Memory ManDavid Baldacci
AMOS DECKER WOULD forever remember all three of their violent deaths in the most paralyzing shade of blue. It would cut into him at unpredictable moments, like a gutting knife made of colored light. He would never be free from it.
The stakeout had been long and ultimately unproductive. Driving home, he had been looking forward to catching a few hours of sleep before hitting the streets once more. He’d pulled into the driveway of the modest two-story vinyl-sider that was twenty-five years old and would take at least that long to pay off. The rain had slicked the pavement, and as his size fourteen boots made contact, he slipped a bit before traction was gained. He closed the car door quietly, certain that all inside would be asleep at this late hour. He trudged to the screen door leading into the kitchen and let himself in.
The quiet was to be expected. But the too quiet nature of the setting was not. He had not sensed that then and later wondered why not. It was one of many failures on his part that night. He had paused in the kitchen to pour a glass of water from the tap. He chugged it, set the glass in the sink, wiped his chin dry, and headed to the next room.
He slipped on the floor and this time his big body tumbled. It was slick herringbone-patterned parquet and he had fallen before. Yet this time would be far different because of what he was about to observe. The moonlight had shafted in through the front window enough that he could see clearly.
When he held up his hand it was a different color.
It had come from somewhere. And he picked himself up to find out where.
He discovered the source in the next room. Johnny Sacks. His brother-in-law. A big, burly fellow like him, laid low. He bent closer, got on his knees, his face an inch or so from Johnny’s. His throat had been slit from ear to ear. There was no need to check for a pulse; there could be none. Most of his blood was on the floor.
He should have pulled his phone and hit 911 at that very moment. He knew better. He knew not to stampede around a crime scene, for that was what his home had become by virtue of the dead man, killed by violent means. It was now a museum; you didn’t touch anything. His professional side screamed this at him.
But this was only one body. His gaze jerked to the stairs and his mind suddenly disengaged as total panic seized every bit of him—the gut feeling that life had just robbed Decker of everything he would ever have. So he ran, his boots pushing coagulating pools of blood outward like an incoming tide.
He was destroying vital evidence, royally screwing up what should have been kept pristine. Right now he didn’t give a damn.
He tracked Johnny’s blood right up the stairs, taking the treads three at a time. His breaths were gasps and his heart was pumping so fast and feeling so bloated it was a wonder his chest wall could contain it. His mind seemed paralyzed, but his limbs were somehow still moving of their own accord.
He hit the hallway, bounced off one wall and then its twin as he rocketed down to the first door on the right. He never took out his gun, not even bothering to think that the killer could still be there. Waiting for him to come home.
He smashed open the door with his shoulder and looked wildly around.
No, not true.
He froze in the doorway as the light on the nightstand dimly illuminated the bare foot that protruded above the mattress on the far side.
He knew that foot. He had held it, massaged it, and kissed it on occasion over many years. It was long, narrow, but somehow still dainty, the toe next to the big one slightly longer than it should have been. The veins on the side, the calluses underneath, the nails painted red, it was all as it should be, except it should not be poking above the mattress at this time of night. That meant the rest of her was down on the floor and why would that be, unless…
He edged to that side of the bed and looked down.
Cassandra Decker, Cassie to all including and most importantly him, stared up from her position on the floor. Well, staring was beyond her now. He stumbled forward, stopped next to her, and then slowly knelt, his blue jean knees coming to rest in the patch of blood that had collected next to her.
Her neck was clean, no wound there. That was not the source of the blood. Her forehead was.
Single-entry gunshot. He knew he shouldn’t, but he used his arm to scoop her head off the floor, cradled it next to his heaving chest. Her long dark hair splayed out over his arm like frozen spray from a hard breaker. The dot on her forehead was blackened and blistered from the heat of the bullet.
A contact wound preceded by a muzzle’s kiss, lasting only a second before the projectile ended her life. Had she been asleep? Had she awoken? Would she have endured the terror of seeing her killer standing over her? He wondered all this as he held his wife for what would be the last time.
He put her back where he had found her. Decker stared down at the face that was white and lifeless, the blackened dot in the middle of her forehead to be his final memory of her, a grammatical period at the very end.
He rose, his legs feeling numb as he staggered out of the room and down the hall to the only other bedroom up here.
He did not force this door open. He was in no hurry now. He knew what he was going to find. He just didn’t know what the killer’s method would have been.
First, a knife. Second, a gun.
She wasn’t in the bedroom, which left the adjoining bath.
The overhead light was on in there, burning brightly. The killer had obviously wanted him to see the last one clearly.
There she sat, on the toilet. Held there with the sash from her robe wrapped around the water tank, for otherwise she would have fallen over. He drew close.
