CARL LOWERS HIMSELF INTO THE DRIVER’S SEAT, hand on the roof of the vehicle to support his weight, groaning as ass meets cushion. His hand holds the spot on the roof where he says he wishes they had one of those bubble-gum lights, the kind he can place on the roof to look like real cops, the ones you see in all those movies and TV shows. He doesn’t like the lights in their vehicle, no one sees them, no one knows they’re cops until they roll up, which Gracie thinks is the point. Watching him put his shoes on after leaving the Asian family’s home was funny but a painful sight, unlacing his dress shoes, then slipping his feet in, but having a hard time of it due to his gut; but this, this is just sad, he looks every bit of his fifty-two years, with his false hip, stiff neck, and whatever other ailments plague him at the moment. Last year it was kidney stones. Gracie doesn’t feel bad for him, why should she, he did this to himself.
Pulling his cellphone from his back pocket so he doesn’t sit on it, Carl checks it and frowns.
Gracie figures it’s because Val hasn’t texted him back. He’sbugged her about Val all week, but so far, Gracie’s fended him off, distracting him with cases, or pointing him in the direction of other people, new people to talk to, or trapping people he already knows in conversations about subjects Carl likes to talk about. It’s a cruel thing to do to coworkers, but this job’s like high school with guns, they’ll all get over it.
The thing is, Gracie doesn’t have the heart to tell Carl the truth about what Val said, but he keeps bugging her about it, blind to her deflections, which have worked for three days now, but four is pushing it, so she decided to take him on a bullshit case to keep him distracted, a missing person case, and they just left the wife’s mother’s house after interviewing the wife and getting a good idea where the husband is—or might be.
Throwing the phone in the center console, Carl says, “That was a waste of time.”
Gracie glares at him from the passenger seat. “What do you mean? We got a lot of good information.”
“Information like what, that her husband took off on her?” Carl’s behind the steering wheel, fiddling with the keys with his stubby thumb and forefinger. His barrel-shaped midsection seems too large for the narrow seat and tight confines of the Ford Taurus. His black checkered polo shirt strains to stay tucked in his waist, his belt acting as a tourniquet. “I’d take off on her too,” he says. “Did you talk to her? She was like a little kid.”
Gracie snorts. “I talked to her. We both did, just now, you were there.” She points at the house.
But Carl goes on as if she hadn’t said anything, which is the norm. “Like a little kid. Did you see what she was wearing? What is that?” His voice raising an octave. “Who wears that? Who wears something like that? Is that a jumpsuit? Is that what the report referred to as a donut jumpsuit? Is that what you wear to make donuts in?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Gracie says, settling into the seat and pulling the seatbelt across her body.
Gracie would wear what the woman had been wearing. It looked a lot more comfortable then the blouse and slacks she’s wearing now, but then with a jumpsuit like that, grey, buttons up the middle, where would she wear her gun and badge? She supposes she could dress in the jumpsuit but then she’d have to wear a shoulder holster, except Carl ruined those, playing around with one. No one at the department is allowed to wear them now.
“Who wears that?” Carl asks again, inserting the keys into the ignition. The engine growls and turns over. “I mean, seriously, when’s the last time you saw an adult wear a jumpsuit that wasn’t used in something automotive, something to do withthe air force or flying, or someone in prison?” He puts the car in gear.
“Women wear jumpsuits all the time,” Gracie says, feeling Carl’s getting stirred up. He’s like a top, once he gets started, he doesn’t stop until everyone falls over exhausted.
“Oh so you would wear something like that? You would meet with detectives wearing that?” He pauses. “I bet you would. You’d make donuts in something like that too. You know what, you’d serve donuts to the cops too. You’d have them on a tray. Laid out on the table. A big silver tray, like the ones the help’s always accused of taking. All different kinds. Donuts that is. I guess you could have trays too. Different trays. Different donuts. Would they all be the same on one tray? Or would you have assorted donuts filling the eyes with envy? A feast. A smorgasbord. You’d do it as a fuck you. As a joke. Think it’s funny serving cops donuts. Cops and donuts, the cliché. You’d laugh about it later with your friends, with your mother, like her mother and her are laughing at us now, because he’s dead. D.E.A.D, dead, and you don’t care. No you think this is bullshit, that he just left her. You would think with all that donut money, she’d wear nicer clothes.” He takes a deep breath, then adds as if there was no pause at all, “Serve us donuts too.” Now mad about the donut princess not serving them donuts.
It’s Gracie’s missing person case so she feels like she is obligated to defend Sammy. “She was wearing nice clothes.”
