After instructing the forensic team to treat the crime scene as a suspected murder case, we pile into Reyes’ sedan. She drives while McLean rides shotgun, his laptop perched on his knees. I’m in the back seat like an unwanted stepchild.
“All she’s got is a misdemeanor,” McLean says, peering at the screen. “Not sure for what. It’s old. Probably shoplifting.”
Reyes makes a small noise to confirm she’s listening. Traffic on Grand is light on a Sunday morning and she speeds through a left on Harrison. She doesn’t make a straight shot to the freeway, though, to Merryweather’s address. Instead, she veers left on Lakeside Drive, scanning the walkway Merryweather and her kid might have taken the day before. The lakeside path was clear and open. Not what you would call a dangerous route. I silently curse myself for not getting the address of the flower shop Merryweather had been aiming for.
“You did all right,” Reyes says.
I look up into the rearview mirror to see Reyes scrutinizing me.
“I didn’t get much out of it, I mean, her.”
McLean is silent, but I know if Reyes weren’t in the car, he would detail exactly how I screwed up.
“The important thing is that we put her to rest,” Reyes says. “If we find the murderer, that’s a bonus.”
“I thought we were detectives,” I say.
My orientation on Friday afternoon hadn’t explained much. Reyes and McLean had basically just conducted a mini-interview. I hadn’t bothered to ask them any questions about my new job. Nor had I expected to be called in on a Sunday morning. I roll my tongue over my slimy teeth.
“We are,” McLean answers. I catch a hint of his ego. “But the shevue will likely take over this investigation now that we got rid of the ghost.”
I didn’t want to ask, but I had no idea what he was talking about.
“S-V-U,” McLean explains. “Special Victims Unit.”
“I know what S-V-U stands for,” I say. “No one calls it shevue.”
McLean turns in his seat to stare me wrong, but Reyes confirms it.
“You don’t call it shevue?” he asks Reyes.
“No,” she says, laughter in her voice. It sounds like a welcoming rain on a hot, summer day. “You just made that up,” she added.
“No, I didn’t,” he says. “That’s what everyone calls it.”
No,” Reyes corrects. “That’s what you call it. Took me a while to figure out what you meant when you first said it.”
“Why didn’t you ever correct me?” he says. There’s surprise and disappointment on his face.
Reyes shrugged. “It’s your thing,” she finally says.
“You two are both wrong,” I interrupt the love-birds. “It’s Special Victims Division. So, where are we going?”
Reyes pulls us onto Madison heading for the freeway. As we get closer to the harbor channel, traffic gets heavy.
“Well, they haven’t taken the case from us yet,” Reyes says, giving me a wink via the rearview mirror. “We’ll visit her place. Maybe her son got away when she was hit. He could be at home, hiding from whoever did it.”
“Are we sure it was a murder?” I ask. “It looked like she hung herself.”
“The spirits of the dead only hang around for one reason,” McLean says. “An unjustified death.”
“That’s a good question,” Reyes says, ignoring McLean. “Ghosts haunt the place where they died only if they felt their death was unjustified. Conceivably, there are situations where a murder did not precede a haunting.”
“Okay,” I say. “But you think this is a murder.”
“It’s very likely,” Reyes said. “It matches the standard m.o. A perp wants to murder someone so they knock out the person first, then kill them. The victim doesn’t know they’ve been murdered, so no haunting. The mistake this perp made was to hang Merryweather. She didn’t die fast enough and must have woken before she passed.”
McLean sucked in his breath. “Could you imagine waking up like that?”
We all grow silent.
I think of my father, and yes, I can imagine it.
When we get to her place, we park on the opposite side of Harrison Square and walk across the small Chinese Garden Park. A small homeless encampment is unsuccessfully hiding between the child center and the freeway.
A discarded bed lays in the fenced, empty lot next to Merryweather’s place and a graffiti artist had painted a huge panda on one of the adjacent buildings. It’s looking out with a gleam in one eye, the other hidden beneath a traditional Chinese farmer’s straw hat. One black, clawed paw reaches out, a spear in the other. Kung-fu panda, but badass.
Too bad kung-fu panda wasn’t around to save Merryweather.
Merryweather’s place is a small, white colonial tucked between the corner building labeled Ham Wah Sum Tong and another residence. I can’t tell what the store used to sell. It looks closed and the sign means nothing to me. My former beat was near Highland Park, Funktown. My Latina heritage and all. My Spanish isn’t half bad, but I knew nothing of Cantonese.
McLean motions for me to take the lead up the front door steps. I give him a sneer. I really don’t feel like making a house call.
