After Me Excerpt
The body dumped in my bathtub was a warning; that much I got. Dropped by a pro and left where I couldn’t miss him. Not a speck of blood on the tile floor. No careless footprint. No thumb whorl on a chrome fixture. A paper stuck out of the guy’s breast pocket, in case I’d missed the larger message. I used a pair of tweezers to ease the paper loose and laid it on the counter.
I know what you did.
The shiver of a memory, a whispered sin—a moment of a life left behind. How had they found me? My trail had been rubbed clean behind me.
The dead man, eyes bulging, open and sightless, skin the white of old snow, begged to differ.
Questions bolted through my brain, brief illuminations that flared only to deepen the returning darkness. Who? Why? Why now? What had I done? All good questions but I had no answers.
It was hell to lose one’s memory and not lose one’s mind.
I’m known as Kate Sawyer. Some days that name rolled off my tongue with a comfortable familiarity, as if it really was my own. Other days it sounded like a random stab in the phonebook.
Surprised by my practiced efficiency, I finished checking out the man in my tub. Five foot eleven, probably 190. Gray hair. Brown eyes. Fifty or a hard-worn forty. One stab wound under his ribs and a gash downward into his belly. No murder weapon. I made a quick inventory of the knives in my kitchen—all accounted for. According to the items listed in my phone, the only other knife I owned was a serrated hunting knife hidden under my mattress, but the killer hadn’t used it. The perforation in the dead guy’s chest was too narrow, the edges clean.
I didn’t do this.
He wore a white shirt with a tattered collar, yellow stains circling under the arms, a red stain over his chest. Brown slacks with a suit jacket that didn’t quite match. No tags in any of it. No jewelry, no watch, two extra holes punched crudely in his belt which gathered tucks of cloth at his waist, old shoes with mismatched laces and an uneven wear pattern on the soles.
Not much to go on. I used my iPhone to snap a few photos from different angles.
A 9mm Sig Sauer nestled in his shoulder holster. With a finger through the trigger guard I lifted it, then cradled it in a towel. A sniff of the barrel. Hadn’t been fired recently. After protecting the note in a plastic bag, I secured both it and the gun with my getaway stash, under the false bottom of the lowest dresser drawer in my bedroom. My notes in my phone reminded me of its location. I took a few minutes wondering if I’d missed anything then called 911 from my cell.
Back at the tub, I sat on my haunches, hands on my thighs, the weight of a forgotten past on my shoulders. My eyes roamed over the body searching for clues to something I didn’t remember.
Who are you? I silently implored.
The corpse remained mute, his eyes unseeing.
What horrible thing have I done that drove someone to take your life and put you here? I stifled an urge to reach out, touch his cheek, push back a lock of hair that had fallen onto his forehead. He was beyond comforting. So was I. Cold seeped through me and I started to shake, the man’s death stealing me by inches.
The sound of sirens echoing from the streets below drove me to my feet. I don’t like sirens. I don’t like cops.
I don’t remember why.
I brushed down my clothes, wiped my eyes, and took a deep breath, but calm wouldn’t come. Each morning I awakened to a new reality—disjointed memories, lost connections, the past distant, the present fleeting. And now this.
The sirens multiplied. Despite the size and newfound sophistication of Portland, Oregon, murder still drew attention. With wailing sirens and flashing lights, two squad cars rounded the corner off Burnside skidding as they slowed, then arrowed into the drive below, disappearing under the porte-cochere. People on the sidewalk didn’t even pause to look—except one, an old homeless guy playing a tenor sax on the corner. He was always there, always watching. I’d dubbed him the Watchman. I bought him meals; he played my favorite song. The closest thing I had to family. He didn’t know that, and I doubted he’d care. I wondered if he knew the sirens were for me. As if he could feel my eyes on him, he looked up, staring at my corner apartment. Unnerved, I stepped back.
Even though I expected it, I jumped at the pounding on the door. Pulling air deep into my lungs, releasing it slowly, I calmed myself. Like a shark trailing blood, a good cop could follow one bead of sweat to a life sentence. I knew that in my bones. Doing my best to shake it off, adopt an innocence I wasn’t sure I could claim, I straightened my back, tilted my chin, and stalked to the door, my legs stiff, the ache in my knee making me limp.
