Detective Callaway has the phone to her ear, looking at her partner as she listens. The voice comes back slightly distorted, but clear.
“My congratulations to Billy Boy on the discovery. So invigorated when he left that escrow office.”
She switches the phone to her other ear, ignoring the comment. “So, you’re back in Gainesville.”
A short chuckle from Roberts.
“I’ve been following your work these last few days. And I see you’ve followed mine.”
“Well,” she responds. “We found your deer eyes.”
He laughs again, this time more pronounced.
“Yeah. Vicious little brute, that Bambi. Do you know what Scottish researchers have discovered about our friend, the deer?”
She squints her eyes. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“On the mineral-deficient island of Rum, deer attack young birds, decapitate their chicks and eat their heads. Imagine that.”
She looks around briefly and eases herself into a side room. Rodriguez follows.
“So you’re the deer?” she says, questioningly. “I thought you were the hunter.”
He chuckles again.
“I am both.”
Callaway sighs, exasperated. “Enough with the games, Jeff. You wanna talk, talk. If not, I’m hanging up.”
His voice comes back, stern.
“Ask your question.”
She pauses, thinks it over, then resolves herself.
“Why did you go back to your mother’s house that night?”
“To kill her.”
His matter-of-fact tone surprises her.
“But perhaps another beat me to it.”
Simone Roberts’ home.
Simone Roberts feels around in the darkness of the attic, calling out.
Jeffrey James Roberts, 11 years old, steps out of the shadows, just enough to get a good look at his mother’s face. “Why did you send me away, mother?”
She stiffens up.
“You know why.”
The boy frowns, not understanding. “I didn’t make you blind, how could I?”
She steps forward, raising her voice.
“YOU ARE DARKNESS. YOU DID THIS TO ME. YOU KNOW IT.”
They both hear a sound as the door to the attic opens, and Jeffrey scurries away into a dark corner.
A man, Edward Matthews, younger than Simone, but older than Jefffrey, slowly creeps into the room.
Simone puts her hands up instinctively.
“Get out of my house.”
He advances on her, and she begins to go into hysterics. “No…. NO!….. NOOOO!!!”
The man, uncaring, smiles.
He grabs her by the arm and shoves her to the ground.
“We’ll have some fun now.”
She starts to kick at the air, trying in vain to fend off her attacker.
“Not in the swamp…. Not in the swamp…..”
Inside his cell, Jeffrey James Roberts sits, his back to the cell door, facing a cold stone wall where his trophies are hung. A nearly completely rotted piece of Darin Zion’s flesh, the same from Eli Dresden, and photos of his other opponents, including Jatt Starr and Jace Parker Davidson, pinned to the wall but with parts of the photos ripped out.
The High Octane Television Championship is on the table next to him, about three feet straight up, a perk allowed to him for good deeds, to keep it close. He knows how Jeffrey likes his trophies. Jeffrey stares up, looking at a photo of HOW Hall of Famer Jatt Starr, smiling his dumb smile, eyes cut out.
“Jatt Starr, it’s so nice to be promised the pleasure of your company so soon after our first meeting. I trust you are rested, healthy, both mentally and physically, and I assume you’ll be looking for some sort of payback. Or, you’ll make excuses. Either way, now that we are acquainted, I must say that you are every bit the Hall of Fame performer I was told that you were. Sure, you may have once looked like Ellen Degeneres if she ate a hell of a lot more than pussy. But not anymore. You’ve worked hard to get back to fighting shape, and for that, I commend you.
Too bad your hard work didn’t make you good enough in the ring to win the match against John Sektor that you were training so hard for.”
“Or to beat me…
Now, while I’m happy to say that you are as good as everyone says, I’m sorry to tell you that what everyone says is…. You used to be one of the best, but now, you’ve lost a step. Maybe two steps. Is that why a man with no formal training, with only a reckless disregard for his own body, was able to beat you and your partner?
We’ll get to Jace later, but I want to be clear: your therapy sessions are going to become even more frequent, because I imagine that losing again to me will send you into something of a death spiral, wondering what went wrong, how the mighty Jatt Starr could ever lose…. again…. to me.
