Part I – Before Breakfast
Raina nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard the knocking at her front door. At one in the morning, her first thought was of the drunk guy upstairs playing a prank on his way home from a bar. She didn’t think anything bad. She wasn’t scared, but then the knock came again. Harder. Desperate. More of a thump than a rap, like a rubber mallet striking heavy against the door. In that moment, she let the fear creep in.
Raina closed her laptop, plunged her room into darkness, and waited. Nothing. Suddenly, she was aware of her choice to live off campus and how the sheer, purple fabric over her window blinds did nothing to keep the big bad world out of her room in the middle of the night–something her father warned her about when she picked out the moody boudoir collection at Target. She told her parents she was safe and there was nothing to worry about. She had roommates, after all. And it’s not like she was living on the south side of Chicago. This was Orlando. She was in Mickey Mouse’s backyard; the happiest place on earth. Still, her mother worried in passive-aggressive silence saying ‘that’s lovely, dear’ too much while her father did what father’s do when their daughters move out on their own; he got street smart and spoke to her in worst case scenarios.
“If someone leaves a flier on your back windshield, that’s a carjacker’s tool of the trade,” he said as he pulled boxes out of the trunk on moving day. “Just drive away, and take it off when you get back home.”
At dinner that night, he chewed thick chunks of Outback Steak and talked about apartment safety. “And if someone knocks on your door after ten, turn off the lights in the hallway, kitchen, and living room,” he said. “This way the guy can’t see you looking through the peephole.” Raina smiled at him and reveled in her own independence.
But now, with the stranger at the door, she did as he cautioned her to do, darting quick in the pitch dark and moving with her back against the wall, just in case. From behind her bedroom door, she grabbed the golf club her father told her to carry to ward off dogs when taking walks, and hesitated in the hallway. One step, two. But when she got to the front door, no one was there. She waited for a second, peered through the peephole, trying to curve her view into the breezeway. No movement. No sound. Her body tingled with adrenaline. She was sufficiently creeped out, drunk neighbor notwithstanding.
With her grip tight on the golf club, she made her way in the dark, back to her bedroom, acutely aware of her surroundings, and the sound of electricity hummed in her ears. She was struck with the idea of a dog again, but her college class schedule didn’t have room for the extra responsibility, and one of her roommates was allergic. The streetlights outside sent soft hues of indigo through her window as she replaced the golf club behind the door, flopped onto her bed, and flipped open the laptop. She smiled at the thought of spidey senses and she rolled her neck to stretch out the fear. That’s when the knock came heavy and fast on her bedroom window.
Allison liked to sleep with the television on. Ever since the birth of her second son, she couldn’t relax without the constant flicker and buzz that late night television provided. Her husband, Nick, didn’t have that problem, able to fall asleep in a tornado and stay dead till morning. So it was their normal routine each night after dinner and a movie on the couch, that Nick stepped outside to the porch to have a nightcap cigarette before a goodnight kiss and shuffle to the master bedroom to go to bed, leaving Allison to her insomnia, camping out on the couch.
Nick didn’t like the arrangement. He felt selfish and needy, but he was too proud to say it. Allison was going through a rough spot, the way she had with their first son, but he knew it was only a matter of time before she found herself again, and was back in bed with him, working on a third. Maybe this time she’d get her girl. Nick fell asleep with that thought in his head; Allison holding up a baby girl, the world a kaleidoscope of pink.
From across the courtyard, the blue glow of Allison’s television called to the man. He slipped a hurried note under the door. The girl with the purple sheets would have to wait. Instead, he made his way across the grass to the promise of open blinds.
Tucked behind some bushes, the man watched Allison as she slept on the couch; her mouth opened slightly, her right arm dangled off the side, and her fingers almost touching the bulky wooden coffee table in the middle of the room. Nothing moved inside the apartment. The man slipped from his spot and moved to the sliding glass door. Piles of cigarette butts filled the ashtray on the porch. He heard the faint murmur of talk-show hosts and noticed that the safety bar was down behind the sliding glass. At first he hesitated. This was too easy. What if there was someone else in the back bedroom? But then he moved to the door handle to check anyway. His right hand left greasy fingerprints on the door as it shushed open in the dark.
The surprise of my dead father matching me stroke for stroke while we swam the English Channel equalled the shock of my cell phone ringing me awake. We were perfectly in sync, my father and I, and he smiled at me through swimming goggles, so the sing-song quality of Christina’s voice was lost on me as my dream faded and the call-out brought me back to the U.S. and dry land.
