October 19th, 2015
“I want a divorce, Fletch.”
The words echoed in Fletcher’s head as he stared at the clock on his desk. He tried to concentrate on the missing persons case sitting idle on his computer, but all he could think about was what Kate had said last night. She’d blindsided him with the declaration, refused to discuss it with him, then barricaded herself in their bedroom. He’d slept on the couch and when he woke up in the morning, she was gone.
Despite what she’d said, they needed to discuss this. There was no way he was going to let this happen without at least talking about it. He decided to text her.
“What time will you be home?”
While he waited for her to reply, he looked at her picture on his desk and wondered how things had ended up where they were. They’d had their fair share of problems, even been through counseling a time or two, but divorce?
After several minutes he got his reply.
“Probably not til late if at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“I might stay with my sister.”
Fletcher clenched his jaw and put his phone down. He wasn’t going to argue with her via text message. He did his best to turn his attention back to the case, but it was proving nearly impossible to concentrate. The details of the case were already more than familiar, but he was trying to find a new lead.
Tyrell Gibson’s parents first reported him missing the afternoon of September 26th, which was nearly a month ago. He hadn’t found anything new since the initial investigation, and at this point the chances of finding Tyrell alive were next to nothing. He hated the idea of giving up, though. It wasn’t in his nature. He glanced over at Kate again and shook his head.
According to Tyrell’s parents, Tyrell hadn’t come home from his night shift at the Burger Mania on the corner of Watson and Willow. They didn’t think much of it initially because he often spent the night at a friend’s house. Fletcher thought it was odd that they allowed that on school nights, but they said they didn’t have a problem with it as long as he kept his grades up in school. When asked about whether he had called or texted to say he wouldn’t be home, they said no, but they hadn’t worried because he was bad at keeping his phone charged. Fletcher found that hard to believe—what teenager was ever without a cellphone these days? But there wasn’t a reason to think they weren’t telling the truth.
Fletcher looked at the clock again. It was twenty to five. Knowing he wasn’t going to accomplish anything else for the rest of the day, he logged off the computer.
“Bugging out early?” Eric Harris said from across their two desks.
Fletcher looked past the two monitors at Eric. He’d worked with Eric on street patrol for several years, but Eric was a new detective and he’d been assigned to train him. “Yeah, I figured I’d head over to Ponderosa’s a few minutes early.”
Fletcher stood and pushed his chair in.
“Roger that, IO,” Eric said. “I’m right behind you anyways.”
“IO?” Fletcher said with a raised eyebrow.
“Intellectual One. It’s a mouthful, I know, so I figured I’d abbreviate it.”
“Wouldn’t want a nickname to be annoying, now would we.” Fletcher grabbed his phone off his desk and said, “See ya in a bit.”
He was out the back door of the station fifteen minutes early. He dug his keys out of his pocket, unlocked the door of his ’89 Chevy S-10, and plopped down into the worn seat. Glad the day was finally over, he let out a deep sigh of relief. He rested his head on the headrest and wearily closed his eyes. His thoughts swirled around work and his failing marriage. Mentally he went round and round before he reminded himself of why he’d left work early. He opened his eyes, but his phone started buzzing before he could fasten his seatbelt. He pulled it out of his pocket and looked at the name on the screen: Sergeant Frey.
“Dammit,” he said. The phone continued buzzing while he considered letting it go to voicemail. There were plenty of other detectives who weren’t just getting off work and could handle whatever it was Frey was calling for. After a few more buzzes he sighed—in an altogether different way than the previous one; this sigh was one of resignation—and answered the call. “What’s up?” he said with as much enthusiasm he could muster, which wasn’t much.
“Yeah?” He didn’t want to sound disrespectful, but knowing Frey, he would take it that way. He was going to get a tongue-lashing about this, he just knew.
“I need you to come down to 1542 Lakeview Drive.”
“Why?” Yep, he was definitely going to get a tongue-lashing.
“We’ve got a possible homicide.”
“Homicide?” He clenched his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. “All right, be there in a few.”
Fletcher begrudgingly got out of his truck, shoved the manual lock down, and walked toward his unmarked cruiser. His hope of having an early beer was gone. In fact, he knew he had better odds of winning the lottery tonight than of having a beer at Ponderosa’s.
Eric emerged from the station as he approached the cruiser. He joined Fletcher at the car and said, “So much for bugging out early, eh?”
Fletcher sighed again. What was this one—despondency?
“Mind if I ride with you?” Eric said.
“Would it matter if I said I did mind?”
“No, not really. I’d probably wonder why you were being a dick, though.”
Fletcher had a mind to keep the passenger door locked and make Eric drive his own cruiser. He certainly wasn’t in the mood to listen to Eric’s mind-numbing chatter as they drove across town. But instead, he said, “Get in.”
Fletcher started the engine, fired up the mounted laptop, then glanced at the clock on the dash: 4:49. I should be on the way to the pub. No, I should be in the pub. And instead of drinking away my sorrows I should be drinking… Fletcher stopped himself short, refusing to finish his train of thought. Nothing good would come of continuing. He picked up the hand-held microphone and said, “Detectives Wise and Harris available, en route to the scene.”
“Roger,” a familiar female voice answered.
“God,” Eric said, “what I wouldn’t give for the opportunity to investigate her.”
Fletcher pinched the bridge of his nose again and closed his eyes. Tina was a dispatcher who had been with the department for nearly as long as he had. They’d become friends over the years and their paths occasionally crossed outside of work—such as the department Fourth of July party, or when he was at Ponderosa’s. He would be lying if he said she wasn’t attractive, because she was—very—but he tried not to think about her like that anymore. Despite his best efforts, though, when he heard her voice over the radio he sometimes relapsed and thought about her the way he knew Eric did. Eric was a man with a one-track mind, and his reputation in the department had preceded him. But Eric was single. He could think and do whatever he wanted. Fletcher was married. Happily. Or at least until last night he’d thought he was. His marriage wasn’t perfect, but whose was?
The address of the scene of the crime popped up on the laptop’s map display with a ding, and Fletcher redirected his attention to the situation at hand. He acknowledged receipt, then pulled out of the parking lot. He turned right onto Gurley and merged with the traffic trying to get out of town for the day. That was one of several reasons he enjoyed going to Ponderosa’s after work—he could avoid most of the rush-hour traffic, such as it was in a modest city like Prescott, Arizona. Kate was never home for dinner anyway, so he was rarely in a rush to get home.
Eric messed around on his phone as Fletcher drove. It looked like he was sending text messages left and right. Fletcher reckoned Eric could fire off texts faster than he could rounds in his gun. He often wondered who Eric was always texting but had quit asking long ago because Eric always replied, “No one in particular.” But he didn’t complain. He was glad for the relative silence, broken only by the incessant click-clacking of Eric’s phone.
More often than not, if Eric wasn’t on his phone he was a nonstop chatterbox. However, after a few minutes he set his phone on his lap and said, “So, how are things with Kate?”
All good things come to an end, Fletcher thought. And he wasn’t talking about his marriage. He looked over at Eric out of the corner of his eye.
“What?” Eric said.
“I don’t really want to talk about it, presently.”
“Talk about what?”
“You know, for a detective, you can be really obtuse sometimes.”
“Obtuse?” Eric said, trying the word out as though he’d never heard it before. “Here you go, getting all Mr. Smarty Pants on me again.”
Fletcher glared at Eric. He hated that Eric so willingly participated in the name game. He knew the other detectives had put him up to it when he’d switched from the beat to their department. “She told me she wanted a divorce, Eric.”
“Oh… Shit. I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s all right,” Fletcher said with a wave of the hand.
“Knowing you, I figured you guys would patch things up.”
“What’s that supposed to… never mind.” Fletcher did not want to discuss his marital problems with Eric, a man who changed sexual partners more often than he changed his underwear.
Fletcher navigated the rush hour traffic and finally turned into a subdivision off Watson Lake—the same area in which Tyrell had gone missing, he thought idly. He made an immediate right onto a side street and stopped in front of a squad car blocking the road, its lights flashing. An officer standing by the trunk waved Fletcher by, and he drove around the vehicle and up to where several more squad cars gathered.
He parked the car and said, “Grab the kit, would ya?”
Fletcher radioed that they were on scene, but remained seated as Eric climbed out. He stared blankly down the road at the flashing lights, Kate’s words still echoing in his head. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and texted her to let her know he was going to be late. He hoped she decided to come home so they could talk.
Fletcher looked up at Eric, who was standing by the hood gesturing at him, and sighed. He slid his phone back into his pocket and got out of the cruiser. They walked the rest of the way down Lakeview Drive toward 1542, passing a few groups of curious neighbors gathered on driveways. They were talking amongst themselves, every one of them gawking as if they’d never seen such a commotion before. Given Prescott’s sleepy nature, he imagined they hadn’t—at least not in this particular neighborhood. The most excitement they probably got out here were the semi-regular first responders attending to one of their elderly neighbors.
