Halfway

Halfway

by

Phillip McCollum

Detective Marty Quinn’s job is a lot like dipping your face in a pool or the ocean, where you leave your ears floating halfway between one world and the other. The above and the below. You get a hint of the diluted, swirling side, but you’re still anchored in what you know. Then comes the pull. An act of mercy. Like someone taking a fistful of wet hair and yanking you back into comfortable reality. Or it’s the other way around–the push–where someone takes that same hand and shoves you down into a new set of circumstances and you’re forced to adapt.

Marty felt like he was drowning when he came back to his beachside apartment and found the limp body of his wife of seven days, posed in the pea-green easy chair she vowed to get rid of the first time she laid eyes on it (It’s so 2025, she had said).

The majority of her appearance said she’d come home from a hard day of paralegal work and simply fell asleep. Head tilted down and to the side, tucked into her right shoulder. The only distortion to the picture was the stain of blood running from a line crossing her throat, onto the pink-rose colored dress Marty had bought her two days ago.

“I’m sorry, Marty.”

Marty said nothing. Only stared at the bottom of the sheet covering Diana. Three of her sky blue-painted toenails were sticking out. It was a sloppy job, whoever placed the sheet.

“We can get Pierre to work this. You don’t need to be here.”

Of course they weren’t going to let him work the case, but Kate, the coroner, wasn’t going to outright say that. She was one of the few people that Marty worked with whom he felt he could call a friend.

“I have a spare bedroom. You know Leonard would love to have you stay with us for awhile.”

Marty may have nodded, but all he felt was that cold water surrounding his face, the unrelenting hand of fate denying him breath.

#

Marty’s boss forced him to take a couple of weeks off. Even told him to expense a hotel somewhere after he ended up sleeping in his coupe that first night, refusing to answer Kate’s phone calls. He accepted his boss’s offer, because if he didn’t, he knew that it would only draw more attention.

The hard questions had come early. It was standard procedure. His alibi was airtight. He had been down at the Whirling Dervish, clinking glasses of port-finished scotch with Dennis, a longtime partner, when it happened. After Dennis dropped him off, Marty made the gruesome discovery.

He wasn’t in the clear, though. He knew he was being watched. Detectives have an insider’s knowledge. It’s assumed most of them are clever enough to pull something like this off, and if the department is lucky, the detective gets cocky and makes a mistake.

Of course, Marty’s sudden change of behavior over the past few months hadn’t helped matters. He had always been a private person, but the whirlwind romance took his colleagues by surprise. Three months. All starting from a random conversation in line at a local coffee shop. The way he had suddenly gushed over Diana made things worse. Not that saying a few words a week was gushing in anyone’s book but Marty’s. The only indication there had been a wedding was the simple titanium wedding band suddenly popping up on his finger. Even the honeymoon was a quick overnighter at a posh hotel up in Santa Barbara.

He couldn’t explain it to himself, let alone anyone else. Diana had been the one. She had come as swiftly as the day comes upon dawn and now she had left just as quickly as night overtakes dusk.

The day after the discovery, his apartment had been cleared of yellow tape.

Marty came back.

#

The vertical blinds were turned shut. Hints of daylight leaked through the cracks and the place smelled of solvents and super glue. Marty sat on the carpet where the easy chair had been. It was now in the department’s evidence room, but its four legs had left their round impressions.

He had only been able to handle about thirty seconds of silence before turning on the television and tuning into the local news. The forecast called for clear skies–’picnic weather’ the meteorologist called it with his pearly, ingratiating smile.

Marty’s cell phone buzzed. It was Dennis. Marty figured he ought to pick up. He turned the volume down on the TV.

“What do you know about Diana?”

Not much. Marty had to admit that was part of the appeal. She talked even less about herself than he did and when it did come up, she always found a way to steer such conversation elsewhere. She had a labrador retriever once named Taco. They lived out in Vermont, but after the dog died, she decided to pack a small suitcase and head to the West Coast. She found work performing research and drawing up briefs for an intellectual property lawyer out of El Segundo.

“Apparently she has no next of kin,” Dennis continued. “She lived in Vermont for all of her life. Shuffled around foster homes. Her bio parents both died of meth overdoses before she hit twelve. It seemed like she had her act together though, given the crappy environment. Got her GED, then her paralegal certificate. Shit, you probably know all of this.”

