Wednesday, April 30, 2014
The Who: Twin sisters Dharma and Karma Watson
The What: An irreversible tragedy
The When: January 1, 2014, 3:05 AM
The Where: Long Island, New York
The Why: Alcohol
The How: Alcohol
Dharma and Karma Watson were born seven minutes apart. Identical twins, the two girls not only looked the same–they dressed the same, sharing the same hobbies and interests, and acted the same. Well, they usually acted alike.
But Dharma did not share her sister’s sexual proclivity. Dharma was still a virgin, even orally. A fact her sister fought valiantly to change.
She couldn’t see that Dharma was content with things as they were. She wasn’t a prude who saw all the girls giving themselves up as whores. She just didn’t see the point in giving herself away for nothing. As corny and old-fashioned as it sounded, she wanted her first time to be meaningful. She wanted the person with her to feel what she felt. Love.
When New Year’s Eve 2013 came around, Karma was up to her old tricks again. She purposely wore the skimpiest black dress she could find with fishnets, knowing that Dharma would feel compelled to keep up their tradition of dressing in the same fashion. And seeing as how it was her turn to choose where they spent the night, she picked the rowdiest club on Long Island.
Karma spent the night shamelessly flirting with every man that turned to putty in her hands. While Dharma spent the evening spurning the advances of every drunken slob that approached her with a horrid pickup line.
“Hey baby, what’s your sign?” one guy asked.
“Do not enter,” she responded.
“Is this seat taken?” one guy asked, motioning to the empty stool next to her.
“Yes, my invisible dyke girlfriend is sitting there.”
“Hey girl,” another guy said. “You’re looking lonely. You wanna dance?”
“You wanna fuck off?” she asked in response.
At least nobody tried, “Nice shoes, wanna fuck?” She would’ve had to dish out a black eye for that infraction.
When the ball dropped at twelve, Karma was making out on the dance floor with a guy she had known for all of ten minutes. And Dharma was still seated at the bar, downing her eighth Screwdriver while watching her sister make a fool of herself.
They left the club sometime after midnight, the guy from the dance floor following them to Karma’s red Corvette convertible.
“Where are you going?” the guy asked as Dharma fished through Karma’s purse for her keys. Karma was in no condition to drive. Fifteen different men had treated her to drinks and shots, and she hadn’t turned a single one down.
“We’re going home,” Dharma told him.
“But the party’s not over yet,” he insisted. He had short hair and a beard and he was cute to Dharma, looked kind of like Jake Gyllenhaal. But she was in mood for desperation from a guy looking to score with her flesh and blood.
“It is for us,” she said vehemently.
She helped a stumbling Karma climb into the passenger seat, but neglected to buckle her in. She brushed past the Gyllenhaal lookalike, got in the driver seat, and started it up.
She saw the guy hovering around behind the car and put it in reverse, her foot still on the brake. But she wanted him to see the brake lights so he knew she meant business.
He took the hint and jumped out of the way as she floored it in reverse and sped out of the parking lot.
Dharma saw a sign for the east entrance ramp of Ocean Parkway, and got on heading west. New Year’s Eve had spilled over into New Year’s Day, and the party was still going. Karma dug into her purse and removed a silver flask, unscrewing the cap.
“What’s that?” Dharma asked, her vision was fuzzy but she could still make out the empty road ahead of her.
“Oh, this,” Karma said, slurring her words. “This was what I used to pregame for tonight. I filled it up before we left the house. It’s Vodka.” She took a swig. “You want some?”
“What the hell?” Dharma shrugged as she accepted the flask. “You only live once.” She took a gulp of straight Vodka and it burned the back of her throat. She exhaled deeply and passed the flask back to Karma.
As they reached an overpass, Dharma could see blurry lights in the distance. Headlights of a black Escalade traveling at eighty miles per hour.
Her eyes drifted to the speed gauge and saw that they were traveling at seventy miles per hour. Her motor skills impaired, she was too slow to react. There was little time to swerve or clear out of the way. She closed her eyes and braced herself for the inevitable.
Both vehicles collided in the center lane. Karma was ejected from the Corvette, her body discovered forty feet from the crash site. Dharma suffered internal injuries and died almost instantly. The driver of the Escalade was a lone man in his late-thirties, who also died in the accident. And like Dharma, he was also found to be driving under the influence.
It was a highway patrolman who came across the wreckage at 3:05 AM. The patrolman called into dispatch and reported the accident, citing a ghost driver as the cause. The dispatcher was unfamiliar with the term and asked foolishly for the patrolman to elaborate.
The patrolman explained that a ghost driver is a term for someone who drives on the wrong side of the road.
Karma and Dharma Watson were twenty-one years old, and one year away from college graduation. Karma was going to practice law, and Dharma was going to be a veterinarian. And as they were born together, now they would be buried side-by-side together, always to be remembered for a senseless tragedy that could’ve been avoided.
Shaving in the winter can be a real bitch.
I let the faucet run until steam clouds rise up and the water reaches a boiling temperature. Cupping my hands under the cascading water, I rub it over my face to open the pores of my skin.
A few seconds later, the water dripping from my face adapts to the temperature surrounding it and turns colder than ice. Shivering, I force myself to slather on a handful of shaving cream and, being the creature of habit that I am, I pick up my razor and start with the left side. I always shave the left side first. It’s not tradition or superstition. It’s just a random habit I’ve yet to break.
Natalie’s voice distracts me from the doorway and the razor slips, nicking my cheek.
