At 6:30 AM every morning, the small plastic clock on our bedside table comes to life with an odd sound that’s part rattle and part bell and fully annoying. It’s usually silenced by Luke’s fist as he smashes the button on its top and groans at the light streaming in the blinds at the foot of our bed. And so another day begins in the Harding household. But not today.
The bell rattle lasts for a full minute before I finally unwrap the pillow from my head and reach over my husband’s lifeless body to pound the clock into submission. I stare quizzically at Luke, who seems not to have heard the alarm at all. This is a good sign, I figure. Maybe he’s finally catching up on his slept debt. I roll out of bed and head for the kitchen to make breakfast.
It’s another half hour before I finally hear the first stirrings of life from our bedroom. I’ve put on one of Luke’s favorite oldies records to coax him out of bed–Sam Cooke’s Greatest Hits–and I’m swaying my hips and singing into a spatula covered in scrambled egg bits when he finally stumbles into the kitchen.
“You’re always, you’re always, you’re always, o-o-on my mind,” I coo at him, managing to cajole a smile from his face.
“Haven’t heard you sing in a while. I think you missed your calling,” he teases.
I toss my hair over my shoulder with an exaggerated flourish and bat my eyes at him. “Breakfast is ready, my dear. Hungry?”
He nods, but seems distracted. Did I say something wrong? It’s been hard these last few days, knowing what I should and shouldn’t say. I don’t want to push him, but at the same time, I feel like we can’t just ignore things and live life like he didn’t almost die.
“Oh,” I say suddenly as I pour Luke a glass of orange juice, “just remembered–the front door was unlocked when I got up this morning. Did you forget to lock it last night?”
Luke frowns for a moment before answering. “Oh, sorry, yeah. Must’ve forgotten to lock it when I got in last night. I couldn’t sleep, went out for some food.”
“When did you get in?”
“It was… pretty late. Ran into Pryce.”
“As in Dale Pryce? Your Captain? What was he doing out there?”
“He couldn’t sleep either, I guess.”
“Did you two talk?”
“Yeah. He’s pretty angry.”
“What about you?” I ask, trying to be as nonchalant as possible.
“I’m ok, I guess. It’s all still on repeat in my brain. But I’ll make it.”
“Good,” I say with a smile, resisting the urge to say a lot more. I lean forward and peck him on the cheek, but he tenses. He’s got that strange look in his eyes again. I wonder if I’m pushing him too hard. I wish someone would just tell me what I’m supposed to be doing for him.
“Good eggs,” Luke says, staring into his plate. “Thanks.”
I nod and smile, and a few minutes pass before either of us speak again. Luke’s got his phone on the table and he keeps checking it, probably to avoid having to talk to me. I amble around the kitchen, wiping away the grease on the counters and stovetop.
“So, how do you feel about your first day back at work?” I ask.
“Not sure yet. I guess I’m looking forward to seeing everyone.”
I nod, my mind going through all the colleagues that I’ve met there over the years. Sanders. Johnson. Odewald. Liezek. Then another face suddenly pops into my head. “Hey, by the way, Luke, I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”
“Yeah? What’s up?”
“Who was that woman who visited you at the hospital? Miss Richards, right? Is she a cop?”
I turn to see Luke reach for his glass of juice, and gulp down the entire thing before answering. “She’s a reporter with The Herald.”
“A reporter? Was she there to interview you?”
“No. But, she interviewed me before. She wrote a piece about the fire and wanted some more details.”
“So why was she at the hospital?”
“She had some interesting information about the explosion. She’s been working on a story and… Well, she just wanted to fill me in.”
“Oh. She’s pretty. I’d kill for legs like that.”
“Oh? Didn’t really notice,” he says.
“I’ll bet Gabe is all over her.”
“Yeah, I think he’s mentioned something once or twice,” Luke says, bringing his plate to the sink and heading for the closet.
“Oh, and that reminds me,” I say.
“You remember Chelsea and Walter, right?”
“I was kind of wondering if, maybe sometime, we could have them over again. I feel kind of bad about what happened last time.”
“Uh. Yeah, sure babe, that’s fine,” Luke says quickly as he goes to get dressed.
A few of my colleagues nod respectfully in my direction as I enter the station’s front doors. My face is still a mess. I’m not ashamed of it. It feels right to have some scars to show for the incident. I see that Lieutenant Lorrace has bandages on his neck as well. It’s good to be back. If nothing else, it’s a place to commiserate. I’m also thankful for the distraction that Eva has given me. Keeping her safe is still at the front of my mind. By now she’s probably had Doug fetch her breakfast and ditched her old phone and is working out a way to get in touch. I hope she won’t keep me waiting.
I spend the rest of the morning wading through a mountain of police reports and making phone calls. Since the explosion at the church, the application paperwork for new equipment through the Defense Logistics Program had sped through the tubes, and I’ve been tasked with the job of getting the right signatures and filing through the proper channels. If all goes according to plan, our department will receive a few palettes of military-grade firearms and an armored personnel carrier, the kind that S.W.A.T. teams frequently use. If you’d asked me a month ago, I would’ve said it was overkill for our little precinct, but now I’m wondering if even this will be enough.
