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The Paths We Take #39: Anywhere

Nov 27, 2018







I muted the television and watched the reporter’s flamenco red lips mouth her version of our story. We had checked-in to the Embassy Suites in city-center Philadelphia after Agent Halson, a friend of Detective Townsend’s, unofficially interviewed us. Townsend didn’t want anything to be official until he saw how the initial investigation unfolded. He was right to be cautious.

Claire’s room was four doors down the hallway from ours. Townsend and I took turns checking in on her every few hours. Most of the time I found her looking out the window at the neon glow of the city. She was free, but only from Donnelly’s cabin. We talked about growing up, and how she couldn’t go back to see her judgmental parents. I told her about my childhood and how I was married once, but I didn’t elaborate further.

We all ate lunches and dinners in our room — take-out Chinese or pizza mostly. After four days, we were getting a little restless confined to the rooms. Townsend thought it was best to stay out of sight until we were under federal protection. His wife insisted that we have suites after everything we’ve been through.

“Why don’t we just tell them what happened?” Claire asked. “How could they not believe us?”

“It’s not that simple . . . The evidence doesn’t matter in a case like this. They will make the evidence fit whatever narrative they want to play out,” Townsend said as he picked up another slice of pizza speckled with bits of sausage and pepperoni. “Money speaks louder than words.”

Claire glanced over my shoulder at the television, then limped over to the bedside table and swiped the remote from where it sat beside the lamp. She pointed it at the television and the green volume dashes grew as they crossed to the right half of the screen.

Raymond Donnelly is in stable condition after being transported to Geisinger Holy Spirit Hospital. There are still a lot of questions as to what went on here at his mountain home, but police say that he is cooperating with the investigation . . .

The screen showed an aerial view of Donnelly’s mountain estate, like a castle hidden in the pines. I watched as Claire wilted onto the bed and held her face in her hands. Townsend put down the half-eaten slice of pizza and looked at his cell phone. His face was flushed, and he punched his finger onto the screen of his smart-phone several times before leaving the room. I knew that Donnelly’s survival was not in our best interest, and whatever recollection he would tell the police would be the apocryphal narrative the media and FBI would run with.

Townsend came back into the room a few minutes later. His hands were in fists as he paced around the suite.

“Donnelly’s saying that Marks killed Michael in a jealous rage over a mutual prostitutegirlfriend, and when Donnelly tried to intervene, Marks turned the gun on him. He says the girlwas injured in the struggle before running out. He said that Marks went after her, but that’s when Donnelly lost consciousness and didn’t know what happened after that. All this is great, exceptthat Marks’ body was found with a bullet in his chest. When they run the forensics on the bullet, they might trace it back to Luke. There were no witnesses at the cabin when the police arrived, and, here’s where the real problem comes in, the Senator is corroborating Donnelly’s story in regard to his son’s relationship with a prostitute. The Senator also stated that this prostitute was trying to extort him by threatening to take the story to the press about her relationship with Michael. He said that she threatened to lie and saythat the Senator was paying her. She demanded three million in exchange for her silence.”

Claire sat on the bed with her jaw dropped and eyes glaring as Detective Townsend explained. Her eyes narrowed by the end and I could see the red splotches form on her neck as if she were choking back a scream.

“That’s the story?” Claire burst out.

“That’s the story. It’s a little hard to swallow, but it sounds much better to the public than a well-respected businessman running a prostitution ring that abducted girls, employed cops, and is involved in the drug trade.”

“So, what do we do?” Claire asked.

“We wait. Agent Halson is going to call me in the morning after his briefing to fill me in on where the investigation is headed. We have to be careful.”

No one said anything else for the rest of the evening. Claire went back to her room, Detective Townsend met his wife in the lobby to pick up some fresh clothes, and I sat on the couch watching the blue glow of the television dance on the glass balcony door.

I wanted to worry, or be angry and pound my fists into the beige wall, but my mind was on unfinished business — I still needed to tell Townsend about the photograph. It had been with me the whole time the last few days. I tucked it away in my pocket, like it belonged on me — a necessity like my watch, wallet, keys, and cell phone. If I wanted to move on with my life, I had to show him.

My mind drifted back to the girl every now and then before we arrived in Philadelphia, but she’s haunted my thoughts since I arrived and pass my days in overwhelming silence. I could hear her fading cries for help like echoes in the hallway. She was calling out to me, and I wouldn’t answer. I hoped that the morning would bring better news.


. . .


I sat at the table on the balcony as Detective Townsend eased a paper coffee cup on the table in front of me. He took his Eagles cap off, rubbed his eyes, and let out a sigh that sent a cloud of steam shooting from his mouth against a mulled wine sky in the cold morning air. The overnight snow, like a white film, bleached the city below.