The blood trickles down my cheek and swirls around the drain, mixing with the water and shaving cream to form an odd pinkish hue.
“I’m thirsty,” she says, standing in the door wearing nothing but one of my plain black T-shirts. The shirt is huge on her and it goes down to her thighs, sheathing her naked body. I’m freezing just looking at her.
Natalie Hernandez is one of those freaks of nature who never get cold. There could be snow on the ground and you’ll see her out in a T-shirt, shorts, and flip flops. She doesn’t feel it at all, not even the frost bite nipping at her toes.
“Gringo, are you listening to me?” It’s not my name, but she’s called me Gringo ever since we met. I don’t know, it just stuck. “I’m thirsty.”
“So have a drink,” I say. “There’s still some left in the fridge. We’ll get more soon when we make another delivery.”
“But what?” I say, irritation resonating in my voice. I’ve had little patience for Natalie these days. Whatever it was that first attracted me to her, whatever it was that first brought us together… is gone. I can feel it. The only person who doesn’t seem to feel it is her.
“Are we bad people?” she asks.
“No,” I assure her again. But we sure as shit aren’t good people anymore, either. And as she goes to the fridge to finish off the last of the vial, I wonder if there’s a God. And if there is a God, I wonder what category he’d place us in.
It wasn’t always this way. But things changed when the mutated blood hit the black market.
Yes, the black market does exist. You can find anything you’re looking for. Drugs, illegal firearms, banned books or toys, Cuban cigars, outlawed pornography, and of course, vials of mutated blood that can be used for recreational purposes.
Nobody truly believed in the theory of evolution until the human body actually started to evolve. Now, it’s estimated that one out of every ten thousand people carry the mutation gene that gives their blood its psychoactive potency.
These people are illegally hunted and their blood harvested for profit by the Factory, an organization as underground as the black market itself. Their operations are run by a finicky pedant named Brian Vanacore. My employer.
Brian obsesses over every minor rule or detail. And punctuality is a big factor in that fixation. Show up late once and you’ll never work for him again.
Brian lives by a code of esoteric rules that was designed for only him to understand. But Brian has been successful up to this point, so who am I to judge these arbitrary methods he uses to conduct business?
And as I mentioned punctuality, I should mention that Brian is expecting me tomorrow. And he’s expecting two fresh packages.
These packages will be easy to acquire. They live right in my building.
* * *
Natalie stands at my side as I knock. It takes a moment for Merinda Johnston to answer her door. “Can I help you?” she asks.
“Yes ma’am,” I say, faking a smile to appear benevolent. “We live downstairs and I hate to trouble you, but could you please lower your television? It’s right above us.”
“The TV? The TV isn’t on.”
“Are you sure?” I ask.
“Of course I’m sure,” she snaps at me. “I think I’d know if my TV was on or off. You trying to say I’m an idiot?”
“No ma’am,” I say. “I’m sorry. We must have the wrong place.”
I push my way in, knocking her flat on her back. The hammer concealed in my jacket is released and I bring the blunt end down across her head three or four times until she stops squirming.
I let Natalie test it out. She takes a dab of blood with her fingertip and licks it off like she’s licking chocolate. Instant euphoria.
We have package number one. Now where is package number two?
A toilet flushes and the bathroom door swings open. Tim Johnston steps out and sees his wife, sees the hammer, and comes charging.
The hammer swipes through the air and levels him with one vicious crack to the skull. Blood oozes forth from the wound and I lean forward to gather some of it on my finger, bringing it to my tongue.
No high. No instant euphoria. All I taste is the vile metallic sting of blood. This man has not undergone genetic mutation. He’s not the second package. So who is?
We check the rest of the apartment. There’s a spare bedroom they use for storage. Lots of family pictures and photo albums. But the Johnston’s don’t have any kids, nor do they have any family living with them. They’re all alone.
So where’s the second package? Did Vanacore give me the wrong figures, or did I screw up and get the apartment numbers mixed up? If it’s the latter, it’s the last time I’ll ever work for Vanacore again.
* * *
The cycle is a term I use to describe the full experience of a blood rush. You drink it, and in seconds, you start feeling the effects. An overwhelming sensation of bliss. An awesome wave of euphoria washes over you. As the drug spreads through your system, you will feel a warm tingling sensation in the pit of your stomach. That feeling slowly spreads until it’s evenly distributed amongst your extremities.
This feeling of warmth and bliss eventually converts to a feeling of indifference. You become disconnected, apathetic. This state lasts for an hour or so, and is followed by feelings of remorse, sorrow, and self-loathing. Then it all wears off and you’re back to square one, craving another fix to start the cycle over again.
I got my fix last night as I had taken a small sample of Merinda Johnston’s blood for myself. I didn’t want Natalie to be the only one with a buzz on.
But now the blood has worn off and my hands are trembling slightly at the wheel. My body is telling me it’s time to start the cycle over again. But first I have to pull this meeting off with Vanacore.
He’s expecting me to meet him in an underground parking garage at precisely eight o’clock.
“Gringo, can we stop for coffee?”
“No time,” I explain as I drive down Essex and make a right onto Fairview. I can’t speed because I can’t afford to draw attention to myself, but time is of the essence. I don’t have a second to spare for Natalie to grab a cup of Joe.
“You never have time for me anymore,” she says, pouting.
“Once we get through this, we’ll stop and get coffee, ok?”
“Ok,” she nods. Then add, “Joshua, do you still love me?”
