Monday, May 31, 2010

Sweethearts

      Richard sat at his wife's bedside. It was almost 3 a.m., but the nurses had been kind. He had learned to gauge how well she was doing by the leniency of the hospital staff and today had not been a good day. She was asleep, her hand motionless beneath his, and he could feel the plastic of the IV inserted into her veins. She looked even smaller than she had the previous night, even thinner, the bones of her fingers as distinct as the tubes that ran through and between them. To him, though, she was still beautiful.
      They had been high school sweethearts. There couldn’t have been a pair more unalike. Richard Lucas was brown-haired, brown-eyed, a WASP to the core. He came from a well-known family, his mother a teacher, his father the manager of a factory the next town over. Cassandra Malinowski, on the other hand, was fair-haired, fair-skinned, Polish and Catholic. Her family was poor, but respectable, her father a farmer and her mother the wrangler of seven children. Anyone driving into or out of town would pass the Malinowski house on the way, over the train tracks that cut through their corn fields and disappeared into the distance. The streetlights didn't stretch to the edges of town, so their porch light served as a familiar marker for night travelers.
      Cassie had always been small and slender, quiet, but stubborn. Most of the girls at that time wore their hair down and curled, or pulled back in ponytails that bounced as they walked. Not Cassie though. She had always worn her long, blond hair plaited and wound around her head in the traditional style of her parents’ homeland. It made her unique, and to Richard it had seemed like that thick braid framed her face like a halo. There was something about her smile, too, that just drew people in. It helped that she was clever, funny, an engaging storyteller, but it was more than that. There was a maturity and mystery about her. Even at sixteen there had been something serious, and maybe a little sad, in her clear, gray eyes.
      Richard had been crazy about her. He had taken her to all the school dances, to drive-in movies, to the middle of her family’s empty farm fields after they’d been harvested and cut down. He remembered every moment of those feverish nights when she’d never let him do anything more than kiss her. Of course, he had wanted to do more. There were times he thought he’d explode from wanting her, and he knew she had wanted him too because even when she said no, even when she pushed him away, she would still smile and kiss him one more time.
      The closest they’d ever come to intimacy was when he had convinced her to take her hair down for him. It had seemed simple, innocent enough the first time he’d reached up to undo her hair. She had swatted his hands away, asking what he was doing.
      “I’ve never seen your hair down.”
      “That’s because I don’t wear it down.”
      “Why not?”
      “Because. I just don’t.”
      “Come on. Let me see it.”
      “No.”
      They went back and forth many times, over many weeks before she eventually gave in. There was no way he could have known how the memory would sear itself unto his brain.
      “Please?” he had begged, kissing her cheeks softly. They had been sitting on her front porch. It was maybe ten o’clock, the porch light on, and one in the living room window, but otherwise the house was dark.
      She had sighed, finally resigned, and said, “Just this once.”
      Richard had watched as she took two long pins out of the hair at the nape of her neck, and though she kept her head bent, he could see her blush. Carefully, she unwound the criss-crossed braids, her fingers gently loosening the hair. He might have blushed, too. There had been something almost sensual about it, something that made him feel as if he was watching her undress.
      And then he had reached out to touch it.
      There was no way to describe how it felt – smooth and soft, like finely worn leather. It had been a little damp in places, probably because she braided it while it was still wet from washing. He didn’t even realize that he had put both his hands in it, running his fingers through from her scalp to where the blond locks ended at her waist. Maybe he had told her she was beautiful, or maybe he had just thought it so loudly that it had felt like he’d said it. He brought a section of hair toward his face to smell it – there was a faint scent of flowers, maybe lavender, but not too strong – and to feel it against his lips.
      Then she had kissed him. Harder or more urgently than she ever had before, or so it had seemed to him. Maybe he had just been overwhelmed by the feeling of her hair, his hands buried in it as she hugged him tightly. Either way, she had broken it off too quickly, standing up abruptly and running inside her front door. She might not have even said good night. All he knew is that he’d sat there for several minutes before finally getting up and walking across the street to his parked car, the biggest smile on his face. Even once he was in his car he had sat and watched the light in her bedroom, wondering if she was still thinking about him as she got ready for bed.
      A love like that doesn’t last. It burns brightly, hotly, for a little while, but the flame inevitably goes out.
      He had graduated, but Cassie had been a year younger. He went away to college and she had stayed behind. A part of him had wanted to stay, to be with her, but he had given in to other ambitions. He had to wonder, if she had asked him, whether he might have stayed. There was no way of knowing, of course, because she had never asked him. That summer sort of melted away in a blur. He could only remember the morning he left.
      He had walked several blocks from where he lived, down the quiet, empty street to her house while his parents loaded up the car with his belongings. As the sun came up, he sat on her front steps listening to the hum of cicadas get quieter and quieter. He had decided to go, but that had been his weakest moment. He had wanted to knock on the door, to wake up her family and say, “I don’t want to leave you.” But that’s not what he did. Instead he left a letter in her mailbox as his parents pulled the car up across the street, waiting for him. He stared out the back window as they drove away, his eyes locked on the simple farmhouse, the fields, the train tracks, until they all faded from sight.
      She had written him letters the first year, and he even wrote back once in a while. He saw her that Christmas, briefly, but things had changed. He stopped responding to her letters and soon she stopped sending them.
      It was six years before he saw Cassie again. She had gone to college for two years, but then he’d heard she dropped out to get married. Someone, maybe his mother, at some point told him that she had a baby. A boy. He couldn’t remember what emotions, if any, he felt upon learning either piece of news, but when he heard that her father had died, he hadn’t thought twice about going back home.
      Richard had driven past the Malinowski house several times on trips to visit his family, and this time would have been no different, except this time he stopped and parked across the street in the same place he had when he was a teenager. He had stared at the familiar structure – the wide porch, the old screen door, the worn-out steps where he and Cassie had sat and talked for hours as June bugs swarmed the yellow lights. It was all exactly as he’d left it six years earlier.
      At last he’d gotten up the nerve to get out of the car, but Cassie must have seen him from the window because she threw open the screen door and it banged against the house, almost falling off its hinge. He couldn't say if she'd taken the steps or if she'd leapt over them, but one minute she was running across the uncut lawn and the next she was in his arms.
      All it took was that minute to realize how different she was. Her hair, once so long and tempting, even braided around her head, was cropped short. It turned out to have a bit of curl in it, and it made a different sort of halo around her face. It made her seem much older, although it didn’t help that there was a deep line in between her eyes, and one in the corner of her mouth – both no doubt from worry and sadness.
      She was still beautiful though. Still knocked the breath out of him, and not just from the force with which she’d thrown herself at him.
      “I missed you, Rick,” she had whispered, her arms locked tightly around his neck. And he had fallen in love all over again.
      “I missed you too. But I’m home now.”
      Holding her in his arms, as she shook with tears, he wondered how he had ever left in the first place.
      Richard barely let Cassie out of his sight the week of her father’s funeral. He was at her parents' house until all hours, resorting to drinking coffee in order to make himself stay awake, wanting to hear her stories and wanting to share his own with her. He met her husband, of course, a nice enough man he couldn't bring himself to dislike, and her four year old son, John. He had marveled at the child in particular. That she was a mother stirred strange emotions inside of him. In fact, the situation couldn't have been more complicated. When he did finally leave her each night, he would lie awake in his old bed, staring at the ceiling and fearing that he was too late. It was only the most stubborn part of him that clung to the belief that it couldn't be too late. That it was never too late.
