By Brian C. Mahon
For a house halfway carved into a canyon wall, the sand dollar colored interior was remarkably well lit. Herbert Horatio considered how odd it was that nearly every house he toured happened to be partially tunneled into something rocky. Earlier in the month he was in a cave, and this time a canyon, maybe there was some sort of unconscious bias towards –
Herbert, the real Herbert, gradually reentered the real world. Margaret was sleeping soundly. Not next to him but in the first room down the hall, past the painting of a Montana landscape. The alarm clock displayed 2:37 a.m., a usual time for him to momentarily wake, roll over, and nuzzle into the next dream. He just flipped over onto his back when a Tink caught his ear. Three of them. In rapid succession. His heart fluttered, and his eyes went wide to pan the room.
“Wah- was that?” he slurred to the quiet dim, the dream daze half convincing him an answer wasn’t inconceivable. Night veiled the expected outlines of his room, from the light gray of the shut bedroom door to the dark contours of his comforter. The prevailing quiet convinced him to return to sleep in hopes for a sandstone villa made from butte.
As his thoughts drifted toward deserts and coyotes and younger women, a light draft passed over his cheek. He immediately came to, drawing the comforter from his chest to his nostrils. Margaret was supposed to ensure pest control sprayed monthly. She knew he hated roaches – they fly and are not small!
But then, roaches don’t land on nightstands and say, “Oh, you’re still awake!”
“Huh?” Herbert rolled his eyes toward the voice, pulling the comforter tighter over the bridge of his nose.
“I said, um, are you still awake?” It was a tiny voice, clear and crisp, like a silver spoon tapping against crystal.
“Marge? I’m awake. What’re you doing?”
“No. She is asleep. I should have been more careful. I misjudged how long you would be awake.”
“Huh?” Herbert, still clutching the comforter, dug his knuckles into his cheekbones as a consciousness litmus. A weak lightness ran from his groin to his toes when he passed the test. “Wh-what? What? Who are you?” His voice timid and quiet.
A breeze crossed from one cheek to the other, with a concurrent buzz and what sounded like a marble being dropped on a pillowcase.
In echoing treble bell tones, she replied, “You can call me Annalise. Please uncover your face. I promise, I can be quite harmless. I’m so sorry to have caught you by surprise, Herbert.”
Cautiously he rolled down the embroidered trim of the comforter just past the trembling cusp of his lower lip. He whispered meekly, “Annalise, who are you?”
“I think you prefer to know what I am. We’ve gotten along very well without you knowing.” She laughed, a chiming little laugh. “That’s funny, I think, ‘without you knowing’. You didn’t know that we got along or that people like me existed! A little double entendre, oh! Those are fun!”
“You sound really close, but I can’t see you… you’re not a roach, are you?” With a sudden thought, his eyelids whipped wide open, and Herbert, pulling the bedding to his belly, gasped, “Am I Kafka? Is this a- am I the roach?”
Jingling giggles responded, and Annalise playfully chided, “Oh Herbert, you are a roach, and I am the spider here for you! Grrr! Or more of, hisss!”
Herbert chuckled nervously, looking at the pillow next to him, to the voice, still seeing nothing in the gray hazes of the dark. “You are, heh, you have quite the sense of humor. I can’t see you. If I’m not a roach, and you’re not a roach, and you’re not Marge and, you sound too small, to be a person…,” he trailed off. Herbert was awake enough to know this was not a simple madness, because he was a sound man. This was a lucid dream. He read about these. Very strange things, but temporary. He smacked his lips and nodded encouragingly before resting his head on the pillow. “Well, Annalise, good night. I will probably never see you again. Hope I feel rested after a dream like this.”
“Well, that’s not fair!”
Herbert opened his right eye and cocked his head to look at the pillow again. “Excuse me?”
Three hurried little rustles moved toward Herbert’s face, the vigor in those steps causing him to recoil with an alarmed, “What are you doing!”
“I’m just- oh, Herbert! Are you really not even a teensy-weensy curious about what I am? You’re not dreaming, you know. You know that, yes?”
The tickle from his groin to his toes snuck up on him again, and he pulled up on the covers again. He responded with a squeaky, “No? I’m not?”
