Stitches

Please find below an except of Stitches by Tiffany Christina Lewis
© Tiffany Christina Lewis 2018

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Chapter One

Jane and Mark were in love.

As they strolled up the Cleveland Cascade, the sun was setting behind them. The orange light shimmered on Lake Merritt and the windy, winter breeze whipped at the trees. Jane and Mark held hands tight as they climbed the 139-step ornamental stairway.

Mark broke free and tickled Jane’s side. She buckled with laughter and yelled for him to stop. He smiled and hugged her tight. They touched their soft lips together. The couple took a moment to look out at the lake and both let out a great sigh. The view was breathtaking. Oakland California was a city of daily, revolving weather changes, but that night was especially cold.

The couple stood for some time, watching the sky darken as the sun continued to set. Mark let go of Jane and gently tugged her further up the stairs. They came to a spot where the stairs parted and made way for an area full of foliage. They sat on the base of the set of stairs on the right and embraced again. Mark rubbed Jane’s arm to warm her, as her thin windbreaker flapped a bit against the wind. They whispered quiet words of love to one another, sitting in peace, just the two of them.

Until they heard a thud.

Jane jumped in shock and Mark tightened his grip on her to show her he was there. Next, they heard feet dashing towards them. They sprung up from their seat as a figure speed pass on the other side of the foliage. Mark wanted to yell out, but instead just watched the character take the stairs like an Olympic sprinter until he landed on Lakeshore Avenue and made a sharp right towards Grand Lake.

They didn’t know how to react at first, but then in a whisper, Jane spoke. “What was that?”

“I don’t know.” Mark cleared the lump from his throat. “Did he fall?”

“Wh-what do you mean?” Jane whimpered.

“You heard the thump before he came bolting down? Maybe he fell.”

“I hope he’s okay,” Jane said.

Quickly, the couple turned towards a new sound. A moan.

“What was that?” Mark asked. He moved towards the sound.

“No!” Jane shrieked, gripping Mark’s forearm.

“What if someone is hurt?” He spoke to her humanity. He looked at her with concern in his piercing, green eyes, and she relented. She released him and watched, gripped with fear, as he crept up the stairs.

Mark made it to the next landing where he saw a dark pile of shadows. He got closer and jumped when a moan rumbled from the pile. He pulled his phone, activated the screen, and pulled up his flashlight app. Mark had long hated his phone and never before had he wished for a Maglite so much. The shallow beam of light whisked over the pile and Mark realized he was right. Someone was hurt. He rushed over and assessed the situation.

“Are you okay? Hello,” Mark shouted as he touched and shook the side facing body.

“Mark?” Jane called from the bottom of the stairs. She was beginning to worry. Every second felt like an hour.

“Hey! Are you…” Mark called until he finally got the body turned towards him.

His shrill scream filled the air as he saw the face of the victim. Jane ran up the stairs faster than she had ever moved. She stopped short, a few feet from the scene. Mark stared in horror at a face with blood caked, empty and blackened eye sockets, and a mouth grotesquely sewn shut.

Chapter Two

Michael Taylor rubbed his forehead harshly. He looked down at his desk. There sat his cell phone. It vibrated so hard that it slid around the desk. Michael had been ignoring the phone all day. He was finally at the point where he thought it would be better to not ignore it, because ignoring it was getting him nowhere. Just as he was preparing to answer the phone, it stopped ringing. He almost took a sigh of relief, then there was a text message. Michael snatched a drawer open on his desk and quickly slid the phone into it, then slammed the drawer. He turned to his computer and tried to focus on his work again.

It had been more than six months since Michael arrested Byron Ferguson—a notorious serial killer who murdered abusive men and left them in pieces all over Oakland, California. In those six months, Michael had not changed much. He still kept his hair short and waved, he still dressed in bright shirts and black slacks, and he still had smooth, caramel brown skin. Women still fell all over him, and even more so, now that he was a hero and super cop. He was still uninterested in the extra attention, and he was still the best detective in the Oakland Police Department, with a reputation for closing his cases with an aggressive passion for justice.

What had changed was his relationship status. Michael was newly single.

Michael tapped away at his keyboard and swirled his mouse. Things were slow around the PD. He was scrolling the criminal database for the alias “Lil’ J” and found hundreds of criminals going by that name in the town. He tried his best to focus on the physical characteristics that could narrow down his search, but the incessant vibration of his phone was distracting him too much. He jumped from his desk and walked with conviction towards the water cooler. He paced around it for a moment before snatching a cup from the dispenser. He pulled the lever and filled his cup. Michael could hear the vibration of his phone, even from across the room.

He wasn’t typically so distracted at work. He didn’t typically let anything disturb him at all. Michael had been on the police force for 10 years. He had seen so much death and destruction, violence and intolerance, that he was numb to most tragedies. His life was quiet outside of work, and when something crazy happened, he fought back against the disruption. But this issue was different.

