Bryant came down the hill from the cemetery with a quiet energy to his gait. Somehow visiting his girls gave him a sense of accomplishment. This time he remembered to leave a candy Kiss on Megan’s headstone and place flowers on Kate’s. Meltzer had dropped him off thirty minutes earlier, then left to take Margo to a safe house. Now he was back waiting for him on Warner Road, his car idling in the rain. When Bryant opened the passenger door of the large sedan, the detective had a bagel in one hand and a coffee in the other.
“Here,” Meltzer said, taking a second cup of steaming coffee from the cup holder and handing it to him.
“Thanks,” Bryant said, popping off the lid and taking a shallow sip. Meltzer let the car run while they drank their coffees. The sun tried to brighten the horizon, but the rain clouds were keeping it from making a formal appearance.
“You okay?” Meltzer said in a soft tone.
“I always feel a little better whenever I visit. At least for a while.”
Meltzer seemed to realize there weren’t any words which could offer comfort so he kept quiet and ate his bagel and sipped his coffee. Finally after a minute of silence, Meltzer said, “Are you ready for this?”
Bryant took a deep breath. “I guess.”
Meltzer took the last bite of his bagel, washed it down with a sip of coffee, then crushed the bagel wrapper and tossed it into the back seat. He flipped on his wipers, then shifted the car into drive and said, “All right then.”
Bryant glanced out the side mirror to see behind them.
“He’s not there,” Meltzer said.
“How can you be so sure?” Bryant said, suddenly not caring whether Meltzer caught him looking over his shoulder at the cars behind them.
“Because I know.”
“I’m telling you, Sam, there’s something malevolent about that guy. I was completely off the grid, and he still tracked us down.”
Meltzer stared straight ahead while he drove through down the four-lane road, constantly slowing down as the traffic lights kept the early morning rush hour to a standstill.
“He’s not the wizard you think he is,” Meltzer said. “He’s just an FBI agent with contacts.”
“Sam, I . . .” Bryant found himself searching for the right words. He could feel the pulse pounding the vein in his temple. “He’s dangerous.”
Meltzer gave him a sideways glimpse, then smiled.
“What’s so funny?”
“You,” Meltzer said. “You actually care about your safety.”
“I care about Margo.”
“But Margo’s not here. She’s in a safe house. You’re concerned for your own safety.”
“So what’s your point?”
Meltzer’s smile widened. “Nothing.”
But Bryant understood the sentiment. His friend was glad to see Bryant have emotion. Any emotion. Apathy was a killer for the depressed.
The traffic light turned red and Meltzer rolled to a stop. His phone chirped and he pulled it from his pocket to examine the screen. After reading the text message, he dropped the phone on the console and shook his head.
“What?” Bryant asked.
“They found a tiny GPS device inside one of Margo’s shoes.” The detective turned to face Bryant. “See? He’s just an FBI agent with a serious mental problem.”
“He’s more than that.”
“That’s right. He’s a bully. And I hate bullies.”
The light changed and they drove in Chandler traffic for almost five minutes before Bryant said, “What exactly do you expect from me?”
“I just want your professional opinion, that’s all,” Meltzer said, merging into the left lane and resigning himself to the sea of red brake lights ahead of them.
“I’m not exactly at the top of my game,” Bryant said, carefully holding his coffee between his legs to avoid spilling in his lap.
“I’ll take you at fifty percent over anyone else in your profession.”
“You don’t trust psychiatrists?”
Bryant sipped his coffee and looked out his window at the bleak morning haze. “Can’t say I blame you.”
Meltzer pulled down a residential street where puddles seemed to accumulate easier than on the main road. He drove slowly and craned his neck searching for addresses. The trees were large and the bushes mature, denoting an older community. There were no signs of bicycles or portable basketball hoops standing out by the curb. Finally Meltzer rolled to a stop in front of a tan stucco home with a red-tiled roof. It was the one home on the block which didn’t appear as kept up as the rest. The lawn was slightly overgrown and the azaleas drooped.
Meltzer turned off the car and stared at the front door. “Listen, if you suspect I’m being lied to, give me a sign. I need to know if she’s complicit.”
