Chapter 1: Nice to meet you ma’am

May 18, 2020

 

The large man burst through the door of the wood-paneled office with a victorious flurry and trumpeted, "Hello Dorris!" A wide grin dancing across his face. 

 

The ancient woman sitting behind the over sized computer monitor looked like she was hungover from drinking a little too much at her 150th birthday party the night before. “You got ‘em then sir?” she croaked, her voice was proof of her recently escaped smoking habit. She gave up smoking a few years ago and now she chomped on gum like it owed her money.  

 

“Of course I did Dorris, don’t you know who I am?” Theo sighed, his grin unwavering, as he plopped onto the leather couch and began to prop his feet up on the neighboring coffee table as he leaned back contemplating his victory.

 

Theo was in his mid-30s and just over six feet tall, his daily uniform usually consisted of brightly colored Hawaiian shirts, cargo shorts, and flip flops. He had shaggy light brown hair and scruff covering the lower half of his tan face.  

 

Right in the middle of reclining, Theo saw an ancient hand come out from behind the astonishingly outdated monitor and give a single harsh snap. He immediately changed the trajectory of his feet placing them on the floor. Theo cleared his throat and without a trace of his previous smugness he reported, “It was the alligator wrangler's dentist”.

 

“Called it. Where’s my money, sir?” Dorris croaked, popping a hand out to receive her winnings. Theo rose from the couch and fumbled in his pocket to produced a $1.00 bill, then gently placed it in Dorris’ weathered but rock-solid grip. “You did,” his eyes narrowed, “how do you always know?” 

 

“I don’t always know, I just only bet when I’m sure. Also, TV” she shrugged and pointed across the room. Theo looked where she was pointing and saw a small antiquated TV set that was supported by an old wooden TV tray with tarnished brass legs. The TV was in fact playing some old murder mystery show as always. “With that case closed, we have enough money until the end of the month”. 

 

Then without smiling or breaking eye contact with Theo, Dorris fidgeted in her front desk drawer until she found what she was looking for, she brought her hands above her head and tugged on the string of a mini pull-string confetti cannon raining miniature streamers all over her hair and desk. 

 

“Well, I’m not the one buying confetti cannons” Theo smirked then broke into laughter as Dorris even cracked a smile. “Well, is there anything else on the docket?”

 

“There are a few; a cheating wife, cheating husband, another cheater, hit and run, cheater, identity theft, embezzler, cheater...” She listed as she flipped through dusty files in the lower drawer of her desk. 

 

“Good lord, is there anything that won’t, I don’t know, destroy what little faith in humanity I have left? How am I simultaneously bored and disgusted all the time?” he groaned. 

 

“You took the wrong  job if you’re after the warm and feelys sweety” Doris rasped as she flipped through the files for another few moments then picked up one, only to read it silently and slide it back into its original position. She continued, looking at 4 more files before replacing them until she came to one towards the back of the drawer, sighing in a way that Theo couldn’t tell was relief or defeat. “Here’s a murder, a patient in a, oh what’s the term, I think it’s ‘institution” she said as her hands lifted in mock quotations.

 

“Wait, did the patient murder someone or did the patient get murdered?” then he thought about it for a second and mumbled to himself “does that even matter?”

 

“He got killed in a” she raised both hands in more mimicked quotations “seclusion room” she put her hands down and flipped through more pages in the file. “It looks like there was no evidence of entry or exit, no weapon, nothing on the security footage. The police are lost, but..” she read on silently then remarked, “Yeah you’re doing this one.”

 

“What? Why do you say that?” Theo asked, impatient to learn the details. 

 

“I was wrong about the victim. He wasn’t a patient. The police weren’t able to identify him at all. It says here that he was found in the...”, raising her hands a third time to make the quote gesture, Theo finally interrupted, “you really don’t have to do that”. Doris frowned, but received the criticism and lowered her hands and continued, “seclusion room dead without any evidence. Not only that, they don’t even have a sure cause of death. Says they can’t identify him either. No matches with face scanning, teeth, and, oh this is interesting, the machine they use for DNA testing errored out so they had to rule it as inconclusive”. 

