Picking up a phone is a semi-conscious action. You hear the ring and, without a second thought, you rush from wherever you are in your house. It doesn't matter how long we've been using phones, their sound always brings a sense of urgency to us all. By the fourth ring, if you haven't reached it yet, you start to get nervous thinking you might miss the call, so much so that your body might contort in odd ways just to grab it faster. Finally, you stretch your arm and grab the handset with your hand. You then bring it close to your ear and say ‘Hello'. Up until now your brain is only half-engaged, going through the motions as you've done thousands of times in your life. It could be anyone, but you're not thinking about that until you hear someone opening their mouth and replying to your innocuous greeting.
When I picked up the phone that night I certainly did it without any conscious thought on my mind. It was past dinnertime and the only time someone calls that late at night is when they're close family, someone with the wrong number, or bad news. Guess which one it was. At the time, I assumed it was Alex, calling to apologise for being late as usual. His working hours often involved some late night shifts, but that night I had a surprise for him and he had promised to be on time. I was ready to go ballistic on him. Except it wasn't Alex. The person on the other side of the line was polite and kind, but I would never be able to repeat a word of what he said. I had only one thought on my mind, and it was that Alex was gone.
I sat on the sofa, next to the phone, staring at the kitchen table all laid out with a cold dinner and half-burnt candles. I was in a strange state; I experienced dozens of feelings, but at the same time I was numb to everything around me. Finally one feeling won over the others, and it was anger. Anger at Alex for leaving me alone.
I don't know how long I stayed there, unmoving, but by the time I came out of my daze the candle wick was about to drown in melted wax. I heard a sizzle and it all went dark. I didn't bother turning on the light. I didn't know what to do or who to call, until it occurred to me that Alex's partner might know something.
I picked up the phone – that damn phone – and dialled Barry and Susan's number. They answered at the first tone.
“Hello? Barry, is that you?” Susan asked from the other side of the line.
“It's me, Marie.”
“Oh my God, Marie. I don't understand what's going on? Are you OK?”
“I take it Barry isn't there with you?”
“No, and I don't know… They called me and asked me if Barry was at home, and then…” her voice broke off. “I don't know what to do.”
“Where is he? He's not…”
“They're looking for him, but we can't find him. Nobody can find him. What is happening?” Susan broke into sobs.
“Hey, everything will be all right,” I said. “He'll show up anytime now.”
“After what happened to Alex, what if he's… I don't want to even think about it.” I felt a knot in my throat at the mention of Alex. “I'm sorry, I'm being insensitive,” Susan said. “Is there anything I can do for you? Do you want to spend the night here with me and the kids?”
“No, thank you. I'd rather stay at home.”
“Of course. I'm sorry I can't be there with you, but I don't want to leave the house in case the phone rings.”
“What have the police told you, exactly?” I asked her.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
“Why am I not surprised?” I said.
We both remained silent on the line, thinking about the absurdity of this whole situation. Alex was gone. I would never see him again, or talk to him, or touch him. Death is completely illogical. It comes for no apparent reason or plan. I can accept death, but what I can't accept is how it always comes unannounced.
“Marie.” I could hear Susan's erratic breathing on the line. “I don't know what to do.”
“Have you considered maybe calling a private investigator?”
“I can call the BBB agency, I know one of the partners. He's a friend of Barry's.”
“Yes, that's a good idea. They're competent, right?”
“Not as much as Barry and Alex,” replied Susan.
“No, but that is their specialty, isn't it?”
“Thank you for calling, Marie. Let me know if you need anything, whatever it is.”
“Don't worry, you take care of the kids. But, Susan…”
“Would you call me if you hear from Barry?”
“Of course. Do you think the police, well, suspect Barry?”
“That's crazy, Susan, they are more than just partners. They are mentor and protégé, they are like family.” It was a little lie, but one she needed to hear.
“You're right, you're right. Thank you, Marie.”
“Everything will be fine. Barry will appear, I'm sure of that.” I hung up and ran to the toilet. I was feeling dizzy and nauseated, like the world was crashing on top of me.
After throwing up I felt exhausted. I sat down on the bathroom floor, wiped my mouth and rested my right arm on the toilet. I could hear the sound of the water tank refilling, like a low budget zen fountain. My mind was strangely calm, as if I had emptied all my thoughts instead of my stomach. Only one idea remained and it was how nothing that had happened that night made any sense. Barry and Alex were private investigators, but that is more boring than TV makes us believe. Their specialty was finding missing people. Normally, their cases were about recovering teenagers lost to drugs and parties, old relatives to deal with inheritances or even young love affairs. It involves a lot of research, phone calls, travelling and waiting – a lot of waiting. There wasn't anything dangerous in it.
And now Barry was missing and Alex… Oh, God, Alex.
I had told Susan that the cops would never consider Barry a suspect, but I knew it wasn't true. The first people they look into are those close to the victim, and those two were closer than anyone I knew. Barry had taken Alex as an apprentice a few years back. Alex already had plenty of experience with missing people, but no formal training or license; Barry helped him turn that experience into a career. They'd been working together ever since and they'd never had an argument or disagreement. You just had to meet them to know they were the perfect team, but the police didn't know them. Barry would never hurt Alex, and more importantly, would never leave him behind.
