Camera Obscura

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Chapter Twelve

Several hours later, Jill sat re-reading one of the magazines from the pile on the nearby table. Larry dozed in a chair. In the hours that they had been waiting, the population of the waiting room had changed several times. The old coffee cups on the table by Jill had been replaced by newer ones along with a number of soda cans. Half of a barely nibbled sandwich rested on the clear plastic that had wrapped it and an unopened one sat on the table beside Larry’s chair.

A weary doctor in surgical greens appeared through the hall door and approached them.

“Are you Mr. Ybarra’s friends?”

Jill reached over and roused Larry. He looked up groggily and took a minute before it registered where he was and who was standing in front of him.

“Mr. Ybarra’s friends?” the doctor repeated.

Jill nodded. “Is he going to be all right?”

“How is he, doctor?” Larry asked at the same time.

“It’s a little early to tell. There was a great deal of damage, but he has strong vital signs. In twenty-four hours we should be able to tell more.”

“Can we see him?” Larry asked.

“He’s asleep and will be for several hours. Go home. Get some rest and come back tomorrow morning.” The doctor smiled for the first time. ” You can look in on him then.”

“Thanks. Thank you, doctor,” Larry said.

The physician left and Larry looked around in surprise. “How long have I been asleep? Where’s Mike? He isn’t back?” he asked when Jill shrugged. “Good god, how long has he been gone?”

Jill looked at her watch. “He left around three, wasn’t it? It’s after eight now.”

“You called the paper a couple of hours ago, right?”

Jill nodded.

“And there is still no answer at his place either?” he continued.

“No. I tried again while you were asleep.” She looked at him, concern darkening her eyes. “If there’d been an accident, he would have been brought here, wouldn’t he? I’m worried, Larry. He wouldn’t stay away this long.”

“Yeah. Me too. I think we’d better go check.”

They found their car where they’d left it in what seemed a lifetime ago, and drove across the Bay Bridge to the townhouse Mike shared with Luis. It was on a quiet street lined with similar townhomes. Mike’s red Toyota was parked in the driveway. The neighborhood was still except for the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake that softly wafted from one of the nearby windows, the light of a television set flickered through another.

They parked by Mike’s car, got out and walked to the unlighted doorway where they stood looking at the carved door, as if it were the drawbridge to a fortified castle.

“Do you have a key?” Jill asked. She looked around nervously. Her senses told her something was definitely not right.

“No.” Larry stared at the door, willing it to open.

“Then, how are we going to get in?”

Larry grasped the knob and turned it. The door was unlocked.

“I guess we open the door and walk in.”

“Cute, Wheeler. Cute.”

He pushed the door open and they stepped inside.

Moonlight sifted through the shutters of an otherwise dark room, casting odd shadows. Larry felt around the door opening and found the light switch. When he flipped the light on, they were stunned by the sight that greeted them. Every piece of furniture had been overturned or ripped to shreds, every book from the various shelves on the wall had been thrown around the room, pictures were torn from the walls, nothing was left intact.

Jill gasped.

“What the fuck!” Larry cried.

They stood for a moment staring, shocked, at the devastation of the room. After a moment Larry strode to the nearby kitchen. He looked in briefly.

“Shit! It’s the same in here.”

He crunched across the cereal and chips laden floor to the back door, but in the dark there was nothing to see at the back of the building. Returning to the kitchen he noticed that all the cupboards had been ransacked. Even the refrigerator stood open and had been emptied of its contents. Puddles of water were the evidence of ice cubes that had been scattered on the cabinet top and floor.

Larry ran to the stairs and climbed to the bedrooms above, only to find the same thing there. Nothing had been left undisturbed.

Jill stood by the front door with her back to the wall until she heard Larry’s oaths from the upper floor. She mustered her courage and tiptoed through the detritus on the floor. She made her way toward the fireplace and as she passed the sofa lying upturned in front of it, she looked down and started.

She gave a muffled scream, “Oh dear god!” In a shaky voice she called up the stairs, “Larry, come quick. Please!”

When he reached the bottom, he said, “What?”

She pointed toward the sofa. “Mike. There?”

Mike lay face down on the Persian style rug in front of the fireplace, his head in a pool of congealed blood, his eyes were open wide in obvious surprise.

Larry ran to the body and bent down to check him.

“Ah, god, no!” He knelt in obvious pain with his hand over his eyes. ”Why Mike? What’s happening?”

“I’ll call the police.” She started looking through the debris for the phone.

