Games We Play (He Wrote, Week 2)
by Dave Smith
Selwyn Street, known as simply Sel to his friends and coworkers, was a creature of habit. In the big, bad chaotic world outside, his habits gave life some semblance of predictability. They comforted him.
“Hi! Welcome to Burt’s Diner. How may I help you today?” said the clerk. She was new there, probably barely out of high school. Burt’s was a mishmash of pastry shop meets sit-down greasy spoon. They took pride in their “fresh” homefries. Sel was sure they were actually frozen, just covered in enough grease and salt to hide the freezerburn. He’d only ordered them once before and vowed to never touch the vile things again. Instead, he ordered doughnuts, which they were remarkably good at.
“I’ll take a cream-filled doughnut, please. Large.” It was his usual; $2.99 plus tax.
He watched other office workers on the sidewalk as he made his way to work from the pastry shop. They all looked so happy, at least happier than he was. He always wondered what they did and liked to speculate on his own way to work.
“I’ll bet she’s an accountant,” he thought, as he passed a young woman, dressed practically, but neatly. The man behind her struck him as an engineer, and the man behind him was obviously a designer. The stylish glasses, messenger bag, and white iPhone were dead giveaways.
He took a bite of his doughnut and a tart, sweet syrup erupted from the airy dough. “Dammit! I asked for cream, not raspberry! Incompetent fucks! Can’t even train the new kids right,” he thought. He wasn’t fond of surprises.
Resigned to the wrong filling – can’t waste it – he took another bite. The doughnut bit back and spurted the fruity contents down his shirt.
“Goddammit!” he screamed. No one else paid much attention to the outburst; probably didn’t hear him over the cacophony of horns, trucks, and various sounds of the city beginning another busy day. He did the best he could to wipe the raspberry off his shirt, luckily a dark polo, and threw the bag, napkins, and remaining pastry in the trash. He knew he’d be sticky and smell fake raspberry flavoring all day.
A light rain started, and Selwyn upped his pace. He hated the way it felt as the raindrops rolled down his bald head and the way every drop seemed to stick like jelly to his glasses. He stopped outside his own office building and stood there, on the sidewalk, for a moment, steeling himself for whatever laid up the steps in the newsroom. He was consumed with dread every day at this exact spot and always had to give himself a pep talk before he grabbed the handrail and lifted a foot.
He hoisted himself up the half-dozen steps, through the front door, and trudged past the front desk, giving a minimal nod and muttering hello to the receptionist. Even after fifteen years, he had to make an effort to pay attention and focus if he wanted to find his desk in cubicle hell.
At last, he did.
His cubicle was small, maybe five by five feet. Over the top of the partition, he could just see out a window into another window belonging to an office in the building next door. Sel was pretty sure the office belonged to an attorney. The man was always sharply dressed and dealt with a lot of paperwork. And he was positive the man in the office had a secretary; he often saw her deliver and pick up files from the man. She was well built and was quite obviously fond of squats; Sel admired her butt, which he’d seen once or twice when he glanced up to see her bent over the man’s desk. Apart from those little thrills, Sel couldn’t find any reason to like his desk. He had never adorned it with more than a few reference books and a calendar that, every year, he’d quit changing over sometime around April.
He stood there, shoulders slumped, eyeing the telephone he knew he’d have to use in a few short minutes. The first call of the day was always the best; best being relative. As far as Sel was concerned, all phone calls sucked. The first one just sucked the least. They only got worse from there.
The telephone, that infernal piece of telecomm shit, was his second worst enemy.
His first worst enemy was Noreen Edwards, his editor, who was always on his back to use that accursed device to fact-check with the library, get crime reports from the police, or get leads from sources. Noreen was a loud, plump forty-something woman and Sel always thought she smelled of a combination of stale potato chips, cigarettes, and coffee.
Ah, coffee. He hadn’t even gotten his yet, though he knew it would be bad. It always was. Probably warmed up from the previous evening when the press guys made it.
Noreen found Sel just as he laid his bag on his desk.
“Sel, have you … whoa, dude, you smell like raspberries. What happened?” she asked. Seeing that he wasn’t going to respond, she continued, “Okay, good morning to you too. Have you called the police about that drag queen suicide thing yet?”
“No, not yet. I just got here. I’ll do it in a minute,” he replied.
