A FAMILIAR FACE • by Frank Byrns

The Ortegas’ dog barked again at 1:30. A stupid little thing — not much bigger than a rat, really, almost definitely of uncertain breeding. No papers on that one, to be sure. And Lord only knows what it would do against a prowler — they’d probably be better off with a rat.

Not that a prowler would have much chance to catch the Ortegas off-guard, not with the way they came and went at all hours of the night. Doors flying open, slamming shut, cars driving in, driving out from sundown to sunup. Nobody in the neighborhood could sleep, much less anybody in their house. A prowler would have better luck catching everyone asleep at a 7-11.

Probably had something to do with drugs — she had seen a program on television about that. Gangs, maybe. The neighborhood had certainly changed over the years.

The little rat-dog barked again, a shrill, high-pitched yip. Not that Mrs. DePodesta was sleeping, anyway. Between the Ortegas’ den of iniquity next door and Gene’s swelling prostate, she was lucky to get three hours of sleep a night. She had taken to sleeping on the couch downstairs, given Gene’s all-night up-and-downs. But it hadn’t helped — he hit a loose floorboard on every return trip from the bathroom, and the squeak sounded all over the house. Then, too, being downstairs put her that much closer to the Ortega fiesta. So by the time that creature barked a fourth time, she had pulled her robe on and was peeking through the curtains and out into the street.

There was a police car parked on the curb, just up the block. A uniformed patrolman had gotten out of the cruiser and was moving up the sidewalk towards the — No, he walked right past the Ortegas’ and was headed up her walk.

The policeman rapped lightly on the door; the Ortegas’ dog yipped again. Mrs. DePodesta was confused; whatever on earth could he want with her? She didn’t answer.

“Ma’am, I saw you in the window,” the policeman said softly. His voice was young, deep, black. “Go ahead and open up — it’s the police.”

“Gene!” Mrs. DePodesta hissed through her teeth. “Gene!”

Gene’s response took the form of a loud snore wafting down the stairs.

“Ma’am, I need you to open the door.”

Gene snored again. Mrs. DePodesta sighed. She unlocked the deadbolt, then undid both chains, thinking about the fact that they hadn’t even needed to lock the door when they bought the house forty years ago. She cracked the door open. “Is there a problem, Officer? I think you’re looking for the house next door — I’m Mrs. DePo — ”


Mrs. DePodesta was taken aback. “That’s right — I don’t think I understand. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Mrs. DePodesta, how well do you know your neighbors?”

She considered this. “As well as anyone knows their neighbors these days, I suppose — Why? What have they done?”

“Remy Ortega was murdered tonight, Mrs. DePodesta.”

“That — That’s terrible news, Officer.” Her mood hardened. “Can’t say that I’m that surprised, though, what with the drugs and the gangs — ”

“Mrs. DePodesta, Mr. Ortega worked night security at the Institute downtown.”

“Really? Gene and I have been members for years.”

“There was an attempted robbery tonight, and Mr. Ortega was shot and killed.”

Mrs. DePodesta’s eyes widened. “Which wing? What collection? I hope it wasn’t — ”

“Look, ma’am, a good man died tonight. And there’s a good family next door that’s gonna be hurting as soon as I deliver the news.”

“They don’t — they don’t know yet?”

“No, ma’am. I came here first.”

Mrs. DePodesta pulled her robe tighter around her chest. “Whatever on earth for?”

The officer looked down at his shoes, then back up at Mrs. DePodesta. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “I’ve never been asked to do this before — I thought that maybe if I went over there with a friendly face, maybe it would be easier.” He looked back at his shoes, then up again, frowning. “Right now, though, I’d settle for a familiar face.”

The upstairs floorboards creaked above them, breaking a long silence. “Gloria?” Gene called down. “You okay down there? Is there someone here?”

“It’s okay,” Mrs. DePodesta replied, her eyes never leaving the police officer’s. “Go back to bed, sweetheart.”

“We’re lucky Mrs. Ortega had the night off,” the officer said, pitching his voice lower. “She’s an ER nurse over at City — third shift, mostly. If she’d been working tonight, she’d’ve been there when they brought her husband in.”

“One of her co-workers may have already called,” Mrs. DePodesta heard herself say.

The policeman nodded, his mouth tight and thin. “Yeah.”

“Gloria? What’s happening down there?”

Mrs. DePodesta finally broke eye contact, turning her head towards the stairs. “Go back to bed, Gene.” She looked back, gave the officer a quick nod. “I’m just going to run next door — back in a minute.”

The policeman nodded again, his shoulders sagging visibly. “Thank you.”

“Let me get my coat.”

Frank Byrns is the author of two collections of short fiction, Requiem (2006) and My Father’s Son (2004).  He is also the editor and publisher of A Thousand Faces, the Quarterly Journal of Superhuman Fiction.  His third collection of superhero stories, Things to Come, is due in 2009.

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