Impostor Dickhead stands up, walks to the door, opens it.
I turn around in my chair to see two men I’m guessing are plainclothes detectives wearing dress shirts like his, sleeves rolled up, sweat stains already showing under their arms and probably on their backs from the sweltering humidity of a hellacious morning I’m never going to forget.
He doesn’t wait for them to do the talking.
“Let’s do this in our conference room so we have some privacy,” he tells them, ever the commanding Englishman I suppose he fancies himself, with hints of Real Dickhead creeping through this newest “nicey-nice” demeanor of his.
He leads the way from his office to a closed door just outside the newsroom.
I start babbling as soon as we sit down at the long, rectangular table in the conference room. I can’t help myself, can’t hold back anymore. I tell them everything — about the friendship with the coaches, the note containing my phone number and Mom’s given name, the gun on Coach Smith’s desk, the secret meeting after leaving the high school.
I feel lighter getting it all out, a sense of exhilaration to not carry the burden of guilt that goes hand in hand with the shame of telling lies and half-truths, a profound relief to no longer feel as if I’m sneaking around to meet a married lover.
Nothing quite like a good confession to soothe the soul.
My parents are Catholic, so I attended parochial school growing up. I hated everything about it — the constant whispers about the priest and his altar boys, the ironic intolerance for loving someone of the same sex, the austere nuns, having to sit through mass every single day — but I still get an occasional case of that good ole Catholic guilt.
This is one of those times.
And even though I’m not a religious person, I am quite spiritual and I believe above all else that everyone always should be who they are as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others. This includes, but is not limited to, practicing whatever religion it is that they follow.
Impostor Dickhead, sitting to my left, startles me back to reality when he reaches for my hand, holds it, gives it a squeeze, lets go. They’re warm, his hands. Not cold at all. Odd. Unsettling. Nice.
He leans close to my ear, whispers, “Give me 10 Hail Marys.”
Get OUT of my head!
Totally inappropriate, and VERY un-Real-Dickhead-like, but funny all the same. I cover the snort that always prefaces my laugh by forcing a fake coughing fit, and then I give him a hard kick to the shin under the table I immediately regret as he lets loose a painful howl. Like it or not, he IS my boss, after all.
“Care to share?” asks the older of the two detectives, who reminds me of Lennie Briscoe from the TV series Law & Order.
Before I can blurt out his comment, Impostor Dickhead shakes his head.
“I didn’t kill Coach Smith,” I tell them. “I’m just a sports writer.”
Yeah, like that explains everything, you blithering idiot.
“Honest,” I say, “I’ve never fired a gun in my life. I could never hurt anyone.”
All three men give me skeptical looks that say otherwise.
“Uh huh,” Briscoe’s double says. “You just kicked him under the table.”
I can’t argue with that as I start to squirm under his unfaltering scrutiny.
“But,” he adds, “you’re not a suspect at this time. You’ve been very, ah, forthcoming. About everything.”
“Alabama authorities are attempting to locate your parents for questioning,” he says, “specifically your mother.”
Great, just great.
“And since this is an active investigation, I’m going to NICELY request that you omit the information about that note and what it contains, as well as the gun on Lester Smith’s desk,” he continues, telling us how things are going to be rather than actually asking us. “So your secret friendship with the coaches is safe. For now. We don’t want to give anyone who may be of interest to us any ideas, nor do we want to tip our hand.”
I need to go home. Not home as in my apartment, but HOME. To Alabama.
My parents have some explaining to do. Well, my mom, anyway.
Like how Coach Smith knows — sorry, knew — Mom’s nickname. Hell, her maiden name, for that matter. Why my number is on that piece of paper on his desk. And, most important, if she has anything to do with his homicide. That’s a tall order of questions to answer.
But answers I WILL get, one way or another.
The detectives HAVE to know by now that I’m going to drive straight home to my parents’ house as soon as they leave. Makes me wonder if they’re going to use me as bait. I already feel like a flailing worm with a big fishing hook jammed all the way through it just before it is cast to lure the catch of the day. It’s a frustratingly helpless predicament in which I find myself.
I’m drowning in the waters I’ve been treading all morning, unable to surface to catch my breath. And I’m sinking further and further into an abyss of despair that is threatening to devour everything I hold dearest in my life. My parents. My friendship with the Hardys. My freedom. My sanity.
But I have to see this through, even if the ending is not what I want it to be — happy, like all of my romance novels. I owe it to Coach Smith, even if the truth does not benefit my family or me. Even if it means someone I love going to prison for murder. It’s disheartening, no matter the outcome.
“Are we done?” I ask, suddenly weary.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” Briscoe’s twin warns me. “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
How lovely. He’s quoting fucking idioms to me now. Like that’s going to stop me.
“We need to be able to do our job,” he emphasizes, “and we don’t need you getting in the way. We have no idea who or what we’re dealing with, and we can’t spend precious time baby-sitting you just to make sure you don’t go getting into any trouble. Or screw up our investigation. Got it?”
Yeah yeah yeah, yada yada yada, blah blah blah. What-fucking-ever, Lennie.
The detectives get up then, head for the door. Briscoe requests my cell number, which, of course, I don’t have. And for the second time this morning, I elicit expressions of shock when I relay that information.
So Impostor Dickhead gives Briscoe his and matter-of-factly assures him and his quiet but watchful partner that I will be available to talk to them anytime, day or night. He then has the audacity to tell them that he will make it his personal mission to ensure I adhere to the strict instructions outlined by Briscoe.
Mighty high-handed of you to say so, yourself, buster. Very Real Dickhead-esque of you.