“You’re wearing the suit,” he says.
I concede and move ahead of him.
I like my police officer’s uniform. When I put it on, it almost feels like I’m still in the military. When Reyes informed me her unit went plainclothes, I almost protested, but knew I’d have to put the uniform away for special occasions only. When I got the call to come in this morning, I just automatically put it on. I don’t even have anything appropriate for a plainclothes detective. Running pants and a hoodie isn’t going to cut it even if I was only a spook detective.
After I knock, a Caucasian man in his mid-fifties – white-peppered brown hair, dark eyes behind thick glasses, medium height, heavyset – opens the door.
“Oh, dear,” he says. “That was quick.” He turns away and calls for someone inside.
An African-American woman around the same age as the man, an older version of the dead woman we left in the park, eases between the man and the door. She is slim like her daughter, but she’s got to open the door wide to see us. The narrow hallway beyond is dark, but neat, pictures evenly spaced along both walls. I catch a glimpse of a bright, clean kitchen.
“You’ve found them?” she asks.
But she holds her husband like she already knows. Her eyes bounce from me to McLean before settling on Reyes.
“Ma’am, Sir,” I say by way of greeting. “Did you call in?”
“Yes,” the man says. “We were supposed to meet our daughter and grandson for breakfast this morning. They didn’t show up, so we came here. We called you immediately. I told you all this before.”
The harried public always think the police had some sort of hive mind.
I pull out my notepad. “I’m Officer Tesserak,” I say. “And this is Detective Reyes and Detective McLean. Your names please.”
“Richard Kortum,” she answers for the man. “And I’m Helena Kortum. My daughter–”
“Do you mean Lindsay Merryweather?” I ask.
“Yes,” Helena says. “From a previous marriage,” she adds by way of explaining the difference in last names.
“Ma’am,” Reyes says. “Do you mind if we come inside?”
I can see they are afraid of what’s coming. Drive-by shootings in this part of Oakland are as common as a pile of homeless turd, but they are trying to keep up appearances. The man turns and goes into the kitchen, asking over his shoulder if anyone wants tea. The woman simply steps aside and points down the hall.
Everyone takes it differently, and I’m glad I put on my uniform this morning because my stack of cards with grief counselors’ numbers was still in my front shirt pocket.
I go in first, scanning the pictures as I go by. There are a lot with Lindsay, a light-skinned African-American boy, and an Asian man I presume is the boy’s father. The son and father share the same chin and prominent cheek bones. The ones further in the back beyond the parlor look like sunset or sunrise ocean views probably from the marina or a boat.
Once inside Merryweather’s small parlor – tastefully furnished – we stand in front of the large screen TV mounted to the far wall. Mrs. Kortum sits on the couch and leans her head into her palms.
“What did he do to her?” Mrs. Kortum asks.
I glance at Reyes, wondering if she would do the death notification or if I had to. But McLean saves us both from telling the woman her daughter was dead.
His voice is calm and reassuring, just like they taught us. He even gets on one knee and drapes an arm over her shoulder when she wails up into the ceiling. A sound like her daughter’s call for her son. Helena starts to cry into her hands.
I have to hand it to McLean. He’s right by her side the entire time, his words a balm even to my ears.
As many of these as I’ve done, I could never get the right tone. Too much pent up anger my old sergeant used to say.
Mr. Kortum rushes in with a tray of tea, spilling half of it on the rug. I take it from him and he goes to his wife. For a while, she sobs into his shirt.
No one says anything when I settle the tea tray on the coffee table.
“What happened?” Mr. Kortum asks. Tears make his eyes shiny and big, but his voice is clear.
“We found her in the Children’s Park, sir,” Reyes says. “It appears she was murdered.”
“Damn him,” Helena says. Her voice is muffled because she’s talking into her husband’s shirt.
“Ma’am,” Reyes says, “Did someone threaten your daughter?”
Helena sobs some more and shakes her head, but doesn’t say anything.
“Our son-in-law,” Richard says. “Lou Jing. He wanted to take Niki.”
I have my notepad out again. “Is that Niki Merryweather,” I ask.
“My grandson’s name is Nicholas Merryweather Jing, with a dash,” he corrects. “We call him Niki. My son-in-law is Lou Jing.”
“Are they separated?” Reyes asks.
“No,” Helena says. She’s wiping her eyes. “But it was going that way.”
“I see,” Reyes, says. “Can you provide his contact information?”