I wasn’t very good at games. “Not anymore,” the past whispered.
A solid slab of hardwood, the door had no window, not even a peephole. Again the banging, this time more insistent. “Portland P.D., Ms. Sawyer. Open the door.” A male voice, low, demanding.
I was prepared for the man in front of me. Tall and broad, slouched, salt-and-pepper hair topping a face creased by things nobody should have to see. A normal cop. But the hurt in his eyes, that was unexpected. They were blue.
He took me in in a glance.
“Detective Hudson, Ma’am.” He flashed his badge then pocketed it.
Turning my back, I kept my arms crossed across my chest and expected him to follow me. “This way.” At the bathroom, I stepped aside. With a look, he told his men who had followed him in to stay back. As he brushed by me, I smelled rain.
Squatting by the tub, the detective pulled a pen from his pocket and gently lifted the dead man’s coat, exposing the empty shoulder holster. “You touch him?”
Not trusting my knees, I anchored myself to the doorjamb. “To check his pulse, that’s all.”
“You know him?”
I shook my head and hugged myself tighter.
“Did he have a gun?”
“Not that I saw.”
This time the detective angled a look my direction. “You sure?”
He leveled his gaze. Unblinking, I met it.
“Security downstairs is pretty tight. Any idea how he got in here?”
“I’m asking you.” His voice had turned hard. He still eyed me, hiding his thoughts behind a flat expression. “You didn’t let him in?”
I shook my head as I worked to control my anger. This was my home, my safe place. How dare they take that from me? All these people sucked up the air leaving me gasping. I wished they would leave, take the corpse in the tub, and I could pretend it hadn’t happened. Of course, for me, by tomorrow the memory might have faded like a photo losing itself to the sun. Or it might be seared into my fragile memory with the heat and terror of a cattle brand. The doctors could never predict.
I felt the other officers who had come with him gathering behind me, crowding me. A trickle of nervous sweat snaked down my side.
The detective had to question me; I knew that. I also was pretty sure I hadn’t let the guy in. I didn’t know him—although a dim bell chimed somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain. “I didn’t let him in. And I didn’t kill him.” At five feet and a hundred pounds, I would’ve had a tough time wrestling the guy into the tub and I doubted he’d just lie there while I released his soul to a higher plane.
After a glance that took in all of me, the detective appeared to reach the same conclusion. He gave one of his officers behind me a tilt of his head. The young man turned on his heels. I heard the door open and close. Blue Eyes fixed me with a stare. “You live alone?”
“Anybody else have a key?”
“No. I’ve lived here a couple of years, I think.” I frowned as I struggled to work back in time. Did anybody else have a key? I couldn’t remember. “Changed the locks when I moved in; I remember that.” I clamped my mouth shut. Only give them the info they asked for—I remembered that, too.
If he thought my memory issues odd, he didn’t let on. “You been here all night?”
My pulse sounded in my ears. My vision tightened to a pinprick. Then I remembered to breathe. “No, I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think so?” The soft blue turned darker. He glanced at my wrists exposed as my sleeves retreated. I knew what I looked like. People had commented before, hurtful things. I tried to hide but his eyes took in every detail: the bones jutting against almost translucent skin, the meticulous lettering, block letters, black semi-permanent ink… a way to remember.
Self-conscious, I knew people didn’t understand, and what they didn’t understand they feared. So they judged. I knew that, too, and I didn’t care. At least that’s what I told myself. Still, I tugged my sleeves down. I ran a hand through my hair, short curls with a mind of their own. My hair used to be long and straight before they shaved my head at the hospital. With the other hand I pulled out my phone and tried to hide my shaking as I scrolled through today’s schedule. “I was taking a class tonight. It started at six. I was here at home until then.”
His impatience, on a slow simmer now boiled over. “Why do you keep doing that, looking at your phone? Is this some game to you? Someone told you what to tell us and you’re reading it from a script in there?”
“And how’s that working?” My anger spiked. I never knew when it would, or how to control it. One of the downsides. “Before you assume I’m stupid, you might want to make sure.”
