I Took A Ride on the Wurlitzer
Congrats on finding Chloe. Isn’t she beautiful? It’s too bad that she had to die. I promise her death served a purpose though. It got you to pay attention to me. Now, are you ready for another round? This body can be found in a place with lots of loud sounds. Have fun!
A picture of a Wurlitzer organ and a riddle about lots of loud sounds? The Alabama Theater had to be it. Their surround sound was some of the loudest I had heard thanks to the natural acoustics of the theater. I remembered sitting in the balcony as a kid, watching Jurassic Park with my parents and jumping up so high when the T-Rex roared on the screen that my dad had to grab me by the shirt to keep me from going over the railing. It could definitely get loud in there. Before I could get a chance to pull my phone out of my pocket and call Beau, he was standing at my desk.
“ME sent me the autopsy report.”
“That was fast.”
“Captain has a suspicion that this won’t be the last body so until we find the killer this case is top priority for everyone. Strangulation. But the killer gave her phenobarbital to make her pass out so that she wouldn’t fight him. He also cleaned out from under her fingernails just in case she had any of his DNA. Whoever did this knew what they were doing.”
“Well, the captain was right. Take a look at this. Did you see who delivered these?”
“No, I’ve been downstairs since I got here. I’ll ask around. We can check security tapes in a minute. Where do you think this one will be?”
“From the clue and the picture on the card, the Alabama Theater. Any news on the arrest warrant?”
“Not yet.” As if he had been hiding around the corner eavesdropping, Captain Stephens came walking towards us holding a blue sheet of paper. He stopped in front of me and held out the paper. I opened it to read one arrest warrant for Gunner Hayes. Now, I just had to hope that he wasn’t smart enough to have conveniently disappeared somewhere.
“Nice flowers, Barrett. New boyfriend?”
“They’re from the killer.”
“Another body? Where?”
“I’m guessing the Alabama Theater.” I wiggled the card at him. He snatched it from my hand and turned it over to read the clue.
“Get on it. Find that body and then go get Gunner. If no one else knows about the warrant then you should be able to wait a little longer to bring him in. Let’s get this taken care of quick. We need to find this damn guy before more people end up dead.”
“You’re right. Let’s go. I’ll buy coffee.”
“Forget the coffee; let’s just get this over with. I’ll buy a round a beers after work.”
When we walked into the Alabama Theater two older ladies met us at the door. They had apparently just found the body and were waiting on the police to arrive. The oldest (I’m guessing) of the two was fanning herself with a white lace handkerchief. She looked to be about 5 foot tall and probably weighed one hundred pounds soaking wet with ten pounds of pennies in her pockets. Her hair was in the shape of a helmet and was that light blue gray color that older ladies wear. Her glasses were so thick that they magnified her eyes. She looked like a fly wearing a blue-hair helmet. The younger of the two kept clutching her ample chest as if she were practicing a Fred Sanford impersonation. She was taller, probably five foot six and was chubby in her mid-section. She looked like a Weeble that was about to wobble her way into a heart attack. Her bright red lipstick seemed to wash out every other feature on her wide face. They were both talking ninety miles an hour so Beau and I just stood there and waited for one of them to take a breath. The oldest one was the first to stop.
“Well, what the hell are you two doing just standing there?”
“Ma’am,” Beau chuckled “you two were talking so fast there was no way to get a word in. I take it you two ladies found the body?”
“Yes! And I nearly peed myself when we did find her! Never in all my years working here did I think that the Wurlitzer would come up through that damn floor with a dead girl on it! Lord, help me. I think I might be having a heart attack!” The larger of the two wheezed between chest clutches.
“Now, Gloria, you nearly pee yourself every time you take a step, you old bat.”
“Do we need to call an ambulance for you, ma’am?” I asked through gritted teeth, trying to keep from laughing at these two old ladies.
“No. No. I’ll be fine.” She straightened up when she saw Beau watching her.
“Come on. You two need to hurry up and do what you do and get her out of here. Maude, you better call that priest of yours and have him come pray over this place. The devil has certainly made a home here.”
“I’m Detective Barrett. Did either one of you see anyone suspicious around here this morning?”
“No. Just me and Maude this morning. I’m not one hundred percent sure who was here last night but I’m sure you can talk to Jimmy. He’s our general manager. He would know.”
“Okay, thank you, ladies. And are you with housekeeping?”
“Yes, darlin’. Been working here for twenty something years. Oh, and Maude has been here for fifteen.”
“Alright. Why don’t you two take a break? If we think of any more questions we will come and find you. And if you think of anything else that might help us out, you know where to find us. Or you can call me later.” I said as I handed them both a business card. Beau and I walked into the theater and headed toward the stage all while he was giggling like a little girl. When we walked up on the left-side of the stage, his giggling stopped.
