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There’s a blurred line between truth and fiction that you don’t want to cross.
Alexander sat at his desk, his fingers pounding away on the keyboard. After days of trying to figure out this one particular passage of his novel, he finally knew how he wanted to end it. The theme to “The Twilight Zone” trilled from his left, startling him and effectively ending his momentum on the story.
“Dammit,” he cursed, shoving papers around the desk in his search for his cell. He snatched it and clumsily hit talk just as the phone finished its final pre-voicemail ring. “Franklin,” he answered, irritated.
“Mr. Alexander Franklin?” the male voice asked.
“Yes,” he said, his finger twitching toward the off button. Telemarketer. Only telemarketers used his whole name. Ever since his detective series made the New York Times Best Seller list, the world knew him as A.M. Franklin. Only those with access to his credit report called him Alexander.
“I’m Detective Richard Dunham with the St. Clairsville Police Department.”
Alexander’s finger froze mere millimeters from the “end” button. “How can I help you, Detective?” he asked.
“Sir, we need your help in identifying a homicide victim.”
“Homicide victim?” It had been nearly five years since Alexander lived in St. Clairsville. He hadn’t spoken to anyone from that area since he left and was doubtful anyone he knew was still there. Being a college town, the population was transient to say the least.
“Sir, I’m sorry to inform you that we’ve found the body of woman we believe to be your wife.”
Alexander’s heart stopped. His muscles tensed as his mind stumbled to make sense of the detective’s last statement. “Detective Dunham, I don’t have a wife.”
The police detective paused. Alexander could hear papers shuffling in the background and then computer keys clicking away. “This is Alexander Franklin, formerly of 2525 Mount Pleasant Place?”
“Yes,” Alexander confirmed.
“Date of birth January 15th, 1985?”
“Then I’m not sure where the disconnect is. We feel we’ve found the body of Marjory Mariposa Franklin — the same woman you reported missing on July 5th, 2007.”
Alexander’s head began to pound. He grabbed a pen from his drawer and began tapping it against the desk as he tried to make sense of this information. In early 2007 he’d been in St. Clairsville, locked in a hovel of an apartment, slaving away over manuscript during his post-collegiate stab at literary fame. Sporting a mountain-man beard and unkempt hair, women were not exactly lining up to date him, let alone marry him. By July, with his novel completed and lease expired, St. Clairsville was a distant memory.
“Detective Dunham, I really have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Perhaps this is something we need to address in person. Meet me at the St. Clairsville police station tomorrow morning at eight o’clock.”
“That won’t work.” He pulled out his calendar. “I have a meeting tomorrow morning and a conference call in the afternoon. Maybe we can set up something for next week?” A six hour drive for an obvious mistake seemed ridiculous. If he could push it out a week, undoubtedly the mistake would rectify itself. Or maybe he could come up with an excuse to move the trip out even further. Already behind deadline for his next book, the disruption of his time was the last thing he needed.
“Good God, man!” the detective spat. “A woman is dead. The very woman you reported missing. If you are not here by eight tomorrow morning, I am issuing a warrant for your arrest.” And with that, the detective hung up, leaving Alexander holding the phone.
After a heated discussion with his editor, Alexander rescheduled his meeting and left his plush apartment in the city for the rolling hills of St. Clairsville. After six hours and what probably amounted to a gallon of coffee, he arrived at the police station at five minutes to eight.
“Detective Dunham?” he asked the desk clerk. The clerk escorted him to a tiny office and gestured to a chair situated in front of a dilapidated, metal desk. The dented, rusty desk fit right in with the wood paneled walls straight from the seventies. Each paneled wall sported plaques of various dead fish and wildlife while the fourth wall, comprised completely of glass, overlooked the reception area. Overhead fluorescent lights cast a dismal, sallow tinge over the room. The office brought one word to Alexander’s mind — despair.
After what seemed line an eternity, an overweight, balding, middle aged man entered the room, his clothing looking at home in the dated office.
