CHAPTER ONEI CANNOT PEEL MY GAZE AWAY from the manila envelope sitting in the driver’s seat of my sedan. The single, calligraphic ‘A’ handwritten on its front is unmistakable. Immediately, I know what day it is, but I take my cell phone out of my pants pocket and engage the display to verify. It reads Tuesday, July 17 06:34. My fingers and toes curl and chills sweep through me despite it being ninety degrees already. After ten years you’d think I’d never forget this day, or perhaps I would’ve added a calendar reminder on my phone so that I wouldn’t, yet I stand frozen in my driveway staring through my car window at an envelope I should’ve expected but didn’t. In my defense, it’s not an event that I ever wanted to be memorialized, but the bastard who’s left it will never let me forget it. I look around, half-expecting him to be watching me—waiting for my reaction and getting off on it like the disturbed voyeur I imagine him to be. It sickens me that he’s eluded me for so long, and so the chase goes on. It’s a twisted little game I never asked to be part of, yet I obsess over it. I will not rest until I bring him to justice. I take my keys out of my pocket. They jingle-jangle in my trembling hand like sleigh bells. I wish the envelope were from some imaginary entity full of jolly and kindness, but I know better. I settle on thanking the stars for the key fob that hangs from the keyring. If not for it, I’d be keying the side of the car trying to unlock it. I press the right button on the key fob, but nothing happens. I press harder, then several more times, but the doors don’t unlock. Anger stills my hand. Why does technology thwart me at every turn? It has my entire life, and I’d love a reprieve from it. Just for one day. This day. Is it too much to ask for? I smash the button down one last time and the doors unlock with a click. Tension drains from my fingers and toes, but I know it’ll be short lived. I pull the driver’s side door open, grab the envelope and toss it onto the passenger seat, and then plop down onto the driver’s seat. My hands wrap the steering wheel and I stare at the brown stucco wall in front of me. I have no desire to open the envelope because it will contain another letter and some random-ass item that leads me straight back to where I am: nowhere. However, my resolve is fragile, and my curiosity is piqued, so I snatch the envelope off the passenger seat and clutch it between my hands. I want to rip it open and dump its contents into my lap, but this one’s different than the others. The ink used for the ‘A’ on its front is blood-red instead of the usual black. My breath catches in my throat like half-swallowed food, and my heart knocks against my rib cage with such violence that it jolts me forward time and again. What does the red ink signify? My heart knows the answer, but my mind isn’t ready to make the connection and draw the conclusion. I turn the envelope over and carefully bend up the two metal prongs that secure its flap. I pull the flap open, reach inside the envelope, and pull out a bracelet of tightly woven strands of red and brown, their makeup of which eludes me. Another friendship bracelet? I examine it closely but find no significance. No tag. No message. A simple bracelet just like the first one. Why would he send these to me? I slide it back into the envelope, pull out the folded piece of yellowed paper, and place the envelope back on the passenger seat. I unfold the paper and stare at its blank surface, but I know it’s far from that. My palms, wet with perspiration, stick to its edges. I peel my right hand away and wipe it on my pant leg several times, but the clamminess remains. I take a deep breath and slowly glide my finger across the page. The words, strung together with braille letters meticulously poked into the paper, pierce my heart and numb my mind.