The Wurlitzer was five feet away from us. It had three rows of piano keys and pipes coming out from the top. Sitting on the seat in front of the Wurlitzer, with her head down to her chest, was the new dead girl. She had long, rust colored hair that curled down her back. As I walked around to get a look at her face I noticed she had cuts on her hands. I pulled a pair of gloves out of my blazer pocket and put them on so that I could lift up her head to get a good look at her face. When I titled her head up I saw a large gaping wound on her neck running from ear to ear. Someone had slashed this poor girl’s throat. Her eyes were wide open in shock, blood shot and glazed over, but I could tell they were a shade of green. Her nose was swollen and looked as if it had been broken. Her lip was busted and there was a cut on her cheek. Our killer had obviously not been as gentle with her as he had been with Chloe. She was wearing a black sequin halter top, a black leather mini-skirt, and knee-high black suede stiletto boots. Either our killer had dressed her this way or she had been dressed for a night out. Her shoulders had scratches and bruises on them in the shape of fingers. Her thighs were black and blue as if someone had been punching her. The new dead girl went through hell.
“It’s a shame. She was a pretty girl.”
“Yeah. Looks like he didn’t give her the same courtesy he gave Chloe. You call it in?”
“Yup. Here comes CSU, now. You know, as long as I’ve been doing this job, I’ve still never understood how a person could do something like this to another person. Look at this girl. That took a lot of rage. Why not just cut her throat and be done with it? Why beat the hell out of her first?”
“Maybe she put up a fight and pissed him off?”
“I hope I never piss this guy off.”
“Yeah, I wish I had never showed up on his radar.”
“I bet. Still no idea who it might be?”
“Not a clue, Beau. Not a clue. I stayed up all night trying to figure out the connection between the letter, Chloe, and Gunner. And why Gunner would have lied to me about seeing her this week. And why the hell someone would send me these notes. And how in the hell Chloe got the blood of another missing — Holy shit! Beau, do you think this is Janelle? It’s a little hard to tell but she kind of looks like the girl in the picture in the file.”
“Now that you mention it, she does look like her. If Chloe had her blood only on the bottom of her shoes then she must have stepped in it after he did — whatever it is he did to this girl. She could have already been dead when he snatched Chloe.”
“Why can’t things just be simple?”
“Speaking of simple. You going to tell me about that giant rock on your finger?” Beau pointed at my finger and grinned. He had been on me for a while about trying to work things out with Keaton. Beau had been Keaton’s biggest fan. Any time he saw Keaton he always gave me a full report, making sure to include how sad Keaton looked. I would have never admitted it to Beau but I loved getting his Keaton updates. Especially, the part about Keaton looking sad at the mention of my name. I loved knowing that he missed me like I missed him.
“Surprise!” I wiggled my fingers at him and giggled. Some people would have found it in poor taste to be laughing and flaunting a diamond ring while standing over a dead body but for Beau and me it was just part of it. We had to be able to joke around or the job would really start to get to us. We knew that this dead body wasn’t just a body. It was someone’s family member, someone’s best friend, someone’s baby girl. Making jokes was our way of coping.
“When did this happen? I didn’t even know that you and Keaton were speaking to each other.”
“Yesterday. We weren’t but it just sort of happened. I’m so happy I can’t stand myself, Beau. I was singing Taylor Swift in the damn truck on the way to work.”
“In that case, maybe you should take a step back.” We both laughed and moved out of the way as CSU took control of the crime scene. Beau walked off to talk to their supervisor. I made my way down the stage back into the seating area, pulled my gloves off and tossed them in the CSU trash. I sat down in the front row of seats and took some notes while I waited on Beau to finish talking. I even made a little sketch of the stage and the Wurlitzer to look at later. I knew I’d be spending another night in my office asking myself ridiculous questions in order to try and solve this case. If this was Janelle, then Beau was probably right and she probably was dead before this guy — whoever he was — had snatched Chloe. I had a feeling though that Janelle and Chloe were connected in some way. Walker had mentioned that Chloe was in a sorority. I was trying to rattle my brain and see if I could jog my memory so that I could remember what Janelle’s file had said. Was she in a sorority as well? No, she didn’t even go to the same college as Chloe and Chelsea. She was a medical student. Maybe she went to the same high school? Or maybe she was connected to Gunner in some way? While I was writing down possible connections, Beau had walked down and sat next to me. I could feel him reading over my shoulder.
“You think these girls are connected? Who is Chelsea?”
“Yes, I think somehow they are. I’m not just not sure how, yet. You remember my friend Walker?”
“Yeah. Chelsea is his fiancée. I saw him this morning and I asked him if he was still close with Gunner. You know we all went to high school together. He and Gunner had been friends. He told me that he and Gunner still spoke quite often and even played golf together. And then he dropped the bomb on me that Chelsea and Chloe were in the same sorority in college. He also confirmed Chloe’s mother’s statement about Chloe and Gunner seeing each other on Tuesday. Chloe and Chelsea had seen each other on Tuesday to discuss wedding plans after she had seen Gunner and had lunch with her mother. Walker saw Gunner Tuesday night and he mentioned in passing that Chloe had been at his office that day and they had gotten into a small tiff over some roses.”
“The rose garden?”