A tic worked in his cheek but he backed down a bit. “I’m assuming the guy wasn’t in your tub when you left.”
I gave him a hard look.
“Right. I’ll take that as a no. Since you’re being so cooperative and all. So your class ran from six until now? It’s almost midnight. Why don’t you see what your phone says about that?”
I thrust my phone toward him. “Everything I know is in here. Without my phone, I can’t remember what I had for breakfast, when I got up, who I talked to—hell, I can’t even remember who I am.” My anger kept me rolling, telling him things I didn’t want to admit even to myself. “Most days I can’t remember to log all that in the damned thing, so I’m totally at sea. Some days are better than others. Pressure makes it worse. You can ask at the hospital. I’m sure my doctor’s name and number is in here.” I was starting to hyperventilate. My vision swam.
The sudden softening of his voice surprised me. “Are you okay?”
Tears welled and I swiped at them with the back of my hand, then fisted it back in my pocket. I hated weakness, especially my own. “Sure, fine. I come home to a dead guy in my tub twice, maybe three times a week.” I couldn’t control the shaking anymore. Rounding my shoulders, pressing my elbows to my sides, both hands balled tight, one around my phone, drawing peace, I prayed I could hold it together.
“Sucks, that.” A hint of warmth. “I can see where that would throw you off.”
I didn’t want his pity; I just wanted to be me again. Adept at this game, he switched gears to throw me off. That’s what I would’ve done. I scowled at the thought. I tried to focus on the cop. I’d forgotten his name. “What did you ask me?”
“I asked if you were okay.” His voice had lost its edge.
“I think we’ve established the answer to that. What else?” My elbows pressed to my sides held me together as I tried to focus.
“Were you at the art school all evening, until you called us?”
I lifted my phone. “May I?” He nodded, so I scrolled through my last entries. “The class ended at nine. I must’ve stayed late to work on a new piece.” I fought the urge to chew on a fingernail. I’d bitten them all to the quick already. I stuffed my phone in my pocket. My hand followed, fisting around the device. The phone held everything I knew about myself, but the most important bits I transcribed to my skin with a black Sharpie. As time passed and the messages faded, I wrote over them, preserving my history. I liked to think the faded words had found their way inside where they would lead me back to the me I once was.
“Anyone stay late with you?” He turned back to the dead man, checking his pockets.
“Not that I remember. They gave me a key to the place. I stay late a lot. Sleep isn’t my thing.”
He looked like he understood. “Where?”
I pulled the phone back out. “The art school. It’s a few blocks down.”
“You like art?”
“It’s cathartic.” I stole a glance over his shoulder at the dead guy. “I’m thinking right-handed killer, tallish, strong, a single thrust to the heart.” Like bats escaping a cave, the words rushed out, riding the cool breeze of a knowledge so deep it had held on when everything else had left.
“How do you know that?” His words were sharp, the edge of a shovel digging, probing for something solid. But his eyes stayed kind.
“I… I don’t know.” You know, you’ve done this before. I shook my head, Drowning in a sea of confusion, afraid of the voice in my head, afraid of him, my thoughts like feathers riding the wind, I fought to stay present, but my eyesight telescoped, the world faded as if rushing away from me.
In one move, the detective rose and caught me as my legs crumpled. “I’ve gotcha.” He maneuvered me out of the bathroom to the couch in the great room. “Sit.” He waited for a moment. “You good?”
I nodded, pulling into myself. The first human contact I’d had in I don’t know how long. I rubbed my arm where his skin had touched mine.
“Want some water?”
I nodded. My eyes followed him around the counter as he searched for a glass and some ice. His eyes absorbing, judging, weighing, as they roamed over my things: the phalanx of pill bottles arranged by time and day on the counter, the white leather furniture, the original prints, the metal sculptures, the total lack of anything personal. For the second time tonight I felt violated.
“Here.” Ice clinked when he thrust a mug of water at me and managed a smile—he looked out of practice. “I couldn’t find any glasses.” The logo on the mug read: Keep Portland Weird.
“You know we stole this slogan from Austin.” I greedily drank the water, grateful for something to do, an excuse to avoid his eyes.