You know… the guy you laughed off as nothing of note? Remember?
I kept a memento also from our time together, but I’m afraid it won’t do. I need something more….”
Jeffrey reaches up, his arms out of view, and affixes something to the photo.
Detective Callaway, still seated in the interrogation room at the prison, remains with the phone to one ear.
“Edward came back… assaulted your mother.”
On the other end of the call, Roberts snorts derisively.
“We see things even when it seems we don’t.”
“Like you,” she responds. “Hiding in the closet, watching.”
His voice deepens into a growl followed by an unsettling laugh.
“Better than porn, that.”
Callaways frowns. “Why are you telling me this? To show me what a monster you are?”
“Apt word choice,” he says, his voice still distorted but back to normal in tone. “Monster. Now you tell me something.”
She adjusts herself in her chair, steeling against his words.
“Do you keep a photo of my mother at your bedside as you do with the victims of all the murders you investigate?”
She flinches. “How do you know that?”
“Oh, I know you, Rona,” he retorts, menacingly. “Everything about you.”
“You been in my house, Jeff?”
He chuckles again.
“Not necessary to know that. Who else would be in your bedroom except for dead people?”
The line goes dead. Callaway looks at her phone, then puts it back to her ear.
She looks back at the phone, then swipes to clear the screen. She stands up and, looking at her partner, heads for the door back to the main visiting area.
“Get Matthews back out here. I think he owes us some more answers.”
They step out into the room, and Rodriguez goes over to a guard to request that the prisoner be brought back out.
A few moments later, Matthews rounds into view, hands cuffed in front of him, led by a prison guard. He shakes his head as he sees Callaway sitting there, and he sits.
“What do you wanna talk about now, my favorite color?”
“You have a long rap sheet, Eddie. Sexual assault, many times over.”
He rolls his eyes. “Yeah, so what?”
Rodriguez sits down next to her, and she leans forward, considering his facial expressions as her partner speaks up.
“Heard you went back that night, scumbag. Got freaky with the blind girl.”
The prisoner shakes his head. “I didn’t go back.”
“Yeah?” Rodriguez responds. “Lab’s got your DNA, it’s only a matter of time till they match to those bodily fluids.”
Matthews looks unconcerned.
“Labs mess up.”
Callaway lightly taps her hand on the table, and Matthews looks over at her as she smiles.
“Got a witness, too. Her 11-year-old son saw it all go down.”
Matthews sits up straight, looks up at the ceiling and then back at the two detectives.
Callaway sits back.
Matthews sighs. “I did… what I do. And then, I just wanted out, so I left.”
Callaway and Rodriguez look at each other, then stand to their feet and walk away. Matthews, again, seethes and is raised up by two guards who lead him back around the corner and down the hall.
Still sitting inside his cell, Roberts looks up at another photo, this one of Conor Fuse, smiling, eyes cut out. He traces the outline of Conor’s torso with his index finger, tracing it over each shoulder and then his empty waist.
“Conor Fuse, another sad man, so sad, so sad.
You were the World Champion not too long ago… until the big bad wolf came back around and stole it away from you.
Did I say stole?
I mean won it from you. I mean kneed you in the head so hard, your brain glitched like the little black-haired girl in Wreck-It-Ralph.
I’ve had a lot of time to read and write and watch old videos ever since I was given those tools again. And it’s just something, isn’t it? That Mike Best, of all people, who spent months making you feel so good about yourself, talking you up, making you feel like a million bucks as if you had any chance at all of keeping that belt, and then he put his kneecap right through your fucking skull.
It’s almost like that’s his entire M.O. with every single person he comes across. Oh, but we’re not talking about Mike Best. Not yet.
There’s plenty to observe about you alone.
Like why little Conor Fuse disappeared for several months after his loss. Aren’t you supposed to be one of the good guys? Well, I guess that’s at least one thing you and I have in common. We both like to run.
I know, sad story, woe is me.
But I like the good guys to actually be good guys. You know, courageous and strong, and it’s a little too late for a triumphant return now.