“In a minute,” Larry said before she could find it. “We’ve got to figure out what they were looking for.”

“Who? It looks like a burglary, doesn’t it,” she looked puzzled.

“This wasn’t an ordinary burglary, not with all this mess. They would have taken stuff that was easy to fence, like the jewelry or some of this electronic equipment. Whoever did this was looking for something, and Mike interrupted them when he came back for Luis’s insurance card.”

“But what did they have that someone would be willing to kill for. And how would we know if they found it or not?”

“Beats the shit out of me. But we’ve got to try. You take the bedrooms. I’ll see what, if anything, I can make of this mess.”

Jill was very happy to leave what was left of the living room. She skirted the sofa, averting her eyes from Mike’s body. She climbed the stairs to find more of the same mess above. The two bathrooms had nothing in them that was out of the ordinary, the usual towels and washcloths, toiletries and shaving equipment and hair dryer. There were few medicines and those were of the over-the-counter kind. Everything lay scattered on the floor under medicine cabinets that had been ripped from the walls.

The guest bedroom was obviously used very little. Hardly anything had been stored in the closet; just a few extra coats and some ski togs. The linens had been stripped from the bed and the mattress and pillows shredded and the stuffing scattered. Someone obviously believed something was here that was worth hiding very carefully.

In the master bedroom the contents of the various drawers had been dumped on the bed and thrown on the floor. Jill could imagine a dark shadowy figure riffling through the undergarments, ties, etc., tossing them madly about when nothing of real value was found. The closet’s contents had been deposited on the bed with the other things and searched in the same ruthless fashion. Under a pile of clothing, she found a small cardboard box, surrounded by crumpled papers and photographs that had been examined and discarded. She sorted through them briefly, put them in the box, and carried it downstairs to the living room.

She found Larry looking through books on the floor. When he looked up, he had tear tracks on his cheeks and his eyes were red, but she didn’t mention it.

“This is all I found,” she said. “Do you want to look through it?”

He nodded and reached for the box.

“Do you mind if we do it in the dining room?” she asked, still trying not to look at Mike’s body.

“Sure,” he said. He rose and followed her into the other room.

“It’s just some papers, which don’t look too important to me. And these pictures. I just thought you should see if anything is missing.”

He began shuffling through the papers. “How would I know?” He picked up the pictures and inspected them. “Pictures of Mike and Luis. . .people I don’t know. . .hot air balloons.” He stopped, surprised. “Hey, how about that? Here are two of my pictures. And these. From my trip to Alaska.”

“You remember that?”

“Yeah. I guess I do,” he mused. “Funny. That just popped into my head. Anyway, we were doing a piece together on ecology.”

“Yes, he told me. But why did Mike have them?”

“Before I went digital, it was faster to send him the film to develop while I was still in the field. He’d look at what I shot, see if it fit into what he was writing, and then tell me what we still needed. It sounds crazy, but it

works. . .worked. . .for us.”

“I thought you said you were a reporter.”

“I am. Why?”

“Well, Mike said you are a photojournalist. And, think about it, Larry. If you’re a reporter, why were you taking the pictures and Mike doing the writing?”

He looked at Jill in surprise, “Why did I ta. . .?” He paused, confusion clouding his eyes. “Wait a minute,” he said thoughtfully, “Now that you mention it, something doesn’t feel right. I’m sure I took those pictures, Jill. I actually remember doing it, but if that’s true. . .,” he shook his head as if to clear it. “I don’t understand. What’s going on?” Larry looked at Jill with fear in his eyes. “Am I crazy?”

This is not good,” she thought. She took his hands and made him look at her. “You’re not crazy, Larry. You’ve been ill. You told me so yourself. Remember?”

“Yes. I’ve been ill,” he repeated as if in a trance.

“But you’re fine now. You have to be strong, for Mike.”

“Strong for Mike.”

“Sit here for a minute. Catch your breath. I’m going to call the police.”

Jill watched, as Larry’s eyes seemed to clear at the word police. It was as if the last few minutes had never occurred and the change happened so fast that she was stunned.

“Yeah, you’re right. We’d better call the police,” he said, sounding like his old self. “Put these back, Jill. I can’t tell if any are missing anyway. We’d better not tell the cops that we poked around.”

“What about fingerprints?”

“Mike has been my friend for years. There’s no reason our prints shouldn’t be in here. He could’ve shown us the pictures anytime. Just remember to keep it simple when they ask us questions. I brought you to meet my friend this morning. Everything after that happened just the way it happened.”

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