They walked toward the front door on wobbly pavers etched into the unruly grass and weeds. Meltzer’s cell phone rang. He pulled it from his pocket, saw the number on the screen, then pressed a button to shut it off. He rang the doorbell, then immediately knocked as well. The place seemed abandoned and Bryant wasn’t sure anyone had been here for a while.
Meltzer knocked once again.
After a few seconds, the detective placed his hand on the doorknob and began to twist.
“What are you doing?” Bryant asked.
Before Meltzer could answer, a woman’s voice snapped. “Who are you?”
Meltzer reached for his credentials and held it up to a peephole which might’ve been popular thirty years ago when the house was built.
“Detective Sam Meltzer, ma’am. I just wanted a few minutes of your time.”
Meltzer nodded as if he’d expected the response and was going through his checklist of options. He stood there and waited. And waited. He appeared in no rush and Bryant felt a little uncomfortable as the time passed.
“Go away,” the woman’s voice blasted from the other side of the door.
“No,” Meltzer said, flatly. “I’ll be staying until you open this door.”
“What do you want?” the woman said.
Meltzer fished out a piece of paper from his inside jacket pocket, unfolded the sheet and held it in front of the peephole. “You know what this is, Mrs. Turkle. I don’t need your permission to come inside.”
Bryant looked out over the quiet street and felt a sense of eeriness about the scene, as if he was being watched, and even the presence of a very competent detective next to him didn’t qualm his fears.
“Quit looking for him,” Meltzer whispered to him.
There was a silence as Meltzer waited with his hands clasped in front of him. Finally he said, “Mrs. Turkle, I really don’t want to break down your door . . . but I will.”
The door creaked open. In the entryway a woman of around forty-five stood wearing an oversized Arizona Cardinals sweatshirt and jeans. She could’ve been younger, but she looked as if she hadn’t slept in weeks. Her eyes were bloodshot and her hair tangled up into uneven balls of anxiety. She pointed a shotgun low on her shoulder with a practiced ease.
“Let me see the paper,” she snarled.
Meltzer held it up for her to examine, but she spent half her time glancing up and down the street.
“You can come in,” she said to the detective, “but he stays out here.”
Bryant held up his hands and took a step back, watching the barrel of the shotgun at all times.
Meltzer frowned. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Turkle, but you don’t decide the terms of the search.”
She grew more anxious with every passing minute the door was open. Finally, she moved aside and pointed the shotgun toward the living room where the couch and TV and recliner all resided.
As they entered the house, Meltzer said, “You can put down the gun. We’re alone.”
Mrs. Turkle shut the front door, but kept the shotgun at the ready. Meltzer rubbed the back of his neck and examined the room. A stack of newspapers sat beside the recliner.
“You’ve been doing a lot of reading,” Meltzer said. “So you know what’s been going on.” Then his face turned grave and he pointed at the shotgun. “Put that damn thing down!”
Mrs. Turkle hesitated, then placed the gun against the wall. “We’re all doomed anyway.”
“You having some hard times?” Meltzer said, getting right into the questioning portion of the visit.
Mrs. Turkle leaned back against the wall and sighed. “You can say that.”
“Tell me about it,” Meltzer said, folding his arms.
Bryant knew enough to stay quiet and let the detective work.
Mrs. Turkle walked past them and sat at the far end of the couch. She leaned over and pulled a bottle of tequila from under the end table, then took a gulp from the open bottle like a sailor on leave.
“Mrs. Turkle,” Meltzer said. “Would you like to tell me what’s going on?”
The woman acted as if she were alone. Something in the back of Bryant’s mind gave him the idea she was relieved to have Meltzer there.
She leaned her head back and said, “He’s convinced this Margo girl is an alien.”
“Where is he now?”
“Chasing her down I’m sure.”
“When was the last time you had contact with him?”
“A couple of nights ago.” She took another drink of tequila, then cradled the bottle between her legs. With a distant stare, she said, “He came by to take a shower and change clothes. Right before he emptied out our retirement account to pay for his obsession.”
“Has he been abusive?”
She rubbed the rim of the tequila bottle with her index finger.
Meltzer looked at Bryant as if to ask for help. As far as Bryant could tell the woman was frightened and showed signs of depression, but she didn’t appear to be complicit with her husband’s tirades.
“Mrs. Turkle,” Meltzer’s voice softened. He came around the recliner and sat on the ottoman across from her. “Why are you answering your door with a shotgun?”
