If she remains very still, the pain is almost tolerable. She cannot move a limb, however, as even the slightest twitch sets off a shockwave that travels throughout her entire body. Periodically, she touches the ring on the third finger of her right hand. How long has it been since she received the news? She glances at the calendar in front of her and sees that it’s October 9th. Then, she glances at the grandfather clock and notices that it’s 2:37 p.m. and twenty-three seconds. That means it’s been one day, fourteen hours, thirty-two minutes, and eight seconds since the police had first knocked on her door.
She stops and thinks. Is it actually October 9th or is it October 10th? Saturday or Sunday? She can’t remember, so she flips on the television to FOX. There is no NFL football game on, which means it’s October 9th. So, one day, fourteen hours, thirty-two minutes, and eight, no twenty-two seconds now since the police had first knocked on her door. She touches the onyx ring on the third finger of her right hand to her lips and bursts into tears.
“Damn it, Josephine. If you don’t stop clawing the couch, I’m gonna put you in a kitty time-out!” Leslie Chang threatened, raising her voice a notch or two. Josephine, a black polydactyl cat who weighed all of six pounds, sniffed once before deliberately slicing into the already tattered couch. Then she stared at Leslie with enormous green eyes as if to say, “What are you going to do about it, bitch?” Leslie marched over to the cat, scooped her up in one hand and stomped to the master bedroom where she unceremoniously dumped the cat on the bed and slammed the door shut. Josephine immediately started yowling at the top of her lungs; she had strong lungs for such a petite cat. Leslie put up with it for exactly three minutes and forty-five seconds before opening the door. Josephine’s tail bristled as she brushed past Leslie—her ears were deliberately pointed backwards at her human to display her displeasure.
“Oh, all right,” Leslie muttered, stomping her way to the kitchen. She could never hold a mad for very long, especially not at her cat. She opened the fridge and pulled out a bite of wild Alaskan salmon that she bought from the co-op just for Josephine. In a flash, Josephine was happily munching, her pique gone. Leslie glanced at her watch before pulling her cell phone out of her jeans. Her boyfriend, John, should have been home from the gym two hours and thirty-three minutes ago, and she was beginning to worry. She saw that she missed a text from him fifty seven minutes and twelve seconds earlier. It said: “Meeting an “old friend”. I’ll be home in an hour or two. Don’t wait up.” Leslie frowned. Instead of feeling relieved, she was a bit disturbed. John was closemouthed about his life prior to moving to the Cities a year, five months, and twenty-three days earlier, and she knew little-to-nothing about his old friends.
“What’s her name?” Leslie texted back, then waited for a response. She didn’t get one, and Josephine was begging for more salmon, so Leslie turned off her phone and returned it to her jeans in order to pick up her cat. As she stroked Josephine’s rabbity-soft fur, Leslie allowed a modicum of worry to enter her mind, but she brushed it aside. If John were really cheating on her, she would deal with it when he came home with the proverbial lipstick on his collar. Leslie went into her computer room, set Josephine on the cat bed on the table next to her monitor, and sat down to do some editing. She and her best friend, Siobhan Collins, owned a boutique in downtown St. Paul, and Leslie did copyediting on the side. It was dry and boring and deadly-dull, but it was a steady income. Her bailiwicks were politics and international relations—two subjects which really didn’t interest her until Obama was elected in 2008. As she started to edit a paper on the ramifications of having a black man (Obama) as president, her doorbell rang. Startled, she looked at the computer clock. 12:02 a.m. and one second. Who the hell would drop in on her at this time? Granted, she was a night owl, but most of her friends had day jobs. Plus, they knew how jealously she guarded her privacy, and they respected that. Except Siobhan, from time to time, but that was understandable as sometimes crises at the boutique could not be avoided.
Leslie hurried to the front door and peered through the fish-eye. There were two cops standing there, grim-faced, looking like matching bookends. Even though they were in regular clothing, she knew they were cops. It was something about their eyes. Now, Leslie was known for receiving a speeding ticket or three in her time because she had a bad habit of leaning on the gas pedal while daydreaming and driving, but she had paid them all. Besides, the city didn’t send cops to your home at midnight in the case of unpaid speeding tickets, did they? With a start, Leslie realized that she was making the cops wait—which she was sure was not a prudent thing to do. Smoothing down her stick-straight, shoulder-length hair and wishing she were wearing something other than sweats and an Obama sweatshirt, she opened the door.
“Ms. Chang?” The taller, whiter male cop asked, his tone deliberately neutral. He was wearing an ill-fitting brown suit and a rumpled black tie. “I’m Detective Stevenson. This is my partner, Detective Ricks.” Detective Ricks was a short, curvy black woman who tried unsuccessfully to hide her body under a prim navy dress. “Do you know a Mr. John Smith?”
“Yes.” Leslie’s mouth suddenly went dry. She had watched enough cop shows to know that no good could come out of this conversation. Suddenly, she wanted to slam the door in their faces and refuse to let them tell her anything. She didn’t, of course, as she was too Minnesota-nice to do such a thing.
“May we come in?” Detective Ricks’ voice was low and sympathetic. She radiated concern, whereas Detective Stevenson just looked tired.