Susan didn't know it, but she was in a worse situation than me. At least I knew where Alex was; I wouldn't waste my time waiting. I know all about false hopes and chasing ghosts, and I'd had enough of that for a lifetime.
Still, what was I going to do without Alex?
The next morning they asked me to go to the police station, the one closest to the port, located between the marina promenade and a small park. It was the oldest station still open and the building liked to announce it. It had the typical architecture of Port North, a block of grey stone walls and small windows. The facade looked like it hadn't been cleaned in a decade. As with many old constructions, there was a certain charm in its decrepitude, but I was too nervous to appreciate it. I don't like going to police stations, not since my first experience with them when I was a child. I stood outside the station, watching people coming in and out, as if it was the most common thing in the world. I took a deep breath and entered.
The hall was dank and gloomy, and despite being February, it was colder inside than outside. I zipped up my jacket and approached the reception desk. The cop behind it was wearing a jumper and a woollen hat, and I sympathised with him.
I was so shaken while approaching the cop that I couldn't stop playing with my sleeves. However, he didn't seem to notice my nervousness and smiled at me.
“Hello, Madame, may I help you?” he asked me.
“Hi, I have an appointment in ten minutes.”
“Passports and IDs are on the first floor.”
“No, I need to see a detective,” I replied.
“Do you know his name?”
“I'm afraid I didn't get it.” I had written down the time and address, but I had completely forgotten to get the detective's name.
“Not a problem. What is your meeting about?”
“My husband,” I whispered.
“Excuse me? I didn't hear you.” My voice was getting quieter and quieter, and I was still at the reception.
“My husband,” I repeated, a bit louder. He got suddenly serious.
“Miss, do you need to report your husband?”
“No, he died yesterday,” I said. “He was murdered.” It was the first time I had said it out loud. Well, I didn't say it very loud, but he got it and knew straightaway who I was. Luckily, there aren't many murders in Port North. He took the phone on his desk and punched two buttons. He spoke briefly into the receiver and hung up.
“Wait a moment, please. Someone will come to get you.”
There weren't any chairs at the reception, so I had to stand. I didn't want to keep talking to that policeman, so I turned and looked around the hall. It had high ceilings, painted in what once was white, but after decades of use was closer to a dull grey. There were people coming in and out all the time, but everyone seemed to know where to go. I was the only one waiting.
Finally, someone came for me. He was so tall I had to strain to look him in the eye. He introduced himself as Vincent, while his gigantic hand engulfed mine. I only nodded, unable to talk.
He took me to a meeting room. It was nothing like in the films, there were no double-sided mirrors or empty walls. It was a nice room with windows and comfy chairs. There was another cop already inside. He was also tall, but nothing compared to the first one. It seems the police didn't recruit among short guys. When they closed the door, sounds I hadn't noticed before dulled to a quiet background noise. They offered me a chair and I sat down. The legs didn't make any sound when they slid on the grey floor. It was so quiet I feared they could hear my pounding heart.
The super-tall guy, Vincent, sat down in front of me while the other cop remained standing behind me. Vincent started asking me questions. We went through everything I had done and all the conversations I'd had with Alex the day before. They kept asking for more details, more information about every word Alex had said, about what I thought he meant. I did a piss-poor job; yesterday might have been a year ago.
"Do you know what your husband and his partner were working on?” Vincent asked.
"A missing girl. An old man wanted to find his daughter and granddaughter."
"Do you know the name of the client?"
"No. He never tells me those things.” I should have been more focused, but in that moment my main thought was how I was dying to look at that guy's feet. Where does someone as tall as him buy his clothes? How would my feet look next to his? I blame my mental wandering on the shock. I suddenly realised he had asked me a new question and I hadn't replied. He repeated it for me.
"Do you know where we can find that information?"
"At his office." He waited for me to elaborate, but I really didn't have anything else to say.
"If you don't mind, I'd like to show you some pictures of the possessions he had with him. Could you tell us if there is something missing or that shouldn't be there?" He took some pictures from the papers he had in front of him and handed them to me one by one. I took the first picture and looked at it. I felt the second cop looming over my shoulder. I hadn't heard him moving and he made me jump. I had forgotten he was even there.
The first picture had Alex's wallet in it. It was resting on top of a white background. It felt weird to look at it outside of any kind of context. Alex didn't like throwing anything away. He would keep all his stuff until it almost disintegrated in his hands. The white background only accentuated how old and battered the wallet was.
“Anything?” they asked me. I shook my head. Vincent handed me another picture. This one had Alex's wallet's contents spread nicely on the same white background. It had all his cards, papers and receipts spread in order. Alex was never that organised. There were so many things that I wondered how it all fitted into the wallet. There were several membership and loyalty cards: to the gym, the library, the supermarket, some clothes shops… I wondered if he ever used any of them. There were so many receipts that he had to keep for expenses at work, some of them too old to be claimed anymore. He had two bank cards, one for our joint account, the other the company's card. He didn't carry any cash. Or maybe he had been robbed.
