“Walter fired Polly,” Marsha said. “Because she wouldn’t let him kiss her.”
“Well, I wouldn’t let him either,” Sally said. “Good for her.”
“He caught her near the supply closet. Not a very original thinker.”
“I wonder if he really had hopes. Do you think he expected she would? That might mean that he got away with it once. Do we get paid today?”
They stopped there. When they got paid it was with with those hand-written checks, and they ran as fast as they could to his bank to cash them. There was never enough money to cover all the checks; sometimes only the first check drew money. But they were students working at anything they could get. It was hard to find jobs for a couple of hours here and there.
They came to work the next day only to find the office dark. Marsha and Sally stood outside the door, shifting from leg to leg. “They’ve picked him up, I’m sure of it,” Sally said. “He must owe everyone. I’m tired of answering the phone and saying he’s not here. And for some reason it feels worse when he tells me to say he’s out of the country.”
Marsha shook her head. “He’s his own country. When he’s not in the office, he’s officially out of the country.” She paused and considered what she’d said. “I got that mixed up somehow. I’ll figure it out later.”
They waited for an hour. At that point, the office secretary, Alice, showed up. “Ah, you haven’t heard?” she asked, though how they would have heard anything was beyond them. “He is dead, that man, he died from a knife wound. In the street. I keep the books so I know there’s no money to pay you; whatever there is must go to bury him.”
Marsha and Sally showed their shock and amazement, as was only proper, then went to a café to drink coffee and share a pastry. “Which one of us killed him, do you think?” Marsha asked. There were two other part-time employees.
“One of us?” Sally asked, dismayed. “You really think one of us would do it?”
“I hope so,” Marsha said, and took a sip. “I’ve been imagining it for months but it was only wishful thinking.” She put her cup down. “One of us is very brave.”
Sally shook her head. “And what makes you think it wasn’t just a random mugging? It happens all the time.”
Marsha sighed. “Where would be the justice in that?” she asked, sounding depressed. “I’ve been waiting for justice on lots of things now. For years and years.” She looked down at the crumbs of her pastry.
“Oh,” Sally said, thinking about it. Marsha had had bad luck all her life, all kinds of bad luck. And, really, it was generous of her, allowing someone else to feel the satisfaction of revenge. She pursed her lips and tilted her head to the side. “You know,” she said, “I really think it must have been Penny. It just makes sense. He insulted her and then he fired her.”
Marsha’s smile was enormous. She slapped the table lightly. “Let’s take her to lunch, just to say we know and we’ll never tell.” She began to go through her pockets and took out all the bits and pieces of money she had.
Reluctantly, Sally did the same. “We won’t get the final paycheck, you know,” she said unhappily. “Alice already told us. I can’t really afford anything.”
They paid for the coffee and pastry and put down a minuscule tip.
“Maybe not lunch,” Marsha said, after counting their combined resources twice. “But we’ll buy her a coffee. Just to show that we know.”
“And that we approve.”
“Of course we approve.”
“I really like Penny,” Sally said. “I’ve always liked her.”
“Really?” Marsha asked. “I found her annoying. She whistled.”
Sally nodded. “And she is, after all, a murderer.”
“The first killing is the only hard killing, I think.”
“Ah,” Sally said, putting an end to the question of coffee. “Ah.”
Karen Heuler writes both literary and speculative literature. Her stories have appeared in over 80 magazines and anthologies, from Alaska Quarterly Review to Kenyon Review to Weird Tales. She has received an O. Henry award, been a finalist for the Iowa short fiction award, the Bellwether award and the Shirley Jackson award for short fiction. The New York Times called her first short story collection “haunting and quirky’; Publishers Weekly included her second collection, The Inner City, in its Best Books of 2013 list. Her fourth novel, Glorious Plague, concerns a simply beautiful apocalypse.