“No.” The word popped out of Leslie’s mouth before she could stop it. “I mean, yes, of course you may.” Leslie stepped back and allowed the detectives into her home. She heard a hiss behind her, and she knew if she turned around, she’d see Josephine in the typical Halloween kitty pose, her fur bristling. “That’s Josephine. Her meow is worse that her bite.” The detectives casted wary looks at the tiny cat, but they accepted Leslie’s reassurance that the cat wouldn’t attack them. Leslie ushered them into the living room and gestured for them to have a seat on the couch. They refused until she perched herself on the black leather recliner adjacent to said couch. Josephine immediately jumped into Leslie’s lap, keeping a wary eye on the male detective. When he didn’t even look at her, she relaxed and began to knead Leslie’s legs. The detectives glanced each other and finally sat down. Leslie placed a bet with herself on which detective would speak next, then mentally patted herself on the back when Detective Ricks opened her mouth.
“Ms. Chang. Mr. Smith was found dead—murdered, actually—on Hennepin Avenue earlier this evening, in the parking lot next to the Gay 90’s.” Detective Ricks looked as if she was going to add something to her statement, but she stopped. Both the detectives stared at Leslie expectantly. She stared back as she began to methodically stroke Josephine’s fur. One, two, three, pause. One, two, three, pause. One, two, three, pause. It was the rhythm they had developed when Josephine was an even tinier six-week kitten, and they hadn’t varied it since.
“Ms. Chang. Did you hear what my partner said? Mr. Smith was murdered tonight.” There was a sliver of impatience and also suspicion in Detective Stevenson’s voice when he finally spoke after it became clear that Leslie had no intention of responding.
“That’s impossible,” Leslie finally said, her voice brittle. “I have a text message from him saying he’ll be home within an hour or two. John does not lie to me. We do not lie to each other.” One, two, three, pause. One, two, three, pause. One, two, three, pause. Leslie continued stroking Josephine’s fur as the latter closed her emerald eyes and purred in contentment.
“When did you get this text, Ms. Chang? And, we would like to see it, please.” Though Detective Ricks spoke politely, the request was actually an order.
“10:57 p.m. and fifty-three seconds,” Leslie promptly said. “He said he would be home in an hour or two, and by my calculations, he would arrive home two-thirds of the way into that window, which means he should be home in the next hour.” She frowned at the impreciseness of her last statement, but it couldn’t be helped. John wasn’t a stickler for time the way she was, so she could only approximate his departure and arrival times. She pulled her phone out of her jeans, turned it on, and handed it over to Detective Ricks after pulling up the appropriate text message. While the detectives read the message, she resumed petting Josephine.
“Ms. Chang,” Detective Stevenson said carefully as he handed the phone back to Leslie. “Despite what the text message says, Mr. Smith is not coming home. He’s dead.”
“Stop saying that,” Leslie said crossly, panic beginning to bubble up inside her. “He is coming home. John never lies to me.”
“He was shot, Ms. Chang,” Detective Ricks said softly. “He’s not coming home.”
Suddenly, what the detectives had been saying hit Leslie forcefully in the solar plexus. She glanced at her watch and saw that it was 12:05:25. She knew there was no way she would ever forget the time it was when she learned that her life was over. She doubled over Josephine’s body and began to wail. She had no words, only pain, so the sounds emanating from her were nearly inhuman. Josephine jumped off Leslie’s lap and stared up at her human in alarm. The detectives rose simultaneously from their seats and did the same.
“Ms. Chang, is there anyone we can call for you?” Detective Ricks asked, taking a half-step toward Leslie. “You probably shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“John! I want John! I need John!” Leslie sobbed as she hugged herself. She couldn’t fathom enduring this pain without John by her side.
“Is there anyone else we can call?” Detective Ricks’ brow creased in concern as Leslie’s body was wracked with sobs.
“No! I don’t want anyone else!” Tears were pouring down Leslie’s face, and she made no move to stem the tide. Josephine was sitting by Leslie’s feet, anxiously butting her head into her human’s shin to comfort her.
“Ms. Chang. We know this is difficult, but we have to ask some questions. Do you think you can answer them?” Detective Stevenson hardened his tone. He knew from experience that many people responded better to flint than to honey.
“Ask your damn questions,” Leslie gasped, trying to catch her breath. She was still doubled over, so it wasn’t easy to decipher her words.
“Does Mr. Smith have any family in town? We need someone to identify the body.” At Detective Stevenson’s question, Leslie bolted straight up. Her eyes were wet with tears, but they were also wide with hope.
“You don’t know if it’s John? You mean, it could be someone else?” Leslie jumped up from the recliner, startling Josephine in the process. Josephine let out a cross mew to show her displeasure, but Leslie didn’t even hear her. “Let’s go.”
“Ms. Chang, we need the next of kin for identification purposes. And, we have to tell you, we found Mr. Smith’s wallet on the body. We are pretty certain it’s him.”
“John doesn’t have any family. I’m it. Let’s go so I can tell you it’s not John. I want to be home in time for his return.” Leslie hurried from the room to grab her coat. The detectives exchanged glances as they slowly followed her. Josephine plopped down on her butt and looked worried.
“How could you do this to me, John?” Leslie whispers, shivering, She is sitting on the same recliner upon which she had received the news, and Josephine is snuggled in her lap. There is a blanket draped across her lap underneath Josephine, but it can’t stop the cold from creeping into Leslie’s bones. She barely feels it, however, as she prefers cold over heat. Leslie thinks about the first time she had met John.