      That Cassie had been happy to see him again was obvious, but whether she felt the same rekindling of love was another matter entirely. With each touch of her hand, each kiss on the cheek, every time she looked into his eyes, he wondered if it was just a touch, a kiss, a look, or if it was more. To him, at least, each one was more. At the end of the week he could barely bring himself to leave again.
      "You won't wait another six years, will you, Rick?" she had teased him.
      He had probably looked as sheepish as he felt assuring her she would see him much sooner. "I'll be back before you know it," he had promised.
      "Good," she had smiled. And then, impulsively, she had kissed him before running back to her parents' porch to watch him drive away. He had seen her in his rearview mirror, growing smaller and smaller, but still there.
      It was less than six months before Richard moved back, and less than a month after that that he'd confessed she had been the reason.
      “Don’t be silly, Rick,” she had laughed at him, obviously thinking he was joking.
      “On the contrary, I’m being quite serious,” he had assured her, and the look in his eyes could hardly leave her in any doubt.
      “Rick…”
      “I know.”
      “I’m married. I have a child.”
      “I know.”
      “We’re not sixteen anymore.”
      “I know.”
      There had been silence, or maybe he just couldn’t remember what they’d said anymore.
      “What do you expect me to say?”
      “I don’t know. Nothing.” He had felt uncomfortable in his own skin, wondering if he should have waited longer, if he should have eased her into it. “Can you honestly say you feel nothing for me?”
      “Don’t be silly,” she had admonished again, but this time more seriously. “I love you as dearly as anyone in my life, Rick. Maybe even more than I ought to, I don’t know. But there’s nothing to do about it now.”
      “I’ll wait,” he had said.
      “No.”
      “As long as it takes.”
      “It will be too long – if ever. Don’t do that too yourself.”
      “I’ll wait,” he had repeated.
      She had looked sad that night as they parted ways. She had avoided his phone calls for a week or two, no doubt from embarrassment, but after that they had picked up where they left off. Friends who said too little.
      “People will talk,” she argued the next time he raised the subject.
      “Let them talk.”
      “And what about John? How would I even begin to explain to him…?”
      Richard had been thinking about that, of course. It was impossible not to. He wasn’t entirely sure he was ready to be a father and yet, in order to have Cassie, he would have to accept a ready-made family. He was relatively sure he could do it. The boy was easy to love, even after such a short time knowing him, and he had Cassie’s nose. That alone was reason enough to love him. If anything his only regret was that the boy was not his. That he and Cassie had, for some reason, been forced to travel this circuitous route in order to finally be with one another, and if there was one thing Richard was sure of, even then, it was that they would eventually be together. If he had to wait her out, he could do it.
      He was very lucky in that she didn’t make him wait very long.
      She had gotten divorced very quietly within a year. If anyone had talked about it, word had never gotten back to him. He had tried to keep his distance, but after being apart for so many years it had physically pained him to have to live in the same town, to be so close to her, and yet not be with her.
      They were married by the time John was eight years old. They moved into a little house that had belonged to his grandmother and in the years that followed they had another son and a daughter. He liked to think that he loved them all equally – none more than the other. As far as he was concerned, John was his oldest son. That’s not to say the boy’s actual father had in any way stepped out of his life. Quite the contrary. He and Cassie did everything possible to make sure that father and son had access to one another.
      They had been through a lot over the years. But it had been worth it.
      Richard gave his wife’s hand a squeeze. All that blond hair had fallen out when she’d gotten sick. It had grown back eventually, but it hadn’t been the same. It was thinner, more fragile, like the rest of her. It was only later that they learned it was because she had never really gotten better.
      “Don’t leave me yet, Cass,” he whispered in the quiet hospital room, willing her to hear him. “Give me just a little more time.”
      From the doorway, John watched his father and mother. Of course, Richard was not really his father, but he’d called him ‘dad’ since he was eight years old. It had been strange having two fathers. Difficult, even, at times. But they had managed to work it out. As he had gotten older, he had wondered why his mother had left his father, but the answer was always obvious. It was always in her eyes over the dining room table. In her laughter on family vacations. Rick had been her first love and she had never forgotten him. As John had gotten older, and fallen in love himself, he came to understand her choices better and couldn’t bring himself to begrudge her any of the happiness she’d found.
      He cleared his throat. “Hey, Dad.”
      Richard turned to see John leaning against the doorframe.
      “What are you doing here? I thought everyone had gone home hours ago.”
      “They did. I came back though. I knew you’d still be here and I guess I wanted to check on you both.” He came into the room and sat down in the chair on the other side of his mother’s bed. “How’s she doing?”
      “The same.”
      “Any sign that she might wake up soon?” John asked hopefully.
      The truth was she hadn’t been awake for two days.
      “No.” Richard rubbed his eyes. “And if the hospital staff is letting us both sneak in here at all hours, my guess is she’s not going to, son.”
      John nodded.
      Maybe it was the way his stepfather so casually referred to him as ‘son,’ but John was suddenly reminded of all the times he had wondered as a teen if he was really viewed that way. Of course his mother had loved him – he had never questioned that – and Richard had never shown any partiality, but John couldn’t help it. Sometimes he had to wonder if they loved the children they had had together more because they were theirs.
      Maybe it was the fact that his mother was dying that made him wonder about his place in his own family. He was really only hers, after all. His brother, his sister, Richard, they were all only partially his, whereas they belonged wholly to one another. What would happen to them when she was gone? When there was nothing tangible to hold them all together?
      “Dad?” he heard himself ask, almost as if it was not his voice.
      “Mm?”
      He looked almost as bad as his mother. There were deep shadows under his eyes, the skin there already sagging with age. The lines around his mouth had grown deeper in the past few months. John worried about the effect his mother’s eventual death would have on the man she had loved for twenty-five years of marriage and for many years before that.
      “Nothing.”
      “What is it, John?”
      He wavered again and then smiled a little ruefully. “I was just thinking about how I’ve always been a little jealous of you.”
      Richard could not have been more surprised and his face showed it.
      “Maybe jealous is the wrong word,” John continued quickly. “It’s just that you were the first one she ever loved.”
      “John…” Richard got up from the chair and walked around the end of the hospital bed to put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “What a thing to say.”
      “I know.” He avoided his stepfather’s eyes.
      “And here, all these years I’ve been a little jealous of you.”
      Laughing was the last thing either of them had intended to do that night, but before they knew it, they were both smiling and doing so quietly. Maybe it was the exhaustion that drove them to it, drove them to the strange conversation, but both felt a little lighter for it.
      “It’s a terrible thing to be jealous of a child, John, but when I came back and saw your mother with you, I knew then and there that I would never be the only one in her life. More than that, I knew I wouldn’t be first in her life. She loved you like nothing else.”
      John could feel tears burning the back of his eyes, but he hadn’t cried since he was child.
      “Thanks, Dad,” he managed to say.
      Richard patted his shoulder. “I couldn’t help but love whatever she loved, John. Her love was infectious. Like a wonderful disease. I hope you know that you’ve always been a son to me as much as your brother. And nothing will ever change that. Even when she’s gone.”
      John nodded, not trusting himself with words. He put his hand over his stepfather’s, and the two men were silent for several minutes, the only sound in the room the quiet beep of the heart monitor.

