Fiction,  Issue 1

No Time for Obsession by Andy McClung

The apartment is remarkable in its orderliness but depressing in its utilitarianism, exactly as Katherine Doyle had imagined it. Well, at least those few times over the last fifteen years that she had bothered to think about where her father lived.

The suit, her father’s only one, is easy enough to find. More than a decade out of style but clean and pressed under a thin plastic bag, it’s hanging in the apartment’s sole closet. Her mother had suggested buying a new suit, but Katherine refused. She may not have spoken to her father in fifteen years, but unless he had drastically changed his ways, she is certain the frugal man would not have wanted that. Besides, Katherine believes her mother gave up the right to have input on such things back when she divorced him.

Katherine grabs the one dress shirt and the lone tie in the closet as well. She breathes a sigh of relief at not seeing her dad’s old dress uniform, only now admitting to herself that she’d been worried about what to do if she found it. After all, nobody loved being a cop more than Sidney Doyle, but Katherine didn’t know if they had let him keep the uniform–or if her father had even wanted to keep it–after they kicked him off the force. If it had been in that closet she would have had to consider taking it instead of the suit.

Having found the suit, which was the only reason she had come here, Katherine heads for the door. That only takes four steps, the place is so small. Katherine marvels that anyone could live off one-third of a police detective’s pension. She knows that before Social Security kicked in he used to make a little extra money from occasional security guard and private detective jobs, but still. Well, Katherine thinks with a shrug, Dad’s frugality came in handy. The total value of everything in the apartment wouldn’t even come close to the price of the business outfit she’s wearing.

When Katherine opens the door she is startled to find a man standing there. “Who are you?” she asks.

“Uh…I’m the superintendent.” The man holds up a large ring of keys as if it’s some form of identification. “Who are you?”

“Katherine Doyle, Sid’s daughter. Did you know he died yesterday?” Katherine is surprised about how matter-of-factly she just said that.

The superintendent looks down and shakes his head. “No. Sorry to hear it. I knew he was in the hospital, though. I was the one who called 911 the other day. I came up to check his thermostat because he said it wasn’t working right. He didn’t answer the door so I let myself in and he was lying in the floor. Right over there.” The man pauses, staring at a spot on the worn carpet. “Looked like a heart attack.” His eyes return to Katherine. “Was it a heart attack?” Katherine nods, the man’s sorrowful expression making her regret her callous manner in breaking the news. They must have been friends. She is considering making an apology when he says, “Lady next door heard you in here and called me. She thought you might be a burglar or something.”

“Yes, well, thank you for being attentive.” Katherine pauses awkwardly. She doesn’t want to deal with putting her father’s affairs in order just yet, but this guy seems to be in no hurry to leave. “I assume the rent is paid up, so I’ll settle things with the manager before the end of the month. I’ll be sure to mention how attentive you were.”

“Yeah. Thanks.” The super scratches his head. “Uh, listen, Katie—”

“Katherine.”

“What?”

“Katherine. My name is Katherine.”

“Oh. Sorry.” He shrugs. “Your dad always called you Katie.”

For a moment, Katherine is speechless. Not having spoken to–and rarely even having thought about–her father for so long, she’d never considered that he might still talk about her to other people. He was the only person who called her Katie. He was the only person she allowed to call her Katie.

“You’re the lawyer, right?” Asks the superintendent.

Katherine nods and wonders what her crazy father would have said about her to this man. Did this guy know that Katherine and Sidney had parted ways when she was halfway through law school? Had Sidney confessed that as a lifelong cop he just couldn’t stand that his only child had decided to become a criminal defense attorney?

“Is there something I can help you with?” Katherine’ words sound harsher than she means them to.

“Uh… well,” the man shifts his weight from foot to foot. “I was wondering if I could step inside and get a videotape Sid borrowed a while back.”

Katherine isn’t sure if she can trust this man, but he already has a key to the place. If he’s a thief he can come in any time he wants. She quickly decides that she’s over-thinking the situation. There’s nothing in the apartment of any value for the guy to steal, and there’s nothing there that either she or her mother wants. She forces a half smile. “Of course. Come on in.”

Katherine follows the super to what was supposed to be an eat-in kitchen but was obviously Sid’s work space: tiny desk, several banker boxes in orderly stacks, an ancient computer, a much newer printer/copier/fax machine combination connected to the computer by cable, and an absolutely stuffed bookcase. She is surprised at the number of books and movies she sees. She remembers her father watching the news and reading the paper every day, but almost never picking up a book or watching a movie.

To the super, she says, “You can take whatever books and movies you want.” Katherine thinks that whatever the super doesn’t want them, she’ll donate them to the local library or a retirement home. Or just throw away.

On the rare occasion Sid had read a book or watched a movie, she recalls, it had always been a western. But as she looks over the bookcase she doesn’t see the expected names of Grey, Portis, and L’Amour on the spines of the paperbacks. Instead she sees a variety of authors from multiple genres: Heinlein, Lewis, Koontz, Turtledove, Ellison, and several others. The lower shelves are full of hardback books. She can tell what some of them are about from their titles or authors: science, physics, Einstein, Sagan, Hawking. There are more, though, that have names and titles she’s never seen before.