“Not clothes like that, no, that was not what one would consider, nice.” Carl lifts his right hand like he’s holding at teacup, extending his pinky out, playacting he’s drinking the tea, saying, “Would you like some crumpets with your tea? Is it teatime already?” doing it in a faux British voice, and then places his pinky against his lips, as a smile forms under his touch. “Better clothes, something you couldn’t afford.”
“Oh, thanks, I’m glad you think so highly of me.”
Carl pulls the car away from the curb, “Where to now?” And then he says, “It’s not my fault you make the same money I make. I know how much you make because I know how much money I make. And to be frank, it’s kind of sad, your standard of living.” Shaking his head. “You better be glad you don’t have any kids, because DHS would be here taking them from you, or enrolling you into food stamps or something with the way you spend money and with what you’re not making.”
“We make the same amount of money,” she says. “I don’t spend money.”
“Really?” he says, eyebrow up. “What did you buy last week?” He holds up a finger. “No, how about yesterday, it doesn’t matter which because you bought the same thing. So tell me, what’d you buy?”
Gracie bites her lip. She really doesn’t want to answer but she feels she must. “A candle.”
“A candle,” he repeats. “How many candles do you need?No, don’t answer that yet. Answer this first. How many candles do you have? And then answer, how many do you need?”
“I like different scents.”
“So that means you go and buy multiple candles?”
“Well I bought some last week and I bought some others yesterday.”
“So are they the same type of candle? You buy it and think, I like this, I’ll go get an extra…no, they’re not even the same type of candle, are they?” He picks at her words. “How many did you buy last week?”
“I’m not answering that,” she says. “I’m not playing these games with you.”
“Who’s playing games?”
“Answer the question then,” he says. “It seems you don’t want to answer the question for some reason, de-tective,”—playing the condescending defense attorney—”What do you have to hide? Why won’t you answer the question? What are you ashamed of?”
“I’m not hiding anything.”
“Then why don’t you answer the question?” He turns the wheel, taking them out of the cul-de-sac, talking while driving.“You’re the one playing games, not answering the question—not me.”
“God, you’re exhausting,” she says.
Carl nudges her with his elbow. “Is that what you tell all your friends?”
“What friends?” she asks. “The ones I don’t have or the others you want to have sex with.”
“I believe, detective, the common vernacular is bang.”
“You want to bang them all.”
“Yes, I do,”—making pistol fingers. “What did Val think of me?”
“Val?” Gracie says, touching her chin. Playing with him now. Carl and Val went on a date last week, they hit it off. She heard about it from both of them, except Carl told her more than she ever wanted to know.
“Val, Val, your friend,” he says.
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Val, your best friend,” Carl says again. “The girl you’ve known your entire life, the one you like to have pillow fights with like in Animal House.”
Gracie rolls her eyes. “Pillow fights, really,” she says, “that’s what you’re going to go with.”
“If you tell me what kind and how many candles you bought then maybe we wouldn’t be on this line of questioning. But since you didn’t answer the question, well, here we are. Let this be a lesson to you.”
“A lesson about what?”
“About avoiding answering my questions.”
“You’ve done all the talking,” Gracie says.
“That’s because I don’t want you to talk.” He laughs. “Yeah, I do all the talking so I don’t have to listen to you talk. Why do you think I ask all these questions and don’t let you answer them?”
“Because you’re an asshole.”
“That may be true, but I’m your asshole.”
“I’m not sitting on you.” Gracie slips on sunglasses.
Carl smiles and jokingly says, “You could be.”
Gracie punches his shoulder, causing the vehicle to lurch to the left. “Gross.”
Carl reacts and corrects the vehicle. He rubs his shoulder. “You could have killed us.”
“Trust me, we’re fine, you’re going like fifteen through here.”
“It’s a neighborhood,” he says and then thinks about what she said. “Okay, if not us, then you could have killed some poor sap who was out walking his dog or checking his mail. Or you could have killed little Timmy on his bicycle, then how would you feel?”
“Relieved,” she says.
“About what? You’d be going to prison.”
“Which means I’d be free of you.”
“Your words hurt me.”
“Your words hurt my head.”
“That’s not the only thing they hurt.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Gracie pulls the copy of the missing person report from over the visor. She fans through the pages. “Head back to the donut shop, see if anyone has anything they want to add.”
“Did all my talk of donuts do it for you?”
“Donuts do it for me all the time,” Gracie says.
“You like the round hole in the middle.”
“Actually, I do like the round hole,” she says. “I like donut holes. I don’t really care for the donuts.”
“I like muffin tops,” Carl says, making a clunky reference to his favorite sitcom.
To which, Gracie responds, “I bet you do.”
“Muff…in tops,” he says. “Get it. Out of them too.”
“Carl, I got it,” Gracie says.