Catching up with the Past


He was leaning against the counter drinking his coffee when he saw her from the other side of the room. She was sitting alone at a table by the window, sipping her drink as she watched the people walk by the glass. She reminded him of someone sitting there, but he couldn’t place his finger on. It had been too many years ago, and his memory had grown faint of her. She was gorgeous though, he had to admit that, and he was tempted to go over and start a conversation with her.

“Stare much?”

The voice pulled Jason away from his thoughts. “Shut up, Dave.”

His friend laughed. “I’ve known you for thirteen years, I don’t have to shut up.”

“I’d be nice to your new boss, Dave,” Jason said with a slight smirk, “otherwise, he might just fire your sorry ass.”

They laughed. “So, what do you think?” Dave asked after a moment.

“About?”

“The girl.”

Jason took a long drink from his cup. “I can’t believe she’s not with someone.”

“So are you going to go over there, or do I have to do it myself?”

Jason replied with a blank stare until his friend gave him a challenging look. “Fine,” he said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of keys. “Go ahead and open up the restaurant; I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”

“You think you can get it done that quick?”

“Get outta here!” Jason said, pushing Dave toward the door and making his way toward the window. “New to town?” he asked when he reached the young woman at the table.

She looked up at him and a slight smile graced her lips. “That obvious?” she asked.

He returned her smile and pulled up a chair to the table. “It’s just that not too many people from here stare out the window. People think it’s kinda weird actually.”

“Well I’m a weird person, what can I say?”

He laughed warmly. “So what do you think of it? Kingston, I mean.”

She shrugged. “Haven’t been able to enjoy too much of it, actually. My work hours are rather crazy.”

“What do you do? I mean, if I’m not being too nosy.”

“Advertising.”

“Oh, anything I might have seen?”

She took a drink from her cup. “No, most of my work is back in the states. I was just promoted to our office up here. A&R Advertising.”

“You’re kidding.”

She shook her head.

“That’s the place that does the promos for my restaurant.”

“You own a restaurant?”

“The owner’s never around, so I might as well. You’re looking at the manager of Randall’s.”

“Jason.”

“The one and only.”

She smiled. “Your series of restaurants is one of our biggest cases up here.”

“Considering you’re here now, I don’t think that you have to refer to it as ‘up here.’”

A faint pink crossed her upper cheeks.

“I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

“Ann,” she said.

“Ann… You sure you’ve never been here before? I feel like I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“I have been here before,” she admitted. “I actually studied a semester at Queen’s University.”

“That’s not too far from my old apartment.”

Ann took a another drink from her cup. “Amazing.”

“Maybe I have seen you before then. I’m sure you’ve had to have wondered off of campus on occasion.”

She smiled. “I was quite the nighthawk back then. Still am, to my dismay.”

“No dismay, being a nighthawk is the only way to be. I’ve been one for as far as I can remember back.”

“Which would be...?” She took another drink.

“Not too long these days. I’m afraid my old age is catching up with me.”

She laughed. “You’re not a day over thirty.”

“Thirty one next month.”

A beeper went off, and they both checked their side. “I better be heading to the office,” Ann said. “It was nice talking to you, Jason.”

“You too. And you’re sure I’ve never met you before?”

“I’m afraid that’s impossible, sweetheart.” She graced him with another smile, and left the table without another word.

Sweetheart…?

He turned around, searching for her, but she had already left. “Ann?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Beyond Expectations

Not a sound could be heard beyond the muffled click of dice in Sebastian’s hand. At first he thought it was his own intense concentration that was blocking out the commotion around him, but he soon realized that the silence around him was, indeed, reality. Gaming hells were never quiet, much less silent. The men nearest to his spot had been watching the game for some time. Their earlier shouts and cheers of excitement must have drawn the enormous crowd that now surrounded him. Just moments earlier the noise in the club had been deafening as the stakes had been raised. Now there was only baited breath and anticipation as every eye in the room was on him.