If Katherine had stepped into the kitchen and seen all this upon entering the apartment earlier, she would have wondered if she was in the right place. She glances around again, for the first time not looking for anything, but for the first time truly looking at the apartment: her father’s home.

And she realizes that she had no idea who her father had become.

“Got it.” The voice startles her out of her pondering.

Katherine turns to see the super standing over an open box on the floor. Inside are several VHS tapes and DVDs, many of which look as if they came from the bargain bin of the local discount store. She steps closer and reads some titles. Like the books, they seem to be from a hodgepodge of genres. In a glance, she sees Schwarzenegger wearing sunglasses and holding a big handgun, a kid in a puffy vest standing beside a DeLorean, that guy who got paralyzed dressed in old-timey clothes, and one apparently about monkeys. The super tenderly holds a battered VHS box with a weird silhouette of a guy on a motorcycle.

“Sid borrowed that from you?”

“Yeah. A while back.”

“He used to only like westerns.”

The super’s face lights up. “This is a western. Well, kind of. That’s why I showed it to him. It was a few years ago. Sid came down to my place to watch the baseball game, but it got rained out. I knew he liked westerns, and this was the closest I had, so we watched it.”

“What do you mean it’s ‘kind of’ a western?”

The super grows more excited. “It’s about this guy riding his motorcycle in the desert and he stumbles into a government experiment and gets sent back in time to the old west. It’s one of my favorites. I tried to tell your dad about it a few times and he wasn’t interested. To be honest I think he was just being polite when he agreed to watch it with me that day, but he ended up really liking it. He asked to borrow it and probably watched it three or four times in a row. After that was when he started getting all these.” The super waves a hand at the loaded bookcase.

Science fiction? Katherine is amazed that a person’s taste in entertainment could change so drastically. She says, “On second thought, can… uh… can you leave all this alone for now? I’d like to look through it. I promise you’ll get back anything here that’s yours. In fact, you can have any of it you want. The furniture as well.” She remembers the rickety-looking sedan she had passed outside, the same car her dad owned had eighteen years ago when he was kicked off the force. It hadn’t been new even then. “Maybe you can ask around and see if one of the other tenants wants to buy his car?”

“Uh… okay.” The super hesitates a moment, clearly debating whether or not to say something. Finally, he blurts. “Look, I know it’s none of my business, but you should at least take that picture. I know Sid would have wanted you to.”

Katherine follows the pointing finger and sees the framed photograph, the only one in the place. Dad in his dress uniform, Katherine in cap and gown, standing under a tree with arms around each others’ shoulders and identical grins on their faces; Katherine’s college graduation, before she started law school. Dad had still been on the force then, still free from the obsession that would begin to drive him crazy just a few weeks later. Her parents had still been married too, her mother competed with that obsession for three years before she kicked him out. “Yeah, thanks, I will.”

The superintendent places the videotape on the desk and turns to leave, but hesitates once again. “I, uh… I know that you and your dad weren’t close. And I know he was pretty weird about, you know, that one case. But he really was a great guy and he loved you and your mother a lot. For what it’s worth… uh… he never… well, he never had any women up here or anything. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but it would to me.” He leaves without another word, closing the door behind him.

Katherine Doyle drapes the suit over the back of the worn recliner and sits at her father’s desk. She has no time for her father’s obsession, but the superintendent’s words force her to think about “that one case.”  A newly-elected city councilwoman was murdered for no apparent reason. She had been taking out the trash one night when someone cut her throat with a broken bottle. She bled to death in her own yard. The councilwoman, who called herself “a local girl with humble roots”, was level-headed and charismatic. She had a good rapport with every demographic, and people from all sides of the political arena really liked her. The only people who had any problem with her were some entrenched city and state politicians who didn’t like her outspoken ideas about rooting out corruption, under-the-table financial dealings, and wasteful spending in the city government. Sid Doyle had liked her but had been vocal in his doubt that just one member of a twelve-member city council could do much to change anything. This councilwoman has been mostly forgotten now, but Katherine remembers agreeing with most everybody else in town back then: if this woman hadn’t been killed that night, she would probably have passed through the mayor’s and governor’s offices and be in the Oval Office in less than twenty years.

“Hmmm,” mutters Katherine, quickly doing the math from the most recent presidential election. “She might even be the president right now.”

Sidney Doyle had the bad luck to be the homicide detective assigned to councilwoman’s murder case. The only clue to the killer’s identity had been one bloody shoe print left behind on a cereal box from the garbage, but that lone clue had led the dogged detective nowhere.

