3 – COLLIDING WORLDS
Vic felt the stiff metal of the chair pressing against his back. The sweatshirt stuck to his skin and chafed around his neck. Inside the interrogation room, it was dead still with no AC blowing through the vents.
Just another old trick they play. Keep the suspect in the room, make him sit there worrying about what he’d been brought in for, what the police know… Literally to make him squirm and sweat. They were his thoughts, but the voice in his head mimicked Rory again.
Then they’ll enter all smooth and nonchalant, offer up a cold soda to get me to relax a bit. One of the cops, the Good Cop, will offer to take the can to throw it away. Secretly, they’re gathering evidence for fingerprinting and DNA for testing.
He frowned and adjusted his chair.
Stop that! They’re watching you right now. Remain cold, emotionless. Don’t give them anything to work with. When they come in, you have to be the investigator. You’ve gotta learn what they know.
His skin crawled, the feeling of their eyes on him, observing him through the two-way mirror. Judging him not only on his history, but on his race as well. He understood the reality of things. He hated it, but he wasn’t going to fool himself into thinking he wouldn’t be held accountable to a social stereotype either.
The last day and night were surreal. It was as if he drove to that wealthy neighborhood and parked his car in another parallel reality. Nothing had made sense since he stepped into Shari’s house.
If he was going to get through this and out of the elaborate steel trap he was in, he had to find answers
A soft knuckle rap at the door announced the entrance of the case detectives. The first was an older white cop with a scruffy, grey goatee, brown, unkempt hair above a set of sharp blue eyes. The detective following him stood a good five inches taller, a black, athletic man, close-cropped hair and a strong jawline. Although he seemed younger, more of a model-type, there was a sense of confidence surrounding him.
Each had a drink in one hand and several manila folders tucked under the other arm. They sat across Vic at the table and opened their file folders without a word.
I am this week’s guest star on Law & Order. Madre! Vic joked to himself. His nerves were ragged, but on the outside, he remained stone and stoic.
“Vicente Vargas, age 23,” said the black detective in a monotone announcer voice.
“Before we start, Champ, you want a drink or something?” the “Good Cop” offered with a shark grin.
There it is… And so we begin.
He shook his head with a tiny movement.
“You sure? Kind of hot in here, no?”
Vic averted his gaze, staring at a corner of the room above the “Good Cop’s head. He fixated on a gray-dusted cobweb that swung back and forth next to a ceiling vent. It helped him to focus on it and not acknowledge their presence. The longer he could drag this out, the better his chances were of getting the information he needed.
Good Cop stepped up. “I’m Detective Ellis. This is my partner on this case, Detective Kemp.”
He still gave them nothing, but he eventually dropped his gaze to meet theirs.
Detective Ellis continued to lead the conversation. “I see you’re a gentleman of few words. Okay… Well, let’s not start that way. The more open you are with us, the more we’ll be able to help you, Vincent.”
“No. It’s Vicente. Vee-sent-teh,” Detective Kemp corrected him.
“Uh, yeah, sorry.” Ellis coughed into his hand. “Why don’t we go over the facts, then you can fill in some details for us?”
His eyes remained locked on Vic’s, looking for any signs of cracks in the foundation. The stare was penetrating and precise. Those eyes were focused, experienced, yet somehow haunted.
Like Cory Tames, Vic mused. The kid had been a meth junkie since he was eleven years old and was serving his sixth drug sentence when Vic met him.
Cory’s mouth would say one thing, but his eyes told a different story. They were haunted; you could almost see the ghosts running around in his head.
The heavy-set detective had a similar look in his eyes. Something still hovered over him. Ellis hadn’t let go of it and as a result, it stained his soul.
Vic made a mental note – Could I use that somehow?
“Yesterday evening between 4:30 and 5:30 PM, at the residence of 1718 Lioness Estates Drive, Shari Renee Thomas was stabbed to death. She’d been butchered inside her parent’s house. At 6:40 PM, Vicente Anthony Vargas parked his 2007 Nissan Altima outside 2828 S Margo Drive. Inside the trunk, Officer Dan Reccard discovered Ms. Thomas’ body,” Kemp read aloud to the room, then sat back in his own steel chair. Both detectives waited, watching him intently.
Don’t give them anything. Shari Thomas, remember that name. Wait… They said she was killed between 4:30 and 5:30. I wasn’t there until after 6! I can use — No! They may be baiting me. Giving me invisible rope to hang myself. Dammit!
“Vicente, listen. You’re in a world of hurt here. I want to understand what happened. Help yourself and take my advice. Now is the time to tell us your side of things. Tell us what she did.”
Their game of pleading, threatening, bribing and pretending went on for another half hour. They kept at him like a stubborn dog with a bone.
He didn’t give them anything.
A knock at the door interrupted their little performance. Kemp answered it then rushed out of the room holding another manila folder. Five minutes later, he returned and whispered into his partner’s ear.
“Yeah? No shit?” He seemed genuinely surprised.
