Pinot Grigio buzzes in my veins while the bass of the music speakers near the head table buzzes in my chest. The alcohol loosens up my joints and allows me to pull off dance moves I didn’t know I still had. I don’t know where my date scurried off to and I don’t know where my $49.99 tie went.
But there’s one thing I do know: I’m parched.
I mosey back to my table with the people with whom I had been conversing all night. I give them my most genuine smile as their faces contort. My fingers wrap around the nearest bottleneck of wine, strangling it with white knuckles as I drag its heel across the table toward me. I raise the bottle up to my lips, but only a few drops land on my tongue. I look inside the bottle and a voice booms from behind me.
“I think you’ve had quite enough, Mr. Fellowes.”
I turn around and find a shorter man standing before me with an expensive suit and matching tie. His facial hair is sharp on his face and thin-rimmed glasses sit on the end of his pointed nose. A grin spreads across our faces once we recognize one another.
“No fuckin’ way,” I envelop Derek Adler in a bear hug and almost knock him over.
“How are you, man?”
“Oh, I’m doing real good.”
He pulls away and takes a good look at me as he scans my entire frame.
“You’ve sure as shit seen better days.”
“And you’ve seen worse!”
“Touché,” he chuckles. "Join me for a drink? Where's your hot date?"
“Eh, don’t worry about it. Let's go.”
* * *
When this man asked me to join him for a drink, I thought the alcoholic adventure would continue. I’m deeply mistaken. The bartender has cut me off. Killjoy.
After thirty minutes of Derek rambling about his CEO wife and two boys who attend a local private school, I'm sober as a judge. Almost everyone has cleared out of the reception area now. Only a few lingering people are cleaning up or getting a drink at the bar with us.
Of all people, I didn’t picture Derek Adler settling down so quickly. We graduated from high school only a little less than a decade ago. He was even rated the class clown!
I’m snapped out of my thoughts.
“You falling asleep on me?”
“Nah,” I stretch my arms outward to hide the fact that I, indeed, am falling asleep on him. “Starting to feel the consequences of doing the worm at the ripe age of 28.”
“What? No way. We used to have to drag your ass to parties. Now you’re doing the worm at a wedding reception.”
“It’s called character development.”
“That’s a good way of putting it. You learn that one in English class?”
He lets out a belly laugh before taking another small sip of his glass of Jameson. I shrug my shoulders and give a small chuckle. A film reel of dumb teenage memories that have long passed plays in my mind as we continue to reminisce.
In the midst of our conversation, Derek stares at something across the bar. When I look over in the same direction, I see an old friend, Bobby Baker. And much like my encounter with Derek, we start grinning at one another like corny long lost lovers.
Derek and Bobby had been lifelong friends, but I met these two goons during my freshman year. We grew apart after graduation, but it honestly doesn't feel like a day has passed. Some friendships just never die.
“This night keeps getting better and better,” Derek says, leaning over in his stool. Bobby extends his hand toward Derek. Bobby pauses for a split moment before reciprocating his gesture. “What was that?”
“Sorry,” Bobby apologizes, giving a dry laugh. “Still a bit weary from COVID, I guess.”
He doesn’t look like he aged at all. He has slicked dark hair and more tattoos on his arms. He looks buffer, too. Man looks good.
After hearing what Bobby has been up to, it is relieving to find that he is in the same boat as me. He's unmarried, living alone, and taking each day as it comes.
“So why bartending?” I ask.
“After going to SBU and student loan payments starting up again, I was falling short on rent with only one job. Saw this job posting online and said fuck it.”
“And it pays well?”
“Yeah, you’d be surprised,” he says, wiping a glass clean with a cloth. “Sometimes it pays more than my full-time gig. During events like this, I’d say I walk away with… eight hundred, sometimes a thousand bucks.”
I whistle, “Shit, you guys hiring?”
“I’ll check with my manager first thing tomorrow,” he jokes. “You still on the force?”
“After inheriting my dad’s trust fund, Carrie and I had more money than we knew what to do with,” Derek chimes in. “We ended up building our own home. Carrie designed the kitchen. We have spa-style bathrooms. Even a cave for when I want the boys over. You both should check it out sometime.”
A spark of annoyance lights in the pit of my stomach. Derek has an inability to read the room. He always made it a habit to boast about his perfect life to others, as if he had something to prove. Bobby was just explaining how he was unable to pay bills. Derek, on the other hand, is talking about his "spa-style bathrooms.”
This is the reason why Derek and I drifted apart after high school. Well… one of the reasons, anyway.
For the next fifteen minutes, Derek continues to brag about how perfect his life and family are. I drown it out, watching the television mounted up on the ceiling at the corner of the bar. Bobby is kind enough to entertain the conversation with: “Mhm,” “Oh, wow,” “Really?” “That’s interesting.”