“It’s gonna be big. Mayor’s son, hadn’t been seen in a week, turns up dead in his apartment wearing nothing but a woman’s blonde wig and makeup! Police say suicide, but an anonymous source told me it’s foul play. Tell me breaking this open won’t be good for us. Don’t you fuck it up and miss this thing, Sel. Get settled fast! Here’s the reference number, get that police report and I’ll be right back with the informant contact.”
He seethed as she walked away, his heartbeat pounding in his ears. He grabbed a pen and made stabbing motions behind her back. Too bad they found the Mayor’s son and not Noreen, he thought. Could the day get any worse?
“There might be a bonus in it for you if we beat the regional dailies,” she yelled back as she walked off.
Sel slipped the laptop out of his bag and set it up on his desk. The telephone was taunting him the whole time. He finally commanded the courage to dial the police and they emailed a copy of the report. He never understood why they didn’t have records access online if they were electronic anyway.
Noreen returned with the contact info for the source. It wasn’t what Sel expected. Instead, it was an elaborate series of instructions that reminded him of the scavenger hunts he went on as a kid. The informant was obviously very careful, bordering on unreasonably paranoid. The last thing Sel wanted to do was play hide-and-go-seek with some stranger. He much preferred the idea of going home and settling in with a bottle of Jack and a film; probably an adult one.
The next phone call wasn’t as bad. Sel knew, from the informant’s instructions, that he was calling only to leave a message with his mobile number. Easy enough. No live person to talk with. So he called, left his message, and waited.
Just before lunch, he received a call from a blocked number.
“You Sel?” the caller asked. It was the informant. The gender was very ambiguous from the voice.
“Ignore the remaining instructions on the note you have. It’s a decoy. I want you to listen to me carefully. Pack a change of clothes into a gym bag.”
Sel was concerned.
“Wait. What?” Sel asked.
“Don’t question, just listen. When I hang up, go home, pack a change of clothes and put that bag inside another, different colored, gym bag. I want you to drive to the airport and park in long-term parking. Go inside and find a restroom in the main public concourse. Change clothes ….”
“Hang on a second, I need to write this down,” Sel interrupted.
“NO! No you don’t. Don’t you write any of this down! It’s to prevent you from being followed and to protect me. If you can’t remember a few simple instructions I’ll find another news outlet.”
Sel knew his reputation was riding on this. He hated his job as an investigative reporter, but was actually very good at it.
“Okay, okay. No writing. Please go on,” Sel relented.
“Good. As I was saying, find a stall and change clothes in the airport restroom. Make sure what you pack is different from what you wear in there; like if you go in dressy, pack casual or if you go in casual, pack dressy. Swap the inside for the outside gym bag so you’re carrying a different one than when you went in. Exit the airport and hail a cab. Got that so far?”
“Yeah. So far.”
It all sounded shady and overly complicated to Sel. Why couldn’t they just meet at a coffee shop?
“Now, tell the cabbie to take you to Maple Creek Shopping Center. Have him drop you in front of one of the shops. Doesn’t much matter which one. Go in, browse a minute or two, then leave. In the northeast corner of the parking lot you’ll find a maroon Caprice Classic. The keys are stashed up under the rear bumper, on the passenger side. Get inside and look in the glovebox for further instructions.”
The caller abruptly hung up. Sel couldn’t wrap his head around all of this. He was afraid he’d make a mistake and get himself, and the informant, killed. The more he thought about it, the more scrambled the instructions became in his head.
“Shit. Shit. Shit!” Sel said as his hands cradled his head. He started going over the instructions carefully, playing them, over and over, step-by-step in his mind. He did this for several minutes before going home to pack. Noreen eyed him suspiciously as he walked out the door. To her it looked like he was leaving early. She got up from her desk and followed him to the door, but he didn’t stop to clear up any confusion. It was far more fun to let her wonder and stew on it for a while.
Sel was more nervous than he could ever remember being. After packing, he realized he only had one gym bag. He’d have to buy another on the way to the airport. He took a slug of whiskey, then another for the road, before heading out the door.