“I just talked to Halson. They want this thing to go away. My guess is that Donnelly’s client list is full of people who really need this to fade fast. They don’t really care how Marks died, they’re just glad he’s dead. He won’t put up a fight in taking the fall for all of them. As for Donnelly, I don’t know if he’s ready to just forget. He knows that Claire can still ruin him with what she knows, and I’m sure you’re on his radar as well. The Breed may still be a problem.”

“What do we do?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’m going to go home to my wife. We’ll figure out where to go from here when you get back home,” Townsend smiled.

I pulled the envelope with the photograph from my coat pocket and slid it across the table in front of him. He looked at the envelope and back at me.

“What’s this? You get me an early Christmas present?” Townsend laughed, but his grin disappeared when he looked back up at my blank stare.

He opened the envelope and pulled the Polaroid out. It was face down as Townsend lifted it from the table and turned it around. The city around me began to spin and I could feel the frigid air biting at the sweat on the back of my neck as Townsend studied the photo.

He was silent. I wanted to speak, but my mouth wouldn’t open, and I felt like the chair was pulling me through the floor below. His face was expressionless as he put the photograph face down on the table and pushed it towards me.

“Luke, you have to put this behind you,” Detective Townsend said. “She’s gone, and no matter what you do, no matter how much you search for a reason, or how much you blame yourself, she’s not coming back.”

When I shut my eyes, I saw her standing there in front of me. I remembered the first time I saw her, and I wondered how she could be so perfect, so beautiful, but so haunted by something I couldn’t explain. The edges of her smile disappeared into the shadows as she turned around and disappeared into darkness.

I picked up the photograph and turned it around to look at it, but I knew what I would find. Encased in the white frame was the park bench. Katie called it “our spot” since the first time we sat underneath the stars. That same day we carved our initials into the Lover’s Tree and shared our first kiss. I could feel the emptiness creep up from some dark place inside me.

She was gone. The body was never there in the photo — just a memory — just a nightmare that I was finally waking up from.

“We all choose the paths we take . . . Katie chose hers. You’ll never completely know why, but you must accept that it wasn’t your fault. She knows that you didn’t give up on her, but you need let her go. You won’t survive if you don’t.”

I stood up and made my way to the railing at the edge of the balcony. I felt the light breeze fill my lungs as I closed my eyes and let it slip from my fingertips. I didn’t watch it fall, but I knew it was gone, just like I knew Katie was gone. She left me with a choice, and I chose to live.

“I’m going to get out of here,” Detective Townsend said as he extended his hand. “You did the right thing Luke. Claire’s alive because you wouldn’t stop. You know that . . . She knows that. This could’ve ended a whole lot worse.”

I nodded and followed him to the door. After he disappeared into the elevator, I shut the door and packed up the few clothes that I had left. I thought of Claire and what she would do. I couldn’t imagine living through what happened to her.

I shut the door behind me as I left the lonely room, but I didn’t go to the elevator like I planned. My feet carried me to her door. I needed to see her before I left.

Her room door was shut, but I could hear the hum of voices on the television in the background. A maid was cleaning the room a few doors down. She looked at me, smiled, and then proceeded into the room she was cleaning with the vacuum in hand. I knocked, and after a few seconds the door inched open. Claire was standing there in an outfit much like the one she was wearing when she was taken — black leggings and a pink hooded sweatshirt.

“Hey,” she smiled.

“Hey. I was just about to head out, but I wanted to stop by and see if you needed anything.”

“Come in . . . I was just packing a few things. I don’t know why. I have no idea where I’m going. I can’t do it. I can’t just go back to Red Pines and try to pick up where I left off.”

She had a black backpack sitting on the bed with a small stack of clothes folded beside it. She looked lost, and I knew what lost looked like. I knew the face. Your mouth can’t figure out whether to smile or to keep tight-lipped, and your eyes are wide, but it’s impossible focus on any one thing. You can’t get rid of the dark shadows underneath them no matter how long you sleep. I saw the same thing every time I caught my reflection in a mirror or in the water.

“What are you going to do now?” Claire asked as she sat down on the tawny colored leather sofa that sat underneath a painting of a snow-covered mountain by a local artist. Her eyes caught the light just right as the sun streamed through the balcony door.

“I guess I’ll go back to Red Pines, but I don’t think I’ll stay long. Too many memories, and I don’t really have anything to stay for. Besides, Donnelly has too many connections there. It’s not safe for us.”

I sat down on the chair next to the sofa. I took the cell phone from my coat pocket and started to type “Claire” under New Contact.

“I need a new start somewhere . . . anywhere,” she said.

“I can do anywhere,” I blurted out.

Claire looked out the balcony door and out at the pink sunrise. She stood up and packed the rest of her clothes in the backpack. She shut off the lamp next to the couch and tidied up the pillows on the couch. I looked down at my worn boots wondering why I just said what I did, and if I just lost my chance at getting her cell number.

“Let’s go then,” Claire said as she stood in front of me.

“Where?” I asked as I looked up at her.



© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.