 

Theo’s expression shifted from excitement to confusion to determination. “You win again Doris. You win again. Where is this facility?”

 

“It’s called Shady Acres, it’s  in a small town down south, Evergreen Louisiana.” 

 

“Okay, let me get a shower and a fresh set of clothes and I’ll head that way.”

 

“You should pack some nice clothes too. A birdy told me there’s a lot of money hiding around Evergreen, just gotta know the right people to talk to.”  

 

Theo looked down at his Baby Blue flamingo button-down, “What do you mean nice? What’s wrong with this? I always dress like this? It’s comfy and classy,”  he straightened the cotton collar and ran his hands down the front of the shirt exhibiting his immaculate taste.

 

Dorris stood up from her chair raising a full two feet taller than she had been and locked eyes with Theo. Her voice rose and adopted a tone that resembled a mother scolding her child. “You are not wearing that for this case young man. This case could put us in the black for the rest of the year, so if you’re going to play the part of a professional private investigator, you best look it.” 

 

Theo’s lower lip actually stuck out for a millisecond before he realized that his face was moving without his permission, he sucked it back in and straightened his back “I just had the best idea, you know what would be good for this case? A suit.” 

 

Dorris smiled knowingly, “I think that is a wonderful idea sir.” 

 

Theo rented a small apartment above a mobile wedding service, it had a small living room with a kitchen to the left and a messy bedroom to the right. The last time anyone had seen the floors of his bedroom was when they were installed. The suspected hardwood was littered with dirty clothes, discarded snack wrappers, and to-go containers. The mayhem centered around the main areas he resided in. 

 

The bed was covered in what the very brave would call ‘clean laundry’ with heaps spread around the floor of the room in piles, the smell indicating their level of cleanliness, the desk in the living room was surrounded by a concerning number of to-go containers, empty cups, and boxes of old case files with photographs taped to every inch of the wall behind the desk. On the opposite side of the living room was a comfortable looking recliner seated beside a small end table and across from a large television resting on a dusty stand in the corner.

 

The small kitchen was the cleanest room in the house, the sink was full of empty coffee-stained mugs, and dust-covered most of the remaining surfaces excluding the ragged coffee maker that looked like it was on its last leg. The floor was tiled in a black and white checkered pattern that would hypnotize Theo as he paced, contemplating particularly tough cases. 

 

As Theo walked into his apartment, a framed photo of a young girl with blond pigtails and a smile that dripped with joy caught his eye. He stopped moving, leaving the door wide open for a few moments, paralyzed. No, that is in the past, I don’t have time for this right now he thought to himself. He shook his head, forcing himself to look away, then headed to his bedroom with renewed purpose. 

 

Theo lunged over the ‘definitely dirty’ pile of clothes on the floor and reached into the top of his closet producing a worn leather suitcase. It was faded brown and covered in patches from all of the places he visited. He reached into the ‘clean pile’ of clothes on his bed and grabbed a handful of brightly colored cotton and polyester. He continued with the rest of his necessities, going through the motions as if on autopilot. Theo had to leave town for his job frequently and had the motions of packing down, seemingly memorized into his very muscles.  

 

Theo walked into the shockingly pink bathroom adjoining the bedroom and turned on the light. He saw his reflection in the small mirror and studied it for a few seconds then nodding, he said aloud to no one in particular, “okay, I see it now”, and started the shower. When he finished washing himself he stepped back in front of the insulting mirror and grabbed a comb. He combed his hair to the side, then deciding that he wasn’t the kind of person to have a comb-over he ran his fingers through reinvigorating the curls. He trimmed his beard to an acceptable amount of gruff then brushed his teeth. Once he’d combed and washed everything he looked back into the mirror and gave it an award-winning smile feeling victorious once again. then glimpsing the closet in the background, his smile abruptly disappeared. He grabbed his toothbrush and soaps with a frown and walked over to the suitcase. As he was zipping the suitcase up, he looked over to the closet with dread again. He despised suits. 

