Death on the Escalator
by Susan Pierce
“What a lovely breakfast,” Auntie Ag declared happily to the kingdom in general as the lift raised her to her beige custom recliner in the White Cloud. “Onward to the Mall.”
Lewis was stuffed. “Those are totally the best pancakes ever.” He was dying to unbutton his pants but he didn’t want Auntie Ag to drop dead of shock right in front of the Auburn Breakfast Club. Out of deference to her, he modified his normal after-breakfast routine and he was about to modify his ordinary Saturday morning mall crawl as well.
He’d look for new clothes to wear to lunch on The Wine Train if an opportunity presented itself, but if not, there was always tomorrow. This trip to the Roseville Mall and Galleria was primarily for Auntie Ag. She needed a new bathrobe.
As they merged into the flow of Interstate 80 West, Sissy turned to Lewis. “See Ramon?”
Lewis laughed, “Yeah, I saw him—all sparkling white teeth and big, brown eyes. He’s gonna be a real heartbreaker by the time he gets out of high school.”
Sissy agreed. “Said he was thinking of becoming a chef, so I told him to drop by the kitchen sometime. I slipped him a couple bucks on the way out.”
“Are we speaking about that delightful Hispanic young man? The one who brought the water and coffee and took away the dirty dishes?”
“Yes, Auntie. His name is Ramon. He’s in high school and he works the early morning shift.”
“What sort of Hispanic is he? Is he Mexican or Puerto Rican or Cuban or Central American? They’re all very different, aren’t they? Different races and cultures, and they even use the Spanish language differently.”
Sissy was a touch embarrassed. “What sort? You’ve got me. I don’t know. I’ve never asked him.”
“Hmm.” Agatha Bliss was disappointed at the lack of information. “How long has Ramon been working at the Breakfast Club?”
Sissy looked at Lewis exactly like a shortstop looks at a second baseman right after he’s snagged a grounder and just before he tosses it.
Lewis caught the toss. “Let’s see. We’ve been going to the Breakfast Club every Saturday morning for nearly five years, and he was working that first day.”
“And he plans to go to culinary school after high school?” She smiled.
“No,” Lewis answered. “I think Sissy misunderstood. He’s planning to go into physical therapy. I told him to stop by the medical center someday and I’ll show him around. I slipped him a couple bucks at the door.”
“I’m afraid, gentlemen, that you’re both mistaken. Ramon admired my hat and said he’s been dreaming of going to design school after he graduates. I slipped him a ten by way encouragement.” She thought for a moment. “For how many years are Auburn children in high school?”
Lewis said, “Four, I think. It used to be four, anyway—grades nine, ten, eleven, and twelve. Or was it grades ten, eleven, and twelve? I think it depends on whether you have a junior high school or a middle school.”
He was pleased to impart the information, and he had more. “Yeah, it used to be three but then they started messing around with everything.”
“Lewis,” Sissy said under his breath. “Let it go. Auntie Ag just wants to know how many years kids are in high school.
“I’m gonna say four, max. Minimum three. Four max.”
They agreed. Lewis turned to face Auntie Ag. “How do they do it in England?”
“Oh, my,” she twinkled. “In England, a nanny rolls each four-year-old up to the school’s front door, lifts the little darling out of the perambulator, and hands it to the doorman. Seventeen years later, a chauffeur opens the boot of a Rolls near a dormitory door and waits. Eventually, someone about twenty-one years of age rushes out of the dormitory with boxes and luggage, throws them all into the boot, dives into a back seat, and lights a cigarette.”
“You’re kidding.” Lewis was aghast.
Sissy stuck out his right arm and flicked Lewis’ ear.
“Yes, darling, I am kidding. Breakfast was delightful and so was Ramon who, after at least five years, is still in high school. After he graduates, he will go to culinary school, which got him a five dollar tip and an invitation to Sissy’s kitchen.”
“Hey, who said I gave him five dollars? All I said was a slipped him a couple bucks.”
