Detective Harold Morris eases back in his uncomfortable wooden chair and squints at the computer screen. he’s trying to convince himself he doesn’t need bifocals. The argument is not going well.
“Need help there, partner?” The man sitting across the table has shaggy blonde hair, pale blue eyes, and a perpetual teasing smirk that never quite coaxes itself into a grin.
Morris scowls. “I’m just trying to read the incident report. Not my fault they make the text so damn small.”
“You can make it bigger, you know,” Ellers says. “The plus sign in the upper right corner.”
Morris squints, leans forward, then clicks on his computer a few times. “Hey! That’s amazing.”
“Just get the damn bifocals.” Ellers sounds more amused than exasperated. “It’ll actually help your image.”
Morris looks at him skeptically.
“Not kidding. Look: there’s plenty of tough-guy cops in the department. They’re a dime a dozen. But with the bifocals, on top of you taking notes all the time… everyone we question is going to think you’re smart.”
“I am smart,” Morris says.
Ellers smirks. “Not the point. Perps think cops are stupid. You sit in the box with those things on, though—taking notes—you don’t even have to say anything. The guy’s gonna be thinking about all the ways he could have screwed up, all the little things you might have noticed, and he’s going to be wondering if you have any of those little things in that notebook. If you’re reading them while he’s sweating in the hotseat, he’ll wonder what you know, then he’ll decide his story isn’t working and assume you already know. Eventually he’ll crack. You won’t even have to talk to him. He’ll practically turn himself in, just because you wore bifocals.”
Morris snorts. “I like this guy. We should arrest him more often.”
“We will if you buy the goddamn bifocals.”
Morris looks down his nose at his partner through an imaginary pair of bifocals. “You young punks today, there’s no—“
“It’s him.” Ellers stares past Morris, frowning. “Jesus, I was hoping he wouldn’t show.”
“Huh?” Morris turns, stares out through the large panoramic glass at the parking lot beyond. There at the end of the lot, is a familiar, battered-gray Audi station wagon. “Oh. Shit.”
“I thought he’d be here yesterday, after the snow let up,” Ellers says. “It’s been a month. When he didn’t show I thought maybe he’d moved on. I guess that’s asking too much.”
The man stepping out of the station wagon is thin, a little taller than average, with medium-brown hair. The stubble on his face is rough and uneven, and he wears cheap sunglasses that are slightly bent out of shape, tilting down from the left eye, sloping right. His dark brown suit is clean but rumpled, the collar of his white shirt is open at the top, and his dark brown tie hangs loose, the knot sloppy ill-formed. He walks with the slight stoop and deliberate slowness of a man who is unused to sobriety and embraces it only temporarily, with extreme reluctance. Morris watches with something akin to dread as he sees the man plod up the parking lot toward the lobby.
Ellers shakes his head. “There goes my day. And it was going so well, too.”
“Show some respect,” Morris says. “The guy’s been through a lot.”
“I got all the sympathy in the world,” Ellers says. “But sympathy ain’t what he needs. We can’t give him what he needs.”
Morris sits up in his chair and starts to tidy his desk. Ellers watches, amused.
“What? He makes me a little nervous, I guess, being a preacher and all.”
Ellers shakes his head. “Not any more. He resigned last month.”
“No shit?” Morris forces himself not to turn back to stare at the lone figure still trudging up the parking lot.
“Seems Baptists don’t like it when the preacher starts drinking.”
Morris snorts. “Nice.”
“What do you expect ’em to do? I feel bad for him too—it’s tragic—but he’s falling apart. He can’t do that kind of job the way he is now, even if he was a Methodist. Anyway, they didn’t fire him. He’s on a sabbatical or something. And he just walked into the lobby.”
“How do you know so much about it?” Morris asks. “I thought you were Presbyterian.”
“Kate goes there. I hear stories about ‘Pastor Eli’ all the time.”
“Kate,” Morris repeats, not quite disapprovingly. “Some day you gotta explain to me how it is you two can hate each other when you’re married, and after you divorce, suddenly you’re soulmates.”
Ellers shrugs. “Distance makes the heart last longer.”
