I open my eyes and blink the sleep away as I focus on the voices coming from the house. “TK, where’s Bette?!”
I hear the front door shut as Angie begins to stir against me. “Alice, be quiet. She’s on the back patio napping with Angie. What’s going on?”
I hear them get closer as Angie opens her eyes and I smile at her. “Hey, babycakes.”
She rubs at her eyes and her sweet, sleepy voice says, “Hi.”
I smile and lean in to kiss her forehead. She curls up against me as she starts to wake and I can’t help but think of Malcolm’s words as I hold her tightly. She’s quiet, cuddly, and my beautiful baby girl. I close my eyes and kiss the crown of her head as Alice bursts onto the patio in an excited and incredulous huff. “Good, you’re awake! You are not going to believe this shit!”
She plops down on the neighboring chaise longue and I glare at her. “Alice, calm down and watch your mouth.”
She notices Angie and smiles contritely. “Sorry, but trust me. You’ll understand why I’m so…” She shakes her hands in the air with a super intense expression. “…ugh, I don’t know what to call it, but this sh… tuff is absolutely crazy, Bette!”
Tina settles at the foot of the chaise, resting her hand on my leg and we both stare at Alice as she holds up the file she’s carrying. “These… are Kelly Wentworth’s financial records.”
I furrow my brows at her. “Why would you have Kelly Wentworth’s financial records?”
She passes the file to Tina and stares at me with a self-satisfied smile. “Oh, I don’t know, maybe because they prove that for the last two years she’s been giving money not only to Candace, but to the Coalition for Concerned Citizens.”
I feel my eyes try pop out of my head and I nearly snatch the file out of Tina’s hands in my haste, opening it and gazing at the spreadsheet. Lines have been highlighted, a corresponding note in the margin of CJ, CCC, or MR. “Who’s MR?”
She leans forward, her expression inscrutable as she says, “Merle fucking Rothman.”
I feel all the blood drain out of my limbs and settle in my stomach, making me sick. Tina glowers at Alice for the swear word, but I can’t bring myself to care. Merle fucking Rothman indeed. Alice’s voice cuts through the tense anger settling on my shoulders. “That’s not all. She’s also been funding Republican politicians and other right wing extremist groups, including the Westboro Baptist Church.”
I finally regain my focus and decide that I need to see this for myself. I locate the MR entry and track my way to the amount of fifty thousand. I feel a hot flush of anger. My life for fifty thousand dollars?! That’s all that my wife, my kids, and I are worth to this fucking lizard?! Fifty thousand, that’s it?! I scan the record again. The CJ’s add up to more than eighty thousand, sums dispersed in small increments over the last two years. The CCC’s total nearly a quarter of a million. I shut the file in a daze and look up to meet Tina’s eyes, swallowing my anger as I say, “Well, I guess that explains Merle’s motivation, and maybe even Candace’s renewed interest.”
Tina strokes my leg. “Do you really think she’d incite Candace to murder?”
I sigh. “Well, Duffy thinks she killed Deke. If the authorities think she’s that calculating…”
Tina’s face is washed in worry as she asks, “Bette… what are we going to do? I mean, she’s due to be released in a few months.”
I consider her words as I cling to my daughter, trying to find comfort in her embrace. I rest my cheek on her head and face Alice. “How did you get this information?”
She gapes at me for a moment and then stutters out, “I um… one of my admin guys for the site sort of… helped me out.”
I hand the file back to Tina and meet her gaze over Angie’s head. “If we accessed it illegally, we can’t tell the police, and it’ll be inadmissible in court. I guess it helps to know, but it doesn’t really help us win this case.”
We sit in silence and Angie sits up, fully awake now. “I need to go potty.”
Tina stands and picks her up, kissing her cheek as she settles Angie on her hip. She meets my eyes and the anguish on her face makes my heart fall into my toes. “Come on, Pookie. Let’s go potty.” She smiles sadly at me, trying to be confident, but I know that she’s hurting, and it’s my fault. Excluding Tina, I certainly know how to pick my women. It’s too bad they don’t come with a neon sign proclaiming them certifiably crazy.
