She disappeared from the airport and two weeks later her jacket and purse showed up on the banks of a river twenty miles away, but I only know that from the news reports I saw at the diner. She told me to run. So I ran.
Original Fiction Characters:
Angst, Drama, Romance, SuspenseWarnings:
Child Abuse, Death, Sexual Content, Violence
1. Prologue by Pengi
2. Chapter One by Pengi
3. Chapter Two by Pengi
4. Chapter Three by Pengi
5. Chapter Four by Pengi
6. Chapter Five by Pengi
7. Chapter Six by Pengi
8. Chapter Seven by Pengi
9. Chapter Eight by Pengi
10. Chapter Nine by Pengi
11. Chapter Ten by Pengi
12. Chapter Eleven by Pengi
13. Chapter Twelve by Pengi
Emma was 5'2 with curly blonde hair and a smile like sunshine.
She liked wearing the color green because it matched the color of her eyes.
She always wore this old spoon-handle ring that I made for her during welding week in shop class back in high school. She'd had it on her finger so long that when she took it off the skin underneath it was pale and white.
She was prone to sunburns, and wore a lipstick called Australian Coral. She had a slight accent left over from being born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa.
She had a summer birthday - in July, the 13th - and insisted that the fireworks on Independence Day were for her, just a week early. She looked amazing in a bikini and shorts. She wore polarized sunglasses that reflected the world. She had a laugh that danced and a cry that mourned. She'd paint her fingernails weird colors and leave the polish on until it chipped off. She said she liked it chipped better.
he loved red geraniums, and she had this weird habit of sucking on her two front teeth, which were slightly larger than the rest of them.
She drank coffee like a fish drinks water.
She changed my life.
She disappeared from the airport and two weeks later her jacket and purse showed up on the banks of a river twenty miles away, but I only know that from the news reports I saw at the diner.
She told me to run.
So I ran.
"Happy Anniversary," I said, raising my champagne glass. Emma blushed and raised hers as well. Her hair hung in long, thick curls that framed her face. Her red dress cupped her breasts perfectly. "For an entire year, I have known happiness more fully than I ever imagined possible. For three hundred and sixty-five days, Emma, you've made my world complete. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart." I clinked my glass against hers.
She laughed and the tiny twinkle lights that lined our rooftop garden sparkled in her eyes, her coral lips parting in a smile. "I don't even have words for what a colossal nerd you are," she said, "And that is precisely why I adore you with every fiber of my being." She sipped the champagne.
We'd ordered in Chinese take-out and put an air mattress out and there we lay in the dark, pretending the strands of lights were stars.
Emma reached over and brushed a stray strand of my long hair back, behind my glasses, and stared into my eyes.
"Make love to me," she requested.
I leaned over, my mouth landing on hers like puzzle pieces. I slid my hand down her back, pulling her body closer to mine. She felt so small, so perfect, so breakable. I gently rolled so that I was leaning over her as her chest rose and fall with her breathing, our mouths never breaking the kiss. She hummed against my mouth, her eyes closed.
Then I heard the Blue Bloods theme music. Her ringtone for her partner, Seth.
"Jared, my phone."
"Ignore it, just this once," I pleaded.
"I can't," she replied, "You know I can't."
I rolled away and Emma got up and went over to the table where she'd left the phone. She anwered it, "Hey Seth. This better be important, you know I'm on my anniversary date with Jared." She paused, listening. And as I watched, I saw her face pale, saw her eyes widen. "What's the address? Okay. I'll be right there."
She turned to me.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"What is it?" I asked.
"A little boy's gone missing," she replied.
"Then you need to go," I said.
"I need to go," she replied.
I'm a freelance writer. I'm the guy that writes those random little blurbs of information in travel brochures or the inside of the Hallmark cards. The most incredible thing I've done was a collection of short stories that somehow got published and released to go on to sell a whopping three-hundred and twenty-one copies in six years time. Three of those copies were my mother.
My adventurous soul exists just enough for me to research something and write about it. As for actually doing any of the stuff I write about, I'd rather pass.
Emma, though, she doesn't write. She lives the adventure everyday.
When Emma graduated from Police Academy, nobody could believe it. We lived in one of those small New England towns where things like that were unheard of, where women cops were built like gym teachers or yetis or something, not petite little things like Emma. But she passed with flying colors, mastering several types of karate and being the sharpest shooter in her graduating class.
She was accepted to the New York City Police Department almost as quickly as she'd applied there following training.
Every day, Emma risked her life to protect the people of New York.
She did things like you see on TV. Things like stop robberies, arrest murderers, and rescue hostages. She'd once travelled overseas to collect a wanted terrorist from one of the roughest prisons in Afghanistan.
Emma did things like interrupt her anniversary dinner to go find a lost boy.
To be frank, Emma kicked serious ass.
"How did you ever end up with a boring guy like me?" I asked her once, when I'd been sitting in the living room watching her clean her guns t the dining room table.
"You aren't always boring," she replied. "Sometimes you surprise me still." She smiled.
I tried to stay up for her to come home that night, but it was around two when my eyes just wouldn't stay open any longer and I fell asleep. When she came home, she was quiet. She took off her things, unaware that I was watching her, and she sighed as she unloaded her gun, clipped the safety on, and slid it into her underwear drawer. She stared at it for a long moment before pushing the drawer shut. She sighed, then turned, pulled the elastic from her hair, letting it cascade around her, then crawled into bed beside me. She lay on her back, her hair pulled up in an arc over her head, staring up at the ceiling. I gave her a couple moments before I rolled into her, wrapping my arm around her. I kissed her shoulder.
"Did you find the little boy?" I asked her.
"No," she replied.
"Not a one."
"You'll find him tomorrow," I said quietly.
Emma didn't reply.
Whenever Emma was working on a big case, one that really bothered her and ate at her, she became silent. She'd wander around the house like a ringwraith, consumed by thoughts of the case, muttering details to herself as she made dinner or stared at the TV vacantly, not really watching it. She'd take long showers and go up to the roof and lay on the concrete floor. Once I found her doing that in the dead of winter, making an angel in the snow, and I had to drag her inside before she caught frostbite.
That's how she was getting by the third day that the little boy hadn't been found.
After a certain amount of time with these cases, they start looking for bodies instead of children. They stop looking at the living, and start looking among the dead. They start looking for clues instead of for a face in a crowd. Clues like Daniel Gregor's backpack, which showed up on the bank of the Hudson River on Day Three.
Emma called me from the field on her cell phone after submitting the bag into evidence. "I can't bring myself to believe this kid is dead," she said.
"Why?" I asked.
When Emma finally came to me about a case it was because she'd thought it through thoroughly, because she'd come up with ideas and connections that she needed verified. It was because she needed to know she wasn't crazy, wasn't making things up.
"The backpack was full of stuff, like homework and stuff, but there wasn't anything personal. No stuffed animals, no comic books, no CDs, nothing that a kid would have in their bag," she said. "His mother said he just got new Batman action figure for his birthday. Batman is his favorite. He takes it everywhere with him. He had it in the footage from the school, out on the playground, and on the way out the door at the last bell. He made Batman slide down the banister." Emma was quiet for a long moment. "Why wasn't there a body with the backpack? Why wasn't Batman with the backpack?"
"Maybe Batman and the body are still together somewhere," I suggested.
"That's what I think, too," Emma said. "Except I don't think there's a body. I think there's a little boy still holding onto his superhero."
Emma was sitting on a chair at the dining room table in a pair of sweatpants and a tank top. Her feet were up on the chair in front of her, her arms around her legs, her chin on her knee. She stared off into the living room, a vacant expression on her face. I was putting dinner onto plates. Emma had become nearly comatose thinking, repeating information over and over and over again. She only came home for a few hours a day.
I put the plate down on the table in front of her. "You need to eat," I said.
"I'll eat when Daniel Gregor is safe in his mother's arms," she mumbled.
"If you don't eat you'll never find the kid," I said, "You'll be passed out somewhere from malnourishment."
Emma begrudgingly lowered her feet to the floor and turned to face the chicken cacciatore I'd made. I shook some parmesan over her plate. She looked down at the meal. "You're a chef now, too?" she asked. She looked up at me, "What happened to the typical American family, where the wife dresses up like Donna Reed and the man comes home and reads the paper while she dusts?"
"I think that scene is dead," I replied.
"Wouldn't you rather a nice safe housewife sometimes?" she asked.
I shook my head. "Why? Are you planning to go all Donna Reed on me?"
Emma laughed, "Me? Hell no. I enjoy playing with guns too much." She lifted her fork. "Donna Reed probably couldn't tell you what Glock was."
"To be honest, I can't either."
"That's because you're a good boy," Emma replied, cupping her hand against my cheek. She smiled. "Aw, Jared, honey, you're like my Donna Reed."
"Eat your food," I said, laughing.
Emma smiled and turned to her plate. She spun her fork through the spaghetti, lifted a mouthful, and chewed slowly, thinking. I could see the wheels in her hed moving. She took another bite. At least she was eating, I thought. She took a sip of the milk I'd poured and set out for her. Suddenly, she put the fork down and stood up. "Oh my God," she muttered. "I can't believe I -- oh crap, how did I overlook that?"
I looked up from my dinner. "Overlook what?"
