“The Dating Game” Mystery by Mehnaz Sahibzada

"The Dating Game" Mystery by Mehnaz Sahibzada

His name was Tim, and we met online.  After exchanging a few emails, we graduated to text, developing a rapport.  He sent me pictures of his fish tank.  I sent him links to my favorite memes. 

Then a week into texting, my cell phone actually buzzed, sending goosebumps down my spine.  Tim was calling in real time.  It was a Thursday night in October, and I lay in bed flipping through a copy of Vogue.  

Outside, the rain pelted bullets.

When I answered, he said, “Hope you don’t mind my calling without warning, Shazia.”

“Not at all.”

“What are you up to?”

“Um…reading,” I said.

“I like a woman who reads.”

He spoke with the intonation of a hotel concierge, self-assured yet diffident.  We drifted easily between subjects.  He told me about this documentary he’d recently seen on penguins.  I told him about my undergrad days at U-Dub, how I loved the rain. 

Tim said he liked the rain but didn’t enjoy driving in it.  

My laptop lay open on my bed. 

As he spoke, I gazed at his profile pictures on the dating website.  His skin was fair, and his green eyes bright.  In some pictures he wore glasses.  In others, a baseball cap.  I clicked through the images and pictured us holding hands.  I was short with long hair and a diamond stud in my nose.  I squinted at his profile picture again.  Would Tim and I match?   

We talked about the shows we’d been watching on TV.  He asked about my childhood trips to Pakistan, and I told him my memories were vague now.  I hadn’t been back in years.  Tim grew up in Ohio but he said he’d traveled through Asia in his twenties.

Suddenly Tim said, “So who’s your favorite author?”

Outside, the lightning roared.  “Chandler,” I said at last.

“The crime writer?  What do you like about his writing?”

Chandler’s stories captured alienation with poetry and depth, but I felt I shouldn’t say this.  So instead I said, “The voice.”

We decided to meet for dinner on Saturday at Lemongrass, a Thai restaurant in Santa Monica.

That evening, I watered the plants in the apartment twice, even the ones in my roommate’s bedroom.  Sitting in the living room, I watched the news, listening to the story of a girl who’d recently been found strangled in her Encino apartment.  The police hadn’t released details about the crime, but it happened just miles away.

Later, I sifted through my clothes anxiously.  Finally, I settled on a black dress and sneakers.  I added a denim jacket embroidered with orchids that I’d purchased from a thrift store.

Lemongrass was a twenty minute drive from Sherman Oaks. 

Driving down the 405, the city’s strange duality hit me again:  how it wavered somewhere between a ritzy hotel and a forgotten junkyard.

Exiting on Olympic, my shallow breathing assuaged.  At last, I turned into a lot sporting two golden tigers.  I walked into the restaurant and found Tim sitting at a corner table.  When he stood up, I noticed he was much taller than me and more attractive than I’d anticipated.   He wore a black shirt over khakis.

My posture immediately improved.

“Well, you’re a lovely sight,” he said, as I took a seat across from him, lobbing my tote beside me.

I blushed.

“Love your embroidered jacket.”

“I’m into flowers.”

Later when the waitress, a slender woman with long hair and a butterfly tattoo on her wrist, brought out our food, she set the dishes on the table amicably.

“Thanks, Melanie,” Tim said.  He gazed at the nametag pinned to her shirt.  “You must be new.”

She nodded.  “Just started this week.”

“I’m a regular.  Get used to seeing me.”

She bowed her head with politeness before stepping away.

Tim spooned a helping of curry onto his plate.  “Do you like Thai food?”

“Yes.  Maybe even more than Pakistani food.”

I drizzled some hot sauce on my rice while Tim forked the carrots on his plate.

We talked about our hobbies.  I shared my passion for knitting and sketching.  I wasn’t brilliant at either, but I found these activities soothing.

Tim pulled out his cell and showed me pictures of these balloon sculptures he’d been building at home.  Magenta monkeys, rabbits, and elephants lined a bookshelf.

“How’d you get started with this?”

Tim shrugged.  “My therapist recommended that I use a creative outlet to release stress.  Next thing I knew I was buying a balloon pump.  It’s fun.”

Suddenly, Tim produced a pink balloon from his pocket and waved it in the air between us.  Then he inflated it with his mouth, and with a few quick twists, turned it into a sculpture.