A few minutes later the door to the bullpen opens and Mr. Marks enters, walking carefully as if trying to avoid invisible obstacles scattered across the floor. The bullpen quiets significantly—something he obviously notices, as Morris sees the ghost of a smile play across his face. Morris and Ellers wait patiently as he makes his way to them. He appears to be in pain. Not surprising—he hasn’t been a drunk for very long, and still hasn’t learned to cope with dehydration.
“Detectives.” He doesn’t wait for an invitation, but eases into the open chair at the end of Ellers’ desk. Ellers and Morris nod respectfully.
“Good morning, Pastor Marks,” Morris says.
“I’m not a pastor any more,” he says. There is no rancor or bitterness in the words, just a matter-of-face statement of truth.
“Sorry to hear it,” Morris says.
“It doesn’t matter,” the rumpled man says. “I wasn’t doing anyone any good. Detective, you know why I’m here, so…”
“We don’t have anything new to tell you.” Ellers says. He coughs, slightly embarrassed by his brusqueness. “I wish we did.”
“Last month you said you were looking into a possible lead.”
“It was just a guy trying to get some attention,” Morris says. “A real looney-tunes. Talking about space aliens. Or goblins.”
“Which?” Marks looks sharply at Morris. Even through the cheap sunglasses, the intensity of his gaze his startling.
Morris tenses slightly, pushing against the weight of his gaze. “Which what?”
“Space aliens, or goblins?”
“Does it matter?” Ellers is clearly not as intimidated by the man as Morris is.
Marks hesitates a moment, then deflates slightly. “I suppose not.”
“Look, Mr. Marks...” Morris tries to make his voice sound as gentle as it possibly can. “This is a tough case. No one is denying that. What happened to your wife… well, I know you want justice. More than that, I know you want answers. But… well, the thing is—”
“Chief is making us shelve it at the end of the month,” Ellers cuts in. “We’ve had four months of nothing. Every lead we thought we had turned into a dead end, and we’ve been banging our heads and getting nothing.”
The room is silent. Every cop in the bullpen is watching Marks openly, wondering how he’ll react. For the moment, he doesn’t. He just sits there, apparently considering what Ellers said.
“It’s moving to the cold case files,” Morris adds. “I’m sorry, for what it’s worth.”
Elijah Marks remains silent. His brow furrows, his mouth presses together in a thin, thoughtful line. Morris wishes he could get a line on what the guy was thinking, catch a glimpse of what was going on under the surface. He looked thoughtful, sure, but what else? Sad? Angry? This is where people fall to pieces—where the hope they had of getting answers was wrecked, and the one thin thread they clung to was cut. He’s seen a lot of people fall down and not get up because of this moment, and the man he’s looking at now looks like he’s been falling for a while.
“I… understand.” Again, there is no rancor or bitterness in the words. It sounds like… acceptance. It doesn’t fit.
“If new information comes to light, cold cases can open up again just like that,” Morris says. “And it’ll go through a regular review. Just because we’re putting it away doesn’t mean—”
“I know, Detective. It’s all right. I’m not angry.” He doesn’t sound angry, which actually worries Morris more than if he did. “After the first month, I was pretty sure this day would come.”
Marks continues to sit in the chair at the end of Ellers’ desk, staring at them, saying nothing and looking thoughtful. Ellers and Morris stare back, trying to pretend the silence isn’t awkward, trying to figure out how to suggest he leave while still remaining polite.
Ellers stirs. “If you ever need anything—”
“Yes,” Marks says. “I do need something, actually. I would like a copy of the entire case file. The investigation, forensics work, interviews, everything.”
Ellers blinks. “What?”
“I don’t intend for it to sound rude, or for this to sound like I am either blaming you or accusing you of incompetence. I truly don’t mean that. It’s just that if the police has decided not to continue the investigation—which is entirely reasonable, as far as I can tell—then I’ll have to take it up.”
Morris leans forward. “Mr. Marks, I don’t think we can help you.”
“I know you’re not in the habit of simply handing over police files,” Marks says. “That’s why I went through the trouble of filing a Freedom of Information Act request last week. I presented it to the receptionist at the front desk when I arrived. I think it will pass muster, and while I’m not convinced your Captain will be… entirely happy with the request, I think it will ultimately prevail.”
The bullpen door opens again, squeaking loudly in the silence. Captain Douglas Bennington—their boss’ boss—walks into the room.