“Mr. Franklin?” the detective asked, extending his hand.
Alexander nodded. “Detective Dunham,” he said, returning his grip.
“Please have a seat.” The detective gestured to the uncomfortable-looking chair directly in front of the dinged up desk.
Alexander sat and then dove into the problem at hand. “So as I was saying yesterday, I am not, nor have I ever been married.”
The detective pushed a piece of paper toward Alexander and rested his chin on his hands, his lips pursed. “As you can see, this is the statement you gave, five years ago, describing the disappearance of your wife.”
Alexander perused the document, trying to make sense of it. The details were simple enough to understand. Per the report, Alexander had reported Marjory Mariposa Franklin missing from his apartment on July 6th of 2007. She’d last been seen passed out on his couch after a party. Oddly enough, the report did indeed list her as his spouse.
“Ring a bell?” the detective asked.
Alexander read the page again. “No, I’m sorry but it doesn’t.”
The detective’s ears caught fire as a sigh escaped his lips. With hard eyes and a furrowed brow he reclined slightly in his desk chair. “So you’re telling me that you reported this woman missing — this woman who was reportedly your wife — signed the statement, and moved away, never to think of her again?”
“No, I’m telling you that I never had a wife and therefore never reported her missing. Why is this so hard to understand? You have the wrong man.” Alexander shoved the paper back toward Detective Dunham and pointed to the signature. “This isn’t even my signature.”
The officer examined the signature. “It isn’t?”
Alexander shook his head. “Whoever signed that is left-handed. I’m not.”
The officer further scrutinized the signature. “Although interesting, that’s hardly conclusive evidence, Mr. Franklin.”
“Conclusive or not, that’s not my writing. So, the question is, who signed my name and why?” He stroked his chin as he considered. The two gentlemen sat in pensive silence.
The whole situation eluded Alexander. Why would someone fill out a police report in his name and concoct a marriage he never had? And just who was this Marjory to whom he was supposed to be married? “Do you have a picture of this woman?” Alexander asked. The name certainly wasn’t ringing a bell, but maybe if he could see her he might recognize her.
The detective nodded. “I can do you one better.”
Alexander then followed the detective into the down to the morgue.
The detective pulled back the sheet on the gurney.
“A mummy?” Alexander asked, staring at the corpse.
“How in the… Wow,” he exclaimed in awe. “Do you know the cause of death?”
The detective removed a pen from his shirt pocket. “Nearest we can tell,” he began, pointing to the mummy’s neck with the point of the pen. “It appears that she was strangled. We can’t be sure until an autopsy is performed, but the striations on the neck suggest strangulation by a thin rope or twine. It will be a few days before we know for sure.”
Alexander bent down to peer at the marks on corpse’s neck. He had never been this close to a dead body before, let alone a mummy. But as strange and unexpected as this situation was, there was something familiar about it. “Where did you find her?” he asked?
“A few hikers found her near the river. We had some minor flooding recently and it caused just enough erosion that the hikers tripped over her arm. The grave must have been pretty shallow.”
Alexander gulped. “Interesting. Do you have a photo of her when she was alive?”
The detective opened the manila folder and pulled out a blown up driver’s license photo. “The deceased is Marjory Mariposa. Her license hadn’t been changed yet to reflect her married name. Per the notes of the officer who took the missing person report, you…I mean the filer of the report said that you two were newlyweds.” He handed the photo to Alexander who gasped when he saw it.
“Echo?” he asked, looking at the photo. The girl in the picture had long brown hair that hung freely around her shoulders. Her effervescent smile directly contrasted the mocking grin of the desiccated corpse lying on the table before him.
“I’m sorry?” the officer asked, looking confused.
“I knew her as Echo.”
“Did Echo have a last name?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. She was studying acting. I guess Echo was her stage name.”
The detective set the file folder down on a table behind him and took a notepad from his pocket. “And how did you know Echo?”
“She dated the guy who lived across the hall from me.”
