We're upside down and Inside out
The house looked as if it had exploded. The four walls had fallen open, flat against the ground. On them, instead of shingles or siding, you saw curled wallpaper and accordioned blinds. Pieces of the roof were scattered nearby.
This was what happened when hurricane winds broke a window. The storm got inside the house and lifted the roof the way air lifts the wing of a plane. Then it was tossed aside.
Det. Eureka Kilburn had seen a lot of hurricane wreckage in the past decade. By 2048 she was used to the bizarre post-storm landscape: bright sunlight over broken foliage, shattered white wood, and earth so wet it was like walking on a sponge. But sometimes even Eureka marveled at the different ways that high winds could destroy things.
There was a curious beauty to the scene. The water in the lawn reflected the shimmering heavens so it looked as if grass was growing up through a bright shining sky.
She was here on Tangerine Drive because shortly before the storm someone claimed to have seen a man featured on one of TV's “CrimeWatch” cycles. These programs were played monthly till the person was caught, and sometimes the cycle seemed to go on forever. Thanks to the chaos created by rising sea levels, Florida had become a haven of sorts for criminals and deadbeats. Mostly, the residents of Sarasota left them alone. But the screen had a powerful allure. It conferred glamour on turning a man in.
The sighting was unusually credible because the wanted man, named Nat Serpas, had once lived in the neighborhood where he was spotted. It made sense that he would return to his old haunts. Years ago, when he was in his twenties, he’d used phony credit card numbers “by mistake.” Now he was wanted in Atlanta for tricking a 72-year old woman out of her life savings, just the sort of larger career he’d been heading for.
Det. Kilburn exited the squad car with caution. From the road the house looked as if all its secrets had been exposed. But it was peeled open the way a magician can make a trick box collapse to display its deceptive emptiness. Next thing you know, a pigeon is flying out or a goldfish is swimming in a bowl in front of your very eyes.
The house had consisted of a single story. The inner walls were gone, and the taller furniture seemed to have ended up out in the yard. A refrigerator leaned against a palm tree. A leather sofa tilted back as if it had turned into a porch swing. A car was completely overturned, its tires sticking up like Mickey Mouse ears. Few cars remained on the road in Sarasota, so someone had probably driven this one down from the north.
As she approached the floor of the house she heard a muffled shout. And another. There was a man in the car, upside down, stuck between the front and back seats. His face was contorted, and his mouth was open. Although he was forming words, they were deadened. This was to be expected, as the windows were closed, but the sound was eerily reminiscent of a person trapped underwater. The large glittering puddles added to the effect.
He was repeating slowly and emphatically, “Get. Me. Out.”
It was hard to assess his condition. His inverted position confounded the brain. His neck was curled, and the back of his head was flat against the crushed top of the car.
“Are you all right?” She exaggerated the movement of her mouth to help him read her lips.
She thought she deciphered “Leg is broken.”
Which meant he could be going into shock.
He went on to say something else at length and with increasing exasperation. She could not make it out.
This man was not Nat Serpas. He was older and heavier than Serpas, with a square, Irish face and salt-and-pepper hair so neatly trimmed it stayed smooth even upside down. He looked familiar, though, and she went back through her memory as she automatically tried the doors.
“I. Will. Get. Tools,” she over enunciated, bending down for a good look at him. He seemed to be sensitive to her scrutiny, and the self-consciously bland control he exerted over himself as he looked back at her struck a chord. She tried to place it. She associated him with some sort of disconnect, something more than just his topsy-turvy position. The disparity was between this particular Celtic face and the name attached to it.
Ghotikar! His name was Kevin Ghotikar, and he’d been on TV, too. Not on a “CrimeWatch” most-wanted type program like Serpas, but rather its opposite. He’d been tried and acquitted of murdering his wealthy wife on the outskirts of Charlotte a few months before. He was a banker who’d made a fortune by manipulating financial data of some sort.
During the trial his defense attorney had offered up an alternate suspect: a stranger who’d come to the house on the morning of the murder, asking if the victim had any chores he could do. When Ghotikar took the stand, he described the ensuing confrontation. He’d known immediately that the stranger was up to no good. He told him he wasn’t giving out charity that day and asked why he didn’t get a job for a change. In response, the stranger swore he’d come back with a gun and kill them both.
Ghotikar then chased him off the porch, threatening to call the police. He did not call them, however, because the exchange had already made him late for a meeting upon which millions of dollars depended. On the stand, when asked to describe the man, Ghotikar became agitated and cried that he would recognize him anywhere. He was in his mid-thirties, six feet two, 180 lbs., with black eyes and a black beard.