Marty did. Some of it, anyway. He thought about his own relatives who might as well be strangers. Even though he visited his parents in their Laguna Woods retirement community a few times a year, it wasn’t as if they were ever close. They did their thing. He did his.

“Look, I know you kids were hot and heavy and jumped into this thing. You’ve always been a closed book with your relationships. I shouldn’t even be discussing any of this with you. But, I’m gonna be honest. We’re hitting a dead end here. I need your help.”

Marty had already gotten to work. It didn’t matter how close he was to her. Work was always on his mind. He’d poked and prodded every corner of his mental being but had yet to come up with anything.

“I assume you got nothing from the dress? Chair? Everything else?” Marty asked.

“Only her prints and DNA. And of course yours.”

Of course.

“And the lawyer’s office?”

“Obviously, we’ve interviewed everyone there. Callahan and O’Donnell aren’t working on anything exactly high-profile. They’re on retainer for a few distribution and shipping bigwigs in the area. Preliminary checks on the companies aren’t raising any red flags.”

Marty didn’t say anything. He only stared at the female newscaster on the screen. A tiny box next to her head showed a picture of a young man sporting a beard meant to make him look ten years older than he really was, but had the opposite effect. Below his face were the words CONTROVERSIAL IPO and the name of the company–Moeva.

“I gotta go.” Marty hung up the phone and turned up the volume.

A brief interview with the man popped up. He was smiling wide with his left canine tooth poking out slightly more than his right, standing in what looked to be an office lobby. His facial hair matched his earlier photo and he was wearing a light blue collared shirt, the top two buttons unbuttoned, beneath a dark blazer. There was something about him that stuck in Marty’s craw.

“We make lifelong companions.”

“Mr. Munro, don’t you feel that this is…unnatural?” the woman interviewing him asked.

“Not everyone is blessed to be an alpha male. And, by the way, not all of our clients are male. But let me ask you, are those people less deserving of companionship?”

The interviewer feigned a look of concern and was speaking as if she were reading a script. “There’s been controversy surrounding some of the ‘personalities’ that come with these dolls.”

“Companions.”

The woman continued. “Many of them a programmed to act resistant to their operator. Don’t you feel that you’re feeding potentially dangerous delusions and addictions of your customers?”

“We’re offering some of our customers a form of therapy,” he said. “If they are able to act out their fantasies with their companions, imagine the number of public safety incidents that will reduce.”

The interview cut back to the newscaster who mentioned that the tiny startup was founded only two years ago in Vermont.

#

It was the usual lawyer’s office. Shelves covered with dark green and brown leather-bound tomes filled with archaic law literature that were probably ignored for the most part. How much of that was available online now? Marty couldn’t imagine an attorney having his paralegals wasting time digging around in those things.

The administrative assistant eyed Marty from behind her giant desk. She was a woman in her late fifties, maybe early sixties, with a bit of filler to smooth out the wrinkles out beside her eyes, but she peered over the lip of dark oak like a young child barely able to reach the top.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I’d like to talk to Callahan. Or O’Donnell.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No.”

She sighed deeply. “Well, they are both very busy. Are you a current client–”

He flashed his badge.

“Look, I saw both of them park their cars this morning. I know they’re here. I know they’re probably sitting in a conference room right now stuffing their faces with whatever overpriced shrimp and lobster they had brought in.”

The woman hesitated for a second before picking up the phone.

“There’s a police officer here to see you.”

“His name’s….” She looked up.

“Marty.”

“Marty….?”

“Marty.”

She repeated the name into the handset and hung up the phone a second later.

“Down the hallway. Second door on your right.”

#

The room had an appearance much like the lobby, only slightly smaller with a polished oak table in the middle and a conference phone sitting in the middle of that. A platter of seafood and dipping sauces was half-empty. Plates with discarded shrimp and lobster tails sat in front of two men.

Surprise, surprise.

Except for different colored ties, Callahan and O’Donnell looked like cheap carbon copies of each other. Both of them were busting out of the same tired gray blazers and button-up white shirts and had mile-long combovers. It was like they hadn’t updated their wardrobes since the 80s. These guys obviously had steady clientele.