"The obvious." She said, her voice excited. "Oh crap. Shit. Shit. Shit." She rushed out of the room, her feet thundering down the hallway.
I put down my fork, and stood up and went to the door to the hallway. I'd only just gotten there when Emma came thundering back out, dressed in her officer's uniform, clipping her hair behind her head, her hat tucked under one arm. "Jesus Christ, I can't believe I didn't -- I mean what was I --"
"Save my plate," she said, "I'll be back real soon. I'll tell you everything then." She kissed my cheek, and rushed out the door.
I fell asleep on the couch waiting for her. I woke up on the couch the next morning, still waiting for her. I threw away the left over cacciatore and sat down at the table to work on writing the interior text for some cards.
The first one had a couple of illustrated teddy bears. One with glasses was hugging a little one with a bow. I wrote: To a Sweet Granddaughter, with love from Grampa. Your smile makes me smile and your laugh makes me laugh, there's no other granddaughter that I'd rather have. Happy Birthday.
I glanced at the clock. It was after ten in the morning. I looked at the door.
The next card was a close up of a finger painting stick figure labelled Dad with a magnet holding it against a fridge. I wrote: You're my favorite artist, and you tell the best jokes. You have the brighest eyes, and the cutest little nose. I've loved you since you were born, my precious baby girl, and I'll love you everyday, more than the whole world. Happy Birthday from Your Father.
I looked at the clock again.
I couldn't stand it. I was starting to get worried. I picked up the phone and dialed the precinct. "Hey," I said, "Is Em there?" I asked the receptionist, Mindy, who answered the phone. "Or do you know if she's on the field or something?"
"She's on the field," answered Mindy. She paused, "I think they're onto a lead with the Gregor kid. Seth was here a couple hours ago ordering some paperwork from out of state."
"Oh, okay. Thanks Mindy. If you see her stop by the precinct, tell her to call home."
"Will do, Jared," Mindy said.
We hung up and I went back to the table to write some more cards.
It was about three in the afternoon when Emma burst through the front door. Her hair was a mess, her eyes wild. I was in the kitchen, wrist deep in making meatloaf. "Hey," I said, "There you are. Did you find him?" I asked, coming out of the kitchen, holding my meat-covered hands up in the air.
"We need to go," Emma said feverishly. She ran into the bedrom.
"What?" I asked. But she didn't answer. I heard stuff slamming around in the bedroom. I went back to the kitchen, elbowed the sink on and washed my hands quickly. Drying them on the front of my shirt, I hurried down the hall to the bedroom. Emma was inside, throwing socks and underwear from my drawer into a duffle bag on the bed. "What the hell are you doing?" I asked, confused.
"I told you, Jared, we need to go." She grabbed a duffle bag from the floor where she'd dropped a pile of our bags. "Here, start packing." Emma threw the bag at my chest.
"Why? Where are we going?" I opened the bag and went to the closet obediantly, though.
"I don't know yet. We just need to go, that's all." She looked at her phone. It must've been on vibrate because she answered it, though I hadn't realized it was ringing. "Seth? Yeah we're packing." Pause. "No, I think you should be packing, too. Don't be stupid. They'll come for you, too, the same as they will for me." Pause. "I had to get Jared." Emma looked over at me. She turned and went to the window.
I kept tossing stuff into the bags.
"I don't know how much they know we know," Emma said. "I'm not even sure how much we know." She sighed. "Seth, promise me as soon as you get those papers --- Okay. Okay. I'll see you at the meet-up point." She hung up.
"What is going on?" I asked. I could hear the hint of fear in my voice this time.
Emma's eyes were serious, "Jared, I can't explain yet. I will as soon as we're out of here, I promise." She opened her sock drawer and pulled out the gun she kept packed there. She loaded it, clipped the safety on and looked at me. "Jared," she said, "Make me a promise?"
"What is it?"
"If something happens, run."
"If something - anything - happens to me, you will run."
"What the hell is going to happen?" I asked.
"Jared, just promise me."
I stared at her. "Okay," I said, because her eyes were fierce and serious and had just a tinge of fear in them that I didn't often see. "I promise," I said.
Emma nodded. She pulled off her police uniform top and threw it to the floor, grabbing a tee shirt from the closet, which she pulled on violently. It was an old concert shirt from the mid-90s when I'd taken her to see the Backstreet Boys. She shimmied out of her uniform pants and tugged on a pair of shorts. She plunged the gun into the waist band at the small of her back, tucked her police ID in with it, and pulled the shirt over it. The tour dates bulged just a little bit with the bulk of the gun.
She zipped the bag she'd been working on filling.
"This is going to have to do," she said. We had four bags full of clothes. She grabbed our wedding picture from the nightstand and pushed it into one of the bags. She looked at me, her eyes on fire. "Jared," she said, "I love you."
"I love you, too," I said.
"Will you tell me what's going on yet?" I asked once we were in a cab and Emma had told him to go to LaGuardia and we were speeding through midtown traffic.
Emma looked at the driver's license display. She looked back at me and shook her head, "Not yet," she said. She looked at her phone nervously, her leg jiggling with nerves, a habit that she'd picked up that reminded me of the jiggle she did when she heard a really good song. She took a deep breath, "Why hasn't Seth called yet? God." She shoved her phone back into her pocket.
"Are we like in danger?" I whispered.
The cabbie glanced in his rearview mirror.
Emma caught the movement and eyed him warily. She looked at me, "We're fine. This is more precautionary than anything." She took a deep breath, then pulled her phone out again.
"Where are we going?"
"Jared, I can't tell you yet, okay? Please, just ...trust me."
"I do trust you, I'm just - I mean we're on the way to the airport, I'm just curious if we have, like, tickets or whatever..."
Emma stared at me. "Yes, we have tickets."
"Okay, that's all I wanted to know."
Gridlocked traffic kept the cab moving slow. Emma got more and more tense as time passed, kept looking at her watch, kept checking her cell phone, kept muttering, wondering why Seth hadn't checked in.
When the cab came to a stop at the drop offs at the airport, I pulled out my wallet and paid the guy while Emma practically sprang out of the cab and started yanking our stuff out of the trunk. I pulled a couple bags over my torso so they criss-crossed, and Emma did the same. She led the way into the airport, gripping my hand tightly. She pulled me past the lines of people checking in and went right to a security guard by the turnstalls.
Emma pulled out her badge from the back of her shorts and held it up for him to see as she approached. "We need immediate access to the terminals," she said. The security guard looked over her badge then nodded and waved us through.
As Em pulled me along up the escalator, taking the steps two at a time making us climb it three times faster than normal, I said, "You're pulling all the stops, I feel like a VIP or something," I laughed.
"We gotta get out of here," she said, "It's that important." Her voice was more grave, less amused.
She pulled me along past the smoothie booths, new stands, Starbucks, and duty-free stores. She was just starting to slow down when a guy came out of nowhere, like he'd just appeared, and stepped in front of her, stopping us. Emma came to an immediate halt in front of him, her body language like a rearing horse. She backed up two steps, pulled my wrist so she was mostly in front of me. Though I'm relatively big guy, and she's a teeny tiny little thing, so she was probably only really blocking like my elbow.
"Where ya going, honey?" the guy asked.
Emma stared at him.
"Your partner said we might find you here." The guy looked at me, "This your husband?"
"I'm Jared. Who the hell are you?" I asked.
Em stomped on my foot.
"Where's Seth?" Emma asked in a defiant sort of tone.
"We took care of Seth," the guy answered. "Don't worry about him." He smiled. "Now if you'll come with me --"
Emma reached into the back of her shorts for the gun, but before she could pull it out, the guy had taken three quick steps forward and grabbed onto her elbow. Wrong move. She whipped her arm around, releasing his grip on her, caught his wrist, and effectively flipped the guy onto his back right there in the middle of the airport. She did it with the ease that small child would flip a doll. She grabbed my hand. "C'mon." She said, her voice now panicked. I didn't have to be told twice. I ran along behind her.
People were looking, and we dodged between them. We hit the moving sidewalks running and I felt like we were The Flash or something, turbo-charged. We seemed to fly. There was scrambling and shouting behind us, commotion ensuing as we shoved our way through the crowded airport. Emma's agility enabled her to do this with a certain amount of grace. But me, I'm like an ox in a china shop and I kept knocking into people, bumping into carts full of luggage, muttering sorry as I spilled coffees and stepped on toes.
"Hurry, hurry," Emma begged. I was starting to get winded, but she was used to the chase.
I really need to get out and exercise more, I thought.
I don't know what terminal we were headed to, so I can't really say how close we were to our destination, but I could hear guys shouting, catching up to us. Emma glanced back. "Shit," she muttered. "They're faster than --" she was about to say you are, but changed her mind. "Jared, I'm gonna distract them for a few minutes. You go to the terminal," she directed. She shoved the two duffle bags she had criss-crossing her torso onto me. "The tickets are in the end of that bag there. Board the plane. I'll get on with my badge."
"It's the last terminal, just go," she said. She let go of my hand.
"Okay. I'm going." I paused. I felt like I should say something really smart. Something that would go in one of my cards or something. I stammered, "Emma, I --"
"Jared. I'll see you on the plane. Just... Jared, just run."
So I ran.