And we’re not alone. Since the bomb, there’s been a slew of similar incidents across the country. Many don’t escalate beyond the anonymous-threat stage, but a couple in Oklahoma and Indiana were almost exact copycats of Matthias. The cops didn’t take their chances, and both men were killed on the spot before the media vans even showed up. A few lawmakers on Capitol Hill are suggesting even stronger actions against ex-churchgoers, including state-sponsored surveillance. News stations have dubbed it ‘America’s Anti-Holy War’. The voices in opposition are few and far between.
I think back to the conversation Amy and I had this morning and shake my head. I wasn’t thinking clearly when I agreed to meet with her friends again, that’s for sure. I was nervous and feeling cornered and spoke before thinking. The truth is, I want nothing to do with the Witnesses or anyone else tied up with churches and religion, and I’d be surprised if anyone in this office feels differently. The more I think about Christianity and its flagrant opulence and rampant sex abuse, the more confidence I have in the direction our government is going. Constitutional or not, these reforms are going to save more lives than anything else the administration has done in years.
It’s nearly half past noon when I finally stop for lunch. I scroll through the alerts on my phone, but there’s nothing but a few news headlines and texts from my wife. The stirrings of dread begin gnawing at my stomach. I try to silence it with a couple of hot dogs soaked in mustard and sauerkraut from my favorite sidewalk stand, but when another forty-five minutes roll by without so much as a text, the dread has nearly turned to panic. I hop in my Charger and speed off in the direction of the motel.
I find Doug in the same position he’d been in the night before, slumped in his chair, sleeping with his feet crossed on the counter. I pound a fist once on the countertop to rouse him, and he awakes with the same sour look.
“You again. Whaddya want this time?” he snarls.
“The woman in room 212, you hear anything from her today?” I ask. Doug pauses for a long while, looking me over in my uniform.
“So you’re a cop, huh?”
“No, I just wear this for fun. You gonna answer my question or not?”
“Depends. What’s it worth to you?”
“You think you’re the first man in a uniform I’ve seen come through here? Keeping secrets is hard work, you know? And now you come looking for information, and you expect it’ll come for free?”
“You know what kind of charges you could face for trying to extort a law enforcement officer?” I growl. Doug shrugs, unintimidated.
“Probably nothing worse than you’d face at home when your wife finds out you have a pretty little thing locked away in some ol’ motel.”
Doug points down at the counter and I follow his gesture, finding my hand in a fist, my wedding band in clear view.
“It’s not like that, you–“
“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure it’s not. It never is.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Well, for starters, you could pay for her room last night. The number your lady friend gave me for her credit card bounced back this morning.”
“Fine,” I growl, tugging my wallet out and handing the man my Visa. Doug flashes me a smile and turns to process the payment.
“Thanks for your business. I hope you enjoyed your stay. Oh, and by the way, 212’s been quiet all morning,” Doug says with a wink.
I brush through the back door and climb the stairs, leaping up the steps three at a time, feeling more anxious by the second. I jog down the walkway, glancing at the numbers. 209… 210… 211… Then I come to a stop, turning to look at the next room. The door is wide open. Bedsheets and pillowcases lay in a pile in a corner. The smell of bleach is almost overwhelming and someone inside is humming.
“Hello?” I call out, rapping against the open door. The humming stops abruptly and a middle aged Hispanic woman emerges in a stained apron and rubber gloves.
“Ah?” The woman says in surprise, then rattles off something rapidly in Spanish. I raise my hands, trying to slow her down.
“The woman, in this room. Where is she?” I ask. The housekeeper frowns and shakes her head. I clench my teeth and do my best to summon my mostly forgotten Spanish.
“La mujer? Donde esta?” I attempt shakily. But the woman’s face lights up.
“La mujer? No está aquí. No está,” she says with an exaggerated shrug and a shake of her finger.
Eva isn’t here? But why would she leave? And why would she do anything without letting me know first? I sit on the edge of the bed and mull it all over as the housekeeper returns to her chores. She shoots me a few suspicious glances at first, but quickly seems to forget about me.
I try to reassure myself that there’s probably a reasonable explanation for this. Maybe Eva got tired of being cooped up in a grungy little motel room and went out for breakfast and fresh air. But if so, why had she taken everything with her? I survey the room once more. Everything of Eva’s that I saw the night before-suitcases, a garment bag, a few pairs of shoes, are nowhere to be found. I poke around the room, looking through drawers and under the furniture, but there’s nothing left. Not a single trace of the woman who’d been here only hours before. Clearly, wherever’s she’s gone, she’s gone for good.
I’m shaken from my thoughts by the touch of the housekeeper’s hand on my shoulder. I turn to find her dangling a small black piece of plastic from a string between her fingers. She asks me something that I can’t understand and motions for me to take the object. I grab it from her and turn it slowly in my hands. I twist one edge slightly to reveal four gold-color prongs, and I realize that I’m holding a USB flash drive.
Apparently Eva has left something behind after all. I want to ask how and where the housekeeper had found it, but I’ve used up all of the Spanish I know and I doubt Doug will be any help as a translator, so I simply make a grateful gesture, pocket the drive, and leave.