a detailed description of the bullet whizzing past my head, missing by an inch, ricocheting off the wall, but I can’t. The only thing I know is that it missed me, and that was all that mattered.

I ran after that, speeding past sidewalk trees and buildings. Everything else was a blur, and I didn’t know where I was going, but I didn’t care. Missing the lecture was the least of my problems right then. 

It would have been nice if that was where I lost the man. But that wasn’t how it went, because the whole time I ran, I could hear footsteps behind me. I was fast, but so was he, and he had the unfair physical advantage of being male. I knew at some point he’d catch up, but I was hoping that point would arrive much later in time than when I turned the corner and was faced with a red light stopping me from crossing.

So I did the only thing I could, with the only thing I had in hand. I turned and swung my arm in a wide arc, phone gripped tightly in my hand. By some blind luck I managed to catch the mystery man following me in the face and he swore, doubling over and holding his hands over his nose. 

That was all I needed: I went banging on the doors of the first cab I saw, shouting and yelling, possibly a little maniacally, in the driver and his current passenger’s eyes, but nonetheless they must have seen the little commotion I made with the man because I was let in without much question.

I was breathing quickly with both residual panic and plain exhaustion as I was whisked away, to safety, I was sure. 

“Miss, are you all right?” the driver asked after a while, his accent unplaceable but not unfamiliar. He sounded young, though it was hard to tell, and was wearing sunglasses and a hat too, strangely enough, inside his car. 

“Yes,” I said. “I’m okay. Thank you. Thank you so much.”

“It’s no problem at all,” said the woman, and I froze, then slowly, started to bring my eyes up to meet hers for the first time. “As a matter of fact, I think you’ve helped us quite a lot.”

It was only then that I realized where I’d heard the driver’s voice before.

“Graham,” I said. “Graham, what is this?”

“I’m sorry, Ree,” he said with a half-hearted shrug. “I mean, I really am, but it’s—”

“—just taking care of stray evidence,” said Carla. “It’s not personal.”

Even before I spoke, I knew how hysterical I was about to sound. “Not personal? Not personal? Are you kidding me?” I jabbed a finger at her. “Was that a hitman that was following me? God, I should have never agreed to this. I thought I was helping you because Rome did all those shitty things to you and that you were defending yourself. Turns out you’re just a psychopathic little—”

“Oh, shut up for a minute,” drawled Carla, turning around in her seat at the front. “Last round, Ree, come on: I spy a three-letter verb that starts with a ‘D’.”

Graham hit the brakes, and the car stopped, right in front of a man with something black and shiny in his hands.

This time, I wasn’t fast enough.

Click.

Fin.

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