A badge and a gun you possess But it’s a heart you’ve never had The lies you tell make you far less And drive this hatter mad Alice, you should’ve listened to me When I said you had one last chance But you couldn’t stomach paying the fee For your sordid little romance Now my patience has run dry And your time has just ran out No longer can you turn a blind eye To things that come about You will play into my plans And soon you’ll see just how All the blood is on your hands And there’s no stopping now
I groan and the paper crumples where I’m clutching it. I want to wad it up and toss it into a burning trashcan down on South Central. I want to forget Denise ever existed, but I can’t. I didn’t even know her, yet I’ve clung to her existence for ten years just so that I could find the single person in the world that could explain why she chose me and why they helped her. I cannot rest without answers. I smooth the paper out where I crumpled it, fold it back up, and place it back inside the envelope. I close and secure the envelope and take a deep breath. Everything will be okay. By this point in my life I should know that lying to myself does no good. I press the start button on my dash and the engine roars to life without hesitation. Honestly, I’m surprised. I switch on the AC, but nothing happens. I smack the top of the dash with my fist because sometimes it helps make things work, but not today. Not on July 17th. The damned thing’s gone on strike. Fifteen minutes later, I pull into the parking lot at the police station. I’m not sure how I even made it there, the drive just a blur. I shove the envelope under the seat and climb out of the car. My clothes are stuck to my sweat-covered body. I peel my blouse away and fan myself with it to try and get some air circulation, but the result is far less than I’d hoped for. I’m glad I showered this morning. I walk inside and straight to my office, grab my mug off my desk, and head for the breakroom down the hall and to the left. Inside the breakroom I find Officer Janis picking up shards of glass off the floor. “What happened?” I ask even though the evidence is clear. She looks up at me over her shoulder. “Stupid thing stopped dispensing water, overheated the pot, and exploded. Luckily no one was in here at the time.” “Ugh. How am I supposed to survive the briefing without caffeine?” I look over at the counter on my left. “No donuts either?” Officer Janis shakes her head. “Nope. Bob’s out sick today. He picks the donuts up every morning.” I look around. Paint chips hang on the cinder-block walls in several places like scabs waiting to be ripped off. The carpet is ripped in places and completely gone in others, the pattern it once donned lost in the past. Brown stains dominate the yellowed drop-ceiling which had once been a pristine white. All three tables sit on crooked legs, each wobblier that a Weebles doll, and the chairs are a haphazard waiting to be had. Budget cuts have hurt everything. I retreat back to my office, drop off my empty mug, and head to the locker room. A few minutes later, I find myself staring into my open locker, my mind hung on the words of this morning’s letter. All the blood is on your hands. Had he meant Denise or something far worse? “Bergman.” Lieut. Frost’s voice startles me. I glance around, knowing the exact reason for Lieut. Frost’s visit. No Seth? Where the hell are you? No one lurks about in the locker room other than Lieut. Frost who strides toward me with dogged determination. His bulldog jaw is set and his ice-cold, blue-eyed gaze chills my core. This day can’t possibly get better. I shake my head and slam my locker door shut. Lieut. Frost pulls up next to me and suddenly I feel like a dwarf from Middle Earth. I’m 5’7”, but he’s nearly a foot taller than me and twice as wide. He has the Superman look nailed, but there’s no chance of him having a suit and cape underneath his drab attire. Every day he wears brown slacks, a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and some sort of power tie. Today it’s red and matches his cheeks. Matches the ink on the envelope. The breathable air dissipates as the smell of his cheap cologne snakes into my nostrils like octopus tentacles. I breathe through my mouth and do my best not to gag on the skunk-butt odor. Lieut. Frost’s brow sinks, and his nostrils flair. He’s clearly immune to his own stench. I stifle a snort by coughing. His eyes narrow as he pushes his wireframe glasses up his nose. Even in that small act his bicep bulges underneath his shirt. I’ve seen him do it a thousand times, but I still stare with awe. He is an exquisite specimen of the human male and I cannot deny myself a lingering glance even though his personality repulses me even more than his cologne does. I lower my gaze. His forearms are stout branches compared to my twiggy arms. “Bergman, where’s that worthless partner of yours?” His gruff voice shakes my chest like a barrage of bass from a rap song. It focuses my attention quicker than a dog sighting a squirrel. I close my eyes and lean my head against the locker for effect. “Oh God, I knew I’d forgotten to do something. Ryan’s car is in the shop. He asked me to give him a lift this morning.” I slam my fist into the locker next to my head. “Dammit. I’m such a ditz.” “You keep covering for him and it’s gonna be your ass, Bergman.” I sigh and pull my head away from the locker. “I