He handed it to me.  “A three-petaled flower for the lady.”

I smiled.

When Melanie placed a check between us, Tim insisted he’d pay. 

Peering at me he said, “You do have a lovely face.”

“Thanks,” I said, but a wave of unease coursed through my body. 

The front door blew open and a couple wearing matching blue sweaters strolled into the restaurant.  They moved so lithely they seemed like ghosts. 

It felt as though the room were spinning a little.

“Excuse me.  I’m gonna use the restroom.”

Nodding, Tim pulled out his cell again as I reached inside the tote for my make-up pouch.

In the restroom, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror.  My face appeared serene but my stomach was in knots.  Tim was charming, so what was this resistance I was feeling?  I unzipped my pouch and reapplied lip gloss, hoping this gesture would center me. 

A moment later, I heard a flush.  Then the woman I recognized as our waitress, Melanie, slipped out of one of the stalls.

She smiled at me.  Then washing her hands, she said, “Your boyfriend’s cute.”

Startled, I said, “Thanks.”

Glancing at her reflection as she dried her hands, I peered at her silky locks.  Her forehead was wide, but she had a babydoll face.  Despite my passing unease about Tim, I felt a sudden wave of possessiveness.

Grabbing the pouch, I hurried out the door.

When I returned to the table, Tim was gazing at his cell.

“Rain seems to be clearing.”  A moment later he said, “How far along are you on your dissertation?”

“Just wrote a draft of my third chapter.”

“What’s the topic?”

“Progressive expressions of the Islamic veil.”


“You said you traveled through Asia.  Have you ever been to the Middle East?”

“Dubai and Cairo.”

Then I said, “How do you like working in a library?”

“It’s satisfying.”

Soon we headed into the parking lot. The stars blinked in the sky, and I could taste the ocean just a mile away.

“Well this is me,” I said, stopping beside my Nissan.

Suddenly, Tim placed a hand on my waist and leaned in to kiss me.

Startled, I turned my head away. 

“Sorry.  I thought you wanted me to.”

“I’m very flattered.  It’s just that—”

“You don’t find me attractive?”

A lump formed in my throat as I struggled to respond.  But the beep of a car unlocking in the distance interrupted us.  We turned our heads simultaneously, and there stood Melanie holding a green handbag.  Seeing her glance at us curiously, I tugged at Tim’s shirt and pulled him towards me, urging him to kiss my mouth.

When I gazed back in Melanie’s direction, she was slipping inside a white Honda.

Tim’s hand grazed my cheek.  “Let’s do this again.”

I nodded.  Despite the knotted feeling in my stomach, the evening had been agreeable.


That night, I sat in the living room and annotated a book on veiling.  As a child, I once visited Saudi Arabia with my family, where we strolled through the markets amid seas of veiled women.  Over the years, I’d learned much about this custom.  Yet this practice still seemed as elusive to me as it did during those walks through Jeddah.

Closing the textbook, I reached for my sketch pad and penciled a tree in the foreground of the castle I’d drawn that morning.  Shading in the trunk, I thought about looking for love in Los Angeles.  At twenty-nine, I wasn’t in a rush to meet Mr. Perfect.  I had a dissertation to finish.  So why hadn’t I stepped back from the dating game?

When my wrist grew tired, I placed my notepad on the coffee table and reached for my cell.  Scrolling through the news, I saw an update on the murder of the girl in Encino.

I clicked on the link, which took me to a picture of the vic–a woman with long hair and dimples.  Her teeth gleamed against her pale skin.  I could’ve passed her in the market sometime, she’d lived so close.  I learned that her name was Stephanie Evans, and that she’d come to California from Arkansas to pursue medical school.  In the picture she wore a fitted mini dress, giving the appearance of a woman who didn’t mind a bit of fun.

A wave of anxiety rose inside me reading her story.  It made me feel vulnerable, learning that she’d lived so close.  To distract myself, I made tea, then strolled into my bedroom. 

Changing into my nightdress, I heard a scratching noise outside my window. My roommate, Lydia, worked the late shift at the hospital today and wouldn’t be home until midnight.  Feeling my aloneness, I shuddered.  I turned off the lightswitch and crept toward the window to peek through the blinds.  But hearing a long meow, my whole body shook with relief.  My neighbor’s Russian Blue, Benny, sat perched on our patio railing.  The little wiseguy had found his way outside again.