Michael leaned over the water cooler, looking dumb towards his desk until he heard a voice.

“Detective, you’re getting water everywhere.” A fellow officer rushed over, and Michael released the lever. His cup was over flowing and water was all over his hand and the floor.

“Ah, shit!” Michael shook the water from his hand and put his cup down. The officer grabbed some paper towels and the men dried up the carpet.

“You okay, man?” the officer asked with a wrinkled brow.

“Yeah, I just… Yeah, I’m good.” Michael dried up the water to the best of his abilities and took his overfilled water cup back to his desk. Before he took a sip, he checked his watch—10:00 p.m. Although detectives often worked an unlimited number of hours per day, Michael had been having a light work week and could have been home, but there was no point in being bored and alone at his house. He’d rather be working. He chugged his water and returned to his search.

An hour later, Michael was called to the office of his supervisor, Lieutenant Bruce Vega. Lieutenant Vega was an older man but he was wiry. Thin in his build but strong, he was still able to kick down doors if he needed to. He was graying and wore his hair in a stylish short cut. His dark brown eyes were always questioning, with thin wisps of wrinkles. Michael sat across from him as he fiddled with items on his desk. They sat without speaking, Vega fiddling and Michael watching, until he decided to break the silence.

“What’s up, Lieutenant?” Michael asked, annoyed.

“We’re waiting.”

“For what?”

“Waiting,” Vega said with a smile. He adjusted his tie and ran his finger across his keyboard. He looked at the dust he’d just collected and rubbed his fingers together to clean it off.

Michael flared his nostrils, exhaled loud through them and shifted in his seat. He was already on edge and now he had to sit and look at Vega’s face, in suspense, waiting. For what? He didn’t know and that frustrated him.

A few minutes went by, and then the door flew open. Alex Jamison rushed in, adjusting his suit jacket. Alex was dark skinned and taller than Michael. He had strong, chiseled features but on the contrary, he had soft brown eyes and a sweet smile. He wore his kinky hair faded low on the sides but grown out on top and neatly patted down.

“There you are, Jamison,” Vega said as he shook his hand.

“Sorry I’m late,” Alex said, breathing hard. He sat next to Michael.

“No problem,” Vega said with a smile. He looked at Michael. “Well, Taylor, meet your new partner.”

Michael did a double take and shook his head. “No,” he repeated 3 times. “I’m good. You know I work best when I’m alone. No offense, Jamison.”

“None taken.” Alex laughed a nervous laugh.

“No, you don’t have a choice,” Vega said. “Jamison has been promoted and he needs to work with you.”

“For now?”

“No. Indefinitely.” Vega raised his voice. “You can’t be a lone wolf forever.”

Michael looked at him with wrinkled brows, and then looked at Jamison who shrugged his shoulders.

“Don’t you remember telling me that if you had to have a partner, you’d take Jamison?” Vega asked.

“Yeah, if I had to.”

“Well, you have to.”

Michael shook his head in amazement.

“Jamison passed the detective exam with flying colors. He’s a great addition to this team and he is one of the youngest detectives on our team now.” Vega looked at Alex. “I think you’re the youngest person to pass the test with a score that high, actually. I think they are putting you in some record book.”

“Oh wow. I didn’t know that,” Alex said with a smile.

“Yeah, congratulations,” Vega said monotonous. “So, now that that is over,” Vega cleared his throat, “I just got a call about something bizarre at the Cleveland Cascade.”

“Bizarre, huh?” Michael scoffed. “You love giving me the bizarre shit.”

“You’re good at that bizarre shit, and so is Jamison, so this is perfect.” Vega smiled. “Head over there now. The scene is being secured for you.”

***

Michael refrained from speaking as he drove himself and Alex. He gripped the steering wheel with one hand and leaned hard towards his window. Alex drummed his fingers on his thighs and looked around the car.

“Nice ride,” Alex said with an big smile.

“Thanks,” Michael responded with no enthusiasm.

“You used to have a busted-up car, right? This is new.”

“Slightly new.”

“A conservative choice. Kia is a safe brand. Cheap, but still nice. A lot of people don’t have these around here. People from Oakland are flashy. Lots of BMWs and Benz, and they—”

“Hey, I don’t need that. Just ride quietly.” Michael spoke without looking at Alex.

Alex paused and then decided it was wise to stay quiet. For now. The police department was about eight minutes from the Cleveland Cascade so he didn’t have to wait long before he could speak again.

Michael didn’t feel he needed small talk. He just wanted his head to stop vibrating. He had shoved his phone in the center console and it was quiet, but he couldn’t stop his mind from racing. Small talk would have probably helped him but his pride wouldn’t allow him a shallow distraction. He wanted to control his own thoughts and feelings. Talking incessantly to Alex was a cheap way to ease his mind, and Michael wasn’t cheap.