The house in question, which was on the left just before the road ended in a cul-de-sac, had its perimeter roped off with police tape. An ambulance was parked on the curb just past the driveway with EMTs gathered at the back door. There was a yellow VW bug parked in the driveway, as well as another group of neighbors gathered in the middle of the cul-de-sac. Officer Spencer Barr leaned on the trunk of his cruiser, which was parked in front of the house. “How goes it, Wise Guy?”
“Well, I’m not drinking beer,” Fletcher said. “You?”
“Oh, you know…”
He did not, in fact, know.
Seeing someone in the back of Barr’s cruiser, he peered in and saw a woman sitting there, looking straight ahead, her hands behind her back. Her hair was neatly done and she was wearing a yellow dress-miniskirt thing. He ignored her for the moment and walked toward the driveway. He was met at the tape by Officer Peter Copeland.
“Detectives,” Copeland said. “What’s up?”
“I’m not drinking beer,” Fletcher repeated. Copeland handed him a clipboard, which he signed.
“I had big plans tonight,” Eric said.
“Oh yeah?” Copeland said. “Which were what?”
“Do you really need to ask?” Fletcher said, slapping Eric in the chest with the flat side of the clipboard.
“You’re probably right,” Copeland said with a shudder.
“You’re just jealous,” Eric said.
“Just sign,” Fletcher said.
“Can you imagine what it’s like working with someone as wound-up as this guy?” Eric curled his fist into a ball and gestured at Fletcher with a thumb. “He’s like a—”
“A what?” Fletcher interjected. Eric didn’t answer, so Fletcher ignored him and ducked under the tape. Fortunately, Eric had sense enough to follow. Given Fletcher’s clout in the department, it wouldn’t take much complaint on his part to get Eric’s training transferred to someone else. He made his way over to Sergeant Frey and said, “What do we got?”
“Marlon Williams, early twenties, shot twice—chest and abdomen,” Frey said. “Barr and Thorton cleared the house and reported the victim deceased. Neighbors reported hearing a couple gunshots, then, a minute or so later, a woman screaming. They say a woman exited the house by the front door and sat in the middle of the driveway. Stayed there until Barr and Thorton arrived.”
“They find anybody else?”
“Not yet. She’s in the back of Barr’s car.” Fletcher looked over his shoulder at the squad car behind him, remembering the woman sitting in the back. “She’s been pretty talkative and spins quite the tale. His words, not mine.”
“He interrogated her?”
“Nope. She started talking the moment they arrived.”
“What kind of tale?”
“All right.” Fletcher ducked back under the tape and walked back to Barr’s car, Eric tagging along behind him. “Got a talker, eh?”
“Sure do,” Barr said. “Started yapping the moment I walked up to her and wouldn’t stop until I put her in the car.”
Fletcher looked in at her again. She was still staring straight forward and rocked slightly back and forth. “What’s her name?”
Fletcher looked up at Barr. “And she’s the shooter?”
“Not according to her.”
That didn’t surprise him. Even in the face of mountains of evidence, criminals often denied their involvement in a crime.
“So what’d she say?”
“When Thorton and I arrived, she was sitting in the middle of the driveway with her legs crossed.” Odd, Fletcher thought. Why wouldn’t she have fled the scene? Sticking around wouldn’t help with whatever alibi she’d concocted. “He went inside, and I guarded her. She didn’t need guarding, though, because she wasn’t going anywhere. She just sat there and rocked back and forth.” Fletcher peered back inside the car, where Renee was still rocking slightly. “When Thorton came back out he reported that a man had been shot twice and confirmed he was dead. After that, she wouldn’t stop talking. It was like I accidentally chopped the head off a sprinkler with my mower and couldn’t get the water to stop flowing.”
Fletcher looked at Barr again, this time with disbelief.
“What?” Barr said.
“You mow your lawn at the same time you’re watering it?”
“Then how’d you chop the head off? Don’t they pop up or something when they turn on?”
“I don’t know. Why you gotta analyze everything?”
“He’s in a mood,” Eric said.
Fletcher pinched the bridge of his nose.
“All I know is somehow I musta chopped one while I was mowing, ’cause the next time they came on it was like Old Faithful. Anyway, she was like that: started talking and wouldn’t stop till she was sitting in the car.”
“Okay, get back to the part where she supposedly started yapping.”
“As I was saying, she spun quite the tale. Talking all crazy and shit.”
“What do you mean?”
“After Thorton reported that the victim was deceased she started saying, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it,’ over and over. She mumbled something about being in a coffee shop then a dark room.”
“Darkroom?” Fletcher said. “Like for developing film?”
“Dunno. But then she claims that somehow she was magically here.”
“What do you mean, magically?”
“Says she doesn’t know how she got here.”
“That her car? The V-dub?”
“It’s registered to her,” Barr said.
Well, how she got here is pretty obvious then, isn’t it?
“But she claims she didn’t drive it here.”
“So she had an accomplice,” Fletcher thought aloud.
“Well, as of yet we got no one.”
“One’ll turn up, I’m sure. She couldn’t have teleported here.”
“But that’s exactlywhat she’s claiming.”
“Said one second she was in the coffee shop, then magically in a dark room, then from there to here.”
“She actually said she teleported here?” Fletcher said with exasperation.
“She didn’t use that word exactly, but yeah.”
“Well, that’s a new one,” Fletcher said. He looked over at Eric, who shrugged his shoulders.
“What are you looking at me for?”
“Here’s the kicker,” Barr said.
“There’s a kicker? How can you possibly trump teleportation?”
“She sat there rocking back and forth babbling nonsense for a spell and then—you’re never gonna believe this—she claimed she was a man.”
“She claimed what?” Fletcher said.
“That while she was in that dark room, she was a man,” Barr said.
Fletcher looked in at Renee, dumbfounded. He had been a detective for a long time, and in that time, he thought he’d heard it all. But this was new. No one had ever claimed to teleport to a crime scene, let alone become the opposite sex in the process. “Anything else?”
“Nope. After that she went radio silent.”
All he could say to Barr was, “Thanks.”
“No prob, Wise Guy.”
Fletcher ignored the comment and started back toward the house.
“Sounds crazy, if you ask me,” Eric said.
“You don’t think she actually believes that, do you?”
“Then she must think we’re crazy if she thinks we’ll fall for a story like that. She was a man… give me a break.”
“Well, the interrogation should be interesting, if nothing else.” Fletcher checked his phone as they made their way toward the house.
“Quite the story, eh, Smarts?” Sergeant Frey said when they arrived back at the house.
“You could say that,” Fletcher said, putting his phone back in his pocket. “Witnesses saw her coming out of the house?”
“Four of them.”
Fletcher looked over at Officer Thorton. “And no one else was in there?”
“Besides the victim, no one,” Thorton said.
“The victim was dead when you arrived?”
“He wasn’t breathing and had no pulse.”
Fletcher noticed a woman standing by the garage with a couple of officers. She had one arm wrapped across her stomach and was dabbing at the corners of her eyes with a wadded-up tissue. “Who’s that?”
“Jennifer Williams, the victim’s wife,” Frey said. “Johnson and Everett are just finishing up getting her statement.”
“Thanks,” Fletcher said. He gestured to Eric with his head and together they walked to the front door. Eric handed him a pair of booties from their kit. Once he had them on, he stepped inside. A faint smell of gunpowder greeted him. He immediately saw the gun on the ground to his right, about five feet away. The corpse was farther into the living room, about ten feet from the gun.
Three other detectives—Hampton, Reynolds, and Peterson—were already combing the room. See, Fletcher thought, there’s absolutely no reason for me to be here. He was literally minutes away from Ponderosa’s. He should be finishing his second beer by now. He wanted to go home so he could talk with Kate—assuming she decided to come home tonight.
He walked over to the corpse and surveyed it. The man’s shirt appeared blood-soaked in two separate locations: his chest just to the left of his sternum, and his stomach. “What do you think?” he asked Eric.
“Well, from the blood stains—”
“You mean red liquid substance?”
“Right. The red liquid substance staining his shirt here and here would indicate that he was shot twice.”
“That appears to be what happened,” Fletcher said. He stood back up and looked over at the gun on the other side of the room. “What are the odds it was suicide?”
“Little to none.”
“Cause the gun’s too far away.”
Fletcher nodded. “But…?”
“We’ll have to wait for the autopsy to know for sure.”
Fletcher left the other detectives to continue their inspection of the house and walked back toward the front door. He removed the booties and stepped onto the concrete front step.
“Take her to the station and do your thing, Smarts,” Frey said.
Fletcher considered objecting. The other detectives were perfectly capable of doing their own thing. An interrogation was an interrogation and they were, after all,perfectly qualified detectives. He’d always thought the entire team was very capable. Well, with the exception of Eric. But he was still learning—at least, that’s what Fletcher kept telling himself. “All right,” he resigned.
He looked around for Eric and rolled his eyes when he saw Eric was on his way toward the ambulance where, he surmised, Eric was going to hit on the EMT, who just happened to be a rather attractive woman.