We all have to leave our darkness sometime. But I wouldn’t feel so comforted, there are all kinds of things to fear… in the light…..”
Again, he reaches out, and just out of view affixes something to the photo.
Jeffrey steps from the shadows of the closet, a gun in his hand pointed at Edward Matthews, who puts a hand up.
“Whoa, kid. Take it easy.”
Roberts steps forward.
“Hey, put down the gun…”
Simone blubbers on the floor, scrambling to get to a seated position. “Not in the swamp…. Not in the swamp…”
Jeffrey snaps his attention over to her. “What?”
A look of confusion goes over his face, and his left eye twitches.
“How could you know that? About the swamp…. if you can’t see, mother?”
She shudders. “Stop talking, Jeff,” she whimpers. “Forgive me.”
Gainesville Department of Corrections.
“Jeff shot his mother?”
Detective Simmons leans back in a chair at the head of the long table. Detective Callaway sits to his left, and to his right, Detective Rodriguez. Callaway nods.
Simmons frowns. “Why?”
Rodriguez throws his hands up.
“Don’t ask me, man. Sounds like the kid was looney tunes.”
Simmons considers this, then looks over at Callaway. “And you’re saying she wasn’t blind?”
“Yes… we went back to Eddie’s case file. He stated that she was staring down the barrel of the gun in Jeff’s hands.”
“So she could see…” Simmons responded.
Callaway looks at her partner, and then back at her boss.
Rodriguez’s eyebrows raise. “So we’re saying she was faking blindness all along?”
Simmons interjects. “She was crazy, maybe in her mind, it was true.”
Rodriguez raises his hand, fidgeting with the scruff on his chin.
“So we know she was blind until that moment in the attic right before the assault. ‘Not in the swamp,’ she said. What swamp was she talking about?”
Callaway looks back at Simmons, questioningly.
“We traced the call, right? Where was the phone call made from?”
“It was made from a payphone,” he says. “Sweetwater preserve. There’s an old ranger station there, haven’t quite upgraded the technology yet.”
Rodriguez’s eyes light up. “That’s where he dumped the bodies. Where it all started. In the swamp. So what’s his game?”
Simmons’ phone starts to ring, as Callaway looks at her partner. “It smells like a setup.”
Then, Detective Simmons ends his call and stands up.
“We’re heading out. Another body was found in the preserve. Head is missing, multiple gunshots.”
Callaway frowns. “He usually takes them out with one.”
Simmons nods at her.
“Knife wounds, too. That’s also new.”
Callaway nods at him and turns back to Rodriguez. “His patterns are changing. He’s bored… or he’s out of control.”
Simmons grabs the jacket off of the back of his chair and puts it on.
“We’ll go check this out. Rona, I want you to stay here.”
She stands up, surprised. “What? Why?”
“You heard me,” he says. “It’s you he wants.”
With a knowing look on her face, she acquiesces to his order, sighs, and sits back down. Detective Rodriguez places a hand on her shoulder for comfort, then rises and leaves also. Callaway sits there and mutters to herself.
“That’s okay… he’s not going to the preserve.”
Jeffrey continues to sit in his cell, facing the wall, staring at the photos. He scoots to his left, and settles in front of a big smiling image of Jace Parker Davidson, and beside him, Clay Byrd. Both, like the others, have their eyes cut out.
“Jace, just like your buddy Jatt Starr, I feel bad about the things I said about you last week. I should have never…. ever…. implied that you were carrying him. It was rude and disrespectful to someone of your stature, and of his. Besides, clearly, he was the one carrying you. I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I’ll try to do better.
Look, mom! A falling star!
#1 ‘wrestler’ in the company…. for now.
I’m still learning, you see. I’m not as practiced at all of this ‘wrestling’ stuff as you, Jatt, and the others, and I’m not practiced in the art of ‘wrasslin promos.’
How do you think Clay Byrd feels?
Cecilworth Farthington destroys his arm, he has to go on the shelf for months, and when he gets back, after trying to get some measure of revenge on the champ, he’s not put into a match where he can exact some one on one vengeance. No, he has to share this spotlight with the rest of us. He has to put up with the rest of us encroaching on his happy time. He has to wear that stupid cowboy hat. Probably feels like a kick in the balls for him. I mean, another kick in the balls.
