Sergeant Detective Jane Perry rolled to an abrupt stop in front of the gas pumps and checked the time. 7:17. It had been exactly seventeen minutes since she left her house on Milwaukee Street in Denver and headed south on I-25 but it felt like hours. Lately, reality had revolved in a surreal sphere, and Jane was looking forward to jumping off the mind-bending roller coaster and getting some heartfelt perspective on her life. But all that would have to wait now.
If Jane were still a smoker, she would have extinguished four cigarettes since she left her house. Even though it had been over eleven days since she was sucker punched by the news, the rawness of that first moment when she saw the truth in black and white was still fresh and stung like venom, hot and unforgiving. Nicotine would soften the edges but she’d made a promise to herself to quit, so she’d have to figure out how to steer through this oozing emotional wound without the comfortable dulling of pain.
That was proving more difficult as the days progressed. In one moment, Jane’s world not only blew apart, but her entire identity split with it. She’d spent the past days dredging up her turbulent young life yet again—propelling her heart back into the chaos—searching for clues in the multitude of unspoken words and wondering how she missed the torturous secret her mother chose to keep. Unfortunately, her memories had been fogged by time and over twenty years of abusing the bottle. If there was any sign of what was hidden long ago, it was now buried in layers of regret and omission.
Jane rolled down her window and adjusted the side mirror on her ’66 ice blue Mustang. She took in a deep breath, hoping it would abate her temp- tation for tobacco. The cool, mid-April breeze belied the promise of spring, even though March and April were known in Colorado as the wettest and snowiest months of the year. As Jane canvassed the flattened landscape so common for this section of the state, there was still no sign of the Isis of rebirth—no lush green panoramas to sink her teeth into and inhale the beauty. All that lay in eyesight were varying shades of taupe, edged by the blacktop of the frontage road. How was it possible for anything verdant to emerge from this lifeless topography? The sheer energy it took for Colorado to rise from the frozen ashes of winter never ceased to amaze and confound Jane. While the rains had abated over the last twenty-four hours, an uncommon moisture still clung in the normally dry morning atmosphere that lent a dampened spirit to her journey.
Jane leaned outside and caught her reflection in the side mirror. No, it couldn’t be, she thought. Moving closer to the mirror, she parted her shoulder length brown hair and found a cluster of gray. When did this happen? Had she been so preoccupied with the events of her last case that she failed to notice the preamble to death painted on her crown? She studied her brown eyes in the mirror and noted the bags underneath—badges of a hard fought life where sacrifice trumped freedom. Crinkling her nose, Jane forced the lines around the corner of her eyes to deepen. She could chalk it up to too much smiling but anyone who knew her would disagree since Jane Perry’s personality was not synonymous with grinning. She let out a hard sigh of resignation. How in the hell did she get so goddamned old in just thirty-seven years?
She leaned over and locked her Glock in the glove compartment on top of her badge. Even though her anticipated seven-day trip was purely personal, she never traveled without her service weapon. It was an anchor and a steel security blanket. Swiping her credit card, she selected the highest-grade gasoline for her cherished classic ride and filled the tank. A gust of wind blew across the service station, forcing Jane to button the collar of her leather jacket. She turned and surveyed the smattering of vehicles filling up at this early hour. Jane had always been a student of observation; always keenly taking in the minute details in front of her. That ability ran on autopilot and served her well as a cop when she had to recreate a homicide scene.
But lately, she’d taken to counting objects that were grouped together. It had almost become an obsession; something to indulge her addictive mind. At that moment, there were three cars, including hers, at the islands. There were seven islands, each with three options for fuel. But four of those fuel pumps were covered with yellow tape, marking them out of order. So, readjusting it, there were seventeen fuel handles available. Ironic, she mused. When she rolled into the gas station and looked at the clock, it was 7:17, which was seventeen minutes after she left her house. Odd.
She’d come to know these as syncs, clusters of seemingly disparate words, digital times on a clock, names, symbols or numbers that kept cropping up in such a way to herald a hidden message. While some of the syncs had been easy to decipher, most proved mystifying, leaving Jane to feel she either wasn’t smart enough to understand the significance or that the message itself wasn’t ready to be heard. This concept may have occupied illogical territory, but even the most logical human being has been guilty of latching onto a sign from above or below in an attempt to give meaning to an experience.