Bennington is an older, distinguished man, dapper in his uniform. He no longer has the physique of a beat cop—then again, neither does Morris—but he’s a sharp man, no-nonsense, and does a good job of keeping politics from interfering with police work. That, in Morris’ opinion, is a police captain’s primary job.
Bennington doesn’t look angry, which is good. He doesn’t look happy, though—he appears thoughtful and troubled. He walks straight over to Morris and Ellers, coming to a halt a few feet to the right of Marks, staring at him thoughtfully.
“Detectives,” Captain Bennington says, “I just received notice that Mr. Marks has filed an FOIA request for the materials in his wife’s disappearance.”
Morris clears his throat, shifting his weight in his chair uncomfortably. “He was just telling us the same thing. Sir.”
Bennington focuses on Marks, who turns in his chair and looks up, meeting the captain’s gaze unflinchingly. The captain regards him thoughtfully.
“You don’t look well, Pastor Marks.”
“Not pastor,” the man says. “Not any more.”
Bennington nods once. “Sorry. My observation stands.”
“I’m not,” Marks agrees. “I don’t pretend to be.”
Bennington stares at Marks for a long time, then sighs. “There’s nothing improper in your request, but I could sit on it for quite a while, if I wanted to.”
“You could,” Marks agrees. “You could throw a lot of roadblocks in my way. It would take time to get past each of them. But I would, eventually.”
The captain sighs again, shaking his head. “There’s not much point. But I do have some concerns, Mr. Marks, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t air them.”
“Mr. Marks, you’ve gone through a difficult time, and while I can’t understand it specifically—I’ve never been in your position, and God willing I never will—I’ve seen grief enough to know it can be damaging when it isn’t handled well. You are grieving. This is obvious. You’re struggling with your grief, and—quite frankly—you’re losing that struggle. What you’re asking… well, there’s a very real chance it won’t help you. It might even make things worse.”
“You mean if I keep feeding my obsession I might turn into one of the town crazies,” Marks says.
“That’s not how I’d phrase it,” Bennington says, “but it’s also not wrong.”
Marks sighs—the first hint of an emotion behind the polite, thoughtful demeanor Morris has seen. “I’m touched by your concern, Captain. And I understand your concern. I’ve counseled people, grieving people, and I’m aware of the danger you’re talking about. But… I have to do something. I’ve tried to do everything people have told me to do. I’ve tried to do everything I understand. I’ve tried to stay out of the investigation. I’ve gone to counseling. I’ve tried prayer. I’ve done everything I can think of that everyone agrees is a good thing to do, and… despite all that. Despite all that, I’m a drunk. All my life I never touched a drop, but four months ago I started and now I can hardly put it down. I’ve even started smoking, Captain, and I don’t know why. Honestly. I just needed to do something destructive, I guess.”
Morris looks down at his desk, unwilling to look at the man who was calmly discussing his pain.
“I need to focus on something,” Marks says. “Anything, really, but right now it’s hard to focus on anything other than my wife, on what happened to her, or on me. I absolutely need to stop focusing on me, so… I choose those files.”
Marks stands and removes his sunglasses. His red-rimmed eyes blink quickly, watering a bit as they adjust to the light, but as he focuses on the Captain there’s no disguising the determination in his gaze.
“I bear no ill will to this department—quite the opposite—but I will do whatever it takes to get those files. However long it takes. However many favors it takes.”
Morris wonders if the man actually has any favors to call in, but he decides, in the end, it’s not the threat of his pull that makes the statement effective. It’s the simple declaration of intent, and his obvious unwillingness to be moved.
Bennington appears to reach the same conclusion. He nods sharply.
“I don’t want you stirring up trouble, and I don’t want to hear about you accusing people we’ve already interviewed and cleared. You’re not a cop, you don’t have the authority to arrest people. Also, don’t come to us with crackpot theories. You’re a smart man, you know exactly what I mean when I say that.”
“Understood,” Marks says.
“Fine. Detectives, please give Mr. Marks copies of all your files—notes, interviews, everything. Copies only, though. Not the originals. I’m willing to give you a few days to make that your priority. After that, we’re moving you to other cases.”
“Yes sir,” Ellers says.
“Thank you, Captain,” Marks says.
“Don’t thank me.” Bennington frowns deeply, shaking his head. “I’m not convinced I’m doing you any favors. I feel like I’m hanging an anchor around your neck and throwing you over the side.”