Sebastian stood at the table, the small ivory cubes in his hand vibrating against his flesh with each undulating motion. All it would take was a single flick of his wrist to decide his fate. A fortune sat before him—all the money that he could not afford to lose, as well as the amount that would change his life if he won.

Untitled 1: Part II

Detective Eileen Riley pulled up in her old red Ford Escort and surveyed the area, which was crawling with police and members of the media. This was not a good way to start a Tuesday morning. Actually, it was a bad way to start any morning. The air was thick with heat and humidity, the temperature hovering near ninety degrees, and it was only eight o’clock. To make matters worse, the air conditioning in her car had gone out the week before, and she just couldn’t afford to have it fixed again. She knew when her beeper went off that she wouldn’t have time to drive to the station to trade her car for a department vehicle, either. Not when the crime scene was only a few miles from her modest, northwest-side bungalow.

“Morning detective.”

Eileen grinned at the boyish looking traffic officer who was waving her into a parking spot. “Hey kid,” she called through her open car window. “What’s shaking?”

“Not much, just hanging out doing my job. Lovely commuters aren’t too happy about me re-directing them around this.” He waved his hand at the throng of emergency vehicles and looky-loos.

“I bet. But you’re doing a good job. And there’s a special place in Heaven for police officers who direct traffic in heat waves.”

He nodded at her. “I would have to agree with you on that.”

“Keep up the good work. I’d ask you to direct me, but,” she looked at the building she was parked in front of, “I think it’s pretty obvious where I’m heading today.”

“Sure thing detective. Have a good day.”

“You too. Don’t work too hard.”

He smiled and gave her a wave before resuming his traffic-directing duties.

Eileen was already perspiring badly as she stepped out of the hot car. She tucked damp strands of dark brown hair behind her ears, silently cursing herself for canceling her hair appointment three days earlier. She hated when her hair got past her shoulders, especially during the summer. The nylon lining of her blazer was sticking to her skin, making her feel hotter than she already was. Fishing in her pocket for anything that would keep her hair out of her face, she came up with a button, some loose thread, random lint, and a single latex glove. She frowned, but decided to make the best of a bad situation.

Eileen’s partner, Ryan Maxwell, chuckled as he watched her bite through the latex and attempt to pull a strip off of the glove. He stifled his laugh as the latex stretched, and instead of breaking, snapped back and hit her in the face. He watched her struggle for another minute, until the latex finally gave way, then actually laughed out loud when he saw her gather her hair into a rather messy ponytail, and stretch the latex and tie it like a ribbon around her tresses. Eileen heard him laughing and she stuck her tongue out at him. She narrowed her green eyes into slits and scowled, trying to intimidate him with a dirty look, to no avail. It just made him laugh harder. Finally, she rolled her eyes and walked over to him.

“You know, if you were any kind of gentleman, you would have at least checked your own pockets to see if you had a rubber band or something I could’ve used. Instead, you’re just laughing your ass off. Jerk.”

Ryan patted her on the head. “I know I’m a jerk. But it was funny. You looked like a dog trying to tear into a piece of steak, and it was hilarious when the glove snapped back and hit you in the face.” He reached out and rubbed the middle of her forehead, where the latex whip had left a bright red welt. “I’m glad it missed your eye, though. That wouldn’t have been funny at all.”

Eileen sniffed at him. “Sure it would’ve been funny. Because then you would have been the one stuck driving all the time. And for a change, I could sit in the passenger seat and bitch about your road technique.”

“Whatever. It was still funny.” He ran his hand over his smooth blonde hair. “And you’re just pissy because my hair’s better than yours.” Eileen groaned, only because it was partially true. Ryan’s short, wavy hair always looked good, and never got in the way. “But anyway, enough with the jokes. Do you have any details about any of this?”

Eileen shrugged. “Not much. My pager went off, and when I called in, I was just told that it was a homicide, single female victim. Apparently, it looks like sexual assault, too.” Ryan and Eileen began walking toward the old brownstone building. “Do you know if the body’s been moved at all yet?”

Ryan shook his head. “Not yet. So, I figured we might as well get in there and check things out before too many feet trample all the evidence. I called up Lucy for the initial stuff.”

Eileen smiled to herself. Lucy was a sixty-seven year old retired wedding photographer, who was looking to do some volunteer work to keep busy. When her letter came through to the department a year earlier, they had all thought it was some kind of joke, but it wasn’t. They ended up hiring Lucy on as their part-time crime scene photographer, and strangely enough, Lucy seemed to enjoy the work. And everyone in the department loved her. She took great photos, and was great at capturing some of the details that other photographers would have missed.

They made their way up the narrow stairwell and Ryan steered Eileen down the hall. “This way. It’s the end unit.”

Eileen didn’t have to be told which unit it was. The stench was already wafting down the hall. Ryan handed her the small jar of Vicks that he carried in his pocket. She took it from him, grateful that he always had it handy. Eileen chuckled to herself as they both smeared liberal amounts under their nostrils. She remembered the time she had bought Vicks to carry in her own pocket, only she had bought the cream instead of the thicker ointment, and it had immediately soaked into the skin of her upper lip and lower nostrils. She threw it out the car window when they left that particular crime scene, Ryan laughing hysterically at the bright red patches on her face. From then on, she relied on Ryan and his faithful jar. She was jolted back to reality by the sudden foul odor that wafted up to her. Even with the Vicks, they could still smell the stink of death.

“Do you know who called it in?” Eileen asked.

Ryan nodded. “Apparently, the vic’s mom was worried because they were supposed to meet for dinner last night, but the girl never showed. She called the building super, and when he went to knock on her door, he smelled something. Rather than key in, he opted to call 911.”

“Smart man,” Eileen said, and Ryan nodded in agreement.

They both flashed their badges upon entering the small apartment. Crossing the threshold, Eileen was temporarily blinded by Lucy’s overzealous flashbulb. She blinked several times in order to re-focus.

Ryan quickly scanned the area, noting the chaos of the room. He whistled soft and low. “Someone was way pissed here. What a mess.”