“Yes, you are- agh, no! I mean, no you’re not!” And just as the last word hopped from her mouth, he saw her: a small figure glowing in the dark, transforming from a two-dimensional glow into a woman, a little Cinderella in a blue-trimmed white dress with blonde hair pulled back by a blue ribbon and two gossamer wings shimmering in her light. Her cheeks and arms were as porcelain, and only the ruffled trim of her sleeves gave a clue as to where the white of the dress ended and the white of her arms began. She had little lips of gold that pursed in irritation at him. “You see? Now I’m flustered! I take the time, no, the bravery to speak to you, and you say you will probably never see me again? Do you see how that could be insulting?”
“Incurious! And worse, you’re not afraid!”
“Wh-why, uh, wh-what should I be sc- “
“Why? Why! Of all the insol-, oh! You! Danger for you is based on bias! You see me, a petite fairy, small and dainty and white and cute, and you cannot fathom, not one little itty bit that I, a fairy, might be more dangerous than a room full of saber tigers! I hope you’re ready for it then!” She stamped her feet rapidly into the pillow, kicking up a luminous flurry of dust in a golden afterglow around her, and as she did, Herbert watched, pulling the comforter so tightly his nose ached, watching her raise a shining hand above his forehead, watching until-
It’s a shame. It’s always a shame, but you gotta wonder if it wasn’t somehow justified. Another middle-aged John Doe cut down in that frame of life when all hopes and dreams are six feet under waiting on company, but before that miserable part when diapers become a thing again. This guy, Herbert Marcus Horatio was a Veep in Executor Insurance. The house was pristine, beautiful, the kind of place I only get to see on TV and murder scenes.
Usually in a case with someone like this, the details get messy. Over twenty-seven years, I’ve learned that folks who get job positions like Double H here sacrificed something to get there. Morals, children, a working marriage, honest taxes, something gives. And Herb’s wife sleeping in a different room? Things were off kilter here. Like her fascination with these dolls all over her dresser and in the, y’know, that furniture with the glass doors you put knick-knacks in.
“Hey Martinez, what’d you call that expensive looking shelf in the hall?”
Martinez, taking pictures, says in response, “It’s a curio, Ben. Man, do yourself a favor, go to Townsend Furniture and learn something.”
“Thanks, Mart. Why don’t you come help me pick the curtains?” I say, eyeballing him. Anyway, a curio. Lots of these angel doll looking things. The Missus, Margaret Gladys, thought they were worth spending money on. I guess they’re cute, if you have the tastes of a four-year old girl or eighty-year-old woman.
Poor Herb found himself a strange way to die, and when I say strange, I mean I don’t know what did it. His eyes were popped open, not like his eyelids were peeled back, I mean popped water balloon on sidewalk style. No marks anywhere else. A bullet wound would be great to start working on, but no bullet, stab, or slice wounds, no discoloration. Maybe poison… hell, maybe. “Martinez!”
“What, Ben?” His voice is flat, like an Irma’s Waffle Xpress pancake flat: annoyed with not enough syrup.
“Mart, let’s trade. I take pictures, you figure out what’s happening here. I got nothin’.”
Mart mutters something beneath his breath and slugs me in the chest with the camera. Time to canvas.
There’s two sorts of creative ways to die out there: stupid creative and mean creative. Stupid creative is like that one guy who liked huffing natural gas and needed a cigarette one time. Mean creative, that gets dark. People do dark things. This? I can’t tell where it is between stupid and mean. The eyes are, I don’t know, off the Z-axis into damn strange.
I start snagging photos, every angle, natural light and under UV.
“Huh. Look at that. Mart! MART!”
“What?” He yells back.
“What is i- huh. Look. At. That.”
I grab a pocket lollipop. It’s not code. It’s sour apple. “Yeah Mart. Those marks look like they’re just under the skin like uh, I mean, are those the veins? If they are, why they showing up? They look like electric burn marks which should show up without UV.”
“Ben, I don’t like new ways to die showing up.” Mart’s crossing his arms tight across his chest, like he normally does when a case starts getting complicated.
“We oughta talk to the Missus again. Tomorrow. After we got some time to think about some questions.”
The sun rises differently when you know there’s blood in its shadow. After a slow morning spent hustling reports of humanity’s best late-night decisions, we found Double H’s wife was cordial enough to meet us back at her house during her lunch break. Why no other time of day, well, in her own words, paperwork is her coping mechanism. To each their own, I guess.