She rarely calls me Joshua these days. But that’s my birth name. Joshua Crowe. And I know when she calls me that, it’s her attempt at sounding serious.
I look deep into her soulful brown eyes. I see a brief glint of hope in those eyes, and for a moment, I feel that spark I felt when we first met.
“Yes,” I tell her. “I still love you, Natalie.”
“That’s all I needed to hear,” she says, reassured.
I hang a left onto Old Barto Road and make a quick right into the underground parking structure. I pay the entry fee and check the time on my cell phone. It’s seven-fifty-five. I’m five minutes early.
I drive towards the end of the structure and find a black van with tinted windows parked in an empty row. The passenger door opens and Vanacore steps out to greet me as I exit my Buick LeSabre. He rolls up the left sleeve of his Brioni suit to check his watch as I anticipated.
“You’re early,” he says with a smile that is so out of character it frightens me. “I like that. Do you have the two packages?”
“There was a complication,” I say, my voice cracking from dread. “I have one package in the trunk. Merinda Johnston. Her husband’s blood was not a match. He doesn’t carry the gene.”
“I know,” Vanacore says, still wearing that disconcerting smile.
“But you said two packages, sir.”
“I said there were two packages in your apartment building. I never said they were a couple. Merinda Johnston was one. The other is sitting in the passenger seat of your Buick.”
“No,” I shake my head. “You never mentioned–”
“How could I tell you over the phone? It had to be in person for you to truly understand. Natalie is a mutant, no different than Merinda or the rest of them. And she’s coming with us one way or another. You can either profit from the fact, or you can die trying to resist us.”
In a downhearted state, I consider my options briefly. Then I walk over to the passenger side door of the Buick and Natalie opens it. I tell her Mr. Vanacore would like a word with her. I play it cool and walk around to the trunk, where Merinda Johnston’s body rests, and I unlock it. She doesn’t suspect a thing until the backdoors of the van open up and three men in hoods jump out the back and snatch her up. She kicks and screams as they drag her towards the back of the van.
Two more hooded men remove Merinda’s wrapped body from my trunk and stuff it into the van along with Natalie and slam the doors shut, silencing Natalie’s screams.
“Is it going to hurt?” I ask.
“No, she won’t feel a thing,” Vanacore says, but his words fail to assure me. “You look pale. You’re shaking. This will help.” He hands me a vial of red liquid. I down it without a moment’s hesitation, and the cycle starts over again.
Sunday, April 27, 2014
Genre: Crime Drama
(The Third Installment in the Wes Archer Series)
It was early September of 2013, a few nights after the Harvest Moon when the girl’s body was discovered at the abandoned foundry. The corners of her mouth had been slashed with an unidentified object, bisecting her cheeks and giving her the ghastly visage of a permanent malformed grin.
Carter City Police Department went over the area with a fine toothcomb. And their search still yielded no tangible evidence. The killer was vigilant; covering every track, not leaving behind a single footprint.
Detective Wes Archer was on the scene. He had turned thirty-seven that August, but the stress that these cases brought made him feel twice his age. His partner, Dale Craven’s birthday was right around the corner.
Dale is what the old timers around the station call a thrill seeker, an adrenaline junkie. Dale participates in skydiving and hang-gliding on the weekends, and holds a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
Hard to believe that a man who voluntarily jumps out of planes could be shook at a crime scene, but that night, Dale was shook.
The girl was no more than sixteen. A runaway who had been reported missing by her parents two weeks prior. And that night, the brutality, the senselessness of it all just seemed to get the better of Dale.
“Weeks of sitting on our asses, filling out paperwork, and now this? Who could do such a thing?”
“We’ve seen worse,” Archer said, trying to balance the situation.
“You have. I’m still new to this gig. I guess I don’t have a steel stomach yet.”
“You’ll get used to it,” Archer said as he put on his examining gloves. He was able to ID the girl as Fran Fowler, the aforementioned runaway from the birthmark on her inner thigh that had been exposed by her torn black skirt. Her purple blouse was still intact, but caked in blood that had dried to a thick red crust.
The birthmark had been reported by her parents when the girl took off without notice.
Rising from the victim’s throat, Archer caught the lingering scent of bitter almonds. A taste and scent that’s associated with potassium cyanide.
“She was poisoned. Have Pete do a toxicology report. I’m positive they’ll find traces of cyanide. The cuts were likely made postmortem.”
“What does this mean?” Dale asked. He looked like a kid trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together with pieces missing.
“It means the killer didn’t want to prolong her suffering. He ended it quick. Then made the incisions. Could be gang related. A way to send a message. Or it could be the grisly calling card of a new serial killer."
* * *
Two days later, the call from Pete confirmed traces of potassium cyanide were found in Fran Fowler’s system. The cuts to her face were made postmortem as Wes had also suspected and were determined to be made with a straight razor. But their examination failed to yield a single print, sample, or useful piece of evidence to aid them in their investigation.
“You want some coffee?” Dale offered Wes, who was busy at his desk looking at case photos.
“I’d prefer a shot and a brew,” Wes responded.
“You’re better off not having coffee,” Officer Barclay said to them in passing. “I don’t know what Foley puts in that blend but it always gives me the runs. Burns my stomach, too.”
“Thanks for sharing,” Wes said, rolling his eyes. “Where is Foley anyway? He was supposed to get that report for us.”
“I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.”
Barclay brushed shoulders with Officer Nathan Foley on his way to the bathroom and let him know he was being summoned. Foley gathered the report and personally delivered it to Archer’s desk.
