Vinnie stared at the murderer’s letter as if it was a freshly deposited dog turd. A reminder that he had solved the case, well, he and his team at the Briggs Investigative Group, but it didn’t feel like it. They had identified the murderer, prevented further needless deaths, yet everyone was disappointed. In his other cases—admittedly only two—and before he became a licensed New York PI, before he started his Manhattan agency, he had solved the murders. Those case felt good, identifying the criminals its own reward, better than a client’s fee. Now his fee was paid, the murderer identified, and the client satisfied. But not Vinnie.
Holding the letter, sliding the edge between his index finger and thumb, feeling the paper’s texture did not satisfy.
Solving the case felt so wrong.
Seven Months Earlier
Midway along the hospital ward the man stopped walking. The familiar pungent odor crept up his nostrils while his brain churned as he recalled the assault that resulted in murder. He was disoriented, dazed.
“Roger, that you? I didn’t know you heard about Emily. So kind of you to stop by.”
“Oh—” Roger blinked, and his emotional befuddlement was obvious as he tried to recognize his former neighbor, Glen Dingle. “Uh, sorry, I didn’t… I mean… I’m just dropping this off.” Roger lifted a box of chocolates and an envelope as if clarifying his response.
Glen patted Roger’s back as if they were still close friends sharing a beer at a barbecue, still cheering their sons on the football team, their wives still teaching colleagues at Lincoln High, and forgetting the shame that had long buried their friendship.
Tugged onward by Glen’s hold on his elbow, Roger entered the intensive care room, his eyelids fatigued from blinking. The scene too familiar: a large tube traversed the bedridden woman’s throat below two closed blackish-blue patinaed eyes. He blinked again, yet failed to recognize Emily Dingle.
Roger stepped closer, unsure what to say. Should he let Glen in on the cruel joke that sooner or later the machines would stop? Tell him his wife was already dead, only neither she nor Glen knew it? Tell him about the nauseating feeling that would suffuse every cell of his body on agreeing to pull the plug on his wife? This had been Roger two weeks earlier.
He decided this was not the time, not yet. Glen has hope. He’ll believe me less than doctors. He doesn’t care about electrical brain activity. Let him hope for a few days more. Ha. He’ll soon hate the nurses and doctors for… what did they say to me? Mr. Bryant, people react differently… take time to let it sink in… it’s your decision, but your wife is…
Roger looked at his outstretched hand with the chocolate box and gift certificate thank-you he brought for the nursing staff. That day could not be scrubbed away. Roger yelled at the nurses. Cursed and criticized them. Insisted they knew nothing, and that his wife would recover. The nurses tutted, patronized: “We understand, Mr. Bryant. Take your time. It’s your decision.” He fumed until the day he accepted the medical team’s diagnosis. Alice would not recover because she was already dead.
With his sixteen-year-old son Ken, thirteen-year-old daughter Katy, and Alice’s mother and sister they huddled waiting for the silence. The hush was brief, broken by their collective wail. The day Alice officially died the family ceased to care about each other.
No, thought Roger, I’ll not be Glen’s prophet… what was that sonnet read at Alice’s funeral…? Thy end is truth’s and beauty’s doom and date. Roger looked from Emily to Glen. Different people take different amounts of time to process bad news.
“Why are you here if you didn’t know about Emily?”
Yes, why? Roger mumbled about thanking the nurses. He told Glen of Alice’s early retirement at fifty; her celebration with colleagues; her call around ten that awful night to say she would fill the car and pick up a few items for the weekend at their Jersey Shore cottage. Roger’s lips widened as he repeated his oft-told quip that Alice counted groceries like a five-year-old. His smile dissipated as he recalled the midnight knock at the door—two men, porcelain faces lit by the outdoor lamp, hats in one hand, the other pushing metal badges forward like lances. Talk of a metal object and a beating. An offer to escort him to the hospital.
“Geez, Roger, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. It wasn’t in the local paper… well, it wouldn’t, would it, since you moved away. Big house in Ridgewood, right?”