There might be a new Hall of Famer announced at ICONIC. You may very well be one of them. The odds favor it. And I’m happy for you. I’m proud of you, Jace. It has taken years for you to finally get some credit for your incredible ability inside the ring, and it’s finally time, you finally get to shine, and it will be the highlight, no doubt, of your weekend.
Get the party bus ready! Get the dancing girls in the back! I had Arthur seek out some of the girls you’ve been with, and from what I was told, your nickname with the ladies is ‘Subway,’ because you have low-quality meat and lie about being at least six inches.
Is that true?
Forget that. Get some strippers and coke and a willing driver named Chuck, and no questions asked! Trade a girl for some personality and a better vocabulary. At ICONIC, we’ll all collectively celebrate as you, maybe, get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Maybe you don’t. Maybe you don’t get inducted, and maybe you don’t win our match either. Worst-case scenario, am I right, Jacey old pal?
Just like your partner, you dismissed me as a threat. You laughed it off, and you paid the price for it. I’ve already pinned your shoulders to the mat once. And Jace, I was just clearing my throat. We haven’t even reached the main event.
Who will you set on fire when you lose again?
Tell you what, I’m gonna have my friend Arthur deliver a great big box of matches for you. I want you to feel comfortable and I want you to feel prepared. It’s the least I can do….”
Roberts reaches up, again affixing something to the photo, but we still can’t see any of them.
Late in the evening, the moon shines on the Roberts’ home, the moonlight illuminating the inside of the house through the windows.
Rona Callaway walks through, easing her way through the kitchen to a door, slightly ajar, back behind the pantry. Pulling it open, she looks inside and sees a staircase, and on the walls, scratched out lines and marks. Ten at the bottom. She walks up. Ten at the top. Ten steps. Standing in front of the second door at the top of the stairs, she unclips the holster on her weapon and slowly opens the door.
Walking in, she sees peeling wallpaper on the walls. She notices something behind it and starts to pull on an exposed corner. The paper rips away, and behind it, a bush is painted on the wall. She pulls further and rips about a ten-foot section, and sees a painted mural of a swamp. Bushes and trees are spread out all around an alligator, and a sinister-looking man stands in a boat with a long black rifle pointed at the reptile.
She takes a step back.
“So this is why the swamp. This is the swamp.”
As she steps back further, she’s startled when a sound cuts through the silence: a vinyl record player playing “Sunshine On My Shoulder,” by John Denver.
She spins around, one hand reaching down for her weapon, but as she turns she sees Jeffrey James Roberts standing there, bolt-action rifle with laser scope in hand, raised and aimed at her forehead.
“I told you a while back that we would go hunting together in the swamp. You and I. What a shame.”
He holds her in the sight of the rifle closely and walks in her direction.
“The past never quite goes away, does it, Rona?”
“No,” she responds. “It doesn’t.”
Roberts lowers the gun briefly and reaches out with his left hand.
“Phone,” he says, but then catches himself. “Weapon, I meant.”
Callaway closes her eyes, breathes deeply, then pulls the gun from her holster as he raises the gun again. She hands it over, he takes it and stuffs it into the back of his jeans.
“Now the phone. And no Rona Callaway tricks, hmm?”
She hands the phone over and he stuffs it in a back pocket.
“Welcome to my past. An empty room with nothing but your mind splashed on the walls.”
He smirks, and Callaway nervously raises her head up. “Your mother faked her blindness. Is that why you killed her?”
Roberts lowers the gun again.
“Hysterical blindness is the term. One needs only to believe to become.”
She blinks, looking down and away slightly.
“But you didn’t understand that then. You were just a lonely 11-year-old.”
Roberts laughs, mock singing. “Living in a lonely wooooorld.” He laughs again, and then his face goes deadly serious. “But loneliness is for the weak. And for those who desire love. Neither applies.”
Callaway shakes her head. “Then why did you bring me here?”
“To kill you,” he says, straightforward. “Of course.”
