Rick stubbed out his cigarette, the flaky ash making a dark hole in the makeshift foil ashtray. The glass of whiskey on the table was sweating, leaving a ring mark that Evie would have flipped her lid about in the past. Back when she cared about things like that.
The stark type in front of him was blurring around the edges, but not enough to stop him from taking another burning gulp. Soon he’d pass out, surrounded by manila folders and dated photographs, falling into an anesthetized sleep and waking to a throbbing head.
But for now, he kept reading the familiar case file. They let him keep a few things when he retired–his Public Service award, the fancy ink blotter from his desk, framed newspaper clippings from his more famous cases. They didn’t know what else he kept, buried deep in his box of personal things, stolen from the file room while everyone was enjoying the grocery store cake in the interrogation room. The folder still had an imprint of his sweaty hand.
That day, Rick’s last day, the other detectives joked about his pristine record. “Impeccable Dick,” they called him. Forgetting, or pretending to, for the sake of an old man. The new guys, the ones who looked like they were still in high school, didn’t even know the story. Someone would let it slip later, after too much sugar and champagne. They’d embellish and get minor details wrong. They’d put on a mask of empathy, but their eyes would dance with mirth, the joy of gossip. It’s a nasty trait of man, the need to refute perfection or reveal flaws. The need to take a woodchipper to a pedestal, the need for even fields.
Rick would not, could not, forget. The quiet celebration did little to delay the dissonance he felt at his retiring. On one hand, he had a damn near perfect record; he became the youngest officer to be promoted to detective in twenty years. He was leaving behind a legacy. Like most revered men, there was a darkness under the surface of his success; a shadow attached to the glistening iceberg above. His chief coated it like a suggestion, but Rick heard the current of warning underneath. His drinking had started earlier and earlier; his paperwork was late or ignored completely. His hands shook, from time and pain and bourbon, noticeable only to a few who were watching closely.
On the other hand, he was leaving behind a gaping hole, the kind a shotgun blast leaves in a wooden frame. His solve rate was high and fast…minus one. The one cold case that even after years of dogged pursuit remained frozen and lifeless in the stale file cabinet, growing icier with age.
Rick knew that retiring wasn’t going to end his obsession. And it had become that, an obsession. He could recite witness statements from heart; he could draw a map from memory of the area where she was last seen. He pored over the case files when it first happened, letting dinner grow cold on the table and his wife grow cold in their bed. There were whispers when a month had passed–neighbors looking at him with pity, fear, even anger. Anger that he let this happen in their quiet community, and that he let someone get away with disturbing their idyllic suburban peace.
On bitter nights, Rick walked the familiar perimeter. Even at his most inebriated, his slow footsteps followed the trail. Home—school—park. Home–school–park.
Home. School. Park. Gone.
The words started to bend and bow under the bourbon’s embrace, and Rick knew he wouldn’t be making the trek tonight. “Evie,” he groaned, wanting a brief reprieve from the ghosts. But she didn’t answer. He couldn’t even hear her, walking around the garden like she had most summer nights, insisting that the moon brought rebirth to the cracked and dry beds. Despite the moonlight promenades, the stubborn plants always refused to grow.
Death inside and out.
Rick poured another drink, the tumbler serving as his midnight companion instead, the tinkling ice replacing the conversation he missed. It was his fault, for wrapping himself so completely around this case fifteen years ago. He lost himself in tip lines and evidence bags, the dark-haired woman in his home becoming a stranger, or a ghost. Evie begged him to give up, to move on, until she stopped begging. Then she stopped talking altogether.
They had both stopped trying.
But there was no life outside this case, and Rick was reminded of it every time he opened the file and the dusty photographs swept to the floor. Her smile, a toothless grin at age 6 and a more composed smirk at age 10. They haunted him more than the trails of blood at the scene.
Her name was Rebecca. She had gone missing, only a few weeks after the last school picture was taken. A kidnapping, Rick thought, until the team found those patches of blood fifty yards from where Doug Kirkland, a groundskeeper for the park, saw her last.
What she was doing in the park was a mystery on its own. Her friends, their memories shaky from youth and grief, couldn’t recall plans to meet in the park or anywhere else after school. There were no clandestine romances, no suspicious teachers, no unknown drifters spotted in town. And this was a place where people noticed.
The town did notice something. As time went on, as Rebecca remained gone, Detective Rick began to sink down a well of frustration and mania. He questioned children like hardened criminals; he suspected everyone from the ice cream man to the local priest; he drove slowly, block to block, with no headlights in the dark of night, trying to catch a ghost.
Rick knew what they whispered behind his back, from the first week well past the last day of the case. But Rebecca stayed with him through the next fifteen years, always grinning at him from his nightmares, always turning the corner just up ahead.
They never found a trace. If there had been something besides the blood, he might have loosened his grip, just a little. But there was blood, not enough to pronounce death, and nothing else. Not a shred of pink T-shirt (her last known clothing) or a strand of chocolate-covered hair. No remains dug up by an eager bloodhound in the last fifteen years. Just silence, and questions.
Every night ended like this for Rick, even before he retired. The strong pull of the booze brought up the most ludicrous of theories, the darkest of assumptions, the quietest of prayers. He had lost God a long time ago, but on nights like this, he began to pray.
I just need to know.
It was the not knowing that was the worst of it, most days. The guilt over his failure, the worry about Rebecca, the uncertainty of all of it. He wanted to believe that knowing, now, would be worse. But he couldn’t imagine worse.
Rick lifted the bottle, now empty, and threw it at the wall. It shattered on top of the end table, covering its contents in sparkling, dewy glass. He walked over to the table, ignoring everything else in favor of a golden picture frame.
Rick brushed the shards of glass, not noticing when they pierced his skin, off the photograph of Rebecca that had sat on the table for fifteen years. The same photo winked at him from the floor–Rebecca’s feisty grin, forever ten years old.
“My little girl,” Rick whispered, before the blackness settled in.
Leave a Reply