“And the name of your neighbor?”
“Devin. Devin Cooper.”
The officer wrote a few notes on the notepad before putting it back in his jacket pocket. He tugged the sheet over Echo’s face and picked up her file. “You want some coffee?”
Alexander nodded and followed the detective back upstairs to the land of the living.
Alexander and Detective Dunham returned to the office and resumed their previous positions. Alexander leaned forward, resting his arms on the desk. He began rubbing his brow.
“We found her buried with a paint brush,” Detective Dunham said, filling the silence.
Alexander sighed, hanging his head. “Are you still looking for the murder scene?”
“We are. Are you able to tell us anything about that?”
“Well, I would check the old mill — the boiler room to be exact. I think you’ll find that at least the mummification happened there.”
The detective leaned forward over his desk. “Are you confessing to the murder, son?”
Alexander shook his head. “No. But that’s how I wrote it.”
“That was the way I wrote it in my first novel, Love You to Death. In the novel, the main character was strangled with rope, mummified in a building that I based on the old mill and buried in a shallow grave by the river. The murderer was an artist.”
“I thought this whole scenario seemed familiar. You’re A.M. Franklin. I’ve read that book.”
Alexander nodded. “I was actually writing that book when I lived here.”
“She was kind of my…well, muse I guess you’d say.”
Detective Dunham leaned back in his chair. “Now wait a minute. You said she was your neighbor’s girlfriend. But she was your muse?”
Alexander took a deep breath and stood up. He always thought better when moving. He walked over to the window and peered through the blind slats. “It’s…complicated.”
The officer opened a small drawer in his desk and removed a recording device. “Then why don’t you explain it to me?” He pushed record.
Alexander let the slats snap back in place and began pacing around the room. “Echo was dating Devin, but we were all friends. I was an English major, Devin was a modern art major and Echo was a theater major. Artists can be kind of an eccentric lot and Devin definitely fit that stereotype. He was very… passionate… especially about Echo. He loved her but was so manic — up and down all the time —it started to wear on her. They fought all the time.”
“So she left him for you?”
“Not exactly.” Alexander continued walking back and forth, his arms crossed behind his back. “One night they had a major blow up. I could hear them yelling from across the hall. When she left she was a wreck and came over to my apartment. Well, one thing led to another and we… well… we slept together.” The memories of that night flooded his mind. She was so upset that when they kissed, every kiss, every touch had a sense of urgency, need. The encounter was so real, so charged with emotion. Even now he could still smell the lavender perfume she’d worn and feel her soft, porcelain skin as if it just happened yesterday. A not-so-subtle cough from the detective awoke him from his reverie.
“How long did this go on for?”
“Just that once. She loved Devin and felt so guilty that she couldn’t even look at me after that. It was a mistake. In the meantime, though, I began the novel. The main character, Alice, was based on Echo.”
The detective massaged his temples as he thought. “Did Devin ever find out?”
Alexander shook his head. “I don’t think so. At that time, we both decided not to tell him. He was a little… unpredictable… and there was no way to know how he’d react. A few months later, I moved to the city.”
The detective turned off the tape recorder and stared off pensively. “So, here is my problem. Your book was published when?”
“Spring of 2008.”
“The disappearance and murder occurred in 2007, but used details from the book which was of course not yet published. You see where I’m going here?”
“I do.” Alexander plopped back down in the chair and leaned forward, his arms crossed on the desk. “But I didn’t do it.”
Detective Dunham nodded. “I don’t think you did it either, but I’m having trouble coming up with an alternative scenario here.” The room was silent for a long while as both mulled over the absurd situation. “Wait a second,” the detective said, sitting bolt upright. “It has been a while since I read your novel, but I don’t remember the paint brush.”
“Well, that part was only in my first couple drafts. It was edited out later. The editors felt it made the murderer too obvious.”
A cautious smile formed on the detective’s face. “Now we’re getting somewhere. Who had access to early drafts of your novel?”
