Unrevealed, page 1
Table of Contents
YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER
YOU’RE ONLY AS SICK AS YOUR SECRETS
THINGS AREN’T ALWAYS WHAT THEY SEEM
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR
My name is Jane Perry and I’m an alcoholic.
As I write that, it doesn’t feel like it belongs to me yet. I’m three months sober, so I’ll get another goddamn chip at the meeting tomorrow night. Can’t wait. The fucking thing can rattle around in the left pocket of my jeans and keep the other chips company.
This whole sobriety trip is still like a new shoe — too constrictive and rubbing my sole the wrong way. But I play along, go to the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, listen to the Basement People (as I call them) talk, and convince myself that I am powerless over alcohol and my life has become unmanageable. That’s the first step in AA, and it took me more than twenty years to make that leap.
But I also fight the notion that there are some alcoholics who really should tap a keg because they suck at sobriety. They are the ones who are wound so fucking tight that the least amount of stress kicks them into a frenzied orbit. That’s when they’re told to meditate or do yoga or take a long walk or breathe deeply. But the fact of the matter is, they really just need to get a load on, and it’s just too fucking bad they can’t stop popping a cap after one or two beverages.
Some nights, when I’m lying awake, I wonder if I’m one of those people who shouldn’t be a teetotaler. But then I remember that there’s no way I could stop at two beers or two shots of Jack Daniels. Hell, two drinks was a warm-up for me. I didn’t get my drink on officially until I hit numero six. In AA, you have to delve into why you drink and what triggers the need to disappear. I find it ironic that a group dedicated to uncovering the need to disappear has the word anonymous in its title. Shouldn’t they call it Alcoholics Identified? When you lay it on the table and really start pulling the layers off that goddamn onion, you discover that those of us who like to bend our elbows are really just wishing we could escape and become someone else––and we believe that if we became that someone else, the problems wouldn’t follow us. But then every time you go to a meeting, you’re reminded that the voices and the nightmares follow you no matter how radically you reinvent yourself.
I thought I was ready to reinvent myself after working my last case at Denver Homicide. I had nothing left in me. My adrenal glands had coughed up their last teaspoon of adrenaline. My world had turned on its ass, and I was forced to understand that there’s more to heaven and earth than we can perceive. I couldn’t digest everything that had happened, and so when my boss, Sergeant Morgan Weyler, offered me the job of sergeant working next to him, I knew I wasn’t ready to deal with it. But I still had to be a cop because I came out of the womb with a desire to solve crimes and to understand why people do evil deeds.
So, like I said, I reinvented myself and started my own PI agency, called JPI for Jane Perry Investigations. I’ve had the shingle out for a little less than a month, and I’m catching a few cases that don’t deal with dead bodies. The press I got after the Lawrence murder case helped get my name out there. My reluctant appearance on Larry King’s show still earns me free coffees at the Gourmet Grind. Even though I hated doing it, it was a necessary evil. So when I went from Detective Jane Perry at Denver Homicide to Jane Perry, Private Investigator, I hoped that all those shadows that haunted me as a Denver cop would disappear and I could be reborn and start fresh.
That all dovetails with the case I worked this week. The fallout still has me smoking more than my normal pack a day.
It started last Monday night, when I was sitting with the Basement People at the Methodist church. During the break, I went outside to smoke and this woman, who I thought was around fifty, sidled up to me.
“You’re Jane Perry, right?” she said, taking a hard suck of nicotine off her cigarette.
“Jane P.,” I corrected her. “Remember where we are?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, not giving a shit about anonymous protocol. “My name’s Ellen Brigham. I saw you on Larry King’s show.”
“Who the fuck didn’t?” I said, hoping to God she wasn’t going to ask me to sign a copy of the group members’ phone list.
Ellen went on to say that she’d heard I’d opened up my own PI office and wanted to know what I charged. I took one look at her shredded jeans, faded T-shirt and dirty tennis shoes and figured she couldn’t afford even half of my usual $175 an hour plus expenses.
Without answering her question, I asked another. “What do you need?”
“I was wondering if you can find dead people?”
“Sure,” I said, taking a hit off my cigarette. “I just go to any morgue or cemetery and there they are. Dead people.”
“I should rephrase that,” Ellen said, struggling with her thoughts. “My older sister, Marge Challis, she was last heard from back in the fall of 2001.”
I dropped my cigarette to the pavement and snuffed it out with the toe of my cowboy boot. “I need a lot more than that.”
“Like her last known location and the date she went missing.”
“That’s easy. She was in tower number one on 9/11.”
Well, that got my attention. I agreed to meet Ellen at my office the next day. She showed up early, dressed almost exactly the way she’d been outside the meeting. She said she’d taken the bus and walked five blocks to my office. She looked like she’d come right out of the homeless shelter. Her graystreaked brown hair was half-combed and her face appeared haggard. I hadn’t noticed the brown mole at the right corner of her bottom lip the night before.