“No. Spoiled brat wanted some certain type of roses flown in from Paris instead of just using the roses from the botanical gardens.”
“So, was Janelle in a sorority?”
“No. She didn’t even go to the same college. She’s in med school at UAB. I have no idea. It was just a thought.”
“Sounds pretty good, so far. With what we have anyway. Come on; let’s go arrest your lover.”
“Hey, dick head. Don’t even call him that. It was a long time ago. And it didn’t even happen.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s go.” Beau laughed and pulled me up out of the seat. We checked on the two old ladies before we left the theater. They assured us that they would be fine. And would be praying for us that we caught this creep as soon as possible. Beau and I left the theater and stopped by Starbucks. He insisted that he had to have some coffee. He got a straight black coffee and a white chocolate mocha for me. White chocolate mochas were my favorite. Beau knew I wouldn’t be able to resist. After our impromptu coffee stop, we parked in a parking deck at the end of the block where the Wells Fargo building was and walked the block to the building. I suggested that we skip the elevator and take the stairs but Beau refused. We entered the pee scented elevator and waited as it crawled up to the fourth floor. When the elevator doors opened, I jumped out as quickly as I could so that I could breathe. I’d been holding my breath the whole time. Beau buttoned his suit jacket and walked through the glass paneled door to Gunner’s office. I followed in behind him just in time to hear Chatty Cathy flirting with him.
“Oh, it’s you, again.”
“Uh — yeah. It’s me, again. Is he in?”
“I think he’s busy. Maybe you should come back later.”
“I need you to go ahead and let him know that we’re here. Either that or I can walk in there myself.”
“Just come back later, like I said. It can’t be that important.”
“How about this,” I said as I waved the arrest warrant in her crayon streaked face, “I have a warrant for his arrest and I’m going in there, now.” I opened the doors to Gunner’s office and saw him sitting behind his desk talking to Chloe’s mother. Her eyes were swollen red and her face was streaked with tears and black mascara. He was shoving a check across his desk. Had this bastard just tried to buy off Chloe’s mother?
“Detectives, what are you two doing here?”
“Mrs. Brasher, after our discussion yesterday we had someone else confirm that Gunner had seen Chloe on Tuesday. We’re here to arrest him.”
“Arrest me? On what grounds? Because I lied about seeing her on Tuesday? She just showed up dead. I didn’t want to tell you I’d seen her a few days before. You would have thought I killed her.”
“Are you serious? We think you killed her because you lied. Don’t make a big deal out of this. Just come down to the station with us and answer some questions and then you can come right back to work.”
“Not without a lawyer. I don’t want some cop misconstruing what I say and making it look like I did something I didn’t.”
“Okay,” I said as I pulled my handcuffs out from the holster on my belt, “you can call him from the office. Once he gets there we’ll get this all over with.”
“Brodie, don’t do this. Come on, now. You know I didn’t kill that girl. Do you really think that the same man who had used such gentle hands on you would hurt my fiancée?”
“Detective Barrett, you know him?” “Mrs. Brasher, he was my ninth grade boyfriend. We dated for three months. We graduated from the same high school. Gunner just turn around so I can handcuff you. Don’t make a scene.” Gunner turned around and placed his hands behind his back. I pulled his hands closer together so that I could cuff them. Beau escorted Mrs. Brasher out the door while I drug Gunner by the elbow out of the office. Chatty Cathy stood up, wide-eyed in shock, with her hand over her chest.
“What do you want me to do, Gunner?”
“Call Walker and have him meet me at the police station. Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Walker? He’s your lawyer.”
“He’s the best in town for these kinds of things, isn’t he?”
“Get your ass out the door. I can’t believe you lied to me.” We walked to the car in silence. Gunner kept opening his mouth to talk and Beau kept giving him evil looks to shut him up. We had read him his Miranda rights and even though we usually liked to hear what kind of stupid stuff came out of the mouths of most of our perps, we just wanted Gunner to be quiet. I know Beau wouldn’t admit it but seeing these young girls made him think of his daughter who was in college in California.
Walker was sitting at my desk waiting for us when we walked into the office. He was playing on his phone as we walked up. Gunner cleared his throat and Walker looked up at us, smiling at me and then shaking his head at Gunner. I motioned for Walker to follow us down the hall. We walked to the interrogation room and I led Gunner in and sat him down in a chair. Beau walked in after me with Walker shutting the door behind him. Walker took his place next to Gunner while Beau sat down across from him. I excused myself and picked up the files for Chloe and Janelle. We didn’t have an ID on the new dead girl yet but I was pretty sure it was Janelle. If I could get him to slip up and give me anything, any little thing, that sounded like he might know Janelle, I wanted to be ready.
“Okay, Gunner, let’s get this over with. When was the last time you saw Chloe?”
“Tuesday. Around eleven o’clock. She was in my office for two hours. We had sex on the couch and then argued about wedding plans. She wanted me to drop three grand on some stupid roses from France even though we were getting married at the damn rose garden at the botanical gardens after she pitched a huge fit to get married there.”
“You sound kind of mad?”