“We don’t have anything more to say. We’ve already talked–”

“I’ll be quick. Tell me about Moeva.”

Callahan looked at O’Donnell. Or O’Donnell looked at Callahan. One of them spoke.

“We’ve given the department all of the information we have regarding Diana. I advise that–”

The man went silent as Marty reached into his coat, pulled the .40 Smith and Wesson out of his shoulder holster and removed the magazine. He confirmed that it was loaded and slapped it back in. The faces of the two attorneys turned ash white. Marty didn’t point his weapon at them. Didn’t wave it around threateningly. He was simply an officer checking his tools, but he probably looked as scary as hell. He hadn’t slept in the past twenty-six hours, his eyes were dry and bloodshot, and he could almost see the funk fuming from his body.

“I understand. I just feel like you work a complicated business. You keep a lot of files. Things get misplaced or forgotten about. There may be some niggling little detail…” He shrugged and shifted his eyes between them both. “…you know, something inconsequential that you might think is not really even worth mentioning, but that I would really love to hear.”

Callahan, or maybe it was O’Donnell, looked like he was about to crack, so Marty focused on him.

“We had nothing to do with what happened.”

Marty was silent, goading the man to speak more.

“Do you know who did?”

“No!” they said simultaneously.

Marty believed them.

“We don’t work for them anymore,” one of them offered up.

“As of when?”

“As of yesterday.”

“Because of Diana?”

There was a moment of hesitation.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Look, give me all of those files you have that you may have forgotten to give the department and I’ll let you get back to your peasant’s lunch.”

#

Marty pulled up the folder on his computer. Six hundred and thirty-six legal documents. This would take awhile. He started the first pot of coffee.

#

It was somewhere around two A.M. when he noticed something odd. Callahan and O’Donnell had vetted a deal between Moeva and a marketing company with ties to a popular social media giant. A database was sold to Moeva, operating as Tenacious Industries. Marty imagined this particular media company would be in a pool of hot water if the news got out.

It was time to learn a little more about Moeva’s operations.

#

The place didn’t look particularly high tech. Just south of Burlington, east of Lake Champlain, Moeva’s two-level, white-brick building was part of a nondescript office park set back in a copse of hackberry trees whose branches of spearhead-leaves shadowed the natural grass.

The lobby was equally unremarkable, except for the rear wall where a large, glossy sign displaying Moeva’s logo hung–a pair of feminine eyes with heavy eyeshadow and a reflection of computer chips painted inside the pupils. It was the same location where the news interview had taken place.

A young, pasty male sat behind the front desk.

“Good morning. I’m Mr. Vanderschot with Dutch Capital.” Not the most creative company name. Marty banked on no one in the office having ever been to the Netherlands, otherwise the accent he’d practiced for the past twenty-four hours by reviewing online videos would make the situation a little more precarious. “I have an appointment with–”

“Mr. Vanderschot!” There was the bearded boy from the newscast, peeking out from a door behind the admin’s desk. He walked up to Marty and extended his hand. “David Munro. It’s a pleasure to have you here.”

Marty took his hand and fought an instinctive revulsion to the its clamminess.

“How was the flight? I hope you’ve adjusted to the time difference.”

“It’s nothing.” The less said, the better. “Shall we begin the tour? I have another appointment this afternoon.”

“Of course. I understand you are a busy man.” David walked toward the door. “Please, follow me.”

#

There were a few humans milling about, but most of the work was done through automation in a large warehouse. Machines building machines. Conveyor belts distributed the lifelike body parts to various points where metal arms and claws assembled them.

David shouted over the loud mechanisms. “It’s all in the crotch. Our researchers spent many hours perfecting the look and feel. Especially the feel. That’s one of our key differentiators.” He said with an almost clinical inflection.

Seeing the parts of the bodies reminded Marty of many a crime scene he wished he could forget. After the brief tour, the two of them retired to David’s office.

On a side table, there was a stack of cheeseburger sliders and a bowl of mac and cheese. A bucket filled with ice and beer bottles sat next to the food.

“I figured you might enjoy some classic American fare.”

Marty’s stomach was signaling everything but hunger.

“To be honest, what I’ve seen is interesting and while your product is certainly titillating, I don’t know that its enough to get me and my partners…excited.”