Ms. Margaret looks nervous. Some say that’s a sign of guilt. Hell, who wouldn’t get nervous with the force’s finest asking tough questions of the only alleged person around a strange death? When they’re not nervous, that’s a sign.
She’s elegant but ready for business: lemon-yellow blouse, pearls, some sort of olive-colored slacks. Mart knows the color I bet. Margaret is four years her ex-husband’s junior, still plenty of dark in her hair at the age of fifty-three. She’s a professional, runs her own small accounting firm. So far Mart gathered the same information we got the day before. Both of them were home, no recent guests, no recent fights, finances stable, no out of the ordinary contacts, no crazy purchases or money transfers, nothing to gain from his death, and no outlandish medical issues that might make an explanation. Margaret, to her credit, offered us water and two not-so-cozy barstools while she took the recliner. I let Mart squeeze the last bit of duplicate information out of her before I hitch my heels and lean in.
“Mrs. Horatio,” I start, “I appreciate your cooperation so far, but I feel like we’re not getting anything useful at all from these conversations. You called us. Me and him asking the same things over and over again isn’t going to help. All the normal questions are getting all the normal answers. Let’s do a little roleplay. Pretend you’re me but with all the knowledge you got in your own head. Start thinking. We’ll be quiet. What else you got that might bridge the gap from where I am right now to solving Mr. Horatio’s death?”
Her face sours. It’s a tough ask. The mole under nose draws attention to a smoker’s pucker. Funny, didn’t smell like a smoker’s house. Maybe she quit. She crosses her legs and folds her hands over her right knee, saying, “Well. I… I don’t know. We live, em, lived, very routine lives. I can’t think of anything new or out of the ordinary that could lead to his, um, to his…”
“The, uh, the eyes,” I offer, to which she nods.
“Yes.” She looks at her hands, and I see she’s still wearing both rings but not a whole lot of emotion. “Detective, I won’t pretend our marriage was very… loving. I won’t say we married out of passion. He thought I was attractive. I thought he was acceptably handsome. We substituted the convenience of never having to search for someone else for an emotional bond. We bought this house the day after our honeymoon. Our life together was dull but reliable. I’m sure you noticed our sleeping arrangements. That started after we proved we couldn’t conceive, and I guess that was the last curtain to call on our little play. What I can tell you is that Monday through Friday of last week was the same as every week of the last twenty-three years. I… I did care for him. We were distant, detective, but if I heard or seen anything or had any chance to save his life,” her veneer started to crack, “I, I can’t imagine what sort of pain he was in, and God knows sometimes I wanted some way out of this marriage, but a method that cruel? He didn’t deserve that. He was, oh, he was boring, but he was a decent man, he really was, Detective, a decent man and good to me.”
Mart cuts in, “I believe you, Mrs. Horatio. Maybe, I don’t know, how about any significant life events? You say that every week was the same as the other, but were there any disruptions? Deaths in the family, new neighbors, travel, anything that would have exposed you or Mr. Horatio to, um, any new influences or changes in your day-to-day lives? You know, anything that’s normal now, and maybe seemed normal at the time, but new-ish nonetheless?”
There you go Mart, that’s good. I’ll get him a gold star of appreciation later.
“Well, of course, but how recently do you mean?”
“Ma’am, based on the straws we’re trying to grasp, I’m more concerned with significance than time. Give me a list of significant events that can be in any way traced to what happened to your husband, and I’ll worry about the timing.”
“Oh detective. That’s a tall list for twenty-three years of marriage.”
“Whatever comes to mind, ma’am.”
Watching the contortions on her face, I decide to chime in, “Ma’am, I know it’s a tall order, and I get what it sounds like we’re wanting your life story. That’s not it. Thing is, with a complete mystery such as this? We have nothing to go on. We’ve never seen something like this. Our brainiacs never read about something like this. We’re at a loss, so our best shot is just figure out what all out there isn’t the ho-humdrum and see what connects. That make sense? Ma’am?”
She’s blinking, looking at her hands again, looking at her rings. I got a hunch she’s understanding how far from having a good godly idea we are on solving her husband’s death. Ex-husband. I never paid attention to post-mortem semantics.
“Is it okay if I think on it a while and provide you something in a letter or e-mail?” Margaret asks, finally picking her head up and addressing Mart. Turns out, she has hazel eyes.