“Hell, man. Wouldn’t you be upset if you were already giving your girl everything she wanted and it still wasn’t enough? Chloe thought I was made of money. This wedding wasn’t about us getting married. She wanted to do some big over the top production so she could make it into the Southern Living Wedding Edition.”
“I see,” Beau wrote something down on his notepad and nodded at me.
“What did you two fight about on Friday? You told us that you had a fight with her on Friday but said you were embarrassed about it and didn’t want to tell us.” Gunner looked at Walker and then back at me. He leaned into Walker’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Walker nodded and then whispered something back. I heard Gunner take in a large breath and then let it out, blowing papers on the table.
“I cheated on her and she found out. She thought that I only bought the shoes to get her to stop being mad at me so she wouldn’t take them. I tried to explain to her that I had ordered the shoes long before I cheated on her.”
“With who? How many times? And how did she find out?”
“Selena, my secretary at the office. Twice. She walked in and caught Selena giving me a blow job on my couch in the office.” I grimaced at the mental image of that woman doing anything sexual. The thought of her doing something sexual with Gunner was even worse. I couldn’t believe that he would cheat on someone like Chloe with the mascot for Crayola. His balls probably looked like a rainbow threw up on them after she was done. Yuck.
“Why her?” Beau had apparently been reading my mind.
“She was available. She’s had a thing for me ever since I hired her a few years ago. I kept her around as a sort of stroke to my ego, I guess. Stupid, I know. The problems with Chloe started getting worse and worse and after one particularly bad fight where Chloe locked me out of my own house. I had her meet me at the office so that we could get some extra work done. While we were there I started talking to her about my problems with Chloe and true to every cliché, one thing led to another.”
“Are you still sleeping with her?”
“Why? Does that thought bother you, Brodie?”
“Not in the least bit. I just need to know if you’re still carrying on your affair while your fiancée was missing and then showing up dead in the gardens.”
“We slept together last night. I was really drunk and upset and she was there.”
“Does she think this is more than what it is?”
“No. We use each other for sex. That’s it. She knows that.” Beau and I wrote down some notes on our pads. Gunner leaned back in the chair watching me as I was writing. I could see him out of the corner of my eye staring me down. He had definitely changed since our days together in high school. People did change but I would have never thought like this.
“Where did Chloe stay on Tuesday night? Her mother told us that you kept a tight leash on her so where would she have gone instead of staying with you?”
“Her mother acts like I controlled Chloe but that was far from the truth. Chloe would stay out all night drunk all the time. She would crash with some of her sorority sisters if she was too drunk to come home. Or if she was mad and thought she was teaching me some kind of lesson by not coming home. She had done it so much by this point that I didn’t even think about it when she didn’t come home Tuesday night. Sometimes she stayed with Chelsea and then other times she stayed with some girl named Monica, I don’t remember her last name. I think she lives over by the Brookwood Village? I honestly don’t know. Chloe acted like such a child sometimes that most of the time I just ignored her antics. It got old after a while.”
“Did Chloe have her phone with her when she left your office on Tuesday?”
“Yeah. She sent me a text message later that afternoon to tell me that she was going with Chelsea to look at bridesmaid dresses. That was the last I heard from her.” I scribbled some more notes on my pad. If Chloe was mad at him and didn’t come home because she was trying to teach him a lesson, then why would she text him to tell him that she was going to look at bridesmaid dresses? That didn’t seem like the type of a thing a mad woman would do. And she definitely wouldn’t be looking at bridesmaid dresses right after an argument with her fiancé.
“Chloe have any enemies? Any men obsessed with her? Anyone that made you nervous?”
“Chloe had a ton of men who called her and texted her. And then the Facebook messages of course. Oh, and Snapchat. She was always sending some so-called friend of hers pictures of herself on Snapchat. Half-naked pictures. She wasn’t as innocent as her mother made her out to be. Which, I don’t blame her mother one bit for thinking that Chloe was angel. Chloe wanted her to think that and out of respect for Mrs. Brasher, I wouldn’t have wanted to taint her view of Chloe. No one wants to think their little girl is a slut.”
“She ever cheat on you?”
“I suspected a few times but she was smarter than I am and never got caught. I never had any real proof so I never confronted her about it. I just pretended like I didn’t see the shit she was doing, hoping that she would get tired of acting out to try to get my attention, and she would start acting like an adult. I didn’t kill Chloe, Brodie. And I miss the hell out of her. I never told her this but those nights when she wouldn’t come home did get to me. I’d stay up all night worried out of my fucking mind about where she was or who she was with. She called me one night, drunk out of her mind, and I could hear some guy’s voice in the background telling her to hang up because he wanted her to suck his cock and she couldn’t do it if she was running her mouth on the phone. I sat up all night that night and cried like a little bitch. Cried. Like someone had run over my damn dog. I loved that girl, even if she was a slut and complete bitch. I thought that maybe if I finally married her that she would settle down and quit all of this ridiculous shit. Stupid, but I thought that maybe she was just doing all of this because she was pissed at me because all her friends were getting married and I hadn’t popped the question.” Gunner stopped talking when the tears started rolling down his cheeks. Once the first one reached his lips, several more followed. He began to sob with his head down to his chest, eerily in the same position as the new dead girl, and Beau, Walker, and I sat there in silence. I couldn’t tell if his tears were genuine or if he was just a really good actor. Walker cleared his throat and stood up, pushing his chair into the table.