They made a left onto Lakeshore Avenue. The major downtown Oakland street was two lanes wide and passed all of the amazing features of the neighborhood. Michael took a look up at his old apartment as they cruised past it. The crime was committed in his neighborhood. The OPD had one lane completely closed, surrounding the cascade. Michael parked behind a patrol car, and he and Alex left the car right away. They approached the scene together.

“So how should we play this, partner?” Alex asked.

Michael stifled a laugh. Partner. The word lingered around his head for a minute then he spoke up. “Just investigate the scene, man. We don’t need a plan yet. We don’t even know what’s going on.”

“Right.” Alex cleared his throat and straightened his tie.

As they approached, Alex spoke to everyone on scene. “Hey, Spokowski. How’s Robin?”

“She’s good. You got promoted?”

“Yeah, I’m moving up! Passed my test with flying colors.”

“That’s great, man.” The officer smiled. Alex moved from person to person who wanted to congratulate him and spoke cordially with each of them. Before he knew it, his new partner was gone. Michael was climbing the cascade towards their crime scene and had left Alex on the sidewalk, shaking hands and grinning.

“Nice seeing you,” Alex said as he hustled to catch up with Michael.

When he reached him, Michael was addressing the first officer on the scene. They were standing in front of the police tape, about 10 feet from the body. The crime scene unit was buzzing around the victim, taking pictures, dusting, lifting, and collecting items. Alex joined Michael and listened in.

“Details,” Michael said curtly.

“This couple over here,” he pointed to a man and woman embracing, “they were necking a few steps down when they heard a thud. They say the assailant fled on foot, and then they heard our victim moaning. The boyfriend investigated and found this mess.”

Michael looked over at the witnesses and back to the officer. “Necking?” he said with a disgusted look on his face.

“I mean, what do people do at the cascade at this hour?” The officer grinned.

Michael waved his hand, dismissing the comment. “Facts. All I need is facts.”

“Yes, sir.” The officer looked to Alex. “Hey, Jamison. Heard about your promotion. They partnered you with this grump?”

Alex laughed. “Uh, yeah.”

The two of them shared a bigger laugh. Michael looked at them until they fell silent.

“You can go,” Michael said to the officer.

 The officer grumbled and headed down the cascade.

“Sorry,” Alex said with a grin.

“Be serious,” Michael snapped. He dipped under the tape and approached the body. Alex followed him. Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of gloves.

CSI technician Juan Mercado looked up from his fingerprint tape as the men entered the scene.

“¡Hola, mi amigo! ¡Hace mucho que no lo veía!” he yelped towards Michael.

Juan wore his hard to manage hair in a curly afro and his big brown eyes were always excited. Juan loved to smile but he had teeth like a box of tic-tacs, overlapped and with no logical order. His glowing personality won him the ladies, Michael had always thought. Some guys don’t have to be handsome to pick up chicks and Juan was that guy. Always the life of the party, he shattered the quiet.

“Quiet down, amigo,” Michael said with a grin. Juan approached him and they shook hands. “I hear you got a promotion.”

Juan scoffed. “Ah, is that what they call it when they slap ‘lead’ in the front of your title, give you more responsibility but don’t give you a raise?”

Michael laughed.

“Yeah, man, more responsibility but no more money,” Juan said.

“You’ll get there,” Michael said with a grin.

“Oh thanks,” Juan said with a touch of scornfulness. They turned to the body. “This is some mess,” he said with a frown. “You see the body yet? They always like to give you the gross ones.”

“Naw, I haven’t seen it. I’m getting gloved up now.”

“Uh, can I get some gloves?” Alex asked in a meek voice. The men brought their attention to him.

“Jamison! What’s up, newbie?” Juan teased. “No gloves, my man?”

Alex smiled and shrugged.

“Check with Maggie over there.” Juan pointed.

Michael pulled on his gloves and approached the body. Like a kid who didn’t want to miss out, Alex moved quickly to join Michael, fumbling with his gloves. He looked in, before he could finish getting them on, as they examined the body for clues.

“What the fuck?” Michael said with surprising calm, as he pondered the scene. He squatted near the victims’ head. He could faintly see the trauma on the African American males’ face. Michael pulled out a small flashlight and shined  the beam on the face of his victim.

“Holy shit,” Alex exclaimed, his face twisted in revulsion.

Michael didn’t react but asked, “Can we get a light? I don’t want any more surprises.” He stared at the face for a bit and then looked at the nearby crime scene tech.

“Sorry, we were using it over there,” the technicians voice trembled with nervousness.

She set up a light for them and then Michael asked, “Cause of death?”

“The victim was alive when the witnesses found him but dead when first responders arrived, within five minutes. He took quite a beating, and we haven’t observed any bullet wounds so we believe he succumbed to his injuries from that beat down. The medical examiner is on his way,” the technician answered.

