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1 THE VIDEO
MARCUS WATERS WOKE SLOWLY to the tinny ringing of his cell phone—a digitized marimba that erupted into the room. The emerald numbers on his nightstand clock read 5:04 A.M. and a crosswind entered the cracked bedroom window, carrying with it the smell of the neighbor’s lilac bush and last night’s whispering rain.
He answered and heard breathing on the line while he rolled over across the startlingly cool empty half of a king-sized bed.
“Is this Marcus Waters?”
“Who is this?”
“Lt. James Conrad calling from the Chicago Police Department.”
“What is this about?” Marcus asked, hearing the panic in his own voice before he felt it melting across his skin.
“Sorry to disturb you, Mr. Waters. I was told to contact you and ask that you come down to the station.” The voice ran through scripted lines, pausing between sentences. “We are simply hoping that you may be able to answer some questions for us.”
“Is my family OK?”
“I was told to tell you that this does not, so far as we know, directly involve your family.”
“What is it about, then?”
“I was told to tell you that we received something that we’d like you to take a look at.”
“Can you please tell me something that you weren’t told to tell me?”
“Honestly, Mr. Waters,” the officer said as he broke into a thick downstate drawl, a stew of vowels, “I’m just the guy who was told to make the phone call. I got no fucking clue what’s going on down here. It’s nuts.”
Marcus heard in the background phones ringing and voices shouting out orders.
“When do I need to come in?”
“We sent a squad car to pick you up. It should be arriving shortly.”
“I just woke up. I still need to shower.”
“I was told to tell you that it is a time-sensitive matter. Keep an eye out for your police escort.”
He rose from bed and changed as quickly as he could into khaki chinos and a starch-white collared shirt. The motions of dressing before the day had yet begun felt vaguely calming, intimately familiar. A pantomime of his life before retirement several years ago, back when he would rise like a saint from the dead at four in the morning, silently so as not to wake his sleeping wife, who, if woken, bolted upright with the blankets clutched in her fists, her beautiful black-woven hair matted down her cheeks. Cherrywood eyes piercing the darkness in silent reproach.
Old habits being what they were, he tried to be quiet as he pulled his socks over his bare feet, even though there was no one left in the house he might disturb.
He found his old leather shoulder bag in the back of the closet, covered by a collection of wing tip shoes he’d not worn in years. He regarded the bag for a few moments before shrugging and throwing it over his shoulder. Through this simple motion, he sensed the years condensing into a single point like a star collapsing. He felt like a journalist again. Not just a retired journalist, but a red-blooded, red-eyed journalist, waking up before the sun to chase the day ahead.
He pulled the curtain from his living room window. No cop car. No nothing. The street was empty. He paced flat-footedly along the hallway where pictures of his family hung in intervals, arranged in chronological order. With each step he took, another picture, another year. The faces aged like some static tribute to time itself. As he reached the end of the hallway, the pictures contained a large, growing family—babies, children, adults, and at the center, two old wizened faces that Marcus only ever recognized when he leaned in close, his nose brushing against the glass—himself and his late wife, Denise. Their faces seemed to look back at him like strangers, half-aware of his probing stare.
He arrived at the last picture of the family as a whole. It had been taken two years ago, just a matter of weeks before his wife’s death. In it, everyone wore pastel-colored T-shirts that his youngest daughter, Lisa, carefully coordinated. Lisa had tortured herself over color gradients and bodily arrangements—Marcus openly adored his daughter’s obsession with details. In the picture, the family was arranged in front of a gazebo, smiling brightly. Denise stood behind Marcus, who was seated in front of them all in the position of the patriarch. She gripped her husband’s shoulders.
He shuffled back down the hallway and peered out of the window. A cruiser idled in the street, looking vaguely otherworldly with the siren off but the lights flashing red and blue.
As soon as Marcus sat down in the passenger seat, the driver said, “I’ll tell you right now, all I know is that about half an hour ago, the station was deathly quiet as it ever is this late into the night, and then everything went apeshit. Haywire, bedlam. All that.”
He pulled out into the street and turned the flashing lights off.
The driver was a young black cop with a trim beard through which peered an ear-to-ear smile even as he spoke of total chaos. He wore suspenders over a too-tight white collared shirt. He introduced himself as Detective Jeremiah Combs and insisted that Marcus call him Jeremiah.
“You’re a detective?” Marcus asked warily.
“Don’t worry.” Jeremiah smiled. “Only reason I’m the one taking you in is because it’s all hands on deck right now. I’m happy to do it, though. Feels almost good to be back in a patrol car. Keeps me humble.”