“I think that’s enough for now. Clearly, my client is upset about the death of his fiancée. If you are not going to charge him with lying to the police, please release him now.”
“We’re not going to charge him” Beau said as he walked around behind Gunner to unlock his cuffs.
“For now. I would advise you, Mr. Hayes, to stay close to home for the next few days. I’m sure we will have more questions later. Brodie, show Mr. Hayes out. I’m going to see the ME and see if we’ve gotten anything on the next case."
I nodded and held the door open for Gunner. Walker waited for me to exit the interrogation room and then the three of us walked to the front door of the precinct. I stopped at the door and watched as Walker and Gunner walked outside and talked on the front steps. Walker held up a finger at me, signaling to wait a minute for him. He talked to Gunner for a moment longer and then re-entered the precinct. He shook his head as he slid his one hand into his pants pocket.
“You didn’t hear me say this because he is my client. And my friend. Brodie, I can’t tell if he’s lying or not. Those tears looked so real but none of the rest of his story makes sense.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I don’t know either, Walker. We got another body this morning. I think they’re connected somehow but I never got a chance to ask him about her. I’m headed to the ME’s office now to see if there’s been any progress on the girl.”
“You get another letter?”
“Yeah. Attached to some roses this time. And he wasn’t as gentle with this girl as he was with Chloe. Although, I think she was already dead before he snatched Chloe.”
“Where’d you find her?”
“The Alabama Theater.”
“I haven’t figured that one out yet. The clue wasn’t that hard on this one so I’m not sure how it was connected to me like the first clue was. She was sitting on the Wurlitzer. Nearly gave the two old cleaning ladies heart attacks when it came up out of the floor with a dead girl sitting on it.” Walker and I both doubled over in laughter at the thought of these two old women sweeping as a dead girl on a piano emerged from the floor. I did my best impression of Gloria walking around clutching her chest. We were still laughing when Captain Stephens walked out of his office and over to my desk.
“What the hell is so funny, Barrett? Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“Nothing, Captain. I’m sorry. I’m headed to the ME’s office now. Walker, I’ll give you a call later.” Walker saluted the Captain and then I quickly made my way to the ME’s office and out of the glaring eye of Captain Stephens. I felt like I had just gotten in trouble in study hall for passing a note to a friend. Captain Stephens never smiled and any jokes that he did actually tell weren’t even funny.
Beau was sitting in the waiting room of the ME’s office when I walked in. He had his eyes closed with his arms wrapped around his chest. I stuck my head in the door of the ME’s lab to see Dr. Woods standing over the body of the new dead girl. She was taking pictures of the bruises on the girl’s thighs when she looked up and saw me.
“I already told your partner it was going to be a while before I got a conclusive cause of death. I am working to get it done by tomorrow afternoon at the latest. He asked if he could catch a quick nap in the waiting room. I knew that I wasn’t expecting anyone else so I gave him the go-ahead.”
“Thanks, doc. You got an ID?”
“Yes, it’s definitely Janelle. Matched her dental records. She had skin under her nails so I’m hoping I can get a DNA workup from it. Also found some wool fibers stuck to the sequins on her shirt. I’m not sure what they belong to at the moment but I’m working on it. There isn’t much else I can give you for now.”
“An ID is enough for now. Thanks. Give us a call as soon as you have a cause.”
Dr. Woods called the following Monday and said that the cause of Janelle’s death was asphyxiation caused by bilateral pneumothorax, or in laymen terms, two punctured lungs. The bastard had beaten her so badly that he’d broken her ribs and punctured both of her lungs, leaving her to die all alone. Dr. Woods also mentioned that she thought that Janelle had still been alive when she was placed on the Wurlitzer because of the blood pooling in her lower extremities. Whoever had killed these two girls had to have access to both of the dump places without being noticed. Or had access to these places when no one else was around. I still wasn’t sure what the Alabama Theater had to do with me either and this killer was clearly interested in me. There had to be some kind of connection between me and The Alabama Theater.
I went into my office and opened the cedar chest by the closet. My grandfather had made this cedar chest for me as a wedding present. He had made one for my mother and all of my aunts for their weddings as well. I did just as they had and stuffed all of the important mementos of my life into the chest. If there was anything that could tie me to The Alabama Theater it had to be in this box. The smell of the cedar wood assaulted my nose when I lifted the lid. I closed my eyes and inhaled as much of the smooth, woodsy scent as I could. That scent would forever remind me of my grandfather and his rough hands covered in cedar shavings, always working on the next project he carved and cut and polished from cedar trees in his back yard. The top layer of junk in the chest was mostly newspaper articles about cases I had solved or community projects I had taken part in. Grayson and Braelynn had always insisted on keeping the articles.