“I can give you a summary if you’d like,” Foley offered, trying to seem eager in front of a veteran like Wes.
“Sure,” Wes shrugged. “Saves me the trouble of reading it all.”
“Fran Fowler was sixteen, a shy runaway who bailed on her parents a week ago. We talked to the parents, they weren’t very cooperative. Officers searched her room, found nothing of interest. The last person to see her alive was Heather Underwood, seventeen years old, a student at Carter City High. Heather says they were walking back home from school when Fran claimed she forget her book bag and had to turn around. She told Heather to go on without her. And her boyfriend was Vernon Keene, a local druggie with a few misdemeanors under his belt.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s everything worth nothing.”
“Thanks, Foley,” Dale said as he knew Wes left his manners back in high school. “That’s all we needed.”
“You want to ask this Underwood girl a few questions?” Wes asked his partner.
“You read my mind, bud. And when we’re done with her, I’d like to ask this Vernon Keene a few questions too.”
* * *
Wes parked his Jeep outside the Underwood house and they waited patiently for Heather to return from school. As she walked down the block and approached the door of her house, Wes and Dale stepped out from the car.
“Miss Underwood,” Wes snagged her attention. “I’m Detective Archer. This is Detective Craven. Carter City Homicide. We’d like to ask you a few questions about Fran Fowler.”
She dropped the book bag from her shoulder and walked over to them. “I just lost one of my best friends,” she snapped at them. “Don’t you guys have any respect? You should be out looking for the sick fuck that did those horrible things to her. Not out questioning her friends who cared about her.”
“If you cared about her, then help us. Tell us about the last day you saw her.”
“I already told the police. We were walking home from school; she had forgotten her bag and told me to go on without her. So I did. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but I think she left her bag behind on purpose. So she could disappear without any explanation. I was her best friend and she didn’t even want me to know.”
“Why do you think Fran ran away?”
“I can’t say for sure, but I think she was unhappy. I think she wanted a better life. That was Fran, she always wanted more from this world. More than her parents could offer her.”
“And what can you tell us about Vernon Keene?”
She hesitated for a brief second, but it was that brief second that told Archer she was hiding something. “Her parents didn’t approve of their relationship. They were old-school and they didn’t think races should mix. So when Fran brought a black guy home for them to meet, they weren’t pleased.”
“But what kind of person is he?” Archer pressed her for answers.
“He was always nice to me, and Fran. I never saw them fight.”
“Did you ever see Keene use or sell drugs?”
“Did you ever do drugs with him?”
“I don’t use drugs.”
“I thought all the kids used drugs nowadays.”
“Not me,” Heather shook her head. “Do you have anything useful to ask me?”
“Yes,” Archer continued. “What are you hiding from us?”
“I’m not hiding anything,” she said, twirling a strand of her hair in an innocent fashion. “If you want answers, ask Keene yourself. Or ask Fran’s parents. They’re the ones that drove her out of that house. Now leave me be or I’ll have my family’s lawyer up your ass in a heartbeat.” She picked up her book bag, unlocked the front door, the slammed it shut before they could ask another question.
As they walked to the Jeep, Dale asked, “Should we talk to Fran’s parents again?”
“No,” Wes shook his head. “She’s just covering for Keene. I saw the way she hesitated when I asked about him. And I saw a twinkle in her eye. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she has a thing for this Keene fellow. But a cop knows that anyone with a criminal record is not a quote-unquote nice guy. If Keene had anything to do with this, we’ll find out.”
“Where do you want to look for him? I had the boys check his place. He’s not home and he’s not at the school, either.”
Wes opened the driver-side door of his Jeep. “I want you to stay behind and canvas the neighborhood. Find out what you can about Heather Underwood and Vernon Keene. If Keene is still in the city, one of my snitches will know where to find him.”
“Can I be frank with you?”
“I would expect nothing less.”
“I’m tired of this crap. You’re constantly bossing me around and sending me off on bullshit assignments while you do your lone wolf thing. I’m your partner, start treating me like it.”
“We may be partners, but I have the guts, the knowledge, and the experience. You’re still a rookie in my eyes, and a pitiful rookie at that. And I never asked to be your partner.”
“Yeah? Well I never asked to be your partner, either. They stuck us together for God knows what reason. But that doesn’t mean I have to take shit from a washed up drunk who smokes pot and shoves needles into his arms like he’s a common criminal.”
It was that final remark that sent Wes over the edge. He took the first swing, which Dale ducked and caught him with a fist to the kidney. Dale swung again, but missed and hit the driver-side door. Shaking off the pain in his hand, he left himself open to Wes, who caught him with a hard knee to the gut.
Dale dropped to one knee and caught Wes’ fist in the face. He flopped over, his vision blurred as he could feel his eye instantly swelling. As Wes grabbed him by the collar and raised his fist again, a voice shouted out, “Hey! Knock it off before I call the cops.” It was a nosy neighbor who had witnessed the scuffle and was attempting to break it up.
“We are the cops, dipshit,” Wes shouted back. He relaxed his fist and extended a hand to his fallen partner. He helped Dale back to his feet and he dusted himself off and rubbed his hand across his swollen eye.
“I’m sorry,” Wes said. The apology was not one Dale was accustomed to, but he accepted it anyway.
“No, I’m sorry,” Dale said, still shaking it off.
“You know what? Screw canvasing the neighborhood. You can ride with me.”
They go in the Jeep together and Dale examined his black eye in the rearview mirror. It would take a few days to heal.
“You know what today is?” Dale asked as if Wes should know the answer by heart.