As much as Jane Perry primarily used her logic, these last few years had introduced her to phenomena that defied rational sense. The more she fought it, the more the strangeness attacked like a serpent, demanding to be acknowledged. More than anything, she couldn’t escape the weird coincidences and syncs that plagued her daily life and infested nearly every homicide she worked. The constant dovetailing of events was so common now that she no longer questioned the mystical belief of entanglement with other humans, both dead and alive.
The fuel pump clicked but Jane kept squeezing the handle in an attempt to force every last drop of gas into her tank. She noted the signage on the pump warning against “topping off” your tank and some reference to “creating a cleaner, greener planet.” Fuck that shit, she thought. She had a long drive in front of her and her hungry Mustang needed to be fed as much liquid “grass” as possible. When she finally filled it to overflowing, Jane removed the nozzle and hooked it back on the pump. Just as she did, she sensed the presence of the attendant behind her, ready to make a smartass comment. She turned, ready to verbally tackle him with her well-worn bravado. Yet to her astonishment, there was no one there. Jane spun around and scanned the immediate area, looking for any sign of an attendant in the vicinity but she came up empty. She chalked it up to a lack of sufficient caffeine, even though she’d already knocked back three cups of coffee in the last two hours. While gas station java swill wasn’t her first choice, it would have to do.
Inside the small Quik Mart convenience store, Jane found four aisles stuffed to the gills with every known junk food. Besides the corpulent woman behind the cash register who crunched on a greasy pork rind, the only other occupants were a beefy biker and a scrawny teenage boy who was loading up on enough “crack in a can” energy drinks to keep him awake until he stroked out. A small television, located above the cash register, was turned on with the sound muted. Jane briefly glanced up as a booking photograph of a heavyset man filled the screen. His wavy brown, scraggly hair matched his unkempt beard and mustache. His name flashed underneath the photo: Harlan Kipple, age forty-two.
Jane knew all about Kipple, although she’d never met him. For almost fourteen days, he had been enjoying “three hots and a cot,” courtesy of the Denver penal system. She would have caught the case but Kipple committed his crime southeast of Denver in Limon, Colorado and was only kicked to Denver because of his heinous, high profile crime and to insure he was secured prior to trial.
Kipple, an Interstate truck driver with only one past infraction of transporting illegal prescription drugs in his rig for his brother-in-law, had been accused of the macabre butchering of an unidentified black prostitute. It was your classic open and shut case since Kipple had been found in a dingy Limon motel, passed out in bed with the working girl, clutching a bloody hunting knife and covered in her blood. To make the case even more depraved, the poor girl had been gutted like a deer and her head cracked open, leaving her brain draped outside of her skull. As expected, drugs were involved and that part of the murder made Harlan Kipple nefariously notorious. Lab reports showed he injected the girl with ketamine hydrochloride—a PCP analogue used as an anesthetic in veterinary medicine but gaining popularity on the street as a date rape drug. Known on the club scene as “Special K,” “Super K,” “KO” and “Make Her Mine”, ketamine was distinguished from other date rape drugs in that it produced a dissociative anesthesia, rendering the victim detached from all bodily sensations but often aware of what was being done to them and yet paralyzed and unable to respond. Picture being encased in a glass ball, while watching the unthinkable happen to you and having no way to fight back. It was the ultimate torture because if the victim survived the attack, they usually suffered from amnesia but were prone to subsequent, suddenly triggered vivid hallucinations that replayed the rape or attack, forcing the victim to question their reality. To Jane, ketamine was the epitome of a true mind-fucking drug that left its twisted mark on survivors for many years. As for the unsuspecting prostitute that Kipple mutilated, her last minutes were likely spent watching herself being raped and then filleted open until the grace of God separated her body from her soul.
But the incongruity of Kipple’s case didn’t end there. About two years prior to the grisly murder, he had been given a life-saving heart transplant—a surgery that nearly ensured him another healthy two decades of life. The fact that those years would now be spent confined to a cell and probably end in execution was God’s little irony, Jane deduced. What a waste of a good heart, she recalled thinking when the story broke.
Kipple’s face lingered on the television inside the Quik Mart. The press named him “Kipple, the Heartless Killer.” Nothing works like an obvious alliteration when you’re selling freaks to the public. Jane stared at his photo, searching out the darkness that always lingered behind the eyes of all psychos. But Kipple was a tough nut to crack. Instead of the penetrating evil, there was a strange softness and quiet sweetness that projected from his photo. Good God, was she losing her touch?
“Can I help you?”
Jane turned away from the screen to find the cashier staring at her, a speck of pork rind dotting her upper lip. “I need strong coffee.”