“By the time the guy left, her husband’s phone had been stolen and she’d been threatened at gunpoint,” she said. My father was pulling ahead of me. There would be no catching him if this continued.
“I’m not hearing anything to do with sex yet,” I said, stifling a yawn.
“That’s where the gun comes in,” she said over the line. “Suck it or I’ll shoot.”
“Of course,” I said. My dreams would have to wait. “Call Sarge and see what he thinks,” I said, knowing the answer. “If you call me back, I’ll be needing a shower before I head out.”
Allison sat stunned in the corner of her dining nook with her hand over her mouth. She wore a soft, yellow hoody with spit up on the shoulder. She looked tired in a way that did nothing to betray the hour. Christina sat with her, reading the sworn statement Allison wrote while the uniforms waited for us to arrive. She handed me the pink carbons when I walked in the door. Sleeps with the television on, open sliding door, unknown black male, dark clothes and hat, penis, gun, all the bells and whistles of fearing for one’s life.
“We’re going to record this, okay Hon?” Christina said. “So you don’t have to write anymore.” Then she opened her notepad and set the digital recorder on the table.
Allison just nodded her understanding. Christina spoke to the recorder documenting the case number, time, and place; all the things the transcriptionists want to hear. “Do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but?” she asked Allison.
Allison nodded again, hand still over her mouth. Christina put her hand on Allison’s knee and smiled gently. “I’m going to need to hear you say that, Hon.”
Suddenly, Allison snapped awake and with both hands, smoothed her hair. Christina sat quietly and gave her time to clear her head. Allison raised her eyebrows, blinked and with a small croak, answered with “I swear.”
It took the uniformed police over two hours to give up looking and leave the scene. The man thought it odd that they didn’t put up the yellow crime scene tape. They ran with the dog, had the helicopter up, but nothing more. It was easy then, by the time he made his way back to the complex, to forget about how scared he had been when the first girl cried out after he nudged her awake. How putting his hand in his jacket pocket to point his pointer finger into a gun seemed like the only real option he had left to salvage the situation. And now he was angry at himself for having tossed the phone away like some scared little punk running from the police. What would his friends back in Philly think? How far had he fallen? The next time, he would leave them sleep, he thought. This way, he would actually have something to show for his efforts.
Kylie slept in the pitch dark. Even after receiving notice from the complex to remove it, her windows were still tin-foiled tight to keep out the bright streetlights outside her window. On the occasion she ever had guests, the boys would complain about not being able to see her in the dark. She liked hearing this. It conjured illicit images in her head. Being pulled at in the dark, the surprising touch of hands and tongues, the curious excitement of blind boys with their first bits of brail.
“Don’t worry,” she’d said, pointing towards the hall, “the SpongeBob night-light in the bathroom should be enough to get you peed and back to bed.”
Kylie missed nights like that. Nights too few and far between these days. She fought hard against these thoughts when she went to sleep. She was alone. No boys for months. Too much school and work. No time for brail lessons. So it was a surprise to her when the glow of a cell phone hovered in her door way, rousing her from sleep.
“Hello?” she said to the dark figure behind the glow.
“Are you okay?” he responded, as he pocketed the phone, shutting down the light.
The return of sudden darkness tricked Kylie into a dream. She was standing by a river, the trickle of water made her feel safe. Birds whippoorwilled in the distance. Had she been talking in her sleep? She wondered how cold the water was and how far it had travelled to get there, but then the moon was too bright on the surface, blinding her. The cellphone glowed bright again in her room.
“Hello?” she said a second time, now wide awake.
“You want to take your shirt off?” the man said. Just inside her bedroom door, his dark shadow stood tall, somewhere near six feet. He sounded uncertain in his question.
“No,” Kylie said defensively, as she propped herself up in her bed and pulled the sheets to her chest.
Then the man turned and rushed out of her room. She heard the clatter of plastic blinds at the sliding glass door. Instinctively, Kylie reached for her cellphone to call the police, but found it was missing. Spongebob winked at her as she stumbled into the hallway, fumbling in the dark to her roommate’s door to sound the alarm.
“Excuse me,” Christina whispered as she walked back into the living room. She had been outside in her car getting new batteries for her recorder while Nick was showing me his concealed weapons permit. I was chatting with Allison about dogs versus alarms and the conversation jumped back and forth between miniature Glocks and the Smith & Wesson Shield to how the hunting breed of Catahoula Leopard dogs imprint on their owners. Christina gave me a concerned look and cocked her head back towards the front door.