Now I'm not a fat guy, but I ain't a skinny guy by any means, either, so by the time I'd run the length of the airport to the very last terminal and gotten on the plane, I was breathless and my heart was pretty much ready to pop out of my chest it was beating so hard. My face was all red and hot. I could feel round patches on my cheeks forming. I took a seat by a window toward the back of the plane, and closed my eyes, trying to reorient myself. Everything had gone down so fast - I'd gone from meatloaf-covered fingers to running down an airport terminal in a little under an hour.
I absently wondered if I'd remembered to turn off the stove back home. Had I?
"Sir? Do you want some water?" A flight attendant with short black hair asked.
I nodded, still gasping in air like it was going out of style. She hurried away. She probably thought I was dying or something the way I was wheezing. Don't worry lady, I thought, I'm not having a heart attack or anything. Just a fat guy runnin' across the airport.
Emma would give me hell for my wheezies when she got on the plane. She always did. It was followed, usually, by persistent nagging that I should go with her to the precinct gym in the mornings when she went to work out. "It's free, you know," she'd say, "Not like those gyms downtown where you pay membership fees and stuff." But the thing is that she liked to go do her daily work out around 5:30 in the morning. I thought I was getting up early if I hauled my lazy ass out of bed by 8. Plus, when your 5'2 wife can bench press your body weight and you struggle with the 50lbers... it's more of a Hall of Shame than an activity worth giving up sleepy time for.
Don't get me wrong, I went through a brief period of wanting to work out. I'd decided to get into weight lifting and started eating protein bars and going with Em at 5:30 everyday. This brief period mysteriously began right around the same time that Emma was assigned Seth as a partner. Seth was a 6'1 Greek god of a man with muscles bigger around than my head and form-fitting police uniforms to showcase them in. I don't know where he found such tiny uniforms. I mean most police officers uniforms are kinda baggy, but not Seth's. He managed to look like he was ripped out of a Playgirl magazine spread every day.
The brief period ended after I tried to use the bench press right after him and the dumbbell had me pegged to the to the bench, squealing like a dog toy. Emma had run over and lifted the thing off me like it was foam. "Why the hell would you try to lift that?" she demanded.
"That's how much Seth was lifting," I pouted.
"You aren't Seth," Emma laughed, returning the weights to their crib, "And thank God for that." I'd then gone home and eaten a BLT for lunch and thoroughly enjoyed it. The stupid protein bars tasted like saw dust wrapped in that fake chocolate they make Raisinets with anyway.
Now, on the plane, as the flight attendant returned and handed me a cup of water, I wondered where Emma was and what was taking so long. Had she made arrests? Had she found Daniel Gregor? So many questions spun around in my head, I felt dizzy almost from them all.
Person after person boarded the plane and I stared ahead, waiting to see Em's big curly hair and her Backstreet Boys t-shirt through the crowd of faces. She was so short that she could've been behind any of the people streaming in. A girl flopped into the aisle seat, leaving a space between us when I put my hands over the seat next to me, "My wife's sitting here," I said.
But several moments passed and still no sign of Emma.
My heart rate started to rise.
I kneaded my thighs with my fists nervously, wondering where Emma was. The girl looked over at me curiously, then looked away.
"If your wife doesn't show up," the girl said, "Do you mind if I scootch over?"
I looked over at her, "She's coming," I said.
"I'm just saying if."
I blinked, "I - uh, yeah, sure, I guess."
"I just hate aisle seats, you know. Carts and people and... whatever." She waved her hands at the aisle to indicate commotion.
"I'm Aiden," she said.
I thought I saw a flash of blonde hair across the plane in another seat. I craned my neck. But no, it was some other girl with curly blonde hair, not Emma.
"This is the part when you say your name," Aiden said, like I was two.
I looked back at her, "Oh. I'm uh, I'm Jared," I answered.
Suddenly I realized the overhead bins were all closed and the flight attendants were going through their instructional routine, holding up oxygen masks and putting on life preservers. Even worse, the plane was taxiing away from the terminal.
"Wait... Wait..." I started to panic. I pulled my seat belt off and a light dinged over my head and a flight attendant rushed over - the same one that had given me water.
"Sir, you need to remain seated until we're at cruising altitude."
"My wife, she's not on board yet!" I said in a panicked voice.
The flight attendant looked surprised, "Didn't you board together?"
"No she was coming up along after me," I said, "She's an officer, she would've shown her badge to get on board."
"Let me go check on that, sir." The flight attendant said in a calm voice that was so obviously practiced.
"She has curly blonde hair!" I called after her as she hurried away.
The plane was quite a ways away from the building now. I felt a flush starting at my neck from nerves. What the hell was I going to do if she wasn't on the plane? I wasn't even sure where I was going, much less what to do when I got there. She'd said something about a meet-up point on the phone to Seth, but I didn't know where the meet-up point was. This was not a very well thought out plan, I thought, my face and neck getting hotter and hotter.
"So your wife's an officer," Aiden said conversationally.
"Where is the plane going?" I asked Aiden without answering her question.
She gave me a weird look. "You got on a plane you don't even know where it's going?"
"It's a long story," I answered.
"We're going to Nashville," she replied.
"Oh," I said. But inside I was like What the hell is in Nashville!? because we don't know anybody in Nashville. I couldn't think of a single reason that we'd be going to Nashville.
"Maybe that's why you can't find your wife," Aiden said, "Maybe you took the wrong plane."
But they'd checked my tickets at the gate.
Maybe Emma took the wrong plane.
This was gonna be a mess to figure out.
I turned away from Aiden and stared out the window at the passing landscape as the plane sped up and started to lift up off the ground. I gripped the arm rests - never much of one for velocity or planes in general - and I felt my stomach roll over and play dead. I closed my eyes and prayed when I opened them it would be to the sight of the flight attendant at a mile high, leading Emma to her seat beside me.
Preferably before Aiden decided to scootch.
But when I opened my eyes it was to find the flight attendant telling me there were no officers that had been brought on board before take-off.
I stared out the window, at the patchwork quilt of land below, feeling sick and helpless.
Aiden scootched over. She studied me a second. "I'm sorry she didn't get on board," she said to me. She paused. "Maybe she really did get on the wrong plane."
My mouth was dry. I stayed looking out the window because I didn't know what else to do. I refused to think what could've happened to keep Emma from getting on board that plane with me. In all the years I'd known her, she'd never once let me down.
I know it's backwards, I know the man's supposed to protect the woman and chivalry and all that crap, but Em and I were always different than that. From the very beginning we were different than that. In high school, I was the fat kid that wasn't athletic enough to play football. I was the only kid in the journalism club, the only one working on the school newspaper. I took it seriously, though, and I'd skulk around with my notepad and pencil taking notes for the paper's columns. I was frequently the target of bullies.
The day I met Emma was her first day of being in the new school. Her thick, curly blonde hair and electric green eyes had all the guys going crazy trying to show off for her and I ended up being the punching bag when one of them wanted to show off his fighting skills after a rumor went around that Emma had signed up to join a kickboxing club held on Wednesdays after school. Like I said, I was an easy target and the most obvious one, since I was big it looked like an even fight if I'd had some kind of fighting ability. "It's like fighting a little girl," he laughed as I held up my palms to block him when he came at me in the middle of the crowded hallway.
Emma came over and in one fell swoop, much like she'd done in the airport to the guy that approached us, knocked my assailant flat on his back. She got right in his face, "Touch him again and I'll show you what it's really like to fight a girl," she snapped.
That was the last time I ever got beat up in high school.
I guess that's why I ran in the airport, when she told me to run. I knew Em and I knew she was capable of holding her own, and that even if I'd stayed and tried to protect her, the truth was I'm more of a liability than anything else. Emma was the one who fought our battles. I was the one that stood behind her and held her afterwards and tucked her into bed after a long day of being kickass.
Suddenly I became aware of Aiden leaning close, sniffing my shoulder. I looked over at her, shifted in my seat, pulling my shoulder away from her. "What in hell are you doing?" I demanded.
Aiden stared up at me. She had brown eyes that were kind of intense I guess but it looked like she had contacts on that made them that way. She sat upright again. "Sorry," she said, "You just smell so good. What are you wearing?"
"Dove soap," I answered. Because that's all I had on. I didn't expect to be leaving the house. I thought I was making dinner and that Emma would come home happily telling tales of having found the Gregor boy and we'd eat meatloaf and maybe have sex or something before going to bed. I didn't think I'd be flying all over the country alone with a weird girl that would sniff me in the next seat.
Aiden sat back up and looked away.
"You're really outspoken or something," I said in an accusing tone.
She turned to look at me and shrugged. "Why be quiet about something when you can just say it? I mean, you might think I'm weird but at least I know now."
I stayed shifted as far away as I could, considering the tiny seats it really wasn't that far. I really wished Emma was sitting there instead of Aiden and that maybe Emma would be explaining what had happened that had landed us on the plane. It was driving me crazy, I kept running it over and over in my head, trying to figure out what connected Daniel Gregor to the guys in the airport. Other than them being the guys that kidnapped the kid, I couldn't think of anything.
But Em had said it was obvious.
Obviously, she had more information that made a connection obvious.
Although as obvious as she'd thought it was, she obviously had stumbled into something that had thrown her and Seth both off guard. Maybe like kicking a bee's nest or overturning a rock and discovering an ant coloney. I rubbed my hands across my knees.