The worn-in Buick Lesabre sailed down the empty highway with the windows down and the speakers blaring “I want a girl with a short skirt and a loooong jacket” by Cake. The air conditioner had crapped out years ago, but the car still ran like a beast so Theo still drove it like one. His left hand tapped the faded tan body of the Lesabre to the beat of the song and his right hand repeatedly raised to his tie, tugged at the knot, then lowered back to the steering wheel. The heat made his ‘mandatory’ dress agonizingly uncomfortable, he hated taking jobs he had to ‘dress for’. Until he saw the look on Dorris’ face when she cashed the checks, that is. Solving this case could possibly keep that look on her face for the rest of the year, plus it was infinitely more interesting than anything else waiting for his attention, so he guessed he could deal with the tweed monstrosity currently squeezing the life from him for a few more hours. 

 

To take his mind off his ever dwindling air supply, Theo decided to go over what he’d learned in the case file he read over a delicious dinner of gas station sushi and the most exquisite fountain Dr. Pepper he’d had in recent memory. The victim was a male and that was almost everything they could divulge. There was no puncture in his skin, but his organs were in pieces all around his body. They found a section of his stomach near his calf and brains where his biceps should have been. They didn’t even have a guess as to what could have caused this without any kind of incision. 

 

Theo couldn’t imagine a scenario either, then realized that after all of the shit he’d seen, it probably wouldn’t be anything ordinary. What if he was an astronaut and he died in space, while drifting his organs could have moved around ... No, that’s ridiculous. Theo thought as ridiculous as this case? What could have cut them to pieces then? Okay, maybe not that, but something weird.

 

Theo’s hand raised, yet again, to his necktie adjusting the knot as he pulled into the long magnolia tree-lined drive of Shady Acres. The drive was about half a mile long, He assumed that the design was to ensure the Evergreen citizens felt more secure by keeping the patients out of view. But whatever the mentality behind the design of the facility, it was astonishing. The giant red-brick building sat in the middle of the most breathtaking garden Theo had ever seen. He parked his car and stepped out surveying the sight. 

 

There were as many plants as he could name, and hundreds more. There were all of your everyday plants that could be found in any nursery, but then there were some plants that Theo could have sworn were from some alien planet. Their vines twisted and hung from the gnarled lower branches of the magnolia trees and flaunted giant bright purple flowers with strange lime green swirls covering the petals. 

 

Theo imagined that the vines were strong enough to swing from, and for a split second considered testing his theory. Under the vines were a diverse array of grass and moss in every shade of green, yellow, orange, and red and some even seemed to emit glitter if Theo didn’t look directly at it. The last time he could remember being in this much awe was when he was a kid, when magic existed.

 

Immediately in front of the massive red brick structure was a sunlit circle of perfectly manicured grass, and several paths leading away from it like the rays of the sun. His eyes followed one of the paths and saw that it led to a dense looking forest. Another led to a path surrounded by brightly colored flower beds. The path that he’d wandered onto was surrounded by an odd kind of flower that he’d never seen before. It was about knee height with black leaves along the stem and bright orange flowers with tiny electric blue spheres orbiting just above each bud. “How in the fuc..” Theo began aloud as he reached out to poke the strange plant when he was suddenly knocked nearly off his feet by someone colliding into him.

 

Before he was even aware of what was happening, his arm thrust out to catch the invader just before her head smacked the stoney pathway. “Whoa there” he exclaimed as he helped the person restore her normal stance. 