“Good.” Michael stood and looked down on his victim. He studied the body for a while but was soon interrupted.

Alex cleared his throat. “Any insights?”

Michael shook his head. “I forgot you were here.”

Alex started to say something in his defense but listened close instead.

“What you have here is a D boy. Classic uniform for a drug dealer. Baggy pants, underwear showing, hoodie, white t-shirt, expensive Jordans, and a little bit of bling.” Michael stopped and squatted near the victim again. He dug around in the man’s pockets. “Looks like a young guy, under 21.” Michael pulled his hand out and revealed a small bunch of crack cocaine wrapped in saran wrap for individual sale. He placed them on the ground next to the victim. “Career criminal, assumedly.” He reached for the other pocket. “Cash and carry kind of fellow.” He put a hand full of cash on the ground. “General ne’er do well. When Dr. North gets here, we’ll check the back pockets.” Michael stood back up.

“So, a D boy has D boy enemies,” Alex started.

“Yeah.” Michael beckoned to Juan. “Can we get some images of these tattoos?”

“Already done, boss.”

“How many D boys you know will do this to some ones’ face?” Alex asked.

“I don’t know any D boys who are this creative. I mean, this was torture. Dude was alive when he got dropped here. D boys would just shoot someone in the face and call it a day. They’re not taking out some one’s eyes, sewing their damn mouth shut.”

As the men talked, Dr. North approached them.

Dr. Caleb North was a man who just didn’t match, in Michael’s opinion. He was Caucasian with gel spiked brown hair, emerald green eyes, and his skin looked tan and fresh off the beach, all year long. When he smiled, very rarely, he showed a set of celebrity white teeth. A man who looked like that, Michael thought, should be more outgoing, confident, and daring, but Dr. North was quiet, introverted, and more composed than anyone Michael had ever met. Dr. North also didn’t match the department. Most of the staff in the PD were boisterous and could even be overbearing, but Dr. North kept to himself, even in meetings and parties. Michael had no problem with Dr. North’s behavior even though he found it out of place. Michael was considered a little out of place himself, so who was he to judge?

When Michael and Alex looked in North’s direction, they stopped short. Dr. North had someone with him who they didn’t recognize.

Dr. North cleared his throat as the silence became too much for him. “Uh, this is my new assistant, Tillie Alves.” He gestured towards the Hispanic woman, and she stepped up to greet the men. “She’ll be working with us today and every day. She’s new,” he stammered.

Tillie smiled a big smile and stuck out her hand to Alex.

“Alex Jamison,” he said as he shook her hand.

She stuck her hand out to Michael. “And I know who you are, Michael Taylor.”

“Nice to meet you,” Michael said with a smile.

“I am so happy to be working with your group. I mean you’re very good at what you do. I’m impressed.” She smiled a wide, genuine smile.

“Where are you from?” Alex asked.

“Florence, Arizona. I think the way we handle crime out there is a little, well, I think we overlook some things because of all the political stuff. Florence is the county seat, but here you guys are the heart of the streets. Oakland has its political issues but you guys don’t let that stop you from being renegades. I like that,” Tillie said, still smiling, her big, dark brown eyes keeping contact with Alex and Michael’s eyes whenever she spoke to them. She occasionally flipped her long, brown, curly hair back, and even in the dark they could see the shine.

Michael smiled and thanked her for noticing how hard they worked. He looked at Dr. North whose uncomfortable body language showed his feelings about all the talking.

Dr. North cleared his throat. “Okay, yes, let’s see.” He got down near the body and began his initial inspection. Tillie joined him. They worked as a well-oiled machine, Tillie assisting Dr. North with his bag and taking notes as the doctor spoke his findings. Dr. North rolled up his sleeves and Tillie immediately sat her tablet down and helped him flip the victim over.

The whole group took a breath as they saw the victims battered head.

“Multiple blunt force trauma to the head. What happened to this guy?” Dr. North asked without looking up.

“This is a dumping site,” Alex replied.

“So some trauma could be related to the drop off,” Tillie said.

“Some,” Dr. North commented. “But this,” he pointed to a quarter sized indentation, “this is ball pen.”

Tillie took a quick note.

“Can you check for a wallet?” Michael asked.

Dr. North furrowed his brow a bit. “No ID, I’m sure. This is a drug dealer.”

“Worth a try,” Michael replied.

Dr. North rooted around in the back pockets and came out empty. Michael and Alex shifted a bit, disappointed. No ID meant figuring out who their victim was the hard way.

“I’m just about done with this,” Dr. North commented. “We’ll have him transported.” He stood and took off his gloves. “I’m backed up big time.”

“Come on, Caleb,” Michael said with a smile.

“Don’t try it, Taylor. I got a group of Alameda high rollers ahead of you.”

“Group?”

“Some rich grandpas died in a nursing home in Alameda and the families are thinking there may have been some foul play.”