Alice’s excited voice cuts through my thoughts. “Wait, Bette… we can’t show this to Duffy, but we can ask her look into Candace’s bank records in regards to this case. She could find the trail all on her own and then it would be legal.”
Tina comes back with Angie who heads straight for Alice who picks her up and sets her on her knee. “Hey, what’s shakin’ midget?” Alice titters and tries to tame the coif of dark curls on Angie’s head with absolutely no success. “You have got some serious bed head going on.”
Angie sticks her tongue out and Alice tickles her into a fit of giggles. Despite the overwhelming circumstances still looming, Tina and I both laugh with them. I meet Tina’s eyes and she seems to have regained her composure during the trip to the bathroom; however, I have not. She comes up and scoots me forward as she settles herself behind me. I lean back into her warm embrace, her wonderful arms wrapping around me as she dips down to my ear and whispers, “Nothing’s changed. We just know more now. We will still get through this, babe.”
I reach up and hold her arms tight against me as I close my eyes. “T, should we call in Duffy?”
Her sigh ruffles the curls near my ear and sends tingles down my spine. “I think it can’t hurt. She wants to nail Kelly and she seems to… I don’t know, want to help you. I say let’s do it.”
I look to Alice who’s grinning mischievously, having been eavesdropping this whole time. “Go ahead and call Duffy, yenta.” She glares at me but doesn’t waste a moment pulling out her cell phone. At the rate my life is going, she’ll have plenty of grist for the mill tonight.
“Lieutenant, thanks for coming on short notice.” I step aside to allow her entry and shut the door behind her, patting Rory’s back as I lead her back out to the patio. Tina stands, with Chance in her arms, and approaches Duffy with a warm smile. “Can I get you anything to drink Lieutenant? We have water, juice, Perrier, and wine if you’re off duty.”
Duffy smirks. “I am off duty, and a small glass would be great. It was a long day.” Tina strokes my forearm and I take her hand, holding on until the last moment as she moves to the kitchen.
I turn back to see Duffy grinning coyly at me, and while I haven’t been exactly sure about her since the first time we met, this time my gaydar pings incessantly in the positive. I consider her for a moment and she finally leans in conspiratorially to confirm my question in a whisper. “The answer is yes, and if your wife has a sister…”
I let out a surprised chuckle and gaze at her for a moment, trying to discern if she’s any sort of threat. All I find is warm regard and a little playful lust. I finally gather my bearings and say, “Oh she does. But I doubt she’s your type.” She quirks a grin and waits for clarification. “I’ve never met her, but from what I understand, she’s a lot like Tammy Faye Bakker, inside and out.”
Duffy winces and I laugh at her incredulous expression. “Well, that’s just… scary. Thanks for the warning. I’m not into extremists. You’re a lucky woman, Bette.” Her eyes glaze over with a depth of pain I can’t even describe or fathom before she clears her throat and shakes it away. “You have a beautiful family.” She smiles tightly as Tina returns with a glass of chilled wine. Duffy accepts it with a, “Thank you,” and I can’t help but wonder at the mystery this woman is as she settles herself on one of the chaises by the pool and sips her wine. Alice greets her and she seems perfectly normal now, but I know. There’s something there, something I never want to know or touch like I’m sure she has.
Tina eyes me curiously and I smile as I take her hand and lead her to the last remaining lounge. We settle down, Angie leaving Alice to come sit with us. My heart is warmed as she climbs up between us and clumsily leans over to kiss Rory and then Chance. When the twins are awake and playing on their activity mats, Angie likes to sit between them and educate them on how they’re playing all wrong. Of course they have no clue, but that doesn’t stop Angie. I might worry if she didn’t love them so much and so openly, just like she did just now. The love is evident and I’m proud of her because I see her desire to protect them, to teach them. She’ll be a wonderful older sister, despite her bossy condescension.
Alice clears her throat and pulls me from my thoughts and back into the disturbing issue at hand. Tina holds my hand as I begin. “Lieutenant-”
Duffy holds up a hand, a smirk in place as she says, “Bette, I’m off duty. Call me Beth.”