I kept moving stuff around, Braelynn’s first outfit, her first pair of baby shoes, Grayson’s baby shoes, my baby shoes, my first baseball glove, and my cap and gown from college were all floating around numerous photo boxes and photo albums. I pulled out the photo albums and began to turn back the pages of time, laughing and crying as the memories flipped from page to page. After two hours of cruising down memory lane I was ready to give up when I saw the last box in the very bottom of the chest. It was the size of a children’s shoe box and was covered in decoupage flower printed tissue paper. I pulled off the lid and set it aside. Inside the box were pictures of me and my friends from junior high, a cassette tape, several folded notes from my best friends and the boys we had crushes on, a pom-pom with my school colors, and a handful of pins. One of the pins caught my eye. It was the largest one in the box. I picked it up and turned it over, revealing the same picture of the Wurlitzer that had been on the card stuck in the flowers on my desk. The words circling the Wurlitzer said “I Took a Ride on the Wurlitzer”. Underneath the button was a picture of me and several of my friends all standing in front of this amazing piano machinery. We were all grinning ear to ear and I laughed out loud. I remembered that trip. In the 8th grade, our music and theater teacher, whom had been suspected of being schizophrenic, had taken us to see Hamlet. She had made sure that we had gotten to the theater early so that we could meet the people who operated the theater and to see the Wurlitzer up close. I remember that she had made us watch The Phantom of the Opera the day before we went and once we were up close and personal with the Wurlitzer we were all mesmerized by the possibility of a “phantom” in this theater. Especially Gunner. Oh, shit. Gunner had been there that day too. I looked back at the picture of me and my smiling classmates. He was right there in the picture. He was standing behind me and Walker, grinning shyly at the camera.
This was right before school would be out for the summer. And somewhere around the time where we had become friends. I remember that because we had gotten together that summer. And it had started that day at the Wurlitzer. I had gotten scared when we rode it down into the stage and he had held my hand. He hid our hands so that no one else could see them because he didn’t want anyone to know and think that he was some guy who was walking around rescuing young girls from their irrational fears. He had a tough guy rep to protect. I didn’t even know how to feel sitting there staring at that picture. Even though we had broken up after the ninth grade, we had still flirted and talked on the phone and sneaked out behind the field house at school to make out. Even when he had another girlfriend. Up until I met Grayson I had always thought that Gunner and I would eventually end up together and tell everyone cute stories about being high school sweethearts later in life. It all seemed so silly now. But had he thought the same thing? Had he been upset when I married Grayson? I needed some answers. I left Braelynn in Keaton’s capable hands, jumped in my truck, and headed to the City Federal building. Thirty minutes later I was standing on the other side of Gunner’s apartment door, waiting for him to answer.
“Brodie? What are you doing here?”
“Can we talk?”
“As friends or as suspect and detective?”
“Of course,” he said as he stepped to the side of the door. He extended his arm towards his living room in a sweeping motion. “Come on in.” I walked into his plush white carpeted living room and immediately felt so out of place. I felt like I was standing inside one of those Glamour magazine spreads dedicated to upscale living. His black leather L-shaped couch sat in the middle of the living room, facing a gigantic flat screen TV that took up nearly the entire wall. There were silver side tables and blood red lamps with black shades on each table. The ottoman was the same blood red as the lamps and there were red throw pillows strewn across the couch. A crystal chandelier dangled from the ceiling. Perfectly posed pictures of him and Chloe littered the mantle of the white marble fireplace.
“Wow. This place is beautiful.”
“You should see the rest of it.” He winked at me. I pretended like I didn’t hear his comment or see the winking of his eye. For all I knew he had a tic that made him talk like an asshole.
“So, unofficially, we have another dead girl.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. We found her on Friday before we came to pick you up. She was sitting on the seat of the Wurlitzer when the cleaning ladies pushed the button for it to rise up out of the stage floor. Can you imagine being one of those cleaning ladies? Humming old disco ditties to yourself as you’re sweeping and then BAM! You’re staring at a horribly disfigured dead girl.”
“I imagine I’d shit myself.”
“I thought the same thing!” I laughed as I sat down on the couch. I noticed the black marble bar in the corner. Gunner walked around it and pulled out two glasses from a lower shelf.
“Is there any other way?”
“You always were my kind of woman, Brodie.” He poured my drink and brought it to me, sitting down beside me on the couch. He was close enough to reach out and touch me but not close enough to seem imposing.
“So, seeing as how we haven’t seen each other in years, and when we finally do see each other you arrest me, can we still be considered friends?”
“Good point. But in my defense, I’m just doing my job. You have to admit you look suspicious. And that’s actually kind of why I am here to talk to you. The killer leaves clues on where to find the bodies. He purposely sends clues addressed to me so that I am the one to find the bodies. These clues are personal to me. They are relevant to my past in some kind of way. Both of these clues involve you.”
“So, you still think I’m the killer?”