“Yes ma’am. Please take the time to gather your thoughts. We want something accurate and actionable, but we prefer it in a timely fashion.”
“I understand. Thank you, detective.” And with that, I nod to Mart, Mart nods to me, and we give the Missus her time to sort out her life’s history to see what we got to work with.
Dino’s Dogs and Delectables, one of the finest corner establishments for me and Mart to sit down, have a Chicago-styled dog and powwow over what to do next. He really is a smart guy, and I need him thinking outside the cubicle. I throw a little Dijon over my footlong and look him dead in his brown eyes, offering before shoving the Midwest’s finest in my mouth, “So what you think? Accident, murder, occult? Pick one and justify.”
Ain’t no beating a Chicago-style dog. I bite in and let those greasy delicious juices run down two-day old chin stubble.
“Definitely not an accident. I could have bought that with just the eyes, but the whole UV thing? I- well, man, the world’s crazy. Every time you think something’s magic or aliens, turns out it’s just some really creative people. So lemme back up. Definitely not murder. I don’t think she would have done anything to him. I’ve seen worse marriages end without homicide. Accident? Possibly? Maybe he was shooting up some drug we don’t know about. Something in an eye drop he gets away with at night because of the whole separate room situation, or maybe something injected around the eyes that he messed up? I think the accident realm is just too large to completely discount. And occult, man? Come on. This isn’t the Fandango case. One unsolvable doesn’t make ‘occult’ a go-to when the answers aren’t easy to come by.”
The oil and salt on crinkle-cut fries call to me, like the sirens of that old play, Odysseus or something. I swirl a finger grab of them into ketchup and invite them to my mouth of Charybdid. Through chews, I respond, “Yeah Mart, I get it, I get what you’re saying, but one Fandango means there can be more than one Fandango. Me? I’m not sold either way. I think if there’s accidents out there we haven’t seen, then there’s ways to murder we haven’t seen. She’s suspect until we know she’s not suspect.”
He pulls a plug of his diet cola. “Ben, we need more information. We need the full autopsy report. I talked with Frank again this morning. Forensics is still fine-tooth combing this but got no good guesses in draft. I don’t want involvement in another Fandango incident, so maybe we get the lab boys into that house again and do a night sweep of that room. You know, put some cameras in there, all the special kinds, and get some real good looks.” He takes another sip. “Hey, you read the biographies she sent us?”
“Of course I did. You ready to compare notes?”
“We should. I’d hate to call in the spooks before we even done our homework.”
“I always hated homework.”
“You don’t say?”
Scowls are easy with this guy. “What you got?”
“The mister came from a small family, real small. By the time they got married, two cousins and an uncle left. At the time of Horatio’s death, one cousin surviving, living in Maryland. On the Missus side, a little bit larger, two aunts, four uncles, but no siblings or cousins. Aunts and uncles passed away by the time she was in her early teens, and her parents died when she was in her late twenties, just before meeting Herbert. As the last surviving relative, Ms. Margaret wound up being the inheritor of both grandparents’ and parents’ estates. Not a small sum.”
“How not small?”
“Enough to be comfortable for the rest of her life, barring real stupid investments.”
“How’s that factor in with Horatio?”
“I don’t know. The only recorded family deaths in their marriage history are her grandparents and his uncle and cousin. Mister and Missus H were both single children, both had their parents pass away before they met. There’s not enough family out there for someone else to gain from it.”
“So, what does she gain after he dies? Phone records show any shadow boyfriends? International calls?”
“I don’t know. Haven’t gotten there yet. To be honest, I can’t imagine much more than she already had.” Martinez tucks his notebook into his breast pocket and shrugs, “So, get cameras in the house to go over that room again, wait on autopsy, phone records, what else you got?”
Asking questions is easy. Crafting answers is hard. I can’t shake the image of the man’s eyes from my head. Busted balloons in skull holes. And his face, the corners of his lips pulled down to the sides, mouth cocked open like he was just locked up screaming just before death snatched him. It was just damn strange that his mouth was stuck like that. Death didn’t relax him at all. I don’t like any of it.