The meeting had gone well, and the money had been made, but at great cost. When Ghotikar returned home at the end of the day, he found his wife dead with a bullet through her head. “That man took her away from me!” he said.
When he left the stand, the chatter in cyberspace was that the verdict could go either way. He had spoken convincingly, but few people liked him. He was arrogant and impatient, so nothing softened the many factors against him: He was the husband, he had given a colleague a negligee for her birthday, the gun that was used had been registered in his name, and he was the only one to have seen this mysterious employment-seeking stranger. In fact, the banker was the only person who’d been proved to be at the house that day, except for the victim.
Then, at the last minute, a neighbor who’d been on a religious retreat came forward to testify that he, too, had seen a strange man at the Ghotikar’s door on the day of the murder. This unknown man was tall and lean and hungry-looking. He had a scruffy beard. The neighbor had seen Ghotikar’s wife Bronwyn open the door. Then he’d seen Ghotikar join her and shout at the stranger, calling him a bum. There was more shouting. But the words were indistinguishable.
On the strength of this evidence, Ghotikar was acquitted in a matter of hours. The jury members who spoke publicly said that no one doubted the testimony of the neighbor, fresh from the arms of his church. They all expressed sorrow for the banker’s loss, probably because some of them were ashamed of their earlier suspicions of him. But one juror, a middle-aged woman who worked at a call center, said she thought Ghotikar might have provoked the attack on his wife. Who knew what desperate straits the bearded man was in when he’d knocked on their door?
It is possible that Ghotikar heard the same interview. After shutting himself up in the “death house” for a week, he announced angrily that he would track down the killer if it was the last thing he ever did. “You’re blaming the victim!” he said, although blaming the victim’s husband would have been the more accurate description. He took a leave from his job and disappeared from sight.
If Kevin Ghotikar was in Sarasota looking for the mysterious stranger, that mysterious stranger could very well be Nat Serpas. Serpas had a beard now – at least in his photo on TV. That would make two men who’d gone straight from TV to Sarasota, Florida. This place was going to get a reputation.
Eureka did not waste a lot of time looking through the squad car for an adequate substitute for “the jaws of life,” which had disappeared along with most of the police force earlier in the decade. Police cars were not really equipped to deal with vehicular accidents any more. There weren’t enough cars around to matter. All she could find was the chain saw she used to clear the road. It was not large, and she didn’t know how it would hold up against steel. Upon reflection, she took the silicone gloves and the jack as well.
She still didn’t have anything to smash open the window with, so she decided to take a quick look through the remains of the house. It had been one of the largest in the area. Judging by the litter, there must have been plenty of stuff inside before the roof blew away. Chances were that up until the storm it had been inhabited by squatters. Anyone with the money to buy it would have fled north years ago -- or maybe it had been a second home.
Now everything was in pieces, most unrecognizable. You couldn’t always tell if they belonged inside or out. A lot of stuff was as wet as a marsh that shouldn’t be wet at all, like the rug and the mattress. As Eureka stepped into the foyer of the house, it was like stepping into the first box of a game of hopscotch. The boundaries were more theoretical than actual. She was still surrounded by bright sunshine and she still breathed the post-hurricane air, with its peculiar and invigorating smell of ozone.
In a rectangle that delineated a former closet she found a lidless plastic bin holding a tennis racket, a baseball bat, and a cottonmouth. She managed to pick out the bat without disturbing the snake. Farther on, next to an upended oak entertainment system, was a man lying on his back: Nat Serpas. Det. Kilburn recognized his long, handsome face, his thin lips, his beard. She supposed he was hungry looking. Most people around here were.
Smashed around him were a large flat screen, several audiovisual tech modules, and half a dozen big black metal storage boxes, one of which had just missed him. He was alive, but unconscious. Det. Kilburn cuffed him in front. She wasn’t unfeeling, but that was what she was there for. And if he happened to be Bronwyn Ghotikar’s mysterious killer, well, he wasn’t going anywhere soon.
Next Det. Kilburn went back to the car and used the baseball bat to break the right back window, which was in line with the upside down man but not so close that he’d be hit by shards of glass.
As she was clearing the shards from the door with her gloves, he said, as clear as day, “You look like you have some initiative, thank the Lord. I’ve got to get out of here. What we really need is a reciprocating saw. Did you see anyone else around?” He spoke with authority despite his breathlessness.
“First I’m going to examine you real quick.” She was crouched over, her head inches from the ground, but she managed to stretch her arm far enough inside to take his pulse.
“We’ve no time to waste,” he said sharply. “I have reason to believe there is a very dangerous man nearby.”
“It’s too complicated to go into now.”
“There’s a man in what’s left of the house, if that’s what you mean,” said Det. Kilburn.