“No, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“My birthday. And you gave me a black eye as a present.”
“Well, at least we’re even now.”
“How do you figure?”
“You gave me a tie rack for my birthday.”
Wes has a variety of seedy connections throughout the city that feed him information in exchange for immunity. One of these snitches is a young man aptly nicknamed Toad. At least he didn’t name himself Rat.
Last time Wes left off with Toad, he was out of the drug game and working the local soup kitchens. But old habits die hard as the saying goes.
When Wes and Dale finally located him, it was on the corner of Sparkwood and Sycamore. The downtown section of Carter City. To the cops, downtown Carter City is known as drug central. You can find anything you want from weed to speed to heroin.
Wes crept up slowly along the curb and rolled his window down. “Back in the game?” he said, startling Toad. “You disappoint me.”
“Gotta make a living,” Toad defended himself. “Now what can I help you with? You want the usual?”
Dale shot Wes a disapproving look. “We’re not here to buy,” Dale spoke up. “We’re here for information. And you better sing loud and clear or your ass is gonna be spending the night in county lockup.”
Toad threw his hands up as if to say “you got me.”
“Like I said, what can I help you with?”
“Vernon Keene,” was all Dale said. Toad nodded.
“I know him. He hangs out around here. Usually chills by the arcade. But I haven’t seen him around lately.”
“You heard about Fran Fowler?” Wes joined back in the conversation.
“Yup,” Toad said. “And I’m guessing you think Keene killed her. But trust me, he doesn’t have it in him. Kid’s a scumbag, but he’s no murderer.”
“Why do you say he’s a scumbag?”
“He’s a player. He juggles girls like a professional. When he was dating Fran, he was banging half the bar skanks in downtown Carter City. Not to mention her friend, Heather.”
“What about Heather?” Wes asked.
“She and Keene were fucking.”
* * *
They popped by the arcade and scoped it out. Vernon Keene was nowhere to be found. And Wes didn’t think he would be hanging around in plain sight. But he knew finding Keene was only a matter of time.
They returned to the department and punched out, calling it a day.
At home, Wes considered calling his father. They hadn’t talked to each other in almost a year. Adam Archer had yet to forgive his son for what he had done.
And Wes had yet to forgive himself, too. It was the only decision in his career that haunted him. He turned in his own brother, Aaron. It got him a major promotion to Homicide and earned him the respect of his peers for having the courage to turn in his own flesh and blood. But it had destroyed his family in the process.
Even if he blocked the number, his father would hang up as soon as he heard Wes’ voice. So he unplugged the phone, stepped away from it, and focused his mind on the case.
Fran Fowler was poisoned with cyanide, then hacked with a razor before her body was dumped. This was no spur of the moment incident. This was premeditated murder.
A smalltime thug with a petty rap sheet like Keene could never be smart enough to hatch a plan like that. Not on his own. So maybe Toad was right. Maybe Keene wasn’t a murderer. But he was still worth questioning.
So Wes spent the rest of the night polishing off a six-pack, and waited for morning. Fran Fowler’s funeral was right around the corner. And Keene might just be daring enough to make an appearance.
* * *
Fran Fowler was buried three days after her murder. Among the family and friends in attendance, Wes spotted a somber Heather Underwood. But no Vernon Keene.
After the funeral, Wes and Dale expressed their condolences to Fran’s parents and moved on to the arcade.
Hours of waiting and boredom yielded no results. And when the arcade closed at six, they gave up their search for the evening.
“Want to grab a drink before we punch out?” Wes asked.
“What the hell,” Dale shrugged. “Let’s do it.”
Wes started the Jeep and drove ten blocks before he came across the Cornerstone Pub. The décor of the establishment–if you could even use a word like décor–offered no welcome. To Dale, it looked like the kind of place you’d go to score smack. “Why this place?”
“We’re still on the clock,” Wes pointed out. “Maybe the bartender or one of the patrons knows something about Keene.”
They walked in and checked out the scene. Three older men sat at the bar, beers in front of them. They looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in weeks. They were definitely regulars. In the back, two younger men played a game of pool.
The man shooting the ball was wearing a wrinkled leather jacket and a skull bandana. The other man was sporting a white headband with a cigar tucked into one side, the cigar still in the plastic wrapper. He was wearing an outdated Planet Hollywood T-shirt and basketball shorts.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked as they pulled up two stools.
“I’ll have a glass of white zinfandel,” Dale ordered.
“I’ll have a Bud, a shot of Whiskey, and a side of tampons for my partner here.”
The bartender brought them their drinks, sans tampons. Archer downed his shot and took a swig of beer to wash it down. His eyes drifted back the pool table.
The young man in the Planet Hollywood T-shirt cut the game short to grab a refill on his beer and it took all of ten seconds for the bartender to give him away.
“You want your usual, Vern?”
“Vern? As in Vernon Keene?” Wes asked, turning his full attention to the young man holding an empty mug.
“What’s it to you?” Vern barked. “You a narc or something?”
“Homicide Detective, actually. My partner and I have been looking for you. Want to ask you a few questions about your former girlfriend, Fran Fowler.”
“I ain’t got shit to say to you or your partner.”
“That’s fine,” Wes shrugged. “You don’t have to say shit. We’ll just take you down to the station for resisting and obstructing a murder investigation by refusing to cooperate.”
“You ain’t fuckin’ takin’ me anywhere.” Keene gripped the mug by the handle and smashed it on the edge of the bar top, the top half breaking off and forming a jagged ring of glass around the bottom half.
