A detective goes to a private paradise, but finds a mystery he cannot solve.
A Safe Place
I read the glossy flyer in my hand for the hundredth time, studying the bold print at the top: “Welcome to the safest place in the world”. Just beyond the photo-shopped image of perfect beach and crystal blue ocean was the real thing, visible through the railing of my third floor balcony.
The resort was invisible to standard travel guides, rarely even mentioned on maps. As such, it offered amenities unavailable anywhere else, notably privacy amid a personal paradise. At least, that’s what the bold print on the advertisement promised.
When I arrived, I was met by a woman in a tight black pantsuit named Susan. She described herself as some sort of “relations manager”. It took her a long time to explain that she was basically a host or concierge, and responsible for keeping me happy. It had not hurt that she was more than a little attractive. She had assured me that many guests want total privacy and most see no one other than her for their entire time on the island. Privacy was held in high regard in Oceantown.
This trip was a surprise, a covert operation planned by the six members of my Task Force as a “thank you” for taking a bullet during a meth lab raid. I had not meant to take two bullets for Deacon, I’d have preferred to have taken them in the vest. But he turned left and I turned right, right into a tripping addict with a loaded shotgun. The doctors gave me a special ointment, but the stitches still itched beneath my shirt.
The balcony was spartan by typical “vacation getaways”, a simple whitewash affair containing a thick white table accompanied by a thick white chair surrounded by white walls overlooking the Atlantic. But the white concealed the hidden amenity of Oceantown. Unlike wood or plastic of most furniture or the paint that should have been smeared across the walls, every surface was reactive, a mixture of tech screens and sensors, all studying to make the experience perfect at every moment.
March madness was in full effect back home, and when I looked to my left, the white wall shimmered and was replaced by a 42” split screen view the day’s games. A digital scroll bar appeared on my arm rest, crawling with the scores of the games that had already been played and updating me on how terrible I had picked my brackets. It even gave projections, with second-by-second updates based on the health of the players and coaches, the physical conditions of the players, weather at the arena and even their current study habits of the athletic trainers.
The wall to my right blinked to life, displaying the William Wallace “Freedom” scene from Braveheart (my favorite of all time), a TV interview with Elmore Leonard, and a trio of ready-to-play selections from my DVR back home, specifically two documentaries that I’d been putting off for too long. Although I loved the “Freedom” speech, I turn back to the games, letting the right wall return to white.
The table pulsed beneath my coffee cup and my journal. The cup of Moroccan Joe was the perfect temperature. When I grabbed my Journal, the screen beneath it presented an index of topics and web searches it had gleaned from scanning my “Great American Novel”. Each one ready to fill in a nugget of information I had flagged “research” in my journal. I frowned a bit, lamenting that I could not lose myself on the web. Then again, the research would save me time. While the book was important, I was also here to relax and I had a sudden urge to grab a drink at a bar.
The wall to my right blinked, then changed into a map of the island, including the bridge to the mainland, the boardwalk that wrapped the waterfront and even the eight story “Silver Center” tower at the eastern tip of the island. My room was half-way up the tower, which offered ocean views on three sides and a bay view to the west. As I watched, a small ant-trail of red footsteps spread across the wall, showing the way from my room to a place called Center Point. An ad appeared in the corner, showing Center Point to be a bar catering to discriminating tastes.
I grabbed my journal and left the room, travelled from elevator to the sidewalk and to the bar without seeing a single soul. The views were spectacular, starlit ocean views all augmented with digital screens that described landmarks and even the constellations above me.
The Center Point bar was bathed in green neon, like a dive bar from a 1950’s detective movie. I slipped through the front doors, barely registering a “ding” from the bell over the door. The stool at the far end of the bar gave me a perfect view of the place. A casual glance around the bar showed it to be a bit too perfect, but as I scanned it again, I was greeted by the tell-tale signs of torn leather chairs and tables with names carved into the top and gum smashed against the bottom. There was bartender, not even a flirty waitress making the rounds with a carafe of cold coffee.
A Pappy Van Winkle, neat-no ice, would be perfect, I thought, a pricy indulgence just to blur the weird edges of this getaway. A shady-looking man slipped through swinging doors at the opposite side of the bar, wiping down a mug with a dirty rag. I lifted my index finger to him as he passed me. Without saying a word, he reached beneath the bar and pulled out a glass filled with Pappy’s. I didn’t see him pour it, but it was the perfect temperature. There was even a perfectly shaped ice cube floating at the bottom.
As I sipped my drink, the peacefulness made it easy to forget the mainland and almost enough to forget the dull ache from my shoulder.
The trip had been a gift, a way to “get away for a while” after the shooting. The members of my “major crimes” task force had chipped in for this little excursion, sending their boss straight from the “Officer Of the Year” ceremony back home to this week-long getaway on the coast of North Carolina. It was a terrible surprise, mostly because I hate surprises, but the time off would give me some time to relax and heal and maybe finish the book I had promised my daughter. I scratched at my chest for the thousandth time, wondering when the stitches would stop itching. The bullets had not hit anything vital, but the wounds did want to heal.
