“She’s dead, Mr. Spencer.”
Conrad stared at the detective’s upper lip. Adriana, dead? How could she be? He’d sat with her on her balcony this morning, drinking lapsang souchong with a splash of milk and honey. She’d made him scones. He’d kissed her twice.
“Mr. Spencer. Are you listening? Do you understand the gravity of the situation?”
Was this a joke? One of Adriana’s elaborate pranks, perhaps? Conrad tore his gaze from the detective’s upper lip and slid them past the man’s nose hairs to the pale eyes under a sloped brow. He shuddered.
“You’re to come to the station with me.”
The station? Of course. But no. He couldn’t go with the detective. It was Adriana he wanted, sitting on her balcony, smiling at him with her whole face.
“Where is she? I need to see her.”
“Witnesses place you at the scene of her death.”
What was wrong with the man? Couldn’t he answer a simple question? Conrad shifted his grip on the sample case. His palm was slick on the handle. Weren’t lawmen screened for intelligence? Could he be an actor? Was the badge on his chest a fake? Conrad’s mouth went dry. An itch sprang up on the back of his neck. It reminded him of that night, it’d be a year ago in October. Adriana had invited him to a Halloween concert. She’d refused to share any details with him except for the time she expected him to arrive at her apartment and what she wanted him to wear. The latter had consisted of corduroy pants he hated and a cheap button-up and blazer from the company Christmas packet. He remembered it clear as day:
The cab smelled of stale pizza mingled with Adriana’s jasmine perfume. She leaned forward, her dress crinkling, and whispered the address to the cabby. He raised his eyebrows, shrugged, and zipped into traffic.
Forty-five minutes later, he dropped them off in front of a derelict warehouse and screeched away. Conrad repressed the urge to run after the cab, hollering and waving for it to come back.
Adriana giggled, clinging to his arm, her fingernails pressing into his bicep. “Over here,” she said and dragged him under the single street lamp. Her breath came hot and fast. The ring of lamplight reminded him of a bullseye. Why hadn’t he ever thought to take lessons in self-defense? It wasn’t the sort of skill-set tea salesman normally needed. At least Adriana wasn’t wearing heels.
“Are there about to be zombies?” he asked, trying not to sweat. “Should we have brought gunpowder tea?”
“Shhhh,” she giggled.
Something pinged off Conrad’s chest. He looked down and saw red blooming across his shirt. The material clung to his skin, heavy and wet.
Adriana screamed, a high-pitched schoolgirl shriek.
Conrad fingered the shirt, sniffed his fingers. Blood. It was definitely blood. Why didn’t he feel pain? Why hadn’t he heard the gun go off? Who shot him? Why? A tremble ran through him. Adriana’s fingers convulsed on his arm.
He turned towards her to shield her from the gunman. The darkness beyond the ring of light moved. A man in a mask rushed towards them. He ripped something across Adriana’s neck.
Blood sprayed Conrad’s face. He caught her as she fell, his arms fitting easily around her waist. “Adriana!” He gasped. Momentum carried him downwards. He set her on the pavement, limp and staring. His hands shook as he smoothed her hair back from her face. “No,” he moaned. Tears splashed from his eyes.
Then he leaped to his feet, hands balled into fists, ready to fight the assailant. He froze. The masked attacker had vanished.
In his place stood a man in a tuxedo, an ax head protruding from his forehead. He smiled and nodded. “Welcome, guests, to the Concert Macabre. I presume you have tickets?”
Slow heat burned through Conrad’s chest. Spots of light danced before his eyes. Something tapped the top of his foot. He looked down and saw two slips of paper in a blood-splattered hand. Adriana raised her head. She grinned at him with her whole face. “Surprise!”
Conrad whimpered and sank to his knees. Adriana wrapped her fingers around his neck and pulled him close. She smelled of jasmine, blood, and pavement. She kissed him on the mouth.
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way, Mr. Spencer.” The detective jiggled his pocket and Conrad glimpsed the edge of a handcuff.
His hand slipped on his sample case. His breath came fast and hot. This was all wrong. Adriana wasn’t dead. It was chicken blood. She had tickets in her pocket. She’d kiss him any minute. But where was she? Why wasn’t she here? He needed to find her. She ought to be with him. But no, that wouldn’t work if she was pretending to be murdered. He had to get back to the apartment. Not the station. He’d walk in and she’d yell “surprise!” and the horror would be over. They’d laugh about this later, about how he fell for it for a minute. He’d ask her to marry him. She’d say yes. They’d drink kambaa, or chai maybe, and eat samosas. They’d have kids and adventures and—
Conrad stepped backwards with one foot, swung the case with all his might, and bashed the detective in the head. Then he turned and ran. He ran five blocks, raced up three flights of stairs, and down two hallways. He smashed his way past a camerawoman and two detectives.
Caution tape snagged his chest, his wrist. He tripped on the edge of the sitting room carpet.
She lay on the balcony, a shattered teacup in a pool of liquid beside her.
“Adriana!” he screamed. “Adriana!