Alexander’s brow furrowed as he thought back. “No one really read my stuff back then.”
“Professors? Fellow students?”
“No. I didn’t start writing until after graduation. I guess just my mom. And Devin.”
As soon as the words escaped Alexander’s lips, everything clicked for both of them. “Devin,” Alexander said, his voice so low that it was almost a whisper. He shook his head. “Wow.” He knew Devin was a little unhinged, but a murderer?
“So now all we have to do is find the young man and see if we can put this to rest,” Detective Dunham said, turning toward the computer. “Devin Cooper was it?”
The detective searched through various databases. Somehow, Devin Cooper ceased to exist beginning around August of 2007. It wasn’t that he died, he just disappeared.
After a few hours of searching, the detective gave up. “Well, Mr. Franklin, I think we’ve done all we can do for today. I’ll keep working it from my end, but why don’t you head on out?”
“I’m free to go?”
Detective Dunham smiled. “For today. Don’t leave town. I may need you. And, until I get more information, you’re still a person of interest.”
Alexander huffed in irritation. “I’ve been nothing if not forthcoming and I can’t just put everything on hold. I already had to reschedule with my editor as it is.”
“I have no choice. I’ll check in with you tomorrow.”
Alexander took off toward campus in search of a place to stay for the foreseeable future.
Alexander stood outside his old apartment building, reminiscing. A long afternoon with nothing to do left him curious about his old digs. “It hasn’t changed a bit,” he said to himself.
He looked up and down the street at the various shops and restaurants that now called Mount Pleasant Place home. Despite different names on every shop, the street appeared exactly the same. He’d been so busy with life that he’d forgotten just how much he loved this place. The artistic vibe permeated everything in the neighborhood, giving it an almost bohemian feel. It was like coming home after an extended trip.
He stepped up to the apartment listings and perused the names, just for the sake of curiosity. The name on his old apartment listing gave him pause. “D. Mariposa,” he whispered to himself. It was a long shot, but Mariposa was not a common last name. And since Devin obviously had changed his name within the last decade, he found the coincidence too intriguing. Devin Mariposa?
He didn’t want to buzz D. Mariposa because that would just be weird. Instead, Alexander leaned against the wall, and waited for someone to enter or exit the building. As it was a large building, it only took a few minutes. Once through the doors, he headed to the fourth floor.
On the fourth floor, Alexander slowly ambled his way toward D. Mariposa’s apartment. He still wasn’t quite sure what he was going to do when he reached the door. Would he knock? Would he just hang out and observe? Would he run to the police station and alert Detective Dunham? He resolved to make that decision once he learned something.
Alexander stood at his old apartment, his fist just inches from the door. His mind might not have decided what to do but his body seemed to have made up its mind. His fist knocked automatically as his muscles tensed, not sure what awaited him on the other side of the threshold. His heart drummed out a staccato beat as he heard footsteps approach. After a brief moment, the door creaked.
“Al Franklin,” a man said as the door swung open.
“Devin?” Alexander asked, appraising the man who stood in the doorway. He looked an older, gaunter version of the Devin he’d known. The years had not been kind. Wild, dark eyes sunk into his face and a tall, jet black Mohawk sprouted from the top of his head. Shirtless and painfully thin, he wore low fitting jeans that highlighted his hip bones which jutted out over top of the waist band.
“I was wondering when you’d show up again,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“It has. So, Devin Mariposa, huh?”
Devin sneered and chortled humorlessly. “Call it a pen name.”
They stood on opposite sides of the threshold, staring at each other. “So what’s new?” Alexander asked.
“Why don’t you come in so we can catch up?” Devin motioned him inside. The odd smile on his face made Alexander wonder if that was the best idea. Devin seemed a little too smug and not nearly surprised enough to see Alexander on his doorstep. Apparently, he’d been expected.
Unease and discomfort seized Alexander as he walked into the small studio apartment. His stomach lurched. Paintings of all shapes and sizes hung on each wall, leaving only small lines between pieces where the black wall paint was even visible. Despite the differences in color and dimensions, each work had a unifying theme — mummified faces. In fact, they appeared to all be the same face.