 

The offender was just over five and a half feet tall. She had bright red hair that was jammed into a tight bun on the back of her head. Behind thick black glasses, she had dark eyes that never seemed to stay in one place for long and pale skin that almost matched her outfit, an ill-fitting white hospital uniform with a kaleidoscope of specks and smudges spanning the front and a patch on the right breast pocket indicating that it belonged to Shady Acres Behavioral Facility . Her face devoid of any makeup was quite stunning. He watched as her shock melted into confusion then finally settled on agitation. She looked down at her waist then without moving her head, eyed at him over her glasses. 

 

Realizing that his hand was still attached to the lady’s waist, Theo jerked it away in a quick motion. Then awkwardly smiling, he re-extended the offending hand towards her in a handshake he said, “Hi, I’m Theo. Do you, uhm, work here?”

 

Ignoring the handshake, she looked back down at her uniform patch, a clear indication that she did, in fact, work there. She gave Theo an mirthless look, “How’d you guess?” her expression softened and she sighed as if someone had just scolded her for the hundredth time. “Yes, I’m a cook here. Why were you laying on the ground?”

 

He lowered his rejected hand, pointing to the ground beside them, “Well I was looking at these flowers, I’ve never seen anything like them” he pointed to the strange plant with orbiting spheres.

 

Her eyes widened slightly and she blurted “Are you a visitor?” loud and abrupt enough to draw his attention away from the ground. 

 

“I’m here to investigate the murder that happened here a few months ago”

 

He watched her face as she visibly began to get lost in tragic thoughts for a few seconds, then shook herself and replaced it with her usual apathetic scowl, “I can show you where the office is”. Before he had a chance to respond, she turned around and started walking towards the massive ornate doors of Shady Acres. “Sure, that would be great,” Theo muttered to himself then grinned and ran to catch up to the unusual woman. 

 

Slightly out of breath, Theo asked, “So, what’s your name?”

“Does that matter?” Her eye contact didn’t deviate from her intended destination

 

“I don’t know, just trying to make conversation” It was like he was talking to a brick wall, a brick wall that had collided into him.

 

“Well, you can converse with the overlords” She pointed to the office in front of them. The office had a single dusty desk in the middle of the faded tile floor. Then, without a word, she turned around and began walking back the way they’d come. 

 

As Theo walked through the glass door into the office, he saw tan walls with a door to another room on the right and a worn couch to the left. The large desk in the middle of the room was metal and had to weigh at least 300 pounds. There was an old-looking computer monitor, though much newer than Dorris’, I really needed to do something about that he reflected. In addition to the computer, there were a few piles of paper and a single photo of two children. An elderly woman sat behind the desk. Her face was wide-eyed and expressionless and her hands sat on the keyboard motionless. 

 

“Um, hello?.. Ma’am?,” Theo said approaching the desk. 

 

The woman nearly jumped out of her chair, let out a massive snort, and cried out “OOH!” She began to compose herself as she noticed the large man standing in front of her desk, a stunned look on his face and his mouth slightly open. Then in her most sweet-tempered grandmotherly voice she recited, “Welcome to Shady Acres sir, how can I help you?” 

 

“Were your eyes ope...” Theo shook his head, remembering why he was standing there, “Hello ma’am, I’m Theo Aide. I was hired to investigate the murder that happened here a few months ago. Could you please point me in the direction of who I should talk to about it? Is it you?” His smile beamed brighter somehow and the old lady smiled. It looked unpracticed like she was still learning the ins and outs of human expression by mimicking emotions in the mirror. She was still working on amused delight he could see, but that just meant that she didn’t smile enough, and he was glad he could be the one to bring it out now.

 

“Are those your kids?” Theo asked trying to ease the awkwardness. 

 

The woman looked at him in unfettered confusion. “What?” she replied.

 

Theo pointed at the photo, realizing that this conversation wasn’t going the way he’d planned. She looked in the direction that Theo was pointing and jumped a little, as if remembering something very important. “Ah yes, those are my grandchildren” She smiled, then before he could ask anymore follow up questions, she continued “You can wait over there while I call Buck for you”. She smiled with her teeth clenched and pointed towards the leather couch. Theo got the hint and turned toward the waiting area. Right as he’d gotten comfortable, the door on the other side of the office swung open. 