The woman leaned her head back and shut her eyes. “Because there’s a war going on. Our planet is under attack and no one seems to care.”
Bryant was in psychoanalyst mode now, listening to every word and matching it with her body language. He wanted to be invisible and allow the woman to express herself.
Meltzer cocked his head. “So you’re waiting to kill aliens, is that what you’re doing?”
Mrs. Turkle raised her tired eyes toward Meltzer. “There are good aliens and there are bad ones. The hard part is knowing the difference.”
Meltzer rubbed his hands together and seemed to search for the proper words.
“He’s not the same person,” Mrs. Turkle said, examining the label on the bottle. “Ever since the heart surgery. He’s just not the same.”
Outside the rain seemed to pick up steam, tapping the windows with insistent pings of attention.
“Mrs. Turkle,” Meltzer said. “We need to find him before he harms anyone else. Can you help us?”
She looked out one of the windows. “He already knows you’re here. He knows everything.”
She locked eyes with Meltzer. “Aren’t you paying attention?” she asked with a scowl. “He’s changed. He’s some . . . something . . . I can’t explain.”
Mrs. Turkle strangled the bottle of tequila and returned her gaze out the window.
Finally Bryant stepped in. “Mrs. Turkle,” he said. “Was he irritable? Unable to eat or sleep?”
The woman’s eyes drifted around the room aimlessly. “Our retirement,” she mumbled. “Every penny.”
Bryant tried to appear calm while his bones were tightening up from fear. “It’s not uncommon for a cardiac patient to have certain symptoms following a surgery.”
Meltzer leaned toward the woman. “Mrs. Turkle, I looked into your husband’s surgery. I’m sure you’re aware that there were complications. He was considered clinically dead for almost five minutes. Far beyond what the body can endure.”
Meltzer looked up at Bryant for his cue.
“You see,” Bryant said, “when the body shuts down, the brain is deprived of oxygen and neurological damage can occur. We discovered his resting heart rate went from seventy-seven before the surgery to fifty-one after the event. A low heart rate shows a lack of fear and can make a person biologically disposed to aggression.”
The woman’s face turned tight with confusion. “You think there’s a scientific explanation for this?”
The two men said nothing.
Was it Bryant’s imagination or was the room getting darker?
Thunder grumbled outside.
Meltzer stood and seemed to assess their surroundings. Besides the mound of newspapers next to the recliner, the place seemed in slight disarray. On the wall, a family picture was tilted to a forty-five degree angle. A boy, a girl and Mr. and Mrs. Turkle, arm in arm, all happy. In the corner of the room a small lamp sat on the floor. “Looks like there was a bit of a quarrel, huh?”
The woman sat with a faraway look etched on her face.
Meltzer picked up the top newspaper, examined it, then handed it to Bryant. The date was from three weeks ago.
“They’re here to destroy us,” Mrs. Turkle said. “They’re here to take over our bodies and no one even cares.”
“Who?” Meltzer said.
She went over to the window and looked up into the sea of gray clouds. “Them.”
“And we’re all going to die from this attack?”
“Then what are they waiting for? Why haven’t they attacked us yet?”
She turned from the window and looked directly at Bryant as if he could answer the question for her. “He knows.”
A sense of unease fell to the pit of Bryant’s stomach.
Meltzer ran a hand through his hair. He made eye contact with Bryant and nodded for him to look around while the detective tried to get some answers.
“Mrs. Turkle,” Bryant said. “Do you mind if I get myself a glass of water?”
The woman shrugged.
Bryant casually walked into the kitchen adjacent to the living room. He heard Meltzer ask about her children, but couldn’t hear her response. The kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes with caked-on spaghetti sauce which looked days old. There were two more empty bottles of tequila on the counter next to a full vial of antidepressants.
He heard Meltzer ask when the last time Mrs. Turkle was outside, and the woman admitted she hadn’t stepped out of the house for a week or two. Apparently it was too scary.
On the refrigerator was a calendar with penciled-in notes for dentist appointments and soccer games. All the activities seemed to have conspicuously ended in the middle of last week with the rest of the month blank.
It took a few minutes to put it all together, but an idea began to form in Bryant’s head. The full bottle of antidepressants. The heavy drinking. The withdrawal from the family and friends. The shotgun.