Among those things there was a picture of us both. It had been taken nine years ago at the beach. We'd asked an old man that was passing by to take it, and he cut half of Alex's head off. Still, it was a beautiful picture. We had just gotten married and were on our honeymoon. It was hard to take my eyes from that photo, but both men waited patiently until I came out of my reverie. I tried to remember if there was anything missing, but everything was there. I shook my head again and moved on to the next one.
The third picture contained, most probably, the contents from his pockets. It had the keys to our apartment and the office. They were on separate key chains. It was weird that he was carrying both of them. He kept them separate because when he was working on a case he liked to leave the house keys at the office. Normally he would only carry both if he was done for the day. Had he been coming back home?
"Where did you find him?" I asked Vincent.
"In a warehouse by the port." I tried to draw a mental line between the office, the port and our house, but there wasn't a direct line. The port wasn't on the way home. Why was he carrying the keys to our apartment?
"Mrs. Peyne. Mrs. Peyne, can you hear me?" I had spaced out again. I nodded and left the picture on the table.
“Is there anything strange in that photo?” The question came from the silent cop, who now sat on a chair next to me. His voice was deep and rich. He spoke softly, but his voice carried through the whole room. I shook my head and extended my hand to take the next one. Vincent grabbed another picture, but he didn't hand it to me straight away. The two cops stared at each other briefly. I don't know if they thought I was lying or if they weren't sure of my mental state, but I ignored them both. I took the fourth picture from Vincent's hand and looked at it. It took me a moment to understand what I was seeing, but when I did I felt all the blood abandon my body. In front of me I had a picture of Alex's clothes. I knew he was dead, but until that photo I hadn't been able to visualise it. The clothes were dirty, encrusted with something dark. The biggest stain was on his shirt, right on the chest. Alex had been wearing those clothes when he died. His body had been at some point covered in the same filth and grime, and now rested naked inside a bag or on top of the coroner's table. My mind conjured up an image of Alex's face, empty and covered in blood. I couldn't look at it anymore and gave it back to the cop. I didn't even want it next to me on the table. I had been feeling really nervous since I entered the police station, but now I was starting to feel light-headed.
"Are you all right? We can take a break if you want. Would you like some water, coffee...?" Vincent offered.
I didn't even reply – I felt ready to pass out. I placed both hands on the table and tried to recover. I needed to eat; I should remember to eat after throwing up. "Should we take a break?" he repeated, and this time I nodded. They opened the door for me and let me out while they both stayed in the room. There was a vending machine at the end of the corridor where I bought a couple of chocolate bars. I ate them sitting on a chair next to it. I suddenly had too many things in my head. I wished Alex was there with me. I didn't know how to do this alone.
I didn't go back to the room after finishing eating, I just stayed in the chair until the silent cop came for me. He looked at the two chocolate bar wrappers in my lap and lifted his eyebrows, asking me if I was done. I wasn't, but I followed him back anyway. They had no pictures left for me, but they wanted to ask me some more questions.
"Do you know if your husband had any enemies? Maybe an old case that went wrong? Any dirty business? Drugs? Do you know where his partner might be? Were they on bad terms? Had they had a fight?"
I answered negatively to all the questions. The silent cop took the same chair next to me and we looked into each other's eyes for the first time. "Is there anything in those pictures that you think can help us?" he asked, while pointing at the pictures on the table next to me. I told him I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. He took the picture with the keys and pushed it closer to me.
“Are you sure? Maybe you'd like to look at them some more,” he insisted. The idea of going through those photos again was terrifying. I shook my head more energetically.
Vincent stood up, interrupting his partner. He smiled at me and thanked me for coming. I thought I was finally free to go, when I heard one last question.
“Mrs. Peyne, before leaving, if you don't mind, we would like to visit your house and your husband's office. For the investigation, you know?” I nodded once again. I just wanted all of it to end.
While I was leaving the room I half-expected the silent cop to come running after me. I hadn't faked how lost I was or how the photos had affected me, but I felt he knew I hadn't told them everything. I had been saved by my apparent helplessness, and the need of Vincent to protect me. Stereotypes are dangerous and cops should know better.
I left the police station one hour and forty-seven minutes after I arrived. I hadn't expected it to take so long, so I didn't have any food with me and the chocolate bars hadn't been enough. I crossed the road, entered the cafe opposite to the station and ordered some food. I sat at a table next to the front window. I could see the police station entrance from there. After ten minutes I saw Susan going in. I tried to wave at her but she didn't look in my direction. I wondered what they would ask her. Would they suggest Barry had anything to do with Alex's murder? I hoped not. They had been quite nice to me, and I hoped they would also be to Susan. I considered waiting for her, but I decided against it. This whole process reminded me of too many things from my childhood, and if I talked to her afterwards it would be even worse. I already had too many bad memories; I didn't need more.
My mind went back to the pictures they had showed me and what I had seen, or not seen, in them. There had been two things that had caught my attention; something that shouldn't have been there – his house keys – and something that was missing. To find the latter I needed to get to Alex's office before the police did.