"You're a really nervous guy," Aiden commented.
"My wife is back in New York and I'm on a plane that I didn't know where it was even going until after it was already taking off," I said, "I think I'm entitled to being nervous."
Aiden shrugged, "I'd look at it like an adventure."
"I don't have adventures, I'm like a hobbit that way," I said.
Aiden smirked, "Hobbits had some of the most amazing adventures of anyone in literary history," she commented. "Hobbits just didn't know they were cut out for adventure because they were too stubborn and rooted in their ways." She looked at my stomach. "You look like you might share dietary patterns, though."
I wasn't sure how to respond to that.
When the plane landed and the pilot had welcomed us all to Nashville, Tennessee, I shot out of my seat and grabbed the four duffle bags that I'm not entirely sure how I'd managed to get onto the plane with - the flight attendants seemed unsure, too, as I hauled them out of the overhead bins and almost knocked Aiden in the head with one - and rushed down the gangway into the terminal.
The moment my feet were on the carpet inside, I whipped my cell phone out of my pocket and turned it on. The screen took forever to load, it seemed, but the moment it was up I hit Emma's name and waited for it to ring.
Her ringback tone is this old song from the 80s called Little Suzi by this band Tesla that I'm pretty sure she's the only person left on earth that still gives a crap about them.
The song only played for a couple seconds, then the call went to voicemail.
"You've reached the voicemail of Officer Emma Fife. Please leave a message and I will get back to you as soon as I can. If this is an emergency concerning an open case, please call the precinct number at 917-555-2325. Thank you."
"I just landed in Nashville. Now what? Where are you? Call me." I hung up.
Aiden was suddenly in front of me. "No answer, huh?"
Aiden studied me. "What are you gonna do until she does?"
"I dunno," I answered. I didn't. I looked around. "I guess I'm gonna find a Starbucks and get some coffee and maybe a sandwich."
Aiden raised an eyebrow. "Like I said, dietary patterns of a hobbit. Why don't you come with me," she suggested.
I stared at her. "Why would I go with you?"
"My dad owns a hotel and diner here in the city. I'm guessing you don't have any where to sleep and the terminal chairs are really uncomfortable. Trust me, I slept in them in New York last night." She laughed.
I didn't like the idea of going home with this weird girl that sniffed my shoulder, but a quick glance at the hard plastic chairs that lined the terminal and I was feeling a little better about the concept. "He has a hotel, you said?"
"And a diner," she answered, "With - literally - award winning food. Guy Fieri visited last year. He has a picture of me with Guy over the booth Guy sat at. I'll show you."
I was a pretty big fan of Guy Fieri. I've seen almost every episode of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives and Emma got me Guy's pan collection for Christmas. I'd fanboyed over it. I mean, it has flames painted on it. Coolest. Pans. Ever.
I've never been a big fan of country music. But Nashville dripped with the history of the genre, and with emotions that made you want to be country. You could understand the twangy guitars and the singing about trucks and good ol' days when you breathed in there. I don't know, maybe it's the writer in me getting all dramatic and weird, but Nashville seemed like the kind of place that you instantly call home, even if you've never been there before. It felt like it had a welcome mat at on the tarmac and maybe left a light on so you could see on your way in.
When we got out to the front of the airport, she'd brought me right over to this waiting van on the end of a long line up of vans. The van was painted purple and had the silouhette of the Nashville skyline painted on it's side. The Welcome Wagon was painted on it's door in curly, bright yellow hand lettering, and in smaller, white Helvetica underneath: Courtesy Curbside Pick-up For Guests of the Music City Motel & Diner. An address followed below that. Aiden waved at the van. "Our ride awaits."
I climbed on board the Welcome Wagon and climbed across the three person seat in the back, crushing myself against the window and dropping my duffle bags across the seat beside me. Aiden climbed in and sat in the row ahead of me. "Hey Dale," she greeted the big guy with feiry red hair like a bush that sat in the front. Country music played from the radio.
"Welcome back, Miss. Aiden," Dale greeted her, grinning and turning in his seat to give her a high five. "How was your trip to the Big City, little one?" he asked.
"It was great," she replied, "I got a lot done." Aiden thumbed over her shoulder, "This is Jared, he's gonna be staying at the hotel. You got any others you're waiting for?"
"Just you, Miss. Aiden." Dale turned to look back at me in the corner of the van, and called out, "Welcome to Nashville, Mr. Jared."
"Thanks," I answered.
"Jared's from New York," Aiden said.
"Can't picture livin' in a big city like New York," said Dale, "People are too mean up north. I don't really see what you see in it, Miss. Aiden. Anyways, Jared. What brings you to Nashville?"
Before I could answer, Aiden replied, "He doesn't know. His wife ditched him at the airport. We think she got on the wrong plane. She's an officer."
"You an officer, too, Mr. Jared?" Dale asked.
"Despite the fact that I'd be very good at eating donuts and drinking coffee, I could never be an officer because unfortunately that's not all they do, whatever stereotypes might say," I stammered.
Aiden and Dale both laughed.
"Got a sense of humor," Dale said. "You're all right for a Yankee, son."
Aiden wasn't lying about the picture of her with Guy Fieri. The moment the Welcome Wagon pulled up to the promised Music City Motel & Diner she pulled me out of the van. Before I could even grab my duffle bags ("Don't worry about it, Dale will take care of'em, won't you Dale? Give him the Elvis room."), Aiden had dragged me across the parking lot, through a rotating door into a little old fashioned diner where a few lazy looking patrons were sipping coffee on bar stools. The floor had those old black and white checkerboard pattern tiles and the walls were crowded with photos of people, mostly Polaroids, held up by tacks on a corkboard.
Aiden hauled me to a round booth in the corner. "He sat here," she said, waving at the booth, "Because it was easier for the camera guy to shoot, you know?" Aiden waved at the framed photograph on the wall. Sure enough, there was Guy Fieri, his tattooed arm around Aiden's shoulder, standing in front of the bar. He was throwing the peace sign with both hands, a grin on his face, his sunglasses on the back of his neck like he does on the TV show.
"That's really cool," I muttered, staring at the photo.
"You can sit here if you want," Aiden said, "I'm going to go get us some food. I'll be right back."
I sat in the booth and waited. I realized after she left that she hadn't asked what I wanted or anything.
I pulled out my cell phone and checked to see if Emma had called me back yet or texted or anything, but there weren't any missed notifications on my phone at all. I sighed. I tried calling her again.
"You've reached the voice mail of Officer Emma Fife..."
"Hey it's me again, I just wanted to let you know I'm at the Music City Motel & Diner," I said, "I dunno where you are still. I'm really worried Emma. Please call me. I don't know what to do."
Aiden came back just as I was hanging up. She slid into the booth across from me. "Did she answer that time?" she asked, even though she probably knew she hadn't. Considering I'd already hung up and everything. I shook my head. Aiden sat sideways, put her feet up on the seat beside herself and hugged one knee. "So she's an officer, your wife," Aiden said.
I nodded. "A damn good one, too."
"Like a police officer?"
I nodded. "More of a detective, really. She's been working on this missing child's case for awhile. Daniel Gregor."
Aiden's eyes lit up. "No shit? I saw that on the news. That kid's picture's been all over the news for like a week now." She let out a low whistle. "I feel like I'm with a celebrity." She paused, chewing her lip. "I couldn't believe it when they found that backpack of his in the river."
"My wife found it," I said.
Aiden shook her head, "Poor little boy."
"Emma doesn't think he's dead," I said.
Aiden raised her eyebrow, "No?"
"Because of Batman."
Aiden stared at me, a confused expression on her face. "What?"
"The little boy," I said, "He has this new action figure in the security tapes Em saw, it's a Batman toy. Emma doesn't think he's dead because the Batman toy's still missing."
"Anything could've happened to the toy," Aiden said. "Just because a personal belonging is missing doesn't mean the person's alive. It just means it didn't get found is all."
I shrugged. "Emma's always been a big believer in little clues like that," I replied, "Usually she's right. We even have this thing -- it's a code we have in case anything ever happens to us. We each have something that we'd never let go of, and if either of us ever finds that thing then we know the person's really gone."
Aiden stared at me. "That's really weird."
I shrugged, "I've never found her thing, and she's never found mine, and we're both still around."
Aiden asked, "How do you know the thing just isn't misplaced?"
"Because they're both things that we'd never misplace."
A round woman with rosy cheeks and a yellow dress came over and put down two cups of coffee and a dish with sugar packets and half and half containers. "Feet off the seat, missy," the woman said, waving a dishtowel at Aiden's legs.
"Thanks, Lori," Aiden said, swinging to sit in the seat correctly.
"Keep'em on the floor like they belong," Lori said, reinforcing her admonishion. She looked at me. "Jared, nice to meet you. Aiden told me you were out here when she came back to order."
"Hey," I said, looking up. "Thanks for the coffee." I reached for a sugar packet and a couple half-and-halfs.
"That's what I'm paid for," Lori replied, waddling away.
Aiden grinned at the old woman's back. "She warms up after a bit," she said, "I bet you do, too. Warm up, that is." She grabbed like five sugar packets and poured them into the coffee. Then proceeded to drink it black. I cringed. I couldn't imagine coffee that sweet and strong.