Devin took no small amount of pleasure watching Alexander interpret his work. “You like what I’ve been working on?”
“I imagine you’ve been ‘working on’ this for about five years now,” Alexander responded, not able to take his eyes off of the disturbing exhibit before him.
“Well, you always said your instructors told you to write what you know, so I figured the same probably applied to painting. Speaking of which, I’ll bet Marjory would have loved to see that she made it into your book.”
“Well she told me about you two one day when we were having it out. Isn’t it interesting that she ended up being both of our muses?” he asked as he gestured at his art.
Alexander turned toward Devin. “So you did do it,” he accused, unable to hide his disdain for the monster in front of him. She’d been a vibrant and fascinating woman and Devin squandered her. Alexander’s hands formed into fists at his side, waiting for the justification that would make Marjory’s murder acceptable in Devin’s mind.
“What do you care? She wasn’t good enough for you to stick around. Then you killed her off for your art, just like I killed her off for mine.”
“You son of a bitch,” Alexander spat, his hands still clenched at his side. “I worried about her. Her death in my book is what I feared for her if she stayed with you.” Alexander took a deep breath, trying to keep his anger in check. “Why did you do it? You could have just let her go.”
Devin laughed. “What, you want to understand my reasoning? Do you think it’ll make you feel better? Make it so you don’t feel responsible? I can’t do that for you, Al. I can’t take away your feeling of responsibility because it is all your fault.”
Alexander took out his cell phone and began to dial 9-1-1. “It doesn’t matter. The police can sort it out.”
Devin quickly stepped up to Alexander and jarred the phone from his hands. “Yeah, I can’t let you do that.”
Alexander stared at Devin, unsure of what to do. Looking into Devin’s wild eyes left him doubtful that a fair fight was in the cards. “How do you see this working out, Devin? No matter how I look at this, it doesn’t end well for you.”
“I don’t know. I have been waiting for this opportunity for years now. They finally found the grave, didn’t they?”
Alexander nodded warily. How could a best-selling mystery novelist have made such a grievous error? He should have known better than to come here alone. His eyes swept the room for some kind of escape option.
“The question is, what do I do now? Do I disappear and let you take the rap for the murder as I always intended? Or do I write your ending the same way you wrote hers?” He ambled slowly toward Alexander.
Alexander said nothing. He just stared at Devin, trying hard to keep emotion from his face. If he could remain calm, cool, and collected, maybe he could keep this from blowing up around him. Way too emotional and manic, Devin couldn’t keep his wits about him. When Alexander refused to engage him, Devin continued his musings.
“I could leave town, change my name — perhaps Devin Franklin? — and start over again. It would be so easy. Or, I could allow you to experience the pain you left her to experience. Decisions, decisions…” Devin walked to the door and locked it before heading towards the two tall windows and pulling down the shades. The horrified faces on the walls seemed to scream out in agony in the darkness, sending a shiver down Alexander’s spine.
Alexander remained motionless as Devin continued his march around the room. When he reached the kitchen of the efficiency suite, he reached into the drawer, and pulled out a large butcher knife. He began stalking toward Alexander who was unconsciously easing backwards.
Alexander’s pulse raced. His ears felt ablaze as the blood coursed through his body at a sprint. “You killed her. She chose you and you killed her.”
Devin tossed the knife from one hand to the other. “You’d like it if it were like that, wouldn’t you? If it was all my fault? The fact is, Al, it’s not. You lured her from me, had your way with her, and then left. See? Not my fault.”
Alexander continued his retreat away from Devin. “Then why not come after me? If I made her leave you, why kill her and not me?” Alexander’s retreat came to a halt when his back slammed into the desk. He tried to step left, but Devin matched his movement. The same thing happened when he moved right. Cornered, his hand groped behind him for anything that could serve as a weapon. He came up empty. Nothing sharp or blunt. Only mail and a newspaper lay behind him.