“Yeah Mart. I don’t want just his bedroom. I want every possible piece of photo technology we have tracking every pathway from each house entrance to his room. If someone went back door, front door, or Santa Claused his or her way in, I want us to have checked it out. Do all that other stuff too. Compare the photos we already got to the new ones we will be getting. I’ll do some research and make some calls around to see if anybody on God’s green freedom loving Earth has seen anything like this before. We’re not doing another Fandango, Mart, not again. Whenever I retire, I want it with a clean conscience, and you do too.” He gives me a slight, understanding nod, then sips again from his diet tasteless drink. I swirl a handful of fries into the ketchup and shove them down the hatch. God, I love Dino’s.
After fifteen days, you’d think Horatio’s eyes would be making less frequent visits in my daydreams. I should be focused on Margaret’s body language, watching her facial twitches, where her eyes go, but I just can’t stop thinking about inverted orange peels on a death mask. After fifteen days, I would’ve thought we’d have something more concrete coming out of my and Mart’s research. Internationally nothing happening, no red flags in the phone records. The photos though?
“Mrs. Horatio, we’re still trying to figure out what would have left these marks on the pillowcase, but you can see this, uh, pattern tracks from the trailing edge towards where your husband lay. Here, please look through these again. And if you don’t mind, could we go inside?”
Disheveled was the word I’d pick for her. Compared to the calm, composed woman from two weeks ago, the Missus looked tired, too tired for three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. Red flags like raindrops. You get to noticing the common behaviors people have when they’re nervous, when all their cool and confidence is stripped off. The moment my question registers, she crosses her arms, not comfortable low or defensive high, but a tight hug across her midsection, the worried middle. She briefly catches my gaze before she’s staring off at the front door, quiet. Pair quiet and worried together, I’m picking up on a possible situation.
“Do you mind, if we go inside?” I ask again.
“Detective,” she starts, the corners of her mouth cracked and loose, “my house isn’t in a condition for guests. You have an office, correct?”
“Yes ma’am, that’s right.”
“I would rather meet you there.”
Decisions, decisions – she’s got me curious enough now that I want to see what’s going on inside. Or, since I just dropped in on her, I’m finally seeing the grieving wife who lost her husband of twenty-three years and needs some time to herself in the privacy of her home. Or, or there’s someone inside or something she doesn’t want me to see.
C’mon Ben, not everything’s a Fandango. “That’s fine, Mrs. Horatio. I should have called ahead. That’s on me. You still have my card, right?”
“Yes, I have it.”
“My station’s address is on the card. Could you stop by around 4 o’clock?” Her shoes seem to have her total attention. Seconds of my lifespan pass in silence. “Mrs. Horatio?”
Self-control is not rolling your eyes. I repeat myself, “Can you meet me at my office at four this afternoon, Mrs. Horatio?”
Whatever’s on her shoes loses her interest, and for the first time in whatever quick glances I could get out of her, those hazel mirrors into the soul finally have some certainty. Margaret’s elbows drop to the comfortable low position, but she only nods, says nothing, then starts back to her house. I’ll take it as a yes.
To say she was not enthused by his sudden appearance made light of her exhaustion. She hadn’t slept at all last night. When her doorbell warned that his car pulled up, she hurriedly applied foundation to camouflage the bags under her eyes. I don’t have the energy for this, she thought. Any anxiety she would have felt was tamped by her dulled senses, but she dreaded whatever new knowledge prompted the detective’s return. The hole Herbert left behind in her heart scabbed over years ago, well after they stopped sleeping together. The sort of deep remorse that fuels song and story was not hers to feel, only regret from feeling a sliver of relief. There would be no more evenings of mutually agreeable silence or meals eaten at separate times and separate rooms.
A dismal sadness touched her. Their marriage did dry into an emotional corpse, but she didn’t hate him. She never thought Horatio a bad person. Simply, he did not have eyes for her and too much pride to let them both find a happy ending while they both still lived. In the last three years, her fantasies of his peaceful and painless passing became more frequent, and those desperate wishes failed to end in remorse. But his manner of death…
The detective left, luckily. She thought to make a cup of coffee, but the rolling gurgle in her lower abdomen made her decide against it. No sleep and poor dietary choices were taking their toll. A tink-tink barely disrupted the ambient kitchen sounds of the refrigerator compressor and air-conditioning. She set her unused cup down on the marble countertop to the sound of a light p’tink.
Margaret felt the very weights of her legs as she slowly climbed the carpeted stairs towards Herbert’s bedroom. In his dresser’s mirror, her reflection was less than a weakened shade of the sharp-eyed professional Margaret Horatio.
