Arla pulled her car next to the van as William – Lieutenant Bryant, in the current circumstance – said to. Lieutenant, Arla thought to herself. A crease settled across her forehead. How could she have forgotten William was a lieutenant? More importantly, why was a lieutenant at her office. A series of beeps interrupted her train of thought. Three new messages from Ben:
What… are you ok?
Call me the second you can.
Looking in her mirror she saw a man younger than William, with a full head of dark thick hair. His shoulders pulled back the same way Williams were, but without any of the softness to them. Quickly Arla replied to Ben, “did you know that William – hero psittacus breeding, William – is a lieutenant? I’m okay. Still no update. Will call soon.” No sooner had she pressed send and cut her engine than there was a quick rapt on her window.
“Arla Al- Al-gunna,” the officer inquired?
“Alla-goon-a,” Arla corrected the officer, and nodded her head, “yes.”
“I’m Detective Bertly,” the officer spoke. “Just have to ask you a few routine questions and then you can be on your way.”
“Okay,” Arla said, her pink hair bouncing up and down as she nodded once more.
Detective Bertly took notes as Arla explained what she was doing on the premises, her responsibilities at Unstoppable Imports, and what she could remember of her weekend.
“Thank you, Miss Alagona,” Bertly said. “Do you or your boss, Stan Kovitch -” he looked down at his notes confirming the last name – “often work closely with Tony Eslinger?”
Arla thought for a moment. “We tend to work on the same projects. Stan doesn’t always agree with how Tony does business,” Arla took a breath, “mostly we’re on the same jobs but not together. Right now we’re working on Worldly Waters Aquarium together. Us, Unstoppable Imports; Tony’s company, Aquatic Ambition; and Ryan Keane’s company, Smart Tanks. We’re still invoicing as three separate companies but the client wants us to work as one. He thinks it will ensure his success.” Arla took a deep breath, or muddy the waters enough to skim money off the top and illegal fish into his tanks. Unknitting her brow, she looked back up at the officer.
“And the last time you spoke to Mr. Eslinger?”
“It had to be Friday morning, maybe Thursday,” Arla offered.
“And what did you discuss?”
“It was more of a hallway hello. Tony’s office is on the second floor, where Stan and Ryan’s are. The rest of us work on the first floor. I’ll go upstairs to meet with Stan and to take care of our fish up there, but that’s it.”
“Mr. Kovitch – do you know the last time he spoke to Tony?”
“Do you know about what?”
“They had a disagreement. Something to do with the WW- Worldly Waters Aquarium project.”
“Only a few more questions, Miss Alagona. Okay?”
Arla nodded as she fidgeted in the driver’s seat.
“Is there anyone you can think of who had a grudge against Mr. Eslinger?”
“Had,” Arla’s heart stopped mid-beat. “Is Tony, is Tony… okay?”
Detective Bertly looked up from his notebook, clearly waiting for an answer. Arla shook her head, her fingers intertwining themselves over her steering wheel.
“Everyone,” she said softly. “Tony wasn’t a nice person. He treated some of his employees like dog poop. He was a bully toward Stan, and friends of Unstoppable Imports, and anyone else who wasn’t a yes man. Worst of all, he didn’t believe in the safety or care of animals. I can only imagine what types of business associates he had outside of Aquatic Ambition, since some of the players he dealt with weren’t reputable. Even his wife, to whom he was nice… she came in last year to help decorate for the holidays. If that’s how he spoke to her in public, I find it hard to believe his manners at home were much better.”
“Thank you, Miss Alagona. You mentioned feeding your fish upstairs. They’re your fish?”
“Yes and no…”
The detective raised an eyebrow.
“The black stingray with white doughnut spots is mine. I’ve had him since he was a pup. Lumpy, the big silvery fish that glides across the tops of the tank, is also mine. He’s a Australian arowana. You can’t miss him – he and Charlie, the ray, are the biggest two fish in that tank. The rest of them are all from various parts of South America. Most of them have come from tanks I had in my old house, but some have been gifts from clients or partners. I feed them. I take care of their water changes-“
“You change the water in that tank? There has to be hundreds of gallons of water in there.”
