Chapter 1: When No One’s Watching
A slim but muscular woman in civvies strode into the crowded ballroom three of the hotel amid the scents of perfumes, arthritis creams, and hors d’oeuvres swirling together. She hovered her fingers close to her head to check if any of her dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail had worked itself loose. Satisfied it hadn’t, the woman in her early forties approached a group of mostly women detectives.
“Hi, I’m Caato.”
“Oh, you’re the one who’s a sheriff, right? You’re not actually a detective?” A chubby detective smirked.
Caato lowered her head. “Yeah. I investigate everything that happens in my jurisdiction.” Raising her head again, her eyes burned through the chubby detective’s smug face. “That’s why I attended this weeklong seminar and paid for it out of my own pocket. Being around detectives and learning from firsthand real world experiences makes me a better investigator.”
“I suppose.” The chubby one shifted to the side to not face Caato. “I guess that’s why you only wore your uniform on the first day; you learned that much at least. But it’s hardly a substitute for proper police training. You didn’t attend any academy, did you?”
“How did you get to be sheriff of wherever it is you come from?”
“The citizens elected me. That means they know what I’m capable of, and they gave me their vote of confidence. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The chubby detective scowled at Caato.
“Well, you’re mocking me. You’re looking down your nose at me. But the good people of my town prove their faith in me by reelecting me every four years. In the last twelve years, you’ve been fired by one police department, you’ve resigned under a cloud of suspicion from another, and right now there’s an IA investigation of you underway. You’re a dirty cop, and the only way you remain employed is by job hopping to stay ahead of those investigating you.”
“You checked up on me?”
“What? Does that surprise you? You aren’t the only one who can investigate people. Any good cop should acquire as much information as possible about the situation she’ll face, but you wouldn’t know anything about that since you aren’t a good cop.” Caato turned her back on the group and ordered a drink at the table set up to act as the bar. She plunked down by herself at a table at a far corner of the room.
A petite woman with dark, windswept hair slipped into ballroom three. Clutching her phone, she approached first one gaggle of detectives, then another. Each time she spoke to them for only a minute or two before those in the groups shook their heads and motioned her away. The woman tried her luck with the various gaggles of detectives lounging around the tables scattered throughout the room. Even when she appeared to plead with the attendees, no one tolerated her for more than a few minutes at a time.
A gray haired woman tossed and turned in her bed. Her black cat lay on her pillow kneading her head. She swatted at the cat, so it slapped her hand and flicked its tail.
The woman grunted as she sat up, disentangling the cat’s front claws from her hair. “Damn it, Stinky, my belly’s on fire. What the hell’s happening?” She burped, tugging her nightgown away from her sweaty breasts. “Oh, that’s nasty.”
The cat moaned at her but remained prone.
She padded into the bathroom and dug through the medicine cabinet, not bothering to turn on the light. Unable to find what she sought, she glanced around the sink in the moonlight then pondered a moment. “Where’d I leave the antacid, Stinky?”
The cat yammered as it pranced into the bathroom. It tentatively stepped into its litter box, sniffing here and there. Without warning, it bolted from the box, scattering litter across the bathroom.
“Damn it, Stinky, stop making a mess. That isn’t a sandbox to play in. Why do you even need a box?” She followed it down the hall without switching on any lights. “You’re the only cat I ever heard of who comes inside to do his business. There’s something seriously wrong with you, you know?”
Stinky answered her with a cross between a chitter and a moan.
The woman found the container of antacids on the kitchen counter, so she popped four in her mouth and chewed them, making a face. “Fruit flavored my ass. This tastes like something you’d leave in your box.”
Stinky jumped onto the counter and rubbed its cheeks on the faucet. The only light filtering in from the window threw the cat into a shadow. When Stinky twisted its head to rub the other cheek, its black shape became invisible. As it focused again on the woman, its eyes glowed out of the darkness. A moment later it meowed, raising the pitch at the end as if asking a question.
“No way. It isn’t time for breakfast. You’ll just have to wait. Your food and water are right over there.” The woman poured herself a glass of water and sat at the kitchen table, situated right under the only window. She gazed out the open window of the darkened house into the night.
The cat hopped onto the kitchen table and headbutted the woman’s forehead, its show of affection. She scooped it in her arms and nuzzled it. It scrambled down and scratched at the back door by the kitchen table.