The next morning I found Lydia having breakfast at the dining table.  She wore a peach kimono, her blond hair tousled.  Zach, her fiance, was out of town visiting family, so for a change, she was home on a Sunday.

I poured myself coffee then flopped onto the chair across from her, placing my cell on the table.

“How was the date, Shazia?”


“How come?”

“He’s nice enough.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “And the problem was?”

I shrugged, taking a sip.  “He just gave off this weird vibe.”

“I thought you guys hit it off on the phone.”

“We did.  But he showed me pictures of these strange animal sculptures he’s been building for fun.  When he tried to kiss me in the parking lot, I turned my head away.”


“We ended up kissing.”

“How was it?”

“No real sparks.”

Lydia gazed at me absently.

On the table, my cell vibrated.  I saw a message from my dissertation advisor confirming our appointment for the next day.

Lydia said, “Interestingly, you said the same thing about Richie, Brad, and Anil–that they gave off a weird vibe.” 

It took me a moment to process what Lydia was suggesting, and when I did, I felt a wave of annoyance.  Maybe I’d described these guys I’d dated similarly, but they’d all been legitimately off-putting.  Richie clipped his toenails in the car at the end of our second date; Brad kept a casual stack of porno magazines in his kitchen like they were copies of The New Yorker; and Anil asked me if I’d consider getting a nose job.  I didn’t give these guys a second chance, but who was Lydia to judge me? 

“They all sucked.”

“Yeah, but this guy sounds awesome.”

“That in itself is weird.” 

Lydia rolled her eyes.  “You’re just not ready.”

I took a deep breath and remembered that Lydia’s enthusiasm to find me a mate was a reflection of her longings, not mine.  Sitting at her vanity, she loved flipping through bridal magazines. 

So I said, “If I seem non-committal, it’s because my dissertation’s hanging over me.” 

“Maybe I’m being crabby because Zach’s been quiet since he left town.”

Lydia’s fiance was a yoga instructor whose curly gray hair fell down his back.  He’d been an underwear model before he met Lydia, back in the 90’s, and now he was an aging hippie learning to play the Sitar.  He wasn’t an Einstein.  Sometimes he just forgot things. 

“He’s probably busy with family.”

“Sure.  But I’m starting to feel like Zach should cut his hair.”

“He told me at our barbeque last week that his hair is a physical manifestation of his growing spirit.”

“Well his spirit needs some conditioner then,” she said, a smile creeping to her lips.  “But don’t tell him I said that.”

I laughed as my cell lit up again.  This time, the message was from Tim.

Good Morning, gorgeous.  How are you?

I should’ve been delighted, but I shuddered.


Later that day, I knitted in bed while listening to Matt Gross, a psychoanalyst whose Youtube videos I sometimes watched.  He analyzed current events–especially true crime.  Today his post was about the Stephanie Evans case.  He summarized what he knew:  the vic was a twenty-five year old, single girl pursuing a medical degree.  She’d died of strangulation and traces of latex were found on her neck.  The police had interviewed her ex-boyfriends, but no viable suspect had emerged, though one of her exes, Brad, had a record for petty theft and bar fights, and Stephanie had once called the police claiming he’d gotten physical with her. 

Then I almost dropped a stitch when my cell phone buzzed.  It was another message from Tim:  a photo of a huge balloon flower captioned, An orchid to match your jacket.

I raced into Lydia’s bedroom. 

She sat at her vanity.  “Hey lady.”

I told her how Tim complimented the embroidered jacket I wore.  Then I showed her his text. 

“Creepy, don’t you think?”

She wrinkled her nose.  “He just likes you.  That isn’t a crime.”

“I don’t trust it.  He didn’t seem entirely sincere last night.”

“Who’s sincere on a first date?”

I shrugged.  “This balloon feels like a clue to his psyche.”

“Stop playing detective.  Enjoy it.”

I gazed at her pleadingly, but this wasn’t the first time she’d accused me of overthinking.  A few weeks ago, I’d suspected one of our neighbors, Francesca, the petit Italian beauty with long dark hair, of stealing clothing out of washing machines.  She often lingered in the laundry room, complaining about not having a job.  I lost a blazer.  Then Lydia’s red cardigan mysteriously disappeared. I thought Francesca could be to blame, but Lydia said I had no evidence.  Then one day I saw Francesca leaving her apartment in a red cardigan, and I followed her out of the building and accused her.  But she vehemently denied it.

