Users Who Spiked
Beatrice stared at the blinking cursor. It reminded her of a tapping foot, impatient for her to enter the required information. She clenched her jaw, resenting the computer's impatience. It wasn't her fault she couldn't remember her password. She had been awake all night, sitting in a car with a pair of binoculars. Beatrice cursed herself for the tenth time that morning for forgetting to get coffee on the way into the office. She took out her phone and sent a text to Andrew.
For the love of God, please bring coffee!
There was no immediate response. She set down her phone and looked at the cursor again. Maybe, she thought, it's **********. The screen refreshed and brought her right back to the login page. A warning in red text let her know that she had two more chances before she was locked out of her account. She slammed her fist down on the desk. The pencils jumped in their cup. She took one out and scribbled her frustration onto the desk pad in front of her. The pencil tip broke off and she put the pencil back in the holder with the others. She'd just swept the broken lead onto the floor when Andrew opened the office door and walked in. Beatrice stood up, looking hopeful. He smiled and brought a hand out from behind his back. His large hand cradled two styrofoam cups with steam puffing out of small openings in their lids.
"Oh, thank you," she said, eagerly taking a cup. "If I ever yell at you again..."
"Don't you mean, when?"
"Oh, shut up. You know what I mean."
She held the steaming cup in both hands as if it were a precious object and eased back into her chair. The aroma wafted up her nostrils and she closed her eyes, savoring the tingle it made in her brain. A tentative sip told her it was still too hot to drink, but that Andrew had remembered - two creams, two sugars. She set the cup down and returned to glaring at her computer screen. It was only yesterday when she changed it last. Making a fist, Beatrice rapped her knuckles against her temple, trying to get her brain to function. The phone rang.
"Bartlet and Bridge Investigations"
The voice on the other end was timid and so soft, she could barely hear.
"Can you speak up?"
"Is this better? I can't talk too loud, my husband's home."
"Yeah, that's okay. What can I do for you?"
"I think someone's trying to kill my husband."
"Okay, why do you think that?"
"Because I told them to."
About an hour later, a slight woman with thin blonde hair and a pale complexion walked through the office door. Her eyes darted around the room nervously. Beatrice stood and reached out her hand.
"Beatrice Bartlet. You must be Mrs. Stephans."
Mrs. Stephans nodded and took the extended hand. They shook politely and Beatrice offered the woman a seat. She looked over her shoulder at the desk cattycorner from Beatrice's. Andrew was typing away diligently on his computer. Beatrice noticed her uncertain expression.
"Mrs. Stephans, this is my partner, Andrew Bridge. Anything you have to say to me is safe with him too. Now, let's sit down and get started, shall we?"
Beatrice sat first and picked up her coffee cup, blowing gently into the hole in the lid. She took another tentative sip, hoping she wouldn't burn her tongue. It was just right now. Just warm enough to soothe the throat but not sear off her taste buds. She took a mightly swig before addressing Mrs. Stephans again. The woman was sitting now, but still casting furtive glances in Andrew's direction. Beatrice took a pencil out of the holder on the desk and held it poised over a small notepad. She tried to write down Mrs. Stephans, but the pencil's tip was broken off. She switched it for another that still had its lead.
"Ma'am," she said, trying to bring the woman's attention back around.
She jumped in her seat. "Oh! Yes, yes, I'm sorry. Where were we?"
"We were talking about your husband."
"Right. My husband. Someone's trying to kill him."
"You said that on the phone. You also said you'd put them up to it. How about you give me a little more detail."
"Yes. Well, about a month ago, I was talking to my sister and my brother-in-law about Rick. That's my husband's name, Rick."
Beatrice nodded and wrote Rick on the paper in front of her.
"My husband is not a nice man, Mrs. Bartlet."
"Just Beatrice. I'm not a missus."
"Oh. Okay. Well then, I envy you, Beatrice. Rick is a monster, quite frankly. I should have listened to my mother. She told me he was bad news, but I had to be rebellious and now look at me." Mrs. Stephans fidgeted in her seat.
"In what way is he a monster, Mrs. Stephans?"
"It's Alice. If we're going to use first names, I'm Alice. Rick is loud, he's violent, he's possessive, and controlling. He's a slob and an alcoholic. I know he sees other women behind my back."
"So, why not just leave him?"
"Oh, it's not quite that simple. See, Rick is...connected, if you know what I mean. He's possessive like I said. He wouldn't just let me go, even if he hates me. See, I belong to him."
"Okay. So you're afraid he might do something if you try to leave him. Have you tried going to the police?"
"No, no. I couldn't. He has the cops in his pocket. Word would get back to him that I wagged my tongue and then I'd be in for it for sure."
"I see. So you decided to deal with it another way?"
"Right. I was talking to my sister and her husband like I said. They know all about Rick, his cheating, his bad habits, his...mistreatment of me." Alice trembled a little at the last part. "They want to be supportive, sure, but what can they do? Well, I was saying to them that the only way I was going to get away from him was to have him killed, you see."
Beatrice nodded, jotting down information.
"And so I think they took me seriously. I mean, I was serious, but not serious if you know what I mean. I hate Rick. He's a brute, but that's between me and him, that's not their problem."
"Okay. So why do you think they took you seriously? Did they say something to you?"
"Yes. I was on my way out the door, to try and beat Rick home before he noticed I was gone. That's when my brother-in-law grabbed my arm in the hallway. He said, 'don't worry, Alice, we'll take care of him.' and then I left."
"Have you heard anything since then? Has your husband had any mysterious accidents recently? Have you tried asking your sister?"
"Yes. No. I mean," Alice paused and took a deep breath. "I didn't ask my sister. She just left town and I haven't been able to reach her. Rick got in a fight two nights ago, but I don't think it was them. Rick comes home with bruises and cuts every now and then. He says it's from work."