As Helena and Richard rummage around for their cell phones, McLean wanders over to a side hutch. There are more pictures there. He takes out his own phone and takes a few snaps of the framed photos of who I think is Lou Jing.
“This him?” he asks.
Richard nods. “You can take that if you want.”
“Already have,” McLean says, tapping away on his phone, probably sending it to his email to include in our report later.
The Kortums give Reyes all the info they have on their son-in-law.
“Do you have any idea why she would say her son needed saving?” I ask.
Reyes shoots me a look and McLean drops his phone. He fumbles around for it, cursing like a sailor while he’s doing it. Reyes apologizes for him, going on how he must be developing a syndrome or something.
My throat goes dry when I realize what I’ve done. I shouldn’t have said anything. They might think Lindsay’s spirit had hung around (no pun intended) for a while and talked to us. No one ever trusts spooks.
“Wait!” Helena cuts into their chatter.
“She managed to say something before she died?” her husband finishes for her.
They are looking right at me, not Reyes or McLean.
Should I tell them the truth?
I shoot a look over to Reyes who’s got a scowl as deep as the ocean on her face.
“Yes,” I say. I keep it short. Lies always have a better chance if you keep them short.
“But if she was murdered,” Helena says, excitement in her voice, “then she might still be around. Where exactly in the park was she found? I want to talk to her. One last time, please. Let me talk to her.”
“Won’t we need one of those special people?” Richard asks. “Do the police use spook consultants? Is that what they’re called?”
Reyes shoulders sag in defeat. I could see she doesn’t want to lie to these people and no matter what we said, they would go to their daughter’s death site, hoping for one last chance with her.
“Sir,” Reyes says. “We are those special people.”
I swear the TV could have pulled itself off the wall, transformed into an over-sized insect, and sat down for tea. No one would have noticed. The roar of the Nimitz fills the room.
“All three of you?” Helena squeaks.
“We’re State Paranormal Investigators,” McLean explains.
“You’re not city police,” Richard says.
His tone is accusatory and he presses his wife against his side tighter, as if he has to protect her from us.
This is why I didn’t want to be a spook detective. This is how my father treated me after he found out. Actually, he did much worse, but I’m used to the physical abuse. It was the mistrust and disownment that hurt most.
“We’re paid by the state but we work in the same office building and use the same resources as all the other city officers,” Reyes quickly explains. She points to me. “Detective Tesserak was recently recruited from the city’s police ranks.”
I give the confused couple a strained smile, but they’re not buying it. And if they knew the SPI office was buried beneath headquarter’s underground car park, they’d have every right not to.
“Mr. and Mrs. Kortum,” I say. “It doesn’t matter how we got the information. The important thing is that we have reason to believe your grandson may be in danger.”
Helena’s hand flutters over Richard’s knee and she says, “She’s gone then? She’s been put to rest?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I say.
Should I tell Helena her daughter’s last words? Or how the light within her spirit shined brightest right before it disappeared from this world forever? It hits me like a rock that I was among the last to hear Lindsay speak.
“She’s right,” Helena says. “Spooks or not–“
“SPI Detectives,” McLean corrects.
“–she’s right. We have to tell them.”
Richard looks at each of us and then keeps his gaze on McLean.
“Lindsay thought Lou was getting into some sort of cult,” Richard says.
Excellent, I think. Cults are easy to track now-a-days. The internet has made everyone into a celebrity and those sorts love an audience. Plus, it was how they recruited.
“Do you have a name?” McLean asks.
I notice Reyes stepping back. She tilts her head in the direction of the door when she notices me noticing. I move away with her, knowing that the couple would feel more comfortable with a white male.
Two women, one Hispanic, the other African-American, and spooks? We couldn’t be trusted. Not like McLean could, even if he was a spook, too. Besides, he was a good talker.
Later in the car, he fills us in.
They didn’t have a name for the cult. And based on what little the couple could provide, McLean didn’t think it was a cult. All they really had was where they thought Lou wanted to take the boy and that Merryweather was absolutely against it.
“Where?” Reyes says.
She sounds angry, but from the backseat all I can see are her dark hands gripping the wheel and the set of her eyes in the rearview mirror. And right now, they’re not talking to me.
“Tescal,” McLean says.
“Were they sure?”
“No,” he answers.
Reyes steps on the gas so hard, I slide back in my seat some. When she flicks the siren switch, I know the kid is fucked.
Ready for Part 3? Read on, my friend.
I thought this story was a lot short than it is. So instead of posting manageable chunks on Fridays only, I’ll post them every few days from now until Halloween. The complete story will finish on October 31st. If you like it, feel free to share!