“It’s a 1,000 gallon tanks, which is setup to run on a drip system. Meaning it’s constantly getting fresh water in and old water is being taken out. But it’s still good to do a full, old fashion water change regularly. I’ll set up the hoses, usually my partner Ben will come by and help out. He’ll set up one hose, I’ll set up the other. Pretty straight forward.”
“Interesting,” Detective Bertly said. “Miss Alagona, Arla, can you wait here for a few minutes? I just want to grab the Lieutenant.”
“Sure, can I get out of my car though?”
“Of course,” the detective said as he nodded and headed off toward the building.
Arla opened her door, standing as tall as possible she stretched her arms over her head, folded forward and reached for her toes. Arla relaxed as she stood up straight. Something was definitely not right, least of all with Tony. Ben’s red knuckles bobbed and weaved to the sounds of the outrage in Cassandra’s voice and the rage in Stan’s as they danced and sang in her head. A knot formed in the pit of Arla’s stomach. From her open window Arla heard another series of beeps. As she began walking back toward the car door the unmistakable tip of William’s worn in cowboy hat bounced toward her. She would have to check her phone when she was officially released.
A horn blared as a large truck grumbled past causing Arla to jump slightly. She turned her head and watched as the truck straightened out in the left lane and drove away. There were a number of cars slowed down in the right lane. Traffic had already started pilling up leading up to the building. Arla made a note to be even less of a rubbernecker than she made it a habit of being.
“Miss Alagona,” a familiar voice said.
Arla turned toward the lieutenant and the detective, and began walking toward them as William removed his hat once more.
“Detective Bertly mentioned that you’re the caretaker to those fine fish upstairs. Is this correct?”
“Yes,” Arla answered, her eyes locked onto the tip of William’s nose. It was hard enough to continue the pretense, let alone answer questions he should damn well know the answers to.
“He said some of them were yours, including – what did you call him, Lumpy?” At this the lieutenant turned back to Detective Bertly, who nodded. “What kind of fish did you say Lumpy was?”
“He’s an Australian arowana.”
“Yes. He’s a rescue, and he’s perfectly legal,” a chill ran through Arla’s voice as she spoke.
“Yes’m. As a hobbyist myself I’m familiar with the different kinds of arowanas. The detective here is not. Do you know if anyone, either for themselves or for a client perhaps, who worked in this building was interested in an Asian arowana?
Arla’s eyes flickered between William’s deep brown eyes.
“They’re illegal,” Arla said slowly, “if by interested you mean in their history and saving the species, the way people should be, only me. Most of Aquatic Ambition couldn’t pick an aro out of a lineup.”
“And the ones that could?” A sadness tinted the iris of his eyes as he spoke.
“Stan, Ryan, and Tony could for certain.”
“Do you know if any of them were lookin’ to acquire an Asian arowana? Either for themselves, or a client, perhaps?”
“Tony had made a deal. Someone had asked him for one. He had gone to Stan, who told me he was going to say no. When I spoke to him over the weekend he was screaming that Tony had cut him from the deal. Stan never told me what the deal was about, but I believed Stan when he said he wasn’t going to get involved.”
“Thank you, Miss Alagona.”
Lieutenant Bryant combed the fringe of his mustache with his bottom teeth as he looked at line of cars backing up down the highway. For a moment no one said anything. The silence was broken by a rumble, this time coming from Arla’s stomach. A touch of pink ran across her cheeks, making the sides of her head blend with the sides of her hair.
“Detective Bertly,” the lieutenant began, “I need you to go to the guys working on the survaliance tapes and have them pull up footage of the tank upstairs. Current footage, and I want them to print out some stills. Jus’ the tank though. I’m going to show them to Miss Alagona so be sure it is only the tanks.”
The detective nodded twice, but made no movements to go on. Arla looked between the two men as William continued, “I’m going to escort Miss Alagona to the coffee tent between these lots. When the photos are ready you send one of the officers at the front of the lot over with them. While I’m gone you be in charge. Start following up on the things we discussed walking over here. Understand?”