It took forty minutes to get to the airport after a stop by the department store. Sel did as instructed, slipping his Toyota Yaris in between two mammoth SUVs in long-term parking. He was shaking anxiously as he stepped out, grabbed his bag, and walked the two-hundred or so yards to the airport entrance. The restrooms were easy to find, not far from where arrivals exit the secure zone. Sel made his way to the last stall, the wheelchair accessible one, latched the door and changed. He swapped his polo for a heather gray t-shirt and his khakis for jeans. He made sure to switch bags and donned a baseball cap for good measure.
During normal operating hours, taxis were abundant. He had his choice of cabbies eager to exchange a drive for cash. He chose one who looked like he spoke unbroken English.
“Where to, sir?” the cabbie asked.
“Take me over to Maple Creek Shopping Center.”
“You fly all the way out here for that?”
Sel didn’t expect to have to carry on a conversation. The question surprised him, put him on the spot. He had to make something up.
“Eh, no. No. I … I just forgot TSA confiscated deodorant and toothpaste these days and need to pick up some more. I bet they smell good and have fresh breath,” Sel said, chuckling to himself trying to make a joke.
“Heh, yeah. They’re a real pain in the ass. That’s why I don’t fly. If I can’t drive there, I don’t have no business going,” replied the cabbie.
Sel figured the cabbie was probably lucky if he made enough money to live on, much less travel somewhere he had to fly to.
The shops were close to the airport, not more than a few minutes drive. Sel had forgotten to get cash before he set out on this adventure and barely had enough to cover his fare plus tip. He told the cabbie that his cousin would meet him at the delightful chain restaurant there, so he didn’t need to wait around. As the taxi drove away, Sel ducked into the closest shop.
“Hi! Welcome to Maple Creek Candles. Let me know if I can help you find anything,” said the clerk.
Before Sel could reply, the scent of a thousand candles assaulted his nostrils at once. He thought he would suffocate until he managed to catch a breath near the glasswork and candelabras. With a renewed vigor from the fresh air and no desire to inhale more of whatever passed for candle fragrance, Sel bolted from the shop and began looking for the Caprice.
It proved more difficult to find than he expected. The lot was vast and full of inconspicuous American sedans. He realized now why cops and private investigators favored them. He searched up and down more than a dozen different rows before finding the car. Sel approached it cautiously, not sure what he had gotten himself into and not sure he wanted to continue. He dropped his bag on the asphalt by the back corner of the car, knelt to tie his shoe – the oldest trick in the book – and reached carefully up inside the bumper.
Keys in-hand, Sel opened the passenger door and sat down to unlatch the glove box. A small, plain white envelope was laid on top of what looked like maps from the 1970s. He opened it. The instructions gave him directions to a small lake cabin, requesting that he drive the car there..
He was sure his own murder was next.
Sel spent an inordinate amount of time waiting, thinking about the whole situation.
“I can’t. I can’t fuckin’ do this,” he thought. “What the hell am I doing? A cabin in the middle of nowhere? Really? Oh, god, this is a bad, bad idea.”
He remembered the bonus. Remembered his reputation. Could probably move to a better regional paper with this under his belt. Get away from Noreen. He moved over to the driver’s side, turned the ignition, and began his journey.
The road to the lake cabin was located about sixty miles outside of town, not far from the National Park. His anxiety wasn’t relieved by that. There were so many isolated areas in the park that he knew there’d be no one around, particularly as night fell.
He turned off the two-lane highway, as instructed, onto a small gravel road. The gravel soon gave way to compacted dirt, still damp from the earlier rains. The road clung tightly to the lakeshore for most of the distance, only cutting in and out of the pine forest to cross the occasional stream at a narrow point. Across the lake he could see the forest lit up with the orange hues of sunset. He debated stopping for a moment to enjoy it, not knowing if he’d ever see a sunset again.
There was a small pull-off next to the road, just large enough for two cars, though Sel was the only one. He switched off the lights and the engine, opened the driver’s door, and sat there inhaling the forest air. The din of the city was nonexistent. All he could hear was the tick-tick-tick of the car cooling and the natural forest symphony of the creature and insect inhabitants. What a stark contrast to the candle shop. This was what a real pine forest smelled like, not the sickly synthetic odor from those evil wax devils. He briefly lost himself in the pleasure of the moment before the harsh, icy grip of reality consumed him again.
