She let out a sigh as she fell, an exhalation so sweet and soft that not a soul heard it, not even the cop who’d passed by the building not two seconds before; it was the smashing of china and the subsequent thud of her body landing hard against the stone steps three storeys down that made him turn and look. Patrolman James Freeman was only a few months into his new career. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Forget that his brother hadn’t spoken a word to him since. The paycheck sure made up for it. Or it had done up until this very moment. He noticed her arm first, thrown above her head but in an elegant manner, her fingers beautifully positioned like a dancer’s. His eyes traced long to her face. So beautiful and still, her cheek resting against the cold step, her hair curling down towards the sidewalk. Her eyes were closed, her face serene as if she had fallen asleep, though the rest of her body was in chaos, sprawled upside down with legs twisted and one foot almost kicking the front door of the building. A broken angel. He was as frozen as she was, staring down at her like a fool. But then she opened her eyes.

A cough. Blood leaking a thin trail from her mouth. A groan that changed its timbre from pitiful to panicked as she tried to move but couldn’t. Freeman ran forward, the spell broken, dropping to a crouch beside her head.

‘Ma’am? You all right, ma’am?’ He cursed himself. How in the hell could she be? He tried to remember his training, but his mind had gone blank. ‘Don’t move. I’ll get help.’

Her eyes rolled shut and he looked around. The street wasn’t quite empty, but the closest people were way down on the other side of the road. He could shout but he didn’t want to draw a crowd. He looked up. She’d fallen from this building. He could see the open window, a curtain fluttering out from the dark, no light visible from the room, but he could hear music playing. A party? A gathering of some sort? Freeman jumped up and rang the bell, pressing his finger hard against the button until he heard the thud of footsteps from within, a man calling out to hang on, can’t you have a little damned patience, don’t you know what time it is?

‘Sir,’ he said, as soon as the door swung open. ‘There’s been an accident. You got a telephone in there? You gotta call for an ambulance. And the police.’

‘Ain’t you the police?’ The man looked him up and down suspiciously. He was in late middle age and had clearly been in bed when Freeman had woken him. A dressing gown hung loose over his pyjamas, and he didn’t look very happy to see a cop on his doorstep.

Freeman didn’t know how to explain and so he just stepped aside, letting the man see past him to the woman behind. ‘Sir, you gotta ring ’em now. Before it’s too late. Please.’

There was a dark halo around her head now, a pool of blood that was spreading quickly. ‘I’ve seen her around. Visiting the couple on the top floor. There was a party of some sort. A celebration.’”

The man flinched as he saw the woman, but he stepped forward. ‘My God.’ ‘Sir, please, I need you to let me know if you can make the call.’ Freeman felt the situation slipping from his grasp. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. A face like his was supposed to make it easier for Harlem residents to trust the police, but all too often it felt like they trusted him less. ‘You got a telephone or not?’ He heard footsteps from inside, heels tapping against wooden floorboards, and then a younger woman appeared from behind the man. ‘Bill, what’s going on?’ Her eyes widened as she took in the scene before them. ‘Jesus help us!’ ‘Lynette, go into my apartment and call the police,’ the man told her, tying the belt of his dressing gown around him before stepping outside. Lynette did as she was told, vanishing back inside the building. ‘Son, I’m a doctor. Forgive the shock, but I wasn’t expecting…’ He knelt and checked the woman’s pulse. ‘Weak, but she’s still with us. For now.’ Freeman glanced back up at the window. No sign of anyone else up there. ‘You know who she is?’ There was a dark halo around her head now, a pool of blood that was spreading quickly. ‘I’ve seen her around. Visiting the couple on the top floor. There was a party of some sort. A celebration.’ He shook his head as he followed Freeman’s upward glance. ‘She fell, then?’ ‘Looks like.’ Freeman spotted something in the woman’s hand, her arm twisted underneath her so that he had missed it at first. A small book. ‘What is that?’ The doctor pulled it out gently, the woman moaning softly as he disturbed her. He handed it up to Freeman. A passport. Not American, but British according to the embossed letters. Freeman squinted in the poor light to make out the name, handwritten in black ink, that peeked through the cut-out oval in the front cover. Miss E. Aldridge.

from Harlem After Midnight (now in paperback from HQ, £9.99)

Louise Hare is a London-based author originally from Warrington. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Her debut novel This Lovely City was published by HQ (Harper Collins UK) in 2020 and shortlisted for the RSL Ondaatje Prize. The first two Canary Club mysteries, Miss Aldridge Regrets (2022) and Harlem After Midnight (2023) are published by HQ and Berkley (Penguin USA).
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