Over the cruiser’s radio, a woman’s voice fed numbers through the decaying frequency. Jeremiah put his lips to the radio and said, “Mr. Waters and I are en route.” He set the radio back down.
The street, awash in headlights, was empty. Ghostly. No soul in sight save for the few cats that had escaped their homes for the night, wandering the suburban jungle in long strides, their luminescent eyes tracking the police car from indeterminable distances.
“No, I don’t know what the situation is down at the station,” Jeremiah said, responding to a question Marcus hadn’t asked. He spoke with a South-Side affectation, each word blending into the next. “I saw some unfamiliar faces before I left, which makes me think they were feds or some other agency personnel. FBI, by the look of it. They all come in wearing suits, even though it was three or four in the morning. Their hair is perfect. They whisper into their cell phones. Supposed to be all inconspicuous, but you can spot them a mile away. Like, who are they trying to kid, you know?”
Marcus hummed, too tired and too confused to muster a coherent response.
They joined the highway. The city skyline emerged from the indigo pulp of clouds and smog. The beacons at the top of the skyscrapers pulsed white and red, warding off air traffic and hypnotizing the city’s insomniacs at their windows.
“So are you from Chicago originally?” Jeremiah asked, though the time for small talk seemed to have passed already.
“Yeah? Me too. Which part?”
“Englewood?” Jeremiah repeated.
“The very same.”
Jeremiah’s eyes danced between Marcus’s moon-pale skin, his cardigan with tweed elbow patches, the Italian leather shoulder bag, his pleated chino pants.
“Guess we’re just two peas in a pod.” Jeremiah smiled.
Marcus understood Jeremiah’s suspicion, but it was true that he had spent his early childhood years with his single mother in a government-subsidized building directly in the brick-and-mortar heart of Chicago’s South Side. It was also true that when Marcus was six years old, his mother had met and promptly fallen in love with a philosophy professor from Northwestern, Corn Wallace, who frequented the university hospital she worked at due to his type-one diabetes. After the marriage, Marcus and his mother moved into Corn’s spacious home in the north suburbs, where Marcus grew up watching The Twilight Zone, reading his stepfather’s collection of Proust, and playing padded street hockey in the cul-de-sac.
Jeremiah pulled off the exit and maneuvered the car at a high, throttling speed beneath the skeletal belly of the L, Lake Michigan visible through the spaces between buildings, the barges and skiffs gliding along its surface. Marcus looked for a single person in sight on the sidewalks or in a window, but there wasn’t anyone. The engine roared and echoed and bounced from the buildings that stood still on either side of the street.
* * *
Jeremiah led Marcus through the crowded halls of the precinct, sidestepping throngs of uniformed officers walking shoulder to shoulder. Phones rang in chorus. A conglomeration of musk colognes hung stagnant in the air. Commands were shouted from everywhere, muddled and lost.
At the end of the hall, they arrived at a corner office, the hallway windows obscured by blinds. Marcus read the name on the door: Police Chief Gregory Stetson.
A low groan rose like bile from Marcus’s throat.
Jeremiah knocked on the door and it swung open immediately. Stetson stood in the open space in a pressed suit, a fresh crew cut, his cartoonish-wide shoulders filling the doorframe. A hairbrush mustache covered his upper lip. He dismissed Jeremiah with a nod and turned back to Marcus.
“Thank you, Mr. Waters, for coming on such short notice,” Stetson said, smiling in an aggregate of hostility and hospitality. “I’d introduce myself, but I think that would be largely unnecessary and”—he pretended to search for the word that was already loaded in the chamber—“a little outlandish, wouldn’t you say?”
He held out a calloused, fleshy hand.
When Stetson had been appointed police chief fifteen years ago, Marcus had covered the story with a few strong word choices, outlandish among them. Stetson’s career had always been something of an anomaly. He’d spent only a couple short years as an officer before being promoted to homicide detective—the youngest in CPD history. When he was appointed police chief just seven years later—again, the youngest in CPD history—none of Marcus’s police contacts would offer a good reason for the promotion, though they also refused to condemn their new boss on the record. Off the record was another matter entirely. Unable to go to print with his suspicions, however, Marcus settled on calling the mayor’s appointment of Gregory Stetson to police chief “outlandish.” It had seemed like the only appropriate word at the time. Even so, Marcus regretted it now.
“Happy to be here,” Marcus said, submitting to the unrelenting grip of Stetson’s handshake. He felt the bones in his hand bend.
Copyright © 2019 by T. J. Martinson