Sarah Pemberton Strong

A Clog in the Drain

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg. Please enjoy this excerpt from Sarah Pemberton Strong’s “Callback,” published in New Haven Noir.

I turned the corner and parked, then appraised myself in the rearview mirror. Dirty hair, stained hoodie. Spattered jeans, cracked steel-toed boots. I ran my fingers through my fiberglassy hair. I look good in my work clothes, actually, if you like women who look like scruffy teenage boys, but I didn’t smell so hot. I did a hasty cleanup, scrubbing my face and hands with a few baby wipes. Then, hoping I smelled more like baby fragrance than old drains, I went to the door.

Most of the big houses in this neighborhood have been converted into law offices or therapy practices, but not this one, a gorgeous three-story brownstone. And judging from the single nameplate, the Lancasters had the whole place to themselves. The door knocker was a big brass affair that probably weighed as much as my tool bag, and I heard it echo through what must have been a cavernously large hall inside. There was a long wait, during which I banged the knocker again.

sponsored by

The 2017 Connecticut Open presented by United Technologies

The woman who finally answered had a bath towel wrapped around her head. She was wearing a leopard-print dress that looked painted on, though her face put her somewhere in her fifties. She was holding a mascara wand in one hand and her expression said that although she was annoyed at being called to the door in the middle of getting dressed, she was too well bred to say anything about it.

Rich. Very. You can tell, I thought again. Then I said, “Mrs. Lancaster? I’m the plumber. Nicky Biglietti.”

If she was surprised to see a female plumber, she didn’t show it. She invited me in and I followed her through the enormous entrance doors and down the hall. The brownstone’s ceilings were a good twelve feet high, and the walls were covered with big, imposing oil paintings in fancy gold frames. Beneath them, lots of antique furniture that looked like the real deal was strewn about.

I followed Mrs. Lancaster up a curving flight of stairs. The way she carried herself reminded me of Charlotte—she took up space like she knew the space liked her taking it. You could practically see the air molecules stepping aside to make room for her. It’s a money thing, I think. I followed her through the master bedroom, past an enormous boat of a bed that might have been teak, and finally reached the bathroom door.

“We had a plumber in here just a month ago,” she said, stepping aside, “and now the sink’s clogged again. She looked at me and smiled. “I couldn’t be shedding that much hair, could I?”

I glanced at the towel on her head. “I don’t know,” I replied, “I haven’t seen your hair.”

She reached up and pulled the towel off. Dark gold locks, still damp, fell down around her face and rested on her shoulders. I thought for a second about touching a curl. Her hair was thick and wavy and smelled somehow of damp grass.

“Well?” She caught my gaze and held it. I wasn’t expecting that, and I looked away.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m just the plumber.”

She turned away too then, and her stockinged feet padded out of the room. A moment later I heard the sound of a blow-dryer.

The clog in the drain was hair all right, but something else too. When I pulled my snake out, a thin line of gold was tangled around the end of it, a necklace impossibly knotted up among a tangle of drain-colored hair that might have once been her shade of blond. There was a pendant strung on the chain, a gold heart with one small, clear stone set in it. It looked like the kind of necklace a teenage girl would wear, not a woman in her fifties, but on the other hand, Mrs. Lancaster was doing the leopard-print dress pretty well, not to mention the eye contact. I rinsed off the tangle of hair and chain, and when I did, little flickers of rainbow fire shot out from the jewel in the pendant.

I stuck my head out the door and called to her and the sound of the blow-dryer stopped.

“Look what I found,” I said, holding up the necklace as she came back into the bathroom. “It’s not every day I get to fish a diamond out of a drain.”

She looked at the pendant without touching it. I couldn’t say I blamed her. There were still bits of rusty hair tangled in the chain, and the whole thing looked mousy and sad and wretched. She examined it and then she touched her own hair. Now that she had dried it, it was the pale gold color of a little girl’s. A very good dye job can do that. She ran her fingers through her hair and the smell of her hair gave way to the scent of her perfume—something with musk in it, the real kind.

“You found that pendant in my drain?” she asked.

I grinned. “I bet you didn’t even know it was missing.”

She took her bottom lip between her teeth for a moment. “I didn’t,” she said. “Especially since it isn’t mine.” And she turned and walked out of the room.

I’m not dumb but it took me the whole time I was putting away my tools and wiping down the sink and washing my hands with some of her very nice sandalwood soap before I figured it out. I don’t suppose there’s a good way to find out you’ve been cheated on, but if there is, the plumber fishing another woman’s diamond pendant out of your bathroom drain isn’t it.

Excerpted from “Callback” by Sarah Pemberton Strong, copyright 2017 Sarah Pemberton Strong, included in the anthology New Haven Noir edited by Amy Bloom. Used with permission of the author and Akashic Books.

More Stories