“Hey!” Fletcher called.
Eric veered right and met Fletcher at the perimeter tape. “What?”
“This isn’t ‘hit on the hot EMT’ hour.” He started back toward Barr’s cruiser.
“It’s always that time.”
“Well then, by all means,” Fletcher said with a gesture behind them.
“Do you think I’m serious?”
“Man, you know, sometimes you can be a real buzzkill.”
“And most of the time, you’re a real pain in my ass.” When they got to Barr’s cruiser Fletcher said, “Any chance Eric can ride with you?”
“Hey!” Eric exclaimed.
“Why, so he can hit on the suspect?” Barr said.
“No, you’re right,” Fletcher agreed. “See ya at the station.”
“You know, you’re being a real dick,” Eric said as they made their way to Fletcher’s car.
“You always say that.”
“But you’ve ratcheted it up like three notches tonight.”
“I wish I could say I’m sorry but I can’t.”
“See, that’s exactly what I mean.”
“Just get in the car. And try to keep the chatter to a minimum.”
Fletcher checked his phone again before he got in the car. Still no texts from Kate.
On their way back to the station, Fletcher looked left when he drove past the split in the highway that led to Prescott Valley, the neighboring town where he and Kate lived.
I want a divorce, Fletch.
Just like that. There’d been no big discussion, hours and hours of going round and round about how horrible their marriage was. Nothing. She just blurted it out, so cavalier. It was like she was simply announcing she wanted to go out for Chinese food.
“Want something from the wheel of death?” Eric said when they got back to the station.
“No thanks,” Fletcher said. He hadn’t had much of an appetite all day.
“Well, I’m starving.”
Fletcher followed Eric to the break room and got a cup of coffee. He leaned against the counter and watched Eric hold the button down on the vending machine, making it spin in a circle. “Were you hoping the options would change the second time around?”
“There’s never anything good in here.”
Which was exactly why Fletcher never ate from it—even when he did have an appetite. “Come on, we gotta go.”
“Just a sec.” Eric put some money in the machine and pulled out a sandwich.
As they made their way through the station, Eric grumbled through bready mouthfuls about how disgusting the sandwich was. By the time they got to the interrogation room, Officer Barr was standing at the door.
“You Mirandize her?” Fletcher asked.
“Not yet,” Barr said.
“No worries.” Fletcher looked through the one-way glass and saw Renee sitting at a table. His immediate thought was that she didn’t strike him as someone who had just murdered someone. She looked more like someone who was about to go to CJ’s or on a date or something. Her dress was body-conforming enough to be suggestive and her hair was neatly done. It wasn’t even slightly disheveled, which would have suggested some sort of physical confrontation. No sign of bruising. Besides her smeared mascara, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Well, except that she wasn’t wearing shoes. Not typical killing attire, Fletcher thought. She was fidgeting with a paper cup.
“You wanna talk to her?” he asked Eric.
“Me?” Eric’s voice was slightly elevated in pitch.
“Who else would I be talking to? You gotta do it sometime if you want to be a detective. And now’s as good a time as any.” Besides, his mind wasn’t really in it. He should have told Sarge to shove it.
“I… I’m not ready for this, Sensei.”
“Good one,” Barr said. “Haven’t heard that one yet.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, looking from Barr to Fletcher. “You’re my teacher, right?”
“Now’s not the time,” Fletcher said. He wasn’t interested in Eric’s games right now. Although, now that he thought about it, was he ever? “I’m not feeling it. We just gotta get her to admit what really happened—not that ‘I was a man’ crap—before she figures out she oughtta lawyer up.”
“Nah, man. Maybe I could handle a drug or theft charge, but not homicide. I’m not ready for this.”
Fletcher shook his head. “Suit yourself, but you’re coming in with me. And you’re reading her her rights.” He opened the door before Eric could protest and walked into the interrogation room. “Good evening, Ms. Denovan,” he said. Renee looked up at him briefly, then quickly looked back down, placing both her hands in her lap. Her eyes were red and her cheeks moist. “My name is Detective Wise.” He gestured to Eric and said, “And this is Detective Harris. We’d like to talk to you a bit about what happened today.”
Renee nodded without looking up.
“But first—” Fletcher gestured to Eric.
“You have the right to remain silent,” Eric read from his notebook. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.”
“Am I under arrest?” Renee said. She looked rather taken aback.
“No, not yet,” Fletcher said. Thankfully she hadn’t requested a lawyer—that would have really drawn things out. “But we do want to ask you some questions.”
Fletcher sat in a chair opposite Renee and placed his coffee cup on the table. He pulled his notebook out of his jacket pocket as Eric sat beside him. He looked at the empty cup in front of Renee and said, “Can we get you anything before we get started?”
Renee shook her head.
“All right, then.” He took a sip of his coffee. “If you could, for the record, please state your name?”
“And how old are you?”
“241 East Pine Street. Apartment 412 B.”
“That in Prescott?” Fletcher asked, already knowing it was. It was the address of an apartment complex south of downtown. He’d visited a time or three back when he was on street patrol.
“Could you answer yes or no, please?”
“Y-yes,” Renee said. “Sorry,” she added.
“It’s okay. Can you tell me the nature of your relationship with Marlon Williams?”
“I… I don’t know who he is.”
“You don’t know Mr. Williams?”
“No, sir. I’ve never seen him before.”
“Do you know Marlon’s wife?”
Renee shook her head.
“Yes or no, Ms. Denovan,” Fletcher said.
“If you don’t know either of them, what were you doing at their house?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
Renee shook her head.
“Ms. Denovan, I’m going to need verbal answers, please.”
“I don’t know,” Renee said. She reached up and wiped tears from her eyes, further smearing her mascara.
“All right, then,” Fletcher said. “Why don’t we start off by you telling us about your day.” Fletcher took a sip of his coffee. “How you found yourself at the Williams’ residence.”
“I don’t know how I got there. One minute I was at Connie’s Coffee Shop, then somehow, I was in a dark room. I was trapped there for… I don’t know… then I was just there.”
“So you just appeared at the Williams’ home?”
Fletcher resisted the urge to shake his head. Nobody in their right mind would believe such a thing. People don’t just appear in different places. “Okay. Before we get into that, let’s go back to the coffee shop. Try to tell me exactly what happened today, in as much detail as you possibly can.”
Renee nodded. She sat quietly for a moment, fidgeting with the cup, then said, “I went to Connie’s for a date—I mean, it wasn’t really a date, not really.” She hesitated again, but then continued. “My roommate Liz thought I was crazy for meeting someone I’d met on the internet. I kept telling her that he wasn’t a stranger—well, not a total stranger; we’d been chatting online for a couple weeks—and that I didn’t see how meeting someone online was any different than her meeting someone at CJ’s.”
Fletcher looked over at Eric, who shrugged his shoulders. CJ’s was a local bar on historic Whiskey Row downtown. Eric had dragged him there far too many times, and he knew for a fact that Eric often went home with women he’d met there. Apparently, Eric agreed with Renee.
“For some reason,” Renee continued, “she thinks meeting guys at bars is different. I told her everyone starts out as strangers, no matter where you meet, but that didn’t stop her from insisting that there was no way I could know whether he was a serial killer or not.” Fletcher jotted down a note reminding him to ask her about this. “I told her we were just meeting for coffee, and she relented when I promised I wouldn’t go back to his place. I don’t know who she thinks I am. I’m not like her; I don’t sleep with guys on the first date.”
Fletcher looked over at Eric again, and Eric silently mouthed, “What?”
“I followed the YIM safety guidelines,” Renee continued, “and arranged to keep the meeting short and in a public place.” Fletcher made another note. “Liz wanted to know how long I was going to be there so she could keep tabs on me. I told her maybe an hour or so—I was supposed to go to work later, anyway. She made me promise again that I wouldn’t go back to his place, and then I left.
“I drove to Connie’s Coffee Shop and ordered a coffee. Only the guy I was meeting never showed. I just kept sitting there waiting. I eventually texted Liz, and just as I was thinking about leaving, something… something really weird happened.”
Here we go, Fletcher thought when Renee paused. Let the yarn spinning begin.
“My heart started racing—you know, kinda like when something scares you—and my vision went blurry like I couldn’t focus. Then my skin started tingling all over and everything went black. My heartbeat slowed and the tingling stopped, but I couldn’t see anything. I could tell I wasn’t sitting on a chair anymore. I was on concrete or something, with my back against a wall. I felt weird and smelled fresh paint. I knew something was wrong when I tried to get up. My stomach”—Renee’s hands went out in front of her abdomen like a pregnant woman cradling her unborn baby—”I couldn’t bend forward.” Fletcher narrowed his eyes. Renee looked to be quite fit. “I couldn’t lean forward enough to get on my hands and knees. I had to roll to the side and use the wall to help me do it. My arms felt heavy, and my back hurt.
“Somehow, I… I don’t know how, but I was in some sort of a room.”