“He’s a very nosy man, and his face looks like a peach-colored fresh cattle-pattie. Cattle-pattie, get it?”
Margaret smiled weakly. “I get it. He wants to meet again to discuss Herbert. He may have new information, something substantial. Otherwise, he would have called.”
“I need closure,” she huffed in a tired exasperation. “Every day that goes by without explanation is draining me. I can’t sleep.” She licked at her lips. “I hope Detective Sawyer has it. I- I need to know what happened here.”
A fluttering breeze puts a gentle sway to Margaret’s hair, and a voice like a muted bell said only, “Oh.”
Margaret sat down on the bed she had forsaken. “If Herbert and I hadn’t drifted apart years ago, you and I couldn’t have gotten to know each other. If only I could tell grandmother that I believe her stories now.” She smiled. “It’s been nice of you being here for me.” Margaret tugged at the edge of the comforter. “Do you think,” a pause, “would it be too much to ask for you or one of the other ladies to speak with Detective Sawyer? I understand this is a significant thing to ask, but this whole situation is so strange that maybe letting out some of our little secrets may help him solve Herbert’s death?”
The room grew a shade darker as though a cloud passed over the sun. A sad chime responded, “Oh dear.”
Ok, so I like to believe people are gonna do what they say they’re gonna do, but this’s one of those situations where if someone doesn’t back words with action, I worry. I cut a hard right into the Horatios’ neighborhood, “Peaceful Pines”. She didn’t show. She didn’t show at four, she didn’t pick up the phone, but her car was still in the driveway according to the patrol I asked to swing by her place. I might be overstressing, but this isn’t right.
As soon as I get into the driveway, I jump out of the driver’s seat, jog to her front door, and start pounding, placing my gun hand in a ready grip. No sense in not making a scene, I yell while beating the door, “Mrs. Horatio! Mrs. Horatio!”
No answer. “Mrs. Horatio, it is Detective Ben Sawyer! Please let me know you are ok!” I whip out the cell phone, start dialing her number and put it on speaker. The grainy sound of its ringing becomes my soundtrack as I walk the perimeter. Too bright outside to get a good look at anything indoors. I get to the back door and touch the handle. It depresses. Unlocked. Not strange for half past five. Before I push it open, I pull away to put solid wall between my back and the inside of this nightmare house. I dial up Martinez.
“Ben,” he says, “you find Mrs. Horatio?”
“No Mart, she’s not answering the door, but Hollis was right, her car’s here, so’s Herb’s SUV. Need you to come down, bring support. I’m gonna make sure she’s okay, and I’ll call you when I got eyes on her, but don’t take your time, got it?”
Mart’s voice rushes out, “Yeah Ben, don’t worry, I got you. Stay tight, we’ll be there soon.”
I hang up, take in a deep breath, fully regretting the twelve-inch Philly cheesesteak early-dinner-sandwich, and bust through the back door with sidearm unholstered and in front.
“Mrs. Horatio! This is Detective Sawyer! I apologize for the intrusion! Just holler out to let me know you’re okay!”
Nothing. I pan the living room. TV’s off, furniture right where I remember seeing it, no sign of anything out of place. It even smells nice in here. “Mrs. Horatio! Please answer me! I don’t want to make this anymore awkward than it oughta be!”
The silence doesn’t let up. It’s not smart to let intruders know where you are, but it also ain’t smart to sneak up on a gun-toting home defender. “Listen, Margaret? I only came here to tell you we got some news on your husband’s death, so please, and I mean please, come down to talk to me! And if someone who isn’t Margaret is here, well stupid, you picked a murder scene to break into! Factor how well that’s gonna settle in court!”
I got probably thirty minutes until Mart shows up. I could go back outside and wait, take a controlled coordinated response, but if she’s in danger now…
The stairways are carpeted, I remember, so I kick my shoes off. Hard heels aren’t going to quietly get me across the living room, but cotton will. Every step up the stairs is toe to heel, silent, but I can still hear me, nothing else.
The first door to the left is a narrow closet, too small to fit a person without them being chopped up. Best check that last. First one on the right Margaret’s room. Then the curio with its four dolls, then Herbert’s, laundry room on the end, guest room and bathroom to the left, all doors shut. I suck in and hold my breath while touching the doorknob to her room. One, two, “Three! Freeze! San Isidro Police!” I yell bursting into her room.