“You want to go out? Yeah, why don’t you? That way you won’t wake me up, clawing my head, trying to make me fix you breakfast at all hours. Go on, then.” She opened the door and tracked the cat with her eyes as it scampered into the night. “Just remember, you’re out for the night. I’m not getting up to let you back in.”
The woman, enjoying the slight breeze on the sticky night, cocked her head at the faint drone of an airplane engine. She listened a few seconds then closed and locked the door. Back at the table she switched on the radio on the table under the window, its soft light no match for the light of the night through the window.
Amid the whine and the interference of the AM station, the announcer’s voice cut through. “…and that brings us up to now. It’s 10:42. I hope your evening is going well. Maybe this next one will put you in a good mood. Think back to where you were the first time you heard this.” A song struggled to rise above the interference.
While humming along to the song and savoring the summer scents wafting through the window, the gray haired woman rested her chin in her hands with her elbows on the table. A moment later, her chin slipped off her hands. She died in that instant as the radio fell silent and dark. Her head slammed onto the table, but her eyes never blinked. They remained open, peering out the window, never again closing, never again seeing.
As the windswept woman scanned the hotel ballroom for another clump of people to approach, Caato motioned her over. “You’re a horrible judge of people, aren’t you?”
She sat at Caato’s table, placing her drink in front of her. “What do you mean?”
“Do you know who these people are? You’re lucky they didn’t arrest you. They’re all detectives. This get together is for the investigators who attended a symposium. It ended today, so this is our mixer before we all head home.”
“Yeah, I know that. That’s why I’m here. Why are you here? You seem different from all the others, all by yourself over here.”
“That’s because I am different from them. I’m used to being by myself. I’m Sheriff Zomveka.” Caato offered her hand to the woman.
“Hi.” She shook hands. “I’m Verita. Verita Hassas. I don’t understand why you think I’m a horrible judge of people.”
“You’re a hooker, aren’t you?”
Verita grinned. “A hooker? Wow. Now who’s a horrible judge of people?” She set her phone on the table. “I make documentaries and post them on my website. I was asking those people if I could document how they conduct investigations.” She chuckled. “I wasn’t propositioning them.”
“Oh. Well, then, my apologies.” Sheriff Zomveka sipped her drink. “So nobody’s interested in you documenting how they work?”
“No. There’s been so much negative attention on the police what with all the shootings of black people. I thought someone here might jump at the chance to show how impartial investigations are conducted. I wanted to follow them around on the job to document how real life investigations, not low level policing, are conducted in light of our racial awakening.”
“Who do you work for?”
“No one. I’m independent. I run my own website. I post articles on my blog.”
“Can you really make a living doing that?” Caato scrutinized her face.
“Uh, if you have enough of an audience. I’m struggling, but I’m trying.”
Sheriff Zomveka waved her arm to sweep across the rest of the people in the ballroom. “You certainly know how to deal with rejection, so if you maintain that doggedness, you might just become a success. Good for you. Keep at it.”
“Sheriff, what about you? You must investigate things. Maybe you’re an even better person to shadow. You aren’t limited to just burglaries, homicides, or whatever. You must see it all. How about it? Can I shadow you to document how you conduct investigations?”
“Well, I walked right into that.” Caato flicked her ponytail onto her back.
Some protesters, mostly young, gathered on a street. Few knew one another, but they shared a common interest in ending systemic racism, so they treated one another with respect. As time passed and they meandered along the streets, more protesters merged with them, so their numbers swelled just like their hopes of making meaningful change.
Police in uniforms only, not in full riot gear, met the crowd in an intersection from both sides of the street. They knelt a moment before they mingled with the protesters. Law enforcement maintained a cordial atmosphere while discussing the issues of racism, police reform, and judicial equity. The officers presented themselves as regular people with the same concerns and desires as the protesters. They also impressed on the demonstrators that their duty required the officers to subdue those endangering the public, but the protesters didn’t fall into that category, so they happily marched with them.
The demonstration progressed through the heart of the city for hours. Aside from a few people stuck in the snarled traffic, everyone disbanded feeling good about themselves and their cause. Even those not part of the march recognized the validity of the issues raised by the protesters.