Fletcher mentally rolled his eyes, and stared straight at Renee to prevent himself from physically rolling them. No one—especially no jury, if it came to that—would believe she had teleported.
“I know you probably think that sounds crazy, and I don’t know how to explain it.” Renee looked up, hopeful. But seeing Fletcher staring at her, she looked back down. “One second I was sitting in the coffee shop and the next I was in a dark room. I felt my way around and found a door, but it was locked. The lights didn’t work, either. I called out for help, but… I know you’re not going to believe me, but… I wasn’t myself.” Renee visibly shuddered. “When I called out for help my voice… it wasn’t mine. It was… deeper. Manly. And it wasn’t just my voice—my body… I was… fat.”
She must think we’re stupid, Fletcher thought. It was one thing to hear Barr talk about it, but hearing it straight from her was really too much.
Renee looked at him and must have sensed his disbelief. “I know you think I’m crazy—”
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Fletcher said truthfully. At this point he didn’t necessarily think she was, but he did think she was lying.
“—but you have to believe me. I swear, I don’t know how, but I wasn’t myself. Somehow, I was… I think I was a man.” Renee immediately averted her eyes as if she was embarrassed to admit such a thing.
Fletcher looked over at Eric who tried to inconspicuously circle his finger around his ear on the side of his head not facing Renee. Fletcher looked back at Renee and studied her for moment.
She was right; he didn’t believe her. Her story was a load of crap that no judge, let alone a jury, would ever buy. So why would she tell it? Couldn’t she come up with something a little more believable? Renee had quit talking, so he prompted, “What happened next?”
Renee looked at Fletcher as if she had been lost in thought. “I, uh…” She drifted off again.
Fletcher resisted the urge to say something sarcastic about how she was a man. Sarcasm was one of his many faults. Being sarcastic wasn’t a fault in and of itself, but as Kate liked to remind him, sometimes he didn’t know when to turn it off. At least at work he had some modicum of control. Instead, he waited patiently, knowing Renee was trying to gather her thoughts.
Eventually she continued. “It seemed like I was in there forever. Then my heart started racing again and the tingling returned. And then it was so bright I couldn’t see anything and my ears were ringing. And I smelled… I didn’t know what it was… fireworks? My eyes adjusted to the light and I realized I was standing in another room—a living room. Then I saw him…” Renee paused again. “He was lying on the ground.” She looked up and directly into Fletcher’s eyes. “I was so scared.”
“Who did you see?” Fletcher said.
Renee sat in silence. She reached up with one hand, touched the rim of her cup with a finger, then put her hand back in her lap.
“I didn’t shoot him, I swear!”
“Shoot who?” Renee didn’t answer. “Mr. Williams?”
“Can you answer yes or no, please.”
“Y-yes. I swear,” she repeated, “I didn’t kill him. It wasn’t me.”
They sat in silence. It appeared to Fletcher that Renee was finished with her tale. And what a tale it was—one that would surely go down as the craziest the department would ever hear. She hadn’t confessed to the murder—they rarely did—so now it was his turn to ask her questions. But just to make sure she was finished, he asked, “Anything else you’d like to add?”
Renee shook her head and said, “No.”
“All right, then. I’m going to ask you some questions now, if that’s all right with you.” Renee nodded. “You said that, on this date of yours, you were following the guidelines of YIM. What’s that?”
“Your Ideal Mate,” Renee said.
“Which is what?”
“An online dating site.”
“Okay,” Fletcher said, making some notes. “What sort of guidelines were you following?”
“They recommend that on your first date you meet in a public place, keep the initial meeting short—an hour or so—and to let someone else know where you’ll be.”
“Sounds like good advice,” Fletcher said. “And what did you mean when you said your date wasn’t a serial killer?”
“For some reason Liz stubbornly clings to this outmoded stigma about online dating that you can never know whether the person is a serial killer or not. It’s ridiculous, if you ask me.”
“What’s Liz’s full name?”
“Thanks,” Fletcher said. “Sorry, go on.”
“She insisted I was being reckless. Even though she hooks up with guys she meets at bars all the time. How is that any different?”
She had a point. That was basically Eric’s MO: Not being interested in relationships, he only ever hooked up with girls he met in the bar. “What time was this date?”
“Okay, and you were at Connie’s Coffee Shop, then you were suddenly in a dark room?”
“Yes,” Renee said. “I know it sounds crazy, and I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s what happened.”
“When you say ‘dark room,’ are you talking about a darkroom, like for developing film?”
“No. It was just a big empty room.”
“And it was dark.”
“And to be clear, you didn’t leave Connie’s?”
“One second you were sitting at a table in the coffee shop and the next—”
“I was in a dark room,” Renee finished for him.
“Just like that?” Fletcher tried not to let the incredulity he was feeling surface.
“And while you were in this room you were a man?”
“But you said it was dark.”
“So how can you be sure?”
Renee looked at Fletcher with what he thought was a bit of indignation.
“Because I wasn’t myself. I was… fat. And when I screamed my voice wasn’t mine. It was manly. It wasn’t exactly deep or anything, but definitely not mine,” Renee said. “And my body… my… they weren’t… I had a…”
Fletcher waited to see if she was going to finish her sentences, but when she didn’t seem to be interested in saying more he said, “Okay. You were in a dark room in a man’s body. What happened next?”
“I tried finding a way out of the room but couldn’t. Then I was standing in that house.”
“How long were you in that room before you—” he wanted to say ‘teleported,’ but teleportation was impossible and he didn’t want to give any credence to it—”found yourself in the Williams’ home?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“Can you give me an estimate?”
“I don’t know. I was freaked out. I didn’t think to think about how long I was there.”
“How about a rough estimate?”
“I don’t know. An hour maybe.”
“So, just to be clear, you didn’t leave Connie’s and drive somewhere? You were just at Connie’s one minute then the next you were in a dark room?”
“Then—just to make sure I’m understanding you correctly—the same is true about how you left the dark room and arrived at the Williams’ residence?”
“Yes. I know it’s crazy,” Renee said again, “but it’s true. I-I can’t explain it.”
“All right. Now, when you found yourself in the Williams’ residence, were you yourself again?”
Renee nodded but then quickly added, “Yes.”
Fletcher looked over at Eric and gestured toward the door. “Excuse us for a moment, please,” he said.
Fletcher stood then, before leaving said, “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Water?”
“No, thanks,” Renee said.
“All right. We’ll be right back.”
“She’s cuckoo, if you ask me,” Eric said the moment the door clicked shut behind them.
“Yeah,” Fletcher agreed. “I’m gonna call Frey. Would you mind refilling my coffee for me?”
“I’m not Alfred,” Eric said.
“Batman’s butler. If I was, I’d be wearing a tuxedo, not these lame-ass Dockers and a button-up shirt.”
“I never said you were,” Fletcher said.
“You didn’t have to.”
Fletcher rolled his eyes. “Just get me some coffee,” he said as he dialed Frey’s cell.
“You could’ve at least said please.”
“Please,” Fletcher said as the phone rang. “And if you’re unhappy with the dress code, you’re welcome to go back on the beat.”
“Sergeant Frey,” a voice said in his ear.
Fletcher held his empty coffee cup out toward Eric, who begrudgingly took it. “So, she’s nuts,” he said into the phone. “What have you guys found there?”
Fletcher listened as Frey got him up to speed on the investigation at the house. He jotted a few things down and asked a couple of questions as Frey talked. Eric returned just as they were finishing up. He took his cup back from Eric then said, “Ready to get back in there?”
“What, no ‘thanks’?”
“Thanks,” Fletcher said dryly.
“You know, sometimes I wonder if you really think of me as your servant instead of your partner.”
Fletcher sipped his coffee and said, “Hey, I offered to let you take the lead.”
“Well, if I’d known I could just send you off to get me coffee whenever I wanted, I probably would have.”
“You’re an idiot, you know that, right? Come on,” Fletcher said. “I’d like to get home sometime tonight.”
They reentered the interrogation room, where Renee sat fiddling with her empty cup again.
“Where were we?” Fletcher said, sitting down. Renee looked up briefly but otherwise didn’t indicate she was ready to spill the beans at last. He’d hoped that if he gave her some time to stew, she would come to her senses and drop the charade. Of course, he wouldn’t be so lucky. “So, you somehow found yourself in the Williams’ house.”
“Did you drive there?”
“No. I told you, I was in a dark room and then I was just there.”
“Ms. Denovan, can you tell me what kind of vehicle you drive?” Fletcher said.
“A Volkswagen Bug?”
Fletcher sipped his coffee. “What’s the license plate number?”
“Um… I don’t know.”
“That’s fine. What color is it?”
“And where is your car now, Ms. Denovan?”
“It’s…” Renee started fiddling with her empty cup again.
“Ms. Denovan? Where’s your car?”
“Last I drove it, it was to Connie’s.”
“And where’s your car right now?”