The woman pointed her fat finger toward the back of the store, in the corner next to the bank of refrigerated shelves. Jane glanced outside to her Mustang and then quickly walked to the rear of the store. She selected the strongest brew available and the largest cup, filling it to the rim. Searching for the sugar, she tipped over the plastic bowl that held the packets. She counted them as she put them back in the bowl. Seventeen. She snapped the lid on the cup and carried it around the corner of the aisle, staring momentarily at the array of artery-clogging snack foods that lined the shelves. She looked up briefly to glance at her waiting Mustang before searching the selections for anything remotely healthy. It was another promise Jane made to herself after recently escaping what she assumed was a death sentence. She found herself drawn to the pine nuts, even though she never would have made that choice a few weeks ago. She squinted to read what was written across the front of the bag in green lettering: ENJOY THESE NUGGETS OF NATURE FROM THE PINECONE! The price was right for the small bag, a buck seventy.
Jane grabbed all eight bags on the shelf as she felt the burly biker walk behind her. For some strange reason, he hovered awfully close. She allowed the intrusion to continue for another few seconds before spinning around. But there was no one standing there. The biker was, in fact, on the opposite side of the store. Jane stood still, sensing a muscular thickness around her; a phantasm imprint that lacked clarity. A few years ago, she would have ignored this curious feeling but she’d learned the hard way that the more she pretended it away or chalked it up to booze, flashbacks, PTSD or lack of sleep, the more dynamic it became.
Jane waited, looking into nothingness yet still clearly aware of the unassailable presence around her. She started to turn right but was drawn to the left. Moving around the aisle, Jane stood at the long magazine rack that framed the front windows. Cradling the eight bags of pine nuts, she made her way toward the cashier when she heard the soft brush of a magazine fall to the vinyl floor behind her. Jane turned to find a copy of “The Q”—a glossy, men’s sports and outdoor magazine—splayed open, cover side up. She leaned down, picked up the magazine and replaced it on the shelf. Turning toward the cashier, Jane took a step and heard the magazine fall behind her again. She stopped. The phantasmal stickiness gripped her like a defiant child demanding her attention. Jane carefully turned toward the magazine, finding it sprawled in the same position as before. She leaned down, turned it over and stared at the advertising found on page seventeen. Against an indigo background lay a mountainous landscape with snowcapped peaks. Featured in the foreground was a woman’s modest wristwatch placed upon what looked like a red satin cloth that stretched from one side of the page to the other. The hands on the watch pointed to 11:17. In the bottom left hand corner, there was an illustration of the “great and powerful” Oz from The Wizard of Oz peeking out from his purple curtained area. In bold, red block letters next to the image, it read:
IT’S TIME FOR A CHANGE, DOROTHY.
Jane searched on the page for the product or service being advertised and came up empty. She figured “time” related to the woman’s wristwatch and Dorothy correlated to The Wizard of Oz but the rest of the ad was nonsensical. There were no website links or phone numbers that related to whatever they were selling. Avant-garde garbage. That’s what Jane deduced as she inexplicably tucked the magazine under her arm and walked to the cashier. Suddenly, the presence that had hung so closely to her disappeared.
“That all?” the chunky woman asked.
“That’ll do it.”
The woman tapped her greasy finger on a greeting card stand to the left of the checkout. “We got Easter cards on closeout.”
Jane regarded the woman with an incredulous stare. Did she actually believe Jane looked like a woman who would send someone an Easter card? Jane glanced at the nearly empty card stand and saw a glittery greeting with the Archangel Gabriel blowing his trumpet. Who in the hell sends Easter cards? Jane peered around the card stand and saw liters of spring water. She grabbed four bottles and added them to her pile. “Okay. That’ll do it.”
“Thirty-three even.” Jane handed the woman a fifty.
The woman opened the register and handed Jane’s change back to her. “Seventeen’s your change.”
“What in the fuck is going on?“ Jane muttered.
“Excuse me?” the woman asked, offended.
“Not you.” Jane’s mind was elsewhere.
The woman dumped the purchases into a plastic bag.
“Uh-huh,” she replied, still affronted. “Hey…” Jane was still lost in thought as she tucked the seventeen dollars into her wallet. “Hey,” the woman stressed, leaning forward.
Jane awoke from her slumber. “What?”
The woman pointed out the front window. “Isn’t that your car driving away?”
Jane turned around just in time to see the back wheels of her ice blue Mustang squeal out of the parking lot. She raced outside, instinctively grabbing for her Glock and coming up empty. The only detail she could make out was the back of a man’s head and his thick neck.