"I'm sure Emma will call when the plane she got onto lands," I said suddenly, as though Aiden had asked, though she hadn't. I sipped my coffee.
"I'm sure she'll call as soon as she can," Aiden said, nodding.
After we'd eaten some fried chicken and potatos that Lori brought out to the booth, Aiden led me down the length of the motel, which was set up so each room had its own door to the outside. She pointed out vending and ice machines, led me up a flight of stairs and down another long passage of doorways before pulling a key out of her pocket and opening a door. "Welcome to the Elvis Room," she said, turning on a light.
The inside of the room was decorated with crazy amounts of Elvis Presley merchandise.
"Man that's a lot of Elvis," I muttered. There were Elvis lamps, Elvis clocks, Elvis bedding, Elvis photos on the walls... Seriously, you name it, it had Elvis printed on it. "I didn't even know they made this much stuff with Elvis on it."
"Oh they make pretty much everything with Elvis on it," Aiden said. "Most of this is my collection from years of visiting Graceland."
"Is Graceland far?" I asked. If this stuff all came from it, it must be like another planet, I thought to myself. An Elvis-print planet.
"About two hours," Aiden answered. "If you'd like I can take you there sometime. If you're in town long enough, I mean."
I nodded. I didn't hope to be in town long enough to go anywhere with Aiden. "Well, thanks," I said, hoping she'd leave now that she'd showed me to the room.
She handed me the key. That, too, was printed with Elvis.
"Have a good night," she said.
She left, and I let out a breath of relief because it was kind of exhausting talking to someone so long that wasn't Emma. I didn't have to try to be interesting or anything with Em, which was something I really appreciated. Sometimes trying to be interesting is just too much work.
I sat down on the bed. It was a water bed and it jiggled under me like a tub of Jell-O.
Dale had left my bags on the floor next to the bed, so I pulled one up and I opened it and rooted around inside it. It was a bunch of Em's clothes and stuff. I unzipped one of the end compartments and found a couple guns. Hand guns. And a ton of ammunition. I zipped it back up again. I hated Emma's guns.
I put the bag back down and grabbed the next one. This one was the one with our wedding photo in it, so I pulled that out and put it on the night stand, knocking over one of Elvis, which was in an Elvis frame. "Sorry buddy," I said, "You might be the King, but Emma's more important."
The next bag was the one she'd tossed our cell phone cords into. Finding her cord in the bag made me uneasy. I clicked my phone to check the battery charge. It was at the three-quarters mark and mine had spent the greater part of the day on the charger. Em's hadn't been plugged in that I knew of since she'd run off during dinner two nights before.
Maybe that was why she wasn't calling me back, I thought to myself. Maybe her phone battery died.
I plugged my phone back in, but the cord wasn't long enough to reach the plug and be close, so I turned the ring tone up to its loudest setting so I'd definitely hear it if it went off, and went back to rooting through the bags. Emma had packed a profound amount of underwear but not a lot of clothes. And she'd forgotten our tooth brushes and things like that. I ran my teeth over the inside of my mouth. I was going to have to go shopping first thing in the morning, I thought, or I'd have the breath of a dragon.
I pulled the Elvis print bedspread and sheets down and crawled in, putting my head on the Elvis pillow sham and staring up at the ceiling.
I hoped, wherever she was, that Emma was comfy and not laying on some plastic chairs in an airport terminal. I hoped she knew if she was next to me that I'd be whispering in her ear how much I love her right now. I hoped she knew it anyways.
I fell asleep.
I had a dream of Elvis Presley chasing me down a never-ending airport terminal.
Well Ali-Baba had them forty thieves, Scheherezad-ie had a thousand tales...But master you're in luck 'cause up your sleeves, you got a brand of magic never fails.... You got some power in your corner now... some heavy ammunition in your camp.....
I groaned, I pulled the pillow over my head. I tried to ignore it. It couldn't possibly be a humane hour for anyone to be calling anyone else yet. No way was it before ten. The pillow felt funny. I opened my eyes. It felt funny because it wasn't mine. And it was bathed in sunlight and out the window wasn't New York City, it was a Nashville and it all came back to me.
Life is your restaurant and I'm your maitre d' - c'mon whisper what it is you want... you ain't never had a friend like me!
And that was my phone.
I rolled as quickly as I could out of bed and plodded across the room to the practically screaming cell phone. I heard the person next door knocking on the walls. I muted the phone and answered it quickly. It was a call from a blocked number. "Hello? Emma?" I said, hoping she was calling from a payphone or some borrowed cellphone.
"Jared? It's Seth."
"Seth!" I cried. It wasn't Emma, but I was just so happy to hear from anyone connected to her and this whole mysterious situation that even Seth, who I kind of hated a little, was better than no communication at all.
He was quiet a moment. "Look, Jared, I can't get a hold of Em's phone, I'm guessing she let it die again. I can't talk long. Just -- tell Em I said to stay where you all are."
"Stay wherever you are. Tell her not to come back to New York."
"But she isn't --"
"Tell her that I called."
"No, Seth, listen, she isn't --"
But the line went dead before I could tell him that Emma wasn't there.
I sank onto the bed, frustrated. I tried to dial star-six-nine but all I got was a message telling me that the caller had blocked the feature. I sighed and plugged my phone back in.
If Em wasn't with me, and she wasn't with Seth, where the hell was she?
I couldn't sleep after Seth's call. I was too worried about Em.
The last time I was legitimately worried about Emma was three years before when I'd received a call from Seth telling me that she'd been shot in the field, rushing a drug deal that she was investigating undercover at a pool hall in Brooklyn. The guy that shot her was a gang member who had brutally murdered a teenage girl the week before on the subway near Battery Park and Em had been hot on his tail since. Caught up in the moment, she'd moved too quickly before back-up could arrive and she'd ended up shot in the shoulder before Seth had walked in and took the gangster out. That's just how Em was, though. She never thought or waited in the heat of the moment. She simply got up and defended those who needed it.
That was the first time that I'd realized how dangerous Em's job really was, that whatever I liked to believe Emma was not invincible. She was as fragile as the rest of us human beings, and I could lose her at any moment to this duty she had to protect. It terrified me to imagine what the weight of a world without Emma would feel like, and so I had done everything in my power to push that fear out of my mind, to re-convince myself that Emma was a demigod that couldn't be destroyed.
And yet here I was, on my first night in Nashville, rocking myself slowly in the dark, staring at her face in our wedding photo, overrun with that fear once more.
I didn't even know what to do. Should I call the precinct? Try calling Seth again? Despite what Seth had said, should I go back to New York and try to find Emma? That was most likely where she was, I had decided. I couldn't picture Em getting on the wrong plane. She was too level headed, too focused for that. I rubbed my eyes, exhausted.
Why hadn't she called me?
A knock on the door interrupted my thoughts and I realized that hours had passed since Seth's call and it was now mid-morning, around nine-thirty. The sound all but made me jump out of my skin when I first heard it. "Jared!" I heard Aiden's voice call through the door, "Oh Jaaaaared!"
I stumbled to the door, zombie-like, and opened it a little bit, smooshing my face out to look at her. Aiden grinned, holding up a tray. "Good morning," she sing-songed, "I got breakfast for you. Your hobbit-belly must be starved by now. It's been, like, what? Six, maybe seven hours since we ate?"
I hadn't noticed.
But now that she said it...
I stepped back and let her in.
"Did your wife call yet?" Aiden asked as she put the tray down on the desk by the door.
"No," I answered. "Her partner did, though."
Aiden crawled onto the unmade bed and flopped down on her stomach. "Is your wife the one on TV with all the hair?" she asked.
"I... guess," I said. "I mean, she has blonde, curly hair, yeah." I pointed at the wedding photo. "That's her." I looked at the tray of food. It had a bowl of white pasty stuff, a plate with three pieces of bacon, a glass of orange juice, and a small dish of shredded cheese.
Aiden sat up and snatched the photo off the night stand. "She has frickin' Carrie Bradshaw hair, my God." She stared at the photo.
"Sex in the City?" Aiden asked. "You know. Sarah Jessica Parker."
"Yeah, I guess so," I answered. "I never really saw it."
"You're a boy, of course you haven't." Aiden stared at the photo. "I'd kill for hair like that," she said, running her hands over her short brown hair. She sighed.
I picked up the bowl of paste and sniffed it warily. Then opted for a slice of bacon. "What is that stuff?" I asked.
Aiden looked over. "Grits," she replied. "I didn't know if you liked your grits with cheese or not so I put the cheese on the side."
"I don't know either," I said. "I've never had grits."
"It's like oatmeal, I guess. But made with corn."
"Oh." It sounded weird. "And you put cheese on it?" That sounded really weird.
"Some people do," Aiden answered. She put the photo back on the nightstand. She studied me. "So is your wife with her partner?"
"No," I answered. I put the cheese on the grits. I poked them with a spoon that was on the tray. It looked weird. I ate more bacon.
"Where is she?"
"I don't know, I haven't figured that out yet."
"Do you think they kidnapped her?" Aiden asked, wide-eyed.
"No," I answered. But now that she'd said it, how was I supposed to know? Maybe they had. I thought of those guys chasing us through the airport, about the guy Em had flipped over on his back. I felt sick. "I dunno," I stammered. I felt hot and cold and strange all over.