Meltzer came into the kitchen and blew a low whistle when he saw the room’s shoddy condition. “Boy, my wife would get sick if she saw this place,” he whispered.
There was movement in the living room and Bryant sprinted past the detective to find Mrs. Turkle going for the shotgun which was still leaning up against the wall. Bryant body-slammed the frail woman while she desperately grasped the shotgun as if it were a life preserver in a raging sea. The shotgun went off and blasted a hole up into the ceiling. The explosion sprayed a stream of heat past Bryant’s head. Tiny flecks of drywall and paint came floating down as Bryant manhandled the gun away from the woman and watched her crash to the floor.
Meltzer stood in the archway between the two rooms in a crouched position, his gun out and ready to fire.
“What happened?” he asked.
Bryant got to his feet and took a deep breath. He handed the shotgun to the detective and pointed to the woman who was now curled up against the wall, her knees to her chest. She was sobbing with her hands over her eyes.
“That gun wasn’t meant for aliens,” Bryant said. “She was trying to kill herself.”
Meltzer put away his gun and shook his head. “Man, what a week.”
“Where did she say the kids were?”
Meltzer hesitated. “She didn’t.”
They looked at each other with the same disgusting thought running through their heads. Bryant hustled into the hallway toward the back bedrooms. All the doors were closed. He shoved one door open and turned on the light. A messy bathroom. The next door exposed an empty bedroom with an unmade bed and books on the floor. From the living room he could hear Meltzer interrogating the woman about the location of her children.
Bryant quickly opened the last door and stopped. There were two unmade beds. Clothes were thrown haphazardly on the floor. The only sound came from a squeaky ceiling fan overhead. Huddled next to each other on the far bed were a boy and a girl around ten or twelve years old. They stared at Bryant with wild eyes.
The girl was crying. The boy was older and had his arm around his sister.
“Our mom,” the boy said, but stopped there.
Bryant instinctively closed the door behind him as he approached the bed. “Your mother is fine,” he said, softly.
The girl dug her head into her brother’s shoulder, while the boy seemed to collect himself, maturity being forced upon him.
“That gunshot . . .”
“Your mom was just trying to protect you,” Bryant said. “She loves you very much.”
The boy seemed suspicious. He glanced at the closed door and a question came across his face. Bryant sat on the bed across from them and put his elbows on his knees.
“She needs to spend some time alone,” Bryant said.
The kids seemed to accept that fate without asking for details and that told Bryant volumes about their state of mind.
“Are you two okay?” he asked.
The girl began to convulse into a combination of crying and hiccupping. The boy gathered her closer and looked at Bryant with a slight sense of disdain.
“Do we look all right?” the boy asked.
For some reason this made Bryant smile inside. He couldn’t imagine what they had been through, but somehow there seemed to be a level of courage in the boy’s demeanor. Even in his sarcasm.
Bryant was on familiar turf now, tending to fragile preteens with the one device he’d known best—words.
“Well, you’re going to be all right,” Bryant said. “That much I can promise you.”
“How?”The boy sneered. “How can you tell us we’re going to be all right? You don’t even know what’s been going on. You have no idea how much danger we’re in.”
“Tell me about the danger.”
The boy rolled his eyes and pursed his lips, as if he were trying to keep himself from smacking Bryant in the head. “We’re all going to die very soon. These beings are here to take over the world. We have nothing that can stop them.”
“And how do you know this?”
“Because.” The boy tucked his sister’s head tight into his chest and covered her ears with his arm. “My father is one of them.”
“He told you that?”
Now the boy seemed incensed. “He’s not our father anymore. He’s been taken over.”
At the mention of their father, the girl’s shoulders bobbed up and down with a renewed surge of sadness.
The bedroom door cracked open and Detective Meltzer leaned in to view the scene. He nodded to the children, then looked at Bryant. “We okay here?”
“Yeah,” Bryant said. “We’re doing fine.”
Meltzer nodded, then backed out and softly closed the door behind him.
Bryant looked back at the two kids like they were lumps of clay which he could mold into whatever shape he desired. It was the first time in months he’d felt a sense of purpose. They were in his hands and they were safe. He could bring them back, he just knew it.