swear, Lieut., he really did ask me for a ride this morning. I totally spaced it. This one’s on me.” He shoves a meaty finger in my face and shakes it at me. “Briefing room in thirty. Detective Ryan had better be there. Am I clear?” Clear? Not through the skunk-butt cloud of cologne you’ve brought with you. I need to seek lower ground to survive. I hold my tongue and nod. It’s a rare occasion, and I’m proud of myself for doing so. Lieut. Frost shakes his head, a boulder atop a mountain of traps and shoulders. “Save your smirks until after I’ve walked away. Makes your blatant lies a bit more palatable.” I nod again and then clear my throat when I hear the soft squeak of rubber-soled shoes on the other side of the lockers. Lieu. Frost doesn’t react to the sound and instead storms away. I let out a deep sigh, breathe in through my nose, and regret it. The air still reeks of skunk butt. I turn around and face the opposite end of the line of lockers. “You can come out now, Seth.” Seth Ryan’s head pokes around the end of the lockers. “How do you do that? I didn’t make a single noise.” I breathe on my nails and rub them on my shirt. “I told you I’m a certified ninja. I’ve got more than ten years of ninjutsu training.” I move into an angry tiger stance and motion him forward. “Nothing escapes me. By the way, you need new shoes. The soles are wearing on the outside edge and causing you to walk bowlegged. Get ‘em fixed or I’ll have to find myself another partner. And FYI, I don’t date cowboys.” Seth rounds the corner and waddles toward me like a penguin-cowboy. A crooked smile mars his otherwise beautiful, hairless face. I conjure a smile as I roll my eyes. His wavy brown locks hug the top of his head like a glove, and the sides and back are trimmed short. If he were allowed to grow it out I think he’d look even sexier. He reminds me of Jon Bon Jovi, but only in looks. Seth can’t carry a tune to save his life. Believe me, I know. Karaoke night at The Dive was a onetime deal. I’d never been asked to step off the stage in the middle of a song before. Awkward moment. Who knew a duet of Close My Eyes Forever would bring us to the lowest point in our relationship? I’m certain I did Lita Ford proud, and who could possibly screw up Ozzy Osbourne? Seth. Only Seth. We still hang our heads in shame every time we pass by The Dive’s doors, and we’ve never set foot inside its walls since. I think back on all the situations we’ve been forced into over the last two years that we’ve worked together, and I cringe. Hopefully Seth will never have to sing to save my life. His voice might kill me before my captors got a chance. His tight blue jeans hug his muscular legs and drape over his black leather boots like curtains hung too low, and his black button-up shirt is untucked at the side and back. He always wears his shirts with two buttons undone at the top—a sight I relish. He’s not a hairy man, so thankfully there’s no tuft of hair poking out like the gerbil on Tom Selleck. A thick, silver necklace with a dagger pendant hangs just below his neckline. He’s never without it, just as I am never without my cross-pendant necklace. His cologne, Drakkar Noir, precedes him and chases away the skunk-butt scent that Lieut. Frost left behind. I breathe deep, every muscle in my body tenses, and I shudder with delight. Seth is my partner, both in work and in life. He is my foundation rock. My shelter. He holds the weight of the world on his shoulders so that I don’t have to. He keeps the monsters at bay—at least the ones he knows about. There are some things I keep from Seth, not for his sake but for mine. He knows nothing of my past, and I’ll do everything in my power to keep it that way. He doesn’t know about the ten letters I’ve received over the past decade either. He doesn’t need to. Those letters are between me and the sicko who sends them. I will catch that bastard if it’s the last thing I do. He’s the reason I became a detective in the first place. Seth weaves his fingers into mine and presses me up against the lockers with my hands over my head. He leans down, and his hot breath moistens my skin just before his soft lips caress the side of my neck. I moan, louder than I’d expected. He leans into me and I lift my legs and wrap them around his waist. His gun digs into my ribs a little, but it’s soon forgotten when he nibbles on my lower lip and pulls on it. Perspiration trickles down my nape, under my arms, and the crag between my breasts. I pant, finding myself breathless. “Oh geez, get a room. Or at least let me grab some popcorn first.” Officer Todd appears in my peripheral view. I turn my head to the left and glare at him. “You sure know how to ruin a moment, Tommy.” I unwrap my legs from Seth’s waist and lower them back down. Seth nibbles on my earlobe, either oblivious to Tommy or egging him on. I can never be sure. I shudder as waves of ecstasy ripple across my body. Seth comes up for air and releases my hands. I give him a hard stare for a moment and then crane my neck until my cheek rests against his. I whisper in his ear, “You’d better make good on this tonight.” He presses into me. “What’s wrong with right now?” I admit that I don’t want him to stop, but the department locker room is the last place I want to bare my breasts and backside, audience or not. I muster as much restraint as I can and push him away. Seth turns toward Tommy and winks at him. “I’m afraid