Eileen shook her head as she snapped on a pair of latex gloves, her sharp detective’s eyes scanning her surroundings. The walls were baby blue with dark chocolate crown molding, stained glass windows on either side of the stone fireplace, dark wood furniture. Very tasteful, very modern. And not a mess. At least, not the kind of mess it should have been for this type of crime scene. Eileen shook her head at Ryan’s comment. “No, not really a mess. I mean, on the surface it’s a mess, but it’s very controlled chaos. Look,” she said, using a gloved hand to point out her observations. “Nothing’s broken. The lamps are knocked over, the coffee table is on its side, the pictures are knocked off the walls. But nothing is damaged beyond repair. Even the glass top of the coffee table is intact. And look at the pile of perfectly folded clothes on the couch. I would also be willing to bet that nothing’s missing. Whoever did this wanted it to look chaotic, maybe even make it look like a robbery gone bad. But he, assuming it’s a he, was perfectly controlled.”

Ryan smiled, admiration in his eyes. “I knew I always liked you. You’ve got a good eye, Riley.”

“Oh, please,” she retorted, rolling her eyes. “Like you didn’t notice it yourself. C’mon Ryan. We’ve been partners for six years. Cut the crap.”

Ryan was pleased. He and Eileen worked well together, and they had taught each other a lot over the years. He was ahead of her in the academy, but back then, he had lacked the motivation to move forward with his career. After meeting and hitting it off as the best of friends, he taught her to be streetwise and pay close attention to her surroundings on the streets when they were beat cops. In turn, she definitely taught him a thing or two about paying close attention to their surroundings at crime scenes after they had both made detective—he of course, a little bit behind her. They were a good match. And he wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re like those swimming pool dancers in the Olympics, he thought. What the hell are they called? Oh yeah. Synchronized swimmers. He and Eileen were definitely synchronized.

They had taken some flak from the department, and just like any place of employment, rumors would periodically surface that he and Eileen had a more personal and intimate relationship, but it just wasn’t true. What was true was that there was no denying they were attracted to each other six years ago as rookie cops, but through an unfortunately painful process, during which Ryan finally had to admit to himself and to her that he was gay, they actually ended up growing closer. For the most part, people just thought that he was an eternal bachelor, addicted to having as luxurious of a lifestyle as he could afford, living it up like he had when he was younger, and Eileen would never utter anything different. He knew his secret was safe with her. And Eileen had her own secrets that he knew about. He loved and respected her too much to ever reveal the details of her life. Like Eileen, he ignored comments about her being a dried up, no fun person, on the verge of being an old maid or a spinster. He knew different. Few people were aware that she could shoot whiskey with the toughest guys or even drink Jack straight from the bottle. When push came to shove, she had bigger balls than all the guys on the force combined.

Meanwhile, the time had come to get down to business.

Eileen squatted next to the body on the floor. She ran her finger over the girl’s neck, which was at an odd, disconcerting angle. The poor woman was so tiny, and in death, she looked even tinier. Even sprawled out, naked on the floor, limbs staked out spread-eagle, you could see that she was barely over five feet tall, and maybe all of about ninety pounds. Dark blue and purple bruises covered much of her milky white skin, and a deep slash stretched across her throat, leaving crusts of blood in her hair and a sticky, congealed mess under her head like a viscous pillow. The poor girl’s face was frozen in a mask of terror, blue eyes staring out blindly at whatever had put that terror in her face.

Ryan nudged Eileen with his elbow. “Poor thing. I hope she was dead before he raped her.”

Standing back up, Eileen sighed and nodded her head in agreement. Whoever had done this to the young woman had been brutal and violent in his assault. “I hope so, too. But I don’t think so. And I don’t think he was the one that raped her. At least, not at first.” She tilted her head to the golf club and baseball bat on the floor nearby, walking over to them as she did so. “I’m betting that the puddle of blood between her legs has more to do with what these did to her, than what he did to her.”

Ryan let out an audible groan when Eileen lifted the golf club, the long handle sticky with blood. “Sick bastard. It’s not enough he had to attack her and humiliate her. Apparently, he wasn’t even man enough to do it himself. He needed a little help inflicting pain. Probably got off on it.”

The Medical Examiner’s office had sent Harvey Weinboon, a short, solidly-built man with thick, black-framed glasses. His dark eyes swam behind the lenses as he looked up from the body and piped in with his two cents. “You’re not kidding. And trust me, she was alive when he did this to her. Her heart was beating away, which is why there’s so much blood from the injuries. With any luck, she was unconscious. But I doubt it. He wanted to hurt her. I mean really hurt her. Look at the bruises, the ligature marks. Her hands and feet are purple, and not just from rigor mortis. He had her tied so tightly that the circulation was cut off. And I can’t be a hundred percent sure, but I’m betting that he didn’t even penetrate her himself. There’s quite a bit of dried semen on her thigh. Looks like our man has a little problem with premature ejaculation.” He was busily swabbing the area, then added, “I’d guess she’s been dead for a little less than twenty-four hours. Hard to tell, because the heat kind of speeds things up. After the formal exam, I can probably tell you more.”

Eileen’s breakfast churned audibly in her stomach. Ryan looked at her quizzically. “You okay, kiddo? You’re looking a little green around the gills. And your tummy doesn’t sound too good, either.”

She smiled wanly. “I’m fine. My bagel isn’t sitting very well. Probably has something to do with the heat and the smell. I’ll be fine.”

Ryan guffawed a little. “Oh you with the tender tummy. How have you made it this far? You’re queasy on a bagel? I had a full McDonald’s breakfast on my way here, and I’m just fine.”

“God, how can you eat that crap? I mean, how can you eat that crap and then come to work? Or, how can you eat that crap and still have clean arteries?”

Ryan smirked at her. It was one good thing he could lord over her. Eileen was smarter, more motivated, more attractive, more of just about everything, including being very health-conscious. Despite her best efforts at diet and exercise, though, she continued to battle high cholesterol. He, on the other hand, was like a kid. He could eat whatever he wanted, and not suffer the consequences. Oh, he knew it would probably catch up with him someday, but for now, he was all for bringing on the grease.

Mike O’Brien, the department’s favorite paramedic, piped up. “Don’t worry, Eileen. It’ll catch up to him. Ten years from now, he’ll be a fat slob, and you’ll still be retaining your girlish figure.”

Eileen grinned at the compliment. She was hardly small. Not by a long-shot. At a big-boned five-ten and a fit one sixty-five, she could hardly say she had a girlish figure. She was slim, considering her build, but definitely curvy in all the right places. And a little curvy in some of the wrong places, too. Her green eyes twinkled. “Thanks, Mike. You’re the best.”