Running home I called the landlord. 

He said, “I heard about the laundry thefts.  It was Gwen, the cleaning lady.  The maintenance guy caught her opening a dryer.” 

I didn’t buy it. I told him it had to be Francesca. 

“Have you lost anything in the last couple of weeks?” 

To be fair, I hadn’t.

After that, I tried making smalltalk with Fransesca.  But any banter we’d cultivated could not be restored.


Monday morning, I searched for Tim’s Instagram page, wondering if he had a profile.  There were plenty of Tim Grubers, but when I found his page, only a few recent posts were visible:  a photo of a cake with the caption, “So yummy.  Run!” as well as a throwback of Tim kneeling beside a tree on some hiking trail with the caption, “I looked happier here than I feel now.”  It made me wonder who took the photo.  But scrolling down, another post, dated four years ago, provided an answer:  Nastya left me and I’m heartbroken.   

It only took a few clicks to determine his ex’s full name was Anastasia Sokolov.  She appeared in some old photos:  a petite girl with long hair and bright eyes.  In every photo I saw of them together, Tim had his arm around her, but she seemed to lean into him awkwardly. 

I didn’t find her Instagram page, but there was a profile on Facebook. I couldn’t see much beyond Nastya’s profile picture.  It seemed she’d turned her settings to private, a quality of reserve consistent with how she came across in her photos. But under occupation she’d listed “bank teller.”

After breakfast, I drove to campus wondering if Tim had dated much since his relationship with Nastya.  I hadn’t yet responded to his texts from the previous day, but learning about his heartache made me feel for the guy.  If he hadn’t dated much since the break-up, it explained why he might seem so eager to please.

Should I let myself go on another date?

Exiting on Sunset, I felt myself considering it.

By the time I pulled into the parking garage, I’d talked myself into it.

Turning off the engine, I reached into my tote and retrieved my cell.   

Scrolling through my text exchange with Tim, I remembered why I’d agreed to go out with him.  He was funny and considerate.

At last I typed, Nice orchid sculpture.  How are you today?

Clicking send, I sighed in relief.  The unease I’d been carrying around seemed to dissipate. 


In Arabic class, I tried focusing but struggled. 

Tim’s habit was to respond immediately.  But the phone had been silent.

Other students were reaching into their bags and pulling out pens.  Coming out of my reverie, I copied.  These days I felt a bit suffocated around undergrads.  Soon I’d turn thirty.  Others my age seemed to be moving forward while I lived frugally from month to month, feeling further behind.

When I’d told my parents I was losing interest in the Ph.D, they’d urged me to finish, asking what I’d do instead. I’d told them the truth:  I wanted to become an attorney, focusing on crimes against women.  But they went quiet when I said that.

These thoughts circled through my head as Dr. Abdi, our instructor, passed out a worksheet.  Then Vivian, who sat beside me, leaned in saying, “Shazia, can I borrow a pen?”

Her lips, like her nails, were painted black, and over her jeans she wore a tee with the words, Bite me, etched across the front.   

I suppressed a sigh.  Vivian borrowed pens often and rarely gave them back. I was tired of being her stationery supplier.  “I’m sorry, I said.  “I only have this ballpoint.” 

“That sucks tits,” Vivian said, frowning.  The frizzy cloud of her hair shook as she fell back in her seat. 

I pressed the side of my cell.  No new messages.  Just some alert about a missing woman in Santa Monica.  It seemed as though the stories about women who’d been killed or gone missing were endless.  It stirred in me a kind of rage.

Shuddering, I glanced out the large windows to my left, which overlooked the courtyard.   The sky appeared cloudy and the trees hung limp.  I spotted a tall man in a tie treading across the lawn.  For a moment I thought it was Tim, which gave my heart a jolt.  But when I blinked and looked again, the man had turned away.

On impulse, I unlocked my phone, wondering if Anastasia Sokolov had a Linkedin page. Within moments, I discovered she’d been a teller at Pacific Coast Bank since 2018.  I looked up the bank’s phone number and took a screenshot.  Then I looked up the library where Tim mentioned he worked.  But when I entered his name into the search bar, there wasn’t a match.  Before I could try again, Dr. Abdi walked by, asking me to put my phone away.