“I just wanted to make sure.”
“You wanted to be gross, again.”
“If I can’t talk to you about this stuff, what can I talk to you about?”
“Val,” she says.
“But you didn’t want to talk about Val.”
“And you didn’t want to hear me talk.”
Carl’s quiet for a moment. “Touché, de-tective,” doing his attorney accent again, “So let’s go over what we know.”
Gracie turns in the seat, shrugs her left shoulder. “Oh, so we’re going to talk about the case now?”
“Are you going to tell me how many candles you bought?”
Gracie glances at the paperwork. “Kevin’s Korean.”
“Alliterated, I like it.”
“What we know is Kevin is a baker, makes donuts. Wife wakes up one morning after they had an argument and he’s gone. Police respond to the donut shop, find evidence Kevin was there, and then somehow the wife sees a note through the window the officers don’t see and knows the back door’s unlocked. They go in, through the back door—don’t say anything—and find a note written in Korean, which they do not photograph or collect. The business next door say they watched the surveillance cameras and Kevin gets into a car on his own free will.”
“To do what?” Carl asks.
“Leave,” Gracie says.
“But do you know that?”
“I hate when you do this,” she says. Carl stays quiet. “No, I don’t know that, but he’s gone so he left.”
“Solid logic, detective,” Carl says. “But did you watch the cameras yourself?”
“No, they weren’t available to review.”
“So where did he go?”
“The airport,” she says.
“And how do you know this?”
Gracie sighs, closing her eyes and focusing her mind. She could pull her gun out and she could shoot him, and she could get away with it. She knows how to commit murder. They say every police officer does. It would be easy. Carl would never see it coming. He couldn’t stop. He wouldn’t know what to do. He’d just be dead. And then he would really crash the car.
Carl slams on the brakes, throwing Gracie forward against her seatbelt.
“Jesus,” she says, “what the hell!”
“Mail truck,” Carl says, pointing out the windshield at the two red lights on either side of the mail truck’s white rolling door. “Why do they call them trucks? They aren’t trucks. A truck has a bed. Usually diesel or something. Makes a loud sound, idles rough. Pulls things. Has torque. Power!” Grunts like the toolman. “Makes you feel like a man. Or you know, has large wheels, and is hiked up on stilts to show people in the city you have a tiny penis. This thing, this thing in front of us is dinky. It’s nothing. It’s a rolling storage unit, but like the ones you rent, and they drop off in your front yard or driveway. It’s a box. A rolling box. It’s a box car. But I guess they couldn’t call it a boxcar. That’s already taken. Make people think of a train. But look at those tires. My lawn mower has bigger tires and why is the guy on the wrong side? I mean who does he think he is? This isn’t Britain, he isn’t British Mail service. It’s the US. Hedelivers American mail. Americans sit on the left. He’s on the right. And don’t do that thing where you use logic about how he needs to put stuff in the mailbox. He could have a partner. Like I do. Like us. Like the paper guys, throwing papers out the windows landing in people’s driveways, bushes, hedges, whatever.”
“Hedges and bushes are the same thing.”
“Hence the whatever, keep up.”
“No one can keep up.”
“That’s what Val said, isn’t it? She couldn’t keep up.” He bites his lip and acts like he’s humping the steering wheel, twisting his face, huffing, and moaning.
“That’s not what she said.”
“Then, what’d she say?”
Gracie considers how to answer the delicate question. “I bought five candles last week.”
“And how many did you buy yesterday?” Carl asks, effortlessly transitioning with her. “And before you answer, do know, partners tell partners the truth.”
Gracie feels he isn’t talking about the candles, but she can’t break his heart. Val said some things, many of them no different than the countless things Gracie has said, but tone, context, and friendship play into the delivery, and Val’s words made one thing very clear.
“I bought five…no six yesterday,” Gracie says.
“Six candles,” Carl exclaims stopping at a stop sign before they exit the neighborhood onto the main road. “What are you going to do with six candles?”
“Relax,” Gracie says. “That’s what they are for, you know. Don’t you ever light some candles, sit in the bathtub, and drink some wine to relax?”
“I don’t know how to do that.”
“So you’re just going to believe the wife’s story about the husband jumping on the plane?” Carl asks, going back to the case. “They have that donut money; did I ever tell you about the guy who loaned me a couple million dollars to boost my credit? Where do you think his money came from? Donuts.”
Gracie is thankful for the change in subject. She can’t keep Val’s confidence much longer. It’s hurting her remaining quiet, but it hurts her more to see the hurt on Carl’s face.
Gracie says, “She knows Kevin went to Koreatown; the phone proves it.”