Renee didn’t answer. Part of getting someone to admit the truth was to find holes in their stories and poke them. Some stories—the really good ones—had only tiny pinpricks that could be easily missed and took a lot of digging to find, while others were as wide as a barn door—and not just ajar, but flung wide open. Renee’s story wasn’t believable from the start, but the location of her vehicle was as big a hole as there ever was—which was why she didn’t want to answer.
“Ms. Denovan, can you please tell me where your car is?” Fletcher said. Poke, poke.
Renee tried to look at him but couldn’t. “It’s, um… at the, uh… at the house.”
“Did you drive it there?”
Renee shook her head. “No. I told you, I was just there somehow.”
“Right, you did say that,” Fletcher agreed. “Then who drove it there?”
“I-I don’t know. I’ve never even been in that neighborhood before.”
That might be true, Fletcher thought, but just because she’d never been there before didn’t preclude the possibility that she drove there. “Okay,” Fletcher conceded for the time being. He glanced at his notes and said, “Let’s move on. Do you own a gun, Ms. Denovan?”
“No, sir. I’ve never owned a gun in my life.”
“So the gun found on the living room floor doesn’t belong to you?”
Renee shook her head.
“Does the gun belong to you, Ms. Denovan?”
“You do know that when we analyze the gun, the serial number will tell us who it belongs to, don’t you?”
“I swear, Detective, I don’t own a gun.”
“Did you borrow it from someone?”
“No,” Renee said with a shake of her head. “I wouldn’t know how to use it even if I did.”
“Did you steal it?”
“What?” Renee looked up at Fletcher with a look of incredulity. “Never! I’m not a thief.”
“When we complete forensic testing on the gun will we find your fingerprints on it?”
Renee again sat quietly, staring down at her lap. Another hole in her story. She obviously hadn’t thought to wear gloves to conceal her fingerprints. Even if she had, and had disposed of them at the scene of the crime—which she would’ve had to do, since she didn’t leave the premises—they would be found.
She gave several small nods in rapid succession.
“Is that a yes, Ms. Denovan? We’ll find your prints on the gun?”
“If you didn’t shoot Mr. Williams, then why are your prints on the gun?”
“Because when I appeared in the house I was holding it.”
Just to probe and see exactly how big this particular hole was, Fletcher asked, “Can you tell me what caliber the gun is?”
Renee looked up at him and shook her head.
“You can’t tell me?”
She shook her head again. “No.”
“B-because I don’t know. I don’t own a gun!”
Even if her story didn’t make sense and had obvious holes, she was at least being consistent. “All right. Can you tell me how many times you fired the gun at Mr. Williams?”
Renee looked at Fletcher again, the fear in her eyes evident. “I-I told you I didn’t shoot him.”
“But earlier you stated that when you… ‘appeared’ in Mr. Williams’ home, you were in fact holding the gun.”
“Yes. But I didn’t shoot him.”
Fletcher took a sip of his coffee, which was now lukewarm, and thought about what Renee had claimed thus far. If she’d murdered Marlon Williams, regardless of what her reason might have been, why would she ever think anyone would believe that she’d somehow teleported there holding a gun but hadn’t shot him? He looked over at Eric, who gave him an “I don’t know” look.
Fletcher set his cup down and looked back at Renee. “I want to believe that you’re telling the truth and that you didn’t shoot Mr. Williams, Ms. Denovan, but honestly I’m having a hard time understanding what you’re trying to tell me.”
I bet her sister put her up to this. The thought entered Fletcher’s mind out of nowhere. Abrupt as it was, it was true. Kate’s sister never had liked him. But would she really go so far as to convince Kate to divorce him? He pressed a finger into the inside corner of his eye and tried putting Kate out of his mind.
He looked at Renee as he refocused. She stared at her hands in her lap and occasionally wiped a tear from her eye. He didn’t really know what else to ask her. Her story was full of holes and made absolutely no sense. Not only did it not make sense, but it was flat out impossible. People don’t teleport, and they certainly don’t change from a fit woman to an obese man. For the life of him he couldn’t understand how she would think they’d believe such an outlandish story. In his years as a police officer, he’d heard his share of outlandish stories—every officer does sooner or later. But he’d never heard anything like this before.
He finished off his tepid coffee and said, “Somebody shot Marlon Williams tonight. Twice.” He paused to give the facts she was up against time to sink in. “Several witnesses are on record as hearing two gunshots. Witnesses are also on the record as seeing you exit the Williams home.”
Fresh tears began streaming down Renee’s cheeks. She didn’t wipe them. Her mascara streaked further.
It was entirely possible someone else had been in the house with Renee, and had gotten away without being seen before the police arrived, Fletcher knew. But there were four witnesses who had seen her come out the front door, alone. It was also possible that a second person had escaped out the back; the other detectives still at the scene of the crime would likely answer that question. But as it stood, the evidence appeared to be stacked against her.
“Is there anything else you’d like to add before we finish up?” Fletcher said.
Renee shook her head.
“What about you?” Fletcher asked Eric.
“I’m good,” Eric said.
“All right, then,” Fletcher said, turning back to Renee. “Thank you, Ms. Denovan, for your cooperation tonight.”
“Oh, one more question,” Fletcher said. “Did you go on this date barefoot?”
Renee shook her head. “No,” she said. “I wore heels.”
“And where are your heels now?”
“I-I don’t know.”
“Hmm,” Fletcher said. “Thanks.”
Fletcher looked at her questioningly. He picked up his phone and empty coffee cup, then stood. Eric stood as well. Fletcher knocked on the door and Spencer opened it. They walked out, leaving Renee staring at her hands.
“Well, you don’t hear that every day,” Eric said.
“No, you don’t,” Fletcher agreed. He checked his phone. Kate had yet to respond to his earlier text that he was going to be late getting home from work.
“What do you make of it?”
“Dunno,” Fletcher said absentmindedly. Doesn’t she care that I’m going to be late? He knew she probably figured it was because of work, but it wasn’t that long ago that she had shown an interest in his job.
“It’s a lame-ass story, if you ask me,” Eric said. “I don’t know what was worse: that she teleported or that she turned into a man and back. Who’s gonna believe bullshit like that? You gotta at least try.”
“Yeah.” Fletcher looked through the glass at Renee for a moment. He typed out another text to Kate—What? Denise got your tongue?—but deleted it, knowing his sarcasm was evident. The last thing he wanted to do was antagonize her. He called Frey instead.
Fletcher reviewed what they’d learned from the interview and Frey again went over the details of what they’d discovered at the scene of the crime. Surrounding neighbors had also heard the gunshots, but none of them saw anyone else leave the house. The neighborhood was built on a hill so the houses on the next street back, bordering the backyard, were considerably higher and separated by a retaining wall. The neighbor in the house directly behind the scene of the crime was an elderly woman who’d happened to be sitting on her back patio drinking iced tea when she heard the gunshots. No one came out the back door, she said. So far Renee was the only person who’d been seen anywhere near the house.
Fletcher hung up when their conversation ended. He turned to Eric and said, “So, do we have enough to keep her?” Even as mentally distracted as he was about Kate, he already knew the answer, but wanted Eric to think it through himself.
“You’re the Wise Guy and all, but if you’re asking me—”
“Well, we’ve got four witnesses saying she came out of the house after they heard gunshots. But there very well could have been someone else there as well.”
“That’d make her an accomplice at the very least. And Sarge said there’s another witness who says nobody exited the back of the house.”
“Then, yeah, I think we got enough to hang onto her.”
“Good. What do we charge her with?”
“At this point,” Eric said, “I’d say we got probable cause, so—manslaughter?”
“Are you asking me or telling me?”
“Geez, Wiz, you don’t gotta get all Boyd Crowder on me,” Eric said.
“Boyd Crowder, from Justified.“
“Only the greatest TV show ever—”
“Eric, I’m not really in the mood and just want to wrap this up, all right?” Fletcher wanted to get home. I hope I have beer in the fridge. He usually did, but he couldn’t remember for sure. And if he was going to talk with Kate tonight, he was definitely going to need beer.
“Fine, I’m telling you,” Eric said.
Fletcher nodded, then called Sergeant Frey again and discussed booking Renee. Frey told Fletcher to make it happen, then hung up. “Sarge agrees to book her,” he said to Spencer.
Spencer nodded and moved to open the door to the interrogation room.
“Hold on a sec,” Fletcher said. He didn’t know why, but for some reason he wanted to be the one to tell her what was about to happen. “Let me talk to her first.”
Spencer stepped back and Fletcher opened the door. Renee looked up at him when he entered. I shouldn’t be doing this. Pulling the door closed behind him, he said, “Ms. Denovan. I want to talk to you about what’s about to happen.”
Renee sniffed and wiped her eyes with the backs of her hands.
Looking at Renee and, for some reason, feeling bad for her, he said, “Based on your testimony, and the testimony of Mr. Williams’ neighbors, you are going to be placed under arrest.”
“But… I swear, I didn’t kill him.” Renee wiped more tears. “I just went to get coffee. That’s it.”