Roger looked at Glen sitting at his bedside guard-like chair and realized he had never liked him. Emily he could take or leave. Did he dislike Glen for his lack of ambition? He abandoned the Big Apple competition to start his two-man New Jersey firm, minuscule compared to Roger’s financial group on Madison Avenue and Sixtieth Street. It was no secret Roger’s earnings tripled Glen’s, and explained why Glen struggled to make ends meet.
Or maybe his dislike for Glen came after he had no choice but move his family to the big house, the upper income neighborhood, not that Roger didn’t appreciate the prestige. But everyone knew the Bryant family didn’t move for a better zip code, Glen more than most. Roger rewrote history to include that he never liked Glen.
The machine hummed in the background, blending Emily into the conversation. Roger listened. Emily never blended. She bellowed louder than the men; interrupted people during barbecues; energetically organized the women’s snack roster for Little League and Pop Warner games; and chaired the parent’s booster club for Lincoln High School football when their sons Ken and Brett were still teammates.
Roger’s lips twisted. The families lost touch. They knew why. Were they ever really close or just friends by proximity made strangers by the event? Roger looked at the battered Emily. Did she and his Alice have more in common as teachers at Lincoln High than he and Glen? Emily had been vice-principal and Alice head of the English department. Sure, Alice changed schools on relocation to Ridgewood and lost touch with her former Lincoln High colleagues. A few were invited to her retirement party; none attended. How could they after what had happened?
Yet here they were again, happenstance. Glen talked of Emily’s attack after her woman’s book club. A brutal assault matching Alice’s. An iron bar the weapon, said the police officer.
Interrupting his own narrative, Glen looked to Roger, “I’m truly sorry to hear about Alice.” He paused, then repeating, “I’m so sorry.”
Did Glen believe him? wondered Roger as he walked to the window lifting a framed photo of a happy family portrait. Glen and Emily seated, their teenage son Brett stood behind. A beautiful family, Glen by far the best looking. The families called him the movie star parent only better looking than any heartthrob.
“When was this taken?”
“A month before Emily’s mugging. We had it professionally done for our Christmas card photo.”
“Brett’s a lot bigger.”
“He’s been hitting the weights pretty hard. Over six foot and two hundred pounds. All muscle. He’s the team’s starting wide receiver.”
Roger nodded. “Ken’s at six one, two-twenty, with legs like pylons. Plays offense tackle.”
“And Katy’s attending Ridgewood High?”
“A freshman, can you believe it? Cheerleading, which is what her mother wanted.”
Roger replaced the photo, walked by Glen and placed his hand on his shoulder. “Emily was a good person.”
Glen’s neck tilted like a dog not understanding a command. “She still is. She’ll recover.”
Different people take different amounts of time. Roger walked away but stopped on hearing Glen. “And wasn’t that awful about Bob Reinhardt?”
“Bob Reinhardt? Wasn’t his daughter the homecoming queen a few years back? What about him?”
“Didn’t you hear? No, I guess you wouldn’t. After the incident—” Glen stopped himself. Too close to the unmentionable. He looked at the walls for an escape route. “Bob moved into a one-bedroom Fort Lee condo when his daughter moved out for college. We kept in touch through the hunting lodge. Bob was on the annual Canadian deer hunt when he was shot—” Roger’s audible exhale stopped Glen, who waited a few seconds. “I stopped going. Too expensive, saving for… er—” The resurfacing past interrupted. “Just awful what happened to Bob.”
“That’s what the report says, but suspicious nonetheless.”
Roger’s eyebrows dipped.
“Bob’s head blown clean off. The bullet exploded on impact. Not deer ammunition, maybe rhino or elephant, I suppose. They never located the hunter who shot him. Identification impossible, would have taken the Canadian Mounties a long time, except the lodge group knew Bob went down that trail alone and was missing.”
Glen stopped, while Emily’s machines whirred unabated. Roger looked to the sill with its lineup of photos. “Well, I’ve got to go. Again, I’m so sorry for…?”
Roger felt tapping on his shoulder as he was out the door. Glen held the chocolate box and gift certificate. “You forgot these.”
The number three swirled around Roger’s head as he sat in his car, engine off. Three people at the same high school. Three attacked. Three sounded like a trend, a pattern. Was it? Why? He needed independent advice. The incident was too delicate to discuss his concern with just anyone. He needed someone outside of northern New Jersey.
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