Devin shrugged, still juggling the knife. “If I let her go and she took up with someone else, I couldn’t have lived with it. But I also couldn’t be with someone I couldn’t trust. It was the only solution that made any sense.” He took another step forward.
With the desk still at his back, Alexander began rifling through the drawers behind him. Paperclips, tape, stamps, sticky notes, tissue — nothing of any use. Devin peered around him at the desk and sneered. “What, are you going to tape me to death?” He snickered to himself. “Come on, you’re a writer. Use some imagination!”
Alexander thrust his hand into the left drawer but again, nothing sharp. What he did find felt like twine. He’d have to get pretty close to use it as a weapon, but from the looks of it, that wouldn’t be a problem. The question remained how to get the man to turn around. If he didn’t want a knife plunged into his chest, the only way to garrote him would be from behind. As Devin’s eyes darted around in an almost paranoid manner, inspiration struck. Whether drug induced or imbalance driven, Devin’s obvious impaired mental state could be just the thing Alexander needed to get out of this situation.
“Devin, you have a problem, man,” Alexander said as he stared over Devin’s shoulder. “This really isn’t going to end well for you.” Alexander let his eyes dart intermittently from Devin’s face to the wall behind him. It didn’t take long before Devin began to show agitation.
“What are you doing?” he asked, obviously fighting the urge to turn around.
Alexander shrugged. He stared into Devin’s face for a long moment, but then continued to glance back over his shoulder. “I think you should turn yourself in,” he said, staring over his shoulder to the door. “You’d be able to get the help that you need.” Alexander nodded towards the door and then shook his head. Unable to hide his curiosity, Devin turned his upper body toward the door, to see with whom Alexander was having this silent conversation. Alexander lunged.
He looped the twine around Devin’s neck and held it tight. Devin thrashed about, haphazardly sending the knife through the air. His goal wasn’t to kill Devin, just make him fall unconscious. Alexander waited for him to stop flailing to loosen the noose, but he just kept thrashing about — until all of a sudden he didn’t. Devin’s body relaxed, his face purple. Alexander stepped back as Devin’s lifeless form fell to the floor. He leaned against the chair as he tried to catch his breath.
He stared at Devin for what seemed like an eternity, willing some part of him to move, but nothing happened. He crept forward and kicked the knife away before crouching over the body. Alexander outstretched his hand and felt for a pulse in his neck. Nothing. Alexander’s hand began to shake as he reached for Devin’s wrist. Once again, nothing. Alexander flopped down on the floor beside the body, his head in his hands. How had this happened? One day. It only took one day for his life to turn completely upside down.
Once he regained his composure he stood, his eyes fixed on the man he’d just murdered. As he looked at the body, he noticed the twine he’d just used to garrote his old friend. “Well I’ll be damned,” he whispered before bending over and picking it up. He examined the rope carefully, noticing its size, design and strength. His mind quickly flipped to the morgue where Marjory’s mummified corpse lay lifeless on the slab. The marks around her neck mimicked the properties of the twine exactly. “How do you like that?” he said as he continued his inspection of the murder weapon. Just then, the door burst open. He straightened, only to see four uniformed officers, each with a semi-automatic trained on him.
“Devin Cooper, you’re under ar…” the detective began as he stepped out from behind the officers. He stopped when he saw Alexander. His eyes moved from Alexander to Devin’s corpse and back to Alexander again. “What the hell happened here?”
“I found Devin,” Alexander said, the twine dangling from his hand.
“So it seems. Can you explain how you found him? And how he came to be murdered in the same fashion as your alleged wife?”
Alexander stared at the rope in his hand and then at the body below him. “I think I’m going to need my lawyer.”
J. M. Vogel is from Columbus, OH and is setting out to show the world that a degree in English does not predestine you to life in the unemployment line. For more information about her work, check out her blog at http://jmvogel.blogspot.com/.