As Katherine digs through the boxes and files, a long-held assumption is affirmed. She was painfully aware that her dad’s obsession with the case didn’t end when he was kicked off the force. Now she saw that it had not ended when he was kicked out of his marriage and home either. Katherine shakes her head. Even though his obsession with solving this case had cost Sidney Doyle everything–his reputation, his career, his family, his friends, his home, his sanity–he never let it go.

Sidney had been fired because he neglected his other cases. He had ignored direct orders to move on. There had been complaints of harassment made against him from potential suspects. Eventually he had been put on medical leave and ordered to see the department psychologist. But nothing could dissuade him from pursuing the case. It was the only case he never closed. And it was the case that he had allowed to end his career with the police department.

And evidently he never stopped working on it.

Katherine flips through page after page of case notes. Sidney had recorded hundreds of leads so anorexic they were barely more than guesses. No witnesses had ever come forward, and since home security cameras were rare back then there were no photos. No viable suspects had ever been named, but Sid had speculated on paper how and why dozens of different people could have done it. And he had ended up dismissing each one.

Digging deeper, Katherine discovers that Sidney sent an image of that lone shoe print to dozens of crime labs as well as to every shoe manufacturer he could find, from giant corporations to upscale custom cobblers with limited clientele. He had begged major newspapers across the country to run photos of it. Some had, judging from the clippings she finds. But no one ever identified the shoe the print came from, much less pointed him toward someone who might have been wearing that shoe on the night of the murder.

There are hundreds of letters and faxes with photos of that shoeprint. In one file she finds dozens of faxes from one of Sid’s old buddies in the crime lab right there in town. She realizes that, on the fifteenth of every month, Sid had faxed this guy the image and asked him to check again to see if that shoe’s sole pattern was in any computer anywhere. The most recent date she sees is just three days ago, the day he died. With a weary sigh, Katherine realizes that pointlessly sending another fax of that stupid shoeprint might very well have been her father’s last act before he died. For every month except this one a fax had come back reporting zero hits.

Her back stiff, Katherine stands and stretches. When she checks her watch she’s shocked to learn that she has been in the apartment for almost two hours. With a wry smile, she experiences the first glimmer of empathy with her father’s obsession. This case can indeed suck a person in.

Especially that shoe print.

She looks at the eight-by-ten photo of it pinned to the tiny corkboard on the kitchen wall. Why were no matches ever found? Even custom shoemakers keep records. And if it was custom, why would someone who could afford custom-made shoes commit a pointless, random murder? It looks as if Sid sent that photo to the FBI, the RCMP, the US Army’s CID, the U.K.’s National Crime Agency, Mexico’s Federal Investigation Agency, and some foreign agencies that Katherine has never heard of. Some of them apparently never replied, but those who did all said the same thing: no hits, no matches. It’s as if that shoe simply has never existed.

The question nagging at Katherine Doyle’s curiosity the most, though, is that of her father’s changed taste in movies and books. She moves to the bookshelf and boxes and starts reading back covers, dust jackets, tables of contents, and video boxes. At first glance the works seem to run the gamut: thrillers, action, westerns, comedy, hard science, popular science, conspiracy theory, superhero. Eventually, though, among the fiction, non-fiction, and academic works she discerns the single, common element.

“Oh, Dad,” Katherine says aloud. “Time travel?” For all these years she never really wanted to believe it, but if Sid Doyle was so completely obsessed with solving this case that he was willing to consider something so ridiculous, then Katherine finally knows for sure. “You really were crazy.”

Katherine rubs her eyes, feeling a headache coming on. She glances at the dark computer monitor and wonders what further craziness she might find on the hard drive. Checking her watch again, though, she realizes there isn’t much time to get the suit to the funeral home before they close. The computer will have to wait.

Katherine grabs the suit and heads for the door, but stops when the phone rings. After a single ring, the printer/fax machine begins to make noise. Too curious to leave, Katherine steps to the machine to see who is faxing her father. The machine spits out a single page and she sees a slightly fuzzy black and white copy of police department letterhead.

Still holding the suit with one hand, she picks up the page with the other and begins to read.

What she reads causes Katherine to drop the suit and sit down in the desk chair, aware of neither action. Her mouth hangs open as she looks up from the page in her hand to her father’s files and boxes, and then, with a growing sense of fear and awe, at the books and movies about time travel.

Katherine Doyle feels closer to her father than she has in eighteen years, and closer to insanity than she ever has.

The page that falls from her hand reads:

        Date: May 20
        To: Sid Doyle
        From: Allan Bruce, crime lab
        Re: Shoeprint

        Sid, you are not going to believe this. I finally got a hit on your shoeprint!

        It’s a mid-price sneaker, made in Cambodia by an American company, easily available anywhere in the U.S.

        But get this, and this is really weird, seeing as how you’ve been sending this thing to me for so many years.
        The shoe just hit the market two weeks ago!!

        Please give me a call, because even though I am absolutely certain I’m right, I just don’t understand how
        this can be.

____________________________________________________________



Andy McClung is a writer, teacher, and public speaker who lives in Memphis, Tennessee.

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