“It was a five, darling. After graduating Ramon will also go into physical therapy, which got him another five dollars and another invitation—this time to the medical center. And, of course, after graduation Ramon will also go to fashion design school so he can become either a costumer or ladies’ clothing designer. That got him a ten dollar tip from me.
“Now let’s see, our bill for breakfast was eighteen dollars. We generously tipped our waitress six dollars, two of which she will probably give Ramon, and at the door we gave him another twenty. We just paid forty-four dollars for an eighteen dollar meal.”
“No,” Lewis wailed.
“We’re idiots.” Sissy hit the steering wheel as if were to blame. “Shall we go back there and beat the soup outta him?”
“Maybe we just shouldn’t go there again,” Lewis said, shaking his head. “That Ramon’s a weasel.”
“Darlings, let’s not be too rash, shall we? The food is good, the service is excellent, the other customers are lovely, and Ramon is the floor show. None of us was hurt. Each of us gave willingly. Ramon is what he is and he does what he does beautifully.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Sissy agreed, but he was still a little chapped about being scammed.
Lewis added, “And every time I slip him some money, he plays along. He looks so surprised. I feel like I’m the most thoughtful, generous man in town.”
“Well, that’s it then. Ramon artfully let each of us believe what we wanted to believe. I do hope knowing what the game is doesn’t spoil it for everyone. Is this the mall?”
They turned off the Galleria Parkway and Sissy drove them straight to Macy’s.
Sissy helped Auntie Ag through Macy’s front door. Lewis climbed into the driver’s seat and navigated the White Cloud up toward the second floor entrance of the covered parking lot. It wasn’t easy. Traffic was heavy and it seemed as if not a single driver was paying the least bit of attention to driving. They spoke on cell phones or brushed their hair in rear view mirrors or texted whomever they were planning to meet.
The traffic pushed Lewis into the wrong lane and completely blocked his way into the parking garage. He made the loop around the outdoor lot and eventually managed to make it into the garage. He parked on Level Two and walked toward Macys’ second-floor door entrance.
Meanwhile, Sissy and Auntie Ag browsed through ladies’ handbags and ladies’ casual hats. Auntie wanted a new nightgown and robe and decided to look in Women’s Better Clothing on the second floor. They walked to the middle of the store and found the escalator.
As they approached the escalator, a middle-aged man brushed by them. He was wearing black, looked middle-eastern, and had no expression on his face. His left hand gripped the right arm of a girl about thirteen years old.
She was absolutely beautiful– tall for her age, and slender. She wore a short sun dress covered with brightly-colored sea shells. Her café latte skin was smooth and glowed as if it had been kissed gently by the sun. Her hair was jet black and streamed down her back. She wore lipstick, a touch of mineral blush, and eye shadow.
She was weeping.
Following the man and girl were three tall young men, all dressed in black. Sissy and Auntie Ag allowed a little distance between themselves and the people in black. Like most people, they looked down as they stepped onto the escalator. They looked around the first floor as they rose above it, glanced up to see the second floor approaching, and then Sissy looked down again to prepare for the second floor landing.
But Auntie Ag didn’t look down. She saw the middle-aged man climb up the final two steps, turn to his right, and walk quickly across the brown carpeting toward the second-floor door to the parking lot. He was alone. The three young men behind him moved as one, straight off the escalator. They walked half a dozen steps, dropped a bundle of something where the white marble floor met the brown carpet, and then walked quickly in three different directions.
By the time Auntie Ag and Sissy stepped off the escalator, the white marble floor looked as if a janitor had dipped a mop into a bucket of blood and made a swipe from the top of the escalator to the edge of the carpeting. They saw immediately that the bundle dropped there was the young girl from the escalator and that her head had been nearly severed from her body.
As Lewis locked the car, he saw a man hurrying out of the store. The man was tall, dressed in black slacks and a black, zip-up sweater. He hustled into a black Mercedes and sped off, oblivious to the possibility of pedestrians and other cars. Jerk, Lewis thought. You’re in California. Here, pedestrians always have the right of way.
