Tea reminded Haley of death.
Not the taste, she never touched the stuff. It was the cups. Those little handles, decorative and curled, almost impossible for Haley to fit a finger through. The saucers. The delicate pot. When she closed her eyes she could still see them shattered on the floor, grey water pooling in the white shards. The stylish man doubled over in his chair, eyes frozen.
Haley was twenty-four. It was her first year on the force. Her partner Dean kicked in the door. Michael Brown had not shown up for work. His friends were concerned. A neighbor complained of the smell. They found Michael Brown at his dining table. The rich sickness in the air brought bile into Haley’s throat but she didn’t throw up.
At the academy, they said first timers often throw up and it’s nothing to be ashamed off. They also said death isn’t something you ever really get used to. Haley was proud she never threw up. Not then or once in all her years on the force. She’d gotten used to death, though. That bothered her.
While they waited for the coroner and the detectives to arrive Haley and her partner wandered through the apartment, careful not to upset the scene. Haley tip-toed over the broken tea cup, pot and saucer. They found no car keys or wallet, unless it was on the man’s body. They knew better than to touch it before the detectives arrived.
“He was expecting company,” Dean said. There were two other settings at the table. Both were untouched, full with cold tea. There was a dead fly floating in one of them.
“Maybe,” Haley said. “But then why didn’t they come? Wouldn’t they have reported this?”
“Maybe they killed him. Look at this,” Dean said.
On the countertop next to the microwave was an open black box.
“Rat poison,” Haley said.
Dean put gloves on and began opening cupboards and inspecting the contents.
“We’re supposed to wait for the detectives,” Haley reminded him, but she watched with interest.
The kitchen was well stocked. Leafy green things like kale and chard and other healthy things Haley would never touch filled the fridge. No soda, just a bottle of white wine. The cupboard above the microwave was filled with tea.
Dean scrutinized all this. He wanted to be a detective, but three years later he was hit by a drunk driver and left the force with a severe limp. Last Haley heard he was a high school driving instructor.
“Why kill him?” Haley wondered.
The apartment was appointed nicely. Michael Brown had the latest devices, slick television, smart furniture in matching earth tones and a bright purple accent wall. Everything looked new, and clean. The tea set was the only thing even approaching antique in the entire apartment, and in that way it stood out.
There was three hundred dollars on top of his dresser.
“So it wasn’t a robbery,” Dean said.
“Unless they were after something else,” Haley posited.
“He lived alone,” Dean said, noting the single toothbrush in the bathroom, and closet half-filled with stylish men’s clothes.
“Here’s a picture.” Haley held up a photograph. It was the only one in the whole apartment. The man was young in it. Barely a man, but not unattractive. The woman was gorgeous. She could have been a model. They were smiling as if they’d just shared joke. They looked successful, like life was easy. They were the kind of people who made plans that actually worked out. Five-year plans, ten-year plans.
“She’s hot,” Dean said. “Wonder if she left him.”
“He’s not unattractive either,” Haley said.
“Hard to tell now,” Dean added.
There was a date at the bottom of the picture. It was twenty-years ago. Haley thought about the exact moment that picture was taken. She was four. Crying for her mommy, no doubt. Mom always said she was a crier. While this man and his beautiful girlfriend were laughing, Haley was wrapped up in loving arms until the sobs subsided and she was off playing again, all the world a wonderful mystery.
“What’s wrong?” Dean asked.
“Nothing. Shut up,” Haley rubbed her eyes. “It’s the smell.”
“Look,” Dean pointed. “At the bottom of the cup there. It’s the same date as the picture.”
He was right. One of the shards of the tea cup had rolled in a way that turned its bottom upwards. The same twenty-year-old date was printed.
“A wedding maybe?” Dean asked.
“Maybe,” Haley said. “But he has no wedding ring on.” Haley noted the man’s empty, but ballooning fingers.
“Yeah,” Dean agreed. “And they weren’t wearing wedding clothes in that picture.”
“Not everyone gets married in a wedding gown.”
“What about you? Are you going to wear a wedding gown?”
Haley smiled. “Of course. With diamond trim. I’m marrying a millionaire, like every cop.”
Dean laughed. “Well good for you. I ain’t never getting married.”
Two years later, before the accident, Haley attended Dean’s wedding. It rained, but he looked happy. Haley herself dated from time to time. Twice it got serious and once they lived together.
Outside the sound of sirens.
“Detectives are here,” Dean said unnecessarily.
They took one more quick walk around the apartment to see what they might learn from Michael Brown’s belongings. He had a lot of books. He liked to read fiction.
Detectives walk heavy. Dean and Haley greeted them at the door, told them what they saw, and were asked to go outside and canvas the neighbors. See if the deceased had any enemies, recent visitors, arguments or such.
They learned Michael Brown was a graphic designer who worked from home. He was well liked. A good neighbor. No children. He never got married. No recent visitors that anyone remembered.
Haley and Dean reported this to the detectives and were sent on their way.
A couple weeks later, Haley found the report on Michael Brown.
The detectives concluded that Michael Brown put poison in his tea, and ingested it intentionally. Autopsy confirmed cause of death. It was deemed a suicide. Case closed. On a separate page they indicated they had no idea why there were two more tea settings, and that Michael Brown never exhibited any signs of mental illness. At least not to those who knew him best.
Haley went on to an impressive career after that. She made detective young and solved numerous high profile cases. Never married, no kids, she lived for the job and was respected on the force. She owned her apartment and had furnished it nicely. Earth tones and accents walls. Her neighbors enjoyed having a detective in the building and she was friendly with all of them. She ate healthy food.
Haley kept a cabinet full of tea above her microwave. She still didn’t drink the stuff. But every once in a while, she’d make two cups, set the table, and wonder what it was like.