“Do some preliminaries for me so I can get an ID.”

“Yup, in a week.” Dr. North headed down the stairs.

“Three days,” Michael called.

“Seven days,” Dr. North replied.

Tillie smiled as she watched the doctor descend the stairs. She looked at the guys and winkled. “I’ll take care of it, guys.” She waved and left the detectives with their thoughts.

“I don’t really know them like that,” Alex commented, “but did that seem a little awkward to you?”

“Definitely. Dr. North is usually pretty composed but…”

“That new assistant is a serious distraction.”

“In a good way though,” Michael said.

“Yeah,” Alex said with a laugh.

Michael slipped off his gloves. “Let’s speak to these witnesses so they can get home.”

“Hey, can I lead on this? You can be a bit… intimidating,” Alex said.

“Whoa.” Michael stopped short and shot Alex a look. “Witnesses love me.”

Alex lifted an eyebrow, which Michael could not see, but he got the idea from Alex’s silence.

“Okay cream puff. Go finesse the information out of those two. I’ll standby.”

Alex headed over and squatted down near the seated couple.

“Hey, we’re ready to go,” the guy said with some aggression, before Alex could speak.

“Perfect, so you’ll be able to quickly and accurately answer my questions so I can get you out of here.”

“Yes,” the woman said, touching her boyfriend’s hand with a gently caress. “We want to help.”

“Can I get your names?” Alex prepared to write a note.

“I’m Jane Hall and this is Mark Needles.”

 “What did you guys see tonight?”

“A dude with no eyes,” Mark shouted.

Jane looked at him and when their eyes met, he suddenly calmed down.

Mark took a deep breath and tried again. “We were sitting here, a few steps lower,” he pointed, “and we were just looking at the sunset. All of a sudden, we hear a thump and then this ninja ran down the stairs. I mean he was fast. We were okay at first but then we hear the guy up there moaning.” Mark took another breath and Jane rubbed his back. “The dude had no eyes. He was alive.”

“What about the ninja? Anything I could use to possibly identify him?” Alex asked.

“He was tall,” Jane cut in. “Taller than Mark and thin. He was Caucasian.”

“How do you know?” Jamison asked.

“I could see his skin. He had on a hat, but his face wasn’t covered. He was definitely a white guy or Asian.”

“Okay, so he was fair skinned. Anything else? Eye or hair color? Unique facial features?”

“No, nothing from me.” Jane looked at Mark. He was looking at his lap. “Mark?”

“Anything else, Mark?” Alex asked.

“This dude had no eyes. He was trying to talk to me. I couldn’t understand him.”

“What do you think he was saying? Any clue?” Alex probed.

“It sounded like help, or shelf. I couldn’t understand.” Mark rubbed his head.

“Okay, you guys have been really helpful. Here is my card. If you think of anything else, please don’t hesitate to call me.” Alex handed Jane his card and let them go.

Michael smirked. “Good job, man.”

“Thanks.” Alex watched the couple leave. “That dude is scarred.”

“Yeah. A date turning into a murder investigation could do that to a guy.”

Chapter Three

Michael and Alex entered the police station and headed up to the detectives’ floor. The ocean of cubicles was arranged into aisles where the detectives sat back to back and had many walls dividing them. This placement didn’t lend too much to collaboration, but they had conference rooms where they could gather when needed.

Michael liked the privacy. His aisle was especially empty because no detectives at the PD cared to sit near him. He headed over to his area which looked strikingly different from the other detectives’ workspaces. His desk was immaculately clean. While others kept post its, family pictures, and certificates on the walls of their cubicle, Michael kept everything put away and neat. Often detectives would tease that he must not have a family since he didn’t bother to keep their images around. Michael wouldn’t entertain that because he didn’t think his family was every ones’ business anyway.

It may have had something to do with the fact that Michael had such a small family, too. His mother and father had passed away, so he wasn’t interested in answering questions about them. Outside of that, he had one brother and no other siblings. Most of his cousins, aunts and uncles were out of the state, so Michael had very little family life to show of anyway.

Michael sat and got down to business, unpacking his notebook and emptying his pockets.

“Um, where should I sit?” Alex asked. “I assume I should stay somewhere near you.”

“Not necessarily,” Michael said, uncaring, as he picked up his desk phone.

Alex waited.

Michael checked his voicemail. He realized the awkward silence between them and turned around. “Check with Vega or his secretary on where they want you to sit,” Michael responded. He turned back to his desk as Alex walked away.

“Hello, Detective Taylor. This is Marcus Rains, editor from Jackson Publishing in San Francisco. I am calling because there is an author at our company who would like to interview you regarding Byron Ferguson for his upcoming true crime book.”

Michael deleted the message.

“Hey Taylor, your blood tests are ready down here on that triple homicide. I emailed the report but I wanted to call you as well and let you know it was ready.”