After sitting down across from me, Ellen removed a large blue binder from her cloth bag. She was quick to apologize for her unkempt appearance, telling me she hadn’t slept a wink the night before. It had taken her six years to get the guts to talk to somebody.
“Can I smoke in here?”
“Denver building code says no. I say why the fuck not?” Ellen nervously rummaged through her bag, coming up empty-handed. After about a minute, I handed her a pack of Marlboros. Ellen took a cigarette out and handed the pack back to me. “Keep ‘em. So, what’s the story?”
Ellen lit up, took a meaningful drag and gathered her thoughts. “Her name is Marge Challis.”
“Is?” I questioned.
Ellen tilted her head. She struggled with the concept. “Was.”
“Challis her married name or — ”
“No, she never married.” Ellen spelled the last name out for me so I could make a note.
“So, your last name of Brigham is — ”
“I got married young and divorced. But I kept his name.…”
I noticed how Ellen’s voice inflected upward right then. It could be the sign of a lie but it could have also been nerves.
“Marge was having trouble back then.”
“What kind of trouble?” I asked.
“Emotional and financial.” Ellen looked me in the eye straight on for the first time. “She had a 9:00 a.m. job interview for a secretarial position in tower one. If she didn’t get the job, she was basically gonna be kicked out of her apartment. She was drowning in credit card debt. Life had become unlivable.”
I noticed that when Ellen talked about her sister, she seemed to have an outstanding grasp of what her sister had gone through.
Ellen continued. “Marge always wanted to be successful. Marry the good guy, live in the nice house, maybe have a kid. But deep down she never thought she was good enough to deserve any of that.” Ellen took a deep drag on her cigarette. “This is real hard for me.”
“Take your time.”
“How old was she in the fall of 2001?”
“Twenty-eight?” I questioned.
“So, she’d be thirty-four now?”
“Yeah. That’s right.”
“And she’s your older sister?”
Ellen shrugged. “Yeah. What’s the problem?”
The woman sitting across from me looked fifty. Her face was gaunt and aging rapidly. The gray in her hair lent even more maturity. I wanted to be diplomatic but diplomacy has never been my forte. “How old are you?”
Ellen hesitated slightly. “Thirty-three.”
Good God, I thought. Talk about rode hard and put away wet. I thought I looked like shit for thirty-five, but the woman sitting across from me had obviously experienced one helluva stressful life to look that bad at thirty-three. “You’re thirty-three?” I said, just to make sure my hearing wasn’t going.
She could see that I was confused. “Marge and I are Irish twins,” Ellen offered, using the term for siblings born less than twelve months apart.
“Any other siblings?”
Ellen’s eyes welled with tears. “There was a brother. Frank. He was really good to Marge. He gave her money when she was broke and never expected it to be paid back. He’d talk to her any hour of the day or night for as long as she needed to talk. He’d tell her to keep positive and that she deserved a better life.”
Ellen’s eyes scanned the carpet. She took another drag on her cigarette. “Yeah. Right after 9/11. Car crash.”
The first thing I thought was, what were the odds of losing two siblings in that short a period? The second thought was how tragic life could be. Jesus, no wonder Ellen was a drunk. “You say Frank was good to Marge. Was he good to you?”
“What?” She seemed unprepared for that question.
“We all need a decent person to talk to who actually gives a shit. Did Frank give you the same pep talks he gave your older sister?”
“Well, sure…uh, yeah. He was a good guy.” Ellen appeared flustered. “I’m not trying to say he didn’t help me. He did. But we’re not here to talk about me. We’re here to talk about Marge and the possibility of…”
I sensed a lot of nerves kicking in right then. I leaned forward, clasping my hands on my cluttered desk. “Of what?”
“That maybe she didn’t die.” The words fell like stone. Ellen pulled her large blue binder to her lap, opened it and rifled through a disorganized heap of pages. “She was on the sixteenth floor. Her interview was with a bank.” Ellen found the page she was looking for. “The plane struck tower one at 8:46 a.m. It hit floors ninety-three to ninety-nine. No one above those floors survived. Below the crash line, approximately seventy-two die but over four thousand survive! Tower one doesn’t collapse until 10:28 a.m. Being on the sixteenth floor, even if the elevators didn’t work, she could have walked down sixteen floors real quick — ”
“How do you know all the details about your sister’s schedule that day?”
Ellen looked taken aback. “Well, we talked.” Her eyes drifted to the side. “We didn’t talk a lot but I knew about her interview. She called me a few days before and told me about it.” Ellen’s chin quivered as her mouth went dry. This wasn’t just nerves, I realized. This was outright fear. “You got some water?”
I grabbed the cleanest glass I could find and filled it with some bottled water. Ellen drank it like she’d just run a marathon in 110-degree heat.
I wanted to gauge my next question carefully. “Did she call you…from the tower?”
Ellen looked at me. “No. She called Frank.”