“How can you remember that and not who might have dropped a stiff in your tub?”
“I keep asking myself the same thing. The doctors have an explanation. This is what the doctors told me.” I pulled up my canned explanation in my phone and read it. “Early onset Alzheimer’s. I’m in an experimental study at the hospital, one of two in the country, cutting edge stuff I don’t begin to understand. It’s like the disease has cut chunks out of my head, so I remember some things and not others, with no logical explanation really. The folks at the hospital can confirm—they can tell you more than I can.” I stopped reading when I got to the part about voices in my head. Hallucinations, they called them. Another gift of the genetic form of the disease. But somehow, as scary as they were, I sensed the lost me in them. “The treatments are working. Memories are coming back. But they’re disjointed. And the current stuff still disappears. Like the old lady mumbling to herself on the street. She can remember every kid in her grade school class but can’t remember what she had for breakfast.” Except I didn’t even have that much. I shook the phone in front of him, demanding his attention. “It’s all in here. The numbers to call, the people to talk to. Check it out.”
I handed him the phone. Don’t do that. Secrets. No cops.
While he rooted through my life I stuck my hands in my pockets and ignored myself.
“You don’t call very many people.”
“I don’t remember very many people.” I contemplated my slide into the oblivion that now substituted for a life. Huge chunks were missing, some had been reduced to feelings but without any visuals like an overexposed movie reel—the sounds, perhaps a smell, but no picture.
He rubbed his chin, his stubble making a sound that jogged something. I reached for it. Sandpaper.
“When was the last time you ate?” he asked. His concern seemed genuine, but I wasn’t any expert.
“Eat?” I couldn’t remember. My phone wasn’t any help. Neither was my stomach.
He gestured toward the kitchen. “May I?”
He opened the fridge, a few of the cabinets. “Make a note to go to the grocery store.”
Had he asked, I could’ve told him he wouldn’t find any food. “I used to buy groceries, but then forget I had them until the neighbors complained about the smell.”
“Your smell affected to?”
“No, just associations. I used to be a whole lot worse than I am now, at least that’s what they tell me and that’s what I want to believe.”
“That why you write on yourself? To remember?”
“You have experience with murder?” Circling back. Smart cop.
Yes. More than you can imagine. I shook the voice away. “Not that I recall.”
He looked beyond me, the window pulling his gaze as if there was something compelling outside, something other than brick walls and a flat night sky. “I’m at a loss here.” His eyes flicked back to mine. “A dead guy shows up in your bathtub and you haven’t even a hint as to why?”
Guilt tugged at something deep inside. “There must be a reason the killer chose this guy and put him here, in my home. But I’ll be damned if I know who or why.”
A lingering hint of mistrust shifted to sympathy in his eyes before they drifted from mine.
Sympathy, the last way station on the pity path. I hated pity, but I was used to it. Alzheimer’s in someone my age—I’d not yet reached forty according to the information in my phone—was more than most folks could process.
The detective paced around the room stopping in front of each piece of art. “You do these?” Interest flared.
“Yeah.” When I’d first moved to Portland I’d painted. They were happy and bright, soothing in a way I couldn’t remember my life ever having been. I stopped for a while. I couldn’t remember why. Recently, I’d broken out the paints again, bought some new tubes of oil and a few of acrylic, but the images that flowed through my brushes scared me. “Right now, I’m mostly working on the sculptures. Turns out I have a talent with the TIG welder.”
An eyebrow arched in surprise. “That what you take at the art school?”
I chewed on my lip. “Maybe.” I breathed deep, focusing on each breath, and stole a glance at my phone. “Yes.”
He paused a moment in front of each figure, all similar—large and black, hooded, with head bowed in supplication, hands fisted at it’s sides. “I like your work. Not very hopeful, though, are they?”
Before I could answer, the young officer the detective had sent away, stepped through my front door. After nodding once to the detective, he moved to the side to wait with the others still guarding my door.
“Did you see the crime scene guys down there?” the detective asked him.
“Right behind me.”
The detective’s attention landed back on me, all business again. “Is there anyone I can call who might be able to shed some light on any of this, besides the medical guys?” He lowered his voice to a deeper level of serious. “You can appreciate the fact that this has personal written all over it.”
