It was not clear what had happened. The body on the staircase, twisted and broken. The only light, a bare bulb hanging from the high ceiling, also broken. Blood smearing the walls down both sides, erratic swipes of crimson that were more umber in the dimness.
He sat on the lower step, face vacant, figure slumped. Once in awhile he shook his head, as though trying and failing to capture a fleeting thought. As people moved up and down past him, he reflexively shrugged against the wall at his back.
The enclosed staircase was narrow, steep, and curved at the bottom. There were no railings; it was an old house, built cheaply and for function in this, the mill district.
“Mr. Barnes? Mr. Barnes, can you tell me what happened? What is her name?” The detective stood with his pen poised, and used it to gesture at the body, now draped in coroners’ plastic. He only knew the man’s name by assumption; it was on the mailbox by the door.
The man turned milky gray eyes upward. Moisture sat on the lower lids but didn’t break; just sat and lended an odd magnification to part of the eyeball. “She didn’t mean it. She didn’t. It was all a misunderstanding.”
“How so? What did you fight about?”
He shook his balding head. What hair he had was the same color as his eyes. “No fight.”
The detective’s pen scratched. Someone said he had to move off the stairs so they could bring the body down. The detective silenced them with a gesture, and mouthed, Give us a minute. He looked back at the old man. Was he so old? Or had whatever happened here only given him the appearance of age? “Is she your wife?”
Mr. Barnes shook his head.
“What was her name?”
His wiry brows knitted over his wide nose. “Annabelle.”
“This woman is Annabelle?”
“No, Annabelle is my wife. She didn’t mean it. It was an accident.”
“Where is Annabelle, sir?”
Mr. Barnes nodded gravely. His thick hands twisted in his lap.
“When? How long has Annabelle been dead?”
Someone said again they needed to remove the body. The detective reach down and helped Mr. Barnes stand. He seemed no larger upright; if anything, his shoulders slumped more. He shuffled his feet as the detective led him across the room to a straight back chair. It was part of the dining set. He took a chair opposite the old man.
“Mr. Barnes, do you know the woman on the stairs?”
He nodded. “She’s dead. I know she is.” He looked at the detective with a slight question raising his brows.
“Yes. She’s dead. Did you kill her?”
Barnes didn’t react much, not as much as it seemed he might have. But his gaze didn’t waver from the detective’s. “No.”
“Did you find her?”
He nodded. “Saw her fall.”
“Was she dead when she fell?” They knew already the fall didn’t kill her.
“I don’t know. I just saw her falling.”
“Where did the blood come from?”
“Excuse me?” No sooner had he said it than he caught his partner’s eyes across the room. “One moment,” he said to the old man. Or the not-so-old man. He crossed and bent his head to listen. He came back. Sat down. “Mr. Barnes, are you hurt? Are you bleeding?”
He shook his head.
“Do you mind if the medics have a look?”
The detective cleared his throat. “Because the blood didn’t belong to the victim. So it’s either yours, or there was somebody else here. Was there somebody else here?”
“I told you, Annabelle.”
“But Annabelle is dead. You said so..” He felt silly, but he humored the man.
“It was the walls.”
He sighed and sat back and studied Barnes. “I’m sorry, but I think you’re going to have to come with me.”
“Are you arresting me?”
“You’re our only suspect, Mr. Barnes.”
“That’s not my name.”
“No? It’s the name on the box. Is this your house?”
“Used to be.”
“But not now? What are you doing here, then?”
“I’ve always been here.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand, Mr.-”
She watched him from across the room. They’d been partners for the better part of a decade, lovers almost as long. But he was slipping. She wondered if it would fall to her to write this incident up, and wondered if she’d have the balls to be honest this time. She doubted it.
She watched him speaking to the empty chair, stopping to scratch in his notebook. The girl on the stairs was home alone, and it looked to be a straightforward accident. She tripped on the hem of her nightgown as she came down the stairs and broke her back when she fell. There was no blood. Only a dead girl, Mary Barnes.