“Ten years later, a local family says they aren’t giving up on the search to find their daughter,” the 11 & 12 News anchor states. “According to Clearwater County police, sixteen-year-old Melanie Carter was reported missing after she never came home from school in April 2013.”
I still find it hard to believe that this happened here. Melanie and I were in the same study group, and always helped me when I got stumped on an assignment. Plus, she and I shared a passion for basketball. We rooted for opposing teams, though: me for the Celtics, Melanie for the Heat.
One day she was at school, the next she was gone. It hit me pretty hard the more and more she was gone. Aside from my father being a retired detective, her disappearance drove me into the force. As long as I’m in this town, I promise this won’t happen again to anyone else.
“Poor girl,” I shake my head as they show her last school picture. “I had her in my calculus class. She was super smart.”
My attention turns towards Bobby and Derek. They both are so fixated on the Melanie Carter coverage that they don’t even hear me. They're dumbfounded.
“Uh, you guys okay?”
No response, just more glaring. I reach for Derek’s shoulder but he moves away.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” His voice is icy and looks at me like I have lobsters crawling out of my ears. “I’ll ask the real question: what kind of fucking bar has the news playing? A liability, if you ask me.”
I look over at Bobby, whose eyes are glassy and bloodshot as he changes the channel to “South Park” on Comedy Central. I open my mouth to say something, but he makes a break for the back room before I can.
My gaze stays fixed on the door Bobby disappeared behind. I turn to Derek.
“Did you guys know her well or something?”
“Nah, not really. Our families knew one another but that’s about it.”
My eyebrows furrow. An overwhelming feeling of awkwardness stifles the air.
After taking the last gulp of my free hot cocoa, I finger my pocket to pull out my phone. 3:33 A.M. I wanted to talk with Bobby more, he’s always been a great person to have a conversation with. But he hasn’t returned. And I’ve had my fill of Derek until our fiftieth reunion.
“It’s been a night, D,” I stand up and push in my chair. I pull out my wallet and leave a twenty-dollar bill on the bar. “I’ll see you in thirty years.”
He laughs, “Yeah. See ya, man. Great catching up!”
The walk back to my room takes forever. My feet are sore, my back is sore… everything is sore. I tilt my head to one side and a painful shock runs down my spine. I wince and rub the area as I unlock my hotel room.
My first priority is a shower. I can’t go to bed knowing that I’m covered in sweat and booze. As I stand under the running stream of hot water, I reflect on the evening. But what sticks out to me are my interactions with Derek and Bobby. While I was happy to see none of us are in jail, the whole situation leaves an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Maybe Derek or I said something that upset Bobby, asking about how much he makes, Derek with his bragging? I don’t know. Derek has always been a boastful guy when it comes to personal matters. Bobby had a habit of running off like that in high-stress situations. Overthinking all of it, for sure.
I close my eyes and let these thoughts run down the drain.
In bed, my neck is still sending hot lightning strikes of pain throughout my body. No sleeping position feels comfortable. I should’ve passed out the moment my head hit the pillow. It feels like a half hour before I give up.
“Fuck,” I sigh, sitting up in bed. I check the clock on my phone: 4:29 A.M.
To think I have to check out of here in about six hours…
I take 1,000 milligrams of extra-strength Tylenol. After, I grab the little translucent bag from the ice bucket sitting atop the microwave. I unlock the door and enter the hallway. The lights are bright and loud as I make my way to the elevator down to the first floor.
The metal doors open to reveal an absolute ghost town. Nobody at the slots, nobody at the front desk, nobody in the lobby. Nobody anywhere. I spot the ice machine across the lobby and walk over to it, filling the bag. This should help my neck pain. I tie it in a knot.
When I walk past the bathrooms on the way back to the elevator, I hear two people conversing.
“What’re we gonna do?”
“We’re not gonna do anything like we always have. We’re good.”
I know those voices. I’ve heard them all night. I stop in my tracks and lean up against the wall outside the bathroom door. I can hardly hear their hushed whispers.
“Do you think Elijah suspected anything?”
“I’ll take care of it, per usual. But you need to fucking learn how to play it cool.”
“I know, I know.”
“I’m not kidding, Bobby. You’re going to get us in trouble if you lose your shit like that again.”
“But how can I not? They found her!”
“Jesus Christ, lower your voice!”
After witnessing their behavior, I know they’re definitely talking about Melanie. I forgot about the discovery of her remains yesterday.
A water droplet falls from the bag of ice and onto my foot, pulling me out of my shocked state. I retrieve my phone from my pocket and open the camera app. I press the record button. I silently pray that the audio comes through.
Derek continues, “You want the entire casino to hear you? It’s not safe to talk here.”