They both turned to Vicente.
Bullshit. All bullshit games, my main man, whispered Rory again in the dark recesses of his head.
Kemp sat again across from the young Hispanic.
“You aren’t giving us much choice here, bud. I know we asked you earlier if you wanted your lawyer and you refused, but maybe this is your ploy. Are you a gamer, Vicente?” Ellis asked.
Vic felt fresh sweat gather at the back of his neck. He averted his eyes, staring at the back of his hands in front of him. Something had changed and shifted in their favor.
Kemp jumped in with a mocking taunt. “I know you’re smart. You know a lot of the system from your juvie stint. Did you learn some legal magic in jail? A few good tricks that’ll work this all out?”
“Thinking if there’s no lawyer, maybe you can say we didn’t allow you counsel or didn’t advise you to get one?” Ellis pointed at a camera in the corner, a tiny red light blinking at them.
“It’s all on tape. Just like the recording of you leaving the Thomas residence. “He paused again, letting his words sink in.
“You need to start working this out with us, Vicente.”
Stone cold silence. No show of emotions.
Kemp turned in his chair and looked at Ellis. “Do you think… Samantha Troy is connected at all to this?
Ellis scrunched his face and shook his head slowly. “I hadn’t thought of that, but why?” Then, as if the question hadn’t been proposed, he shifted his attention back to Vic. He leaned away from the table and clasped his hands in front of him. “We have the body. Are you ready to admit to this? Perps like you have avoided the death penalty by being cooperative and leading us to the other bodies.” His tone was flat and matter-of-fact.
Yet, when he said “Perps like you,” an expression flickered across his face. A crack in his practiced foundation, a glimpse behind the detective mask to the disgusted and angry hero wanting justice. That look scared Vicente. It was an honest and deep emotion — brief but revealing. He exposed a truth. They have actual hard evidence.
Oh god, I’m in so deep!
Vic met the detective’s gaze for the first time. His top lip involuntarily trembled. “I didn’t hurt that girl. I didn’t know her.”
“Who is this then?” Kemp slid a headshot of a dead woman at him. A pretty, redhead with cloudy white eyes stared at the photographer, but Vic felt those dead eyes pierce into him.
I don’t know you!
“Whose hands are these?” Kemp slid another photo of the hands from the backpack.
The older detective slapped his hand down on the pair of pictures, startling Vicente. “Why do you have them if you had nothing to do with their murders?”
“WHAT?” Vic blurted. “MURDERS?”
“I’m going to run her DNA and find out her name soon enough. You’d save us all a lot of time, give her family closure and it’d go a long way to bettering your situation, IF YOU TELL ME WHO THIS WOMAN IS!” Ellis pointed at the cut hands.
Two dead girls. And they think there’s more.
“Is this Samantha? Did you kill Samantha Troy?” Kemp asked in a more even tone.
It was like a one-two punch followed up with an uppercut to his jaw. The detectives had him boxed in and on the ropes. He felt the room was spinning.
“I want a lawyer,” he rasped.
The detectives sighed in unison. A confession, a rant, a breakdown, something…had been close at hand. Whatever it was, it didn’t happen, and their window had passed.
Kemp spoke loud enough for Ellis and their prisoner to hear, “He’s scheduled to be brought downtown on the bus transfer at 9 AM. We can speak with him and his lawyer then after he’s been processed at Phoenix Jail. Give him time to rethink his story and be more willing to save himself from the needle!”
Vic lowered his face into his hands.
Bernice Baxter was a bitch.
She knew it. She embraced it. It normally made her job and her life simpler. Or at least, easier to get her way. People didn’t like conflict, and many would give way rather than stand up to you.
Once more and for the umpteenth time that morning, she looked at her watch. It was 8:12 AM.
From behind her, she heard the familiar jingle of The Price Is Right playing on the television in the front room. With her hands on her hips, she glanced over her shoulder. Anna Witherspoon, Bernice’s shut-in patient, sat on the couch with three pillows propping her up. She giggled and smiled through her oxygen mask at the TV as the show began.
The rotation of “Idiot TV” was starting — first The Price Is Right, then The Jerry Springer Show, then Judge Judy all before the lunch hour. In her opinion, not only were these shows dumbing down America, they were exactly what was wrong with this country.
Don Witherspoon, Anna’s oldest son, was overdue from his work shift. He should have been there by 7:30 AM.
On days like this, she wondered again how she’d fallen into this line of work and how she managed to stay trapped in it. Her late husband had kept them afloat with his antique shop and she’d become complacent. Any ambitions she had stalled early in her twenties. Now a widow and making do with her low wages, bitterness was her true obsession in life.
Bernice hated taking care of the elderly. The deterioration of the body at the end of life disgusted her. It required a lot of care and support which didn’t pair well with her lack of bedside manner. But desperate people would hire anyone in desperate times and it helped pay the bills.
“Can I have some cereal at least?” a petite, brunette girl whined from the upstairs hallway.