I set my glass on a wrinkled paper napkin and unfolded my journal on the bar.
“Mr. Donaldson,” my name chimed out like a bell. I turned to see Susan sitting three stools down from me. “They say that the best ideas come from the real world.”
“Excuse me?” I asked, noticing the black pantsuit had been replaced by a red strapless dress. She was nursing a tall glass capped with a purple umbrella.
“You’re a writer, right? I’m a pretty voracious reader, so it’s always interesting to see where writers get their ideas.”
My right index finger unconsciously ran across the familiar surface of my gold wedding band. My ex Susan had always said I needed to be more spontaneous. The divorce was her last attempt to tell me, but I never seemed to understand what she meant.
Susan ran her finger around the rim of her glass. “There’s nothing like the real world to spark some inspiration.” Her lithe arm snaked under her bar stool to grab her matching leather purse. She slipped the straps over her shoulder and walked away from me toward the door, her heels clicking against the worn wooden floor. She turned back over her shoulder and caught my eye one final time before slinking out onto the cobblestone street.
I craned my neck to keep her in sight, even leaving my seat to follow her though the green hued front window. When that vantage point failed me, I grabbed his notebook and the paper, slammed a few coins on the table and dashed out.
The street outside was deserted. She couldn’t have gotten far. I was only seconds behind her. I turned to my left, listening for footsteps when I heard a scream come from an alley beside the bar. My body reacted before my mind could tell me to run. I cut around the corner, instinctively groping at my waistband for a gun that was on the mainland.
He turned down two corners and finally saw Susan, cowering under a large man in a black overcoat. A small amount of blood trickled down her neck and through her brown hair.
I shortened my steps, trying to slow down as I lifted my shirt to uncover my small .40 caliber Glock tucked in the small of my back. I did not give a warning, but my footsteps thundered on the wooden boardwalk. A decade of chasing the worst of humanity could not prepare me for what I saw next.
The man turned, his face calm, almost aloof at the grown man bearing down on him. A thin trickle of blood ran out of the corner of the man’s mouth. His eyes caught me and he smiled, revealing a pair of long shimmering canine teeth.
I drew my pistol and leveled the sights on the man.
A voice akin to steel scraping granite escaped the bloody mouth of the stranger. I could not make out the words, but my body seemed to flow like molasses. The man turned back to the limp body of Susan and dove at her neck, his teeth tearing at her soft flesh.
My first shot struck the man in the left shoulder, sending a spray of blood against the wall behind him. As the man spun, he released her, letting her limp body fall to the ground. I fired two more times, each striking the man square in the chest. I waited for him to fall, but the man kept smiling, acting as if nothing had changed.
I heard the murmur of a crowd forming somewhere beyond the alley, followed by the wail of a police siren coming closer. The man turned and ran down a side alley. I started to give chase but a moan from Susan drew me to her side. Even if the stranger had been hopped up on PCP, a man with three slugs in him would bleed out soon enough and the police would pick him up. Alone and in the dark, I had no choice but to leave her there while I went to find help. I ducked back in front of the bar, but the crowd I had heard was gone. The wail of the siren faded as well, disappearing somewhere into the distance. When I raced back to her, the alley was deserted and she was gone. Not dead, but gone, not even a trace of her blood on the boardwalk.
Suddenly, I was bathed in bright light from four spotlights, one on each side of me. “You! Detective Donaldson! Drop the gun! Drop it now!” I remembered the gun in my hand and dropped it, letting it clatter to the ground, and then raising both hands into the air.
The lights were blinding, but I knew the drill.
“Detective Donaldson,” said the hidden voice. “Come with us.” Two of the beams of light swept across the ground motioning me back
toward the bar.
“No cuffs?” I asked, immediately ashamed at the terrible joke and a bit worried that they might take my advice.
“Not if you do what you’re told, Detective.”
I followed the path of the beams, happy to have my hands out of cuffs, but not quite sure what would happen next. The beams ushered me through an unmarked grey door that slammed and locked behind me. Once inside, the beams pointed toward a chair in the center of an otherwise vacant room. I’d interrogated enough folks to know what would happen next.
The plain white wall in front of me shimmered, then changed to a video image of a man wearing a crisp police uniform, complete with a chest-full of ribbons and a pressed 8-point bus driver hat. His badge read Oceantown Chief of Police.
“So, Detective Donaldson. It looks like your little vacation has turned into quite an adventure.”
“I’m not sure what happened. How is Susan? Did you guys get her to a hospital?”
“Do you remember the city motto, Detective?”
“Yeah, something like ‘the safest city on Earth’.
The Chief gestured to his right, directing my gaze to the wall beside me. The surface began to hum and revealed ten separate images of the
city, including streets and doorways.