“Nobody is even around… I can’t do this anymore, man,” Bobby starts crying.
“You have to. She was going to expose us. Our lives would’ve been ruined.”
“The girl will fuck up our lives either way! We killed her!”
“Shut the fuck up!”
“No! The guilt is eating me alive! How can you not feel the weight of what we did?”
“We haven’t lasted this long for you to pussy out now. Exercise some self-control! You wanna be on the news next?” A moment of silence passes. “Keep in touch.”
When I hear footsteps approaching, I scurry to the nearest hiding place I can find: the front desk. I drop to the floor. I hear the bathroom door open and close and footsteps pausing, then walking away. I still hear Bobby sobbing in the bathroom.
I wait for a couple of minutes to make sure they’re both gone. After Bobby leaves, I peek over to check if the coast is clear. I review the recording. Their voices are faint, but you can hear them. I need to get this to the station.
And I need to arrest my two high school best friends.
I sprint to my room and up several flights of stairs. The sound of my feet pounding the cheap hallway floor echoes off the walls. My heart is beating so fast against my ribs that it’s almost painful. All I can focus on is Melanie. What kind of suffering did she go through before her passing? She never deserved this.
Melanie Carter, I’m so sorry it’s taken this long to get the justice you deserve.
I look around my dark hotel room for my car keys, forgetting where I put them. I curse as I continue to hunt for them. I throw everything to the floor or on the beds. The room looks like a tornado hit it. Finally, I dig into my pants pocket and pull them out with a jangle. I grab my gun out of my suitcase and shove it into my holster belt.
I open the door but before I leave, something wraps around my neck and pulls me backward. The door swings closed. My keys drop to the floor and my hands reach at my neck in a desperate attempt to pry it off. The pressure around my neck obstructs my airway. I try to force a breath but fail. I’m only able to make gagging sounds. The person struggles behind me grunting loudly.
My heartbeat pulses in my ears. My hands search for something, anything, to get this person off me. My lungs are screaming for air. The pressure builds in my skull. Shit, shit, shit.
Calm down. Remember your training.
Over and over again, I drive back my elbow into this person with all the strength I have. Once, twice, three times. The person yelps in pain and lets me go. They fall onto the floor with a loud clamor and I’m finally able to inhale with a wheeze followed by a coughing fit. I'm overwhelmed with fatigue and exhaustion. I straddle this person’s hips and wind my fist back before landing it on their face.
The hotel room opens and the fluorescent hallway lighting floods the room. It gives me a brief but horrifying glimpse of who this is.
I look back and see Bobby’s malevolent figure, pistol in hand, before the door closes again.
I mutter, “What the fuck?”
Derek uses this moment of distraction and drives his fist hard into my groin. He manages to flip me over back onto the floor and wraps his hands around my neck. I’m, once again, struggling for air. Everything feels painful. I want to rest. I’m exhausted. But I still fight.
I reach for Derek’s eyes but I can’t reach them. My hearing becomes muffled to everything except the slowing beating of my heart. Then the movie reel of memories starts to flash through my brain. How nothing could rip us three apart. All the stupid shit we did. My eyelids flutter closed and my arms become weak and fall to my sides.
Then the pressure lifts.
My chest heaves for air and I can't stop coughing. The overhead light turns on, blinding me with its brightness. I look over at Derek, who is now unconscious beside me. Bobby holds out his hand. I take a deep breath, shove his hand away, and stand up on my own. I grab his arm and pin him to the bed.
“Bobby Baker, you have the right to remain silent,” I rasp, pulling my handcuffs out of my suitcase. "You're under arrest for the murder of Melanie Carter."
* * *
That morning, Bobby Baker was lodged in the county jail. Derek Adler followed suit after hospitalization for a mild concussion after being pistol-whipped.
An autopsy report of Melanie’s remains was completed and released. Based on the incomplete fractures on a few different areas of what remained of her skull, the county coroner determined blunt force trauma as her cause of death in the manner of homicide.
Bobby confessed to the murder immediately. Derek and Bobby repeatedly declined to elaborate on how Melanie would “expose them” as mentioned in the recording. Weeks of interviews with friends and family of the accused ensued. An extensive investigation resulted in additional evidence linking them to the murder.
In court, Derek denied a plea bargain and pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and a myriad of other charges. The jury still found him guilty. He is now serving fifty years in prison without the possibility of parole. Bobby is serving thirty years in prison, sooner with good behavior. They are serving their time in two separate Michigan prisons.
On the day of their sentencing, I visit Melanie’s once-empty grave, now complete with her remains. I place a bouquet of forget-me-nots on her headstone. I trace my fingers across the words embellished on it:
Friend to many, stranger to none.
I whisper, “Rest easy now, friend.”