Fletcher empathized with what she must be feeling. He didn’t know why, in this particular instance, but he did. His job required he approach each case objectively, but he couldn’t help but think she didn’t seem like the type to commit murder. “But you understand?”
He turned back to the one-way glass and gestured for Spencer to enter. When the door opened, he turned back to Renee and said, “Officer Barr is going to take you now and get you processed.”
“Ms. Denovan,” Spencer said, “You are under arrest. Come with me, please.”
Renee hesitated for a moment then stood. She followed Spencer out of the room, looking at Fletcher as she passed him.
Fletcher watched her go. Her story didn’t make sense. He didn’t normally feel particularly compassionate toward suspects, but something made him want her story to be true. It just didn’t make any sense. People don’t change bodies. They don’t teleport around, either. Maybe in movies, but life wasn’t a movie, though he was starting to feel like his own life had somehow become a soap opera.
“Are they all this crazy?” Eric said when Fletcher walked out of the interrogation room.
“Making shit up like that?”
“No. That’s a first. But you’d think if she didn’t kill Williams she would have come up with a more plausible excuse.”
“You think she’s telling the truth? That she really didn’tkill him?”
“I don’t know. But part of me wants to believe her.”
“Well, I suppose every now and then you gotta earn that name of yours,” Eric said with a slap on Fletcher’s arm.
“It’s not like I picked my name when I got promoted to detective,” Fletcher said, slapping Eric back with more force. “How conceited do you think I am?”
“To pick Wise as a last name, I’d say quite a bit.”
“You’re such an idiot,” Fletcher said. He looked at his phone again, but still no texts from Kate.
Fletcher and Eric sat begrudgingly at their desks—Fletcher just wanting to go home and Eric overdue at whatever bar he went to before CJ’s—staring at Fletcher’s computer screen. He had it turned so they could both review Renee’s interview. It would be a while yet before the other detectives finished their work cataloging the scene of the crime, and he knew Frey would want to go over everything while it was still fresh in everyone’s minds.
“Come on…” Eric said in a moan. “I’m missing some primetime!”
“It’s Monday night,” Fletcher said.
“This is a college town, Wiz. Every night’s primetime.”
“Haven’t they figured you out yet?”
“Who? The college chicks?”
“Who else would I be talking about?”
“Nah. They don’t care.”
Fletcher had been a detective for a long time. He knew that cases required you to stay late from time to time, but he felt the same as Eric. He looked at his phone for the hundredth time, but Kate hadn’t replied. Eric was getting a constant stream of texts, whereas he couldn’t get even one. He couldn’t believe Kate would throw out such an outrageous declaration and then refuse to talk about it.
“The way you keep checking your phone makes me think you’re engaged in a little side action with a hottie of your own,” Eric said. He wiggled his eyebrows then made a kissy-face.
Fletcher rolled his eyes. “I’m not you, Eric.”
“Ouch, Smarts, that really smarts.”
Fletcher shook his head and looked back at the screen.
“What? Didn’t like the rhyme?”
“It’s not a rhyme when you use the same word twice, dumbass.”
Eric threw a pen across the desk at Fletcher and said, “Damn, dude. What’s your problem?”
“Can we please just focus on this?” Fletcher tried concentrating on what Renee was saying but he had missed the last couple of minutes. Even though it was the fifth time they’d watched the interview, he slid the progress bar back.
He watched the video through again, trying to make sense of Renee’s testimony. But each time he watched it, it made less sense. What would motivate a young woman with no prior record to kill someone? And why try to cover it with an asinine story? There were any number of possible reasons for her to be at the Williams’ residence, the most obvious, in his opinion, was that she was having an affair with Marlon. Maybe Marlon had threatened to come clean with his wife and she, being young, was afraid of what would happen. Maybe she’d panicked and decided to kill him then try to wiggle out of it under the guise of self-defense. But in reality, the only reason he could think of in his tired state of why she said what she said was that she legitimately thought they were stupid.
The evening dragged on. They could only watch the video so many times before they practically had it memorized, so they sat at their desks doing largely nothing. Fletcher checked his phone several times, typing out several texts to Kate then deleting them, unsent; Eric texted non-stop. The clicking of his phone was obnoxiously loud in the otherwise quiet room. Sergeant Frey and the other detectives finally returned to the station around ten pm, and after nearly an hour of mind-numbing debriefing, they were allowed to leave.
Normally Fletcher reveled in the art of piecing together the many elements of an investigation—he’d voluntarily stayed to work a case on more than one occasion—but tonight all he wanted was to get home and talk with his wife.
Twenty minutes later he pulled into his driveway, keeping to the right edge of the concrete so he wouldn’t block Kate from getting out when she left for work in the morning. As the garage door rose, he let out a sigh of relief when he saw that Kate’s car occupied the left half of the garage. Piles of junk occupied the right. At least she came home.
Fletcher got out of his truck, pushing the lock on the door down as he shut the door, and walked into the garage and through the laundry room, closing the garage door behind him. When he went into the living room, he saw Kate sitting on the floor in front of the couch. Her knees were tucked up to her chest.
“Can we talk?” she said.
“I’ve been wanting to all day,” Fletcher said, sitting on the end of the couch farthest from her, “but you’ve been ignoring me.”
“I didn’t want to do it over the phone.”
“Sorry I’m late.”
“It’s fine,” Kate said. It was never fine when she said it was fine. “You had to work.”
“About last night—”
“Let me start,” Kate said, interrupting him.
“I want a divorce.”
The words hit Fetcher like a bullet to the chest protector, knocking the breath out of him. “Yeah, you said that,” he wheezed. Hearing her utter them again so matter-of-factly left him feeling numb. “What I can’t understand is why.”
“This,” Kate said, gesturing between the two of them, “us—it’s not working anymore. It hasn’t been for a while.”
“I know things haven’t been that great…”
Kate shook her head in agreement.
“And that’s it? You’re ready to call it quits?”
“Shouldn’t we try counseling again?”
“We’ve already tried that, Fletch.”
“And things got better.”
“But it doesn’t last. I admit that while we were going, and for a month or so after, it was better, but then you went right back to where you were before.”
“Look, I know sometimes I’m not good at—”
Fletcher looked at Kate, who turned her head and stared across the room at the TV, which was on with the volume turned down. “You know what I mean. We’ve been over this. And we agreed that we would try.”
“I try,” Kate said without looking at him. A strand of her otherwise neat hair, tied back in a ponytail, was down, partially blocking her face from view.
“And so do I.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.”
Fletcher scooted over and slid off the couch, sitting next to Kate, but with his back to the TV, facing her. He tucked the stray hair back behind her ear, but she didn’t move or turn to look at him. He gazed at her for a moment. She wasn’t wearing makeup and her eyes glistened. “Kate, I’m sorry I don’t always do or say the right things, but I love you.”
“Really?” Kate turned and looked at him.
“Yes. Very much.”
“But that’s the problem, Fletch. I don’t feel like you do.”
Silence hung in the air between them. Kate went back to staring past him at the TV.
He honestly didn’t know what to say. They’d been round and round about how he didn’t express his love the way she needed him to. Counseling had made him more cognizant of that fact, but unless he was actively thinking about it—which was hard to do day in and day out—he’d forget. It wasn’t like he did it on purpose—he would never do that. But with the busyness of their lives, he had other things on his mind. Eventually, he said, “I try.”
“I know,” Kate said. “But it’s not enough.” She looked back at him and placed her hand on his cheek. “I can’t sit around any longer waiting for you to figure it out.”
“So that’s it?” Fletcher put his hand over hers.
“I love you, Fletch,” Kate said. She wiped tears from her eyes with her free hand. “But I need someone who can give me what I need.”
Fletcher wanted to say something, but again, he didn’t know what. Instead, he tried sliding his arm around Kate, but she shied away. Their relationship had had its ups and downs. In the ups, it was almost as if they had just fallen in love—always touching, hugging on each other, and plenty of sex—but during the downs they hardly touched at all. In that moment, sitting across from Kate, Fletcher felt a brick wall go up between them. Her mind was made up, he knew. She no longer considered herself to be his wife, or him her husband. She’d already mentally made the break.
They sat in silence for a good fifteen minutes before Kate said, “I’m going to bed.” She pushed herself to her feet and walked across the living room without so much as a kiss or a hug. Fletcher watched her go. Before disappearing around the corner to the bedroom she stopped and looked back, causing a glimmer of hope to rise in him. “Do you mind sleeping in the guest room?”
Fletcher stared in disbelief; the hope evaporated. He shook his head.
He didn’t know how long he sat there before eventually going into the kitchen and staring into the fridge. He hadn’t had anything to eat, but he wasn’t hungry. Instead, he texted Eric. “I know it’s late but you wanna get a beer?“
“I thought you went home.“
“I did, but I need a beer.“
“Meet me at the pub in 20?“
“Sure thing, Wise Guy. Slow night anyways.“
Fletcher retrieved his keys from the shelf in the hallway by the front door. He walked into the garage and hit the garage-door opener with the side of his fist, but then went back into the house.