They exit the room as I stand up, unsteady as fat tears storm down my face, angrily plop-plop-plopping one right after another. I’m in dire need of a snot rag to wipe my face, blow my nose. But I can’t get any words out. And the sobs are trapped in my throat, stuck like a mistakenly swallowed small chicken bone blocking my airway.
It’s all too much! It’s all too fucking much to absorb! I can’t fucking do this alone! I’m going to go absolutely fucking bonkers because I can’t deal with any of this shit anymore! Gawddammit, why?! Why?! WHY?!
Impostor Dickhead leaves abruptly and just as quickly returns with a roll of toilet paper that I’m pretty sure he took out of one of the bathrooms beside the conference room. I mop up my splotchy face as best I can before blowing my nose several times. I sound like a gaggle of geese, but it doesn’t seem to bother Impostor Dickhead. I go through more than half the roll of toilet paper before I feel presentable or able enough to hold a conversation with him.
He starts to reach for me, for once as openly unsure and unsteady as I’ve been feeling all morning, but aborts the foreign show of compassion as I paste on a brittle smile that I know must be as false as Impostor Dickhead himself.
“I’m giving the story to Mandy Jo,” he says. “Stay put.”
About time Real Dickhead is back from wherever it is he went.
Woof woof. Yes, master. I’ll stay, just like a good little doggy.
The very moment I get some semblance of normalcy — even if it is in the form of Real Dickhead — Impostor Dickhead returns to mindfuck me some more.
So I sit back down because standing suddenly is impossible as the weight of this day bears down on me.
I freely admit that Impostor Dickhead’s decision to pass Coach Smith’s story on to Mandy Jo Oliphant is for the best. She is the Bluegrass city and Derby County government reporter, but she does have a solid background in cops and courts. She’s a great reporter, and she will let his story take her wherever she needs to go with it. She works at a slower pace than everyone else in the newsroom, but she’s very thorough, very persistent and perhaps the most persuasive reporter I’ve ever known, so I’m 100 percent confident that she will do Coach Smith’s story the justice that he deserves.
Mandy Jo — my closest friend at the paper — also has the spare keys to my apartment and car, so I’ll have to ask her to look after Stinky for me before I head out. I hate doing that to my cat, but I don’t have much choice. Besides, my little furbaby adores Mandy Jo because she talks to her like I do.
I’m so lost in my own thoughts, I don’t hear Impostor Dickhead quietly slip back into the room. Those unflinching ebony eyes of his see more than I care for him to see in my current breakdown-nearing state of mind, but I’m not up for the verbal parrying that is sure to follow when I tell him of my plans to drive down to my parents’ house as soon as I leave the building. I just hope I don’t lose my job over it.
“It’s done,” he needlessly informs me.
“How do you know about my friendship with Amber?” I ask him for the third time this morning, hoping it’s the so-called charm to get him to answer me.
No such luck.
“Jackson is doing a sidebar bio on Lester Smith to go with the lead story on A1,” he says, instead, referring to the front page of the paper. “I gave Mandy Jo a rundown of what we know. As much as I’d like to tell them to fuck off and print every single detail, I will refrain from doing so in deference to Lester Smith, as well as you and your family. For now.“
Well, well, well. Looks like SOMEONE doesn’t like being told what to do.
And, as simple as ABC123, Real Dickhead materializes.
I combat the desire to mention something to the effect of him not being able to take what he dishes out, but I think better of it.
Best to keep the lion tame and get out of his den. Pronto!
“Alex will look after things while we’re out of town,” he says.
Alex Downey is the assistant managing editor of the Daily Herald, and … wait, what does he mean by “WE?!”
I shake my head vigorously. He most definitely is NOT accompanying me on my mission.
“Yes, WE,” Real Dickhead imperiously confirms, again dipping into my thoughts. “I am responsible for you, so we do this together. MY way.”
It takes every bit of willpower for me not to stand at attention and salute him like a subservient soldier under his command.
“Fine,” I grind out through my clenching teeth.
“Shall we?” he asks, promptly turning into the suave English gentleman that he strictly reserves for social events when he is out and about glad-handing in the community.
Too bad I know differently.
He extends his hand.
I can only gape.
“Close your mouth and stop looking so bloody gobsmacked!” he snaps, losing patience. “We’re wasting time tarrying about!”
I have to confess that I find some sort of fucked up comfort having something — someone — familiar to cling to as I wrestle to safeguard my faculties against the madness of this gawddamn day.
I fleetingly study his outstretched hand like anyone is apt to do when facing a poisonous snake that’s coiled and ready to strike at any second, fearing I’ll get bitten if I so much as breathe or bat an eye.
“For fuck’s sake!” he bellows at me not for the first time today. “I’m not going to bite!”
I reluctantly take his hand, rise from my chair.
Large, strong AND firm, with unmistakable callouses. Hands that clearly know hard labor. And, most important, no sweat. Yes, they are nice, I reiterate my previous opinion. I have a great appreciation for hands, and I … I like his. A little too much.
As I frequently point out, there’s no worse turnoff than a limp, lifeless, perspiration-filled handshake. But we’re not shaking hands, and I am NOT turned on at all.
I jerk my hand from his a half-second too late.
The bastard senses my inner conflict, my clash with self-loathing — over a fucking hand, HIS hand, of all things — but wisely says nothing. Just smirks.
“You need a mobile phone,” he tells me for the umpteenth time as we leave the room together.
My headache is back, worse than before.
In more ways than one.
“What I NEED is an aspirin,” I counter.
And that second smoke Real Dickhead/Impostor Dickhead and the detectives cockblocked me from having since I stepped foot into the damn building.