Mike flashed his pearly whites at her as he headed out the door. “No problem, my little chickadee. I am the best.”

Harvey rolled his eyes. “Cut it out Mike. Your charm will get you nowhere with the good detective. Besides,” he sniffed, “don’t you know she’s saving herself for me?” He struck a muscle-man pose, flexing his large biceps. Eileen laughed at the ridiculous competition of the two men and turned back to the body, determined to wrap up as quickly as she could so she could get out of the stench of the apartment.

She felt a hand on her back. She turned and saw Ryan with an odd expression on his face. She sneered at him. “What’s the matter? Teasing getting you down?”

Ryan shook his head and pointed to the dead girl’s feet. “No, no, I can handle teasing. I practically invented it.” He squatted down to more closely examine the soles of the girl’s feet. “Did you see this?”

Eileen looked at him, then at the girl’s feet. “See what? What are you looking at? The bruising on the bottom of her feet and heels? Probably defensive wounds. I bet she kicked like crazy, trying to get away and get him off her.”

“I know that,” Ryan said, gently lifting the girl’s left foot. “But I’m talking about this. What is that? Harvey, did you see this? What is it?”

On the bottom of the girl’s foot was what at first appeared to be a tiny, tiny tattoo. Harvey squinted. “I didn’t get much past the basic stuff yet. What am I looking at?”

“This tattoo,” Ryan said. “But it looks funny. It looks like…” His voice trailed off and his eyes widened.

Harvey squatted next to Ryan, fully blocking Eileen’s view. She nudged him aside so she could join in on whatever they were looking at.

Harvey let out a low whistle. “It’s a shallow carving, not a tattoo. And there's a surface burn over it. Why in the world would she have a carving in her foot?” He ran a latex-covered finger over it. “It’s fresh. I mean, it’s cleaned up, no dried blood around the cuts, but you can tell by the separation of the skin under the blister that it was done recently.” He brought the foot nearer to his face for closer inspection. “I swear, if I didn’t know better, I would think it looks like—”

“The Big Dipper!” Ryan blurted out. “How freaky is that?”

Harvey nodded. “It does look like the Big Dipper. I think it is.”

Eileen looked harder. “Harvey, I think you’re right. I mean, I’m not much into astronomy, but I can tell you that I’ve done my share of star-gazing, and that, my friend, appears to be the one constellation that just about anyone could recognize. Hello Big Dipper.”

She frowned a deep frown, the kind of frown that made her brows furrow, the kind of frown that said this was not going to be an open-and-shut case. She glanced at Ryan. “You think it’s a calling card?”

Ryan shrugged. “Could be. I don’t think we should jump to any conclusions, though. It could be something, but maybe nothing. Could have been self-inflicted before any of this went down, but who knows?” His frown matched Eileen’s, because he knew, deep down, that no matter how much he tried to shrug it off, this was, indeed, something.

Eileen swallowed hard, trying to keep the contents of her stomach where they belonged. Sweat had pooled under her arms and rivulets ran down her back, making the waistband of her pants damp and clingy. She shifted uncomfortably, getting annoyed with the number of people in the room.

Unable to tolerate the crowd, the smell of the dead body, and the odors from everyone else, she called out, “Can we get this thinned out a bit?” Several officers looked at her, appearing grateful for the intrusion. Nobody wanted to be there any longer than absolutely necessary. “Who was the first to arrive here?”

Two officers put their arms up. Jenna Morris and Brian Coatley. Good officers. Eileen held up one finger to them, while simultaneously waving others out of the room. “Everyone else can go. We’ve got the photos we need, so Lucy, you can wrap up. Wait. Did you get close-ups of the face?”

Lucy nodded, handing her several Polaroids. “Will these do?”


Eileen nodded. “Perfect. You can head out.” She barked out a few other random orders, and within minutes, it was down to Ryan, Eileen, Harvey, Jenna, Brian, and Nicholas “Butch” Toronado, the lab guy. Butch had been patiently waiting for Harvey to finish so he could dust for prints. He’d been tempted to just get started, but knew that the dust could potentially muck up the autopsy, so he hung around to the side, waiting.


* * * * *

As Mike and his partner, Bill Starks, made their way back to the station house, Bill raised an eyebrow. “There something going on between you and Riley?”

Mike was dumbfounded. “Gosh, no. Why would you ask that?”

Bill gave a mischievous grin. “I heard what you called her. ‘My little chickadee.’ That speaks of something kind of personal, my man.”

Mike laughed out loud and wiped sweat off his brow with a beefy forearm. “You’ve got too much time on your hands. Been watching too many movies with the wife, or something. I’ve known Eileen for a while, but not like that. She’s a sweetie, but one tough cookie. Man, she could kick my ass from here to Timbuktu. Nah, we’re friends. We hang out sometimes with Ryan down at Charlie’s, but that’s it. Kick some occasional ass challenging everyone to some dart throwing, have a few beers. No big deal.”

Bill shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s hot, especially if you like ’em a little bigger. She is tall. You know, tall for a girl.”

Mike nodded in agreement. “She is pretty tall. When she wears heels, she’s as tall as me.” He rotated his head as he drove the ambulance, popping his neck. Bill cringed at the sound, but Mike let out a sigh of relief. “Damn, that felt good. My neck’s been killing me. Can’t sleep at night.”

“You know what cures that, buddy?”

Mike rolled his eyes. “No, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me all about whatever magical cure you’ve got forming in that T-Rex brain of yours. What?”

“A woman. You need a woman in your bed.” Bill paused, waiting to see if Mike would clench his jaw and become silent, as he usually did. Mike said nothing, just continued to look out the windshield of the ambulance, but he didn’t look angry. Bill opted to keep talking. “I’m not kidding, man. You’ve been alone for a while now. I know you miss your wife, but the time does come to move on. Not necessarily get married again, but at least start living.” He paused, then added softly, “You’re my friend, Mike. I worry about you.”