At home that afternoon, I called Pacific Coast Bank.  A woman answered on the third ring saying, “Tasha speaking, how may I help you?”  

“Could I speak to Anastasia Sokolov, please?”

For a moment, all I heard was the cacophony of phone static and background noises.  Then she said, “Huh?”

“I mean, Nastya?”

“Oh Nastya doesn’t work here anymore.”

“When did she leave?”

“A few years ago.”

“Do you have her contact information?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Do you mind telling me why she left?”

“Um, she kinda just stopped showing up.”

After getting off, I changed into comfies.  Later I gathered some clothes and headed to the laundry room.  The door was locked.  I slid a key into the knob, twisting it open. The vacant room reeked of lavender. 

After I got back to the apartment, I started making dinner.   I chopped onions with the television on, only distantly listening to the day’s news.  Lydia would be home soon.  Tim still hadn’t responded. I wondered if he’d received my text at all.

I tossed the zucchini into the pot with some garlic, thinking of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Wadud, and our conversation in her office earlier.  When she handed me my edited chapter, I noticed she’d crossed out one section with a note in the margin to “delete.”  It was my summary of a new dating app that catered to women who practiced some form of veiling.  The app was called “Habibi” and it removed the stigma from dating by letting women, not men, make the first move.  I told her my instinct was to include it, but she said that the app might be obsolete by the time I published it. 

As I prepared the salad, I let myself fantasize, for a moment, a life with Tim, cooking dinner together and talking books.  I imagined us sitting beside each other on the beach and kissing as the waves crashed onto the shore.  Maybe, in time, we’d have settled into a romance that blossomed into a serious relationship.

But my tentativeness may have sabotaged that.

Placing the salad in the fridge, I uncorked a bottle of red and checked my cell once more. I wondered if I should text Tim again, but conventional dating rules advised playing it cool.   

The timer on my phone chimed, so I headed back to the laundry to chuck things into the dryer.  When I got back, I collapsed onto the couch. 

At last my cell phone buzzed.

The message was from Tim.

Hi beautiful!

My body shook with relief.  Immediately I typed, Hey handsome and clicked send.

We texted back and forth, chitchatting.

How was your day?

Long.  I met with my advisor.

The grad school life.

Yep.  How was yours?

The library was hectic. 

I could see the three dots flashing for a moment before he sent a longer text.

Just met a friend for coffee at Crave.  Heading home to have dinner.  I’ll text later.

I felt a wave of excitement.  

Crave Cafe in Sherman Oaks?

Yeah.  Near Van Nuys.

You’re down the street from me!

Right.   You live in Sherman Oaks!

I barely hesitated before I sent the next text.

Wanna join me and my roommate for dinner?  Saves you cooking.

A minute passed, then another, as I held my breath. 

He responded, Sure it isn’t an imposition?


I texted him our address feeling recklessHe texted back a smiley face.  See you in twenty.  I need to get gas.

I gazed at the television flashing its circus of local news images, feeling giddy.  But just as I was riding the waves of anticipation, Stephanie Evans’ face flashed across the screen.  Since the modus operandi of this murder resembled the unsolved murder of a Berkeley student weeks ago, police stated, there was a chance a serial killer was involved. Her ex, Brad, had been dismissed since his alibi checked out.  Moreover, he was a short man and the partial shoeprint they’d found in the vic’s apartment indicated the perp was likely tall. 

I gulped, picturing Tim’s towering frame. 

To squelch this thought, I clicked the television off.

A moment later, the front door blew open and Lydia entered wearing scrubs.

I watched as she immediately stepped into the kitchen and poured herself some Shiraz from the bottle I’d left open. 

Strolling into the living room, she took a huge gulp of wine before she lobbed her bag on the ground and took a seat beside me.  “Thanks for making dinner.”  

“No worries.”

“Crazy shift today.  We restrained an Alzheimer’s patient who was trying to escape the hospital.  Then this woman checked in saying she gets an orgasm every time an I.V. is started on her.  The other nurses didn’t want to do it, so I had to.  Of course, granny started moaning, and I ran out of the room so fast, I bumped into another nurse carrying a tray of food.  We cleaned up the mess with granny flying high in the background.”


“How was your day?”

“Grad school’s a drag, but I just invited Tim over for dinner.”


“That okay?”

“Yes!  Glad you took the plunge.”  Then she grimaced.  “Please tell me you plan to change.”