the show’s over, buddy. Better get here earlier next time. Doors open at 6am.” I roll my eyes. “The only times you’ve ever seen 6 am is when you’ve been awake all night.” “Pfft. Stay the night with me, and I’ll be up anytime you want. Guaranteed.” Tommy’s cheeks turn red and his gaze falls to the floor. “Don’t you guys have somewhere to be? Some corpse to unbury or some killer to hunt down?” Tommy walks over to his locker, places one hand over the lock’s dial so we can’t see his combination, and then spins the dial left then right then left again with his other hand. It clicks, pops, and then the door opens with a groan. Tommy’s only been on the force for three weeks, but he’s already made a lasting impression on me. His elongated forehead and alien-shaped face reminds me of Barney Fife from The Andy Griffith Show. Much like Fife, he’s a beat cop down on South Central Blvd. Not a place I’d want to be assigned. Thomas Terrence Todd. What were his parents thinking? He goes by Trip T in the rap world. My eyes tear up, and I snort so violently that it pangs my throat. Seth frowns at me. “What’s so funny?” I shake my head and walk toward the exit. Sometimes it’s the best thing to do. “Be safe out there, Tommy. I don’t want you to be my next call.” He nods as I walk by. “You, too.” Seth follows me out of the locker room and down the main corridor like a leashed dog. My leashed dog. We’re like Turner & Hooch. I snort again and cough. If he knew some of my thoughts he wouldn’t be so eager to stand at my side. Then again, I can’t even imagine what goes through his mind at times. Don’t think I want to. We stop by our shared office and I freeze in the doorway. The light on my desk phone flashes like an ambulance and my breath catches in my throat. I look over at Seth’s desk. His isn’t flashing. My pulse begins to race and sweat beads on my brow. No one ever calls my desk phone anymore. I check my cell phone, but I’ve missed no calls and have no messages. I walk into the office and round my desk. The stale, hot air weighs on me like a dense fog and I have to sit down to keep my legs from buckling underneath the crushing weight. My throat muscles contract, and I fight to catch my breath. I look up. Seth is eying my desk phone. His gaze moves to me and locks on mine. “Do you want me to check it?” I know it’s more of a rhetorical question because he always listens to the messages no matter whose phone they’re left on. But he always asks. I swallow hard and nod once, certain that if I were to answer vocally I’d only squeak like a mouse. Seth pulls my desk phone over to his desk, settles in his chair, and stares at the phone for several moments before finally picking up the receiver. He presses the red button and enters my 6-digit code on the dial pad. He stares at me as he listens to the lengthy message. His shoulders continue to droop, and he hunches farther in his seat as the seconds go by. His brow wrinkles and then furrows, and his eyes narrow until nothing but slits remain of them. He sets the receiver back down on its cradle, closes his eyes, and exhales. He pinches the bridge of his nose and leans back in his chair. He slams his fist into the chair arm. “Damn. This isn’t right. I’d hoped today would be a good day.” I cannot help but think that what he heard on the message is somehow linked to the envelope left in my car. The blood is on your hands. I look down at my crimson-stained hands and cringe. They’re not actually red, but it doesn’t stop me from picturing them that way. “What did the message say?” “Anonymous call. A body’s been found.” I know how this conversation will go. I can feel it in my bones, and my heart’s already aching. I know all the answers he’ll give me, but I still have to ask him the questions. I can’t help myself. “A girl?” He nods but doesn’t open his eyes. “Fifteen years old.” The tension in his voice could bring down a building. “Raped?” I brace myself for his confirmation. “Yes…” His eyes shoot open. I can see the fury burning within them, and I don’t blame him. I know that same fury rages within mine as well. His jaw tightens, and he talks through gritted teeth. “But it’s far worse than that.” Far worse than the rape and murder of a young girl? I don’t understand, and I need to know. “How?” Seth slams his fists into his desk. A stack of case files tilts and then falls on the floor with a smack, and my phone’s receiver jumps out of its cradle. He picks the receiver back up and slams it back home. It wouldn’t surprise me if he cracked the whole damn phone. He glares at me, but I’m not the source of his rage. “What kind of sick son-of-a-bitch rapes and murders a blind girl?” Blind… My head nearly explodes, and I gasp as the word processes in my head. My mind leaps back ten years. My stomach twists into knots, and I cannot move. My feet root themselves to the floor and my arms to the chair. Tears wet my cheeks, and my eyes sting with shame. Seth stands, rounds his desk and mine, and places his hand on my shoulder, but I get no solace from it. He says something to me, but fear renders me deaf and his words fade into ambient noise of buzzing fluorescent lights. Blind. The letter in my car… It’s no coincidence. He’s finally killed, and I know why. I sob as a single thought sears my mind like a cattle brand and marks me as the monster I am. She’s dead because of me.
©2018 Drezhn Publishing LLC – all rights reserved