Honey crawled across the bed to her side against the wall. She tugged at her tee-shirt to cover her panties. “Hey, Babe, come on. What are you doing?”
“Coming, Honey. I was curious about the weather for tomorrow.” He plopped onto his side of the bed, still fully dressed.
“Whoa, what are you doing? Take a shower. You smell like gasoline, and you know that gives me a headache.”
“Ahh, I’m so tired. I worked hard today.”
“Well, if you’re too tired.” She rolled away from him.
“No, no. I’m not too tired, Honey.” Babe jumped up and stripped out of his clothes. He dashed into the adjacent bathroom’s shower. Five minutes later he emerged with a towel around his waist.
Honey pretended to sleep, facing the wall and exaggerating her snoring.
“Damn, you snore like a sumo wrestler.” He knelt on the bed. “No matter. Since you’re such a sound sleeper, I’ll take my dastardly pleasure with you, and you’ll never know. Hmm, what’s under this tee-shirt?” Babe tickled her ribs.
Honey giggled and rolled over to face him. She wrapped her arms around Babe’s neck and pulled him down onto her. “Would you do me a favor?”
“Sure, Honey, anything for you.” He kissed her.
“Stop by Jen’s place tomorrow. Her tractor is acting up again.”
“Oh, Honey, that’s just cruel.” Babe held the back of his hand to his forehead and gazed upward as if in some silent movie melodrama. He spoke while barely moving his lips. “You make me all twitterpated, and then you spring that on me when my mind is so clearly on other things.” He lowered his hand and glared at his wife as he silently mouthed the words to continue the illusion of being in a silent movie.
Honey giggled. “Come on, she’s my best friend. She needs that tractor.”
Babe broke into a grin. “Yeah, I know, and I’m happy to help her, but there’s only so much I can do with that thing. It’s falling apart. The thing is rusted through in so many places, and the engine needs a complete rebuild. I’d do the work for free, but she can’t even afford the replacement parts. It’s blowing by the rings. And the lifters are—”
“Babe, mechanic talk isn’t sexy, especially when it’s all gobbledegook. We’ve been through that, remember? Just do what you can, okay?”
“I can’t promise anything. Last time she blew a gasket. Yeah, her tractor was leaking oil worse than my Uncle Oscar’s ass leaks… I don’t know what. I made the trip to get her a new one, paid for it myself, and installed it all for free.”
“I know, I know.” Honey hugged Babe. “I’ll reward you.” She kissed him as he lay on top of her.
Babe shot a glance at the clock on the nightstand while resting on his elbows to avoid squishing Honey. “Oh, it’s already 10:43. I just know her tractor is going to require another trip for parts tomorrow, so I’ll have to make an early start, but we still have critical business to conduct here.”
Honey giggled. “What kind of business?”
“I need to get all up in your business, that’s what—” Babe died in mid-sentence just as that digital alarm clock belched a puff of smoke and fell dark. His body ceased functioning and dropped onto Honey, squeezing the air from her lungs.
She didn’t protest. Honey lay perfectly still, no longer needing to breathe or blink, either, dead the same instant that her husband died.
As innocuous jazz played in the background, Verita stole glances at Sheriff Zomveka, across the table from her, while also observing the other attendees of the mixer who filled the hotel’s ballroom three to capacity. Some people stood in clusters, each with drink in hand, while others swarmed around the two dozen tables scattered around the room.
Verita leaned closer to the sheriff although the two alone occupied that corner table. “You haven’t answered my question, Sheriff Zomveka.”
The sheriff turned her head, her dark brown ponytail swinging on her back. “Yeah, I’m thinking. And you don’t need to be so formal with me. Call me Caato. I’m not big on formalities.”
“Okay, Caato. Uh, and I promise I won’t let your mistaking me for a hooker color my presentation of the facts.”
Caato grinned. “Pointing out my failings isn’t the best way to win me over.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I was thinking that maybe you’d feel guilty and want to make it up to me by agreeing.” Verita flashed a weak smile.
Caato waved to someone at the other end of the room by the doors. When she flexed her arm, her muscles pulled the blouse sleeve tight. The woman paused to order a drink at a table standing in for a bar before approaching them. A younger, more petite version of the sheriff with shoulder length light brown hair, she sat between the two at the round table.