I smile and nod in agreement. “Beth, thank you for coming and on your own time. I really appreciate it.” She takes another sip of her wine, listening and waiting for me to continue. “We’ve been thinking about… well, everything, but mostly trying to figure out why this has happened and how to stop it. Something… occurred… to us this afternoon, and I was hoping I could convince you to have a look at Candace’s financial records and see what you find.”
She considers me for a moment and I can tell that she knows I’m withholding something. She smirks. “Bette, I’m off duty, and while I’m still a cop and I’d never instruct you to tell me something that could incriminate yourself, I would consider other types of conversations to be… off the record, so to speak.”
I lock eyes with Alice and she gulps. It’s her and her admin’s head on the line here, so it’s entirely up to her. She sighs and pulls out the file tucked under one of the pillows on her chaise and hands it to Duffy. Duffy sets her wine down and accepts the file, opening it to skim its contents. “Whose records are these?”
I clear my throat. “Kelly Wentworth’s.”
There’s a long moment of silence as Duffy’s instantly angry gaze meets my own. She doesn’t seem to care how we got this information as she says, “CJ is Candace Jewel, but who are CCC and MR?”
Alice jumps in for me. “Coalition for Concerned Citizens and Merle Rothman.”
I watch as she quickly totals the figures just as I did. She shuts the file and hands it back to Alice as she stands. “I’ll let you know the minute I’ve found something we can both use. It may take time as I’ll have to subpoena the information from the required banks as the trail starts to form, but it was smart of you to show me this. If I handle it right, we may just kill several birds with one stone.”
Alice nervously tries to make herself invisible just in case Duffy changes her mind and starts to question her. Tina and I both stand. “Beth, you don’t have to leave.”
Her expression is serious as she says, “I need to start on this now. We only have a month to follow this trail and banks are slow. If you want this information in time for your trial, I need to go. Thank you for showing me this.” She turns to Alice and smirks. “Stop worrying. So long as you keep this to yourself, I’ll do the same.” She points at the file. “And destroy that. We don’t want the DA getting wind that we’ve found this if she is indeed receiving kick-backs.”
Alice sighs in relief and nods. We walk Duffy to the door and she turns as she steps over the threshold. “Thank you for telling me. Kelly’s up for release in three months and I fear what will happen once she’s out. She’s a dangerous woman with far too much money.”
I shake her hand and she smiles sadly at Rory and Angie before another wave a sadness washes over her face. “Thank you, Beth.”
She clears her throat. “You’re welcome. I’ll be in touch.”
Tina puts her free arm around my waist and I rest one of mine around her shoulders as she watches Duffy leave with the determination of someone on a mission. I look down to my wife and she meets my eyes. We’re both at a loss with the mystery that is Marybeth Duffy, but grateful for her all the same.
I wake with a jolt and start to calm as the reassuring weight of Tina’s body pressed up tightly against me reaffirms that I’m okay. I don’t know if I’ve had a dream. If I did, I don’t remember it, thankfully. My healing incision is itching so badly that it’s maddening and I want to scratch it so badly, but if Tina catches me I’ll never hear the end of it. I look down at her sleeping visage, her honey hued waves of hair are silvery in the muted grey light filtering in through the balcony doors. Her burnished skin glows like alabaster as it lay draped over me, holding me, keeping me grounded even in rest because she knows that sleep is a torment for me.
I take a moment to marvel at her beauty before I kiss the crown of her head, lift her soft arm, heavy with sleep, and settle it in the warm space I just vacated. She pulls my pillow to her, sighing as she buries her face in the plush fabric and I smile down on her before standing and making my way to the en suite. The harsh glow of the fluorescent lights stings my dilated eyes and I squeeze them shut as I blindly make the last few feet to the sink.
I yawn and crack my eyes open, reaching down to gently scratch at my incision while I turn the water on in the sink. My nails graze over the irritated skin and shock of pain races through me. I wince, turning off the water as I lift my sleep shirt and pull my pajama bottoms down low on my hips. Panic starts to race through me as I see the staples have been torn open, the wound gaping and dripping with pus, maggots crawling around on the reddish-green flesh at the edges as they devour the rotting skin.