Wes leapt from his bar stool and Dale did likewise. But whereas Dale backed off, Wes stood his ground, basically daring Keene on.
“I’m going to carve your face into Swiss cheese,” Keene snarled.
“I prefer Gorgonzola,” Wes quipped and made a motion with his hand as if to say bring it on.
Keene lunged with the jagged mug, but Wes was one step ahead and cleared out of the way. He struck Keene with a right hand to the jaw and knocked the mug out of his hand with the left. Keene was dazed, but still on his feet. So Wes cracked him in the jaw again. He fell to one knee briefly and came back up, spitting blood in Wes’s face.
His jaw was swollen, his lip was busted, and he was begging for more. And Archer was more than happy to accommodate with a stiff uppercut that turned Keene’s lights out. The kid with the bandana came rushing over and Wes just turned, both hands balled into fists and waited for him to make his move.
“I’d sit this one out if I were you,” Dale whispered to the kid.
* * *
Four days after the murder of Fran Fowler…
“WHERE THE FUCK IS WES ARCHER?” Lieutenant Morris screamed from the door to his office. His voice resonated throughout the station.
“Over here, Mitch,” Wes waved from his desk.
“IN MY OFFICE NOW!” Morris slammed the door shut.
“Dad’s mad,” Wes muttered to Dale as he excused himself and walked to Morris’s office.
“Close the door,” Morris said as he entered. Wes closed the door and approached his desk. “Don’t bother sitting down, either. You won’t be here long.”
Wes knew what was coming next: Suspension. It felt as though he had this identical conversation with Morris a thousand times before. It was a wonder he still had a job and a pension.
Lieutenant Mitch Morris has a startling appearance to many. But Wes is more than accustomed to his face, which can aptly be described as a roadmap of scars.
Mitch was maimed more times in the line of duty than he’d care to tell you. And once by his own brother. That’s why he wears that scar across his throat. But that’s another story for another time.
“Congratulations,” Morris said, sarcasm dripping from the word. “You broke that kids jaw. His family is suing the department now.”
“That kid came at me with a jagged bottle. All I did was defend myself. That’s why he spent last night in lockup. And that’s why he’s a suspect in the Fowler case.”
“Not anymore,” Morris shook his head. “We set him free this morning. He’s not your guy.”
“How do you know?”
“Because Heather Underwood was murdered last night, same method as Fowler. She was poisoned and her face slashed. Pete estimated the time of death between one and three AM. Keene was in lockup at that time, therefore he can’t be the murderer.”
“But why’d you cut him free? He might still have information? And he tried to attack me for Christ’s sake.”
“The department has dismissed all charges against Vernon Keene in the hopes that his family will reconsider the lawsuit.”
“You’ve got to be shitting me.”
“No, I’m not shitting you. This is the way it has to be. At least until this all blows over. I’m sorry, Wes, but I’m going to need your badge and your gun. From this moment until I say otherwise, you’re hereby suspended.”
Wes thought he had turned over a new leaf when he kicked the junk habit. No more suspensions, no more failed drug tests. Things were looking up. And then the department’s arbitrary decision to suspend him over his incident turned everything upside down.
Wes has always been prone to violent outbursts. He understands his propensity for violence; he just tries not to embrace it. He does his best to contain it, reserving it for suitable occasions. But as Wes has learned time and time again, you can only suppress your anger for so long.
He was on his fourth beer when Dale phoned him. “How many times is this you’ve been suspended now?” Dale joked.
“I’ve lost count,” Wes shrugged as if Dale could see him over the phone.
“So…Heather Underwood.” Dale didn’t say anything else. He just let the girl’s name hang there for a moment until Wes broke the silence.
“I heard. And Morris said that Pete confirmed it happened while Keene was locked up. So Keene isn’t our guy after all. Did you hear anything from Pete yet?”
“Still waiting on the autopsy and toxicology reports. But I examined the body myself and it looks like cyanide again. The corners of her mouth were slit open, just like the Fowler girl. It looked almost like she was grinning at me as I stared down at her. It was…creepy.”
“I think that’s the killer’s quirk. He’s not doing this for money or notoriety. He’s after shock value. It’s his intention to unnerve us. It’s all part of his game.”
“How do you know that?”
“Trust me. For some fucked up reason, I know how these sickos think.”
“Well, since I do trust you, and since you can think like these psychopaths think, why don’t you tell me what to do next?”
“Wait for the reports and see if Pete turns up anything useful. In the meantime, do what a detective does best. Detect.”
“Gotcha. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta run. This coffee is repeating on me.”
Dale ended the call abruptly and Wes felt thankful coffee wasn’t part of his palate. His taste buds practically rejected the flavor. Beer seemed to be the only liquid that wasn’t an adversary to his taste buds.
And so he drank another six and passed out on the couch. That night, he dreamt of a man walking through the park with two boys at his side. The man was Adam Archer, and the children were Wes and his brother.
It wasn’t the first time he had dreamt of his brother. And it certainly would not be the last. Aaron Archer–despite has incarceration–has managed to dominate his brother’s psyche, looming over Wes like a black storm cloud that refuses to dissipate.
* * *
He slept through the night, waking only to the sound of knocking at his door. The glare of the sun made Wes shield his bloodshot eyes as he opened the door for Ray Frye, welcoming him inside.
Frye was an assistant at the morgue and often aided Pete the coroner with his reports. He was also an old friend of Archer’s from his high school days.