“Get me my gun,” he barked. “It’s somewhere around here.”
“He’s not going to attack anyone. He’s unconscious. He was almost crushed when a huge shelf fell over.”
“Naturally,” said Ghotikar. Bitterness overcame him. “He has the luck of the devil. Whatever he does, he gets off scot-free. He obviously didn’t secure anything. But he’s not the one stuck here. He’s the laziest person I ever encountered. Look at that house. The roof wasn’t strapped down. I’ve never seen such a shoddy job. Did he do anything to prepare for the storm? Put plywood over the windows, maybe? Bring his car parallel to the house? Any moron knows that’s what you do.” He was becoming increasingly breathless. “I didn’t even grow up around here, and I can tell you that much. He’s a shirker through and through.” His face was turning red and blotchy. “I must keep calm!”
“You know this man?” asked Det. Kilburn.
“Well enough,” said Ghotikar. “He destroyed my life.”
She was amazed that he had the energy to talk as much as he did.
“What are you standing around for?” he cried, as if Serpas’s sloth was a contagion, and Eureka, the unfortunate recipient.
This was annoying. Plus she was still not really standing. She was bent over nearly double trying to examine the door. The posture was awkward and painful for her. “I would prefer not to kill you in the process of getting you out,” she said.
She turned on the chain saw and attacked the door at the hinge. He did not flinch. She gave him that much. But the blade was not doing anything to the door except for scratching it. She was going to have to go in through the window and get at the door that way.
“Do you see my gun?” he asked.
“You don’t need a gun,” said Det. Kilburn.
“Yes, I do. You don’t know what you’re getting into here.”
“I have a gun.”
The banker perked up. “Yes, of course,” he said. He gathered himself together and declared, “That man over there killed my wife.”
“I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true. I recognized him from a TV program called CrimeWatch.”
“Why didn’t you call the cops? Or the TV show, for that matter?”
“The cops! They never believe a word I say. So now I have to do my own police work, too. It’s exhausting, the pace I’m forced to keep up.”
Det. Kilburn pointed out pleasantly that eyewitness IDs were notoriously shaky.
“I looked straight at him for ten minutes, and I can read a person like that as easily as I can read the stock figures. Believe me, I have the right man.”
The air was hot, but not humid. The hurricane had sucked all the moisture away. A sudden little breeze made it almost pleasant to be out doing physical labor. First she brushed the worst of the glass from the crumpled top of the car where she was going to have to sit. Then she wriggled in with the baseball bat. Kneeling with her head bent, she bashed at the door till it fell off. Finally she set up the car jack between the seats, which were hanging from above. She and Ghotikar were as close as lovers. His salt-and-pepper hair was inches from her khaki-clad thigh.
“Is this your car?” she asked.
“A Chevy? Are you kidding? Haven’t you ever heard the joke about how many bankers it takes to drive a BMW?”
“I don’t like jokes,” said Eureka, straight-faced.
So this was Serpas’s car – or more precisely, the car he’d stolen from the woman in Atlanta.
“I was wondering why you’re caught between the seats,” she said. “Why not between the front seat and the dash? You must have been in the back seat when the car flipped over.”
Actually, given the force of the storm, anything could have happened. Still, it was a pretty good guess, and Ghotikar accepted it.
“I suppose you think I was in the back seat waiting for the guy,” he said.
“Maybe you were crouched down with your gun, hoping to surprise him.”
“Maybe I was assuming he’d come out to move his car to a safer place,” said Ghotikar sarcastically. “That’s what any responsible person would do when they heard a hurricane was coming. But not Nat Serpas. You’re not going to find him doing anything useful with his miserable life.”
“I guess he’s lucky he wasn’t the responsible type,” said Det. Kilburn. “Then you would have been able to shoot him.”
“And what would be so wrong with that? You know he deserves it. And if you don’t know, I haven’t done my job. I haven’t gotten across what a scumbag he is. He preys on women. Vulnerable older women.”
It was true that in certain circumstances Eureka might step back and not interfere with frontier justice. There was no courthouse in Sarasota anymore. No judges, either.
“You’d understand if you knew Bronwyn,” said Ghotikar. “She was such a nice person. A real homebody. Of course she wasn’t much of a cook. I had to do that, too, to get a decent meal. But she always tried her best. We did nothing to merit what happened to us. And I can certainly make whatever steps you take worth your while.”
Det. Kilburn asked what he meant.
“I’m a very wealthy man. I don’t want to brag, but I made more than ten men could spend in a lifetime when I was a banker, and now that I have Bronwyn’s money, too, I can give you anything you want. How about a house in Iceland? It’s so beautiful there. Cool breezes. Pure water.”