“We have a problem, Detective. My job is to keep these streets safe. That’s also Susan job. She was one of the best.”
“Murder is a terrible thing, Detective. It takes a tremendous toll on a community.”
“I just did what I could, sir. I’m not sure what happened to that man.”
“Are you aware of this city’s secret?”
“Do you mean the cool wall displays? The personalized paradise?”
“It may seem like smoke and mirrors, but it’s actually just cameras and computers. Every part of our community is monitored. Cameras, biometric scanners, even gait analysis and body-heat sensors. We leave nothing to chance and do our best to keep people safe and satisfied.”
“Then use that system to find the guy who killed Susan.”
“We have, Detective.”
The wall blinked and revealed a bank of video images, complete with overlaid scanner reports. I recognized the locations from the island: way,
the parking lot, the café, the alley. An image of the Center Point bar appeared, specifically the front door when I stepped inside. I could even hear the tiny chime of the bell. On the screen, a scroll of blue text described the scene: Subject: Male, 6’1”, 210, blonde, blue, carrying concealed weapon in lower back.”
“So, you’re spying on me?” I asked.
“No, we are making our island safe.”
The video showed me at the bar, drinking with France and racing out after her.
A new image replaced it, showing me running down the alley, followed by another that showed me skidding to a stop on the boardwalk, gun drawn. Susan was in the corner of the image, standing right in front of me. Six other images appeared, all different angles of the same scene. In the corner of one image, my DMV photo was overlaid alongside Susan’s, but her’s displayed “Deceased”. The video paused.
“Where’s the man?” I asked, my breath accelerating as my chest pulled tight. “Where the man with the bloody teeth?”
“Detective Donaldson. Susan Dolene Gray was murdered in that alley. That marks not only the first murder, but the first crime ever to occur on this island.”
“She was being attacked. I tried to save her. What was I supposed to do?”
“Well, she certainly was being attacked, but we have no witnesses or a single piece of evidence to back up your claim. As it stands, you are being held as a suspect in the murder of Susan Gray.”
“Bullshit! I didn’t shoot her. I shot the guy with the fangs.”
“Is there anything you’d like to change about your story before I press play. This is the last bit of help I can give you. After this, there’s no turning back.”
“Play it! Play your little video. Play every single second of it. I was there. I know what happened.”
The monitors flashed to life. Half of them focused on me while the other focused on Susan. There was no one else on screen in the alley.
I watched in horror as the scene unfolded exactly as I remembered it, but there was no stranger, no mysterious man leaning over her. There was only me shooting wildly and Susan kneeling, then slumping to the ground, blood pouring from her neck.
“Can you show me where in this event is this mysterious man that was attacking her?”
“He was there, right over her, holding her up. He was there, I swear it! I know it was. I know what I saw.”
“Yes, yes. You said you saw a man, with some sort of enlarged canine teeth. I’m sorry, Detective, but there was no one else in the alley.
No one entered the alley before you other than the girl and no one left. Now, is there anything you’d like to tell me?”
“This is ridiculous. I saw what I saw.”
“And yet here we are.”
The video monitors refreshed, showing live images of the island, still deserted.
My head sagged into my hands. I pressed hard against my temples, as if I could somehow wake up from this and go back to my vacation. Time seemed to stop as I lost my self in the cocoon of my fingers.
“Detective?” asked Chief Cummings. “Would you like a drink?”
“What?” I looked up through my fingers. On the table in front of me was a glass. Even without tasting it, I could see it was another glass of Pappy’s, probably the perfect temperature, too.
The Chief still looked at me from the screen. How long had he been watching? Was this man going to stare at me through a computer screen forever? What was he waiting for?
The streets of Oceantown still filled the wall to my right, all except one. I saw a tiny shadow, moving quickly across the boardwalk. The dark featureless figure slipped in and out of the edges of the camera views, until it came to the bridge. There, beneath the “Safest city” banner, I saw the face of the shadow…Susan.
“Chief,” I screamed. “She’s still alive! She’s leaving the island.”
“Susan has served us well. But her time is up. Now we need someone new to be our host.”
“Either way, I’m leaving.”
“Not quite, Detective.”
“We, this island, were designed to be the safest city. But people are a bit intimidated by the sterile perfection we offer. We require a human “host” to meet and greet and otherwise let our guests know how safe they are. According to our founder…
The image on screen changed to an older Chief Cummings, ‘…It’s how we pay the bills.’”
“So, what does that have to do with a Kentucky cop.”
“We need credibility. We need someone of your stature to stand with us and make us ‘safer’. To legitimize the brand.”
“And if I refuse.”
The video screen returned to the alley, now showing me firing my weapon, striking Susan down.
“A torrid love affair, a spurned lover, and a traumatized cop. A terrible thing, really, if released.”
“So what do I have to do?”
“Simple. Just convince people that Oceantown is the ‘Safest City on Earth’.”