Linen sheets pulled down, dresser top a mess, make-up, handbag, a bra, couple of those dolls, glasses, pillowcase ruffled, pale green drapes drawn, and no Mrs. Horatio.
“Well, damn. There goes surprise.”
Only a couple rooms left and a certainty that either someone’s got a much better drop on me than I do on them, or I’ll be explaining myself to a couple people tonight. I hit the guest room next. Only bland peach and pink sunset mimosa-colored furniture. I cross toward Herbert’s room. Curio looks emptier than I remember. I edge against the doorframe to Horatio’s room. Suck in another deep breath and, “SIPD! Hands up!”
“Oh no…,” slips out of my mouth not a second later, and I drop the gun to my side. “Margaret. What the hell happened to you?”
She’s sprawled out on his bed, maybe the first time in years, belly down, facing his dresser. Poor woman’s mouth is wide open, her right eye is… it’s-
“Noo, no, Margaret, not you too!” Lying there, the only quick difference between her now and the way we found Herb is their orientation, but the eyes, the eyes are the same, blown out, ruined.
Phone. I need my phone, need to hit redial, Mart’s going to need to hear th-
“Oh. Oh no.”
My heart jumps to choke me out, and I swallow it down to croak out a “Show yourself!”
“Oh no no, oh nooo!” A shrill voice like a cartoon character starts yammering, too high-pitched to be an adult, not innocent sounding enough to be a kid. “This has become so very much not good. And you!”
“No fudgin’ way,” muttering to myself. “One of the dolls?”
It’s white, glazed-shiny, with curly-pointed golden shoes kicking clownishly as it flies. It flies!
“What kind of silly stupid oafish being are you?” The words come flying out.
It’s flying and hovering inches away from my face, living, moving painted porcelain. Do I smack it? Do I talk to it? I still got both hands strangling my service revolver’s grip. My gun, sweet sense of steel sanity. A tightness is in my chest, it’s harder to breathe, harder to keep the room from closing in, the walls, just have to keep my focus on this, this, whatever the hell this… am I going crazy? Stress. It’s stress.
“I! Asked! You! A! Question! Oaf!”
Shiny-Bo-Peep-With-Wings is mad, angry shoving a yellow staff at me. My hands are shaking, shaking the pistol.
“Miss? Uh, Miss Bo… Peep?”
“That is not my name!”
“Close! Fairy Annalise! And you caused this!”
Please Mart, hurry the hell up. “Fairy Annalise, I am Detective Ben Sawyer. Can you put your staff down?”
Her face twists, and she closes the distance between our noses with a rapid hum, jamming the staff into my cheek. “No. You did this, and you must be punished!”
“Me? You think I did this to Mrs. Horatio? Miss, I’m the guy trying to figure out what the hell happened to her and her husband. I care about them, see? I want to make sure, y’know, whoever did this to them, they get punished. And, and, uh, I need help? I need help. Can you help me?” My hands are shaking worse now, got a better chance of shooting the ceiling fan or my face if I pull.
It’s not seeing a flying, talking doll that’s scaring me. It’s seeing a flying, talking doll staring with such intensity that there’s no misunderstanding what it means to do.
“You kept poking around! I only made a mistake! I didn’t mean to do that to Margaret’s man company-“
It didn’t mean to?
“-he made me so upset. So upset! When Gladys went away, and I had to move in with Margaret-“
Gladys. The grandmother. Something to do with the grandmother.
“-so dull and boring. All I wanted was a second friend! But he was insulting, very crude, very mean! He thought just because he was bigger-“
Getting a murder confession from a glass-case killer fairy – if I survive this, I’m not surviving it normal.
“-then you blunder in here with your smelly clothes and oily face and, you… oh, you,” she drops her last word with a throaty growl, interrupted by sniffles. The room seemed to get darker, narrower, like the ceiling bowed in, and tighter, the house got tighter. I can’t look away from her. She continues, but not the same as before, the depth, the shadow in her throat, it stays, her words slower, shifting from cascading needles to driven rail spikes, “You made my Margaret scared. You made her wish to speak my secrets. You do not have the rights to my secrets. You creatures think you have rights to all secrets. You creatures mistake vanity for ascension.”