Michael deleted the message.

Alex returned and plopped down in the cubicle next to Michael. Michael finished listening to his messages as Alex unpacked.

“Can you just tell me where a hardworking man can go to have a smoke?” Alex asked, interrupting Michael’s task.

“Uh, near the dumpster I guess. Everywhere else is a no smoking area.” Michael hung up his phone.

He led Alex to the back of the building. Alex pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and quickly lit one.

 “I didn’t know you smoked.”

 “I don’t generally smoke on the job and definitely not at the PD.”

“Why don’t you smoke here? Half the force smokes.”

“It’s a nasty habit and I’m trying to quit. I don’t care what half the force does. I refrain from smoking at work as a method to reduce my intake.” Alex lit up. “I was nervous when I got called to a case tonight. My first detective case.” Alex took a drag from his cigarette. “Imagine getting called in the middle of the night to get my first case and partner assignment.”

“That’s not really something to trip off of in our line of work. We always get called in, all hours of the night. Why were you nervous?”

“I had a long list of detectives I didn’t want to be partnered with, but it’s kinda hard to say no to the Lieutenant, so I was concerned I’d get a shitty partner.”

Michael laughed. “You’ll be over that obedience by the end of the week.”

“Naw, man. I’m not like you. I’m more of a conformist.”

“That will pass. You’ll get hard around here. I mean, we are compliant but we do what we have to do to solve these cases and sometimes that means ignoring bureaucratic bullshit.”

“We’ll see about that.” Alex dropped his half-smoked cigarette and crushed it under his feet.

Michael felt his phone vibrate in his pocket. He moved swift grabbing it, forgetting his previous issues with the unstoppable calls and texts. When he saw the name on the screen, he grimaced.

“Oh, who’s that?” Alex smiled.

Michael looked at him with an angry face.

“Whoa, I’m not trying to pry.” Alex held his hands up in surrender.

Michael looked at the phone and huffed.

“Bill collectors?”

“What?” Michael looked back to Alex with his mouth screwed up.

“I mean, random calls? Bill collectors?”

“No, I pay my bills.” Michael stuffed his phone back in his pocket.

Alex laughed. “Of course, the great Michael Taylor is not in debt.”

“It’s this girl,” Michael said before he could stop himself.

“Vanessa?” Alex asked with a surprised face. “You’re ignoring her calls?”

“It’s a long story. Very long. I’m not planning to share.” Michael headed towards the door.

“I respect that, man.” Alex followed.

Six months ago, Michael rescued Vanessa from Byron Ferguson. She had been kidnapped during Byron’s crime spree and Michael, using his cunning and craft, located her and brought Byron to justice. Everyone knew Vanessa. Everyone knew how important she was to Michael. He was not ready for the circus that would ensue when everyone found out that they were no longer a couple.

***

The detectives returned to their desks and Michael started to create his report for the case. He was typing the details of his initial findings when Alex interrupted him.

“So, I know you forgot I was here, but I see we got the email from Juan with the tattoo pics, so I’m gonna start trying to ID our victim.”

Michael grinned. “Cool.”

Alex pulled up the database with criminal mug shots, then he returned to the tattoo images from Juan. The first was a tear drop tattoo near the right eye. That won’t help, Alex thought. Tear drop tattoos symbolized the taking of a life. Just about every unscrupulous individual in the database would have one of those tattoos, even if they never killed anyone. He skipped to the next image. It was a cross. Not helpful, he thought and skipped to the next image.

The third picture was the face of a child. Under the smiling image was the name Chris. His son, I suppose. Jamison took a note. He moved on to image number four and was taken aback. The image before him was that of the devil. It was a large, red face with horns and a snarl that could silence a dog. The face was incredibly lifelike, and Alex felt a chill as he caught eyes with the red monster. After staring down the demon for a while, he took a note and moved on to the other images.

Twelve tattoos later, Alex went to the area of the database dedicated to identifying marks. There were moles, birthmarks, tattoos, and scars included. He jumped right in and searched for tattoo images of the devil. He narrowed it down by including the color red and the word ‘horns’ in his search. That brought him to a list with over 500 tattoo images.  

Alex took a deep breath and stood up. He stretched and headed over to the coffee machine. He was used to mundane tasks like looking at 500 mugshots. As a detectives’ helper, he often had to sift through long lists of all kinds of things. He didn’t like it, but he understood the importance. He poured a big cup of black coffee and put one spoonful of sugar into it. He sauntered back to his desk and sat down. After cracking his knuckles, he started scrolling through the database. He clicked with his right and sipped with his left as time flew by him.

Two hours after returning to the desk, Michael got an email from the coroner.

Hello Det. Taylor!

I rolled fingerprints on your victim before we put him on ice. I am having them delivered to your technician by one of our assistants and they should be there in about a half an hour or so because she has a few other deliveries. Have a good day!

Tillie.