Within seconds, three other men rushed out the door. They were young, tall, dressed in black, and in a hurry. Two jumped into a blue BMW and the third into a silver Audi. Their actions seemed odd, even for a Saturday morning at the mall. Lewis took note of the BMW’s license plate number. When he opened the door to Macy’s, he saw red liquid smeared on the inside crash bar. It was blood.
Sissy kicked into action before he and Auntie Ag reached the body. He flipped open his cell phone, hit 911, and said clearly, “Roseville. Macy’s second floor. Girl found dead. Repeat: Roseville. Macy’s second floor. Girl found dead.” He snapped the phone closed.
Then he grabbed a dress from a nearby rack in Women’s Better Clothing and gently draped it over the body. All the while, Auntie Ag, her eyes closed and her lips moving silently, stood by the girl.
Sissy stood up and put an arm around her. “You okay, Auntie? Want to sit down?”
“I’m fine, Sissy. I do think we should stay right here until someone comes.”
A sales clerk rushed toward them.
Sissy said, “There’s been a murder. I called 911. Would you please call security and tell them to get over here? Don’t take time to explain. Just tell them to come now.”
The clerk did as Sissy asked. “They’re on their way,” she said a little breathlessly.
Sissy said, “Good. And now, would you please get a chair for my aunt?”
With a quick sympathetic glance at Auntie Ag, the clerk hurried away. In a matter of seconds, she re-appeared with a metal folding chair from one of the dressing rooms. Sissy set up the folding chair near the body, helped Auntie Ag to sit, and posted himself next to it with his back to the escalator.
Auntie Ag said, “It’s so very terrible when diverse cultures don’t agree about what it means to be a human being.”
Sissy bent toward her. “Excuse me?”
“People,” she said softly, “have different answers to the question, ‘What is a human being?’ In some parts of the world, a child is not a human being. She is property.”
“Less than human,” Sissy whispered and shook his head. “And when a female child grows up, the best she can hope for is to be valued as what? Half a male?”
“What happened?” Lewis asked as he rushed toward them.
“Girl’s dead. I called it in. We’re gonna be here a while.”
“Dead? What happened?” Lewis wanted to know.
Auntie Ag said, “I should think it was an ‘honor killing’. He was probably the girl’s father, don’t you think, Sissy?”
“Honor killing? In Macy’s?” Lewis was incredulous.
“I should think she did something her father found disgraceful. Perhaps it was her sun dress or her make-up. Perhaps she was meeting a boy from her school.”
“Sharia.” Sissy shook his head. “But this isn’t the Middle East. This is California, and in California that man just murdered his own little girl. Looks like he got away with it, too.”
“No, he didn’t,” Lewis whispered. “I saw all four men in the garage. I can describe them, their cars, and best of all, I got a license plate number.”
“And we mustn’t forget the CCTV.” Auntie Ag heaved a sigh of relief.
“That’s right,” Lewis said, glancing around. “The surveillance cameras.”
“You know,” Sissy said, “all Muslims don’t go along with Sharia. There are at least as many different expressions of Islam as there are Christian Protestant denominations.”
Lewis shook his head. “How could someone do that to his own child?”
“I suppose if one doesn’t believe his daughter is a human being, killing her wouldn’t be terribly difficult.” Auntie Ag was thinking out loud. “It would be like shooting a horse or putting the family dog down.”
“No guilt?” Sissy asked.
“Certainly not. One only experiences guilt when one causes harm. Ramon doesn’t experience guilt for tricking us out of twenty-two dollars. I should think he’s proud of being clever. This man may experience a sense of loss, but I rather think it’s quite different from the guilt of murdering a human being.”
They heard sirens and the rush of security guards.
Auntie Ag said, “If this awful thing had to happen to this little girl, I’m glad at least we were here to stay with her. A human being ought not be left alone at death.”