“Shellie, I don’t get paid any extra for you to eat. I am not here to take care of you,” Bernice berated her in icy tones.
Don’s only child was a twelve-year-old oddball. Currently, she had the girl sequestered to her room.
Bernice hadn’t liked her from the start. If she were twelve years old, too she’d have gathered a group to jump the brat and beaten the snot out of her. In her day, it was what you did to the oddballs — the ones who didn’t fit in and didn’t get why.
The mousy girl’s face was always in a computer screen or her eyes glued to her smartphone. Bernice walked in on her that morning, watching YouTube videos on the basics of computer hacking. When she reached for the laptop, Shellie shouted at her and pulled away.
Bernice gave her a hard smack across the top of her thigh. The girl’s shorts would hide any resulting marks or bruises.
She smiled knowing the girl would be too modest to undress in front of her daddy so there was little chance of being discovered accidentally. Shellie was smart though. She wouldn’t say anything to Don and risk getting worse from Bernice. This wasn’t the first time one of her patients had a brat to deal with.
Bernice Baxter was a bitch.
“Next, we will have our winners Spin the Wheel after these messages from our sponsors!” Drew Carey bellowed in the background.
Don Witherspoon burst in out of breath through the kitchen door. The clock on the stove said 8:26 AM.
He was covered in sweat and his beige uniform had several patches of sweat.
“I am so so sorry, Ms. Baxter!” he apologized.
“No more.” She shook her head. “I am quitting. Not only are you late again, but your daughter kicked me this morning! And on top of that, I am going to be stuck on the 202 an extra hour due to the morning traffic! Too much. I am done!”
She’d practiced the speech in her head almost a dozen times while waiting. He had no one else to go to. Timing was critical and finally she had enough to threaten to quit… Unless he offered her more money. She had him by what her late husband, Eddie, would have called “the short hairs”.
Swiping her big green purse from the table, she brushed past him and out the door toward her rusting 2006 Chevy Impala parked on the street.
He raced after her, begging for another shot. She made him sweat until she reached for her car door handle. Finally turning to face him, she said, “The only way I can put up with Shellie and your mother will be if you pay me an extra $2 an hour. NO LESS!”
Don blanched then sagged in defeat, nodding his head in agreement. “I will have a talk with Shellie, I promise. Can you come by tomorrow? The register locked up today and I will have to go into the laundromat early tonight to balance out the drawer. Please?”
“Fine.” She didn’t care about the extra time tonight. Her victory elation overshadowed the inconvenience.
As she drove away she watched him in her rearview mirror. “Dumbass!” She laughed, heading for the freeway.
At 9:12 AM, Bernice pulled out from the onramp and merged into the rush hour crowd.
It was already hot. The radio stated it was nearing 96 degrees. She frowned and punched the button, looking for a country music station.
At 9:16 AM, the Impala lurched forward and sputtered as if it had a gas hiccup.
“What the hell?” she shrieked. However, the car continued to race along at 58 mph. There were no red engine lights or any other dashboard signals to account for it.
“I just got this damn thing an oil ch—” The wheel yanked to the right on its own and the car brakes plunged to the floor by themselves.
Car horns blared, and deafening tire screeches surrounded her. The Impala skewed to a parked position in the fast lane. Cars whizzed by, narrowly avoiding her.
Bernice screamed and smashed her foot on the gas to try to get the car moving again.
“Oh, dear lord!” She mouthed the words as she tried the door handle. Intense terror stole her breath away.
The door wouldn’t open. All the doors were locked.
The Impala growled and revved fiercely as if it had a mind of its own.
Bernice screamed again as the car ripped across the three lanes of oncoming traffic. It barreled through the cement barrier. Flung forward, she broke her sternum on the steering wheel at the same time the air bag deployed.
At 9:17 AM Bernice Baxter’s car nosedived through the air, plunging over eighty feet onto the traffic below.
The airbag prevented her from seeing the impact of her car as it plowed through the front cab of a grey transport bus. A bus headed for the downtown Phoenix Jail.
Bernice Baxter blinked for the last time as her eyes filled with blood. She hung against the bus’s hood, partially out of her shattered driver’s side window. The back door of the bus burst open and men clad in orange jumpsuits fled down the freeway ramp.
Flames flickered and scalded her pulped legs as engine oil and fluids flooded the ground. Her skin darkened, and her flesh sizzled like bacon.
She didn’t feel the heat or the pain.
Bernice Baxter would never see her extorted raise.
Bernice Baxter finally ceased being a bitch.
At 9:20 AM as Don Witherspoon scolded his daughter on how her abusive behavior had cost him, a miniature, green light on her laptop blinked three times in rapid succession.
A fire engine horn blast followed by the sounds of several wailing police cars could be heard somewhere north of their house. Neither of them noticed nor heard the emergency sirens. Nor did they notice the single bleep and soft hum of files downloading onto Shellie’s laptop.