She catches her breath, then steadies herself.
With a disgusted look on his face, he walks forward toward her slowly.
“Oh, hunting has become a tedious game, since I met you. Even the addict lost her charm.”
Her eyebrows furrow slightly. “The one who survived. Dee-Dee Cooper. What did you do to her?”
He smirks. “Poor Dee-dee. How she begged…. in the swamp…. as you will.”
“Because in the swamp you’re a God, right?”
He snarls back at her. “God’s a sociopath. Free from all pretense of love and loyalty.”
“Like you,” she replies.
“And you. Disposing of those you care about to care for your dirty little sis. Sticky fingers on Rona’s hubby to be, tsk tsk, a real bitch in heat, that one.”
A little anger slips into Callaway’s voice as she responds. “Don’t even think that about her.”
He smiles again. “You have.”
Callaway looks down, her mind spinning, then something clicks, and she looks back up at him.
“Your mother was stripped. Shot in the chest.”
Roberts ignores the comment. “But in the end, you would’ve found another reason to leave him. Just like all the rest.”
Holding her train of thought, persistent, she replies. “You replicate her murder over and over. But why the running? Your mother didn’t run.”
He snortles, still ignoring her. “Your junior college degree…. equips you for pop psychology and a low-level five-figure income, not much else.”
She steadies herself, a flood of thoughts coming to her mind.
“Why do you make them run? Why?…… You were running…. Right? Why… trying to find help? Stop him from trying to hurt your mother?”
And finally, he acknowledges her. “I’ve made a courtesy call to your colleagues. One call, to disabuse them of foolishly storming the Alamo guns blazing. If they call back, if I see a cop within yards of this house, I put a bullet in your head. But then, it’s only a matter of time now. I’d ask about what haunts you at night, but I already know. Poor little Rona, 8 years old, you never told anyone what happened to you so long ago. On your way to the store, dark out, late, AND THEN….. That’s when the bad man came for you.”
Callaway flinches but uses all of her strength to maintain control as he keeps talking.
“You ran, but he caught you. He wanted your money. That’s why he followed you. You gave him what you had, and then…. He went on his merry way, didn’t he?”
Her heart races. “You know he didn’t.”
“Tell me what he did.”
“He hit me,” she said. “I don’t remember much after that.”
Roberts holds his smile, amused.
“Cracked your jaw, five broken teeth. Pretty little face not so pretty when he got through with you.”
“I fought,” she replied. “But he wouldn’t stop. He just kept hitting and hitting me and laughing. I didn’t wanna die. So I fought.”
Roberts smiles widely at this.
“We’re alike, you and I.”
She recoils. “How so?”
He shrugs. “You fought too. That’s why you were bleeding.”
She squints back at him. “So Eddie found you in the closet…. Cornered you….”
Roberts’ posture changes, he’s uncomfortable, nervous.
But she continues.
“And you fought, like me. And you ran, but the doors were locked. The windows were nailed shut. He hunted you down in that house like an animal.”
“I’m not an animal.”
She advances on him. “That’s why you pick fighters. How did he know you were in that closet, Jeffrey?”
He reacts, desperate. “You know what I wanna know? I wanna know who would send an 8-year-old girl to the store late at night all alone. That’s what I’m wondering. Who sent you to the store, Detective Callaway?”
“I go there all the time.” she continues forward. “The owner knew me.”
Roberts holds his ground, and they’re now only about four feet from each other.
“Answer the question.”
She stops. “My mother. She needed a drink.”
Jeffrey shakes his head in mock sadness. “Sold out by the person who loved you most. No wonder little Rona Callaway likes to play with the dead.”
Callaway holds in place, unaffected by his wild haymaker theory.
“Who sold you out, Jeffrey?” She starts forward slowly again. “Because what I’m wondering is how did Eddie know you were hiding in that closet?”
His eyes twitch, and Roberts stumbles backward, his rifle dropping from his hand, but so shaken that he doesn’t seem to care. “You stop talking.”
She continues forward. “Forgive me, your mother said. For what?”
He stops and screams, “SHUT UP!”