Then a thought occurred to me. "How did you know about the guys in the airport?" I asked.
"What guys in the airport?" Aiden asked.
"The ones you just asked if I thought they kidnapped Em," I answered. "I didn't tell you we were being chased."
Aiden stared at me, "You were being chased? In the airport?"
"Yeah," I answered, "How did you know that?"
"I didn't," Aiden replied, "I meant by the guys that took Daniel Gregor!"
"Oh," I said.
Aiden a was gnawing her lip now. "But you were being chased in the airport? That only makes me think it more! Did you tell her partner about that?"
"He didn't give me a chance," I answered.
"You should call him back and tell him," Aiden said seriously.
"That's the thing. I don't know what to do," I said, "Part of me wants to fly back to New York and see if I can find Em, the other part of me says I need to stay put and wait because she'll come for me. But I mean, what if something happens? What if she needs my help? Not that I'm much help but ---" I paused. I sighed. "I feel... I just..."
Aiden looked at me with a sad expression in her eyes. "It's okay, Jared," she said.
"It's not okay," I replied. "I'm worried about her. I love her. She's been my best friend for so long, she's been my only friend for so long..."
Aiden pouted out her lower lip. "Aw, Jared. I know it's not helpful but... I'm your friend, too, if you want me to be, that is."
"Thanks," I answered.
"And I'll help you find her, too," Aiden said.
"Thank you," I said.
She nodded at the tray. "Try your grits, Hobbit."
I picked the bowl up and shoveled a mouthful of the pasty stuff into my mouth. The flavor of it reminded me of something, but I wasn't sure what. It had the texture that reminded me of tapioca pudding almost in a really weird way. I don't think I liked it. But I ate it anyways because Aiden was my friend now and she'd brought it to me and I didn't want to hurt her feelings.
That afternoon, Aiden drove me back to the airport in the Welcome Wagon. I'd decided that I'd be most likely to find Emma if I went back to New York. I could at least go home and wait for her there, where as here she had no way of knowing where I was to located me. There, I could get other officers in Em's precinct to help me look for her. If she was likely to go anywhere to look for me, I imagined it would be home.
Aiden pulled the purple van up to the curb in front of the departures terminal of the airport and we both got out. She helped me load up with the four duffle bags. "Are you sure you don't want some company?" she asked, putting the last of the shoulder straps around my neck.
"Nawh, I've imposed enough on you," I answered, "It's a long trip to make for a guy you've known for less than 24-hours."
"I don't mind, I love any excuse to venture to the city," Aiden replied, shrugging. "And my brother's a pilot, so I get discounted airfare."
"I'm okay, really," I answered, quickly. I really just wanted to be alone, collect my thoughts, and figure out a game plan without Aiden's fairly consistent chatter on the plane. She was nice, but I'd had enough socialization. I needed to get back to my cave with Emma. "Thanks for every thing," I said. I paused. "Well, everything except the grits."
Aiden laughed. "No problem," she said. She slid her hands into her pockets and smiled. "It was really great meeting you Jared. I hope your wife is home when you get there and that she finds Daniel Gregor."
"Thanks," I said. "She will. Emma doesn't know how to let a case run cold."
Aiden smiled. She held up a palm by way of waving and I watched back and headed inside the airport to check in and get the bags all checked.
On the plane, I got myself a seat in literally the last row. I hunkered down against the window and stared out and watched the city of Nashville get smaller, watched the sun set off in the distance, turning the sky orange and hot pink as the plane moved north. I thought about Emma, convincing myself that she was okay and that when I got back to New York she'd either be standing there at the gate waiting for me or else she'd be home waiting for me. Either way she'd be waiting for me.
But she wasn't at the gate.
Of the two scenarios, I told myself as my heart rate rose, that one was the least likely. I was certain she'd be home. I pulled the duffle bags off the luggage spinner and got a cab. Every mile closer to home we got, weaving through the traffic lights, the more convinced I became that Emma would be there. I could feel her being there.
When the cab pulled up to the curb in front of the brownstone that held out apartment, I looked up from the street and saw our living room light was on, shining through the sheer green curtains that Em had picked out and hung up when we first moved there. My heart leaped with excitement as I paid the driver and got my bags and hauled them up the stairs to the fifth floor. All the way up the steps, I thought excitedly about how I would tease her for sending me off to Nashville, thought about how we'd laugh about it and how then I'd check the stove because, despite everything else on my mind, it was still bothering me that I might've left it on. Even though she probably had shut it off by now if I had left it on.
I unlocked the apartment door with an air of excitement. I stepped inside, into darkness, and said, "Next time we take a vacation honey, let's both of us go along, huh?" I stopped, realizing it was dark.
But the light had been on. I'd seen it from the street.
I reached for the light switch.
The room was flooded with light and my breath caught in my throat.
The apartment had been completely ransacked. Stuff was everywhere, many of our things lay broken on the floor. I took a step forward. Something crunched under my feet and I moved it to find the head of a C3PO figurine. The android stared up at me with a perplexed expression on his face. I had a feeling my face might look the same way.
"Em?" I called hopefully.
I walked forward carefully, picking my way around broken stuff and the contents of our shelves. My encyclopedia collection lay in spine-breaking positions all over the floor. I bent and picked up volume P and put it gently back on the shelf. I'd come back for the other 25 volumes, I told myself. I continued through to the kitchen where the table was flipped onto it's side and dishes covered the counters, shattered. Strewn across the floor was cereals and oatmeal and you-name-it, the contents of our cupboard - and, unfortunately, it looked like our fridge, too - was all over the floor. I glanced at the stove. Off.
I turned back and went to the hallway. I flicked on the light. The moment the light had illuminated the walls, I wished I'd kept it off. I'd just painted the walls the month before - a color called Toasted Marshmallow that was somewhere between cream and beige - but now the wall was streaked by a long smear of red. A bloody hand print that had been dragged along the length of the hall. My stomach flipped several times over. My heart nearly stopped.
I felt like I might throw up.
I wanted to stop there, to turn back, to run away.
Be brave Jared, I told myself.
I stepped toward our bedroom door, which stood just ajar. My hands shook as I reached up, closing my eyes, and pushed the door open.
I was afraid to open them. What if? I wondered. What if everything that I was imagining, the things that had tightened my muscles so intensely, was true? What if I opened my eyes and found my worst nightmare?
I took a deep breath, then opened my eyes.
The room was worse than any of the other rooms. The mattress had been sliced open, and cotton fibers and springs stuck out of it like it was a gutted animal on the side of the road. Our hypoallergenic faux-duck feather pillows had been destroyed, too, and their feathers were strewn over every surface of the room. And blood. Lots of blood. There was blood on the walls, the dresser. Even the window. The open window.
I was fighting back throwing up.
"Oh god," I muttered. I covered my mouth, my heart ready to explode. I sat on the bed, wringing my hands with nerves. I needed to do something but I couldn't think of what. I knocked on my head, "Think, think, think Jared," I muttered, "Think. Think." I took a deep breath. "Okay. I need to call the precinct. I need to get them down here, to look at this, to help me, to help Emma."
I pulled out my cell phone, but before I could dial, I noticed that a painting on the wall had been shifted. It was the painting that hung over the keypad for Emma's safe, where she put only our most important belongings. Distracted effectively, I pushed my phone back into my pocket, then walked over to the painting. I dismounted it and typed in Em's passcode. The door clicked and I opened it.
Inside, the safe was empty except for one thing.
Emma's spoon handle ring sat in the dead center of the safe.
My throat ached. I reached inside and picked it up gently.
It was still warm from her hand.
My brother died in 1991.
Travis was tall. He was rugged, he was handsome, and he was cool. He had my dad's bright blue eyes and a tattoo on his shoulder. He was in the army and he wore combat boots and camoflague pants and he'd had a bright future in the service, a Major had told my father when we'd gone to see him graduate from basic. Travis was so much older than me, more than twice my age, and I thought the world of him.
Back before Emma was there to protect me, I was protected by Travis. I didn't have friends as a kid, but I didn't need them because Travis let me hang out with him. I spent time hanging out at the mall and going bowling with him and his friends. It never mattered to anyone that I was liteerally half their ages, as long as I didn't tell on them when they smoked cigarettes or drank beer. Travis drove a motorcycle and sometimes he'd strap a helmet on me and take me for rides out on dirt roads and we'd crow and laugh and feel the wind rushing all over us like we were in the suction of a vacuum cleaner.
The first time I got beat up at school, I called Travis, who was in Texas, where he lived when he was on duty, and I told him what happened an he said he was sorry and that next time he was home he would teach me how to fight.
Travis didn't come home a next time, though, because he was shipped off to Iraq during the first war there, Desert Storm. But he wrote me letters. He wrote all kinds of letters telling me all about Iraq and the people he was meeting there and the culture and stuff. He left out things like people were trying to shoot him down and things like how many guys in his troop had been killed. He left out things like how many guys he'd killed, too.
He promised he'd be home for my birthday and on the eve of it, I stayed up all night sitting on the living room floor playing solitare on the coffee table, my legs wrapped in a Ninja Turtles napsack, waiting for him to come through the door. I pictured the jingling of his dog tags, the thump of his combat boots on the stairs.
But those things never came.