“We’re getting fingerprints,” Michael said to the cubicle wall.

“Great, cause so far I’m getting nowhere with this ink,” Alex responded. He yawned, proving his boredom, and stretched.

“Getting tired?” Michael grinned.

“Naw, getting bored. This case is boring. I rather be out and about. That’s what I liked about patrol. Lots of things to see and do.”

“We’ll have to go visit some family members soon. That’s always exciting.”

“No it’s not.” Alex laughed. He continued to scroll through the images and then he found it. The devil himself was looking at him again. “Michael,” he called in a murmur.

“Yeah,”

“Look at this.”

Michael swung his chair around to Alex’s cubicle and looked. “Wow, that is detailed. You can see every wrinkle.”

“Most disturbing image of the devil I have ever seen.”

“Peers into your soul, huh?”

“Yeah.”

The men stared without speaking for a moment.

“That’s not our vic, though,” Michael said.

“I know.”

The tattoo was attached to a Caucasian man’s arm and their victim was black.

“This is the tattoo though,” Alex said as he pulled up the image from their victim. “Same spot on the arm, same image.”

“Do we have a gang tat?” Michael asked as he stared into the eyes on the tattoo.

“Maybe.” Alex noted the individuals’ information just in case they could make a connection later. “I’m gonna keep exploring.”

“You do that.” Michael swung back over to his desk where he found his cell phone ringing. He looked at his watch; it was 2:30 in the morning. The phone stopped ringing and as he settled back up to his desk, there was a text. He peeked at it.

I just wanna talk. Please call me. The text read.

Of course, you just wanna talk. Why else would you be calling? Michael thought.

Michael took a deep breath and snatched the phone from the desk. “I’ll be back,” he said as he breezed past Alex’s desk. He faintly heard Alex’s reply as he left the cubicle jungle and hit the elevator. He traveled to his car and sat inside. The garage was dark in the area he parked. He liked that. He looked at the roof of his car and breathed a deep sigh.

Don’t open this can of worms. Let this go. Do not engage.

He needed to engage.

You don’t owe her anything. This is all her fault. Do not engage.

He needed to engage.

He looked at the phone. It was vibrating again. He let it go to voicemail, again.

She never leaves messages. Why? Why is she so predictable?

Michael had seen all of this coming. Meeting a woman in the strip club was not a guarantee of a bad relationship, but it does say something about what should be happening in that relationship. Sex is probably a requirement, but Michael denied his stripper girlfriend of her every craving.

You did cause this by being such a nun.

Michael looked at his phone again.

Please. The text read.

He breathed out loud and groaned at the same time. Then he unlocked his phone. He looked at her name. Vanessa Jones. He touched the name gently and the call connected.

“Michael?”

Only his breathing could be heard.

“I know you’re there,” she said seductively. “Wanna just listen?”

He listened.

“I’m sorry, first of all…”

Yes, you are, he thought.

“But this is your fault.”

“What?” He couldn’t stop himself from shouting.

“Michael, come on. I was practically begging you.”

“Vanessa, you are a sad, pathetic woman.” Michael held his head. “I never thought I would meet a woman who thought with their pussy the way you do.”

Vanessa listened.

“You are so smart and beautiful and talented but all you want to do is fuck. We can’t even have a philosophical conversation without you getting all hot and bothered and trying to rape me.”

“You’re pretty fucking sexy, Michael.” Vanessa giggled.

“You’re pitiful.”

“I am not pitiful. I’m in love. I love you, and I want to make love to you.”

“No you don’t. You want to make love to whoever.” Michael stopped. “This discussion is not real. You are so manipulative. You do know why we aren’t together, right?”

“Why don’t you tell me?” Vanessa said, self-satisfied.

“You are crazy.” Michael laughed. “Forget you ever met me.”

“No! Michael. You are the best thing that ever happened to me. I made a mistake, okay? I fucked up,”

“Literally.”

“Michael, don’t be an asshole.”

“You don’t be a cunt,” Michael shouted. “How could you fuck another man and expect me to be nice now? If you were a man I’d punch your fucking face in. I’m so mad, and hurt, and you wanna blame me? I did nothing wrong.”

“You did nothing,” Vanessa said, unperturbed. “That’s what you did. Nothing. I mean you caught me in the bed with another guy and you did nothing.”

“I’m not losing my career over some pussy. If I lay one hand on either of you, I’m done. You’re not worth that.”

“I meant nothing to you?”

“After I caught you with your ass in the air, you meant nothing. I am currently in the process of excommunicating you from my memory.”

“You can never.” Vanessa laughed. “I’m the best thing—“

“You’re crazy as fuck, bitch.” Michael couldn’t stop himself. “You are not the best thing I ever had.” He paused. “I heard you went back to the strip club.”

Now it was her turn to be unresponsive.

“Good work lasting a whole month at your new job.”