 

an enormously jovial looking man came out of the doors with a flourish. Theo thought the only thing missing was a curly cue mustache and cape. He looked like an extravagantly delightful man, with rosy cheeks and a smile that could bring light to the darkest caves. Almost an exact opposite from his somewhat off-putting secretary.

 

“Well hello there!” He cheerfully bellowed, “My name is Buck, and I run this place, you must be Theo.” 

 

Not quite knowing how to take this drastic change in mood, but liking Buck all the more for it, Theo replied, “Yes sir, I’m here to investigate the murder that happened here last winter.”

 

“Oh thank god.” Buck muttered, visibly relieved at Theo’s presence. All we have come across are a series of dead ends.” Then thinking about his wording, Buck worriedly amended “Not to make light of the situation”.

 

Broadening his smile Theo proclaimed, “No no, I understand, and I am here to help in any way I can. Can you show me the crime scene?” 

 

“Absolutely!” Buck exclaimed, some of his previous radiance returning. 

 

When they arrived to the seclusion room, Theo saw that the crime scene tape hadn’t been removed in the months since the murder, so he ducked under them and entered into the barren white room. 

 

“It doesn’t look like anything happened here. Can you tell me more about what occurred?” Theo asked. 

 

“Well, there wasn’t anything to clean. There wasn’t any blood except a small amount around the man’s mouth, and nothing was broken into or out of place”

 

“And the police weren’t able to find out who he was?”

 

“No, nothing came up in the scans and the DNA machine broke when they tried to test his blood. They sent the blood to some branch of the government to test it and see why it’s different.” 

 

“You sure do know a lot about this, have the police been upfront with that much information?” 

 

“This is a small down Mr. Aide. We’re all we have, so when the police have information they share with me and when I have information I share with them. It makes the system run smoother.”

 

Theo had never witnessed a relationship between the police and their protected citizens like this. It was usually the opposite. Each side hides as much information as they can from the other. Making the process seemingly endless. Maybe Buck was right, the size of the town wouldn’t allow for such adversarial relationships. 

 

“Is there anything else that could help me investigate this case?” 

 

“I might have one clue, it’s a long shot though. How about we talk about it in the cafeteria. Amy is making cookies today!” Buck exclaimed the last two words with a simultaneous  hike in his eye brows and shoulders. 

 

Theo was surprised at the sudden change of subject, but he wasn’t about to turn down a free cookie that could make such a massive man giddy. So they were off again around the labyrinth of halls.

 

“Hi there Ed, is Amy around?” Buck asked a fat sweaty man as he was frantically trying to pry himself out of a chair that Theo actually felt sorry for.  

 

Finally getting to his feet, sweat dripping from his chin, he exclaimed “Hi sir, yes sir! She is in the back, I’ll go get her right now. Please, help yourself to some cookies, they're fresh out of the oven!” pointing to a plate near the end of the line. Buck rushed over to the plate grabbing three cookies and motioning Theo over to do the same. Then the pair headed to the closest empty table.

 

They sat down and Buck looked down at his cookies, Theo could almost see the entire world melting away around him. Theo thought it was a bit odd, but Buck did look like the kind of man who enjoyed good food, so he took a bite. 

 

Before the bite was fully in his mouth his own world vanished. Theo had never tasted anything like it, it looked like your average chocolate chip cookie, it smelled the same and felt the same, if a little fluffier than usual. But Theo was used to gas station tacos and beer, so he didn’t have much to go on. As soon as he bit into one Theo was sure that he had somehow met a genie who granted him a wish, and he’d used the wish to get the best cookie ever made, with no regrets. His eyes shut so that his other senses wouldn’t interfere with the euphoric rush happening in the lower half of his skull. 