“We’ll be right back,” I said to the couple and followed Christina down the hall. She looked nervous and focussed at the same time. The look every cop gets when the jokes are over and work is about to start.
“They just called out a Code-3. Another occupied burglary,” she said gravely, “in this complex.”
“Any details?” I asked, and grimaced as I heard her recount sliding glass doors and stolen phones. “What about the victim, male or female?”
“The guy asked her to take off her shirt,” she said, moving towards the door. “I’m going to drive around the complex and check for 13-P’s.”
“Sure,” I said. She was still on it. Calling suspicious people 13-P’s, ready to jump into her unmarked, and run a track. A uniformed mind in detective’s clothing. These days, I have to think hard to remember the codes for anything outside of sex crimes, and here she’d listened to her radio while changing her digital recorder’s batteries. I’d have to remember to note this in her training log; comes prepared, and works well without supervision.
Nick and Allison looked shellshocked as I stepped back into the room. He put his arms on her shoulders as her hand went back to covering her mouth. “We heard,” Nick said. “Go,” he said, jumping into protector mode, like we’d worked together for years.
Part II – Breakfast
Kylie sat at the card table in her kitchen and tore thin strips from a Wendy’s napkin. A few feet away, a CSI dusted the blinds and frame of the sliding glass door. Across the complex, the K9 and his handler moved along dewy grass and dim lit sidewalks looking for someone to bite.
Christina sat next to Kylie and listened to her account of the shadow in the doorway. No, no one locked the sliding door the night before. No, she didn’t recognize the man who spoke to her. No, she wouldn’t be able to identify him later if she saw him. It was dark. She was asleep, just like every one else in her apartment, and the only one who could shed any on the incident lived in a pineapple under the sea.
“I know it was dark, but was there anything about his clothes that stood out to you, or maybe the way he sounded? Even the small things are important.”
Kylie organized the mountain of napkin in front of her. “I think he was wearing a hat.”
“You think or you know?” Christina asked, making sure not to sound angry.
“I just remember white writing on a black cap, but I thought I was dreaming,” Kylie said, shrugging her shoulders. “I’m really not sure.”
“That’s good, Kylie,” Christina said. “I’m sure your weren’t.”
The radio chirped out some coded speech and I tapped Christina on the shoulder.
“Looks like the K9 hit on something,” I said quietly. “Let’s wrap things up.”
When we walked up to the building, about six uniformed deputies milled about the parking spots in front of the corner apartment. The K9 handler rubbed his partners furry head and pulled a yellow tennis ball out from his cargo pocket.
“Who’s a good dog?” he said and bounced the ball high for his dog to snatch out of the air in mid flight. A female deputy stood next to him and tucked her flashlight into the plastic ring on her gun-belt. When she saw the shirts and ties, she jerked her head in the direction of the apartment, and handed me a piece of note pad with two names on it.
“Andre Johnson and Jeffry Daniels,” she said. “Jeffry lives here with his baby mama, and Andre is just visiting.”
“Where are they?” I asked, handing the note to Christina.
“Both are inside,” she said, “and baby mama is none too pleased.”
“Right,” I said, “thanks.” When I walked into their living room, Andre sat on the couch with his head in his hands. One of the female deputies handed me his ID and pointed to the suitcase near the couch and a male deputy in mid search.
“He says he doesn’t live here,” she whispered. Her back was to Andre, and she kept her voice tight, omniscient. “Got kicked out of his brother’s place only last night.”
“Did he give you guys permission to go through his things?”
She looked at me with a smile, her hair pulled back in a tight bun. “Sure. Said he had nothing to hide.”
I wondered how that conversation went down. Dogs barking at the door, a gaggle of cops banging, telling him to open up. That sounds consensual enough. I smiled back and looked at Christina. She nodded at her notepad and the red light of her digital recorder. I read the name on the ID and stepped up to the plate.
“Andre, I’m with the Sheriff’s Office and I need you to know that you don’t have to talk to me,” I said. My voice sounded big, playful almost. I’ve found that dumb ox plays better than smooth talk.
“You want to tell me what’s going on here?” Andre said, keeping his eye on the deputy rifling through his duffle bag. “I don’t even live here.”
“Well, you match the description of a guy we are looking for, and the dog tracked to your place.”
“Yeah,” he said, looking back and forth between me and his increasingly empty duffle. “Well, like I said, this isn’t my place.”