His feet didn’t slip. There was no blood. His little girl had no obvious wounds that he could see. But then he drew closer and saw the ligature marks on her neck, ugly and blotchy like someone had burned her there. Maybe the robe sash had been used. Maybe the guy’s hands. Decker didn’t know, didn’t care. Death by strangulation was not painless. It was excruciating. And terrifying. And she would have been staring right up at him while he slowly compressed her life away.
Molly would have been ten in three days. A party had been planned, guests invited, presents bought, and a sheet cake with chocolate inside ordered. He had gotten time off to help Cassie, who worked full-time and also did pretty much everything here because his job was not a nine-to-fiver, not even close. They had joked about it. What did he know about real life? Grocery shopping? Paying the bills? Taking Molly to the doctor?
Nothing, as it turned out. Not a damn thing. Clueless.
He sat down on the floor in front of his dead child, crossing his long legs like his little girl liked to do, so the bottom of each foot was wedged against the inner thigh of the opposite leg. He was flexible for a big man. The lotus position, he dimly thought. Or something like that. He didn’t even know why he was thinking this. He realized he must be in shock.
Her eyes were wide and open, staring back at him, but not seeing him. Like Mom. She would never see him again.
Decker just sat there, rocking back and forth, looking at her but not really seeing her, and his baby girl sure as heaven not seeing her daddy either.
This is it. Nothing left. I’m not staying by myself. Can’t do it.
He slipped the compact nine-mil from his belt holster and made sure a round was chambered by racking the slide. He cupped it in his hands. Nice little piece. It was accurate, with enough stopping power. He’d never shot anyone with it. But he’d wanted to.
He stared down at the muzzle with the iron sights. How many rounds fired at the police range? A thousand? Ten thousand? Well, he couldn’t miss tonight.
e opened his mouth and swallowed the muzzle, angling it upward so the bullet would hit the brain and make the end quick. His finger came to rest on the trigger guard. He looked up at Molly. Suddenly embarrassed, he slipped the gun out and put it against his right temple and closed his eyes so he couldn’t see her. Again, his index finger slipped to the trigger guard. Once past it, to the trigger, then the slow, steady pull until the point of no return. He’d never feel anything. His brain dead before it could tell the rest of his body that he’d jacked himself.
He just had to pull. Just pull, Amos. You got nothing to lose because you got nothing left. They’re gone. They’re…gone.
He held the gun there, wondering what he would say to his family once they were all reunited.
I wish I’d been here to protect you from whoever did this? I should have been here to protect you?
He held the gun tighter, digging the metal against his temple so hard he felt the smooth barrel cut into his skin. A drop of blood appeared and then was wicked into his graying hair, which, he was fairly certain, had become even grayer over the last few minutes.
He wasn’t seeking the courage to do it.
He was desperately searching for the right balance. Yet could there ever be balance in taking one’s own life?
Still holding the gun in place, he slid out his phone, dialed 911, identified himself by name and badge number, and in two concise sentences described the slaughter of a trio of people. He dropped the phone on the floor.
Down below was Johnny.
Down the hall was Cassie.
Here, on the toilet, was Molly.
And suddenly, without warning, he was seeing all of this outlined in the most terrifying shade of blue. The bodies, the house, the whole night. This bubble of blue; it was everywhere. And he tilted his gaze to the ceiling and screamed out a curse, fueling it with all the rage and loss he was right now feeling. The damn colors, intruding even on this. Why could he not be normal, for just this one time, in his complete misery? He lowered his head and sat there on the floor with a gun to his head and absolutely nothing left in the rest of him. He was ready to die, ready to join them.
But for some reason unknown even to him, Amos Decker didn’t pull the trigger.
And so that was exactly how the cops found him when they showed up four minutes later.
A PARK BENCH painted red.
The unsettling knifelike chill of fall draining to winter.
Amos Decker sat on the bench, waiting.
A sparrow zipped across in front of him, narrowly dodged a passing car before soaring upward, catching a breeze, and drifting away. He noted the make, model, plate number, and physical descriptions of all in the car before it left him. Husband and wife in the front, and a kid in the back in a booster seat. Another one next to him, older. About ten. The rear bumper had a sticker. It read, MY KID IS AN HONOR ROLL STUDENT AT THORNCREST ELEMENTARY.
Congrats, you’ve just told a psycho exactly where to snatch your very smart kid.
Then a bus rolled to a near stop. He ran his gaze over it, making the same observations. Fourteen passengers, most looking depressed and tired though it was still only midday. One was energetic, a child. He bebopped next to his exhausted mother, who sat slumped over, a fat bag perched in her lap. The driver was a newbie, her face a sheet of nervousness. Even with the power steering she fought the wheel and took the next turn so slowly it looked like the bus’s engine had died.
A plane soared overhead, low enough for him to ID it as a United 737, a later model because of the winglets. With the number 737, for him the color silver popped out. The number 737 was, in his mind, a beautiful concoction. Sleek, silver, fast, bulletlike. Anything beginning with a seven gave him that reaction. He appreciated that Boeing numbered all its aircraft beginning with seven.