“There you go with that alliteration again.” Carl pulls onto the main road. He drives east toward the donut shop. “So what, you’re just going to believe what the wife shows you? Find my iPhone—”
“It wasn’t an iPhone.”
“You know what I mean,” he says, dismissing her. “She uses an…app…to track the missing husband’s phone and it shows him jumping on a plane and going to LA, and you’re just going to believe it. Remember, it just tracks to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”
“I know he hasn’t left the country. I checked immigration records.”
“He’s Korean, he got on a boat, not a plane.”
“Don’t say things like that,” Gracie says. “Makes you sound ignorant.”
“Fine, but what if the wife had someone take the dead husband’s phone and fly to LA and then leave the phone there and fly back.”
“Who would she have do that?”
“The one you don’t know about,” Carl says. “Yeah, see, Kevin’s upset because the wife won’t put out, but she’s not putting out because she’s got a boytoy that comes over while he’s at work.”
Gracie looks at Carl over the frames of her glasses. “She has a boytoy that comes over at four o’clock in the morning?”
“Yeah, don’t you?”
“I don’t…nope…can’t say I do.”
“I do,” Carl says, “not a boy but… you know what I mean.”
“No, do go on,” Gracie says. “Tell me all about it so I can tell Val.”
“How do you know it’s not Val?”
“I know. She would have told me.”
And Gracie realizes her mistake.
Carl jumps on the error. “So you have talked to her?”
“Kevin’s not dead,” Gracie says, deflecting and twisting the conversation back to her missing person. “The wife just doesn’t want to talk about it. I mean, would you?”
“Kevin’s not dead,” Carl agrees, “he’s just an asshole. Who buys a bag for his golf clubs and then leaves in the middle of the night? …but if she did kill him, that’s how she would have done it. Maybe she killed him with the golf clubs and bought the bag herself to get rid of the evidence.”
“I suppose that’s in LA too.”
“She doesn’t want to talk about it—”
“Just like you don’t want to talk about Val.”
“Is it that obvious?”
Carl nods. “It is, but with the wife’s attitude, I mean, I get it, she doesn’t want two cops asking her questions about something so personal.”
Gracie adds, “How would you feel if your wife took off on you in the middle of the night…” saying it before she realizes what she just said, not asking how he would feel about cops asking.
Carl gnashes his lips together, tone dour. “My wife did leave me in the middle of the night.”
Gracie knows his wife left him and she shouldn’t have said anything. “Your wife didn’t leave in the middle of the night.”
Carl smiles showing he’s playing with her. “No, but she did leave.”
“You wanted her to leave, you were miserable.”
“She left me for another man, her boss, that’s not how it’s supposed to go.”
“So she can’t leave if she’s leaving for another person but if she just wants to leave, it’s okay?”
“So you think she should just leave like Kevin did?”
“Not in the middle of the night,” he says. “But yeah, sure, why not.”
“You don’t mean that.”
Carl rolls his head across his shoulders. “I don’t know what I mean.” He pauses as he stops at a stop light and throws on the blinker, flicking the lever with his left hand. “Are you going to tell me what she said or not? I’ll stop asking if you’re not going to tell me.”
Gracie stares ahead, neck locked. The light broadcasts a green arrow and Carl starts the turn. The motion of the vehicle knocks Gracie out of her stupor. She removes the sunglasses and turns slightly so Carl can look at her without taking his eyes off the road. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you,” she says.
“She didn’t like me, did she?” Carl says.
“I mean there’s a lot to like about you.”
“That’s avoiding the question and if you have to avoid the question then you know that I know that we both know she didn’t like me.”
“She just wasn’t into you, is all.”
“Into me? I’m supposed to be in her, not the other way around, I don’t like that, swing that way.”
“You are using gutter humor to deflect.”
Carl licks his lips. “So what if I am? You have put me off for three…no four days now.”
“I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”
“Why would I think you are hurting my feelings? She’s the one that didn’t like me.”
“You’re not upset?”
“I’m upset,” Carl says and then glances down at the time clock. “But if I shoot off a text as soon as we get to the donut shop, don’t want to text and drive with you—”
“That’s because you can’t drive, and you make me sick half the time.”
“Only half,” Carl says. “What I was saying, if I send a text here soon then I’ll have a date by tonight with this girl I met at the bar last weekend to help soothe my feelings.”
Gracie doubts this girl exists, the way he looks, a beat puppy, but chooses not to push the issue so she asks, “Do you want me to type the message for you?”
Mark Atley is the author of The Olympian, American Standard, and the forthcoming A Bright Young Man, as well as a handful of short fiction. Mark promises to entertain his readers and will choose real other drama every time. He works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK and has dedicated his life to crime. Follow on Twitter: @mark_atley