Mike looked at Bill, pain in his eyes. “I know, I know. You wouldn’t be a friend if you didn’t try to set me straight once in a while. It makes perfect sense. I just don’t feel ready yet. For anything.” He shrugged, giving a quick glance to his gold wedding band and stared out the windshield again. “Maybe I’ll never be ready. Tina was my whole life. Our marriage meant everything to me. Now that she’s gone, I guess I’m just sort of—I don’t know. We planned on spending the rest of our lives together. She held up her end of the deal, you know? I feel like I’d be failing if I didn’t do the same.”

Bill was quiet for a minute. “I know that. But she wouldn’t be angry, you know. She’d understand. And don’t get confused, buddy. You held up your end of the deal, too. I think you probably held up the harder end of the deal.”

They arrived back at the station house, and Mike carefully backed the ambulance into the garage. He said nothing, and Bill knew that once again, it was a dead subject. They hopped out and Mike ran upstairs, by all appearances just eager to just sit and relax for a while before another call came in. But Bill knew better. He knew that Mike was trying to outrun the pain, outrun the memories that haunted him. Bill shook his head, feeling sorry for the poor man.
At six-two and two hundred forty pounds of muscle, Mike was a force to be reckoned with. He was a big man, with a bigger heart. His body was solid and thick, and people often commented that he reminded them of a brick wall. He had a broad chest and shoulders, lean waist, and muscular legs. Piercing blue eyes appeared even more intense because of his ruddy complexion, and he had a chiseled oval shaped face with a strong jawline. The fresh-from-the-outdoors look about him gave a sort of All-American appearance. Despite his large shape and muscular physique, Mike was a gentle soul, which was obvious in the care he gave his patients during emergencies. Many people had commented on his gentle touch and soothing voice, which could calm in even the most frightening of situations. The same hands that could pick up and carry a grown adult or snap a piece of wood in half were the same hands that gently delivered a premature baby two weeks ago and softly pumped its chest while performing CPR to save its life. Bill knew that Mike had a special gift and deserved to find happiness again.

Mike sat in an oversized chair, allowing himself to drift back and think about his wife. He had seen combat in the Gulf War before he and Tina had gotten married. Medical school had always been a dream of his, but as tension in the Middle East grew, Mike knew that a war was coming, and the patriotic pull was strong. He and Tina had been together for three years, engaged for only three weeks, when he poured his heart out to her one night. She was horrified at the idea of him joining the military, but knowing she wouldn’t be able to sway him, took a fully supportive stance.

He took a leave of absence from school and after thoroughly researching each branch of the military, he settled on the army. He had completed basic training, reveling in the structure and physical demands he faced. Five weeks after completing training, he received his orders. Going to the Middle East. Sort of like twenty-five years earlier, when guys got their papers marked Southeast Asia. They knew where they were going—straight to Vietnam. And Mike knew where he was going. He felt ready.

He completed his tour overseas, remaining faithful to Tina, writing and calling as often as he could. He never described the horrors he witnessed, choosing instead to talk about their future and their plans for his return. Tina kept herself busy with wedding preparations, never letting on to him that she was terrified of planning a wedding they may never get to. They got married hastily when he was on leave, Mike rationalizing it, saying that if anything happened to him, at least she would have widow’s benefits. When he did return permanently, they both tried hard to pick up where they left off. Mike had had some difficulty readjusting to civilian life, but he kept it to himself and quietly returned to medical school. He worked part-time security in the evenings so he could attend school, and Tina worked full time as a pediatric nurse at Northwestern Memorial.

Medical school seemed easy compared to fighting in a bloody war and Mike sailed through the last of his education, graduating near the top of his medical school class and landing a coveted position in the same hospital as his wife. Despite his huge accomplishment, that was when the real problems started. He hated his job. He was working in the ER during his residency, usually the same shift as Tina, but he couldn’t stand going to work every day. He would grumble in the car on the way there, grumble again on the way home. Tina tried to talk to him about it, but he often got angry, then sullen, then silent.

Tina begged and pleaded with him, trying to figure out what was going on, but she always got the same answer. “I don’t know, babe. It just feels like something’s missing. I picked the ER because I thought it would be a faster pace, but I just can’t stand it. It’s not what I was hoping for. Maybe I should have gone into surgery instead. Or pediatrics. I don’t know.”

He continued that way for the duration of his residency, growing more and more discontented as the days went by. Finally, he just couldn’t take it anymore. As they were getting ready for bed one night, he’d finally had it. “Tina, I have to quit. This isn’t for me. I’m sorry, but I just can’t stand it.”

She was angry, and admonished him at first for throwing away his years of education and a solid career, but in the end, just as she always did, she supported him. “What do you want to do?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. Something else. Anything else.”

It took some time, but he finally realized that what he was craving was the adrenalin rush he’d experienced while overseas. That’s why he had chosen to work in the ER originally, but after everything he had witnessed during the war where he had worked as a medic, the ER was pretty boring. After doing some research, and spending hours weighing the pros and cons of what would be a life-altering decision, he finally decided that being a paramedic was the way to go. He worked for a little bit longer to save money and pay off his and Tina’s debt. Then, when he was sure he was ready, he quit his job, did the paramedic training, and hadn’t looked back. Mike knew it was a rare man who could get up everyday and enjoy going to work, and he definitely counted himself among the lucky ones. He kept up with his medical training and paid the required fees to keep his medical license on an inactive status, just in case he ever decided to go back to it, but truthfully, he so enjoyed his job, that he wasn’t sure why he bothered shelling out the money, time after time.

Of course, there were plenty of things that Mike did that didn’t make much sense. Like working at all. Money wasn’t an issue. He and Tina had planned well and they both had substantial life insurance policies. After her death, he’d collected three hundred fifty thousand dollars. On top of that, he and Tina had invested in a separate policy that would pay off their mortgage in the event of either of their deaths. He ended up selling the place two months after she’d died and had pocketed the five hundred thousand. Nobody knew that except him, of course. Most people assumed he couldn’t keep up with the house payments and that was why he’d downsized to the apartment he now lived in, which wasn’t even close to the truth.