He stood up, closed the door, and walked to the edge of the pulloff. He paused, took another deep breath through his nose to savor the forest air, and looked for a way down. A series of mossy railroad crossties staked into the ground were used for steps down. They were rotting and slippery from years of exposure, but there was no handrail. Decaying leaves and damp pine needles made them even more hazardous. On his way down, he slipped once, far fewer times than he thought he would, but suffered a minor tear in his jeans. Other marks on the steps and adjacent ground told him someone else made the same misstep. Strangely, that made him feel a little better.
The cabin was a dilapidated shack on the side of a hill that fell toward the lake, situated about halfway between the pulloff and the shore. The shades were drawn, but he could make out a hint of light from within. He stepped up to a small porch at the street-facing door, slightly ajar, and paused to listen for any sign of the informant. The only audible sign of occupancy was the slight whir of a box fan.
He pushed open the door as quietly as he could, lifting at the doorknob to relieve much of the hinge creak. The cabin was in better shape inside than out. It was sparsely furnished, but what was there seemed appropriate and comfortable. He entered the main room, which was an open plan kitchen and living space.
“Hello?” Sel said.
No reply. Maybe the informant hadn’t arrived yet, he thought.
Sel slowly explored the small cabin, examining everything, occasionally taking a peek out the window to see if anyone had arrived. Nothing seemed out of place and it was all surprisingly clean. Someone had been there recently, but who? In the kitchen, his nervousness compelled him to picked up an eight inch chef’s knife, just in case the informant was hostile. Besides stabbing blindly, Sel had no idea what to do with a knife to kill a person, but he thought he might at least be able to intimidate someone with it.
He opened the door to the small sleeping room, the source of the box fan noise. He couldn’t have been less prepared for what he found. Despite the fan, oriented to blow the air out an open window, he could still smell the overwhelming metallic stench of human blood. On the bed, laid Noreen with bound hands and feet. Her head was nearly decapitated, soaking the bed, like a sponge, with her blood.
Sel, startled, reflexively dropped the knife and backed out of the room. He lost his footing in his haste, knocking over a small vase which shattered as it crashed to the floor. Scrambling to get up and out of there, he cut his hands on the shards, adding insult to panicked injury.
He didn’t have the trouble climbing the stairs that he had descending them. Sel was in the Caprice and on his way back into town. He longed for the familiarity of his own car, his own place, after the way that day had gone.
It was after midnight by the time he wheeled the Caprice into long-term parking and retrieved his Yaris. He’d used all of his cash on the cab ride earlier and had to use a debit card to exit the parking facility. The happiest moment of his day was seeing the lights of the airport fade in the distance behind him.
Sel had to pound over half the bottle of Jack to get some sleep that night. He did the best he could. Adrenaline fading, his hands throbbed with pain, even after removing most of the glass. He knew he needed to call the police, but what would he tell them? He’d worry about that in the morning.
It was just before 6:00 A.M. when Sel was awakened by what sounded like a bear pounding on his door.
“Mr. Selwyn Street? This is Detective Abrams. Open up,” said the voice through the door.
Still buzzed from the previous night’s liquor, hangover seeping in, Sel answered the door.
“Mr. Street, may we have a word with you?”
“Uh … sure. Please, come in,” Sel replied.
“No, sir, Mr. Street, let’s talk back at the station. Please come with us,” said the detective. He caught a whiff of metabolized alcohol seeping through Sel’s skin. “How much have you had to drink?”
Sel knew where this was headed and with an anonymous source, no notes or recordings, and the only person who knew what he was doing now dead, he had no alibi. He immediately clammed up.
LOCAL REPORTER SUSPECTED IN MURDER OF EDITOR
The Mayor folded up the paper and laid it on the bench between him and his advisor.
“So, what does this mean from here?” asked the Mayor.
“The police have Street’s DNA and fingerprints at the crime scene and in the Caprice that had been reported stolen. They have surveillance video of him entering and exiting the airport, trying to disguise himself, and bank records showing his parking exit with timestamp. It all coincides with Ms. Edwards time of death very nicely. He was known to harbor animosity toward Ms. Edwards. Even if somehow he’s found not guilty, this case and story will bury your son’s,” replied the advisor.
“Very good. You know what that means. Next stop, Governor’s office.”
“Best of luck, sir. Call me if you need anything else. We’ll get you to the presidency without much trouble now.”