Glancing down at my wrinkled sweats, I nodded.

In my bedroom, I searched through my closet with anticipation, trying to quell my anxious mind.  This sudden train of thought seemed outrageous.  Tim was tall, sure, that didn’t mean he was a killer.  Why was I even entertaining the thought?

Hopefully, they’d find the bastard who was responsible soon.

I changed into a pair of jeans and a navy sweater.  Then as I reached inside my tote, digging around for my lipgloss, my hand brushed against a circular object.  When I pulled it out, I found a keychain with a metallic coin-shaped center.  The word “TAFA” was etched across the middle.  Tossing the gadget onto my vanity, I wondered how it got into my bag.  Maybe Vivien, the cliche millennial, accidentally dropped it in when she leaned my way searching for a pen.  It was the sort of cruddy thing she’d own.

As I sat applying mascara, Lydia strolled in.  Standing behind me she reached for my brush.  “Much better, but may I style your hair?”

Peering at her reflection in the mirror, it dawned on me that Lydia was teetering to the side.  Had she downed that entire glass? 

“You’re buzzed.”

Lydia burped delicately.  “I’ll sober up.  Now sit still.”

Glancing at the weird keychain gadget on my vanity, I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket.

As Lydia teased my locks, I typed “TAFA”  and “metallic keychain” into a google search engine, discovering that the gadget was a tracking device.  TAFA stood for Track And Follow Anyone

I shuddered, wondering if Tim could have dropped this into my bag during our date.  Maybe when I was in the restroom.  Is that why he was conveniently “having coffee” nearby?

As though to answer my question with a punch, a KTLA news alert suddenly popped up on my phone.  I winced as the headline sank in:  Missing Thai Waitress Found Strangled Near Santa Monica Pier.

Gasping, I clicked on the link.  There was a photograph of Melanie Changtai, whom I recognized as our waitress.  When Melanie never made it home after work on Saturday, her parents had reported her missing.  Her Honda was found abandoned near the ocean, and later, her corpse on the beach. A close-up photo of Melanie’s neck with the bruises at her nape popped up on the screen. The caption read, Traces of a plastic magenta substance, likely related to the weapon used to strangle her, were found along Meleanie’s neckline.

The article linked this murder to Stephanie Evans’ death since they found rubber traces around her neck as well. 

These details pointed too plainly at Tim and his balloons.

I turned around and grabbed Lydia’s hand.  “He’s a murderer!”

“Huh?  Who?”

I explained how the Lemongrass waitress was found dead.  Then I showed her Melanie’s photo.

Lydia said, “So you think Tim’s responsible because of the rubber traces?”

Magenta rubber traces.”

Suddenly, she laughed so hard she was crying.


“Sorry.  It’s just so far-fetched.”

“But look at the evidence.”

“What evidence?  A stranger you crossed paths with unfortunately gets murdered, and you jump to Tim?”

“He could’ve used the balloon to strangle her.  He had one with him that night.  And  he made smalltalk with the waitress.”

“Of course he talked to her!  How else would he order?” she slurred.  “Don’t date the guy, fine.  There’s no need to invent some crazy narrative to justify it.”

“That’s not what I’m doing!”

“He’ll be here any second.  What’re you gonna do?  Not let him in.”

Before I could speak, the alarm I’d set on my cell earlier went off.

“Shut, I need to get my laundry.”

“What about Tim?”

“If the buzzer goes off while I’m outside, don’t answer it.”

“Someone else could let him in the building.”

“I know.”  I left the room and went into the kitchen where I grabbed my keys and a small bottle of mace, which I slipped inside a pocket of my jeans, along with my cell.  Then I got a glass off the dishrack and filled it with water from the tap.  Returning to the bedroom, I handed it to Lydia.  “Down this.  You need to sober up.”

She grabbed it reluctantly and took a sip.  I headed toward our entryway where I slipped on some sneakers.  Approaching the front door, I peered through the peephole, but the hallway was deserted.

Surreptitiously, I unlocked the door and stepped outside.  Then I walked down the corridor, which reeked of chili.  Turning around the corner, I prayed that I wouldn’t stumble upon Tim. 