He knocked on the bedroom door and said, “Kate?” He waited a moment, but there was only silence. “Kate? Can we please talk about this?”
When it was clear there would be no response, he turned and walked away.
Eric was already sitting at the bar when Fletcher walked into Ponderosa’s. The renovated historic building with creaky wood floors was a favorite downtown spot for the college kids, but the echoes of their typical din were absent tonight. A lot of locals avoided Ponderosa’s because of their ever-present hoopla, but Ponderosa’s had been his spot since he was a college kid himself. The walls were covered in coasters from around the world. It was said if you brought in a coaster they didn’t already have you’d get a free beer. He didn’t know if it’d ever happened and had never asked. By the time he climbed on the bar stool, the owner of the pub, Mac, already had a beer waiting.
“Trouble in paradise?” Eric said.
“You already know there is,” Fletcher said. He picked up his beer a
nd took a drink.
“I figured you’d work things out, like you always do.”
Fletcher swallowed another mouthful of beer. “Not this time, apparently.”
“Weren’t you doing counseling or some shit like that?”
“We went for a while but haven’t gone in a few months. But now she’s set on getting divorced.” He took another drink then swirled what was left in his glass around for a bit. “We talked for like ten minutes, then she locked herself in the bedroom. Said she was going to bed.”
“Bed my ass,” Eric said.
“That’s what I thought. She’s never once gone to bed that early. She’s always up late. She just didn’t want to talk anymore.” He finished off his pint. “And to top it off, she wants me to sleep in the guest room.”
As if on cue, Fletcher’s phone buzzed. He picked it up and saw he had a text from Kate: I decided to stay the night at Denise’s instead.
Of course you did, he thought.He opted against actually replying.
“If she’s the one who wants a divorce, shouldn’t she be the one to sleep in the guest room?”
“Another beer?” Mac said.
“My wife wants a divorce, Mac.”
“So… that’s a yeah?”
“Sorry, Mac. I don’t know when to turn the sarcasm off—or so I’ve been told.”
“Yeah,” Eric said, “he’s been a real piece of work today.”
Fletcher glared over at Eric. He really wasn’t in the mood. He didn’t know why he’d even invited Eric. He would have been perfectly content to sit and drink alone, in relative peace and quiet.
“No worries, Fletch,” Mac said. “Sorry to hear that.”
“Besides,” he said, “when have you ever known me to have just one?”
“Well, I didn’t want to assume.”
“Because you didn’t want to be an ass?”
“Just because you’re being one doesn’t mean I have to be,” Mac said.
“Do you want another beer or are we gonna sit here and BS all night?”
“If those are my choices, I’ll take the beer.”
“So what are you going to do?” Eric said while Mac set another beer in front of Fletcher.
“I don’t know.” Fletcher drank half his beer down in one long pull. “What can I do? If she wants a divorce, we get a divorce.”
25 days earlier…
Gabe fought the excitement that began growing in him when he saw he had a new email from Your Ideal Mate. He was currently matched with six women on the dating site, but none of them were particularly fast at responding when it was their turn. The site followed a step-by-step process which gave each person the option to continue to the next stage or to stop. Maybe it was because they thought he was overly eager—admittedly, he had a habit of replying the moment he got the email. He couldn’t help it. He had never been popular with girls and couldn’t help getting excited when one showed an interest in him.
He opened the email and read the brief message: We’re sorry, but Trudy has closed your match. Even though every match is made using our patented system, not all of them will turn out to be Your Ideal Mate. However, we stand by our promise: Everyone is guaranteed to find their Ideal Mate.
“Again?” Gabe pounded his meaty fist on the desk.
He loaded the website and navigated to his homepage. Trudy was no longer listed under his Active Matches. He clicked on the Closed Matcheslink and scrolled down to the bottom where her name was now listed. He now had twenty-two closed matches. He scrolled up and down through them, disgusted. Why won’t any of them give me a chance?
Gabe’s finger froze on the wheel of the mouse. He leaned forward in his chair, as far as his stomach would permit, and squinted his eyes. “You’re kidding me…” he said. He’d noticed a pattern. Your Ideal Mate had a total of ten stages of customizable back-and-forth interaction. In setting up his profile, he’d selected stage five to share pictures of himself. And he’d only made it past stage five with a few of his matches.
He knew he wasn’t what most women considered attractive. He was overweight—had been his entire life—and even though he was in his early twenties, he was already starting to go bald. Unlike meeting someone in a bar, where looks were always the first impression, he’d thought internet dating would be an opportunity for someone to get to know him before they saw what he looked like. And it worked. Women who matched with him seemed receptive to who he was—albeit a little slow in responding at times.
“Superficial bitches,” he said, forcefully sitting back in his chair. The springs groaned. Except for—he counted; one, two, three—the furthest he’d made it with any of the women he’d been matched with was stage five, when they saw his picture.
Gabe scrolled down to Trudy’s closed profile.
All but three women had closed their match with him after they saw what he looked like.
He logged off the site and went into the living room, where he plopped into his well-worn recliner. Its stuffing had long since been crushed so it didn’t provide much support anymore, but he didn’t have the money to buy a new one. He sifted through empty chip bags and candy wrappers on the coffee table until he found the TV remote. He turned the TV on, mindlessly clicked through a few channels, then turned it off again.
Gabe decided he just needed to get out of the house. He heaved himself back to his feet and snapped up his keys. The car’s worn-out shocks groaned when he eased himself into the driver’s seat. The passenger seat was covered in fast food bags, wrappers, and cups. With a fleeting sense of disgust, he swept it all to the floor, where it joined more of the same. He backed out of the driveway not knowing where he was going. He just wanted to be away.
Women didn’t give him the time of day. They never had. He got shot down every single time he went out with the few friends he had and showed interest in someone. Women just wouldn’t give him a chance. He was convinced that if someone would just take the time to get to know him, they’d realize he was actually a nice guy. Maybe not what they would consider attractive, but looks aren’t everything—or so they say. So he’d decided to give internet dating a shot.
He liked Your Ideal Mate because it gave you the most control over what you shared about yourself, and when. He’d set it up so matches had to progress through four stages before they saw his picture, thinking maybe if they got to know him a little before they saw what he looked like, his looks wouldn’t matter as much. But that obviously hadn’t worked. His matches had proved to be just as superficial as the people he met at bars.
He hadn’t consciously realized where he’d been going, but now Gabe pulled into a convenience store with a Burger Mania attached to it. It used to be a favorite spot when he was in college—it was close to the campus and a place he could get a quick bite, plus they had amazing milkshakes. He hadn’t been here in over a year, though, because there were places closer to where he lived now to satiate his sweet tooth. He rolled his window down as he drove around the parking lot to the drive-thru on the backside of the building and stopped at the menu.
“Welcome to Burger Mania,” a crackly voice said over the dilapidated speaker. “Order when you’re ready.”
“Large chocolate shake, please,” he said.
“I’ll have your total at the window.”
Gabe pulled up to the drive-thru window on the backside of the building.
“Four seventy-five,” said the cashier, a scrawny teenaged kid with emo hair.
I bet he doesn’t have trouble with the girls, Gabe thought as he unbuckled his seatbelt. He leaned sideways in order to get at his wallet in his back pocket. His skin began to tingle when he handed his debit card out the window. A weird sort of yearning accompanied the tingling—a feeling he recognized but hadn’t felt in years.
He remembered the exact moment he’d last felt it. He had been in high school biology, sitting at his desk and listening to Mr. Driff lecture. What the topic was he couldn’t remember. Tanner Johnson, the varsity football quarterback, was sitting at the desk in front of him. Gabe remembered staring at Tanner’s back as Mr. Driff droned on, wondering what it would be like to be him—to be the guy all the girls fawned over. Tanner was the homecoming king and his girlfriend, Cindy, was the hottest girl in school. He distinctly remembered the odd feeling that had washed over him as he willed himself to be Tanner.
But he hadn’t become Tanner, because that was impossible.
Gabe stared at the cashier as the boy processed his debit card, and the intensity of the yearning and tingling grew. The cashier handed him back his card then turned and walked away. He returned a moment later and handed the shake out the window. The yearning was still there, so Gabe willed himself to be the cashier, urged the yearning to grow even more. His heart raced and his vision blurred. For a split-second Gabe was looking down at himself—fat, balding, and sitting in a beat-up car littered with garbage. The shake slipped from his fingers and fell to the ground with a splat. And then he was looking up at the cashier again.
The boy looked down at the mess on the ground then at Gabe. Their eyes locked briefly before he slipped back through the window, visibly shaken, and moved out of sight again.
While Gabe waited for the cashier to make him a new shake, he stared at the steering wheel, trying to process what had just happened. Something had happened. It had been quick, but it had happened. He hadn’t dreamed it, the cashier’s reaction proved that. But it wasn’t possible. Was it? He’d thought about it, wanted it so much when he was in high school, but it was impossible. He couldn’t change who he was. He especially couldn’t become someone else.