“What brings you here?” Wes asked as he flopped back on the couch, rubbing his throbbing temples. The alcohol was still working its way out of his system and he was experiencing the onset of a migraine.
“Dale told me you got suspended,” Ray said.
“Bad news travels fast, huh?”
“In this city it does. Speaking of which, I know you heard about Heather Underwood.”
“Of course I heard. I’m suspended. I’m not living under a fucking rock.”
“Easy. No reason to be grumpy. I came here to help. In fact…” He cut himself off as he fished through his pockets and dug out a joint. “This will ease your tension.”
“I’m clean,” Wes said emphatically.
“It’s pot, not PCP. Besides, you’re suspended. You don’t need to worry about passing a drug test for the time being.”
Ray sparked the joint with his lighter, took two puffs and held it out for Wes to accept. He took the joint from Ray’s fingers, which were still sticky from breaking up the weed, and took a few tokes. Then he passed it back to Ray.
“So I’ll ask again, what brings you here?”
“Have you considered the possibility that the killer is Scottish?” Ray asked. The question puzzled Wes.
“Why do you ask?”
“The Glasgow Smile.”
“The girls. They were both given a Glasgow Smile.”
“The fuck is a Glasgow Smile?”
“You’re a real wordsmith, Wes. A Glasgow Smile is when you cut the corners of a person’s mouth and bisect their cheeks. When the cuts heal, the scars leave the impression of a permanent smile. Think of Heath Ledger in the Dark Knight and you’ll get what I’m saying.”
“I’ve never heard that term before.”
“Well, I guess it pays to know me,” Ray boasted.
“You might be onto something…There was a guy I busted years ago when I was still in undercover narcotics. His name was Flanagan. Roy Flanagan. And he swore revenge.”
“So?” Ray shrugged, realizing he was hogging up the joint and passed it back to Wes. “How many murderers and crooks have sworn revenge against you?”
“You don’t understand. This guy was one sick puppy. He slashed some poor girl’s face with a box cutter at the mall. And that’s not all he’s done. But that’s what made me think of him while you were talking. Excuse me a sec.”
Wes picked up the phone and called Dale, who was at the station, looking over Pete’s reports on the Underwood girl.
“Dale, I need you to find out everything you can about a man named Roy Flanagan. He probably got out of prison a year or two ago.”
“Will do,” Dale said as he jotted down the name. “Want to hear what I have for you?”
“Shoot,” Wes said, opening the floor for Dale.
“Heather Underwood was poisoned with cyanide, same as Fowler. The cuts, the weapon, all identical. Only this time, our killer left something behind. Pete found a hair on the body. And that’s not all. They found three similar hairs where Underwood’s body was dumped by the turnpike. They tested them and the hairs were a match. Looks like our killer needs some extra-strength Rogaine.”
“Why don’t you leave the puns to me?” Wes sighed. “By the way, what color was the hair?"
“If memory serves me correctly, Flanagan’s hair was light brown. This could very well be our guy. Dale, drop everything you’re doing and start digging up info on Flanagan.”
* * *
Officer Foley dug up the files on Roy Flanagan and placed them on Dale’s desk. He flipped through the last pages and saw that Flanagan was released from Carter City Penitentiary on good behavior a year and a half ago. That’s where his file ended. But there was a number where his parole officer could be reached.
Dale put in a call to the parole officer and had Flanagan’s address in five minutes. Against his better judgment, he called Wes and told him the news. Despite the suspension, Wes was adamant about tagging along for the ride.
And against his better judgment, Dale agreed to swing by his place and pick him up. The Jeep’s engine was already running in the driveway when Dale pulled up. Archer insisted on taking his set of wheels.
To spare himself a lengthy argument, Dale caved and hopped in the shotgun seat of Wes’s Jeep.
Wes ventured a guess that Flanagan was living in downtown Carter City before Dale even read him the address. And he was right.
“It’s an apartment complex on Sparkwood. I believe you’re familiar with the area,” Dale said, referring to Toad.
Wes punched the gas and weaved in and out of traffic. Suspension or no suspension, if this was their guy, Wes wasn’t going to let him slip through their fingers.
“Did you hear about Barclay?” Dale inquired as they drove at lightning speed.
“No, what happened? Clumsy bastard shoot himself in the foot or something?”
“He’s in the hospital. Some kind of bug that’s been going around the station. He’s got it worse than anybody.”
“Do you have it?”
“Good. I won’t have to toss you out at the next light then.”
When they pulled up to the corner of Sparkwood and Sycamore, Toad was in his usual spot. He had a disconcerting look on his face as he approached the vehicle. And he was sporting a bloody lip.
“I tried to stop him,” Toad said as Dale rolled the passenger window down.
“Roy Flanagan. He came running out of that apartment building over there saying the cops were coming to take him in. I guess he got a tip from an anonymous source. Anyways, I tried to stop him for you guys and he decked me and kept on running.”
“Someone tipped him off?” Archer wondered who it could’ve been.
“Did you see what direction he was heading in?” Dale asked.
“West,” Toad pointed with his finger.
“Thanks,” Archer said, “And sorry about the busted lip. I’ll make it up to you.”
Wes made a fast U-Turn and pumped the gas again. They traveled west, looking to catch Flanagan before he disappeared. But it was a futile pursuit. They scoured every inch of downtown Carter and found no trace of him.
Returning to the apartment complex, they acquired his key at the desk and tossed his room. The desk clerk hadn’t asked to see a warrant, and Dale was thankful for that, because they didn’t have a warrant. They were playing by Archer’s rules now.