“Don’t cross the line, Michael Taylor,” Vanessa said with the calm of a monk.

“Fuck the line, Vanessa, and fuck you. Stop calling me. I’m done. You obviously don’t know me at all because this is not the way to persuade me to be cool.” Michael raged.

“Michael!”

He stopped, breathing quick breaths.

They were silent for a moment, and then Vanessa said, “I will never let you go.”

Michael shook his head. “Vanessa, you won’t have a choice. Just like I didn’t.”

***

After composing himself, Michael returned to his floor and desk. He took a gentle breath before he reached for his mouse. He hadn’t made a single click before he was stopped by Alex.

“Hey, the latent print examiner just called your phone. He is working our prints and said we can come down and see.”

“Wait, you answered my phone?” Michael looked over at Alex in disbelief.

“I thought it might be important, partner.”

Michael smiled. “Don’t take liberties, partner. I’m good at checking my voicemails.”

The men headed down to the crime lab. When they entered, the first thing they saw was Lab Technician Gabriel Walsh playing a drum solo on his desk with a pen and sharpie. Michael and Alex watched as he finished with the drums and moved on to the air guitar.

“I hope that means he’s done with our fingerprints,” Michael said with a smirk.

Alex shouted, “Hey!”

Walsh jumped and snatched the ear buds from his ears.

“Do not sneak up on me like that,” Walsh said. He took a few deep breaths and held his chest.

“You act like you work in the morgue. Why so jumpy?” Alex asked.

Walsh was a pretty twitchy and spastic guy. Michael thought it was only right considering how stretched he was in the crime lab. His shiny, bald scalp, surrounded by strings of brown hair, was always speckled with sweat, his big eyes were darting from one project to the next, and his mouth moved a mile a minute, explaining his findings from his copious number of projects.

“I was in the zone.” Walsh threw his hands in the air and bobbed his head as if the music was still on. He tossed his head back and ran his fingers through his long, straight, and balding hair.

Michael shook his head.

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Taylor. Do you even listen to music?”

“Of course I do.”

The men looked at him with little confidence.

“Am I really that serious that y’all don’t think I listen to music?”

“Yes,” Alex and Walsh said in unison.

“Fuck you guys. I’m a music connoisseur.”

“Bullshit.” Walsh said under his breath, as he slid his chair to the next desk.

“You working alone?” Alex asked.

“Nah.” Walsh smirked and twitched a bit. “Yes, yes I am. Working hard. My assistant quit last week.” He turned to the computer. “Still going,” he said as he tapped the screen. “So, how’s it going, Michael?” He smiled and sat with his arms crossed. He bounced his foot at the heel.

“Why did you call us down here if you weren’t done?” Michael asked, annoyed.

“It’s just about done, but I mean, can’t we engage in small talk?”

“He’s not into that,” Alex interrupted. He stuffed his hands in his pocket as Michael shot him a look.

“Not with you, especially,” Michael said to Walsh.

“Oh wow. I’m offended.” Walsh held his heart. “I thought we were friends, Michael.”

“Why did you think that?” Michael laughed.

“Because I do you a lot of favors.”

“You mean you do your job?” Michael looked seriously at Walsh.

“Oh no, you get special treatment,” Walsh said with a Cheshire cat smile.

“Take it easy, Walsh.” Michael laughed.

“Okay, so really, I need a favor.”

Michael looked surprised. “More than my undying devotion?”

“That too, but can you do something for me?” Walsh pressed his hands together, pleading.

“No,” Michael said unmoved.

“Really?” Walsh looked devastated.

“I don’t have time to deal with your issues.”

“I just want you to introduce me to Trish from accounting.”

Michael laughed.

“I can do that for you, Walsh,” Alex broke in. “I know Trish really well.”

“Alex, you are a saint.” Walsh smiled. “She’s beautiful, right?”

Alex couldn’t hide his look of disgust. “To each his own,” he said.

“That’s fine. I’d prefer you not think she’s attractive anyway. I appreciate your support.” He turned to his computer and smiled. “And look. You’ve been blessed. Results!”

They leaned over Walsh as they looked at the screen. Their victim had eyes.

***

The detectives took the results back to their desks and probed their victims’ information. Jermain Gooding was 25 years old and had a rap sheet 25 offenses long.

“One crime a year since he was born,” Alex said.

“He went real crazy a few years ago. How do you have 10 arrests in a year and no convictions? What were we doing?” Michael asked. He clicked on a link to access details on some of the offenses.

We never ran into him, that’s why,” Alex touted.

“Mostly drug offenses, some gun stuff, and an assault at a Warriors game.” Michael shook his head.

“Now we have to go tell his parents he’s dead. How do you talk to this dude’s family? He’s a scum bag,” Alex ranted.

“I typically do the same thing all the time. No matter how scummy the victim is.”

“I can’t wait to see this.” Alex smirked.

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