“Mata, this is Ms. Hassas. She’s a reporter. Verita, this is my younger sister, Matakite. She’s not law enforcement. She just accompanied me on this trip.”
Verita shook Mata’s hand. “Yeah, we met this afternoon… and I’m not a reporter. I’m a documentarian. Long time no see.”
“Right?” Matakite sipped her drink. “Last time we spoke, Verita, you were looking for an interesting story to portray.”
Sheriff Zomveka nudged her sister. “Yeah, she was asking if she can shadow me and show the world what investigations are really like. What do you think? Should I let her follow me around?”
“Well, if my sister, the sheriff, turns out to have a boring job, which she does, maybe you’ll find my life interesting. You know, I was hesitant to talk to you this afternoon because I wasn’t sure about your motives, but I think maybe you’re okay.”
“Oh, maybe not. I might have a seedy side to my life that even I didn’t know about.” Verita squeezed Mata’s forearm. “Your sister here thought I was a prostitute earlier.”
Mata snickered. “So much for her detective skills. No, if you want to document someone interesting, look no further. I told you this afternoon that I was talking to a ghost. What I didn’t tell you is that I live with that ghost every day. Wouldn’t you like to discover how that came about?”
Verita activated the video camera on her phone. “Absolutely.”
“Don’t say anything.” Caato spoke too loud. “You’re going to get yourself put in an asylum if you keep telling strangers that you see people who aren’t really there.”
“My sister doesn’t believe me.”
“I’m open minded. Let me hear your story.” Verita leaned the camera against her purse so it remained immobile while capturing Mata as she spoke.
“Okay, here goes.” Mata sipped her drink then pushed it back to avoid spilling it.
In Myanmar, a Rohingya woman pressed her deceased husband’s head to her chest as his bloody body sprawled in the dirt, and she huddled beside him. A military officer smirked at her as he strode by. She swatted a hand behind her to check for her youngest, but her son already scooped up his sister and shielded her face from the brutality.
Mata cleared her throat at the table in the corner of ballroom three. “My twin sister, Aue, and I spent all our time together, but she died when we were eight years old. I’m partly responsible for her death. You see, we went to an abandoned mine; we grew up in a rural area. Our parents and others told us countless times to steer clear of that place, but we didn’t listen. We egged each other on, taking turns, daring one another to get closer to the mine, to go up to the entrance. You know how kids are; they become engrossed in what they’re doing and don’t bother to think about the consequences.”
“Well, I dared Aue to go inside the mine, just a few steps inside. That mine entrance, a tunnel carved into a hillside, must’ve been boarded up at one time, but some of the boards fell away over time, so slipping inside proved no trouble. And of course once she stood inside the mouth of the tunnel, Aue dared me to come in and to go a few steps past her. So I did. If we hadn’t had light from our phones to see by, we wouldn’t have ventured more than a few feet inside because past that point you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. But with the light from our phones, we saw enough. With the scent of dirt and old timber, the place felt safe, just like the woods outside. We played games. We laughed, just joking around. Then we discovered tools and other things in there to capture our attention and our imaginations. After a while, we delved pretty deep into the mine.”
“That’s when we came upon a creepy branching route, so naturally we explored that tunnel. All the cobwebs lent to the spooky atmosphere. Further in, we thought we heard whispering. Maybe that was the wind, I don’t know, but that’s not how kids think. The whispering scared us, but it also excited us. Were the tunnels used as a hideout? Were pirates stashing loot in there? Never mind that the mine was hundreds and hundreds of miles from the ocean, and pirates were as likely to stash treasure there as they were to have flying ships. We didn’t worry much about reality back when we were so young. I don’t know. Maybe we didn’t even know what reality was back then.”
“So deeper we crept. That’s when we first considered that the whispers and faint voices we heard might be ghosts of dead miners from far in the past. I’m pretty sure we screamed. Well, a section of the tunnel partially collapsed.”
“I don’t know if our screaming caused it, or if just the vibrations of us walking and bumping into things in the poor light of our cell phones caused it, or even if it would’ve happened whether we were there or not. All I know is when the rocks and dirt showered down from the roof of the tunnel, Aue shoved me out of the way of a falling rock, but that rock killed her. I should be dead. Aue should still be alive, but instead it’s backwards.”