But when I approached the laundry room, the door was ajar.  My heart fluttered in my chest.  I crept slowly towards the entrance.  Peering inside, I saw a short dark-haired woman who stood facing the dryers.  She wore my embroidered denim jacket.  It almost looked like me, but I knew it was Francesca.  Then something rustled in the corner by the drying rack.  Turning to look, I spotted a figure in a baseball cap that lurked in the shadows near the door.  With a shudder, I realized it was Tim.  He hadn’t noticed me yet, but he seemed to be peering intently at Francesca’s back.  In his right hand, he clutched a magenta balloon. 

Did Tim think that was me standing there in the embroidered jacket?

Soon he’d know he was wrong.

A nerve in my right eye twitched.

There wasn’t any time to think.

With the stealth of a ninja, I grabbed the heavy bottle of detergent that sat on the washing machine by the door.  Mustering all the strength I could, I tossed it at Tim’s head.  He howled in surprise as it thwacked against his shoulder.

“Francesca!” I called.

She spun around at once, though her face sported guilt more than worry.

“Get out here now!  You were about to get attacked.”

Following my pointed finger she gasped, seeing Tim crouched in the corner.  He placed a hand against the wall to steady himself.

“Come on!” I yelled.

She moved toward me as a weary Tim quickly recovered from shock.  To my horror, he lurched forward and reached for Francesca’s ankle, latching onto it.  She screamed.

“Not so fast,” Tim spat, as the baseball cap slid off his head.

“Help!” Francesca called, struggling to maintain her composure.

Stepping inside, I kicked Tim’s hand twice, and he cursed as his grip went slack.  Then reaching inside my pocket, I sprayed his face.

“You skank!” he yowled, as he staggered backwards, rubbing at his eyes.

When Francesca finally escaped into the hallway, I shut the laundry door fast, using my key to lock it as the tube of mace fell out of my shaking hand.

Inside I heard Tim moaning.  I felt some relief knowing the old fashioned door needed a key to be unlocked from the inside too.

“I’m so sorry, Shazia,” I heard Francesa say.  She was crying.

I placed a hand on her shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  I’m calling 9-1-1.”

After I’d spoken to the operator and confirmed that police were coming, I sighed.

A moment later, Tim was furiously twisting at the doorknob.  “Unlock this damn door!”

“Not a chance, you freak,” I said. 

He pounded harder.  “My eyes are burning.”

“Good.  Burn in hell, and sleep the big sleep!”


By Wednesday night, news reports were spinning with Tim’s backstory.  He’d met Anastasia Sokolov on an international dating website six years ago.  Soon after she arrived in America, they got engaged.  But police had discovered that Tim had a violent streak as neighbors reported hearing fights between them that seemed to turn physical.  Nastya had unexplained bruises and sometimes she wouldn’t show up at work.  Eventually, it seems, she escaped, and Tim couldn’t find her.  But a few months ago he’d learned that Nastya had returned to Moscow and married her high school sweetheart.  This triggered all the rage that led to him killing a Berkeley student, Stephanie Evans, and Melanie Changtai, along with a couple of other women in northern California whose unsolved murders could possibly be linked.  The weapon he used to kill these women had been a magenta balloon.  He had inherited some money and didn’t work.  But he spent a lot of time at the local libraries, checking out books relating to tech gadgets and guns.

Sitting on the couch with Lydia, I shuddered, thinking how I’d kissed the killer and almost let him enter our home. 

“You were right about all of it,” Lydia said.  “Sorry I doubted you.”

I shrugged.  “Turns out Tim was a liar-brain, and Francesca was the laundry thief.”

“Do you plan to tell the landlord?”


“And your jacket. Did you get it back from Francesca?”

“Yeah.  I’m hanging on to that.”

“Won’t it creep you out to wear it now?”

“Not with its Chandler-inspired orchids.  Besides, I see it as kind of a uniform.”

“How so?”

“You know, for the future criminal lawyer.”

Lydia laughed.  “Did you email your advisor yet and tell her you’re dropping out?”

I nodded. “One of the best things I’ve ever written,” I said.  “A work of art.”

Mehnaz Sahibzada is a 2022 Jack Hazard Fellow in fiction writing for her first novel in progress, Jaani, a coming-of-age story set in Pakistan.  Her writing has appeared in Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen, Jaggery, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. A high school English teacher and author of the poetry collection, My Gothic Romance (2019), she lives in Los Angeles.  For inquiries, contact Mehnaz through her website at www.poetmehnaz.com

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