Instead, what did come was the heavy hand of another solidier. The one who came to tell my mother and my father that Travis had been killed after a suicide bomber walked into a little grocery store and blew himself up.
My father, knowing how close I was to Travis, had given me the dog tags that the soldier had brought home for them. Those tags, the proof that Travis was dead, had felt heavy in my hand as my father dropped them into my palm.
Those tags, I thought, were Travis's final way of saying good-bye.
It was those tags that had made me suggest the idea to Emma that we have something that we would leave for the other person as our tokens of farewell. "But that only works if the people around us are aware of the tokens," Em had pointed out, "It's not like I'm ever going to be in a situation where I know I'm dying so I take it off and leave it for you somewhere."
It'd taken some convincing, some conversing, but eventually Em had agreed and designated her token as the spoon handle ring that I'd made her. The one that had turned her finger pale from having worn it for so long. "I'd never just take it off for no reason," Emma had said, "So if you ever find it somewhere besides my fingers then I must be dead 'cos that's what it would take to get it off my hand." She'd smiled, beautiful and bright.
And now here it was, the ring, laying in the otherwise empty safe.
I couldn't remember what else had been in there. A couple thousand dollars, maybe. Emma liked hoarding cash as well as depositing it into the bank. There was probably some giftcards left over from Christmas, maybe a couple pieces of jewelry. My grandfather's watch. But it was all gone now.
Gone, like Em herself.
I stumbled backward to the bed, my knees almost giving out on me, my heart slamming in my chest. My fist was closed around the ring, my heart racing. I doubled forward, my head between my knees, my air coming back low, long and shaking. I closed my eyes.
That's when I heard it. The creaking.
I looked up.
The closet door was open a little. But it hadn't been before.
My stomach clenched as I stared at the door.
I stood up slowly, my heart pounding out a rhythm to make pop music proud, and I debated whether to investigate the closet or to retreat. My fist closed tightly around the ring, and I inched closer, afraid.
I was just starting to raise my hand to pull open the door when it swung forward on its own accord and a man with a gun leaped out, took aim, and fired. Luckily, he had poor aim and the bullet ripped through the headboard of the bed.
"Oh shit, shit!" I cried, doubling back. I rushed through the bedroom door in the hall just as a bullet blasted off the wood of the door frame behind me. I ran into the wall, recouperated quickly and shot down the hall as fast as a fat guy can run. I snatched the straps to the duffle bags as I passed them by the door, and pulled the door shut behind me going into the main hall of the brownstone. I hit the stairs at a run and more fell down them than anything. I heard his foot falls thundering a flight above me. I stumbed into the banister on the second level and he spotted me. I heard the gun shoot and I ducked forward, the bullet blasted the banister where I'd just been.
"Ohhh shit," I groaned. I could barely breathe as I launched myself into the street, down onto the curb. I looked both ways, knowing I only had seconds, and I darted to the left and down into an alley that cut across a city block. I ducked low and skid past the fire escape to our apartment. It was dropped to the ground and there was blood on the wall of the outside of the brownstone. Someone must've climbed down the escape. Evidently with Emma.
But I didn't have time to analyze it because I heard my assailant coming down the alley behind me. I redoubled my efforts to run, my heart felt like it was somewhere in my face and my head ached from the running. If I could just get my feet to move just a little faster... A bullet pinged off the dumpster to my right, ringing, echoing in the alley. I pushed every bit of energy into my legs. I careened around the corner onto the far sidewalk. It was crowded, people everywhere.
I rushed across the street, dodging cars, horns blaring at me as I moved. I made it without getting hit somehow, and rushed up the stairs of a museum. My hands shaking, I tugged open the front doors. I ran for the mens room to the right of the doors and pushed through the door, nearly bowling over a janitor in the process, threw myself into the handicap stall, the only one wide enough for me and the four duffle bags which I threw onto the floor, as I slammed the door shut. I sat on the closed toilet lid, gasping for air.
I was dizzy. I felt cross eyed, almost. I bent forward again, staring down at my sneakers.
I opened my palm. Em's ring sat on my taut skin, the edge of the spoon handle rested in the groove of my lifeline. I stared at it, stared at the detail in the spoon, at the floral pattern and smooth spanse, at the way it had shaped to her finger, no longer a perfect circle if it had ever been one but now grooved along where her fingers rubbed against it everyday.
My hand went to my neck where Travis' dogtags hung. I pulled the tags off and unclipped the chain they hung from. I slid Emma's ring onto the chain and tightened my fist around the tags and the ring simultaneously.
I closed my eyes and listened to my heart beating in my ears.
Any minute now, I thought, any minute now and you'll hear it breaking.
Here it comes.
I don't know how long I sat there. Only that it was long enough that when I finally left it was evening and the lights of the city were on and the sun was gone for the night. I carried my four duffle bags toward downtown, hoping nobody was following me, unsure what to do. Emma's ring clinked against my chest with Travis' dog tags. I had to keep blinking my eyes to keep from crying with every metallic click of them. Finally after walking a few blocks, I sat down on a random brownstone's stoop and tried to collect my thoughts.
First thing's first, I needed to get in contact with someone who could help. I needed Seth or someone else from Emma's precinct. Second, I needed to figure out where the hell I was going since home wasn't an option and I couldn't spend the night on the streets of New York City. I needed to get my cash out of the bank, I needed to find food, a bed. I needed to sleep.
I got up and started walking again. I dialed Seth's phone number and waited as it went to voicemail. "It's Jared," I said, "Call me back when you get this." I walked a couple blocks before I found an ATM, and I withdrew all but twenty-seven dollars of our bank account and rolled it into my wallet, which I shoved under the waist band of my boxers for extra safe keeping now that it was so heavily loaded.
I tried Seth a second time as I walked further downtown, racking my brain for a place to go. I stopped at small cafe by Washington Square Park and I got a couple sandwiches, water bottles, and a bag of chips to go and I walked into the square, scattering pigeons and watching art students create light paintings with their camera shutters wide open in the dark as they played with fire and flashlights. I carried my brown bag of food across the square to a small, dingy hotel overlooking the knoll.
Once I was in the room they'd given me, I fell into the bed, which was probably infested with some sort of terrible disease by the look of it, and I dropped my face into the pillow, too exhausted to even eat the food I'd bought, which lay on the floor beside the floor duffle bags. I fell asleep.
When I woke up I sat in the center of the bed and pulled the bags up beside me. I needed to prioritize, list the things I needed to do, and focus. I needed to get my bearings and figure out how to find Emma. Even if it was only a body that I found in the end, I had to find her.
I ate my sandwiches quickly, going over and over in my head the list of things I needed to do.
First thing, I needed to lose some of the junk that I'd been carrying around for two days in the duffle bags.
I unzipped the first bag and emptied it out onto the bed around me. It was mostly my clothes and a couple brochures from the last vacation we'd gone on, over five years ago, a cruise to Alaska. I tossed the brochures onto the floor. I'd written the body copy of them, that's how we'd gotten the cruise tickets. Em had barely gotten the week off to go. I stacked the clothes next to me and opened the next bag.
This bag was all Em's stuff. I lifted a shirt to my face and smelled her perfume, a light almost buttery smell that was warm and filled my senses with memories of her. I put the one shirt into the pile of my clothes and pushed the rest off the bed onto the floor with the brochures. I unzipped the ends of her bag, rooted through the pouches. I found a folder of paperwork, rolled to fit. The folder curved in a half-circle beside me in the pile of things.
The next bag was the one I'd stored our wedding photo in. I tried not to look at it, because I couldn't look in her eyes and feel the weight of the ring against my chest at the same time like it was burning a hole in my skin. I pushed it face-down into the pile of clothes.
I reached into the bag and my hand landed on metal. I pulled out one of her guns. My stomach flipped over a couple times. I held it carefully across my palms, my skin sweating as I turned it over, staring down at the polished metal. I held it up, studying it close. I didn't have the faintest clue how to work it, despite the several times that Emma had brought me to the shooting range the precinct owned. I fiddled with it a little, careful not to hit the trigger. After a few moments, though, I put it aside, too.
I went on through the rest of the bags the same way, tossing artifacts that were unneccesary to be carrying around onto the floor and stacking up the ones that I needed or deemed impossible to toss away beside me. By the time I was done weeding through everything I'd managed to hem myself down to one of the larger sized bags. I made sure the wedding photo was carefully wrapped in Em's shirt and tucked it in between my clothes for extra safe keeping. Then I took a quick shower, changed, tossed the complimentary bottles of soap and shampoo into the bag. I'd ended up keeping Emma's gun, too, because I felt like I should.
I picked up the rolled folder of paperwork from the bed, the last thing I'd left unpacked, and shoved it into the back waistband of my jeans. I tossed the dufflebag around my neck, letting the bag itself rest against my back, and went downstairs to check out of the hotel.
Out on the street, the usual early morning traffic was honking and whizzing their way through downtown. College kids zombie-walked across Washington Square holding bags with food and cups of coffee. I walked across the Square, tried calling Seth again.
"Officer Lombowski," he answered on the fifth ring.
"Seth. It's Jared. Emma's husband."
"Is it a message from Emma? Hurry, I can't talk right now, man." His voice was low.
"Emma isn't here," I said, "That's what I was trying to tell you yesterday."
