Written for NYC Midnight‘s Flash Fiction Challenge 2016, round 2.
Prompt: Mystery / an ocean pier / earplugs
Summary: Report Jenna Wells looks into the unsolved murder a woman found dead in the ocean twenty years earlier.
They found her in the water, body knocking against the pier. It was a quiet Sunday morning, mist rolling in off the water. I can imagine seeing her floating there, bloated and lifeless, her head partially caved in.
That was over twenty years ago and they still don’t know what happened. She’s not alone. Since then, the number of unsolved cases involving murdered women has only grown. To most, Robin is just another name on the list.
It was easy enough to convince my boss to let me take that name and turn into a story. Cold cases have become a hot topic. I know all he’s expecting is a tearjerker puff piece, something to print on page five. He thinks I’m just trying to get my first byline, Jenna Wells in print.
I want – and need – something more.
The police files are full of information, but few leads. I already knew that Robin was involved with drug dealers and worse, but nothing linked any of them to her murder. I sift through pages of information, frustrated to find nothing of use.
That changes when I reach the coroner’s report, one line making my blood go cold. I get up to find Detective Dodson, who was a part of the original investigation.
“Robin was pregnant?”
She looks up from her desk. “Yes. We always figured the father did it, but never found out who he was. Ms Daniels had no husband, no boyfriend.” She pauses, shaking her head. “Like the guy never existed.”
I try to go back to the files, but I can’t concentrate. Two things keep distracting me. One is the old Polaroid tucked in my purse. The second is the voice I’ve heard in my head since I found the photo, that whispers Time to go see Mr S.
“Did you know Robin was pregnant?”
Trudy – Robin’s best friend – stares at me in horror. “Fuck, no, I didn’t. You think that’s why it happened?”
“The police did. But they couldn’t figure out who the father was. Any idea?”
She shakes her head. “I can’t believe she didn’t tell me. We told each other everything, like sisters.” I wondered what Robin’s actual sister would think about that.
“Did you ever hear her mention a Mr S?”
Trudy frowns. “No, I – wait. Actually, yeah. She and her kid talked about someone or something like that. I figured he was an imaginary friend or something. Kids that age have them, you know?”
I nod, though I’m not sure I do; I don’t remember ever having an imaginary friend. I feel like it’s time to pull out the picture, so I reach into my purse and lay it on the couch between us. There are three people in it: a man, woman, and child. The woman was Robin; the child, her daughter. The man was a question mark.
“Do you recognize him?”
Trudy picked it up and looked. “Now that’s weird. That looks like our old building manager. Tony, uh … Tony Mathewson. Where’d you get this?”
My only answer is a shrug, but as she looks at me, I think she’ll soon know the truth. I only hope that I am as lucky.
Tony Mathewson is a large man, though I could see he is not as muscular as he used to be. It took some convincing to get him to meet me. In the end, he’d insisted we meet at Jack’s Coffee Shack, a little café where he was a regular. The pier is visible through the front window, which makes me angry. How he could he sit here, metres from where it all happened?
“You don’t mind if I record this, do you?”
“Sure, but I don’t think I’ll be much help,” he says. “I hardly knew Robin.”
Liar, I think, as I pull out the photograph again. “Then why is there a picture of you together?”
He freezes, staring at the Polaroid. “Where did you get this?”
“A box in my aunt’s basement. It was hidden in one of Robin’s old books for all these years. Until now.”
He stares at me. “You know, you look-”
“Just like her? Yes. I know.”
His mouth opens and closes, like a fish that had just been caught. “You said your name was Wells.”
“It is. After my aunt adopted me, it was legally changed.”
He goes pale and I know he sees her ghost in my face. “You’re Robin’s daughter.”
“I’m Robin’s daughter,” I say, as I take my photo back. “And you’re Mr S, Mr Secret. You got my mother pregnant, then killed her.”
He stares for another moment, then his whole body crumples. “I didn’t mean to … it was an accident, we just – it was an accident!” He keeps talking, making excuses, but I don’t hear it. All I can here is that voice again, the voice of the mother I barely remember.
Good job, Jenna. Mommy’s so proud of you.
In the end, my story runs on the front page. It’s a triumph, a big step for my career, but I can’t say I really enjoy it.
I don’t have many things that belonged to Robin – she didn’t have much. Just a couple books, pictures, costume jewelry. A bag of earplugs that I’ve never had to the heart to throw out, since one thing I do remember is her using them, every night, so she could sleep. I place everything back in its box, then lay a copy of the newspaper on top, folded so all I can see is the headline. Justice for Robin Daniels: area woman’s murder solved after 20 years. And then I put the box back where it’s been since the day I arrived here, kept in storage and gathering dust.
The past can rest now and hopefully, somewhere, so can my mother.