“I may not remember everything, or even most things,” I said, “but I still remember how to be afraid.” I didn’t tell him that when you started losing the past, fear became your grounding in the present. He looked like he understood.
“What has me worried is how the killer or killers and the victim got in here. There’re no signs of forced entry. Was your door locked?”
“I don’t know. I try to remember to throw the bolt when I leave. I have a note there to remind me, but even that is no guarantee. That’s why I live in a secure building.”
We shared a moment of irony.
Keeping his eyes on me, he called over his shoulder. “Peterson?”
The officer he’d sent downstairs stepped forward. “Sir?”
The detective’s attention shifted to the young officer. “Any info from the security cameras?”
“Tape from tonight is missing.”
“Of course it is. I’m assuming the guard didn’t see anything.”
The detective looked put out but didn’t seem surprised. “Okay. We need to talk to all the security personnel, see if they’ve noticed anything irregular.”
“Start with the last twenty-four hours. See what you get and we’ll go from there.”
The young officer motioned for another to follow him as he headed toward the door.
The room seemed a bit more my own after they’d left. My mug was empty yet my mouth was still dry. I startled when my phone chirped.
The detective’s head swiveled in my direction; his eyes bore holes.
I rose and, turning my back to the room, I moved to stand in front of the window. I bowed my head and cupped a hand around the phone as I lowered my voice. Still, my words crackled with anger. “Dan, what the fuck? You said I’d be safe.” I looked at the reflection in the window of the activity behind me. The cop was watching. I couldn’t read his expression. I didn’t care. “You promised.”
Deputy U.S. Marshall Dan Strader was my lifeline. He and my phone were the two things holding me together. Now his voice came over the line, warm, reassuring. There was something about his voice that always made me feel protected, safe… that called me back.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “And I know what I said. I’m on it. I’ll find the leak.” His voice held concern and anger all rolled into tired. Crisp with dulled edges, he hadn’t been asleep. I knew his nuances. “Kate, it has to be that damned brain study.”
Squeezing the phone I vibrated with an anger laced with fear and shock, but it was the anger that threatened to consume me. “So this is my fault?”
“Breathe, Sawyer. I can’t help if I don’t know what’s happened. What’s going down?”
The simple question stymied me. You’d think anger would bridge the faulty synapses in my head, but I couldn’t be so lucky.
“Are you okay?” I could picture him rubbing his eyes, the skin bunching between them in a perpetual frown.
Shutting my eyes, I focused on breathing—in, out, in, out. “The police are here.” In, out, in out…
Dan’s voice switched gears, dropping into a low growl. “Why didn’t you call me first?”
“I don’t know.” I momentarily lost my footing. “Was I supposed to?”
“Let me talk to them.”
I extended the phone to the detective. “He wants to talk to you.”
The cop raised an eyebrow but took the phone as he joined me at the window. His face was hard to read. “This is Detective Hudson with the Portland Police Department. Who are you?”
Hudson, that was his name. I repeated the name over and over then, losing faith, I snagged a Sharpie—I had them stashed all over. In tiny letters I wrote his name on my forearm, blowing on the ink until it had lost its wet sheen.
As he listened, his eyes kept flicking to me, then away—little darts of interest, curiosity, disbelief. “There’s been a murder,” he explained to Dan. Then his expression lost any hint of nice. “I see.” He didn’t sound happy. “You want us to—” He listened a bit longer. “I’m in the middle of questioning—” His eyes flashed to mine. They were no longer light blue, but dark and angry. “Got it.”
He handed the phone back to me and directed his words at his officers, but his eyes never left me. “Tell the ME to process the scene, bag the body, and get it out of here. He needs to hold it for the Feds. Guess we don’t own our own dead anymore. When the crime scene guys are done, so are we.”
Turning my back, I lowered my voice and lit into Dan. “Now you gotta go pissing off the cops.”
“Don’t tell them anything. Can you do that?”
“Kate, just do what I ask. It’s important.”
I terminated the call, a shudder rolling through me.
What could be going down that I couldn’t trust the cops?
An earlier question floated through my mind. Who was I?
What have I done?