“The first clue was where we first almost had sex. The second clue was the Wurlitzer. And I couldn’t think of what that could possibly mean until I found this in the bottom of my cedar chest earlier tonight.” I handed him the picture of us on the Wurlitzer. He grinned a little as he studied the picture. I watched him and could tell that the wheels in his head were spinning. He was either trying to figure out how to keep stringing me along until he really was ready to finally be caught or he was trying to figure out who the hell would be using our memories to not only get me to find these bodies but to have Gunner take the fall for them.
“Man. I haven’t thought about this in a hundred years. I had completely forgotten about it until you showed me this. You remember her making us watch The Phantom of the Opera the day before we went? I was so convinced that we were going to find the Alabama’s phantom. And you were a little chicken shit.”
“Hey! I wasn’t that scared. I was just — cautious.”
“Bullshit! You were so scared! And you weren’t going to ride it unless Walker rode it with you. And he wouldn’t ride it because he was stuck up Mackenzie Peppenheller’s ass. So I rode it with you because I felt sorry for you.”
“Good ole Peppenheller. That girl was a freaking nightmare. And you are so full of shit! You didn’t ride that thing with me just because you felt sorry for me.”
“Sure I did! You were going to be the only kid in the class who didn’t ride it.”
“What? I’m serious. I did it to be nice.”
“Bullshit. If you had just done it to be nice you wouldn’t have made sure that we were the only two on it other than the guy running it and you wouldn’t have held my hand.” Gunner’s grin spread wide across his face so that I could see all of his perfect white teeth. His dimples deepened in his cheeks and I saw a slight blush creeping up his neck. He really thought I didn’t have a clue what he had been doing as a goofy kid. I knew the moment he slipped his hand around mine what he was doing.
“You didn’t pull away.”
“I was scared. I probably would have held Lon Chaney’s hand!”
“Now, who’s telling lies?” So, now it was my turn to blush. “Never mind. That part is irrelevant. Why are these two murders connected to memories that we have together? Memories that are significant to our childhood relationship with each other?”
“Do I still look guilty if I say I don’t know?” I took a long drag of my whiskey and sloshed it around in my mouth before swallowing it. I was thinking of how I was going to get him to open up to me and just admit what he had done. If I could get him going down memory lane maybe he would let his guard down and just fess up. Why would someone frame him for a murder?
“Do you know of anyone who would frame you for two murders? One of them being your fiancée?”
“No. But then again I don’t know anyone who would want my fiancée dead either. That doesn’t mean I did it.”
“What about that nasty secretary of yours?”
“Selena? No. Despite the scandal between she and I, she really adored Chloe. I don’t know why though. Chloe was such a fucking snob to her. Selena was one of those fat girls in high school that was so desperate to be friends with the popular girls that she would basically do anything they asked. She let Chloe run all over her. She would do all of the work I assigned her and then I’d catch her picking up Chloe’s dry-cleaning, replying to Chloe’s e-mails, even her Twitter messages. I talked to Selena about it one time and explained to her that she didn’t have to do any of that shit for Chloe and she didn’t make a big deal out of it or anything but she told me that she liked doing it. And then after we slept together I think she continued doing stuff for Chloe and waiting on Chloe hand and foot because she felt guilty. Why do you dislike her so much?”
“She wears too much makeup. She dresses like she’s the secretary for the Mike’s Booby Trap and she’s really nosey. Like, really nosey.”
“Yeah, but she’s not so bad if you get to know her. And she’s definitely not a killer.”
“I don’t think you are either but — here we are — discussing dead bodies that seem to keep pointing back to you.”
“Touché. Brodie, be honest with yourself and me for just a second. Are you here because you’re just doing your job or are you here because you really don’t want me to be guilty?”
“I don’t want you to be guilty. I’d never want to know that you killed two innocent girls to play a sick game with me. “
“And why would I? Play a game with you, I mean? We haven’t talked to each other in almost ten years. Why would I suddenly start killing off pretty girls to get your attention? Not trying to toot my own horn but I’ve got better moves than that, sweetheart. If I had wanted your attention, I promise you, I would have gotten it.” I gulped down the rest of my whiskey. My lips were warm from the buzz of the alcohol and the edges of my brain were starting to blur. He did have a really good point. Why would he wait almost ten years to do something like this?
“I have no idea, Gunner. I’m at a loss here. There isn’t much evidence in either case and what little evidence we have so far keeps pointing back to you. If you have any ideas, then by all means, let’s hear them. And just what makes you think that you could get my attention so easily?”
“It may have been a while since I’ve seen you, honey, but you aren’t like other people. You have been set in your ways since the day I met you. If there is any word to describe you, it would be predictable. I know you, Brodie. I know what gets your attention. I always have. And I know one of those things is me.”
He leaned in close to my face and I could smell the sweet bourbon smell on his breath. My heart was beating in my throat and my brain was screaming at my lungs to breath. I could feel the heat radiating from his large chest and I leaned back a little. Gunner must have noticed because he grinned that same Cheshire grin and leaned away from me.