“No. She called Frank.” Ellen hung her head. “He told me what she said. She called him right after 10:00 a.m…. right after tower two collapsed. She told him how she saw the debris hit the windows, obscuring everything outside. And the way the ground shook, like bombs were goin’ off all around her. And…how they should have evacuated right away but she was scared.” Ellen’s hand trembled. “She told him she wasn’t sure if she’d get out alive. And that she loved him. That he’d been the only good thing in her life. And that this was a sign from God.”
There must have been some serious rift between Ellen and her sister, I thought, for Marge to say that Frank was the “only good thing” in her life. “Wait a second,” I said. “She had twenty-five minutes or so from when she called Frank to get out safely and walk down sixteen floors — ”
“Maybe she figured she wasn’t worth saving.” Ellen seemed to be in another world.
I sat back. “What are you saying? She made a split decision to commit suicide in the tower?”
Ellen was silent for almost a minute. “Her life was so messed up. Maybe she decided at that moment that Marge Challis needed to die.”
I watched Ellen’s face fight the words she just said. But I also knew that even when people say they don’t want to live, it doesn’t necessarily mean they want to die. The will to survive is programmed into our DNA. I knew from my own dark past that just because I’d wanted to check out a few times, it didn’t mean that the driving force to sustain my life hadn’t taken over. You may hate life but you may fear death even more.
“So, she tells Frank that the terror attack is a sign from God and then what?” I asked.
Ellen’s eyes filled with tears. “She told him she loved him and that she had to make a difficult decision.”
“To live or die.”
Ellen nodded weakly.
“She hung up. And no one ever heard from Marge after that.”
“Ellen,” I said cautiously, “I don’t mean to be insensitive. But why are you here?”
“I needed you to hear my story. We’re anonymous at the meetings. But I wanted you to know about me and what happened to Marge. I’ve never told anyone about it.”
“I’m not. They tell us at AA to make amends for past wrongs. To face people you’ve hurt and let them know that you weren’t thinking clearly when you were using and that,” she choked on her tears, “that I shouldn’t have let Marge die.”
“But you didn’t have any control over that. Marge called Frank from the tower. Not you.”
“What I mean is I should have helped her more. I should have believed in her more. I should have filled her up with hope instead of…” Her thoughts drifted.
“Instead of what?”
“Making her think she wasn’t worth saving!”
And that, I decided, was why Ellen looked like she was fifty. She and her sister obviously had a falling-out, with probably minimal contact toward the end of Marge’s life. Although, I recalled, Ellen said she did talk to her a few days prior to the job interview. I ruminated on it and deduced that the inevitable guilt and all the what-if’s had flooded Ellen’s head for six painful years. At that moment, I realized that Ellen wasn’t talking to me because she needed a PI. Ellen needed someone to confess to. I was a priest and Ellen was confessing her sins. I took a breath and did my best to assume the role. “So, if Marge was alive today, what do you think she’d be doing?”
Ellen looked at me with soulful eyes. “She’d be clean and sober. I’d make sure of that. She’d still be searching but she’d be trying to get her life together. She’d be…reaching out to people, like I’m reaching out to you.” Ellen considered the question further. “Frank wouldn’t be dead either.”
“How’s that possible? He died in a car crash.”
Ellen’s gaze moved from me to the side. “Well, after Marge died, Frank got preoccupied a lot. His mind wandered and, well, her death impacted him. I’m sure that’s why he wasn’t paying attention when he slid on the ice.”
“Where’d he live?”
“Vermont.” Ellen smiled at a pleasant memory. “He wa
“If there’s a heaven, Ellen, then they’re together and he knows how much he helped Marge.” Shit, now I really did sound like a goddamn priest.
“Right,” she whispered, as if she didn’t believe that Marge and Frank were shooting the breeze in the afterlife. “I just wish…”
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “I just wish.”
It was an odd statement, but I let it go. Ellen closed the blue binder and put it back in her bag. “Thank you for listening to me.” She squashed out the spent cigarette in my ashtray.
“What do I owe you?”
Ellen looked a bit shocked. “Wow. Thank you.” She got up and walked toward the door, let out a nervous long breath and then turned back to me. “What if she got out? What if she walked away from the towers and kept walking? What if she’s out there, scared to death and wishing she could make everything right?”
Ellen sounded delusional at that point. But I was also sure that the same thought had crossed the minds of others who lost family on 9/11, since they never saw their loved one’s body and had closure. For them and for Ellen, there was the comforting fantasy that somehow their nearest and dearest were out there, lost but alive.
She stared at me, and it seemed she was trying to get me to understand something with her mournful gaze. But all I could see then was regret and sorrow.
I couldn’t shake Ellen’s visit for five days. There was something about her that haunted me. I picked up the AA member phone list once with the idea of calling her but she wasn’t on it. Maybe she didn’t have a phone, although that would complicate her life when she had to reach her sponsor. But sponsors certainly weren’t mandatory. I didn’t have one. I figured by the looks of her, she was probably so broke that she didn’t own a cell phone.
Other author's books:
- Betty's (Little Basement) Garden
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