There was a long pause, "What do you mean Emma isn't there?"
"She isn't with me," I said, "But I went back to the apartment --"
"What? You mean you guys didn't leave New York?"
"No," I answered, "Well, I left, she put me on a plane to Nashville. We were followed by some guys at the airport and she said she'd join me, but she didn't, and then I came back to find her, and our apartment was ransacked, there was blood everywhere. There was a guy, hiding in the closet, he shot at me, chased me out onto the street. I ran like hell, Seth, but he almost got me a couple times..." I paused, "Seth, she left the spoon ring in the safe."
Seth was one of the few people in the world who would understand what that meant. Emma had explained it to him so that he could bring me the ring if anything ever happened in the field. I heard his intake of breath at the words. He was quiet a moment. "Shit," he muttered.
"Seth, we gotta find her, I need your help."
"Where are you?"
"Washington Square Park," I answered.
"There's a bagel shop about three blocks west of the north entrance to the square," Seth said, "It's called the Bagel Beagle. Go there. I'll be there in twenty minutes." He hung up his phone.
I hurried along the street, and found the Bagel Beagle relatively quickly. It had a sign shaped like a dog with a collar made out of bagels. I went inside, the door jangling loudly as I entered, and threw myself into the back corner booth, facing the door, my duffle bag on the seat beside me, and I waited for Seth.
I pulled the rolled folder of papers from my waistband, ordered a chai tea latte, and opened the folder.
Inside was all the information about the Daniel Gregor case that Emma had access to., and also a pink post-it note, shaped like a star, with an out-of-state phone number scrawled across it in an unfamiliar hand writing.
I flipped through the pages, looking at photos of Daniel Gregor - a young boy with big, bright brown eyes and a gap-toothed grin. He looked about seven or eight years old, wearing an Angry Birds t-shirt in what looked like a school photo. He had brown hair and a small scar on the left side of his jaw. His mother's photo was in the folder too. She had blonde hair and defeated grey-ish blue eyes. Attached to her photo was a police report detailing several calls about domestic abuse and rape charges filed against a man whose name Emma had circled with a green highlighter. Beyond that page was a page detailing the arrest of that man, Ian Mitchell, whose photo was also attached. The booking photo. Ian Mitchell was already behind bars.
I wasn't even a quarter of the way through the folder when the door jangled and I looked up and Seth had come into the bagel shop, his eyes scanning the room for me. I don't know why, but I didn't want him to see that I was looking at the details of the case. I didn't know if it was somehow like violation of some privacy law or something - it probably was - but I didn't want to have to explain myself or worse, have him take the folder away. So I shoved it into my duffle bag as Seth made his way across the restaurant to me.
Seth lowered into the seat across from me at an angle so he could see the door and the rest of the patrons of the restaurant. He looked at me, then back out at them. "So," he said, stretching his arms out on to the back of the booth and the table. He chewed the inside of his mouth. "Tell me everything that's happened."
I stared at him for a long moment. "Only if you tell me everything that's happened."
Seth laughed, "Jared, I can't tell you a whole lot," he said. "The less you know, the safer you are."
"I don't wanna be safe," I answered. "I want to find Emma."
"Yeah, me too," Seth nodded, "And we will."
"They messed up my place, too, you know," Seth said under his breath. He was staring across the restaurant still, his eyes shifting warily, studying every person that walked through the door. He'd glance over at me every now and then, but for the most part I stared at the side of his head. He sighed. "What made you go in? After you saw it was a shambles?"
"I needed to find Emma," I answered. "And also to see the stove was off."
Seth raised an eyebrow. He shifted the gun on the table. "Are you sure Emma didn't get on a plane?" he asked.
"No," I answered, "But I am sure she was at the apartment. There's nobody else but you that knows about the ring, Seth. Just you, me, and her. It was one of the three of us that put it in that safe and I know I sure as hell didn't do it."
"So she was at the apartment." Seth rubbed his chin. "When you were in the alley, and you said you saw the blood on the brownstone at the end of the fire escape... Which way did they go?"
"I guess East. I ran West."
Seth tensed as a waitress approached, refilled his cup with coffee, then walked away again. He glanced at me, then back at the door. "Here's what gets me," he said. "How did she leave the ring?"
"Well obviously she was alive when she left the ring. Just because the ring was there doesn't mean she's dead. It means she had probably cause to believe she would die. But when the ring was put into the safe, she was alive at that point. It's not like a hardened crimminal is going to listen if she was like 'you have to leave this here for my husband after you kill me'."
I nodded slowly. This was an obvious point, but one I hadn't really thought of yet.
Seth rubbed his chin. "So the assailants gave her cause to believe they'd kill her. But she must've got in the room before them or they wouldn't have given her time to put the ring in the safe."
"Unless they wanted the stuff in it and she just deposited the ring in there while getting it for them," I suggested.
"But the guy in the closet."
"So he let you pull the ring out, then shot at you. Like the ring was bait."
I squinted across the table at Seth. "Bait?"
"Yeah. Like they knew you'd find it and planned to take you out afterwards."
"Why would they want me?"
Seth mused, "Any number of reasons... maybe you were getting too far involved, or maybe to get her to talk." He chewed the inside of his mouth thoughtfully, his eyes still focused away from me. His profile was perfectly carved, like a statue of a noble or something. "We were both supposed to get out of town, that was our orders. I wanted to go immediately, send someone for you and Beth, my girlfriend, but Em wouldn't leave until she'd gone for you herself. She refused. She said you wouldn't understand if we sent someone after you." He looked at me, an almost resentful tinge to his eye. "We were to go into hiding, there were specialists, trained in the art of disappearing; they were going to help us disappear. Em should've had back up at the airport, she should've had someone go with her to get you. I should've gone with her to get you." Seth punched the table, frustrated.
"Em doesn't do well with asking for help," I said supportively.
Seth sighed, "I know."
"She's never been good at it," I said, "She's too strong for that, you know?" I glanced at the door. I didn't know what Seth and I were watching for, but he had me tense about it now, like every person that stepped through it was a suspect. "Have you found Daniel Gregor?"
Seth shook his head, "I know she thought we were looking for a boy, but I still think we're wasting our time. We're looking for a body."
"Do you think Ian Mitchell did it?" I asked point blank.
Seth's eyes narrowed. "How do you know about Ian Mitchell?"
"Em told me," I lied.
Seth turned toward the door, grumbled a curse under his breath, then said, "Ian Mitchell's dead," he shook his head, he looked down at the table. "Killed. In his cell at the prison upstate." He sighed.
"By who?" I asked.
"We don't know," Seth replied.
"Emma said that it was obvious," I said, "When she left the apartment four days ago, she said it was obvious and she couldn't believe she hadn't seen it before."
Seth shook his head, "Emma had this crazy hunch ---" His cellphone buzzed and interrupted us. He pulled it out and stared down at the face of it for a long moment. Then answered it, "Lombowski."
I stared at his gun as he spoke in a low voice.
"Yes... yes... no... There's no substantial evidence to point to that," he paused, listening. "I don't think we should jump it too soon.... Yes. Yes, sir. I'll be there." He hung up, and looked at me. "I need to go. But Jared, I think you need to go back to Nashville."
"What? Why? What about Emma? I need to help you find Emma."
"Leave finding Emma up to me and to the precinct," he said, "She wanted you safe above all else, and she chose Nashville for a reason. That's where her agent is based."
"The expert helping her disappear."
"Okay. How do I find this Agent Brackett?"
"That's all I know about her. Call the precinct." He stood up.
"Are you sure I can't help you?" I asked.
"You aren't trained for this stuff, man," Seth replied regretfully. "I know you wanna help, I respect that. I would too if I was in your position. But you gotta let me to do the legwork for you, okay? You gotta trust me, man."
I shifted in my seat, "Okay," I replied.
"I gotta go, Jared. Call me if you hear anything from her. I'm sure you'll be the first she'd call." Seth started to walk away.
"Stay safe," I said. "Please."
Seth turned back to me and tipped his hat - a red ball cap. His curly hair underneath was flat from the hat. "First flight out of here, Jared," he said, he turned, started walking away again.
"Wait," I said.
He paused, looked back.
"Emma's crazy hunch. What was it?"
Seth hesitated. "I'm sorry, man," he said, "That's classified."
I was hesitant to follow Seth's direction to go back to Nashville. Part of me wantd to follow him and try to figure out more about the case and find Emma myself. But he was probably right about it being better if he looked for Emma himself since he was trained and all that. I really was more likely to become a liability. I evidently was already the reason why Em wasn't safely with this Agent Brackett in Nashville, according to Seth. She'd wanted to come for me herself.
So I did, indeed, book the next flight out to Nashville and got myself to LaGuardia. It was at the airport, after checking my duffle bag and everything, sitting in the terminal waiting area, that I opened the folder of papers about the case an started flipping through them again. The pink star-shaped Post-it with that random phone number on it fell out and it landed on the floor at my feet. I picked it up. On the back was scrawled one word: Brackett.
"Well that makes that simple," I said, turning it over and staring at the phone number.
I pulled my cell phone out and dialed the number. It rang a couple times before it was answered.
"Brackett," said a woman's voice... a familiar woman's voice.
I racked my brain. Where had I heard that voice?
"Helloooo? Anyone there?" she sing-songed.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.