“I don’t remember you being such an over-confident bastard?” Gunner laughed as he wrapped and arm around my waist and pulled me into his lap. I was so shocked by the action that I couldn’t think straight. Inside my head I was yelling at myself to get up but part of me wanted to stay and see what happened. There would always be a part of me that was connected to Gunner. He had been my first love. He had almost been my first lover. It didn’t happen behind the bamboo but it had eventually happened. He knew the intimate parts of me before anyone else ever did. Gunner would always be special to me and I desperately wanted him to be innocent. I could not even begin to imagine what life would be like if he confessed to these murders.
“That’s because I wasn’t always like this. Of course, I don’t remember you being such a high-strung bitch either.”
“Touché. Tell me you didn’t kill those girls.” Instead of saying a word, he cupped my chin in one hand, with the other still on my waist, and kissed me. I was asking him to tell me that he didn’t murder two girls, one of those being his fiancée, and he kissed me. The really sad part was that the kiss was really good and I didn’t know whether to be disgusted or turned on. I was leaning towards the disgusted part all things considered.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“What I’ve been thinking about doing since you walked into my office the other day. You are burned into my brain, Brodie Barrett. No, damnit, I didn’t kill those girls but I’m not sorry that it brought you into my office. I forgot how much I’ve missed seeing your beautiful face and hearing your fucked up, sarcastic sense of humor. I just needed to kiss you and get it over with.”
“If you didn’t kill these girls, Gunner, then who the hell did? Who would frame you for murder?”
“I have no idea.”
“It has to be someone who knows both of us. Who knows our history?”
“So, someone we were friends with in high school?”
“Did you talk about me to someone in college?”
“Maybe to one of my college girlfriends, but other than that, no.”
“It has to be someone from high school.”
“What about Peppenheller? She was always obsessed with you. And was always trying to break us up even though she was under the bleachers every Friday during fourth period sucking off Walker.”
“She doesn’t even live in Birmingham anymore. She lives somewhere in Tokyo with her Navy wife.”
“Swear. She came home for Megan Shaehan’s wedding three years ago and while she was there she introduced me to her then girlfriend. And then invited me back to their hotel for a threesome.”
“What? Did you go?”
“Fuck you. No. What about Duke D’Angelo? He was always kind of weird. You remember that time he sewed the pig legs on that frog in science class?”
“Don’t remind me. I think I threw up everything I had ever eaten that day. But how would he know anything about us? We never talked to him. What about Mark Handley? He and I were pretty tight back in the day. I told him just about everything. And he had a huge crush on you.”
“He did not. Mark was just a nice guy.”
“Trust me; he had a crush on you. I heard from someone a while back that he’d had a nervous breakdown when his wife divorced him and that he’d spent some time in Georgia at some mental health place. You think something like this could stem from that?”
“Doubtful. I mean, why us if he’s upset about his wife leaving him?”
“Shit. I don’t know. I’m just trying to come up with ideas. Oh. Oh, hell. What about that freak ass janitor? What was his name? You remember? The guy that caught us in the boy’s locker room by the gym? And he was all ‘oh, don’t mind me. Just go back to what you were doing?’ Even though we were clearly doing something we weren’t supposed to be doing since I was neck-deep in your —”
“If you say it, I will shoot your ass right here on your expensive couch. I will shoot you in the face.” He winked at me again. One more wink and I was gouging his eyes out.
“But seriously, what about that guy?”
“It’s possible. Seems so far-fetched, though. I mean, for someone to take this long to do something like this? And wouldn’t he be old by now? Isn’t there an age limit on serial killers or something?”
“What if these aren’t the first girls they’ve killed? What if they’ve been practicing and then when they felt like they got it right they decided to start sending you the clues?”
“Criminal Minds. But it’s entirely possible.”
“It’s the best theory we’ve come up with so far. But I still don’t understand why they would choose you and me. You said yourself we haven’t seen each other in almost ten years.”
“Maybe we’re Romeo and Juliet.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Hear me out. You got married to someone else. I had a string of terrible relationships. Numerous things kept coming our way and pulling us farther apart. However, as soon as we saw each other, there was a spark. A recognition of that feeling. That flame that burns for someone you cared about. That lust and hunger to have them again. But, they didn’t want us together the first time. So, what better way to ensure that we will never be together again?”
“Convince me that you’re a killer so that I lock you up?”
“That’s really fucked up.”
“Agreed. And I could be totally wrong but I promise you, Brodie, I didn’t kill those girls. Yes, Chloe drove me fucking nuts but I loved her more than anything. And it hurts like hell that she isn’t here anymore.”
“Shit. Why do I believe you?”
“Because you know when someone is lying and you know that I’m not lying.”
“Maybe. Fine, I believe you. For now. But, in order to get your name cleared, you have to help me. I need to know where you are and who you are with at all times of the day until we get this thing solved. If you have any time unaccounted for and another body shows up, I will personally arrest you.”
“Can we pretend like that all happened so that you use those cuffs on me?”
“Nice try. But I mean it.”
“Fine, fine. I agree. We need to find out who the killer is though before he kills again.”
“If he hasn’t already.”