“Please. Ann-Annalise, Fairy Annalise, I’m here to do what’s right. I came here to solve a mystery. The only secret I want was what killed Herbert Horatio. That’s all. I’m not here for any other secrets.” A mouthful of nervous saliva globs down my throat.
“Secrets! You are here for secrets!”
The yellow staff starts glowing, her painted pink cheeks darken to blood, and her mouth, her mouth! Contorting, misshapen, so much hate, hate in her eyes, hate in her snarl!
Fire! Fire beneath my eyes, fire around my eyes, the room starts going white, and I feel the staff, the damn thing on my face, digging into my left cheek. Hands shuddering, I can’t pull away, like the staff is in my face, growing under the skin, holding my skull tight. Pain! Pain and fright and insanity! A… A… ah!
“FANDANGO!” I yell at the top of my lungs, blowing out the word so hard it tears my throat, but in the instant, my fingers do as trained, cock the pistol, aim up, and pull, pull, pull, pull, PULL!
Ears ringing, five shots clear to the ceiling, vision distorted, I run.
No shriek, don’t know if I hit the damn thing, don’t know if I could hear it even if I did blow out her porcelain nether regions. The door frame clips my shoulder, spins me around as I hit the opposite hallway wall. I scramble, hands and knees until I get my footing, run my fingers along the wall to get my bearings to stop myself from going headfirst down the stairs. I hustle down steps, gripping the rail tight, rushing through a world that’s only brights and shadows.
Downstairs. With the furniture. The doors. Where the hell are the doors from here?
The ear ringing lessens. I hear my breathing, old, tired breathing, raspy. Sunroom should be ahead of me, turn left. Go left, toward the kitchen, it opens to the main hallway. Just gotta get there.
Louder. From nothing, a new sound, louder, like a swarm of bees. Bees. Hums. Bees don’t hum, it’s the wings. The wings.
“Oh no,” I whisper, slamming into a table, tripping over a falling chair, while the humming closes in, moving faster. I whip the revolver around for a final blind shot toward the noise, hear a high-pitch cry. Carpet’s under my fingertips. I stutter-crawl my way back into a stand, brushing tile – kitchen tile! – with the push off. Colors are seeping in, definition to the blurs, I’m seeing. I’m seeing!
“You HURT my sisters!”
A moving shade, bobbing up and down in front of me.
“In my defense,” I barely make out through dry lips, “it was in my defense.”
“Do you know the Golden Rule?”
“Do unto others-“
“-as they would do to you.”
“No thanks!” Pure blood-thumping adrenalin squeezes the last drops of courage in my ribcage, and I club both fists down on the hovering shadow, connecting hard to slam it down to a sound like thirteen shot glasses shoved together. I make it to the front door, hand on the doorknob, fumbling for a deadbolt, turning the knob, pulling-
“Fu-! Damn chain! Damn chain!” I rip the chain out the track and get my left foot out the door, heaving my body weight through the opening. It’s freedom! Safety!
My heart stops. Stops dead to consider if it should bother beating again, stopping as I stop, momentum halted, my balance being thrown backward.
I am falling, back through the doorway. There’s two of them. One is red, golden lightning streaks crisscrossing her dress. The other is white, with a jagged stump for a right arm.
They’re dragging me back in!
“No! No, you damned killers, no!” With all I got left, I reach my right hand across my body to swipe up the single-armed slugger and chuck it as hard as I can toward the sunlit driveway. “Haha! Die, you!” Laughter bubbles out as I see it skid and bounce along a trail of white chips on dark asphalt. “And you!” But the pulling’s gone, my hand finds nothing but air, giving me the chance at least to roll to my belly and scurry backwards away from the house.
No light left in the house. Instead of a hallway backlit from the open sunroom windows, it was black. The doorway, the windows, all black, sucking in the light. A midnight house in the brightness of a Californian early summer evening.
But there’s something in the black, a color in that dark. A white and red and golden something, looking right back at me.
“Secrets can find as well as be found,” Annalise’s voice carries like a rumbling orchestra.
The smirk’s a reflex, like shallow breathing and losing your bladder, “Yeah, well, good luck with your finding after tonight’s accidental arson!”
The front door shuts to close in the darkness.
She’s not following. Secrets don’t want to be found. She’ll stay there. She’ll stay. I think.
Forty-two minutes, and I’m alone, just me, some chirping birds, and no shoes.
“Be here soon, huh, Mart?” I’m going to kick his ass.