Two young men walked past. Observed, recorded. One was older, bigger, the alpha, the other was the sidekick, only there for laughs and to push around. Then he noted the four kids playing in the park cross the street. Age, rank, serial number, pecking order, and hierarchy established before age six, like a pack of wolves. Done.
Next, a woman with a dog. A German shepherd. Not that old but with bad hips. Probably dysplasia, common in the breed. Cataloged. A man jabbering away on his smartphone. Zegna suit, the G for Gucci on the slick shoes, quarter-sized rock set in a gold band on his left hand, like a Super Bowl ring. Four-thousand-dollar Zenith watch on his right wrist. He was too small and the wrong build for a pro athlete. Dressed far too nicely for a typical drug dealer. Maybe a hedge fund manager, malpractice lawyer, or real estate developer. Memory socked away.
On the other side of the street an old woman in a wheelchair was being rolled out of a medical transport van. Her left side was useless, facial paralysis on the same side. Stroke. Documented. Her caregiver had mild scoliosis with a clubfoot. Imprinted.
Amos Decker noted all of this and more as his mind sorted through everything that was in front of him. Deducing here and there. Speculating sometimes. Guessing other times. None of it meant anything other than it was just what he did to pass the time while he was waiting. Just like counting in color. Just what he did to pass the time.
He had lost the house to foreclosure. They were barely making the payments with his and Cassie’s salary. On his paycheck alone it was a no-go. He had tried to sell it, but who wanted to live in a house covered in blood?
He’d lived in an apartment for several months. Then a motel room. Then, when his job situation changed, he had relocated to a friend’s couch. After the friend became less friendly he had opted for a homeless shelter. When funding ran out for the place and it was closed, he “downsized” to a sleeping bag in the park. Then a cardboard box in a parking lot when the sleeping bag wore out and the cops rousted the homeless from the park.
He had hit rock bottom. Bloated, dirty, wild-haired, bushy-bearded, he looked like he should be living in a cave somewhere attempting to conspire with aliens. And he pretty much was until he woke up in a Walmart parking lot one morning staring at a Georgia-Pacific logo on the inside of his corrugated box and had the churning epiphany that Cassie and Molly would have been deeply ashamed of what he had become.
So he had cleaned himself up, worked a bunch of odd jobs, saved some dollars, and moved into a room at the Residence Inn and hung out his PI shingle. He took whatever cases came his way; they were mostly lowball, low pay, but they were something. And he didn’t need more than something.
It was a meaningless existence, really, just like he was, meaningless. His beard was still bushy, his hair still pretty wild, and he was still way overweight, but his clothes were reasonably clean and he showered, sometimes more than twice a week. And he no longer lived in a box. In his mind progress was always to be measured in inches, especially when you didn’t have yards or even feet of success to show off.
He closed his eyes to block out his recent street observations, though it was all still there, like a cinema screen on the inside of his eyeballs. It would always still be there. He often wanted to forget what he had just seen. But everything in his head was recorded in permanent marker. He either dialed it up when needed or it popped up of its own accord. The former was helpful, the latter infinitely frustrating.
That night the cops had talked him out of eating a round from his pistol. He had thought many times since of killing himself. So much so that, while still on the police force, he’d gone to therapy to work around that little issue. He’d even stood in front of a circle of like-minded suicidals.
I am Amos Decker. I want to kill myself. Period. End of story.
He opened his eyes.
Fifteen months, twenty-one days, twelve hours, fourteen minutes. Because of what he was, the clock was spinning in the forefront of his mind. That was the span of time that had passed since he had discovered the three bodies in his home, his family wiped out. And in sixty seconds it would be fiftee
n minutes plus the year, months, and days. And on and on it would go.
He looked down at himself. A four-year college football player and a professional for an extraordinarily short stint, he had kept fit as a cop and later a detective. But he had not bothered with any of that after officially identifying the bodies of his wife, brother-in-law, and daughter. He was fifty pounds overweight, probably more. Probably a lot more. Six-five and a blimp with bum knees. His gut was soft and pushed out, his arms and chest flabby, his legs two meat sticks. He could no longer see even his overly long feet.
His hair was also long, peppered liberally with gray, and not very clean. It seemed perfectly suited to conceal a mind that by forgetting nothing managed to let him down all the time. His beard was startling both for its bulk and for its chaotic appearance, wisps and curls and stray strands meandering everywhere like vines searching for purchase on something. But he told himself it was good for his line of work. He had to go chase scum, and scum, by definition, did not often look mainstream. Indeed, they often ran from it.
He touched the threadbare patch on his jeans and then looked down at the knees where the bloodstains were still visible.
Her blood. Cassie’s blood. Morbid to still have it there.
Burn the pants, Amos. Most normal people would have done that.