“Yes sir,” Detective Bertly said, as he nodded once more before walking toward the entrance of the building.
Arla opened her car door and grabbed her phone from the center console.
“I’ll have to ask that you leave your phone in your car for now, Miss Alagona,” William said as they began to walk in the opposite direction of the building.
“Okay,” Arla said, “but Wil- Lieutenant, what is going on?”
“Tony Eslinger was found dead this morning.”
Everything around Arla seemed to stop, except her feet. She didn’t see the large sewer grate until William had caught her mid-fall and sat her down. It wasn’t until she went to stand up that she realized her foot was stuck. William helped her remove her shoe, maneuvering her free, that she noticed it. A small nervous laugh escaped her throat.
“Tony, is dead. And I just got my foot stuck in a sewer?”
“Seems to be that way, Arla. On the shinny side of the coin, we managed to save your foot. Not unlike Tony, it seems your shoe is lost forever.”
As she stood up, she followed her friend’s gaze to the black hole of the sewer. It seemed not even light had a shot in its depths.
“I’ll take my foot over my shoe. If Tony’s dead, why are you here?”
William straightened up.
“Murdered? Tony wasn’t just found dead. He was found murdered… is that was this is about? Why are we getting coffee then? You don’t think it had something to do with the arowana do you? Or me? Oh no, you think it was me -“
“Now, of all the silly things I’ve seen you do, why on Earth would I suspect you of anything,” William cut her off, “assuming of course there was anything for you to be suspected of?”
“Because I don’t remember Saturday night. Because I know what an arowana is. Because I have an arowana upstairs over there,” Arla gasped as she pointed back toward the building.
“Arla,” William said, gently returning her hand to her side, “I’ve been to conventions with you and Ben. I’ve seen you at the Club Christmas party. I’ve seen you at Club during a busy auction, sober. It doesn’t surprise me in the least that you don’t remember a few nights back, especially nights filled with alcohol.” A smile spread out underneath William’s mustache, disappearing as quickly as it appeared. “However, this is a serious situation. As your friend I want to support you, but as the Lieutenant, I need you to be as straight a shot with me as you can be. That’s all I ask of you.”
Arla nodded her head, stands of pink hair flouncing to the left and right.
“We’re going to get some coffee, and some kind of snack while we wait for the officer to come with those stills. I’m going to ask you a few more questions, and then we’re going to get you back in your car and home to Ben. Understood?”
They reached the coffee tent a few minutes later. William insisted that Arla sit in one of the folding chairs as he brought her over a bootie like they wear in the crime scene shows, a cup of coffee, and a plate stacked with three doughnuts – jelly, chocolate, and glazed. She had just about finished the glaze doughnut and was eyeing the chocolate one as the officer approached the table.
“Thank you,” the lieutenant said taking the photos from the officer. “Before we get to the photos, I’ll need you to write down what you’re feeding the fish, as well as their schedule. Given that the building is closed, you won’t be able to feed them yourself, but I promise to personally train the officer in charge of caring for them.” William dipped his head as the officer handed her a piece of paper and a pen.
Arla quickly jotted down everything anyone needed to know about feeding her fish. After reading it through twice she handed the paper to William.
“Thank you, I promise we’ll do our best to take as good of care of them as you do.Now, Miss Alagona, I’m going to show you these photos and ask that you tell me as much about what’s in them as possible. Understand?”
William place the three photos down in front of Arla, all facing her direction. Arla looked at them. They were definitely of the tank outside of Stan’s office, but they didn’t look the same.
“Well,” Arla said pointing to the bottom right corner of the middle photo, “this is Charlie. My black diamond. As I told the detective I’ve had him since he was a pup. His parents -“
A polite cough came from the other side of the table.
“Right,” Arla said. “You probably didn’t mean a history of each one.” A smile tickled the corners of William’s mustache.
Arla looked back at the middle picture, followed by the one on the left, and then the right. She picked each one up and scoured them. Something was very wrong indeed.