I swallow the bile rising up in my throat as the smell of infection and rot reaches my nose. I feel woozy and grip the edge of the counter, shaking with panic and pain. My voice is tremulous, low, and breathless as I call out to my wife. “T…” There’s no response and I try to will my voice to be louder. “T…?! Help me… please!” The world starts to spin and I lean against the counter, trying to stay upright, trying to stay conscious, as tears start to streak down my face. Is this… is this real? “T! Please! Help!”
I hear the bone chilling giggle of a child and look into the mirror with wide eyes to see Angie standing behind me in her pajamas, rubbing her sleepy eyes and holding her Hammy. Relief floods through me as I turn to face her. “Angie, baby, get Mama T. Hurry…”
She turns and runs from the room, and I notice little red footprints on the floor with each step she takes. She turns in the doorway and smiles a contorted smile as she drops Hammy and holds up a gun. She pulls back the hammer to cock it and I hear the sound behind me as she raises it to point it at me. I turn to look into the mirror to see Candace’s reflection, a gun poised on my face. Fuck me… I close my eyes and take deep breaths. It’s not real. None of this is real. I can control it. I turn again and look to the doorway. Angie’s gone and I let out an anxious breath. Candace has gone too far by bringing my baby into this.
I turn back to her in the mirror, a renewed sense of anger welling in me from which to draw some strength. I let go of the counter and will myself to stop feeling sick, stop being weak and helpless. I square my shoulders and meet her black eyes. “You can’t kill me, Candace.”
She smirks. “You can’t kill me either, not that you haven’t tried, but that’s no matter. This is fun. I get to try every night and you keep coming back. I could do this forever.”
Fuck that. I refuse to do this forever. She starts to laugh and gazes at me incredulously. “You don’t have a choice, Bette. You deserve this. I owe you this.”
I close my eyes and shake my head. “No, no I don’t deserve this. I don’t owe you anything.”
She cocks her head to the side. “Really? Then why does this keep happening?”
I furrow my brows at her as she moves the gun a couple of inches from my head and shoots. The mirror breaks, the shards exploding forward as I instinctively turn and curl in on myself. Several jagged chunks hit my skin hard, tearing through the thin membrane to sink deep into the muscle of my back and left arm. I cry out as the last of the shower shreds through various pieces of my body and everything goes quiet except for the whimpers and gasping breaths of someone injured. I open my eyes and look to my right. Tina is lying on the floor, a gun in her right hand, blood pouring from a hole in her chest, her arms and legs twitching, tears streaming down the sides of her face, and her chest heaving with breaths she can’t take.
I go to her quickly, crouching down beside her. I smile at her, pushing the panic down as I say, “You’ll be okay.” I close my eyes, just as I have many times before, and will her to be okay, will the wound to be gone, will the blood escaping her to retreat back inside. The gasping and shuddering subsides and I gaze down on her, healthy and whole once again. “See…” She smiles sadly at me as she reaches up to stroke my face.
I help her stand, wincing at my own injuries. The lights start to flicker and I turn to where the mirror used to be to see a huge, seeping, black hole that looks more like a festering wound than an exploded wall. Squishing and slopping sounds of movement echo from inside and I push us back away from the opening, watching as Candace’s contorted body slowly moves forward in sharp, unnatural movements. She’s bent backwards on all fours, her head twisted all the way around and turned upright, and it’s as if each step is on fast-forward, the times in between severely slowed.
She crawls out of the opening, coming straight at us and I watch as a hole appears in her head within the blink of an eye, a sharp, ‘BANG,’ reverberating off the walls. Her twisted body writhes like a spider as Tina steps forward, the smoking gun still aimed on her as she pulls the trigger again and again and again. Candace’s face doesn’t even exist anymore by the time the gun goes empty, the sounds of the unresponsive trigger clicking as Tina continues to pull it.
I take her trembling form in my arms and she starts to cry, her stammering voice crying out, “I… I killed her…” She sobs harder and I join her in her tears as I hold her. “I killed her…”
She keeps repeating this as she calms into a comatose state and I pull her away from me, holding her at arms-length and shaking her until her dazed eyes meet my own. “T, you did what you had to do. You didn’t do anything wrong…” She’s not listening so I shake her again. “T, do you hear me? You didn’t do anything wrong!”