But she continues. “She told Eddie where to find you, didn’t she?”
He loses composure even more.
“YOU SHUT UP! YOU SHUT UP!”
She gets within two feet of him. “Your mother wasn’t assaulted in this attic.”
“YOU SHUT UP! YOU SHUT UP! YOU SHUT UP!”
She ignores his screaming, and leans in, whispering.
His eyes blink together, and he stumbles back again, nearly falling over a small bench at the foot of the bed, but she isn’t done.
“And she just watched.”
He bolts upright, renewed anger in his eyes. “I AM GOD IN THIS SWAMP.”
“No, Jeffrey,” she shook her head. “You’re a little boy…. whose mother didn’t love him. Who sold you out. Sold out, by the person who loved you most.”
In his shock, he doesn’t notice as she slowly slides her hand behind her back and pulls a second pistol from a hidden holster on her back. He tries to advance on her, spitting with anger, but in a flash, she has the gun up and in his face.
He stares down the barrel, blinking, lost, scared.
Finally, Jeffrey James Roberts, looking at the previous five photos, turn to the South-facing wall where, in a larger size and better resolution, there are two photos, one of HOW Hall of Famer Cecilworth Farthington, and one of HOW Hall of Famer, 10-time and current HOW World Champion, and Son of the Mostly Living God, Michael Lee Best.
“I had my instructions given to me this morning. Everything is laid out the way it should be. Every person will be in their places, and His will…. will be done.
I’m sure there is some expectation that I would or should have some witty things to say about the almighty Best Friends©, but does that really make sense to anyone? What am I to say to these men, these two, the most dominant men in the modern era of High Octane Wrestling?
Shall I go for the low-hanging fruit? Perhaps I’ll not suggest that the only reason why there are five other men in this match is that the two of you couldn’t drum up enough interest in a match between just the two of you. It’s hard to imagine people wouldn’t want to see the most dominating two World Champions, perhaps of all time, face off to finally see who is Best. What a match that could have been. A truly PRIME matchup. Some might even call it… classic.
Should I express my surprise that Cecilworth’s pasty, androgynous sexual magnetism wasn’t enough to excite the High Octane crowd? Should I point out that it’s too late to summon the waiter and order your usual, Mike? No time to cozy up to five new people, pretend to be their best buddy, then discover and exploit anything you can find to your advantage? I can’t wait for the talk-up of these guys. Or wait, maybe you’ll…… switch it up…. And instead of telling everyone about your insecurities and how you’ll have to work your ass off to win, you’ll just say ‘fuck it,’ go full Jace Parker Davidson and set the whole thing on fire. Criticize their speech patterns, your perception of how entertaining you’ve decided they aren’t, how everyone is just stealing your schtick, just play all the hits. Take ‘em all down with you, right? It’s a solid strategy. I approve. It’s hard to beat a guy who stands for absolutely nothing. Can’t get in your head, can’t get under your skin. Can’t ever catch your win total or championship total, or anything else, no matter how we all try. Yes, you are very very hard to beat.
Should I point out the folly in pretending as though you, Cecilworth, have a shining chance in hell of beating Michael without taking a knife and stabbing him directly in the back? Or will you follow the gentlemen’s code, have a fair fight, and wait until he stabs you in the back instead?
Sold out… by the person who loves you most.
But instead of pointing out all of these things, I have chosen instead to do what has been asked of me. I’m not looking for glory for myself. I was not meant to win the High Octane TV title though, and yet I still did. I’m not meant to win the High Octane World Championship either. Maybe I will, or maybe I won’t.
Maybe the job I’ve been given is more important to my benefactor than winning more gold.
Maybe you can’t see it.”
Roberts raises his hand, affixing something to the photos, for a final time. He steps back and looks at his handiwork, six photos with their eyes cut out, and a black deer-eye marble affixed to each eye hole.
“But we see what we want to see.”
Roberts pans his view across all six photos, then turns calmly and walks to the table. He lifts the needle of the record player and drops it on the vinyl. He turns, sits, and closes his eyes, swaying.
“Sunshine… on my shoulders…. makes me happy……”