In quiet moments, Mike had to admit to himself that the truth was that he couldn’t stand the agonizing loneliness of living in the same house they’d shared. He’d kept a few mementos of hers, including her wedding gown and some of her jewelry, had selected a few items for her parents and sister, but had given away everything else to Goodwill. He’d mistakenly thought that eliminating the things that reminded him of her would help the healing process, but he’d overestimated his ability to come home to the space they had shared. Though he cleaned and kept it up, he was still haunted by the air that remained lightly fragranced with her perfume. Even worse was the hollowness he felt every time he went into their bedroom. And then there were the extra bedrooms. The bedrooms they had planned on filling up with children. Tina had decorated a nursery, but it sat empty, year after year and she wouldn’t agree to taking anything down. Mike still shuddered when he thought about the last argument they’d had about it. Finally, it was just time to face that the house was too big for him and he needed out. He put it on the market a month after she died and he had an offer within two weeks after that. They closed shortly thereafter and he moved into the apartment that had been his home for the past three years now.

He could have afforded to buy a luxury condo or another house, but he liked where he was at. It was quiet. Nobody bothered him. And most importantly, he didn’t go through his days feeling like Tina was always waiting for him in the next room. He’d even gotten rid of the beautiful king-size, sleigh bed they had shared, not wanting even that reminder of their relationship.
Now, sitting in the fire house, waiting for the next call to come in, he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been hasty with his decision. Maybe if I had just stayed put and not gotten rid of all her stuff , he thought. If I was still living at the house, wrapped up in memories of her, people would just leave me alone. I don’t need another woman in my bed. Tina was enough woman for me when she was alive, and I should feel lucky and grateful for that. Feeling unsettled now, he tilted his chair back and propped his feet on the table in front of him, leaning against the wall with his hands laced behind his head. Better not to think about it. Just live my life like I am now. The alarm sounded then and Mike was on the move, all thoughts of Tina gone from his head.


* * * * *

As Mike dashed off to another emergency, Eileen and Ryan were suffering in the late morning heat, wrapping up at the crime scene where their day had started. Eileen was eternally grateful to be leaving. The smell inside had made her nauseous, and a throbbing headache was building behind her eyes. Ryan walked her to her car. “I’ll meet you back at the station. You okay to drive?”

Eileen nodded. “I’ll be fine. I’m going to stop for some coffee. Maybe that will help with the headache. I can’t stand this heat.” She removed her blazer and tossed it into the back seat. “I really need to get a car with air conditioning. You know, air conditioning that works. This is brutal.”

Ryan nodded, sympathetic to her plight. He knew how badly she wanted a new car, but he also knew that she had other priorities in her life right now. “Do you just want to leave your car here and I’ll drive you back later to pick it up? My car has air.”

She shook her head, declining his offer. “Nah, I’ll be okay. Besides, if I show up at the station all sweaty and yucky, at least folks will know I’ve been working.”

Ryan laughed. “Everyone knows how hard you work. And speaking of working, we need to see the good Lieutenant when we get back. He wants you to do the press stuff.”

Eileen’s eyes widened in disbelief. Their Lieutenant, Michael Kelly, was a good old Irish boy, complete with red hair and freckles. He was also six foot four and probably weight two hundred and sixty pounds. And he hated the press.

“What? Why me?”

“I don’t know. He just said he wanted you to do it, thought it might all look better coming from a woman, something about appealing to the public conscience. I guess he thinks you’re a little more people-friendly than the rest of us.”

“Great. Like I don’t have enough to worry about. Now I have to worry about being pretty for some stupid press shots. That is so not what I need right now.” She was scowling as she said it. “Now I’ve got a bigger headache. Damn! I’ll see you later.”

Ryan chuckled at her pouty face. “You’ll get over it. Enjoy your coffee and I’ll see you later.”

Eileen slid in behind the steering wheel, closing her eyes for a moment, resting her forehead in the palms of her hands. Out of nowhere, hackles raised up on the back of her neck, sending a chill through her body. This was not going to be an easy case. Not at all.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Untitled 1: Part I

Prologue



It was the quick flash of pink that initially caught his eye. Not just any pink. Not Crayola pink or that weird mauve color that tried to pass itself off as pink or that obnoxious neon pink from the ’80s that was so bright it made you see green when you closed your eyes after looking at it. Oh no. This was little girl, cotton candy, pale pink. His pulse quickened, and he felt heat rising into his face. Anyone looking at him would have made the assumption that it was the heat of the enclosed space that was causing the redness in his face, making tiny beads of sweat form on his upper lip. But that wasn’t it. Not by a long shot. A low buzzing sound filled his head, blood thundering in his ears, pulsing in perfect cadence with his heartbeat. He was completely enthralled, unaware of the hum of the industrial washers and dryers, or the tinny laugh of the elderly men in the corner that carried through the air while they folded their shirts. All of his attention was focused on the dryer just to the right of his. Every few seconds, he would see the flash of pink, as the tiny bikini panties tumbled over and over. Then, almost as if on cue, the dryer slowed down and stopped, the pink panties coming to rest up against the circular glass.


“Excuse me,” came a young, female voice. He turned and saw a tiny wisp of a woman, maybe around twenty or twenty-one. She was very petite and thin, with short, curly red hair that grazed her jaw line, and blue eyes. A smattering of freckles danced on milky white skin, over the bridge of her nose and high up on her cheeks. He noticed that her eyes and nose crinkled when she smiled, as she was doing now. “I just need you to move over a little bit so I can get the door open.”


“Sorry,” he said, stepping to the side, as she swung open the door of the dryer. Immediately, the panties dropped to the floor, and the young woman hurriedly swept down and grabbed them.

Nice ass, he thought, as she bent over, noticing her fluid, graceful movement, and the way her small, tight ass pressed against her jogging pants. He found himself getting hard as he pictured that adorable little ass in the pink panties, probably with her ass cheeks peeking out of the bottom a little. That was the way all the panties were cut nowadays. Low-rise, the bottom seams curving up just enough to let some cheek peek out from underneath. He felt his temperature rise as sweat began forming along his hairline. The bulge between his legs strained against the tight confines of the zipper on his jeans. He could hardly stand it.


He noticed her lithe movements as she quickly folded her clothes and placed them in a small laundry bag. She swung it over her shoulder, calling out, “Have a nice day,” as she walked past him, heading to the door. He hated that she was so casual about their encounter.


Redheads shouldn’t wear pink, he thought. Nope. That just won’t do at all. He snatched his still wet clothes out of the dryer, flinging them carelessly into his laundry bag, and hurried out the door after her. It might be interesting to teach her what colors redheads should wear.