“Sure, but you understand, you’re staying here and this thing just happened.” The deputy was pulling clothes out of the duffle like he was looking for a clean set of pants to wear. He tossed them on the floor and I noticed a black hat, rounded brim, with white lettering on the front. “Have you been outside tonight?” I asked, my eyes steady on his face.
“Just to the Circle K, to get a sub and some chips.”
“What time?” I asked, then changed tack. “Better yet. You have a receipt? You see. We know exactly when this whole thing kicked off, so the sooner I can place you somewheres else, the faster we’ll be outta your hair.”
Andre stayed seated on the couch and held a hand up to the deputy going through his things. “Can I go to the kitchen?”
“Andre, like I said, this is your world. I’m just standing in it.”
Andre stood up from the couch and moved to the plastic bag hanging on the back of the front door. He dug around and came up with a slip of white paper drenched in mayonnaise. “I think this is it,” he said and laid it out on the kitchen counter.
The lobby of the Circle K smelled of disinfectant and bleach. A group of construction workers milled near the coolers, grabbing subs and chips, preparing for the day outside. I walked to the soda fountain to fill my cup with crunchy ice and sent Christina to chat up the clerk for evidence.
“You guys have video here?” she asked. Out of uniform, Christina’s look doesn’t exactly scream police. Without the bullet proof vest and utility belt full of gear to guide her, the clerk looked warily at this minivan mom cutting in line to ask her questions. Christina smiled and tapped the badge hanging from her neck and the look on the clerk’s face flashed with instant recognition.
“Rita!” the clerk called behind her as she counted change back to a customer. “Cops need to speak to you.” Christina looked over at me and winked, something she had started doing more and more as she got her detective legs. She and I, two cops in the know, always smiling.
Before coming to sex crimes, Christina spent years on the road training newbies. The wink was her way of easing them into the job; a “watch this” attitude of good humor and insight. Who was training who here? I wondered if she knew she was doing it to me. I finished filling my cup with water and went to stand by her side.
Rita opened the door of the office and stuck her head out. She had a stack of cash in one hand and a ream of receipts in the other. Her bleached, blond hair pulled tight on her forehead and poked out a frazzled ponytail. She had her mouth pursed in concentration. Had she been outside, a cigarette would have been living there. She looked busy, and not in the mood for detectives. The face of the neighborhood watch, she was not.
“What can I do for you, dear?” she said to me, already exhausted and ignoring Christina. I smiled and was about to speak when Christina cut me off.
“We need to see your video from this morning.” Christina approached the door and held out a her card for Rita to take, but Rita just smiled and held up her hands.
“You’re going to need to hold on a sec. I got to count this up and get it in the safe,” she said. “Then you two can come in and take a look.”
Christina and I stood in the doorway of Sergeant Maddox’s office as he checked his emails and listened to the events of the morning.
“Black cap with white lettering and black collared jacket,” she said with a smile. “Not the blue sweatsuit he said he was wearing.” Then she gave him the blow by blow of the investigation and how Andre had already disappeared by the time we got the video and went back to re-engage him in conversation.
“So what you’re telling me, Detective, is that you let the bad guy get away. Is that right?” Sarge has a way with words. He likes to tie us up with our own explanations and watch us try to wriggle ourselves free.
“What she’s telling you is that she’s going to be writing a warrant for the apartment and after I eat some breakfast, a bunch of us will be heading out to canvas for witnesses.” I said with a smile. I wanted to sleep sometime today and I knew he would be at this awhile if I didn’t step in. Sarge looked at me with a twinkle in his eyes. I could hear the sound of his voice in my head. C’mon fella, let me have my fun. But the email called to him and he let it go.
“Fine. Call felony and get them up on the stolen phones,” he said with a sigh, on the edge of uninterested, “and let me know when they start to ping.”
Anita Nunez walked four miles of the Cady Way trail every morning with her husband. They talked about their kids, how she never thought she’d miss the dusty littered dawns of Juarez after leaving Mexico two years ago, and how sometimes, when driving with the windows down, the diesel fumes from passing trucks took her home again. So when the glint of sunlight shone off the pieces of Kylie’s phone up ahead on the trail, Anita thought it was just another spot of trash conjuring up images of home and loss. But once she got closer, she realized her mistake, and started picking up the pieces to see if they fit. By the time she got home, she was smiling ear to ear with the treasure that had landed in her lap. I almost felt bad for her when she opened the door to her apartment and found me standing there with a felony team behind me.
TO BE CONTINUED…