Det. Kilburn wondered what she should do with someone who so clearly planned to shoot a fellow human being the next chance he got. Even if Serpas had killed his wife, she didn’t see how in good conscience she could just release Ghotikar from between the seats. Not that that was going to happen in the next few minutes, anyway. She’d already tried three different positions for the jack, and none of them had worked.
“Serpas is in handcuffs,” she said. “I saw him on CrimeWatch just the way you did.”
“Perfect. Forget me. Just go finish him off. I won’t care if I never get out of this car. I can die in peace.” He closed his eyes to illustrate.
“I know you’re angry. But you don’t really want to kill him. You’d be throwing your life away, and it wouldn’t bring your wife back.”
“I do want to kill him,” he said, his eyes popping open down there next to the crushed roof. “I think of nothing else. I don’t have a life anymore, and it’s his fault.”
He was very convincing. She decided to confiscate his gun as soon as she found it. She wasn’t even sure where she drew the line, but this was way over it, she was sure.
Besides, she wasn’t sure he had the right man. What would Nat Serpas have been doing in Charlotte? Travel was very difficult these days. You had to have a powerful incentive to do it. You did not go from Atlanta to Charlotte and end up asking for work like some kind of hobo or yardman. Maybe if he’d met Bronwyn somewhere and figured she was a good prospect…. But Eureka couldn’t see any way that would have happened.
The argument Ghotikar was supposed to have had with him made no sense. Serpas was not a day laborer, he was a con man. He was more likely to have tried to sell the Ghotikars pixie dust than to have mentioned any kind of violence. He might have gotten an advance to do contracting work that he didn’t intend to do. That sounded like him. Or if he’d fallen on hard times, he might have offered to paint the hall so he could swipe some jewelry. But when he was turned away, why would he have threatened them?
As Det. Kilburn was thinking this through, she spotted Ghotikar’s gun in the trunk. She reached out with her right foot and kicked it farther away.
“That’s my property!” he said, immediately realizing what she was doing. “I’ll give you everything I have for it!” He grabbed her arm with his upside down hand, but then thought better of it and withdrew.
Considering Ghotikar’s role as avenging husband, it was odd the way he didn’t dwell on murder or blood or even revenge. Eureka believed that if you paid close attention to the words people use, they inadvertently reveal themselves. Ghotikar was obsessed with work. When he spoke of Serpas, he talked about him the way you’d talk about an employee who didn’t measure up. His bitterness seemed centered on a feeling of being deeply, thoroughly cheated.
Det. Kilburn knew then instinctively what job Nat Serpas had told Ghotikar he would perform and instead reneged on. She found herself asking, “Why did you get the lingerie for your colleague?”
“What lingerie? Where did you get that from? You knew all along who I was. I should have known.” Ghotikar’s sourness was returning. “I explained all that at the trial. I didn’t buy any lingerie. Why would I? I wasn’t interested in that woman. She wasn’t my type at all. Anyone could have signed my name to the card. It wasn’t even my handwriting. That’s just the sort of prank the traders were always pulling. I can’t be held responsible for what they do.”
Nothing that happened at a bank would surprise Eureka. But she knew she was on the right track. Serpas had agreed to kill Ghotikar’s wife. The two men must have first met in Atlanta. Businessmen like Ghotikar still traveled because of their professional responsibilities. Not everything could be done teleconferencing. He would have had meetings, consultations.
With advance in hand, Serpas should have been happy to sneak away – far away. But maybe murder was still too much for him. Maybe he drove to the Ghotikar house up in Charlotte intending to warn the poor woman. More likely, he wanted money from her in return for exposing her husband’s plot against her.
So why was Ghotikar home at the time? Why wouldn’t he have been as far away as possible with as many witnesses as possible? Because by then he’d seen Nat Serpas’s photo on CrimeWatch and had learned he was a con man. He wanted to make sure Serpas was going to go through with his part of the deal. That time would have been only a test. He planned to ask him to come back later.
Eureka slipped out of reach of Ghotikar’s arm as she pictured the scene on the porch up in Charlotte. A big old Victorian wrap-around, with plenty of room for everybody. Bronwyn would be puzzled at first by Serpas’s accusations, more frightened of him than of her husband. But soon it would be clear to the banker that here was yet another job he was going to have to do himself.
Ghotikar was no fool. Far from his wrap-around porch, upside down in a car that was no BMW, surrounded by trashed palm trees, he took stock of the situation and said, “You can’t do anything about it. Double jeopardy applies.”
“You tried to hire me to kill a witness,” said Det. Kilburn, out in the sunshine once again. “That will cause problems if I manage to get you out of there.”