But in the end, they found nothing to link Roy Flanagan to the murders. A bunch of old porno magazines, a few pairs of clothes, and a cheap television set was all his apartment contained.
* * *
“What’s our next move?” Dale asked as they sat parked in front of Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, despite the cliché, cops still eat donuts on a regular basis. He had already put out an APB on Roy Flanagan and was waiting to hear back from Lieutenant Morris.
“Our next move? I’m not even supposed to be here.”
“But you insisted on being here. So you’re going to help me, like it or not.”
Dale’s phone rang and immediately scrambled for it to stop Wes from hearing the Dawson’s Creek ringtone, but he heard it anyway. Dale answered and made a motion with his finger over his lips to tell Wes to keep quiet. It was Morris on the other end.
“Yes, sir,” Dale said after Morris spoke. “I’ll tell him as soon as I speak to him.” Dale hung up and turned to Wes.
“You’re off suspension,” Dale told him.
“First things first, what the fuck is up with your ringtone?”
“Can we just stick to the business at hand?”
“So you expect me to ignore that ringtone?”
“It’s a personal choice.”
“And is it a personal choice to wear heels and prance around like a fucking fairy, ‘cause that’s exactly the path you’re heading down.”
“Do you want to hear the deal or not?”
“I’m all ears,” Wes said, stifling his laughter.
“Keene’s family dropped their lawsuit and all charges against you. You’re back on the force as of this moment.”
After collecting his badge and gun, and after being given direct orders by Lieutenant Morris to stay away from Keene, Archer went to see Vernon Keene that night, alone.
Keene’s mother begged him not to go near that “brute” as she called Archer, but Vernon assured his mom everything would be ok and spoke to Archer from the porch.
“So what you want, man?”
“You dropped the lawsuit and the charges. Why?”
“I understand you’re trying to find Fran and Heather’s killer. I want to see this bastard pay as much as you do.”
“You were sleeping with both of them.”
“Yes, what can I say? But that doesn’t mean I didn’t care for both of them equally. They were my girls and someone took them away from me. I want that son of a bitch to pay.”
“So help me. Tell me who Fran was going to meet after school that day she disappeared.”
“I doubt you’d believe me if I told you.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Fran was seeing someone else on the side. Someone she met online. I don’t know his name or what he looks like, but Fran slipped up once and told Heather the guy is a cop.”
“A cop? A cop in my department?”
Keene didn’t speak, just nodded his head.
“That’s all you know?”
Keene nodded again.
“Thanks, kid. You’ve been a big help. And try to stay out of trouble.”
* * *
The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place. He had his suspect in mind, he just needed to prove it. So he went to the station the following morning and collected a sample of coffee. He then took the sample to the forensics lab and slipped the technician fifty bucks to make it his priority to test the coffee for traces of poison.
In two hours, the technician had conclusive results. The coffee tested positive for trace amount of cyanide. Not even to kill a person at once, but more than enough to do the job over time. It explained Barclay being hospitalized, various coworkers suddenly growing ill. Roy Flanagan being tipped off.
It was all the work of Nathan Foley.
He knew the who, what, when, where, and how. Know all he needed to know was why? Why kill two innocent girls?
“Officer Foley,” Archer said, approaching him.
“Might I have a sample of your hair?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You see, this is going to sound crazy, but we found hair samples at one of the crime scenes and on one of the victims. The samples were light brown, kind of like your hair. I was just working on a theory that somebody else put me onto.”
“You think I’m a killer?”
“I know it sounds absurd, but it would really help clear a lot of things up. And it would clear your name, too. You know how the guys can be around here. If they get wind of this, who knows what stories they’ll make up about you.”
Archer saw Foley’s fingers creeping for his service revolver. Faster than Foley, Archer drew his gun with one quick motion and shot Foley in the shoulder just as his gun was pulled from his holster.
Foley’s gun fell to the floor and a crowd of concerned cops scrambled towards Archer’s desk.
“The fuck did you do, Wes?” one officer shouted.
“This is our guy,” Wes told them. “He killed Heather Underwood and Fran Fowler and he’s been poisoning all of you with his coffee. I have all the DNA and forensic evidence available to prove it.”
“Well I’ll be a son of a bitch,” Dale said as he made his way through a sea of cops.
“It’s true,” Foley confessed, clutching at his bleeding shoulder. “I was doing those girls a favor. I was relieving them from their pointless, mundane existences. They were spoiled brats who hated the world and took everything for granted. They didn’t want the life they were given, so I was helping them escape. Can’t you see that?”
“I can see your future, and it starts and ends with an eight by ten cell.”
* * *
Roy Flanagan turned himself in a day later. He admitted that Nathan Foley tipped him off no more than five minutes after he dropped the Flanagan file on Dale’s desk. This confession only cemented Foley’s condemned status. He was going to be serving life without the possibility of parole and Wes couldn’t have been happier.
He celebrated the victory with a shot and a brew, and Dale even joined in with a glass of zinfandel.
“About that whole black eye thing,” Archer started to apologize.
“Forget it,” Dale shrugged it off. “It’s in the past.”
“I want to make it up to you. I got you a belated birthday gift.”
Wes handed him a small package and Dale smiled benevolently as he accepted and tore open the wrapping. It was the soundtrack to Dawson’s Creek.
Dale laughed and Wes even cracked a smirk as they clanked their glasses together and finished their drinks.
They had brought peace to Carter City once more. It would be months before their services would be required again.