"What kind of work does Rick do?"
"Oh...this and that. Shipping mostly." Alice said vaguely.
"I see. So is there anything else that makes you think Rick's in danger?"
"Yes. I've noticed someone following him. He's a tall guy, wears a leather jacket. It's...maroon I think I'd call it. A maroon jacket and a hat, a black stocking cap."
Beatrice wrote down the man's description.
"He's real tall and skinny. I've been seeing him everywhere."
"Can you be more specific?"
Alice listed the places around town where she'd spotted the man. The list gave Beatrice a pretty good idea of the lifestyle Rick and Alice lead. Liquor stores, bars, the dry cleaners, strip clubs, pawn shops. There was no mention of banks, grocery stores, or daycare centers. There wasn't any mention of warehouses or anywhere she'd expect to receive shipments either. Shipping, Beatrice thought, probably meant stealing off the backs of trucks. She knew of a few strip clubs that wouldn't mind buying stolen booze. Any pawn shop would take stolen electronics as long as you gave them an ID. It would be easy enough to find the owner of the maroon leather jacket. Soon, Rick Stephans would have two tails.
"Alright, I think we have enough to work with, Mrs. Stephens - Alice. Give me some time and contact me if anything strange happens. I'll follow up as soon as I get a chance to look around."
Beatrice stood up and extended her hand again to say goodbye. Alice sat still.
"Don't you need to...enter my information on your computer or something?'
"Our network is down."
Alice looked over at Andrew again. He was still typing steadily away.
Two nights later, Beatrice was following a late 70's Lincoln Continental with chipped gold paint down a rainy downtown avenue. They were in the seedy section of town, cruising past pawnshops with barred windows, flickering neon signs, and groups of sex workers huddled together smoking cigarettes under the awnings. She was about a block away, but the Lincoln's tail lights were easily distinguished from the new model Mustangs and the occasional PT Cruiser. The Lincoln took a right turn and Beatrice sped up to the corner. She took the turn a little too fast on the slick road and almost slid into an oncoming Ford Focus tricked out with a blue underglow. She didn't see the Lincoln until she passed it.
She swore to herself and made another right. The car had gone down an alley behind a shady bar called "Gillespie's." Beatrice took a third right at the end of the block and pulled over. She killed her headlights and let her eyes adjust to the semi-darkness. Facing her halfway down the alley was the gold Lincoln, lights on and engine idling. The streetlight above her was out, leaving her in a pool of anonymous shadow. On the passenger seat next to her was a black padded case. She unzipped it and pulled out a digital camera with a long-focus lens. She pointed it down the alley like a bazooka.
A man got out of the driver's side and walked around the front of the Lincoln. As he crossed toward the back door of Gillespie's, the passenger door opened and a redhead in a mini skirt reached out for the man's thick arm. She caught him by the wrist, but he turned and gave her a shove. The woman stumbled backward and landed on her butt near the open passenger door. Beatrice watched the man enter the bar through the long lens. The redhead stood up, wiped the grit and rain from the back of her skirt, and got back into the car.
Charming, Mr. Stephans, Beatrice thought to herself.
She sat still and waited. The sound of wet gravel grinding under a shoe drew her attention away from the alley. At the corner of the block, extinguishing the remains of a cigarette with his boot heel was a tall man wearing a black stocking cap and a maroon jacket. He was standing under the next streetlight and she didn't need the zoom lens to pick out his features. He was middle-aged, caucasian, about six and a half feet tall, thin, with sunken eyes and a bushy mustache. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he drew out a pack of cigarettes and withdrew a fresh one. Beatrice heard the metallic click of a Zippo. He turned up his jacket collar and continued to look down the alley at the gold Lincoln, smoke wafting up toward the streetlight. She could see the tell-tale lump of a revolver tucked into the back of his pants under the maroon leather. At this distance, she didn't chance a photo. He was close enough to hear the shutter click even if it was too dark to see into her vehicle.
A loud belch brought Beatrice's attention back toward the alley. Mr. Stephens had emerged from the alley door with a slight stagger in his stride. He crossed in front of the Lincoln, leaned sideways against a dumpster, and unzipped his fly. When he'd emptied his bladder, he got back into the car.
Beatrice set the camera back down so she could keep an eye on the car and the maroon jacket at the same time. As soon as the Lincoln began to make its way toward them down the alley, the man in the jacket walked briskly toward the main street and headed down the block in front of the string of shops and bars. She secured the camera back in its case and waited for the car to pull out into the street and turn the corner. After another brief stop to fill up his gas tank, Rick Stephens and his mini-skirted companion drove to a cheap motel.
She knew the D-Lux Motel very well. It was a hotspot for cheating husbands and drug dealers. Beatrice could have driven the parking lot with her eyes closed. Once she was sure the couple were settled into their room, she got out of her car and walked toward the reception window on the first floor.
"Hey, Rodney," she said to the young man behind the glass.
He looked up. "Beatrice! How's tricks?"
"You know how it is, Rod, same ol' shit. So, who ya got in 204 tonight?"
"Mr. Stephans and his lovely companion, Mandy. I figured you'd be on to him soon enough."
"If guys started being faithful to their wives, Rodney, I'd be out of a job."
Rodney nodded behind the glass, looking back down at his newspaper.
"You figure they're going to be a while? I was thinking of taking a nap." Beatrice yawned.
"I dunno. Half hour maybe? You want a room?"
"No thanks, Rod. Give me a call, will ya, if they bug out sooner?"
Rodney nodded again and Beatrice walked back to her car.
She set her phone to vibrate in 30 minutes and reclined the driver's seat.
...to be continued.
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