 

Theo finally let one of his eyes crack open after he’d devoured all three cookies. He saw Buck doing exactly what he’d just finished doing. They’d finished at about the same time and Buck looked at Theo knowingly and claimed “She may be a bit rough around the edges, but damn that lady can cook.” 

 

“This is normal?”

 

“Yes, most of the patients swear that her food is what heals them.” he acknowledged without a doubt on his face that they were absolutely correct. 

 

“Well shit, I think I might agree with them if this is how all of her food is.” Theo mused, still amazed by what had just happened. Then he almost jumped out of his ill-fitting suit jacket when he noticed the woman from the garden sitting at the end of the table between the two men with a single eyebrow raised.

 

 

 

“She does that.” Buck chortled.

 

“Hello again Ms …” He could feel his face reddening.

 

She rolled her eyes and sighed, as if giving in “Amy” she finished.  

 

Theo tried his best to hide his grin, somehow understanding the significance of the  battle that he’d just won. “It's nice to meet you ma'am, my name is Theo Aide. Would you be so kind as to answer a few questions about the man that died here last winter? Any leads I can get will really help.” His usual charisma returning.

 

“I guess.” Amy said, looking away. Theo could tell that she wanted to help, but she didn’t want to seem excited to help. 

 

With a chuckle and a bit of a grunt Buck picked himself up and announced, “Well, I’ll let you two talk. Amy, show him the way out when y’all are done, will ya?” Then he headed back over to the plate grabbing a couple of cookies on his way out of the kitchen.

 

“You know I'm not a doctor, I’m just a cook. How can I help?” Amy probed.

 

“Buck said he had a long-shot clue that he was going to tell me, but he wanted to tell me in here.” Theo gestured around the cafeteria, “but he left before he said anything. Do you happen to know what he was talking about?”

 

Amy’s face went paler than it had been, which was surprising and a bit frightening. “Well, I told him about the calls. I thought he was the right one, but he couldn’t see.”

 

“What calls?”

 

“I got a few calls a couple of months before the murder asking for a man named Marsh. They said he was in room 284, the room where the body was found.”

 

“Did they say who they were?”

 

“She sounded like an old lady, and at the time I thought she was crazy, because room 284 is a seclusion room, no one is assigned to that room, and secondly, why was she calling the kitchen? Shouldn’t she call the receptionist to get in touch with a patient. I told Buck about one of the calls, but he wasn’t able to comprehend it, so many people here aren’t” she sighed. 

 

Theo stared at Amy, his mouth slightly open, “huh?” was all he was able to utter. 

 

Amy sat silently thinking for a few moments then declared, “Okay, I’ll go get my stuff. I’ll be back in just a minute”

 

Theo sunk in his seat, not knowing what the hell had just happened until Amy returned motioning him to follow her to the front of the building. 

 

As they walked out of the huge front doors Amy asked, “You got a car?”

 

“Uhm, yes, where are we going?”

 

“We're going to solve the case, but first I need to pack. So my house.”

 

“Wait what? What do you mean?” Theo stood there dumbstruck. He didn’t have partners. Partners let you down, the only logical choice was to work alone. Plus, you didn’t have to share your snacks. 

 

Clearly doing her best to dumb down the situation so that he could understand it, Amy slowly replied, enunciating every syllable, “You    told   me   that   you   needed   help   with   the   case.  So   I   am   coming   with   you   to   solve   it.”

 

“So, you are just going to leave your job and solve the case?” he asked, still trying to clarify what was happening. 

 

Speeding back up to her normal tempo, Amy scoffed, “this isn't a job, this is a hobby. Plus I'm pretty sure you'll need my help with this case.” Then slowing her words again, as if she was talking to a child she intoned “I   am   going   with   you   to   solve   this   murder.” 

 

“Well then.” Theo raised his eyebrows and watched in fascination as the strange woman walked to his car - without being told which one it was - then he ran to catch up with her. 

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