“Here ya go,” the cashier said.
Gabe looked up. The cashier was holding a new shake as far out the drive-thru window as he could, holding it with both hands, but keeping his eyes averted.
Gabe reached up and took it.
“Sorry about that,” the cashier said.
“No worries,” Gabe said. He stared up at the cashier, who quickly turned and disappeared. The small rectangular window slid closed automatically. He pulled the spoon out of the shake, licked it off, then left the drive-thru. In the parking lot, he stopped and took a bite.
Gabe pulled out onto the road and headed toward home. His mind was going a million miles a minute. He couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened. For just a moment, he’d seen himself sitting in his car. Had he imagined it? Maybe. But he felt the shake slip through his fingers. And the cashier had obviously been distracted by something. And he’d looked away when their eyes met. No, he hadn’t imagined it. Something had happened.
Gabe pulled into his driveway. While he finished his milkshake, he thought about the feeling he’d had in the drive-thru. If it truly was what he thought had happened, that meant he could somehow do what he’d always wanted to do. He needed to find out. And if it was true—if he did somehow have the ability to shift into someone else’s body—then no one could ever know about it.
Gabe turned the car off and went into his house. He sat heavily in his recliner. It was impossible to change bodies with someone else. This wasn’t the Twilight Zone or some fantasy world. This was real life. That sort of stuff didn’t happen. And yet he distinctly remembered seeing himself sitting in his car, from inside the drive-thru window. It had happened. He knew it.
Even if it did happen, which it did, he had no clue how he’d done it. He didn’t do anything. He’d just been sitting there waiting for his milkshake.
I imagined it.
No. It happened.
He needed to find out if it was just his imagination or if he actually had changed bodies with that kid. Which meant talking to him. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and googled Burger Mania. It closed at eleven.
He didn’t want to go back there while the kid was working, and it was only eight o’clock. To kill the time, he tried reading. But every time he reached the bottom of a page he realized he had no clue what he’d just read. He couldn’t concentrate. Besides, he needed to think. But he also needed to stop his mind from going every which way.
Gabe paced the house for a few minutes, then sat heavily in his recliner again. He really needed to get a new one. He fired up his Xbox. Games were the perfect solution. He could play them without a thought, leaving his mind free to contemplate what he was going to do.
At ten-thirty he changed into a pair of black cargo pants with zippered thigh pockets, and pulled his 9mm down from the shelf in his closet. He removed the magazine and ejected the chambered bullet onto the bed, then put the magazine in the thigh pocket on his left leg. He zipped the pocket closed and walked out of his room. He put on a coat, slipped the gun into the right pocket, and by ten-forty he was driving back to Burger Mania.
At five minutes to eleven, Gabe pulled off the side of the road about fifty yards from the convenience store/burger joint and waited. The Burger Mania sign went off promptly at eleven, but the rest of the convenience store remained open. Twenty minutes later, the cashier emerged from the front of the store. Gabe watched intently as he walked around the side of the building to a bike locked to an electric meter. The teenager rode his bike across the parking lot and onto the largely unlit intersecting road.
Gabe drove after him. He pulled up alongside the teen, rolled the passenger window down, and shouted, “Hey!”
The cashier ignored him at first, but after Gabe shouted again, the cashier looked over at him. “Yeah?”
Gabe pointed his gun through the open window at the boy and shouted, “Pull over!”
“What the…” The cashier’s eyes widened. He stood up on his bike and started pedaling faster.
“Shit!” Gabe swore to himself. He pulled ahead of the frantically pedaling teen and veered over onto the shoulder. The shoulder dropped off abruptly into a ditch, so the cashier was forced to stop.
“Get in,” Gabe said through the window.
Gabe held his gun pointed at the teen. “Do you want me to shoot you?”
The cashier hesitated for a moment, but then climbed off his bike. He let it fall to the ground and opened the door. “W-what do you want?”
“Just get in.”
The boy climbed in and awkwardly tried to find somewhere to put his feet among all the trash on the floor.
“Shut the door,” Gabe said. When the cashier complied, he pulled back onto the road. “Do you have a cellphone?” His question was rhetorical. What teen didn’t?
“Toss it out the window.” When the teenager didn’t immediately comply, Gabe pointed the gun at him.
“All right, all right.” The boy leaned over against the door and held his hands up. He reached into a pocket and pulled his phone out, then tossed it out the window.
Gabe drove down the dark road, lined by houses on the right and a small lake on the left, until they got to a stoplight. When it turned green, he turned left onto Highway 89.
“What is this?” the cashier said after they’d driven a few miles.
Gabe looked over at the cashier and said, “Do you remember me?”
“Yeah, you’re the guy… what was that from before?”
The cashier’s question answered Gabe’s own. Something had happened. “I don’t know.”
“Where’re we going?”
Gabe didn’t answer.
“Dude,” the cashier said, “where the fuck are you taking me?”
“I don’t know,” Gabe said. “I… I needed to know.”
“If something happened.”
“I could have sworn we—”
“Shut the fuck up,” Gabe said. “I need to think.”
They drove in silence for about half an hour, through a few neighboring towns, until they entered a wooded area that was in complete darkness. Gabe slowed down and watched the side of the road closely. When he saw a dirt road appear in his headlights, he slowed further and turned onto it. The cashier fidgeted in his seat, so Gabe pointed his gun at him and said, “Don’t do anything stupid.” He hoped the kid didn’t decide to jump. With his gun presently unloaded, Gabe wouldn’t be able to stop him even if he tried. And the time it would take for him to stop the car and load the gun would make it almost impossible. He couldn’t chase the kid down—with his slender frame he was going to be much faster than Gabe. The moment the kid disappeared into the darkness it would be over; he’d be gone.
After driving for a few miles down the bumpy road—thankfully the kid had sense enough not to jump—Gabe stopped the car and shut the engine off. He kept the headlights on and said, “Get out.”
The cashier obeyed. Gabe leaned over and locked the passenger-side door, then climbed out himself. The car rocked and its springs creaked in relief. The cashier was too frightened to run. He probably thought he’d get shot the moment he tried. Gabe pointed the gun at him again and gestured toward the front of the car. “Stand by the hood.”
The cashier took a few steps toward the front of the car and stopped by the wheel.
“No, no, between the headlights.”
The boy hesitated, but moved when Gabe flicked his gun toward the hood.
“Stay right there.”
Gabe walked backwards, away from the car, toward a juniper tree illuminated by the headlights. He kept the gun pointed at the cashier.
“Come on, man, what are we doing out here?” the teen said.
“I had to think.”
Gabe stared at the silhouetted figure of the cashier. Think, think. Was the whole thing a fluke? Or could he do it again? He’d always wanted to be somebody else—but until today it’d only been the wistful desire of someone who, admittedly, watched too many sci-fi movies. It wasn’t real; it couldn’t be.
Gabe clenched his eyes closed and tried to remember that feeling, the one he’d had so many times when he was in high school. Then he opened them, afraid the kid was running. But he was still standing there—either too scared or too stupid. He closed his eyes again and focused on the feeling he’d had at the drive-thru.
He opened his eyes. There it was.
Yes! He focused on it, urged it to grow.
His skin tingled and his heart raced. His vision blurred—just as it should.
The sensation passed and his vision cleared. He was looking at himself, brightly illuminated by the car’s headlights.
“Holy fuck!” he heard himself exclaim. Only it wasn’t his voice. It was the boy, speaking as him.
Gabe looked down at his hands. They were thin. His arms, too. He looked at his body. His chest and stomach were flat. There was a Burger Mania logo on the left side of his shirt. “It worked!” he exclaimed, his voice still that of the cashier’s.
“Dude,” said the cashier—no, him; his body, his voice, with the annoying kind of squeak it developed when he was excited, or panicked—”what the fuck is going on?”
“It worked!” Gabe exclaimed, his voice that of the cashier’s. “I can’t believe it worked! We switched!”
“Well—” His body pointed the gun at him. “—switch us back.”
“Right.” If this new skill was going to be useful in any way, he would need to be able to switch back.
Gabe concentrated again, thinking about the feeling, and his skin began to tingle. He urged it forward. His vision blurred and his heart raced again.
He was once again looking at the silhouette of the cashier.
“Dude. That’s awesome!” the cashier said. The fear in his voice was gone. He seemed excited. “You’re like a real-life X-Man!”
“I am,” Gabe agreed. A smile blossomed on his face. For once in his life someone thought something he’d done was awesome. It felt amazing.
But no one can know.
“Come on, let’s head back.” No one can know. While the cashier walked toward the passenger door, he unzipped the left pocket of his pants, retrieved the magazine, and slid it into the gun.
No one can know.
“Door’s locked,” the cashier said.
“Sorry about that.” Gabe walked toward the car, racking the slide as he went. He aimed the gun at the cashier as he approached.
The cashier threw both arms up between them and took a few steps back. “W-what are you doing?”
“No one can know.”
“I-I-I… I promise I won’t—”
Gabe pulled the trigger.