There was a momentary hesitation from David, but he leaned forward.

“We’ve got something new we’re working on for select customers. It promises to be very profitable. I’m not going to lie to you, Mr. Vanderschot. The sort of numbers you’re looking to invest is what we need. I’m showing you all my cards. We’re a little controversial and finding willing investors is difficult. I need to know that if you invest, you’ll put some faith in me. That you’ll stand with this company.”

“We look for profit, Mr. Munro.”

The toothy smile came quickly.

#

They were in a locked room at the back of the warehouse. Piled into one corner were replicas of children, completely naked. It took everything Marty had to not go ballistic.

“You want profit? This is profit, Mr. Vanderschot.” David indicated toward the main factory floor with his head. “That’s good money, but this…” He made his eyebrows dance. “…this is going to make us all very happy. Watch.”

He walked over to one of the dolls–a young girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. He pressed a finger into the back of her neck. Her movements were jerky, but she sprang to life.

“Tell us about yourself,” David said to her.

The little girl’s lips moved. “My name is Tina Watts. I’m twelve-years-old and live in Hot Springs, Arkansas. I like waterskiing, texting my friends, and cuddling with my dachshund, Bonnie.”

David’s sick smile seemed to grow.

“Wow,” Marty said. He had dealt with shady characters throughout his career, but David Munro was something else. “So lifelike. They each have these personalities?”

“It’s our secret sauce. For all practical purposes, these are real kids.”

“How so?”

“We had a brief partnership with Flitterbook. Under a shell company. But the lawyers got queasy and cut things off. It’s okay. We got all the profile information. Got what we needed.”

His hand was stroking the girl’s hair as if she were a pet.

It was time.

“You certainly did that,” Marty said. He pulled out his pistol and shoved it into David’s gut before the sick CEO knew what was happening. “And now I got what I needed.”

Munro was surprisingly cool.

“What happened to your accent, Mr. Vanderschot?”

“I lost it.”

#

Diana had been in a relationship with David. He’d taken her under his wing when she was younger. More vulnerable. He confessed that she had made good money by referring him to lawyers who were willing to broker the deal with Flitterbook. Apparently she had a sudden change of heart. She grew a moral compass, he said, and though she didn’t outright say it, it was obvious she was ready to tell someone what she knew.

By that point, David had made too much money from wealthy clients to turn back, so he did what he needed to do.

Diana had been in trouble and Marty had ignored the signs. He recalled the agitated looks on her face when she tried to talk to him, only for him to change the subject. His own need for detachment, to keep the dirty work in the office, wound up forcing Diana to hide her truth in the shadows for too long.

Back at his apartment, sitting in a new, old pea-green chair he’d picked up from a nearby thrift store, Marty pored over a new case that Dennis had been working on in Marty’s absence. Letting himself drift to the bottom, deep into his work, was all he could do now.

6 thoughts on “Halfway”

    1. You’re too kind, Jill! Thank you. 🙂 This is definitely a genre I’m very uncomfortable writing in as I don’t read many pure mysteries, so I’m super happy to hear it worked out for you as a reader. It was a good opportunity to stretch myself.

  1. Brilliant work as always, Phillip! Love the name “Flitterbook”–as with “Drafted”, I think it’s great how you weave some social commentary into the story.

    I could definitely see this be expanded into a longer story or series–if you wanted to, that is. I don’t want to seem like I’m telling you what to do. 🙂

    1. No worries, Berthold. I take that as a huge compliment, not an order. ? This felt to me like I was exploring a character for a longer piece, so we certainly see it the same way. As always, appreciate the time you spent reading and for the feedback. Hope you had a great 4th of July!

  2. Well done, Phillip! Your dialogue is great and you feed the reader information at a good pace. I was hooked from the beginning. Interestingly, the image you start with–floating face down in a pool or the ocean–reminded me of the movie Sunset Boulevard. I agree with Berthold that you could expand this story, or character. Marty is a complicated guy. Obviously he has a strong moral compass, and can stay cool enough to do his duty. Yet, if he had been willing to listen to Diana …? That relationship does leave me with some questions: was it really a whirlwind romance, or something contrived by Diana? Did she chase after Marty, thinking that he could protect her? Marty is a man of few words so we may never know 😉

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