She blinks and her eyes finally meet mine. She drops the gun and I hold onto her as she collapses to her knees on the floor. I come with her, kneeling and taking her in my arms. She rests her head on my shoulder, wrapping one of her arms around my neck as she says, “I’m sorry…”
I rock her, burying my face in the side of her neck as I reply, “You have nothing to be sorry for. You had to. It’s that simple.”
She goes rigid as she says, “You’re right… I have to…” I pull back just in time to see her ram a jagged shard of mirror into her neck. Blood is flowing everywhere and I close my eyes, trying to fix it as she collapses onto her back, gagging and convulsing as she bleeds out. Her small voice stammers, “You… can’t… save… me.” She looks over at Candace, releases one more shuddering breath before going still.
I sit next to her and allow the insanity that all of this inspires to own me for long minutes. I have no idea what to do. If I wake up, it’ll be over, but only for the night. I’ll be here again tomorrow, going over and over this same scene in new horrifying ways. I take in the carnage around me and try to figure out how to stop this, how to end it.
Candace’s body starts to twitch and I stumble to my feet, backing away from her until I’m pressed against the wall by the door. Her bones start to snap and pull together as they right themselves, her head slowly lolling in grotesque circles until it’s screwed back on correctly. I watch on in shock as she sits up, her bloody face turning to me where I watch the bullet hole close as if it never existed. She grins widely as she says, “You can’t kill me and you can’t save her until you do.” Her voice turns mocking and she titters. “What’s a girl to do?”
She stands and brushes herself off nonchalantly. She smiles more genuinely at me. “I knew you really wanted me more than her. You should have just let me kill her, but you know that, don’t you?”
There are so many emotions pumping through me to mix with a seemingly inexhaustible source of adrenaline, creating a tincture of confusion. I let it run its course and it finally lands on grief. It always comes down to grief doesn’t it? Life, in all of its glory, is no respecter of men. I gaze at her sadly as tears stream down my face. “I didn’t want you Candace. I used you, and it was sick and wrong of me. If I could go back and fix it, I would. I never meant to do this to you, and I’m so… I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you…”
Her face becomes angry and desperate. “Hurt me?!” She snorts and her voice gets low. “You murdered me. You think you can destroy people and walk away, but you can’t. You got away with it before, but not now, not with me. I’m… not… trash.”
I shake my head. “No, you’re not. You were a person, maybe even a very good person. I shouldn’t have treated you as less than. You’re so right about that, but you’re so wrong about one thing: I didn’t walk away from it.” I spread my arms around me in a general fashion, an incredulous expression on my face. “Does it look like I walked away from it? This is my mind, Candace. Look around you and tell me that I’m not paying for it.”
She gets angrier, more desperate. “Only because I’m here to be sure you do!”
I shake my head. “No, if there is one thing you can believe, it’s that I have spent years in self-loathing over my past. This isn’t just you, it’s me too. The guilt is there with or without you tormenting me night after night. I may sweep it under a rug, but it’s there–”
She starts shaking, the words spitting from her snarling mouth as she screams, “STOP IT! SHUT UP! I WON’T LET YOU LEAVE!” She bellows and lunges at me, slamming me hard against the wall where my head snaps back and cracks against the hard surface. I feel the dizziness of unconsciousness but it doesn’t find me.
I watch through the murky clarity of my eyes as she tears a large shard of glass out of my left bicep, crying out as it pulls harshly against the wound and blood starts to gush out. I reach to weakly grab at the searing pain and catch the motion of her arm as she swings it back and snaps it forward out of the corner of my eye. The shard tears into my throat, slicing through my esophagus and I snap my eyes open, clutching at my neck and trying to catch my breath.
Tina immediately switches on the lamp and comes to my side, wrapping me in her arms. “Shh, you’re awake. I promise.” I fumble with my pajamas as I check my neck, bicep, and look down at my almost healed incision. I close my eyes and let out a relieved sigh as I collapse into her embrace, clinging to her and absorbing her comfort while the conversation I just had rolls around in my head. This dream means something. The key to ending this is there; I just have to figure it out. I find the strength to release my wife and reach for my journal, determined to detail this down to the last syllable if possible. This dream, this dream means something.